Events held in both October and December, 2016.

Wings Over Water is one of the most unique wildlife and birding festivals in the country.  The festival covers such a large area that it takes two events to do the area justice.

Wings Over Water takes place over a six counties in northeastern North Carolina.  It includes six national wildlife refuges: Alligator River, Pea Island, Pocosin Lakes, Mattamuskeet, Mackay Island and Currituck National Wildlife Refuges.  The area is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Outer Banks.

Located along the Atlantic flyway, large numbers of both resident and migratory birds can be seen in the varied habitats of the region. Over 400 bird species have been recorded in the area.


Northern Shoveler. Photograph © Glenn Bartley.

First Up – October 18-23
The 20th anniversary of the event kicks off on October 18th and runs through Sunday, October 23.

Visitors to the event will be able to participant in a wide variety of activities including birding, kayak tours, painting classes, photography tours/classes and night-time explorations.

Kenn Kaufman is the keynote speaker for this year’s event.  It is worth the trip just to hear Kenn speak.

Besides being a haven for birds, Wings Over Water participants have the potential of seeing a variety of reptiles, amphibians and mammals, including black bear, river otter, alligators and the endangered red wolf.

Encore Weekend: December 9-11
Encore week is especially for birders and photographers to enjoy seeing large flocks of migratory birds and waterfowl. Thousands of Green-winged Teal, Mallards, American Widgeons, American Black Ducks, Northern Pintails, Northern Shovelers, Ring-necked Ducks, and Tundra Swans can be seen during the winter.


Online registration is now open for both sections. Visit the event web site to register.

About the event:
Wings Over Water is an annual refuge fundraising event sponsored by Coastal Wildlife Refuge Society. The CWRS is a non-profit group who exist to support regional national wildlife refuges.  Besides providing educational grants to schools, the CWRS is a part of many refuge support projects such as maintaining trails and signs and other refuge structures.

Joel on June 19th, 2016

Research may reveal one reason for color morphs, but there is much to learn.

In some birds, such as the well-known Red-tailed Hawk, the same species can occur in two or more color types, or morphs. New research may reveal at least one reason for this.

Scientists studied Black Sparrowhawks in South Africa. The species has both a dark and a light color morph. Research indicates that the hunting success measured by how much food they brought to their chicks differed depending on light levels. Thus dark birds did better when it was darker and light birds did better when it was brighter.

“Our study is the first study to reveal support for the idea that color polymorphism is due to different morphs being better adapted to different light conditions,” said Gareth Tate, PhD student at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute and lead author of the Ecology Letters study. “This is an important finding and helps evolutionary biologists understand how multiple color varieties can co-exist together in the face of natural selection.”

Dr. Arjun Amar, supervising author of the paper added, “We think that dark morph birds capture more prey in duller conditions because they are better camouflaged against darker cloudier skies. Within our study area, high rainfall coincides with when the species is breeding, and this may also explain why we have so many of this usually rare colour type here.”

In the United States the Red-tailed Hawk has highly variable plumage, including a very light phase, known as Krider’s Red-tailed Hawk and a very dark phase known as Harlan’s Hawk. Krider’s and Harlan’s were previously considered separate species. There is little in the literature suggesting reasons for the wide range of plumages.


Kriders morph - Red-tailed Hawk

Kriders morph – Red-tailed Hawk


Red-tailed Hawk

Typical Red-tailed Hawk

The common White-throated Sparrow has a subtle plumage morph that effects mate choice.  Individuals of the “white-striped” morph have primarily white and primarily black feathers in the median and lateral crown stripes. Individuals of the “tan-striped” morph have primarily tan and brown crown stripes.

The two forms are genetically determined. Individuals almost always mate with a bird of the opposite morph.

– Males of both color types prefer females with white stripes.
– Both types of females prefer tan-striped males.
– White-striped birds are more aggressive than tan-striped ones.
– White-striped females may be able to out-compete the tan-striped females for tan-striped males.

White-throated Sparrow with white eye line

White-throated Sparrow with white eye line


White-throated Sparrow with tan eye line

White-throated Sparrow with tan eye line

From the Bent Life History Series:
Investigations were made of behavioral differences between breeding adults of both types (of White-throated Sparrows) in Algonquin Park in order to determine at least some of the factors governing the assortative mating (Lowther, MS., and see also Voice). Experiments with tape recordings showed that white-striped males are more aggressive than tan-striped males toward singing individuals. Furthermore white-striped females sing, tan-striped females do not, and white-striped males act aggressively toward singing females, while tan-striped males do not. Finally, the trill note of a female elicits a copulatory excitation in males of both types, but when the trills are accompanied by songs of either males or females, this excitation of white-striped males is suppressed and is replaced by aggressive behavior. This is not true for tan-striped males, which were seen to copulate with their white-striped females, even when a tape recording of a strange male was being played.

While the research on the Black Sparrowhawk in South Africa may reveal one reason for color morphs of the same species, the situation is complex and much remains unknown.

Have another cold one in support of the birds.

Bird-friendly coffee has long been available for many years.  The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center advertisers their coffee as the only 100% organic and shade-grown coffee but there are many other sources for bird-friendly coffee.

The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center has published an excellent article on the advantages of shade-grown coffee, including this excerpt:

“In study after study, habitat on shade-grown coffee farms outshone sun-grown coffee farms with increased numbers and species of birds as well as and improved bird habitat, soil protection/erosion control, carbon sequestration, natural pest control and improved pollination. While sun-grown systems can have higher yields, the shaded farms easily outperform them in sustainability measurements with the trees providing an array of ecological services that offer both direct and indirect “income/payback” to farmers and the environment.”

But what about another popular drink – beer?
Just to be clear, we are not talking about feeding beer to birds, but about the ingredients in beer, much like the coffee beans used to make coffee.

Paul Baicich in the latest issue of his Great Birding Projects newsletter suggests that bird-friendly beer might be around the corner. Here’s his insight into the possibility.

Is bird-friendly beer possible? Something you might not have considered…

It’s not as outlandish as you might think. A “bird-friendly beer” really depends on how you look at beer ingredients and if they have content that actually helps birds.

Well, we are in luck. And whether you are a beer fan or not, this may be of interest.

Ingredients in beer may vary culturally in such countries as the Netherlands, Japan, Mexico, Great Britain, and Belgium, but in the U.S. most brands of beer have used barley as the main ingredient in brewing. It’s the “adjunct” ingredients that may now draw our attention. “Adjunct” refers to any beer ingredient other than malted barley used to contribute sugar for fermentation (including sugar itself) in making beers.

Mass market beers, and even craft beers, use these adjunct ingredients.  They can include wheat, rye, oats, corn, and rice. Of these, one element surely stands out: rice.

Since American rice in the United States is the most bird-compatible, mass-produced, popular crop in the country, it deserves special consideration. Although the total acreage of rice grown in the United States (c. 2.8 million acres) may be less than that used by some other crops – corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and sorghum, for example – rice is actually critical for our wetland birds.

Today, American rice farms, many of them family farms, serve as “surrogate wetlands” to supplement natural wetlands that have decreased over time. Rice production creates a modest but essential replacement ecosystem, helping to ameliorate losses of native wetland habitat. It’s important for waterfowl, shorebirds, long-legged waders, rails, and many other species.

Separating rice at processing mills results in “head rice” (whole-grain) and different grades of broken kernels, or “brewer’s rice.” In the past, most broken rice in the U.S. went to the beer industry. Today, most of the rice going into beer is whole-grain, while the dog-food industry uses the much of the broken rice.

Used properly in production, rice lightens the color and body of beer. It has been used much like corn has in beer, but it helps produce a drier product. Rice is very much about clean and dry drinkability. This may not be to your own particular taste, but pale lager still dominates the U.S. beer market, and grains that make beer lighter seem to be essential for most makers of pale lager.

Currently, Budweiser uses rice in its production. Indeed, the Budweiser bottle labels announce the rice content: “Brewed by our original process from the choicest hops, rice, and best barley malt.”  Among the larger brewers, Coors also uses rice, reportedly, less so.  But with some of the biggest beer brands in the country – consider Budweiser, Miller and Coors – now owned by foreign investors, the future of beer here is still in flux. At the same time, local craft beers continue to grow, with some of them using rice in the brewing process.

So far, no major brand has pitched itself as a bird-friendly beer, but perhaps it’s only time before that happens. And, yes, experts say that one could probably make beer from 100 percent rice, but it probably would be very bland!

Consider rice and wetland birds the next time you order up a brew or go shopping for a six-pack.

Joel on June 5th, 2016

The Thrill of the Thaw – Cuba, birds, and us.

Birders are excited about the opportunity to return to Cuba.  With over 370 species and 24 endemic species Cuba is top of the list for many birders.  Cuba is home to the world’s smallest Hummingbird, the Bee Hummingbird (about 2 inches long and weighing in at about .06 oz.). One of the last confirmed reports of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker comes from Cuba.

The following information is excerpted, with permission, from the Great Birding Projects newsletter.

“There isn’t a week that goes by that we don’t witness some changes in U.S.-Cuban relations. Indeed, in the last two weeks relating to Havana alone, we have seen the first high-end Miami-based cruise initiated, movie and TV filming, and even an elite fashion-design event (Channel). But there is a lot underway apart from Havana, and these are taking place in parts of Cuba where visitors can get a better understanding of the real Cuba. Increased U.S.-Cuban bird-connections through people-to-people and research-based bird activities have been underway and have actually been increasing. This is all very healthy.

Cuban Trogon

The Cuban Trogon is Cuba’s national bird. In Cuba it is known as the Tocororo or Tocoloro because of the call it makes. Image credit: Laura Gooch. CC BY 2.0

Not only have there been regular mutual visits between ornithologists and conservationists, there have been creative exchanges dealing with raptor and songbird monitoring, youth education, feeder-interest, and much-needed field-equipment transfer. In fact, the next BirdCaribbean meeting – to be held in the summer of 2017 – is scheduled to take place in Cuba, at Topes in the Sierra del Escambray. This could represent another real breakthrough in dialogue and cooperation.

Cuban Green Woodpecker

Cuban Green Woodpecker.
By Charlesjsharp (Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Cuba is instrumental for inter-American bird populations. Over 370 species of birds have been recorded on the island, including over two dozen species which are endemic to Cuba. Due to its large land area and geographical position within the Caribbean, Cuba is a real stand-out. More than 160 species will pass through the island during migration or spend the winter on the island.

If you are interested in a bird-study trip to Cuba later this year (3-15 November), a trip designed for 14 people and led by excellent leaders, check out an itinerary developed by the Caribbean Conservation Trust. (If you want more specific details, including hints on alternate trips, e-mail Paul Baicich.)

At the same time, the wonderful book by Nils Navarro, Endemic Birds of Cuba: A Comprehensive Field Guide, was published last year and is available through Ediciones Nuevos Mundos.

Great Birding Projects is a vehicle to promote a creative approach to bird-related editing, education, tourism, and marketing. GBP functions as a bridge to an innovative engagement between people and birds. You can access all previous issues of the GBP bulletin on the GBP website here.

Paul J. Baicich
Great Birding Projects,
P.O. Box 404
Oxon Hill, MD 20750

Joel on May 29th, 2016

Over 1,900 species have been recorded in Colombia!


Golden-hooded Tanager. © Glenn Bartley

Colombia leads the world in avian biodiversity. With a species count approaching 2,000, almost 20 % of all bird species on Earth can be found in a country less than twice the size of Texas.  It includes 76 known breeding endemics.

Emerald Tanager. © Glenn Bartley

Emerald Tanager. © Glenn Bartley

Geographically, Colombia is the “top” country of South America, the first country below Panama. It is a short two hour flight from Miami. The nation boasts spectacular natural beauty – the Andes mountains, the Amazon rain forest, beautiful coastlines on both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, and the La Guajira Desert.

Ecologically, Colombia is considered one of the world’s 17 megadiverse countries, and of these, the most biodiverse per square kilometer.  Colombia is the second most biodiverse country in the world, lagging only after Brazil which is approximately 7 times bigger.

Recent years have seen a dramatic change in the country.  It has become a much safer country to visit and and now attracts over 4 million visitors a year.



Colombia is the second most biodiverse country in the world, lagging only after Brazil which is approximately 7 times bigger.

Visiting birders face the tough but exciting decision of where to go first.  Distinct areas include the Andean Region, the Amazon region, and both the Pacific and Caribbean areas. The birding is terrific everywhere.

Choco Toucan

Choco Toucan

Use of a local tour company or bird guide is essential in seeing the most birds and remaining safe.

Top guides and tour companies include:

Cali Tours

Colombia Birdwatch


Joel on May 20th, 2016

The Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance will the Kirtland’s Warbler Home Opener on Friday, June 3 at the Ralph A. MacMullan Conference Center on beautiful Higgins Lake.  (Northeast Michigan).   The program runs from 6:30pm-9:00pm and includes a silent auction, presentation by Dr. Nathan Cooper of the Smithsonian Institute on migration routes of the Kirtland’s Warbler.


Festivities continue on Saturday, June 4 with the Kirtland’s Warbler Festival at the Community Recreation, Activities and Fitness (C.R.A.F.) Center. The Kirtland’s Warbler Festival will include a wide array of nature-based activities developed around the official theme “Healthy Habitats. Healthy Communities.” From Kirtland’s Warbler tours in the jack pine forest and presentations about bird feeders and rare wildlife of Northeast Michigan, to a 5K race and kayak trip, the Festival aims to highlight and embody the connections that are formed between one’s community and the natural world surrounding it.


The endangered Kirtland’s Warbler has a limited nesting range, primarily in northern Michigan.  Loss of habitat and predation by the Brown-headed Cowbird once dropped estimates of known breeding pairs to less than 200.  Concerted efforts by many groups have helped produce a strong recovery for the still endangered species.

Birders wishing to view the Kirtland’s Warbler Can take tours offered by the U.S. Forest Service and the Michigan Audubon society, in addition to attending the Alliance Weekened.  Most male Kirtland’s warblers arrive on the breeding grounds between May 1st and May 18th (means range between May 12th and May 15th), with the first females arriving a week or so after the first males. The best period for seeing the warbler is during late May and the month of June.  After July 1, viewing opportunities diminish.


History of the discovery of the Kirtland’s Warbler, from the Bent Life History Series:

“Kirtland’s warbler was not described until 1852; yet the earliest scientific specimen was collected by Dr. Samuel Cabot, Jr., aboard ship near Abaca Island of the Bahamas in the second week of October 1841. Cabot, however, was on his way with John L. Stephens to Yucatan, and he became so preoccupied with his studies of the spectacular tropical birds of a country then entirely untouched by ornithologists that the little Bahaman warbler skin, brought back to Boston and deposited in his collection, remained unnoticed for more than 20 years (Baird, 1865).

On May 13, 1851, Charles Pease at Cleveland collected a male of the still unnamed warbler and gave the specimen to his father-in-law, Jared P. Kirtland, the well-known naturalist. A few days later, Spencer F. Baird, returning to Washington from a scientific meeting in Cincinnati, stopped a day in Cleveland with his friend Kirtland and was given the specimen to take back to the Smithsonian Institution. The next year (1852) Baird published his description of the new warbler, naming it Sylvicola kirtlandii in honor of Dr. Kirtland, “a gentleman to whom, more than [to] any one living, we are indebted for a knowledge of the Natural History of the Mississippi Valley.”

The complete account is available here.

Kirtland Warbler Tours
US Fish and Wildlife Service
Michigan Audubon

Joel on January 10th, 2016

cbc 2015 4

Last Friday I finished the last of my three Christmas Bird Counts: Chicago Lakefront, Evanston North Shore, and Waukegan. These are the ones I organize and have been doing for decades. The time I spend on these counts- before, during, and after- largely define the holiday season for me. There are some who like to do counts on a more intermittent basis or prefer the allure of new places: counts for which they have no emotional connection and at the completion of the day there are few if any lingering attachments. To each his or her own.

Chicago Lakefront, on December 25, yielded several birds not ever seen before on the count. At La Rabida, the Gyllenhaals spotted a small white goose in with the Canadas. It indeed was a Ross’s. And as some went to get closer looks of the goose, Eric G. looked up and there perched above us was a merlin. We also had very close views of a one-eyed red-tailed hawk (pictured). Later we learned, the northern party (including the Williamsons and Josh Engel) found a palm and an orange-crowned warbler at Montrose and a gray catbird in a Navy Pier parking garage. Mid-morning, I was texted that Channel Two (WBBM) wanted to meet the group for an interview. We met by Shedd Aquarium as the camera whirred and Aaron and I answered questions.

I am not used to two CBCs in a row, but on the very next day I met my two companions, Jane and Dave Bunker, at my regular spot at 6:45. (My concern of being on two consecutive CBCs is rendered insignificant by Kelly McKay, whom I was with on Lakefront, famous for his CBC marathons that require full participation on 24 consecutive counts) Our first locations are a stream leaving a water treatment plant and the plant itself. With warm temperatures and open water everywhere, the paucity of waterfowl was not surprising, as they had no compunction to concentrate. We did wind up with one species that was missed by everyone else on the count: in amidst a flock of 250 Canada geese there were six cackling geese.

The Waukegan CBC, on January 1 as always, started at 5 am when I met Stefanie Altneu and Tim Wallace at Old School Forest Preserve for two hours of owling. The night air had a temperature reading in the teens, accentuated by a hearty wind. We usually find one or two screech owls at the parking lot by the gate but after an hour we failed to find a single one. It is bad for morale to put in that kind of effort without any results, but fortunately over the course of the final hour before dawn we wound up with three screechies (had nice views of one) and two great-horneds.

The Monday before the January 1 Waukegan CBC saw a heavy ice storm. That was followed by light snow and plunging temperatures that created a hazardous glaze over the ground. The Des Plaines River was also high, at places inundating the Des Plaines River trail we hike along during the first five or so hours of the count. Tim dropped Stefanie and me off at 176 (from which we start our walk north) and he met us at a canoe launch a half hour away. At one point, we encountered a bulging surface of untrammeled ice flanked by partially frozen water. I opted to wade and crunch my way through the shin deep water, preferring getting soaked over falling. Stef dropped to her hands and knees and crawled across the treacherous ice. (My pants froze, and so every time I took a step it sounded as if I was dragging something.) But the walk was productive, as we found golden-crowned kinglets and yellow-rumped warblers. In most years, when the Des Plaines is within its banks, we leave the trail and follow the river’s winding course. This usually produces a kingfisher or great-blue heron, but our inability to leave the trail caused us to miss these species, assuming the birds were even present. Land birds were also in low numbers, most notably hairy woodpecker which we failed to hear or see altogether.

The best birds, though, were in the afternoon. There is an open pine tract that we cover every year. One species that we almost always get there is red-breasted nuthatch. Despite playing screech owl calls, however, we missed it (indeed, no field party encountered one anywhere). But this year it yielded a real gem: Stef spotted a ruby-crowned kinglet flitting in low shrubbery. We all saw it well, and it is likely the first time the species has been seen on the count. We parked cars at Independence Grove, and thus scanned the lake several times over the day. There were lots of Canada geese, coots, and a nice variety of ducks. As late afternoon was about to segue into dusk, we made our last visit and I spied two swans not far off: two gorgeous trumpeters. Tim took some great photos.

One-eyed red tailed hawk.

One-eyed red tailed hawk.

Joel on September 12th, 2015

Saturday had me going on a half-day field trip  led by George Andrejko (a Chicago native, it turns out), a photographer for the Arizona Fish and Game Department. The focus of the trip was to enhance the participant’s photographic skills  (modern cameras are so complicated now that while I can do maybe five things with it, someone thoroughly knowledge could probably perform a hundred). Our destination was Ft. Huachuca. One of our first birds was a trogon that flew across the road but we never found it again. George spent some time with me and I did learn more about Nikons than I knew before (that is his brand as well.)  We also found some very accommodating Arizona sisters, a not uncommon but drop-dead gorgeous butterfly. (Also had a great shot of a two-spotted forester moth).

Sunday was Robin’s last day of vacation so Cindy and I arranged to meet her and Travis, as well as Gary and his wife, for lunch in Green Valley, just south of Tucson. Cindy and I arose early to do some birding at Madera Canyon in the Santa Ritas. One bird which I have not seen in decades was the varied bunting, a stunning finch whose US range is limited to AZ, NM, and western TX. It is not particularly rare but I have just tended to miss it. Bob Behrstock told us that a good place for it is near the Coronado National Forest center just before you ascend towards Madera. Cindy and I walked over to the kiosk and to our amazement read that the bird of the week was: varied bunting. We proceeded down the path and Cindy pointed to a small bird atop a shrub and said, “hey, that looks like a bunting.” Indeed it was a varied bunting. Seconds later, Bob Behrstock’s voice was heard proclaiming, “there is your varied bunting.” I wish all birds were that easy. (Bob was leading a tour and happened to arrive the same time we did.)

Up into Madera Canyon we ventured, stopping at the humming bird feeders at the lodge. It was a great opportunity to use the info offered by George and I took what I think are some pretty nice photos. While immersed in the birds, I heard my name called. This time it was from a totally unexpected source: Theresa Schwinghammer, from Indiana who provided me with some valuable passenger pigeon information some years ago and we have become cyber friends. But it took a trip to Arizona for us to finally meet.

After lunch with family and old friends, Cindy and I drove back to Han to settle in in our new digs at the Casa de San Pedro. Patrick and Karl are wonderful hosts and that night Cindy and I were the only guests. Last year I entered a swimming pool for the first time since the early 1990s but I couldn’t pass up this unusual opportunity. (It was encouraging that I can still sort of swim) Cindy spotted a great horned owl in the trees overlooking the pool and it was heavenly floating on one’s back while staring at the clear desert sky.

Our final day had us heading to my favorite mountain range, the Chiracauhas. On our way to the visitor center, we saw a freshly killed skunk by the side of the road. There are four species in the area and so we stopped. It was either a hooded (a southwest specialty) or a striped.  We stopped at the visitor center and I asked the naturalist about the skunks. During our conversation, I mentioned that the last time I visited the center, there was a big commotion due to a black-tailed rattlesnake curled up just inside the entrance. It turns out she was on duty that same day and shared my recollection of her colleague coaxing the snake into  a safer space out of doors. Our goal was drive up to Rustler Park, containing ponderosa pines and such specialties as olive warbler and Mexican chickadee, and then descend to Portal with its famous humming bird feeders. But I was most disappointed, indeed saddened, to learn that a forest fire in 2011 burned many thousands of acres of highland forest including Rustler Park (although I am told our target birds could still be found). Making matters worse, the denuding of vegetation made for more severe road washouts such that it is impossible now to get beyond Rustler. We decided to go up as far as we could. A little ways up the road we reached a dried washout filled with rocks: we crossed but grimaced every time we heard the thuds against the bottom of the car. Next we crossed a wet and muddy section. Things seemed to be getting more severe the higher we went so we decided not to brave the next challenge, a combination of deeper water and more rocks. We probably could have crossed but not knowing how much worse things would be before arriving at our destination we turned back.

Bob’s group stayed at the bed and breakfast that night so Patrick and Karl hosted a special dinner for them. We were invited to join and so even our last evening of the trip was particularly memorable. As I said to start, I really love southeast Arizona.

Joel on September 12th, 2015

From a natural history perspective, southeast Arizona may be my favorite part of any of the 48 states I have visited. I just love the “sky islands,” those isolated mountain ranges rising above the desert lowlands: in a two hour or so drive you can traverse several of Merriam’s life zones, from desert to ponderosa pine forests. The Chiricahuas, Huachuca’s, Santa Rita’s and other local ranges provide unique opportunities to see birds, mammals, F herps, and other taxa that do not occur elsewhere in the country. I was particularly excited, then, when last year I was invited to present the key note talk at Southwest Wings, a birding and nature festival centered in Sierra Vista. In addition to nature, my sister and her family live in Rio Rico and I have not seen them since 2008. And to top it off, this trip spanned the period from July 28 to August 4, well before Cindy’s school season starts and thus enabling her to come along.

tucson august 2015 080tucson august 2015 080mountains-tucson

Through the miracle of Facebook, I have reconnected with several people I have not seen since elementary school. One of these people is Gary Kipnis who now lives in Tucson. So the very first thing we did after leaving the airport with our car rental was meeting Gary for lunch. It was fun chatting about highlights of the intervening decades.

Then it was down to Rio Rico, where my sister Robin lives. She, like Cindy, is a special education teacher (and has been her entire career) so she also was available, as school for her did not begin for another week. Her spouse, Alberto, was working but my nephew Travis, a student, was present. They also have three pugs, long Robin’s favorite breed. We spent the afternoon before we all headed towards Nogales for dinner and the motel where Cindy and I were staying for the night. Robin has a longtime colleague and friend named Maria who joined us the following day for a tour of Nogales. We were originally going to cross the border into Nogales, Sonora but there had been heavy flooding so we stayed on the US side. That was Wednesday and we would see Robin and Travis again when they drove the hour to Sierra Vista to hear my talk, Saturday night. Spending time with Robin and Travis was a real joy and hopefully they will fly north to the land of great lakes in the not too distant future.

Cindy, blogger, Travis, Robin, and Maria.

Cindy, blogger, Travis, Robin, and Maria.

That second morning before meeting Robin, Travis, and Maria, Cindy and I left early for our first birding of the trip. We headed to Sonoita to enjoy Paton’s Center for Hummingbirds (now maintained by the Tucson Audubon Society) and The Nature Conservancy’s Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve. August is the monsoon season in southeast Arizona and the road to the two preserves looked impassable for our low clearance car, but fortunately the washout was very close to Patons which abuts the TNC property so we were able to enjoy the former and could bird at least a portion of the latter. The first exciting moment was when the shrill call of a hawk reached our ears and I thought it was likely a gray hawk. A gray hawk did indeed fly over and land in a tree where we saw it well. (Adding to the fun was that all these southwest Arizona specialties were lifers for Cindy) We walked back to Paton’s and parked ourselves there for an hour or so. Common southwest specialties like Abert’s towhee, gila woodpeckers, phainopeplas, pyryloxias, and broad-billed humming birds were conspicuous.


After spending mid morning and late afternoon with Robin, Travis, and Maria, we drove the hour or so to Sierra Vista to register for Southwest Wings. We met Gordon Lewis, Sally Rosen, Ann Gallus, and the other folks who make this wonderful festival possible. On to Hereford where Bob Behrstock lives with his partner Karen. They have added a water feature to their backyard and have turned it into an oasis of biological diversity. To date they have recorded over 175 species of birds and 114 butterflies in this small space. Bob’s knowledge of birds, insects, herps, fish, and plants make him a superb field tour leader, something he has done professionally for a good many years now. (Here is a link to his fascinating web-site

Plain-capped Starthroat (photo by Bob Behrstock)

Plain-capped Starthroat (photo by Bob Behrstock)

This summer has seen an unprecedented number of plain-capped starthroats in Arizona. This ,hummingbird typical ranges from western Mexico south to Costa Rico. Fortunately, one decided to take up residence in Bob’s backyard and after a most pleasant wait, the bird appeared in all of its glory. It would be my one life bird of the trip. Not unusual, but we were also treated to a Clark’s spiny lizard that lounged on Bob’s back screen.

The festival had us staying at a lovely large house on the road to Ramsay Canyon. The first night we had it all to ourselves and assumed that would be the case for the duration. But we learned the following night that we had six roommates: three homo sapiens, one black vulture, one aplomado falcon, and one kestrel. This was the contingent from the Liberty Wildlife Rehab Center based in Phoenix. They are regulars to the festival. (One member of the group is a graduate of West Point and we had a stimulating discussion of military history.)


Bob Behrstock

Bob and I were to co-lead a festival field trip the next morning. Our destination was Las Cinegas National Conservation Area. (The trip was filled so Cindy participated on another trip that focused on the history and birds of Fort Huachuca: one highlight for her was having good views of elegant trogons.) Las Cienegas is 45,000 acres of what was originally two ranches. Quoting from its web-site, the area includes “five of the rarest habitat types in the American Southwest: cienegas (marshlands), cottonwood-willow riparian forests, sacaton grasslands, mesquite bosques, and semi-desert grasslands.” We had 62 species including yellow-billed cuckoo (populations in Arizona are deemed federally threatened), gray hawk, Botteri’s, Cassins, and black-throated sparrows. Our stop at Cottonwood Pond yielded the federally endangered Gila topminnow. We returned via Pategonia where we spent quality time at Patons. This time a violet crowned humming bird put in a prolonged appearance. We also saw the nesting thick-billed kingbird at the Patagonia rest stop.

Black-throated Sparrow

Black-throated Sparrow

On Friday Cindy and I were on our own and we headed up to Ramsay Canyon. Back in 1972, when I first visited there was a guest facility with lots of hummingbird feeder. It was called Mile Hi and it was owned and operated by the Peabody’s. Now it is owned by the Nature Conservancy and not one of the personnel were familiar with either Mile Hi or the Peabody’s. Among the many lifers I saw on that first trip there with my parents many decades ago was a sulfur bellied flycatcher and Arizona (then brown-backed) woodpecker. They were among the first birds we saw on this trip too. There was a nesting tufted flycatcher in the canyon but getting there required a long and very steep hike. We did reach the spot where a flame-colored tanager (which I have seen in AZ before) and may have seen the bird.

Sulfur-bellied Flycatcher

Sulfur-bellied Flycatcher

The evening’s festivities featured a showing of From Billions to None: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction, the documentary David Mrazek and I made, so we had to get back in time for that. Among the people who came to see it were Patrick Dome and Karl Schmidt, owners and operators of a gorgeous bed and breakfast that caters to birders (and others) called Casa de San Pedro. It is almost on the banks of the San Pedro River. Patrick in a most gracious gesture had earlier offered Cindy and me two nights at the lodge as his guest when the festival ended. (

Joel on July 10th, 2015
Grasshopper, his unnamed sandhill mate, and their offspring, Whoopsie. (Photo by Vaughn Compton)

Grasshopper, his unnamed sandhill mate, and their offspring, Whoopsie. (Photo by Vaughn Compton)


Horicon Marsh, about an hour northwest of Madison, spans 32,000 acres, making it one of the largest cattail marshes in the United States. The northern two-thirds is a National Wildlife Refuge while the southern third is a Wisconsin State Wildlife Area. With its size and richness, Horicon sustains healthy populations of wetland breeding birds that are barely  present in the Chicago region anymore. I had not been up there for a while and Tim Wallace, who lives an hour north of me, visits regularly so it seemed a worthy destination for a day-long field excursion.

Black tern.

Black tern.

A wonderful sight is had as you reach the lip of  a vast and shallow declivity, carved out of limestone  by the last glacier incursion and filled with meltwater that gave birth to the wetland. We traversed the north end first along Route 49. We saw a few yellow-headed blackbirds but not the numbers I expected: likely the singing and posturing of males had ebbed by June  , the date of the trip. We pulled over to the side of the road to identify the large floating mats of ducks. There were mallards, blue-winged teal, shovellers, gadwall, ruddy ducks, and redheads. (The concentration of redheads was a major reason the marsh was declared a national wildlife refuge in 1941: more redheads nest here than anywhere east of the Mississippi.) Forester terns and black terns are virtually gone from northern Illinois but they thrive at Horicon.

Forester's tern.

Forester’s tern.

In previous years, Tim had seen white-faced ibis and black-necked stilts. Horicon is the only place in Wisconsin where stilts nest and I am still amazed that the species now nests in goodly numbers in various places in the Midwest. We did not see any of these species on this trip. The number of white pelicans, another relatively recent arrival as a breeding species, are tremendous. They maybe the most conspicuous bird on the refuge.

And then we come to three special cranes: Grasshopper, a male whooping crane; his unnamed mate who is a female sandhill; and their single progeny, Whoopsie. A couple of years ago, crane conservationists decided on yet another strategy to increase the numbers of this endangered species. Rather than picking breeding and wintering grounds for the birds, scientists have adopted the Direct Fall Release of captive raised individuals. The cranes are being “trained” in Princeton, Wisconsin and then released in the fall at Horicon Marsh to find the sites they themselves find most supportive. Grasshopper is  such a bird and his return to Horicon was deemed a good thing until it became clear he had bred with a sandhill. Interbreeding between the two species is what ruined the first effort to create a new flock back in: whooping cranes eggs were placed under sandhills at Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Idaho with the hope they would follow the foster parents south to Bosque del Apache and back. But despite the best laid plans, the whoopers imprinted on the sandhills and then mated with them. Authorities are closely monitoring Grasshopper and his family but the bottom line is clear: Grasshopper’s genetic material is too valuable to share with a member of the world’s most abundant crane species.

Besides Grasshopper, there might be as many as four other whooping cranes at Horicon this summer (it seems to depend on whom you talk to). We were given directions to an area often frequented by the Grasshopper clan. Tim has seen whoopers here before so was familiar with the side road from where they can often be observed.  After looking around without success, we were ready to move on when a car pulled up. We started chatting with the birder/photographer who emerged. Vaughn Compton, from Denver,  was also looking for the crane. After a while, the three of us concluded Grasshopper was not intending to be seen, so once more everyone began the process of leaving. And once more, a new car came down the road and parked in our midst. This time, Rick Vant Hoff, a local birder who is a volunteer with the International Crane Foundation and active in the whooping crane training program, joined the conversation and shared lots of information on the status of local whoopers.  As we listened, Vaughn spotted the objects of our search as they landed in the field that is their normal haunts. They were a ways off but the their visages are clear in Vaughn’s photo.

Tim, Rick, and Vaughn.

Tim, Rick, and Vaughn.

I have been following the efforts to restore whooping cranes to numbers where their future existence need not be in question. One conclusion that their history makes clear: it was a lot easier to nearly wipe them out than to bring them back.


Barn swallow.

Barn swallow.

horicon 6 23 2015 050 snake