Sunday, July 28, 2013

Down at the Swamp

I decided to make a short trip to Blackwell Swamp yesterday. No, my radiator isn't fixed yet... but it's a slow leak, so short trips feel safer to me than say... driving to the coast. I was having birding withdraws. I had to get somewhere.

Blackwell Swamp had an overabundance of one thing: Mosquitoes. My youngest daughter and I were magnets for them. As of right now we are covered. Luckily for me, they don't really itch... but poor Libby is miserable. I keep forgetting the DEET. Never needed it back in Ohio.

Anyways... saw the usuals. Indigo Buntings singing around every bend. Cardinals flying from one side of the road to the other. Summer Tanagers dancing in trees, loudly announcing their disapproval of my presence. Watched a family of Brown-headed Nuthatches making a racket. Spunky little birds. Heard Prothonotary Warblers singing, but oddly.. never caught a glimpse of one, which is a first since going to Blackwell Swamp.

I inched along the dirt road back to the south side of the swamp... I always keep an ear out for bird calls, and drive slowly so I can come to a stop and search for what I'm hearing.

Low and behold... I heard a call of a bird I'd been searching for since getting here: the elusive Swainson's Warbler.

No, it couldn't be! It was probably something else that sounded similar, right?

Well, the habitat was right. And it just kept singing its little heart out. So, I pulled out my phone and opened my iBird app. I played the Swainson's Warbler song and it matched. Not just matched, but perfectly matched. 

I hopped out of my van and started walking through the undergrowth. Bird still singing. It stopped once I got about twelve feet in. I started scanning the undergrowth. Then, there it was. A brief enough glimpse too short to get a photo, but long enough to see that I was, in fact, looking at a Swainson's Warbler. As soon as it appeared, it was gone. I went back to my van and waited, but didn't hear the song again. Lifer #254. Goodbye, you little dude. Godspeed!

I continued back to the swamp, pulled over and parked. So many birds chattering in the trees. Fledglings and their parents were out in full force. Downy Woodpeckers, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers... and then, a large family of Eastern Wood-Pewees, one of which allowed me to take this photo:

A few Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons graced the swamp. Heard a King Rail chattering. But otherwise, nothing to see. I decided to call it a day and head home, before there wasn't an inch of skin not affected by mosquito bites.

Next week, I'm driving down to the coast and hitting Dauphin Island. It will be an all day trip, so stay tuned for a long blog post with (hopefully) lots of pictures!

Until then...
Happy birding to all of you!

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Out of Commission

Don't expect too much from me for the next week and a half or so... unfortunately on my fantastic bird outing to The Sinks, I managed to slap the front end of my vehicle on some concrete on the road that leads back to Mallard Fox WMA... and in turn, my radiator is cracked and needs replaced.

Birding is hard on cars, for real.

However, my next trip is going to be one that takes me much further away from home... down to Eufaula NWR and on a chase for Swallow-tailed Kites and Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. Stay tuned!

Until next time...
Happy birding to all of you! (Watch those back roads!!!)

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Sinks

And I don't mean the kind you wash your hands in...

The Sinks is private land with sinkholes that fill with water (all depending on the amount of rainfall), and attracts a wide variety of waterfowl, shorebirds, and waders. I decided to check it out, because Little Blue Herons had been frequently/regularly spotted there, and I still needed them for my life list. (Of course the report of a Roseate Spoonbill definitely didn't hurt matters!) So at 4:45 this morning, I headed out to see what I could find once I got there.

I went straight out I-565, which turns into AL-20. Followed 20 for awhile, until I turned onto Old 20, and then again onto Fennel Road. You follow Fennel Road until it deadends into Sixth, and that's where The Sinks are. (Otherwise known as the Leighton Ponds.)

Just a fair warning, I have no idea if it's fertilizer or what, but the drive out AL-20 smelled something awful. A mix of manure and rotting flesh/dead animal. Do not drive with the windows down, whatever you do!

With that being said...

Holy herons and egrets, Batman!

(If you can guess all of the birds in this photo, I'll bake you some cookies)

Everywhere you looked, Snowy and Great Egrets were taking flight. I'm not exaggerating when I say everywhere. This was nothing like I'd ever seen back in Ohio. And to think, I got excited when I saw around two dozen Great Egrets congregating at Charles Mill Lake!

Of course (as evident in the photo above), there were plenty of Little Blue Herons. I counted 8 adults and two juveniles, but the fog made it difficult to get exact numbers on the birds I saw.

I also got a quick, but not very clear photo of a juvenile Black-crowned Night-Heron, who I flushed as my van approached.

(Can't say I didn't warn you)

I was simply floored. I just stood there, snapping off photos left and right. Snowy Egrets, Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Green Herons, a Least Bittern, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Belted Kingfisher, Little Blue Herons, and Killdeer. (Not the entire list, but most of what I shot)

Like this young Snowy Egret in flight:

I almost didn't want to leave, just in case the Spoonbill wanted to make an appearance. However, the fog got even thicker, to the point that anything more than 50 yards out was barely visible. This was around 7:30 in the morning, so I decided to move onto Wheeler Dam.

Damn, Wheeler Dam! And I thought The Sinks was hosting a lot of wading birds! Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Great Blue Herons, a couple Green Herons, and lots of Black-crowned Night-Herons.

Instead of gulls, Wheeler Dam has herons and egrets! Oh, and Black Vultures by the dozens. Though, you should park there at your own risk. You might come back to this:

(Disclaimer-Not my vehicle)

These Black Vultures weren't afraid of anything... well, except my minivan getting closer than ten feet to them. But it made for awesome shots such as these:

By this point (9:30 A.M.), the humidity and heat were quickly picking up so I decided to call it a day and head home. But not before I spotted this Ouachita Map Turtle taking advantage of the beautiful, warm sunshine:

What a fantastic birding morning! Two lifers: Little Blue Heron and Least Bittern. And enough birds to last a birding lifetime! Can't wait to go back!

Until next time...
Happy birding to all of you!

Monday, July 15, 2013

THAT bird

That bird.

Do you know what I mean? That bird. The one that no matter how many times you see it, you're reminded of the joy that this hobby brings you. You're reminded why you travel all over the state/region/country/wherever it is you go just to watch birds. You're reminded of the first time you can remember birding, the first time you realized that you found something you enjoyed, that you were passionate about. Do you have a bird like that? I have one.

The funny thing, for me, is I thought it would be an owl of some sort... and while owls are my favorite group of birds, they aren't that bird. While I get the joy and excitement from seeing owls, they just aren't the bird I'm speaking of.

I bet you're dying to know which bird that is for me.

Well, this post was inspired when Chris Collins of Birding Beavercreek told me he posted a photo of that bird on his (very awesome!) blog. I miss that bird. My old home was close to two wildlife areas that bird nested in. Before my circumstances changed and I was forced to relocate to a different state, I looked forward to watching babies of that bird grow. Now, I miss out on that bird until the winter months. Maybe it will make it all the more special when I finally see that bird again.

Which bird is it? Still don't know?

Are you surprised? Most non-birders would think I'd choose something like a raptor, or a colorful bird such as a Painted Bunting. Nope. My heart belongs to the Sandhill Crane.

Have you ever watched these birds? Gorgeous, yet awkward... which makes them incredibly endearing. Their gargling trumpet call, their statuesque beauty... no other bird in the eastern United States is quite like the Sandhill Crane.

Every single time I made a trip to Funk Bottoms or Killbuck Marsh, I'd find at least one. Like this one I got within 30 feet of on a rough marsh trail:

Gorgeous, isn't he?

Or these guys hanging out in the fields at Funk Bottoms:

I'm not sure there's another bird out there that compares, short of another type of crane. I'm not exactly sure what it is about that bird. But that bird made all of the birding this year worth it, and will continue to do so.

Feel free to share with me the bird that makes you feel this way (if you have one).

Until next time.
Happy birding to all of you.

Cathedral Caverns

So yesterday, took a trip to Cathedral Caverns out in Woodville, Alabama. I'd never actually been in a cave before (not like they're common in Ohio)... so I was honestly looking forward to the trip. I figured there were multiple caves (since the park has caverns as plural), and that we'd just be exploring one with a flashlight. Figured there'd might be some wildlife/flora/fauna of some sort, but other than the reptiles we came across near the gift shop, I would learn that not too much lives in a cave. Especially not a cave with a man-made trail and a tour guide.

I want to make a disclaimer here before we get too much further: All of my photos were shot handheld at 75mm, 1/80, and 6400 ISO. Out of 200 pics, only a small handful were clear enough to post. It definitely was a challenge. I'd tried full automatic settings, but my flash would not work, and during the tour, we never stopped long enough for me to toy around with it and figure it out.

Anyways, the tour starts at 3:15 P.M. Our tour guide is named Taylor, and is a young guy, probably late 20's, early 30's, shorter than me, with a great sense of humor. Right off the bat, he has the group chuckling at his one-liners.

Once he explains general information about the cave, we move on to the next "room". The path is lit with small lights- reminiscent of a movie theater. The concrete path is also steep (either up or down) in places, and I wore shoes with no traction. Pair that with the trails being wet, and I start having bad visions of face-planting and my camera taking the brunt. But that doesn't happen, luckily.

Nothing super special in the first "room"/section. It was pretty dark. However it led to a small tunnel that went into a second room. This part was a little trippy, with reflection pools on either side of the trail. If anybody knows me, they know that I like to keep both feet firmly on the ground. In other words, I'm scared of heights. The reflection pool to the right was definitely the worst. Even though I knew it was there... I still couldn't shake the feeling that everything beside me just dropped down into a dark abyss.

We couldn't move out of this room fast enough.

The next section was short, and included some smooth rock (I forget the scientific name for it) that they had coined "The Rock Waterfall". Being that I was shooting at 75mm, I could not back up far enough to get a decent shot without it turning out too blurry. Taylor explained how the rock waterfall came to be, and we moved onto the next section.

Now here's where we start seeing stalagmites. If you don't know what stalagmites are, they look a little bit like this:

Throughout the next three sections (until the end of the path), we would see all sorts of these stalagmites. Taylor would laser point to different parts that looked like various things... most specifically; a caveman, a turkey, and a skull.

Here are a couple more photos of the next sections:

Once we reach the very end of the trail, Taylor asks the group if we'd like to see what it's like to be in a cave without all the fancy lighting. The group gives an enthusiastic "yes". He shuts off all lighting and it looks like this:

(Bet you were expecting something awesome, weren't you?)

Once it's pitch black and everyone stops with the oohs and aahs, Taylor pulls out his laser pointer and proceeds to do a mini-light show, but not without asking if anybody was prone to seizures first.

We'd walked 2/3 of a mile back into this cave, and once the tour is over, you have to walk back out. The way in has a lot of steep downhill grades, and let me tell you, the walk back out was no picnic. Mostly uphill, and my thighs were burning by the time we were back to the first section. Once we hit it, I felt major relief. 

We all had a great time (minus my sister, but she has a knack for whining) at the caverns. The only negative I could really say about it, other than the workout it gives you (seriously, was not expecting it), was the price: $15 per adult. However, it was educational and just plain neat. Found out you can explore the cave on your own, minus a guide, and may come back out eventually to do just that. 

No birds to report (obviously). :)

Next post should be about my long-awaited trip to the sinkholes (The Sinks), so look out for that in the next 4-5 days.

Until next time...
Happy birding (and cave-exploring) to all of you!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Not supposed to be birding...

But we all know if you're a birder, and I mean truly a birder... you bird everywhere you go. Driving to work? What's sitting on the power line? Out with the family? What bird showed up in the tree next to your car? I don't know about you, but my eyes are always peeled for new and exciting birds.

Took a trip with my sister, her husband, and my daughter, Charlotte to Cathedral Caverns today. (Today is Charlotte's fifth birthday!) I didn't expect to bird, so was only taking my camera for pictures of the cave. And, the birds were in very short supply. I pretty much counted what I saw once we reached the state park and got back to the parking area for the cavern tours.

It didn't disappoint. Sitting on an electric pole was a bird I'd been hunting from the first day I moved here. At first I thought he might be another Mockingbird- the rat of the south. I almost didn't give him a second look as we slowly approached. Glad I did- because I got lifer #251: Loggerhead Shrike!

(Bet you're expecting a photo here, but I'd already set my ISO for the caves and everything was a blur since we were moving. Bummer)

Anyways, we approached a pond where two Red-tailed Hawks were sitting in a dead tree. A mallard was on the pond, and the sound of our car flushed a Double-crested Cormorant. Near the pond, an Eastern Bluebird was hanging out on the power line.

Didn't see much else. A mockingbird and some Mourning Doves. Nothing was hanging out back in the cavern tour area at all when it came to birds. Did find an Eastern Box Turtle, some Five-lined Skinks, and a Green Anole:

The cavern was amazing, and I will make a non-birding post about it in the next couple of days. 1.3 miles up and down steep hills makes for a very tired Amber. Stay tuned.

Until next time...
Happy birding to all of you!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

It comes and goes

Missing Ohio.

I've always said, no matter where I ended up in my life, that Ohio would be home. I grew up there. My love for birding started there. I have traveled the state for numerous things: dog shows, rabbit shows, and birding. I know it like the back of my hand. When I think of Ohio, I think of comfort. I think of being home.

Moving here is quite an adjustment. Luckily, as a birder... the opportunities for new birds and new adventures has helped to quell that lingering to go back home. It's helped me transition to a new place with new people and new experiences.

But the one thing missing down here that Ohio was able to give me was fellow birders. I'm not saying people aren't birding down here, because they are. However, the networking is definitely a far cry from the networking in Ohio. When I go to Wheeler, it's rare I run into someone birding. Mostly people fishing, horseback riding, or canoeing. I would love to meet other birders, but where are they?

So, even though I love the birding down here so far, it's lonely. Sometimes, I do like to bird by myself. It gives me a break, helps bring me clarity when I'm stressed or there's a lot on my mind. But, on the same token, I'm a pretty social person. I like to be able to share my experiences with others. I really enjoy the company of someone out in nature. Plus, birding always seems to be more productive when there's at least two sets of eyes looking for them.

So, I miss Ohio. I miss the birding, the places I knew like the back of my hand, I miss the birders. I miss my friends. Feeling a little homesick today.

This next week cannot approach quickly enough. I need a day out by myself in a new place with the potential for new birds. I need to once again celebrate the new path my life has taken.

Until next time.
Happy birding to all of you.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013


I was hoping to have a nice, well-thought-out, and elegantly written blog post for all of you today, but frankly, I am just too tired! Been wrangling children all morning, then took my sister for a walk at the Beaverdam Swamp Boardwalk at Wheeler.

There wasn't anything all that notable for me to report. The water levels were up though, and it actually looked like a swamp!

Was able to spot a couple Prothonotary Warblers and American Redstarts. Actually, saw my first male Redstart for the year. Heard two Wood Thrushes singing along the gravel path that leads to the boardwalk, but never spotted them. Carolina Wrens, a lone Louisiana Waterthrush, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, and White-breasted Nuthatches were certainly making a racket also.

The number of Skinks we encountered on the boardwalk was very small compared to the last visit before the rain came. I kept scanning the trees for any signs of a Barred Owl, but no luck.

On the walk back out, got a nice shot of a Silver-spotted Skipper. Unfortunately, none of the birds wanted to give me a good enough photo op. Maybe next time.

My trip to The Sinks is a little over a week away. I am pretty excited about hitting the areas over there and having something awesome to report. Stay tuned, my friends.

Until next time...
Happy birding to all of you.

Monday, July 8, 2013

A Birding Bust....

Made a quick trip to Blackwell Swamp at Wheeler this morning. It's been raining off and on, so I figured I'd see something at the very least. Unfortunately, birds were in short supply today.

The rain from previous days had filled the swamp, almost too much. I didn't see a single heron or egret at the north end. Lots of dragonflies, and tadpoles. Heard some Cooper's Hawks calling. Otherwise, it just seemed pretty dead.

Driving back through, I did see several snakes crossing the gravel road. Even saw a turtle which proceeded to RUN from me. I have never in my life seen a turtle move that quickly on dry ground. Who says they're slow?

Occasionally, I would spot a Carolina Wren or Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Cardinals were singing their little hearts out, and in a field bordering the forest, I caught sight of a Blue Grosbeak pair. Indigo Buntings were not in short supply though, making up 90% of the birds I saw today.

However, getting to the south side of the swamp, I drove right up and was able to snap a few shots of this Prothonotary Warbler taking a bath in the road. She cooperated for a couple of minutes, then flew up into the trees.

On the south end, I saw one lone Great Egret; A far cry from the twenty-one Egrets that graced the swamp just days prior. I stayed for about 20 minutes, shooting dragonflies and keeping an eye out for any birds to make an appearance. None did. However, I did hear Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, and Common Yellowthroats singing around the swamp. 

Then, I heard an odd call... something I'd never heard before, so I walked through the brush to go investigate. As soon as I got close to it, the bird took off. It was a large bird- most likely a hawk or owl (my first impression was owl). I've seen Barred Owls several times at the swamp already, but it certainly didn't sound like any Barred Owl I'd ever heard. Once I can identify the call, I can identify the bird.  Though, I am a bit disappointed I couldn't get a better look before it took flight.

Other than a lone female Summer Tanager on the drive out of the swamp, that was pretty much all I saw. Next trip out, I think I'll hit the Beaverdam Swamp Boardwalk since water levels are up. 

Stay tuned.

Until next time....
Happy birding to all of you.

*Update* The bird calls I heard were chattering of a Great Horned Owl. I may go back and try to relocate the bird for photos sometime next week. 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Anhingas, Wood Storks, and Rails....

Oh my!

So, I relocated to the Huntsville area from Ohio about three weeks ago. Here's the great thing about Huntsville, and it's four words long: Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. Let me tell you why this place is so great, shall I?

Close to home. In Ohio, I had ONE close to home mega-awesome birding spot. But the habitat there was riparian woodland, so I was limited to certain species. It never disappointed, got several first year warblers there for 2013. However, I like a place with a bit of diversity. My favorite place was Killdeer Plains, but it was 65 miles from my home, so I couldn't go as often as I wanted to. Wheeler is fifteen minutes from my current residence, and I absolutely love having a place so close.

Also, the diversity of habitat is fantastic. You can find prairie, since it's located in the valley. Also tupelo swamps, cypress swamp, marsh, and of course, the Tennessee River.

In three weeks, I have chased two rarities (and found them!), and gotten several lifers. It's helped me to really get into birding down here, not knowing anybody or anywhere to go... I was concerned on whether or not I would like this move. However, nowhere in Ohio I birded compares to Wheeler, hands down.

So, I don't know about you, but I watch ebird like a hawk. (Pun intended) I noticed Anhingas and a Wood Stork had both been reported on the Wheeler eTT. If you don't know what the eTT is, it's a "public ebird terminal" type thing. Anybody who birds at the refuge can stop into the visitors center and log their sightings right to ebird.

The unfortunate thing is, there's no information on where these species were seen. So, it's like searching for a needle in a haystack. This might discourage some birders, but not me! I welcome the challenge!

I made two trips to the Blackwell Swamp area the first week I was here. While I picked up Brown-headed Nuthatch, Blue Grosbeak, and Kentucky Warbler for my lifers... there were NO Anhingas or Wood Storks in sight. It had been a couple days, and I won't pretend like I wasn't a tad bit disappointed. However, I knew that this is the risk you take when blindly searching for rarities.

The next week, I decided to check out the visitor's center. There's a trail over by there, leading to a Wildlife Observation Building, which overlooks a marsh area. I figured, why not check it out? I've been needing Little Blue Herons since I got down here. So, I make the hike. No birds along the trail, but I did find these little guys:

1/80- f/5.6-3200 ISO

While I love birding, I also love all baby animals. I had to stop and shoot several photos. However, the lighting was terrible in the woods, and this was the only clear image I got. Perfect little face though, don't you agree?

Anyways, the Wildlife Observation Building was incredible. Floor to ceiling glass overlooking a large marsh area. The worker told us over the winter, thirteen thousand Sandhill Cranes resided here, along with a few Whooping Cranes. Anybody who knows me knows that my favorite birds back in Ohio to go see were the Sandhill Cranes. This made my heart soar, knowing I wouldn't be missing these magnificent birds down here in the south.

As soon as I walk up to the glass, I notice a bird flying in the sky. White body, dark head/neck, and black flight feathers. Immediately I called out, "WOOD STORK!" I started dancing and celebrating, completely forgetting that maybe I should snap a photo so I could get the sighting confirmed on ebird. So, with no time to change my settings from the dark forest, I got a very grainy, but still ID-able photo of the Wood Stork:

I rushed back to the visitor's center, camera in hand, and reported the sighting. The women working were very thankful, as they pay attention to the Wheeler eTT, and nobody had seen the stork since the initial sighting. 

That day was a long one, as I walked several trails, took lots of photos, and didn't return home until the afternoon. I wouldn't get out for a few more days. At this point, I really really needed to find that Anhinga. I was determined.

So, let's move ahead a few more days. It had rained briefly, and if there's anything I've learned while birding it's that birds come out after the rain. I know it's my best time for birding, especially in the hot southern summer time.

I decided to hit Blackwell Swamp. No walking trails, but plenty of birding by car. I didn't have any bug spray and figured birding by car would be my best bet. Little did I know, it would also be my lucky day.

At first I arrived at the swamp, and I saw a bird I swore was an Anhinga. He was a little too far off for me to get a clear photo, so I wrote it off as a Double-crested Cormorant. My excitement crushed, I decided to drive back through the woods, in the hopes to find the Barred Owl I'd spotted the week before.

Driving back through gave me plenty of Summer Tanagers and Indigo Buntings- probably the two most prevalent passerine species I find over at Blackwell Swamp. (Followed closely by Great Crested Flycatchers) I circled around the swamp, not finding any Anhingas at the other end. A little bummed, I made the decision to make one more round to the other side, to see if the "Cormorant" had perched a little closer for better photos.

What I found when I got back to the other side made my entire week. I saw, in flight, a male Anhinga. Unfortunately the photos were not ID-able, so I started scanning the swamp. That's when I saw her pop out of the swamp and perch. A female Anhinga!

Though my photo wasn't the best, it was definitely ID-able. I'd not even been in Alabama for two weeks and already chased down two rarities! I was feeling pretty good at this point, and maybe on top of the world (for birding, at least). I would return the next day to find the male Anhinga perched, though too far for good photos. I am certain that they may be nesting at the swamp.

Since chasing these two rarities, Blackwell Swamp has given me even more lifers. Notably: Bachman's Sparrow, and King Rail. Now you can understand why I love this place so much, right?

Next week, I plan on hitting a spot out near Muscle Shoals called "The Sinks". It seems to be a great place for shorebirds and waders, and Roseate Spoonbills were reported this week in the area along with Little Blue Herons. Cross your fingers that I find what I am looking for, and then some more!

Until next time.
Happy birding to all of you.