Sunday, 1 July 2018

American Oystercatchers...

I always am in awe of Oystercatchers. Though they are found in India too - the Eurasian Oystercatchers - that travel all the way from Europe to India. Unfortunately for me - I was yet to see them here.

Though this bird was clicked during my visit to Sandy Hook, I post it first as I think this is my finest snap...

The closest I ever got to them was during a cruise for spotting whales while on my trip to Australia and that too seemed like from a million miles away. When I was preparing and packing for my trip to the USA - this bird was one of the must-see birds. During my stay at New-York - as we were driving along the coast - I thought I saw a pair fly in the far distance. Unfortunately - from the moving car, though my heart was excited, I refrained to log my sighting lest it gets a tick on my life list and there remains a small doubt in my mind that would nag me forever. But having got a glimpse - I was sure that these birds are around and will eventually show themselves one way or the other. 

The wait was killing and I was on a lookout when I visited the Great Kills Park, New York. I saw a pair flying off in a distance - and though they were close enough for me to see and observe - they denied me the pleasure of the great picture that I wanted.

It was my visit to Sandy Hook that I could hunt them down. Once again I saw a pair in the distance and I plotted the track that I thought will take me to the beach where they were headed. The walk was just about a kilometre or so but first few hundred meters took me through the thick bush that gave me ample diversions with birds chirping here there and everywhere. I looked around the track - marked the tree where the birds seemed to be in a feeding frenzy and without wasting any time continued forward - I just did not want to miss the oystercatchers. 

In case you were wondering why the sightings I had till now were in pairs - the reason was perhaps simple - the birds are 'monogamous' - taking one partner at a time (or even for the entire lifetime - if some reports are to be believed) - hence the sightings are two birds at a time or even numbers generally other than when they are with chicks. 

Birds flying around me keeping a keen eye...

...and yes they were calling too - that is what made me retrace my steps and go back.

Coming back to the story - as I neared the beach - the sand dunes blocked my sight to the shore and I virtually rushed up the dune to peer down - and there in the far distance I could see a pair by the beach. That was still about 500 yards to go before I could see and photograph them. I started walking the walk - typical of birders - don't walk directly towards the bird, do not look or stare at it. Stop every few yards and do nothing - especially pointing the Bazooka of a camera towards the bird till it shows a certain comfort level in your presence. It would have taken me not less than 40-45 minutes to approach them and then - when I was close enough I had a time of my life clicking pictures of my dream birds. I sat down near them and soon they were all around me - they flew around many a times, keeping an eye on me only to land back where they were - and this was the time - I suspected that I might be near their nesting site - as nest that is nothing but a depression in the sand with eggs laid in centre. I got up and slowly walked back, following the footsteps in the sand that I had made coming to this point. As I entered the thick bush - either I was lost or the birds that I heard in the trees had moved on - and thus ended my best ever sightings of American Oystercatchers. The birds with hypnotic eyes.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Hunting New World Sparrows...

Preparing for the US birdwatching visit sprung a surprise that I was not expecting at all. Living in India where we have six species of sparrows, I always felt that the sparrows -were mostly the Asian thing. Out of these five are in and around my city off and out of those - the house sparrow, native to India has been introduced knowingly or unknowingly in the entire world as to say. It was on all three continents that I visited - Australia, Africa, Europe. 

As I studied the sparrows of the US - I realised that what I had taken for granted that all over the world the 'Warblers' were the Little Brown Jobs, well that did not be turn out to be true as I travelled North America - the warblers were mostly colourful and not the brown jobs that I had expected. Infact, on digging a little more, I was surprised as the sparrows in North America are categorised as the Little Brown Jobs. Hell, and there was more - there are no less than 38 sparrows in the USA. I still did not realise what trouble was to greet me - the sparrows were migrating and they were virtually everywhere - and they were mostly difficult to identify, perhaps because the plates in the book were not as easy to understand. Though the birds were mostly beautiful still - like so many other birds the females were a pain for me to ID. Slowly and steadily I starting seeing, understanding and recognising the sparrows that I saw. At the end of my trip I had seen nine sparrows of North America. This includes the House sparrow - a bird not native to the USA but very common everywhere I went. Considering the total sparrows there in that country is but a small figure - but I am fine and satisfied with the birds I saw and will carry the memories of these 'Little Brown Jobs' of New world for a long time to come - till we meet next I would say.
White-throated Sparrow (photographed in Highland Park, NY)
White-throated Sparrow (Photographed in Central Park, NY)

I would have ordinarily started with the House Sparrow - by large the largest count I had there and get over with but I will save it for the last. I will start with the sparrow that I feel was the most beautiful by my standards. I would classify the White-throated Sparrow as the one - mainly because it was beautiful and more importantly gave me opportunity to see and appreciate the beauty (besides some good shots). This bird is a mid sized Sparrow and a beautiful one at that.
My second most photographed Sparrow of the visit. Chipping Sparrow (Photographed in Forest Park, NY)

These sparrows were crisp and clean - wonder you can get what I want to say (Photographed in Central Park, NY)

Another photograph from Central Park, NY

The second sparrow, Chipping Sparrow that I saw was also breath taking beautiful and comes a close second. Why it came second? I really have no reason at all. But since two of them could not be classified as first - so this one is there in the second slot. Also this is one sparrow that I saw at both the New York/New Jersey area and Texas. Its a clean and crisp with bright rusty crown. This one sparrow - whenever flushed sat on flowering bush / trees and were just beautiful. The time of the year also seemed right for them to sing songs to me.
These birds were fairly common in the parks of NY and New Jersey.

It was often found foraging with other sparrows, like the House sparrow in top right in this picture.

Next sparrow that I would list here is the Dark-eyed Junco. Though named Junco, this bird is a medium sized sparrow and I was told that there is a lot of geographic variation based on geography. What I saw was the Slate-coloured variety and came across it fairly regularly in the parks and the forests I visited including the Central Park, NY. Had I not read about it - I would not have called it a sparrow at all because of the appearance, the pale bill and the well rounded head. But as an after thought the bird did forge on the ground like a sparrow.
This bird was spotted by Bob based on its song and I was so very glad to come across it. (Central Park, NY)

You can easily loose this bird in the dry leaves of a fall. Inspite of the bird a few feet from me - it took me time to pick up the bird and that too based on its movement.

Next group of sparrows are the ones that troubled me as far as ID is concerned. The first one is the Fox Sparrow. When I was tying up with Bob for birding in Central Park he excitedly told me that the Fox Sparrows are here. It instantly became my target to hunt and I saw this bird on two occasions in Central Park and that more or less remained sighings that I had during the trip. The good part was that of the two sightings - one pointed out by Bob was singing as he followed the sound like a hound smelling the blood and that gave me some good views, although not all that good pictures due to the shrub. The Fox sparrow is rich reddish and large sparrow. It has a thick bill and spotted underparts. It was beautiful in its own sense.
This bird stopped singing the moment I spotted it. I waited it to start again but perhaps I had caught a bathroom singer who was too conscious of audience. (Photographed in Great Kills Park)

I wondered if the death-wish of a sparrow looks somewhat like this - sitting on a sign that clearly tells the bird that there is an Osprey Platform around. 

Once again the central spot that I have mentioned below is clearly visible in this Song Sparrow

The second confusing sparrow, the brown one was the Song Sparrow. It is a medium-sized sparrow and I came across this bird at three locations - Central Park, Great Kills Park and Sandy Hook. Though confusing the bird was in mood to sing so spotting was easy and once I knew the song it was even easier. The other was the central spot on its breast. It was also surprising to learn that the songs of the bird vary regionally.
Field Sparrow - the last sparrow to be identified by me (Photographed in Sandy Hook, New Jersey)

Field Sparrow

I believe it has a very peculiar song - but I seemed to have missed it.

This next sparrow was an absolute beauty of a bird and unfortunately it took me almost two weeks before I could ID it. Firstly, the bird was spotted only at the Sandy Hook, New Jersey and secondly the book and the birding app did not justify the red beak that I saw in the field. It was only after I met Bill (Birdguide in Texas) that I asked him and he identified the bird as Field Sparrow. The sparrow was small and slender. There was a white eye-ring that confused me and threw me off the course while trying to ID it by myself. All the same - seen it once and the bird now cannot be mistaken ever again. Too beautiful, full stop.
Highly cropped shot of Swamp Sparrow (Photograph from Central Park, NY)

An by-chance encounter with Swamp Sparrow (Photograph from Dismal Swamp)

The next was the bird that yet again confused me no ends. The Swamp Sparrow. Bob asked everyone that the Swamp Sparrows have been spotted in the Central Park and have started arriving - and anyone who finds them gets a Hurray. That said and the adrenaline started doing its job - every bloody sparrow I saw after that seemed like a Swamp Sparrow - finally I was too embarrassed to point out the one I saw and actually turned out to be Swamp Sparrow. They were - well kind of everyday sparrows ;-). Medium-sized, Grey face, neat white throat and a rusty collar. Well I am talking about an adult - an immature or non-breeding - would have been like any other sparrow. This was also the sparrow that I photographed from the furthest and have pictures - nothing to write home about.
A fine bird that had a strong yellow eyebrow that made ID easy. (Photographed in Sheldon Lake)

Had to take multiple pictures to ID this bird. Turned out Savannah Sparrow with misleading eyebrow ;-)

So far the yellow shows well for ID

The last of the true sparrow of North America that I witnessed was the Savannah Sparrow. This incidentally, other than House Sparrow, was the only Sparrow that I saw in the north in NY and New Jersey and in the south in Texas. The bird is beautiful like other sparrows and was fairly distinct for recognition due to the yellow eyebrow. Unfortunately this bird also has whitish eyebrow and those are the times that led to identification crisis. This sparrow too is a mid-sized sparrow with a fairly broad bill. 
Male House Sparrow (photographed in India)

Male House Sparrow

My my - now we come to the introduced - House sparrow. This was one bird that I had the greatest count numbers from New York to New Jersey to Texas. Seeing them over and over again and from India to Australia to Italy - this bloody sparrow is everywhere. I was so busy looking for other birds that inspite of seeing them so commonly during my visit - my mind filtered them and set them aside so much so that when I started writing this article I realised that I do not have even a single picture of the bird from my visit. So the pictures that you see above are from India, taken a month before my visit to the USA.

If you have reached the end of this blog - you really are a bird lover so I will end this with a request. Do follow - write to me and interact - brickbats and good wishes are equally welcome. I do not do this for any kind of monetary benefits - but just about sharing the writings to spread awareness that there is a world other than the humans that Almighty created that is perhaps more beautiful and it has to be looked after. Kick your kids out to spend more time in nature. Do what you can to help nature and its all encompassing beauty.

My birding in the USA can be classified as success and the success in no small measure goes to two birdguide that I came across there. If you ever need them, contact details of Birding Bob (for birding in Central Park) and Mr Bill (for birding in Texas)given below. Both of them were great birders, good human beings and wonderful Bird guides.

Birding Bob - (all details and schedules are available on his website)
Contact 347-703-5554 (US number, use the country code)
email: (Mail him after establishing contact as the emails tend to be trashed if not from known ID)

Bill the birder - Bill Goloby, Director, Penfeathers Tours, LLC
Contact: 713-542-3473, 832-698-1175 (US number, use country code)

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Warbler Warbler on the wall... who is the most beautiful of all...

Here is how my story goes - the plot was - hunt the warblers among other birds in North America. Unlike the old world warblers - where they are referred too as 'Little Brown Jobs' - the warblers of North America or the 'New World' are small and mostly bright coloured making them a pleasure to see and less difficult to recognise. So when I planned to include a visit to the US for birdwatching - one of my main birds to hunt and see were a million warblers there. For that, I had work to do and I got on to it right away. I studied the warblers that are in North America, especially the states of New York and Texas - that I had intended to visit. There are a total of 56 or so warblers in North America and that is one hell of a study. It is a hell of a study as they may have beautiful brilliant colours or may be drab coloured. But this is just the beginning, the variations move on to males and females having different or sometimes the same plumage and this plumage varies in spring, fall, first year and later and million other factors. but let me add once again, inspite of that - they are not as difficult as the Old World Warblers.

A beautiful Male Prothonotary Warbler
The life is what it is... I am a firm believer that hard work alone does not produce the results. While I was in the army one of my senior's favourite quote was - "if hard work is all that is required for good results then the donkeys should have got it all." I do agree with him to some extent - hard work is one of the things in a very complex world that leads to success. Luck is another factor in this maze and then there are other things are destiny and the environment that either coax you towards success or otherwise. This may seem like a lesson in life but as far as I am concerned - this is what I undergo while I travel for Birding (aka Birdwatching)

Louisiana Waterthrush

Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle): Had multiple sighting of this beauty

Palm Warbler: was commonly seen...

After that I had to fine tune my visit to the US so that I catch the migration otherwise most of the warblers would be in South America and I will be running circles. Here is where the hard work let me down. As I studied the migration I realised that migrations starts end March and continues through May and June. I planned the trip for the entire month of April - starting from 2nd till 28th. Now - this time of the year it is the spring migration - meaning that the birds move up North from South America - so ideally I should have planned my trip starting from Texas and then to New York but I had to plan it, New York, first and then Texas next. I did not consider it too much of a problem as I had expected the migrating birds to reach there - by 12th April or so I was there.

Tennessee Warbler
Next, I eagerly waited for days to pass and the D-Day to come. A few weeks short of my visit I searched for the best warbler sites and came to a conclusion that 'Central Park' in New York is a big bird magnet. The birds that are tired and see nothing but bright lights of the city see the central park as an Oasis and dash for it, then they stay for some time - gathering the strength back, refuelling before moving on. Many stay there in the park itself or so I was told.
A male Yellow-rumped Warbler in Breeding Plumage

While searching for bird guides, I came across 'The Birdman of Central Park' - also fondly known as Birding Bob (his mail ID, a youtube video link and contact are at the end of the write-up). I contacted him and he gave me a schedule of the bird walks that were planned the following few days. I also tied up a private bird walk. Like I said earlier - the Luck part was the one I did not anticipate - when I last contacted him, I was on a plane to the US at a layover in Munich. His reply was prompt. The weather was anticipated to be rainy and his daily bird walks for 3rd and 4th  April was called off. Also, Central Park was at quite a distance from where I was staying so all in all I walked down to Highland Park on 3rd and Forest Park on 5th - and yes there was rain and the birding was kind of a washed off.
Kentucky Warbler

I did, however, manage to log my lone first warbler of the Trip - a Palm Warbler, a warbler that was sighted a number of times during my trip. The rain and the chilling cold did have a negative that I had not anticipated - there were no migrating birds and a million warblers that I had expected. My meeting with Birding Bob finally took place on 7th and though the day was wonderful - I logged 38 species - it is the warblers that were largely missing with only three of them showing. So I finished the first part of the trip to New York and New Jersey with only four warblers and only three of which I could photograph.

Northern Parula - sighted only two birds during the trip...

Same Northern Parula as above

Pine Warbler

Tennessee Warbler

Hooded Warbler

Northern Waterthrush

Female Prothonotary Warbler

Hooded Warbler

Northern Waterthrush

Female Prothonotary Warbler

Black and White Warbler

Same bird as above


Same Ovenbird as above

I landed in Houston where I had expected the migration to have been full swing by 13th Apr. I had tied up birding trips with Mr Bill, who does full-time birding tours. I had tied up with him for one half day tour and another full day tour. On both days we were to visit a place - the High Island - a place that I was told the migrating birds see as an island of hope and head towards after the arduous migration across the sea. We finished the day (18 April) as we visited the High Island on day one. I was disappointed as far as warblers were concerned. The count was just three warblers, Tennessee, Kentucky and Hooded Warblers. Though this did take my count to 6 warblers - but then it left a hole in my heart...

The second visit was the following Saturday, the 21st April. The day was not as bad as a cold front did help stop the migration and there was more activity - but my Warbler count today was 6 species Ovenbird, Northern Waterthrush, Black & White Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler, Tennessee Warbler and Hooded Warbler. That was in no way bad but that was way too low a count of my expectations. It is those times that I remembered the old saying - 'If wishes were horses... beggars would ride...' and I put a cap on my expectations and went home and slept. It rained cats and dogs that night and the fall happened - only I could not go out birding due to some previous appointments.

My cousin, in whose house I was staying in Houston were now convinced that I am an 'Unsusal Indian' who chases the wrong kind of birds. (I dread that had I visited them and chased the feathered variety of birds 25 years back - it would have been tough. Well now that I was a happily married 'Indian' of 25 years married life so I was not being hounded). Bill had dropped me home after a long birding day at almost midnight and next day I woke up late. As I opened my eyes my cousin and my wife were all over me - they were shouting excitedly - there is a bird on the porch. With my eyes barely open I grabbed the camera and rushed down - to find a bird huddled in the corner. My heart almost sank - my first thought was that yesterday's storm has injured this bird. I did take a picture and then tried to catch that bird so that I could administer first aid. Before I could approach it  - it shook its wings and flew off. I was so very happy - the bird was well and that is all that I had wanted. Now the moment I saw it I knew that it was a warbler - but which one? It took me a day of enquiring Mr Bill on the email and waiting for a reply - well it was the Worm-eating Warbler.
Worm-eating Warbler - I was so very happy when it hopped and flew away...

That took my score to the high of 13 warbler - my lucky number. I did two more days of birding with Mr Bill and travelled almost 250 miles the first day as I tried to hunt down some more warblers. Though we did sight warblers on those two days, they were the repeats of the previous days and the score remained 13 as I took the plane back to India. Oh! how I would love to be back to the USA someday to continue my count... I came for birding and in addition to birding took back some awesome memories and made some great friends. If they ever read my blog - I would love to thank Bob, Bill and Cindy for being patient and not blowing the top for every time I ran away chasing the bird leaving everyone back waiting for me.

Generally, I do not shy away from choosing a winner in a beauty contest as far as birds are concerned - but this time over the competition is just too tough even with less than expected participants. Palm Warbler, Tennessee Warbler and the Yellow-rumped Warbler gave good sightings. Northern Parula was beautiful and gave me a song to remember, Hooded and Kentucky Warblers were too beautiful not to get a prize. Ovenbird and Waterthrushes were beautiful in their own right and rarities. So here I am without a winner.

Contact details of Birding Bob (for birding in Central Park) and Mr Bill (for birding in Texas)given below. Both of them were great birders, good human beings and wonderful Bird guides.

Birding Bob - (all details and schedules are available on his website)
Contact 347-703-5554 (US number, use the country code)
email: (Mail him after establishing contact as the emails tend to be trashed if not from known ID)

Bill the birder - Bill Goloby, Director, Penfeathers Tours, LLC
Contact: 713-542-3473, 832-698-1175 (US number, use country code)

Saturday, 28 April 2018

Celebrating the Twelve hundredth bird of life list: Painted Bunting

Some milestones are special and there is no parallel one can draw. I hit the One-Thousandth bird in Europe (Italy) this year and the celebrations lasted a month. Now another milestone with logging the Twelve-hundredth bird - Oh! and what a bird...

Let me start from the beginning. I came to the US for birding primarily and bird I did. There were two places that I had intended to cover in a four-week stay - New York and the area around and Houston, Texas. One of the bird I marked up while I was studying the birds of US and making a list of 'wanna see' birds, was Painting Bunting. It is not a rare bird really - but just simply shy and hard to find. And here I am today I am pounding my keyboard to share the bird that I logged as my Twelve-hundredth bird in my life - the Painted Bunting. Painted Bunting is also sometimes called 'Nonpareil', meaning 'unrivalled' - a way to describe the unbelievable colours the male bird has.

These birds are shy, secretive and often difficult to observe though at times can be very approachable especially around the feeders.  It displays an interesting behaviour in which that the male migrates about a week earlier and establishes a small territory. They then advertise themselves - wooing the females to breed with them.

The bird has moved from Least Concern to Near Threatened due to habitat loss due to development, especially in the coastal swamp thickets and woodland edges in the east and the riparian habitats in migration and Southeastern United States and Mexico. This was a very popular cage bird and it is hard to wonder why - currently it is illegal to hold and capture this bird but it is speculated that the trapping still takes place in Central America. This bird is also protected under the US Migratory Bird Act.

I had seen the pictures so many times but to see it in person was an experience I will carry with me for a long time. I had requested services of a Bird guide whom I had come across and became good friends with, Mr Bill Goloby of Penfeathers Tours (contact details are given at the end of write-up). I was toiling hard as my list of birds seen during the trip of US was hovering at around 168, that was below the 174 I saw during the Ugandan bird trip and way below the 192 birds that I saw during the Australian birding. While I was struggling and penning down the birds, moving one bird a time to improve my American sightings, I saw my list and exclaimed to Mr Bill, I am with 1199 sightings worldwide and was about to hit the figure of 1200. He asked me - what do you desire the 1200th bird to be and without hesitation, I replied - Painted Bunting - a bird that I was on the lookout from the first day I came to Texas. We had just halted listening hard for warblers and were coming across them far and between. Seeing and hearing nothing we moved a bare 10 m when Mr Bill shouted - Painted bunting and a painted bunting flew from a fence nearby, I was excited no limits - and the bird went and sat on a tree at a distance. Mr bill replied - have patience - it should come back to the fence as it might have a rest nearby. A few minutes later the bird flew back and sat on the fence again. I was down on my knees moving a bare step a time towards the bird and clicking pictures. My legs ached as I was being too careful trying not to scare the bird off and moved a few inches a time. The bird seemed to be okay with it and after what seemed to be an eternity I got some shots that I am sharing here and I will treasure eternally.

This is the closest I could crawl to this bird... an effort worth it.
This remained the only bird (male) that I saw during the entire visit.

My first shot of the bird - cropped a lot and then sneeked ahead clicking a dozens of images every few inches.

This is a highly cropped shot - and the female that was sitting on the tree was so hard to focus and click that I concentrated on the male alone - an oversight I regret as I do not have any picture of the second bird.
I would be writing in detail my adventures of birdwatching in the US over next few weeks. Please keep a lookout for some of my experiences.

I birded in Texas with a fine gentleman and a bird guide whom I think of highly. His details are as below and he conducts regular tours in and around Houston and in neighbouring states.

Bill Goloby, Director
Penfeathers Tours, LLC
Mobile: +1 713-542-3473