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Jessamyn

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Did you have a spark bird?

I was an undergrad in college, and just finished up exams. There was a sign on the door ‘help needed for a burrowing owl research assistant'. I was the first one to call and got the position.

What does the future of birding look like from your perspective? 

I would say from the time I started, I think it's more widespread. Maybe it's not. It seems like it is more widespread because we have better connectivity through eBird, listservs, and all online services where we can communicate better. It feels like it's gotten bigger to me, maybe it's just that we're more connected and aware of each other. It feels like it's growing.

In your lifetime, how has technology changed or impacted birding?

When we first started we didn’t have smartphones or cameras on our phones. Digiscoping is the biggest change. When we got a digital camera, we could see what we took pictures of, and you can make that positive ID by using photos.

As a mentor to young people, what advice would you give to new birders?

Take new people outside. When we don't see birds we look at plants, insects, and when the birds come back that's our focus. Taking young people outside is really beneficial in sparking their interest. It diverges into all aspects of nature. We get kids that come along that aren’t into birds but get into birds because they just want to see cool stuff. 

Birding is…

My life. 

 

HOW WE MET

Jessamyn is a teacher at Jupiter Environmental Research and Field Studies Academy,  a four-year Magnet school program designed to meet the needs of students who wish to pursue an academic curriculum with emphasis on environmental studies. I met her and her students, who took a field trip to the Dry Tortugas National Park to go birding... lucky ducks! She's done a fantastic job engaging students with nature, and has led student trips across the country including Yellowstone National Park. It was apparent the enthusiasm she exudes and her knowledge of the natural world is contagious. I enjoyed birding with the group around Fort Jefferson, finding some fun tropical birds and migrant warblers!  

 

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Dominick

What do you think has made you a better birder than when you first started?  

"Mrs. Ramsey"  

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Tell me about your favorite bird!

The Common Loon got me into birding. I go to New Hampshire a lot, because my grandmother has a house near Lake Winnipesaukee. She gave me binoculars and I could see baby loons following the mother. It's pretty fun! 

I heard there was a birding club, and I came to one of the meetings- and I've been going ever since! It's fun. We sometimes get off-topic, looking at fungus and other stuff.

Even if you don't know the birds, going out and looking at them you'll learn them. Get outside and enjoy it! 

 

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Dry Tortugas: Day 2

My morning began before the sun came up, transforming the steel gray ocean into an aqua blue picture-postcard. I had fallen asleep the night before listening to the constant drone of the bird colony on Bush Key, reminiscent of the kittiwakes and murres  of the Priibilofs.  I grabbed my spotting scope, which had been used as an overnight perch for a migrating hooded warbler, who made his presence known by leaving droppings all over my scope.  I hear thats supposed to be good luck...?

 

I set up my scope to check out the noddies first. they were all backlit and looked black. That wouldn't do. So I moved inside the fort to see if any new migrants had arrived overnight. After crossing the most and entering the fort, the trees were alive with all notes of warblers, kingbirds, and indigo buntings. 

 

The rest of my story continues, but you'll have to wait for the book to come out! I will summarize the rest of my day in a photo story format, all photos have been taken with my iPhone. Hope you enjoy! 

Sunrise over bush key

Sunrise over bush key

A Brown noddy Preens early in the morning on the dock  

A Brown noddy Preens early in the morning on the dock  

This Digiscoped image almost makes it look like the pelican is flying in front of the sun or moon. I purposefully left the image uncropped because of the effect 

This Digiscoped image almost makes it look like the pelican is flying in front of the sun or moon. I purposefully left the image uncropped because of the effect 

Magnificent frigatebirds soar above the fort  this is the only breeding colony of the species in North America

Magnificent frigatebirds soar above the fort  this is the only breeding colony of the species in North America

A Willet feeds on the beach

A Willet feeds on the beach

I explored the inside of the fort a little bit, before the Yankee Freedom arrived flooding the island with tourists for the day

I explored the inside of the fort a little bit, before the Yankee Freedom arrived flooding the island with tourists for the day

Look at all those tourists! I definitely had a different perspective of the island as a camper, watching people come and go from the island each day. Experiencing the dry Tortugas for multiple days was a real treat! 

Look at all those tourists! I definitely had a different perspective of the island as a camper, watching people come and go from the island each day. Experiencing the dry Tortugas for multiple days was a real treat! 

A view over the parade grounds on the inside of the fort

A view over the parade grounds on the inside of the fort

Here is the view through my spotting scope of the sooty terns, and brown noddies

Here is the view through my spotting scope of the sooty terns, and brown noddies

A nice flyover of a nighthawk species- likely Common due to the pointy wings.  

A nice flyover of a nighthawk species- likely Common due to the pointy wings.  

I found a ledge where the peregrine falcons eat their prey- terns, noddies, and a cuckoo! (Not pictured) 

I found a ledge where the peregrine falcons eat their prey- terns, noddies, and a cuckoo! (Not pictured) 

The bird that really got me hooked on birds as a young guy!

The bird that really got me hooked on birds as a young guy!

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Dry Tortugas: Day 1

Spring migration has begun! This has meant many early mornings, late nights, and thousands of miles under my belt in the last two weeks. I've interviewed dozens of birders, making strong progress towards my goal of interviewing 365 birders in 2016. I'll be publishing more blog interviews in the next few days, as well as some other cool content. But this couldn't wait! 

Yesterday, late in the afternoon I returned from one of my dream birding trips: Spring in the Dry Tortugas. I can't remember when my fascination began with these remote islands first began, but as soon as I saw an aerial photograph of Fort Jefferson on Garden Key surrounded by aquamarine water, it went on my bucket list of places to visit. These island serve as an important breeding ground for sea birds including Brown Noddy, Sooty Tern, and the only nesting colony of Magnificent Frigatebird in North America. It's a must-visit place for anyone doing a Big Year, and I was super excited to splurge on a catamaran ticket to get out and explore the islands. 

 Located 70 miles West of Key West, Florida, the Dry Tortugas are composed of 7 islets, each slightly different in flora and fauna than its neighbors. I could do a mini-biology and history lesson, but I'll spare that for now and get to the birds. 

On our way out, I asked Captain Meg if we could swing by Hosptal Key, where Masked Boobies nest. she said sure, and drove the boat right up alongside the bear Island, where I got fantastic looks and some nice pictures of the birds. 

Masked Boobies on Hospital Key

Masked Boobies on Hospital Key

American Kestrel inside Fort Jefferson- one of 3 total over my stay

American Kestrel inside Fort Jefferson- one of 3 total over my stay

 Upon arrival, I went into full birding mode and scoured every part of the island for as many species as I could find. I ended up seeing 39 species by the end of the day, including finding and photographing a Black Noddy, a type of tern found only here, a couple times a year. There was a good diversity of warbler species including Blackpoll, Cape May, and a Hooded warbler who enjoyed running over my feet at my campsite. 

A Hooded Warbler explores the area around my tent  

A Hooded Warbler explores the area around my tent  

The lighthouse on top of the fort at Garden Key

The lighthouse on top of the fort at Garden Key

This place is amazing! I've met and interviewed several birders for the Birding Project, and met some fantastic people around the island.  

Panorama from the top of the fort. Click to view full screen! 

Panorama from the top of the fort. Click to view full screen! 

Overall, it was an amazing first day! I couldn't wait to see if any new bird showed up the next day, and have a full day to explore the island. 

Black Noddy (right bird, furthest piling) digiscoped with iPhone  

Black Noddy (right bird, furthest piling) digiscoped with iPhone  

Finding a Black Noddy

This year I'm trying to become a better birder, and that involves tacking many of the bird families which I've never seen before. I'll preface this by saying I have zero experience with both Noddy species.  After studying various field guides, reading eBird reports, and viewing rich media checklists, including photos of birds at the Dry Tortugas, I felt ready to take on all the Noddies the Tortugas could throw at me... That ended up being thousands, and honestly it was overwhelming!

I wasn't sure finding a Black Noddy on a quick trip to the Dry Tortugas was likely- if even possible. I had heard that someone had already spotted one this year, but without photos I was skeptical of a secondhand report through eBird. Even if there wasn't a prior report, finding a Black Noddy among thousands of Brown Noddies is like searching for a needle in a haystack. But if searching for the Common Crane in Texas last month taught me anything, it was to be patient, and look for the odd bird in a flock. So that's what I did.  

After getting off the boat and getting settled into my campsite (I turned a single day trip into a 3-day stay- a story I'll share in a separate post) I grabbed my scope and headed to the sand bar connecting Lighthouse Key and Bush Key. There was a sign which noted the boundary, and it seemed it had been moved closer than in past years, see John Puschock's #ABARare report from 2012.

Setting up my scope, I figured that I was prepared for the subtle differences between Black Noddy. Looking at the distant birds, multiple Noddies struck me as just a little different- and in the next hour I ironed out the differences between several first year birds and adults, and males and females. Surprisingly the heat shimmer, moving birds, and wind made getting a good look at the birds difficult. I moved on top of the fort, scoping from a higher vantage point allowed me to see over the bushes that have grown in since John's previous report. Thoughout the day I checked the coaling docks, and found that the perched noddies turned over every hour or so, with new ones landing on the docks coming in from the ocean or the nesting colony. Multiple times a mass exodus occurred, pressured by one of the four Peregrine falcons present on the island. Two adults (a possible nesting pair?) occupied the tall radio antennae, and they tolerated a juvenile hanging around. The third adult perched at be far side of the colony right along the beach, and I didn't see him until my second day, but I'm sure he was there all along. 

 Throughout the day, I scanned the noddies at the coaling docks and colony five times. Right after the Yankee Freedom departed, I went to check the coaling docks again, and spotted a single Noddy on the last one (see photo) 

My first view of the Black Noddy, on the coaling docks of Fort Jefferson

My first view of the Black Noddy, on the coaling docks of Fort Jefferson

My first thought was "the color of this bird doesn't match the rusted coaling dock. Hmmm."

The bird was preening after flying in from the ocean, and getting an overall impression of size and shape was difficult as the bird changed shape- first spreading out its wing, and preening it's breast facing away. Several minutes later a Brown Noddy landed on the same platform, offering an initial size comparison. At this point I still wasn't fully convinced as the Black Noddy continued to preen facing away from me and was generally uncooperative. I was starting to get excited and continued observing it, digiscoping a few doc shots "just in case"

I soon got a good look at the head, and the white crown extended further on this bird and my views through the scope were stunning. This bird had an obviously longer, thin straighter bill. Structurally this bird was smaller in size than the adjacent Brown Noddy and I had several minutes to observe through the scope and gain some traction with the ID. At this point I was confident I had a Black Noddy, but nobody was around to share it with! I snapped a few photos and hoped it would be easy to find the next day. Long story short, it wasn't. 

 

Hopefully this bird will stick around and can be observed by others on future trips. I did make a strong effort the next couple days to relocate it, as I saw so many birds that this one melted into my other "possible" BLNO sightings, which may have been the same bird, or a Brown Noddy under tricky lighting against a light background. It was really kind of tough picking out far away birds with the wind and heat distortion, but doable when the clouds came in and late afternoon light was ideal. Only after returning to Key West and looking at my photos on a large screen the differences were obvious, but I sought a second opinion from several experienced birders who all confirmed it from my photos. Sweet! 

 

I will update my blog shortly with more images and birds from the dry Tortugas. Now it's 8am and I have a Thick-billed Vireo to find. 

 

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Andy

Birding is fun. It’s a way to get away from it all.
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What advice would you give to a new birder? 

Get out and enjoy yourself. Don't ever lose that enjoyment, that passion of it. Get out and learn about where you are in addition to seeing the birds. Learn the ecology and natural history of the area. 

I'd definitely encourage people who are just getting into it to get out in groups. You can learn a lot from other people. 

Listen, be flexible. Don't be too confident in your ability. 

Birding is...

Birding is fun. It's a way to get away from it all. Connect with something that we're losing connection with as a society. It's a great way to get out and see beautiful places. A great way to develop a connection with what we depend on- the water, air, the critters.

I met Andy in Florida at Long Key State Park, where he was looking for Zenaida Dove, and I for the Key West Quail Dove. (They're there... someone will see one sooner or later!) I've heard of Andy many times having grown up in Missouri, where he's worked with the Department of Conservation. It's amazing to meet someone so far away, who you've never met but share multiple connections with. Birding definitely makes the world smaller! 

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Will and Kathy

Will and Kathy

A kind couple joins my search for Greater Prairie Chickens

Shari

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Shari

I saw a birder on the side of the highway looking through a scope, and I knew I had to stop! 

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Welcomed by Wyoming

A beautiful Wyoming sunrise

A beautiful Wyoming sunrise

My love affair with the state of Wyoming has ended, snuffed out by the horizon of the road swallowing the mountains in my rear view mirror. What started as an escape plan from dismal winter birding in Colorado turned into a whirlwind of birding adventures, new friends, and being immersed within the local community of Lander. On the avian side, it took only a few short days for a squat rotund bird of a sagebrush sea to spark my curiosity and throw me into an all-consuming pursuit of everything the Greater Sage Grouse had to offer.

My fascination with this bird is grandiose, and deserves its own blog post. Just wait, it's coming.

Let me share with you a little about my adventure in Wyoming, a state that wasn't on my intended birding path at all this year. It took me stumbling upon the website of an optics company earlier this year to realize that good people and quality optics are both products of Wyoming. Earlier in the year I read a blurb in Outside magazine about "top-of-the-line" Maven binoculars, which as a birder, I'd never heard of. I did some more research, and quickly became intrigued by reviews, seeing they got the nod from Field and Stream too.  I got my hands on a pair of Maven binoculars, and after testing them out I decided that these were among the top binoculars I'd ever used as a birder, and I've been a connoisseur of Zeiss, Leica, and Swarovski for nearly a dozen years. I adjusted my plans in Colorado to detour up to Lander, Wyoming and meet the guys behind the glass. 

For the next several days I spent time with the Maven crew in between my birding trips to see Sage Grouse. I spent as much time as I could learning about the Sage Grouse, which were so abundant and easy to find, compared to my efforts to find the "other" sage grouse species- the Gunnison Sage Grouse in Colorado and Utah. (Unsuccessfully, I humbly admit)

Day 1:

Lander got some snow throughout the night, which changed my birding plans the first morning. By some snow, I mean enough to close the highway, keeping everyone in town until the drifts were plowed and the road re-opened. Needless to say, I wasn't going to see Sage Grouse that day. After breakfast I made a local effort to clean up on some birds I'd missed in Colorado, spotting the American Dipper, Northern Shrike, and Evening Grosbeak. In the afternoon, I stopped by Wyoming Fish and Game and interviewed some folks in order to better understand the role technology plays in managing Sage Grouse populations in Wyoming, amidst energy development, cattle ranching, and other human activities. I'll weave some of those elements into the Sage Grouse post, and like many other things I've learned this year- likely my book as well! I had the privilege of birding with Del in the afternoon, and together we found Black Rosy-finch, a bird I had never seen before- a life bird! For me it was a perfect moment: Sitting in the truck of a man who an hour ago was a complete stranger, looking at a new species of bird I've never seen before while hearing his birding stories of birding with Marlin Perkins in Kenya. 

Day 2:

I started the morning off right... birding. The snow we got yesterday was partially melted, and on dirt roads that didn't even have names, attempted travel was going to be a recipe for getting stuck. I checked out a nearby Sage Grouse lek which was visible from the highway. This was a perfect opportunity to take Maven's new scope out for a test run. I used it side by side with my Swarovski ATX 90 spotting scope, and to say I'm impressed is an understatement. I'll save the technical comparison for a separate post or a review, but I was wowed by the clarity, brightness, and compact size of Maven's new scope. I can't wait until they're through production and I can test it in a greater variety of lighting scenarios.

An un-cropped digiscoped image with my iPhone and scope setup 

An un-cropped digiscoped image with my iPhone and scope setup 

I had the opportunity to go to lunch at the Lander Rotary Club. Upon receiving the invitation, I was a little unclear about what a Rotary Club was, but all of my uncertainty melted away when I walked through the door and was warmly greeted by dozens of smiling people, hands outstretched. This was the first time in my travels I had felt welcomed and included by a community of complete strangers. Not only was I fed, but I was entertained- the trivia, songs, and speaker were all engaging and a fun part of this new experience. I could see how tightly-knit the community here in Lander is, and it's my hope that I can live and contribute to a community like this someday. 

Day 3:

This morning the road conditions had improved enough to get into one of the closer grouse leks. This was a perfect opportunity to get out into the field with Stan, the local Fish and Game biologist who I wanted to interview for The Birding Project. Craig from Maven came along too. I borrowed my friend Mike's 4X4 Chevy and plowed down the snow-covered road, barely staying on top of the soft mud beneath. After nearly a half mile of oil field roads, I managed to get the truck stuck, despite using 4 wheel drive and driving as carefully as I could. While Stan went back to get his truck (which he wisely left at the beginning of the road) I sat there kind of feeling bad, but knowing at the same time that this was a good story to put in my blog. In 15 minutes, Stan pulled up in his truck, and we attached a tow rope and the Ford pulled out the stuck Chevy. We arrived at the lek and the grouse were already in full swing, and they didn't mind us rolling up and observing them on the snow-covered lek. It was a magical morning. 

 

Day 4: 

This morning began at 4am, early enough that the local McDonalds wasn't open so I had to boil water on the hood of my car for my morning oatmeal. It started snowing. Hopefully the roads across the rolling sagebrush hills wouldn't be covered yet, I needed to drive about 30 miles to meet the team of researchers I was accompanying this morning into their research site to watch Greater Sage Grouse. It was going to be an exciting day! 

The road conditions were passable, and I met Alan Krakauer from Gail Patricelli's lab at UC Davis. They were doing some really cool research using cutting-edge robotics, and I couldn't wait to see what they were up to and meet Gail after spending the morning in a blind with Alan. The research camp was nothing more than a cluster of trailers out in the sage, backlit by the lights of an oil rig miles away. We loaded up the trucks and headed down the snowy road. Setting up the blind in the dark, Alan was optimistic about the day, as this was his first day in the blind this season. We both were in for a treat- the birds began lekking before dawn, and we witnessed numerous fights, mating, chases, and every behavior imaginable. I was pleased with some of the images I made too, although improvement can always be made! After the birds had left, maybe around 11am, we headed back to camp and I interviewed Gail. I'll create a separate post specifically about Sage Grouse... it's already in the works! 

Overall, it was a fantastic visit to Wyoming. I loved every view, each meal, the new friends I made, and the dose of winter weather. Now I can happily say I can't wait to go back! 

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