W.K. Kellogg Bird Sanctuary

March 8, 2011 by  
Filed under Features

Cared for by the Michigan State University, the W.K. Kellogg Bird Sanctuary was established by, and named after, a man who is more likely to be associated with breakfast by millions of people in the western world. It was in June 1927 that cereal manufacturer W.K. Kellogg bought the land around the spectacular Wintergreen Lake in Augusta, Michigan, with the intention of creating a sanctuary to preserve indigenous wildlife and breed game birds. The following year the sanctuary was handed over to the Michigan State College of Agriculture for use as a training facility for students studying animal care and land management as a career. The sanctuary was later opened to the public, and today is a popular venue for an enjoyable and educational family outing surrounded by the beauty and tranquility of nature.

Group tours are available all year round, with the different seasons offering insight into different aspects of nature. In spring the focus is on nesting, while in summer visitors are likely to see plenty of nestlings and their tireless, vigilant parents. Autumn brings the spectacle of migration, with winter highlighting the hardiness of birds that are adapted to deal with cold weather conditions. Tours are led by well-trained volunteer workers and should be booked at least four weeks in advance to ensure that a guide will be available to greet you. Should you prefer to make your own way around the sanctuary, this can be done between the hours of 09h00 and 17h00 from November to April, and 09h00 to 19h00 from May to October (subject to change). Trail guides are obtainable from the Resource Center at the sanctuary, or can be downloaded from the W.K. Kellogg Sanctuary website so you can plan your route when you plan your outing.

Special events hosted by the W.K. Kellogg Sanctuary, also referred to as KBS – Kellogg Biological Station – include fascinating topics such as the Owl Prowl; Birds and Beans; and Decoy Carving Workshops. There are also volunteer training sessions and group instruction on how to participate in the annual Great Backyard Bird Count.

The Wintergreen Lake covers an area of 40 acres and forms part of the sanctuary that covers an additional area of 180 acres, with close to a mile long trail winding through various habitats where waterfowl, birds of prey and upland game birds can be spotted. The large picnic area ensures that there is always place for visitors to relax and enjoy the surroundings at leisure and the Resource Center includes a gift shop with fascinating bird-related items and books for sale. There is no doubt that a visit to the W.K. Kellogg Bird Sanctuary will be time well spent.

Tropical Birding in January (Part 1)

August 2, 2010 by  
Filed under Features

I stepped outside the terminal of Lambert International Airport in St. Louis, Missouri to a steel-grey sky spitting snow. I groaned, pulled the all-too-thin jacket tighter about my shoulders, and stiffened at the shock of the cold. As I walked to the parking lot the wind drove flakes horizontally across my field of view and stung my hands and face. Staring intently through a curtain of white, I could just discern the outline of a Red-tailed Hawk struggling in the storm at the far end of the tarmac. I instinctively raised my hand to point its position, but there was no one to show the hawk to, nor share the experience with, and I suddenly longed for the warmth of Mexico and fellow bird watchers. I had to stop and smile at the thought because it had not always been so.

I had just returned from my very first itinerated bird watching tour to Oaxaca, Mexico. Never before had I subscribed to such a guided trip, preferring to bird watch on my own, companion only to the wind and wildlife I sought. For most of my life I would not have considered paying an organization to chauffeur me around the countryside, even a foreign countryside, to locate habitat and identify birds to see….that was work I expected myself to do. But after forty-some-odd years of searching the vastness of places and time, I came to realize how isolated I really was. My conversations in the field were limited to “Pishing” or mimicked call notes, and the books I carried with me didn’t respond to queries or arguments. The 10 X 50 WB Swarovski binocular I held in my hands gave in-depth views, but couldn’t assist when I failed to find a native sparrow hidden among prairie grasses. And, no one was around when I chanced to be bitten by a snake, or fall from a tree, bury my car in a snowdrift or become lost. I had to rely on my own strength and ingenuity to overcome those kinds of inconveniences. I slowly began to think it might be more pleasurable to bird watch among other bird watchers. So after many hesitant years, I sighed, submitted to resolution, and signed up to be a member of a birding tour. As with all change, one must first be receptive to an idea before it can be considered, accepted, and finally, acted upon. I guess I was just too hardheaded to come around sooner.

The Tropical Birding tour was guided by Michael Retter, Editor and Technical Reviewer for the American Birding Association. Seven other bird watchers, ranging in experience from beginner to expert, joined me on the fast-paced, nine day tour. I knew none of the other members before the trip, but would know them all well by the time it ended. Sharing long days and long rides in a cramped tour van has a way of encouraging close relationships. The tour was a first for Tropical Birding and the Illinois Ornithological Society as well; never before had the two organizations joined ranks to offer a professional birding vacation to their members. All hotel accommodations, transportation and meals were handled and paid in advance by Tropical Birding, which lessened the individual planning involved, but didn’t diminish the excitement and stress of overzealous bird watching, as I was about to learn.

Our schedule was strict: I’d get up at 4:30 AM every morning, shower, and meet the others for a short breakfast by 6 AM. We left for the field directly afterwards, generally as the sun came up, and spent the rest of the day searching for birds. We would only stop long enough to travel to the next site or have lunch, which was usually eaten while seated on the ground near the tour van. Species actually sighted from the moving vehicle were considered “Bonus Birds.” It took my very sharp eyesight and Michael’s excellent hearing to record Roadside, Harris’ and Grey Hawks, flocks of Groove-billed Anis, Orange-billed Nightingale Thrushes, Mangrove Swallows, Red-crowned Ant Tanagers and Mexican Chickadees from the window as we sped past. Not even a rest stop at a local gas station went without scrutiny, as Blue-grey Tanagers and Yellow-winged Tanagers were spotted perching in a tree near the parking lot as we waited in line to use the bathroom!

We did not return to the hotel following our pilgrimages until well after sundown. Once there, we would review daily checklists, return to our respective rooms to shower and/or change clothes, then re-group for a long, late dinner. Discussions at the dinner table consisted of birds actually seen and those we wished to, travel plans, and other topics of nature. A professor of botany from the University of Illinois was among our group and identified the flora of the many habitats we hiked through. It was not enough for Michael to call out a Blue-hooded Euphonia perched in some tree, or a Bumblebee Hummingbird feeding from a flower….the botanist would actually give us the Latin name of the tree or flower in association with the bird! Another birder started the popular, late night tradition of “My Favorite Bird of the Day”, which required each one of us to specify a single bird, out of the hundreds seen each day, and explain why it was the most special. Each bird watcher, of course, had a favorite for the day, but it was not always the same bird for each person or for the same reasons. It was great fun to hear the individual justifications for a favorite. One tour group member suffered from a poor set of binoculars, and even poorer hearing, and for the entirety of the trip was trumped on species by Michael and me. On the very last day of the trip this particular birder stated his favorite was a Rufous-crowned Sparrow…simply because it was one he had seen that I had not! Our days typically lasted sixteen hours or more, but the personal anecdotes, scientific study and camaraderie quickly made the tour enjoyable for me.

The week-long tour was actually split into two separate vacation sites: the first being at the Casa Arnel Hotel, located not far from the Oaxaca Airport; and the second being at the Hotel Villa Esmeralda near Tuxtepec, which was across the Continental Divide on the Eastern side of the state. While at Casa Arnel, we birded local farm fields, parks, forested hills above town, Zapotec ruins and the courtyard of the hotel. Bird watching at the hotel was some of the most relaxing of the entire trip, as we could sit in the shade, sipping Corona beer, and enjoy such species as Clay-colored and Rufous-backed Robins, Dusky Hummingbirds, and Bullock’s Orioles right from the terrace. Out in the field Michael routinely used recorded tapes to call in birds he hoped for us to see. He had pre-designated sites, with inventoried species that he would take us to. He knew which birds had previously been sighted there and would systematically go down a playlist of songs to lure them within view, one species at a time. Once, quite by accident, Michael played a series of recordings that had a pygmy-owl hooting in the background and called in more birds at that one time than any other! Lesser Greenlets, Wilson’s Warblers, Blue-grey Gnatcatchers, Stripe-tailed Hummingbirds, Greyish Saltators, Black-faced Grosbeaks, Ruby-crowned Kinglets and a Long-tailed Hermit Hummingbird darted angrily all around us, scolding the invisible villain within their midst.

Daily field trips around Western Oaxaca yielded Tufted and Vermilion Flycatchers, Ladder-backed and Grey-breasted Woodpeckers, Ocellated Thrasher, Red-billed Pigeons, Plain Chachalacas, flocks of Grey Silky Flycatchers, Yellow-throated and Scrub Euphonias. High in the pine-oak mountains overlooking town, the haunting and fluid notes of Brown-backed Solitaires followed in our footsteps. In the early morning light, with apparitions of mist rising off the valleys, their songs gave the forest an almost other-worldly feel. As we hiked the dusty trails in single-file, my tour mates would regularly trade positions to give other members at the back a better chance of seeing birds up front. It was a very polite way of wildlife watching and I was surprised by the etiquette. After the fog broke and the sunlight strengthened, we all caught glimpses of Red Warblers, Grey-barred Wrens, Red-faced and Crescent-chested Warblers, Dwarf Jays, Slate-throated Whitestarts, Red-headed Tanagers and a very curious-looking specimen of Hairy Woodpecker. It looked so differently than the Hairy Woodpeckers of North America that I called Michael over to see it, thinking I had discovered a new species…but it was only a woodpecker I had seen many times before, sporting different colors. Unbeknownst to me, Hairy Woodpeckers of Mexico have dirty-brown breast feathers and less white in the wings.

One bird that we did not see was the famed Oaxaca Sparrow, endemic to the valley that shares its name, after calling upon it nearly every day. Perhaps the Oaxaca Sparrow was on vacation, just as we were, and tired of engaging foreign visitors in the dry, waist-high grasses of its home? We all shared in the disappointment and, as frustrating as it was to not see the bird, it only gives me a better reason to go back to Mexico and look harder.

A slow day spent at the Monte Alban archaeological site to view popular Zapotec Indian ruins was a welcome change to our hectic schedule. The ruins are immense, and their imposing outline can easily be seen from the road outside Casa Arnel, following the mountain ridge of the horizon. They are spectacular, not only in their architecture, history and breath-taking views, but also in the bird species sighted there. Boucard’s Wrens, Ash-throated Flycatchers, White-throated Towhees, Rufous-capped Warblers, Black-vented Orioles, White-bellied Emerald and Berylline Hummingbirds, and a Blue Mockingbird flitted among the ruins and caught our eye. Those are the kind of tourist attractions I like to frequent…ones where you can sight-see, shop for souvenirs, and look for new birds all at the same time.

Tropical Birding in January (Part 2)

Article written by Stacia A. Novy

Accompanying photograph of Grey-silky Flycatchers credited to Michael Retter

Tropical Birding in January (Part 2)

August 2, 2010 by  
Filed under Features

Tropical Birding in January (Part 1)

The second half of the tour was spent in Tuxtepec, on the opposite slope of Oaxaca. We crossed over the Continental Divide, passing through humid montane forests with regular roadside stops to get good looks at Emerald Toucanets, Black Hawk-Eagles, Collared Trogons, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, White-breasted and Grey-breasted Wood-Wrens, Yellow-billed Caciques, White-collared Manakins and Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercers.

During one extended rest stop we wandered aimlessly down the road for lack of any birds to see, conversing instead, and inspecting various flowers and plants at the roadside. We hadn’t discovered any new local species; it was near evening and quiet, except when a fast-moving car passed too closely and forced us all to jump in alarm into the ditch at the shoulder. While we were standing there in confusion, Michael level-headedly remarked, “I think I hear quail peeping.” He crossed the road, ear cupped and bent toward the muddy hill on the opposite side. It was a steep slope; covered in thick, low-growing vegetation and none of us could see into the wet gloom much less hear anything, save the nervous rumble of cars in the distance. I joined him and, when concentrating hard enough, could hear a faint sound at the very edge of human hearing-like the soft, contented cheeps of young pheasant chicks-emanating from the foliage. We were only standing a few feet from the sound, but still could not see anything. I blindly scanned the area with my powerful binocular and only then could see movement beneath the leaves: there was a covey of Spotted Wood Quail, in perfect camouflage with the humus of the earth! It was the first any of us had ever seen, including Michael with his impressive life list and years of guiding. I grabbed my field guide, thumbing through the pages to find the quail, and then shared the reference and binocular with my companions so they, too, might see them. Had it not been for our guide’s super-human hearing, we most certainly would have missed them. To experience a “tour group lifer”, one that the professional guide had not seen nor any of the members, is a rare and memorable experience. I would never have been part of that moment had I not joined the trip. It suddenly felt good to share something with a group of people that appreciated seeing nature as I did. We talked about it all the way back to the hotel and, needless to say, the Spotted Wood Quail won the “My Favorite Bird of The Day” contest hands down that evening.

It took a whole day of driving and part of the night to reach our next destination; we kept each other awake and entertained with stories long after the darkness had fallen. Once at the Hotel Villa Esmeralda I checked into a room, exhausted from the long drive, and eagerly crawled into bed to sleep. I had hardly closed my eyes when the monotonous hooting of a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl began. The bird was just outside my window, in a large tree overlooking the hotel swimming pool. The serenade lasted most of the night and I finally got up around 3 o’clock in the morning to confront my noisy neighbor. The owl flushed when I opened the door and flew off into the night, leaving me with a scant few hours of quiet time before I had to meet my tour mates in the lobby. At breakfast the next morning I overhead some bleary-eyed vacationers at the adjacent table complain that ‘somebody’s car alarm went off in the middle of the night’ and had to laugh. Little did they know that a tiny sprite of a bird was guilty of keeping them awake half the night and not a vehicle! Michael added the pygmy-owl to our checklist during breakfast; it was the first bird of the day to be counted and we hadn’t even left the hotel yet!

Soon after breakfast we left to look for more birds around Tuxtepec. One of the chosen places was a muddy swath in the forest, wide and circuitous, that the locals used as a “road”, although I suspect it was an active floodplain that channeled run-off during the wet season. The bed was sodden at the time we visited it and filled with many round limestone rocks, which had probably been washed smooth from years of successive floods. The rocks were slippery and hard to cross, but we held onto to each other to prevent falls. The floodplain provided a natural path to follow deep into the woods. As we walked along we were able to peer into the thick vegetation from the edges and see many marvelous birds hidden within. It quickly became one of my favorite bird watching sites in Mexico. The place was warm, inviting and secretive and filled with so much life that I could have easily reverted back to old habits, chasing birds and insects through the forest in luxury. I had to force myself to stay within earshot of the tour group.

Expectation beckoned us further and further into the heart of the rainforest; it was hard to know when to stop and turn around when newer and grander sightings waited for us with each step forward. Birds with names as exotic as the foliage: Olive-backed Euphonias and Crimson-collared Tanagers fed in epiphytes cradled within the arms of trees; Plain Xenops, Long-billed Gnatwrens and Northern Bentbills darted for cover from hedge to hedge; Spot-breasted and White-bellied Wrens hid within tangles of philodendron; Sulphur-rumped Flycatchers flitted among brightly colored orchids; Bananaquits, Rufous Pihas, Violaceous Trogons and Blue Buntings were around every “next corner”. Pale-billed, Chestnut-colored and Black-cheeked Woodpeckers drummed in the distance and teased us with their cunning, silently gliding from tree to tree, only to disappear from view behind a vine or branch in as little time. We had to run after them, tripping over rocks and craning our necks this way and that, to relocate and verify birds for our life lists. If someone marked a bird, he or she would quickly point it out for the rest of us to find. We all worked together to track species and build each other up in lifers and confidence. There were breaks high in the canopy and, looking up, we could see Lesser Swallow-tailed, White-collared, and Vaux’s Swifts streak like stars overhead. Flocks of White-crowned Parrots and Mealy Parrots flew past, squawking loudly, and broke the heavy, humid silence of the trees.

Our guide had brought us to the floodplain because of the rich biodiversity that prevailed there; and also because it was the home of the elusive Sumichrast’s Wren, a bird we all yearned to see. The muddy road into and about the rainforest was, in fact, nicknamed “Sumichrast’s Wren Trail”. Despite the honor, Sumichrast’s Wren did not long to see us and proved to be a very stubborn bird even on its namesake path. It would not respond to the recorded tapes at all and sulked in the shadows of the forest understory, out of the sight of prying eyes. Michael stopped by its known territory, multiple times each day to play the tape, but the bird would not show itself. I was beginning to believe that I would never see a Sumichrast’s Wren; that the bird would follow the lead of the Oaxaca Sparrow and remain forever unacquainted. Finally, on the very last day at Tuxtepec, Michael tried a new site whereupon a Sumichrast’s Wren was thought to have been heard singing in the distance. We hiked a ways into the forest, off the well-beaten path, to entice it to us. This time the ruse worked and the wren appeared, to the shock of us all. Nobody knew whether it flew in or walked in….It just materialized out of thin air for a moment directly in front of us, as much a part of my own imagination as the rock it stood upon, and then vanished as it had come. In the seconds I saw it, the bird reminded me of an American Dipper, dark colored and tail cocked, leaning forward from the weight of an elongated, down-curved bill. Of all the lifers seen on the trip, Sumichrast’s Wren became my favorite; I had to hope and want to find one and that, somehow, endeared the bird to me more than any of the others.

Another bird that magically revealed itself to us was the Aplomado Falcon. We saw two mated pairs of the falcons, hunting and flying together in the open fields outside Tuxtepec. They are listed in the neighboring state of Veracruz, along the Atlantic coastline, but not on the eastern side of Oaxaca. In fact, the species was not even cited on our checklists and we had to write the common name in by hand at the bottom of the page. The falcons were sighted at midday, on the hot, dry plains along the road. It was by random chance that we saw them because normally we did not transverse the main road at that time. On this particular day we needed to run last minute errands back at the hotel, and so, left the birding site in the rainforest at noon. It was a serendipitous find, made all the more evident by the strict logistical constraints of such a vacation.

As we traveled from site to site, I was amazed at the numbers of neotropical migrants overwintering from my home country: Broad-tailed and Rufous Hummingbirds, Brown Creepers, Greater Pewees, Yellow-rumped, Chesnut-sided, Black & White and Nashville Warblers, Violet-green Swallows, Yellow-throated and Plumbeous Vireos, Grey Catbirds and others aforementioned in the text. In some areas we visited migrant species outnumbered the tropical residents and we had to ignore them to concentrate on finding the endemic ones. A few of my compatriot birds I know only from Mexico or Central America; I’ve never seen them in my native country. Hammond’s and Vermillion Flycatchers, Virginia’s, Hermit, Orange-crowned and MacGillivray’s Warblers, Lincoln’s Sparrows and Swallow-tailed Kites would still be lifers for me had I not seen them outside the United States. For these species and me, at least, all ties are severed once winter vacations are over and we return to our northern haunts. I wondered what it must be like for a Mexican bird watcher to experience the Spring and Fall migrations of birds? Does he or she feel the loss of so many species during the summer months and joyously welcome them back during the winter ones? Do their fields and forests seem empty of birds in May, at a time when ours seem full? If so, a Mexican bird watcher’s expectations of the seasons must be the perfect reversal of my own.

The tour ended as abruptly as it had started and I soon found myself at the Oaxaca Airport waiting for a return flight. In the preceding week I had grown so accustomed to following behind a line of birders, which by now had become friends, that I checked my luggage along with theirs’, despite having a flight on a different airline! I realized my mistake just in time and the agents had to run alongside the conveyor belt to grab my bags before they were lost. Not wanting it to end so soon, we sat together in the airport as the group we had been, separating only when our departing flights became imminent.

I know that I could have gone birding alone in Mexico and been successful, as I have done most of my adult life, but that was not the reason for the trip. I took the tour to be among a host of bird watchers, who ultimately accepted me as some sort of long-lost relative that had finally come back to the family. In a sense, I guess I was. I met some wonderful people that I would not have otherwise, all whom share a passion for conservation and nature. We traded many bird watching and travel stories on our long rides to and from the field. We shared laughs and advice and adventures, field guides and equipment, and the food on our dinner plates. We pointed out birds for each other in the brush. Bird watching with other birders, I found, was far livelier than watching birds by myself. After all, who could disagree with me over identifications when alone in the field? I just wrote a name down in my notes and the bird became what I wrote. During the tour, surrounded by naturalists, I actually had to defend my sightings in what would become an intellectual challenge. The Tropical Birding tour was everything I imagined it to be and more: It was fun. It was a great way to develop friendships, bird watching skills and a stronger knowledge of natural history. I would highly recommend one to other recalcitrant bird-tour takers.

Article written by Stacia A. Novy

Accompanying photograph of Collared Trogon credited to Michael Retter

Port Susan Snow Goose and Birding Festival 2010

January 20, 2010 by  
Filed under Events

The Port Susan Snow Goose and Birding Festival 2010, will take place on the 20th and 21st of February 2010. It offers two days of bird related activities and fun, and special events for children have also been included in the festival line-up, making it a fun experience for the entire family. An exclusive feature for the festival, is the Great Northwest Glass Quest, where festival goers will be able to participate in a treasure hunt for dated and signed snowballs made of glass. Other activities such as workshops, tours and guest speakers will also be available.

To register for the event, or for additional information, visit the official Port Susan Snow Goose and Birding Festival 2010 website at http://www.snowgoosefest.org/Home.html.

Date: 20 – 21 February 2010
Venue: Four Springs Lake Preserve
City: Camano Island
Country: United States of America

Exquisite Bird Watching in Turkey

January 21, 2009 by  
Filed under Features

Turkey is an incredibly beautiful place filled with all kinds of plants and animals. Birds are certainly found in abundance here and a large number of birdwatchers are fast discovering that Turkey is an ideal bird watching destination. In fact, if you’re busy planning your next holiday, why not consider going bird watching in Turkey?

There are a number of different travel companies that are already offering bird watching tours in Turkey. The country’s diverse geography provides a number of different bird habitats, making for excellent variety. In fact, it is the diversity of ecosystems combined with the country’s location between several migratory routes which have provided the massive abundances of birds that this country enjoys. Here you will find deciduous and coniferous forests, arid steppe, coastal areas, mountains and much more. Many birds can claim this beautiful part of the world as their permanent home. Many others regularly stop in Turkey en route from Europe to Africa and back each year. No wonder bird watching in Turkey is fast gaining a reputation for excellence!

The Turkish wetlands are often considered to be the most important ecosystems for wild birds. Many different species can be found in Manyas Kuscenneti, which is situated south of the Marma Sea and is regarded as being the most important wetland area in the country. The 64 hectare lake is home to more bird species than anywhere else in the country. Well over 60 different species make their way to Manyas Kuscenneti each year to breed. Other prime wetland areas include Sultansazligi, Izmir Kuscenneti, Yumurtalik, Akyatan, Agytan, Egirdir and Beysehir, amongst others. Rivers also provide an important habitat for birds, and here you will find that the Euphrates certainly isn’t the only one. Many river deltas, such as the Kizihrmak and the Göksu, simply cannot be overlooked when it comes to bird watching in Turkey. The country is also home to a wonderful number of mountain ranges which feature alpine meadows with heavily forested lower slopes. The most enjoyable bird watching experience to be enjoyed in the mountains can arguably be found at Soguksu National Park. Olympos National Park is also absolutely fantastic.

There is more than 8 000 km of coastline in Turkey, which features sandy beaches, salt marshes, jagged cliffs and more. This is yet another exciting part of the country’s natural habitat worth exploring as it is teeming with birdlife. If you would like to go on a bird watching tour in Turkey, you should definitely choose your seasons carefully. Spring is generally the best time to go bird watching, though it helps to go just before or after holiday season as this not only saves money but makes for a less stressful holiday. Book your ticket now to make the most of the abundant natural birdlife in the beautiful country of Turkey.

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