Saturday, January 29, 2011

Snowy Owl sighting in Northern Illinois

This is probably the best of my photos of the Snowy Owl as it flew in an arc about 50 yards away, Ogle County, IL; 1/29/11.
"I'm so glad; I'm so glad; I'm glad; I'm glad; I'm glad!" These words were appropriately blaring on the radio from WNIJ's  "Weekend Blues" program by the old 60's-70's rock band, Cream (with Eric Clapton), as I was returning from seeing my first Snowy Owl in the wild.

We interrupt our normally scheduled program of "Birds in Mexico" that I have been blogging about for the past few weekends, to bring this news flash. - "A Snowy Owl has been sighted in Ogle County, Illinois" (near the town of Freeport (about 30 miles west of Rockford). It's been there for about a week, but on Saturday, 1/29/11, was the first chance I had to be able to drive out there to see if I could spot it, and I was hoping it would still be around.

Okay, how did this start?  I was interested in trying to find some Snow Buntings that are winter residents in Northern Illinois so I looked up on to see if anyone had reported sightings of Snow Buntings in my area. Well when I received the page of bird reports from Illinois, I saw that a Snowy Owl was reported hanging around an area not too far away from Rockford (where I live). Now I just blogged about Snowy Owls after I visited the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago three months ago (see my post from ... ),
... and wrote that it is rare to see one below the Wisconsin/Illinois border. So I am excited to learn of this sighting, and after reading a few entries from birders who have been watching this particular Snowy Owl, it is stated that this is the first Snowy Owl sighting in over two years in our area.  Cool!

I noticed that a lot of the sighting entries were about 3-4:00 PM. So I decided that I would leave Rockford about 2-2:30 PM and make the hour drive to the site, and was hoping that there would be other birders already there so I would not have to do a lot of hunting - others would have done the hunting for me. As planned, I left Rockford at 2:30 and in slightly less than an hour, I turned onto Route 72 where the Owl was spotted, I knew I would have to drive at least two country blocks to where most of the sightings have been occurring. Sure enough, there were at least a half dozen cars pulled over to the side of the road and people were outside their cars aiming cameras and telescopes out into a vast snow-covered, harvested cornfield. Being a logical person of deductive reasoning, I decided this was the place. I grabbed my camera and got out of the car and asked the first person if the owl is visible. He pointed out into the cornfield.  I have a Canon Rebel T1i with a 250mm zoom lens, and by far had the smallest camera of anyone there, in fact most of the zoom barrels on the cameras pointing out into the cornfield were easily 4-5 times bigger than mine. I made no excuses and put my camera on "Sports Mode" and "Manual focus" and trained my lens in the same direction as everyone else. The sky and ground were of the same white color, and I assumed the Snowy Owl wouldn't be much different. I could not spot anything that looked like an owl, so I decided to zoom in make a sharp focus and just start taking photos panning from left to right. By the time I focused in on my 4th picture, I spotted some movement on the ground and there she was - the Snowy Owl! I refocused and took several pictures. The person next to me said it's been sitting there for quite sometime and was apparently feeding on a mouse that she caught.  Even with my zoom all the way out, the owl was just a tiny grayish/white spot in my viewfinder and I knew that I would be hard-pressed to get any kind of quality photo. So I snapped away, hoping at least one might be clear enough to be note-worthy. None were (Below).
Can you spot the Snowy Owl? This is what it looked like with my camera completely zoomed in. I know - time for a new lens, if I want to become a truly good bird photographer, Ogle County, IL; 1/29/11.
The same Snowy Owl photo cropped. As you can see the quality is still horrible, Ogle County, IL; 1/29/11.
The Owl stayed put and motionless for 5-10 minutes, and I was thinking, "I came, I saw, and I left," and was ready to hop back in the car to leave, when suddenly the owl took off flying left (west) and then turned and started flying toward me. I quickly put my focus on automatic and located the flying bird in my viewfinder and using the "burst" mode, I fired off as many pics as I could (At Top of page and Below). The Owl turned around about 50 yards in front of me and flew back to its original location in the corn field.
As the Snowy Owl turned to fly back to its place in the cornfield, you can see that it has a mouse captured in its talons, Ogle County, IL; 1/29/11.

One of my friends who I used to teach with at Rockford Auburn High School also was at the site earlier in the day and took a few excellent photos of the Snowy Owl as it was perched atop of a telephone pole along Rt. 72. John has a better lens than I, and the Owl was closer to the side of the road when he took the photo (Below is a link to his wonderful picture of the same Snowy Owl.)...

I never considered myself a hard-core birder - but more of a "birds are interesting and trying to get their photgraph is a challenge" type of birder. However, now that I drove over 104 miles in about 2 hours to get a picture of a blurry white bird, does that put me in the category of a serious birder? I am not sure, but I do know that I agreed with Eric Clapton singing in the car on my way home, "I'm so glad; I'm so glad; I'm glad; I'm glad; I'm glad."

Double-crested Cormorants, Brown Pelicans, Isla Contoy

Despite the overwhelming dominence of the Magnificent Frigatebird (see my yesterday's post - 12/28/11) on Isla Contoy, there was still a good percentage of the "Mexican Air Force" - Brown Pelicans and Double-crested Cormorants present on the island. In fact a couple of Brown Pelicans were on the dock to welcome us to the island (Below). See my post about Brown Pelicans:
( )
A pair of Brown Pelicans welcoming visitors on the dock of Isla Contoy, Mexico; 12/21/10.

A Brown Pelican with its classic hop-hop take off, Isla Contoy, Mexico; 12/21/10.
A Brown Pelican effortlessly soaring through the sky, Mexico; 12/19/10.

Brown Pelicans resting on unused pier posts, Isla Contoy, Mexico; 12/21/10.
Although I have seen Double-crested Cormoramnts in many places (Missippi River; Horicon Marsh, WI; Arizona; ), have never had a very sharp photo of one. On Isla Contoy I was able to get a couple of excellent foci on this fast flying water bird (Below).
A Double-crested Cormorant in flight along the shores of Isla Contoy, Mexico; 12/21/10.
A Double-crested Cormorant resting on the rocky shore of Isla Contoy, Mexico; 12/21/10.
Iguana of the day; Mexico; 12/20/10.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Magnificent Frigatebird, Isla Contoy Nature Preserve

The dock and beach at Isla Contoy; view from a trail on a hill; Isla Contoy, MX; 12/21/10.
 We took a fantastic day long trip to the Isla Contoy; the entire island is an important Nature Preserve in which no motor vehicles are allowed (in fact their are no roads - only trails), and only a limited number of humans are allowed on the island each day. The only permanent residents (other than wildlife) are biologists there to study the habitats of the resident wildlife. Isla Contoy is a 90 minute one-way boat trip from Cancun.

For the next two weekends, I'll highlight Isla Contoy birds and other nature. Hope you can tune in.
Isla Contoy is a prime breeding ground for the Magnificent Frigatebird (MFB), which I have seen soaring high in the sky all around Cancun, Isla Mujeres and other places, but until I came to Isla Contoy I never saw one up close. The biologists estimate that at breeding time there can be as many as 5,000 MFBs inhabitating the island, often at the expense of other birds who are intimidated and chased away by them. We took a trail down to a lagoon where these Frigatebirds were swarming the sky and the trees - it was an awesome sight (Below). They are very seldom seen in the lower 48 states, except for the very tip of southern Florida, and are seen in Hawaii.  In the east they are mostly found throughout the Caribbean Islands and northern Atlantic coastlines of South America, and in the West, they are found along the Baja Peninsula as well as along the Pacific Coastlines of central America into the northern coasts of South America.
Magnificent Frigatebirds roosting in a tree on Isla Contoy, MX; 12/21/10.

Magnificent Frigatebirds are easily identified soaring in the sky with their unique silhouette, Isla Contoy, MX; 12/21/10.
MFBs are very easily identified in the sky with a very unique silhouette (Above), soaring high over shorelines with their two-pronged forked tail, angular wings, and long hooked beak.  They are considered excellent fliers who can spend hours in the air without landing and gliding without flapping their wings. An interesting bit of information is that MFB's feathers cannot get wet so they seldom if ever land on the water, and since their main food source is fish, they chase other birds that have caught a fish and harass them until they drop the fish. The MFBs then dive down with extreme speed and snatch up the falling meal before it hits the water. They are known as the "pirates" of the bird world.

A male Magnificent Frigatebird with its deflated red throat carrying twigs to build a nest, Isla Contoy, Mexico; 12/21/10.
Male Magnificent Frigatebirds are distinctly different than their female counterparts. Females can be as much as 23% larger than males. Adult males are black with greenish shading over the back and a bright red throat sac that is usually deflated (Above). When they want to attract a female they will inflate their throat into an enormous bulb (Below top and middle). Females are black overall (Below middle) with a whitish bar in the upper wings and a white vest across the chest. Young Magnificent Frigatebirds are also black, but with a white head, chest, and belly (Below bottom).
A male Magnificent Frigatebird with an inflated red throat, Isla Contoy, Mexico; 12/21/10.

A male Magnificent Frigatebird with its inflated red throat with its female mate (All black), Isla Contoy, Mexico; 12/21/10.

A juvenile male Magnificent Frigatebird with its white head, chest, and belly, Isla Contoy, Mexico; 12/21/10.

Iguana of the day, Isla Contoy, Mx; 12/21/10.

Like the "Pirate" Magnificent Frigatebird, Cancun pirate ships docked in a marina in Cancun, MX; 12/21/10.

Cancun Pirate ship at night, Mexico; 12/18/10.

Capping off a "magnificent" day at Isla Contoy, a beautiful sunset while returning to Cancun; 12/21/10.
In the next two days of posts, I'll feature more water, wading, shore birds from Isla Contoy.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Great Egrets, Brown Pelicans, & Ruddy Turnstones

A Ruddy Turnstone looking for food on the beach of a marina on the Isla Mujeres, Mexico; 12/20/10.
The final sandpiper bird we saw on the shores of Isla Mujeres was the Ruddy Turnstone, which was hanging around the marina where we stopped to have a midday lunch before catching the ferry back to Cancun. Turnstones spend their summers in northern Alaska and the Northern Terretories of Canada in the arctic Circle and migrate to the southern U.S. as well as much of Mexico and the Caribbean islands for their winter homes. The photos (Above and Below) show the Turnstone in its winter plumage. Their breeding plumage is very similar but more reddish on the back and head instead of the duller gray.
A Ruddy Turnstone, with its plumage looking like a feathery shawl around its neck, Isla Mujeres, Mexico; 12/20/10.
I had another great look at a Great Egret (Below) ( ( and ) which landed near us while we were having lunch, which let me get pretty close for a photo op. before another curious non-birder type person scared it away.

A Great Egret resting on a pylon at a marina on Isla Mujeres, Mexico; 12/20/10.
Another Great Egret which crossed the road in front of us while we were tooling down the road in our golf cart. It stayed in the grass on the side of the road, while I parked the golf course and snatched my camera, Isla Mujeres, Mexico; 12/20/10.

We also saw plenty of Brown Pelicans (Below) hanging around the docks while we were waiting for our ferry to take us back to mainland Mexico.

Brown Pelicans taking a midday siesta on the docks of Isla Mujeres, Mexico; 12/20/10.
An Iguana (of the day) chasing away another Iguana (not having a good day) who ventured into his territory, Isla Mujeres, Mexico; 12/20/10.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Ruddy Turnstones on Isla Mujeres, Mexico

An artistic sculpture on the eastern end of Isla Mujeres, Mexico; 12/20/10.

Ruddy Turnstones and a Sanderling searching the rocky shore for invertebrates, Isla Mujeres, Mexico; 12/20/10.

Ruddy Turnstones spending their winter in Mexico, Isla Mujeres; 12/20/10.
Another shorebird seen on the beaches of Isla Mujeres were the Ruddy Turnstones. These sandpiper type birds are found on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts during the winter, but will migrate up to the Arctic Circle during the summers. The photos of the Ruddy Turnstones (Above)) depicts them in their winter plumage. Their breeding plumage is far more colorful with a bold black and white pattern on the head and throat, set off with reddish wings and a white belly.

Iguana of the day; Cancun, Mexico; 12/24/10.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Sanderling and Laughing Gulls, Isla Mujeres, Mexico

The north coast of Isla mujeres, Mexico; 12/20/10.
On December 20, we decided to take a ferry and spend the day on Isla Mujeres (Isle of Women) about a 30 minuite boat ride into the Caribbean Sea north of Cancun. According to history, in 1517, Spaniard Francisco Hermandez de Cordoba (a slave hunter) happened upon the island searching for slaves for Cuban mines, and found nothing but old statues which they perceived to be statues of women, thus the name of the island, "Isle of Women".

Present day, this small island (five miles long and less than one mile wide) is a busy tourist stop during the day, but when the last of the ferries take the tourists back to the mainland in the early evening, the island literally goes to sleep. Not that we would know - since we were part of the group of tourists taking a late afternoon ferry back to Cancun. There was a lot of activities to do on the island, including snorkling, ziplining, an underwater museum, and a very cute little town on the western end of the island with beautiful white sand beaches and a marina.
We rented a golf cart at 500 Pesos (about $40) for the day and drove the length of the island exploring the sites.  It only took about 1/2 hour to drive to the other end of the island puttering along in the golf cart. There were also cars on the island, but the ovberwhelming vehicles on the island were golf carts and mopeds.

One of several ziplining towers off shore of Isla Mujeres, Mexico; 12/20/10.
I saw a few birds while visiting the Isle, immediately  upon landing at the dock I saw many Magnificent Frigatebirds (my future 1/28/11 post) and Brown Pelicans ( ), and Cormorants filling the sky and shoreline. During our exploration I also a couple of Great Egrets, several shorebirds, as well as the the usual Great-tailed Grackles ( ) , and Tropical Mockingbirds ( ).

A Sanderling in its winter plumage searching for a meal on the rocky shoreline near the sandy beaches of Isla Mujeres, Mexico; 12/20/10.

A Sanderling hanging around a group of Ruddy Turnstones, Isla Mujeres, Mexico; 12/20/10.
Two of the shorebirds I saw were Sanderlings ( Two photos Above) and Laughing Gulls (Below bottom) which I posted about on 1/14/11 ( ). The photos of the Sanderlings above are in their non-breeding winter plumage, but a few summers ago while we were exploring the beautiful Oregon Pacific Coastline, Val took a few pics of a flock of Sanderlings scooting along the beach chasing the waves flowing in and out of the beach (Below top). Sanderlings are often seen on both the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts year round. They chase waves on the beach beacuse the wave action causes invertebrate prey to become available which is the Sanderlings chief food.

A flock of Sanderlings gleening the sand for invertebrates as the waves wash back out to the ocean. These Sanderlings are in their colorful summer plumage; Pistol River Scenic Viewpoint, Oregon; 7/13/07.

A group of Laughing Gulls resting on pylons near an Isla Mujeres beach, Mexico; 12/20/10.

Iguana of the day, Isla Mujeres, Mexico; 12/20/10.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Yellow Warbler

Our old friend, a female Yellow Warbler, Cancun, Mx: 12/19/10.
While hunting for exotic Mexican birds in the beautiful gardens of the resort we were staying while in Cancun, I saw a flick of yellow flash in the bushes, and my first thought was, "Cool! a bright yellow Mexican Bird!" It didn't stay very still and kept a wary eye on me, but I did manage to snap at least one unobstructed view of this little yellow beauty (Above). Later on, upon analyzing the picture, I couldn't find any bird that looked like this guy - except for our very own Yellow Warbler. I didn't recognize it right away because I didn't expect to see one of them down here, and also because it wasn't in its breeding plumage when it is in Northern Illinois for the summer. (See one of my earliest blogs on these brilliant birds:

Yellow warblers do indeed migrate down to the Yucatan, Central America, and the northern part of South America for the winter.

A couple of days later, while I was exploring one of the trails on Isla Contoy, I again was duped by another Yellow Warbler (Below), that I was stalking hoping that it was another exotic Mexican bird.

Another Yellow Warbler, Isla Contoy, Mx; 12/21/10.
Well, at least we know where our Yellow Warblers go for their winter vacations. Pretty smart little guys, huh?

Iguana of the day, Cancun; 12/24/10.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Ruddy Ground Dove & Mourning Dove

A Ruddy Ground Dove foraging on the grass in Cancun, Mx; 12/19/10.
While walking along the sidewalk, I noticed some movement in the grass next to me, and there was what at first I thought was a Mourning Dove, which we all know is common throughout the U.S. But this dove was only half the size of a Mourning Dove, so I thought that it was different enough to take a photo. Sure enough, upon research I identified it as a Ruddy Ground Dove (Above). The Ruddy Ground Dove has the same reddish coloring as our Mourning Dove, but the tones are a deeper red, and its head is a pale blueish/ grayish color.While the Mourning Dove has the same general brownish/grayish coloring throughout from head to tail. Both doves will sport the black spotting on their wings. The Ruddy Ground's head will not have this black spotting as the Mourning Dove will. This little dove will only grow to about 6"-6 3/4" long as compared to the Mourning Dove (Below) that will reach a foot long.

Ruddy Ground Doves reside mostly in Mexico, Central America, and most of South America to northern Chile and Argentina. It very rarely will be seen in the U.S. There have been a few sightings in southernmost Texas.
A Mourning Dove at our backyard feeder, Rockford, IL; 4/2/10.

Iguana of the day, Cancun; 12/25/10.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Shorebirds in Cancun: Laughing Gull, Sandwich Tern & American Golden Plover

A Laughing Gull in its winter plumage; Cancun, Mx; 12/19/10.
In the past I have not paid particular attention to gulls, terns, sandpipers, plovers and other smaller shorebirds, so on my first trek out to walk the beach in Cancun, I made a point to take as many pictures of these types of birds as I could, with hopes of identifying them in their photos later. At least I knew the basic difference between a gull and a tern, and a sandpiper. I just didn't know the specific species of each.  Being in Mexico along the seashore should give me the oppurtunity to start learning.

In today's blog, I'll show photographs of three new shorebirds to add to my life list.  The first oppurtunity came quickly, as there were several Laughing Gulls foraging in the sand and seaweed for small marine life and insects on the beach. They were not shy, so I could get quite close to take a photo. They are very oppurtunistic feeders and will feed on whatever is available including handouts from humans and disgards from fishermen. Laughing Gulls are very common along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and from March - Sept, while in breeding season, their heads will be completely black and their bills will turn red ( ). But being in December and not in breeding season, their beaks will turn black and they will lose the black feathers on their head, and just sport some grayish smudges along the backs of their heads and near their eyes (Above).

An American Golden Plover on a Cancun beach; 12/19/10.
The second shorebird I encountered was the American Golden Plover (Above), which makes one of the longest migratory journeys of any shorebird. It spends its summersin the Arctic tundra of Alaska and Northern Canada and migrates to the grasslands of central and southern South America. I am lucky that I probably caught it in the middle of its migration. Although in winter it is fairly drab, its breeding plumage is very striking with a black face and belly and a white swoop starting at its eye brow and curving around to the back of its head and toward its breast. ( ).

A Sandwich Tern flying over the caribbean waters near Cancun, Mx; 12/19/10.
The third shorebird I observed my first morning was a tern (Above), that was dive bombing the water looking for fish (Below). I was lucky enough to get a couple of pics before it flew away. I, of course had no idea what type of tern it was until I looked at my photos later and compared therm to all the tern pictures in my Sibley Field Guide to Eastern North American Birds.  The black band behind its eyes and the black bill with the pale tip were the key marks which helped me identify it as a Sandwich Tern.

A Sandwich Tern getting ready to dive bomb the waters for its next meal, Cancun, Mx; 12/19/10.
Sandwich terns are found year round along the Gulf Coast, and in the summers it will fly a bit north along the Atlantic Coast lines of the Carolinas and Virginia. In the summers, its breeding colors change slightly by sporting a completely black crown ( ).

Iguana of the day, Isla Mujeres, Mx; 12/20/10