Sunday, November 25, 2012

Fall Warbler Quiz - Answers

It's long overdue, but here are the answers to the fall warbler photo quiz I posted a while back. Be sure to try the quiz before reading the answers.

Photo 1:

Photo 1 shows a bird that, in my opinion, falls under the category of "confusing fall warbler." This particular bird is plain, with some streaks, and relatively few prominent field marks. However, there are some characteristics on this bird that can help narrow it down quite easily. First, there are two prominent wingbars. In addition, the underside of the bird is a pale yellowish color, rather than the bright yellow of some warbler species. Looking through a field guide, there are only a few birds that fit this image, those in the Bay-breasted/Blackpoll/Pine group. These three species can appear very similar when viewed in the field. Pine can be ruled out for our bird by the streaks on the back. This leaves the "Baypoll" warblers. A few things to note are the few, dark streaks on the sides and the yellowish feet. These two field marks help identify this bird as a Blackpoll Warbler.

Photo 2:
Ahh! A warbler in flight. Impossible, right? Actually, this warbler is quite easy to identify. The first thing to notice is the bright yellow underside. This coloration rules out a number of warbler species. What other field marks are visible? One particularly useful field mark to use when identifying fall warblers is the undertail pattern. While many species have a similar pattern, there a few warblers, namely Palm, American Redstart, and Magnolia that have easily recognizable tail patterns. On this quiz bird, note that the tip of the tail is black, while the rest is white. This pattern is unique among the warblers and identifies this as a Magnolia Warbler. The yellow underside supports this identification.

Photo 3:
Like the previous photo, we can easily see the underside of the tail and body of this warbler. Unlike the Magnolia, the tail pattern is very plain. In fact, it appears entirely dark, rather than having a distinct pattern of white and black. This tail pattern narrows the pool of possible species down significantly. Next, take note of the bright yellow underside. This still doesn't identify the bird to species, but it gives us another clue as to its identity. Finally, look at the head. Yes, it is obscured by branches, but the gray color, strong white eyering, and yellow throat are all visible. These characteristics and the field marks previously mentioned all point to Nashville Warbler.

Photo 4:
Here we have a plain warbler species with a yellowish underside and two very strong white wingbars. As with the first photo in this quiz, these field marks leave us with the Blackpoll/Bay-breasted/Pine group. We cannot see streaks on the back to rule out Pine, but noting that this bird has no streaking on the underside and has all-dark feet help to eliminate Blackpoll. Next, look at the bird's flanks. Careful inspection shows a light pinkish wash. This is a characteristic of a fall Bay-breasted Warbler.

Photo 5:

In this photo, we have a very plain warbler. It is obvious that there are no bright colors or even significant field marks. Basically it's a brown, streaky bird. While brown and streaky may make sparrows difficult to identify, once we realize that this is a warbler (bill and body shape, behavior) the identification is actually quite easy. If we compare this bird to the one in the first quiz photo, we see that both birds are dull with dark streaks. However, one noticeable difference is the lack of bright wingbars in this bird. There are two faint lines visible, but nothing close to the immediately noticeable white wingbars on the Pine and "Baypoll" warblers. A lack of bright wingbars on a brown, streaky warbler narrows the identification down significantly. In fact, it really only leaves us with two possibilities, Yellow-rumped and Cape May Warblers. From this angle, we would be able to see a yellow patch near where the wing connects to the body if this were a Yellow-rump. Also, the bill would be shorter. That leaves Cape May Warbler. This is an extremely variable species in the fall, as some adult males are brilliant yellow, orange, and black and younger birds can be entirely brownish. When not immediately identifiable using the typical Cape May Warbler field marks (thick white wing patch, orange mark on face, grayish head on females), a good field mark for this species is the lack of obvious field marks!

I hope this quiz has been somewhat educational for those readers who have been perplexed by these confusing fall warblers! Although most warblers leave for the fall, Yellow-rumped Warblers and occasionally other species remain in this region for the winter... so keep an eye out for any winter warblers!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Birding in Superstorm Sandy

As anyone in the United States should know, a large storm hit the mid-Atlantic two weeks ago, bringing strong winds and rain to much of the eastern United States. This powerful storm brought hundreds of seabirds inland, causing jaegers to show up on inland lakes and storm-petrels to be found flying around major rivers. Birders all over the region flocked to locations where they could observe this unusual avian spectacle. For example, local birders at Beltzville State Park, just 9 miles from my house (as the tropicbird flies), found a number of incredible "storm birds" including Pomarine Jaegers, Red and Red-necked Phalaropes, Forster's Terns, Brant, all three scoter species, and a Cave Swallow. Wow. Due to strong winds, fallen trees, and dangling power lines along the roadways, I was unable to get to Beltzville. However, this did not mean I couldn't go birding. Throughout the day, I scanned the skies from my yard and porch hoping that something unusual would fly by.

For most of the day, the only birds moving overhead were small flocks of robins and the occasional Northern Flicker. Then, something changed. Around 3:15pm, I was working on moving boxes that were getting wet due to the newly-opened hole on the barn roof (thanks, Sandy). At one point, I looked to the north and noticed a large flock of small birds headed towards me. I quickly grabbed my binoculars and found the approaching flock against the dark gray sky. Their sudden movements and quick wingbeats quickly ruled out blackbirds, which is what I expected to see in such a large flock. These were something different. Before long, they were right overhead, and I could clearly see that these 30-40 birds were shorebirds, Dunlin in fact. These fast fliers disappeared into the fog and mist in a matter of seconds. But that was good enough for yard bird #182!

Flock of Dunlin
Now excited from finally seeing some interesting birds as a result of the bad weather, I set up a spotting scope on my front porch where I had a decent view of the sky and the Kittatinny Ridge, along which I imagined birds might be moving. Within minutes of scanning the ridgeline, I spotted another flock of shorebirds. This flock contained about 100 birds and moved right along the Kittatinny, which lies about a mile from where I was standing. As a result of this distance, "shorebird sp." is the best identification I could make of these distant specks, although it is very likely that these were more Dunlin. For the next hour or so, several flocks of presumed Dunlin passed overhead or along the major ridge.

Distant flock of shorebirds (likely more Dunlin)

 At one point, I was watching the shorebirds fly east along the ridge when a group of three ducks flew west across my binocular view. This got my heart rate up... who knows what ducks might show up as a result of the hurricane! I eventually re-spotted the group just before they disappeared into the fog--Mallards. Oh well.

The next fifteen minutes or so were slow, except for the passing of another shorebird flock or two. I then spotted a line of four distant ducks headed towards me. More Mallards, I figured. Nevertheless, I got the scope on them and focused on them one at a time. Male Mallard... male Mallard... female Mallard... WHAT?!?! I got enough of a look at the last bird to see that it was different, but as soon as I was able to focus the scope, the whole group of ducks disappeared into the fog, never to be spotted again. Based on the brief glimpse I got of the bird, it was likely a Northern Pintail, another locally unusual species, one that I had only seen from the yard once before. Soon after these ducks vanished into the mist, I observed two more ducks flying along the Kittatinny Ridge. These two ducks were clearly smaller than the numerous Mallards I had seen, but as luck would have it, they too dropped out of sight before I could get more than a quick silhouetted look. Darn... these could be awesome birds that I was missing. If only the visibility had been slightly better!

Although it was foggy and misty the entire time I was birding, there was very little steady rain... that is until I found something very intriguing. Just as I heard the sound of approaching rain, a group of about twenty dark birds appeared out of the mist from the western sky. Worried about the safety of my camera in the rain, I fired off a few quick shots before rushing for the cover of the front porch, from where I soon re-found the birds and got my binoculars on them. At this point I just about jumped for joy because of this new yard bird... Black. Scoter. A species I never even dreamed of seeing from the property. In less than a minute, the eastbound seaducks were out of sight, but I had just experienced something amazing and entirely unexpected.

Black Scoters flying east

Black Scoter flock flying in front of the Kittatinny Ridge
Unfortunately, after the scoters passed, things became extremely slow. The sky became even darker, the rain picked up, and birds stopped flying. I waited a while longer, but it seemed as if the heavier rain was going to stay. Just as I was wrapping things up, I heard a strange noise from the other side of the house. I ran out into the yard and watched as a flock of over 130 Brant flew low over the house! Honking the entire way, the gaggle moved quickly towards the southeast, soon engulfed by the same fog that had obscured many other waterfowl that day. Brant was the third new yard bird species for the day, bringing the yard list up to 184 species and the yard year list to 156 species!

Brant low over the yard

The only other exciting birds I saw that afternoon were 14 more Brant that followed the same course as the first flock.


No, I didn't see Pomarine Jaegers or Cave Swallows, but I still managed to have an awesome afternoon of birding thanks to Superstorm Sandy. It is terribly unfortunate that these birds can only be found in this area as the result of a destructive storm. As much as I would love to see seabirds in Pennsylvania, I hope it is a long time for another storm like this hits the region.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012


Every year I keep track of the number of species that I find in my yard. Last year was an excellent year--I broke my previous yard year record by finding 150 species from January to December. However, this year has been even better. On September 30, a flock of Pine Siskins in the yard brought my 2012 list to 150 species, tying last year's result. Since then, siskins have become very abundant in the yard.
Pine Siskin on goldenrod
During the big sit on October 13, I found two more species (that I will post about in a full report of the day soon!) for the year list. Although I had now seen 152 species in the yard during 2012, I was missing a few fairly common species. One such bird was the White-crowned Sparrow, a generally uncommon bird in the area, but one that I occasionally see in the fall. While out birding on the morning of the 21st, I finally found a White-crown, an immature that was feeding in a large patch of goldenrod with variety of other sparrows. The bird then flew into a nearby tree before disappearing back into the weedy field.

immature White-crowned Sparrow - yard year bird #153
As I mentioned, the White-crowned Sparrow was certainly not the only sparrow in the field. In fact, the entire meadow was filled with lots of sparrows. The most abundant species was the White-throated Sparrow. These large relatives of the White-crowned could be found in almost every goldenrod patch of brushy edge this morning. Singing and chipping, this species is hard to miss.

Song Sparrows were next in terms of abundance. This is a species that, for some reason, disappeared over the summer here in Kunkletown, but has since returned in full force. While not nearly as noisy as the White-throats, Song Sparrows will sing and call this time of year. Learning the various call notes of sparrows can be particularly helpful when searching through a flock of sparrows that is rapidly moving through dense goldenrod or a brushy edge.

Somewhat surprisingly, Swamp Sparrows were very common that morning. These drab birds are quite common in the field, but I rarely see more than one or two at a time. On this morning, at least six of these guys were sitting along the field's eastern edge, hiding among the tangles of low shrubs and vines. Swamp Sparrows can be very hard to photograph, as they stay deep in the brush, but one individual popped out for a moment.

As I mentioned in my last post, Lincoln's Sparrows are migrating through the region this time of year. Although the peak for this species was a few weeks past, there were still some around including one that I discovered along the brushy edge of the field, not far from where the Swamp Sparrow was photographed. I often find these two closely-related species together in brushy and weedy habitats.

As the Lincoln's Sparrows reach the end of their migration through Pennsylvania, other species are just starting to arrive. One such species is the Fox Sparrow, a bird that is most common in the state during the months of November and March. However, they begin to show up in brushy areas in the end of October. I saw two, the first ones of the season, in the yard on this sparrow-filled day. Their bright reddish coloration really stood out in the tangle of green and brown leafless vines.

Warblers have moved on, and sparrows have arrived. By some accounts, we are entering into a season of dull birding. However, the truth is quite the opposite. The month of November is an excellent time of year to find rarities! The shorter days and chilly temperatures don't necessarily mean fewer exciting birds!

Monday, October 8, 2012

A Pretty Sparrow

Lincoln's Sparrows are secretive birds. When they migrate through Pennsylvania in the spring and fall, they stick to the cover of dense brush and weedy fields. As a result, it is often very tricky to get a good look or photograph of this species. However, I came across a very cooperative Lincoln's Sparrow this morning that sat in the open for several minutes. What an opportunity to observe this beautiful sparrow!

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Fall Warbler Quiz

Over thirty species of warblers migrate through Pennsylvania during the fall. While some species, like Northern Parula and Black-throated Green Warblers are easily recognized, some can be tricky to identify. Try this quiz to test your ability at identifying these "confusing fall warblers." I will post the correct answers and identification remarks in a later post.

Photo 1:

Photo 2:

Photo 3:

Photo 4:

Photo 5:

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Goldenrod Surprises

Goldenrod flowers host an amazing diversity of insects and other creatures, many of which hold surprises that require a closer look:

Goldenrod Soldier Beetles (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus) are one of the most abundant insects on goldenrod. Thousands of these orange and black beetles can be found in a large patch of these flowers. While walking around the field today, I saw a beetle with wings open, perhaps getting ready to take off. But that was not the case. This soldier beetle fell victim to a fungus, Eryniopsis lampyridarum. In an infected area, hundreds of these beetles can be found hanging lifeless underneath the flowers.

With August behind us, the season of butterflies is slowly slipping away. Swallowtails become scarce, and skippers, once filling every flower in the field, have all but disappeared for the year. However, a keen observer may be able to find late-season fliers enjoying the goldenrod and asters. One might find Variegated Fritillaries, Common Buckeyes, Gray Hairstreaks, or maybe a White M Hairstreak, like the one I encountered today.

The white "m" shape and lip-stick red spot on the hindwing are unlike any other species. But the red marking, soft brown background color, and powdery blue hindwing spot are not what make this butterfly incredible.

When the White M Hairstreak takes off, this brown insect transforms into an ephemeral flutter of shimmering cobalt.

Like the soldier beetle, many insects that associate with goldenrod match the color of the flowers. This White-banded Crab Spider (Misumenoides formosipes) sat camouflaged waiting for prey, in this case, an unsuspecting Eastern Yellowjacket (Vespula maculifrons), to land within striking distance.

The leaves are starting to fall from the trees. Birds have started to migrate south for the winter. Although the colder months are fast-approaching, there are still plenty of insects enjoying the variety of late-blooming flowers. Don't forget to take a closer look at the next flower you pass, you may find something extraordinary.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Invasion of the Ladies

The Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) is the most widespread butterfly in the world. Due to its strong migratory tendencies and use of a massive variety of host plants, this species can be found throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. Although the Painted Lady is incredibly widespread, it is not particularly abundant in many locations. For example, I usually see fewer than three in a year here in eastern Pennsylvania. In fact, many years I never see a Painted Lady.

This year seems to be different. Earlier this summer, I found a single Painted Lady nectaring on blooming Common Milkweed in the yard. This was only the second individual of this pink and black butterfly that I had noted for the property! After a few days of fueling from the milkweed patch, the lady moved on. As the summer progressed, I saw numerous American Ladies (Vanessa virginiensis), the more common and more orange counterpart of cardui.

American Lady, the more common Vanessa in this region

When I stepped out of the house yesterday morning, a brightly-colored butterfly shot up from a pink Phlox next to the porch. The butterfly fluttered skyward with quick wingbeats in a corkscrew-like flight pattern, characteristic of the ladies. This individual went out of sight, but I soon noticed several other ladies on nearby flowers.

Painted Lady on Phlox

I immediately noticed the pink-orange color that seemed slightly different than the coloration of an American Lady. When I got closer, I noticed the smaller details in patterns that separated these individuals from their similar cousins. As I looked around, I counted about a half-dozen of these gorgeous insects, more Painted Ladies than I had ever seen at one time (except, perhaps, for when we raised them from caterpillars in kindergarten). Several more scatted off the gravel driveway as I walked past. Almost every open flower in the field was attended by one of these butterflies--the ladies were everywhere!

As the sun got stronger, I spotted a single Monarch gliding southward on a gentle breeze. One of the ladies from the flowers in front of me flew towards the Monarch, hitching a ride on the same wind as the larger migrant. Out-flapping the Monarch, the lady took the lead and disappeared into the distance.

Monarch on its way to Mexico

August and September are the primary months for butterfly migration here in Pennsylvania. Southbound species, including Monarchs, ladies, and Red Admirals, all begin their journeys around this time. The ladies and admirals may only travel far enough south to reach year-round warm weather, whereas the mighty Monarch will travel all the way to central Mexico. Early autumn is also the season when many southern species wander north. Giant Swallowtails and Long-tailed Skippers start to show up in Pennsylvania around the middle of August every year. Other species including Ocola Skippers, Little Yellows, Sleepy Oranges, and Dainty Sulphurs seem to have "boom" years, when large numbers suddenly begin to appear far north of their typical southern ranges. This year has been the year of the Dainty Sulphur, with droves of these petite southerners popping up throughout Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Today, I found about fifty of these beautiful ladies in my yard. I know they are transients this time of year, but I hope they at least stick around for a few more days!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Sunday, August 19, 2012


Every spring, birders gather around old fields and meadows to listen to the pzeent! of the American Woodcock. This display marks the beginning of spring--the ground has thawed and birds are ready to breed. Some nature groups even lead walks specifically for listening to the spring display of the woodcock. However, many of this birders do not give notice that there is a bird that goes "pzeent" in the fall, long after the springtime woodcocks have become silent. These are the calls of the goatsuckers. The nighthawks.

While nighthawks are not actually hawks (and no, they don't actually suck milk from goats as myths have portrayed), they do resemble buoyant falcons--bouncing through the humid air on pointed wings. Flocks gather over buggy fields as soon as the goldenrod begins to bloom in August, catching insects on the wing.

Just the other day I saw my first flock of fall. One short of a dozen, the group had convened over a nearby field, soaring and diving to catch the bounty of midges high above the ground. Competing with swallows and darners, the nighthawks spent almost twenty minutes feasting before moving down the ridge.

Nighthawks, some of the most impressive aerialists of the bird world, often go unnoticed as they zip over meadows, parking lots, and almost anywhere with insects that lies along their southbound route. Unnoticed, yes. But woodcocks would be too if we made no effort to search. While woodcocks are harbingers of spring for some, nighthawks fill this role for me in the fall. The warm, muggy nights are coming to an end, soon to be replaced with more pleasant days filled with sun and cool breezes. Plus, I find watching swooping and diving acrobats to be far more exciting than listening into the darkness for a call from a sneaky sandpiper sitting still in some soggy sedges.

I'm not saying that those goofy, disproportionate timberdoodles aren't fun... just don't forget to take a moment to listen to what else goes "pzeent" in the night.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Atop the Kittatinny Ridge

On Monday morning, I was able to get out along the Kittatinny Ridge above Palmerton, PA with a group of interns working with the Superfund restoration projects at that site. We were on the mountain looking at two recently burned areas on the ridgetop. This piece of the ridge, once barren due to heavy pollution from a nearby zinc smelter, has been revegetated with native grasses. Recent fires burned small portions of the area, and we were interested in how the ecosystem changed as a result. Although the fires here were not controlled burns, they seemed to have helped the habitat by controlling some of the shrub and tree species that have started to establish populations within the grassland.

While we were up there, a thick layer of fog sat over us, drenching us as we hiked through damp vegetation. The view from here would have been spectacular if the sun had been shining! 

As we were interested in the effects the fire had on the plant communities, we compared the burned areas to habitats that had not been burned. Other than the apparent effect on shrubs and trees as I mentioned above, the fire seemed to have little negative effect on the various grass species.

An example of the grassland habitat on the ridgetop. Dominant grass species include big bluestem, deertongue grass, Canada wild rye, and common hairgrass.

One of the unique plants that grows on top of the mountain near the Superfund site is thrift (Armeria maritima), a small plant with pink flowers the grow up from the ground-level rosette of leaves. This unusual flower is not native and was likely brought in as an early revegetation attempt. We saw large patches of this plant near the burn area, although very little actually grew within the burn site, suggesting that it cannot tolerate fire. In the areas where it was growing, I noted a number of Common Roadside-Skippers (which, despite the name, are uncommon in this region) nectaring on the thrift.

Studies from Europe have shown that thrift, or sea-thrift as it is sometimes known, can tolerate soils with high levels of metals1. This is not surprising, as the soils where the thrift grows near Palmerton are heavily contaminated with zinc, cadmium, and lead.

The second burn site was closer to the Lehigh Gap along a trail known as the Winter Trail to hikers. The habitat here contained many woody plants (especially pitch pine, sassafras, and scrub oak) and the grass present was almost entirely hairgrass with a small amount of big bluestem mixed in. Notice how the fire thinned out, but did not kill the hairgrass. This hairgrass is a species that started growing in this contaminated area on its own; it was not part of the grassland revegetation projects.

After we visited the burn sites, we stopped at a spot about halfway between Lehigh Gap and Little Gap. The combination of the muddy puddle, the grassy landscape, and scraggly pitch pines in this area created a very unique habitat. A few of the bird species at this spot were unusual too. While we were here for a few minutes, I heard several Dark-eyed Juncos singing nearby. This is a species that is very uncommon in eastern Pennsylvania during the summer. Although juncos are extremely abundant during the winter months, most migrate much farther north to breed. However, this unusual habitat at a high elevation provides the necessary elements for juncos to raise young.

Someday, I'd like to go back up to this spot to find out what other unusual plants and animals are living in this strange habitat. It is relatively inaccessible locations like this were unusual things can be found, whether it be an out-of-place breeding bird or a rare plant!

1Brewin, L.E., A. Mehra, P.T. Lynch, and M.E. Farago. "Mechanisms of copper tolerance by Armeria maritima in Dolfrwyong Bog, north Wales—initial studies". Environ Geochem Health 25 (1): 147–56.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

South African Wildlife

You may remember that I visited South Africa back in November and December of last year. While I posted about the first few days I was there and the experiences I had at the United Nations conference, I hardly posted about the wildlife that I saw at the various locations I visited. Now, eight months later, here are some of the memorable wildlife sightings from the trip:

When we arrived at the airport in Cape Town, we met our host and headed to his house in Kensington, a neighborhood just outside of the main portion of Cape Town. After a little rest, we headed to the nearby neighborhood of Pinelands where there is a park running along a waterway. I had been able to do some birding from the car and airport, but this was my first time to walk around and get good looks at the birds in the area.

The park in Pinelands
Some of the first birds we saw were Pied Crows. These noisy corvids were all over the place, sitting along the water, resting on houses, and chasing each other through the streets.

Not long after seeing the crows, I spotted a smaller black-and-white bird foraging along the water's edge. It bobbed its long tail up and down as it walked... wagtail! This Cape Wagtail then flew on top of a nearby house, where it sat for a second before continuing on its way. Wagtails are primarily a group of "old-world" birds, meaning they do not commonly occur in most of North America. As a result, this individual was the first representative of the group I had ever seen!

As we walked through the park, I noticed several butterflies fluttering close the ground among the various blooming flowers. I was only able to get decent photos of this guy, some member of the family Lycaenidae, possibly the Sooty Blue (Zizeeria knysna).

During the rest of the walk we saw numerous new birds, including Hadeda (or Hadada) Ibises, Sacred Ibises, Common Fiscals, and lots more. When we returned to our hosts' house, they showed us the backyard, where they maintained bird feeders in a little garden. This tiny garden attracted a surprising number of birds. One of the more common species was the Cape Sparrow, a close relative of the ubiquitous House Sparrow.

Laughing Doves were also in abundance around the feeders. At times fifteen of these pink and blue doves would gather in the garden.

As the sun was setting, we headed through Cape Town to walk along the seafront promenade. The tide was out, so tidal pools lined the shore. These puddles were filled with the common Hartlaub's Gulls as well as African Oystercatchers, a species that resembles the Black Oystercatchers of the western United States.

The next morning, after breakfast, we headed back to the coast. We were headed out to Robben Island, the former prison island where apartheid prisoners, including the famous Nelson Mandela were held. In addition to being an important historical location, this island is an incredible place to see wildlife. From the mainland, we boarded the ferry, but had to wait a little while while everyone got on. My seat was on the open top of the boat, right next to the rail, so I had a great view of any birds that might fly past. While the boat was still docked, I watched a White-throated Swallow repeatedly dive low over the water catching tiny insects.

Massive Kelp Gulls also flew by. These big, dark-backed gulls are essentially the Southern Hemisphere replacement for the Great Black-backed Gulls that are commonly seen along the Atlantic Coast in the United States and Europe.

Once we started out into the more open water, I began seeing small flocks of Cape Cormorants flying overhead. Then, we came to a large concrete structure that was covered with these black birds. This was just a small piece of the entire concrete block, and yes, those are all cormorants!

While scanning the horizon, I spotted a large, black-and-white bird flapping out to sea. The pointed wings and yellowish head identified this as a gannet. The gannets I am used to seeing along the Atlantic Coast are Northern Gannets, but this one was a new species for me, a Cape Gannet.

As I was watching the gannet, a flock of smaller birds appeared next to the boat. An initial glance made me think of terns, but a better look revealed that they were actually gulls--Sabine's Gulls! This is a species that does occur in the United States, albeit uncommonly. I had never had the opportunity to see them there, but here was a flock of 26 of these gorgeous gulls flying right next to the boat!

As we reached the island, the jetties and other structures were lined with cormorants. The most abundant species was the Cape Cormorant. On the island alone, I counted over 1000 of these birds.

Another species of cormorant was also present on the island. With a fatter body and a crest, this individual stood out from the multitude of Cape Cormorants. This one is a Crowned Cormorant, a species that was not nearly as abundant as the Cape Cormorant.

As I sorted through the flock of cormorants, I came across another lifer, the Bank Cormorant. Several pairs of this species had made nests just above the water. Unlike the Cape and Crowned Cormorants, this species does not have a yellow-orange patch at the base of the bill. Instead, the entire bird is glossy black. Unfortunately, this beautiful species is globally endangered and declining. In fact, the other two cormorant species I saw on this day were considered "near threatened," meaning they were headed down the same path.

When we got off the ferry, we noted large groups of Sacred Ibises flying overhead.

On the rocks along the island, I saw my first penguin. I only ended up seeing two on the entire trip, but that was more than enough to make me happy! These African Penguins are quite common along the coast and are endemic to the western coast of Southern Africa (South Africa and Namibia).

The most common gulls on the island were Hartlaub's Gulls.

When we got back on the ferry to head back to Cape Town, we spotted a group of Cape Fur Seals out of the water.

When we arrived back on the mainland, we found another seal resting on the dock.

When he heard the commotion of people getting off the boat, he stretched and fell back asleep.

Not long after we got off the boat, we found an outdoor restaurant for lunch. In any city back home, it is not uncommon to be pestered by Rock Pigeons, House Sparrows, and European Starlings if food is present. Here in Cape Town, those pesky scavengers of crumbs were replaced by species like Speckled Pigeons, Cape Sparrows, and Red-winged Starlings.

The next stop on our itinerary was Table Mountain, the backdrop of the city of Cape Town. This large plateau reaches high above the sea and is often obscured by a layer of fog. However, when we arrived, the mountain was completely visible and the sun was shining strong! We drove up a windy road and parked our car about halfway up the mountain, where the road reached it's highest point. As soon as we got out, we were greeted by this Cape Robin-Chat.

From where we had parked, we rode the cablecar to the top of the mountain. At the top, the habitat was completely different and view was incredible. However, not long after we started hiking, a strong, cold wind blew in a thick layer of fog.

Birdlife was scarce at the summit of Table Mountain. The wind and fog didn't make finding the birds any easier! In fact, the only species we could see at the top were a few Orange-breasted Sunbirds.

The ecosystem of tundra-like plants and sedges was unlike anything I had seen before.

The rock ledges on the side of the mountain were great places to find resting African Rock Hyraxes (also called the Rock or Cape Dassie).

After heading back down the cablecar, we found several more Cape Robin-Chats singing along the road. With the sun getting lower in the sky, we began to hear more and more sounds around us.

On of those sounds belonged to the Helmeted Guineafowl. These chicken-like birds are common farm animals near where I live, but it was very cool to see them in the wild. This one popped up on a rock for a bit before continuing down the mountain, clucking the entire way.

Another bird that began to vocalize as the sun sank towards the horizon was the Karoo Prinia. As I scanned the landscape, I found several more of these streaky birds perched on top of small bushes and trees.

The friendliest birds we encountered were Familiar Chats. These reddish-brown birds did not seem to mind humans. This one perched right in front of us as we stood listening to the chorus of birdsong.

After a day of exploring Robben Island and Table Mountain, we got some rest and woke early the next morning for a road trip to the east. We were headed to Genadendal, a small town tucked in the Riviersonderend Mountains. This former Moravian mission is home to a small community full of history, gardens, and friendly people. Although the town was once called Baviaans Kloof (Valley of the Baboons), we didn't see any of these primates.

The scenery along the drive to Genadendal was phenomenal. Mountains looming in the distance and vast plains of wheat and other crops created a unique landscape that stretched for miles and miles. Hundreds of Red Bishops flew up from the side of the road as we drove past and small flocks of Blue Cranes, that national bird of South Africa, dotted the wheat fields.

Genadendal itself provided another excellent birding opportunity. The lush gardens and streamside vegetation were full of birds. In a matter of minutes, I found almost fifteen bird species that I had never seen before. One of these was a Fork-tailed Drongo. This iridescent blue-black bird sat in the shade of a lichen-covered tree, hardly caring about our presence.

Just across the path from the drongo was this male Yellow Bishop perched atop a small tree, mountains towering in the background.

After exploring the museum and town at Genadendal and after a lunch made by one of the residents, we headed back towards Cape Town. We took a slightly different route back, heading south to drive along the coast. We stopped in the town of Hermanus, a gorgeous coastal town with a stunning view out over the bay. Large waves crashed against the rocks beneath us as we looked out over the water.

As I was watching gulls and terns pick fish out of the water, a dark bird flew into sight. It came very close to shore before veering left and heading out into the open ocean. This bird was one of the giant-petrels, common pelagic species off the coast of Western Cape. A local birder said that Southern Giant-Petrels are more commonly seen from shore than the very similar Northern Giant-Petrels, but I can't be certain as to which species this was.

Most of the gulls and terns I mentioned were Hartlaub's and Kelp Gulls, but there were also several other species along the shoreline. Several Grey-hooded Gulls had gathered on the rocks, while one or two Greater Crested Terns flew up and down the shore, looking for small fish to eat.

Just like on Table Mountain, Rock Dassies found a home in the rocky cliffs.

The bay at Hermanus is famous for being a breeding site for several whale species. Although we were visiting at a time when few whales were present, it was still a possibility to see one of these large Cetaceans. I scanned the bay hoping to see something. After my third or fourth scan with binoculars, I saw a spray of water shooting out of the water. A whale! Soon after, I saw the tail of a Southern Right Whale appear out of the choppy water, then disappear into the turbid bay. I continued to watch as this same sequence of events happened several times. Despite the windy, foggy, dark conditions, I managed to get this distant photo of the whale. This was the first whale I had ever seen, so it was particularly exciting for me!

Excited from seeing the whale, I almost missed the swallows circling over the parking lot. These buff-bellied swallows turned out to be Greater Striped Swallows, another lifer!

From Hermanus, we continued along the coast towards Cape Town. At one point, as the fog cleared, we pulled off the road to enjoy the impressive view.

While we were stopped, we noticed a few birds on the trees below where we were standing. The streaky brown coloration and extremely long tails made these Cape Sugarbirds, a species that is endemic to South Africa. We watched for several minutes as these birds flew (quite an effort with a tail of that size) from shrub to shrub.

After our quick, but exciting tour of the Western Cape, our time in the Western Cape was over. The next day, we boarded a plane to travel to Durban, a coastal city situated on the opposite side of the country. This city is where the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was to take place. I managed to get out every morning to do some birding, although I hardly had the opportunity to take any photos. The early 8:00am meetings and events that sometimes went until dusk made birding during photo-friendly times difficult. However, I did find some really interesting birds. Most of the birding I did was right near the guest house that we stayed at. This house, located in Durban North, was surrounded by a beautiful neighborhood full of gardens and flowering trees.

Birds were everywhere. A few noisy species, especially the Hadeda Ibises and Egyptian Geese woke us up every morning as they created a raucous outside. The Hadedas roosted in a tree next to the guest house, giving loud, laughing cries as they flew in and out during the day. Each morning, a pair of Egyptian Geese would perch on top of a street light and make their own loud noises.

I took a walk early every morning and encountered a flock of swallows perched on the powerlines almost every time. The flock consisted mostly of Barn and Lesser Striped Swallows, but there were usually a few South African Swallows and one or two Common House-Martins mixed in. Very pretty birds like Purple-crested Turacos, African Paradise-Flycatchers, and White-breasted Sunbirds were common along the streets. I also encountered a number of species of birds with unusual or goofy names like the Speckled Mousebird and the Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird. A real treat was finding a colony of Village Weavers just down the street from where we were staying. These noisy birds had build hundreds of nests in a tree right above the sidewalk.

Between the guest house and the convention center was a lagoon that was filled with birds. The conference had a shuttle system that very conveniently had a stop at a hotel right next to the lagoon. A couple of times, I birded along the bridge here, and I was certainly not disappointed. When I first looked out, I saw shorebirds. I was way up on a bridge, and they looked like brown specks against a muddy background. Knowing that many of these would be new species for me, I was a bit disappointed. However, a noisy flock of Hadeda Ibises spooked the flock. The group swirled around before landing very close! As I scanned the flock, I immediately found a number of new birds. Most abundant were Blacksmith Plovers, with several of these pied plovers foraging along the mudflats. Other plovers, Black-bellied, Lesser Sand-, White-fronted, and Three-banded, were mixed in the flock in lower numbers. A number of sandpipers were present as well. Common Greenshanks (similar to Greater Yellowlegs) were in good numbers, as were Common Sandpipers, the old-world doppelganger of the Spotted Sandpiper. A third sandpiper was one that I had seen before, the Curlew Sandpiper. This species is common in Europe and Africa, but occasionally strays to North America. I saw one in New Jersey a few years back, but I had never seen a flock of 15 before! After sorting through the shorebirds, I found a few more new birds along the edge of the lagoon. A pair of Pied Kingfishers sat on a snag and two African Pied Wagtails foraged along the mud flats.

At the end of the week, after several days at the conference, we headed north to a town of St. Lucia. From here, we would depart for the nearby Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve. The drive north opened our eyes to an entirely new part of South Africa. For over an hour, we drove through massive Eucalyptus plantations. Unfortunately the birdlife along these plantations was minimal, but I did spot a few raptors including Black Kites and a single Long-crested Eagle that was perched on a snag next to the road, much as a Red-tailed Hawk would do back home. 

When we arrived in St. Lucia, we found the place where we were to stay the night, then decided to go for a little walk around the town. The town had a good amount of forested area around it and lots of trees tucked in between buildings. Right along the road, we found these two Brown-hooded Kingfishers. They were perched close to the ground and allowed me to get very close with my camera. 

This species normally hunts insects away from water, unlike the Belted Kingfishers I am used to that are always around water.

While watching the kingfishers, we heard clucking coming from the other side of the road. We watched as the grass rustled and two Crested Guineafowl emerged. These funky birds walked through a little clearing before disappearing into some tall grass.

As it got dark, we ventured down a forested path. At the trailhead, an Ashy Flycatcher sat over our heads and a group of Yellow-breasted Apalis flew into a bush nearby. As the brush got thicker and thicker, we began hearing the songs of Burchell's Coucals. Soon we heard a slow, raspy who-who-who-haw-haw-haw-haw coming from somewhere in the forest. Soon another, and then another joined in. This unfamiliar sound was a bit spooky as it was getting dark and we had no idea what it was coming from. Then, I spotted a large bird perched in a tree about a hundred feet off the path. I watched as the bird made the noise we had just heard. This large green and blue bird was a Livingstone's Turaco.

As we walked back along the path, we heard several more turacos and a couple of Red-capped Robin-Chats that we originally mistook for whistling humans!

At 4:00 the next morning, we were standing next to the road waiting to head to Hluhluwe-Umfolozi. Although the park does allow people to drive through on their own (and we did have a rental car), we decided it against it due to the fact that we had no idea how to get around in the park and we decided that an experienced guide would be able to show us a lot more than we would find on our own. I did a bit of research before we left and found EuroZulu, a small safari company based out of St. Lucia. Unlike some of the more commercial safari companies, EuroZulu seemed to have guides that were interested in all of the park's wildlife (including dung beetles!), not just the big mammals. As it turned out, this was exactly right and I am very glad we chose this company.

Anyway, our guide, Paul, arrived with the truck and we hopped in the back. We picked up four more people at nearby hotels and we began the hour drive to the park. The early start allowed us to arrive at the park just as it opened. As we drove, the brightening skies alerted us to the cloudy sky and possibility for rain. We drove along a road with an incredibly high number of speed bumps before arriving at the main gate for the park. Before long, we were in the park and scanning for wildlife. Our first sighting was of a group of Burchell's Zebras that ran across the road. Before I could even lift the camera, they had disappeared over the hill.

Not long after, Paul spotted a herd of Cape Buffalo ahead. As we drove closer, these large animals put their noses into the air to smell what was approaching. After that had an idea of what we were, they barely minded as we sat and watched. The buffalo grazed as Red-billed Oxpeckers pulled parasites off their thick hide.

Just down the road was a group of wildebeest. Cattle Egrets picked up insects around these animals as they grazed and the babies pranced around in circles.

We drove a bit farther and saw a few new things like White-backed Vultures and a Eurasian Hoopoe before stopping at one of the pull-over spots for a quick breakfast before heading into the heart of the refuge. Note the zebras in the background!

We soon got back on the truck and headed to a small creek where we saw hundreds of Barn Swallows sitting on the reeds along the murky water. We searched for mammals along the banks or crocodile, but came up empty.

As we drove, we had incredible views of the landscape. Over hills and through valleys, the savannah extended far beyond where we could see. The Hluhluwe-Umfolozi reserve alone covers almost 24,000 acres.

We saw several groups of wildebeest and buffalo, but we saw little else, making us wonder how much we were going to be seeing on the trip. However, this all changed when a Spotted Hyena ran out of the brush, crossed the road, and disappeared into the grass just in front of our vehicle. A few seconds later, another hyena appeared and followed the same path into the brush.

We drove a bit more and watched as a male warthog trotted along the side of the road. We stopped and the interested animal approached us before continuing along his roadside path.

Our next sighting was this Impala that was right on the road.

As the sky got brighter, animals became more abundant. We took short break from admiring the birds and mammals to look at these egg masses of the Southern Foam-nest Treefrog (Chiromantis xerampelina). This frog lays its eggs over the water, so when the tadpoles hatch, they fall directly into the water.

As we moved away from the water hole where we found the frog eggs, Paul spotted this guy up on the hill. The road wound up so we got excellent views of the giraffe. Giraffes are an animal that you cannot completely imagine without having seen one in the wild. They stand so tall compared to everything around them.

Paul then spotted a herd of elephants on a distant hillside. We counted almost fifty elephants in this group, some of which were very young.

We were so distracted by watching the distant elephants that we didn't notice the very close approaching elephants! This one came closer and closer grabbing huge trunkfuls of grass along the way.

We didn't move the vehicle, but something caught his attention and he started walking towards us. His walk then became a run and Paul threw the truck into reverse and we moved out of the elephant's way.

When the elephant decided we were far enough away, we stopped and he stopped. He grabbed a few branches off the nearest bush and headed back to the other elephant that was nearby.

The two of them then wandered into the brush and disappeared. It blew me away how an animal as large as an elephant could disappear in a habitat like this where the tallest vegetation was either sparse or shorter than the elephant itself!

After those two moved away, we looked through the back of the truck to see a third elephant walking down the path towards us. He lifted his trunk high into the air and trumpeted as we drove away.

As we crested the next hill, the sky started to get brighter. The land in front of us lit up and birds--larks and cisticolas--began singing all around us.

The bright sky and warmer air that followed brought out the raptors as well. We spotted this Wahlberg's Eagle soaring overhead. The dark coloration, long wings, and skinny tail are all characteristics used to identify this species in flight.

I then noticed this Bateleur, another type of eagle, circling low over the road. With the unique coloration, large head, and very short tail, this raptor is unmistakable.

We came across several more elephants including one that was taking a dust bath next to the road. This one did not mind our truck and continued taking a bath despite our idling vehicle. This elephant was so close that I had to move to the far side of the truck so that my telephoto lens would focus.

We came across another little water hole. We stopped after seeing two birds along the water's edge. The first was a Hamerkop, a strange wading bird that looks like a heron, but recent studies show that it may be more closely related to pelicans.

The second species was this Three-ringed Plover. The behavior of this bird, running up and down the edge of the mud, reminded me of the Killdeer that I see back home.

The water was also home to this turtle. This was the only turtle we saw on the entire trip, but I am not sure what this species is...

By this point, the first herd of elephants that we had seen on hill had come town to the road. These two were first of the group to reach the bottom.

Right about where we started to head back towards the entrance gate, we found another bunch of Cape Buffalo.

This group was tended by Red-billed Oxpeckers just like the first buffalo we found. The birds searched for insects all over the buffalo's body... including inside the nose!

Some Impalas had gathered nearby as well. There were a couple of spiffy males with curvy horns...

...several females with their soft brown colors...

...and lots of baby Impalas!

What's cuter than a baby Impala?

Maybe a baby elephant?!?!

We had to stop for about five minutes as a large family group of elephants crossed the road in front of us. Large adults acted as bookends for the herd and the youngsters walked in the middle. Some of the babies were very little (like the ones above), whereas others were a tad bit bigger, with disproportionately large ears (even for an African Elephant) and itty-bitty tusks.

We hadn't seen too many birds, perhaps due to the cloudy weather, so it was exciting to find a gaggle of Egyptian Geese wandering through an area of short grass. When a Lanner Falcon flew to a dead, fallen tree right next to the geese, they did little more than look up and carry on with whatever they were doing.

We had seen a lot of things by now, but we had seen very few rocks. So when we were driving and I thought I saw a rock, I yelled stop! Just as I expected, it was a rock! Well... a Rock Monitor! (Varanus albigularis, not to be confused with the Australian V. glauerti which shares a common name.)

We had seen lots of Burchell's Zebras, but most had been quick glimpses or distant views. We finally game across a mixed group of zebras and wildebeeste not far from the road.

The Burchell's or Plains Zebra is the most widespread zebra and can be found from Ethiopia down to northern South Africa.

After seeing the close zebras, Paul got a call about cheetahs at a far end of the reserve. Off we went! As we were driving to see the cheetahs, we almost missed the cheetahs right next to the road (not the reported ones). As we were driving along, someone again yelled stop! and Paul hit the brakes. Less than twenty feet off the left-hand side of the road were four cheetahs, a mother with three cubs. All three sat almost motionless, their long, lean legs stretched out in front of their spotted bodies.

The mother watched everything with her piercing eyes, making sure we didn't get too close and that nothing was going to harm her young.

After watching the cheetahs, we came across three White Rhinos. Two were feeding and a third was laying on the ground in a dusty spot. The White Rhinoceros is one of two rhino species in the park. White Rhinos have flat lips that they use to graze on ground vegetation. The critically-endangered Black Rhinoceros has more of a hooked lip for eating leaves off of shrubs and trees.

We came across a few more warthogs, this time an entire family was right in the middle of the road. The mother stood in the road while all of the babies crossed and ran into a drainage pipe next to the road. Once all the warthoglets were safe, the mother backed off the road.

We stopped at one final water hole and found these four gorgeous White-faced Whistling-Ducks.

A single Nile Crocodile sat along the muddy edge. Although we were nowhere near the Nile, the range of this crocodile species stretches all the way from Egypt to South Africa.

By lunchtime, we had seen an incredible variety of wildlife. We celebrated this with a traditional braai, a meal of grilled meat. We had an amazing view from our table. We were able to watch a group of White Rhinos and a large family of baboons while we ate the delicious lunch.

The safari truck!

We were greeting by this Violet-backed Starling while we ate lunch.

While we were driving towards the gate to head out of the park, we found these Greater Kudu. This species is a large species of woodland antelope. While the "woodland" that we found them in was a rather  open habitat, it was a lot less grassy than where we had found the herds of Impala.

Our exit out of the park was delayed even more when we came across this very amusing family of baboons. Here, the parents were ignoring the kids as they youngsters wrestled each other. The young baboons eventually fell out of the tree.

After falling, the smallest baby climbed back up and began sucking his thumb. The then scratched his ear with his foot. This may have been the cutest baby animal we saw all day!

Eventually, we reluctantly made our way out of the park and drove back to St. Lucia. We had just experienced an incredible day at Hluhluwe-Umfolozi.

When we returned to St. Lucia, we said goodbye to Paul and began our drive back to Durban. Right outside of St. Lucia we drove past a river where we figured there could be birds. The first bird we found was a pair of Grosbeak Weavers building a nest in the reeds. The male perched close a few times while he searched for materials to use for the nest.

As I scanned the water, I saw brown blobs poking above the water... HIPPOS! We had seen many cool mammals earlier in the day--elephants, giraffes, rhinos--but few were as awesome as these hippos. I was so excited to see the hippopotamuses that it took some staring at these big semi-aquatic mammals to notice the lifer birds out front: African Jacanas and a Squacco Heron.

After a brief rain shower, I took one more look out over the water and saw this very close African Jacana, a stunning bird with browns, blacks, yellows, and a beautiful powdery blue forehead.

We then headed south to Durban.

As we were gathering our bags to put in the car to head to the airport, Durban gave a final farewell in the form of a Booted Eagle soaring over the guest house.

With that, we headed to the airport. Of course, I did some birding from the airports in Durban and Johannesburg, and I found a nice variety of widowbirds flying out over the runway.

My trip to South Africa was absolutely phenomenal. I had amazing experiences and saw many amazing things. I really hope I can go back some day and witness more of this incredibly unique country.