Archive for the ‘Trip Reports’ Category

By Cynthia Donaldson

As the sun dipped over the shimmering ponds to the west, we put on more layers and took our places along Milltail Road, waiting for the main attraction. Tundra Swans honked overhead. Gadwalls and Pintails chanted their evening chorus. The Northern Harriers danced in the empty field before us – gliding silently above the grasses, banking to the left then right. Savannah sparrows popped up for a quick look – teasing us with their high-pitched “peet.” The 26 birders standing on Milltail Road were in one long line, talking in hushed voices. With scopes at the ready, each scanned the fields in the growing darkness. Then a cry went up as ghost-like shapes flapped across the field like pale moths.

Then, it was dark. The 2015 Forsyth Audubon Trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina had begun!

Tundra Swans at Alligator River NWR.  Photo by Gail Crotte.

Tundra Swans at Alligator River NWR. Photo by Gail Crotte.

Friday, January 16, 2015 The Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge was the first stop on our fabulous weekend! By 4 o’clock in the afternoon, most of the 28 members of our group had arrived. The afternoon was spent scanning the fields to the east of the road and enjoying the Northern Harriers’ show.

Northern Harrier.  Photo by Gail Crotte.

Northern Harrier. Photo by Gail Crotte.

They were unanimously the group favorite. A Bald Eagle also thrilled the group by flying overhead, giving each of us a great look. A Golden Eagle had been seen in recent days at Alligator River, and Rob Rogers, with his “eagle” eyes, located the bird circling toward the east. Many got good looks at it through scopes. To our backs, the ponds were full of Pintails, Gadwalls, Tundra Swans and Redheads. Snipe were feeding in the grassy dikes lining the ponds. Nathan Gatto led our caravan along the refuge roads. An Orange-crowned warbler made a brief appearance. A beautiful American Kestrel perched on a piece of equipment long enough for everyone to see it though the scope. For some, he was a life bird! Another stop provided great looks at a Pileated Woodpecker working a dead tree. The announcement, “That is the strangest bird I have ever seen!” caused a bit of excitement as we hurried to see what Bill Gifford had found. A covey of quail were darting in and out of the scrubby field edge. As they grew more bold, the dozen or so Northern Bobwhites came out into the field!

Then, just as the sun set, the ghostly shapes – the Short-eared Owls – flew from the woods over the fields! The long awaited birds disappeared into the dark. Some birders got great looks at their pale faces and yellow eyes as the birds quickly headed across the fields to their nightly haunts. Some birders did not.

Our bodies had time to thaw as we drove to our kick-off dinner at Stripers Bar and Grille in Manteo. Susan Andrews kindly gave us a Charley Harper calendar to give out at the dinner. Heather Moir was the recipient of this prize: she had seen three life birds at Alligator River and… it was her birthday!

Then it was off to the Comfort Inn South in Nags Head.  After check-in, Scopolamine patches were put on and everyone went to bed.

Saturday, January 17:  Rise-and-shine came well before the sun did!! The 18 pelagic trip members drove down the dark highway to Hatteras. Brian Patteson, Kate Sutherland, and Jeff Lemons met us at 6 AM at the Stormy Petrel II. After instructions and a quick tour of the boat, we were underway. Because of sand deposits during recent hurricanes, all boats, including the Ocracoke Ferry, now have to go out into the Sound several miles to find the deeper channel and then pass through the inlet. Brian expertly navigated us through the shallow waters out into the ocean!

For the next 10 hours, we skirted the coast, enjoying the beauty of the Outer Banks. The Hatteras Lighthouse was on the starboard side for most of the day. The sky was blue overhead and the sun was warm, despite the very chilly wind.

Heading out to sea aboard the Stormy Petrel II.  Photo by Cynthia Dickinson.

Heading out to sea aboard the Stormy Petrel II. Photo by Cynthia Donaldson.

The entire day, we had an entourage of gulls and gannets! Kate threw out the chum all day long as we made our way through the waves. It was so much fun to study the differences between Great Black-backed, Lesser Black-backed and Herring Gulls in all their various plumages from juvenile to adult. And then, when the Herring/Glaucous hybrid showed up on the return trip, we had opportunity to study the details of this bird as well. Watching Northern Gannets at eye-level was everyone’s favorite! Even Brown Pelicans followed us for most of the day. Other birds seen on this trip were Razorbill, Dovekie, Bonaparte’s Gull, and one Little Gull! Twice, the group had looks at Hammerhead Shark. Several sea turtles leisurely floated by as well.

Northern Gannet.  Photo by Gail Crotte.

Northern Gannet. Photo by Gail Crotte.

The forecasted 2-5 foot seas were closer to 3-12, especially when we crossed the Diamond Shoals. I might be exaggerating a bit, but many of the passengers would agree with my assessment, I’m sure! Riding in the front of the boat was like riding on the first car of a rollercoaster! And then the pelagic birding challenge: locating birds that appear and then disappear in the swells, all the while holding onto the railing with one hand and steadying binoculars with the other!

Click here to see the beautiful photo of a Razorbill by Jeff Lemons.

What a celebration on deck when the Great Skua made an appearance – twice!   I think everyone got great looks at it. Not mentioning any names, but from the bathroom on the back of the Stormy Petrel, the intercom announcement, “Great Skua!!!!” and ensuing commotion sounds an awfully lot like, “Man overboard!!”

Photo of the Skua by Jeff Lemons can be viewed here.

White Pelican.  Photo by Gail Crotte.

White Pelican. Photo by Gail Crotte.

At our farthest point out into the ocean, near the Diamond Shoal’s Light, we threw out a bottle with a note into the sea. Heather Moir’s fourth grade had written a note and prepared the bottle for a journey to unknown lands. So at 3:15 PM, over the rail it went! Captain Patterson gave us the exact GPS location for Heather’s class. (A different bottle from another class at Summit School floated all the way to Portugal.) Hopefully, Heather’s class will hear back from someone in a far off country, as well!

From there, we headed straight back to the dock arriving around 5:00 PM. With the wind at our backs, the choppiness subsided. We could not have spent a more beautiful day at sea! Many thanks to Brian, Kate, Jeff and Nathan for a great trip!

After a day of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Dramamine, the pizza dinner at Gidget’s Pizza in Avon, NC really hit the spot!

On the way back to the hotel that night, several of us stopped at Bodie Lighthouse to see if we could find some owls or rails. It was a very quiet night lit by a bazillion twinkling stars and Jupiter. A few shooting starts zipped by overhead, too. Although we did not find any birds, the memory of the starry night will stay with us for a long time.

"Ipswich" Savannah Sparrow.  Photo by Heather Moir.

“Ipswich” Savannah Sparrow. Photo by Heather Moir.

The landlubber group also had a great day. Jeff Lewis met them at 7 AM at the hotel and they visited some of his favorite hotspots. He took them to a private residence in Kill Devil Hills to see the two Redpolls that had been visiting a feeder there. From what I heard, the birding at Bodie Lighthouse and Pea Island was amazing! The landlubbers had great looks at White Pelicans, American Avocets, and dabbling ducks of all kinds! Many noted that their favorite part of the day was watching the birds covertly from a duck blind. After a fun day of birding, they enjoyed dinner at Blue Moon Café before calling it a night.

Sunday, January 18:  The word for Sunday was “windy!” The ocean was a churning pot of white caps. The sand blasted horizontally at Group B as we trekked out to Hatteras Point searching, to no avail, for the Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspur. Nathan and Sarah remained optimistic as we checked out every dune and dip, but we could not find those birds. We had several great looks at an American Bittern and a Black Skimmer as a consolation prize.

Group A, led by Ron Morris went back to Bodie and Pea Island for an enjoyable morning of birding.

Birders enjoying the waterfowl on Bodie Pond.  Photo by Heather Moir.

Birders enjoying the waterfowl on Bodie Pond. Photo by Heather Moir.

Green-winged Teal.  Photo by Heather Moir.

Green-winged Teal. Photo by Heather Moir.

Both groups enjoyed some great birds until the rain hit! It poured for about 3 hours. Group B birded from the Pea Island Visitor Center and ate lunch in our cars. Group A took a nap! Feeling quite refreshed, they met us at Bodie Island Lighthouse for a few hours of birding before dinner.

The sight of the day for both groups was the thousands of Redheads packed into the Bodie Pond!!

Redheads on Bodie Pond.  Photo by Phil Dickinson.

Redheads on Bodie Pond. Photo by Phil Dickinson.

Kelly’s Restaurant was a perfect venue to celebrate the last night of our trip! Beautiful paintings of ducks and other water fowl lined the walls. Mr. Kelly himself, wearing his snazzy tennis shoes, thanked us for coming to his restaurant. Our meal was delicious! We all splurged and had one of their homemade desserts, too!

One last, late-evening visit to Bodie in hopes of an owl was, again, futile. The stars and a thin crescent moon were out at first. Then clouds blew in. Oh, what a perfect setting for a spooky (true) story by Nathan… “One late night, while birding in the middle of nowhere, I heard steps in the woods…When I looked up, I saw…..”

Seawatching from Jeanette’s Pier.  Photo by Phil Dickinson.

Seawatching from Jeanette’s Pier. Photo by Phil Dickinson.

Monday, January 19:  After breakfast on the last day, we met at Jeanette’s Pier. A place of happy memories for Nathan and Sarah! They were married there last April! We saw the usual pier birds like Horned Grebe, Scoters, Loons and then… the Parasitic Jaeger skimmed the horizon! The trip had come to a close with one last, very cool life bird!!

A die-hard remnant decided to try for the buntings and longspur one last time! Surely we would find the birds on this beautiful, sunny day? The hour drive and the hour hike out to Hatteras was full of anticipation. I must report that this story has a sad ending: we could not find them!!!! The birds were sitting behind a dune laughing at us, no doubt.

But as you all know, that is why we bird again… the hope… the fun… and the maybe-I-will-see-it-tomorrow…

“Thank you” to everyone who participated in this wonderful trip!! You are a great “flock” of birders!

Beautiful ending to a wonderful trip.  Photo by Cynthia Donaldson.

Beautiful ending to a wonderful trip. Photo by Cynthia Donaldson.





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By Rob Rogers

Forsyth Audubon’s 2014 Spring Trip was to North Carolina’s southern coastal region. Our “Base of Operations” was the Comfort Inn Shallotte where we enjoyed excellent hospitality – despite a few “technical difficulties” our first night. I would like to offer a special thanks to Judy Scurry for guiding us on our Saturday morning outing to Sunset Beach and for her dining recommendations. Judy, you made our trip very enjoyable and I am sure I speak for the rest of the group. Our group rounded out at 24 folks – a nice size for spring! Several different mini groups enjoyed an afternoon of birding on Friday in several different locations. Carol and Ouida win the “Most Unusual Sighting Award” when they were treated to a “Target Bird” flyover of three Woodstorks a few miles before reaching Shallotte!   Friday Night’s restaurant of choice for a large part of the group was “Inlet View Seafood” in Shallotte. Judy recommended it and we were not disappointed.

Osprey.  Photo by Mike Conway.

Osprey. Photo by Mike Conway.

Saturday morning, we departed from the usual “Rob Early Start Time”, departing for Twin Lakes at 8:00 AM. There we saw several of the expected denizens – egrets and herons – from the coast as well as a Common Moorhen, Alligators and Fox Squirrels the size of Welsh Corgis. Ospreys were nesting in the tall pines and put on quite a show as did the Least Terns fishing quite successfully in the lake. We left the Lakes and drove to Twin Lakes Golf Course where Ospreys were nesting on platforms close to the parking lot. All were able to observe to their heart’s content. Especially interesting when one of the nesters showed up with a 10″ Whiting and proceeded to have breakfast in full view of the group. We left the golf course, navigated the roundabout and over the bridge to Sunset Beach. After a brief encounter with a Corn Snake, the best birding was on the inlet side of East Beach where we had excellent looks at Oystercatchers, Short-billed Dowitchers, Black Skimmers, Black-bellied Plovers and (a personal favorite) Red Knots. We had a quick look at the west end of the island and were delighted to have long looks at a Whimbrel. We left Sunset around noon and headed out to Oak Island.

American Oystercatchers.  Photo by Phil Dickinson.

American Oystercatchers. Photo by Phil Dickinson.

Whimbrel.  Photo by Phil Dickinson.

Whimbrel. Photo by Phil Dickinson.

On Oak Island, we birded the 3 walkovers across the marshy area and though the species count was not high, what we saw was both interesting and entertaining. At the 30th Street Walkover, we had a Clapper Rail calling directly under and around the boardwalk. Several got decent looks at the moving grasses and the bird slinking along almost invisible in its camouflage. The 20th Street Walkover proved the old adage that everyone – er, everything – is attracted to a fight. Two Boat-tailed Grackles were battling on one of the creek banks – one on the other’s back, hammering him mercilessly on the back of the head. The loud squawking attracted a Clapper Rail’s attention from the opposite side of the creek. The Clapper was standing most unClapper like with head and neck extended so much that at first we thought it might be a Limpkin. The Clapper stood there for 5 minutes in rapt attention at the spectacle before him until the Grackles finally stopped the “Barney.” After checking the 3rd walkover, we headed back to the hotel to recount the day’s events.

Clapper Rail.  Photo by Mike Conway.

Clapper Rail. Photo by Mike Conway.

Sunday morning, we got back to a more standard “Rob Early Start” with a 7:15 “AIS” time and headed for Holly Shelter Gamelands. Our timing was impeccable with Turkey season over on Saturday leaving the gates unlocked until Monday. We were able to drive in and avoid the 3 mile hike to Fussell’s recommended areas. First stop, as we stepped out of our automobiles, we heard numerous Prairie Warblers, Common Yellowthroats, Yellow Warblers and the crowd pleasing Red-headed Woodpeckers and Bobwhites. Just when we turned to go back to the cars, two Red-cockaded Woodpeckers flew in and all got good looks at this declining species. We drove to the second location and stopped to seek the Bachman’s Sparrow. We were directly in the area described by Fussell when we heard our first Bachman’s. The group scanned deep into the brush in vain until we realized the bird was singing a mere 20 feet from the road. Everyone “got on” the bird as he sang away and it was a lifer for many in the group. One last stop series near the drain pipes and we saw a luckless, Legless Lizard that had just been hit by a car. Alas, he did not make it but still an interesting sighting. The last of the drain pipes had Swainson’s Warblers on either side of the road. Unfortunately, as is often the case with Swainson’s, the brush was so thick that despite the close proximity, no one got a look.

Bachmans Sparrow.  Photo by Mike Conway.

Bachmans Sparrow. Photo by Mike Conway.

Our species list stands at 94. In addition to the “Most Unusual Sighting Award” mentioned above, I would like to hand out the “Dr. Doolittle Award.” Although we enjoyed David Doolittle’s company, the award is not for him! No, the “Dr. Doolittle” award goes to Kitty Jensen for her ability to speak with female Boat-tailed Grackles. Kitty would not divulge the subject of her conversations but assured me that they were most enjoyable. The trip was a big success and I look forward to the next outing.

Additional photos from the trip can be viewed in the Forsyth Audubon photo gallery http://www.forsythaudubon.org/Birds/PhotoGallery.aspx.  Select “Audubon Spring Trip 2014.”



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Jungle Jeanie has wi-fi, but only in the restaurant/bar area. After dinner, Katherine Thorington and I liked to sit on the outside deck to use our laptops. It sure was nice to do that in January.  An added bonus was watching a Common Pauraque dance under the lights of the adjacent parking area. Yeah, another life bird.


Male Great-tailed Grackle

Friday would be the last day we were together, and once again we were up at the crack of dawn to explore local birding hotspots. Much thanks to Jeanie, John and their staff for accommodating the breakfast timetable of these crazy birders.  Of course, the garrulous Great-tailed Grackles also were early risers and ready to send us off on our daily adventures. What’s that strange sound? It’s a grackle.


Birders’ Differing Views


Hopkins Savannah

There was no rush to meet anyone that morning, so we finally made it a point to stop at the savannah on the Hopkins road. Common Yellowthroats, Yellow Warblers and White-collared Seedeaters popped in and out of the reeds, and a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher perched briefly on the wire.  However, the main attractions were the numerous wading birds foraging along the mudflats: Little Blue and Tricolored Herons, Great and Snowy Egrets, Wood Storks and then a flash of pink as a Roseate Spoonbill came into view.

Our destination for the day was only a few miles up the highway – Mayflower Bocawina National Park. The park preserves partially excavated Maya ruins dating from 800-900 A.D.  There are about a dozen earth- and tree-covered structures, the largest being the Maintzunun Temple mound with a wall of stones wrapped around the base. We enjoyed a peaceful stroll among the hills, admiring the efforts and skills of the long-ago ancestors of the local populace.


Birding Amongst the Ruins


Two-barred Flasher

Most of the birds in the mound area were neotropical migrants – catbird, redstart, Magnolia and Black-and-white Warbler, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.  A beautiful pair of Golden-hooded Tanagers flew by the visitor center but, alas, too quickly for a photo. Meanwhile, Pink Cattleheart and Two-barred Flasher butterlies fluttered from flower to flower outside the visitor center.

After we all enjoyed a relaxing lunch on a bridge spanning Silk Grass Creek, Shelley Rutkin and I clicked off several photographs of a puzzling hummingbird. Consulting with Lee Jones when we returned home, we eventually concluded that it was a Scaly-breasted Hummingbird.


Scaly-breasted Hummingbird


Blue-Black Grosbeak

We began the afternoon at Mama Noots Eco Resort in the park, where we could see Antelope Falls spill off a nearby mountainside. A shorter, easier trail leads to Bocawina Falls. Shelley and I opted to join Jeremy Reiskind on his mission to see this waterfall and perhaps new birds.  Before we went very far, we ran into a pair of Blue-black Grosbeaks. Even for a grosbeak, their bills are big. Then, just off the trail, a male Summer Tanager and several Olive-backed Euphonias lunched on bananas, completely oblivious to us observing them for several minutes. Deeper into the jungle, we discovered that Long-tailed Hermit hummingbirds also visit banana trees but for the flowers.


Female Olive-backed Euphonia


Male Summer Tanager

A larger bird glided across the path to a new perch. It was a species we had been hoping all trip to see – a Blue-crowned Motmot with its long racket-tail. Deeper into the jungle, we came across a cluster of birds, including Wedge-tailed and Ruddy Woodcreepers, White-breasted Wood Wrens and a Red-crowned Ant-tanager.  Shelley also found another bird Jeremy and I missed – a Royal Flycatcher This bird shows a spectacular crest at times, but this time it was in its usual folded position.


Bocawina Falls

To Jeremy’s geological delight, we made it to the falls. We had time only for a few serene moments before hustling back to the friends we had deserted.  A flock of about 20 Black-faced Grosbeaks and a couple of White-collared Manakins later, we arrived back at the lodge and I apologized profusely to Kitty Jensen for absentmindedly walking off with the keys to the van. Katherine seemed content with finding several birds we left behind, including Ruddy Ground Doves and Yellow-faced Grassquits. And, she happily showed us her photo of a Wood Thrush, Social Flycatcher and Gray Catbird in the same field of view.


Social Flycatcher

Soon we were back in Hopkins for our final evening. On Saturday morning, we would depart early to get Katherine, Kitty and I to the airport before Shelley and Jeremy continued their Belize birding for a few more days.  We celebrated our week with more fresh fish and young Guaranu drummers at the Frog’s Point Restaurant before turning in early, once again.


Last Supper in Belize

What a wonderful week it was! We took boat rides on rivers. We strolled the beach. We conquered muddy tracks to visit new parks and wildlife sanctuaries. We saw more than 160 bird species, dozens of them new to our life lists.  We met new friends from Belize Audubon who are working energetically to conserve habitat for both resident and migratory birds. Belize is a small country with a population less than that of Forsyth County and few dollars to support the effort. If our cooperative efforts help Belize Audubon and the birds of the Atlantic Flyway in only a small way, the trip was worth it. For Forsyth Audubon, here’s to next time.

Photo credits: Phil Dickinson, Kitty Jensen, Shelley Rutkin

This is the fifth in a series of five posts.
Previous post: Forsyth Audubon in Belize: Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary

Two members of our group, Jeremy Reiskind and Shelley Rutkin, stayed in Belize for another five days.  Read about that part of the trip on Shelley’s blog:
The Belize “Extension” (Part 1 of 2)
The Belize “Extension” (Part 2 of 2)

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While birding along the 6-mile entrance road to Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary on the morning of January 15, I saw my 1,000th life bird, a White-necked Puffbird.  Park director Nicasio Coc had arranged for Frederico, a senior guide, to accompany us on our way in to the park.  And Frederico was finding the birds for us – Montezuma Oropendola, Chestnut-colored Woodpecker, Slaty-tailed Trogon, Hook-billed Kite, and many more.  I had 10 life birds before we even reached the park boundary.

Hook-billed Kite

Hook-billed Kite

The highlight for Jeremy that morning was not birds, though, but sliding into a ditch.  He had kindly gone back to get our van a few times while the rest of us continued to walk along the road birding.  At one point, he tried his best to get our van up a muddy hill, but on the third attempt up, the van slid back – right into the ditch.  Fortunately, Jeremy was able to hitch a ride to the Visitor Center and our Belize Audubon friends came back with a truck to pull our van back on the road.

Our van in the ditch on the road to Cockscomb

Our van in the ditch on the road to Cockscomb

Jaguar Print

Jaguar Print

Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary is most well known as the world’s first Jaguar preserve.  It also protects the upper watersheds of important river systems and is home to hundreds of species of plants, birds, and other animals.  Jaguars are not seen often, but one of the Audubon staffers told us about separate sightings of an adult male and a female with a young cub just a few weeks ago.  We did not see a Jaguar, but we did find a paw print.

Dan Froehlich and Dan Lipp at banding station

Dan Froehlich and Dan Lipp at banding station

After a quick look around the Visitor Center, most of us headed off to the banding station that is part of Ph.D candidate Brett Bailey’s multi-year research project.   The goal of the study is to identify a suite of birds that can be used to best represent ecosystem health.  This information can then be used to guide future management decisions.

Katherine with Northern Schiffornis

Katherine with Northern Schiffornis

We had up close views of both new and familiar birds at the banding station.  We watched as bands were applied and birds were examined and measured.  Several of us were able to hold birds in hand for release.  Even Frederico wanted to release a bird, so he was handed the feisty Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, one of my favorites and a bird that we did not see anywhere else.

Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner

Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner

Phil with Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher

Phil with Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher

Frederico with Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner

Frederico and Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner

After lunch, Katherine delivered eBird training to another enthusiastic group of Belize Audubon staff members.  Afterwards, one of our eBird students, Marvin Casey, hung around watching birds with some of us near a fruit feeder.  The birds included a gorgeous Red-crowned Ant-Tanager, a life bird for all of us including Marvin.  It was late afternoon and we needed to leave, but on our way to the van Marvin spied a Kinkajou in the treetops.  Marvin, Katherine, and I all had great looks at the Kinkajou and we wanted to share it with the others.  I ran all the way to the van where the group was gathering and breathlessly shouted “Kinkajou, KINKAJOU!!!”  Everyone got to see the adorable little mammal with the big eyes, round ears, and long tail, a wonderful end to a long and happy day.



Gray Foxes were common in Belize

Gray Fox

Our mammal list was growing rapidly, with sightings of Peccaries and Gray Fox at Cockscomb in addition to the Kinkajou.

The following morning, we headed to Red Bank with Nicasio, Rebecca, and Dareece from Belize Audubon.  The Scarlet Macaws that I talked about in an earlier post were wonderful and we were thrilled to see them. Our climb up the steep mountain trail rewarded us with looks at some gorgeous birds including a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak and a White-collared Manakin.  Back on the road, we enjoyed the largest diversity of raptors of the trip – Gray, Short-tailed, Broad-winged Hawks, Common Black-Hawk, and both Black and Turkey  Vultures.

Black-cheeked Woodpecker

Black-cheeked Woodpecker

Also, at Red Bank, I finally had a quality view of a Black-cheeked Woodpecker, a species that was close to becoming a nemesis bird for me.  I missed it several times earlier in the trip when everyone else saw it.  A walk up the road was fun, too.  At one stop by a brush pile, we heard a Common Yellowthroat who responded to our pishing.  And, then a cute little Common Tody-Flycatcher popped up right beside him.

Jeremy’s most notable experience that morning was another adventure in the mud.  We started up a dirt road, but it soon became too muddy to continue.  Rebecca skillfully turned the truck around, but Jeremy was not so lucky with our larger, clumsier van.  After carefully making a nine-point turn, on point ten – you guessed it – he got stuck in the mud.  Once again, our friends pulled our van back on the road.

Red Bank is home to a large Mennonite community and we learned a little about their history.  The Mennonites first immigrated to British Honduras in 1958 at the invitation of the government.  The country had a history of reliance on imported goods.  In exchange for farming, the Mennonites would be granted religious tolerance and exemption from military service.  Today they contribute to the Belizean economy, particularly the agriculture sector, with the production of poultry products, eggs, corn, rice, beans, and other produce.  We heard some concern, however, about the vast areas of jungle that the Mennonites are clearing for farming and its environmental impact.  One thing that we know for sure, though, is that the Mennonites make great ice cream!

Plain Chacalaca

We saw many Plain Chacalacas

After lunch, we went back to Cockscomb and checked out the new birding trail that they are establishing near the Visitor Center.  Afterwards, Hooded Warblers hopped around on picnic tables a few feet away while Kitty talked about the Ovenbird that had foraged right at her feet the previous day.  She had not recognized the bird and she could not find it in Birds of Belize.  At first, it had its back to her and the main feature that she saw was its ‘white bum’ as it cocked it tail and hopped around looking for crumbs.  Paying close attention to field marks, Kitty described the bird perfectly, but none of us was able to offer an ID until Jeremy saw the bird, too.  ‘White bum’ is not an official field mark.

Tropical/Couch's Kingbird

Tropical Kingbirds were seen everywhere.

We all loved seeing “our” birds in their winter habitat alongside resident tropical birds.  All too quickly our trip was nearing the end.  We would have only one more full day, which we would use to explore and bird on our own.  What else would we see in Belize?

Photo credits:  Phil Dickinson, Jeremy Reiskind, Shelley Rutkin, Katherine Thorington

This is the fourth in a series of five posts.
Previous post:  Forsyth Audubon in Belize: St. Herman’s Blue Hole
Next post:  Forsyth Audubon in Belize:  Birds Among Mayan Ruins

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On Tuesday the 14th, it was time to head toward out next destination in Belize – St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park.  Up again at dawn and saying our goodbyes to Matt Jeffery, we drove toward the foothills of the country’s interior. Stopping for petrol in the capital city of Belmopan, we got a kick out of this Kriol chicken billboard. Yes, Kriol not Creole.


Translate: This Chicken Is the Real Thing

A few miles down Hummingbird Highway, our visit to the park began on an auspicious note when an Emerald Toucanet landed in a tree next to the entrance.  Tourists journey to Blue Hole to swim in the azure mountain pool or to go tubing through a large cave carved out of the limestone rock. Of course, we were there for the birds and our eBird training session. Israel Manzanero , the senior park warden, was ready to  guide us around. We also were greeted by Israel, Jr. and Amanda, who feels proud to be the first and only female ranger in Belize.


Israel, Jr. and Jeremy Watch for Birds


Yellow-throated Vireo

It took us quite awhile to leave the parking area. Black-hooded Saltators, Black-cheeked and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, Melodious Blackbirds, a Rose-breasted Becard, a Crimson-collared Tanager and a Yellow-throated Vireo cavorted in a single tree, as our first Wood Thrush hopped along the ground. Had it been to Winston-Salem? As you might expect, Israel had never heard its beautiful summer song. We played the Wood Thrush’s ethereal flute-like song for Israel, and he enjoyed it as much as we do.

Our next stop in the park was the pool area. I was ready to jump in but could not persuade my companions to leave the birds. At a small clearing, we watched a pair of Red-throated Ant-Tanagers, Ivory-billed and Olivaceous Woodcreepers, another Wood Thrush and several warblers search for insects. A larger bird flew into a nearby tree, and the tail pattern showed it was a female Black-headed Trogon.

Female Black-headed Trogon

Female Black-headed Trogon


Isabella’s Heliconian

Many birds called along the trail to the cave, although the dense foliage often made them impossible to see. Israel pointed out the songs of the Spot-breasted Wren, Dot-winged Antwren and others, but we weren’t ready to add them to our life lists by sound alone.  Three King Vultures soaring high overhead were another matter. Closer to eye level, Tropical Pewee, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher and Yellow-olive Flycatcher patiently waited for food. However, we had to keep one eye on the ground, too, to avoid stepping on Leafcutter or Army Ants. And, the butterflies were spectacular – a giant Blue Morpho, Owl, Isabella’s Heliconian and Banded Peacock, among others.

My award for most aptly named bird goes to the Roadside Hawk. Every few miles, we saw them perched on utility wires. One provided a nice photo-op at a Mennonite ice cream store not far from Blue Hole.  Other common roadside birds included Tropical Kingbird, Tropical Mockingbird, Great Kiskadee and White-collared Seedeater. We saw these everywhere.

Roadside Hawk

Roadside Hawk


Willets Stroll on the Beach, Too

It was late afternoon by the time we drove down the unpaved, pothole-filled main drag of Hopkins and reached our beachfront accommodations at Jungle Jeanie By the Sea. Some people just wanted to relax or stroll on the beach. Shelley and I, of course, ignored our fatigue and set off to find more birds. Encounters with more potholes and lots of mud were worth it, when we spied a pair of Bat Falcons and some fruit-devouring Yellow-winged Tanagers.

With night falling, we hurried back to join the others at Innie’s Restaurant, featuring seafood dishes of the local Guaranu people descended from African slaves. Kitty still raves about her Fish Tea chowder. Under a tropical full moon, we slept well that night even with the anticipation of exploring Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in the morning.


Tropical Caribbean Moon

Photo credits: Phil Dickinson, Shelley Rutkin, Katherine Thorington

This is the third in a series of five posts.
Previous post: Forsyth Audubon in Belize: Working with Belize Audubon
Next post:  Forsyth Audubon in Belize:  Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary

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We were having a great time in Belize, but our trip was about more than having fun.  It all started when we decided that we wanted to protect the wintering habitat for “our” Wood Thrushes.  But, where do our birds winter?  This spring, we will participate in a project that will tell us.  We suspect that our birds go to Belize, so that’s where we headed.  We wanted this to be a volunteer trip with real accomplishments, so Matt Jeffery of National Audubon’s International Alliances Program created a trip plan that would allow us to help our friends at Belize Audubon.

Belize Aububon Society office in Belize City

Belize Aububon Society office in Belize City

The major item on our agenda was eBird training.  Last fall I entered Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary point count data for the last three years into eBird.  Now the goal is for Belize Audubon to enter their own data going forward.  eBird is new to all of the Belize Audubon staff, but our considerable  experience using eBird made this a good task for us.  Katherine Thorington prepared a PowerPoint presentation that would work with or without Internet access.

eBird training in Belize City

eBird training in Belize City

Katherine helps Dareece set up her account

Katherine helps Dareece set up her account

Katherine delivered the eBird training three times – at the Belize Audubon office in Belize City, at St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park, and at Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary.  In Belize City and at Cockscomb we had an Internet connection, but it was intermittent (and mostly unavailable) at St. Herman’s Blue Hole.  With Katherine’s warm and friendly style, the training was a big hit.  In Belize City, we had wardens from Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary and a high school student who joined the Crooked Tree Junior Birding Club several years ago.  At all three sessions, our eBird students asked many excellent questions. They were excited about creating their own eBird accounts and getting starting entering data.

Another task assigned to us was to help with a bird survey of Burdon Canal, near Belize City. It didn’t sound like work to us – a boat ride in wonderful weather looking at gorgeous birds! But, Matt insisted that it would be helpful.

Lee Jones, Matt Jeffery, Belize Audubon staff, Forsyth Audubon birders

Lee Jones, Matt Jeffery, Belize Audubon staff, Forsyth Audubon birders

The canal and its lagoons are part of the Burdon Canal Nature Reserve.  The canal was created in the 1920’s to help farmers get crops to market without enduring risks of the open sea.  In 1992, Burdon Canal was designated as a nature reserve.

Haulover Creek on the way to the Burdon Canal

Haulover Creek on the way to the Burdon Canal

The wetlands help prevent flooding in the city from rains and provide protection from storm surges.  The beautiful red mangrove swamps and wildlife are also important for their proximity to Belize City which makes the nature reserve easily accessible.  There are some bird records, but Belize Audubon wants to improve the list to better promote the site.  It was especially helpful that Birds of Belize author Lee Jones was able to join us for the trip.  We entered all of our bird sightings into eBird.

Scarlet Macaws are breathtakingly beautiful and highly sought after by birders and tourists alike.  They are not common in Belize, but one area where they reliably are found is the small village of Red Bank, not far from Cockscomb, between January and March, when they come to feed on the sweet, ripe fruits of the ‘annato’ and ‘pole wood’ trees, which cover the hillsides.

Scarlet Macaws

Scarlet Macaws at Red Bank

Only a few years ago, it was believed that the macaws were hunted for food, but now the ‘Scarlet Macaw Group’ has been formed and it is looking for ways to protect these gorgeous birds and benefit from their survival. Belize Audubon is working with the villagers to help make Red Bank an ecotourism destination.

Climbing the Scarlet Macaw trail

Climbing the Scarlet Macaw trail

We were fortunate and saw six macaws from the road, but the traditional route is to climb a steep mountain trail – a muddy trail without switchbacks, steps or toeholds of any kind.  I was only able to “climb” the trail because our local guides held my hand and nearly pulled me up the mountainside.  We did not need to offer advice on trail improvement; watching our ascent was enough for our friends to see that a better trail would bring more visitors.  We offered advice on signage, though, and other tourist amenities.  Red Bank has tremendous potential for becoming a great birding “hot spot.”  We can’t wait to see it again in a few years.

At Cockscomb Basin - Nicasio, Kitty, Dareece, Katherine, Rebecca, Shelley, Phil

At Cockscomb Basin – Nicasio, Kitty, Dareece, Katherine, Rebecca, Shelley, Phil

Our last “work” was to have a preview of the birding trail that Cockscomb is creating near their Visitor Center and to offer advice.  They already have built trails and installed a bench and birdbath.  We offered generous amounts of both compliments and advice.  This will be another fun place to visit in a few years to see the improvements.

Wood Thrush

Wood Thrush

We saw and heard Wood Thrushes nearly everywhere we traveled, typically four or five birds during each outing.  We hope that some of them come to Forsyth County for the breeding season this spring.  Sadly, it was time to say “goodbye” to our new friends at Belize Audubon all too soon.  Meeting so many of these enthusiastic, talented, and dedicated people was the highlight of our trip.  We hope that some of them can visit us here in North Carolina, too.

Photo credits:  Phil Dickinson, Jeremy Reiskind, Katherine Thorington

This is the second in a series of five posts.
Previous post: Forsyth Audubon in Belize: River Birds and Baboons
Next post:  Forsyth Audubon in Belize:  St. Herman’s Blue Hole


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On January 11th, five of us representing Forsyth Audubon left the cold and set out for Belize. Jeremy Reiskind, Shelley Rutkin and Katherine Thorington had uneventful flights. Kitty Jensen and I: not so much. We sat in the Charlotte airport as US Air tried four times to get us on an airworthy plane. Finally, five and a half hours late we arrived in Belize City just in time to see the setting sun.

Hearing that Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary was under water, Jeremy had quickly found alternative accommodations at Black Orchid Resort.  It proved to be an excellent choice – good food, responsive hosts and sitting along the Belize River. Sunday morning, we awoke early but refreshed. As I strolled to breakfast at dawn, a Lineated Woodpecker hammered on a nearby tree. Cousin of our Pileated, this was a pretty good bird to start my effort to catch up with my earlier arriving companions.


Forsyth Auduboners and Matt Jeffery

For this part of our trip, we were joined by Matt Jeffery of Audubon’s International Alliances Program, and by 7:15 AM all six of us were aboard a boat watching birds along the Belize River.  Mangrove Swallows glided by us, while Red-lored Parrots and Montezuma Oropendolas crossed and re-crossed the water overhead.  They soon were joined by a soaring Common Black-Hawk.


Soaring Common Black-Hawk


Male Green Iguana

We kept our eyes on shore, too. A Gray-necked Wood-Rail skulked along the shoreline, but other birds were more conspicuous. Noisy Groove-billed Anis hopped along some bushes, and we soaked in the bright orange and black of a pair of Black-cowled Orioles. However, the highlight had to be a posing and resplendent Amazon Kingfisher.  Our life lists were growing quickly, but we also saw numerous herons and egrets familiar to us from home.  Male Green Iguanas, small fruit bats roosting under a bridge and a Morrelet’s Crocodile began our mammal and reptile lists.


Amazon Kingfisher Poses


Rufous-tailed Jacamar

That afternoon, the Community Baboon Sanctuary proved a place to see both birds and Howler Monkeys, which are called baboons by the locals. What a sound they make in the forest when they get started. Russell, a local resident, guided us through the preserve, but for a while all we saw was birds. An Ivory-billed Woodpecker – oops, I mean Woodcreeper – climbed a tree trunk, a Squirrel Cuckoo bounced around above us, and Summer Tanagers cavorted near the trail.  We also had been hearing a loud whistling call, and Russell tracked it down – a Rufous-tailed Jacamar.  With some coaxing, the howlers finally showed up for great photo-ops.


Kitty Jensen’s New Friend


Female Magnificent Frigatebird

Early the next morning, we met up with several Belize Audubon staffers and Birds of Belize author Lee Jones for another boat ride. Our objective was a bird survey along the Burdon Canal near Belize City. The frigatebirds in the sky were magnificent, as we set out. As on the previous day, most of the wading birds were familiar to us, but not so the large Bare-throated Tiger-Heron.  A Ringed Kingfisher also was new to most of us. And, as we returned to the dock, Lee was able to end our two-day search for a Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture.


Bare-throated Tiger-Heron Thrilled All

After a waterside lunch, we scoured a nearby mangrove wetland for more birds, adding Rufous-necked Wood-Rail, a red-faced Mangrove Warbler (Yellow Warbler subspecies) and such other warblers as Magnolia, Redstart and Black-and-white. Then it was on to Belize Audubon to conduct eBird training, but more about that in a later post.  Also much thanks to Lee for sharing his knowledge of Belizean birds over both lunch and dinner.


Lee Jones and Katherine Thorington

Photo Credits: Phil Dickinson, Jeremy Reiskind, Shelley Rutkin

This is the first in a series of five posts.
Next post:  Forsyth Audubon in Belize: Working with Belize Audubon


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