Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Birding Appalachia Part II: Better Quit While You're Ahead

Driving back down from the Heintooga Overlook, we got enough cell-service to receive the text that Butler's Birds Jr. was still asleep for his first nap, and there was much rejoicing! There was also time, as a part of this rejoicing, to pull over and appreciate the Plott Balsam overlook. We squinted from the grandeur, and almost immediately I recognized a much more familiar song. 
The first sighting is always the hardest isn't it? It wasn't even great BLWA habitat but sure enough, with only the most minimal of effort (and getting snagged by some bikers to take their picture near the overlook sign).

Butler's Birds Jr. is an early riser, pretty much 5:30am on the dot. However, with the daylight savings change he was technically sleeping in until 7:30 or 8:00am (!!!). As such I planned on sneaking out before sunrise to hit up the trails around the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center (like the Southwest Research Station in the Chiricahuas, except much nicer and less busy) where someone had reported Golden-winged Warbler. I would get out, get a couple hours' birding, and get back in time for our schedule departure, based on his anticipated wake up from the 3 days previous.

I checked the maps and website. I made my plan. I packed extra socks. My kicks were pumped.
The access gate at mile 7 of 9 was locked. WTF!? WHY DID YOU NOT SAY ACCESS IS RESTRICTED ON YOUR WEBSITE!? I had to cover that last two miles from the station and trailhead on foot. Uggghhh. 

Time was not on my side, nor was the sun, but this portion of dirt road was actually very birdy and I logged many newer birds for the county/area, like Wood Thrush, Hooded Warbler, and Grosbeaks. The best spots were the occasional clearings along the woods, where Chestnut-sided Warblers were numerous, noisy, and nom-nom-noming away.

There were also Least Flycatchers hanging out and vocalizing on the reg. Sometimes they were prominent, and sometimes they were very shady, like nocturnal.

Keeping on a pretty quick pace, I reached the Learning Center (from which point I had a notion of the Golden-winged Bailiwick farther past) around 6:45am. It was a pastoral scene, where the Catbirds sang, the Bluebirds blued, and the Flicker foraged with the Towhee. 


...and then I got the phone call. Butler's Birds Jr. had NOT slept in as expected, but was awake as of 6am. Given his nap/grumpiness schedule and that we still had to cover 6 hours that day to get to our new home, this meant we needed to leave immediately, that I had to leave immediately, in order to leave immediately. There was much immediacy. And the Chestnuts played on.

Cedar Waxwing cares not for the problems of hurried parents. Cedar waxwing cares only for berries. 

Takeaways and reminders from the morning:

I love my son very very much and love being his parent. Parenthood often sucks though.
Least Flycatchers behave weirder than other Flycatchers.
I can jog 2 miles with camera and other gear in under 15 minutes, albeit down hill.
If you go huffing and puffing with heavy feet down a dirt road with lots of blind curves, you may scare a small park ranger lady into thinking she's about to be mauled by a bear.
Chestnut-sided Warblers are great.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

On the Move: Getting into the Good Stuff

By end of May everything was packed up, vacated, discontinued, etc. We were essentially homeless, jobless, and heading across country in our pod-topped Outback with an 11 month-old, hoping to go 6 to 7 hours a day. We puddle-hopped in 2-hour stints from McDonalds to Chik-fil-A, or anywhere else that had a "Play Place" along the I-10, I-40, or I-20.
P.S. Ball pits don't exist anymore, sad but understandable.

The light at the end of the tunnel was not our final destination, but western North Carolina and the mountains, where we rendezvoused with grandparents to recoup for a few days in Maggie Valley. The view in the evening was pretty good. The view in the morning was even better.

...if you're into the Great Smokies and what not

Like fancy hotels and aggressively advertising crappy apartments, the NC mountains offer many amenities, though the montane amenities are of a much more natural and holistic aesthetic. For the grandparents, it was all about the bucolic drives and quaint roadside stands toting knick-knacks and mountain honey. For B's Bs Jr. it was just about comfortably being outside, in general, for once. For Mrs. B's Bs and I it was all about the critters and the fungi, and of course, The Birds.

Now is the time for Wild Turkeys and chicks. 

We dallied in the Great Smokies in mid-June, and as such we had missed the larger concentrations of birds one might catch during migration (and many birds were much higher in the canopy now, if still very vocal), but we still experience an fantastic variety of fauna. The mountain ponds contained outrageous numbers of tadpoles. A couple of cool mystery newts/salamanders were basking as well.

Internet identification has been typically ineffective for these guys. I'm not sure if it's my own poor searching or if these are some intermediate stage of salamander species and I'm only seeing mature phases.

Pre-pubescent Eastern Newt and Slimy (Dusky?) Salamander made for easier IDs, and at the other size of the Great Smoky size spectrum, we had roadside looks at Elk while traveling the Blue Ridge Parkway just after sunrise. 

Such majesty...

There was also plenty of cool flora to appreciate, such as this super water-logged disintegrating vine. I had never noticed nor appreciated the structure of the vine as it came apart, revealing sheet-layers of fiber. There were also some enterprising vines that, tired of a life of parasitism and living in the hardwoods' shadows, seemed to be making a tree unto themselves.

Mrs. Butler's Birds and I recently listened to some very interesting podcasts about the subterranean communication and exchange networks between fungus and tree roots, with fungal networks exchanging minerals for sugar with tree roots, facilitating flow from tree to tree, and even seeking out organic life--little bugs and such--and ensnaring it to be processed. 
Also, emerging evidence is that some plants can sense the presence of water from vibration alone and they can learn to react or not react to certain stimuli over time. In other words, if the AI or the octopi don't come for us, the trees will finish us off. M. Night Shyamalan was right all along...but the first prophets are always stoned. It's best to play it safe.

"The fields have eyes and the woods have ears" --Chaucer

Anyway, there were plenty of cool Appalachian fungus (they may be less socially evolved than more metropolitan fungus, but are much more wholesome and down-home).We have a guide book now, but have not even begun to climb the first slope of the learning curve.  I will have to work on IDs for these at a later time and provide some proxy IDs until then.

Orange-capped Bark Propper

White-scaled Trunk-stacker

Fulminating Slime-Piler

On the auditory scale, the birding was great. There were many species, including wood warbler varieties, singing on territory. However, unless one could find a ridge, road, or trail portion that elevated up to canopy level, the visual logs lagged far behind. 
Northern Parulas are always gregarious though and we did have a couple that weren't too busy to check us out in various poses.

This reminds me of a Cuckoo posture

Dark-eyed Juncos were everywhere. They were at every elevation, in every habitat, making all manner of varied calls, chips, and songs. It was kind of frustrating to be honest, but one can't help but admire their success. So here's an acknowledgement, one such individual of many hundreds. Respect, Junco. Please try to sound less like other birds. I swear they're mimids sometimes.

Keeping excursions balanced with the rest of the crew's wants & needs, we made a couple of forays on Black Balsam Mountain in pursuit of an overdue lifer, a buzzy flash of orange up high in the mixed hardwoods. The first few days were actually pretty crummy weather, overcast and windy. We dipped on the first of our three attempts at Flat Ridge Trail. We did pick up a pretty adorable consolation prize, so no complaints.

On Day 2 we hiked from the Black Balsam Campground to a little higher elevation, actually where the previous day's trail would end as well, had we time to finish. The morning 'smoke' burned off to an unusually clear day, and near the Heintooga Overlook we heard that much lusted for buzzy warble. Alas, when we looked up, there was only a Waxwing being weird.

Our quarry was high, and small, and flighty as all get out. It was also an astounding combination of bold oranges and blacks, and we chased the flashes of flame through the verdant canopies for a while in search of the SSV (soul satisfying view).

We had two males and a female near the terminus of Flat Ridge and Balsam Mtn. Nature Trail, be the Heintooga Overlook. I thrashed and crashed around like a 3-legged Elk (but even less majestic) while Mrs. Butler's Birds opted to recline and stay put. Obviously she's the one who had a male BLWA foraging like 10 feet away from her face. Good thing she had the wherewithal to snap this photo shortly before her face melted. 

Insert caption to make this an REI advertisement for boots or a fleece or something: "Wherever you go, go with comfort."

Sweet, sweet lifering. It has been a while, and I have missed the feeling in all the ways and means. What a crippler. A Top 10 Best Looking North American Bird? Most probably.

Maggie Valley is about as close as you can get to the Great Smokey NP, but it's still 20-30 minutes of single-lane mountain roads to the nearest trailheads (albeit on beautiful stretches of Blue Ridge Parkway). The drives are loaded with scenic vistas, but between the early morning fog and the roadside elk, it can be a little nerve-racking as well. Having some Black-throated warblers near our lodge was thus both convenient and wonderful. The Greens stayed in the highest strata but the Blues would forage within view. I bore witness to a geometrid holocaust every afternoon while poking around the local woods. 

All different birds (presumably) with all different worms (even more presumably)

Between the steady overcast and heavy shade, conditions were never great for photos, but they were great for observations, and I saw many the cute little inch worm snatched and thrashed to pieces by the voracious and appropriately re-classified setophaga (moth eater).

I don't know what sort of moth the inchworm larva become, but this impressive specimen was hanging around the lodge the first two nights, and then hanging around dead the third day. He was almost BTBW-sized himself. 

I snuck out for a couple hours on the day of our departure, planning to bird a little lower in less specialized but more birdy habitat. Butler's Birds UNLEASHED coming up next time (although it got cut short because the kid woke up early, we had to hit to road, re-leashed pretty quickly).

Monday, June 4, 2018

Bum Birding... could be defined a number of ways. It could be birding that is done with such dedication and reckless abandon--especially at expense of one's personal hygiene and presentability--that one comes to resemble a bum, a ragamuffin, a bird-obsessed junkie willing to do dubious things for a quick hit of White-tailed Ptarmigan. It could also be birding as a mooch, bumming rides, bumming cigarettes, bumming gear, bumming IDs and even lifers. It could also just be birding while homeless. In my case, bum birding is birding from the bum, from the seat of the pants, from the decumbent derrière. Technically right now I am also homeless, so there's that too.

Condo repairs & painting, packing and shipping, child-rearing...these are the enemies of good birding. While Team B's Bs eventual route east will take us through some potential birding spots (hello Appalachia!) the AZ birding seems to be going quietly into that goodnight. Reenter bum birding, also known as "geriatric birding" or "Geri birding" in the more scientific circles. I would gladly (well maybe not gladly) trade this bum birding for any of the aforementioned varieties, but until such times as better opportunity presents itself, I must settle to whispering softly with Lovebirds and cooing with Doves.


Many Rosy-faced fledglings are now well into adolescence, fully formed powerful flyers and screechers, if still more peach-faced than rosy-faced. This one has also lost the black band the young birds usually are sporting on the base of their bills, but it's 'rose-face' is still more 'rosacea-faced'.


White-winged Doves have been pouring into the valley since March, and at this point their numbers are truly staggering, as are their droppings. Now begins the heated WWDO breeding scene, as Phoenix neighborhoods become debauched spectacles of tail-lifting doves spreading degeneracy (and more WWDOs) all about them.


Just think, most Americans do not get to pick up Inca Doves when they are doing any kind of bum birding, or birding in general. I shall be among this number soon. Here's one for you and me, most Americans:

Bum birding of this sort is pretty low stakes: low risk and low reward. But all is fair in love and war, so always watch your back, or have someone watch it for you. Or, actually, have someone scratch your back, or even your bum; that's really the bum birding ticket!