An Amazing Day on the 2015 Freeport Christmas Bird Count

Victor Emanuel

Victor Emanuel

One of the many special aspects about participating in the same Christmas Bird Count year after year are the memories. Since I have been on 55 previous Freeport counts, the memories have built up. Every time I return, those memories come flooding back—memories of unusual bird sightings and of friends who birded with me. This year’s count provided even more great memories.

For over 15 years, the area I cover in the morning is the Justin Hurst Wildlife Management Area, which is just east of the small town of Jones Creek. It contains some woodland, but is mostly grassland and marsh. Cullen Hanks, Barry Lyon, and I greeted the dawn at the end of the central road, observing a great variety of waterfowl, egrets, herons, ibis, gulls, and terns. Traveling back inland, we enjoyed wonderful looks at several species of sparrows including a number of Le Conte’s, my favorite sparrow. We also saw some large flocks of Snow Geese and several White-tailed Hawks.

Barry Lyon and Victor Emanuel, Freeport CBC 2015. Photo by Cullen  Hanks.

Barry Lyon and Victor Emanuel, Freeport CBC 2015. Photo by Cullen Hanks.

At around 9 am we reached a small area of dense brush where we have seen a number of rare birds on past counts. Cullen’s Dad, Steve, had joined us. He and Cullen walked across the road while Barry and I entered the brushy area on a small trail. Years ago I had seen a Yellow-breasted Chat in this area. This large “warbler” usually winters further south. I was remembering that sighting when Barry said, “I hear a Yellow-breasted Chat!” While we were trying to get looks at the chat, Barry spotted a Prairie Warbler, a species that breeds in small numbers in very short pine stands. This species is seldom seen in Texas away from its breeding grounds. I had seen one on the count fifteen years ago. It has been recorded on only a few Freeport counts. We called Cullen and Steve to come see the Prairie Warbler. Cullen looked at the warbler and then looked at some of the taller trees. He said, “I see a Myiarchus.” We looked in that direction and saw two long-tailed flycatchers sitting side by side. At first we thought they might be Ash-throated Flycatchers since that species has been seen on a number of the Freeport counts, but these birds were bright yellow below their gray breasts. We soon realized they were Brown-crested Flycatchers, a South Texas species that had been seen only once before on the Freeport count. We continued around the corner of the brushy area and spotted two Fox Sparrows, a large bright rufous and white sparrow that is missed on a number of Freeport counts. Completing the walk around this area, we arrived back at our cars. Just then I saw an adult Bald Eagle, a species that we seldom used to see on the count, but that is now more numerous. A few minutes later Cullen said, “I see a Painted Bunting!” We all got on the bird. It was a first year male with bright yellow below and chartreuse above. In about an hour we had seen five species that would probably be seen by no one else on the count. Cullen had obtained good photos of all of them.

Prairie Warbler, Freeport CBC 2015. Photo by Cullen Hanks.

Prairie Warbler, Freeport CBC 2015. Photo by Cullen Hanks.

Brown-crested Flycatcher, Freeport CBC 2015. Photo by Cullen Hanks.

Brown-crested Flycatcher, Freeport CBC 2015. Photo by Cullen Hanks.

Since we had done so well in this brushy area, I suggested we drive back south to another brushy area. We walked into that area. Cullen and Steve were on one side of a big bush when I walked around it. They yelled, “anis!” Evidently I had flushed four Groove-billed Anis from that bush, and they had flown toward Cullen and Steve. We all obtained good looks. This species is seen on less than a third of the Freeport counts.

Groove-billed Ani, Freeport CBC 2015. Photo by Cullen Hanks.

Groove-billed Ani, Freeport CBC 2015. Photo by Cullen Hanks.

We met for lunch with the teams that cover nearby areas. Unfortunately, none of them had seen any unusual birds. After lunch we birded the town of Jones Creek. The day before we had asked a number of homeowners for permission to bird their properties. All gave us permission. They were quite friendly and had read about the count in the local newspaper. In one yard we saw a Pine Siskin, a bird that has often been missed on recent counts. In another area we saw a Black-throated Green Warbler. Then further down a road, Cullen and Barry found a Magnolia Warbler, a species that has been seen on very few Freeport counts.

It had been an amazing day with one unusual bird sighting after another. We had seen over 100 species of birds in our area including eleven species of warblers. Ten of the birds we had seen were seen by no other parties.

We ended the day near where we had begun. There we spotted a Short-eared Owl flying over the grassland and marsh. We had it in view for over five minutes and savored its lovely buff markings and floppy flight. This owl sighting was as wonderful as the rare birds we had seen and provided a perfect ending to the day.

VENT Partners with Black Swamp Bird Observatory

Barry Lyon

Barry Lyon

In 2016 VENT’s youth birding camp program will turn 30! In advance of this historic event, we are thrilled to announce that Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO) has become an official co-sponsor of VENT youth birding camps.

For most of our 39-year history, Victor Emanuel Nature Tours has been a leading proponent of connecting young people to nature through birding and natural history study. From our first camp in 1986, Camp Chiricahua, we have conducted our camps with the conviction that making nature available to young people is an essential component to their leading successful and fulfilling lives—spiritually, emotionally, and professionally. Many kids who have come through our youth camp system have later chosen to pursue careers in science, conservation, teaching, and professional tour leading. Over the years, these camps have included the leadership of some of the most respected people in modern birding including Victor Emanuel, Pete Dunne, Kenn Kaufman, Michael O’Brien, and Roger Tory Peterson, in addition to a host of other natural history exemplars.

Camp Chiricahua 2015. Photo by Michael O'Brien.

Camp Chiricahua 2015. Photo by Michael O’Brien.

In Black Swamp Bird Observatory we have an ideal partner, an organization committed to education, promoting conservation and economic development through birding, and connecting people with the joy of birding. In particular, its commitment to Ohio’s younger generation is demonstrated through the Ohio Young Birders Club (OYBC), a program developed by BSBO in 2006 for young people ages 12–18 in which birding and outdoor education are the vehicle to encourage, educate, and empower that state’s youth conservation leaders.

Ohio Young Birders Club with Greg Miller (The Big Year) at Magee Marsh during the Biggest Week in American Birding. Photo by Gerry Brevoort.

Ohio Young Birders Club with Greg Miller (The Big Year) at Magee Marsh during the Biggest Week in American Birding. Photo by Gerry Brevoort.

Through our new partnership, BSBO joins the American Birding Association (ABA) and Leica Sport Optics in support of VENT youth camps. The common denominator among all of our organizations is a shared understanding that nature matters, and through birding, today’s youth will emerge as tomorrow’s stewards of the environment.

We welcome the estimable Black Swamp Bird Observatory as a proud new partner of VENT youth birding camps, and thank the American Birding Association and Leica Sport Optics for their continued support.

In partnership with BSBO, ABA, and Leica Sport Optics, VENT will operate two youth birding camps in 2016 and 2017:

2016

Camp Chiricahua, June 29–July 10, 2016 (Sold out; waitlist available)

Camp Cascades, July 30–August 10, 2016 (Sold out; waitlist available)

2017

Camp Chiricahua, June 20–July 1, 2017

Camp Cascades, July 29–August 9, 2017

Black Swamp Bird Observatory logoOYBC Logo_Aug2013

 

ABA logo 4CLeica  RGB 10cm

 

 

 

A Truly Scary Bird

Rick Wright

Rick Wright

And you thought skimming the occasional milk pail was bad.

Halloween seems a good time to recall that nightjars, those mysterious nocturnal flutterers, have been rumored to engage in behavior far more treacherous than merely suckling at the udders of defenseless livestock.

In 1750, the Pomeranian ornithologist Jacob Theodor Klein listed as names for the European nightjar “witch,” “night harmer,” and something that seems to mean “child smotherer.”

Klein prodromus facing page 81

Some of us may have our doubts, but the terrifying engraving that accompanies Klein’s account convinces me. Myself, I’m keeping the windows closed until Halloween is over.

Bonelli and the King

Rick Wright

Rick Wright

Bonelli's Eagle. Photo by Paco Gomez.

Bonelli’s Eagle. Photo by Paco Gomez.

Franco Andrea Bonelli—of warbler and eagle fame—had the great good luck and the singular misfortune to live in what one might call interesting times.

Portrait of Franco Bonelli by G. B. Biscarra.

Portrait of Franco Bonelli by G. B. Biscarra.

Bonelli was born in the Italian Piedmont in 1784. When he was a boy of 14, Napoleon’s troops moved into northern Italy, occupying the Piedmont and driving the royal family into exile on Sardinia.

National Museum of Natural History, Paris. Photo by Roi Boshi.

National Museum of Natural History, Paris. Photo by Roi Boshi.

The French occupation, which would last fifteen years, was a great setback for the burgeoning movement for Italian unity and independence, but it also presented new opportunities to young and ambitious Piedmontese—among them Bonelli, who, with Georges Cuvier’s sponsorship, was able to spend a year studying at the National Museum in Paris, from which he returned in 1811 to take up a position as professor of zoology in Turin.

Regional Museum of Natural History, Turin. Photo by Barbara Addario/TorinoFree.

Regional Museum of Natural History, Turin. Photo by Barbara Addario/TorinoFree.

Among the young professor’s tasks was seeing to it that the city’s museum become a resource for university instruction in natural history. In his tenure, Bonelli did far more: he made Turin the finest museum in Italy, the repository of collections that would be visited by nearly every famous natural historian of his day.

But there was trouble ahead. On Napoleon’s abdication in 1814, the Italian royal family returned from Sardinia. The deeply conservative views of the king came together with his resentment of the French to produce a decidedly radical restoration: as one skeptical court insider reported, the Italians had come back from exile with only one thing in mind, to return everything to the status quo of 1798.

Vittorio Emanuele I in 1801, artist unknown.

Vittorio Emanuele I in 1801, artist unknown.

That meant, of course, destroying every single institution that had been created or promoted by the hated occupiers—including the ornithological collections Bonelli had amassed with the support of Paris. “All of these innovations are the work of Satan,” the king is rumored to have said, “we didn’t have museums in ’98 and we were none the worse for it. Why should we want to be more clever than our forebears?”

Birds to please a king. Photo by Torino Regional Museum of Natural Sciences.

Birds to please a king. Photo by Torino Regional Museum of Natural Sciences.

Someone—presumably but not certainly Bonelli himself—reminded the king of the delight he had recently had in visiting the museum’s birds. Once his tantrum had subsided, the king agreed to make an exception for the birds: he liked the birds, and he hoped that the museum staff would continue to take good care of them.

The next regent, Charles Felix, was more indulgent. He gave Bonelli permission to construct a specially designed hall of zoology in the museum, which was completed in the spring of 1830. Unbeknownst to Bonelli, however, a university colleague had been scheming behind the scenes to have the new space instead given to him for anatomy demonstrations. When Bonelli learned of the betrayal, he suffered a stroke, and died six months later, at the age of 45.

Bonelli's Warbler. Photo by Pierre Dalous.

Bonelli’s Warbler. Photo by Pierre Dalous.

Birding with the Ostrogoths

Rick Wright

Rick Wright

Rick Wright and Marco Valtriani will co-lead VENT’s Italy: Birds & Art in Venice & the Po Delta tour, October 24-November 1, 2016. Join us!

Boethius imprisoned, Consolation of Philosophy. Photo by Bkwillwm, Wikimedia Commons.

Boethius imprisoned, Consolation of Philosophy. Photo by Bkwillwm, Wikimedia Commons.

None of the documents that survive from the Ostrogothic Kingdom of northern Italy suggest that birding was an especially popular hobby.

Meister von san Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. Photo byThe Yorcke Project, Wikimedia Commons.

Meister von san Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. Photo by The Yorcke Project, Wikimedia Commons.

But the rich artworks preserved in Ravenna, the capital of Theoderic’s realm, tell a different story.

Consecrated in the late fifth century, the city’s Archepiscopal Chapel is the oldest surviving Christian oratory anywhere. Its marble walls are paved with some of the finest and most famous mosaics in Italy, studded with 1500-year-old images of some 99 species of birds.

Cappella arcivescovile, Ravenna. Photo by Incola, Wikimedia Commons.

Cappella arcivescovile, Ravenna. Photo by Incola, Wikimedia Commons.

Some are purely whimsical, but many of the birds are identifiable as of the very same species that still abound today around the ancient churches and tombs.

Long-tailed Tit on a washing line. Photo by Dave Croker, Wikimedia Commons.

Long-tailed Tit on a washing line. Photo by Dave Croker, Wikimedia Commons.

Others recall the great numbers and variety of waterfowl, shorebirds, and raptors that winter around the nearby delta of the mighty Po River.

Smew. Photo by Dick Daniels, Wikimedia Commons.

Smew. Photo by Dick Daniels, Wikimedia Commons.

From Venice to Ravenna, we retrace the steps of the Ostrogoths as they slowly absorbed much of the western Roman Empire. And we retrace the steps of the anonymous artists who, 1500 years ago, recognized that there was a lot to see outdoors in Italy, too.

Birding in the Garden of the Beasts: Berlin and Brandenburg

Rick Wright

Rick Wright

Rick Wright will lead VENT’s Germany: Birds & Art in Berlin & Brandenburg tour, September 30-October 8, 2016.

Join us!

Tiergarten, Iron Eagle

Tiergarten, Iron Eagle

Berlin’s largest urban green space dates to the early sixteenth century, when a royal hunting preserve was gradually transformed into a public park. By the nineteenth century, the Tiergarten district, centered on the forested square mile of this “garden of beasts,” had become the city’s most desirable neighborhood, home to the Prussian nobility, newly wealthy industrialists, and even the odd scholar or two.

The Brothers Grimm

The Brothers Grimm

Some of the finest villas are now occupied by government buildings and embassies, as they were in the days leading up to the second World War. Laid waste, like most of Berlin, in the closing days of the war, the Tiergarten is once again a refuge at the very heart of central Europe’s most exciting city—

Berlin - traffic at Tiergarten

Berlin – traffic at Tiergarten

—a refuge for human residents and birds alike.

Tufted Duck

Tufted Duck

The peaceful stroll from the Charlottenburg Gate leads through deep forest and along placid waterways inhabited by all the common birds of those habitats, from noisy Song Thrushes to secretive Northern Goshawks—yes, goshawks, breeding and wintering in the middle of the capital of Germany.

Song Thrush

Song Thrush

On my most recent visit to Berlin, I rose early almost every day to head out into the wild marshlands and woods of nearby Brandenburg.

Common Cranes

Common Cranes

As wonderful as those days were, the best mornings were those when I lingered abed just a little longer, then crossed the street to the Tiergarten. Those urban goshawks were, as so often, elusive, but my walk, past the Victory Column and the Brandenburg Gate to the Philharmonic and Potsdamer Platz, was lavish in the sight and sound of birds. Chaffinches and Green Woodpeckers bounced across the lawns, while Hawfinches and Wood Warblers ticked and trilled from the trees. It was like Central Park or Garret Mountain or Mount Auburn in May—but with different birds and no crowds.

Tiergarten and Siegessaule

Tiergarten and Siegessaule

And at the end of my walk through the garden of the beasts, there was coffee and cake and a world-class museum or six. You really can have it all in Berlin. Especially if you’re a birder.

Ishtar Gates

Ishtar Gates

All photos by Rick Wright.

Connections to Catalonia, by Rick Wright

Rick Wright

Rick Wright

Rick Wright gives us another intriguing preview of one of the five “Birds & Art” tours he will lead for VENT in 2016: Spain: Birds & Art in Catalonia, April 14-22, 2016.

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The monastery of Montserrat perches high on a saw-toothed mountain just north of Barcelona, beneath an eerie moonscape of eroded peaks dotted with chapels and ancient hermitages.

birding Montserrat

The flanks of the mountain are more densely vegetated, covered with maquis-like scrub that offers breeding sites to colorful and noisy Cirl Buntings and Subalpine Warblers.

maquis montserrat

One of the best places to bird here is the trailhead at the Camí de les Batalles, named for its role as a mustering place for the Catalan troops during the war of Spanish Liberation.

DSC03543

In the summer of 1808, Napoleon’s soldiers were twice rebuffed here, events claimed by the locals to be a turning point in the effort to expel the French. The whole thing is the stuff of patriotic legend: the story goes that when the patriots were badly outnumbered, a local drummer boy hit upon the idea of playing his drum from a deep cleft in the mountainside, the echoes of which convinced the wicked Frenchmen that they were surrounded by a vastly superior force—and like cowards they ran, all the way back to Paris.

drummer

Be that as it may or may not have been, the battle at El Bruc was a turning point in another story, the story of American ornithology.

Bonaparte_Charles_Lucien_1803-1857

Had the French occupiers prevailed, the usurper King Joseph would not have been forced to abdicate, and he would never have left Spain for England and then, eventually, for America, where his nephew and son-in-law Charles would come to live as well—on the banks of the Delaware River, in central New Jersey, where Charles collected the first Cooper’s Hawk known to science, where he figured out the color morphs of the Eastern Screech-Owl, and where he earned the respect and admiration of naturalist historians who would, for example, name a gull for him, Charles Bonaparte. The centuries and the miles fade away when you’re birding the landscapes of Catalonia.

Bonaparte's gullAll photos by Rick Wright.