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2006 "Top Ten" Birding Experiences List


2006 was a splendid year for me in terms of nature photography and birding. I

was fortunate to visit many of the best spots in the nation and managed to

have quite a time! At the urging of a friend, Kris Purdy, I have created a top

ten list of my best birding experiences from 2006. I hope that you enjoy some

of these stories, and I'll try to match them in 2007!




10. January 22, 2006 - Feeding Frenzy - Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge - South Florida



Many photographers were reporting that Ding Darling was a disappointment and that I shouldn't expect any of the large feeding frenzies that were common in years past. I decided to continue with my planned trip, but lowered my expectations accordingly. Just a few hundred yards down the refuge loop road I got out of my car to marvel at three Roseate spoonbill preening in the dawn light. Yet something drew me to travel further into the refuge. With all the other photographers paused at the first three spoonbills I moved on and came across a site that I will never forget. There in a shallow bay of salt water were dozens and dozens...hundreds in fact...of herons, egret, ibis, sandpipers, and spoonbills. The scene was one of constant motion and photographing any single bird was difficult. In hindsight I sure wish that I I had snapped more than a single shot of the assemblage (there are many, many birds on back into the distance). Still I smile just thinking about the commotion that fine January morning.






9. June 3, 2006 - Mangrove Cuckoo - Key Largo, Florida


Fully-covered with clothing from head to toe I went for a hike on a steamy summer morning in South Florida. Near Key Largo, I was making my second trek into an impressive hammock to search for a Mangrove Cuckoo. The morning started off with a bit of a surprise as the first bird I heard was a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. I walked farther along the trail and was soon treated with the characteristic call of my real quarry. I chased that sound along several trails only to find that the bird had always melted into the foliage. Finally with the 5th or 6th set of calls I spotted movement in the top of a tree 40 yards away and swung my binoculars into action. I instantly knew what I was seeing...and then the Mangrove Cuckoo sealed the deal by calling for me while I watched its throat puff up and down. The bird was too far way for a decent photograph, so I simply watched it with binoculars until it dropped back into the trees. Then it was time to get away from the mosquitoes!!





8. August 20, 2006 - Ruby-throated Hummingbird - Konza Prairie, Kansas


It was mid-August and I was back in Kansas after nearly a year in Florida. I returned to a prime patch of trumpet vine on the Konza Prairie preserve and found it watched closely by a half-dozen female and young male Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. While keeping an eye on me they soon began to feed on the blooms that were several feet away. These delicate little birds would go all in on a trumpet flower bloom...often perching on the flowers and making them droop slightly. One even came out from a nectar dive with a few proudly ruffled feathers on the top of her head.







7. April , 2006 - Short-eared Owl - Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida


As I prepared for my journey to the birding mecca that is Dry Tortugas National Park, I read account after account of the species that I could expect. One bird that struck a chord with me was the Caribbean race of the Short-eared Owl. Perhaps it is simply my fascination with owls, but I was extremely hopeful that I would find such a bird. A few days into my journey Larry Manfredi told me that one was spotted on nearby (but out of reach) Loggerhead Key. I now had to hope that it would make a visit to Fort Jefferson before I left. My hopes were fulfilled that very evening when one perched high in a buttonwood for all to see. The next day I found it hunkered down in some grasses and was able to get a few photographs.





6. October 14, 2006 - Fort DeSoto Park, Florida


I was in Tampa for a conference, and there was no way that I could leave before visiting my favorite west coast location in Florida...Fort DeSoto Park. I went in hoping that I could get a good Piping Plover photograph and see a lifer Red Knot. Wish one came true many times over as I lay in inch-deep water and just let the plovers come to me. I had several Piping Plovers all around me and sometimes within 5 feet. Just before packing it in, I saw a strange bird that I couldn't immediately identify. It was a winter plumage Red Knot and I got off a couple photographs before it flew for a new stretch of beach! Complete success...now I could fly home to Kansas!





5. September 24, 2006 - Vermilion Flycatcher - Washington county, Kansas


Sometimes you don't have time for a birding trip, but you go along anyway. With a report that a male Vermilion Flycatcher was being seen about an hour north of my location in Kansas (quite rare), I made the necessary sacrifices to free up a little time. The bird was still there when David Seibel and I arrived. The flycatcher was a gorgeous bird and stunning in the golden light of dawn. He eventually cooperated for a few photographs...he was only seen for a couple more days.




4. May 10, 2006 - Bananquit - St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands


Many who have looked long and hard at their U.S. bird guide have probably seen a reference to a rare visitor...the Bananaquit. The name alone is enough to conjure up visions of strange birds in strange places. From that mysterious footnote in my bird guide the Bananaquit emerged into reality when I visited the island of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. I saw not one, but a whole bunch of Bananquits! Some would engage in nectar-robbing like the individual in the photograph below.





3. April 13, 2006 - Magnificent Frigatebird Colony - Dry Tortugas National Park


I still remember pulling into Garden Key and seeing several magnificent Magnificent Frigatebirds hovering effortlessly over Fort Jefferson. These seven-foot black and white "kites" were clearly in charge of this airspace. The next day the research crew and I headed over to Long Key and began to set up Roseate Tern decoys (a species that hadn't nested in the area for several years). A bunch of scraggly trees and branches that had survived a quadruple hurricane hit in 2005 were just a hundred meters away and in those trees was a busy frigatebird nesting colony. With our decoys deployed I wandered around to the southeast end of the colony and positioned myself to watch in bright light as birds swirled around in small circles while others remained perched. It was absolutely astounding to see so many huge birds and to be so close. There were males with their red throat sacks inflated, there were females, there were juveniles, and even some chicks nearly ready to leave the nest. I will never forget that experience.







2. April 16, 2006 - Masked Booby colony - Dry Tortugas National Park


Sloshing across the slippery rocks with my camera bag held aloft over my head, I felt a bit like Robinson Crusoe as I ventured onto the soft sand beach. After several aborted attempts to land in our small boat, we had decided to try and walk onto Hospital Key in Dry Tortugas National Park. Our principle mission as National Park Service staff (and I an intern) was to replace "Island Closed" signs that had been blown away by one of several hurricanes in 2005. We were all quite pleased to be assigned this chore...for this is the only nesting location in the continental United States for Masked Boobies. I counted over 30 active nests, had many birds circling overhead, and glimpsed a couple tiny chicks peaking out from under their mothers feathers.





1. June 28, 2006 - Pileated Woodpecker family - Banff National Park, Alberta


An investigation of movement to my right took my breath away. A male Pileated Woodpecker had flown into a stump not more than 50 feet away and was rapidly hammering away at the rotting wood. Things got better when he was joined by his mate...even better when a few minutes later I found the reason for their busy movements: an aspen tree nesthole with three hungry (and noisy) chicks inside! This was my first good look at a Pileated Woodpecker and I studied every detail. I only wish that the light hadn't faded so fast or I could have shown photographs of a stump that was absolutely obliterated by the male and female working in tandem to feed the kids!



Best of birding and photography to all in 2007!


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