Birding the Big Island of Hawaii

(Journal from April 2015)IMG_6837-1

I don’t even know how long I’ve been awake at this point

Our last day in Hawaii – yesterday? Last night? – I woke up in a tiny cabin in the woods of Volcano National park at 5am to listen to my husband take a skype call for work (who had no idea he was in Hawaii, the perks of working from home).

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I failed at going back to sleep, so we started our day early in the park, birding before driving back to Hilo for breakfast at Kens – Where he got mac nut pancakes larger than his head, and my “Three-egg omelette” looked more like a full dozen.

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After a walk around Liliukolani Park to work off the coconut and lilikoi syrup, we drove the winding saddle road between Muana Kea and Muana Loa to Kona. There, we finally found two of the Nene Goose we’d been searching for since our trip began. They weren’t eating the scrubby berry bushes as the ranger station had informed us – no – like most of their more metropolitan goose brethren, they were enjoying the green on the fairway at the local country club, honking angrily at passing golf carts, and strutting royally across the well manicured lawn.

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Tiny yellow saffron finches flitted about under the trees, and a waterfall trickled nearby. The only thing out of place was the small herd of sheep, bleating their way across the 16th hole.

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After a final poke bowl of delicious ahi perfection at Umekes in downtown Kona, we finally left the big island at 3:30, our plane rising eye-level with  the gleaming white observatories on Muana Kea before disappearing high above.

As the lights dimmed, and darkness fell aboard the tiny A300, I thought I’d catch some z’s. The day was long, and – thanks to an antiquated pay-per-view movie screen, (complete with credit card swipe!) stuck in the back of the headrest in front of me – the flight was boring.

Unfortunately, soon after I’d decided to take a snooze, a jolt of turbulence began twisting the plane from one pole to the other. The United stewardesses gamely tried to follow through with a drink service, but it was quickly aborted, and they stumbled back to the galley with their burden. So no sleep on that flight. I spent the rest of it praying that my (legally prescribed) sleep aid would kick in.

A quick transfer in LAX – 30 minutes gate to gate – and we were off to Chicago. I was lucky enough to catch a nap on this flight, blessed with the twin benefits of smooth air and a silent companion.

After another tight transfer in ORD – we walked straight off of one plane and onto another – I was ready to finish my 30 winks, but the toddler behind me had other plans, jamming his little red shoes into my back at every opportunity. I gave him my best stink face glare, but that didn’t work – kids don’t care.

Finally we landed in Orlando at 9:45am, 14 hours after leaving Hawaii. Sadly for both of us, it was a working day, and most of the ride was spent in a skype meeting, while I was driving hell for leather to work, where I was already late.

I was deliriously tired and in need of a shower, but thankfully birds don’t care what you smell like, as long as you’re feeding them. After a quick go round, it was finally time to head home!

Except at this point, the last food we had eaten were the poke bowls in Kona, and my blood sugar had dropped to the point where I wanted to do violent things to other drivers. Torn between needing to get home for shower and sleep, and needing food to get there, I stopped at my favorite sub place, and for once, there was no line! Hallelujah!

It’s now 6:30, and I’ve passed the point where a nap would help anything. My only hope to defeat jetlag is to tough it out for the next three and a half hours, and go to sleep at a normal time. My husband has already succumb to the siren call of slumber, but I will not go so quietly. Jetlag, you will not win this one.

We saw four sunsets in Hawaii – One from the top of Mauna Kea, high above the clouds, one from the crater rim of Kilauea, busy birthing more land, and one from a dive boat off the Kohala coast, watching spinner dolphins fling themselves into the air. But nothing beats a seat on the beach, bunch of whales just messing around.


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Birds in Hong Kong

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Hong Kong is never a place that I really thought of as a ‘birdy’ place. Earlier this year I had the opportunity to spend a week there, and I was blown away by just how many birds I saw without ever leaving the island.

Black KiteThe very first morning I woke up and stepped out onto our tiny balcony near Times Square, I was astounded to see no less than five Black Kites kettling around the massive Lee Gardens building, riding the winds that blew against the skyscraper as an elevator into the sky. I watched for what seemed like hours as they rose up, flew off, and new ones came to replace them.

Every now and then one of them would take a lazy swing at their reflection in the plate glass windows, but it seemed more playful than anything else. Once they reached the top of the building, they swung off into the foggy Hong Kong skyline, or disappeared behind other buildings. This was not what I had expected.

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That was Hong Kong all over for me, though; Unexpected. Just a short ride down Hennessy Road on the “ding-ding” tram was Hong Kong Park, home to the Edward Youde Aviary, a free mini bird-zoo where you could see many different birds up close. Although they were in an enclosed area, much of it was open and Mynah birds and fancy pigeons had plenty of trees to fly around, as visitors walked on elevated walkways beneath. One especially relaxed Victorias Crowned Pigeon even sat incubating eggs on a nest nearby.

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Red-whiskered Bulbul

Blue whistling thrushMasked Laughing Thrush

But even outside the aviary the trees were bursting with birdlife, including a colony of Sulfur Crested Cockatoos, who I watched gleefully excavating nesting cavities in dead trees. Near a small waterfall, Red-whiskered Bulbuls bathed on a stone, joined by the occasional Masked Laughingthrush or Blue Whistling-Thrush, while Japanese White-eyes and Red-billed Blue-Magpies gave brief glances from the higher branches and Black-collared Starlings searched for insects in the grass.

Indochinese YuhinaFork-tailed Sunbird

A short cable-car ride up the Peak Tram from Hong Kong Park was Victoria Peak, overlooking Victoria Harbor and the Kowloon Peninsula. The Peak itself was a bit of a tourist trap, but a short walk on the trail around the peak led to Lung Fu Shan Country Park, and a whole host of new birds for me, like the petite Indochinese Yuhina and the glittering Fork-tailed Sunbird.

Greater Necklaced LaughingthrushSpotted DoveDurian Redstart

On the short trail down to an abandoned military bunker, we flushed a Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush, and it gave us a withering stare before flitting off into the bushes. Among the bunkers Spotted Doves pecked in the dirt, and a tiny Durian Redstart peeped at us through the trees. Black-throated Laughingthrushes were hiding all along the bamboo thicket lining the trail, and although we could hear their melodious calls, they gave only fleeting glances until we recorded their call, and played it back to them. Then they ventured quite close, cocking their heads inquisitively at the recording and singing in reply.

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A Day in the Life of a Raptor Rehabilitator

Sometimes people ask what my job is, so I give them my title: Raptor Management Specialist.

But that’s not always helpful, so I thought it’d be interesting to write down everything I do in a day. So here’s what I did on the last day I was at the Avian Reconditioning Center.

IMG_9717-19:15 – Open everything up, do a health check on all the birds. Between our education birds and birds in for rehabilitation, we currently have 65 raptors to care for. Many of these are young birds, so they need to eat multiple times a day, which can take a lot of time. Thankfully, adult raptors only have to eat once a day, so we don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn to start feeding them. Usually we have volunteers to help out with chores, like laundry, cleaning, and feeding, which is a huge help! It takes a village.

It was already 80+ degrees when I got to work, so I knew it was going to be One Of Those Days. (That being, one of those days where I sweat buckets and need 3 showers by the end)

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9:45 – Take food out of the freezer to thaw. Raptors are carnivores, and we try to feed as close to their natural diet as we can. That may mean thawing frozen fish for eagles, mice for owls, insects for kestrels, and so on. Thawing food takes some time, especially in the winter, so this must be done first thing in the morning.

10:00 – Return messages. Sometimes these are phone calls from people who have found an injured or orphaned raptor. Other calls may be from another rehab center who wants to transfer birds to us, or people who want to book an education program. One email is from the local humane society, who will be bringing an owl to us later.

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Young American Kestrel

10:15 – Prepare food and feed Kestrels and Screech Owls. Kestrels and Screech Owls are very small, and when they come in as nestlings, they often weigh under 100 grams. So tiny! Since they grow so fast, they need to eat multiple times a day, so they get fed first.

When we have orphaned birds, we always use our education birds as surrogate parents when possible, to prevent imprinting. Sometimes we can give food to the surrogate bird and they will feed the babies for us. Other times, we hand feed them using a puppet, and play natural noises to simulate the parent.

Before feeding them, I weighed and recorded their weights in our log book to make sure that each nestling was growing, and not losing weight. Since raptors grow fast (full size in three months!) any weight loss means that the bird isn’t doing well. Thankfully, everyone was healthy this morning.

While the young birds are being fed, I had help to clean their enclosures, replacing the dirty bedding from the night before with clean paper or blankets.

We also set up a new enclosure for the young screech owls, so they had more space to move around and practice flying.

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Red-shouldered Hawk, thrilled to be weighed

10:45 – Weigh and clean young Red-shouldered Hawks. We have two Red-shouldered Hawk nurseries at the moment, with younger birds in one, and older birds in a larger enclosure. We weighed each of the younger birds to check that they were growing well, and cleaned their enclosure of old food and castings (partially digested prey, like an owl pellet).

11:15 – Prepare food for and feed Red-shouldered Hawks. The older birds are flying and eating well on their own, and need less attention, but the young hawks still need their food cut up into bite-sized pieces, like their parents would do for them. They’re old enough to eat on their own though, so I prepare the food, and leave it in their enclosure.

While I’m getting food ready, volunteers help with cleaning our education birds enclosures, and changing the water in their bath pans.

Eastern Screech Owl

Eastern Screech Owl

11:45 – Admit – A member of the local humane society arrives with a nestling Eastern Screech Owl for us. They tried to put it back in its nest, but it kept falling out, so they brought it to us for rehab. I take its weight and fill out an admit sheet. The bird is healthy and alert, but I want to make sure it’s eating well before I put it with our other nestling Screech Owls and surrogate ed birds, Hunter & Lucy.

The man who brought the screech owl is interested in doing raptor rehab in the future, so we talk for awhile about the housing and time requirements, and getting a permit. He offers to come pick up the Screech Owl when it’s old enough for release, and take it back to the same area.

We always try to release a bird back to the same area when possible, because often the birds parents will still be around, and can sometimes help it through adolescence. Plus, if Screech Owls are nesting in that area, then it must be good habitat for them. Although since most of a wild Screech Owls diet seems to be cockroaches and moths, they can survive pretty much anywhere in Florida there are trees!

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Osprey Talons = Fish-catchers

12:15 – Clean kennels for rehab birds.  Some birds that are in for rehabilitation need medications, and so we keep them in kennels, separate from the other birds. Kennels can get quite messy though, and need daily cleaning. Other volunteers were weighing our education birds at this time.

12:45 – Change Perching for Eagle. One of our permanent eagles needed a sturdier perch in her enclosure. Sounds simple enough, but it involved bringing her out, perching her outside, digging up her old perch, finding a new suitable perch, anchoring it in the dirt, then cleaning everything up and putting her back in her house. It wouldn’t have been so bad, except this was on a 90 degree day, and I was dying by the end of it. Thankfully, I had a volunteer to help, so I wasn’t digging alone.

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Red-shouldered Hawk

1:15 – Fill out rehab log book. I was pretty wiped out from digging the perch hole, so I took a break to fill out our daily log on each of the rehab birds. We keep a record of their weights, health, and general wellbeing. It’s also a place to note if we notice any problems with a bird.

1:30 – Prepare food for and feed all birds. Although adult raptors only eat once a day, each bird gets a different amount of food, or type of food, depending on the species and size of the bird. Additionally, some birds get medication, young birds need their food cut into small pieces, and some birds need to be fed a certain way. We need to keep all of this in mind as we get their food ready for the day. It takes awhile to prepare food for 65 birds of prey.

2:00 – Feed baby kestrels and screech owls again. Second verse, same as the first. Volunteers usually go home around this time, and I have time to work on smaller projects.

2:15 – Make equipment. All of our education birds wear leather falconry equipment – jesses, leashes, swivels – that allow us to bring them out and meet the public. Since it’s leather, it’s soft, and gentle on their legs, but it also wears out every so often. I’m always making new straps and anklets out of leather, so we have equipment to replace the old ones when they get worn. This is also something I can do in the air conditioning, which at this time of day is a precious precious thing.

3:00 – Falconry training. I really wanted to get to this earlier, but right now we have so many rehab birds that it got pushed back until the end of the day. I’m a permitted general falconer, so sometimes I use falconry training on certain birds that aren’t getting strong enough in their enclosure. By training them to fly over long distances, they can build up strength, rather than just sitting on a perch. With this strength training, hopefully they can then be released. Essentially, it involves weighing a bird, making sure that they’re the right weight for flying (too heavy and they won’t be interested, too light and you’re not doing your job right), preparing food, and putting telemetry on the bird (a radio tracker in case they fly off).

This day I had a Red-tailed Hawk with a weak wing to exercise. He did well, although I can tell he was getting tired. The actual flying part can sometimes take less time than the preparation. At the end, I gave him a bath in the hose (which he loved), fed him his extra food, and put him up for the day.

We also fly some education birds at our center for education programs, and if I had extra hours in the day, I’d fly them all every day just for the exercise, but it’s just not in the cards.

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Someone will be in later to give the young birds their third meal of the day, but for me, it’s time to go home.

This does change throughout the year – spring is far busier than the fall. Some days we are open to the public or have a fundraiser, and some days we have educational programs to present, and on those days things go a bit differently. Other days I have to take a bird to the vet, or take birds out for release. There really is no typical day – every day truly is different, but this was probably as close as I could get to a regular work day with the birds.

It’s not a glamorous job – by the end of it, I’m usually covered in sweat, feces, blood (which may or may not be mine) and possibly parasites, depending on what kind of day it’s been. But for someone who loves birds, and spending every day with them, I wouldn’t know what else to do with my time.

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P.S. – As I was writing this, Animal Control brought me a very thin juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk. I gave it fluids, and put it in a kennel to rest for the night, but it’s 8pm, and the birds are still keeping me busy.

Port Canaveral Birding – Avocet Lagoon and Lori Wilson Park

Last week I happened to be in Cape Canaveral, watching behemoth cruise ships lumber in and out of port. I find birds to be more fun than boats, though, so I was soon watching the much smaller residents of the East Coast at Lori Wilson Park instead.
IMG_0615-1 IMG_0628-1 IMG_0740-1 Not all birds are as obliging as these small Sanderlings, though – some are much more secretive.
IMG_0430 Do you ever feel like you’re being watched? Despite being a non-native species, the Ring-necked Dove blends perfectly with this palm.IMG_0494 IMG_0569 IMG_0565 IMG_0397-1 IMG_0514-1 IMG_0568-1 Best of the day was a pass that this Black Skimmer made down the beach, running from a flock of Laughing Gulls with his catch snugly tucked in his underbite.IMG_0729-1

Nesting Osprey in Sanford, Florida

Sometimes I hate living in Florida. Like when it’s May and 92 degrees outside, with 100% humidity. Other times, it doesn’t seem so bad.

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This time of year, it seems like every light pole, pillar, or 30′ tree has an Osprey nest in it. Not that I’m complaining. I love their gangly little chicks.

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I used to wonder how their nestlings ever survived to adulthood – nesting in the direct sun on a utility pole in an asphalt parking lot in Florida seems like a good way to grill chicken, not raise young.

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What seems to keep them alive is that chicks spend most of their time in the shade of one of the parents – under their wings, their body, their tail. In most places parent birds have to use their bodies to keep their nestlings warm. In Florida, they use their bodies to keep them from baking.

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And it’s not like they’re still not hot. See how the chicks mouth is hanging open in every picture? It’s panting like crazy because it’s bloody hot out here! But the shade from its parent must to keep it alive to adulthood, because there are Ospreys everywhere. (Drive the 417 bridge over Lake Jesup sometime – you’ll find an Osprey perched on a giant fish on every other light pole.)

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And when just standing there isn’t enough, the parent will start dancing around, flapping their huge wings, cooling both themselves and the nestling with the breeze.

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Other times, when it’s just too hot, they ditch their chick and take to the air to feel the cool rushing breeze on their skin.

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But despite the heat, they always come back.

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Birding Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge – Black Point Wildlife Drive

It was storming when I turned onto the packed dirt road of Merritt Island’s Black Point Wildlife Drive. The weather almost sent me home, but I was in the area already, and hoped that the rain wouldn’t bother the wading birds who spend most of their time in water anyway.

As I pushed my $5 into the honor box (I learned later that I could have gotten in with my  Duck Stamp!), the rain suddenly stopped, in the way that it sometimes does in Florida, and although thick bands of grey clouds continued to move overhead, I had the whole place to myself. Almost.

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The birds certainly had no problems with the weather, and I had plenty of time to watch as Sandpipers, Herons, Egrets, and Stilts foraged, fought, and flew over the shallow pools. One look at eBirds Hotspot data page for Black Point should tell you just how many birds make this refuge their home.

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There were plenty of peeps and plovers, poking about the muck, undisturbed by a slow moving car.

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In a single morning, one could easily see almost every wading bird in Florida – from Snowy Egrets with their dainty yellow socks, to Glossy Ibis, Tricolored Herons, both Little and Great Blues, Roseate Spoonbills, Reddish Egrets, and Great Egrets in breeding plumage, all as White Ibis fly in flocks across the sky.

IMG_1745IMG_1762IMG_1772IMG_1705 The earlier rain did seem to drive the songbirds into hiding, but a few Red-winged Blackbirds came out to sing their rattly trill in the lull between storms.

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My favorite find of the day were a pair of perfectly balanced American Avocets, long curled beaks nestled in their back feathers, snoozing. As a flock of Ibis flew overhead, they briefly opened their eyes, looked right at me, then went back to sleep.

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Bald Eagle Check-in: Success!

Today I went to check on the eaglet that we had re-nested on Monday. I wanted to make sure that he was doing well, the parents were taking care of him, and that he hadn’t fallen back out of the nest again.

This was what I saw when I arrived at the nest tree.

IMG_8207Hmm, what is that?

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It was our eaglet! And by the looks of it, he was hunched over, chowing down on something tasty.

IMG_8231At this point, I was satisfied, because he looked healthy, alert, and content, sitting in his nest. And if he was eating, the parents must be bringing food. I could have left, but I wanted to stick around and see if I could spot any adults.

After a bit of waiting and looking around, I realized that I was being stared down from a nearby tree!

IMG_8228The parent must have been there the whole time, keeping a watchful eye on the nest, and making sure that I didn’t get too close.

After a bit more peering around, I spotted another eagle perched in a tree right next to the nest.

IMG_8230-1What a handsome bird!

Reassured that the eaglet was under the watchful eye of his parents, and clearly well cared for, I said goodbye and let them be. It was good to see the eaglet contentedly sitting in his nest, where he belonged. Hopefully the rest of his childhood is less eventful than the last week.