Birds on Mt. Tabor? I'd never noticed

Birds on Mt. Tabor? I'd never noticed

"Be careful. I heard there's dark-eyed junkies on Mt. Tabor!"

When I lived in the city, I regularly visited Mt. Tabor Park, jogging the trails and “releasing the hounds” to enjoy the cascading smells of the dog park. I went an average of 5 days a week for 6 years. And on those roughly 1500 visits if you had asked me if I’d ever see any birds, I’d have said, “I’ve seen crows. There's a lot of crows.” Well, just a few years later, all kinds of birds seem to have moved into the park. Or maybe I just never noticed them before…

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Pickin' an' a-Peregrinin' : Band on the Bird

Chasing raptors at Long Beach, WA

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Having already been on three raptor surveys, I was thrilled to be invited for a fourth. Unfortunately, the last time Dan Varland, director of Coastal Raptors, asked me to go, the forecast called for gale force winds. My toupee is only rated for 15 mph, so we had to reschedule or resort to staples. I chose the former. But this time the stars lined up in grand fashion for a memorable two days on the Washington coast.

The best thing about Dan’s surveys is meeting the other volunteers. I’ve met some truly wonderful people and this time was no exception. Dan enlisted a father and son, Mike and Luke Smith of LS Traps. They capture birds at SEATAC airport and relocate them to somewhere safer. Generally I avoid airports and their general vicinity like Adam Sandler movies, but this is not so for raptors. I know what you’re thinking. Birds are the last creatures on Earth that need an airplane. True. But airports are ideal hunting grounds for falcons, eagles and hawks. These apex predators find the tables turned and frequently become the unwitting prey of jet engines. Which, believe it or not, is worse than an Adam Sandler movie. A sobering fact.

Also joining us was photographer Gerrit Vyn and his girlfriend Shannon, a marine eco-biologist. Gerrit Vyn. Now, why do I recognize that name? One Google search later and the reason became evident. Gerrit’s book The Living Bird is sitting on my coffee table. Mercy sakes! Gerrit is one of the world’s leading wildlife photographers and works for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. (Whoever they are?) Gerrit is also a passionate conservationist, a terrific writer and an all-around swell guy.

Living bird.jpg

The Living Bird

By Gerrit Vyn

and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Next Dan told me he’d arranged for us to stay at The George Johnson House, a B&B in Ocean Park, WA. The GJH is a magnificent 100 year old home owned by the deeply generous, formidable and charming Charlotte Killien. We would be spoiled by a decadent breakfast and one anothers delightful company for the next two mornings. Charlotte also reattached a button to my old Pendelton wool shirt. Full service!

And now for the icing on the icing, the forecast called for TWO SUNNY DAYS at the Washington coast in early March. Jackpot! We arrived late Tuesday afternoon and headed out to beach to see what we could find and catch some birds, if not, maybe just the sunset.

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Spotted by eagle-eye Mike Smith from over a hundred yards away. I was thrilled to just see a Merlin, but Mike, who has spent a lifetime among the birds was like, "that fella up yonder could use a talon trim." Then Luke told the Merlin to sit still for a picture, and he obliged. These guys are true bird whisperers!

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Long Beach, Washington

Ladies and gentlemen, I present the glorious Pacific Northwest.

Wednesday. After an amazing breakfast, we got out to beach to begin our survey. We have two goals when conducting these surveys as we drive the length of the Long Beach Peninsula. One: count raptors. We saw myriad Bald Eagles, both juveniles and adults. One Northern Harrier. A Merlin or two. And of course Peregrine Falcons, which brings us to Goal Number Two: trapping and banding Peregrine Falcons! This work is very important to the resurgent Peregrine population. Read all about Coastal Raptors important work and consider making a donation.

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Common Raven

On the beach we mostly find scavengers. This guy was trying to sell me "gently used" crab legs. We passed.

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Bald Eagle

Our national bird is the biggest and baddest raptor in the U.S. They are pragmatic when it comes to finding dinner. Sometimes they hunt. Sometimes they steal the fish of someone else's labor. Sometimes they'll fight one another over a seal corpse. Honestly.

Bald Eagle group on a carcas Long Beach, WA DSC_8574-1.jpg

Above: Teenagers cleaning up the leftovers. Below: Mother hoarding fresh crab.

Bald Eagle pair Long Beach, WA DSC_8823-1.jpg

Near the end of our second day we finally spotted a murmuration of Dunlins under attack from a pair of Peregrines. Quick! Get into position! Everyone has a job to do. Mine is to stay out of the way. And take pictures.

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A Murmuration of Dunlins. Not to be confused with a Confederacy of Dunces.

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Peregrine Falcon W6 Long Beach, WA DSC_9003-1.jpg

One of the two falcons was banded "W6" and was originally trapped and banded on October 31, 2014 by Coastal Raptors. Before today, "W6" had been spotted (and photographed) only once. You can find out more details about this and other surveys at Notes from the Field on The Coastal Raptors website.

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Scientist on the loose

Time is of the essence when setting the falcon traps. Dan was clocked at an impressive 49 mph on his mad scientist's dash.

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This is the mate of "W6". We were unable to capture either of these beautiful birds. Just as well, this time. We had a lovely time watching them do their thing and marveling at their athleticism and grace. Even if they are a little bit surly at at times.

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Peregrine Falcon

If you think I'm fast when chasing Dunlins, wait until you see how fast I hit you with a cease and desist order if you so much as think of putting me in some corn ball 2019 "Conversations with Birds" Calendar.

This trip we had a special third goal, the pickin' part of "Pickin' an' a-Peregrinin'". Three: to record “Band on the Bird”. When Dan and I spoke at BirdFest and Bluegrass in Ridgefield, WA last October, we rewrote and performed a song parody of the classic Paul McCartney song to help spread the word among birders about the importance of reporting banded birds to the bird banding lab. Reporting a banded bird is how I met Dan back in 2016, but that’s another story. Gerrit was kind enough to record the effort.

Thanks again to all these wonderful people and especially to Dan Varland for getting us all together.

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Aloha from the "Nui Mokupuni" Part Two

PART 2 - “It is your Destin-I’iwi”

Last year my friend Barbara Ayars returned from her annual vacation to the Big Island (or as I call it “Nui Mokupuni” - see Part One) with this gift, “Hawaii's Birds”, to inspire me to go to Hawaii, explore the avian life and experience the endemic foo foo drinks. It worked. Mrs S. and I arranged our vacation this year to overlap with the Ayars’ and we had an absolutely lovely time, hiking, swimming, snorkeling and emptying plates and glasses. (If anyone else is thinking of luring me somewhere with this plan, I would ask you to skip the book and just buy me a plane ticket. I’ll cover the book.)

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Behold part 2 of my Big Island saga, centered on the endemic and endangered birds of The Big Island, Hawaii.

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Hawaiian Goose

The state bird. Called Nene by locals. This was the first endemic and endangered species I spotted on this trip. On the lawn at the Marriott. That was a surprise. Usually the only endangered species seen at a resort hotel are affordable prices.

Hawaiian Goose banded Waikoloa Beach, Hawaii DSC_4571-1.jpg

Band on the Bird

To rephrase Paul McCartney and Wings: “See the band, know the plan. It’s good for everyone. Band on the bird.” Report your sightings here: I did.

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Smart parents teach their young basic survival skills like “Before crossing the fairway, look both ways, then run like hell.”

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These birds nearly drove me insane, making the forest canopy at Volcano National Park into a hall of mirrors. These birds were everywhere and nowhere. They have several different calls and to the untrained and easily excitable ear (mine) it sounds as if you're surrounded by multiple species, all lifers. Nope. Just Apapanes. They’re still beautiful.

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Hawaiian Stilt

As I mentioned in part 1, Aimakapa Fish Pond was closed, but I managed to get close enough to snap a few pics of the native stilts, by the dawn's early light.

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Mrs. S. and I went on a guided group tour with Hawaii Forest and Trail which I can highly recommend. The trip is not for the faint of heart, as we hiked several miles over the course of an 11 hour day at two locations. Garry Dean was our guide and he was as good as it gets. His knowledge of the Big Island’s geology, geography and history as well as his familiarity with Hawaii’s flora and fauna was top notch. Better still, he was a gifted speaker full of fun facts, jokes (some were even funny) and personality. His passion for birding and conservation was infectious. This trip was made even more special by the nice people who were on the tour with us. We enjoyed spending the day with them.

Hawaiian Owl, Pueo Big Island Hawaii through window DSC_5815-1.jpg

Hawaiian Owl

Also called Pueo. Seen soaring over a field at dawn. This is the most expensive lens filter I’ve ever used and I don’t think I like it. A $90,000 tour van.

Due to the nature of a group tour, these photos are not as impressive as those taken earlier in my trip when I had time to patiently set up shots or wait for the birds to get into position. Nonetheless, I’m happy to share my pictures of these rare birds.

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Hawaii Amakihi

I was like, “Hey, his bill is not as long as on the cover of the bird book.” And I was right, because this is the Hawaii Amakihi and the bird on the cover is the Kauai Amakihi. Several Hawaiian species have island specific adaptations which unequivocally PROVE that birds evolved. From other birds. It’s called science.

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Hawaii Amakihi, female

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Further Proof!

The bird on the left evolved from the bird on the right. Science.

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Hawaii Elepaio

The name reminds me of a grade school joke. What do you get when an elephant mates with a rhinoceros? Elephino.

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This is the rarest bird I saw on the trip. They reside in a 25 square mile area above 6000 ft elevation and their ranks have thinned to about 2000 or so. That’s not very many, although that’s still about 200 times as many people as are reading my blog. Let’s hope both of us make a rally.

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Palila are finicky eaters, feeding almost exclusively on mamane trees. They’re pickier eaters than a toddler with early onset affluenza.

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His latin name is Myadestes Obscurus which sounds very much like the name of a James Bond villain. "I see you have found my secret lair, Mr. Bond. I'm impressed. Prepare to die." The name also illustrates their secretive nature, so I was delighted to get a clear picture through this dense forest. 

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There it is. The bird that inspired the trip to Hawaii and the last endemic species I witnessed. It was my destin-i’iwi.

Every trip needs a checklist

Every trip needs a checklist

Full list of birds I spotted. You can visit my Life List page to see pictures not included in this blog.

Hawaii Big Island Birds February 3 -10, 2018

41 seen 1 heard

*29 lifers

5 Endangered species (E)

11 endemic species (e)


House Sparrow

*Zebra Dove

*Common Myna

*Saffron Finch

*Japanese White-eye

*Yellow-billed Cardinal

*Yellow-fronted Canary

House Finch

*Hawaiian Goose (E)(e)

*Spotted Dove

*Common Waxbill

*Pacific Golden-plover

Black-crowned Night-heron


*Kalij Pheasant

Wild Turkey 

*Hawaiian Hawk (E)(e)

*Gray Francolin

Snow Goose

Northern Cardinal

*African Silverbill

*Wandering Tattler

*White-faced Ibis

*Hawaiian Stilt (E)(e)

*Hawaiian Coot (E)(e)

*Cattle Egret

Ruddy Turnstone

*Hawaiian Amakihi (e)

*Palila (E!)(e)

*Hawaii Elepaio (e)

*’Omao (e)

*Iiwi (e)

*Hawaiian Owl (e)

*Black Francolin

*Erckel’s Francolin

California Quail


Ring-necked Pheasant

*Red Jungle Fowl

Northern Mockingbird 

Rock Dove


Heard Only

*Red-billed Leiothrix

I have a hard time checking off “heard only” birds. Particularly when it is heard by your guide and you’re unfamiliar with the call yourself. Did I hear it? Yes. Was it there? Undoubtedly. Was it fulfilling? Not in the slightest.


Aloha from the "Nui Mokupuni" Part One

PART 1 - Tourists, like me

The Big Island. Hawaii. Also called Hawaii. As in "the island of Hawaii in Hawaii". Confused? You see Hawaii is 1 of 6 Hawaiian Islands you can readily visit. Kauai, Oahu, Molokai, Lanai, Maui, and the island of Hawaii, but DON’T call it that. It just isn't done. They call it “The Big Island”. Why not call it "Nui Mokupuni"? That's "big island" in Hawaiian and sounds way cooler. Kind of like a middle linebacker. "And here comes Nui Mokupuni with a great tackle. I think he just saved a touchdown, Jim."

On Part 1 of this blog I share my encounters with the introduced species and migrants. Ya know, tourists, like me. Part 2 we’ll meet the endemic birds like Nene, I'iwi, Amakihi, Palila and more. Shall we? Let’s go!


Common Myna Waikoloa Beach, Hawaii DSC_4465.jpg

Common Myna

Seen at the airport in a tree by the baggage claim. I scrambled to get the camera out of my luggage. Lucky I did, too. I only saw another 13,437 Mynas over the course of the next week.

The Kona airport is basically outside, like a street mall. Walking around under foot, are Zebra Doves, which are essentially the street pigeons of Hawaii.

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Zebra Dove

They should have their own reality show. "The REAL Street Pigeons of The Kona Airport". I'll bet their cumulative IQ rivals that of the entire real housewives series.

We stayed at the Marriott at Waikoloa Beach, which proved to be a lovely habitat for non-native birds who, like non-native humans, seem to flourish in simulated and immaculately manicured surroundings.

Saffron Finch Waikoloa Beach, Hawaii DSC_4865-1.jpg

Saffron Finch

I was in the car at the hotel waiting for Mrs. S to check in when I saw these tiny yellow fairies descending in pairs from the palm trees and onto the lawn. I recognized them from the field guide.

I saw many of these birds for the first time from our 5th floor balcony, which I’ve found is a great place to survey the avian life. And to make other guests uneasy.

“Who’s the creep with binoculars on the balcony?” 

“That’s no creep. That’s amateur ornithologist Tony Starlight.”

“They’re not mutually exclusive you know.”

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Japanese White-eye

I was told this is the Big Island’s most ubiquitous bird, found in each habitat, elevation, and micro-climate throughout the island. That big circle around the eye reminds me of the dog from Our Gang, aka “The Little Rascals”.

Japanese White-eye

Japanese White-eye

Yellow-billed Cardinal Waikoloa Beach, Hawaii DSC_4304-1.jpg

Yellow-billed Cardinal

They are much smaller than I had anticipated after perusing the field guide. This larger than life picture won’t help you with that misconception. I often wish I had a field guide that represented each bird to scale. Sure it would be a little bit bulky, but I suppose the California Condor could be included as the centerfold. Tastefully nude, of course. Come to think of it, all these birds are nude.

Yellow-fronted Canary Waikoloa Beach, Hawaii DSC_4909-1.jpg

Yellow-fronted Canary

Another teeny, tiny bird. Not just yellow-fronted either. Yellow-sided. Yellow-browed. Yellow-chinned. Yellow-breasted. Yellow-bellied. Yellow-rumped.

"I'm the King of the World" - Yellow-fronted Canary

"I'm the King of the World" - Yellow-fronted Canary

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Mon Goose

Take a gander at this guy! These little Mon Geese were everywhere and aren’t even in the field guide. Insert your own bad pun here.  ______________.

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House Finch

Normally I wouldn’t include such a common bird from home, but he posed so beautifully in the light and at just the perfect angle, and basically demanded inclusion in this photo journal. His diet induced yellow coloration is different from the red we see in the Pacific Northwest. After seeing him, I avoided eating Pupus and Loco Moco for fear of turning yellow myself. (Although I somehow returned from Hawaii with an obvious pink hue.)

Spotted Dove Waikoloa Beach, Hawaii DSC_4553-1.jpg

Spotted Dove

Twice the size of the more common Zebra Dove. Very reminiscent of the Eurasian Collared-dove from home. Can be heard cooing in the morning hours.

Pacific Golden-Plover Kona, Hawaii DSC_5173-1.jpg

Pacific Golden-plover

These loners can be seen at odd locations throughout the island. Hotels, golf courses, lava rocks, beaches, parking lots. And even mid-air.

Pacific Golden-Plover

Pacific Golden-Plover

Black-crowned Night-heron Waikoloa Beach, Hawaii DSC_4409-1.jpg

Black-crowned Night-Heron

I’ve seen several of these in Florida and Oregon but couldn’t get any decent pictures, and now I’m blessed with several nice pics.

I always wondered what happens when people with hyphenated last names married. I guess it’s kinda like this bird’s name. Now I know.

Black-crowned Night-heron in flight Waikoloa Beach, Hawaii DSC_6256-1.jpg

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Hawaii’s strangest feature to me was the lack of shore birds near the beaches. No gulls, pelicans, crows, cormorants etc. Whenever I did see a bird flying near shore it was a BCNH.

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Black-crowned Night-Heron

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Kalij Pheasant

This beauty joined our hike in Volcano National Park. When Mrs S. first spotted him she excitedly pointed and whispered “BIG BIRD." He was skulking about behind some brush. I snapped a picture and moved quietly closer, in stealth mode, not wanting to startle him away.

Kalij Pheasant Volcano National Park, Hawaii DSC_4672-1.jpg

Kalij Pheasant

He kept approaching, eventually even showing me his “guns” and emitting an aggressive “come at me, bro” attitude.

Kalij Pheasant

Kalij Pheasant

"I belong on a postage stamp" - Kalij Pheasant

"I belong on a postage stamp" - Kalij Pheasant

Wandering Tattler Kona, Hawaii DSC_5392-1.jpg

Wandering Tattler

Seen from a restaurant patio and originally dismissed as having spotted a Spotted Sandpiper. But I ventured off the patio and onto the lava rocks, camera in one hand, Mai Tai in the other. Dangerous, I know. I almost dropped the little paper umbrella.

Wild Turkey Waikaloa Village, Hawaii DSC_4759-1.jpg

Wild Turkey

Wow! What a face. Clearly the bulldog of the bird world (without all the slobber.)

Took a morning hike to Aimakapa Fish Pond. It was closed. How can a pond be closed? Good Lord. But I skulked around and was able to view the pond from afar and found a few more lifers, including the Hawaiian Coot and Hawaiian Stilt which will be featured in Part 2 of this saga. And this Ibis.

White-faced Ibis Kona, Hawaii DSC_5221-1.jpg

White-faced Ibis

I’ll have to take everyone’s word he has a white face. I would have named him a Green-butted Ibis since all I ever saw was his keester.

Cattle Egret juvenile Kona, Hawaii DSC_5535-1.jpg

Cattle Egret juvenile

Not able to get a better view, I walked beneath a tree teeming with baby egrets. I noticed they were busy trying to “whitewash” the beach below their heronry, but I bravely ventured in and managed a picture of this little guy gazing down on me.