May 3, 2010

Sea Lyons

Tole Mour Anchored off Santa Barbara Island
by Joel Such

Marcel and I (Joel) embarked on a five-day sailing trip off the coast of California. Our neighbor, Clark (a.k.a Patch), organized this trip for Lyons area teens. We flew to LA on March 28th with a total of 29 kids and 6 chaperones with one being our dad.

Upon arrival, we beheld a 156-foot long, 340-ton, three masted tall ship moored at the Long Beach Harbor . . . the Tole Mour . . . the ship we were going to learn to sail. We spent our initial day on land exploring Long Beach where I got in as much birding time as possible. The next day we would be loading onto the ship where we would have few if any opportunities for dedicated birding. I was pleased to find a few Black Oystercatchers, Willets, Marbled Godwits, Heermann’s Gulls, etc.

Willet - by Joel Such

Willet in Flight - by Joel Such

Marbled Godwit - by Joel Such

Heermann's Gulls - by Joel Such

Heermann's Gull Bathing - by Joel Such

We spent our first evening at the Long Beach Aquarium getting a behind-the-scenes tour and performing some experiments. When we turned in for the night, we all found a spot on the floor next to the big tanks where large fish swam by our heads through the night. The next morning we boarded the Tole Mour! As we headed out of the harbor, we saw Surf Scoters and our first Sea Lions of the trip, our group’s namesake.

Sea Lions and a Western Gull - by David Such

When we got out of the harbor, it was time to set sail! They first showed us how it was done and we only did a little of the work. As the wind blew us farther out to sea we saw our first whale of the trip . . . and my first ever whale. It was a Fin Whale followed shortly after by a second Fin Whale. These are massive creatures, the second largest living animal after the Blue Whale! Both Fin and Blue Whales are baleen whales, which means they do not have teeth, but rather baleen plates for filtering food from the water.

Fin Whale Surfacing near the Tole Mour - by David Such

Headsails - by David Such

After sailing most of the day, we anchored off the coast of Santa Barbara Island. We climbed to the crow's nest and got a bird's eye view of the deck below and a spectacular view of the island.

Joel Climbing to the Crow's Nest - by David Such

Bird's Eye View of the Deck - by David Such

We started the next morning (and every morning of the trip) with an optional polar bear jump into the ocean followed by a warm, tasty breakfast. Our morning activity was snorkeling off the island's shore where we swam with sea lions. It felt very odd being encircled by gazillions of these curious creatures. We saw very few fish and were told that there are so many sea lions around the island that the fish population is low.

Marcel Takes the Polar Bear Plunge - by Clark Hodge

California Sea Lion - by Clark Hodge

Surrounded by Sea Lions - by David Such

After our morning of snorkeling, we took a small raft (the Landlord) to Santa Barbara Island. The winding trail up to the closed visitor center had yellow-blossomed Giant Coreopsis growing along the trail. We continued on, hiking to the other side of the island. Some of the birds I saw were Yellow-rumped and Orange-crowned Warblers, Western Meadowlarks, Horned Larks, Western Gulls, and Brown Pelicans.

Joel Walking Through Giant Coreopsis - by David Such

Blooms of the Giant Coreopsis - by David Such

Joel Photographing Western Gulls - by David Such

Western Gull on Santa Barbara Island - by Joel Such

The Such Crew on Santa Barbara Island

After the visit on Santa Barbara Island, we got ready to set sail for Catalina Island. I had my hands full setting the Mainsail as I saw a petrel flying low over the ocean . . . too far to identify by naked eye, and if I dropped the line to get my binoculars . . . I would be in big trouble. The petrel species will forever be a mystery to me! As we got to the island, we started tacking and jibing and saw Common Dolphin, scientific name - Delphinus delphis.

We anchored in Isthmus Harbor and while I hung from the yard arms furling one of the squaresails, I noticed lots of twinkling flashes in the water far below. During the upcoming night hours, thousands of squid swarmed around the boat, unmatched by anything the captain had seen since 1996. It was likely the ship's lighting that attracted them. Perhaps they thought it was moonlight. One of the crew members (Beckett) jumped in the water with his snorkeling gear and my dad's little waterproof camera and took AMAZING photos of the squid!

Squid as Observed from the Deck - by Dave Such

Underwater Squid Photo - by Beckett

Over the next three days, we continued sailing around the Channel Islands learning the ropes and getting proficient at setting the sails. We jumped into the sea every morning before breakfast, washed dishes, scrubbed decks, snorkeled, kayaked, went ashore at Toyon Bay, got doused by big waves crashing over the bow, felt sorry for our shipmates who got seasick, studied marine biology (plankton, bioluminescence, sea mammals, bio-accumulation of toxins, etc.), saw a Gray Whale, rode the bowsprit while dolphins swam beneath us, and learned the value of hard work, teamwork, and cooperation.

Furling the Sails (Marcel in front) - by David Such

Unfurling the Squaresail (Marcel on far right)
by David Such

Sails - by David Such

Riding the Bowsprit - by David Such

Garibaldi (Hypsypops rubicundus)
California's State Marine Fish
by David Such

Common Dolphins Swimming Alongside the Tole Mour
by Maia Lang

On our last day, we Sea Lyons struck and set the sails for our voyage back to Long Beach Harbor in our record time of 19 minutes unassisted by the Tole Mour Crew. It was an amazing trip full of incredible experiences! Thanks to Patch for all the time and energy he put into making this trip happen and to Captain Snark and the rest of the Tole Mour crew for a great adventure!!!

Sea Lyons Crew on the Tole Mour

May 2, 2010

Great Texas Birding Classic


(Bottom tier, from left to right: Spencer Hardy, Chip Clouse, and Andy Johnson. Second tier, left to right: Neil Gilbert and Harold Eyster. Top tier: yours truly. Photo by Chip Clouse)

I recently returned from the Upper Texas Coast with the American Birding Association’s Tropicbirds youth team, where we competed in the annual Great Texas Birding Classic. Our final tally for the Big Day was 206 species, a great number for the Upper Coast, and in fact, nine more than the winning 2010 adult Upper Coast team and six off of the Upper Texas Coast Big Day record for any age group! Chip even had to shave his head, as he promised he would if we hit 170 species! I saw a total of eleven life birds in Texas, which was far more than I was expecting. It wasn’t just the birds and the opportunity to raise funds for a good cause that made this trip incredible, but also the camaraderie of my fellow teammates Andy Johnson and Harold Eyster from Michigan, Neil Gilbert from California, Spencer Hardy from Vermont, and our faithful chaperones and adult mentors Chip Clouse of the American Birding Association and Charles Hesse of Tropical Birding. They were all extraordinary! I have posted below some of my better photos from the event plus a couple of Chip Clouse's photos.

To all of you who donated to the ABA’s youth program on my behalf, I extend a heartfelt thank you. To those of you who would still like to contribute to this worthy cause, you may still make a tax-deductible pledge online at:


We saw this Black-bellied Whistling-Duck near Sheldon Lake State Park while waiting for our last two teammates to arrive at the airport.

A female Eastern Pondhawk. One of the many great things about our team was that everyone had a broad interest in nature, not just restricted to the avian world.

A second-year Yellow-crowned Night-Heron at Sheldon Lake State Park.

Ribbon Snake at Sheldon Lake State Park.


On the scouting day we were allowed to take photos, but on the Big Day, we wouldn't even stop to tie our shoes, let alone take photos! Just run, run, run!

King Rail at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.

Same King Rail. Most of the rails at Anahuac are "Cling" Rails, Clapper x King Rail hybrids, though this one appears to be a pure King.

A Great-tailed Grackle at Boy Scout Woods, High Island.

Fellow team member Harold Eyster photographing an exhausted male Summer Tanager at Smith Oaks, High Island.

The aforementioned Summer Tanager.

One of the many American Alligators circling the waters around the Smith Oaks rookery islands, hoping for an unlucky egret chick to fall out of its nest.

A Great Egret in full-on breeding plumage.


Big days start early and end late! We birded 22 hours straight! Here we are at about 5 AM in the Piney Woods listening for nocturnal flight calls and early singers. Photo by Chip Clouse.

Team member Neil Gilbert navigating to Fish Crows on the Big Day. We found them, though they remained completely silent while we watched them. After finally identifying them by bill length, wing formula, and gut feeling, we were driving away when we heard a single distinct Fish Crow call in the distance.


A Cattle Egret in breeding plumage flying over the Rail Prairie of Anahuac the morning after the event.

Our final visit to Anahuac for the legendary Rail Walk where we flushed up a Yellow Rail! Wading through knee-high needle-sharp Spartina grass in nought but shorts and sandals is something I'll never do again. When I did the walk two years ago on a Colorado Field Ornithologists trip, I was still miserable after wearing rubber boots and jeans.

A beautiful male Painted Bunting found stunned underneath a random gas station window. After photographing it, Spencer caught it and moved it to a more suitable habitat, out of reach of hungry grackles.