23 April 2014

Men or Meiss?

The pace of new Sacramento County year birds definitely seems to be slowing as of late.  I mean, I still need Warbling Vireo, Hermit Warbler, Blue Grosbeak, Western Wood-Pewee, and Olive-sided Flycatcher to name a few but I'm not even sure the latter 1-2 species will arrive before I depart in 17 days.  

A walk-about at Cosumnes the other day didn't yield much other than a vocal PACIFIC-SLOPE FLYCATCHER feeding near one of the sloughs.  Compared to the other recent empid photos I've posted, note the completely yellow lower mandible, thick eyering, noticeable crest, and short primary projection:

The one new year bird came when Ashley hurriedly motioned me towards the patio window; perched in a tree bordering the boulevard was a female BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAK.  It looked around for quite a while before flying and actually landing on the patio.  I can't recall the last time I was ever this close to any species of grosbeak:

Today I took a spin out along Meiss Road to check on things.  If you aren't familiar with this part of Sacramento County, you're in for a treat.  Stretching in front of you is an expansive vista of foothill grasslands, complete with the snow-capped Sierras in the background:

The road is definitely one not oft-traveled ... which is why I love it so much.  The grassy roadsides act as an active SAVANNAH SPARROW dispenser right now; you move, they pop out.  In the end, I counted nearly 100 in a 7.5 mile stretch.  Here's a view of the road:

Another crazy-abundant species out there was WESTERN KINGBIRD.  I carefully counted 77 on the same 7.5 mile stretch of road.  That averages out to more than 10 kingbirds per mile... or 2-3 kingbirds every 200 meters.  Here's one that stuck tight:

Late-April can be a good time to stir up interesting sparrows out in the grasslands.  For example, I was successful in finding 2 BREWER'S SPARROWS which is a rare species any time of year in Sacramento County (but if you're going to look for them, now is the time).  I especially enjoyed hearing one bust out into song; if you don't know what they sound like, play around on Xeno-Canto.

I also had 3 GRASSHOPPER SPARROWS, an uncommon breeding species here in Sacramento County.  And for some reason, this particular one didn't appear very wary of the car:

Anyway, I ended with 25 species after 82 minutes.  You can see the full checklist here.

21 April 2014

Gray Fly & others

We were happy to stumble on a GRAY FLYCATCHER at Don Nottoli Park this morning.  This park, which is only a mile or two from where we live, has turned into a favorite local patch of ours.  Although I don't think it was ever birded before we moved here, the species total for the park is closing in on 130.  Gray Flycatcher was a new one (and a county lifer for both of us).

Digiscoping with my iPhone turned out to be a great way to photograph this bird:


I also took a video of the bird which you can see here.  Note that the tail dips downward which is distinctive for this species.

The bird was feeding low along the edge of the northwest portion of the marsh.  Here's a map of exactly where it was hanging out (zoom out if you'd like to see where this park is in general):

View Gray Flycatcher in a larger map

I think this is only the 5th GRAY FLYCATCHER I've ever seen so it was great to review ID marks.  I think the most obvious fieldmark is the GIANT bill with a bright yellow lower mandible that's tipped in black.  Pac-slope has an all-yellow lower mandible and Dusky/Hammond's have smaller, darker bills.

We also took a spin up to Michigan Bar Road in eastern Sacramento County.  We first bumped into 3 CHIPPING SPARROWS about 1.7 miles up from Highway 16 (yes, they're flagged and rather uncommon around here; a completely different story from back east).  We also heard a LAZULI BUNTING singing at the same spot.

At about 2.4 miles up from the highway, we found what we came for, two BREWER'S SPARROWS:

This is another rather uncommon, flagged species here.  However, April and early-May is the time to check grasslands around Michigan Bar Road and Meiss Road.

Our last stop was at a new area we've been exploring in eastern Elk Grove.  It's the Laguna Creek Parkway Trail.  We walked the stretch that meanders east from Elk Grove Florin Road:

View Laguna Creek Parkway Trail in a larger map

A bit down the trail we bumped into yet another CHIPPING SPARROW for the day.  This one was a bit more photogenic than the other ones (and yet it's still pseudo-hiding from me):

A little farther down the trail we found a nice mini-flock containing a TOWNSEND'S WARBLER, NASHVILLE WARBLER, and this empid.  Best we can tell, it's probably a HAMMOND'S but there were a couple of things that seemed odd.  The bill looks fine for HAMMOND'S/DUSKY but I wasn't sure if the wing projection looked quite long enough for HAMMOND'S:


However, the bird was feeding rather high in the trees which is another point that favors HAMMOND'S:

Anyway, earlier this week Don Nottoli Park yielded a few other interesting birds including this skulking MACGILLIVRAY'S WARBLER:

... and this easy-to-identify HAMMOND'S FLYCATCHER:
Again, note the long primary projection and the small, all-dark bill.  Try comparing it with the above empid.  See the differences?

This SWAINSON'S HAWK was nice... especially because it was soaring directly over the patio:

Hmm, anyway, that's all for now...

20 April 2014

THE WORLD'S RAREST BIRDS

Although tens of thousands of birders weren't lined up waiting for this release, it's a very interesting collection of information and it touches on a subject most birders, including myself, are probably very much interested in.  "The World's Rarest Birds", by Erik Hirschfeld, Andy Swash, and Robert Still, was published in 2013 by Princeton University Press.  It is 360 pages, hardcover, and costs $45.00.


Ok, before I get into the details of the book, check out this awesome-looking bird:

As you can read, it's a LONG-WHISKERED OWLET.  What you might not know about this bird is that it was first described to science only 37 years ago.  Why so recently?  Well, its range is limited to just a few isolated ridges in the East Andes of Peru.  Furthermore, it prefers the understory of very wet elfin forests with abundant epiphytes, bamboo thickets, scattered palms, and tree ferns at 1,890-2400 meters.  The population is estimated to be between 250-1000 birds worldwide.

If I'm being honest, it was reading about species such as this that was part to blame for me becoming so interested in birds many years ago.  The realization that there are species still out there waiting to be described blew my mind (and still amazes me).

Now fast forward to today and this book review... stepping into the world painted by this book is almost like a childhood dream of mine.  Birds have interested me for a long time but RARE birds truly catapulted my imagination as a kid... and now I'm lucky enough to be reviewing a book focused entirely on the stories of birds like the above owlet.

This isn't a field guide.  This isn't a textbook.  Instead I'd call it a photographic catalog/reference guide.  It's based on the IUCN/BirdLife rankings which, if you're not familiar with them, is a widely used conservation status listing and ranking system used for all sorts of creatures (not just birds).  The introduction of the book has a couple of charts highlighting those ideas:

The below chart would do a better job at describing the thresholds than I would... so give it a look:

Also in the introduction was this somewhat-generic map showing species by country.  I'm not sure why I took a picture of it but hey, it's kinda interesting if you like maps, birds, and bird maps:

As best as I can tell, the book is organized by region.  First comes a couple of broad-topic pages filled with nice photos, maps, and illustrations:

Then the species accounts begin.  You'll notice them off to the right of the below spread.  Each species doesn't exactly get an in-depth review but it does highlight where they were/are found, how many are believed alive, as well as the threats that species faces:

Switching regions, here's a view of the introduction page for Polynesia and Micronesia.  Notice the Tuamotu Sandpiper in the lower right, a species I've wanted to study ever since I started working with shorebirds almost 10 years ago:

The following close-up examples should look familiar to most of us; they're found here in North America:

And hey, John Sterling, nice pic:

Seems kinda lame that I wasn't aware that fewer than 5000 BCPEs exist... although I'm not really sure what I expected:

Switching gears to South America... did I mention that the photography in this book is quite stunning?  These 2-page spreads mark the start of a new region... and also highlight some pretty amazing photos.  You might recognize this as the very rare Marvelous Spatuletail from Peru:

Although I was excited to bird in the Amazon Basin a little in 2005, I was much less excited just now seeing what this map shows:

Sweeeet, more mergus (and definitely not one I've seen).  Give it some time and I bet Tim will have one at Tiscornia:

This map shows a generic migration schematic which is pretty self-explanatory:

... as is this one:

In a way, it's really sad that this book has so many species in it.  However, I've never seen such an impressive collection of information about rare birds.  Although it's more of a coffee table/picture book, it's one you must have if you're interested about the rare birds of the world.  Considering I'm well out of my element with many of these species, I really don't have anything critical to say about the book in general.  Is it one that I'll use often?  Probably not.  However, I'm glad it exists!

If you'd like to learn more about it or order it from Princeton University Press, visit here.


Disclaimer:
I received a complementary copy from the publisher for review purposes, 
but the viewpoint expressed in this article is entirely my own.

17 April 2014

The 100 species checklist

There's been this idea inside my head lately (on the back burner and getting stinky).  You'll remember back to January 1 of this year (or maybe you won't) when I set out to find 100 species in a day here in Sacramento County.  Well, I rushed around and ultimately came up a few short.  Not a big deal... BUT I was close enough to get the gears turning.

Cosumnes River Preserve, which sits on the southern edge of Sacramento County, often provides some impressive variety when it comes to day lists.  Not surprisingly, the impressive variety of birds is due to the impressive variety of habitats found there.  From the flooded fields which are great for waterfowl, to the drawn-down fields that can be good for shorebirds, to the impressive remnant riparian areas and sloughs, Cosumnes is kinda where it's at.

I've topped 80 species on a single visit there a few times but the nagging question lingered: "Would 100 be possible during a single visit?"  I assumed it could be done but with careful planning.  Today was the day except... I had no careful planning; instead I just decided to wing it.

I arrived around 7:30 this morning and started by scoping shorebirds and ducks along Desmond Road and the Lost Slough areas.  A SEMIPALMATED PLOVER was one of the first to greet me:

It was quite evident that the floodgates had opened for WESTERN SANDPIPERS.  There were fewer than 5 a couple of days ago but now the numbers were 40+.  Note the black legs, bright rufous on head/cheek/scaps, and the longish/drooped bill:

One of the flooded units was being drawn down which made it an attractive destination for this SOLITARY SANDPIPER.  This was my best find of the day and was a county lifer for me:

Yep, and if the not-so-black back and the elongated look to the backend wasn't enough, I know it wasn't a Green Sandpiper by this shot of the rump:

All these ponds probably have actual names but I'll skip that step and put a pin exactly where the bird was:

View Solitary Sandpiper in a larger map

I continued on my trek and found several VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOWS bickering with TREE SWALLOWS for a potential nest site.  Well, I can't say for sure that these swallows will nest here but when a cavity-nester behaves like this, it's hard to assume otherwise:

It's a shame these two photos aren't a bit more in focus; I absolutely love the coloration on these guys:


But of course the TREE SWALLOWS weren't to be outdone.  If I were keeping track, this might be my best shot ever of a TRES head:

The afternoon sun (temps were in the 80s), brought out many butterflies.  This LORQUIN'S ADMIRAL was staring me down:

...and today yielded my first MYLITTA CRESCENTS of the year:

Nearing the end of my effort, I was in dire need of fluke additions to my checklist.  One of those occurred when I flushed an AMERICAN BITTERN along a stretch of boardwalk.  Although this species breeds at Cosumnes, it's not one you can expect to find when you actually want to.

Another fluke was this WHITE-THROATED SPARROW that is continuing to hang out by the Visitor Center.  And as you can see, I was dehydrated and hallucinating enough to not bother taking a half-decent photo:

I found myself at 97 species with a surprising list of misses:

Ring-necked Duck
Sora
Whimbrel
Dunlin
Rufous Hummingbird
Rock Pigeon
House Sparrow

It's uncanny how easy it is to see these species there when you don't give a crap.  However, it was nearing 2:00 PM and I needed to get out of Dodge.  I needed some birds... and pronto.  I returned to Desmond Road which seemed like a logical place to refocus on shorebirds.  Although DUNLIN was easy just a week ago, the numbers have really thinned out lately.  I trained my scope on a roosting flock of WESTERN and LEAST SANDPIPERS and, eventually, my scoping paid off when a couple of the roosting birds turned out to be DUNLIN.  Ok, two more, I needed two more bits of luck.  Fast forward a while.  Cruising slowly down the road, my mind started to wander.  "Is that a pure purple Golden Eagle?  With a jetpack?  Wait, is it diving... towards me?  Woah, this thing is going to hit my freaking car!  HOLY..." -snapping to reality-  I slammed on the breaks.  I had heard something.  I hopped out, looked up, and confirmed my suspicions; a WHIMBREL was flying over and giving its hollow series of notes.

I was on a roll, I just needed one more.  That'd be easy, right?  Or.... would I bake here in the sun all afternoon, slowly losing my mind?  Would the authorities find a sunburnt crispy in hiking boots wrapped around a tripod with the number 99 scratched in the dirt?

I'm not sure at what point I became desperate but it was probably about the time I started setting my scope up ON TOP OF my car.  Maybe this added height would pay off?  Way out in a flooded field, I spotted a distant white bird on the other side of a dirt berm.  After adjusting my car location 3 times, I could confirm what would be my 100th species of the day, a FORSTER'S TERN.  It wasn't on my radar but I'd take it either way!  I reveled in reaching the mark for about 0.003 seconds before I packed up and scrammed.

Anyway, it was fun having a target number and even though it ended up being a slog at the end, I'm happy I stuck with it.  A friend suggested what I did could be classified as a "Big Checklist".  In the age of Big Years, Big Days, why not limit yourself to one hotspot and see how high you can get your single-visit total to.  Have any of you tried this?  If so, I'd like to hear about it!

Oh, and before I forget, as soon as I got home, Ash and I returned to Cosumnes just to see if the SOSA was still present (and it was).  Here's a digiscoped photo taken with my phone and adaptor:

For those curious types, here's my final species list:

Greater White-fronted Goose
Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Gadwall
American Wigeon
Mallard
Blue-winged Teal
Cinnamon Teal
Northern Shoveler
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal
Ring-necked Pheasant
Pied-billed Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant
American White Pelican
American Bittern
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Green Heron
White-faced Ibis
Turkey Vulture
White-tailed Kite
Northern Harrier
Cooper's Hawk
Red-shouldered Hawk
Swainson's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Virginia Rail
Common Gallinule
American Coot
Black-necked Stilt
American Avocet
Black-bellied Plover
Semipalmated Plover
Killdeer
Solitary Sandpiper
Greater Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs
Whimbrel
Dunlin
Least Sandpiper
Western Sandpiper
Long-billed Dowitcher
Forster's Tern
Mourning Dove
Black-chinned Hummingbird
Anna's Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Nuttall's Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Black Phoebe
Ash-throated Flycatcher
Western Kingbird
Hutton's Vireo
Western Scrub-Jay
American Crow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Tree Swallow
Violet-green Swallow
Barn Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Oak Titmouse
Bushtit
White-breasted Nuthatch
House Wren
Marsh Wren
Bewick's Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Wrentit
Western Bluebird
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
Northern Mockingbird
European Starling
American Pipit
Orange-crowned Warbler
Nashville Warbler
MacGillivray's Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Wilson's Warbler
Spotted Towhee
California Towhee
Savannah Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Golden-crowned Sparrow
Red-winged Blackbird
Western Meadowlark
Brewer's Blackbird
Great-tailed Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Bullock's Oriole
House Finch
Lesser Goldfinch
American Goldfinch

... as seen on this checklist.

15 April 2014

Recent migration

I've birded every day for the last week or so and the reason is pretty simple... migration is at an interesting point right now around Sacramento County.  New species seem to arrive daily and after the excitement of the MARSH SANDPIPER only 13 miles from my house, I felt like I had to go do my share of rarity hunting.

I found no rarities.

Moving on.  In terms of shorebirds, the best find were 3 SEMIPALMATED PLOVERS at Cosumnes River Preserve two days ago.  Although they're expected migrants, April 13 was quite an early date to see this species.  Here's a digiscoped photo taken with my phone:

BLUE-WINGED TEAL are uncommon winter residents around here and are far less expected than GREEN-WINGED TEAL and CINNAMON TEAL.  However, they're now flagged in eBird, probably because it's mid-April already.  Here are some at Cosumnes River Preserve:

Cosumnes, which is relatively loaded with potential, has yielded several nice songbirds lately.  Perhaps most exciting to me was this warbler skulking in the shadows:

You'll notice one important thing (two, actually); the white eye-crescents gleaming back at you.  This MACGILLIVRAY'S WARBLER was the earliest eBirded record ever for Sacramento County.  It was a little devil to pin down though and getting documentation photos took a while.

As a completely unrelated aside, I have to say that I really enjoy using the BirdLog app which allows me to make eBird checklists on my phone while I'm out birding.  This way, if I see a bird, enter it on my phone, and see that it's flagged, I know then and there that I should try to get proof.  Although that's not a big deal if you're birding somewhere where you know all of those details, it's great if you're traveling and have no idea of expected arrival dates, etc.

Anyway, a wheezy, sputtering call came from the slough at Cosumnes a couple of days ago and I eventually tracked down the culprit, a BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER:

And although it was my first ever for Cosumnes, it's not particularly rare for the county.  However, it looks like this was the first time one had been eBirded from Cosumnes in about 3 years.

I dragged myself away from Cosumnes long enough to check out William Land Park farther up the road in Sacramento.  There wasn't much of note other than a RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRD or two around the rock garden and this BLACK-THROATED GRAY WARBLER that flew down to a puddle:

I haven't ignored all of my other local patches quite yet; I did hit up Don Nottoli Park just down the road from where I live.  My first of the spring WILSON'S WARBLER was singing away:

... and today there were two ASH-THROATED FLYCATCHERS.  This was the first time I'd ever had them there (not so for Ash).  Here's one of the two:

Only recently have CATTLE EGRETS started to move into the region in force.  We counted about 20 of them on our last visit to Don Nottoli Park.  As you can see, they're in the height of their breeding plumage (notice especially the shade of the bill and bare parts around the face):

But alas, it wasn't long before I spent more time at Cosumnes River Preserve.  For being relatively close to where I live, there isn't a place with better habitat.  On this particular visit, I glanced up to see my first VAUX'S SWIFTS of the spring overhead.  And yeah, taking pictures of swifts on a cloudy day isn't likely to boost anyone's confidence:

A silent PACIFIC-SLOPE FLYCATCHER was my first for the year.  Getting pics of this bird buried in the slough vegetation wasn't easy either:

And remember the teal?  The BLUE-WINGED TEAL, that are now flagged, have still been reliable.  Here's a male (left) with two females (right):

Ash and I went on a year-bird searching spree yesterday.  One main target was tucked away in the lush and exotic vegetation found in some neighborhoods up along the American River.  It's here, amongst the palms, that you might find HOODED ORIOLES.  They're an uncommon breeding species and one we don't see very often down where we live.  A tip from the one-and-only Ed Harper put us in the right place.  Here's a male:

Another target actually required us to be out at last light.  We ventured to the grasslands along Meiss Road (far eastern Sacramento County) to see the reliable LESSER NIGHTHAWKS.  We weren't disappointed; we spotted 3 foraging as soon as we arrived (this is 2.8 miles east of Dillard Road):

This was many hours before the lunar eclipse started but I took a picture of the moon low on the horizon anyway:

It was getting dark but we weren't finished with our targets yet.  We ventured up the road to Latrobe Road for another target.  We arrived at the spot (0.5 miles east of the intersection with Stonehouse Road) and at 8:10 PM, the COMMON POORWILL started singing.  And although this spot is a reliable place to find this tiny nightjar, it was a new county bird for both of us.

So after this recent bout of birding, my county year list stands at 193.  Recent additions include:

Black-chinned Hummingbird (4/8)
Western Sandpiper (4/9)
MacGillivray's Warbler (4/11)
Wilson's Warbler (4/12)
Nashville Warbler (4/13)
Cassin's Vireo (4/13)
Pacific-slope Flycatcher (4/13)
Vaux's Swift (4/13)
Semipalmated Plover (4/13)
Ash-throated Flycatcher (4/14)
Lesser Nighthawk (4/14)
Common Poorwill (4/14)
Hammond's Flycatcher (4/15)

There are still some targets that have been reported that I lack.  High on my list include:

Black-headed Grosbeak
Brewer's Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow
Warbling Vireo
Western Screech-Owl

That's all for now.  I'm going to go out and enjoy the 80 degree temps.