17 March 2015

Birds that find YOU

Here in Wellsville, there doesn't seem to be a lot that attracts out-of-town birders this time of year.  That's not to say that there aren't a few resident birders here, but compared to most other counties in New York, coverage here seems quite minimal.

To be honest, I don't mind that; I hope this dearth of coverage makes my menial checklists more valuable in filling some data gaps.  And as anyone who knows me knows, I find it pretty rewarding to have visualization of birding effort.  So yeah, I've been all about birding Allegany County for the last 1-2 weeks to see where it would take me.

Because I don't know this county like I should (considering I was born here), I've only been slowly feeling my way around, exploring roads here and there and repeatedly hitting some spots that seem productive.  But sometimes birds find you.

I was chugging down Highway 417 to the east of town when I passed an owl-shaped bump on a sign.  My first gut reaction was "Ok, who put a plastic owl decoy on a sign all the way out here?" but a split second later I realized it was a REAL owl, a BARRED OWL:
Woah, right?  I thought I had found something good for the county until... well... 10 minutes later I saw ANOTHER one somewhere else.  Ok, so maybe they're pretty thick around here.  Moving on.

Another spot I've checked several times is the Genesee River right in the middle of town (in the parking lot of a Tops grocery store, in fact).  One recent visit yielded 2 RED-BREASTED MERGANSERS which was flagged in eBird as rare.  Because of that fact, I snapped a picture so that whoever the eBird reviewer is would have some proof:
They're not rare around here but because I tire of seeing ROPI and EUST, I took a picture of this young BALD EAGLE along the river as well.  Of course, a gust of wind was blowing the neck feathers around AND the thing wouldn't look at me:
I've driven some of the hilltops around here hoping for more Snow Buntings but because we've gone into quite a thaw lately, more and more land is exposed and I think that's making the buntings harder to find.  In their place, however, were several HORNED LARKS.  Like the eagle, this one did a crummy job at posing:
Even with the recent thaw, bigger bodies of water around here aren't thawing quickly enough to get me excited.  This is a panoramic photo of a place we called Alma Pond (or Beaver Lake) which is a few miles to the SW of Wellsville:
Slap a filter on it via Instragram and one can make it look a lot more moody:
I did venture out on a county-listing endeavor yesterday though.  You see, although I spent many years growing up around here, I lack detailed (and reliable) records that I could enter into eBird.  And so in looking at my county map which I've posted lately, it's obvious that I had some work to do.  My goal yesterday was simply to make a checklist or two in as many counties as I could reasonably get to from home.  I ventured east, north, and then back west and south.  I ended up touching at least 10 counties yesterday which I thought was a good start.  Here's a map of only my NY counties:
You can see that I have 4 easy ones to visit up north and west of here; perhaps I'll attack those Thursday.

In any case, I ended visiting a hotspot or two yesterday in places I've hardly ever cared to look at birds.  One such public park in Chemung County had an area where families sponsored trees, benches, etc.  I was completely down with these folks sponsoring a bird-feeding station.  Even better, there was a little sign that said "Please fill the feeders".  Seeing that they were indeed empty and that the containers for seed below them were fully stocked, I was all about filling these bad boys.  I did just that and took a picture of of handy work:
Another hotspot I ventured to was calm, rather scenic, but completely lacking in terms of birds.  I'm sure this state forest will liven up when the breeding warbs return in a month or two:
One spot that had no shortage of birds was the Seneca Harbor Park in Watkins Glen.  In addition to species like RED-NECKED GREBE and GREAT BLACK-BACKED GULLS, the rafts of Aythya in the harbor proved to be entertaining for a while:
The CANVASBACKS were looking dapper.  This species is so-named because early Europeans thought that their backs was a canvas-like color.  In other languages, though, it basically translates to "white-backed duck".  Here's a male:
This species, like many ducks, dives completely underwater to find food.  The trick is to photograph them as they dive; here's one shortly after dunking its head:
Much more numerous than the Canvasbacks though were the REDHEADS.  Although they're somewhat similar-looking, note the gray back and bill differences on the Redhead.  This was an awesome place to get close looks at this sharp species:
In the end, it was one of my more enjoyable quick stops on my driving tour.  You can see the checklist here.

13 March 2015

X-Country (summer to winter)

This first update in two weeks is written with a heavy heart... actually, a cold heart... a cold everything, actually.  You see, I left the warmth and summer-like conditions in California, drove across the continent, and emerged in New York State where it certainly doesn't feel like spring.  Not to me, at least.

My epic 4-day drive took me through 12 states, put me in the front passenger seat of a police car in Illinois, and of course, a lot of county listing.  I'm not sure if it's the lack of other things to do as one drives across the country or my fascination with coloring in counties on my county map, but I kept track of birds I saw in essentially every county as I drove east.  All of that work was essentially for this map that I updated just now:

You'll see I missed one county in Illinois; that was due to poor planning on my behalf (I only ventured into this county under the shroud of darkness; and yes, I tried to find a HOSP in the dark when I got gas).  Other than that, you can see my route to western NY.

I didn't do a ton of birding along the way though; I was focused more on making good time.  I did snap a picture of this faded CHUKAR though; it's a shame, it looks like they've gone extinct at this particular location:
As I zoomed my way east through Nevada, pretty soon the Ruby Mountains became visible on the horizon.  I wouldn't stop for snowcock on this trip though; I was lucky to see them in 2013 and I'll be trying for them later on this spring:
I did make one detour in Nebraska though.  I found that I could pick up 2 new counties by just driving south from the interstate for 5 miles.  I figured I needed a break and found myself looking over grasslands (and HOLA, LALO, and EUCD) in Colorado:
Another stop in North Platte one morning yielded a slew of "Richardson's" CACKLING GEESE:
In fact, that stop yielded a lot of things that reminded me that I wasn't in the Central Valley anymore.  Here's the quick checklist.

I eventually found my way to Allegany County, New York, which is where I was born (and still have family).  Winter was waiting for me:
Speaking of winter though, the above landscape yielded a singing WINTER WREN which was mind-bogglingly pleasant sound.

Most of the rivers and bigger bodies of water though were still iced up.  In the few small patches I could find, COMMON MERGANSERS seemed to be a common theme.  Here's a blurry shot of one flying off... I suppose I was just shaking too much:
There have been signs of spring though.  The NORTHERN CARDINALS are in full song, some migrants have returned such as COMMON GRACKLES, RED-WINGED BLACKBIRDS, and this KILLDEER (which probably wasn't too keen on foraging opportunities):
Using eBird, I looked around at what's been seen in this (dramatically under-birded) county.  I followed up on a tip and found this SNOW BUNTING on a nearby hilltop:
I had a pleasant surprise today when I heard the all-too-familiar honking of TUNDRA SWANS somewhere.  I glanced up and imagine that, 46 swans heading west.  I whipped out my stellar zoom lens (iPhone = no lens) and took this amazing,  publishable quality photo:
Yesterday I found myself in the next county west of us, Cattaraugus.  This county is lucky in that it holds Allegany State Park.  It's not a small park, mind you, it's about 65,000 acres.  The mix of coniferous and deciduous trees, which surely have nesting NSWOs somewhere, looked nice to my California-jaded eyes:
Equally as nice-looking were 5 RUFFED GROUSE I found while driving some backroads.  Here's one leaning down and nipping a bud off this tree:
And yes, buds/twigs of birch, aspen, and willows are a main part of the diet of this species during the harsh winter months.
Interestingly, the popularity of this species as a game bird led to some of the earliest game management practices in the US.  For example, New York had a closed season on Ruffed Grouse in 1708!  I'll leave you with one more photo showing how this highly-intelligent bird used its renowned camouflage:

28 February 2015

Redhead & an early Barn

It's again been pleasant these last few days of February.  I wasn't the only one who thought so, this male ANNA's HUMMINGBIRD at a local patch of mine chatted up a storm to me about the weather.  Or maybe he just wanted me to go away.  Whatever.
An eBird report came in of a pair of REDHEADS at Cosumnes River Preserve.  You might not think it but this is a pretty rare species for Sacramento County (I had seen only one before).  I took the bait and headed down the next morning.  Gadzooks, there WAS a pair of REDHEADS.  Here's the male:

(I returned again that evening with Ash and they were still present.  A county bird for her and a year bird for both of us.  Good deal.)

I spent a good chunk of time at CRP that morning though and ended up with a decent 80+ species in about 3 hours (checklist seen here).  This WHITE-THROATED SPARROW, an uncommon species around here, has been present around the visitor center all winter and I chanced into it as I strolled by:
The sun was out and with temps around 70, the insects started flying.  Here's a CABBAGE WHITE:
I was more happy to see this PACIFIC FORKTAIL, my second damselfly of the year:
Just today we visited several hotspots here in Sacramento County to try to find some still-needed year birds.  Our first stop was East Lawn Cemetery; our target was TOWNSEND'S WARBLER which Ash still needed.  Fittingly, she spotted it after only 5 minutes of walking around.  Here's our checklist.

We then visited a park in Folsom where we had Violet-green Swallows last spring but it looked like they hadn't arrived yet.  Here's the quick checklist.

Our next stop was Michigan Bar Road, a favorite of ours, to see if many there were any swallows there.  Sadly, there weren't.  But who can complain with many LEWIS'S WOODPECKERS and even a flagged STELLER'S JAY?  Not to mention that Ashley picked up her year BHCO as well.  Here's our list.

Lastly, we swung into Meiss Road to scope the Meiss pond and to look for Mountain Bluebirds.  I was scoping through ducks and things when I instead started to focus on swallows that were flycatching above the pond.   Woah, a BARN SWALLOW was mixed in!  It's flagged in eBird because it's on the early side and, as luck would have it, it gained elevation and got closer to us, barely in range for my camera:
So that's what's been going on around here the last couple of days.  eBird has my Sacramento County year list at 176 species after only 2 months.  I compared this to my year list in 2014 and I am more than a month ahead of that pace!

See you in March.

25 February 2015

Hairy heat

February is already winding down and, at least here in the Central Valley, you can definitely tell spring is on the way.  It's getting light earlier and staying light later, more species are in full song, and many of the trees are in bloom.  Where I grew up, this weather is more befitting of April.  But considering my summers as of late have been chilly and drizzly, I won't complain about the warmth and the oddity of an early spring.

Although it's gotten warmer, that doesn't necessarily mean that the species composition has changed a whole lot.  Because of that, I haven't done that much birding in the past week or so.  However, one species has drawn me in a couple of times; the HAIRY WOODPECKER that continues to be seen along the shore of Lake Natoma.  Although I had already seen and gotten documentation pictures of this very rare Sacramento County woodpecker, I returned recently to see if it still was around.  It didn't take long and I soon traced the call notes down to the bird:
The bird wasn't as bold this time around but at least it was still present.  Because of its continuing presence and my seemingly good luck in finding it, I returned over the weekend but this time with Ashley who still needed it for county.  It again took a while to be cooperative but we eventually got to see and hear it in the same area as before.  Here's proof:
Another species we targeted that weekend was GREAT HORNED OWL which would have been a county year bird.  We used eBird to find all the recent GHOW records in the county, followed up on an eBird report of a nest on Elverta Road, and sure enough, there was a bird sitting in a nest high on the antenna/tower just to the west of Hwy 99:
Back home, I've continued to keep track of yard birds this month and eBird tells me I'm at about 46 species in February.  Some recent sightings include a young BALD EAGLE, newly-arrived CLIFF SWALLOWS, SANDHILL CRANES migrating north, and this continuing OSPREY:
Yesterday warmed up nicely into t-shirt weather and I visited Cosumnes with the sole purpose of seeing if any butterflies or other insects were flying.  I didn't see more than a couple of species of butterflies though and the only damselfly I saw was this one perching on flowers:
It looks to be either a Tule Bluet or Familiar Bluet.  The only problem is that females like this aren't easily differentiated (at least not by me!).

I did end up keeping a list of birds though; I ended up with 41 species in 39 minutes (checklist here).  I came across a pair of BUSHTITS attending their newly-made nest which was fun to watch.  The sock-like nest drooped down nearly a foot.  Here's a picture of the nest and, if you can spot it, the head of a BUSHTIT:
GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GEESE are still plentiful these days and I tallied more than 1.2k at this particular stop.  Other places in the Central Valley might be dominated by white geese but at least down here close to the San Joaquin Valley, it's the GWFG that dominate things.  And because I had nothing else to photograph, I even took a picture of one:

19 February 2015

Feel of Feb

In preparing this blog post, I thought back to the last 7 days and couldn't really recall anything that I thought was worthy of putting in a post.  But then I looked back through the photos and yes, they reminded me that I HAVE ventured outside.

I'll start with the annoying Swamp Sparrow that's been seen over in Yolo County on-and-off for several weeks.  Problem is, I've been there 3 times now and have missed the bird every time.  In a short-lived defeated stage, I took a picture of a SONG SPARROW instead:
I've been only minimally interested lately in cleaning up some county year birds that I've yet to see.   However, one day I did some looking around the Mather airport/wetlands and came up with my long overdue BURROWING OWL.  I then headed to the wetlands along N. Mather Blvd, a place where AMERICAN BITTERN has been reported from with some reliability.  But before I could even make it to the actual wetland, I found myself taking pictures of LESSER GOLDFINCHES for some reason.  Here's a male:
... and here's the much plainer female:
And yes, I succeeded in snagging AMERICAN BITTERN for the year.  This sneaky heron isn't the easiest species to bump into here in Sacramento County:
I also made a feeble attempt at finding a VESPER SPARROW along Meiss Road which turned out unsuccessful (but not surprising given they're rare in this county).  But the grasslands are still amazing and probably rank as my favorite place in Sacramento County:
It's not uncommon at all to see one or more FERRUGINOUS HAWKS on this stretch of expansive grassland.  Here's a light-morph:
The most common sparrow in those habitats right now is easily SAVANNAH SPARROW.  I tallied 94 of these little guys in a 7 mile stretch of road.  Here's one of them:
I had birded the road for more than 2 hours but only came up with 32 species (there just isn't much habitat diversity out there).  You can see the full checklist here.  However, the highlight of the morning came a few seconds after I had finished Meiss Road.  I had turned right onto Dillard Road and there within 0.25 miles was a nice male MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRD on the powerlines.  This is flagged in Sacramento County and so I was sure to back up to back it up:
It turns out, birders followed up on this and some saw as many as 15 in the area! 

I've spent most of my life in the range of EASTERN TOWHEES; a chunky mixture of black, white, and orange markings.  Although I'm still surrounded by the similar Spotted Towhee, it was only when I moved to the Sacramento area that I lived around one of the "brown ones".  The CALIFORNIA TOWHEE is quite common in a lot of Sacramento County:
We were tootling along Scott Road when Ash mentioned "Hey, isn't this where those swallows were reported recently on eBird?".  Of course, she was right; someone had reported some pretty early CLIFF SWALLOWS at a bridge along that very stretch of road.  We found the bridge, pulled off, and watched ~15 CLIFF SWALLOWS making forays under the bridge and back:
Things got serious when I whipped out the iPhone to take a picture of a... mailbox:
Lastly, Ash and I hit up William Land Park in Sacramento the other morning (checklist seen here).  The highlight (and only thing flagged) were two BAND-TAILED PIGEONS that landed oh-so-briefly in the top of a tree.  By the time I got my camera on them, they had already flushed.  Here's one that's retoxing its perch: