30 August 2013

CO, NE, SD, MN, WI --> MI

I found myself staying in western Colorado after my whirlwind trip through Utah.  I was keen to find some more year birds since I was passing through new territory for the year.  I still needed things like Pinyon Jay, White-tailed Ptarmigan, Brown-capped Rosy-Finch, any of the prairie longspurs, prairie-chickens, etc.

Before I left the hotel, I happened to use my new BirdsEye app on my phone that displays new year birds that have been seen nearby (by gleaning eBird records).  Sure enough, there was a pin for Pinyon Jay just down the road.  I figured I'd give it 30 minutes before zooming up into the mountains.  As I drove up, I realized why there were pins there... it looked like GREAT habitat... but no jays.  I stopped here and there and saw things like BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER and MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRD but never any jays.  At the top I turned around and headed back down.  "AHH!"  I saw a jay!  I pulled over, put my bins on it and, ta-dah... oh.. wait... it's a WESTERN SCRUB-JAY.  That's just cruel.  Grumbling by this point, I continued on my way.  I stopped again to look over some birds (robins, this time) but this time I thought I HEARD a Pinyon Jay.  Was I making it up?  Nope, I heard it again.  Within a couple of seconds, a very rewarding flock of PINYON JAYS flew directly over my car, calling the entire time:

Well, that was lucky!  Another target down.  Now it was time to zoom up into Rocky Mountain National Park for more targets.

At nearly 12,000 feet high, my first and main stop was at the Medicine Bow corner, THE reliable spot for WHITE-TAILED PTARMIGAN.  The scenery was NOT bad:

I huffed/puffed/wheezed around on the high-altitude tundra for a good while before finally finding a distant ptarmigan and three chicks up on the slope.  Here's the adult:

You'll notice it's wearing a radio-transmitter (a collar).  It was pretty cool to see that especially since I didn't know that they were being studied there.

I enjoyed the butterflies up there too and managed to snag a couple of lifers.  First up, the COLORADO ALPINE:

This MEAD'S SULPHUR was also new for me:

With those targets down (I forgot to mention, I saw some distant rosy-finches there too), it was time to head down to the grasslands of north-central and north-east Colorado to try for some prairie-loving longspurs.

The Pawnee National Grassland is surely some of the neatest prairie I can think of.  I first visited them back in June, 2000 when I was attending the ABA Youth Birding Conference.  Back then, we all saw both McCown's and Chestnut-collared longspurs here without trouble (I also found a McCown's Longspur nest that day; people were impressed with my nest-finding skills... I didn't tell them that I nearly stepped on the thing and it took no skill whatsoever).  Anyway, let's just say I was brainwashed into thinking it would be easy for me to repeat that again... in the heat of August.  Here's a view of some of the dry, short-grass prairie:

When I arrived, my new-for-the-year LARK BUNTINGS were waiting for me... everywhere.  I ended up seeing 500+ that afternoon: 

It was after I started walking around in some of the shortgrass prairie in the blazing afternoon heat that I started to have some concerns.  I knew McCown's should be findable but Chestnut-collared is much less common there and I didn't have any reliable spot for those down the road.  I needed BOTH, plain and simple.  Maybe it was my audible grumblings or kicking at cow crap that did it... a bird flushed in front of me and gave some unworldly call notes (ok, compared to the longspurs I grew up with).  I had a hunch and... yep, it was the first of many MCCOWN'S LONGSPURS.  Check out the tail pattern the chestnut in the wings:

I continued to flush longspurs (which is good fun) but I wasn't finding the rarer Chestnut-collared yet.  More longspurs got up.  More McCown's.  This time, some birds had pretty funky tail molt going on.  Here's the new-to-science "Fork-tailed Longspur":

You know how sneaky longspurs can be; you think there's nothing in front of you but bare ground, maybe some Prickly Pear, some grasses, and maybe a clump of... "what the deuce... the bird flushed from 2 feet in front of me?  How the hell did I NOT see that thing?!"  Anyway, it took a while before I was able to spot any birds on the ground.  Would THIS be my target bird?

Clean gray nape, dark bill, broad eyeline... as you can see, no, it's another McCown's.  It was getting late and I needed to get on the road.  In a very bad mood, I decided to ditch Colorado and head for western Nebraska.  Chestnut-collared Longspurs also breed in South Dakota and Nebraska so I'd try my luck elsewhere.  But first, I need sleep...


The next day provided the new start I needed.  It was time to drive through my old haunts of western Nebraska.  I passed Chimney Rock.  Fire up the archaic computer, wait 30 minutes for it to boot up, stick in the 5.25" floppy disc... it's time to play Oregon Trail!

Actually, no, I was headed for Sioux County.  I had seen Chestnut-collared Longspurs there on several occasions but that was in April... not August.  Before I could get to the longspur spots, I noticed an all-too-familiar bird jump off of a shoulder.  I turned around.  YES, it was my new-for-the-year UPLAND SANDPIPER.  I had started to get worried because multiple people told me I wasn't going to find them.  This photo is dedicated to those people:

Oh no.  For the first (and maybe last) time, I took a scenic picture with horses in it!

Tim Hajda mentioned a spot that he had for the longspurs.  It was as good of a lead as I had.  I pulled off and after about 30 seconds of walking the fence line, a CHESTNUT-COLLARED LONGSPUR flushed from my feet.  THIS time the call note was right on.  And THIS time I got photos of the bird on the ground and even up on a fence for a bit.  Note the paler bill, streaked nape, not much of an eyeline... THIS was the bird I was after:

I was feeling better now; I had snagged two year birds that I could have easily missed.  I glanced behind me back towards the car.  Holy crap, some giant storms were brewing to the west!  Time to get moving up to South Dakota:

Traveling east through South Dakota provided me with a few options.  First, I would try for GREATER PRAIRIE-CHICKEN.  Also, I was looking forward to county listing in some very new areas.

So the next morning I was at the Fort Pierre National Grasslands to try my luck with an out-of-season prairie-chicken.  I spent several hours with nary a sniff of these sometimes-secretive chickens.  However, now that I had gotten UPLAND SANDPIPER and CHESTNUT-COLLARED LONGSPURS out of the way the day before, I found more of both of those species.  Here's a longspur:

I had started seeing some eastern species by now including this adult and young EASTERN KINGBIRD.  "But mommmm.... how do I CATCH these things?  They're too FAST for me.  DANG...."

Now it really was time for me to make up some ground.  I'd worry about the prairie-chicken later.  But first, I needed to drive through MN and WI to get up to Michigan.

Hmm... but why not pull off the interstate in Minnesota to grab a year bird?  The BirdsEye app showed there was one.  Exactly.  Here's a CLAY-COLORED SPARROW about 100 ft. from I-35:

More troubling year-bird issues were creeping into my mind.  I actually needed GOLDEN-WINGED WARBLER and EASTERN WHIP-POOR-WILL this year.  I knew that I was NOT going to get those at Whitefish Point... and that I wasn't leaving Michigan until November.  I needed to find these birds... and quickly.  I used my trusty BirdsEye app again; it showed several GWWA pins in northeast Wisconsin.  A quick detour, several hours of looking, and alas, a last-minute year-bird grab... a GOLDEN-WINGED WARBLER:

Due to the kindness of some local birders, I was able to find a couple of EASTERN WHIP-POOR-WILLS that night too.  I couldn't have been more appreciative to them for essentially finding these year birds for me (they too use eBird, I glean eBird... you get the idea).

Off to Whitefish Point I went.  I would be counting waterbirds that next morning (and many mornings thereafter).  My next post will probably have Lake Superior and some Jack Pines involved.  Stay tuned...

17 August 2013

Bird Utah!

After the success in the Ruby Mountains with Black Rosy-Finch and Himalayan Snowcock, I was now headed to Utah for some more target birding.

My first stop was out to Antelope Island which sits in the one and only Great Salt Lake.  I don't think I had ever been there before on any of my previous travels so I was happy to see something new.  Along the causeway were lots of many things.  For example, lots of RED-NECKED PHALAROPES:

Lots of Brine Flies:

Lots of FRANKLIN'S GULLS eating lots of Brine Flies:

My one and only target for this stop was the introduced-but-established CHUKAR.  This is a species I had heard 1-2 times in my life but hadn't actually seen.  As far as I can tell, Antelope Island might be THE place to see this species here in the US!  Like others said it would happen, I soon stumbled onto one:

After that, I didn't stick around!  Up to the mountains I went the next morning.  My first and only stop ended up being Mirror Lake in Duchesne County.  I walked around this lake:

Along the way I saw things like PINE GROSBEAKS (some even feeding young):

What was my REAL reason for taking this detour?  It was pretty simple, eBird showed recent and reliable spots for AMERICAN THREE-TOED WOODPECKERS.  Ahh, my quasi-nemesis!  I had high hopes for the first half of the hike but it was starting to dwindle towards the end.  This was not going well.  I was losing hope and then just as suddenly, here they were!  I ended up with 5 on that walk.  Here are a few photos:

After that, off towards Colorado I went.  At a rest area, I noticed this WHITE-TAILED PRAIRIE-DOG.  The ID was pretty simple because there was only one prairie-dog species found in that part of Utah.

A long drive.  Time to think.  Time to move along:

Next up, a post from Colorado.  Stay tuned...

15 August 2013

Whitefish Point Bird Observatory blog

Now that I'm getting settled in up at Whitefish Point for the 2013 fall season, you can keep tabs on me via this blog.

In the meantime, I'll try to find time to post some more details from my trip!  More to come...

12 August 2013

On the road... again

It sure didn't feel like I was home in California for very long.  Alas, it was time to get moving again.  This time I'm going to slowly bird my way eastward towards the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where I'll be working this fall.

So what was my first goal after leaving The Golden State?  Finally making a state list for Nevada!  If you look back at my "County Listing" post (seen here), you can see I didn't have a single eBird tick for the state of Nevada.  I was out to change that; I would drive to the Ruby Mountains and (hopefully) see the HIMALAYAN SNOWCOCK and perhaps a few BLACK ROSY-FINCHES along the way.

It was a pretty easy drive from Sacramento but when I arrived in Lamoille Canyon, the weather was downright stupid.  Thunder, 35 mph winds, driving rain.  Yuck.  Take a look:

I decided instead of screwing around in the parking lot (or worse yet, hiking up in that weather), I'd go down to the campground and set up for the night.  In the trees immediately next to my tent was a family of RED-NAPED SAPSUCKERS (a new tick for the year).  As you can see, they apparently had an affinity for keeping close quarters:

The weather cleared a little and I figured it was worth going back up to the trailhead.  Here's where my story and the story of others will diverge quite a bit.  Most people park at this trailhead and hike ~1.9 miles up to Lamoille Lake (elevation ~9700 feet).  The trail for that is up that way....  

They do this to have a good vantage point to scope the crags for the high-alpine snowcocks.  I decided that I'd skip the hike and just scope eastward from the parking lot since I didn't have time to do much else.  Here's a pic looking at the east part of the cirque:

I hadn't been scoping for more than 15 minutes before I caught a glimpse of a flock of something flying out over the open canyon.  They were... snowcocks?  Really?  Sure enough, a high-flying flock of 7 were circling WAY up in the air.  This is surely the first time I've seen any bird from this family flying THAT high out over nothingness).  They landed out of view.  However, just a few minutes after that, bingo.  See that bump?

A closer look via the scope at 60x revealed this... my lifer HIMALAYAN SNOWCOCK:

So for those of you who are terrible and lazy human beings, try scoping from the parking lot looking southeast.  Here's a map of the parking lot, and the money zone for where the snowcocks were:

View Lamoille Canyon in a larger map

And yes, I heard the odd calls of the snowcocks from the parking lot too.  And don't forget the BLACK ROSY-FINCHES; they were pretty common, flying up around the crags.

I retreated to my tent in a good mood; I didn't need to wake up predawn and I didn't even need to make the hike up.  I was 3 year birds richer too.  It was a good start to my trip...

08 August 2013

Banded Caspian Terns

I was scoping the shorebird habitat at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area about a week ago when I noticed that several of the roosting CASPIAN TERNS were color-banded.

I jotted down a couple of the combos (or, as much as I could see) and submitted them to mybandedtern.  I just heard back from Yasuko Suzuki with some interesting results.

The first tern I reported was banded as a chick near Moses Lake, Washington in 2011. 

The second tern was banded as a chick at a colony in the Copper River Delta (near Cordova, Alaska) in 2011.  She said that only six chicks received color bands that year so it's pretty amazing that we turned up one of them.

Lastly was a bird that I couldn't quite read all the bands on.  However, we know that 17 birds received the color combo I was able to see on the left leg.  These 17 birds were banded between 2000-2007 in states like Washington, Oregon, and California.

If you've seen any banded terns out there, look below to see if they match up.  And don't forget to submit your sightings to mybandedtern.


Band Information : Alphanumeric
Left Top : No Band
Left Middle : White
Left Bottom : Light Blue
Right Band Color: Yellow
Right Code Color: Black
Right Alphanumeric Code: F120


Band Information : Alphanumeric
Left Top : White
Left Middle : Black
Left Bottom : Metal
Right Band Color: Yellow
Right Code Color: Black


Band Information : Color Band
Left Top : Red
Left Middle : Orange
Left Bottom : Red
Right Top : Unknown
Right Middle : Unknown
Right Bottom : Unknown

05 August 2013

The Unfeathered Bird

Some of you that knew about this blog ages ago remembered that I used to review a book once in a while.  After an "extensive hiatus", I'm here to revive things a bit with a quick review.

Yes, today I'm looking at "The Unfeathered Bird" by Katrina van Grouw.  It's 304 pages and was published by Princeton University Press in 2013:

I can't think of any better way to start this review other than the simple statement of "You've never seen anything quite like this before".

It's true.  

But first, before I show you any contents, here's the least interesting angle of the book:

As you can see, it's a large-format book but still relatively thin compared to this Sibley Guide.

As you would learn from the Princeton Press website, Katrina van Grouw is a former curator of the ornithological collections at London's Natural History Museum, a taxidermist, and experienced bird bander, a successful fine artist, and a graduate of the Royal College of Art.  Here are a couple of sketches they have up on the website as a nice teaser:

Can you make out what species that was?  Probably not.  It's a Brown Fish Owl.

That one is a bit easier if you're familiar with your birds from overseas.  It's a Great Hornbill.

That bad boy is the skull of a Lappet-faced Vulture.

By now you're probably realizing that this book really is unlike anything you've seen before.  It's filled with hundreds (385 to be exact) of these incredibly intricate sketches of birds in ways you've never seen (or imagined) them illustrated.  That's right, most of the sketches are of only the bones.  Morbid?  Not even close.  Sometimes it's the whole bird, sometimes it's just highlighting a part of the bird.  Here's a quick picture of a page of shorebird skulls.  As someone who studied curlews once upon a time, I was particularly interested in the bottom skull:

They're not ONLY illustrations of bones, however.  Sometimes she illustrates the muscles as in this Great Cormorant:

No, this book isn't necessarily for birders, as you can see.  It doesn't have any arrows pointing to field marks, it isn't something you'd take with you out into the field... but it wasn't meant to be!  Even the author described how this project was initially meant for an audience of artists.  However, it was obvious later on that not only artists would find this work sensational and inspiring.  For example, look at me, I'm a birder but found this book incredibly interesting.  In fact, I'm extremely pleased to add this unique collection of drawings to my library.

Here are some more quick pics I snapped of the book:

I particularly enjoyed this close up of a Razorbill skull:

All the drawings and related text are based on actual bird specimens.  And no, birds were not harmed in the making of this book (she is clear to mention how they only used birds that perished for other reasons).

According to the website, many of the species in this book have never been illustrated before!  I'm not sure about this Common Cactus Finch but regardless, it's still interesting:

Let's be honest.  Many of you know me... and you know that I don't often recommend people to pick up a book unless I actually think you should!  Yes, I think many of you WOULD find this book super interesting and I encourage you to flip it open if you ever have the chance, you'll be glad you did.

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