23 July 2011

Shorebirds... again

No bird pictures today.

Erik E. and I did a loop around Saylorville but it ended up raining most of the time.  Sorry bro.

I ended up with 9 species of shorebirds this morning in Polk County between two spots (Polk City WA and Chichaqua):

Semipalmated Plover
Solitary Sandpiper
Spotted Sandpiper
Semipalmated Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper
Pectoral Sandpiper
Wilson's Snipe (1, Chichaqua)
Short-billed Dowitcher (1, Chichaqua)

Also BLACK and FORSTER'S TERNS on the main lake.  Some BALD EAGLES around as well.

Dusk in my neighborhood:

22 July 2011


I haven't done much birding lately.  When I get outside, I've been focusing on butterflies and dragonflies more these days.

Despite this, I do have an update of sorts.

First and foremost, I was happy to see some shorebirds down in Polk County recently.  I found most of the shorebirds at the Polk City Wildlife Area.  Walking out along the backside of the main pond was most productive.  From here, you can see the shorebirds on both ponds (as I'm doing here):

Here I saw:

Semipalmated Plover (2)
Spotted Sandpiper (3)
Solitary Sandpiper (2)
Semipalmated Sandpiper (15)
Least Sandpiper (75)
Pectoral Sandpiper (25)

Also of note, I had a PINE SISKIN at the Butterfly Garden near the Saylorville dam vistor center.  At this point in the year, one has to wonder if it was a breeder or not.  However, the BBA early/late date document shows a late date of 15 JULY so I guess I won't add it.

I saw my first obvious sign of fall migration in my neighborhood this morning; a LEAST FLYCATCHER:

Also, this BELTED KINGFISHER has been swooping back-and-forth along my yard for the last several days:

19 July 2011

Birds of Hawaii, New Zealand, and the Central and West Pacific

"Birds of Hawaii, New Zealand, and the Central and West Pacific", by Ber van Perlo, was published in 2011 by Princeton University Press.

The next in my series of book reviews is in the Princeton Illustrated Checklist series.  If you're familiar with these types of books, great, but for those of you who are unsure what they're all about, this post is for you.

I was particularly eager for this book because I have spent time in Fiji (2004) and Hawaii (2006) and I remember thinking that there needed to be a better source for the region.  This guide is the only book that encompasses these regions, no small feat considering this area of the globe is so expansive.  Let's break it down little by little....

Size-wise, I would consider this book to be "pocket-sized" because, let's face it, if you're traveling to these areas, you won't want a giant beast of a book.  You will notice that this book is considered an "illustrative checklist", not a mother-of-all encyclopedic sources of the meaning of life.  As you can see, it's smaller and WAY thinner than the Sibley Guide to Birds:

Are first impressions everything?  I would argue an emphatic "No!" to that.  Why?  The very first time I opened up this book was I actually unimpressed.  However, the more time I've spent with it, the more I realized that it's actually quite good!

The plain-and-simple reason for that initial thought was the art.  I have grown accustomed to field guides made by world-class artists and sometimes it's hard for me to adjust back to art that is not as detailed.  But as I dug deeper into the book, I realized that the art was only a very small downfall.

For being a smallish book, I was surprised by how much information was given in the 12-page introduction.  Topics like environment, plate tectonics, reef building, and vegetation types are all mentioned.  Along with illustrations of these topics, it's a nice crash-course of natural history of Pacific islands.

The author then devotes another introduction section of the book to divide up the region into maps and to list the endemic species per map.  For example, here is the intro map for New Zealand:

Regions that the author specifically puts a map for and lists endemics includes:

Hawaii (33 endemics)
Fiji (28 endemics)
Tonga (2 endemics)
Nauru (1 endemic)
Samoa (8 endemics)
American Samoa (0 endemics)
Kiribati (1 endemic)
Marshall Islands (0 endemics)
Micronesia (15 endemics)
Tuvalu (0 endemics)
Tokelau (0 endemics)
Niue (0 endemics)
Cook Islands (7 endemics)
Guam (1 endemics)
Wallis and Futuna (0 endemics)
Pitcairn Islands (5 endemics)
Northern Marianas (2 endemics)
Palau (10 endemics)
French Polynesia (24 endemics)
New Zealand (65 endemics)

After these come the 95 species plates.

Organization-wise, there is a range map for nearly every species as well as a short paragraph that discusses name, size, basic ID marks, habitat notes, and a shorthand for range.  All of this information is found on the left side of the open book:

Here is a closer look at the range maps:

I was completely overwhelmed at first with the range maps.  They pack a LOT of information into a very small space.  As you can see above, some species have a purple box in the lower-right corner; this indicates that it's an endemic species (E.Sa = Samoa and E.FI = Fiji, etc).  Green dots represent island populations and the yellow circled "R" in the lower right-hand corner represents "rare".  There is also a series of stars and crosses which represent a "normal visitor" and "vagrant species" respectively.  The color of those stars and crosses represent which season it's most likely to be seen (green = resident, red = Apr-Sep, blue = Oct-Mar.).

So look above again give it a try with those species... does it make sense?

I was concerned that I wouldn't know where exactly the green dot was (some of those islands are SMALL).  Well, the author thought of this and gives a great solution.  In the text of each species is a short-hand for range.  Look on the last line of 42.4 below:

You'll see it says "NZ 1, 2".  Flipping to the previously-mentioned maps at the start of the book, you'll see that the New Zealand region was split into 11 different islands (numbered 1-11) and the code says that this species will be seen on 1 (North Island) and 2 (South Island).  This scheme is ingenius for island clusters with as many as 30 individually numbered islands.

So when you look at the map for Gambel's Quail, you'll instantly see that it's introduced to Hawaii (islands 1, 2, 4) and is rare.  This method saves tons of space and allows the book to be compact.

If you look at the map for Grey-green Fruit-Dove, you'll instantly see that it's endemic to French Polynesia.  The text says "FrPo 4, 14-19. E.FrPo".  Flipping back to the blow-up map of French Polynesia, you'll find that this species is endemic to island #4, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, and 19.  Easy.

So are these data actually accurate?  I spent 3 months at French Frigate Shoals in Hawaii (which is Hawaii number 11 in this book) and so this book would have been perfect for my time there.  Too bad it was published 5 years later!  Let's fact-check what the book says....

Bonin Petrel - The book says it breeds in Hawaii 13-18.  Error.  This species bred at FFS (#11).

Christmas Shearwater - The book says it breeds in places like Hawaii.  They're right, they bred on #11.

Wedge-tailed Shearwater - Same deal, it's accurate.

Blue-grey Noddy - It says they breed in Hawaii 13-18.  Hmm, error.  They can breed on #11 in Ha.

Ok, so there might be a discrepancy here and there but overall, is there any other book that even comes close to summarizing all this information?  No, not even close.

I really wish this book were in existence 5 years ago when I worked in Hawaii.  I remember going to the island and not knowing what I was looking at!  This book would have been a concise solution.

In summary, the small book size, informative maps, detailed endemic information, and broad geographic area makes this the best source of info for this area as a whole.  You really should pick up a copy of this book if you plan to bird the islands, plain and simple.

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

16 July 2011

Bored w/ birds

It's July and I have found myself bored with birds.  To see what I've been spending my time doing, head on over to my bug blog.

In the meantime, here are some pitiful bird photos from recent days.

There was a photogenic pair of BLACK-BILLED CUCKOOS down at Chichaqua Bottoms:

This DICKCISSEL didn't mind either:

My local RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD continues to sit and stare:

... and who could resist a pile of MALLARDS?

On a bright note, shorebird migration has begun here in Iowa.  I saw this SOLITARY SANDPIPER at Harrier Marsh in Boone County:

Because I have so little to share with you in terms of bird sightings, I'll close this post out with just random, non-bird photos from the past week or so:

Last but not least, it appears that Ashley is still having difficulty perfecting her lumos charm:

09 July 2011


"Avian Architecture", by Peter Goodfellow, was published in 2011 by Princeton University Press.

You will notice a couple of things when you first pick up this book without even opening it.  First, this hardcover book is large overall but is rather thin.  To me, this immediately puts it in the "coffee-table" category.  Note that this is NOT a field guide.

It is about 160 pages long and, as the title explains, it looks in-depth at many interesting examples of birds building things (nests, mostly).

First things first, there is a two-page Forward by Mike Hansell before the the two-page Introduction.  In the Introduction, the author describes how the book is laid out.  Each chapter studies a different type of nest:

Chapter 1 - Scrape Nests
Chapter 2 - Holes & Tunnels
Chapter 3 - Platform Nests
Chapter 4 - Aquatic Nests
Chapter 5 - Cup-Shaped Nests
Chapter 6 - Domed Nests
Chapter 7 - Mud Nests
Chapter 8 - Hanging, Woven & Stitched Nests
Chapter 9 - Mound Nests
Chapter 10 - Colonies & Group Nests
Chapter 11 - Courts & Bowers
Chapter 12 - Edible Nests & Food Stores

Let's walk through the first chapter, Scrape Nests.  When you open up to the chapter page, you'll immediately notice the full-size picture on the right of a Piping Plover standing over a nest.  

And that brings me to the photo aspect; this book is filled with numerous photos, some of which are breathtakingly large and attractive.  From bee-eaters to bowerbirds to Firewood Gatherers (yeah, I didn't know that was an actual bird name either), the photos complement the rest of the content very nicely.

But back to Scrape Nests.  The chapter starts out with an introduction about scrape nests covering what kinds of birds build them, advantages of this nest type, and some interesting examples.  Next comes the Blueprint.  Each chapter has a Blueprint (printed on blue paper, none the less) that contains 2-3 figures, each an illustration of a different nest: 

For this chapter they are Northern Lapwing (leftmost), Red-necked Phalarope (middle), and Snowy Plover (rightmost).  Each of these nest illustrations give exact dimensions of the nest (the Red-necked Phalarope nest is 2-4 cm deep and 6.5-10 cm in diameter, for example).  But remember, these illustrations aren't meant to be a field guide to nests, but rather just an explanation of different sizes and other interesting facts related to dimensions.

Each chapter also has a "Materials and Features" portion which is always printed on a black background.  This portion of the chapter always focuses on one species in particular.  For the Scape Nests chapter, it focuses on the Courser:

It's in this section that you learn things about the materials; such as how coursers use pellets of animal dung to help camouflage their eggs.

Sometimes this section gets followed by a "techniques" portion which gives a step-by-step illustration with how that particular nest-type is made.  Here is an example of a Song Thrush:

This aspect of the books is really quite intriguing.  Not very often do we get to watch birds actually make nests step-by-step; usually we spot an already-finished nest, or maybe a nest with begging chicks screaming out of it.  But this section of the book gives detailed information on the actual process of nest-building.  The Song Thrush, for example, starts by selecting a triple fork in a laurel and then laying down "beams" of silver birch twigs.  Then comes the dried grass stems and moss.  Later she attaches mosses to the outside of the nest, some leaves near the rim, and lines the inside with wood pulp (of three different colors, mind you).  I honestly had no idea that these schemes some birds use were so repeatable.

Following comes 2-4 case studies of species that use scrape nests.  For the first chapter, they are Killdeer, Ostrich, Arctic Tern, and Common Eider.  Here is a look at an example of a case study:

Each case study gives the name of the bird, the classification (order, family, species), as well as a list of related species, the nest type they use, a list of species with similar nests, and nest specialization.  The headers within each case study are not kept consistent throughout chapters but essentially focus on the interesting aspect of that study.   For example, the Eastern Meadowlark case study mentions nest and nest building, young, and defense/parasitism/predators whereas the Winter Wren case study mentions males and multiple nests, nest building, and female nest lining.  Either way, the case study is an interesting and in-depth look at the nest of each species.

This book examines birds from around the world and so it was very easy for me to become fascinated about birds or nest techniques I hadn't even heard of before.  For example, I had no idea that some hummingbirds actually add hanging counterweights underneath their nests to keep it from capsizing!  I'll admit that I had never heard of the Firewood Gatherer either.  These furnariids live in South America and build a huge domed nest out of sticks that they gather one-by-one.

This book is not a field guide of any sort, but instead an attention-grabbing collection of colorful illustrations, photos, and diagrams.  I wouldn't classify it as a textbook either, but more of a coffee-table book.  With that said, it is surprisingly detailed.  I don't think I have ever seen a book with so many interesting facts about birds and what they build. 

So if you have ever asked yourself about how a Cactus Wren actually makes a nest in the middle of a cactus (like I have), this is the perfect book for you (just turn to page 74).  Enjoy!

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

06 July 2011


Continuing in my MT/WY theme, this post is devoted to the different mammals we saw on our recent trip out west.  I was surprised by the overall diversity; we ended the trip with more than 20 species of mammals.

It didn't take long to find some photogenic rodents; these COLUMBIAN GROUND SQUIRRELS at Glacier National Park were rather used to humans:

In Yellowstone National Park, UINITA GROUND SQUIRRELS were very common; here are three at the entrance of a burrow:

Continuing with the rodent theme, I tentatively identified these as LEAST CHIPMUNKS although I wouldn't be surprised if there were YELLOW-PINE CHIPMUNKS included:

We saw several RED SQUIRRELS on the trip as well:

Another new mammal was the WHITE-TAILED PRAIRIE DOG which favors sagebrush.  We saw these in southern Wyoming:

We didn't see many carnivores but the one we did see was rather impressive!  This BLACK BEAR was hunting ground squirrels in Glacier National Park right in front of us:

We saw MOUNTAIN GOATS several times on our trip but always through a spotting scope.  We weren't ever up on the distant rock faces so all my pictures of goats were distant: 

This clump of fur actually belongs to a MOOSE we spotted while driving.  It was a bit too close and obscured to get a IDable photo though!

We saw BIGHORN SHEEP several places as well.  These resting way up on a hillside were in Glacier National Park:


I recently returned from a quick trip to Montana and Wyoming.  I took enough photos that I'm going to divide them up into separate posts on this blog.  The first post will focus on birds.

We started out by stopping at McGregor Marsh in northern Minnesota.  Target?  YELLOW RAIL and NELSON'S SPARROW, of course. And like clockwork, we found a calling YELLOW RAIL around 11:30 PM.  A NELSON'S SPARROW was also singing in the area:  Here is a map if you're interested:
View YERA in a larger map

We continued west via North Dakota.  We stopped at some prairies to check things out and ended up snagging things like SPRAGUE'S PIPITS and this defensive MARBLED GODWIT:

Now fast forward to Glacier National Park, our actual destination.  It didn't take long to find numerous TOWNSEND'S WARBLERS singing in the forested areas.  I didn't focus much on these guys and snapped only a couple of shots of a bird that was singing from the top of a spruce:

The campground at Two Medicine was really neat in itself.  There was a reliable pair of PINE GROSBEAKS that favored one campsite in particular.  Here is the male:

Another common species in the campground were the constantly-singing MACGILLIVRAY'S WARBLERS.  Here is a grainy picture of one taken during the early morning hours:

I was happy to hear some singing VARIED THRUSHES from the campground as well.  Their bizarre songs have always ranked highly with me.

An early morning drive down the road from Two Medicine yielded this DUSKY GROUSE alongside a road.  This was only the second time I've seen this species:

We later caught up to a RED-NAPED SAPSUCKER.  These ended up being fairly common during our stay there.  Here is one of the first ones:

I was surprised by how bold other MACGILLIVRAY'S WARBLERS were during our stay.  I tend to think of these guys as being sneaky but they were the opposite during the morning when they perched out to sing:

This next photo is quite a joke.  It's a male LAZULI BUNTING, in case you don't have your magnifying glass handy:

Ok, nevermind, THIS photo is a joke.  It's a very out-of-focus MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRD:

Eventually improving on my own pictures throughout the trip, we found a more agreeable RED-NAPED SAPSUCKER later on:

Over on the west side of the park, there were a couple of VAUX'S SWIFTS flying around a gas station. This was a new "photo bird" for me and although the photo isn't anything nice, it's enough to prove it:

I didn't have much of a reason to snap a shot of this RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH except that it seemed like it needed attention:

Another new photo bird (and thus a target of mine) was CASSIN'S VIREO.  We found our first one on the east side of the park but later found several on the west side of the park.  Due to camera difficulties I didn't get a great shot.  However, I DID get some kind of proof:

Our next destination was southern Wyoming but I'll get to that in a second.  To get there, we had to drive through Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park.  Camping was full so we didn't linger too long amongst the vacationers.

We birded along Blacktail Plateau Road in the northern half of Yellowstone and ended up seeing a couple of target birds.  Although the road was gated off, we walked in a little ways and quickly found a pair of WILLIAMSON'S SAPSUCKERS.  This was only the second time I've seen this species in my life and it was also a new photo bird:

Here is a map of the area that the sapsuckers were frequenting:

View WISA in a larger map

We also found another target species, CASSIN'S FINCH.  Believe it or not, this was also a new photo bird:

... as was this putative DUSKY FLYCATCHER:

 As we were leaving the area, we found a noisy bunch of CLARK'S NUTCRACKERS, surprisingly our only on the trip.  Here is one perched up keeping watch:

Need proof that there are sapsuckers in the area?  Check out this sapped tree along Blacktail:

Another target was BARROW'S GOLDENEYE, a species I hadn't seen yet this year.  We eventually found a male along a river:

... and then a distant, solo male on Yellowstone Lake:

... and then promptly a flock of 40+:

I would welcome opinions regarding this four-year gull I photographed on a sandbar of Yellowstone Lake.  Any of the four-year gulls are out of season in Yellowstone right now but during the winter, HERRING GULL is probably the most common.  However, I thought the size of the bill on this bird was exceedingly large for a HERRING GULL.  Might it be an out-of-place GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULL?  Unfortunately, the bird is so bleached out that it might not be possible to tell:

It was at this point that we left Yellowstone NP and headed south through Grand Teton NP.  At a random overlook, this obliging GREEN-TAILED TOWHEE had NO qualms with singing at point blank in front of me:

One of our targets on the trip was SAGE THRASHER.  Thanks to a tip, we found an easy one singing just north of the Jackson Hole Airport.  The view wasn't great but it WAS a new photo bird:

We continued south and birded near Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge for a couple of hours and ended up with great looks (and photos) of another target bird, the SAGE SPARROW:

And of course we ended up finding more SAGE THRASHERS here.  Thankfully they gave us some better looks:

That's all for now.  Stay tuned for a post regarding the 20+ species of mammals we snagged on our trip!