30 December 2017

Home on the range

I'll admit, it's often been the case this year that I only have time to blog about the latest tour.  It's been a fun but very busy year!  However, here's a rare post about some downtime BETWEEN tours.  After all, technically speaking, I'm home for at least half the year.

I'll start things off with a bird I saw right after landing in St. Louis late in November.  This SNOWY OWL at the Riverlands north of the city completely startled me; I had no idea it was there until I saw a white head swivel around and look at me right in the eyes:
You might already know, but this fall/winter has been exceptional for finding these northern owls; they're showing up in greater numbers and at locations farther south than normal.  What was interesting about this owl was that, unbeknownst to me, it was actually in Illinois by 100 feet or so (the state line does funny things there including a jaunt across the river, etc).  

From the same spot as the owl, there was this WHITE-WINGED SCOTER swimming around:
But, same as with the owl, it was technically swimming in Illinois.  Shoot!  I still have never seen one in Missouri.

On a different day trip, this time to the center part of the state, Ashley and I spotted this continuing NORTHERN SHRIKE near Columbia:
Nevermind that it wouldn't look at me!  This was a new state bird for both of us although I expect we'll find our own soon enough.

A different day brought news of a couple of SNOW BUNTINGS at Long Branch State Park west of here.  We spun over to have a look... turns out, they were rather tame!
This northern species breeds on the Arctic tundra and only occasionally wanders south to Missouri.

Remember the Snowy Owl earlier in this post?  We were just getting started.  Here's one just a few miles from Hannibal!
As "luck" would have it, though, this one was ALSO in Illinois!  A birder who lives in Illinois spotted this bird on the commute to/from work and posted about it.  We caught wind of the sighting and realized it was RIGHT ACROSS THE RIVER from where we lived.  Duh, it was a no brainer to go see it!

On a different day at a different place... Ashley and I were birding at Long Branch State Park again one afternoon and we spotted this distant LONG-TAILED DUCK:
The digiscoped photo isn't great but there is no doubt about the ID.  Excellent, another state bird!  This was the 1st time this species had been eBirded from this lake.

Earlier this month, I ventured west to Thomas Hill Reservoir to have a look around and came across this MERLIN:
It's a gorgeous falcon, when you look at it.  This is a pale male, it had no dark cheek marks... it's of the "Prairie" subspecies.

This is the kind of caution sign I like!
But who knows, maybe this 4900 acre reservoir might just sneak up on you?!  Beware!  Birding options are ahead.

While out that direction, I swung by Long Branch Lake again to just have a looksy.  There was an AMERICAN PIPIT on the rock jetty still:
This continuing pipit is actually getting quite late; most AMPIs should be south of here by now.  Speaking of the rock jetty, guess who was STILL there... yep, the SNOW BUNTINGS were still sneaking amongst the rocks:
Elsewhere on the lake, this COMMON LOON was flagged in eBird for being late (so I took a picture with my phone through my scope):
From there, I meandered back roads all the way home, hoping to find my own Snowy Owl.  I crested a hill and..... well, although this isn't an owl, it's always fun to see a ROUGH-LEGGED HAWK:
This northern species only visits Missouri during the winter months when it can sometimes be found over open areas and grassy fields.

I struck gold shortly after when some SHORT-EARED OWLS materialized out of thin air and proceeded to waft about.  One landed briefly:
Although not a Snowy Owl... this bird was still another target of mine.  Turns out, this was the first SEOW I'd ever seen in the state.  I chuckled when I proceeded to find 4 more of them in quick succession after that!  Here's one that flew RIGHT BY me... 
But alas, no Snowys on that drive.

Back home, we had some beautiful December mornings (before it went and got all cold).  Here's a golden morning from the driveway:
In the yard, we've been having great success with our feeders.  On a daily basis, we draw in 100-200 individual birds.  Usually, the most numerous species is AMERICAN GOLDFINCH with numbers that peak at around 75 individuals.  Second place is usually PURPLE FINCH which is always a pleasure to have around.  Working the ground below the feeders, we of course have a lot of DARK-EYED JUNCOS and NORTHERN CARDINALS, a few WHITE-THROATED SPARROWS, and a single WHITE-CROWNED and FOX SPARROW as well.  We were quite pleased when this COMMON REDPOLL showed up:
This was a state bird for both of us... and it was at our own feeders.  This little visitor was reliable at our feeders for more than a week.  It might have departed recently, we're not sure yet.

Ash and I wandered back out to the west to see if we could relocate those SHORT-EARED OWLS.  Before we got there, though, we paused to check out this WESTERN MEADOWLARK rummaging in the corn stubble:
And then Ash paused and said "hold on!".  She had just found this SNOWY OWL!
Woo-hoo, we finally had bumped into a Snowy that hadn't been previously found by someone else.  It was our "own" Snowy, if you will.  Oh, and yes, we ended up seeing a nice SHORT-EARED OWL too.  :-)

Last but not least, Ash and I were recently visiting family up in Iowa when, on the return drive to Missouri, we swung by a spot that was supposed to have, you guessed it, a SNOWY OWL.  We found it trying to blend in with the snowy field:
Wow, this was our 4th Snowy in the last month.  It makes you wonder how many more of them are out there just waiting to be found?

Anyway, that's what's happening in our neck of the woods.  Back to you....

28 December 2017


"A Photographic Field Guide to the Birds of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh" by Bikram Grewal, Sumit Sen, Sarwandeep Singh, Nikhil Devasar, and Garima Bhatia was published in 2017 by Princeton University Press.  It's a 792 page paperback that costs $45.00.  You can find it online here.
What better way to pass the time (it's -4 degrees here in Missouri right now) than by sharing some thoughts on a book from Princeton University Press!  I was eager to take a look at this book because a) I've never been to India (or even remotely close), b) I love reviewing books (despite not having a ton of time to do so anymore), and c) I hadn't reviewed any bird books from that part of the world.  But with that comes a couple of caveats.  For example, a) I've never been to India.  Ha, the same reason as above!  It's true though, I'm by no means an expert on the species there.  Shoot, I've never even heard of most of them!  But hey, I can still share some thoughts and pictures of the book.

So right, the physical book... here it is next to the Sibley Guide (kind of a standard to me):
You can see it's large; it's as wide and almost as tall as the Sibley Guide.  In terms of thickness:
Right, it's a BEAST.  It's thicker than the Sib.  But hey, if there are lots of birds... a book is likely to be big.  This is known.  Moving on.

I guess a good place to start is the Contents page (with a what-is-THAT-bird?!):
You'll notice this book is laid out a tad differently than most.  The maps, glossary, and descriptions of bird parts actually comes at the END of the book.  Thankfully the Introduction stayed true to its name and is found first.  Here's a photo of the first page of this 13-page section (which is very-much steeped in history):
Also, if you're looking for the key to the range maps, you have to pay attention.  There is a small section at the end of the intro that explains them:
Ok, but now it's on to the bulk of the book... the "Descriptive Text" as it's called.  If you open the book randomly, you'll be greeted by a view like this:
A couple of things are obvious right away... these are photos.  This is a PHOTOGRAPHIC guide, after all.  There are 2 species on the left and 2 species on the right.  This schematic is usually the case with this book although once in a while a species will take an entire page.

Here's a closer view of a couple of species.  First up is Blyth's Starling... a species I had never even heard of:
You'll see some basic info at the top like the species name, scientific name, and the family name.  Beneath that is information about the size of the bird (in cm), voice, text description of range, and the general habitat.

You'll also notice the range map.  Not every species in this book has one but most of them do (in fact, there are 1300+ range maps packed in this book!).  Here's a species WITHOUT one:
Here's another species, the Blue-throated Barbet (and what a gorgeous one):
This time, you can see that there is a small photo of the bird in flight as well.  That really varies from species to species in this book.  Sometimes there will be several photos, sometimes just one.

Here's the account for Asian Emerald Cuckoo:
As you can see above, this species layout has 3 photos of the bird but none in flight.  As I noted before, this is going to vary from bird to bird.

After the bulk of the book is a section called "Vagrants and Doubtful Species".  I found it kind of funny that they're throwing shade by calling them "doubtful".  But anyway, we get the idea:
 Remember, a lot of materials are at the end of this book instead of in the front.  That includes the "Descriptive Parts of a Bird".  I think every field guide has one of these:
There is also a section devoted to just a list of the birds of the region.  Perhaps this would aid you if you wanted to check off species you had seen.  It includes a section for alternate names as well:
The area maps are also in the back.  Here's Sri Lanka:
... and India:
... and Bhutan & Nepal:
So.  Thoughts?  Here are some quick pros and cons from my POV.

* The photos are great.
* The region it covers is severely lacking in coverage (in my library, at least)
* Range maps!  I'm glad there are range maps for so many species.
* It's a simple thing... but I really like that they put the family name with every species.

* I am not fond of photo guides.  It's too hard to standardize the views, point out field marks, keep it clean-looking, etc.  The background color of each species is different, since it's a photograph, which really hurts the efforts to keep the book clean and cohesive-looking.
* For a book with so many species, I think it would have helped to have tabs or a quick-find guide just inside the cover.  I imagine finding a species quickly in this book would be a daunting task.
* It's BIG.  This isn't a major concern but maybe they could slim it down by including fewer countries?

Overall, I'm happy to have a copy of this book for reference and I suggest that anyone who wants a photo guide for this region check this book out.  I'm not sure this is the perfect field guide, however.  I personally prefer illustrated books that are much more standardized in layout, color schematics, bird postures, etc.  Because this is a photo guide, the background of every photo is a different color and this makes it hard to offer standardized arrows or fieldmarks away from the main text.  That point may not seem like a sticking point for most but it is for me.  If I could choose, I'd like a book that is a) slimmer, maybe just include ONE country, b) illustrated, and c) contains arrows highlighting separate ID points.  

But really, in summary, it's just fun looking at all the crazy birds that I'll probably never see.  :-)

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

26 December 2017

Rest of Mex

I think I owe folks some more pictures from Mexico?  I left off last time after sharing some of our sightings from Cozumel.  The story resumes after we took the ferry from Cozumel to the mainland of the Yucatan.

In the town of Coba, we birded along the lake edge where we added BLACK-HEADED SALTATOR, LEAST BITTERN, and several LIMPKINS:
Although this MOTTLED OWL looks rather demonic... it's just a humble little owl roosting in a cave that we were able to see with a spotlight:
Another species of owl we saw was the common and widespread FERRUGINOUS PYGMY-OWL.  These little dudes are active by day and readily respond to imitations.  Cute, right?
This tour was a good one for orioles!  We had a 5-way variety pack including Orchard, Hooded, Orange, Black-cowled, and Altamira Oriole.  Orange Oriole was a species I had never seen before as it's restricted to the Yucatan Peninsula (and it's nearly endemic to Mexico).  This photo, however, is of an ALTAMIRA ORIOLE:
Motmots are always a crowd favorite and for good reason!  Our tour tallied both species present there, the Turquoise-browed Motmot and this LESSON'S MOTMOT:
We were lucky to visit the world famous Chichen Itza ruins on this tour.  I had wanted to see these Mayan ruins for a long time.  Here's one of the main pyramids:
However, we were distracted at the ruins by this BAT FALCON that was perched up on a lookout:
The RUFOUS-BROWED PEPPERSHRIKE is a pretty widespread species in the New World tropics.  These dudes, who are in the vireo family, have monster bills which you can kind of see in this photo:
Another sign of us being in the tropics were the trogons.  We had two species on tour: Black-headed and GARTERED TROGON:
You seemingly can't visit this part of the world and not see kiskadees and the omnipresent SOCIAL FLYCATCHER.  They are everywhere:
We also visited the ruins at Uxmal (pronounced Oosh-mall).  They, too, had a pyramid:
Here's a look at some of the impressive stonework that has endured for hundreds upon hundreds of years:
Here's a panoramic view of the Uxmal ruins:
Around the ruins, GOLDEN-FRONTED WOODPECKERS were quite common.  However, the subspecies there looks nothing like the ones we have in Texas!
We birded several of the rural roads in the area and came up with a whole new variety of birds.  Here's our group ready to bird one of these paths:
Mixed in were species like this GRAY CATBIRD... the same species that breeds commonly in much of the eastern US:
We came across flocks of YUCATAN JAYS here and there too.  This is a Yucatan endemic that we were eager to see:
Another main target for folks was the oft-secretive LESSER ROADRUNNER.  On one of the mornings we found 3 of these in just a few minutes!  They posed in bushes along the road (and we gawked):
By the time we made our way west to the city of Celestun, a city on the west coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, we were around a different variety of birds yet again.  We had left the range of Tropical Gnatcatcher and found ourselves watching WHITE-LORED GNATCATCHERS in the low scrub:
It was here in Celestun where we had a couple of main targets to track down.  One such species gave us no trouble at all, the Mexican endemic MEXICAN SHEARTAIL:
Another endemic we were after was the YUCATAN WREN.  Although once considered conspecific with Cactus Wren, these were split out as a distinct species.  Like the sheartail, these big wrens gave us no trouble and we found lots (always seemingly quarreling in the scrub):
Just a Turkey Vulture?  Nope, not quite.  This is the similar LESSER YELLOW-HEADED VULTURE that swooped through:
In Celestun, we took a boat trip on a river in order to see AMERICAN FLAMINGOS!
We ended up seeing 100-200 of these bright pink birds at close range.  Wow!  We also took the boats slowly through some mangroves where we saw a couple more new species like AMERICAN PYGMY KINGFISHER and this young BARE-THROATED TIGER-HERON:
It was in Celestun where our birding came to an end, though.  I think our last birding stop was along a mangrove-loaded roadside where we nabbed a few last new species.  We saw the mangrove-specialist RUFOUS-NECKED WOOD-RAIL and this bizarre heron called a BOAT-BILLED HERON:
I'll leave you with a view from our last lunch stop.  I ordered my lunch, popped my boots off, and walked 50 feet down to the water's edge.  It was lovely!
As always, you can find more details about this tour (including in the 2018 dates) on our website here.  Ciao!