Saturday, December 30, 2006

Colorado Birding Year

Having left Colorado a few days back for the last time in 2006, it’s time for another year in review. The birding is over, so let’s see how things went....

2006 was a fun and productive year in birding for me. My state list burgeoned from 229 on January 1 to 318 as of Dec 27. 91 new state birds this year included regular seasonal visitors like the Northern Shrike, Great Egret and the Rosy-Finches, and a fair number of unusual vagrants like the White Ibis, Yellow-throated Vireo, and Hudsonian Godwit. I chased quite a few rarities, with mixed results, and I also visited some new areas of the state which allowed me to pick up other varieties which are typical in their respective habitats but not often seen in or around Fort Collins. Towards the end of the year I managed to pick up a couple really nice species, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and the Varied Thrush, both of which turned out to be much easier than I expected.

As in 2005 I kept a year list, to see how much I could improve on my regular bird-finding. I had 229 birds in ‘05, and sought to find 300+ in ‘06. I got close, but unfortunately came up short with just 294. I’m still pretty happy with that - 294 is a lot of birds. Off the top of my head I can think of at least 15 species that I looked long and hard for but failed to get, for various reasons. Some of that is of course blind luck, or lack thereof. Despite my best efforts I simply won’t always find what I’m looking for, and that’s not a reflection of anything in particular. Another reason I missed 300 was that I never did do the spring SE Colorado trip I thought I might earlier in the year. Sure, I visited Chico Basin Ranch a couple times, once in February (for the Long-billed Thrasher) and again in May for a Nature Conservancy-led field trip. I also was down in Pueblo in February for a Winter Raptor Survey, and in Cañon City in late September in search of the elusive Common Black Hawk (which I apparently missed only by one day). But these were very short trips, and I never did make a visit out to points further east like Lamar or John Martin Reservoir or better yet Cottonwood Canyon way down in Baca County, like I did in 2005. If I’m going to get 300+ birds in Colorado for a year, a couple days in that part of the state sure helps a lot.

I resisted for over a year since I arrived, but I finally gave in this year and started up some Colorado county lists in earnest. I had been afraid of the administrative overhead in maintaining so many additional bird lists, but the advantages in doing so have turned out to outweigh the challenges. For one, keeping county lists adds a new dimension to in-state travels, giving purpose and relevance to seeing birds in a new place that you might see quite often in more familiar and regularly-visited stomping grounds. Even Rock Pigeons are interesting if you see one while crossing into a county that you’ve never been to before - time to fire up a new list! At year’s end I have 15 county lists, ranging in length from 20 in Montrose County (which we only drove through during a SW Colorado trip back in early August), to 239 in Larimer. Weld and Boulder counties also see a lot of action, and I have 182 and 137 in them respectively, but all other counties have fewer than 100 species tallied so far.

As fun as county lists have proven to be, at this point I still don’t bird for the purpose of increasing their lengths though. In Colorado my real interests are increasing my life list and my year lists - county lists are incidental accomplishments. In time this may change, and I will possibly travel across the state just to pump up county lists. But for now I’m probably obsessed enough as it is.

So what do I hope to do next year, listwise? I’m not sure - I’ve not thought that much about it yet. I still want to see 300 species in a year, but part of me wants to wait to do a full-on Big Year and shoot for 350+. Another part of me wants to focus more on bird-finding and less on bird-chasing this coming year - that would be more in line with my belief in the real purpose of listing, which is to increase understanding of birds, their populations and distributions, and the furtherance of their conservation. That kind of focus would probably reduce my total species counts for the year, but it would increase the number of rarities for which I was the original finder, and it may well be a better use of my skills anyway, helping to cover ground that other birders aren’t focusing on.

Lastly, I started a yard list too this year. The “yard” includes any bird seen from my property, whether flying overhead or in a tree across the street. Some people have great locations and can tally 70, 80, or even a 100 species over time in their similarly-defined yards. I’m currently at 34, which I think is pretty good, but until I can create a much more bird-friendly yard and attract more songbirds, it’ll be tough to boost that number by much. My best yard birds so far are the Eurasian Collared-Dove, Hermit Thrush, and Bohemian Waxwing.

Soon I'll post some more detailed overall year-end highlights, and finally some of my nicer trip photos.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Varied Thrush rush

I drove out to Crow Valley campground today, having heard about a Varied Thrush that has been seen there the past couple days. Things are pretty quiet at the campground - the gate is shut, and I was the only human there. In spite of that (or perhaps because of it?) I was able to find the bird hanging out with some thrush pals (robins and solitaires) near the picnic area in just a few minutes. Here are a few views of it.

Varied Thrush is pretty rare in Colorado, and this was my first one here. It's one of favorite birds though - very handsome, like a Robin that got tired of its plain look and decided to sport a necktie or a vest.

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Friday, October 13, 2006

Moonwalking Manakin

Actually, to me this shimmy looks a little more like the "Electric Slide" than Michael Jackson, but that's just nitpicking.

The clip doesn't make it clear, but this bird is Pipra mentalis, the Red-capped Manakin. It ranges from southern Mexico down through Central America into northern South America.

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Thursday, September 28, 2006

500 miles. 1 bird.

Yesterday I made a trip down to Cañon City to see the Common Black-Hawk that's been reported frequently over the past few weeks. I've only seen one of this species before, in Costa Rica about 4 years ago, so I was eager to see another and to see it here in North America. The bird has been hanging out along the Arkansas River near the Mackenzie Avenue bridge (SeEtta Moss at SEColoradoBirding blog describes the situation in detail here). There'd also been Black Phoebes seen in the area too, and those weren't yet on my Colorado State Life list.

And if that weren't enough, there had also been a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher reported about 30 miles east of Pueblo, at the Otero/Pueblo county line. I had visions of having another terrific Colorado birding day like the one I had several months ago, so I set out at 4:50am to make it happen. One wrinkle though - I had to pick up my brother-in-law from the Denver Airport around 2pm, so I had to be efficient and see the birds in a timely manner if I was to get them all in, especially considering the driving involved. In other words, I needed to go 120 miles to Colorado Springs, go another 40 miles to either Cañon City or Pueblo first, and get to both the Pueblo County line (far eastern Pueblo county) AND to Cañon City (in Fremont County, 50-60 miles west of there. Either way was going to be tons of driving.

I made a decision to look for the STFL first. It took 3 hours total driving to get there, and I realized that I really only had about 20-30 minutes to look for the bird before I had to leave, if I wanted to get to the Black-Hawk spot by 10am or so. It was a calculated risk, but having had success finding a STFL last May in Arizona in a short time (hey, I haven't talked about that trip yet, have I? That's a story in itself), and knowing that the bird was seen in a very limited area, and that it should be easy to spot if it's anywhere nearby, I thought it would be worth it. Well, in the end it wasn't, because the bird was nowhere to be found. By 8:40am I was back on the road steaming toward Cañon City, hoping to get there before 10.

I made it, but it was feeling late in the morning, like I'd missed the bird already. Apparently many have seen the bird around that time, so realistically it was as good a time to be looking as any. But there weren't any other birders around, so I couldn't help but think that the Black-Hawk train had left the station. In 2+ hours I did actually see the Black Phoebe, which is a great bird for Colorado of course, and even a Western Tanager flew by. But no Black-Hawk showed up, and in general the area was very quiet, except of course for the lumbering cement trucks crossing the bridge every couple minutes. By 12:20, I had to leave, and drive 100 miles or so to the airport, and from there, another 55+ miles back to Fort Collins.

So when all was said and done, I'd bagged one new state bird, and dipped on two others. Nearly 500 miles of driving, and $30+ dollars in gas. That's pretty nuts, isn't it? Especially since I'm already thinking of trying again next week!

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Friday, September 22, 2006

List tweaks

I just returned from a brief non-birding trip to Kansas, during which I curiously managed to do a fair amount of birding. Funny that. Anyway, I managed to see my first-ever Nashville Warbler, which was life bird #799. On the day I returned, neighbor Nick called and we went in the afternoon down to nearby Union Reservoir to look for recently reported Arctic and Least Terns. We didn't find them, but we did find a few Common Terns, and that too was a lifer me, #800.

And so, while updating my lists, I decided to do a little organizing of my taxonomic life list, where I break down my life sightings by family. I thought it might help if I ordered them as they are listed in the AOU list, where possible. (I realize that the truly kosher thing to do here is to list them in accordance with, say, Sibley-Monroe or some other world checklist, but I don't have such lists handy. All in due time, I'm sure.)

I came to realize that some taxonomic changes have occurred, and these have a bearing on my list. Not only that, I discovered that I had omitted a very commonly seen bird from my life totals - the Western Gull! That's right, perhaps one of the first birds I ever learned to identify never made it into my life totals until this week. Well, that immediately pushed me up to #801.

The Scarlet-rumped Tanager, a bird of the neotropics, was also split not long ago into Passerini's Tanager and Cherrie's Tanager. These new species generally occupy the eastern and western coastal areas in Costa Rica and Panama, and although my current lists record sightings for the bird in and around the Caribbean Slope, I do have very distinct recollections of the bird around Corcovado down along the southwest coast. So there's #802 - 2 new life birds, and I didn't even have to leave my couch!

But alas, not all was good news. While sequencing hummingbirds, I realized that I had mistakenly counted Magnificent Hummingbird twice - once in Costa Rica in 2002, and again this year when I saw it up close down at Beatty's Guest Ranch near Sierra Vista, Arizona. Ooops. Back to #801.

I'm mostly done with the list review, but a few other changes have been made, mostly in the arena of species' renaming, based on new splits. For example:
  • Little Hermit -> Stripe-throated Hermit
  • Crowned Woodnymph -> Violet-crowned Woodnymph
  • Gray-fronted Dove -> Gray-headed Dove
  • Pacific Dove -> West Peruvian Dove
Unlike the aforementioned Tanager case, here I've only seen one of the "new" species that was previously considered a subspecies, so no automatic list bumps.*

Also, the family of Dendrocolaptidae, or Woodcreepers, has been subsumed under Furnariidae, the Ovenbirds. Recent genetic evidence confirms their close association, and the decision has been made to put them all in one family, as opposed to keeping them as subfamilies under one family name. I've also moved a couple European members of Turdidae (Thrushes) to Muscicapidae, in accordance with recent decisions regarding the breakup of the family of Old World Warblers. Namely, these two species were moved from Turdidae to Muscicapidae:
  • Black Redstart
  • European Robin
I may find other changes to make soon as well. I also might have to make notes in my guidebooks too, especially regarding the Neotropic name changes. Guides like Skutch and Stile Costa Rica book still haven't been updated since 1989, and probably won't be for a long time.

* Some of these updates were tricky to make - I was able to find out about the Gray-fronted Dove change from AOU Supplement 46 to their 7th Edition, but the other ones involved consulting the latest info on their South American checklist Committee site, which annotates many of their species lists and name changes. Very informative, albeit time consuming.

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Thursday, September 07, 2006

"huffy underpants"

My dad in Florida frequently likes to send me newspaper clippings about birds from his small town (Avon Park area). There's a regular segment in the paper called "Wild Bird Sketches", and it's written by a couple bird enthusiasts, the Kowalskis. Recently they had an article about the Northern Flicker, which featured this amusing description of the bird:
This woodpecker is about 12 inches in length, has a brownish-olive back, barred with black and a large white spot near the tail. The huffy underpants are thickly spotted with black and there is a black crescent on the breast. ...

Huffy underpants? Sounds like a great epithet for someone who gets riled up about things a little too easily! Come to think of it, flickers do sound a little crabby sometimes.

Obviously they meant to write "buffy underparts". I can imagine how this malapropism made its way into the article though, maybe if one of the Kowalskis was reading the description out of a book but didn't have his/her glasses on!

Anyway, I thought it was funny. An endearing mistake, to be sure.

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Sunday, August 20, 2006

Unexcused absence

Three months. I've been away from the blog for a little while, but I see that people have kept showing up here anyway, waiting for something, anything. Sorry about that!

Believe me, I've not left birds behind, not in the least. And I think my blog entries over the next several days will prove that.

It's rather been a case of stepping away from the blog to do other things, like enjoy the summer. I've also been focusing my online energies elsewhere, not so much in my personal blog even (which should be evident also from my lack of posting there), but instead in reading and commenting on other people's blogs. I've been interested of late in political blogs, which is quite engrossing ... or distracting, depending on how you look at such things. The good news is that I think I've got my groove back.

Just a few list notes: my neighbors alerted me to hummingbirds in their backyard a couple days ago. I was able to confirm among them a female Calliope, making it my 302nd Colorado state bird, bird #271 for the year in CO and #358 for the year in the US. It was also life bird #796, and ABA bird #463.

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Yellow-throated Vireo

I got a call from a friend this morning telling me about a Yellow-throated Vireo that she found in Lee Martinez Park in downtown Fort Collins. Oooo, another lifer opportunity, I thought. So I jammed down there, and with the help of another fellow, I was able to find the bird real quick-like.

A very handsome bird, singing sporadically and sounding much like his "Solitary Vireo" cousins. I don't always get these kind of gratifying chase results, and I'm thrilled to also get a decent photo of it. My blog probably makes it seem like I get plenty of good photos from my birding experiences, but that's misleading - I often post the successes, and (obviously) never the failures, of which there are plenty.

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Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Fremont Street Experience

One other amusing bird-related experience we had in Vegas was the Fremont Street Experience, a block-long archway of lights over Fremont Street in downtown that act as a movie-screen for passersby on their way to casinos and shops. High-wattage speakers also line the street providing booming audio. One of their shows is called "American Freedom", a 4-minute long rip-roaring, flag-waving bonanza to the music of John Philip Sousa.

At the conclusion of the piece, a Bald Eagle soars across the screen, and we got to hear the eagle's call. Or rather, we got to hear what the vast majority of America seems to think an eagle call sounds like -- an aggressive, extended high-pitched keeeeerrrrrrr, suspiciously similar to that of a Red-tailed Hawk.

I just think it would be hilarious if the audience could hear what a Bald Eagle really sounds like. Heads would explode from the cognitive dissonance of realizing that our majestic national bird emits whimpering cackles instead of a clarion screech. Of course, that realism would take away from the triumphalist image of the bird, so on we go, perpetuating Bald Eagle myths based only on its striking size and plumage.

Although, perhaps to its long-term benefit - you could argue that the species is well-served by Americans' misconception of its call, which fits a preconceived notion of menace and thus makes the bird more sympathetic to Americans than it otherwise might be. Eagles get shot enough as it is, and there's no need to reduce its stature in the eyes of a country with a history of killing these remarkable creatures.

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Blogless in Las Vegas

I got back a week ago from a 3-day trip to Las Vegas with my wife, and I've been delinquent in writing anything new here since. Part of it is because as you might expect it wasn't really a bird trip, and as you may have noticed I'm slavishly devoted to bird-only content here. Yes, we did go for a hike one day at Red Rock National Conservation Area, and I even got a few good pics while there. But there was plenty else going on in more urban settings, which was really the point of the trip.

I think the other reason I've not been writing is to save some 'birding' energy for the upcoming migration season. I want to make the most of this coming spring, and with a planner full of scheduled activities already, I expect that I'm going to be in the field a lot the next two months. So instead I've been distracting myself with other interests like watching movies and, oh yeah, doing my taxes (which are horrendous enough, and not very blogworthy). Not that that's an interest of mine...I guess that came out funny.

In any case, onto the wildlife.

The first critters we came across were actually a pair of Desert Cottontails. As I prepared to get a photo of one, it darted out of view but was conveniently replaced by its buddy, who ended up in the exact same pose and position as the first.

I also tallied my first hummingbird of the year, this Anna's Hummingbird which perched nicely on the top of a juniper.

The real birdwatching highlight for the whole trip came when I heard some rustling in the ravine below the Keystone Thrust trail. Following a dry rattle, this Greater Roadrunner emerged, enchanting both me and my wife. She likes birdwatching as much as I do, as long as the birds are big enough to be seen without the need for optics.

Lastly came this Western Scrub Jay, which I took as we were heading out of the park around noonish. It was perched on a yucca so close to the road I couldn't resist.

And lastly, not a bird, but rather a birds-eye view of Las Vegas at sunset, as seen from the top of the Stratosphere tower on the Strip:


Monday, March 13, 2006

Weekend Bird Review

For some of us, the weekend goes 'til Monday. :^)

In any case, I got to see some nice birds the past couple days. Here are some of my better photos...

Sunday morning I made a trip to Connie Kogler's home in southwest Loveland, to take a gander at a rare Larimer County Sage Sparrow that has been frequenting her feeders the past few days. I got some very nice looks at it, as you can tell. This was only my second sighting ever of this bird (the first being about 7 years ago in Death Valley National Park), so yes, I was stoked.

This morning I dropped by the Grandview Cemetary here in Fort Collins. It was lovely but chilly, having snowed the night before and then clearing off before sunrise. Even this Brown Creeper felt the chill, and puffed his feathers up a bit to stay warm. I was surprised at how docile he was, allowing me to get quite close and take quite a few shots without raising any fuss. It's always a delicate thing, deciding what constitutes a respectful distance from a subject bird. I used my best judgment, edging closer over a couple minutes time.

My main plan for Monday was to do some Boulder County birding, but on the way down I made an impromptu addendum to try to find a special sparrow down in Littleton that eluded me a week or two ago. I realized while driving that I'd get there shortly after 10am, which was reportedly the best time of day to find the bird. When I got there, I easily found this White-crowned Sparrow, hanging out in one of the bushes at the site.

Then, a couple minutes later, the target bird finally emerged. It was a bit of a skulker, forcing me to take several rather crummy shots of it half-hidden amongst twigs and other less-secretive sparrows. This Harris' Sparrow was a lifer for me, and upon seeing it there was much rejoicing across the land. These two sparrow shots were taken at the Carson Nature Center near the Platte River in Littleton.

I eventually made my way to Boulder County, where I initially stopped at Erie Reservoir in Lafayette. As had been reported on the COBirds listserv, it was quite active, with about 600 birds there. Very quickly I managed to spot this 1st or 2nd-winter Glaucous Gull - it was hard to miss with its white plumage and large size standing out among the numerous Ring-billed and California Gulls present. Later at Thomas Reservoir less than a mile away as the gull flies were hundreds more birds, including a Franklin's and a Lesser Black-backed, both adults in breeding plumage. (Thanks to Steve Larson who I linked up with today, who pointed me toward Thomas as a good gull spot.)

Finally, on my way home I stopped by Cattail Pond in Loveland for a quick look at the waterfowl. I've been hoping to find a Ruddy Duck this winter, and I've had no luck so far. But while scanning the water I heard some squealing overhead, and by the time I figured out what was going on one of the two birds tussling landed in a nearby tree. I don't know what the other bird was, but this was a Merlin which let me get close enough for this SLR shot from below. A nice conclusion to a birdy day, and weekend.

And like this Merlin I'm taking off for a couple days with my wife so she can enjoy some much-deserved R&R. I'll be back by next weekend (meaning the one that most people recognize as such). Ciao for now!

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Thursday, March 09, 2006

More navel-gazing

A Great Black-backed Gull spent a few days on Rist Benson Reservoir here in Larimer County last January, and on 1/20 I digiscoped several decent shots of it in very good light, with the idea that I might submit a report of the sighting to the Colorado Bird Records Committee (CBRC). Well, a couple days ago I finally did submit a report of that sighting to the CBRC. Whether my report and accompanying photos will be good enough to merit confirmation by the committee remains to be seen, although I suspect they will. In any case it was an important step for me in my continuing evolution as a birder, to make a concerted effort in documenting my observations for the benefit of others.

I've written several times on this topic of personal evolution now, noting how differently I approach this hobby of mine from how I did several years ago. At some point I hope to tire of it, and devote my writing energies solely to the subject matter itself, but during the process of submitting that report I was struck by one particularly sharp contrast between "then" and "now", which is actually kinda funny, but also one that I think is interesting to explore.

Part of the CBRC record report form requires delineation of differences between the bird species you think you saw with those of similar-looking species; i.e., how did you know it was a Great Black-backed Gull and not some other gull. In the case of the GBBG, similar North American occurrences include other rarities like the Slaty-backed Gull and the Yellow-footed Gull, neither of which I've seen before. But I took the time to investigate them, especially in the Olsen/Larsson book on Northern Hemisphere gulls. It was then that I made an amusing realization about my evolution as a birding enthusiast.

As recently as 4 years ago, I would never have taken the time to study a species of bird I'd never seen before. That in itself isn't necessarily unusual or damning - beginners or novices don't often take the time for indepth study of unfamiliar birds. But in my case, it wasn't that I didn't have the time, or was confused enough just learning the birds that I had seen. Rather, it was that I purposefully didn't want to spoil the joy or surprise that comes from beholding a bird when you encounter it for the first time. I even felt that knowing its name beforehand seemed to pollute the sense of wonderment.

Where did this bizarre conception come from? I recall a highly formative experience back in 1998, shortly after I moved from Davis, California (where I went to grad school) to the Bay Area (where I started my first job). My first social bird experiences were with the Sequoia Audubon Society on the Peninsula, and at one of my first meetings there was a presentation from someone who went to Alaska and the North Pacific. He had some terrific pictures of species I'd never seen or heard of before, and I was enthralled. Kittlitz's Murrelet, Red-faced Cormorant, Spectacled was exciting to think of all the great bird species out there that I had yet to learn about. World birds were like the candies in Willy Wonka's factory - magical and brilliant, mysterious and alluring.

But I then perceived a risk to my future experiences of seeing new birds - that of knowing too much beforehand. I feared that the magic, brilliance, mystery and allure of these birds would be diminished if I'd read too much or seen too many photos of them in advance. Wasn't part of the thrill of exploration not knowing what lies beyond the next bend in the river, or on the other side of the mountain? In that vein I think I subconsciously resolved to put the blinders on, to not to delve too deeply into bird guide books, and instead to just wait for the birds to reveal themselves to me. I didn't want birding to be a science - I already was a scientist, and birding was an artsier side-interest. I wanted to adhere to this aesthetic, an almost-romantic notion of what it meant to be on a journey of pure discovery - even a forced, false one - in which the discoveries would be not for furthering the knowledge of posterity, but solely for my own feeling of bedazzlement.

And it was easy to accommodate this desire until recently, because for various reasons my birding was still a very solitary activity. I did actually yearn to join bird clubs and go on group outings, but my work schedule made that quite difficult, and besides, birding was more personal therapy than an effort to contribute to the broader birding community knowledge base. But after moving to Colorado, where I had gobs more time and a youthful, active birding community to join, my objectives changed fairly rapidly. I think I did continue to bask in willful bird ignorance for a short time; but the newness of the area and the feeling that I had external expectations on me from locals because of my claims of being an avid birder inspired me to give up this phony notion of "not wanting to ruin the surprise" and actually start to have some real idea of what I was talking about.

At this point I freely admit that I haven't really foregone the joy and wonder in seeing new birds when I study them before actually seeing them. What I've realized over time is that the ideal I was hoping to uphold after that Sequoia Audubon meeting in 1998 has been sublimated to a different form of gratification, one derived from the sharing of knowledge and the unraveling of mystery, and not in simply pretending that me not knowing something constitutes a state of purity to be cherished. Furthermore, I now recognize that learning what I can about birds beforehand just accelerates me to the next mysteries, like "What is that bird doing here this time of year?" or "How has convergent evolution made this species so similar to this other one on another continent?"

What it comes down to is that I now trust that I won't run out of things to be amazed at. Nature seems to do a good job at presenting conundrums, and learning what you can when you can about it doesn't diminish its marvel or grandeur. And maybe it's silly that I had to come to this understanding in such a roundabout fashion; but looking back, how could I have arrived here any differently?

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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Name That Empid

(Update, 2:30pm: It didn't take long for some to point out that I had originally posted a pic of a Townsend's Solitaire. I should have known I'd embarrass myself somehow.

Anyway, I've updated the images and text to discuss the other bird I saw that day, which I know is an Empid. Otherwise, everything else is the same.)

While browsing my photo collection I came across a photo that I had previously forgotten about. Back in September on the same day that I drove out to Prewitt Reservoir to see the Curlew Sandpiper, I also drove up to Crow Valley Campground mid-day to check out the migrant situation. After a short walk I found an Empidonax flycatcher, although at the time I wasn't able to positively identify it. But I had just purchased my Canon Digital Rebel XT and with a little chasing I got some good shots of it, and hoped to figure out what it was after I got home.

But for whatever reason I filed the photos on my new laptop in a completely different directory from all the other bird pics, and so it remained unseen until yesterday's re-discovery. Looking at the pics now, I can see that in fact I saw two different Empid flycatchers. One of them is shown here (the one for which I have the better shot), and I'm hoping I can solicit some ideas on which one it was, even though these pics are far from ideal. It'll be interesting to see if someone more confident in their Empid ID skills suggests the same bird(s) I'm thinking. Any ID pros out there want to take a stab at it?

There are really just two pics here - each pair consists of an original shot and a zoom-in to show just the bird.

Oh yeah, before I forget - these were taken early afternoon on Sept 19, 2005. Crow Valley Campground is a small riparian "migrant trap" amid farmland and shortgrass prairie located in Weld County, about 60 miles east of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains in northeastern Colorado. The bird was (not surprisingly) silent.

If we can nail this down, I'll put up the pics for the other bird, for a real challenge. :^)

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Monday, March 06, 2006

The First Goshawk Is Always the Hardest

Last Saturday I went out with the Boulder Bird Club on their annual search for late-season Winter Finches, in the high country west of town. The highlight and focus of the outing of course is Allenspark, which if you recall is renowned for their wintering Rosy-Finches.

Initially the group centered on the Fawn Brook Inn, but after about 15 minutes of finchless feeders, we ambled up the road looking for other feeders and any other activity in the pines around town. That did turn out to be fruitful, as we found Cassin's Finches and a single female Pine Grosbeak. Then suddenly someone said there was a buteo overhead. Hmmm, a buteo here at 8500 feet just down the slope from Longs Peak? I looked up and saw a very buteo-like bird circling overhead in the wind about 75 feet up; except that it was very pale grayish-blue underneath, not like any buteo I could think of except for Gray Hawk, which this obviously wasn't. I trained my binos on the bird, but it was almost directly overhead, so I couldn't see head markings. And when it wasn't directly overhead it was obscured by the towering pines all around. I was thinking Northern Goshawk, but was afraid to call it out, having never positively ID'ed one in the field before. Fortunately it didn't dash off completely, and I was able to snap a single shot of it after it had drifted even further up. By the time it soared out of sight our group consensus settled that we had indeed seen a Goshawk. A life bird for me, at long last!

Yeah, it's not a terribly great shot, although it does capture the gist of the bird as we observed it. What convinced me most of all (not seen in this photo, but clear to us when the bird was lower) was the very distinctive underwing coloration, in concert with its strong morphological characters (wing shape, head size, and tail breadth). I've wanted to see a Goshawk for several years now, but never during the 5 or so previous possible occasions did I see the bird well enough to confidently identify it as such. Finally, on an outing where we were looking for finches, I managed a fairly sustained look at one. Go figure. Hopefully the next Goshawk won't take me years to find.

It served to remind me that when it comes to accipiters, you should always be prepared to see one if you're anywhere near reasonable habitat. Coopers and Sharpies (and apparently Goshawks too) always seem to be "popping in", and just as quickly popping out. When that has happened before, I always think in retrospect that it should have been obvious that one might show up, and swear to myself that next time - always next time - I'll keep an eye out. Once again I forgot my own advice, but luckily I had the Boulder Bird Club to bail me out.

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Sunday, March 05, 2006


(NOTE: I actually composed most of this on Feb 28, but hadn't gotten around to finish it for posting. Apologies for my unexplained absence.)

I got up very early this morning to do something I've never done before - go owling solo.

The biggest trouble of course is dragging yourself out of bed. It's nice and cozy there, whereas the outside world promises only cold and makes pestering demands of consciousness and mental acuity. Still, you can't get it out of your head that in the dead of night -there- -are- -owls- -out- -there-, so you force yourself up, even as the clock says 5 minutes after 3 a.m.

After the first 5 or 10 minutes though, the drowsiness gives way to excitement, especially as you become aware that virtually everyone else is still fast asleep, leaving you and only you as the sentinel. Pitch dark with the new moon, and no cars on the road - at least for a time, the world seems to belong only to you.

I drove up Rist Canyon Rd, since I'd heard that was a good area to look for small owls. I'm in dire need of seeing, or at least hearing, small owls, like Eastern Screech-Owl, Northern Saw-Whet Owl, Boreal Owl, and Northern Pygmy Owl. After driving a couple miles in, I got out of my truck and just listened. Silence. I then practiced a few of my Saw-Whet pip calls, and after just a minute, a Great Horned Owl some ways up the canyon hooted back. Wow! I'd never had a conversation before with an owl. Granted, I was probably just pissing it off, smack-talking like some intruder owl, but still, we were communicating. It sounds trivial, but it was surprisingly visceral.

I made a few other stops in the next hour or so, but hadn't elicited much else in response until I returned to more or less the same spot I started. I pipped again, and this time, I got a real Saw-Whet reply. It sounded fairly close, and I clambered a short ways off the road in hopes of getting my flashlight onto it. But it was far enough up the hill and in the trees to discourage me, and once it stopped pipping around 5:15am, I gave up altogether. I'll find the owl some other time - at least I now know where they are.

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Thursday, February 16, 2006

Bird food

I had a dream last night that I went to a market somewhere and saw boxes of hummingbird filets in the frozen section. I remembered being initially shocked upon seeing it, and then thinking that, well, I guess hummingbirds must be the locally preferred birdmeat.

It makes you wonder about me - I mean, my brain actually invented this idea.

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Monday, February 13, 2006

Cleaning up a mess

State Senator Hanna recently put forward a bill regarding the feeding of "wildlife" which made it through committee in the Colorado State Assembly. Collective eyebrows were raised among the local birding community when the initial introduced version of this bill included the following:
Bill Summary
(Note: This summary applies to this bill as introduced and does
not necessarily reflect any amendments that may be subsequently
Punishes the offense of knowingly luring wildlife in urban areas with food or edible waste or allowing wildlife to establish housing on a person's property by a fine of $100 for a chargeable first offense, $500 for a second offense, and $1,000 for a third or subsequent offense. Exempts the feeding of songbirds, acts related to agriculture, and acts allowed by wildlife commission rule.

So it's OK to feed songbirds. Great! I wonder what they consider a "songbird" - this is the state legislature, after all. Section 1-4-c:

Hmmm. Well, that's almost a tautological definition. A bird that is "welcomed" is OK to feed, but perhaps not one that is not "welcomed"? In other words, you're not allowed to feed birds that you don't want around? Yeah, that sounds like useful legislation. And does songbird refer only to passerines? What about woodpeckers or doves? Are they not included?

Fortunately, this horribly written bill was greatly amended and clarified [UPDATE 2/13, 12:00pm: Jen Bolton, lobbyist for Colorado Audubon, apparently prevailed upon the bill authors to reword it], omitting the bulk of the confusion and replacing it essentially with this:

Much better. No more mention of any birds, just specifically the four main offenders. This version apparently passed through committee on a 7-0 vote. Now, whether or not this actually solves the given problem, I can't say, but at least it's no longer so broadly and poorly constrained. Kudos to the legislature for cleaning up this messy bill, before attracting the ire of virtually every birder and birdwatcher in Colorado! (It's been so long since I've actually praised any government body for doing something right, I'd almost forgotten how to do it.)

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Sunday, February 12, 2006


It was on my list for almost 12 years. But as of tonight, it has been removed. Cassin's Sparrow is no longer a Life Bird for me.

I've been doing some background prep for planning a trip to SE Arizona this coming May. This means creating a target list, as well as revisiting sightings on earlier visits. I have very good recollections of most of my sightings, but was piqued by Bird #83, a Cassin's Sparrow observed sometime in March of 1994 in Tucson. Unlike the other birds I recorded on that trip, I have no memory whatsoever of when exactly I saw that bird, nor where.

In the case of Cassin's Sparrow, I find that problematic. For a number of years after I began birding, I relied pretty heavily on bird range maps in Peterson's Guide to help me determine what bird I was seeing, in cases where there were 2 or more competing possibilities. That's not a practice I believe in anymore, but I have to admit that it played a fair part in several IDs I thought I'd made in years past. I'd already corrected most of those (e.g., Hutton's Vireo), but this one had remained.

I try to be very careful in tinkering with my lists when it comes to revisiting very old observations, and I am cautious not to overly second-guess my IDs. But I am aware of how my identification skills have grown over time, and I honestly don't think I could have truly known for sure that I'd seen a Cassin's Sparrow in lieu of, say, a Brewer's, based on the way I know I used the Petersen's Guide at the time, and my awareness (or lack thereof) of the likelihoods of seeing certain species in certain locations. It may well be, of course, that I did in fact see one, even if I don't remember when or where. But it troubles me that I supposedly made such a careful ID of a tricky bird at a time when I really wasn't attuned to such things, and that I remember nothing about the sighting; and knowing that I'd now have trouble picking one out of a sparrow lineup, I just don't feel comfortable leaving it on my Life List. So, I removed it tonight, lowering my Life, AOU, and ABA totals by one.

I do feel confident that I'll be able to put it back sometime this year. I just want it to count, to identify it from its characteristics, not from deductions or extrapolations from likelihood. Yet another manifestation of how I'm changing as a birder.

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Monday, February 06, 2006

Berlepsch's Six-Wired Bird of Paradise

I wanted to be the first person in the history of humanity to have a blog post with this title. This is the name of a recently rediscovered bird, found in a very remote and amazingly undisturbed rainforest in Papua-New Guinea, Indonesia. The bird was known previously from specimens collected well over a century ago, and unseen since, entirely because no one knew where the bird could be found.

Birds of Paradise are part of the aptly named family Paradisaeidae, which has between 38 and 45 extant members, depending on whichever taxonomy you prefer. Berlepsch's, once evaluated by ornithologists, will surely be added to this. Birds of Paradise are truly breathtaking creatures, in many cases ornamented in spectacular otherworldly fashion. And if that weren't enough, the courtship displays of some species are just as outrageous as their outfits.

Listers can be happy to know there is yet another bird to be seen in the world, without requiring some committee-decided species split. Conservationists can be happy to know that this bird, as well as a number of other newly discovered or rediscovered creatures, appear to be thriving in this untouched wilderness. And those of us who are both definitely enjoy the double-whammy.

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Pueblo-area Trip Report

I got back from Pueblo late Friday afternoon. Saw a lotta birds.

I've been participating in the RMBO's Winter Raptor Survey, having done a route in Logan County back in January, and this time doing one in Pueblo County down south. In these surveys, you basically count the number of raptors you see on a 24-mile long route, noting the particulars of the habitat you're in, and being careful of course not to double-count. You stop at specified locations on the route, and count for 3 and only 3 minutes. With a methodical approach it becomes possible to compare like with like and note changes in populations and distributions over time in a large swath of area like Colorado.

I did run into a hitch early on, however, as the route I was given ran through gated private property. Considering I was in the middle of nowhere, I had to improvise a detour for the route, and did my best to link up that detour with the remainder of the specified route. It wasn't perfect, but hopefully my data will still be useful. I did count 61 raptors on the route, including a few of the characters seen here...

I started off in rural central Pueblo County. The light was lousy (partly cloudy skies at 8am), but I couldn't pass up my first-ever opportunity for a photo of a Prairie Falcon, perched several phone poles ahead of me. For fear of spooking this skittish raptor I opted to stay further back and go for the digiscope shot. A little dark, yes, but a well-behaved bird. I ended up seeing 4 of them on the survey.

A bit further down the road, I spotted this little guy on my left. I was a little disappointed when I saw that it wasn't a Northern Shrike as I'd hoped (for adding to my photo collection), but rather a Loggerhead Shrike. Note the short bill, and very clean breast - Northerns have longer bills, somewhat streakier breast marks, and a thinner bandito eye-stripe. If there ever was a passerine (i.e., songbird) that deserved mention in the same breath as raptors, it would be a shrike. These birds are sometimes colloquially called "butcherbirds", and for good reason - they often cache their prey (insects, mice, small lizards) by impaling them on thorns or barbs.

Next up was a highly approachable Ferruginous Hawk, perched on a power pole. I also digiscoped this shot, and for this image I did something a little different, going more for a "portrait" than a full-body pic. Ferruginous Hawks have been wonderfully easy for me to come by so far this year, in contrast to past years where they've been quite rare. What a spectacular bird this is.

Most of the raptors were along the Huerfano River portion of the route, and those were mainly Red-tailed Hawks and American Kestrels. But I did manage to collect one Rough-legged Hawk circling overhead:
I've been trying to get a shot of one perched, but I've too often approached too closely for them to stay still. In any case, this was my only Roughie for the survey.

The survey had just ended 10 minutes previous, and I was steaming down Hwy 50 toward Rocky Ford, when something caught my eye out the passenger window. Flying parallel to me was a kestrel-sized bird, more or less, but this was no kestrel, and I knew it right off - no, this was a Merlin. In my excitement I quickly pulled off the road so I could follow its path into a field. I looked around, and a moment later I saw it perched up in a tree a little ways up the road. I scooted up into digiscope range, and got another bad-light falcon-photo. Again a bit dark, but I felt very gratified to have recognized the bird immediately while driving 70 mph in poor light.

The Rocky Ford trip was a bust unfortunately, with the weather turning sour in the afternoon. I retired to the motel in Pueblo that night, and on Friday I headed north in much calmer, clearer conditions to El Paso county, to look for a very special bird indeed - the Long-billed Thrasher*, which had been reported at a private ranch a few weeks earlier. This will likely be only the third recorded instance of this species in Colorado, with the first being nearly a century ago. I had to look for this bird.

* In rare bird alerts, the custom for listing extreme rarities is to capitalize all the letters in the bird name, which makes it very attention-grabbing. Really, it's not just a Long-billed Thrasher, but a LONG-BILLED THRASHER. You can practically hear the urgency as you read the report.

Anyway, when I arrived at the ranch I found neighbor Nick and Cole already there (those bums!), having seen it just moments earlier. But before we could talk much about it we found the Eastern Towhee hanging around. Unfortunately my angle here isn't so great, and it's hard to see the spotless upperwing coverts that make this an Eastern and not a Spotted Towhee. (These two species used to be lumped.)

Ah, a thrasher! But dang, it wasn't the one I wanted. This is the Brown Thrasher, a more common variety found in Colorado (although still pretty unusual in the winter months), and in the next couple hours this little bugger would play havoc with my sensibilities, pretending to be the Long-billed and doing a damn good impression of one. Note though, the very rufous coloration and the light brownish breast streaking. I'd also say to look at the relatively short straight bill, but the bird stayed hidden in the twigs, making a clear shot difficult. Hopefully come spring I'll have a nicer Brown Thrasher photo to show. The point is, Browns and Long-billeds look very much alike, but do have clear differences that are perceptible in the field.

Over there! Now there's a thrasher with a nice long curved bill, like the Long-billed. But no, that's not it either - the bill is actually too long and too curved, and the breast is dull spotted green-gray, not streaked. This is instead the Curve-billed Thrasher, a very nice bird in its own right, although again not uncommon for Colorado. This digiscoped shot was obtained after about 6 crummy attempts, where the bird hid in the branches and caused the camera to focus on twigs instead of the real subject. Patience finally paid off, and the bird obliged with a wonderful pose.

Nick and Cole took off for other locales, leaving me to find the Long-billed on my own. Fortunately, I didn't have to wait too long, and although it skulked in the brambles as advertised (something thrashers love to do in general), it peeked out enough for me to get a few good shots of it. Note here, the much grayer head, the browner back (as opposed to rufous), and the sharper, darker black streaking on the breast. Also, although not seen clearly in this pic, the bill is longer, and curvier than the Brown Thrasher's bill.

Southern and SE Colorado are great places for birding in the state. If this Long-billed is any indication, I can hardly wait for spring migration to roll around.

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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Out of town

I'm heading out tonight to Pueblo to do a Winter Raptor Survey route for the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, and will be back late Friday. I'll be squeezing in a little off-duty birding as well, and hopefully I'll have some interesting stuff to report when I get back.....


Tuesday, January 31, 2006

January closeout

Some highlights from today's end-of-January outing, which like the rest of this month felt more like April than mid-winter....

First up, a White-crowned Sparrow, which I found cavorting with some juncos along the Poudre River trail just north of Mulberry in Fort Collins...

A late-morning Wood Duck at Prospect Ponds, one of 4 males and 2 females there...

A male Belted Kingfisher, at the southernmost of the Prospect Ponds, just north of the water treatment plant...

And now the lovely female...

A Greater White-fronted Goose, amidst a bevy of Cackling/Canada Geese at the pond just south of the ELC. Damn those heat waves, which made it hard for me to get a non-blurry shot....

And lastly, at Cottonwood Hollow, a partial albino Canada Goose.

The sparrow photo was taken with my digital SLR; the rest were digiscoped.

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Monday, January 30, 2006

Seahawk = Steller's Sea-Eagle?

I just learned from 10,000 Birds that a 'Seahawk', as in the Seattle Seahawks of the NFL in the Super Bowl, is a colloquial term for an Osprey. And all this time I thought it was simply some mythical composite bird.

But really, look at this bird - does that look like an Osprey to you? The bill is way too big, not to mention the colors are all wrong. I'm thinking it's more like a Steller's Sea-Eagle. Certainly as a football team mascot, Steller's is more fearsome, even making the Bald Eagle look like a runt.

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Saturday, January 28, 2006

Site update

I've just added a new section on the right column below the blogroll, called "ID Tips". It's a compilation, small for now but sure to grow, of sites that offer useful information on more difficult identification problems.

(In the same vein for those who prefer actual books to web sites, I recommend Kenn Kaufmann's Field Guide to Advanced Birding. It's written for the avid birder who wants to separate out with more confidence birds like Jaegers, Dowitchers, Screech-Owls, and of course perhaps the most perplexing of all bird groups, the Empidonax Flycatchers.)

I've also added a few more sites and blogs to right column, namely the blog SE Colorado Birding, a link to the listserv ID Frontiers (hosted by Surfbirds), and the Internet Bird Collection, run by the creators of the Handbook of the Birds of the World Series. The latter site compiles videos of birds from around the world, and they apparently now have almost 20% of all bird species in their collection.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Birder Envy

Time for a little birdblogger navel-gazing. One thing I've noticed a little bit lately is how it is almost anathema among birding company to admit to any human foible or confusion when it comes to bird identification. Some of this surely stems from the kind of credibility issue that BINAC pointed to some weeks back, but I think there's something more going on here, although I'm not sure what.

A few weeks ago I mentioned at an Audubon meeting that while looking for an unusual bird early one morning in the area, I made a silly error when I heard some Cedar Waxwings in some nearby trees, but thought they were American Goldfinches for a short time. Of course, after about 15 seconds, I realized that I was in fact hearing waxwings, and saw them soon dart off to the horizon squealing as they do. I figured I was just plain out-of-it that morning, having just rolled out of bed and gone birding, and didn't ascribe much deeper meaning to it than that. If anything I thought it was kinda funny. But when I casually mentioned it at the meeting, I got a comment from someone to the effect of, "I wouldn't tell anyone that!"

Now, I make every honest effort to identify birds to the best of my ability, but I also feel unashamed of the occasions when I most definitely screw up. I figure that it happens to everyone - we're only human, right? Sometimes, you forget what a particular species sounds like, and you may miss seeing an interesting bird because you assumed that you were hearing something more mundane or commonplace? Or on some other occasion you watch a bird high up in tree branches, struggle mightily to observe some characters, but when all is said and done (it flits away mysteriously) you still don't know for sure what you saw, because maybe you focused too much on plumage and not enough on morphology or bill shape?

Or is it the case that, perhaps, of all the people who consider themselves avid birders, I am the only one who makes these kinds of pedestrian, embarrassing errors? Could that be?

I'm serious here. I make mistakes. Probably plenty. I do think I get it right most of the time, but I'm not so full of myself to want to hide the times when I mess up. I guess I'm a little surprised at the reticence of some birders to say what they do wrong. I find it especially odd because most of the time I find the people I bird around to be very cordial and pleasant. Must we be so concerned about maintaining our credibility and image that we suppress any inclinations toward honesty about our occasional failings?

Yes, I want others to take me seriously and believe me on the occasions when I tell them I saw an unusual bird in such-and-such place. But personally, I think it enhances my credibility to admit that there are times when I mess up, because if anything, it means that I am capable of questioning my own judgment, of recognizing when my initial thoughts or expectations have deceived me. It also means that I don't mind learning that I was wrong, and that I am more beholden to the truth of the matter than I am to maintaining an image of personal rightness, which I could easily do in matters like this by just keeping my trap shut.

If, as birders, we value accuracy and at least some measure of objective reality, why not allow ourselves to admit our own mistakes - even the ones we made just yesterday? It shouldn't be a secret. Birder envy just compounds the original faux pas.

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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Magic of Allenspark

After my previous short post on seeing the Rosy-Finches, I thought I should say a little more about them. I made it sound almost like all I cared about was ticking them off on some of my many lists.

As I mentioned earlier, it was a brutally cold morning. Allenspark is at about 8,000 feet elevation, and it's not far from Longs Peak, the northernmost of Colorado's 14ers. A strong westerly wind was coming down the long slope toward Allenspark, and at 7:20am it was about 12 F with 20-25 mph winds, gusting to 40. Couple that with my lack of good gloves, and I was only good for about 10-15 minutes at a time outside, before retreating to my truck to thaw out a bit.

But I had the Rosy-Finches to cheer me up. I was thoroughly charmed by them, and spent much time studying their behaviors. They were already at the feeders when I arrived, so no waiting or struggling see them. And even though I'm a wuss in this mountain weather, the finches are unflappable, just doing their thing in spite of the conditions. They'd arrive and park in the treetops for a few minutes, as pictured here, and after a few minutes a couple brave finch souls would head to the ground to start foraging, either at the feeders, or more often than not, in some other seemingly random area around the inn. The fun was trying to figure out what on earth they were going for, but whatever it was, it certainly had them interested. A few scattered seeds, perhaps - it was hard to say. But they'd walk and hop around, and even get pretty close to me as I stood there snapping photos of them.

I also spent considerable time studying their plumages. They of course come in what is now recognized as three varieties - Gray-crowned, Brown-capped, and Black. I find their colorations difficult to describe, especially collectively; they consist of a subtle yet elegant blend of browns, pinks, grays, and blacks. And it often seemed as if each bird had a unique blend of these colors, with personal gradations specifying a precise age, wear, and sex. Perhaps it was just the cold affecting my brain, but I found it hard to concentrate on watching any individual for long - trying to separate each bird by species and so on became very difficult after a time. Their behavior borders on madcap in character, and coupled with their exotic appearance, I became transfixed not on details or individuals, but on the whole roving mass. If not for the comparative permanence of the camera, I'm not sure I'd remember what I'd seen today.If you're ever in the area, I highly recommend a special trip to see these birds. Hopefully we'll all see them next in more amenable weather than I had today, but rest assured that whatever conditions await you, the Rosies can handle it.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The original spy-cam

Nothing too deep here, just a funny story about a girlfriend caught cheating with another man, with help from the cuckold's African Grey Parrot:
LONDON, England -- A computer programmer found out his girlfriend was having an affair when his pet parrot kept repeating her lover's name, British media reported Tuesday.

The African grey parrot kept squawking "I love you, Gary" as his owner, Chris Taylor, sat with girlfriend Suzy Collins on the sofa of their shared flat in Leeds, northern England.

But when Taylor saw Collins's embarrassed reaction, he realized she had been having an affair -- meeting her lover in the flat whilst Ziggy looked on, the UK's Press Association reported.

Ziggy even mimicked Collins's voice each time she answered her telephone, calling out "Hiya Gary," according to newspaper reports.

On a related note....did you know that "cuckold" is derived from "cuckoo"? The etymology reflects knowledge of Old World cuckoos nesting habits, wherein the female lays eggs in other species' nests, to be raised by those birds. The modern technical term for this is brood parasitism, but in olden days it was imagined that this was a reflection of the female having 'cavorted' with birds other than its presumed mate.

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A quick update

I do have a couple other bigger, more substantive posts in the works, so stay tuned. But for now, a quick birding update.

I had a nice birding day today, commencing with a trip up to Allenspark this morning to see the Rosy-Finches that frequent the Fawn Brook Inn. And I found them, lots of them, flitting about with abandon in spite of brutally cold conditions and howling wind barreling down from Longs Peak. It ain't no thang to a Rosy Finch, apparently, as they were there in the hundreds, and all 3 varieties to boot. It was my first occasion to see a Rosy Finch of any kind since 1996, when I saw them at the 13,000 ft. summit of Mt. Dana in Yosemite National Park.

I also saw lots of geese at Dodd Reservoir outside Boulder, including a Greater White-Fronted Goose and a Ross' Goose. Over at Valmont there were at least 3 dozen Red-breasted Mergansers hanging with some Commons - and on the other side of the Reservoir there were even Western Grebes, and possibly some Clark's, although they were very far away and it was hard to know.

Heading north, I made a fast stop at Walden Ponds in Boulder, and saw lots of nice ducks there, including Wigeon, Redhead, Ring-neckeds, Canvasback, and Bufflehead. And lastly, I stopped in Loveland at Rist Benson Reservoir, and saw the reported Great Black-backed Gull there. And with some luck I also saw a Lesser Black-backed Gull too, on some occasions both were in the same field of view in my spotting scope. A nice finish to yet another great birding day.

That's two great days this month. Does this mean I'm using up all my good bird karma?

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Thursday, January 12, 2006

Lark Buntings

Tonight's guest speaker at the monthly Fort Collins Audubon meeting was Amy Yackel Adams who spoke about her CSU dissertation work on Lark Buntings and their population status at the Pawnee National Grasslands. It was a very nice talk in front of an attentive and good-sized crowd. Some take-away points:
  • The Pawnee Grasslands (PNG) are home to the highest breeding concentrations of Lark Buntings (LABU). She says the birds are generally very prompt in arriving on May 1 in spring migration. The males show up about 2 weeks before the females.
  • It's been estimated that LABU populations overall are declining at about 2.1%/year in recent years, which is quite high.
  • LABU juvenile survival rates are about 20-30%, which is pretty low by passerine standards.
  • These low rates are attributable in part to their being ground nesters, and are subject to significant predation, ranging from 13-Lined Ground Squirrels to weasels to raptors. Someone did ask during the Q&A whether chemical contamination may play a part, but Amy couldn't point to any studies that have been done on this. Her anecdotal evidence did suggest some possibility of that, based on failed nests with fragile eggshells, but nothing conclusive.
  • LABU practices "brood division" during the raising of the young. That is, say, in a nest with 4 fledglings, the male and female with each take two "under their wing" and sequester them separately in different locations, for feeding, etc. Apparently only a couple dozen North American species are known to do this, although this may be because other species haven't been followed and studied to the extent that LABUs were in her work.
  • Neighbor Nick asked her what she would recommend as the one single thing that could be done from a conservation standpoint in order to improve the chances of reproductive success for LABU at PNG. She suggested something along the lines of reducing habitat fragmentation, which is a very big problem at PNG. In the case of PNG, this fragmentation reduces the ability of coyotes (which get hunted off) to control their usual prey, the ground squirrels - and thus the LABU end up with more predators of their own.
Of course, there was more, but it's getting late and I want to get this off before heading to bed. Bravo FCAS for yet another great presentation!

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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

My 2005 'Birdies'

I promise that this will be my last self-indulgent retrospective posting on my 2005 year. But I had this idea while on a hike last weekend, and thought that I need to do it now if I'm going to do it at all.

Maybe someone else has already done this kind of thing, but regardless, I want to highlight some of my bird observations in the past year with these "awards":

Most Productive Birding Spot, Colorado: A virtual 3-way tie between Fossil Creek/Duck Lake, Lake Loveland, and Dixon Reservoir

Luckiest Sighting. To qualify for this, it had to be a bird that is considered fairly rare or unusual, yet required only the absolute minimum of effort for me to see it. The one that jumps out at me has to be my Life-Bird Glaucous Gull on Horsetooth Reservoir from Jan 2, where I was simply a passenger in our CBC car, and we happened upon a 2nd-year immature after just a half-minute searching some gulls in a scope.

Most Hard-earned Bird: What bird did I try hardest to see, with eventual success? Curiously it was the Lesser Black-backed Gull I saw on the very last day of the year. I had been around some other Lessers (ID'ed by other birders) during the year, but never had good looks at them, certainly not enough for me to feel like I knew for sure that's what they were. It took a rather obvious adult at Lake Loveland to clinch a full year of frustration.

Biggest Failure: A negative category, but should reflect an unsuccessful attempt at a great bird. This would have to be my disastrous attempt to find the Yellow-billed Loon last November on Chatfield Reservoir. I couldn't have picked a crappier weather day to look for it. Luckily I called off the search before I froze away my fingers.

Best Naked-eye Bird: This has to be the Hoatzin in Peru in May. We got such great close-up looks at it. If only I'd had my good camera back then, the pics I could have had. Oh well. I still feel privileged to have been as close to them as I was.

Best Bird Photographed: This isn't the same thing as the best bird photograph, it's just the best bird I got a picture of. My fave is my somewhat fuzzy but still recognizable shot of a Black-throated Trogon in Costa Rica. What a gorgeous bird that was.

Most Common Bird That's Still A Joy to See: Northern Flicker. I just think they're such beautiful birds. I love 'em.

Largest Bird: This is easy. Andean Condor, hands down.

Smallest Bird: Hmmm. Not sure who's smallest, but I think Allen's Hummingbird may qualify.

Best 'Comeback' Bird: This is for a bird that I'd seen before, but perhaps only once before many years ago. I actually had several second-time sightings of birds this year, but my favorite had to be Macgillivray's Warbler at Rocky Mountain NP last June.

Best Colorado Bird: This is a two-way tie for me, between two perhaps unlikely candidates: Cassin's Kingbird and White-tailed Ptarmigan. I picked the Cassin's because this was a bird I saw some years ago in Arizona (may also qualify as a comeback bird), and had expressly hoped to see one again after taking the time to re-study what makes the Cassin's distinct from a Western. It was just a gratifying sighting. And the Ptarmigan, well, I liked it because it was 1) a Lifer, and 2) I had a Zen experience in seeing it. The more I tried to find one, by making it a target bird on trips to Rocky Mountain, the more impossible it was to find. Only by not trying to find the bird, and just spending time hiking in the high country did they come out and make themselves so easily seen for me. On two separate occasions, no less!

Best ABA Bird: I got to make 3 trips to Florida this year. My favorite bird in ABA-land has to be the Roseate Spoonbill. If seeing a bird takes your breath away like that one did, then it almost has to be a best-bird-of-the-year candidate.

Best Tropical Bird: Hmmm, Peru and Costa Rica. Lots of cool birds to choose from there. Way too many. Peru's candidates were Paradise Tanager, Cock-of-the-Rock, Hoatzin, Horned Screamer, and Spangled Cotinga. Costa Rica's candidates included Shining Honeycreeper, Scarlet-Thighed Dacnis, White Hawk, and even the Bay Wren, which I found utterly enchanting. Even these lists leave off other possibilities. But I think the best one of all was Peru's Scaly-breasted Woodpecker. It's a Celeus woodpecker, somewhat resembling its Dryocupus cousins like Pileated, but with a stunning cinnamon full-body coloration, and a bold ivory bill. Just f'in awesome.

Least Likely Bird: Maybe this is the same as rarest bird? I have to think about that. In any case, it would have to be the mind-blowing Tropical Parula that showed up in the Grandview Cemetery in Fort Collins last June, just a mile from my house. It made quite a scene (being only the second state record), and I saw the bird with about 30 other people that morning, all of us suspiciously wandering about the graveyard with our binocs, scopes and cameras.

So there you go. In future years I may have more or different categories. These were just whatever I could think of off the top of my head. If you have any ideas for other categories feel free to pass them on.


Monday, January 09, 2006

It can be a Cackling, even if it's not a Cackling Cackling

I'm still trying to get fully up to speed on the relatively recent changes to the whole Canada/Cackling Goose split. Fortunately there are some good resources out there for those like me - Richard Trinkner posted this link on COBirds a couple days ago to a page maintained by David Sibley which discusses in detail the subspecies alignments among the two species. Like Richard I was a little surprised to learn that all the minima subspecies have been included into the Cackling Goose, and not just the former Cackling subspecies of Canada:
First, to clear up some confusion about the names of the species and subspecies: The former broad Canada Goose has been divided into a large-bodied, interior- and southern-breeding species, and a small-bodied tundra-breeding subspecies. The large-bodied group is still known as Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) while the small-bodied group takes the name Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii). This means that the English name Cackling Goose, which has in the past been more or less restricted to the smallest subspecies (the far western B. c. minima) is now the species name for all four of the small subspecies. This new species takes the scientific name of the earliest-named subspecies and becomes Branta hutchinsii.
Bill Schmoker has some very nice shots of Canada/Cackler combos too, as well as links to a couple other sites that have useful identification tips and more technical information on the split. I have a few photos of my own, with the one above taken recently at Lake Loveland. It shows a Cackler (front right) with 3 Canadas, left behind, and right (off frame). The Cackler is probably a Richardson's, and the Canadas seem like Lessers, although if anyone thinks I'm wrong feel free to tell me so in the comments. And better yet, tell me why!

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Saturday, January 07, 2006

All in a day's birding

Last Thursday I had one of my best birding days since Costa Rica. And I didn't even have to leave town.

At the crack of dawn I headed over to Rachel Hopper's home to see a Pine Warbler that's been a regular visitor at her feeders the past couple weeks. She had advised a prompt 7:30am arrival (I arrived at 7:20), since that's about when the bird always seems to show up. When I got there we went to her back window and she said to wait for the American Goldfinches first, which always presage its arrival. And sure enough, as if on parade, the Goldfinches showed up, and made their way down from the treetops slowly to the feeders. They even did so despite a Bald Eagle roosting higher up in the branches. We then waited for the Pine Warbler to make his entrance down low, and after about 10-15 minutes, there it was, a hardy male. A State bird for me. Woohoo!

Eurasian Collared-Dove, Jan 5, 2005, Fort CollinsNext, I headed over to Prospect Ponds, about 3 miles away, to look for Barrow's Goldeneye. I found a huge raft of waterfowl on the pond closest to Prospect Rd, but no Barrow's. I did spot a Green-winged Teal and a pair of Wood Ducks. And as I went down the road later to check out the other ponds, I came across a Eurasian Collared-Dove perched on a branch above the bike trail. "Just" a Year bird, of course, but still, it was close and easy to see, and I got my best shot of this species for my photo collection.

By 9ish I headed over to Mulberry and LeMay to look for the Northern Waterthrush, originally found by Cole Wild about 3 weeks ago along the Poudre River Trail and re-found right after New Year's by neighbor Nick. I had only a rough idea of where to find this bird, so I had to employ my bird intuition. "If I were a Waterthrush, where would I hang out?" A short ways up the trail from Mulberry, there was a discharge outlet on the far side of the river next to the water treatment plant, with relatively warm water cascading out of it. The water flowed by some riprap rocks and there was a dead branch jumble at the waterline about 5-10 yards downstream of the outlet. "Hmmm, that seems like a good place for a waterthrush. This must be it." So I parked my scope there and waited to see if something might show up.

I saw a flutter over on the far side near the riprap. I looked anxiously - could that be it? The bird had gone behind the dead branches. A minute later the bird revealed itself to be...a Song Sparrow. Harrumph. Stupid Sparrow. Had me going there for a minute. That's just so weird - it seems like a great place for a Waterthrush to be. Where is it? Why just a boring ol' Song Sparrow? I waited a little longer, still scanning the riprap. Then, in the lower corner of my field-of-view, another flutter. Oh my god. There it is! Northern Waterthrush, a new Life bird for me! And here it is, in Fort Collins, in the first week of January. I strung together a stream of expletives, as I often do either when I'm upset or deliriously happy. I was thrilled to have found this bird by myself, based on just some intuition (and well, reasoning) on where it might be. A personal accomplishment in any case.

High off the success I'd just had, I headed home and unpacked all my birding toys. I went online to read the COBirds mailing list, and what's that? Chris Warren reported a Black Brant in the softball fields of Poudre High School just a mile or so north of my house! I've been looking for a Brant for about 3 months now, with no luck. "It's so close, it's worth a shot." So off I went again, repacking my birding toys into the truck.

Now, he'd reported the bird a couple hours ago, so I knew it wasn't likely to still be in those fields. Geese tend not to tarry too long in any given field. And sure enough, when I got there, no geese. Hmmm. Time for more of that bird intuition. "If I were a Brant, and I'd been in this field a couple hours ago, where would I have gone?" Well, after some feeding in a field, I'd look for some open water. The fact that I'm well inside an urban area suggests that I'm not likely to fly all that far to find it, and the closest ponds around are College Lake up in the foothills, or City Park Lake just a mile from here.

Now, College Lake is closed off to the public, so I could only try City Park Lake. I got there and saw about 300 or so geese on it, which was promising. I got the scope out and started scanning, hoping that it would jump out at me. After about 5 minutes, it did! Brant, Jan 5 2006, Fort Collins Beautiful - about the size of a Cackling Goose, but with that gorgeous chocolate brown neck and head, and white necklace. Another new State bird for me, that had eluded me several times back in November and December. The day was just getting better and better.

Brant, Jan 5 2006, Fort CollinsI hauled the scope a little closer to its mid-pond island hangout, by which time it made its way to shore with about 60 other Canada/Cackling geese to feed. I digiscoped this shot of it for a nice closeup, to cap off this terrific birding day. It was a gorgeous weather day, but I decided not to bird anymore - I wanted to end on a very high note, and not run the risk of disappointment after so much success. I don't get days like that too often, so why tempt fate and spoil it?