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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