Sunday, August 2, 2015

Waaaaaaay out of season Mergansers

After having scored the Marbled Godwit a couple days ago, yesterday I checked New Buffalo looking for more of the first wave of fall migration.  I wasn't expecting to see two representatives of migration's (cold and) bitter end... (8/3/15 addendum: and was unprepared for an ID issue I'd not run across before as Tim pointed out)

 The larger Common is on the right with a more clearly defined white throat patch, heavier-based bill, and more contrasting head.  Sibley lists Common as about 50% heavier than Red-breasted though a person would probably guess closer to double with these two .  So.  The bird on the right is a lot bigger, but a person doesn't realize when Common Mergs are in the water how much bigger males are than females.  Sibley does note males are bigger than females but doesn't quantify how much.  The male's bill is bigger, but the whole bird is bigger; in retrospect the bills are pretty much identically shaped.  Red-breasted would have feathering extending lower on the bill making the bill base look narrower.  Also, the smaller bird has a fairly well defined white throat patch that doesn't just fade into the face as a real Red-breasted's would.  Which means that the smaller bird is a female Common Merg and the other bird an eclipse plumaged male.

(in tennis-watching mode below...)

Yawn...

The Red-breasted's female's right wing is just trashed, with most of the flight feathers worn down to the feather vanes.  My guess is that the bird got stuck in the ice back in the winter and managed to rip itself free, at the cost of not being able to reach the breeding grounds.

I think the (male) Common is flightless too, though I'm guessing that's just because it's doing normal duck moult.  I can't even speculate on what left it stranded in southern Lake Michigan.

The two stuck together but the (male) Common was somewhat aggressive towards the smaller Red-breast female at times.

Apparently getting bit in the ass by a sawbill hurts.  I'd never seen a merganser jump before.

(8/3/15) one last pic of the female that in retrospect also has a much cleaner delineation between the head and the breast than a Red-breasted would have.
  and a last view of the male...

Friday, July 31, 2015

A brown gull that wasn't a gull

I checked Tiscornia midday today while trying to transition my schedule back to days.  There was a small group of gulls close to the piers, one of which looked quite brown.  Brown and tall.  Brown and tall with a long thin bill.  Oops.  It's a Marbled Godwit.


It stuck its head back into its scapulars and I took my eye off the bird ... and didn't see the 3 or 4 year-old who was also interested in the gull flock.  And by interested I mean racing into the flock with arms flapping.  Despite his best efforts, the kid didn't take flight.  The birds on the other hand...  I should have had way better flight shots since he ran the bird past me but it was a hundred yards out before I had the camera back out. 


It spent about 30 seconds on South Pier before getting flushed again, circled towards Silver, then back overhead and then out over the lake.  I walked up to Klock (and then Rocky Gap) but it didn't reappear.  A Semipalmated Plover popped up.


Upon returning to Tiscornia the godwit hadn't returned though a Greater Yellowlegs had dropped in.  It still had some of the barred breeding plumage.
 In case you can't tell by the background, there's a ton of algae in the water right now.

There's still a few breeding feathers in the mantle too though it's mostly moulted.

Finally a shot from a less successful shorebird survey, this one from New Buffalo at dawn sometime last week.
Definitely the best way to take Ring-billed Gull shots.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Pronghorns on the Prairie

Custer State Park, in addition to its well-known herd of buffalo, has a solid population of pronghorns.  We saw a number of males near the road.
I think the flowers are blue vervain and sneezeweed (maybe gray coneflower?)

A close look at this (somewhat small) buck (?) ram (?).  Not sure on the correct term...

While Pronghorns are often referred to as antelope, my understanding is that they're actually a kind of goat, if you can believe that.


Apparently an ice age or two ago there was some kind of cheetah that lived on the American plains.  In response, pronghorns evolved into the fastest North American mammal (and I think the 2nd fastest in the world).  Of course surviving whatever ice age wiped out the American cheetahs is probably an even bigger survival advantage.

I think this next one is the largest one we saw.
He was sooo close to posing by the flowers, but turned away from them (after the first one seemed to favor the vervain flowers as browse).

Monday, July 27, 2015

Black Hills Riparian zone

In contrast to the Ponderosa habitat, the (riparian) areas along streams were dominated by fairly thick deciduous forest.  I don't know enough about trees to say for sure how different it was from eastern forests.  It was here that the birds felt to be more paralleling their eastern counterparts.

Lazuli Bunting males followed their females through the low thickets before disappearing much higher.
 
A Black-headed Grosbeak called along a stream.  Its call was lower than our Rose-breasts.
Based on my interpretation of the Sibley plate I would guess this is a one-year-old male.

"Red-shafted" Flickers were very common.
If the above bird is an adult (and it seemed to be the parent of the below bird) then the brown face indicates it's part of the wide intergrade zone in the central west.

This heavily spotted and barred bird struck me as a young bird.  My understanding was that a lot of intergrades will have a mix of yellow and red feathers, this bird seemed pretty even, so I may have been wrong about mixes of feathers being standard.

They acted (and sounded) just like our flickers.

More subtle than the flickers are the different populations of White-breasted Nuthatch.  I'll grant that they did look a little darker than ours (though so did the downy and hairy woodpeckers); you'll have a harder time convincing me that there isn't just steady gradation across the country though.
This bird was photographed on pine, though Red-breasted was more common in that habitat.

Finally one of the hallmark birds of the central west in my mind, Black-billed Magpie.
It's on my top 10 list of birds I'd like to see fly past Tiscornia or the hawkwatching dune for sure.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Birding the Black Hills ... Birds of the Ponderosa

We spent a week in the Black Hills and I enjoyed birds of the central west.  The Black Hills are dominated by Ponderosa Pine; somewhere in some visitor center was the quote that, "The person who knows the Ponderosa forest knows the west," or something like that.  It seemed pretty true though.  I've often thought of a lot of East-West species pairs as simply being separated by distance, but some of it has more to do with the available habitat.  Duh, I guess.

By the time we got out there, the birds were mostly done with singing territorially and were more focused on feeding nestlings and fledglings.  This Western Tanager was an exception, singing vigorously.

There certainly aren't many tanagers in eastern conifers.

You don't see that many bluebirds in our pines either (though I think I remember a few Easterns in southern pine stands).  Mountain Bluebird was common in the Black Hills; we saw multiple birds every day.
 
 
About half the bluebirds I saw had fledglings, I found a couple pairs visiting nests in broken off snags (as well as others using more traditional boxes)

Summer Juncos are always a fun novelty to an easterner.  The Black Hills pinelands have the White-winged subspecies.
The white wing bars were not very prominent; I've seen the occasional bird at Warren Dunes with at least as much white in the fall.  The larger number of white outer tail feathers stood out though.

The juncos had a lot of fledglings about as well.

 Audubon's warbler liked the treetops and didn't come down very often.  Never having been in a place with breeding Myrtles I don't know if that's their preference as well during the summer.

More evidence we weren't in Michigan any more...

Monday, July 20, 2015

Fall migration brings Piping Plovers

I missed the first week of migration along Lake Michigan which is led by large shorebirds with the very good excuse of a family trip to the Black Hills.  On my first morning back I checked the Silver to Lyons and Tiscornia to Jean Klock stretches of beach and found a first fall Piping Plover up at Jean Klock
 
It was hanging out with an adult Semi-palmated as well as more loosely with about 5 Sanderlings.

I sat for a while hoping the flock would work its way back to me but no luck and I slowly started back towards the car at Tiscornia.

Hopefully the new band system will make birds more IDable as individuals than when it was just one silver and 3 colored bands.  I'll see if this is enough to find out the origins of this bird.... (7/22/15 addendum:  It turns out it isn't a Great Lakes bird at all, the band is from North Dakota, banded the first week of June as a hatchling making this bird about 7 weeks old)

Eventually the flock looped back to Jean Klock
Calm water made it a little easier than usual to get flight shots in focus.  After last year's pair of (unrelated) juvenile Piping Plovers, this makes it the first time I've had this species 2 years in a row in Berrien.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Atlantic sunset

I missed any shot at the St Joe frigatebird since my work schedule was pretty dense around already allocated time off when it was present.  As long as I've gone this long without a relevant modern post I may as well finish up pics from earlier this spring given the last few posts were from North Carolina.    I've wanted to try for the sunset silhouette pics for a while, a Willet was the most successful.


Some Dunlins flew by in the same sunset a little earlier

These next Tri-coloreds are actually sunrise.  I didn't understand the Kelvin white balance setting at the time and was limited to the 8 or so pre-sets the camera has.  I tried different ones which leads to different color tones.



Now I understand that you can use the Kelvin white balance setting to customize it to whatever you want; that's something I'm using increasingly when I can predict what lighting the bird will be in.  (Of course if a person shoots in RAW mode instead of .jpg then you can use lightbox/photoshop programs to make the white balance whatever you want afterward; I'd rather keep the post-processing easier and file sizes down with .jpg's).

Finally a flock of Snowy Egrets.