Saturday, January 31, 2009

Belize part 3 - Guanacaste Nat'l Park

In the afternoon of our 2nd day we returned to Guanacaste Nat'l Park, close to where we started the morning in Belmopan (the parks didn't open until 8am so we went to the farther place to bird along the way).  Supposedly this is one of the better places in the world to see a tody motmot; we didn't see one though.

The parking lot had a good number of birds including a brown jay trying to open a foil-wrapped piece of garbage, as well as an ovenbird and a Northern waterthrush working the periphery.  An ant-tanager popped up on one of the signs.  We had seen them earlier at Blue Hole.  I think this one is a red-throated, but it could be a red-crowned.

A golden-olive woodpecker appeared, it was a much more striking bird than I expected.

Guanacaste trees were apparently a large tropical hardwood that were cut nearly to extinction.  This is one of the few virgin trees that was missed by the original lumber companies (and is the namesake of the park).  Clearly these were immense trees (it seems difficult to believe that turn-of-the-century tools could ever have felled one, though I guess that just shows the power of the dollar).  This one was snapped off (by lightning or a hurricane, can't remember which) not too much above the frame though a remnant branch off the trunk survives.

We heard what would become the familiar song of a spot-breasted woodwren and eventually tracked the songster down (it would be one of the 3 songs I would learn while there).  This clay-colored robin popped up as well.  I was surprised by how dingy it was.
On the way back the call of a summer tanager attracted my attention.  It was joined by a yellow-green vireo and a couple yellow-winged tanagers, my first experience with a bird that appeared essentially lavender-violet in color.

I had various plans on an extremely ambitious itinerary, if we'd had unlimited time we could have spent another night in Belmopan, hit a ferry in the western part of the country and then continued up into the Mountain Pine Ridge.  As we were limited we drove that evening up into the mountains into the pine habitat of the Mountain Pine Ridge.  Dusk was falling as we arrived at our hut (errr cabana) there.  The owner of the collection of huts (errr resort) was tossing some bread to a gray fox.  He said that a jaguar had eaten its mate about a week earlier.  We slept well under the thatched roof.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Birding Belize, part 2 - Blue Hole Nat'l Park

On our first full day in Belize I awoke with the dawn (go figure) and waited outside the doorway of the hotel (where I noted an armed guard with a submachine gun - we eyed each other curiously) for Ginger to finish up getting ready.  A few flyby parrots and a pair of ruddy ground-doves were the only major tropical birds (there were also some of "our" orioles, a golden-fronted woodpecker (the Belize version has a red front though), and a yellow warbler).

We drove the Hummingbird Highway to Blue Hole National Park.  We started stopping for various perched birds including white-lored parrots, a short-billed pigeon, vermilion flycatchers, and some of our migrants - Indigo bunting, rose-breasted grosbeak, magnolia warbler.  Eventually we found a flock of birds which included this social flycatcher, a small kiskadee knock-off:
As I was sorting through the flock (which included magnolia, black-and-white, and black-throated green warbler, along with a catbird and a sulphur-bellied flycatcher), Ginger noticed some vultures in a distant tree and casually announced that some of them were white (!):
This King vulture (whose fabulous portrait I had studied in the Eastern Peterson since I was a kid) was a bird I knew would be possible but didn't really expect to see.

Eventually we made it to the park (seeing fork-tailed flycatchers and white-collared seedeaters on the way) just as the gate opened at 8.  A blue-gray tanager appeared as soon as I got out of the car.  The jungle was fairly impressive:

We made it about 20 yards down the trail when Ginger spotted this black-cheeked woodpecker:

Numerous passerine-type birds such as my first euphonias (a small finch-like tanager), trogons (both citreoline and violaceous), saltators (imagine a cross between a green towhee and a thrasher), various small flycatchers (including yellow-olive and slate-headed tody) all appeared.  This female barred ant-shrike looked at us curiously:

Amidst the birds showy tropical varieties of flower would appear infrequently including this bird-of-paradise looking thing and what looked like some kind of arboreal parasitic orchid:

This, per google, is a banded peacock butterfly:

We then drove a mile or so down the road to get to the actual Blue Hole:
The Blue Hole itself was pretty underwhelming.  We saw a few small fish in the pool which Ginger claimed were piranhas but I somewhat doubted that.  The dark gloomy vegetation surrounding it, however, was anything but underwhelming.  A few of our warblers, Tennessee, Kentucky, and chestnut-sided were joined by such specialties as a white-bellied woodwren, Aztec parakeets, and Northern Bentbill.

By now the heat of the day was well on, but there was still bird activity.  I tracked an odd buzzy  wheee-wheee-wheee call to a thicket where long-tailed hermits were lekking.  These big dark hummingbirds were impressive with their long sickled bills and longer white tails, both of which would be raised and lowered in unison in time with the call.  An ivory-billed woodcreeper appeared (picture a red-bellied woodpecker with a pale bill colored like a brown creeper), my best ever view of a hooded warbler (apparently they don't skulk on their wintering grounds), as well as this Yucatan flycatcher, an endemic of the region: 
It looks like a lot of other myarchis flycatchers, but (per my Howell and Webb) the brownish "wingbars" are fairly unique to this species.  Other marks to note include the plain tail and shorter bill separating it from brown- or great-crested flycatcher.  The whitish rather than cinnamon edged tertials separate it from the Belizean race of dusky-capped flycatcher. 

An entire day could have been spent here, but our limited time left us to push on to Guanacaste Nat'l Park, which is where I'll pick this up next post...

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Birding Belize, part I

Having solidly hit the mid-winter blahs I've decided to take up a tried-and-true trick of bloggers everywhere and go with the trip-report-from-a-long-time-ago.

Ginger and I decided to go to Belize in early April of 2005, figuring if we were going to take a trip to the tropics in the near future, we'd best do it without small children (or a pregnancy). I used the Moon guide, a general Belize guidebook and bird trip reports off the internet.  A compass was quite helpful because what roads there are aren't signed all that well.

For a first neo-tropics (or trip away from the U.S./Canada) this was a way to ease into it; English is the major language and the American dollar is accepted at a 2:1 ratio to the Belizean dollar (pay for something in U.S. dollars and you'd get the same amount back in Belize dollars).

We landed in Belize City, on the coast, in the late afternoon and drove inland to Belmopan.  As we drove out of the airport a bat falcon ripped by and I nearly got us rear-ended in the first 5 minutes but just stopping and not pulling over.

The lowlands still held some flooding (this was towards the end of the dry season) and we stopped at some of the puddles.

A jabiru stork flew over the road, a massive bird:

Snail kites batted about the marshlands.  Blue-winged teal skittered out of their way.  This is a first year bird:

We circled one back for one puddle when a yellow spot caught my eye.  Sure enough it was the frontal shield of a jacana.

Darkness was falling as we started reaching the lowland thickets and early jungle.  We saw a couple of roadside hawks, a small buteo that seemed very much in the broad-winged class:
After driving past a lot of rudely constructed plywood-type houses (often complete with some very scrawny cattle in the front yards, but the blue glow of televisions from inside) along the 2 lane "highway," we arrived in Belmopan, a small, but more modern town.  We stayed the night at the Bullfrog Inn, a western-style motel that had a swarm of minute ants on one corner of the coverlet (we chucked that into the corner).

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A hoary-type redpoll

At the risk of becoming the patron blogger of hopeless bird ID, here's an issue that David Sibley addressed with no less than 13 posts last winter.  Clearly there's much to be learned.  He made the point that blowing off anything but the palest of pale redpolls as a common was just as significant an error as overcalling pale commons hoaries (though both obviously are errors).

Tim called me while I was fruitlessly searching for WW crossbills in the central part of the county that he had another hoary redpoll at his feeders (he had one at his feeders about 5 years ago that I twitched while visiting Ginger's family around Christmastime).  He noted that this one was darker than the first one.  Here's today's bird:
Here's a zoom of the first photo.  I admit I didn't buy it as a hoary at first.  After studying it for a while though, it became clear that it was definitely frostier in overall color than the other redpolls.  Some of the male common redpolls had less streaked sides, but none of the females did.  Its bill is on the short end of the redpoll spectrum and the culmen does look concave in this pic.  This pic also shows some paler edges of the last scapulars; this was more visible in some of the bird's poses in the field than others.

The amount of black in the face does seem reduced, though this also varied based on pose.  You almost get the sense in the next picture of a little pinkish about the malar region.  I don't think this has much significance for sexing it; both Sibley and Pyle only mention the breast and rump as areas to look for pink.  Tim thought that the bird's flank streaking was more organized than the (male) common redpolls which demonstrated similar degrees of streaking.  I was inclined to agree.
Here's the best view of the rear, of the rump and undertail pattern:
The ground color of the rump is white.  There is dark central streaking to the last uppertail coverts, but only minimal black streaking to the rump itself.  The last undertail covert had a black central streak of medium width.  We really scrutinized the bird for other undertail streaks and had the sense that there might be a very thin one on the left, but were never certain.

For comparison here's an old photo of a female Common Redpoll:
Note the longer bill.  The last undertail covert has a wider shaft streak than our bird (you'll have to take my word for it, due to the angle of the photos that's not really apparent from the pics).  Obviously the undertail streaking is variable from bird to bird, comparison of just 2 photos in this regard is fairly meaningless.  Also I vaguely remember in one of Sibley's redpoll post he made the interesting observation that the degree of undertail streaking in common's doesn't really correlate with how dark or light the bird is overall.

Here's two pics of the adult female Hoary from Tim's house 5 years ago:

Its tail had a thin central shaft streak on the central UT covert and a very faint central shaft on the next feather to the left.

Finally here's a male Hoary from the feeding station in the Dunbar Forest in the eastern UP, one of the sort-of reliable places to look for them (I was REALLY cold, I didn't realize the soles were coming off my boots and when I squatted down to try to search for the birds with my scope I was basically in -10 degree weather with the bottom of my feet just in socks.  It was difficult to take pics as hard as I was shivering):

I think our bird is probably a first year female hoary (though fortunately I don't have to worry too much since I'm not doing a big year.  Really).  This is the age you would "expect" in a non-irruption year.  Using the scoring system on Sibley's site from the Jan 5, 2008 post, I would score today's bird an 11 or a 12 (the one from 5 years ago is probably a 13-14).  An 11 or higher would put a female bird in the Hoary range, with a couple caveats that birds get paler as the winter progresses and that the scale isn't validated to confirm species ID.  

Random redpoll rat fact I noticed while sketching birds at my feeders:  redpolls have much longer primary extension than goldfinches, having P9-P3 typically visible whereas in goldfinches it's usually just P9-P5.  I'm not sure if that's because redpolls have longer primaries or shorter secondaries, or both.  I seem to remember in longspurs that the more migratory ones (Smith's and Lapland) have more visible primaries than the other 2 since their wings are longer to allow for their longer migration.  Sibley mentioned a study that documented a redpoll banded in Michigan being recovered in Siberia (!) so clearly we're dealing with some long distance migrants.  I guess we can also conclude that Siberia is at least one place colder than Michigan in the winter.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Winter "Wonder"land

More like a winter wasteland.

This first pic should give you a feel for the amount of snow that's fallen around here.  This was way in the back of the Sarett pines, no snowplowed or blown snow involved here:

It can be pretty somewhat, here's my riverbottom at about -5 degrees yesterday morning:

I've had more finches at the expanded feeder set-up than the 2.5 years leading up to this year combined.  Yesterday I had 5 siskins (one of them below) and today 7 redpolls.
So much snow has fallen that I think the rodents are safe under the snow.  I drove around the Scottdale plains yesterday on a nice sunny day, which generally are pretty reliable most winters for rough-legged hawks, as well as occasional dark morph redtails, harriers, and short-eared owls, but for the 2nd straight time found exactly 0 raptors.

Monday, January 19, 2009

East meets West, spreadwing style

With Lake Michigan iced over to the horizon I didn't know if I would find any gulls at the landfill today.  Fortunately there were still large numbers of herring gulls (the ring-billed's seemed to be gone).   I found a first cycle glaucous, a 2nd cycle glaucous, and a 1st cycle lesser black-backed, but all of these were flyby's or far away.  The dumping site currently is much closer than usual and without an 8 foot chain link fence, so I decided to work on some spread-wing herring gull images just to see what kind of variability I could find.  I just shot at random, focusing on the densest areas of foraging gulls and clicking when I saw wings go up.

This is a 4th winter bird, aged by the blackish on the primary coverts.  It also has a tiny bit of black on P4 which adults don't generally show.  It also has slightly smaller white tips to the the feathers than a full adult would have.  The overall pattern though, of only P10 having a small-medium sized mirror was the most common one I documented.

Here's a full adult with the same pattern (and another more blurry one in the foreground).  This, per Olsen and Larsson, is the most common pattern of American herring gulls on the west coast.

This bird, however, has a large mirror on P10, as well as medium sized mirror on P9 as well.  This pattern is the typical one found on the East coast.
Based on my (small number of photos), the ratio between the two patterns was about 5:1.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

the answer to your prayers

No, it's not the flock of ducks resting in the lee of the pier at Tiscornia beach (can you find the 5 species present?)

No it's not this picture of a winter bird in Michigan in actual sunlight...

It's that I may finally have an answer to the great cackling/canada debate!!!  OK, so there wasn't all that much debate, just mostly rambling half-baked ideas, but, in the the North American Birds that was in the mailbox yesterday (volume 62 no 3 - with a swallow-tailed gull on the cover), was an article titled "Distribution and Identification of Cackling Goose Subspecies," by Steve Mlodinow, et al.  It also includes parvipes Lesser Canada Goose for obvious reasons.

It includes this encouraging statement:  "By our estimate (based on current knowledge), the chances for a solid identification of a lone photographed bird may be as low as 10-20%."  WOW.  Put those cameras away and study the bird - there's a novel concept.  Since a lot is based on comparative size as well as the head shape (which varies with every twist, turn, flexion, or extension), one photo can be very misleading.

I summarized the differences the article describes and put my editorial after each comparison:

Head shape:
    hutchinsii - "short steep forehead," with "somewhat flat crown, peaking slightly toward rear
    parvipes - some have "short steep forehead," with "sloping crown, with rounded rear-crown"
That seems at best moderately helpful as that degree of variation could be seen in a single bird changing its posture.

Bill shape:
     hutchinsii - "long and narrow in profile," often with a drooped tip.  "Culmen never convex"
     parvipes - "long and slender," often with a rather pointed tip. Culmen sometimes convex.
The morphology of the bill tip seems pretty subtle, but I definitely get a sense of it in many of my photos (of both definite cacklers, as well as some of my problem birds).  "Pointed" may be a bit too strong a description looking at the pics in the magazine of parvipes, a person gets that sense more from views that show the whole bird rather than super-zoomed in head shots.  I don't appreciate culmen shape differences at all in the pictures.

Underpart coloration:
     hutchinsii - "almost complete overlap with other taxa."  "Great majority white or whitish breasted
     parvipes - "majority of birds quite white-breasted"
So the underpart color is basically worthless though perhaps the noticeably darker birds are still suspect (if someone is worried about runty interior Canada geese).

Cheek patch:
     hutchinsii - many to most "show a step-off narrowing of the cheek patch at the level of the eye uncommon in other taxa, excepting parvipes."
Honestly, I have a lot of photos where large interior Canadas show the except same shape of cheek patch as a hutchinsii cackler so I don't think this is helpful even to separate a cackling from a dwarf Canada and am surprised they italicized it as being all that important.  I don't appreciate the differences between the different subspecies of cacklers in their photos either.

Gular stripe (the narrow black line sometimes present in the midline of the throat bisecting the white patch, best seen with the bird feeding facing away from the observer):
     hutchinsii - about 25% show a gular stripe
     parvipes - less than 1% show a gular stripe (except some dark populations from Alaska)
This is interesting.  I've never paid any attention to this detail, but these data would suggest that while a bird without a gular stripe could be either species, a bird with a gular stripe is at least 25x more likely to be a Cackling goose on that feature alone.  Interestingly at least 2 of my problem birds show at least a partial gular stripe in my photos.  Of course just to be contrary, one of their photos of parvipes has a gular stripe.

Wing covert pattern
      hutchinsii - feathers darken distally with a pale terminal band.  Some with duller pattern.
      parvipes - "similar to hutchinsii"
Well, this would explain a good deal of my problems.  Per these authors, this is not a useful feature.

  hutchinsii - "Neck held down at angle when feeding, with little or no loop"
parvipes - displays a "distinct loop in neck as feeds" due to longer neck
I think this must refer to when the bill is actually in the grass as I have a couple pictures of cackling geese with a nice loop in the neck as they're looking down

SO to summarize, the exact head and bill shape is the most useful.  The color of the under- and upper-parts are essentially worthless.  The presence of a gular stripe makes the bird very likely a hutchinsii Richardson's Cackling (though most won't show this feature).  Of my various problem birds, most I now believe are indeed cackling, though I still have a couple I'm not completely convinced on (though these tend to be some of the lower quality photos).

Lastly, anyone actually staying with this entire post likely had no problem with the 5 ducks in the first photo, but just in case the photo quality didn't allow them to pop out (it was still cloudy then and snowing slightly), common goldeneye and bufflehead should be obvious.  A drake common merganser is visible in the middle of the photo about 1/3 of the way down (and a female about 1/3 of the way down all the way on the right, also one just to the drake's left).  Scaup are scattered here and there (which are almost universally greaters on Lake Michigan in winter) and there are a few red-breasted mergs high in the background as well as on the upper left.  A WW scoter was in the flock but I don't believe is in the photo.


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Aging and sexing a kestrel, take 2

Well, in my last post I commented on not being entirely sure about aging and sexing this bird since Sibley shows females as having whitish napes (rather than the buff of this bird) despite female-type wings and flanks.
Now being the proud owner of the Wheeler hawk guide, the correct conclusion would appear to be that it is an adult female.  First year birds of either sex have the "correct" wing color; this isn't a species where all young birds look like females for their first year or so.  It's apparently an adult because of the buffy nape, juveniles show whitish here (the whitish shown on the bird captioned female in Sibley).  

Random fact of the day gleaned from Wheeler:  the black "fake eyes" on the back of the head are apparently called 'ocelli.'

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

pic #5000

If I hadn't been lazy, I could lead this post with a nice pic of a barred owl.  Unfortunately, I didn't carry the scope into the stretch of conifers I decided to walk in Riverside park after I didn't last long along the beach.  Since the 2 birds I thought I could find, long-eared or saw-whet owl, do not generally flush unless discovered by corvids (as opposed to great-horned which always flushes except when being mobbed) I figured I could always come back on the off chance I found an owl.  I was surprised when the large shape that flew out turned out to be a barred owl when it landed in the nearby deciduous forest since I'd never heard one in the park despite a fair amount of owling there.

I spent a little bit of time driving the Scottdale plains, finding only a few kestrels, including this bird which didn't fly when I turned around.  Light conditions were pretty rough with a lot of "heat" waves in the gusting wind so I just blasted away hoping probability would eventually leave me a useable image.  Somewhere in that series my camera fired image #5000.  I shudder to think how much that would cost if it were on film...
I'm not completely sure of the age and sex of this bird, I still need to get the Pyle guide that covers the first half of birds (or the Wheeler hawk book).  Based on the Sibley illustration the head pattern would suggest that this is a male since he doesn't show as much blue on the crown or as much buffy on the nape in his depiction of an adult female.  The flank and wing coloration is female-type so perhaps this is a first-winter male.  I guess I'm going to have to stop at more kestrels...

Since I'm sick of having to post photos taken in the ever-present winter overcast, here's a late summer adult male from Rocky Mountain Nat'l Park about 2 years ago:

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Hedwig lives ... possibly

A couple days ago I chased a snowy owl originally found in the South county on New Year's.  We didn't have long to look between nappy-time and when I had to go to work.  Fortunately Ginger (while driving) spotted the bird (200 yards off the road on MY side of the car) in fairly short order.
I was able to help Hazel look at it through the scope.  "Do you see the owl Hazel?"
"I SEE it.  I see the Ow-wel."  
"It has a tail!"
I guess most of the random pictures of owls that she's seen in different books, cards, etc. are heavily cropped head-and-shoulders shots and so the fact it had a tail came as a bit of a surprise.

I went back yesterday on a bright sunny day hoping for much better photo ops but couldn't find the bird anywhere.  The pattern for snowy owls in Berrien seems to be of birds that are found and linger for a few days, but then disappear, either moving on, or succumbing to the winter (and/or aspergillosis, a lung fungus that they are reportedly particularly susceptible to).

I've certainly seen more heavily marked birds so I would guess that this is either a young male, or maybe an adult female.  My spanking new Pyle guide offers a lot of criteria for aging, though spends an inordinate amount of time using patterns of the central tail feather to gauge the age for many/most birds.  That may be very effective in the hand, but the book isn't as useful in the field as I'd hoped.  It also suggests for snowy owl that the pattern of black across the scapulars in terms of whether the bars are complete or interrupted is helpful.  

At any rate, a week into the year that's 2 pretty decent birds, ones I've encountered only once before in the county.  (My lifer snowy owl about 10 years ago was the first bird that Ginger and I chased together.  I managed that time to lock her out of the car while I was sneaking behind a row of farm wagons to get somewhat closer to the bird, somehow the relationship survived... ).

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Year of the Crossbill!

A happy new year to all.  In the past (as many birders probably do), I've termed (at least before I find a good bird that I actually remember) the first bird I see in a year (or the first one I see with Ginger) as the bird of the year.  However, after probably 7 of the last 8 years have been either the year of the junco, screech owl, or goldfinch it seems that this is a tradition that's about worn itself out (not that I remember what I coined the year for more than a week or so).  Today I spent a couple hours looking through about 1000 ducks at various points on Lake Michigan, finding all 3 scoters, redhead, and long-tailed duck, but no big ticket items.  I also walked a subdivision that in the past has produced crossbills, when what should fly past the window when I get home but a bright pink bird with black wings and bright wingbars.  It didn't have to land for a sure ID, but land it did, right on the porch rail:

It's a crappy pic, but shows the ID at any rate.  Hannah had the opportunity to learn a "new" phrase when it appeared (she also heard it as the frigatebird approached during the summer), but I think that at 18 months she didn't quite pick up on it fortunately (though she repeats an awful lot of single words).

Thanks to a new feeder from my sister-in-law with a nice squirrel baffle and Allen Chartier's on-line pic of using slinkies as squirrel baffles on the shepherds crook feeder stands (pic below), I've been able to considerably expand my feeders and feed more than just fox squirrels, gray squirrels, and raccoons.  The crossbill was the first big pay-off, and appeared within days!  (I'm anticipating a green-tailed towhee any day now...)

I haven't quite figured out my goals for the year.  In 2005 I did a Washtenaw big year, in 2006 I moved so didn't do any real listing, in 2007 I was learning Berrien and coat-tailed behind Tim to a pretty good number for the year though didn't approach it as a Big Year.  Last year I did a Bigby year on the bike (which I will NOT repeat any time soon).  At some point I'd like to significantly improve my Berrien township lists, but I don' t think that will be a major goal.  I think I'm going to wait until both girls are in some degree of school to really go after a Big Year in Berrien when there'll be more time to work to find all the uncommon but regular stuff (like glassing field after brushy field for shrikes today instead of looking for rarities in the duck flocks).  It'd be nice to find something chase-able, the 3 review birds I've located in my first 2 1/2 years here have been 5 minute wonders on the beaches.  Eventually I'm going to break down and acquire a nice SLR and go back to focusing more on photography than listing.  Anyway, I have 27 birds for the Berrien year I'm "not" really working on...