Saturday, November 28, 2009

when it rains it pours ...

... grebes that is. (Now where's that eared?)

Tim called this morning (technically Saturday morning) with news of a Western Grebe at Tiscornia. Having seen one 3 weeks ago at New Buffalo I could afford the peace of mind that comes with a shower and careful observance of traffic ordinances. The bird was about 300 yards out when I got there, but would sometimes close to about half that distance.

As detailed in my post earlier this month ("ask and thou shalt receive"), bill color is the best way to separate Western from Clark's per all references that I could locate.
And, as before, the color when the bird's bill is not in bright perpendicular sunlight is more accurate. In this case it's on the olive, rather than the orange side, of yellow.

This bird was also an example of how photographs (especially bad photographs) can be deceiving.
I was having trouble getting decent photos, and kept overexposing the bird. On pics with the bird way overexposed, with the focus in front of the bird, and the bill somewhat aimed towards us I totally blew away the thin black feathering under the eye and started lighting the lores up like headlights. Not good if you want the bird accepted sans slash (Western/Clarks in the official record).

One last combo pic,
The leftward shot shows what the lores (and the flanks???) ought to look like with more proper exposure (note that Sibley does show non-breeding Western as having paler lores, the question is whether they're pale/medium gray, or if they're white). Again, the figures in the Storer and Nuechterlein article are worth a review. The nape seems to be a typical Western nape, though again, the nape is only really helpful if very narrow.
The addition of overwhelming probability makes me comfortable putting it into my township spreadsheets as a Western (and probably lets St Joseph pass Three Oaks for good after Three Oaks pulled back to a tie with the Arctic Tern yesterday), though I'd feel more confident about the bird not getting accepted with a slash if I hadn't come up with so many ugly pics of it. The lores were not white in the field though.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

I am thankful for ...

... the snails, birds, turkeys, the tent, a bush, and a cow." That's what 3 year-old Hazel wrote on her "I'm thankful for" leaf at pre-school.

Jon called this morning that he'd found a Snowy Owl 5 miles from the house at the same location Ginger and I chased my lifer snowy when we were dating 10 years ago and visiting her family for the holidays. Both girls got to see it through the scope.
It was rainy and misty and they didn't want to stay long. I think the highlight for them was the raisin boxes they ate in the car on the way home, but they were excited to go look for a "white owley." Hannah spotted a flock of ring-billed gulls on the way there and happily called out, "there they are," since we told the girls to watch out for white birdies. Not bad for a 2 year-old.

I have no idea what random thing Hazel was referring to when she said she was thankful for "a bush."
Maybe she was referring to the brush down below the house? The pic is an ominous scarlet-and-gray sunrise Saturday morning before the Michigan-OSU football game.

I spent most of the Saturday morning at the end of the pier in the mob composed of the second weekend Murrelet twitchers. In spite of themselves, most (I think all at least in the morning) did eventually see the bird, though the directions that people gave would have been better utilized if everyone wasn't yelling "where is it, where is it, where is it," each one louder than the next. It didn't help that half the people use "the gull" as a reference point when the water was peppered with Bonaparte's. There's certainly an art to listening to a cacophany of people giving direction to a bird, inevitably people who utterly can't give directions, and not listening to any one particular person, but just trying to get an overall gestault of where they're all describing.
At any rate, here's a red-necked grebe that was more cooperative than most in Berrien, also from Saturday. Usually they're flyby's, this is only the 2nd I've seen in the water here. It was actually a county lifer for Jon, who's seen over 300 birds here. Tim's got some decent pics up on his Picaso site of the Parasitic Jaeger that kept sweeping by and periodically landing on the water with his new Canon 40d.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Yuck ducks and yuck gulls

New Buffalo harbor is fairly notorious amongst Berrien birders for its motley bunch of waterfowl with various Peking ducks, barnyard mallards, and a Chinese goose (which most years pairs with a Canada goose) which get lumped all together and termed "yuck ducks." There's also been a nice gull flock there attacting fair attention with a good number of Thayer's gull sightings. I need Thayer's gull for the year and while I haven't always been fully motivated this year to get every last county annual that I could have, the gull would make an even 260 and perhaps give me a shot at photographing an adult, a task at which I have never succeeded. To make a long story short, I did find one definite first year Thayer's. The reason, however, that they're so hard to photograph, is that to feel comfortable with the ID of one, you have to see everything, and everything entails seeing the spread wing. And when you see the spread wing, a lot of times that's the last you see the bird.

I thought initially that this was a Thayer's too.
Its small bill puts it rapidly into the Kumliens/Thayers group. The dark eye is better for Thayer's as is the amount of head marbling. Many Kumlien's Iceland gulls show a lot less black in the primaries as well, but some can pretty much resemble a Herring gull at rest. Thayer's wings pretty much look like Herring gulls at rest, though usually have larger white terminal tips.
The photo only shows the tips of primaries 6-10. P5 can frequently be helpful since Kumlien's gull "rarely" shows black on this feather whereas Thayers' gulls only lacks it "sometimes," per Howell and Dunn. Olsen and Larson report a paper (by Howell) that the number of Thayer's lacking black on P5 is 25%. Either way it doesn't matter since we can't see it, though my assessment as it flew by was that the bird seemed to only have 5 feathers with black on them. However, what bothers me on this bird is that you can see the underside of P10 on the opposite wing which is almost entirely whitish with gray; I'm not seeing any solid black. Sibley shows a narrow strip of black in his painting of the adult non-breeding, which is less black than all the photos of Thayer's in either Howell and Dunn or Olsen and Larsson.
Here's another interesting gull (the one on the left). You'll have to take my word that the back was evenly mottled brown, it did not have any of the gray mantle that a 2nd cycle would be acquiring (or even some 1st cycle Herring gulls when they do more pronounced moult after juvenile plumage). This bird, however, has a bicolored pink and black bill which I've never seen a 1st cycle Herring gull exhibit.
There was also some atypical white feathering on the face over the forehead, and more even brown through the head and body than the darkening plumage that Herring tends to show.
Here's the bird as it flew off, I didn't quite time it/keep it framed to get an effective spreadwing, but did manage a spread tail!
The tail did parallel the flight feathers though, in that it was a lighter more medium brown than the dark brown-black that Herring gulls typically show. I suspect this to be a "Nelson's Gull," a hybrid between Herring and Glaucous.
For comparison, here's a shot from the same flock with a 1st cycle Herring and a 1st cycle Glaucous as well:

And coming soon to a blog near you, photos of a black-headed gull. I'm calling it now. Fore-warned is fore-armed.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

More murrelet musings

Great birds attract lots of birders. Lots of birders tend to talk, and with a great bird to look at, the conversation stays focused right where it should be ... on birds (I read an article once in Bird Watcher's Digest where one of the hawk counters at Lake Erie Metropark correlated lack of birds with increased discussion of sports, politics etc.)
Yesterday I speculated that the bird might be a non-breeding adult based on the extension of black behind the eye cutting off the white extending up behind the ear. Further review of Sibley suggests that a non-breeding adult should still have some white wisps that form the half halo of baldness partly responsible for its name (the other is the contrasting gray mantle which has been compared to the shawl more popular in the fashion of the older demigraphic).

Some of us wondered about the bird's route to matriculation at the University of Tiscornia's Main Campus. My guess was that the bird had flown along the Arctic Ocean, followed the Hudson Bay south and ended up in the Great Lakes. This turns out to be the course surmised by A.C. Bent, one of the more famous ornithologists of the first half of the 20th century. That being said, two authors independently examined weather data in the 1960's following records in Illinois (1) and Montana (2) respectively. Both of them found that most records east of the Rockies correlated with extreme low pressure systems along the Pacific coast associated with very high winds to push migrating birds inland. Clearly the farther east a bird is, the harder it is to try to assign it to a specific weather event. However, here's how the bloggers at describe the first week of November in their neck of the woods: "During the first week of November 2009, a major storm wracked the Oregon and Washington coasts. Wind gusts of up to 90 mph were recorded on some headlands and up to five inches of rain fell in places. On 5 November swells of up to 25 feet were reported off the southern Oregon coast. During and after this onslaught thousands of birds flooded into the sheltered estuaries or rode out the storm grounded on beaches."

The bird's short-term survival was also debated on two fronts. The first is that these birds typically forage in salt water. It's not a tube-nose though, and I don't know that it has any particular physiologic adaptations to salt water that would prohibit its ability to regulate its sodium balance; I certainly didn't find any papers suggesting that anyone has researched the osmolar gradients reached in murrelet kidneys or murrelets' ability to modulate ADH (anti-diuretic hormone) or similar compounds that can affect water resorption in the nephron's collecting duct. What I did find, however, were two papers with indirect evidence that murrelets could survive in fresh water. First a team from Tasmania (3) measured the amount of salt that seabirds (diving petrels and fairy prions) ingest from the salt water versus that ingested in food. They found that sea water accounted from about a quarter of the salt ingested by these tubenosed birds that can probably be more cavalier with how much seawater they ingest. My guess is that decreasing salt intake by a quarter would be easily compensated for by the usual activity of the kidneys. The other paper of interest was one by Hobson (4). He found (also by measuring different isotopes of carbon and nitrogen in the birds) that Marbled Murrelets will sometimes feed in fresh water for up to several weeks at a time.

The other question is one of food. These birds mainly eat krill, which obviously is at quite a premium in the Great Lakes. However, Kaufman (5) notes that in some seasons they eat "mostly very small fish," and indeed the bird was diving actively into the schools of small fish that had accumulated next to the pier (and also attracted good numbers of steelhead as evidenced by the fishermen's success). Once we observed it to surface with a fish about 2 inches long. Generally after 20-30 minutes of diving actively it would work its way back out into the lake and rest. Moreover, Munyer (1) suggested that 2 March records from Lake Erie in 1951 that followed a mini-invasion of sorts with 2 other inland records in November of 1950 in other parts of the country likely represented over-wintering birds.

A few other items of note, several authors (including a review annoted by Bendire (6), as in Bendire's Thrasher) observe that Ancient Murrelet is a favorite food for Peregrines, perhaps contributing to their diurnal habits. Along with those diurnal habits, murrelets are very vocal (one of the bigger surprises for those of us for whom any murrelet was a novelty). They breed in hidden locations in the grasses of islands and the Pacific coast rather than the seabird cliffs favored by some of the other alcids and so have more well developed vocalizations. The birds are so vocal in fact, that the early explorers (6) studying them recorded that "after losing about a week's sleep, owing to their squeaking, I at least felt like choking the whole lot." They describe a "high shrill whistle" used in the breeding burrows and a "peculiar piping whistle" used at sea. I'm not sure how the rhee-eeee-ee notes we heard would be characterized though I think piping would be more accurate than shrill (though it was very high-pitched). My microphone and mini parabolic dish which spent 2 weeks in the back of the truck had unfortunately migrated back to the shelf at home, so no sonograms from me, but extensive sonographic review of the species' vocalizations has been made (7) if others' recordings turned out.

I guess I'm mostly out of thoughts for now (assuming anyone's still reading), other than that the bird might hang out in southern Lake Michigan, will have to keep it in mind while checking the holes in the ice later in the winter.

1. Munyer EA. Inland Wanderings of the Ancient Murrelet. Wilson Bulletin 77:3. 1965.
2. Verbeek NAM. Wanderings of the Ancient Murrelet: Some Additional Comments. Condor 68:5. 1966.
3. Green B and N Brothers. Water and Sodium Turnover and Estimated Food Consumption Rates in Free-living Fairy Prions (Pachyptila turtur) and Common Diving Petrels (Pelecanoides urinatrix). Physiological Zoology 62:3. 1989.
4. Hobson KA. Stable Isotope Analysis of Marbled Murrelets: Evidence for Freshwater Feeding and Determination of Trophic Level. Condor 92:4. 1990.
5. Kaufman K. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton-Mifflin, New York, NY. 1996. p277.
6. Bendire, C. Notes on the Ancient Murrelet (Synthli-boramphus antiquus), by Chase Littlejohn With Annotations. Auk 12:3. 1895.
7. Jones IL, JB Falls, and AJ Gaston. The Vocal Repertoire of the Ancient Murrelet. Condor 91:3. 1989

Saturday, November 14, 2009

November rocks.

So the phone rang this morning. I could see Tim's cell on the caller ID. I picked up the phone expecting to hear about a cave swallow. I heard a pressured voice, "You gotta get down here." Ok, still expecting a cave swallow. "There's an Ancient Murrelet at Tiscornia. It's three feet from the beach." I hung up on him and ran for my scope. I had expected Tim to eventually get this bird, but I had always expected that he would have seen it flying past and the bird would be halfway to Indiana before I'd even had a chance to set out.

It was a lifer for me (as well as for many of the people who arrived), and good enough to stick around, swimming up and down the pier foraging on the minnows that had attracted decent numbers of steelhead. It would swim far out and rest for a while before swimming (and once flying) back in.
It was close enough to be noted by the fisherman, some of whom claimed to have seen it earlier this week. One of them insisted the bird was a grebe, "and I know grebes." One of the birders (Rick?) deadpanned, "well, that was a trip wasted then."
The birders arrived in waves, first from Grand Rapids (and Indiana), then from Jackson, then from the SE part of the state including good numbers of my old friends from Washtenaw. It was even a state bird for Tex Wells.
Based on the narrow black line that connects the ear to the nape, I suspect this bird is a non-breeding adult since in breeding plumage that entire area is black; in full non-breeding plumage and juvenile plumage the black line doesn't exist, so my guess is that's retained from this summer. I don't have a waterbird Pyle though.
Here's a view of the bird as it's just starting to dive...
And the bird as it's diving, a commonly recorded image by the congregation of birders who accumulated thanks to the wonders of cell phones and the internet.

The other thing I learned today was that with an Ancient Murrelet to watch, a cough drop makes a good lunch.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Weird gulls galore

Tim and I worked our way down the shoreline this morning, not finding a whole lot, until we hit a decent gull flock at New Buffalo. This Franklin's Gull isn't weird, but was a fun bird, probably my best photos of the species. Note how much bigger the white primary spots are and how much fuller the half hood is than what an adult Laughing gull would show. The bill is also shorter and more slender than a Laughing gull's. A hint of the breeding red color to the bill is retained at the bill tip.

Next is a pretty funky looking Herring Gull.
The eye is darker than the average Herring's (though in the field was more of a dark amber than truly dark), and the head is enormous with the heavy-jawed glaucous look to it. The orbital ring was a pale red. Herring gull's orbital ring is described as orange-yellow by both Sibley and Olsen and Larsson, and yellow-orange by Howell and Dunn. We wondered if the bird could have some Glaucous-winged genes somewhere in its history. I couldn't find any reference as to what percentage of adult Herring gulls have dark eyes, though experience would say the number is clearly not zero. We didn't get a view of the spreadwing as the flock was dissipated abruptly when a young Parasitic Jaeger flashed into view.

This Lesser Black-backed Gull shows the gnarly black bill that you see frequently in 3rd winter birds. I have one pic of similar bill in a bird I aged as 4th winter, which is the plumage I think this bird is attaining given the white tip to the fresh P8 and weathered black P9 and P10.

Next is probably a Kumlien's Iceland Gull (but conceivably a Thayer's intergrade)
It has pale slate markings on most of the primaries (it only briefly stretched its wings back), much too pale for a Thayer's. It does have more head streaking than what's typically illustrated in the guides, however, both Howell and Dunn and Olsen and Larsson show photographs of birds with an equal, or more, head streaking. A 1991 paper by Kevin Zimmer reviewing Kumlien's ID in Birding magazine states that possibly up to 20% (though probably less) of Kumlien's Iceland gulls can have dark eyes.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

ask and thou shalt receive

So in my last post I noted that I was overdue for Western Grebe in Berrien Co. A very timely phone call from Alison awakened me with news she'd found a Western Grebe in New Buffalo. I got the call at 8:20 and was due at work at 10:00 (where I indeed arrived at 9:59). This allowed me about 20 minutes to view the bird. Fortunately the water was relatively calm and the bird didn't dive while I was there so I could blast away (though it was quite distant, pics are taken at 60x on the scope with the camera zoomed in somewhat too, something I try to avoid). Here's my best shot (note caveats below about the bill appearance):

It can be difficult to ID Western from Clark's Grebe in the fall when the face pattern is not as distinct. Multiple references (Sibley, Kaufman's Advanced Birding, Kim Eckert's article in the Oct 1993 Birding "Identification of Western and Clark's Grebes," and one of the seminal early papers (from a group at U of M no less) published in The Auk supporting a split of the two forms) suggest that bill color is the best way to separate the two birds; Western has a yellow bill tinged greenish, Clark's has a yellow bill tinged orangish. These are my two best pics of the bill when it's not reflecting direct morning sunlight, certainly not tinged orange. Also note the blurry duskiness to the upper and lower mandibles, another Western feature (Clark's has a more sharply defined black edge to the upper mandible):

The next 2 pics show the face pattern (note that the bill is reflecting directly off the sun making it seem very bright; Kaufman specifically cautions that a Western's bill can look very bright in low direct sun). This bird shows a solid black cap. The lores, as well as a narrow line of feathers below the eye, and the feathers directly behind the eye are evenly blackish, paler than the cap. While the two species have very little overlap in breeding plumage (see the very neat Figure 2 in the Auk paper linked above), there is some overlap in non-breeding plumage. However Clark's still usually has white lores and indeed the extent of black on the birds face looks to me to fall in with that figure's group 2 in which they had no birds with Clark's type bills.

Here's a comparison with 2 breeding Western Grebes from my photos, the left bird (with a chick just visible on its back) from South Dakota and the right bird from Colorado. Even in presumed non-breeding plumage, our bird's face looks not appreciably different from these breeding birds.

Here's two views of the bird going away showing how broad the black is down the back of the neck:

Here's a comparison from Colorado of a Clark's Grebe on the left and Western on the right, the difference then with the two side by side was marked, though not as well emphasized in this pic since I couldn't get them exactly parallel:
In this pic you can also see the 3 gray-toned look that Clark's can show, with a black cap and back of the neck, med-dark gray back and light gray sides. Our bird did show some mottled whitish feathers on the rear flanks especially along the waterline towards the stern, but the overall color of the side panel was still relatively dark. The Birding article's exhibit photo of a typical Western Grebe shows a bird with some mottled white feathering towards the rear of the flanks. Kaufman and the two articles all point out that the flank coloring is variable both between birds and between views of the same bird; while Sibley points out Clark's averages more pale, I still think this implies that overlap occurs. Interestingly, Sibley also emphasizes extensive white flight feathers in Clark's, the other references say there's almost complete overlap or do not even mention this point at all.
While if I'd had the opportunity I would have stayed with the bird longer, and may look for it again on Monday, in my mind this is a Western Grebe.