Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Thayer's ID isn't so hard...

... when you have an actual Thayer's Gull. It's when you have a Herring Gull with a few Thayer's features, or Thayer's - Kumlien's intergradish stuff (and everyone draws that line differently)that it's harder. I spent a couple hours at New Buffalo yesterday after several Thayer's have been seen with the recent gull influx. The gull flock was smaller than I was used to and the birds were more skittish. Honestly I was getting pretty frustrated. I saw a couple adult birds that were together in the water, dark-eyed, small-billed, and feeding with much more active surface-picking action than the Herring Gulls that I had hopes for, but the white primary tips didn't strike me as particularly large and they didn't show me their spread wing. Eventually though this juvenile bird appeared.

Here's the bird in flight.
At rest it has noticeably paler primaries than the Herrings (compare it with the the 1st cycle Herring behind it) and a relatively thin bill. Thayer's Gulls on average have less moult from juvenile into first winter plumage, note that the Herring is whiter headed and has a lot more marbled gray feathers in the back because of this process. The tertials are also a paler medium brown than the Herrings and have patterning limited to the edges (as opposed to Kumlien's Iceland which has much more markings internally).

Another view of the Thayer's in flight. Even as juveniles they exhibit the "venetian blind" pattern in the primaries of dark leading edges to the primaries and pale trailing edges. Note the contrasting secondary bar (which is more prominent in some lighting angles than others); Kumlien's Iceland Gull has much less darker coloration in the secondaries (or tail).

Here's a distant comparison of the underwing with a 1st cycle Herring Gull on the left. The Herring has much less white in the underwing (though in bright light can look quite white as well).

Finally here's a tricky exercise, can you find 5 species of gull in this average at best photo? (This is definitely an example of knowing what the photo shows already makes it easier to see).
Our Thayer's is the gull near the middle. A first cycle Herring is in the foreground on the left (and a few more Herrings are scattered through the mass of Ring-billed's). The Parasitic Jaeger looking thing facing left in the water on the left is a 1st cycle Lesser Black-backed (this is probably not ID-able based on this photo alone), and close to the right side of the pic in amongst the Ring-billeds is a larger-billed bird with a spangled back, a 1st cycle Great Black-backed.

Friday, November 26, 2010

I'm dreaming of a ...

... purple thanksgiving.

Yesterday I went out in the late morning when Tim had a Western Grebe swim past the pier at Tiscornia. It was gone by the time I arrived, though on the way out a purple sandpiper flushed off the pier in front of me, a nice consolation prize. It flew across to the South Pier and then flew back over and hunkered down into one of the cracks in the pier which is probably how I walked right up to it without seeing it initially.

It was pretty tame.

This bird is a juvenile based on the pale edgings to the wing coverts. Many believe that Purples that try to overwinter in the Great Lakes fail and so seeing an adult here is extremely rare.

There were also some loons off the end of the pier relatively close. I initially took this Red-throated to be an adult with some delayed molt given how gray the head and neck is, but looking at the relatively subtle (rather than bright) speckling on the back appears to be a juvenile bird with more gray on the neck than they average.

This Common Loon is a lot paler than they average, either a light juvenile or a faded adult that maybe never attained breeding plumage. In the field the bill was almost yellow tinged, though that doesn't com out in the pictures (but did make a person look twice at it).

This is the more common appearance for Commons:

Here was an average wave at Tiscornia this morning in the Westerlies.
Hopefully their scaffolding is rated for a ton of ice...

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Gulls migrate

For whatever reason (most significantly the number of non-breeding loafers seen in McDonald's parking lots), birders don't really think a lot about gull migration. There's well known time-tables for things like warblers, shorebirds, and ducks, but last year we really started noticing some significant gull movements among Ring-billed and Herring Gull at the end of November and early into December. Today large numbers of Ring-billed's were pushing down the lakeshore, pushed up against the beach by strong westerly winds.

Three times we saw kittiwakes a few hundred yards in front of the Ring-billed pushes.
The first glaucous gulls of the year were also mixed into these pushes.
This Black-backed Gull looking thing was in one of the flocks. Through bins it looked like a young Greater, but there's a couple things a little off about the bird.
It has a fairly strongly bi-colored bill which Greaters don't usually show to this extent, has a very limited tailband, and to our eyes narrower-based wings than the average Greater as well.
It might be simply a crisply-billed slender female 2nd cycle Greater, but we suspected it probably had some Herring gull genes in it.

Finally 2 record shots of the other two kittiwakes, first a montage of the first juvenile of the day,

followed by a distant shot of an adult:
The bird is past the south pier in this shot, probably about half a mile away. The paler inner primaries and proximal outer primaries bleeding into the trailing edge of the secondaries stood out more that we expected it to, though it helped also that it was the 4th time in about 3 days seeing the flight style. Tim got on the bird long before I did and has pics that are probably a quarter mile closer.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The New Buffalo workout

If anyone's looking for a novel upper body workout, I've got one for you. Walk the New Buffalo jetty, while carrying optics and a three-year-old. Four-year-old Hazel was enthralled by the prospects of clambering over the rocks, Hannah not so much. I was hoping for a Purple Sandpiper, but when a duck swam out at a rest point I was pretty happy with a bonus Harlequin Duck. I've never missed Harlequin Duck in Berrien, but this was a year bird.
This duck (the darker less-patterned female on the left) was at Tiscornia this morning.
It appears to be a female Mallard x Black Duck hybrid. Males are pretty easy to identify, but this is the first time I've had a good look at a presumed female.
The bill has the pattern of a mallard, with the so called melting chocolate icing effect, but it's muted by the ground color of the bill being a Black Duck's dappled olive rather than the orange of a mallard.

The cap is much more contrastingly dark than a female mallard's (you can compare it to the top photo). It almost had some vague greenish tones in the dark overcast.
The scapulars and side pocket have a suggestion of patterning to them, but nothing like the female Mallard's.

For what it's worth, here's the speculum. I've never had a digital camera yet that didn't way over-blue violets or purples in nature; this photo shows the color bluer than it was in life. I don't have any file photos of the extent of white in the speculum of Mallard's, but it's a heck of a lot more than a Black Duck would have.
Given that we've got a car in the shop hopefully Purple Sand (and even Thayer's Gull) will come to me at Tiscornia, I'm not sure how many trips to New Buffalo will be in the works for the next week or two.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Chucking rocks at Kittiwakes

It's been a good fall for kittiwakes in Indiana; about 25 were seen at Miller beach 2 days ago. Tim had good numbers of Bonaparte's fly by Tiscornia yesterday, but no kittiwake, and we had about a hundred Bonaparte's in our first hour this morning. They petered out, however, and after another hour and a half we were ready to go. The lighthouse construction had dislodged a chunk of concrete from the pier and we decided to do the obvious thing, chuck it in the lake (lest someone trip on it) and try to photograph the splash. Well we turned one way, decided the light was better to the south, and Tim was in his wind-up when a tight flock of Bonaparte's bore down practically on top of us. The rock clattered back onto the pier as a juvenile Kittiwake led the flock, sporting a characteristic bold black M and black nape mark.
The much larger bird stuck to the periphery of the flock rather than getting caught in the congested pack of smaller Bonaparte's.
The underwing doesn't show the same degree of contrast, from this view it looks like a grotesquely overgrown Bonaparte's. In powered flight it had similar wingbeats to the Bonaparte's. My only other sort-of-recent experience with a kittiwake was 5 years ago, also at Tiscornia, with a bird loafing over the river water. In more relaxed flight that bird displayed more of a Ring-billed Gull class jizz.

This Common Loon was pretty close to the pier, the water breaking over it made a nice effect in this pic.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Birds in the wind

A significant proportion of our birds in Berrien relate to the wind. Earlier in the day the wind had less of a south component than it's seemed to be mainly stuck with the last several days and so we spent some time hawk-watching. While there was no goshawk, a young Golden Eagle did over-fly us. The lighting was pretty tough and the pic doesn't do the golden nape justice. It was quite pronounced in the scope.

A couple days ago there was one day of strong west wind as a wide storm front went through the midwest. I only had an hour that day at Tiscornia but 10 Franklin's gulls flew by in that time.

These 2 pics show 8 of the ten. They're farther out than the Franklin's this spring, but the ID features are still pretty easy to see, half hooded birds with relatively dark mantles with white between the gray of the upperwing and the black primary tips. The next day the winds turned around to the SE they've been stuck on and no more Franklins.

I went out and bought a couple more thistle socks earlier today since Siskens seem more common this year than in the last few years and a better than average redpoll year is forecasted. These 2 were on the seed that had been out all summer...

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Not thayer's gulls

This isn't a cave swallow either. Short-eared owls are moving through. Two flew over the beach at New Buffalo this afternoon.
I spent most of my time scoping the gull flock, there were probably 3000 gulls on the beach. I had 5 Lesser Black-backed's but nothing terribly exciting.

Some of the fresher juvie Herrings are thinner and darker-billed than most of the birds. In fresher plumage they also have the suggestion of pale tips to the primaries and so a person could think Thayer's. This bird was photographed last week, but it or one like it was present today.

The spreadwing with extensive dark on both the leading and trailing edges of the primaries argues pretty well for Herring though.

This bird flew past and had significantly reduced black in the wings, probably close in total amount to what a Thayer's would show, however, the black doesn't extend that far up the leading edge of the primaries the way a Thayer's would. The bill, eye, and head streaking show this bird to be in that 1% of Herrings mentioned by Sibley with much reduced black in the wing. Here's a file photo comparison of the amount of black usually seen in Herring Gull wings.

Monday, November 8, 2010

More fun with Merlins

I've fallen a little behind on this blog, these photos are of a Merlin from last week. The big SW gales that brought the cave swallows blew down one of the snags the Merlins commonly used and knocked out half of the other main perch, so this bird wound up a little lower than they have been.

Here's a caption contest...
Obvious ones include:
1. Merlin power!
2. We fly the bird upside down
3. Waiter, do you have any more Swamp Sparrows? (we watched it beeline out over the lake to hook behind an incoming passerine, it swooped up and snatched it just like the previous bird did to the kinglet but this one didn't allow an escape. It carried the prey back, decapitated and ate it (we recovered the Swampie's head after the merlin flew off).

Another flight montage...

And the view if you were underneath that snag: