Tuesday, April 29, 2014

April Success

I first started birding seriously in land-locked Washtenaw county where the game of Big Days helped offset some of the boredom of inland-county birding.  The April Big Day record in Washtenaw was 118.  Either the first or 2nd year I lived here, Tim, Andre, and I did a Berrien April Big Day and scored 130 birds.  I found out later that the Michigan record was 134.  While that number seemed attainable, it was much more difficult than I expected.  North winds spoiled the day some years, other times rain, heat, or lack of good luck conspired in some combination to generally induce quitting by mid-afternoon.

I didn't have a ton of hopes for today's attempt that Rhoda and I made.  Due to my schedule we had to run it a day early, which can make a surprisingly big difference with the number of birds that return in numbers in the first week of May.  Partly because of this (as well as forecast early early am rain) we didn't start until 3, and when we did we didn't really bird in the style of a big day aside from taping out a screech owl.  We generally just went to spots that might have a Yellow Rail and clicked stones.  I won't build suspense where none is warranted; there weren't any.  We did pick up both regular rails along the way though. 

Early fog made some elements challenging; we couldn't see the back of the 3 Oaks ponds the first time we went by, and found no longspurs on Buffalo Rd.  The fog did keep the temperature down and kept the migrants active later in the morning however.  Warren Woods was the most active I've ever seen it with Warbling, Blue-headed, and Yellow-throated Vireo, Ovenbird, Parula, Wood Thrush, both kinglets, creeper, and Red-breasted Nuthatch among others.  We had migrant Pine Warblers at 2 stops.  Floral seemed quiet, but "thanks" to Rock Dove we hit 100 just before arriving, and found individuals of Baltimore Oriole, Gray-cheeked Thrush, and Northern Waterthrush.  There was enough East in the wind that a few Broad-wings filtered past as did resident Coop, Bald Eagle and Osprey.   Another pocket of activity in a sheltered area produced a White-crowned Sparrow, Winter Wren, and this silent empid.
I assume given the small bill, short primary projection, and strong eye-ring that it's a Least.  It did fly closer when we played the Least tape but we couldn't induce a vocalization.  It was the only empid of the day though.

Weather started playing a role again in the afternoon, a storm cell was rolling in at Tiscornia, though we did have another Long-tailed Duck, as well as distant Common and Red-throated Loons, and the Forster's Terns in with the Caspians.

It started to rain as we arrived at the airport but managed the Mocker and Western Meadowlark before the downpour started that essentially erased our next couple stops.

If the rain in the evening held off we figured we'd be able to get the other 2 owls, but didn't want to rely on them or on hopes for grinding out a grosbeak or bunting so we headed for Muskegon for birds you can't easily see in Berrien.  I think we saw a total of 6 Upland Sandpipers
Displaying turkeys and Bald Eagles finishing off gull luncheons would have been nice bonuses if we hadn't had them already.
Bird number 135 were nesting Cliff Swallows
 I was disappointed not to add any waterfowl.  There were very few dabblers at Muskegon at all and not a ton of shorebirds.  The birds of the day flew past though, 2 Marbled Godwits, possibly the first time I've seen more than 1 at a time in Michigan. 
They quickly got into the sun by the time I'd jumped out of the car; fortunately I remembered to over-expose the pics so they're not just shadows.  The colors are washed out though.  While not quite as rare as last year's April 30 (rejected) White-faced Ibis, at least I don't need to worry about their genetic purity or countability.

We spent some time at some much nicer cattail marshes than exist in Berrien, but couldn't find a bittern, got rained out from a grouse stop, but were able to add the 2 large owls upon returning for a total of 138.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Snowy ... Plover

New Buffalo harbor is one of the better places in the county to find Snowy Owls.  I don't think I expected to see a Snowy Plover there though.  Likely the same SW winds that brought the Whistling-Duck brought this beauty that alternated feeding on dead (?) insects in the scum line and resting before the north winds.

 It was hanging out with the only other non-killdeer shorebird, a sanderling.

The legs were a lot lighter than my memory of birds in Florida, though this bird's legs are pretty consistent with the pics in the orange Karlson Shorebird guide and fairly close to Sibley.  It has a lot of retained wing coverts from last year.  I think that the extent of the black neck stripe indicates a breeding male.

At one point it flew towards us and happened to land pretty close giving the only non-digiscoped shots.

With this bird, I've seen more county lifers in the last 4 weeks than I saw all of last year.  It makes a person wonder what else is around.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The duck is out of the bag

Tim found a Black-bellied Whistling-duck on the evening of Good Friday.

Like I said the other day, digi-scoping's not dead.  I took very few pics of the bird on the ground with the SLR.  60x on the scope with 2-3x on the camera plus a crop factor = probably 150-200x magnification.  That's useful.

It was useful for documenting 2 intact hind-toes, though they were visible when the bird flew.  These obviously are crops with the SLR...

I've already written up the MBRC form since it wasn't clear if the bird would stick around for administrators to return to their offices after the Easter holiday to discuss access, so I'm not going to re-hash the various different ways no-signs-of-captivity in appearance, behavior, or timing can be written, or post a bunch more boring pics of the legs.  The winds the days before this bird was found were ideal for central western rarities (as prognosticated by several Ontario bloggers prospectively) to move in, and north winds on the day prior to discovery could certainly have helped halt it.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Digi-scoping ... not quite done yet?

Ginger recently got a new point-and-shoot style digital camera which actually works pretty well for digiscoping which I'd pretty much abandoned for the last 4 years or so.  It has it's moments though, and for distant stationary birds, can do better than an SLR.  Here's some of the white-fronted goose flock from this morning.
I've included pics of this flock in each of the last 2 posts, you can compare the results.  Certainly the SLR is a lot more consistent, but there's something to be said for starting with 60x magnification of the scope as opposed to more like 7x magnification of the 300mm lens.

The real reason I tried digi-scoping again was to try to document the Ross's type Geese in a little pond in the Scottdale plains.  If I'm correctly interpreting GoogleMaps they're about 500feet off the road.
 They look the same size as far as I can tell.  Both have pale tips to the bill and some blue wartiness at the bill base.  They both had fairly generous furrowing of the feathers of the neck.  The bird on the right/back has a bill base that's pretty straight and I think would have been acceptable if this were the bad old days when they were still review birds (here's an old post of submitted Ross's and Ross's type birds.).

Here's the right bird again.

The 2nd bird is a little tougher to evaluate.
Its bill was a little thinner, in most shots the bill base is more concave, and it has less blue wartiness.  The bird, however, is identical in size to the other.  I can't decide if there's a true difference in head shapes.  Last fall when we had a group of white geese at 3 Oaks the borderline bird was nicely intermediate in size between the Ross's Geese and the Snow Goose.  I've seen this shape of bill on first year birds and I wonder if this isn't just a younger bird.  Sometimes there's still some duskiness on wing feathers to prove the young age; it being mid April it's probably not surprising the bird seemed pretty white overall.
I think the take-home message is that White-fronted Geese are pretty.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

April snow brings ...

... interesting backgrounds?

I tried a few spots that I thought might be sheltered and have some water that could keep insects alive or pseudo-active this morning.  I found basically no insectivores whatsoever, not even the phoebes or kinglets that are certainly back, much less any concentrations that could harbor a rarity.  Hermit Thrushes and Fox Sparrows, though, were concentrated around the sunny edges where the snow was melting.

This thrush has apparently as much use for a napkin as my 6 year-old does.

Maybe not surprisingly a robin was the best portrait, possibly the first picture of a standing one I've taken with an SLR.

I had one Brown Thrasher working some snowy leaves, but it was too distant for the pics to be worthwhile.  The Swamp Sparrow turned out ok though.

Finally the Rocky Weed WFGO flock, I suspect they're the same flock as a week or so ago since the numbers are the same.  A few years ago a pair spent most of April at 3 Oaks, apparently they'll stop over in at least small numbers.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Shades of rust

There's a lot of brown birds around in various shades.  Here's a White-fronted Goose from a week or so ago.  It was my 200th (or maybe 201st) bird for Royalton Twp.  I keep forgetting it's not March; it still felt like I should be looking for Ross's and cacklers up until a couple days ago.

There's a lot of common birds I admittedly don't look that close at.  This Horned Lark was sitting along the curb at Tiscornia, I'd forgotten how much warm rustiness they have in the spring.

It has fresh primaries and fresh outer tail feathers.  The secondaries and tertials are well worn though.

Similarly, I stopped for a coyote in the south county as it was close.

I immediately heard a cacophony of blackbird sounds from the woodlot next to some corn stubble.  A large proportion of them are Rusties.

A few teed up along Avery Rd on the Smith's Longspur day.  I didn't get a shot of a female though there was a similarly sized flock there too.

And last, a Louisiana Waterthrush we had at Warren Woods sometime last week too.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Smith's Longspurs' annual appearance

Hopefully I'm not jinxing that.

Rhoda and I made a morning trip to Buffalo Rd which quickly paid off.  Almost immediately we heard the rattling calls of longspurs.  There was a decent sized flock moving around well out in the field, probably 100-150 birds.  There were a few other Lappies scattered about. 

Not long after though, we found 2 Smith's on the ground; for once they didn't fly immediately.
The lighting was rough, last's years Smith's Longspur pic is better.  One bird's in the open in the left upper corner, the second is just right and a little in front of the shadow on the right side of the pic.  While I was photographing these Rhoda had another one to the left.  They flushed after a while and I kicked up a full adult male from about 15 feet away.  Unfortunately no pics with my scope on my shoulder.

We didn't pick the white wingpatch of the Smith's out of the larger Lapland flock, but some smaller groups were exclusively Smith's.
 Below is the above pic montaged so all 4 birds can be seen zoomed in on.
Tim noticed a couple years ago that Sibley has the underwing pattern of Smith's wrong.  You can frequently see the white stripe there as well.  We've seen it both at Buffalo Rd and at Tiscornia.  Of course, how can you document something that's not in the books.

Here's the Laplands flying away
The entire flock flew right past; I could feel their breeze.  Rhoda didn't see any Smith's in them; I was only trying to get pics.  Hand focusing on rapidly moving birds meant only one usable image. 

One last Smith's, this shot's even worse, but it's the right color and has the wing patch
I saw 9, counting the distant birds in flight captured by the camera.  Rhoda had 3 more I didn't see while trying to find my focus plane in the homogenous corn stubble.

Monday, April 7, 2014

(almost) a Eurasian Wigeon

North Bay Park at Grand Mere is one of the better spots to see good numbers of ducks in Berrien Co, with Ring-necks, Lesser Scaup, and Redhead frequently predominating.  Wigeon and Gadwall will hang out, trying to steal whatever food the others bring up.  About the 3rd duck I looked at today was a wigeon with an orange head.  I'll bet these pics could pass muster as the real thing with the proper description...

The bird was fairly distant and my camera didn't do a good job of picking up the two-toned orange to the head that was readily apparent through the scope.

Rhoda's phone-scope of it gives a more accurate impression though the jaw/cheek was a little orangier at most angles in live viewing.
Where an American Wigeon would have the green head stripe this bird has the dark orange, about the right color for a Eurasian Wigeon.  Unfortunately it has the paler jaw and cheek of an American.  I considered whether it was simply an aberrant American, but it has the gray back of a Eurasian.  In Amercans the back is the same pinky-gray as the breast and side panel.  The more rear aspects of the side panel are gray on this bird, also supportive of Eurasian genes.

Interestingly the American it was closest to (which is visible in the last 2 pics) has a much reduced area of green to the side of the head, just a little patch that surrounds the eye.  My guess is that was due to happenstance or else two odd-balls tolerating each other better than the more stereotypical Americans since I saw no evidence of plumage abnormalities in the 2nd bird.

Hybrids have been recorded in eBird in the eastern U.S. at about 10% the rate of pure Eurasian's, though I don't know if that's because they're truly much less common or if people just don't bother entering them

Friday, April 4, 2014

Rare Birds of North America review

The latest of the intermittent advertisements, errrrrr, reviews for Princeton Books (who provided a free review copy).

I think this is my favorite bird book that I've received from Princeton (the dragonfly book passed the test that I bought one myself when I'd promised the review copy to someone else and ended up having to own it after looking at it).   As the name implies it covers North American rarities, specifically 262 species that have generally occurred less than 5 times in North America.  The book has extensive discussion about patterns of vagrancy and occurrence, which I expected.  What I didn't expect was excellent identification discussion (I probably should have given that Steve Howell is the lead author) and even better illustrations. 

Here's the Lesser Sand-plover plate; this would have been very helpful last fall when the bird appeared in Indiana and I was kind of stretching on a resource that would eliminate Greater.

The illustrations (apologies for my photographs of them) are better than Sibley's (more on him later).  My only criticism of them is that the artist's (Ian Lewington's) style is to paint most of the birds in a fluffed relaxed affect; the shapes are a little off from what the bird's typically show.  That being said, with just one painter, you can kind of get your eye in for how they're pictured and how they're likely to look in life.  Here's plates of 2 of the birds I have seen recently, Green Violet-ear,
(Note in the Violet-ear plate the comparison with a Ruby-throat; the book commonly will show the rarity next to the regular bird it most resembles or would be encountered with.  It reminds me of the European Collins Guide in this manner.)

and Cinnamon Hummingbird.

The problem this book has is its timing.  It reminds me a lot of 10-15 years ago when Kaufman and Sibley came out with their field guides within a few weeks of each other.  They claimed there was no competition since Kaufman was billed as a replacement for Peterson and Sibley as a replacement for the National Geo.  The problem was that Sibley didn't include the rarities.  Illustrations of the Aleutian, pelagic, or southern border state rarities remained only in National Geo or specialty guides.  Sibley replaced Peterson, Kaufmann was an afterthought, and National Geo with all of its problems retained at least some of its niche.

This book was supposed to come out a year ago.  I'm not sure what the delay was, but now it's being released about the same time as the new Sibley which now contains illustrations of a lot of these same birds.  The question is how many birders are going to get this book when the new Sibley covers most of them at least in passing.  I think I've seen exactly 3 birds from the book in the ABA area and unless I move to SE Arizona my odds of discovering one on my own is close to nil.  Unless you're birding the Alaskan islands, doing a lot of pelagics, or living in one of the border regions (or conceivably even California) this book is of academic interest, really nicely done, but may not have that much practical use.  Off Amazon this book is $20-25, the dust jacket says $35.  Honestly though, this book is certainly worth owning at that price even if my Midwestern readers are probably only going to be chasing (or dreaming) about these birds.  If you've got a family of 4 you can't get out of Panera Bread without spending more that that.

Want others' opinions?  Here's Cory Gregory and Jerry Jourdan.