Saturday, March 29, 2008

March Madness - Saw-whet style

Today went on a L-O-N-G bike ride down to Riverside Cemetary near Three Oaks where a saw-whet has been staked out for most of the month. I havn't had much success at finding tough birds for my Bigby year and this bird has been tempting me; the trick has been to find a day off with the right wind conditions (mild headwind on the way down, tailwind on the way back) to attempt the 52 mile round trip (mostly going south, but somewhat west as well).

Today dawned 20 degrees, but calm winds made it feel warmer than I expected. ESE winds were to slowly build through the morning though after about 3 miles it was probably 10 mph. The ride down took about 2 hours and 15 minutes and the bird was right where it was supposed to be (on the same perch where I saw it the first time I drove down to it). A Sarett Nature Center van appeared just as I was leaving and I ended up spending longer at the spot than I'd planned. The first 5 miles on the way back were sheer slog straight into the wind but I eventually made it back in two and a half hours.

Yesterday we stopped on the way home to try to show the bird to (almost) 2 year-old Hazel who points at a picture of an owl in her animal sounds book and says, "ow-wel, hoo, hooo." I think it's the only thing she can both name and say the sound for. The bird was out in the open yesterday but there were too many distractions for Hazel to figure out what we were trying to show her. The bird blearily opened its eyes to slits, gagged up a pellet after a few tries, and then went back to sleep, settling its head into its scaps. The pics are obviously from yesterday.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Bigbying is not for the faint-hearted

Well, at the beginning of the new year there was a lot of talk on the internet about Green Big Years, basically a big year but without using gasoline. It seemed that there was initially a lot of interest, however, based on the posting at the forum website, it would seem that many people have realized just what a wondrous invention the internal combustion engine is, and just how difficult it actually is to bicycle places. So far I've ridden slightly over 1oo miles and totaled 58 birds (though only about half required a bike ride). Last time I rode this route I lost breakfast after a tough climb on a shoulder-less hill. Today it was much easier as the shoulders and sidewalks were melted at last. However, I managed to get thrown over my handlebars and face-planted when I didn't notice that there was one intersection without a smooth ramp back up onto the sidewalk and an 8 inch curb instead. Fortunately the helmet did its job and kept me from seriously hitting the sidewalk or from getting clocked by the 13 pounds of telescope and tripod that I was wearing on my back with the scope-pak. One of the knobs on the tripod gouged out a thumb-sized piece of hard padding from the back of the helmet on the impact. By the minor miracle brought off by the helmet the Leica was unscathed and I had only a minor bloody nose and swollen knee cap so the Bigby year will continue. Our location in the SW corner of the state would seem like a good one to post a pretty good number for Michigan. I think that I should be able to tally 215 birds without too much difficulty assuming my knees hold up, but upwards of 240 could be possible (last year in the county I had 259 though that's a number I probably won't approach again without a concerted effort).

At any rate, did make it to Tiscornia Beach where in an hour and a half there were probably 400-500 ducks, about half loafing off the pier and the other half moving (mostly south) offshore. Probably 3/4 of the birds were divers (about half both scaup) with good numbers of redhead and white-winged scoter, fewer surf scoters, ring-necked duck, canvasback, common merganser, goldeneye, and bufflehead, and large numbers of red-breasted mergansers. The dabblers that flew by were mostly mallards but included pintail, black duck, and both teal as well. Two red-throated loons also flew by. All nice birds, but no real big-ticket items.


Friday, March 7, 2008

Florida in February, Part III: North meets South

Spent my last two days in Florida birding with two old friends from Ann Arbor, Don Chalfant and Roger Wykes. It was odd how the majority of the most interesting birds were northern ones. We went to the Volusia Co Landfill to look for a California Gull which Don needed for Florida (about a 5th state record or so). Before ultimately finding the California, both Glaucous and Iceland gulls were found, as well as good numbers of both black-backed gulls. When we checked Ponce Inlet, there were the expected royal terns and willets on the beach, but a purple sandpiper and a (staked-out) great cormorant as well. The gannets were pretty much continuously present out over the Atlantic as well. But of course there were fun southern birds as well, highlighted by the booby and that gorgeous spoonbill pic that I finally scored in Merritt Island NWR (it's slightly over-exposed, the bird flew before I could change the settings, but a picture I've been looking forward to taking for a long time:

Florida in February, Part II: Booby sunrise

After spending much of an afternoon on the St Augustine Pier where an immature brown booby has been spending the winter seeing only distant gannets, I left an hour before dawn in order to hit the pier at sunrise. I was immediately rewarded; the bird was sitting on the end of the pier exactly where it was supposed to be. I walked out to the bird as the sun just broke over the Atlantic. It was shivering pretty violently until the sun had a chance to warm the bird. I guess it'd been captured twice in an attempt to "rescue" it, had been boated out to sea and released in the gulf stream, but had returned each time within a day or so. A fisherman caught a small fish, called to the bird ("hey you, hey, come here, hey you") and the bird waddled up along the guardrail and took the handout directly from the man's hand. I watched the prehistoric looking creature for quite about an hour before leaving it and heading back.

Florida in February, Part I: Plovers galore

Last month had a chance to escape the Michigan winter and fly down to the NE corner of Florida near Jacksonville for a conference. I arrived mid-morning (and rapidly shed about 3 layers of clothes) and headed for the coast. I tried a number of locations, and after realizing that the big white with black-wingtipped birds flying off the coast were not white pelicans but actually lifer gannets, I spent a fair amount of time at Little Talbot Island State Park. There wasn't that much in the way of shorebirds (or skimmers) however, and I kept moving, eventually ending at Hugeonot State Park.
Here, in the evening light at low tide I quickly came upon a flock of skimmers at water's edge, a species I'd never photographed, and not seen since a childhood trip to Florida. They were exciting birds, no doubt, black, white and red all over, but what really surprised me was how narrow the bills were, practically knife-like when viewed on end (which I suppose would make sense).

I soon realized that the around the edge of the cove was teeming with shorebirds, and while there were a few dunlin and peeps at the water's edge, most of the mudflat was covered with plovers. The bulk of the birds were semi-palmated with an occasional black-bellied, but a piping quickly popped out, a much heavier and paler bird. I soon worked my way around and saw several. One even sported green and orange bands indicating a bird banded in Michigan (piping plover is one of a handful of regularly occurring birds in Michigan I'm still missing). I started working my way around them to get better light behind me and suddenly noticed that the birds I'd been passing were Wilson's plover, my second lifer of the day. All of the birds tended to hunker down in tire tracks or depressions in the sand when the telescope fell upon them. I spent awhile with them on the way back tallied a white-phase reddish egret which was also cooperative for some pics.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Greater of two waxwings

Bohemian waxwings have been invading Michigan this year and a large flock was discovered at the Whirlpool headquarters feeding in some sort of berry tree (choke cherries???), some people have seen up to 80 birds at a time. I didn't try to count them at all, but they were certainly abundant.

On Saturday I biked the 20 miles round-trip from the house to score them for my Green Big Year. It was a route I hadn't biked before (though I drive a stretch of it every time I go to work) and didn't realize how hilly it was. The snow wasn't melted off the sidewalks and only mostly off the shoulders of the road which made the trip that much more ridiculous. I lost breakfast after the worst of the hills (a shoulder-less S curve I couldn't stop on) but perservered, took a quick record pic and then turned around.

On Sunday we returned on the way back from church (seeing both a immature bald eagle as well as a northern shrike on the way) to try for better pictures since the sun was finally out. Efforts were hampered by the wind but I certainly improved the previous pictures I had taken in terrible overcast lighting. Hopefully they'll stick around and I can try again this weekend... The birds were quite variable, I hadn't realized how much variability there is in the extent of pink, yellow, and white in the wings. Only the birds with the brightest and most extensive yellow had significant pink wax tips. In the sunlight the brown highlights in the face were much more apparent than I'd noted before in the overcast.