Thursday, October 30, 2008

seet, seet, seet does not an orange-crowned make

I finally finished up a string of night shifts (which neatly blanketed about 3 straight days of beautiful NW winds/gales) and headed to Tiscornia with the family this morning.  Predictably I didn't see much sign of migration with SE winds, but a flock of snow buntings drew me to retrieve the scope from the car.  They weren't very cooperative, though this bird landed about 15 feet from Ginger and the kids while I was moving off towards the gull flock (if you call about 8 birds a flock).

During naptime I headed down below the house in the ongoing quest for a Bigby orange-crowned without results, though a group of fox sparrows (along with a few whitethroats) popped up from a honeysuckle thicket.  Unfortunately the one that perched up was in pretty dark shade and shooting at 1/60th of a second made for not-so-sharp images of another species that I'm yet to acquire great pics of.  I stood there for a while trying to figure out which seeh-seeh came from fox sparrows and which seet-seet came from white-throats without a lot of luck.

Friday, October 24, 2008

a return to the photo quiz

So, I put this photo up a few days ago to try to illustrate a point.  I've been somewhat annoyed lately by some of the photo quizzes in the back of Birding magazine where sometimes their hints are to look at the habitat or the type of vegetation the bird's in.  Overall, that's certainly good advice while considering many birds over time, but it has little to do with the identification of any one single bird.  One of my old Washtenaw friends, Dea Armstrong, would always say on field trips she led, "birds have WINGS, and they USE them."  Truer words were never spoken.  

At any rate, getting back to the photo, we see a backlit bird feeding on seeds in pine cones.  Based on the conical bill, it's pretty clearly a passerine.  It's perched at an odd angle with the tail pointing downward toward the camera so looks oddly short.  Perhaps a person might consider a nuthatch for that reason, but the bill is clearly wrong.  Based on the information presented, of a passerine with a conical bill feeding on pine seeds, the assumption would be that it's a finch, and if so then the best guess would probably be pine siskin based on the bill shape.

That's not what this is.  It's a red-winged blackbird, flocks of which have been feeding on the pine seeds from the cones around my house.  While we think of them as birds of marshes and fields (quite correctly), they apparently branch out considerably in their large migratory flocks in the fall to take advantage of other food sources in settings that a person might not have expected:

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

someWHERE over the rainbow ...

 ... there probably existed a rare bird. 

Except for the first snow buntings of the fall (and the first for my Bigby year), despite N winds (probably NNE), there seemed to be less movement than the last few times I've been to Tiscornia.  There were actually greater numbers and larger flocks of scaup flying north than south.  We did have probably 100 Bonaparte's gulls, but without the hoped-for black-headed.  We???  Actually there was a fairly rare sighting today, that of the Greater Northern Skunkape, one Tim Baerwald, taking a break from counting waterfowl at Whitefish by watching waterfowl at Tiscornia.  Despite the fact that the last 2 times he's returned to the county he brought, within hours, county-level megas (glaucous-winged gull and Nelson's sharp-tail), it was not to be today.  I will spare you a photograph, and leave you with one last look at the rainbow present this morning (it was a full bow before daybreak as I biked in at pretty close to rarity-chasing speed hoping for dramatic pics).

Monday, October 20, 2008

a photo quiz ... and semipalmation

I went down below the house again this morning in my ongoing search for an orange-crowned warbler for the Bigby year.  The last 2 years I've seen them in the fall without really trying, but this year, try as I might, I've been striking out.

Here's an inaugural photo quiz for the blog, we'll explore some of the many facets of bird mis-identification, of which I can be quite the expert.  The theme of this one is "you see what you expect to see:"  I'll post the answer in a couple days.

In the afternoon during naptime I went down to Tiscornia after a black-headed gull disappeared about 30 miles north.  There was no gull movement at all though about 250 scaup went by along with a few dabblers.  A black-bellied plover was on the beach feeding near the pier.
A semi-palmated joined it as well.  I'm not sure where the semi-palmation is, I can't figure out if the little flap of skin visible on the back foot between the inner and central toe is the part that is webbed or not webbed.  [Addendum: having pulled Hayman's Shorebirds off the shelf, I see that semi-palmated refers to the webs being partial rather than only part of the foot being somewhat webbed ... so ... that tiny little flap of skin is indeed the semi-palmation the bird is named for, present between each of the toes.]
Hopefully the north winds tomorrow will bring that gull down to Tiscornia...

Monday, October 13, 2008

Winter is coming...

... though you wouldn't know it from the 85 degree temperature today.

I went down below the house this morning again hoping to find an orange-crowned without success.  There were tons of kinglets though and good numbers of yellow-rumped warblers, solid signs that the fall passerines are winding down.  Pretty much only winter wren, fox sparrow, hermit thrush, and ultimately purple finch remain with greater numbers still to come.

I checked Tiscornia at midday.  There was no sign of waterfowl movement at all though the sanderlings were starting to attain winter plumage.  The sanderling on the left is a pretty typical appearing juvenile while the second bird has nearly completed its moult of the back and scapulars.  Only a couple juvie scaps remain.  Interestingly it was easily a size larger than the other bird, perhaps it fledged in an area rich in food and got a little ahead of most of its cohorts.  One other bird was about half way through its moult.

This dunlin alternated between being way to far for decent pics and then would settle down at head and shoulders distance.  In the full resolution pic you can count about 20 eyelash feathers on the lower eyelid and about 35 on the upper.  The dunlin is obviously in pretty full winter plumage (with the exception of one or two feathers at the upper bend in the wing).  They moult up on the breeding grounds before migrating, leading them to be the last shorebird to come south in numbers.  I have seen juvie white-rumpeds and juvie long-billed dowitcher later than this, but I have at most a week to try to find one of them for the Bigby year before I have to write them off.   
I work, however, all daylight hours the next 2 days, I'll probably miss a decent north wind or migrant push after the front comes through tomorrow.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

tracks in the sand

"One, two, three, four, sive, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, leben," Hazel counted out as we walked down the beach a couple days ago.  I looked down to see her pointing at the footprints of a retreating sanderling, dashed off on perfectly moistened sand.  
I'm not sure that I've ever noted such clear tracks from the 2 ounce birds (per Sibley).  It's interesting how much they toe in.  Are all birds "pigeon-toed?"  You can also see there's basically no sign of a hind toe.  I think I read somewhere on the internet that's nearly unique amongst the sandpipers.  I couldn't find explicit support for that in either Sibley or Hayman's Shorebirds of the World, though it is suggested by their illustrations.

As I headed back I noted another completely backlit sandpiper on the beach, somewhat smaller than the sanderling, and had to hurry past it on the dry sand to get a decent look.  It turned out to be a fairly late Baird's, to my knowledge only about the 2nd October record for Berrien this decade.
The Baird's is the left-most bird with 3 sanderling in the middle, then a semi-palmated plover on the right.  This could be the first time I've had 3 different species of shorebird in one photo at Tiscornia (where's a decent mudflat when you need one?).  At least the beach gets points for prettier backgrounds.

There were considerably fewer birds today on an official Lake Michigan count with birders spread up and down the Lake Michigan shoreline.  The most interesting bird was a Cooper's hawk that flew straight in off the lake and went directly over the heads of the BBC field trip.  The best birds would have been 3 smaller geese in with a flock of Canadas that unfortunately went inland about a mile to the north.  They were most likely cacklers but it was impossible to be certain at that distance.

what savannah sparrow pics are supposed to look like

After the somewhat depressing pics I posted the other day of a smashed Savannah, while wading through a weedy brushy field today, had good numbers of them pop up, this one was fairly cooperative:

There were decent numbers of other birds present as well.  Pipits worked the edges of the area, a few bright palm warblers popped up but wouldn't quite pose long enough for a decent shot.  I flushed a couple snipe, but I didn't run into any big ticket items (i.e. clay colored or rare ammodramids). White-crowned sparrows are coming through right now in peak numbers.  They seem more willing to hold a pose than most songbirds:

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

why savannahs shouldn't have roads

Unfortunately, today's road-killed specimen was my fault (yesterday).  Driving home from Hazel's tumbling class ("that was FUN, daddy.  I LIKE fun"), two birds popped up from the roadside, one went straight up, the other inexplicably dipped somewhat and before I could get to the brake it went bounding off the car.  I circled back hoping it would be a house sparrow, but found this little guy instead:
The first thing I noted as I slowed past it, was the somewhat rufous-edged (in the sun) secondaries and my initial thought was "its way to late for a Henslow's." Looking at the entire bird I could see it was a bright little Savannah sparrow.  While savannahs have much shorter tails than something like a song sparrow, the angle of the photo somewhat shortens the tail even further as I was trying to get the face and the wing in the same focal plane.  I don't have a Pyle guide (maybe Christmas...  ) but songbirds usually moult their body plumage once a year and the wings once or twice yearly.  Comparing this bird with the next photo (taken in May a few years ago) you can see how the yellow lore becomes more prominent with wear while the malar area becomes whiter.  The flank and side streaks become more distinct as well.  You can also see how the areas that are rufous in the greater coverts and secondaries are worn off, adding to the much paler appearance that most of us are used to when we picture a Savannah sparrow in our heads:

Chain link fences aren't really ideal perches photographically speaking, otherwise the second pic would be much nicer (maybe should try to photo-shop in a nice rustic-looking fencepost some winter night).

Monday, October 6, 2008

trash birds?

One of my birding mentors, Don Chalfant, used to tell me an apocryphal anecdote that went something like this.  Two people are walking through a forest.  One is a birder (depending on your perspective, either an un-abashed or a jaded lister), the other is a non-birder.  The non-birder spots 2 identical birds sitting on a branch and asks his friend what they are.  "The first bird," the birder announces with great excitement, "is a boreal owl!"  "The second one is a trash bird."  Yikes.  

Anyway, I made my way back to Tiscornia today.  I've missed some nice N winds because of work and today's winds were wrong, but it was finally a day off so I went anyway.  The greater black-backed gull was standing in basically the identical location it was standing the last time I was there, and a peregrine appeared after about 20 minutes.  There was no waterfowl movement, after about an hour and a half I'd tallied 3 local mallards and one distant common loon.  I made a brief half-hearted attempt at photographing sanderlings (which is when the above peregrine flew back in and landed on the beach), and I headed home after walking the dunes hoping to kick up a LeConte's (just a few songs and white crowned's).