Monday, December 22, 2008

"They're all the same, all you can eat is the breast,"

Said my father-in-law when I told him my theory that at least 5 different forms of white-cheeked geese occur in Berrien.  I think that puts it into perspective.

Due to Christmas preparations, a boring CBC, and serial blizzards, I haven't gotten out as much as I'd like so I've decided to produce (drumroll please) yet another goose post!

These are birds photographed when Tim and I tried our big day back in early December.  How many different forms do you see?
The 2 birds in the foreground are obviously Canadas, given that there were about 200 of them, they're probably the migratory interior race.  The 2 birds in the rear on the left appear to be Richardson's hutchinsii cacklers.  They're small, the left-most bird definitely has more prominent edging to the scapulars, and  both have a quite vertical forehead.  The right-most of these 5 birds was giving me problems.  The next picture shows it on the left with one of the cacklers having walked down behind it now on the right.
It definitely seemed to have a much more sloping face and seemed to be a slightly different color brown than the others.  It seemed to be just bigger than the cacklers though definitely closer to them than the Canadas.  Unfortunately I didn't do a good job of documenting its scapular pattern, but my impression in the field was that there wasn't much contrast (though the 2nd cackler had less contrast than the brighter of the cacklings as well).  I'm not sure if this bird is a cackling goose or if this could be a parvipes type lesser Canada goose 

Finally my best photo of the brighter of the 2 cacklings, showing the head shape and the scapulars fairly well.  Perhaps I should have worked on better pics of the duller one.
A note on the photos, they were taken on a bright sunlit day and my camera somewhat under-exposed them so the brightness and contrast have been increased on pics 1 and 3.  They're also shot through a chain-link fence which doesn't help matters.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A harlequin and a puzzling grebe

This afternoon the sun broke free from the clouds and I made a casual run to the St Joseph beaches with a very modest goal of just finding some Herring gulls to photograph in the sun for once.  Well, I did find a few photo-worthy birds, but at Silver Beach I found a good number of birds sheltering from the mild north winds on the leeward side of the southern pier.

In front of a flock of buffleheads was this smartly-marked duck, no ID problem here:
It's a male harlequin duck with the crisp crescent in front of the eye, white ear patch, and a subtler vertical whitish mark on the neck.  In the very best of lights it did have some bluish gloss.  It didn't have any other white on it, none on the body.  I thought it was probably a first year bird given that it lacks the whitish marks in the tertials that Sibley shows a full winter-plumaged male as having.

There was also a small dark grebe.  My initial reaction when I first saw it was that it was an eared grebe.  With closer study it wasn't holding up that well.  I had called Tim after I got a few shots of the duck and he asked me if there was an eared grebe there too.  He'd seen the duck that morning and seen a/the grebe last night.  Before we could talk further a fisherman appeared behind me and I hung up to try to get photos before the birds were pushed farther out and we didn't talk about it at any length.  I don't know for sure that this is the same bird.

First is my best overall pic of the bird; it was difficult to get a good front-lit photo because of the configuration of the pier and the southern winter sun.  The bird has a dark face.  A typical horned grebe has a very crisp dark gray crown and white cheek and throat.  Per Sibley either species should be in full winter plumage by now, and certainly I can't remember seeing anything but that plumage in horned grebe this time of year.

There are structural clues; an eared grebe typically has the peak of the crown in front of or about even with the eye, in horned this is farther back on the head.  The eared has a thinner and upturned bill.  Horned does have a pale tip to the bill though this can be hard to see and either could probably show it if backlit enough.

The next 2 pics show the head shape, eared has a more peaked crown than horned, this is one of very few birds where looking at the bird as it is going away from you is actually quite helpful.

Another side view of the bird, probably the sharpest of the bill shape (I had to play with the contrast and brightness of this one as it was underexposed)

Here's a composite of my 4 best side views of the head (ignore the one random gray line) followed by old photos I've taken of the two species (eared on the left, horned on the right obviously):

I think the bill of today's bird is thicker than any eared grebe I've ever seen; the maxilla appears convex rather than concave.  I got the suggestion of a pale tip, though again that could be artifactual due to the lighting conditions.  The head seemed to peak behind the eye, but seemed rounder than the typical horned.  I don't know if a first year eared grebe would have a thicker, less up-turned bill than an older one would; Sibley does not show that however.  The other thing to think about on this bird is that the longer I watched it, the more I seemed to see the left leg.  I wonder what a horned grebe would look like that couldn't preen its cheek and chin; I suspect that it would look a great deal like the bird today.

If you go to look for these birds, BE CAREFUL on the pier.  It's covered in ice.  Despite being really careful on the way back, I took a fall and banged the scope down hard (thank goodness it seemed to be unaffected).  I continued to the beach to try photos from a different angle and wondered why my fingers were sticking to the camera, they've never frosted down before.  I looked down and saw my fingers all bloody, I took a picture but decided to spare you the image.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

My juvies are all grown up

I've been thinking that I've been a little sloppy with my terminology in how I've been reporting 1st year gulls lately, I've been calling them all juveniles (juvies).  Juvenile plumage really refers to the initial full plumage that a bird leaves the nest in.  In most species of bird this is a briefly held plumage and either moult or wear quickly gives a new appearance (i.e. the spotted newly fledged robins quickly become red-breasted).  Gulls, however, hold that juvenile plumage longer.  But, they soon start moulting into what Olsen and Larsson term 1st winter plumage, undergoing what Howell and Dunn refer to as pre-alternate 1 (PA1) moult.

Here's a true juvie herring gull, photographed in August.  Note the wholly brown plumage:

Next is a bird from September.  It still looks mostly like the first bird, but note how a few scapulars are brown-black with gray edges rather than brown with white notching.  This is part of the onset of PA1 moult:

I slacked off acquiring herring gull moult pics in fall, so we skip on to where we are now.  This bird is from yesterday in New Buffalo.  Note that the back is mainly formed by the blackish scapulars with white edges.  The bird has also moulted much of its body such that it is grayer overall and has a whiter head (the bill is also well on its way to becoming bi-colored).

This is another December Herring gull from a year or so ago, fairly similar in appearance.

The last 2 birds are what would generically be called 1st winter plumage.  Herring gulls, like most large white-headed gulls, suspend their PA1 moult during the tough times of winter, reserving calories for things like not starving to death rather than growing new feathers.  Herring gulls are fairly variable in their moult, some apparently do very little moult in their first fall.  This is also regional as well; if you look at the pics in Howell and Webb of birds on the west coast they will be far less advanced in their moult in photos taken 2 months later than these are.  Our midwestern birds apparently follow more of an east-coast schedule.  Also to add to the confusion, once they re-start PA1 moult in the spring, they don't actually reach an alternate plumage, they just keep right on moulting such that PA1 apparently runs into PB2 (pre-basic 2nd year moult) more or less continuously.  But we'll leave figuring that out for next year.  Howell and Webb captions the current birds 1st cycle in "post-juvenal molt" in his pics, but describe them as undergoing PA1 moult in the text.  Olsen and Larsson would call them 1st winter.

And I haven't forgotten my threat to do another white-cheeked goose post!

Monday, December 8, 2008

End of the Bigby?

With 32 degree precipitation today on what was supposed to be the nicest day remaining this week, I think my Bigby year is over (barring a big surprise at the feeders).  I totaled 227 birds without using gasoline, 123 of them required the bike while the remaining 104 were seen around my house.  Given that I went a little over 1000 miles this year, that's a new bird every 8 miles or so.  Since I averaged about 10 miles an hour on the bike, the math gets pretty ugly quickly in terms of the ratio of time spent birding vs spent on the bike.  From a weather stand point I picked a lousy year to try this given that some parts of Berrien had record snowfall last winter and we had a top-5 all time amount of snow in November (including a single day record).  Considering that 2 years ago it was 40 degrees and snow-free on Christmas and that this year it was a white Thanksgiving, a person could certainly have 4-6 more weeks to really work at it in a year with luckier weather.  I made a total of 54 trips, therefore averaging a little less than 20 miles per trip.  The farthest I went was 66 miles to get down to the south county to pick up southern warblers.  I also made a 52 mile chase early in the year after a staked-out saw-whet owl.  On about half of the trips (22) I saw birds I would only see once, highlighted by my (long-awaited) Michigan lifer piping plover and 4 hurricane blown brown pelicans (also obviously Michigan lifers).

What could be possible?  I've totaled 246 birds this year in Berrien without focusing on year listing when not on the bike.  Therefore there were 19 that I've seen on various big days, chases, and at other random times.  Four of them (evening grosbeak, spotted towhee, northern shrike, and snow goose) were only seen when snow prohibited biking so wouldn't really be possible.  A handful of them (Thayer's gull, Iceland gull, black tern, white-rumped sandpiper, Brewer's blackbird) were found only in the extreme southern part of the county that would have required 50-60 mile trips to find.  I missed some of them by not having time to chase after them with my work schedule or not being able to attempt it until after they were gone (marbled godwit, long-billed dowitcher, worm-eating warbler).  A couple were rather inexplicable/inexcuseable that I missed them (orange-crowned warbler, lesser black-backed gull, and rusty blackbird).  For a few of the birds I just didn't have enough time in the early breeding season to get them while they were most vocal, going after easier birds cost me (virginia rail, least bittern, black-billed cuckoo).  And a couple were just simply transient birds that I saw while not on the bike and would not get another shot at (glaucous-winged gull, magnificent frigatebird, and golden eagle).  It would probably take another 500 miles to tally most of those, or to make up for some of the impossibilities with other birds that would also be possible. SO, I rather doubt I'm going to attempt this again.  A person who lived closer to the lake or specifically a great passerine spot on the lake (like Warren Dunes) would be able to attain these numbers with far less effort.  That being said, as far as I can tell from various reports on the internet, this is one of the higher numbers tallied by someone who works full time and probably the highest for this latitude away from an ocean (though an inland sea doesn't hurt).

Pics today were from the New Buffalo harbor.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

a not so big day

It's been several months since I'd attempted a Big Day, and I convinced Tim to try one today.  Obviously this was a bad year to run one in December given the 18 inches of snow that fell in November in Berrien (top 5 all time locally), much of it on a single record-breaking night.  The little water areas all froze up after that.  They've since re-opened, but all the dabblers that might have been holding out in a normal year were no where to be found and we had a lot of difficulty with the half-hearty birds (towhee, zonotrichia sparrows, hermit thrush, etc etc etc) that would have been much more findable in a better year.  I think we both sensed this given that we made no route beforehand and didn't bother owling in the morning (or the evening either for that matter).  We totaled 60 species unless I missed something.

We started in the south county, not picking up any uncommon birds in New Buffalo and found the morning passerine spots fairly windy.  We found pileated and hairy woodpeckers at traditional locations, but aside from a kingfisher tallied little else.  We headed on to the landfill ... can you find a bird that looks different?
Not in that picture, but you get a sense of what a person is up against.  Eventually we'd found juvie/1st winter (I forget which of these have distinct 1st winter moults) greater black-backed, Thayers, and glaucous gulls; the glaucous is below.  Their fawn-on-white coloration and crisply contrasting pink and black bills makes them stand out.
We were able to add lesser black-backed at 3 Oaks, as well as cackling geese (for more on these simply fabulous birds, stay tuned for a subsequent post in a day or so, oh loyal readers), but no new ducks.  That was the way the rest of the day went, we found some of the birds we looked for (red-headed woodpecker in Warren Woods for example), but missed far more and really didn't come up with many bonus birds.  We found all 3 scoters off Grand Mere.

I thought I was going to record a nice photo when a pipit appeared in gorgeous light at one of the Andrews ponds, but by the time I'd gone back to the car for the scope and set up on the birds they'd moved twice as far away and the sun had retreated back behind the clouds.  This bird is perched up on a big pile of compost, continuing the garbage theme.
We finished at Paw Paw Lake under 37 degree sprinkles, ironically finding another lesser black-backed gull (the bird I probably should have spent the afternoon biking to Lake Chapin to pick up as the gulls come in to roost there).  Hopefully the ice will again be off the roads by early next week, the next time I'll have a chance to get out.

Monday, December 1, 2008

You know it's windy if ...

 ... a long-tailed duck won't even stay in the water:
Tim and I had hoped to cover the county pretty thoroughly today.  We started at New Buffalo in what I thought was a hole in the snow on the doppler and found the beach getting just pounded by the wind and waves.  Water was getting blown all the way up to the dunes.  The full-winter drake long-tailed above must have looked for shelter in the harbor (where the wind was blowing the current up-river) and decided it was more comfortable on land, not something I ever really expected to see in Berrien.  The picture was only possible directly in the lee of the truck's tire out of the windy and frozen spray; it would have been nice to get that reed out of the duck's face, but would have required moving the truck.

We estimated about 40mph winds.  There were about 3 gulls left over the beach, one of which was a juvie glaucous.
I think I would need an SLR camera with some choices of lens to really capture the size of the waves, but just the fact that Tim would go out without bothering to take his scope (and that we'd go no further than about 5-10% of the length of the breakwall in peak purple sandpiper season) may say more than the pics.
We continued on to the landfill and 3 Oaks, ultimately seeing several juvie glaucous gulls, an adult and a 3rd winter lesser black-backed, an adult greater black-backed, and 2 juvie Thayer's gulls which offered good studies both at rest and in flight.  One of the Thayer's was slightly paler and longer billed than the 2nd (which briefly sat directly next to a small juvie glaucous, would have been a nice pic with a lot more light and a lot less wind...)