Sunday, December 20, 2009

more than chickadees on the CBC

Having your count area include Lake Michigan waterfront always makes for a more entertaining day.

The following is a photographic rendition of what the purple sandipiper that flew past us and landed for less than a minute each on Tiscornia Beach, and the North and South Pier, might have looked like if it had rested on say, an algae covered rock, instead of a concrete pier, and sat for an hour, instead of running around constantly, in nice morning light, rather than heavy overcast. Tim managed a few IDable frames with the SLR, but my digiscoping efforts were futile. The pic is from New Buffalo about 3 years ago.
Next is a Ross's type goose that was in the rivermouth. It would appear to be the same bird as Tim found at LMC about a week ago.

The bird's small size (check out the HEGU behind it), short bill, bluish bill base, and utter lack of a grin patch are apparent. The bird's entirely white plumage in winter (per Pyle II) indicate that the bird is an adult. Is it a Ross's goose though? If so, based on the Audubon Society homepage, it would be the fourth for a Michigan CBC in the last 50 years.
The bill is accepted as the best way to discriminate between Ross's, Snow, and hybrid geese. In the positive column, I think it has as little black on the bill as any Ross's-type I've ever seen in Michigan (admittedly the only place I've seen Ross's geese). On the other hand I've seen Michigan birds that have a lot more actual wartiness to the bill base, though this increases gradually as the birds age. Pyle II gives the culmen (upper bill edge) length of Ross's goose as 35-47mm (41mm on average). Olsen and Larsson give the bill length of Herring gull to be 44-62mm (53mm avg). When I take those measurements on the top photo, the goose's culmen is about 80% of the length of the Herring Gull's bill giving the goose's culmen an estimate of 35-50mm (~43mm), somewhat closer to the measurement Pyle gives for pure Ross's (41mm) than for hybrids (47mm). However, even if those rough measurements could be reliable, other sources (Roberson, 1993 and Trauger et al, 1971) indicate that F1 hybrids between Ross's and the smaller (Lesser) Snow Goose subspecies tend to be small birds, many of whose measurements overlap those of Ross's, and are outside the limits of most Lesser Snow Geese. The Trauger paper is an interesting one, accessible through SORA reporting measurements made on 24 "intermediate" white geese and comparing them with about 150 Ross's and about 130 Snow Geese. Culmen length, tarsus (leg) length, total body length, and flattened wing length in adults all overlapped significantly between (presumed) F1 hybrids and presumed pure Ross's geese and were outside the ranges of Lesser Snow Goose. He found weight to be more intermediate. Sibley describes hybrids as intermediate in size. Pyle's average culmen lengths for Ross's, Snow, and hybrid geese are generally within a millimeter of what Trauger came up with but calculated 95% confidence intervals where the culmen length of hybrids overlapped both Lesser Snow and Ross's.
Which brings us to the all-important, unmeasureable, and subject-to-position-and-angle bill interface. Pyle describes this as "malar feathering extending distally to the forehead feathers," in Snow and "malar feathering not extending distally to the forehead feathers in Ross's." Now we get to parse words Bill Clinton style and try to define "malar." Pyle claims to follow Sibley's definition of "malar" even though Sibley in one of the articles referenced by Pyle (Sibley, 2001) explains why Pyle doesn't follow Sibley's definition of "malar." Pyle defines "malar" as "pertaining to the feather group at the posterior end of the gape and extending back to the neck" whereas Sibley defines it as "originating at the base of the lower mandible below the gape and extending back along the sides of the lower jaw." If Pyle follows Sibley's definition then neither bird has malar feathers extending distally to the forehead, for a photo, here's one I posted in March of a bunch of Snows with a Ross's-type. The forehead feathers are more distal to the malar in every bird including the Snows. Pyle must mean the cheek feathering extends forward in Snow and not in Ross's. Here's where a picture is worth a thousand words. Unfortunately Sibley's picture of a hybrid is of a small-billed bird (admittedly with a much more prominent grinpatch than the absent one on this bird) with the upper base of the bill hooking back a little towards the eye, essentially what this bird's does. On the other hand, so do a decent number of the birds on Robert Royse's page photographed in New Mexico.

Interestingly, Trauger concluded in 1971 that intermediate birds comprised about 5% of the Ross's population and felt that it was possible that "pure" Ross's may in the future cease to exist as the population becomes swamped with Lesser Snow Goose genes. As an example, he reported data suggesting that Black Ducks were outnumbered by Mallards by about 6:1 in North America, whereas Ross's goose was outnumbered by about 27:1 making hybrid pairings even more likely. I'm not sure that these Arctic geese aren't any different from the Arctic gulls; who knows where Kumlien's stops and Thayers begins in many individuals, the same may be becoming true for these.
At least in a week they won't need to be reviewed in Michigan any more, right? Right? Hmmmm...
Sibley, DA. "What is the Malar?" Birding, 32: 448-451. Oct 2000.
Trauger DL, A Dzubin, and JP Ryder. "White Geese Intermediate between Ross's Geese and Lesser Snow Geese." Auk, 88: 856-875. Oct 1971

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A swing and a miss

Success rates on chasing birds are always higher if you can go the day a bird is found. I was unable to locate the Trumpeter Swans that Tim found yesterday while I was at work in a decidedly half-hearted effort this morning.

Here's some file photos of Trumpeters from Washtenaw where they breed (bred?) in small numbers when I lived there. Those of traceable origin there had been released in Ohio (where they're not yet countable - more later) but are countable in Michigan since the re-introduction of birds (mainly in the UP) has been termed a "success".You can compare and contrast the pattern of the feathering of the side of the bill and the top of the bill between Trumpeter and Tundra between these two pics (it'd be better if my image program could flip images). As shown in Sibley, Trumpeter has pointed feathering extending down from the forehead but a relatively straight cheek. Tundra on the other hand has a relatively straight forehead but a noted bend to the cheek feathering giving a more vertical lower bill base...
Notice though, that the pattern doesn't hold as well for young birds. The young tundra on the right has a pointed forehead...
As far as birds to miss, I certainly could have missed a worse bird (though perhaps as the water contracts down I'll still find them). From a listing perspective, different state committees have had a lot of trouble deciding what to do with them. Adam Byrne summarized the Michigan perspective in the 2001 proceedings of the committee supporting its acceptance onto the Michigan list. The rationale makes sense (though applies to the UP population better than the ones I saw more frequently around Ann Arbor which I guess are more or less "grand-fathered" in since I don't think they would meet the ABA criteria reviewed by Adam by themselves). Who knows the origin of the birds on Paw Paw Lake. Adam does note a cluster of Southwest LP counties with breeding Trumpeters. I don't claim to know that much about the breeding birds of surrounding counties over here; the only pair I know of is one county north at Wolf Lake Fish Hatchery. I couldn't come up with the Breeding Bird Atlas II results on the web and don't own the first Atlas book. The Seney birds in the UP apparently stay up there in a river mouth that stays open in winter but I don't know what the other birds in SW Michigan do. I remember Trumpeters on the un-frozen Huron River in Ann Arbor in Michigan in February so I doubt they go far in general (though some birds banded from various midwestern programs have been seen/recovered along the Gulf coast in winter).
It seems that the historical evidence suggests that Trumpeters were present in Michigan "originally," which is generally accepted as the eastern limit to their breeding range; most feel that "re"-introductions east of Michigan are in fact introductions. I suppose in some respects there's not a lot of difference between counting a Trumpeter Swan versus a (fast-disappearing) Ring-necked Pheasant or (nearly extirpated (except for released?)) Bobwhite in Berrien whose current trajectories suggest that both will probably be gone here in 20 years barring further releases. Still, I hope Trumpeter Swan (or Monk Parakeet) isn't my 300th bird for Berrien, a number I'll probably hit by next summer.

In case there's anyone still reading who wants to read even more about Trumpeter Swans, the thread on the Bird Record Committee list on will provide a good jumping-off point...

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A few more grebe notes

Both the Western and the Red-necked Grebe were fairly cooperative today from the pier at Tiscornia (a Purple Sandpiper flew back and forth for a few minutes but didn't land).

A look at the lores (and a breast wound)...

The bird spent a decent amount of time preening, focusing especially on the spot on the upper breast/lower neck where a little exposed skin was present. This provided a chance to record the dark on the upper and lower mandibles

Here's the probable source of the neck wound (though there's sometimes a few loons around too)...
Tim saw the two birds interacting earlier during the week. Apparently the Red-necked was fairly aggressive towards a couple mallards that swam by too. I timed the Red-necked as it dove a few times. I recorded dives of about 30, 30, 32, 40, and 50 seconds. There was also one time when it dove and the coast guard boat roared out from between the piers and I never saw it surface. Once it came up with an ugly-looking bull-headed invasive Goby fish; if the fish was big enough it would take the bird several seconds to swallow it and we could watch the bulge slowly going down the neck. After these episodes it would swim farther out and rest a while before returning to fish. Both Western dives that I timed were about 30 seconds, though Tim's impression was that it usually stayed down longer; an N of two is clearly insufficient in any case.
Stay tuned to Tim's pics (linked on the side of the blog) for flyby Purple Sand pics down the line.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Arctic Tern

An Arctic Tern (found by Kip Miller) has been spending the last few days at 3 Oaks. It was bright enough today that digi-scoping was sort of effective, though I'm not great at digi-scoping flying birds (admittedly however, that's why God created the SLR).

The main ID feature for a first cycle bird are the bright white secondaries; a Common Tern has darker gray there. The cap is a little more extensive (almost giving a Franklin's gull like facial look), the bill a little thinner, and the black edging on the primaries much less extensive than a Common Tern.
A couple of my series of shots suggests a gap in the secondaries, I'm not convinced this isn't just from feather mis-arrangement however. Kaufman Advanced Birding states that primary moult in Arctic terns occurs exclusively on the winter grounds; nothing is said with regards to the secondaries.

Here's the bird perched; the short legs are unfortunately hidden. Tim and I discovered today that one of the structures it perches up on is easily visible from Schwark Rd when we were driving away and saw it from the truck.
Note the difference in the primaries' gray shade in the above pic when in oblique sunlight and with them shaded below. Apparently tern primaries have a powdery bloom which slowly wears off causing the feathers to darken as they age.

As the bird dip-dives downward orangey feet were revealed. The bill has essentially lost the color on the lower mandible which Sibley shows in a fresh juvenile. However, a reddish color is apparent especially at the lower base when the bird has its bill ajar while preening.
I spent a little time on the searchable database, which revealed 18 records. A definite pattern exists, all 19 records (counting this one) come from corner counties of the state, Chippewa (8 records), Berrien (5 records counting this bird), Monroe (4 records), and Bay (2 records).
There are three May records; all that were aged in the summaries were adults. There are eight summer records from June, or more commonly, July. There are no UP summer records, although this likely reflects the migration survey periods and observer coverage. Conversely, all of the Monroe birds are from the summer. The summer birds are the most heterogeneous in terms of age. Some were in adult alternate plumage, presumably failed breeders. Some were in basic plumage, and at least a couple were considered subadult birds (most terns (and a lot of sandpipers) spend their first full summer on the "wintering" grounds and so don't come north to breed until they're at least 2 full years old). The fall records are almost exclusively first cycle birds no longer in full juvenile plumage. There are 5 Chippewa records from September or October, but no fall birds have been found in the LP before November. No fall birds have been found in Monroe Co at all (perhaps a bird for the radar screen of hawkwatchers?).
Clearly terns in November need to be scrutinized just like a myarchid flycatcher where Ash-throated would probably be more likely that Great-crested. That being said, the Berrien Field Notes compiled by Jon and edited by Kip, report county late dates for Common Tern of Nov 10 in 2001, Nov 15 in 2006; we had one Nov 10 this year (assuming that all of these late birds were Common, in the other years the late date is mid-late October).
At any rate, I'm looking forward to continuing to study the terns when they return next year. One thing I definitely want to check is how Common Terns hold their tails. This bird has always struck me as holding its tail somewhat creased upwards in the fashion of a grackle or the tail fins on an F-117 stealth fighter. I'll be curious to see if Common's hold their tail that way or not, and if I get to Maine as planned next summer for a family reunion check it on more Arctics.
[note: post edited 12/7/09 thanks to a clarification from Adam Byrne regarding the number of accepted records]

Saturday, November 28, 2009

when it rains it pours ...

... grebes that is. (Now where's that eared?)

Tim called this morning (technically Saturday morning) with news of a Western Grebe at Tiscornia. Having seen one 3 weeks ago at New Buffalo I could afford the peace of mind that comes with a shower and careful observance of traffic ordinances. The bird was about 300 yards out when I got there, but would sometimes close to about half that distance.

As detailed in my post earlier this month ("ask and thou shalt receive"), bill color is the best way to separate Western from Clark's per all references that I could locate.
And, as before, the color when the bird's bill is not in bright perpendicular sunlight is more accurate. In this case it's on the olive, rather than the orange side, of yellow.

This bird was also an example of how photographs (especially bad photographs) can be deceiving.
I was having trouble getting decent photos, and kept overexposing the bird. On pics with the bird way overexposed, with the focus in front of the bird, and the bill somewhat aimed towards us I totally blew away the thin black feathering under the eye and started lighting the lores up like headlights. Not good if you want the bird accepted sans slash (Western/Clarks in the official record).

One last combo pic,
The leftward shot shows what the lores (and the flanks???) ought to look like with more proper exposure (note that Sibley does show non-breeding Western as having paler lores, the question is whether they're pale/medium gray, or if they're white). Again, the figures in the Storer and Nuechterlein article are worth a review. The nape seems to be a typical Western nape, though again, the nape is only really helpful if very narrow.
The addition of overwhelming probability makes me comfortable putting it into my township spreadsheets as a Western (and probably lets St Joseph pass Three Oaks for good after Three Oaks pulled back to a tie with the Arctic Tern yesterday), though I'd feel more confident about the bird not getting accepted with a slash if I hadn't come up with so many ugly pics of it. The lores were not white in the field though.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

I am thankful for ...

... the snails, birds, turkeys, the tent, a bush, and a cow." That's what 3 year-old Hazel wrote on her "I'm thankful for" leaf at pre-school.

Jon called this morning that he'd found a Snowy Owl 5 miles from the house at the same location Ginger and I chased my lifer snowy when we were dating 10 years ago and visiting her family for the holidays. Both girls got to see it through the scope.
It was rainy and misty and they didn't want to stay long. I think the highlight for them was the raisin boxes they ate in the car on the way home, but they were excited to go look for a "white owley." Hannah spotted a flock of ring-billed gulls on the way there and happily called out, "there they are," since we told the girls to watch out for white birdies. Not bad for a 2 year-old.

I have no idea what random thing Hazel was referring to when she said she was thankful for "a bush."
Maybe she was referring to the brush down below the house? The pic is an ominous scarlet-and-gray sunrise Saturday morning before the Michigan-OSU football game.

I spent most of the Saturday morning at the end of the pier in the mob composed of the second weekend Murrelet twitchers. In spite of themselves, most (I think all at least in the morning) did eventually see the bird, though the directions that people gave would have been better utilized if everyone wasn't yelling "where is it, where is it, where is it," each one louder than the next. It didn't help that half the people use "the gull" as a reference point when the water was peppered with Bonaparte's. There's certainly an art to listening to a cacophany of people giving direction to a bird, inevitably people who utterly can't give directions, and not listening to any one particular person, but just trying to get an overall gestault of where they're all describing.
At any rate, here's a red-necked grebe that was more cooperative than most in Berrien, also from Saturday. Usually they're flyby's, this is only the 2nd I've seen in the water here. It was actually a county lifer for Jon, who's seen over 300 birds here. Tim's got some decent pics up on his Picaso site of the Parasitic Jaeger that kept sweeping by and periodically landing on the water with his new Canon 40d.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Yuck ducks and yuck gulls

New Buffalo harbor is fairly notorious amongst Berrien birders for its motley bunch of waterfowl with various Peking ducks, barnyard mallards, and a Chinese goose (which most years pairs with a Canada goose) which get lumped all together and termed "yuck ducks." There's also been a nice gull flock there attacting fair attention with a good number of Thayer's gull sightings. I need Thayer's gull for the year and while I haven't always been fully motivated this year to get every last county annual that I could have, the gull would make an even 260 and perhaps give me a shot at photographing an adult, a task at which I have never succeeded. To make a long story short, I did find one definite first year Thayer's. The reason, however, that they're so hard to photograph, is that to feel comfortable with the ID of one, you have to see everything, and everything entails seeing the spread wing. And when you see the spread wing, a lot of times that's the last you see the bird.

I thought initially that this was a Thayer's too.
Its small bill puts it rapidly into the Kumliens/Thayers group. The dark eye is better for Thayer's as is the amount of head marbling. Many Kumlien's Iceland gulls show a lot less black in the primaries as well, but some can pretty much resemble a Herring gull at rest. Thayer's wings pretty much look like Herring gulls at rest, though usually have larger white terminal tips.
The photo only shows the tips of primaries 6-10. P5 can frequently be helpful since Kumlien's gull "rarely" shows black on this feather whereas Thayers' gulls only lacks it "sometimes," per Howell and Dunn. Olsen and Larson report a paper (by Howell) that the number of Thayer's lacking black on P5 is 25%. Either way it doesn't matter since we can't see it, though my assessment as it flew by was that the bird seemed to only have 5 feathers with black on them. However, what bothers me on this bird is that you can see the underside of P10 on the opposite wing which is almost entirely whitish with gray; I'm not seeing any solid black. Sibley shows a narrow strip of black in his painting of the adult non-breeding, which is less black than all the photos of Thayer's in either Howell and Dunn or Olsen and Larsson.
Here's another interesting gull (the one on the left). You'll have to take my word that the back was evenly mottled brown, it did not have any of the gray mantle that a 2nd cycle would be acquiring (or even some 1st cycle Herring gulls when they do more pronounced moult after juvenile plumage). This bird, however, has a bicolored pink and black bill which I've never seen a 1st cycle Herring gull exhibit.
There was also some atypical white feathering on the face over the forehead, and more even brown through the head and body than the darkening plumage that Herring tends to show.
Here's the bird as it flew off, I didn't quite time it/keep it framed to get an effective spreadwing, but did manage a spread tail!
The tail did parallel the flight feathers though, in that it was a lighter more medium brown than the dark brown-black that Herring gulls typically show. I suspect this to be a "Nelson's Gull," a hybrid between Herring and Glaucous.
For comparison, here's a shot from the same flock with a 1st cycle Herring and a 1st cycle Glaucous as well:

And coming soon to a blog near you, photos of a black-headed gull. I'm calling it now. Fore-warned is fore-armed.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

More murrelet musings

Great birds attract lots of birders. Lots of birders tend to talk, and with a great bird to look at, the conversation stays focused right where it should be ... on birds (I read an article once in Bird Watcher's Digest where one of the hawk counters at Lake Erie Metropark correlated lack of birds with increased discussion of sports, politics etc.)
Yesterday I speculated that the bird might be a non-breeding adult based on the extension of black behind the eye cutting off the white extending up behind the ear. Further review of Sibley suggests that a non-breeding adult should still have some white wisps that form the half halo of baldness partly responsible for its name (the other is the contrasting gray mantle which has been compared to the shawl more popular in the fashion of the older demigraphic).

Some of us wondered about the bird's route to matriculation at the University of Tiscornia's Main Campus. My guess was that the bird had flown along the Arctic Ocean, followed the Hudson Bay south and ended up in the Great Lakes. This turns out to be the course surmised by A.C. Bent, one of the more famous ornithologists of the first half of the 20th century. That being said, two authors independently examined weather data in the 1960's following records in Illinois (1) and Montana (2) respectively. Both of them found that most records east of the Rockies correlated with extreme low pressure systems along the Pacific coast associated with very high winds to push migrating birds inland. Clearly the farther east a bird is, the harder it is to try to assign it to a specific weather event. However, here's how the bloggers at describe the first week of November in their neck of the woods: "During the first week of November 2009, a major storm wracked the Oregon and Washington coasts. Wind gusts of up to 90 mph were recorded on some headlands and up to five inches of rain fell in places. On 5 November swells of up to 25 feet were reported off the southern Oregon coast. During and after this onslaught thousands of birds flooded into the sheltered estuaries or rode out the storm grounded on beaches."

The bird's short-term survival was also debated on two fronts. The first is that these birds typically forage in salt water. It's not a tube-nose though, and I don't know that it has any particular physiologic adaptations to salt water that would prohibit its ability to regulate its sodium balance; I certainly didn't find any papers suggesting that anyone has researched the osmolar gradients reached in murrelet kidneys or murrelets' ability to modulate ADH (anti-diuretic hormone) or similar compounds that can affect water resorption in the nephron's collecting duct. What I did find, however, were two papers with indirect evidence that murrelets could survive in fresh water. First a team from Tasmania (3) measured the amount of salt that seabirds (diving petrels and fairy prions) ingest from the salt water versus that ingested in food. They found that sea water accounted from about a quarter of the salt ingested by these tubenosed birds that can probably be more cavalier with how much seawater they ingest. My guess is that decreasing salt intake by a quarter would be easily compensated for by the usual activity of the kidneys. The other paper of interest was one by Hobson (4). He found (also by measuring different isotopes of carbon and nitrogen in the birds) that Marbled Murrelets will sometimes feed in fresh water for up to several weeks at a time.

The other question is one of food. These birds mainly eat krill, which obviously is at quite a premium in the Great Lakes. However, Kaufman (5) notes that in some seasons they eat "mostly very small fish," and indeed the bird was diving actively into the schools of small fish that had accumulated next to the pier (and also attracted good numbers of steelhead as evidenced by the fishermen's success). Once we observed it to surface with a fish about 2 inches long. Generally after 20-30 minutes of diving actively it would work its way back out into the lake and rest. Moreover, Munyer (1) suggested that 2 March records from Lake Erie in 1951 that followed a mini-invasion of sorts with 2 other inland records in November of 1950 in other parts of the country likely represented over-wintering birds.

A few other items of note, several authors (including a review annoted by Bendire (6), as in Bendire's Thrasher) observe that Ancient Murrelet is a favorite food for Peregrines, perhaps contributing to their diurnal habits. Along with those diurnal habits, murrelets are very vocal (one of the bigger surprises for those of us for whom any murrelet was a novelty). They breed in hidden locations in the grasses of islands and the Pacific coast rather than the seabird cliffs favored by some of the other alcids and so have more well developed vocalizations. The birds are so vocal in fact, that the early explorers (6) studying them recorded that "after losing about a week's sleep, owing to their squeaking, I at least felt like choking the whole lot." They describe a "high shrill whistle" used in the breeding burrows and a "peculiar piping whistle" used at sea. I'm not sure how the rhee-eeee-ee notes we heard would be characterized though I think piping would be more accurate than shrill (though it was very high-pitched). My microphone and mini parabolic dish which spent 2 weeks in the back of the truck had unfortunately migrated back to the shelf at home, so no sonograms from me, but extensive sonographic review of the species' vocalizations has been made (7) if others' recordings turned out.

I guess I'm mostly out of thoughts for now (assuming anyone's still reading), other than that the bird might hang out in southern Lake Michigan, will have to keep it in mind while checking the holes in the ice later in the winter.

1. Munyer EA. Inland Wanderings of the Ancient Murrelet. Wilson Bulletin 77:3. 1965.
2. Verbeek NAM. Wanderings of the Ancient Murrelet: Some Additional Comments. Condor 68:5. 1966.
3. Green B and N Brothers. Water and Sodium Turnover and Estimated Food Consumption Rates in Free-living Fairy Prions (Pachyptila turtur) and Common Diving Petrels (Pelecanoides urinatrix). Physiological Zoology 62:3. 1989.
4. Hobson KA. Stable Isotope Analysis of Marbled Murrelets: Evidence for Freshwater Feeding and Determination of Trophic Level. Condor 92:4. 1990.
5. Kaufman K. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton-Mifflin, New York, NY. 1996. p277.
6. Bendire, C. Notes on the Ancient Murrelet (Synthli-boramphus antiquus), by Chase Littlejohn With Annotations. Auk 12:3. 1895.
7. Jones IL, JB Falls, and AJ Gaston. The Vocal Repertoire of the Ancient Murrelet. Condor 91:3. 1989

Saturday, November 14, 2009

November rocks.

So the phone rang this morning. I could see Tim's cell on the caller ID. I picked up the phone expecting to hear about a cave swallow. I heard a pressured voice, "You gotta get down here." Ok, still expecting a cave swallow. "There's an Ancient Murrelet at Tiscornia. It's three feet from the beach." I hung up on him and ran for my scope. I had expected Tim to eventually get this bird, but I had always expected that he would have seen it flying past and the bird would be halfway to Indiana before I'd even had a chance to set out.

It was a lifer for me (as well as for many of the people who arrived), and good enough to stick around, swimming up and down the pier foraging on the minnows that had attracted decent numbers of steelhead. It would swim far out and rest for a while before swimming (and once flying) back in.
It was close enough to be noted by the fisherman, some of whom claimed to have seen it earlier this week. One of them insisted the bird was a grebe, "and I know grebes." One of the birders (Rick?) deadpanned, "well, that was a trip wasted then."
The birders arrived in waves, first from Grand Rapids (and Indiana), then from Jackson, then from the SE part of the state including good numbers of my old friends from Washtenaw. It was even a state bird for Tex Wells.
Based on the narrow black line that connects the ear to the nape, I suspect this bird is a non-breeding adult since in breeding plumage that entire area is black; in full non-breeding plumage and juvenile plumage the black line doesn't exist, so my guess is that's retained from this summer. I don't have a waterbird Pyle though.
Here's a view of the bird as it's just starting to dive...
And the bird as it's diving, a commonly recorded image by the congregation of birders who accumulated thanks to the wonders of cell phones and the internet.

The other thing I learned today was that with an Ancient Murrelet to watch, a cough drop makes a good lunch.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Weird gulls galore

Tim and I worked our way down the shoreline this morning, not finding a whole lot, until we hit a decent gull flock at New Buffalo. This Franklin's Gull isn't weird, but was a fun bird, probably my best photos of the species. Note how much bigger the white primary spots are and how much fuller the half hood is than what an adult Laughing gull would show. The bill is also shorter and more slender than a Laughing gull's. A hint of the breeding red color to the bill is retained at the bill tip.

Next is a pretty funky looking Herring Gull.
The eye is darker than the average Herring's (though in the field was more of a dark amber than truly dark), and the head is enormous with the heavy-jawed glaucous look to it. The orbital ring was a pale red. Herring gull's orbital ring is described as orange-yellow by both Sibley and Olsen and Larsson, and yellow-orange by Howell and Dunn. We wondered if the bird could have some Glaucous-winged genes somewhere in its history. I couldn't find any reference as to what percentage of adult Herring gulls have dark eyes, though experience would say the number is clearly not zero. We didn't get a view of the spreadwing as the flock was dissipated abruptly when a young Parasitic Jaeger flashed into view.

This Lesser Black-backed Gull shows the gnarly black bill that you see frequently in 3rd winter birds. I have one pic of similar bill in a bird I aged as 4th winter, which is the plumage I think this bird is attaining given the white tip to the fresh P8 and weathered black P9 and P10.

Next is probably a Kumlien's Iceland Gull (but conceivably a Thayer's intergrade)
It has pale slate markings on most of the primaries (it only briefly stretched its wings back), much too pale for a Thayer's. It does have more head streaking than what's typically illustrated in the guides, however, both Howell and Dunn and Olsen and Larsson show photographs of birds with an equal, or more, head streaking. A 1991 paper by Kevin Zimmer reviewing Kumlien's ID in Birding magazine states that possibly up to 20% (though probably less) of Kumlien's Iceland gulls can have dark eyes.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

ask and thou shalt receive

So in my last post I noted that I was overdue for Western Grebe in Berrien Co. A very timely phone call from Alison awakened me with news she'd found a Western Grebe in New Buffalo. I got the call at 8:20 and was due at work at 10:00 (where I indeed arrived at 9:59). This allowed me about 20 minutes to view the bird. Fortunately the water was relatively calm and the bird didn't dive while I was there so I could blast away (though it was quite distant, pics are taken at 60x on the scope with the camera zoomed in somewhat too, something I try to avoid). Here's my best shot (note caveats below about the bill appearance):

It can be difficult to ID Western from Clark's Grebe in the fall when the face pattern is not as distinct. Multiple references (Sibley, Kaufman's Advanced Birding, Kim Eckert's article in the Oct 1993 Birding "Identification of Western and Clark's Grebes," and one of the seminal early papers (from a group at U of M no less) published in The Auk supporting a split of the two forms) suggest that bill color is the best way to separate the two birds; Western has a yellow bill tinged greenish, Clark's has a yellow bill tinged orangish. These are my two best pics of the bill when it's not reflecting direct morning sunlight, certainly not tinged orange. Also note the blurry duskiness to the upper and lower mandibles, another Western feature (Clark's has a more sharply defined black edge to the upper mandible):

The next 2 pics show the face pattern (note that the bill is reflecting directly off the sun making it seem very bright; Kaufman specifically cautions that a Western's bill can look very bright in low direct sun). This bird shows a solid black cap. The lores, as well as a narrow line of feathers below the eye, and the feathers directly behind the eye are evenly blackish, paler than the cap. While the two species have very little overlap in breeding plumage (see the very neat Figure 2 in the Auk paper linked above), there is some overlap in non-breeding plumage. However Clark's still usually has white lores and indeed the extent of black on the birds face looks to me to fall in with that figure's group 2 in which they had no birds with Clark's type bills.

Here's a comparison with 2 breeding Western Grebes from my photos, the left bird (with a chick just visible on its back) from South Dakota and the right bird from Colorado. Even in presumed non-breeding plumage, our bird's face looks not appreciably different from these breeding birds.

Here's two views of the bird going away showing how broad the black is down the back of the neck:

Here's a comparison from Colorado of a Clark's Grebe on the left and Western on the right, the difference then with the two side by side was marked, though not as well emphasized in this pic since I couldn't get them exactly parallel:
In this pic you can also see the 3 gray-toned look that Clark's can show, with a black cap and back of the neck, med-dark gray back and light gray sides. Our bird did show some mottled whitish feathers on the rear flanks especially along the waterline towards the stern, but the overall color of the side panel was still relatively dark. The Birding article's exhibit photo of a typical Western Grebe shows a bird with some mottled white feathering towards the rear of the flanks. Kaufman and the two articles all point out that the flank coloring is variable both between birds and between views of the same bird; while Sibley points out Clark's averages more pale, I still think this implies that overlap occurs. Interestingly, Sibley also emphasizes extensive white flight feathers in Clark's, the other references say there's almost complete overlap or do not even mention this point at all.
While if I'd had the opportunity I would have stayed with the bird longer, and may look for it again on Monday, in my mind this is a Western Grebe.

Friday, October 30, 2009

MBRC Berrien Birds

Last Update: Nov 3, 2009 to include old records reviewed by Jon Wuepper in his article "The Birds of Berrien Co, MI," published in 2001 in Michigan Birds and Natural History.

With the unfortunate loss of the Searchable Database from the Michigan Bird Records Committeee site (I think due to server space issues) I've spent a decent amount of time reading the old MBRC action reports. I started taking notes, focusing mainly on birds from Berrien (such as this black vulture -though last year's report presumably containing this bird isn't up on the web yet). Just for ID fun, note that the young turkey vulture in the lower right hand corner of the pic superficially resembles the blackie if you don't look at the shape or the pattern of head feathering.There's a fair amount of data to be mined and I'm certainly not going to claim that this is exhaustive (some of it was reviewed while switching my schedule to nights with an initial all-nighter). My main goal is to record the date range where the birds occurred (and possibly could occur again, so I didn't bother recording the year), but it would be nice to have recorded the rest of the state data ... maybe next time. I'll probably continue to edit this post to keep it current for the uncountable couple of people who would be interested. And of course this is useless for potential first county records (like the probable Sprague's pipit that kicked off my reading).

If a report somewhere along the way mentioned how many records there'd been for the county that number is included in the parentheses. Clearly there's some inaccuracies in my summary here, but it gives the ballpark idea.

With 8 records I'm clearly overdue for a Western Grebe. Pomarine and Long-tailed Jaeger each have 4 relatively recent records. Lark Sparrow apparently has 7 total, but I only came across 1 in the last 20 or so years covered by the committee, though I could have missed some too. With 10 California Gull records (and counting), Berrien is probably the best place in the state to blunder into this bird.

Ross’s 17 Feb – 5 Mar, 27 Apr, 7-13 Nov
Brant 30 Oct; 10, 14-17, 16 Nov; also twice long staying in New Buffalo mid Nov-early Dec and mid Jan respectively
Eurasian Wigeon 5, 18-23 Apr (considered hypothetical by Wuepper as never subjected to MBRC review)
King Eider 15 Nov-28 Dec
Barrow’s Goldeneye 19 Dec-23 Jan
Pacific Loon (1) 25-27 Apr
Western Grebe (7) 11-12, 30 Oct; 6-12, 21 Nov; 7, 16, 17, 22-28 Dec; 4-5 Jan
Brown Pelican (2) 5-19 Jul, 6 Sep (I should have written down the rejected dates, there’s a lot of brown pelicans rejected from the Lake Michigan shoreline. Strangely, inland birders aren’t seeing cormorants and great blue herons and constantly writing them up as pelicans. One of these two records was rejected and then later had to be accepted when a photo surfaced. In full disclosure I've had a pelican record rejected).
Magnificent Frigatebird/Frigatebird, sp - Sep 26, Sep 30, Oct 2 (The Sep 26 followed Hurricane Ike in 2007 whose large size pushed notable numbers of frigatebirds throughout its path. Both the Sep 30th and the Oct 2nd records occurred in 1988. The Sep 30 record is controversial, and apparently a different bird than the Oct 2. It was submitted by legendary Berrien birder and original MBRC committee member Roy Smith based on the verbal description he was given by the primary observer. It was originally accepted, and then re-reviewed by a later committee over a decade later and summarily rejected. However, given that it followed Hurricane Gilbert, one of the largest hurricanes ever recorded and whose remnants ended up directly in southern Lake Michigan, and which was noted in the Vol 63, No 1 North American Birds Changing Seasons column to also be a “frigatebird storm,” my guess is that it’s legit. In any case it doesn’t change the pattern of the other 2 records.)
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron 1 Jul
Glossy Ibis 10 May
White-faced Ibis (1) 13-16 May
Plegadis sp 18 May
Black Vulture 8 Apr, 9-12 Apr
Mississippi Kite (2) 11 May
Swallow-tailed Kite (1) 2-16 May
Swainson’s Hawk 5 May, 24 May
King Rail 9 May, 30 May
Ruff 7,21 May [considered hypothetical as above], 9-14 Jul
Black-necked Stilt 6 May – 6 Jun
Black-headed Gull 20 May,
Mew Gull 4-6 Dec, 1 Jan
California Gull 19, 30 Apr; 30 May; 18 Jun; 16 Sep; 1, 11, 15, 25 Nov; 27 Dec
Sabine’s Gull 31 Aug, 2 Nov
Roseate Tern 21 Jun
Arctic Tern 14 May, 6 Jul, 10 Jul, 6 Nov
Least Tern 3-4 Jun, 8 Jul
Sandwich Tern 31 Jul
Pomarine Jaeger (5) 1 Oct, 9 Sept, 23 Nov, 15 Dec
Long-tailed Jaeger (4) 28 Aug; 10, 16-19 Sep, 17 Nov,
Band-tailed Pigeon 24 Dec - 22 Jan
Eurasian Collard Dove 15 May 2005 – 10 Aug 2006
Ani, sp 3-11 Nov
Burrowing Owl 5 Jun (a bird captured in a motel laundry room!!!)
Chuck-will's Widow 16 May – 3 Jul, 7 May – 13 Jul, 2 May – 7 Jul
Selasphorus/Rufous Hummer Aug – Nov, Sep – Nov, 25 Oct – 20 Nov, 20 Oct – 26 Dec, 7 Nov – 19 Dec
Scissor-tailed Fly (1) 15-16 May
Bell’s Vireo 14 May, 18-19 Jul
Bewicks's Wren 30, 31 Mar; 10-11, 20, 22, 24 Apr; 15 Sep
Rock Wren 15 Nov (rejected though 4-3 voted in favor. The details supplied by the MBRC report do seem fairly convincing, my shameless speculation is that the author of the report that year voted in favor)
Mountain Bluebird 22 Oct
Varied Thrush 18 Dec - 10 Feb, 23 Nov - 20 Feb, 11 Nov
Western Tanager (2) 26 May, 6-22 Jan
Lark Sparrow (7) 18, 20, 21-24 Apr; 16 May; 2, 7 Oct
Lark Bunting 13-19 Jan
Brambling 12 Apr (I need to do some research as to why brambling has twice been accepted and all the other European finches are rejected based on origin concerns)
Blue Grosbeak 18 May
Painted Bunting (2) 30 Apr, 19 May

Thursday, October 29, 2009

putative HEGUxGBBG hybrid

After some nice movement earlier this week the last couple days have been relative duds at Tiscornia. Today the only waterbird I saw was a northbound common loon. Harrier and rusty blackbird were the only other birds of even slightest note yesterday and today.

The strange dark-backed gull has been present both days, however. As noted before it has too much dark on the nape to be a greater black-backed. The face looks too triangular to my eyes as well. While Greater Black-backeds don't usually give me quite as great the heavy jawed appearance of a Glaucous Gull, they have more than this bird. In bright sun its legs look yellowish, though in the overcast of yesterday and today they are the more grayish-pinkish which would be more consistent with the offspring of two pink-legged birds.

Here's the bird quartering away showing the heavy gonydeal angle which too my eyes is way too much for Lesser Black-backed (see here for lots of Virginia Beach Lessers):

Here the bird is more distantly yesterday. The size impression from this photo is a little misleading as the bird in question is the farthest away down the beach. You'll have to take my word (or look at Tim's pics) that it is slightly bigger than the Herring Gulls. It does give somewhat of a comparison of the shade of gray between it and the adult Greater more on the left side of the frame. The birds aren't in exactly the same pose, which can lead to artifact, but I think that the picture was fairly true to life in what it portrays in this respect as it was only a shade lighter than the Greater.

Olsen and Larssen gives Greater Black-backed a Kodak shade of 11-13, and graellsii Lesser Black-backed a Kodak shade of 8-10. Interestingly Slaty-backed is 11-12 so this is about the shade that it would probably appear (Slaty-backed is easily ruled out based on lacking a lot of dark marking about the eye, not really being pot-bellied, not having bright pink legs, and obviously the wrong primary pattern). Based on the traditional pitfall of Lesser Black-backed x Herring Gull hybrids approaching the mantle color of Yellow-legged Gull and the intermediate results observed in the Chandeleur Kelp x Herring Louisiana hybrid "experiment" (read here for an excellent article suggested by Caleb), this is probably not an F1 hybrid, and most likely some flavor of back-cross given how dark the mantle is. Here's a webpage describing a possible GBBGxHEGU from Massachusetts that eventually became a specimen; it does have a mantle that's paler than our bird (though as noted by the authors some suggestion of pearls in the primaries). Here's a note from the Auk from the 1970's describing a presumed Greater Black-back x Herring shot in the Niagara area; it too had a paler mantle than our bird.