Friday, May 29, 2009

Crow sonograms

Well, I think this may be a retro wave of the future. The sonograms in the Golden guide were considered pretty cutting edge technology when published probably 40 years ago. I never had a lot of success interpreting them, and all successive authors to my knowledge, have omitted them. The widespread use of digital cameras in some ways took identification of rarities back to the "shotgun age" of ornithology where precise scapular patterns, etc can now be easily examined with the bird frozen in time. Well, almost all of those digital cameras have video buttons and perhaps sonogram use will allow "feather-by-feather" or should we say "frequency-by-frequency" dissection of vocalizations. If I'd thought to record the possible worm-eating a few weeks ago I probably would have had a definitive answer and saved an hour of scouting time. At any rate, my old Golden guide has been promoted from the barely-reachable top shelf down to the identification reference shelf, not a place I thought it was ever going to go.

Anyway, an old Washtenaw mentor, Lathe Claflin emailed me some of his crow recordings made along Forest Lawn Rd (with a good old fashioned tape recorder). Here's the sonogram (using free Cornell RavenLite software) from one of the American Crows on his recording calling caw-caw-caw-caw (I think there's a chipping sparrow at the very beginning).

Here's another one, maybe of the same bird (there's a yellowthroat starting witchety-witchety where the harmonics over the 3rd and 4th caw, caw would be).

The American Crow's caw shows as a fairly symmetric arc on the sonogram centered in the 1.5 kHz range with harmonics at about 2.25 kHz, 3.25 kHz, and 5 kHz. The lower registers compare very well with the American Crow sonogram on page 212 of my Golden Guide.

In contrast, here's 3 calls Lathe recorded from the Fish Crow, the caa note.

This one is again in the 1.5-2 kHz range between the reeeeeeeeee of a red-winged blackbird's konklareeeeee (2.5-3 kHz plus harmonics) and the blackbird's call (the L at the end).

The Fish Crow's caa note is a little less symmetric. It is arced, but the body of the call consists of closely parallel arcs in the 1.5 - 2 kHz range which seem to slur down somewhat. Caleb Putnam obtained similar sonograms with his recordings of the caa note, as discussed on his blog here. The Golden guide doesn't have a Fish Crow caa note.

Finally, here's the ca-ha call from my video which you can hear in the fish crow post from earlier this month. The ca is composed of 2 short arcs similar to the caa note, though more symmetric, followed by the more pulsed ha note. This compares very favorably with the ca-ha sonogram in the Golden guide. The ca-ha is the call (song?) is supposed to be very specific for Fish Crow and not made by Americans.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Tim is The Man

"Hey honey? I think there's a birder on the phone." I hadn't heard the phone ring at all, completely asleep a few hours after getting home from a night shift. Ginger put the phone to my ear and I heard, "Dude, I've got a Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow in New Buffalo Marsh." For the next 10 seconds I was trying to figure out who was even talking to me (as if anyone but Tim would find that bird there). Then the next 20 seconds I was trying to remember why "Nelson's sharp-tail" sounded familiar. Finally I shook the cobwebs off and realized the magnitude of the situation. I missed these birds last year when Tim found some for a first county record on a day I was working last fall. Tim and I had walked the New Buffalo Marsh (among other places) 2 years ago in the fall trying to kick these up without success, and now he'd found them again.

Unfortunately to get there you need a boat, and Tim's is the only canoe I have access to. I dithered for a bit and after talking again we decided it might be possible to reach the area on foot. Now I felt partially responsible for the birds being found given that 2 years ago I asked for hip waders for Christmas to make searching for this and other birds (i.e. LeConte's or Yellow Rail) easier. The hip waders were inaccessible in the back of the truck at the repair shop. I wondered if I could go Survivorman and tie my boots and binoculars in a garbage bag, attach them to my belt with the binocular strap, and elementary back-stroke my way down the river with the gear on my chest. While it seemed like a bad idea I stuck a couple garbage bags in my pocket on the way out the door just in case...

I drove down and did find a way to wade out through 400-800 yards of ankle t0 shin deep water and cattail marsh and met up with Tim in the higher area we'd walked 2 years ago. As Don Chalfant once told me, to look in grassy stuff next to cattail marsh, the bird was working in about an acre of knee- to thigh-high dense grass surrounded on 2 sides by cattail and on the northern side by the river. We followed it slowly as it would sometimes pop up and most of the time stay hidden. The bird was amazingly orangish to the naked eye and strikingly plumaged through optics:

Tim mentioned something about noting the gray crown stripe for the committee and I absent-mindedly replied, "Oh yeah, these are write-up birds." He practically rolled his eyes saying, "yeah, because you see so many of these." Actually, that was first one I'd ever seen, though after the fish crow all non first-state records are just different flavors of dross. We had probably an hour or so of sporadic looks and mostly glimpses of the bird before we went in separate directions, Tim to his kayak and me to slog back through the marsh in the opposite direction. I considered checking 3 Oaks ponds on the way home since it'd be only a 20 minute detour or so, but since my mom had just arrived to visit and Ginger and I had tickets to listen to Dubya Bush speak at the Mendel Center I figured I'd best just head home.
I was literally 30 seconds from my driveway when the phone rings again. It was Tim. "You're going to hate me, but there's a white-faced ibis at Three Oaks." DOH!! Actually more correctly it would be Ginger who is going to hate him but again, who's counting. Ginger saw the look on my face when I hit the driveway. "NOW what??" "We-ell, honey, now there's a white-faced ibis at 3 Oaks." Now it was her turn to roll her eyes. "Make it quick," were her instructions. I blazed back down I-94, pushed it along US-12, and rolled up on Tim about 25 minutes later. I arrived just in time to see a Great Blue flush the bird. Fortunately it circled twice and landed again:

I blasted a quick burst of photos, checked the images to see that at least a couple were crisp enough for documentation purposes, glanced quickly at the turnstone and a white-rumped sandpiper in amongst the dunlin and semi sandpipers and blistered back for home. That would be 2 state birds (one a lifer) in my home county in one day (and both found by one Tim Baerwald, who else).
And for the record, I even had time to take a shower to wash the marsh grime off before we went to listen to former President Bush's remarks at the Economics Club.

Friday, May 22, 2009

eye candy

If ever there was bird eye candy it would be a scarlet tanager. I found this bird earlier in the week next to Forest Lawn Landfill in nice morning light. It was so red the camera had trouble focusing on it and it read some of the the red as greeen
This bird isn't in full adult alternate plumage given the paler brown-black secondaries and primaries. I think that would make it a second year male per the Pyle guide. Note also the very thin red tips to the fresh tertials. Pyle says this can occur in the wing coverts of after-second year birds but doesn't comment on them in the tertials as far as I can tell.

Here's the bird less over-exposed, you can see that the back and head is wholly red, not the artifactual green as above.
I had hoped to chase a white-faced ibis in Washtenaw today which, had I been able to leave immediately for yesterday when I was called about it, I probably would have had. Unfortunately I was on my way to work when the bird was discovered and as far as I can tell not re-found today. I'm finding it much harder than I expected to meet my original goal to add a bird a year in Washtenaw from Berrien. I succeeded on a chase for pacific loon, but missed on chases for golden eagle and black-throated gray warbler, and couldn't leave immediately for this bird (which would have been a state bird). I also didn't chase Franklin's gulls or a varied thrush that didn't seem all that pinned down.
I've been working a lot on the Fish Crow write-up, it took me some time to download the stuff I needed to analyze the video, and there's some more stuff I'd like to do but I think I'm starting to wrap it up.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Birdathon wrap-up

Tim and I were joined for the second year in a row by Craig/Kreg/"unknown birder" Bateman for a successful Birdathon effort. Going into the day we were somewhat pessimistic given predicted wind and rain during the night and predicted winds during the day. Fortunately it rained only for a little over an hour or so with the exception of some occasional sprinkles and the wind was much less than predicted.

Last year we had only one owl, this year we had all 3 in the first couple hours. A distantly singing yellow-billed cuckoo gave our team, the Fanatical Cuckoos, our first cuckoo in the 3 years I've been on the team. A mockingbird was kind enough to answer our whip-poor-will whistles outside Coloma which we thought might just be our best bird of the day. That was until a least bittern started calling within seconds of getting out of the car at Big Smith Lake in a period of relative calm. We blundered into a chat somewhere in the eastern county when we stopped to unsuccessfully listen at one of Tim's potential sedge wren possible spots (we blanked on all of mine too during the night). Our luck held through our first stop at the Jones/True Rd block where we stopped behind another team who had just whistled up a whip-poor-will. We spent the better part of the next hour and a half hoping for chuckie but joined the great majority in not hearing him.

The day took a truly surreal turn at Forest Lawn Rd. We had walked along it to pick up yellow-throated warbler (as usual it took me 3 times as long to hear the bird as my younger teammates, that after it took me 3 times as long to hear the Louisiana waterthrush until it took pity and flew closer to the road, and 3 times as long to hear the white-eyed vireo, but really, I wasn't getting frustrated. not at all. ok actually I hate those yellow-throateds. Thank goodness last year when I led a tour for Washtenaw Audobon one was singing close to the road) when we started hearing strange calling from a treetop next to the road, cawing but only with "soft a" sounds, no "aw". We stopped. It sounded like a fish crow. We waited. Then the crow flew out calling "ca-ha." We ran to alert the other team present on the road. The bird was nice enough to fly over twice again, the final time both Tim and I recorded the "ca-ha," giving us far better hopes of documenting the bird than the experience we've talked about one of us probably eventually having sometime of a flyby bird at Tiscornia. After making a bunch of phone calls we reached no one who could come chasing after it immediately and since we weren't seeing it anymore, we continued on. For the next hour we were pretty high. We managed to walk through Warren Woods and add exactly 0 birds, some of which was probably due to the storm front that had been south of us all night undoubtedly blocking migrants, and some of which was probably on us.

When we reached Floral we actually were quite close to the number we arrived there with last year, though were half an hour later arriving. We knew, however, that we probably weren't going to pick up all the migrants we needed to keep pace. We found a lot of redstarts, as Jan said, probably 70% of the birds. I'd say 70% of the rest were magnolia, leaving about 10% of the birds with potential. We picked up some birds, Wilson's, Canada, a couple of orange-crowned, a yellow-rumped, a couple kinglets, a beautiful golden-winged, as well as resident hooded warbler and hairy (and downy!) woodpecker and a few others but left well off last year's pace.

For the second straight year we blundered into a woodcock on the ground, this one 6 feet off the trail at Lincoln Twp Beach:
From there it was up and down the county picking up specific birds at specific spots, most of which turned up quickly like prothonotory warbler, red-headed woodpecker, grasshopper sparrow, some of which turned up with difficulty like sedge wren and blue-winged warbler, and some of which did not show up at all like Carolina wren. We were surprised to find gadwall at Brown and a peregrine over the old black rail field in Royalton Twp. A SB dowitcher at Rocky Weed pond was also a Royalton Twp bird for me.

We ended with 158 birds (155 unanimous) while driving about 275 miles (our least yet, and just one tank of gas), a much better total than we expected given the near utter lack of waterfowl, the windy predicted weather and our inability to comfortably stake out some of the just-returned birds (i.e. chat, orchard oriole though we did end up finding these). Of course the (potential) first state record Fish Crow was a bit of gravy we couldn't possibly have hoped for. And with news yesterday that the bird was re-seen and re-heard by other observers who were reportedly much more in our camp than some of the other people who also heard the bird originally, along with photographs Tim got of it yesterday showing an apparently diagnostic primary pattern, I'm much more optimistic that it will be acceptable. Tim's pic is viewable here.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

fish crow, take 1

Since it took forever to get my computer to take the video I'm just going to post this without any extensive discussion since it's going to take a little bit of time to collect my thoughts. The video is just over 20 seconds long as we saw the bird for the 3rd time. It essentially flies down the road toward the landfill. I pointed the microphone of the (Canon A620) camera at the bird rather than the lens since I wanted to maximize the ability to document the most identifiable aspect (the voice) so it's never visible (the microphone is on top of my camera).

At the 6 second mark you glimpse Tim also videoing the bird. At the 8 second mark you hear me say "ca, ca" trying to stimulate a response as it's directly overhead. At the 17 (almost 18) second mark you hear the bird say "ca-ha." After that I say "Did you get it? It called," and Tim replies "Yep."

It's probably 75 yards away when it calls, just out of sight over the trees as it headed to the landfill.

The brief caveat, my camera doesn't record the very high pitches very well. If you scroll down the margin of the blog you'll see 2 warbler recordings I've made with it. The hooded warbler comes out well, the prairie warbler sounds like it goes down not up even though it was singing a typical song. That being said, when I listened to the recording immediately after hearing the bird I thought it was a pretty good representation of what we heard.

Hopefully others agree on the ID...

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Enemy

I know. It looks so innocent. (file photo from the old Ann Arbor Bot Gardens days).
What possible offense, I can hear you asking, could lead to chipping sparrows becoming The Enemy? They're peaceful enough birds. They don't take over other songbirds' nests. They don't overgraze habitat. They don't allow their pet carnivore to roam freely. They just fly about, nest in our junipers, and sing cheerfully. Oh wait. That's right. They sing. Or to be more exact, they trill away on one pitch from the yard, from the bushes, from the river bottom, from the forest, from the cemetary where pine warblers can some years be found, from the parking lot where maybe a worm-eating warbler lurks. And that's where the problem arises. I awakened at 5am excited to work on scouting for Birdathon this weekend. I started at a cemetary which we usually don't reach until the afternoon where we've had about a 50% success rate with pine warbler. I was hoping to be able to hear it in the dawn chorus and turn it into a night bird. I heard chipping sparrows galore. Chipping sparrows singing fast trills, chipping sparrows singing slightly slower trills, but chipping sparrows one and all.

I tried a few other places, but found little of consequence, and even less that wanted to perch up. This barn swallow at Chikaming Park was the only exception...

I ended the day at Grand Mere SP where I walked about in the pseudo-Oak Openings area hoping for some sweet overshoot (i.e. blue grosbeak, lark sparrow, Bell's vireo, maybe even a pipedream burrowing owl) but found only a crisply marked female blackpoll warbler. On the way out I started hearing a buzzy trill which immediately struck me as not the above mentioned chipping sparrow. It really sounded like a worm-eating warbler, which is to say it basically sounded like a chipping sparrow only a little different. Different enough? Who knows. I watched the trees for movement, I followed the bird somewhat, I scanned blindly with the bins ... and never got a sniff of the bird. Silent Canada, chestnut-sided, magnolia, parula, and Nashville warblers? Sure, lots of them. Not one view of the bird singing at least a couple times a minute for a few minutes, then 15 minutes, then half an hour, and then finally for almost an hour and a half before it finally either flew off or fell silent. So that's what, about 2 1/2 hours of my life spent looking for birds that either were, or could plausibly have been chipping sparrows. Shoot, if every cigarette a person smokes shortens life by 7 minutes then I'm basically a 2 pack a day smoker. All thanks to one little bird. And it's such a nice little bird.
This tree was in flower and caught my eye as I was staring upward trying to spot Dean Wormer. I don't know what it is, have never seen it before, though I'm going to guess it's some kind of wild plum. If there's any tree people out there I'd be curious to know what it is (I'm somewhat surprised there isn't a common ornamental version of it since just the wild version is pretty striking).

Monday, May 11, 2009

Gray-cheeked thrushes are trash birds

OK not really, but still. For the 2nd straight day a gray-cheeked perched up nicely for me. This one stopped on a log at Floral, allowed me to show it to 2 other people in the Leica and then I proceeded to fire about 10 frames before it finally moved along.
I didn't get to Floral until just past 11:30 since I spent the early part of the morning unsuccessfully trying to locate a mockingbird my wife saw a couple days ago and then had a mid-morning appointment. As it was, there were spots at Floral that were still hopping despite the late hour. I ended up totaling 24 warblers (it would have been 25 if I'd thought it worthwhile to walk up the dunes for prairie), high-lighted by good numbers of black-throated blue, an orange crowned, a couple Canadas and 2 Kentuckies. It felt really early for Canadas. At one point I had a great look at a perched up Canada that was promptly displaced by a golden-winged.

This black-throated green perched about as cooperatively as a warbler will when it paused to sing 2 songs instead of just one. I still barely kept the tail in the frame.

Here's more typical examples of the fruits that attempting to digi-scope warblers will bring:

Sunday, May 10, 2009

A thrush safari

I birded today at midday during nappytime at Riverview Park in St Joseph. This is only 4 miles from my house, but a place I haven't visited all that often. Tim and I used to put it on the route in the late afternoon doldrums on big days, but eventually stopped going there as we never seemed to add anything. It became the-place-big-days-go-to-die and we started going down into the river bottom below my house instead, less convenient but more productive. It might get re-added this year though.

Today there were surprising numbers of thrushes in the mowed grass in areas well shaded by large trees, providing decent photo opps despite overcast light (when it wasn't actually sprinkling). This was the only veery I saw:

Here's a gray-cheeked thrush. I used to go years between seeing them in Washtenaw. I find them much less uncommon on this side of the state.

Swainson's thrush was the last of the thrushes to perch up for me today, but decent numbers were present. I heard one give at least a fragment of song.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

return of the April Fool

I finally finished a dense stretch of shifts tonight; most of my birding has been from my porch the last few days. The screech owl that I first spotted on Apirl 1st has periodically poked its head out of its box. This was the first time it's stayed in sight when I've left the house. It didn't stay out long.
I haven't heard much in the way of vocalizations. My experience with Cooper's hawks is that when the male has food it usually calls to the female who takes the food to the nestlings. If there is a pair, perhaps screech owls don't do that. I havn't heard any noise from babies either despite sleeping with the windows open a fair amount lately. Hopefully it won't pull the disappearing act the day before Bird-a-thon that a Carolina wren on a nest did 2 years ago.

Rose-breasted grosbeaks, as usual, have become very common in the first week of May, and definitely appreciate my expanded feeders. Here's pics of a first spring male and a female whom I'm not sure is ageable without a lot more detailed study of my Pyle guide than is really warranted...

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

May flowers ... and yard bird #100

I haven't had a chance to get out much as I've had shift after shift the last few days, but a dark little shape that drew my attention in the brush behind the feeders turned out to be yard bird #100, a Lincoln's sparrow. When I pointed it out to Ginger she said she thought she'd seen it around the last few days. Grrrrrrrrr. This isn't the exact bird, a file photo from Yellowstone NP I think from 2004.
One afternoon a few days ago the sun came out after ongoing rain putting some of the flowers in nice light, here's jack-in-the-pulpit from below the house.

Also prairie trillium, right up there with Dutchman's breeches in the running for my favorite spring wildflower also from the backyard steps.
This is Squirrel-corn, the later blooming relative of Dutchman's breeches from Warren Dunes...

And finally a somewhat understated (and variably colored) flower, blue cohash.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Dowitcher dilemma

It was a sunny morning at last so I figured I'd take one last shot at a decent Smith's longspur shot given that they'll probably be a thousand miles north by my next day off. To make a long story short, I never even saw, much less photographed, one today. The birds weren't moving around very much.

On Avery Road there was, however, a big flock of shorebirds well off the road including about a hundred lesser yellowlegs, about 40 pectorals, and 2 dowitchers. We see this one in nice early morning light, with fairly brick reddish underparts with some difficult-to-characterize patterning to the underparts with dark scapulars with some internal reddish markings and whitish scapular tips:

I don't have much experience with dowitchers in spring. Probably 99% of the dowitchers I've seen are July and August SB dowitchers (of the central Hendersoni subspecies) at Pt Mouillee.
The pics aren't great as the birds were very distant. Between the 60x zoom of the scope, probably 2-3x on the camera (something I don't usually do), plus cropping, these are probably 100-200x. Even with the best of equipment a person would run out of photons.
None of my pics captured the bill that well, though it's accepted that there is a fair amount of overlap. I was not overly-impressed, though, by the length of the bill. LB dowitcher is supposed to be chunkier than SB, "like it swallowed a grapefruit" is the description in the Karlson shorebird guide. I think that would be more helpful if I'd had more recent comparative experience with them. Obviously this character is better evaluated in the field than in single pictures. It looks chunkier in the first pic than the second.
In terms of general plumage, it's considerably darker than the post-breeding adults I'm used to seeing, but that could probably apply nearly as well to a fresh SB than allow us to jump to the conclusion that it's LB, though I think it shades in favor of LB.
Sibley points out LB as having scapulars with rufous bars and white tips whereas SB has bold gold barring. Karlson describes LB's scapulars similarly, notes bright upperparts of SB, and does show photos that are consistent with Sibley's paintings. The Hayman shorebird guide also illustrates this difference in the paintings (though in the descriptions he describes SB as having broad rufous or rusty-buff or pale cinnamon edges to the feathers - but at least says the edging is broad). Kaufman in Advanced Birding emphasizes that the broad edging to SB's scaps make the bird appear very bright (though gives the color to this edging as rusty). My bird's upperparts, dark with rufous marbling with narrow white tips, I think are definitely in the LB camp.
Of my 4 resources, Karlson, Hayman, and Kaufman all emphasise the pattern of the underparts (Sibley is the only one that gives equal weight to the upperparts).
All agree that Hendersoni SB dowitcher should have a clean "fore"neck without patterning whereas LB has streaking in that region. I'm not sure I've ever seen a definition for "fore"neck. I think the first picture shows some streaking in this region, but it's so distant that I think it's hard to draw firm conclusions.
Hayman and Karlson both state that SB had fairly evenly distributed markings from the sides of the breast through the flanks, whereas LB has denser markings along the side of the breast which are more lightly distributed along the flanks. I think distance makes it hard to argue strongly either way. Sibley and Kaufman note that the patterning of the sides of the breast tends toward spotting in SB and barring in LB. Distance makes the bird look somewhat in-between. When I first looked at the photos I thought it showed spotting along the sides of the breast, but when I looke closer, the marks appear more chevron shaped.
I went back and forth earlier in the day on the ID of these birds. My initial gestault impression in the field was that these looked like long-billed dowitchers, though not the longest-billed I've ever seen. I didn't feel totally comfortable with the call initially given that I don't have a ton of experience with the plumage of spring dowitchers, but after having gone through my resources and compared them with my pics, I now feel that these are long-billed's.
Sept 09 Addendum: here's a Jean Irons photoeassy about this same question.