Friday, September 25, 2009

American Scimitarbill

I've decided to go ahead and re-name the avocet, I'm sure the ABA will fall in line.

Tim and I had a bit of a role reversal today when he had to leave to go to work and I kept birding. I went up to Jean Kloch to check a couple large gull flocks as a couple of hours at Tiscornia had produced exactly one (very distant) southbound red-throated loon. Of course when I arrived there I picked up 5 distant contrastingly patterned shorebirds landing back on Tiscornia.

The light wasn't the best and eventually they flew north a couple hundred yards, only to return after half an hour or so with the appearance of some distant dogs and landed back in front of me for the 15 minutes of sunlight this morning:
I think the lead bird (and maybe the trailer) in the first picture may be first year birds as their plumage was a little browner that the others and they had no trace of chestnut on the breast. I can almost get the sense of some paler edges to the coverts, but these birds also seemed pretty heavily worn (maybe more so than the others) so this may not be correct.

It's hard to get a decent composition when multiple birds are involved (if you've ever tried to photograph two toddlers you know this well) but I like the symmetry of this one:

Here's the lighting when I first had the birds. This again is one of the birds that may be first year.

The birds stayed together fairly well; they certainly didn't spread all over the place like sanderlings do. I think it was 3 males and 2 females.

Since I'd been hard at work on my all-important Newaygo County list camping with the family for the last few days I haven't really been paying all that much attention to the winds, but I was surprised to get this western bird today. Willets (with the occasional accompanying marbled godwit) are usually the product of strong north and west winds (usually in front of a storm), but avocets don't seem to be tied to similar weather. I also don't understand why birds with similar range (long-billed curlew and upland sandpiper) don't show up on the beach more often given that we get most of the curlew's relatives (godwits and whimbrel) and a lot of the birds I associate with uplands in Michigan (golden plovers and buff-breasted sandpiper) at least occasionally on the beach.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Identification by addition

You'll have to stay with me on this one. At Tiscornia this morning Tim and I saw exactly 2 species of waterfowl, Canada geese, and a duck I picked up flying south. The bird confused me, with vague white secondary patches and some white on the cheek area. The bird's sillhouette was odd as well. First I thought it might be a strange female RB merganser, but the shape was wrong. The whitish on the cheek made me think of a bufflehead but the shape was REALLY wrong for that. Eventually Tim got on the bird (already an outlier just given that I saw it first) and recognized it pretty quickly as a red-necked grebe. At about that point it was just close enough to also make out the white patches at both the leading and trailing part of the inner wing, though in the morning sun the leading edge patch wasn't very visible (at probably 400-600 yards away).

With apologies to Sibley and Peterson, from whose field guides I based these drawings, if you start with the drooped neck of a red-throated loon (the left most bird), add the pattern of a red-breasted merganser (the upper right bird), then you get a red-necked grebe (the lower bird) as they might appear distantly through the heat waves. Tim pointed out that the head and feet of the grebe are essentially on one horizontal axis while the body is on a parallel but higher axis, a silhouette that allows ID even farther out where you can't even see the white. Anyway, a learning experience and a year bird, one that I've seen about 3 times now in 4 years here.

Monday, September 14, 2009

a Little gull

This morning at Tiscornia I had a juvenile Little Gull fly by WAY out there. It settled on the water for about 5 minutes and then kept going south.

If it had come in to the beach it might have looked something like this...
This was my life Little Gull in September of 2006, a smartly plumaged juvenile bird. (That photo was actually printed in North American Birds in black-and-white, the only photo I've ever had published).

This photo shows the obvious origin of the name. The Little Gull is the world's smallest gull. I'm not sure where Great Lakes birds come from. I think there used to be a few pairs in northern Wisconsin. I can't remember if these breed up in Churchill as well. Per Olsen and Larsson, the world population is about 60,000 birds give or take, the majority in Russia and the various former Soviet republics in Eastern Europe.

Here's a shot of the above bird as it took off the beach. The heavy black M is what gave away my bird today. The adults have somewhat of a reverse pattern, black underwings and pale gray upperwings, whereas the juveniles have the black patterned upperwings and white underwings. Second year birds (probaby the most commonly encountered form from Tiscornia have intermediately colored underwings, mostly pale gray upperwings with a few black retained outer primaries). But, we'll save them for another post sometime...

Friday, September 11, 2009

What's an avocet anyway?

According to one of my references (that I may have pulled off the shelf for the first time ever), Leahy's The Birdwatcher's Companion, a bird encyclopedia printed on newsprint, the origins of the name have been lost. I wonder if it's something similar to the Wheatear's, a bird known originally as "white arse" in Old English, but which slowly morphed over the centuries to a name both more, and less, appropriate.

Anyway, there were two of them on Tiscornia Beach this morning. Both birds retain a little of the chestnut on the breast and upper belly so are adult birds moulting into winter plumage. I'm not sure I've ever seen a juvenile avocet in Michigan.
The male is on the left, the female (also below) on the right. Females generally have more upturned bills than the male, though per Karlson they sometimes can be hard to sex. I'd never really noticed the grayer tertials, if I were to have colored a picture of one without a reference I'd have just colored those feathers black as well.

Here's how they looked when I first spotted them from the base of the pier after a Cooper's Hawk flushed the gulls off the beach. I had to make a wide circle around them to get the light at my back.
They felt late to me as all of my previous Berrien birds were in the last week of July or first week of August but I see at least 3 September records in the copies I have of the Berrien Field Notes since 2001 (including one occurence in the last week of September).

Monday, September 7, 2009

Merlin sunrise

I haven't had much luck lately obtaining blogable images. Tim and I had a couple little gulls sit down briefly on the beach a few weeks ago but they left quickly. I haven't been working for the passerines I still need this year; mainly I've been going to the beach when I can go birding hoping for a long-tailed jaeger (which have been seen with some regularity of late in southernmost Lake Michigan ... Indiana's Lake Michigan).

This morning Tim and I counted at Tiscornia as part of an organized lakewatch. There was a steady movement of blue-winged teal, we probably had 500-600 or so, mostly well out. The best bird was a merlin which Tim picked up harrying a passerine well out over the lake. Despite multiple passes the smaller bird evaded capture by dodging sideways and gaining altitude. The altitude gain was key, exhausted birds that just beeline for the shore with only lateral movement seem to get snagged. Eventually the merlin either gave up or lost it and flew straight in, perching up in the snags more commonly occupied by peregrines. Ironically the passerine (Tim thought a Tennessee warbler) flew over our heads as well and could have been re-targeted by the raptor which had easily beaten it to shore. The merlin's wings seemed fairly uniformly colored without any retained faded old feathers so it was probably a first fall bird.
The early morning clouds made a nice composure but don't give much detail on the bird.

Here's a little better detail from a female bird in Washtenaw, I'm guessing about February of 2005 or 2006.

Per my Wheeler hawk book once the wing moult is completed it's very hard to age female merlins in winter.