Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Some rares are more exciting than others...

Tim and I did a warm-up route of sorts through the county today. Winds were strong out of the south all day, strong enough to keep the insects (and most insect-eating birds) hunkered down, but we did come across two surprises.

The first was this Trumpeter Swan at the 3 Oaks ponds. This was the potential county lifer I unsuccessfully and only half-heartedly chased last winter, figuring I'd run into one eventually. I was hoping this wouldn't be a semi-tainted 300th Berrien bird. Instead it comes it at 297. It was giving some honking call notes that I hadn't heard since my Washtenaw days.

As we were driving through Three Oaks, rolling up the windows and trying to remember which dove cadence was White-winged and which was Collared (for the record, White-winged is the Barred owl knock-off and the Collared is ca-COOO-coo) a chunky square-tailed dove flew across the road, flew parallel to the truck, and landed in a roadside snag. We turned down an alley (in front of a cop who promptly pulled a U-y to investigate our strange behaviour) and found the bird in the preferred portrait position for Collared doves, arse-on.
Note how the outer web of the outer-most rectrix (tail feather) is black half way out the length of the feather. In Ringed Turtle Dove this is white the entire length of the feather. Note that in this photo, the left-side tail feathers are overlapping such that the outermost feather is hidden. The gray undertail coverts are also consistent with Eurasian Collared-Dove (for more in-depth detail see the December 2001 Birding article pp 558-559). Hybrids do occur and are generally said to be somewhat intermediate between the two. Other Michigan photos of collared doves are on the MBRC page. A summary of how these birds came to be in America can be reviewed here.
[An early NAB article about collared doves and their ID is also reviewable from SORA here. - added 4/9/10]
I won't rehash Trumpeter Swan in the Midwest arguments, but suffice it to say we found 2 birds quite rare in the county (I hadn't encountered either in the nearly 4 years I've been living here though I did see the doves the last time they were in Berrien), but both with fairly checkered histories. Bottom line, I'd trade them both for a White Pelican.
Since both piccies are somewhat sub-par, here's a Red-breasted Nuthatch from Tiscornia yesterday...

Monday, March 29, 2010

The sixth season

Here in Berrien we've found that we're not really limited to 4 seasons. While everyone is familiar with spring, summer, and fall, not many people realize that the next season (from about the 3rd week of October through the CBC period) is actually the season of Merganser which precedes winter. With less frigid weather, but still no green or passerine migrants of consequence, I would term the current season Ambiguous Grebe.

Tis the season...
... and another Horned Grebe ...

This one's not so hard. Honestly the majority of the birds today were past the confusing transitional stage though a couple were still barely moving out of winter plumage.

Both Red-throated Loon and Horned Grebes were flying north in numbers out over the lake. This was probably the first time I've seen double digit grebes flying steadily north (though up to 20 or 25 will loaf about off the piers during this period).
Kaufman (1996) agrees that they generally are night migrants though may do so during the day along the coast. We'll see what tomorrow will bring, it should be the start of a prolonged period of south winds (after the last 2 weeks have been dominated by north).

Kaufman, Ken. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin, 1996. Pp 8-9.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Jumping to the real deal

I expected to slowly build up to today's post, figuring that I'd have time to show some various Horned Grebes in confusing moult states before showing an Eared. We-ell, I went out South Pier this afternoon when the sun came out to see if there'd be horned's in close sheltering from the wind. There were. I photo'd some for a bit, then scanned a bit farther out, and immediately picked out a different silhouette, an Eared Grebe.
It was way backlit and the above photo is cropped in a fair bit. It was headed in slowly and then a dog walker decided to stop and talk and the birds started swimming back out, away from the Labrador. Oh well.

The backlit semi-overcast created an exposure challenge, but I managed some workable images. This bird is just starting the moult with a little color coming in behind the eye and a couple black facial feathers. About 40% of the birds looked like this.

About 30% of the birds were in the confusing transition with wisps of ochre behind the eye and some patchy black feathers coming into the face.

A few birds had passed the confusing stage but clearly still have a ways to go...

... to get to this bird whose head is pretty close to being in full breeding condition.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Little Rubyeyes

Horned Grebes don't draw the eye's attention all that often; they're common to see along the pier in migration, very familiar to the fisherman. Given their frequent close approach to the pier I was hoping to be able to target them somewhat on my first sunny morning yesterday.

Two did come in fairly close. Shooting in sunlight can be trickier than overcast since getting the exposure just right can be tricky. I had to do a fair amount of brightening on this image in the shadow of the pier...
The full sun presents the opposite problem, with whites being over-exposed, though the red eyes just pop in the low morning sun

Note the subtle difference in the two birds' head shape and bill size. I don't know that any of the general guides comment on this, but Pyle shows this difference between males and females. The first sunlit bird is a female with a slighter bill and more rounded head than the last bird which has a more wedge-shaped head and a somewhat heavier bill. I'd never noticed this before, though it does probably bear being aware of, give that a female in amongst a bunch of males could give more of an Eared look in a few weeks if a person wasn't careful.

Monday, March 15, 2010

kind of ironic

I had big hopes for this morning since it was going to be my first morning birding with the new lens, and sun was predicted on multiple weather sites. Over a decade ago when I had the opportunity to spend more time birding I was definitely more of a photographer than a lister. I remember not chasing a red-necked phalarope in Washtenaw since I knew it would be a ways from the road and I'd seen one the previous fall at Mouillee. I'm not sure that there's been one in Washtenaw since. Anyway, I was geared up in my mind to take some photos, but the light never improved above medium overcast, and I spotted a distant Red-necked Grebe, the earliest on the calendar that I've found a good year bird at Tiscornia. It did follow the identification by addition strategy previously referenced, a loon-like bird with a merganser's secondary patch. If it wasn't for the feet creating more "tail" projection than a merganser's, it would be a tough tough ID. As it was, I stayed with the bird long enough for it to flare its wings as it slowed to land, revealing the white leading edge of the inner half of the wing as well.

Anyway, photo highlight (out of less than a hundred shots most of which were experiments with Song Sparrows and a RW Blackbird) was a hen RB Merganser. If there'd been a little more light it would almost be a through-the-bill shot where you can see the light through the nostrils that can't happen to often with a flight shot...

(If you did have the misfortune of clicking the link above back to my woefully poor comparison sketches of RTLO, RBME, and RNGR you can see how far off my merg was, could the body be any smaller?)

Friday, March 12, 2010

It begins...

I arrived home to find a package had arrived in the mail today.

Bet you can't guess what was in it... ... my wife said I looked like one of the kids looking into their Halloween bags or Easter baskets.

It was a cloudy overcast late afternoon so I didn't have the courage to take the lens down below in case it rained so I ended up just shooting out the kitchen window.

Not the most photogenic of backgrounds, but what are you going to do?

Here's the bird after it hulled the seed...
I have 2 shifts this weekend totaling at least 20 hours of daylight (plus church), but come Monday, I'll see if I can find some sunlit subjects.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Notice anything different???

This post officially puts all Pacific Loons, Sprague's Pipits, Brown Pelicans, LeConte's Sparrows and anything else on notice that they can no longer slip through Tiscornia Beach trusting the alpha-error phobia of committees/compilers/they-saw-what???-general-birding-public to not be written up or else in the rejected bin sans photos.

I finally caved and bought a used Canon 40D off E-Bay. Tim let me borrow his lens and I blasted a little under a thousand images, 95% of which are already in the delete bin.

Just imagine what this pic will look like when a Thayer's or Kumlien's flies by:

The lake was glass calm making for some nicely reflected composures:

Here the scaup flared right over the pier...
I was finally able to take advantage of a scoter right on top of the pier, but we'll stick with the novelty of flight shots for this post...

About once an hour we would hear a clamorous sound which I can only describe as combining a flock of geese and a distant freight train. Long skeins of Long-tailed ducks would stream north in groups of 1000-2000 birds. The flocks would stretch across about half to 2/3 of the horizon when they would go by in numbers way out over the lake.