Friday, April 30, 2010

Fallout File Photofest

Last night saw the 2nd night of S winds after a week of north and sure enough, the radar screens on the weather sites just lit up with migrating birds. We had pretty high hopes for this morning. While places with a water barrier like Crane Creek in Ohio saw a pretty good wave of warblers pile in, most seemed to keep going over us. However, there were good numbers of birds flying back in off the lake this morning at Tiscornia.

The big ticket item was a first spring Lark Sparrow, a bird I picked up flying in off the lake, a medium sized passerine with a relatively long tail, complex facial pattern and mild side streaking which flew into one of the poplars. It was in the shade for a few seconds, then hopped up into the sun revealing the harlequin facial pattern. It stayed long enough for Tim to get a good look through the scope, but after a couple seconds dropped out and we never re-found it.
I photographed this lark sparrow (also in a poplar or a cottonwood) in Colorado, it has a little more color to the face than our (younger) bird had today.

We also had a dickcissel fly by us, the auto-focus took a long time to lock on so we're left with another file photo, this one from Sarett a few years ago...

This immature Glaucous Gull has been hanging out for about 6 weeks...

This egret was one of four to fly in off the lake as well...
Also present was a pipit, harrier, numerous Indigo Buntings, goldfinches, cliff swallows, martins, white-crowned sparrows, kingbirds, and probably some other stuff I'm forgetting.
This was definitely a weather pattern to remember, the 2nd day of strong south winds after a week of north. Floral was decidedly lacking in birds, clearly the birds mostly over-flew us, but this bizarre combination of birds gives an interesting sample of what all is in the air at night.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

NOMO is still the theme

NOrthern MOckingbird was the highlight of the last post. NO MOmentum is what I have right now. Five days ago Loggerhead shrike would have been a state bird for me but the bird went unrecognized until long after the freshly disked field in which it spent at least 2 days foraging dried out. Three days ago an Upland Sandpiper was found but word wasn't put out until evening. Another potential county lifer, Yellow-headed Blackbird, appeared briefly at a feeder but to my knowledge has not re-appeared.

I've spent entirely too much time the last 2 days on Buffalo Rd. Smith's Longspur has also been found there again this year.

Lots of these (though not all with this much black) ...
If you get the exposure wrong a picture can look more Smith's-like than the bird does in real life. The solidly medium brown ear covert, along with the more heavily streaked face of the female Lappie are still there, however.
Just for the sake of pulling an article, Sullivan and Kershner reviewed longspur ID in the October 2003 Birding magazine. They also point out that Lapland typically has multiple primaries visible (there are at least 6 in this picture) whereas Smith's typically has 3 or at most 4.
In spring adults though, this sort of stuff is pretty academic; in real life the feeling of most observers along Buffalo Road last spring was that the females of the two species weren't really that hard to tell apart.
Seriously though, if I can't find some quality birds in the next 2 days then I feel a big fat flower post coming on.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Two for Tiscornia

I pulled into Tiscornia this morning. The first thing I noticed was Tim's car in its expected location at the University of Tiscornia Official Counter "reserved" spot. The second thing I noticed was a mockingbird flying across the road. I hit the brakes, lowered the window, fired a sequence of frames and reached for the cell phone. Ten seconds later Tim appeared jogging off the side of dune, worked his way around, and ultimately pushed not one but two mockers back towards me. There's a decent chance this is the pair that was at Jean Kloch last year (or possibly offspring) dispersed by a large amount of brush clearing that's ongoing there at present.
To our knowledge, this is the first record of Mockingbird at Tiscornia.

We lakewatched for a bit without appreciating much in the way of movement and then walked the dunegrass to see what we could kick up. We stopped after a bit upon hearing some rustling in the grass. We expected a rodent or something; much to our surprise, this ran out...
Another bird new for the park to our knowledge. The bird would dart generally faster than our auto-focus, both of us achieved our best results by reverting back to manual focus, good to know for next time when it's a Yellow.
There wasn't much waterfowl movement, but the RB mergs that were close were courting. The female would call and the males would respond more loudly and exaggerate her movements.
The time lapse collage shows how the male on the right doesn't do the display and the female promptly chases him away. Kroodsma describes in The Singing Life of Birds how female cardinals choose mates based on how closely they listen to her and mimic the song fragments she initiates. I haven't really thought of females actively chasing away potential suitors however; most of the time you see the female just flying away. CW Townsend (apparently not Townsend's Warbler JK Townsend and I don't think Townsend's Shearwater CH Townsend) described this courtship behaviour in the Auk in 1911. He does describe the female at times chasing out at a male, but didn't make a big deal about it. I came across a figure from The Handbook of Waterfowl Behaviour online; it'd be nice to know what's described in the book itself (somehow I don't think I'm going to find it any library locally).

Monday, April 19, 2010

Ruby-crowned's have ruby crowns

Early passerine migration continues. Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher are the dominant species (though some of the gnatcatchers are probably working on territories).

This Ruby-crowned wasn't singing, but the hormones were going enough that it was showing off its crown consistently. I don't think I was ever able to digi-scope a kinglet without major blurring.

A Parula had returned to Kesling, probably one of the first to return to Michigan this year. I've digiscoped it twice before.

Ditto for Blue-gray gnatcatcher...

I've been seeing chocolate butterflies flashing red for the last week, but today was the first time one landed, a red admiral. They were abundant 3 years ago, but hard to find the last 2 (at least to a casual-at-best butterfly observer like me).

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Really, it's springtime

You would think that the warmer temperatures, second round of wildflowers, and longer days would have me feeling the spring, but it's really crept up on me this year. I keep thinking it's still March for some reason and the birds are surprising me (maybe that has to do with disappearing inside to work while lots of people were out of town for spring break and completing practically 2/3's of my shifts for the month already).

Pine warblers can be bugaboo birds for the year lister around here.
I found this one by listening for Chipping Sparrows singing from the pines. I walked over to the song, and found the warbler looking around in the next tree. The singer? It was a chipping sparrow (maybe the birds can't tell them apart either).

This Vesper Sparrow was a new Tiscornia bird for me the other day, and hopped up nicely, very unlike the pipit last fall which was in the same spot (I know, I know, let it go already ... I can't.)

Finally, a bird that's part of the vanguard for high spring, White-throated Sparrow.
Their numbers seem to peak as the warblers really start coming it, I'm definitely looking forward to that...

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

How to mis-ID birds, part 2(?) of infinity

If you'd like to learn to mis-identify birds, one important rule to follow is (Over)-Confidence is Everything. You should keep your reference books in nice mint condition on the shelves at home and prevent them from getting used and abused in the field. That way, when you kick two meadowlarks out of the grass and notice that one has a white malar and one has a yellow-ish malar, you can choose the wrong one to focus your attention on. You can ignore that one is plainly sandier and more washed-out than the other (and rationalize that by observing that winter-plumaged meadowlarks are duller) to focus attention on the obvious Eastern Meadowlark on the upper right in unsuccessful efforts to make it a Western:
Fortunately the camera gives us a second chance, even if I was timing the shutter to optimize images of the Eastern (this is one of only 2 frames that show the paler bird's face). Next is a crop of the above photo. The bird on the left has paler marking, yellow washing up on the malar, and little contrast between the pale brow stripe and the upper area of the cheek patch. The bird on the right is marked darkly with a white malar and much more contrast to the face pattern. Open up Sibley, Pyle, or National Geo, and it's fairly plain to see that the bird on the left is a Western Meadowlark. Furthermore, if you read Pyle, you see that it's in August to January (September to January in Sibley) that the birds are paler and washed out. In essence, 2 bits of mis-applied knowledge (forgetting which one has some yellow extending onto the malar, and the timing of paler plumage) led us to conclude in the field, "Huh, something doesn't seem right about this, too bad they didn't call," when it could have been, "Western Meadowlark 9-o-clock in the tree, on it? First Tiscornia record. Ni-ice."
Not convinced yet? Do you think that, well, maybe it could just be paler because it's an atypical bird in mis-timed moult with some weird lighting artifact making the anterior malar washed with yellowish? Fortunately, we were lucky enough to collect more data. What turned out to be the Eastern flushed at angles that the cameras didn't pick up very much on it. The bird that turned out to be the Western flushed much closer.
Here's the bird flushing in front of Tim:
I was about 20 yards to the right so more of a side view for me:
What we see is a bird with 2 white outer tail feathers (r5 and r6) with a third feather (r4) that has dark coloration along its leading edge with a larger white pane on the broader trailing/inner "half." Sibley does note there is some overlap generically between the two species on the extent of white in the tail, but fortunately in Michigan, the subspecies that we encounter do not overlap. In Michigan, per Pyle range descriptions, we have the neglecta Western Meadowlark (which has the exact tail pattern of our bird with white r5 and r6 and partially white r4 as illustrated in Nat'l Geo and Pyle) and the magna Eastern Meadowlark (which Nat'l Geo and Pyle agree has 3 solidly white outer tail feathers (r4-r6) with r3 being partially white).
Note that the tail patterns exhibited by some of the other subspecies is more muddled. Pyle and Nat'l Geo disagree on the pattern shown by the confluenta Westerns of the Pacific coast states as well as the pattern exhibited by argutula Easterns of the southern Great Plains. Fortunately neither of those subspecies is very likely to occur here so the tail pattern is also helpful.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Hoocher Hearing Exam 2010

It's that time of year again. One of the signs of spring for me is when my father-in-law lets me know that "Hoocher's back." Brown Creepers are one of the classic April migrants, most of whom have either a trill for a song, or a high-pitched call note (or both). Hoocher has the high-pitched call note. In case you're worried about your hearing, there's no need to track down your local Ears-Nose-Throat specialist (he or she is likely doing very well for themselves without your additional contributions), just head out into the woods and see if you can hear Brown Creeper or Golden-crowned Kinglet. If you can, you've passed Part I of the Hoocher Hearing Exam. Part II, which is optional for mortal birders, is to try to tell the two apart. I was happy just to get some workable images of the creeper, which is nigh-unto impossible to digi-scope.
Hermit thrushes were also back in decent numbers at Brown Sanctuary (they're an exception with a clear unique song and a low-pitched chup chip note).

At Three Oaks I heard a sound that made me stop scanning the ponds and look over at the crow calling "cah, cah" from atop one of the bluebird boxes. No two-parted calls, but the soft "a" sound gave it away as a Fish Crow, perhaps a regular April fixture for the next few years to come, depending on how strong a toehold is managed by the local birds.
For further reading on Fish Crow and American Crow identification based on primary shape and formula, here's a helpful article.

Monday, April 5, 2010

They're not goshawks but hey

A few months ago I noted here that I'd hoped that a more concerted effort at hawkwatching in the dunes could net me my county lifer goshawk. So far it hasn't happened. The birds tend to follow the ridgelines more closely in the fall, but a few birds have gone by fairly closely.

This Cooper's is actually probably a local bird as it was heading south.
I'm not entirely sure of the age of this bird. Obviously the primaries are browner and a different feather generation than the secondaries. What I'm not sure of is whether those feathers were brown making this a second cycle bird, or if those are the faded gray-blue of an adult. The eye is pretty solidly red though, so this may be an adult.

Here's a crappy picture of a distant first cycle redtail; clearly hawks don't do much primary moult this time of year...

Red-shouldered's are one of the prettier hawks. It'd be nice to improve on this shot...