Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Catching up, part 2

Or maybe it should be entitled Mediocre Pics of Southern Passerines

First off is White-eyed Vireo.

I found him randomly while killing time at the little park next to Ace Hardware while I was waiting to pick up Hazel from school. I heard a call that sounded like a backwards Scarlet Tanager. It sounded a little off, but the tree was in nice light so I stopped. I saw a green bird flutter and thought, "darn, a female" though the next thought was that it was way too little to be a tanager. I raised the camera and was pretty surprised to look into that white eye. It's a-purrrrrrrrr-chk call was pretty close to the chk-burrrrrrr of a Scarlet, if only it was backwards. I hope to go back to do some recording of it since they can have pretty complex songs.

Next up is quite possibly the worst picture that anyone has had the shamelessness to post of a Worm-eating Warbler.

It's basically a record shot to show that the silhouette wasn't a chipping sparrow.

A Chipping Sparrow sonogram recorded in the parking lot is on the left (with a robin singing below it). In its song it rapidly switches back and forth between a high note and a lower one at a rate of about 20 notes/second; the high/low cycles occur 10 times per second. The photographed Wormer on the right (with a pewee's pee-a-weeeeee beside it) sings mainly with a similar pitch (though does have some higher pitched harmonics), and also about 20 notes per second, but it's not alternating pitches. Instead it hammers out both pitches at once so there's no cycling and the tone is much dryer. In sonograms, horizontal lines are musical notes (like the pewee), vertical lines are dry. The Chippie doesn't have much slant to the notes, but it has more than the Wormer does.

Finally is a Kentucky Warbler that Tim had somewhere in Warren Dunes.

He called me saying he had a Kentucky. I asked where. There was a deep inhaled breath from the other end of the line. If you've seen the movie True Romance where some mafia hitmen are asking a stoned early years Brad Pitt for directions and he says something to the effect of, "well you go ... then you go some more ... hey can you pick me up some beer and ... cleaning products?" except without the beer and cleaning products part, then you have what we had to work with. I hemmed and hawed and then realized I could hear the bird through his phone. I figured if it was that loud I'd be able to hear it if I was at all close.
It took a while to get at all close. Tim guided me in via cell phone as we triangulated a Barred Owl that called once, some crows we could eventually both hear (just gotta make sure you chase the right crows), and eventually a sora imitation. It still took about 2 hours, 4 slip-and-falls on deer trails, and 1 tick to find the spot, but successful in the end, leaving Connecticut as the only hard warbler remaining.

200 for Tiscornia

I updated some of my spreadsheets last night and noticed that I was at 197 for my Tiscornia list. I thought there might be a possibility of the same bird being my 200th for Tiscornia and my 300th for Berrien. It turned out I wouldn't have to wait that long.

After trying below my house for Connecticut I headed for Tiscornia after dropping Hazel off at school. There wasn't any movement and the wind seemed very unlikely to force whimbrel onto the beach so we headed for the trees and fairly quickly I picked up a Black-billed Cuckoo. 198.
This is probably a second year bird given the retained buffiness on the throat and lack of any real color to the eyering. It was also a nice year bird which won't have to be dug out of Brown or Love Creek.
Next some warblers appeared, first a Canada, number 199,
then after a few redstarts, a Wilson's and a Magnolia, a female BT Blue for an even 200.
I guess the birding gods wanted me to stay at a nice round number since I never got on a female Connecticut that gave Tim a brief series of glimpses. Arrrgh. Ah well.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Catching up, part 1

Things have been pretty hectic lately and I haven't been able to keep up as much as I'd like with the blog.

The other morning there seemed to be an impressive number of birds moving on the radar. As has seemed to be the case this year, that hasn't exactly spelled a good day at Floral however. There were essentially no migrants there. However, Tiscornia actually had a very good variety of passerines, at least for a beach park.

This Philadelphia Vireo was part of a group that seemed to accumulate along the cottonwoods of the foredune and worked south (presumably birds that blew out over the lake and flew back in) until they hit the rivermouth and followed the trees along it back inland.
It was a fairly foggy morning, this Black-throated Green was pretty bedraggled.
Lincoln's Sparrow was actually a year bird for me (as was a Wilson's Warbler in the next tree).

One last shot of Philly V, a bird that I've had much more success with on this side of the state in the fall than the spring in the past.
A pretty uncommon migrant, I don't remember seeing one that was cooperative enough to digi-scope before; I certainly never succeeded if I attempted it. With the SLR it was easy though, just had to wait for the bird to work its way over to my side of the tree...
The radar seems to show a similar movement at present, we'll see what a few hours brings.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


Things came together remarkably for Tim, Craig Bateman, and Kevin Welsh and myself on Saturday's Birdathon. We weren't really expecting to get a serious crack at the record, but a number of things helped us more than we were considering.

1. May 15 was easily the earliest date I've done Birdathon. The question always is what date gives the best average chance. The later the date, the better chance to stake out the less common breeders. The earlier the date, the better the chance at things that pass through earlier. Yellow-rumped warbler is one of the early passage migrants. We've never missed it, but it's always been a hard bird, at least once we only had one the entire day. We had several yesterday. Ditto for Palm Warbler. There were a few birds, such as Red-breasted Nuthatch, Hermit Thrush, Brown Creeper, and Blue-headed Vireo which I've never seen on Birdathon; we had them Saturday with the earlier date. The early migrants made up for things like Summer Tanager, Orchard Oriole, Grasshopper Sparrow, and Chat which we didn't go into the day with a staked out location for. But, the experience of running these days helped, by having a lot of possible spots for them or keeping our ears open, we found each without knowing exactly where we'd find them. As the background suggests, this is a file photo from Arizona, an especially fun one which I picked up picky-tucking seconds after Tim asked me if I needed my hearing checked with my usual failure to hear the Yellow-throated Warbler the first 8 times it sang.

2. Some other numbers were in our favor, there's 3 more resident birds that weren't possible when the record was set: the Chuck-wills-widow that's returned for about the 5th year, the Fish Crows we found last year, and the Collared-Doves we re-discovered earlier this year; we managed 2 of the 3. This was also the first year we've had a 4 person team. My experience is that 2 people will see about 10% more birds than one, a 3rd person will add maybe 5% more, a 4th will add a smaller percentage. We've never had a problem with the 95% rule with 3 people so figured it'd be worth expanding which was probably also good for a couple birds.

3. For the first time ever we were free of precipitation and high wind. The temperature stayed cool through the day and we were able to add a few passerines during the midday that would have been more likely to quiet if it had been hotter.

4. Tim had some just pure tour-de-force moments, directing some spur-of-the-moment stops that produced birds like Grasshopper Sparrow, Sandhill Crane, and then in the afternoon jogging down the trails in the Sarett pines, disappearing into a particular thicket, and popping a Hermit Thrush out into a trail-side pine. I asked him how he'd found that bird and he simply asked, "Do you know how much time I've spent in the pines?"

So the question is what's next. We had a couple misses, I couldn't believe we missed Mourning Warbler since they've definitely been at Floral this year, Wilson's and Bay-breasted were probably found by decent numbers of teams. Two stake-out birds, Collared-dove and Dickcissel no-showed for us and there were a few birds on Avery Rd that we missed as well. 175 is probably possible; over 200 different species were recorded that day (and a few more the day before as well).

Friday, May 14, 2010

OK I lied.

May isn't for warblers. It's for looking for good birds. Like this Franklin's Gull, on the beach for a bit at Tiscornia this morning. Some sub-adult Franklin's Gulls can be hard to separate from Laughing Gulls; the classic Franklin's half hood with big eye arcs makes this one pretty easy.
Note the Forster's and Common Tern behind it; they're not always this easy to separate from each other either.

The assumption looking at the bird at rest would be that it's not a full adult since a full adult should have a full hood. In flight we can see a couple black feathers in the wing coverts, indicating retained immature feathers for this 1st summer bird.
If this bird had a more confusing head pattern it would be harder to separate from Laughing Gull. The flight pattern would still be helpful though. In flight we see that the white trailing edge of the wing bleeds into the primaries such that the black primary tips are somewhat separated from the gray of the rest of the wing.
The underwing also shows extensive white at the bases of the primaries.

Here's another view of the underwing. Of interest is that P10, the outer-most primary, is a retained feather from last fall, with the black (which extends the length of the feather) faded paler than the black of the feathers new this spring (note that Franklin's is the only gull to moult flight feathers in spring and fall).
As a comparison here's a montage of one of the Laughing Gulls from the other day.
Here's hoping that cooperative passerines on Birdathon make me eat my words again...

Thursday, May 13, 2010

May is for warblers

Let's be honest. While there's always hope for a quality rarity, the reason that May is more anticipated than November (where honestly there's even greater chances of something really interesting) is warblers migrating through.

Black-throated Blue is a favorite of many...

Black-and-white probably isn't on many people's top 5 favorites, but they are fairly unique in their preference for trunks and large branches.

I've generally found Orange-crowned slightly more common in fall, but do usually encounter it in the spring.
Yeah, yeah, technically this isn't a warbler (in fact vireos are thought to be more closely related to crows than warblers), but Blue-headed Vireo is one of the more boldly patterned vireos.

Last, and least, the Redstart. They tend to become the dominant species as the migration is winding down. They're handy when you're trying to figure out a song though. Just call it a redstart, if you stand there long enough, you'll probably even see one...

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A few good birds

Tiscornia was fairly productive this morning. As soon as I crested the dune the dark mantle of a Laughing Gull popped out. This picture is of the 2nd bird which appeared later, the first one was a presumed 2nd summer based on some black remaining in the tail. I have a couple crummy pics of both Laughing gulls in the same frame but they're not worth displaying.
Note the smaller approximately one-year-old Bonaparte's gull wheeling in front of it.
After a little bit a Piping Plover betrayed itself by running; it was essentially the same color as the sand.
This is only the 2nd Piping Plover I've ever seen in the county. The above photo was shot from the pier as it came closer. Any other shorebird and I'd have been on my belly in the sand waiting for it to run up. With some squinting at the heavily cropped photo you can see the bands, orange over green on the left leg (the orange band is actually above the knee) and what I took in the field through the scope to be green over orange on the right.
A little more time and a willet appeared. It did walk down the beach and approached myself and another birder fairly closely...
... before taking flight and landing in the tern flock. I had high hopes for this pic on the camera; unfortunately I don't think the IS had kicked in and it's not as sharp as I'd hoped.

Here's another big time crop of the two shorebirds, not a combo seen in the same frame in Michigan very often...

Saturday, May 8, 2010

When the cat is gone...

I read an article in an old Birding (I think) magazine where one of the west coast guys makes an allusion to the lions which make the kills and the hyenas and jackals which arrive later to try to steal some dinner. Tim, our local lion, has been out of the county for a week and Andre has been on fire lately trying to grow a mane. Between work and having the kids by myself this weekend, I've been in full jackal mode, my only birding in the last few days chasing a Baird's Andre found yesterday and Long-billed Dowitchers he found tonight.

Here's the three Long-billed Dowitchers.

The bird on the right is basically callable based on the bill alone which is saying something since there's a lot of overlap between the two species. These birds are pretty close to full breeding plumage (there still are some wing coverts coming in, and the birds aren't fully red back to the rear-most flanks). There is more than enough warm coloration, though, to know that the only candidates are Hendersoni Short-billed Dowitcher (the subspecies we get), or Long-billed. These pics aren't the greatest; once I get a digi-scoping camera back this would been a good chance for Pepsi challenge photos between full-frame digi-scope and these heavy crops from the 300mm lens. However, they do show enough of the upperparts to evaluate one of the easier ways to separate the two in spring. Long-billed has dark scapulars with some fine rufous markings and some contrasting white tips. Short-billed has broader gold markings in the scapulars.
Honestly, I'd bet you could guess the ID of dowitchers in Michigan at about a 95% clip based on dates alone, the first week or so of May are Long-billed. The 3rd week of May is Short-billed. In the fall, July and August are Short-billed, September could be either, October is Long-billed.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Not an Inca Dove

Well duh, of course a Sora isn't an Inca Dove.
This bird was either oblivious of me standing outside the edge of the drowned thicket at Floral, or else secure in the knowledge that I couldn't get in. It was still hard, though, to get clear shots through the vegetation.

Here's the byline bird, a juvie Mourning Dove. A week ago we started seeing this year's crop of Horned Lark (a scaled bird commonly mistaken for Sprague's Pipit). Mourning Doves are usually the first juvenile I see; last year they also appeared in the first couple days of May. This one's been out of the nest for at least that long. Their scaliness could conceivably make a person think of an Inca Dove.

This yellowthroat was the only even semi-cooperative warbler I encountered today (at Tiscornia).
I'm used to seeing either adult males or else the plain fall birds that skulk far less than breeders. This (presumed) adult female bird has more of a subtle mask than the fall birds. Dunn and Garrett state in the Peterson Warbler guide that first spring males are essentially indistinguishable from older males.

Red Admirals have been abundant at Tiscornia of late. American Ladies (below) are also becoming very common.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Just when you thought it was safe...

When you thought, "It's May, let's see some pleasing warbler photos," like this Myrtle taken on the back porch this morning as a tanager sang above it...

When you thought, "Well, maybe there'll be some interesting migrants or year birds," like this Merlin which looks much paler than the usual merlins we see in the southern LP (basically because we mostly see females or first year birds); per Sibley and Wheeler, this is probably a pretty typical taiga male Merlin, not a candidate for Richardson's.

Or maybe you thought that we'd relocated a quality rarity like the Lark Sparrow then BAM, in comes another Collared-Dove photo, again from Tiscornia this morning, a noticeably larger blockier bird than the Mourning Dove that Tim picked it up flying in with. The dickcissel yesterday was my 200th St Joseph Twp lifer, this was dangerously close to being that milestone bird (Horned Lark was 200 for Benton last fall - even though I know you weren't actually wondering). A couple of weeks ago a co-worker had described to me a big white bird with a ring around its neck that was on someone's lawn in a neighborhood close to Tiscornia that "wasn't a [Mourning] Dove." My guess then was that she'd seen a Collared-Dove. I had expected that we would have heard it by now from Tiscornia but perhaps the winds have been wrong.