Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Royal 299

My alarm went off at 9am. I hit the snooze bar. The phone rang 5 minutes later. My (mostly asleep) brain couldn't figure out why the alarm was going off so soon, since it goes off every 9 minutes. My wife handed me the phone, said it was Tim, and I heard, "I think I've got a Royal Tern at Jean Kloch." A shave and shower were completed in record time, my wife threw together a sandwich and a couple apples for lunch, and I arrived at Kloch a little past 9:30, shot about 125 photos in 12 minutes, and I arrived 5 minutes early for the 10am start of my shift at work.

The photo quality isn't great since they're really heavily cropped. Digi-scoping would probably have been more effective, but I didn't have time.

Note the orangey bill, somewhat narrower than a Caspian's would be, with the gony angle only halfway out the length of the bill. It's starting to lose the black forehead in the typical Royal distribution, and has much more wispiness at the back of the black than any Caspian. The tail is hard to pick up, I put a black mark on the first 2 photos lining up with the end to point it out; it's far longer than a Caspian's.
This bird actually has a silver band on the right leg; its origins may be traceable.
Here's a size comparison with the Ring-billed's, it looks much leaner than they are; Caspian generally appears considerably heavier (and indeed as I look up Sibley, he shows weights of 1.0 pounds for ROTE, 1.1 pounds for RBGU, and 1.5 pounds for CATE). This (quite cropped) pic is the last I had time to shoot of the bird.

For a comparison of the bill shape and gony angle position, here's a Royal from Florida (I think from Volusia county with Don and Roger)
and 2 more from the gulf side of Florida in breeding plumage
Here's a comparison Caspian from Tiscornia from late summer. Note the thicker (redder) bill with a gony angle much farther out on the bill and the much shorter tail. Interesting on this bird is a somewhat atypical (Royal-like) pattern of moult on the forehead.
The bird, which I believe is a first state record pending acceptance, is the 299th bird for my Berrien lifelist. It returns to the more usual method of seeing rare birds in the county, go see what Tim sees (my other county lifers this year were unusual in that I saw them first).
It was surprising to see a bird of the gulf coast (though I suppose an Atlantic origin is possible) here without a hurricane (the oil spill would be a very different, unnatural, disaster). We'll see if the band can be traced. A quickest of google searches reveals that Royals have been banded in Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, California, and northwestern Mexico, so perhaps a single silver band is not going to narrow it down very far.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

They're ali-i-i-ive

Enough of the museum for now.

After checking a few Royalton grassland spots this afternoon, I headed down to a spot in Buchanon twp (though on the far side of the river) where a colony of dickcissels was discovered a couple weeks ago.

Grasshopper sparrows were a lot more cooperative than the dickcissels (though there were a lot more dickcissels).
The Groppers in this field liked to perch up on curly dock; in the past I've usually seen this species on small shrubby things, though most of the osage orange shrubs in the field were bigger (and occupied by red-winged blackbirds or dickcissels).

Of course Dickcissels were the primary reason I went. I'm not sure what this silver-leaved shrub is, but it made for a nice effect (which would have been nicer had I been able to get a cleaner shot at the bird)...

This dickcissel was singing in front of a somewhat puzzled RW Blackbird which kept looking down at the dickcissel when it would sing. There's a good chance that the blackbird is already done breeding while the dickcissels are still getting settled on territories.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The meadowlarks of Andrews

Some more shots from the Andrews Museum. Earlier this spring Tim and I had the chance to compare the 2 meadowlark species at Tiscornia. Andrews had a couple specimens of each and we spent the bulk of the time comparing the two species.

I'm not sure that I've ever heard of an albino meadowlark, but apparently they exist...
The collection info (species, sex, date of collection) was lost on this specimen. It's mounted singing, if it was heard singing that would have been helpful though if collected in the 60's, (like a lot of the stuff there), there may not have even been tapes for people to learn the songs. The distribution of yellow on the malar suggests a female Western, so if so, it probably wasn't singing anyway (but could have called).

Next are a couple Eastern Meadowlarks, with completely cream malars, Pyle would make these females. One was collected in Berrien in June 1961, data is lost on the other. Only one had a tail worth reviewing (the other was quite ragged and missing at least 3 feathers). There are 2 solid white outer tail feathers with narrow terminal shaft streaks, r4 has mostly white outer with some buffy inner, and r3 has a little bit of white extending out along the vane. This is closest to Pyle type B, but has less white on r3 than he illustrates most Easterns' as having.

Now we move on to some Westerns. This one is a male Western (almost entirely yellow malar), specimen 885, with unknown collection data.
Its tail is actually quite similar to the previous bird, 2 white outer tail feathers, with a fair amount of white on r4, though the buffiness on this feather is on the outer edge and the white on the inner, a difference that would probably be hard to see in the field. This pattern is very similar to the classic Pyle D meadowlark tail,

Next is a female Western, with a square of yellow on the malar. This is specimen 1768, collected in Berrien in summer of 1978.
This bird also has r4 with buffy outer edge and a white inner edge. Note that the terminal shaft streaks on r5 and r6 are actually sections of patterning rather than the very narrow streak that the Eastern had.

Next is specimen 309, unidentified by the collector. It's another straightforward Western, with extensive yellow on the malar, likely a male:
Its tail has even more patterning of the terminal streak on r5 and r6 than the last bird:

Finally we come to this bird which caused us some problems, specimen 277, collected in Berrien in Sept 1962. We looked and looked at the face, the yellow didn't seem to extend onto the malar tract which would seem to make it a female Eastern. Even if there is a narrow stretch of yellow along the edge of the feather tract, that would be consistent with male Eastern (female Western has a square of yellow and male Western extensive yellow):
The pattern of white on the tail however, is exactly what is shown in Pyle for Western. The plate could literally have been drawn from this specimen.
I'm not sure what it was. I wish we'd photo'd the upperparts with some of the known birds.
Below is a comparison of 2 Western's on top, and an Eastern on the bottom:

It was interesting how many of the Berrien specimens were Western. Currently Eastern probably outnumbers Western in the county by at least 100:1. Last year there were no Western's on known territories; I can't remember if there are any known in the county at present. Clearly there seems to be some shift in the ranges or local population (unless the collectors focused on what seemed like interesting birds to them, which obviously would bias the results).
I wish I'd looked at the flank streaking on the specimens (though their condition would might have made it hard to peek under the wings). The streaking of our April Western was a lot finer than the Eastern we photo'd the same morning. It'd be interesting to see how consistent that is.
With an infinite amount of time it'd be nice to go over to the U of M museum and go through some of their specimens...

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A day at the museum

I suppose if there's a month where I really rack up the hours at work it may as well be June. It hasn't helped me get out very much though.

Tim's been sorting specimens at the AU museum and I stopped in for a couple hours today to look at some of the skins. They had one each of the four longspurs, all essentially breeding males.
You can see the difference in primary projection for the long distance migrant Smith's and Lapland as opposed to the two prairie birds. The Chestnut-collared is faced somewhat away from the camera, but the smaller bill was apparent.

Here's the two waterthrushes, Northern on the top and Louisiana on the bottom.
Note the supercilium and bill differences.
This next shot shows a point I wasn't aware of until Tim pointed it out this spring:
Northern has some speckling on the throat while Louisiana has a much cleaner throat. The speckling on a Northern's throat is hard to see in the field though, the presence of the marks is more reliable than the absence of visible marks on most views.

The last shot shows the flanks:
Louisiana frequently has a warmer more salmony color to the flanks.
I've got photos enough for a couple more ID themed blogs, so hopefully this site will be more active than it's been of late...

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Gone camping

Or perhaps more accurately, back from camping. Over the weekend we camped on Nichols Lake a few hours to the north.

The birding highlight was kayaking out after one of the loons that would forage on the lake in the evening. They were probably nesting on one of the other lakes in the area and I would hear them calling from time to time. Here's proof that fishermen aren't the only ones to catch "weed pikes." It gacked up the weed after a couple of attempts.

Passerine photography was hard, it was overcast (or raining) most mornings, though the sun would peek out in the afternoon after most things had quieted down. This vireo was quiet (but moving enough for me to pick up).

A hundred yards away I spotted a bird land and settle into a nest, the first vireo nest I've ever seen. The cup was much deeper than I expected, closer to an oriole's than the chipping sparrow and robin nests I'm much more likely to encounter around the yard.

Given their penchant for singing from the canopy I was surprised to find this nest only about 12-15 feet up. Per Kaufman's Lives of North American Birds, it turns out they're usually 5-30 feet up, but have been as high as 60 feet up.

Least flycatchers were very common.
I had some hope of getting a decent portrait of one, but they tended to sing from much higher up in the trees than they tend to be in migration. Twice territorial birds started chasing each other and went lower than normal. Each time I was able to stop a bird with a pish or two, but never managed an un-obstructed shot.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The empids of Tiscornia

"From this point forth, we shall be leaving the firm foundation of fact and journeying ... into the murky marshes of memory into thickets of wildest guesswork." Bonus points if you recognize the quote. (Mostly) silent empids are the subject of this blog, all from this spring at Tiscornia.

It's hard to really capture the subtle colors present, so I've put a bunch of smaller pics together to try to give a better overall impression of the birds.

The first would appear to a be a Least Flycatcher. This bird was completely silent which puts on decidedly shaky ground traditionally.
However, the bird has a very prominent eye ring, and a short bill, both good marks for Least. There is a decent amount of dark along the lower mandible; most of the eastern empids have mainly orangish lower mandibles. The bird does have a somewhat olivey back which contrasts somewhat with the color of the nape and head, another good mark for Least. It would have been nice to have heard the chip note, a soft whit call, but with the above marks, as well as the date of May 12, during the peak movement for Least and before most of the other empids have returned, is also supportive.

Next we have a longer billed bird with a much plainer less-contrasting eye ring, and much less in the way of olive tones.
This bird would certainly appear to be in the Trail's class, either a Willow or an Alder. Willow is much more widespread in Berrien, and this bird's soft whit (quite similar to Least's) call also supports that ID. Alder apparently gives a stronger pip call said to be more reminiscent of a Carolina Wren. Next time I'm close to an Alder I'll try to hear that call note.

Finally we have the Yellow-bellied from last week.
This bird (above montage and below) is intermediate between Least and the Trail's in terms of the strength of the eyering. It's evenly greenish above, with the back the same color as the crown and the nape. There's little contrast between the face and the throat.
I had to really over-expose the pic since it was pretty dark that day and some of the yellowish underparts are lost somewhat in the pics. It did, however, give its diagnostic call, a very un-empid-like weak note that the books rightly describe as almost pewee-like.

A lot has also been written about the primary projection of these birds. I had trouble getting perfect portrait level shots and am having trouble appreciating the differences in the primary projection. For an excellent online discussion of these birds, see one of Cape May's sites here.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Migration's end

It's now back to nearly a full year's wait for next year's spring (fortunately fall migration can be even more exciting here).

Here's a Wilson's in the pre-dawn at Tiscornia from a few mornings ago. I had to brighten it considerably and shoot at a max ISO given that the sun wasn't even up yet.

Here's a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, also at Tiscornia yesterday. I'll have more notes on the ID in a later post once I get together some other empid montage pics.
It was nice to get a last woodland migration bird for the year list, I should be able to get Olive-sided in the fall. Connecticut will be a lot harder though and I don't know how much effort I'll put in for it. Bay-breasted (!) should be easy. I'm at 244 for the year, the highest I've ended May with. There's at least a dozen more birds that I would really expect to find. It'll be the dozen and a half or so after that which will be harder...

Here's a Franklin's, also from yesterday. It's a 2nd calendar year/1st summer bird that will likely not be a breeder. Whether it's a migrant or a bird that will mill around Lake Michigan all summer who can say.
This one has a longer bill and a more prominent white tips to the primaries than the other two May Franklin's I've seen. Unlike the bird from 2 weeks ago, this bird has competed its primary molt. It does display the hallmark white between the black of the primaries and the gray of the upperwing though.