Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The south winds giveth ...

and the south winds taketh away.

I've tried April big days most years for the last several years and if there's one thing that's become clear it's that it's utterly pointless to attempt it if there's been North winds.  We've had South winds for the last 36 hours or so which had me more optimistic than some years.  They were a bit strong though, it was hard to hear much at night in the open areas and the strong wind during the day brought in 80 degree temps that just shut down activity by midday.

That being said, they blew in a heck of a bird to start the day off.  Rhoda and I were scanning at New Buffalo as the sun was trying to fight through the haze and I picked up a bird flying low over the water well out.  It wasn't a shape I've encountered in Michigan, initially I tried to pigeon-hold the long-narrow wings into some kind of large shorebird.  As it got closer, still flying straight at us, the head appeared much paler than the body and I started wondering if it was a Hudwit even though it really seemed that even with the odd angle that I should be getting a wingflash.  Eventually it crossed a threshold where it became clear it was a Plegadis ibis; what had seemed like a pale head was the white face head-on.  It got close enough that I was able to get ID-able photos; these are cropped though not lightened or sharpened or contrasted.
I adjusted the F-stop on the camera before the next series.
I think this is the 3rd record of White-faced Ibis for Berrien, I did see the last one, a bird that Tim found at 3 Oaks so this bird was a nice year list addition and one for the Self-found list.

There was some very dramatic lighting early in the morning, there was frequent heat lightning to the north for most of the nocturnal period.  In the morning at New Buffalo there was a large thunderhead to the north and west with the Sun trying to burn through some haze behind us.  Some TV's lifted off into the lighting, I'm going to have to work on my sunrise/sunset settings as this shot doesn't do justice to the yellow-orange backdrop.

We had a lot of the local breeders back and easier to find than most years.  Warbling Vireo, RB Grosbeak, Baltimore Oriole, Catbird, Kingbird, and several others were in multiple places.  We didn't quite get enough migrants however.  Some of the more interesting ones included Gray-cheeked Thrush (we didn't get Swainson's):
... Pine Warbler...
... and an Orange-crowned that wouldn't come out in the open, but did show his orange crown:

With the vegetation not very leafed out at all, hopefully I'll be able to get out when the first big push of migrant warblers comes through before everything is obscured again.


Friday, April 26, 2013

the easier Baird's bird

There've been a couple Sanderlings hanging around Tiscornia of late.  Today a 2nd shorebird joined one of the Sanderlings, a very similarly sized, somewhat slimmer bird with more narrow wings, as they flew in off the lake.  They circled a few times, it kind of seemed like the Sanderling was harassing the peep in the air somewhat, but they landed and tolerated each other well enough along the shoreline.  I walked down to take pics of the Baird's Sandpiper.

I don't think adult Baird's Sandpiper occurs at a different rate from adult Baird's Sandpiper in fall, but the juvenile Baird's are a lot more prone to either coming farther east or else stopping a lot more since as a species they're certainly easier in the fall.  The adults are less scaled than the juveniles, but they're still a buffier bird than the other peeps.  The scapulars extend past the tail which helps rule out the more common Semi-palmated.

The bird's slightly in front of the Sanderling, but you can tell they're similarly sized.  The size is the other thing that makes it a lot easier to eliminate Semi-palmated.

I've made a couple circuits of Floral in the last few days.  Ruby-crowned's are always fun when they show their ruby.
I feel like gnatcatchers have been a little more common than some years (though maybe it's just that a lot of stuff is delayed).
Finally a Broad-winged from earlier today.  I have some thoughts about hawk migration in Berrien and occurrence of some of the Western birds that I'm going to hold for another post.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Smiths before the rain

It was a pretty good sparrow day.  It started at Tiscornia where an odd call note drew Tim and me onto a flyover bird which he recognized pretty quickly as a lark sparrow (clicking through the view-finder no less).  I was having trouble making sense of the darkish tail with round white corners and the heavily contrasting malars setting off the breast feather tract that tapered
down to the central spot at first.  It landed distantly, too far for pics though with a digiscoping camera I might also have gotten ID-able images.  It stayed far "longer" than any prior Tiscornia Lark Sparrow; Rhoda was able to successfully "chase" the bird traveling all the way from the parking lot.

After Tim had to leave for work (can you say role-reversal) Rhoda and I did a south-county loop.  While Yellow-throated Warblers, Louisiana Waterthrush, Fish Grackles, and Wilson's Phalaropes were nice, the highlight by far was a small group of Smith's Longspurs at the expected location Tim's worked out along Buffalo.  There was a male and 2 females though I managed pics of only one of the females.

We'd have stayed longer for the male to come back but rain started up in earnest.
Earlier in the week some harriers put on a show at Tiscornia, none were adult males that day, this one I think is a first spring female based on the streaking along the breast.
Here's a montage of shorebirds from yesterday and today.
Upper left is 2 sanderling from this morning, certainly our earliest.  Upper right is Wilson's Phalarope from the Rocky Week pothole yesterday (behind the teal), lower right is another WIPH from the Buffalo Rd pond that's really overexposed and lower left is the pair of WIPH from 3 Oaks today.
Finally it isn't spring without flower pics, this is a nice clump of hepatica from Kesling.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

It doesn't feel like Louisiana

though it should get warm one of these days.

The waterthrushes that are back are mostly Louisiana.  This bird was at Warren Dunes, the first one I've had there.  The long heavy bill, broad white eyestripe especially behind the eye, as well as the warm salmon along the flanks are good clues to the identity.  This one was only chipping, it never sang.

This is a merlin from Tiscornia.  It feels like there's been a generous number there this spring; they're most common in mid-Fall.
The adults in spring are a lot paler than the young birds that predominate in fall, though this one felt like a bit of an outlier.  It's closer to the pic of the Prairie race/subspecies in Sibley than to the Boreal one.  I don't know how much variation there is however and probably won't have time to do a lot of reading about them for some time.
I think there's a couple races of Brown Creeper too, not sure how a person would separate those. 
 Not so with the Fox Sparrows, they're easy to separate (at least the Eastern form is).

 Finally a Rusty Blackbird, I think this was the first passerine spring migrant I had this year.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Pacific water treatment ponds

While the Pacific Ocean is anything but pacific, the Three Oaks Sewage ponds are generally pretty calm.  Tim found a Pacific Loon there a few days ago.  I ran down before a family obligation, spent about 10 minutes and dashed, fairly reminiscent of the White-faced Ibis of a few years ago.

The bird holds its straight bill level (Red-throats generally keep their thinner upturned bill upturned)

Pacifics have a contrastingly pale gray back of the head, a feature that can stand out at a long distance.

Not so much with the jaw stripe, you have to be fairly close to see it.

I think this is the first photographed Pacific in Berrien, though I could be mistaken about this.

The previously alluded to computer problems turned out to be a crashed motherboard, I'm experimenting here with a new computer, a new operating system, and new photo editors, I'm guessing it'll take some time to get them dialed in.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The World's Rarest Birds

With my computer thoroughly crashed I'm going to fall back on a book review.  I took advantage of Princeton Press's offer of a free review copy of one of their latest books, The World's Rarest Birds, an encyclopedic treatment of the world's endangered species.

The book has its origins in a photo contest run in Europe for rare birds that ultimately turned into this project, an attempt to depict most of the endangered birds of the world (here a cyclodes of some sort) apparently the only photo of it in existence:

The first 60 or so pages of this about 350 page near coffee-table sized book deal with the factors leading to population declines.  Most of us are familiar with these, but it deals with them in-depth and gives some interesting specific examples (including of a starling species that's impressive enough that the captive breeding facility was broken into by gunmen to steal the birds for the cagebird trade).

The remainder of the book gives index card sized vignettes (4 to a page) about many of the endangered birds of the world.  The title and the presentation imply that this is an exhaustive list.  It may well be, but the determination of what's counted as endangered obviously varies.  It ranges from birds that are almost certainly extinct through birds with populations in 6 figures like Marbled Murrelet.  Kirtland's warbler gets a mention in one general paragraph about North American birds, but doesn't get the full vignette treatment that about 600 other birds receive; I found this surprising.

The book does lay out the reasoning behind not declaring birds like Ivory-billed Woodpecker or Eskimo Curlew extinct;  I'm not sure that I totally agree with it, but the book does at least use the past tense in its treatment of many of these.

There are many impressive photos in the book, but I think that the impressiveness of many of them is based on their rarity.  In a book of nothing but really rare birds this effect somewhat wears off.  There's definitely a depressing aspect to this book; for many of us birding is a huge escape, reading about birds that are dying out (and there's clearly many many species that are), is somewhat sobering.  I think that would have been helped somewhat by putting in some highlights of recovery programs that have worked as sidebar-type articles.  It's also hard to put a lot of the birds in context.  Just opening the book at random, I find vignettes about Apalis's, wood-hens, bushbirds, warbling-finches, crombecs; I've never heard of any of these.  In some ways it's hard to get that emotionally invested in birds I've never heard of.  That problem is probably one of the main goals of this book.  If people are more aware of specific birds, or habitats that need protection then money will more likely be able to be raised.

At between $28 and $45 depending on the source, this is not a super-expensive book.  I read a Steve Howell editorial once about birders' unwillingness to buy a book that they can review over and over when there's not a big difference between that number and a trip with the family to a restaurant that people wouldn't think twice about, and tend to agree with him.  This is a worthwhile book to own and certainly has a ton of information in it.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

New Tiscornia record

Yesterday morning I walked out on the pier after a very good night of migration on the radar just as it was starting to sprinkle.  There were a few passerines filtering down the pier, some juncos and a phoebe when I noticed the gulls at the end swirling about in attack mode.  I assumed they'd corraled some hapless songbird when I noticed the blunt-winged batting flight of an owl pop out in silhouette.  I got my bins on the bird for a second before it ducked back behind the red lighthouse.  This is what I expected to see (file photo from a few years ago):
Short-eared is by far the most common owl at Tiscornia (and the only one a person would expect to see over the course of the year there).  It's actually the only owl I've ever seen there, though Snowy is a bird that I would have predicted I'd have had by now.  I noticed in the brief glimpse that the bird seemed darker than average and thought it must be a female, since the females have more buffy beneath than the whiter males.

I drew the camera and waited for the bird to pop out.  It was hard to focus since I'm not used to birds flying towards me.  100 yards, just blur.  75 yards, just blur.  50 yards, briefly pseudo-focused (boy it seems dark).  25 yards:
Uhhh, not a Short-eared.  The Long-eared tried to land on the ironwork for about half a second (channeling its inner frigatebird) then looped past me.
I bet there's not many pics of Long-eared's flying over water.  It landed, this time on the pier for about 5 seconds, and then continued inland, escorted by the gulls.
I ran down the pier hoping to see where it would duck in.  I think it must have briefly landed in the dune grass because I ended up beating it back to the parking lot, with the bird re-appearing over the restrooms and then hooking north.  I lost it behind the dune.

I walked back out to make sure there weren't any passerines sheltered behind the lighthouse but the rain was going in earnest and I didn't spend long with the ducks before I left.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Early spring waterfowl

It may be April but it's still cold out.  The Long-tailed Ducks continue to hang around the pier, contrary to what I wrote a week ago, the males do come in sometimes.
It was pretty windy and the bird was getting tossed about in the chop as evidenced by the splashes made by the wave cresting beneath it.

March generally means wild goose chases.  I was gone the weekend Whitefronts were in the county, but did have a Ross's Goose at 3 Oaks.
The extra pixels on the 7D makes it easier to document the straight bill base at longer distances.
Here's a size comparison with the Canadas when they flushed off the berm in front of me before I noticed them (in my own defense they were hunkered down pretty low trying to stay out of the wind).

People chasing the Barnacle Goose before its pinioning was proven found this Trumpeter Swan, also at 3 Oaks.
I've always had trouble appreciating the difference Sibley shows with the cheek pattern; I think the average Trumpeter has more curve down than he shows.  The pointed forehead pattern is easier to see (of course the lack of a yellow dot, long sloped bill, and salmon edge to the lower mandible is also usually easier to see).

This is the Lemon Creek Blue Goose, I think this bird has wintered in that area for at least a few years.  I saw at least one other Blue Geese at LMC this spring. You can get a sense of the difference in head and bill shape from the Ross's.
Finally a hen Wood Duck that swam out from the edge of the ditch along Avery and posed reasonably cooperatively.
The male swam out too but he never turned broadside.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

now to runty cranes

A couple weeks ago I had a flock of cranes land in front of me at the Rocky Weed pothole.  I'd never noticed variable they are in spring (maybe fall too? I've never gone to one of the migration roosts).

I'm not sure how much this is a matter of age and how much it's geographic.  Sibley summarizes variation in this species with Greater (southern) and Lesser (northern) Sandhills with intermediate populations as well.  Even the southern cranes extend to Canada for their breeding.  Pyle and the Nat Geo allude to about 4 or 5 subspecies.  The Lessers have a lot more dark in the wings.

One of the birds was noticeably smaller and darker.
I think it can be called a first spring bird based on how dull the forehead skin is.  It's way behind in its moult with its bustle reduced to pin feathers and the wing coverts well worn.  I think the much smaller bill would make it a Lesser Sandhill.

The birds took flight after a few minutes though.