Sunday, December 28, 2008

Foggy and warm, a strange Rockwood Christmas Bird count, 12/27/08

Even as I walked out the door at 5:00 am for owling, my neighborhood streets were shrouded in a deep fog. It was warm - 40 degrees F or so. The warm air met with the cold snow on the ground and the mists swirled around as if being created for a scary movie. Such a stark change from the Ann Arbor CBC a week earlier. Even though I could not really see - I drove right past a couple of my good owling spots - I tried for an hour and a half calling in only two screech owls. To reach my favorite owling spot, I drove along a road that was a solid sheet of ice. The ice didn't concern me as much as the flooded creek and drainage ditches on either side of the road. I thought, "oh no, this isn't good." To make it even worse, the two little screech owls that I usually find here did not make an appearance.

My first daylight stop was in a woods behind a pentacostal church on Huron River Drive in Flat Rock. Stepping out of the car, I could relax (driving along the foggy roads in the dark was not relaxing) and was struck by the beauty of this grey, misty morning. Here I also found some very nice birds: Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Hermit Thrush and Brown Creepers along with good numbers of the expected decidious woodland species. I always check the tangles for Saw-whet Owl, but none was present for me again this year.

It remained foggy all morning. There were areas where it lifted, but mostly it was impossible to scan the fields for hunting or soaring raptors. This is a count where I always hope to find Rough-legged Hawk, but if one was around this year, it would have been nearly impossible to find. And as with my owling road above, several of my road surfaces were wet ice with fast moving water running through the flooded drainage ditches.

As I wrote about our search for American Kestrel during the Clinton CBC, fortunately there was no shortage of kestrels in my Rockwood territory. I found five and the one below posed for this cropped photo. He was close and not flighty, but he's still difficult to see with the gray sky for his backdrop.

I ended the day with 34 species counted which included some very good birds. A Peregrine Falcon was hunting around a woods near Dixie Highway and Brandon Road. The Hermit Thrush, two Eastern Towhees and single Turkey Vulture turn out not to have been found by any of the other counters. I heard from the count compiler, Tom Carpenter, this morning. So far, with two areas still needing to be reported, the Rockwood CBC tallied 94 species so far.

Next year, however, I will hope for better birding weather.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Cold and snowy Ann Arbor Christmas Bird Count, 12/20/08

Even though it had snowed 10 inches the day before, some wild and crazy sense of history and commitment made me set my alarm for 3:30 am on Saturday morning, 12/20/08.  I was out the door at 4:00 am and driving 45 miles to area 4 of the AA CBC circle.  Crazy!  I arrived at my owling spot at about 5:15 am and began calling for Screech Owls.  My first response did not come until about 5:45 am and, by this time, my toes were already frozen.  Finally, around 6:15 am, I stopped at one of my previously successful spots and heard two Screech and two Great Horned.  Total owl count:  four Screech and two Great Horned owls.  So began the 2008 AA CBC for me.  All things considered, not bad.  The road in the photo above is an example of a good road.  I got stuck on 5 Mile Road, my best small bird road, for about an hour.  In that hour, while my bins were in the car, I missed a positive ID of five White-winged Crossbills flying into a pine top heavy with cones.  My best bird for the day was a Fox Sparrow on Nollar Road.  Tim McKay and his team also found four White-crowned Sparrows for area 4.
Every year the best part of this CBC for me is getting to see and count with my area teammates:  Tim McKay and his van load doing the southern triangle and Dana Novak and Randy Messing doing the middle triangle.  This year Dana and Randy were joined by their seven month old twins, Henry and Oliver.

Count compiler and area 2 leader, Jacco Gelderloos, is in his second year of compiling this 62 year old Ann Arbor birding tradition.  Dea Armstrong (foreground), leader for area 1, has a long history of finding many good CBC birds.  This year an AA CBC first record Pileated Woodpecker was found in area 1.
The tally always starts with feeding hungry birders who have been in the field all day.

Every Ann Arbor CBC tally requires a polite pause while we listen to Mike Kielb expound on the count's American Crow population.  This year was no different.  "They flew in from the southeast and then from the northwest ... "

Now there's a picture!  That's Tim McKay with Henry Novak-Messing and Jordan McKay.  So ended the 2008 Ann Arbor Christmas Bird Count.  Next year I hope to have photographs of Oliver Novak-Messing at his second CBC tally.  Until we meet again in 2009. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Clinton Christmas Bird Count, Sunday, 12/14/08, the first of four in the 2008-2009 CBC season

The best two Christmas Bird Count counters one could ever have the good fortune to spend the day with are shown in the photograph above - Harold Eyster, age 15 and his sister, Artemis, age 12. Quick eyes, great identification skills and enthusiasm are what they brought to this CBC for me and our other great counter, Don Chalfant. I've birded with Harold and Artemis many times, but this was our first CBC together.

It was not a great count day weather wise. Wind, spitting rain and icy roads pestered us for most of the day. But we got the job done well.

Toward the end of the day, when we had good numbers of American Crows, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Black-capped Chickadees, American Tree Sparrows amongst others already tallied, we began to search our list for birds we should have seen but up until that moment had not. One of these was American Kestrel. We were driving along when Artemis called out a single bird perched on a distant wire. Single bird on a wire is not the typical pattern for Mourning Doves or European Starlings this time of year. As we had already driven past the bird, we had a brief debate about whether to back up (on an icy road) to make the identification. Everyone responded favorably to checking the bird and I put the car in reverse. The bird was still on the wire - it was a Mourning Dove. A brief discussion followed about the importance of checking all suspect birds, especially when trying to fill in the blanks for species still absent from the count.

We drove on a bit further, may have even made a stop or two in between to count mixed feeding flocks, when Artemis called out again, "hovering bird in the field to the right." There was no mistake about this ID. A kestrel was working the field, skillfully performing its fantastic hovering maneuvers. Artemis has spotted this bird from the back seat looking through a dirty, tinted window. We added our only kestrel of the day to the tally sheet.

It's difficult to tell from the above photograph, but our last species added and last birds counted for the day, was this field of Snow Buntings. A very active flock, they would lap the field a few times and then land briefly for some pecking in the snow and mud. For as long as we watched, they repeated this activity so typical of Snow Buntings. Sometimes they landed very close to the car and Harold and Artemis were able to do some quick sketching. The extra benefit is that Snow Bunting was a life bird for Artemis.

I include the photo above, Snow Bunting on a sandy beach, taken by Harold [Eyster as above] in October during our Whitefish Point (Chippewa County, upper peninsula of Michigan) field trip, so you can see how beautiful Snow Buntings are.  The bunting above was a life bird for Harold and as he was photographing it nearly walked over his shoes.  

The count day finally over, our last stop was at Big Boy's on M-52 in Chelsea to feed some hungry young birders, check photos and complete our tally sheet. Forty species were found and over 1800 individual birds were counted this day. The best birds [always an arguable point] were probably eleven Turkey Vultures, two Rough-legged Hawks, one American Kestrel, two Screech Owls, one daytime Great Horned Owl, one Hermit Thrush and four Pine Siskens. As is true with any CBC count, we undoubtedly missed a couple of species, but anyone familiar with Michigan CBCs would agree that we had a pretty great day.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Seattle, Washington

Last week I was in Seattle, Washington for a conference held at the Washington Convention Center on Pike Street. The conference was very good, but Seattle was impressive. Busy, active, alive and clean are descriptors that come to mind quickly. No matter the age or gender of a person, it's a jeans and hiking shoes city. My kind of place.
On Saturday morning I took the ferry from Seattle to Bremerton and back to do some Puget Sound birding. I was not disappointed. Life birds for me were Pelagic Cormorant, Pigeon Guillemot, Glaucous-winged Gull and Common Murre. You might ask how I identified the Pelagic Cormorant from the larger Brandt Cormorant which was also present. That's how - size. Even with body half underwater, the Pelagic Cormorant appears a similar size to Herring Gull. They were often floating in the water together or perched together on a piece of debris. There were probably other life birds, e.g. Black-legged Kittiwakes, which I am sure I saw flying by (right size, fast flying and different flight style) but did not see field marks to count. There were also small. floating alcids which I could not get enough on to make an identification.
Pigeon Guillemots were common and beautiful. I should have cropped the above photo before posting it here, but this is how they are seen on the water. Little birds surrounded by lots of water.
A pleasant surprise were the Glaucous-winged Gulls. A flock of four and often more chose to accompany the ferry all the way across the sound and then made the return trip too. In the full quality version of the photo below you can actually see the bird's "toenails." I am quite certain I've never gotten a shot of a gulls toenails before (see earlier post If at first you don't succeed, keep trying.)
I stayed at the Red Lion Hotel on 5th Street between Union and Pike streets. I would recommend this hotel both for cost and for comfort of the accommodations. Also, there was a very nice pub, The Elephant and Castle, on the lower level that served a very good, locally brewed porter. What do I know about porter? Nothing, except that it was good.
Seattle is not an inexpensive city, but it seemed wonderfully livable. Now I need to find a conference in Portland, Oregon to attend!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

If at first you don't succeed, keep trying

November 12th through the 15th I went to Seattle, Washington for a conference. During down time I took the #11 bus to the intersection of Madison St. and Lake Washington Blvd. to visit Washington Botanical Gardens for some birding. Despite diligent searching I did not see one life bird, or even an annual bird, here. I did find many flocks of chickadees, kinglets, and bushtits. Bushtits are tiny, flitting little birds. One bushtit flock was feeding in a low bush just along the path. My camera is not great for taking photos of fast moving birds (or even slow moving birds,) and to make matters worse, I'm not great at bird photography. But, I keep trying. I got out my camera and started shooting. I took many photos, and not just those shown above. I deleted three times as many showing only blurry branches and leaves. Believe it or not, at least there's a bird in each of the three photos above. Can you find the bird?

But, to my surprise and happiness, when I downloaded the photos to my computer, the little guy below was amongst them. I think this is quite possibly one of the best bird photographs I have ever taken. I have absolutely no idea how I got this shot. Pure luck. Because my photos are generally not great, I don't even bother to look at them until after downloading them. Then I'm deleting more than I'm keeping. I have cropped this shot to make the bird bigger and easier to see in this blog. But the original image, though smaller, looks just as nice.

Some good bird photographers are probably looking at this little bird and wondering, "what's so great about that?" My response - "you try photographing a Bushtit.

Addition to this original post made on June 29, 2011:

Keith Saylor, from Michigan, posted this charming video on the Michigan birders listserve.  Completely captivating.  I've linked here to keep for occasional viewing.

Bushtit young leaving nest

Thanks, Keith

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Into the Woods at Whitefish Point ...

This past weekend, October 3rd through 5th, I organized a group of nine other birders for a trip to Whitefish Point in Michigan's upper peninsula. We also took a late afternoon trip to Tahquamenon Falls State Park (photo of the Upper Falls above) for dinner (except Winter Wren we did not see any birds of note.) Our trip was very successful with Long-eared Owl, Parasitic Jaeger, Black-backed Woodpecker, American Golden Plover, Spruce Grouse and others being seen well by everyone. There is something very special about Whitefish Point; the remoteness, wildness, light, woods, water and sand make this place possibly my favorite in Michigan.

Wild blueberries (Vaccinium sp.) were everywhere we went. Every so often we would lose a birder or two only to find them hunched over a bush dripping with plump blueberries. This photo does not really show their abundance, but of the photos I took I liked it best for the color.

Two species of butterflies were seen; Cabbage White and this Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) was one of three. I thought seeing three Painted Ladies this far north at the beginning of October was impressive.

Spruce Grouse (Dendragapus canadensis) is a much sought after bird in the upper peninsula. Down Vermillion Road we flushed up approximately eight. Spruce Grouse can be quite calm and tame. Photographs like this one are often possible. There is nothing special about my camera; this is just a very cooperative bird. All ten of us savored the experience of seeing this bird (a life bird for six in the group.) For me, it's a life bird every time I see it.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Starting a blog ...

This past weekend I did two things related to this blog. First I started it. Then I realized that I did not have a thing to write for my first post. So I went birding particularly to look for sparrows, but I always look at anything that flits or flies. More about this in a moment. I'd been thinking of starting a blog for sometime now. I've been influenced by the great blogs that friends keep; especially Julie Craves who manages to keep three going at the same time. I should have paused when I had to select a name for my blog. I hadn't given it any thought, so on the spur of the moment I came up with Into the Woods and Elsewhere. I knew that I wanted to write about my birding adventures, but what if I write about birding in the desert, or about the latest book I read or movie I see or about the current presidential campaign (god forbid that one more person should write about this) that we are all being subjected to ... etc., - this is the Elsewhere. Hopefully, I chose my blog title well but if you ever start a blog, I suggest giving the name a little prior thought. So, what do I have to write that isn't being written on the millions of blogs that are already out there. Perhaps a million blogs are being started right now, even as I write this. I mean, after all, what do I know? Well, perhaps nothing; but on a day when I'm not out birding or after I've read a great New Yorker essay or whatever ... I might like to write a bit. I mean we all know a little something - even about presidential politics. Right?

So the second thing I did was to go birding on Saturday and I took this grainy little Swamp Sparrow photo while out. I drove to Crosswinds Marsh in southwest Wayne County and I achieved two things with this outing. I did find a few sparrows, Song, Chipping, Swamp and ... possibly a Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow. There was not much else of note but the possible Nelson's was a big distraction. In the end, since I've never seen a Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow, I decided not to do anything with my sighting. I saw the bird very briefly, but pretty well, three times - twice on the ground and once in profile perched on a branch in the middle of a bush. A Swamp Sparrow tusseled with it and it tusseled back, but then the Swamp flew off and the possible Nelson's remained for my three brief sightings. Then it was gone and despite twenty minutes of extra searching for a better view and possible photo, I gave up. I won't count the bird. I only count birds that I see well and when their identification is certain.

Early on Sunday morning I checked my email and there was a post to from Caleb Putnam reporting that Tim Baerwald had found at least three Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrows in a wet Berrien County field on Saturday.  Ces't la vie.