Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas bird counts: yesterday the Rockwood CBC

Yesterday I finished three of the four annual Christmas bird counts I participate in. I always do the early wake-up for owling - for me, only Eastern Screech and Great Horned are located. I have never been able to contribute the more uncommon species like Saw-whet, Long-eared or Short-eared - despite looking each year and each count. I counted my annual territory of the Rockwood CBC yesterday. However, it was the first morning when I remained in bed and guiltily skipped the owling.

All of the counts I participate in are driving counts - trolling for birds, large and small, while driving slowly along a [usually] rural road. While I understand the need for driving while birding - it's not my favorite way to find birds. At least when I am walking, I'm also getting some exercise, even when there are no birds to count.

The Rockwood count is my favorite of all of the counts I do. Despite being driver, sighter and recorder - the habitat I cover seems to offer the greatest number of possibilities. There are areas to get out of the car and do some brief walking. The rest is as I describe above. The good thing is that most of the roads are lightly travelled and it is easy to pull over to allow the scant traffic to pass. Needless to say, it is easy to miss birds when counting this way.

Yesterday, was probably the quietest Rockwood CBC I have ever participated in. I found only 32 species overall and it took me until after 12 noon to find my one and only Red-tailed Hawk. This is the lowest species count, by far, that I have ever had for this count.

(Click on each photo for a larger image.)

Bald Eagle is a bird I have only seen on one other occasion for the Rockwood count, even though other areas within the count circle often have many. I watched this adult Bald Eagle fly into an area with a frozen farm pond and land in a tree directly opposite my car.

It is not visible in the first photo, but when the bird is looking to the left it seems to have a large smudge dirtying its beautiful white feathers. Alternatively, this may be the wind blowing the feathers aside to reveal downy underfeathers or, more likely, just creating a shadow effect. There was certainly a moderate wind blowing yesterday.

Contrast finding only one Red-tailed Hawk, a common winter raptor in Michigan, with finding eleven American Kestrels. I believe that eleven is the highest number of kestrel that I have ever seen for this count. Michigan winters are quite severe and most kestrels will migrate south. In wintertime south Texas, for example, there is a kestrel perched on a utility wire every few hundred feet along almost any road. It appears that this winter, many have decided to stick it out and brave the elements until spring.

Here is another photo of the same bird with its head turned slightly more. This was the only kestrel that remained close enouth to allow a photo with my distance challenged camera. It's hard for me to commit to naming a favorite bird, but American Kestrel is certainly one of my favorites - completely charming and beautiful.

Of the three Christmas counts I have completed thus far, the above birds are the only ones I have been able to photograph. One more to go, the Detroit River Count on New Year's Day, and that will complete the 2009 CBC season for me.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Can you spell Phain ... o ... pep ... la?

Saturday in the Niagara Falls area was windy and so also very cold. It's not that the temperature was that cold, just that the wind was blowing all day long. We saw all the birds that we typically see, but in dramatically reduced numbers.

The wind whipped off the Niagara River

This pleasant suburban house had a front lawn of congregating Wild Turkeys - at least 20 birds. Good thing Thanksgiving in Canada is not celebrated on November 28th!

We traveled the Ontario side of the Niagara region throughout the day. We saw California Gull so distant that it was actually on the New York side of the Niagara River. How did I know it was a California Gull? I took everyone else's word for the identification of this bird scoped from the Ontario side of the river.

We saw a Nelson's Gull (Glaucous x Herring hybrid - my first - I'm terrible at hybrids) at the Sir Adam Beck power plant. I came across Kirk Zufelt's blog Larusology. Scroll down to his 11/22/09 post where he discusses Nelson's Gull in detail and has some great photos to support his discussion. Other good birds at Sir Adam Beck were Thayer's and Iceland gulls. If one can have a favorite gull, I think mine is Iceland.

We finished out the day with a Northern Mockingbird seen from the parking lot of ... wait for it ... Tim Horton's. For us Michiganders, the Mockingbird is pretty special. I, for one, would be thrilled if one set up residence in my backyard. In this area of Ontario, with all of its orchards and vineyards, the Mockingbird is a pretty common bird. We returned to the hotel chilled to the bone.

Not a great photo of the Northern Mockingbird

Sunday morning arrived still and quiet. When we left the hotel for our breakfast at the Flying Saucer Restaurant (where we had all of our meals - fun place with a large diner menu) not a leaf stirred on a tree. This made for great Sunday birding conditions that did not disappoint us throughout a great day of birding.

Sir Adam Beck and Niagara-on-the-Lake did not have much new for us to find. We moved on to Lake Ontario. It's hard to describe Lake Ontario this time of year - waterfowl as far as the eye can see might be a start.

This tiny, cropped photo is like looking at the blades of grass on an inch of football field. Only on Lake Ontario the blades of grass are individual waterfowl as far as the eye can see.

Long-tailed Duck, Common Goldeneye, Redhead, all three scoters, Red-breasted Merg, scaup and others were seen well by everyone. And, I'm probably omitting other species.

Female Long-tailed Duck ...

... and her dashing male counterpart.

This White-winged Scoter (white wing patch well seen when the bird is flying) came very close as it dove for, we think, zebra mussels.

Going ...

... going

... gone.

(You can click on all of the photos for a larger image.)

We reluctantly left Lake Ontario and all of the close waterfowl on a lake smooth as glass. We had other birds to see.

First we stopped at the traditional Sunday lunch stop.

Hutch's Fish and Chips - a historic and famous greasy spoon on Lake Ontario. There's a Ring-billed Gull roosting on the chef's hat.

As much as I like the Flying Saucer, this is my favorite meal stop on the trip. I love old-timey places and this is such a place - essentially unchanged from the 1950's. It has old-fashioned booths and a black and white tiled floor. Old newpaper articles of decades ago local sports achievements are framed and hang - often crooked - on the walls of the restaurant. Each booth has a juke box with songs from the 50's, 60's and 70's. Large windows face the beach and lake. Instead of ketchup for fries, each table has bottles of vinegar. And, even in the off season, it has a good crowd of leisurely diners. Perfect!

Next stop - the rural Niagara escarpment for a crowd-pleasing majestic (queenly?) bird.

This beautiful, nearly all white - so perhaps adult female bird - posed for us all from an antenna on a house as we rushed around taking photos and talking with the homeowner who did not know he had a Snowy Owl on top of his house. He took photos with his cell phone - definitely not a birder, even he knew his visitor was special.

We stayed with the Snowy Owl as long as we could - no one really wanted to leave - but, we had another special bird to find.

Flashback to my southeast Arizona trip in April, 2007 with my Maryland birding friends Steve and Mark. Early on I took on the job of recording each day's bird sightings - as it turned out a fairly important job because the trip was so birdy. On our first full day of birding, we were in a weedy field adjacent to a rest stop trying to chase down (successfully) a Cassin's Vireo when a dark bird flashing white wing patches flew out of the scrub. Hey! What was that? When I was doing my research for the Arizona trip, focusing on western flycatchers, vireos, warblers, sparrows, orioles, etc., it was easy for me to overlook our one silky-flycatcher. As it turned out we saw a few at various locations throughout the trip. Each time I wrote out the list I asked, "how do you spell that bird's name again?" After awhile I settled on an abbreviation.

This first year male Phainopepla has been in a modest, suburban neighborhood of Brampton, Ontario for approximately two weeks where he has become quite a celebrity.

Apparently, he has been given two names - Mr. P by birders who have come to see him, and Jerry by the neighborhood residents. Everyone knows of him and if you come looking for him at the wrong house, you will be given the most recent advice about his current whereabouts. He kept us waiting for a brief time, but we finally saw him at 12 Aberdeen Crescent. When he did reappear, he stayed for a good long time and for numerous photos. We also heard his charming and clearly whistled wurp call.

You can just see the Phainopepla hiding in the red leaves ready to pluck a berry.

While photographing the Phainopepla I saw a leaf (top center of the above photo) on the ground. I thought it was extremely attractive and odd and I began to look for more. Some of the red leaves had the golden markings, but others did not. I have no idea what causes this, but it is different, unexpected and attractive.

Again, flashing back to my southeast Arizona trip, another bird name I never learned to spell properly during my list keeping was Pyrrhuloxia. I still cannot spell this, but at least I've learned to spell Phainopepla.

From the Phainopepla it was a mad dash home - most of it made in messy rain which I think makes the most difficult driving conditions. Karl and Alan are impressive power drivers. I've done my share of long-distance driving so know how difficult it is. I'm grateful for their willingness to offer and lead this great trip.

As I wrote about my weekend trip to the eastern shore of Maryland in the beginning of November, Ontario Niagara Falls is a great place to visit in the off season and I would recommend it to anyone - birder or not.

2-15-2010 addendum to the Phainopepla story -

Approximately two weeks after we saw this bird, the weather became bitterly cold - I think the coldest temps thus far of this 2009-2010 winter season. It also snowed. Dian Bogie, the Ontario birder who had been providing daily Ontbird updates about the bird, sent a message that she had not seen the bird and feared that he has succumbed to the weather. I almost wrote my addendum to this blog entry then, but kept forgetting to do so.

On 2-14-10, Ms. Bogie sent a completely unexpected post to Ontbirds titled simple, "Mr. P." Apparently, the bird had been relocated following the bitterly cold weather and was watched all the way through 02-08-2010. It was not seen daily and was sometimes absent for several days in a row. It seems that on 02-09-2010, Ms. Bogie and her husband actually saw the bird fall into the snow from a low perch in its favorite mulitflora rose bush. They picked the bird up and took it to a songbird rehabilitation organization called SOAR, where the bird is thriving.

Whatever one may think of bird rehabilitation centers - their mission can be controversial - I was rather happy to hear this story and know that the bird is still alive and well.

2-17-2010 addendum to the Phainopepla story -

Dian Bogie has just posted to Ontbirds that Mr. P. has expired. After so much hope just two days earlier, alas this is a sad event.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Detroit to Niagara

This morning, along with seven other birders, we set off from Farmington Hills to drive to Niagara and bird along the way on Karl Overman's and Alan Wormington's annual gull trip to Niagara Falls, Ontario. This year there were reports of good birds to stop and see along the way - a Black-tailed Gull in Port Stanley and a Brant in Port Burwell just a little further east along the road.

Unfortunately, there was no Black-tailed Gull to be found by us, or many other birders out looking for it this afternoon. Incredibly it would have been a life bird for everyone present. Although it could easily have been amongst this large group of gulls feeding in the rough water just beyond the breakwall. But, it would have been difficult to find flying along the gray, rough water and at quite a distance. We did find three adult Little Gulls but these were quite easy to see with their dark underwings flashing against the gray surf.

From here it was on to Port Burwell to try for the Brant which had been hanging around for about a week. We saw the juvenile Brant feeding along the grass, all by itself, and it allowed really close photos. I had not seen a Brant in years, so I was very happy to see this bird.

The bird appears goose-size large in this photo, but it was actually quite a lot smaller.

Exercising its wing

Although the Black-tailed Gull was first found at Port Burwell, it was not here for us. There was a smattering of Ring-billed and Herring gulls on the beach, but mostly the only other bird lining the shore were Canada Geese.

From Port Burwell we made our way up the Lake Erie coast stopping at two or three more little ports towns - Port Rowan when the sun came out and Port Dover are two names I recall.

You won't see any ducks in the photo above of Port Rowan, but the water held Wigeon, Gadwall, Redheads and others by the, depending on species, hundreds (Wigeon) and thousands (Redhead).

Continuing on to Niagara we drove through rural farm fields nearly the whole way. The Sandhill Cranes above were part of a group of ten. Here these two are looking back in a twin pose. Later on we came across a group of approximately 50 and shortly thereafter another group of about 200. All were very near a large marsh that runs along Lake Erie.

We arrived in Niagara around 7:00 pm and set off for dinner at the Flying Saucer, a great little diner on Lundy Street, to end a great day.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The road not taken

Yesterday we had some birding excitement in Michigan. An Ancient Murrulet (Synthliboramphus antiquus - now there's a name) was found by Tim Baerwald in Lake Michigan at Tiscornia Beach in St. Joseph. This is in the southwest corner of the state. Secondary to having needed appointments that I had made long in advance and multiple errands that I had put off until this day, I knew I could not go to see this bird. I knew many who were going and were lucky enough to see the bird and, it seems, quite close, too. See Matt Hysell's blog, Birding Berrien and Beyond titled November Rocks, dated November 14th - (found to the right in my blog list.)

But I had nothing in particular planned for Sunday. I could go on Sunday. The observations made by Matt seemed to suggest that the bird would stay in the area. It apparently had been seen on days just prior by local fishermen and there was plenty of food for it. This would be a life bird for me and it would be an exciting bird to see in Michigan.

Flash back to November, 2008 when I attended a conference in Seattle and went on a poor birder's pelagic by taking the ferry from Seattle to Bremerton. I arrived early and stood outside to watch for birds before the ferry departed. I had only my binoculars. I saw a small, black murrulet-like or auklet-like bird floating along and occasionally diving, but too far out to have any hopes of making an identification. At the time, I remember thinking, "is this my life Ancient Murrulet?" In the end, I had to let it go as unidentified.

I googled the directions for Tiscornia Park on google maps and learned that it is a 169 mile drive. The distance gave me cold feet, but I could get an early start and the miles would tick away driving along westbound I-94. I went to bed still undecided about whether or not to make the trip to see this bird. It was a long drive and would take the whole day and, most importantly, would the bird still be there. I slept poorly, I'm sure because of the open-ended decision still hovering in my brain, and because of this did not wake until 8:30 am - a very late sleeping time for me. So, this morning my decision was finally made, quite easily, and I did not go. A review of the birding listserves this evening revealed that the bird had not been seen today.

Instead I went elsewhere and found this little guy - a rewarding and beautiful consolation.

Cropped for close-up - the bird's facial disk feathers are beautiful.

My final photo of the day was of this handsome Redhead which swam away at my approach despite how stealthy I was trying to be.

In the past several months, especially following my trip out west, I have had an awareness that the focus of my birding should change in order for me to continue to enjoy it as much as I have in preceding years. I think this Ancient Murrulet experience has been an important one for me.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

November butterfly

This morning while waiting for the furnace maintenance man to come I used the fine weather to rake leaves in my backyard. I was surprised to see a Cabbage White land on a low spruce in my backyard and spread its wings in the sun.

It's rare that I see a Cabbage White with its wings spread.

Later I was returning from Ann Arbor after having my hair cut. I stopped at Vreeland and Gottfredson Roads to look for Lapland Longspurs. I saw a large flock too far out in the large field to do anything about it. In the field opposite some rows of corn remained and someone was hunting from or within the rows. I heard a couple of gun shots but didn't think too much about it. While I tried to scan for birds that might be closer, I heard a gunshot ring out and the shot, though I didn't see anything, went sailing over or by my head. I quickly returned to my car and high-tailed it out of there. Clearly someone with a gun was not a very good shot.

Driving east on Geddes Road there was a Red-tailed Hawk running after something in a field. It pounced. I pulled over to the side and switched on my emergency blinkers.

This is a very poor shot, cropped way down. It seems to me that the bird has something in its beak.

Even though I was quite far away, apparently I was too close for comfort for this Red-tailed Hawk because it took off. This banking photo is also cropped way down, but I still like it for the visibility of the bold, red tail.

When I returned home I received a phone call from my friend, Colleen, in Ocean City, Maryland. Ocean City, along with most of the east coast from North Carolina to New Jersey, was hit by a huge nor'easter in the past two days. Today was the first day she was able to get on the beach for some shell hunting. Apparently there were plenty of others on the beach who had the same idea. She still came away with quite a haul of whelk shells.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Maryland, my Maryland

This past weekend started last Wednesday evening for me. I flew to Baltimore for a long weekend visiting friends and, with such fine weather, also did a bit of birding.

My first stop was on Thursday morning at Herring Run, a Baltimore City park. Herring Run is very dear to me because I have spent so much time here walking my dog, Ky, and birding - May counts, atlassing and just birding for fun. When Ky was alive I never went without her. Many also know that she was my best birding companion.

This is the path from the parking lot where, if I used my imagination, I could imagine Ky running along ahead of me again. As it happens, I ran into one of the frequent dog walkers on this day with her three dogs. She remembered me and we stopped to talk a bit. She asked about Ky.

Northern Mockingbird ...

... is certainly not a bird that we see routinely in Michigan. It's kind of special when we do find one or two, especially for a CBC. In Baltimore, however, this bird is found in every park and every suitable backyard thoughout the city. Of course, all this mockingbird is interested in are the plump, red berries.

Poor photo, unfortunately, of a Carolina Wren - (for a good photo, see Jerry Jourdan's blog entry Secondary call notes, 11-07-09.)

Carolina Wren is certainly more common than Northern Mockingbird in Michigan. Again, however, their teakettle, teakettle, teakettle song and alternate songs ring out from every suitable habitat in Baltimore.

The whole time I lived in Baltimore and walked or birded at Herring Run, this garage storage building was graffeti-covered white and green. They've since spruced it up a bit.

Gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), as opposed to Fox Squirrels, are the park and backyard squirrels in Baltimore. Their antics are the same, but they are a little smaller and, I think, a little cuter than our Fox Squirrels.

Another building (housing always locked bathrooms) near the parking lot that was always run down and covered with graffeti has received a spruce-up with a charming mural of outdoor life and activity. Of course, the state bird and namesake of the local baseball team must be represented.

This is as close as I came to finding a Baltimore Oriole, but they can be found this time of year especially on the eastern shore and in southern Maryland.

Next stop: Ocean City. Departed Friday night and spent all day Saturday there leaving after dinner. Whirlwind trip, but well worth it. Typically the birding in November can be terrific in Ocean City and surrounding areas in Worcester County.

A small, but intact, horseshoe crab shell found on the beach.

I found myself feeling sorry for this fresh Monarch butterfly fighting a stiff wind as it migrated south. Here it is resting on a picket fence post that surrounded a boardwalk property. I observed nothing that it could nectar on. Later I saw a fresh Red Admiral flying too high overhead to photograph. (Back in Baltimore City on Sunday morning I also saw a fresh Question Mark and one of the blues.

The famous boardwalk of Ocean City.

In some instances I would love to be a time traveler. Ocean City is completely built up with large, hyper-modern, high-rise hotels and condos. But intermingled with these frankly not very attractive buildings are completely charming older buildings - hotels, apartments, boarding houses, etc. that remain from the 30's, 40's and 50's when Ocean City must have been spectacular. It still is spectacular on a warm, sunny day in the off season when there are very few people. This was the case for my visit on Saturday. I would recommend Ocean City to any visitor in the off season.

Nest stop!

Wild ponies of Assateague
Finally on to Assateague Island where the wild ponies are found just about anywhere. Here they are grazing on a grassy area of one of the parking lots. They are completely wild, but as you can see in the above photo, these ponies were oblivious to people. There are signs warning not to pet, feed or otherwise go near the wild ponies. But, in the summertime there are just so many people here that they must become inured to humans.

I think that if I had not stepped aside, this pony would have just brushed me aside on her way to join the grazers above.

Ring-billed Gull
I've been corrected on the identification of the above bird by Matt Hysell (see Birding Berrien and Beyond - to the right in my blog list.) Originally I wrote: another bird we can see in Michigan, but not often and not this time of year. This winter plumaged Laughing Gull flew over the parking lot as I was photographing the horses. If it was a winter plumage Laughing Gull, the trailing edge of the underside of the wing would have been darker and would have blended into darker primary tips. On my bird, the dark tips are not blended, and the white spot on the primary tips would not be seen on a Laughing Gull. Matt suggests that this bird is either a Ring-bill or Herring. Based on its size flying overhead, Ring-billed Gull is most likely. In any event, both are birds we see commonly in Michigan. How did I get this identification so wrong? Certainly inattention to detail and wishful thinking are involved - both common pitfalls in birding. Thanks, Matt, for taking the time to offer this correction.

Finally, a bird that is a real rarity in Michigan but are easily seen in Maryland, especially on the eastern shore and in southern Maryland.

Black Vulture - of the two, my favorite.
November Green Darner
Back in Baltimore on Sunday morning, sunny and 70 degrees, and after failing to get photos of the Question Mark butterfly or the blue sp. butterfly, this big Green Darner dragonfly came flying lazily along and landed in my friends' holly tree. He blends in so well, but he's there resting in the berries.

Great weekend - as always, wish it was longer.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Chicago birding: saving the best until last

I traveled to Chicago on Friday to attend a conference on Saturday. I checked into the Allerton Hotel on Michigan Avenue, only about six blocks from the lakefront, around 3:00 pm. I dropped my things off in my room, grabbed my bins and camera and about 15 minutes after check-in was rushing down to the lake.

I had heard about a place called "the hedge" in Montrose Park along the lakefront where good birds are often found in migration. I'm not sure I found "the hedge." If not, it was the next best thing.

Looking back at the skyline from across this wonderful grassy, weedy, marshy spot. Small, but rich.

Another view.

The bird in the upper right corner is a Fox Sparrow and in the lower left a Hermit Thrush. Terrible photo, but I include it because it is my only documentation of the Fox Sparrow. I saw it only for a brief second. It never made another appearance and I could not relocate it. I didn't even know I had this photo until I downloaded to my computer and cropped it to make sure of the ID. You can click on each photo to enlarge.

I love birding in new places. In Chicago, I'm not likely to see new birds, but just being in a new place makes it fun and interesting. This was certainly true for this location. As with Belle Isle last weekend, Hermit Thrushes were everywhere.

In the trees.

On the beach.

In the grass, on the cement retaining wall, in the bushes ... I was hoping for a Gray-cheeked Thrush (as in the one above), but in the end, I decided that all were Hermit Thrushes.

The secret for taking photos with my amateur little camera is to find birds being busy with things other than being wary.

I must have taken two dozen photos of this Brown Creeper scampering up trees. This is the only keeper.

Occupied with eating seeds from a tasty weed.

Checking to make sure everything is still safe.

I was disappointed that the two photos above and below did not turn out better - all are slightly out of focus. Nevertheless, they still meet my minimal standards to show here. The White-crowned Sparrow above was one of two; the other, a juvenile, never did cooperate for a photo. I also saw one Swamp Sparrow, also uncooperative, and White-throated Sparrows were everywhere making it a challenge to search through each to make sure I did not miss a Lincoln's, Savannah or other. But, in the end, I saw only the four sparrow species. I also saw Common Yellowthroat and Tennessee Warbler.

Catch them while they're busy - a blurry, bathing White-throated.

Pausing to take a breath. I think this photo is extremely cute. I am so disappointed that it is out of focus.

This appears to be the same kind of tasty weed that the White-crowned enjoyed.

Bits of the seed can be seen in the bird's beak. Also, very cute.

Did I say that I was saving the best until last? After taking many photos of the White-throated Sparrow above, I reluctantly decided to call it a day. When I'm reluctant I leave slowly. Am I leaving too soon? Did I miss anything? Just then a bird ran into a tiny, open patch of grass from under the bushes where the White-throated Sparrow was feeding. What? Look at those spots. Bins up. Oh, my gosh! Ah, the sweet reward of hesitation.

A Wood Thrush! Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would see a Wood Thrush today.

Catch them when they're busy! Drinking water from a puddle.

My heart goes pitter patter.

I was so lucky. There were runners, bikers and walkers all around, but for the time I spent with this bird, often just feet away, none came past to frighten it and I was able to stand quite close and take many photos. When it was on the stair drinking water, I was too close to even use the telephoto lens and so the bird appears more distant than it really was. Finally, it did leave. No passersby had scared it away. I gave thought to following, but then: No, I can't top the serendipity of this moment.

Chicago - nice place to go birding!