Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A December Misidentification

Dawson, Snapper, and I opted to take advantage of the beautiful weather this morning with a hike around Williams Lake.  We found a few Field Sparrows and a Winter Wren in the area where I had them Christmas morning.  A stroll down to the north shore of Williams Lake also yielded two Cackling Geese mixed in with a very large group of Canada Geese.  I've tried unsuccessfully to find this species on the lake for a while now, so I was very pleased to finally locate a couple (this was also a life bird for Dawson!).

As we were heading home, I spotted a buteo soaring very high above the lake.  There's a resident pair of Red-tailed Hawks that have bred in the area for the past two years, so, naturally, I assumed one of them was off for a morning flight around the lake.  A quick glance through my binoculars revealed something very unexpected -- a large, white tail band.


Red-shouldered Hawk

Williams Lake has a recent history of producing out of season species.  In the summer of 2009, I had a Winter Wren singing in suitable breeding habitat at least until early August and I also had two Purple Finches well into July.  Last year around this time, I had a Gray Catbird that hung around for a couple of weeks, spending the rest of the winter at The Dahlem Center (just down the street). 

In what I originally thought would be a continuation of this theme, I originally identified this bird as a Broad-winged Hawk (which should be in Central America at this time of the year) and posted it as such to a few local listservs.  Luckily, I received a few emails from very experienced birders who pointed to several field marks on this bird that point away from Broad-winged Hawk and towards the more expected Red-shouldered Hawk.


The first email from Wayne Fisher pointed out the long, lanky wings of this bird, which are very obvious in the first picture above.  As the name would indicate, this is not a field mark one would expect to see in a Broad-winged Hawk, but it is expected in a Red-shouldered Hawk, a close cousin of broadies.  And while on the topic of wing structure, one of the field marks pointed out by the second email from Skye Hass was the bulging secondaries of this bird, apparent in the picture above and below.  A Broad-winged Hawk has wings that are (more or less) uniform in width, while Red-shouldered Hawks have wider secondaries, similar to what is seen in a Golden Eagle (and, more importantly, this bird!).  Skye and Lathe Claflin also pointed out the pale crescents below the primary tips that are visible in the first photo, another shoulder field mark.



Skye also mentioned that this bird has very dark underwing coverts, much darker than is expected on a Broad-winged (visible above and below).


While I'm completely convinced that I made the wrong identification initially, I'm still a bit thrown by one field mark that this bird appears to display -- the tail band.  Both species have banded tails as adults, but Broad-wingeds have a pronounced band that appears larger than the other ones.  When I first saw this bird in the field, and when I first looked at my photographs, this was the first thing I honed in on.  Even still, after reviewing my photos in more detail, I'm a bit perplexed by the apparent size of the distal tail band on this bird.  I suppose the apparent size of the band could be an artifact of lighting, angle, and/or distance (this bird was really high), or even individual variation within the species.

At any rate, this was a really good lesson in buteo identification, and I am grateful for the comments of Wayne, Skye, and Lathe that steered me in the right direction.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Real Sandpipers Wear Purple

On the rare occasions that I've managed to pull myself away from the seductive duo of couches and television sets over the past week, I've spent most of my time in the field.  Of course, when one spends the majority of his or her time in the student ghettos of East Lansing, a ten-minute stroll through a partially forested backyard more than qualifies as time spent in the field.  Luckily, my parents' yard exists at the convergence of a small field, a cottonwood-dominated riparian area bordering a river, and a cattail marsh, so the birding isn't half bad.

Eastern Bluebird

A small group of bluebirds has been hanging around for a while and the group was very active yesterday.  In particular, a single adult female would perch in a fairly conspicuous opening and sing for a few seconds, apparently luring a single adult male to her.  Upon the male's arrival, she'd quickly hop just out of his reach, hang around for a few additional seconds, then fly off to another perch and repeat the process.  The two carried on in this manner for the entirety of my ten-minute observation and probably for much longer.  Gowaty & Plissner (1998) indicate that this chasing behavior is involved in pair formation, which often takes place during the winter.


The leading authority on the olfactory profile of Williams Lake

On Christmas morning my faitful companion, Snapper and I took a short walk on the property northeast of Williams Lake in Jackson County.  I was hoping to find a Winter Wren, a bird I'd missed during fall migration, and Field Sparrows, which were present in this area late into autumn.  Just a short ways into our walk, Snapper flushed a large flock of LBJs, which initially appeared to be all tree sparrows.  A bit of searching through gobs of bicolored bills and breast spots yielded 3 Field Sparrows and a single Winter Wren -- a quality Christmas gift, indeed.

Field Sparrows

Yesterday I undertook a trip to the Lake Michigan shoreline that I've been meaning to make for some time now.  Berrien and/or Muskegon usually have fairly consistent reports of Purple Sandpipers early in winter, and this past week has been no exception.  Up to seven individuals have been reported from Pere Marquette Park in Muskegon by several birders.  Given that it'd been over a month since my last life bird, I headed out early yesterday morning with Don and Robyn Henise (who also needed this species as a state bird).

Purple Sandpiper

Within minutes of our arrival, this cooperative fellow popped up from the wave-washed jetty, eliciting an instantaneous "Holy crap!" from me.  Ironically, this outburst would immediately culminate in the premature departure of this individual's breakfast.  Sorry, mate.

Well before I had even grown tired of watching this bird pretend to sleep, several additional birds began emerging from all along the jetty.  The lack of fear for humans that are not yelling at this species is well-known.  As such, it wasn't terribly surprising when, at the end of our stay, I had fired-off over 500 shots of Purple Sandpipers alone.  Here are a few of my better shots from the day (none of which have been cropped):











I've always known about how tough this species is, given that they overwinter farther north than any other shorebirds in a pretty extreme microhabitat.  And while this was something that had previously earned purples a termendous amount of admiration from me, watching them endure the onslaught of crashing waves and roaring winds, all while walking around on rocks slick with the slime of algae, was incredibly impressive.  Several times I witnessed birds become completely submerged underwater after enduring the blow of a swift wave, only to pop right back up and continue foraging perfectly in place.  Even more astonishing was the ability of these birds to dodge incoming waves by briskly hopping across a labyrinth of slick stone, a feat (apparently) so trivial that it seemed relegated to the periphery of Purple Sandpiper concerns.


Shrugging it off like a champ

I found the interactions between purples to be particularly interesting.  It appeared that, given the direction of yesterday's winds, all of the sandpipers were confined to the first 200 ft of the jetty, which eventually bends north, right into the prevailing winds.  It seems that the jetty designer's neglect of Purple Sandpiper microhabitat preference (for shame!) forced these individuals into close proximity, resulting in persistent territorial disputes over foraging area.  These conflicts usually culminated in two individuals chasing each other in a low, labored flight complete with scolding chatter.

Snowy Owl

After getting our fill of rugged scolopacids, we headed to the Muskegon wastewater treatment plant to look for previously reported Snowy Owls and an Iceland Gull.  We dipped on the gull in tiring fashion but did manage to spot two Snowy Owls, including the adult male pictured above.  Unfortunately, we weren't the only ones who found this guy.

Shame.

I'd heard that there was a guy at the treatment plant who had been intentionally flushing the owls for the sake of photography.  Much to my disappointment, such an individual was present yesterday, engaging in similar behavior.  Many birders and photographers seem to be ignorant or apathetic to the well-established fact that irrupting species are often literally starving to death.  As such, any stress that we might elicit in these birds through constantly approaching them for a better shot or a better view distracts them from feeding, preening, etc., making the already grim prospect of survival even worse.  Generally speaking, I see tremendous potential in the positive impact we as birders, naturalists, photographers, etc. can have on the wildlife we cherish.  But when I see behavior like this, I question some of our priorities.

Gowaty, Patricia Adair and Jonathan H. Plissner. 1998. Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/381

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Break

In hindsight, I suppose it was pretty na├»ve of me to suppose that my schedule this past semester would accomodate even a monthly posting.  As it turns out, getting into the field once a month was a challenge in itself! On one of the rare occassions that I did manage to sneak in some quality birding, I ventured to Berrien County with Don and Robyn Henise for a lakewatch on the 17th of November.  Though we didn't spot any of our targeted rarities, it felt great to get out and put my camera to work for once.

Lesser Black-backed Gull


Snow Buntings 


Surf Scoters

Last Saturday was the 44th Waterloo Recreation Area Christmas Bird Count.  This was only my third year participating in the count, and I was assigned the area that I covered with Mickey Kress during my first count (the area around Waterloo Pizza & Ice Cream, north of Clear Lake Rd. and south of M-52).  I recall feeling that we had been duped into covering an area of less quality than some of the other sections -- my, how have things have changed!  My inexperienced eyes of years past failed to appreciate the high quality of this section.  Predominately flooded hardwoods, the area also offers a mix of open fields, ponds, the occassional conifer stand, and TONS of feeders in residential areas.

My newfounded excitement over this section began on Friday during a brief afternoon of scouting.  Gobs of the usual birds were clustered at each feeder and each patch of brush I came across, giving me hope that something unusual might be lurking around in the masses.  In one such flock, sitting in a miniscule patch of shrubs and sedges by the side of the road, was my first good bird of the day -- a Field Sparrow!

Field Sparrow

This certainly isn't a super rarity, but Field Sparrows usually winter further south in Ohio, making this a pretty good bird for the count.  In the short time that I scouted, this was my only unusual finding, so looking for this guy was the top priority for Saturday.
 
Saturday started on a very sour note for me.  After a terrible night's sleep of (maybe) 4 hours, I opted to sleep in a couple of hours, scraping most of the time that I would have spent searching for owls.  With no owls and no coffee in my system, I crankily lugged myself to the sparrow's last known residence, hoping for better luck.  After a five-minute scare that really started to drain my spirits, I had added Field Sparrow to my list.  Two fly-over Purple Finches were also a nice bit of motivation to get on with the day.

Soon afterwards, a brief drive through a small subdivision bordering a grassy meadow yielded an American Kestrel, another species I was hoping to find again during the count.


American Kestrel

After making my way through loads of American Tree Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos, I came across a small trail that, for some reason, caught my attention.  The trail head immediately went through a small conifer stand and was bordered by a large pond.  Thinking that I needed to at least try some 'exploratory' birding on this day, I opted to take the chance.  After coming up with nothing more than a small flock of Black-capped Chickadees and Tufted Titmice in a small, forgettable meadow, I headed back through the conifers when something high-pitched caught my ear.

My initial thought was Golden-crowned Kinglet, given the habitat.  A bit of pishing failed to reveal the culprit, much to my dismay.  No sooner had I decided to leave that, from out of nowhere, a welcomed sound came rattling through the canopy -- a Red-breasted Nuthatch! 

An incredibly terrible shot of an incredibly handsome bird

The feistiness of this little guy soon attracted a large mob of chickadees, titmice, Blue Jays, and a very vocal Brown Creeper, my second guess concerning the earlier call that I heard.  Hoping to attract the attention of other, more unusual passerines in the area, I played a small clip of a screech owl and continued to pish.  With my attention narrowed in on the growing mob directly above me, I caught a cursory listen of a thick 'chuck' at the edge of the forest, apparently on its way in to join the chaos.  Could it be?  My mind hardly had a moment to synthesize an identification when the call was repeated directly above my head.  It was!  A Yellow-rumped Warbler!  I struggled in vain for a photo of this bird for the next few minutes, failing due to a combination of poor lighting, the bird's activity, and my ecstatically shaking hand.  I've longed to find this species more than just about any other in the Waterloo area in winter -- nevermind finding one during a Christmas Bird Count!  As it turns out, this was just the 7th time this species has been found during the Waterloo CBC.

After struggling to regain my composure, I hit up several feeding stations and took some time working the hardwoods for a Pileated Woodpecker.  I dipped on Pileateds but picked up a few more Brown Creepers, another Red-breasted Nuthatch and a ton of Northern Flickers foraging together.  A quick scan of the Winnewana Impoundment yielded zero ducks, a number I would stay at all day.  I swung by a party store in the area to pick up a drink and on my way out, flushed this guy from a group of feeder birds.

Red-winged Blackbird

I rarely see Red-winged Blackbirds in central Michigan during the winter, though they're much more common in the Lake Erie area.  At any rate, this was another species I was really happy to get and one that wasn't on my radar at all.

Struggling to stay awake following lunch, I opted to try a few trails that I avoided earlier in the day due to the presence of hunters.  On my way to M-52 from Boyce Rd., I spotted a small raptor perched atop a large White Pine on the east side of Boyce Rd.

"Perhaps another kestrel!" I thought, before raising my binoculars. 

No.  Something way better.  The next thing I knew, I was crouched behind the driver-side door, camera in hand, snapping off as many photos as possible.  This curious behavior caught the attention of several passersby who inquired about the bird, well aware from my stupid grin that this was an unusual specimen.

Merlin
At this point I couldn't believe how my day was turning out.  Christmas Bird Counts generally aren't the most exhilirating of times to be out birding all day, but here I was having a day that rivaled any I'd had in Waterloo during the winter -- and it was only noon!  This extremely cooperative Merlin was only the 3rd recorded during the Waterloo count's history.  I was stoked.

I made my way back to the Yellow-rumped Warbler spot, hoping to photograph the bird this time.  I did manage to hear it calling, but could never get on the bird.  This was due, in large part, to a small brown shape fluttering through a tangle of shrubs that caught my attention.

Hermit Thrush

Hermit Thrush was another species that I'd really hoped to find on a count.  This species is probably more common than butter-butts in winter around Jackson, but they're still fairly unusual.  When I first got into birding, I remember being completely surprised that yellow-rumps and Hermit Thrush could be found in Michigan during the winter.  I suppose it's not that surprising, given that they both rely heavily upon berries during the winter, but there's still something quirky about seeing warblers and Catharus thrushes with snow on the ground.

As dusk neared I decided to try for a Song Sparrow at a spot that Mickey and I had a few individuals at during my first count.  I stirred up a large flock of tree sparrows and a few flickers, when suddenly, a large, dark bird flying parallel to me caught my eye -- a Pileated Woodpecker!


Another poor photo of an excellent bird
After speeding down the road to catch up with the bird to get this photo, I parked back at the "Song Sparrow spot" and treated myself to a banana for such a great day.  Of course, had I opted to focus on birds and not on my Nicaraguan delight, I may have had a long enough look at that large, unidentified Accipiter to confirm it as a goshawk...

At the end of the day, this year's count produced 70 species, just 2 shy of the record.  Highlights from the other sections included Pied-billed Grebe, Trumpeter Swan, Northern Shoveler, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, American Coot, Short-eared Owl, Northern Mockingbird, Rough-legged Hawk, and Northern Shrike.  Additionally, while at Marsi Darwin's incredible feeding station, I missed a White-crowned Sparrow that she (luckily) spotted during an hour of feeder watching.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Embarrassing.

As a Michigan resident, I find this truly astonishing...but then again, what can you expect from a country club in Rochester Hills?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Summer Nostalgia

Around this time of year each year I start developing an intense nostalgic longing for my lazy summer days spent wandering the deciduous landscape of southern Jackson County, usually well before they've even ended.  As the first flocks of Canada Geese penetrate the monotonous chorus of crickets through the soft, humid nights of August, followed by the blooming of Cardinal Flower and the sweet autumn scent of the southern forest, I begin wishing I had just a little more time in the field.


Cardinal Flower

Given that autumn is increasingly becoming my favorite time of year, I think my "summer nostalgia" is more appropriately defined as "not wanting to move my crap back to East Lansing where my days are spent in laboratory basements and not outside watching fall warblers" or "wishing I had a car so that I might actually get to bird in central Michigan".  At any rate, I've been soaking up as much birding time as possible these past few days, and have run across a few good finds along the way.

Sandhill Cranes

I took this photo out on the prairie at Dahlem while on my way to try for a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher that I had found the day before (Sunday) in the marsh/bog type habitat in the northwest corner of the prairie.  While I was unsuccessful in this pursuit, seeing a few decent-sized flocks of Sandhill Cranes flying over was a nice treat.  The cranes also got me looking forward to Friday evenings and Saturday mornings at Haehnle Sanctuary in the Waterloo Recreation Area -- an unrivaled highlight of last year's autumn that saw record-breaking crane numbers and the locally famous Whooping Crane on several occasions.


Tennessee Warbler
Not the buckthorn! 

I always associate fall warbler migration with more Tennessee Warblers than in the spring.  Additionally, most autumn individuals seem to have a lot more yellow in their plumage compared to spring birds.  Sibley depicts first year birds as having more yellow/greenish coloration compared to adult birds, which is also mentioned in this species' Birds of North America account.  According to this account, there is some evidence for an elliptical migration in Tennessee Warblers, meaning some individuals follow a different route north in the spring than in the fall while headed south (Blackpoll Warblers, also more common in fall, do this as well).  However, nothing is mentioned regarding divergent routes between adults and immatures in this species, as is the case in the eastern population of Nashville Warblers.


Magnolia Warbler

Amongst the six or so Tennessee Warblers were a couple of Magnolia Warblers, another species I seem to find more of in the fall.  Arguably one of the most spectacular warblers in breeding plumage, these birds also retain quite a bit of color in the fall.

American Robin

A large hatch of insects clouded the evening sky with a thick blanket of food for all the birds present.  As such, virtually every species had a go at flycatching or "hawking", some more successful than others.  A large flock of predominately immature robins were among the more awkward-looking participants, essentially tumbling downward from high perches only to catch themselves at the last second with heavy, overexerted wing beats.  This first year Baltimore Oriole was only slightly better.


Baltimore Oriole

Yesterday was the Jackson Audubon Society's fall shorebird trip to Pt. Mouillee led by Don and Robyn Henise.  Spare for the weekend trip to Sault St. Marie in February, I look forward to this trip the most each year, as shorebird habitat (and thus shorebirds) are all but absent from Jackson County. 


Wilson's Phalaropes

Among the highlights of the trip, I think these phalaropes really topped the list for me.  From our initial, distant view of them, many of us were thinking Red-necked Phalaropes.  As we approached, however, it became clear that these were actually two juvenile Wilson's molting out of their juvenile plumage.  Closer looks also afforded great views of their feeding habits (no phalroping, however), consisting of horizontal "sweeping" with their bills through the heavy metals of Detroit River sludge.  Several Lesser Yellowlegs also employed this feeding strategy, which I don't know that I've ever seen before.


Convergent evolution?  Imitation?

This next picture reminds me of Sibley's illustrations that demonstrate how microspatial variation in habitat use can be used to help identify shorebirds in migration.  Semipalmated Sandpipers seem to forage from the bare mudflats to very shallow water, Stilt Sandpipers are almost always seen wading a little further out still, and Wilson's Phalaropes can be found in deeper water still, especially when phalaroping, though among phalaropes they seem to prefer shallower waters.

Semipalmated, Stilt, and Wilson's

For whatever reason, I failed to photograph several of the very cooperative and notable birds, including three Buff-breasted Sandpipers, a Hudsonian Godwit, Red Knot, and Merlin that kept shorebirds moving in and out, which, depending on what you happened to be looking at, could either be a blessing or a curse.  One particular air raid scared in a flock of ten or so Baird's Sandpipers, which I managed only a few crappy shots of.



Baird's Sandpiper

After scanning through hundreds of gulls and terns for a juvenile Black-legged Kittiwake that was seen earlier in the day, the group left cell 3 to try for Solitary Sandpiper at the Lautenschager Unit.  We dipped on Solitary, but several Stilt Sandpipers and both Yellowlegs were present.

Stilt Sandpiper

A return to cell 3 for a previously reported American Golden-Plover ended up being very successful, as two individuals were found in the company of a single Black-bellied Plover, offering a great opportunity for studying the structural differences between these two potentially confusing species.  I really wanted photos of this mixed group for further study, but they were simply too far away.  Instead, between extensive study through scopes, I snapped a few shots of this nearby Short-billed Dowitcher.


Short-billed Dowitcher

And finally, in other news, a curlew from Allen Creek was spotted Friday in Oahu!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Summer Summary

With fall migration rapidly approaching, I've been a bit eager to finish up with the retrospective posting (which has taken me way too long) and get on with posts that don't require often futile attempts at scouring through pages of chicken scratch field notes.  In light of that, and the completion of my Alaska series, here's a collage of audio and visual highlights of everything I haven't been posting about since being home:


Monarchs!

Northern Water Snake

Spiderwort




Purple Coneflower


Baby Broad-winged Hawks




White-tailed Deer

Henslow's Sparrow

Summit of the Porcupine Mountains


Yellow-bellied Sapsucker


Pictured Rocks


Bad picture of Jackson County's first documented breeding Golden-crowned Kinglet

The (unanticipated) End (6/11/11 - 6/16/11)

Apparently, around mid to late June each year, Allen Creek and the surrounding area is consistently hit with a few weeks of heavy precipitation -- heavy relative to the ubiquitous fleeting afternoon showers that emerge and disappear faster than the flyby Eastern Yellow Wagtails headed for the coast (a calamity of paramount frustration).  Though we weren't receiving quite as much rainfall as is typical for this brief wet period, we began receiving it a bit earlier than anticipated.  In addition to rendering invertebrate collections a freaking nightmare and producing an abundance of spectacular rainbows, these showers also stimulated the early emergence of my biggest fear from the Alaskan tundra -- not a hungry Grizzly Bear poking through my tent late at night or the prospect of pissing off a defensive cow Moose as I bushwacked through willow stands -- mosquitoes.

Yay for refraction!

Kristine and I first noticed the little buggers late one Saturday evening when, in light of crappy daytime weather, we planned to get some behavioral observations after dinner of the incubating male curlew near camp.  With no seven a.m. wake-up call the next day, and the prospect of watching curlews with my beloved evening coffee, I was truly looking forward to a pleasant night.  Within the first five minutes of setting up the scope and pulling out my notebook, however, I had easily squashed over 30 mammoth mosquitoes. While we were all bracing ourselves mentally for the onslaught of these blood-thirsty thieves, we weren't expecting to see significant numbers for at least another week.  If the first five weeks of lugging through waist-deep snow during 13-mile point counts were hell, humankind has yet to conjure up an imaginary scare-tactic miserable enough to parallel what these last five were shaping out to be.

Unpleasant as the arrival of the new denizens of our toilet tent was, the rains also brought with them a tremendous array of life to the tundra.  Napaea Fritillary, Arctic White, and Old World Swallowtails appeared just in time to soothe the woes of dull bird activity, complemented by springing blankets of Shooting Star, Nguyen Berry, Labrador Tea, and Cloud Berry.

Old World Swallowtail

Labrador Tea

And did I mention the Harlequin Ducks?

I'd be jealous, too

It's just come to my attention that I've managed to completely fail to mention these stately sea ducks which, by the way, we saw just about every single day from the comfort of our tents.  Actually, the above picture was taken literally moments after waking up to Jake and Kevork pounding on my tent as they raced to the creek to photograph these birds in the morning light.  Half-blind and half-naked in my outdated glasses and boxer briefs (in 30 degree weather, I might add), shaking from inner excitement and extrinsic temperatures, I somehow managed to make these my best shots of these very skittish birds.

Harlequin Corner

This photo was taken on a different day during one of my favorite Sunday evening activities -- fishing for Grayling.  This particular spot happened to be named Harlequin Corner after Jake discovered three individuals here last year.  The name certainly seemed justified, as virtually every catch of monster Grayling was supplemented with a wary male peeking his head around a corner in the creek, usually with a female close behind.

With curlew behavorial work now reduced to the rare event of happening upon a daytime foraging flock of several parents taking a break from their 12-hour incubating shifts, and three carefully-monitored nests located, the final stage of our work had begun -- capture.  In order to identify birds as individuals (a must for accurate population study and detailed behavioral study), banding as many birds as possible was a top priority for this field season.

Banding curlews is unlike banding any other species that I'm aware of.  It goes without saying that simply setting up a mist net and hoping for the best is an unreasonable strategy.  A strategy I've seen employed for other large shorebird species involves sneaking up on an incubating individual and laying a mist net over the bird (we actually were able to use this method for the few nests we found during incubation).  This is largely doomed for failure if applied to curlews, as finding a single nest is next to impossible given the adults' cryptic plumage and behavior.  Indeed, finding a curlew nest usually entails several hours of observing a suspected breeding pair on their territory from a far yet clear vantage point, as the birds will refuse to associate near a nest in the presence of humans and other potential predators.  The only way to band substantial numbers of curlews relies on finding a pair of adults that are foraging with their recently hatched young and attempting to locate the "brood center" from which one broadcasts a recording of curlew chicks in distress.  As the call is being broadcast, two people stand on either side of the call, mist net in hand, waiting for an adult curlew to fly in towards the recording when they will swing the net up towards the bird and catch it in mid-air.

Not 'capture' per se

However, the only method of "capture" that I was present for involved the much gentler approach of an incubating bird (pictured above).  After banding the female from the first nest we discovered, we headed towards camp to band the incubating female on 'my' nest.


A truly remarkable specimen

This would seem to be an opportune time to give a bit of background on the female of this nest -- the "blue-banded female" as she is known amongst our crew.  We first spotted her mingling around the established territory of a single male curlew some 6 miles from camp very early in the season.  Great looks revealed that she already had been banded on her right femur, just above the tibiotarsus.  We became reasonably confident that she must have been a bird banded during McCaffery's last field work at Allen Creek, given the color of the band and the later discovery of a silver band on her left tibiotarsus.  At this point, the prospect of having found a bird potentially older than myself was mystifying at some level, especially given the rigorous nature of curlew life compared to my own.  A couple of weeks later, we found her again, only this time acting as an apparent "back door woman" at a territory closer to camp that already had an established pair.  While her presence here continued to provoke endless speculation and curiosity amongst our crew, the resident female seemed much less enthused.  Finally, roughly a week later, she seemed to have settled in with the fellow whose nest I discovered, mere yards away from her last known fling.  Whether her bohemian ways represented an aging, unattractive gal unable to secure a mate or a spunky, promiscuous veteran of baby-making will forever remain a mystery -- what I would give to have been able to genotype her eggs against the DNA of her three potential mates.

As Kevork and Jake approached her with the net, Kristine close behind to retrieve her from the net, I stayed far to the side, camera in hand, ready to assist Kristine with the banding and measurements of the bird.  After laying the net down on top of her, the bird only began to flush as we approached her within a foot or so, illuminating just how reliant these birds are on their plumage to avoid predatory encounters.  Having completed standard measurements of her culmen, wing chord, weight, etc. Kristine requested that I hold the bird while she prepared the band!  Slightly nervous about the prospect of losing or injuring the bird due to my clumsy dexterity, I proceeded to grasp the bird closely for several minutes, consistently attempting to calm her with gentle strokes and soft whispers.  How marvelous that bird felt in hand!  Inexplicably light for its size, yet with a keel that upon touch alone, proved this bird's competence in achieving transoceanic flights, rivaled only by the Bar-tailed Godwits of this region.  In all of my countless tachycardic events, not once had I maintained a heart rate even close to this bird's pulse, which easily exceeded 200 beats per minute, further supporting this species' legacy as a long-distance champion of flight.

Later on this same evening, I went out after dinner for what would be my last trek in the Nulato Hills.  Everything about the evening was spectacular, especially given the time of season.  A large flock of calling Glaucous Gulls kettled above camp, a pair of Red Foxes provoked attacks from Long-tailed Jaegars, Whimbrels, Pacific Golden Plovers, and Bristle-thighed Curlews, and passerines were exceptionally vocal in the soft evening light.



Pacific Golden Plover


Cavities being scarce, this Tree Swallow eagerly established residency in our weatherport nest box

My last great experience in the Nulato Hills is attributed to this extremely cooperative White-crowned Sparrow, who spent something on the order of ten straight minutes singing his head off, allowing for great photos and recordings!

What a beaut!


After a terrific evening of natural history, I layed down to the diminishing twilight sounds of Wilson's Snipe and Gray-cheeked Thrush for what was to be the last time.  In short, a night resembling the horror of my earlier jaunt in St. Mary's repeated itself, forcing me to evacuate the Allen Creek field site early.  Feeling very weak, ill, fatigued, and depressed by my early departure, I snapped this last photo of camp as the helicopter departed.

Life in a chosen country, indeed

In the midst of the sometimes grueling nature of field work, we all expressed our fantasies about our return to civilization, centered on how much we missed the conveniences of our homes -- I was often at the forefront of these conversations.  However, there is no describing the impenetrable sadness that overcame me as soon as I heard the distant blades of the refuge helicopter roaring towards me.  I had just spent the last 6 weeks in an area that exceedingly few people will ever even glance at from an airplane in their lifetime, intimately living with and delving into careful study and observation of all of this unique ecosystem's inhabitants.  It is very likely that I will never see the Nulato Hills, maybe even a Bristle-thighed Curlew, ever again.  These are all inescapable facts that I had anticipated at some level, but I suppose I'm most disappointed in my not taking time to sincerely consider these ideas each and every day that I spent in one of the last great wildernesses on this planet.