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.


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:

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.

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.