Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008 Birding Results

Everyone has to start somewhere, and I chose to begin identifying and listing the birds I saw accurately in October 2008.

Specifically I went for my first birdwatching/photographing hike on October 20th 2008.
What I had missed in my late start I attempted to make up for in lost time. I took two trips out of state in that period, visited 2 National Parks and two National Wildlife Refuges, and as a final treat participated in two Christmas Bird Counts for my 2008 birding year.
My result was 80 species.
Not too bad for a beginner who quickly realised that pinning down a species identification is much more difficult than he would have initially believed.
The highlights:
Discovering Northern Flickers in plain sight. I had seen these occasionally as a child, but never noticed them in Colorado. I caught a glimpse of a bird after dusk in a large field with my bins, and was focusing in to try to get an ID in the growing darkness. Just then it burst into flight and his red coloring exploded into view through my bins. Even though I have found this guy to be a regular and now have his picture by the hundreds he is a favorite. He reminds me about how much is out there unseen, when we don't take the time to look.
Maxwell National Wildlife Refuge. My first dedicated birding trip, and such a rewarding one. For an entire day I had the refuge to myself. Until that trip I had been catching myself up. I was listing species that I had often seen before. On that trip I saw and was able to identify species that were completely new to my list, and solve the great Sandhill Crane mystery.
Rocky Mountain National Park. A solo hike to Ouzel Falls on an unseasonably warm early December morning. In addition to having the place almost to myself I had great views of a Lesser Goldfinch and a Steller's Jay.

Rock Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. I volunteer here a bit, but on a frosty December morning I went to do a bit of birding. The cold kept everyone else away. I was treated to the rising of thousands of Canadian Geese before I had even left the parking lot, Bald and Golden Eagles perched and in flight, a Sharp-Shinned Hawk directly overhead, and a handful of new species.

Two great Christmas Bird Counts, of which I may post more at a later date. The Boulder CBC was cold and snowy. I met some great people hiking in the foothills above town, and our highlight was a Brown Thrasher, seen on only a handful of previous Boulder CBCs. The Denver CBC was a week later. My group worked the South Platte section and I had a marvelous day tagging along as the experts in my group helped me identify 49 species in a single day.

Finally, I had two great walks in Minnesota around the lake near my parents home. It was great to return to the parks of my childhood. My first walk was in single-digit temps hovering on either side of zero after a fresh coating of snow. I didn't see any new species, but got good comparison pictures of an Eastern Song Sparrow.
On my second venture I had beautiful blue skies, and mild temps (teens and 20s are mild for MN in December). I was watching Chickadees, Nuthatches, a Cardinal and some squirrels interact around a feeder when a bird flew overhead with a strange call. I recognised her flight for a woodpecker or flicker, neither of which I had in Minnesota. I followed her across the parking lot and started snapping off long range photos. At the time I thought I had a Flicker or a Hairy, either one a new state bird. I was hoping she may be a different plumaged Flicker, and as I started working through my picks the red on her nape threw me. Not right for a Flicker, and yet not a Hairy either. I dug the Sibley guide out of my camera bag and started flipping through Woodpeckers. There she was, completely unexpected, never before seen by these eyes, a Red-Bellied Woodpecker.

Here's to a bigger and better 2009:
May there be more species, surprises, and may all your birds be well seen!

Online resources that I have used regularly in 2008

2008 is not my first attempt at keeping a bird list.

In fact I have made several attempts in the course of my life to record what birds I have seen, when I have seen them, and where they were at when I did. I enjoy it. I like to look at a regional list a cross off with confidence those species that I have seen.
When heading out in a new area I like to know what I may see, and what new critters I should keep an eye out for.

Unfortunately the failures of my past have been more a problem of organisation than any lack of interest. I would make a checklist, cross off a few seen species, and then promptly lose it before I next though about bringing it with me on a hike or trip.

All that changed in 2008. The quest to identify the mystery bird in the post below exposed me to the wonderful merger of technology and birding that has been going on around me.

As I searched for an ID on my mystery species I found three resources that not only sparked my interest and got me birding, they also made it possible for me to sustain my enthusiasm and manage my efforts without being overwhelmed.

The first, and shortly thereafter second resources I found were the Colorado Field Ornithologists website and the cobirders list service. At the website I discovered, and soon printed a portion of , the county by county list of birding hotspots in the state of Colorado. These are a goldmine of bits of local knowledge that turn aimless wandering into targeted trips. The email updates on cobirds have given me a connection to the Colorado birding community. By watching the emails that are sent to the group I have become aware of the events that are available to me a fairly novice birder. The rare bird alerts help me anticipate unusual species that I may see if I venture to a given location.

The third online resource has been the best that I could have hoped for, my discovery of eBird. This is the best thing, aside from the development of DSLR photography, that has happened to birding for me personally. Not only do I have all of my birding lists kept for me in a location where they are always waiting for me, I have a checklist that is customised to the location where I went birding. It immediately tells me if what I thought I had seen was in fact likely to be at the location I was at, or if it was a rare sighting for the area.
As my lists grow I begin to see the possibilities for county by county birding, and easily maintaining state lists without additional effort on my part.


Have you ever found yourself reflecting on life and wondered where all the time has gone since the last time you got outside and went for a hike?
Do you have outdoor gear that has gathered more dust than mud recently?
Have you ever noticed that you are watching a college football game with rapt attention between two schools you may or may not have heard of before in the middle of a Saturday afternoon?

I found myself in exactly that position this past fall and decided that I had to do something about it. That is where the birding comes in.

Let me back up a few steps and introduce myself. My name is Dave. I live in Colorado, in the city and county of Broomfield, which lies just between the better known cities of Denver and Boulder. It may pale in comparison, but it is home, and we do have our own professional hockey and basketball teams. Go Rage! I never tire of observing, exploring, and generally being blown away by the world around me, which is fairly easy to do in Colorado.
Real life and my diverse interests often keep me from those experiences that totally immerse me in nature. I have a degree in history, a career in IT and telecommunications, and diverse hobbies that all vie for my time. Often those interests, along with football and hockey seasons, and the routine of life's necessities leave me at my desk on a Monday morning wondering where my weekend went and why the time flew by.

All that lead to a beautiful October evening this past fall when I was in the backyard idly tossing a ball for my roommate's golden-retriever Blizzard. As I was appreciating a typical Front-Range sunset I heard a sound that made me pause.

It sounded like a large rope was being swung very rhythmically somewhere in the neighborhood, except that it was getting louder. I recognized it for wing beats before I saw anything, but new they were coming...and then they were above me. 20 large birds in a double legged "v", about thirty feet above the rooftops, similar in size to Canadian Geese, but definitely not Canadian Geese.

I was hooked. As stated above I have always loved nature, the great outdoors, and seeing those unexpected events that remind a person they are a part of a large, wild world. That moment was just such an event.
I knew I had seen something that was new to me, and not knowing what I had seen began to dig at me.

A bit of background....

While never a birder I have had some experience with the observation of birds. I grew up in Minnesota, and always enjoyed our variety of feeder visitors around the house. When I was a younger kid my family hosted an exchange student from Europe. He happened to be a birder of some renown there, even as a teenager. As my family showed him as much of our state and country as we could, he opened my eyes to the variety of species we had to offer. Hikes with him were my first experience with using binoculars to pick out hidden detail on birds, and his telescopic lens was a thing I marveled at.
I was a Boy Scout throughout my school years, and did reach the rank of Eagle Scout. The experiences related to scouting were fundamental to my appreciation of nature as well as teaching me essentials of camping, hiking, and outdoor survival. Reaching the rank of Eagle made that bird a personal symbol for me. Not only does it instill the patriotic feelings as a symbol of America, but also is a reminder of childhood accomplishments, and the lessons I learned about perseverance and commitment as a young man. I still feel a rush when I catch a view of a Bald Eagle soaring, or sitting patiently with a view over a scenic body of water.
Finally, my sister had the good fortune to meet and eventually marry a fine man who happens to be a Doctor of Biology, with his focus guessed it....Ornithology. We have enjoyed some great hikes together, and I have appreciated his ability to site and identify various species on the fly.
Back to October...
Relying on my limited experience listed above, I began to try to name the large goose like birds that had just buzzed my head in spectacular fashion. I started with the obvious, Canadian Goose. They are large, migratory birds that fly in "v"s and tend to migrate through Colorado in the fall. Having seen many tens of thousands of them in my lifetime, I know them well, and happen to recognise their "honking" cries. These birds did not honk. The calls they made were closer to what I would describe as a pigeon "coo"-ing than the "honk" of a goose. I had also noted that their necks looked longer as they flew by than those of a goose, their legs trailed behind them in flight, and that something about the coloring was not right, although the moment had passed, and I could not put my finger on it.
I thought about it at the moment, and my best guess at the time was a swan. I knew migrant Trumpeter Swans were seen in Nebraska at certain times of the year, but I had no idea if they ever got as far west as the Front Range. I also knew that they were rare, and if I remembered correctly, they had been on the Endangered Species list. I didn't know what else it could have been, but I knew it was something different and it had fired up my curiosity.
Shortly thereafter I took some downtime at work to search the web for possible birds in my area at that time of year that may have been flying over my house. My searches were clumsy. I had no known resources to work from. But the thrill of discovery was upon me.

Much of that particular question was solved in my overall birding experiences to be outlined in my next post. I won't break down all of the clues along the way.

I quickly determined that a Tundra Swan would be far more likely than a Trumpeter Swan in my area.

I also learned that while that was more likely it was also a fairly rare sighting, and a migration that would have been late in my area at the time I had sighted the flock.

After giving up on being able to positively identify the birds that had driven me back to birding I was planning my first birding specific trip out of state. The plan was to head south, and catch up to some of those migrants who had flown over my state before I had the decency to be looking for them.

As I looked at possible locations in New Mexico, I searched species that were likely to be in the locations I planned to visit.
There among the lists I found a new suspect for my unidentified birds. Sandhill Cranes.

They were birds that I had never heard of before, and were not at all the swans that I had tried to make fit my observations. I was still unsure what I had seen, but then I had the good fortune to visit the Maxwell National Wildlife Refuge.

I had the good fortune to see my mystery species once again flying directly overhead. It was a great feeling to know that I had been able to replace the unknown with a name, Sandhill Crane, life list #36.