Monday, March 30, 2009

Saturday's Sunny Snow

Saturday was a bird activity day I had really been looking forward to. It was the day that I was set to attend a volunteer training for the Hawkwatch at Dinosaur Ridge. When I replied to the invitation email I indicated that I was really looking forward to the opportunity, but that the date of the training fell on my oncall weekend, and that I may have unforeseen conflicts come up.

Of course, any time that I have something I hope to sneak in while oncall it is inevitable that I will get a page at the same time. So it was on Saturday. Instead of starting my morning at the top of Dinosaur Ridge I started it on the phone and working from my laptop.

While I worked I had time between updates to pull out my camera and get some pics of the birds around my feeder. The snow was really highlighting their colors.

Even the iridescence of the Common Grackles was impressive as they dumped the feeder contents on the snow.

Rather than getting to see majestic raptors, I had a chance to watch House Sparrows between keystrokes.
Finally, an hour after the training was to have started I got in my car and headed out, on a drive that was much slower in mid-morning traffic than it would have been 2 hours earlier. Eventually I made it, and strapped on my new Yaktrax to rush up the hill and see if anyone was still around.
I made it just as the leader was giving the wrap up talk, but at least I had a chance to introduce myself and see a couple of familiar faces including a couple of people from my Big Dry Creek trip a couple of weeks before.
First off - Dinosaur ridge is phenomenal! I have driven past it hundreds of times on my way to the mountains and watched the sunset reflect from it while at concerts at RedRocks Amphitheatre but had never made the short hike to the ridge line. Boy is it worth it! On a day like Saturday, when the snow is gleaming under a clear blue sky I could almost appreciate the view a soaring raptor gets to enjoy.
After saying "Hi" to the participants I was hearing that there hadn't been much raptor activity. I was asking where the sightings had been, when three Red-tails caught a thermal just above us and to our west, and leisurely road it up the adjacent ridge.
The snow-reflected sunlight gave their undersides brilliant white sharpness, and against the blue sky they seemed like they were just inches away. A Ferruginous Hawk went by followed by another Red-tail. Most of the group headed back down, and I pulled out my camera so that I could get a few shots of what I imagined would be a raptor parade that seemed to just be getting started.

Of course the act of pulling out my camera must have announced my presence to the avian world. Perhaps the Townsend's Solitare and many Robins were spreading the word to migrating hawks that humans were nearby and wanted to take their pictures. Whatever the case, the action dried up. We had at least one more Red-tail and one more Ferruginous, in the distance, and another two that were two distant to id in the next hour.
My one remaining hawkwatching partner, Doug, decided to head out, and I planned to walk the ridge while keeping an eye skyward for additional raptors. The slush kept me from going too far, so I slowly turned to make my way back to the station, and then down the hill. Just as I did I saw the Coopers Hawk that others had reported earlier in the day make a hunting pass over my head. I had two more Red-tails flash along the ridge line as I walked back. They were moving way too fast to think about getting a picture, but they sure were cool.
All in all it was one of the best disappointing photography days I have had birding. Despite being cut short and unprepared for the best photo ops the day was fantastic and the views were spectacular. The good news is that there are still lots of opportunities to get back up there, so I will hope for shots better than the one below soon.
The second training session will hopefully work better for my schedule, and in the meantime I know I will try to get back for some drop in time with the others.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Blizzard in a Blizzard

My roommate's dog is named Blizzard. He was named as an homage to the great powder days that the Colorado Rockies provide, and like any good dog he loves to play in the snow. So this mild winter in the Denver area has been a bit of a downer for a dog who hasn't heard his name mentioned on a local weather cast yet.
That all got fixed yesterday when I got home from work around 11:00 and was greeted by Blizzard while I was shoveling out my car spot in the driveway. After he helped me for a bit - (he packed down all the drifts and snowbanks by plowing through them) - he retreated inside while I spent another 20 minutes flinging "concrete".

Later in the day I watched from the door (I was still working) while he headed out to enjoy the snow.

One fun game is finding the buried toy. A new racquetball ball works best - 10 inches of snow can't mask that scent.

The only drawback, if you can call it that, is snowy face when you come up for air.

But then snow is the point, and there is no greater thrill than bounding through it at full speed!

Don't let the sad retriever eyes fool you by being captured mid-bound, Blizzard had his most fun day since Christmas or maybe even last year's camping season. Not only was there snow to play in, but the two humans were around the house on a weekday, there were duck jerky handouts, and lots of trips outside to play meant there was a snowy coat each time he came back inside, and another chance to attack his favorite play nemesis - the towel!
I hope everyone had safe travels, and that no matter where you are the next time it snows you get to enjoy your blizzard half as much as Blizzard did!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Two Fun Surprises

"What do you mean I am not considered a fun surprise?"

Today I decided to try to head east on the Coal Creek Trail system, from the Coal Creek Golf Course where I found ample parking this winter. I quickly found that the trail did not run parallel to the course, but cut away from it, and through a neighborhood towards Dillon Rd. After one wrong turn, (the trail is only identified by a wider sidewalk through the neighborhood), I managed to wind my way through the neighborhood to the "trailhead" where it emerges on the east side.
The potential of this area made the detouring walk well worth it, as it has a great stretch of riparian habitat along the creek, and an open hillside which meets the flat fields that are found north of Dillon Rd. It is an area where I often see Red-tails roosting in trees surrounding a small private pond, and in fact I had spotted a single RT Hawk perched in the trees near that pond from the farthest extent of my detour.
With about five minutes before I needed to turn back I walked along the edge of the golf course to the creek where I saw the Robin above with almost 20 of her friends, and a pair of Black-billed Magpies. (Fine and dandy, but less than I was hoping for on what was going to exceed a two mile lunchtime walk).
Then I saw:

A pair of Red-tails circling towards me, one of whom was continuously trailing both legs below. I had not seen that behavior and will be doing some reading tonight to see if this is seasonal behavior. Do Red-tails clutch one another's talons when selecting mates? Is extended leg flight a precursor to such behavior? I will post an update if I find out.
UPDATE: I took a look at the National Audubon Society's The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior by David Allen Sibley, I found the following passage:
"Some flight displays are performed by a pair, as when Red-tailed Hawks circle together and chase off an intruder. After such a display, the male floats down to the female from above and behind, dangling his feet and white thighs. As he approaches, the female dangles her feet in the same way, and the pair parachutes a few inches apart in a stately descent to a perch near their nest." p 219.
I saw the pair rising while circling in a thermal, and the arrival of the eagle prevented any stately descent to a nets site, or the copulation which is said to follow. Perhaps it was just a bit of early courting. I should note that periodically both would dangle feet, but the one (male) was persistent, and the other (female) only dropped her feet occasionally.
Unfortunately the pair managed to evade being in a single frame while in focus, so you will just have to take it from me that it was worth watching. It was becoming clear that I was going to have to rush back on my return trip and that I really needed to leave, when out of nowhere:

A darker third party arrived. Compare that wing silhouette to the Red-tails in previous posts, the wings appear uniformly broad, and show long primary feathers at the tips. As I had been watching the Red-tails had been moving towards the sun from my position. So from my position below at the time it arrived the third bird appeared uniformly dark. It could have been either a Vulture or an Eagle based on wing structure.
Here is a closer crop of the bird as it announced itself to the Red-tails:

Note the size and shape of the head and beak. A Turkey Vulture has a small, featherless, head and a small beak designed to help it pull morsels of meat from carrion. This bird has a large head, and a large thick beak. It is an Eagle, likely a Golden rather than an immature Bald Eagle based on local observation patterns, and some worse focused pictures that grabbed a hint of color from the head.
The second surprise of the day was one that I would never have appreciated until I spent some time reading the Birdchick's Blog. She started keeping bees, and through her posts regarding her experiences I learned a great deal more than I could have imagined possible. (From my perspective honey is great, it comes in a bear shaped dispenser at the grocery store).

Anyway, as I walked back towards my car I spotted yet another sign of spring:

A beehive in a hollow tree. I don't think I would have been as quick to note the bees arriving at their hive if I had not read about their habits, and I never would have noticed anything special about the slightly larger yellow patches on her legs. Just knowing that the picture is of a female bee shows that I learned a lot.
Those yellow patches are pollen baskets, and are what the bees store the pollen that they gather from flowers in on their return flight to the hive.
That is one of the great things I love about nature, reading about a behavior or species, and then getting to see it in real life. In this case I had the immediate ah-ha moment of spotting a wild hive, and then a second, when I discovered the full pollen baskets when I was reviewing my pictures. Double bonus for me!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Sure Signs of Spring

Had a good quick walk this afternoon at lunch thanks to a pair of cars pulled off at a trailhead gate I had not previously discovered. There is quick access from a fairly steep trail to a mesa top. On the way up I had my first look at wildflowers for the spring. Some sort of a daisy I guess?

After seeing only a single bird on my walk, and an unidentified one at that, I arrived back to my car for a great sighting.

Forty or so Mountain Bluebirds were working their way through the adjacent field, and stopping to perch and sing on fence posts and a couple of roadside trees. The sunlight makes the male's color brilliant, even if the focusing at that distance shows better detail of the post.

Here is a sharper closeup of the male. He may still be molting, or the slightest difference in light allows the more drab colors to appear.

Here is the female much closer, and from the front. At this angle Bluebird doesn't even come to mind. There is a faint bit of blue running through the wing, but for the most part the female's blue is all in her tail.
I did enjoy another Western Meadowlark perched just as close to my car window. The dense branches that formed its perch weren't very photogenic though so another picture for another day on that one.
Some of the buds on bushy trees in a road divider on my way back were looking very green and leafy, I noticed. Whenever we do get our spring blizzard it is going to be a rude awakening for humans and wildlife alike.

2009 Count: 70
Lifetime: 96

Monday, March 16, 2009

Big Dry Creek - DFO Field Trip

Because who wants to waste a beautiful Saturday sitting on their butt?

OK, for that guy sitting on his butt is probably well earned. In a world where hawks, snakes, and coyotes all want to eat you getting a few minutes of relaxed sun time must be a rarity. For me it was not OK, and I joined up with my first DFO field trip group.
This was the first time that I had been a part of a large group session to seek out the birds, and it was a good experience.
I intentionally chose a trip in an area where I frequently visit to see just how much I have been missing along the way. It was reassuring after the fact to know that I really haven't been missing too much. There was one fun exception though, a Yellow-Rumped Warbler, aka "Butter-butt". It was moving around fairly high in a cottonwood, and the bin views were much better than the resolution I could get from the camera. So everyone will just have to take my word that it was there.
Instead check out this nice view of a Great-Horned Owl.

I knew these were in the stretch of habitat, but my previous visits hadn't generated one for a sighting. Fortunately one of the benefits of a large group is the "fortuitous flushing". In this case a group that had split off to another side of a wooded area happened to flush the Great Horned, and he perched in a tree just ahead of my position. He stayed for a bit, long enough to pose from all angles and then flew back to his original perch.
From that perch it was easy to see why these large birds are so difficult to pick out, even when there general location is known:
Other highlights in the area were a pair of Sharp-shinned hawks who met in mid-air and made a few passes with one another in a shared thermal. and this pair of Red-tails who were sharing a branch together and occasionally seen engaged in nest building activities.

This was the second of three paired up Red-tails I have seen since last Friday. Until last fall I had never really been looking, but seeing the birds pairing up is neat. In this picture the female is on the right. Raptor species feature larger females and smaller males. This shared perch is a good place to compare the size difference between the two.

We also had two good views of Kingfishers along the trail. This background was a bit busy, but in the blog the view I had of one perched in the foreground of the Rockies would have looked like a sharp-edged speck.

Sometimes there is nothing better than scratching an itch you just can't reach.

Three new species on the day, Yellow-Rumped Warbler, Greater Scaup (I have probably been seeing these, but did not know for certain until more experienced trip members helped to show the difference), and Cinnamon Teal.
No great pictures of any of the three, but I'll keep looking.
2009 Count: 69
Lifetime: 96

Friday, March 13, 2009

Afternoon Delight

Or the next best thing. A beautiful afternoon overlooking Boulder.

This female Common Merganser was swimming with two males.

This Black-billed Magpie had the best view in town sitting right on the mesa's rim.

The typical sight of a Red-tailed Hawk soaring. Well off in the distance, but when they catch the sun those red tail feathers are impressive.
Finally this Yucca looked so cool growing up above the surface. Not sure if that is from recent wind erosion, or if it just had to stretch to beat out some other plant that has since gone.

Have a great weekend all! I am hoping to join a DFO field trip and or do some skiing.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Harper Lake Late Lunch

Poor Geese, they are out there for us day in and day out. I leave a trip to a lake thinking I saw nothing, and on any given day there are at least 20 of these dudes, (or dudettes), out there keeping it real for us. This guy or gal was content to sit trailside as I walked past, didn't even bother to honk or hiss, just chilin'. It deserved a picture on the blog, since the last Canada Goose I pictured was having a bit of trouble on the ice.

Chilly it was. The forecast says that there may be snow, but it should stay south and that we may see a dusting - usually the sure sign that we are going to get dumped on. I meanwhile am paying for my previous post about practicing photography on Gulls. Now more than ever the Ring-billeds seem to feel a need to make approaching passes at me. Not the slow hunting passes that are reliable either. These are the ones that come at you so fast that the auto-focus only sees sky as they come past at 15 feet. Oh, well. They are entertaining, and getting outside for an hour sure is nice.

The gull lifting away here had just pulled a great bit of larceny on the gull in the water, at first I thought I had a bit of inter-species rivalry going, but as usual it was just two Ring-billeds doing what they do best.
I saw some better behavior action when two Crows and a Ring-billed all joined forces to drive a Red-tail that had flown into the area across the lake. They made it very clear that the Red-tail was unwelcome.

This next gull wasn't doing much of anything, but the water he was sitting in picked up a great shade of blue from the partly cloud skies.

Finally, I found a more cooperative Black-billed Magpie than the well lit ones from Tuesday evening. Unfortunately his blue is not popping out like that evening, but he was willing to hang out at the ground feeder near someone's fence. Not sure what he was feeding on, but it must have been good.

Bird it Good!

Discovering the Cradleboard Trail

I headed back to the Stearn's Lake area yesterday, but rather than going to the lake itself I headed south through the trail system towards Josh's Pond in Broomfield. The last time I visited in mid-February it was overcast, windy and generally poor conditions. This time couldn't have been more different. It was still cool, but there wasn't a cloud in the sky, and the wind had finally relented. Just a beautiful afternoon and evening.

I didn't get to see a Red-tail snacking like last time, but I did have this juvenile keep an eye on me from across a pond.

As I walked I decided to take a trail I had not tried previously, called the Cradleboard Trail. It took me head on into the setting sun, so for a time I really had no idea where I was headed, but could look back at a small creek and quiet a few Prairie Dogs.
Signs warn walkers to stay on the trails to avoid damaging the Critical Wildlife Habitat, and the pamphlet I picked up at the far end mentioned Burrowing Owls using Prairie Dog burrows for nesting. That perked up my interest, but I didn't see any on this visit. There were several nice march sections, and both Prairie Dogs and Cottontail Rabbits were plentiful.

The trail ended at a low usage back road, and I followed that for a bit to loop the wildlife area and cross back into the Broomfield trail system at the east side. The loop I made was just under 3.5 miles, but as the days get longer it could grow to include Josh's Pond and a dip back to pick up Stearn's lake as well.

I just love exploring unknown trails in my own backyard. Walking along a road and wondering if what is hopefully a loop will work out, or if you are in for finishing a hike in the dark on a much longer than expected out and back. Takes me back to my high-school cross-country days, and I must say that I am happy to have traded speed for the extra weight of a camera and bins.

2009 Count: 65
Lifetime: 93

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Gullgiddy Gullgiddy

I love Daylight Savings Time. Now that I am adjusted to the wake up again I just can't get enough of the light evenings. I made a return to Stearn's Lake last evening, and despite the cold temps and biting wind it was great to be back.
It is so different now that spring is getting close. The lake was almost completely free of geese, but I only stayed until just after sunset. They have either moved farther north, or are just enjoying the longer days as well. Based on the inches of snow we received and the sudden drop in temps any geese that began heading further north may be rethinking that one a bit.

I had the place to myself except for a single jogger, who was a long way from somewhere - I had the only car in the parking area. It gave me a great chance to duck behind the concrete of the spillway and get a break from the wind. I enjoyed the handful of Ring-billed Gulls that were hunting over that part of the lake.

Gulls make a great target for photography practice. They hang on the wind and follow repetitive patterns while they canvas the water for prey.

The gull above took his catch out to deeper water to eat. He had come in just in front of me, and plucked his catch just beyond me from the edge of some cattails on the shore. It looks like some kind of freshwater crab, but he was too far out to be certain.

I seem to only see Ring-billeds. Members of the COBirds listserve report all kinds of rarities, and I have managed to ID a few Herring Gulls along the way. For me, for now, the Ring-billeds are plenty entertaining to watch at work over the waves.
Besides gulls there were lots of other things to entertain me. I saw the most Black-billed Magpies together that I have ever noted. There were at least 27 of them working through some cottonwoods at the edge of an old orchard. I also tried to relocate the Great Horned Owl I have seen in the past but never photographed, but no luck last night. Once the wind dropped off it was really just beautiful, and I took in the sounds of Magpies, Red-winged Blackbirds and European Starlings as the light began to fade. Say what you want about Starlings, they make an incredible cacophony of non-birdlike sounds.
I had one last treat as I approached the car, three Killdeer were moving about in the muddy area at the near edge of the lake. They were the first I had seen since New Year's Day.

Enjoy those extended evenings!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Big Dry Creek

The Big Dry Creek open space is a great resource that runs through Westminster and cuts across 120th Ave minutes from my home. Yesterday I took advantage of the later sunset to get in a good walk and see what birds were about. To start it was all Prairie Dogs and European Starlings.

The Prairie Dog is essential to good wildlife watching here in the high plains habitat. Their place on the menus of Coyotes, Hawks and Eagles make their communities great places to stake out predators. In addition their alert calls can give an early heads up if a raptor is soaring overhead and up-sun from a current position. I have read that their warning barks are threat specific, so in theory they could let you know what they are watching while you are in their area, but I have yet to see that applied by anyone.

While I was walking south towards the 120th underpass I got buzzed by this Sharpie (Sharp-shinned Hawk). He was on me so fast that I didn't get a well focused image, but this and the few others I got worked for identification. As usual with raptors I double checked my own impressions against Jerry Ligouri's, Hawks from Every Angle: How to Identify Raptors In Flight. Sharpies are a tough ID in the field for a relative novice like myself because they are very similar to the slightly larger Cooper's Hawk. Key identification points to look for are the squared off tail and smaller head. The Sharpie is generally more stout in appearance due to wing shape and a relatively short tail length. Also the Sharp-shinned Hawk has a body shape that starts broad at the shoulder and narrows towards the tail. The Cooper's Hawk tends to be more uniformly broad.

I half expected this guy to start dancing to "I'm Alright" as I walked past.

Shortly after the Sharpie I was treated to a very cool sight. There are two Northern Flickers in the picture above, see them both?

Here is another frame that shows the trailing bird more clearly. Not only was the lead bird a Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker, (my first sighting), but the two chased one another from tree to tree for the full ten minutes I was watching them. Their under-wing colors would flash in the sun on each upbeat and as they banked and dove around branches. Suh-weeet!

A handful of Cottontails are mixed in among the Prairie Dogs, although I think I see them in greater numbers in my neighborhood each morning.

As with my previous visit to the Big Dry Creek area the Robins were prolific. They still seem to be plotting, but don't seem to be taking any action yet......

...unless rerouting air traffic from Germany is a part of their plan. Muhhhhaaaaahhhhaaaa! It was a randomly low circling transatlantic jet for this area, but it did immediately precede the change in weather, that brought a cold strong wind from the northeast for the rest of my walk and snow overnight.

I'll leave off with this shot of one of the Prairie Dog predators. The Coyote and I surprised one another as I walked along a roadside to get a better view of a potential owl nest, and it was cruising into the Prairie Dog town from some cattail growth. I backed away to avoid unintentionally driving the hunter towards a busy road, and as I left the Coyote had withdrawn beneath some scrub. I was a bit disappointed to have not gotten a clear view of the nest from a higher angle, but was treated to three Red-tails circling and lightly hunting above me. Of course that was just as my one gb card filled up and just as I realised that I did not have the partially full four gb card that I had believed was in my pocket. Take my word they were great looking birds! I saw a total of six Red-tails, and believe that the three may have been a part of the beginning of migration.
2009 Count: 65
Lifetime: 93