Friday, May 29, 2009

Gregory Canyon - Round 1



I went back to a Boulder favorite last evening, Gregory Canyon, in search of a reported rare resident the Scarlet Tanager. Unfortunately for me I missed it, but then I will be more likely to make special trips back to that great area if I have a carrot on a stick in front of me. Especially a brilliant red carrot with black trim.
Even missing the Scarlet couldn't keep this goldmine from producing though. I had three life birds, one of which posed for a respectable picture, and two will be hunted again in the future.

The good:
A Gray Flycatcher.

The potentially oh-so-good:
Western Tanager.

And the - through no fault of its own - ugly:
Virgina's Warbler. Note: Ugly applies to the photographic rendering, the bird itself is fantastic.
The sad part on that one is; that I have an even less focused shot that shows the yellow undertail coverts which helped me make the ID. My next frame had the perching branch in focus as the bird had just dove down the length of the tree and behind a larger clump of branches. I guess I'll just have to get faster on the focusing draw.

To finish on a cleaner note here are two better picks of more common species, a Turkey Vulture circling in the sunlight (there were 8 in the kettle), and a Spotted Towhee on what I believe is a Raspberry branch. Should be good bear and bird food later this summer!

Fortunately on this trip there were no snakes visible whatsoever. Really, it is much nicer that way.
2009 Count: 150

Thursday, May 28, 2009

A "Swift" trip to the South Mesa Trailhead

After my sunny lunch trip to Boulder I went back up after work, this time to the South Mesa Trailhead. It was a bit different, as the seasonal "black cloud over Boulder" had made its afternoon appearance. I took shelter downwind from some heavy brush as the front blew through, and was able to watch a group of White-Throated Swifts soaring on the strong breeze.

After the rain cleared I was able to locate this Yellow Warbler singing as it inspected the new growth for insects.

Within minutes the sky was back to eggshell blue, which brought out this Bullock's Oriole to sing in the treetop.

It also brought out this Bullsnake, who was not singing. It did a lot of hissing and I did some yelling when we found one another well inside our comfort zones after I came around a bush in the trail. Fortunately my heart did not explode in my chest despite a good shot of adrenalin, I wonder if snakes use adrenalin, and if so did it have a story to tell its friends later that night like I did?
Neither of use were any worse for the wear, and I watched - from a few additional feet away - as he worked his way into some rocks that offered more cover. Oddly enough the picture above was the first I took after I had scrambled out of his way. The later attempts failed to get his head in nearly as tight focus.
2009 Count: 147
Lifetime 160

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

CU Campus Northwest Pond

The Sun is finally shining again in Colorado! To celebrate I headed up to the CU campus in Boulder on lunch to see if I could locate an American Redstart that had been reported there earlier in the day.

Instead it was a bunch of common birds, in a nice environment. Unfortunately I showed up just as the landscape crews were mowing, so that may have sent anything passing through to deeper cover, but at any rate there were some nice looks at familiar species. The Black-Capped Chickadee is one example. They are so familiar on bare snowy branches that seeing one surrounded by sun-drenched leaves almost seems wrong.

The House Wren was also cooperative in its perch. It was singing, and I approached it from the footbridge. I was able to move just under it and to the side of a building to get shots from the front - but at that point the light was behind the bird.

This brilliantly colored House Finch was working its way along the ivy covered walls. Even when seen daily their colors can be impressive in the right setting.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Headin' on down to South Park

I had the good fortune to have a day off coming on Friday, which set me up for a four day weekend. I started it off in style, with a 2:30 wake-up and drive up over Kenosha Pass and into South Park. I wanted an attempt at my first "Fourteener" of the season, and because the forecast was typically uncertain for Colorado I wanted to be on the trail before daybreak so that if anything nasty rolled in I would be well off before the normal afternoon thunderstorm buildup. BTW, for those who are not familiar, a Fourteener is one of Colorado's mountain peaks that reaches an elevation of over 14,000 feet.
This was the earliest attempt I had made, and true to the worst of the forecast there had already been close to an inch of wet snow when I parked at 11,000 feet. This is an activity that requires forethought and preparation at the best of times, and going solo with snowpack created a need for more gear than I have used in the past. In addition to layers of cold weather clothing I also needed to carry snowshoes, poles, a snow axe, a helmet, a headlamp, and of course water to keep from dehydrating along the way. With all that gear an SLR camera and extended lens was the first thing to go. Much to my chagrin my old reliable Sony P&S seems to have reached its end, so before the trip I picked up a Nikon Coolpix as my new pocket camera.
I have really grown accustom to manually focusing on birds when shooting, and the lack of manual focus really caught me off guard, also the general lack of familiarity with the camera kept this from being a photographic masterpiece.

Unfortunately the weather closed in on me at around 12,300 ft, so I made the decision to head back down. It was a good first start of the season and I did not want to be a story on the news.
I did, however, get three new species on the day. I saw a single White-Tailed Ptarmigan near the top of my climb. I completely missed it when trying to get a photograph. I would have kept at it, but it popped over a ridge just as the weather was closing in on me.

I also saw the Hermit Thrush immediately above, and a cool looking Wilson's Warbler from a greater distance, top.

I even managed to get this Mountain Bluebird decently captured in wing beat. After a great morning playing in the snow I drove back down home and settled in for a wet and dreary holiday weekend. I got to enjoy time with friends, good food, and some up and down Nuggets Basketball games - so even if the birding fizzled I still had a good time.
2009 Count: 146
Lifetime: 159

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Fast-Paced Loop at Marshall Mesa

"I'm an Owl!"

"What???? Um....Why is the world spinning?"
Tough to see in these pictures, but there is something just above the bill in the first shot, and just to our right of the bird's left eye in the second. Not sure if that is an insect harassing the bird's ears or something else entirely, but that was quite a head shake.

My trip to Marshall Mesa was really about getting a fast loop in more than doing any intensive birding, but I did want to get back out as it had been a few days, and the weather is deteriorating. Beyond the head-banger it was a visit filled with Towhees and Chipping Sparrows. I had some Cowbirds in the pasture and Catbirds on the return, other than that it was fairly quiet.

The Sparrows and Towhees gave me a few good looks, and I did check the mesa overlook turnoff, which did not end up being the shortcut I had hoped it would but was a great view.

A good break, and more birding from last night and this morning to come.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Some of Colorful Colorado

We have gotten into our spring weather cycle of warm days, and late afternoon thundershowers. These are really moving the plant cycles along quickly. I have no idea what these are, but took pictures so I could check my plants guides at some point.

I was looking at this one, and think I see a smart bit of plant advertising that had gone on. There are a couple of spent bloom things (sorry, no idea what they are called but you can see the couple of strings hanging off) that seem to hang individually from the main stem rather than in the clusters. I'm thinking that before the plant puts all its energy into a bloom cycle it sends out a couple of free samples to get the pollinators ready for the big show. If I were a plant I would certainly want the bees and whatnot to know that there was about to be some good stuff in the area.

Purply somethings - I took this one after I had spoken to a cow just across a bridge I needed to cross to get back to work. The cow was quite cooperative and worked her way on down the trail, but I couldn't see beyond her and didn't know if she had a new calf in the area.

Uh, Wild Snapdragons? The sad part is I ran, yes RAN, a greenhouse for four summers. Not only that but I ran it well and had a flock of customers who would come to me for gardening advice. I can grow things like a champ when it is work, but as a home gardener I am a terrible failure. I guess I just prefer to see the wilds as a garden, it really cuts down on the weeding.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Ones That Get Away

There are some species out there, like the American Goldfinch, that are easily identifiable, and photogenic. On my lunch today along the Coal Creek Trail I took the picture above. It is in poor light, and has a branch in the foreground, but nonetheless tells the story that I saw a Goldfinch on my walk.

Much the same, this Say's Phoebe accompanied me on my cut across a field along a barbed wire fence. Despite being very close it always remained "up" sun from me. That made good eye shots impossible, and washed out a lot of detail. Even with those challenges identifying the bird was no challenge, and after a first glimpse I knew I was walking with a Phoebe.

Here is my mystery guest though. Much like a Yeti, Loch/Sea Creature or Missing Link it evaded any clear picture of its head or breast. This was despite the fact that I was a few feet from it, and it didn't flush immediately.

It was crafty in its ability to move between leaves and branches, and despite the moves we both made, I could not catch more than a fleeting glimpse at any time. All the same I had the impression of a small, uniformly brown, finch like bird. This was between two longer observations of American Goldfinches, and it gave off the impression of being close to the same size beak to tail, but of being more sleek as well.
It remained quiet while I observed it, and stayed close to the center of a shrubby tree right on the bank of the creek. It continued to deeper cover based on my position with a series of small jumps or hops, rather than flights of any kind of distance. However I should state that when I lost it I could not relocate it in the same tree despite watching for some minutes.

Have you ever seen this bird before? Do you recall a similar experience with an unidentified feathery flier? After multiple searches and slow looks through my copy of Sibley I am resigned to not finding the answer after this encounter, but that doesn't mean I wont be back looking again.
In the meantime just another one of those birds to keep me scratching my head in wonder.

Yellow Warbler

Yesterday at lunch I had the good fortune to discover this brightly colored warbler in a grove of willows further west along the creek in Superior that I had visited earlier in the week.

Even for me, the almost universal yellow color makes this species a quick ID. If there is any doubt though, check the front for the reddish streaks.

For such a bright bird it did a great job of tucking itself in with the new growth leaves for cover.

Of course like all warblers the Yellow Warbler is constantly in motion, and eventually was on its way to different, hopefully buggier, trees.
2009 Count: 141
Lifetime: 154

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Sparrows and Change

For my lunch break today I decided to head over to a little trailhead on the way to Marshall Mesa where I had some luck finding bluebirds earlier in the spring. This time I was more interested in the two marshy ponds that are full of cattails and were places I considered good possible locations for shorebirds or waterfowl.
I was immediately successful locating Yellow-Headed Blackbirds which were present in the best numbers I have seen yet. They were vocalizing with a click that sounds exactly like a modern driver making good contact with a golf ball. I wonder if they have always done that, or if it gets mimicked from being heard on all the golf courses with marshy wetlands?

There wasn't much variety in the ponds, but as I was watching I saw and photographed one individual in each of the three following Sparrow species. The Vesper Sparrow is above. I noticed the breast spot, but that the bird's colors seemed more faded than a Song Sparrow and started my searching from there. The white eyering really helped to dial this ID in.

This next Sparrow is a Brewer's, the field marks are visible even though the colors were a bit washed out by the direct sun. Here I noted the pale, light-gray underside with no streaking. The white eyering, coupled with the thin moustache and eyelines were good clues as well. Finally I matched the description of mixed black and tan feathering on the top of the head, and confirmed that this was a Brewers.

The last of the Sparrows I had a chance to ID was the Savannah Sparrow above. I had almost dismissed it on an initial look as a female Red-Winged Black Bird, but even through the elements and habitat were right, I knew that was not correct. The breast and flanks of the RWBB are heavily streaked, making the overall color of the bird much darker. Also, the RWBB has dark legs and feet, and just seems larger and thicker than the Savannah. The other possibility here that I checked was the White-Throated Sparrow. I looked there because it also has the yellow forehead markings. The White-Throated was dismissed before I even checked it because of its crisp white and black lines on the head. However, checking the birds that I know share some common field marks is a good first step. It helped me to know why I was eliminating those species, and by checking the similar species listed for the ones I knew I was able to get to a starting place and eventually eliminate all but the Savannah Sparrow.
If you are still reading, sorry for the rambling description. I am working on getting some of these IDs more firmly wired in my brain, and working back through the steps I followed may help for next time.

Finally, while I was looking out across the field to see if there were any visible Burrowing Owls in the area, I had a nice view of an American Kestrel overhead. The translucent bits of the wings really show up well, yet again Kestrels stepping up for a new fun way to be photographed.

Eldorado Mountain Open Space - Boulder County

I got in two more walks yesterday, in two new sites, and added another pair of birds to my list, including the Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher (above).
I started at lunch by heading into Superior and checking Hodgson-Harris Reservoir to see if there were many shorebirds or waterfowl in the area. There wasn't a whole lot of activity, but there were 8 Double-Crested Cormorants snoozing on the shore.
I then decided to stop and check out a greenbelt I had seen previously, but hadn't yet visited. It is tucked just behind a grocery store and strip mall, but seems to have a good stretch of riparian habitat and a small pond where a pair of accommodating Pelicans landed as I walked by.
I made a quick dip into the shade of a Cottonwood where I was able to watch two lesser Goldfinches chasing in the brush. As always though, I had to break off and return to work - responsibility yeah!

Throughout the day I had been trading emails with a Boulder birder who had reported Lewis Woodpeckers on a trail close to the Doudy Draw area in Boulder County. I had him clarify the directions a bit and headed up for my evening walk.

It was a continuation of the great landscape I had described from my walk on Monday. The Eldorado Mountain Open Space is further west, and the road and trail I took runs along the first major ridge of the foothills, just south of Eldorado Canyon. I was on the east side of the ridge, and knew going in that the light would be poor, but it was so worth it. Climbing at dusk from a grassy meadow cut by a prime riparian stream, through a fire scarred area along the hogback, to the beginning of the Ponderosa Pine Forest habitat is just a great way to spend a spring evening.

I was on the lookout for the previously mentioned Lewis Woodpeckers and for any additional Owl species, but did not end up finding either. I was treated to a number of Steller's Jays moving their way up the ridge and to the aerial maneuvering of around 30 Chimney Swifts just above the ridge. They would catch the sunlight as they rose and then turn or dip back into shadow.

The swifts were cool, but about as easy to get a good photograph of as swallows. Someday.....

This is definitely a site to visit at sunrise, as the burned trunks of trees offer good habitat, and in full soft light should give even better photo ops. Not to complain though, because walking through the woods as they begin darken is spectacular. As I came back down I looked across the small valley to the ridge beyond and was scanning to see if I would catch any mammal activity in the better lit distance. I did see one, but it was not what I had been particularly thinking of....a skunk. I am glad there was a good distance separating that encounter!

2009 Count: 140

Lifetime: 153

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Doudy Draw - How Have I Missed This Place?

Here's an old friend from my Nebraska trip, now seen in Colorado

Back in the mid-Nineties, when I was an undergrad and a new arrival in Colorado, one of my favorite drives was south on Highway 93 along the foothills in the late afternoon or evening.
It still is - for all the same reasons. As you drive along, hogbacks and mesas break the view eastward towards the cities of the Front Range. The setting sun will peak between the rock outcroppings of the Flatirons and foothills, and make a natural splendor of light and shadow. In addition, for stretches of that fantastic hilly and curvy ribbon of asphalt you can lose sight of all development, and picture just for an instant how the untouched splendor of the Rockies must have appeared 200 years ago.
You could say I like the scenery a "bit". Knowing all that it is amazing to me that until last night I had never had the inclination or desire to visit the Doudy Draw trailhead. I have hiked, biked, and driven all around the area, but had never jumped on one of the trails heading along or towards the foothills west of 93. Now I know - insane!

Hummingbirds look like they never quite bought into the idea of feathers over scales.

Finally the idea of migrants and a known Boulder hotspot made me pull into the lot on the left side of the street rather than the right, and BLAMMO, there I was. A nice trail runs along the South Boulder Creek valley, and eventually climbs along the ridge to offer occasional peaks through at the Flatirons and foothills to the north and west. With just a bit of haze it was spectacular.

A House Wren and its mate appeared to be busy carrying nesting materials to the back of a nearby tree.
Word on some of the Colorado Birding email lists is that the changes to the trail configuration at Doudy Draw have made it less appealing, and frankly I can see why. More of the trail has been shifted up the hillside and away from some great riparian habitat. However, even seeing that the older trail which is now blocked off looked much more favorable I am willing to accept the area as is. I look at the hilly trail before reaching the ideal habitat as a buffer between the dedicated and those looking for an immediate reward. After all, part of what has attracted me to doing this so often is the chance to find peace and calm, and an active relationship with Nature that had been missing from my life. Walking ten paces from a parking lot to a overlook, or worse, shooting frames from my car window is a necessary compromise at times, but it really can't compete with a good walk on a beautiful summer afternoon.
But, then again I have only been birding a few months, and had never been to the site before, so what do I know?

This Rock Wren knew that its place was on a rock.

Even with a more distanced trail the birding was still fantastic. I had new species for my lifetime list, the House and Rock Wrens pictured above, a Catbird, Western Bluebird, Yellow-Breasted Chat and Clay-Colored Sparrow all pictured, just not well enough for here! That was not all though, oh no. There was a whole family of species that I had been waiting to see all winter, Orioles. I don't recall ever having noticed an Oriole in Colorado, and only once as a kid in Minnesota. Last fall though I learned that the little hanging balls of fishing line or fiber you see on trees can be Oriole nests. As I have walked and observed through many habitats this winter I have seen the nests everywhere, an known that at some point I must find one of those colorful birds at the back of the guide.
Yesterday was that day:

May I present, the Bullock's Oriole!

All of the color of a finch or warbler, none of the tiny size issues. It was great fun to find and watch these colorful individuals, there were two that I saw. They act quite shy and elusive, but their brilliant yellow-orange plumage isn't very conducive to hiding in the thin spring growth. A bit frustrating when taking pictures to not often see the face, but more bearable when the comic value of bits of orange poking beyond both sides of the same thin branch is realized.

Great color, great location, great afternoon.

It was a bit of a milestone day on the counting side of things. I broke through 150 on my global lifelist, reached 130 in Colorado, and broke 100 in my first county, Boulder. I have learned so much through these early months, and can't wait to see where I am when I reach the one year anniversary. That will hopefully be many productive months from now, after the end of spring migration, a whole summer, and then a fall migration to boot. Good times and continued improving photographs ahead!

2009 Count: 136

Lifetime: 151

Monday, May 11, 2009

Saturday - Crescent Meadow and Walker Ranch

Went on an abbreviated hike on Saturday with an old school friend who was back visiting Boulder. We headed to Eldorado Canyon state park, and used the Crescent Meadows trailhead to avoid the CU graduation crowds.

The day was perfect, with clear skies and much warmer temperatures than had been forecast. Due to our late start and the mid-day Nuggets game the hike was more about getting there and back in a timely manner than it was about stopping and finding species, but it was great to get out in the sunshine regardless.
The Chipping Sparrows were everywhere in the burn area, I had this one perching on a burned out stump for several moments.

On the climb up to the Walker Ranch trailhead I had great looks at four Turkey Vultures soaring just over the ridge. Always a good sight to keep the coastal visitors moving on the trail!

The Mountain Bluebirds really stand out in the burn area. They generally perch high on the clear limbs and are a bright bit of color against the mostly drab background.

**Update: Comma**

I also had a couple of cool looking butterflies along the way, neither of which I have yet been able to id. There were three of the coppery ones above resting on rocks along the creek, and several of the type below further along the trail.

**Update: Spring Azure**

This one had a brilliant, blue back. Unfortunately it would not rest with open wings, and would not cooperate when flying.
I guess an insect guide is in my future along with a guide to mammals. Those two groups seem much more difficult to ID on the web.
Have a great week everyone, enjoy all the spring going on out there!