Friday, July 31, 2009

Larking About - Sparrow Style!

After work yesterday the clouds began to break up a bit. To be fair my office is close to the foothills and got rain and heavy overcast all day - I think just a bit east the weather was much nicer all day. Yet another cool thing about close proximity to mountains, micro climates and ever changing weather!
Anyway, I took a drive back to the moose area in Broomfield, still no luck but I wasn't expecting any at that point. Instead I headed to an undeveloped area with park access near the Northwest Parkway. I took a walk through some semi developed acreage. It is a weird bit of land where apparently the housing boom planned a neighborhood, and now hasn't built any homes, leaving an area that had been graded and "improved" to sit idle for a few years.
Thanks to the rain there was a heavy flow through a drainage ditch stream, and some oddly overdeveloped underpasses and walkways that don't connect to anything. Weeds are already beginning to break concrete, and fancy lightposts have shifted off vertical. Leaving me to find these oddities and wonder, and hope, that they can remain known to the just the handful of folks who get off the beaten track for even a few years more.
Another Swainson's Hawk (above) was there to keep an eye on me. The sun broke through to catch it, with the still lingering dark thunderheads for a backdrop.

While I walked I was treated to constant entertainment by what I believe to have been a group of 4-6 young Western Kingbirds. They seemed to be practicing flight displays and territory disputes, and would go all out for a few seconds. Then in a blink they would settle down together to preen or relax, sometimes all sharing the same branch. I found a convenient rock to keep the seat of my pants clean and watched for a few minutes. It was a great level of activity for relaxing, they would call - much like prairie dogs, and perform their displays. I have often seen solo kingbirds hawking insects, but to see so many all engaged in a variety of activities was a real show. It is what made me think that they were a group of youngsters, likely with a few adults showing them the ropes, who were learning and practicing the skills that they will need to thrive throughout their lives. Very engaging.

Soon I was on my way though, and glad that I was. Had I stayed watching the kingbirds I would have missed out one of the more colorful sparrows around - the Lark Sparrow.

I had to do a bit of work to get past it, and then return along the trail with the sun coming from behind. Even so it was fairly tolerant of my approach. I wish my focusing had done the contrast in that face justice. A species that I am glad to have enjoyed in the field, and one that will make a return visit to that particular bit of wasteland a priority for me.
2009 Count: 171
Lifetime: 181

Random Bit of Color

After a few days of clouds and rain it was nice to get out for a few minutes of sunshine between the showers. Just a couple of pics to let everyone know that there are lots of reasons to call this beautiful place "Colorful Colorado", even when the skies haven't been recently.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Goin' on a Photographic Moose Hunt

Wilson's Phalarope

Last evening I caught the local news, and was amazed to hear that a moose was being monitored in my home town of Broomfield! In several recent posts I have mentioned moose. On an early June camping trip early risers were treated to a view of a moose cow walking just past the turn off to our camp, as I snoozed. Later, I was disappointed to learn that I had just missed a cow and calf on the western descent from Trail Ridge Road. Those I easily deal with, because I have seen moose in the past, and don't expect that I will see them each time I am out. It makes it that much more special when they are sighted.

Well one in my own back yard was too much to pass up, so I started out early this morning to see if I could catch a glimpse of what I believe is the second reported sighting in Broomfield since the species was reintroduced to Colorado.

Sadly, while I later confirmed that I was in the right area I did not see it. I was easily consoled by my stop at Prince Lake #1 in Boulder County on my way to work. The Wilson's Phalarope above was just the first lifer I had this morning as I braved the cool temps and varying precipitation of an October-like July morning.

California Gull

Also added to the list was this California Gull. It was in the mix with about 85 Ring-Billed Gulls, but was distinctly darker even from a distance. Anything not a Ring-Billed is a welcome sight for me, but I am still as novice as it gets in Gull ID. If anyone reading is sure I am incorrect after looking at these two pics, please don't hesitate to let me know.

If there is anything I am less sure of in identification than gulls, it would have to be shorebirds. For the Wilson's at the top of this post I am very confident. This last one is still a mystery to me as I type.

Update: After some quality time with "The Shorebird Guide" by O'Brien, Crossley, and Karlson I had a forhead smacking Spotted Sandpiper epiphany. Leaving the original text below because the notes I had on behavior were so indicative of this species. I have to get used to them losing their spots!

Granted I have only had my Peterson's Guide to Western Birds, (my bag book), to check so far. The coloring and bill length suggest Mountain Plover to me. When I checked BNA Online I found that they are rarely seen around water. While this species stayed more to the mud flats than the Killdeer that were all around, they were definitely in a shorebird area rather than the plentiful prairie and scrub habitats in the area. Then again with all the rain we have gotten in the past few days those habitats may be equally muddy, leaving the potential plovers to mix it up a bit and get some inter species socialization in while they have a chance. The two individuals I observed were much more mobile than other shorebirds. They seemed to be following clouds of flying insects in fairly straight lines across the shore. They moved quickly, and somewhat constantly without much bobbing or checking of the ground. Their size was close to the many Killdeer amongst whom they were moving, but they were more streamlined.

If this is a no brainer, or if you have a strong conviction about what this species is please feel free to leave a comment or send an email.

2009 Count: 170
Lifetime: 180

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Car Care Bonus (slightly messy - avoid looking closely at the feet if squeamish)

The past week and a half has flown by, and has been notably free of both photography and bird related activities.
Last Friday I was out playing 9 holes at the Coal Creek Golf Course. I didn't have camera gear with me, but did enjoy some avian activity as I walked through the course where I often skirt the perimeter on midday walks. The back nine on that course runs through some fantastically diverse habitat. Much of it is parallel to the Coal Creek Trail system (duh), but there is also a climb through some grassland just off Highway 36 where some bluebirds and warblers were very active. I need to remember my small pair of bins for my next evening round. Highlight species were a Belted-Kingfisher, a flyover by a group of Great Blue Herons, and a perched Swainson's Hawk that allowed me to pass almost directly underneath it as less fortunate members of my foursome spent time sending balls from the rough to the adjacent woods.
Sometimes though, life just gets in the way, and the to dos that get put off can't wait any more. One such to do was a quirky car issue that I had been dealing with for a bit. Last night inconvenience won out and I dropped it off for a first thing in the morning repair. While I was waiting outside the shop for the work to be completed a good sized hawk settled onto a light pole across a fairly busy four lane road. Having my camera bag on my shoulder was fortunate, and I advanced to get the shot below, fearing that the hawk would leave before I got close.

Fairly non-descript from the original angle, but as I looked at my first few frames I noticed something that typically doesn't stand out - the rear talon.

These are often overlooked, but logically have an essential role in capturing prey. As the hawk carries its catch back to which ever perch it will use to eat in safety the rear talon secures the prey item against the forces of drag.
According to the preview I found online for Birds of Prey: An Artists Guide to Understanding Raptors by Floyd Scholtz and Tad Merrick, "On most raptors the largest and thickest talon is on the rear toe (which is called the hallux)..." It continues, "The majority of the killing and grasping power of the foot resides in the rear and inside talons. Understandably these two toes are the thickest and shortest, allowing for much greater leverage and power. These toes also have one less joint than do the middle and outside toes."
How cool is that? I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to work up close with many types of birds of prey, but the details that this book emphasizes for those who seek to reproduce their forms are fascinating. I'll have to keep an eye out for it.

Fortunately this hawk was content to remain perched as I approached the far side of the road and got a better angle for some additional shots. From the front this is an easily identified Swainson's Hawk, but it has far less contrast between the breast band or "necklace" than the majority that I have seen in this area.
If a tiny bit of blood isn't too much for you, look closely at the front view of the talons. This hawk had recently had breakfast. That is always good for the hawk, and even better for the person trying to observe or photograph it. A hawk that has a prey item, or has just eaten is typically more content to tolerate approach than one that is hunting. In this case the perch was on the streetlight post of a four lane road, with all kinds of human activity at the businesses across the street. It didn't pay me more than passing attention, and let me savor its great colors for what would have otherwise been a boring twenty minutes waiting on a car.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Better than Birding!

The title of this post can mean different things based on your attitude to birding. To some readers that statement can only be applied to the birth of their children, fulfilling a lifelong dream of becoming an astronaut, or just possibly getting kisses on the nose from a few week old puppy. For others, the list includes major dentistry, laundry and taxes. I find myself somewhere in between, take a guess which pole I am closer to!

Despite all the attitudes encompassed in the spectrum above there is one thing that hopefully we can all agree is more important than an ever expanding life list, saving human lives!

Yesterday was my opportunity to once again take less than an hour from my busy day to do just that very thing - I gave blood! It is an opportunity that I get to seize once every 8 weeks. I have written about it before. I am sure I will again. This is today's version.

In Colorado the primary blood banking organization is Bonfils Blood Center with whom I donate. They have a bus that comes to my work several times each year, and I make my donations when I am eligible in between those visits at one of their local blood centers.

I know that for some the idea of voluntarily being stuck by needles is abhorrent, but what better reason could there be to confront a fear than knowing that by doing so you will be saving up to three lives? If it is any assurance, for a man like me without even exceptionally hairy arms, the pulling off of the tape they use to hold the line in place is by far the most painful part of the experience.

If you are outside the Colorado area please check, the American Red Cross blood drive search page. Outside the United States? Don't worry, I'll give you a starting point. These groups promote World Blood Donor Day any of them should be able to provide local resources for your area.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Barr Lake State Park

On my quick visit to Barr Lake State Park on Sunday I was treated to a few moments of great light, and a whole lot of looks at Western Kingbirds.

There was a good sized group around the Visitor Center, who seemed more concerned with a nearing storm than my presence in the area. Even the two young ones didn't seem concerned. There was a Cowbird in the area that also appeared young, and seemed suspiciously like one who was just realizing that there were some major differences in the members of the brood.

I wonder if there is an awkward moment when every Brown-headed Cowbird slinks away from the nest and brood, much like Carl Spackler in Caddyshack after the priest was just struck by lightening. I didn't stick around to find out, because in addition to lots of Western Kingbirds there were lots of mosquitoes and they were some kind of mutants that were completely unfazed by my spray. So I was off to the car and have been busy scratching ever since.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Afternoon at the Arsenal

In addition to wondering about the possibilities and prevalence of leucism I saw a good variety of full color birds at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge on Sunday.

The Common Yellowthroat popped into the top of a willow thicket as I walked by and posed while singing for me to take a few shots.

A young Red-tailed Hawk flew along the edge of a wood, and paused for a moment to check me out from the perch it had found. It then called once, took off towards and then over me, before flying on to a more distant grove of trees. I guess it wanted a closer look.

Another young bird, this one a juvenile Snowy Egret, moved from perch to perch as I returned along the lake shore. I used my photo processing software to take a bit of the edge off the mid-day sun. In its altered the photograph shows the key indicator for the age of the Snowy, its bi-colored legs. Eventually the legs will darken, leaving the yellow feet at the end of long black legs. The trademark of an adult Snowy Egret.

As I was leapfrogging the Snowy's perches I was accompanied by a pair of Belted Kingfishers. They were more secretive, preferring to remain on the far side of leafy trees, but their calls give them away. At one point the foliage broke, giving me this view.

Just as I reached the dam road I spotted this flight of Double-Crested Cormorants using some concrete as a communal perch. The two in the back were playing king of the hill with the lone remaining perch, very entertaining.
While scanning the lines I did pick up Bank Swallows as well, which was a new species for me. The back of one is visible in the picture at the top of the previous post.
2009 Count: 168
Lifetime: 178

Monday, July 20, 2009

Was I seeing things?

I had an interesting trip to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge yesterday afternoon. I'll have a photo report up later, but there were some birds along the way that had me head scratching and possibly seeing more than was really there.

Shortly after I arrived I scanned a large group of swallows on some hanging wires, it didn't take long to pick the one that was not like the others....

That is one white swallow...technically it is leucistic...a true albino would have the pink eye indicating a total lack of pigment.

The first notably leucistic bird I have found in the wild, and I did it all by myself! Ok, not that major of a feat when there are hundreds of birds all hanging out together and all in plain sight. What became more interesting was what I saw later....

Am I right, is this a partially leucistic Bullock's Oriole? I only have my Peterson Guide to Western Birds with me this morning, but I do not see anything else to match what I am seeing here.

Then to make a strange coincidence even more unlikely, I saw this bird at the far end of the lake.

I can't say for certain if they were or were not the same individual - although the first one appears to have more white where the Bullock's should have the black eye-band - but differences in time and light angle make it impossible to tell.
Once again nature throws so many questions my way...
Do Bullock's Orioles go through a light molt? This young Oriole seems to suggest otherwise, but that one may have been further along....
If it (they) is (are) leucistic how uncommon would it be to have two in the same area? Are multiple leucistic individuals in the same brood possible? Common? Rare?
I don't think it likely, but can environmental factors increase the emergence of recessive genes?
Finally, am I just seeing these species because this is the season for hatches? Since I have really only been doing this since last October it is entirely possible that each summer hundreds of pale individuals are born, and then due to natural selection are weeded back out of the flocks by the time fall migration rolls around.
As always, if anyone has insight please feel free to comment or email me at

Friday, July 17, 2009

You've got mud on your face....

I guess that is necessary, if building something like this....

That is a lot of mud, one mouthful at a time.

Lunchtime walks and photography get tougher as the temps rise, so yesterday I headed to a trail that passes through an underpass. This nest in particular was well lit by sunlight reflected from the water below. While I watched the bird seemed to be engaged in nest maintenance rather than feeding. I couldn't tell if that was just routine, or if the repairs were in advance of an attempt to replace a failed nest.

I wonder if those nests stay nice and cool on a hot day like the inside of an adobe?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Walking the Meyers Homestead Trail

This is a bird focused post, but when a little ground squirrel stopped to observe me I just had to get a shot.

I walked the 5.2 mile out and back trail at the Meyers Homestead area of the Boulder Mountain Parks and Open Space on Monday afternoon and evening. The last time I had been up here was early spring, and there was still snow and mud to contend with. I can't believe it had been that long. Now the area was filled with late season wildflowers and a great variety of birds.

Hummingbirds were present, I saw both Broad-tailed and Rufous varieties visiting the many wildflowers. Surprisingly all were female, that makes the identification process much more difficult.

A species that is always fun to watch, but difficult to photograph is the Mountain Chickadee. Like all chickadees they are in constant motion, and on top of that try getting contrast on a dark eye in a dark eyeband - over a white face that would just as soon be overexposed. Something that will keep me trying for years. Their faces make the Black-capped variety look positively clean cut and straight laced. Seriously, if raccoons are supposed to look like bandits what are these guys dressing up as? Hitmen?

While on the trail I had three good looks a the species above, the Warbling Vireo. It took me some searching to get the identity firmed up, but I am glad to have made its acquaintance.

Also on the list was this Hermit Thrush. I have been reading so many reports of Ovenbirds in the Boulder area that I was thinking that was what I had found as I walked. After I had a chance to do some checking I got it straight, and now should have a better sense of them both.

One more look at a Rufous Hummingbird having a snack. Those blooms seem to be custom made for them - just watch a bee try to get all that nectar.

2009 Count: 166
Lifetime: 176

Western Tanagers are Fun

Ever since first sighting this bird while looking for its Scarlet cousin at Gregory Canyon I have enjoyed spotting it in the wild. With colors like that, who wouldn't? In my limited experience though this is a bird that has most often been seen from afar.

Last evening on a walk along the Meyer's Homestead Trail in Boulder I had the chance to enjoy some much closer encounters. The brightly colored male above was the first one that I have had fly past me - that leaves an impression! Oddly, he then picked some of the most bland wildflowers and attempted to blend in....

Even his molting buddy had to look twice at that poor attempt at concealment.

Based on what I have found online and in my guides, (Peterson and Sibley in this case), this is more likely a male who is molting back to the more bland autumn and winter plumage than a juvenile developing color. Really, is it that time already?

Such great colors, even mid-molt. To have one interested in me and the camera was fantastic!

Such a welcome sight on a hike, those colors make the miles fly by.

Trail Ridge Road Birding

There are two species that draw birders up where the air is thin more than others. They are the White-Tailed Ptarmagin and the Rosy Finch. I was, of course, hoping for good looks at each.
Unfortunately, finding their habitat doesn't automatically translate into locating the species themselves - but then if it did there wouldn't really be a thrill of discovery.
In my previous post I described the great experience I had at sunrise, and the good fortune I had to see a Ptarmagin just as I was coming down off the rock. Like most birds, I heard it before I saw anything. There was a throaty call, not quite a cluck, but much closer to that than a songbird tweet. Then I saw a large shape rise several feet above the ground before settling back into the rock field.

I was lucky to have seen the motion. Their summer camo pattern perfectly matches the lichen covered rocks in the area. Unfortunately, the distance and lack of a tripod kept me from getting remarkable shots, but these are the first I have gotten of the species, so I'll take what I can get, for now....

Having a White-Tailed Ptarmagin as my first bird of the day seemed a good omen, and I envisioned that soon I would be snapping frames of Rosy Finches on snow fields, but it was not to be. Ironically, the two birds that I feel were most likely that target species landed behind me on the trail as I was approaching the three Elk just after sunrise. They were blindingly back lit however, and with walking restricted to the developed trail I couldn't make an attempt to circle them for better light. Oh well, there will be other chances.

As mentioned previously I made stops at the Alpine Visitor Center and Medicine Bow Curve looking for the finches and additional species. While no finches or ptarmagin were about, I did get great looks at Mountain Bluebirds who seem habituated to humans - probably getting used to the late day crowds.

Later, as I descended I pulled off at Lake Irene, where I watched Gray Jays moving through the treetops.

If you live in the area, or can arrange a visit be sure to make it a priority to visit Rocky Mountain National Park and drive Trail Ridge Road. Getting up in the middle of the night to do so may earn you some funny looks, but just think, you can give some funny looks right back as you drive by the lines of cars as you are leaving. I promise the experience is worth it.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Trail Ridge Road - Mammals

As I teased on Saturday, I started off Friday in one of the best ways I can imagine. In an exceptionally beautiful place, with a spectacular sunrise, and to top it all some pretty incredible wildlife encounters.
If you haven't been there before, or more specifically don't know that the summit of Long's Peak in Colorado is fairly large and flat, for a fourteener that is, then you probably wouldn't have guessed that my destination was Trail Ridge Road, one of, if not the best known attraction of Rocky Mountain National Park.

Elk enjoying the sunrise from "above" Long's Peak

I am thrilled that I live so close to RMNP, and can make a yearly National Parks Pass pay for itself right there. Even so, I find that I don't make it up nearly as often as I would like. It is difficult to find a window that allows for several hours of driving each way, in addition to all the time I would like to spend while I am there. To top it all off I find that I only make the trip over Trail Ridge every few years. I always plan to return more often, but then other things come up. This time I found a way to make it more manageable and so much more special. I rolled out of bed at 2:30 am. If you know me, you know that it takes a special something to get me going that early. Actually, I find that if I am getting up for something that I truly look forward to it is not as much of a problem. It also helps that before 3:00 the shower is for waking up, and the thought of shaving would just get a laugh - if that action was possible that early.
The sacrifice was so worth it, the result was a destination changer for me. I have always loved being above treeline - except for high wind days on the Timberline lift at Mary Jane Mountain. The vistas, the cool winds, the snow flakes in August, they all make me want to plan the next visit. Trail Ridge, however, can have its drawbacks. Foremost on the list is the traffic. Anyone who has made the drive knows, creeping along in stop and go traffic, even in a beautiful setting can be a drag. Beyond that, there is the reality that despite the high elevation and remote location you are moving through a tourist trap. Even so, it is worth it, but now I know it can be so much better.

Elk in velvet, contemplating breakfast

I arrived at the park around 4:00, and was up above treeline around 5:00. The sunrise was still a bit off, but there was enough light to see by. I parked and headed off along the Toll Memorial Trail. I had not hiked it in the past, but it headed up to the top of the ridge with a view to the east, it is also, I believe, near the upper limits of elevation accessed by the road. I had the place to myself! I made it out to the rocks at the end of the trail before the sun had risen, and thanks to the memorial plaque confirmed that there was a former Park Superintendent named Toll, rather than a memorial to any past tolls collected. There is a peak index at the top of the rock formation that is worth the climb to see. It identifies the peaks in the panorama around you - very cool.
I sat and watched the sun rise, as the colors painted the fleecy clouds and snow capped peaks around me. Fantastic!
Fittingly humbled by the beautiful spectacle nature had provided I descended the rock, and immediately saw a White-Tailed Ptarmigan briefly fly before landing amongst some rocks, (more on that in the bird post to come).
I clicked away, and was surprised to see a group of three teenagers approaching along the trail. I passed them to let them enjoy the views and peaks to themselves as I had done, and was immediately greeted by three male Elk crossing the trail under 100 yards ahead of me, lit by the rising sun. They slowly worked their way across the trail, and stopped at a different rock formation about midway along the trail. There they were content to stay as the trail brought me to within 35 yards of them. It was such a cool experience, solitude and in your face wildlife!

young Elk, making faces for the camera

After enjoying the views with Elk in the foreground I left them in peace and headed on to the car, and after a few stops to the area around the visitor center.

Yellow-Bellied Marmot

I have stopped at the visitor center exactly once before, typically circling a parking lot waiting for a space to open is not something I am willing to do in a natural setting. For that reason I took the very first non-handicapped space when I arrived, (take that crowds!). At this point it was nearing 7:00, and there were other cars in the lot, over near the restrooms. I checked out the overlook behind the visitor center, hoping for Rosy Finches, but finding Marmots instead. They are fun critters that just seem made to live a life of luxury in a tough habitat.

lord of the rocks - catching some rays

These guys are an easy spot, even when the crowds are present. Being there in the early hours with only a couple of park employees down below really seemed to keep this one at ease. I climbed the trail, "improved stairway", from the visitor center up to a peak overlooking Medicine Bow Curve. The marmot cruised along ahead of me, and posed for the pic in the previous post as I approached. By the time I had taken in the view and was returning he had climbed around the outcrop and was stopped to enjoy the sunshine.
Later I continued my driving tour down the west side of the road and chuckled as the weekenders were lined up at the west entrance as I left. I didn't see any Moose or Pikas on this trip, the Moose had apparently been seen along the Colorado river, but an older couple reported that some people had tried to get close to a cow and calf and they had departed. Seriously? Hopefully anyone reading this already knows how bad an idea this is, but if not let me emphasize that being anywhere near a momma moose with young is just plain stupid.
With such a great trip under my belt I am already looking forward to my next visit, hopefully this time it wont take years for me to make it back up.