Monday, August 24, 2009

A Cloudy Day in the Desert

I spent the weekend with some of my best friends at our annual fantasy football draft trip destination, Las Vegas, Nevada. Much like a birding festival it gives the 14 of us, and others, to come together from our scattered cities and catch up.
Of course I had to drag myself out of bed and see if I could spy any fun desert species. Thanks to a timely post from Birdchick and Jim Boone's site I learned about, and decided to visit Sunset Park. This park has great diversity, and is located just south east of the airport, so if you are staying on the strip plan on a comparable cab fare, or check the local bus lines. I opted for a cab because it was faster, and I wanted to maximise my time rather than waiting on buses. For a birding focused trip I would get a car, or search for locals who provide guiding services.
One species that had caught my eye as I researched was the Gambel's Quail, (above). Everything about that bird is entertaining, from its coloring to the way they move in groups. I am glad I found so many of them.

Surprisingly, I was met with cloudy skies, and challenging lighting. This female Black-chinned Hummingbird perched in better light, but the male I tried to photograph was completely back lit. All Hummingbirds are fun to watch, and these were no exception.

I found a landscaped area surrounding the County Parks buildings that ended up being fantastic. It bordered the undeveloped Mesquite Scrub and dune areas, but had many flowering trees and boardwalk areas as well. Next to one of the buildings, in one of the trees, was a tiny grey bird with a yellow head. Of course it stayed high in the tree, and was tough to get a look at, but did get enough workable shots to confirm that this was a Verdin.

One that I hadn't expected, and had to double check, was this Abert's Towhee. Not as striking as its spotted or eastern cousins. There were three who were happily feeding in the underbrush while the groups of Gambel's Quail moved through.

I also had several different looks at Hooded Orioles in the park, bringing my total of new species to five. That is not to say that the good birds were limited to lifers, I also saw a Cooper's hawk capturing prey, a number of warblers, and a good looking Loggerhead Shrike among many others.
The park and birding was even better than expected, and gave a great added dimension to the rest of my trip.
2009 Count: 180
Lifetime: 188

Monday, August 17, 2009

Non-Bird Sights while Camping

One of the great things about birding, is all of the cool things other than birds that a person stumbles across. One of the things that caught my eye was this red-topped mushroom. After a bit of searching this seems to be in the Russula family, likely a Russula emetica, "the sickener". I thought the contrasting red and white was impressive, and would much rather observe than sample anyway. I'll leave any taste testing to some other more adventurous observer.

In another area, a higher meadow, I stopped for a bit to watch this White-lined Sphinx Moth. They are similar to, and commonly called, Hummingbird Moths, but when observed are clearly different. The antennae and smaller size are immediate giveaways, but another fun difference is the presence of a curly-cue tongue or proboscis.

Good stuff, of course the one thing seen but not photographed would have made the best picture. It was a Long-tailed Weasel that made a visit to our camp in the late afternoon. I, of course had just sat down across camp from my camera. I was content to watch the carefree visitor, but sadly it didn't return after I had reunited with my camera and waited for it to come back.

Fast, Fun Getaway

I enjoyed another fun and relaxing weekend camping in the Pike National forest Friday and Saturday nights. Warm enough to enjoy the days, but getting cooler at night - ensuring deep sleep and crisp frosty mornings. The birding was better than I have had on recent camping trips. I didn't add any life birds, but did add one to my Colorado list, and saw a bunch of new species for that area. Vesper Sparrows, like the one above are common around my home, but this one seen just after sunrise really showed off the rufous shoulder patches.

At one point, after a bit of four wheeling, I had my friends drop me off a few miles from camp. That let me cross a boggy creek and cross a ridge on my way back, getting some diverse habitat types into my trip. The willows along the creek, which produced a Moose for fellow campers on a trip in June, were productive for me as well. The Ruby-crowned Kinglet, above, was the first I had seen in Colorado, and the first that I had seen while "out birding" rather than looking through my sister's back window.

Shortly after seeing the Kinglet I was treated to a fairly close Wilson's Warbler. Of course the ten or so shots I had of it perched left its eye squarely behind the branch - oh well. Their color is such fun to see along a willow choked mountain stream.

The Western Wood Pewees were ever vigilant just beyond "our" campsite nestled in an aspen grove.

One of the secret advantages of birding is the motivation it gives for getting up early when camping. For most of my adult life camping has included campfires that are kept burning until deep into the morning, and far more s'mores and belly warming beverages than were absolutely necessary. I'm not against those activities for any reason, and sometimes sitting on a stump staring at the dying embers of a good fire can be just as vital as any daylight exploration. That being said, it is good to have a reason to turn in when the first yawns hit, and even better to have a reason - and plan - for abandoning that warm sleeping bag to brave the frost as the predawn glow begins. The Downy Woodpecker above was a reward for getting up early on Sunday. I watched and enjoyed as he woke and performed his morning preen, getting ready for the busy day ahead.

The early day light and shadow even gave this Chipping Sparrow a distinctive look. I was glad to have the trip, the calendar is getting full for fall, and the next trip may feature heavy coats and multiple mid-layers.
2009 Count: 175
Lifetime: 183

Friday, August 14, 2009

Off to the Mountains!

I am off for a weekend camping trip to the South Park area around Jefferson, Colorado. Should be a good, and hopefully not too wet, time. Take care everyone, and good birding to all!

Walker Ranch Afternoon Visit

On Tuesday afternoon I drove up to the Walker Ranch trailhead which has access to Eldorado Canyon State Park. I didn't have enough time for a long hike, but got to spend some time in the burn area between that trailhead and the Meyer's Homestead area. There was a good species mix, the most colorful of which was this Rufous Hummingbird.

It later showed off its balance and flexibility skills as it presumably scratched an itch or stretched out a stiff leg.

Do you think little creatures can't appreciate a view? With that seat the meadows and burned forest open up before him for some nice background during a snack.
Unfortunately Tuesday afternoon was tough for pictures, there were mixed amounts of cloud coming out of the west, and everything interesting seemed to stay up sun from me. That, and the bluebirds are all looking a bit drab in their worn plumage. **I just now learned a cool new fact. Mountain bluebirds molt in feathers with brown edges, which are gradually worn away. This leaves the males looking bright and fresh at the beginning of breeding season. Taken from BNA online:
"The feathers of both sexes have brownish-gray edgings that are worn away by the next breeding season, giving the appearance of the colors becoming brighter (Bent 1949)."
How smart and cool is that? What an adaptation! It makes sense to me though, bluebirds on returning to their breeding grounds are already in their fancy duds, without having to follow up an energy depleting migration with another taxing molt. All that just from normal wear and tear.
Another species whose pictures weren't worth posting here was a group of Violet-green Swallows. An add for my life list, but one that I will have to keep watching for to get some keeper pictures of.

Finally as I was driving back down Flagstaff Mountain I just had to stop for this roadside deer. I was shooting out my passenger window and it was literally three feet from my car!

2009 Count: 175
Lifetime: 183 **Corrected Count**
While reviewing my ebird data I found that I had reported a Black-throated Sparrow from my home in Broomfield, Colorado on December 16th of last year. There are so many reasons why that was incorrect, that I really don't need to check back to my photos to confirm that I was confused by a House Sparrow. Black-throated sparrows have never been reported in Broomfield, and while their breeding grounds do encompass western Colorado, any Black-throated Sparrow trying to breed in December would have been in big trouble.
I also noted that I had somehow not entered Pygmy Nuthatch from my June 8th sighting.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Observing Lunch on Lunch Break

Tuesday lunch was spent back at the South Boulder Trail, leaving from the Bobolink Trailhead. Bright sun made midday shooting tough, but the trees along the creek offered some shade possibilities.

This House Wren was very content to remain at a few perches as I observed from close range.

On my way back I heard some commotion off trail, looking more closely I was pleased to see that the cause was a Cooper's Hawk having some lunch. The trail gave me this view from the north, directly down sun but shaded enough to give me some good looks. Always a great reward for getting out during the day.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Good Things Come, While Sitting on a Deck

Sunday was a great Minnesota day for being outside. The weather was cool enough to kick a soccer ball or play catch with the kids. A bit later it was just fine for sitting in the shade with my DSLR close at hand, enjoying the company of family and feathered friends.

Least, (in stature) but not last, was this Eastern Phoebe. It found an opening in the mature pines and perched as I caught a few frames. I didn't get to confirm this little guy while on site, but based on the coloring and lack of either eyering or wingbars I believe the ID fits.

Later, while my folks had joined me outside I saw a hawk cross just through my field of view on the edge of a lazy circle. I sprang to my feet and hurried across the deck focusing and shooting as I went. It circled over the roofline, but I had a feeling I would get another look as it returned. I stood atop a table bench as it came and was able to get a few frames including the shot above. Then the decades old redwood crashed! I rode the bench down, (thanks snowboarding), and found myself eighteen inches lower and no worse for the wear. We all had a good laugh about the lesson I had provided the five year old and two year old about standing on furniture. I then quickly went inside to confirm a Krider's Red-tailed Hawk. I had wondered initially about a Broad-Winged Hawk, but with a chance to observe zoomed in views on my photos I confirmed the faint patagial bars (invisible in the sun) and the white terminal band (black on a Broad-Wing).

Finally, as I waited outside before we all shared an early, pre-departure dinner, I saw a beautiful splash of color and motion explode uphill near the birdbath! It was a young Cardinal, possibly the same one from yesterday's post, attempting to figure out the birdbath. With the overhead sunlight and soft reds and oranges it could have been a Phoenix. I watched through several visits where he never landed, just gave his best hummingbird impression and was back to the bushes beyond.

2009 Count: 173
Lifetime: 183

A Walk Around the Lake

Gray Catbird

In Minnesota, for my family like many others, there is nothing like "going for a walk around 'the' lake" in nice weather. The concept of "the" lake is clear when you live in a land of 10,000 of them. There is generally a lake in the neighborhood, and it is usually ringed by a trail or two. Instead of a walk around the block, you walk around the lake. My maternal Grandparents lived a few blocks from Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis, and walking around the lake, or in their case lakes meant one or a combination of Calhoun, Harriet, and Isles.

Northern Cardinal

When I was very young the city of Bloomington drained a large marshy area just across the street from my home, and created Mt. Normandale Lake. Myself and a few other neighborhood kids felt like lords in the manor in that large park. We built forts in the trees, played hockey on its frozen ice, fished from its banks and biked, ran, and Rollerbladed its trails. Needless to say a summertime return to Minnesota is always highlighted by a return to the "lake".

Great Egret

Sharing time outdoors with family just adds to the fun, and for my Saturday visit I was joined by my Brother-in-law, Nephew, and Niece. We started out in sprinkles, but by the time we made the 2 mile loop the sun was out and humidity was rising.

Great Blue Heron

I had a great time, and in addition to the species photographed I enjoyed two Osprey circling overhead, many young Wood Ducks and Blue-winged Teal, and a lifer Eastern Wood Pewee. Unfortunately the mid-day sun and our relation two it kept any of those photos from being blog worthy. The only other miss was a Green Heron that my Sister and Brother-in-law had seen on a run the day before. Getting to wade across a flooded section of trail where the rain swollen lake had joined a nearby pond made it a memorable adventure for all of us. I can't wait until my next visit, whenever it may be.
2009 Count: 172
Lifetime: 182

Monday, August 10, 2009

On the way to the Airport

I had an evening flight after work on Thursday, from work I took highway 7 straight east from Boulder, and Tower Rd south from Brighton. The best part about that route, (other than avoiding traffic), is that it swings right past Barr Lake State Park, and I had enough time to drive slowly to the boat launch and back before heading on to park for my flight.

I was following a storm out, so the light was a pretty mixed bag, but it was a nice break between work stress and airport stress. There were bunches of Eastern Kingbirds along the access road.

One of the risks of stopping on the way to the airport is that there is a risk that self discipline will fail, and the necessary time to continue on to make the flight seems to come very quickly. Even as I pushed that limit I had to make one stop as I exited the park. A well marked Swainson's Hawk is always worth a quick stop, even in poor light.
Trip details to follow, but I need to work on a replacement for a failed hard drive in my laptop, (apparently Minnesota didn't agree with it).

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Off to Minnesota!

Image borrowed from the Minnesota Secretary of State site

I am off to catch a plane for Minnesota to see my family and maybe even a few feathered friends. No posts for a bit, so take care, and seize the weekend to enjoy this ride we call life!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Sunny Morning Walk

This morning was another great day to get an early start. They all should be, but the knowledge that someone will be augering post holes in your backyard around seven am is great encouragement to give up that extra bit of sleep. The Western Meadowlark had no second thoughts about the early start. Do you think he appreciates the color scheme of his perch?

Actually the first bird that I saw this morning as I parked at the Cowdrey Draw trailhead in Boulder County was this Red-tailed Hawk. Horrible picture I know, but an incident with my car alarm had him skittish before I was even out the door. Check the blurry tail feathers though - it is a juvenile who is transitioning to adult plumage. The tail feather molt begins in the middle, and alternates outward. I like the comparison of the light, barred, juvenile feathers on the outer tail with the dark red of the adult feathers and their contrasty white terminal band. A nice sight any day.

I dropped through the cow pasture to the old railroad grade from the area's mining days. Most of the drainage has dried out now, but there were a group of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers moving around in the shrubs and willows.

Of course, as now seems to always be the case, once I have seen a species for a first time it frequently reappears shortly thereafter. It almost seems like they want me to reaffirm my newly acquired identification in the field by giving me a second look. Whatever the reason I like it!

Less Birdy Car Repair

Ever have too much of a good thing? Well I've had my fill of car issues. Yesterday as I left for lunch I put my windows down. The passenger side went down, made a thunk (the kind that makes you go uh-oh), and would not go back up. My poor car has no luxurious garage parking, so getting the window situation resolved became an immediate priority. I went to the nearby auto body shop, dropped off the car, and had a co-worker give me a ride back to work.
Monday is my early off day, but the best time commitment the garage could give was that they would have it done before they closed at 5:30. So rather than hanging out late at work and making a coworker give me a ride back I decided to use my early afternoon to walk across Louisville. A front blowing through cooled off temps, and didn't even drop any rain on me. Unfortunately, it kept most of the birds hidden away, and I was left to enjoy a brisk walk with not much to distract me.
The most photogenic of the few species I did see was this juvenile Mallard, just coming into his green. He was tucked in behind the cattails, and aside from blurring his exposed feathers the wind didn't bother him a bit.
I'll just consider myself fortunate that my car issues have been relatively minor, and conveniently timed - or as convenient as they can be, hopefully I am through them now and future birding can be done on my time, not a mechanics!