Monday, October 26, 2009

Weekend Waterfowl

The end of last week saw major priorities in life shift dramatically. I guess the priorities don't shift, but the values you place on the lives of friends and family make for unexpected activities. We all have times when our human bonds have to come first, so my time out doors was limited.

I did get a chance to make the most of my limited time by heading to South Platte Park on Saturday morning. My only previous visit was last year's Christmas Bird Count. That was a great day where I totaled over 40 species with the help of fellow birders.

On Saturday I tallied 23 in two hours, not bad, but something I definitely would not have been able to do a year ago. The juvenile Wood Duck at the top of this entry is one of my favorites. The distinctive white facial pattern is visible in traces, but has not yet emerged. The orange eye-ring is a giveaway though.

The others, Mallards, Northern Shovelers, and American Wigeons were all present in far greater numbers. They were also joined by Pied-billed Grebes, American Coots, Ring-necked Ducks, and Redhead Ducks.

Granted, the Great Blue Heron above is not technically waterfowl, but walking under an arching cat-tail it just begged to be photographed - and I complied.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Waiting for the Weather Change

I headed out at lunch today to see if I could get any pics before the weather really turns this evening. We are supposed to have a cold front blow through bringing rain and snow, who knows it may even drop off some migrants.

Unfortunately, there wasn't much moving along the wooded section of Coal Creek I visited. A Dark-eyed Junco was among the bare branches, confirming that winter is another day closer.

The only other bird I photographed was this lovely Downy Woodpecker. I glimpsed her twice moving through the trees before I got these long range shots.

I'll have to see if she gets any company as the weather turns unpleasant. As I was heading back to work the "Greeley Wind" had arrived, a typical inversion situation along the northern Front Range where certain trapped smells quickly take on the aroma of the noticeable feedlots around Greeley, Colorado. Fair or unfair, I have been hearing the name for the 15 years I have lived in Colorado, and it is an almost certain indicator of snow, which I welcome. So bring on the snow, and the migrant fallout!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Kestrel Gone Wild?

Friday at Marshall Mesa I was treated to a bit of good old fashioned aerial mobbing. Mobbing is generally how smaller and more maneuverable species keep predators out of their territory. It is noisy and full of aggressive, showy, displays intended to let the larger predator know that whatever it had been thinking of doing will not be worthwhile. Think of it as the equivalent of professional wrestling in the animal kingdom - there is a lot of posturing and chest thumping, and in the end a winner emerges, but nothing really changes and odds are the entire scenario will be revisited shortly. Unlike wrestling, these interactions are truly captivating, and not something you feel dumber for having watched.
Can you see a difference between the Kestrel above and the one below?

The show was great, if a bit distant for watching as I stood on the ridge. I was confident that the two birds mobbing the Red-tail were Kestrels, but as I only had my camera with me as I watched I wanted to double check the stills when I got them downloaded. I was intrigued by what I saw when I had more detail in a zoom.

One of the two Kestrels was sporting a Jess!

Jesses are what handlers use when moving captive birds between cages, think of them as bird feet leashes.
Kestrels are used commonly by falconers, but I didn't see anyone in the area. I was given a bunch of food for though after seeing the jess. Did the one bird "go wild" and pair up with another of its species? Do individuals that are being trained to hunt by falconers go through an apprentice period where a jess is left on the bird as it is flown with a more experienced, non-jessed bird? If the birds were being flown by a falconer, is it typical behavior for them to locate rival predators and drive them away? Is someone out there missing their Kestrel?

More questions than answers, as is typical when observing nature, but then I find that to be a big part of the fun.

Fall Friday at Marshall Mesa

Last Friday was a beautiful, warm but windy day here on the front range of the southern Rockies. Migration has been competing with football and friends for my attention, so Friday was a nice chance to get out on a fast walk and see what I would come across without many stops. The sun really caught the Spotted Towhee's eye as it watched me from a bush.

The Mountain Bluebirds were flocking, the group I saw contained just over 20 individuals. They are now sporting a worn and drab look, as opposed to the more prominent blue they displayed when they arrived back in March.

Now as they perch, the blue is hard to see at all from a distance, but when they flare their wings in flight the blue pops back out in all its brilliance. Of course, those action shots all failed miserably - so please settle for the perching shots, and imagine flying bluebirds!

There were some flight shots that I was able to capture to some degree of satisfaction. This Red-tail came over the bluebirds low and slow, after calling a few times to get my attention. "Next time, Red-tail, please angle yourself so the sun hits your face"! Actually I was quite pleased with the flyby and will take them however they come.

Just a few minutes before I had enjoyed watching this Red-tail, with what I believe to have been more heavy streaking. It was a part of a new birding experience for me that I will share in more detail in my next post.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Enjoying an Eastern Favorite

While out east last week I really enjoyed getting multiple looks at one of my new favorite bird species, the Red-bellied Woodpecker. The fellow above, (note the red on the head that runs above the eye instead of just on the back of the head), was peaking at me from behind some nice fall color.

I first saw this species while visiting my family last winter. From my research at the time I learned that its range has been expanding north and west, so it may be that it has become more common in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota since I left years ago - or it may just be that I hadn't noticied them. (Female above - only the back of the head is red).

I was so glad when I first saw a group of six in the Pennsylvania woods, that I now know this species and recognized it as an unexpected favorite on my second sighting. To see so many, and be able to watch them leisurly picking their way through the trees was a real highlight. The pictures of the female above and below were from my last early morning visit to Sligo Creek.

Getting to share those first golden rays of sunlight with a colorful bird starting its day were really enjoyable.

If you are lucky enough to be in a common location for these colorful birds enjoy the sight.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The National Mall

One of my favorite trip memories is captured in this shot. As we walked along the reflecting pool towards the Lincoln Monument a Great Blue Heron flew overhead. It continued along the mall allowing me to focus on it for some trailing shots, until it banked perfectly in front of the Washington Monument. I love that the shot captures the two monuments, and the flags surrounding the Washington Monument as well as the closer World War II Memorial flag with the POW/MIA as well. Well timed bird!

Otherwise the birding was very unexceptional, but hey it is D.C. and the history and symbolism offer more than enough subjects. The mall walk began at the Capitol end...

and filled the day, ending at the white house at dusk.

Squirrel!!!!!!!! ~ Clark Griswold "Christmas Vacation"

It wasn't all birds out east. Those leafy trees were full of squirrels as well.

The eastern variety have quite a blend of colors. Here in Colorado our plains squirrels are mostly the rusty brown color.

This little lady was busy in the tree near the deck at my friends' house. She would dangle from her hind feet as she busily gathered up her autumn harvest. A good show to watch.

Inner Harbor, Baltimore

Baltimore's harbor on the Chesapeake Bay was as close as I got to the actual coast. Even so I was able to add one gull species to my list. Here is a Laughing Gull.

Unfortunately I was shooting with a short "tourist" lens so the detail isn't what I would have hoped, but fun nonetheless.

Later I found this mystery gull. I went with Herring, but if anyone knows differently please feel free to email or comment. The very white base portion of the bill seems unique. Perhaps it is some type of hybrid?

I found it very interesting how different the same bird looked when I photographed it from a different angle. Not much birding in Baltimore, but some very tasty crab!

Suburban D.C. Sligo Creek Parkway, Maryland

While in the D.C. area our home base was my friend's home in Montgomery County, Maryland. It was a fun area and reminded me a good deal of my Grandparents' neighborhood in Minneapolis. A real treat for me was that just down the hill was a wild park area preserved along a creek. Several mornings I was able to beat the sun up and watch the light progress down from the treetops. Often as I made my way down the steep drive to the park I would be accompanied by a pair of Northern Cardinals. Of course it was far too dark to get their pictures, but the fellow above on a power line at a road crossing had better lighting and will serve to remind me of the other early risers.

Because the light was best up high I made use of a few clear views to the tops of some dead snags and watched whatever was warming in the early morning rays. The Red-bellied's were again prominent, but they get to wait. Instead here was a White-Breasted Nuthatch showing what it means to be truly unaffected by vertigo.

These shots were all easily 40 feet up, and yet this individual preferred to spend most of the time looking straight down, rather than even poking at the bark along the way.

A sure fire way to jump start the day!

As the light worked its way lower I was able to get a good look at a pair of Catbirds as well.

As the time grew near for more activities in the area I would return to the house and wait on the deck for others to rise and come out. From there I had a great time watching the House Sparrows, Carolina Chickadees, Blue Jays and Robins in the trees. I even added this first timer to the list just by sitting and watching.

The Tufted Titmouse a bird who was much nicer to observe in person than my poor photographs relate. It is a cool mix of whites, greys, and black - with just a splash of rust color under the wings. A very pleasant surprise.


I had never been to Pittsburgh before last week. I was very pleasantly surprised. As mentioned my experience at Tamari was well worth the trip, but in addition we had to be obliging tourists and ride the Duquesne Incline to the top of Mount Washington.

While in Pittsburgh I did find a couple of hours to walk around in Schenley Park. It seemed really nice, but unfortunately I was there at midday, rather than dawn or dusk. I was happy to get the shot of the totally unexpected Cooper's Hawk which flew past me on the way to this dark perch. I did have some other good sighting in the forest, a Brown Creeper climbing through the trees, a Red-Tailed Hawk calling for a long while before I finally caught a few glimpses through the treetops, and a nice group of Red-bellied Woodpeckers moving through the trees, but more on them later.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Flights, Friends, Football, Feathers, Federal Symbols, and of course Food

I headed off east last Wednesday for a trip that was built around watching the Colorado Buffaloes play a road football game against the West Virginia Mountaineers in Morgantown, WV. Despite their less than impressive season it had been too many years since I had watched a game out of state, and was a really good way to reunite a bunch of old college friends who are scattered in the mid west and along the east coast. As plans often do this one grew with a life of its own, myself and a buddy decided to fly into D.C. from Denver, and stay with a friend and his family just outside the District in Maryland before heading on to West Virginia on Thursday. Another friend and his wife have just opened a new restaurant, Tamari, in Pittsburgh which became a great destination for the weekend following Thursday night's game. When the friend in D.C. decided to come along to the game with his family it sounded like an even better trip, so with their encouragement we decided to stay in the D.C. area until Tuesday - successfully turning a weekend trip into almost a full week adventure encompassing four states, a district, three major cities, a couple of museums and some great memories both old ones revisited and new ones forged. With all that going on birding took a priority hit, but that did not mean that I wasn't keeping an eye on the skies, brush, and water, an ever growing list, and sneaking off for a few early morning walks to try to get a few pics.
Thanks to the McMahon-Christy and Chen families for their generous hospitality. It was great to see all of you, and my other friends from the region. To the readers - if you are in the Pittsburgh area make plans to visit Tamari. I know I am biased, but it is a great place to go for dinner. Check the Pittsburgh area reviews and you will find that the pros agree.
The Birds:
I will be posting a few more times with pics from various parts of the trip, but here are the details:I submitted 10 checklists to Ebird, from 8 locations in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Washington D.C. For the trip I spotted 30 species, 5 of which were new adds for me.
The new additions, only two of which have even decent pictures, were as follows:Fish Crow, Black Vulture, Tufted Titmouse, Laughing Gull, and Carolina Chickadee.
On a side note, two of the species, Fish Crow and Carolina Chickadee were the ones I specifically targeted. I used Ebird's graphing tools to pull species lists for likely candidates at the locations where I would be visiting. This really helps limit the aimless flipping through a guide when encountering completely unknown birds in new places. As I scanned the lists before my trip I saw the two species with which I was completely unfamiliar. So I did a bit of research before I left. I found that in both cases identification was difficult to impossible by viewing, but very easy by ear. The Fish Crow has a nasally voice - Ka Ka is replaced by something I would describe as an Ung...Ung... I first saw this species in a parking area surrounding a strip mall. The noise the group made was so entertaining I had to stop and just listen for a bit. Before the trip I had been concerned that my untrained ear wouldn't be able to tell the difference - fat chance! They are distinctive. The Carolina Chickadee ended up being the one that kept me working for it. The beginning of its song is different, and only the last snippets would catch my ear as familiar, but until I had a chance to really walk in the woods of Maryland I didn't get to isolate an individual and really appreciate the similarities and differences. Very cool.

2009 Count: 191
Lifetime: 199