Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Sunny Stop Between Errands

Today was the day Girl Scout Cookies showed up at the office! Of course I didn't have the correct cash on me when they arrived. So, lunch featured a quick swing by the bank, and then a stop to break a twenty. In between I made a fortuitous stop along a creek behind the Safeway in Superior. There were dozens of Juncos moving about, but most stayed deep in the brush. I caught the Slate-colored individual above as it spied on me through a branchy frame. The visit reminded me why I have liked this spot in the past. In the ten minutes I stopped I had 20 or so juncos, three Northern Flickers, a Downy Woodpecker, a group of House Finches, and flyovers from geese and ducks. They were all singing their heads off, and I could feel that my appreciation of the springlike weather wasn't isolated just to humankind.

As I gingerly stepped back up to the path a pedestrian asked if I was taking pictures of Eagles, "nope" I said, "just too nice not to get out for a few minutes". I kind of laughed to myself as I walked away, a Bald Eagle in that tiny little grove would have so dominated the scene that I wouldn't have been the only one to notice it.

Then, as if word had gotten out that a Bald Eagle sighting was requested by a non-birder I saw a black and white speck in the distance.

Regrettably the walker was gone as I had been heading the other direction, but I still had a few minutes to enjoy this avian giant mastering the thermals over an area of fairly dense condos and commercial development.

It wasn't alone either. I am not sure if these two were willing co-inhabitants of their common airspace. But neither species really seemed to interact too closely with the other. Readers ready for an airborne ID? Look for a field mark on the non-eagle before getting to the bottom of the page.

The two birds may have tolerated one another, but even the Eagle has its limits.

Not quite enough depth of field to get both in focus - so I split the difference and missed both! Oh well, still a fun sight to see. I got a few shots a bit closer, but this was a different sighting from in the past. This was a prolonged appreciation of a flying eagle - never perched - never really flying with a purpose. It, like all the other birds I watched this afternoon just seemed to be soaking up the beauty of a bright day, and the sun that was coming down from above and back up from the snow.

Any non-hawkwatchers able to identify the other bird above? If you thought Red-tail Hawk you were correct! Note the dark aspects on the lower side of the wing. The dark wrist commas and patagial bars (dark patches on the leading edge of the wings between the commas and the body) mark this as a Red-tail. Bright days with snowy ground are fantastic for watching soaring raptors. All of those indicators that are obscured by shadow beneath the bird on a normal sunny day, get a nice highlight.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Dark Bird - Darkly

While searching for gulls on Saturday I made a stop at Erie Reservoir. Gulls were out, but they seemed to be limited to Ring-billed, Herring and a couple of possible Thayer's. However this dark hawk arrived shortly after I had, momentarily making the deteriorating conditions a non-issue.

I wanted this to be the dark morph Rough-legged Hawk that had been reported in the area, but I can't say I was too disappointed to have so many looks at this Harlan's Hawk. I hadn't realized that they were so close, but note the light under-wing. On a dark Rough-legged the white should be more pure, especially at the wingtips. Here it shows a clear barred pattern. Another point to consider is the top of the tail. It shows very white, with the dark band at the tip. On a Rough-legged the tail would be more grey. Still, I was wavering until I took a close look at the picture below.

A Harlan's, or any Red-tail shows its large feet and long bare legs. Had this been a Rough-legged Hawk the feathers would have descended to its feet.

So, still no Rough-legged, but a real highlight nonetheless.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Gettin' Back: Gloomy Day Gulls

Long time, no blog. Some kind of bug kicked my butt and kept me in bed for three days. I had gotten in a hike on Monday afternoon, but other than some Chickadees, a large flock of American Robins, and a few Ravens overhead there was little to report. I did see a nice Ferruginous Hawk on my drive back from Boulder County, but puling to the side of a busy highway only allowed me passing looks from a distance.
So after three days of sleep and a long Friday in the office, I was ready for some pond hopping where the focus was on scrutinizing gulls, rather than a whole lot of walking. After reading more reports from others about the Glaucous and other uncommon gulls in my own home town I had to give it another shot.
My most productive stop was once again Indian Peaks Pond, where this time arriving at mid-day showed me much larger flocks to scan through. I think I am getting better at picking out the Herrings and occasional Thayer's Gulls, but the bird below gave me pause:

I believe that it is a California Gull. It is darker than the Ring-billeds around it and slightly larger - and it had the black ring with red spot on its bill. As always, if I am wrong please leave me a comment or email to let me know where I went wrong. Gull ID sessions usually take me hours, flipping back and forth between species across numerous different guides. Not necessarily a bad thing when half watching Olympic coverage.
Next up is one of the rare birds that has been seen repeatedly in the area.

Here we have a Lesser Black-backed Gull. In addition to the obvious darker coloring and red spot on the bill, take a closer look at the bill and leg color.

It is described as a bright yellow color by Sibley. Despite the darkness of the day and the loss of some color clarity, the difference between it and the Ring-billed bill is clear.

Finally, amidst all the snow and dreary skies this Western Meadowlark was showing off its new breeding plumage. My picture failed to show just how bright that yellow appeared against the snowy background, but it was a literal 'bright-spot' in an otherwise drab day.

I still failed to locate the other rare gulls, but considering the movement of gulls between the numerous reservoirs, lakes, and landfills in the Broomfield-Boulder area it may still be a while.

2010 Count: 63
Lifetime: 206

Monday, February 15, 2010

Doomed Dusting

Sunday morning dawned cold, with a fresh dusting of 4 inches of dry, light snow. It wasn't long for solid form though, as quickly as the clouds receded the sun made fast work of anything that had landed on pavement or solid exposed surfaces. The bit that landed on the rock formations above the South Mesa Trail complex outside Boulder sure was nice while it lasted.

As I crossed South Boulder Creek I heard what is fast becoming a familiar sound. It was coming from the area of a cavity where the flooded creek erodes the base of a large tree. The source is just left of dead center on the picture above. Here it is with a bit more contrast and a tighter crop.

Another Brown Creeper. It just goes to show that once your mind gets attuned to a specific set of stimuli you are more responsive to it. I still couldn't describe exactly what makes the Brown Creeper's higher pitched, slightly staccato chirp distinct, but I keyed in on it over the many calling Chickadees and the sound of the creek flowing below me. Here it is again, contrasting nicely against the lichen decorated boulder.

The creek, tree and rock themselves may make a nice study of the forces of nature in the future, but that will be another day. Instead here is another shot of our friend, this time after working up to the upper side of the twisted trunk.

...and such is the state of the human condition, that after several sightings in a week I am craving variety once again, so I may be off to the Ponderosa Pines in the foreground of the first picture next, in search of things that go hoot in the night!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Intra-day Improvement

I had two decent birds on the way into work this morning. The first was a juvenile Red-tail Hawk across the street from the grocery store I stopped at, and the second I had to loop around the street twice for to get stopped in a safe spot and get the lens aimed.

This Cooper's Hawk was perched and too good an opportunity to just pass up.

Unfortunately the settings were off once again, and some great flight shots fell victim to an overly dark exposure. A bit of brightening and contrast help show what I got to see, and who knows, with a bit of photoshopping it could be improved further. For now though, and to the end of me getting better in the field this is just another lesson learned.

For all that, the bird can't be held responsible for my mistakes, and it really was a great sight. So as I suffered the sting of another disappointment, (OK with a shot like that it wasn't much of a sting), I finally got smart and decided to check back on what the really good bird photographers do. I checked in at Nature Photographers to see what settings were documented for the good shots being posted from overcast skies. I think abandoning my process of trying to reinvent the wheel is going to work. Here is one of my shots from lunch:

This afternoon I shot with an ISO of 400 and opened my aperture to f8. The overcast skies were tough, and I am still getting more noise than I would like, but I think the added depth of field is going to help the detail, and the higher ISO will compensate for the motion of the birds I see.

The shots were taken as I revisited the Singletree Trail and its productive brush. The Chickadees greeted me with their 'Mar-co....Mar-co' calls that are so reminiscent of the childhood Marco Polo pool game.

The House Finches aren't the most exceptional species, but they helped to confirm that I was getting back to a baseline level I could live with.

Finally, my Mom once took an entire roll of film while we were on a family trip to Switzerland, the subjects - Swiss Brown Cows. So for you Mom, if you read this, here is a calf that is only a week or so old, at the oldest.

Photographic Adjustments give me the Creepers

Yesterday at lunch I headed to one of my favorite walking sections along the Coal Creek Trail here in Louisville, Colorado. One of the highlights was watching four Red-tail Hawks circling up in the distance on a shared thermal. Then I got down to business as I heard and then watched two Brown Creepers working over a few tree trunks in the area.

I had carefully adjusted my camera settings to minimize noise, and hopefully to compensate for the bright sunlight angled towards my targeted Creepers, so I began to shoot. I even made a couple of minor tweaks to EV levels and ISO settings as the birds worked their way more directly into the path of the sun.

I got a chance to look at them on the monitor later, and found that these constantly moving little camouflage experts were moving a hair to fast for the camera's shutter speed, and as a result lost the clarity I had hoped for.

That is not to say that I am completely unhappy with the shots I got. Just finding this species is a treat, and this time I can say that I definitely recognized it by its voice first and then its movement. I can't claim that I knew the call was Brown Creeper, but I knew it was distinct and dialed in on the area from which it originated. It is nice to have these sightings in the winter and around a known location. If I can keep up the encounters it will really help for the more evergreen environments where they are common up at higher elevations.

As for the photography I'll just keep hammering away, please bear with me as I continue to break down the comfort zone cushion.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Local Familiar Face

This morning I left the house early to see if I could find the Great Horned Owls I had heard two nights before at Front Range Community College. I checked all around, but didn't manage to find anything.

So, to not make a total waste of the morning I headed over to the intersection of 104th and Sheridan, where for years now a rare Red-tail Hawk has made its home. This is a leucistic, or partially albino Red-tail Hawk. It makes its home in the Cottonwood trees around some of the holes at the Legacy Ridge Golf Course.

The hawk gained a bit of notoriety a few years ago when it suffered a hazard of its home. It was found and taken to the Birds of Prey Foundation with a broken wing, which according to reports was caused when it was struck by a golf ball. I have seen the hawk several times as I have driven past on the busy thoroughfares, but have never stopped or attempted to photograph it.

As the days get longer I will try to get back and do this beautiful bird better justice. My attempts to take more creative control of my camera are still suffering some growing pains, and a cloud bank in front of the rising sun required that all these shots go through a bit of brightening and noise reduction to get them where they are. Despite that, still a bird worth sharing, and one that I hope to feature again soon.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Pictures and Words - Unrelated

The pictures below are all waterfowl from my visit to Erie Reservoir yesterday. They are Common Goldeneyes and Red-breasted and Common Mergansers.

Last night I had what I believe is one of the most sublime encounters one can have in the world of birding. As I left my photography class at around 9:30 last night I heard an unmistakable sound carrying through the crisp night air. "Who-Who-Whoo". It was so clear and so close that I thought for a second it must be an artificial reproduction. I fished out my iPod and played my Great Horned Owl hoots a few times. Then to my amazement another voice answered the first! I immediately stopped the playback, and stood listening to their duet. It was amazing, I stood listening as students walked by alone or in groups, headed for their cars.

I was surprised that a pair would chose such a well lit and highly traveled area for their courtship. I found the far owl quickly, it was on a horizontal branch of a tree, shaded from the parking lot lights by the trunk. Fortunately for me, the dark owl shape stood out against a lighter background in the distance.

The second owl was much closer to me, but other than making a roundabout circle of the area to get a general fix on the source of the hoots I wasn't able to pin it down. Sadly, I didn't have any of the necessary gear to shoot at night, and I had pulled my bins from my case that morning to make room for the additional stuff I take to class.

After a long period of hooting to one another the owls grew quiet, and not wanting to drive them away or interrupt their courting I pulled back to my car. While I was there a woman came up and asked if I was watching the birds. I let her know that I had been and that the two Great Horned Owls were hooting to one another in a preparation for mating season. She said that she had heard them sometime last week and was excited to share them with a friend who had done some wildlife photography in the past.
I hope they hang around as well. I will be listening for them after my next class, and may try to get by some early morning to see if I can relocate them for a few pictures. These owls seem very conditioned to human presence as they see hundreds of people walking by them daily.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

That's not a Gull

It's a Golden Eagle!

Late yesterday afternoon I headed out in the snowstorm that was supposed to have cleared off at 10:00am. I wanted to locate and check out Erie Reservoir, one of a handful of small lakes a short drive from my work which have been noted for good gull flocks that rotate between them. The small lake I visited on Saturday in extreme northern Broomfield is not too distant from this area either, and probably shares a few common visitors amongst the groups of gulls. As I arrived late yesterday I found that in addition to it being very darkly overcast, snowy, and breezy that I was also without a working camera battery. I ventured out with just bins, and worked my way to the far side of the lake where there was some open water. I found that there were a good group of gulls, but without the leisure to study them in a still frame I focused on the waterfowl and tried to ignore the lack of insulation my thin work pants provided. While I didn't find the Barrow's Goldeneye that had been reported in the past I did find a Red-breasted Merganser. I finished my loop, keeping moving to remain warm, and headed home to do a bit of shoveling.

Today dawned clear and cold, as noted in my previous post, but was calm and really pleasant by lunch time. I parked and walked down to the lake, right at the open water and with the sun to my back. Just as I was dialing in the camera and getting ready to get my gull on they all flighted at once. Excited, I turned my eyes skyward to find what had spooked them. I'll take a raptor over gulls any day! As I watched I saw it approaching from the distance...

I was 99% sure that it was a Golden from that view, but I see them so rarely out here that I was hesitant at first. As it approached though any trace of a doubt vanished.

Getting a Golden Eagle on a low approaching pass with good lighting was a first for me. I know I will be back at Erie Res. while the ice lasts to get some gull IDs, but this return trip exceeded my expectations by far.

It is always nice to be rewarded for trying out a new site!

"Thanks Eagle, now go get your fill of gulls so the next time I am around I can try to learn which ones they are! Except of course for the rarities, leave them alone all together!"

1 down - 5 to go!

Here we are one week removed from the Groundhog's prediction of six more weeks of winter. This morning certainly fit the winter bill, with a fresh coating of 3-5 inches of dry fluffy snow, and temps in the low single digits it was definitely a wintry morning. I tried to grab a bit of the early light at Stearn's Lake on my way into the office. Unfortunately, the only bit of open water was right on the east edge of the dam. Its position and the thick cloud of steam really kept me from getting much of a look at the waterfowl that were crowded in. I did see Canada and Cackling Geese, Northern Shovelers, and a trio of Common Mergansers coming in to land. That was it though, the shot above was the first of four I took when I arrived. Just as I did the steam started moving towards me, and blocking my view of the open water.

So I turned my head to the sky and spotted this airplane properly adorned with a snowflake for the weather. I have no idea what the insignia represents, but that was the first time I had noticed that plane taking off from Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport. As I was looking skyward I had a flyover from a pair of Western Meadowlarks, they weren't singing today - but a few brave Red-winged Blackbirds were.
Clear skies and warming temps should have this reminder of winter receding into our memories in the next few days, personally I hope to see at least another five this season.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Gulls: Enough to drive one Goofy

This is a post full of gulls and the reasons why I have identified them each as I have. There is a bit of feeding and blood in the last two posts, if that gets you churning, or you just aren't a gull fan skip down to the next post - there is a nice sleeping Owl that isn't at all bloody!

Saturday started off in Broomfield, as I checked out a group of retention ponds in the very northernmost bit of the City and County. There was a reported Glaucous Gull in the area, but I haven't found it in a pair of visits. That isn't saying much though, there are great numbers of gulls that spend their days moving between numerous ponds in the area and I may have just been missing it; and I am really bad with Gulls, so for all I know it may have been right there, or in one of the pictures that follow - but I doubt it. All of my gull IDs, or any bird for that matter, are open to correction or interpretation. I would like to learn after all, so if you see something that isn't quite right please feel free to comment or email. I will be sure to update as well if I find something as I become more experienced. With that disclaimer, I believe the airborne gull above is a third winter Herring Gull. It has pink feet, a distinct ring on its bill, dark primaries and a dark head.

Below, one of the birds is not like the others, that one is a second winter Thayer's Gull. It is large like a Herring Gull, which makes it stand out from the crowd. Here in Colorado the crowd consists of Ring-billed Gulls. The Thayer's in its second year is close in appearance to a Herring Gull of the same age, except the Thayer's Gull has lighter primary feathers. The primaries are the ones sticking out from the back of the bird to the left. They cover the tail, and in the Thayer's Gull are lighter and have a white border at the edge.

Another view of the Thayer's is below, but also included in that view is a possible 1st winter Ring-billed Gull. It seems a bit more brown than the depiction in my Sibley Guide to Birds, but that seems close to fitting. I am a bit baffled that I only found two birds that had that appearance. If they are first years shouldn't there be a few more running about?

Next up are a pair of Herring Gulls. The adult is on the left, isolated against the open water. The third year is on the right, with its wings folded back and up at an angle. The most notable difference between these two is the bill. The adult has the small red mark, showing only on its lower mandible, the third year still retains a black ring across both the upper and lower portions of its bill. Check out the pink feet on both of them! They can be good clues when there are hundreds of bodies huddled together and all of the heads are tucked. There is another, what I am calling, first year Ring-billed in this picture, can you find it?

Now on to gulls doing what gulls do when we humans don't feed them bread or trash. Again, please feel free to skip ahead if you faint when nicking a hangnail or wake up days after glancing at a sushi menu - really they aren't that bad - and if you've made it this far....

Even after looking through lots of pictures at pixelated zooms I can't tell if that is the gull's blood or it's lunch's. It was dunking its head repeatedly in an apparent attempt to rinse it, but it stayed fairly messy while I was there.
At first I thought the gull was injured, but then I got a look at a different section of the pond and was found it more likely that it wasn't. The Herring Gull below was working on a large fish. I had no idea that gulls could catch such large prey, but perhaps they drove a larger hunter away? At any rate this gull seemed to just be getting to the feast, and already had a bit of blood at the base of its bill. So many questions raised by a couple of gulls and a fish!

These ponds seem to be great concentrators for gulls and Common Mergansers (I counted 41 on Saturday's visit and 39 the week before). The are also small enough to allow me to get good looks and pictures to study without needing a scope. So perhaps with more visits I'll be able to say with certainty what types of gulls I saw.