Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Some Spring Migrants Arriving

The American Avocet is a bird I really enjoy. Maybe it is because it returns to the area at the front end of migration and is a sign of things to come. Or perhaps it is the great coloring, not that this picture captures it, but blue legs, a white and black body, and that burnt orange head are a great combination. More than likely it is because this shorebird is absolutely distinctive. Unlike the endless comparisons between sandpipers, plovers or determining if a yellowlegs is greater or lesser these birds are a slam dunk. I spotted this one from the road and looped back through a parking lot to get a good look. Unfortunately the whites were a bit washed out, but I hope to have many more opportunities to work on this subject.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A post that falls more to the artistic side of the scale than most of my shots do. Well, the Ring-necked Ducks above are just a good exposure showing their patterned bills and side coloration. The shot below though really struck me as the sun was dipping. A swimming rodent, either a muskrat or beaver appeared to be pushing something through the water, causing an extra wide wake and made for a really intriguing sight.

I also happened back towards the Great Blue Heron rookery and caught a couple of approach flights back-lit in the fading light.

It was one of the most quiet visits I have made to the Walden & Sawhill Ponds complex in Boulder. Usually this place serves up 25 plus species in just a few hours and without much effort. Yesterday, the most common sound was the welcome croaking of frogs. The Cottonwood Marsh pond, which was low last year and featured vast mudflats is now full and was packed with a good variety of ducks, but many of the smaller ponds and the woodlots were quiet.

Even so I had a great 4.5 mile walk and as always enjoyed my time there. It is such a large, segmented area that it is possible to go long periods without seeing another hiker, even as aircraft take off from the local airport with gliders in tow just over the treetops. Soon the ponds and trees will be full of migrants arriving or passing through. So perhaps it was good to have an afternoon to just soak up the environment.

Red Rocks Trading Post - Leftovers

While I was waiting on the Golden-crowned Sparrow to make his appearance on Saturday I was treated to good views of a number of different species. They were all coming to make use of the feeders and water features arranged off the back of the building.

There were dozens of Juncos, and a good number of Chickadees and House Finches as well, but as those are seen frequently all over my area I focused on a couple of birds that I do not see quite as often, like this Western Scrub Jay. The Western Scrub Jay is a common resident of the foothills, and being a corvid is always entertaining to interact with. This individual came so close and watched me for so long that I eventually broke down and scattered a couple of peanuts from my trail mix along the railing. If it was working for peanuts it sure did earn them.

Another bird that always catches my eye is the Spotted Towhee. The contrasting colors and vivid red eye make it a fun find, no matter how many times I see them.

Back once more to the Scrub Jay. The intelligence of some of the corvid species has been well documented, and I always get the feeling that I am not the only one being entertained when they are around. Sure, they have base motives like an easy snack, but they do seem content to pause and observe the actions of the others around them - much as we humans must seem to them.

No pics from my ski trip to the high country on Sunday. I only saw two species, Raven and Mountain Chickadee and kept the camera warm in the backpack while I tried to make up for a season of far too few runs. I was disappointed to learn that someone on CObirds had spotted a pair of White-tailed Ptarmigan at a pull-off on the same pass I rode over that day. Oh-well, the mountains don't close in the summer, but the snow will be gone soon, so I'll ski while the skiing is still good!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Golden-crowned Sparrow

Better than expected birding today as I headed out to Jefferson County around Morrison under mostly cloudy skies at mid-day today. After a good few hours at the Hawk Watch I made a quick stop by the Trading Post at Red Rocks on the off chance that a Golden-crowned Sparrow, which has been regularly seen at that location over the past few weeks, would be around in the afternoon.

As the pictures show, it was! I got two different looks at this local rarity. I have been to Red Rocks many times over the years for concerts, and even made one birding visit last year. I hadn't known about the landscaped little garden behind the Trading Post though.

The spot was awash with Juncos and some other variety that may get rolled into a later post. But for now, the Golden-crowned gets the special feature. This is a first year bird, that is just getting into its molt.

With the recent birds having been so accommodating in the past few days the migration season looks to have some good potential.

2010 Count: 89
Lifetime: 210

Friday, March 26, 2010

Harris's Sparrow

One of the great technological innovations that I have relied on heavily in my year and a half of birding is the CObirds mailing list for Colorado Birders. If you are a Coloradoan and are reading this you probably are already a member - if you are in a different locale I hope there is something similar for you to find in your own community. For me the mailing list is a teaser list of what to watch for in the area. Now that I am approaching my second spring migration I have a bit better feel for what to watch for, but reading about the observations of others definitely helps me prepare when I head out to a certain area.

The list also conspires to make a 'twitcher' out of all of us. The mailing list grew from the Colorado Rare Bird Alert, which as I understand it was once upon a time entirely phone based. While the scope of the mailing list has expanded, the rare bird alerts still make up the meat of the archive. I have certainly used the rarity alerts to help me plan day trips to different areas in Colorado, but often chasing a specific species at my skill level doesn't pan out. To save on gas, and to make sure that I am birding my favorite places rather than just chasing species, I limit myself to following only those alerts that are consistent over time, or are conveniently located to somewhere I need to be.

So, last night when I read that a Harris's Sparrow had been spotted in the Greenlee Preserve, (one of my regular lunch birding spots), I knew that I would have to swing back by for a visit to try my luck. I had two strong things going for me if the bird was still around; I had seen it before in Iowa, and I knew the Preserve well enough to have a good understanding of the area where it had been seen.
Of course birding at mid-day, with patchy snow cover, and trying to see into the underbrush where the Harris's Sparrow likes to forage is still a formidable challenge. When I did see the bird I had a good feeling that it was what I wanted, but with the glare I had to rely on a series of frames to really confirm the field marks I was seeing.

In the adult I had seen previously, the black crest, neck and bib were readily distinguishable from a distance and in poor light. This bird had already been distinguished as a first year when I saw it, and that accounts for the blotchy black areas where the darker feathers are just beginning to come in. Other key field marks that are visible on a Harris's Sparrow are, the light bill and legs, which distinguish them quickly at a distance from the also dark bibbed, but much more common House Sparrow. The Harris's sports a long tail for a sparrow, and has black streaks mixed in its brown back and on the sides of its whitish underparts. Throw on a pair of white wing-bars and a dark spot back behind the eye, and you have a youngster on the way to becoming one fine looking bird.

It certainly is satisfying to head out to a location in search of a specific individual bird, one that in my experience spends most of its time at the base of thick bushy shrubs, and actually locate it quickly enough to be able to return to work after a normal lunch break. I for one am hoping that it decides to stick around for a while, but more than likely it will pass on as just an early migrant.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Unexpected Subject: Merlin

I headed out today in search of paved walkways, knowing that our recent snow was melting fast, and a lunchtime walk is no good for a bog walk. I stopped by the South Boulder Trail and happened upon this Richardson's (Prairie) Merlin.

It was perched above a footbridge on the pathway, and had already allowed a pair of walkers and one snowplow to pass below it when I approached.

Seemingly well conditioned to pedestrians, it sat as I passed below allowing some great looks from below.

At first the identification escaped me. I was trying to resolve between a Sharp-shinned Hawk and Prairie Falcon, but obviously neither fit. Sharpies were quickly eliminated, as this bird has too many falcon features. Check out the yellow fleshy rings around the eyes, and the 'teeth' on the sides of the bill - both are falcon traits. What threw me off was that this bird lacked the vertical striping on its face so typical of other falcons.

After some flipping I finally got it. My only previous Merlin had been a Boreal subspecies, which is much darker, so this lighter variety was not what I was expected. For a first opportunity to photograph a Merlin I could not have hoped for a more cooperative species.

Here's hoping that there will be more sightings to rival this one on future walks!

Watching Me, Watching Them

That was my view from my bedroom window yesterday morning. To no one's surprise the mandate was issued to work from home yesterday. A bit of a change from the 60's when I was out on Monday, and the upper 50's forecast for today. Nothing like a foot of snow to keep you on your toes!

The flock of House Finches that have claimed this feeder as their own weren't slowed much by the snowy coating. I usually only get to appreciate them as an accompaniment to my alarm clock in the mornings, but with the blinds open I was able to enjoy them as they feasted for an hour or so while I worked. They were as intrigued by my actions as I was by theirs, splitting time between jockeying for position around the feeder, watching me as they munched on their selected seeds, and dodging the occasional downpours of falling snow from above like this female.

It isn't often when I have the time or inclination to sit and watch birds from a window. I crave being out in the environment with them. All hiking aside there is something to be said for the close proximity I had to these preoccupied visitors.

The 'winter-wonderland' backdrop to their feeding station was gone in hours and they will soon be perching among buds and leaves, but I was glad to have their company while it lasted as I worked.

Update: After posting this I decided to compare back to posts from last year from around the same date to see what I was up to. I found this one, which was one of my forgotten favorites: I am sure that Blizzard is mad that his owner's slacker housemate, (me), was too busy shoveling and knocking snow off trees to take his picture this year. In my defence, this storm hit at night and his bounding would not have been well captured on long exposures.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Bluff Lake

Yesterday was Bloodmobile day at work! Always a good feeling to give some blood and know that my part has been done to help save some lives.
Anyway, after work I headed towards Denver where the monthly DFO was being held in the evening. I had a couple of hours before I needed to be there, and randomly headed into Denver. I ended up finding what appears to be a newer Nature Preserve on the eastern edge of the Stapleton Redevelopment area. The lake, its namesake bluff, area wetlands and Sand Creek all combine to give this area potential, beyond its urban area. It has some tough factors, it is surrounded on two sides by interstates, with the Denver County jail and some warehousing industrial space as a buffer. The bluff side has more of a cushion, but the space looks slated for more housing and commercial development over time. Those factors, of course, make the space all the more valuable as a protected habitat - but if you head over for some Denver County birding be aware that you will be fighting some heavy noise pollution to pick out calls.
I have a feeling that despite all that I may have to make some return visits in the future. The female Mountain Bluebird (above) was just one of the fun birds I saw as I walked the loop around the lake. It was a nice sign of spring, the first that I had seen this close to home.

Much later, as I approached the creek near the end of my walk, I saw a small group of Yellow-rumped Warblers. They can occasionally hang around in the area, but these were my firsts of the season. Soon enough they will be everywhere. Funny, we are getting more and more signs of getting into springtime birding, yet I am now watching the snow fall, and the forecasts are talking anywhere from 5-18 inches of snow in the next 30 hours.

Ah, Springtime!

Of course, I am always careful to check dense areas of overgrown branches in woodlots as I pass. Do you see what I saw and heard as I walked by? Click on the image to get a larger view.

Here is the Great Horned Owl in a tighter crop. Not the clearest view, but I would never have seen it had I not heard a 'hoot' as I was passing. Just one of the reasons I really like owls. Their camouflage is so well developed that after I had located this one, and tried to shift to get a better view, I had to work again to relocate it.

Here's hoping some of the early arrivals are prepared for the snow over the next few days. Drive safe out there, and if you haven't done so before get out there and donate some blood!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Snowshoeing in Search of Birds

A hardy crew of birders made like ducks on Saturday and artificially webbed their feet. I was glad to be one of them. A miserable, windy, snowy day on Friday had kept me indoors on my day off; but left a worthwhile reward in the form of a foot plus of fresh powder. Birders being birders, we were the early ones at the trailhead, and had a fairly fresh track to follow as we headed up to our destination, Left Hand Reservoir.
As is so often the case, the journey is often as meaningful as the destination, and Saturday was no exception. On our way up we reached our lofty species tally of "three". While the numbers weren't staggering - mostly Mountain Chickadees - it was a significant list for me. A bit to my own surprise I added Golden-crowned Kinglet to my life list. Here is my best picture of the little guy, (I was carrying my new camera body for the first time, and had yet to have read the manual or fired a test shot....):

A really cool part of that sighting was that I had been taught a bit about Kinglet vocalizations on my CBC trip in Boulder County last December. At the time a Brown Creeper was making noise and a fellow birder explained that the two had similar high, single note calls. Well, even before I had spotted the bird I had picked out its call from the group of Mountain Chickadees. I'm not saying that had I been solo and heard the call that I would have gotten the ID, but I was pleased to have the memory and live sound associated with one another.
Having gotten our fill of the Chickadees, the Kinglet, and a lone Red-breasted Nuthatch we headed on up, in pursuit of the White-tailed Ptarmigan. Up we went, to the lake and the treeline. There, we traded in the warmth of a climb through the shelter of the trees for a chilling wind rolling down off the continental divide and screaming across the expanse of the lake at us...

Feeling a bit like arctic explorers we made a good showing and gave a thorough check to the drifts building over the willow clumps where our target species makes its home. Unfortunately for us, the Ptarmigan wanted no part of the wind, or our group, and stayed burrowed while we were around. Despite not being what anyone would call birdy, the trip was so worth it for views like this of Longs Peak.

I really enjoyed what may end up being a last venture into challenging winter conditions for the season. There will hopefully be a few more visits to the ski resorts in Summit County, but those are just as likely to be sun soaked tailgating style affairs featuring light layers and sunscreen than a chance to watch fresh laid tracks filling in moments after they had been made. Fun memories and raw beauty, truly things earned from a good climb on a snowy morning. Soon enough those thoughts will have to do their best to keep us cool, now that spring has arrived! I can't think of a better way to welcome it than by returning to lower elevations, where clear skies and no wind made layers unnecessary and the snows from the day before but a passing memory.

2010 Count: 83
Lifetime: 209

Thursday, March 18, 2010

RMBO Office at Barr Lake

Yesterday I had a bit of extra time in the afternoon and evening, so I headed out to see if I could track down a Rough-legged Hawk, a species that still eludes my official counting despite being fairly common on the plains. I am putting a bit more pressure on, as they will soon be gone for parts North, and I will have missed them for yet another season. True to form they are still slipping through my sights, but the juvenile Red-tailed Hawks are everywhere. I saw four juvenile individuals yesterday as I was driving and walking. The problem is that their light heads are all potential 'roughies' so I get excited and check each one closely. Not that I really mind, I really enjoy hawks, but I am chafing for a conclusive Rough-legged and until I get one those juvie Red-tails are just going to be trouble.
Instead of a Rough-tail I found this Great Horned Owl sitting on her nest. She was much more interested than the passing train than she was in me.

I also had a few good winter species, which could be on their way out of town soon. Perhaps they were just trying to remind me that despite the warm temps last evening and again today we could have ten inches of snow on the ground by this time tomorrow.

A few American Tree Sparrows were working through the brush at the edge of the dam and water. The dipping sun really set off their red heads. Apparently if you flap your wings just right in the fading sun they will glow!

These American Tree Sparrows will soon be replaced by the similar looking Chipping Sparrows. Chipping Sparrows have some dark outlines on their crest and a prominent white eye-line. They also lack the dark breast spot.

On my way out I was searching for some small owls to emerge from the windbreak hedges, they disappointed, but another driver was really excited to see a herd of deer cross the road. Funny how different things catch the interest of different people. I had a van circle back and forth multiple times gesturing me to the deer. To satisfy his sense of outdoor stewardship I did snap off a few low light pictures including the one above. I did get some good detail, so I guess some of my photographic skills are coming into practice. Now if only I had seen the Pheasant I was listening for at the time and gotten a shot of it as well.....Hmmmm.
Stay safe out there Coloradoans! Who knows how much snow will stick to 60 degree pavement, but odds are it will be slushy and slick underneath. Hopefully they have everything cleaned up for my Saturday Snowshoe birding trip - we should have good powder for it!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Slow Days - Longer Afternoons

I don't think Thursday is ever going to get here! Between waiting for all my deliveries to arrive, the NCAA Basketball Tournament to begin, and my pager rotation to be over I think the slowing of time is actually making an audible screech that can be heard across the universe. Well, maybe not, but I do feel like a kid waiting for Christmas. Fortunately when time slows down it allows more time for getting outside, and with the extension of evening daylight that let me get a nice five mile walk in along the South Platte River. I was back in the area looking for the Long-tailed Duck, but didn't have any luck in that pursuit.

The fantastic part about that area is that there is a great deal of water around. I scanned four reservoirs and a good stretch of the river, and there are at least three additional larger reservoirs in the area. While that is great for seeing a bunch of wildlife, it makes the prospects of finding any single individual a bit longer than I would normally like.

But, the day was beautiful, and I saw 30 fairly common species - including my first Western Grebes of the year. The Killdeer up top was in an abusive mood - screaming and yelling at me as I walked past. Can't really blame it though, the lake that it has had fenced off for its own use for four months just reopened yesterday for fishing. There were lots of Northern Shovelers, American Coot, and Green-Winged Teal groups along the actual river. The Green-winged Teal, (male immediately above and Female two up), were showing off their namesake wing patches.

A Pied-billed Grebe shared a stretch of the river with these Coot, all riding the current to better fishing grounds I guess. As with most beautiful weather these days are all falling at the beginning of the week. Friday, a day I have off, it is forecast to snow!