Thursday, July 29, 2010

Pine Siskin: With a touch of something else?

Thanks to Connie Kogler who pointed me correctly to juvenile Yellow-Rumped Warbler!

Last weekend, after observing the Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush, I happened across Roubaix Lake as I drove towards Wind Cave National Park, and stopped in to see what was around. The lake was nice, and the camping area was packed, but there wasn't much in the way of waterfowl around. What I did see was this bird that looked to be a Pine Siskin, but with a few differences that made me wonder. Please take a look, and feel free to comment if I am off base and missing something obvious, or if you have insight as to a particular age or hybridization that would lead to these traits.

First the traits that lead me to Pine Siskin: It is a heavily streaked, smallish bird; that has a relatively long pointed bill, and a sharply forked tail. The wingbar pattern looks right, as well as that of the folded flight feathers.
In addition, the bird was in the right habitat for Siskins, foraging for insects in some Ponderosa Pines near the edge of the lake. When I first spotted the bird it was hunting for flying insects from a perch in a very flycatcher like manner. Then it crossed the trail and worked over a few cones, eventually pulling an insect from within (see below). Those behaviors are both documented for the Pine Siskin in the Cornell Lab or Ornithology's Birds of North America Online.

However there are also some things that are a bit off. This bird is more 'black on white' than a typical Pine Siskin showing yellow, but then feather color can wear down over time and this bird may have just washed out since its last molt. The eye-ring is much more distinct and white than I would expect as well.

The underside of this bird's tail has a white patch. It is visible in the top picture, partially obscured by the branch. After much searching I am unsure if that is to be expected in a 'pure' Pine Siskin or not. It may just be a weird angle, that is not often photographed.

I added this picture because it even in wingbeat this bird isn't showing much yellow in the flight feathers. Again, this could be due to feather wear, but I am unsure.

Finally, there was the yellow chin. I noted an impression of it in the field, and was unsure in earlier pictures if I was just catching a trick of the light, but this picture confirmed that there was a distinct yellow chin on this bird. Pine Siskins can carry a yellowish tint to their underparts, but I am not aware of an isolated yellow chin showing up.
I have been flipping through field guides and websites trying to nail down an ID on this one, and so far I haven't found it. Flycatchers and Finches, Vireos and Warblers, I have even looked for juvenile Woodpeckers or Thrushes that would fit, but so far nothing concrete. Even if it remains a hopeless mutt, it was an interesting bird to watch, and plucking a juicy green bug from a pine cone is even better.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

McIntosh Lake Osprey - Part 2: The Flyaway

Even outside ideal conditions this was a fun sequence. After regaining flight the Osprey continued to approach me from across the lake.

These were some of my favorites.

In a few short moments I had shot nearly 300 frames. A really fun series, in less focused shots I can watch as the bird re-orients its catch to what I now recognize as the preferred aerodynamic position.

Too bad for the fish, but I am sure a young Osprey appreciated it.
As I was transfixed shooting the sequence two kids biking past looked out to see what I was taking pictures of. They didn't stop but I distinctly heard one say, "That bird just caught a fish!" followed by an assortment of "Sweet!"s and "Awesome!"s as they continued on their way.
Good job Osprey, enjoy your catch!

McIntosh Lake Osprey - Part 1: The Catch

While viewing the Pacific Loon this afternoon, I had seen a potential Osprey headed away from me on the far side of the lake. The light was poor, and at the time it was too distant to make out a solid field mark. Fortunately, I spotted it making another pass as I headed back off the dam. This time it gave me a good angle for an ID as it scanned the water...but identification wasn't all it was about to share.

It dove...

...fully beneath the surface....

...and then reemerged.

I was surprised that it didn't retain its buoyancy to pop back out of the water. Instead it stayed on the surface and had to work hard to get back into the air. Finally, after a hundred or so frames of continuous shooting it was able break free and begin its triumphant flight with the catch.

Because I wasn't anticipating the sequence, being well beyond the range of my lens, and with the dark overcast I didn't get the clarity I had hoped for when tightening up the crop. That being what it was, I still learned a lot from flipping through this sequence frame by frame. My incorrect assumption was that Osprey fished like Bald Eagles, skimming the surface and plucking their prey out of the water when it rose to the surface. This was the first time I had seen that they use an apple bobbing style instead.
Watching the effort that bird had to put forth to get back into the air, with a load that heavy, really gave me a new appreciation for a what Osprey go through as a routine part of their day to day activity.

Pacific Loon

At lunch today I was able to relocate another reported bird, this one minutes away rather than hours! A Pacific Loon has decided to hang around McIntosh Lake, just outside Longmont.

I headed up on a late lunch and was able to get good looks at the bird off the dam side of the lake. Unfortunately the weather turned overcast as I arrived, and the pictures weren't quite as detailed as I would have hoped.

Even so, the looks were good, and if it travels on before I get a second photo opportunity at least I won't have missed it entirely.

I am used to watching loons, Common Loons specifically, dive when feeding. This one seemed to be finding it's meal at the surface though, and was engaging in a lot of head-down surface skimming while I watched. It reminded me of late winter Goldeneyes, who perform similar maneuvers in what I believed to have been courtship activities. Maybe they were surface feeding as well.

As I headed back to my vehicle I had one more birding treat in store, but that one deserves it's own post.
Since I haven't done an update in a while;
2009 Count: 185
Lifetime: 235
Side note, just finished Mark Obmascik's The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and a Fowl Obsession. A good read if you are one of the four birders who hasn't read this book, or like me are relatively new to this potentially all consuming passion. For me, one of the most interesting aspects was learning how some of the tools that I take for granted were created by these passionate individuals who were initially motivated to compete against the concept of a number. That was really driven home because I am concurrently rereading The Grand Slam: Bobby Jones, America, and the Story of Golf, by Mark Frost. Another great read for those who appreciate biographical non-fiction and 20th century history. A major key to Bobby Jones' success on the golf course was his mental approach to competing against a number - par - rather than his human competition in major tournaments. It is interesting that those who forge the way beyond what is considered the ceiling in their pass times draw their initial motivation not from direct competition with others, but from more intangible concepts. It is also interesting that both marks were set by amateurs, who were not pursuing a paycheck or their livelihood as they exceeded the expectations of others. The parallels don't end there, so if one or the other is a new title for the unread list, add it and compare the two feats.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush

My chase wasn't so wild after all, well - at least it was successful. A drive to the Black Hills after work found me arriving in the National Forest camping area after quiet hours had started, and leaving well before they were over. At 5:00 I was at the momentary Mecca of American Birding, the trailhead parking lot for Iron Creek Canyon. I was the second birder on site, and even before I had pulled my gear out we were hearing what we believed to be the song of the very lost Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush. I felt what I was hearing was very similar to what I had heard on Xeno-canto before leaving on my trip - and the other birder didn't recognise the song we were hearing as anything he could place. Unfortunately the canyon kept things far to dark to get visual confirmation for a while. When our first sighting did come our group had grown close to double digits and we were rewarded with several minutes of good looks. These pictures came from those minutes in the 6:00 hour, and everyone had chances to observe the bird through a scope.
I decided to hang around to try for more pictures in the sunlight, as did many others. A few birders left, and more later risers arrived. Regrettably, the calls dried up just before the sun dropped down to the treetops, and the sunlit pictures were not to be for this birder. I headed on to explore a bit more of the Black Hills region after three hours with this most rare visitor. While we stood in the chill morning air waiting for the bird to sing again birders from multiple states introduced themselves. I had the chance to meet many new Colorado birders, who formed a good sized group that morning. Perhaps the biggest surprise was meeting someone from less than five miles from my own home, more than 400 miles away.
All in all, the bird, the people, and the drop-of-a-hat road trip were fantastic. I can't say I will be doing this often, but it is safe to say that I will not forget the Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush, or the experience surrounding my sighting of this species anytime soon.

This bird is slightly smaller than a Robin, and does have a rusty colored back. It consistently sang from just below the crowns of deciduous trees, moving up and down the creek as it did so. My last sighting of the bird was just above the parking lot, I didn't get a picture that time because a Swainson's Thrush chased it off before I had a chance.
It is definitely a cool feeling knowing that there is not a more rare bird than the one I was observing, in the United States at that specific time.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Wild 'Marmot' Chase

I would imagine that the majority of the readers of this site will already know where I am about to head when I title a post "Wild 'Marmot' Chase" (The 'Marmot' is just a reference to the picture I had left over from last weekend.) For those who don't, you are going to have to wait, because I am pretty sure that writing about what I am diving into in advance is bad juju.

Let's just say that all my previous overnight adventures in birding consisted of deciding to head to a place, and see what I could find there. This weekend I am doing just the opposite.

In the process I have a feeling that I will be exposed to people who carry this 'pursuit' to a whole new level. I can't wait, the people watching should be spectacular, even if the birdwatching disappoints.

So, if this post of loose allusions makes sense to you, and if you are sitting at work, watching the time creep by like I am; waiting to chase the exact same bird...well then look for me in the crowd - after we have all gotten good looks of course!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Arapaho Lakes - Fresh Air

Last weekend was a 'three day'r' for me, so a planned camping trip to the Arapahoe/Roosevelt National Forest was a key chance to beat the heat and enjoy some of Colorado's natural treasures. Yankee Doodle Lake - the closest landmark to our favorite spot - is close enough to the Denver metro area that friends can come up for whatever part of the weekend they are free, and get a one, two, or three night trip in. Knowing that it gets crowded on the weekends, three of us met at the spot on Thursday night to enjoy something closer to solitude than we would find when all those poor souls that had to work Friday showed up.
The drive from Rollinsville west towards the Moffat Tunnel on Thursday afternoon couldn't help but remove the work week cares and concerns. Cool mountain air and beautiful scenery will do that!

The next day, and we were off from the Forest Lakes Trailhead, to the largest of the so called Forest Lakes. This was just a half-mile down the trail, a brief stop where I pulled the cameras out and got down to business.

The cirque above the lake was beautiful, and hid at least one more lake above, but we were headed up through a boulder field, and along the ridge that extended southeast away from the steep valley head.

From the shoulder of the ridge, where we crossed into the next valley, offers a look back to the point where I had taken the picture at the top of the page. The light spot in the center of the frame is roughly the same area of marshy meadow that was in the foreground of my shot along the road.

After a couple of miles of rolling trail that took us over the previously mentioned ridge, and down through another swampy valley, we made one last brief climb to our destination, the Arapaho Lakes.

The lake is crescent shaped, and of fairly good size for that elevation. It has a smaller parent lake above the band of green vegetation beyond it, and a small pond separated by a small stretch of rock at the far end. It was on that area between the pond and lake itself that I got a chance to observe the White-tailed Ptarmigan and her chicks.

Looking back in the opposite direction - sky almost meets water, the soul is refreshed, and possibilities seem endless.

Who knows if it is the wildness of the area, the effort you have to put forth to get there, or just the thin air, but these are special places. They are infinitely different while you are there, than they are when you find yourself back at the trailhead even just an hour later. I know I can't wait to do it once again!

Arapaho Lakes - Feathers

When hiking, birders will stop at the snap of a twig or the next grove of trees, just to make sure there isn't a goody hiding somewhere that could be coaxed out with a few well timed 'pish's. Other folks aren't as inclined to search for the unseen, so when hiking with non-birders the diversity of the bird list can take a big hit.

On the way to and from Arapaho Lakes most of my sightings were White-crowned Sparrows. They were calling from every clump of vegetation, and would occasionally perch to get a better look at the bipeds moving through their turf. Even when I was birding a bit more actively at the lake, (above), the White-crowneds were the most conspicuous bird around.
Notably absent, and quickly reaching a frustrating level of elusiveness for me, were the three species of Rosy Finches. Though rather than wasting time on what wasn't there, lets take a look at what was, the White-tailed Ptarmigan.

This is a bird that approaches iconic status for the alpine tundra environment. They spend their entire lives in thin air, extreme weather, and a barren landscape - yet they have adapted to do just that. I can honestly say that my eye had swept past this hen in summer plumage several times before she jumped out of the background like Waldo.

She wasn't alone though, this mom was busy leading her chicks on what must have been one of their first tours away from the nest.

The downy chicks seemed to blend better with the vegetation patterns, while mom would disappear when she moved to the rocks.

Check out the size of those feet! They will grow into proportion, but those feet will always stay large, helping the birds to float when snow drifts cover the area.

I always wish for something a bit better in the photographic department, but looking into mid-day sun and a headwind wasn't really helping the sharpness factor. Oh well, watching a mother and her chicks explore their brand new world is a memory I won't soon forget. Although - next weekend may require one of those birding dedicated early morning wake-ups to see if I can do better!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Arapaho Lakes - Fur

Back online - with a post that includes honest to goodness photographs this time!

Over the weekend I escaped the heat by heading up into the mountains with some friends. Camping well above 10,000 feet is a recommended activity when the thermometer is registering triple digit temps! On Friday two friends and I headed from a trailhead near Forest Lakes on a hike that crossed several ridges, hanging mostly around treeline.

The birding didn't include a lot of diversity, but had a real highlight that will be featured in a future post. For now though, the mammals get the spotlight. The critter above is one of my favorites in the high-country - the Yellow-bellied Marmot. Like the one above, they seem to really like perching on rocks and soaking up the sun. It makes them a fun photographic target.

This next mammal is a little less obvious, but a few minutes sitting still above the lakes let me get a few shots to welcome it to the blog:

The Pika. (PYE-kÉ™)

Pikas live in the Alpine environment, and seem to love scurrying around in the scree fields. Their coloring and small size makes them nearly invisible, only really showing up when they make a dash across an open space. Perhaps because of their well suited cammo they will perch in the open - so a bit of patience can pay off when they do reemerge from the rocks or their burrows.

Those big ears may make them look like cartoon characters, but listening for predators is no laughing matter. Pausing to take a look around helps to.

It never pays to stray to far from a nice safe crease in the rock - where shelter is just a hop away. For this little Pika there was no threat, its efforts gathering grass for a nest were undisturbed. I had a good time stopping to watch this one as it darted back and forth across the clumps of grass, hopefully I'll get a few more sightings before they hunker down for winter.