Thursday, September 30, 2010

PM & AM Double Lifer Duo

Lots of recent birding, with limited photographic success recently. It all started yesterday morning when I left early to swing by Greenlee Preserve for an hour of birding on the way to work. I had lots of birds there, but the majority were flocking Robins. They were gathering into large groups and incredibly active in the trees as the sun rose. No unusual species, and nothing eye-popping in the way of photographs. Yesterday afternoon I was planning on a trip to Boulder Reservoir to see if I could locate some Sabine's Gulls that had been reported several times. As I was ready to leave work I checked my email and saw that a well known Boulder birder had reported a Sprague's Pipit in Boulder County, and was going to lead a group in hopes of relocating it at 4:00. The time then was 3:55, I sent a hasty reply that I was on my way, and was off. I put several new faces with names I had known only from email, and our group of eight was off to the top of the mesa. Fortunately the bird had not strayed far from the location where it had first been seen, and we spent the next hour moving back and forth with the bird. I had gotten good looks through my bins, but no photographs. Others in the group had more luck, capturing identifiable pictures of the species - a first recorded sighting in Boulder County. Later I checked back with the finder to see if his invitation for another early morning group had room for me to repeat, in an attempt to get some photos of the bird. It did, and so I found myself back at the mesa at 7:00am this morning to try my luck again.

Another chance to meet other birders face to face, some whom I had met once or twice, and many who were first time acquaintances. This time as we climbed the hill we stopped at the call of a longspur - (birding with groups of top birders has its benefits) - which was quickly identified as a Chestnut-collared Longspur. That one did allow a couple of photographs as it worked through the brush, and then popped up to the barbed-wire fence in the morning sunlight. Cha-ching! In the photo below note the extended rear toe that is consistent across all members of this family, and is the basis for the name "Longspur". Soon the two Chestnut-collareds were off, and we did not pursue, as we were hoping that the Sprague's Pipit had remained in the area overnight. It had, and was soon found as it displayed its flight pattern that distinguished it from the other species in the area. It would take off out of dense brush and fly straight up into the air. At maybe 25 ft or so it would level out, and fly horizontally to its next location. Then it would dive straight back down to the ground. The Sprague's Pipit favors short grass prairie, and was amazingly good at moving undetected, even through the minimal vegetation surrounding the prairie dog colonies.

I am still photo-less on the Pipit, but a replacement lifer perched in the early morning light works too.

2010 Count: 201
Lifetime: 245

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Walden and Sawhill Ponds - Rails and Yellowlegs

Saturday morning offered many more species than sparrows to observe. I saw three shorebird species of particular note.

The Sora:

A life bird for me, and one that is common in wetland habitats around the state. I am glad to have made its acquaintence and hope to see more.

Another was the Virginia Rail, which is actually a fairly close relative of the Sora. The two are the most common Small Rails and are in the family Rallidae along with the Large Rails, Moorhens and Coots. (The Sibley Guide to Birds). They share size, shape and feather coloring, but even in the poorly angled picture above the tell-tale long orange bill is visible, making the second bird a slam dunk Virginia Rail.

I also had two distinct looks at a single Greater Yellowlegs. A first sighting for me in 2010. This bird is tricky to distinguish from its smaller counterpart, the Lesser Yellowlegs. Apart from general size the bill is the best way to distinguish the two, or so I have read repeatedly. The Greater Yellowlegs has a longer bill that upturns slightly, while the lesser has a bill that is about the same length as its head, and remains straight. Of course I am still seeking a Lesser Yellowlegs, so I have yet to see the distinction for myself. Not having personal experience with both of these species I welcome feedback if my identification is off.

As always it is fun to see new birds. The Virginia Rail I had seen in Wyoming, but never before in Colorado, and had never photographed adequately for posting. While none of the shots are eye popping, they are ones that help me to confirm what I have seen in the field, and can be used in the future as a comparison.

On an unrelated note I wanted to share a book note for any Colorado Birding readers who may find themselves in a similar state of enthusiastic, if far from expert birding. I was pointed to "Colorado Birds - A Reference to their Distribution and Habitat" by a fellow Colorado birder after posing a question about arrival and departure dates for Winter Wrens in Boulder County. I looked through it at the library and immediately decided that it was a book I needed for my home reference. The book was written by Robert Andrews and Robert Righter and published by the Denver Museum of Natural History back in 1992. It provides an entry for each of Colorado's then 443 recorded species of birds, as well as a great front section dedicated to the various habitats and regions of the state. This book is not a field guide in any sense. Each species shows a map of its range in Colorado, charts of both seasonal occurance and elevation, and a write up of its rate of incidence in various portions of the state. This is going to be a great sanity check reference for me, and one that I would recommend to others as well. I couldn't find it being sold new through any of the major online retailers, but I got a great used copy for less than the original price after shipping. If nothing else go check to see if your local library has a copy. I couldn't see myself checking it out, but would swing by to check on something if I was really stuck.

2010 Count: 199
Lifetime: 243

Monday, September 27, 2010

More Fall Sparrows

White-crowned Sparrow

I have never been one for definitives. Ask me what my favorite food is, and I can give you a list; music, depends on the mood; movie, yeah right; book - even worse. So naturally I am not one to play favorites in nature, but even so I have a tough time passing on fall as a favorite time of year. Don't get me wrong, winter spring and summer all have their strengths, but I think it is the variety of fall that really captures my interest. The colors and the weather are constantly changing. An early frost may be followed by a week in the 90's, and by the end of fall, (a week before the Christmas Holidays), winter will have fully arrived, or in Colorado it will have at least made and appearance.

Lincoln's Sparrow

For now, around here colors are achieving their full tones, and birds have been moving through steadily. Fall also seems to be a season when my time is pre-allocated, mainly by football games and old friends returning to watch football games. So birding takes a bit of a hit, but it just makes those times when I can get out that much more memorable.

White-crowned Sparrow

The visit I had to the Walden & Sawhill Ponds complex in Boulder was certainly one of those. On a walk there with a roommate and dog I saw these sparrows and a good number of other species as well. Another post to follow with a pair of new species for the blog...

Monday, September 20, 2010

Chipping Sparrow

Just a couple of Chipping Sparrow pictures from Friday morning as a comparison to the previous sparrow pictures. Fall Chipping Sparrows are identified by their unstreaked gray breasts, and dark eye-line that extends through the eye-ring and all the way to the bill. I found these along the Singletree Trail in Boulder County on a beautiful, crisp fall morning.

No birding this past weekend though, a pancake breakfast and trips to the CU and Denver Broncos games ate up most of my time. Next weekend is going to have some dedicated field time though, with a possibility of heading up to the high country for some changing aspens.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Sam's Lane - Sparrows in Boulder County Open Space

Early last week one of the Boulder area birders reported seeing some Cassin's Kingbirds along a trail he referred to as Sam's Lane. I knew the area but wasn't familiar with the path, and the report indicated some gate jumping was involved - so I decided it was a perfect lunch time destination.

The Kingbirds had moved on, but I had a nice walk, and some good practice sorting out fall sparrows.

The Vesper Sparrow: (note the complete eye-ring and rufous coverts peaking through above the wing-bars)

Brewer's Sparrows were also around, these are really tough to distinguish from Clay-colored Sparrows in the fall, but I am calling this a Brewer's based on the less distinct facial patterns, and by what appears to be more streaking in the nape, (the gray area that constitutes the back of the neck- below the head markings and above the wings and back):

In addition to the Vesper and Brewer's Sparrows there were a large group of Savannah Sparrows that were primarily foraging on the ground. One of them popped up to the fence briefly, stopping to pose before dropping back to cover.

For Savannah Sparrows, I find that in the field the most noticeable traits are the golden lores (area between the eye and bill). In this cloud-shaded picture they don't stand out as clearly as they can in direct sunlight. For me, sparrows still get a lot of scrutiny when I am looking through my pictures after the fact to make sure my initial identification is correct. When looking at a Savannah Sparrow more closely - either through bins in the field or at the picture above I note the eye-line that breaks the white eye-ring. Compare that to the Vesper Sparrow at the top of the page where the eye-ring is complete. One final mark for the Savannah Sparrow is the length of the tail. It is short enough to appear broken, and a good comparison against other known sparrows in the field.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

White Ranch Open Space

Last Saturday morning I had a chance to do a bit of hiking at White Ranch Open Space with my roommate and his dog. It was a bit late for ideal birding, but it was a fun morning and there were even a few good birds to boot. The Mountain Bluebird above was hanging out in the meadow near the parking area when we started.

A bit later Blizzard (the dog) flushed what appeared to be a House Wren, I tried to catch a shot, missed it, but was happy to find a Green-tailed Towhee peaking out at me from the same patch of brush.

The small mammals were putting on a show for me, this Pine Squirrel checked me out from behind a tree before retreating a bit and giving us an earful. A few feet further on and again right at eye level I met a Least Chipmunk. It was working its way across a canopy of bushes, and decided to freeze when our party moved past. It didn't need to worry though, I just wanted a couple of pictures, and the dog was oblivious.

The return portion of the loop took us through more meadow, and I tracked a flying Stellar's Jay as it approached from a distance. It was interesting that the first thing I noticed was the jay flight pattern, and the next were the white eye-brows and other facial markings. The brilliant blue of this species just disappears on a cloudless day.

Unfortunately, the great morning was followed by an embarrassing football display by my alma mater, the Colorado Buffaloes. They had their first match up with future division opponent Cal, and made an impression by not even being competitive on the field.

Birds once again came through, as 4 of us sat on the deck contemplating the depths our school's program had sunk to; a Common Nighthawk flew directly over my backyard! Even if none of the others appreciated the addition to my yard list it went a long way towards brightening my least until the Bronco game the next day - sigh. Perhaps there will be more time for birding this fall.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Living with Danger

Whatever that little bug is, it decided to tempt fate a bit on Tuesday afternoon. Flying within inches of a perched Western Kingbird would seem to be a life expectancy limiting move on its part. So did the bug decide to high-tail it out of there, nope.....

It went in for a closer look. Gutsy, and for whatever reason that particular Western Kingbird was content to watch rather than reaching out for an easy snack.
Tuesday was particularly smokey, on that day the fire was still generating a billowing cloud of smoke. The inversion had lifted shortly before, and as I stopped by Singletree Trail the fire bombers began a constant rotation overhead. The day offered a great collection of kingbirds, mostly in the form of a group of Eastern Kingbirds, which seemed to have flocked for migration. Just watching them repeat their aerobatics again and again was a boost for the day, but on my way back I had another surprise.

A tiny bird popped out of the undergrowth at my feet. I sent the following to the COBirds mailing list, because after checking my resources I wasn't sure if a Winter Wren should be expected in Colorado at this time of year:

"...if anyone could advise me on whether a Winter Wren has any degree of likelihood in Colorado in the first week of September, I would appreciate it. This afternoon at apx. 2:30 pm I was walking along the Singletree trail just SW of old Superior. From the trailhead heading west there is a good stretch of heavy brush on the right (north) side, then an old tailing hill, and immediately to the west a group of large cottonwoods. I was directly under those trees shooting photos of some Towhees and Doves out in the distance when I heard a rustling in the low groundcover at my feet. My impression was 100% mouse - it was making small moves out of sight, in thick vegetation 4-6 inches high, but its progress could be perceived as it moved around. I was completely surprised when a tiny Wren popped out almost at my feet. I didn't even attempt a photo, my lens was extended and focused way beyond something that close, and motion would have sent it back to cover even faster. I had 2-3 long seconds as it turned at my feet. My impression was an overall chocolate brown bird, with very limited markings. It gave a couple of short, exposed hopping moves at my feet, flew a short distance to the fallen trunk, and then dove to the larger shrubs beyond. It did not reemerge, and I did not pick up any notes or calls, (but fire bombers are flying directly over the site repeatedly this afternoon). There is a dried creekbed to the north, but I am not aware of any open water near the site. "

I did return to the site that evening and the following morning, but never heard a call, or saw the bird again. I did receive several responses confirming that Winter Wrens were seen in Colorado in Sepetmeber, and that the species fit the description. I had hoped to get a chance to photograph that bird to share, but guess I will have to continue to watch for it. Instead, how about a pair of Eastern Kingbirds?

Finally a recognition out to all the firefighting resources that are working on the Four Mile Canyon fire outside Boulder. The fire has made the national news cycles, so the details are well known, but despite remaining stationary through a pair of calm days the weather is supposed to turn dry, clear and windy - and so the situation may be about to get worse. So far the Betasso Preserve has been just outside the burn area, to the SE, and based on the reports that is the area where some degree of containment has been achieved. However the forecast wind is supposed to be coming in out of the N - NW, so it could be gone quickly. Any direction the fire moves will be bad though, and this is already being called the worst fire in Colorado's history.

I guess in life we are all a bit like the bug. The residents in the foothills of Boulder County trade an ever present risk of fire for the chance to build a home in truly beautiful country. Some, like the bug may luck out and find that the fire has spared their homes by mere inches, while others will have lost everything and have to start anew. Fortunately, all that has been lost so far is replaceable - lets hope that all those working in and around the fire zone remain safe and keep it that way.

2010 Count: 197
Lifetime: 242

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

It could be a very different C.B.C this year

This morning I awoke to white flakes falling on my car. It wasn't a Colorado early snowstorm. It was ash falling from the Four Mile Canyon fire burning just outside Boulder, Colorado.

I first heard about the fire late yesterday, and other than seeing the glow from a distance, didn't get close or see anything photo worthy. This morning I left early, with the idea of doing a bit of birding or getting some shots of the flatirons in front of the fire. Instead I found that the changed wind direction, and morning inversion, was laying a think blanket of smoke from my home, up past my work, and on into Boulder.

I headed into the office early, and may head out later if there is a wind change to get some shots. Sadly, this fire is already consuming homes, but no one has been hurt, and hopefully it will be contained soon.

I am not sure yet if this fire is burning in the Betasso Preserve area of the canyon, (the area that I have counted in for the Boulder Christmas Bird Count each of the past two years), or higher up. The Gold Hill neighborhood has been mentioned frequently, and that seems to be a bit beyond the preserve area. Whether or not the area is burned, I hope it remains a part of the Boulder CBC circle. Counting through burn areas can help to track the changes of wildlife in those habitats over the years that follow. Regardless of which areas the fire ends up burning it is sure to cause a great deal of impact on human property, as the entire area is scattered with homes.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Fall Hawks

Not much chance to head out to migrating shorebird habitat recently, so I have had to settle for what has been around town in the past few days. The best of those have been hawks.

Tuesday evening there were a nice group of Swainsons Hawks that must have been passing through on migration. I saw three on a short section of road, and the one above was content to sit in the sun while I got a few shots.

On Wednesday morning I made it over to the Singletree Trailhead in Superior before work. The nice little thicket which has been so prductive in the past was quiet, but large flocks of Starlings and Mourning Doves had filled in the surroundign fields and trees.

On the way back from my walk the immature Red-tailed Hawk in the pictures above moved between a couple of different perches. Note the light eye color and barred tail that are present in the juveniles of this species.