Friday, March 25, 2011


Around here, no?

Bird blogging has taken a back seat in the last two weeks, and probably will continue through much of next week as well.

The unexpected success of the Colorado Buffaloes BasketBall teams has kept me busy being a fan. Last weekend I did get to hike at the Cottonwood Marsh, Walden Ponds area, but was there at a poor time for photos. I also had a great ski day at Vail, but did not tote the camera - so no pictures of Gray Jays to share. Then, just as there was some down time coming before the final games of the NIT, I got an unexpected handoff desk for my room at home, and that one thing has thrown my living space into chaos.

The new desk meant that an old Sante Fe style behemoth entertainment center had to go, along with a particle board desk that I had been using. The entertainment center doubled as a bookcase, and now I am trying to match something to the discontinued nice bookcase I already have. So I am living at the moment like I am in the midst of a move, and spending spare time looking at furniture (torture) and trying to find a flat panel tv in the size and with the features I want. Anyone in the Denver/Boulder area need an entertainment center - and have a truck?

Once all that is stabilized I get to do taxes!!!!!

So it is going to be a fun weekend. Never fear though, my eyes are still on the skies, and I am looking forward to some more nature(y) activities in the not too distant future. This morning I saw a full bright pair of sundogs as I walked into work. I see those in the mountains in mid-winter occasionally, but have never noticed them down here before. Anyone aware of wildfire smoke creating that effect?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Getting Ahead of Myself

I have a handful of shots I would like to post from the other evening just after work, but captured these images this morning and wanted to share.

First, the Great Horned Owls are still in place. This was the only check in over a week, lasted roughly 20 seconds, and since I know they are around that will be enough for a while. If I am on it I will try once next week after the time change to see if I can catch either one returning.

I had left early this morning, and was trying to decide if I should revisit Lower Church Lake, (it was frozen yesterday), when I spotted a large hawk silhouetted against the rising sun at the corner of 120th and Sheridan in Westminster.

It took a bit of walking to get the right angle for these photos, but I had finally relocated the local leucistic Red-Tail Hawk.

I had been keeping an eye out for the bird, but heavy traffic and just dumb luck had kept me from spotting it on those days when I pass near its known hangout. It was good to see the bird and know that it is still around.

Reports of this bird, or its relatives, that I have tracked down take it back nearly ten years. It looks like the pair are settled in, and at least spent this morning near the established nest.

As I stated in my previous post, I will hope to capture some better pictures of this unique bird in the near future and share them as well - but then I did state that in my previous post as well! Either way, it was a great start to the day to know that this cool bird is still around. Now I will know that my stolen glances at treetops as I drive by are not just wishful thinking.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Clear Creek

Saturday's walk wasn't all goofy Mallards. I had headed over, hoping to add a couple more species to my list for the year. After some of the goodies found in the area last year I thought it would be a good place to start. My plan was to check to the west, where Rusty Blackbirds had been seen last year, and then turn back to check the ponds to the east of I70. It didn't take long for me to hear, and then see a pair of Killdeer.

But there was another species that I had seen in the same spot before, and was hoping to relocate last weekend. I find it entertaining that the last post on this bird was from the same spot, posted exactly one year ago. I wonder if the bird was thinking - oh boy there is that human watching me hunt with that big eye looking thing again!

As the number of pictures and my previous posts can attest, I get a huge kick out of American Dippers.

They make their living in rushing water that would push us downstream with ease. As my cloudy day shots can attest, they are well suited to blending with rock and water. But, what could otherwise be an easily overlooked bird is actually fascinating to watch. Not only do they swim in the torrent, they also emerge and submerge body parts in all sorts of comical ways!

Not only that, but when out of the water they are constantly bobbing up and down on their legs. They totally remind me of old Disney cartoon characters dancing.

Dippers also seem to do a lot more wing stretches. Not sure if it is more because they get worked under water more, or if it is just so cold in there that they try to warm them up every chance they get!

Their activity makes them really fun to watch, but as the temps warm up and trees leaf out they get harder and harder to watch or photograph. This spot is a bit unusual because the bird is basically out in suburbia. They are normally associated with mountain streams, but this one is a good seven miles from the foothills.

I really like that this bird has made itself such a convenient stretch of creek for its territory, hopefully it won't be another year before I get to watch again.

Maybe the reason it was stretching above was because this species is always mixing eating and swimming - didn't its momma ever tell it to wait thirty minutes?

The mostly-cloudy skies didn't lend themselves to great photos, so I just kept walking west rather than turning back to the ponds.

I finished my walk passing the miles of Coors Brewing campus before reaching Golden. Any brewery that has their own working yard locomotive to move around train cards of supplies has my respect!

With that, Mr. Ring-necked Duck says farewell. The beginning of this week featured freezing rain, sleet, light snow and fog - so photography has been minimal. Hopefully the beautiful if cool evening last night will be a sign of things to come.

Monday, March 7, 2011

A Duck of a Different Color

Saturday morning I had a nice walk along Clear Creek. I headed west from I70, and eventually ended up in Golden. More on the walk itself later, for a moment though I am focused on this specific duck. It caught my eye because it stood out from all the others, recognise why?

This Mallard was different from the many others around because it was predominantly brown on its back and lower sides. In March, male Mallards have gray backs and undersides. Also, this Mallard seems to have an incomplete neck ring.

Almost fittingly, there have been a few discussions of Mallard hybrids running on the COBirds mailing list over the past week. I began to wonder if this bird may have a bit of something else in it. After a bit of searching online and in field guides I am leaning away from it, but would welcome input from anyone who has seen similar coloration in Mallard drakes.

Beyond the obvious difference I see some very strong Mallard features in this bird. The tail coverts have the Mallard curl, and in flight are offset by the white tail feathers. The speculum (the colored patch seen on a Mallard's outstretched wing), of a Mallard can range from green to violet depending on the light, and more specifically for identification is bordered on both the leading and trailing edges by a relatively broad white band. This bird clearly shows the correct pattern for a Mallard.

After reading and looking at other images out there in Internet-land I am fairly certain that this is a Mallard who for some reason or other either did not complete or prematurely began a molt. I don't have anything at hand to cite, but believe that if birds are confronted with a hardship while molting, their molt process may stop mid-stream. It would then pick back up on the next cycle to get them back to their correct appearance. This bird also may be a sub-adult, although some features like the head seem very complete for an adult.

I have reached out to others to confirm or contradict my conclusion, and welcome any comments to that effect here. Finding the "one of these things is not like the others" in nature is always interesting. Learning what may have caused that one to be different is even more rewarding.

Of course, any consensus or update will be added to the post.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Good Morning!

Yeah, I checked back in on the nest this morning. I approached from within the neighborhood across the street and was able to get these shots from a distance, and without having to approach the nest in the open any more than from a ways down the street. Even so, I'll be leaving them to it for a while now. There will be plenty of activity around that site, and I'll keep from aiming a big lens at them for a bit.

Besides, there are more signs of spring showing up at Lower Church Lake each morning. Today it was a pair of Cinnamon Teal.

They were mostly keeping to the far side, and a cloud bank had blocked the direct sun by that time, so prettier shots of Mallards and Red-winged Blackbirds were kept to a minimum. I find the Cinnamon Teal absolutely gorgeous. It was too bad the sun wasn't shining brightly today, I doubt this pair will remain there through to Monday. Even so, seeing this pair on the fourth is roughly five weeks ahead of when I spotted my first Cinnamon Teal last year! That means a lot more chances to find them again and get more shots to share. I checked eBird to see what the bar charts had to show for Cinnamon Teal presence in Jefferson County, and sure enough, the first week of March is what came back for a first week in the spring - so it looks like the first arrivals are right on time.

On the other hand, here is a bird that seems really early to me:

I have seen this bird twice, once on the 23rd, and again this morning. My shots on the 23rd were worse, the tail was in line with the body and gave no impression of size. That day however the bird was vocalizing, and didn't sound anything like a Common Grackle. It had a staccato type sound to it.

This time the bird was quiet, but was perched in the same tree before it lifted off for this flight. Both sightings have made me think Great-tailed Grackle on the site, but I always labor over those judgements after the fact.

For this one eBird is a little less helpful, in a bar chart comparison between Common and Great-tailed Grackles for Jefferson County, the chart shows Common Grackle sightings beginning in March, and Great-taileds picking up in April.

To get a bigger sample I expanded the charts to pull from Adams, Boulder, Weld, and Jefferson Counties. With that change Common Grackles show about the same arrival pattern, but for Great-taileds a new pattern emerges, they have a lower frequency, but it expands and becomes almost stable throughout the year.

My counties made me nervous though, Weld County is large, and it runs well out to the east from the eastern edges of Boulder and Broomfield Counties. So, just to see if it would make a difference I then swapped Weld for Broomfield County.

A slight difference, but the pattern seems to hold up.

Moral of the story....I have no idea. I do know that I had been concerned that my instinct was completely wrong. I certainly have more experience with Common Grackles than Great-taileds, but was fairly confident after seeing the bird a second time that it was a Great-tailed. My narrow view of just the Jefferson County birds last week had led me to believe that I was pulling out a bird that really shouldn't be around. With a species that is tough to distinguish in the field I tend to the conservative choice, or just let it go as a bird that couldn't be ID'd. This one had bugged me though. Birds can be out of place, if they weren't the Ross's Gull that visited Colorado this fall would have never been here. Even so, when I check a bird and find that there are no other records of the species in the county for another month I question myself first.

The explanation....I don't know, but Lower Church Lake lies about as close to the eastern edge of Jefferson County as possible. My best guess is that because Jefferson County extends to the south, (developed) and west, (higher - eventually reaching well up into the foothills), it is not ideal Great-tailed habitat. I recall reading that the species is slowly extending its range. Perhaps these sightings will become more common over time. Either way, I feel better knowing that at least a few of these birds are being found in the surrounding counties on a regular, if infrequent, basis.

2011 Count: 73
Lifetime: 252

Thursday, March 3, 2011


Wednesday evening was beautiful, and rather than heading right off from work I walked the trail towards highway 36. I got an improved look at the local Belted Kingfishers. Fortunately they seem to be hanging around, and I'll keep trying to get a clear look. Why do I think they'll hang around....well one was doing some house hunting at dusk.

That might just be a bank to keep an eye on! For that moment though, the bird was keeping on the move. There are several similar holes in the bank, and from what I could tell some serious courting, Kingfisher style. I'll have to do a bit of reading on their nesting and mating practices to see if that was courtship or setting up shop.

As already stated, today became very windy. I returned from my lunchtime drive and found a young Redtail Hawk taking shelter in a tree behind our building.

It moved on to the next tree in the row, and I followed. I guess misery loves company!

Actually I am not sure what drew them together, but there was something below that really had their attention. Or, perhaps they were just ducking out of the gusts.

I ended up near home this evening, and Red-winged Blackbirds wanted to make sure everyone knew that evening was just as good as morning for showing off.

This evening was supposed to have been errand night, but as I drove past my neighborhood something caught my eye. I parked, and with camera in hand returned to get a confirming look at what I had seen.

Tufts on a nest! That makes two within a few miles of home. This one is sandwiched between a busy street and a high traffic walking path. I kept well back, and with the wind never saw the bird turn my way.

The owls had pulled me in, and the Red-winged Blackbird kept me company when I had withdrawn to a small pond. I headed off to look for coyotes, and found an adult Red-tail instead, but it had grown fairly dark. As I returned towards the parking lot I heard a single hoot. I modified my route, and returned along the road instead of the path. As I passed, stealing looks out of the corner of my eye while walking at a steady pace I spotted the male. He was well below, and was turned away from me.

I hope the pair maintain their nest. It is busy there, bikers, joggers, fisherfolk, and dog walkers all frequent the area, and the roadside where I walked has a bus stop just below them. I'll be keeping my distance, but may walk the scope over a few times to see how things progress.

Nice Morning at Lower Church Lake

In a tease of what is to come this spring the weather set up one of those wacky days today. This morning temps were in the 40s, I know plenty of folks that would take that for a high and be happy. I was fine with the chance to get out in the mild weather before work, and made the local stop at Lower Church Lake. Mr. and Mrs. Northern Pintail were soaking it up as well. I have a feeling frequent visitors to the site are going the be reading that regularly.

It was a good chance to just enjoy the morning, in anticipation of good things to come. Red-winged Blackbirds are tuning up and trying out their poses to impress the ladies. Better them singing than me...that's for sure.

At least for the coming week the lake is set up perfectly for the morning sun. After the time change that may all be thrown out the window, but for now Mallards landing are a good challenge. I still don't quiet have a balance of frozen motion, glare prevention, and noise all worked out. I think trying to improve my shots will be enjoyable though.

One thing I forget over the winter is the work that goes into waterfowl shots. I make a conscious effort to hold my camera level, but panning to follow a moving bird sends that right out the window. Ripples and reflections on the water reveal all, so these shots got a touch of rotation before cropping. Practice, practice, practice.

In addition to its convenience, this site has the bonus of lying just beyond a curved railroad bed. Without passing beyond it I can remain out of the perceived threat range of these birds. They give me a bit of a look, but don't seem too bothered. The airplanes that fly directly overhead on their way to Rocky Mountain Regional Airport do seem to get their attention though. The Pintails did an about face when a larger jet made a low approach while I was shooting. I guess if one of your concerns in life is an eagle coming to snack on you, a giant flying thing headed your way is worthy of note.

40 degree temps to start the day were nice, but by lunch they were accompanied by fierce wind, making photos at lunch a near impossibility. I did drive over to the south side of Standley Lake, and the winds had pushed what was left of the ice into a large pile at the eastern end of the lake. Weather forecasts heading into the weekend are poor, but hopefully the open water will attract some goodies down to Standley. As I was driving I passed under a Bald Eagle and a Double-crested Cormorant both fighting the wind in the same location, but well separated as one was there on my way out, and one on the return. The Double-crested Cormorant was a first of season bird for me, and hopefully was headed for the rookery at Standley Lake.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Images from Ketner Reservoir

During today's lunch I walked for my second time at Ketner Reservoir. It is a smallish lake in the middle of a neighborhood, but one that I hope will prove to be a good little patch to check on every once in a while. Today I didn't see anything exceptional, but did get a few good shots of more common birds, thanks to playing with Exposure Compensation.

The Northern Flicker above was foraging on the ground beneath some mature trees. The bird itself was shaded a bit, but the patch of grass just behind was bright enough to trick my camera's sensor into thinking the scene was well lit. Knowing from a wealth of underexposed subject shots that this bird would lose detail, I set the exposure compensation up a third of a stop. That was enough to bring out the texture and colors on the Flicker, making a fun shot.

This Black-capped Chickadee had such great expressions as it evaluated me from a small tree. To get detail on a bird that is isolated against a bright sky I had to use the same principle as above, but really push it this time. I pushed the exposure up two full stops, and was able to capture the Chickadee's dark face.

As I passed the lake, I spotted a bunch of Redhead Ducks lifting off from the water. While waiting for them to clear a group of trees I took the time to pull the exposure back down to a negative third. That helped to keep the light bodies of the ducks from being blown out where they were in direct sunlight.

I received a practical lesson on exposure compensation last year at the CFO convention on a photography field trip. In the year since I have been practicing... It doesn't always work out, but is a good tool to have in the bag when shooting in the ever changing light conditions that are nature. Needless to say that trip is one I have signed up for again this year.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Not even a week behind!

Here are a few shots from the middle of last week. There weren't a lot in the way of photographic highlights, but it was still good to be out.

The Ring-billed Gulls were all that was out on the then-frozen Lower Church Lake. I had a couple of watchful birds flyover before returning to their gathering place well out on the ice.

Then, after getting my season gate pass to Standley Lake Park, I made a lunchtime truck tour of the south side of the park. It was cool and windy, and a ranger I met along the way said she hadn't seen anything down around the rookery. As she was leaving I heard bird sounds close. I looked around, listened, looked around again, and then found three Horned Larks working their way around the parking lot I was in. In winter these birds were surprisingly well camouflaged on the pebbly surface.

A birdless weekend was highlighted by an unexpected basketball win for the CU Buffaloes. Last evening got this week started on a much more bird-oriented note. The monthly DFO meeting featured Paul Bannick, author of The Owl and the Woodpecker. If you are a fan of birds, photography, or considering the interdependence of species this book is worth checking out. Paul gave a great presentation, and had our hardened group of birders and photographers ooh'ing and ah'ing at his incredible images.