Content & Photos © Bill Schmoker unless noted otherwise. Thanks for visiting- drop me a comment!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Cooperation is Cool

I spent today with gulls in a snowstorm, keeping them happy with stale popcorn and bread in hopes of luring an immature Mew Gull into photo range without luck. It was cold, windy, snowing, and dark. Lack of cooperation (by the bird & weather): uncool. The only saving grace was the custom lens & camera cover that my wife made for me, keeping me in business for a few hours without worry of soaking my rig with melting snow.

Last weekend, however, I ran into an uncommonly cooperative Harlan's Hawk (harlani subspecies of Red-tailed Hawk.) I knew I was in business when a jogger with a dog stopped directly underneath the perched bird and it didn't flush- Cool! Not only was it tolerant of such direct approach, but it made 4 forays into a field with tall grass & weeds, staying down long enough each time for me to re-position with the light behind me to get flight shots as it came back up to the cottonwoods over a bike path to peer some more into the field. Definitely the most cooperative Harlan's Hawk I've run into so far. A few of my hawk-pro friends agree that it is a 2nd-year bird (born two summers ago), having retained the outer 4 juvenal primaries (7-10) and a juvenal secondary #4. Those feathers, being older, are bleached a bit. Otherwise it's dark eye and plumage are typical of an adult intermediate-morph Harlan's Hawk.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Gull Puzzling

An interesting gull showed up yesterday in Boulder (at this point, some birders are thinking, aren't they all interesting? Others are thinking, oh, great, a puzzling gull...)

Anyway, my buddy Christian Nunes spotted an intriguing large 1st-winter gull with a very pale head at 6-Mile Reservoir on the north side of Boulder yesterday about mid-day. Fellow larophile Tony Leukering got the call and the two studied the bird enough to realize it was a good candidate for a Slaty-backed Gull. That's a great bird anywhere in the US, but especially rare away from the Pacific coast. Colorado has one previously accepted record of this species (one of 21 gulls on the state list), but I had never previously seen the species, either in Colorado or anywhere else.

Yesterday afternoon I got some distant digicsoped pics of the bird, but today I was able to get much better pics thanks much to the bread and sardine-flinging efforts of anther gull savant, John Vanderpoel. The sticky point seems to be that 1st-winter hybrid Herring x Glaucous-winged Gulls may be nearly indistinguishable from 1st-winter Slaty-backed Gulls. Some young Herring Gulls may share much in appearance, too. Early opinions from several gull experts differ- some whom I deeply respect are leaning towards the presence of Herring Gull genes, while others are leaning towards a "good" Slaty-backed Gull. A couple of online references I'll be sorting through include this Gull ID page and a page with all ages of Slaty-backs from Japan. I'll also rely on my Gulls of the Americas and Gulls of North America, Europe, and Asia in addition to the standard field guides as I look into the case more. In any case, I'm posting these pics for folks to study and form their own opinions of what the bird is or isn't.

Here are some digiscoped profiles:

And here are a couple of flight composites:

Finally, some other shots showing various aspects:

Enjoy- Bill

Monday, November 24, 2008

Noah and the Penguins

Hey folks- my birder buddy Noah Strycker has a great blog detailing his Antarctic adventures studying Adelie Penguins for three months with two other researchers at a remote outpost on Cape Crozier. Living conditions are austere, the weather defines harsh, and the work is hard, but his updates are filled with amazing photographs and witty writing (no surprise, coming from Noah!) The following is his description of the blog- be sure to visit and leave a comment or two!

Noah Strycker is spending this season in a field camp on remote Cape Crozier, Antarctica, with two other researchers and several hundred thousand Adelie Penguins. Adverse weather, cramped conditions, and isolation are usual. This blog covers day-to-day life on earth's driest, coldest, windiest, most southerly continent.

Noah is a 22-year-old recent graduate of Oregon State University in Fisheries and Wildlife. He is Associate Editor of Birding magazine, columnist known as BirdBoy in WildBird magazine, and a passionate birder, artist, and photographer. Contact him or see more of his work at

Penguin Science research is ongoing. You can learn more about the project at

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Black Buteo

In contrast with the white wildlife I featured in my last post, here's a dark-morph adult Harlan's Hawk (harlani subspecies of Red-tailed Hawk) that I saw on November 1 and again today. If you've followed my blog for a while you'll know I like dark hawks about as much as any bird, and they don't get much darker than this. Still, it has a few white streaks on the breast, typical of harlani as opposed to dark-morph calurus (western) Red-tails. I first saw and photographed this individual in December of 2005, and it has been back to the same winter territory every year since. The bird is a tricky devil to photograph, though, usuall flying from its roadside power pole at the first sign of deceleration on my part. Fortunately, it sometimes flies along parallel to the road, heading for another power pole, allowing some shots in passing.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

White Wildife

I was heading back from southern Colorado on Sunday, and chanced across three great photo opps involving white wildlife. The first spot was at the south boat ramp at Antero Reservoir, where some buddies of mine had been seeing Snow Buntings on and off for a few days. These are tough birds to find in Colorado, and they seemed to have reasonable site fidelity at this spot, so I was hopeful to get the chance to photograph them. Still, they weren't there for over an hour on my first attempt. After another hour+ of birding around the area, I came back to the boat ramp to try again. The buntings weren't there when I arrived, but I saw a white sock puppet-like critter pop up in the rip-rap to see what I was up to. When it crossed an open gap I could tell it was a weasel, although I had to research its identity when I got home. Luckily, the spot where I was sitting turned out to be along the weasel's path, and when it returned laden with its freshly killed prey I caused it to hesitate long enough for some fun pics. It would duck in and out of the rocky breakwater, sometimes with the vole and sometimes without, trying to figure out what to do about the camera-toting behemoth in its way. After a few minutes, it just did an end-around behind me through the edge of the parking lot and continued on its way along the lakeshore. Judging from that picture and the tail-to-body length ratio, with the tail over half the body length, I'm going with Long-tailed Weasel. I think the prey item is a Meadow Vole. Any comments on the mammal IDs? (Camera Trap Codger??)

After the weasel incident, I didn't have to wait too long until the Snow Buntings came along, alerting me by their call. They foraged among the rocks and the wrack piled up on the lake side, offering some great poses. These are my best shots of the species so far.

I took one more detour on the way home, 4-wheeling through snow to the top of Guanella Pass in search of White-tailed Ptarmigans. I see them about every summer when they are brown and mottled to blend in with rocks and tundra vegetation, but hadn't seen white birds in their winter plumage for quite a while. Finding them is harder now that the road to the top of the pass doesn't get plowed (it used to stay open all winter), but I found the right timing this year. I could still reach the top (but a non-4wd car wouldn't have made it), and there was enough snow on the high slopes above timberline to attract wintering ptarmigans. Most were pure white, but a few had a smattering of summer feathers left to molt. The challenge is finding these snowballs on a white mountainside. They like dwarf willows whose tips are sticking out of drifts, providing easy bud picking. This is the only bird I can think of that I usually find by following tracks- while they can easily fly they prefer to walk around and those snowshoe feet leave distinctive trackways. Droppings are also a good sign that you are in an area they like. If luck is with you, a white blob will suddenly move out of your way, and then you're in business. As long as you move slowly, the birds stay very relaxed, continuing their feeding and little vocalizations or snugging down out of the wind to relax. I talk to them as I move around for better angles, figuring that a predator would never be that visible & noisy. I'm sure it would be a comical sight to see me chatting it up with the plump little white birds, plopped down in the snow to get a ptarmigan-eye view while they go about their business.

Thursday, November 06, 2008


I was lucky enough to receive a review copy of Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson by Elizabeth Rosenthal, which I've finally been able to read. Like the new Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America, its release coincides with Peterson's 100th birthday. It is a wonderful commemoration of this historic anniversary.

Rosenthal skillfully takes us through the stages of Peterson's emergence not just as a game-changing field guide author but as a world-renowned naturalist and conservationist, including aspects of his family, his associates, and his travels and the influence they all had on him. As a bird photographer, I especially enjoyed the details of his passion for photography and its progression through generations of improving equipment and his growing skills behind the lens. I was astounded to learn that upon his death, Peterson had over 500,000 photographs in his collection, edited down from over a million- a figure impressive even in the digital age, but more so since Roger shot film!!

While I was never privileged enough to meet Peterson or hear him speak, I remember thumbing through my grandparents' editions of his guides while growing up, full of interest in the natural world and thankful to have references to decipher my sightings. The first bird book I ever bought for myself was Peterson's Field Guide to Western Birds. I got a lot of satisfaction reading through the section of "fledglings", other prominent birders and naturalists influenced by Roger's work, and finding that I have met and even birded with several. That one degree of separation is pretty exciting and motivational- something to ponder as I continue my own exploration of the natural world.

A center section featuring photos of RTP throughout his life and many of the most influential people in his career richly enhance the descriptive text. The generous use of quotes from RTP and other key players the book also keeps the reading lively. I think that anyone seeking insight into one of the most important and influential figures in 20th-century birding and natural history will enjoy this book immensely. I suspect many would also enjoy gifting the book to a fellow bird &/or nature lover in their lives.