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

Friday, January 30, 2009

Winter White

A couple of days ago I found a pleasant phone message waiting for me on my cell after work- a gentleman who had earlier attended a field trip that I co-led had found a swan on a private lake in rural Weld County, Colorado and would I like to go check it out. I had to think about it for about a millisecond but of course, I was game! Swans in Colorado are always interesting, and in mid-winter birding slowdown times it was especially exciting news. I'll admit I was expecting to see a Trumpeter Swan, which more commonly over-winters around here. But at first glance from a distance, the swan didn't appear to absolutely tower over the nearby Canada Geese. The bird was resting and bathing in a small open patch in the otherwise frozen lake, joined by a multitude of other waterfowl and coots. It was pretty calm about letting us drive pretty close, and when I got a better look in good light I could detect a very small pale spot on the lores. This, along with the size, cemented the ID as a Tundra Swan.
I enjoyed looking for some of the other marks that David Sibley has delineated in his guide and also on a supplemental swan ID page on his website- I highly suggest printing it out and tucking it into your Sibley Guide or keeping it otherwise handy. Note in particular the rounded crown (Trumpeters often have a little peak behind the eye, ala Lesser Scaup), the very narrow lores (the eyes almost look separate from the lores, especially when the bird is looking right at you), and the gently curving border between bill & forehead (a sharper V shape on Trumpeters, but this feature only reliably works on adults.)The ducks were quick to shuttle over to an adjacent pond, but the cadre of geese that the swan had joined just ambled onto the ice. The swan eventually followed suit, suddenly looking even bigger in comparison as it stood next to them. Still, when you look at some of the Trumpeter Swan pics I have with Canada Geese nearby, you'll see that Tundra Swans aren't nearly as colossal (Tundras average 6.6 kg while Trumpeters average 10.5 kg.) I also enjoyed how the lighting effects changed nearly by the second as the sun set.When the sun had fully dipped, the swan flapped back over to its patch of open water, fluid white feather movement against crysaline white snow. There we left it tucking its head in for a sunset snooze. Thanks again for the call and for the escort in to this private birding patch, John!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Malignant Missile

Bill of the Birds uses a name I really like for the Sharp-shinned Hawks that make winter appearances in his yard- Death Rockets. So hoping that BT3 will consider this imitation to be the sincerest form of flattery, I'd like to talk about the Malignant Missile that visited my yard yesterday- a Cooper's Hawk. Like BT3 & Zick, accipiters in my yard are usually Sharpies. When my wife said a hawk was in one of our trees yesterday, I took a peek expecting such a Death Rocket. I immediately sensed that this bird was too big for that. While you can't always rely entirely on size (the largest female Sharpies overlap the smallest male Cooper's in size), if you see an accipiter that looks about crow-sized, Cooper's is the place to start with your ID procedure. (A side note on size- in many settings I would hate to rely on this- without familiar references your impression of size can get thrown way off. For example, in moderate snow today, I saw a raptor on a pole that I was assuming would be a distant Red-tailed Hawk. Putting a scope on it, however, revealed a Prairie Falcon. It was closer than I thought, and the murky conditions totally threw me. In the backyard, however, the accipiters are always at about the same distance and perching on familiar landmarks, so size is trustworthy.) Anyway, picking up bins I could see the more crisp vertical dark streaking on the breast and the smaller-eyed, less "cute" looking head. The tail was also graduated, meaning that the outer tail feathers were shorter than the inner ones- a few don't show this, but most do. Cool- a Coopers! While not the first in our yard, they are seriously outnumbered by Sharpies. (And yeah, I trimmed out that offending little branch today so if I get more shots on that nice horizontal limb they should be a little cleaner.) Looking closely, you'll notice that the inner tail feathers are the bluish-gray of adults. I thought that perhaps it had begun its molt, but Jerry Ligouri and Brian Wheeler let me know that replacement feathers will grow in with adult coloration, and that's the case here- too early to molt but it lost those feathers in some mishap and re-grew them. Also interesting that adult-type tail feathers are a bit shorter than juvenal tail feathers.The juv Cooper's was intrigued by three red squirrels foraging under my feeders. It even flew down and landed next to one, which just ignored it (serious stones on the squirell's part, I'd say.) The Coop was twisting its head this way and that, trying to figure out if it should be attacking or not. It even jumped up and down a few times, dancing around the nonplussed squirrel but making no contact. Wish I had a shot of that... A bit later in the day, an American Crow conveniently perched at almost the same spot. Check out the similarity in size between the crow and the Coop:A few hours later (clouds gone by then), an adult Sharp-shinned Hawk was trying its luck on the flock of birds that had retreated into my brush pile and spruce trees. It sat on the fence for a while near where the Coop had earlier, allowing another size comparison:Pretty substantial difference, eh? Makes me suspect a male Sharpie and female Coop. The sharpie stayed around for a while and allowed some pretty close photography- I think it was hoping I'd flush out a bird as it tolerated my slow oblique movements. Looking at my pics, I realize that its middle left toe is broken- ouch! It ain't easy being high on the food chain- accipiters will pursue prey at top speed through heavy cover and must occasionally take a beating. Nothing beats the red eye of an adult accipiter in my book, though- I feel really lucky to have caught this one's in good light and pretty close.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Now Broadcasting

I recently recorded an interview about the Boulder Christmas Bird Count for the Dot-Org feature on KGNU 88.5 FM, an independent radio station broadcasting from Boulder, Colorado. The spot ran last Thursday, and the host, Nikki Kayser, was nice enough to send me a copy- click here if you'd like to listen. We chatted for about 15 minutes but the spot is only 3 minutes long, so it was interesting to see what Nikki kept and what got chopped. Speaking of the Boulder CBC, I've got this year's results posted on the National Audubon CBC Site- click on Current Year and take it from there if you'd like to look. Thanks for having me on, Nikki!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Class Act

Folks- I'd like to announce that I'm leading an upcoming digital bird photography class this summer for the American Birding Association's Institute for Field Ornithology (IFO.) The workshop will be 1-5 June, headquartered in Boulder, Colorado (with field session in surrounding sites.) Full information, requirements, and registration info can be found here: IFO Digital Bird Photography Workshop

Workshop Description: The Boulder, Colorado area offers a unique setting for this bird photography workshop. While birds may offer the most photo opportunities, we will also be on the lookout for any wildlife including mammals, insects, and "herps" (reptiles and amphibians) to photograph. The workshop will offer a mix of classroom sessions and time in the field working on our art, particularly an opportunistic approach to bird & wildlife photography that emphasizes organisms in their natural surroundings and capturing interesting behaviors on camera. Classroom time and field techniques will be centered on digital SLR telephoto photography. Digiscoping may be addressed if there is participant interest but won't be the focus of the workshop. To get the most out of the class you should have a telephoto camera rig of at least 300mm equivalency, but not so big that you aren't comfortable carrying it around on moderate walks and shooting hand-held. A tripod or monopod may be useful in some settings but most of our efforts will emphasize hand-held techniques. For many digital SLR camera bodies a 200mm lens is equivalent to nearly 300mm on a film body, and "power-zoom" cameras of 10X or 12X can work, too. Perhaps the most commonly seen lenses used by birders are (80 or)100-400mm f/5.6 zooms or 300mm f/4 lenses, although many other combinations work fine. In addition to your camera gear you should bring a laptop with photo editing software for the digital darkroom work sessions.
We're limiting the class to 10 participants so sign up early if you are interested- hope to see some of you faithful readers there!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Winter Water

I'm looking out at about 5" of fresh snow this morning in Boulder, and I know my bird bath at home is going to be busy today. There's no doubt that a clean water source can bring in birds as well as (if not better than) feeders, and I find that when there's snow cover or very cold temperatures this is especially true, as other open water gets covered or frozen over.

Last summer I upgraded from a drip system to a circulating fountain-style bird bath, obtaining a Bird Spa after a hearty endorsement from Julie Zickefoose. There was just one hitch- the directions said not to use it below 25° F (using a heater at that), a temperature we regularly go below in Colorado. Well, I guess I took that suggestion as a limit that could be exceeded if the proper precautions were taken. (Note- attempt cold-weather bird watering at your own risk- I make no claim to the sensibility of the following modifications...) I went to my favorite store, McGuckin Hardware, and found an insulating foam wrap with silvery backing that they sold by the yard. I gave the Bird Spa reservoir a wrap with an old closed-cell foam sleeping pad and then a good double-wrap with the silvery stuff and taped it all up. In the reservoir I placed a bird bath heater like this. I used to pop the circuit breaker sometimes on my old system, especially when I had Christmas Lights on the same circuit, so now I run a really heavy-guage power cord out from my garage's dedicated 20-amp cicuit to avoid the bad surprise of losing power to the spa on a cold night (thanks, pop-in-law, for helping me put that in last year- a most excellent addition to the garage, AKA man-land.) We had a couple of really cold snaps in December, including a low of -12° F the night after the Boulder CBC, and the spa kept bubbling along. The only problem I've had this winter was one night when Chinook winds really cranked (with gusts of 80+ mph- not much sleep that night...) blowing all of the water out of the spa (not to mention a few shingles off my roof.) Luckily, the pump must have had a little water left around it in the bottom of the reservoir because it didn't burn out- when I re-filled it and plugged it back in it went right back to circulating the water. Here's a typical scene looking out my kitchen window on a cold, snowy morning- note the insulating wrap. I also shovel snow around the base when we have the white stuff to add insulation, because the bottom is up off the ground for the drain and for the cables to go up and into the reservoir throught the overflow tube.Eurasian Collared-Doves queue up in the tree above the bath to wait their turn, and American Robins enjoy a drink and often a splash.Meeker birds wait for the big boys & girls to finish up. A Pink-sided Junco may be expected but is always welcome. Occasionally something more exciting comes to take a turn, like this Yellow-rumped Warbler. I've got to say that mid-winter warblers really make my day!

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Ice, Iceland, Baby!

I was down in Pueblo, Colorado yesterday & the day before, getting my year's birding off to a strong start. Pueblo Reservoir stays open all winter, and has a great forage base that attracts thousands and thousands of gulls and diving birds. Its size can be daunting, but I'd rather have lots of birds spread across a vast lake then very few on smaller water. Over the two days, my dad & I saw 10 species of gulls. The "usual" three, Ring-billed, Herring, and California, provided a backdrop to compare the rarer birds against. A few Bonaparte's Gulls represented the small end, and an adult Mew Gull contrasted nicely with the surrounding ringers. Black-backs both Great and Lesser were found. Among the pale-winged gulls were a young Thayer's, a couple of young Glaucous, and our best bird, a 1st-cycle Kumlien's Iceland Gull. The Iceland Gull was a major treat when we scoped it going to bed at sunset on the floating tires guarding the south marina, but the best surprise was re-finding it the next day at Pueblo City Park on the duck pond, less than 20 meters away and in bright sunlight! Needless to say, the photos I got were way better than anything I previously had of the species.The Kumlien's subspecies of Iceland Gull breeds way up on Baffin Island, and most winter in the North Atlantic. Colorado only had 1 accepted record of the species prior to 2000, but they are being reported about annually now. Are Colorado birders paying more attention, or are they really showing up more (or both?)- Things that make you go, hmmm. Whatever the case, it is a rare, most excellent bird around here, even if it is a gull. See what you think of this swanky bird: