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Friday, March 26, 2010

Dipping on Ptarmigan

Last weekend I led a Denver Field Ornithologists trip in search of White-tailed Ptarmigan in the Indian Peaks Wilderness west of Boulder. This was a snowshoe birding trip, and with a foot of fresh snow they were absolutely required to get around. We 'shoed up to treeline, ticking only 3 birds (Mountain Chickadee, Golden-crowned Kinglet, and Red-breasted Nuthatch) along the 2-mile climb through the subalpine forest, but we were dazzled with the snow-draped spruces, firs, and pines. As we got glimpses of the Indian Peaks through the trees I knew we were going to face harsh conditions above treeline, though, as wraiths of snow were being whipped high above the ridge lines by strong winds. Sure enough, as we overtopped the dam at Left Hand Reservoir, we were blasted by gusts of 25-30 mph. I brought along a Kestrel weather meter that registered 6.8° F. At that combo the wind chill is around -15° F. More importantly, White-tailed Ptarmigan deal with harsh conditions in an efficient way, staying cozy by scrunching down into the snow and letting it drift over them. Without tracks to indicate areas of recent activity or birds above the surface to scan for our odds were pretty slim but we tried for a while anyway, snowshoeing around the stunted willow groves were they winter, dining on wind-exposed buds. After a valiant effort we decided that keeping all of our fingers and toes was more important and headed back down sans ptarmigan. It was hard work for 3 species of birds but a dazzling day in the Colorado high country! Thanks to the 8 hardy birders who joined me on the quest- maybe we'll have better luck next time.

Peering up at a Golden-crowned Kinglet

Trooping Up (Last pic courtesy of Dave Alcock- that's me in front.)

Wind-whipped snow flying off Mt. Audubon

Krummholz zone

Looking back at my tracks across Left Hand Reservoir. Two specks in the distance are Ed and Dave who searched the longest and hardest- thanks for trying, guys!

Wind-whipped snowshoe-birders (photo by Dave Alcock- thanks again, Dave!)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Birds of Europe, 2nd Edition

I've just received a review copy of The Birds of Europe, 2nd Edition with Text and Maps by Lars Svensson and Illustrations and Captions by Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterström.

The first edition was widely considered to be the epitome of field guides, and the revisions found in this edition will cement its reputation as an archetype to which others will be compared.

I'd say that any serious North American birder needs this guide. I often turn to this book in reference to holarctic species that we share with Europe. For example, I think this book's treatment of Jaegers (er, Skuas seeing that it is a European guide...) surpasses anything in the N.A. guides and rivals the specialty Skuas and Jaegers guide (out of print but available as pricey used versions) by Olsen and Larsson. Then there's always the chance of vagrants from across the pond in need of ID- stint, anyone?

Anyway, I'd encourage anyone who doesn't have this guide to check it out. Here's more info from Princeton University Press, the publisher.

Since it was first published a decade ago, Birds of Europe has become the definitive field guide to the diverse birdlife found in Europe. Now this superb guide has been brought fully up to date with revised text and maps along with added illustrations. Uniquely designed for easy use in the field, this expanded edition covers all 772 species found in the region as well as 32 introduced species or variants and 118 very rare visitors. Detailed species accounts describe key identification features, voice, habitat, range, and size. More than 3,500 full-color illustrations depict every species and all major plumage variations, and color distribution maps provide breeding, wintering, and migration ranges for every species.

Complete with an introduction to each group of birds that addresses major problems of observation and identification, this new edition is the ultimate field guide to Europe's fascinating birdlife.

  • Expanded and fully updated
  • Covers all 772 species found in Europe, 32 introduced species or variants, and 118 very rare visitors
  • Features more than 3,500 color illustrations that depict every species
  • Includes detailed species accounts
  • Provides color distribution maps for every species
  • Color plates face text and maps for at-a-glance identification

Lars Svensson is one of Europe's foremost field ornithologists. Dan Zetterström and Killian Mullarney are two of Europe's leading bird artists.


"The richest and the most comprehensive of the current guides."--Times (London)

"If you are birding in Europe, you must have this guide. It should be on the shelf of many North American bird watchers, especially those who live along the Atlantic coast, where many European birds are found. It should also be in the library of anyone who collects field guides, if for no reason other than you can occasionally take it down and be reminded of what is possible when art and design and purpose are treated as equal parts of a final product."--Bird Watcher's Digest

Friday, March 05, 2010

Looking Sharp!

Throughout the winter months I’ll sometimes notice that my backyard gets very quiet, devoid of the busy activity usually found around my platform and hanging feeders. Then I’ll often notice the distinctive profile of an Accipter perched in a nearby tree or on the fence. I mainly get Sharp-shinned Hawks but also sometimes see a Cooper’s Hawk lurking or actively diving into my spruce trees to bust out birds seeking sanctuary in the dense boughs. Sometimes I’ll find a scatter of feathers beneath a perch where a hunt reached a successful conclusion. I’ve found a few such piles of Eurasian Collared-Dove feathers recently- certainly not from a Sharpie but perhaps a gnarly Cooper’s? The reason I wonder is that there have been a few reliable reports of a Goshawk in my end of town this winter, raising hopes that I might someday add that big bad ‘un to the yard list.

Anyway, as I went out to fill the feeders last weekend I was accompanied by my frequent helper, Garrett. I noticed an immature Sharp-shinned Hawk hanging out in an ash tree next to our biggest blue spruce, no doubt deciding on a strategy to get at the House Sparrows and Finches deep within (earlier in the week I heard and then saw the same Sharpie deep within the spruce, playing tag with the House Sparrows.) Garrett didn’t see the hawk and proceeded to walk almost right beneath it. Amazingly the Sharpie didn’t fly away despite the proximity of a pre-schooler cavorting below. I took this as a sign to go get my camera and ended up with some nice close-ups as the bird was remarkably tolerant of close approach.

Raptors are smart cookies and I think that the Sharpie was hoping we’d flush out a sparrow or finch. I went around the fence to the patch of open space behind our yard to get some pics of its belly side and heard birds nervously calling and shifting around in the brush pile I’ve made there, which really drew the Sharpie’s attention. The next thing I knew, the hawk flew seemingly right at my head but passed just overhead. It must have been a false start because it broke off any chase, swooped up and landed in the cottonwood. A few minutes later, though, a House Sparrow made a dash from the brush pile and the Sharpie pursued it out of sight around a corner, gaining fast. No wonder Bill Thompson III calls these birds Death Rockets!