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

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Make it Count

I've had the good fortune to run across several large flocks of Bohemian Waxwings over the last few weeks, but big bunches of birds create a bit of a problem- accurately estimating their numbers. Why count them? Well, for me there are three main reasons.

First, if you are on a Christmas Bird Count, numbers of birds are reported in addition to just the number of species. This yields interesting data- for example, the 707 Bohemian Waxwings found on the Boulder CBC this year is the most since 1987 when 11,000-some were found, and the 5th-most ever out of 66 previous counts.

Second, it provides more useful data if numbers of individual birds are included for other bird monitoring projects rather than just using a species tick- for example, eBird species can be entered as just an "x" for present but giving numbers as well yields more information for the record. Similarly, Breeding Bird Routes and other standardized monitoring protocols call for numbers of birds to be counted.

Finally, it is kind of cool to be able to surmise the size of a flock for the personal satisfaction and discussion value. Sometimes the most notable aspect of a sighting isn't the absolute rareness of a bird in a particular location or time but the number of birds present. While lower than expected numbers can be depressing or worrisome, high counts can be exciting news in most cases (although I don't know what to think of my new yard high-count of 12 Eurasian Collared-Doves today!!)

Still, it is a lot easier to count a few birds than a lot, especially if the lot of them are on the move. Like anything else, it is good to practice, compare estimates with friends (one good trick is to have everyone in your party think of a number without saying it and then to compare guesses.) I've found it instructive to photograph a flock or a part of a flock, guess how many birds are there, and then just buckle down and count them. Typically estimates for large flocks are on the low side, especially with small moving birds (like waxwings!)
With that hint in mind, take a look at these Bohemian Waxwings to make a quick estimate of how many are there.

This first flock was found on the Longmont, Colorado CBC, so counting them wasn't just an academic exercise but a real dilemma. The answer will follow so don't scroll down until you are ready, but the point is to estimate them, not actually count them one by one. Click on the frame to enlarge it for a better look at the birds:
Ok- have your number in mind? Scroll down, then.

To figure it out for sure, I virtually spray-painted a little dot on each one so I wouldn't miss or double-count any. I used red dots for the first 100 birds and then switched to yellow for the remaining 80, for a total of 180 birds in that segment of the flock. They accounted for about 1/3 to 1/4 of the total flock, so the 500-bird estimate we used in the field wasn't too bad, but probably a bit low. Interestingly, each member of our team initially guessed three very different numbers- 400-ish, 500-ish, and 600-ish. I used the middle number at the time but it probably would have been more accurate to record the high one.

Yesterday, I had the luck of finding another big BOWA flock. I had gone out back to fill the bird bath in the morning, and heard Bohemians somewhere to the north. Grabbing my camera, I headed out into the neighborhood to see what I could find. A few blocks away I came across a memorable scene- a house with BOWAs draping three crabapple trees, BOWAs burdening bare cottonwoods waiting for their turn, BOWAs flying to the ground to eat snow, and BOWAs speckling the roof for even more snow consumption. In other words, a Bohemian brouhaha was in progress. I'll admit that at first I was more interested in photographing individuals and small groups- some little voice in the back of my mind kept asking how many birds were around but the bigger voice said "LOOK AT THAT ONE- GET A PICTURE WHILE IT IS UNOBSCURED BY BRANCHES AND IN THE GOOD LIGHT!!!" Before long, however, a diesel pickup chugged by, scaring all of them into the air. They milled around a bit and then formed a long river of birds heading off to their next destination. At that point I had a number in mind, but more on that later. Here's a shot I got of part of the flock, mostly in flight but with a few perched. If you are still with me after all of this, and still want to play, take another guess. Answer to follow, so scroll down when you are ready...Got a guess? OK then...

Again, I used a different color dot for each 100 birds, using 7 colors but only 98 orange dots. Thus I count 698 birds in this frame, which I thought was about 1/3 of the total. I had guessed about 2000 birds so I wasn't too far off, but not surprisingly I was still low on my estimate.

So keep practicing your counting of bird flocks. For some really helpful tips and methods, check out these two articles put together by the eBird staff:
Bird Counting 101
Bird Counting 201

And for some virtual bird counting practice try this:
Bird Counting Game

Thursday, December 27, 2007

I and the Bird

WildBird on the Fly is hosting I and the Bird episode #65- an eclectic combination of blog entries with birds as their connecting theme. I contributed a piece this go-around, too. Thanks, Amy, for putting it all together!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Pedro Makes the News

Everyone's favorite Streak-backed Oriole, Pedro, made one of the major Denver TV news channels the other day- check out the story: - Video - Bird Watchers Catch Glimpse Of Rare Specimen
Pedro has also made the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News- cool to see some positive mainstream exposure for birders. Great job, Connie, for accommodating so many folks who have come from near and far to see Pedro! Now if she'll only stay through Jan 1... (The Loveland CBC date.)

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Sing Along!

Well, Christmas Bird Count time is upon us, and I've been running around like a madman putting the final touches on the Boulder CBC, which ran successfully last Sunday. I compile the count, and a lot goes into coordinating the 30 territories and all of the feeder watchers. Now I have the other major part of the job left, which is to tally everything up and send it along to National Audubon. I created a big spreadsheet to help, but I still have to hand-enter all of the numbers. Here's my quick summary of the day that I sent to Cobirds, our state birding list serve:
Folks- scores of birders fanned out across the Boulder CBC circle on its 66th running today, spanning habitats including high foothills, urban jungles, riparian corridors, and eastern plains. Some met with strong winds and all had solid snow cover under blue sunny skies today, and open water was at a premium. (My group got passed by about 4 groups of snowshoers while looping around Betasso Open Space west of Boulder.) About the only calm water still uncapped by ice was at the Valmont Reservoir complex, which contributed two new birds to the Boulder count- Mew Gull (previously count week only) and Surf Scoter. (For directions on scoping this restricted property see Many reports are still on the way, but we will certainly have high hundreds or even over a thousand Bohemian Waxwings. Other highlights include Chihuahuan Raven (only seen on one previous count, when still known as White-necked Raven), Lesser Black-backed Gull (2 previous counts), Eared Grebe (3 previous), Gray Jay (6 previous), and with 7 previous counts each, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Peregrine Falcon, and Lesser Goldfinch.

Our day's list currently stands at 108, with two additional count-week species. Our biggest misses for now include Evening Grosbeak and Snow Goose, and we only have Merlin as a count-week bird. Hopefully a few species will be added as the remaining territory and feeder watcher reports are received.

I'd like to thank all of the territory leaders, participants, and feeder watchers for their efforts- I hope everyone was as invigorated by the brisk air, snow, and blue skies as I was! Let me know if you think you have a goodie from today in the Boulder Area (Northern Pygmy-Owl or any Bluebirds, anyone??) or in the next three days of count week.

Thanks again & have fun out there on all of the remaining counts!

I also did the Loveland, Colorado count on Saturday- among the highlights was a flock of over 500 Bohemian Waxwings! I'm also heading out east to do the Bonny, Colorado count on Friday. Busy boy, I am (especially with this other thing called my job going on in the meantime...)

So, I'll leave you with a little Christmas Count ditty, penned by Colorado birding legend Bill Prather- thanks for letting me post this, Bill!!

Christmas Count! Christmas Count!
Birding's biggest day.
Oh what fun it is to study winter birds this way.
Christmas Count! Christmas Count!
Birding's biggest day.
Oh what fun it is to count and freeze your face all day!
(start counting)
One year or Two ago,
we had Three or Four below,
Five or Six inches of snow,
and a Beaufort Seven blow.
GrEight birders with eyes peeled.
Nine hours in the field.
AtTention was paid, IDs were made,
Eleven birds revealed. (all Starlings)
Christmas Count! Christmas Count!
Birding's biggest day.
Oh what fun it is to search for a rare Palearctic stray (Brambling?)
Christmas Count! Christmas Count!
Birding's biggest day.
I think I might be ready to go birding again by May.

Sunday, December 09, 2007


We had a nice winter snap invade the Front Range of Colorado over the last few days, and I'm sitting here looking out at a snowy scene and busy feeders in my backyard (when I'm not looking at my screen, that is.) Al and Connie Kogler were doing much the same yesterday morning as they watched the birds visiting their feeders up in Loveland. I imagine their thought process may have been something like this:
House Finch- nice splash of color...

American Tree Sparrow- dapper little winter bird...

Pink-sided Junco- Such a perk living in Colorado where all of the Dark-eyed Junco forms are possible...

Northern Flicker- handsome & charismatic...

Yellow... er, orange... uh, black faced... um, WHAT THE?????
Yeah, an oriole!!! Nothing else that orange & yellow with dark face and a bill like that. But in December? In Colorado??? Guess so.

Connie got some pics and announced that she had an oriole on our state list (Cobirds), and some other birders who saw her pics raised the possibility that it could be a Streak-backed Oriole (which would be Colorado's first.) I got word of the bird and headed up yesterday afternoon, but was too late by about an hour, and I left in the dark snowstorm disappointed. I was hopeful that the bird could survive a night of snow and low temps (it got to about 10° F last night), but I can't say I was overly optimistic that anyone else would ever see it alive again. I set my alarm, though, and headed off to try again this morning. I arrived to find Al & Connie's cul-de-sac full of cars and their kitchen full of grinning birders- a good sign to say the least. Everyone had just seen it up close (like 15 feet away) and in the clear, but it had retreated into a spruce tree right before my arrival to avoid a Merlin's attention. Now, the worst words a birder can hear are "you should have been here ____ (minutes, hours, days, or whatever) ago...", but I was able to find it through a gap in the branches. Photographically impossible but at least I had it. Not to worry, though- several times throughout my stay it came down to a tray feeder on the ground to partake of the smorgasboard that was offered- grape jelly, an orange, mealworms, suet pellets, and a variety of mixed seed. I got some great shots along with everyone else through the kitchen window (with all of the shutters firing it sounded like Britney Spears had just came out of a nightclub to the awaiting paparazzi.) After a few rounds of this, I set up again outside, sitting on the ground against the garage wall to keep a low profile (and thoroughly chilling my glutes.) Sure enough, the bird continued to visit the feeder and I got some more images without the extra filter of double-pane window glass. Schweet- lifer, photos, state bird all rolled into one. Thanks, Al & Connie!!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Dark Harley

So my last post concerned a light-morph Harlan's Hawk, and for contrast I now give you the more expected dark-morph. I blew by this bird as I was heading to a CFO board meeting, but I figured the rest of the board would understand if I turned around and tried for some pics. The hawk was quite cooperative, posing nicely and then flying into the wind only as far as the next power pole, giving me a few rounds of flight photography. Yeah, I was late for the meeting (sorry, buddies), but it was so worth it...

This guy is on the dark end of things, but still has a little white streaking in the breast , belly, and crown. Dark calurus (western) Red-tails are just dark- no white streaking like that. Plus calurus 'tails have red tails, at least on the upper surface, unlike this Harlan's classic speckled white job with the subterminal dark band. Snazzy.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

A light Harlan's Hawk

I made a run to the feed store in Hygiene, Colorado yesterday (yeah- that's its real name and yeah, it's a pretty clean place...) I was after corn to keep my Blue Jays happy, but brought along my camera in case I saw anything interesting on the short trip. I'm glad I did.

You see, I'm a bit of a raptor aficionado- I like them all, but one that always interests me in particular is the Red-tailed Hawk. For starters, there are plenty around here, with their numbers growing in the winter as birds arrive from points north to spend the season. Then there's the wide range of individual variation shown within the species, from birds that are extremely pale (actually, if you count albinistic individuals, completely white) to coal-black stunners.

Among the winter Red-tailed Hawks along the Front Range of Colorado, a small percentage are Harlan's Hawks- the harlani subspecies of Red-tailed Hawk. Once considered a separate species, these birds have a fairly restricted breeding range (mostly Alaska and Yukon) and they move into the lower 48 states, primarily in the southern central plains, to winter. Other habitat pockets throughout the western states provide wintering grounds for Harlan's Hawks as well, and once you are east of the Mississippi Valley you would be lucky to find one (for detailed maps on these and other raptor distributions, get Brian Wheeler's comprehensive Raptors of Western North America and Raptors of Eastern North America.)

Harlan's Hawks, like western Red-tails (calurus), are polymorphic, meaning they come in various color morphs (not phases- they are born and live their whole life as one color type- phase implies the color will later change.) Reversing the trend found in their calurus counterparts, dark birds are the most common type found within the harlani subspecies. Light-morph Harlan's Hawks are quite rare, and easy to overlook as just another Red-tail. In the Sibley Guide to Birds, David indicates that light-morph Harlan's Hawks may only comprise 1% of the population. So finding one is cool- a rare form of a rare species.

I saw this bird drop on prey along a road while I was stopped at an intersections and when it didn't immediately fly back up I guessed it had made a catch. When I diverted over to see if I could photograph it on the ground, it flew back up onto a roadside power pole to eat the vole (or whatever it is- anyone venture a guess?) I love that scenario, because raptors with prey are a lot less likely to fly off. The bird let me coast up on it and get a series of pics as it ate lunch- I'll spare you some of the more gory shots (for now, at least.) Once during its meal, it flew to the next pole to finish eating, and then flew off, but I only managed two receding flight shots.

Obviously one striking feature is all of the white on various parts of the head. Its overall color tone was pretty cold- the belly band was fairly heavy, almost black "droplets". With the tail folded it looks nice and red with dark bands, but I think the red is only in the outer two feathers, with the rest of the deck (upper surface of the tail) gray with dark speckling and a dark subterminal band... good for Harlan's. You can see this on the second shot below where the bird is pulling on the rodent, exposing more of the tail. Also, it might just be the light head, but the bird looks a bit big-eyed compared to other Red-tails (like I think Harlan's do.)

And here's the oddest part- the bird called several times, and it didn't sound like a Red-tail. I hear them frequently, and I honestly don't think I would have identified it as anything but some unknown raptor if I had only heard it. The call wasn't as high and shrill as a typical RT- I'm not great at describing sounds but I thought it was more of a croaky sound, lower-pitched and without as much of a whistled quality compared to our "normal" 'tails.

I wasn't sure if I really had a light Harlan's, but after looking at Hawks From Every Angle by Jerry Liguori and Brian Wheeler's books mentioned above I was feeling like it was a real possibility. Now I've heard back from a few experts who have much more experience with these birds who agree with me that the bird is an adult light-morph Harlan's Hawk. Both also commented that they sound a bit different than other Red-tails. Wicked.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Comparing Common & Pacific Loons

We finally got some seasonal weather around Colorado's Front Range, with snow last Tuesday night into Wednesday morning and cold temps since then. On Wednesday, my sidekick Garrett & I saddled up and headed out to have a look at a couple of loons that had been lingering around Longmont, a Common and a Pacific.
The first order of birding in snowy, cold weather is to bundle up- think layers. Since it is hard for me to take a pic of myself, here's the G-man in his winter birding outfit, ready to roll:

Finding both birds was pretty straightforward- but both were being lazy, sleeping & preening near the middle of their respective lakes, putting them well away from any shoreline and associated predators. Plus the light was flat, light snow flurries came and went, and it was a bit breezy. Not great photographic conditions, but quite realistic for late fall loon watching. So I decided to video both birds and put together a little comparison video.

If the loons were together one of the most obvious features to compare would be the size differences, but they weren't even on the same lake, and other good size reference species like Western Grebes weren't present, either. But even with distant lone loons, much can be inferred from structure and field marks that are visible at long range.

I suspect that the Common Loon is a juvenile, but it could be a basic adult. Even at 200 meters or so, you can see the somewhat flat-topped & blocky head, white above the eye, fairly large & slightly upswept bill (underside curved upward a bit more than the topside is curved downward.) Also note the whitish partial collar intruding into the dark nape, creating an uneven border between the white throat and the nape. In contrast, the Pacific Loon (a juvenile) has a rounded head profile, curving smoothly back to the nape. The bill is relatively smaller and more symmetrical, and the nape line is straight, contrasting sharply with the white neck.
Somehow the even curve of the head and neck combined with the clean dark nape reminds me of a cobra with its hood puffed up. When the bird turns its head away, the silvery-gray coloration on the nape is more visible. The forecrown of the bird and the foremost part of the nape are darker gray, almost black.

To get the shots I videoscoped the birds with my Leica 77mm APO-Televid scope with a 32X wide angle eyepice, connecting a Leica C-Lux 2 camera with their Digital Adapter 2 (plus my homemade cable release bracket.) Anyway, check out the video I put together to compare the two:

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone out in the blogisphere- hope turkey day was good to you all. Bill

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

IFO- Take a Course!

The latest issue of Birding arrived the other day, bundled with a brochure outlining the 2008 Institute for Field Ornithology (IFO) offerings. I contributed the cover shot of a hen White-tailed Ptarmigan that I took on the slopes of Mount Audubon, west of Boulder, Colorado (and I've got some other shots sprinkled throughout the brochure.) I'm also excited to be assisting Ted Floyd on one of the workshops- Colorado Bird Community Biology: The San Luis Valley. The course will be 6-10 June, headquartered at The Nature Conservancy's Medano-Zapata Ranch . This little bison ranch (100,000 acres or so) sits on the high valley floor around 7500 feet above sea level near the Great Sand Dunes National Park, between the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan Mountains. To say that the natural setting is spectacular is an understatement, and the creature comforts at the ranch facility are top-notch, too.

Extremely varied habitat is found within and nearby the ranch, including two wetland-dominated national wildlife refuges (Monte Visa NWR and Alamosa NWR) the sage-shrubland valley floor, piñon-juniper foothills, montane forest mountain slopes, and alpine tundra (not to mention the continent's tallest sand dunes.) Among the diverse ecological settings of the San Luis Valley and its surrounding mountains we will address the following questions:
What causes communities to have the avian constituents that they do?
What factors limit membership in bird communities?
How do member species partition the resources in their communities?
How is bird community ecology affected by humans?
Of course, we won't be sitting around a classroom with the windows closed talking all day- our class will be field-based and you can count on lots of great birding in a remote, under-visited (thank goodness!) part of the state. If you'd like more information, email me and I'll send you an itinerary or try to answer whatever questions you may have.

Check out the other 2008 IFO offerings, too- lots of great topics in great places with great instructors!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Banish Bird Bonks?

Bounce on over to David Sibley's blog to read about a potentially simple but effective way to reduce bird strikes on windows using fluorescent yellow highlighter pens. Basically, you can make a nearly invisible (to us) grid on the inside of your window with the highlighter (marking the outside works, too, but the highlighter will wash off when it rains.) The idea is that birds, with their visual acuity extending into near-UV wavelengths, can see the grid pattern and will veer off instead of colliding.

He & his kids have quantified some promising data from their experiments and have identified some other ideas to test- sounds like a great science fair project! Anyway, if this pans out it would be great to spread the word- windows kill on the order of nearly a billion birds in North America each year!

Great idea, David (& David's kids)! So if you have a bonk-prone window and haven't installed or don't want to install a Bird Screen , give the Sibley bird-repelling method a try & let David know how it works.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Spark Birds

Jeff Gordon (aka Jeff Gyr) took advantage of a recent rainy day at the Cape May Hawk Watch platform to interview prominent birders gathered for the Cape May Autumn Weekend, asking them what their "spark bird" was. It is a great topic for conversation, and he got some great responses. Jeff featured a bunch of my photos in his podcast to illustrate the stories- thanks, Jeff! Click below to check it out.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Bird Carving

Some folks have honed their skill in the art of carving birds with feather-perfect detail. I go with broader strokes, aiming for overall effect more than strict attention to realism. Hey- it worked for Picasso, didn't it? And here's a tip- carving pumpkins with a jigsaw is the way to go! No mamsy pamsey little carving kits for me, man!

Happy Halloween!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Ross's Roller Coaster

I'm pretty wiped out from events today- see my post to Cobirds below.

Folks- I thought I'd recount the events surrounding today's Ross's Gull at Lagerman Reservoir, Boulder County (

I got a late start of it this morning, heading out towards Boulder Reservoir a little after 9:30 to see if yesterday's wave of scoters dropped any on that water body. Since Lagerman is on the way there from my house, I pulled into the lot there to see if anything was about. Arriving around 9:40, I immediately noticed a few dozen gulls on the little spit extending from the west shore. I put my scope on them and quickly noted a small gull with a post-occular spot standing amongst the Ring-billed Gulls. Nice- a Bonaparte's, I thought. Meanwhile, my scope's optical surfaces were quickly fogging up (I had kept it in my vehicle overnight and it was still chilled), so I spent about 5 minutes trying to dry it off and warm it up in the sunlight while scanning the lake with my binoculars. Not seeing much of interest, and with my scope revived, I returned my attention to the spit, about 350 meters to the southwest by Google Earth estimate. The small gull had gotten partially hidden behind a larger ringer, but I could see its head, which was clean white except for the previously mentioned small dark spot behind its eye. The bill struck me as a bit small, but at that distance I wasn't going to worry too much about that. The bird started walking out the spit towards the lake, behind roosting Ringers, but in the gaps I could see it progress and I thought it odd that I couldn't see any dark primaries. Still, I didn't have any long, clear looks, and really didn't think too much about it yet. The bird kept going, eventually stopping at the end of the spit. I was a bit perplexed by what seemed to be a pink cast on its breast, but wrote it off to sun glare off the water. But something was seriously beginning to twitch in the back of my birding consciousness- what was up with that bird? Maybe something about the head shape and proportions didn't fit. Then it picked up and began to fly the length of the lake, making a couple of laps along the far side. Now I could see the dark gray underwing, with a pale trailing edge, and thought I must have found a Little Gull. I didn't pay super attention to the tail at the time, and the bird returned to the water near the spit, swam in, and walked back up with the Ringers to settle down again. Now I could see for sure that there wasn't any black in the primaries- they were a nice uniform silvery gray along their whole length, and they looked long, projecting well back from the tail. Was that right for Little Gull? Having very little experience with Little Gulls (N=1), I trotted back to my car to grab my Sibley Guide, and returned to my scope to compare field marks. Well, I immediately saw that Little Gull should have very short wing projection and a darker cap, neither of which this bird had. I knew it wasn't a Bonaparte's Gull from the lack of black in the primaries and the wrong underwing pattern, so what the h-e-double hockey sticks was I seeing? Now my mind was turning to the possibility of something much less expected, and I thumbed back to the Ross's Gull page, with favorable comparisons to everything I was seeing. I was trying to rule Ross's out and anything else in, and was angling to get a better position to see the bird when it took off again. Now I was very seriously tracking its flight in my scope, trying to gauge its tail which looked a little long, but otherwise gave no shape clues from the side-on view. Finally, though, the bird wheeled up and hovered for a few strokes before plopping down on the water, spreading its tail as it did so. My heart leapt into my throat when I saw the steeply graduated, spade-shaped tail. The bird kept flying around the dam area giving a few more looks at its spade-shaped tail, and I stayed on it for a few minutes until it returned to the spit. I began calling everyone I could think of, getting voice mail after voice mail until reaching Nathan Pieplow who graciously posted the bird for me. Checking my sent phone call log, I see that I began calling people just before 10 am.

As Nathan and a host of other birders were inbound, and as I was continuing to make more calls and give directions, a Northern Harrier cruised along the west shore, first making the gulls on the spit nervously wake up, pulling tucked heads from out of wings and standing up, and then they flushed out over the lake. I was just beginning to walk around to the south side of the lake to get closer to the birds and to get better light, and wasn't too worried since the gulls immediately began to return to the spit after the Harrier passed. Ending another call, I set my scope down to get new bearings on the Ross's Gull but I couldn't find it. No worries- must be out on the lake, right? Nope- couldn't find it there, either, nor did I see any small gulls flying around. I backtracked to the picnic shelter area to re-group and start searching again, and soon thereafter Nathan arrived, followed by numerous other birders, but we couldn't re-locate the bird. Groups fanned out to check nearby water bodies with no luck, and I got updates throughout the day on other lakes in Boulder & near-Boulder Weld & Larimer counties- a few Bonaparte's here & there but no Ross's. Meanwhile, there was a constant monitoring presence at Lagerman to see if the bird returned, but no such luck. I went back at sunset to find Roger Linfield & Peter Gent but only one Ring-billed Gull remained on the lake- apparently the spit is a day roost but the gulls head elsewhere to spend the night. Hopefully the Ross's Gull will follow its pattern from today and head back to Lagerman in the morning, or show up at another area lake for more birders to see.

I'm very disappointed that the bird didn't re-appear anywhere today, but I also appreciate and am grateful for the massive effort that dozens of birders put in today looking, and for the coordinated updates they provided throughout the day- I know many itineraries were abandoned to join in the search. Still, there's a Ross's in our midst somewhere, waiting for the next keen birder to take note. So keep your eyes & scopes peeled, and good luck to searchers able to look for this bird tomorrow.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

When a hummer isn't a hummer...

I was catching up on processing pictures from the last few months during the day's snowy, rainy and windy weather when I found some fun video clips I shot of a White-lined Sphinx Moth that was feeding on my agastache flowers near the end of September. These moths feed like hummingbirds and are almost the size of a Calliope Hummingbird. Here's the iMovie feature with a little Ozomotli sound track:

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Camera Trapping

The generous folks at Wingscapes sent me their BirdCam, a motion-activated camera with very close focus capability designed for remote bird (or other wildlife) photography. Great idea and very neat tool- I can see why the Camera Trap Codger likes this kind of work! Thanks, Wingscapes!!

So I've tried a few placements, getting the most action on one of my tray feeders where I rigged up a mount using a flagpole bracket, some 1" oak dowel, and a surplus 5/8" pipe I found in my garage, plus an adjustable studio lighting bracket and a cheapo Bogen head I sprung for at Mike's Camera. I'll probably put something up showing the rig, but for now I don't have any pics of it.

There's a neat feeling to getting home after working all day and seeing the frame counter at 1200-some pics. I'm still fiddling with the number of shots per event, the time between events, etc., but I'd rather pitch lots of duplicates than miss something interesting. And with birds, there's always something interesting, isn't there?

One thing I found out is that we've had our first Dark-eyed Junco of the season, even though I've failed to see or hear it myself yet.
We're also experiencing a major irruption of Mountain Chickadees out onto the plains of Colorado this year, and my Longmont back yard has had a troupe for a bit over a week now. I'd say this is going to be a great winter to find this species throughout the plains states. One got caught in the camera's eye prior to nabbing a sunflower seed:
Blue Jays are always entertaining. Check out the second shot- dude, Iowa called and said not to worry- there's plenty more corn where that came from!
One of the addicting things about this kind of set-up is you never know what might be in the next frame. After rapidly viewing & trashing hundreds of shots of my House (Finch & Sparrow) mob, this frame startled an expletive right out of me!Son of a...

Anyway, one thing I began to enjoy was the variety of Common Grackle shots I got. I know they can be overwhelming at feeders, but they are gorgeous native birds and won't be around these parts for much longer before they head south for the cold months. They are ravenous in their final days or weeks before migration and come in droves, but that also ups the chance for something unexpected. For example, one of the grackles sported a band. I tried to read the number but couldn't resolve it.
This one only had one eye- arghhh, bring along me eye patch, matey!
Grackles as a whole have a high incidence of partial albinism, and I had a few showing varying degrees of plumage anomaly. Sometimes the only unusual thing is a few tiny white feathers flecking the head, like the bird on the back right corner has:This next bird had more extensive white feathering around its eyes, and the base of its bill lacked pigment, too.

And then this one showed up today, with an almost white head. I've seen this pattern in Canada Geese, too, where all of the body and wing feather tracts were normal, but the head and neck were mostly white.Finally, there's this Common Grackle, which appears to be just plain rude! Makes the saying, "Get off my back!" a little more real for me. (Yeah, in case you were wondering, Eurasian Collared-Doves have arrived in Boulder County.)
Fun stuff indeed. Thanks again to Wingscapes for sending their BirdCam- I look forward to thinking up some fun camera placements and hope to periodically share the results. For now, time to top off the trays again & see what tomorrow brings.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Foxy Birding

Last weekend I had the opportunity to make my second visit to The Nature Conservancy's Fox Ranch in Yuma County, Colorado. The property is a working cattle ranch, and includes about 8 miles of the Arikaree River and its riparian and tall grass habitats. Additionally, there are thousands of acres of shortgrass prairie and sage shrubland. Due to the active ranching activities the property is not open to the public. Grazing is critical to the health of the prairie, but range management there is done thoughtfully, with pastures receiving cows one month out of each year. It is really cool to walk in waist-high grass (or even chin-high grass by the river) on a ranch- must be what it was like in the proverbial old days all over the west. I was able to visit on a joint Colorado Field Ornithologists / Nature Conservancy field trip led by Ted Floyd (whom I accompanied there last year as well for scouting.)
The Arikaree is an undammed river, almost unheard of in a state where water = money. However, deep wells tapping the Ogallala Aquifer to irrigate center-pivot fields (those huge round fields you see if you fly over the plains) have seriously impacted the drainage, and the river no longer flows continuously out of Colorado. As a geographic side note, the point where the Arikaree River enters Kansas is the lowest point in Colorado, the highest low point of any state in the US at 3,315 feet.
Currently, Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado are tied up in federal lawsuits regarding how much water Kansas is owed under the Republican River Compact (the Arikaree is one of three major forks of the Republican River), and many if not all of these wells will likely be shut down, either by court order or under incentives offered by the USDA. The settlement will probably also result in the draining of Bonny Reservoir (on the South Fork of the Republican River), to make up some of the water debt and reduce future evaporative losses.
An unexpected benefit of the fact that the Arikaree no longer connects to any other river system is the protection that imperiled native fishes get from their isolation from non-native predators like Largemouth Bass. Hardy little natives like Brassy Minnows and Orange-throated Darters survive the summers in perennial pools and beaver ponds, able to withstand water temperatures of up to 100° F. Once the cottonwoods drop their leaves and therefore stop sucking water out of the floodplain, some surface flow returns in the ranch reaches of the stream (take the "river" part of the name with a grain of salt), pools deepen, and the fish spawn to continue their sequestered existence out in the dry plains of Eastern Colorado. Neat stuff.
The outstanding grassland habitats also attract their share of birds, both resident and migrant, and we were not disappointed. For much of our visit, however, winds slashed grass, birders, and birds alike, keeping the latter mostly tucked deep in cover or receding with tailwind-assisted hyper-acceleration when flushed. But for a magical hour or so after sunrise the conditions were great, with the highlight bird being a shockingly non-lurking Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow- my first for Colorado, which only has a few previous records of this species. When the wind began raging again, bird photo-opps became non-existent, but I did get a few other critters to pose. Here are a few more photo highlights from the trip.

Porcupine in the cottonwoods along the Arikaree River

Vesper Sparrow in the headquarters grove

Juvenile White-crowned Sparrow in the wood pile

Female Varigated Meadowhawk

Male Yellow-legged Meadowhawk

Thanks again to Ted for leading the trip and to The Nature Conservancy for hosting us. If you aren't familiar with TNC or their mission, link here to see what they do and how you can help.