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

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Snowed in

Another wave of snow for Boulder, Colorado today- no biggie for an early-nesting Great Horned Owl, right? Check the time signatures to see how fast she was buried by the onslaught. Not much to do but hunker down and keep that egg warm (37° C warm, in fact, per BNA Online.) But even an incubating GHOW needs a break, apparently, as mom left the egg uncovered for about 50 minutes this evening before hunkering back down to incubate again. I guess she knows what she's doing, but maybe a friendly call from Child Protective Services about leaving an egg to chill for almost an hour wouldn't be out of line... Actually, it wasn't super cold (maybe -2 or -3°C at that hour), and BNA says "Eggs withstood female absence of 20 min at –25°C when female joined mate hooting at a neighboring male..." Guess even the eggs have to be able to take some cold when the species nests this early- builds character, I'll bet.

Surfbirds resurfaces!

Good news- one of my favorite distractions,, is back online after a hacker-induced hiatus. Welcome back, Surfbirds!

Monday, February 26, 2007

The wait begins

Correspondent Amy Ries alerted me that the Great Horned Owls nesting at the Valmont Power Plant in Boulder are proud parents of an egg as of last night. Checking the archived daily pix, we can see that the female was present nearly all night. Her few brief stretch breaks give us glimpses at the nest scrape in the corner of the box- it appears as though the egg was laid sometime around 10 pm. By 10:30 the egg is there, and at about 2:30 am dad came by to check on things- maybe he brought a mouse or vole, too. This morning, the female is basking in the morning sunlight, beginning the wait of about a month (30-37 days per Birds of North America online) until we see chicks. Still, the box is worth watching, as the male will bring her prey over the intervening time.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Wee Owlie

I cruised around Northern Colorado this morning, trying to re-find a Gyrfalcon that a friend of mine saw as it swooped in front of his car yesterday at dusk. Unfortunately, everyone I know who tried for it today shared my lack of success in re-finding the bird.

After tiring of my Gyr-dipping ways, I veered west, taking me into the foothills northwest of Ft. Collins with hopes of maybe seeing a Northern Pygmy-Owl. At one likely spot I heard Steller's Jays and Pygmy Nuthatches pitching a fit, which is always a good sign of a possible owl. Unfortunately, they were up in ponderosas beyond a private fence so I couldn't investigate.

Amazingly enough, though, as I was heading back down towards Ft. Collins I noticed the profile of a compact small bird atop a dead branch in a cottonwood tree. Sure enough, it was a NOPO sitting there in great light- wow, what luck! The road was up above the little stream valley there, so even though the bird was up high in the tree I was about even with it. I decided to digiscope the bird since it was a little far out for detailed DSLR work- turned out to be OK because I could work several angles without flushing it from that distance. Schweet.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Colorado Birding Trail

Cool news for Colorado birders and folks planning birding trips to our state- the Colorado Birding Trail is online! This great resource is launching in conjunction with the High Plains Snow Goose Festival this weekend. Funded by the Colorado Division of Wildlife's Watchable Wildlife Program, a coalition of partners has brought the project to life- congratulations to everyone involved! This is a real feather in the cap for the Colorado birding community, and a nice compliment to the more in-depth Colorado County Birding page that went online last year. Thanks to all of the site authors, and especially to Nathan Pieplow and Andrew Spencer who rounded up info on many of the sites and who compiled the themed trails. Finally, kudos to CryBaby Design for the outstanding look and feel to the website- the folks behind the scenes there there (Scott & Erika) are birders, which shows through in the design and functionality of the site.

Oh, and most of the bird pics are from yours truly. ;-)

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Birds in the Funnies- Fly by night

Corny. I like it. Here's an idea- some writer should work the idea of message-delivering owls into their book, or even a series of books. They could even include young wizards attending a special school, scary monsters, and an evil wizard so bad that most folks won't even mention his name...

Wizard of Id, 2/22/07:

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Busy Night at the Valmont Owl Box

Business picked up a lot last night at the Valmont Plant Great Horned Owl nest (viewable on the Excel Energy Owl Cam.) Since mid-January or so, owls have been making visits about once a night, but rarely staying long. Sometimes they have left behind tracks in snow, but besides that the cam hasn't had much action.

One or both GHOWs came to the box about 6 times last night, and one has been there all morning. Not only that, the game of "guess the prey" has begun!

First, at about 9:30 last night, an owl arrived with what looks like a mouse. It dropped it on the floor of the box and left it uneaten- maybe a gift for the momma-to-be from daddy owl?
About an hour later, the mouse was still sitting there, but shortly thereafter, an owl arrived and dispatched it. Wonder if they taste better cold?
But that was just the hors d'oeuvres- the main course arrived at dawn, as an owl arrived out on the perch with breakfast dangling below it:
What was on the breakfast menu? A duck- perhaps a Mallard by the looks of it? Now that's good eating! As of "press time" (my lunch break ~12:45 pm), the owl hadn't left since this morning. I wonder if the female is about ready to lay eggs and begin incubating?

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Fun with animated GIFs

A flock of Cedar Waxwings was in the neighborhood a few days ago- My wife and year-old son were on their daily walk and found the birds in a neighbor's crabapple tree. Summoned by cell phone, I soon arrived on the scene with camera in hand. I always shoot bursts when birds are doing cool things, and when I got home I saw that I had a fun sequence of this CEDW gulping a crabapple. Want to try for yourself? Here's one way to do it:
  1. Take a stream of shots in the continuous mode
  2. Pick a "base" image to open in Photoshop
  3. Add the next frame as a new layer. (Open new picture, go to Layer menu, choose "duplicate layer", send it to first pic. Then you can close that pic and work with your master image.) Make the new layer about 50% opaque so you can see the base layer underneath it. Match up the backgrounds as much as possible.
  4. Turn the new layer totally transparent, repeat steps 3 and 4 with as many layers as you want. By making each successive layer transparent when you are done with it, you are still using the base layer as a reference for the background.
  5. Crop and re-size the image, making sure that all layers fit within the crop.
  6. Make each layer 100% opaque, sharpen & auto-contrast (to try and match all of the exposures as best as possible- I find the auto-contrast usually does a better job than I do.)
  7. In the "save for web" menu, choose GIF and select the "animate" and choose the time between frames- in this example I used .3 second frames. To make the last one stay still longer in my little sequence I just duplicated that last frame 4 times (maybe 5?)

Voilà- an animated GIF.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Go Big or Go Home

Sometimes to make a big impression you gotta have big hair- Just ask Elvis:
Or, any of the legions of Elvis impersonators:
Johnny Bravo takes his hair to a new level of manliness: But the most enviable head-topping, lady-wooing, and rival-withering coiffure may actually be found in the avian world, and on a duck at that! Guys, throw down your Rogaine, laser hair combs, toupees, and Dippity-Do. Concede defeat and hail the biggest, baddest lady-killing pompadour of them all- that of the male Hooded Merganser:

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Birds in the Funnies- Migration Blues

In today's Pearls Before Swine, we see Pig's loyal guard-duck missing his girlfriend, who migrated away last fall.

Sounds like a lot of birders around here, waiting for spring migration to bring back some feathered friends that we haven't seen since they departed last fall. And hey, feel free to invite some southern vagrants to tag along...

Pearls Before Swine, 2/14/07:

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

All crossed up

I went up in the foothills west of Denver last Sunday on a mission- to try and find some cooperative Red Crossbills. I really like this species, but my stock of pics in this department, um, left something to be desired- usually I hear them flying over or see them way up in tree tops. My dad Jim and some other Cobirders had reported seeing cooperative birds at Genessee Mt. Park (up near the flying saucer house, for those of you who have headed west from Denver on I70.) So with my dad as my scout and guide, up we went.
After pulling off at the first picnic area, we were reconnoitering when a pair of Crossbills flew in and perched in a very nice bare-limbed tree, not to high, with great light on them, etc. Where was my camera? D'Oh!, still in my truck... Guess I should learn from the Boy Scouts and be prepared next time.
Anyway, the next couple of times cooperative birds perched I was ready, and finally got shots that I like with angles showing the namesake overlapping bill, which the bird uses to open pine cones.
The hidden crux of the matter was to figure out which subspecies of Red Crossbill these were. Luckily, my friend Nathan Pieplow helped me out by summarizing the occurrence of Red Crossbills in Colorado:
"... Type 2 is the ponderosa pine specialist, and Type 5 is the lodgepole and spruce-fir specialist. These are the common breeders in the state. Interestingly, they are probably indistingushable by physical characteristics, and extremely close to one another genetically, but remain vocally distinct despite broad sympatry. Type 4 is the Douglas-fir specialist, and it may breed in the state, but I believe it is more common in winter..."
So that should make it easy to figure them out, right? Well, they were in an area of mixed conifers, with ponderosa pine and Douglas fir both present. So, type 5 is probably safely ruled out. That leaves call notes and bill length as the separators for Type 2 and 4. The call notes sounded like what I frequently hear in the Colorado foothills, suggesting the more commonly occurring Type 2 birds instead of the irruptive Type 4s. Type 4 birds also have smaller bills, but I don't have a lot of experience judging bill size in crossbills. Luckily, one of the nation's top Red Crossbill researchers, Craig Benkman, lent me his opinion:
"...From the photos and habitat I strongly suspect these are type 2 and that if you spent a fair amount of time out there you would mostly see them foraging on ponderosa pine at this time because doug-fir in the interior tends to shed it seeds earlier in the year (more so than ponderosa pine in our region; type 2 were nesting while feeding on ponderosa pine near the CO/WY border just south of Laramie in March 2005). The bills are just too big for type 4..."
Why all the interest in which type of Red Crossbill? Well, for one it is just an interesting topic to me. Secondly, these birds have major potential to be split into at least 9 species and to figure out which are which, birders are going to really have to pay attention to habitat and call notes.
Anyway, scattered about this post are some of my favorites. Note the female bird "flossing" with a ponderosa needle below- a curious behavior that apparently is shared by many finch species.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Photo Update

I wrapped up all of my remaining 2006 images- this batch is all from Colorado. Link on over to my bird pics site to see:

domestic Swan Goose, domestic Mallard, Ross's Goose, Canada Goose, hybrid Canada x Swan Goose, Cackling Goose, Brant, Tundra Swan, Wood Duck, American Wigeon, Mallard, domestic Peacock, Wild Turkey, Common Loon, Yellow-billed Loon, Pied-billed Grebe, Horned Grebe, Eared Grebe, American White Pelican, Brown Pelican, Bald Eagle, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Harlan's Hawk, Ferruginous Hawk, Prairie Falcon, American Coot, Long-billed Curlew, Pectoral Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher, Ring-billed Gull, California Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Black Phoebe, Horned Lark, Brown Creeper, Mountain Bluebird, Townsend's Solitaire, Curve-billed Thrasher, European Starling, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Grasshopper Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Harris's Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, and House Sparrow.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Wing Shooting

First of all, mad props to Bird Chick for the idea of using animated gifs in the bird blogisphere- I'm gonna have fun with that!

Anyway, I went out to the S. Platte River last weekend on a Long-tailed Duck twitch. Not just any LTDU, mind you, but a full-on adult male (a plumage that rarely makes it to Colorado, and one I had never seen before.) As I was driving over the bridge near the ducky's favorite stretch of river I saw someone set up on the bike path with a scope- a good sign to start with. Even better, as I got closer, the birder (who turned out to be my friend Loch Kilpatrick) began gesturing at the river- BUENO!! And then, reaching a gap in the trees, I saw the little old brave.
Well, I anticipated spending at least an hour watching him, probably slowly working my way into the trees and sitting still so the little guy could swim on by for his portrait once things settled down. Instead, I only got about a dozen shots before a couple of fly-fishermen came along to angle in the same danged pool as the LTDU! Of all of the pools they could have chosen! And hey, fisherfolk, don't mind us guys with the big optics staring intently at the ducks you are about to flush!! Needless to say, it departed for points unknown with its consort of Common Goldeneyes and Lesser Scaup. And as far as I know it hasn't been seen since...

So I headed upstream to look for the LTDU, without any luck despite 3 hours and a couple of miles of searching (remember the part about not being seen since?) But I consoled myself by trying some wing shooting on the remaining non-LTDU waterfowl- I had good sunlight at my back, the snow-covered ground was giving a great bounce to light up birds from underneath, and there was a gentle downstream breeze to slow the rockets... er, ducks a little bit. This part of the river is always host to lots of wintering ducks, so there were plenty of opportunities. With flight shots there are lots of throw-aways, but I had some that worked. Here are some of my favs- enjoy.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Midnight mystery

First of all, some of you will probably recognize this bid cam and if so, it won't be much of a mystery to you.

Identifying and interpreting tracks in the snow is really fun- for example, see Julie Zickefoose's recent blog entry regarding the art of reading tracks in the snow, or Bill of the Bird's post about stumping Julie (the science Chimp) with a mystery track of his own.

So this morning I checked a local nest box cam, and saw these tracks in the snow that fell last night:
Here's a hint for the uninitiated- this box is about 260 feet up a decommissioned smoke stack at the Valmont Power Plant run by Xcel Energy in Boulder, Colorado. (aside: what the heck kind of name is Xcel? Can't spell Excel?? What was wrong with their previous name, Public Service Co.???)

So, my dear Watson, the tracks probably aren't from a terrestrial animal, unless it has learned to climb the ladder up the smoke stack.

A neat thing is that the camera's web page also has running archives that keep the previous 24 hours of footage recorded every two minutes for review. So I started going back hour by hour to see when the critter left the tracks. Finally, I got to the 1 am block, and the first image showed blank snow so I knew I was closing in on the culprit. The image series up to 1:21 am was blank:

The next pic caught the perpetrator at 1:23 am. In the following image taken two minutes later it was gone, but the successive images preserved the tracks. Do you have your guess?

Is that your final answer? Well, then scroll on down...

Yeah- it is a Great Horned Owl. For the past several years, Great Horned Owls have nested up high on the smoke stack in a box initially intended for Peregrine Falcons. Dave Madonna, the plant engineer who oversees the owl cams on the property (they also get nesting Barn Owls) told me that the Great Horned Owls began investigating the box earlier this month- ahead of last year's schedule. While you can't see it in the snow, there is now a little dish scooped out of the substrate in the back corner of the box- presumably where the eggs will be laid. Of course, GHOWs are known for nesting really early- it wouldn't surprise me if this cam shows an incubating owl soon but for now these quick midnight nesting box checks are the M.O.

Once the chicks are hatched and the parents start relaying back food, it is fun to play "guess the prey." These owls seem to eat lots of birds, not surprising since the entire power plant complex has been declared an Audubon Important Bird Area. Even though many of their bird victims appear to be Rock Pigeons, they also catch things like Northern Flickers and once I saw an American Kestrel laid out for chicky din-din. Rabbit parts are frequent on the menu as well, but often the remains are unidentifiable, at least by me. It is also fun to watch fledged chicks make forays out onto the perch in preparation for their first flight- and at 260 feet to the ground, they are guaranteed a looooonnnngggg first flight!

To watch these events unfold for yourself, stay tuned to the Xcel owl cam. Oh, and I challenge anyone's local GHOWs to break this record of nesting 260 feet above ground level!

Postscript: Check out these pics from the evening of 2/2. Looks like the GHOW came back to clear out a little snow! The bird stayed for about 1/2 hour from 8:00 to 8:30 or so (note the bird perched outside in the last pic of that series), and then cleared a little more snow just before 10:00. In one of the pics it almost looks like it was doing the towhee shuffle to get the snow out of the nest cup. Guess I'm not the only one who's been doing snow removal lately!!