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Wednesday, March 28, 2007


I think I graduated out of winter mode today by taking a break from birdwatching & bird photography to snap pics of this little butterfly. Sure, Mourning Cloaks can pop up at almost any time if things warm up enough (the adults hibernate), but today my friend Nathan Pieplow and I came across this Hoary Elfin up in the Boulder County foothills while trying to track down Red Crossbills. These little butterflies hatch really early in the spring- great to see after a long break from butterflies around here.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

3-G Birding

My folks came up last Sunday for a pancake breakfast at the casa followed by some birding at nearby Walden Ponds in Boulder. My wife Char snapped a pic I really like- three generations of Schmoker boys bird-seeking:
From left to right that's Garrett, Willy (yours truly), and Jim.

One bird we studied was this hybrid Cinnamon x Blue-winged Teal. This is a fairly well-known duck hybrid combo, but each version seems to have its own mix of traits from the parents. (See
Jeff Bouton's pics of another here.) The Boulder bird is noteworthy not just for the classic mix of CITE and BWTE field marks, but for the fact that this is the fifth consecutive spring that it has been noted at Walden Ponds. Here's a pic I took of the bird in April of 2002:
And here's a pic from April of 2003. Note how the wing feathers are much more displayed when the bird is out of the water preening (ducks often have most of their wings tucked under their tertials when they are swimming around dabbling or diving.)
I'm sure this is the same bird- even though this is a well-known hybrid they are still quite uncommon, and this one shows a bright facial crescent with a distinctive little break just below eye level. (Note Jeff's bird and the illustration in Sibley where birds don't show this much of a white facial crescent.)

This year, the bird is hanging out with a pair of "normal" Cinnamon Teal (I say "normal" because they look good phenotypically, but who knows what genes they carry.) Interestingly, recent DNA "barcode" analysis showed no detectable genetic differences in the two. There have to be some genetic differences, though, even if undetectable with current technology. Outside of the genetics lab, CITEs and BWTEs usually tell each other apart. Besides the field mark differences, the two segregate themselves by migration timing (in Colorado, Cinnamon Teal are earlier to arrive and later to depart) and they usually hang out separately (but of course, this bird's parents didn't follow that rule...) Anyway, It is cool to compare & contrast the males side-by-side to see the differences. I'm also throwing in a pic of a classic male Blue-winged Teal that I took a few years ago in Texas for comparison and to see the blend of traits that this hybrid ended up with.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Birds in the Funnies- Return of the TUVUs

Just as Turkey Vultures are returning to Colorado, they also show up in today's Monty. Now that's what I'm talking about right there with hard-core bird feeding! I'll even forgive the crow call coming from the TUVUs because of that squirrel tail sticking out of the bag.

Monty, 2/25/07:

If at first you don't succeed...

... lay, lay again. Yes, the Valmont Plant Great Horned Owls are back in business (thanks to faithful reader Julie for the heads-up!) After a nesting failure and the subsequent removal of the clutch, momma owl has laid another egg. It looks like the egg was laid shortly after 3 pm yesterday (March 24). At 3:04 there is no egg, but you can see the owl perched out on the, um, perch.
After that she looks like she is inspecting her accomplishment, and then she stayed on the scrape for several hours (er, nesting in her nest?), but a quick break around 7:24 pm to see what dad was up to showed an egg present.All night, the owl only took a few breaks, none lasting over 20 minutes. Hopefully she learned her lesson and won't be taking off for hours or even the whole night without incubating the egg, like she did on her failed first attempt. Dad is helping out too- brought a nice little snack around 7:26 pm.
He also had a peek at GHOW-to-be when he delivered a chunky breakfast a little before 4 pm- looks like some kind of vole with a short tail like that? Oh, and for a minute I thought they were up to two eggs- but later pics show there is still only one there- I think the other white blob is part of her feathered foot. Anyway, I hope that the mom got her first-year jitters out of her system on the lost batch and settles in to hatch this egg (or eggs to follow) properly. Hopefully we'll also have peeks at what's going on with the Valmont Barn Owls in the coming weeks, too.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Poster Child

The Colorado Birding Trail came out with some new promotional posters yesterday, and I was lucky to have my bird photography featured on them. Looking good! Thanks to CryBaby Design for the slick layout these posters have (click each to enlarge.)

Friday, March 16, 2007

Paired Up

Progress in the Boulder Barn Owl box- this morning a pair of owls are roosting in the box. The Valmont Owl Cam is toggling between the Great Horned Owl box (nesting failed there this spring) and the Barn Owl box throughout the day, so if you go to the live image you may or may not see Barn Owls. Fortunately, you can run back through the previous 24 hours' worth of images in two-minute intervals to see what has transpired recently.

The funny thing is that Barn Owls are really hard to get in Boulder County (where the Valmont Plant is) and unless you get special access, you can only see this box by scoping it from about a mile away. Good luck with that, since Barn Owls usually don't emerge until it is fully dark. Oh, well- still nice to know these birds are there.
Hey- get that sun out of my face!!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Barn Owl in the House

News from the Valmont Station Owl Cam- they have switched the cam over to the Barn Owl nest box after the failure of the Great Horned Owl nest.

There's one Barn Owl in the house today, and the view is from above so usually the owl looks kind of funny. It did look up once, though, confirming its identity. I heard a calling Barn Owl on my sojourn to the Northern Saw-Whet Owl the other night, and I wonder if it was one of the birds in the territory of the Valmont Barn Owls, since I was within a mile of that nest box when I heard it. Anyway, stay tuned for more developments- hope the Barn Owls do better than the Great Horned Owls did this year.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Wee Owlie round two

A few weeks ago I posted about a sweet little Northern Pygmy-Owl that I found. I had an another excellent encounter with a small owl a couple of nights ago, when my friend Nathan Pieplow guided me to a vocal Northern Saw-whet Owl that another local birder (Walter Szeliga) found last week. Nathan had been out to the owl's territory for a few successive nights to get sound recordings- he's a top-flight bird recordist (look for his upcoming article in Birding Magazine.) Sure enough, as soon as we got into position and stopped, the bird could be heard toot-toot-tooting away. We enjoyed listening to the variations on its song- basically is was tooting fast or faster, sometimes soft and sometimes loud and occasionally throwing in a little more "jazz". Then it moved to a more open area with a big cottonwood and a few smaller trees, where we could easily walk without crashing around through undergrowth.

Walking over, it sounded like maybe the bird had crossed a small lake as the sound seemed distant from the waters ahead. But then something strange happened- as we walked by the cottonwood the sound rapidly shifted perspective- we were walking right by the softly calling owl! Strange how these little guys can seem to throw their voice, and how you can be right next to a bird that sounds distant. Anyway, Nathan swept the tree with a flashlight and the owl was poking its head out of a hole, whisper-singing. Despite the illumination the bird never hesitated or even looked our way. Nathan began to record, and I got some pics of the bird doing its thing. (You can barely see the small owl in the vertical shot of Nathan- look for the eye shine.) We kept a wide-angle flashlight on the tree so we could see what was going on and so my camera could focus on the bird, but there was no need for a mega-spotlight as we were very close- just wide illumination from propping my flashlight against a downed limb worked fine. The bird just ignored us, continuing to sing, sometimes loud and sometimes soft and in different directions. It got a thin, high "reep" as a response a few times. Each time it heard that, it whipped its head around to the direction that call came from. During the approximately 30 minutes that we stuck around the owl occasionally would fly off to a nearby perch to sing some more from the open, always later returning to its hole to continue. At one such perch, only about a foot off the ground, I got some shots of the bird out of its hole. All of this was done without any playback and without any obvious disturbance- the owl had a one-track, hormone-fueled agenda and seemed oblivious to our presence (although subtle, slow movement and being as quiet as possible probably didn't hurt anything.)

All in all, this was one of the most satisfying owling experiences I've had.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Birds in the Funnies- Eye Yi Yiiiii!

Funniest Pearls in a while- and bird-themed, to boot! That is some mean swooping heron- I wonder if they ever vagrate to these parts. Bravo, Pastis!

Pearls Before Swine, 3/11/07:

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Birds in the Funnies- He has mom's eyes?

See, it's funny because mom & dad look alike. And they look like every other penguin in the colony. And they look like every other penguin drawn in the comics. Get it? Huh?

Speed Bump, 3/10/07:

Friday, March 09, 2007

Birds in the Funnies- Daddy, can we keep him?

Uhhh, yeah...

F-Minus, 3/9/07:

Game Over

The nesting season at the Valmont Power Plant Great Horned Owl box appears to be over. For the last few days the eggs have gone completely unincubated and mostly unattended, with only sporadic short visits by the owl. This afternoon, the image switched for a while to what I presume is the empty Barn Owl box. Then it switched back to the Great Horned Owl box, and the eggs and what looks like an owl pellet were gone. I suspect they were removed to study, and maybe to attempt to make the box attractive to Peregrines (the originally intended occupants.) Ironically, the owl came back for a few minutes after sunset and looked around. Wonder what she thought of the change? Maybe she will chalk this one up to experience and be a good mommy next spring...

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Rosy Glow

My second-favorite Rosy-Finch flavor is the Hepburn's Gray-crowned Rosy Finch. A full-on male Black Rosy is tops in my book, but none showed up on my visit to the Fawnbrook Inn in Allenspark, Colorado last weekend. I was more than happy with the looks this Hepburn's gave me, though. While I really like the Fawnbrook, photography there is tough because the rosies tend to either hang out in the tops of tall aspen trees or sit on the feeders on the distant, shady side of the building- both are fine for studying the birds but they are less than desirable for aesthetic photography. The best situation to have there is a big swarm of 100s or even 1000's of birds. During those incredible events, they end up kind of everywhere- tops, middles, and bottoms of trees, on feeders, on benches, on railings, on the snow, on rocks, and on one memorable occasion even on my foot (as I sat quietly on a bench, a bird walked up and over my foot instead of taking the trouble to go around.)

Last weekend there were only a few dozen birds coming and going, but about 4 times a sub-group came down to feeders (well, actually sunflower-filled wooden salad bowls) on the ground in front of the restaurant. Birds coming down to eat are amazingly tolerant of people as long as you move slowly. I settled in on a snowbank nearby with the sun at my back and just enjoyed the proximity of these stunning birds- a mix of about 3/4 Brown-capped and 1/4 Gray-crowned. While the looks and lighting were much better for these birds than the ones on the shady side of the house, a photo of a bird wallowing around in a bowl of seed doesn't quite conjure the feelings of tundra and winter stoicism that I associate with these birds. But the male Hepburn's had the decency to pause on the edge of an interesting rock, surrounded by snow. Part of the bowl is still in the background, but the focus on it is real soft and if you want to believe the myth, you can imagine it is just a brown boulder in the snow-covered background.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

A message from the Valmont Station engineer

Dave Madonna, the Valmont Station engineer who oversees the owl cam program, sent the following to a bird cam discussion group in response to concerns expressed about the nest this year. Thanks to Gail B for posting it to Cobirds:
Great to hear from you. It's obviously not looking
good for the Valmont great horned owl nest. I
haven't been able to determine if this female is
"Snowflake" or a different female. I was a bit
worried last season about how long Snowflake was
leaving the eggs uncovered in cold weather and both
eggs ended up hatching with no problems. This season
looks like a different story. An adult owl was
electrocuted in our substation here at the plant last
June. I suspect it may have been Snowflake and she
has been replaced by a young female. I've noticed
several peculiarities with the female this season.
Early on, she seemed fidgety (technical birding term)
in the nest and she dug the deepest scrape I have
seen. My general impression has been that this is a
young and inexperienced female. I don't know why
she is abandoning the eggs. The male, Dan, is
roosting in a spruce tree near the nest and appears to
be in good health. He was bringing a continuous
supply of prey to the nest up until Saturday night
when the female bailed out. I wondered if the
abnormally high snowfall here this winter may have had
some effect, but the owls seem to be bringing plenty
of prey into the nest box. I'm guessing that this
young female just isn't quite ready to sit for 30 plus
days on eggs yet. Hard to blame her, although it is
sad to see those eggs sitting there exposed to the

Thanks for your continuing interest in the Valmont owl
cam. I'm keeping a close watch here and will let you
know if I see anything of interest. I definitely will
be watching both adult owls to verify they are

Dave Madonna
Sr Plant Engineer
Valmont Station, Xcel Energy

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Trouble at the Owl Cam?

While there's nothing I can do about it, I'm more than a little worried about the Valmont Power Plant Great Horned Owl nest. While perusing the daily pix from the last 24 hours I was dismayed to see that the owl left the eggs at 2:46 pm yesterday afternoon. Instead of a short break, the owl remained off the eggs for the rest of the daylight hours. She was mostly was at the nest, but hung out on the edge of the box or on the perch. The owl came back onto the eggs at 7:10 pm but only incubated for about a half-hour, departing again at 7:42 pm and staying out until 5:46 am this morning. If my figuring is right, that is only 32 minutes of incubating in a 15 hour period- can't be good, can it? It wasn't bitterly cold last night but it did frost- I wonder if the eggs can withstand so many cold un-incubated hours. Maybe the male died or split the scene and mom had to hunt for herself? Anyway, she's back now so the nest isn't abandoned. We'll see if the eggs survived the neglect down the road...

Monday, March 05, 2007

Cleaning up Pygmys

Whoa- a blog title like that might have a non-birder scratching their head... In this case, it means that I already had photos of a bird species (Pygmy Nuthatch), but they weren't great until I "cleaned up" the species by finally getting shots of it that I liked. Some birds are just hard to photograph at all, (Yellow Rail comes to mind), and others can just be personal bugaboos (I still don't have pics of Barred Owl that I really like, but at least I have the excuse that I don't get to see them much- I think there are only two Colorado records and one is from the 1800s.)

If you've ever tried bird photography you know that some common birds are harder to photograph well then most birders would think. A great example of this is the Pygmy Nuthatch. If you spend any time in the ponderosa-covered foothills of Colorado you are likely to be inundated by these birds, and yet until yesterday I can't say I really had any great pics of this species. Let's review some of the photographic challenges the wee Pygs generate. They:
  • Just love to stay high in trees, particularly among the long ponderosa needles (ugh)
  • Are therefore usually backlit by bright blue or cloudy skies (argh)
  • Are tiny, so even at a range reasonable for most birds they look small in the frame, and at the tops of ponderosas they aren't much more than specks (ack)
  • And they move frenetically, so even when one shows itself well the photo opp usually lasts for about 1/2 a second, challenging even the most rapidly reacting photographer and autofocus. (expletive deleted.)
Yesterday my dad and I were at a famous Rosy-Finch spot, the Fawnbrook Inn in Allenspark, Colorado. While rosies gave us some action, there was a lot of no-finch time. I noticed PYNUs regularly coming in to a feeder. Many would grab their seed and disappear into the trees to hammer them open in seclusion, but a few would use a nearby weathered timber sign post as their anvil. Between feeding sorties I eased into position about 10 feet away and just hung out quietly. I wasn't hiding, but by just standing still and being patient I wasn't worrying the birds, either. Pretty soon another round of feeding began and Pygs would take their nut to "hatch" on the board. Their movements were too fast to react to a good pose, so instead I tried to judge when the light looked twinkly in their eyes and then fired bursts hoping that some of the frames would look nice. I got lots of throwaways, but so what?I also lucked out and got a PYNU in a more natural perch, clinging upside-down to an aspen trunk as it waited for its turn to dart in and get a sunflower seed. These things really defy gravity, which I guess isn't as hard as it sounds when you only weigh about 10 grams. I think the last pic with the inverted bird's head facing out is an iconic pose for nuthatches.