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

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Back from the Bayou

For the past week I’ve been at the American Birding Association’s National Convention in Lafayette, Louisiana. I’m drafting this post on my flight into Denver from Houston, with a laptop full of pics to work on and a mind full of good memories. This was my first time in Louisiana, and I finally managed to catch up with Fulvous Whistling-Duck. I also got my first look at King Rail (I’d heard them a couple of times before)- now if I could just get a glimpse of a Black Rail I’ll have all of the regularly occurring ABA coots and rails on my photo list (no, I don't have Corn Crake, either.) Beyond those new birds I managed to clean up and expand my photo catalog on many other species that I don’t get to see and photograph very often. In particular, I hammered lots of waders and also got my best shots to date of Barred Owl.
As with other ABA conventions and conferences I’ve been to, the Lafayette affair had a good mix of birding and time to mix & mingle with like-minded folks. I enjoy the chance to see birders I haven’t seen in a while and to meet others. Leica brought me out and I worked the booth when I wasn’t on field trips or in a workshop- I got to see Andrew Farnsworth’s Radar Ornithology / Flight Note workshop which was heavy duty but very cool!! I’d been exposed to both topics from other speakers but Andrew really brought me up to speed on both fronts and juiced my interest in both a little more. I really want to thank Leica Sport Optics for getting me out to Louisiana!
This convention also gave me the chance to sample some mighty fine food. I think I managed to have crayfish (aka crawfish or crawdads) every day in some form or another. At the dinner prior to Richard Crossley's talk I had crayfish-stuffed pork chops. Oh, and I had an interesting fellow sit next to me at that dinner- none other than David Sibley!! Then, last night I had stuffed shrimp and guess what was in the stuffing- yeah, crawdads! That one reminded me of another southern specialty, the Turducken (a turkey stuffed with a duck, stuffed with a chicken.) It gave me an idea to try if I ever open a seafood restaurant- Lobshrimpdads or maybe Shrimpdadcrabs. I think you can figure out what would be in these crustacean versions of the Turducken.
If I had to pick a favorite entrée from the trip (or maybe ever) I’d say it was the crayfish enchiladas at the Blue Dog, preceded by an amazing bowl of soup, the Sherwood Forrest Brie Bisque. I’d say that selection only narrowly outranked the redfish Randall (a specialty at Randall's), which was a stacked-up tower of food consisting of a bed of shrimp étouffée topped by a blackened redfish fillet, topped by a crawfish stuffing cake, topped by another blackened redfish fillet, drizzled with Randall’s special sauce and skewered together by a big stem of rosemary. OMG, I ate every mote...
But of course, this is a birding / bird photography blog, so enough about all of that low-calorie food. Yesterday I went on the digiscoping trip to Jefferson Island and shot almost 900 frames of birds at the rookery there with my trusty Leica rig. Here's a twist: a digiscoped shot of digiscopers!
It was an amazing place, especially for a Coloradoan. When I see a rookery in Colorado it is usually full of Great Blue Herons and Double-crested Cormorants, neither of which were present at Jefferson Island. Instead, we were treated to the comings and goings of Cattle Egrets, Little Blue Herons, Roseate Spoonbills, Green Herons, and Tricolored Herons. A few Anhingas visited, and opportunistic American Alligators prowled the waters or basked on the shore below the rookery islands.
It was also cool to tour the Rip Van Winkle Gardens and see Lake Peigneur, which in November 1980 drained completely into a salt mine when a gas drill rig penetrated the salt dome beneath the lake- oops! Nobody died or was even seriously hurt, but you’ve got to check out the story here- especially the part about the fisherman who had a narrow escape and the temporary 150-foot waterfall that was created as the outlet canal reversed, carrying Gulf of Mexico water, huge trees, a mansion, barges, a tugboat, and 65 manicured garden acres into the whirlpool's swirling maw.

Anyway, all of the pics on this post were digiscoped on that trip- I’ll put some DSLR shots up from my other trips later.

So if I ran into you down in Louisiana, good to see you and thanks for the memories! If you weren’t there, consider taking in an ABA event sometime- say, at the national convention in Snowbird, Utah, June 2008. Adios for now.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Surreal Bluebird

Sometimes I get inquiries about using my bird photos as references for paintings. I'm generally happy to oblige, and I really like it when the artist sends me a picture of the finished product. It is amazing how different painters can capture the essence of birds in so many different ways, from ultra-realistic duck stamp painters to fantasy worlds.

I'm not a student of art, but I know that I like Wes Hyde's stuff. Wes asked me if he could use a Western Bluebird pic of mine for a reference. After peeking at his web site ( I knew that whatever he did with it would be cool. There is a very western flavor to what he paints, so choosing the Western Bluebird really fit his style. Still, the picture is pretty surreal- it reminds me of the kinds of dreams I have before big trips or after long, productive birding days (visions of birds are involved but not always in ways that make logical sense.) Here's the pic he used as a reference:
And here's a pic of the painting (posted by permission):
So check out Wes Hyde's stuff- you won't be disappointed.

Photo Update

Folks- I have a bunch of Colorado bird pics from late winter and early spring that I've finished adding to my site ( Check 'em out and let me know what you think. Enjoy- Bill Included this time:
"Snow Geese" (a little photo pun- click it to see what you think.)
, Canada Goose, Trumpeter Swan, American Wigeon, Mallard, Cinnamon Teal w/ hybrid Cinnamon x Blue-winged Teal, Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Lesser Scaup, Long-tailed Duck, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Hooded Merganser, Common Merganser, Red-breasted Merganser, Ring-necked Pheasant, Wild Turkey, Western Grebe, Turkey Vulture, Northern Harrier, Red-tailed Hawk, Ferruginous Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk, American Kestrel, Virginia Rail, Wilson's Snipe, Glaucous Gull, Rock Pigeon, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Mourning Dove, Barn Owl, Great Horned Owl, Northern Pygmy-Owl, Burrowing Owl, Long-eared Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Belted Kingfisher, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Black-billed Magpie, American Crow, Chihuahuan Raven, Horned Lark, Mountain Chickadee, Pygmy Nuthatch, American Dipper, Hermit Thrush, Varied Thrush, Curve-billed Thrasher, European Starling, Cedar Waxwing, Slate-colored Fox Sparrow, Harris's Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Hepburn's Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, Brown-capped Rosy-Finch, House Finch, Red Crossbill, & Pine Siskin.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Well, it's a marvelous day for a sky dance!

(Sorry for the title, Van Morrison!)

I had a real birding highlight last weekend watching the sky-dancing aerobatics of a male Northern Harrier south of Greeley, Colorado with my dad Jim and Warren Finch, a birding buddy we ran into there (one of those guys with a KILLER birding name!) I'd seen this display only a couple of times before, both at a fair distance yet still very cool. But this chap was doing his thing quite close to the road, at times so close I just watched, slack-jawed and stunned, without need of bins or even the thought of trying to catch anything on (digital) film until I snapped out of my reverie.

The show began as we watched the bird bringing nest material from a meadow across the road into a large cattail marsh and delivering them by hover-landing straight down into the marsh.
After a few deliveries it whipped into its sky-dancing routine above the spot- amazing speed and aerial agility accompanied by understated kyakk kyakk kyakk... vocalizations. The bird would do these crazy inverted rolls at the top of every climb followed by sickening plunges nearly to cattail-top, when the bird would somehow reverse it all and seemingly break the rules of physics to climb again as fast as it came down. The whole show seemed to happen without acceleration or deceleration- just full-time full warp speed, kind of like a bottle rocket whose stick snapped off. If anyone describes the harrier sky-dancing flight as being like a roller-coaster they are seriously understating the speed and gyrations involved. When I decided to get my trigger finger in gear I had a heck of a time trying to even get the bird in the frame, much less holding it centered enough for auto-focus, but I did squeeze off a few bursts at 5 fps on the ol' D2X.

Sometimes when I get a hawk or other bird doing something cool like that but none of the individual images are really great, I'll stitch together a sequence to give a sense of the motion I saw in the bird. These two montages are continuous sequences- only a fifth of a second between each pose and no missing frames. Check out the first two frames of the second sequence- that guy leads out of the inversion with his head, facing it around while his body is still belly-up at the top of one of his neck-snapping rolls!

The festivities wrapped up when he landed again out of sight in the marsh, presumably to visit (ahem) the hidden female beneficiary of his show. Then he emerged out of the cattails and flew off to hunt some more around the periphery of his marsh. What a show!

Friday, April 13, 2007

Pale Pair

On Wednesday, I chased a young Glaucous Gull that Bill & Inez Prather found east of Longmont, Colorado at Saint Vrain State Park. Unfortunately, from the moment I stepped out the door of my bird-mobile I was subjected to cold, shrieking wind. Not ideal observing conditions, but when I found the bar where the gulls were hanging out I quickly spotted a big, pale bird. But then I thought I was seeing two such birds- did I have wind-induced, hypothermic double-vision? No, one was actually a little bigger (likely a male- unlike raptors where females typically are larger) and was a different age class. So in-between shivers and smashing gusts I figured out that there was one youngster (1st-cycle, I think) and a 3rd-cycle bird.
Bird quiz fans: ID the birds from left to right, including age... (I'll declare the cropped one on the right un-identifiable in this view.)
Now this was cool for several reasons. First of all, Glaucous Gulls are just sharp-looking gulls. Second of all, they are pretty rare in Colorado even in winter, but by April it is indeed an unusual sighting (although something odd is going on this spring with pale-winged gulls around here with an Iceland Gull last weekend in Loveland and a really pale Thayer's Gull down in Aurora yesterday & today.) Third, I've only seen singles previously in Colorado- never a pair together. And fourth, this is the first third-cycle GLGU I've seen.

I know that plenty of birders bail out on gulls, but they are missing out on a lot of fun (and a lot of cool birds.) You've got to think a lot when dealing with gulls. For example, why are 3rd-cycle gulls the hardest to find? Well, some gulls don't have a distinctive 3rd-cycle plumage, for starters. But among 4-year gulls, 1st-cycle birds and adults are the most commonly seen. Why? Adults can live a long time, and plenty of youngsters are produced every year. In fact, I suspect that a high percentage of vagrant or out-of-common-range gulls are 1st-cycle individuals who messed up their migration. Anyway, lots of young birds don't figure out the game of life and die before their 2nd plumage cycle. So there are lots fewer 2nd-cycle gulls than 1st-cycles. 2nd-cycle birds also fare worse than experienced adults, leaving even fewer 3rd-cycle individuals. If they make it to adulthood, though, they are much more likely to survive for many successive years.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Pigeon- It's what's for dinner!

It's been a while since I've posted on the Valmont Plant Great Horned Owl nest cam- mostly because the owl has been quietly doing its thing, incubating two eggs. This evening I glanced at the cam and noticed a bunch of feathers cast around the box- sure enough, a bit earlier this evening our mother-to-be dined on Rock Pigeon, judging by that thick, dark terminal tail band.
Then I went over last evening's shots and found a few frames of the bird eating mystery prey- any guesses what this is? I'm thinking it is a mid-sized mammal- maybe a bunny or squirrel? Anyway, good to see that nesting attempt #2 is progressing.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Birds in the Funnies- Twitchers

For some reason I waste 5 seconds of my life almost every day reading Fred Basset. It isn't that the comic is terrible- it just isn't funny. So imagine my surprise today when the theme was birding. Still not funny, but not where I would suspect to find a twitching reference. A tip- if you are twitching a rare duck and go to the trouble of hiding behind shoreline vegetation, apparently for hours based on the chairs and thermos, then leave the big tail-wagging, over-the-bush-peeking dog at home. My prediction for tomorrow's punchline: "Bollocks! We dipped on the Ferruginous Duck!!"

Fred Basset, 4/11/07:


I got a great package in the mail yesterday- my author's copies of Good Birders Don't Wear White. I feel very fortunate to have been invited to contribute a chapter (mine is on birding in bad weather)- the list of contributors is impressive, and it is great to rub shoulders (well, ink?) with such luminaries of the North American birding scene. Here's the blurb from Houghton Mifflin, the publisher:
A light and fun collection of birding advice, with contributions from Kenn Kaufman, David Sibley, Pete Dunne, Tim Gallagher, Don and Lillian Stokes, Bill Thompson III, and forty-four others. Original essays from the biggest names in birding dispense advice to birders of every level, on topics ranging from feeding birds and cleaning binoculars to pishing and pelagic birding. Whether satirizing bird snobs or relating the traditions and taboos of the birding culture, each essay is chock-full of helpful information and entertaining as well. Pete Dunne’s lively foreword kicks off the collection of essays, which are organized by category. Half of the essays are illustrated with delightful black-and-white line drawings by artist Robert Braunfield.
So check it out- I see that now has it so I'm sure your local bookstore would, too. I enjoyed Pete Dunn's forward (all I've had time to peruse so far), and look forward to seeing what the other folks had to say in their chapters.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Birds in the Funnies- Timmy the Owl

All right! Early spring is a great time to catch up with owls (like, say, in my blog here, here, here, here, or here...) and the funny pages is no exception. Another Pearls Before Swine masterpiece:

Pearls Before Swine, 4/6/07:

Monday, April 02, 2007

Howdy Owl

Turning back to the wee owl front, one great sign of spring in Colorado is the return of Burrowing Owls to their prairie dog town abodes. These are really user-friendly owls, hanging out in full daylight in the open environs of the colony (prairie dogs clear vegetation, both to eat and to keep their lines of sight open for predator detection.) Many publicly-accessible areas in the plains portions of the state offer the chance at these sharp-looking little guys (for example, see the Colorado County birding page for Burrowing Owls), but last weekend I had the opportunity to see some up close on a private ranch in east-central Colorado. One of the ranch roads (just a two-track through shortgrass-cholla prairie) went right through the p-dog town, with some burrows almost spilling onto the road. A pair of Burrowing Owls was set up nearby, allowing me to use my vehicle as a blind. It was really cool to hear the birds giving their little coo cooooo song and their chattering calls from that close (I suggest using the free Raven Viewer plug-in from Cornell to see the sonograms as you listen- really cool stuff so get it!) I was also psyched to finally clean up my photos of this species. (They can be really frustrating to digiscope even from reasonable range because the air over the colonies is often very distorted as sunlight warms the bare ground.)

In a couple of the pictures you can see how they "decorate" their home burrow with cow dung. Once thought to help camouflage their scent, new research suggests that they are aiming to attract and cultivate dung beetles, a major part of their diet, by garnishing their burrow this way.