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

Monday, July 30, 2007

Coming Apart

On our hike up Mt. Audubon (see yesterday's post), we ran into tons of Red-breasted Nuthatches on the way up and back down the trail near the tree line. It isn't unusual to hear or see this species in this habitat, but we had well over 100 of 'em, certainly a personal high count by far for me on such an outing. At one point, a tall dead snag looked like a birdy totem pole with nuthatch above nuthatch all the way to the top. Anyway, when we got some closer looks at the birds it appeared that most or all of them were in heavy body molt, giving them a splotchy, mottled appearance due to muchos missing feathers. Ted Floyd summed it up in an email exchange:
They have that if-you-breathe-too-hard-they'll-blow-apart look about them. Not sure if they're dandelion seedheads or birds!
Anyway, it seem like something funny might be going on with Red-breasted Nuthatches this summer across a wide swath of the country, with early out-of-season reports from places like New York's Central Park. Maybe someone at North American Birds will connect the dots on this phenomenon, or maybe it is just "one of those things..."

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Tundra Chickens

A couple of days ago I hiked up the Mt. Audubon Trail in western Boulder County with Ted Floyd and Walter Szeliga. The trail climbs through spruce-fir habitat, krummholz, and alpine tundra on its way up the 13,223 foot summit in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area. It is one of the more reliable spots in Boulder County for White-tailed Ptarmigan, and it didn't disappoint on this trek.

Even when you know they are around, ptarmigan can be hard to find when they sit still and keep quiet. Eventually, though, Walter heard some soft clucking in a likely area and within a few dozen meters we had spotted a pair of chickens. In the summer, the males keep their white belly and tail while the females are all brown. You'll also notice the bright orange comb on the male. The female has a comb, too, but it isn't as big and she often totally conceals it.

If you take your time and relax, the birds will carry on their routine with you quite close by. I just move slowly, hunker down or sit on the ground a lot, and they don't get alarmed. Sometimes, if they are working in a particular direction, you can get a little ahead of them and sit down and they will walk right by you. As they feed they will often key in on a certain food item. These birds were focusing on the black tips of some kind of grass, and they would give each one a close, quizzical inspection before plucking it.

On the way down we crossed paths with two more groups of ptarmigan- both females with chicks. They can already fly at this size, but typically will just walk or run around. In the same area a few years ago, Ted & I saw a weasel stalking a family group. Instead of flying off, the mom just calmly led her chicks away from the talus where the weasel was popping in and out of the rocks like an attack submarine. She led the chicks to more open ground nearby where presumably it couldn't get the drop on them. I would have expected them to fly away at the first sight of the fierce little predator. Anyway, it was great to see them running around!

Friday, July 27, 2007

And Now For Something Completely Different

What does this have to do with birds, birdwatching, bird comics, or bird photography? Nothing!! But stick with it- after about the first minute it gets very surreal...

Underage Drinking

While watching hummingbirds at the Fawnbrook Inn (Allenspark, CO), this Downy Woodpecker came in for some nectar-tipplin'. It isn't unheard of to see woodpeckers and orioles do so at hummingbird feeders, but it was still kind of cool to watch. I didn't capture the action on "film", but a few Broad-tailed Hummingbirds took exception and aggressively buzzed the complacent woodpecker. Others just seemed puzzled and unsure of what to do when the came in for their accustomed turn at the feeder only to find the behemoth in their usual spot.
You'll notice that this Downy Woodpecker has red where you might not expect it- on the crown instead of on the nape. This is found in juvenal plumage- this bird was born this year and is probably not long out of the nest. Kids these days, what with their sugary breakfast habits!! In fact, the limited red tipping of the crown feathers and lack of red on the forehead in front of the eye indicates that this is a female, per Peter Pyle's information-rich Identification Guide to North American Birds, Part 1. (I hear that Part 2, the birds "up to" doves, is coming soon...) Easterners especially might also note how dark the bird looks, a result of diminished or even lack of spotting in the upper half of the folded wing (scapulars and coverts.) Rocky Mountain Downy Woodpeckers (leucurus group) differ from their eastern counterparts (pubescens group) in this way. Here are a couple more pics of the bird in a more natural setting.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Catching Up

Long time no blog... One of the things about being "off" for the summer is that I get time to do stuff I normally don't during the school year. Some of it is fun, like the 3 days I spent backpacking in my breeding bird atlas block since my last post. Some is more mundane but important, like painting the front porch railings and fixing the back patio. That involved concrete demolition, hauling in road base and sand, and placing about 1000 lbs of paver bricks. I'm sore. The family hit the road for a wedding, and I've been busy with researching, organizing, and submitting pics for a few book projects. In other words, no problem with boredom around here, but I haven't had much blog fodder of late, either.

That changed this week when within a day of each other, I got my latest
Birding and WildBird magazines. Flipping through Birding, I was pleasantly surprised to see my amiga Amy Hooper's portrait and accompanying interview in Noah Strycker's column. Amy edits WildBird and writes the WildBird On The Fly blog. Then I realized that my mug was in the issue too- but not as big as Amy's!! Lori Fujimoto, ABA's education manager, acknowledged the judges for the ABA's Young Birder of the Year contest (I've judged the photo module for the last several years) and slipped in our pics. I didn't know that was coming- what of a fun surprise!

Well, the pleasant surprises kept coming when I saw that another birding amiga of mine had a big article in WildBird. Sharon Stiteler, AKA the Bird Chick, wrote about birding in the technological age- check it out if you can! And I snuck a few pics into this issue, too- thanks, Amy!

I did actually go birding the other day- my dad & I went up to Allenspark (in the foothills west of Boulder, Colorado) for a few hours of hummingbird immersion. The Fawnbrook Inn there is famous for its rosy-finches in the winter, but they put out a big hummingbird feeder array and get a resulting swarm of birds- mostly Broad-tails but a smattering of Calliopes and Rufous Hummingbirds swing by on their way south, too. I'll bet they've had a mega hummer or two (Magnificent &/or Blue-throated come to mind)- the place doesn't get birded much in the summer and one could easily visit for days undetected in the ruck. Anyway, it clouded up and even rained on us some, which didn't bother the hummers any but I had to switch to using a flash. You can really see the different photographic qualities of using natural light (the female Broad-tailed) vs. the speedlight (male Broad-tailed and Rufous.) It gives some pretty dramatic results, though, really jazzing up those iridescent feathers.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Friday, July 06, 2007

Speaks With Forked Tongue

This guy is within earshot of my house- lovely to hear, but did you realize they have a forked tongue like that? (click the pic to get the enlargement)

Higher Ground

As the July heat sets in, it is nice to have Arctic Tundra within easy day-trip range. For Colorado's second Breeding Bird Atlas, I've got a priority block within the East Portal quad that encompasses some of this wonderful habitat, along with other high-elevation habitats like Krummholz, Spruce/Fir, Aspen, Lodgepole Pine, and Willow wetlands. The block also contains the Moffat Tunnel, a 6-mile bore that crosses under the Continental Divide, carrying heavy railroad traffic including Amtrak's very cool-named California Zephyr. Gotta trek to the W. Coast by train someday, but I digress...

Anyway, I went up to the highest parts of my block a few days ago to do some atlasing as well as to just enjoy the tundra environment. My luck was in when I drove the old Rollins Pass Road up from Winter Park, as I heard the ruckus of woodpecker nestlings being fed. Stopping to check, I found an American Three-toed Woodpecker nest right along the road in a small aspen grove. Very cool birds. Hey- did you know that with the re-name (used to be just Three-toed Woodpecker, but now split from the Euro birds), this is now the longest name for an ABA-area bird? Alas, not in my priority block but still a good one to document nesting for the atlas.
This Broad-tailed Hummingbird perched nicely along the road, too. Heading on up, I parked above the tree line as near as I could get and walked the rest of the way up onto the ridge line and into my priority block. (There is only one road leading into my block and that is down low along S. Boulder Creek, following the railroad until it enters the tunnel.) The first part of the slope has an extensive patch of shrub willows, and amidst the ubiquitous White-crowned Sparrow songs I heard the buzzy song of a Brewer's Sparrow. The question remains as to if these high-elevation Brewer's Sparrows in Colorado have dispersed up from their normal sage-shrubland habitats, or if they belong to an undocumented southern population of "Timberline" Sparrows (taverneri Brewer's Sparrows, found above timberline in Alaska and NW Canada.) Folks are working on it- probably need sonograms and/or genetic samples to solve this problem definitively. Anyway, here's the singer- looks big-billed for a Brewer's Sparrow, doesn't it?

At the highest point in my block (about 12,200'), I chose a perch to eat lunch that overlooked two cliffy cirques with a sharp arête separating them and was rewarded by a couple of Brown-capped Rosy-Finches swooping through a slot in the ridge between basins. Unfortunately, the closest I came to getting White-tailed Ptarmigan was finding a few molted feathers and droppings- I know they are somewhere up there but haven't pinned them down yet. Beyond that, I was able to record the expected tundra birds like Horned Lark and American Pipit. But in-between birds it is hard to ignore the butterflies that often concentrate on ridge and hill tops. So I'll leave you with some of the bugs- IDs are tentative since I don't know much about Butterflies.
Anise (Nitra) Swallowtail (black form). Per the Kaufman butterfly guide, this form found in the eastern part of the Rockies may be the result of past interbreeding with Black Swallowtails.

Speaking of which, here's a Black Swallowtail. Can't tell from this pic but it was distinctly bigger than the Anise Swallowtail.

Melissa Arctic. I love these harsh environment loving, cryptic butterflies. It takes these butterflies two years to mature in the short summer seasons found above timberline- they overwinter as first-stage caterpillars.

Milbert's Tortoiseshell. Flashy above, dull below!

Variable Checkerspot. Great splashes of color on the tundra- unlike many others, their underwings are brightly colored, too.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Eight Random Facts

Sherrie over at Brush & Barren tagged me with the Eight Random Facts meme.

Here are the rules for Eight Random Facts:
  • Players start with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
  • People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.
  • At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names.
  • Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged, and to read your blog.
And here are the eight random facts:

I think by now folks know I like birds and bird photography. But did you know...

1) In 1999 I completed the Leadville Trail 100 (mile) endurance mountain bike race in 10 hours, 13 minutes. Besides bragging rights, I got my LT100 silver belt buckle to commemorate the experience!

2) Now I ride a Chris Holm mountain unicycle.

3) When I'm not out birding or riding my MUNI, I teach middle school science at Centennial Middle School in N. Boulder, Colorado. I'll be starting year 15 there in August!

4) I also like to garden. I specialize in plantings to attract hummingbirds (surprise, surprise) and tomatoes. As of today (July 4), lots of green 'maters are set- won't be long now!!

5) I also like to run rivers by raft or canoe. I rowed the Grand Canyon on a private trip in October, 2002. I'm scheduled for another Grand trip in April, 2011 (I kid you not.)

6) For a while I was into cave photography. I once rappelled 280 feet into a New Mexico cave (appropriately enough, called Deep Cave) on one such expedition. That was easy, but ascending back out was a bit tougher. I've got to scan my cave slides someday so I can get them on the web...

7) Another outdoor adventure sport I used to do was telemark skiing. In fact, I got my lifer Boreal Owl on a backcountry trip when I flushed one from its day roost alongside the trail- a majorly unexpected benefit of breaking trail!!

8) And, the day after I graduated from high school (been a while), my best friend & I drove my van to Alaska. To fish. On a whim we drove all of the way up to Prudhoe Bay- this was before the haul road was open to the public and we had to sneak past the southern checkpoint in the wee hours of the early morning, and once there we had to ask around to find a fleet operator that would sell us gas to fill up for the return trip- there were no public gas stations up there. At each end was a sign saying "Speed Limit 45, Next 460 Miles." While I tallied Willow Ptarmigan, I weep at the birds I missed in a summer of driving around AK. I did catch some King Salmon as long as my leg, though!!

OK, now who shall I tag?

How about:
Bird Chick
Jeff Bouton's Leica Birding Blog
Tom McKinney's Birding Diary
WildBird on the Fly
Mike's Birding & Digiscoping
Peregrine's Bird Blog
and, Jeff Gyr Blog