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

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.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Let the gulling begin!

We're having a strong showing of Sabine's Gulls along the Front Range of Colorado this fall- many area lakes have had singles or multiples, including a high count of 9(!) at Boulder Reservoir last week. I've had my share in the bins &/or scope, but generally they like big water and are seen flying or feeding at a distance. My luck changed last Sunday, however, when I found a pair of juveniles feeding at Lagerman Reservoir, about 5 minutes west of my house in Longmont. As soon as I pulled up I saw one wheeling along the dam, flashing the unmistakable "M" pattern on its back. The find was serendipitous- I was going to make the longer trek to Boulder Reservoir, which is a large, enigmatic lake. Some days you would swear that it has a bird-proof force field around it, despite being a substantial body of water by Colorado standards. But other days it can turn up real gems- this fall, for example, it has had Red Phalarope and Long-tailed Jaeger in addition to the hordes of Sabine's Gulls. But I remembered that the Boulder Marathon was going on at The Res that day, and last year I got caught in traffic trying to get in and out the only access road, spending at least half an hour in a traffic jam. Not how I want to spend birding time, so I nixed that run in favor of Lagerman.

The two SAGUs would cycle really close to the dam and the north shore before working back out farther. I would get set up and they would come in close, but the lighting was terrible, totally backlighting the birds in nasty glare. I gave chumming a try, walking to the more light-favorable south shore and pitching out some buttered popcorn to see if they would cross the lake and get some sun on their face. While lots of ringers and a few Franklin's Gulls quickly gathered, the Sabine's Gulls couldn't be bothered to see what their fellow larids were up to. So it became a waiting game... Farther west along the north shore there is a boat ramp and floating dock projecting out 10 meters or so into the lake. The pair finally began working west along the north shore, and I out-flanked them, hunkered down on the end of the dock, and waited for them to come along into photo range, now with the sun at my back or at least at a nice side-lighting angle. A fisherman almost blew the deal by shooing them away as they crossed near his lines, but it actually got me a nice flight shot that I probably would have missed without his unwitting assistance.

They landed and continued their approach, and I finally got some killer shots of this species about 3 hours after I began trying to get position on these birds. I also shot some herky jerky video which really shows how phalarope-like these birds are when they are feeding from the surface. But keep an open mind and sharp eye- the afore-mentioned Long-tailed Jaeger at Boulder Reservoir was doing the same thing earlier this fall as it fed.OK- this is the first time I've tried uploading video directly to Blogger- it was simple to do but the video lost tons of quality. Looks like a better idea is to compress it in iMovie, upload it to YouTube, and then embed it, but I'm tired and don't feel like all of that work now. So here's the straight-to-Blogger video- even though it got real grainy and lost tons of color saturation, you'll get the idea of how these things move around on the water. Night, night, everyone...

Monday, October 01, 2007

Sherlock Solves Skull Stumper- See Subsequent Summary

Faithful reader Andy solved the skull mystery (well, mostly- he kind of hedged his answer but I'll give it to him anyway.) Poor Yorick was a Wild Turkey. As I mentioned, I found the skeletal remains among scattered feathers in a brushy woodlot at Bonny Reservoir in eastern Colorado. I especially like skulls- I recommend as a fantastic reference for bird skulls and skeletons, although they don't have a Wild Turkey there!! If you want to compare another complete Wild Turkey skull, link over here.