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

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Waxwings & Waxlesswings

I had the good fortune to change a mundane errand into a photo frenzy a few weeks ago when I heard the high, shrill zreees of Cedar Waxwings outside the local PostNet shipping store. The little strip mall housing the shop had a few crabapples heavily laden with winter-shriveled fruit, and the waxwings were thronging to the trees in waves as the reserves sat back higher in bare cottonwoods waiting for their turns. Using the trusty BrdPics mobile as a blind, I parked near one of the trees with the light at my back, rolled down the window, and set about trying to catch some of the action.

What I really wanted was a shot showing the namesake tertiary tips. Seems like most of my pics of these birds are looking up at them- nice, but no waxy wings showing here:
There was a lot of gratuitous feeding-frenzy action to keep me busy while I watched for a good pose showing a bird's upperparts:
You didn't see that slip, did you?

I noticed an interesting feature in some of my pics- when the birds gulp down a whole fruit, their tongue helps push the thing down with a neat harpoon-like tip that presumably doesn't easily let the fruit slip back forward:
And down the fruit did go!Frustratingly, though, lots of the birds lacked the colorful waxy feather tips. These are first-winter birds, and won't get the tips until their adult plumage molts in:
Finally, though, I had color showing on a bird's back and commenced to firing. I only got a few frames but finally had at least a few waxy tips to enjoy looking at.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Horning In On The Action

The highlight of my birding outing today wasn't a bird at all.

This morning, my buddy Nathan Pieplow & I met Ted Floyd and Christian Nunes up at the Fawnbrook Inn at Allenspark, Boulder County's renowned Rosy-Finch locale. Rosies came in two waves of 150-200 birds early, only staying for a few minutes total, making photo opps few and far between. Brown-capped Rosies were in the majority, with a good showing by Gray-crowned (including some Hepburn's) and a spanking male Black, escorted by one or two females. For most of the two sorties the birds stayed up high, and when some dropped down for chow it wasn't for long. Still, getting all three species for the year is always a nice thing that shouldn't be taken for granted.The other few hours that Nathan & I spent waiting were punctuated with some other nice mountain birds and some good conversation. Nathan did some sound recording with his slick new parabolic mic and I cycled my shutter a few times.Heading back down, we trolled around some on the back road through Raymond (town sign: Everyone Loves Raymond!) and Riverside (the scattering of homes where Whitey the Steller's Jay made waves in 2004) with hopes of a Northern Pygmy Owl or Northern Goshawk but the only new bird that we added was a Red-breasted Nuthatch. Thinking that was about it, we regained Highway 7 and headed down towards Lyons.

On our way down we noticed some interesting wildlife. Not hard to notice since the wildlife consisted of half-a-dozen 250-lb Bighorn Sheep rams standing in the middle of the pavement licking road salt, and a couple more enjoying the sunshine on the hillside above the road. Cool!! Thinking back, I think this is the first time I've seen this species in Boulder County. We enjoyed the big mammals for quite a while, watching them graze, lick road salt, and get a drink from the St. Vrain River below the road. Nathan pointed out an adult Golden Eagle soaring above and around the granite cliffs above us, but soon we turned our attention back to the sheep.Besides enjoying the rams, I saw a really funny thing transpire right in front of me. Obviously, Bighorns on the road induce a bit of a traffic jam, with some folks pulling off the road where possible and others just stopping right in the traffic lane. One car, heading down, had slowed way down to enjoy the show. Another car in a big hurry quickly caught up to it just as it went by me. As it went by, I saw the driver in mid-curse, road-raging over the impediment. The amazing thing, though, was the instant that the road rage transformed into awe as the driver saw the rams alongside the road. Lip reading, I swear she said, "DAMMIT! WHAT THE HE... WOWWWW!!!" as a smile blossomed across her face. Glad she had an attitude adjustment. I know I enjoyed the encounter- here are some of my favorite shots.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Wing Shooting

Pueblo City Park is a fantastic place to work on waterfowl photography- the ducks wintering there are super tame, thanks to the succession of folks bringing their kids laden with bags of stale bread to feed the birds. I'm not coming down in favor of the practice, mind you, but they feed the birds whether I approve or not, so I figure I might as well get some snaps out of the deal.

For me the best method is to get the light at my back, wait for a bundled-up kit to come trundling along, bun-bag in hand, and to hang out at the periphery of the gathering horde of hungry ducks and geese to pick off individuals as they arrive for the hand-out. The big, aggressive domestic goose varieties usually push to the center of the throng, but lots of wild American Wigeons, Mallards, and Wood Ducks(!) gather for their chance at the bread delivery, too. There is even a Snow Goose that hangs around. It probably was injured but found its way to this refuge. Ever wonder what the term, "Grin Patch" means? Check out this close-up and I think you'll see the grooved black thickening where the bill halves meet- nice goth look, dude!. Snow Geese have 'em, Ross's Geese don't...
I also like the corrugated effect of the neck feathers.

Wood Ducks usually seem shy and hard to photograph, but they come running (& flying) when the bakery delivery arrives at the pond...
This provides an unusual opportunity for detailed photos without resorting to hiding in a blind. They also don't feel threatened or freak out when you get down at ground (or ice) level, since the kiddos feeding them are down low to begin with. Dropping down gets a much more natural angle on the birds than shooting them looking from above.

American Wigeon outnumber the other ducks there, even Mallards. Great looking ducks, wigeon are! For a few years, a stunning male Eurasian Wigeon held court at the park, too, but for now Americans are all 'ya get.
The challenge I enjoy the most, is trying to get birds coming in on the wing. It is a low-yield game, but every now and then I get a frame I like. Hope you like them, too.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Beware the Abominable Snow Squirrel

Caught on film- the legendary, near-mythical Abominable Snow Squirrel, AKA Yeti Sciurus. Don't get too close- they will attack without provocation.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Yeller Feller

My dad Jim & I went down to Pueblo and Cañon City, Colorado to start the year's birding. Heading that far south in the states opens up some possibilities that aren't around the Denver area, like having most of Pueblo Reservoir ice-free & hosting a nice selection of waterbirds and gulls (we ended up with 7 gull species!) There's also a host of good birding spots around Pueblo & Fremont Counties, plenty to keep us busy for a couple of days' worth of birding.

One specialty of the area is Rufous-crowned Sparrow. A colony is located on the west side of Cañon City, about 45 minutes west of Pueblo. This is pretty much as far north as the interior population of the species gets, although California birds range a bit farther north. I've seen the bird once before in Colorado but not very well, and the birds I've seen in Arizona have been pretty cool, but I finally got some pics to write home about:
As counterpoint to this desert-scrubland specialist, we found a handsome White-throated Sparrow along the Arkansas River in Cañon City. These are rare but not unexpected winter visitors to Colorado, but breed in the Boreal Forest of Canada and the Great Lakes States, so it came a good distance to winter in Southern Colorado:

The best surprise of the trip, though, was a juvenile Yellow-billed Loon that some buddies of mine spotted out on Pueblo Reservoir. We had been playing birding tag with them most of New Year's Day, running into them as they were heading off to another stop. Near the end of the day, my dad & I were in W. Pueblo cruising some neighborhoods looking for White-winged Doves (& earning the hairy eye of a sherrif's deputy) when my phone rang with the news. The sun was about down, but luckily we were only about 5 minutes from the lake, and we headed up with no delay. As we bounced along the rutted rocky road to the vantage point where my friends were, a few of them waved us in- a good sign. Sure enough, a few scopes were on the bird and we just stepped up to view it in the waning light. Some birds are easier than others- thanks, amigos!!

Anyway, we saw the bird again the next day, in better light and much closer. I digiscoped it and took some digiscoped video through my Leica rig. I like the second half of the video where it is swimming with a Common Loon. In comparison to the Common Loon, you can really see the Yellow-billed's size difference (YBLOs are about 30% larger than COLOs), the larger & more upswept yellowish bill, the paler overall coloration (with a bit of straw-yellow tint), the more pronounced scaly pattern formed by the pale edges of the back feathers, the blockier head with the bump over the eye, and the darker patch behind the eye.

If you haven't birded in this part of Colorado, you could jump-start your list by attending the 2008 CFO Annual Convention in Cañon City, 16-18 May.