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

Monday, April 28, 2008

Our State is Great

Here's a link to an article in today's Rocky Mountain News detailing Colorado's recent ascendancy to the 7th-largest state bird list (with Brown-crested Flycatcher and Streak-backed Oriole lifting us out of a tie with Alaska and Massachusetts.) Yours truly is quoted, too- I spoke with the reporter for quite a while over a week ago.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Rare Bird on Line 1

I made a trip up to North Park, Colorado, heading up after work on Thursday to take advantage of a comp day I had on Friday. My main target was Greater Sage-Grouse, but North Park is full of great birding & wildlife viewing opportunities so the day was filled with photo-opps. Despite the great showing of Greater Sage-Grouse, I was hoping for a little better light (Friday Morning dawned with snow flurries), so I stuck around for another go at it Saturday morning. Leaving the hotel at 5:30, I was happy to see the moon and stars in a mostly clear sky- although it had snowed overnight it looked like a sunny morning at the lek. Another problem ended up facing me- a Golden Eagle strafed the grouse about 10 minutes before sunrise, scuttling my hopes of the warm light illuminating their choreography. Still, some of the more testosterone-crazed males came back after a while and I got some shots I liked:
Then, somewhat to my amazement, my cell phone rang. The reason I was a bit surprised was that I didn't have coverage throughout most of the remote landscape (the day before I had to drive to a prominent high spot and park to call home for my daily check-in with the fam.) But by some stroke of luck the spot I was parked in had enough reception for my buddy Nathan to get through to me with news that a Louisiana Waterthrush was being seen in Longmont, at a spot only about 5 minutes from my house. Having got my grouse shots, I decided to pack it in and head home- only a few hours earlier than I would have, anyway. The two passes I had to cross (Willow Creek and Berthoud) were in the midst of solid snow showers, and the going was kind of slow over the snowpacked surface, but things kept moving and about 4 hours later I was pulling up to the waterthrush spot. I was relieved to see my friend Rachel there, waving me down to where a couple of observers had the bird. I'd only seen the species once before, putting together the pieces of a bird in heavy cover on S. Padre Island, Texas. This one was mostly hanging out in a culvert, feeding on rocky gravel bars in the middle of Lefthand Creek and occasionally sallying out to work the banks above and below the bridge where it usually hung out. To photograph the bird (ABA photo tick #575!) in the culvert I had to mount up a flash and use a Better Beamer to reach it, but my favorite shots came as I anticipated the bird's movement back towards the bridge and lay on my belly above a cut bank, catching it on the branches reaching into the stream and on the log. By this morning the bird was gone- glad I got the news and could get there post-haste.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Snail Kite Sweetness

High on my wish list during my recent trip to Florida was Snail Kite- the last regularly occurring raptor species in the ABA area that I needed. My local host Jeff Bouton came through big, taking me to Lake Tohopekelija near Kissimee where a good population of these birds can be found. Although it is about at the northern end of their range, the colony there seems to be doing well and we saw about a dozen birds there. There's a nice little park (Brinson Park, I think) where Neptune Road crosses the northernmost part of the lake, offering vantage points both to the north and to the south over waters frequented by SNKIs. The best pass I had was by this immature bird:
In the next shot, the bird turned its head just right to see the long, hooked bill that it uses to extract snails from their shells. SNKIs will eat other prey, but rely on snails for their primary sustenance. There was also a territorial pair of adults patrolling around the marshy stuff to the north of Brinson Park. Here's a sequence of the male swinging up to confront an Osprey that made the mistake of flying over their airspace- the Osprey is dropping its talons defensively as the kite comes up from below. In a case of turnabout being fair play, Boat-tailed Grackles took exception to the male Snail Kite perching within their comfort zone- check out the dark dive-bombing blurs in this digi-vid:

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Some Lifers are Easier Than Others...

Well, I'm back in one piece from Florida and starting to feel like I'm settling in back at home (the feeling may be complete with the snowfall forecast for tonight...) Even though my head finally hit my pillow at 1:15 am Monday morning, the buzz of new birds in new places kept me from feeling exhausted (sleepy-tired, yes, but wiped-out, no!)

I had never birded central Florida before, so I needed a lot of the specialty birds there. My Florida-based buddy,
Jeff Bouton, picked me up in Orlando for a whirlwind day of target birding before we headed up to St. Augustine for the Florida Birding & Fotofest. I ended up with 5 life birds that day, and picked up another one or two (depending on who's list of accepted birds you are looking at) at the festival.

Of course, one bigshot bird there is the Florida Scrub-Jay, the state's only endemic bird species. I was getting nervous because our Scrub-Jay stops were late in the day, and we missed the bird at the first couple of places we tried. Not to worry, though- at
Merritt Island NWR, on the aptly-named Scrub Ridge Trail, the birds arrived. The first individual flew in to Jeff's mimicked contact call, giving me my life look and a couple of quick pics before it flew off again. I would have been happy with that, but about 2/3 of the way around the trail a group of 4 or 5 birds came in, apparently expecting handouts. They loitered near us for a while before one, apparently out of patience with our lack of peanuts, landed on my head. Needless to say, I got some acceptable shots of this species (thanks, Jeff, for snapping the bird on my hat!) When we were set up at the Leica booth at the festival, Jeff overheard someone talking about a Brown Booby they had seen at the public fishing pier at St. Augustine. Hello- that might be of interest to a lot of out-of-towners!!! So we made the trip, bought our 50-cent tickets to the pier, and went out to greet the bird. Apparently it has been around since at least last November but it hadn't been reported on any Florida lists for a while. Some of the regulars on the pier said it had disappeared for a few months but had been back for a month or so. It is getting handouts on the pier but it can fly and heads out to fish, but is back on its little stretch of railing behind a small white structure every evening. We enticed it away from the distracting building with a discarded scrap of bait squid to get clear shots of it. Thanks again, Jeff, for snapping my portrait- it isn't every day that I get to pose with a lifer!

This shot is looking into the sun but you can see me and another photographer down the rail snapping pics of the bird...
And here's a reciprocal shot of Jeff shooting the booby and me as I'm shooting the booby and him... better look out or we'll warp time and space into a mini black hole centered at St. Augustine or something!

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Spring Travels

I'm blogging on the go this afternoon- waiting in Denver International Airport as my MacBook sips the free wireless. I'm off to the Florida Birding and Fotofest (their spelling, not mine.) If you are attending, drop by the Leica booth to say hi or check out my workshop on Sunday. A few weeks ago I took another great trip, visiting Nebraska for cranes and chickens. Yeah, I know non-birders think that I must be insane to purposefully go from Colorado to Nebraska for part of my spring break, but it was a great trip and I ran about 2500 shutter cycles on my new D300. So far, so great!! Thanks to the Denver Field Ornithologists and trip leader Alison Hilf for putting it all together. As expected, the congregation of hundreds of thousands of Sandhill Cranes at the Rowe Sanctuary was mind-blowing. It is a little harder to get close-up shots there than at Bosque del Apache in New Mexico, but the river scenery and sunrise/sunset light was fabulous.

Chickens (both Greater Prairie-Chickens and Sharp-tailed Grouse) were on display at Calamus Outfitters, in the sand hills of N. Central Nebraska. Good times- y'all should get up there.

Oop- plane's boarding. That's all for now- see 'ya in Florida!

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Rosy Glow

I paid a visit to Allenspark yesterday, hoping to shake hands again with rosy-finches. It is still wintry up there but the snow is melting fast. The weather was nice, meaning far fewer rosies then would be expected in bad weather, but in trade the road up was dry and sun was shining on the birds that did visit. The place was overrun with juncos (crazily, every form of Dark-eyed except for the locally breeding Gray-headed), and all three rosies eventually came and went. Most of the pinkies were Brown-capped Rosy-Finches, a species almost endemic to Colorado (although their range spills over a bit into northern New Mexico in the winter and a few breed in southern Wyoming.) They are looking really sharp now- their colors are vibrant and their beaks have gone to the breeding black color (they are yellow for much of the winter.) Usually the birds at the Fawnbrook Inn are hard to photograph well as they stay high in the aspens or fly to a platform feeder up on a deck of the inn where they are hard to see well, but one came down and perched fairly low in front of the restaurant, delighting a tour group with WINGS and giving me a photo opp, sitting on the ground to shoot through a branch-free corridor.When the tour group moved on I chummed a snowy part of the yard with some seed that I keep in the car for such occasions. The gambit worked wonderfully, not only providing boucoup Junco photo opps (more on these later), but several rosies came in to partake. I sat quietly in the muddy parking lot at the edge of the yard to shoot the birds at eye level as they traipsed around in the snow, got drinks from a trickle of snowmelt, or perched on low branches as they came and went. While a few Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches were up in the trees, most of the birds coming to the ground were Brown-capped Rosies.I noticed that one of the Brown-capped Rosy-finches had color bands on its legs. I know some local banders who work with rosies, and a few inquiries turned up the story of the bird. My friend Nancy Gobris banded it ("PJXY"; P=pink, J=jet (black), X=aluminum, Y=yellow) as a second-year male at her house above Estes Park, Colorado (over the hill from Allenspark) on 14 April 2007. Cool to get a band recovery without re-capturing the bird or finding it dead somewhere...The bird I was most excited to photograph, though, was this immature male Black Rosy-Finch. We don't get many black rosies coming through Boulder County, but it seems like the best bet for them is later in the season. A few spanking dark adult males were around, as were some frosted-looking females, but this guy was the only one to come down right in front of me. Neat bird, but it will get even blacker as an adult, and all of the washed-out areas will get to be a more vivid pink.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Cabeza Roja

I was driving down to the Dinosaur Ridge hawkwatch (near Morrison, Colorado) last weekend on highway 93 south of Boulder. There's a pond along the road just north of Golden, and every spring brings a flock of migrant Redheads to the pond for a few weeks. Even though the road is busy, there's a wide paved shoulder and flat grass past that, so I pulled well off, put on my hazzard lights, and settled in to shoot out of my window, using the car as my blind. At first the birds were a bit leery and swam to the far side of the pond, but after about 10 minutes they decided I wasn't a threat and returned to their activities. The morning light was fantastic, and the blue sky reflected in the water beautifully. Many of the Redheads were paired up, with the attendant drake sticking close to his mate. These drakes often held their head high- I don't know if this is to have a better view of potential rivals or if it is a display posture for their mate to see (or both.) This hen was being pursued by several suitors- often quite vigorously! I wonder if her mate fell asleep at the wheel, giving his rivals an opportunity, or if she was still unpaired. Whatever the case, she was getting a lot of attention.
Another cool display the males occasionally did was to throw their heads all the way back, much like Common Goldeneyes do but without their accompanying wheezy peent. The display happens really quickly- this composite of 6 sequential frames happened in one second (I was firing 5 frames per second, so if you count the leftmost image as time 0, each one after that is 1/5 of a second later.)Another snappy motion was the initiation of each dive. I kept trying to get a dive on "film" but mostly got their tails only or a wake in the water- they gave little sign that they were about to dive and my reflexes were having trouble keeping up. I finally got a shot of a drake just entering the water:Then I found this funky image as I was editing my shots- looks like a major contortionist maneuver to get his head over there, doesn't it? Actually, it is one male coming up just as another is diving nearby.A muskrat threaded its way through all of the ducky action, carrying some nice greens back to its den:There were also a few Ring-necked Ducks out on the pond, but they kept to the deeper water in the middle so I couldn't get close-up shots. The light was good enough to see the namesake purplish ring around their neck, though- something I don't often see. Like Red-bellied Woodpecker or Long-billed Dowitcher, the name Ring-necked Duck gives little practical help on pertinent field marks- Ring-billed Duck would be much more apt (and is a nickname given the species by duck hunters.)