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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Home On The Range

I got a really cool invite to camp out at The Nature Conservancy's Bohart Ranch last weekend, so the family & I joined Ted Floyd's crew for a bit of birding and tenting out on the plains. Due to the working nature of the property and lack of facilities, this Nature Conservancy asset is not open to the public but there are opportunities to visit it on special field trips or on volunteer work days. We had a nice hybrid trip with plenty of family time and some high-quality birding, and our contribution was a spring bird census for TNC. The kids did great, excepting an hour or so in the wee morning hours when our little boys Garrett (mine) and Andrew (Ted's) joined the coyotes for some nocturnal howling. This large (41,000 acre) working cattle ranch is home to some wonderful sand sage prairie, a habitat too often grazed to the nub instead of being allowed to flourish like it does here. Cows and bulls are scattered widely, on a rotating grazing schedule that mimics native nomadic species like Bison. Appropriate grazing followed by sufficient recovery time is critical to maintaining grassland habitat, and the Nature Conservancy now has several working ranches among their properties in Colorado that strive to balance sustainable natural livestock production with habitat protection. There are huge views on the Bohart in about every direction- the field station where we camped (formerly a ranch house) was near the top of the highest ground for miles around. The house was formerly located along a dry creek to the west years earlier until a flash flood encouraged the ranchers to jack it up, put it on wheels, and tow it to high ground. They certainly eliminated any threat of flooding with the new placement, not to mention gaining million-dollar views!
The grasses and sand sage were teeming with Cassin's and Brewer's Sparrows and surprisingly, a female Bobolink (undoubtedly a migrant wondering where her nice lush hay meadow went.) Scaled Quail trodded the grounds, and a nearby prairie dog town had Burrowing Owls and Mountain Plovers. Among the dry sand sage prairie, ranch houses and their planted windbreaks were very attractive to migrants and nesting species that need more structure than the grasses, sage, and cacti provide. For example, a Loggerhead Shrike was nesting in a Russian olive right outside the kitchen window of the field station. One bird (female?) stayed on the nest with at least one hatchling, while the other ferried in insects and lizards all day. There were also nesting Northern Mockingbirds and Western Kingbirds in the grove. While the ever hoped-for mega eastern vagrant or two didn't materialize, there were lots of migrants in the windbreaks and woodlots, particularly mountain birds awaiting the final push into the hills like Western Wood-Pewees, Cordilleran Flycatchers, Swainson's and Hermit Thrushes, MacGillivray's and Wilson's Warblers, Western Tanagers, Green-tailed Towhees, and White-crowned Sparrows. One bird that was a bit out of place was a Gray Flycatcher. They often turn up a bit east of target during migration, but this one was extra noteworthy because of its overgrown mandible. The phenomenon of bill abnormalities is being documented and studied by the USGS and the Rogue River Bird Observatory, both of which are soliciting sightings to add to their database. So if you see any birds with odd bills- send along the information on where, when, what, etc. (& pics if you can get them) to both labs.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Proximity is Key

On a recent trip to the Chico Basin Ranch in Eastern Colorado (private- fee required to enter), I found myself having a photo frenzy on colorful spring shorebirds taking advantage of the muddy margins around a couple of ranch ponds. The various species showed strong preferences for different patches of habitats, returning even after they were spooked off by a falcon or a group of elementary students on a field trip. Armed with this knowledge, I took advantage of a group of Long-billed Dowitchers and Stilt Sandpipers, sneaking up to their favorite corner after they had been flushed by the boisterous kids to lie down and wait for their return. Sure enough, they flew back in after about 10 minutes- it was awesome to almost feel the downdraft from their wings as they swished right over me, banked in, and landed right in front of me. Even better was when several of the Stilt Sandpipers decided to sing- something I had never heard. Sibley describes the display song as "a remarkable series of nasal, dry, buzzy trills..." and my friend Brian Gibbons compares it to a donkey braying. Whatever the analogy, it is really cool!

On another pond there was a shorebird threesome making repeated laps up and down the sandy and rocky shoreline- a Wilson's Phalarope, a Spotted Sandpiper, and a Sanderling. We started up on the dam face and slowly worked our way down the rip rap, edging a little closer each time they were at the far end of their back & forth cycle. I was thinking to keep an eye out for snakes the whole time but still managed to put my foot down about 1/2 an inch from a bull snake's head! That upped my heart rate a bit, but we both went our separate ways without engaging each other. Anyway, Brian Gibbons and I ended up right on the waterline, and the birds kept getting up into our grills on each of their laps!!
The proximity, combined with getting down really low, made for some great pics. I really liked the color on the Sanderling- practically all of the birds that come through Colorado are in basic or juvenal plumage, and I hardly ever see individuals this red. I'm also psyched about the spotty- they usually seem pretty skittish and I've never been this close to one before. Needless to say, my Spotted Sandpiper stock just improved a lot!!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Black Beauty

I'm back from a long weekend in Cañon City, Colorado, where the annual Colorado Field Ornithologists convention was held this year. We're going to have a colossal convention bird list when the dust settles, including lots of rare bird highlights (e.g. Gray-cheeked Thrush, Bay-breasted Warbler...) and impressive high counts of certain species (e.g. over 100 Blackpoll Warblers, thousands of Red-necked Phalaropes...) I shot nearly 20 gigs of pics, and saw 126 species over the weekend. I co-led a photography trip with Richard Crossley, co-author of The Shorebird Guide and our keynote speaker, which was another great weekend highlight. But more about the birds later...
We were fortunate to have Jeff Bouton represent Leica Sport Optics at our convention this year, giving folks the opportunity to try their optics and to have questions answered about binoculars, spotting scopes, and digiscoping. It turns out that Jeff had a special package waiting for him when he arrived at the hotel- Leica had shipped him the new 82mm APO-Televid spotting scope. Long touted, this was the first one to see the light of day in North America. They should be hitting the shelves this fall, but we were the first to get to check out this black beauty!!
Jeff also got the new Leica digiscoping adapter, a necessary upgrade since the revolutionary wide-angle 25-50x zoom eyepiece has a larger diameter than the current crop of Televids. The new adapter is pretty cool, attaching with a compressing collar that will not only fit these eyepieces but also the eyepieces in use now. It has a built-in cable release bracket that adjusts to work on most point-and-shoots, and the cable release swings out of the way when not wanted or needed.
The whole Televid line has been redesigned from the ground up. The objective lenses are larger, with 65 and 82mm models replacing the current 62 and 77mm models. Despite the larger apertures, the scopes are more compact and lighter than their predecessors. They feature the hydrophobic AquaDura coating on external glass surfaces, a built-in Manfrotto quick-release plate, and now have black rubber armor similar to their binoculars instead of the familiar hard silver finish of the current Televids.
I got to try out the new beast and was stunned by how wide the field of view stayed throughout the zoom's range. I've long been an exclusive user of Leica's fixed, wide-angle eyepieces, and when I glimpse through someone else's zoom (Leica or otherwise), I feel like I'm experiencing tunnel vision. This wide-angle zoom sets a new standard for spotting scope eyepieces. Not only is it more comfortable to view birds through a wide-angle eyepiece, but finding birds and staying on moving targets is much easier with all of that optical room. Having a wide-angle eyepiece also minimizes or even eliminates vignetting for many point-and-shoot cameras when digiscoping- this rig is going to set a new standard in that department, too, I believe. Thanks for debuting the new scope at our CFO convention, Jeff!!

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

A Royal Tango

On my recent trip to Florida I had the pleasure of visiting Anastasia State Park a couple of times on sunset photo trips. Organizers of the Florida Bird & Fotofest arranged for 4WD trucks to carry photographers to the end of Anastasia Island, where gulls, terns, and shorebirds were arriving to bath and roost. On the first evening I was there, the tide level was just right to expose a wet sandy flat beyond a shallow channel, and the feature was popular with many birds. So that meant getting wet to get the best angle, but it wasn't so bad in the nice warm water! Thanks to Jim Walker for the pic of yours truly out in the wave zone: Of the birds that came in, my favorite was this pair of Royal Terns that broke into a breeding dance as they were bathing in shallow water. Their little tango only lasted a few seconds but it was cool to see their synchronized movements.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Rare Bird on Line 2

Another fantastic bird graced Boulder County this week (on the heels of our recent Louisiana Waterthrush.) I knew something was up when I heard my cell phone ringing throughout my 1st and 2nd period classes yesterday. A quick glance at my email showed that Ted Floyd had found a Ruff(!!!) in the snowstorm at nearby Boulder Reservoir. I have a planning period 3rd hour, so I grabbed my jacket and hit the road for the 'Rez, 10 minutes away. I didn't have bins, scope, or camera, but I gambled that folks would be there and sure enough, a few buddies had the bird in their scopes. LIFER!! I made it back to school half-soaked from the blowing wet snow but with plenty of time to spare before my next class, and headed back in the evening after a stop at home to grab gear. I didn't get real close (I figure it is bad karma to flush a bird that lots of folks are still wanting to see) but at least I got these record shots. There is an interesting discussion going on about the bird's sex. While initially assumed to be a female (Reeve), Bill Maynard raises the possibility that it is a lesser-known male form known as a satellite male. These guys lurk around the lek of displaying males, sneaking in mating opportunities when they can, but they don't look like the spectacular big Ruffs. It will be interesting to see if this issue can be resolved definitively. Whatever the case, I tried again this morning before work but the winds had shifted and so had the bird- a proverbial one-day wonder.