June 28, 2012

Westward, Ho!

Colorado.  It might be my favorite state to visit.  As a youngster, my family would make yearly trips in the summer to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Southeastern CO.  Some of my most vivid childhood memories involve me gallivanting through the chaparral and open pine woods of the foothills in search of feathered montane specialties.

Once again, I feel that Westward tug in my gut.  My dad and I are making a run out to Colorado for some fly fishing.  I've never fly fished, but always thought it looked inexplicably manly, so I welcome some added chest hair.  However, this is but the guise.  We all really know why I'm going to Colorado......

It's birds, by the way...

Though I'll be fishing in the highlands of Clear Creek County, my eyes are fixed upon the vast expanses of Weld County.  For birders, Weld County can mean only one thing: The Pawnee National Grassland.  It is here that some of the most sought after prairie species can be found with relative ease.  This is a mostly untouched habitat of Colorado for me and many species will be lifers.

This is no small patch of grass, people.  The Pawnee (as it will be called from now on) is a prodigious tract of private and federally owned land.  The federally managed land alone totals 193,060 acres.  I love big skys and endless land, so this my Disney World.  I spent a total of twenty minutes in The Pawnee this past Thanksgiving and had just enough time to snag my lifer Ferruginous Hawk. That quick foray into The Pawnee did nothing but whet my appetite for seeing this place in breeding season glory.
Ferruginous Hawk - Weld Co.
During the breeding season, this windswept landscape harbors such grassland jewels as Mountain Plover, Burrowing Owl, Lark Bunting, McCown's and Chestnut-collared Longspurs.  Oh, and let's not forget about the open country raptors!  Any given county road in The Pawnee can produce Prairie Falcon, Swainson's Hawk, Ferruginous Hawk and, my favorite, the Golden Eagle.  To someone not in tune with the natural world, The Pawnee would look void of life.  However, for the naturalist and birder (naturalist birder?), nothing could be farther from the truth.  The Pawnee is alive!  Praire Dog towns dot the landscape, and are utilized by the Burrowing Owl.  You didn't think they actually made their own burrows, did you?  Pronghorn Antelope, the fastest land animal in the new world, tear through the land with no regard to man-made boundaries.  There are snakes, lizards, foxes, coyotes....you get the point.  It's not dead.  It's not just pastureland.  This place is wild.

This isn't the only wild place I'll be vistiting.  Though The Pawnee is unchartered territory for me, there other species I'd like to spot; some of them are old friends and some are just a shot in the dark.  

I've generated a list of my target species, but first a shameless plug for eBird.  I cannot even begin to write to you how great of a tool eBird is.  I've spent the past few days combing eBird data to find recent sightings of the birds I'm looking for.  The data is accurate and can give me specific locations sometimes not available in the literature!  Not only is eBird useful to find up-to-date and historical sightings, but the effort of individuals uploading their sightings to eBird adds to our collective knowledge of the birds we love.  Keep your lists, become a better birder, add to science...what's not to love?  So, do you eBird?

Westward, Ho! July 1-5 2012

Cinnamon Teal (State/Year) 
Though, this beautiful dabbler is not on the top of my list of must-sees, I certainly plan on searching a few lakes and ponds in the Boulder County area for this species.  

Eared Grebe (State/Year)
Same as the Cinnamon Teal.  I've seen them in New Mexico and Illinois, but never in full breeding plumage.  I've always thought they looked quite dapper.  I'll be checking Lower Church Lake near Broomfield for them.  

Ferruginous Hawk (Year)
I can't get enough of this bird and seeing it briefly last year has left me craving more.  This is a Pawnee speciality and could show up anywhere in that area.  Of course, I'd love to find a dark morph!  

Prairie Falcon (Year)
It's been years since I've seen this bird.  I saw one last at the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, where I saw one on a nest.  Again, this is a Pawnee species that isn't tied down to a specific location.  This is an effort bird.  I'll be especially looking for land with rock faces or other formations where this species can perch before launching after it's prey like a bat out of hell.  

Mountain Plover (Lifer)
A denizen of the sparse grasslands found in The Pawnee.  I'll be checking "Murphy's Pasture" along CR 96 for this plover.  This species will take some work, that's for sure.  I've heard they can associate with prairie dog towns, as well.   It's speculation, but I'd imagine that many are already done breeding, which might make them more dispersed?   I'm thinking that could make the species even harder to find.

Upland Sandpiper (State/Year)
I haven't seen one in years.  School has made it difficult for me to take the time to find this "grass" piper in Illinois.  I have a few spots west of Kearny, Nebraska I'll be checking for Uppies.  In Colorado, there are long stretches of Highway 138 in Sedgwick County that support them.

Flammulated Owl (Lifer)
 A total shot in the dark. I have a few spots like Gregory Canyon in the foothills outside of Boulder to check, but they're most likely already be done calling.  I know they prefer mature ponderosa forest and sometimes pure aspen/mixed confier.  Anyone know of a nest?

Northern Pygmy Owl (Lifer)
See above statements about the Flamm.  Yeah, I have low expectations.  

Burrowing Owl (Lifer)
Now here's an owl I stand a chance of seeing!  This is a bird I should have seen a while back.  However, circumstance and bad luck have let this black sheep of a Strigidae slip through my fingers.  I'll be keeping a keen eye out for this species in The Pawnee, where they daily repose in praire dog towns and fence posts.

American Three-toed Woodpecker (Lifer)
This boreal beauty is a species I've long pined after, but have had little chance to search for.  I'll be checking Brainard Lake for this Picoides.  Someone reported this species on eBird and included some great photos.  I can't wait to have my heart skip a beat every time I see/hear a Hairy Woodpecker on this trip!

Chestnut-collared Longspur (Lifer)
Here's the big one.  These longspurs are absolutely stunning with a their rufous napes and buttery colored throats.  They prefer prefer longer, wetter grass.  I have a feeling it'll be hard to come by wet habitat in The Pawnee this year.  The McCown's Longspur greatly outnumber their smaller relatives, but they genrally do not associate together and are found in different habitat.  The males of both species are distintive, but the drabber females are similar. 

McCown's Longspur (Lifer)
Beautiful shades of gray and auburn median wing coverts make this species distinctive as it floats over the shortgrass prairie, singing as it goes.  It'll be hard to miss this bird on the back roads of The Pawnee.  I'm hoping to get some good photos!

Brewer's Sparrow (Lifer)
Another lifer I should have seen years ago.  I'm hoping to pick up this bird in The Pawnee.  I'll need to be there early to here this birding singing it's trill song from a lowly perch. 

So, there you have it.  

For the listers... ABA: 505; Colorado: 100; Year: 247.  I have 8 possible lifers, with 4 that I have confidence in finding.  I would love to hit 510 for the ABA list and 300 for the year. 

Bring it on.  

February 29, 2012

The New Digs

 This is a beautiful ridge site in the heart of Pennsylvania.  Stretching 80 miles SW/NE and reaching down to the border of Maryland, Tussey Mountain is a critical flight path.  The length of this mountain is one reason I get to see one of the most majestic creatures to ever take flight: The Golden Eagle.

Now, I knew going into this count that I'd get to see Golden Eagles.  However, I always am pessimistic in my mind regarding birds, especially legendary ones.  "This will be the low year," I tell my self.  Or, "Maybe I just can't pick them out."  However, on my first day, a day I wasn't supposed to count, I found 2.  One came from the NE and kited in front of me before heading up ridge again.  The other was soaring far South in Stone Valley.  That's all it took.  A measly 3 hours on the ridge and I was hooked.  I knew I was here for the long haul and was ready.

Spring hawk watches different from their brothers in the fall.   Birds are in a hurry to get North and establish territories.  They don't linger.  In the fall after a cold front, you could have days of great numbers.  In this spring, it could be a day or maybe even a few hours.  During the fall migration, many raptors specifically follow ridges, using them as guidelines to their wintering grounds and benefitting from the lift the winds provide.  However, in the spring, many birds aren't as dependent on the ridges and will cut straight north.  All of this means that spring hawk watchers like myself have to be vigilant.  We have to be ready at all times, because some days will make or break the count.    There won't be as constant a stream, and weather can lead to great flights and many sensory depriving lulls.  The numbers at Tussey will never compare to some of the famed fall watches and some spring lake watches.

But the Golden Eagles.

Nick Bolgiano, a regular counter on the weekends, and an excellent naturalist, said it best.  "Any day you see a Golden Eagle is a good day."  I found myself cleaving to those words.  My first day on the job, which I'll post on later, never saw temperatures above freezing.  Winds were blowing hard, and snow squalls throughout the day brought the visibility down to under a half mile at times.  Sitting on my duff on a cold rock, with the right side of my face going numb, I felt myself begin to internally murmur.  Nick casually called out a bird.

"What?!" I screamed over the howling wind.  Nick, again in his casual tone, repeated himself.

"Golden coming over Stone Valley."

There it was.  In full glory.  Right in the midst of blizzard-like conditions it glided past the ridge, seemingly undeterred in it's goal of reaching the breeding grounds.

It might as well have been spring break in Miami at that point.  All the wind and snow melted away as he cruised over.  That's why I'm out here.  I'm counting Golden Eagles.  (Don't worry...I love all the other ones, too!)

At Tussey Mountain, the Golden Eagle numbers are high and it is critical that a count is held here full-time   This data is giving us new knowledge of what these mysterious high country birds are doing during spring migration.  Hopefully, it will help us protect them, as many energy companies are hoping utilize wind power on the ridge tops. We are finding Golden Eagles still use them to migrate North.

So, get ready for plenty of updates from the ridge.

P.S.  I'm at 18 Golden Eagles for the season.  Not too shabby for late February!


February 9, 2012

Quiz Bird

This quiz bird is not that difficult.  I'm in the process of organizing all of my "throw-away" shots, which encompasses about 90% of my photos :)

Tip for the day: Always take as many pictures of a bird as possible.  Photos of a bird in all positions, including flying away, add to the knowledge we have of that species.  Perfectly posed photos might lead to magazine covers, but only do so much to increase knowledge.  It's those other photos that depict what we really see in the field!


February 7, 2012

Tussey Mountain Times

Golden Eagle (photo by Vic Berardi)

This spring I have the privilege of being the official spring raptor counter for the Tussey Mountain Hawk Watch.  Located only miles from Penn State, this ridge site is one of the best places to witness the spring migration of Golden Eagles.  A small population of Golden Eagles nest in northeastern Canada and are known to use the ridges of the Appalachians as leading lines to their wintering grounds in the eastern United States.  Every spring, these birds migrate back along similar routes, utilizing the lift provided by the ridges.

With such a high number of Golden Eagles, the watch has a focus on these majestic birds, with extra documentation needed for them as they pass the ridge.  The count hopes to better understand the spring migration patterns of Golden Eagles and help protect them.  Besides Golden Eagles, Tussey Mountain annually records 16 species of migrating raptors.  The count site is located along a power line cut on the ridge of Tussey Mountain, with the majority of raptors following the south facing ridge with Stone Valley below.

Being an official counter at such an important spring site is an honor for me.   I can hardly wait to be spending my days on the ridge.  This count can be cold.  It can be quiet and sometimes even lonely.  However, there will be eagles and lots of them.   Being outside and having the opportunity to teach others about birds is what makes me come alive.

This blog will be the place to see updates on how I'm doing at the count and I hope to update it frequently.  If you're interested in the numbers, check out Tussey Mountain's hawk count profile.  Hawk Count is the brain child of HMANA and is where most data for hawk watches across North America are recorded and archived. I'll be uploading daily on this site that and will hopefully be including some spectacular numbers of Golden Eagles!


January 21, 2012

I Can't Feel My Fingers

I heard an emphatic sigh.  Though my dad would never say it out loud, my first-born senses could hear him scream...

 "Seriously, Adam!  I can't feel my fingers."

Though my dad's sentiment regarding the temperature was understood, I couldn't help but smirk.  We had been outside now for 2 hours, temperatures hovering in the mid-teens.  No, we weren't shoveling snow or doing other work that adds to the amelioration of mankind.  We were gulling, or going 12 rounds with Tyson, depending on who you ask.

We heard the call of a rare bird, a Mew Gull.  This is a diminutive gull seen only in our country, regularly that is, in the Pacific NW and Alaska, wintering along the western coast.  Not the Great Lakes.  It's basically an innocent looking, small gull, most closely resembling our fan-favorite Ring-billed Gull or another rarity, the California Gull.  It is smaller in most regards compared to it's doppelgangers.  The head is rounded, almost dove-like, and the bill looks comically small, sometimes tapering near the end.

  The bird was originally seen by Beau Schaefer  last weekend, and I had re-found the bird early in the next week, to the joy of a few birders.  Since then, the weather has been pretty nasty, and I knew most of the Illinois birding community was itching to know if the bird would reappear this weekend amongst the 1,000+ gulls that call North Point Marina home.

The first text came around 9:30 AM.  The gull had been re-found at the mouth of the harbor.  My dad and I were out the door for what we thought was going to be a "gimmie" state lifer for my dad and an excuse to look at gulls for me.  We were the second ones to arrive. I fumbled with the scope and rushed out towards the back of the yacht that gives an excellent views of the harbor and gulls.

"Did you get my last text, Adam?" Ethan asked from a distance, taking his eyes off the flock.



The bird had left the ice.  It was there for 2 HOURS before we arrived, looking innocent (and darker mantled) than the Herring Gulls around, until it was informed that other birders might want a look.

Now, I wasn't bummed.  I had seen the gull.  And what I saw before me now seemed like the best way to spend a frigid morning.  Some call it 12 rounds with Tyson, others a trip to the dentist.  But for a few birder's, and I believe many more can easily be converted, it is a comfortable afternoon in the church of Laridae.    Out on the churning ice was easily 1,000+ gulls.  The harbor proper held at least 400, but out on the lake was what seemed to be a never ending flock of gulls on the ice.

The Gyllenhaal family had been there all morning and worked up quite a list with 8 gull species for the morning, including the now absent Mew Gull.   I was pumped to start scanning, hoping to match that number and for the Mew to return.

Not 5 minutes into scanning and the Hoary Redpoll of 1st cycle gulls appeared.

This "Kumlien's" Iceland Gull only makes appearances during the winter months here in Chicago and it is always a treat to see them.  The Kumlien's is smaller than the Herring Gull and also stands out because of it's uniform frosty (hoary?) brown appearance.  1st cycle Herring Gulls would show obvious black primaries, darker secondaries, and a larger bill with a flatter, less rounded head.  (see next photo)

Other gulls were now flying back in from the dump, and hopes were high that the Mew Gull would reappear.  Other birders were showing up, too, including the likes of one my Big Day friends, Jeff Skrentny.  Many wanted/needed this Mew Gull for the state.

The bird was still deciding not to show, but a much larger cousin did.

The Glaucous Gull is one of my favorites.  They dwarf the other gulls around them and they know it.  These abominable snow-gulls usually spend the day terrorizing their larid pals around them, especially when food is involved.  This is another first cycle bird, and we didn't find Glaucous Gulls of any other age.  This is another exceptional bird that we usually only see in the winter months.  We were blessed today to see more than one, including these two that decided to act civil.

If size isn't enough to nail the identification of these 1st cycle birds, their bi-colored bills and pure white plumage really stands out.  

More birders were pouring in, and more were being disappointed that the Mew Gull was probably munching garbage.  

I heard that sigh again.  I knew my time with Laridae was coming to a close.  My dad, though he loves birding, has yet to drink the gulling kool-aide.  I smirked and went for my "last cast" of a scan.  

The gull never showed.

Truthfully...I couldn't feel my fingers, either.