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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Cache Valley Birds

On the 28th I went back for a second helping of Sharp-tailed Grouse in Paradise, where we found 10 birds in trees. Also got good looks at three Ring-necked Pheasants, also in trees--but little else besides House Finches, Dark-eyed (Oregon) Juncos, and an immature Bald Eagle.

Then we headed up to the small reservoir at the mouth of Logan Canyon to see the Barrow's Goldeneye that are always there this time of year with Common Goldeneyes. The wind was blowing too much in the canyon to enjoyably search for other birds up there, so we drove around the Utah State University campus neighborhoods looking for winter birds--rewarded with lots of Cassin's Finches with flocks of House Finches, four Townsend's Solitaires, a couple of Pine Siskins, and finally after chasing down flocks of birds--300+ Bohemian Waxwings with a handful of Cedar Waxwings mixed in.

The best bird of the morning was a male Eastern Bluebird (very rare in Utah) mixed in with the waxwing flock. I only saw it for a few seconds before the whole flock of waxwings took off, splitting into two large groups and flew away. I couldn't find the bluebird after the flock flew. Other birders are looking for it, hopefully someone can find it in with the waxwings or perhaps hanging out elsewhere in Logan.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Thanksgiving Point Diatryma

In the afternoon we all went to the Museum of Ancient Life at Thanksgiving Point south of Salt Lake City. This is the best dinosaur and fossil museum I've ever been to, with world-class displays rivaling the Smithsonian. The dinosaur fossils are simply amazing, including full-size reconstructions of Supersaurus and the large Brachiasaurus formerly classified as Ultrasaurus. The sealife fossils are superb as well, and include many Precambrian and later invertebrate fossils. And of course, there were the bird fossils--including a Diatryma mount and the obligatory Archaeopteryx. The world is a very cool place--especially when you consider the many worlds and species that have come into being and passed away. The museum at Thanksgiving Point is a fantastic entry into those worlds, and well worth a visit if you are in Utah. Of if you're really into this stuff, worth traveling to Utah just to see!

Birding Paradise

Before a morning of family activities, I headed down to Paradise, Utah at the southern end of Cache Valley for a little birding in the morning. Paradise is a small community surrounded by farmland and rangeland. It only took me a couple minutes to see four Sharp-tailed Grouse in flight flying right over the residential yards. The birds landed in small trees in several yards next to the road, where I got fantastic looks at these prairie grouse. It was a real treat to see these birds out in the open at close range--my past experiences with them have been mostly quick looks at birds flushed out of their grassland habitat. In the same area as the grouse, an immature Northern Shrike was roaming the treetops. A great couple of birds to start the morning, especially in a residential area. Gives new meaning to the concept of suburban birds!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Slaty-backed Gull--No

This morning a Slaty-backed Gull was found at a dump half an hour from my office so I trucked over there in the rain to find that it had flown shortly after it was found, and hadn't been seen since. I spent a couple hours there and was able to get some nice looks at Iceland Gulls and a probable Nelson's Gull (Herring Gull x Glaucous Gull hybrid). Also nice to see several Great Cormorants roosting on a buoy in the Delaware River south of the Bristol Bridge.

I've missed Slaty-backed a couple times in the past--including a bird I had in Texas that I was pretty sure was this species at Bolivar Flats in April 1995, but a dog and jogger scared it away before I could be see all of the necessary fieldmarks.

Perhaps this bird will stick around, but there are tens of thousands of gulls down at the Tulleytown Dump, the birds move around all the time, and it can be tough to relocate these beasts!

Birdchaser at DVOC

Had a great time last night with the uproarious Delaware Valley Ornithological Club, where I gave a talk on How Birds See the World. Always great to hang out with other birders, and the DVOC is one of the most storied bird clubs in the country.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Birdscreens help birds

Check out the local news video (online here) of Frank Haas's Birdscreens. They can help save birds!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Common Redpolls

On my walk this morning before work I had 16 Common Redpolls fly overhead and then saw a male perched and calling on a treetop. When the perched bird flew off it was joined by a second redpoll that I hadn't seen earlier as they headed off over the treetops.

I've been looking for these birds all month, since its shaping up to be a banner year for them in the Lower 48 states. I've never lived where redpolls are more than very rare or even accidental winter visitors, so these were new to me. Thank goodness I didn't just roll over when the alarm said it was time to go for my morning constitutional!

Upper Bucks Christmas Bird Count

This weekend was the Upper Bucks County Christmas Bird Count. Once again I covered my area, a five mile stretch of highway between Quakertown and Coopersburg and side roads a mile on either side (see map here). Last year I got 36 species in this area of strip malls, suburbs, and farm fields with no public land to speak of.

This year the count morning started with a quarter inch of ice on my car. The roads were a little slick, and it was freezing rain. The temperature was supposed to climb throughout the day, but the rain was forecast to continue. So, I headed out slowly on the slick roads.

Fortunately, there were hardly any cars on the roads, so I was able to slowly drive the major roads that had been plowed of the slush and ice. By 9am I had already found 28 species--my goal of finding more species than last year seemed possible, even in the storm.

Then I hit a wall. No new birds for over an hour. Finally, a Cooper's Hawk flew over the highway at 10:30. Fifteen minutes later a group of six Common Mergansers flew over. Then my first Red-tailed Hawk of the morning and two Eastern Bluebirds. At a 11:45 I got a Red-breasted Nuthatch at a roadside bird feeder, and an American Robin called as I drove past a woodlot. Things were slowing down. I was at 34 species for the morning, so there was still lots of hope.

Then I got an emergency call that a friend's basement was flooding so I had to leave the count and go help move furniture. As I left my count area the clouds really let it all out and I was only too happy to take a break from the heavy downpour.

Finally back on the job at 1:30, the rain had slowed but so had the birding. Driving some back roads I was able to pish up a male Eastern Towhee and then a Carolina Wren called back in the woods. I had tied my count from last year. At 3:13 a Winter Wren along a railroad cut ditch put me over the top.

The last hour or so of of sunlight is often one of the best times during a Christmas Bird Count. The morning is always good, things slow way down in the middle of the day, but those last hour or so always bring surprises.

During the last hour of the day I was able to find eight more species, including a Northern Harrier and Turkey Vulture that were flying after the rain cleared up at 3:30. At dusk, I drove back to the field where the harrier had been, to see if any owls might come out. Apparently it wasn't quite dark yet, as I didn't see any owls but did have an American Kestrel plucking its prey on the top of a power pole. A few minutes later I got my last new bird of the day when a flock of six Horned Larks flew up out of the field and headed off to the northwest.

So, after driving 71 miles and birding eight hours mostly from the car, I ended up with 45 species for the day. No real surprises, but a pretty good day for birding in an ice storm!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Local Long-billed Murrelet Chase

(photo:Gerry Dewaghe)

I was working from home this morning getting ready for a conference call when I got an email telling me that a Long-billed Murrelet, a rare Asian bird never before documented in Pennsylvania was at Lake Nockamixon close to my house. Fifteen minutes later I was the third birder on the scene and got great looks at this beautiful bird. Within half an hour there were more than 20 cars there as everyone joined the viewing party. I had to leave early to take my conference call, but what a great way to start the day! Thanks to Jason Horn for finding the bird and getting the word out immediately.

If this isn't a bird you are familiar with, you can read about it in Steve Mlodinow's 1997 Birding article.

UPDATE: When I picked up my fifth grader from school this afternoon, I made a quick call and found that the bird was still being seen, albeit a mile farther up the lake at the marina, so we trooped up there so we could get a quick look as the sun started to set. It was out farther from shore than it had been in the morning, but still a nice look through a Questar. Some folks had been out there watching the bird all day, and there were still 15 people there when we left--including a park ranger who stood nearby watching the crowd with an amused look on his face. Nothing like a rare bird tailgate party!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Birding for Peace

I'm not always sure if the cup is half empty or half full. Listening to the radio as I drive around, its easy to get depressed. There are wars I didn't support, but can't see a clear way out of. The economy is stumbling somewhat--and many people are economically worse off than I am. News on the environmental front is at least 5:1 on the half empty side. Many things seem to be controlled by macroeconomic factors that I have little chance of impacting. What's an idealistic guy like me to do?

Sometimes, all I can do is to bird. To head out and commune with the birds. To turn my back on the evils of our day and celebrate billions of years of evolutionary history in all of its glory. To worship God in the woods, wetlands, and fields. To affirm my commitment to life. And to freedom--be it of birds, bison, or people--to choose their fate.

How did the female Red-breasted Merganser find itself separated from others of its kind and floating on Lake Galena at Peace Valley with a thousand Common Mergansers? Why is the young Northern Harrier sitting on a bluebird box at Pine Run? Why did the juncos, cardinals, bluebirds, and titmice stop mobbing that owl roosting in the neighbor's azalea? I can only barely fathom the processes behind the choices that these birds make--just as I only slightly grasp the choices and consequences made by six billion humans on the planet. And even if those choices cause me pain, cause me to live in a world of wounds, I have to celebrate and affirm our rights to make those choices. And when I'm too tired to try and influence how those choices are made, I retreat to the woods to celebrate.

At this holiday season, when the days in the Northern Hemisphere are as short as they get all year, I celebrate light and life and choice. I may not be able to save the world. But I can celebrate it. Even while others are making choices that work against light, life, and choice. Especially then.

Watching the Canada Goose flocks come in low overhead, I am birding for peace.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Evening Grosbeak

I was on a phone call sitting at my desk this afternoon when something scared up a flock of Brown-headed Cowbirds. At the same time, another bird flew up from the feeder and landed in a bare bush--a female Evening Grosbeak. After a few seconds, the bird flew up into a tree and I lost it. After I could finish the call, I went outside to see if I could find it. No luck. Hopefully it will show up again, and I'll get more chances to see these rare northern visitors this year, as they have come south in search of food after the seed crop failure this year in the boreal forests of Canada.

Today was a Project Feeder Watch day at work, so I was paying extra attention to the feeders. I saw 21 species at the feeders today--not a bad way to end the week at work.

DC Redtail

I was in meetings for two days at the National Audubon Society office at Connecticut and M St in NW DC so didn't get to see many birds the last few days. Or rather, I didn't see many species. There were lots of birds around--gulls loafing on one of the buildings across the street, a constant stream of Rock Pigeons. A few Common Grackles and American Robins flew past. The best bird was an adult Red-tailed Hawk that soared over the intersection at one point.

Red-tailed Hawks are seen in many urban areas, even in heavily built up downtown areas like this section of DC. There's a reason Pale Male in New York is so popular--there's something pretty spectacular about seeing a raptor soaring around in the concrete canyons of buildings, streets, and sidewalks.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Hanukkah Bird

Peace (on Earth) Valley

I'm going to be in meetings all day, so headed in to work early and stopped at Peace Valley on my way in. The wintering Canada Goose flock keeps growing--about 450 birds were there this morning. A Common Loon was nice to see near the dam on the lake. Ducks were few, but a nice variety--1 each of Common Goldeneye, Long-tailed Duck, Greater Scaup, and Bufflehead, with 2 Hooded Mergansers and 25 Common Mergansers. At one point all the gulls were up in the air--you know what that means, so I looked and sure enough, a young Bald Eagle was circling overhead. All in all, a nice 10 minutes to start the day.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Jack Snipe in Oregon

It was recently announced on the Oregon Birders On Line listserv that a hunter in Oregon shot two Jack Snipe, one this past month and another a few years ago, and has photos to verify it (see report and photos here). This is a bird reported fewer than 10 times before in North America, and never from Oregon. The more common Wilson's Snipe are fairly easy to overlook, and hardly anyone goes out looking for vagrant snipe--so hard to know how many are getting by. But that one hunter at one location over a couple years can bag two makes you think there has to be many more out there...somewhere!

If you've never even heard of a Jack Snipe before, you can see some online here.
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