13 December 2014

2014 Logan CBC Predictions

Ron Ryel dutifully counting birds on a snowy Logan Christmas Bird Count in 2008.
I always look forward to the Logan Christmas Bird Count this time of year.  At no point in the year is more known about the birds presently in Cache Valley than on the night of the annual CBC.  For chasers of local rare birds, the Christmas Bird Count is like Christmas!

This year, I'm trying something new: I'm going to predict some of the highs and lows of this year's count.  My schedule has been pretty flexible lately, so I've been spending more time than usual birding, and I feel I have a decent sense of what's going on in the local bird world right now.  In addition, and perhaps more importantly, eBird use has really caught on locally in the last few years, so there's much more data available to both serve as a baseline, and to give one access to recent sightings from this year.  Let's take these predictions group-by-group:

This wing-tagged American White Pelican was one of two seen on the count last year, and it has been seen around the valley again this fall.  Will we turn it up on count day?

Grebes, Pelicans, Cormorants, etc.:
The warm weather this fall may have kept enough water open to give us a good chance of higher diversity in this group than usual.  Double-crested Cormorants, American White Pelicans, and Eared Grebes all usually leave the valley before our count, and all have been seen in the valley this month.  The individual pelican seen earlier this month is almost certainly one of the two birds seen on last year's count, a wing-tagged individual, and there's a good chance he or she is still in the count circle somewhere.

Herons and Egrets:
Warm weather recently also has probably kept more of this group around than usual.  Great Blue Herons in particular are likely to be well above average.  We had nine total last year, and I counted 12 at the Sewage Lagoons alone last week.  Any other species of heron or egret would be a surprise.

These FOUR Long-tailed Ducks were at Hyrum Reservoir, just outside the count circle, at least as recently as two weeks before count day.  Will we find any in the circle on December 20th?

Waterfowl:
Open water helps the duck numbers and diversity, of course.  We're likely to get both higher numbers of the common species and also pick up a few rarer ones, like maybe Cinnamon Teal, Greater Scaup, or a Long-tailed Duck.  FOUR Long-tailed Ducks were at Hyrum Reservoir last week, doubling the record high count for Cache County, but the reservoir is outside of our count circle.  Hooded Mergansers get missed about one out of every two or three years, and several have been at First Dam recently.

Early indications are that this year could be well above average for Red-tailed Hawks like this one.

Raptors:
It has seemed like a good year for voles, maybe just because they're not all under snow already.  I feel like I've seen more voles running around than usual.  If so, it could be good for the medium-sized raptors, and might result in higher-than-average counts of Northern Harriers, Red-tailed Hawks, Rough-legged Hawks, and Short-eared Owls.  The first winter raptor count survey of the season, by the Hogle Zoo, was just conducted last week, and it did support these predictions, including very high counts of Red-tailed Hawks.

Pheasants and Grouse:
I don't expect any major deviations from normal patterns in this group.

Rails and relatives:
I expect higher-than-average numbers of American Coots, but not much changes otherwise.  Lots of open water increases our chances for a lingering Sora, which have been detected only once in the last ten years of counts.  Chances of picking up a late Sandhill Crane are likewise increased.

Shorebirds:
Cutler Reservoir is again drawn down, greatly increasing shorebird habitat in the valley.  This could in part counteract the benefit of open water for ducks, making the increase in duck diversity and abundance due to the open water less dramatic than it would be otherwise.  But, it also increases the habitat for shorebirds substantially.  Any shorebird other than Killdeer or Wilson's Snipe is very rare in our count circle, but I think we're likely to pick up at least one other species, maybe a Long-billed Dowitcher, Greater or Lesser Yellowlegs, or perhaps even a Dunlin.  A yellowlegs was just reported from the Benson Marina area yesterday, and could stick around until count day.


This adult Lesser Black-backed Gull (possibly of the Scandinavian "intermedius" subspecies?) is one of two that have been seen at the Logan Landfill in the last month.  Maybe we'll be able to pick one up on count day!  If so, it would be a new species for this count circle.

Gulls:
I've been watching the gulls at the Logan Landfill closely lately, and there have been some good surprises around.  This month, I've seen an adult Glaucous Gull, two different Lesser Black-backed Gulls, several Thayer's Gulls, and a dozen or two Herring Gulls.  Usually, Ring-billed Gulls and California Gulls are the only species that can really be counted on, and last year we had zero California Gulls and only one Ring-billed Gull!  We get at least one Herring Gull in about 8 out of 10 years, and at least one Thayer's Gull in about half the years.  I think we have good chances of four or five gull species this year.  The count record is six species, in 2006, and if we're lucky we could even reach that.

Doves:
Eurasian Collared-Doves have not declined from one year to the next since they were first detected on the count in 2004 (except for being missed the next year, in 2005).  In fact, numbers have roughly doubled each year since then.  Last year we set a new record again, with 895 in the count area, more than doubling the previous year's count of 352.  I see no reason the trend will reverse this year, and I guess we'll break four digits for the first time.  It seems improbable that we'd actually double 895, but I'd expect a final count between 1,000 and 1,500.  Fortunately, Mourning Dove numbers don't seem to have suffered as a result (yet?), and numbers of this species have remained relatively steady in the 20s and 30s in the last few years.

Woodpeckers:
This has been an exceptional fall for mountain birds in the valley.  (You'll hear this theme repeated below in the corvids and passerines.)  I haven't noticed this happening with the woodpeckers, but it's possible they'd be equally affected.  The mild temperatures may have also helped a sapsucker stick around.  I don't expect any big surprises in the woodpeckers, but a late Red-naped Sapsucker is possible, as is a high count of Hairy Woodpeckers.

This Steller's Jay in my Logan yard last month was new to my yard list.  It is one of about six or eight that I've seen in the valley already this fall, so I think we'll have more of these on the count this year than usual.

Corvids:
I expect much higher than usual counts of Steller's Jays this year.  They seem to be around the valley more right now than at any previous winter I've been here.  We average about two per year, and miss them entirely about 40% of years.  I predict this will be one of the more dramatic shifts in numbers this year.  Western Scrub-Jays have also been reported around the valley in higher-than-usual numbers this year, and could be another high count.  This is a very rare species in our circle, with none reported on count day in the last 12 years.  The general down-slope movements of mountain birds this year might include more Clark's Nutcrackers, too.

I photographed this Mountain Chickadee in my yard in Logan in early October this year.  I've seen or heard them almost every day since, up to four birds at a time, which leads me to think this could be a huge year for Mountain Chickadees on the Logan Christmas Bird Count.

Songbirds:
I predict that the most dramatic increase (among regularly-detected species) will be in Mountain Chickadees.  This has been an incredible fall for them in the valley and in lowlands around the state, even appearing regularly on Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake this fall.  At my own feeders on the Cache Valley floor in Logan, I'm still getting two to four each day.  We rarely miss this species in recent years (but we have, in 2008), and we average about 18 birds.  I expect we'll be in the triple digits somewhere, over 100.  Red-breasted Nuthatches and Brown Creepers seem to be making similar movements, but perhaps not in the same numbers.  I predict above average years for both of these species.
Townsend's Solitaires likewise seem to be making significant downslope movements.  We get this species each year, and are almost always in the mid-two-digits, but in the last ten years have ranged from 25 to 78.  I expect high numbers, perhaps 100, but not topping our record of 281 set in 2002.
Bohemian Waxwings are very episodic, often either absent or present in large numbers.  I haven't seen any indication yet of large numbers.  A few have been reported south of us, so this might be one of the unusual years where we find a handful, but not zero and not hundreds.
I don't see any reason to expect unusual numbers of sparrows.  The open water might increase our odds of a Swamp Sparrow or increase our count of Song Sparrows, if it holds.  Likewise with most of the finches: I expect mostly typical numbers, but it will be interesting to see if the down-slope movements already seen by Townsend's Solitaires, Steller's Jays, and Mountain Chickadees is also reflected in montane finches like Cassin's Finch, Red Crossbill, White-winged Crossbill, and Pine Grosbeak.  Lesser Goldfinches have recently become regular in the Logan count circle, after having first been found in 2008; I think we have a good shot at a new record count of that species, especially if we've effectively recruited a lot of feeder watchers.  Evening Grosbeaks seem to be more abundant than usual in northern Utah this fall, so we have a chance of picking up a group or two of those, which are missed in more years than they are found.

We'll get to test all these predictions in a week, when we compile our results in the evening of December 20th!  I'll also post an update here to report how well (or poorly!) I did.
Summary:
If the relatively warm temperatures continue for the next week, or at least if deep freezes, snow, and count-day fog can be avoided, we could be setting up for a really great count this year.  Add the unusually dramatic down-slope movements of mountain birds to the mix, and we could easily be looking at a new record.  The current count record is 104, set in 2012, and each year it always comes down to the last few rare birds to determine whether we break the 100-mark, and we've only done that in one or two other years in the history of the count.  I think this year we have a great chance of breaking 100, and maybe even setting a new count record if a few rarities show up for us.

20 November 2014

How to find the South Hills Crossbill

Last weekend my wife and I took a little mini vacation to the South Hills of Idaho in search of a very unique finch.  The South Hills Crossbill (Loxia [curvirostra] sinesciurus) is an endemic species or subspecies that is found only in two isolated mountain ranges in southern Idaho.  It has been described in the scientific literature as a full species, but so far the American Ornithologists' Union and the American Birding Association have yet to adopt this change, so it is currently considered a subspecies of Red Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra).  Many people have speculated that this is only temporary, though, so last weekend we set out to put a lifer species "in the bank" in case of a future split.

There are lots of great resources online about the South Hills Crossbill, and I don't intend to repeat all that information here.  Briefly, the crossbill evolved from a fascinating ecological situation where the symbiotic relationship that keeps cones easy to access in the presence of squirrels breaks down in these isolated squirrel-free mountains, resulting in an evolutionary arms race between well-defended Lodgepole Pines and specially adapted crossbill bills.  The original paper is a great reference, but summaries are also available here and here, for example.  Rather than reiterate the details of ecology and identification that have been published better elsewhere, I will provide here the story of my search, in hopes that it will help others find this cool bird.

In November, the road to the crossbills was snowy but plowed.  My little Toyota made it just fine, but I was glad to have the chains on.  Don't park on the shoulder like I did - despite the very wide road, the sheriff came by and made me move my car to a parking lot.
We started by driving up Rock Creek Road into the South Hills.  From I-84 take Exit 182 and head south.  Just after you cross the river gorge, turn left onto 3800E.  This becomes Rock Creek Road and takes you right into the hills and up to the crossbills!  Watch the landscape change as you ascend, first valley agriculture, then sagebrush, then junipers, and finally Lodgepole Pines.  These pines are the preferred habitat of the South Hills Crossbill.

Beyond the Diamondfield Jack Campground, the road was not plowed, but we could still walk it.  Snowshoes would have been helpful.  A local told us that the road is usually plowed beyond this point.

When we visited (in late November), the road was plowed to Diamondfield Jack Campground but not beyond.  Despite the plowing, I was glad to have snow chains for the tires, but a four-wheel-drive vehicle would have probably been fine without them.  We had crossbills several times between the ski area and the Diamondfield Jack Campground, always perched in the top of Lodgepole Pine or flying over, calling in flight.

If you're looking for South Hills Crossbills, you're looking for this: their preferred habitat, Lodgepole Pine.

I suggest studying the calls well, because South Hills Crossbills are not the only crossbill type present.  Better yet, make some audio recordings and study the sonograms to be absolutely sure you got the right birds.

Is this a South Hills Crossbill?  It sure could be--it was foraging on Lodgepole Pine in the South Hills.  But, I only recorded audio from two individuals in this flock of nine birds, and both of those ended up being Type 2, "Ponderosa Pine Crossbills."
Fortunately, my audio recordings confirmed that several other crossbills we saw and heard were indeed South Hills Crossbills, a lifer subspecies that will potentially be a lifer species some day!
Overall, we had three types of crossbills, including multiple individuals of our main target.  Good luck if you go, and be sure to enter your sightings in eBird!

04 September 2013

Predicting a Clark's Nutcracker Irruption

I photographed this Clark's Nutcracker in northern Utah on 28 July 2013, but if it can't find enough pine nuts, it might be headed to your neighborhood.
I've seen two unusual events in the last few days that make me think this year might be a big one for vagrant Clark's Nutcrackers in the ABA area.  On Sunday, I was birding in typical Clark's Nutcracker habitat at about 8,100 ft. elevation near my home in northern Utah.  This is a species that is relatively common here, but we were doing a big day, and it's not so common that it is guaranteed to be found in the two or three hours we could afford to spend in its habitat.  In two or three hours of birding, we would expect to probably run in to a few of them.  Our expectations were off: in just a few hours last Sunday, we counted almost a hundred, moving around high overhead in flocks of up to 40.  Although the species is expected here, these kinds of numbers are not typical for this area and time of year in my experience.

This view of Cache Valley is from a point almost high enough to expect Clark's Nutcrackers.  That species is also expected across the valley, in the peaks covered with snow in this picture.  To find one down in the bottom of the valley, where you can see Cutler Reservoir shining, is very unusual, and is unheard of any time other than winter.

On Tuesday, a couple friends and I were birding in the middle of Cache Valley, at about 4,500 ft. elevation.  This is well below typical CLNU habitat, especially in summer.  In the seven years I've lived in this area, I know of just a few credible reports from the valley, almost all from the "benches" very near the mountains and all between October and December.  Yesterday, we saw a flock of 28 Clark's Nutcrackers flying over the middle of the valley, barely in to September.

This is what a Clark's Nutcracker can look like in a good year, with a crop full of pine nuts that it will cache around the area to feed on in the winter.  I photographed this one in 2011 in northeastern Nevada.
The Birds of North America account for the species indicates that Clark's Nutcracker irruptions are most likely to happen when two years of above average pine cone production is followed by a year of very poor production.  In years of good pine nut production, Clark's Nutcrackers are successful in raising young and mortality is low.  Two years of good production can build up population sizes well above normal.  When a bad year follows, there are way more Clark's Nutcrackers than nutcracker food, and the birds have to wander widely to find the nuts they need to survive.

In both 2011 and 2012, pine cone production by whitebark pines, one of the nutcracker's two main food sources, was higher than average.  The very dry winter last year (about 60% of typical snowpack locally, and around that or lower in much of the inland west) has caused poor production by whitebark pines this year, in Wyoming the lowest since about 2002.  Coincidentally, in 2002, Clark's Nutcrackers were reported from as far out of range as Alabama and Missouri.

This figure shows the standardized whitebark pine production from the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem for the last 24 years.  Note that both 2011 and 2012 were above average years, but 2013 is about the lowest since 2002.  This figure is from here and is in the public domain.
Based on my observations over the last few days, and the current status of whitebark pine production compared to previous years, I'm guessing that this will be a good year for vagrants of this species in North America.  Most movements of Clark's Nutcrackers are relatively local, so this is most likely to affect birders who live near Clark's Nutcracker habitat, but are a bit outside their usual range.  However, there is also potential for long-distance wandering, perhaps well outside of the species' expected range.  It might be helpful to study the call, and to be sure you're familiar with this species, so you're prepared if a Clark's Nutcracker should find its way near you this winter.

26 August 2013

County Big Year, again: How I found myself chasing my own tail

If you've been with this blog since the start, you might remember that it began as a way to chronicle my attempt at a county big year in 2008.  My goal at the time was 200 birds, an achievement that is honored by membership in the Bridgerland Audubon Society's 200 Club.  I met that goal early in the year, earlier than I expected, and ended up making it a full-scale Big Year.  By the end of the year, I had broken the county record.  At the time, I knew that my number of 242 species was good.  For comparison, there are THREE other birders tied for second place, each having maxed out at 235 species in separate years.  But, I also knew I had missed many species I might have found if I had known where to look, or if I had spent less time out of the county doing field work for my dissertation.

Four Common Redpolls is about double the total records from Cache County before the winter of 2012/2013.  These four were part of a flock of about 40 that I photographed in the first week of February, 2013.  (Photo copyright Ryan O'Donnell.)

Fast-forward to last winter, 2012-2013: It was shaping up to be a record-setting year.  For the first time since my big year in 2008, there was a Bohemian Waxwing irruption going on.  This normally tough-to-find-species was everywhere.  There was also an unprecedented irruption of Common Redpolls going on: a species that had less than five previous records in the county was showing up in flocks of dozens.  A few individual birds were noteworthy, too: a vocal Blue Jay was spending the winter in Smithfield and a White-throated Sparrow was coming to a feeder in Logan, for example.  These great birds and many others helped the Logan count circle break their Christmas Bird Count record in late December 2012, and indicated a good winter for birding in the county.

This Blue Jay was first reported from Smithfield, Utah, in the middle of November, 2012.  It was only the third or fourth record from the county.  It stayed in the area through at least March 2013.  (Photo copyright Ryan O'Donnell.)

The great birds stuck around into the new year, and even more locally rare species started turning up.  In the second week of January, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, Snow Bunting, and Lapland Longspur were all found.  I had found all of these in 2008, but considered myself very lucky to have found them after quite a bit of effort.  A flock of Pine Grosbeaks (a rare year-round resident that I missed in 2008) was found feeding on the USU campus on January 15th.  On the same day, Black Rosy-Finches were reported from North Logan; I had never seen this species in the county.  On January 26th, two Greater Scaup were found, another species I missed in 2008.  A Harris's Sparrow was found on January 29th, a species I had in 2008 but only once or twice since.  Then, on February 1st, a Snowy Owl was found, only the second in the state since 1967!  A great winter was turning into an incredible one.

Pine Grosbeaks probably breed in Cache County, but they can be very tough to find.  I missed them entirely in my big year in 2008.  A small flock of three, found by Leah Lewis on the USU campus in January, was quite obliging and was a great addition to any Cache County big year.  (Photo copyright Ryan O'Donnell.)

This Black Rosy-Finch was one of several coming to a feeder in North Logan.  I had never seen this species in the county before this year.  (Photo copyright Ryan O'Donnell.)

After noticing abrupt changes in the birding habits of a few of my friends, I was starting to realize that my Big Year record might be in jeopardy: at least two people were doing big years in the county, and they had picked the perfect year to do it.  So, around the beginning of February, I decided to join them: to take advantage of a great winter to try to improve on my Cache County Big Year record.  I didn't really WANT to do a big year, but I also didn't want an opportunity like this record-breaking winter to pass me by.

Well, that was unexpected!  A friend of mine had this bright red bird show up at her feeders, and asked for help identifying it online.  She soon learned it was a Summer Tanager, the first record in Cache County of a species that is usually found far south of here.  I saw the record on eBird and was able to see the bird later the same day at her feeders. (Photo copyright Ryan O'Donnell.)
This bird was a little less unexpected: Neotropic Cormorants have been moving in to Utah from the south in recent years.  This species was on my radar to find in Cache County, because they've become almost easy to find just a few hours south of here.  I've been carefully checking all cormorants in the area for a few years now.  Still, it was quite satisfying to finally find one last month (the smaller dark bird in this photo), the first record ever for Cache County.   (Photo copyright Ryan O'Donnell.)

Now, seven months later, I see that I made the right decision.  The good birds have kept coming, including several new species for the county, like Summer Tanager, Neotropic Cormorant, and Least Flycatcher.  And I'm really happy to be taking another shot at a big year now that I have five years' more experience of birding the area under my belt.  I'm finding my birding trips more efficient, now that I know most of the calls of the regular species and I can pass them by in search of rare ones.  I know the birding locations better, so I know where to find each species, and I know the changes of the seasons better, so I know when to look for rare species.  I also know the people of the area better, so I have more friends to go birding with, more people to give me tips, and more people to share their land with me.  In all, I'm glad to be able to give a big year another effort, because it would always bother me knowing that I could improve on my number of 242.

And, improve on that I will.   In fact, yesterday was a special day because I surpassed my previous record: my friend Andy and I found a Northern Waterthrush, my 243rd species of the year.  I can't wait to see how high a record I can set, a record I know I'll be proud of for years to come.

This Northern Waterthrush is among the most regular of the rare warblers that can be found in Utah.  It was a satisfying way to break the record: this bird, photographed on 25 Aug 2013, was my 243rd species in Cache County this year, breaking my old record of 242.  (Photo copyright Ryan O'Donnell.)

04 August 2013

Ten Best Birds from St. Paul Island, 2012

Last summer (2012) I had the privilege of working as a guide on St. Paul Island, Alaska, with Scott Schuette and Doug Gochfeld.  St. Paul Island is one of the Pribilof Islands, a small group in the middle of the Bering Sea.  Its unique geographic location makes it a famous birding destination: it is slightly west of the easternmost tip of Russia, and so it frequently gets old-world vagrants.  Plus, it is a great spot to see some of the endemic Bering Sea species like Least Auklets, Crested Auklets, and Red-legged Kittiwakes.

Today, I want to show you the ten best birds of my 2012 season on the island.  There are many ways to define the "best" birds.  This is not a science.  The ranking here is strictly based on how much I enjoyed seeing them.  That is of course strongly affected by rarity, but these are not necessarily the ten rarest birds.


10. Wood Sandpiper.  This species is major rarity anywhere in the contiguous 48 states, but annual in small numbers at St. Paul.  I saw up to three individuals in a day, and photographed both juveniles (like this one) and an adult.

This juvenile Wood Sandpiper paused in Town Marsh on St. Paul Island while trying to find its way to Australia or southeast Asia. (copyright Ryan O'Donnell)



9. Gray-tailed Tattler.  Like the Wood Sandpiper, this species is annual on St. Paul but very rare in the contiguous 48: a bird in Massachusetts last fall was only the third North American record away from Alaska.  We had multiple sightings of this species in their fall migration, up to two in a day.   

This adult Gray-tailed Tattler was photographed on the sandy beach on the north side of the island, probably the first land it had seen since leaving Siberia on its way south. (copyright Ryan O'Donnell)

8. Little Stint.  Also rare in the contiguous 48, with total records probably around 50 sightings, and less than annual on St. Paul.  We had up to two individuals at a time on the island last year.

This juvenile Little Stint (at front right) joined a few juvenile Western Sandpipers to snack in the mudflats on St. Paul as it was headed south. (copyright Ryan O'Donnell)

7. Hawfinch.  This was high on my list of dream birds when I was preparing for my summer in the Pribilofs.  This bird, first spotted on May 23rd and still present a week later when our access to the area where the bird was found was closed for the fur seal breeding season, was the 10th record for the Pribilof Islands.  There are no North American records of this species outside of Alaska, and it is less than annual in Alaska.

This Hawfinch, with dirt on its bill from picking at seeds in the grass, is a Eurasian relative of our Evening Grosbeak. (copyright Ryan O'Donnell)

6. Tundra Bean-Goose.  This species is "casual" (less than annual) in Alaska, and unrecorded elsewhere in North America.  Many earlier records of "Bean Goose"from Alaska had to remain unidentified when the species was split into the Tundra Bean-Goose and Taiga Bean-Goose.  This was an exciting find as our first real Asian rarity of the season, on May 12th.

After we accidentally flushed this Tundra Bean-Goose from a small melt pond, I was afraid we wouldn't see it again.  A few minutes later, it circled back past us and I was able to take a few photos, including this one.  (copyright Ryan O'Donnell)

5. Terek Sandpiper.  Another of my dream birds before arriving on the island, this fall migrant hung around for several days and pleased many visiting birders.  This species is named for the Terek River where it was first discovered, a tributary of the Caspian Sea.

I love the unique head shape and upturned bill of this Terek Sandpiper.  (copyright Ryan O'Donnell)

4. Eurasian Bullfinch.  Wow, what a charmer!  This adult male was found coming to some seed spread by a local resident between houses in the center of town.  Imagine having this on your yard list in North America!  This was the first spring record for the Pribilofs, but there had been a handful of fall records.

The bold and beautiful male Eurasian Bullfinch, peeking up from a meal of millet.  (copyright Ryan O'Donnell)

3. Dark-sided Flycatcher.  Flycatchers in general are among my favorite groups of birds, pushing this drab juvenile into the top three.  This was the seventh of this species reported from the Pribilof Islands.

This juvenile Dark-sided Flycatcher probably found plenty of bugs in the leeward side of an old volcanic cone on St. Paul.  (copyright Ryan O'Donnell)

2. White-tailed Eagle.  This Asian counterpart to North America's Bald Eagle was first found early in the season and continued, off and on, for the rest of the year.  It would sometimes go missing for weeks at a time, and we suspected it might be moving between the Pribilof Islands.  It was frustrating at times because it never seemed to develop much of a pattern, making it hard to track down, but it was thrilling any time it happened to fly past as it hunted around the island.  This was the first time this species had been seen in the Pribilofs.

White-tailed Eagle soaring over St. Paul Island. (copyright Ryan O'Donnell)

1. Pin-tailed Snipe.  Easily the rarest bird, this was our only Code 5 bird (five or fewer North American records), and this was the fifth North American record.  The previous four records were all from Attu Island, at the western end of the Aleutians.  Attu is far enough west to be in the eastern hemisphere, so including one record from a remote part of the Hawaiian Islands, this was the second record for the western hemisphere.  This photo is about the best I could manage, but fortunately Doug was able to take some better ones!


Out-of-focus Pin-tailed Snipe flushing from the tundra of St. Paul Island (copyright Ryan O'Donnell)

04 July 2013

Black Swifts on nests

Yesterday, I had the chance to visit a well-known nesting site of Black Swifts in northern Idaho on my way back from another trip.  Black Swifts are a very unique species that can be tough to find if you don't know where to look.  Here's one big hint: they nest exclusively behind waterfalls or in ocean-misted cliffs.  This was an exciting species for me because it was an "eBird lifer," that is, I had seen them only once before (June 2000), and it was before I was keeping detailed enough notes that I could later enter the sighting into eBird.  Black Swifts are a mysterious species as birds go: only about 200 nesting sites are known, and they made big news last year when their wintering range was finally discovered in western Brazil.  The total population is estimated at about 15,000 individuals worldwide, and is declining at about 6% per year.  Here are a few photos from my recent trip to see this intriguing bird at a nesting colony.






04 June 2013

Utah's West Desert Migrant Traps

On Saturday I led a trip for the Bridgerland Audubon Society to the west desert of Box Elder County, Utah.  Our main goal was to visit some of the famous "migrant traps" in the area.  This area, north of the Great Salt Lake, is well known in the state for being one of the most consistent places to find rare eastern birds in migration.  There are several small freshwater springs surrounded by miles and miles of sagebrush, salt flats, and hypersaline water.  As migrating birds pass over the area, they are drawn like magnets to these migrant traps in search of a drink, a snack, and some rest before continuing north to their breeding grounds.

We met early, 5:00 AM, so that we would have a full day of birding despite a nearly three-hour drive to our first stop.  We chatted about some of our rare bird fantasies for the day, discussed the plan of attack, and then headed west as the sky was starting to get light.  After a brief stop for gas in Snowville, our first birding stop was along Highway 30 in one of the best areas for FERRUGINOUS HAWKS in the state.  We got close looks at an adult light morph here, the first of about four in the next couple of miles.  After this brief stop, we continued on to Lucin, our first migrant trap.

Part of the BAS field trip party scoping a distant Golden Eagle nest from Lucin.
The flycatchers at Lucin set the tone for the day: while we called this trip "West Desert Migrant Traps" we might as well have called it "Identification of Difficult Flycatchers."  Several of the easier species were present, including SAY'S PHOEBE, WESTERN KINGBIRD, and WESTERN WOOD-PEWEE, but there were impressive numbers of Empidonax flycatchers, including at least FOUR WILLOW FLYCATCHERS, a DUSKY FLYCATCHER, a GRAY FLYCATCHER, and at least two other unidentified Empidonax sp.  Warblers were also pretty diverse, including ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER, YELLOW WARBLER, YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER (AUDUBON'S), WILSON'S WARBLER, and COMMON YELLOWTHROAT.  Here is a link to the complete eBird checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S14315363

One of at least four WILLOW FLYCATCHERS at Lucin.  This is not a rare species in northern Utah, but it felt odd to find them perched on barbed wire and surrounded by sagebrush and greasewood!

Our next stop was Rabbit Springs, where the habitat is spread out over a wider area and the trees are not as large.  Three COMMON NIGHTHAWKS calling in flight here seemed unusual in the heat of the middle of the day.  We added one warbler species to our list for the day here, with a couple of MACGILLIVRAY'S WARBLERS.  Sparrow diversity was higher here, too, including many BREWER'S SPARROWS, two LARK SPARROWS, and a SAGE SPARROW.  We had lunch in the shade of a Russian Olive tree here and enjoyed some great looks at a couple of lizard species, a WESTERN WHIPTAIL and a LONG-NOSED LEOPARD LIZARD.  Here is the eBird checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S14315422


Western Whiptail.

Bob, Craig, Terry, and Leah eating lunch in the shade.

Long-nosed Leopard Lizard
The next stop was at Owl Springs.  Here, we had a few more flycatchers, including DUSKY, WILLOW (singing), WESTERN WOOD-PEWEE, and a pair of WESTERN KINGBIRDS at a nest.  Our only migrant thrush of the day was a late HERMIT THRUSH here, and we also had our only LAZULI BUNTING of the day here.  eBird checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S14315556

A migrating HERMIT THRUSH stopped for a rest at Owl Springs.
Our next and last stop of the day was at Locomotive Springs Wildlife Management Area, about an hour away.  This area has more open water, so we were able to add a few more species here, including FORSTER'S TERN, GADWALL, CINNAMON TEAL, AMERICAN WHITE PELICAN, PIED-BILLED GREBE, and AMERICAN AVOCET, for example.  A few LONG-BILLED CURLEWS were seen.  eBird checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S14315760

Overall, we had a great day of birding in some very unique locations.  While we weren't able to pick up any rare eastern vagrants, we saw impressive numbers of some expected western species in habitats where they are not found except in migration.  Along the way, we got some great experience identifying a lot of Empidonax flycatchers and learning other valuable tips about how to identify sparrows from tail patterns, how to tell some of the female yellow warblers apart, and how to identify Catharus genus thrushes.  On the way out of our last stop, we added the highlight of many people's day, a large adult DESERT HORNED LIZARD.  It was great to end a good day in the desert with this popular and iconic species.

Desert Horned Lizard near Locomotive Springs WMA.

Kendal posing with the Desert Horned Lizard.

Terry holding the Desert Horned Lizard.





04 May 2013

A Hybrid Dusky Grouse x Sharp-tailed Grouse

A Dusky Grouse x Sharp-tailed Grouse hybrid, photographed by the author in northern Utah on 7 Apr 2013.

I love hybrids.  Some birders can be disappointed by hybrids, especially when a locally rare species turns out to not be "pure" (and thus can't go on a list).  But for me, they have everything you could look for in a bird: They are generally very rare: even the more common hybrids are rarer than their parent species.  They are often a challenge to identify.  And they give us a peak into the process of evolution: why don't we see more hybrids, and if two species can produce hybrids, why are they considered species?

I was hiking around a local birding spot (Hardware Ranch W.M.A.) a couple weeks ago, and I saw what I thought at first was a Sharp-tailed Grouse.  This bird was running through the sagebrush, with its tail held high, showing bright white undertail coverts, like Sharp-tailed Grouse do.  It had a slightly crested head, and an overall yellowish tone, also fitting Sharp-tailed Grouse.  But when I got my binoculars on it, I could see the black tail feathers with broad charcoal tips, a clear mark of a Dusky Grouse.  I was able to grab a couple photos before the bird flushed, and flew off through the sagebrush.

Later, I became suspicious that I had photographed a hybrid.  Hybridization between these species had been documented once before, by Allan Brooks in 1907 (illustration below).  I sent the photos around to a few grouse experts I knew, and a few people who knew grouse experts, and all the replies came back that this was indeed a hybrid Dusky Grouse x Sharp-tailed Grouse.  Interestingly, although I haven't been able to find any other photographs of this hybrid, one biologist indicated that this is the most frequently observed hybrid combination between wild grouse.  Local biologists have told me that they have seen a male Dusky Grouse displaying among a lek of Sharp-tailed Grouse about 25 miles (40 km) north of where I photographed this bird.  That same male Dusky, in fact, even tried to mate with a Sharp-tailed Grouse while the biologists had it caught in a trap!

A Dusky Grouse x Sharp-tailed Grouse hybrid, illustrated by Allan Brooks and published in the Auk in 1907.


The same Dusky Grouse x Sharp-tailed Grouse hybrid shown above.  This is the second of the only two photos I was able to take before the grouse flushed.

(Thanks to Mike Wolfe, Timothy Taylor, Scott Gardner, Mike Schroeder, and Jack Connelly for sharing their thoughts on this bird.)