31 May 2015

Cache County Big Day, May 30th, 2015

We put a lot of effort into planning our Big Day route, and stuck very close to the plan.

Anyone who has done a Big Day knows that much of the work is done before the day itself, and ours was no different: Andy and I started weeks in advance, planning and re-planning our route, and especially scouting out rare birds.  Scouting was a HUGE part of our planning and a huge part of our success: by birding nearly daily for a couple weeks before our Big Day, we were able to quickly and efficiently find a lot of hard-to-find species.

The Big Day itself started at about 11:00 PM on Friday, May 29th, when I picked up Andy from his house and loaded his bike on the back of my car.  Big Days run 24 hours, from midnight to midnight, but we wanted to already be in location listening for birds when the timer started at 12:00 AM.  At midnight, we were already biking up Green Canyon a mile or two above the locked gate, and we heard our first bird of the day just minutes later when a Common Poorwill called (the first of over two dozen that night).

Our first stop of the day, starting at midnight, was owling Green Canyon by bike.  We used the bikes several times during the day, and they ended up being instrumental in allowing us to cover lots of ground efficiently and effectively.

Our first owl of the night was a Flammulated Owl, singing spontaneously at the end of the trail at 12:27 AM.  We also heard a couple of Ruffed Grouse displaying in the dark.  We then focussed on finding Northern Saw-whet Owl and Northern Pygmy-Owl as we biked down, broadcasting song every few hundred meters.  It took more work than expected, but we eventually got one Northern Pygmy-Owl to respond before our 2:00 AM deadline for leaving the canyon.

Our next target was an American Bittern at Bud Phelps WMA, a bird that Andy had found on a scouting trip a couple of weeks earlier.  This one was as easy as they come: we pulled into the parking lot a little before 3:00 AM, and heard it calling almost immediately.  We added a couple other nocturnal vocalizers to our list here, especially Virginia Rail, Sora, and Marsh Wren.  The whole stop was less than ten minutes, and we were off to a stakeout Great Horned Owl.  Our friend Shelly Hatch helped us out by telling us a couple of weeks ago about a pair that had been calling in her yard at night, so we parked quietly in front of her house and played a bit of Great Horned Owl song.  It took a little coaxing, but about five or ten minutes later one called back from a stand of trees near her house.

Next, we wanted to check on some nearby Wood Ducks I had scouted out, a small family group with chicks on a little pond near the Great Horned Owl.  It was too dark to see the ducks at night, but while driving to the pond with the windows down we heard some Barn Owls begging from a barn.  This was a lucky grab as it would later save us about half an hour of daylight birding, allowing us to cut out a scheduled trip to a roosting Barn Owl I had staked out.  With the quick Bittern, Great Horned Owl, and Barn Owl scores in the dark, we had a little time on our hands to look (listen) for Western Screech-Owl, the one lowland owl we hadn't been able to find in our scouting.  We tried a new spot, and again got lucky, with one responding rather quickly to broadcast near the Willow Park Zoo.  A bonus Gray Catbird was singing in the dark, too.  Then, we were off for our first daytime stop ahead of schedule!

Because we had missed Northern Saw-whet Owl in Green Canyon earlier in the night, we were happy to have some time to try for it before sunrise along the road to Tony Grove, where we wanted to be at first light.  We tried many stops along the seven mile road from the highway to the parking area, and finally got lucky just when we were starting to give up hope on that species, as a Northern Saw-whet Owl squealed in response to our broadcast less than a mile from the lake.  By 5:15 AM the sky was already starting to get a bit of color and the dawn chorus was in full swing, so we parked at Tony Grove and worked our way up the trail towards Naomi Peak in search of high-elevation birds.

We started the daylight portion of the day at Tony Grove, the most accessible spot for many of the high elevation specialties of Cache County.

Things started fast at Tony Grove, with singing White-crowned Sparrows, Lincoln's Sparrows, MacGillivray's Warblers, House Wrens, Mountain Chickadees, Dusky and Hammond's Flycatchers, American Robins, Chipping Sparrows, and Fox Sparrows, among others.  We worked our way over some deep snow patches (still frozen solid from the below-freezing nighttime temperatures) and up the trail to the area we call the "first bowl," a glacial cirque that sits just above Tony Grove Lake.  Then, things slowed down a bit.  We had a couple of singing Olive-sided Flycatchers, but were working hard for other high elevation specialties without much luck.  Eventually, some broadcast of White-breasted Nuthatch calls elicited a response, which was a great bird given how limited their distribution is in Cache County: they're found in only in our highest elevation forests, and are patchy and scarce even there.  We heard a Williamson's Sapsucker give its unique long stuttering drum, a great species to pick up given the relatively early date.  After nearly two hours around the area we were still hurting for a lot of common high mountain species, like Brown Creeper, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Steller's Jay, Clark's Nutcracker, Hairy Woodpecker, etc., but had to start heading back to the car.  Then, things started to fall our way.  A Brown Creeper called from a tree for both of us and showed itself to Andy.  A small flock of Clark's Nutcrackers flew down a ridgeline in the distance.  A pair of Hairy Woodpeckers responded to a broadcast call in an area we had both seen the species before.  Even back down at the parking lot as we were loading into the car, a Steller's Jay called in the distance.  I wonder what else we might have found with another half hour there, but a key part of a Big Day is to stay disciplined and stick to your schedule.

Williamson's Sapsucker is a beautiful and distinctive woodpecker of Cache County's highest elevations.  Although a recently-returning migrant, this one was already working a fresh row of sap wells.

White-breasted Nuthatches are very tough to find in Cache County, but the first bowl on the Naomi Peak trail has been a somewhat reliable place to find them in recent years.

By 8:40 AM we were heading down the mountain, with the windows down as always.  This paid off in the form of one more species, our first Orange-crowned Warbler of the day, singing along the road.  As we worked our way quickly down the canyon, we were able to pick up drive-by White-throated Swifts and a Swainson's Thrush.  A planned stop for Chukar and Black-throated Gray Warbler didn't pan out, although we'd pick up the warbler later.  Near the mouth of the canyon we did a short walk for hummingbirds at Stokes Nature Center, but before we even got to the feeders we had seen both of the regular species there, Black-chinned Hummingbird and Broad-tailed Hummingbird, so we took a quick detour for a staked-out American Dipper nest and headed back to the car.  Another quick stakeout stop added a singing Canyon Wren to the list, and then we were out of the canyon and into the lowlands for the rest of the day, starting at First Dam, where a Common Merganser that was present the day before had apparently just left.

American Dippers are common along the high-gradient rivers of Cache County, but having this nest staked out in advance saved us a lot of potential birding time we could have spent just hoping to run into one.
As we passed through downtown Logan on our way to the next stop, we were sure to call out all the common urban species that could be missed in the more wild habitats where we planned to spend the rest of the day: we easily picked up Rock Pigeon and House Sparrow, for example, and were able to hear a singing Lesser Goldfinch through the open car windows.  We started to feel pretty unlucky, missing our second stakeout rarity in a row, when we couldn't find the Great-tailed Grackles at the Logan Landfill.  But, we were disciplined about not sinking too much time into rarities, and quickly continued on to a field where Bobolinks had been displaying in the last couple of weeks.  They showed for us quickly, and we were off to the nearby pond where we hadn't been able to see the Wood Ducks in the dark.  In the daylight, they were easy, and we didn't even stop the car as we drove past in a rush for the next birds.

We had debated whether it was worth it to make our way down to Hyrum Reservoir, and in the end decided there were enough possibilities there to make it worth it.  We were going to get Barn Owl at the east end, but since we had one in the morning and were a bit behind schedule, we skipped the east end and birded only from the west end, where Andy was able to spot a continuing late Common Loon I had found a week or so before.  Within minutes, we were heading back north to Rendezvous Park.  Because this would be our only real lowland "urban" habitat stop, we had a few very familiar species we needed to find, and were actually a bit excited to pick up our Black-capped Chickadee here.  We needed Downy Woodpecker, too, but couldn't find any, even after broadcasting some calls.  

Common Nighthawks arrived just in time for our big day: the one we heard at Tony Grove in the morning was the first reported from Cache County this year.  Here, the second one flies over the Logan Sewage Lagoons in the early afternoon.

It was then around noon, so I asked Andy for a tally so far.  We were both a bit surprised to be at only 80 species, and a bit intimidated with reaching our goal of topping the record of 154 by the end of the day.  But, we hadn't really done much lowland birding yet, and had a lot of sparrows and other dry land birds as well as waterfowl to add to the list; our only ducks so far were Mallard and Wood Duck, for example.  With our next stop, the Logan Sewage Lagoons, the waterfowl numbers climbed quickly.  We got our only Blue-winged Teal of the day here, and focused on other ducks, especially late winter waterfowl like Ring-necked Duck and Bufflehead.  We got our only Belted Kingfisher of the day nearby as we drove to the Logan Polishing Ponds, an extension of the wastewater treatment plant located about a mile to the north.  Here, we picked up many of the expected breeding shorebirds, like American Avocet, Black-necked Stilt, and Willet, along with a great collection of waterfowl including some species that are quite rare this late in the season, especially American Wigeon, Canvasback, Common Goldeneye, and even a continuing Snow Goose I had found a couple weeks earlier that seems to be injured but still healthy.

I first spotted this Snow Goose at the Polishing Ponds a couple of weeks earlier and noted that it was holding its wings in an odd angle.  Although it looked healthy, I think the only reason it was still around is because it was a bit injured.

Canvasbacks have usually all left Cache County before the baby Canada Geese get this big, but this pair was lingering at the Polishing Ponds so that we could count them on our Big Day.
We took a quick detour to Benson Marina for our only Osprey of the day, sitting on a nest, and then drove to Hyde Park Lane.  We cancelled a side trip to look for a stakeout Say's Phoebe after considering that we were a bit behind schedule, the bird was pretty far out of the way, and it hadn't been very reliable in our scouting, only being found once out of three attempts to look for it.  Along Hyde Park Lane, we tried to pick a Glossy Ibis out of the many White-faceds, but with no luck.  We did pick up our first Sandhill Crane of the day here, and our only Wilson's Snipe of the day.

Wilson's Snipe are common in Cache County, but this one on Hyde Park Lane happened to be our only one of the day.
Next up was the Amalga Barrens, usually a great shorebird spot, but we were a bit late for shorebird migration.  Indeed, we didn't have any shorebirds all day that don't breed locally; we were completely too late for passing migrants.  About the best we could do here was to add a pair of Long-billed Curlews and get our first (but not only) Northern Harriers of the day. 

Andy and I worked hard for more shorebirds at the Amalga Barrens, but the best we could do is add a couple of Long-billed Curlews to our list.  We were apparently too late for all the passage migrants.
It was about 4:00 PM, so with a little less than five hours of daylight left and with all the expected shorebirds and waterfowl ticked off, I asked Andy to tally our list again.  We were at 112 species for the day.  When he said, this, I did a little mental math and my heart sank.  All those waterfowl and shorebirds, and we only added 32 species?  Five hours left to get 42 species to tie the record?  I started to think about how that could be right.  Andy checked again: yup, 112 species.  When we started Newton Reservoir, I knew it would take a miracle if we were to reach our goal.  

As soon as we pulled up at Newton, we could hear a Yellow-breasted Chat singing, another pretty local species that is tough to find in the valley.  We couldn't find the Blue Grosbeak that had been here last week, but a Golden Eagle flew over (our only one of the day), and a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher called from beneath us in the wash a little while later.  Across the road in the campground area, a Least Flycatcher I had found a few days earlier was singing as we stepped out of the car, and a second one was nearby.  This was probably the rarest bird of the day, at least by some measures, since it was the only one on the review list of the Utah Bird Records Committee.  We broadcast for Downy Woodpecker some more; way too long, I thought, but then, we didn't really have a shot at our goal anyways so it didn't bother me.  We broadcast a bit for Lark Sparrow, and didn't get any responses from that species either.  We needed a miracle to reach our goal, and missing these two easy species wasn't helping.  I was feeling pretty bummed.

On the way to Steel Canyon, Andy added up the numbers again.  I knew we wouldn't be close, but it wasn't going to hurt to hear where we were at, and I was still hoping for my miracle.  And I got it!  Andy realized that he had somehow--twice!--forgotten to count the last page of our six-page checklist.  I don't know how this happened, but I still think he may have been messing with me.  Either that, or the lack of sleep and the 19+ hours of straight birding were hitting both of us pretty hard.  Regardless, heading into Steel Canyon we were actually at 144 species, well within striking range of our goal if things went right!  We picked up singing Vesper Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, and Brewer's Sparrow all from the same spot along the road.  We heard Horned Lark singing a little further along.  We mounted our bikes just as the sky was darkening from a coming storm, and headed into Steel Canyon, some of the best dry juniper forest in the county.


On a Big Day, meals come in the little spaces between birds.  We quickly mounted up and biked the rough road into Steel Canyon as a storm approached.
Steel Canyon went as well as anyone could expect.  First, a Juniper Titmouse sang briefly from the junipers.  Then, a Gray Flycatcher perched on a treetop and wagged its tail downward repeatedly, a distinctive behavior distinguishing this species from half a dozen or more lookalikes.  A Spotted Towhee called from across the canyon, a common species that we just hadn't run into until that point.  Then a pair of Bushtits flew through a clearing, calling in flight and then landing and eventually pausing long enough to give me a quick look through binoculars.  The rain started as Andy broadcast Black-throated Gray Warbler and Plumbeous Vireo at a spot he had heard both species recently.  A Plumbeous Vireo flew into view and started singing in response, and a minute or so later, a Black-throated Gray Warbler started singing in the rain.  We would later calculate that with these two species, we tied and then broke the Cache County Big Day record!

Biking back down to the car in the rain from Steel Canyon, with six new species on our list and a new Cache County Big Day record.

After a quick bike back down to the car, we headed to another nearby road where Andy had recently had Short-eared Owls at dusk.  This is not a rare species in the county, but they tend to be most active at dawn and dusk, and we hadn't had them yet.  His spot worked like a charm, and within minutes four Short-eared Owls were flying all around us, species #156 for the day.

Two of four Short-eared Owls that put on a show for us at dusk on Sink Creek Road.
We were short on daylight, but also short on reasonable species we needed for the day.  We headed to Bear River Bottoms WMA at sunset in a last-ditch attempt at our biggest miss of the day, but we wouldn't find Downy Woodpecker there either.  We tried Cherry Creek again for Downy Woodpecker as the sky got darker, and then a little further up for Dusky Grouse, but didn't find either of those.  By the time we were done there, it was nearly 10:00 PM and we were both getting quite tired.  We tried following up on a tip for Long-eared Owl at Benson Marina, without any luck.  Some fireworks in the distance seemed to be both celebrating our huge day, and telling us it was time to be done.  At about 11:00 PM, we had few options for new birds left, and even less energy to look for them, so we called it a day.  We went to bed tired, happy, and satisfied, with a new Cache County Big Day record in the books: 156 species, topping the old record of 154 that had been set in 1998!

Andy heads into a stand of trees for a last-minute attempt at Downy Woodpecker as the sun set.

Here is our complete list of species for the day:
Snow Goose
Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Gadwall
American Wigeon
Mallard
Blue-winged Teal
Cinnamon Teal
Northern Shoveler
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal
Canvasback
Redhead
Ring-necked Duck
Lesser Scaup
Bufflehead
Common Goldeneye
Ruddy Duck
Ring-necked Pheasant
Ruffed Grouse
Common Loon
Pied-billed Grebe
Eared Grebe
Western Grebe
Clark's Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant
American White Pelican
American Bittern
Great Blue Heron
Snowy Egret
Cattle Egret
Black-crowned Night-Heron
White-faced Ibis
Turkey Vulture
Osprey
Golden Eagle
Northern Harrier
Swainson's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Virginia Rail
Sora
American Coot
Sandhill Crane
Black-necked Stilt
American Avocet
Killdeer
Spotted Sandpiper
Willet
Long-billed Curlew
Wilson's Snipe
Wilson's Phalarope
Bonaparte's Gull
Franklin's Gull
Ring-billed Gull
California Gull
Caspian Tern
Forster's Tern
Rock Pigeon
Eurasian Collared-Dove
Mourning Dove
Barn Owl
Flammulated Owl
Western Screech-Owl
Great Horned Owl
Northern Pygmy-Owl
Short-eared Owl
Northern Saw-whet Owl
Common Nighthawk
Common Poorwill
White-throated Swift
Black-chinned Hummingbird
Broad-tailed Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Williamson's Sapsucker
Red-naped Sapsucker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
American Kestrel
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Western Wood-Pewee
Least Flycatcher
Hammond's Flycatcher
Gray Flycatcher
Dusky Flycatcher
Western Kingbird
Eastern Kingbird
Plumbeous Vireo
Warbling Vireo
Steller's Jay
Black-billed Magpie
Clark's Nutcracker
American Crow
Common Raven
Horned Lark
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Tree Swallow
Violet-green Swallow
Bank Swallow
Barn Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Mountain Chickadee
Juniper Titmouse
Bushtit
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Canyon Wren
House Wren
Marsh Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
American Dipper
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Mountain Bluebird
Townsend's Solitaire
Swainson's Thrush
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
Gray Catbird
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Orange-crowned Warbler
MacGillivray's Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Yellow Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-throated Gray Warbler
Yellow-breasted Chat
Green-tailed Towhee
Spotted Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Brewer's Sparrow
Vesper Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Grasshopper Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Western Tanager
Black-headed Grosbeak
Lazuli Bunting
Bobolink
Red-winged Blackbird
Western Meadowlark
Yellow-headed Blackbird
Brewer's Blackbird
Brown-headed Cowbird
Bullock's Oriole
House Finch
Cassin's Finch
Pine Siskin
Lesser Goldfinch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

03 February 2015

How to Identify Evening Grosbeak Call Types

I've written here previously about the different "call types" of Evening Grosbeak, which correspond closely to subspecies and which may in fact even represent cryptic species.  Recently I've been helping other birders in my local community to identify the call types, so that they can enter sightings in eBird more specifically.  The truth is, though, it's really not that hard to do it yourself, if you have the right equipment, and the chances are that you either have everything you need already, or can get it for free.  Here's a step-by-step guide to identifying your Evening Grosbeak call types.

Two Evening Grosbeaks from northern Utah, where Type 1 dominates but Type 4 has also been recorded.

1) Record the birds.

The first step is to get audio recordings of Evening Grosbeaks calling.  A lot of people get turned off of the idea already, but this is actually quite simple.  Most birders are already carrying smart phones, and there are many free apps for recording sound snippets.  I used an app called "ACR" when I had an Android phone, but anything that lets you record sound will work.  Something most birders don't even think of is that almost all modern cameras can record video, and this is an equally effective way to record sound.  Of course, a nice shotgun or parabola mic is ideal, but if you can make a short video with your phone or point-and-shoot camera, that will be enough to identify the birds.  The software we'll use in the next step is very versatile when it comes to file formats.  It helps to know where on the camera or phone the microphone is located, and point that in the direction of the birds.  It might not be the same side of the device as the camera lens!

2) Import the sound into audio editing software.

I recommend using Audacity: it's free, powerful, available on all common platforms (Mac, PC, etc.), and pretty straightforward to use.  Raven is another great alternative, with the only weakness I know being that the latest free version isn't compatible with the latest Mac operating system.  In most cases you will be able to simply drag and drop your audio or video file onto the icon for your audio editing software to open it.  If the software refuses, I find a "force open" usually works: for some uncommon video formats, I have to hold "option" plus "command" on my Mac when dropping the file on the icon, and then it works.

Here's a pretty typical example of some Type 1 Evening Grosbeak calls that I recorded in my yard and then visualized using the free program Audacity.

3) Make a sonogram.

Again, this is not as tricky as it might sound.  If either of the above two programs opens your file, you'll see the sonogram right on your screen.  Adjust both the vertical (frequency) and the horizontal (time) zooms until the sonogram looks about right.  Then use a screen grab to save the image to your desktop.  In Macs, you can do this by typing the "command"key, shift, and the number 4 at the same time, and then drawing a box around the area of interest.  In PCs, you can use Alt + PrintScreen.  (You might need to then paste into an image editor like Paint to see the image, then save it.)

4) Match the sonogram to the call type.

Unlike Red Crossbills, Evening Grosbeaks have only about five distinct call types.  Download this paper, Sewell et al. 2004, and simply compare your sonograms to the examples in Figure 1!

5) Enter your data in eBird.

Here's your chance to really contribute to science: enter your sightings in eBird, and be sure to specify the call type and include a link to your sonogram.  Keep in mind that in most areas, you'll have to add the call type to the list manually, by clicking "add species" and then searching for "Evening Grosbeak," and selecting the relevant type.  Evening Grosbeak call types are sorely under-represented in eBird, but together we can fix that!

eBird has only a few examples of Evening Grosbeak call types entered so far.  Most of them are from northern Utah, where I've been helping people to identify call types from their recordings.  eBird has only one record each for Types 2 and 4, and none for Types 3 or 5.

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)