24 December 2008

Common Birds of Bogota

Stephanie and I are currently in Bogota, visiting her family for the holidays. Of course, I've taken the opportunity to see some birds while I'm here. Everything is different and it can be overwhelming to try to identify all the new bird sights and sounds. Even the ubiquitous House Sparrow and European Starling are absent as far as I can tell. Rock Pigeons are still quite common. Mourning Doves are replaced here by a similar species, Eared Doves. These doves have shorter tails than MODOs and differ in some details of plumage. Here in the tropics they may breed year-round, but they're certainly breeding now as I've seen several pairs in courtship and even copulation.

The common sparrow in the city and the countryside is "el Copeton," the Rufous-collared Sparrow. This is a congener with the White-crowned Sparrow that is familiar to me in Utah and elsewhere in the States, but seems even more common and adaptable to human habitation. In the places I've seen it, it seems more like the House Sparrow, hopping around food carts in the city and picking up scraps and feeding on small seeds in ornamental plants.

The third common species here is the Great Thrush. This is the equivalent of our American Robin and it is in the same family. I have seen these feeding on worms in the fields and on small fruits in the trees. They are common but not as approachable as the other two species. Any time I get close, they seem to fly up into the dark center of a dense tree. I have heard these singing, so they may be breeding now as well.

More soon from Colombia. . . .

23 December 2008

Top Ten Birds

One of the most frequent questions I get about my Cache County big year is, "What was the best bird you saw?" That question is hard to answer, but when I think of the best bird several things enter in to the decision. Rarity is of course a big one, both rarity in the state, rarity in the county, and rarity to me. The quality of the look also contributes - a beautiful adult male in breeding plumage that poses nearby on top of a rock will score higher than a drab juvenile skulking in the weeds, and both will score higher than a call note from a bird I never saw. There is also some pride involved - birds found by me will score higher than those that were first found by others. Finally, there's a completely ambiguous "coolness" factor. My coolness scale might not match with yours: for example, I love gulls. With the caveat that it's all subjective, of course, and with those vague criteria in mind, here are the ten best birds of 2008. When I have them available, I've also shown photos that have not appeared on this blog before.

10. Snow Bunting. This is a species I'd heard a lot about but never seen before this year. It was quite a treat to be able to pick a couple of them out of a distant flock very early in the year.

9. Northern Waterthrush. I don't know why, but this bird had attracted my attention for a long time. I just thought it was so weird to imagine a warbler running along the side of a stream. And when I finally saw one this year, it was as exciting as I thought it would be. I got decent looks when I found it, but got much better looks the next day. It was nice to be able to share this one with some other local birders. This was a lifer for me and one that is seen only once every few years in the county.

8. Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch. This is another species I had often dreamed of seeing before this year. I think they probably occur in the valley in some small numbers each year, but they're not seen each year. The looks were distant, but the birds were cooperative enough to get some good looks and it was neat to pick out at least two subspecies in the flock. I had tried for this species elsewhere several times, and missed each time, so this was also a lifer.

7. Band-tailed Pigeon. This is a rare species in the valley, but not a rare species for me, as they are relatively common in Washington. This one was special for several reasons. It is rare in the valley, being seen only once every five years or so. I also saw/heard what was probably the same individual twice, once was great looks with my friend Craig Faulhaber, who has since moved away, and the second time I heard it on a very special camping trip with my girlfriend a week or two later in the same area.

6. White-winged Crossbill. This was a hard-earned lifer. This species probably occurs in the county each year, but isn't seen each year. I had to search through hundreds of Red Crossbills to finally find one of these, just when I was about to give up hope. This was also the species with which I tied the previous Cache County year record, adding a certain something to my memory of the sighting.

5. Mew Gull. This was the first really big find of the year, although certainly not the last. I was photographing gulls so that I could practice identifying them at home from the photos, and I snapped a few shots of this bird as it circled around and landed in a small pond. The photos didn't match any gull I was considering a possibility, so I sent the photos to some birding friends who told me that I had photographed the second Mew Gull ever seen in the county. This sighting was later highlighted in an article in the Salt Lake Tribune, and featured one of my photos!

4. Glossy Ibis. Craig and I had been joking about finding this species in Cache County. This species had only been seen twice before in the county, and both sightings may have been the same individual. At the time it was also the first record for the state. This species seems to be expanding its range in the United States, or at least there are more and more records of vagrancy, so maybe it shouldn't have been as much of a surprise as it was. But it was certainly a surprise, and finding this bird made it worthwhile to have been carefully examining all the White-faced Ibis I had been seeing all summer.

3. Iceland Gull. I wish I had found this bird, but at least I can claim to be the first one to identify it, which counts for something in my opinion. Jason Pietrzak emailed me photos of this bird for me to help identify, and I could tell it was one of two species, either a Glaucous Gull or an Iceland Gull. After some studying and thinking, I thought it was probably an Iceland Gull, but it wasn't until I found it the next morning that my thoughts were confirmed. If this is accepted by the records committee, this will be a first state record.

2. Whip-poor-will. This species was a first state record, and it was almost mine (kindof). Craig, Stephanie, and I were on our way up to the end of Green Canyon on a random Thursday night because we weren't hearing many owls lower down the canyon. On our way up, we passed Ron Ryel racing down to notify us of this great find. He found this bird about a half hour before we almost certainly would have. I don't mind, really. It was great just to hear it, and I'm glad I got to share it with those three people. This loud and persistent first state record claims the number two best-bird-of-the-year spot.

1. Mississippi Kite. Because this was a first state record and because I found it, this bird takes the top spot. It could've been better, if I had gotten photographs or if more other people had found the bird after me, but it also scored bonus points for being a raptor and a lifer. It was a big year for wandering Mississippi Kites. Several states had first records, I believe, and New Hampshire's first record ever included a successfully breeding pair!

20 December 2008

CBC Brings the Year to a Close

Today was the Logan Christmas Bird Count, and also my last day of birding in Cache County this year. We birded all day, from before sunrise looking for owls to picking rare geese out of a flock as the light dimmed in the evening. I was with Stephanie in the morning and Ron Ryel (photo below) from mid-morning to evening. We found some good birds today, including the Mourning Doves shown above. (There were many seen this year, but some years we only find one in the entire count circle.) There were five species that my group found that were not seen anywhere else in the count circle: Cedar Waxwings, a Greater Yellowlegs, a Ruddy Duck, a Ross's Goose, and two Cackling Geese. In total, I saw 54 species, but none of them were new for the year. Our count circle found a total of 93 species, but none of those would have been new for the year for me either, so it was good to know that I didn't miss anything. The dinner celebration and count compilation at the end of the day was not only a good way to end a cold day, but also a great way to end the year.
It's only the 20th, so why is my big year ending early? Well, Stephanie and I leave tomorrow at 4:30 AM to go to Colombia for the holidays. Which brings up another good question: what will happen to the blog? You might have already noticed a few small changes; I'm going to keep the blog going and transition it into a place to write about all of my natural history experiences, in Utah and elsewhere. The changes may be gradual, but within a few weeks this will be a whole new place! So, watch this spot for more adventures in the natural world. Up next, Colombia!

17 December 2008


Right now there is a hummingbird feeder full of nectar that is freezing solid in my front yard. All of our hummingbirds migrated south months ago, so I'm sure my neighbors think I'm crazy. Well, they're probably right, but not for the reason they think. You see, like all birds, hummingbirds sometimes get lost. With enough birders keeping track over a long enough period of time, patterns emerge in when and where they get lost. Although the odds are that there has not been a single hummingbird in Cache County for months, if there is one it is likely to be an Anna's Hummingbird, a species that is only seen in Utah about once or twice a year. But when it is seen, it's usually in the cold of winter. In fact, three of the last seven observations were in December. I don't have a lot of chances left for new birds this year, since I leave on Sunday for Christmas in Colombia. So, my feeder is hung by the spruce tree with care, in hopes that a hummingbird soon will be there.

13 December 2008

Frequently Asked Questions

I've gotten a lot of questions about this attempt to see as many birds as I can in Cache County in one year. As the year draws close to the end, I thought I'd answer a few of the most frequently asked questions here. (Photo of me birding by Stephanie Cobbold.)

Will you do it again next year?
No. It has been a blast, but my main motiviation for doing it was to get to know the area better, both geographically and ornithologically. I've accomplished those goals and more, and now it's time for something else. I might do another county big year the next time I move to a new county, but I don't plan to do another one here. I'll probably bird a lot less in 2009. Maybe I'll work on my county life list, since I've got a pretty good start so far.

Will your record last?
I doubt it. I travelled a lot this year, and there were many birds that know I missed, like Say's Phoebe, Sage Thrasher, and Lewis's Woodpecker. Of course, we'll never know the birds I missed that everyone else missed, too. I think my record will last only until someone decides to break it. I had a great year of birds with some real surprises, but anyone who could commit even more time to birding could probably see more birds.

What was the best bird you saw?
I'll be answering this one in some detail soon. Watch for a "top ten best birds" list as a future post.

How much time did you spend birding?
This is a hard question to answer. For one, I didn't keep track. Even if I had tried, it would be hard to say, because in a way, I'm always birding. Some birds I found for the first time while I was doing something else, like my first Yellow Warbler of the year on a bike ride to school, and my first Red-breasted Nuthatch on a walk home from school. But it wouldn't really be fair to count every trip to school as a birding trip, because that wasn't my main objective. The same thing goes for hiking in the mountains - if I go for a hike with some friends and bring my binoculars, does that count as a birding trip? I guess that the best answer I can give to this question is that on average, I'd say I spent about one full day every week where my main objective was birding. That's a rough estimate and the range is from three weeks without birding (while travelling out of the county) to maybe four full days in a single week.

Are you the best birder in the county now?
No. I am certainly a better birder than I was a year ago, but I know that there are much better birders than me in the county. Some of them I bird with regularly. I only saw as many species as I did because I put a lot of time into it, not because I am more skilled than people who saw fewer species. Luck also played a role: there were many good birds found this year, by myself and others, some of which had never been seen in the county or even the state before.

Was it worth it?
Absolutely. But only because it was never REALLY about counting the birds. It was about learning the secret spots of Cache County. It was about getting to know my fellow birders. It was about getting in touch with the passage of the seasons as translated by bird migrations. It was about learning the subtle details of plumage that mean nothing to the average human but everything to survival and identification of bird species. I certainly learned more about birds and birding than I have in any year so far. And for all these reasons, it was absolutely worth it.

25 November 2008

Uncountable Birds

Just for fun, I thought I'd make a list of the birds I saw this year that aren't countable. These birds are not included in my county year list because they are not considered by the ABA (or by myself) to be either fully established or naturally occurring in the county. Birds only made it to this non-countable list if I saw them free-roaming in the county. That means that caged zoo birds would not be listed here, but a chicken that found a hole in the fence and was wandering across the street would be listed.

Swan Goose (photo above)
Graylag Goose
Mute Swan
Mandarin Duck (photo below)
Red-crested Pochard
Helmeted Guineafowl
Indian Peafowl (a.k.a. "Peacock")
Red Junglefowl (a.k.a. "Chicken")

22 November 2008

Long-tailed Duck

Today I joined the Bridgerland Audubon Society (photo below) on a field trip to the Logan Sewage Lagoons. This trip was a must for two reasons; the sewage lagoons are one of the best places in the county to find the rare lost sea ducks that should be migrating through in very small numbers, and the only way to bird them is to go with the Audubon Society - they are closed to the public.

It took some work, but we were able to pull one new bird out of the trip. Craig Fosdick spotted a very distant Long-tailed Duck, photo above, on the ponds among thousands of other ducks. Later we were able to relocate the albino Northern Shoveler I found last weekend at the Polishing Ponds, which people seemed to enjoy.

After the Audubon trip, Craig, Jason, and I birded Sue's Ponds and Hyrum Reservoir. Sue's Ponds was still hosting a Lesser Black-backed Gull, a first for Craig, but Hyrum was pretty empty except for a bunch of distant gulls. I'll probably keep trying there, but it has not turned out the scoters like we thought it would. From the posts I'm reading online, it seems that Cache County must be the only place in the state WITHOUT scoters right now.

17 November 2008

Cackling vs. Canada Geese

In March I found at least two of what I considered to be Cackling Geese (photo above), a recently-designated species that used to be considered part of Canada Geese. I submitted a report to the Bird Records Committee for Utah, because Cackling Goose is on the review list for the state. Although identification of this species can be difficult with certain subspecies, it is easier with others. The birds I saw were not the easy-to-identify subspecies. I beleive they were Taverner's Cackling Geese, Branta hutchinsii taverni. The record was just voted on for the second time, and was rejected. This surprised me, as I felt fairly confident in my identification. So, I've spent a lot of time reviewing photos, identification articles, and other documents on the identification of these species (such as this, this, and this), to try to determine where my fault lies. Either I misidentified this species, in which case I should remove it from my list, or I wrote a report that was insufficient to convince the committee that I saw what I did, in which case the bird would remain on my list.

After much careful review, I am still convinced that I saw at least two Cackling Geese on that day. The trouble with the review of the record lies in that the smallest Canada Goose, the Lesser Canada Goose, overlaps in many traits with the largest Cackling Geese, such as Richardson's and Taverner's Cackling Geese. I did not make the case well enough that the Lesser Canada Goose could be excluded, although I do believe that from my photos and the features I observed it can. The comments of the committee are particularly interesting in this respect. For example, "I still think most of the features point to a Taverner's Goose," "I don't feel at all confident identifying the white-cheecked geese that aren't at the extremes of size/shape," "the written description fits Cackling Goose," "Looks like we share the same doubts about identifying the mid-range Canada/Cacklers from each other," and "I almost want to rescue myself from this vote because I am still struggling with the definitive identification of the various subspecies of the Canada/Cackling Goose complex . . . could possibly be the taverni or hutchinsii subspecies."

Of course, these comments are obviously taken out of context and are incomplete, but I think they convey the level of uncertainty held even by experts in distinguishing this pair of species. In summary, I don't blame the committee at all for not accepting this record. These are tough species to tell apart, and my record did not do an adequate job of describing and documenting the traits that showed that these were Cackling Geese. The committee did the right thing in not accepting a record of which they were not certain. However, I remain convinced that these were in fact Cackling Geese, and not Lesser Canada Geese. In fact, I'll go a step further and say that as our identification and knowledge of these two species improves, I think we'll find that Cackling Geese are more common in Utah in winter than we currently believe. In the meantime, I'll make it a goal of mine to 1) get to know the differences among these species and subspecies even better and 2) thoroughly and convincingly document Cackling Geese if and when I encounter them in Utah in the future.

Winter Wren - Another (Partial) Albino

Thanks to a tip from Craig Fosdick, I finally found a Winter Wren this morning at Guinavah-Malibu Campground in Logan Canyon. This species is an old friend of mine. When I was working in Washington, I'd hear dozens of them every day in the Douglas-fir forests where I did my research. Out here in Utah, they're much more rare.

This particular Winter Wren was very interesting because it was a partial albino. In the photos below, you can see the clean white patch above the bill and on the front part of the crown, with a few white feathers scattered back into the hind crown. This is not a normal part of their plumage - this spot should be brown like the rest of the bird. It was an interesting coincidence to find this partial albino bird and a fully albino Northern Shoveler in two days.

16 November 2008

Ferruginous Hawk

Gulls aside, it feels like it has been a while since I spent a lot of time chasing after birds found by other people. Of course, it feels much better to find a rare bird yourself than to chase after one found by someone else, but sometimes it's nice to take a little break and just enjoy someone else's bird, without having to find new rarities on your own. Today I did a little bit of each, but mostly chased after birds found by other people.

Yesterday, Stephanie found a Snow Bunting up Logan Canyon, her first solo find of a rare species, I think, so we went up there first thing this morning. I have seen Snow Buntings before, and they are already on my county list, but all my looks at them have been very distant so I was hoping that this bird would be more photogenic. Unfortunately, it failed to show up for us.

After a break for some lunch while watching some friends play a show at Cafe Ibis, we went to Clarkston to look for the Ferruginous Hawks Craig found yesterday. We did manage to find the Ferruginous Hawks (one is shown in the photo above). This has been a hard-to-find species in the valley, so it was nice to add this one to the list. I've spent several days searching for this species, and I only know of one other individual reported in the county this year.

We then birded some waterfowl spots, but we still haven't been able to come up with any scoters, even though they're being seen all over the state it seems right now. We did find one cool bird that won't add to the list: a pure albino Northern Shoveler, shown below. From there, we raced the sunlight up the canyon to try to find a Winter Wren Craig found earlier today. We missed that bird, probably because it had already gone to roost for the night, but I might try again tomorrow morning.

13 November 2008

Birding Buddies

One of the best things about my birding big year in Cache County has been getting to know so many great birders and great people. I've been joined in the field by many friends, and had several others help by sending tips, letting me watch their feeders, assisting me with identifications from photos, or posting their sightings on the discussion groups. Sadly, Cache County has also lost many birders this year, some of which are dear friends to me. Mo Correll moved away temporarily, and Keith Archibald, Craig Faulhaber, and John Weiss moved away for good. Larry Ryel (whom I never had the fortune of meeting) and John Barnes passed away this year. I wanted to use this post to acknowledge the help and friendship of the entire community of birders, serious and casual, that have made this year so enjoyable. Here are a few photos of some of them, but you should not consider the text or the photos of this post to be exhaustive - there are too many to name and if I tried, I'm certain I'd miss a few and in so doing, be more offensive than simply ommitting any names. So, here is a tribute to all of you, illustrated by photos of a few of you.

05 November 2008

What a Day for Gulls!

Our weather has take a turn for the worse, but that often makes the birding take a turn for the better. Yesterday afternoon Jason Pietrzak found a pale-winged gull at Sue's Ponds, and sent me some photos. I couldn't tell for sure from the photos what it was, so we rushed out there yesterday afternoon to look for it, but couldn't find it. This morning Craig and I tried again, and found just what we were hoping for: an Iceland Gull (Kumlien's subspecies, above, in foreground). This is another species that can be very tough to tell from similar species, so although several records have been submitted to the Bird Records Committee, none have been accepted. This species is usually found from Baffin Island, Canada to Iceland, and winters in the Northeastern United States. We got some good photos this morning, and Jason went back later in the morning and got some even better ones, so it looks possible that we'll have another state record on our hands here!

Almost as amazingly, Jason found another rare gull while he was trying to relocate the Iceland Gull. He posted a photo, and I could tell it was not something from around here, although neither of us could tell what it was for sure from the photo (again). So I went back this afternoon, and so did he, and we were also able to relocate this bird: a Lesser Black-backed Gull! (Photo below by Jason.) If accepted (again, with great photo documentation I expect it will be), this will be only the sixth record of this species in the state! This species is usually found in northwest Europe, and usually winters south into Africa, although they wander to the east coast of North America in some numbers every winter. This made a total of six species of gulls in one day, perhaps more than anyone's seen in the county, with California Gulls, Ring-billed Gulls, Herring Gulls, and Bonaparte's Gulls all present today.

03 November 2008

Owling again

Last Thursday I went owling with Stephanie Cobbold, Craig Fosdick, and Dominique Roche. We were in search of two species in particular, Northern Saw-whet Owl and Boreal Owl. Northern Saw-whet Owls are relatively common in Cache County, but as these things go, somehow Craig and I had both not heard (or seen) them yet this year in the county. (I heard several while travelling for my field work.) Although they are in the same genus, Boreal Owls are at almost the opposite end of the owl spectrum: they are very rare here, with only one accepted record in the county.

We met at First Dam at 7:00, a little after dark, and drove up to the Tony Grove Road. Dominique had heard many Saw-whets along this road before, and even heard a Boreal Owl here twice several years ago (although I don't think he ever submitted a record to the Committee). We stopped every half mile or so on the way up to broadcast Saw-whet and Boreal songs. We always started by listening quietly, but this time of year most owls aren't spontaneously vocalizing, although some will still respond to a broadcast. After a couple stops of hearing nothing, we got to Dominique's hotspot. We listened for a few minutes, and again heard nothing. We played the Saw-whet owl call, and heard nothing. We played it again, and got a response! We heard two "barks," a sharp down-slurred abrupt vocalization, that stopped as soon as we stopped playing the recording. I hadn't heard that vocalization before, but Craig had: it was a Northern Saw-whet Owl. I wasn't immediately convinced, but after reading more about owl vocalizations and hearing several more recordings of Saw-whet Owls and other possible species, I now feel confident that Craig's identification was right. So, one more for the list. Now, if we could just find a Boreal Owl!

26 October 2008


Today I had an amazing day of birding around Cache County with Craig Fosdick and Stephanie Cobbold. Craig and I started at Tony Grove where we leisurely worked our way through the campground and around Tony Grove Lake. The highlight here was certainly the Northern Pygmy-Owl (photo above) that we heard calling and then were able to locate as it flew around looking for a small bird to join it for lunch. I heard my first Northern Pygmy-Owl earlier this year in Cache County, and this is only the second time I've seen one. It was neat to see Cache County's largest and smallest raptors at almost the same time: a juvenile Golden Eagle was circling high overhead as we heard the owl. Other birds here were pretty much as expected, but crossbills were suprisingly absent. We were hoping for a White-winged Crossbill, which had been reported here a couple of times but which I had still not seen.

We met up with Stephanie and headed up Swan Flat Road from Logan Canyon towards Idaho. Along the road (still in Cache County) we stopped for a large flock of crossbills that we could hear and see in the treetops. After scanning for several minutes, I was able to locate my lifer White-winged Crossbill in the flock of about 40 crossbills; as far as I could tell all the rest were Red Crossbills. The White-winged Crossbill (photo at right) was a very exciting bird for me because I have spent a lot of time looking for this species in the county this year and had not been able to find it so far. In addition, this was my 235th species of the year in Cache County, tying the record held by Keith Archibald and Ron Ryel for a Cache County year.

After a quick drive to Swan Lake just across the border in Idaho, we went back down the valley to Sue's Ponds in search of gulls. Only one gull, a Ring-billed Gull, was there when we arrived (later joined by a few more), compared to hundreds of gulls just a day earlier. After a few minutes of watching a large group of Long-billed Dowitchers feeding at close range, I scanned the back side of the pond again and spotted something we had all missed the first time through: an American Golden-Plover (photo below) foraging on the mud with the Killdeer. With this bird, a lifer and a rare find in Utah, let alone Cache County, I set the record for the most number of birds seen in Cache County in one year at 236. Wohoo! But don't worry, the blogging's not done yet. Of course, I'm going to keep birding until the end of the year, and I'm going to see as many new birds as I can. Stay tuned. . . .

24 October 2008


Yesterday Stephanie and I birded at Sue's Ponds and Hyrum Reservoir during a little afternoon break from work. The highlight for me was a winter-plumage Dunlin at Sue's Ponds. Two of these were reported in spring migration, but I missed both of them and I thought I might not get another chance at the species, because they are somewhat rare in Cache County (seen less than once a year on average). I got several shots, but none of them were great and of course just when the light got great, my camera battery died! Here is the best shot I was able to get of the Dunlin (center), with two Pectoral Sandpipers.

Explaining to do

Okay, it seems I have some explaining to do. I my last post, I thought I had found a Thayer's Gull. Several things about the bird didn't seem quite right to me, and I thought it might even be a Glaucous-winged Gull, which is much rarer in Utah (although Thayer's are also pretty rare here). So, I sent photos and videos to several list-serves requesting help in my identification. I received responses from nine different people, and as any student of the gulls would guess, there was little consensus. Opinions ranged from pure Thayer's Gull to pure Glaucous-winged Gull to pure Slaty-backed Gull, but the most common opinion was that I had photographed a hybrid between a Glaucous-winged Gull and a Herring Gull. This was one of the possibilities I had considered, but it wasn't the identification I thought was most likely. Even after hearing all the opinions of the experts, I am still not confident in identifying this bird, and it will stay in my records as "Unidentified gull, probable Glaucous-winged x Herring hybrid".

Someone asked me before if it's embarrassing to publicly misidentify a bird. If I had called this something outlandish, then maybe I would be embarrassed. But gulls are notoriously difficult, and I feel pretty good about how I did with this one. In fact, David Sibley says of the Thayer's Gull, "Very difficult to distinguish from hybrids of other large gulls such as Herring x Glaucous-winged." After all, if the gulls can't even tell each other apart when it's time to find a mate, how can we be expected to sort them out as juveniles!

Okay, so I'm not counting the Thayer's Gull that I posted about before. Then why is Thayer's Gull still in my year list at the right? Well, I feel more confident in the identification of a different bird that we saw on the same day was a Thayer's Gull. One photo of this bird is above: the Thayer's is on the left and a California Gull is on the right. This Thayer's Gull has darker wingtips than my previous mystery gull, but it has a distinctly small, round head and petite bill, two traits I was looking for on the mystery gull but was having trouble with. So, the photo may be wrong, but I still think I saw a Thayer's Gull that day. Although I'd be happy to hear comments from the experts about this gull as well.

19 October 2008

Evening Grosbeaks and Thayer's Gull

It's been a while since my last post, but it's not because I haven't been birding. I have. Desperately. I'm so close to the record that I've spent ten or fifteen hours each weekend for the last two or three weeks birding, plus several hours during the week wherever I can fit it in. But, of course, the new birds are now few and far between.
On Friday, a school holiday, Stephanie and I hiked around Swan Peak looking for some of the mountain species I still haven't been able to find like Pine Grosbeak, White-winged Crossbill, and Evening Grosbeak. We didn't find any of these, but we did find nine Dusky Grouse, a species I took a special trip for a few weeks ago.

Yesterday Craig Fosdick and I birded all day, from the south end of the county to the northern border with Idaho. We were mostly looking for species that winter on the ocean but get lost inland this time of year, like the scoters, Long-tailed Ducks, and Pacific Loons. We didn't find any of these either, but while we were scanning Hyrum Reservoir, Craig heard a single call note above and quickly pointed out a flock of eight Evening Grosbeaks passing high overhead. The birds continued out over the reservoir, and we never saw them land. These birds are probably part of another kind of migration happening right now: the vertical migration. Rather than flying from north to south, these birds may have come from higher elevations down into the valley. Other vertical migrants we found in the valley today included Red-breasted Nuthatches and a Townsend's Solitaire.

Today I wanted to take a quick trip to Sue's Ponds to look for shorebirds, because I'm still hoping I can pick up a Dunlin or maybe something completely unexpected. The shorebirds were there in good numbers, and included ninety Long-billed Dowitchers, eight Pectoral Sandpipers, and one Stilt Sandpiper. But the highlight was not a shorebird, it was another surprise gull: at least two Thayer's Gulls (one is shown in the photo above - note the pink legs; brownish, not black, wingtips; and the relatively rounded head). I thought I might be able to find this species later in the winter, but I didn't expect them this time of year.

27 September 2008

Wellsville Hawkwatch

Craig Fosdick and I have a running joke that any time we go in search of a certain species, we'll often find something even more rare but miss the target bird. Today at the Wellsville Hawkwatch we broke that pattern with a well-planned and fortuitous day of watching migrating raptors.

Perhaps the rarest raptor that has occurred more than once in Cache County is the Broad-winged Hawk. Craig and I knew that we would have to make the steep hike at a very specific time of the year in order to find this species, so we planned a hike for today, September 27th. This is the closest weekend day to the median date of passage of Broad-winged Hawks at this site, according to the reports posted by HawkWatch International online. Still, since an average of only five Broad-winged Hawks are seen each year by these paid full-time observers, we knew our odds were slim. But I was encouraged when I read last night that a Hawkwatch site about a day's flight north of here had its best day ever yesterday, including an amazing five Broad-winged Hawks!

Today Craig Fosdick, Mike Sipos, and I started up the trail at about 8:30 AM. We reached the HawkWatch site at about 11:00 after climbing 3000 feet in 3.5 miles. The migration started slow but picked up rapidly about 1:00, and at about 2:30 we were treated to an immature Broad-winged Hawk flying past! (Photo above.) Within an hour, amazingly, we had seen two more, and the raptors were passing at a rate of about 100 an hour. The Wellsville Hawkwatch site was on its way to its biggest migration day so far this year. When asked if she thought it was a good day of birding, I overheard Audubon Society member Jean Lown (in white hat, below) say that it was, to paraphrase, "a fabulously amazing day," and long-time Cache County birder Reinhard Jockel said that it was his "best HawkWatch ever!" It was great to have a planned bird actually come to fruition, and especially in the midst of such an amazing spectacle of migration.

26 September 2008

Guided to a Grouse

Today Stephanie and I took a much-deserved day off and headed up Logan Canyon in search of Dusky Grouse. I've spent at least three birding trips looking specifically for this species, only to come up empty-handed. Stephanie took a little bit of pleasure in this, since this is the only species that she's seen in the county this year, but I haven't. But she was still nice enough to lead me to a place near one of her field sites where she's seen them somewhat regularly.

It took us about an hour of wandering up and down the steep forested hillside, but the fall colors alone would have made it worth it, and the Dusky Grouse, which I flushed and then was able to photograph (below), was a welcome bonus.

After the grouse, we went up to Tony Grove to hike towards Naomi Peak in search of White-winged Crossbills and American Three-toed Woodpeckers. We found an American Three-toed Woodpecker just a couple hundred yards from where I found one two years ago, and Stephanie and I both got great looks as it worked its way around a dead tree. On the way down the mountain we also found a Merlin, a species that usually winters here in small numbers. It felt like a warning that winter is coming soon, but with only six birds left to beat the record, I'm ready for some more winter migrants!

22 September 2008

More Migration

Today I birded Hyrum Reservoir in search of Sabine's Gulls. A Sabine's Gull would be a lifer for me, and one that I'm really looking forward to. I did find lots of gulls, including one early juvenile Herring Gull and hundreds, maybe thousands, of Franklin's Gulls, but no Sabine's. However, I did find what appears to be the best shorebird habitat around the county at the moment, at the east end of the reservoir where the Little Bear River flows in and forms mudflats. There, I found several species of shorebirds, including two Pectoral Sandpipers, which I haven't seen since I took Ornithology in New Hampshire in 1999, and three Black-bellied Plovers, a lifer for me. (Two of the Black-bellied Plovers are shown above.) I hesitated as I thought about whether to even continue today, since it's been so long since I had found two new year birds in one day, and I wanted to end on a good note. But I got greedy, and decided to head up to Sherwood Hills Resort, a place Kris Purdy had recommended for Cassin's Vireos in fall migration.

At Sherwood Hills, I started to regret my greed. In the first fifteen minutes, I had not seen or heard a single bird there. Just as I was about to turn back to the car to give up and head home, I heard some Black-capped Chickadees in the distance. Knowing that other species might be associating with the chickadees, I chased them down and found an active mixed flock which included at least two Cassin's Vireos, my target bird! (One of these Cassin's Vireos is shown below.) That made a total of three new year birds for the day, my best day of birding in months!

06 September 2008

An "Easy" Empid

The Pacific-slope Flycatcher's scientific name is Empidonax difficilis, but I think that's a bit unfair because almost all of the flycatchers in the genus Empidonax (commonly known as "Empids") are difficult to identify. Empids are generally very similar, and very unremarkable. That is part of why it was exciting to find a lifer Empid today. Craig Fosdick and I were hiking in High Creek in search of Dusky Grouse. I had seen several of this species on a hike on the same trail on the same day last year, so I thought it would be worth trying the same place again. We didn't find the Dusky Grouse, unfortunately, but we did see many good birds including two migrating Townsend's Warblers, and Craig did a great job of pishing in an angry flock of Mountain Chickadees, including the one shown in the photo above. But the highlight was the Gray Flycatcher. I've been trying to get better at identifying flycatchers in this notoriously difficult genus, but this bird was relatively easy to identify because of its behavior. Empids all flick their tails upwards, except for this species, which wags its tail gently downwards. We did see several other field marks which confirmed the identification, but this slight difference in behavior was the most convincing, allowing me to add another species to my county year list and to my life list.

31 August 2008

The Lifer Before the Storm

I birded around Cache County with Craig Faulhaber today. We started up Deep Canyon in the Wellsville range. Craig Fosdick had seen several Nashville Warblers here last week, and that is a species I had not seen yet in the county. In fact, I'd never seen one before anywhere. Birding was very slow here with a total of eight species in about an hour and a half of hiking, but we did see one Nashville Warbler, a first for both of us.

We next went to the Logan Wetlands, where there were hundreds or maybe even thousands of Franklin's Gulls but nothing unexpected or new for the year. Shorebirds were sparse, with a few Killdeer, a Black-necked Stilt, and a dowitcher that I assume was a Long-billed. On the road to the south of the Logan Landfill, we saw and heard three Blue Grosbeaks, one adult male and two females/immatures. Blue Grosbeaks have been seen several times along this road this year, and the presence of multiple females/immatures may indicate that they successfully bred here. Cache County is further north than their typical breeding range.

We finished for the day at Rendezvous Park and the Logan River Golf Course trail, which was almost eerily quiet. There was a storm approaching and the birds seemed to be hunkered down in preparation. After about a half hour of birding here, and only four bird species, the storm hit and the high winds started knocking branches off the trees. Fearing for our lives (photo at left), we hurried back to the car and ended the day's birding just as the rain starting coming down.