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.