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!