29 January 2008

Dealing with Spuhs

All birders know that not every bird is identifiable. Sometimes you just can't get a good enough look to be sure what it is, or even when you can get a good look, the bird might be a hybrid or otherwise intermediate between two species. These unidentified birds are sometimes called "spuhs." This comes from the abbreviation "sp." for "species," as it was originally used with latin names. For example, "Buteo sp." indicates a hawk that is known to be in the genus Buteo, but it is uncertain which species it is.

Usually unidentified birds are just dismissed - there are plenty more birds that can be identified with certainty. However, when you're doing a listing project like this, it can be important to count every bird. So I've decided to articulate my policy for dealing with spuhs here. I will include spuhs in my species total until I see another bird that could possibly be the same species as the unidentified bird. For example, on the 19th of January I saw a bird that I know certainly was a jay, but I didn't see it well enough to be 100% certain which species. If by the end of the year, I have seen 199 identified species (none of which are jays) and one unidentified jay, then this species will count as number 200. However, as soon as I see another jay that I CAN identify, this spuh disappears from the list because there is a chance that the two birds were of the same species. Therefore, as of today I have seen 83 species: the 81 species listed to the right, plus a jay sp. and a grackle sp. (Spuhs will not be listed in my species list while the list is in progress.) I expect I will be able to find at least one identifiable jay and at least one identifiable grackle, so these uncertain IDs will most likely be absorbed into other, more certain ones by the end of the year.

27 January 2008

Two Lifers in One Flock

Today Stephanie Cobbold and I birded around Cache Valley. Three new birds today included my first Prairie Falcon of the year, spotted by Stephanie flying over the Willow Park Zoo, my first Ring-billed Gulls of the year, at the Fish Hatchery, and my first Wood Ducks of the year, a pair at the 20-20 ponds. But the highlight was certainly a flock of 400+ Horned Larks which included about 30 Lapland Longspurs, 10 Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches, and at least 2 Snow Buntings. This one flock made for my best day of birding in quite a while. Both the Snow Buntings and the Rosy-Finches were lifers which I have been looking for for years, and so they were also on my list of top five most wanted birds (see the revised list to the right). It almost felt like a waste because I would have been so excited about seeing either one that I wish they had been on separate days to spread it out! I took some photos but the birds were so far away that you can't really tell what they are in the photos. (I forgot to bring my point-and-shoot for digiscoping.) Instead, I've included a photo of a Rough-legged Hawk today.

25 January 2008

Squeezing in a Shrike

I finished some errands this afternoon at 5:00 and decided to use the last half hour of daylight to try for some more birds. I did a quick loop around the Logan Landfill, including past the Logan Fish Hatchery, to try once again to find a Northern Shrike. This is one of the few remaining species that I know are present in the county right now and which will not be here in a few months, so it was a priority to find this species before it migrated north and out of the county. As I was pishing at some White-crowned Sparrows, hoping for something else (like a White-throated Sparrow), a shrike flew in. The way it was positioned in the shrub provided very poor looks, and it soon took off. Although Loggerhead Shrikes are even rarer this time of year, I didn't get a good enough look to rule that species out. However, after just a minute or so, the same bird flew back closer to me and landed in a nearby tree, giving me great looks at this first-winter Northern Shrike, my first of the year. I even got a few poor photographs in the waning light, but they aren't clear enough and the bird isn't rare enough to bother you with them here.

21 January 2008

Birding from Home

This morning John Weiss and I tried unsuccessfully to find the Northern Shrike that Craig Fosdick saw out in the valley yesterday. However, I still managed to get a new year bird today, despite spending the rest of the day working at home. I finally saw Pine Siskins at my feeder (upper left bird in the photo, with American Goldfinches and a Dark-eyed Junco), a species that should have been easy to find but which I somehow had missed until now.

20 January 2008

Lapland Longspurs, etc.

I've been searching flocks of Horned Larks for Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs periodically for years and for several hours a week since the new year with no luck. Today my effort finally paid off, when I found my lifer Lapland Longspurs - two of them - in a flock of Horned Larks near the Benson Marina.

I also saw my first Golden Eagle of the year as a beautiful adult flew low over my car in the west side of Cache Valley, and my first Eurasian Collared-doves in Newton. I tried to photograph the doves, but just as I was focusing a Red-tailed Hawk flew over and spooked them.

Tundra Swans and My New Camera

Today I birded with Stephanie Cobbold and Sarah Mohlman. We started with one more attempt for Craig Fosdick's White-throated Sparrow, which I missed again. I think I'm giving up on this bird. It is supposed to be hanging out in an area pretty close to my house, so I keep going back for it, but I think this was my fifth failed attempt, which is getting ridiculous.
Next we went to the 20-20 ponds, where I added my only new bird of the day, a small family of Tundra Swans. We saw a bunch of other cool birds here, including two Bald Eagles, a Sharp-shinned Hawk being mobbed by Brewer's Blackbirds, and Sarah's lifer Canvasbacks. After the ponds, we drove around the valley a bit, from Mendon to Benson, primarily on the lookout for Horned Lark flocks. We found about five different flocks with an average of about 20 birds each, but couldn't find anything other than Horned Larks in the flocks. I also photographed the Western Meadowlark above while we were searching for Horned Larks.

Finally, we drove up Logan Canyon to try for a Winter Wren where we had looked on the January 1st trip. We saw Townsend's Solitaire, American Dipper, and Common Goldeneyes here, but no wrens. I also got a poor look at a jay flying away, but I wasn't able to relocate it when it landed and from the looks I got I couldn't be certain what species it was, although I suspect it was a Steller's Jay. It's too bad I missed that bird, because I don't have any jays yet this year, but on the other hand I am not too worried about finding them later.

10 January 2008

New Camera

I've been locked indoors away from birds for the last week due to a horrible flu (or something) that really incapacitated me. I literally have not seen a bird in almost a week - I haven't even ventured as far as a window, and on my one trip outdoors to go to the doctor I was focusing too much on staying standing to even notice a house sparrow. Two bits of good news have come of this: first, I'm almost well enough to leave the house again, so I hope to add some new birds to the list this weekend. And second, as I was at home recovering yesterday I finally went ahead and bought the new camera I've been dreaming about for the last three years. It is a Nikon D80.

Ever since I bought a digital point-and-shoot camera in 2004 I have not touched my beautiful film SLR, a Nikon F100. I just couldn't stand to pay for the processing of pictures when I didn't even really know what they would look like. But I also couldn't quite bring myself to sell off the film camera, so I've only been shooting a point-and-shoot for the last several years. Now, I've sold the film SLR and bought a digital one (should be in the mail today), so I can re-enter the world of serious photography! That means you can look forward to better pictures on here, I hope, and fewer digiscoped blurs!

03 January 2008

Cleaning up

Today I took a short trip in the morning and a short trip in the evening to try to see some of the birds that I missed on the January 1st trip. The first stop was the Logan Fish Hatchery, where Mo Correll and Craig Fosdick joined me in trying to find the Short-billed Dowitcher that had been reported there. I thought I had seen it on the 1st, but I wasn't sure enough to count it. This morning the air was bitterly cold, about 1 degree F, and the warm springs where the dowitcher had been seen were steaming so intensely this morning that it made it hard to see the birds before we spooked them. Eventually we decided that we had either spooked the dowitcher or that it wasn't there to begin with. Just as we were turning to return to the car, I saw two grackles fly over, which Mo and Craig also saw. It was a nice consolation prize for missing the dowitcher! Unfortunately, we could not be 100% confident in which species of grackle these were, common or great-tailed, so for now they will not be added to my list.

In the evening, I tried yet again for the dowitcher, and I was finally successful. I even got some poor digiscoped photos to show for it!

I had another half hour or so left of daylight, so I decided to try to find a Short-eared Owl at the Logan Airport. I not only found the owl in the last few minutes of daylight, but I also saw my first Cooper's Hawk of the year on my way there.

01 January 2008

Day One - Audubon 200 Club Kickoff

Every year, the Bridgerland Audubon Society leads a field trip on January 1st so that people who are trying for the 200 Club can get a good start on the first day of the year. Today I joined that trip and we found some great birds!

I couldn't sleep at all last night so at about 5:30AM I finally gave up and decided to start my birding for the year. I tried broadcasting owl calls in Green Canyon and Logan Canyon, but I didn't get any responses. On my way back to meet for the field trip, I stopped by the Logan Cemetery, where I found several bird species including a Brown Creeper.

The highlights for the Audubon field trip fell into two categories: boreal migrants that only occur in the county during the winter and birds that are more or less common in other times of the year, but which do not usually occur here in the winter. The winter migrants we saw included Bohemian Waxwings, American Tree Sparrows, Merlins, and Barrow's Goldeneye. Most of the birds that usually don't overwinter here were first located on the Christmas Bird Count a couple weeks ago, and included a Great Egret and a Greater Yellowlegs.

Notable misses included a White-throated Sparrow that Craig Fosdick and I could not relocate and a Short-billed Dowitcher that was seen on the CBC and earlier this morning, but which I could not find in my two visits to the area. In total, I ended up with 60 species for my list, a great start at 30% of the goal in a single day! But of course, the more species I've seen, the more difficult it will be to add new ones to the list. . . .