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.