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.