12 December 2010
One of the most challenging groups of birds to identify are the gulls, which is why I like them so much. I admit it, I'm a lariphile. Getting excited about gulls makes winter birding much more fun, because winter is a great time to find rare gulls. Here in Utah, Ring-billed and California Gulls are by far the most common two species, although either one may greatly outnumber the other depending on your location in the state and the time of year. In winter, Herring Gulls are also pretty easy to find. I would consider any other species of gulls in the winter to be a rarity, although some are more rare than others.
This week I was able to find a rare gull in Logan, in a field north of the landfill and near the Logan Fisheries Experiment Station. Scanning through a flock of about 300 gulls, I saw mostly Ring-billed Gulls, about one California Gull for every ten or twenty Ring-billeds, a couple of Herring Gulls, and one that didn't match any of the other three species. It was slightly smaller than a Ring-billed Gull (our smallest common gull). It had a dark eye, more smudging on the nape than a Ring-billed Gull, a slightly darker mantle, and a short, small yellow bill with only a faint smudge of black. It was a Mew Gull (photo above, bird with wings raised). The white dots at the end of the primaries (black wing feathers) and the lack of black markings on the "wrist" of the wing told me it was an adult, which in this species means it was at least in its fourth winter.
Mew Gulls primarily breed throughout much of Alaska and northwestern Canada, but in the winter they are almost strictly coastal, being found within a few miles of the coast from British Columbia to Baja California. (The photo below was taken in Washington.) They are always a surprise when they turn up in Utah, and perhaps especially so in Cache County, where we tend to have fewer gulls than in the Great Salt Lake area. As of 2007, there was only one other record of a Mew in Cache County, a first-winter bird found by Ron Ryel in 1991. But in the winter of 2007-2008, I found the second county record, another first-winter bird. The next winter, 2008-2009, in almost the same spot, I found a second-winter Mew Gull. I didn't see any Mew Gulls here in the winter of 2009-2010. And now, in the 2010-2011 winter, I found an adult Mew Gull. It seems quite likely to me that this is the same bird, one who got lost in his first winter, was lucky enough to find a patch of warm water and a nearby buffet at the landfill, and has decided to find his (or her) way back to the same spot each winter. So while it's always a surprise to find a Mew Gull in Utah, it might be a little less of a surprise if I find an adult, "my" Mew Gull, at this same place again next winter.
10 December 2010
Some species reach the southern edge of their breeding range in Cache County. One example of this is the Grasshopper Sparrow, which was on the state review list until 2002. The only breeding records in eBird for this species are north of Salt Lake City, and the species is pretty easy to find in Cache County. Another example is the Common Grackle. They are a pest bird in the east, hogging seed from feeders and keeping other birds away, but in most of Utah they can be difficult to locate. We have a few reliable spots for them here in the north.
But this time of year, winter, is when northern Utah really shines. Many of the species that breed in the arctic barely make it this far south in the winter, and so northern Utah is the place to be if you want to see northern birds. We get Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs almost every winter, for example.
Common Redpolls are more likely to be found here than elsewhere in the state. Winter owls are also more likely here: Cache and Rich Counties together have had four of the five Great Grey Owl records in the state, and Cache County has the only record of a Boreal Owl outside of the Uinta Mountains. Last year, Cache County was the winter residence of the first accepted Utah record of an Iceland Gull, and has hosted at least 11 other species of gulls. These are the things I remind myself of as I long for the bright, exotic birds of the southern reaches of the state; I've got plenty to look forward to up here, too.
24 August 2010
We camped at about 9600 ft. elevation, in a stand of Lodgepole Pine. Several mountain species were common here, such as Mountain Chickadees, but I was surprised at how many American Three-toed Woodpeckers we saw - we had at least five at one time!
On Saturday we started early and hiked through more pine forest up into the alpine tundra, where we hoped to find the ptarmigan. On the way up, we heard a couple of Pine Grosbeaks, only the second time I've encountered this species, and saw several Gray Jays, another specialty of high-elevation habitats. We later saw a Northern Goshawk in this same habitat, and I had seen a Northern Flying Squirrel in this habitat the night before. Several Townsend's Warblers were also seen here on their way to their wintering grounds.
10 July 2010
On a recent trip to Salt Lake City, I took a short birding trip in City Creek Canyon, a location that comes up often on the Utah birding listservs. It was neat to see several species whose boundaries seem to be in the short distance between SLC and Logan, like the Western Scrub-Jay, which generally doesn't occur in Cache Valley, and the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, which can be found in Cache County but only with difficulty. But the highlight of this little walk was a unique bird that I had not seen before. The bird looked mostly like an Indigo Bunting, a species that is typical of the eastern US, but which occurs in Utah rarely. Except, unlike a pure Indigo Bunting, it had a white belly. I think that this indicates that my bird was a hybrid of an Indigo Bunting and a Lazuli Bunting, the common bunting of the west. These two species do hybridize with some regularity, and a quick Google search turned up many examples of birds that were similar to the bird I saw. It would have been nice to see a pure Indigo Bunting, a rare species in the state, but it is some consolation that this hybrid combination is probably even more rare!
06 July 2010
There are now about 20 species known in the genus, and most of them have very small ranges. While I was in Monterey last month, I took the opportunity to find two of these narrow endemics.
The Gabilan Mountains Slender Salamander, above, was described as a species in 2001. It is found in only a small part of California. Like all members of the genus, this species captures small insect prey with a projectile tongue. The last photo above shows the habitat where these individuals were found.
The Santa Lucia Mountains Slender Salamander is closely related, and although it is said to be slightly more robust, it may be impossible to distinguish it reliably except by genetics. Fortunately, its range does not overlap with the Gabilan Mountains Slender Salamander, so the species can be identified safely by location. This species is even more narrowly distributed, being found over only about 50 miles of the California coast.
22 June 2010
Thursday morning we took off on one of the whale-watching tours in search of humpback whales, which can be found in Monterey Bay this time of year. The seas were rough, but some drug-store Dramamine did the trick well enough. Several other passengers were either not as well-prepared, or not as lucky. Not too far out, I saw my first lifer of the trip, and one of my most-wanted birds: a small flock of three Marbled Murrelets flushed ahead of us and skittered out of sight to the starboard side. It happened too fast to get a photo. It wasn't much longer before we started seeing Sooty Shearwaters, first one here and one there, and eventually flocks of up to several hundred.
Word came over the radio, which our captain relayed on the PA system, that another tour had found a Humpback Whale a few miles northwest of us. The boat picked up speed and in a few minutes, we had found the other boat, and the whale.
Shearwaters and albatrosses sometimes feed on the same foods as whales, and so where whales are found, seabirds are likely to be as well. This was no exception, and dozens of Sooty Shearwaters and several Black-footed Albatrosses were also cruising around the area. A close pass across the bow by a Black-footed Albatross was probably the highlight of my trip, despite the whale.
We were able to watch the whale as it surfaced twice to catch its breath, but ten or twenty minutes after we arrived, the captain told us that we had to turn back in order to end the three-hour tour on time. On the way back, we were moving with the waves, so the ride felt smoother. We picked up one new pelagic bird on the return trip, a species I have seen before, but not often: a Pink-footed Shearwater.
Although we didn't see as many pelagic bird species as we might have on a trip designed to search for birds, I still had a great time and saw some great birds. I'd recommend hitchhiking on a whale-watching trip as a decent alternative to a birding trip to any coastal visitor who can't adjust their schedule to match that of the few bird-watching trips.
20 June 2010
27 May 2010
Two years ago, my friend Craig and I had a friendly competition to see who could see the most species in the county. Lately, our competitive natures have shifted to our yard lists. As of earlier this week, I'd seen 72 species at or from my yard since I moved here three years ago. That's pretty impressive, but Craig still had me beat by quite a bit, with 79 species from his apartment complex at last count. This week I moved one closer to catching him, and in a dramatic way. I found a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak at my feeder.
The Rose-breasted Grosbeak is common in the eastern US, but only very rarely wanders to the west in migration. Males are distinctive and easy to identify with their black and white plumage and bright red breast, but females are tougher. Some of the traits on this bird that set it apart from the Black-headed Grosbeak are the white breast with crisp brown streaking all the way across the breast (not really visible in this photo) and the pale pink bill with the upper mandible not noticeably darker than the lower one. Let the house list race continue. . . .
19 April 2010
It seems that the gallinaceous birds always make you work for it. You might have already read here about my trek to find Himalayan Snowcocks last fall. And perhaps you read about my attempt to see as many species as possible in one year in Cache County. Despite many attempts, one species I had not yet seen in the county was the Greater Sage-Grouse. The best way to find this species is to hike a mile and a half uphill to one of its historical leks, but you have to arrive before dawn, and you have to know where you're going. Just like the hike for the Snowcocks, the Sage-Grouse make you earn your views.
05 January 2010
Fox Sparrows are common over much of North America, and they can be found near my current home in Utah, especially in the summer. But there is variation among Fox Sparrows, and the subspecies found in Utah is not the same as the one in Washington. This is a Sooty Fox Sparrow I photographed near my parents' house in Issaquah.
A lot of people I talk to who aren't birders know what a chickadee is, but don't realize that we have several species in the U.S. One of my favorites is the Chestnut-backed Chickadee, a resident of mostly coastal forests and to me a strong reminder of the Northwest. This image of a Chestnut-backed Chickadee clinging to Douglas-fir cones seems an almost iconic reminder of my friends and family in Washington and Oregon, and of course of my avian friends there.