12 December 2010

"My" Mew Gull

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


I've got to admit it, I get jealous sometimes. It's bad enough that birders in southern Utah can find show-stopping species like Vermillion Flycatchers, California Condors, and Phainopeplas almost any day they like. Add to that the propensity for rare birds to show up down there, like the recent Purple Sandpiper, and I can get downright green when I think of my southern neighbors. (Certainly a part of the abundance of rare bird discoveries in southern Utah is due to the great birders that live there.) It is times like these when it pays to remind myself of the good birds of northern Utah, some of which are tough to find elsewhere in the state.

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

Alpine Tundra: Uinta Mountains

Last weekend I went to explore the alpine tundra of Utah's Uinta Mountains with Craig Fosdick and Carl Stiefel. The alpine tundra holds a number of species that are unique to that habitat. In particular, we were in search of White-tailed Ptarmigan, a species none of us had ever seen before.

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.

At the top we saw several alpine tundra specialties. Pikas live in open boulder fields, and have to be among the cutest mammals. The flyover Golden Eagle and Northern Harrier would have gladly taken one as a meal, though. America Pipits were common up top, at about 11,500 ft., and breed here in the summer.

Although the hike was beautiful and included several animals that are only found at high elevations, we never found our target species, the White-tailed Ptarmigan. But that just gives us a reason to go back. (As if we needed one!)

10 July 2010

Hybrid Bunting in Salt Lake City

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

Monterey Slender Salamanders

Slender Salamanders, or Worm Salamanders, are a genus (Batrachoseps) of small, thin salamanders that are found only on the west coast of North America, from Oregon to Mexico. In recent years, the use of genetics has greatly enhanced our understanding of this genus. The more we study them, the more diverse they seem to be.

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

Monterey Bay Pelagic

On my recent trip to California, I was really hoping to be able to take a pelagic bird-watching trip. June is the best time of the year to see albatrosses off the coast of California, and an albatross (of any species) was at the top of my most-wanted list. Unfortunately, it's not a good time for rarer seabirds, so none of the well-known pelagic bird watching companies offer tours in June. It wasn't until we were wandering Fisherman's Wharf on Wednesday that I realized I was overlooking an obvious alternative: joining a whale-watching tour. I wouldn't expect the same level of attention to the birds, but if they were out there, I knew I'd see some, and after two other pelagic trips I figured I could identify most of what I saw.

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

California Specialties

I just returned a week ago from a trip to California. The main purpose of the trip was for scuba diving, but I took some time to hunt down a few birds that are specialties to California.

The first lifer of my trip was a true California specialty, the Allen's Hummingbird. It ranges from southern Oregon to southern California during the summer. This species looks very similar to the Rufous Hummingbird, and an immature like this one couldn't be told apart based on a shot like this. You'd have to look at the shape of the spread tail feathers to be sure. However, during the breeding season range is a reliable indicator, and being found in central California this is certainly an Allen's.

Another species I went in search of was the Oak Titmouse. This is very closely related to the Juniper Titmouse, which is found in Utah, and used to be considered the same species and called the Plain Titmouse. This is the best shot I could manage of this active forager, and obscures the crest that helps distinguish this species from the similar Bushtit.

The California Towhee is found from Oregon to Baja California. It is often found in coastal chaparral and can be common there. This male was singing on his territory in a small city park in the town of Pacific Grove.

Chestnut-backed Chickadees are found from Alaska to California and from the coast to Montana, but they look different here at the southern end of their range, where their flanks tend toward gray instead of the dark rufous they have further north. For example, compare it to the chickadee in this post, from Seattle.

Several other species are widespread along the coast, but rarely or never make it to Utah. The Black Oystercatcher is a unique shorebird that specializes on mollusks in the intertidal from Alaska to Baja. The thick red bill is used to pry open oysters, mussels, and other goodies on the rocks.

Heerman's Gulls are also strictly coastal. They breed mostly around both coasts of Baja California, but wander north when they are not breeding, sometimes as far north as British Columbia. I think they are the most beautiful gull in North America.

Western Gulls also breed in Baja California but their breeding range continues north through California to Washington. In Washington, they hybridize regularly with Glaucous-winged Gulls, forming a hybrid known as an "Olympic Gull." It was neat to see them in an area where most individuals are probably "pure" Westerns, with little introgression of Glaucous-winged genes.

Coming soon: more from California, including herps and pelagic birds.

27 May 2010

A Good Yard Bird

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

Sage-Grouse Expedition

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.

This weekend I joined Ron Ryel and Craig Fosdick for a very early Sunday morning. We left Logan well before 6:00 AM and headed up to Hardware Ranch. From there we hiked up the hillside and eventually made our way to the lek, breathing heavily the whole way and working up quite a sweat despite the below-freezing temperatures. Ron had been to the leks before and was able to guide us right to them.

When we got there, we were not disappointed. We immediately spotted a handful of male Sage-Grouse strutting their stuff on the lek, trying to defend their spots from other males and impress any female that should happen past to choose a mate. As the sun rose over the mountains behind us, the grouse were illuminated and their courtship intensified. Within an hour, we could count a total of 33 different males at four different leks in the area, plus 3 females shopping around. This was more than twice Ron's previous high count in over a dozen years of visiting the leks! It was reassuring to see that, despite a recent decision that the species is "warranted but precluded" from federal listing as a threatened species, they seem to be on the rise if anything in Cache County.

05 January 2010

Seattle Birds

The holidays are the perfect time to visit old friends. At the end of December I was able to return to Seattle, where I grew up, to visit my family and friends who are still in the area. While I was there, I took the time to visit a few old avian friends as well.

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.

One of the ornithological treats of visiting Washington is seeing the coastal species that don't usually occur in Utah. This flock of Brant is a perfect example, a species that lives almost exclusively along the coasts. Once every few years, one gets lost and turns up in Utah among a flock of Canada Geese, but here in Puget Sound they can be found in some numbers every winter.

Speaking of geese, one of my latest points of focus in my birding has been learning the subspecies of Canada and Cackling Geese. This recent split has left a lot of the country realizing how overlooked these geese have been. Travelling to Washington was a good chance to practice my subspecies identification. Here are three Ridgway's Cackling Geese with two Taverner's Cackling Geese (the middle bird and the bird behind it, to our right).

Another favorite of mine is the gulls. Gulls are one of the classic identification challenges in birding, and I love the challenge of sorting through a flock of gulls. This adult Mew Gull was feeding on a mayfly hatch on the shore of Lake Sammamish with Ring-billed Gulls, California Gulls, Glaucous-winged Gulls, and several hybrids. If you click on the photo you might be able to make out the insect about to be grabbed in the larger version of the photo. I have seen Mew Gulls in Utah before, but they are very rare there, and like Brant, are typically a coastal species in winter.

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.