28 June 2011

Vagrant Dickcissel and Birding Slump

Last week, Tony Jones heard a bird singing from the fields behind his house in Farmington; a bird he didn't recognize. It took him three more days to be able to see the bird, and then he was able to identify it as a Dickcissel. Dickcissels are typically an eastern species, so he knew this was a big deal. He sent word to the Utah birding community via the Utah Birders website, and many avid and excited birders soon arrived in his neighborhood to look for the bird. Today, I was one of those birders. I got this photograph, and some audio recordings (which I will share here later).

Only three previous records of Dickcissel have been accepted by the state Bird Records Committee. With the excellent photographs that have already been taken, it is almost certain that this bird will stand as the fourth accepted state record. What a great bird!

The timing of this bird is a bit of a surprise, as most vagrant records of this species, and the majority of vagrant records in general, come during spring or fall migration. This is the time when more birds are moving, and hence more birds are likely to get lost. But the fact that this bird was found in what is ornithologically-speaking the dead of summer supports the old axiom that anything can turn up anywhere. It is always a good time to go birding.

Birders in Utah have submitted fewer records to eBird for the first week of July than for almost any other week of the year (exceeded only by the second week of December). July is typically the start of a mid-summer birding slump. Spring migration is done, and fall migration hasn't picked up yet, so the motivation to go birding, and to enter those records in eBird, declines. But as the recent Dickcissel shows, rare birds can be found in mid-summer, too. And, the distribution and abundance of breeding birds is arguably the most important data that eBird can collect - especially now that the new data input pages allow you to record breeding indicators such as parents carrying food and the presence of fledglings. So don't let July get you down - go birding, and go eBirding. You never know what you might find.

20 June 2011

Red-necked Grebe in Utah

On Saturday I got a call from Bob Atwood that he had just found a Red-necked Grebe at Hyrum Reservoir, about 20 minutes from my house in Logan. I was out of town at the time, but as soon as I got back the next day, yesterday, I headed down to see if I could find it. I set up my spotting scope on the dam where he had found the bird, and saw a tiny speck on the water about a quarter mile out. There were probably lots of other specks on the water, but luck was on my side and the first one I noticed was the target bird, my first Red-necked Grebe in Utah and my first anywhere in breeding plumage.

I drove around to the closest point on the shore to the bird, and couldn't find it. I was afraid it might have flown while I was driving, but it was also swimming pretty fast and I thought it might have just swam out of my view from that point, where trees were on either side of me and I could only see straight out from the shore. I drove back around near the dam, and saw the bird closer to me than I expected, and getting closer to shore. I climbed down the shore and scanned again for the bird. Just when I thought I lost it again, it resurfaced right in front of me! I got a few good shots then, and several more by running down the shoreline each time the grebe dove, and lying still on the rocks ahead of it before it resurfaced.

Red-necked Grebes have been seen several times in Utah, but they are very rare here. There are about a dozen previous records for the state, and most are of immatures or non-breeding adults in the winter. This bird was unique not only because it is so rare, but especially because it was in full breeding plumage. What a great bird!

(Photos copyright Ryan O'Donnell 2011)

08 June 2011

Adventures in Bingham County, Idaho

This year I've taken a part-time job doing bird point counts and other bird surveys for a local consulting company. We're studying the birds that are using the site of a future wind project near Blackfoot, in Bingham County, Idaho. It's been a great job for me because it has given me professional bird experience, it's kept me in the field in a time when my PhD work is all in the office, and it is only every other weekend, so it hasn't interfered too much with my PhD work. The best part, though, is that it has forced me to explore the birds of a rarely birded part of Idaho. (Oh, and I get paid!).

I started off with the goal of seeing 100 species in the county, but then a casual conversation with my friend Craig ended up raising the bar. Craig is going to try to see how many species he can see in Cache County this year (like I did back in 2008). So I made a bet with him that I could see more than half as many birds on my eight or nine work trips to Bingham County as he could in a year in his home county. At stake is a six pack of the winner's favorite beer from the Logan liquor store, plus a little bit of bragging rights.

The record for the most species seen in a year in Cache County is 242. I think if I can see over 120 species in Bingham County, I'll have a very good chance of winning the bet. If I can see over 130, Craig is pretty much sunk. So far, I'm at 108, but there's plenty of easy ones still to find. . . .

These photos are from Bingham County, Idaho. The scenery was photographed at our study site. The Cedar Waxwing was photographed in Blackfoot, and the Cinnamon Teal pair was photographed at American Falls Reservoir, both in Bingham County.

02 June 2011

Urban Mushrooming

The frequent flipping between rain and warm weather has been tough on us Utahns waiting anxiously for summer. But there is one thing it is good for: mushrooms. And you don't need to search deep in the forest for the tastiest wild mushrooms, the kind that will make you want to give up those store-bought buttons. They can even be found in your own yard.

Last week Stephanie and I found a Shaggy Mane (below) on the way home from school, and tonight I found another in the driveway. One mushroom hardly makes a snack, but where there's one there's often more, so we'll keep an eye on the gravel for the next few days. Shaggy Manes are very distinctive, and very safe. There aren't any dangerous mushrooms that really look like them (but don't take my word for it - don't eat any mushroom if you're not sure what it is!). The only catch with Shaggy Manes is the narrow window of opportunity. They grow fast, and go bad fast, turning to an inky gooey black from the bottom of the cap up in just a day or two.

I like to cook Shaggy Manes very simply - I dip them in beaten egg, then fry them in a little butter. That's it. Yum!

Shaggy Manes are well known for preferring disturbed soils like the kind that can easily be found in cities, but they aren't the only urban mushroom that you can eat. We've also recently found and eaten Black Morels, including the one above from the front of a hotel on Main Street. In wetter climates (but not in northern Utah) you can also find Chanterelles and perhaps others in your yard. Take the time to learn your mushrooms, and you could be rewarded with tasty treats from as close as your driveway!

Here are two books I highly recommend if you would like to learn mushrooms: