10 December 2012

BAS Field Trip: Naked Birding

On Saturday I led a field trip for the Bridgerland Audubon Society, focused on "Naked Birding," that is, birding without the use of binoculars or other optics.  We learned how to identify birds using behavior, calls, and habitat, and how to make the most of what little visual information you can gather at a distance without binoculars.

We started with a walk around the Logan Cemetery, which can be a great place in winter to find birds that are usually more typical of higher elevations or more northern latitudes.  This visit was no exception, and we had a flyover flock of RED CROSSBILLS calling, plus a later lone crossbill that was probably a WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILL (although the "Type 4" Red Crossbill of the Pacific Northwest has a very similar flight call, and can show up in this area in winter).  We also discussed the identification of Black-capped and Mountain Chickadees by voice after hearing some BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEES, and found some RED-BREASTED NUTHATCHES.

From there, we went to First Dam, where we were able to identify some BARROW'S GOLDENEYES and COMMON GOLDENEYES before getting blown away by the strong canyon winds.  We watched two BALD EAGLES flying over the reservoir, including one adult and one sub-adult.  We also discussed how to tell the difference between the wild, native MALLARDS and the introduced "park duck" Mallards, which can look very similar.  The wind was howling, though, so after a few minutes here we decided to move to a more sheltered location.  While we were driving away, one car saw a HOODED MERGANSER from the road.

Our next and final stop was Rendezvous Park and the Logan River Golf Course.  A flock of CANADA GEESE that flew overhead had one CACKLING GOOSE among them, a species that was on the state review list until just last year.  We saw several mixed songbird flocks here, always including BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEES but with various other species in attendance, including a BROWN CREEPER, several DOWNY WOODPECKERS, and one flock of about seven RUBY-CROWNED KINGLETS.  The highlight of the day, however, was a single BEWICK'S WREN that was heard calling several times in one of these flocks.  This is a very rare species for Cache County - there is a credible report of this species in the county only about once every three years, usually in winter.

We will publish the full 2013 field trip calendar in the next month or so, so keep an eye out for that, and in the meantime I'll see you at the Logan Christmas Bird Count next Saturday, December 15th.  Email Bryan Dixon at bdixon@xmission.com to sign up if you haven't already.

09 December 2012

Embedding maps in eBird checklists

The comments field for each species in an eBird checklist allow you to describe the details of your observation, including the points that led to the identification of rare species.   You can also embed photos you took of a bird to help support your identification.  For particularly rare sightings (that are not likely to be disturbed by visitors and in public areas), you might consider also adding detailed directions to a bird so that others can go find it again.

Zachary DeBruine, at birdventurebirding.com, has developed a simple tool that will allow you to add a very specific image from Google Maps detailing the exact location of a bird you have found.  This can be a big help to others that go to look for the bird.  For example, here is the location of the exact Himalayan Blackberry bush at Lytle Ranch where I found a Harris's Sparrow a couple of weeks ago.

Generated by eBirdGM

When this image is embedded in a checklist, it includes a link to the location on Google Maps.  So if you wanted to look for this bird, you could get directions from your house to this specific shrub with just a few clicks!

Here are a few sample checklists with embedded maps:
Harris's Sparrow, Lytle Ranch
Blue Jay, Smithfield
Dickcissel, Farmington
Greater White-fronted Geese, Logan Polishing Ponds

For thorough directions on how to use this tool, and for the tool itself, see eBirdGM.

16 November 2012

St. Paul Island, part 2: Breeding songbirds

In the last installment, I wrote about the variety of birds that breed in the cliffs of St. Paul Island, Alaska, including some very unique species.  Today I'd like to introduce you to the four songbirds that regularly breed on St. Paul. Yup, there's only four!

Among the most common of the breeding songbirds here is the Lapland Longspur.  Lapland Longspurs song sounds a bit like that of the Western Meadowlark, and can be heard from all around during the spring and early summer on the island.

A male Lapland Longspur, one of the most abundant species on the island.  (This and all photos on this post are copyright by the author, Ryan O'Donnell.) 

Another relatively common breeding species on the island is the Snow Bunting.  This species usually nests among rocks, so it is frequently found near the cliffs but also in quarries and other areas where the recent volcanic rocks crop out above the vegetation.  McKay's Buntings have been found in the breeding season on St. Paul Island in the past, but not this year and never in considerable numbers.

A male Snow Bunting guarding his territory at the edge of a boulder field.

A juvenile Snow Bunting, out of the nest for a few days or maybe weeks.

St. Paul Island is also home to an endemic subspecies of Pacific Wren (recently known as Winter Wren).  The Pribilof Pacific Wren is much more common on nearby St. George Island, and has reportedly gone extinct on St. Paul Island and recolonized from St. George (Hanna 1920).  It can be told from most of the mainland birds by its larger size and longer bill.  It is a year-round resident on the island, which is amazing considering that it eats only insects and given the winter conditions there!  Last winter was particularly harsh, and this summer we were only able to find one male on territory on the whole island.

A Pribilof Pacific Wren perched on a lichen-covered rock at the edge of a fur seal colony.

The last of the regularly breeding songbirds is also the most morphologically unique.  The Pribilof subspecies of the Gray-crowned Rosy Finch has a head pattern like the Hepburn's subspecies, but is much larger than the mainland subspecies.  The National Geographic book lists it at 8.25 inches long, only 0.25 inches smaller than a European Starling.  They are sometimes referred to as the "St. Paul House Sparrow" because they nest in the eaves of the buildings in town (as well as natural cavities in rocks, etc., around the island), and there are no real House Sparrows on the island.  

A Pribilof Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch on the makeshift platform seed feeder outside our apartment. 

Another Pribilof subspecies Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch.  Both of these photos show adults, but sexes do not differ in plumage.
Up next from St. Paul Island, Alaska? Well, we'll see. . . . Probably either the last of the breeding birds (shorebirds and waterfowl), or some common migrants.

14 November 2012

Support the Wildlife Conservation Stamp

An immature Sage Thrasher at Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge, Utah, one of the many National Wildlife Refuges that are supported by the Duck Stamp program, and that could be supported further by a new Wildlife Conservation Stamp program.  (Ryan O'Donnell photo)
Most people know about the federal Duck Stamp program, a $15 stamp that is required to be purchased by duck hunters, and is often purchased voluntarily by birders, as a way to support the National Wildlife Refuge system.  A lot of birders buy the stamp, but a lot don't, because these funds are invariably used to show how much consumptive users contribute to wildlife conservation, neglecting the contributions of non-consumptive users.  Accordingly, the vast majority of these funds go to the production of game birds, which birders and other non-consumptive users certainly encourage, but which does not encompass the needs of all wildlife.  A petition has been drafted with the help of the American Birding Association Facebook group that would create a Wildlife Conservation Stamp, that birders, photographers, hikers, and others could voluntarily purchase to support non-game species in the NWR system.  I encourage you to read the brief description and sign the petition to the White House if you would like to see more conservation of non-game species on federal lands.  If the petition reaches 25,000 signatures in one month, the White House will officially respond to the petition.  

11 November 2012

BAS Field Trip: Antelope Island

Yesterday I led a group of seven birders on a field trip to Antelope Island for the Bridgerland Audubon Society.  This was a good turnout considering the weather: our first big snowstorm of the season had arrived the day before, and there were several inches of fresh snow on the ground and more was predicted for the rest of the morning.  Temperatures were predicted to reach highs just below freezing.  Even while meeting in the parking lot, though, our efforts were already being rewarded: a flock of about 8 EVENING GROSBEAKS flew overhead while we were waiting to depart.

The roads were not too bad, and before not too long we arrived at the Antelope Island Causeway and saw the first effects of the shifting weather on the birds: the storm had pushed hundreds of LEAST SANDPIPERS to the causeway.  By counting a small group and estimating how many groups that size we saw along the causeway, we estimated 500-700 Least Sandpipers.  According to eBird, this is the highest single checklist count of this species in Utah since a 1974 count at Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge. Among the Least Sandpipers we were able to pick out one WESTERN SANDPIPER, three GREATER YELLOWLEGS, and several hundred KILLDEER. We learned to identify the common GULLS of the area, and saw four species: RING-BILLED, CALIFORNIA, BONAPARTE'S, and HERRING. One GREAT HORNED OWL perched on the snow near the causeway was a highlight for the group.

A Great Horned Owl perched on the snow along the Antelope Island Causeway.  Ryan O'Donnell photo.
One of the big draws of Antelope Island is the chance of spotting rare vagrant ducks, and as usual, the famous second bridge didn't disappoint.  A HARLEQUIN DUCK was first found along the causeway about three weeks ago, and continued for us.  We were also able to find three SURF SCOTERS at the same location.

A Harlequin Duck continued to oblige along the Antelope Island Causeway.  Ryan O'Donnell photo.

Three Surf Scoters pose together nicely for a photo, with a Lesser Scaup in the background.  Ryan O'Donnell photo.
On the island itself, we started by driving up to the visitor's center for a bathroom break, but before we could make it there we found another rare bird for this time of year, a SAGE SPARROW.  We had brief looks at this bird up on top of a shrub before it dropped back down into the vegetation.

A late Sage Sparrow that should be migrating south soon.  Ryan O'Donnell photo.
At the visitor's center, the feeders gave us close looks at a DARK-EYED JUNCO, a CALIFORNIA QUAIL, and several CHUKAR.

A California Quail and a Chukar wait for their turn at the bird feeder at the Antelope Island Visitor's Center.  Ryan O'Donnell photo.

As we drove down the island towards historic Garr Ranch, we saw several more raptors, including ROUGH-LEGGED HAWKS and RED-TAILED HAWKS, and had a brief look at an unidentified SHRIKE.  We also added to our mammal list, with a COYOTE, many BISON, and very close looks at a herd of PRONGHORN.

A Pronghorn, part of a herd that blocked the road for a little while on our way out to Garr Ranch.  Ryan O'Donnell photo.
At Garr Ranch itself, we worked the trees around the spring and another pond to the south pretty thoroughly.  One of the first good birds here was a NORTHERN GOSHAWK right around the spring.  This species is very rare at Antelope Island - according to eBird this is only the second record for the park.  

An immature Northern Goshawk at Garr Ranch.  Mike Fish photo, used with permission.
Other raptors in the area included a RED-TAILED HAWK, an adult COOPER'S HAWK, a NORTHERN HARRIER, and this GREAT HORNED OWL, our second of the day.

Great Horned Owl at Garr Ranch.  Ryan O'Donnell photo.

The park ranger led us down to another small clump of Russian Olive trees where a very large MULE DEER buck had been hanging out.

A very large Mule Deer buck guards his harem at Garr Ranch.  Ryan O'Donnell photo.
Garr Ranch is famous as a migrant trap, a place where lost birds tend to show up when they get blown or wander off course.  We didn't find any great vagrants when we were there, but we did get some great looks at some common species, including this HERMIT THRUSH, and one out-of-season BROWN-HEADED COWBIRD.

One of two Hermit Thrushes at Garr Ranch.  This individual is pretty red, and I wonder if it might be in the eastern/northern subspecies group, rather than one of our local breeders.  Ryan O'Donnell photo.

A late Brown-headed Cowbird, or should I say "Brown-headed Horsebird?," found a warm place to perch in the snow at Garr Ranch.  Ryan O'Donnell photo.
Finally, before leaving the ranch, we checked the silo for BARN OWLS and came up with one.  Or, the wingtips and tail of one, at least!

"It counts."  These weren't the best looks one could hope for at a Barn Owl, but the wingtips and tail are distinctive enough to identify the bird.  Ryan O'Donnell photo.
We ended the trip at Garr Ranch, but had a few more sightings on the way back to Logan, including three or four COYOTES, a couple of PORCUPINES, and a LOGGERHEAD SHRIKE.  

Join us for our next trip, on December 8th, and for the Logan Christmas Bird Count on December 15th.  See our website for details on this and all future trips, and contact Bryan Dixon to sign up for the Christmas Bird Count at bdixon@xmission.com.

Here are links to the complete eBird checklists from our trip, including a few bonus photos:

06 November 2012

Go vote!

Don't forget to exercise your civic duty today, and keep the birds in mind while you do!

04 November 2012

St. Paul Island, part 1: Cliff-nesting birds

Two birders view the nesting alcids on the cliffs of St. Paul Island, Alaska.  (This and all photos in this post are copyrighted by the author, Ryan O'Donnell.)
This summer I had the great pleasure of working as a guide on St. Paul Island, Alaska.  This 14-mile long island in the middle of the Bering Sea is a mecca for birders looking for rare birds from Asia, especially birders who keep a North American or American Birding Association Area list.  But this island also draws birders from around the world for its unique collection of regularly breeding birds.

Most of the birds that breed on the island use cliffs, like the ones shown above, for breeding sites.  Some of these are widespread species, like Common Murres and Thick-billed Murres.  Many of the smaller alcids here are unique to the Bering Sea region, like Parakeet Auklets, Least Auklets, and Crested Auklets.  Another big draw, especially for photographers, is the puffins: both Horned Puffins and Tufted Puffins nest on the island.  

A Common Murre on the cliffs of St. Paul Island.  Despite the name, Common Murres are somewhat less common than Thick-billed Murres here, although they are still easily seen throughout the breeding season.

Thick-billed Murres are the more common of the two murre species breeding on St. Paul Island.  One way to distinguish them is by the bright white gape line, which is lacking in Common Murres.

Two Thick-billed Murres attend their single egg.  Murres don't build nests; they lay their single egg directly on a small little ledge on a cliff.

A pair of Parakeet Auklets on a cliff.  The clump of vegetation under the bird on the right looks like a nest, but it is not.  This species nests in cracks and crevices in the cliff wall.

Another Parakeet Auklet, this time framed by some of the Nootka Lupine that is abundant on the island.

One of the cutest birds in the world, a Least Auklet.  This species usually nests among piles of boulders at the base of cliffs or other areas, but sometimes also nests among the cracks in the cliff.

The distinctive Crested Auklet, probably the least abundant of the nesting alcids on St. Paul Island, but still easily found on almost any day in the breeding season.

A Tufted Puffin lands at the cliffs with some nesting material.  Both species of puffins on the island nest in burrows in or around the cliffs.

Another Tufted Puffin, among the most charismatic of the birds on the island.

A Horned Puffin in flight past the cliffs.  People often wonder why they are called "horned" until they get close enough to see the small black lines above the eyes are actually little fleshy horns that stick up above the head.

A pair of Horned Puffins at the entrance to their nesting burrow near the top of one of the cliffs.
 Two other unique groups of birds use the cliffs for nesting, the cormorants and the kittiwakes.  Cormorants include the relatively widespread Pelagic Cormorant, and also the Bering Sea endemic Red-faced Cormorant.  Both species have some red on their faces, so the best way to tell them apart, even at a distance, is by the pale bill and relatively thicker head and neck of the Red-faced Cormorant.

The two breeding cormorant species on St. Paul, a Red-faced Cormorant at left and a Pelagic Cormorant at right.

Red-faced Cormorant, endemic to the Bering Sea area.
Finally, we have two species of kittiwakes that nest on St. Paul.  Black-legged Kittiwakes are by far the most abundant.  They are a circumboreal species, found around the northern oceans.  Red-legged Kittiwakes, in contrast, nest in only four areas around the Bering Sea.  They are high on the wish list of many birders that visit the island.  Black-legged Kittiwakes outnumber Red-legged on St. Paul by maybe 10 or 20 to one, but Red-leggeds can still be seen easily on any day in the breeding season.

A Black-legged Kittiwake adult and nestling. 

Large flocks of Black-legged Kittiwakes can be seen around the island, particularly at many of the small freshwater lakes like this one, appropriately called "Kittiwake Lake" where the kittiwakes gather to bathe.

Two Red-legged Kittiwake nests.  Red-legged Kittiwakes generally prefer higher breeding sites among the cliffs, so on St. Paul you usually have to hike to the highest cliffs, about 400 ft. above sea level, to see their nests.

A Red-legged Kittiwake in flight.  When the red legs dangle, they are easy to identify, but Red-legged and Black-legged Kittiwakes can still be identified in flight when their legs are tucked up into their feathers.

One of the coolest gulls in the world, in my opinion: a striking Red-legged Kittiwake.
Coming soon: a post on the other breeding birds of St. Paul Island, those that breed away from the cliffs.

08 June 2012

Where are the updates from St. Paul?

It's been a busy first month on St. Paul Island, Alaska!  I intended to be updating this blog regularly, but I just haven't been able to make the time.  For the time being, I'll refer you to my Flickr set from the island.  There will be less narration and summary there, but if you're anxious to learn about what I've been seeing on the island, it will give you a preview until I can get some blog posts up!

Pribilof Island subspecies of Rock Sandpiper

07 April 2012

The Next Great Adventure: 3.5 Months in the Pribilofs

I recently accepted a summer job working as a tour guide, mostly for birders, on St. Paul Island in the Pribilofs!  This will be an amazing experience, and a nice paid "vacation" (although I'll be working a lot of hours), before I start a real career in the fall.

The Pribilofs are a small cluster of islands in the Bering Sea, between Alaska and Russia.  They are less than 200 miles from Russian waters and about as close to Russia as they are to Anchorage.  The Pribilofs are a popular destination for birders, for two reasons.  First, there are a lot of north Pacific/Bering Sea species that can only be seen in this area.  For example, Red-faced Cormorants, Steller's Eiders, Least Auklets, Crested Auklets, Parakeet Auklets, Thick-billed Murres, Tufted Puffins, Horned Puffins, Red-legged Kittiwakes, and McCay's Buntings all breed here.  Second, because the islands are so remote and so close to Asia, they are a likely spot to find lost Asian birds.  This is a big deal for North American birders who are trying to build their life lists, especially for those who are concerned with their American Birding Association (ABA), North American, or United States lists.  Some of the more regular Asian vagrants on these islands include Gray-tailed Tattler, Wood Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Slaty-backed Gull, and Eastern Yellow Wagtail.  But perhaps the biggest draw are the rarest birds: tours in previous years have found Brown Hawk-Owl, Gray Heron, Chinese Pond-Heron, Eurasian Hobby, Spotted Redshank, Great Knot, Solitary Snipe, Oriental Cuckoo, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Rufous-tailed Robin, Oriental Greenfinch, Hawfinch, and many more very rare species for North America, and you never know what might turn up here next.  To see the complete list, click here.

If birds aren't your thing, there's still plenty to see on the island.  The Pribilofs were once known as the "Seal Islands" because of the large colonies of Northern Fur Seals that breed there.  Walruses can be seen here, more rarely.  A feral herd of reindeer now roam the island.  The Pribilof Island Shrew lives only on St. Paul Island, where I'll be, and nowhere else in the world.  There is an island subspecies of Arctic Fox that is very common there.

If you are interested in visiting the island, you can go with any of several tour companies, but I'll be working for St. Paul Island Tours.  I hope to see you there!

Parakeet Auklets on St. Paul Island, in the Pribilofs.  Parakeet Auklets are one of the specialty species of the Bering Sea and they can be seen breeding on the cliffs around the island.  Photo by Francesco Veronesi and available through Creative Commons license.
Arctic Fox pup on St. Paul Island.  These adorable canids are common throughout the island.  Photo by "im me" and available through Creative Commons license.
Brown Hawk-Owl, photographed somewhere in Asia.  A Brown Hawk-Owl found on St. Paul Island in 2007 was the first record for North America.  Photo by Andy Li and available through Creative Commons license.

20 February 2012

Mexican Duck in Utah

Mexican Duck, Anas (platyrhynchos) diazi, at First Dam, Logan, Utah.  Copyright Ryan P. O'Donnell.  
If you follow Utah Birdtalk/Birdnet, you already know that on February 5th, about two weeks ago, my friend Craig Fosdick found a very interesting duck at First Dam in Logan, Utah.  It was a Mexican Duck; probably the northernmost record of the species, and only the third from Utah.  Mexican Ducks are easy to overlook, and many readers of this blog might have never heard of one before.  Even the experienced birders Craig was with at the time hardly gave this unique vagrant a second look.

First, what is a Mexican Duck?  That question is not easy to answer.  According to the American Birding Association and the American Ornithologists Union, it is a subspecies of Mallard.  But that view is considered by some to be antiquated and inaccurate.  Recent genetic work has shown that the Mexican Duck may actually be its own species, and it is at least as unique as several other species such as the Laysan Duck and the Mottled Duck.  The picture is complicated, however, because Mallards contain several genetic lineages, and thus to have species boundaries that reflect mitochondrial gene phylogenies, one would either have to split Mallards based on strictly genetics, or else consider "Mallards" to include Laysan Ducks, American Black Ducks, Mottled Ducks, and many others, which obviously does not reflect biology well.  This is an area that is in need of additional research, particularly in generating phylogenies and assessing hybridization with nuclear molecular markers.

Phylogeny of Mallard-group ducks, modified from Johnson and Sorenson 1999, based on mitochondrial DNA sequences.  Note that Mallards appear twice here, having (at least) two different mitochondrial sequences.  Also note that Mexican Ducks are as distinct from Mallards as many other groups that we know of as species.

The definition of species within the Mallard group is confusing, but perhaps even more so in the case of Mexican Ducks, because our understanding of this species is clouded by hybridization with Mallards in Arizona and New Mexico.  A classic study of morphology in Mexican Ducks found that there are virtually no pure Mexican Ducks anywhere in the species range, according to a numerical scale of morphology that ranges from pure Mexican Duck to pure Mallard.  However, an alternative interpretation of the same dataset is that our definition of what identifies a pure Mexican Duck is too narrow, and that pure Mexican Ducks can show traits that have once been taken to be indicative of Mallards.

With respect to the duck seen as recently as yesterday in Logan, this appears about as close to a pure Mexican Duck as one can expect at the northern part of the range of the (sub)species.  There is very little green on the head.  The bill is bright yellow.  The tail shows no patches of white.  The speculum has green iridescence, and is bordered only thinly by white.  The rump and undertail coverts match the flanks well in color, showing no obvious indication of the black that a male Mallard has in these areas.  The belly is dark, matching the color of the rest of the bird well.  The only part that seems to show some obvious Mallard ancestry is that the central retrices (tail feathers) curl up slightly off the plane of the tail, hinting at the curled central tail feathers of an adult male Mallard.  But, with how little we know of "pure" Mexican Ducks, perhaps this is not outside the range of variation shown by them?  Only an extensive study of morphological variation and nuclear DNA across the range of the Mexican Duck and Mallard can really address this question well.

The Mexican Duck looks a lot like a female Mallard, but darker and (in a male, such as this one) with a bright yellow bill.  Copyright Ryan P. O'Donnell.
The Mexican Duck's speculum has more of a green iridiscence, compared to the purple of a Mallard's, although the color varies somewhat with the angle of view.  Also note here how, unlike a male Mallard, the rump is about the same color as the flanks and the tail is dark, without white.  Copyright Ryan P. O'Donnell.

Unlike a Mallard, the lower belly is not noticeably paler than the flanks or breast.  The bright white underwing coverts are a trait shared by male Mexican Ducks and male Mallards.  Copyright Ryan P. O'Donnell.

This angle can be tough to see in the field, but it shows how the back of the Mexican Duck is generally dark, and the speculum is only thinly bordered by white, not boldly bordered by white like a Mallard's speculum.  Note that at this angle the speculum looks more purple than green, like a Mallard's.  Copyright Ryan P. O'Donnell.
As rare birds go, this individual might be pretty easy to find.  It has been seen over the last two weeks at First Dam in Logan.  Watch for a duck that looks a bit like a female Mallard, but is darker and has a bright yellow bill.  While I don't advocate feeding park ducks, it is a common practice at this park, and if you happen to time your visit when a local is feeding them, this duck might come right out in the open and fight with the other local domestic breeds for bread.  Otherwise, you might get lucky and see it swimming around on the water, or it might be sleeping on the far shore of the lake.  If it's not out in the open when you get there, try patiently scanning the sleeping ducks along the shoreline.

The Mexican Duck being seen at Logan's First Dam seems to have paired up with a female Mallard.  Note in this view how this Mexican Duck's central retrices lift slightly off the others, perhaps indicating a small amount of Mallard heritage.  Copyright Ryan P. O'Donnell.