Archive for the ‘chasing’ Category

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Brushes With Greatness: the Snowy Owl

January 17, 2010

On Monday the 11th I left the house at 4 am and made the 2 1/2 hour drive from Fort Collins down to El Paso County, to search for the recently reported Snowy Owl that had been seen frequently in a subdivision northwest of Falcon, CO the day before. I was not sure of my prospects, knowing that this species can be quite hard to chase because of their nomadic qualities. Nonetheless, I felt that leaving so early would give me the best chances of seeing it if it were anywhere in the area.

I had wondered what the feeding habits were of the Snowy Owl, if these birds hunted at night. If they did, I felt like my chances were reduced, as the bird would likely forage away from this accessible area and head towards who-knows-where. My book “North American Owls” by Paul Johnsgard made no mention of their foraging styles, and the Birds of North America Online entry for Snowy Owl plainly states that it is “[n]ot known if these owls hunt at night, or even by moonlight, during winter darkness.” Fascinating – and this is in fact typical of a fair number of species even here in North America, in that there is still a lot we don’t know about how birds actually live.

I arrived at the subdivision (which I later learned is technically part of Peyton) around 6:40am. The eastern horizon was getting light, and I began my search in earnest. My plan was to go to the western portion of the network of accessible roads and scan the rooftops and antennas for large birds perch atop them, and hope to find silhouettes while scanning with my spotting scope. To my utter amazement my plan worked brilliantly, as I found a suspicious-looking character on a chimney/stovepipe vent some distance away within just 5 minutes. He didn’t stay put for long, but he also didn’t go far, as after a few minutes watching it became apparent that what he was doing was moving around from one perch to the next trying to improve his vantage points for finding prey in the open grassy fields surrounding the widely-spaced homes.

Eventually he found a nice TV antenna to search from.

After I took this shot, he launched again into a distant field, and for a moment I lost track of him. But he emerged again a minute later, and as I followed his flight in the scope I could see that he had something underfoot. I never got a clear look at it, but it was fairly large and dark, like a rat perhaps. That’s all I could tell as I watched him start to tear into it from quite a distance. The light was increasing, and I set up my rig for digiscoping, which I hadn’t tried doing for nearly two years. I hoped that I could just remember how to do it!

The light grew brighter as the sun finally peeked up from the horizon. I realized I could probably swing around and get a better-lit vantage point, and perhaps be a little closer. These digiscoped shots were made from about 250 yards if I had to guess, in very suboptimal light.

These next shots were made from the other side of the cul-de-sac, and the bird is in the same spot as before. I snapped about 2 or 3 dozen digiscoped shots, the vast majority of which were blurry. I blame the camera for most of that, but user error certainly played a part too. Still, a couple images came out ok. This time I was closer, and I estimate the range of these shots to be around 75-100 yards.

The next photo was taken with my handheld SLR and gives you an idea of what the actual distance between me and the bird was. This is fully zoomed out (300mm).

The bird had stayed put in this spot for over 40 minutes. Apparently after eating that large rat, he was fat and happy, and just digesting. A few other birders had arrived and all got terrific looks and photos from here as well. Finally, the bird flew a bit further westward to another grassy spot closer to a house and the road, and the several of us scooted the couple hundred yards along to follow. He perched with a residence in view behind him, which belonged to a fellow who later emailed me and asked for a copy of some of my photos.

At this point my remote shutter-release for my digiscope camera (an ancient Nikon Coolpix 995) had stopped working presumably due to the cold, so the only way I could take steady pictures with it was to use the timer. And that worked fine, although it also meant waiting 10 seconds every time I snapped a picture, and also not knowing where the bird would be looking when I snapped it. But then, as is the case with digital under any circumstance, just snap the hell out of it and see what comes out. Eventually I got a couple real winners:

After a few minutes here the bird flew across the road and into the field just south of us. It was quite a bit further away and in poor light, so my bird photography was done for the day. I needed to head back north to Fort Collins anyway, but I was thrilled about having seen this lovely animal under good light and mild weather. Here was the birder scene as of 8:30am:

The last photo actually has the bird in it too – you might zoom in though. Look for the small white dot in the middle of the field.

Heading back was the happiest 2+ hour drive I’ve had in quite a while. Not even the Denver traffic got me down. How many of those schlubs on I-25 had seen a Snowy Owl that morning? Not many, not many at all.
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Varied Thrush rush

December 20, 2006

I drove out to Crow Valley campground today, having heard about a Varied Thrush that has been seen there the past couple days. Things are pretty quiet at the campground – the gate is shut, and I was the only human there. In spite of that (or perhaps because of it?) I was able to find the bird hanging out with some thrush pals (robins and solitaires) near the picnic area in just a few minutes. Here are a few views of it.







Varied Thrush is pretty rare in Colorado, and this was my first one here. It’s one of favorite birds though – very handsome, like a Robin that got tired of its plain look and decided to sport a necktie or a vest.

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500 miles. 1 bird.

September 28, 2006

Yesterday I made a trip down to Cañon City to see the Common Black-Hawk that’s been reported frequently over the past few weeks. I’ve only seen one of this species before, in Costa Rica about 4 years ago, so I was eager to see another and to see it here in North America. The bird has been hanging out along the Arkansas River near the Mackenzie Avenue bridge (SeEtta Moss at SEColoradoBirding blog describes the situation in detail here). There’d also been Black Phoebes seen in the area too, and those weren’t yet on my Colorado State Life list.

And if that weren’t enough, there had also been a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher reported about 30 miles east of Pueblo, at the Otero/Pueblo county line. I had visions of having another terrific Colorado birding day like the one I had several months ago, so I set out at 4:50am to make it happen. One wrinkle though – I had to pick up my brother-in-law from the Denver Airport around 2pm, so I had to be efficient and see the birds in a timely manner if I was to get them all in, especially considering the driving involved. In other words, I needed to go 120 miles to Colorado Springs, go another 40 miles to either Cañon City or Pueblo first, and get to both the Pueblo County line (far eastern Pueblo county) AND to Cañon City (in Fremont County, 50-60 miles west of there. Either way was going to be tons of driving.

I made a decision to look for the STFL first. It took 3 hours total driving to get there, and I realized that I really only had about 20-30 minutes to look for the bird before I had to leave, if I wanted to get to the Black-Hawk spot by 10am or so. It was a calculated risk, but having had success finding a STFL last May in Arizona in a short time (hey, I haven’t talked about that trip yet, have I? That’s a story in itself), and knowing that the bird was seen in a very limited area, and that it should be easy to spot if it’s anywhere nearby, I thought it would be worth it. Well, in the end it wasn’t, because the bird was nowhere to be found. By 8:40am I was back on the road steaming toward Cañon City, hoping to get there before 10.

I made it, but it was feeling late in the morning, like I’d missed the bird already. Apparently many have seen the bird around that time, so realistically it was as good a time to be looking as any. But there weren’t any other birders around, so I couldn’t help but think that the Black-Hawk train had left the station. In 2+ hours I did actually see the Black Phoebe, which is a great bird for Colorado of course, and even a Western Tanager flew by. But no Black-Hawk showed up, and in general the area was very quiet, except of course for the lumbering cement trucks crossing the bridge every couple minutes. By 12:20, I had to leave, and drive 100 miles or so to the airport, and from there, another 55+ miles back to Fort Collins.

So when all was said and done, I’d bagged one new state bird, and dipped on two others. Nearly 500 miles of driving, and $30+ dollars in gas. That’s pretty nuts, isn’t it? Especially since I’m already thinking of trying again next week!


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Yellow-throated Vireo

May 10, 2006

I got a call from a friend this morning telling me about a Yellow-throated Vireo that she found in Lee Martinez Park in downtown Fort Collins. Oooo, another lifer opportunity, I thought. So I jammed down there, and with the help of another fellow, I was able to find the bird real quick-like.

A very handsome bird, singing sporadically and sounding much like his “Solitary Vireo” cousins. I don’t always get these kind of gratifying chase results, and I’m thrilled to also get a decent photo of it. My blog probably makes it seem like I get plenty of good photos from my birding experiences, but that’s misleading – I often post the successes, and (obviously) never the failures, of which there are plenty.

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Weekend Bird Review

March 14, 2006

For some of us, the weekend goes ’til Monday. :^)

In any case, I got to see some nice birds the past couple days. Here are some of my better photos…

Sunday morning I made a trip to Connie Kogler’s home in southwest Loveland, to take a gander at a rare Larimer County Sage Sparrow that has been frequenting her feeders the past few days. I got some very nice looks at it, as you can tell. This was only my second sighting ever of this bird (the first being about 7 years ago in Death Valley National Park), so yes, I was stoked.

This morning I dropped by the Grandview Cemetery here in Fort Collins. It was lovely but chilly, having snowed the night before and then clearing off before sunrise. Even this Brown Creeper felt the chill, and puffed his feathers up a bit to stay warm. I was surprised at how docile he was, allowing me to get quite close and take quite a few shots without raising any fuss. It’s always a delicate thing, deciding what constitutes a respectful distance from a subject bird. I used my best judgment, edging closer over a couple minutes time.

My main plan for Monday was to do some Boulder County birding, but on the way down I made an impromptu addendum to try to find a special sparrow down in Littleton that eluded me a week or two ago. I realized while driving that I’d get there shortly after 10am, which was reportedly the best time of day to find the bird. When I got there, I easily found this White-crowned Sparrow, hanging out in one of the bushes at the site.

Then, a couple minutes later, the target bird finally emerged. It was a bit of a skulker, forcing me to take several rather crummy shots of it half-hidden amongst twigs and other less-secretive sparrows.

This Harris’ Sparrow was a lifer for me, and upon seeing it there was much rejoicing across the land. Both of these sparrow shots were taken at the Carson Nature Center near the Platte River in Littleton.

I eventually made my way to Boulder County, where I initially stopped at Erie Reservoir in Lafayette. As had been reported on the COBirds listserv, it was quite active, with about 600 birds there. Very quickly I managed to spot this 1st or 2nd-winter Glaucous Gull – it was hard to miss with its white plumage and large size standing out among the numerous Ring-billed and California Gulls present. Later at Thomas Reservoir less than a mile away as the gull flies were hundreds more birds, including a Franklin’s and a Lesser Black-backed, both adults in breeding plumage. (Thanks to Steve Larson who I linked up with today, who pointed me toward Thomas as a good gull spot.)

Finally, on my way home I stopped by Cattail Pond in Loveland for a quick look at the waterfowl. I’ve been hoping to find a Ruddy Duck this winter, and I’ve had no luck so far. But while scanning the water I heard some squealing overhead, and by the time I figured out what was going on one of the two birds tussling landed in a nearby tree. I don’t know what the other bird was, but this was a Merlin which let me get close enough for this SLR shot from below. A nice conclusion to a birdy day, and weekend.

And like this Merlin I’m taking off for a couple days with my wife so she can enjoy some much-deserved R&R. I’ll be back by next weekend (meaning the one that most people recognize as such). Ciao for now!

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Pueblo-area trip report

February 6, 2006

I got back from Pueblo late Friday afternoon. Saw a lotta birds.

I’ve been participating in the RMBO’s Winter Raptor Survey, having done a route in Logan County back in January, and this time doing one in Pueblo County down south. In these surveys, you basically count the number of raptors you see on a 24-mile long route, noting the particulars of the habitat you’re in, and being careful of course not to double-count. You stop at specified locations on the route, and count for 3 and only 3 minutes. With a methodical approach it becomes possible to compare like with like and note changes in populations and distributions over time in a large swath of area like Colorado.

I did run into a hitch early on, however, as the route I was given ran through gated private property. Considering I was in the middle of nowhere, I had to improvise a detour for the route, and did my best to link up that detour with the remainder of the specified route. It wasn’t perfect, but hopefully my data will still be useful. I did count 61 raptors on the route, including a few of the characters seen here…

I started off in rural central Pueblo County. The light was lousy (partly cloudy skies at 8am), but I couldn’t pass up my first-ever opportunity for a photo of a Prairie Falcon, perched several phone poles ahead of me. For fear of spooking this skittish raptor I opted to stay further back and go for the digiscope shot. A little dark, yes, but a well-behaved bird. I ended up seeing 4 of them on the survey.

A bit further down the road, I spotted this little guy on my left. I was a little disappointed when I saw that it wasn’t a Northern Shrike as I’d hoped (for adding to my photo collection), but rather a Loggerhead Shrike. Note the short bill, and very clean breast – Northerns have longer bills, somewhat streakier breast marks, and a thinner bandito eye-stripe. If there ever was a passerine (i.e., songbird) that deserved mention in the same breath as raptors, it would be a shrike. These birds are sometimes colloquially called “butcherbirds”, and for good reason – they often cache their prey (insects, mice, small lizards) by impaling them on thorns or barbs.

Next up was a highly approachable Ferruginous Hawk, perched on a power pole. I also digiscoped this shot, and for this image I did something a little different, going more for a “portrait” than a full-body pic. Ferruginous Hawks have been wonderfully easy for me to come by so far this year, in contrast to past years where they’ve been quite rare. What a spectacular bird this is.

Most of the raptors were along the Huerfano River portion of the route, and those were mainly Red-tailed Hawks and American Kestrels. But I did manage to collect one Rough-legged Hawk circling overhead:

I’ve been trying to get a shot of one perched, but I’ve too often approached too closely for them to stay still. In any case, this was my only Roughie for the survey.

The survey had just ended 10 minutes previous, and I was steaming down Hwy 50 toward Rocky Ford, when something caught my eye out the passenger window. Flying parallel to me was a kestrel-sized bird, more or less, but this was no kestrel, and I knew it right off – no, this was a Merlin. In my excitement I quickly pulled off the road so I could follow its path into a field. I looked around, and a moment later I saw it perched up in a tree a little ways up the road. I scooted up into digiscope range, and got another bad-light falcon-photo. Again a bit dark, but I felt very gratified to have recognized the bird immediately while driving 70 mph in poor light.

The Rocky Ford trip was a bust unfortunately, with the weather turning sour in the afternoon. I retired to the motel in Pueblo that night, and on Friday I headed north in much calmer, clearer conditions to El Paso county, to look for a very special bird indeed – the Long-billed Thrasher*, which had been reported at a private ranch a few weeks earlier. This will likely be only the third recorded instance of this species in Colorado, with the first being nearly a century ago. I had to look for this bird.

* In rare bird alerts, the custom for listing extreme rarities is to capitalize all the letters in the bird name, which makes it very attention-grabbing. Really, it’s not just a Long-billed Thrasher, but a LONG-BILLED THRASHER. You can practically hear the urgency as you read the report.

Anyway, when I arrived at the ranch I found neighbor Nick and Cole already there (those bums!), having seen it just moments earlier. But before we could talk much about it we found the Eastern Towhee hanging around. Unfortunately my angle here isn’t so great, and it’s hard to see the spotless upperwing coverts that make this an Eastern and not a Spotted Towhee. (These two species used to be lumped.)

Ah, a thrasher! But dang, it wasn’t the one I wanted. This is the Brown Thrasher, a more common variety found in Colorado (although still pretty unusual in the winter months), and in the next couple hours this little bugger would play havoc with my sensibilities, pretending to be the Long-billed and doing a damn good impression of one. Note though, the very rufous coloration and the light brownish breast streaking. I’d also say to look at the relatively short straight bill, but the bird stayed hidden in the twigs, making a clear shot difficult. Hopefully come spring I’ll have a nicer Brown Thrasher photo to show. The point is, Browns and Long-billeds look very much alike, but do have clear differences that are perceptible in the field.

Over there! Now there’s a thrasher with a nice long curved bill, like the Long-billed. But no, that’s not it either – the bill is actually too long and too curved, and the breast is dull spotted green-gray, not streaked. This is instead the Curve-billed Thrasher, a very nice bird in its own right, although again not uncommon for Colorado. This digiscoped shot was obtained after about 6 crummy attempts, where the bird hid in the branches and caused the camera to focus on twigs instead of the real subject. Patience finally paid off, and the bird obliged with a wonderful pose.

Nick and Cole took off for other locales, leaving me to find the Long-billed on my own. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait too long, and although it skulked in the brambles as advertised (something thrashers love to do in general), it peeked out enough for me to get a few good shots of it. Note here, the much grayer head, the browner back (as opposed to rufous), and the sharper, darker black streaking on the breast. Also, although not seen clearly in this pic, the bill is longer, and curvier than the Brown Thrasher’s bill.

Southern and SE Colorado are great places for birding in the state. If this Long-billed is any indication, I can hardly wait for spring migration to roll around.

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All in a day’s birding

January 7, 2006

Last Thursday I had one of my best birding days since Costa Rica. And I didn’t even have to leave town.

At the crack of dawn I headed over to Rachel Hopper’s home to see a Pine Warbler that’s been a regular visitor at her feeders the past couple weeks. She had advised a prompt 7:30am arrival (I arrived at 7:20), since that’s about when the bird always seems to show up. When I got there we went to her back window and she said to wait for the American Goldfinches first, which always presage its arrival. And sure enough, as if on parade, the Goldfinches showed up, and made their way down from the treetops slowly to the feeders. They even did so despite a Bald Eagle roosting higher up in the branches. We then waited for the Pine Warbler to make his entrance down low, and after about 10-15 minutes, there it was, a hardy male. A State bird for me. Woohoo!

Eurasian Collared-Dove, Jan 5, 2005, Fort CollinsNext, I headed over to Prospect Ponds, about 3 miles away, to look for Barrow’s Goldeneye. I found a huge raft of waterfowl on the pond closest to Prospect Rd, but no Barrow’s. I did spot a Green-winged Teal and a pair of Wood Ducks. And as I went down the road later to check out the other ponds, I came across a Eurasian Collared-Dove perched on a branch above the bike trail. “Just” a Year bird, of course, but still, it was close and easy to see, and I got my best shot of this species for my photo collection.

By 9ish I headed over to Mulberry and LeMay to look for the Northern Waterthrush, originally found by Cole Wild about 3 weeks ago along the Poudre River Trail and re-found right after New Year’s by neighbor Nick. I had only a rough idea of where to find this bird, so I had to employ my bird intuition. “If I were a Waterthrush, where would I hang out?” A short ways up the trail from Mulberry, there was a discharge outlet on the far side of the river next to the water treatment plant, with relatively warm water cascading out of it. The water flowed by some riprap rocks and there was a dead branch jumble at the waterline about 5-10 yards downstream of the outlet. “Hmmm, that seems like a good place for a waterthrush. This must be it.” So I parked my scope there and waited to see if something might show up.

I saw a flutter over on the far side near the riprap. I looked anxiously – could that be it? The bird had gone behind the dead branches. A minute later the bird revealed itself to be…a Song Sparrow. Harrumph. Stupid Sparrow. Had me going there for a minute. That’s just so weird – it seems like a great place for a Waterthrush to be. Where is it? Why just a boring ol’ Song Sparrow? I waited a little longer, still scanning the riprap. Then, in the lower corner of my field-of-view, another flutter. Oh my god. There it is! Northern Waterthrush, a new Life bird for me! And here it is, in Fort Collins, in the first week of January. I strung together a stream of expletives, as I often do either when I’m upset or deliriously happy. I was thrilled to have found this bird by myself, based on just some intuition (and well, reasoning) on where it might be. A personal accomplishment in any case.

High off the success I’d just had, I headed home and unpacked all my birding toys. I went online to read the COBirds mailing list, and what’s that? Chris Warren reported a Black Brant in the softball fields of Poudre High School just a mile or so north of my house! I’ve been looking for a Brant for about 3 months now, with no luck. “It’s so close, it’s worth a shot.” So off I went again, repacking my birding toys into the truck.

Now, he’d reported the bird a couple hours ago, so I knew it wasn’t likely to still be in those fields. Geese tend not to tarry too long in any given field. And sure enough, when I got there, no geese. Hmmm. Time for more of that bird intuition. “If I were a Brant, and I’d been in this field a couple hours ago, where would I have gone?” Well, after some feeding in a field, I’d look for some open water. The fact that I’m well inside an urban area suggests that I’m not likely to fly all that far to find it, and the closest ponds around are College Lake up in the foothills, or City Park Lake just a mile from here.

Brant, Jan 5 2006, Fort CollinsNow, College Lake is closed off to the public, so I could only try City Park Lake. I got there and saw about 300 or so geese on it, which was promising. I got the scope out and started scanning, hoping that it would jump out at me. After about 5 minutes, it did! Beautiful – about the size of a Cackling Goose, but with that gorgeous chocolate brown neck and head, and white necklace. Another new State bird for me, that had eluded me several times back in November and December. The day was just getting better and better.

Brant, Jan 5 2006, Fort CollinsI hauled the scope a little closer to its mid-pond island hangout, by which time it made its way to shore with about 60 other Canada/Cackling geese to feed. I digiscoped this shot of it for a nice closeup, to cap off this terrific birding day. It was a gorgeous weather day, but I decided not to bird anymore – I wanted to end on a very high note, and not run the risk of disappointment after so much success. I don’t get days like that too often, so why tempt fate and spoil it?