Archive for the ‘identification’ Category

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The 5 Stages of Bird List Grief

June 17, 2008

I got back from a trip to New York City about a week ago. It was a cultural trip with my non-birding wife, and we mostly took in the big tourist sights like the Empire State Building, the UN, Brooklyn Bridge, Katz’ Deli on the Lower East Side, the Natural History Museum, and even a couple TV show tapings. Great fun actually.

On the 3rd, we spent a good portion of the day in and around Central Park. I knew going in that there was some decent birding to be had in a few of the areas, so I brought my binos, “just in case”. And I’m glad I did – even though I had to do my usual hemming and hawing to my wife about why I had them and why I wanted to go this particular route through the park. Fortunately, she’s pretty accommodating, and I don’t have to debase myself too much to get what I want.

We took a route through an area called “The Ramble”, and just as we started to enter, I heard a sound that I’d never before heard in the field. But it was one that I had heard frequently on my “More Birding By Ear” recordings by the Peterson’s Guide. It was an unmistakable thrush song, Bicknell’s Thrush! Quickly I scrambled over to the area where the song was coming from, and not long after I got a few views of the bird in question. How exciting! I wasn’t at all expecting to find this species on this trip, so what a great bonus to add to my newly-formed New York state list, which would only have a couple dozen species on it, but at least one new life bird!

One thing bugged me though – how did I know it wasn’t a Gray-cheeked Thrush? Come to think of it, I had no idea what their song was like. Is it similar? Would either of these species be singing if they weren’t on territory? Lots of questions, and few answers to be found in my NYC guidebook. Well, I had to wait until I got home to look this stuff up. I eventually got home and began my investigation.

And if you are a knowledgeable East Coast birder, you can probably imagine my disappointment when I realized that Gray-cheeked Thrush does indeed sound a lot like Bicknell’s. In fact, there’s only one really helpful sound trait you can use to separate them in the field. And I probably heard it too – the problem is, I didn’t remember it! I wasn’t even paying attention to those crucial notes at the time, because I hadn’t bothered to study the two species before I left for the trip. Who’da thought I’d be hearing any thrush songs in Central Park?

At this point, I should have known that I wasn’t going to be able to count this as a Bicknell’s. But I wasn’t ready for that. I had to go through the K├╝bler-Ross 5 Stages of Grief first apparently.

(Denial)

Well, I tried ruling one or the other out, based on the likelihood of singing away from their breeding territories. I thought maybe I could just eliminate Gray-cheeked just because it was much further from its usual breeding grounds than the Bicknell’s, which breed in upstate New York. If only it were that easy – Birds of North America as well as a couple different comments over email from knowledgeable East Coast birders informed me that either one could well sing during migration. And as far as field appearance goes, as good a look as I got, it wasn’t nearly enough for me to see any clearly distinguishing traits. I knew it wasn’t a Hermit or Swainson’s, or even a Wood. But that’s as much as I could say.

(Anger)

I felt annoyed that I may not be able to count this as a life bird after all. (I already have Gray-cheeked in Colorado and Florida.) The supporting evidence I had used so confidently to call this a Bicknell’s was falling away, leaving only uncertainly and ambiguity. I had already gone to the trouble of adding it to all my lists! Like hell if I’m going to take it off again!

(Bargaining)

So, given that Gray-cheeked generally occurs on more days in May and June than Bicknell’s, it’s likely that I heard the former instead of the latter. Of course it isn’t ruled out completely – part of me still thinks I heard a rising note at the end. So maybe it was a Bicknell’s! How about if I take off a different species from my life list, like Robin or something? Wouldn’t that balance things out?

(Depression)

Bummer.

(Acceptance)

Well, in the greater scheme of things, I’d rather add a life bird to my list knowing without a doubt that it was that species, instead of scurrilously adding a bird with doubt, just to pump up the list. I’ll just have to make a dedicated trip up to the Northeast some day and look and listen for Bicknell’s properly. Dang it.

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Name That Empid

March 7, 2006

While browsing my photo collection I came across a photo that I had previously forgotten about. Back in September on the same day that I drove out to Prewitt Reservoir to see the Curlew Sandpiper, I also drove up to Crow Valley Campground mid-day to check out the migrant situation. After a short walk I found an Empidonax flycatcher, although at the time I wasn’t able to positively identify it. But I had just purchased my Canon Digital Rebel XT and with a little chasing I got some good shots of it, and hoped to figure out what it was after I got home.

But for whatever reason I filed the photos on my new laptop in a completely different directory from all the other bird pics, and so it remained unseen until yesterday’s re-discovery. I’m hoping I can solicit some ideas on which one it was, even though these pics are far from ideal. Any ID pros out there want to take a stab at it?

There are really just two pics here – each pair consists of an original shot and a zoom-in to show just the bird.

Oh yeah, before I forget – these were taken early afternoon on Sept 19, 2005. Crow Valley Campground is a small riparian “migrant trap” amid farmland and shortgrass prairie located in Weld County, about 60 miles east of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains in northeastern Colorado. The bird was (not surprisingly) silent.



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The First Goshawk Is Always the Hardest

March 6, 2006

Last Saturday I went out with the Boulder Bird Club on their annual search for late-season Winter Finches, in the high country west of town. The highlight and focus of the outing of course is Allenspark, which if you recall is renowned for their wintering Rosy-Finches.

Initially the group centered on the Fawn Brook Inn, but after about 15 minutes of finchless feeders, we ambled up the road looking for other feeders and any other activity in the pines around town. That did turn out to be fruitful, as we found Cassin’s Finches and a single female Pine Grosbeak. Then suddenly someone said there was a buteo overhead. Hmmm, a buteo here at 8500 feet just down the slope from Longs Peak? I looked up and saw a very buteo-like bird circling overhead in the wind about 75 feet up; except that it was very pale grayish-blue underneath, not like any buteo I could think of except for Gray Hawk, which this obviously wasn’t. I trained my binos on the bird, but it was almost directly overhead, so I couldn’t see head markings. And when it wasn’t directly overhead it was obscured by the towering pines all around. I was thinking Northern Goshawk, but was afraid to call it out, having never positively ID’ed one in the field before. Fortunately it didn’t dash off completely, and I was able to snap a single shot of it after it had drifted even further up. By the time it soared out of sight our group consensus settled that we had indeed seen a Goshawk. A life bird for me, at long last!

Yeah, it’s not a terribly great shot, although it does capture the gist of the bird as we observed it. What convinced me most of all (not seen in this photo, but clear to us when the bird was lower) was the very distinctive underwing coloration, in concert with its strong morphological characters (wing shape, head size, and tail breadth). I’ve wanted to see a Goshawk for several years now, but never during the 5 or so previous possible occasions did I see the bird well enough to confidently identify it as such. Finally, on an outing where we were looking for finches, I managed a fairly sustained look at one. Go figure. Hopefully the next Goshawk won’t take me years to find.

It served to remind me that when it comes to accipiters, you should always be prepared to see one if you’re anywhere near reasonable habitat. Coopers and Sharpies (and apparently Goshawks too) always seem to be “popping in”, and just as quickly popping out. When that has happened before, I always think in retrospect that it should have been obvious that one might show up, and swear to myself that next time – always next time – I’ll keep an eye out. Once again I forgot my own advice, but luckily I had the Boulder Bird Club to bail me out.

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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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Seahawk = Steller’s Sea-Eagle?

January 31, 2006

I just learned from 10,000 Birds that a ‘Seahawk’, as in the Seattle Seahawks of the NFL in the Super Bowl, is a colloquial term for an Osprey. And all this time I thought it was simply some mythical composite bird.

But really, look at this bird – does that look like an Osprey to you? The bill is way too big, not to mention the colors are all wrong. I’m thinking it’s more like a Steller’s Sea-Eagle. Certainly as a football team mascot, Steller’s is more fearsome, even making the Bald Eagle look like a runt.

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Site update

January 28, 2006

I’ve just added a new section on the right column below the blogroll, called “ID Tips”. It’s a compilation, small for now but sure to grow, of sites that offer useful information on more difficult identification problems.

(In the same vein for those who prefer actual books to web sites, I recommend Kenn Kaufmann’s Field Guide to Advanced Birding. It’s written for the avid birder who wants to separate out with more confidence birds like Jaegers, Dowitchers, Screech-Owls, and of course perhaps the most perplexing of all bird groups, the Empidonax Flycatchers.)

I’ve also added a few more sites and blogs to right column, namely the blog SE Colorado Birding, a link to the listserv ID Frontiers (hosted by Surfbirds), and the Internet Bird Collection, run by the creators of the Handbook of the Birds of the World Series. The latter site compiles videos of birds from around the world, and they apparently now have almost 20% of all bird species in their collection.

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It can be a Cackling, even if it’s not a Cackling Cackling

January 10, 2006

I’m still trying to get fully up to speed on the relatively recent changes to the whole Canada/Cackling Goose split. Fortunately there are some good resources out there for those like me – Richard Trinkner posted this link on COBirds a couple days ago to a page maintained by David Sibley which discusses in detail the subspecies alignments among the two species. Like Richard I was a little surprised to learn that all the minima subspecies have been included into the Cackling Goose, and not just the former Cackling subspecies of Canada:

First, to clear up some confusion about the names of the species and subspecies: The former broad Canada Goose has been divided into a large-bodied, interior- and southern-breeding species, and a small-bodied tundra-breeding subspecies. The large-bodied group is still known as Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) while the small-bodied group takes the name Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii). This means that the English name Cackling Goose, which has in the past been more or less restricted to the smallest subspecies (the far western B. c. minima) is now the species name for all four of the small subspecies. This new species takes the scientific name of the earliest-named subspecies and becomes Branta hutchinsii.

Bill Schmoker has some very nice shots of Canada/Cackler combos too, as well as links to a couple other sites that have useful identification tips and more technical information on the split. I have a few photos of my own, with the one above taken recently at Lake Loveland. It shows a Cackler (front right) with 3 Canadas, left behind, and right (off frame). The Cackler is probably a Richardson’s, and the Canadas seem like Lessers, although if anyone thinks I’m wrong feel free to tell me so in the comments. And better yet, tell me why!