Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Fox Sparrow (Slate-colored)

Fox Sparrow (Slate-colored) Along Timpooneke Road in Utah County, UT
Several years ago (July 17, 2010) I enjoyed a full-day of birding with over 130 species on Deseret Ranch in northern Utah. The ranch is near the small town of Woodruff and owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It sprawls into five Utah counties and slightly into Wyoming. It has been listed as a Utah Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society and Birdlife International. The ranch offers a wide range of habitats for birds and wildlife including low elevation canyons and streams, sagebrush-steppe, grasslands, wetlands, ponds, and mixed conifer and aspen forests at higher elevations. My tour guide for the day was Mark Stackhouse of Westwings Birding Tours. Mark spent many years in Utah and managed Salt Lake City's Tracy Aviary for some time before he moved to Mexico where he guides birding groups professionally to Utah, Mexico, and other locations. He's an awesome guide and shares expert information on wildlife, plants, ecosystems, and much more.

I was introduced to a number of life birds during my first trip to Deseret Ranch because I was new to birding. One of those life birds was the Fox Sparrow (Slate-colored subspecies) pictured below. We located it when Mark recognized its pleasant song and pointed us in the right direction. These birds are generally secretive and often sing from hiding places as shown below.

Fox Sparrow (Slate-colored) on Deseret Ranch in Morgan County, UT
I want to embed the song of a singing male in this post, but I've not been able to find one that does justice to the song I've come to really enjoy. My next best idea for now is to provide a link to a page that will allow you to choose the Slate-colored Fox Sparrow song from a list of four subspecies. It's a strong and varied song. Click Here for a link to Cornell University's web page.

Since that first Fox Sparrow on Deseret Ranch I've sought them out each summer as they return to Utah for breeding. Fox Sparrows are currently divided into four subspecies:
  • Thick-billed (California) are primarily in California and southwest Oregon
  • Red (Taiga) winter in the southeast and breed far north across Canada and Alaska
  • Sooty (Pacific) reside and migrate along the western coasts of the US (including Alaska) and Canada
  • Slate-colored (Interior West) move from California eastward to the US and Canadian Rocky Mountain states and provinces during breeding season.
All of these sparrows breed where their ranges overlap so there are varying mixes of intergrades.  Slate-colored is the most commonly seen subspecies in Utah and the one featured in images of this post.

I've had a great deal of success finding these sparrows in the thick, brushy areas of Utah County mountains and canyons. The bird below was photographed near South Fork in Provo Canyon. This particular location is a small canyon that branches of the larger Provo Canyon. This particular location provides some brush-covered water with lots of hiding places.

Fox Sparrow (Slate-colored) in South Fork Canyon Utah County, UT
Fox Sparrow (Slate-colored) in South Fork Canyon Utah County, UT
One of my favorite places to go for Fox Sparrows is along Timpooneke Road, a dirt and rock road that runs around the north end of Mount Timpanogos in Utah County.  Locals actually say "tim-pah-nuu-key" despite the spelling being "tim-poo-nee-kee". The road starts from Timpooneke Campground at an elevation of about 7400 feet. The campground is surrounded by dense aspen, fir, and spruce trees. About 2.9 miles from the campground conifers give way to Aspen and other deciduous trees and low but dense brush. That section of the road experiences rock slides and avalanches so I suspect that is why there are few tall trees. You can see the rock slide area coming from the upper left corner of the image below. I've found several singing males each summer along the short section of the road shown below.

Click Here to see a Google satellite image showing the Fox Sparrow locations at the base of the rock slide area.

The image below is the reverse direction of the image above. This is the view as you leave the rock slide area and make your way back past Aspen stands and into the conifers.

The bird below was photographed along Timpooneke Road on an overcast day. The low lighting muted the colors, but I liked the profile and the clear view of the bird's extremely long talons. I've not noticed such long toes on other sparrows.

Fox Sparrow (Slate-colored) Along Timpooneke Trail in Utah County, UT
Fox Sparrow (Slate-colored) Along Timpooneke Trail in Utah County, UT
The image below was captured in the same area of the Timpooneke Road on a day when the sun was not hiding behind the clouds.

Fox Sparrow (Slate-colored) Along Timpooneke Trail in Utah County, UT
I made my annual Fox Sparrow trip to Timpooneke Road on June 29th.  Several Fox Sparrows, including the one below, were singing away. I'm including this image to show the brown/rufous color of the tail and wings that contrast with the gray head and back.

Fox Sparrow (Slate-colored) Along Timpooneke Trail in Utah County, UT
It was nice to see Fox Sparrows again. I hope to see a few more during the season before they return to their wintering grounds.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

American Pika on Mount Timpanogos

Yesterday I spent about an hour with my twin sons and their wives exploring a large rock slide area at the base of the north peak of Mount Timpanogos in Utah County, Utah . We were primarily enjoying a little rough riding on mountain roads and hoping to see some large mammals along the way. We exited the truck and explored on foot when we arrived at the rock slide area. My sons and their wives are not bird nuts like me. They prefer big creatures over the small ones. That is until I discover and tune them into the little ones for a few fun moments. That was our experience Saturday as we were looking for large mammals from the rock slide area. I first pointed their attention to a clearing that was bordered by some conifers about 500 yards below us. I saw the white and tan rear side of a bull Rocky Mountain Elk. We enjoyed watching it through my spotting scope and binoculars for a few minutes. Here's an image one of my sons captured through the scope with his phone.

While others continued watching the elk I was tuning in to the sounds of squirrels, Northern Flickers, Clark's Nutcrackers and more.  I heard the call of American Pikas (pie-kuh) and decided to locate one. I moved along the road that passes through the rocky terrain and spotted a pika collecting and carrying vegetation to a burrow.

About Pikas
Pikas are generally found above 8000 feet and live in rocky areas surrounded by vegetation. According to my Peterson's Field Guide to Mammals of North America, there are about 22 species of Pikas in the world. We have only two in North America. The rest are found in Eurasia. Collared Pikas live primarily in western Canada and parts of Alaska. The American Pika is found in the mountains of the western US states. Pikas are about seven inches long, weigh about 5 ounces, have tiny legs and feet, a bunny-like face, and dark round ears. They will collect and dry out vegetation near their burrow during late summer and fall and then pack the dried vegetation inside their burrows for winter use. Pikas pass dry and wet fecal pellets. The wet pellets contain nutrients broken down by bacterial digestion in the cecum. Those nutrients are absorbed by the stomach and small intestines with a second pass.

When I saw Saturday's pika I started to make some high-pitched squeaking sounds by sucking air through my lips and teeth. I was curious to see if those sounds would interest the pika long enough to keep it posing for photos or send it scurrying in and out of the multitude of rocks. My make-shift pika call seemed to work as I captured the following series of images. I would capture some images and then move closer to capture more images. I repeated this sequence several times.

American Pika on Mount Timpanogos in Utah County, UT
American Pika on Mount Timpanogos in Utah County, UT
American Pika on Mount Timpanogos in Utah County, UT
I was pleased with how close I was able to approach. The pika gave my sons and their wives time to have a long, close-up look at an animal they had never seen (I'm talking about the pika, not their dad/father in law). One daughter in law said to me, "You should have your own nature show!" I enjoy introducing others to nature. Experiences like Saturday's will encourage others to appreciate and respect nature. That's my hope anyway.

American Pika on Mount Timpanogos in Utah County, UT
American Pika on Mount Timpanogos in Utah County, UT
The cute little pika took a break from posing for a few minutes when it disappeared under a rock. A few more squeaks from my mouth and the pika slowly emerged again for a few more images.

American Pika on Mount Timpanogos in Utah County, UT
American Pika on Mount Timpanogos in Utah County, UT
American Pika on Mount Timpanogos in Utah County, UT
American Pika on Mount Timpanogos in Utah County, UT
American Pika on Mount Timpanogos in Utah County, UT
Pikas do have a tail, but it is only a half inch long and is generally covered by fur. I tried, but the image below is the best I could capture in trying to reveal the tiny tail. I'm told that the tail can be seen only when being held in the hand. Do you see a tail? I see a bulge.

American Pika on Mount Timpanogos in Utah County, UT
Farewell until next time, my little friend. It could be fall, but then again it might be spring, when your vegetation storage has been consumed and the snow melts enough from the mountain roads to allow be to return to your hiding place.

American Pika on Mount Timpanogos in Utah County, UT

Friday, August 23, 2013

Have You Been Challenged by a Bluebird?

Setting gulls aside, I think I've been tricked by Mountain Bluebirds more than any other bird species when it comes to initial impressions for an identification. We have both Mountain and Western Bluebirds in Utah, but the Westerns are found more in the southern part of the state. A bluebird in northern Utah should be a Mountain Bluebird. The first time I saw a group of Mountain Bluebirds in Northern Utah I got excited and declared that one was a Western Bluebird because I saw a rufous coloring on its chest. My birding mentor kindly explained that female Mountain Bluebirds can have some rufous on their chests. I had concluded that rufous on the chest was a sure sign of Western Bluebird based on pictures I studied in a field guide. That was not the last time I messed up an initial ID associated with a Mountain Bluebird. I've been briefly fooled into thinking a juvenile Mountain Bluebird was a Townsend's Solitaire, a Mountain Bluebird was a Pinyon Jay, and a female Mountain Bluebird was some bird that I couldn't seem to identify.

Beautiful adult males like the one below make for a rather easy identification. Juveniles and females can present some challenges.

Male Mountain Bluebird at Powder Mountain Ski Resort Weber County, UT
Below is one of the very first photos (not a very good one) I ever captured of a female Mountain Bluebird, shortly after I starting birding. I could not, for the life of me, figure out what this bird was until after I returned home and saw other, more obviously plumaged, Mountain Bluebirds I photographed in a nearby tree. The rufous throat confused me and I didn't really notice the slight blue tint in the wings with my initial observations.

Female Mountain Bluebird Near Lindon Boat Harbor Utah County, UT
Here is a similar bird photographed at a different time. The blue in the wing helps with the identification.

Female Mountain Bluebird Heber Fields Wasatch County, UT
When I first saw the juvenile Mountain Bluebird pictured below I thought it was a Townsend's Solitaire. A closer look revealed its true identity. The speckled/scaly-looking chest and obvious eye ring had me thinking young Townsend's Solitaire. I'll throw in a juvenile solitaire image for comparison so you don't think I'm completely crazy in associating the two in my mind. The degree of scaliness on the underside is much more drastic on the young solitaire and the tails are quite different for the two species--forked for bluebird but not for solitaire. The solitaire is much more slender as well.

Juvenile Mountain Bluebird at Dry Bread Pond Weber County, UT
Juvenile Townsend's Solitaire at Lava Point Campground in Washington County, UT
I thought I had Pinyon Jays this week when I first saw a small group of Mountain Bluebirds from a distance in Pinyon-Juniper habitat. A closer look dashed my misguided hope for Pinyon Jays. I'll share a couple Pinyon Jay images and then images of some of the Mountain Bluebirds I first hoped were Pinyon Jays.

Pinyon Jay on River Lane Utah County, UT
This image is a bit overexposed and blurry, but it shows the effect that lighting and camera settings can have on images of the same bird.

Pinyon Jay on River Lane Utah County, UT
Pinyon Jays are more pale above and have a noticeably longer bill. Distance and habitat weighed too heavily in my initial impression of the birds this week. The bird I was hoping would turn out to be a Pinyon Jay proved to be a Mountain Bluebird in the midst of regenerating its tail feathers.

Mountain Bluebird (regenerating tail feathers) Along Soldier Pass Road Utah County, UT
This next bird was in the same vicinity with the bird above, but it clearly has a different look. I would say it is a young bird because its eye ring is more obvious and it shows some scaliness on the upper chest.

I'll finish with a few more male Mountain Bluebird images captured around the state of Utah.

Mountain Bluebird Along Soldier Pass Road Utah County, UT
Male Mountain Bluebird on Kolob Terrace Road in Washington County, UT
Male Mountain Bluebird at Powder Mountain Ski Resort Weber County, UT
Male Mountain Bluebird at Powder Mountain Ski Resort Weber County, UT
What bird species has tricked you more than a time or two when getting an initial impression?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

More Front Porch Birding: Caspian to Calliope

I took a look at the nectar feeder outside my home office window when I returned from work tonight and saw my 4th individual Calliope for the season. The first showed up several weeks ago and was an adult male with his sword-like, rosy throat feathers. The second was either a juvenile or adult female. The third was a young male and tonight's bird looked like an adult female. Unfortunately, when I sat in my chair on the porch the bird decided to either go to the backyard feeder or take a break altogether. I sat with my mother in law, who is suffering with Alzheimer's Disease and staying in our home for awhile, and watched for about 30 minutes without a single visit from the Calliope. While we were waiting, however, I heard the flight call of a Caspian Tern. After scanning the sky for about five seconds I located the bird and watched it fly right over the top of our house. That Tern turned out to be the 69th species of bird I've seen since keeping track of the species seen in and from my yard. It was flying high so I had to really crop the image below to show some of the detail of the bird's markings.

First Caspian Tern Seen From My Yard in Pleasant Grove, UT

My mother in law and I decided to go in and make dinner when my wife returned home. Another glance out the window before sitting down for dinner revealed the same Calliope so I began enjoying a nice dinner with hope that more opportunities to see and possibly photograph the bird would come after dinner. Within moments of resuming my front porch birding post the Calliope returned with determination to get through the Black-chinned and Rufous Hummingbirds scuffling over the feeder. I used a flashlight to provide some additional lighting since the natural light was fading quickly. The posture below is typical for the Calliope at the feeder--somewhat squared tail held slightly and rather steadily in an upward curve. The similar looking young Rufous Hummingbirds tend to hold their tails so they taper to a point and show more of a sharp upward angle from the rump.

Calliope Hummingbird Pleasant Grove, UT

The dark on the bill in the image below is a shadow being cast by the feeder. My light was at an angle that caused the shadow.

Calliope Hummingbird Pleasant Grove, UT

I captured some shots of a juvenile Rufous Hummingbird to show the differences between a young Rufous and the Calliope. I thought it might be helpful since some of my friends and readers were sending images and sharing sightings hoping they were seeing a Calliope at their feeders. I'm sharing some side by side shots below that I hope allow the differences to be explained and seen. The Rufous is on the left and the Calliope is on the right.

The Rufous shows more of a rufous color on the outer tail feathers and the tail comes to a point. The Calliope shows more green and black on the outer tail feathers and the tail does not come to a point but rather appears somewhat squared when not fanned. The Rufous shows more dark between the eye and the upper mandible (bill) where the Calliope shows a thin black line between the white in front of the eye and at the base of the upper mandible. Rufous Hummingbirds also show more of an obvious white chest between the throat and the color on the sides where Calliope lack this contrast. The vertical lines on the throat formed by greenish feathers are finer and flow more toward the side of the neck on the Calliope than the Rufous. These lines of feathers are thicker as they terminate at the base of the throat on the Rufous. Another typical behavior with Calliope's at a feeder is they rarely perch and feed because they are shorter with a shorter bill. Consequently, they generally hover at the feeder in order to get their bills as deeply as possible into the feeder where the Rufous will perch and still be able to reach deep enough into the feeder to get the sugar water. Finally, the Calliope wing extends beyond the tip of the tail. Although the Calliope's wings are in mid flight, you can see that the tips do extend beyond the length of the tail.

Here is another image to show a closer view of tonight's Calliope.

Finally, I captured a couple images of a young male and an adult male Black-chinned Hummingbird for a quick comparison as well. The young male is starting to show some of its dark throat feathers as well as darkening between the eye and the bill.

Here is the image of the adult from tonight in bad lighting.

Finally, here is an image to illustrate what this young male will look when it is in complete adult plumage.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Say's Phoebes Pay a Visit

I was out on the front porch visiting with my wife and her mother and watching hummingbirds a couple of days ago. Black-chinned and Rufous Hummingbirds were trying to get a turn at the feeder. A young Calliope Hummingbird was still visiting the feeder about every twenty minutes as well.

As the humans were visiting on the porch and the birds were engaged in their sugar-water scuffles, I heard the call of a Say's Phoebe (sayz fee-bee). What a treat to get a Say's Phoebe as a yard bird. These birds are generally solitary and found near open fields rather than neighborhoods. They sometimes migrate in small groups and also associate while breeding and raising young. I wondered if the two I observed were stopping to refuel themselves as they were migrating southward or just part of a family that was formed nearby. The Say's Phoebe I was able to watch was perched alternately between a fence and a small tree.  It would perch and then jump into the air to snatch a flying bug in its bill and return to a perch to wait for another source of food to pass. I captured a few images of one of the birds before it flew toward another home and out of sight. The light yellow gape suggests a young bird, probably one that hatched this summer.

Say's Phoebe Pleasant Grove, UT

Say's Phoebe Pleasant Grove, UT

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Latest Visitor to My Hummingbird Feeder

I've spent the past few Saturday's around the house as my wife and I have been caring for her aging mother who is visiting with us for a while. Several days ago I noticed a hummingbird that stood out from the rest. The average person wouldn't notice the subtle differences among hummingbirds, but after you watch them for a while you begin to more easily recognize when one differs from the others. In this case I caught a glimpse of a bird that was visibly smaller (about half an inch) than the Rufous Hummingbirds with which it was fighting to get a place at the feeder. The tail was noticeably shorter and more squared when fanned. It also had very limited rufous coloring in the base of the tail. Its sides were more of a buffy color than a rufous color. It was a loner as well. It was chased by both Rufous and Black-chinned Hummingbirds so photo opportunities were difficult to capture.

Here is a series of photos starting at a distance (and/or poorest image quality) and getting closer as the images progress. I'll provide some clues along the way. These images were captured in Pleasant Grove, Utah. Do you know what hummingbird species this might be? Can you tell if it is an adult or juvenile, male or female? Have fun!

Buffy sides, white visible at base of upper mandible, wings covering tip of tail...

Slight streaking on throat, buffy chest, short thin bill, white at base of upper mandible, wings reaching tail tip, very slight rufous coloring at base of outer tail feathers, tail is squared while perched...

Lousy image, but tail is squared while fanned, central tail feathers blurred, unfortunately...

Slightly darker feather on throat?...

Central tail feathers visible in this image, black and shorter than the white-tipped tail feathers...

And a few final images...

Well, what do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts so feel free to leave a comment or email me.

As a final clue, if you need one, I'll share an image of an adult male of this species.