Monday, September 30, 2013

Yard Bird #72: Owl Serendipity

Saturday afternoon there were two rarely-seen owl species discovered and reported in Salt Lake County. One was a cool little Northern Saw-whet Owl at Garr Ranch, a migrant bird hot spot on Antelope Island. The second species was a Long-eared Owl at Bountiful Pond. The word about both owls went out quickly via a local listserv, email, phone, etc. Shortly after both owls were reported people began to report that the owls had flushed and could not be found.

I remember the first time I heard about a Long-eared Owl through a public listserv and how I was quick to drive to the owl and take pictures. The next day the owl was gone from a roost it had been using regularly until that time. I'm sure I was one of the reasons the owl chose to leave its regular roost. Saturday's events seemed, to me, to be a good reminder of birding etiquette when it comes to reporting sensitive bird species broadly. I shared a post with the birding community Saturday evening in an effort to use the flushing owls as a reminder for each of us to be careful when reporting and approaching roosting owls. I wasn't passing judgment on anyone. I was, however, realizing I needed to hold myself accountable and was genuinely thinking about the owls.

Imagine my surprise when I looked out my backdoor just before sunset Sunday evening and saw a fluffy Western Screech Owl perched on top of the shepherd's hook from which one of my hummingbird feeders was hanging. I was able to watch the owl with my son, his wife, and my wife for about 30 minutes before it grew dark enough for the owl to depart for an early evening hunt. It seemed as if the owl stopped by to say, " Thanks for thinking of us and encouraging others to respect our space when we are trying to roost." Serendipitous.

Here are a few images of Sunday night's owl. 

Western Screech Owl Perched Above Hummingbird Feeder in Pleasant Grove, UT
Western Screech Owl Perched Above Hummingbird Feeder in Pleasant Grove, UT
Western Screech Owl Perched Above Hummingbird Feeder in Pleasant Grove, UT

Western Screech Owl on Spruce in Pleasant Grove, UT

Western Screech Owl on Spruce in Pleasant Grove, UT

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Gas Station and Fast Food Birding in Utah and Arizona

My wife and I logged about 1500 miles in our car over the weekend by driving from Utah County to Gilbert, Arizona for a special family event. We had my mother in law with us. She is living with Alzheimer's Disease and "enjoying the moment" in a very literal sense. It is sad that she doesn't remember all the fun family times we have, but the current state of her disease doesn't keep her from living in the moment. For example, she loves the Bee Gees and asks to listen to them every day. We listened to them during our long drive and we listened and danced to "Staying Alive" Sunday evening at our daughters house in Gilbert. Four generations, from our nearly three year old grandson to his great grandmother (my mother in law), were clearly proving that the dancing gene did not exist in our gene pool. The cut-loose gene, on the other hand, was unrestrained. Good family times were had by all.

Anyway, we were making great timing during the first three hours of our drive last Friday until my mother in law announced, "I need to go to the bathroom soon. That's all I'm saying." Nature was calling. I was able to pull off the freeway at Washington City, just minutes north of St George. I decided to top off the gas tank while waiting for my wife and her mother. After about 15 minutes of waiting I wondered if we had a problem. My wife finally emerged from the restroom and said, "It's not working. This might take a while." After she went back into the restroom to help her mother I did what most birders do with a few minutes of free time. I scanned the area with "nature eyes" and noticed some standing water across the street. That was my nature call to see what life was being sustained by the small puddle of water.

First Sign of a Watering Hole Near Washington City, UT
Once I got closer I read the directional sign near the water. I think we should call this the "Which Way Water Hole" of Washington City.

"Which Way" Water Hole Near Washington City, UT
Just as I stepped onto the sidewalk near the water I saw a Say's Phoebe fly from a tree to snatch an insect from the air above the standing water. "Camera time!"  I went back across the road, retrieved my camera from the trunk of the car and began a short photo shoot with an expert flycatcher. The bird would alternate its perch between a tree and a bush as it continued to fly catch over the water.

Say's Phoebe Near Washington City, UT
Say's Phoebe Near Washington City, UT
Say's Phoebe Near Washington City, UT
I glanced back toward the gas station and, forty-five minutes after stopping for our first bathroom break of an all-day trip, my wife and her mother were finally exiting the gas station and heading toward the car. At that moment I accepted that it was going to be a long day with some long breaks so I would put a positive spin on the stops and try to see what birds could be observed and photographed with each stop thereafter.

We stopped in Wickenburg, Arizona to get sandwiches at Subway. Minutes away was a mecca for birders, the Hassayampa River Preserve. I couldn't visit that spot, and never have despite passing by it about four times already. It has either been closed for the season or I've had not birding passengers.  My consolation prize this time around was discovering the largest Turkey Vulture Roost I've ever seen, right across the street from the Subway and above an RV park--stuff's gotta be fallin' over there.

I first noticed several large kettles of vultures high in the sky before I saw birds descending toward us. I went to get my camera and my wife put me back on task to secure food first and then play with the birds. After providing needed sustenance for my travel partners I retrieved the camera and captured a few images of the roost from across the street and birds coming in for the night. I stopped counting after seeing more than 100 vultures, all were Turkey Vultures despite hopes of spotting a vagrant Black Vulture.

Small Section of a Large Turkey Vulture Roost in Wickenburg, AZ
It was late afternoon/early evening so the sun was very low in the western sky. With the sun lighting them horizontally the undersides were often in the shadows until they would tilt to turn and circle the roost before landing. I like the images below because they emphasize the shape of the bird while showing enough to be easily recognized as a Turkey Vulture. You can also see how the underside can look light or dark depending on the lighting. In reality the flight feathers in the wings and tail are light in color despite the tail looking dark when in a shadow.

Turkey Vulture Over Wickenburg, AZ
This one was flying southward toward the roost so the horizontal sunlight lit up the western side of this bird.

Turkey Vulture Over Wickenburg, AZ
Turkey Vulture Over Wickenburg, AZ
My fifth time passing through Wickenburg was on the way home on Monday afternoon. Again I missed the opportunity to bird the Hassayampa River Preserve. The consolation prize this time was watching a Great-tailed Grackle drink from a dirty water puddle next to a no-parking curb. Like most birds, the grackle had to get low to the ground to get water into its bill and then raise its bill to the sky so the water would go down its throat. This is because they can't suck the way people and other mammals can. The first image shows the bird getting water into its bill and onto its tongue. The second image shows it looking skyward to allow the water to run into its throat.

Great-tailed Grackle Drinking From Puddle in Wickenburg, AZ
Great-tailed Grackle Drinking From Puddle in Wickenburg, AZ
Not unexpected was a Rock Pigeon that landed next to the car as we were leaving the parking lot in Wickenburg.

Rock Pigeon in Wickenburg, AZ Parking Lot
Our last food stop in St George, Utah Monday before the sun went down provided the most expected bird of the trip, A House Sparrow. These guys, like the grackles and pigeons seem to congregate near high-human traffic areas. Apparently, we are messy creatures and leave our leftovers and scraps abundantly enough to sustain these opportunistic bird species. I guess its a good thing someone is cleaning up after us.

So the Say's Phoebe and the Turkey Vulture Roost were completely unexpected for my "bird at gas and food stops" plan. I actually could have spent more time observing and photographing those guys had I been alone because fly catching and vulture soaring were somewhat fascinating. I love nature and enjoy discovering and observing any creeping, crawling, slithering, running, swimming, or hiding thing, but birds are so pervasive they provide opportunities no matter where I go or what I'm doing. I could be pumping gas or walking into a restaurant and see a bird. Who hasn't seen a House Sparrow flying around inside a local department or grocery store.

While the birds provided some diversions during the quick trip to Arizona, it was the time spent with family that I will remember the most.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

A Nighthawk and a Little Doolittle Snipe Snooping

The Salt Lake International Center is a great place to bird for fall migrants during the month of September. It's on the southeast end of the Great Salt Lake and its abundance of trees, open fields, and small streams provide a great stopover point for a wide range of southbound birds. They can rest and/or refuel after crossing the lake. One of the challenges with birding this location is birding right next to a number of office buildings. Some office people are suspicious of people walking around with binoculars and cameras right outside their windows. A few local birders have been questioned by security guards, but most guards now are familiar with our unique behavior and leave us alone. The streets in the area are named after famous aviators such as Charles Lindbergh, Harold Gatty, Amelia Earhart, Wiley Post, and the Wright brothers. Click here to see of map of the International Center.

I work less than ten minutes from the Salt Lake International Center (SLIC), but I've been van pooling (trying to be a good citizen) to work so I have not been free to drive over to visit the SLIC before or after work. I had meetings that didn't accommodate the van pool schedule this past Wednesday so I drove my own vehicle and thought it would be the perfect time to drive through the SLIC before work. Unfortunately for me, mother nature decided to send a down pour of rain in my direction. I decided to try after work. Unfortunately for me, mother nature decided to send another down pour of rain and a few minutes of hail that caused me (inside my car) to seek shelter in a parking garage.

Not wanting to be completely shut out by the weather I waited until the rain stopped and made the most of the few minutes I had before losing what little light remained under very gloomy clouds. I had noticed a few Common Nighthawks flying before the rain started and saw them disappear behind a couple of trees as the rain grew heavy. I decided to scope out the horizontal branches and edges of buildings in that area hoping to discover a perched nighthawk.  They like to perch on flat rooftops and horizontal branches. I spotted one through a small opening between some tree branches on Neil Armstrong Road .

Common Nighthawk on Neil Armstrong Road Salt Lake City, UT
Common Nighthawk on Neil Armstrong Road Salt Lake City, UT
Nighthawks are typically active at dusk and dawn, during twilight hours, as they forage on the wing over open fields and wetlands. They are often seen flying at night around the bright lights of sports stadiums as they chase the bugs that are attracted to the lights. The bill seems small, but these birds have large mouths because the gape goes back to near the eye. You can see the fine whiskers along the gape in the image below. The gray, white, black, and buff colors provide great camouflage for these birds so they don't build nests-they simply lay eggs on gravel roof tops or on the ground. They winter in South America and breed during the spring and summer months across much of North America.

Common Nighthawk on Neil Armstrong Road Salt Lake City, UT
Here are images of Common Nighthawks in flight. The first was captured at dusk and the other mid morning with full sunlight. The first is likely an adult female or juvenile since it lacks the white band on the throat and undertail. The second appears to be an adult male based on the bright white feathers on the throat and across the undertail.

Common Nighthawk in the Orange Light of the Setting Sun Near Lakeshore, UT
Common Nighthawk Over Soldier Pass in Utah County, UT
As I was driving slowly along Jimmy Doolittle Road to make my way back home Wednesday night I saw some Killdeers feeding in a grassy area. I noticed two larger birds jumping a few inches off the ground and then face planting into the grass. I wasn't close enough to see what birds they were, but the behavior was something I'd never seen before so I drove closer. I saw very long bills on the birds and soon realized they were Wilson's Snipes. They were completely unexpected so I used my car as a mobile blind and did some snipe snooping while I had the opportunity.

Below is the best image I could capture of the odd face-planting behavior. I captured one snipe just after it plunged into the grass. You can see the short tail and wing tips pointing skyward, the two yellow stripes on the back and the crown of the head where the bill disappears into the grass.

Wilson's Snipe Face Planting Along Jimmy Doolittle Road in Salt Lake City, UT
Just as I pulled over to get a closer look this bird blew toward me and began to forage in a drainage ditch. You can see how the bird goes from an alert posture (head raised high) to a more relaxed posture after it realizes I am not a threat (I was shooting from inside my car).

Wilson's Snipe Standing on Alert Along Jimmy Doolittle Road in Salt Lake City, UT
Wilson's Snipe on Jimmy Doolittle Road in Salt Lake City, UT
The long bill of a Wilson's Snipe is used to probe the mud for small invertebrates.
Wilson's Snipe Foraging Along Jimmy Doolittle Road in Salt Lake City, UT
The snipe would stop to preen at times.

Wilson's Snipe Preening on Jimmy Doolittle Road in Salt Lake City, UT
One final image before starting the engine and heading home for the evening.

Wilson's Snipe on Jimmy Doolittle Road in Salt Lake City, UT

Monday, September 9, 2013

eBird Life Bird #414: Least Flycatcher

I've seen lots of bird species while growing up in Kentucky, living in Japan, traveling to Europe, Asia, Indonesia, Australia, Hawaii, The Dominican Republic, several other countries, and most of the lower 48 US states. However, I didn't start tracking and counting the species I observed until about three years ago when I started using eBird. Several months ago I entered an observation for Least Flycatcher. It's a rare bird for the state of Utah so documenting the sighting with photos in eBird helped to confirm its identity officially. Least Flycatcher was recorded as species #414 in my eBird life list. eBird allows average citizens and bird enthusiasts to participate in science by reporting sightings. Range maps for bird species can be updated based on sightings reported by eBird users. It also keeps a personal record for those who use it. Check it out if you haven't used it before by clicking here.

I heard about the presence of the Least Flycatcher in Farmington, Utah from local birders and eBird reports sent to me for rare bird sightings in the state of Utah. It was easy to locate the flycatcher when I drove to its reported location because of the strong voice coming from the hidden bird.The little bird was singing a very loud and steady "Che-Beek" song, a sure sign for Least Flycatcher. Ryan O'Donnell, a post-doctoral researcher at Utah State University and the USGS, recorded and posted the song of a Least Flycatcher he encountered in Cache County, Utah. Click the play button to listen to the song.

Least Flycatcher is one of about ten North American empidonax flycatchers that are very similar in appearance. The sounds made by these birds are often the best way to identify them to the species level. If they don't make a "peep" so to speak, they may end up being lumped under "empidonax flycatcher." This drives many birders crazy because they want to be more specific in their IDs.

Most field guides use words like "small, olive-gray upper parts, medium-width bill, yellow or pale lower mandible, short primary projection, etc." to describe Least Flycatcher. Those words could be used to describer multiple empidonax flycatchers.

Below is a series of images of the Least Flycatcher I observed on Lund Lane in Farmington, UT. I'm sure if I posted some of these images without explanation and asked experts which flycatcher was being shown I'd get various responses and most would ask if I was able to hear the bird at all. Location would probably also be important to someone trying to identify a mystery flycatcher. The images below show the same individual from various angles and in a range of lighting situations. The shape, color, etc. change from one image to another and hopefully illustrate why a single image or glimpse is often insufficient to identify empidonax flycatchers to the species level.

Least Flycatcher Farmington, UT
Least Flycatcher Farmington, UT
Least Flycatcher Farmington, UT
Least Flycatcher Farmington, UT
Least Flycatcher Farmington, UT
Least Flycatcher Farmington, UT
Least Flycatcher Farmington, UT
Least Flycatcher Farmington, UT
Least Flycatcher Farmington, UT
Here are a few other empidonax flycatchers thrown in just so you see why so many people have a hard time telling one species from another when they see them in the field. Some experienced birders call this following bird a Dusky Flycatcher and some a Cordilleran. What would you call this flycatcher?

I think this one is a Dusky Flycatcher based on the rounded head, rather long looking tail, light gray with slight olive-colored back, and medium-length, mostly dark bill. The eye ring is thin, not quite complete.

Dusky Flycatcher Mill Race Pond. This one allows a notched tail to be seen where the one above does not. Duskies can show either squared or notched depending on the bird.

Gray Flycatcher at Deseret Ranch. The head is rounded, bill is long, overall grayish coloring, found in sagebrush habitat.

Willow Flycatcher River Lane. I first heard it giving a "ritz-pew" call, the unique call of a Willow Flycatcher. It was found in brushy habitat bordering a lake.

Hammond's Flycatcher found during migration. This one has a slight crest, small bill, gray upperside, long primary projection. The eye ring is thicker behind the eye and it appears to have spectacles on with the whitish area between the eye and the bill.

The Dusky Flycatcher below was first identified as it was heard singing from small aspens and conifers on the edge of a mixed forest. Duskies are similar in appearance to Hammond's and Least Flycatchers. Thank goodness for their individual breeding grounds, calls, and songs.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Cooper's Hawks to Kinglets Along Squaw Peak Road

I enjoyed a 24-mile (round-trip) drive along Squaw Peak Road Saturday morning. I coincidentally met up with my outdoor friend Eric Huish as he was standing on a knoll near the beginning of Squaw Peak Road. He was there just before sunrise hoping to see Black Swifts flying in or out of Provo Canyon. He was not successful in that endeavor so he decided to jump into my truck to join me on a rough mountain ride in search of birds and other wildlife about 6000 feet above the city of Provo, Utah.

We started our drive in the foothills just above the mouth of Provo Canyon and made our turn back about twelve slow miles later after enjoying a distant view of Provo Bay on the east side of Utah Lake. We had Provo Peak behind us, Buckley Mountain to south (left in the image) and Y Mountain slightly to the northwest of us when I captured this image.

View Toward Provo Bay From Squaw Peak Road in Utah County, UT
Eric was hoping to see migrant Townsend's and Nashville Warblers during our drive. I was hoping to see some raptors after having watched hummingbirds at my yard feeders for several weeks. We both had our fingers crossed and eyes peeled for elusive Northern Goshawks. We both experienced some success with our hopes and a few pleasant surprises during our mountain drive.

Our strategy for the slow drive along the rocky dirt road was to stop whenever we heard or saw small flocks of birds moving along the road or in bordering tree lines and meadows. One of our first stops allowed us to hear and observe the slight differences between Downy and Hairy Woodpecker calls. We heard their calls before we saw either of them. I enjoyed following a female Hairy Woodpecker as she pecked and foraged along the trunks and main branches of several trees. I captured three images as she was uncovering and "downing" a larva of some sort.

Female Hairy Woodpecker Chipping Away Bark in Search of Food Along Squaw Peak Road in Utah County, UT
Female Hairy Woodpecker Extracting Food From Beneath Bark Along Squaw Peak Road in Utah County, UT
Female Hairy Woodpecker With Extracted Larva Along Squaw Peak Road in Utah County, UT
We soon found one of our target warblers, a male Wilson's Warbler, during a short walk around an area of dense vegetation.

Migrant Wilson's Warbler Along Squaw Peak Road in Utah County, UT
As we were observing birds in the area of the Wilson's Warbler a truck with a man and his wife stopped to tell us they were sure bears were moving through the woods just ahead of us. They had been camping the night before and decided to move from the tent into the truck for the night. They had heard what they thought were bears again in the morning and decided to leave the area. Eric and I drove to see if we could observe large mammals in the area. We heard them, but we were unable to get a visual. The trees and vegetation were too thick in the direction of the sounds. After ending a brief search for the mystery animal I captured images of one of dozens of Red-breasted Nuthatches heard and seen along the road.

One of Dozens of Red-breasted Nuthatches Among Fir Trees Along Squaw Peak Road in Utah County, UT
The first of our surprise experiences for the day came when we heard the calls of Golden-crowned Kinglets. We exited the truck and were able to see about six of these uniquely marked little birds. These kinglets are typically found in mountain conifers. They are about 4 inches long and seem to be somewhat nomadic as they forage in small groups.

The Golden Crown of a Golden-crowned Kinglet Along Squaw Peak Road in Utah County, UT
This image shows a bit of the reddish feathers often hidden below the golden crown. I noticed one bird flaring his crown so it almost looked orange with the mix of yellow and red.

Golden-crowned Kinglet Along Squaw Peak Road in Utah County, UT
The next surprise of the day and a highlight for me was when we were about to leave an area and I suggested we spend just a few more minutes. I heard a raptor scream and wasn't sure if it was an accipiter (a group of long-tailed hawks) or a more common Red-tailed Hawk. Moments later Eric and I were both scratching our heads when it seemed we were hearing several screams coming from a mixed stand of Aspens and Conifers. We were hopeful that we were hearing juvenile Northern Goshawk's giving their begging calls, but after it appeared we were hearing the calls coming from three separate birds I began to wonder if Steller's Jay's were imitating hawks. Both of us had experienced that while birding in the mountains before. A moment later the screams moved closer to the edge of the tree line. In a flash a juvenile Cooper's Hawk flew out of the woods and slightly up the hill from us. It moved to a tree just down the road from us and gave me the opportunity to capture this silhouette of one my my favorite hawks.

Silhouette of Juvenile Cooper's Hawk Along Squaw Peak Road in Utah County, UT
I used exposure compensation on the spot and then Picasa when I returned home to reveal a colored version of the same image as above.

Juvenile Cooper's Hawk Along Squaw Peak Road in Utah County, UT
The surprises continued when the second and third juvenile Cooper's Hawks came out of obscurity and into the meadow around us and the sky above us.  We suspect that these three juveniles were siblings and were giving their begging calls to locate one another among the woods. Perhaps there were adults in the area that the juveniles were calling.

The auto focus feature of my Nikon D7100 is a two-edged sword at times like this. It works very well ,but sometimes the frame is so busy the camera locks focus on the larger objects in the background rather than a small moving target in the foreground. These images have been cropped so the bird looks much larger than when I was trying to lock my center focus area on the flying hawk. The first images shows how the focus locked onto the trees in the background rather than the bird. However, I continued to track the bird as it flew to areas with less busy backgrounds. Once I locked onto the bird in flight I was able to maintain it despite trees and mountains reappearing in the background.

I usually don't share poor images, but I like the experience of following this bird out of the trees and into the sky where the target for the focus became more obvious. It shows the reality of digital photography, both good and bad.  I also like capturing the bird mid-scream in a couple of images.

Out of Focus Juvenile Cooper's Hawk Along Squaw Peak Road in Utah County, UT
Juvenile Cooper's Hawk Just Before Auto Focus Kicks In Along Squaw Peak Road in Utah County, UT
Juvenile Cooper's Hawk Preparing to Scream Along Squaw Peak Road in Utah County, UT
Screaming Juvenile Cooper's Hawk Along Squaw Peak Road in Utah County, UT
Screaming Juvenile Cooper's Hawk Along Squaw Peak Road in Utah County, UT
Screaming Juvenile Cooper's Hawk Along Squaw Peak Road in Utah County, UT
Juvenile Cooper's Hawk Along Squaw Peak Road in Utah County, UT
Juvenile Cooper's Hawk Along Squaw Peak Road in Utah County, UT
This is an image of the third juvenile Cooper's Hawk found along Squaw Peak Road.

Juvenile Cooper's Hawk Along Squaw Peak Road in Utah County, UT
Juvenile Cooper's Hawk Along Squaw Peak Road in Utah County, UT
After all the excitement with three active Cooper's Hawks we were still enjoyed discovering one more of our target birds for the day, a Townsend's Warbler. It's common to see these Warblers in our mountains as they migrate south for the winter.

Townsend's Solitaire Along Squaw Peak Road in Utah County, UT
I love living in Utah. The mountains, canyons, lakes, rivers, deserts, and the creatures that call them home provide a great deal of variety close to home. Spring is beautiful and full of new life among plants, people, and animals. Summer brings long days and more time to enjoy the outdoors with family and friends. Fall brings new color to the mountains outside our windows. Winter brings snow cover to the mountains and a new group of raptors that are much easier to spot and photograph than tiny birds among dense foliage.