Friday, February 24, 2017

Bobbing for Apples and "Pishing" for Birds

Bobbing for apples was a pretty common party game when I was a kid. The game, simply put, went something like this. Someone would place a variety of apples into a large pan or bucket of water. Those playing the game would have the hygienic opportunity of trying to retrieve one of the elusively floating apples using only their mouths. Each player would get a turn until everyone had an apple or gave up on trying. Unless the apples were small, it required quite a few head dips and apples bobs to actually get one of the "used" apples. It seemed like good clean fun as a kid, but that game doesn't pass today's standards for preventing the spread of germs.

Yesterday I was walking around a friend's property in Utah County with one of my twin sons. We were looking for some macro birds (aka the big birds of prey) because my son is not a birder and the micro or "tweety" birds don't really keep his attention. We found two large, likely female, Cooper's Hawks and a Sharp-shinned Hawk. All three had crops that were bulging--a sign that there were a few less micro birds living in the area.

Just as we were leaving my friend's place I decided to play "pishing for birds", a super evolved form of the old bobbing for apples game. Pishing is better observed than explained, but it involves making a "pish, pish, pish" sound with your mouth. It tends to capture the attention of small birds hiding in thick brushy areas. You never know what you'll get when you "pish" for small birds. Well, within seconds of starting my pishing yesterday I won the prize. A rare little gem popped right up from its hiding place to a vantage point that allowed the two of us to make eye contact. It was a White-throated Sparrow, a sparrow considered rare for the state of Utah. As is usually the case when one of these is found in Utah it was floating in a pan of water, I mean hiding in a brushy area with a group of lookalike friends, the White-crowned Sparrows. The white and brown stripes on the head of White-throated are similar to our ubiquitous White-crowned Sparrows, but the yellow lores and white throat patch separate the rare sparrow from the more common sparrow. The bill of a White-throated is also kind of a dark gray rather than the almost orange color for the bill of a White-crowned.

White-throated Sparrow Utah County, Utah, USA

White-throated Sparrow Utah County, Utah, USA

White-throated Sparrow Utah County, Utah, USA
I am always amazed at the odds of being in the right place at the right time when finding a rare bird because the earth is a pretty big place.  Yesterday, I was in the right place at the right time for a Utah County, and Utah for that matter, birder.

Below are three images to compare the appearance of the White-throated with both a juvenile and adult image of  the more common (in Utah anyway) White-crowned Sparrow.

Adult White-throated Sparrow (Utah County, Utah, USA)
Juvenile White-crowned Sparrow
Adult White-crowned Sparrow

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Weather Loach. Weather What?

After Eric Peterson and I relocated and photographed the Great Gray Owl in northern Utah earlier this month we decided to drop by Farmington Bay WMA for a quick look before heading in to work. A group of Pied-billed Grebes caught our interest because we could see that they were diving for prey. We watched a number of grebes emerge from their shallow dives with small fish. A couple of the grebes emerged with prey only to be mobbed by other grebes wanting to steal the meal. One grebe was diving in an area by itself and came up with a Weather Loach, an eel-like fish that, while not indigenous to Utah, has become somewhat common in the marshes of Farmington Bay.  Weather Loaches are native to Asia, but they are common in the pet trade in the United States. I've read that they are sometimes used as bait fish as well. One way or another people have introduced the hardy species to Farmington Bay--and the loaches seem to be thriving based on the number of times they've been observed in the bills of carnivorous water birds at "the Bay".

It was fun to watch the grebe grapple with the flopping fish. The fish, of course, simply wanted to escape the death grip of the grebe's bill. The Grebe, of course, was trying to manipulate the fish into a position where it could be gulped down head first.

Pied-billed Grebe with Weather Loach at Farmington Bay WMA, Davis County, Utah, USA

Pied-billed Grebe with Weather Loach at Farmington Bay WMA, Davis County, Utah, USA

Pied-billed Grebe with Weather Loach at Farmington Bay WMA, Davis County, Utah, USA

Pied-billed Grebe with Weather Loach at Farmington Bay WMA, Davis County, Utah, USA

Pied-billed Grebe with Weather Loach at Farmington Bay WMA, Davis County, Utah, USA

Pied-billed Grebe with Weather Loach at Farmington Bay WMA, Davis County, Utah, USA

Pied-billed Grebe with Weather Loach at Farmington Bay WMA, Davis County, Utah, USA

Pied-billed Grebe with Weather Loach at Farmington Bay WMA, Davis County, Utah, USA

Pied-billed Grebe with Weather Loach at Farmington Bay WMA, Davis County, Utah, USA
Well, the grebe won. I tried to switch my camera to video mode so I could capture the final seconds of the loach's mortal struggle. Unfortunately, the grebe swallowed the loach before I could make that switch and get focused. Maybe next time.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Arizona Feathers, Scales, Tails, Shells, and More (Part 3)

Introduction to this Post:

It's way late for me to be publishing this post since it is part three of six days spent in Southeast Arizona last July. Click here for Part 1 of that trip and here for Part 2 of that trip if you want to get the full report of the trip. We encountered so many fascinating creatures during the trip.


Day 4 (July 25th)

I started day four on my own. Eric was between rounds of chemotherapy during our trip so he needed to pace himself and recharge appropriately to manage his energy levels. The sunrise was vibrant following the rains that poured through the night before. The phone image doesn't really do justice to what I was able to observe that morning.

I drove around a few locations hoping to find some Scaled Quail and a rare Painted Bunting that had been reported near Portal in recent days. I didn't have luck with either of those species, but I did find quite a few Botteri's Sparrows, another life bird for the trip. A couple of roadrunners were also getting an early start on the day as I headed back to the lodge to pick up Eric.

Shortly after picking up Eric and cruising along Stateline Road we located a small covey of Scaled Quail.

Scaled Quail Cochise County, Arizona, USA

Scaled Quail Cochise County, Arizona, USA
We enjoyed the landscapes that morning as the sun brought them to light. The Chiricahua Mountains were never far away.

After spending a little time with the Scaled Quail we made our way over to Cave Creek Canyon where I captured this panoramic image with my phone before entering the canyon.

A local birder was kind enough to point us toward a Whiskered Screech-owl roost where we had our first daylight views of the species.

Whiskered Screech-Owl Cochise County, Arizona, USA
I got my first views and images of an Elegant Trogon in the canyon as well. I had a terrible vantage point (directly below), rain was falling, and the sky was gray, but I captured what I could for that life bird experience.

Elegant Trogon Cochise County, Arizona, USA
I watched it catch and eat what appeared to be a beetle.

Elegant Trogon Cochise County, Arizona, USA
Here is an image with a brighter exposure to show a little more detail of the beetle for the entomologists who care to identify it to a species level.
Elegant Trogon Cochise County, Arizona, USA
We returned to the lodge for lunch and to allow Eric to rest a little more. I went out for a short look after the rain stopped and turned up a few more images of the Trogon and a Roadrunner.

Elegant Trogon Cochise County, Arizona, USA

Elegant Trogon Cochise County, Arizona, USA
We were invited to a private residence during the afternoon hours where we were treated to both male and female Lucifer Hummingbirds. It was pretty exciting to see both the male and female for a species I was seeing for the first time in my life.

Female Lucifer Hummingbird Cochise County, Arizona, USA

Male Lucifer Hummingbird Cochise County, Arizona, USA
Broad-billed Hummingbirds were also visiting the feeders at the residence.

Broad-billed Hummingbird Cochise County, Arizona, USA

Broad-billed Hummingbird Chochise County, Arizona, USA
We discovered a Desert Box Turtle in the road on our way back to the lodge.

Desert Box Turtle Cochise County, Arizona, USA
Day 5 (July 26th)

The highlight during day five of our trip to Southeast Arizona came while we were standing on a ridge on Mount Lemon. A zone-tailed Hawk put on a show for us. I was getting used to a new lens so I was a little disappointed with the soft results of this fascinating raptor in flight, but here is one image from that unforgettable experience.

Zone-tailed Hawk Mount Lemon, Arizona, USA
We checked into a hotel in Oro Valley that evening. Wind and rain put a damper on our owling plans for the evening so we spent time checking in with our wives by phone.

The Final Morning (July 27th)

We started the morning of our last day at Catalina State Park. The sun was up quickly and the heat began to take a toll on Eric so he asked me to take him back to the hotel. When I returned to the park I put most of my attention toward reptiles and took the birds as they came along the way.

Desert Spiny and Greater Earless were by far the most common species I found that morning.

Desert Spiny Lizard (Orange-headed Subspecies) Oro Valley, Arizona, USA
The female Greater Earless Lizard below appears to be gravid ("pregnant" for lizards).

Female Greater Earless Lizard Oro Valley, Arizona, USA

Male Greater Earless Lizard Oro Valley, Arizona, USA

Male Greater Earless Lizard Oro Valley, Arizona, USA

Male Greater Earless Lizard Oro Valley, Arizona, USA
As I was leaving the park I noticed a long reddish snake crossing the wash about 50 feet ahead. I captured the image below just as it was entering a brushy area. I did this simply for documentation purposes so I could try to identify it later.

Fortunately, I was able to relocate the snake momentarily as it put its head up from a hiding place. I referred to my reptile guide later to confirm it was a Coachwhip.

Another snake I observed in the wash was a California Kingsnake.

One lizard I discovered before leaving the park was a new one for me, a Regal Horned Lizard. These guys are about 4 inches long with a dainty tail included and blend in with their habitat quite well. I found this one only because it moved as I was walking along a trail.

Regal Horned Lizard Oro Valley, Arizona, USA

Regal Horned Lizard Oro Valley, Arizona, USA

Regal Horned Lizard Oro Valley, Arizona, USA
Several Great Horned Owls flushed from a tree and landed on nearby rocks as I made my way along a trail.

Prairie Dogs were common in the grassy areas of Catalina State Park.

I had only a couple of hours in Catalina State Park. I'm sure there was much more to discover, but it was finally time to head back to the hotel to prepare for a drive to the airport and our return flight. It was a fantastic trip that provided unique experiences I will remember for years to come. My curiosity for reptiles was satisfied enough to make me want to learn more. I am eager to explore and learn more about the reptiles of the American Southwest. I can't wait for another adventure in the varied habitats of the Sonoran Desert.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

A Close Encounter of the Great Gray Kind

Great Gray Owl just before the rays of the sun hit the valley in which it was hunting in Morgan County, Utah
Northern Utah Birders have been graced by the visit of two vagrant Great Gray Owls in recent weeks. Apparently harsh winter conditions in Wyoming and other northern states have driven these owls to more southern locations. The last documented sighting of a Great Gray Owl in Utah was way back in 1989 so naturally the recent reports had Utah birders scrambling from all over the state to the Great Gray epicenters in Wasatch and Morgan Counties. The Wasatch County owl went missing almost as quickly as it was reported, but not before some documentary photos were captured by local residents. Most birders missed seeing that owl. My friend Eric Peterson and I came up empty when we searched for it. We consoled ourselves while searching for that owl by reliving the experiences we had last year when we went to see our first-ever Great Gray Owls in Tetonia, Idaho--a five hour drive to the north from our home towns. Click this link to read about our encounter with Great Grays in the shadows of the Grand Tetons.

Last week reports of a Great Gray Owl in Morgan County were shared with the local birding community. A large number of Utah birders were able to see that owl because it was a gentle giant that seemed to ignore all the onlookers. I was able to see that owl last week through a scope and binoculars as it perched on a hillside about 120 yards away.  I enjoyed a nice visit with one of my sons as we drove just over an hour north to see that gorgeous bird.

Well, my friend Eric wanted to search for the bird so we decided to head up yesterday morning before I had to got to work for meetings. The bird had been searched for and missed for two days prior to our trip so we had our fingers crossed that the attention being showered on it hadn't pushed it to more remote hunting grounds. We suspected the owl would be most active in the early morning hours if it was still in the area since that was our experience with the Idaho owls we had observed the year before. We arrived in the area just before sunrise and cruised around the area in a methodical manner. We were coming up empty and began to wonder if the bird had moved on. To our delight, Eric spotted the owl on a fence when he looked for cross traffic as he approached a stop sign. We were like little kids in a candy store grinning ear to ear when we realized we were having a close encounter with such a gorgeous bird. We used our vehicle as a blind as we observed and photographed one of North America's tallest owl species (nearly 27" tall, 5" taller than Great Horned Owls).

Great Gray Owl Morgan County, Utah
We pulled off the road to the right shoulder, opposite the side of the road the bird was on, so we would not block traffic. It became apparent rather quickly that the owl had very little interest in or concern for us as we sat in our vehicle. We watched as the owl focused its attention toward the snow-covered ground. It would move its head from side to side and occasionally stare in one direction, likely listening intently for the sound of a rodent moving beneath the snow.

Great Gray Owl Morgan County, Utah
The owl moved from one post to another to look and listen for snow-tunneling prey. At one point the owl went down to the ground. We were pulling for it to secure some prey, but...

Great Gray Owl Morgan County, Utah

After a minute or so the owl rose up from the snow and returned to its perch without having prey in its talons.

Great Gray Owl Morgan County, Utah

Great Gray Owl Returning to it Hunting Perch in Morgan County, Utah
Several local residents drove their vehicles between us and the owl while we continued to watch from the other side of the street. One passerby stopped, rolled down a window, and took photos or video of the owl with a phone.  The owl essentially ignored them.

Below are a few other images captured during our moment in time with the extremely rare Utah visitor.

Great Gray Owl Morgan County, Utah

Great Gray Owl Morgan County, Utah

Great Gray Owl Morgan County, Utah
True to observations Eric and I made last winter with Great Gray Owls in Idaho this owl flew up to what would turn out to be its daytime roost about an hour after the sun rose on the valley.

Great Gray Owl Roosting in Morgan County, Utah
It may sound strange to some, but I always say thank you aloud or to myself after memorable encounters with fascinating creatures like the Great Gray Owl.

I'll finish off by sharing a short video clip of the owl. I wasn't planning to shoot video so I did not have my tripod to steady the lens while zoomed to about 700mm (500mm with a crop sensor). The video is a little shaky and under exposed so I have a little practicing I need to do for low-light video capturing.
(View in HD for best quality)

Until next time...