Bird brained stories!

Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Gull of her dreams

It was Saturday. No obligations. Time to go get that Glaucous-Winged Gull! Since it had been sighted most consistently over the lunch hour at the same spot on Richmond Bay, that is where and when I would look. Heading down to the boat landing, my friend from Sauk City was again there. He'd been there for three hours, with no luck. This wasn't promising. Not promising at all. Lots of Herring and Ringed Billed, what my grandfather would call "flying rats," but no Glaucous-Winged.

To help non-birding readers understand the nature of this current obsession, it's not even listed in my Audubon Field Guide to Birds, Eastern Region. For a description, I have to bring out my National Geographic Field Guide to North American Birds. Every birder has several field guides. At the moment, I own four, and three specialized guides for my area. Its breeding area is shown to be the northwest coastal area of Canada and the Aleutians. Basically, one could take the map of North America and a colored magic marker, outline the west coast, and that would match the range map in my guide. I live in Wisconsin, so this is a bird way out of its range.

To pick it out of the crowd of around 500 Herring and Ring-Billeds, I needed to find a bird about the same size as the larger Herrings, but without any black wing-tips. Other birders who had been checking the other area gull flocks shortly joined us and one commented that he'd sure seen a lot of gull butts the past few days! Indeed!

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Like this one, they were almost certain to be Ring-Billed or Herring Gull butts. I was beginning to accept that I probably will not see this rare gull, so I might as well relax and enjoy the birding. As if granting my wish, at that moment I looked up through the tree branches overhead and behind us, to see a huge kettle of Bald Eagles, about 50 of them, coursing toward the main channel of the Black River. Swirling and gliding overhead, catching thermals, it was a sight to inspire awe even among us Mississippi Flyway birders who see Eagles in multiples daily.

After that incredible show, Dan Jackson, the one who'd originally spotted the Glaucous-Winged and all the other unusual gulls, spotted a Thayers. I'd seen one about a week ago, but had to take his word for it, as it had already settled on the ice. Today I was able to follow it in flight, watch it settle, then confirm through a scope that I'd looked at the right bird. Yes!

After about an hour, I headed to look at another flock on the other side of the bridge. Nothing unusual there, but in keeping with my "enjoy the ride" mindset, I had fun taking photos of a few Ring-Billeds that were hanging about.

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Three young men from out of the area had joined us at the boat landing, asking where Pettibone Park is located. They'd been told by some guy, not a birder, that there were "5000 gulls" down there. Really? Dan hadn't checked there at all. He was leaving to head home to family, but I guessed he'd take the long way home via Pettibone. After taking my fill of photos, I would, too.

Driving over the river and into the sanctuary, I was doubtful of the report we'd heard, until I saw a sheet of fluttering white swirl up from the lagoon. The size of the flock was probably exaggerated five-fold, but the ability to look closely was more than consolation. With the park activity, they were constantly swirling, which made for a fascinating show.

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Other birds made use of the small area of open water in this small slough, including a lonely and confused Hooded Merganser, displaying in hopes of attracting attention, then rushing over to a female Mallard. He was run off quickly by several drakes whose mission was to discourage inter-species courtship. Though the day did not bring me the gull of my dreams, I did enjoy the spectacle of nature; one I hope will still be available for the birders of the last part of this century.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

In which Gwyn learns to appreciate gulls

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I've never paid that much attention to gulls. Of course I know they are more than "just gulls," but they are so difficult to identify. Essays and chapters in birding memoirs bemoan the difficulty of gull ID, and I'm still dealing with the difference between say a Cooper's Hawk and Sharp-Shinned. Don't complicate matters with white birds that eat dead fish!

The last couple weeks have slowly worked to change my mind. For one thing, watching gulls has already netted me two new life birds, a Thayer's Gull and the Lesser Black-Backed Gull. I've been spending time hoping to catch a couple more, including one that is only the fifth recorded sighting in Wisconsin, the Glaucous-Winged Gull; the one that has brought people from other states to a little bay in our little river town.

I've already mentioned the coincidental sighting of a human Nuthatch while looking for gulls about a week ago. This past Tuesday evening, Dan Jackson's sighting of the Glaucous-Winged Gull came across the listserv, along with decent photos to document his finding and add his name to the state records. By the time I'd read email, it was dark.

Wednesday Dan called from Richmond Bay to tell me what he was seeing. I had to go to church! Even on the way there, my husband asked me, "Aren't you going to try and see that bird?" I knew that by the time I'd get there, the light would be failing. Failing light is not a great way to try and pick out one white bird from several hundred others.

Thursday. I was hoping, but a meeting after school went on far too long. Yesterday I took the long way home, by way of Richmond Bay. I wasn't really dressed for birding, coming as I had from work. Friday is usually Jeans Day, but because I had two parent meetings, I had to dress "nice." Still, I was going to do my best.

Not long after I arrived, a fellow came down the hill to the boat landing carrying a scope. He had come over from Sauk City, about 1.5 hours from here, hoping to spot the Glaucous Winged. We chatted for a bit as we searched the flocks. There's something almost comical about watching gulls. For one thing, when you have such large concentrations of them, the noise is incredible. They really do sound as if they're crying "Mine, Mine, Mine!" like the gulls in Finding Nemo. Then there's the whining calls. Every so often, one of the numerous Bald Eagles will swoop over, setting them all to holler and swirl up from the ice, then settle back down, returning to fighting over the various dead fish delicacies the winter fish kill has been thoughtful enough to leave on the ice.

The fellow from Sauk City told me he'd taken to gull watching and grew to really dislike the Bald Eagles for their harrassment of them. It does make methodical flock searching a challenge, but it's also a bit amusing to watch the Eagles, our majestic national symbol, dining on dead fish among the gull flock.

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The fellow with the scope picked out the Lesser Black-Backed, just about the time Fred Lesher came down the hill. Fred has seen the Glaucous-Winged, but he was checking again anyway. As I've been told, you never know what you might see here during ice-out.

About an hour's worth of looking yielded nothing new in the way of gulls. Fred was heading out as well, and he was even dressed better for the circumstances. I was starving, telling him, "I need to get going and go eat Friday fish."

Fred made one pointed observation.

"I don't know if I'd want to eat fish after standing here and watching them eat fish!"

He had a point. My husband and I later went out for Chinese instead. Spending time looking for these gulls has cemented in my mind one other point; I need a scope. Fred says I need a scope.
Dan Jackson says I need a scope. The fellow from Sauk City says I need a scope. I never thought I did, since my birding tends to be more active, but for times like this, when one is trying to pick out that life bird from a flock of a thousand similar looking birds....I need a scope!

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Nuthatch sighting!

If you're a regular reader of my ramblings, you might be wondering, given all the previous photos of White-Breasted Nuthatches, why I'm excited about yet another sighting. If you're really curious and want to know why, you'll have to read on.

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In the current issue of Wild Bird Magazine, Pete Dunne lists "Twenty Important Catalysts." I saw that title and was eager to read what his list included. I recently read Kenn Kaufman's Kingbird Highway, and he shares right away that the year when he did his big birding trip was a year on the cusp of big changes in the pastime. He was birding in more "innocent" times, when person-to-person networks and hard work, along with knowing your birds, would make or break Big Years. As he says, we're now in the age where anyone with unlimited money and time can make a good stab at these records.

One of the reasons this is true is change number 7 on Pete Dunne's list--the internet. Instead of waiting for the monthly or quarterly listings of interesting sightings in the various organizational newsletters, anyone signed on to a state or regional birding listserv can learn almost immediately where to go to see the cool birds others are seeing.

I'm certainly not immune from the lure of the internet. In fact, it was an internet posting by Dan Jackson, who's already gifted me with two life birds, that led me to Richmond Bay after work. The day before, Dan had spotted an Iceland Gull hanging out with about 500 Herring and Ring-Billed Gulls on the ice. I couldn't take advantage of his news, trapped as I was at school on parent-teacher conference night. At work the next day, peeking again at the wisbirdn-list, Dan was reporting a new sighting of an adult Lesser-Black Backed Gull, along with a Glaucous Gull! I'd brought my binoculars and camera to work in anticipation of looking for the Iceland on my way home.

Off I went, driving right through LaCrosse rush hour traffic, rather than my preferred rural route over the bluffs. Any time one of these internet posts appears, I can just about guarantee that whenever I'm able to arrive, there will be other birders there. Today was no exception. In fact, I've done this sort of thing enough times now that I don't even need to ask people who pull off if they're looking for the birds. I can just tell, and the conversation gets right down to business!

So it was that I stood at the edge of the bay, peering through my binoculars as I watched about a million Bald Eagles amusing themselves by chasing after twice as many gulls hanging about on the ice. Try as I might, I couldn't seem to make any of those gulls into one of the three I sought. As I tried to will black primaries into white, a couple pulled into Bob's Bait and Tackle and walked over. Not even asking if they were birders, I simply said, "I'm not seeing anything." We chatted a bit more, then the woman asked me "Are you Gwyn?" I guess the little photo in my sidebar is probably a big clue, but I still am momentarily astonished when someone I've never met seems to know my name.

I told her I was, and she said, "I'm Nuthatch."

I had to think for a quick moment. Nuthatch? Of Bootstrap Analysis? Didn't she live in Michigan? Surely she hadn't traveled THIS far for three gulls!

She hadn't. They were in the area for other reasons, but had checked the internet listings and came to see if they could find the gulls. In a world without the internet, this would truly have been a first meeting for us. However, this is the world with internet, and both of us have been active bloggers in the nature blogosphere. We've shared space on various editions of I and the Bird. We "know" several other bloggers in common and consider some of the same people, like Cindy of Woodsong, as friends. Now we can say we've met in the real world as well. The internet can be a bane or a boon, depending on how it's used. I'm glad that my use has been mostly of the latter sort; that use allowed me to turn a day without any life sightings into one with the sighting of a very unique species of Nuthatch!

Nuthatch, if you're reading this, it was a treat to meet you beyond the computer screen. I hope your travels were safe and that we meet again some day.

I and the Bird #19 for your reading pleasure!

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Bora of Science and Politics has pulled together an incredible number of blog entries for your reading pleasure, including a couple of Editor's Choices. Take some time to scroll through the entries and click away some time living vicariously through the blogs of birders world-wide!

Next edition will be hosted by Nuthatch of Bootstrap Analysis--about whom I will have a bit more to share in my next entry! Get your submissions to her by March 28.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

It's starting!

Change has been in the air the last few days. Sure, there was the small matter of that snowstorm last week, and the threat of more tomorrow. So what? Last week's snow is completely gone already, and the air is warm now, warm enough to roll down the window on the car.

I had high hopes of an early start to my morning, pretending to be the Ivory Bill searcher I was to have been in April by trying to stake out where the Hixon Forest Pileateds might be nesting. No such luck. Arriving at the trailhead by 7am or so, I was met with signs--"Trails closed due to bad conditions." I noticed there were a few people ignoring the signs, but the trails were indeed in signficantly mushy shape. I didn't want to contribute to potholes in which I might twist an ankle later in the spring, so instead I birded the perimeter of the parking area. Several Tufted Titmouse were present, singing away and treating me to close looks a few times.

Overhear, a pair of Red-Tailed Hawks were doing their courtship ritual; circling, then diving fast, only to reappear moments later over the canopy to repeat the sequence again.

Since woodland hikes were out of the question, I headed over to the wetland instead. Though there were still large areas of thin ice, the Canada Geese were present in uncounted numbers, their honking almost deafening at times. Watching them as they swam through the ice, then broke through to paddle across to join the party, I simultaneously laughed at their antics while cheering their recent return.

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Almost everywhere I hiked, they were present. I traveled further along the Wood Duck Trail that skirts the southern edge of the marsh, and stood in place several times, enjoying those avian songs silenced these last months of winter birding. Cardinal, Goldfinches, Brown Creepers, Dark-Eyed Juncos singing and chasing each other through the underbrush. With my early start, no other hikers or joggers were present to interrupt the chorus.

Looking out to the cattail beds, it was clear who was in charge this morning. Red-Winged Blackbirds sat atop the highest perch in their corner of the marsh, pumping out a song to declare that this spot was theirs. It made me laugh, since I'd spent quite a bit of time in January playing RWBB calls to practice imitating them for my original porquoi tale. How could I have forgotten that unforgettable sound? Here it was, in all its raucous glory, surrounding me on this morning that was becoming increasingly warm.

I wandered all my trails through the marsh, including the deer paths that criss-cross the sedge meadows. Mallards, Hooded Mergansers and even a few Wood Ducks joined the cast of thousands of geese. Kildeer could be heard, maybe even a Snipe or Woodcock. My coat had to come off, tied around my waist, the weather now early spring balmy.

The quintessential harbinger of spring made his presence evident with frequent song, punctuated by the whinny call. One of its representatives stopped in his morning routine to look at me as if to say, "WHAT? You thought I'd stay down in that tropical heat all summer? You crazy?"

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Though the calendar says there are a few more days, the birds are beginning to tell me that spring is here.

Spring is bursting out on other blogs, too. Check out--
Cindy Mead's Sandhill sighting in Michigan
Mike McDowell in the Madison area
Thomasburg Walks

Sunday, March 05, 2006

So, I cheated a bit....

This weekend was the Festival of Owls in Houston, Minnesota. Nothing else like it anywhere. My husband and I went last year and thoroughly enjoyed it, so we were looking forward to it this year.

Friday night was banquet night. Dining with fellow birders is always fun. Like any obsession, most of the "outside world" just doesn't get it, but kindred spirits do. Partway through dinner, Greg Munson of the Quarry Hill Nature Center came in, having checked a banding station he'd set up not too far away. He'd netted a Saw-Whet Owl. Already I was wishing I'd brought my camera with me, but I'd thought, 'photos of people eating, big whoop.' Big mistake.

Greg asked for a couple kids to help him be extra hands and better eyes to read band information. Two teenage girls stepped up to help. As the little bird was weighed and measured, everyone there enjoyed the close looks at him. As Greg prepared to band the owl, he gasped, saying "Karla--he's banded!" The two girls peered in as they helped read off the numbers on the leg band, with the owl peering out coyly in my direction. A Kodak moment, and where was my camera? What's worse, later on when telling friends my sad story, someone commented, "That would be a time when a camera phone would be nice." Oh no! We had ours with us the whole time! It was still fun to be present and witness this whole little drama, which even made our local paper this morning.

This morning. Yes, where the cheating comes in. I'd sent in my registration for the Photographer's Brunch. I'd been looking forward to this chance to photograph several owls in a natural setting, courtesy of Marge Gibson and her education birds from the Raptor Education Group, along with Alice, the ambassador of the Houston County Nature Center. I'd chosen the 9am time for the best light.

Ha. It had started to snow early this morning. Lightly at first, but snow is snow, and that means overcast skies. The snow actually enhanced the photos, as you'll see. I stepped out of my car to discover I was way outclassed as far as my set-up. The other three photographers had mongo professional lenses with great tripods and Wimberley heads. Some had even brought perches they created from tree branches and the like. Auxiliary flash. Wow. I travel light. High end amateur digital camera, 100-400mm secondary manufacturer's lens. Well, the lens does have image stabilization. Though the set-up I use doesn't have the power of the others', it's actually my preference. I stalk my subjects, or hope for happy coincidences while biking, canoeing or cross country skiing. My set-up is an amateur set-up because, well...I'm an amateur!

My first subject was Malcom, who has an injured wing and could not be released into the wild. He is an excellent foster father to chicks that come to the Raptor Center, and was for the most part a calm subject this morning as well. He wanted to check out all the chickadees and woodpeckers active overhead, but posed for the camera, a lovely Barred Owl.

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Next was Wookie, so named because he looks like one! He's a Red Phase Eastern Screech Owl, about 8 months old and now almost fully feathered in adult plumage. He'd suffered liver poisoning as a chick, and even now, his eyes have a slight greenish tinge remaining. His handler told me they kept expecting to find him dead each morning, but he's a fighter and is doing very well. After a bit of consternation being placed on his perch, he was quite calm and seemed to enjoy the snow.

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Next up was the celebrity owl Alice. Alice is a Great Horned Owl who'd fallen out of her nest as a chick, broken her wing and was nursed to health by Marge Gibson. From day one, she was not fearful of humans, and Marge realized she would be a wonderful education bird. Karla Kinstler, naturalist at the Houston County Nature Center, became Alice's keeper and Alice has joined Karla's household, commuting daily to the center with Karla. Alice has the singular distinction of having appeared at a hearing in the Minnesota State Capitol when the issue of protecting Great Horned Owls was up for discussion.

Today she was perched on a branch with Money Creek as backdrop, and though I took some nice shots of her showing those surroundings, this one is my favorite. She looks for all the world like she's hoping to catch a snowflake as it falls from the sky.

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My last subject was Little Bit, a Northern SawWhet Owl like the one that made an appearance at the Friday banquet. Little Bit was having "issues" this morning. He'd heard Alice chirping and Malcom flapping his wings. Those larger owls would have Little Bit for lunch in the wild, and he wasn't too keen to be in the same vicinity, even though the handlers had made good arrangements to keep them all out of sight from one another. Little Bit just knew.

Fortunately, he has a stump in which he can hide during his appearances, and once he'd been given that option, he was quite willing to peek out and see what's up.

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Once I'd finished my turn with each of the birds, I headed into Money Haven for the brunch part of the morning. I enjoyed dining with a local fellow and Laura Erickson. We had a grand time discussing the worsening weather, the Cubs, birding experiences and the trials of raising teenagers. I am not ashamed to say I cheated on these photos. Part of my cost goes to various conservation programs that benefit owls. Perhaps my "cheating" this morning will help maintain habitat for wildlife, so that I may one day have true wild photo encounters with owls. I'm thankful to the Festival of Owls for giving me this wonderful morning, but even more thankful that they are doing the work of educating and raising awareness of these beautiful predators.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Back to the Future, I and the Bird #18

Time to go back to the future, as Rob at The Birdchaser presents the best of bird blogging, looking back from the year 2036 at 2006 by way of blog posts. Though the birding is much easier in his future, there are less birds, so a backward look at those times when a birder had to rely on skill and luck provides perspective.

Check it out at I and the Bird!

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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Life is good!

My weekend promised to be wonderful. Husband out of town, kids busy with work or other activities, time to myself. On top of that, the weather was predicted to be nice. Perhaps just a little too nice for some desired activities, but perfection is a goal, not a given, right? Time for....intensive birding!

Word was out that some Short-Eared Owls were roosting at Beaver Creek Wildlife Management Area in far southern Minnesota. These owls are not forest hunters, but hover low over wet meadows or fields, plunging down to grab their prey. They will maintain winter roosts in dense vegetation near such areas. They take up the night shift after the Northern Harriers retire for the day. Reports were coming in of wonderful late afternoon shows by up to six owls. Checking various routes on Mapquest, it looked to be about an 80 mile drive one-way. I have this "rule" that I travel no more than 30 miles to go birding. Where I live in the heart of the Upper Mississippi Wildlife Refuge is a birding mecca for others. Between the river, floodplain forests and varied bluff and upland habitat, there are so many birds to see right near home. The big picture reason for my rule is sustainability. To get to these distant places requires gas. More gas. Dependence on fossil fuels has a significant impact on the environment, and this is one way I can lessen my impact on it. Sonetimes, maybe twice a year, I'll make an exception to my rule. This would be one of those times.

So Saturday afternoon, I headed west. Watching for birds along the way, I saw Bald Eagles of course, as well as Kestrels, Red-Tailed Hawks and the ever present Crows. I suppose it's possible that some of the hawks I saw may have been Harriers or Rough-Legged. My raptor id skills on sight are not stellar.

I've traveled most of this route before, but the last leg of the trip, into Harmony Minnesota, was new to me. There is a large Amish community in the area. The road itself is signed as "Amish Byway." I was surprised that even into the late hours of the day, a couple of buggies were still making their way home, waving as we passed each other. Harmony itself presents itself to westbound travelers as an American icon. Old-fashioned water tower, grain silos, feed mills all line up like a 40s style small town picture postcard. Part of me wanted to just stop here and capture the image in the sunset. That wasn't my plan, so I kept on driving.

Following the directions to the stand of spruce trees along the small management area, I laughed inwardly to see several vehicles, and people with big scopes or binoculars around their neck already in the area. A blind with enormous glass was parked right in front of a group of trees. There was never any movement at all from it. Thinking that perhaps this person had done some homework, I stayed near this area.

Another birder wandered over and we talked bird. It always amuses me that birders love to talk while waiting for birds. I know there are things we could be hearing if quiet, but it's satisfying to meet others who are equally crazy and can relate to one's obsession. Reports had said the birds were flying out of the roost around 5pm, and it was well after that without any sign of activity. It was very quiet overall out here. Turning to scan the fields to the west, the sun was becoming its wonderfully dramatic self. Driving all this way, I felt I needed some photos to show for my gas consumption.

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Shortly after 6pm, I saw it. Movement beyond the trees, on the other side of the field. Binoculars up, it was the beautiful sight of a Short-Eared Owl, almost ghost-like in the fading light with its light coloration, sailing low over the field, then plunging down. It lifted up and then flew with a purpose below the ridge. Other birders watched similar shows of three owls on the other side of the road. There was a second owl repeating the hunt on our side. My new birding friend and I went out into the field some distance to see if we could spot where the owl had gone to eat, but to no avail. Since it was getting dark, we had to look down on our way out, and rodents were literally criss-crossing in front of our every footfall! No wonder the owls had found this spot to their liking.

All birders congregated. We watched the blind come apart, then someone said, "Time to go home." It was. Darkness had covered the field, though we could hear a Great Horned Owl somewhere off in the distance, proclaiming its territory. Knowing my two teenagers would be home within a couple hours, I reluctantly headed back. It was a good day birding, even if lousy for photos. Not everyone had been unlucky over the weekend. Ron Green, who posts to the mnbird listserv, had spent time over the weekend here as well. In fact, in a small flurry of email conversation, we deduced that it was he who was leaving just as I arrived there. He had no luck on Saturday either, but shared that Friday and Sunday, the owls were putting on the grand show many have experienced. He was able to get a wonderful photo, which you can see at his site. If one looks through the wonderful images he has made, you'll find a similar sunset shot to the one I made. He told me he was getting bored and needed to shoot something. How well I understood!

I was not lucky like Ron. I may just break my 25 mile rule one more time to see if I can have a little better look at these gorgeous owls. Even though my trip was in vain photographically, I enjoyed the peace and quiet of a back road, the company of other birders, and the sight of owls immediately successful in their hunt. Life is good!

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