Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year

I can't help but look back over 2009 and say it was a very good year for me! In every way. I discovered a new soulmate, took not one but *three* great vacations to far corners of the United States to see some of our amazing National Parks and Wildlife Refuges, and had the best financial year of my short economic life (which is a bit odd in this dreary recession, but I am a contrarian).

Cyndi and I shared great outdoor adventures, wonderful meals, and quiet companionship.

I visited the Florida Everglades in winter (when it is 70 degrees there), the California Redwoods in spring (with the Rhododendron in bloom), and Maine's Acadia National Park in the late summer (after the flies have gone).

And I saw last year's huge losses from my modest retirement accounts recover amazingly well. Though I don't covet a lot of money, I do dream of a retirement. I can see it out there on the horizon, and suspect it will arrive one day.

Though those top 10 lists can be tedious, I'd like to celebrate with a Top 10 Birds of 2009! Sometimes I was excited to be seeing new birds for the first time, other times I was pleased to create a nice photo of a bird I knew before. So, here are my Top 10, and yes, of course, I took the photos myself with my inexpensive little Olympus C-750. Click on the photos to see them larger and in more detail ... use your browser's "back" button to return to this page.

10. Northern Saw-whet Owl. Everybody loves owls and hummingbirds, right? I have a tough time finding owls, so when I do see one it is a treat. Usually they're out at night. This year I've twice felt the rush of air as owls brushed by me at night ... once as it powered to a stop mere feet from my face, then slowly rose away from me ... both of us no doubt somewhat shaken by the near collision. (Yes, they have good night vision but when automobile headlights momentarily blind them, then they can come amazingly close to hitting someone in the face!)

9. White-eyed Vireo. It's no secret that I like a bird that has a name and feature that make it hard to get the identification wrong. I got quite a few wrong this year, which means I learned a lot. I'm really very, very confident I've identified this one accurately ... but am always ready to be corrected by those who know. This one has a lot of detail if you click on it to see the larger image.

8. Yellow-throated Warbler. There are many warblers, and lots of birds with yellow throats, but I'm certain the naturalist at Everglades National Park knows her birds well. Her enthusiasm for birding was evident as a Peregrine Falcon flew low over a pond and just for a moment began, then terminated, its stoop (a dive intended to kill prey). She proclaimed, "I love my job!" Those of us who enjoy birding merely as a hobby can only imagine what it might be like to be paid to go birding.

7. The Green Heron has a number of subtle shades of green in its plumage. This one is best viewed large, by clicking on the photo. You ought to see the length they grow to as they stretch out to snatch a fish from the water, all the while gripping their perch with those powerful feet.

6. Though I've seen the Black Tern before, it has always been from a great distance. By taking a canoe trip with my sister, into the Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon I was able to approach very close for this photo.

5. I think of 2009 as the "Year of the Grouse" because I found and photographed so many species of Grouse new to me. One has to get up pretty early in the morning to see them strut on their lek (a dancing-ground where males gather to vie for the attention of the females who watch from the edges). This one is the Greater Sage-Grouse. These birds are declining in numbers due to loss of their habitat.

4. For sheer color and quirkiness, the Purple Gallinule is one of my favorites. I had gone to the north side of Everglades National Park and was told this bird might be found there. I was on my way back to the car, walking along a slough and stopped to photograph a blackbird. I sat down by the edge of the water, just enjoying the moment, when this bird came out of the thick growth on the far side. To my surprise it began to flap its wings and run with those big yellow feet across the lily pads, skipping and ziz-zagging until it came to rest at my feet, nearly too close to focus. I zoomed out and in the perfect, soft light captured detail in the dark of the eye and the bright shield on its forehead. Click on the image to see what I mean.

3. Most of the time I enjoy a photo that shows a single bird with all the field marks that make it unique easily seen in the photo. But this picture's early dawn light and sense of activity and movement nicely capture a unique moment. I've made this one my computer wallpaper and never tire of looking at it. Be sure to click on this one, to make it larger and find more birds that appear in the background!

2. After seeking without success for some time, I received good directions from my friend Rich and excellent navigation assistance from Cyndi, and was blessed with nice light and a carefree disposition that caused these Black-throated Sparrows (a pair raising young nearby) to fly to the perfect spot for a photo of them in their habitat -- rocky slopes with thorny vegetation.

1. And, the top bird picture for 2009 has to be this photo which I probably won't be able to recreate if I try for the rest of my life. A Red-winged Blackbird sending a Great Egret out of its territory with a peck to the butt, taken at the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge in California.

May your 2010 be filled with adventure and discovery, peace and joy. Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas ... this is my red and green seasonal decoration this year ... I grew it from a seed.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Christmas Bird Count

Though I enjoy birding, I had never participated in a Christmas bird count. That is when Audubon and birding groups all across the nation do an annual one-day survey of as many birds and bird species as can be located in specific areas. This allows comparison, year after year, of exactly the same area to monitor population changes.

On Saturday Cyndi and I participated in the count in Nampa and on Sunday we did the same for Boise. This meant getting up very early in the morning and beginning to bird at daybreak ... then covering as much of our assigned portion of the area as possible as long as there was daylight.

The Boise area is a circle with a radius of 7.5 miles, centered on the capitol building. It was divided into about 14 areas and we scoured one of those smaller areas, first with three very experienced birders in the morning, then by ourselves in the afternoon. We carefully documented what we saw and counted the birds as accurately as possible.

Here is the spot we went to first in Boise, on Sunday morning. The sunrise was beautiful and the birds on this partially-frozen pond were just waking up. A Bald Eagle flew into the tree against the sunrise colors and a Merlin was seen there as well.

There were 832 Canada Geese out there, along with about 70 Northern Shovelers, a Ring-necked Duck, Common Merganser, and a couple of Coots. There were some Cackling Geese, too.

I took this photo on Saturday, on the Nampa count. Though birds are the objective, this old barn with the horses was a nice bit of local color I couldn't ignore.

One unexpected bird my group of four located in Nampa was this Great Egret. They usually leave when the weather gets cold, so it was neat to document this straggler.

Idaho has a lot of raptors (birds of prey) of all types. Cyndi and I located this Cooper's Hawk.

We saw quite a few Bald Eagles over the course of the day. This adult flew down the Boise River, then perched in this tree in the early dawn light.

I'm not sure, but I think this is a birdhouse. Hear what I'm saying, squirrel, *bird*house.

Some birds can be tough to identify. Here Cyndi is using her binoculars on an unusual, large pink bird seen near a feeder on somebody's lawn.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

It'll be a Cold Day in Idaho ...

Today the high temperature was something on the order of 26 degrees, with a steady strong wind. Cyndi and I braved the temperatures, but didn't get out the metal tripod and scope, and frequently fled back to the warmth of the car.

We saw the American Tree Sparrow. This photo isn't as sharp as I'd like, but clearly shows the spot in the center of the chest.

This photo of the American Tree Sparrow is sharp, but the bird has hidden behind a branch so the spot is not visible. The bicolored bill is shown nicely, though.

Usually the type of Goldeneye I see are Common Goldeneye. In the winter another kind can often be found, and today for the first time I saw one in Idaho. The back has more black than the Common, and the round spot on the face becomes shaped like a crescent. It is a Barrow's Goldeneye.

Well, there it goes. It has to run on the water to get a start for takeoff. And when it flies, the wings make a whistling sound.

It was a good day for eagles! In my worst identification blunder for the day I watched a bird approach and studied the tail feathers. A Raven has a spatulate tail, longer at the center that comes to a point. We had seen lots of Ravens, but this one didn't have the pointed tail. It was more squared off. "Crow," I offered, but as it got closer and bigger I raised the binoculars to my eye and was greeted by a face with a hooked beak and magnificent golden mantle. Too late I raised the camera and got this soft image as it went past.

This Golden Eagle is nicely lit and sharp, but I'd rather see it without the transmission lines. Well, the poles are a part of its habitat these days ... .

This one is interesting because a Bald Eagle will usually eat fish. Grasped in its talons, however, is a feathered creature. Some black and white bird met its demise, perhaps one of the more than 90 Merganser we saw? Whatever it was, it is dinner now.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Down by the River

I took a walk by the Boise River today. Though the temperature was below freezing, with no wind and a warm sun it was a glorious day!

The Song Sparrow does not mind the winter weather. They're here all year long.

With smaller birds gathering by the seeds and berries, the accipiters (birds that hunt and eat smaller birds) are arriving. This one is a Cooper's Hawk.

Splashes of color always catch my eye, like this American Goldfinch.

My favorite sighting today, though, was this Downy Woodpecker, eating mullein seeds ... or, perhaps, seeking insects in the seed heads?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Sparrows (again, and corrected)

I received a nice note from a fellow birder, which I'll copy here mostly unedited.

I noticed the "Maine Sparrows" entry, and since I'm a sparrow fan, I read that entry. I thought I would point out that your "White-throated Sparrow" (nice photo!) actually features what I am fairly certain is an adult Swamp Sparrow. Notice that the white throat is pale, but not really bright white. Also, the white throat on WTSP usually looks like it is bordered completely in black, although the lower margin is often not as solid black as the lateral edges. On your bird, note how the pale throat has a black border only laterally, where this margin is formed by the heavy, dark malar streak. The black lateral margin to the white throat on WTSP is actually formed by the moustachial stripe (the dark line above the malar streak). Look also at the supercilium (pale line above the eye), which is greyish, rather than the tan or bright white of WTSP. White-throated Sparrow would have a bright yellow area at the front of the supercilium (the supraloral spot) but your bird is the same color there as in the rest of the supercilium. Several other features point to Swamp Sparrow, but the above are sufficient, in my opinion, to make the ID. Just as you say in your blog, sparrows are tricky. If you get more interested in sparrows, you may decide to come down sometime for SparrowFest. We had 20 species in a single day last year.

Sincerely, Byron, Austin, Tx

Here is the photo I had posted and called a White-throated Sparrow. After getting that note I went back to my field guides (I have one that shows only sparrows, with many pictures of each sparrow) and saw just how very much this does look like a Swamp Sparrow. I had seen the white throat and yellow by the eye and *assumed* I knew what I was seeing. But, the yellow is at the *base of the bill* not *at the front of the eyebrow*. (By the way, if you click on the photo in the blog, you can see it slightly larger.)

I'll tell a little more about the circumstances under which the photo was taken. I was having tea with friends, binoculars at the ready, and a bird was eating the seeds in this late summer / early autumn flower garden. I couldn't make it out and eventually walked over with camera in hand. I pished (made a noise that causes some birds to become curious) and a bird appeared and I shot the photo and lowered the camera, but the bird had already disappeared back into the leaves. Then it peeked out at the bottom, and was clearly a Common Yellowthroat with the black mask. Only later, when I downloaded the photos, did I see that I had not photographed the Yellowthroat, but instead some sparrow had appeared. I had been seeking the White-throated Sparrow in Maine, and would look for the yellow spot to eliminate other sparrows when I saw a sparrow. So, when I saw this photo with a yellow spot and white throat ... well, the rest is history. And, now that I see the difference made by the placement of the yellow spot (as well as all the other factors mentioned above) I think I'll be able to identify these sparrows a little better in the future. Learning about birds never ends.

Normally I wouldn't burden you with looking at a photo of this low quality. I was at Orono Bog in Maine in the evening and a flock of sparrows was moving through the underbrush. Hand-holding a telephoto lens in low light is a recipe for disaster ... but this now becomes the best photo I've taken of a White-throated Sparrow, with a yellow spot at the front of the eyebrow. Ironic that it was in a swamp, huh?

Thursday, November 26, 2009


Happy Thanksgiving.

I'm thankful for birds, whether it be the Peregrine approaching 200 miles per hour in a dive to kill a pigeon, the turkey on the dining room table, or the Rosy-Finches that arrive in the winter to brighten our days.

Almost a year ago, on the winter solstice, I posted a blog entry about the Rosy-Finches I saw after unsuccessfully seeking them for years. In short, I had found Rosy-Finches, but believed them to be Black Rosy-Finches instead of the Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches I had heard were to be found there.

I want to thank Louie Quintana for posting to the IBLE (Idaho Birders Linked Electronically) Listserv that he had seen Black Rosy-Finches, because he was the first one to make me aware that this separate species could be seen in Idaho at the location I visited last year.

Here's the photo from 2008. I decided it was a Black Rosy-Finch. I admit the light was less than ideal, as they come to roost in Cliff Swallow nests as the last light of day fades, but they really looked black on the chest to me.

This year I studied the pictures in my bird books once again, and the big difference would be if the birds were brown or black, it seemed to me. I figured all I needed to do was find one that looked brown instead of the black I had been seeing.

On my way there I first heard, then saw, as it came quite close by me, a Canyon Wren.

Next a pair of talkative Rock Wrens visited. This is getting quite late in the year for a summertime bird like the Rock Wren to be seen ... but the Canyon Wren will spend the winter here for sure. I was asked if I called these birds to me, and I did not. Some people watch birds, and if you sit quietly you'll discover that some birds watch people.

Then, as the light faded, by twos and threes the Rosy-Finches appeared, working their way down the cliff face, ducking in and out of various nests and crevices. The "early birds" got their pick of accommodations for the night and latecomers would be greeted by a light peck to send them out of the entrance, sending them on their way to seek an unoccupied spot. And, amid the black chested birds came one that stood out even to the unaided eye! A complete gray hood (not just a "crown") on a brown-chested bird.

Now I was free of the dilemma of just how dark the chest of the bird was ... because there are three subspecies of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches. One is found along the coast of Alaska, so I wasn't seeing that one. But the hooded one I saw and photographed is known as the "Coastal" or "Hepburn's" race of Gray-crowned Rosy Finch. The ones with a smaller cap instead of the full gray hood are called in some older books "Cassin's" race.

I want to thank Idaho birder Terry Gray for sharing with me a photo he posted to Flickr showing both races in one photo.

Think of something you are thankful for, and either enjoy it today or make plans to enjoy it soon; and share it with your friends, family and loved ones if at all possible!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Maine Sparrows

My last blog post from Maine showed off photos of gulls and told how to tell some of them apart. Another bird that can be frustratingly similar in appearance are the sparrows. Frankly, I still get a lot of them wrong. That said, there are some things you can look at and sometimes you can quickly tell which type of sparrow you are seeing from some simple observations.

The first thing I try to determine is the color or pattern of the breast feathers. I try to decide if they have a clean, evenly colored breast, or a central spot on a clean chest, or instead have streaks on the chest.

Some, like these two Chipping Sparrows in the photo above have a clean, gray breast. No streaks or spots. They also have a brown cap and a black line through the eye. There is a sparrow that looks almost the same, the American Tree Sparrow, but it will have a black dot right in the center of the chest. (And the Chipping Sparrows are summertime birds and the American Tree Sparrows are wintertime birds, so there is often more than one factor that can help with identification.)

This one is the widespread and common Song Sparrow. The photo isn't very good, but what one can look for with these is a smudgy dark central splotch on a streaky, mottled chest. A Song Sparrow has rounded tail feathers.

The faraway photo reminds me how hard it can be to see some birds, mixed in with leaves and twigs, moving around just as I'm about to see them with the binoculars, and so forth. If you have a scope, you can sometimes get good looks at a bird that isn't made wary by your proximity.

At first I thought this one was a Song Sparrow, but it breaks a couple of rules for Song Sparrow. The central smudge isn't very big and the streaks along the chest and sides of the body are very fine and delicate ... and the tail feathers are not rounded. They're spiky and pointed at the tips, making a V-shaped notch between them. The supercillium (eyebrow) is buffy, and for all these reasons I think this is another very common and widespread sparrow, the Savannah Sparrow.

Finally, though this one does not show much on the chest it displays a prominent white throat and a small yellow spot in front of the eye ... the White-throated Sparrow.
UPDATE 12/1/2009: A fellow birder looked at this and corrected me ... this is a Swamp Sparrow, not a White-throated. I'll be blogging all about it today, so go find that post and learn along with me!
I like the ones that have a name that speaks to what to look for ... like White-throated or Golden-crowned or White-crowned.
UPDATE 12/1/2009: On the other hand, the names can deceive as well. I saw a Palm Warbler in Maine, and there are no Palm trees there. The Swamp Sparrow is not always in a swamp.
There are a lot of Sparrows and learning to tell them apart can be fun if you don't let it become frustrating. Just start picking out the easy ones first, and the harder identifications will come later.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

We interrupt the regularly scheduled blog ...

Just as I was getting rolling with blogs about Maine and the birds I saw while I was there; the weather turned colder and frost was predicted ... so I had to drop everything and pay attention to my garden. I picked a lot of stuff I thought would not survive the cold and have been busy making fried green tomatoes and cooking spaghetti sauce. This zuke was hidden under the tomato bush, and it got so big I think I'll just put it in the back of the car for added weight and traction in case of snow.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Those white birds seen on the coast are often just lumped together as "sea gulls" by many people. Actually there isn't a bird called a "sea gull" and many of them live inland, far from the ocean. They can be difficult to tell apart, so I'll share some photos of some of the gulls I saw.

This one is generally the most common gull, the Herring Gull. To recognize gull species takes a lot of patience, and there are some things I always look for. I check the color of the feet ... pink or yellow? I look at the bill size, shape, and color or markings. And, if I can get close enough, I look at the color of the flesh around the eye. In this case we see pink feet, a big yellow bill with a red spot, and yellow around the eye. (Click on the picture to see a larger version.) Herring Gull.

This one is a bit less common, and it is larger with a dark back ... almost black instead of grey like the one above. The feet and bill are about the same color as the Herring Gull, but have a look at the orbital ring (flesh around the eye) on this one ... red, not yellow. It's a Great Black-backed Gull.

Now this one is different, with legs more pale yellow than pink, and though the bill is yellow it does not have the red spot but instead sports a black band. And the orbital ring is black. It is a Ring-billed Gull, one we often see in Idaho as well. They hang around dumps a lot to get free food, but with the closure of open dumps life is getting harder for this scavenger and they're hanging around picnic tables hoping I'll drop my sandwich.

Uh, oh. Sorry about this one. I'll just have to tell you about it. This gull is small, about half the size of the Herring Gull and has a short black bill and pinkish-red feet. I think you can see the red feet of the one in the middle of the rock, closest to us ... or maybe I just remember what I saw and fill in the picture using my imagination. These are Bonaparte's Gulls.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Whale Watching

In Maine I went on a whale watching trip with Bar Harbor Whale Watch. I'm not one to advertise, but in case you want to go out with them, here's their website.

As you can imagine, I dreamed of seeing pelagic (sea-going) birds. Some birds rarely come to land, except to nest. This tour boat does a trip with Audubon folks once a year where I imagine they slow the boat and correctly identify birds, but this trip was more oriented toward whales than birds. That boat can really move, and the birds were often fleeing for their very lives, like this Puffin. Sorry little guy. Didn't mean to intrude.

After we left port it wasn't 15 minutes until a Minke Whale surfaced right next to the bow where I was sitting. The boat came to a stop and the whale took another breath of air and then was gone. I have not ever been whale watching before, so it was interesting to see how the boat races from spot to spot at such a high speed, but comes to a complete stop when a whale is located. It didn't slow for birds at all, to my disappointment.

When the fin of a Basking Shark broke the calm surface of the ocean the boat again throttled down for a look.

I saw three lighthouses, including this interesting one, which is the New England lighthouse farthest from shore.

I found a lot of interesting facts about this lighthouse at the website

An excerpt from the web site advises, "Far-flung Mount Desert Rock Light is one of the most dramatically isolated of all American lighthouses. More than 20 miles from the nearest port at Mount Desert Island, the low-lying, wave swept rock is, as historian Edward Rowe Snow put it, like "part of another world." George Putnam, for many years the commissioner of the Bureau of Lighthouses, regarded Mount Desert Rock as the most exposed light station in the United States. The tiny rock is only about 17 feet above sea level at its highest point.

In this closer view you can see that it was *once again* severely damaged by a hurricane this year.

On this small rock you can see Gray Seals, Harbor Seals, and overhead a Greater Shearwater flies. There's a seal in the water at the lower right. Two Peregrine Falcons were on the island as well. It is owned by the College of the Atlantic now, and is a research station for studying whales and birds.

From this vantage point I got to see what Columbus and his crew must have viewed as they left the reassuring world of solid earth. Water all the way to the horizon. No more islands, not even a small rock. Creepy.

Looking back toward our port the mountains were beginning to sink into the sea. Certainly not a flat earth ... or perhaps we were already beginning to slip off the edge. I began to think we should return. The boat throttled up after a brief stop by this rock and headed into an area of cold, nutrient-rich upwelling water that hosted a lot of marine life.

Suddenly a fin broke the surface, then another and another. The boat stopped and we were surrounded by about 45 Pilot Whales. Like dolphins they were playful and curious. My photos are decent, but to get some really excellent images taken by the naturalist from up on the 3rd deck of this huge boat, visit the Bar Harbor Whales site on Flickr.

Their blog is and there you'll experience their excitement at this find. More photos they took are on Flickr Not every whale watch sees whales, and we had a great, extended encounter.

They did really surround the boat so everybody had great views. There were big males and females with young close by their side.

This Pilot Whale seemed to come "people watching" by the side of the boat.

On the way back to port I saw more Shearwaters, and got this photo of one skimming barely above the water. Though I had hoped for more bird sightings, the many seals, porpoise, shark, and whales more than satisfied my curiosity. For sea birds, the best is to take a tour to their breeding islands. Maybe next time.