Friday, June 5, 2009
I arrived in Denver — the only airport I could easily get to for free — and rented a car there. The rental agent walked me out to the lot to show me the car, and as we were examining the outside for “pre-existing damage”, my attention wandered…there were a pair of birds chasing each other around across the lot, and then perched up on the chainlink fence. That’s an interesting shape, I thought…looks like a kingbird. I dug into my bag for my binoculars, while going over the rental contract, and took a quick look. It was a pair of Western Kingbirds; this trip was going to be fun!
link to more information on the project.
click here): it shows just a little of the variety of life in this place.
We stayed at the former ranch house for the property, and for the next three days we got up before dawn went until noon or so, doing our survey lines. Using a GPS device, we’d go to each designated spot and stand for ten minutes, counting all the birds in a radius of 100 feet. Grasshopper sparrows and Western Meadowlark were ubiquitous throughout, and we often counted a half-dozen of each within a count circle. It was surprising to see as we walked how the prairie wold shift in even short distances. Where in one spot you’d have short grass and wildflowers, a hundred yards away you’d be stepping around cacti and spiky shrubs. With these shifts in plantlife there was also a shift in birdlife, so in the gullies we might have Bell’s Vireo, Blue Grosbeak, and Baltimore and Bullock’s Oriole, whereas on the open flatlands we’d have Western Meadowlark, Western and Eastern Kingbirds, Sharp-Tailed Grouse, Lark Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow and Field Sparrow. One pond turned up Cinnamon, Blue and Green-winged Teals, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Killdeer, Barn, Tree and Bank Swallows, and a passing group of Upland Sandpiper. It was interesting how localized some of the birds were…about twenty miles away we checked out a similar prairie that had Chestnut-Collared Longspur, Bairds Sparrow, and large groups of Lark Bunting, while where we were none of those species turned up.
The weather surprised me as much as the diversity did. I’d reluctantly packed a wool hat and extra jacket layer, thinking at the time that there was no way I’d need that stuff in late May. On our second day I found myself wearing everything I had most of the time, and still being chilled. It was generally overcast and cold, with a steady wind, and temperatures ranged down into the forties during a couple of mornings. It did warm up in the afternoon once or twice, but if I go back to South Dakota I’m bringing my parka! The afternoons were our time off, since bird activity tended to decrease by 11am or so, and our samples would be skewed if we continued to survey after that. Most of our IDs came from hearing, rather than seeing, birds, so if they stopped singing it was hard to get a good read on what was there. In fact, one morning was so rainy/cold/windy that we stopped by 8am—the birds seemed suppressed by the conditions, and it wouldn’t be a usable sample. We did take advantage of our free time, and spent one afternoon at LaCreek NWR. LaCreek is famous for it’s Trumpeter Swan population, which is largest around Thanksgiving and can number in the thousands. We hoped to see a couple of stragglers in the area, but were unlucky in that regard. We were very lucky, though, to meet up with Tom Koerner, who manages the refuge and who, without prompting, took us on a two hour tour of the place in his truck. Tom has a deep knowledge of the Refuge, and is responsible for keeping it healthy and appropriately managed. In that regard he seemed to be very successful. Managing a piece of land is utterly complex…altering one aspect has ramifications for every other. Maintaing a “wild” state is takes a lot of work, and a lot of intelligence and experience, and it certainly seemed that Tom was well-qualified for the job. He was also extremely friendly, and I found myself inspired again by someone doing the hard, concrete work of conservation while maintaining a palpable excitement about the place he is caring for.
CLICK HERE for lots more pictures from this trip.
Friday, May 22, 2009
I recently went out to Oregon on business and was able to squeeze in a few days of birding. Four days, to be exact, and my trip included Portland, the west coast, Burns and Hines. When it was all over I'd seen over 150 species across all the spectacular habitat the Oregon has to offer, including coastal pelagic rookeries, snowy mountains, wet decidous forest, and high desert. Here's a link to photos of a few of them:
Sunday, May 10, 2009
After being involved in an intensely structured year in 2008, I have really been enjoying not “having” to chase anything that I don’t want to. I can just chill out and watch the birds, take photos, and go where I want! That said, I do enjoy a little competition every once in awhile, so when Tom Stephenson suggested we compete in the photo division of the World Series of Birding, held every year in Cape May, NJ, of course I said yes.
What Tom and I do have is photography skills, and field practice in capturing the quick and the skulky in images. Tom, of course, also has great ears, and we both have pretty sharp eyes, so the photo category looked like a place we could seriously compete. Our philosophy was not to try and bird the whole state—too much driving. We weren’t trying to get over 200 birds; in fact, the winning number would probably be under 150. So we just needed to find the densest variety of species in closest proximity to each other. Of course, we also needed spots that were easy for photography…if the birds wouldn’t show themselves, they wouldn’t count. You can’t use electronic calls or other devices to bring the birds out of hiding, so they’d have to come out on their own.
On the week of the competition, Tom went ahead and started to scout out our locations. I had a job that week that kept me from going down until Thursday night, so we did a dry run on Friday. We held back a bit, knowing that we’d have to do the real thing the next day, but we still wound up with over a hundred birds on our route, which encompassed the lower third of the state. Southern NJ has a fantastic variety of birds and habitats, and we went through a lot of them, including pine barrens, marshland, shoreline, secondary forest, open fields, agricultural areas, and ocean. We had a quick dinner and were in bed by 10pm for our 4am start the next day.
Game day and we up and running before the sun was up. On our way to our first location (the route is part of the game, so I’m going to be vague!), we picked up our first bird…a Wild Turkey flew up from the side of the pavement and into a tree, and I got a blurry but identifiable shot of it in the near-dark. From there it was go go go, with Tom and I shooting anything that moved, and Sam staying a step ahead of us with the next bird to find and the next spot to hit. Some of the highlights included getting VERY close to having a shot of a Northern Bobwhite that was calling from the side of the road (a passing group of bicyclists scared it off); getting a good shot of a uncharacteristically curious Yellow-Billed Cuckoo, and getting covered with ticks while bushwacking after Worm-Eating and Hooded Warblers. We ran at a good clip, and we were probably up to about 100 species by mid-day, about 8 hours in. We spent some time in Cape May Island, hitting the beach and the fields for birds like Cattle Egret, Common Tern and Northern Gannet. At about three I think we were starting to feel it, but got a second wind that carried us through more of Cape May and up to our final spot in Brigantine. It was basically dark when we finally finished, sixteen hours later, and got in the car to head back to the Cape May headquarters to turn in our photos. I worked feverishly to sort through the 2500 or so shots we’d taken, edit, rename and export them to a disk. We had until midnight, so I spent some extra time getting each image corrected, and worked with RAW files instead of JPGs…it takes longer but it sometimes looks better. I finished and burned a disk at about quarter to midnight, and we handed in the disc, satisfied that we’d birded and photographed as hard as we could that day.
The next morning we showed up to the brunch/awards ceremony, where dozens of teams gathered in a big conference room at a local hotel. We were pretty confident that we’d done well against our competition, but when we got there we saw that our team didn’t have a final species number listed next to it on the bulletin board. I started to get an ugly feeling, and Tom went to talk to folks and see what was going on.
If you'd like to see a gallery of all the birds we photographed that day, click here.
Sunday, February 15, 2009
Now all that is not to say that I haven't done a little chasing in 2009, but I'm trying to limit it to life-birds only. The year started with the Thick-Billed Murre that showed up in a lake in Hemstead Park on Long Island. I had amazing looks at it with Shai Mitra and Doug Gochfeld, and photographed it as it floated within feet of the shore. This is normally a bird seen only on the ocean, so there were concerns that there was something wrong with it. Sure enough, it was found dead on the lake a couple of days later. There were also two interesting "non-countable" birds nearby on the Island: Eurasion Teal at a nearby lake, and an Audobon's Yellow-Rumped Warbler out at Oak Beach, a very rare bird for New York even if it's not a separate species from the Myrtle Yellow-Rumped.
Jess and I took a trip to Block Island in January, and took a shot at Tufted Duck in Providence along the way. No Tufted, but we had Black Guillemot and Common Murre from the ferry, as well as a surprise appearance of a Northern Fulmar! While we were up there the Ivory Gull was reported in Massachussetts, and I just couldn't resist. I stayed over and was in Gloucester the next morning before daybreak. One other birder was there, and we waited as the sun began to dimly illuminate the snowy scene (it was mixed snow/rain that morning). We began to see forms in the air...just the shapes of gulls moving towards and then past the point we were on. We strained to see the ghostly white ivory gull, and several times thought we might have it, but each turned out to be an Iceland Gull...normally a good bird, but in this situation something to note and discard. The other birder walked a little way down the rocky shore, and then suddenly I saw a bird whiter than the Icelands, whiter than the snow itself, come soaring in from behind us. "Ivory!" I was shouting, "Ivory!", and the other birder was now shouting it, too. Over then next hour several more birders arrived, and we watched the gull as it glided right over our heads, and then landed just a few feet away on a patch of ice. I would watch it for several minutes, and then look around a bit at the other gulls (which included probably a dozen Icelands, one or two Glaucous, and a very good Thayers candidate), and then look back for the Ivory, startled again as if seeing it for the first time. It's the most striking bird I think I've ever seen.
Finally, I went back up to Rhode Island for the Tufted Duck, and not only found it but also saw the reported hybird Tufted Duck x Scaup...an odd bird that has white flanks, a dark grey back, and a mini-tuft. It was gratifying to have both after having missed them in January, and it was an education to see the hybrid...something to file away for when I'm scanning big Scaup flocks in the future.
So it's back to birding as usual, with just enough chasing to keep things spicy, and if the winter is any indication, we seem to be headed for another good year in birding.