Monday, April 16, 2018

16 Apr 2018: A junco spectrum and #100!

We got about 6 inches (15 cm) of heavy, wet snow over the weekend, which is unseasonably late. Birds are definitely suffering, with reports today (day 3 of snow cover) of birds such as Hermit Thrushes and Tree Swallows sitting on trails and not moving when picked up (the person picking them up only did so to move them to a safer place). The problem is that spring migrants have started arriving, and many of them need insects to eat - which are difficult or impossible to find in heavy snow. There's also a nice layer of ice under the snow, which is not helping.

There will always be a tradeoff for the "early birds" - if they arrive first, they'll be able to claim the best territory; but they risk getting hit by a late winter storm. But of course human interference with the climate (making unseasonable storms like this one more likely) is not helping. Not to mention the other impacts we have on birds, with loss of habitat, introduced predators and competitors, and plenty of windows to fly into.

Most birds will probably be fine - I hope! - and the seed-eaters and generalists who can find a well-stocked feeder seem to be doing well. Our yard is generally not super attractive to birds, presumably because the yard has zero cover (not our choice - we're renting) and the neighborhood in general doesn't have much habitat. But this weekend has been a different story!

Saturday morning, after the snow had started, we shoveled a couple of small patches under the feeder and put down some seed, expecting we might have a few juncos stop by. Well, we very soon had a dozen, then two dozen, accompanied by one, then two, then eight! Fox Sparrows. When I took the above photo on Sunday, I counted 31 Fox Sparrows and about 60 Dark-eyed Juncos!

Our own invasive predators (who live indoors, aside from their enclosed "catio" out one window) have hardly slept since then! I've been spending a lot of time sitting on the floor with them, just watching the sparrows forage. We've had small numbers of other species stop by, too - Song Sparrow, American Tree Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow (#99), a few Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles, three European Starlings, four House Finches, and remarkably only three House Sparrows! - but the Foxes and Juncos have definitely been the main event. The Fox Sparrows have been singing constantly - loudly enough that I can hear them throughout the house even with the windows closed, which has been lovely.

Singing Fox Sparrow

When I went to bed last night, I was hearing ghostly Fox Sparrows and seeing juncos behind my eyelids!

There's been a fun variety of juncos to watch. We mostly get Slate-colored here, but there's been a fair number of Oregons and Cassiars as well. The Cassiar Junco is considered to be an intergrade between Oregon and Slate-colored. Pure Oregons would presumably be fairly rare here in Wisconsin, but we've had some that look pretty close. Here's a sample in approximate order from most Slate-colored to most Oregon:

Classic Slate-colored. One thing to note, unfortunately barely visible here, is the convex shape of the hood - i.e. the white belly extends up into the black hood (there is no "bib").

I'll call this a Slate-colored, but there is just a hint of brownish on the mantle (back feathers). Maybe just a young bird?

Possibly a Cassiar Junco leaning toward the Slate-colored side of the family. The hood is a bit darker than the body, and you can see just a bit of a "bib" here, unlike that first bird. But perhaps an argument could be made for female Slate-colored.

Here's a nice Cassiar with a more distinct hood

Cassiar - starting to see a touch of brown on the side and back.

I'll call the center bird a female Cassiar - not quite brown enough for an Oregon, and maybe too brown for a Slate-colored, with a bib that contrasts slightly with the sides - but females get pretty tricky to sort out. On the right is a male Cassiar, maybe the same individual as one of the above photos.

I'll call this a female Cassiar leaning toward Oregon - the back still has some gray in it.

I'll say female Cassiar again... not quite brown enough for a full Oregon... but this bird and the one above probably wouldn't stand out in a crowd of Oregons.

This one's a pretty classic female Oregon.

And a pretty classic male Oregon, although I would like him to be just a bit brighter. This is when I'm glad all the races are considered one species, so I don't have to worry about whether one is truly pure enough to count on a species list!

What do you think about this guy/gal? Seems to be a first-year bird retaining some juvenile plumage (such as the streaks on the flanks and brown on the crown), so that's not helping. Doesn't seem to have much of a bib, so I'll tentatively go with first-year Slate-colored. Any thoughts?
Yes, they are all "just juncos," but it's fun to pick through the individual variation and try to sort them into boxes. Much more interesting than looking out and saying, "eh, that's just 60 juncos!"

This evening I was watching the just-juncos and listening to the Fox Sparrows again... when a new visitor caught my eye.

I thought, oh, that's nice - I wouldn't have expected to get a Field Sparrow on the yard list. My camera was at hand so I casually snapped its photo. Then I realized - that was #100 for the green year list!

Saturday, April 14, 2018

1-14 Apr 2018: Brief birding break between blizzards

It's snowing. Again. Hello, winter 4.0! This is the second snowstorm in the past two weeks, and between the snow, wind, cold, and low potential for new birds (who are sensibly staying farther south), I haven't been out yet. But I've picked up a few FOGYs on my commutes and errand runs, and did get out to watch waterfowl before work one morning.

It was a beautiful morning, with no wind and early-morning light at my back. I arrived at the park where I wanted to sit and watch the lake, put up my binoculars, and saw this:

"C'mon, guys, say cheeeeese!"

Greater Scaup! I'd already seen a pair this year, but it had been so cold that day that I couldn't take photos. Today there were 7 just 100 ft offshore and it was >30 F so I was perfectly happy to sit there for an hour, alternating between scoping the lake and digiscoping some ducks.

As usual, there were hundreds of Lesser Scaup around - Greaters being far more rare on Lake Onalaska. I had fun taking some comparison photos:

Greater Scaup on top, Lesser on bottom (probably not exactly to scale). Note the rounded heads on the Greaters with no peak at the back of the head. Greaters' heads are also a bit bigger overall. The two species were sorting themselves out nicely as the many males pursued the few females that were present.

Here's another view:

This view shows the wider bills and fatter cheeks of the Greaters (top). These birds were plowing up some serious water as they motored around, actively feeding and courting - cool to see on the very still, calm lake. One of the clearest field marks for me is the nail, which is the black tip of the bill. On some of the Greaters, it spans the whole bill-tip. The second Greater from the right has a pretty narrow nail - but you can see that it's still slightly wider than on the Lessers below. If I saw that bird alone and this was the only view I had, I would not be sure what to call it. 

But the profile view can be ambiguous too:

This is a pair of Lessers, and while you can see a bit of a peak toward the back of the head of the male, he's pretty confusing. He was about to dive when I took this photo, but seemed to consistently maintain this head shape while I watched him. His bill looks wide from this angle (though of course it's hard to be sure from the side), his head looks bigger than the female's, and his head looks more green than purple (the color definitely changes with the light, but overall Greaters tend to more often show green). The white sides are supposed to be brighter on a Greater than a Lesser, but I wasn't seeing any difference in this light. But I watched and photographed this male from a few angles and he was definitely a Lesser. 

This guy is a slam-dunk Lesser based on head shape and nail size, but definitely showing green at this angle:

My experience that morning was a great reminder that while these species are definitely distinguishable, static photographs can be challenging to ID. I'm much happier when I can watch the bird moving to get a view of all the field marks in a variety of postures.

There were plenty of other waterfowl around, with Canvasbacks being the most abundant after Lesser Scaup:

Photos are a little softer than I'd like with my digiscoping setup, but that's still a handsome duck!

My checklist for that hour was the first one this year that was over 40 species. With a few incidentals on my commute and another quick stop on the other side of the lake, it was my first day tallying >50 this year. Maybe someday spring will arrive and allow the rest of the birds to move through!

A Chipping Sparrow at the feeder yesterday put me at 99 for the year. What do you think will be #100?

Saturday, March 31, 2018

23-31 March 2018: Ode to gizzard shad

Here's the star of this week's show:

The fish people at work tell me this is a gizzard shad. No, it's not a bird. Yes, it's dead. In fact, many gizzard shad are dead. That's why they're the star of the show.

Check this out:

If you're like me, you'll probably notice A LOT of gulls in this photo. But look more closely - see all those little black lumps on the ice? Those are all carcasses of gizzard shad. There are even more of them than there are gulls.

The fish people at work also tell me that here in La Crosse, WI, we're at the northernmost limit of the gizzard shad's range. Some years are fine for that species, but if the water gets too cold for too long over the winter, a lot of gizzard shad die. Then they float to the surface and become embedded in the ice. As the ice melts, the buffet is exposed.

And then the birds feast. That photo above is one small section of the ice in front of a new gull-viewing area that the city (county? state?) is building. Well, they call it an "eagle-viewing area," and I guess there are lots of eagles there, but there's an order of magnitude more gulls, so let's call it like it is. I've even seen members of the general public stopping to look at the gulls (and maybe eagles).

Let's zoom out a bit more at that spot: 

It's hard to see at this resolution (clicking on the photo might help), but there's a few thousand gulls there. If I zoom out too much more, you probably can't really see the gulls at all here. But this is still just a portion of the sheet of ice that was covered with gulls this week. I estimated about 7,500 gulls at this one spot - and there were a few thousand more farther down the river.

One day I was gulling my way home from work, hugging the river as much as possible. The riparian route involves some sidewalks (where I bike very slowly and cautiously) and several crosswalk crossings on a new bike path, so it's a little slower than my normal route, but the view has been great this week.

I made a stop behind KFC, where there's a good place to view the gull-covered-ice-covered river. There I saw this:

You might remember that I have been wanting to see a black-backed gull. This is clearly that, despite the poor photographic quality. Much darker than the Herrings and Ring-bills. The slender, long-winged shape means this is a Lesser Black-backed Gull (#86) - a second-year bird, to be specific. (Gull people really like to age gulls. I'm sort of indifferent about aging most of the time, but with a special gull, I'll make the effort.) Lesser Black-backed Gulls (I'll call them LBBGs from here on) live in Eurasia, so you might think this bird would be HUGE news. Well, it's pretty cool, all right, but LBBGs have become increasingly all over North America in the past couple of decades. It's thought that they're probably breeding somewhere in the eastern North American Arctic, though no one's found out exactly where yet. My personal theory is that LBBGs have discovered a system of wormholes that they're using to travel the globe... which would certainly explain a lot. 

So, this isn't exactly an alert-the-North-American-birding-world sort of bird. It's not even that special in Wisconsin in general - LBBGs are now regular visitors to the Great Lakes. But here on the southwest side of the state, this is an excellent bird indeed. I was thrilled. I only wished I had my scope and camera to get proper photos. But it gave me a chance to try taking photos with my phone through my binoculars, which worked much better than I expected, but obviously won't be winning any photography awards. Still, if a bird is mostly identifiable in the photo, that's great!

The next morning I gulled my way to work. Most of the gulls were now on the east side of the river, following the melting ice (and shad buffet), so morning had become the time to bird. Among the 10,000 or so gulls that I saw, I found this:

That's right - another LBBG! This one a full adult, in lovely light, and I had my scope and DSLR with digiscoping attachment, so I could get a much better photo. Still not going to win any photography awards, but there is no question of the ID of this bird. The yellow legs show up nicely - I cropped the photo to keep both Herring (pink legs, larger) and Ring-billed (yellow legs, smaller) in the image so you can compare them all.

Anyway, that's the good gull news. You might have noticed that LBBG was #86, but that skips quite a few numbers since the last number I mentioned. I probably won't mention every single species in the text if they're expected and not super exciting, but you can always check the sidebar at the right for the full list. In summary, I've also found a few more ducks this week, my first non-Killdeer shorebird (Greater Yellowlegs came in at #82), and first swallow of the year. I was pretty pleased when a flock of Cackling Geese (#83) flew over the house when I happened to step out for a moment, as I'd missed them thus far this year. The best non-gull this week, though, was this guy:

No, not the gulls! The bird on the right - Ross's Goose for #84. Yes, this was the same day that I had only phone + binoculars to try to get photos - but again, it's identifiable. This lone goose was trying its best to blend in with 100 or so gulls, and it was doing a remarkably good job of it. The only other times I've seen Ross's Geese (in Kansas, in previous years), they were flying overhead, mixed into flocks of Snow Geese. It was nice to get great looks (better than this photo!) at a stationary bird, and fun to see that it was no bigger than a Herring Gull! I nearly didn't check this spot on that particular day - it was previously a great gull spot, but they had mostly cleared out as the ice melted - but I'm glad I did, because I might not see this species again this year. The moral of the story is - get out and bird, as often as possible!

Today marks the end of the first quarter of the year, and I'm at a nice round number of 90 species thus far. If only I could continue averaging one species per day for the rest of the year!

Thursday, March 22, 2018

19-22 March 2018: Iceland Gull x2!

Gulls! So many gulls! 

This is just one section of the gull madness about half a mile from my office. There has been much, much more gull madness a bit farther down the river, but it's hard to get a good view down there. At this spot, there's a nice little public beach right next to the road where you can set up for a good long look.

Last week, I was excited that there were a few dozen gulls there. This Monday, I stopped by after work and there were hundreds! I had only my binoculars (no scope), but didn't see anything glaringly out of the ordinary.

The next day I had an appointment for a bike fit (to try to address the back pain that's becoming problematic... the bike fit didn't solve it yet, but we'll keep working on it), so I couldn't go gulling that day. On Wednesday I took my scope to work and went gulling afterwards. I had barely started scanning when I saw this:

One of these gulls is not like the others: it's an adult with a "dirty" head (standing with bill tucked into its back near the center of the photo). Herring and Ring-billed gulls get streaking on their heads in the winter, too, but at this point the adults are almost all pure white again (though the subadults are another story). But that gull in the middle has adult-type plumage with a very brown head. Thayer's Gulls (which are now lumped into Iceland Gull, but still a recognizable "type") often have very brown heads. I could also see that the eye was dark (very unusual in Herring)... and I was pretty sure I could see that the underside of the primaries on the right wing was silvery, rather than black. The underside of the primary is diagnostic for Thayer's versus Herring, which otherwise Thayer's can resemble closely.

After seeing those traits and feeling pretty excited, I put my camera onto my scope to take the above picture (and a few more, of course, because digiscoping often does not result in great photos!). Of course, as soon as I took the camera off, the bird started waking up and stretched out a wing! I had a great view of the underside of the primaries then - very silvery - definitely a Thayer's-type Iceland Gull for #76!

I'd had a great look, but I really wanted to try to get decent open-wing shots for documentation purposes. Any gull other than Herring or Ring-billed is flagged as rare in eBird for this area right now (later, Bonaparte's will be common). Given how subtle the differences are between Thayer's and Herring, I wanted to make sure I had photographic evidence - both so that other birders would believe me, and so that I wouldn't start doubting myself!

After the gull woke up, it was wandering around feeding on dead fish here and there. There are SO MANY fish carcasses emerging from the ice as it melts - it's no wonder there are so many gulls and eagles around. 

Thayer's-type Iceland Gull at center, showing dark eye, relatively straight-edged bill (not bulging out near the tip), black upper primaries on the near wing and silver under primaries on the far wing, and extensive streaking on head and neck. With Ring-billed (left) and Herring (right).

Of course, every time I got my scope on the Thayer's, and then got my camera on the scope, and then refocused on the Thayer's... an eagle would barge in, or a helicopter would buzz over (this is right next to the airport), and the gull would be off again! Luckily it always landed again in the same general area. That dark head really helped it stand out from the crowd when I was scanning to refind it.

Finally, after an hour, I managed to have my camera ready when the gull flew!

Thayer's Gull at right, showing the very pale undersides of the primaries. Compare how black the wingtips are on the adult Herring (top right) and Ring-billed (below that). I couldn't have asked for a better comparison photo! The "angel wing" poses are pretty cool too.

Then, of course, the gull was very obliging, providing a number of open-wing shots.

"I'm just going to sit here and hold my wings open for, like, a whole minute while I peck at some fish bits in the water."
Herring Gull says "MINE!" with a ridiculously puffy neck. I don't know why they were fighting when there were dead fish everywhere! It's probably an ego thing.
I was really excited to find this gull. Iceland Gulls have been reported (on eBird) in La Crosse County in just 3 of the past 5 years - none last year, which was my first year here. I thought I might have to bike clear across the state to find an Iceland Gull this year - but here was one right next to my office! In my 5MR and 7.5MR patches to boot! Plus, I'd found it myself, which is always more satisfying than chasing someone else's find - and I had intentionally been looking for rare gulls, rather than just happening upon it. That gull made my week.

But then... I found another Iceland Gull the next day!

First-year Kumlien's-type Iceland Gull at the back left - the pale brown bird with telltale pale wingtips. This was how it was standing when I first found it, and I knew I'd have to see an open wing to be sure it wasn't just a bleached Herring. Some gulls can get REALLY bleached after spending the winter at lower latitudes.
There we go! Sorry about the fuzzy photos - there was a lot of heat shimmer from the bright sun.
This first-year bird was a Kumlien's-type Iceland Gull - somewhere in between a Thayer's (black primaries as an adult) and Iceland (pure white primaries) as a result of interbreeding between those two types. 

So - not just one, but TWO Iceland Gulls! Two days in a row! That's pretty awesome... although now it kind of feels like, ho hum, just another Iceland in La Crosse, just like every day! But I'll definitely appreciate the good gulling while it lasts. 

The usual scarcity of interesting gulls around here could very well be simply because there aren't many people looking - probably no one on most days. I happen to like gulls, and I happen to work next to a great gull spot, and I'm pretty motivated to get out and find unusual species that I didn't find last year - so, who knows? Maybe some more interesting gulls will turn up. I also got to share the Kumlien's with a couple of other birders today - maybe more people will get bitten by the gull bug and start looking more often!