Monday, April 30, 2018

30 Apr 2018: Fifteen FOGYs in one day!

After a surprisingly slow weekend with zero FOGYs, migration got a jumpstart today! The migration forecast for last night was excellent, and the radar verified that lots of movement was happening, so I took today off work. I spent the morning at Myrick Marsh, where I had birded yesterday with nothing new, and found 12 FOGYs! Several new warblers (see the right sidebar for a full list of today's FOGYs) and a total checklist of 65 species. Most of the warblers were silent, so I definitely could have missed additional species.

The highlight was definitely two Black-crowned Night-Herons (#120)! They're sparse in this part of the world, and last year I never found any, so this was a nice surprise. I thought I might have to bike clear across the state to Horicon Marsh to have a chance of finding one.

The night-herons were in the biggest ardeid group I've seen yet this year, though this type of gathering isn't uncommon during migration at Myrick Marsh. About 21 Great Egrets and 6 Great Blue Herons were there. I learned recently that Great Egrets are considered threatened in Wisconsin, so it's great that they do so well in the marsh.

Much of the marsh is looking more like a lake right now, as the La Crosse River floods into it. Luckily I figured I wouldn't be able to go this way, and planned accordingly (there's an even bigger flood zone at the other end of it):

These trees aren't normally in the water:

Normally you'd have Soras and Red-winged Blackbirds and Wilson's Snipe in there - not today!

This afternoon I took a jaunt to Halfway Creek Marsh and a section of bike trail that goes past some flooded farm fields. Unlike the marshes, the fields are not particularly flooded, as they don't get overflow from the rivers and we haven't had much rain. So some of the spots where I saw shorebirds last year are not looking very good. Luckily, rain is in the forecast for the next few days, so conditions might improve. I did find about 40 Pectoral Sandpipers (#133) there, but only because a kestrel spooked them up! When they landed, I could still get my scope on them, but they were being their usual demure selves, resting in the corn stalks and not moving much to catch the eye.

Meanwhile, it got up to 80 F today! Hard to believe that we got 6" of snow a week and a half ago! My bike-birding outfits are evolving quickly...

All told, I ended the day with 82 species! And I wasn't even doing a Big Day. Speaking of which... stay tuned for big plans for a Green Big Day in a couple of weeks.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

21 Apr 2018: Hawkwatching, and finally no more snow!

The problem with a birding blog is that when the birding is good, there's lots to write about, but no time to write!

Birding is definitely getting good. A few days after that last snowstorm, it was warm and snow-free and getting birdy. That weekend I went birding at the old quarry. The radar had been lit up with birds the night before, and from what I saw that morning, many of the new arrivals were Yellow-shafted Flickers, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Hermit Thrushes, Swamp and Song Sparrows, Brown-headed Cowbirds, Rusty Blackbirds, Brown Creepers, and both kinglets. There was plenty of activity to watch.

It was getting toward noon when I was heading back to where I'd parked my bike, and I started seeing some Turkey Vultures get up to ride the thermals. Last spring I'd seen several Broad-winged Hawks migrating over this bluff on two occasions when they did not count on my green list. I went back by bike several times in the fall, but never saw any BWHA here. I finally happened upon one on a bike trail a little farther from home - my only BWHA for my green list last year. I didn't want to miss them this year!

As I walked, a couple of ladies saw my binoculars and asked what all the hawks were. I told them they were vultures, and they asked about "the tan ones", and I started explaining about how Turkey Vultures have translucent feathers that look paler. They thought that was fascinating - then pointed behind me and asked, "So all those are vultures?" I looked back to see a larger kettle of vultures than any I'd yet noticed, and among them was a Broad-winged Hawk (#110)! 

So yes, curious nonbirders can be helpful for spotting new species!

I walked a little farther to a nice place to lie down on a section of the old quarry road, facing south. I had a great view of more hawks as they circled up and then sailed north over me. I tallied 14 Broad-wings over the next 30 minutes or so, and small numbers of a few other species - nothing like the big hawkwatching hotspots, I'm sure, but still fun.

If The Sibley Guide to Birds had a theme song, that's what I would be hearing every time I had this view of a Red-tailed Hawk...

Cooper's Hawk-shaped speck

Nice birdy morning with 54 species on the list, including 7 FOGYs.

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 concave 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?