Wednesday, September 26, 2007

More fall migrants

Here are a few photos of the migrants moving through the area lately.

Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow
Broad-winged Hawk (new yard bird)

Yellow-rumped Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Cape May Warbler (another new yard bird)
Orange-crowned Warbler

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Nice compliment

I was checking the blogs I usually read today and found a very nice compliment from Patrick Burns at Terrierman. Thanks Patrick.

I have to confess, I am a bit worried about the traffic I might get with his description of my blog using the words photographer and bird fetish though!

I read Terrierman daily and I although I don't cover a lot of the same ground, I find myself agreeing with him quite frequently, especially when it comes to hunting ethics and dogs. Patrick recently posted a nice tribute to one of his special dogs that he lost just over a year ago. He knows.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

A beautiful fall day in early September

Isn't it funny the rabbit trails our minds take when free to roam? I was driving home from work this evening, listening to my new Johnny Cash CD, The Legend of Johnny Cash, given to me by my sister - just because she is a good sister. I felt good. I had a good day working on some projects I hope will pan out because they involve working with people I really like, on subjects near to my heart, when a line in the song Highwaymen triggered a chain of thoughts. The line "I may become a Highwayman again, or I may become a simple drop of rain" got me thinking of what my remains will become when I die.

I then thought of my old Golden Retriever who I had to put down four years ago. I had her cremated and I scattered her ashes at a bend in the Missouri River where we had our best day of duck hunting. We didn't get that many ducks that day, but Kiela had a great retrieve from the middle of the river on a cold day in December and I got to watch her work well. Then I realized that it was nearly four years ago to the day, another beautiful fall day, that I had to make the call to the vet. The call that put me to my knees. The call where I couldn't believe the words had actually come out of my mouth to make the arrangements. Suddenly those memories came flooding back from out of nowhere. Intensely. Something I hadn't thought of for a while hit me hard. Her memories are usually not far from the surface of my mind since her lifetime spanned some pretty important parts of my life and she was such a character, but I hadn't thought of the day she left for quite a while.

I walked in the door and Laura asked me how my day was and I could only twist up my face and croak out something about Kiela and September and four years. She understood and I didn't have to say much more.

Shortly after I picked up that little mop of a pup with the plumbing I was looking for, I found this short essay by Ben Hur Lampman and I knew the day would come when it would apply to me so I kept it. It certainly describes for me where my dog is buried, not far from the surface.

Where to Bury a Dog
By Ben Hur Lampman

A subscriber of the Ontario Argus has written to the editor asking, “where shall I bury my dog?” It is asked in advance of death.
We would say to the Ontario man that there are various places in which a dog may be buried. We are thinking now of the setter, whose coat was flame in the sunshine, and who, so far as we are aware, never entertained a mean or an unworthy thought. This setter is buried beneath a cherry tree, under four feet of garden loam, and at its proper season the cherry strews petals on the green lawn of his grave. Beneath a cherry tree, or an apple, or any flowering shrub of the garden, is an excellent place to bury a good dog. Beneath such trees, such shrubs, he slept in the drowsy summer, or gnawed at a flavorous bone, or lifted head to challenge some strange intruder. These are good places, in life or in death. Yet it is a small matter. For if the dog be well remembered, if sometimes he leaps through your dreams actual as in life, eyes kindling, laughing, begging, it matters not at all where that dog sleeps. On a hill where the wind is unrebuked, and the trees are roaring, or beside a stream he knew in puppyhood, or somewhere in the flatness of a pasture land, where most exhilarating cattle graze. It is all one to the dog, and all one to you, and nothing is gained, and nothing is lost – if memory lives. But there is one best place to bury a dog.
If you bury him in this spot, he will come to you when you call – come to you over the grim, dim frontiers of death, and down the well-remembered path, and to your side again. And though you call a dozen living dogs to heel they shall not growl at him, nor resent his coming for he belongs there. People may scoff at you, who see no lightest blade of grass bent by his footfall, who hear no whimper, people who may never really have had a dog. Smile at them, for you shall know something that is hidden from them, and which is well worth the knowing. The one best place to bury a good dog is in the heart of his master.

Where to Bury a Dog originally appeared as an editorial in the Portland Oregonian on September 11, 1925. It was later included in a collection of Mr. Lampman’s work entitled How Could I be Forgetting? It has been reprinted at least twice in Reader’s Digest. I found it in Gun Dog magazine.

I sure loved that dog, my first.

bad day at work

With a couple of pictures taken this morning, my wife reminded me that no matter how bad my day at work is at least the people I deal with don't look like this (most of the time). All over how someone was holding a toy I am told.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Montana Ornithology History

Last week Laura and I went to Bozeman, MT. I had been asked by the Museum of the Rockies to give a lecture on Antartica and penguins as part of a new photography exhibit they have on penguins. The lecture went well and I really enjoyed giving the talk.
But perhaps the best part of the weekend (other than having Mom take the kids while we were gone - Thanks Mom!) was a few hours I spent in the special collections room at the Montana State University Library. It was there that Coburn Currier, a colleague from the Montana Natural Heritage Program, and I were able to examine the personal records and correspondence of Palmer David Skaar.
Dr. Skaar was a plant geneticist at MSU but is side interest was the birds of Montana. He developed the concept of the latilong (blocks of one degree latitude by one degree longitude) to divide this rather large state into sections to refine the scale of bird distribution knowledge. We still use this system to document bird distribution in Montana but we now also use quarter latilong blocks. With so few birders in Montana, then and now, populating these blocks with the status of each species is a large volunteer endeavor and Dr. Skaar took it upon himself to gather as much of this information as he could for the first edition of his book on Montana birds. For a number of years Dr. Skaar was THE person in Montana to document the status of birds in Montana and it was he who first encouraged my Dad to keep birding and document the birds he was finding in this corner of the state and so indirectly he was also the reason I have become so interested in birds. It was fun to see the documentation of a number of records that my Dad and I had in Fort Peck and the correspondence between the Dr. Skaar and my Dad. One of my favorites in response to a photo Dad had sent was "A number of people have called me and described impossible birds but you sent me a picture of one"
Coburn and I spent the afternoon going through those uncatalogued files and commenting back and forth on old records we had wondered about and the notes written in the margins of some records. As we continue to track down the history of bird distribution and bird records in Montana, I plan to visit this treasure of information again in the future.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Albatrosses, Petrels & Shearwaters of the World

I finally got around to using my Father's Day gift certificate lately and one of my purchases was the new book by Derek Onley and Paul Scofield, Albatrosses, Petrels and Shearwaters of the World, a Princeton Field Guide.

I really like this field guide and will probably use it on my upcoming trip to Antarctica. However, I do feel there is a bit of room for improvement. I generally do not like the softer style of illustration as done by Derek Onley but it works fairly well in this book. One area where it doesn't work is in the lack of contrast between the background and the birds on some of the plates. In particular, the large, mostly white, albatrosses are painted on a white background and it is hard to discern the bird from the background. I am a fan of small vignettes of the birds in their habitat among the identification illustrations and their are a few scattered throughout the plates which adds to the appeal of the illustrations (the best example of using vignettes in field guide plates is the Birds of Europe by by Killian Mullarney, Lars Svensson, Dan Zetterstrom and Peter J. Grant. I also consider it the best field guide I have seen).

The introductory chapters are quite good and provide an excellent overview of current seabird taxonomy. The authors do a good job of providing the reader with information on taxonomic debates with a number of species in each family of seabirds. The introductory section on seabird identification provides the best overview of seabird identification problems I have read and includes identification problems caused by conditions, lack of scale is open ocean environments, and plumage variation such as phases, morphs, age related plumages, molt and feather wear. There is also a section on conservation including a well done discussion on current threats to many seabirds, reasons to be optimistic for the future of seabirds, and ways you can help seabirds. The species accounts are generally well done and have distribution maps associated with them. I would rather have the maps with the illustrations though. I noticed a few problems with distribution maps on a few of the species I am familiar with. Despite the statement in the text that the breeding grounds of the Hornby's Storm Petrel is still unknown, the distribution map depicts the Atacama Desert as the breeding range with no indication of the uncertainty in the designation. The breeding range of the Antarctic Petrel also appears to have some errors. The text correctly states that this species breeding colonies are confined to coastal Antarctica but the map wrongly depicts a number of sub-antarctic islands in the south Atlantic as having breeding populations. These errors in the small sample of maps I am familiar with and checked leads me to wonder about the accuracy of the other maps.

Overall I feel this is an excellent field guide for these birds and I would highly recommend it for your next pelagic trip. The authors more than redeem the errors in the book with the statement that this book is not the final word on seabird ID and their encouragement to discuss the book in a friendly and enthusiastic nature over a beer or two!

Saturday, September 1, 2007

"Eastern" Montana Birds

Yellow Warbler

During spring migration this year my friend Steve Bodio commented on the number of "eastern" birds we were finding in this corner of Montana. I promised I would return to the subject in a future post. I figured it was finally time for the post on Steve's comment now that those same birds are moving back through our area in the other direction!

Yellow Warbler

The species Steve mentioned were the Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Broad-winged Hawk but there are many more "eastern" species that move through here. To illustrate this discussion I would like to first mention Westby, MT, a small town as far northeast as you can get in MT without venturing into Canada or North Dakota. My friend Ted Nordhagen has lived and birded here since he was little and it has become a hotspot for Montana birders. Here is a list of species found in Westby this fall (spring is similar):

Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Alder Flycatcher
Least Flycatcher
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Red-eyed Vireo
Warbling Vireo
Blue-headed Vireo
Philadelphia Vireo
Swainson's Thrush
Tennessee Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Black and White Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Bay-breasted Warbler
Blackpoll Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Mourning Warbler
Canada Warbler
Orange-crowned Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Cape May Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
American Redstart
Northern Waterthrush
Wilson's Warbler
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Baltimore Oriole
White-throated Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow
Purple Martin
Purple Finch

Common Yellowthroat

Many of the birds on this list may seem like "eastern" birds to us living in the United States but in reality they are boreal birds that breed as far west as Alaska (see figure 1 below).

Figure 1. Boreal Forests of North America (found here)

The reason we consider them eastern birds is because most of these species migrate through the eastern portion of the United States to reach the boreal forests, even the forests in Alaska.
So why are these birds being observed in Montana?
There are known migration routes in North America known as flyways. These are pathways that many birds migrate along when returning from or heading to their breeding areas in North America. Figure 2 below illustrates those routes.

Figure 2. Flyway routes in North America (from here).

In particular, I would like to discuss the Mississippi and Central Flyways. The maps below illustrate each of these flyways individually.

Figure 3. Central Flyway (from here)

Figure 4. Mississippi Flyway (from here).

Notice that the eastern portion of the Mississippi Flyway just cuts across the extreme northeastern corner of Montana. The main portion of the Central Flyway also comes through far eastern Montana. The boreal breeding birds that migrate up the Mississippi Flyway cut across northeastern Montana on their way to and from the far western reaches of the North American boreal forests. These are the same birds that migrate across the Gulf of Mexico to and from South America. Westby, Montana is right in the path of this river of birds and Fort Peck, just 125 miles to the southwest, lies in the backwater eddies of the river. We still find many of these species, but no where as regular or in the numbers found in Westby. Although this line appears to be curved in reality it is nearly a straight line between the northern part of the Yucatan Peninsula and the western reach of the boreal forest in Alaska (Figure 5).
There are still a few boreal species that we do not find in either place with as much regularity as their breeding distribution would suggest. These include the Swamp Sparrow, Connecticut Warbler, Eastern Phoebe, and Great Crested Flycatcher.

Figure 5. Straight line between the Yucatan Peninsula and the boreal forests of Alaska.

A side note on bird migration in Montana concerns the Pacific Flyway (figure 6). Note the branch of this route that comes into Western Montana along the Rocky Mountain Front. The birds utilizing this route, most notably the Snow Goose, winter in the Central Valley of California and cross the Great Basin in Nevada to continue north over the mountain of southwestern Montana and then along the Rocky Mountain front through Canada and into central Alaska. This route is repeated in the fall when these birds return south. One of the primary stopping points for the Snow Geese is Freezout Lake near Choteau, Montana where thousands of birds can be found during migration.

Figure 6. Pacific Flyway (found here)

Instead of blogging...

I just realized my blog posting has been quite slow lately. The following photos tell, in part, why.