Sunday, March 30, 2008

Snow Day

The boys and I took advantage of the snow this afternoon to get in some spring snow activities - building a snowman and sledding down our very small hill in the backyard.

Snowy Sage-Grouse morning

I was hoping this morning was going to work out. The weather reports suggested we were going to have snow on Saturday and mostly sunny skies on Sunday. I figured that Sunday morning would be a good morning to go out and try for some Greater Sage-Grouse photos in the snow. I just didn't count on this much snow! We need it so I can't complain and it actually got cold enough last night that the roads weren't in too bad shape this morning so I headed out. I tried my new pop-up blind this morning and it worked OK but I noted a few things to change next time I try it out (sit further back, only open one "port", and use the small "port"). I got a few photos and I look forward to using it much more this spring (thanks to Bill Thompson at Bill of the Birds for the info on the blind via his blog). I also owe my Dad a big thank you for letting me take his big lens out this morning.

There was one good fight this morning. A benefit for us when these birds fight is that they knock the feathers off of each other. We collect the feathers after the birds have left the lek and the genetic material in the feathers is used to track individuals on a lek during the year as well and genetic diversity and interchange among populations.

I also found a couple of Tundra Swans and a few Canada Geese on a small pond along the road on the way home. There was also a White-tailed Jackrabbit cursing his timing - he had mostly changed from his winter white pelage (which did him no good this winter with our lack of snow) into his dark summer pelage and he was quite conspicuous in the bright white snow this morning.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Birding in Northeastern Montana

If you are interested in birding in one of the best places to see large numbers of grassland birds in North America here are a couple of things you might be interested in. One of my goals when I moved back to Northeastern Montana was to promote the birding opportunities in the area and hopefully bring additional "value" to the prairie beyond the traditional grazing, hunting, and oil and gas production and these are two efforts I helped initiate to help meet that goal.

The first is a new addition to the Montana Nature and Birding Trail, an online resource for birding sites in MT. The Northeastern Plains Birding Trail, which up until now has existed pretty much as a hard copy product, is now online. See it here. Let me know if you have any feedback on the site. We are still working out some things we noticed that need to be fixed but hopefully this site will be helpful for those of you interested in birding here. If you would like a hard copy of the trail see this website (then scroll down).

I also wanted to let everyone know about the Glasgow Feather Fest. This is an annual event we put on in Glasgow to highlight the prairie birds of the surrounding landscape. It is a small festival with lots of great birds.

Click on the image above to see a larger version and all the info on the poster.
Here is a copy of the brochure (hopefully I will have that posted tomorrow - I can't find the whole brochure right now) with a registration for the event. We currently don't have much of a web presence for the festival but that is something we will be working on. If you have any questions can contact me for more information.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Arizona bird medley

Here is an assortment of photos from my recent trip to Phoenix.

Northern Mockingbird

Sage Thrasher

White-faced Ibis

White-faced Ibis

Black-necked Stilt

Female Black-tailed Gnatcatcher

Male Black-tailed Gnatcatcher

Black-throated Sparrow


It is windy today. Not the average Northern Great Plains wind, but windy even for us. Mom picked me up from work today and while she was waiting she watched a mattress go through the intersection in front of her followed shortly thereafter by two people trying to chase it down. Another older gentleman just waved goodbye to his hat when he stepped out of his vehicle and the wind swirled it off his head and into the sky. The 6ft wood fence I built last summer is getting it's first good test and holding up so far except for one gate that got blown in when it should normally swing out. When the wind first hit it sounded like a jet going over our office building and the building even shook a bit (it is a 3 story brick building).
The weather service in Glasgow says it is blowing nearly 40 miles per hour sustained with gusts at 60 miles per hour. Hopefully we can return to our normal wind soon.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Scientist and Soldier Birds

One of the reasons I was excited to go the Phoenix this March was the opportunity to look for a couple of bird species I had not run across yet. Despite birding for better than 25 years, mostly in the states west of the Mississippi, there are still a few species I have missed finding here and there. This time it was two thrasher species and fortunately there was one spot where I might find both species a bit west of Phoenix.
The two species were the LeConte's and Bendire'sThrashers. The LeConte's Thrasher was named after John Lawrence LeConte, a noted entomologist who specialized in beetles but also was a well-rounded naturalist interested in birds (the LeConte's Sparrow was not named after John Lawrence but instead was named after his cousin John). Bendire's Thashers were named after Charles Emil Bendire, a German-born United States soldier naturalist who became interested in natural history a bit later in his career but amassed a large collection of eggs and bird specimens obtained while stationed in various stations throughout the west. The LeConte's in particular was a species I had missed a couple of times in other places and really wanted to see.
Early Friday morning found me navigating through Phoenix traffic heading west on I-10. After one missed turn in the dark I found the junction of the Salome Highway and Baseline Road - the spot I was directed to to look for both of these species. About 10 minutes before sunrise (0630 in Phoenix) I headed into the saltbrush and mesquite to see what I could see. LeConte's Thrashers are know for being hard to find because they tend to run through their saltbush habitat and are not often found perched where the might be easily found. However, during the breeding season in February and March the males become much more conspicuous when singing on their territories. This year the spring rains came early and my local contact thought they might be done singing by the time I arrived. He was right. I only heard one thrasher singing in the mesquite as the sun came up and it didn't seem right to me to be a LeConte's. Then, in the gathering light there was movement - a streak across the ground to my left towards the rising sun.

It certainly looked like a LeConte's to me but having not seen one before and after reading all the accounts of how difficult they were to find when not singing, I wasn't quite sure. I had found the bird without finding a singing bird first and it seemed too easy for it to be the elusive LeConte's. I followed the bird as it foraged among the saltbush and as the light got better I could tell it was indeed the bird I was after. As I watched the thrashers scoot across the open ground with their tail cocked in the air looking for a quick bite of spider, scorpion, or whatever was on the menu that morning, they reminded me of a Roadrunner or a prehistoric bird whose wings seemed a bit superfluous for much of the day. The only time I saw one use their wings was when they dashed into the lower branches of a satlbush, only to emerge on the far side, running again.

The bird I had originally heard singing in the mesquite in the near dark was still singing and had now been joined by a Northern Mockingbird. It was time to find out what it was. As I got close I could see the bird singing in a dense patch of branches and what-do-you-know - it was the other thrasher I was looking for - a Bendire's.

I watched this bird for a short while too and then wandered around a bit more hoping for more looks at the LeConte's. By the time I left to head back to town and catch my flight I had found two LeConte's and one Bendire's for sure. There may have been as many as four LeConte's running through the saltbush at this site though and at one point I had both LeConte's and Bendires in my binoculars at the same time.
I would love to come back to this spot and work at getting some better photos of the LeConte's Thrashers and spend some more time watching them dart over the ground as they foraged through the saltbush.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Trading Places

As the birds start to move north this spring I have had the privilege to move south for a short while for work. Now I am enjoying some nice weather and a much different ecosystem (both natural and man-made). The difference between Fort Peck and Phoenix on the human level is probably greater that the difference between northern mixed grass prairie and the northern part of the Sonoran Desert (where is still occurs in the greater Phoenix area). In a few short hours I went from 300 people to over 4 million, Horned Larks and Canada Geese to Gambel's Quail and Anna's Hummingbirds, and Silver Sage to Saguaro Cactus. Although I am still spending most of the day indoors working in front of a computer and soon a camera, I have been able to spend a few hours in the evening at one of the local parks near the hotel where I am staying - shorts and Tevas time!

Gambel's Quail

Gambel's Quail calling

Curve-billed Thrashers

Anna's Hummingbird

Anna's Hummingbird

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Falling from the Sky

Today I watched flocks of Canada Geese coming back to the Missouri River after feeding in the wheat fields. One of my favorite sights is to watch geese coming in to land. When they need to loose altitude quickly they just turn their bodies sideways or completely over and slip down through the air like leaves falling from the sky, only to right themselves after 20 or 30 feet and continue to glide in to their landing spot.

There's one in every crowd!

I also got a few photos of the resident Bald Eagle pair again.

And a Northern Shrike I was able to pish a bit closer.

New Bird for Montana

On March 6th Jim and Lark Greaves stopped along the Bull River in northwestern Montana and took a few photos of the Greater Scaup, Redheads, and Ring-necked Ducks. That night while reviewing his photos Jim noticed that one of the "scaup" looked different and thought it might be a Tufted Duck. It was. The next day a number of birders made their way to the spot and found this distinctive looking bird, Montana's first documented Tufted Duck (pending acceptance from the Montana Bird Records Committee).

Tufted Duck - photo by Dan Casey (thanks Dan).

This species was ranked as the 2nd species to be found next in Montana in a 2003 exercises Dan Casey pulled together with input from a number of birders familiar with birds on the state. Number one was the Lesser Black-backed Gull which still has yet to be definitively documented in the state.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Canada Goose day

If March is waterfowl month then today was Canada Goose day. I took the back roads home from work this afternoon and this road traverses a low long ridge between the Milk River and the Missouri River. As I got closer to the Missouri River I could see long skeins of geese rising from the river and heading northwest up the Milk River valley. As I drove closer it became apparent that there were very many geese leaving the Missouri River. I stopped and watched wave after wave of geese leaving and heading north. Here are a few shots from this afternoon.

Note the size difference in these birds. The smaller birds in the back may be Cackling Geese judging from the short neck and smaller bills.

Rough-legged Hawk

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Sunset and an wink.

I am working on a much bigger post on grasslands, birds, and conservation right now but it just isn't going to get done today. Instead I am going to fall back on pulling a few photos from the Antarctica file and leave you with a wink from my oldest son.

Sunset on the Weddell Sea

Adelie Penguins basking in the sunset.

A wink from Benton and a promise of more to come from me.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

March - the month of waterfowl

March in Montana is waterfowl month. First to arrive are the Northern Pintails, almost as soon as the ice begins to melt these sleek speedsters begin to show up. I found my first bunch today (Dad found them yesterday). Soon the rest of the group will begin to show up and the seasonal changes will begin again. The rather large flocks of Canada Geese have begun to pair off and squabble and Dad and I have been working on documenting the Cackling Geese mixed in with these flocks. A couple of weeks ago we even found one bird that appeared to be a Snow Goose/Canada or Cackling Goose hybrid.

I took this photo of Northern Pintails a few years ago and it is one of my favorites because of the second bird from the right who is completely inverted while participating in a courtship flight.

Today I went along the Missouri River below Fort Peck Dam to get recharged after being in the office all week and taking care of the boys last night. I found a nice spot on the bank where I could lean back into the bank and watch what was going on for a while. I had hoped to get some photos of Buffleheads or Common Goldeneyes flying upriver but they did not cooperate. I did hear a Ring-necked Pheasant's coughing hiccup upstream and then watched the rooster fly across the river and he crowed all the way across.

The best part of the morning was hearing my first bird song of the spring. Much like hearing the first penguin chick chirping after several weeks of monotonous adult penguin brays, the song of the American Tree Sparrows in the gray March light was uplifting in it's novelty and promise.

Our resident pair of Bald Eagles was perched together near their nest. After many years with no breeding Bald Eagles in this part of the state and a few more years with suspected breeding in a few places, this is the first year where we actually have a nest (and a quite accessible nest too) and what appears to be a pretty well established pair along the Missouri River near Fort Peck.

A walk amongst the buffaloberry shrubs, willows and cottonwoods along the river also produced a few other species like this White-breasted Nuthatch and a Townsend's Solitaire. The nuthatches will stay and breed but the solitaire will go somewhere else to breed.

More Gorbatov

Here is a link to the next installment of the Fidget series, Fidget's Folly.
The book centers around the excellent illustrations by Vadim Gorbatov. The first in this series, Fidget's Freedom, is one of my boys favorite books (and I have to confess, one of my favorites too).

Here is one of the illustrations from the new book.

More Gorbatov prints can be seen here.