Saturday, February 28, 2009

Redpoll Day

Today was sunny but cold, even colder than forecast, with temps just barely climbing above the single digits above zero. However, the cold was tempered with the arrival of a large group of Common Redpolls (Carduelis flammea) to our backyard.

We don't have a lot of avian diversity or abundance in a normal winter on the Great Plains of Eastern Montana, but this year has seemed especially slow at the feeder. Until today. This was the first day we have had a real invasion of winter birds. As the sun came up about 60 - 70 redpolls were chowing down at the thistle feeder.

I spent some time standing next to the feeder to take some photos. Redpolls can be easy to photograph at a feeder, quite confiding and not easily spooked.

It was fun observing the range of variation in the amount of white, red, and dark streaking in the birds, but one certainly stood apart from the others. It was so different that it was fairly easy to tell it was a different species, the Hoary Redpoll (Carduelis harnemanni).

This bird is an extremely pale Hoary Redpoll, probably scoring an 18 on David Sibley's redpoll scale (see below).

(see David Sibley's blog here for more discussion on the scale he has illustrated)

These are all photos of the same very pale individual. He was quite obvious and had a spot of feathers missing on the back of his head.

After reading a number of posts at David Sibely's blog on redpolls, I suspect that there were a number of not-so-pale Hoary Redpolls around. I recall noticing that when this bird was in the yard there were a number of other birds in the flock that were quite pale and were probably also Hoary Redpolls, but when he wasn't in the yard, I didn't see as many pale birds. I suspect that there was a small flock of Hoarys that unfortunately didn't come back when the light was better. I am going to have to go back through my photos to see if I can find anymore that I can classify as Hoary Redpolls and try to get additional photos of some of the other pale birds tomorrow if they show up again.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Header Photo

A couple of people have asked about the photo of the bird on my header so I figured if a couple people have asked (I even stumped the Science Chimp on this one) I should probably tell those of you who were also wondering but too afraid to ask what it is too.
The bird is an incubating Pintado or Cape Petrel. The bird was nesting on the steep slopes of the caldera that is the inside of Deception Island. This particular individual was tucked up at the entrance in a shallow cave and was resting with its head tucked under the feathers of its back. More photos of this species can be found at an earlier post here.

Oceanites Videos

My friend and boss, Ron Naveen, the founder of Oceanites, has recently posted a series of videos on YouTube. Below is a good overview of penguins.

and another with my friend Steve Forrest at Brown Bluff.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

John Heizer

John Heizer passed away last week. John was a pioneering heart surgeon in Montana and was a well known and loved doctor in Billings. He was also a great birding companion. Although I hadn't visited with John for a few years, I will always treasure a trip that I took with John and my Dad to Colorado one April.
I can't recall all the details but I think that Dad and John had decided that they were going to go see Lesser Prairie Chickens near Campo on the Comanche National Grasslands. I was asked if I would like to go and I managed to make it work with whatever I was doing at that time - I can't remember what year it was but probably about 7 or 8 years ago now.
Anyway, we headed south from Billings and spent the first night in Denver with one of John's sons. I remember his family was very nice and we went out to eat at the in-laws Chinese? restaurant and had some good food. The next day we drove to Springfield, Colorado and spent the night after heading out to the lek site that evening so that we could find our way in the pre-dawn hours the next morning.
The next morning we were successful in seeing the birds on the lek and after visiting a bit we decided we would drive to Gunnison, Colorado to see Gunnison's Sage-Grouse. That night we were in Gunnison and the next morning we watched Gunnison's Sage-Grouse on a lek there. Again, we were visiting after that morning's show about what we could do in Colorado (we really didn't want to head home so soon)- White-tailed Ptarmigan? Brown Rosy-Finches? I mentioned that I hadn't ever seen a Greater Prairie-Chicken and like that we were off to the northeastern corner of Colorado to try find me a Greater Prairie-Chicken. We arrived in Wray in the middle of the afternoon and headed out that evening to figure out how to find the lek in the dark the next morning. When we arrived where we thought the lek should be we found a number of males displaying in the afternoon sun! After watching the birds for a while we decided that there was no need to spend the night since we had just watched what we would be seeing in the morning so we decided to head back to Montana. So in three days ( and I am not sure how many miles) I was able to see three species of grouse I had never observed before and even better I got to spend 3 days with a couple of great people. It is one of my most memorable birding trips and I remember John as a great birding companion and a genuine person.
I still laugh when I think of trying to convince Dad that his watch alarm was set to go off at 10:00 in the morning, every morning (he couldn't hear the high pitched alarm) and wandering through Casper Wyoming trying to find a restaurant that John had liked but had no idea how to get to (his sense of direction on the ground wasn't so good, but he could have probably flown an airplane right to it). I know I have one good slide of John and Dad at the prairie chicken let and I will have to find that and get it scanned and posted.
John was also responsible for getting the first documented record of a Pyrrhuloxia in Montana when he convinced a fellow doctor who had the birds visiting his feeder to let Dad and I stop by to see the birds.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Penguin Week - Gentoo Penguin

The next installment in my penguin week series is the Gentoo Penguin (Pygoscelis papua). Next up will be the Adelie Penguin to round out the Pygoscelid or brush-tailed penguins, the genus I am most familiar with and which form the majority of the penguins found on the Antarctic Peninsula. I will finish this series with a post on the rest of the penguins I was able to see on this trip.
The Gentoo is rapidly becoming the most common species of penguin on the Antarctic Peninsula. Although Gentoo colonies do not rival the size of the largest Adelie and Chinstrap colonies, populations are increasing and they are expanding rapidly south along the peninsula. In keeping with my Chinstrap theme of describing one place on the peninsula that typifies a particular species, I will describe Gentoos as part of a visit to Cuverville Island, one of the largest Gentoo colonies on the peninsula.

I previously discussed Cuverville Island as part of a typical day for us in Antarctica here. There a many Gentoos here. They are much less strict about the timing of their breeding activities and we often find chicks of many different ages within a colony. Gentoos in the vicinity of Cuverville appeared to have suffered from heavy snow this spring and it looked as if a number of pairs had failed while others were able to keep their initial breeding efforts going resulting in wide gaps in the colonies where nests had failed. The colonies were a mess with lots of melted snow, failed nests, and wandering penguins. Even when they do well, Gentoos spend much more time at the colonies than the other Pygoscelid species and both pair are often present at the colonies. This is apparently a result of a more inshore feeding habit that allows these birds to spend less time feeding far away from the colonies as compared to the Chinstraps and Adelies.

Gentoos spend a lot of time bathing in the shallow waters near the colony. The photo above shows four Gentoos rolling in the water and splashing around while they bathe. Sometimes they really need a good bath too.

Below is a close-up photo of a brood patch on a Gentoo. I discussed this previously with the Chinstraps but this shows much better the bare patch of skin developed to help transfer heat from the incubating penguin to the eggs.

Very rarely do you see a penguin sprint but the bird in the photo above in making a dash for the water off the iceberg.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Le Boys

Back by popular demand (well, Sandy wanted to see some photos). A couple of things we have done over the last couple of weeks include a kids ice fishing event when the temperature was about -5 and a release of some Wild Turkeys near Glasgow along the Milk River.

This is a metaphorical spot that the boys find themselves rather frequently (don't worry, I think it is a permanent sign, the ice was quite thick)

Crean at his fishing hole. Notice his fishing buddy (complete with band) and his butterfly net that will also work for all the fish he caught. He lasted about 5 minutes at the hole then he just couldn't stand it and had to run around a bit. That lasted a few more minutes until he fell face first into the snow. He spent the rest of the time at the event eating his hot dog, drinking hot chocolate and reading books in the car.

Benton lasted a bit longer, even without stuffed animal support. It wasn't much longer though before the cold and no fish (he has apparently inherited my fishing skills) resulted in another decision that the hot dogs and hot chocolate sounded better than standing next to a hole in the ice with a stick in your hand. We were home rather soon that day.

A couple of weeks later we were able to participate in a release of Wild Turkeys on the Milk River just west of Glasgow. The boys were allowed to help open the cardboard boxes the birds were transported in. They had been trapped that morning on a ranch in southeastern Montana. The boys loved it and each came home with a fist full of turkey feathers.

Above, Crean waits for a turkey to burst from the box.

From left to right are Benton, Crean Lih-An, Ellis, Scott and Jack. Oh yeah, there is a Wild Turkey in the middle too.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Evening Visitor Again

I think I may have figured out one of the reasons I may not be seeing many birds in the back yard these days. The Eastern Screech Owl I found a few evenings ago was back again tonight. I accidentally flushed him from the apple tree in the backyard when I was cleaning out the dogs water bowl but about a half hour later he was back, this time perched on a fencepost above the brush pile at the edge of the yard. He was there for about 45 minutes (or longer - I lost track of him when it got too dark to see). The entire time I watched him he was looking down into the yard, scanning back and forth, apparently looking for another vole for dinner.
Of course he showed up the day after the Great Backyard Bird Count ended. I wound up with NO birds recorded in my yard on Sunday, but Monday was better with at least few species showing up during the course of the day.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Great Backyard Bird Count

Yesterday I participated in the Great Backyard Bird Count. Although the rules are fairly lax in regards to what "backyard" means for the count, I decided to be traditional yesterday and count just the birds observed in my backyard. It wasn't too hard. About 12:30 in the afternoon a male Hairy Woodpecker stopped by the suet feeder for a snack. He was the first and last bird I observed in the yard all day.
Today I am going to expand the definition of "backyard".

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Happy Valentines Day

Penguin Week - Chinstrap Penguin

Deception Island was the scene of this years best Chinstrap Penguin (Pygoscelis antarctica) encounters so I am going to concentrate on my one visit to Baily Head, a large Chinstrap colony on the east side of Deception Island. The photo above shows a small portion of the birds waiting on the black volcanic sand beach at the landing site. Below is an image of Deception Island and a marker showing where Baily Head is located.

I have zoomed in on Baily Head below and have added a red line to show the typical route most people take when they visit this site. I will reference this view to help explain where many of the images were taken.

Below is an shot from the Oceanites Image Library. This photo was taken by Ron Naveen, probably about 10 to 15 years ago. Note the large pink areas on the slope in the center of the photo where the Chinstrap colony covers the entire top third of the rim. This photo was taken from a helicopter above the west side of Baily Head looking east (left of the red line in the photo above looking to the right. The end of the red line is at the edge of the rim in the top center portion of the photo and the beginning of the red line is located off the photo to the left).

Below is a photo I took in December looking in the same direction except I was on the ground, somewhere about dead center in the photo above. You can see the same dark S shaped curve to the rim in both photos.

The photo below is from beyond the top of the S shaped rim looking west this time. Notice that there are no penguins nesting in the center of the slope in this photo compared to the same area in Ron's photo above. The people in both photos helps give a frame of reference to the locations the photos were taken. The red line from the Google Earth image would end right about where the people are in this photo and begin off the photo to the right.

The photo below is another photo from Ron Naveen at Oceanites. This one is again taken from a helicopter just south of the rim looking back at the landing beach. The dark cliff in the foreground is the edge of the S shaped rim I mentioned above. The beginning of the red line in the Google Earth image is on the beach in the center of the photo below.

The landing at Baily Head is one of the toughest in the peninsula because of a persistent, usually large, swell. The day we visited was one of the tamest landings I have done, much to the relief of the staff who have to maneuver the zodiacs and passengers on and off the beach, sometimes a nearly deadly chore. After landing we made our way through a narrow melt stream gap between the glacier and the rock cliff where many of the chinstraps also commute back and forth from sea to nest.

The amphitheater of breeding Chistraps is overwhelming. Every time I visit it is still gives me a chill to walk around the corner and enter the stadium filled with screaming penguins.

Most people make their way to the edge of the bowl and look over the edge then turn around to take in the scene from another perspective. On this trip Aileen and I were the first to venture into the bowl and we headed to a different part of the rim than most of the others to take documentary photos and count nests at some of the smaller colonies where we can effectively count.

Once people come down from the sheer size and configuration of the place, they realize that all around them are individual penguins going about their lives and they start to notice what is happening in the colony at a smaller scale.
Some birds are sitting on nest with eggs. Notice the bare patch of skin located just above the egg in this photo. This is a brood patch, a place on the belly where the feathers have fallen out to enhance heat transfer from the brooding adult to the eggs it is incubating. I am always amazed that the penguins call pull this area closed so tight when they return to the sea that the cold seawater does not come in contact with the bare area.

Others have progressed far enough along in the breeding cycle that the eggs are beginning to hatch. We visited Baily Head just as the chicks were hatching and we saw a number of nests with chicks and eggs. The nest below had a chick that had probably hatched the day before and one egg that was hours or minutes away from releasing another new chick.

Other nests had their full complement of two chicks already hatched.

One of the impressive things about visiting a place like Baily Head is the opportunity to see the complete drama of life. Skuas were a constant presence, grabbing eggs and small chicks whenever the opportunity arose. There were also the remains of recently dead adult penguins that had died from unknown causes, perhaps the result of an escape from a leopard seal but with deadly wounds, or some other catastrophic injury. These are great teaching tools to show the amazing skeletal structures of these sturdy birds and their adaptations for flying in a denser medium than air.

The photo below shows the remains of a flipper. Once covered with a layer of skin and very small, very dense feather, the bones show the fusion of an appendage that once propelled an ancestral bird through the air.

As I suggested above, the number of breeding Chinstrap Penguins at Baily Head has noticeably declined over the last 20 years. How much is uncertain because of the difficulty of getting accurate counts of such a large colony, however examination of reference photos like the examples above can help us at least see how much area is now free of the clamour of breeding Chinstraps.