Sunday, May 31, 2009

Glasgow FeatherFest 09

Saturday morning was calm and sunny. A perfect day for FeatherFest this year. Instead of leading a field trip like I have done all the previous years, I elected to join Woody Baxter on his Missouri River canoe field trip.

Fourteen other folks joined Woody and me as we headed down the Missouri River just below Fort Peck Dam. We enjoyed a full suite of local riparian birds including the resident pair of Bald Eagles ( you can just see both members of the pair in the leaning cottonwood over the canoes in the photo above.)

We stopped a few times along the way but I was not on top of taking photos when we were walking around looking for birds. We managed to spot some Piping Plovers along with a few Franklin's Gulls, a Baird's Sandpiper, California Gulls, American White Pelicans, and American Avocets on a small island though and I did get one bird photo then.

In my book, the best find of the morning was a pair of Red-headed Woodpeckers flycatching from the tops of the cottonwoods, then copulating above the apparent nest hole. They are uncommon but regular birds around here and it is always a treat to see them.
The other field trips - a tour of South Valley County, the Fort Peck Area, and a bird banding demonstration in Glagsow - apparently went quite well, including 10 Mountain Plovers and a plover nest on the South Valley tour. Stay tuned for information about next year - we hope to be bigger and better again.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Orange Monday

I have been Mr. Mom for the last few days while Laura is on vacation with one of her good friends. Yesterday evening I had planned on camping out on the prairie and taking grassland bird photos in the evening and again this morning. I had played my "sleep over" card with Grandma and Grandpa in anticipation and the boys were excited to have a sleep over.

Then the rain came. About as soon as I dropped the boys off yesterday evening until noon today - exactly the time I had wanted to be out. It was too late to change sleep over plans without a little boy revolt so I wound up hanging out at Mom and Dad's for the morning, watching birds in their backyard and visiting instead.

The orioles had been coming into their feeders for a while, including a vivid, glowing male Bullocks Oriole that I decided I was going to try to get a photo of one of these days. It had recently been joined by a dapper little male Orchard Oriole, another species I had wanted to get a photo of for the last couple of years after watching them regularly come to the oranges and grape jelly feeders in Mom and Dad's backyard. There were also Baltimore Orioles, young Bullocks Orioles, and a hybrid oriole also coming to the feeders.

Since my trip to the prairie was no longer an option, I decided to get out my portable blind and set it up near the feeder and try for oriole photos for a couple hours as the clouds were lifting.

It worked.

This tiny brick-colored Orchard Oriole was the most persistent of the orioles present. These are the rarest (and smallest) of the Montana orioles, confined to the northeastern part of the state. Although not as luminous as the others, the rich, handsome plumage is certainly attractive.

The glowing Bullock's Oriole did not come to the feeder as often, but he finally made an appearance where I was able to get a few good photos of him.

The young male Bullock's Oriole was the most vocal of the bunch. I knew he was coming to the feeders a few minutes before he showed up because he was loud and liked his own voice.

The Baltimore males were also spectacular. This male sat in the plum tree in my backyard earlier in the week.

This male was not quite as orange as the male above, or the Bullock's Oriole.

Then there are the hybrid orioles. Apparently many of the hybrids resemble either of the parent species and only a few actually appear as a mix of features from both parent species. On this individual the mix of the black and orange face pattern from both species is most evident, but the wing pattern is also a mix. The large white outer webs of the greater wing coverts on the Bullocks Oriole are replaced with a rather large orange patches (as compared to the Baltimore) on this bird.

The wing bar is also larger than on a Baltimore and the white outer webs of the primaries and secondaries are also similar to the Bullock's. These two species hybridize on where they meet in the Great Plains and the hybrid zone is apparently stable. The number and timing of the molt sequence is very different in each species and may be a strong source of selection against hybrid individuals (Rohwer and Manning 1990)

Below is the hybrid on the grape jelly cup. If you could see a bird trying to lick it's lips, this is what it would look like.

I managed to get a few photos of the other birds hanging around the backyard (I love being in the blind and watching and listening to things going on around me - see here for a previous post about using it in my backyard last year). Thanks again to BOTB for the recommendation on the pop-up blind. If you are interested it is an Ameristep Doghouse ground blind. It works great, the only hang-up is learning how to get it folded back up into the bag, but that just takes practice.

This is the owner of the grape jelly cup. The other birds are only there with her permission, particularly other American Robins.

The Black-headed Grosbeaks stop by for an occasion taste but they seem more content with the offering of seeds at the other feeders.

The Spotted Towhee was foraging on the ground nearby. No grape jelly or oranges for him - just seeds.


Rising, James D. and Pamela L. Williams. 1999. Bullock's Oriole (Icterus bullockii), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Rohwer, S. and J. Manning. 1990. Differences in timing and number of molts for Baltimore and Bullock's orioles: Implications to hybrid fitness and theories of delayed plumage maturation. Condor 92: 125–140.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Chimney Swifts

The Chimney Swifts have finally arrived in Fort Peck. A couple of days ago I found a few foraging over a pond near the Missouri River and yesterday I found a couple of them back at the chimney at the old school building across the street from my Mom and Dad's house. Tonight there were a bunch of them flying in courtship formations around the house.

The website Chimney Swifts.Org has a map of first observations of the year for the North American continent as well as a pile of information on Chimney Swifts, including a information on building a Chimney Swift tower. You can see the progression of the northward migration here.

I like this photo because you can see the tail spines fairly well. A few years ago I had the opportunity to band a Chimney Swift and I was impressed and surprised with the spines on the ends of the tail feathers.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Prairie Thunderstorms

Over the last couple of weeks we have had a few early thunderstorms that were quite spectacular, including one that produced a short bout of pea sized hail earlier this week.

I have loved watching thunderstorms since I was little. My parents used to find me on the front porch in the middle of the night, cheering on the lightning. I still find the power of these storms humbling and spectacular, but I find myself worrying more about the potential damage they may produce these days.

One of the benefits of living on the prairie is that you can see these storms coming from far out on the western horizon. And they still put on quite a show.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Amelanistic American Avocet

Yesterday while driving back from the Matador Ranch in southern Phillips County, I observed this bird foraging in a small pond along the road. It was the only American Avocet at this particular pond which it shared with a number of Wilson's Phalaropes.

As you can see the normally black areas on on an American Avocet are white (in good light there was just a hint of beige where it would normally be black). Otherwise it looks like a "normal" avocet.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Prairie Birding

This morning Dad and I took a visiting birder from Australia out to find a few birds that he came to Fort Peck to find. Phil and Dad had tried yesterday to find Sprague's Pipits, Baird's Sparrows and Chestnut-collared Longspurs but didn't have much luck in the BLIZZARD that struck yesterday morning (honest, it was a white-out with about four inches of slush on the road - mostly gone by the afternoon). They managed to find only the Chestnut-collared Longspur.

This morning we tried again and had much better luck. We found a number of Sprague's Pipits singing right away, including one that showed up on a rock right next to us and sang a bit. I was pretty sure we could find the pipits, but I was less sure about the Baird's Sparrow because I had yet to find one this year, but at least they were due. We lucked out just a bit further down the road and had a gorgeous bird singing a little bit away. That was all within the first 15 minutes of arriving at the site. We decided to head south (and I took a bit more time off from work because it is addictive showing people new birds that they would really like to see) to find three other species Phil was looking for - Mountain Plover, McCown's Longspur, and Lark Bunting.

We found the Lark Bunting right away, right next to the road and then headed out to the plover and longspur spot. I predicted we would find a McCown's right away but instead we found a Mountain Plover first. Right after that came our first of many McCowns, which we were able to spend quite a bit of time watching foraging in the road. We headed down the road a couple more miles and found another Mountain Plover. We turned around and headed back to town and spotted two more Mountain Plovers. All before 10:00 am. And most of our time was spent driving from on site to the other! I think that Phil and Dad had a good morning. I know I did.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

"M" is for Mountain and McCown's

I was able to finally get out and see a couple of my favorite area birds.
First, the McCown's Longspur.

and the Mountain Plover.

The McCown's are still found in small flocks of about twenty birds throughout the area and at one point I had a Mountain Plover surrounded by about ten McCown's Longspurs.

Where's Your GRIZ been?

One of the features of the alumni magazine for the University of Montana (the Grizzlies) is a photo contest where entrants provide photos of U of M paraphernalia being worn in different places. In November I wore my Griz cap to Antarctica and had my penguin counting partner Aileen take a photo of my counting Adelies south of the Antarctic Circle. I submitted the photo earlier this year and on Monday the magazine arrived and there I was in the "Where's Your GRIZ Been?" Even better, it comes with a $50.00 gift certificate to the U of M bookstore! You can check it out here (just scroll down to the middle of the webpage). Or you can see the photo below.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Weekend Expedition

Friday night I headed northeast to immerse myself in the main stream of bird migration and conduct the second annual expedition to look for the elusive Smith's Longspur. Last year I described the trip and the results of the first expedition.

This years results were much the same. Lots of Lapland Longspurs, this time mixed in with lots of American Pipits. On Friday night I found a couple of flocks of over 1000 birds. I was hard to get an estimate as the birds surrounded me with some on the ground and others swirling around me.

It was amazing how well these birds could hide in the recently planted stubble fields. After I found a flock working in a field I tried to get some photos and get closer to see if I could pick out any "different" longspurs. I would spot a bird in a stubble row and start working towards him, I would inevitably flush birds I didn't see on the way there and they whole flock would take off, swirl around, and land about 100 yards away. Occasionally something would flush the complete flock out of the stubble and the sky would be peppered with birds. They would fly around for a while, then form up a smaller flock and swoop down and settle back into the stubble.

The next morning I found a couple of more small flocks of longspurs, but again they were all Lapland Longspurs, with an occasional Chestnut-collared Longspurs thrown in the mix.

There were plenty of other birds to be observed though. Last year I described how many of the potholes were devoid of water. This year is just the opposite and every little depression hosts at least one Northern Shovelor.

Some had man more species of waterfowl. One of my favorites is the Northern Pintail. They always remind me of Thomas Quinn paintings when I see them.

Swainson's Hawks were on territory. This one perched on a pile of rocks picked from a nearby field.

Ring-necked Pheasants were omnipresent, each rooster tending a few hens.

I stopped by a regular Piping Plover spot after visiting my friend Ted Nordhagen in the small town of Westby.

Small flocks of Franklin's Gulls would appear out of nowhere, rollercoastering through the air in shallow arcs, then they were gone, heading northwest. Flocks of shorebirds were also observed flying low and fast heading the same direction.

I spent the night in the abandoned farm town of Comertown. Nearby is a rather large expanse of native prairie that hasn't been tilled or drilled, unlike much of the surrounding landscape (this area is intensively farmed and is in the middle of a very productive oil field). Many of the potholes (those that remain) are plowed right up to the edge.
Comertown is also close to the Canadian border and my pickup parked for the night aroused someones suspicion and I had the pleasure of meeting a couple of Sheridan County deputies who were curious about what I was doing. I told them I was trying to get to sleep at that moment, but in general I was in the area looking for birds. They seemed satisfied with my excuse and left me alone the rest of the night. It was a bit cold but again, I had my Flatcoated Retriever heater for the night.
Below is an old passenger train car abandoned in town.

Comertown even has it's own gravestone for the town.

It was a great birding trip and enjoyed seeing migration again.