Sunday, August 30, 2009

Burrowing Owls

Last week I visited a small Black-tailed Prairie Dog town north of Glasgow. As I approached the town, I noticed a couple of Burrowing Owls fly from on burrow to another. As I got closer to the town and started driving on the trail through the burrows more Burrowing Owls began to pop up all over the place. I estimated there were at least 25, and quite possibly more, Burrowing Owls living there that day. Often I had ten birds in view at once. They all appeared to be young of the year, suggesting that reproduction may have been really good this year. Perhaps because of the high numbers of grasshoppers around this year. I am not sure if they were all produced on this small town or if some of them had already begun their migration south and wound up here for the time being, but either way it was an impressive pile of Burrowing Owls.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

One More Dowitcher

I just realized I had a couple more photos of the bird that started the dowitcher discussion. Here is one that I think will help with the ID. For my two cents on this bird, I think this photo shows an overall rounded humpback shape (like it swallowed a grapefruit) that is more suggestive of a Long-billed Dowitcher than a Short-billed. This has been a good exercise for me in learning more about the confusion and contradiction in dowitcher ID as well as learning that others suffer from dowitcher ID depression.

And just to keep things interesting, here are three more photos from the day before that I think may be Short-billed Dowitchers, again based on the posture and shape (slimmer and no grapefruit in the gut). These were taken from a distance away and the light was horrible. I have lightened the photos considerably just to be able to see some color and detail on the bird. Comments on this one?

The bird just right of center.

Detail of the photo above

Another photo of the bird picture above.

Dowitcher, but Which One?

Yesterday I posted the photo above and labeled it as a Long-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus scolopaceus). I also posted the photo to our Montana birding group site with the same ID. This morning I received a note from my friend Dan Casey concerning my ID. He thought it might be a Short-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus hendersoni), a subspecies most likely on the prairies and most similar to Long-billed Dowitchers. I have to confess that I hate trying to ID fall dowitchers and defaulted to Long-billed after a quick glance and my interpretation of the overall shape as being more rounded. I have paraphrased Dan's comments below:

Subtle but apparent "kink" to the outward third of the bill.
Distinctly spotted breast sides.
Slender build
Relatively few "breeding" wing coverts.
It is a bit sparsly marked on the flanks for a Short-billed Dowitcher but I think the other features outweigh that, and hendersoni should have the least here anyway.
What little we see of the tail is inconclusive, but may indicate that the white bars are equal in width to the black bars, tipping slightly towards Short-billed.

I also received comments on the bird from Caleb Putnam too. Caleb thought that this was a tricky individual to ID, but was leaning towards a Short-billed Dowitcher as well.

Both Dan and Caleb asked if I had more photos and I have added a number of them below (click on the photos to get a larger version). There were about 20 individuals on the reservoir that morning and I am not sure if any of the new photos show the individual Dan and Caleb commented on.
If you have any comments on the identification of these dowitchers I would appreciate hearing them.

A few of the group of dowitchers and a few other species.

Photo 1.

Photo 2 ( a bit blurry but may still helpful)

Photo 3.

Photo 4.

Photo 5 (same bird as photo 4).

Photo 6.

Photo 7 (same bird as in photo 6).

I will readily admit that I struggle with identifying these species and I am trying to get better so any help on the ID of these birds is appreciated.

Monday, August 24, 2009

No Ice for the Prairie Guy

This winter will be a bit different than most of the winters for the past 15 years. I will not be heading south to The Ice this year. No Antarctica. Schedules and staffing finally caught up to me and I am on the sidelines this year. It is going to be hard, but I knew that it was going to catch up with me sooner or later. Hopefully next year will work out and I can get my penguin, whale, ice and albatross fix then. Until then I will have to settle for looking at my photos from past trips. I might even have to work in a few stories from past years and scan a few slides from my pre digital trips south.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Shorebird Season

Shorebird habitat is hard to find around here this year. Lots of water during the spring and summer (except June) had resulted in full ponds with lots of vegetation right to the current waterline which eliminates the mud flats and exposed shorelines favored by this group of birds.
I did manage to find one pond that had a rather limited patch of favored foraging conditions and I spent a few minutes taking some photos. The Long-billed Dowitcher pictured above was one of the species I found.

Least Sandpiper - these were probably the most numerous of the shorebirds at the reservoir I was at.

Least Sandpiper

Least Sanpiper

Pectoral Sandpiper

Pectoral Sandpiper - looks like he is spitting. Must have been a bad bug.

I really wanted to get some photos of the Stilt Sandpipers and I was able to do so.

Itchy ear.

I managed to catch the bird above with a small worm or larvae in the tip of it's bill.

I have lots of photos like this, only with less head exposed on a majority of them.

There were also Baird's and Semipalmated Sandpipers in the mix but I only managed to get a few photos of one Baird's (below).

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Morning Commuters

This is one of the guys I regularly see in the morning. He and the rest of his friends are usually heading home as the sun comes up and I am heading to work.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Ferruginous Hawks

A few weeks ago I was heading down a dirt road and when I came over the hill there was a recently fledged brood of 5 young Ferruginous Hawk clustered in the middle of the road with both parents circling above. They all flushed before I could stop and wound up sitting on a nearby hill. They seemed to not be used to being apart and wound up clustered there as well. As I watched they flushed, one by one, to the nearby nest.

The adults kept circling me, letting me know they were still watching.

Later in the day another flew by.

The Ferruginous Hawk is one of our most common breeding hawks, along with the Swainson's Hawk and the Northern Harrier. This one was nesting at the end of a raptor survey route I ran with Dad early in June.

Shortly after seeing the Ferruginous Hawks that day I found this larger cousin, an immature Golden Eagle, circling in an updraft with a Northern Harrier.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Another Summer Thunderstorm on the Prairie

Last night we had a quick developing thunderstorm move through the area. Crean and I were outside watching a couple of young and spotted White-tailed Deer fawns stroll through the neighborhood as the clouds gathered from the west. Pretty soon watching the cloud formations won out over cavorting fawns and I headed inside to grab the camera.

Crean and I just made it back inside when the wind hit. Soon the Mourning Doves were dodging cottonwood branches as they tacked into the wind trying to head towards the trees. A couple doves shot past the house at right angles to the wind, moving fast wherever the wind took them. A brief shower and then it was done.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Buffalo Guys

A couple of days ago I was able to get out as the sun was setting and I headed to the bison pasture to see if they were near the fence in the warm light. There are two mature bulls in the pasture and they were off by themselves near the fence.

I wasn't sure if there was some animosity between the two bulls in the short time I was watching them but there seemed to be a bit of tension between the two.

This bull exhibited a Flehmen response, probably a reaction to the scent of the urine of one of the other animals. This response is thought to help expose the vomeronasal organ, a chemoreceptor organ mainly used to detect pheremones, to the scent molecules.

The bison were attended by Brown-headed Cowbirds.

It was nice to see the cowbirds feeding on insects flushed by the feeding bison, a role they had occupied for millennia. I was able forget for a moment their more recent role as a avian parahia, leaving their eggs in other birds nests for the host species to raise, a behavior well adapted to following ever moving bison herds, but trouble for novel host species as cowbirds expanded beyond the short grass prairies and replaced their association with the ever moving bison with more widely distributed and more sedentary domestic livestock.

It was a glimpse back in time that could have occured thousands of years ago in exactly the same place.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Bitey Things

Earlier this week while on a tour with a major land management agency I found a couple of interesting animals that I don't get to see everyday.

The first was this orb weaving spider my interns found in the grass as we were setting up a plot to measure Greater Sage-Grouse habitat. We had inadvertently flushed a few grasshoppers into her net and she was busy wrapping them up for a later meal.

We watched as she made her way from grasshopper to grasshopper, wrapping each in its own individual silken coffin. After each was well wrapped she would make a quick bite and move back to the center of the web. Even though she had unwrapped and subdued grasshoppers remaining stuck in the net, she would pause in the center before moving on to the next trapped grasshopper. We speculated that she was replenishing her spinnerets before she headed off to the next victim.

If you click on either of the previous two photos to enlarge it, you can see the silk emerging from her spinnerets as she rolled the grasshoppers around to cover them in silk.

On our way home we nearly ran over this larger fanged animal of the Great Plains - a Prairie Rattlesnake (Crotalis viridis), the only rattlesnake found in Montana. It was lying in the middle of the gravel road and I had to swerve around her as we came over a hill. Before I could turn around another pickup passed us in the opposite direction and I thought for sure that they would hit it, but when we were able to turn around, the snake was still there in the middle of the road.

At first I wasn't too sure the it was still alive. As you can see in the photo above, there was a small stick laying across it's back and it wasn't moving at all. I scuffed a few pebbles from the road its way just to check and it became apparent real quick that the snake was indeed alive.

Shortly after I took these photos another pickup rolled over the hill coming our way. I hurried to pressure the snake off the road and into the grass, but it really wanted to make sure I would not get any closer, so it kept this pose as it slid slowly towards the road edge. Having a rattlesnake watch me like this certainly worked at keeping me a safe distance away.
The pickup pulled up next to me and the young man in the window peered out from under his well used felt cowboy hat and then looked down at the snake coiled up next to his truck and asked "Do you want a gun to kill that thing?"
I said "naw, I am just going to kick it off into the grass, but thanks"
"ok" he said and slowly shook his head back and forth as he rolled away from us.

I continued to pressure the snake until it moved all the way off the road and into the grass and disappeared.