Sunday, November 27, 2011

Gifts from the North

Yesterday I was finally able to get out and do some exploring around Billings. I wound up north of town on a beautiful clear day. From one point I could see in the distance the Crazy Mountains, the Beartooth Mountains (pictured above), the Bull Mountains, and the Pryor Mountains. There weren't may bird species to be found. A few Canada Geese on a frozen slough, a Common Raven here and there, and a small group of Horned Larks pretty much rounded out the list. Except for the Rough-legged Hawks.

Once I dropped in to the basin north of Billings near the town of Broadview I began to see Rough-legged Hawks. Lots of them. At one point I stopped and did a quick complete scan of the horizon and found eleven individuals. The photo above shows what I most often saw in the steady wind - a hawk hovering in the wind with it's head down scanning the fields below for something to eat.

One bird was hunting from the top of the eastern basin edge and after floating and hovering over the nearby fields, and he wound up perched on a powerpole just up the road from me.

At one point he dove off the pole into the field across the road from me, but apparently missed and returned to the pole.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Montana Milk Snake

A few days ago a co-worker found this little beauty in her garage. I held on to him for a few days before turning him loose in a more appropriate location.

This was one of the largest specimens of this species I have seen. He was about 18 to 20 inches long.

I had hoped to find a few of these guys after moving to Billings and hopefully this won't be the last one I am able to see.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Unknown Raptors of Tanzania

One year on and I am still trying to figure out a few birds from Tanzania. Mostly they are raptors. I have ideas on most of them as noted below, but if anyone can help out with the ID's I would really appreciated it (click on each image to enlarge).

The next two images were taken in the Pugu Hills. This bird was out a ways and these are the best images I could manage. The overall darkness of this bird (beyond the apparent exposure problems of the photo), broad, short wings, primaries and secondaries paler than the forewing, pale legs, and the pattern of banding in the tail suggest a Brown Snake-Eagle to me.
[ I apparently am on track with this one]

This bird was photographed on the Kenya border northwest of Kilimanjaro at the old natron mine. It is obviously a harrier and appears to be a first year male just molting into it's first adult plumage. Based on the length of the wings in comparison to the tail and the lack of chestnut streaking on the flanks, I am guessing a Pallid Harrier.
[This one was humbling. Now that I have the suggested ID, my comment that it is obviously a harrier is obviously wrong. Eastern Chanting Goshawk. At least it still looks like an immature bird molting into adult plumage]

This photo was taken in Tarangire National Park. One of the large dark eagles but appearing to be not as heavy built or as large as the Golden Eagle I am familiar with. Lesser Spotted Eagle?
[suggested that this is a Tawny Eagle. I can go with that]

This one was taken at Tarangire National Park. Immature Brown Snake-Eagle?
[At least I can ID Brown Snake-Eagles. This one was confirmed]

This one has me stumped. It was taken northwest of Kilimanjaro and appears to be a buzzard of some sort to me. However, the combination of streaking (rather than barring) on the breast and light, unmarked throat and upper breast do not match any thing in my field guide. Anyone?
[Ayer's Hawk-Eagle. Sounds good to me. Doesn't quite match my field guide, but I am very aware of the range of variability in raptors and it does make sense to me]

The next two were taken on the northwest slopes of Kilimanjaro as it flew high over me. I am puzzled by the shape of this bird. It was quite large and I can't figure out any large raptor with the long tail and the apparent feather pattern and coloring especially in the primaries. Great Sparrowhawk? European Honey-Buzzard?
[This one was suggested as another Eastern Chanting Goshawk. I am having a harder time with this one based on my limited resource, but I can see why this species was suggested. The color and shape and size seem right but the pattern on the primaries is what is throwing me a bit. Maybe I just want it to be something different too much.]

Monday, September 26, 2011

Elk Watching at the CMR

This weekend on our way home after an wonderful get-together with friends that included a pig cooked in the ground, we stopped by the elk viewing area on the Charles M. Russel National Wildlife Refuge near the old Slippery Ann field stations site (where I once worked many years ago). This site is located along the Missouri River just west of where Highway 191 crosses the river along the auto tour route (Click here for a detailed map of the west end of the refuge (PDF)).

We arrived just before sunset and joined a rather small contingent of elk watchers lining the road. Even before we opened the windows and side doors of the van we could hear a number of elk bugling near us and we could see even more about a half a mile away along the river.

This is what the fuss was all about.

This guy was the ruler of the piece of ground and associated cow elk near where we were parked.

This guy wasn't but wanted to be.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Antarctic Widlife - A Visitor's Guide

Antarctic Wildlife - A Visitor's Guide. Published in the U.S. and Canada by Princeton University Press (a review copy was provided to me by Princeton University Press). First published by WILDGuides in the U.K.
Paper 2011 $22.95 ISBN: 9780691150338 240 pp. 5 x 8 159 color photos.

I like this book. I was a bit skeptical that the promised information could be packed in this small of a book, but it delivered. This is a big plus for those of you planning a trip to Antarctica where packing a heavy book (or books) in addition to the litany of required outdoor gear and cameras can be quite a chore. To date, the best Antarctic wildlife book is The Complete Guide to Antarctic Wildlife: Birds and Marine Mammals of the Antarctic Continent and the Southern Ocean by Hadoram Shirihai. It is complete, but it is also heavy. The Antarctic Wildlife A Visitor's Guide can't compete at this level, and it doesn't even try. At the onset the author states that this book is not a comprehensive biological reference work, nor is it a site by site visitors guide or a guide to the amazing underwater life of Antarctica. It is, as stated, a photographic field guide to wildlife of the Antarctic peninsula, "devised to meet the wildlife watching needs of passengers on Antarctic cruise ships leaving from South America" And it is all of that. The author does a nearly impossible chore of providing enough information to satisfy the advanced and well prepared wildlife watcher as well as those whose interests in Antarctic wildlife are peripheral to setting foot on their seventh continent.

Much of the book is composed of well done species accounts of the animals you might encounter while on a cruise, each accompanied by representative photos. The more popular species such as the penguins have a greater number of photos which illustrate behaviors and life history, while others like the albatrosses have more photo to help differentiate species. The information and accompanying photos are concise, but are more than adequate to identify most of the species you could encounter, from flowering plants to albatrosses and elephant seals, and everything in between.

The visitors guide also breaks down a typical trip to Antarctica into species associated with the Beagle Channel, the Drake Passage, and the Antarctic Peninsula to help refine your identification possibilities and provides a description of each of these distinct regions. In addition the book also describes conservation in Antarctica, what a typical trip to the Peninsula entails, what the trip might look like at different times of the year, how to enhance your trip, and much more.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone planning on making a trip to Antarctica. I have made this trip a number of times over the last 15 years. Early on I didn't have many field guides to pack because there just weren't any to be found. Then came the time when I had at least three, if not more, on each trip. Now, if I could only take only one book with me, this would be it for sure. Now I just need to figure out how to field test it.....

Light-mantled Sooty Albatross. Antarctic Peninsula, December 2008.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Spring photos Vol 2 - Cedar Waxwings

This spring the Cedar Waxwings got the jump on the winter crab apple-eating Bohemian Waxwings and ate the apples before they were apples. We had over 100 Cedar Waxwings working over the blossoms in May. I doubt there were many apples produced this year on that tree at all. These guys completely cleaned out the blossoms by the time they were done.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Flying Penguins

I have always told people that penguins can fly. They just happen to fly in a different medium than we are used to birds flying in. Now it turns out the sometimes they even fly in the air. Not like this, (check it out anyway), but in air under water. Now I suspect you are getting really confused. Let me explain. I found out about a recent study via the BBC Wonder Monkey blog that documents just how penguins fly in the air under water. The research hypothesizes that penguins reduce drag in the water by using air lubrication to promote fast ascent when Emperor Penguins jump out of the water. You may have seen films of penguins (or observed swimming penguins in the wild) and noticed long streamers of bubbles trailing the swimming birds when they accelerate. That observation in the BBC film Blue Planet by the authors of the study, and a discussion about the reason for the bubbles over a beer before a conference, lead to a more detailed study. They determined that the bubbles were not the result of cavitation nor did the the enhanced ascent speed of the penguins result from buoyancy, but was a result of a reduction in the frictional and form drag on the penguin from air bubbles released from under the feathers of the bird.
In my observations of swimming penguins, I always assumed the that bubbles were emerging from under the feathers and I noticed it was most evident when the birds were accelerating, but I had no idea that it enhanced the speed of the birds in the water.

Check out the blog post here.
Or read the actual PDF of the research paper in the Marine Ecology Progress Series here.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Spring photos Vol 1

My last out-and-about post described my lek therapy morning with the Greater Sage-Grouse. I also was able to enjoy a morning of Sharp-tailed Grouse lek therapy as well. It wasn't the best morning for photography, but every morning on a lek is a great morning.

On my way home I visited a pair of Mountain Bluebirds nesting in a bluebird box along the highway.

Western Meadowlarks never sounded so good this spring.

One of the highlights of my travels back and forth between Billings and Fort Peck was a Sandhill Crane nest just off the highway. I was only able to stop and take photos one morning before the spring floods rendered that route to Billings impassable.

The next time I was able to travel this route the birds were gone and the nest was overgrown with cattails.