Saturday, December 28, 2013

Yellowstone in Winter - 2013

This week my family did our annual (second) winter Yellowstone National Park trip. Just one day over and one day back again this year although we said that we would like to make it a bit longer next year for the second year in a row. One of my goals for the trip was to spend some time trying to get photos of American Dippers along the Lamar River. I tried last year but wasn't happy with the results so I modified my approach and tried again this year. I am not completely satisfied with the results this time either, but they are better than last year. Maybe I will have it figured out in time for the next trip.

I only got to spend a short amount of time with this particular bird. It was fun watching him jump off the ice and disappear into the moving water and a short while later leap out of the water with what appeared to be small green caddisfly larvae pulled from their sandy cases. They were eaten quickly and the bird returned to the ice edge for another round of foraging.

This stretch of the Lamar River has a pretty high density of American Dippers and they appear to each occupy about a 10 meter portion of open water. There was also a small flock of Barrow's Goldeneyes near where I was, but I didn't get a chance to get any photos of them. Next year!

I did find time to take a few shots of this Bighorn ram too. He must have been pretty active earlier this fall - both sides of his horns were broomed pretty good.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas Present

This morning on my walk along the river I found this nice little Christmas present. The last two years I have been fortunate to find a brood of these Eastern Screech-Owls in this area, but I haven't been able to find one outside of that. My lack of success in locating one of these birds isn't for the lack of trying. Every walk I look at the broken tree tops and check out cavities without ever finding an owl. This morning it paid off though. Sitting on a broken tree top that I have looked at a number of times was this little guy soaking up the morning sun.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Pronghorn Portraits

I have had a bit free time on my hands lately which has provided me with a few more opportunities to get out with my camera. Today I managed to track down this Pronghorn.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Counting Birds - James Harrison

I stumbled upon this poem this afternoon while moving books from shelf to shelf and I had to post it here. 

Counting Birds

As a child, fresh out of the hospital 
with tape covering the left side
of my face, I began to count birds.
At age fifty the sum total is precise and astonishing, my only secret. 
Some men count women or cars
they've owned, their shirts --
long sleeved and short sleeved --
or shoes, but I have my birds,
excluding, of course, the extraordinary 
days: the twenty-one thousand
snow geese and sandhill cranes at 
Bosque del Apache, the sky blinded
by great frigate birds in the Pacific
off Anconcito, Ecuador; the twenty-one 
thousand pink flamingos an Ngorongoro Crater
in Tanzania; the vast flocks of sea birds
on the Seri coast of the Sea of Cortez
down in Sonora that left at nightfall, 
then reappearing, resuming 
their exact positions at dawn;
the one thousand cliff swallows nesting in he sand cliffs of Pyramid Point,
their small round burrows like eyes, 
really the souls of the Anasazi who flew 
here a thousand years ago
to wait the coming of the Manitou.

And then there were the usual, almost deadly
birds of the soul -- the crow with silver 
harness I rode one night as if she 
were a black, feathered angel.
the birds I became to escape unfortunate 
circumstances -- how the skin ached
as the feathers shot out toward the light;
the thousand birds the dogs helped 
me shoot to become a bird (grouse, woodcock,
duck, dove, snipe, pheasant, prairie chicken, etc.).

On my deathbed I'll write this secret 
number on a slip of paper and pass
it to my wife and two daughters.
It will be a hot evening in June
and they might be glancing out the window
at the thunderstorm's approach from the west.
Looking past their eyes and a dead fly
on the window screen I'll wonder
if there's a bird waiting for me in the onrushing clouds.
O birds, I'll sing to myself, you've carried
me along on this bloody voyage,
carry me now into that cloud 
into the marvel of this final night.

James Harrison (1990) - The Theory and Practice of Rivers and New Poems

Friday, July 5, 2013

Turkey Vulture

This week I was able to spend a couple of evenings at a spot where about 26 Turkey Vultures have been roosting. The location is on a high hill and I enjoyed the eye level views of the birds playing the updrafts on the edge before they settled into the hill-top radio and microwave tower cross-members for the night.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Why I Like Starlings

I am not afraid to admit it - I like starlings. No - I really do! I can hear most of my birding friends ask "Even if you did like them, why would you admit to liking these invasive noisy birds in a public forum?"

Well, I guess the short answer is that I went to Africa once. It was while I was in Tanzania that I developed my appreciations for starlings. No, not the European Starling pictured above, but the African versions of this family. They are gorgeous.
The starling family, the Sturnidae, has 112 species in 31 genera. Starlings were originally found in Africa, Eurasia, and Pacific Island, but some species have spread throughout the world.
My first experience with starlings on my trip to Africa was at the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. I found European Starlings flying around the terminal and realized that this was the first time I had observed this species as a native bird.
Then, when I arrived at the camp in northern Tanzania I was to call home for the next 10 days I truly came to appreciate starlings. This is why:

The Superb Starling was my first introduction to the more colorful members of this group. Their name was soon shortened to a mumbled "Sprb" whenever we saw one. Shortly after the Superb Starlings came the Hildebrandt's Starling:

Even better in my opinion.
Then the Greater Blue-eared Starling.

One other species of less showy starling I observed was the Ashy Starling:

Perhaps the most striking starling was one I didn't get a photo of. It is the Violet-backed Starling. An iridescent plum purple and white model that was unmistakable as is flew away from me. Here are a some photos of this one. See what I mean?
There are so many more species of gorgeous starlings in East Africa that I didn't observe last time - I guess I will have to figure out a way to try again.
More information on starlings (as well as all other species of birds) of the world including photos and videos for most species is this wonderful source - the Internet Bird Collection found here.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Baikal Teal

I was lucky enough to find this bird this morning just as it was getting light. ISO 2000 and some computer work was needed to make a presentable image.
This bird was found on Sunday in Missoula and I was lucky enough to be heading this way for work this week. I looked for it a bit yesterday evening but it apparently disappears during most of the day to someplace other than the nearly empty irrigation ditch it was originally found in, but at least on Monday and again today it returns to this spot early in the morning. Within about 20 minutes it had slowly made it's way down the ditch with the Wood Ducks it is keeping company with and disappeared from view.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Grouse Days

Early last week I took a few days off and headed north to spend a couple of mornings on a Sharp-tailed Grouse and Greater Sage-Grouse lek after the weather looked like it was going to cooperate and there would be a few days without snow, wind, and clouds.
My first morning was great. I set my blind up on my favorite sharp-tail lek the night before and shortly after climbing into the blind I had a number of males displaying around me. The rapid-fire thumping foot stomps of the displaying birds sounded like distant machine gun fire. The percussions were combined with cooing and chuckling as the birds jostled with each other in the dark. As dawn flowed towards me I could slowly discern the shapes of the birds and the sounds from the darkness merged with their dancing bodies.

Sunrise reflected in the eye.

From this point until the sun actually appeared above the horizon is the most difficult for the photographer, but often the most enjoyable for the biologist. There is usually a lot of action on the leks between dawn and sunrise as the females arrive and the males kick displaying into high gear, but not enough light to make good photos. This morning was no different, but thankfully the female sharptails keep arriving after the sun appeared behind me so the photographer was as happy as the biologist.

I find displaying sharptails to be more entertaining than sage-grouse with their more vigorous displays and frequent jumping fights providing lots of action. One fight this morning was memorable as both birds kept at it for at least 5 minutes. They were on the edge of my field of view from the blind opening and the fight was mostly auditory for me, but the intensity was still evident in the sharp thwacks of wing strikes and bird growls that occurred around me. At one point they fought all the way around my blind.

That evening I headed west and set up on one of my favorite Greater Sage-Grouse leks that in the past has had about 20 males on it. This is gumbo clay country and the spring snows had saturated the landscape. There wasn't much of a footprint of bird activity on the lek, but I thought that it probably was because the frozen ground and recent snows had erased signs of more action.

The next morning I trekked to the lek shortly after the nearly full pumpkin moon slipped below the western horizon, but before dawn had reached the eastern sky. I could hear a couple of birds displaying nearby shortly after I arrived and soon I could hear the more wingbeats settling into the sage around me. However, when it became light enough to see the birds on the lek I realized the the amount of bird sign I had noticed the night before really was indicative of the number of birds on the lek. There were only 7 males displaying in front of me. Even though there were just a few birds, they were right where I wanted them and the light was looking promising for the photographer. As the photographer waited, the biologist enjoyed watching as two females wandered towards the dominant male and then fought with each other for position in front of him. I also noticed that the male displaying just to my right has lost most of his tail feathers and his displays had a very unbalanced appearance. In short order the winning female was bred and then the other female as well. They then wandered off into the sagebrush away from the lek... and six of the males walked their dancing after them and disappeared over the edge of the rise the lek was located on just as the sun was breaching the sky and the light was getting good. Of course the one remaining male was the half plumaged bird. I managed to get a few photos of him in the early light, but just as the sun rose and lit him well, something spooked another bird behind him and out of my sight and the entire group flushed and flew away over a distant ridge and like that the biologist and the photographer were done for the day with the biologist certainly getting the most out of the morning.

The forecast for that night and the next morning, the last of my trip, was high winds, snow, and overcast so I decided not to try my luck at the sharptail lek again. I could have dealt with the wind and snow, but when it was supposed to be combined with overcast skies, it just didn't seem like it would be worth it. Wrong. The next morning was a bit breezy and it had snowed, but it was clear and the sunrise on the new dusting of snow was wonderful. Dang.