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Bill Schmoker's Nature & Birding Blog

Updated: 2017-11-18T23:32:59.785-07:00


Bird Book of the Year?


I know it is still only January, but I have a feeling my favorite bird book published in 2012 has already found a place on my bookshelf. I'm referring to Steve Howell's comprehensive Petrels, Albatrosses, and Storm-Petrels of North America: A Photographic Guide (Princeton University Press.) I find all of Steve's titles to be indispensable fonts of information, helpful for anything from quick photo comparisons to deep reading on identification tips, distribution, biology, and conservation issues. This tome is no exception- the sheer scale of the book's contents (a plethora of photos for every species represented, reams of authoritative text, and by far the best maps for these birds) boggles me- there is literally years of sea-time from Steve and his consultants distilled into this volume. Seasoned pelagic veterans and landlocked birders alike will have tons to learn about North American tubenoses from this book and I know it will offer enjoyment to anyone interested in wild birds! The bottom line: This is a must-have title for any serious North American birder- get it! From the publisher: Petrels, albatrosses, and storm-petrels are among the most beautiful yet least known of all the world's birds, living their lives at sea far from the sight of most people. Largely colored in shades of gray, black, and white, these enigmatic and fast-flying seabirds can be hard to differentiate, particularly from a moving boat. Useful worldwide, not just in North America, this photographic guide is based on unrivaled field experience and combines insightful text and hundreds of full-color images to help you identify these remarkable birds. The first book of its kind, this guide features an introduction that explains ocean habitats and the latest developments in taxonomy. Detailed species accounts describe key identification features such as flight manner, plumage variation related to age and molt, seasonal occurrence patterns, and migration routes. Species accounts are arranged into groups helpful for field identification, and an overview of unique identification challenges is provided for each group. The guide also includes distribution maps for regularly occurring species as well as a bibliography, glossary, and appendixes. The first state-of-the-art photographic guide to these enigmatic seabirdsIncludes hundreds of full-color photos throughoutFeatures detailed species accounts that describe flight, plumage, distribution, and moreProvides overviews of ocean habitats, taxonomy, and conservationOffers tips on how to observe and identify birds at sea Steve N. G. Howell is an acclaimed field ornithologist and writer. He is an international bird tour leader with WINGS and a research associate at PRBO Conservation Science in California. His books include the Peterson Reference Guide to Molt in North American Birds and Hummingbirds of North America (Princeton). [...]

A Greater Roadrunner Where Now??


Earlier this week, my buddy Joe Roller did some great bird detective work and weathered several fruitless trips to finally track down a rumored Greater Roadrunner on Dinosaur Ridge, west of Denver near the fabled Red Rocks Park (Joe's highly entertaining full story of his roadrunner quest can be found here.) After his original confirmation of the bird he led 1 successful return trip followed by a string of dips in worse weather. Today, though, the weather improved, the weekend rolled around, and several Denver-area birders including yours truly positioned themselves along the bird's favorite haunts to see if it would make another appearance. At about 12:30 we were rewarded with looks that began as distant & fleeting but got better and better. Below are some of my favorite images of this bird, and yeah, the white stuff in many of the images is snow!! Thanks, Joe!

Enjoy- Bill

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(image) Roller's Roadrunner Raiders getting their twitching orders.

Snake In The Grass


At the Midwest Birding Symposium, my friend Clay Taylor tuned me on to a great digiscoping lens for Micro Four Thirds Cameras. I knew that I would have to get the Olympus 14-42mm MSC lens to pair with my Panasonic DMC-G1 after he let me try it- on my Nikon EDG Fieldscope I can get vignette-free images at nearly any zoom. The internal focus of the lens prevents any bumping and it seems very sharp on initial perusal. As a nice bonus, I found out that it also makes a really nice macro lens when I came across this Common Garter Snake at Boulder Reservoir last week. With the zoom range (28-84mm equivalent), digiscoping friendliness, and excellent macro capabilities, I think that it will be the ideal companion to tote along as a compliment to my telephoto rig. Here are a few macros taken with this new rig- digiscoping examples will follow eventually...


How Cool is This? Nikon Announces Stabilized Scopes


I just got word that Nikon will produce an imaged-stabilized version of the vernerable EDG Fieldscope. There will be straight and angled 85mm models, each equipped with Nikon's VR (vibration reduction) technology that has been perfected in their stabilized camera lenses. I swear by the VR in my 200-400mm f/4 VR Nikon camera lens- it makes hand-holding the rig a reality, even with a 1.4X teleconverter. I think the potential for VR in a scope is pretty amazing, particularly for digiscoping. Using stabilized cameras for digiscoping really doesn't help since they can't counter movements in the scope, so this should be a major weapon for getting sharp digiscoped shots. I'm not sure when I'll get to put my hands on one of these but I'll let you know what I think when I do!!

Fall Warbler Workout


I recently had the fabulous opportunity to attend the Midwest Birding Symposium representing Nikon Sport Optics. The event was headquartered in Lakeside, Ohio, and in addition to our booth Nikon sponsored the famous Magee Marsh Boardwalk birding site. This meant that my partner Tom Dunkerton & I had to scout the boardwalk and then head out to help the birders heading there as part of their symposium dance card- a tough job but someone has to do it!!I especially appreciated the mental workout of identifying migrant fall eastern warblers- as a Colorado birder I don't see many of these. (Most of my experience with eastern warblers is from trips north and east to tally these beauties during the breeding season when their full colors and songs make the sorting much easier.) I think I've sussed the following birds out but please set me straight if you think I've gotten any wrong! Hope you enjoy the non-bird stuff, too. (Click on any image to enlarge.) Enjoy- BillCape May Warbler (thanks, Nate!)Blackpoll Warblers (note the yellow feet!)Black-throated Blue Warbler (no mistaking that one!!)Black-throated Green WarblerChestnut-sided WarblersBaby Eastern Fox Snake (thanks to Tom Dunkerton for the pic of me with the snake)Philadelphia Vireo (by far the best pic of this species I've gotten so far!)Sunrise @ Magee MarshRose-breasted GrosbeakRed-eyed Vireo (young bird- note dark eye.)Sanderling (on zebra mussel shells.)Tom Dunkerton photographing a Northern WatersnakeYours Truly photographing above Sanderling (thanks again, Tom Dunkerton!)[...]

To See the Grebe, Be the Grebe


Sorry about the lack of activity 'round these parts lately- I should mention that for a while now I've been blogging every other week on the ABA Blog. I'll try to remember to post links to my ABA Blog entries here, like my latest about grebe photography from a kayak. I'll also try to have some fresh stuff here on BrdPics- especially photography, perhaps with less commentary (as my ABA posts often are more verbose.) Thanks, faithful readers! -Bill

The Crossley ID Guide- Eastern Birds


I was very excited to recently receive a thick envelope from Princeton University Press (THANKS!!), knowing it held The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds. I had discussed the book a few times with the energetic author, Richard Crossley, and knew it would be groundbreaking, unique, & valuable. It didn't disappoint! The book begins differently from the very onset, with a quick reference guide on the endsheet (yeah, I had to look that up) organized by birds as you see them in the field instead of following the current (& ever changing) AOU taxonomy. There are sample images of birds from each of his 8 groups based on habitat and physical similarities (Swimming Waterbirds, Flying Waterbirds, Walking Waterbirds, Upland Gamebirds, Raptors, Miscellaneous Larger Landbirds, Aerial Landbirds, & Songbirds) with pages listed to get beginners going to the right sections and to let more advanced birders know how to find birds in this guide. The table of contents is also totally different than any other bird book I know of, with simply a small photo typifying each bird (all that share a page to the same scale- sweet!), the 4-letter banding code, and a page number. I enjoyed Richard's preamble discussing the layout of the book, how to use it, and his thoughts on bird ID. In fact, one thing I enjoy about new bird books is the textual introductions (both to the book and to the various sections), with nuggets of knowledge to be gleaned from each author's expertise and perspective. Richard's species-level notes also have much food for thought and ID tips to apply in the field. The biggest difference of this publication is its treatment of each species, which consists of a background image selected to represent a typical habitat for the bird and multiple (dozens in many cases) of bird images composited into the plate to represent various plumages and poses, nearly always including flight shots. I can't imagine the effort that went into getting flight shots for the little guys! The idea is that as birders we see birds near and far, in different plumages, at various angles and in flight and the book aims to replicate that. Richard is an intense, high-energy guy and his plates are a reflection of his personality- pedal to the metal birding that could border on information overload! He isn't afraid to show birds that aren't always pretty, such as a House Finch with conjunctivitis, little guys lurking among branches, or nocturnal birds with eye glow. Richard includes people and human structures in many of the backgrounds- again, reality supersedes always going for beauty which I feel is appropriate. It is essentially a massive photo library of reference shots for the 640 species represented. The book is large, something I'd leave at home or in my vehicle for reference instead of toting around in the field (it is even bigger than the "big" Sibley Guide.) Some images may be too small in the background to be entirely helpful, though I suppose even those could supply helpful gestalt for the species. Some of the plates are also a bit dark to my eye. Admittedly, we see distant, small birds and we find ourselves in dim conditions so reality rules here, too, though in a book one might wish for brighter more detailed images throughout. Richard's web site ( promises upcoming Western US & UK versions, both of which I'm very anxious to see as well (especially the Western version as I hail from the Mountain Time Zone.) I congratulate Richard on this monumental effort and for coming up with a bird guide concept so new and yet so potentially helpful to birders across the spectrum of ability and experience. From the publisher:This stunningly illustrated book from acclaimed birder and photographer Richard Crossley revolutionizes field guide design by providing the first real-life approach to identificati[...]

Roughing It


Here in the Boulder, Colorado area we've been enjoying an Arctic bird to go along with the Arctic weather we're having (got to about 0° F today for the high and supposed to get near -20° tonight with worse wind chill...) On Thursday my buddy Christian Nunes reported a juvenile Rough-legged Hawk that was along the road leading to his office in South Boulder. While an unusual species around here, what made the bird special was its unwariness- he found out about the bird when a co-worker showed him a picture of it on her iPhone! Another friend of mine got some killer shots of the bird on Friday so I thought I'd better see if it was still there on Saturday. It was, and I was treated to watching it hunt along the road for a couple of hours. Even when it dropped down to fence posts along the road it would stay put as joggers, bicyclists, and motorcycles went by. It only seemed to fly to get to another hunting perch or to pounce down on prey. This is in pretty serious contrast to my prior experiences with the species. Seems like most roughies blast off if you get within 100 meters. They often won't even tolerate a car stopping nearby. It was a pleasure to have such a cooperative subject, and I got an encore today as I went back for another hour or so this afternoon (courtesy of a snow day at work.) At one point today it flew right at me and dropped to the shoulder of the road about 10 meters away. Unfortunately it came up empty on that attempt, but I did see it successfully grab some rodents. Before the snow covered them them many vole tunnels were visible in the grass on the shoulder of the road and adjacent ditch- I'll bet the hawk is slashing its way through a strong colony of them. In a couple of shots below the bird is seen eating one such critter- I consulted my mammal pro buddy Chris Wemmer (AKA The Camera Trap Codger) and here's what he said about the afternoon snack:Hi Bill,It looks like it may be a prairie vole (Microtus ochrogaster) which has a gray belly ("or washed with whitish or pale cinnamon"). Esp if it was in open country. It occurs in the eastern half of the state. so seems to be within the range.It could also be the long-tailed vole (M. longicaudus), but this species occurs in woody coniferous or brushy habitats and doesn't do the vole tunnel thing. It doesn't seem to be this however from what you say about the tunnels.You also have the meadow vole there (M. pennsylvanicus), which is dull brown above with a gray belly. Can't rule this out.Boulder is out of the range of the sagebrush vole (Lemmiscus curtatus).The prairie vole seems most likely to me -- the tail is strongly bicolored in the 2nd picture, which also fits.Thanks for the input, Chris, and for the head's up, Christian! Here are some of my favs of the bird- amazing that many times it was too close to fit in the frame as it flew by me while I stood on the shoulder of the road. The snowy shots are from today, others from last Saturday. Enjoy- Bill[...]

Right Place at the Right Time


It's been a long time since I got a life bird 10 minutes from home, but that's what happened today! I was dutifully entering the Boulder CBC data online this morning, aiming to wrap up the long task of compiling the count, when my phone rang. Seeing it was my birding buddy Larry Semo I of course picked up. He was letting me know that he and another friend, Steve Mlodinow, had what was probably a young male Tufted Duck at Golden Ponds in Longmont just a hop, skip & jump away from my casa. I checked with the boss and she graciously cut me free of family duties to make the short-distance twitch. Arriving a bit later, I was treated to a sleeping Aythya duck showing one heck of a crest- almost cardinal-like when its head was tucked back. Soon the bird woke up, giving looks at its tuft and other field marks like the bill pattern and wing markings when it stretched. All looked good for a first-winter male Tufted Duck- cha-ching! The great thing about a lifer so close to home is that it ticks almost all of the lists I care most about (ABA, State, County, Photo)- just missing my yard list.

Here are some shots of the bird- hope it sticks around for others to enjoy!

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More Snow Light


>  Raptors appeal to a wide spectrum of birders and nature loves like few other groups of birds. But their habit of perching high in trees or power poles and flying overhead can make photographing them challenging- they often have bright skies behind them that contribute to very dark images of the birds. Your eye & brain combination is much more forgiving than a digital camera sensor, which is why the bird that looked fine in your bins may look like a dark silhouette in your photos. You can play with exposure compensation or waiting for the right light (sunrise and sunset light from behind is quite nice) but if you live in northern latitudes, get out on a sunny day when there is snow on the ground. The snow acts like a big reflector, bouncing light up from underneath the birds. This helps illuminate raptors from below, showing features otherwise lost to underexposure on birds against bright skies. Portrait photographers sometimes use basically the same technique using portable reflectors to bounce sunlight at their models as an alternative to electronic flashes. This is especially helpful on dark raptors like eagles or dark-morph buteos, but works with about any raptor you find on a sunny day with snow on the ground. As a word of caution, light-morph raptors can look really pale in snow light- I've seen light Red-tailed Hawks mistakenly ID'd as Ferruginous Hawks in these conditions, for example, because they look so bright underneath in the bounced light. We've had a notably dry, warm winter up to this week in Colorado's Northern Front Range where I reside. But we finally got significant snow a couple of days ago, followed by a sunny cold day today. Having the day off, I headed out to drive a nearby route I know can be productive for wintering raptors. One bird I was happy to find was this light-morph adult Harlan's Red-tailed Hawk. It is back for its 4th winter in the same wintering territory, showing the site fidelity of these birds. More amazingly, Jerry Liguori (author of Hawks From Every Angle: How To Identify Raptors in Flight and the upcoming Hawks at a Distance: Identification of Migrant Raptors) photographed the same bird in migration to its Alaskan breeding grounds in the spring of 2009. Feather-by-feather analysis of flight photos from Colorado & Alaska clearly established it was the same bird and we co-authored an article documenting the long distance photo-recovery in Colorado Birds Vol. 44 No. 1, Jan. 2010 (PDF here). It was great seeing this old friend again today and snapping it in the great snow light! Nearby was another adult Harlan's Hawk- this one more typically dark (perhaps a dark-intermediate morph per Brian Wheeler's Raptors of Western North America.) It was perched nearly over the road and I photographed it leaning out my vehicle window. The snow light really brings out the feather detail in the dark body! I finished my tour with a raptor that took my breath away- an adult male rufous-morph Ferruginous Hawk. (Rufous individuals with gray heads are likely males vs. females with brown heads per Brian Wheeler's Raptors of Western North America.) This bird wasn't as cooperative as the above Harlan's- it perched in a twiggy cottonwood tree and then flew between me and the sun. On a normal day the flight images would probably have been unsalvageable, but with the snow light and a bit of shadow highlighting in post-processing I could bring up the amazingly rich dark rufous tones of this bird. Look at the gape- that guy is made to gulp large prey like prairie dogs & jack rabbits with a minimum of shredding! I hope you enjoy the images and get the chance to try birding & photographing raptors with snow light sometime this winter. [...]

New Nightjars Book


(image) I was pretty tickled to have a new bird book from Princeton University Press waiting for me at home when I returned from the Arctic Ocean- Nightjars, Potoos, Frogmouths, Oilbird, and Owlet-nightjars of the World! What a cool tome about an awesome group of birds. The book has something for about any birder, as representatives of the Family Caprimulgiformes occur on every continent except for Antarctica. Each species (135 in all) is represented with lavish multi-page spreads of detailed maps and insanely good photos- makes me feel pretty deficient in my nightjar stock! Plus, proceeds from the book's sale support BirdLife International's Preventing Extinctions Programme. 7 nightjars and one owlet-nightjar are on the conservation effort's list including the critically endangered Jamaican Poorwill (possibly extinct, known with certainty from museum specimens collected prior to 1860), Puerto Rican Whip-poor-will, and New Caledonian Owlet-nightjar (last reported sighting in 1998.)

In addition to the species accounts, the beginning of the book has sections about the distribution, plumage & structure, general biology, and taxonomy of this unique bird family. The book is ahead of the curve with the AOU's recently-split Mexican Whip-poor-will receiving a full species account. Another nice touch I'd like to see in more specialty guides is the appendix listing alternative English names for the species- quite entertaining to see some of the other handles for these birds! As I look through the book I realize the paucity of my personal checklist in this department and how I hope to see many of these amazing birds eventually. Thanks to Princeton University Press for the opportunity to at least experience these birds vicariously!

Air Time


Hey folks- thanks for following along on my PolarTREC expedition. I never thought I'd do a daily blog post for 5 weeks but it was a fantastic experience! I've got to get some bird pics summarized to post here, but in the meantime I'd like to mention an upcoming radio interview I did from my 6th-period class last week. It will air tonight in LA, tomorrow in the Boulder area, and will be online Monday. Check it out! Boomer Alley Radio's "Explorers Show" will air on Sat 10/9 at 7p PT in LA on, Sun 10/10 at 4 pm MT on our local radio station AM 1060 in Longmont/Denver/Boulder and across the state on Radio Colorado Network's other stations. The show will be podcast on and iTunes by Monday, Columbus Day (and possibly as early as Sunday.) Meanwhile, here are a few pics to tide you over (birds to come later..)(image) (image) (image)



Well, I'm packed and ready to head to the airport early tomorrow morning, Alaska-bound for my PolarTREC expedition. Follow along via the tease links above this post as I update my journals or go right to my PolarTREC page: mostly ready I decided to head out and do a little photography this morning. For a new twist I decided to try digiscoping some dragonflies at Walden Ponds in Boulder, CO. I've shot dragonflies with a telephoto and with a macro but this was my first serious attempt at digiscoping them. I'm using my Nikon EDG (65mm angled model) and a camera that is new to digiscoping for me- the Panasonic DMC-ZS7. I got the Panasonic for my trip to AK based on its all-around utility; 300mm equivalent zoom, HD video, and GPS-tagging capabilities. But I wasn't expecting it to be very good at digiscoping, as most cameras with more than 4X optical zoom don't work well. But it is pretty serviceable! I felt mostly confident on these IDs except for the brown job which had me stymied. Luckily some of the state's best ode experts bailed me out. Enjoy- BillFemale Blue DasherCalico PennantYoung male Autumn (or maybe Striped) Meadowhawk. Much thanks to Bill Prather & Dave Leatherman for the ID help on this one.Halloween PennantVarigated Meadowhawk[...]

A' one, and a' two, and a' three... toes!


I led a Denver Audubon Master Birder class field trip yesterday up in the hills above Golden, Colorado to Golden Gate Canyon State Park. We saw & heard a bunch of nice montane species, and I think the highlight for everyone was tracking down a previously reported American Three-toed Woodpecker nest. Looks like this fledgling should pop out any minute, so glad we made it prior to the fledging date. It was super loud- we could hear while we were still in the woods prior to entering the clearing where its nest aspen tree was. Both parents attended the nest while we were there- this clip catches part of one of dad's visits. We also saw and heard Red-naped Sapsucker, Downy Woodpecker, and Northern Flicker while we were observing the nest and had Hairy Woodpecker earlier in the trip, so great auditory and visual woodpecker studies were had by all! The ATTW was a lifer for about half the group, which is a very gratifying thing to be a part of as a field trip leader. This cadre is about done with their year-long program and will be presenting their research projects July 26 and August 2. Break a leg, and congrats on winding up this intensive program!!
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New Titles for the Bookshelf


I thought I'd share these 5 new bird books that came out this year. What's the connection? I've got photos in them all! Check 'em out: 1) National Geographic's Bird Coloration by Geoff Hill. Whitey the Steller's Jay rides again in this book!! From the publisher: Why is a cardinal red or a bluebird blue? Why do some birds have plumage that is intensely colored—is it pigment, light, gender, robust health, or some combination of all four? What roles do disease, climate, and wear and tear play in this process? What does feather display signal about sexual attraction and social status? How has color camouflage evolved? These are just a few of the fascinating questions explored here in the first non-academic work on coloration and plumage, and their key role in avian life. More than 200 gorgeous photographs highlight the explanations of the essentials: what color is, ornithologically speaking; how it is produced and measured; how birds use color to attract mates and deter competitors; how birds perceive color; and how coloration varies across species by sex, season, and age. Geoff Hill guides his readers along an engaging but authoritative narrative illustrated with vivid photographs and fact-packed captions. A book conceived in the same spirit as National Geographic’s more traditional bird guides, it’s sure to appeal to serious ornithologists, recreational bird watchers, and natural history buffs alike. 2) Peterson Reference Guide to Molt in North American Birds by Steve N.G. Howell. I was very pleased to be a part of this groundbreaking book. To be a good/great birder you've got to address molt, and this book finally puts it all together in one place for N.A. birds. From the publisher: To most observers,molt seems an overwhelming subject. But birders use many aspects of molt more than they realize--to distinguish juvenile birds from adults, to pick out an individual hummingbird from among dozens visiting a feeder, and much more. And for those whose interest goes beyond simply identifying birds, questions such as What triggers molt to start? How fast do feathers grow? and How long do they last? offer a fascinating window into the lives of birds. Put plainly, molt relates in some way to everything a bird does, including where it lives, what it eats, and how far it migrates. Here, for the first time, molt is presented for the nonscientist. Molt is very orderly and built on only four underlying strategies: simple basic, complex basic, simple alternate, and complex alternate. This book clearly lays out these strategies, relates them to aspects of life history, such as habitat and migration, and makes this important subject accessible. 3) Birdscaping for Garden Spaces: A Guide to Garden Birds and the Native Plants that Attract Them by George Adams. Birds and habitat are intricately connected and this book helps gardeners appreciate and enjoy our backyard feathered friends, and is full of ideas to make their gardens more bird-friendly. From the publisher: Wake up to the sound of birdsong- turn your garden into a refuge for feathered friends by growing the native plants that attract them. Take a bird's eye view of your backyard with native plant and bird expert George Adams as he shows you how to create a sanctuary with year-round avian appeal. Featuring full-color photographs throughout and the author's superbly detailed illustrations. Birdscaping for Garden Spaces will help you identify resident and visiting birds and show you how and where to grow the native trees, shrubs, grasses, groundcovers, and the wildflowers that they love. Plus unique birdscaping calen[...]

Junk Birds


Well, actually really cool birds, hiding under a bunch of junk!

Last November, John Barr & I put up a Barn Owl box in a pole barn on property he has access to in Weld County, and about immediately the resident Barn Owl traded in its exposed post for the security of the box. This spring there was every sign that birds were nesting but we kept our distance to minimize disturbance. On 29 June John decided to poke his head (& camera) around the barn's side wall and was rewarded with three fledglings teed up shoulder to shoulder! I went back with him yesterday (1 July), and it seemed like we were skunked. I figured the magic window of opportunity was gone and the birds had moved out. But when I was looking at some bones in the massive pellet midden under the box, I saw a feather under a pile of junk in the corner of the barn. At first I thought it might have been molted, but when I let my eyes adjust to the darkness under an old steel barrel I started seeing more feather detail. My heart sank as I thought I was seeing part of the carcass of one of the owls. But then, by changing my angle a little I saw a facial disk with a black eye looking back at me! By peering in under the barrel, behind a culvert pipe, and under a manky cardboard box I could count all three hiding down under the junk, but only a little piece of owl at a time. I'll bet they were tired of the heat up in the barn rafters and were seeking a little cooler day roost.

Sorry for the shaky vid but you'll get the idea of what I'm talking about. For a better viewing experience open it up in YouTube and select HD.

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Carolina Wren in Boulder


I chalked up a new Boulder County bird today thanks to my buddies Ted Floyd and David Waltman- a Carolina Wren. That completes all of the Colorado Wrens for me in Boulder County (unless/until a Cactus Wren report from this spring gets accepted to the state list...) Pretty easy twitch- I heard the bird as soon about as soon as I started listening for it, and soon had it in sight quite nearby the trail along S. Boulder Creek. I used the chase as an opportunity to try a new point-and-shoot super zoom camera I just got- a Panasonic DMC-ZS7. I mainly got the camera for my upcoming PolarTREC expedition to the Arctic Ocean, liking its built-in GPS geotagging, 400mm top end zoom equivalent, and HD video capabilities in a package the size of a deck of cards. Much to my delight, I've found it also digiscopes fairly well (some vignetting but with 12 MP plenty of room to crop) and can record sounds reasonably well, too. I'm thinking that this will be a pretty slick tool for documenting birds- exact location & time is captured by the GPS, sound and action can be obtained in the video mode, and with the zoom maxed out it has enough reach for at least record-quality pics of many birds. Above is a pic I snapped of the wren at max zoom, and below is a YouTube clip of the bird- unfortunately the visual quality is only so-so (a problem I've always had with YouTube) but the song comes through pretty well. Select the better quality vid (480p) to get the best look.

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Red Crossbill Diversity


Last weekend I led a photo trip to Hutton Lakes NWR near Laramie, WY for the Colorado Field Ornithologists annual convention. Unfortunately, conditions there were less than ideal for bird photography:On the plus side, however, our group ran into a family group of Red Crossbills at the rest area on Highway 287 just south of the Wyoming border. The timing was perfect, as we had learned about Red Crossbill types and the evolutionary battles between crossbills and conifers from Dr. Craig Benkman the night before in his keynote address. These are Type 2 Red Crossbills, the subspecies that prefers ponderosa pines. This is the first time I've photographed a juvenile crossbill. Besides the streaky markings note the short-looking bill and tail- both still growing, I'd surmise.[...]

Hello from Fairbanks!


I'm up in Fairbanks, Alaska for a week of professional development and training for PolarTREC ( I applied for this amazing program last October, found out I was a finalist a few weeks ago, had a final interview by conference call last Tuesday, and found out that I had been selected on Tuesday night! 4 days later I was on a plane to Fairbanks and here I am. This week there are 12 teachers along with me learning the ins and out of the program. In the coming year each of us will team up with a research group in the Arctic or Antarctic for a research expedition. I will be aboard the US Coast Guard cutter Healy, a polar icebreaker, from 2 August through 6 September. The ship will depart Dutch Harbor and proceed north through the Bering Sea and Bering Straight into the Arctic Ocean. The mission will primarily involve detailed mapping of the extended continental shelf in the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska and Canada, accompanied by the Canadian Coast Guard cutter Louis S. St-Laurent. In addition to bathymetry studies all sorts of other oceanographic data will be retrieved. Lots more to follow, but set a bookmark now at my PolarTREC page:, I'm mostly in meetings all day but I did have some birding time the first morning. I walked a few blocks through downtown Fairbanks and found a nice park on the Chena River. Common Redpolls were singing all over the place, seeming to especially like birch trees and alder thickets. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the gulls whipping around were mainly Mew Gulls with an occasional Herring Gull coming up or down the river. Intermittent warbler songs that were kind of familiar resolved into Myrtle (Yellow-rumped) Warblers, looking different than the Audubon's Yellow-rumped Warblers of home with their white throats. I don't have my big camera rig with me but I am making use of the 45-200mm lens (90-400mm effective) on my Panasonic DMC-G1 which is probably what I'll be taking with me on the icebreaker. I'm missing the reach and hyper performance of my Nikon DSLR rig but that Panasonic ain't too shabby. Anyway, another busy day is promised tomorrow so I'll sign off for now with some pics I enjoyed taking. [...]

Ready to Fledge


A buddy of mine recently tipped me off to a really photogenic Great Horned Owl nest along an Open Space trail NE of Boulder, CO. I scouted it on a cloudy day between deluges last week but had better light on my visit today. All of the regular joggers and walkers (with or without dogs) seemed to know about the owls & I lent several my bins for a better look while I was there. I also knew where to find a sleeping adult by other pedestrians pausing farther down the trail and peering into the woods- after I arrived it only briefly opened its eyes as a few crows cawed nearby before shutting them again. Well used to the daily stream of humanity, the urban owls (youngsters and nearby adults) were relaxed and didn't mind another loitering hominid, even one toting a long lens. The nest site, a hollow-topped cottonwood snag, afforded a neat setting without obscuring branches or too much of an upward angle. I'd say the owlets, especially the larger one that decided to do some stretching and scratching for me (my, what big talons you have), is about ready to plunge out into the world any day now. After leaving the nest, juveniles typically hang around nearby for a while as so-called "branchers", still depending on the adults to feed them. But branchers can be harder to find and photograph, so I'm glad I caught these two still in the nest! [...]

Shake Hands with Sage


A Sage Sparrow dropped out of a recent April snowstorm 4 days ago at Lagerman Reservoir, only about 5 minutes from my SW Longmont, Colorado home. Apparently it likes it there because even though the weather has turned back to sunny and mild, it is still hanging out as of this morning. I watched it for about an hour a couple of evenings ago, sitting on a low rock along a pathway where it was foraging. I was rewarded with some stunningly close looks and at one point I wondered if it might even jump in my lap! I could hear its bill clicks and the cracking sounds of the seeds it was demolishing along with the occasional small beetle or worm for relish. It payed virtually no attention to me and the only things that alarmed it were the loud calls of nearby Killdeer and the low flyover of a pair of American Avocets, which sent it scurrying for cover under a dock at the boat ramp. Needless to say, I ended up having photo phrenzy over this engaging, obliging little chap.[...]

Dipping on Ptarmigan


Last weekend I led a Denver Field Ornithologists trip in search of White-tailed Ptarmigan in the Indian Peaks Wilderness west of Boulder. This was a snowshoe birding trip, and with a foot of fresh snow they were absolutely required to get around. We 'shoed up to treeline, ticking only 3 birds (Mountain Chickadee, Golden-crowned Kinglet, and Red-breasted Nuthatch) along the 2-mile climb through the subalpine forest, but we were dazzled with the snow-draped spruces, firs, and pines. As we got glimpses of the Indian Peaks through the trees I knew we were going to face harsh conditions above treeline, though, as wraiths of snow were being whipped high above the ridge lines by strong winds. Sure enough, as we overtopped the dam at Left Hand Reservoir, we were blasted by gusts of 25-30 mph. I brought along a Kestrel weather meter that registered 6.8° F. At that combo the wind chill is around -15° F. More importantly, White-tailed Ptarmigan deal with harsh conditions in an efficient way, staying cozy by scrunching down into the snow and letting it drift over them. Without tracks to indicate areas of recent activity or birds above the surface to scan for our odds were pretty slim but we tried for a while anyway, snowshoeing around the stunted willow groves were they winter, dining on wind-exposed buds. After a valiant effort we decided that keeping all of our fingers and toes was more important and headed back down sans ptarmigan. It was hard work for 3 species of birds but a dazzling day in the Colorado high country! Thanks to the 8 hardy birders who joined me on the quest- maybe we'll have better luck next time.Peering up at a Golden-crowned KingletTrooping Up (Last pic courtesy of Dave Alcock- that's me in front.)Wind-whipped snow flying off Mt. Audubon Krummholz zoneLooking back at my tracks across Left Hand Reservoir. Two specks in the distance are Ed and Dave who searched the longest and hardest- thanks for trying, guys!Wind-whipped snowshoe-birders (photo by Dave Alcock- thanks again, Dave!)[...]

Birds of Europe, 2nd Edition


I've just received a review copy of The Birds of Europe, 2nd Edition with Text and Maps by Lars Svensson and Illustrations and Captions by Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterström.The first edition was widely considered to be the epitome of field guides, and the revisions found in this edition will cement its reputation as an archetype to which others will be compared. I'd say that any serious North American birder needs this guide. I often turn to this book in reference to holarctic species that we share with Europe. For example, I think this book's treatment of Jaegers (er, Skuas seeing that it is a European guide...) surpasses anything in the N.A. guides and rivals the specialty Skuas and Jaegers guide (out of print but available as pricey used versions) by Olsen and Larsson. Then there's always the chance of vagrants from across the pond in need of ID- stint, anyone?Anyway, I'd encourage anyone who doesn't have this guide to check it out. Here's more info from Princeton University Press, the publisher. Since it was first published a decade ago, Birds of Europe has become the definitive field guide to the diverse birdlife found in Europe. Now this superb guide has been brought fully up to date with revised text and maps along with added illustrations. Uniquely designed for easy use in the field, this expanded edition covers all 772 species found in the region as well as 32 introduced species or variants and 118 very rare visitors. Detailed species accounts describe key identification features, voice, habitat, range, and size. More than 3,500 full-color illustrations depict every species and all major plumage variations, and color distribution maps provide breeding, wintering, and migration ranges for every species.Complete with an introduction to each group of birds that addresses major problems of observation and identification, this new edition is the ultimate field guide to Europe's fascinating birdlife. Expanded and fully updated Covers all 772 species found in Europe, 32 introduced species or variants, and 118 very rare visitors Features more than 3,500 color illustrations that depict every species Includes detailed species accounts Provides color distribution maps for every species Color plates face text and maps for at-a-glance identificationLars Svensson is one of Europe's foremost field ornithologists. Dan Zetterström and Killian Mullarney are two of Europe's leading bird artists.Reviews:"The richest and the most comprehensive of the current guides."--Times (London)"If you are birding in Europe, you must have this guide. It should be on the shelf of many North American bird watchers, especially those who live along the Atlantic coast, where many European birds are found. It should also be in the library of anyone who collects field guides, if for no reason other than you can occasionally take it down and be reminded of what is possible when art and design and purpose are treated as equal parts of a final product."--Bird Watcher's Digest[...]

Looking Sharp!


Throughout the winter months I’ll sometimes notice that my backyard gets very quiet, devoid of the busy activity usually found around my platform and hanging feeders. Then I’ll often notice the distinctive profile of an Accipter perched in a nearby tree or on the fence. I mainly get Sharp-shinned Hawks but also sometimes see a Cooper’s Hawk lurking or actively diving into my spruce trees to bust out birds seeking sanctuary in the dense boughs. Sometimes I’ll find a scatter of feathers beneath a perch where a hunt reached a successful conclusion. I’ve found a few such piles of Eurasian Collared-Dove feathers recently- certainly not from a Sharpie but perhaps a gnarly Cooper’s? The reason I wonder is that there have been a few reliable reports of a Goshawk in my end of town this winter, raising hopes that I might someday add that big bad ‘un to the yard list. Anyway, as I went out to fill the feeders last weekend I was accompanied by my frequent helper, Garrett. I noticed an immature Sharp-shinned Hawk hanging out in an ash tree next to our biggest blue spruce, no doubt deciding on a strategy to get at the House Sparrows and Finches deep within (earlier in the week I heard and then saw the same Sharpie deep within the spruce, playing tag with the House Sparrows.) Garrett didn’t see the hawk and proceeded to walk almost right beneath it. Amazingly the Sharpie didn’t fly away despite the proximity of a pre-schooler cavorting below. I took this as a sign to go get my camera and ended up with some nice close-ups as the bird was remarkably tolerant of close approach. Raptors are smart cookies and I think that the Sharpie was hoping we’d flush out a sparrow or finch. I went around the fence to the patch of open space behind our yard to get some pics of its belly side and heard birds nervously calling and shifting around in the brush pile I’ve made there, which really drew the Sharpie’s attention. The next thing I knew, the hawk flew seemingly right at my head but passed just overhead. It must have been a false start because it broke off any chase, swooped up and landed in the cottonwood. A few minutes later, though, a House Sparrow made a dash from the brush pile and the Sharpie pursued it out of sight around a corner, gaining fast. No wonder Bill Thompson III calls these birds Death Rockets! [...]