Posts Tagged With: come closer dammit I can’t see your field marks

Ring-necked why?

Every birder in North American asks the same question: If the duck has a bright ring around its bill, why is it called Ring-necked?

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I don’t see any ring there!

I’ve heard lots of theories – it’s a hunter’s bird-in-hand fieldmark, some other duck was already called Ring-necked – but no one seemed to know the truth. Until now!

In an article in Birding, the ABA journal, Rick Wright solves the mystery*. He dug through obscure volumes in dusty libraries until he found Edward Donovan’s early-1800s description of the type specimen, the bird from which the species description is derived, and discovered…

…nothing about the bill. The hard-to-see chestnut collar is the only good distinguishing mark. So what happened to Donovan’s duck’s bill? He painted and described the bird from a poultry market specimen, not a live bird, so it might have been damaged either in hunting or on its way to market. Not knowing any different, he depicted it with a plain blue-grey bill.

Here it is, in all its dull-beaked splendor:

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Poor Edward Donovan. Scoffed at for centuries as fabulously unobservant, vindicated at last.

Last week at Vischer Ferry, I saw something amazing. A small flock of Ring-necks preened and displayed close to shore and in perfect light. And believe it or not, one male with his head held high and neck fully extended actually had a clearly-visible contrasting dark red collar between the glossy purple neck and his black chest. It was probably a once-in-a-lifetime sight, and of course I didn’t have my camera!

 

Top photo via WikiMedia Commons.

*Birding, Vol. 46, May/June 2014. Sadly, visible only to ABA members.

 

 

Categories: Bird photos, vischer ferry, waterfowl | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

It’s been that kind of year.

The kind of year where I spend hours puzzling over these two photos only to finally concede that yes, it was just a Song Sparrow. Maybe I was better off when I only copped to knowing three sparrow species.

Categories: Bird photos, Usual suspects | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Blame Canada

Canada (not Canadian!) Goose flocks, because they’re so vast, often have a few oddballs in the bunch. This one had a white face, which didn’t seem to bother its companion.

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Notice the big booty on this one. There’s likely some domestic goose in its ancestry.

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Trying to figure out all 11 subspecies is enough to give anyone fits. Go on, just try to read through that without crying. Not too long ago, the four smallest varieties were broken off as a separate species, the Cackling Goose. So of course, we’re all looking for tiny Canada-types so we can add a new lifer!

A reliable source spotted a Cackling Goose on Collins Lake yesterday, so this morning in the teeth of a howling wind I scanned the water, searching for that elusive little guy. I thought I had it…

Ceci n'est pas une oie caqueter.

Ceci n’est pas une oie caqueter.

… but nope. Just a small Canada.

If the gale dies down I’ll stop back tomorrow and peer through 700 geese to find that special one. If only they were all as obvious as in that top picture!

Categories: Bird photos, Field trip | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Problematic sparrows

Even more than shorebirds, sparrows are… challenging. (Yeah, let’s use that word. It’s politer than most of the others that crossed my mind.) Not only are they predominantly brownish, they have the infuriating habit of popping out of cover, flying 10 feet, and disappearing again making a few indistinguishable cheeps.

So I was glad this little guy flitted in tho the edge of my neighbors’ veggie patch, showing a flash of white tail feathers. And he found enough goodies to stick around for the time it took me to dig out the camera and fire off a few shots.

Vesper Sparrow!

Categories: Bird photos | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

If it’s Tuesday this must be Newcomb; or, a whirlwind tour of the ADKs

 

At 4:00 AM my alarm went off. At 4:02, a second alarm, just in case… Only for you, birds. Only for you. I grabbed my gear and stumbled off into the still-dark morning, the only sound the unwearying Carolina Wren. We met at our rendezvous, and then up to the North Country for a long day birding.

I don’t often see Common Loons in full breeding plumage. They’re usually in plainer winter garb while passing through the local lakes. On Little Tupper Lake, we watched two preen and dive.

Sabattis Circle Road paid off immediately. A Broad-winged Hawk carrying prey exited fast, pursued by Blue Jays. At least a dozen warbler species, four thrushes, and an assortment of sparrows and vireos serenaded us. When we stopped, within minutes some Gray Jays squabbled by (more on those later!). After a family of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers moved through, we were almost complacently dismissive of another woodpecker, until we realized its solid dark back marked it as one of our target species for the day — Black-backed Woodpecker. Lifer!

In the background we’d been hearing a flycatcher sound off — che-bek, che-bek. Or was it? More of a che-LEK? We fine-tuned our ears and confirmed — Yellow bellied Flycatcher. Second life bird of the day!

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We could easily have spent the rest of the morning walking along the road, listening to bird song and examining the bog plant life.

But we had plenty of place to go yet. Off to Paul Smiths Visitor Interpretive Center!

I hadn’t been here in 25 years and the place has certainly changed. I want to move in…

Another place you could easily spend a day or more wandering the trails, but we just took a quick look across Heron Marsh for possible waders. No luck, so we broke for lunch at Steve’s hot dog wagon. Don’t be a meanie, buy a weenie! How could we resist?

Next stop was Bloomingdale Bog and its famous performing Gray Jays. The way it works is, on the way in the trail, you place your offering on the altar — or, toss some nuts on the platform feeder. By the time you head back, the jays have passed the word and they’ll be waiting for you. Offer food on your palm and they’ll fly in and grab it. I had one immature Gray Jay swoop in for walnuts, and I was so excited I couldn’t even think of trying to use my camera. I was one of the lucky few — the birds might have been unnerved by our numbers (a dozen) and the quantity of treats offered. Where to go first??

Oddball sighting of the day — this Vesper Sparrow, normally seen in grassland areas like shorn fields and airports. What was it doing here?

Bird life was quieting down as the day heated up, so I switched my focus to insects.

Our final destination was Intervale Lowlands, in Lake Placid. How I wish we’d had a whole day here, too! The 160 acre preserve is intensively managed and monitored to study population,weather and habitat changes and visitors are encouraged to share their observations to build up the databank.

So now I’m planning out a multi-day excursion for next year, giving all those sites (and others!) the time and attention they deserve.

Categories: bird behavior, Bird photos, Field trip, flowers, insects, Life bird!, New bird, Rara avis, scenery | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Pine Bush ramble, 5/31/14

I decided to check out some of the outlying areas of the Albany Pine Bush that I hadn’t visited before. It was a perfect day for a walk, and the lupines were in bloom.

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I looked at the spot off Lincoln Ave where the Red-headed Woodpeckers were last year. No one had reported seeing them so far, but it’s always worth a try for such striking birds. No luck, but I watched these guys soak up the sun before catching a thermal. So sue me, I think Turkey Vultures are photogenic.

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There’s a bird in here somewhere…

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Oh! There he is! Well, that wasn’t very helpful at all!

Take my word to it -- it's a Red-eyed Vireo.

Take my word to it — it’s a Red-eyed Vireo.

Indigo Buntings weren’t any more cooperative so I put down the camera and just enjoyed their blue lightning glow in the sun as they flashed in and out of cover.

This Eastern Phoebe posed with its breakfast — a huge long legged horrifying spider. Go Phoebe!

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Categories: bird behavior, Bird photos, Field trip, insects, scenery | Tags: , , , , , , | 12 Comments

With a little help from my friends…

… or, how the internet helps me bird better.

The big news two weeks ago was GYRFALCON! in the grasslands. A couple of very experienced birders spotted the falcon first and it was all over the internet by 10. I read it a few minutes later and was torn — a Gyrfalcon! Not just a lifer but a glamorous one! But we have to take Randall back to school! But surely he won’t mind a 130 mile detour! But–

Fortunately for my sanity, by 10:45 the bird was gone away. Even if I’d torn up the highway at 10:02, I would have missed it. Here’s an account and picture by one of the lucky few to see this rare visitor.

Instant reports, instant photos — just a few years ago, we depended on the local bird line to inform us, five days late, of notable sightings. If we were lucky, the eyes in the field could dash to a pay phone to start the phone tree. Today, someone saw a Willow Ptarmigan* in Jefferson County. Within an hour, the report was on a dozen rare bird lines. An hour later, photos. Two hours later, GPS coordinates exact to the bush. More pictures, plans to carpool from Long Island and NYC and Buffalo, comparison to a Ptarmigan seen in Montreal during the winter, historical records — information I wouldn’t even know to look for pouring forth. How did I get so lucky?

Even though I knew the odds of the Gyrfalcon returning were beyond long, it was a nice enough day-after to warrant a trip upriver. With all the binocs focussed up there, some other good birds had been detected — a Golden Eagle, a Tundra Swan — and with the winter finally broken a few migrants might start wandering up.

The flooded fields at Wrights’s Loop were predictably ducky and the trees were screaming with icterids, a few of them Rusty Blackbirds. This once-numerous species has been in serious decline for decades, no one knows why.

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Along the river, fewer ducks but more species. The dabblers had all arrived. The huge rafts of Canada and Snow Geese had dispersed. And the Osprey pair were back to their nest.

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Entering the grasslands, I rolled my windows down and was delighted by an Eastern Meadowlark in song.

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I counted five of my darling Kestrels along the way. A species of special concern, indeed.

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I tried to turn every pair of heavily flapping wings and slight dihedral into the previous day’s Golden Eagle, but they were all Turkey Vultures laboring against the lack of thermals to glide on. I did locate the Tundra Swan, in a distant farm pond. Would I have squinted at that distant white smudge, if I hadn’t been made aware of the possibility? Probably not (to be honest).

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Then I saw this guy. Dark-bellied, and perched on a ridiculously small twig, my first thought was Rough-legged. But its head was too dark, so Red-tailed? Well, whatever it was, it was civil enough to stay put while I snapped a dozen pictures, and still hadn’t flown when I left after prolonged scoping.

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So I came home, loaded my photos, and looked at this. And looked at it. And thought, and looked some more. Finally I decided I would never be able to decide on my own, so I took the question to the jury of the internet, to the Facebook Bird ID Group Of The World. Within minutes I’d been helped to the answer — bare legs, large head, and light lower belly = Red-tailed hawk. But then things got really interesting — not just any Red-tail, but Buteo jamaicencis abieticola, the Northern Red-tailed Hawk. My mind was officially blown. I’d never heard of this large heavily-marked Canadian variant. (I was pleased to see the author say that seen ventrally -that is, front on- and at a distance, it could be mistaken for a Rough leg. Vindication!)

Using traditional resources, I would have kept at it, probably eventually concluding without real satisfaction that it was some weird Redtail and never knowing why. Instead, with a little help from my internet friends, I know a little more. And I know how much more I need to know.

You looking' at me?

You looking’ at me?

 

 

*For more on the amazing Ptarmigan, look here!

Categories: Bird photos, Field trip, First of season, What am dat bird? | Tags: , , , , , , | 6 Comments

One of these birds is not like the others…

Can you tell? Hint: these are all Goldeneye. The brown-headed birds are (probably*) all female and immature Common Goldeneye, and all but one of the black-and-white birds are male Common Goldeneye. That one exception…

Do you see the one that doesn’t match, a visitor from the far north and west?

That’s a male Barrow’s Goldeneye, life bird and NYS Species #255! After striking out twice last weekend, I was lucky that the bird was still hanging around this morning. So after errands we headed back upriver hoping third time was the charm. I was beginning to despair when the river looked nearly birdless, but then a good flock of waterfowl moved in and at last (with help) we were able to pick him out of the crowd. We spent the pleasantly springlike afternoon enjoying the ducks’ courtship performances.

Despite their best yodeling, the ladies did not look impressed.

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Look at that beautiful eye! It’s obvious where they get their name.

Goldeneye are diving ducks, so sometimes just as I was getting the camera on them they’d do this:

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A Song Sparrow affirmed that spring really is coming, and he just had to sing about it!

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*One sharp-eyed birder spotted one female with more yellow on her beak — probably a female Barrow’s. I was happy enough to be able to pick out the male!

Categories: bird behavior, Bird photos, Field trip, Life bird!, New bird, Rara avis | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Short-eared owl, 11/21/13

So there I was last night, sitting on the hood of  my car peering into the thickening dusk, looking for a owl I just KNOW isn’t going to be there. Why do I bother? Anyone else goes to this spot, the bloody birds zoop back and forth across the road like commuters running for a train. Me? Five tries, five strikeouts. Why do I even bother? Why…

 

Wait. Rewind.

 

It’s Thursday morning, so I’m getting up at the edge of dawn, layering on the thermals and scraping hard frost from the car windows. Upriver, searching for waterfowl. All quiet on the riverfront: the Canada Geese are probably all out in cornfields foraging. Up in the Washington County grasslands, only a few raptors present yet. But it’s 40F, no wind and sunny, so you don’t waste a November day like this.

Reports from Saratoga Lake suggest a chance to pad our year numbers. I haven’t often birded around there — there’s not a lot of public access to the waterfront. (That was one of the hardest things for me to adjust to when we moved up here, that I couldn’t just walk along the shore. The first thing any of us kids learned on Long Island was the High Water Mark Rule: anything below the wrack line is public property, be damned to fences and ‘No Trespassing’ signs. Doesn’t work up here…) So I get an extensive guided tour of how to sneak legal peeks at the often frustratingly-distant waterbirds, where the Purple Martins nest, and the secret password that gets you in almost anywhere. Want to know what it is?

“I’m looking for The Eagle.” Yup. No one takes you seriously if you say you’re looking for gulls or sparrows. Mention an eagle and previously suspicious people will jump out of their cars to point out the exact tree The Eagle perches in.

I pick up a Horned Grebe at the extreme edge of scope range for my year count — 212 for the state, 202 for the region!

At 3:30 I’m back at my car in Mechanicville. You know the thing about Mechanicville? It’s about halfway between home and the grasslands, where in an hour or so Short-eared Owls hunt in the winter dusk. (You thought I’d never get back to the owls, right?)

And that’s where we came in, me on the hood of the car, increasingly frustrated, almost ready to pack it in as the last light fades. Then a gliding form ghosts along a hedgerow, color almost the same faded dun as the grasses, wingbeats soft as it courses just above the brush.

It stays in sight for perhaps three breaths before vanishing into the treeline. My life look at a Short-eared Owl. At last!

(year count: 213 for the state, 203 for Region 8)

Categories: Field trip, Life lists, New bird, NYS 2013, OMG bird, Species count | Tags: , , , , , | 7 Comments

Roosevelt Truck Trail, 11/2/13

Hello! Welcome to everyone who’s visited, ‘liked’, and left comments! This should put me on my mettle to post more regularly.

Continuing my effort to become more familiar with the ‘Dacks, I joined a club trip up to the Minerva/Newcomb area. The weather not unpleasant for the north country in November, close to 50 and almost still. The rain held off in the overcast sky until we were leaving.

The Roosevelt Truck Trail is an old dirt road, now driveable only with DEC permission to reach two nominally handicapped-accessible campsites. Given that they’re just flat areas with picnic table, fire ring and an outhouse between them, I think they would only be suited for someone who’s still pretty mobile. In any case, it was obvious no one had driven through in a while.

The air was fragrant with evergreens — cedar, spruce, white pine and balsam fir. The fallen needles silenced our footfalls.

The trail rolled gently for 2 1/2 miles, then we turned and strolled back. Overhead a Common Raven rattled while Golden-crowned Kinglets see-see’d from every tree. Black-capped Chickadees were joined by their northern cousins, Boreal Chickadees, a brown-capped version with a wheezy, scratchy call. We never got a decent look at them despite their numbers, but they called their identity clearly enough. Life bird!

The other target bird for the day was the Black-backed Woodpecker, another boreal conifer-loving species. We didn’t find one, despite listening carefully for the soft tap of their bug hunting, but this tree showed they are present in the area. Their feeding technique is to strip the bark from dead trees to reach insect larvae under the surface. They prefer burned-out stands of trees, and after a few years move on to newly burnt territory. Their population is suffering due to forest fire supression.

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On our way in we met a bear hunter. We didn’t see any bear, but did find a few piles of fresh-ish bear scat.

Just down the road, abandoned freight tracks ran north and south. We followed them for a while, past rock cuts, bogs and ponds.

The lake, mirror-still a few minutes before, dimpled with rain.

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I’ll be returning in the spring. Goodbye and keep cold!

 

Categories: bird behavior, Field trip, Life bird!, NYS 2013 | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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