Friday, April 21, 2017

Other Colorado Wildlife

Of course, we saw more birds than Grouse and Ptarmigan. In fact, I added 11 life birds on the trip. Todd got 4 which is good for him. We found iconic western species including 100+ Western Meadowlarks singing their R2D2 songs.

Western Meadowlark
And beautiful Stellar's Jays in the mountains.

Stellar's Jay
We found this Yellow-headed Blackbird in the marsh.

Yellow-headed Blackbird
And this little Rock Wren.

Rock Wren
On the lake, we saw 100+ American White Pelicans. They are pretty easy to spot but not usually close enough for a photo like this.

American White Pelican
Here is one of the life birds for me. McCown's Longspur which is a tiny sparrow-like bird that runs around in the grass. Very difficult to spot unless it runs across the dirt road like this one did.

McCown's Longspur
It is always a joy to find Rough-legged Hawks. This one perched on a fence post.

Of course, there were other critters too. We were surprised to spot this Red Fox wandering along the side of the mountain road. Look at the long fur - alot different than the foxes in our yard.

Red Fox

Furry Fox
It is the big game that was really cool. Like these Bighorn Sheep.

Bighorn Sheep

Chewing on Grass
And the Pronghorn too. These were the animals that I really wanted to see. We saw a few that were very far away or close but then bolted when they saw us (Pronghorn are the fastest animal in North America) but these 2 didn't seem to mind our cameras snapping photos.



Thursday, April 20, 2017

Our Non-Chicken Chicken Trip

Birding in Colorado in April is well known to birders as the "Chicken Trip" . In this case, we are referring to Prairie Chickens which do a breeding dance on "leks" that warrants National Geographic TV episode. There are 2 species of Prairie Chickens - Lesser and Greater but the "Chicken Trip" also includes 4 species of Grouse which also do the displays - Gunnison, Sharp-tailed, Dusky and Greater Sage Grouse. Nature tour companies run trips to Colorado for 10 days to see all 6 species plus other Colorado birds. Todd and I did it in 4 days.

I admit, the agenda that I set for our Colorado trip was ambitious. I think Todd was worried but the itinerary actually worked out great. We now refer to our trip as the Non-Chicken Trip since we saw all of the Grouse but neither of the Prairie Chickens. We cut out the chickens due to the location of those leks being really far away. We would have needed 2 more days to get to those. Plus, the chickens can actually be found in other states.

We started our grouse trip in Gunnison located in the southwest part of the state where there is a very rare Gunnison's Sage Grouse. Gunnison is the only place in the world to see this grouse and the wildlife rangers are very strict about viewing the lek. There are a million rules:

  1. Arrive 1 hour before dawn
  2. Park in designated spots (NOT ON THE ROAD!)
  3. No headlights
  4. No talking
  5. Stay in your car
  6. Remain at the lek until all birds are finished displaying

With all of these rules, you would think that the birds would be really close and skittish. Turns out, this was our view. I had to use red arrows to point out the birds. The ridge was 1 kilometer away.

Gunnison Sage Grouse lek
The birds started displaying at 6 AM. By 6:45, we were bored. The wildlife office told us that they would be finished by 10 AM. Good thing neither of us are rule followers. We left at 6:45!

On to our next quarry - Dusky Grouse which can also be seen near Gunnison at the Black Canyon park. Although many birders find the Dusky here, they usually do not see them displaying since these birds do not use a lek. When we arrived at the canyon, we ran into a birder who we know from New Jersey - Tom Johnson. Tom is an excellent birder and a professional tour guide. He had 2 vans of birders looking for Dusky Grouse and found one on the side of the road. Todd and I stopped to view that bird and found 2 more further up the road. Then we found this guy actually displaying. You can see the red air sacs on his neck and the yellow eyebrows.

Dusky Grouse display
Later that day, we headed north to Hayden in search of Sharp-tailed Grouse. We found a hotel and headed out before dawn again to get to the lek that another Jersey tour guide located a few days before. It paid off. We saw a few Sharp-tailed grouse but didn't see them displaying.

Sharp-tailed Grouse
3 down, 1 to go. Off to Walden to see if we could find Greater Sage Grouse on the lek. We arrived at 8:45 and found only one bird hiding in the sage brush. Reports on the Internet indicated that there were over 100 birds at this lek but we arrived too late. No worries, we found other birds that day and got a hotel room. The next day, we arrived at dawn and found a spectacle of booming grouse on the lek. Greater Sage Grouse as far as we could next to the dirt road. This was the nature show that we came for.

We spent 2 hours watching the display. I shot 2000 photos.

Greater Sage Grouse Lek
I couldn't stop myself. Here are just a few. The males gulp air to inflate balloons in their chest, puff up their necks and display their tails to impress the females.


Like most males involved in impressing females, they often fight. Here are 2 of them squaring off.

Squaring Off
Feathers flying. They beat each other with wings until one runs away.

Meanwhile, the females casually wander around the lek looking for the most impressive male. When the females wander off, some of the males leave the lek or rest for a bit. Here is one resting.

The birds have paparazzi.

The obvious question is: Why did the chicken cross the road? Answer: Sex!

After all of the birders and most of the birds left the lek, this male kept at it. Click the play button on the video.

He was rewarded (if you know what I mean) by this female. Believe me, this photo is the G-rated version. I have X-rated versions too.

Gettin' Jiggy
No romance here. He hit it and quit it. Off they flew into the sage. It was all over before 8 AM.

Done for the day

Monday, April 17, 2017

P-finding P-tarmigans with P-Todd

I finally got a benefit from all of my work travel. My final presentation for this spring was scheduled in Denver on Friday. If you are a birder, you know that April is the best time to visit Colorado to see Grouse and Prairie Chickens so I extended my stay for a few extra days to see if I could find some. Lucky for me, our friend Todd said that he wanted to come along. Yay. I worked on Friday until 2 PM and Todd was waiting for me with the rental car in the Microsoft parking lot.

Away we went on a 4 day journey to see as many grouse as possible. Our first stop took us up to the Rocky Mountains to try to see White-tailed Ptarmigans. We found these Bighorn Sheep beside the highway.

Up and up we drove the winding road until we were above the tree line at almost 12,000 feet in search of the Ptarmigan. I bought a new wide angle lens to try to capture the views.

Loveland Pass
Now, you may not know about Ptarmigans but they are really cool birds that completely change their colors based on the season. In summer, they are speckled brown but in winter, they are completely white. Both colors are intended to blend into the landscape for camouflage. April is neither winter or summer, so we didn't know what to expect if we found the bird.

First of all, look at the landscape photo above again. This is the top of the Rocky Mountains and a vast open space where we thought we could find a few birds the size of softballs. Good luck. We parked the car and started to scan the landscape.

Looking for Ptarmigan
Nothing stood out so we decided to hike out on the snowy slope to see if we could find the birds. I saw something on the slope. Can you see the birds?

How about now?
Softball on the hill
There were 2 White-tailed Ptarmigan feeding on the small patches of grass that were exposed from the melting snow. I told you they were camouflage experts. In this case, the birds were still snow white. The only way that I saw them was because they were moving.

We decided to try to get closer so we hiked down, around and back up the slope giving the birds a wide berth. Remember, this is 12,000 feet up and a really steep slope - with snow! I was huffing and puffing from the thin air. Trying to keep my balance and not end up at the bottom of the mountain. All of this with adrenaline pumping with excitement. We found a spot on the slope about 50 feet from the birds. They never seemed to mind our presence.

Ptarmigans on the slope
They just kept doing what Ptarmigans do. Todd and I were fascinated. The birds were stunning. I snapped hundreds of photos. Yes, hundreds. Todd did the same. We couldn't stop snapping. I will spare you most of them. Here is the male perched on an exposed rock.

White-tailed Ptarmigan
All of a sudden, the female leaves the little grass patch and starts marching across the snowy slope right toward us. She seemed like she was trying to figure out what Todd was doing.

Checking us out
Todd has a better camera than I do and a GIANT lens. He was snapping away until he couldn't focus on the bird anymore. Why? She was too close. (Luckily, my inferior lens was able to capture this shot) She walked up to about 4 feet away from Todd, looked at him and then turned around and sauntered back to her mate. I snapped this photo with Todd's cell phone. You can see his camera lens and his hand as he was saying "Where's she going?" Todd is a good looking guy but I guess he wasn't her type.

P-Todd and his almost girlfriend
You can tell that these birds live in cold climates. Check out the furry feet. You can also tell that they live on steep, rocky slopes. Check out those claws.

Furry Feet
Remember the part about the birds changing color? You can see the very first brown feather of summer coming in just under her eye. In a few weeks, the snow will be melted and the birds will be brown enough to blend into summer.

Although we didn't want to leave, we had to get going. My butt was freezing off and we had a long drive to our next destination in Gunnison. Todd couldn't resist snapping this photo of me with the Ptarmigans as a souvenir.

Reluctantly leaving our friends

What an incredible experience.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Hawk's Nest at the Mudhole

Not much has been happening up at the "Mud Hole" where we walk the dog. I'm fairly disappointed with the lack of birds up there lately. We've noticed a big nest in a tall tree but haven't seen a bird in it. Until the other day that is. Using binoculars, I could just about make out the top of a bird's head so I got the camera out.

Mother Hawk
And she is VERY wary. Constantly looking for any trouble - including us. Pete thinks this is why they say "watching you like a hawk"!

Hawk Eye

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Owl in the Box!

When Connie and I moved into our new home 17 years ago, one of the first things that I did was hang a Screech Owl box in the pine trees between our house and the next door neighbor. I opened the box one day to see if it needed to be cleaned out and to my surprise - a little owl was "hiding" in the corner of the box! We never saw the owl in the hole of the box. Many years passed and the box disintegrated. We also got new neighbors who are interested in the box.

I replaced the box last year but again we haven't seen an owl. Last month, I climbed the tree and opened the box. Once again, a little owl hid in the corner. I was soooo excited. Our neighbor, Jordan told me that he saw the owl in the hole a few times last week but he has a better view from his yard. Today was the day. The owl showed himself! Even with Peanut chasing sticks. I snuck over to the car and grabbed my camera. The owl didn't care. Here he is:

Eastern Screeh Owl
I moved to a different view. Here he is again:

Eastern Screech Owl
All in all, a good week for the yard.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Snowy Foxy Day

We were all pretty shocked to wake up to snow today after having such mild weather. But there it was, snowing so I made sure to put plenty of birdseed out for the birds. Since I work from home alot, I put new feeders on the patio so that I can watch the birds from the office. The original feeders are still stocked out near the garage too. The birds were going crazy.

Imagine my surprise when a big red thing ran under the bush by the patio and then jumping around. I was on the phone with a customer and yelled "Oh my god, it's a fox". I grabbed my cell phone and started trying to get a video. You can see the fox behind the tree jumping straight up in the air.

Apparently he or she caught a mouse and was flipping it around. He played around a little and then left. I finished up on the phone and went into the kitchen to grab some lunch. I was pretty shocked to see the fox standing in our driveway.

Fox in the hen house? 
Look how beautiful he/she is. Apparently, he/she wanted dessert after his lunch and ate all of the peanuts and left the sunflower seeds.

Really fun stuff. Made the snow seem less cold.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Summer in February

While Diane and Barbara are sunning and funning in Puerto Rico to escape the cold weather . . . we were  also sunning and funning back home today with a high temperature of 70 degrees. Time to get out and bird! Peanut and I picked Marty up at 6:15 AM and headed to the bayshore to meet Harvey and Steve to look for some winter birds.

We didn't manage to find many birds despite being out all day. But being out all day was terrific. I only photographed a few birds including this Fox Sparrow - one of many that we saw.

Marty wanted to see the Pink-footed Goose that has been hanging around Cape May near the zoo. After a few circles around the pond, we spotted it hanging around with a bunch of Canada Geese. This is a bird of the far north. Only a few come as far south as New Jersey and even then, not every year.

Here it is swimming with his Canadian friend. Notice the size difference.

My friend Steve posted on his blog that they had a Woodcock calling in their front yard this week. Woodcocks are very early breeders and start their mating rituals in early March. I guess they can't wait to get a jump on it this year. Reading that, I decided to go to the dog park tonight to see if any Woodcocks were there. After about 40 minutes of waiting at dusk, I found one bird in the road that flew off and gave the classic "peent" call. Yay! Check out Steve's post to read about their bird and see photos.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

There's Rare, And Then There's Mega Rare

I have spent the past two weeks lamenting. You see, there is a rare gull in upstate New York. A juvenile Ross' Gull was found on Tupper Lake hanging around the ice fisherman waiting to feast on fish guts. This is a gull that is usually found in extreme arctic. People travel to the arctic and still don't see the bird. And here is one only 7 hours north. 7 hours seems easy until you can't find anyone to drive up there with you. The gull hung around for about a week and then couldn't be found. Needless to say, I didn't go to see the gull and I'm still regretting it.

Flash forward a few days. The Internet lit up on Friday with news of a Mega Rare bird being seen at bird feeders near Reading PA. Black-backed Orioles are only found in the mountains of Mexico which is nowhere close to Pennsylvania. This bird doesn't migrate. How did it get here? Who cares. I wasn't about to miss out on this one only an hour and a half away. Lori went with me. We arrived to masses of birders lining the sidewalk in this residential neighborhood. It was like a carnival atmosphere. The bird was easily seen but not close to the road. You can see it here hanging out with 2 Cardinals.

This bird is so famous that the neighbors have a guest book for people to sign. We met people from New Jersey, Maryland and West Virginia. People are coming from all over to see the first recorded Black-backed Oriole in the United States. By the end of the day, 197 people saw AND recorded their visit in eBird.

The jury is still out as to whether the bird will be "countable" in official records. In order to be legitimate, the records committee must be sure about the species - no doubt about that, and the provenance of the bird - big doubt about that. How did the bird get to Pennsylvania from Mexico? If the committee suspects that the bird got here by human hands - smuggled, accidentally transported by boat, plane or truck, or escaped from a cage - then the bird will not count as a wild bird and therefore will not be accepted on anyone's life list.

So why then would 200+ birders go to see the bird? 2 reasons. First, it's a pretty, orange bird in the middle of a gray winter. Second and more important, we all have the bird "in the bank" just in case the record committee accepts the bird as a wild vagrant. Check! Only time will tell.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Christmas in Florida

For the second year in a row, I drove to Florida over Christmas. Last year, Connie and I drove down after Christmas. This year, I drove down with Diane and Barbara. Had a great time swimming, eating, drinking and shopping. Dave rented us a golf cart so that we could scoot around for fun. We decided to decorate it for the holidays. Here are Diane and Barbara getting ready to cruise.

Decked Out
Peanut spent her time on the lanai chasing lizards. I caught this one and put it outside for its own safety much to Peanut's disappointment.

Peanut's toy

Barbara and I managed to get out birding a few mornings. We scooted over to an area known for birds. We got to see this Red-shouldered Hawk up close. It sat in a cypress tree for a bit and then flew off. You can see the red shoulder on this photo.

Red-shouldered Hawk
On our way back to the house, we came across this Osprey sitting next to the golf cart path. I got really close and the bird didn't care. In fact, he/she was so bored with me, he/she let out a big yawn.

Bored Osprey
We ran across another birder. She was really happy to meet us since there aren't that many birders in the Villages. She gave us great advice about where to find the Egyptian Geese that live here. Egyptian Geese are, as you can imagine, not American birds so therefore not countable for ABA records EXCEPT in Florida where they breed freely. I have seen them before but it would be a life bird for Barbara.

We went after the geese the next day. Boy, the directions were perfect. The birds were right where the other birder said they would be. Boom - lifer for Barbara and ABA bird for me. Win-win.

Egyptian Geese
We took a look around the pond and found a few other birds to photograph. Here is an Anhinga drying its wings on the edge of the pond.

This Snowy Egret was taking a risk. The Alligator moved closer and closer. Moving so slowly that it was almost imperceptible. The Egret didn't notice.
Snowy Egret and Alligator
We didn't stick around to see who won the stand-off. We headed back to the house for more Christmas merriment.