Tuesday, July 31, 2018


You might be asking yourself "what exactly is a phalarope?" Great question. A phalarope is a type of shorebird. There are 3 species in the world: Red, Red-necked and Wilson's and all occur in North America. We occasionally have Wilson's phalaropes stop by in New Jersey on their way to and from the arctic where they breed. Red and Red-necked can be seen off the cost of of New Jersey flying and swimming offshore. Yes, swimming. All phalaropes swim. You can see Red-necked and Wilson's phalaropes swimming in this video that I shot in Utah.

They spin around in the water to trap food in a little whirlpool. Pretty cool. We saw a lot of phalaropes on Antelope Island. They are already finished breeding and heading back south for the winter and its only July. We stopped along the causeway to admire the throngs of phalaropes in the water and along the shoreline when all of a sudden, they all took flight. Our group of birders spotted a Peregrine Falcon chasing after the birds. Birds often fly in "murmuration" to confuse the predator. I've seen murmurations before but this one was spectacular.

You can hear our tour guide say that he estimates 250,000 phalaropes in the area. Wow. Unfortunately for the shorebirds, there were only 249,999 after the Peregrine flew through. We watch the falcon have lunch on on the mudflat while the other birds settled down. I don't think I've ever seen a flock of birds that large before.

Seeing that many birds is really incredible but you can't really get a good look or photo of any individual bird. On another day, we did get close up to a few shorebirds including a few Wilson's phalaropes.

Wilson's Phalarope
Here is a phalarope with a Long-billed Dowitcher.

Long-billed Dowitcher and Wilson's Phalarope
And here is another fraternizing with another Wilson. This time, Wilson's Snipe. 2 of the birds named after the father of ornithology, Alexander Wilson on the same pond. Neither of them gets the irony of their human-given names.

Wilsons facing off - phalarope and snipe
We spent a good bit of time at the pond watching other birds as well including White-faced Ibis.

White-faced Ibis
And a few Common Nighthawks that wouldn't call it quits even after the sun was up in the sky. I caught a few photos. You can see the mountains in the background.

Common Nighthawk
The trip was pretty great. Although we raced around between 3 states, we also got to spend quality time with many of the birds that we saw.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Chasing Game Birds in the West

The American Birding Association (ABA) is in charge of telling us birders which birds are "countable" on our lists and which are not. The general rule for a bird to be countable is that the bird must be viewed within North America, alive, and wild. All of these rules are debated by birders during dull moments or over beer.

  • "North America" has definite boundaries but birders try to stretch is all the time. If you are in a boat off the coast, are you still in North America? What if you are standing in Mexico along the Rio Grande river and see a bird on the U.S. side of the river? Can you count it? The ABA also changes it's rules from time to time. For instance, Hawaii was never included until last year. 
  • "Alive" is pretty straight forward. Or is it? What if you see a bird hanging out of the a cat's mouth? Is it countable? I think only if it wiggles. Gross. 
  • "Wild" is a tough one. Most are obvious but some birds in North America didn't start out as wild. Some were brought here as pets or as hunting targets. These birds escape and either die because they can't survive in our climate or they continue to live in their new "wild" home. The ABA changes rulings about these birds a lot. If the escaped birds establish successful breeding populations, they end up countable. 

You can read the official rules here: http://listing.aba.org/aba-recording-rules/

The ABA has allowed a handful of game birds in the west to be counted. I joined a tour run by Tim Avery, a Utah guide to search for "Mountain West Most Wanted" to see some of these birds in addition to some others that I'll tell you about later. Tim took us to 3 states to get the birds. We started in Nevada to chase (I'm not kidding here) Himalayan Snowcocks. Yes, the birds are from the Himalayan mountains. You can imagine that they are quite comfortable in the high mountains and generally stay above 10,000 feet. To get to the right habitat, we had to start our day at 3:30 AM. We drove to a parking lot in the State Park at about 8,000 feet of elevation. We hiked for over an hour and climbed to about 9,800 feet - in the dark!

Nevada dawn
 You have to get there before sunrise so that you can scan the ridges for the birds. They hide out in the cliffs at night and then walk over the ridge to feed in the alpine meadows. Here we are scanning the ridge line for the buggers.

Searching for Snowcocks
I'm not one to brag, but I did see the first bird crest the ridge :-) but once it moved off the ridge, it took all of us to spot it again. Tim found the bird and about 8 others in the meadow. Can you see them?

I took the liberty of pointing them out for you.

Himalayan Snowcocks
There is no way to get closer to them without hiking another 500 feet up which is very difficult for someone like me who lives at sea level so we just enjoyed the views from a distance. We found a few other birds on our way back to the van. You can just about make it out in the photo. And WOW, the scenery!

Heading down the mountain
With mission accomplished, we left Nevada and headed to Idaho in search of more birds including another game bird called Gray Partridge. This bird prefers much different habitat. They are most often found in farm fields or sage brush areas. No need for hiking to see this bird. We just drove around scanning the fields for anything that resembled a brown softball with a head. We can play the "find-the-bird-in-the-photo" game again. Here it is:

Partridge spotting
I made it easier by cropping the photo to reveal the bird. You can just see the bird's head poking out of the prairie grass.

Gray Partridge
We spotted a few more after more searching. Tim saw them along the road but they darted into the grass when the van approached. I volunteered to walk over to the edge of the road and viola:

Gray Partridge
That was the best view of the birds that we could get. They landed and disappeared.

The last game bird that we wanted to see was Chukar. This is a bird that Connie and I saw back in the 1990's but never officially recorded on our list. Once again, we needed different habitat to search. Chukars like rocky fields with sage brush. We kept our eyes peeled every time we saw suitable habitat but didn't see any. On our last day, we headed to the quarry just outside of Salt Lake for a last ditch effort to find the birds. At the ninth hour, we spotted a Mom and a few babies! You can see the baby in the shade of the sage brush.

Chukar with baby
Mom hunkered down when she saw us get out of the van.

She was the last of our "most wanted" species. After that, we headed for lunch and the airport. More stories to come. I am still sorting through the trip and the photos to figure out how to tell the stories.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

The Drought is Over

Our annual trip to Potter County proved to be the hottest and most humid that I can remember. Our camp neighbors told us that they had more rainy days than clear ones in June. The weather didn't dampen our family fun. Our hikes up to the slate quarry were just a tad soggy. The dogs managed to find a porcupine. Luckily the critter scampered up a tree before the dogs caught up to him. That could have been a prickly incident for sure.

Those giant claws allow the porcupine to get up that tree and hang on.
The "drought" in the title doesn't pertain to the weather. It refers to my inability to find Mourning Warblers. They are rare migrants through our area and I haven't been skillful enough to find one on their breeding territory . . . until now! I took a drive up on Nelson Run Road to see if I could find suitable nesting habitat. The field guides say that they prefer dense scrubby habitat. That sounds alot like clear cut logging areas. The loggers put up electric fences to protect the saplings from deer. I pulled up to one and bingo.  I heard a "churree, churree" coming from the scrub just along the fence. To my amazement, this guy popped up.

Mourning Warbler
Mourning warblers are very large for warblers. The ID is based on the gray hood and head with the black patch on the base of the bib.

Mourning Warbler
I was thrilled but couldn't stay much longer or risk being late for dinner. Connie and I returned the next day on our motorcycles to see if the bird would oblige us with another appearance. No luck on our first attempt but we did find one farther down the fence line.

Mourning Warbler
I played the song on my iPhone for a bit to attract him. Some people frown on using a tape to attract the bird. I made the call to play the tape due to 2 factors: First, I'm pretty confident that other birders hadn't been here using tapes before us so the bird wasn't tired of hearing the tape. Second, I only used it for a few minutes and let the resident bird "win" the territory fight that he thought he was in. In other words, the warbler assumes that the tape is another male trying to cut in on his action. Once the tape stops, the resident male assumes that he won the contest and drove the other bird away. Oh, and thirdly, we won't be back to disturb the bird again.

Mourning Warbler
It was a special encounter that we will remember for a long time.