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Friday, November 23, 2012

A Special Broccasion

Thanks to President Franklin D. Roosevelt somewhat arbitrarily assigning Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday in November, James was able to come home during his break. We decided to celebrate the occasion by trying to find James his lifer Iceland Gull on Falls Lake. Though I’d seen it a couple days earlier, we were unable to relocate this bird amongst the large flock of gulls and cormorants. Instead, we made do with a trio of immature Bald Eagles that graciously circled overhead.

There was also a fourth-year individual that was starting to grow in its white head and tail.
That’s when James noticed something white high up in the clouds. I assumed it was a gull, but after getting it in my scope, I was surprised to see an American White Pelican riding the very thermals the eagles were enjoying. It’s another bird I’d seen recently at the location, but because the bird hadn’t been reported in days, I thought it’d left. We watched as a small Cessna from the nearby airfield appeared to come dangerously close to the large bird, though I’m sure it was an optical illusion. Still not something you see everyday around here!

Honestly, from this distance, the pelican looked as big as the Cessna!

Because he had a couple days left in town, we decided to hit up our old standby of Mason Farm, where we can always expect good birding. We weren’t disappointed – as soon as I stepped out of the car, I heard the perky chirps of a flock of Pine Siskins. This is supposed to be a great winter for irruptive finches, and though we haven’t heard hide or feather of grosbeaks and crossbills, seeing the siskins again is good enough for me.

I never get tired of hearing their rip-cord calls. Look forward to it every winter!

But the finch party didn’t stop there – we spotted a couple of Purple Finches along the old canal. While one of them was clearly a female, the other had flecks and hues of raspberry coloring in its plumage, like it had just bathed in a puddle of red wine. Either it’s a young male just starting to attain his adult feathers, or it’s an extremely mature female individual. The former is probably more likely, but either way we only got a good shot of the undeniably female bird.

I honestly don't get to see a whole lot of Purple Finches - this is by far my best view ever.

Along the fields, we noticed large flocks of Field Sparrows moving through the hedges. Normally a pretty skittish species, several of the birds popped into an open view, even responding to some tapes, something I’m not used to with this species in winter. We got such good looks that I was able to appreciate the subtle plumage of these tiny birds, complete with their bubblegum pink bills and their wide white eye-rings. These have got to be the one of the most adorable birds in the state!

Except for maybe Winter Wrens - they might take the cake in the cuteness category.

Not to be outdone, a nearby Northern Mockingbird stopped skulking in one of the bushes and perched out in the open. James froze because he was quite close to the bird, easily within five feet. He tried to take a picture, but against all odds, the mockingbird moved even closer to him. The bird ended up within the camera’s minimum focal distance, so James actually had to step back to take the shot you see below. But oh what a shot!

You can see every damn feather on this bad boy, from it's slightly-worn primaries to the bristles 'round it's bill!

Now when we showed up to Mason Farm, it was cold. Not like real cold, but certainly North Carolina cold – somewhere in the high forties or so. James and I both had our sweatshirts on, and I even opted to wear gloves. Even the birds seemed to be feeling it, some of them puffing up their feathers to retain heat. So herping was the last thing on my mind, but even so, James and I decided to flip our “Magic Snake Log” (actually a 6x6 wooden beam) to try our luck. And sure enough…

This is the third species of snake we've found under "Magic Snake Log" - it's living up to its reputation!

This small Eastern Garter Snake lay underneath, curled up against the winter weather. When I picked him up, he was quite cold, a tribute to their ectothermic habits. While I held and posed him, the exquisite snake started to warm up, even taking a strike at me. This is the garter snake I know, a cantankerous musking snake that doesn’t like to be held. But when the temperatures are this low, snakes don’t really have much of a choice. So I’ll choose to enjoy calm garter snakes and confiding birds for as long as I can – however long that may last.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

#55: Bushtit - Famosa Slough, CA

Before I headed out to California during the summer of 2010, I had a short-list of birds I wanted to see. On that list was the miniscule Bushtit, the only North American representative of the largely Eurasian family called Aegithalidae, or the long-tailed tits. I looked forward to seeing these birds all summer, but when I arrived in San Diego, I was surprised to that they were one of the first birds I saw.

Bushtits are wholly unique among North American birds. For one, they fly in tightly-knit flocks numbering between 20-40 birds, moving through low shrubs and bushes even in suburban habitat. I say “flock”, but these birds skillfully move between dense branches, flitting in and out more like a swarm of flies over roadkill. Additionally, the sexes look quite similar except for one key difference: female Bushtits have light-colored eyes, while those of the male are pure black, like shark’s eyes.

Which would make this one a male Bushtit.

During our time in San Diego, James and I found that Bushtits are particularly responsive to taped calls. Merely playing the tape in their general vicinity would lead to a swarm of these tiny birds in the nearest shrub. As such, we had fantastic views of these birds at close range, and got equally fantastic photos. I can’t wait til I can head out that way again, and get to enjoy these birds in all their miniscule glory.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Spanish Bird of the Week #14: Sardinian Warbler

By James

Previously, I’ve mentioned why I enjoy bird photography so much. The challenge, the frequent failure and the eventual rewards all make it an incredibly enjoyable hobby. A fortuitous byproduct of photography is that is really helps out with identification. This doesn’t happen as often anymore, but when I was a traveling novice birder, I would often identify birds by scrutinizing the photos on my computer. Usually I have my hunches and am able to confirm them in the field, but from time to time I completely misidentify a bird.

For instance, I have no real memory of seeing my lifer Purple Finch. Robert and I made a stop at Dairyland Road two winters ago to look for White-crowned Sparrows. I snapped a picture of a bird that I must have written off as a House Finch at the time, but when I got back to the computer I saw the picture and realized I had made a mistake. But hey – free lifer!

Upon further review - much more different!

An even more unusual situation is when I have a similar realization while viewing my photos on the computer, but it comes months or even years after I snap the picture. This has taken place only twice: once in Nicaragua with an Orange-chinned Parakeet (which I originally assumed was a more common Crimson-fronted Parakeet) and once in the mountain town of Ronda in Spain where I got my lifer Sardinian Warbler.

To be fair, it would have been easier to ID if we had a good Nicaragua bird guide.

Fortunately I have a much clearer memory of finding the Sardinian Warbler than the Purple Finch or the parakeet. The town of Ronda has one major tourist attraction – a gigantic stone bridge spanning a chasm nearly 400 feet deep. I was hiking down into said chasm and, of course, birding along the way. Spring was right around the corner, which meant the birds were quite active, and I ran into European Goldfinches, Red-billed Choughs and a Common Raven.

Looks like something out of Lord of the Rings!

I came around a bend and saw this small black bird sitting on a branch. Unfortunately I only got one shot of the back of the bird, hiding (for the most part) the bright red eye ring that would have been a dead give away. I assumed it was one the very common Blackcaps, which is a pretty embarrassing misidentification as there would be no white throat, and the back would be grey.

A lifer is a lifer!

That remained my identification until last July, almost a year and a half after the picture was taken, when a random bout of nostalgia led me to flip through some of the pictures from my semester abroad. After gaining more experience with Blackcaps during the course of my stay, I instantly realized I had made a mistake in my first month of Spanish birding and that I’d actually seen a Sardinian Warbler! And that is why I will continue to take pictures first and ask questions later… even if it’s sometimes much later.