Saturday, December 13, 2014

Close to Home Birding Adventure...Fruit Trees

Accent plantings around homes should not be discounted for birding, especially when trees of the Prunus (Cherry, assorted cultivars) or Sorbus (Rowan, non-native planting) genus are involved. Here in Lolo, MT (probably most urban areas of the west) both types of tree have been planted extensively in yards. I did a little survey five days ago. I counted 46 Mountain Ash (Rowan) and 22 Cherry trees over a circuit of about 4.5 miles, loaded with fruit. In my immediate neighborhood trees averaged about 215 feet apart. If you check the photos below you can see how loaded the trees are with food. Abundant food is definitely a formula for finding birds, so concentrated the birds come to you! Well almost, but they will be in earshot.

Amazingly, I detected nary a waxwing or grosbeak during the survey. However, it was just a matter of time with this food resource...Yep, heard several waxwing perched in our yard coming home early on Wednesday (2 days after survey). All turned out to be Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedorum). The photo at bottom shows diagnostic characters of this bird: yellow belly, brown mantle, red tipped secondaries, white at bill base.
Drooping form of Mountain Ash (Sorbus aucuparia)

Mountain Ash berry

Cherry cultivar with small crop of berries

Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedorum)

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Use a Camera Wildlife Watching

In my Google Plus feed this morning, I encountered a Ted Talk by Elizabeth Loftus: The Fiction of Memory. Since wildlife watching is all about memory, think "what do you see today?", I watched the video. It turns out our memory is "constructive in nature". "False memories" and misinformation can be planted into your remembrances. Yikes on many fronts.

Applying this information to wildlife watching/rare bird sightings, etc, could make the data/observation unreliable...unless independent corroboration is foundational to the work/report. This corroboration could be in the form of multiple persons independently reporting or documenting a bird sighting. This has been in place for some time in the birding community as a Rare Bird Report form. Still, if my memory is correct, a sighting by a single person even with descriptive text/drawings is not considered a "record" by most rare bird committees. This issue can be rendered moot just by capturing/supplying a photo (given a "good" photo) as documentation in the case of a wildlife observation.

A recent model camera (had "box" camera back then) may have made the difference in a rare bird report submitted to the California Rare Bird committee regarding a seabird sighting some nine years ago. I was aboard the Searcher for a five-day pelagic birding trip off of San Diego in 2005. On the early morning of September 8 came the call of "bird", most of us were in the galley having breakfast. Like everyone ran for the rear of the boat with binoculars. Saw a dark grey seabird over chum, made mental notes...bird did not stay long. Back in cabin many of us referred immediately to field guides...what was that? Many felt it was a Flesh-footed Shearwater, others had other opinions, me included. Never proved either way :-(

I only started using a DSLR camera consistently and regularly about five years ago, well into the digital camera age that started late 90's. I believe I did not adopt camera usage early on because of cost. Now that has changed, high quality point and shoot superzooms can now be had for ~$450. Usage of a DSLR has been the best thing I've ever done with my wildlife watching activities. Photography has been a catalyst for expanding into butterfly, dragonfly, wildflower, lichen, etc. watching. With this tool documenting and learning new plant and animal life has become easier, straightforward. Plus I get the added benefit of a visual product to inspire/motivate people about wildlife. Maybe you can ask Santa for a camera for Christmas...it will exponentially increase your learning, appreciation, citizen science efforts at sharing, recording and understanding wildlife. Here's a photo of juvenile Snow Goose I saw yesterday:
Snow Goose juvenile


Sunday, November 30, 2014

Up Your Jackpot Birding Success

I got into birding in the Chicago area and I just marveled at the rarities the veteran birders found...regularly. "How the heck", I marveled. It was like magic...what were their secrets? Sure some of their birding surely was serendipity in nature, random encounters...a look out the window, step out on the back porch, walk around the block, etc. They knew something more, like the needs of the wildlife: food, shelter, water and space. Applied to species it is a roadmap for success; it will up your odds of finding common/uncommon species.

Driving power poled-lined roads of North Dakota will not yield a Snowy Owl or Gyrfalcon in summer, wrong space. In winter an entirely different story (food and space needs). Birding homework pays dividends.

So winter is setting in and your first thoughts: "Where are the winter finches?" Think food and space...cones on conifers. I put this logic to test yesterday going into the "urban setting" of Missoula, Montana. There is an abundance of conifer habitat on public lands, but the cone crop on the Ponderosa pine is somewhat lacking. Spaces in urban areas have an abundance of plantings, some native/some not that are also habitat. Think golf courses, arboretums, cemeteries, dumps, home landscaping, etc.

So I drove towards Fort Missoula and on the way I passed through two golf courses, Larchmont and Missoula Country Club. Heard and saw Black-capped Chickadee in roadside conifers. Noted zero waxwings using Mountain Ash (Sorbus acuparia), btw a great planting for a berry crop. Arrived at the Fort and found the conifers (mature plantings) loaded with cones. Within minutes heard the "gyp-gyp" call of the Red Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra). Found a flock of about 20 using Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)  and Blue Spruce (Picea pungens). Nothing but magic...try it today :-)

Black-capped Chickadee

Douglas Fir cone

Red Crossbill atop Blue Spruce

Bohemian Waxwing on Chokecherry

Friday, November 28, 2014

Turkey Cousins - Grouse, Unfamiliar Denizens of Mountain Interior Forest

Nationwide Wild Turkey (Maleagris gallopava) are doing well; Partners in Flight (PIF) estimate (citation below) a population of 6.9 million in the U.S. NPR had a segment on turkey entering suburbia, which means for Americans there is good chance to see them regularly without trying.

Why can't that be said of the 18 million (PIF population estimate) Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) ? Or another gamebird, the Spruce Grouse (Falcipennis canadensis), which has an estimated population of 11 million. The third species of grouse in this part of the country (Montana) should be somewhat unknown; the Dusky Grouse (Dendragapus obscurus) has a population of around 300,000 only.

Several explanations come to mind: a) size b) coloration c) behavior d) habitat structure and e) hunting.

  • Size - Turkeys are huge, 11-24 pounds with a average wingspan 4.5 feet. The largest grouse, Dusky, weighs only 2.6 pounds with a two foot wingspan.  
  • Color - Turkeys (both sexes) are coppery/bronze iridescent from a base of dark brown/blackish feathers. Both sexes of Ruffed Grouse are similar in plumage; have one of two colors, gray and red in a camouflage pattern. Spruce and Dusky are sexually dimorphic, males are mostly all black and females are a splotchy earthy brown.
  • Behavior - Gobbling of the turkey can be heard a mile away.  Sounds attract females wherein males perform display (fanned tail et al); this is a "mobile lek". Ruffed Grouse drum (wings beating) at a display site; female visits and chooses to mate or not. Spruce "hoots" with the assistance of colored air sacs at a solitary site; not lek-like. Dusky also make low-pitched hoots via air sacs using a modified lek scenario; several males congregate somewhat (well-spaced) in forest habitat.
  • Habitat structure - Turkey use forest/forest edge that is somewhat "open". Ruffed prefer deciduous/coniferous interface at lower elevations than the other two grouse. Dusky prefers conifer forest with openings while Spruce likes dense conifer forest.
  • Hunting - Turkeys are the second most popular game animal (deer are number one) for hunters in North America.
Have a look at the photos below to become more familiar with these other gamebirds. Winter is a good time for finding grouse, especially Ruffed in the East...think footprints :-)

References: Partners in Flight Science Committee 2013. Population Estimates Database, version 2013. Available at http://rmbo.org/pifpopestimates. Accessed on 11-28-2014.
The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, David Allen Sibley, 2001, Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
Birds of North America, Fred Alsop lll, 2001, DK Publishing, New York.

Ruffed Grouse

Spruce Grouse (female)

Dusky Grouse (female)

Dusky Grouse (male)

Spruce Grouse (hatchling)

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Mushroom/Fungi Season Not Over...Huh?

After the recent cold snap (single digits) in western Montana thought the mushroom/fungi season was over. Well, went out looking for lichen this afternoon, Cladonia specifically, and found at least three different shrooms (club, spine, and gilled) growing.

This was a northeast facing slope (Blue Mountain, Missoula MT) with a mature Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa) overstory. Have had ample moisture (above normal) for November.

What a pleasant surprise (hint: good reason to get outside); mushrooms are great subjects for the camera. I'm a rookie/novice at mushrooms and fungi, having a difficult time identifying along with their natural history. From my readings I believed the season was finished, NOT :-) Using a sports metaphor, we are still in the playoff picture (dumb huh?). The fun is in the doing, so my set-up is: Canon 70D with 100mm macro, natural light, mirror lockup, Manfrotto 190 tripod. Photos were processed in Photoshop (cropped 16:9, auto tone, contrast and color).





Saturday, November 22, 2014

Hatch Year Trumpeter Swan

Got some pretty decent photos of a large group of Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator) today in clouds and sunshine. Several were juvenile/immature. Note the sooty gray body coloration (top photo, clouded conditions) and especially the bill color...black color for the base and bill fringe with pink coloration for the balance (middle and bottom pics in sunshine). Matches up very well with the plates in The Sibley Guide.

The experience was a reminder again of the importance of light in identification. Though Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus) does not typically flock with Trumpeters, lone birds can be a bear without good looks and lighting.

As always, get outside and find something good :-)



Monday, November 10, 2014

Thank you Veterans... for Natural History Expeditions

Many thanks Veterans for all efforts in securing peace and prosperity for all Americans while putting your life on the line in wartime!

Randolph B. Marcy - Brady-Handy
Randolph B. Marcy (1860-1865) Library of Congress Prints and
Photographs Division. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection. 
Thanks should also be given for all that military personnel do in peacetime. As an example, Captain Randolph B. Marcy led a military expedition in 1852 up the Red River of Louisiana finding the headwaters. In so doing, he wrote a book The Prairie Traveler that provided emigrants heading west tons of practical advice on surviving difficult journeys through unknown territories. George McClellan (future Civil War General) was part of the expedition and was in charge of collecting plant and animal specimens: "an interesting collection of reptiles and other specimens, in alcohol...put into the hands of Professors Baird and Girard of the Smithsonian Institution..." Yes, during the period 1852-1854 Spencer Baird of the Smithsonian was receiving natural history specimens from 26 separate military expeditions! Here is webpage clipping of Spencer Baird recounting the reptile collection from Marcy and McClellan book: Exploration of the Red River of Louisiana, in the year 1852.
Marcy, Randolph Barnes. Exploration of the Red River of Louisiana, in the year
1852 / by Randolph B. Marcy ; assisted by George B. McClellan., Book, 1854; (http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth6105/ : accessed November 10, 2014),
University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, http://texashistory.unt.edu;
crediting UNT Libraries, Denton, Texas.