Monday, March 23, 2015

2nd Wildflower Species for 2015

3" tall Douglasia in flower 

Pictured is Douglasia (Douglasia montana), a cushion plant of the Phlox family. It blooms early in the spring season. "Cushion" plants usually grow in alpine sites where wind and poor soil challenges plants; natural selection response is short structure. In this case, there's no need to scale a mountain to see this in action, simply go to Missoula Waterworks Hill (  Accessed by foot up an initial somewhat steep slope. Because of this foothill orientation it is exposed to sunshine early in spring; so it is also great spot for other early wildflowers. I finally had blooming plants on my third try (March 22).

Below is a short mp4 (shot with Nexus 7 tablet) of this site on March 2 (note windy wintry conditions :-) The plants grow on the left side of the trail...looks very barren for this video:

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Drizzle...Great Birding Conditions

Rain concentrates birds, the questions become can you figure out where and can you deal with it. Early spring is perfect for birding in a drizzle/intermittent downpour. Cool and wet drives birds to the food.
Low cloud deck drizzle this morning
Insectivores like swallows will be closely over water sources hawking hatching aquatic invertebrates. Robins will be working short grass areas for earthworms. And waxwings will be visiting fruit bearing trees. Had a mixed flock of ~300 Bohemian and Cedar using neighbors' European Mountain Ash (Sorbus aucuparia) trees. It is a wonder every time I see these large flocks; in sum, the calls of these birds might resemble rusty whistles :-)
Cedar Waxwing eating fruit
The sounds not only attract my attention, but also birds that prey on them. Yep, within a short period of watching a Sharp-shinned Hawk showed up.
Sharp-shinned Hawk in Ponderosa Pine near European Mountain Ash
This is likely the same bird seen and photographed on January 1. Yes, if you can protect your camera gear excellent photos can also be had. Please reflect on the animal ethical in behavior :-)

Monday, February 23, 2015

Cedar and Bohemian Waxwing Perched Together

Had both waxwing species perch very close to one another this morning and I just happened to have camera in hand. Yes, field guides have excellent photos/drawings accentuating diagnostic marks of these species. Thought my photo might add some context (for those brief looks) to field guide descriptions. The chest/belly coloration of each is distinctly different. The light vs dark undertail coverts jump out in a glance. Not as obvious are the contrasting white areas on each bird (Cedar - on face, Bohemian - on wing). Note the extensive black chin of the Bohemian. Yep, the gizz of the Bohemian is chunkier and smaller-headed. Hope this helps you check-off a vagrant Bohemian back east :-) Great Birding!
Cedar (left) and Bohemian (right) Waxwing

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Wildlife Spectacle..."Museum" of Waxwing

A large, congealed flock of waxwing finally showed up the other morning in the neighborhood. Captured video and still footage of the action edited for this YouTube product:

This has been the largest flock of these birds I've seen this winter. The berry crop (European Mountain-ash) is huge this year. So abundance of fruit may have these birds less concentrated. I encourage you to check out your own area for the spectacle of these birds :-)

Monday, January 19, 2015

Odd Wing Molt in Rough-legged Hawk

While outside (Florence, Montana) yesterday looking for Snow Bunting (and other open country birds), encountered several buteo soaring along mountain foothill (nice and windy) instead. Light was not good; identification of far soaring birds came out "black" :-) No matter stayed on task and was rewarded with both eagle species and one buteo with "several" flight feathers missing. That is really weird. Got out my camera rig (Canon T1i w/70-300mm) and shot several photos at least one football field away, results below. It is definitely a Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus) with at least three flight feathers missing from the left wing. It was flying just fine by the way!

I visited Jerry Ligouri website, expert raptor photographer. In a brief search of his site could not find specific material related to rough-legs and molt. Still, he has excellent material on all things hawks, identification, photographs, etc.

Rough-legged Hawk

Rough-legged Hawk (Note faint thick belly band)

Friday, January 16, 2015

Lighting and Butterfly Identification

Many butterflies are only identified by the underwing color and pattern. Hopefully the butterfly cooperates and shows the wing surface necessary for identification. Fortunately, Commas or Anglewings can be identified either by the upper or underwing. They are separated easily from other butterfly species by the whitish silver "comma" mark on the underwing. There are four species I regularly encounter in western Montana: Satyr, Green, Oreas and Hoary. The underwing coloration, in general and subject to variation, of each respectively is: buffy brown, dark brown, blackish brown and grey.

The position of the wing in relation to the sun is critical for "true coloration", ergo proper identification. Remember coloration of butterflies (and birds too) observed may or is determined by light striking actual colored pigment or by absorption/reflection by the wing scales. And scales cover a transparent membrane. The three photos below illustrate wing coloration of a Hoary Comma (Polygonia gracilis) nectaring on Rabbitbrush under different light aspects (same day/same place).

Note the reddish brown underwing coloration of the most immediate photo below. For sure an artifact of backlighting, the wings are open enough for direct light to strike the upperwing. As a consequence the orange color suffuses the underwing. The second photo below captures the butterfly with its wings partially open negating backlighting, but introducing a shading factor. The underwing is not getting direct lighting and is likely darker than it really is. The third photo reveals the true underwing color, grey...diagnostic for a Hoary Comma.

Again, lighting is very important for identification by sight or photograph. This situation crops up on a regular basis even when aware and compensation (keeping the sun to your back...if possible) is attempted. All is not lost because many less-than-ideal looks/photos will still have enough colors and features to id, if that is one of your goals. Study your field guides now...April/May is not far away to test your skills :-)

Wings Folded Open "Backlighting" Underwing

Wings Partially Open Shading Underwing

Wings Closed, Underwing Exposed to Direct Light

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Birding Failure...Yes and NO

Every trip looking for birds (any wildlife really) is an adrenaline rush. No matter how common the target species is, there is always the unexpected with a large dollop of expectation lurking in the background. So it was on January 11th, my target birds were Pine Grosbeak, Chestnut-backed Chickadee along Howard Creek (segment of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail) west of Lolo, MT. Temps were seasonal near 32F, calm winds and light snow. Aesthetics were off the charts:

I spent an hour and a half vainly searching...nada excepting 4 Mountain Chickadee and a couple of Red-breasted Nuthatch. A sign encountered on the way back (photo below) metaphorically described my chance of success...made me laugh. Birding is like all other sports, nobody bats/shoots/scores/succeeds 100% of the time. And yes, "it ain't over til the fat lady sings". That's right, there is the trip home at a minimum to find birds.

I remember my father pointing out Black-bellied Whistling Ducks flying by while driving the roads of southern Texas. In this case, no whistling duck, just a Golden Eagle. That's right, a road-killed deer was lunch for this magnificent raptor. Got some smudgy photos from inside of the car in a smart and safe manner. No matter, had success with a slightly different outcome. It seems most of my wildlife adventures have similar outcomes...try it and see if you can bat a 1000 :-)