Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Backlit, Silhouetted Eagle...Which Species?

Birding skill is built on good looks of species; the language of bird identification is target and study diagnostic field marks incorporating a philosophy of "jizz" (general impression size and shape). Yep, that is accomplished under good conditions (lighting, weather, etc.) and soon the art of bird identification is mastered. Then comes an opportunity to push the envelope.

After work (late afternoon on a winter day) an eagle is perched in a tall cottonwood. At a distance it is all dark, nape reflects lighter color with what appears to be a smallish bill...thinking Golden Eagle. Photos are taken at about 75 yards with a DSLR camera, below are two shots. Though lighting is poor, note: the steep forehead; strongly hooked, dark-tipped bill; the white spotting on the wing coverts; no white tail base; the nape lacks large, solid area of golden hue. Now thinking Bald Eagle, for sure. As President Ronald Reagan said many years ago, "trust, but verify" :-) Find something challenging too!

Monday, December 29, 2014

Another Successful Christmas Bird Count

Had an enjoyable Christmas Bird Count experience; our section (Lee Metcalf NWR) of the Stevensville, MT count circle found 55 species...did not detect a single House Sparrow or Starling! Temperatures were near/at 32 F all day with periods of sunshine, very nice compared to -20 F on North Dakota CBC's some years back. The wind was calm morning long with a definite uptick by early afternoon.

The group was composed of four people, perfect for the Ford Explorer used. The windows were frozen closed for the better part of an hour, however it didn't negatively effect the outcome. As the first person to arrive, I ticked off a hooting Great Horned Owl in the dark without any special effort. Thanks to the mild overnight temps, open water habitat allowed us to quickly add target species Northern Shoveler, Lesser Scaup, Ruddy Duck, Virginia Rail (with assist from smartphone app) and assorted waterbirds within 30 minutes of start. By 9:30 we had reached 36 species, many that no other count circle group will tick off. This touches on strategy, that's right this birding event requires thoughtful planning.

I've previously posted (http://goo.gl/9DZBSc) behaviors for CBC birding success. Like identification much of these behaviors become second nature/intuitive with experience. So it came as no surprise that the Prairie Falcon and Rough-legged Hawk (few around this winter) were atop powerpoles on the route returning to the office for a decided twenty minute lunch break. After which we went into forested habitat for woodpecker, finch and nuthatch species. Did not find much for quite a while when we heard a call note, yep that's how feeding flocks are found. Craning our necks to the upper branches of Ponderosa Pine, there were the Pygmy Nuthatch (25...making their piano wire vocalizations, my interpretation) with a host of other small songbirds-great fun!!

Leaving the forested habitat, we were above 50 species for the day, but had missed Pileated and Hairy Woodpecker. We revisited wetland habitat targeting Snipe. There was a good amount of shallow water areas to look over. One of our group spied a small bird out on a mudflat...very strange! Hurriedly set up the spotting scope and surmised it was a Rusty Blackbird, yowza! Yep, closer looks and photos (header photo above) determined it was really this species. Probably a Refuge CBC first.

Backtracked to previous search area and voila...snipe flushed. By now it was late afternoon and a "mission accomplished" mentality set in. Surpassed our target of 50 species on a winter day in Montana...not bad :-) Hope you had a chance to participate in this fun birding, if not there's still time.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Manfrotto 454 Focus Rail...Greaaaat :-)

I just bought a Manfrotto 454 focus rail (photo below) to replace a more generic one; big difference! Pretty simple device, a focus rail is used to manually focus a macro lens. My macro lens is the 65mm MP-E 1-5x Canon; this is an incredible lens...if you can operate it. Again, focus is all manual; it requires (for me) a tripod and a focus rail. The Manfrotto 454 has a wonderful feature, the "quick release mechanism" which gets the lens close to the subject for fine tuning fast. Once close enough, one turns the worm drive for exacting focus. Ophrys Photography has a great overview on this lens.

So, I went to one of my favorite spots for wildlife, Maclay Flat to use this new tool. Within 50 yards of the parking lot found 30 foot tall Ponderosa Pine loaded with crustose and foliose lichen. The weather was not perfect, overcast with intermittent sprinkles. Lack of natural light is not a deal breaker as I use a Canon MR-14EX macro ring lite. Within minutes I've got my rig assembled and mounted on my Manfrotto 190 tripod with a Junior Geared Head.

Compared to the focus rail I had, the 454 focus rail is a Ferrari. Easy to use, smooth, precise and fast. I took a series of photos with the intent of "focus stacking" through Photoshop. I've never done this before; followed directions given by The Nature Photography Co. The bottom photo is my first focus stacked product; it is Hypogymnia physodes or Hooded Tube Lichen. Not the greatest, but a great beginning. Hope you enjoy and see you in the field photographing/watching your favorite wildlife :-)

Manfrotto 454 focus rail

Hooded Tube Lichen

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Bohemian Waxwing Recorded...in Low Numbers

I did my fruit-tree circuit again (previous blog post), initiated about December 8. Did record Bohemian Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus) perched high in a cottonwood once over the 4 mile route. The twelve birds stayed put just long enough for a couple backlit (dark) photos. Even in the dark photo below you can faintly see the white spots on the wings (Cedars do not have these markings). Also identified by the harsher, slower trill.

Perhaps, the normal/above normal temperatures account for the lack of waxwing presence/activity. Today we had spotty rain and about 42 F, 12 degrees above normal. Tomorrow is predicted to be partly cloudy and close to normal temps.

Bohemian Waxwing

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.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Butterfly Watching...Pick the Right Habitat for the Season

Bass Creek National Recreation Area (mature Ponderosa Pine habitat) is a premier butterfly watching late winter, spring and summer. Not so much late summer, early fall. Found only four species (9-15-14) of seven butterflies. Why? It might be lack of flowers (nectar) and moist soil (for uptake of minerals).

The grassland/Ponderosa Pine habitat immediate to my yard doesn't look like much. But embedded in the brown cured grasses is rabbitbrush (expanded blog treatment - http://goo.gl/IZVhxu), a nectar "well" for many butterfly species. Yesterday (9-14-14), under similar weather conditions as today, found seven species of butterfly comprising 25+ individuals. The photographic opportunity was...excellent (see below).

William Leach (2013) published Butterfly People An American Encounter with the Beauty of the World and summarized the butterfly naturalists of the 1800's: "...began their careers in this way, awash in the heat and smells of the meadows and forest, sensitive to something worth losing oneself in, worth knowing, worth a lifetime of vocational loyalty and reflection." That's how I feel, for sure not with their accomplishments though :-)

Try this activity... you will find it overlaps the many themes of history, culture, biology, ecology, research, exercise, critical thinking and learning to name a few.
Purplish Copper

Hoary Comma

Milbert's Tortoiseshell

Orange Sulphur

Painted Lady

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Create a Great Butterfly Watching Experience...Discover Spreading Dogbane First

So what the heck is Spreading Dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium)? It is a perennial flowering plant related to Milkweed that grows between 10 and 40 inches in height. Fragrant, small, bell-shaped flowers hang downward from the apex of the plant. Meadows, forest openings, and ravines in disturbed or intact habitat are home. Distribution includes most of the country, avoiding the southeast and southern Great Plains. Extensive background information of the plant can be found at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the Finger Lakes Native Plant Society websites.

Spreading Dogbane
This plant flowers at at time when many other wildflowers have bloomed and gone to seed. I touched on this topic, plant phenology, on my blog earlier this spring. Essentially, wildflowers adhere to a timetable that is very ephemeral in nature...for us that is. Plants main job is to reproduce, in the form of a seed or fruit. Pollinators, such as bees and butterflies are part of the fertilization process. Wildlife seems to have an innate intelligence concerning the where, when and how of food/resources. It is taking me a while to discover this. I know in early spring find sap wells for overwintering adult butterflies. As the season progresses my looking targets specific wildflowers and mud puddles:

When late summer and fall roll around, I'm checking out the blooming Rabbitbrush. I've been missing a plant(s) that is attractive to butterflies for mid to late summer...until six days ago. A mid-elevation Sapphire Mountain wildflower meadow was the destination for a Fritillary finding expedition. As I zig-zagged made my way up Sawmill Creek Road, spied a stand of flowering plants at the 3.5 mile mark:

Dogbane Location (red rectangle)
I stopped the car, nice pull off on switchback corner, and walked over to see if there was any activity. To my surprise it was teaming with butterflies, mostly Fritillary species. Took many still photos and video of the butterflies in action:

Perhaps Spreading Dogbane is in your area to make for a great butterfly watching experience. Or don't worry about this fact...go to your favorite forest preserve, nature center, wildlife refuge and make your own wildlife discoveries :-)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Blues Legend, Johnny Winter RIP

IMHO, one of the greatest live albums produced.

In celebration of life, here are other forms of the "Blues":

Arrowhead Blue

Boisduval Blue

Greenish Blue

Silvery Blue

Sunday, June 8, 2014

First Skipper Species of the Year

Tried a new location for wildflowers (mid-elevation meadow [first photo below]) the other day and got a bonus...Common Branded Skipper (Hesperia comma). Skippers in the Hesperia genus look very similar and much of identification criteria revolve around the white chevrons (size, shape and location) on the underwing. This butterfly was not nectaring on any of the wildflowers present (photos below); simply perched on bare soil of trail. Bunchgrasses are the primary food source for larvae; definitely appropriate habitat for them here.


Common Branded Skipper

Cushion Buckwheat

Silvery Groundsel

Found a second Skipper species, Long Dash (Polites mystic), nectaring on Lavendar at the Pollinator Garden of Lee Metcalf NWR. This species is also partial to grass, however it is on the wet/moist side of the spectrum. World of wildlife is waiting for your discovery...go outside and find some.

Long Dash

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Positioned for Success...Working on Something Else

I bought 15 Blanketflower (Gaillardia aristata) after work and was planting them in the yard when a butterfly lit on last years spent flower closeby. Quickly noted the small size with smudgy brown underwing with multiple arrowhead markings. Wow, been trying to photograph Arrowhead Blue (Glaucopsyche piasus) for a while; photo I have is diagnostic, but out of focus for most part. Ran for the house, retrieved camera, sprinted back. Still there!!!  I took 50 photos, most at minimum focus distance with 70-300mm lens.

Sure enough, it was an Arrowhead Blue. The photo meant to replace was taken 2 years ago, almost to the date...June 3 (today) vs. June 4 (blog posting of event: http://goo.gl/Vq3ljw) a mere two hundred yards apart!!! Sure ignited my joy though a "small win" (read the Progress Principle by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer 2011). Have you had such an experience?

Arrowhead Blue

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Dragonflies...Found Far From Water

While photographing butterflies and wildflowers this morning in the neighborhood, encountered some dragonflies. Our home is about 4500 feet from the Bitterroot River and about upslope by 100 feet. Good wildflower stands of Arrowleaf Balsmaroot, Wyeth's Lupine, Leafy Spurge (sic) and Meadow Death Camas were attracting a variety pollinating insects. So it seems logical that predatory insects (dragonflies) would be around. Dennis Paulson (Damseflies and Dragonflies of the West 2009), odonate authority, states that "non-breeding immatures (and mature females) can be found well away from water..." Much for me to learn on just this dragonfly behavior; seems that much luck is involved looking for these creatures away from water.

Pictured below is an immature male Dot-tailed Whiteface (Leucorrhinia intacta) perched on plant stem that I bumped into and photographed. Also saw in flight a darner, likely California Darner (Rhionaeschna californica) and a meadowhawk, likely Variegated (Sympetrum corruptum). One particular dragonfly that took me a couple of seasons to find, Sinuous Snaketail (Ophiogomphus occidentalis), have now found regularly in the upland conifer forest...does not intuitive!!! Does add to the challenge and fun...give it a try in a wild, albeit from water, area near you :-)

Dot-tailed Whiteface

Sinuous Snaketail

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Mimic Plant Phenology...Become A Recurring Wildlife-Watching Phenomenon

I went outside after dinner, conditions were good (warm and sunny) for finding...butterflies. The hillside below our house is a grassland with interspersed conifers. The highlight is a large area of Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamrhiza sagittata) flowering now. Sure enough, spied two butterflies that were pretty skittish: Boisduval Blue (Plebejus icarioides) and Clouded Sulphur (Colias philodice), photos below.

Success at finding wildlife can and is influenced by knowledge of phenology. Phenology defined: "The scientific study of cyclical biological events, such as flowering, breeding, and migration, in relation to climatic conditions. Phenological records of the dates on which seasonal phenomena occur provide important information on how climate change affects ecosystems over time" (The American Heritage® Science Dictionary Copyright © 2002. Published by Houghton Mifflin). So by knowing that flowers are important food sources for some butterfly species, one can narrow down butterfly searches to places that have flowers in bloom.

If you repeatedly use this strategy...well your behavior becomes a recurring phenomenon (a remarkable person!), though not dictated by climate :-) The bolded words are a positive meme, but they are really a call to action...get outside and wildlife watch even if for only 15-30 minutes a day. It's guarantee you will discover a world of beauty and wonder.

Arrowleaf Balsamroot

Boisduval Blue

Clouded Sulphur