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 :-)

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Counting Birds...Estimating and Using Photoshop

This is a follow-up to a blog posted several days on a large waxwing flock ( In the past, I've just estimated the flock size without using a camera. The immediate photo below illustrates a traditional method of estimation used "live". One applies a "block" (really an area measure) of known quantity to the entire flock as quickly as possible. In this case I used 25 birds as the seems about right. So, I wind up with 5 groups of 25 or roughly 125 birds. In larger flocks 25-bird-groups would be too small.

The bottom photo is an actual count of the birds using Adobe Photoshop CC. You use the Count Tool (one of a couple methods); this tool is a dropdown under the Eyedropper Tool. It is somewhat tedious manually clicking on each bird image, but it is very accurate. The count is 147; did you come up with that number? My estimate is 85% of what was recorded by camera. Do you think that is good enough? Try estimating the birds at your feeders for practice; use your camera as the check...good counting :-)

Monday, January 5, 2015

Waxwings Finally Show Up En Masse...A Counting Exercise

It has been 23 days since I started monitoring for waxwings using Mountain Ash (Sorbus) trees in the neighborhood. Today I did not drive the 4 mile circuit, simply looked out the kitchen window. Yep, noted a large group of waxwing atop neighbors tall poplar tree. This is usually the scenario, large group of waxwings, when around, usually roost in these tall trees (tallest in the neighborhood). My reasoning for this behavior; Merlin (Falco columbarius) follow these birds around and the waxwings want a good vantage point for safety.

Not only is the mass of birds fun to see, but the cacophony of sound (link from All About Birds [Cornell Lab of Ornithology] website) is distinct.

Here's what the birds look like in flight. Note in poor light/at a distance they look like starlings. Closer examination and you will note the longer non-triangular wings. They land in waves in the treetop and not in a tight bunch or all close together. So how many birds are there?

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Red-breasted Nuthatch..."Happy, jolly little bird"

Arthur Cleveland Bent* nailed the description of this bird: "The red-breasted nuthatch is a happy, jolly bird, surprisingly quick and agile in his motions...winds about the little twigs out to the end...more sociable, too...feeding together they keep up a cheery chatter among themselves...high, tin-whistle note, 'kng'."

I encountered a good number of these "happy" birds yesterday at Maclay Flat (USFS at Missoula, MT), a dandy place for a lot of different wildlife. Got a halfway decent photo (below) of one. They always seem to be around here (permanent resident); this is not true for other parts of the country. Red-breasted Nuthatch is an "irruptive species"; it breeds/is resident in the boreal forest and when food resources aren't available there in winter, it "irrupts" or migrates to places that do have food. Audubon has a nice, colorful video explaining this concept.

To find this bird in your neighborhood, look for a substantial stand of pine or spruce. Look both at the trunk and twigs for movement. As omnivores they are eating seeds of the cones and wintering insects wedged in the bark. Listen for their call or hammering (much softer than a woodpecker) on the bark extracting insects. It can challenging to find them, but you get the secondary benefits of fresh air, exercise...and a good story of adventure :-)

*Mr. Bent compiled the 21 volume set "Life histories of North American Birds" with the first volume published in 1919 continuing through 1968 by the United States National Museum. I have the Dover reprint of this series published in 1964. An electronic version of Bent can be found here. These writings are very poetic, descriptive and will add flavor/skill to your birding experience.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Simple Effort...Big Birding Rewards

Birding is like sports, the right bounce here/there success (sometimes large) follows. So, I stepped outside (see photo below) this morning (9:20 am) on a clear, cold (10 F) day hoping to start my 2015 birding list with some common birds. Almost immediately, heard a American Robin "chortling" in the near distance, awesome first bird for year...very local around fruit bearing trees/shrubs. This was quickly followed by five other species: Common Raven, House Finch, Red Crossbill, Black-billed Magpie and American Crow.

Then walked to the other side of house near neighbors Mountain Ash and feeders down the street. My neighbor came outside to retrieve his newspaper and we proceeded with some football talk. After a couple of minutes of Peyton Manning et al a group of Western Bluebirds swooped into his Mountain Ash tree. I was stunned, never seen them in January...WOW. Abandoned the conversation and ran for my camera. Returned to find them perched atop nearby Blue Spruce (see photos below). Spent couple of minutes taking photos at different settings (want diagnostic pic). With mission accomplished a Northern Flicker blasts by me above and to left giving a odd call. Birds scatter, gotta be a hawk.

Yep, spy the streak to the left land in the branchy middle of Ponderosa's an Accipiter. Quick look with my binoculars, square tail...Sharpie. Camera in hand start taking photos while walking towards the bird. Get to within 35 yards before it flushes. This is really my morning, didn't do anything special...just catching all the breaks :-) Walking to the front door of house, you guessed it, more gold...Townsend's Solitaire flys over. Three species of thrush in January in 35 minutes; that is what is cool about birding...the unexpected. Get outside for your share of excitement :-)

Western Bluebird
Sharp-shinned Hawk