Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Fool Hen

On a recent trip back to the U.P. Nikki and I visited one of our favorite places, Whitefish Point Bird Observatory in Chippewa County, perhaps the best location in the midwest to view waterbird and hawk migration.  Though the waterbird migration was a bit pedestrian on the two days we were there (Sabine's gull and a juvenile parasitic (probably) jaeger but very low numbers overall) we did get great looks at one of my favorite species the above spruce grouse or "Fool Hen" as it locally known.  This species which earned its nickname for sometimes being ubsurdly tame when approached, resides in coniferous boreal forests across much of Canada and Alaska, but barely reaches the lower 48 in places like the U.P., northern Minnesota and northern New England.

Though locally common in spots in the U.P. it can be very difficult to pin down at any given time.  In fact when I was in high school this was a major nemesis bird for me, as I dipped out time and time again even though it occurs in areas right around my families hunting camp.  In fact check out my old website (keep in mind I created this back in the olden days of the interwebs when I was in high school so its a bit lacking um lets say lacking) www.angelfire.com/mi/upbirding for details of my then obsession of finding spruce grouse in the U.P.!  My hometown library had a copy of Bill Robinson's great book "Fool Hen: The Spruce Grouse on the Yellow Dog Plains" which chronicles his painstaking research on this species in one of my favorite (and now sadly threated) parts of the U.P.  Still one of my favorite books about the practice of field ornithology, "Fool Hen" only made me want to spend more time exploring the jack pine barrens and spruce bog edges where these birds can be found.

After I started working bird field jobs in some of the best parts of the U.P., I got to see lots and lots of spruce grouse and watch them displaying and see hens with chicks, but after a four and a half year stint in Oklahoma, I was pretty excited to see my old friend the fool hen again!  Here are some more photos.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

My new job - Great Lakes Piping Plovers!

I was hired this summer to work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ecological Services Office in East Lansing, MI.  One of my primary duties is to act as the field coordinator for the endangered Great Lakes population of the Piping Plover.

Many people are unaware that there are three distinct Piping Plover breeding populations, one along the Atlantic Coast, one along the rivers and prairie potholes of the northern Great Plains, and the one that nests along pristine sandy beaches in the Great Lakes.

Both the Atlantic Coast and Great Plains populations are listed as threated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and number less than 2000 pairs.  By far the most imperiled is the Great Lakes population which is listed as endangered (on the wintering grounds on the Gulf and southern Atlantic coasts, the whole of the population is considered threatened).

Historically, Great Lakes Piping Plovers were estimated to number perhaps 600-800 pairs and breed across most of the Great Lakes basin.  However, habitat loss and nest disturbance and predation on the breeding grounds had reduced the Great Lakes Piping Plover population to under 20 pairs by the 1980s; almost all on isolated beaches in northern Michigan.

Since then a mix of intense conservation efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state agencies and countless volunteers, as well as lowering Great Lakes water levels (which provides more beach habitat for the birds) has resulted in a slow but steady increase in the Piping Plover population.  Last year a high of 71 pairs was reported across the Great Lakes basin, breeding in areas where breeding hadn't occurred in decades such as parts of Canada, Wisconsin and even Illinois.

However the Great Lakes Piping Plover continues its precarious life on the endangered species list and only intense monitoring, nest protection and other conservation activities have likely allowed it to persist at all.  Now the Gulf oil spill presents new hazards for the Piping Plover on its wintering ground (luckily the bulk of the Great Lakes population seems to winter along the atlantic coasts of Georgia and Florida). 

Much work remains to be done but I am sure I and the many other members of the Great Lakes Piping Plover conservation team will try our best to help make sure the ringing cry of PEEP-LOH!! continues to ring out from beautiful Great Lakes beaches!

A Great Lakes Piping Plover broods its nest inside a nest enclusure in Michigan.

Hummingbirds of Southeast Arizona

As the leaves begin to fall here in Michigan and cold and cloudy weather starts to set in, I thought it was time for a bit of warmth, energy and color!  So without further build-up here are a collection of hummingbird photos from last spring's trip to southeast Arizona; mostly from Miller Canyon in the Huachucas and various spots in the Chiracahuas.

Probably my favorite of the Arizona Hummingbirds is the Magnificent (formerly Rivoli's).  A beautiful hummingbird that makes its home in the sky islands of Arizona and the Sierras in Mexico.

Black-chinned Hummingbirds were common at all the different areas of southeast Arizona that we visited.

A rare treat was this Berylline Hummingbird, one of the rarest of the regular Mexican hummingbird strays in Arizona.

It was even collecting nesting material!

Anna's Hummingbirds are always a beautiful feast for the eyes.

White-eared Hummingbirds are amongst the most wanted species for birders visiting southeast Arizona.

A regular behemoth by hummingbird standards, the Blue-throated Hummingbird is the largest species of hummingbird that occurs north of Mexico.

Another southwestern beauty is the broad-billed hummingbird.

... and we finish off our hummingbird party with this cool shot of a tiny broad-billed hummingbird in front of a massive Giant Saguaro!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Arizona - continued

Some photos of wildlife taken in and around Sunny Flat Campground in Cave Creek Canyon, AZ.

Arizona Woodpeckers were common in the campground

and were easy to photograph

The local gang of Mexican Jays spent a lot of time begging for food

Yellow-eyed Juncos were very common at higher elevations

Gambel's Quail were common in the desert lowlands below Portal

Nikki believes she has a special power to draw-in flycatchers, like this Cordilleran Flycatcher

Blue-throated Hummingbirds are one of the many special Hummingbirds of southeastern Arizona

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Catching Up - ABA # 500 Whiskered Screech Owl

I have neglected my blog while I have moved across the country and started a new job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service back in Michigan.  However I intend to continue catching up on posts gradually of birding and other adventures that have occurred since mid May.  To start out with here is a video of my 500th ABA area bird, Whiskered Screech Owl that I took back in late May.  Number 500 ABA is a pretty significant milestone for North American birders, as it is fairly difficult to get to 500 without doing a lot of traveling across the country (or countries if you do a lot of Canadian birding).  Whiskered Screech Owl seems like a pretty decent milestone bird, with a very restricted range in the ABA area, plus I got these killer looks!  Onward to 600!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The plight of amphibians

More than most other groups of animals or plants, amphibians have suffered terribly in recent decades.  Their permeable skin and general preference for the very wetlands that humans seak to drain and destroy have left them vulnerable to a wide range of attacks from habitat destruction to an insidious fungal infection known as chytridiomycosis that seemingly is fatal to frogs and toads (though the fungus and the infection itself are still little understood).  The general result has been a massive wave of extinction not seen in a major vertebrate group in recorded history.  Most of the seeming extinctions have come about as frogs in vulnerable tropical areas have fallen victim to a combination of chytridiomycosis and habitat loss, though other groups of amphibians, including temperate frogs, toads and salamanders have all suffered as well.

Here is a link that highlights 10 "lost" species of amphibians that may have left our midst forever.

There have been "rediscovered" species of amphibians that were percieved to have gone extinct, so some hope may remain for some of these species.  However, now that it has already happened, let us take the example of the vulnerable amphibians as our proverbial "canary in the coal mine" and realize that if we have made the world unsafe for our fellow vertebrates, what are we doing to ourselves?

Friday, June 11, 2010

Catching Up - Arizona part 1

For a much belated honeymoon, Nikki and I decided to take the week before memorial day off and drive out to Southeastern Arizona.  This is perhaps the premiere area for a naturalist in the United States, with a high diversity of birds, herps, mammals, insects and plants (not so much if you are an ichthyologist however).  This region has been calling to me ever since I first got involved in birding some 20 years ago.  Any glance in a birding magazine and you will likely see some mention of this region, calling to birders with its special birds with Mexican affinities, trogons, hummingbirds, owls, warblers!  It was something of a dream trip for me, and Nikki was enthusiastic as well because it is perhaps also the best place in the United States to view lizards!  So with bags packed and camping gear ready we left Stillwater on May 16th for the long drive towards Portal, Arizona and our first destination the exotic sounding Chiracahua (Cheer-wa-cow-wha) Mountains.  Homeland of Geronimo and the other Chiracahua Apache.  One look at the above photograph (of the cliffs at the entrance to Cave Creek Canyon) and you may gain an understanding of why the Chiracahua Apache fought so fiercely to protect this land.

We stayed in the Sunnyflat Campground in Cave Creek Canyon, just a short drive from the famous South Fork birding area and only 5 or 6 miles up from Portal.  The views from our campsite included the above photo and the following.

Our campsite, the first night camping, was very windy but our tent managed to stay upright, despite us somehow missing one of the tent poles!

So the next morning dawned cold and still windy and I heard very little birdsong, so we decided to sleep a couple of extra hours.  Turned out to be a good idea becuase when we started birding at 7:30 it was still cold and there wasn't a lot of bird activity.  However we still made our way over to the South Fork of Cave Creek, a place that every birder knows.

At first it was a bit quiet expect for a noisy and curious family group of Mexican Jays.

However after some judicious use of pygmy owl whistling imitations I quickly stirred up a mixed flock of Bridled Titmice, Grace's Warblers, Blue-throated Hummingbirds and this next guy, a beautiful Painted Redstart.

As we moved farther into the canyon, it began to warm up a little and bird activity started to increase as well.  Soon we found ourselves sharing the canyon forest with a pair of Arizona Woodpeckers, a particular specialty of Cave Creek Canyon and the Chiracahuas.

This species has recently been split from the Strickland's Woodpecker, a similar species that is restricted now to a small area in the Sierra Madre in Mexico,  Arizona Woodpeckers have a deep chocolate brown back and streaking but otherwise kind of resemble Hairy Woodpeckers.

As we ventured farther down the creek bird activity really started picking up, espcially with the warblers, flycatchers and vireos, as we picked up many more Grace's Warbler, Black-throated Gray Warbler, many many Painted Redstarts, Cordilleran Flycatchers, Dusky-capped Flycathers, Greater Pewee (which is a great bird this low in elevation), Hutton's Vireo and Plumbeous Vireo, among others.

However as we entered the Chiracahua Wilderness area the true prize of the South Fork remained quiet and elusive.

I am speaking of course of the Elegant Trogon, the lone regularly seen representive of the trogon family in the United States, a species that arguably draws more birders to southeastern Arizona than any other.  And though I had seen many of the other trogon species that occur farther south in Mexico, I still needed to add Trogon elegans to my life list.  And if you want to add Elegant Trogon to your ABA area list, the South Fork of Cave Creek Canyon is by far the best place to do it. 

Anyway shortly thereafter we heard now 1, not 2 but 3 different Trogons calling across the middle stretches of the canyon.  In fact, we had very little difficulty tracking one down where it proved to be quite cooperative, giving us excellent looks and even photography opportunities.

These chunky looking birds have beautiful orangish red breasts and bellies, beautiful dark green heads and backs, a bright orange eye-ring and startingly yellow bill, with a beautiful patterned tail.  In short one of the most beautiful birds that grace these United States with its presence.

In Arizona, Trogons occupy some of the most beautiful habitat in the entire region, cool mountain canyons with ample moisture, filled with Arizona Sycamores, Apache Pine and other beautiful and stately trees.

A truly memorable lifer and birding experience and for now I will leave you with a picture basking in the Trogons reflected glory.  More on our naturalist adventures to come!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The joys of local birding

I decided to do a little birding in my local patch this morning.  So I walked around the Oklahoma State University Arboretum for a couple hours.  Nothing spectacular was seen but I did get a couple FOS species including Lark Sparrow and Northern Parula.  Here are a couple of photographs from this morning's outing.

This was my FOS Lark Sparrow singing away in the morning light.

This little Lincoln's Sparrow was cooperative sitting atop a brush pile.

My full list of species as reported to ebird

Location: Oklahoma State University - Arboretum

Observation date: 4/11/10

Number of species: 31

Canada Goose 2

Mourning Dove 10

Red-bellied Woodpecker 3

Downy Woodpecker 1

Northern Flicker 1

Eastern Phoebe 1

Blue Jay 3

American Crow 1

Barn Swallow 1

Carolina Chickadee 5

Tufted Titmouse 1

White-breasted Nuthatch 1

Carolina Wren 1

Ruby-crowned Kinglet 3

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 8

Eastern Bluebird 3

American Robin 3

Northern Mockingbird 10

Brown Thrasher 3

European Starling 2

Northern Parula 2

Yellow-rumped Warbler 7

Chipping Sparrow 10

Clay-colored Sparrow 1

Lark Sparrow 1

Lincoln's Sparrow 2

White-throated Sparrow 2

Harris's Sparrow 3

Northern Cardinal 6

Brown-headed Cowbird 5

House Finch 2

This report was generated automatically by eBird v2(http://ebird.org)

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Great Backyard Bird Count - or yes I am still alive

The last month has mostly been a scramble working on my Lower Rio Grande Valley Report and applying for/interviewing for various jobs. Because of this I haven't had much time to work on my blog or to even go birding.
However on the weekend of the 13-14th of February I did participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count. This event sponsored by the Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is an attempt to create a Christmas Bird Count like event during a more "true" (at least for most of North America) winter season (Christmas time is actually more like very late fall for most birds, often times very northern birds have not yet come down into the U.S. while some birds that normally winter farther south may still be lingering up north at Christmas time).
Anyway I spent all of Saturday the 13th and much of the rest of the weekend birding around the area at as many of the local hotspots as I could, trying to wrack up a lot of checklists. Stillwater has led Oklahoma in number of checklists submitted for this event every year since I arrived, and I wanted to do my part again (submitted 10 checklists for different locations again this year. Though I didn't find anything super interesting I did find the only Greater White-fronted Geese submitted for Oklahoma during the count period, and had about 50 species overall, so it was still a good time to be birding the sooner state. I also saw a large number of Red-shouldered Hawks, like the one above, which is always nice.
As spring draws ever nearer and I hopefully can start wrapping up the initial draft of the rio grande valley report I hope to get out birding/lepping/herping a lot more so I can have some actual material to update my blog!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Blizzard Birds

As many of you may have heard, Oklahoma got hit pretty hard by last weeks and weekend's winter storm. Though Stillwater was not among the unfortunate communities that lost power for extended periods, we were effectively snowed/iced in for a couple of days.

During periods of poor weather, birders will often notice increased bird numbers and activities in their yards and feeders as birds attempt to compensate for the increased stress of cold and wet weather by eating more and different foods. I personally had a new yard bird during the storm. Eastern Bluebirds normally occur in more open areas on the edge of town, and I had never before seen one at my yard in the middle of blocks and blocks of houses and suburban yards. However with the coming of the storm Nikki and I found a flock of 17 Eastern Bluebirds chowing down on the berries in the backyard. Other birds that we noticed with unusual numbers or activities included Dark-eyed Juncos, Northern Flickers, Mourning Doves, and Ruby-crowned Kinglets.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Second Annual Rusty Blackbird Blitz!

Photo taken from eBird

The second annual Rusty Blackbird Blitz is taking place this coming January 30 - February 15th. All birders within likely Rusy Blackbird wintering range should spend some time trying to document this quickly declining species and report their sightings to eBird. Researchers are trying to learn all they can about this species before it is too late.

Check out the link to the eBird page about the Blitz.


In addition you can join my event on facebook.