I and the Bird

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Monday, December 25, 2006

Aspen Update

Well what can I say, I've been neglectful. I've been in Aspen for almost a month, and I haven't updated the ol' bDC since I've arrived. The big problem is that it seems a little weird to continue with a Washington DC blog while I'm in Colorado, so to remedy that I've established a new blog:

(drumroll please)

The Birdist

Now, the Birdist is still in its EARLY stages, but be patient. Until it's ready, let me give you a little update on what's been goin' on.

-The trip across America wasn't as birdy as I hoped it would be. It was dark when I drove by Montezuma. Niagara Falls was freezing cold and I didn't see anything special. I got food-poisoning in Jackson, Michigan. I saw some snow buntings and gulls on Lake Michigan...

-Things got a lot cooler when I got into South Dakota. The Badlands National Park was one of the weirdest and most interesting places I've ever been. It's basically a bunch of eroded cliffs along a transition from high prairie to low prairie. It's very wild and remote and a great place to drive around in alone. I saw mule deer, bighorn, pronghorn (they're awesome), wild buffalo (they're scary) and my life Townsend's Solitaire and (the huge and lovely) golden eagle. I also saw 2 (!) northern shrikes just outside the park.

-Thanks to a tip from the CO-Birders list on birdingonthe.net, I found a yellow-billed loon outside of Denver. It was an amazing bird, and one very rarely seen in Colorado, but the whole incident was a little sad. The bird was in a small suburban reservoir and had confined itself to a small pool of open water only a few feet in diameter. Several of the CO posters assumed that the bird was sick or injured. Indeed, a few days after I saw the loon in its pool it was found dead.

-I've seen 5 new birds since I've been to Aspen. The first two are boreal birds that have escaped me many times: pine siskin and my former arch-nemesis, the red crossbill. On my first day working as a mountain photographer at the top of the Gondola in Aspen I found both these birds (100+ siskens and 30+ crossbills) feeding on the rock wall just below the famous SunDeck. Since then I've seen crossbills, the bird that eluded me so many times at the New Michigan State Forest in NY, almost every day. Also on top of Aspen (and Buttermilk, where I work more frequently) are small gangs of gray jays so tame that I've fed them pieces of cookie that I held between my teeth.

-I've gained some respect for two birds that are common here, the Common Raven and the Black-Billed Magpie. I've only had glimpses at Ravens in Maine, and to see them cruise on thermals and dive like bullets in strong winds is truely impressive. Magpies, on the other hand, are simply on of the most beautiful birds I've ever seen.

-I participated in the Aspen Christmas Bird Count on Dec. 17th. Aspen has only a small community of birders, and only 6 could make the count. One of these birders, to my complete surprise, was Al Levantin, one of the subjects of a novel that I credit with introducing me to the world of listing: Mark Obmascik's The Big Year. Mr. Levantin lives near Snowmass and his house is said to be the best place in the world to see the Brown-Capped Rosy-Finch...here's hoping I'll get invited in!
Anyway, I was paired up with a local birder named Ken Toy, and our search area was the town of Aspen down to Woody Creek. Along the way I found I saw three lifers: Western Scrub-Jay, Stellar's Jay and the American Dipper (and 3 Red-Shafted Flickers). Dippers are really impressive birds. Ken and I watched for about 10 minutes as the little bird literally jumped into a stream and struggled back upstream to it's rock perch.
All in all, we tallied 22 species...the most of the three Aspen CBC groups and a pretty durn good tally for Aspen in the winter. We even beat Al Levantin (no Rosy-Finches showed up at his feeders)!

-OK that's it for now. I'll keep my eyes peeled for other Aspen-area species (rosy-finches, white-tailed ptarmagin, prairie falcon). See you at the Birdist.

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Last Maine Search

I'm leaving for Aspen on Saturday, and, with so much family whatnots between now and then, today was pretty much the last time I would get to scour the Maine coast for some birds I 'aint never seen yet. My targets were winter oceanic species: great cormorant, king eider, black-legged kittiwake and another winter species, the lapland longspur. I would have also been delighted to see any number of even less common pelagic or passerines.

I started by driving down to a new favorite spot: Dyer Point in Cape Elizabeth. This little spit of land in the middle of Two Lights State Park (literally, Dyer Point is between two lighthouses) is further out to sea than anything else in the Portland area, and is, apparently, the best place around to see the pelagic species I was looking for. I had visited a couple times earlier and seen lots of cormorants (all double-crested) and close-to-shore gannets. Reports of kittiwake were common...but I was disappointed in the lack of birds today.

I did have a great sighting of harlequin ducks, however. I had never seen males before, but I recognized them instantly when a small group of 7 (5 males, 2 females) drifted by close to shore. The males really were beautiful, unfortunately I had my camera on the wrong setting and the pictures didn't come out.

Then off to Biddeford Pool, a legendary Maine birding spot. Outside of Biddeford the land sticks way way out into the ocean and ends with a small piece of land surrounding a tidal pool. Biddeford Pool attracts all kinds of birds in all seasons...but, again, not the onces I was looking for. The best sighting of the day was, by far, the immature black guillemot I found on the calm waters of the pool (not, as one would expect, on the open ocean). The bird was just a few feet away from me at the side of a dock, and I was able to get good pictures:

And of a horned grebe:

So no luck. There's a chance, albiet much smaller, that I'll see some of these birds on the Great Lakes. If not, I'll just have to come back to Maine, which is fine with me.

So, I'm off on Saturday and I'll try to find the scissor-tailed flycatcher in NH and the green-tailed tohee in Mass. on my way out. I'll keep you posted.
Monday, November 20, 2006

Quotent Quoteables

Kate enlightened me to an interesting quote from legendary birder David Sibley. The quote was included in the book Blink by Malcom Gladwell, which focuses on the importance and efficiency of split-second decision making.

Check it:
"The ornithologist David Sibley says that in Cape May, New Jersey, he once spotted a bird in flight from two hundred yards away and knew, instantly, that it was a ruff, a rare sandpiper. He had never seen a ruff in flight before; nor was the moment long enough for him to make a careful identification. But he was able to capture what bird watchers call the bird's 'giss' -its essence- and that was enough.

'Most of bird identification is based on a sort of subjective impression- the way a bird moves and little instantaneous appearances at different angles and sequences of different appearances, and as it turns its head and as it flies and as it turns around, you see sequences of different shapes and angles,' Sibley says. 'all that combines to create a unique impression of a bird that can't really be taken apart and described in words. When it comes down to being in the field and looking at a bird, you don't take the time to analyze it and say it shows this, this, and this; therefore it must be this species. It's more natural and instinctive. After a lot of practice, you look at the bird, and it triggers little switches in your brain. It looks right. You know what it is in a glance.'"

This is spot on. Good birding!
Friday, November 10, 2006

YB Chat and Other Updates

The Maine birding bonanza had slowed down a little since last week's trip to Biddeford Pool. I had gone out several times without much luck...the sea ducks had disappeared and lingering passerines weren't showing themselves.

But today I awoke with a spring in my step and felt like I was gonna see something good. There were reports of a Yellow-Bellied Chat on Munjoy Hill in Portland (not a place I would consider a great birding location...) and so I thought I'd give it a try.

Now, I usually bird alone. And I'm fine with that. But there are definite benefits to birding with other people. Today I showed at the spot where the bird was reported. I walked around aimlessly, didn't hear or see anything, and was getting ready to leave when a man with Maine Audubon stickers pulled up. Excellent.

The man's name was Turk and he told me that not only had he seen the Chat in this area, but he had just seen ANOTHER Chat down the road (there have been about 6 YB Chats reported in Maine recently...). Turk was a good birder, and didn't get nearly as discouraged as I did. Turk and I birded around the overgrown, abandoned lot and turned up quite a few good species. Lots of cardinals, hermit thrush, white-throated sparrows, house finches and, believe it or not, my first ever Fox Sparrow. Two of them.

After about 20 unsuccessful minutes of chat-searching I could tell that even Turk was ready to throw in the towel. Just then our bird dropped into view. Lovely. I've seen so many chats in field guides that I recognized it immediately, although I was pleasantly surprised at how bright its namesake breast was. After a few quick glimpses of the birds chest and one good look at its head, it dropped out of sight and was unable to be relocated. Satisfied, Turk and I parted ways, both happy.

IN other news, this blog is still called birdDC...even though I'm in Maine and going to Colorado in a week. I haven't figured out a new blog yet, but, I will. I'll keep you posted.
Friday, November 03, 2006

Bird #250!

I have been having some incredible birding luck since I've been back in Maine. I arrived with 242 ABA species and hoped to get around 245 before heading out west. The birding, though, has been better than I imagined, and today I saw my first Harlequin Duck at Biddeford Pool. Here's the list since coming home:

243. Red-Necked Grebe Falmouth Foreside, ME
244. Blue-Headed Vireo Falmouth Foreside, ME
245. Spruce Grouse Shirley, ME
246. Gray Jay Shirley, ME
247. Northern Shrike Shirley, ME
248. Snow Bunting Shirley, ME
249. Iceland Gull Pine Point, Scarborough, ME
250. Harlequin Duck Biddeford Pool, ME


It really was a lovely day at Biddeford Pool's East Point Sanctuary. Low Spring tides meant I could walk out along the jagged rocks and get great views of seabirds fishing in the shallows. The Harlequin (which I think is a nonbreeding male...but it's about time to switch plumages) was basking on some seaweed, and let me get quite close. Pretty bird, though I still want to see one in full winter plumage.

Other birds were my first of the year long-tailed ducks, lots of offshore gannets, some bufflehead and grebes and even a few yellow-rumped warblers. Great day. Here are some pictures.

The Harlequin:
Harlequin Duck

Immature Harlequin Duck

Long-Tailed Ducks:
Long-Tailed Ducks

Female Red-Breasted Merganser:
Female Red-Breasted Merganser

Red-Necked Grebe:
Red-Necked Grebe

Ah, Maine. Wood Island Lighthouse with a flock of Double-Crested Cormorants:
Thursday, November 02, 2006

Boreal Birding

Last weekend I went with my Grandfather and my Dad up to our family's hunting camp in Shirley, Maine. The camp sits on the edge of Shirley Bog, a very quiet and pristine lake that eventually turns into the Piscatiquas River. Now, I'm not much of a hunter (the last thing I shot at Shirley was a red squirrel, and I cried my eyes out afterwards), but I knew that the boreal forests of central Maine would be a great opportunity to see some birds...and I was not disappointed.

My target species were: Crossbills (my arch enemies...they've eluded me several times), Spruce grouse and Gray Jay. With luck, a couple days spent trouping through the high Maine forest would bring me across these birds.

After arriving on Sunday night and getting camp ready (which included severing the head of a coyote we found shot by the side of the road near the camp. Yes, that's right. My Grandpa [who is a Maine outdoors legend, by the way. Former State Attorney General and the guy who, among other things, helped pass the first law requiring hunters to wear bright orange] wanted to preserve the skull...) we set out bright and early Monday morning.

I had barely wiped the crap out of my eyes when, on the short drive to the hunting spot, I saw a large brown bird on the side of the road. Spruce Grouse! Are you kidding me? It was a female bird, and, true to her nature, she let me get quite close and take some great pictures before scooting into the trees (Grandpa said 'they're called Foolhens because, when you're hungry, you can whack 'em with a stick'). It was an excellent way to start the morning, and little did I know that things were going to get even better.

About .5 miles after the Spruce Grouse we stopped at the grassy path we were going to start to hunt down. As soon as I shut the door I looked into the trees and saw three large-ish gray birds coasting in. Well whaddya know, Gray Jays! Beautiful birds. I would see a bunch more over the next day-and-a-half, and I liked the way they would coast around, pausing on a perch for a few seconds before leisurely moving on.

OK so at this point I'm feeling pretty excited about seeing two of my target birds in the first, like, 4 minutes of the day. But, there's more! The first batch of Gray Jays had just cruised off when I saw another bird, with a long black tail and black wings, land on the top of a nearby pine tree. Tanager? I thought to myself. Wait, hooked bill! Face mask! A Northern Shrike! I've wanted to see a shrike forever and never even thought about it for this trip, but there it was, moving from high perch to high perch in the forest. Unreal.

So, I got 3 life birds in the first 10 minutes of my time in the boreal. I would also add my first Snow Bunting (just sitting in the gravel road!) and first-of-year Raven, Ruffed Grouse, Horned Lark, Boreal Chickadee and, just as cool, a Moose.

I concluded the trip with a ton of great birds seen, and zero internal moral battles about having to kill a deer...because we didn't hear or see a thing. Even more importantly, I got to spend time with my Dad and Grandfather and walk through some pristine woods. I'm telling you, if you are one of those birders who is caught up in listing and need a reality check, come and take a walk in the woods in Northern Maine. No sounds except the chirping of chickadees and the crunching of leaves...I felt so glad to be in such a remote, unspoiled area. I know this is birdDC, but in those woods I was damn proud to be a Mainer.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Let's Do A Survey!

There is a little survey going around birding blogs. I love surveys. To the point, informational, no BS. I post birder surveys all the time (check out 'Birder Profiles' along the lefthand column). So, here are my answers:

What state (or country) do you live in? For now, Maine
How long have you been birding? 2 years
Are you a "lister"? Yep
ABA Life List: 249
Overall Life List: 249
3 Favorite Birding Spots: Bombay Hook DE, Montezuma Wetland Complex NY, coastal Maine
Favorite birding spot outside your home country: Not yet.
Farthest you've traveled to chase a rare bird: I'd travel anywhere...probably the pelagic trip because that took all day.
Nemesis bird: Peregrine Falcon...where are you!?
"Best" bird sighting: Dulles Snowy Owl
Most wanted trip: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
Most wanted bird: Ross' Gull
What model and brand of bins do you use?: Nikon Monarch 10x42
What model and brand of scope do you use?: nada
What was the last lifer you added to your list?: Iceland Gull, today!
Where did you see your last lifer?: Pine Point, Scarborough, Maine
What's the last bird you saw today?: American Robin
Best bird song you've heard ever: Broad-Winged Hawk is my favorite...
Favorite birding moment: So many...seeing the Snow Geese at Bombay Hook.
Least favorite thing about birding: That it isn't more socially acceptable.
Favorite thing about birding: Absolutely everything, but, mostly, going to new places.
Favorite field guide for the US: Sibley
Favorite non-field guide bird book: Books are sooo 20th century. Try the Life of Birds DVDs from the BBC.
Who is your birder icon?: unsure...I'd have to say it was those guys on the Maryland pelagic.
Do you have a bird feeder(s)? Nope.
Favorite feeder bird? n/a

Location: Portland, ME

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