Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Empid! Oh-No! - 24 Aug 2014

Robin and I were sitting on the back deck this afternoon enjoying the heat and humidity. I looked out toward the Lilac bush next to the house and saw a tiny, non-sparrowy and non-goldfinchy bird with a whitish belly and wing bars.  Flycatcher? The little guy sat for a bit, and bounced off the awning a couple of times while catching insects in flight, then returned to its perch just 10' away. So I ran into the house to grab the camera to see if I could get some photos. It was gone when I got back, so I sat w/ the camera in my lap w/ the hopes that it might return. It did.

I was able to fire off 127 photos while it moved in and out of the bushes, flew off and returned. It never made a sound, and I suspected that I was looking at an Empidonax flycatcher as a first fall bird for the yard. Oh, the cruelty...

Normally, these birds are easy to ID if you can hear them sing: Least Flycatcher (Che-bek!), Acadian Flycatcher (Pit-sEE!), Alder Flycatcher (Vre-bee!), Willow Flycatcher (Fitz-bew!), and Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (j'-biit!). Its a different story, however, when they are silent. But I was determined that I would ID the bird from the photos. So off to hit the books.

Normally, I'd hit the Pyle Guides first, but its more useful if the bird is in hand. So I reached for Kenn Kaufman's Field Guide to Advanced Birding, hoping that he had a chapter on the Empidonax flycatchers. He does!  I'll say it right here, put all of the 'field' guides away, this is the one book to have on your shelf. What a great read.

The first thing I noticed about my bird was the wing bars, so that eliminates Eastern Phoebe, which are normally more sooty-looking this time of year w/ darker cap and white throat transitioning to pale yellow belly (and no wing bars).  But the lack of a distinct eye-ring is suggestive of Eastern Wood-Pewee, yes?

The thing to look for, in this case, is wing projection. On a pewee, the wing projection is long; sufficiently long enough to extend down past the rump and onto the tail. The head is more square, and the bird tends to have a longer, more attenuated appearance.  On this bird the the primary wing projection is distinctively short, barely reaching the rump, so it appears to be an Empidonax. Now to figure which one...

We can probably eliminate ALL of the western flycatchers: Cordilleran, Gray, Buff-breasted, Pacific-slope, Dusky, and Hammond's based on geography. Of the eastern flycatchers I'll also eliminate Yellow-bellied (based on the overall 'pale-gray' appearance), and Acadian (partly geography, but they tend to be greenish and show longer wing projection and thicker, stouter bill) flycatchers.  That leaves the big three for this area: Least, Willow and Alder Flycatchers (the latter two formerly lumped as Traill's Flycatchers).

I eliminated Willow Flycatcher based on head shape (normally more 'peaked' versus round in this bird) and lower mandible color. On the Traill's flycatchers the lower mandibles are normally solid yellow. This bird is showing some evidence of a dusky tip. Though not always the case, the bills on these birds tend to look prominently 'wide' and are uniform yellow in color. Alder Flycatcher tends to be yellower-green in color, as well, so that leaves me with Least Flycatcher.

According to Kaufman, Least Flycatcher is the most numerous Empid seen during migration. The bird tends to look more short-billed, along with short wing projection. The lower mandible tends to show more evidence of a dusky tip, and head is normally smooth and rounded. All of these traits seem to support my Wyandotte bird, so with 95.854% certainty I'm calling this bird a Least Flycatcher.

The eye-ring is less distinctive than I expect, however, but I've seen many photos of Least Flycatchers lacking a distinct eye-ring, so I'm hoping that this bird is not too out of the norm.

As always, I'd love some feedback, and would gratefully accept another lesson in bird ID. I'm pitiful...

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A Last Outing? - 24 Aug 2014

The opportunity presented itself this Sunday morning, so I grabbed the bike and headed to the Mouillee Creek entrance.  I went to assist other birders find the Black-headed Gull and wondered if it was possible to get any better pics than I did last nite.  After looping Cell 3 none of us present would see evidence of the bird (it would turn up later in the morning after I left).

While riding along the west side of the Long Pond Unit I flushed a small rail. Could'a been a Sora, but all I saw were short wings and long legs... So I photographed the wild oats or buckwheat growing in the morning sun.

While riding back along the east side of the Humphries Unit I spotted a sandpiper: Spotted Sandpiper. It stayed long enough for a long-distance digiscoped image.  It would then be heavily overcast the rest of the morning. And humid!

The American White Pelicans were roosting in Cell 4 this morning, so I took a few pics of the 70+ birds that were crowded on the rocks near the north shore.

As I approached the Middle Causeway I spotted the pair of Plegadis ibis flying over the Vermet Unit, so I headed in that direction to see if I could find them.  I stopped long enough to scope the NE corner of the Humphries Unit, and re-find all of the shorebirds I saw last evening: Baird's Sandpiper, Willet, Black-bellied Plovers, Red Knot, Short-billed Dowitchers, Pectoral, Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Snowy Egret, Great Egret and Great Blue Heron.  No Yellow-crowned Night Heron. A Caspian Tern hovering along the shoreline provided a few nice pics during a brief glimpse of sunlight that would disappear within minutes.

The pair of ibis then reappeared overhead and I grabbed a few flight shots against the darkening skies.  They would land near the small 'Eagle Island' in the Vermet Unit and disappear from sight for the rest of the morning. A number of birders, including David Amamoto and Andrew Sturgess and Dan Fox would later get photographs that 'strongly' support Glossy Ibis identification.  I say 'strongly' because even though the birds show the diagnostic cyan skin patches around the eye and lack of visible red coloration in their brown eyes, a possible hybrid cannot be ruled out at this point as they may be juveniles that typically don't show evidence of hybridization until adults.

Caleb Putnam provided a very nice reasoning for hedging against calling these birds anything other than Plegadis ibis: I accidentally implied in my description that the lack of red/pink tones in the eye, facial skin, and legs, eliminated White-faced Ibis (WFIB), but want to clarify that this is false and my description was poorly worded. What I should have said was that my ID as GLIB was based first and foremost on the presence of two bluish stripes on the facial skin of all three birds, in the classic adult GLIB pattern (I can find no evidence that WFIB ever shows this, and much evidence that HY GLIB often [but not always] does), and secondarily on the lack of pink/red in the bird's eye, facial skin, and legs. The latter field mark doesn’t eliminate the possibility of a WFIB or hybrid, but it is necessary to establish this before calling any hatching-year bird a GLIB. In other words, if a HY ibis shows red in the eye or facial skin, GLIB is out, and if it lacks it, the discussion continues, but it is not yet clinched as GLIB. The bird must then match the classic face pattern of adult GLIB before one can call it. As for the sticky issue of hybrid Glossy X White-faced Ibises, which are rare but well known, including from this location: the literature on identifying these birds as HYs is scanty, as few (no?) known-identity birds have been tracked from the nest to adulthood. HY WFIB show at most one, non-blue upper facial skin stripe, often pink, and no lower stripe, so pure WFIB are eliminated. It is probably not possible to state with 100% certainty that hybridization can be eliminated, but the lack of any intermediate traits supports the stance for pure GLIB. If these birds showed very diffuse lower stripes, or lacked them completely, I’d be inclined to identify them as *Plegadis* ibises. Instead, the features we have are consistent with the literature for HY GLIB, so I don't see any need to invoke the hybrid possibility. If future studies show that pure WFIB or WFIB X GLIB can show the classic adult GLIB face pattern, I would revoke my ID. Finally, I want to implore others to study these birds, and the literature, and to make their own conclusions (in other words: don’t just eBird these based on someone else’s opinion). I was really glad to see many careful descriptions, a lot of ID hedging, and several eBird checklists with these birds listed as GLIB/WFIB. But regardless of which category you use (Glossy, White-faced, Glossy/White-faced, or Glossy X White-faced), these are all Michigan review species. So, I encourage everyone to submit a written description and/or photos of these birds to the MBRC – don’t assume that others will, as that’s usually not the case! Photographs, especially under the conditions at Mouillee, often don't cut it, and I know from experience that voting members often rely heavily, or even solely, on written descriptions to evaluate certain key field marks. In this case, there appear to be good photos surfacing, but so far apparently only for one or two of the three birds. Anyway, here’s a link to a template for the MBRC’s rare bird report form:

While trying to relocate the ibis I came across a Short-billed Dowitcher just a few feet away that provided some nice, 'last?' shorebird digiscoping for the year.  I'm heading out of town 3 of the next 4 weeks so I'll miss much of prime hawk watching season, including the big push of Broad-winged Hawks that is expected around the 20-23rd of September.

Should this be my last outing before the end of August, I'll just say that Pt. Mouillee SGA has provided some wonderful memories this year! We'll see you again when the weather gets cold...

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Black-headed Gull, pt. deux! - 23 Aug 2014

I caught up with Pat Jakel near Cell 1 of the Banana Unit late this afternoon. He was scoping the Humphries Unit with the hopes of seeing the Plegadis ibis pair that have been spotted these past few days.  The sun was shining, and it was humid, but winds were blowing enough that I had to keep ahold of my hat for fear of losing it. We could not relocate them.  We also dipped on the Yellow-crowned Night Heron in the NE corner of the Humphries Unit.

We rode on to Cell 3 where we ran into Darlene Friedman, and shortly thereafter, Jeremy and Holly Joswick.  Noone had seen the Black-headed Gull since earlier in the day, and so far we weren't seeing it on Pelican Point (recently nicknamed peninsula in the SW corner of Cell 3 that's been hosting up to 80 American White Pelicans this summer). The American Avocet was present, but little else of note. I decided to ride on along the Lake Erie shoreline in case the gull was out on the lake, while Pat, Darlene and the Joswicks headed toward the NW corner to check the gull flock there.

Some decent rollers were crashing into the shoreline while rode the east dike, so there were few gulls on the water.  I got a call from Pat indicating that the Black-headed Gull was spotted by Jeremy and Holly, so I continued on around the north end of Cell 3 to meet up with them.  But since the sun was shining on the NE corner of the Humphries Unit I decided to scope the corner.  I spotted a Snowy Egret, Willet, Red Knot, seven Black-bellied Plovers, several Short-billed Dowitchers, and numerous Semipalmated Sandpipers, Least Sandpipers, a Baird's Sandpiper, and Lesser Yellowlegs.  I decided to see if I could get close enough to digiscope the Red Knot.

I hiked down the side of the bank and spent a few minutes digiscoping a juvenile Lesser Yellowlegs that flew in within 30 feet.  I then continued on toward the north end of the unit to digiscope the Red Knot that was foraging in the stubble. Unfortunately, by the time I got close enough the bird was severely side-lit by the sun, so I did the best I could to digiscope it.

I then headed back to Cell 3 where Darlene was photographing the Black-headed Gull that was very close to the shoreline.  Sunlight was in the perfect position for illuminating the bright red bill and feet of the gull that contrasted nicely against the bright yellow bills of the nearby Ring-billed Gulls. I spent a few minutes digiscoping the gull with the Nikon V3 and Digidapter™before switching to the Nikon 300/2.8 VRII, TC17EIII and the Nikon V3 (EFL ~1377mm).

With the Nikon V3 attached to the 300/2.8 the images were MUCH sharper with much faster shutter speeds, so Darlene and I waited for the Black-headed Gull to stretch its wings. And we waited.

We got several nice wing stretches from the bird, and at 10 fps I was able to capture every feather detail!

Since the nearby Ring-billed Gulls were doing the same I took the opportunity to document their wing stretches.

Not to be outdone, but a couple of 1st-year Herring Gulls did the same. And just for kicks, compare 1st-cycle Herring and 2nd-cycle Ring-billed Gulls - very similar appearance, but note size of bill and extent of gray on their backs.

With the Black-headed Gull gradually moving farther away, and sun starting to disappear we packed up and headed back to the cars.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Black-headed Gull! - 20 Aug 2014

Yesterday afternoon I received an e-mail from Andrew Sturgess. He had photographed an odd gull in Cell 3 at Pt. Mouillee SGA, Monroe Co., MI and wanted an opinion on it. Examination of the photos, which showed the grey-capped, red-billed bird with outer white primaries looked good for Black-headed Gull! A similar bird was seen in Ohio just a few days earlier.

Andrew's photos, which can be seen in the Birding Michigan group on Facebook, showed a gull in flight with outer white wing tips and a red/black slender bill, and grayish cap that wraps around the ears instead of the neck. Possible other gulls could include Laughing Gull and Franklin's Gulls, so I looked them up for reference.

Here's a link to Laughing Gull images in flight. Legs are mostly black, and bright white eye arcs are visible, but most-importantly, the outer primaries are completely black in all stages, so this gull could be eliminated.

Here's a link to Franklin's Gull images in flight. Red/black bill is heavier, but wing primaries are black w/ white-tips, and hood extends down back of head.  This one could be eliminated, as well.

Now check out Black-headed Gull images in flight. Outer primaries are white with black tips and match more closely Andrew's bird. Bill is red/black-tipped and slender. Legs are bright red, and distinguish this bird from Bonaparte's Gulls, which have pink legs and black bills.

I sent Adam Byrne a message to ask his opinion, but Andrew had already contacted him and Caleb Putnam. All agree that it was good for Black-headed Gull. Adam was on his way to Pt. Moo to hopefully make this bird #400 for his Michigan State List.  He succeeded! Congratulations, Adam!

I headed down there this morning to see if the bird could be relocated. Leaving the house at 6 am I headed for the Roberts Rd. entrance and biked out to Cell 3.  The south shoreline was uneventful: the American White Pelicans continue on "Pelican Peninsula" in the SW corner of Cell 3. Seventy birds. The American Avocet was also foraging in the rising waters (dredge pumping continues).

I headed toward the west shoreline and NW corner where the Black-headed Gull was seen last evening. As I set up the scope I noticed peeps on the mudflats at my feet.  I thought one was a Baird's Sandpiper so I took a video of it, knowing that it was still too dark to take any digiscoped photos this early in the morning.  When I got home and reviewed the video, however, I believe I video-recorded a juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper w/ an extra long bill. Wing projection does not extend past the tail, and smooth buffy chest has a white throat.

Adult Lesser Black-backed Gull w/ 1st-cycle Herring Gull
I scoped the gulls in the NW corner, but didn't see the Black-headed Gull. I did see an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull that made for a nice consolation!

I decided to swing the scope toward the north shoreline to see if any shorebirds were about. I spotted a Willet foraging in the shallows!  As I watched it I spotted a single gull along the shoreline, half-way between E and W dikes. Score! Black-headed Gull!

The rising sun was providing enough illumination to verify ID, but I knew I would have better looks from the east side of the Cell, so I biked over to the NE corner.  Unfortunately, it did not put me any closer to the bird, but lighting was now nice, with the bird nicely illuminated by the rising sun. A pair of Red Knots were foraging alongside the bird, so they made a nice threesome.

I spent some time taking videos, making sure to document the gray cap, red bill and legs, and tall, slender profile.

I was hoping to get some wing stretch images to show the outer primaries (P9-P10), which are white w/ black edges/tips.  I was able to grab slow-motion video of it taking off, so I was also able to see the remnants of dark carpal bars, white tail, and molted P7-P8 feathers, which are growing in. Perhaps a 2nd-year non-breeding bird?

I decided to head back to work, as the bird did  not seem to be any more accessible from its location. I would later learn that the Yellow-crowned Night Heron was refound in the NW corner of the Humphries Unit. It was nice to see Sean Bachman and Rick Brigham on the way out. Congratulations, Mr. Sturgess for a great find!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Peregrine, Knots and Godwit (not) - 17 Aug 2014

I rode out to Cell 3 from the Roberts Road entrance to check water levels and shorebirds shortly after 4 pm this afternoon.  A Whimbrel and Marbled Godwit had been reported yesterday.

A juvenile Bald Eagle was sitting on a small island in the middle of the Humphries Unit, and apparently had been there since noon.  I spent a few minutes getting a few digiscoped images from well over 200' away.

I met Dr. Larry Haugh (Professor of Statistics, University of Vermont) in the south end of Cell 3, and after exchanging greetings, learned that he was here for the first time. So, as soon as I got him oriented to his surroundings, we spent some time scoping shorebirds on the mudflats and peninsula.  Water levels were continuing to rise, and mudflats were disappearing.  American White Pelicans continue in good numbers (70+) at the tip of the peninsula, but only a handful of Semipalmated Sandpipers were working the shorelines.

A pair of Red Knots were foraging at the tip of the peninsula!

We did see the American Avocet, several Lesser and Greater Scaup, Green- and Blue-winged Teal among dozens of Mallard, but not a whole lot else of interest.  Caspian, Forster's and Common Terns were scattered among dozens of Ring-billed and Herring Gulls, while Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets were scattered along the shoreline in the NE corner of the cell. Bank and Tree Swallows were working the tops of the water in both Cell 3 and Humphries Unit.

We headed to the west side of Cell 3 when the entire gull colony in the north end took flight. Peregrine Falcon! I managed to get some long-distance flight shots as the falcon strafed the mudflats and what few shorebirds were still around. After a few passes it headed north toward the Vermet Unit. While reviewing pics I could confirm that it was a juvenile and (more importantly) not banded!

We spent a bit of time following flocks of Semipalmated Sandpipers fly back and forth between the north and south ends, and at one point I spotted the pair of Knots with one flock.  They eventually landed back in the north end, where I was able to get a couple of digiscoped images for record.

As we scanned the gull flock that was now returning to roost, I spotted what I believe is the Marbled Godwit that had been reported earlier. Unfortunately, its head was below the surface and not coming back up.  It was dead... Examination of the bird showed primaries and tail patterns that were distinctive and looked good for the godwit.  Here's a photo of a Marbled Godwit from Florida earlier in the year for comparison.

With the sun starting to disappear we walked back to Roberts Rd., pausing just long enough to scope a flock of Mallard that contained two female-type Northern Pintail, and a family of Common Gallinule.  Another juvenile Bald Eagle was in the trees over the parking lot.

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