Monday, September 8, 2014

Zion National Park, UT - 01-04 Sep 2014

Robin and I spent a wonderful four days at Zion National Park, UT.  We flew to Las Vegas, rented a car, and drove 2.5 hrs. to the town of Springdale, UT. Located just outside of the park, Springdale is a lovely strip of shops, galleries, restaurants and cafe's. We stayed at the La Quinta Inn and enjoyed nice views of the mountains/canyons from our room. With temps in the 100+F everyday we tended to spend the afternoons napping or watching reruns of Buffy.

Random thoughts of the trip, in no particular order:

It was HOT in the canyon. Mornings were cool (60's) and windy, but quickly warmed as soon as the sun made its way down the canyon walls. We enjoyed late morning/afternoon leisure time in the shade of the Zion Park Lodge, or Human History Museum, and quickly retreated to local pubs when it got too hot.







We took the shuttle from the Visitor's Center to the very end (Shinawava Temple) 1st thing each morning and ran ~4.5 mi (downhill) back to Zion Park Lodge. Views were stunning, though early morning winds were chilly. Luckily, most of the wind was at our backs. Running past 8-pt Mule Deer bucks was a nice treat. Peregrine Falcons and Turkey Vultures were visible soaring above the canyon walls in the early morning. I pished Canyon Wrens and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers while we ran.

Disappointed that we did not see a California Condor. Last time one was reported was 3 mo, so not too disappointed.

Crowds were heavy day before/of Labor Day, but quickly thinned out on Tuesday. So surprised how many young parents brought toddlers and infants out in the hot sun. Many were on day hikes through the canyon.  Germans, Italians, French and Indian were more numerous than Americans during the week. No complaints here…

Happy to see water flowing down the Virgin River throughout the park. Cottonwood Trees were just starting to turn yellow in some parts, but still weeks away from gorgeousness. I enjoyed seeing all of the sagebrush growing everywhere.

"Utah boasts over 200 species of birds" was what we heard while riding the shuttle. I believe it was a mistake, and they meant to say 200 total birds… Birding was tough, and single birds were hard to come by. But some of the highlights included: Common Ravens, a Great-tailed Grackle that was falling apart in the mid-day heat, Peregrine Falcons soaring over the canyon, Black-chinned Hummingbirds zipping by every once in a while, Lesser Goldfinch and Eurasian Collared-Doves were more visible in Springdale.  I was excited Tuesday evening to see a Say's Phoebe, Black Phoebe, Western Tanager, Mourning Dove, and Black-chinned Hummingbirds in a 5-minute span near the Bit and Spur Restaurant.


Great-tailed Grackle w/ serious feather issues

Black Phoebe in the black
Red-tailed Hawk

Turkey Vulture
Red-tailed Hawk

Lesser Goldfinch

Western Scrub Jay
Kolob Canyon was a nice morning drive on Wednesday. I managed to get photos of Western Scrub Jays, White-throated Swifts, Clark's Nutcracker, and see Stellar's Jay, White-breasted Nuthatch, and Red-tailed Hawks.  A covey of Gambell's Quail was a nice find on the way back to Springdale!



Clark's Nutcracker

White-throated Swift

Gambell's Quail




While photographing a Black Phoebe trying to bash the brains out of a hummingbird moth that it caught, I saw a small woodpecker fly by in the late evening sky. When I overexposed the images of the bird, I was able to ID a Red-cockaded Woodpecker! They are found in the region, so not an unusual find, but a great bird anytime.


Red-cockaded Woodpecker?



If you want to test your photographic prowess, try photographing the tiny (Brown?) bats flying through the sky at sundown. I took over 300 pics and had only 1 sharp enough to keep. I added a blurry spread-winged shot as a composite just to show the subject.  Dozens of them were flying over the parking lot in Springdale, so it was very enjoyable just watching them.


This photo is a bit soft, but the Greater Roadrunner was captured at 1377mm hand-held!

We stayed at the Palazzo in Las Vegas Thursday nite before flying back to Detroit on Friday. Connected via boardwalk to the Venetian, the place was huge, and our best navigation of the place occurred when we walked outside the hotel to find the Walgreens and restaurants we wanted to try. Lots of $$$ in this place. I tried to play a couple of $0.25 slots, but I would've had to buy credits. Too much work. Spectacular view of Las Vegas and Trump Tower from our 47th floor room. 

I may have seen a Ferruginous Hawk as we drove out of Utah and into Arizona, but I couldn't stop. It was a 'white-headed' raptor on a light pole with reddish feathering (legs?) on the underbelly.


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...

Update

I've gotten a number of responses from folks who've read this blog and, although some have agreed with my conclusions,  the consensus is that the bird is most possibly a Traill's Flycatcher, and that I should leave it at that...








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.

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