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Friday, December 31, 2010

Year List in Review

It's December 31st, 2010 and I've seen 233 bird species since January 1st. Going in to the year, I hoped to see 175 species, but I beat that goal by a whopping 58 species thanks to the trip to Alaska and a few bonus species on the east coast to close the year out. I added 23 life birds this year, 16 of which were on the Alaska trip. I really didn't expect to see so many species....233 is actually 69% of my entire North American life list.

Downy woodpecker at suet feeder in Eden, New York in December

I also had a goal of seeing a year bird during every month of the year, which I succeeded in doing. Here's the year bird total by month:

January ~ 87 species
February ~ 19 species
March ~ 25 species
April ~ 21 species
May ~ 37 species
June ~ 24 species
July ~ 1 species
August ~ 2 species
September ~ 3 species
October ~ 2 species
November ~ 4 species
December ~ 8 species

I was in an unofficial competition with Dave over in England, who also started the year with a target of 175 species. He ended with 192 species seen in the British Isles, but 237 species including his trip to Florida which edges me by four!!

I think 2010 is going to be a tough year to beat, but my goal for 2011 is 200 species. I hope to reach 100 species by the end of January, which may just be possible since I'll be birding on both coasts. Another lofty goal I may not be able to attain is to add 11 more life birds to bring my North American life list to 350. Stay tuned....we'll see how I do!!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Train Trip Across the Country: Part 2

We woke up in Minneapolis, Minnesota to more snow on the ground, but blue skies and bright sunshine above. Gone, however, were the open landscapes of Montana, and we were surrounded by more cities and industry than the day before as we traveled through the mid-west. The juxtaposition of the natural and the man-made still made for some pretty scenic views.

I'm not even sure how the day passed so quickly. We didn't read many of the books or play any of the games we brought along - instead my mom and I were both glued to the window until the sun set near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The view was more smokestacks, this time with hundreds of gulls circling in the blue-orange sky:
We pulled into Chicago's Union Station two hours behind schedule. Many travelers missed their connection but luckily we had a long layover in the Windy City and still had several hours to kill. That gave us time to grab some dinner and tour the impressive train station. It was much larger than Portland's Union Station that we departed from, not to mention all the tiny stations in towns across Montana and North Dakota.

Having traveled the Empire Builder from one end to the other, we hopped on the Lake Shore Limited to travel from Chicago to Buffalo, New York. It was an overnight trip of about 10 hours, and while we had a sleeper car for the first two nights this third night was spent in coach, where it turned out to be much more difficult to sleep comfortably! We woke up after a fitful night's sleep at dawn to spend the last couple of hours on the train taking in part of the New York countryside before pulling in to Buffalo.

I was exhausted by the time we arrived - kind of amazing since all I did was sit on a train for two and a half days, but I definitely hadn't slept the best for the previous three nights. Still, I wasn't ready to crash until I spent some time scanning the backyard bird feeders at the house I'm staying at in New York, eager to pick up some eastern year birds before the end of 2010. My hosts graciously started filling the feeders a month ago, so the birds didn't disappoint. Before falling asleep for my three hour nap, I added the red-bellied woodpecker (230), tufted titmouse (231), and northern cardinal (232). The next day I also added the blue jay (233).

Coming up in the next couple of posts: the 2010 year list in review and a look forward to 2011, plus photographs of all the great backyard birds here in New York.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Train Trip Across the Country: Part 1

Christmas morning started out with a bang as a quick trip to north Portland successfully yielded a black-crowned night heron (year bird 228), which will be my last west coast year bird of 2010. By early evening my mom and I had boarded the Empire Builder train which heads from Portland to Chicago. I've done this route once before in the spring, so it was much lighter then, but this time the whole first part of the route through the Columbia Gorge was in the dark.

First thing the next morning, we woke up to a beautiful sunrise in the Rocky Mountains in Montana:

This is some of the most beautiful terrain on the train route, winding through the snow-capped mountains, and on this morning it was definitely top notch scenery with the mist-filled valleys and the sun shining on the trees. This photo looks back after we've gone around a bend on some of the train tracks. You can just see the moon over the hill on the right:

We were pretty much in the snow from Tri-Cities, Washington for the rest of the trip, and with the sub-freezing temperatures the bird life was pretty minimal. The first bird of the trip was a bald eagle cruising over a river in the Rockies, and I saw several more throughout the rest of the trip. The only other species up in the mountains were some common ravens.

All too soon we left the Rockies behind and started entering the flat plains of eastern Montana:

I was amazed at how many ring-necked pheasants I saw in this part of the country. The males were everywhere and sometimes there were flocks of a dozen or more feeding around a bale of hay. Unfortunately none of my photos of them turned out since we were traveling so fast (up to 79 mph!), but I did catch this flock of rock pigeons flying over a farm:

There were also lots and lots of white-tailed deer - probably more deer than I've ever seen in one day ever before. Many of them were hanging out in herds almost like the cattle we passed attempting to graze through the snow on the ranch lands. I like how this photo turned out, and it kind of captures the essence of the landscape:

The other big surprise in terms of wildlife sighted were a couple large herds of pronghorn. Pronghorn are an antelope-like species that seem somewhat out of place in North America, even more so when you see them in the snow! I've seen them several times before in the west, but never in the winter. This isn't a great photo, but it documents the sighting!

The day started with a spectacular sunrise and ended with a brilliant sunset:

All of our daylight hours were in the state of Montana. That's one reason I like traveling by train - it really gives you an idea of how much distance you're covering when you travel. I realized once again just how big of a state Montana is! After dark we entered North Dakota, then the next morning we woke up in Minnesota which is where I will pick up the next post.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Young Scientists, Birding on Whidbey, and Upcoming Travels

The other day I came across an article that I wanted to share about the youngest ever scientists published in the Royal Society's Biology Letters, a science journal from the UK. A group of 8-10 year old kids from a primary school in Devon, England co-authored a paper about a study they conducted on bumblebee foraging techniques. They wrote the article, aside from the abstract, themselves and hand-drew the charts and graphics. While the article contained no citations or statistical analysis, which got it turned down from several other journals, it is a demonstration of science education at its best. I highly recommend reading this article which has more details about the project, and if you're interested in reading the study itself it can be downloaded for free until the new year here.

While my last post was about the Christmas Bird Count here in Oregon I didn't get a chance to post some birding photos from our trip down from the San Juan Islands. We decided to take the more scenic route down the Olympic Peninsula, which means catching an extra ferry from Whidbey Island. We had some extra time while waiting for the ferry, and did some birding around the Keystone ferry terminal. We started at the Admiralty Head Lighthouse in Fort Casey State Park:

The coolest thing we saw here was a single California quail, which took flight as we were watching. As it flew across the field a red-tailed hawk dove down out of the trees and took a swipe at it, but the quail made it away safely this time. After that bit of excitement we also spotted an immature bald eagle that seemed to have an inordinate amount of white on it:

The marshes and ponds closer to the ferry terminal itself were a bustle of activity including flocks of northern pintail and American wigeon as well as hooded and red-breasted mergansers, lesser scaup, and mallards. This male northern harrier was also patrolling the marshlands:

Despite the mudflats there weren't many shorebirds around, just a single least sandpiper that wasn't very shy:

During the ferry crossing itself some other great birds were seen, including rhinoceros auklets (less common inland this time of year), common murres, pigeon guillemots, and the best find of all, two male long-tailed ducks, my first of the winter.

Next up, Christmas Eve celebrations here in Portland, and then I'll be departed Christmas Day on a train across the country to Buffalo, New York. There may be a bit of a gap before my next post, which will likely be coming from the east coast and will include photos of the winter train trip!

Happy holidays everyone!!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

2010 Forest Grove Christmas Bird Count

We made it down to Portland a couple of days ago, just in time for me to participate in the 111th Christmas Bird Count yesterday with my dad. First thing in the morning we headed out to Forest Grove where we met up with other birders before heading out to our sector. Just like last year, we were assigned to the sector that included Fernhill Wetlands, where we found 61 species during the 2009 count. Of course, our goal this year was to beat that total.

The weather forecast wasn't the greatest and while last year's count started with a beautiful sunrise and sub-freezing temperatures, this year's count started with gray dawn and rain showers. We started at Fernhill wetlands where the first species on the day list included common mergansers, buffllehead, mew gulls, and northern shoveler. As we started making our way around the ponds we added more of the expected species including Canada geese, cackling geese, great blue herons, double-crested cormorants, mallards, and mourning doves.

When we veered away from the main trail back into more of the woodland habitat we found golden-crowned sparrows, a single Eurasian collared-dove, and our only ruby-crowned kinglet of the day. We found a couple of Lincoln's sparrows, which I thought was a great find since it's only the second time I've seen that species (the first time being earlier this year in Haines, Alaska!). We also saw four raptor species including the American kestrel, red-tailed hawk, northern harrier, and bald eagle. Before we finished at the wetlands, we added a fifth, a peregrine falcon.

Back on the main path by the bigger lakes were large flocks of waterfowl, and we found a common teal male in with the green-winged teal as well as a trio of canvasback and hundreds of northern pintail. We also spotted one of our two great egrets for the day. Near the edge of the marsh we also spotted the marsh wren that eluded us last year. In the same grassy habitat we spooked a green heron, which turned out to be the only one seen in the whole count area that day. We also found a few ruddy ducks.

Once we had completed the circuit the weather had cleared up and the sun even came out for a while. We took advantage of the better light to get the scope out and scan the lake for species we might have missed in the pre-dawn light of the early morning. This proved fruitful as we found an eared grebe (year bird #226) to add to our grebe list that already included pied-billed grebe, western grebe, and horned grebe all on the same lake. Greg Gillson, one of the count coordinators, also stopped by, and thanks to his expert birding skills we were able to find a pair of immature Thayer's gulls (year bird #227) among the flock of gulls on the lake. I would never have been able to pick them out on my own - immature gulls are a specialty I haven't even begun to master.

By this point we had spent four hours at Fernhill Wetlands and turned up a respectable 51 species, but we still had a lot more territory to cover by car before dusk. Shortly after leaving the wetlands we found the western meadowlarks we had missed earlier, as well as a flock of estimated 900 tundra swans - by far the most I have ever seen in one place! In right with them was a pair of bald eagles, but apparently the swans knew they were too big for the eagles, since they didn't seem nervous in the least. We also found about 40 killdeer in a farm field a little further along.

With all the rain in recent weeks, there was a lot of flooded land to survey, and in one mixed flock of ducks we found a common x Barrow's goldeneye hybrid, something I've never seen before. It had the flat head and small round white patch on the face of a common goldeneye, but the dark sides and back of a Barrow's goldeneye.

After a quick pit-stop in Gaston, we drove a stretch along Highway 47 which turned up more waterfowl, and then more of the rural back roads where we found species like western scrub-jays, Steller's jays, and spotted towhees. One of our most productive stops of the day was when we pulled over to admire and try to estimate the numbers in this flock of thousands of northern pintail.

No easy task! And not made any easier when some of them decided to take flight:

But it was a pretty phenomenal spectacle:

So, how many pintail were there? Your guess is probably about as good as mine, but we recorded an estimate of 6000. Now that I'm looking at my pictures I think this could easily be an underestimate! While the flock was dominated by pintail, there were a few other species mixed in, none of which stood out as well as these Canada geese:

At the same stop, we also saw some black-capped chickadees, our only fox sparrow of the day, and heard a ring-necked pheasant (year bird #228) that called a couple of times in response to some distant thunder.

It was about three in the afternoon at this point, and with the thickening clouds and early sunsets it was already starting to feel like it was getting dark. We doubled back on a road we had already surveyed planning to take one more look at Fernhill Wetlands, but got delayed to examine what we almost dismissed as another American kestrel but turned out to be a merlin. After seeing many kestrels throughout the day, it's streaky chest and overall darkness distinguished it as being somehow "different", which thankfully caused us to pull over and take a closer look.

Back at Fernhill Wetlands, we decided to take one more look for the swamp sparrow that had been seen there the day before. No luck on that species, but we did find the white-crowned sparrows we missed earlier. We first found a couple of immatures mixed in with some golden-crowned sparrows, and I learned that you can tell them apart by the brightness of their beaks, with the white-crowned having bright yellow beaks compared to the golden-crowned. Just in case we had any doubts, we found two adult white-crowned sparrows too. Also on this last short walk of the day we found a Bewick's wren, more glacous-winged gulls than we had seen in the morning, and saw a flock of 15 dunlin that flew overhead.

It was time to head back to reconvene with our fellow birder and come up with our tallies for the day. Here's what our team accomplished:

Hours birded: 8.5
Number of species seen: 67 (compared to 61 last year)
Number of individual birds seen: 11,935 (compared to 4848 last year)
Most number of any one species: 6260 northern pintail
Other impressive species counts: 1930 cackling geese, 960 tundra swans
Miles traveled by car: 47.5
Miles hiked on foot: 4

As a group, we tallied 112 species in our count circle, down slightly from the 117 confirmed for last year's final count, but still above the average.

We beat our personal species count from last year by six species and I added three year birds, which made for a fantastic day's birding, but I was exhausted by the time it was dark outside. I enjoyed a long hot shower and dinner, then went to bed early and had one of the best night's sleep I've had in a long time!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

More Front Porch Wildlife: Merganser and Otters

We've had an amazing amount of rain here on the island recently. Last weekend alone we got 1.5 inches - that's more than 7% of our average annual total of 20 inches. What that means is most of the wildlife watching has continued to be done from the front porch, but that doesn't mean there hasn't been a lot to see! There have been regular visits from this female hooded merganser:

 Then yesterday, a family of river otters swam by. It was getting too dark out for photos, so I tried shooting a couple of short video clips. Here's one of them:

There won't be any more reports from the island until 2011, as next up I'm heading to Portland for Christmas Eve, and then to Toronto and New York for a couple of weeks. There should be a few good  east coast birds to sneak onto year bird list before the end of 2010, even under all that snow!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Satellite Tagging of Southern Resident Killer Whales

With the endangered listing of the Southern Resident population of killer whales they have received even more attention from researchers to fill in the gaps in our knowledge about them and ensure they receive adequate protection. One of the first issues to come up was vessel regulations regarding boater behavior around the whales. There was a public comment period about this issue that received much attention, and a hearing in Friday Harbor back in October 2009. Originally we expected the new regulations to be announced for the 2010 whale-watching season, but the announcement was postponed and I imagine we will find out what NOAA has decided before the 2011 season is set to begin. Now, there is a public comment period open in regards to another issue: satellite tagging the Southern Resident Killer Whales.

Many people are surprised to learn that we don't know where this population of whales spends its time for much of the winter months. While their daily movements are monitored closely while they're in inland waters, as soon as they head out to the Pacific Ocean sightings are scarce with weeks or even months passing between encounters. We know the whales range over much of the outer coast from northern British Columbia to Monterey, California, but how far offshore they go, where their important feeding areas are, and how often they frequent different regions is for the most part unknown. It is important to learn where these whales are in the winter so the area designated as their critical habitat can be defined to give them more protection.

While long-term satellite tags have been used more widely on large cetaceans, a relatively non-invasive long-term tag for smaller cetaceans is a fairly new technological advancement. Suction cup tags have been placed on Southern Residents, but they typically stay on for a matter of hours rather than weeks. Recently satellite tags have been used more widely on small cetaceans, but there has been a hesitation before using them on this endangered group of whales to learn more about the risks involved. Earlier this year, Brad Hanson, one of the lead cetacean researchers in the region, applied for an amendment to his permit from NOAA that would allow him to deploy six satellite tags on Southern Residents.

This has raised several concerns about the public administration of whale populations. One of the biggest concerns people have is about the wounds caused by the tags, which contain a pair of titanium darts that embed more than 2.5 inches into the skin. The tags eventually fall off (11 transient killer whales have been tagged on the west coast since 2008, and the tags transmitted for anywhere from 16-94 days), but can leave open wounds and scars as evidenced by follow-up monitoring. Such wounds are potentially an entry point for disease, and with a population of fewer than 90 animals, the loss of even one animal is a huge impact.

It's important, I think, to consider that these animals receive similar injuries to their fins and bodies in their everyday life. This wound on the dorsal fin of K21 Cappuccino, as seen earlier in 2010, looks just as bad or worse than some of the post-tagging wounds:

I had to think long and hard about this issue, but I believe that the benefits of learning where these whales spend time in the winter outweighs the risk of tagging. Here's a copy of the public comments I submitted with some more details of my thoughts:

I support the proposed satellite tagging of Southern Resident killer whales as a means to gather important data that is currently lacking, particularly when it comes to designating the winter portion of the critical habitat for this endangered population of orcas. I understand this is the most feasible method to gather this data, and respect all of the precautions that are being taken. I think it is especially important to deploy the tags at the appropriate time of year to get the required data, and to monitor the tagged whales’ health to the best ability possible, both of which were indicated in the proposal. However, after reading the amendment request I found myself with the following questions:

1. Will the number of tags to be deployed (6) provide sufficient data to begin designating critical habitat for these whales? Satellite tag data was key in designating the critical habitat of Hawaii’s false killer whales, but 23 satellite tags were deployed on that population.

2. The request states: “The only alternative method for obtaining information on offshore movements is through boat-based photo-identification, which is severely limited in scope by sea conditions and range of small vessels.” At the Marine Naturalist’s Gear –Down in Friday Harbor on November 5, 2010 I learned from a talk given by Candice Emmons that acoustic detection of Southern Residents has been attempted via remote hydrophones along the outer coast since 2005 in addition to these boat-based surveys. What information has been learned through this technique and why isn’t this a sufficient method to determine the winter range of the Southern Residents?

3. When you are dealing with a small population size, which individuals will be targeted for potentially invasive research is a key issue. Even though the short- and long-term impacts of satellite tagging are deemed minimal, implanting tags is not a zero-risk operation and the appropriate individuals should be selected for deployment. I have questions regarding the individuals that are listed as candidates for tagging in Table 2. While post-reproductive females no longer play a direct role in increasing population size, they play a cultural role of undetermined importance to the community as a whole. With the loss of several of these older females in recent years, I would propose that the targeted females are of post-reproductive age, but perhaps not older than the age of 70 given the unknown importance of this small segment of the population. I have also heard that some of these older females have not been successfully biopsied or suction cup tagged, and if this is the case they may not be the most approachable whales for satellite tag deployment. Additionally, I think post-reproductive age females under 70 that have never been seen with a calf (such as K40) and reproductive age females that have not been seen with a calf for a decade or more should be the highest ranked candidates for tagging. Given the small population size and the limited number of breeding age males, I would also propose that no more than one male per pod be tagged.

4. Finally, I don’t feel that sufficient justification was given for the increase in suction cup tag deployment from 10 to 20. While the data gathered from these tags is interesting, this research is invasive and it has not been demonstrated here as being critical to filling the data gaps in our knowledge of this endangered population of whales. Unless such justification occurs, I don’t believe it is necessary to increase this type of tagging.

If you have your own thoughts or opinions on this issue I strongly encourage you to send in your own comments. You can read the federal register for the proposed amendment here. The modification request can be read in more detail on NOAA's site here, where under attachments you can also download a pdf of the amendment proposal (the second of the three downloads) submitted by Brad Hanson, which I found to be the most informative read. The public comment period is open until December 23rd, and you can submit your comments via e-mail to They request that you include File No. 781-1824 in the subject line.

This December 10th article in the Victoria Times Colonist and this December 5th article in the Kitsap Sun also provide you with some more good information.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Front Porch Birds

Yesterday I was pleasantly surprised to find yet another new species visiting our feeders on the front porch: a hairy woodpecker. The downy woodpecker continues to be an occasional visitor, but even though they share similar coloration there's no mistaking the size of this hairy:

The above photo isn't the best: it was taken through our sliding glass door and into the sunlight. But for as poor as the photo conditions were yesterday, they were "picture perfect" early this afternoon, just when a double-crested cormorant swam within a few feet of our houseboat. I see this species regularly from the front porch, but either out in the channel beyond the marina or flying to one of their perch trees a little ways down the shoreline. (Check out this post from nearly two years ago for an audio clip from when I was trying to figure out what in the world I was hearing late at night - it ended up being these roosting double-crested cormorants!) It's rare to see them fishing right in and among the boats of the marina, but that's what this one was doing today! Look at those water droplets on its back:

It's not until you see a bird like this up close that you realize what a beautiful species they are. The pale yellow bill, the orange throat pouch, the emerald eye, and the fine brown downy feathers on the head:

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Bizarre Lichen and Fungus at the Lab Trails weather has been cool and gray, but not rainy or windy, so nice enough to get out and do some walking. Yesterday we hiked the trail at the Friday Harbor Labs where there's often a chance for some good birds to turn up. I'm still hopeful to somehow turn up a barred owl before the end of the year, but it was pretty quiet bird-wise; the highlights were a nice look at a varied thrush, several Pacific wrens, and a northern flicker.

I did, however, find some interesting lichen and fungus that was worth taking some photos of. Here's the lichen, which was growing on a dead piece of wood: (EDIT: This is actually probably a fungus - perhaps Xylaria hypoxylon, also known as stag's horn or candlestick fungus. Thanks Dave!)

And these were the blackest mushrooms I have ever seen. Many of them were smushed and looked like burnt wood, but here was one that was still fairly intact. Never seen anything quite like it:

Sunday, December 5, 2010

December Sunset

I should start taking my camera with me to the grocery store! In the same tree where I saw the evening grosbeak the other day I had a great look at a Cooper's hawk yesterday. It was very cool. There have been some good birds to be seen right from our front porch in the last day or so, too. In addition to the red-breasted nuthatches, chestnut-backed chickadees, and dark-eyed juncos coming to the feeder I've seen a bald eagle, a group of double-crested cormorants, a trio of bufflehead (they've finally returned to the island for the winter!), a common loon, a belted kingfisher, and a female hooded merganser that has come very close to the houseboat.

Sorry, no pictures of the birds to share today (I'll try harder now that we've had some sunshine again! It's been too gray for photos some days), but we did have a pretty spectacular view of Mt. Baker the other afternoon. Pretty much everything was dark but the sun still lit up the top of the mountain so it just glowed pink. It was a little brighter in reality and in the photo than it shows up here; I still have some issues color-matching reds and oranges for internet usage for some reason.

Only just over two weeks until the days start getting longer again!!!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Turnstone and Surfbird Poses

We made it back to San Juan Island on Tuesday and will spend a couple of weeks here before taking off for a month around the holidays. The drive back was just as rainy as the drive down, but the weather since getting home has been fairly mild and gray. With chores around the house and holiday gift shopping taking the forefront, there hasn't been much to photograph in the last couple of days. The one major exception occurred this afternoon when I saw a male evening grosbeak while walking to the grocery store! Of course I didn't have my camera with me, but I got great views of the bird, the first time I've seen one in San Juan County. The only other time I've seen this species this year was back in May in Williams Lake, British Columbia, which was a fantastic birding day where I added ten year ticks.

Since I don't have any new photos to share I thought I would post a few more pictures of the black turnstones and surfbirds that I saw in Seaside, Oregon over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. If you spend enough time doing bird photography you eventually catch them in some non-traditional poses...

Black turnstone landing
Black turnstone jumping from rock to rock
How do they balance like that? Many of the surfbird appeared "one-legged" as they tried to keep warm.
Surfbird in flight
These two species look fairly similar in flight: both have white wing stripes, white rumps, and a black terminal tail band. One apparent difference, other than the darker color of the black turnstone, is the pointed dark rump patch on the turnstone. The gray on the rump of the surfbird seems to go more straight across. The black turnstones also have white visible on their backs, while the surfbirds are solid gray.

These two species are commonly seen together in mixed winter flocks, and though they feed on the same thing (barnacles, limpets, etc.) there is one slight different between them. Turnstones remove the animals from their shell, while surfbirds eat them shell and all.