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Monday, January 31, 2011

"Flex": Redefining Our Understanding of the Western Gray Whale

There are so many interesting things going on in the marine science world that, in continuing with the theme of my last post, I thought I would dedicate a series of posts to some of these fascinating topics. Today: the interesting results from the recent tagging of a Western Pacific gray whale.

The Eastern Pacific gray whale that migrates from the Bering Sea in Alaska to Baja Mexico was hunted nearly to extinction, but since the whaling ban the population has recovered quite well to an estimated 20,000 animals. The Western Pacific gray whale, however, which spends the summer months feeding off of Kamchatka, remains one of the most highly endangered whale populations with only about 150 animals and seems genetically distinct from their Eastern Pacific counterparts. The population was actually considered extinct until it was re-discovered off of Russia’s Sakhalin Island in the 1970s.

It is unknown what path these Western Pacific animals take to migrate or where they go to breed, but it was assumed that they traveled south to somewhere off of China. It was essential to determine this for certain to aid in their protection, so last fall a team of Russian and American scientists set out to tag several of these animals to see where they actually go. Due to a variety of factors including bad weather they were only able to successfully deploy a single tag on October 4th, the last day of the expedition. The tagged whale is a thirteen year-old male nicknamed Flex. The data Flex’s tag has collected so far has been a shocker.

This gray whale, instead of going south, headed east. He crossed the Bering Sea in the north Pacific, made it to the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, then crossed the Gulf of Alaska, and now has started making his way south towards the west coast of North America. In today's update, they indicate that on his current trajectory he is likely to bypass Vancouver Island of BC and, if he continues, reach the west coast of North America somewhere around central Oregon. The tag hasn't broadcast for a couple of days, but they're hoping that's just due to weather (there was another data gap a bit earlier due to high seas) and not that the tag has fallen off.

“It’s got everyone scratching their heads,” said John Calambokidis at the Ways of Whales workshop last weekend.

Oregon State University, the home base for Bruce Mate who led the tagging operations, releases new maps of the whale’s travels every Monday. Keep tabs via press releases on Flex's progress here. This week's map can be seen here. Bruce Mate estimated that if Flex continued traveling south, he would reach Oregon by mid-February. If he's going all the way to Baja he wouldn’t arrive until many of the single animals have already started their northbound migration.

Tagging whales can lead to profound discoveries, such as seems to be the case with this gray whale. Another example that occurred last year was shared by Brad Hanson at the Ways of Whales workshop where he shared the track of an Alaskan resident killer whale. The data points colletced from a single tagged whale completely redefined the range of Alaskan residents, as this one male went all the way over to Kodiak.

It’s amazing to me how little we still know about whales. I understand that some people are resistant to tagging for its invasiveness, but the data gathered as a result of satellite tagging not only has the potential to be astounding, re-shaping our understanding of entire populations of whales, but also can be a key component in determining their ranges, defining their critical habitats, and hence protecting them and ensuring their long-term survival.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

V4: A Universal Killer Whale Call?

The Ways of Whales workshop today was successful, with over 100 people in attendance. There were some great talks: Brad Hanson talked about satellite tagging, John Calambokidis talked about new insights into North Pacific baleen whale stocks, a former Sea World trainer gave her views on last year’s tragic death of a trainer, and Suzanne Chisholm shared a project she is working on about the dolphin captures in Taiji. The lecture I gave was about killer whale acoustics, including some background on call usage and also tips for listeners on how to figure out which pod they are listening to when they hear the whales on the streaming hydrophones at

One other bit of information I shared was about a study I got to participate in last year that resulted in a paper that was just published by Nicola Rehn and colleagues in a natural science journal journal*. When I was contacted by a colleague of mine, Andy Foote, last year, he asked me to listen to several dozen orca calls and place them into categories based on how I thought they should be defined.

After I went through all of the calls and organized them into call types, he told me what the study was about: they believe that there is an orca call, that they’ve termed V4, which is universal across not only different killer whale populations, but different killer whale ecotypes (resident, transient, offshore). Indeed, I had placed all of the proposed V4 calls into the same category, even though they came from five different populations of whales: the Southern Residents, the Northern Residents, the Kamchatka Residents, the Pacific offshores, and the Bering Sea transients. Eight other independent observers came up with similar classifications, justifying the researchers’ belief that this may be a universal call type.

This finding is interesting for two reasons. First of all, it’s the first demonstration of an overlap of call types between different populations of orcas that until now were believed to have completely distinct dialects. Second of all, the calls are primarily recorded in high excitement states, regardless of the population the call came from. For the residents and offshores, the call occurred in social situations, and for the transients, the call was recorded after the group had made a kill. The evidence points to this being an innate, universal call type that is highly variable but still categorizable – much like human laughter or crying.

The V4 call is often heard among Southern Residents and was termed S10 in the 1980s by John Ford. I’ve always described this call to others as sounding like the whales are laughing, and it turns out this may not be so far off! Here’s a sample of the call so you know what to listen for if you’re tuning in to the hydrophones:

*More information can be found in the paper: Rehn et al (2011). “Cross-cultural and cross-ecotype production of a killer whale ‘excitement’ call suggests universality”. Naturwissenschaften. (98):1-6.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Whidbey Island

I'm giving a talk tomorrow on orca vocalizations at the Way of Whales Workshop on Whidbey Island, and decided to come down a little earlier today to do some bird-watching. The weather wasn't the greatest: very windy, and drizzly off and on. Still, I had some places scoped out that I hadn't visited before and decided to see what I could find.

The first stop was Deception Pass State Park. Bird-wise it was fairly quiet other than a trio of loons and a pair of brown creepers, but looking at the Deception Pass Bridge is always impressive:

Next up was Windjammer Park in Oak Harbor, aptly named apparently because the wind was certainly jamming today. There wasn't much visible in the choppy water and walking the boardwalk would have been a very chilly endeavor, so I just spent some time surveying the large flock of gulls near the parking area. Most of them were glaucous-winged gulls, but there were some other types in there. After reading and re-reading the field guide, I didn't trust my ability to tell a western gull from a Thayer's gull from a glaucous-winged x western hybrid, so I just took some photos to look at again later with more clarity. I'm still working on the others, but as I agreed with my ID at the time that this is a western gull (114):

The mantle is fairly pale, but the further north you get on the west coast the paler western gulls become. The black primaries rule out the glaucous-winged gull, which also has pink legs and a dark eye, but I concluded it was a western gull and not a hybrid because of the thick, bright yellow bill.

As for the other gulls, maybe I'll return to them in a future post after I've spent some more time with the field guides!

Nearby at the Oak Harbor marina were some scaup, bufflehead, common goldeneye, and a single Barrow's goldeneye - here's my first-ever photograph of this species:

An unplanned stop that turned out to be a pleasant surprise was Fort Ebey State Park. The beaches there were beautiful, looking over towards Admiralty Inlet and bordered by tall eroding cliffs.  Here's the view across the sound:

 It was difficult to pick out the birds among the bobbing kelp beds just offshore, but I did find a couple of surf scoters, quite a few red-breasted mergansers, a group of four harlequin ducks, and a few more bufflehead. Plus this beach oddity, which looked to me like a bird that had been blown away and left only its feet behind:

After leaving Fort Ebey, the clouds really moved in and it got dark in a hurry. Along with the wind it was difficult to turn up much at Ebey's Landing or Fort Casey State Park, other than a couple bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, and northern harriers along the way. The day list was a little shorter than anticipated, but with another year bird added to the list I can't complain. Plus now I'm familiar with some more good birding haunts on Whidbey Island!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Sightings Update (incl. my first orcas of 2011!)

A few sightings to report from the last couple of days here on the island....

There has been a female common merganser hanging around the houseboat, which is cool to see, as previously I had only seen hooded mergansers here in the marina. Yesterday I was able to watch her from the front porch swimming underwater looking for fish:

I thought she saw me quietly sneak outside before she dove, but I guess not, because when she came to the surface with a fish she high-tailed it out of there upon seeing me....whoops:

Also yesterday I made time to do my January COASST survey down at Fourth of July Beach. I was astonished at what the beach looked like. It was a surprisingly low tide, as normally there is only about a third as much room between the driftwood and the water. Additionally, during my last survey in December, the beach was entirely covered in thick seaweed and wrack. The walking was much easier this time:

There weren't any beached birds on the beach, but I did see my first surf scoters (108) of the year out in Griffin Bay. Since I was down on that part of the island anyway, I took a scan at South Beach as well where I found a single red-necked grebe (109) and a group of four red-breasted mergansers (110).

Then this morning I got a tip via Facebook of all places that a small group of Southern Resident Killer Whales were making their way down San Juan Channel. I rushed down to Cattle Pass at the south end of the channel hoping to catch sight of them from shore. For the 45 minutes I was there I didn't see any orcas, but it was a pretty impressive wildlife spectacle. The quick currents in the pass must have made for some good feeding, as there were hundreds of gulls wheeling just above the surface. Also on the water were some surf scoters, harlequin ducks, pelagic and double-crested cormorants, and horned grebes as well a single common loon and a single red-necked grebe. On the rocks I also found half a dozen black oystercatchers (111). Not only that, but I saw a whopping four marine mammal species in the pass as well: a group of about 10 Dall's porpoise, a smaller group of harbor porpoise, and some Steller sea lions and harbor seals. 

By this point I had to leave to go back into town for an appointment, but I was more than satisfied with all I had seen even without the orcas. Still, I pulled over to scan Griffin Bay on my way back north just to check.....and there they were!! It was reportedly about half of J-Pod and a few K-Pod whales that were seen inland a few days ago. They were too far way for me to ID, but it was so great to see them - my first ever orca sighting in the month of January.

Then there was the icing on the cake. As I ran down to the houseboat to pick up what I needed for my meeting, I heard and then saw a Pacific wren (112) along the street, and also saw that the chestnut-backed chickadees (113) had rediscovered my feeders after they were hanging empty for a month.

Monday, January 24, 2011

And #100 is...

...the common raven (100)! I spotted a raven from I5 while driving north yesterday, thus reaching my goal of 100 year birds in the month of January. 

I built some time into my schedule to bird Fir Island in Skagit County on the way to the ferry landing in Anacortes, and while the snow geese were somewhat surprisingly absent, I did find lots of trumpeter swans (101). It's interesting to me that in Portland we see mostly tundra swans, in Skagit they see most trumpeter swans, and on San Juan Island we see exclusively trumpeter swans.

I went to the end of Rawlins Road where I have seen short-eared owls before. The owls weren't around yesterday, but the trip was still well worth it in the form of a northern shrike (102). The rest of Fir Island was pretty quiet, aside from a lot of great blue herons, a few northern harriers, and many bald eagles, including this sub-adult:

I planned the day to make sure I would be taking the ferry from Anacortes to Friday Harbor in the daylight so I could bird along the way. I expected to pick up a couple of species for the year list, but ended up doing even better than hoped for by adding five:

103. Pelagic cormorant
104. Rhinoceros auklet
105. Common murre
106. Pigeon guillemot
107. Barrow's goldeneye - the first time I've seen this species in San Juan County!

That puts me just ahead of my fellow year bird listers, as my dad is at 101 and Dave is at 96. There are a few other species I expect to be able to pick up on my first couple birding excursions back here on the island, but after that I think things will plateau pretty quickly until the spring migration. I've really benefited from all the traveling this month, as I'm now 20 species head of last year's January total!

Next up, we'll see what I turn up with some island birding, as I suspect I'll need to pad my lead as much as possible now that I'm island-bound!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

K5 Sighting

This morning after breakfast I did my last birding in the Portland area for the month, since tomorrow I'll be heading back up to San Juan Island. We birded in north Portland, starting out near the Expo Center where we found a great horned owl (97) sitting in a nest in some cottonwood trees. You couldn't see the whole owl, but through the scope you could see one of the eyes (looking right at you!) and both ear tufts. It was pretty amazing.

Along the Columbia River we had a sighting of K5. No, not K5 Sealth, the orca member of K-Pod that was last seen 1991, but K5, the banded red-tailed hawk:

This red-tailed hawk was caught in September 2010 at the Portland Airport and relocated south to near Eugene, Oregon, with the hopes that it could find a home elsewhere and thus avoid potentially flying into an airplane. Despite being moved more than 100 miles away, K5 found its way right back to PDX and has been seen there regularly since then. They ask that you report sightings of this bird, or any hawks with orange wing bands, to

While we didn't see any of the short-eared owls that others have seen near Broughton Beach occasionally, I did find a California gull (98) in with a small flock of glaucous-winged and ring-billed gulls:

Despite scanning raft after raft of scaup, we also didn't find the tufted duck, though the fact that many of them were greater scaup (99) helped make up for that fact:

I wasn't quite able to turn up that 100th species today, but I'm poised to do so on the drive up tomorrow with a slight detour to hopefully find some snow geese and trumpeter swans, plus the birding from the ferry should turn up a species or two as well. My next report will be coming from San Juan Island again for the first time in more than a month!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Closing in on 100

The weather wasn't quite as nice as forecast today, but even though they changed it at the last minute to "fog" it was nothing like the dense soup Dave had to deal with today over in England! My dad and I headed out to Fernhill Wetlands this afternoon as planned, and it was amazing how few birds were out there compared to during our Christmas Bird Count a month ago. Still, we did find a small flock of western meadowlarks (88) in exactly the same spot, and there was a large flock of mew gulls (89) as well as some glaucous-winged and ring-billed gulls.

Even though the lake was empty except for a few common mergansers, a western grebe, and a horned grebe, we walked around it hoping to see some more around the edges. I ended up seeing a Wilson's snipe (90) in exactly the same corner where I added it to the year list last January. We saw the resident pair of bald eagles, a northern harrier, several red-tailed hawks, and another small hawk that may very well have been the red-shouldered hawk that's been reported there but that we've never managed to see, including missing it on the Christmas Bird Count. We decided not to worry too much about identifying it at such a distance since we were lucky enough to see on in Vancouver, Washington last weekend. There were also lots of American kestrels seen at Fernhill and throughout the day, but none of them could be turned into merlins.

Towards the end of our circumnavigation of the lake we found a large flock of sparrows. We found a single Lincoln's sparrow (91) mixed in, but the majority of the group was either song sparrows or golden-crowned sparrows, like this one:

We spent less time at the wetlands than anticipated so we decided to head over to the Pacific University campus nearby in Forest Grove so I could pick up the resident acorn woodpeckers (92) for the year list. We found them right where expected, but we also got surprised by a great view of a Townsend's warbler (93) as well as a close look at a pair of brown creepers. Of course this was the one short excursion where we left the cameras in the car, so no photos of those guys!

Next up we drove out to Harrington Road where a prairie falcon has been seen off and on for the last month. My dad has tried twice to see it without success, but since we were so close we decided to try again. It wasn't in it's regular tree, but a little further down the road I spotted a bird in the top of a pine tree - and it turned out to be the prairie falcon (year bird 94, NA life bird 342)!! Even though according to the field guide we are within the winter range for this species, it's the first time I've seen it anywhere and the first time my dad has seen on in Oregon.

Our last stop for the day was along the Willamette River in downtown Portland where a trio of Barrow's goldeneye had recently been reported. We didn't see the goldeneye, but did find an Anna's hummingbird (95) as well as the lone redhead (96) that had been reported a week ago. It was in with a large flock of lesser scaup, and nearby were boat loads of mallards, a flock of Canada geese, and a few double-crested cormorants.

So after the last couple days of birding, I'm tied with my dad at 96 species on the year, ahead of Dave for the moment (he sits at 91), and well within range of my goal of 100 species for the month, especially since I'll get to close out the month in the San Juan Islands. This is only my second year keeping a year list, but I like it - not only is the friendly competition fun, but it gets me out there birding more than I would otherwise, which can't be a bad thing!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Birding Around Portland

My dad and I had a couple hours to go bird-watching on Monday morning and we started out going to a wetlands behind the post office in Tualatin. It sounds like an odd place to bird, but in addition to the ring-necked ducks and flock of double-crested cormorants, we were there to see a pair of American white pelicans (77) that had been reported the day before. We see these pelicans occasionally around the Portland area, but this is an odd time of year for them. The population is known for having some fairly localized areas where they are seen with regularity, but the field guide notes that vagrants can "appear almost anywhere". I was happy to see the, as this species is by no means a gimme for the year list:

Next up we went to check out a park in southeast Portland where a large mix of gulls had been reported, including a first-year glaucous gull. Much to our disappointment, there was only a single glaucous-winged gull present, and otherwise the park was extremely quiet bird-wise. We decided instead to head over to Westmoreland Park, which is always good for gulls, but on the way we stopped at the Rhododendron Gardens.

As expected, wood ducks (78) were aplenty at the Gardens:

We also found several Steller's jays (79):

And western scrub-jays, a common species that I don't get a chance to photograph close-up very often:

While scanning the edge of the lake hopeful to pick out a stealthy green heron, we were surprised to see a small flock of greater white-fronted geese (80), a species that eluded me until November of last year. All the other expected waterfowl were present as well, including Canada and cackling geese, American coot, lesser scaup, bufflehead, gadwall, American wigeon, and mallards.

We also came across a large mixed flock of woodland song birds, where I saw my first golden-crowned kinglets (81) for the year. A hummingbird zoomed in quickly for a look at some early blossoms, but I wasn't able to get a good enough look at it to confirm that it was for sure an Anna's hummingbird, the only species that regularly overwinters here.

We continued on to Westmoreland Park, where we were only able to find the glaucous-winged, herring, and ring-billed members of the gull crowd. My disappointment at not picking up another gull species was more than made up for by finding a beautiful pair of Eurasian wigeon (82) in with a flock of American wigeon:

The male Eurasian wigeon stand out in a crowd, but it was nice to get another chance to compare the females of the two species. The most noticeable difference is that the Eurasian female has a brown head and chest, while the American female has a brown chest but a gray head. By the end of the day, I was able to add six more species to the year list.

This afternoon we made a stop at Koll Center wetlands before heading down to the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge just south of here. They've drained the wetlands quite a bit at Koll Center, and there wasn't much activity aside from some common mergansers and green-winged teal. There was a single common teal in with them, already by second of the year! It seemed similarly quiet as we started our hike at Tualatin River NWR, but then we came across a pocket of birds that included dark-eyed juncos, bushtits, and a pair of Bewick's wrens (83). Also nearby was a spotted towhee (84) digging through the leaf litter. I'm surprised this species fell all the way past number 80 for the year!

As we continued walking I asked my dad if he had a pileated woodpecker on his year list yet. He said he didn't. Then, not a minute later, I heard and then we both saw a pileated woodpecker (85) fly over the marsh and land in an oak tree!

The main reason for our visit to the refuge was to see the western screech-owl (86) that has been reliably perching right by the path during the day. I always love seeing owls, but it is especially amazing to see them up close and apparently completely undisturbed by all the commotion of people walking by on the trail. He/she was on the exact same branch that my dad saw him on a couple of weeks ago. Here's the owl snoozing, not paying us the least bit of attention and unwilling to open its eyes to have its photo taken:

Before leaving the wildlife refuge, we took my dad's scope to the wetlands overlook and scanned all the waterfowl, hoping to turn up a cinnamon teal. We didn't, but we did see another pair of Eurasian wigeon (this is the first time I've seen Eurasian wigeon and common teal in the same day!), a pair of bald eagles, a couple red-tailed hawks, and loads of cackling geese:

We still had a bit of daylight left so we decided to swing by Coffee Creek wetlands on the way home. There were several tundra swans out on the lake, along with a big flock of ring-necked ducks, lots of gadwall, and a pair of lesser scaup. The most exciting activity was in the brush alongside the marsh where we found another mixed flock of woodland birds. In the mix were black-capped chickadees, bushtits, golden-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets, and also my first brown creeper (87) of the year.

Tomorrow the plan is to return to Fernhill Wetlands where we participated in the Christmas Bird Count about a month ago. Wouldn't it be nice to find some of the same species there again! Some of my target species include the Lincoln's sparrow, marsh wren, western meadowlark, and Thayer's gull. We'll see how I do!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Year List: Kickin' It Up A Notch

First up, a little bookkeeping to do on the year list. Before leaving New York I added the house finch (42) and hairy woodpecker (43). Then from the train I saw most of the same species I saw on the way east, including the ring-necked pheasant (44), though I missed adding the black-billed magpie. During the last morning on the train in the Columbia River Gorge, a stretch that was dark on the train ride east, I added double-crested cormorant (45), great blue heron (46), western grebe (47), and common merganser (48).

Now that I'm back to a part of the country where the temperatures are well above freezing, there is far more bird activity. With my year list sitting below 50 species halfway through the month of January, it was time to increase my efforts a bit and add some birds to the list, especially if I have any chance of making my goal of 100 species before the end of the month. So yesterday was a full day of birding!

We started out in north Portland where while my dad (who is keeping a year list for the first time this year) was running a couple of quick errands I saw my first glaucous-winged gull of the year (49). A stop at Vanport Wetlands turned up a red-winged blackbird (50), a flock of bushtits (51), a green-winged teal (52), ruddy ducks (53), northern pintail (54), and the first of many western scrub-jays (55) for the day. The nearby Force Lake was pretty quiet, though I did find a pair of pied-billed grebes (56), a flock of golden-crowned sparrows (57), and a single female hooded merganser (58).

Driving to our next spot I saw a flock of Brewer's blackbirds (59) and a northern flicker (60). The black-crowned night-heron (61) that I added to the 2010 year list on Christmas Day was still in its same tree along the Columbia River, this time joined by two others. A lady that came by walking her dog said that the numbers of night-herons usually peaks in late February with as many as 16 of them being seen roosting in the trees. That would be an awesome sight!

Black-crowned night-heron in North Portland

A little further down the river at Broughton Beach we found five killdeer (62) and a pair of horned grebes (63). There was also a western grebe, and multiple huge flocks of lesser scaup. Where pull-outs were available to scan the flocks in detail, we weren't able to turn any of the scaup into the coveted tufted duck.

Our major stop for the day was Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in southern Washington, a refuge that has a great auto tour that's perfect for rainy days like yesterday. As expected, I immediately added some of my missing waterfowl to the list, including northern shoveler (64), gadwall (65), ring-necked duck (66), and American coot (67). Despite the weather, the refuge was very active, and it was one of my slowest circuits ever of the auto tour route as we kept stopping to admire species like purple finches (68) and a patrolling northern harrier (69).

Pair of American coot at Ridgefield NWR

The yellow-rumped warbler, now split into two species, is our only reliable winter warbler, and while I just missed the Audubon's warbler (my dad got to add it to his list!), I did see the Myrtle warbler (70):

Myrtle warbler at Ridgefield NWR

There were lots and lots of hawks at Ridgefield, but despite seeing some that looked a little bit "different" we couldn't determine for sure that any of them were anything but red-tails, with the exception of the one northern harrier we had seen earlier. We got to see a wide variety of color morphs, though, ranging from very light to very dark - potentially even the Harlan's morph that has been reported there lately, though the lighting wasn't great for picking out plumage details. Here is one of the red-tailed hawks just taking flight:

Red-tailed hawk taking flight at Ridgefield NWR

While we weren't able to turn up a rough-legged hawk or anything like that, we did see several bald eagles and this stunning and amazingly cooperative American kestrel:
Male American kestrel at Ridgefield NWR

The end of the auto tour route at Ridgefield turned up a ruby-crowned kinglet (71), a flock of cackling geese (72), and a lone great egret (73).

After a stop for a bite to eat in Vancouver, WA we drove the Old Lower River Road which goes through some farm country and always seems to turn up something interesting. Yesterday was no exception: first I found a common teal (74) among some green-winged teal in a marsh, and then our patience of carefully examining every hawk finally paid off in the sighting of a red-shouldered hawk (year bird 75, NA life bird 341)!!! When I spotted it, the hawks was perched deep in a tree and while I could tell it was different the field marks were hard to see. (Though I did say, "Whatever it is, I've never seen a bird like that before!") It then took flight, and while we only got a brief glimpse it was enough to confirm the ID. It was very orangey overall, and we saw the reddish shoulders and white crescents near the wing tips when it was in flight. A very cool find!!

The clouds made for an early dusk, so before we reached the end of the road it was starting to get too dark to bird. The last species added for the day was a flock of half a dozen sandhill cranes (76) in one of the farm fields. Overall, it was a very successful day with 28 year birds and a life bird to add to the books!

Next up, more birding in the Portland area as I try to catch my year list up to Dave, who at last check was at 90, and my dad, who was sitting at 82.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Train Trip Back Across the Country

The months of the year, from January to June, are a geometric progression in the abundance of distractions....January observation can be almost as simple and peaceful as snow, and almost as continuous as cold. There is time not only to see who has done what, but to speculate why. ~Aldo Leopold

Macro photograph of snowflakes at a station stop in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Near white-out conditions in North Dakota
Snow-covered hay bales in eastern Montana
Sunset in central Montana
Misty morning in the Columbia River Gorge, looking from Washington to Oregon

Monday, January 10, 2011

More Birds in Western New York

They pushed the forecast of snow to tomorrow (I've been amazingly lucky with the weather!), so the weather was nice for some more birding on the way out of Niagara Falls. One place we stopped was Buckhorn Island State Park on Grand Island, where there were hundreds and hundreds of canvasback - far more than I have ever seen in one place:

While watching the canvasback I heard a belted kingfisher (36), and then my attention focused towards some tundra swans (37) a guy in the parking lot told us to look for. I'm really glad he mentioned them, because I almost missed them even though I was looking right at them! Every single one of them had their heads tucked in against the frigid wind which made them look like ice themselves:

Scanning the canvasback some more, I also found some lesser scaup and a single ring-necked duck (38).

Next up we made another stop at Tifft Nature Preserve where the first thing to catch my eye was a white-tailed deer crossing the frozen lake:

The feeders weren't quite as active near the visitor's center, but I did see a solitary white-crowned sparrow (39). I walked a little further up and found more than half a dozen American robins (40) drinking in a small patch of the creek that wasn't frozen:

Then before I got too cold I spent some more time photographing the birds around the feeders. The white-throated sparrows and common redpoll were no where to be found, but I did find a single song sparrow (41) in with the American tree sparrows. Here's another look at one of the tree sparrows:

The abundance of downy woodpeckers again amazed me, as well as their lack of fear:

Speaking of boldness, the black-capped chickadees were clearly used to being hand-fed. They were all around me so I held my hand out and one of them landed on it! It felt weightless. It's always so cool to get such an up-close look at a wild bird. I didn't photograph the chickadees today, but I did finally get a photo of a white-breasted nuthatch after several failed attempts:

In two days I'll catch a train back to the west coast, so depending on what I see in the next couple of days I may not update the blog until back across the country, but we'll see!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Niagara Falls

As we arrived in Niagara Falls last night it was getting dark, but after a delicious dinner at The Como Restaurant we walked over to see the falls lit up. It was stunning with the skyline of Niagara Falls, Ontario in the background:

We got an early start this morning and went for a hike around Goat Island. I was eager to add some birds to the year list and I didn't have to wait long, though I was somewhat surprised to see hundreds of mallards (21) in the rapids of the Niagara River above the falls among the snow and ice.

These clearly weren't your run-of-the-mill mallards because instead of dabbling they were actually diving for something beneath the surface. Not only that, but I saw a female mallard actually go over Niagara Falls and take flight in mid-air. It was far away but I attempted to capture it via photograph. Click to see a larger version, and the blue arrows point to the female mallard:

Near the first mallards I saw were also many ring-billed gulls (22). A small flock of Canada geese (23) flew over, and then I also picked some herring gulls (24) out of the mix. There was a lot of gull activity in general all along the Niagara River, and I finally figured out what they were after when I caught this herring gull in action:

I'm assuming those little fish end up going over the falls?? The gulls were definitely feeding both at the top and bottom of the waterfalls, as well as at other points along the river.

Out at Three Sisters Island I found some common goldeneye (25), and then near Horseshoe Falls I spotted a common loon (26) far below. One thing that amazes me about these falls is not just their size, but the amount of spray that fills the air around them. Here's a look towards Horseshoe Falls from Prospect Point:

During the winter, the mist actually freezes to everything it touches, which makes for some pretty stunning winter scenes. All of the trees downwind, for instance, are coated in a thick ice as a result of the mist. I bet you can guess which side the falls are on relative to this tree:

While I was photographing the icy trees something caught my eye, and much to my surprise it turned out to be a peregrine falcon (27). Then as we continued walking I spotted a very pale gull, which I suspect was a glaucous gull, but unfortunately it disappeared too quickly and I wasn't able to relocate it despite coming back to try again later. I did, however, find a couple great black-backed gulls (28), an eastern species I was hoping to pick up.

Next up we hiked the gorge trails between Devil's Hole and Whirlpool State Parks. Interestingly enough, while this is just a short ways down the river from the falls, none of the same gull species were present. Instead, there was a huge flock of Bonaparte's gulls (29). I was also surprised to come across a lone harlequin duck (30), a rare species for this region, but an ID I was sure of since I see so many back home. Here's a view towards the big whirlpool bowl in the Niagara River canyon:

After climbing out of the gorge I saw one of the black squirrels I had heard about. It turns out these aren't a distinct species, but rather a melanistic version of the eastern gray squirrel. Melanism results in an animal having extremely dark pigmentation, and is the opposite of leucism or albinism. They can be found anywhere eastern gray squirrels occur, but in some places are more common, like they are here near Niagara Falls. This little guy wasn't too interested in being photographed so this was the best I could do:

After a quick pit stop for lunch, I headed back to goat island to try and turn up another gull species. I didn't have any luck in the gull department, but I did find a few American black ducks (31), another great eastern species to add to the list. It was cool that I could compare them directly to the nearby female mallards to make sure of the ID. On the same outing I also spotted a few American wigeon (32), canvasback (33), bufflehead (34), and several large groups of lesser scaup (35).

Here are a couple more views of Niagara Falls in the daytime. The first one includes a rainbow from this morning:

And this one is a close-up view taken from the observation platform at Prospect Point:

By this point I figure I had walked about 5-6 miles and my feet were not too happy about being stuck in snow boots all day. Although I wanted to do some more exploring I was done walking so we decided to drive north to Fort Niagara State Park near Youngstown on the shore of Lake Ontario. It was getting late in the day but we got there in time to see the sunset, and get a nice view of the Toronto skyline in the distance over the ice floes in the lake:

The timing also couldn't have been more perfect to see the Fort Niagara Lighthouse, which was silhouetted against a colorful late afternoon sky and appeared to have its light lit by the rays of the sun:

 All in all it was a great day, with 15 species added to the year list including two (the great black-backed gull and American black duck) that I have only seen once before. Now I am TIRED so it is off to bed (this will post on Pacific Time but remember I am three hours ahead of that - haha). It should be another big day tomorrow, though there are 3 inches of lake effect snow in the forecast so we'll see how much outside time I end up getting.