Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Mew Gulls

Flathead Lake, MT

Today, Thanksgiving Eve, I wandered around the valley birding. Remember the Mew Gulls I found the other weekend at the landfill? They are still there, and then some. Dan Casey counted 4 Mew Gulls at a time. Today, right away with out even a hard search, I found 2 Mews. I got close enough that I can phonedigiscope some semi-Internet worthy shots of one of the Mew Gulls.
At the main area, there was hundreds of gulls!! Mostly Ring-billeds as usual, but many Herring and at least 2 adult Thayer's and a few California Gulls. I did not find a Glaucous Gull, but I did find a Herring that REALLY fit the bill for a European Herring Gull! Like identical to one of the birds in "Gulls of the Americas". I could not grab any photos of this bird.
One of the Ring-billed found a huge chunk of misc. biological matter in the garbage, and was trying to scarf it down. I got these shot of his failed attempt. Enjoy!

The Ring-billeds weren't that shy, and some walked closer to me then where they landed.

But then flew!

I wandered down the "west valley", but there was not much to report from here except a few American Pipits on Church Rd.
I went to Foy Lake again to check on the Scoters and there they were. 2 White-winged Scoters! That is pretty cool! Here is a phonedigiscope shot of the female. Also, I had a few Townsend's Solitares and a few Eared Grebes on the lake.

On Foy Lake Road, on my way to Flathead Lake, an AMERICAN THREE-TOED WOODPECKER flew across the road! That is only the second time I have ever seen one. I love those birds.
The sun came out and the water was still on Flathead Lake today. I could see REALLY far out onto the lake with my scope under these conditions. There was a few Common Loons, Red-necked Grebes, and Horned Grebes. Along on of the roads over looking Somers Bay I had a small flock of Bohemian Waxwings fly over! FIRST OF THE SEASON!

I went back home via the "lower valley" and got this shot of a Rough-legged Hawk

At Church Slough, viewed from the new fishing access, there was a large number of Swans, mostly Tundra Swans, but I did find at least 6 Trumpeter Swans. Also, quite a few Ring-necked Ducks and a few Greater Scaup.

Good Birding


Monday, November 23, 2009

Birding the coast near TACOMA, WA.!!!!!!!!!!!!

I love my mother. First, she is very supportive of my passion for birds and birding, and secondly she has a "job" that seems to have meetings and conferences in very, very birdy spots. She once took a ministry trip to Peru and Israel. Unfortunately, I wasn't old enough to tag along, and ever since I was, she hasn't gone on any great adventures. She has, although, been invited and traveled in the country. This November, she had a gig in Tacoma!! What a birdy area!! Next summer we might go to eastern Oklahoma, and again to Puget Sound!

The 20th, 21st, and 22nd my family and I would be driving to, hanging around and driving back from TACOMA, WA!!! Luckily her deal was a women's thing, so my dad, little sister, and I had a whole day to "wander" around.

We arrived at Dave and Diane Norman's house ( the very kind folks, and friends of moms, that we stayed with) after dark, so the morning was when I would see Tacoma for the first time.

The first Washington bird that I would not see in MT was an ANNA'S HUMMINGBIRD!!! Yearbird!! I was informed that Bushtits frequent their feeders, but we had other birds to see, and couldn't wait for the Bushtits to show.

Our first stop was the Des Moines Marina, and fishing pier. The sound area is COVERED with Glaucous-winged Gulls. That was a very cool thing. I had only seen one before this.

The next few shots are of the various ages of gull present.
^^ Third cycle Glaucous-winged Gull
^^ Head shot of a first-year bird
^^ Wing tip study shot
^^ wing pattern shot. Great stuff, these birds.
Also, there was one Glaucous winged X Western Gull hybrid. Not the DARK EYE, LIGHT back, and FADED-like wingtips.

I was really hoping to see a Black Scoter at this spot, as in the Birdfinders guide to Washington noted that this spot was great for scoters. It was!! There was a large flock of SURF SCOTERS!! This was great! I had only seen one juvenile last year, and now I got to see adult males!! Next to the Surfs, were 3 WHITE-WINGED SCOTERS!!! Again, this was GREAT to see the males!! I absolutely love those marvelous birds. I got this crummy shot with my phone's camera through my spotting scope.
^ male White-winged Scoter
The pier extends out a ways past the rocky levy, or what ever you call that thing ( we have very few oceans in MT, and thus my ocean-life vocab is a bit lacking) so, I could view the group of cormorants roosting on the back side. Scanning, they all seemed to by Double-crested, but one bird pulled his head out from under his wing and, sure enough, he had a DARK bill, and a creamy throat patch!! WOO HOO!! A BRANDT'S CORMORANT!!!!! The first lifer for the trip!! I could not get a good enough phonedigiscope shot, so I drew a quick field sketch of the head region. Very cool!! I love getting new birds! Not for the one digit on the tally, but for the intimate moment my mind is racing and gathering all the first-hand knowledge possible from this encounter. There is something magical about getting a lifer. Finally, all you read is put to the test, and you can finally judge which field guide paintings most accurately depict this bird. I LIVE for those moments, where you can match what you have seen in books to the real thing, and sometimes, it is a great surprise. When I got my lifer Northern Gannet, I was shocked!! I didn't realize how massive those birds are!!! I cherish those moments.

After my sister and dad had their fill of "seagulls and water" (which didn't take long) I was ushered to the car, and we zoomed off to the next stop along the sound.
Saltwater State Park: temperate, and magic rainforest meets the sound. Cool stuff. In the brush and forest, I searched for Golden-crowned Sparrows, but didn't find any. I did, however, get some AMAZING looks at Winter Wrens. Good Stuff.
On the water, there was the usual. Well technically, I can't say that. I have no idea was the usual is. They were just the same species I saw at the last stop, and seem common. Nothing wrong with those species, but I could see the same mix back home (save the 2 common scoters). Just before we left, 2 ladies carrying binoculars and a scope walked up. This might not totally point to birders, but when I saw they investigated an odd Song Sparrow song, I felt I must introduce myself. They were very kind, and we talked local birds as we scanned the water.
^^ I got this shot of a crow after meeting the two ladies. It was a "northwestern" crow, but I am not sure whether to count it as a separate species. Sibley indicates Am. Crows in that area sound deeper and hoarser then eastern ones, getting dangerously similar to the Northwestern, thus brushing up against the question, should it be a separate species? I will create poll for my blog, and I will go with the majority vote.
Again, I was about to depart the locals, when I spotted a small bird buzzing off the waters surface. Thinking it was a Bufflehead, I drew my binoculars and saw that I was wrong. AN ALCID!! I quickly got on it with my scope as one of the gals says there is an alcid flying left to right. Through my scope I could easily tell it was a PIGEON GUILLEMOT!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Another lifer!!! This is fantastic!!! I was thinking I wouldn't get an alcid (birder slang short for the family Alcidae - containing Puffins, Auklets, Murres, Murrelets and Guillemonts)
^^Field sketch of a nonbreeding bird, same as we saw
Our next stop was Point Brown's Lighthouse, nearing the Port of Tacoma, and Commencement Bay. This place was pretty bare, not even scoters. The only interesting bird was an especially interesting bird in my mind. A lifer in fact!!!!!! A PELAGIC CORMORANT!!! This was cool. This bird was close, and I got to view the details of its head and bill that made it what it was. Here is a sloppy picture, again with my phone, and a sketch following it of the bill and head. The bird I saw was an immature bird.

I was being rushed once again, I long for the day I can travel interstate with my own schedule.
The last stop was my most anticipated. The pullouts along Marine View Drive, over looking the log booms in Commencement Bay.
The first new animal was a small group of NORTHERN SEA LIONS hauled out on a buoy!! Much cooler then some of the birds, as the sea lion can't be blown off course in migration and end up in MT like the scoters ( I have seen the 2 common ones on the same lake here)
At the first stop, viewing the main log booms there was HARBOR SEAL hauled out on the logs!!!!!! Even cooler then the Sea Lions!!! I can;t express how amazing these animals are!!
Back to the birds: I scanned the logs leading up to the main area filled with birds. Along the smaller logs, I found a BLACK TURNSTONE!!!!!!!!! This, along with Golden-crowned Sparrow was my most wanted bird for the trip. I got another crummy phone photo.
On the main part, many more Harbor Seals were hauled out, and HUNDREDS of gulls were roosting along with a few Double-crested and Brandt's Cormorants. (I did indulge in gawking at the Brandt's again, such cool birds) The gulls were mostly Mew and Bonaparte's Gulls. We rarely ever get Mew Gulls, so this aspect was also very cool!!
At the next long boom, which was much closer, there was MANY more Harbor Seals, and almost NO birds. My sister, dad and I got to look at the seals through the scope until we had our fill. I got some semi decent shots of them, along with another Black Turnstone!!! In all, I saw maybe 6 Black Turnstones!!! A total blessing in my book.

At this pull-out, I heard a chickadee-like call note. It sounded sharper, and less varying. I turned, and saw a BUSHTIT just feet from me!!! Great looks at another lifer!!!!!!! I ran to get my camera, and nabbed a shot before it disappeared across the street and up the hill.
This was the last pure birding stop of the day. We visited the Point Defiance Zoo/Aquarium and I got my lifer Pacific Octopus!! Very amazing! No new birds around Point Defiance Park and 5 mile drive, although it was getting very dark and late. Our hosts were totally delighted to see and hear about my adventures that night.
We were to leave in the morning, and thus I only had on more chance to get my lifer Golden-crowned Sparrow. I NEEDED that bird. I love sparrows and that was my last Zonotrichia ( a group of similar and large American sparrows) to get.
That morning it was raining off and on (a surprise for western WA, not!). I could not travel by car so walking around the neighborhood was my last hope. Luckily they live in a VERY birdy area south of Tacoma called Parkland. Not even one block away, I heard some sparrow chirps. In the coarse of my investigation, I discovered a BEWICK'S WREN in the same tree!!!!!!!! LIFER!! For some reason, no matter what new area I go to, I always get at least one unexpected lifer. Last July in New Hampshire it was White-winged Scoter, now this. Of course I knew it was a possibility, but it wasn't very common, and I didn't visit any "suitable" habitat.
Just minutes after seeing the wren, I finally located the mysterious sparrows. GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 2 first-year birds just sitting in the open for minutes on end, letting me examine them intricately!!!!! Mission a success!!!!!! Now, I can leave Washington, for now. I will be back. . . . . .

We went through Seattle on our way home. ^Seattle Space Needle.

Something about birding the coast. . . . . . . it is mystical to me. I can feel the fact that most coasts have a higher chance of holding a mega-rarity or an intercontinental rarity more common then a mega. I am not sure, but I know I want to live on/near the coast. Doesn't really matter what coast, just some coastline.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Gulls in Montana

Today (Saturday) was the first "big" snow of the season. We had about 3 or 4 inches everywhere, to bad it didn't stay long. Now just the always shady spots have snow. With the great snow, I just HAD to go out and see what birds were stirring in the snow. Turns out that the snow was extremely localized and 5 miles from my house had no snow and no where else had snow either.

I went to the Landfill as usual this time of the year, and there was HUNDREDS of gulls present. A good portion of the gulls where down on the water of the rain ponds that hold the toxic water from the seepage of water thru the mound of garbage. Scoping them out, there was mostly Ring-billed Gulls, with a few Californias. Scanning, I found a MEW GULL out in the open!! That wasn't hard at all!! Just sitting there. That was a yearbird for me. Just as I was about to leave, a SECOND Mew Gull walks into view!! 2 birds!! WOO HOO!!!

After getting my fill of those birds, I checked the other sections of the roosting birds on the active dumping area and the roosting area. Here, the numbers of California Gulls have dropped and the number of Herring Gulls has increased. The usual movement of birds this time of year. The first-year GLAUCOUS GULL was still there, and a few first-year THAYER'S GULL as well. I did, however, find two adult THAYER'S GULLS. For some reason, adults are less common then the first-years, or they just slip under the radar most of the time.

Ring-billed Gull in flight

Here is a shot I took of a group of gulls and until I scared a few away, I didn't realize one add ball bird. This is actually one of the last shot I took of the group, it took me a while to notice the other gull in the group, must have been hidden by the 4 or so Ringbilleds that left. Can you pick out the other bird with out scrolling down for the answer?

This can be a quick, easy quiz. Just look at the basic parts of gulls. I think of gulls as mix and match birds with a certain code. They all have wings, tails, legs, eyes, bills, wingtips, and backs. But each species has a different code of those parts. There are light wings and dark wings, light eyes and dark eyes, light backs and dark backs, yellow legs and pink legs. A certain code or order of these variables equals one species, or at least a few similar species, then you need to use other, more detailed marks.

Here is a cropped image, does this help?

Light eyes and one dark eyed bird. There is the first hint. All have black "rings", but one doesn't. There is the next hint. Darker back then the rest. These, and a few other marks cropped off in this image equal MEW GULL. A third bird! That is a good day if you ask me.

Ring-billed Gull profile shot

Leaving the dump cold and hands totally numb, I wondered the usual route through the "west valley". Not much to report, but in the pond off of Church Rd, there are still hundreds of Mallards.
I checked Foy Lake again, and the WHITE-WINGED SCOTER was still present at the north end of the lake. More and more Common and Barrow's Goldeneye keep showing up, there must have been almost 50 - 60 birds all together.
I then headed to Flathead Lake, and scanned Somers Bay in the hope of finding a Pacific Loon, but dipped on that. There was one WESTERN GREBE, one RED-NECKED GREBE and one COMMON LOON.
Dan invited me to his house for a bit in Somers, and we talked birds, and scanned more of the lake to find a raft of coots and REALLY distant gulls. We ended up watching a trio of BALD EAGLES play fight around.

I am taking a short trip to TACOMA, WASHINGTON this coming weekend!!!!!!!!!!!!!! WOO HOO!!! This will be amazing!!! I will have birding time, and plan on going to many of the local hotspots, but always would love some more help. If anyone has any advice about shore and seabirds in that area or the "coastal" land birds like Golden-crowned Sparrow, please feel free to email me at

Good Luck Birding


Sunday, November 8, 2009

Same route as last week, but a GREAT surprise!

This time I was alone, but still got some great birds!!

This Saturday(7th) I went to the landfill, and checked on the gulls. No new arrivals, the same first-year GLAUCOUS GULL, and a few young THAYER'S GULLS, but nothing new.

In the west valley, I saw a few ROUGH-LEGGED HAWKS, but no shrike. At the house above the ponds on Church Rd, a group of about 10 GRAY PARTRIDGE ran across the road put on a great show in the person's front yard. The birds were shortly joined by a pair of EURASIAN COLLARED-DOVES. These birds are becoming increasingly common in this part of MT, as the first one got here only a few years ago.

The pond still had the number of MALLARDS and PINTAIL, but no other ducks, and no swans, but about 100 CANADA GEESE joined them. At least one looked like it could be a larger subspecies of CACKLING GOOSE, but just hard to tell, you know?....

This time I checked Foy Lake. Good idea. The first bird on the lake was quite far, but just checking through the binoculars revealed the shape of a duck, maybe a scoter species. For some very odd reason, that is all I had to do, and I KNEW it was a scoter. just some how, I KNEW it was a scoter just by a very crappy long distance view through the binoculars.
I grabbed my scope out of the van, and was ready to reveal the species. It was dark black/brown with some white washy areas on the face. Well, that sure helps.... All scoters look like that is some plumage or another. But the shape of the head dismissed Black. Then the bird stretched and flapped its wings. WHITE! It was a WHITE-WINGED SCOTER!!!! WOO HOO!! STATE BIRD!!! This beautiful Female White-winged Scoter cautiously swam closer and closer, and soon was close enough to get a photo using the built in camera on my new cell phone through the scope. What would that be called? . . . digicellscoping? celldigiscoping? cellular digiscoping?

A great day of local "patch" birding


Monday, November 2, 2009

A little valley birding

It has been awhile since I have gone birding, just plain birding, and Sunday I got to do just that.

Dan Casey and I met at the county landfill (gull haven) to see what was up. Now is about the start of the "gull season" when more and more odd gulls show up at our county landfill. Today there where maybe 1,000 birds!!! The first bird that wasn't of the very common usual 3 species (ring-billed, Herring, California) was a juvenile GLAUCOUS GULL. This was a classic and beautiful first-year bird.

All photos are Dan Casey's. I try not to take credit for others' work.

For some odd reason, it is always hideously cold at the dump, maybe 10 to 20 degrees colder then the rest of the valley depending on the windchill. We looked over the rest of the gulls, and the only other odd balls, were a few juvenile/first-year THAYER'S GULLS. These are more common then the Glaucous but still a very uncommon bird for the entire state.

After The gulls, I wandered down the "west valley" of the Flathead Valley and saw a few open country, winter birds such as a few ROUGH-LEGGED HAWKS, and a NORTHERN SHRIKE - my favorite of the two NA shrikes. The larger pond along Church Road was FULL of birds!! There must have been 300-500 MALLARDS, 50 NORTHERN PINTAIL, 2 BLUE-WINGED TEAL, 2 NORTHERN SHOVELER, and 1 GREEN-WINGED TEAL. Also, there was 2 small flocks of TUNDRA SWANS.

I was then going to check Foy Lake for some kind of seaduck, as it is one of the most reliable spots in the county for LTDuck or scoters, but Dan Casey was just there after we checked the dump, and said there was almost no action. I will check it next week.

Great to be birding again!!!!