Thursday, December 22, 2016

Harris's Sparrow on the Winter Solstice

     Just a quick blog update

     On the winter solstice, I left work a little early to bird my way home through the 'west valley' in the remaining daylight.  It was clear and beautiful out, and I felt I needed to go birding to honor the shortest day of the year.
     Well, it didn't take long at all! I pulled up to the hedgerow where I usually start birding the west valley, and I got out and within seconds, spotted a Harris's Sparrow!  It's a first-year bird - hatched this summer somewhere in the Canadian arctic, and now found itself in western Montana on its way south.  It was tucked in the bushes with 8 Song Sparrows and 10 or more American Tree Sparrows!  The farmer seems to be dumping old or rotted grain in the bushes, and it's attracted a lot of birds!
     I tried for some photos of the Harris's, but didn't get the stellar shots I was hoping for. The Song Sparrows were more obliging. I plan on going back soon, and maybe the Harris's will stick around for the new year! We'll see!

Harris's Sparrow

Harris's Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Monday, November 28, 2016

Flathead County Gulls on Sunday

      Taking advantage of the nice(ish?) weather on Sunday the 27th, and a free morning, I went up to the landfill to indulge in the challenge that is gull identification!

     Many birds were present, almost a thousand, most being Ring-billed Gulls, as usual. I estimated 150 Herring Gulls, 45 California Gulls and found 1 Mew Gull and 1 Thayer's Gull.  I managed to do quite well in the relm of photographing the gulls, and got some pretty good shots!  I looked and looked, for about an hour, but I did not turn up any "white-winged" or "dark-backed" gulls.  I have been working hard on learning 1st and 2nd-cycle Slaty-backed and Lesser black-backed Gulls in hopes that I can use that to positively ID one! It seems most of those species go unnoticed unless they are full adults.

Here are my best photos from Sunday! Enjoy!

adult Ring-billed Gull

adult Herring Gull (Ring-billed in foreground)

adult California Gull

adult Mew Gull
1st-cycle Herring Gull

1st-cycle Herring Gull

2nd-cycle California Gull

     It was a good day at the dump, and I got to exercise my gull-ID.  I plan on going back many times this winter, and hopefully will find something quite odd!  In the meantime, I will continue to learn new aspects of gull ID! It's a lot to learn!

Friday, November 25, 2016

Black Scoter and more!

     Monday night (the 21st) a local birder and friend messaged me a photo of a duck.  She knew what it was, but wanted confirmation. It was, indeed, a female-type Black Scoter! (female-type refers to the plumage of the bird. Females and young of both sexes looks similar and from less-than-great photos, it's hard to tell them apart)
     I congratulated her on the find and set plans to chase it the next morning! Luckily, she found it on Flathead Lake, at Boettcher Park in Polson. Just a easy 55 mile drive away! I have only seen one Black Scoter before (a female-type also) on the Creston pond in 2014 so this was pretty exciting!

Boettcher Park, polson, flathead lake, boetcher park
Boettcher Park dock - Flathead Lake
     I arrived at the park at 8:14am on Tuesday the 22nd and without even getting out of the car, I spotted the scoter near the dock. A quick look through the windshield with binoculars confirmed it! Success! I got my gear and walked out to the end of the dock. The bird swam a little farther away, leading to sub-par photos of the scoter.

Black scoter, scoter, black scoter montana
Black Scoter
     Watching the bird dive and retrieve food was very encouraging.  Sometimes when a bird is so far out of its normal range/habitat, it can have trouble finding food and may starve.  After getting a lot of great looks at the scoter through the scope, I walked around the park looking for other birds.

     There were 4 Bald Eagles in the park, and one immature bird even made a pass at the scoter! Luckily, it was woefully unsuccessful. Many Canada Geese were in the area, and Eurasian Collared-Doves, European Starlings, and Northern Flickers were moving about in the trees of the park. I found 3 Song Sparrows in the brush just outside the park fence.  Check out my full list of birds for the park HERE

3 of the 4 Bald Eagles present

a portion of the Canada Geese at the park

one of the Song Sparrows

     I left Boettcher Park and headed back north; I did after all, have work to go to.  I made a quick stop at Elmo Bay along Flathead Lake to look for more wayward seabirds and not one minute after arriving I spotted some! 4 White-winged Scoters! I snapped a terrible photo using my phone through the spotting scope and just in time! The birds promptly took off, flying east out of sight.  You can see my full checklist and photo of the scoters HERE

elmo, flathead lake, elmo montana, elmo bay
Elmo Bay - Flathead Lake

     Each scoter were yearbirds for me; bringing my 2016 total to 333 species! Another cool thing is now I have seen all three north american scoter species on Flathead Lake this year!

     You never know what birds might show up, and that is always exciting!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Quest for Quail!

     Andrew Guttenberg, Tom Forwood and I got together Friday night in Missoula for a Saturday of birding in Ravalli and Missoula Counties. Our main target: California Quail. The California Quail in Montana have been introduced to the Bitterroot Valley as game birds for 2 decades, but have since grown to a healthy, self-sustaining population.  Just a few years ago, the California Quail was accepted as a countable species in Ravalli and Missoula Counties.  This is the reason for our Quest for Quail!

     We started Saturday, the 12th, at Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge outside of Stevensville, MT.  Thick fog first concealed the majority of the waterfowl on the ponds but after an hour, the fog started to disappear.

Frost, frost in the field, field of frost
frost in the field

     We walked the Kenai Trail, and found dozens of Song and American Tree Sparrows! It was great to finally see so many sparrows after the last few weeks of a nearly sparrow-less Flathead Valley.

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

Among the many waterfowl on the ponds, were many Green-winged Teal. These are common breeders in Montana and often overwinter were food is available. They, along with most waterfowl, have just molted into alternate (breeding) plumage and are very bright! I couldn't pass up an opportunity to photograph a male in his bright colors.

green winged teal, teal
Green-winged Teal pair. The male still has some brown feathers on his sides from his non-breeding plumage. 
Several Trumpeter and Tundra Swans were also on the ponds at the NWR.
Trumpeter Swans
After getting our fill of birds, including two late Long-billed Dowitchers, a Northern Shrike, and a few Marsh Wrens, we left to look for quail!  You can view our entire bird list for our visit to Lee Metcalf here!

We started our search for the California Quail in the middle of Stevensville, and drove up and down the city streets watching for the birds in yards. We made our way to the roads on the edge of town, and continued through some newer neighborhoods. It wasn't long before Tom spotted a small group in a yard right off the road! We turned around and pulled over, staying in the car, and watched the cute birds for 10 minutes or so! They were feeding under a hanging birdfeeder and along a small hedgerow in a yard off Burnt Fork road.  I snapped away, hoping to get at least one good photo of the birds; and I did, just one photo came out while the rest were just a little blurry.

california quail, quail in montana, quest for quail, california quail in montana
California Quail
These birds were a new Montana state bird for me and Andrew, bringing me to 298!

Okay, so it wasn't much of a 'quest'.  It was pretty relaxed birding all day, but making the trip down to Stevensville to see the quail was a trip I have been wanting to do for a while, and it felt great to see these birds at such close range and for so long. We really got to enjoy their intricate patterns and colors.  It was great to add the the species to my Montana life list, but it was even sweeter to enjoy the beauty of these adorable birds! No matter what species of bird, I always appreciate a chance to share a close encounter with a bird.  Nature is wonderful!

The day ended too soon, and I was driving back to the Flathead that evening to prepare for the next day of hawkwatching in the Jewel basin.  I am looking forward to more birding with Andrew and Tom in the near future!

A rainy-day surprise!

     After much procrastination, I will be making a few blog posts to catch up to present time, starting with this one about my day birding on October 8th, 2016.

     It has been a busy autumn, and I have not had many days of just leisurely birding to myself.  Most days I check a few locales on my way to work or in-between errands, and although I am birding, it always feels rushed. So Saturday, October 8th, I made no plans or commitments other than to spend the day birding.
     The birding was slow, constant drizzling rain was uncomfortable, and the heavy cloud cover made it feel dark all day. Nothing surprising on the water as I checked for loons and scoters in the north bays of Flathead Lake.

     Checking the Flathead River near where it pours into the Flathead Lake, I heard a group of Black-capped Chickadees start to get worked up and loud. I walked over to the thicket where they seemed to be mobbing and looked for an owl. A few seconds pass as I strain my eyes to see into the dense tangle, and then my eyes adjust and MUCH closer to me than I was looking, the shape of an owl appears! Right in front of me! It's a NORTHERN SAW-WHET OWL! My first ever! I'm shaking I run to the car only a few meters away and grab my camera!  The bird was calm and allowed me to get a few good shots of it before I left it in peace.

     What a wonderful surprise! A day I will not forget. This Northern Saw-whet Owl is my 462nd bird species I've ever seen, and my 297th bird for Montana.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Photography Post - end of summer

     As summer is winding down I have been preparing for my big trip to Arizona and Utah. As busy as I have been, I have not forgotten about my blog, and I want to share some of my favorite photos I shot this summer.

Sunrise in Glacier National Park

Morning sun on the Pryor Mountains - viewed from Bighorn Canyon NRA

Sunset at our campsite in the Bighorn Canyon NRA, Wyoming

Stephanie and the Bighorn Canyon at Devil's Overlook.

My lifer Sagebrush Sparrow - Bear Canyon Rd - Pryor Mountains, Carbon County Montana

Stephanie and I enjoying the beautiful Montana mountains!

Early morning sun in Yellowstone NP

Green-tailed Towhee - Park Co, MT

Green-tailed Towhee - Park Co, MT

A skull of some creature on the hillside. Park Co, MT

Yellow-bellied Marmot - Giant Springs State Park - Great Falls, MT

My new adventure car!

evening light on Lake MacDonald - Glacier National Park

Grinnell Glacier and upper Grinnell Lake - Glacier NP

sunrise at Bowman Lake - Glacier NP

Here are a few of my favorites! I hope you enjoy the photos!

Check back to see my next post from southeast Arizona!!

Monday, August 8, 2016

An Owl in the Cemetery

     On thrusday, August 4th, I stopped at the Spring Creek Cemetery along West Valley Road.  I have driven by numerous times and always thought it looked like it may be a good spot for resident and migrating birds.

the Spring Creek Cemetery
     It was a beautiful and cool morning, and I walked around the cemetery looking for small birds.  I was surprised to look up and see a Great Horned Owl sitting 8 feet up in a mature tree, just staring at me. My first thought was "great! what a cool place to find an owl!", then I wondered about the correlation between a cemetery and an owl.

Great Horned Owl - Spring Creek Cemetery

Great Horned Owl - Spring Creek Cemetery

Great Horned Owl - Spring Creek Cemetery

     Here is a passage I found on owls in North American Tribal culture.

"In most Native American tribes, owls are a symbol of death. Hearing owls hooting is considered an unlucky omen, and they are the subject of numerous 'bogeyman' stories told to warn children to stay inside at night or not cry too much, otherwise the owl may carry them away. In some tribes, owls are associated with ghosts, and the bony circles around an owl's eyes are said to be made up of the fingernails of ghosts. Sometimes owls are said to carry messages from beyond the grave or deliver supernatural warnings to people who have broken tribal taboos. And in the Aztec and Mayan religions of Mexico, owls served as the messengers and companions of the gods of death."**


     My belief of the symbol of an owl is nearly the opposite.  I see it as a good omen, a blessing on the day.  To see an otherwise nocturnal bird with quiet and secretive habits, I believe, is great!  The owl makes its living trying to not be detected, so finding one, especially in the day, is a good blessing. Maybe it has to do with the owl being outsides its relm, and into one we have dominated, that makes it seem special to me.  It feels like a visitor, and if I were to spot an owl at night, I sure would feel like the outsider then!

     I hope anyone who is reading this can appreciate what it takes to find and see an owl during the day, and make your own idea of what it means to you to see an owl.

**Source of the above quote:

A quick trip out east!

the Rocky Mountain Front as viewed from east of Browning
     This year has been the best year I've had in a while, and it's only half over!  I've found my groove again, and have been birding every chance I get, along with just about every other outdoor activity one can do in this great state!
     With all the birding and trips I've taken so far, I have amassed a personal Montana bird list larger than any other year!  Being on such a role, I decided to try and keep it going by running out to the NE of Montana and looking for the prairie specialists I have not seen this year.

     I set out Wednesday the 13th for Malta.  The plan is to camp in Malta Wed. night and bird Bowdoin first thing in the morning, moving to the surrounding area in the late morning/early afternoon before driving home (a 6 hour drive!).

     On the way to Malta, once I got to the east side, I saw several Ferruginous and Swainson's Hawks!  I have seen these species earlier this year, but no one can get tired of seeing a Ferruginous Hawk!
     Somewhere east of the small town of Inverness, I happened to spot a Swainson's Hawk nest along the highway!  I stopped to snap some pictures and left in a timely manner as to not disturb the birds.  The parents were not happy that I stopped to check them out!

Swainson's Hawk nest with 2 young
     In this cropped in photo, you can see 2 young hawks, and a ripped-apart ground squirrel hanging from one of the branches! 

     Just east of Chinook, I turned north onto Bagan Road.  This is a good, known spot to find Sprague's Pipit, Baird's Sparrows and other prairie specialists.  I decided to check it out on my way east, just in case I miss Sprague's or Baird's elswhere, I can at least try for them on Bagan Rd.
     The first half mile goes through some lush fields and crosses a river with thick riparian habitat around it.  After that, the road climbs a hill and plateaus on the native shortgrass prairie.  Almost immediately after I stopped and stepped out of the car, I heard a singing Sprague's Pipit!  The first year bird of the trip!  There were a few Lark Buntings and Loggerhead Shrikes along the road, and Vesper and Grasshopper Sparrows singing in the field, but I did not hear a Baird's Sparrow.  I could have spent hours here but I was running out of time if I wanted to make camp in Malta before the sun went down!
     Driving back to the highway, just after the river, I spotted a female oriole on the fence.  I hit the brakes and skidded to a stop and craned out the window with my binoculars.  Here, it could be a Baltimore Oriole or a Bullock's.  Sure enough, it was a female Baltimore Oriole! Second year bird of the trip!  She flew to a shrub, and I got out and walked closer to get a better look.  I discovered 4 more orioles, including an adult male!  It was a family group with 3 juveniles! I managed a few poor shots to record this sighting!

adult male Baltimore Oriole
juvenile Baltimore Oriole

     After snapping a few shots of the orioles, I was back on the highway, with another hour to go before I reached Malta.

     Making it to Tafton Park around 8:30pm, I found a good spot and set up camp. It was quickly getting dark as I took a quick walk around camp after the tent was up.  Gray Catbirds, American Robins, Western Kingbirds, and Common Nighthawks were the abundant birds as it got dark.  Sometime in the middle of the night, I awoke to an Eastern Screech-Owl calling in a tree fairly close to my tent!  I laid in tent, half away, wondering if I should get up and try to see the owl as it would be a lifer if I saw it.  Unfortunately, my half awake/half asleep brain prioritizes more sleep above all else, and I fell back asleep.  In the morning, and throughout the day, I kicked myself for not getting up! I could have seen a screech-owl, and a lifer at that!  Maybe next time...

      I got out of town, and made it to Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge (7 miles east of Malta) around 5:50am.  It was a beautiful and calm morning, lots of birds about, and no shortage of mosquitoes!
     One of my main target birds, the Nelson's Sparrow, has been seen on the south end of the driving route, which I found out was CLOSED! Yeah, the auto tour route was closed at the railroad crossings, effectively blocking access to the area the Nelson's Sparrow is.  I drove down the sw portion of the route to see just how much area I can access before the RR tracks.  Also, this section is the area the Sedge Wrens have been found, which was my other top target bird.  They inhabit dense and tall wet Timothy grass fields, and once I reached the first patch of good habitat, I stopped the car and got out to see what I could find.  Almost immediately, I heard a singing Sedge Wren, and saw an additional bird foraging fairly close to the road!  I grabbed my camera and spished the bird to a higher perch and snapped some record shots!

Sedge Wren

Sedge Wren
     I have only seen the Sedge Wren 2 other times; once in Florida (Feb. 2008), and once in North Dakota (Jun. 2008).  This means it's a new Montana state bird for me, bringing my personal state list to 291!
     Continuing east on the auto tour route to 'Patrol Pond', I counted 11 total Sedge Wrens!  That's huge! These habitat specialists are fairly uncommon in eastern MT and to find a local breeding population with this many birds is great! Records from earlier in the season at Bowdoin have only counted 2 to 3 birds.  I believe the early morning with calm weather allowed me to locate more birds that would have been possible later in the day and/or with stronger winds.

     After reaching the end of the line, where the road meets the railroad tracks, I turned around and headed back to the other end of the auto-tour route.  after about the first half mile or so, the route opens up to grasslands and great views of the main lake.  I heard singing Sprague's Pipits, Grasshopper Sparrows, and a few Baird's Sparrows!  The Baird's Sparrows, although they never showed themselves, were my next yearbird!  Slowly, I'm getting the prairie specialties I set out to find.   

The natural prairie that surrounds the lake

A passable photo of one of the many Grasshopper Sparrows I encountered
A photogenic female Lark Bunting along the auto tour route

    Where the route gets closer to the road, I had good views of the resident birds that breed on or near the water.  Franklin's Gulls, American Avocets, Black-necked Stilts, White-faced Ibis, and Willets were plentiful.
White-faced Ibis
Franklin's Gull
American Avocet
     On this stretch of the route, I spotted a small group of shorebirds on the close shore.  Looking through them, I spotted one that was larger than the Semipalmated Sandpipers near by.  A Sanderling!  A great unexpected find!  Until that moment, I have not seen a Sanderling in the state, making that my state bird #292!
     Working my way back along the route after turning around at the train tracks again, I spotted a Short-eared Owl in a shrub!  It's always a good day when you see an owl, especially close enough for a photo!
Short-eared Owl
     Finishing my time at Bowdoin NWR, I set off for Bentonite Road southwest of Glasgow, MT.  There I hoped to find the resident Mountain Plovers.
I started down the road at about 2pm after the hour drive from Malta.  It was sunny but there were rain clouds on the horizon.  The road starts out in agricultural fields and then moves to all native short-grass prairie.  In the first stretch, I was lucky enough to snap a photo of one of the most striking sparrow species we have in Montana; the Lark Sparrow.
Lark Sparrow
     Moving down the road, I encountered several Lark Buntings, Vesper Sparrows and a small herd of Pronghorn.
Vesper Sparrow with a meal
3 of the 15 or so Pronghorn along Bentonite Road.

     Unfortunately, a rainstorm was fast approaching, and a local stopped me to warn me that the road because impassable in the rain.  I turned around and abandoned the search for the Mountain Plovers, but not before get a shot of the storm that stopped my search.
The big and beautiful storm that halted my quest for Mountain Plover

     I returned to Glasgow, joined Montana Highway 2, and headed home.  On the 6 nearly 7.5 hour drive home, I saw several Ferruginous Hawks, Loggerhead Shrikes, and Western Kingbirds.  The beauty of the northeast Montana prairie always amazes me.  I will be back; I don't know how soon, but I will be back.

Sunset on the Montana praires (taken just east of Browning)