Monday, 30 August 2010

Birding USA - Part II

Part two of "what I saw on my holidays" or "how I saw the hundred commonest birds in America". I'm afraid that it doesn't get much better than Part I, there's just more of it!

After our couple of days aclimatising in Denver we headed North towards Yellowstone. We'd booked a hotel in a small town called Pinedale which had nothing particularly going for it apart from it was near to where we wanted to go and it had hotel vacancies. On the journey up, as well as countless unidentified buzzards (red-tailed hawks no doubt) there was one turkey vulture sitting on a telegraph pole (I wish I'd gone back to photograph it) and a few American kestrels hunting in the sage prairie lands that stretched as far as the eye could see. Whilst the rest of my family slept in the next morning, I got up early and nipped down to a small park by a river in the centre of Pinedale. There I heard all sort of calling birds that I had no idea what they were but I did managed to nail a few. The black-capped chickadee is the stock titmouse over there and it has a call very similar to a willow tit to which it looks quite similar only larger. I was able to bag a pair of rough-winged swallows flying low up the river. It was useful to compare their size with their smaller violet green cousins who were flying nearby. I also heard and then found my first "shore bird" (wader as we'd call it) in the form of a juvenile spotted sandpiper calling loudly as it worked its way along the river shore. I also found my first warbler: the aptly named and common-place yellow warbler which is more or less yellow all over and which has a quite a distinctive song: "wait! wait! oh-oh-oh now I've got it!" is how I remember it. It likes riparian habitat so was in the right place. Back at the hotel there was a Brewer's blackbird on the roof: a black bird about the size of our black bird but with a bright yellowish eye and a distinctive squared-off tail with the male being a very glossy black and the female a duller brown. I also found a juvenile pine siskin feeding in a small conifer near where I'd parked.

This shows the difficulty of birding in August: a juvenile LBJ with just enough of a hint of yellow in the tail and on the wings for me to guess it's a pine siskin but if anyone thinks differently then let me know

The next day we were heading up through Grand Teton NP and were going to drive through Yellowstone in order to get to our accommodation for the next three days which was a log cabin about half an hour's drive away to the west of the park. On the journey I was able to add cliff swallow (a common square-tailed swallow with a pink rump), wild turkey (yes they do have turkeys roaming around in the wild there), collard dove (another of our common birds which is just recently spreading rapidly across the continent) and osprey. In Grand Teton itself I came across a family of Pinyon Jays near the visitor centre

American has lots of brightly colour blue birds: the Pinyon jay is just one of them

Our log cabin was situated in an area of pine forest and as usual I would get up early each morning before the rest of the family had surfaced to see what I could find. There was lots of small passerines flitting through the trees in feeding flocks and it was challenging birding, especially when one is only getting fleeting glimpses and is not that familiar with the birds in the first place. Still by the end I reckon that I got to grips with most of them. One bird with which I was familiar was the red-breasted crossbill making the same calls as ours do. They were forever flying over the forests and I got close enough views to see their crossed bills on occasion. There was also the dark-eyed junco, a bird that seems to pop up in the UK from time to time: it's like a large dusky chaffinch though they can be rather variable in plumage according to which part of the country they're in. I also found my first New World sparrow in the form of the delightful chipping sparrow which has a lovely chocolate brown cap and makes a quiet "chip" contact call.

The chipping sparrow: this one conveniently posed on top of a tree with the sun in the right place but normally they were hard to photograph

As well as loads of black-capped chickadees there were also mountain chickadees which have a sort of white eye-stripe and a different call. They have three species of nuthatch over there and I encountered the red-breasted nuthatch in amongst the feeding flocks along with a ruby-crowned kinglet (the American version of a goldcrest). I also had my first encounter with the confusing world of the American flycatcher: there are lots of different types and the empidonax family are almost all identical, differing only in subtle shades of colouring and their calls. British birders will recall the American flycatcher that turned up in Nanjizal Valley in Cornwall a few years ago. This was initially reported as either a Willow or an Alder flycatcher and it was only actually by catching it that they were able to tell which it was: that's how hard it is! Anyway, I saw one of these types, it didn't call but I got a record shot and posted it to Birdforum where the consensus seemed to be that it was probably a dusky flycatcher but who knows!

Guess the flycatcher: it's in west Idaho in early August

As far as Yellowstone itself was concerned, it basically involved driving around until you see something, stopping for a photo and a brief look before getting back in the car: it was a bit like being on safari. Whenever an animal such as an elk or buffalo was really close to the road there would be a huge traffic jam as each carload would stop to photograph it before moving on. These jams could last for up to an hour at a time which was rather frustrating. Of course one could go off piste and go hiking but with our four year old it wasn't really going to be an option. In terms of birds we saw a reasonable variety. One I was pleased to catch up with was trumpeter swan, which is a rare swan that breeds in Yellowstone.

To clinch the ID of a trumpeter swan you need to look at the angle that the base of the bill makes: tundra swan has a sharper angle.
You also need to look at the peak of the bill on the crown: here there is a sharp point whereas the tundra swan has a rounded top.

There was also an obliging bald eagle, a fish eating eagle which sometimes will steal from ospreys rather than catching its own food. This one was sitting on the opposite river bank. We also saw quite a few ospreys within the park.

Also seen were great blue heron (like our grey heron), yellow rumped warbler (another common warbler which is grey and streaky but which has a yellow throat and rump), a western tanager (a common mid-sized greeny-yellow bird with a rather stout bill), red-winged blackbird (a large blackbird with a red and white stripe on its wing and a whistling call), American coot, lesser scaup, American wigeon, American dipper and gray jay. Given that our holiday itinerary was going to be mostly deserts I was pleased to catch up with some ducks though they were all in eclipse and skulking around. There is one huge lake in Yellowstone and I found some distant goldeneye and took a record shot. By zooming right in and looking at the head shape I was able to tell that it was Barrow's goldeney rather than "Common" (if nothing else that was a useful ID skill to acquire). The former breed on the lake whereas the latter just winter there I believe.

This juvenile American dipper allowed me to get quite close

At the end of two full days driving around Yellowstone we'd had our fill and were ready to move on somewhere else. It was at this point that our two youngest children (four and twelve years old) got some minor tummy bug so there was occasional stopping on the journey to empty vomit bags - the joys of parenthood! Next time we'll be heading down south towards canyons and deserts.

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