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.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Birding USA - Part I

As promised, this is when I get to bore you with my holiday snaps! Indeed there are so many of them that I'm going to have to split it up into different parts, so this is just part one. You have been warned!

I've been thinking about this report and I'm not quite sure how to pitch it. The fact is that any birders with experience of birding Stateside are going to find my sightings laughable: I realise that I've basically managed to see a few of the commonest birds in the States and to take some rather rubbish photos of some of them. It would be the equivalent in the UK of reporting how one day I saw a blue tit and the next day a magpie and here's a blurry photo . Nevertheless, I've found it most educational learning about the differences and similarities between US and British birds and whilst my sightings are commonplace I've certainly enjoyed getting to grips with all the identification issues so I'm going to pitch this at the level of someone with only limited American birding experience in the hope that they find it at least a little educational.

This was a family holiday in the form of a road trip: starting out at Denver where we have friends we were to head north to Yellowstone NP, spend a couple of days there then head south via Salt Lake City down to Bryce and Zion Canyons and the Grand Canyon, then west to Lake Powell, west to Moab (visiting Arches and Canyonlands NP's) and then west back to Denver. I wasn't bringing my scope so just had bins, my point & shoot camera, the Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America and the Audubon Birds iPhone app. We were going to be there for the last few days in July through to mid August which is not a great time to be birding inland: you've got lots of difficult juvenile birds without the benefit of getting to see any passage waders. In hindsight I discovered that the Sibley Western NA guide (there's an Eastern one as well) omitted many of the juvenile plumages in order to save space which was rather annoying and perhaps I should have gone for the full pan-American version instead. I did have one other resource at my disposal in the form of access to the Birdforum Bird Identification thread. If I was stuck I would post a photo and in a very short time one would often have back the ID. This helped tremendously with some tricky problems.

Incidentally, I'm sure that I've got a few ID's wrong on this trip and if anyone spots any howlers either in the text or with the photos please let me know and I'll correct them.

Birding In and Around Denver
I was keen to see what my first American bird would be though in the event it was an American crow at Denver airport, shortly followed by a feral pigeon. We were staying in downtown Denver where there was not much birding to be had though I did discover that although there are several dozen tricky New World sparrows to get to grips with, all I could find was our very own house sparrow over there and thriving.

I was keen to see any form of bird life so I decided to get up early and go for a run to see what I could find. Incidentally Denver is known as the mile high city as its elevation is at least 6000 feet so running at this altitude left one somewhat breathless. I managed to find a park where I soon unearthed the ubiquitous American robin which is of course dead common over there. As I'm sure readers will already know it's actually quite a large thrush rather than a robin but apparently the first settlers were keen to name birds after things they knew back home in Britain hence the rubbish name. I also found a pair of nesting mourning doves which are like small collard doves with very long tails.

The American robin

I found a small patch of scrubby grass in which were feeding some house finches and a female American goldfinch. I was excited to see the house finch after all the hoohaa of the Prawle bird back in the UK but they are actually pretty common and I came across them everywhere.

The male house finch has a red crown and breast; the female is just brown and streaky

A female American Goldfinch

Further on on my run I came across a double-crested cormorant and a mallard and by a small river I found a common grackle rummaging about by the shoreline. These birds are similar to magpies or jays in their foraging habits but are all black with a long wedge-shaped tail and a thick bill.

A common grackle

There was not much else to see in Denver itself though I did manage to see some swallows. In the US the only bird which is called a martin is the purple martin. Instead they have quite a few swallows some of which basically look very similar to house martins. I came across tree swallows and violet-green swallows on my travels: they differ in the extent to which the white under-tail covers wrap around to the top: tree swallows have a small white indent whereas the violet-green almost have a complete white rump and the males are an iridescent green colour. They also have our barn swallow zipping around all over the place.

A tree swallow - basically looks like a house martin

I also added starling: a hundred of these birds were released in Central Park by a homesick settler and the population has now swollen to millions of them all across the country. (incidentally the same thing happened with house sparrows). Perhaps the most interesting bird was one I spotted on Denver Station roof. It was rather colourful and like nothing we get in the UK at all so I took some very distant photos and posted them to Birdforum where I quickly got back the reply that it was a western kingbird (a kind of large thick-billed flycatcher). By the end of the trip I was sufficiently au fait with US birds that I would have been able to identify it myself but it was nice to have a helping hand at the beginning.

The next day we went on a drive out to Mount Evans, part of the Rocky Mountains with a peak elevation of over 14,000 feet. Being America you can drive all the way up without getting out of the car if you want (apart from the last few feet). Near the top there was a fantastic lake with a glacier and perfect arctic tundra habitat. There were all sorts of amazing wild flowers and if you'd seen a photo of it you'd think you were in the tundra with small pools and short grass - I was expecting a phalarope to come swimming round the corner any minute! Apart from the plentiful ravens there were also quite a few American pipits (anthus rubescens - what we call a buff-bellied pipit in Britain) which breed in tundra habitat. You also get white-tailed ptarmingan up on Mount Evans though we didn't see any. Unfortunately the altitude got to my VLW who nearly fainted and had to be taken back down again whilst the rest of us drove up to the peak. However the weather had closed in by then and there was nothing but cloud and rain up there.

A juvenile American pipit (buff-bellied to you and me). There were quite a few colourful adults around as well. There are not actually many species of pipit in the US so identification is relatively easy.

On the journey back I was able to add black-billed magpie (not as common as over here though I saw plenty of them - they also have a yellow-billed variety in California) and red-tailed hawk. I found raptors to be a bit of a nightmare: the RT hawk is basically a buzzard which has the same bewildering array of plumage variations as ours do. Whilst driving along we'd see loads of buzzard-type birds and in the end I gave up and called them all red-tailed hawks. This is probably not too far off though I reckon that I must have missed quite a few more interesting ones in amongst them.

That about wraps up the first stage. The next leg of the journey was going to be an all-day drive north towards Yellowstone.

Patch Resurrection & Some Good County Birds

I'd come back from the USA (I'm going to publish the account soon, honest) to find my patch, Port Meadow, still as dry as a bone and largely birdless. However this week we've had quite a bit of rain and on Wednesday I went out for a very late evening walk on the Meadow (it was actually basically dark) where I found it to be rather pleasantly boggy. It was also interesting to see what birds were roosting on the Meadow and I was amazed to find several hundred mallard all hanging out and feeding away in the twilight. It was sufficiently boggy for me to think of visiting the next day to see if I couldn't find at least something of interest. Low and behold the next morning the floods were back! I don't quite know how this happened as there'd not been much additional rain overnight but there quite a good amount of water, certainly sufficient to be attractive to a passing passage wader. I can only think that there is either some sort of draining affect whereby water from the surrounding land drains down to the low area where the floods are or alternatively there must be some sort of underground water movement whereby water runs along an underground level and then seeps up in certain areas. This latter theory is not as far fetched as it might sound: someone who knew what they were talking about was explaining it to me a while ago, how there is this subterranean water table which runs along the Meadow and how there is a layer of impermeable rock which holds the water in its place or something. Anyway, I wasn't complaining and immediately decided to switch back into "check the Meadow every day" mode.

The next day (Friday) I'd mentally decided to head out late there afternoon but a text from Bird Guides reporting an avocet on the Meadow at around 2pm had me quickly changing plans and heading straight down there. From the Burgess Field gate I soon found the bird, asleep on the north shore, and I also spotted an unidentified birder watching it from a distance, presumably the finder. At this point a couple of walkers who were heading south across the Meadow towards the gate found that they couldn't get through because of the deep flood water there (this often catches people out) and so decided to circumnavigate the flood water by walking right along the shoreline! Of course everything flushed including the avocet but fortunately a few minutes later it was back in its spot so I decided to head to the other side to see if I could get some photos. On the way I caught up with the other birder: a county birder called Peter Stronach with whom I had a pleasant chat. I managed to take some photos and sent a few texts out to local birders who might be interested though unfortunately it didn't stay too long and was reportedly no longer around an hour later so not many other people were able to catch up with this elegant wader.

This was the best I could manage for the avocet: the usual excuses of the distance, the difficulty of focusing on a black and white bird and the fact that it was either asleep or moving around rapidly.

Here's some video footage of it having a wash and preen.

The next day I checked the Meadow as usual though there were no passage waders and the highlight was a passing wheatear. Back home, my daughters had been pestering me for a Morton's sandwich for lunch (a treat we sometimes indulge in for Saturday lunch) and I'd agreed to go and get them in. I'd just stepped out of the house when I heard the mewing call of a buzzard and looked up to see four birds circling really high over the house. I nipped back in and got my bins and gave them a good grilling: one of them caught my attention so that I stayed there watching them for as long as they were in sight. I even managed to get my scope out and on the bird for a minute or so. Here's what I saw: the buzzard in question had a noticably longer tail than I'd expect for a common, a small sticking-out head, more rounded wings (more like a hawk than a buzzard) and what looked like a much more rounded tail: indeed the outer tail feathers were very short compared to the others which gave the rounded effect. When I got the scope on it I couldn't see any distinguishing marks other than some dark areas on the wings, it otherwise being a rather pale bird. This bird was being harassed occasionally by one of the other birds so that it would tumble to get out of its way. They were circling over the house for a few minutes before drifting off to the west, perhaps to Wytham Hill to gain height. After I'd done my lunch run (and eaten it) I called our esteemed county recorder, Ian Lewington and told him what I'd seen. I carefully didn't look in any books before calling him as I didn't want to influence what I'd seen. He said that it all sounded spot on for honey buzzard (which is obviously what I'd been thinking) and the fact that the outer tail feathers were much shorter apparently is a honey characteristic (which I'd not known). Juveniles often don't have the diagnostic three tail stripes and the markings can be very variable. There have been quite a few reports of honeys the previous few days going over west London so the time of year was spot on though not many of them ever get as far west as God's own county and they're really hard county birds to get (I know of quite a few seasoned Oxon birders who still need it for the county).

These birds are hard to identify correctly and I don't have a vast amount of experience other than some brief views in the New Forest and quite a few hours spent pouring over books and photos in preparation and anticipation for the day when one might fly over but it ticked all the right boxes. In the space of a few days I'd gone from "patchless of Oxford" to "patch-rich and tick happy" or whatever the opposite of gripped should be - "crippled" perhaps?

I didn't get any photos of the buzzard so instead here's a poor photo of a lovely autumn wheatear. I love these birds though I don't often find them on the Meadow so I always get excited when I find one

Anyway, now that I've got the patch back my target for the autumn is to find an American peep on the Meadow. Not that impossible as we had a pair of pec. sands there in '07. One of these years I'll find one.

For the record:

Oxon Year List 2010
149 avocet 27/08 Port Meadow
150 honey buzzard 28/08 West Oxford (County Lifer)

National Year List 2010
190 honey buzzard 28/08 West Oxford

Friday, 20 August 2010

Farmoor Kittiwake

Well, I'm back from my hols. We all had a very nice time in the USA and I've got lots of crappy bird photos to wade through before I bore you all rigid with my holiday snaps.

In the mean time I thought that I would do a quick county birding post. It appears that the really duff year in the county is continuing and despite being away for three weeks I've managed to dodge the grip-off bullet with the only bird of note whilst I was away being an adult Sabine's gull at Farmoor for just a few minutes which was only seen by the finder, Dai John. The morning of the day that I flew back in he also found a juvenile kittiwake which is a bit of a county bogey bird for me. When we landed at mid-day I got a text saying about it so I made enquiries and was told that it was still around at Farmoor. Feeling rather tired and jet-lagged, I felt that a walk in the wind and drizzle at Farmoor would be ideal to keep me awake so that evening I nipped up there with Farmoor expert Tom Wickens. I was anticipating having to trawl through distant gull flocks to find the bird but in the end Tom picked it out hovering in the wind a few metres above our heads at the east end of the causeway. On our return from a stroll along the causeway it was still there a few metres from the shore and I was able to take an acceptable shot with my point and shoot camera. Other birds of note were a couple of ruff and a ringed plover. It was good to be back in the grey weather and drab birds of the UK after the heat and brightly coloured birds of the USA!

The very confiding and well-marked juvenile kittiwake.

I've more or less given up on my Oxon year list which has never been more than an exercise in book keeping this year anyway but for the record:

Oxon Year List 2010
148 kittiwake 19/08 Farmoor (County Lifer)