Sep
15

East on the Pine Ridge

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Chadron State Park morning

It was a good plan, nearly a failsafe plan, to hit Chadron State Park pre-dawn to look for poorwills on the roads. What I hadn’t counted on was light rain, heavy fog, and a marathon. We did manage to see one common poorwill come up off the gravel, but when the sun came up and failed to come out, I urged breakfast and a museum visit to while away the rainy hours.

Black Hills Overlook, Chadron State Park

I hadn’t been to the Museum of the Fur Trade for many years, and was impressed by how well the many, many, many objects were displayed. I was less impressed, or at least less favorably impressed, by a short and placatory video claiming that the fur trade served to harmonize racial differences on the nineteenth-century frontier. But we saw some neat stuff, including, bizarrely enough, Haitian army surplus buttons once used in the trade.

phoenix buttons for fur trade

By the time we stepped out of the museum, the rain had stopped, and there were hints of blue above. We headed back to the state park, where the truly marathon marathon was still going on, dozens of pheidippidoids of various ages (mostly advanced) and physical conditions trudging the trails. All the same, we had good looks at mountain and eastern bluebirds, spotted towhees, red crossbills, pine siskins, a western tanager, hairy and downy woodpeckers, pygmy nuthatches, chipping and clay-colored sparrows, and other common species before deciding to head for lunch and a site even farther east.

Lunch at the J-Bar in Hay Springs was outstanding as usual, and the weather and the birds continued to smile on us as we moved on to Walgren Lake.

birders birding Walgren Lake

The roadsides were covered with vesper sparrows; scattered through the flocks were clay-colored, chipping, and Savannah sparrows, too, and one little assembly also included three blue grosbeaks. A scrubby ranch yard was watched over by a merlin, looking smug and chubby with sparrow on the breath.

By the time we arrived at the lake, skies were blue and spirits were high. A flock of a couple score ruddy ducks and a dozen western grebes was accompanied by a few eared grebes, a ring-necked duck, and a canvasback. Goodly flocks of barn swallows were passing through, and we finally got good looks at a bank swallow that hugged the far shore for several minutes. Three common nighthawks joined in the insect feast, while closer to the ground we saw more bluebirds, sparrows, Audubon’s warblers, another western tanager, and a slightly westerly Baltimore oriole.

Walgren Lake

We have an early morning to look forward to tomorrow, so I pushed us a bit to leave the lake and get back to Chadron. There was plenty of time, though, to stop at yet another prairie dog town for a scan — and for several minutes’ watching three burrowing owls bobbing out on the mounds. A full and varied day indeed.

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Sep
14

Western Western Nebraska

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birders birding Sowbelly Canyon

You can’t get any farther west than we did today and not be in Wyoming. We left Scottsbluff after a somewhat more leisurely breakfast than hoped, then turned north to bird the little bit of terrestrial heaven that is the Henry Road.

Henry Road

Much of the time, dust and traffic kept us in the vehicle, which proved a good blind for watching the hundreds of horned larks and vesper sparrows on the roadside. I’d expected good longspur watching here, but we saw only small numbers — fewer than ten McCown’s, a few more than ten chestnut-collareds.

chestnut-collared longspur

After playing a fluttery flittery game of hard-to-get, one of the little flocks of chestnut-collareds deigned to start feeding on the road in front of us; a little patience let us walk up on them for outstanding scope views of a bird that is almost always skittish and hard to see on the ground. At one point, we had a McCown’s and a chestnut-collared longspur perched nearly alula to alula on the fence, a comparison that I always find informative.

Plus, you could really see those long spurs.

chestnut-collared longspur

Almost as captivating was the first ferruginous hawk for the trip, a splendid light bird turning circles low over the short grass as, some 60 miles from leaving our hotel, we approached pavement again. This bird, flashing white tail and wing bands, ran away with the prize for day’s best raptor, handily beating out the two prairie falcons and the golden eagle we would see later on.

We moved on to one of the great sites in Nebraska birding and ornithological history, Sowbelly Canyon.

Sowbelly Canyon

On the way down to a quick picnic at Coffee Park, we stopped to watch three pink-sided juncos, newly arrived from the breeding grounds to the northwest. Coffee Park itself was unusually quiet, with just downy and hairy woodpeckers, spotted towhees, and a wood duck to break the stillness. So we drove a little ways down the road to take advantage of the inside scoop Alice, Kathy, and Lee had given us over supper last night. A few flickers, a couple of red-headed woodpeckers, a flock or two of pine siskins, and then the scanning of the treetops paid off.

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Lewis’s woodpeckers aren’t common in Nebraska, but lower Sowbelly has been a fairly reliable site for a while now. This bird — barely visible in my phonescoped image, I’m afraid — was taking it easy in the mid-afternoon warmth, swooping out only once while we watched, otherwise keeping to its inconspicuous and rather distant perch high in a willow. Not only was this a life bird for some of the group, it was the number-one target species for at least one of us. Tick!

We needed to make it to Chadron to check in to our hotel and to find some supper, so we pressed on from Sowbelly to the icehouse ponds at Fort Robinson, site of many a fine birding afternoon. It looked pretty bleak at first: an eastern phoebe, a couple of wood ducks, some barn swallows. On the way out, though, we heard chickadees, and soon were watching a small mixed flock of black-capped chickadees, orange-crowned and Wilson’s warblers, and a latish yellow warbler working the willows and boxelders.

birders birding Fort Robinson

A song sparrow in the brush lining Soldier Creek was a bonus; the default Melospiza sparrow on passage here is the Lincoln’s, a species we haven’t picked up yet but expect to see tomorrow, when we get to spend more time on the Pine Ridge (and less time in the van!). Weather willing, we’re planning on making a pre-dawn run for poorwills. Wish us caprimulgid luck.

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Sep
13

Good Birds, Good Birding

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I never sleep well on the first night of a field trip: too preoccupied, too excited, too ready to go. This first night of our Linnaean Society visit to the western Great Plains was no exception. I was still awake at 1:00 am local time, and finally just gave up when the clock said 4:45. I fueled the vehicle, parked it out front, showered, finished packing, had a not overly wonderful hotel breakfast, and wrestled our suitcases into the van. And we were off.

Our first stop was the beautiful Wyoming Hereford Ranch, where the heat and the strong winds managed to depress activity. All the same, we enjoyed our first encounters with lots of the species we can expect to see again this trip, including Townsend’s solitaires, Audubon’s and orange-crowned warblers, and Swainson’s hawks. Our very best bird of the stop, and of the day, and quite possibly of the entire week ahead, was a more typically eastern species, a neat crisp juvenile broad-winged hawk that was sticking to the willows along the creek. Naturally, I forgot to try to take photos when the bird was closest and most obliging, but still came up with a couple of identifiable images.

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Identifiable, that is, if you know what the picture is supposed to be of.

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A dusky flycatcher was a good find, too. But the heat and the wind and the clock drove us on to Pine Bluffs, where we had a good lunch at the 307 before birding the rest area. Traditionally a good spot, today it produced a total bird list of one species, and that not even native (guess). We cut our losses and crossed over to the Nebraska side, where our luck continued: a lark sparrow, a handful of mountain bluebirds, and that was disappointingly it for what is often one of the most exciting little birding corners in the state.

Rather than give up completely and hightail it to Scottsbluff, we decided to drive north on Stateline Road, a good decision. Soon we started seeing sparrows, vesper sparrows by the hundreds along with smaller numbers of clay-colored sparrows; common, even humdrum out here at this season, those are birds that I see only a couple of times a year in New Jersey. And they’re heartbreakingly beautiful to boot. It was challenging, as usual, to get everyone equally good views from the confines of the van, but there were enough birds that eventually they got sloppy, perching on fences and sunflowers and roadsides to let all of us enjoy them.

The most abundant bird, as expected, was another species I tend to see in only smallish numbers in New Jersey. Horned larks flushed 50 and 100 at a time from the roadsides, and finally one little gang feeding on the newly graded gravel had with it half a dozen smaller birds with big, fat bills, chestnut shoulders, and stunningly white tails. I firmly expected to see McCown’s longspurs this week, but maybe not on our first full day of birding, and maybe not in such great close views right away. Numbers were small — a dozen, perhaps a few more — but we should make up for that tomorrow and the days after.

Where there are longspurs, there are usually ferruginous hawks, but that fine plains buteo eluded us today. Instead we made do with three prairie falcons, two in flight together and the sweet little creature in the photo at the top of this entry; it would have been a lifer for some in our group had it been the first of the three, but in any case was exactly the close and lingering view all of our group were hoping for.

As we turned east to return to pavement, I spied a tiny bit of sheetwater at an intersection, where longspurs were coming in to drink and bathe. One of them obligingly perched on a fence next to the van, confirming that the flock was mostly chestnut-collareds, one of the species I had warned everyone not to expect to see. There’s a special pleasure sometimes in being wrong.

We’d had a surprisingly good afternoon’s car birding, but there was one more place I wanted to check on the way to Scottsbluff. The nature center at the Wildcat Hills almost always has a bird or two to look at, so we pulled in to see if we might pad the list somehow or other. It worked. The most abundant birds in the pines around the building were red crossbills; spotted towhees more or less covered the ground under the feeders, joined by my first Gambel’s sparrow of the autumn. And there were two surprises.

The first was provided by Brian, who showed me a picture on his camera of the big gray finch with white wing patches he had just photographed — evening grosbeak! And the second was provided by a big gray finch with white wing patches — the real thing. It had been years since I’d seen one in Nebraska, and this bird’s presence raises my hopes even higher for tomorrow. If it’s half as good as today, we’re in for some fun.

 

 

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Sep
12

And It Begins

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I’m in Denver with seven friends on a Linnaean Society field trip to the western plains. We’ll be traveling over the next week to the Wildcat Hills, the Pine Ridge, and the Black Hills in search of residents, migrants, and September vagrants. Can’t wait to see what these days bring!

We started this afternoon with a quick visit to Barr Lake, a few minutes from our hotel and usually just about the birdiest place around. Mid-afternoon on a ninety-plus-degree day was a bit less productive, but there were some notable highlights: great scope views of Cassin’s kingbird, an osprey dive-bombing a perched bald eagle, more than 400 American white pelicans, plenty of prairie dogs and fox squirrels. Some of us even got life birds — and that tally should continue to rise, especially after the promised cold front end of the week.

Stay tuned! Maybe tomorrow I’ll even remember to take some pictures. Or maybe not: sometimes you’re just having too much fun to let the camera interrupt.

 

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Sep
11

Longspurs in the Books

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lapland longspur

I’ve been having a great time this evening reading around in the new National Geographic guide: learning new things, being reminded of old things, and all in all admiring the book more with each turn of the page.

But how does it stack up against the competition?

That competition includes the previous editions of Nat Geo, of course; I hear scandalous rumors that not everyone buys each new edition as it appears. You’ll continue to be happy no matter which edition you have and use, but this seventh has so many improvements, large and small, that I can’t imagine not wanting to move along.

Take, for example, the Lapland longspur, a common bird and familiar to most birders, but one that can be hard to get a first handle on for new observers, especially in the east and southwest. The new Nat Geo retains the paintings of the species from the first edition, of 1983, but like the sixth, it annotates the figures with neat and concise summaries of the most important field characters. There is one critical difference, though: where the sixth edition simply points to the wingtip of one of the perched birds, noting the “very long primary projection,” the seventh adds an additional image of a disembodied folded wing, indicating that this is the “longspur with the longest primary projection past the tertials.” Each of the other longspur species now has a similar picture and a similar note, making explicit in word and image what before was available only in the facing-page text. 

Shifting that information from the main text onto the plate (and ever so slightly reducing the white space on the page) makes room for a slightly larger and noticeably more legible font, and also lets the authors add a line about the subspecific affiliation of a specimen collected in the outer Aleutians. Trivial? Not if you happen to be so lucky as to be birding Attu — and not if you are interested, as all birders are, in continuously expanding the range of your knowledge.

 The big Sibley guide has only four images of perched Laplands where the new Nat Geo has six, including a stub-tailed juvenile. But Sibley gives the reader four views of birds in flight, from above and below, which after all is how most longspurs are seen in the field. There is a picture of the folded wing here, too, with an annotation pointing out the length of the primary projection. Sibley’s feathers are more realistically shaped and the bunching of the outermost primaries more accurately depicted, but the whole wingtip is too short; the actual length is presented much more clearly in Nat Geo. Ten of one, five sixths of a dozen of the other. 

Both books show all the characters necessary for field identification, but only Nat Geo explicitly points out the usefulness of the warm brown or rusty nape. Nat Geo illustrates and briefly describes the juvenile, an age class not mentioned in Sibley. The Sibley guide offers a much richer description of the species’ song, but leaves unmentioned the fact that this longspur intersperses whistles in its rattled flight call — a characteristic noted in Nat Geo as “distinctive.” Nat Geo’s map includes the bird’s range in Greenland, and its statement of range and abundance, though equally brief, is more differentiated than that in Sibley. All in all, there is a bit more information in Nat Geo, though Sibley’s illustrations of the bird strike me as rather better in this case. 

The true acid test is a comparison with a book many birders might not think of at first. Birds of Europe by Lars Svensson, Killian Mullarney, and Dan Zetterström is widely acclaimed as the very best field guide to any avifauna anywhere in the world, and it is always worth consulting to learn more about any species that occurs in both the Old and the New Worlds. Its influence on North American field guides is most obvious in the use of annotations directly on the plates, an innovation meanwhile adopted by both the Sibley guide and, beginning with the sixth edition, Nat Geo. 

Svensson et al. crowd illustrations of three species onto their plate, while both Sibley and Nat Geo have only two. But the European guide manages to show eight individuals, including three birds in habitat, one in flight, and one facing away; there is also a skylark for comparison. Four different plumage aspects are shown: a first-cycle bird, an adult female, and three adult males at different seasons. There is no juvenile, though the species breeds in Iceland, Scandinavia, and western Russia, and has nested in northern Britain. 

The text here is remarkably long and detailed; naturally, that means that the type is quite small, tiny even when the book is open next to Nat Geo, but legible nonetheless. It begins with a coded summary of the species’ abundance and seasonal distribution in Britain, a neat feature impractical or impossible in a guide covering much of North America. Birds of Europe continues with a description of the breeding habitats, going beyond Nat Geo’s “arctic tundra” to mention some of the plant species with which nesting birds are associated. Alone among the guides compared here, this one warns the reader that the species is “rather wary,” creeping away or freezing when approached, then towering in powerful flight. These are essential details hinted at, but not completely laid out, in Nat Geo’s introduction to the family Calcariidae. 

The identification paragraphs (plural!) in Birds of Europe are very thorough; salient characters distinguishing the species from other buntings are printed in italics. Structure, soft part colors, and the precise breast pattern of males in winter are all described. Calls and songs are described in even more detail than in the Sibley guide, and this is the only guide to describe the song flight, performed “with fanned tail and intermittent hovering.” 

If Svensson et al. happened to cover the birds of North America, the choice would be clear. As it stands, though, for most birders, the choice between Nat Geo and the big Sibley will come down to taste and habit. The chief exception: beginners, who will be served much better by the more extensive prose and more complete information in the new Nat Geo. Every birder, however, will want to read this new edition and incorporate what it says into her store of birding lore.       

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