Wednesday, March 22, 2017

50 Shades of Gray

During the early and cold hours of the morning, we watched the moon set behind the snow capped mountains of Washington.

The darkness was replaced with overcast skies.  All with various shades of gray......

Bald Eagle
It was the heavy gray that finally got the best of me. Melancholy set in. I watched as the frozen mist took over the land.

I sipped my hot coffee looking out from our SUV window. The roads were rough.  And they were remote.

Rough-legged Hawk
It was all beautiful until we noticed that one of the tires was leaking air.  At that point, the birding trek changed moods.  It was time to get back to a village.  Or be stuck in the ice cold tundra of Washington state.

We acquired our target bird, the White-headed Woodpecker, along the road.  She was a beauty!

Lifer-White-headed Woodpecker, female
Thankfully we made it back to town in one piece.  We had the tire fixed for 10 bucks and we were off again for more adventures. 

Gray-crowned rosy finch

Birding is an incredible journey that takes us to some very remote places.  I'm not sure I could do it alone for some of these birds. 

These journeys do pay off big time though as we are able to observe birds in the wild away from humanity.  

Photo courtesy of Khanh Tran.  I didn't know he took this pic of us but you can get a scope of the lighting conditions and magnitude of the Cliff Swallow nests. 
Sometimes I stand in a remote area and think to myself, What the hell am I doing here?  I could be killed and no one would know.  So, when I'm with friends, I feel safe:)  I'm the guy that always has a Plan B or C.  But on this trek, I had zero plans for back up and it caused a little anxiety. It's the teacher in me. This kind of wild terrain is the stuff I dream of......but as I get older, I'm getting.....cautious??  What is that all about?  

Another lifer, the Gray-crowned rosy finch, was seen in great numbers around old Cliff Swallow nests.  This is only something I've read about in books.  In fact, most birders don't get to observe this behavior.  The fact that we did see this, speaks volumes about how special this observation was for us. 

While I began to miss the Arizonan sun a bit, I was enraptured by these amazing winter birds.  A special "thank you" to friend and guide, Khanh Tran, for sharing with us his knowledge about his local birds. We have now expanded our birder language to include several more species of bird. 

Several more tales to tell from the Pacific Northwest and then we're back in Arizona for spring and wildflower season.  More adventures to come....

American Three-toed Woodpecker

Monday, March 20, 2017

Sprucing It Up

Sometimes a lot of effort goes into one bird......

The hours.  The miles.  And the hikes.  But it's more than that......

It's having the experience.  Knowing the terrain.  And playing detective.  All for one bird. 

Gray Jay collecting nesting material
As we wade through the wet snow, Gray Jays and Pine Grosbeaks entertain us.  But it was time to break the grouse conspiracy.  If we found the rare, for Oregon, Spruce Grouse, it would break the absence of grouse on the life list.

the town of Joseph, OR-named after Chief Joseph
And it took team work to find this bird.  The woods were silent except for the crunching of snow beneath our shoes. 

Bohemian Waxwing
Thanks to Khanh's knowledge of the bird, we were able to explore a known territory for one of these birds. 

The snow got deeper.  A dark shadow, brief as it was, caught my attention in the dark woods.  Then I heard the faint calling of a female bird nearby.

Khanh spotted the fresh tracks of the Spruce Grouse in the snow.  He looked up.  And I looked down. A black object blended into the dark shadows of the Spruce tree. Could it be?  Would this moment happen?  Just breathe Chris, it's the bird!!!  I pulled Khanh back and silently pointed to the dark object near the base of the tree. 

Magic.  Pure joy.  The male watched us as we watched him. 

Spruce Grouse
Locals call this bird, "the Fool's Hen" because the bird often stays in one spot believing s/he is camouflaged.  And for the most part, the camouflage works. We would have walked right past him had we not been playing detective. 

The Franklin's subspecies may possibly be split down the road into full species status. This grouse was named after the arctic explorer John Franklin, who led expeditions in the Northwest Territories in the 1820's. 

Khanh!  He's right there!
So with one grouse down, could we find others?  

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Olympic Sports

An easy gull to ID.  Yellow legs and smaller?  Black and red dip?  The California Gull
Warning!  This post is about gull ID.  I'll try to make it as interesting as I can. But you've been warned! So here goes......

This gull is definitely a Heinz 57.  An Olympic for sure!
Some species of birds can hybridize freely in the right habitat.  There aren't really any clear examples of this in the human population since we are all human of various colors and sizes. Although, I have heard that the Andean people are unique to the human population as they are shorter with more blood vessels(to keep them warm) due to the higher and colder elevations of the Andes mountains. 

I took this photo from the high elevations of Lake Titicaca on the floating islands of the Uros in the Andean mountain chain.  

I was a terrible birder even in 2008.  A Great Egret 
There may be a secret population of tiny people, about the size of hobbits, somewhere in Asia. Scientists have found bones to back up their claims and some locals even claim to have seen these tiny people in the dense Asian forests. I think I read this from Breitbart News, the world's leading source of fake news. However, last I checked, we are all still human, extra blood vessels and all. 

Dark eye, shading on the head but an all gray back????  Yeah.  An Olympic Gull, a hybrid
 Could humans hybridize with gorillas? Is Bigfoot a hybrid of a man/bear?  I don't know.  Even the thought is disturbing, but I did see some creepy mountain people in Oregon outside of Portland. I'll geek out with some Star Trek examples instead.  
With Leonard Nimoy before his passing who portrayed the popular character Spock
An example of hybridization of the human species would be like Vulcans and Humans having babies.  Spock is the offspring of these two species.  B'elanna Torres is the hybridization of a Klingon and Human.  So, what does this have to do with gulls?

Surf Scoter
 OH LOOK!!!  It's a SURF SCOTER!!!  Anything to distract from the monotonous ID work. It's like a student being forced to do classwork against their will until someone shoots a spit wad across the room at his friend's head. It misses his head and hits the quiet girl in the back row. Now that's WAY more interesting....and funny! And so I have observed that most birders get easily distracted by the other birds popping out of the ocean water. I stand my ground. Gulls are cool! #gullsmatter

I do have moments like this often in class.  While school has changed, the human dynamic is still the same. Information is quicker now with SMART technology 
I have now become the eager "A" student in class raising his hand all the time.  I like this subject. No.  I LOVE this subject. So I try connecting the dots in this simple brain of mine. 

Here's what I know. Gulls can interbreed freely if their habitat ranges overlap.  Some more than others.  And apparently the Pacific Northwest is a hotbed for gulls to hybridize! In the desert southwest, Costa's Hummingbirds can breed with other hummingbird species like the Lucifer Hummingbirds.  Their hybrids are called Costifers. The simple fact is that nature is constantly evolving and that our understanding of the biological world isn't so black and white.  

Is this gull trying to be a Thayer's?!
So it's only logical that hybridization occurs in the gull world.  My issue?  Finding a "pure" Glaucous-winged Gull.  I found my searches to be kinda frustrating at first.  And I discovered that Oregon, Washington and British Colombia are some of the most difficult places to find a "pure" gull.  I love gulls and I've come across a few hybrids here and there, but nothing like this! Most hybrid gulls found along the Pacific coastline are known as "Olympic Gulls".  Apparently, the Glaucous-winged and Glaucous Gulls can hybridize with Herring and Western Gulls.  And they especially hybridize with Western Gulls. This makes gull ID VERY difficult!

a Horned Grebe is a nice distraction
 HORNED GREBE!!!  Oh.  Yeah.  The gulls. So what did I have to do?  Well.  The GWGU is a large all gray bird.  No black on the feathers.  No black on the bill.  No shading on the head.  And pink legs. Easy right? So I'd find a good candidate and then spot black somewhere on the bill or on the wing.  

Too black!  Those end tail feathers should be ALL gray
 Or I'd find one with all the right markings but the head shape and size were all wrong.  With persistence and determination, I found several "pure" Glaucous-winged, NOT Olympic, gulls. 

All glaucous but what's with the shading on the head and the black on the bill???  GRRRR!!! Another Olympic Gull. 
I'll be honest.  The search for this life bird felt dirty.  Only humans can make the natural birding world feel like a segregated nightmare. For those listing in the ABA world, they have to make sure they've got the right gull or they could lose their tick. The challenge and search for this bird gave me a better cultural understanding behind the hybridization of gulls in this area.  It still doesn't shake that nagging question inside my head, "What makes a species a species?"  And why is that question so important to me?!

We've got a winner!!!!!  My lifer Glaucous-winged Gull.  It just took awhile to figure it all out. 
 We are still discovering so much about birds.  Many of the pink-legged gulls share 98 percent of their DNA.  Nature is messy.  It's also fascinating. 

At the end of the day, I've added a new species of bird on that slowly growing life list. The experience behind this gull taught me a lot but there is still so much more to learn. Until next time.....

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Short of It

In our last post, The Long and Short of It, we set out to look for both the Long and Short-eared Owls.  Today concludes one journey and begins another. 

The wind gusts were extreme.  And so was the birding! 
 We journeyed into the heart of the Pacific Northwest with VERY challenging photography conditions.  Not only that, we had to find a difficult group of birds in these conditions.  

People turn their backs to the strong gale force winds on Cannon Beach

The wind and rain was constant.  And so were the low clinging clouds.  To be honest, it was all very beautiful, but it challenged the photographer inside. 

Haystack Rock-home of the nesting Tufted Puffins
We'd raise our binos up and they'd fill up with water.  Our cameras took a beating.  We crossed our fingers and hoped for the best.  Portland's light conditions were the most challenging.  

Just when you'd think the rain was done; it would begin again!

And most of the birds here didn't care.  I suppose they deal with this kind of weather every day.  We observed many Mew Gulls and added this new lifer to our slowly growing list. 

Carefully taking field notes on this exciting lifer that can sometimes be mistaken for a Ring-billed Gull
 I love gulls so much and this was truly an exciting search for me.  I'll write more about them in my yearly larus report coming up in a few weeks. We'll focus on the Pacific Northwest and the challenges birders have when ID'ing gulls.  If anything, this trip really upped my gull ID skills.  But I won't say that too loudly as I'm still learning lots.  

Mew Gulls-note the smaller yellow(no markings) and somewhat drooping bill
 Oh but the rain.  It continued to eat away at our sanity.  The darkness.  The depression.  The sadness. How do these Portlandians deal with the heavy gray skies?  

Harlequin Duck on Haystack Rock
This Arizonan complains about the heat all the time, but I'd be lying if I didn't say I missed the sunshine.   I don't think we saw the sun ONCE while we were in the city. 

But behind every cloud, there was a bird.  We just had to walk through the mist to find it. 

Song Sparrow
Under ferns, on moss and lichen, there they sang.  But would Gordon finally find his Short-eared Owl?  Could WE find the Short-eared Owls?

Spotted Towhee(the Oregon subspecies)

The clouds clung to every cliff, hid every tree and made the roads slick and dangerous.  The traffic was the worst, especially if there had been an accident. 

In that damp darkness, we saw a shadow. As we moved closer, I watched Gordon get excited.  He toggled ISO switches on his camera, cursed the wet conditions and observed this magical moment under the gentle rain.  Finally, the bird gods granted him this lifer moment. 

Short-eared Owl
Over the next several weeks, we'll explore the beauty and wonder of the Pacific Northwest with our guide and friend Khanh Tran.  It was a hard fought, exciting (and exhausting) time into some of the most beautiful places of the United States. Until next time....