Sunday, August 30, 2009

Raptors - Upclose and Personal!

After working on dinky birds for the past two months, on Saturday I spent some time with the larger migrants through the Idaho Bird Observatory! This last week, hawk watch and hawk trapping began. Hawkwatch, which is where I will be every Monday afternoon for the remainder of the fall migratory season, consists of counting each migrating raptor and vulture that passes within sight of the observatory. Hawk trapping consist of netting and banding raptors attracted to lures.
On Saturday, the research director was in the hawk blind trapping. After a local boy scout troop left, Karyn and I joined him in the blind. While the scouts were in the blind, they captured two Cooper's Hawks and a Redtailed Hawk. I didn't get to participate in the banding, but did get a look at the birds just prior to release. The Cooper's Hawk is one of my research species, along with its close relative the Sharp-shinned Hawk. Check out how the eye color change with age.
Male Juvenile Cooper's Hawk.
Female Adult Cooper's Hawk.
The juvenile Red-tailed Hawk would be my first experience in holding a raptor. It was very cool!
Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk!
I was more than a little nervous holding the bird. While I didn't lose any flesh to the bird, it did try to show me who was boss!
Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk.
When I did make it into the blind, we had a busy day banding 7 more birds. Heidi trained me on the raptor banding process. My first band went to a juvenile male American Kestrel, teh smallest falcon in North America.
Juvenile American Kestrel.
At one point Heidi and I were out retrieving a Sharp-shinned Hawk from a net. Jay, our research director, yelled for us to freeze! A Peregrine Falcon was approaching the blind. We stood as motionless as possible as the Peregrine gained altitude and went into a stoop straight toward us. A stoop is a falcon's high speed dive in which they have been recorded at speeds well over 200 miles per hour. Unfortunately we were frozen in a position that we didn't see it. But we did hear and feel it! As the Peregrine pulled out of the stoop and leveled out just meters above our heads it sounded like a jet plane. I couldn't believe that bird flying through the air could make that much noise. The noise was all caused by the air turbulence  as he pulled out of the dive. It was an unbelievably amazing experience. Karyn was still in the blind so she got to watch all the action. As the Peregrine turned we ran back to the blind. We worked the lures to get him in. Just as he was coming into the lure he clipped one of the control lines with the tip of his wing. He flew off without being caught. He was a very dark male juvenile of a sub-species not common in our area. We were disappointed not to get a better look at the bird.
There were more Kestrels out and about. Right before close a group of 4 came across the ridge. We caught one juvenile male and almost had two others.
Juvenile Male American Kestrel.
The hope to participate in owl banding Saturday night fell through as a thunderstorm hit our mountain. I did get some good sleep before spending Sunday morning banding songbirds. It's back to school in the morning, then I head up to count raptors at Hawkwatch on Monday afternoon.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The evasive Green-tailed Towhee

A few weeks back, while working at the Idaho Bird Observatory, I had the opportunity to band a Green-tailed Towhee. This was only the 5th GTTO ever caught at the bird observatory in 13 years. It was also the first time I had ever seen one (lifer!).
The events occurring around the capture and banding are worth reliving. I was not the person to extract the bird from the net. At the banding shack, I picked the bag with the bird inside. Based on size I expected a Western Tanager, Black-headed Grosbeak, or Spotted Towhee. When I pulled the bird from the bag, I had no idea what it was. I then remembered there was a rare Green-tailed something, but couldn't quite pick it out. I noted the towhee eyes, but even that didn't ring any bells in my overloaded bird-brain. The group then told me it was a Green-tailed Towhee. Everyone was excited to have caught this rare bird. I banded and processed the bird as we normally would. We identified the bird as a juvenile "hatch year" bird, meaning it was hatched this summer and was on its first migration. I had completed all processing but weighing the bird. At that point our guests and some employees had their cameras all ready to take pictures. It was suggested that I let them take some pictures before weighing as birds are occasionally "flubbed", accidently released, in the weighing process. As I was shifting the bird to the photographers grip - I flubbed it. You could hear the collective moan of the group. I was very bummed myself. But this isn't the end of the story.
The very next day we recaptured the same bird. This time they handed it to the the second most experienced bander at the IBO. As she pulled the bird from the bag, she flubbed it! Unbelievable! I hadn't seen her flub a single bird to this point. The Green-tailed Towhee had once again defeated us.
Today, we once again recaptured the same bird. This time it was left for the the research director to handle. Some of us were secretly hoping he would flub it too, but it was not to be. The bird was processed and photographed. Unfortunately since the last capture, the bird has begun molting many feathers making it look much more ragged than a few weeks back. Anyway, it still has my utmost respect and appreciation. The fact that more than a week has passed between captures indicates that this bird is not likely migrating yet, just foraging locally.

Molting Green-tailed Towhee. Copyright Karyn deKramer.

Molting Green-tailed Towhee. Copyright Karyn deKramer.

Green-tailed Towhee (left); Spotted Towhee (right). Copyright Karyn deKramer.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Nighthawks and Burrowing Owls

About once a week the Idaho Bird Observatory crew heads out in the afternoon for some shore birding. This time of year is starting to bring in many shore bird migrants heading South. On a recent trip to Indian Creek Reservoir, we were successful in finding many species of shorebirds including White-faced Ibis, Long-billed Curlew, Killdeer, American Avocet,Spotted Sandpiper, Solitary Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Baird's Sandpiper, Wilson's Snipe, Wilson's Phalarope, Red-necked Phalarope, and these Log-billed Dowitchers.
Long-billed Dowitchers.
I found myself constantly distracted by the Common Nighthawk (not always so common) foraging for insects.
Common Nighthawk.

Common Nighthawk.

Common Nighthawk.

Common Nighthawk.
On the way back we spotted these Burrowing Owl chicks. I was fascinated by the middle chick. He/she looks equally fascinated with us.

Burrowing Owls.

Burrowing Owls.

Burrowing Owls.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Kinglet Love

Today at summer camp (Karyn's name for my work at the Idaho Bird Observatory!) it was a cold damp morning. The birds were a little slow as a result for the big storm that passed through over the last few days. On the first net run, extracting birds from the nets, I collected a juvenile Ruby-crowned Kinglet. The Kinglet is the smallest non-hummingbird that we band at the IBO. Due to their small size, they are one of the most popuar of the birds we band. There is a very high cuteness factor.
While processing and measuring the bird, he began to shiver. I rushed through the remaining steps to get him back on his own. He was not excited to fly. When we get cold birds like this we stick them in our shirts to warm them up. This little guy spent about 5 minutes against my bare skin. This was sufficient to get him to stop shivering. I reached under my shirt to pull him out. As I lowered my hand he immediately flew back up into my shirt. Apparently he was a fan of the warm environment. I gave him a minute more, then pulled him out again. Once again he flew back under my shirt! Very cool! After a few minutes more he was apparently ready to move on. It was a great experience.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Office Fauna

Last week I provided a tour of my new office at the Idaho Bird Observatory. This week I thought it would be great to highlight some of the non-avian inhabitants of the area.
Snakes in the office. One of the things on our minds as we speed hike from net to net through narrow brushy trails is the fact that a number of snake species, and specifically the Western Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus) inhabit the area. While I have yet to see one, others on the team have spotted at least one adult Western Rattlesnake and one baby. Something tells me that there is also another adult not too far away and likely many more babies! I have also seen a Racer (Coluber constrictor) and a Gopher Snake (Pituophis catenifer), both non-poisonous species. Last year the team saw a Rubber Boa (Charina bottae), but it has yet to be seen this year. (Update 8/4/2009 - I found the Rubber Boa today!) The reptile family is also very well represented by Western Fence Lizards (Sceloporus occidentalis).
The most significant mammal sighting was an Elk (Cervus elaphus)! I'm glad it didn't walk through a mist net, there would have been nothing left. Over the weekend, Jack found a Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis) while on a net run. This was later confirmed by Stephanie, but luckily, no one provoked the customary defensive response from the beast. Moving down in size, we have the Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). These guys chatter at us constantly. The brush is alive with what has to be the greatest number of Least Chipmunks (Tamias minimus) in the state. It's unbelievable how many there are. Stephanie petted one with a piece of grass! Finishing off the mammal category, at least that I have identified, are the bats. I have no idea what kind they are as we have 14 varieties in Idaho, but they are ever present in the evenings.
The insects are also well represented. Other than the odd mosquito, most go un-noticed by me. Jay did show me how to pet bees the other day. I'm not sure this is something that an individual that is allergic to bees should be doing! When the bees are sleeping on a flower, you can carefully pet them. In their drowsy state they wave there rear legs as if to get you to stop. It was pretty cool, but I haven't tried it myself.
Birds. The reason for us to be there. Most birds are just passing through as they begin their migration South. Our task on the mountain is to focus on these migrants. We do however have a number of residents. We hear the Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) almost daily. The Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) passes through camp. The other morning it was right above my tent hooting about 5am. Dusky Flycatchers (Empidonax oberholseri) have a nest on the South side of camp and Hammond's Flycatchers (Empidonax hammondii) on the North. Each species is in active migration right now, so these guys should leave any day now. Other known residents include Red-breasted Nuthatches (Sitta canadensis), Mountain Chickadees (Poecile gambeli), Yellow-rumped Warblers (Dendroica coronata), Western Tanagers (Piranga ludoviciana), Spotted Towhees (Pipilo maculatus), and Chipping Sparrows (Spizella passerina) among others. It really is a cool place.