Tuesday, December 21, 2010

How can you not love waxwings?

In preparation for our upcoming birding trip to Belize, I thought I should take in some sunny weather to practice using our new camera. Remembering the Cedar Waxwings from the Christmas Bird Count, I headed to Dry Creek Cemetery. I found the waxwings and a few other birds, but the Varied Thrush remained elusive. Waxwings are definitely one of my favorite birds.

Cedar Waxwing.

Cedar Waxwing.

Cedar Waxwing.

Two Red-tailed Hawks flew overhead, one chasing the other. The chasing bird retreated to the top of the highest tree and proceeded to exclaim that this was his territory. Mating season may still be months away, but a productive territory is always worth defending.

Adult Red-tailed Hawk.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Counting the birds for Christmas

Yesterday I participated in the Audubon's 111th Christmas Bird Count. It was the 44th Christmas Bird Count held in Boise.

The Christmas Bird Count is an important long term study of bird populations across the country. Since it has amassed such a large data set, it has been a critical resource for assessing bird populations and distributions over time. This makes it the most significant citizen science project currently underway.

In communities across the country, volunteers spend an entire day counting every bird they can find. The count is restricted to a 7.5 mile radius from a chosen central point. The Boise count is centered in the Idaho State Capital. About 30 people showed up at 7am on a Sunday morning under snowy skies and nasty roads. The "count circle" was divided by the organizers into a number of sections. I paired up with two other volunteers I didn't know and headed out into the snow surveying a section of NW Boise. It's a great way to meet new people.

The skies lightened up a little bit around sunrise providing a great start to the counting. Hundreds of Canada Geese, American Wigeons, and of course the ever present invasive European Starlings. The species racked up quickly. About an hour into the count, Sue's car died. Dead battery. We flagged down some help to get a jump start, but we definitely needed to move on to plan B. We retreated to Gary's house so he could borrow his son's car. Unfortunately Sue had to leave us for the day.

Gary and I headed to Dry Creek Cemetery. Lots of bird action here - Cedar Waxwings, Red-Breasted Nuthatchs, Cooper's Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, and then I found a Varied Thrush. The Varied Thrush is a great bird to find! Dang, my camera was back in the car. I went to get it, but the thrush was gone when I returned. The lighting wasn't too great for photos anyway.

Cedar Waxwing.

Cedar Waxwing.

Adult Cooper's Hawk (maybe second year).

Next up was Hidden Springs. Only about half of Hidden Springs is within the count circle. We had to check it out as some rare birds had been seen there is previous weeks. No rare birds, but we did get some good species such as Western Screech Owl and Great Horned Owl. The snow started again, somewhat mixed with rain. Along Pierce Park we found a life bird for me, a Northern Shrike. In fact we found two! This was a great find for the count.

Northern Shrike.

In a particular group of trees, I thought I had heard a Northern Pygmy Owl. We searched and searched, even played their call on an ipod. No response. Then I saw a Townsend's Solitaire. Gary played the solitaire's call and that was it. It's very close to the quality of an owl. I realized I had never heard their call. The pygmy owl would have been a great bird, but so is the solitaire.

Moving back into the Boise neighborhoods, the rain slowly picked up and visibility dropped. We continued counting, but the new species declined. I had to leave at 3:30, so Gary continued on his own. When I left him we had counted 40 species for the day and thousands of individual birds. I won't have the totals of the whole Boise count circle for a few more days, but I expect the number of species to be near normal, which is usually around 80 species.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Rare Visitors and Snow Days

The talk of the birding community within Boise for the past week has been the presence of two very rare warblers in Idaho. I first received the call on Thanksgiving Day just before dinner with my in-laws. This was not the best time to go running in pursuit of a few lifer birds. Or maybe it was, but I chosen to maintain family relations instead. The following day we left for a weekend in Sun Valley. I had mostly forgotten about the birds until receiving word yesterday that they were still around. I decided that Wednesday afternoon would be my chance.
Wednesday morning we awoke to about 7 inches of new snow and still more falling from the sky! This is an unusual amount for Boise. Shortly before heading to school I received a text message from the University indicating that classes were canceled. It was time to go birding! Since all the wimpy drivers stayed home, we had no problem making it down to the river.
Would the birds still be around with this much snow? Would they be hiding? Karyn and I's first walk through the snowy area failed to find anything but House Sparrows. Walking down river there were plenty of Canada Geese and Mallards. We could hear Belted Kingfishers in the distance and then the call of a Bald Eagle.
Juvenile Bald Eagle, probably 3rd year.
Walking back to "the spot", we noticed some small birds moving through the trees. I pull up my binoculars and there it was, my first ever view of a Yellow-throated Warbler! This bird is only the 3rd report ever in Idaho. I moved in for a photo, but none was to be had. I lost him. I continued searching until I found the other rarity, a Northern Parula! Lifer #2! This is only the 12th report ever in Idaho of a Northern Parula. I had to get a photo.
The bird would not hold still. It was moving through the branches foraging. I was juggling binoculars and the camera to try for a shot. The viewfinder was covered in snow. I couldn't tell if the camera was focusing or not. At one point the Parula was chased by a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. There he was still on a branch! Snap.
Northern Parula!
Dang, missed him! Another attempt.
Northern Parula.
Warblers are sooo hard to get wild photos of. Finally.
Northern Parula.
We searched some more for the Yellow-throated Warbler, but we never located it again.