Thursday, November 20, 2014

How to Find the South Hills Crossbill

Last weekend my wife and I took a little mini vacation to the South Hills of Idaho in search of a very unique finch.  The South Hills Crossbill (Loxia [curvirostra] sinesciurus) is an endemic species or subspecies that is found only in two isolated mountain ranges in southern Idaho.  It has been described in the scientific literature as a full species, but so far the American Ornithologists' Union and the American Birding Association have yet to adopt this change, so it is currently considered a subspecies of Red Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra).  Many people have speculated that this is only temporary, though, so last weekend we set out to put a lifer species "in the bank" in case of a future split.

There are lots of great resources online about the South Hills Crossbill, and I don't intend to repeat all that information here.  Briefly, the crossbill evolved from a fascinating ecological situation where the symbiotic relationship that keeps cones easy to access in the presence of squirrels breaks down in these isolated squirrel-free mountains, resulting in an evolutionary arms race between well-defended Lodgepole Pines and specially adapted crossbill bills.  The original paper is a great reference, but summaries are also available here and here, for example.  Rather than reiterate the details of ecology and identification that have been published better elsewhere, I will provide here the story of my search, in hopes that it will help others find this cool bird.

In November, the road to the crossbills was snowy but plowed.  My little Toyota made it just fine, but I was glad to have the chains on.  Don't park on the shoulder like I did - despite the very wide road, the sheriff came by and made me move my car to a parking lot.
We started by driving up Rock Creek Road into the South Hills.  From I-84 take Exit 182 and head south.  Just after you cross the river gorge, turn left onto 3800E.  This becomes Rock Creek Road and takes you right into the hills and up to the crossbills!  Watch the landscape change as you ascend, first valley agriculture, then sagebrush, then junipers, and finally Lodgepole Pines.  These pines are the preferred habitat of the South Hills Crossbill.

Beyond the Diamondfield Jack Campground, the road was not plowed, but we could still walk it.  Snowshoes would have been helpful.  A local told us that the road is usually plowed beyond this point.

When we visited (in late November), the road was plowed to Diamondfield Jack Campground but not beyond.  Despite the plowing, I was glad to have snow chains for the tires, but a four-wheel-drive vehicle would have probably been fine without them.  We had crossbills several times between the ski area and the Diamondfield Jack Campground, always perched in the top of Lodgepole Pine or flying over, calling in flight.

If you're looking for South Hills Crossbills, you're looking for this: their preferred habitat, Lodgepole Pine.

I suggest studying the calls well, because South Hills Crossbills are not the only crossbill type present.  Better yet, make some audio recordings and study the sonograms to be absolutely sure you got the right birds.

Is this a South Hills Crossbill?  It sure could be--it was foraging on Lodgepole Pine in the South Hills.  But, I only recorded audio from two individuals in this flock of nine birds, and both of those ended up being Type 2, "Ponderosa Pine Crossbills."
Fortunately, my audio recordings confirmed that several other crossbills we saw and heard were indeed South Hills Crossbills, a lifer subspecies that will potentially be a lifer species some day!
Overall, we had three types of crossbills, including multiple individuals of our main target.  Good luck if you go, and be sure to enter your sightings in eBird!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Lake Michigan Shoreline Birding

Lake Michigan is along the migration route known as the Mississippi Flyway. I am fortunate to be able to visit the Chicago lakefront, as well as the New Buffalo, Michigan lakefront quite often. A variety of waterfowl, gulls and shorebird species frequent these areas and can often be seen migrating offshore, resting on the beaches or feeding on the detritus along the waterline.

A lovely Red Phalarope forages amid the algae mats at 63rd Street Beach in Chicago

Not commonly seen in our area, this phalarope delighted birders with its presence for four days in November, 2014.

Enjoying a sunny day at Montrose Beach ~ Semipalmated Plover

A Dunlin steps its way through the green algae

A successful dive yields a crawfish for this handsome Hooded Merganser

A Killdeer walks amid the green vegetation on the beach

 A tiny Snowy Plover makes its way along the beach pebbles

This little plover was spotted on New Buffalo Beach in Michigan. They are not common to this location.

A red-eyed Horned Grebe (in nonbreeding plumage) surfaces from a dive

A Red Knot seeks food along the Lake Michigan shoreline

Another bird not often seen in Chicago. This Red Knot was spotted at Montrose Beach in September of this year.

Exploring the beach on a lovely day ~ Black-bellied Plover

A Red-necked Grebe swims in the chilly waters of Lake Michigan

Seen last week, this Red-necked Grebe is another bird rarely observed in Chicago.

Picking its way through the algae mats ~ Piping Plover

Another rare find, this small shorebird visited Montrose Beach in April of 2013

A Red-breasted Merganser hunts for prey in calm lake waters

Greater White-fronted Goose

Birders were excited to see this goose at Montrose Beach in October of this year. Greater White-fronted Geese are not regularly spotted at this location.

Eared Grebe

Normally seen west of Illinois, this Eared Grebe spent a few weeks at Montrose Beach last November.

A magnificent Snowy Owl dines on its capture 

At Montrose Beach, on December 13, 2013, four Snowy Owls were seen in the same vicinity. Who knows what this December will bring ...

Post by Julie Gidwitz

Friday, November 7, 2014

World Shorebirds Day and the Birds I Saw at the Shore

Sandpipers at Wharton Point 9-6-2014
 I posted about World Shorebirds Day in September when I was out counting birds. At that time I used photos I already had on file, but these are some of the actual birds I saw while out doing my bird counts. I counted birds in several locations, including Wharton's Point, Simpson's Point, Barnes landing and my own Mere Point Boat Launch. Though the official day was September 6, people were encouraged to count for all three days of that weekend. Here in Maine it was shorebird migration, so I saw shorebirds in places I had never seen them before. I also found a few shorebirds inland along the Kennebec River in Norridgewock, Maine. Maine is an amazing place to bird and I feel privileged to live here! Checks out the links below to find more info and see more birds!

Least Sandpiper at Barnes Landing, Brunswick, ME 9-6-14

Semiplamated Plover in the Mere Point Cove 9-3-14

Semiplamated Sandpiper in Mere Point cove 9-3-14

Snowy Egrets in Marsh Grass at Wharton's Point 9-6-14

Mere Point Cove at the Mere Point Boat Launch 9-3-14

Monday, November 3, 2014

Crops & Clips: Anhinga

My weekly potpourri gathered from the archives ties together several memes and features the Anhinga, also called Water Turkey and Snake-bird.

Green Cay wetlands, West Palm Beach County, Florida, February 20, 2011

Anhinga with trophy 20110220

Our back yard lake, Miramar, Florida, May 24, 2009

Anhinga 20090524

Anhinga drying its wings on decoy that keeps our lawn irrigation intake off the bottom of our lake, Miramar, Florida, August 22, 2014.

Anhinga on Decoy 3-20140822

My Mother told me to "never eat anything bigger than your head." (If video fails to appear in the space below, CLICK HERE )

This Anhinga brings home a trophy, but not without incident. (If video fails to appear in the space below, CLICK HERE)

My favorite Anhinga-watching places--

Chapel Trail Nature Preserve, Pembroke Pines, Florida, May 28, 2014...

Chapel Trail boardwalk 2-20140528

...and Green Cay wetlands in West Palm Beach County, March 18, 2012

Green Cay boardwalk HDR 91-20120318

Shared with





GOOD FENCES by Tex (Theresa). 


Friday, October 31, 2014

Review: Swift Justice by Jan Dunlap

Minnesota birder Bob White discovers another dead body. He gets entangled in the mysterious murder and helps police crack the case. But this time, the dead body is found in Birdchick's (Sharon Stiteler) car at a birding event. Did Birdchick commit the murder?! You'll have to read it to find out!

I've enjoyed all the Bob White murder mystery books Jan Dunlap has written. Swift Justice is particularly engaging because some of the characters are based on real life people, real life conservation issues, and references to real life situations of birding interest, like the Wood Rail found in Texas recently, and even a Birds and Beers. How cool is that?!

A couple years ago, I mentioned to Jan in an email that it would be really fun to find a way to incorporate a bird blogger into one of her books. She came through for me in Swift Justice with rival bird bloggers going head-to-head.

Dunlap's writing style is delightful and her characters are endearing. I relate to her main character a lot, and I kind of have a crush on his wife, Luce. Dunlap leads the reader down many a rabbit hole and distracts you from the real murderer with red herrings and side plots that all tie together in the end. So many books end disappointingly with loose ends, but Jan Dunlap always ties up her ends nicely and the reader is satisfied with the conclusion...and justice has been served.

Swift Justice and the five other books in the Bob White murder mystery series are great reads for birders and for people who just like a good murder mystery. You can purchase the Kindle version for as little as $7.69. So worth it!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014


Central Winds Park
Painted Bunting
One of my favorite migrants, though we get to see these all winter long as well.
Lately I've been considering why it is I find birding so continuously fascinating, and even addicting. Of course there's the beauty of the birds, the thrill of finding them (especially rarities), and the challenge of learning to identify them.  I also have great interest in learning about their behavior--why they act the way they do.  It's a fascinating endeavor.  But recently I've become more aware of another reason why I'm fascinated by birding--the rhythms of nature.

Yankee Lake Facility
Florida Scrub-Jay
One of our resident birds; thankfully, we get to see these all year-round
I'm growing in my appreciation and understanding of this aspect of birding--I certainly have not arrived.  But year after year, I'm starting to at least appreciate the rhythms of nature in Florida and how it affects my birding.

Central Winds Park
One of my favorite migrants; we seem to see more of them in my area in the Fall than in the Spring.
Peninsular Florida has a rainy and a dry season.  We talk about the four seasons, and I suppose you could say we experience them to some degree, but  October to May is our dry season and June to September is rainy.  So our summers as hot and wet and our winters are relatively cool and dry. As you might imagine, our dry season is my favorite time for birding.

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Louisiana Waterthrush
One of our early migrants in both Spring and Fall
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Bay-breasted Warbler
It seems like the third week of October is the prime time to find this  bird.
Interestingly, I'm learning that at least some birds are migrating to or through Florida throughout most of the year.  Warblers begin to arrive here in February and continue through May, with a few staying to breed.  Then as early as July, Fall migration begins. Shorebirds start coming through in July, and warblers begin to trickle through.  By September, migration is in full swing. Here on the eastern side of the state, there's almost a predictable order for when you can expect to see certain species.  Some come over a wide range of dates, like American Redstarts, and others seem to come through very quickly, like Bay-breasted Warblers; if you blink, you might miss them. Flycatchers, tanagers, thrushes and other songbirds also come through during this time.

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Nelson's Sparrow
In the right habitat, it seems like the first half hour after sunrise is the best time to find these guys
Canal St.
Grasshopper Sparrow
On cool, crisp, sunny and windless mornings, you might just find one of these perched out in the open
As October draws to a close, we see far fewer warblers, but then we have the fun of seeing more and more sparrows coming through. And then in November and December we can look forward to ducks and finally gulls coming through to spend the winter here. This is also the time that we can look forward to vagrants coming here to spend the winter with us.

Merritt Island NWR
Northern Pintail
Many winter here
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Black-legged Kittiwake
From mid-May through July, I can devote a great deal of my birding time to searching for breeding birds.  June is probably the quietest month of the year, and one of the hottest, but it's still fun to see what may have decided to breed in the area.

Econ River WA
Brown-headed Nuthatch
These wonderful birds breed in pine forests near my home
Lower Wekiva River Preserve
Carolina Chickadee

The winter months though are also a great deal of fun.  It's dry, and you can walk around without sweating.  And it seems like there are always vagrants to be found. Sometimes the same bird comes back to the same general area every year.

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Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
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Vermilion Flycatcher
This one has come back to the same park (and almost the same tree) and spent the winter here four years running.
The rhythms of nature now fill and inform my birding calendar.  They tell me the places to visit and the species I should look for.  These rhythms also give me a greater a greater appreciation for the place I live. It's a beautiful world we live in, and birding helps me see that more and more.

Thursday, October 16, 2014


This past August, my husband and I traveled to Utah for business (him) and pleasure (me - birding!). Of the 33 life birds I tallied in the state, two of them were grebes. Along the auto tour loop at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, I was delighted to observe both Western and Clark's Grebes. Both of these birds were much larger than the Horned, Eared and Pied-billed Grebes I have seen in Chicago over the years. Below I feature several of the grebes I have had the pleasure of viewing since I started birding.

Floating lazily in Montrose Harbor ~ Horned Grebe

In full breeding plumage, a Horned Grebe shows off its magnificent "horns"

A Horned Grebe dons its more subtle winter plumage

One of twenty Western Grebes seen along the auto tour loop at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge

Two juvenile Western Grebes enjoy the sunny day at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge

In breeding plumage, an Eared Grebe displays its golden ear tufts

An Eared Grebe in non-breeding plumage swims in the harbor

A successful dive ~ Eared Grebe

Spending a spring day at North Pond in Chicago ~ Pied-billed Grebe

A good view of it's two-toned bill ~ Pied-billed Grebe

A Clark's Grebe forages in cool waters

A group of Clark's Grebes delight in the pleasant day

A sweet sight ~ Juvenile Clark's Grebe 

Posted by Julie Gidwitz