Monday, December 31, 2012

My 2012 Birding Milestones

2012 was a great birding year for me due to some unexpected travel to Arizona and North Carolina. A family reunion at the Oregon Coast also was a boon to my birding lists. I was able to add 40 life birds this year! I saw 306 bird species which is the biggest year I've personally had so far.

Rufous-capped Warbler
Sandwich Tern
Prothonotary Warbler
Wilson's Plover
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper
40 Life Birds Added in 2012:
Common Redpoll - Idaho
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper - Idaho
Elf Owl - Arizona
Lucifer Hummingbird - Arizona
Blue-throated Hummingbird - Arizona
Spotted Owl - Arizona
Gray Hawk - Arizona
Summer Tanager - Arizona
Dusky-capped Flycatcher - Arizona
Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher - Arizona
Red-faced Warbler - Arizona
Botteri's Sparrow - Arizona
Zone-tailed Hawk  - Arizona
Tufted Puffin - Oregon
Pelagic Cormorant - Oregon
Wrentit - Oregon
Heermann's Gull - Oregon
Brandt's Cormorant - Oregon
Black Oystercatcher - Oregon
Common Murre - Oregon
Pigeon Guillemot - Oregon
Western Gull - Oregon
Chestnut-backed Chickadee - Oregon
Prothonotary Warbler - Utah
Red-headed Woodpecker - North Carolina
Great Crested Flycatcher - North Carolina
Northern Gannet - North Carolina
Tricolored Heron - North Carolina
Clapper Rail - North Carolina
Wilson's Plover - North Carolina
Whimbrel - North Carolina
Short-billed Dowitcher - North Carolina
Sandwich Tern - North Carolina
Least Tern - North Carolina
Least Grebe - Arizona
Rufous-crowned Sparrow - Arizona
Rufous-winged Sparrow - Arizona
Olive Warbler - Arizona
Rufous-capped Warbler - Arizona
Lark Bunting - Arizona

Current Birding List Totals since July 2004:

Life List - 445
ABA area - 422

States lists over the century mark:
Idaho - 256
Arizona - 233
Utah - 219
Oregon - 161

County lists over the century mark:
Ada, Idaho 208
Davis, Utah 176
Maricopa, Arizona 157
Canyon, Idaho 143
Salt Lake, Utah 137
Harney, Oregon 117
Jefferson, Idaho 113
Valley, Idaho 112
Boise, Idaho 112

Special thanks to Swarovski Optik for the epic Arizona trip in August as part of a bird blogger summit. Thanks to North Carolina's Crystal Coast tourism board that hosted dozens of media folks earlier this year.

Red Crossbills - a new Yard Bird

Lynn Davenport is the guy who got me into birding. He's also my father-in-law. Recently I was over to his house helping him replace his kitchen counter-tops. While his head and torso were wedged into the sink-base cabinet disconnecting the drains and water supply lines, I was gazing out into his backyard enjoying the birds at his feeders. There were an abundance of House Finches, Pine Siskins, American Goldfinches, Eurasian Collared-Doves, Mourning Doves, Dark-eyed Juncos, and a smattering of American Robins. There was a lot of activity and I was being well entertained.

I noticed a handful finches land at an iced-over puddle and I commented to Lynn, "You've got some really red male House Finches. There are a couple that have so much red on them that its even on the upper parts of their backs. They're almost like Vermilion Flycatchers with finch bodies. You've got to see this!" Then one turned and gave me a full view of its bill and I exclaimed "They're crossbills!!!"

Imagine a gentleman in his mid to late 60's lying on the floor, on his back, half inside a cabinet excitedly trying to scramble to his feet to see a new yard takes awhile even at full speed. By the time he was up the birds had flown and didn't show back up after a couple of disheartening minutes. Dang!

"Sometimes I have birds out front that never come around to the feeders in back" Lynn commented.

"You've got pines with cones out there too. Let's go see!" said I with renewed hope.

So out the front door we went. There were Red Crossbills everywhere...some in all of his trees. Back into the house Lynn darted for his camera...this time his speed was added by birder-adrenaline, a magical potion only known to those of us in the trade. Into my truck dashed I for my spotting scope. We spent the next several minutes enjoying this crossbill moment together. So many of them and so close too.

The top photo and the next male photo are Lynn's. The others are mine.
At one point, a male Red Crossbill flew into the tree we were standing under, within a couple feet of our faces. I snapped this photo with my iPhone, but the light was behind it.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Top 20 Most Viewed BiF Posts in 2012

Here are the Top 10 most viewed posts at in 2012:

1. Bird Comparison Photos, by Kimberly Kaufman

2. Birding Apps Revisited, by Robert Mortensen
3. Birder Personality Profile, by Robert Mortensen

4. What's for dinner? - Snowy Egret, by Steve Creek

5. New Years Antelope Island Birding, by Robert Mortensen

6. Big Catch! by Julie Gidwitz

7. Views from Waters Edge, by Julie Gidwitz

8. Birds of the Bible, by guest blogger Dr. Steve Carr
9. BirdCaching, by Robert Mortensen
10. Quick Birding App Survey - Part One, by Robert Mortensen
11. Birding App Survey - Part Three, by Robert Mortensen
12. Backyard Birding, by Robert Mortensen

13. A Peek at Beaks, by Julie Gidwitz

14. Nice is Better than Mean, by Kimberly Kaufman

15. If I had a favorite bird, by Greg Gillson

17. Tragedy in a Barred Owl Family, by Scott Simmons

19. Birds Eye View by Julie Gidwitz

20. The Good Thing About February, by Pat Bumstead

What drives a birding blog post to go viral is still a mystery to me. Is it a cute picture? A salient topic? A great author? Key words that make the post easy to find by search engines? A well social networked person? A combination of all of the above?

What were your favorite and memorable posts from during the last year? Please tell us in the comments! 

I want to express my profound gratitude to the awesome BiF contributors. Their talents, skills, and time dedicated to this website blow me away. Thanks to you for reading and we look forwarding to sharing more of our passion for birds, birding and bird photography with you in 2013!

Rockford Christmas Bird Count Trifecta

For the past ten years or so I have made an effort to participate in as many area Christmas Bird Counts as possible. Many counts happen on the same day so it is difficult to pick and choose which ones will work, especially when distance, work, and family are all factored into the mix.

This year, though, I was able to do all three of the Rockford, Illinois area CBCs: Rockford, Kishwaukee, and the one I coordinate, Rock Cut State Park.

This is a recap of these counts.

Rock River

The Rockford count is the longest running one in my neck of the woods and one that gets much more counters than the other two. I was able to go with my dad and sister and we met up with another birder who was highly familiar with the area.

Unfortunately, it rained almost the entire time we counted and we were perpetually soaked and cold.

We did manage a few highlights including a calling and flying Pileated Woodpecker as well as a beautiful just-turned adult Bald Eagle.

We didn't count for as long as we anticipated as the weather just wouldn't give us a break.

For the Kishwaukee count I also went with my dad and sister plus my niece. This time we had an area all to ourselves so it was fun to explore and find new spots that we hoped to find birds.
Kishwaukee CBC

The weather was much nicer and felt warmer with the sunshine (despite starting out around 11 degrees).

We didn't find tons of birds but managed to pick up two American Kestrels, a few Red-tailed Hawks, and a handful of other common species. We didn't see anything rare or unusual.

For my count we covered a large area that included three nice forest preserves/conservation areas.

I counted with my other sister, dad, nephew, and both nieces.

Canada Geese

It was cold and windy but we managed to find more than 1,300 birds (many of which were Canada Geese) consisting of 25 species. The highlights included a pair of Eastern Bluebirds, a pair of Golden-crowned Kinglets, a Northern Harrier and a beautiful reddish Barred Owl that my nephew spotted.

We also found some interesting areas with large houses and feeders with a variety of birds.

Overall it was a fun and successful Christmas Bird Count season.

I highly recommend every birder to do at least one count each year. It makes for a great time outdoors even in ugly weather and is a wonderful citizen science project.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

My Top 10 Birds of 2012

As each year comes to a close, I like to remember back on my favorite bird sightings of the year.  OK, 2012 isn't officially over, so here's hoping that another couple of good birds show up to play havoc with this list :-)  In the meantime, here are my personal best birds seen or heard in 2012.

White Wagtail, San Pedro, CA 12-9-2012
1)  White Wagtail.  I was fortunate enough to be out in Orange County, California when this bird show up on a beach in San Pedro south of LA earlier this month.  I chased it the next day and it was a new ABA Area bird for me, and I was happy to see it with an old birding friend Rob Bates from Austin that I ran into unexpectedly on the beach.We watched it fly up and down the beach and wag its tail a bunch of times, and I managed a couple of digiscoped shots.

2) Barolo Shearwater.  A life bird for me this year, I was fortunate enough to be able to accompany my Montana birding buddy Mike Schwitters on the Brookline Bird Club pelagic trip out of Massachusetts that netted us a sighting of this bird.  It was a great new bird for me, and ABA area bird #800 for my buddy Mike.  Sweet! (Post about this trip here, and checklists from this trip here).

3) White-faced Storm Petrel.  Another new ABA Area bird for me this year on the Brookline Bird Club pelagic trip.  I was able to see hundreds of these little cuties down in New Zealand last year, but it was great to see them off the Atlantic coast of North America.

4) Red-billed Tropicbird.  A new bird for my ABA and life list, see on that Brookline Bird Club trip--Even though my seasickness patches ultimately didn't keep me from getting sick on that trip, I'm really glad I was able to be on that trip and see these cool birds.

5) Dovekie.  This one was seen on a pelagic trip out of Cape May, NJ last February.  This was a new ABA area and life bird for me, and the Razorbills on that trip were also new ABA area birds for me.  It was a long cold trip, but no seasickness, so that was a super plus.

Eared Grebe (left) with Horned Grebes, Spruce Run, 3-31-2012
6) Eared Grebe.  I spent a lot of time this year getting to know the birding locations and birds in my new county after moving to Hunterdon County, NJ last fall.  This bird is a state-wide rarity in New Jersey, and the first rare bird that I found in the county this year.  It appears to have been the only Eared Grebe found in New Jersey in 2012.  So, sorry for the crappy digiscoped photos, but it was a very foggy day and blah, blah, blah.  Best thing that came out of this sighting was my decision to finally get a better spotting scope--and I've enjoyed my Kowa 883 ever since!

Black Skimmer, Spruce Run Reservoir, 5-23-2012
7) Black Skimmer.  Another county rarity that I found, apparently only a second county record, and the first one of the eBird era :-)  Even though these birds every day of the year only an hour from here, they don't usually show up inland.  It stuck around for a couple of days and all the county listers were able to get good looks as it hung out near a boat launch at the local reservoir.  Sometimes you get credit for finding tough to ID rarities, but this one is as easy to ID as they come.

8) Royal Tern.  When Hurricane Sandy blew through, we had a great day at the local reservoirs.  This was my contribution--two birds that I found at Round Valley Reservoir after the storm.  Apparently a first Hunterdon County record.  Here's an eBird checklist with my friend Michael Rehman's photo of one of the birds.  Other great local rarities that I was able to see that day were a Leach's Storm Petrel (county first), American Oystercatchers (county first), Pomarine Jaeger, and Red Phalarope.

9) Whimbrel.  This is a controversial bird that I heard and recorded flying over my house in May.  They are never seen in the county, though they must be migrating overhead.  Local listers didn't like my including it in my year totals for the county on eBird since I heard them with the aid of a digital microphone, so it (and similarly heard Short-billed Dowitchers) aren't on my 2012 eBird totals.  Without these birds I am currently ranked third in the county on eBird.  If I include these heard birds, then I would be ranked second for 2012.  Ah the joys of competitive bird listing :-)

10) Common Chaffinch.  Another controversial bird.  Ultimately rejected as a possible escapee by the New Jersey Bird Records Committee, this bird entertained hundreds of birders at my friend Michael Rehman's feeders just five minutes from my house.  It was a great way to start off the year seeing this bird and all my friends who came over to see it (blog post and fuzzy photos here).

Runners Up:  
Local county rarities Pink-footed Goose (2nd NJ and 1st Hunterdon County record, how does this not make the top 10?!?), Ross's GooseCave Swallow, Little Gull, Clay-colored Sparrow in the yard (I could do a whole best yard birds of the year post!  Update:  Here it is!), Evening Grosbeak, Common Redpoll, Red Crossbill, and White-winged Crossbill.  New ABA bird (if it is ever accepted on the official list)--Nutmeg Mannakin on my Orange County trip.

Thanks to everyone who I was able to bird with or who helped me find birds this past year!  It was a lot of fun.  Sticking mostly to my own county, I still managed to see 371 bird species in 12 states this year.  Closer to home, unless the snow stops and I can get lucky with a last minute rarity or a Long-eared Owl, looks like I will end up with 254 (or 252, see above) species for Hunterdon County this year.  It was a great year of birding in the county, with the previous county year record of 257 broken and 3 birders finishing with 250+ county birds for the year and 6 local birders with 220+ species.

Before we look forward to a great year of birding in 2013, what were your own best birds of 2012?

Friday, December 28, 2012

Black Skimmer Fun

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Black Skimmer
The last couple times I've visited Ponce Inlet near Daytona Beach, FL, I've been greeted by upwards of 100 Black Skimmers.  These wonderful creatures are unique in the bird world--check out their bills.  They're the only American bird where the lower mandible is longer than the upper mandible.  Look at the bird from the side, and the bill seems rather thick, but from the front the bill is razor thin.

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Black Skimmer
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Black Skimmers
Even more fun is their unique feeding style.  They fly low over the water and skim the water with their bills in search of small fish. The lower mandible slices through the water, and when it gets a fish, the upper mandible closes down on the fish to capture it.

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Black Skimmer
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Black Skimmer
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Black Skimmer
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Black Skimmer
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Black Skimmer
I like to see them when they're resting.  They rest their heads on the sand, and it looks like they've tuckered themselves out so much they can't hold up their bills anymore.

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Black Skimmer
Black Skimmers are related to Gulls and Terns. They average about 18 inches in length and have a wingspan of about 44 inches. I love capturing images of them in flight.

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Black Skimmers
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Black Skimmers
UPDATE: Heidi noticed in a comment below that one of the birds in the photo above has a fish hook lodged in its throat.  Here's a cropped image showing the bird.  

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Black Skimmer
When the wind is blowing, look for them to be lined up facing into the wind.

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Black Skimmers
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Black Skimmers
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Black Skimmer

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Hoary Grail of Birding

We've been invaded again. Starting with two or three birds, as December advanced we began to get more and more Common Redpolls in the yard. By the middle of the month they were at all the feeders, in the all the trees, and feeding on the ground with over-wintering Mourning Doves.

My yard has been part of the local Christmas Bird Count for several years. In preparation for the day, I spent a great deal of time practicing an accurate count of these flighty little finches.  With feeders in both the front and back yards, I did a lot of laps through the house.

Common Redpolls are tiny birds in constant motion. Even when eating, there is always movement with birds flitting in and out, squabbling over food and the best locations. Add in the fact they travel in mixed flocks with House Finches and it's enough to make your eyes go crossed.

Suddenly in the midst of all the counting, all my senses went on alert. Is that....? Could it be...?

YES!  The holy grail of redpoll counts! I had a Hoary Redpoll in the yard! At least I thought I did.

Even the most experienced birders have a great deal of trouble doing a positive identification of a Hoary (Arctic) Redpoll. Checking the bird guides is only marginally helpful, as here's what Sibley has to say:
In general Hoary Redpoll appears less brown than Common, as if dredged in flour; it is also slightly larger and has a shorter bill. Specific field marks to look for include the Hoary’s unstreaked white rump; undertail coverts either unstreaked or with a single fine streak; and streaking on the sides less extensive and finer than on Common. Adult males are lightly flushed pale pink on the breast, as opposed to the uniform deep-rose breast coloration of Common. However, characteristics of the two species overlap, and not all redpolls can be safely separated in the field. Distinguishing Common and Hoary Redpolls is extremely challenging, as the differences are small and subjective, and debate continues over whether the two should be considered separate species.
It's bird identification on a sliding scale with no reference to indicate when the scale has tipped. Fortunately the tentatively-identified Hoary in my yard sat still long enough for a few photos, and fellow birders confirmed my identification.

Hoary Redpoll foreground, Common Redpoll background

It's very likely I have seen Hoarys before, as flocks of redpolls are common winter birds in this province. However, without the photograph and fellow birder confirmation, I've always been hesitant to add them to my life list. At long last I can finally put a tick mark beside their name. With a pen.