Sunday, April 26, 2009

A New Favorite Bird

I don't have a single favorite bird. In many cases, my favorite is simply the one I am looking at. On Saturday, I added a new bird to my very long "favorite list" simply because I saw it, photographed it and it's name contains another favorite past-time of mine...

Like many birders in southeast Michigan, I have been known to leave the state during spring migration. That is not to say that Michigan doesn't have any places worth visiting - it certainly does. But one of the premiere places in the Midwest is only an hour from my home, so taking the short trek there now and then is certainly a worthwhile adventure. So, Saturday morning, I hit the road and was at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area by 7:45 am.

In the span of 6 hours or so, I recorded over 80 species. Among the goodies - Worm-eating Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Summer Tanager (thanks Chuck!). Those were among the best birds of the day simply because I had not recorded them in Ohio before. Adding a state bird now and then can be a tough deal, but 3 in a few hours? Not bad! (My Ohio list is now 219, by the way.) 17 total warbler species were observed. Admittedly, I wasn't birding hard. I took some time for photography, too. A few even sat nicely for me, like the Black-throated Green Warbler seen on the left.

But what was the most interesting bird of the day? The one I can't count, because it is not a species - it is parts of two.

First, a quick note on how a birding list may work. You see a species and you record it on your list. Ta-dah! An American Robin, a Red-tailed Hawk, and a Herring Gull would be three checks on the list right? Each is it's own species and therefore has it's own place on the checklist.

Sometimes, however, a bird is not pure. It is a hybrid. The parents are not the same species, but they are similar enough where they can breed, so in some situations, they do. The case in point is the bird on the left. Called a Brewster's Warbler, it is the offspring of a Blue-winged Warbler and a Golden-winged Warbler. If you look at the photo of "my" bird and compare it with the images of the parent birds, you can clearly see where it has marks that combine traits from the two parents. The gold head and wing-bars are from the Golden-winged, while the predominantly white underbody and black stripe from bill to eye are from the Blue-winged. While this photo does not show it, there is a dash of yellow on the breast which tell us that is an "F1" (first) generation. That can be rather important for field identification because the hybrid young can then go back and mate with "pure" adults in subsequent years, bringing on a whole mish-mash of trait combinations.

Ultimately, as Blue-winged Warblers move north into Golden-winged Warbler territories, the interbreeding results in the long-term loss of the Golden-wings. Their genes are lost as the more dominant genes of the Blue-wings take over. Interestingly enough, if you think about, it is not because they aren't breeding, it is because they are breeding. For the Golden-winged Warbler, the simple act of passing on one's genetic information is, in a sense, dooming some populations.

By the way, lets look at that name again: Brewster's Warbler. Brrrreeeeewwwwster's Warbler. Get it?

All this typing has made me thirsty....

Saturday, April 25, 2009

White-faced Ibis at Lake Erie Metropark 4/25/09

Well, here it is!

First things first - a hat tip and a beer to Ed Smith for locating the bird!

But, upon closer inspection, Walt Pawloski and I believe this is a non-breeding White-faced Ibis, not a Glossy. I don't have all night here to lay out the details, but a few key things are noticeable in this cropped but unaltered photo:
- legs more or less uniform in color
- red facial skin
- pale white line around the face that goes behind the eye

If this was a Glossy Ibis, the legs would be contrastingly two-toned, the white line would not reach behind the eye, and the facial skin would not be red.

As noted in a earlier email, a White-faced Ibis and Glossy Ibis appeared together at Lake Erie Metropark on April 24th, 1996. Only one day difference...

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Mr. Smith Goes To The Arctic

In 1939, James Stewart starred in a movie called "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." It received one Academy Award and multiple nominations, too. It was even added to the National Film Registry. All accounts say it was (or is) quite a film. Even though it is considered a classic, I haven't seen it.

Well, this past weekend, I experienced my own "Mr Smith" storyline. Instead of a naive Senator heading to D.C., insane birders drove hundreds of miles to see a bird on migration. The bird, Smith's Longspur, winters in the southcentral United States and breeds on the tundra in or near the Arctic Circle. When they wing their way back to the breeding grounds, they don't fly straight there. As they move north, they swing a bit east (bird people call this an elliptical migration). So, instead of heading to, say, Oklahoma, for example, to view them on the wintering grounds, some birders can head to Illinois instead and catch them in migration. That is what I did. (I missed this bird in Alaska in '04, so it was time to try again.). The Illinois Ornithological Society was hosting a weekend of field trips, including a solid chance at the Longspur and Greater Prairie-Chickens on the lek. This was my chance to see Mr. Smith before he goes to the Arctic.

So, in the early morning hours on Friday, my Co-Pilot and I hit the road. By early afternoon we were in Centralia, Illinois. With hours to kill before the evening owl field trip, we opted to bird Forbes State Park. While asking about good birding locations in the park, Joe and Corinne, who now live in Colorado, walked in the door! Joe had originally informed me weeks ago that they would be there and invited me to join them. So, not only was it an opportunity to see some new or cool birds, it was also an opportunity to bird with a dear friend and his wife (who, by the way, was allowed in the country some time ago. You may recall their situation - you can read it here.) Birding in the park was pretty fair, including a Northern Parula and Carolina Chickadee.

Friday night's field trip was not really the way a trip should be run. The itinerary was changed for whatever reason, and I know that irked some people, including me. People from states across the country (West Virginia and Colorado, to name just two) were certainly puzzled. The posted itinerary was for owls and nightjars on Friday night. So what should you be doing? Heading to the woods, right? Instead, we were off to a marsh to call for rails. Why in the world would we call for rails in the dark knowing that many participants would be heading to the same wetland the following morning with the hopes of seeing a rail?! Oh, and then there were no maps. It was basically a caravan. You know what I mean - follow the car in front of you and hope that everyone can manage? A map and/or GPS coordinates would have been very cool.

Anyhow, the rail calling was not particularly successful. A Sora called but that was more or less it. There was that charming elderly woman who tried her own rail calls, "butt in the end", if you know what I mean, they did not work. Shortly thereafter, we tried for Barn Owl (at a location the leaders admitted used to be reliable - what's up with that?!). No luck. Gee, why? Interestingly enough, that same charming woman tried to call for owls, too. Her two calls sounded, well, very similar. By 10:00pm, we were back at the hotel and a very disappointed.

After an early breakfast on Saturday, a shining moment occurred. The leaders paid attention to weather and saw that Sunday was supposed to be a bust. Visibility and chicken activity could be hampered in the rain. Recognizing that quite a number of people were hoping for chickens on Sunday, they took us to the lek right away. Not far from the Karl Bartel Marsh, the Greater Prairie-Chickens were a boomin'. (Check out this video to get an idea of what was going on.) Even at distances exceeding one-third of a mile, the booming was easy to hear. With a spotting scope at 40x (or more), the yellow throat sacs were glowing! They were jumpin' and runnin', all in an attempt to impress the ladies. (The picture has red arrows to mark a bird. The view was much better through a scope.) What a treat!

Before long, we where back at the Karl Bartel Marsh for rails (again). The whole point of this field trip segment was to secure a Yellow Rail. Basically, you line up and march through the marsh/wet field (boots required). If the bird flushes, you'll know it by the white stripe in the secondary flight feathers. After a few swipes, we managed one. A life bird for many, yes, but not moi (I had one in Minnesota many years ago). Other goodies of the day included an American Bittern, Sora, and one million Henslow's Sparrows (okay, not that many). A LeConte's Sparrow was there, as well, but I never got on it. Unfortunately, the Yellow Rail slipped into a wormhole and likely landed elsewhere in the marsh. Maybe two-thirds of the people saw it. Corrine, unfortunately, did not. More late morning birding was done at Forbes. Pine Warbler, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Osprey were pretty cool, but many of us where starting to chomp at the bit for Smith's Longspur.

Before long, the caravan hit the road which ultimately exposed administrative gaff #2. All literature told us specifically to pack lunches for the trips. We would, they said, be in areas where we would not be able to get lunches. After leaving Forbes, we found ourselves at a gas station next to the interstate. You know the type - gas and a Subway. Many people ate there, while some of us had a cooler full of food. Grrrrrrrrr. I know for fact that REALLY ticked some people off.

Just east of Farina, we found ourselves at some ponds. What a bonanza! Black-necked Stilts, American Golden-Plover, and ducks up the wazoo. Being a total wanker at times, I commented (out loud, I'll have you know!) that I thought it would be quite a show if a Peregrine showed up to kick up the birds. Of course, a thought like that in south central Illinois is pretty outlandish, right? Well, within 60 seconds, one shot over head chasing a Yellowlegs! After that one pass, it moved off to the west. Within seconds, it was back making another pass. But, several people were still watching the first one. Yes indeed, TWO Peregrine Falcons creating havoc. You have to love that! We also made a quick stop at Newton Lake for a White Pelican.

Before long, we had pulled over to a rather innocent looking field containing gobs of corn stubble. A key reason for this trip was hopefully in that field - Mr. Smith. Like the Yellow Rail march, we lined up and advanced. Timing and fate were our side. We were on the left of the line when three birds, with lots of white on the outer tail, flushed and came left. They put down a few yards away. I locked onto a female (much more drab than the male). Within seconds, the male flew within feet of me - buffy/orange belly, white outer tails feathers, white wing converts (they form a stripe in flight), and black-and-white on the face. Bull's eye! SMITH'S LONGSPUR! Life bird #628 in the bag! Unfortunately, not everyone got a look. Had the bird flushed right and not left, I would have missed it, too. Right place. Right time. Corinne missed the bird...for now.

Further up the road, we made a stop for Upland Sandpiper. Multiple birds were soaring over a field doing their flight call. How cool! I thought they were in the mesosphere, but I think they were closer to 500 feet - easily "migrating hawk altitude" (no joke). They were way up there!

At this point, the trip officially ended. We secured permission from the trip leader to re-visit the field. Corinne needed the bird, remember? Permission granted. With a line of now four (not 25), we advanced. Within a few minutes, a bird flushed. Smith's Longspur again. A new bird for Corinne. All of us had now seen Mr. Smith as he goes to the Arctic!

The long drive back to the hotel in Centralia gave us some great looks at one of the coolest birds of trip. It was started with a well-timed glance by the Co-Pilot, then a scream followed by my foot hard on the brake. Within a few seconds, the four of us where looking at a sub-adult Golden Eagle! While some of the other birds on this trip are rare or difficult to see, we were there to see them; we basically expected them. A Golden Eagle was NEVER on my list of possible birds for this trip. Too cool!

After a quick meal at a mexican restaurant, we headed out to Forbes (again). The plan? Well, do what we should have done the night before - find owls and nightjars. Before sunset, we found ourselves tracking down (and seeing) Louisiana Waterthrushes. By night fall, we were in the campground. Whip-poor-wills were going nuts! No owls of any kind. As we were passing through the boat launch, the Co-Pilot screamed (again), and I stomped the brakes (again). Within seconds, we were looking at a lump on a light pole. "It's an owl! I saw it fly up there!" The light was shining down from the pole and it was sitting on top, so we were not sure of the species. Argh! Somehow, it slipped off the pole and it was gone. Dammit. We got out of the car hoping to hear a distant call, but nothing was heard. Double dammit. Admitting defeat, we went to climb back in the car when the Co-Pilot whispered "Its right there!" On the post at the boat slip, 100 yards away, under the lights for all to see, sat a Barred Owl. I even had time to put the scope on it! Killer views for all! With that, a very successful day of birding came to a close and we returned to the hotel.

It was at the point, that I learned that I had paid for the evening banquet. Well, I didn't, or so I thought, but it turns out I did, I guess. Confused? Me, too. Remember the Florida election in 2000 with the confusing ballot? The IOS registration form was apparently designed by the people who laid out the Florida document. I didn't sign up for it, but I did, even though I didn't mean to....I...well....


...Sunday morning sucked. It had rained and more was coming. Joe and Corinne opted to pass on the trip as a result of the rain and invited us to a real breakfast up the street. There was an eagerness to see Prairie Chickens again, so farewells were bid. That offer should have been taken. By the time the group had arrived at the lek, a fog had rolled in and rain was steady. The birds were nothing more than black shapes on a gray background, but they were still boomin' a bit.

On that note, a course was plotted for home. Per usual on these long drives, I found myself at an antique mall. Totally against my will (Needed. To. Resist. But. I. Couldn't...), I found myself pulling out a credit card to buy more coffee tins. The power of the coffee tin is very hard to beat. Really. I'll tell you about them some other time.

At this point, you might be wondering how it possible that I could travel and not try a regional beer. Well, apparently, it isn't possible. I recalled from a beer tasting that a brewery is located in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I could not find it in my GPS so a helpful clerk at a hotel provided some good details. Basically, the Warbird Brewing Company doesn't serve food. But the Mad Anthony Brewing Company does! The taco pizza was truly excellent, but the beers needed a bit of work. The Blonde (Ahh, come on! Get a fun name!) was extremely boring. No life. No gusto. No body. Minimal flavor. Very, very blah. The Auburn (Ahh, come on!) was much better, but average. Standard red lager profiles made for a nice beer, but nothing really to get excited about. Of course, after the, anything would be nice. #559 and #560 were a 2 and a 3 out of 5.

After the short drive from Fort Wayne, home felt good. My Illinois list now stands at 92 species. 83 were seen on this trip alone. The Smith's Longspur brings me to a grand total of 627 species.

So, that's my movie. Mr. Smith WAS seen on his way to the Arctic. Perhaps I'll submit a script soon. I'll get somebody cool to direct it. Maybe Clint Eastwood can do it...

Monday, April 13, 2009

A Hell Of A Meal

Ancients myths and legends can be fascinating. Take the Greeks, for example. How did they explain winter? Basically, Hades kidnapped Persephone, whom, we can assume, was some hot chick. She was tricked into eating some seeds while in the Underworld and was not allowed to leave. Her mom, Demeter, goddess of the harvest, was, as you might expect, in mourning and would not allow things on Earth to grow. Ultimately, the Fates decided that because Persephone was tricked and did not eat much in the first place, she could return topside for most of the year. So, during the few months of the year when she was in Hades, nothing on Earth would grow, thus, winter. (We will forget the idea that when one hemisphere is in winter, the other is in summer. We can also forget about gods, because there aren't any. Remember, this is a just an ages old fairy tale to give me something to work with...)

Anyhow, what were the seeds from? Pomegranates. Have you ever had grenadine in a drink? That is basically pomegranate juice! Steeped in religious blither and various myths, everybody has something good to say about this big, weird, juicy, sweet thing from the Middle East. Even modern doctors like it (studies are underway to understand how it might impact fighting diseases like diabetes, the common cold, and lymphoma.) If you were over my house yesterday, you can have had Mint-infused Grilled Chicken with a Pomegranate Yogurt Dressing.

Once again, Mastering the Grill shows how to do grilling right. In short, the chicken was marinated in lemon juice, some olives and some spices, including fresh mint. The Pomegranate Yogurt Dressing was just that - yogurt, pomegranate juice, and a few little extras. Unfortunately, unknown to me at the time, the Pom is a seasonal fruit. Despite the fact that many of the literary connections suggest it is a "spring thing"(away from the Greek tale), you can only get it in the fall. A bottle of juice did the trick. Shhhhh. Don't tell anybody.

Grill it and smear it with the dressing. Add baked potatoes, peas, and deviled eggs, and you have one hell of meal.

Many chicken meals are complimented by a good ale. I opted to give the Dirty Blonde Ale (#558) from the Atwater Block Brewery a go. While the guys at dogged it, I liked it. The white head was gone within 30 seconds or so, but the smell had a wonderful citrusy life to it. On the palate, I found the citrus was almost more lemon than orange (it said orange on the bottle). The body was a bit light and the finish was a bit astringent, but it had some great potential. A three out of five is fair, I think. They need to tweak it a bit and they will have a fine beer. I have a feeling it would have hit the spot even better if it had been a hot, nasty day. You know the kind I am talking about...

Persephone would, too.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Rocky Mountain oh-High-oh

The Rocky Mountains are really something. If you have never seen them, you should. If you are birder, the birds there are every bit as wonderful. One that can be a real eye-catcher is the Mountain Bluebird. It's colors are such a vibrant shade of blue that it can be enough to make your head spin. Basically, you don't find it breeding at altitudes below 5,000 feet, hence the name.

Like so many birds, they may get lost now and then. Sometimes, really lost. So, the one that showed up in Ohio earlier this week by the Toledo Express Airport (207 feet above sea level) was quite a shocker. A stunning mountain bird on some of the flattest land in the midwest.

You might say it was a Rocky Mountain High in Ohio.

The plan was simple. Get to the general area, look for cars parked on the shoulder and the birders staring off into space. Park safely. Asked someone "Where is it?" See the bird. Take some pics. Go home.

Not quite.

Yesterday, I rocketed out of work at 5:00. By 6:15 or so, I was on site in Ohio. Not a car to be had. Not one. Wow. I was sure there would be at least 6 or 8 cars by dinner time, right? Nope. So, I had to park and actually find the bird myself. Within minutes, I had located it on the barbed wire fence. Very cooperative. Very cool.

That said, I almost never made it there. I almost got run off the road by a sailboat. Really. A sailboat. On the expressway. There is a little piece of driver's training we should all recall: check your blind spot before you change lanes. If you are pulling a 25 foot sailboat, you should reeeaaally check your blindspot. They even have mirrors to help you do it! Homer Simpson in the truck must have thought the blindspot idea was a myth or something and simply opted not to check. He also apparently neglected to remember he had an extra 25 feet behind him. So, he drifted over. Physics tells me a car and a sailboat cannot occupy the space at the same time. Brakes are a good thing. Oh, the name the boat? "Doh". Really. Can you imagine the scene if he had wrecked? Splinters of a boat named Doh strewn across I-75? That would have been classic!

So, with this little road trip, I have now upped my Ohio list to 216 species. In addition, I have ticked the blue beauty in 9 states - Ohio, Colorado (where I saw my first in June of 1996), Utah, Arizona, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, and Michigan.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Keep Moving

April and May are times to truly live for in Michigan and Ohio if you are a birder. Shorebirds, warblers, flycatchers, name it - they are all on the go. So many to see, so little time, as the saying goes. One of the premier places in the Midwest is Magee Marsh in northwest Ohio. With my new interest in photography, I have been looking forward to trying things out this spring and getting some shots as the birds move along on their merry way.

That said, I went there Saturday with a good friend of mine. 58 species for the day was the final tally. Newbies for the year included Winter Wren, Hermit Thrush, and Eastern Towhee, just to name a few.

But the Northern Harrier will stick with me for a while, I think. The bird's identity was never a question. I recognized it immediately. But a question did exist - if I sit here long enough, will it come close enough to get a nice flight shot? Bit by bit, it drifted closer to the road (I was parked on the shoulder of the long driveway to the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center) . I waited. I waited. With lens the size of a coffee can sticking out of the driver's window for all to see, I waited.

The oncoming driver in the diesel F-250 did not. He thought it would be a good idea to stop BETWEEN ME AND THE BIRD as it (the bird) drifted down and settled in the grass.

"So, what kind of bird was that?", he asked.
Politely, I responded "A male Northern Harrier".

Of course, there are other ways I could have responded, like "I have no idea...", or "Hmmm, I am not certain. All I see is silver paint." or "Well, geeee, I'm not sure because your God-damned truck is in the way."

I likened it to walking up to a golfer as they swing, asking "What kinda club is that?!" Or, a nurse asking a surgeon before they cut into a skullcap "Is that blade sharp?!"

But, no, I was polite. Admittedly, the bird was too far out and the grass was too tall for me to get a shot. But, that is really not the point, is it? When someone is safely pulled over on the roadside and has a lens trained out the window and you want to get past, keep moving. I won't rant because you went in front of me. After all, its a road. But, keep moving.

That said, I did find myself with a chance to snatch a photo of a Great Egret. It stood, very proud but cautious, along the shoulder. I managed a photo. No F-250s in sight...

Mustard On Chicken - Part II

There are, by my count, 10,686 ways to cook chicken. Sauces, rubs, glazes, and marinades - you name it. (It is very much like how Bubba viewed shrimp in "Forrest Gump". Remember that scene?)

Anyhow, I found myself a few nights ago with chicken ready to go (I eat it alot) but I did not want to fall back on the standbys. I was looking to do something different. Following the lead of the Mustard Sage Glaze, I bumbled onto a new recipe after a brief cruise around the internet: Honey Curried Chicken.

1/3 cup of orange juice
1/3 cup of honey
1/4 cup of dijon mustard
4 teaspoons of curry powder

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl and dump it over the chicken breasts. Bake for 20 minutes. Flip, baste and cook for 20 more. Done.

I admit, the honey taste was a bit hard to find (the curry (pictured) and the mustard were the dominant flavors), but it was pretty damned good! Excellent meal!