Monday, November 28, 2011

Black-tailed Gull: Take 2

Last week Wednesday was a not-so-fun day.  With reports of a Black-tailed Gull in Ashtabula, Ohio, we opted to head off in the dark.  

Trust me. It was totally worth it.  The Black-tailed Gull is normally found in East Asia.  Japan, Korea and the like.   That makes it a Code 4 rarity for those of you familiar with the codes established by the American Birding Association.  One was only three hours away and well worth it if it can be found.

That is a big "if"....

Arrival in Ashtabula was shortly after sunrise.  8:30am maybe? After checking the Harbor from various locations known to local birders as the Cement Bridge, the Museum, and the Park, minutes turned to hours and by 3pm, defeat had been conceded.  Damn it.  Dinner at the Great Lakes Brewing Company in Cleveland helped to sooth aching morale as did the drinks at the Fort Street Brewery back in Michigan.  (It was the tapping of Doug's 500th species of beer. We would not have missed that for the world!)

But as the Thanksgiving weekend moved along, reports of the gull in Ohio still came in. Granted, it was tough, but people were getting it.  One common theme emerged - be on the Cement Bridge at DAWN for a gull fly-by. 

So on Sunday, my alarm went off at 2:30am. With iPhone in hand, I pondered the evidence.  A three-hour drive in the dark.  Black-tailed Gull. Possible rain. Black-tailed Gull.  3 hours drive to get back home.  Black-tailed Gull. Loss of sleep. Black-tailed Gull.   

Decision made.

By 6:00am, I was in Ashtabula having some quick eats at Mcdonald's. By 6:30am, I was at the cement bridge. Shortly thereafter I was joined by Heather, a birder from Columbus.  

By 7:15am, there was enough light to start really looking around.  In ones and twos, soon to be tens and twenties and fifties, gull swarms moved off the waterfront and headed upriver.  Overhead. To the right of us. To the left. Lots of sky to cover.  When the sky was empty of gulls, it was worth it to check the water and land below us again.  With the sun rising behind a thick wall of clouds, lighting was a nightmare - everything was so dark.  As others rolled into the parking lot, more eyes contributed to the cause. 

At one point, I noticed a peculiar white blob near a train.  In the dim light, I came to the conclusion it was not a garbage bag (trust me - it can happen).  I had Heather come back over (she had a bigger scope which would gather more light) and double check. As I peered through her scope, the bag turned its head and looked my way.   Snowy Owl.  Sweet. You can see it (sort of...) in the picture below.  Using iPhone software, I figured this gem was about 700 yards away.

(For the record, it is turning out to be a super year for Snowy Owls. Reports are just pouring in from all the place.  Snowy Owls - coming to a field near you.  Or a house, light pole, tractor, barn, rocky berm, or anything else they care to stand on...)

Cool as it was, I didn't drive back to Ashtabula to see a Snowy Owl. After gawking for a few minutes, conversation went back to the gull.  With already hundreds of gulls past us, many were starting to wonder if we missed it.  From there, the plan would have been to exchange phone numbers, spread out and find the bird.  

Of course, having spent almost all day on Wednesday with that plan, I decided that the incoming flock of gulls needed to be checked. 

One bird at a time.  No. No. Nope.  Maybe? No.  Not that one. Or that one.  Ooooh.  Black back.  Black upper wings. White trailing edge.  As it banked and sallied back and forth, the black tail was obvious. A BLACK TAIL!!! 

"I got it!!!" was all I could muster.  From that moment, all eyes where looking off into the distance as I called out marks on the horizon.  "Moving left. I have a utility tower.  It is moving left. It just dodged right but is back left and heading away. I have treetops. It just crossed a green house with white trim. It...just disappeared up the river........"

Unfortunately,  not everybody got it. 

Sadly, I never had a chance for a photo of any kind.  To get a feel for this bird, go here, here and here.  That tail. Awesome.  These pics, by the way, are of the Ohio bird, not just any Black-tailed Gull.

With the key bird in the bag, and a bonus bird to boot, I opted to put in a half-effort to find the bird upriver. A couple from California missed the gull by about 30 seconds (really) but they were especially interested in seeing the Owl. After showing them what I believe is Ohio's first Snowy Owl for the 2011-12 season, I set a course for home.  Rain was imminent so I didn't feel the need to linger. 

Long drives after a successful chase are always shorter. By 1:10pm, I was hope. By 1:11pm, I was in bed. By 1:12pm, I was sleeping.  Naps can be so good sometimes. 

The Black-tailed Gull is my 656th bird (lifetime).  It also happened to be my 239th bird for Ohio. The Snowy Owl was my 238th bird for the state. 

#657?  Who knows. Anything goes at this point!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The West Comes East: A Michigan Pacific Loon

After a rather frustrating few days (unsuccessful bird chases to Ohio, flat tires on a holiday weekend, and other frustrations (including the knowledge that the dregs of society will  pepperspray and shoot each other at a Wal-Mart on Black Friday), today was just plain pleasant. 

Good birds have a way of making that happen.

True to its name, the Pacific Loon shouldn't really be here in Michigan.  A breeder along the northern reaches of the continent (Alaska and northwest Canada), they usually disperse south along the west coast for the winter.  Now  and then, they come inland; even to the Great Lakes believe it or not.

So yesterday, a birder found one in Monroe County. Sterling State Park to be exact.  37 times this bird has been recorded in Michigan.  With the Park only twenty minutes down the road, I figured it was worth a quick trip.  

Upon arriving at the northwest corner of the south lagoon, I found Cathy Carroll sitting there. Pulling up a rock at the water, we were joined moments later by Jim Fowler.  In front of us sat the loon.

Over the next 30 minutes or so, the clock-wise feeding circle took it in and out of camera range.  As it tooled around and dove, we had a great chance to check out the relevant field marks.  Subtle bill structure (compared to other loons), a nice, smooth, rounded head, grayish tones on the back of the neck and a solid white throat with a "chinstrap".  The scaling on the back suggests an immature bird (born this year).  

At times, it was not 35 yards out.  With a 400mm lens, I managed a fair shot.  You can even see the water droplets on the bill and head. 

This final picture shows just how different, and simultaneously similar, a Pacific Loon and a Common Loon can  appear.  The Common, on the right, has a larger noggin with a forehead lump, and a heavier bill.  How nice it was for the birds to cooperate.

So there you have it.  My third Pacific Loon for Michigan and the first for Monroe County. I now have 211 species for that county. My Michigan 2011 list now stands at a pitiful 195 species. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Peregrinations And Speed defines "peregrination" as a course of travel or journey.  While the definition is not very detailed, I think it is fair to say that many would conjure up the idea that the journey might be a long one.  

Sure, one could argue that a half-mile walk to the party store would be, by definition, a peregrination, but it just doesn't sound right. Compare that with a walk to a party store 500 miles away. That might be a peregrination we could all sink out teeth in to, right?

So, when this bird shot past the hawk watch a few days ago, I couldn't help but to think where it was going.  

Peregrine Falcons, true to their name, "wander". I don't mean wander in the sense of lost; I mean wander in the sense of covering great distances.   Using fancy-schmancy satellite stuff, we now know that populations of this species that breed along arctic cliffs will migrate to South America.  that's thousands of miles - one way! Check out this image.  How is that for cool?

It moved pretty effortlessly, as you might expect. Speed? I can't tell you.  The books say a cruising speed could be around 40 mph or so. I got the impression this bird was moving a bit slower than that, but I can't be sure.  They can certainly fly faster or slower as needed.  It only makes sense - wanderers can choose a destination so why not choose a speed?
What I can say, with certainty, is this: the bird was not flying at top speed.  When these things dive, they almost re-define speed.  Take a moment and check out this video and you'll see what I mean.

So, while we don't know where this bird started or where it will end up, I'm not worried. It'll get there....and at the speed of its choosing.

Maybe JRR Tolkien's quote would apply here:  "All those that wander are not lost."  

Perhaps I can add my own quote: "Wanders can fly pretty God-damned fast....."

Friday, November 11, 2011

Nice Day

This past Sunday, I had the chance to spend some time in the park.  A few highlights...

On the drive in, I found this Red-tailed Hawk perched in a tree.  He just sat there without a care in the world. They are usually quite jumpy.  Looking at his left leg, you can see the band. Believe it or not, part of it is readable in my original photo!  I contacted one of the local banders and it turns out he banded it that morning! 

This Golden Eagle made a nice pass.  White in the wings and tail with a clean trailing edge.  It was born just a few months ago.  Boy, you can really see those golden feathers on the back of his neck (hackles).  A stunning bird, no doubt about it!

After the watch petered out, I made a short trip to the shoreline at the south end of the park.  The Long-tailed Duck was just a bit too far out to get a shot, but this Ruddy Duck was within spittin' range.  I don't think I have ever been so close to one!

The temps this morning are probably the chilliest so far this season. Yesterday, we even had some of those big gloppy snowflakes.   I'll be gearing up shortly with camera in hand. We'll see what happens. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011


I'm at a wedding in Detroit. Ghettoblaster in bottles. Motor City Brewing Works.


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