Sunday, May 10, 2009

Willet - eating

What a wonderful day I had yesterday celebrating International Migratory Bird Day. I started by meeting Dick from Ogden, Utah, at 5 a.m. to visit a sharp-tailed lek for viewing and picture taking. Dick is a gentleman with a lot of knowledge about photography and equipment made mine look sick. Northern Harriers, a Fish and Game truck and a visit by seven antelope kept the sharpies a little nervous and by 7:30 they left the lek.
When I got home a flock of Evening Grosbeaks and a Grackle had joined siskins, finch, robins, blackbirds,sparrows, crossbills and buntings. I had planned on being at Camas National Wildlife Refuge by 8:30, but the beautiful grobeaks and grackle delayed me. Both male and female Evening grosbeaks have already fascinated me. They are one of the most beautiful birds that visit my yard.
At Camas I met many of the Audubon group from Idaho Falls. We watched kestrels, Ruby-crowned kinglets, yellow-rumped warblers and Eastern Flycatchers. I decided to drive out through the refuge.
There were only a few shorebirds and waterfowl there. Willets were all scattered along the roads and ponds throughout the refuge. As I was about at the last marsh, I noticed a willet working the newly flooded marsh.
The willet would probe the soft earth with its strong bill eventually finding an earth worm. After the worm was extracted, the willet would grasp it in its bill and run to the nearest water, swish the worm, washing it and then gulping it down. I watched it for about 45 minutes as it gathered nine worms, washed and ate them. From time to time the willet would fly in a circle only to land closer to my truck. It was a great show.
On the way home I visited a Swainson's hawk nest and two Great-horned owl nests. One nest on the Refuge had six and the other had three owlets. Just small furry balls with two big eyes.
When I got home the Evening grosbeaks and grackle were still active and had been joined by a Western Kingbird and a Yellow-rumped warbler. What a great day.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Chasing the leucistic robin

Here is an article I wrote this week. This evening I spent about two hours in the yard where this robin and its mate have their nest. I got about 100 pictures of the male leucistic robin.

Leucistic Robin

“I have an albino robin in my yard,” a caller reported recently. “Are you interested in seeing it?”

Of course I was interested; I am a birder and am always looking for new things to see and write about.

Several days later I met the caller in the late evening.

“Maybe he has gone to bed for the night, but he was just here about 15 minutes ago.”

Almost before the words were out of the landowner’s mouth a red-breasted white bird flew into a nearby tree. Soon the bird was on the ground working the grass like all robins do. It was getting dark, almost too dark, but sneaking up behind a tree I was able to snap a couple of pictures.

Soon it was joined by a normal colored robin. The flirting between the two of them resembled many pairs of robins I had observed in the past.

“His mate,” said my guide. “He has come here for the last three years. Every year he becomes a little more whiter. Must be old age.”

With normal eye color and the breast mostly red, this robin is not an albino, but has a condition called leucism. This condition is caused when all skin pigment is missing in certain areas of the body. In albinism all the melanin is missing causing the eyes to be red from the blood vessels showing through from behind the eyes.

Leucism resulted in this robin when patches of skin lacked the ability of producing pigment. Pale bills and legs are also a sign of leucism.

I saw my first leucistic bird last year while staying at a monastery for retired Catholic nuns in northern Idaho at an educational conference.

While looking out my dorm window I saw a black and white Brewer’s blackbird feeding on the ground. I was able to get some pictures of it through the window and later of it while sitting on a fence as I went for a hike.

At dinner, I asked Sister Mary about it.

“Oh, it is just one of us,” she joked. “This is the fourth year it has come here and I am sure it is converting as it gets whiter each year.”

I have showed pictures of both birds to ornithologists and expert birders only to get varying comments. Some say the pigment in the skin cannot change while others say it can. But one thing is agreed upon; some of the feathers can appear “washed out” instead of pure white.

“It looks like most feathers on the robin are either white or normal, but at least one of the primaries looks washed out,” said Cliff , a recognized expert on bird who lives Idaho. “I think that along with the pale legs and bill makes it leucistic.”

Got an odd bird who regularly visits your yard? Contact me. It may take me a few days to get to your place, but I would love to learn from it and you.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Lazuli Buntings

What a beautiful sight this morning in my backyard as I saw two Lazuli Buntings joining the 30 American Goldfinch, White-winged and Red Crossbills, House finch, Red-winged blackbirds, a flicker, Black-headed grosbeaks, Pine siskins and robins. My feeders are taking a beating and all the birds are eating me out of house and home - but oh what a joy to watch them.
Hopefully Evening Grosbeaks and Cedar and Bohemian Waxwings will soon show up to start nesting.
The Pine siskins are feisty little devils often chasing even the larger Red Grosbeaks off the feeders. Yesterday evening I had a White-crowned sparrow in my backyard.
The strong winds the last three days has played havoc with trying to keep feed in the feeders. Fifty mph winds scatter everything everywhere. It is not fit for man or beast.
A friend of mine would like me to start writing about fishing and fish. I too want to do that, but with ice on most lakes still and rivers running muddy and high, that won't happen for a week or two. But in the meantime I will continue to write and photograph birds.
Have a great day.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Sharptails and wind

When I got out of bed this morning at 5 there were no clouds and no wind. By the time I got to the leks the clouds had rolled in and soon after the wind began to blow. I got a few good pictures with the aid of my flash, which does not spook the grouse. But I was really never able to get enough good light to get some good pictures until I had to leave. There were 14 males and three females on the lek.
I also had Meadowlarks, sparrows, curlews, Harriers, mallards, Canadas, Short-eared owls and ravens fly over. Seven antelope came by but kept their distance.
By the time I got home to get ready to go to school, the wind was howling. TV said we had gusts of 50 mph - too strong for man, beast, birds and insects. It blew all my bird feed out of the feeders on the ground and I had goldfinches, house finches, pine siskins and Red-winged blackbirds feeding on the ground.
Two interesting photos I got were of a Northern flicker hanging flat against a tree trunk and a fly hiding from the wind in the bottom of a tulip.
A fellow teacher and friend, reported seeing Redpolls, White-crowned sparrows, Ruby-crowned kinglets, White-winged and Red crossbills in his yard this morning. I have never seen kinglets in my yard, hopefully they will make the mile journey to my yard.
If you enjoy these pictures let me know.

Defining Ourselves


They call it gauging. They punch the ear lobe – put in a metal circle to enlarge the hole in the ear and when that gets somewhat comfortable, they put in a larger circle. This continues until the hole is so large that you can drive a truck through the ear.
At a recent outdoor show, I saw a man in his 20’s that had at least an “8 gauge” hole. We talked about fishing for a while with him flipping his head back and forth and me staring extra holes through his ears; that weren’t there already.
Not being known for being backward, I asked him if I could ask him a personal question.
“I noticed your ear-rings, did it hurt to get them put in?” I asked.
“Of course. But they are not ear rings,” was his reply.
It was a cordial conversation about how it was done. Finally I got enough guts to ask the question that I really wanted to ask.
“I thought it would look neat and I wanted something to define me.”
Later that afternoon I attended the theater presentation of “AIDA.” It was extremely enjoyable for me. In Act One, the princess, Amneris, sings that clothes define who she is.
As the story continues through acts of kindness, love and compassion, she defines her life with those acts rather than the clothes she wore.
The thought kept coming back to me about what defines me. Is it my hair cut? My clothes or my actions or the way I treat others.
For Christmas I received some shirts with coordinating ties. I hate to wear ties, but decided that if I wore them with the top button undone and the ties loose it would not be so bad.
Students noticed immediately.
“Why are you dressed up today,” I was asked. My reply was that it was to make the givers of the shirts happy; namely my wife and daughters. It really did not mean anything to them, really.
How did it affect my students? Did they learn more from me than they did before? Did they respect me more than they did before the ties? I don’t think so. I think that it was a distraction. Instead of listening to what I was teaching they were judging my appearance.
On the first test that I gave after wearing the ties and coordinating shirts, nobody maxed the test and every score was lower than before.
I do not want clothes to define me. Let it be my actions, habits and the way that I treat others.
Does that mean I won’t wear any more ties – no; maybe some students need some detraction from what they are doing. But I won’t be gauging or even piercing my ears! I will leave that up to someone else.
My body had enough holes in it to make it dangerous.
Gauging has now hit my town. I met a student as I was substituting a drama class when I met Dominick. He has his ears gauged and I asked if I could get a picture. He agreed and his friend, Mike, said he was going to get his done after he turns 18 as his parents will not let him do it.
I just wonder what jobs will be unavailable to them because of gauging or if there will be a surgery developed to ungauge gauging.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Owls at Market Lake, Idaho

The hooting coming from a dot high in the air sounded like an owl, but the fluttering sound resembled a small flag in a high wind. After several descents, I finally recognized the high-flying dot as a Short-eared owl.

The male with its long herky-jerky wing beat would climb high above the Market Lake Wildlife Management Area marsh only to make short dives. These dives were accompanied by several “toots” followed by the owl bringing its wings below its body, clapping them together before pulling out of the dive. The clapping of the wings below its body caused the fluttering sound as it would dive.

A female would join the male; chasing, diving and locking talons as they journeyed to the marsh floor, landing on humps of grass on the ground.

After one display, the male landed on a fence post near me. I was intrigued as it hooted time and time again, only to stop short, quickly leaving its perch, diving into the matted marsh grass but missing the rodent.

Back looping its aerial displays, the owl was soon joined by eight others as the air over Market Lake. The Short-eared owl migration to the north was in full swing.

While observing the migrating owls, I heard the soft but distinct hooting of a Great horned owl in the windbreak at the end of the marsh.

Courting and breeding in February and early March, Great horned are in the midst of hatching their young. Last week I viewed young owls in two of the three Great horned nests located earlier in the trees at Market Lake. Windbreaks are natural areas for these raiders of the night to nest and hunt.

Great-horned owls are year around residents of Market Lake while Short-eared are summer residents.

Two pair of Short-eared has apparently set up nesting areas a couple of miles away from the Great-horned nests. This may be critical for the survival of the Short-eared nesting success.

The “world is a smorgasbord for the Great horned owl” and this includes both adults and chicks of Short-eared owls. With the distance between the nests of the two species, the larger owls have many opportunities for prey including rodents, ducks, snakes, muskrats, skunks and insects. A couple of years ago I saw a full jackrabbit draped over a limb next to the nest with three fledglings.

Great horned usually only have two or three eggs per nest and their population continues to increase in the United States. Short-eared average from five to seven eggs and often produce two clutches each year and their population is decreasing and is of concern to scientists.

Nesting on the ground, Short-eared is susceptible to predation from many sources. Skunks, weasels, predatory birds as well as Great horned are dangerous to their nests.

The migrating Short-eared owls have moved on and dispersed throughout the area. Pairs have set up nesting near Chester, Osgood, Camas National Wildlife Area as well as other agriculture/grazing lands in the area.

Courting displays of the Short-ears are still available to watch as one travels the back roads of Southeastern Idaho.

More crossbills

I was jumping on the trampoline with my three-year-old granddaughter when a flock of about 30 Red crossbills showed up at the feeders this afternoon. There were the drab females and males of all different shades of yellow, orange and bright red. What a sight!!!!
I went in the house to get my camera and she wanted "grandma's" camera and we took pictures together until "grandma's" camera ran out of batteries. She loves the American Goldfinch and everytime the crossbills would attack the goldfinch, she would shout at them. It was very fun to watch her. She has been on many a birding outing with me. We are planning on going to the celebration of International Migratory Bird Day to be held at Camas National Wildlife Refuge area next Saturday.
At Camas and nearby Mud Lake Management Area are three Great Horned owl nests that I have not visited in about a month. The owlettes should have hatched out and it will be interesting to see them.
Also, if the rain finally ends, letting me have enough light to take some pictures before I have to be to school, I will visit the sharp-tailed grouse leks in the morning. I usually leave home at 5 and it takes me about 35 minutes to be at the lek. If there are no clouds, I can start shooting at 6:15 and then I leave about 7:30 to be to school by 8. If there is heavy cloud cover, I never get enough light for good pictures before I have to leave.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

White-winged and Red crossbills

Saturday my wife, I and two friends headed to Salt Lake City to watch the play "Wicked." It was an outstanding play and we enjoyed the whole experience.
On the way from Rexburg to SLC we saw a lot of White-face ibis in the marshes around Brigham City, Utah. There were also a few Snowy Egrets there along with a lot of waterfowl. We had very heavy rain most of the way adding to the standing water in the fields.
Sunday I walked around SLC looking at all the beautiful flowers in yards and around Temple Square. We went to the Morman Tabernacle Choir performance before heading home. It was another outstanding experience for us.
On the way home near Brigham City we saw about 30 Snowy Egrets, many more than we saw on Saturday. Rain storms dogged us all the way home.
When we got home, my bird feeders were all empty with about 100 mixed species of birds singing in the rain. I watched closely after putting out feed and got my first pictures of a White-winged crossbill. What an experience. There were two female WW crossbills with about 30 Red Crossbills. It appeared as the two females had paired up with two male Red crossbills. We will have to watch closely at what happens there. The heavy rains this week may have moved them in and they will be gone tomorrow.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Leucistic robin

As an outdoor writer for local papers, I get some interesting phone calls.
"Come and see my strange looking robin," a caller said last week.
So on my way home from covering a track meet in Idaho Falls, Idaho, I stopped at this old couples home nestled in some mature cottonwoods, scrubs and ponds. The man told me the robin had just been there but had probably "gone to bed" for the evening.
As we visited here came this robin with its red breast, but a mostly white back and tail. Some of the red breast also had white splashes in it. It was a sight to behold. I have seen a leucistic Brewer's blackbird before but never a robin.
I will go back to get some better pictures as its normal colored female mate is now nesting.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Goldfinch and Crossbills

Before I left home for school this morning, I noticed a lot of bird activity around my bird feeders. Pinc siskin had been joined by about 30 American Goldfinch and a dozen Red Crossbills. It was fun watching them fight over the seeds and space to feed.

Crossbills are one of my favorite birds, but they wreck havoc on my niger seed socks as they twist their bills to get the seeds out. I filled several feeders with sunflower seeds to discourage them from stealing the niger seeds. I got some interesting pictures of the birds feeding.

Sharp-tailed grouse

This is my first attempt at blogging and I hope it will be an enjoyable experience.

After photographing and watching sage grouse on their leks for a month, I have switched to sharp-tailed grouse.

Monday I visited my favorite lek and watched 14 males dancing for the females. One of the males flew up on the hood of my truck. I took a series of pictures of it. It sounded like I was in a bass drum as it stomped on the hood. The fog was so bad that I had trouble getting good pictures.

On Wednesday morning I went out again but it started raining and picture taking was held to a minimum. Thursday morning was a much better day for light and I was able to get some good pictures. Most of the fighting and breeding occurred before it got light enough for pictures. There were 16 males and four females on the lek. Two of the females were bred before it got light enough for pictures.