03 January 2017

Winter and a new year

It was probably about 7 AM and I was laying in bed.  Somewhere outside was a very rambunctious CAROLINA WREN singing away.

I've always thought they sounded like they were saying "Tea kettle, tea kettle, tea kettle, tea kettle".  Listen for yourself, here's a recording taken from near here:

I should mention the date.  It was January 1, 2017.  You can't always choose what your first bird of the year will be but I'm happy with a wren.

Truth be told, I've been pretty quiet on my blog lately.  Ever since I returned from Australia, I've been busy trying to catch up with various things.  However, I figure I could share some recent happenings... although they're not filled with eye-popping colors from the tropics.

First up, northeast Missouri.  That's where I returned to after Australia.  This DARK-EYED JUNCO, a common wintering species here, was in the yard waiting for me:
Then back in early December, we even had a nice snowfall here in the Hannibal area.  Having returned from 100 degree temps in the tropics, this cold white stuff seemed pretty foreign to me!  Enough so to snap a picture of a snowy field nearby:
A few short days later, Ash and I found ourselves in western New York (one of my home bases these days).  Although we weren't there for birding, we managed to sneak out for some explorations in Allegany County (the county in which I was born).  If you aren't familiar with the area, don't worry, very few people are.  Here's a screen-capture of a map showing where my hometown is in the scheme of things:
Probably the best birding location in Allegany County is Cuba Lake, a hotspot I've mentioned here on my blog before.  Ash and I, having birded this hotspot 22 times before, were eager to see the state of things there and so on December 7 we scoped it out.  Although the eBird filter was tripped with 3 COMMON GOLDENEYES and 131 HOODED MERGANSERS, the best sighting was this duck:
It's a BLACK SCOTER, only the 2nd record for Allegany County (not so surprisingly, the 1st record was also from Cuba Lake).  Here's our checklist from the visit.

Later that day, we saw another bird on a tree... but one that won't be going into eBird:
The following day we headed out for some more birding in Allegany County.  This time we opted to bird nearby hilltops (the only spots with open country; the valleys and hillsides are heavily wooded).  Anyway, we got lucky when this large accipiter flushed out of a tree.  I scrambled to get any proof I could and ended up with this pretty poor photo:
However, I can make out some white markings on the upperwing coverts on its left wing... this was indeed a young NORTHERN GOSHAWK.  This large, powerful, and uncommon species isn't usually easy to find and we were happy to have bumped into it.

Just a bit more down the road we found a mixed flock of goodies.  Mixed together were SNOW BUNTINGS, HORNED LARKS, and LAPLAND LONGSPURS.  I was surprised to see that even the larks were flagged in eBird; we had 70 of them!  Turns out, this was the 1st December record for Allegany County (in eBird).  Here's a diagnostic picture of one:
We also had 2 SNOW BUNTINGS mixed in, our 3rd Allegany County record.  Here's a poor photo with one on the right side of the pic:
I think I was most pleased about the LAPLAND LONGSPURS that were mixed with this flock; we had 7.  Here's a photo of one of them:
The longspurs turned out to be a new county AND state bird for me.  What's more, this was only the 2nd record all-time for Allegany County.  Take a look at this screen-cap of the all-time longspur records for this part of the state... not a whole lot happening:
It's a bit silly, really, because these birds are probably around every winter in low density; it's just Allegany County suffers from very low coverage by eBirders.

A few days later it was time for another check of Cuba Lake.  This time we saw no scoters; maybe the Black Scoter had moved on.  However, the eBird filter was tripped by 4 late GREEN-WINGED TEAL and 115 HOODED MERGANSERS.  The only photo I took that day was of this LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULL mixed in with RBGUs and HERGs.  It shouldn't be too hard to find the dark-backed one:
On our way home, we spied this ROUGH-LEGGED HAWK overhead:
This species gets its name from its feathered legs (a feature shared only by Golden Eagles and Ferruginous Hawks here in North America).  Why do they have feathered legs?  Well, this species spends the summer in the arctic and the winter in the northern tier of the Lower 48 states.  That puts this species in cold weather an awful lot!  All of a sudden it makes perfect sense why this species would have built-in leg warmers.

Fast-forward to a new day.  Our last check of Cuba Lake came as we were driving back towards Missouri in mid-December.  This time, the best sighting was of this small falcon perched atop a spruce tree:
This little guy is a MERLIN and it represented the 1st December record of this species in Allegany County.  Otherwise, the visit to Cuba Lake was as expected; we had some flyover TUNDRA SWANS, a late GREEN-WINGED TEAL, a couple of GREATER SCAUP, and a RED-BREASTED MERGANSER.  You can see the full list here

We made it back to Missouri in time to see a nasty ice storm descend on the area.  Schools closed, the highways were littered with wrecks, even driving to town was out of the question... so it was time to take some pictures of ice-coated grass:

It was Christmas Eve when Ash and I decided to bird at Mark Twain Lake.  Would it be frozen over?  Maybe we'd find something notable?  After all, it's a huge lake with little coverage by birders.  Turns out, we found only a few things that were flagged in eBird; a lingering AMERICAN WHITE PELICAN and some BONAPARTE'S GULLS, photographed here poorly through my scope:
Fast-forwarding a week, we found ourselves visiting family in Waterloo, Iowa.  Although most of the highlights came from our games and fun indoors with my nieces, we also drove to a nearby lake where we had hopes, albeit slim, of refinding some uncommon winter owls.  However, it wasn't long before we stumbled on some other birders that were already there.  And lucky for us, they had found a couple of these owls!  What luck.

First up, we had amazing looks at two NORTHERN SAW-WHET OWLS; here's one squinting at us from its cozy perch:
These little owls only stand ~7 inches tall and are the smallest owls in eastern North America.  Here's another photo of the little dude:
Showing such a neat species to my nieces was an absolute hoot!  We also were shown where a LONG-EARED OWL was roosting.  Although it was higher up and obscured by a lot of brush, you can see the bird facing right:
Ashley and I drove back to Missouri via a couple of birding locales in Iowa.  After no sign of the Slaty-backed Gull that had been seen previously near Des Moines, we headed to Red Rock Reservoir where we stumbled into a few things below the dam.  First up, this LONG-TAILED DUCK was still present from the previous day when someone else had found it:
This species is pretty uncommon in Iowa (although, as it happens, Ashley and I saw one of these at this exact same spot about 6 years ago).

Also below the dam were two THAYER'S GULLS which trips the filter in eBird.  Although I somehow didn't manage photos of the adult we saw, this first-cycle bird perched nicely:
Fieldmarks that point towards THGU include the small bill, dainty head shape, creamy-brown color overall with fine, white speckling on the uppersides, dark brown primaries (not black), and white tips to the primaries.

Farther down the route towards home, we stopped in downtown Ottumwa to see the status of the river there (this spot CAN be great gulling when conditions are right).  We were surprised to find more than 1000 gulls.  Although the majority were Ring-billed and Herring, we found this first-cycle GLAUCOUS GULL standing taller than the rest:
Standing taller than the rest?  Well, yes, this species is the second-largest gull in the world.  And funnily enough, Ash and I found a first-cycle Glaucous Gull here in December once before, 6 years prior!

The gull wasn't the only thing that was flagged in eBird there though.  This GREATER SCAUP was in the river too:
In eBird, this was only the 2nd Wapello County record.

The river in Ottumwa also yielded a few TRUMPETER SWANS, seen here with their pointed, V-shaped foreheads:
Last but not least, Ashley and I found this meadowlark near Hannibal the other day.  Although it was silent, I think it's fairly safe to call this bird an EASTERN MEADOWLARK based on the white malar:
Of course, this wasn't flagged or anything.  But still, I think it was our first meadowlark in the area in several months.

But here we are, on the OTHER side of 2016.  I can't complain about the birding that last year brought my way.  In fact, 2016 was a lot of fun; it was the year that I started guiding for Field Guides!  Anyway, you know me and my love of numbers... here are some from last year:

World:  I think this was the first year that I topped 1000 species.  If I continue to guide, like I plan to, I don't think it'll be my last.  According to eBird, I added almost 430 species to my life list last year.

ABA area:  I ended up with nearly 540 species on my ABA year list which isn't so bad for not putting specific effort into year listing.  Also, I managed to add 14 new ABA birds in 2016.

Cheers.  Now on to 2017.

17 December 2016

Australia - Part 4 (Tasmania)

By now you're probably well aware of the drill.  I recently returned from Australia yada yada yada.  We can just fast forward to this post, Part 4, my final post from the land down under.

The main Part 2 portion of tour had ended and we bid farewell to half of our group in Brisbane.  The remaining half joined us on a search for endemics, interesting mammals, and much more on Australia's island state, Tasmania.
Because this island sits 150 miles south of mainland Australia, many of the species there are found nowhere else on earth.  Endemics.  They can be quite a draw.  I, for one, had long wanted to bird Tassie and 2016 turned out to be my year.

Tasmania hosts 12 endemic bird species and I'm happy to say that our tour connected with all of them.  Here's the breakdown of these endemics from our trip:

1)  Tasmanian Native-Hen (Tribonyx mortierii)

This odd, flightless rail was actually fairly common throughout Tasmania.  No, they weren't limited to wet areas either... we would see them galloping through pastures as we drove by!  Here is one (with some Cape Barren Geese in the background):
Although flightless birds have had a hard time surviving on this planet alongside humans (we have a knack for rendering them extinct), this one has done alright.  Why?  I was told that if you cooked one of these with a rock, the rock would end up better eating.  I'll take their word for it.

2)  Dusky Robin (Melanodryas vittata)

Maybe not the brightest and flashiest of the endemics, this plain-colored robin used to be known as "stump robin" for its tendency to perch on stumps.  And check it out... I'd say it's a pretty fitting name:
We saw Dusky Robins just once or twice on our 5-day trip through the island.

3)  Tasmanian Thornbill (Acanthiza ewingii)

We had seen several other species of thornbills on tour but this particular one is limited to Tassie:
Although similar to the Brown Thornbill, this species has rufous edging to the wings.  We saw these thornbills a few times, often in rainforest and other wet forests/scrublands.

4)  Scrubtit (Acanthornis magna)

Besides this tiny dude being the sole member of its genus, it's a pretty shy endemic that can be tricky to find.  However, we didn't have any problems locating a couple.
I think it's fascinating to think about how few people actually have seen this species.  Being tricky to see (even if you know it's there and what you're looking for) and its limited range, there probably aren't THAT many people that have gotten to enjoy this little gem.   Hundreds of birders?  Maybe thousands... but in a world with 7,500,000,000 people.  Shoot.

5)  Forty-spotted Pardalote (Pardalotus quadragintus)

This endangered species was a real treat to see and was one of the most sought-after endemics.  Although, as you can see, it isn't going to make the top of the flashy list:
Truth is, though, that this is one of Australia's rarest birds.  Not only is it limited to Tasmania, it's only found in a small portion of it, the southeast corner.  We caught up to several on Bruny Island, a stronghold for this rarest pardalote.

6)  Tasmanian Scrubwren (Sericornis humilis)

Here's another endemic in the Acanthizidae family.  This particular bird was pretty easy to recognize given that it's the only scrubwren present on Tasmania (the similar White-browed and Yellow-throated scrubwren, also in the Sericornis genus, do not make the jump south to Tas):
I was happy with the above photo given that they're usually on or near the ground and tend to stay hidden.  Our group ended with great looks at this specialty.

7)  Strong-billed Honeyeater (Melithreptus validirostris)

Given the abundance of honeyeaters in this part of the world, it kind of makes sense that Tasmania would host a few that are found no where else.  One such honeyeater is the Strong-billed and we connected with these at the Mountain Valley Lodge:

8)  Black-headed Honeyeater (Melithreptus affinis)

Our 8th endemic was another honeyeater and one that's in the same family and genus as the above species.  In looking back, I didn't manage very many decent photos of this speciality:
But this was another species we saw near the Mountain Valley Lodge and Gowrie Park.  I should mention that although a honeyeater, it eats mostly insects.

9)  Yellow-throated Honeyeater (Nesoptilotis flavicollis)

Our last endemic honeyeater is the Yellow-throated, an attractive species that ended up being fairly common:
This species shares the Nesoptilotis genus with just one other species, the White-eared Honeyeater which is present back on mainland Australia (a species our tour didn't see).

10)  Black Currawong (Strepera fuliginosa)

Oh currawongs.  Quite bizarre birds to someone like me who hadn't spent much time around them before.  Although we had seen Pied on the mainland and Gray elsewhere on Tasmania, the Black is found no where else on earth:
These are large, crow-sized birds that ended up being quite common in the highland areas of Tasmania (they're not very common at elevations less than 600 feet).  Check out what Wikipedia said about them: 
"They are distinguishable from magpies and crows by their comical flight style in amongst foliage, appearing to almost fall about from branch to branch as if they were inept flyers."

11)  Green Rosella (Platycercus caledonicus)

There are 6 species of rosellas on earth and all are found in Australia.  In fact, our tour saw all 5 of the possible options.  This one though, the Green Rosella, is the largest of the six and is only found in Tasmania:
Truth be told, these were pretty common and easy to see on our tour.  I don't think it took us more than an hour from landing before we saw our first ones.

I was curious about the name "rosella" though and went looking for more info.  The main story I found was that early settlers found one of these parrots at Rose Hill, New South Wales and so they called it a "Rosehill Parakeet" which later became "rosehiller", and eventually "rosella".

12)  Yellow Wattlebird

Hmm, it was only after I returned to the states and was sorting through my photos that I realized that I DIDN'T take a single picture of a Yellow Wattlebird!  Oh the pain.  So wattlebirds are actually honeyeaters which makes this species is the largest honeyeater in the world.  Anyway, these were fairly common and funny birds to hang out with, mostly because they sounded like they were hacking up something vicious every time we heard them:

So that's that... all twelve endemics.  But some of you might be thinking "Wait, what about Orange-bellied Parrots... and Swift Parrots... and Morepork... aren't those endemic too?  Well, not strictly-speaking, no.  The Orange-bellied Parrots do breed in Tasmania but winter on mainland Australia... as do Swift Parrots.  The Morepork is thought by some to just be a subspecies of Southern Boobook.  Plus, they're also found in New Zealand.

However, we DID see the critically endangered SWIFT PARROTS on Bruny Island.  Sadly, it's estimated that there are only 1000 pairs left in the wild and that this species could go extinct in the next 15 years due to predation and habitat loss.

Ok, moving right along... yes, there is MUCH more than just endemic birds to look at in Tasmania.  Here are a few more photos of some species we crossed paths with.  For example, the BEAUTIFUL FIRETAIL:
This snazzy species is limited to SE Australia, can sometimes be tricky to find, and I know some tours have missed it.  However, we saw this species well at the Mountain Valley Lodge (feeding on the driveway, in fact).

We spotted a few of the softly-colored DUSKY WOODSWALLOWS as well:
The pardalotes were always enjoyable to watch in Australia and this pair of STRIATED PARDALOTES were especially friendly.:
Not all of the species we were after were so obliging though.  Take the STRIATED FIELDWREN for example; even with one smack-dab in the middle of this photo... it's not super easy to see, huh?
What I didn't realize at the time was that this species also falls in the Acanthizidae family; the same as Scrubtit, scrubwrens, thornbills, and gerygones.

Australia has a knack for producing some weird species... and I'm not sure there are many weirder than the MUSK DUCK.  Check this thing out, paying special attention to the leathery lobe hanging from under his bill:
The Musk Duck is by itself in the Biziura genus (there was another duck in this genus found in New Zealand but it has gone extinct).  You might not have known that Musk Duck is the 2nd-heaviest species of diving duck in the world.  Any guesses on the heaviest?  Common Eider.

On Bruny Island, off the south side of Tasmania, we encountered quite a few nice additions to the trip list.  Included was this BLACK-FACED CORMORANT, a species limited to the southern edge of Australia:
Bruny Island also provided us with spectacular views of YELLOW-TAILED BLACK-COCKATOOS, like this one foraging alongside a road:
I have to imagine that the bill of the PACIFIC GULL is as beefy as they come.  Here's one of these large gulls from Bruny Island:
The Pacific Gull wasn't the only large gull on Bruny Island though; we saw many KELP GULLS as well.  Here's one of these dark-mantled birds alongside a very special shorebird:
The little shorebird is a HOODED PLOVER, an endangered species with only 5000-7000 individuals left in the world.  They are endangered because of habitat loss; the sandy beaches that this plover prefers are also preferred by people (and people historically don't give a crap about protecting wildlife that they don't deem important).

Another shorebird on Bruny Island were these SOOTY OYSTERCATCHERS that I caught napping:
What I found interesting about these oystercatchers is that there is a marked difference between what males and females eat (apparently only a 36% overlap of prey items); the females eat soft-bodied prey and the males eat hard-shelled prey.

We added a bonus species during our time on Bruny Island, LITTLE GRASSBIRD.  Although uncommon and often not seen on this tour, we found 3 different ones including this one doing the splits in a marsh:
I wasn't aware at the time that this species belongs to the Locustellidae family (Old World Warblers and such).

The PALLID CUCKOO was fairly common in Tasmania and these were the first for our tour:
Did you know that the word "pallid" means "pale, typically because of poor health"?  Well shoot, that gives this healthy species a bad rap!

In terms of flashy birds, the FLAME ROBIN was one of the brightest.  Here's a male we photographed along a roadside:


I mean it when I say that the mammals we saw on Tasmania may have been more mind-blowing than the birds.  I had never seen so many fascinating mammals in such a short time.  

For example, we were just cruising down the road when we spotted THIS!

This walking pin-cushion is a SHORT-BEAKED ECHIDNA.  For starters, it's a monotreme (a mammal that lays eggs).  The spines you see are used for defense; if threatened, they curl up in a ball exposing nothing but spines.

We were at the Mountain Valley Lodge when we saw our first COMMON WOMBAT:
These marsupials are pretty solid too; they average 3 feet long and weigh 60 lbs.  Here's another of these whacky vegetarians we saw at Cradle Mountain:
However, I think the highlight of the mammal-watching came at Mountain Valley Lodge.  You see, this lodge is known worldwide for one thing in particular... devils.  Who in their right mind wants to be visited by a devil, anyway?  Well... some more info....

The largest carnivorous marsupial in the world (now that the Thylacine is extinct) is a ferocious, dog-sized creature known as the TASMANIAN DEVIL.  This emblematic species is now endangered due to facial tumors that reduced the population by upwards of 50%.

One of your best chances of seeing this rare and secretive species is at the Mountain Valley Lodge where these devils will come in to eat meat.  Although I didn't manage much in the way of a pretty photo, here is proof that our particular patio was visited by one:


I don't usually have a separate part of the post devoted to this but... why not?  Tasmania had some beautiful countryside.  You see, an impressive 45% of the entire island is set aside for reserves, national parks, and World Heritage Sites.  The population of Tasmania is only 500,000 and 40% of that is the city of Hobart.  That translates to a LOT of beautiful country without the human mess.

Here's Cradle Mountain, a peak of over 5,000 feet high:
You'll see a scattering of snow.  Yes indeed, we even drove through blizzard-like conditions during our visit to Tasmania!

The countryside was a lush scene with plenty of grazing goats and what not.  I, for one, particularly like the feel.
The ancient forests were beautiful; laden with mosses and ferns:
On Bruny Island, we climbed the steps at "The Neck"; here's a photo showing the narrow stretch of land that connects the two parts of the island:
Even the ferry over to Bruny Island provided some nice landscapes.  Here's a calm and cloudy morning on the water:
The clouds broke a bit later on and the beach scene was a picturesque one:
Anyway, the last photo I'll share from my Australian travels was one of the last things I saw... the city of Sydney as we flew out:
From there, it was a simple 14 hour flight back to the US!  

In the end, it was a super fun experience getting to see and bird Australia and I hope these posts have shown you a little bit of what it was like.  I ended with nearly 370 species for the 3 weeks of birding which seems just fine to me.  :-)