Thursday, July 28, 2016

Two Birds...?

Welcome to Two Birds, where I use my photos to compare two birds and talk about their similarities and differences.

This edition of two birds is not about distinguishing two different birds; rather, it's about realizing how different one bird can look depending on what time of year it is. It's also about connecting those initially different images to the underlying similarities that help us recognize when we're dealing with plumage variations.  

In light of the upcoming fall warbler migration (eeks I'm excited), this time I've chosen two birds that are actually one in the same. Warblers in fall can be tough to ID, as their plumages become less brightly colored and more difficult to differentiate. Still, when we keep in mind the "spring versions" of warblers when looking at them during fall, we begin to see how the two are connected.

Chestnut-sided Warbler (Setophaga penslyvanica) in fall (left) and spring (right) plumages
*Note, the fall warbler on the left does not have chestnut streaks along its sides, which means it could be a juvenile (first winter) bird. A fall bird with chestnut streaks would be an easier bird to positively identify as a CSWA (click here to learn more about bird name abbreviations, or alpha codes). 
**Also note, there are further plumage differences between male and female Chestnut-sided Warblers that will not be addressed in this post. For the sake of keeping this comparison simple, the characteristics discussed will be in reference to male birds only.
How to distinguish this bird in any season...

Visual Clues
  • Bright yellow/greenish cap with yellow extending throughout the back and into the wings
  • Diagnostic yellow to yellow/white wing bars
  • Very plain white breast and underside, including undertail coverts (UnTC)
  • Some fall birds retain some chestnut colored side streaks
  • Bright white eyering in fall which is mostly hidden by black mask in spring, especially upper portion
Behavioral Clues
  • Usually keeps to the middle to lower levels of greenery, not as high up in the trees as some warblers
  • Usually cocks its tail
Audio Clues
  • Click here for the Chestnut-sided Warbler's jaunty songs and calls  ♪♫ >(')

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Behind the Lens; A Birding Interview with Andrew Simon

As a new installment to the world of Little Bird Nerd, I have decided to begin a series of interviews with birders!

For my first interview, I spoke with friend and classmate Andrew Simon, whom I met at Walsh college just a few semesters ago.

My first interviewee: Andrew Simon
At first we didn't speak much, except to compare statistics notes, until one day the topic of birding arose. Andrew's eyes lit up as I talked about my birding adventures, and then he shared with me his far-reaching history of birding, which ended a few years back. Since then, he hadn't done much birding at all, and was reinvigorated by our conversation. I was happy to see him "get back in the game", and ever since, we've been close cohorts on many birding missions. We often compare sightings and swap stories, and now he is rising in the Macomb birding scene, as well as branching out well outside the county. It has been exciting to watch him track down many of the local bird species he had previously missed. I have also witnessed his willingness to share and connect with others who are interested in birds, including local birders, Facebook birding groups, and with his girlfriend Andi. He also happens to be a master juggler of his schedule: working full-time, going to school, and still squeezing in many more birding trips than I seem to manage! Since we began teaming up approximately 6 months ago, we have had much success. Of the 26 lifers (aka life birds = bird species one sees for the first time) I've seen this year, 9 of them have been while birding with Andrew.
Andi holds a Downy Woodpecker at Kensington Metropark (Andrew Simon, 2016)

LBN: When and how did you first get into birding?

AS: I honestly don't remember. It was so long ago. I've always loved animals and I remember when I was little, every bird was a "mingo" (flamingo). I think it really set in when I would visit my grandma who had a bunch of bird feeders and a Huge book of all of the Audubon pictures.

LBN: That's awesome! So when did you start keeping a life list?

AS: The first bird on my life list is a Sandhill Crane from March of 2003, coincidentally from my grandma's house in Florida.

LBN: So that was 13 years ago, what's your list looking like these days?

AS: Well, it spans 7 countries and 8 states. I found species #389 yesterday, a Crested Caracara, and #390 and #391 today, Piping Plover and Black-backed Woodpecker. My goal is 400 by December 31st.

Crested Caracara found in Munising, MI, 7/15/16 (Andrew Simon, 2016)
LBN: So you're moving at a pretty fast pace these days. Know how many lifers you've added this year?

AS: I've added about 50 this year but some of them were so easy it's like how have I not seen them before, others I traveled around the state for, and some of them are incredibly rare and just happened basically in my backyard like Whooping Cranes and a Kirtland's Warbler.

LBN: That's great, like double of what I have added this year. So you have said before that you sort of dropped out of birding for a time. Was there ever a year where you didn't bird at all?

AS: There were many years I didn't bird at all. Maybe from 2005 til present it was extremely sporadic and only on vacations. Life got in the way and I fell off the bandwagon for a while.

LBN: I've talked to other birders where this has happened for one reason or another, but maybe it's, "once a birder, always a birder" type deal? Anyway, I'm glad you're back at it! You mentioned your listing goal for the year; any other big goals or birding plans?

AS: I would like the 400 on my life list by the end of the year, and 200 in Macomb County for the current year. Otherwise just to have fun and meet new people.

LBN: Well you already met me so you really can't top that (*laughs*). Seriously though, what is the best lesson birding has taught you?

Lark Sparrow, a lifer for both of us! (Andrew Simon, 2016)

AS: Patience is a virtue.
And always bring a rain coat/hat and gloves, depending on the time of year, which is funny because I'm in the middle of the woods at Shiawassee and it's probably going to rain any time and my rain coat is in the car.

LBN: Too funny...! Alright, this question pains me because I can never really answer it, but I feel like I need to ask, do you have a favorite bird?

AS: Not as a whole but on my life list is now a toss between a Trinidad Motmot and the Caracara.

Trinidad Motmot (Andrew Simon, 2009 )

LBN: What about your most satisfying species (because of how long it took you to find it, how difficult was the search, its rarity level, etc.)?

AS: Most satisfying was the Whooping Crane. It is so rare that it ended up here in the first place, and between trying to figure out exactly where they were seen and driving an hour round trip sometimes twice a day for 4 days before finally seeing them, mere minutes before the Whooping Crane organization [Operation Migration] came to pick them up. That was the most satisfying.
Whooping Cranes in Macomb County (Andrew Simon,  2016)

LBN: Last question, do you have a nemesis bird (a bird that constantly eludes you)?

AS: I've found most of them, but maybe a Barred Owl or Long-eared Owl.

LBN: Ah yes! I remember finding both of these birds for the first time, on the same day, thanks to another great birder and friend, Kevin Rysiewski. But that's another interview for another day.

AS: I'm looking forward to seeing other people's interviews!

LBN: Thank you Andrew for taking the time to participate. Happy Birding! :)
Henslow's Sparrow, a lifer for both of us! (Little Bird Nerd, 2016)

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Photo Journal 2016: June

Common Mergansers (Mergus merganser)

As spring gave way to summer, the vernal ponds began to evaporate. Because of this, the changes this month were most evident in Spot 2. Although I welcomed the warm temperatures, spring will always be my favorite season, and I wished those ponds could stay.

June, Spot 1

Spot 1: June, 2016, Weeks 23-26

June, Spot 2

Spot 2: June, 2016, Weeks 23-26

June, Spot 3

Spot 3: June, 2016, Weeks 23-26

Other June Happenings:

Life Birds

This month brought 6 new birds into my life. This is great for June, which is not typically the best birding month. In fact, of the 16 FOYs I saw in June, 6 of them were lifers, which gave me a 37.5% lifer-to-FOY ratio for June. Alright, enough statistics (NEVER!), I'll get back to the storytelling. :)
Cerulean Warbler (Setophaga cerulea)

If you recall, last month's summary mentioned "Code Red, White, and Blue". This refers to my three target birds I set for myself this year. May brought Red, the Red-headed Woodpecker, and June happened to bring Blue, the Cerulean Warbler. Andrew Simon and I took a morning trip out to Port Huron State Game Area, which is a known summer site for these gorgeous warblers. As we followed directions outlined by other birders, we sat patiently waiting to hear the warbler's call, or to see a flash of blue. For a while, the only calls and flashes of blue were coming from the many Indigo Buntings in the area. After standing in the same spot for a time, we decided to head back to the car, as we had other spots to check and a storm was coming. In one of those wonderful moments where you just start to give up and let go, in flew a male Cerulean Warbler, allowing us to view it and get pictures. It was a lifer for both of us and we were so excited!

The near-threatened Henslow's Sparrow has declined in numbers due to habitat loss. Fortunately, our local area still supports at least one of these birds, as it was conveniently tucked into a field not far from home. In this same field were more Bobolinks than I'd ever seen in one place; and these birds always make me think of my Grandma, who says she grew up with Bobolinks all over her farm property. While standing in grasses up to my waist, scanning for small brown birds, this tiny sparrow happened to be sitting just in front of me! Its sparsely streaked breast and small size, along with its facial patterns and head shape, helped confirm this bird's identity. I was very happy with the sighting as well as the photographs I was able to capture.

Henslow's Sparrow (Ammodramus henslowii)

Henslow's Sparrow (Ammodramus henslowii)
As the break between spring and summer semesters came to a close, I decided I wanted to do a Big Day of birding before getting back to "the grind". So, on June 26th, friend and classmate Andrew and I decided to join forces and bird hard. We began our trip at Oak Openings in Ohio, which is a beautiful, huge park that I'd like to return to. Our first sighting was not of a bird but of a birder who was very helpful in providing directions to hotspots around the park. We were looking for Summer Tanagers and Lark Sparrows, and found the latter with little effort (thanks to our aforementioned friend!). Although we didn't find the tanagers, I was more than content to spot this distinctively marked, large sparrow which nests in sand dunes. This bird is the only member of its genus, and when compared to the Henslow's Sparrow above, it is obviously quite different in almost every way: size, shape, pattern, behavior, and habitat.
Lark Sparrow (Chondestes grammacus)
Our next stop was back in Michigan, to a farm road called Meyers Road, near Ann Arbor. This stop proved to be a winner, teeming with just about every meadow bird we could expect: Dickcissels (the lifer we were after, which we decided looked like a mix of a meadowlark, a sparrow, and a grosbeak), Eastern Meadowlarks, a Northern Mockingbird, Bobolinks, Horned Larks, Killdeer, Eastern Bluebirds, Barn Swallows, and more. I joked I was really glad we didn't drive all the way out to a dusty old farm road and strike out. It would have been a little harder to swallow than if we'd struck out at an "official" park, somehow.

Dickcissel (Spiza americana)
The final stop on our Big Day was Pointe Mouillee, a birding treasure trove located off Lake Eerie in Monroe County. Here we rode our bikes in nearly 90-degree heat, and covered much of the giant wetland territory. We found a lifer gull, a Franklin's Gull, which added to my pitifully short gull list. In my defense, gulls are arguably the most difficult of bird families to ID, with endless subtleties and variations in plumage. I was also lucky enough to see my lifer Black Tern, a beautiful bird which I hope to see soon in my home county, as they are known to fly around Harsen's Island during the summer.

Franklin's Gull (Leucophaeus pipixcan)

Memorable FOYS (first of the year sightings):
Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius)
Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus)
This Piping Plover sighting was magical. My Love, Jason, and I spent almost a week up near Traverse City, Glen Arbor, and Pearl Lake. Of course there was some birding to be done! One of my main targets was the Piping Plover, which we tried for on multiple occasions before finding this one. As we crept along the shoreline at Sleeping Bear Point, we kept our ears open for "peeps" and our eyes open for movement. Out of nowhere came a single "PEEP!" which caused Jason and I to look at each other with excitement, then look around. It was behind me and right near the tide, a single Piping Plover standing there on the rocks. I was able to snap a few quick pictures and then, just as mysteriously as it had appeared, it flew off out over the open water and disappeared. We had to be there at that exact moment to have seen this endangered bird, and I was grateful for the chance. <3
American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos)

Black-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus erythropthalmus)
For a comparison between the Black-billed Cuckoo and the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, click here to read my first edition of "Two Birds".

Last year's January through June total species count: 181
This year's January through June total species count: 213
Common Loon (Gavia immer)

Photo Journal 2016: May

Blue-winged Warbler (Vermivora cyanoptera)
"It was May, the best of months nearly everywhere..." -Phoebe Snetsinger, Birding on Borrowed Time

This month brought some of the most noticeable changes to my nature plots. From sparse to full greenery, spring breathed life into the woods. The vernal ponds filled up to the brim, and by the fourth week, began to collect a filmy coating on their surfaces. I even got to take some of my nature plot photos on my 27th birthday (Week 20- May 16th).

May, Spot 1

Spot 1: May, 2016, Weeks 18-22

 May, Spot 2

Spot 2: May, 2016, Weeks 18-22

 May, Spot 3

Spot 3: May, 2016, Weeks 18-22

Other May Happenings:

Life Birds

May was a 5-lifer month for me, which is nothing to complain about!

In the birding community, we joke that there is often a sacrificial birder. This is a birder who decides to call it quits for the day, knowing by Murphy's Law that right after leaving, some great bird is going to appear. The sacrificial birder can also be a birder who goes out of town, and while out of town, a rare bird appears in his or her home county. Well, local birding legend Tom Heatley happened to be out of the country this May, searching for his last bird family (he found it!). We figured his absence would make him the ultimate sacrificial birder, and we were not wrong.
Whooping Crane Capture- Photo by: Kevin Rysiewski
The first of these 5 life birds (birds I'd never seen before) was a species that when I heard of its presence in Macomb County, I immediately thought it had to be a joke.  My friend Andrew had been scanning the eBird reports and stumbled across a record of 4 Whooping Cranes in Romeo, MI. We analyzed the GPS position of the reported sighting and tried to determine where these mysterious cranes could be. In the following days, Andrew did the legwork, driving around the reported area in search of this rarity. Finally, on May 3rd, he texted me in a fury of excitement- he'd found the cranes! I was about an hour away, and was about to search a local park for a recently spotted Blue-headed Vireo (not a rarity, but a FOY for me). I was also supposed to take my dad out for dinner for his birthday in approximately 2 hours. Going for the cranes would mean leaving right that second, driving as quickly as possible, viewing them for a maximum of a few minutes, then driving over an hour straight to the restaurant. I wrestled with this mentally, but I was already on autopilot, driving toward the expressway. Seeing the cranes was one of those moments that command silence. I was struck by the reality of what I was seeing, and aware of the fragile state of this protected species. With fewer than 500 wild birds left on the planet, this was a once-in-a-lifetime sighting. As I was pulling up, I was joined by an Operation Migration vehicle, which had come to collect the cranes and bring them back to their breeding area in Wisconsin, where they would have a much better chance of reproducing with the other cranes in that population. The four cranes had completed their first solo migration from the Mississippi Basin back up north. Interestingly, they had reached the exact latitude point at which they needed to be, but were a bit too far east on the longitude. I was happy for their mistake. The capture of the cranes is something I would have liked to witness, but I had to rush off for my dad's birthday dinner. I exchanged a few words with Andrew and Chris DeWolfe, who introduced himself as "the only Ebirder in Lapeer County" and sped off back down the dirt road, grinning from ear to ear. Click here to read more of this story from Operation Migration's blog.

Hooded Warbler (Setophaga citrina)

May 7th brought 3 lifers in one day! First we found a Lincoln's Sparrow along one of the Ford House Bird Walks with Wild Birds Unlimited Grosse Pointe Woods. As new co-leader of these walks, it was exciting to be able to get a lifer with new birders who were also seeing some of these birds for the first time. After this great bird walk (where we also found the uncommon Hooded Warbler, one of my favorite warblers), I received news there was a Red-headed Woodpecker at Stony Creek!
Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus)

At the beginning of the year, I had set three top bird targets, which I nicknamed, "Code Red, White, and Blue" for the colors of the three target birds. Red was the Red-headed Woodpecker, followed by Northern Shrike (white) and Cerulean Warbler (blue). I headed straight from the Ford House to Stony Creek Metropark, where Kevin R. and Andy W. showed me my lifer Red-headed. Shortly after, Kevin clued me into a spot to find a Louisiana Waterthrush, which is also an uncommon bird I'd been hoping to find. Sitting in the microcosm of a swamp which this bird calls home; the LoWa singing and flitting about, was about the most peaceful moment I could dream up.

Finally, at the end of the month, I located two Yellow-billed Cuckoos at Nicholson Nature Center. Their ka-ka-ka-ka-kow calls helped me narrow down where they were perched, and when I saw their brightly spotted tails and unique profiles in flight, I was overjoyed.
Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus)

Memorable FOYS (first of the year sightings): 
Yellow-breasted Chat (Icteria virens)
American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla)
This month provided FOY sightings of 19 warblers, from common warblers like Black-throated Green and American Redstart to the less common Hooded Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat (which has the potential to be taxonomically split apart from warblers altogether), and the most surprising of all- the Kirtland's Warbler, whose appearance may have been the first ever documented appearance of this bird in Macomb County. With the help of Jeff Steinmetz and all of the other diligent birders who posted their sightings, I was able to witness this bird in my own home county. This sighting made the Sterling Heights Nature Center a birding Mecca for a few days, with hoards of birders coming to document this bird one usually must go Up North to see.
Kirtland's Warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii)

Click here for a very interesting radio take on the Kirtland's Warbler story.

Other great FOYs include: Common Nighthawk, Bobolink, Eastern Screech-Owl, and Clay-colored Sparrow.

Clay-colored Sparrow (Spizella pallida)

Last year's January through May total species count: 170
This year's January through May total species count: 197