Sunday, December 28, 2014

'Boro CBC

   My second Christmas Bird Count of winter 2014-2015 took place yesterday (12-27-14), and it was very productive. I did not get any FOYs; however, I still had a fun time birding locally in Murfreesboro, TN.
   Terry Witt, Joseph Hall, my brother Nolan, and I started off well with over thirty Rusty Blackbirds, two of which were simply minding their own business in a family's front lawn. Woodland birds were lively from morning until about noon when the wind increased in strength. A wonderful surprise was twenty-three Pine Siskins noisily chattering and bathing with just a few American Goldfinches.
   Our area consisted of little habitat for waterfowl, especially for diving ducks, but today we picked up Canada Goose, Mallard, Gadwall, Northern Shoveler, and an unexpected Northern Pintail, which was my first for the county. We also saw three Pied-billed Grebes. 

Northern Pintail (front) among Mallards

    I never guessed that one day I'd be excited about visiting the landfill - until I began birding. So today I was thrilled when we pulled up to this:

The Middlepoint Landfill

   Those white dots are gulls - almost exclusively Ring-billed. Despite much thorough scanning, we did not find any gull species besides Ring-billed Gull and Herring Gull.

Ring-billed Gulls

    Before lunch, we looked at our checklist and noted several species that we still lacked but could possibly pick up. Among these were Eurasian Collared-Dove, Eastern Phoebe, Winter Wren, Brown Thrasher, Golden-crowned Kinglet, and Chipping Sparrow. We split up, Terry, Nolan, and I taking a walk along a trail beside several soccer fields. Our first and only Golden-crowned Kinglet of the day was found here. The three of us came back to the parking lot where Joe had remained and found several new species himself. These included our missing Winter Wren, plus a couple unexpected species: Sharp-shinned Hawk and Horned Lark. After a quick lunch, a steady shower began, so we decided to cut the trip short. On our way back to our original meeting spot, Terry spotted two Eurasian Collared-Doves on the wire. This was a nice way to wrap up a short outing.
    We ended with 70 species.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The First-Ever Big Sandy CBC!

     After going over one month without birding, I was excited to get back in the field. I spent the morning of December 13th leading a field trip at Old Hickory Lake in Nashville. The outing was decent, and for me the highlight was photographing the overly cooperative (and aggressive) gulls. I managed to photograph each age of Ring-billed Gulls and snapped a shot of the lone Herring Gull with them.

1st cycle Herring Gull among Ring-billed Gulls.
Basic Adult Ring-billed Gull
2nd cycle (left) with 1st cycle Ring-billed Gulls

    The next day (12-14-14), I helped out with the first ever Big Sandy Christmas Bird Count. It was Chris Sloan, my brother Nolan, and I, and our territory was based around part of Kentucky Lake at Paris Landing State Park in Henry County, TN, where the habitat consists of dense deciduous woodlands with scattered evergreens adjacent to the lake yet with little to no habitat for grassland birds. Still, this area can hold more than a few surprises.
     We started before sunrise to try for owls. We quickly picked up a distant, whinnying Eastern Screech-Owl then moved on. Our first scan of the lake was at Port Road where we waited for the loons to leave their roost in hopes of seeing a rarity among them. No rare loons were to be found, but we added our first bits of waterfowl, gulls, and passerines to the list. A few of these included Gadwall, Bufflehead, Bonaparte's Gull, Red-headed Woodpecker, and Hermit Thrush. One surprise here, though, were calling Snow Geese. We never saw them, but we could certainly hear that there were multiple birds. Continuing on...
    Waterfowl steadily became more identifiable as we checked different vantage points of the lake. Both scaups - Greater and Lesser - were nice additions to our checklist. My favorite duck of them all, the Common Goldeneye, was quite abundant throughout the day. The males are so stunning with their spotless, white feathers below and their bold, iridescent heads. A group of goldeneyes is certainly an unforgettable sight! The cute, little Buffleheads were high in numbers as well, and one particular bird was close enough for a decent photograph.

Female Bufflehead

    Since the Big Sandy area hosts a fair number of Herring Gulls in the winter, unusual gulls are often found here. Chris found a 3rd cycle Lesser Black-backed Gull, which literally disappeared (apparently it had flown away without us knowing) as he was lowering his scope for us to take a look! Minutes later, he found a potential candidate for Thayer's Gull, but alas! The bird's eye was bright yellow - evidence against an adult Thayer's.
    Tennessee is among many states already having a large influx of northern birds (e.g. Red-breasted Nuthatch). Today we tallied several Pine Siskins, which is always a good bird for CBCs. Dark-eyed Juncos were notably plentiful in brushy areas, and their white outertail feathers flashed as they flew at the car's approach.
    One of the biggest surprises of the day were eight Great White-fronted Geese and a lone Ross's Goose at Eagle Creek. Incredibly, the latter two and the previously mentioned Snow Geese were our only geese of the day!
    Throughout the day gunshots sounded from all around the lake. When we came to the mouth of Little Eagle Creek, dozens of freshly killed American Coots were scattered around the mud flats. There were still thousands of living coots swimming and feeding in the area, oblivious to the dangers around them. And soon they fled as shots were fired again. More coots were shot, and unfortunately, one of only three Redheads of the day was also forced to surrender after being injured by a bullet and pursued by a Chocolate Lab. I still can't wrap my mind around how people can kill such beautiful birds! 

A fraction of the coot gathering. I wonder how they feel about the deaths of their own kind?

    After covering all of our territory within a matter of hours, we decided to check the same spots again. We added Eastern Phoebe and American Kestrel - both birds that wouldn't be a shock if missed. As we were leaving a dock by the name of Mansard Island, I looked in a dead tree. At first glance I called, "Accipiter!" Then I got a better look and exclaimed, "Actually that looks like a Merlin." We turned around, and there it was...a beautiful Merlin no more than 30 yards in the field. This was definitely a good bird for the count!


    The Merlin brought us the much needed energy to finish the rest of the day. We continued to re-scan our spots around the lake. Although we didn't add any new waterfowl, it was still fun watching the Common Loons, Horned Grebes, and diving ducks pop up and down in the water. 
    Soon it was time to wrap up our trip. We finished at a field with wonderful Short-eared Owl habitat, but struck out on this one. Still, we did hear a pair of Great Horned Owls hooting in the wooded hill yonder. It was also fun watching the sparrows, towhees, and cardinals dash into their shelters to sleep for the evening.
    We finished with a total of 76 species - not bad. It was an awesome day! CBCs are truly the best - so fun and exciting. Hopefully I'll be able to do a few more before the season ends. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Birding to Us

    Birding...what is it to us as birders? To me, it's purely fun; and if I had to pick out my favorite parts of birding, it would be the challenges, the simple beauty of the birds, and the excitement.

    The Challenges: No doubt my very favorite birds are not the brightly-colored ones with an array of rainbow hues but rather those that are accompanied with a challenge. The challenges in birding (e.g. immature gull ID) outmatch even the most impossible puzzle apps or those TV game shows in both complexity and excitement. Yes, birding challenges certainly tend to be much more difficult. After all, iPhone apps don't fly away but immature gulls do, and there is never a sign or guideline hovering before our faces reading "It's a larus!" But isn't that partly what keeps it fun and interesting? I also believe that the similar (challenging) bird species, such as Band-rumped and Leach's Storm-Petrels, tend to make you look more closely at the birds, and as a result, you can appreciate their unique, individual beauty in a different way.

1st cycle Ring-billed Gull...dare I consider it one of the "easy" ones?

    The Beauty: This isn't just Painted Bunting or Resplendent Quetzal beauty; this is the beauty of the birds themselves. True, you really can't beat staring at the above bunting or quetzal, but look at a Downy Woodpecker. The bird is a male no more than three feet before you. You get to see the fine bristles surrounding his bill, every worn feather and fresh feather on his wings, and even your own reflection in his eyes. The bird's details - his splendid plumage design and even behavior - have their own beauty. Appreciating them for what they are...that's the beauty of it. And the experiences involved in the sighting can also add something.

    The Excitement: We've all had that moment when a lifer or a rarity is right before our eyes. We get the uncontrollable shakes (most notably when a camera is involved). "Oh man! It's a fill in the blank!"  Or something to that effect. I've also been fortunate to see others' reactions when they get a lifer. It brings back memories of the time the species was a new one for myself. Sharing the excitement of someone's lifer - now that's awesome!
    With rarities, whether it's a lifebird or not, the memories are incredibly cool. Individuals in a group can relate to that sighting, throwing in their perspectives. Much of the excitement in birding isn't personal experiences but rather as a group. 

    I doubt that anyone in this group will forget this particular warbler-bonanza in Cape May, New Jersey, especially the gentleman holding the 10-pound camera.

So how about you? Can you relate? What is birding to you?