Tuesday, January 27, 2015

From the Pacific

   Birding has been quite successful for me lately, as you will read in this post. Although there are a few common species I do not have on my year list including both scaups, Brown Creeper, and Winter Wren, to name a few, I feel good with the pace I'm keeping. But with eleven months left in the year, there isn't much to worry about!
   On Sunday, January 25th, my non-birder dad, my eBird-obsessed brother, and I made an impromptu drive to Woods Reservoir in Franklin County, Tennessee. I wasn't expecting much...just hoping for a few FOYs. However, I was pretty excited about a Red-throated Loon report from the day before. This species has always been quite hard to find in the state, especially away from the Kentucky Lake area.
   We arrived at Woods Reservoir at around eleven o'clock - an odd time for sure, but I wasn't too worried. The sun glare, however, definitely disturbed me. Sun glare and heat shimmer are both the worst when it comes to scanning water. Fortunately, neither proved to be overly terrible.
The beautiful sky!

   The three of us started in the vicinity of the Morris Ferry Dock. I did a quick scan of this part of the lake to get an idea of what was out there, then made a closer study, moving from right to left. There wasn't much over here save for a few Ring-billed Gulls, dozens of Common Loons, a couple of Pied-billed Grebes, and hundreds of duck decoys near the opposite shore. All of the loons looked normal to me. No Red-throated. So we continued.
   Our next stop was a gravel pull-off overlooking the reservoir and a disappearing heronry by the name of Little Elder Island. Our first of many Buffleheads of the day were hanging out with a small, fidgety group of coots near us. There were even more loons and Pied-bills visible from here and also a number of Bonaparte's Gulls swarming in the distance. We still had not sighted the Red-throated Loon, or any year bird for that matter, so we left for the dam.
   I had never been to the reservoir's dam before, and it proved to be a good stop. Our only Ruddy Ducks of the day were in a tight raft here, and the most Horned Grebes I have ever seen in my life - over five hundred birds - were stretched out in a loose group over the lake. I also spotted three Common Goldeneyes, which are my favorite duck.
   After a brief stop at a nearby "Waterfowl Refuge" (not sure why it's called that...), we scoped the lake from the Gossick Leadership Center. (Technically, I don't think we were supposed to be here, but I didn't figure that out until we left.) This is where we saw our lifer Red-throated Loon last March, but there was no such luck here today.
   From there we went to a small spot named Brumalow Creek. Here we were closer to the Bonaparte's Gulls, and that was pretty much the only species of note.
   Fast forward an hour after a quick lunch break and we were back at the view by Little Elder Island. Finally, we picked up not one but two FOYs in thirty seconds: a swimming Double-crested Cormorant and a calling Red-headed Woodpecker! (Where were these earlier?) Although both are common birds in the state that I knew I would get eventually, I was happy to check them off now.
    I decided that it was best to scan Morris Ferry Dock again, and this time we actually stood on the dock, giving us an even better vantage point than previously. I scanned each bird and immediately landed on one loon that made my heart skip a beat. Smaller, straight bill (check)...rounded head (yup)...chin strap (uhuh)...upright position (compared to the Common, yes)...smaller size (oh yeah). That was my thought process when looking at the bird. "I think this is a Pacific Loon," I said to my brother, and let him look through the scope. He agreed, though I'm pretty sure he would have agreed even if I purposely showed him another Common Loon. So he ran to get our dad, who came to look and of course question us on how we knew it was a Pacific Loon.

Pacific Loon (right) with a Common Loon.

Cropped photo of the Pacific.

   You can imagine how excited we were. This was only our second Pacific Loon, and it was probably the best look we'd ever have! Unfortunately I didn't have time to play with the lighting (the sky was now cloudy), so those were my best shots. Hmm...Pacific rather than Red-throated...funny how that works...
   After sighting the Pacific, we headed home. This outing certainly proved to be very successful. What a day!

Monday, January 12, 2015

In Search of Ivory

   After browsing dozens of photos of the Ivory Gull in Quincy, Illinois, and after seeing hundreds of positive reports, my brother and I just couldn't handle it any longer. We asked our dad if he could take us, and after a bit of preparation, the three of us hit the road Friday evening (1-9-15). The drive from our home to Quincy was around seven hours, so we chopped that time in half, spending the night in O'Fallon, IL before waking up early Saturday to reach our destination at a reasonable hour.
   As we ventured farther and farther North, the temperature steadily decreased, and ponds were no longer alive with ripples but locked in ice. Parts of the Mississippi River were even frozen. Yet we are birders, and negative degrees and ice don't keep us away.

Ice covering the water at Quincy Lock and Dam

Close-up of the beautiful ice

   We pulled up to Quinsippi Island, and easily over one hundred birders (yes, I am serious) were huddled like starlings on a wire, waiting for the arrival of Mr. Ivory. I glanced at the license plates of the cars edging the gravel road: Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kansas, Kentucky, Texas, Missouri, Indiana, Nebraska, Minnesota, Arkansas, Iowa, and eventually two vehicles representing Tennessee. It certainly was a sight to behold in itself. 
   The blast of cold as I stepped out of the car, combined with anxiousness and excitement, left me shaking for the next few minutes. Today was the day the Ivory Gull would be joining my lifelist! And judging the faces of my comrade birders, they seemed to be saying and thinking the same. We all stood facing various marinas. There was a patch of water beside one particular boat that was unfrozen due to an underwater aerator. This was the spot the gull had favored and was predicted to visit again. And we waited.
   The optimistic calls of Black-capped Chickadees sounded from the woods. The species was a year bird for us Southerners. Woodpeckers were quite abundant at the Quinsippi Island Park, with a noisy Pileated Woodpecker calling and Hairy, Downy, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers putting on a show for us. I enjoyed watching a particular White-breasted Nuthatch which ate from a scrap of bread later in the day. And the Canada Geese. There were hundreds of them migrating overhead in loose V-formations. Once my brother pointed out a few smaller geese amongst a group of Canadas, and these turned out to be our FOY "speckle-bellies," a.k.a. Great White-fronted Geese. But back to the gull.

White-breasted Nuthatch

Migrating Canada Geese

   This group of hardcore birders waited for at least an hour and a half for the arrival of the spotless, white gull. It became too much for some people (including myself), and we began wandering along the gravel road in search of interesting birds. The word eventually spread that there were Eurasian Tree Sparrows hanging out in the weedy clearing just down the trail. I believe that everyone got to see these bold sparrows, and it was a lifer for me and my brother.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow...Lifer #318 (Cropped Image)

   I soon realized that the gull would not show up at this spot, although we remained there in case it might indeed appear. I am not sure how I got this reasoning. Perhaps I took into consideration the number of birders gathered so close to the gull's perch and thought it might overwhelm the lost bird. Maybe it was the absence of other gulls or even the weather. But I decided that we would never find Ivory by letting him come to us. We would have to search for him ourselves, so we jumped into the car and began the drive along the river.
   The rest of our day was spent driving back and forth, up and down the river. We double-checked every gull, every protruding piece of ice, and every barge. Still no Ivory Gull, but we added a flock of Double-crested Cormorants to our year list.
   During the afternoon, we stopped at the Quincy Lock and Dam. It was a very interesting place. A Northern Harrier glided over the open field to our left, and Bald Eagles circled and perched near the water to our right.

Adult Bald Eagle

Canada Geese and Mallards lazily swam in the river's open waters. Closer to the dam, several handsome Common Mergansers (FOY) showed off their bright white and green plumages and blazing orange bills. This species is the rarest of the three mergansers where we live, so it was nice to see them once again. A big surprise below the dam were two cooperative American White Pelicans, another first of the year for me and my brother. I adjusted the lighting on my camera so that I could take a decent photograph.

American White Pelicans

   The sun was rapidly setting, and still none of the 100+ birders had found the gull. To and fro we drove, but our searching was all in vain. We ended our day where we started. There was still a small handful of birders waiting at Quinsippi, but with only minutes of daylight remaining, most abandoned the search.
   Despite missing the Ivory Gull, we still had a wonderful day. Eurasian Tree Sparrow was certainly a great lifebird, and simply birding Quincy itself was a fun adventure!

Friday, January 2, 2015

2015: A Solid Start

   I purposely closed my eyes to avoid getting European Starling or Rock Pigeon or American Crow as my first species of 2015. It was a good thing too - my year list began with a pair of Bald Eagles. Then we pulled up to this:

Sunrise at Old Hickory Lake

    It was definitely one of the most spectacular sunrises I've ever seen - shame on the lazy Ruddy Ducks for missing it.

Ruddy Ducks

    Oh well...I guess they stayed up late to celebrate the New Year.
     My brother and I, along with Steve & Cyndi Routledge, Chris Sloan, Joshua Stevenson, and Mike Smith, began 2015 at Old Hickory Lake for the annual Hickory-Priest CBC. This was the third Christmas Bird Count I did in winter 2014-2015, and by the end of the day, I had decided it was likely the best one too.
   We had a very good start, with a wonderful variety of waterfowl and passerines. A flyover American Black Duck was undoubtedly the highlight of the hour, and multiple groups consisting of several hundred Red-winged Blackbirds were nice surprises. We also heard a White-breasted Nuthatch, which, although far from a rarity, was quite unusual for our count territory.
   Perhaps it was the below-freezing temperatures or maybe the gloomy conditions, but seeing over one hundred White-crowned Sparrows was certainly far from expected. We flushed dozens upon dozens from a particular scrubby field. Several sang happy, little tunes and posed for photos.

Juvenile White-crowned Sparrow

   The crew continued along a mowed trail, and even more White-crowns fled as we passed. As we approached a pond decorated with a thin layer of ice, four calling Wood Ducks flew before us - another unusual bird for the CBC. Little did we know that we would finish the day with a total of 16 Wood Ducks! Then, we finally found a much-wanted flock of Rusty Blackbirds. The first flock was followed by two more, raising our Rusty numbers to sixty-two birds. Nice! But we still had more of the lake to cover, so we moved on.

Part of our crew, probably looking at White-crowned Sparrows

   We checked various spots around the lake throughout the day. Our wading bird list was quite impressive, with dozens of Great Blue Herons, twenty-four Black-crowned Night-Herons in one small roost, and a late Great Egret. Hooded Mergansers, Buffleheads, and Common Goldeyes were numerous in certain areas. Gulls, of course, were everywhere we turned. A group of over one hundred Bonaparte's Gulls swarming in a tornado-like formation was an incredible sight.

Adult Ring-billed Gull, complemented by a first-cycle bird in the background

Bonaparte's Gulls (the white dots before the tree line and houses)

Canada Geese were close enough for decent photographs as well.

Canada Goose

   Around noon, we pulled up to a marina to scan the lake. I saw my brother get out of the car ahead, and I could tell they had spotted something good because he was acting overly excited. That "good" bird was an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull - the first-ever for the Old Hickory CBC. We all obtained identifiable photographs although the bird was quite distant. However, the excitement continued. An immature gull with a thick, black tail band and a white rump flew just before the LBBG. It was a second Lesser Black-backed Gull - a first-cycle. This bird proved elusive, and unfortunately we were unable to get photos.

Distant adult Lesser Black-backed Gull

   After the LBBG sightings, only a few more species were added to the trip list. The complete group tally was seventy-six species. Yet there were a few I missed, leaving my year list at seventy-one species - a solid start. What an awesome day! (Below is my 2014 summary.)

2014 Totals:

TN Year List - 249 species
ABA area Year List - 293 species
Life List - 317 species (ABA area only)