Friday, May 31, 2013

Birding Harrisville

I know, my birding has been pathetic lately. My ebird ranking has been slipping slowly but surely out of the top 100 for the state of Michigan, and I can foresee a time where I could be out of the top 100 for my own county too. 

But I have a plan.

The daily ebird alert (a real torture engine for a birder like me, since you basically receive every day a notice of all the incredible birds you won't have the time to chase anyway) that I have subscribed to for the last 2 years has shown, that, statistically, there is a spot in Michigan where the magic combination of a unique geographical location (along the shore of Lake Huron), and the recurrent convergence of strong winds coming from various birding paradises brings over flocks of exotic gulls from the pacific shores, charms of mountain finches, rafts of Eurasians waterfowl,  flights of asian sandpipers in numbers that defy human logic....

That site is Harrisville State Park. That site is that good, that a single birder has been able to reach the top 10 of the ebird patch ranking, (for the US) more than 20 species above the best birder at Cape May.

So I took a closer look at the ebird statistics (a painful job, since the ebird reviewer, weirdly enough, has been systematically removing every single of those sightings from the ebird database, so these rarities have to be extracted from each individual ebird checklists) I have been able to summarize. 

I figure out that in a single week end, I should be able to reenter the michigan top 100. A week or 2 in the spring should push me easily in the top 20. 

That's the plan at least. I don't really see what could go wrong.

                    Date Rare Bird Checklist
5/30/2013 Feruginous Hawk, Cassin's Sparrow, Bullok's Oriole
5/27/2013 Northern Gannet, Artic Tern, Bewick's Wren
5/25/2013 Blue Groskeak
5/24/2013 Virginia Warbler
5/23/2013 Sprague's Pipit
5/20/2013 Broad Tailed Hummingbird
5/14/2013 Bullock's Oriole
4/30/2013 Blackthroated Gray Warbler
4/13/2013 Sage Thrasher
4/12/2013 Baikal Teal
11/21/2012 Mew Gull
10/11/2012 Cassin's Sparrow
10/10/2012 Curlew Sandpiper
9/25/2012 Prairie Falcon
8/14/2012 Marbled Godwit
6/6/2012 Kirtland Warbler
5/18/2012 Bells Vireo
5/17/2012 Black-headed Gull
5/4/2012 Mew Gull+Lark Sparrow
4/29/2012 Great Tailed Grackle
4/14/2012 Sabine's Gull
3/10/2012 Eurasian Siskins (3)
2/18/2012 Eurasian Siskin
2/14/2012 Eurasian Siskin (2)
2/11/2012 Eurasian Siskin
2/8/2012 Eurasian Siskin
1/25/2012 Hoary Redpoll
12/21/2011 Yellow-legged Gull + Slaty-backed Gull
12/20/2011 Yellow-legged Gull
12/15/2011 McCown's Longspur
11/30/2011 Barrow Goldeneye (female)
11/28/2011 Glaucous-winged Gull
11/23/2011 Clark's Grebe
10/10/2011 Clark's Nutcracker
10/4/2011 Nelson's sparrow
9/28/2011 Heermann's Gull
5/25/2011 Larks Bunting
5/24/2011 Roseate Tern+great tailed grackle
5/19/2011 Great-tailed grackle
5/14/2011 Arctic Tern+Northern hawk Owl
5/2/2011 Canyon Towhee
4/24/2011 Glaucous-winged Gull+Thayer Gull
1/10/2011 Barrow's Goldeneye
1/5/2011 Barrow's Goldeneye
12/10/2010 eurasian Siskin
11/11/2010 black-headed Gull+spotted towhee
10/29/2010 Bicknell's thrush
10/8/2010 Fish Crow
9/27/2010 Slaty Backed Gull
9/24/2010 Mew Gull
9/21/2010 Harris Sparrow
9/17/2010 Slaty Backed Gull
9/14/2010 California Gull
6/3/2010 Leconte's sparrow
5/26/2010 yelllow-crowned night heron
5/21/2010 Artic Tern
5/17/2010 Artic Tern+thayer's gull
4/23/2010 Fish Crow
4/19/2010 California Gull
4/18/2010 Laughing Gull+snowy owl
4/14/2010 Prairie Falcon
3/23/2010 eurasian Wigeon
2/8/2010 Barrow Goldeney (2)+eurasian Pine siskin
2/4/2010 eurasian siskin
11/13/2009 Slaty Backed Gull+fish crow
10/26/2009 California Gull+thayer gull
5/11/2009 Artic Tern (2)
5/6/2009 Mew Gull
5/4/2009 Mew Gull
4/29/2009 Mew Gull
4/28/2009 Loggerhead shrike
4/27/2009 Eurasian Siskin
4/22/2009 California Gull+Fish Crow+thayer Gull
4/21/2009 California Gull
4/20/2009 Harris' Sparrow
4/13/2009 California Gull

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The soaring DC cormorant Identification issue

May 2011. It is only 4pm, but we (Andy Dettling, Laurent Fournier, Jacco Gelderloos) have been up for about 14 hours, and biked and hiked for about 75 miles, smashing our own previous Washtenaw county (Michigan) bigby (=carbon free) record of 114 species. We enter Ann Arbor's Nichols Arboretum where dozen of people are sunbathing, enjoying the warm spring afternoon.

Suddenly, one of us notice something soaring in the blue sky. Black, long neck, long pointy wings, fanned out tail, soaring without a wingbeat and rising in a thermal next to a Turkey Vulture.

We look in silence at the bird for a few seconds, and finally, one of us states the obvious. Anhinga. Mega, mega bird for Michigan (this would have been the third state record for Michigan). Pictures were taken and later posted in local and Florida lists. Initially at least, the consensus was unanimous. The behaviour was fitting Anhiga extremely well.

Later, though,it appeared that something was not quite right about the ID. The fanned out tail, in particular, was a bit too short and proportions were not quite right.

For comparison purposes, here is an Anhiga's picture taken taken from the 10,000 birds gallery (photo : Corey Finger)

Caleb Putman, local lister and former member of the Michigan Rare Bird Commitee posted this comment on my flickr picture :

"I think it's a Cormorant. When they soar they often look very different from when they are flapping, and the shape begins to approach Anhinga. The tail looks proportionately longer, especially. Here is a very similar photo I took at Port Huron : /

Later, local birding listserv owner Bruce Bowman compared the pictures with some Anhinga pictures found in field guides :

"My calculations are below.  First, I determined the expected W/L ratios for Anhinga and Double-crested Cormorant using values from the Sibley field guide. Next I used The GIMP image editor to measure W and L in pixels for the four posted photos, one at Grove Street and the three at Flickr.  These values and the associated W/L ratios are in the table below".

Anhinga DC Cormorant Our bird
W 45" 52" 53.9 px
L 35" 33" 31.5 px
W/L 1.29 1.58" 1.72

Suddenly, it became pretty clear that our initial identification was wrong and that we, in fact, witnessed a soaring DC cormorant. Our bird was simply too short.

Interestingly, 10,000 birds beat writter Jochen experienced a similar identification crisis the same location a few years earlier :

I later decided to dig a little deeper to explore the various forms of DC cormorant flight. Fact is, soaring DC Cormorants are not very well documented in the commonly available field guides.

In most birding field guides (Sibley, National Geographic are the ones I owned and checked), there is no mention of any potential confusion between soaring DC Cormorants and Anhingas. In the Cornell Lab Website, for instance, it is simply mentioned that "In flight, they often travel in V-shaped flocks that shift and reform as the birds alternate bursts of choppy flapping with short glides".

However, in the online version of Birds of North America, there is a brief mention of the Double Crested Cormorant capacity of soaring when the conditions are right :

"Taking flight from perch, initially loses altitude; takeoff from level land requires several hops combined with vigorous flapping. On water, makes similar 2-footed thrusts, synchronized with wing-beats; most other waterbirds paddle their feet alternately for takeoff. If no wind, and after fishing, takeoff may require up to 10 m (Lewis 1929). When over water, usually flies close to surface; over land, flies much higher. During long foraging flights or on migration, flocks may travel in shallow Vs or echelons. Soaring infrequent, except slope-soaring along cliffs, but occasionally soars in thermals"

Furthermore, the Pete Dunne's Essential  Field Guide Companion (Houghton Mifflin, 2006) says that they sometimes soar.  From the D-c Cormorant species account, p. 122: "On days with good thermal production, Double-cresteds > frequently soar, with wings at a  right angle to the body, neck stretched, and tail fanned.  The shape suggests a bulky Anhinga."

As a conclusion, we believe that this soaring behavior of DC Cormorant should be more widely publicized. This bird took a long time for even the top birders in the state to analyse and come to an identification. We were lucky enough to have gotten a photo of the bird. While it is much easier to see that the tail was too short in the photo, real time observation did not give that impression. The fanned tail appeared to be long and widely fanned. Without a photo to scrutinize we believe the group would have settled and written the bird up as an Anhinga. While it may be rare to see a DC Cormorant soaring it is crucial for the birding public to know about this possibility so that an accurate identification can be made in the field without the aid of a photo

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A word or two about the Nikon customer service

I have a couple of interesting things to say about my Nikon Monarch 8*42. Good Bins, specially for the price, $270 I bought 3 years ago. The kind of bins I can afford to buy, more important, the kind of bins I can afford to lose or bang on a tree during a run (yeah, I run and bird at the same time).

So I had some troubles with the Eyecups. I would say lots of Monarch Owners do. Eyecups threads are made in plastic, and soon or later (rather sooner if you nervously twist them up and down while waiting for a bird to show up), they get loose, and can't stay in the "up" position.

Nothing that a brocoli rubber band can't fix, you would say. True. But is it not a pain somewhere to have these perfectly good bins that are not QUITE perfect?

So I shipped them back to Nikon Customer Service, in California. Got them back a few weeks ago, fixed, cleaned, realigned.....perfect at last. They did not charge me a dime, because of their non fault warranty. The whole thing took 2 weeks, and I was always able to follow on the website what they were doing to my babies

So, thumbs up to Nikon!!!!!!

12/18/2012 update. Nikon customer service is great, no doubt about it. But the eye cup issue drives me nuts. I already send my Nikon Monarch twice, and they were fixed free of charge, and returned in a very reasonable time (around 2 weeks) . But after 6-8 month of moderate use, the eye cups started to fall off  again and I am planning to have them fixed for a third time this spring. Maybe I should just get them fixed and upgrade to something more dependable.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Florida Trip

I have not posted much lately. Not that I have not done any exciting birding, though. The whole family went last month (mm I mean february) in Florida, in Fort Myers Beach, to relax a little bit, get some warmth in the middle of the michigan winter, watch birds, and even chase a lifer or 2 (I did not expect that, considering we had a baby with us.
As usual, Esterego Lagoon had a great quantity of waders, ospreys, shorebirds, terns and gulls, as well as quite a few Palm Warblers (I will never get tired of seeing those birds hoping on the sandbeach), Ospreys, Brown Pelicans, etc. Overall, only one lifer on the beach during the 4 days of the trip (red knot), but I had a great time experimenting with my fz28+TCON17.

Osprey in Fort Myers Beach

There were also quite a few local "long lens" photographers, which is quite an interesting mammal species to study by itself.
In particular, I always find amazing that, on a beach where you can potentially find 6 species of plovers (I did not get the snowy this year, but piping, semipalmated, blackbellied, killdeer, wilsons were quite common), plus willets, turnstones, least sandpipers, the long lens photographers seems to be exclusively interested in waders and terns.

I mean, sure enough, a snowy egret in breeding plumage is nice, but why not taking advantage of having a $10,000 (maybe I am underestimating here) lens and take pictures of the cute little ones?

Another point that I find odd with those people, is their tendency to have EXTREMELY noisy shutter noise. "CLICK" "CLICK" "CLICK". dozens, hundreds of times. On my point and shot, you can very easily turn off the sound, so I would be surprised if you could not do it with those DSLR. OR maybe they did not read the manual......

But enough said about the lucky ones with their dream cameras (maybe I am just getting jaleous here). Let's go back to the birds...
Let's take care of the lifer. This was a red knot, bird that is quite rare in Michigan, let alone in Washtenaw county (we have no coast line with any of the great lakes)
Red Knot

I felt sorry for the bird as I discovered that it was missing part of its left leg....(does it still count as a full tick on my life list?) Another nice bird I found on the beach was an American Avocet, despite the relatively long distance, the picture turned out to be ok.....

Red Knot, missing part of its left leg

American Avocet

I was also lucky enough to find a reddish Egret, white morph (about 20% of the reddish Egret in Florida), which I initially misidentified to be a juvenile little blue heron (and for a moment, I was an "ashamed reddish cheeked birder")

Reddish Egret, White Morph

Weather was rather windy and cold (at least for Florida), and a semipalm plover is sheltering behind a Piping Plover. If you ask me, it's easy to see why the semipalm is a common bird, and the piping is endangered! In any case it was great to see them side to side, if only for the size comparison. I always assumed that the piping was smaller, probably because it is so cute, but I was wrong on this one. This bird was still in winter plumage, while many others were molting

Wilson's Plover

We also managed to make a side trip to Venice, where we managed to score a Florida Scrub Jay, bird we did not manage to score during our previous trip, one year ago. With the Red Knot, it was ABA lifer #321 and 322

Florida Scrub Jay

Another nice side trip we did was a visit to the Corkscrew Swamp. I suspect the main reason why Diane wanted to visit the swamp was because of the painted bunting that is fairly reliable other there. I was, too, quite excited to the idea to get a close picture of this little fellow. Just as we started the boardwalk tour, the volonteer for the refuge told me that a Shiny Cowbird had been reported in this area, so I spend a little bit of time looking for this potential lifer, while Diane went to the bird feeder, looking at the Bunting. Well, I did not see the cowbird, AND managed to miss the Bunting at the feeder (Diane, of course, saw the bunting). I still managed a long distance shot of a Bunting, but the quality is obviously not that great.

Incidentally, the french name for this bird is the "passerin non pareil", which could be translated , in jochen style, by "unlike anything else passerine". I think it is quite a nice name!

Painted Bunting

A common bird in Florida : the white Ibis.

Another side trip we did was to go at the 6 miles cypress park in the city of Fort Myers. The park is, to some extend, very similar to the corskrew swamp : a long board walk in the middle of a wooded swamps. Birds are certainly less numerous, but wintering warblers and vireo were common, and a nice challenge for the would be photographer.

Blue Headed Vireo

But the most exciting bird we saw that day was a Great Blue Heron who managed to pick a fight with a local snake (I wish I could ID the snake). The fight lasted for a good 5 minutes, and ended with a clear victory for the bird, who celebrated by eating his opponent!

Friday, January 22, 2010

A few pictures with the TCON17

I got one year older last week (my age is now a prime it not exciting?, the next time it will happen will be in 4 years.....any guess?), as a result my beloved wife bought me a TCON17, which allows me to multiply my fz28 zoom by 1.7. While I did not expect any miracle from this, I thought it was a great (I mean cheap) way to get better ID shots, and once a while, a cool picture or two to print.

Light was really bad last week, but I could not help trying my new toy in the local park....

A white throated sparrow was my first target, and he was quite cooperative. Despite the terrible light, I managed a couple of acceptable (not by the National Geographic, though!) picture of this cute bird.

In similar light, a surprisingly bright goldfinch

A Tree Sparrow, in much better light. I could not come as close as I wished, but the pictures came out ok.

House finch, in bright light at my work place

I will try to post a more scientific post on the TCON17 in the near future, but so far, I was quite pleased with the results.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

8 reasons to spend the winter in michigan..

1) You learn quite a bit about how to convert Farenheit into Celsius, because of the Arborland mall sign

2) Nobody will steal your car during the night, because it would be just too much work

Which one is mine anyway?

3) Winter keeps you in good shape :

Long Jump to get across the snow piles, in order juste to get food. The alternative is a quarter mile walk around it, on the parking lot.

A little warm up before to go to work in the morning

4) You have the beaches of lake michigan all for yourself (go figure..)

5) You can learn quite a bit of unusual sciences

Strength of material testing (on ice)

6) What's about a snowshoe hike in Waterloo Recreation Area, looking for crossbills?

Can't think about a better place to be, on a sunny day
7) All things considered, there is still a lot more sun in Michigan than in the north of Europe

Not the best place in the US, but still about 2400 hours of sun a year

I grew up in a city located between Paris and Lille....less than 1750 hours of sun a year!

8) Spring eventually replaces winter, and that feels sooo good!

It does not mean there is no snow (picture taken in mid April)!

Monday, January 11, 2010

snow buntings (lots of them)!!!

Bonne Annee!!!!!

Happy new year!!!!

Back from europe, I did not do much birding lately. Mostly took care of my feeder, where I picked up a nice variety of birds on January 1st (12), always a nice way to start the year!! I finally managed to pass the 200 bird for the year in december, in the least glamourous way. I was checking my notes from 2007, and realized I forgot to report a ruffed grouse I flushed while I was orienteering during the spring 2007, in the waterloo recreation area. This forgotten bird was enough to make me reach the 200 mark for the county, which had been my goal for the year 2010.

Yesterday I managed to join the washtenaw audubon society for a field trip, with the goal to pick up a few winter birds for my year list. Redpolls and Pine Siskins have been proven to be totally absent from the south east side of the state this year, so we reported our hopes into snow buntings, lapland longspurs, and possibly a norther shrike that had been reported during the previous week. Another possibility was a freak mockingbird who decided to winter in our county , feeding on frozen berries.

Weather was quite cold as we met on the parking lot of the mall (5-6 Fahrenheit), but the wind shill made it even worst when we reached the most popular winter destination of the county, named Vreeland Road in Superior Township.

The trip started nicely with a HUGE flock of tree sparrows (200-300 of them!!) next to the conservation farm. Too far for a shot, but I took one anyway, on the road....

But everyone forgot about the cold as we reached the best spot...

SNOW BUNTINGS....dozens, hundreds of them, flying around in flock, landing for a few bites of the putrefied pumpkins. We counted at least 300 of them, spotting amoung them a few horned larks and at least 6 lapland longspurs.

The mockingbird and the shrike were nowhere to be seen, but a sharpie was a nice consolation price. That was three birds I did not list last year in the county, so that's a great start for the year!