Monday, March 30, 2009

Again redpolls

Yes, another post on redpolls. These guys are incredibly photogenic, and indeed I can't get enough of photographing them. You might think there's nothing much else going on at this hawk watch in Whitefish Point... and you'd be right, actually. For the moment, things remain slow. Yesterday we got hammered with snow all day, and today the world was a fresher white. Eagles were the only raptors seen on migration today, but they were all high. Usually Bald is the more numerous eagle around here, but today I saw more Goldens, five in total.

The bird at the top, pensively looking down, is a Hoary Redpoll. Its ghostly pale appearance and the short, stubby bill are better clues for Hoary than for Common. But all these things are so subtle.

The bill shape is more obvious on this side view of the same bird. It appears to be a female or an immature.

Adult male Common Redpolls are quite colorful in breeding plumage. The cherry red breast on this individual is typical for that species. Hoary Redpoll males tend to have a pink wash on the breast, nothing as bright as this.

Kinda more like this... Except this is not a Hoary! Yes, it's pale and yes, it looks like it has that pink wash on the breast, but take a look at the next picture - of the same bird.

Now it's obvious that this is a Common Redpoll, with a longer bill and more streaking on the flanks than Hoary Redpoll would have. The cheek also seems a little too dark for Hoary. Still, the bird looks deceptively pale overall, and that pink color on the breast also is suggestive of Hoary Redpoll. This individual is a pale young male Common Redpoll, whose reddish color on the breast is just coming on. It's a result of normal feather wear: as the white edges wear off, the more reddish part of the breast feathers become exposed.

This last bird illustrates very well the necessity for combining several field marks when trying to separate the two redpoll species. Not all pale redpolls are Hoaries!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Saw-whet!

This cute little ball of feathers is a Northern Saw-whet Owl.

Besides 'cute', he can do 'mean' also. He probably thinks he's menacing, but all that posturing and bill snapping doesn't make him any less cute.

The bird is one of the Northern Saw-whet Owls that owl banders Chris Neri and Nova Mackentley caught last night here at Whitefish Point. The number of saw-whets they catch far outnumbers any other owl species they get, although during 'invasion' years for Boreal Owl, that species may be the most abundant owl they band. So far, they have already caught one boreal and about fifty or so saw-whets.

They let me release this one. Here, I'm still holding it firmly by the legs. After I carefully loosened my grip on his legs, he just sat for a few seconds on my index finger, before flying off into the darkness.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

More on redpoll identification

A few days ago, I posted some Hoary and Common Redpoll pictures here, taken at the feeders behind The Owl's Roost, which is the name of Whitefish Point Bird Observatory's gift shop.

Here are some more photos from the same location, taken today.

The snowy-white bird pictured above is of course a Hoary Redpoll. Note, besides the pale appearance and the short, stubby bill, the fine streaking on the sides and the almost complete lack of streaking on the undertail coverts.

Of course, subtle differences in bill size and shape between Hoary and Common Redpoll are difficult to judge on a single individual. Side by side, however, these differences are quite visible. Note that this is a different individual from the one pictured above. This is an adult male - with a pink wash across the breast - while the top bird may be an adult female or an immature.

Often, a first clue to a bird being a Hoary candidate is the difference in overall color. Note how pale this individual is in comparison to the birds surrounding it. An unstreaked rump and the differences noted above will clinch the identification.

About a year ago, David Sibley posted similar photos on his blog, which can be seen here. Sibley's discussion is a lot more precise and detailed than mine here, and centers on separating various subspecies of Common Redpoll, and how they compare to Hoaries and to each other. He specifically talks about 'Greater' Common Redpolls (Carduelis flammea rostrata), a larger and darker subspecies that breeds on Baffin Island and Greenland, and irregularly winters south to the northeastern US (Sibley) but more commonly in northern Canada (Knox & Lowther 2000).

Today I noticed some size differences between the redpolls in the flock at Whitefish Point. Note for example the obvious size difference between the bird on the left back ridge of the bird bath, and the bird to its left (for us right). This putative 'Greater' Common Redpoll is not only bigger, but also more heavily streaked on the sides.

Here's another photo of a Common Redpoll (center) that appears bigger than the others. This bird, however, is a different individual, because its crown is not as red as the previous bird. It tends more toward orange.

And here's another 'Orange-crowned' Redpoll. This also is a Common Redpoll whose 'poll' isn't red, but orange. According to the Common Redpoll BNA account, the "crown [is] shiny, bright poppy red, sometimes more orange or even gold" (Knox & Lowther 2000). I had never seen it before, but apparently this is not all that rare.

Here is a shot of that bird preening. Also conspicuous on this individual is the relative lack of brown tones in its plumage. Still, several field marks points in the direction of Common Redpoll: fairly heavily streaked undertail coverts and rump; relatively longer bill; relatively slender neck. Observe how the streaking on the flanks is less heavy than on the previous 'orange-crowned' Greater Common Redpoll and that structurally the bird seems much more delicate, less bulky.

Knox, Alan G. and Peter E. Lowther. 2000. Common Redpoll (Carduelis flammea), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:
Sibley, David A. 2008. Sibley Guides Notebook, online only:

Monday, March 23, 2009

White-winged Crossbills

Alright, after yesterday's post about Red Crossbills - including the lament that the locally more numerous White-winged Crossbills hadn't been found willing to pose for a picture yet - today some of those white-wingers. The bird pictured above of course is an adult male.

Here's the same bird from a different angle, showing those diagnostic white wing-bars and tertial tips.

Those field marks aren't really visible in this picture (of the same bird). The long, slender bill would still be a clue for White-winged: Red Crossbill bills vary greatly in size, but generally aren't so elongated. Proportionally, the head on a white-winger is smaller too, although I would hate to have to ID this bird on the basis of this picture alone. The upper wingbar is barely visible.

This is an adult female.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Red Crossbills

A few shots of some Red Crossbills that were hanging around the hawk platform today. White-winged Crossbills still appear to be more abundant here than Red, although ironically I haven't yet been able to get any decent shots of the White-wingeds yet.

Here's another shot of that male, with partially frozen Lake Superior in the background.

This is an immature Red Crossbill.

Here's a male White-winged Crossbill, also taken from the hawk platform, about a week ago.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Redpoll identification

With a cold NNW wind blowing today and a high of -11°C / 12°F (!), wind chill factors plummeted to unbearable depths. Raptor migration also reached its absolute nadir - zero migrants recorded - so let's turn to something more rewarding: redpoll identification.

The problem is well-known: two species, Common and Hoary Redpoll, which are very similar in appearance. Adult males are distinctive, but great care is needed to separate females and immatures of these two species. Overall, Hoaries are paler, with shorter bills, pale rumps (vs. streaked in Common), less streaking on undertail coverts, fainter flank streaking, frosty streaking on the back with pale rear scapulars, and more white on secondaries and coverts.

The photo at the top shows two Common Redpolls in the upper right, with a pale bird on the left that's a candidate for Hoary.

Here is a larger image of the paler bird. (Clicking on these photos will blow them up even further.) Note how pale overall this bird is, with pale rear scapulars, a pale face, and broad white edges on the greater coverts.

The very top photo I cropped to show this bird with some obvious Common Redpolls for comparison. Below is another crop of the same photo, showing what I think are two more candidates for Hoary Redpoll (lower center). The angle on these birds, however, makes their case a harder one to make.

Compare these two birds with the two lower birds on the outsides, and note how much paler they are.

Here's another pale bird, probably one of the three.

Here is the same photo, a little enlarged, with a Common Redpoll in the top left for comparison.

Note that paleness combined with a round, fluffy appearance is not sufficient for calling a bird a Hoary. This is a rather pale Common Redpoll with a round, thick-necked posture suggesting Hoary. Note the longer bill, however, and the absence of white tips on the lower mantle (scapulars). Also, the head is browner than on the three paler redpolls.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Golden Eagles

Hawk watching at Whitefish Point today was all about Golden Eagles. A stiff wind blowing from the WSW brought at least 5 adult Golden Eagles to the tip of the peninsula, while yesterday's sub-adult was also still there today.

The first two GE's of the day had tail winds and went across the bay on the first attempt.

Then the wind subtly changed to W and all of a sudden, eagles had a hard time making the crossing. Repeated attempts provided the counter with great looks from the hawk platform.

In the afternoon, an already strong W wind picked up some more and became a brutally cold WNW wind, which brought an end to the raptor flight.

Five Golden Eagles on a single day is a good number for Whitefish Point.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

South winds

Today’s south winds brought warm weather to Michigan, with areas hitting 70F here and there. At Whitefish Point, that translates into higher 40s, and a bit more birds around. Cool birds today included three Evening Grosbeaks (a male and two females), a Hoary Redpoll mixed in with thirty or so Commons, and seven Bohemian Waxwings.

Raptor migration was a little better than yesterday, but not epic. Frankly, I had expected a better showing given those warm south winds, but two Northern Goshawks (one immature female and one adult male, pictured above), a sub-adult Golden Eagle (pictured below), 13 Bald Eagles, 3 adult male Sharp-shinned Hawks, an adult Red-shouldered Hawk and an adult Red-tailed Hawk (pictured top) were all for migrating raptors today.

Monday, March 16, 2009

In the north country

A couple of days ago I arrived in northern Michigan, where I will be counting migrating raptors at Whitefish Point. This is the name of a small peninsula that juts out into Lake Superior, which still has a lot of ice floating around. Barely visible in the background of this picture is Canada, about 17 miles away.

The raptor season here runs from March 15 until May 31. Most of Michigan is now snow free, but here on the Upper Peninsula, things are still quite wintry. Locals tell me that the weather we’re having is exceptionally balmy for this time of year, but for this counter, who spends his winters in the tropics, it sure feels cold. But it’s a beautiful spot.

Of course there’s interesting northern birds around here, such as Common Redpolls, Pine Grosbeaks, Snow Buntings, and White-winged Crossbills.

Also here in good numbers are Pine Siskins.

The raptor flight this early in the season is dominated by adult Bald Eagles. Today I counted nine migrating balds, including one juvenile and a so-called ‘sub-adult III’ type of bird, or near-adult; the rest were adults. For residents we have at least one adult and one distinctly marked juvenile around the Point – I see them all the time.

This adult female Northern Goshawk, seen this morning and here photographed flying away, appeared to be outfitted with a radio transmitter. It would be interesting to find out whose bird this is, where it came from, and where it is headed.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Back in New York City

Today's message is brought to you by the Office of Tourism of El Salvador.

OK, not really. But these are some of the photos I took recently in El Salvador, just before I accidentally/stupidly/jack-assedly (check all that apply) deleted my entire iPhoto library - yes, we're talking 6,000 photos here. Luckily/amazingly/heroically, I was able to retrieve them with a nifty little piece of UNIX freeware called Photorec, although the recovery operation - deservedly - is going to take me ages to complete. These are only the first results.

The uppermost picture is of a sunset on the beach near the Rio Jiboa inlet, a place that has been particularly productive lately for finding large, unusual gulls. (Any large gull is by definition unusual in El Salvador.) The identity of these gulls is still being debated, and once I have all my photos recovered, I'll probably post some here. Some of my photos can already be seen here.

This photo is of a sunrise over El Salvador, taken from one of the highest points in the country, in Montecristo. This is a small country, so we're looking at probably a quarter or a third of the entire country here. The peaks on the horizon are fairly close to the coast, on the other side of the country.

This is one of two Black Terns that we saw on the beach Wednesday afternoon.

I'm back in New York City, where today the skies are gray, the weather is chilly and all the trees are still bare. But I'm sure spring isn't far away here. Friday I will travel on to northern Michigan, where spring is probably still light years away...

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Banding in Montecristo

Remember a while back I posted photos here of Blue-throated Motmots? Remember that first photo, a blurry shot of a bird in the mid-story shade of a transitional forest somewhere in Chiapas? Then a couple of weeks later I found one in a sunny spot, got a slightly better shot in Coapilla, also Chiapas, and posted that one too.

Last week, I held two of these birds in my hand, and I saw two more in the pine-oak forest of Montecristo, in the northwestern corner of El Salvador. I removed the bird pictured above from a mistnet. These beautiful birds spend much time perched quietly in trees, and are easily overlooked. They tend to vocalize around sunrise and sunset, and the rest of the day are quiet for the most part. At Montecristo, they appear to be fairly common.

Carlos and Roselvy, two biologists working at SalvaNatura, the organisation I’m currently volunteering with, invited me to come along on their five-day banding trip to Montecristo last week.

Here I am with a female Olive Warbler.

This Olive Warbler is one of the 77 birds we caught last week. We ran 16 nets for a sum total of 50 hours, so 800 net hours in total. I removed maybe 20 or 25 of those birds from the nets, including cool stuff like a Collared Trogon, a Spotted Nightingale Thrush, a Slate-colored Solitaire, a few Swainson’s Thrushes, a Black-and-white Warbler, several Wilson’s Warblers, a Flame-colored Tanager and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

Also this immature female Black-throated Green Warbler.

This is my last week here in Central America for at least a while. When I started this blog last November (at a Burger King near the airport in Tegucigalpa, Honduras), I just thought it would be fun keeping a log of what I was doing and where I was traveling. The thing needed a name, and not knowing precisely what I was going to write about, I went with the intentionally vague “on the road” moniker. I could just as well have called it “en el camino”, for all this time I’ve been in Latin America.

That’s about to end, though. I’m about to head north, and catch the tail end of winter. I won’t be so much on the road either, because I will be counting hawks on migration at a a well-known Great Lakes site, Whitefish Point in Michigan. There will be pictures of snow-covered landscapes and boreal birds in these pages, although I might be tempted to stick in a photo of a butterfly from Nicaragua every once in a while too, just to counter-balance all that cold, icy stuff. Honestly, I’m a little wary about heading into the cold…

Yesterday morning Oliver, Roselvy and I walked the beach at the mouth of a river about an hour’s drive from San Salvador. Even in the early morning sun, and with a stiff wind blowing, it was already hot. We went there to look for unusual gulls – and found some. I hope to get a chance to post about our sightings within the next few days or so.

Last night I joined the Komars (Oliver, his wife Lorena and their almost 6 year old daughter Yvonne) for a night at the movies. The previous week we watched and enjoyed Pantera Rosa 2 (The Pink Panther 2) at the same theater; this time we got to see Guerra de Novias (Bride Wars), a chick flick with Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway about two best friends whose weddings at the New York Plaza Hotel happen to coincide on the same day. Watching it, I kept thinking how utterly different these lives are from my life, and how completely disparate their concerns are from mine. I don’t think there were any Oscar contenders in this movie, and it wasn’t exactly exciting cinematography, but all the same the movie was fun enough to watch. It didn’t take itself too seriously, and it was able to poke fun at itself here and there, which are qualities I admire in any movie, work of art, or person.