Friday, May 15, 2015

First big weekend of May: shorebirds, warblers, owls and more

May is a month that I look forward to all year long, that I savor when it arrives, and that I miss when it’s over. It’s a month that’s near and dear to the heart of most North American birders. It’s the month when bird diversity peaks as spring migrants swarm north from their wintering grounds and spread out over their respective habitats across the state. It’s also the time when a lister with a bit of a competitive side such as myself can really drive themselves nuts trying to keep up with the influx of new species!

Having been knocked out for most of the second half of April with a few bugs we kept passing around the family, we were starting to fall a bit behind on our year list. Luckily, the first weekend in May we were able to have a few big days to play catch up and added 22 species to our year list in just a few days. We kicked things off on May 1 but heading over to Blacks Creek Bird Reserve as soon as I finished work.

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Map of Blacks Creek Bird Reserve.

Blacks Creek Bird Reserve is close to home for us (just 10 minutes or so away), and has a history of producing some really great birds. However, I’ve really struggled to become too attached to the place, as the bird activity is really sensitive to the unpredictable water level in the reservoir, the views from the road aren’t very good, and the lack of an easy path around the reservoir makes it trickier to tote my toddler along. She usually spends the weekday mornings with me, which is when I’m most likely to be looking for somewhere nearby to bird, and since it’s so much easier to do with a toddler in tow and a short timeline, we usually end up going to nearby Indian Creek Reservoir instead. As much as I prefer Indian Creek Reservoir, it’s actually been a little slow as far as migrants go this spring, and Blacks Creek Bird Reserve was actually producing quite a few nice birds.

When we finally caved and headed over to check out Blacks Creek, we were glad we did! As soon as we started walking from the parking area down to the reservoir we had a large flock of White-faced Ibis fly overhead.

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White-faced Ibis at Blacks Creek Bird Reserve, Ada County. May 1, 2015.

A couple of small ponds just east of the main reservoir had quite a bit of shorebird action, and were in the right direction for us to put the sun to our back while photographing. A large group of Long-billed Dowitchers and a Least Sandpiper provided good subjects for a few photos.

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Long-billed Dowitchers at Blacks Creek Bird Reserve, Ada County. May 1, 2015.

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Long-billed Dowitchers at Blacks Creek Bird Reserve, Ada County. May 1, 2015.

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Long-billed Dowitchers at Blacks Creek Bird Reserve, Ada County. May 1, 2015.

Least Sandpipers are fairly common during spring migration, but are so tiny and often so distant that I rarely get this good of a look. I was glad this one was mostly impervious to our presence, and let me snap away from not too far off. It’s definitely easier to get a good look at the distinguishing characteristics when the bird is more than just a distant brown dot! Cornell Lab’s All About Birds website provides a good description of how to distinguish Least from other sandpipers:

“Least Sandpipers are the smallest of the small, hard-to-identify sandpipers known as “peeps.” Semipalmated Sandpipers and Western Sandpipers are slightly larger with stouter bills and black legs instead of the Least Sandpiper’s yellowish legs. They have lighter, grayer, less brown upperparts than Least Sandpiper. The other peep with yellowish legs is the Pectoral Sandpiper, which is substantially larger with a dark shield of streaking on the chest. The size of individual shorebirds can be difficult to assess in the field, so it’s important to judge size by comparing a mystery bird to other, known species. Small plovers, such as the Snowy Plover and Piping Plover, are plumper and paler, with shorter bills than Least Sandpipers. Plovers lack intricate markings on the back, and they tend to occur higher up on beaches, where they pick at prey items rather than probing in the sand.”

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Least Sandpiper at Blacks Creek Bird Reserve, Ada County. May 1, 2015.

Nearby (though difficult to approach as closely) was a Solitary Sandpiper.

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Solitary Sandpiper at Blacks Creek Bird Reserve, Ada County. May 1, 2015.

The next day, we headed out to Canyon County to follow up on a report of a pair of Cattle Egrets hanging out on some farm fields near Parma. We couldn’t re-find them, but did have loads of other nice migrants. Unfortunately, most of our new birds were too fleeting to photograph, but it was still a nice morning/afternoon slowly trolling around various flooded farm fields and canals. In the evening, we zipped back down to Mountain Home reservoir, which we’ve already been to several times this spring, to see if we could find anything new.

Right on the road in we got our first-of-year Lark Sparrow, a handsome fellow with a striking facial pattern.

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Lark Sparrow at Mountain Home Reservoir, Elmore County. May 2, 2015.

A big surprise on this trip was this flyover Lewis’s Woodpecker. There are hardly any trees at Mountain Home Reservoir, but on the north side there’s a small grove near where a canal feeds into the reservoir, and this bird flew from that grove right over our car and zipped off to west and out of sight. I was glad I was able to bust out a quick picture, as this is kind of a strange find for a mostly treeless reservoir.

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Lewis’s Woodpecker at Mountain Home Reservoir, Elmore County. May 2, 2015.

The shorebirding started off slow, but eventually we did find a few nice birds. Right when we were almost convinced we weren’t going to see any shorebirds, we found a group of about a dozen Semipalmated Plovers hanging out with a few Least Sandpipers.

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Semipalmated Plovers and Least Sandpipers at Mountain Home Reservoir, Elmore County. May 2, 2015.

We found a Lesser Yellowlegs nearby as well. We’ve had either Greater or Lesser (or both) Yellowlegs on each of our trips to Mountain Home Reservoir this spring.

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Lesser Yellowlegs at Mountain Home Reservoir, Elmore County. May 2, 2015.

Another good find was this Semipalmated Sandpiper, which is much more common in fall migration in Idaho, but pretty few and far between in the spring. I actually didn’t realize we had this bird when we were there, and was a little disappointed to see someone else had seen one the same day and we had missed it. It was only when going through these pictures at home that I realized this bird was different from the nearby Least Sandpipers. Note the slightly straighter and more stout bill, the black legs, and the grayer tones as compared to a Least Sandpiper.

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Semipalmated Sandpiper at Mountain Home Reservoir, Elmore County. May 2, 2015.

The next day we headed right back in the morning, hoping that perhaps some overnight turnover might have produced a little different mix of birds. We explored a few access points on the north side of the reservoir we’d never ventured into before. We didn’t really find any different species, but at least found a few new vantage points we can check out in the future. The north end was dominated by Black-necked Stilts, American Avocets, and Wilson’s Phalaropes.

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Black-necked Stilt at Mountain Home Reservoir, Elmore County. May 3, 2015.

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American Avocets at Mountain Home Reservoir, Elmore County. May 3, 2015.

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Wilson’s Phalaropes at Mountain Home Reservoir, Elmore County. May 3, 2015.

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American Avocet at Mountain Home Reservoir, Elmore County. May 3, 2015.

Circling back around to the southern side of the reservoir, we caught this Spotted Sandpiper mid-hop between a couple of rocks.

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Spotted Sandpiper at Mountain Home Reservoir, Elmore County. May 3, 2015.

Of course there were more Wilson’s Phalaropes and Least Sandpipers on the southern end as well.

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Wilson’s Phalarope at Mountain Home Reservoir, Elmore County. May 3, 2015.

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Least Sandpiper at Mountain Home Reservoir, Elmore County. May 3, 2015.

The last good find for this stop was a handful of Bonaparte’s Gulls hanging out deep in the reservoir. These crappy photos are the best I could do at this distance.

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Bonaparte’s Gulls at Mountain Home Reservoir, Elmore County. May 3, 2015.

The next stop was Jacks Creek WMA at C.J. Strike Reservoir. We had lots of migrant warblers in the Russian Olives lining the road, including this Yellow Warbler.

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Yellow Warbler at Jacks Creek WMA, Elmore County. May 3, 2015.

Other birds nearby included lots of Western Kingbirds, a row of Forster’s Terns (our first-of-year) on a dead log out in the reservoir.

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Western Kingbird at Jacks Creek WMA, Elmore County. May 3, 2015.

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Forster’s Terns at Jacks Creek WMA, Elmore County. May 3, 2015.

After letting Nora stretch her legs at Jacks Creek she was ready for a nap, and we headed out towards the Owyhees via Mud Flat Road, south of Grandview. Based on a tip from fellow birder Cheryl Huizinga we stopped at a particular grove of trees out towards the Owyhees where she had recently seen some fledgling Northern Saw-whet Owls. We had not yet found them for our 2015 year list, and any chance to see these tiny owls is a fantastic, so we were thrilled she was willing to point us in the right direction. To respect her trusting us with good directions to these birds, I’ve chosen not to say exactly where we saw these birds, other than that this was out towards the Owyhees.

Right after we parked the car, I hopped out, and while stretching my legs, looked up and noticed this guy staring at me from not more than 20 yards away! I know Long-eared Owls have nested somewhere nearby for a while now, but didn’t expect to see one just hanging out right by the road! All of these shots were taken at 50x zoom on my Canon SX50 HS, and have been cropped as well, so we were not quite as up close and personal as the powerful zoom might make it seem.

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Long-eared Owl, Owhyee County. May 3, 2015.

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Long-eared Owl, Owhyee County. May 3, 2015.

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Long-eared Owl, Owhyee County. May 3, 2015.

After snapping a few pictures of the Long-eared Owl and getting geared up, we headed down the trail towards the last known location for the Northern Saw-whet Owls, with Nora keeping the list for us (or so she thought).

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Nora keeping notes on our hike, Owyhee County. May 3, 2015.

More often than not when we’re trying to chase down an owl’s day roosting location, the bird is not using the same spot it was originally found when we finally get a chance to go check things out. However, in this case even though we were arriving nearly a full week after Cheryl’s original find, we found a pair of juvenile Northern Saw-whet Owls hanging out in the exact same spot of the exact same tree that Cheryl had found them!

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Northern Saw-whet Owl, Owyhee County. May 3, 2015.

Zooming out a bit, you can see a second juvenile right above and behind the first. Cheryl had found three juveniles plus heard a parent, but we only found the two juveniles on our trip.

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Northern Saw-whet Owls, Owyhee County. May 3, 2015.

Pleased with our find, and running out of steam for the day, we headed back towards home. We took a nice slow pace on Mud Flat Road though so we could try to track down the resident Black-throated Sparrows. Our lucky streak for the day continued, as we found this male singing it’s heart out on top of a sagebrush, just south of where we’ve found them for the last two years.

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Black-throated Sparrow on Mud Flat Road, Owyhee County. May 3, 2015.

The last bird we stopped for on this trip was this Loggerhead Shrike, which I’d never seen perching on a power line before.

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Loggerhead Shrike on Mud Flat Road, Owyhee County. May 3, 2015.

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