Friday, February 22, 2013

Great Horned Owl on an old barn

After I got back from my trip to San Diego I came down with the flu. Several of my coworkers on the trip had been sick recently, and I don't know whether I caught it from one of them or from someone on my flight. Either way, it knocked me out pretty good for a couple of weeks, and my wife ended up getting it too.

After a couple of weeks of being cooped up indoors we were starting to feel a little better and itching to get out of the house. We took a short drive just before sunset on a road that heads through the foothills east of Boise.

Right as the sun started to set we spotted a Great Horned Owl perched on an old barn near a creek.

Old barn on Blacks Creek Road east of Boise. Can you spot the Great Horned Owl? February 3, 2013.

With the fog hanging in the air and the sun setting, it was a picture perfect moment to find an owl. The owl is a little more apparent in this next photo.

Great Horned Owl. Old barn on Blacks Creek Road east of Boise. February 3, 2013.

For the first minute or so he stared us down as we photographed him from inside our car.

Great Horned Owl. Old barn on Blacks Creek Road east of Boise. February 3, 2013.

We're pushing our camera to the limits at this point, with the daylight quickly fading away, using our full zoom capability, and maxing out the ISO in hopes of getting a reasonable shutter speed. The owl didn't take long to stop worrying about us, and start looking for dinner.

Great Horned Owl. Old barn on Blacks Creek Road east of Boise. February 3, 2013.

So far this year Great Horned Owls have been quite easy to find around Boise. Even so, the excitement of finding one never seems to fade. 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Work trip to San Diego

My job typically involves some kind of travel about once a month. Most of the time I'm just travelling back to the office in Denver, but each year in January or February the whole office goes on an incentive trip, typically somewhere warm and sunny. The destination depends on how well we did for the year, with destinations ranging from a few days somewhere within driving distance of Denver, to a 7-day African safari. Most years we end up somewhere in the middle. This year we went to Sunny San Diego for 5 days at a resort hotel on the beach.

The view from my room. San Diego, January 22, 2013.

Technically these are supposed to be working trips, not vacations, and we spend a significant amount of time discussing the way we run our business. The trip is a big highlight of the year, both because of the destination, and because of the wonderful conversations we have. Lucky for me, each trip is another opportunity to see a few birds I wouldn't find around home.

As far as birding goes, there is very little unstructured time that I can use to look for birds, and although we typically have several outdoor activities planned, the group usually makes enough commotion that birds spook away, and we're usually moving too fast to really focus on anything.

Despite all that, I still enjoyed a few fun sightings, and snapped a few photos here and there. I saw a Willet and a Whimbrel as we took a walk near Torrey Pines State Reserve.

Willet on the beach near Torrey Pines State Reserve. January 23, 2013.
Whimbrel on the beach near Torrey Pines State Reserve. January 23, 2013.

The views were pretty great, even though the bird numbers were low. I'm sure I would have found more birds if I hadn't been on the tail end of a group of 18 people, and had been able to go at a little slower place and investigate all the sounds I heard.

Torrey Pines State Reserve, January 23, 2013.

I heard a few California Quails on top of some of the bluffs, and also saw an Anna's Hummingbird, though I wasn't able to get a picture before the crowd spooked the hummingbird away. There were a few more birds down on the beach I got pictures of, including a California Towhee and some Brown Pelicans.

California Towhee on the beach near Torrey Pines State Reserve. January 23, 2013.
Brown Pelicans near Torrey Pines State Reserve. January 23, 2013.

On another day we went to the San Diego Zoo. A few of us did their "behind the scenes" tour, which included a ride around several of the larger exhibits. I wish I could have spent more time here, because there were more birds at the zoo than anywhere else we went all week.

Black Phoebes were quite abundant all throughout the park. This one was seen inside the elephant exhibit.

Black Phoebe. San Diego Zoo, January 24, 2013.

I felt a little bad for being more interested in the wild birds flying around the zoo than the captive animals on exhibit. More than once or twice I found myself pointed the completely opposite direction from the rest of the group to identify a soaring raptor while everyone else admired the dozing undulates.

Turkey Vulture. San Diego Zoo, January 24, 2013.

The tour guide told us that this guy's name is Charlie. Apparently he hangs out behind the cafeteria where they prepare meals for the zoo animals, and eats scraps as they throw them out.

Great Egret. San Diego Zoo, January 24, 2013.

I'm looking forward to taking a trip back to southern California with my wife sometime just to go birding. I'm sure with a few well planned days we could add a few dozen lifers. It's always good to have plans to look forward to!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Winter birding with a non-birder

For whatever reason, when I first started birding, my family was a bit surprised to hear of my new hobby. My younger brother in particular was perhaps the most surprised, probably because he was out of the country for the first couple of years we were learning the ropes, so he didn't see our transition from non-birders to bird-obsessed, he just saw the end result. He's always been passionate about the outdoors and nature, but from a different perspective (he's a fur trapper and hunter).

Despite his interest in mammals, and the massive amounts of time he spends outdoors on prime birding habitat, he's never had much interest in birds. I've told him every now and then about rare and interesting bird reports we've heard about for some of his favorite stomping grounds, but that never seemed to catch his interest.

Me (on the right) and my brother (on the left) checking out my patch at Diversion Dam, Ada County.
January 20, 2013.

A few weeks ago, he called to tell me about the wildlife management course he's taking at college. His professor is a birder, and is including one interesting element in the final grades for the course: students are graded partially based on the number of bird species they are able to see during the semester.

I ignored the fact that my brother wasn't actually calling to ask for my help, and proceeded to start planning how I was going to make sure he could find more birds than anybody else in his class. Lucky for me, he needed to spend the weekend on our side of the state for a fur auction, so we made him tag along for a few quick birding trips while he stayed with us.

Our first interesting find was a Prairie Falcon perched atop a power line just north of Mountain Home Reservoir.

Prairie Falcon. North of Mountain Home Reservoir, Elmore County. January 19, 2013.

Since it was bitterly cold (and had been for several days) it was a struggle to find any open water, and bird numbers were quite low overall. In hopes of finding some open water (and the birds it would likely attract) we headed up to Anderson Ranch Dam. The plan worked, and right away we found a large raft of Common Mergansers and Common Goldeneyes on the reservoir.

Rather than circling the reservoir, we followed the river downstream from the dam outlent. We weren't able to get pictures of all of our finds, but we did capture a few goodies, starting with these Barrow's Goldeneyes.

Barrow's Goldeneyes. Downstream from Anderson Ranch Dam, Elmore County. Janaury 19, 2013.

It didn't take too long to find a dipper. This is one of those birds that's really fun to find and observe, but since it's not brightly colored, it can be hard to explain to a non-birder why it's such a cool bird.

American Dipper. Downstream  from Anderson Ranch Dam, Elmore County. Janaury 19, 2013.

The best find of the day was a flock of Common Redpolls. The flock managed to put themselves directly between us and the sun, so it was hard to get good views or photos, but a fun find nonetheless. If viewing conditions had been better, we'd have spent a lot more time checking for Hoarys.

Common Redpolls. Downstream  from Anderson Ranch Dam, Elmore County. Janaury 19, 2013.

Other highlights we weren't able to photograph included Stellar's Jays, a heard-only Rock Wren, and a great variety of ducks.

The next day we took my brother to our patch at Diversion Dam in Boise. There were fewer birds out and about than on most trips (we couldn't even find a Song Sparrow, which would be hard to miss most days) but we did have quite a few fly-over Great Blue Herons. We then took him out through the countryside south of Boise hoping for some good raptors. Bird numbers were low on this leg of the journey too, so we hustled along to Wilson Springs Ponds to see what kind of waterfowl we could find.

We got some great looks at a Northern Harrier perched on a fence post near some farmland on our way to Wilson Springs.

Northern Harrier. Kuna Rd, Ada County. January 20, 2013.

At Wilson Springs Ponds, open water once again appeared to be the trick to finding the birds in this cold weather. We had heard through IBLE that the volume of American Robins was quite impressive, and it was still true when we arrived.

American Robins. Wilson Springs Ponds, Canyon County. January 13, 2013.

There was also a large flock of Brewer's Blackbirds.

Brewer's Blackbird. Wilson Springs Ponds, Canyon County. January 20, 2013.

It was just too cold to stay out long enough to take a lot of photos, but waterfowl numbers were fantastic as is usual for Wilson Springs and we enjoyed a nice brisk walk to finish off the day.

Overall we saw 53 species over the weekend, which isn't too bad for just a few hours of birding on a frigid January day. I'm not sure whether my brother actually kept a list for his class, so maybe he'll call me up sometime in April to ask what we saw together before he gets his final grade. Hopefully he'll put the new binoculars I got him to good use. And who knows, maybe spring migration will pique his interest better than winter birding did.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Great Backyard Bird Count pushes eBird data submission to new levels

A couple of weeks ago eBird released a new data exploration tool that shows checklists being submitted  in real time on a map of the world. As each checklist is submitted, a yellow dot pops up and then fades to gray, indicating the location of the checklist. As the day goes on the gray dots overtake more and more of the map, showing just how thoroughly eBird users are sampling North American avifauna on a daily basis.

Quite a few people in the bird blogosphere were excited when this new feature was introduced and blogged (then re-blogged, and re-re-blogged) about it when it was brand new. I refrained, simply because the few times I pulled up the tool I was just not that impressed with the slow trickle of submissions. I was hoping to see the map light up like fireworks with all checklists coming in, but I was lucky to see one dot light up every 4 or 5 seconds.

It turns out that this weekend's Great Backyard Bird Count (or GBBC as it is often abbreviated) has done a lot to improve the pace. Checklists are flying in at record numbers, and the speed is generating quite a bit of excitement for those that (like me) have a soft spot in their heart for both birds and data. All of this is driven by the recent merger of the GBBC and eBird. According to eBird:
This year all data entered into eBird go into GBBC and vice versa. From now on, GBBC data entry will use the eBird checklist interface, will take advantage of eBird output tools, and will be completely integrated with your personal eBird account. 
eBird announced a couple of hours ago that they had 24,000 new users sign up in the last three days, which undoubtedly is the result of the decision to merge with the GBBC.

As the day rolled on eBird shared a few highlights on their Facebook page. After watching the map for a while this afternoon, I would be surprised if they didn't exceed the 1 checklist/second they were hoping for tonight.

eBird also announced that they were experiencing their highest volume ever, and expected to cross 50,000 checklist submissions in a single day within the next 30 minutes. Of course I had to tune in for the milestone.

I grabbed a screenshot of the instant they hit 50,000 checklists for the day. Quite the achievement!

Hopefully some of the new eBird users will see how easy and fun it can be and decide to become regular users. Plus, if people pay any attention to the alerts for their area, they just might be pleasantly surprised to learn about the amazing diversity that surrounds them on a regular basis, just waiting for them to look around and take notice.

Congrats to everybody involved in the GBBC and eBird efforts for the impressive results!

Friday, February 15, 2013

Patch birding, a Barn Owl in broad daylight, and a tree full of Wood Ducks

There's nothing like a beautiful Sunday afternoon drive to recharge the batteries for a new week. Sunday, January 13, was a beautiful winter day, with clear blue skies, and just enough chill in the air to make your nostrils tingle. The birds were out and about, and we had a great time trying to chase them all down.

We started with a nice walk at our patch near Diversion Dam, then we took a drive through the countryside south of town, and ended the evening at Wilson Springs Ponds in Nampa.

Point A - our patch at Diversion Dam; Point B - Ten Mile Creek area; Point C - Riparian area along Eagle Rd; Point D - Wilson Springs Ponds.
There were lots of interesting things to see at our patch. Right in the parking lot we had a flock of California Quails that wasn't too pleased we had arrived. If you haven't noticed yet, these guys are all over the place in Boise, and we get a kick out of their silly antics every time.

California Quails. Our patch at Diversion Dam, Ada County. January 13, 2013.
White-crowned Sparrows, such as this juvenile, were quite abundant as well.

White-crowned Sparrow (juvenile). Our patch at Diversion Dam, Ada County. January 13, 2013.
Large flocks of American Robins passed overhead.

American Robins. Our patch at Diversion Dam, Ada County. January 13, 2013.
A week or so earlier, we had seen, but been unable to properly photograph, a Song Sparrow with no tail at a park just upriver from our patch. On this trip we re-found the bird and had a chance to take a few more pictures.

Song Sparrow (sans tail feathers). Our patch at Diversion Dam, Ada County. January 13, 2013.
This little guy could fly, but his steering was obviously impaired. Here's an example of a particularly awkward landing.

Song Sparrow (sans tail feathers) making an awkward landing.
Our patch at Diversion Dam, Ada County. January 13, 2013.

He didn't appear to be too bothered by the absence of the tail feathers, since he spent most of the time foraging on the ground without taking flight. He seemed to have found something he liked under this drain pipe.

Song Sparrow (sans tail feathers). Our patch at Diversion Dam, Ada County. January 13, 2013.

Amazingly, the chilly breeze coming down the canyon and the water that I can only imagine was barely above freezing didn't deter this fisherman from trying to get his catch.

Fisherman at Diversion Dam, Ada County. January 13, 2013.

Luckily the fisherman's presence didn't deter the hungry American Dipper that was feeding just a few yards downstream.

American Dipper. Our patch at Diversion Dam, Ada County. January 13, 2013.
On the way back to the car, we got a wonderfully close up view of this Downy Woodpecker that was clinging to a tall plant just a few feet off the trail.

Downy Woodpecker. Our patch at Diversion Dam, Ada County. January 13, 2013.
Black-capped Chickadees weren't far away, and seem to have found something tasty to work on as well.

Black-capped Chickadee, working on its supper. Our patch at Diversion Dam, Ada County. January 13, 2013.
After a wonderful hour or so on our patch, we headed out for a drive through the countryside south of Boise. We have a particular loop that we frequent in the winter that's great for raptors without having to go too far. Luckily, Boise sits just north of the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area (a bit of a mouthful), so any drive south of town is sure to include great raptor numbers.

This trip did not disappoint. One of our first stops was a patch of farmland sitting between two low hills, which for some reason creates a nice concentration of hawks and owls for almost every trip. On this occasion, we saw a total of 8 Rough-legged Hawks in a fairly small area, perhaps a half square mile. We were lucky enough to get 5 in one picture.

Rough-legged Hawks. Four on the sprinkler pipe, one on the ground behind the pipe.
Ten Mile Creek Rd at Pleasant Valley Rd, Ada County. January 13, 2013.
On one end of the field was a group of California Quails trying to dig through the snow for last season's uncollected grains, who didn't seem too concerned about the presence of the hawks, and interestingly enough, the hawks didn't seem too interested in the quails either.

California Quails. Ten Mile Creek Rd at Pleasant Valley Rd, Ada County. January 13, 2013.

Perhaps the best highlight of the drive was a Barn Owl that we got to observe hunting in broad daylight for 15 minutes or so from the side of the road.

Barn Owl. Eagle Rd between King Rd and Kuna Rd, Ada County.  January 13, 2013.
Unfortunately, these kind of daylight encounters are much better for us than they are for the owl, as it indicates that it's been struggling to find enough food through its usual nocturnal habits.

Barn Owl. Eagle Rd between King Rd and Kuna Rd, Ada County.  January 13, 2013.
The owl gave us lots of great views, including a few different postures and faces.

Barn Owl. Eagle Rd between King Rd and Kuna Rd, Ada County.  January 13, 2013.
Barn Owl. Eagle Rd between King Rd and Kuna Rd, Ada County.  January 13, 2013.
Towards the end of the time we spent observing the owl we managed to get a bit of video.

This was the best time we've ever had viewing a Barn Owl, and unexpected experiences like this remind me how many wonderful memories I've made while birding. Sometimes the January doldrums or a few days of failed chases in a row can take some of the fun out of the hobby, but a few good views of a beautiful Barn Owl reminds me why I love it so much.

Our last stop of the day was Wilson Springs Ponds in Nampa. This location is one of the best hotspots in the Treasure Valley for waterfowl, especially in the winter when it's frequently the only unfrozen water for miles around. On this particular day, the (relatively) warm water created beautiful fog that wafted up into the fading daylight.

Wilson Springs Ponds, Canyon County. January 13, 2013.

For some reason, this particular pond is always the favorite for any scaups in the area, though today it was mostly Mallards, with a drake Bufflehead, and a few Gadwalls mixed in.

Mallards, Bufflehead, Gadwalls, and other waterfowl. Wilson Springs Ponds, Canyon County. January 13, 2013.
On the northwest side of the ponds we spotted a Yellow-rumped Warbler feeding on Russion Olives.

Yellow-rumped Warbler. Wilson Springs Ponds, Canyon County. January 13, 2013.
At one point our search for a few Evening Grosbeaks mixed in with the large flocks of American Robins and Cedar Waxwings was interrupted as we heard the familiar honks of hundreds of Canada Geese overhead.

Canada Geese, coming in for a landing at Wilson Springs Ponds, Canyon County. January 13, 2013.
We shifted our focus to look for any Cackling, Snow, Ross's, or Greater-white Fronted Geese that might be mixed in with all the Canadas. January is quite early for Snow, Ross's, or Greater-white Fronted, and we'll get to see them in large numbers later in March when they pass along the Idaho-Oregon border by the thousands. Luckily we did manage to spot a Cackling.

Cackling Goose leading a loose "V" of Canada Geese. Wilson Springs Ponds, Canyon County. January 13, 2013.
We saw Cackling Geese by the thousands in Colorado, since it was more central to a major flyway that Cackling Geese use, so we were much more familiar with what to watch (and listen) for than we would have been otherwise.

As we finished the loop around the ponds we found a tree that was overflowing with Wood Ducks. I still get a kick out of it every time I see a duck perching in a tree. Wood Ducks are among my favorite birds.

Wood Ducks. Wilson Springs Ponds, Canyon County. January 13, 2013.
Overall it was a wonderful day to be outside, and a wonderful day to be in Idaho. A good birding day like this just gets me itching for the next big weekend trip. I can't wait to see what else we can find this year!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Quick stop at Dry Creek Cemetery

A few weekends back we made a quick stop at Dry Creek Cemetery in hopes of finding some Evening Grosbeaks that had been reported. When we were new birders, Dry Creek Cemetery provided our first Mountain Bluebird and Northern Goshawk. We didn't find the grosbeaks on this trip, but had a pleasant time anyway.

California Quails are always quite abundant. They hang out on the headstones:
California Quails. Dry Creek Cemetery, Ada County. January 12, 2013.
And under the pine trees:

California Quails. Dry Creek Cemetery, Ada County. January 12, 2013.
And in the Hawthorne trees, munching away on the berries:

California Quail. Dry Creek Cemetery, Ada County. January 12, 2013.
California Quails. Dry Creek Cemetery, Ada County. January 12, 2013.
They're fun to watch as they chase each other around, berries in mouth:

California Quails. Dry Creek Cemetery, Ada County. January 12, 2013.
Dry Creek Cemetery is a beautiful place, and I can't wait for spring to come around and liven it back up!

Dry Creek Cemetery, Ada County. January 12, 2013.