Thursday, January 27, 2011

2011-01-26 Lapland Longspurs in Oakland County

2011-01-26 Lapland Longspurs and other rare winter birds off Dutton Road

Darn (well ... I really mean bless!) Ed Lewandowski! I had just settled down for a short winter's nap and Ed called to tell me that he had just seen Lapland Longspurs (Monday, 2011-01-24) at the spot where previously I had seen his Snow Buntings. I immediately recognized the name of a bird we had never seen ("lifer" in bird-speak) - all the while thinking in my waking moment "Where the heck is Lapland?" It's not as easy as you might think. I knew Scandinavians had something to do with it, but different countries seem to lay claim. Since the Finland tourism agency pays for the top ad on Google, I guess they win. I do think they have really cool costumes in Finland. I guess if I lived there I would have a really cool costume as well - just to stay warm! Hey, sounds like birds to me ... they all have evolutionarily-expensive down jackets. Even the more "southerly" Michigan birds have down jackets! I suspect if we were "street people" only those of us with good winter coatings (and a good food source) would survive here.

And what is a long spur anyway? I guess it must have something to do with the birds foot - spur, get it? I have not pursued it yet.

So up I get, and off I go. Ed knew it was a "lifer" for me and he always knows how to get my attention with a quick call telling me of a nearby bird. What a wonderful friend!

The weather was overcast with light snow. In other words it was not very good for photos. But I was rewarded with a large flock of Snow Buntings and a few Horned Larks. On my prior trip to this spot I had seen  and photographed a single Snow Bunting (a "lifer" then) with the Horned Larks and that was exciting enough. Snow Buntings are beautiful birds. Now I saw a bunch of Snow Buntings. Indeed beautiful!

Because of less than decent pics, I doubted the Longspurs I saw and photographed Monday - until today (Wednesday, 2011-01-26). In comparing my pics from today with the pics from Monday, I found - indeed - I had shot a couple of Longspurs feeding with the Horned Larks at the back of the area. Cool! I can now recognize the differences between some of the very rare "drop in birds" from up north.

So after my initiation and original frustration to the presence of fin birds (I always thought that somehow birds were related to fishes - I think maybe somehow involving an evolution thru herps ...), I returned each day this week.

Yesterday (Tuesday) there were no Longspurs present in the brief 20 minutes time I was there, but the flock of Snow Buntings was now in the order of 80 birds. Simply incredible! Today I believe a second smaller flock joined them so the Snow Buntings now number over 90 birds.

I am so happy with the Snow Bunting pics I have processed so far.

Flocking Snow Buntings - how pretty!

Snow Buntings doing breast stroke! Incredible!

I am really amazed at this lucky pic. Over the last year, I took many pics that look like many different individual birds were being shot into dart boards, but never several at the same time. Now I finally understand. Some bird species "do the breast stroke" as they are flying. They are cutting the air very similar to how we cut the water when we do a breast stroke. OMG! I surely wish I had such muscles in my chest! Or ever did for that matter! Maybe I could have been a "water bird" to show off before female friends! Flap - push thru medium - glide as a bullet. Repeat as necessary. Geez! It happens so fast we never even see it with birds! They just kind of look like they are constantly flapping.

Gorgeous birds! Another lucky shot.

Off we go into the wild grey yonder ...

Hey! Food here! Come on in!
I am not really sure about "the story" on how Longspurs relate to Snow Buntings or Horned Larks. On Monday, the Longspurs were hanging out with the dozen Horned Larks in the rear of the area. They did not fly off much. On Tuesday and Wednesday the Horned Larks (again about a dozen) fed for quite awhile, then went off to sit on the retaining wall. The Longspurs were not with them. I was even using my Christmas binocs!

Horned Larks are much less spooky than Buntings. I do not know about Longspurs, I have never seen any Longspurs on the wall. Where did they go?

So far I think I have seen that the Snow Buntings have two flocks at Dutton. The largest one has about 80 individuals and is "pure". The second one has about 20 buntings and the longspurs seem to join it as they like. Sometimes they "flock off" together, but I am guessing that the longspurs are not very loyal to the flock. I really wonder when the longspurs detach and do their own thing!

From postings on the UM Birders and Ohio birders lists it seems that Lapland Longspurs are a regular rare minority within flocking buntings and I just can't help but to think maybe they opportunistically join either larks or buntings as they will. (Not that this makes any sense when thinking of a bird from "up north". I would certainly want to make the long flight with buddies ...) So many questions...

Buntings fly in together, eat briefly and take to the skies. In 20 minutes they might do this several times. Often they fly a quick loop and return. Sometimes they just go away. Their flight is such a marvelous sight with their contrasting wing patterns! I wonder how the tidbits they grab so briefly justifies the energy expended in flying in and out so often!

Horned Larks do not seem to be triggered by whatever drives the flocking buntings. Here I think about my deck birds. House Sparrows come in, eat, and leave almost instantly like the Snow Buntings. I have learned from birders that flocking has this distinct advantage. Bird paranoia triggered by probably one individual. With so many birds, some bird is always looking in every direction.  Quick! I saw a possible bird-eater! Flee! Dumb trigger bird probably forced the flock to use up all the calories they ate in the last minute? Well, it seems to work well, so who am I to second guess?

Horned Larks - the right one is definitely horned!

Mourning Doves on our deck will just sit there when the flockers flee until I approach the window, and even then will not leave until I approach further and smile at them. Maybe that is why Mourning Doves are so much bigger and fatter than Snow Buntings or House Sparrows? To me at this moment Horned Larks are the Mourning Doves of winter migrants. They eat - then just go sit on the wall until they get hungry. Yet, I tend to wonder why they are not larger... So many questions ...

Anyway, back to the story. The Dutton Road place Ed set up is just a fantastic gift to all local birders. It is perfect. I am normally not willing to leave the house in the dead of winter except for sure things - like needing groceries - and this spot is a sure thing. Barring "weather" - I mean scary roads or bad visiblity for my camera - I plan to go there often while the property is "Ed-tended". It is like having my deck feeder yet away from home where I can sit in my car and watch birds in my new backyard! I am warm. I am happy. I see fantastic birds! What more could I want? 

I tried on my first visit to get out of the car to take pics of the Horned Larks.  Just then a flock of Snow Buntings (then they were my lifers) flew in. They made some of the cute bunting noises I have heard since ("Let's get the heck outta here") and left me quite disappointed. My brief out-of-focus wing shots gave me enough confidence to call my lifer bunting for eBird.

I persisted in revisiting, knowing that Ed was ensuring the vistations. This has been one of the most memorable experiences of my birding life. I know exactly where to go. I know for sure that if I sit there for 20 to 30 minutes, a flock of buntings will drop in - normally several times. I love the wonderful colors and patterns of Snow Buntings on the ground and in flight. I will not pull the scope out of the trunk when it is freezing, nor do I need it here. I certainly will return again and again when I think there is an excellent chance of seeing birds that are normally found so much farther up north. Ed was the main person who got me into using eBird and I just recorded three species for Oakland County I will never see again before next winter. Great "car-birding"!

Suggestion: do NOT get out of your car. I suspect the birds are becoming accustomed to cars, but not moving people. I learned this last week - they flew in, saw me, flew off, and never returned for the twenty minutes I stayed there.

I have over 1000 pics I took there. I am still processing them. I'll eventually add them to my Pbase site, but just wanted to share highlights now. I set the camera to bracket my shots so I have three shots for each one! Bracket means the camera shoots one at original setting, then one at a "stop" darker and a "stop" brighter. Yes, most will be deleted. The most frustrating thing is that when I shoot the three pics almost simultaneously, most often the best pose is not the one with the best lighting. So goes frustration.

Oh - and the Lapland bird?  This really has been fun. Just seeing the lifer bird was great. Looking at the pics was fun. Quizzing Judy from the pics was even more fun. She knows what it is. She remembers looking for it along the road in all the freshly-manured fields last year and this year as we visited relatives in mid-Michigan. We never saw one. I realize now it was an impossible quest - espacially at highway speeds! Heck, I can drive up to the Dutton Road site and still never see any birds until I stop the car and pull out a lens to focus on the "spots" there. I guess it is like most birding - birds are always hidden by natural camo, and the main indication of presence for something on which to focus is triggered by seeing flight and landing. Anyway, quizzing Judy was fun. It takes her awhile as it does for me. Her best answer was a Laplong Landspur. She knows what it is, but until you get one yourself it does not stick very well. It's all fun! Now she knows it.

Here are a few pics. I suspect that James, Darlene and others got much better pics with their better lenses and look forward to seeing them soon, but I am just so happy I had a chance to "be there then"! Yes, the Lapland Longspur is quite different than a Horned Lark.

Lapland Longspur and Snow Buntings

Lapland Longspur and Snow Buntings

Lapland Longspur and Snow Bunting

Lapland Longspur and Snow Buntings

What fun!!!

And for y'all on the UM Birders list, refer to Ed's posting this week. Ed made this whole story possible. Thanks so much Ed...

2011-01-21 Beaudette Swans a' Swimming

2011-01-21 Beaudette Swans - Three Species!

On the advice of my good birding friend Ed Lewandowski, I went to Beaudette Park in Pontiac today to see the swans. Last year Judy and I were rewarded with decent looks at Trumpeter Swans and especially rewarded with their trumpets blaring  - confirming the identifications. We had to walk thru the snow and beat a trail to the point where all the swans were congregated then and thought we had a decent ID of a Tundra Swan, but the pics were not good.

This year was much better. It even allowed "car birding" which was nice in the frigid temps and even more frigid wind chills. Most of the water at Beaudette was frozen. The only open water was east of the boat launch and the birds were all concentrated near the shore. I was delighted that all three species of swans were there. I was even more delighted that they were so close that identification and a confirming photographic record worked well.

I have been having fun playing with my pics. I have decent photos of the birds sideways and front-on. Both views together really help with positive IDs. For awhile I had to flip back and forth in my bird books to see what characteristics were stressed. It was much easier this year than last! I had captured the salient features.

I also remembered that last year Bruce Bowman had offered a summary table of swan characteristics to the UM Birders listserv. I found the list in my files. It well summarized what I had been trying to do with my "flipping". I think I had been trying to make (and was close to making) the same list in my mind. I found it quite interesting that Bruce often commented "must be near to see this feature" - this is very true. Also to get a decent pic showing the feature!
Anyway, with confidence, I now happy to report I shot all three species this year. I am still not sure about the juvenile. It seems to have a "V" over the bill, but it hung out more with the Tundra Swans, so I am going with familial connections.

My intent here is to post pics on this blog entry with all the salient features to complement Bruce's summary table. I think I have covered most of them with my pics.

FIX - (Many pics to go - pics here are just starters ...) (I now need drop a blog on the Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs with which I have been occupied since, then I'll come back)

Adult and juvenile Tundra Swan

"My Three Swans" (unfortunately not three species...) - Tundra Swans

Tundra Swan (nicely shows yellow patch near eye)

Trumpeter and Mute

Tundra and Trumpeter

I thank my buddies:  Ed (for telling me about the swans and forcing me to get out of the house!) and Bruce (for always being helpful, and for the great summary table).

Hey, even in winter, birding does not have to be so hard. With good friends and good luck it all comes together. Go car-bird!

Monday, January 10, 2011

2011-01-08 "Squirrel tree'd a cat" and Snow Bunting pics

Happy New Years Y'all!

I use the southern contraction and inflection because Judy and I started our year with black-eyed peas on New Year's Day as always. This tradition started for me in Texas in the 50's when the entire neighborhood went over to our drunk neighbor salesman's apartment on New Year's Day to eat his black-eyed peas. He welcomed visitors and kept the pea (actually they are beans) pot on all day. The adults got more than the peas, but everyone could walk home so it was cool. Mom and Dad never drank much (if at all) anyway. I will always remember this guy because when I was a child he gave me samples of what he was selling. I got lots of empty cans (with lids even) and boxes of grocery items. These were free fun playthings. I wish I had a few today. They were just like the real products, but empty. Mom always kept the tradition going. My brother and I have always done likewise. You are supposed to eat black-eyed peas on New Year's Day for good luck throughout the year. I have no idea what might happen if I do not eat them, but why mess with the "Balance of Energy in the Universe"? (My term for a philosophy I have). I admit that life has often been more challenging sometimes than what I want -especially lately- but I just cannot imagine what might happen without black-eyed peas! Life is good! Keep the balance!

Fully intestinally functionally (the peas start you off right - pardon me, but you gotta get your s**t together), we started 2011 with sightings of Horned Larks and a flock of Snow Buntings at a local Oakland County site referred to us by our good friend and birding lucky charm Ed Lewandowski. Thanks again Ed!
What a great way to start the new year! These birds only come down to our area during winter and are hard to get for my new list keeping. (I note I am a firm believer in eBird - not only does it allow me to maintain personal records, but it also helps Cornell University to compile an impressive database of the birds in the USA!)

I got some great views (great mental pics - snap, snap, snap) of Snow Buntings through my new Christmas binoculars (Thanks Judy!!!), but by the time I had exchanged the binocs for my camera, they were spooked by a car and left.

It was a great New Year's Day (if I exclude the football losses by the two Michigan teams I recorded while we were birding. I purposefully did not listen to any news or scores after we got back so I could watch the games, but wound up deleting both of them before halftime).

Anyway the 2011 story continues.

Friday January 8 was a great day!

The story starts while I was having morning coffee. Judy came down fresh from her shower, and with wet hair was starting to get on her coat to go outside. "Why?", I asked. "There is a squirrel in the tulip tree and a black cat hiding in the bushes. I am going to scare the cat away."
Without belaboring a point, I mentioned that it was in the low teens outside and the squirrel could take care of itself. She finally accepted that.

Not too long after, I noticed that the cat was in the tree and the squirrel was nowhere to be seen. Did the cat get the squirrel?  Were Judy's concerns realized? Nope. Now the cat was "tree'd". And no, I was not about to call the fire department to help out a feral cat that eats my birds!
It soon got much better. The black squirrel ran all the way from the back of the yard, climbed the tree with the cat in it and just taunted the heck out of him. The squirrel actually went up and down the tree several times, then also went up and down the adjacent tree - all of the time staring at the tree'd cat with the cat staring back. This went on for about 15 minutes. What fun! I almost "busted a gut" laughing at the cat's situation. "Come and get me you stupid cat!"

The cat was frozen. After the squirrel tired of the game, he ran back across the yard to his buddies. He and two other black squirrels raced each other up and down trees in the back for sometime. I can only assume he was relaying his adventure and they were laughing all the way!
Once the squirrel left and the cat got over its initial fear, it worked its way down the tree with short calculated leaps from branch to branch and eventually backed down the main trunk and dropped to the ground. This took quite a long time. Then, the cat made a beeline (catline?) for the squirrels in the back. Or so I thought ...

What I did not realize was that there was another - larger, darker-colored - black cat in the vicinity. It chased the formerly tree'd cat to the back while the squirrels went up their favorite trees. The cat formerly known as "Tree'd" went up a tree in the back with the larger cat in hot pursuit after him. I guess the new name of the cat in discussion here could now be "Tree'd Two" and qualify as a potential cat rapper. I have no idea if he ever got down from there, but his more experienced chaser very quickly backed down the tree and left and I got bored. Exciting morning!

Anyway, y'all expect some birdie talk here. I was just so happy that a feral birdie villain was subjected to some ultimate humility (intra- and inter-species!) I wanted to share.

In the afternoon, we went back to the Lark/Bunting location and I finally got a few decent pics. So here's the pics:

Horned Lark flies in for landing

Snow Bunting flies in and Horned Lark decides to belly-ski (a nice term for "crashes").
Good example of distracted flying! Do birdies text? Or maybe he was just looking at a fancy new bird for the flock. Wow! ... Huh?

Here are more pics of Snow Buntings and Horned Larks. These are really cool birds! (Well actually they ARE really COOL birds; we do not see them except in the winter. List them now or wait for next winter ...)

 Thanks for reading! I hope you liked my first "ramble" of 2011! Hey, if you did, please comment on this post or email me at and I will put your name in the drawing for an autographed copy of a first edition of my first book. (Hey, Bob Tarte, look out! Well - maybe not immediately ...)

Happy New Year!
"Dr. Bob"