Thursday, May 14, 2009

Yellowlegs ID

Lesser (left) and greater (right) yellowlegs at the Tank Farm along Rt 7 near Newport, Ohio.

During our Washington County, Ohio Big Day, the Whipple Bird Club was fortunate enough to see BOTH species of yellowlegs. Not only that, but as we were discussing the finer points of telling greater yellowlegs from lesser yellowlegs, the birds obliged by standing next to each other in perfect profile for a few moments.

This really gave us a good look at the key field marks: the differences in bill length and size; body size; leg length; and plumage markings on the flanks (of the greater).

It might make birding less challenging, but wouldn't it be great if more birds cooperated like this? I'm talking to YOU sharpies & Coops, scaups, peeps, empids, chickadees, shrikes, ibises (ibi?), and most of the dang sparrows!

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Washington County Big Day 2009

What is that old saying about publicity? I don't care how you talk about me, just talk about me?

Saturday morning, May 9, 2009, came mighty early for those of us who were playing a gig at the Whipple/Wrangler Tavern the night before. But did that stop us from getting up at some ungodly hour to tally birds in the Mostly Annual Washington County, Ohio Big Day? Nope.

When I was a mere boy bird watcher, under the watchful tutelage of Mrs Pat Murphy and my mom Elsa Thompson, it was an annual ritual each May to try to see 100 species within Washington County, Ohio, where we all lived. We called it a Century Day—get it? Century=100 species!

I think I remember maybe one year when we got 100+ species. Nowadays with all our newfangled technology, including the Tubes of the Interwebs and The Google, we can pinpoint the location of happening bird action on a minute-by-minute basis. Our friends can tell us where all the warblers are warblering and where all the tanagers are tanagering.

These days, three full decades removed from Pat Murphy's Century Days, it's The Whipple Bird Club that has taken up the chalice and taken on the challenge of trying to top 100 species in little old Washington County, Ohio. This is an account of how things went on Saturday.

After we finished our gig on Friday night/Saturday morning, we loaded up the vans and cars with gear and everyone hit the road. I stayed behind a moment to collect my thoughts—the only person still extant at The Whipple/Wrangler Tavern. And I was rewarded for my fortitude by the nocturnal flight call of a Swainson's thrush! A mere 20 minutes later, as I traipsed up the walk to the house, I added species #2: An American woodcock which kindly peented its way onto the list.

And then I slept for 2.5 hours.

To start the daylight portion our Big Day, I rolled my tired carcass up the stairs to our birding tower. Day was dawning and the birds were already aloft, calling, or stirring themselves to life. But the clouds in the West indicated a day of unsettled weather. In quick succession I heard or saw a dozen, then two dozen species. By 7:15 am I was up to 45 species. That's when Shila showed up and added her bird-spotting skills to the team effort. The wind picked up and we pulled on additional coats against the wind. At least it was not raining.

The day started off promisingly from the birding tower.

The Whipple Bird Club is four core members: me, Julie Zickefoose, Shila Wilson, and Steve McCarthy. We've got lots of honorary members, but, it's the four core peeps who wave the flag of the good ol' WBC.

Every Big Day has a few birds that are total surprises and a few that completely skunk you. One of our early surprises was a merlin that Shila and I saw skirt the tower not once but twice! I got a bad photo of it flying away, having missed on its chance to nail a tree swallow.

Julie floated up the tower stairs about 8 am, bearing more coffee and some munchies. We were somewhere north of 50 species. Three hours later we were ready to leave Indigo Hill for the rest of the county and we had 70 species.

Pine siskins were still hanging around after last winter's influx.

A gorgeous male rose-breasted grosbeak came close enough for digiscoping.

Our male blue-winged warbler sang from the end of the orchard.

Phoebe and Chet came up to check on us in the tower.

Down the road just a couple of miles, we came across an eastern box turtle. It was a beautiful adult male and we helped him across the road to wherever he was going.

The box turtle we saved.

The Whipple Bird Club flashes its gangland hand signs near the Belpre Bridge (where there were no peregrines).

After poking around the western part of the county in a largely fruitless search for some long-shot species, and waiting to pick up the Royal Meteorologist of the WBC, Steve McCarthy, we headed back toward Marietta, the county seat, for some more familiar birding turf. We got the bobolinks not far from Route 676 where they've nested for a few years. We got American kestrel and killdeer there, too. Then it was off to the Kroger Wetland for some target shorebirds. We got both spotted sandpiper and solitary sandpiper there, plus willow flycatcher and house wren. A bonus yellow-billed cuckoo flew over. We dipped out on phothonotary warbler, however.

It was 5:00 pm and we had 96 species. The county record (unofficial) is 110 set by Steve, Shila, and me in 2007. We ate LEAST wanted to tie that. Preferably we'd beat the living tar out of it.

Spotted sandpiper at the Kroger Wetlands.

Steve scans the Kroger Wetlands while Liam and Phoebe dream.

Then we headed up the Ohio River for some other hopeful hotspots counting every species we got and plotting to add the next bird. We ran into a streak of shorebirds at the tank farm along Ohio 7: greater and lesser yellowlegs, plus an unexpected snowy egret. Then we hit Newell's Run. By this time it was already dinner time and the sun was sinking below the hills. We added a few of the expected warblers along Newell's Run: Louisiana waterthrush, yellow-throated warbler, and
Trying to drum up a few target birds on Newell's Run.

Bored kids will find something to climb.

By 8:30 pm we were deep in the woods of Wayne National Forest, hoping for a cerulean warbler. We got no joy. By 9:10 pm it was actively dark and the kids were weeping from hunger (as were we). A calling whip-poor-will came in as species #108 and we called it a day.

We pulled out ALL the stops in our effort to find more than 100 species.

I stepped outside the house a couple of times before midnight, but the wind was howling and the rain spitting and I knew that no self-respecting owl would be calling in such weather.

108. One shy of tying the record, which still stands.

Of course, the next day dawned clear and sunny and still and I felt like doing it all over again.
But would I?

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Big Day 2007

Steve and Shila birding near a quarry where the bank swallows nest.

Apologies for the delay in posting Part 2 of this nailbiter. Major editorial deadlines today at BWD plus a semi-trailer of booklets to unload...but those are just excuses.

Where was I? Oh right!

I drove into town on Saturday just before noon, dropping off the Wild Chiquitas at ballfields, houses, relatives' houses, until, it was just me and my two offspring. Phoebe was so tired from NO SLEEP the night before that she asked to stay at my parents' house in town for more comfortable napping. Liam, loyal soul that he is, would not abandon his Hotdog Brother on such a momentous occasion, so he came along. We picked up Steve, Royal Meteorologist for The Whipple Bird Club, at his humble abode on Harmar Hill. While there we got brown thrasher, northern mockingbird, and house finch. We took off after the bobolink field we'd discovered some years before, secretly hoping it was not already divided into house lots.

It took about half an hour, but we finally heard the bobolinks not too far from where we'd found them in 2003. This is a vanishingly rare bird in southeastern Ohio. It loves wide open grasslands, something that's in short supply here in the heart of Wayne National Forest. Then we chanced upon a farm pond that had, of all things, more mallards, an orchard oriole, and both least and semipalmated sandpipers, plus a spotted sandpiper and killdeer. Shorebirds, like grassland birds, are a huge Big Day bonus in this part of the planet.

From the "bob-o" field we dropped down to the Ohio River to scan for water birds. Mallard, then bank swallow (which can be tough)! As we were passing Shila's house, we were surprised to see her car in the drive. We thought she was away this weekend. I trotted into the backyard, found Shila, got an emphatic YES! from her about joining us, and we arranged to meet her in the cemetery in 30 minutes. The cemetery where earlier in the day my brother Andy had seen summer tanager!

From there we scored some greasy fast food (part of a balanced Big Day diet) and two Happy Meals and headed up the hill to the cemetery. This place has some of the oldest standing trees in town. It's a great spring migrant trap--much like Central Park in NYC--the biggest, oldest patch of green habitat for miles around. Alas we were too late in the day for much fall out. Still we scored house wren, chimney swift, rock pigeon, and that summer tanager before leaving.

Shila at the Kroger Wetland, nailing down the surprise shorebird.

Wth Shila on our team, we knew we'd miss fewer birds. She's got birding ESP and can spot the tiniest dot in the sky or the most well-hidden perching bird, even from a moving car. We headed to my parents' house to check on Phoebe. While there, we paused to help my dad finish building a raised garden bed. It only took us 45 minutes. No new birds added during this bit of altruistic carpentering.

Then it was down to the county fairgrounds to get Steve to his son's baseball game. Matthew was pitching so Steve stayed while we walked around scanning for birds. Not much new here. Lots of warbling vireos. Lots of orioles of both species. Nothing to add to the list. We were getting antsy, so Shila, Liam and I went upriver to Devol's Dam. This is where this Big Day became special. We ran into a streak of completely unexpected birds.

Sheels spotted the first tern just as I found a semipalmated plover on the sandbar. Then we found a female red-breasted merganser, and a purple martin. The six terns, it turns out, after much deliberation were comprising two--not one--species. Forster's tern and common tern. Both unusual migrants through this area in spring and late summer. What a bummer Steve could not see them (he'd later get a good look at common terns at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum).
Forster's (left) and common tern (right) near Devol's dam. A lucky photo I did not know I got.

It was hard to leave the dam, but the light was beginning to slant in late afternoon and we had miles to go. We were sitting at about 88 species with several good potential stops yet to hit. Picking up Steve (and sharing the good news/bad news with him) we booked to the confluence. Steve got his tern. We added cliff swallow, eastern kingbird, rough-winged swallow, and ring-billed gull.

From there we went to the Kroger Wetland, a new piece of city property not far from BWD. I often take my lunch to the Kroger Wetland. There are nesting tree swallows and plenty of creatures to watch, including beaver. We had a few target birds and we got them and several more, too! Out incredible luck was holding. At the KW we found a dunlin (really unusual), more peeps, green heron, belted kingfisher, wood duck, great blue heron, and willow flycatcher. We were within kissing distance of 100. And we still had the embayments upriver to visit.
Three shorebirds in one. Dunlin, semipal plover, and least sandpiper at the Kroger Wetland.

We drove up Route 7 full of enthusiasm, our total at 98. We knew we could reliably get a common nighthawk in Marietta after dark, but what other birds would we be able to get? While waiting for Steve to buy some bottled water at a quicky mart nicknamed the La Brea Tar Pit of Reno, I tallied the list again and added 7 species we'd forgotten to mark. There went the century mark while sitting in a gas station parking lot. Still, the record of 108 seemed pretty distant.

In amazing succession we got solitary sandpiper and double-crested cormorant near Newell's Run. Then up the run we got Louisiana waterthrush and yellow-throated warbler. We'd broken the record! That was species 109! Time for some high fives.

Liam, poor boy, missed the celebration--he was asleep in the back of the van.
Liam catching 40 winks.

Back to town we went, to meet Julie at our favorite Mexican restaurant. Leaving after eating far too much, we got #110 when a common nighthawk peented overhead.

What a day! A new Washington County Big Day record (at least for us) of 110. And we could have gotten another dozen easily had we really planned and started earlier. Missing from the list were these common (or at least gettable) birds: red-shouldered hawk, broad-winged hawk, ruffed grouse, wild turkey, sharp-shinned hawk, chestnut-sided warbler, coot, pied-billed grebe, yellow-bellied sapsucker, barred owl, eastern screech-owl, great horned owl, cerulean warbler.

But what's the fun of bird watching if you see every bird every time?

It was a fabiola time with my Whipple Bird Club crew. We missed Zick, but she was there in spirit and got updates throughout the day as she drove home from a PA birding festival.

I'm already planning our route for 2008.

Flashing the gangland W hand sign for the Whipple Bird Club. If you see this sign, run for your life. Photo by Liam.

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