Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Swarms of Phalaropes

Half of our ABA group on the causeway leading to Antelope Island State Park, Utah.

Back in late June, during the American Birding Association annual convention in Utah, I was assigned to help lead a field trip to Antelope Island State Park. Antelope Island is located on the southeastern edge of the Great Salt Lake, north of Salt Lake City.

We left the Snowbird Lodge high in the Wasatch Mountains before dawn, dropping down to the desert along this large briny inland sea. Our trip consisted of two huge touring coaches, each one loaded with excited bird-heads.

Our first stop was along the causeway leading to the park entrance. So this is the Great Salt Lake. The smell of fermenting brine shrimp came onto the coach to meet us. Rugged plum-colored mountains surrounded the lake at a distance. Shallow brackish water bracketed the road. The water was so shallow that huge areas of salty sandflats appeared here and there, and the movement of birds and insects was obvious everywhere we looked. Stepping off of the bus I noticed several flocks of swift shorebirds flying overhead. They were buoyant fliers, snipelike in shape, but stiltlike in their gracefulness.

I was momentarily puzzled.

Then it hit me—just as someone else shouted "Wilson's phalaropes going overhead!"

Of course!
Wilson's phalaropes overhead, flying to join the huge feeding flocks on the Great Salt Lake.

Flock after flock, each one with between 12 and 30 birds, flew overhead, all headed in the same direction.

"Look at ALL those phalaropes!" I heard myself exclaim. I'd never seen so many at once.

"If you think that's a lot. Look out there, over the water!" said a birder next to me.

There, swirling over the water about 300 yards out were CLOUDS of phalaropes. They looked more like swarms of insects than flocks of birds. And they were reportedly ALL Wilson's phalaropes, staging, molting, and gorging before heading south for the winter.
Every June, as soon as they have finished nesting up north, the phalaropes begin gathering at the Great Salt Lake. As many as half a million may use the lake as a resting and feeding stop on their southward migration.

These birds, in a few weeks, would make a non-stop flight to northern South America. There they'll spend the winter on inland lakes high in the Argentinian Andes—a journey of more than 5,000 miles.

Red-necked phalaropes also pass through the Great Salt Lake, but not in such staggering numbers.

The appearance of these post-breeding phalaropes coincides with the large hatches of brine flies, small harmless insects that form their own dark clouds. The phalaropes and other birds gorge on the abundant brine flies, as well as the equally abundant brine shrimp, putting on body fat that will fuel their long migration.

Here it was, just the last week of June and already fall migration was on for these phalaropes.

I'll share a few images of the distant clouds of Wilson's phalaropes from our morning at Antelope Island State Park.

Like a wave above the water's surface, thousands of phalaropes shifted to new feeding spots.

The flocks were constantly ebbing and flowing.

This was just one small portion of the flock. It extended twice this far to each side of my camera's frame.

This must have been what flocks of passenger pigeons looked like 200 years ago.

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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Signs of Life

It's been a while since we've had a good sign posting here on BOTB. I ran across this one in front of a waterfowl hunting club near Bear River NWR in Utah. Somehow I knew instantly that this was not a birding club.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Down from Hidden Peak

The start of the hike down from Hidden Peak.

On the final day of The American Birding Association convention at the Snowbird Resort in Utah, Julie and I joined a trip going up on the tram to Hidden Peak. What I did not tell her was that there was a plan to hike the mountains from 11,000 feet back to the resort at 8,000 feet. Only some of the field trip participants were interested in doing this. I jumped at the chance for such an adventure, especially because it was being led by consummate birder/naturalist/photographer Bill Schmoker of Boulder, Colorado.
Bill Schmoker hugging a snow monster.

Bill is just enough of a mountain man to enjoy a rugged hike such as this one, but he's also incredibly knowledgeable and one heckuva nice bloke. Joining us for the hike were a temporarily reluctant Zick, Barbara from Borderland Tours, convention attendees Michael and Darlene, and Callan Cohen of South Africa with whom I had birded in The Karoo area of the African cape in 2002.
Julie Z at the edge of the snow field.

Our kids were worn out from the week of early risings, so they stayed at the resort in our room just chillin' out. Before you call Children's Services on us you should know that we were in constant phone contact with them, and we had friends checking on their well-being.

Before the start of the hike we relieved ourselves of all excess gear. Tami Bulow of the ABA kindly agreed to take it back down on the tram for us. This was key because little did we know but we'd be hiking (or resting) for the next five hours.
Ski runs halfway down.

The top of Hidden Peak was free of snow due to the effects of snow and wind. A few steps over the edge and we were in snow so deep it was still skiable. On went the sunscreen and sunglasses. According to The Schmokster the reflecting power of the snow gives you 85% of the UV rays that straight-on sun does. It was like being in a giant white tanning booth.
SnowCats had prepared the trail for us. I was looking for Scatman Crothers from The Shining.

As we started down the recently snow-catted trail, I made a short video asking all in our party for their parting wishes and statements, in case, like The Donner Party, we got lost in the snow.

A quarter-mile or down the switchback trail, El Schmokatollah, dropped onto his behind and butt-surfed downhill to the trail below. This, he revealed to us, was called glissading. We all did it. I had to put the legs back on my pants first. Out party reconvened at the bottom of the hill, frosty buns burning only slightly form the cold. I have to say this was mighty fun.

The rest of the hike was a naturalist's treat: wildflowers, butterflies, geology, and spectacular scenery. We found items dropped by skiers, including three skis and two ski poles. The birds were good, too. We had close looks at lazuli bunting, white-crowned sparrow, Clark's nutcracker, gray-headed (dark-eyed) junco, and others. The nutcrackers we saw and heard really got Callan going—it had been his most-wanted bird for this trip.
Mountain bluebird male.

In the heard-only category went the black rosy-finches. Try as we might we could not set eyes on them.

While Darlene and Barbara pressed on down the trial ahead of us, Julie and Callan dawdled behind looking at butterflies and trying to take photos of them. Everything at this altitude comes out in early June and goes crazy trying to grow/reproduce/spread during the few weeks of warm weather. Wildflowers come up flower first, leaves later. Birds come up high to breed as soon as the insects come out.
Below the snow.

We all fell down at least once. I drew blood on my left elbow when I slipped on loose rocks when we were nearly all the way down. My instinct was to roll sideways to save my camera from hitting first. It worked, though the elbow is still sore.
Dead spruce on Hidden Peak.

By mid afternoon the buildings of Snowbird were in sight. It was a tthis time thnat Phoebe called to say she could see us up on the mountain path. "You look like ants, Daddy. But I could tell you from the way you walk." Smart girl, already knows her old man's field marks.
Snowbird, viewed from above.

Tired and a little footsore we strode creakily into the parking lot. Congrats and hugs all 'round. Half an hour alter we were toasting with pale ales in the hot tub by the outdoor pool.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

The Splashy Dance: Courting Grebes

Even more exciting than seeing so many Clark's grebes in one place was getting to se a pair of western grebes doing the Splashy Dance. This is the courtship dance these large grebes perform in the spring and early summer. After a bit of synchronized head bobbing and bill dipping and mock preening, a male and female will lift their bodies off the water and scamper across the surface, beating their wings just enough to propel them forward.

This incredible display only lasts a few seconds, but the pair may repeat it several times in a hour. We saw it happen three different times with this one pair of western grebes. This was a life-behavior for me and something I'd always wanted to observe. I only wish I'd had my video camera handy.

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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Clark's versus Western Grebe

The road through the Bear River NWR.

On our daylong field trip to Bear River NWR in Utah, during the recent American Birding Association convention, we got to see large numbers of both western and Clark's grebes. This was a real treat for me. I'd seen lakefuls of western grebes before (in North Dakota) but picking out the very few Clark's grebes in those instances was always like a game of Where's Waldo. Here at Bear River it was more evenly blended between the two species.

Big western-type grebes look black above white below from a distance.

Just like house finch versus purple finch or sharpie versus Cooper's hawk, telling these two very similar grebes apart seems quite tough at first. But given a chance like we had to study the birds well under perfect viewing conditions, the differences between the two grebes become more obvious.

Western grebes.

Both are large, long-necked birds that appear all-dark above and bright white below. The key field marks to look for are all on the head. Start with the face and look at the area surrounding the birds' bright red eyes. See how the western grebes look darker headed with the dark "cap" actually encircling the eyes?

Now look at the Clark's grebes. Notice how white-faced they look? And the white (not black) encircles the eyes.

Clark's grebes.

Another good head-based field mark is the difference in the bills of the two species. Westerns have a yellow-green bill that looks fairly stout and substantial. By comparison the Clark's bill is bright candy-corn yellow and much thinner.

Looking at my two images of these mated pairs of grebes the Clark's grebes look daintier to me: Their eyes even look smaller. The western grebes on the other hand look chunky and dark-headed, and big-eyed.

While we were watching these grebes feed and squabble and court in the ponds at Antelope Island, I noticed that at a great distance I could make fairly accurate guesses about which species I was seeing. If the birds looked more white than dark they were usually Clark's. If they looked more dark than light, they were westerns.

Next post: Doing the Splashy Dance

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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Stilts in the Air

Black-necked stilts. Antelope Island State Park north of Salt Lake City, Utah.

One morning in Utah, while birding Antelope Island State Park, I was treated to awesome fly-by looks at several groups of black-necked stilts, as well as flocks of American avocets and clouds of Wilson's phalaropes (I hope to share pix of these with you soon).

I may be unable to blog for the next few days, so I hope I don't lose your eyeballs for good. "See" you soon.


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Thursday, July 03, 2008

Postcard from Antelope Island

Breeding adult California gull.

I wish they all could be California gulls.

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Life Bird 600-something

While helping to lead the field trip to Antelope Island State Park in The Great Salt Lake I got my first life bird in a while for North America. It was a chukar (pronounced chuck-er), a Eurasian species (and a member of the partridge family, but not The Partridge Family) introduced to North America by hunters. It's now established and breeding in many parts of the West, and thus is "countable" by those who keep track of such things. As I understand it, Danny Bonaduce is also established and breeding in certain parts of the West.

If I did a better job of keeping track, I'd actually know what number the chukar is on my life list. It's somewhere in the mid-600s I think...

Anyway it was cool to see a bird I'd never seen before. The chukar was a lifer for most of the 26 birders on our bus. No I did not force everyone to do the Life Bird Wiggle. It was too hot in the desert.

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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Into Thin Air

On the way up, looking up, from the tram.

Three different times during last week I ascended a mountain on a tram, hopping on at 8,000 feet above sea level and hopping off at 11,000 feet ASL. In this post I will share some experiences and images from two of those ascents. The third one I'll save for a future post.

I spent last week with Julie, Phoebe, Liam and about 250 other birders at The American Birding Association annual convention held this year at the Snowbird Resort in Utah, about 45 minutes outside of Salt Lake City. Snowbird sits at about 8,000 feet—much higher than SLC. Our ears popped several times during the shuttle drive up to Snowbird.

We arrived Monday night, too late for the banquet dinner and program. But we still managed a few hellos before heading off to find some late-night grub and our swanky room. Julie and I were attending the convention to help lead some field trips for the attendees and Julie was giving a presentation on Friday night, plus we had many old buddies with whom we wanted to catch up—so we had a busy week ahead of us.

We had nothing on tap for Tuesday morning so, after $68 of breakfast and a bit of birding around the Snowbird grounds, we four took the ski tram up and over the mountains to Hidden Peak. Phoebe and Julie took turns being moderately freaked out by the height and swaying of the tram. The tram could serve as the stunt double of the one featured in the James Bond film Moonraker in which Richard Kiel bites the cable to get to James Bond.

The tram in a rare Richard-Kiel-free moment.

Looking down at Snowbird from the tram.

We got to the top and, literally, stepped into thin air. Taking a few rapid steps at 11,000 feet of altitude caused me to breathe deeply. An altitude headache ensued, followed closely by two ibuprofen pills chased by an entire bottle of water.

In case you were wondering if you were really high or just high on life...

The sun was milky white in the clear blue sky. Most of the mountainsides around us were covered in deep snow. We all squinted through our sunglasses as we slathered on the sunscreen. The air was so thin it made Twiggy look like a sumo wrestler.

Uinta chipmunks asked us about the contents of our lunch bags. A golden eagle slipped past followed by three common ravens. Violet-green swallows twittered and swooped around an unused chair lift building, exploring the many possible nesting cavities.

The additional 3,000 feet in elevation made the air inside our potato chip bag expand. Sadly, the number of chips inside did NOT expand with the bag.

Uinta chipmunk with an accidental piece of cheese.

Gingerly approaching the edge.

Lunch with a view (and lifer chipmunks!)

Two days later I was invited to help Bill Schmoker and Jeff Gordon to scout Hidden Peak for birds we might see on the Sunday morning tram field trip. Joining our merry band of birders were Lisa White and Katrina Kruse of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, momentarily released from their booth-staffing duties at the ABA trade show. Up we went again.

Jeff Gordon and Bill Schmoker looked like models for the REI catalog.

Lisa and Katrina dug the awesome view.

On this second trip we hoped to locate some reliable black rosy finches, a target bird for many of the convention attendees. We had no such luck. But we did see pikas (a gerbil-like rabbit relative), several dark-eyed (gray-headed) juncos, and many white-crowned sparrows. We also hiked down off the top and along a ridge line. Hiking down was a cakewalk. Hiking back up required three separate stages marked by intervals of gasping for air. I know I'm not Lance Armstrong, but this up-slope walk made me feel more like Stretch Armstrong after I ran him through my sister's Easy-Bake Oven.

Bill Schmoker crosses a snow field. Being from Colorado he was used to the altitude.

My lord, the view from up there! If you've got to be gasping for air, trying your best to avoid your first major heart attack, Hidden Peak is a nice place to do it.

Soon we headed back down to the land of normal atmosphere and cash bars and bird checklists and evening programs and all the people who live their safe little lives in the lowlands. We, on the other hand, had walked among the giants, high atop Hidden Peak, where the livin' is easy, but the breathin' ain't. And we'd lived to tell about it.

The view from the top of Hidden Peak.

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Monday, June 30, 2008

Flying Home

An American avocet flying slowing in front of our bus at Bear River NWR. It had a nest nearby and was trying to distract us.

Today we are flying home to Ohio at long last. It's been a wonderful week here at Snowbird Resort in Utah, but we're ready to be home.

Lots to share once I have more time to collect my thoughts and images. For now, it's time to schlep stuff to the airport shuttle. Still hoping to see some mountain goats in the Wasatch Mountains on the way to the Salt Lake City airport so I'm not packing my binocs just yet.

Goodbye June.

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Snowbird Creatures

We are up at almost 8,000 feet in the Wasatch Mountains above Salt Lake City, Utah, at the American Birding Association conference. There are creatures strange and wonderful here.

Steller's jays swipe food bits from the hotel balconies.

Cassin's finches show their long-nosed profiles fluttering near the bird feeders at the Snowbird Resort.

Pine siskins are everywhere!

The name yellow-bellied marmot sounds like a scathing put-down but these chunky mammals care not a whit.

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