Friday, February 07, 2014

Snow Birding

Today, the sun shined for the first time in about a week, so I decided to leave the house for some adventure, since it's supposed to snow again tonight. Sigh. My dishwasher died, so first I headed out to order a new one. Then we had reports of Snow Buntings nearby, and possibly a Long-tailed duck about an hour away. It's time to bundle up and go birding! The ice damaged many trees, but they are so glisten-y when the sun shines on them, the drive was very enjoyable. This evening, I am surrounded by field guides, trying to identify these winter birds which I usually see only once a year.

Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs in Flight
The field on Chamberlin Lane is still farm country, although I wouldn't give it long to survive in that state. It is winter home for mixed flocks of Snow Buntings, Lapland Larkspurs, and Horned Larks, along with a few Savannah Sparrows. Every time a car drove by, every bird in the field took off, flashing their white wing undersides as they circled around and landed again. You see, the birders brought offerings of corn and seed to encourage them to land where we could see them easily.

American Kestrel
Even when there were no cars, however, the birds were nervous and flighty, taking off for no apparent reason. No, they wouldn't have been spooked by the Turkey Vulture that glided over. Must be a raptor somewhere, reasoned one of our more experienced birding friends. Sure enough, perusing the nearby branches, we discovered a male American Kestrel on the hunt. He left for better opportunities, and the smaller birds settled down to feed.

Snow Bunting
One guide commented that the term "bunting" was borrowed from British usage and applied to completely unrelated birds in America. Thus, they say, we have a Lark Bunting, which may be related to the Snow Bunting, while the more colorful buntings have little in common with these emberizine buntings. In Britain, our Lapland Longspur is known as the Lapland Bunting. Is it any reason we get confused?

Lapland Longspurs
I'm still working on making sure I can tell the Lapland Larkspurs apart from the Savannah Sparrows. I may have it wrong in some of these photos, so if anyone finds a mistake, please let me know. I take lots of extra photos trying to get one that is posed like the birds in the guides.

Mixed Flock - Buntings and Longspurs
Then when they take off, I'm trying to distinguish them from wing and tail markings, from below!

Horned Lark
The little Horned Larks are among my favorites, with their yellow throats and brown mask, to say nothing of the tiny little horns.

Greater Scaup
I explained to Rob, our expert birder friend, that I have never seen a Long-tailed duck. Haven't people been finding them somewhere this winter? Yes, he replied, down along the river would be the best place to try. So we met him on the Indiana side of the Ohio River, to look for ducks. Again, I have to review these wintering ducks, since I don't see them on a regular basis. The bird app on my phone is wonderful, but a little hard to read in bright sunshine. I need to study up on families, since Scaup and Scoter don't come up when I search under "duck." The Hooded Mergansers, Buffleheads and Goldeneyes looked great through Rob's scope, but were too far away for a good photo.

White-winged Scoter
I always wonder how all these birds got their names. Some are descriptive (very helpful), some are named after early ornithologists (not too helpful), while others have names with no meaning to me whatsoever. Scaup and Scoter? What's that all about? Names aside, we saw some beautiful White-winged Scoters. Look at the white "commas" around this guy's eyes, and his crooked bill.

White-winged Scoter
And if you think the "white-winged" part of his name means that little white stripe, think again.

White-winged Scoter Diving
Three of them would swim at a pretty fast pace against the current, then just as I focused, two of them disappeared under water. Rob says it's a good sign that these diving birds are staying on the river- must be enough food for them. But they eat molluscs - what are they eating here in the river? I know there are some molluscs here, but I thought they were all little bitty, at least from the shells found at he Falls of the Ohio. Of course, the river doesn't freeze, and the current and water levels were high today.

Red-breasted Merganser
One lonely Red-breasted Merganser swam by, with his punk hairdo, white neck ring and pointy bill. The field guide says they winter along the shore, all around the country, but prefer shallow, sheltered salt water. Maybe he blew in with the last winter storm. That's what fun about birding on the Ohio River. We get lots of species which don't belong here, but look on the river as a port in the storm.  However, I did not find the Long-tail. Maybe the next time the sun comes out...

1 comment:

Jim said...

Enjoyed the photos and the writing. The way you describe the confusion of discerning one species from the other common to all except the experts was excellent. Even then with markings varying in many species as the birds mature is anyone certain? Therefore there is always a touch of mystery which adds to the fun. I have not been able to get there to see the winter visitors. The horned larks from your photos a striking bird I have seen in the past but never attempted to photograph.