Thursday, February 27, 2014

Long-tail Ducks

With long-term ice all over the country, it seems, many sea ducks which would normally not come to the Ohio Valley have decided this isn't a bad place to spend the winter after all. At least the river hasn't frozen. It's been a birder's bonanza! The reports started weeks and weeks ago about Long-tail ducks being found on the Ohio River near downtown Louisville. When I realized this was not the brown and white duck I visualized (the Pintail), I started making trips to the river on a regular basis, whenever the sun came out. But, no luck for me. A friend went back in the late afternoon one day and said she saw it clearly.
On Monday morning, my friend Del called to say 8-9 of them had been sighted, so I hopped right in the car, morning toast in hand! Fortunately, I found Brainard when I arrived. He found the ducks as little specks with white heads in the middle of the river. With his assistance, I got some good looks with the spotting scope, but they were way too far away for any photos. I confess to borrowing these nice ones from the Internet.
Why would they be so hard to find? We've had a bit of a warm spell the last week or so, and all our snow has melted, along with quite a bit from upstream, apparently. The water levels are very high, and white caps form from wind and current. Most of the dark specks are logs and debris floating downstream. Do you see any ducks in this photo? Look very closely in the lower left, near the tree. You see what we are up against? From this point on the Indiana shore, it is about a mile across to the Kentucky side where the canal for barges comes out.The water is much calmer there, and it's a good place for birding.
The ducks swam along in a line, or rather they floated quickly down towards the dam. One by one, they dove down into the water looking for mussels. The Corps of Engineers only has to keep the navigation channel at nine feet deep, so it's not as deep as you would think here. These Long-tails can dive up to 30 feet. All four gates on the dam are completely out of the water, to keep the logs from jamming up. When the ducks got too close to the dam, they would take flight and go back upstream a bit, to start the process all over. I'll probably keep looking for them, just to see if I can get a photo of my own, but at least I've added them to my Life List!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Whoopin' It Up

There are lots of good reasons for whoopin' it up. The snow last Saturday was absolutely beautiful. Monday it rained and everything turned to ice, but I did NOT fall and break anything - good news. Had a good day birding in Lexington yesterday. We didn't find the Short-eared Owl, but saw plenty of good ducks. The news came in last night that Sandhill Cranes were moving into their regular feeding-resting area in nearby Hardin County.
As I drove slowly down the country road (speeding up a bit when traffic honked at me), I saw clumps of gray Sandhill Cranes in the fields. Since the snow melted, there were plenty of casual ponds and lots of mud. The cranes were delighted, and ranged through the corn stubble poking around for anything edible. Nothing was frozen! Happy Day!
But one big puddle had three WHITE blobs along with the gray ones. OMG! That field has Whooping Cranes!! I pulled into the farmer's drive, and prayed that I wouldn't get stuck in the mud, as I climbed out with my scope. Two birds looked like adults, and the third was a little muddier looking - maybe a juvenile?
I learned some important lessons today though. When my 60x zoom camera is in super ultra zoom mode, it does not focus clearly. When birds are way out in the middle of a field, or a river, the poor little laser that ranges for the focus just can't find the target well. So things are a little fuzzy when zoomed all the way. Sigh. Lesson 2, trying to digiscope with a cell phone is not a good way to get distant photos either. First, I had trouble seeing through the scope lens via the phone's camera, and even then, the focus wasn't as good as it was when just my eye looked through the scope. As well. We must learn and accept these life lessons, mustn't we. Anyway, I was really excited to see Whooping Cranes!
I love to hear Sandhills calling as they fly. Doesn't it seem awfully early for these birds to be flying north? It's just a lucky chance that the snow melted, and they can find food today. According to Ky Dept of Fish and Wildlife Resources, the total number of birds around Barren River Lake went from 24K to 1.8K in a week, and there were 11K at Cecilia yesterday. They are on the move today with flocks going north. When they move to the next stop, they might be covered in snow and ice again. Just enjoy the cranes...

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Birding with Barbara

Cackling and Canada Geese
My friend Barbara is a really good birder, who knows not only the songs of many, many birds, but their chips and call notes as well, so she's a great resource to have. After the Creasey Mahan GBBC event on Saturday, Barbara and I headed for Reformatory Lake. As you might guess, it is near the state prison. Hundreds of geese keep a good portion of the lake's water open this winter, and we waded through rather deep snow to get as close as possible. The Common Mergansers were beautiful, and the Green-winged Teals looked like little goslings standing close to the large Canada Geese. When several flocks joined the others on the water, we found Cackling Geese, our target for this trip. The newly recognized Cackling Goose is a smaller version of the Canada Goose, and breeds farther northward and westward than does the Canada Goose. Barbara said the trick is not to look at the size of the goose, but the size and shape of the small bill on the Cackling Goose.
Red-breasted Merganser male
Today, the sun was shining, and the urge to bird struck me again, so we headed down I-64 to Lexington, KY, a new spot for me. Reservoir #2 (located with the help of Google) hosted a variety of different waterfowl, including male and female Red-Breasted Mergansers. I love his punk hairdo and red eyes!
Hooded Mergansers, male and female
The tiny Hooded Mergansers didn't have their hoods up today, but quite a few of them swam in the lake. We watched an Eared Grebe come up with a fish, while Great Blue Herons landed on the ice. I think a "murder" of crows were playing hockey on the icy surface, and enjoying themselves immensely!
Mallard male
Mallards stayed close to shore for the most part, except for this fellow who decided to take off for a while...
Ruddy Duck, male
The Ruddy Ducks aren't in breeding colors yet, but we found 10-12 pairs. As soon as you spot one and get the camera focused, it dives under, and there's no predicting where it may surface again. Usually their stubby little tail stands straight up.
Muscovy or hybrid Mallard?
The most obvious character of a Muscovy is the red facial skin.This red skin can be quite bumpy, exaggerated, and frankly, gross, with a knob on top of the bill and lumps all over. Domestic Muscovies can be pure white, all black, or any degree of pied black-and-white. Many hybrid Mallards paddled in Reservoir #4, but I think this one is a Muscovy. I never knew that four good sized lakes could be found within the Lexington city limits. 
Eastern Meadowlark
Many Lexington birders have been taking wonderful photos of a Short-eared Owl at one of the University of KY research farms. I am still on the quest for a good photo of the SEO's face, so for an hour before sunset we drove around the fields of horses, looking for a fence with a dark blob on the top, alas, with no luck. No owls. No harriers. We did find lots of Red-tailed Hawks all day, plus the liquid joy of Eastern Meadowlarks having a song fest. 
 We enjoyed the cotton candy sunset, and treated ourselves to a nice supper, oooing and aahing over our photos and good luck today. There's always another day to look for owls, and we may try our luck for Sandhill Cranes soon, since they are starting to move north - as long as the sun shines!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Great Asian Whatever Goose!

It's funny how accustomed I have become to cold weather this year. Through long practice, of course. If the sun is out, I'm game for another birding trip. Most of the ice from last week's storm has melted away, but the grass at Long Run Park shone in the sun.
Canada Geese are familiar to all birders. They hardly seem to migrate any more, and just live here in Kentucky all year long. Mallard ducks are they same. They are the most common duck you are likely to see, so are often overlooked as "just another Mallard."
Today I had a real thrill though. A friend found American Wigeon at Long Run Park in Eastern Jefferson County, so I drove out this morning to look for it too. The lake is popular with fishermen during the summer, but was frozen today, except for one small circle kept open by the population of Mallards and domestic white ducks swimming around. One bird was different though. My hopes started to rise. Could it possibly be some kind of exotic goose, far, far away from its normal range? After all, there's been a lot of that going on this winter. Could I be the one to find some rare bird for the first time?
Look at its markings...A black vertical bar across the eye. A white forehead, and chinstrap larger than the Canada goose. A big white area in front of the wings. Oh MY! Maybe it's a Great Asian Whatever Goose, blown in from Siberia! I tramp through the crusty snow with scope, binoculars and camera, trying to capture a clear image of it among the ducks snoozing with their heads tucked under their wings. I check the birding apps in my phone. Nothing there resembles this bird, but the apps only carry North American birds, so I'm not too disappointed. I call my friends, and they look up world-wide geese, again finding nothing that looks like mine. "Could it be some kind of hybrid?" they suggest gently. When I get home, I send the photos to Brainard, my authority on everything avian, for confirmation, then start searching in Google for "geese of the world." There doesn't seem to be as many geese species in the world as I expected, and none of them looked like mine. Uh-oh. Maybe the big butt on this one really comes from a domestic goose!
The Jeff Overlook, just across the river, has always been home to hybrid Mallards. I call them Tuxedo ducks, since they usually have black/dark everywhere except on the breast, and look like they are wearing a tux with a white shirt and tie. But here is a nicely mottled black and white one as well.
And this one just merged dark Mallard feathers with white domestic feathers to produce a gray duck! Mallards are very tolerant birds, apparently, and will mate with anything that quacks, at least in this area of the river.

Ah! The latest news is that the adult male Long-tail duck, which actually has a long tail, was sighted at Ashland Park this afternoon. So guess where I'm going tomorrow! Wish me luck!

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Cold Weather Consequences

White-winged Scoter
It's been a long cold winter, much worse than last year, and we have weeks to go before we can expect any permanent change. For us, it means days off school for the children, and dangerous driving conditions for the rest of us. But as long as we have power, we can endure and life goes on pretty much like always. I try to keep the feeders filled in my backyard, although it's hard to keep up with the ravenous appetites of the Starlings who seem to be my most frequent visitors.
Last week when the sun was out, I went birding for Snow Buntings, and mentioned to a friend that I'd like to add the Long-tailed duck to my life list. This morning, when we got home from church, I found a message from him that the ducks were at Ashland Park near the Falls of the Ohio in Indiana right then. I quickly changed into warm birding clothes and sped across the river (using the bridge, of course). Well, I "saw" two Long-tail ducks waaay out in the middle of the river. Using another person's good Swarovski scope, I saw some white on their heads, but mostly, they were just duck-shaped blobs to me. Think I'll keep looking before adding this one to my life list.
Common Goldeneye
The Common Goldeneyes were a little closer to shore, and I had a good time watching them. The light wasn't very good though, and they look gray in this photo instead of the shining white of a live bird on the water. I think this guy is practicing some moves on his girlfriend.

White-winged Scoter
This winter we have been seeing White-winged Scoters on the river. Today I ran into Brainard Palmer-Ball, the top birder I know. I remember birders getting really excited to see one of these in previous years, and I asked Brainard, "Aren't these supposed to be rare birds?" He replied that until this year, he'd only seen 3 White-winged Scoters around here in his long birding career. Yet this month, he and another birder counted 116 of them in one day!
Surf Scoter (orange bill)
He said he was heading upstream a few miles to see if he could find a Surf Scoter again, so I went that way too. After finding a place to park, and carefully crossing River Road in traffic, I tramped through the snow following a group of scoters as they floated downstream. Brainard said the Surf Scoter has white on the back of his head and an orange bill. Sure enough, there was ONE Surf Scoter floating with all the others. LIFE BIRD!
When I got home, I started doing some research. Isn't the Internet wonderful? If I'd tried to do something like this 20 years ago at the library, I never would have found this much information! Scoters and the Long-tails all breed far, far to the north, and winter along the coasts, or around the Great Lakes. These are all diving birds, rather than dabblers like Mallards. Rarely diving in water that exceeds 30 feet deep, Surf Scoters forage in the zone of breaking waves, and habitually dive through foaming wave crests. Hundreds of thousands winter in the coastal waters off British Columbia alone, and 200,000 scoters could consume about 43 tons of mussel meat daily.  So what in the world are they doing on the Ohio River?
Google to the rescue again. Are the Great Lakes freezing in 2014? Yes indeed! Look at this satellite photo of the Great Lakes. In fact, the Great Lakes may set a record for ice cover this year. Lake Superior is 92 percent frozen on the surface, breaking a 20-year-old record of 91 percent set on Feb. 5, 1994. So that may partly explain why we are getting so many unusual water birds this winter around here. When the water froze, and their food sources disappeared, they just took off and headed south looking for open water, and the Ohio River was the first open water they found.

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...