26 December 2011

From Phoebes to Finches

The past week of roaming and birding the expanses of western Colorado has been quite interesting. Kevin Louth was still present for the first part of the week, and though I have been trying to force myself to get down to the work I need to do this break, I have still found myself sneaking out of the house to bird.

The day after Kevin and I returned from Utah we hit the water for the Grand Junction Christmas Bird Count. I have been in charge of the Colorado River section for several years now, and was looking forward to some dreary December rafting down the river. However, I was surprised by how nice - dare I say, warm - the weather really was! Eight of us crammed on to Johnathan Cooley's raft and had an excellent float down the river. We had a bird that appeared to be a Snow Goose-Canada Goose hybrid, but given all of our inexperience with this combo, it could easily prove to be part domestic or even an aberrant "Blue" Snow Goose (check out a photo by Jackson Trappett here). The other good bird of the count was one that threw me for quite the loop at first. I heard the echo of a 'pip pip' call, and became very turned around. It was extremely familiar, but seemed completely out of context, like I bird I heard before but a very long time before. I started looking around, and asked if anyone knew what that call was. Everyone cued in after I pointed it out, but none were certain of the call. I turned and saw something move on the bank, and was locked on a BLACK PHOEBE just a few seconds later. This is the second new species for the Grand Junction CBC I have found in my short river rafting career, and was very excited to see this little bird sticking out the winter so far north. I thought I saw two birds at one point, but no one got on more than one at once so we let it go. Leon Thurmon, however, spotted a second bird less than a mile downriver! It was very exciting to have multiple individuals of a new CBC bird. Overall, it was a great success, and we all had a great day on the river. In total, we had 45 species (eBird checklist here).

After doing some hikes and further exploring in the western half of Colorado, Kevin left, and I began to get on my paperwork, the scholarships and other work that I still need to complete. I did however, take one final birding trip for the year on Christmas Eve. Jackson Trappett, whose photographs can be viewed here, needed three more life birds to reach 175 new photo birds for the year, so we set out to get those birds. Our morning was not nearly as productive, with us dipping on Long-tailed Duck and finding a surprise rockslide blocking the road on our way out, but once we got to Pitkin County, things started looking up. We met Dick Filby at the top of the Village Express Chairlift at Snowmass ski resort to watch the feeders for Rosy-Finches. Mountain Chickadees swarmed the feeder for seeds and were constantly bickering in the nearby bushes, and a pair of Gray Jays watched the skiers from afar to see what it was they were up to. Eventually, a group of three Brown-capped Rosy-Finches flew in, but as we watched, no others came to join, and eventually they flew. A Lone Pine Grosbeak passed overhead as we waiting and watched for more birds. We were thankful to have at least seen some rosies, but as we debated about whether to stay and began considering leaving, a large flock flew into the Subalpine Fir behind the feeder. Success at least! There were about 80 birds that came in, with about 40 Brown-capped, 30 Gray-crowned, and 10 "Hepburn's" (coastal) Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches. We were ecstatic as the birds came in and feed just feet away from us. (This was about the moment I realized I had forgotten my camera ~140 miles away at home). We sat and watched the finches until they left, and then headed out with Dick to the other feeders across the valley at Elk Park. The Elk Park feeders were a lot less productive, but a short walk behind the feeders had two flyover Red Crossbills and a nice surprise group of three Golden-crowned Kinglets that came within a few feet of us! The Kinglets were photo bird 175 for Jackson, and as we congratulated him we began to work our way down the mountain. On our drive out, we even managed number 176 for Jackson: a Rough-legged Hawk in Garfield County circling over the road.

Overall, it was a great week, and I had a great Christmas the next day both with my family and with Emily's. It has been a great December, and I look forward to seeing what the new year has in store.

Happy holidays, and I'll see y'all in 2012.

23 December 2011

The Road to Zion

As I sat down at my kitchen table playing with my food, I glanced up at my friend Kevin Louth. He had followed me home (invited, of course) as he had never experienced the western United States before. He was in awe of the snow and fog that enshrouded the mountains surrounding my western Colorado home, and, still recovering from finals, we discussed activities we could participate in while staying in Colorado. His first question disregarded Colorado entirely. "Where's Zion? Can we go there?" I paused from my dithering to glance in his direction, and slowly nodded. Early the next morning, I was on an unplanned road trip through the heart of Utah.

The next three days included 21 hours of driving over a thousand miles of sandstone desert. Kevin was in awe at the territory so foreign to someone born and raised in the bayou, and I got to see my favorite desert haunts under a cloak of snow. Our low point was definitely the 17 degree F night we camped at Natural Bridges National Monument, and there were more highlights than could be counted. We hit Arches NP, Natural Bridges NM, Lake Powell NRA, Capitol Reef NP, Escalante-Grand Staircase NM, Bryce Canyon NP, and hiked the ice covered Angel's Landing in Zion NP. Below are some picture highlights from the trip. It was exhausting, but exhilarating!

Double-O Arch, Arches National Park, Moab, Utah

Sipapu Bridge, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Zion Canyon from Angel's Landing, Zion National Park, Utah

Last, but not least, the bird of the trip: CALIFORNIA CONDOR on Angel's Landing, Zion National Park. We saw two birds - numbers 99 and 0.

04 December 2011

The Benefits of Studying

While panicking and putting all my stuff together yesterday and waiting for Emily to come up from New Orleans, I noticed an Eastern Phoebe outside my window. I stared at it momentarily, and realized that if this bird were in the oak outside my window, then a flock would probably not be far behind. Lo and behold, my studying was quickly interrupted by Pine Warblers, Blue-headed Vireo, Downy Woodpeckers and a returnee (at least second-year) wintering Yellow-throated Warbler! The pictures below are from my humble dorm room window.

Yellow-throated Warbler (Setophaga dominica), LSU Campus, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Brown Creeper (Certhia americana), LSU Campus, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Today, as another brief respite from studying, I went out with Kevin Morgan and Carol Foil to check out some hummingbirds not far from LSU. We had a three hummer species day, with Ruby-throated, Black-chinned, and Rufous all putting in appearances. I was good to see hummers at least one more time before venturing to a land that has none. Back to studying for now!

23 November 2011

A Momentary Flashback: 17 June 2011

As Thanksgiving approaches, everyone remembers all of those things they are thankful for. It is at this time of year that I often think back on the summers before, and the little things I have been thankful for, and one day which stands out as being one filled with such things is 17 June 2011.

Over the course of the past year and a half, I have begun using eBird (http://ebird.org/content/ebird/) with regularity. The easy ability to enter and share your observations with the community at large has great ramifications for both the scientific community and the general birding community and allows you to look through your observations in order of date. Scanning through the pages of checklists I have accumulated has become a lot like flipping through a diary for me, as each individual bird observation sparks the memories of the places I've been (I have linked each section to a relevant checklist as well, in case you truly want to step into my shoes for a moment). To help fill in the gaps from when I was not blogging and to commemorate this holiday, I have chosen this date to describe some of the things I was thankful for and seeing.

The first thing that I was thankful for and realized to be beneficial was the fact that I had indulged myself with too many (non-alcoholic) things to drink from the night before. As I sleepily stumbled out of my truck bed (read: mobile home), I heard a distinctive and far off sound. Whipping around, checking for coyotes and whatever kind of other mammals might have the "pleasure" of encountering a tender and defenseless human in a half-dazed state alone in the forest at night, I became as still as I was paranoid. Slowly, a slight smile of recognition creeped across my face. Somewhere in the distance, a Flammulated Owl called softly. I checked the mixed Juniper-Ponderosa Pine stand that I camped in for any movement, being no stranger to the whisper call of these elusive owls, but the call of my warm sleeping bag was what I quickly cued in on as it lured me away from the nearby owl. (Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S8426774)

Home sweet home (not at the above location, but to give you an idea of my living conditions). Photo taken at Sunset in the White Mountains of Arizona, May 2011.

My day started a little before dawn, as I struggled to put my cold clothes on and prepare my material for the coming transect. A couple drinks of cold water helped me wake slightly as I glanced around at the impending survey. I listened to my morning work playlist of music to get myself motivated to go for the day, singing along to things such as "8105" by Moving Mountains. I quickly hopped out of my truck, and began fumbling through the woods, following the small dark arrow on my GPS. The mix of Ponderosa Pine and Juniper led to a lot of interesting birds coexisting side by side, with Grace's and Black-throated Gray Warblers singing in the same patches of trees. I remembered back to when, almost a year prior, Michael Hilferty and I had spent the night in almost the exact same place, tripping over barbed wire fences in the middle of the night trying to catch a glimpse of a Common Poorwill, and of the many of the same birds being seen the next morning then as well. I was, however, temporarily thrown out of my nostalgia by things such as Red Crossbills flying overhead, duos of Hairy Woodpeckers contesting over rotting snags, and a "surprise" herd of cows that started stampeding in the opposite direction that I started running. I greatly enjoyed my morning, and managed to complete my entire transect. Feeling extremely accomplished, I headed back to my truck, where my last Jarritos soda lay in waiting. I always buy enough soda to keep track of how long it will be until I get to visit civilization again, and this was the last soda in my truck. It was the day I had longed for for longer than I care to (or will) admit: SHOWER DAY. (Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S8429166)

Grace's Warbler (Setophaga graciae) near Williams, Arizona. June 2009.

I jumped in my truck and started down the long road to those things which I had longed for: a bed, running water, soap... The excitement made it hard for me to focus on the road. I imagined myself eating indoors, buying food and actually seeing people again as I chugged my Mexican soda and my feet danced around the pedals. My stick shift glided through the gears as I hit my first paved road in over a day, and I adjusted my greasy hat to accommodate the presence of traffic. I flew over 100+ miles of asphalt, passing a dark-morph Red-tail and some of the most beautiful desert in the world to get to Saint George, Utah. By this time, I had practically convinced myself that the hotel was going to be on par with Shangri La (the In-N-Out I stopped at had already claimed the equivalency of Nirvana), and there was little that enticed me more than the thought of entering a state of relaxation that was just short of a coma. When I finally arrived, I strode through the automatic doors, and, resembling "Pig Pen" from the Peanuts, I leaned over the counter, beaming at the dark-haired college girl working the desk and triumphantly declaring that I was ready to take possession of my room.

"The rooms don't open until 3."

My world collapsed around me momentarily as I swallowed my disappointment, and I was able to quickly regain my composure.

"3? Seriously? Is there any way I can get it now?" The sweat eroded the dirt off of my brow as I stood waiting for her reply.

"I'm sorry, but check in is at 3."

I gazed into space before demanding "Where is the nearest creek?"

I clearly caught her off guard, as she slowly replied that she had no idea where a creek was, and I racked my memory for knowledge regarding Washington County birding locations. Slowly a name came from the recesses of my mind. Tonaquint... Tonaquint park. I jumped on the hotel computer and found that there really was a Tonaquint Park, and it was less than a mile away. I quickly thanked the girl for her help and bolted out the door. Minutes later, I was staring at Abert's Towhees foraging in the grass and brush of the quaint Tonaquint Nature Center. I remained there for just over an hour, adding several birds to my Utah state list, and generally enjoying the desert atmosphere and the weird looks people gave to the apparently homeless man with an 800 dollar camera.

Abert's Towhee (Melezone aberti) at Tonaquint Nature Center, Washington County, Utah. 17 June 2011.

As I got closer to my car after completing my birding loop, I realized that I was actually lucky that the hotel refused my entry, as I got to not only see Abert's Towhee in Utah, but spend time with this unique sparrow that I had not seen in years. I got in the car and checked the time, smiling at the fact that I was within fifteen minutes of three o'clock. (Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S8426791)

That night, as I watched crappy TV in a clean bed with my hair wet from the shower I had anticipated for so long, I realized that I had never fully appreciated the amenities of a "low-grade" hotel room before. I was extremely thankful to be able to be in Utah and exposed to all birds and multiple, clear radio stations, and as I slept on a non-dusty pillow that night, realized just how lucky I was to be having such a great summer.

18 November 2011

The Endless March of Time

The Chimney Swifts streaming by to the south have gradually had their airspace invaded and have now been replaced by the lazy arcs of the Tree Swallows enjoying their winter hideout. My daily trudges to class have witness a similar transformation, as the chips and tsips of American Redstarts, Yellow Warblers and Yellow-throated Warblers have given way to the type-writing calls of the Ruby-crowned Kinglets and smacking calls of the Orange-crowed Warblers wintering in the fern-laden boughs of the Live Oaks. Talking to my girlfriend, Emily, in New Orleans has helped me get through the weekends of overwhelming homework and my brief birding forays with Kevin Morgan and other Louisiana birders have kept me sane, and my first semester of my junior year of school is drawing to a close. No matter who I see though, all have asked me the same question. Emily asks it a way that alludes to the excitement that must await, my dad with the panic that much is yet to be done and most others with a sense of foreboding for the unknown that awaits me. "Are you ready for your next semester?"

Usually such a question would not make me think twice. I would shrug off such a query with an off the cuff remark about the continuous march of time, thinking of the constant flow of birds being the timepiece of my mind. Since my disturbingly late last blog post, I have been keeping myself busy with the natural world and a disturbingly large class load. I passed my spring classes with straight A's, despite a week of "studying" with my friends from Tropical Birding and Houston Audubon in High Island the week before my April organic chemistry test, and I took up an intensive work schedule in the southwestern United States once again. I finished my classes, flew home for Emily's graduation, and took off to beat the storms through the mountain passes to go to work. I was plunged headlong into a sea of gypsum in southern New Mexico, and spent the rest of my summer doing general bird surveys in Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado, interspersing my long summer with periodic trips home to visit my family.

As I sat at home for part of my summer eating lunch, contemplating on everything I had (and had not) done that summer, my existentialism was interrupted by my sister on her way to work.

"It's weird," she said half in my direction, "You haven't done anything this summer."
I was partially offended, and replied, "I'm here, aren't I?"
"Well, yeah, but that's kind of boring. Don't you want to go somewhere?"

She was right, I did. I really did. So, I submitted paperwork at my university to make that a reality and put it out of my head. However, I am a more qualified person for many things than I give myself credit for, and was surprised to be asked if I was ready for my next semester, even if that semester were not in America. It was then, while listening to music in my dorm and looking at my email, that I realized my next semester would not be highlighted by the return of Purple Martins over the local lakes or the leafing of the cypress trees in the flooded bayous, but instead by penguins fleeing the Great White Sharks of the southern ocean and the bizarre and foreign plants of the fynbos and karoo. In just over two months, I will be stepping off a plane in South Africa to spend six months of my life near the legendary Cape of Good Hope.

One of the first things I realized when I heard this was that I would have a lot to do to get ready for the coming months, and one of those things involved this blog. It has been neglected for so long, and so many stories and things that have occurred have escaped the fate of being chronicled here on my webpage. It is for this reason that I wish to make a concerted effort to revamp this blog and update it throughout my foreign travels (and if I forget, please remind me!). In conjunction with this, I will be attempting to upload as many photos as possible on my new Flickr account as well (http://www.flickr.com/photos/blackhawkbirder/). My best pictures from over the years are on there now, and I hope to update it more in the coming months with not just Colorado information, but also with Sugarbirds and Eremomelas from the Western Cape.

I am off to triumphantly finish my semester now, but will be back soon. Until then, take care, and I hope you all are looking forward to whatever the future may bring as much as I am.

05 January 2011

Of Organic Chemistry and popping lungs

A few months ago, I put my last blog post up. I said to myself, "This year, I will blog continuously and without break! I shall be master of the internet!" Then, life intervened. After surviving my left lung collapsing three times last year, my right lung was jealous of all the attention my left side was receiving. It sat there, scheming and plotting, and finally was so enraged that it popped, quite literally, to get the attention it deserved. However, I was now acclimated to the pain associated with collapsed lungs, thanks to my left side, so I sighed and, after a good night's sleep, headed to the hospital. As I was recovering from my lung, the classes started to pile up, specifically those known as Organic Chemistry and Microbiology. Incredibly, I managed to get A's in all but one of my classes, but the damage to my blog had already been done: it had been neglected. And unfortunately, I abandoned it during the best year of birding I have ever had. I saw over 900 species of bird last year, but did not blog about them very much at all. My limited internet over the summer and desire to pass my classes meant that this blog fell by the wayside. But that is my New Year's resolution (or at least one of them) for this year: to update this blog more often. However, more OCHEM is looming, so it may not be extremely often, but I will try to get it done.

I hope you all have a great new year!