A (mostly) friendly competition between 2 avid birdwatchers that are also friends/co-workers. Who can observe more bird species in Idaho in 2009? Will they still be friends at year's end? ;-)

Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Day at the Dump! (or, "finally some exciting gulls")

On Monday around noon I got a call from Cliff Weisse - a birder from Island Park who was on this side of the state on business and doing some birding. In the years since I first met Cliff and starting birding with him and/or exchanging notes on bird identification, I've learned that when he calls out of the blue, it usually means he's found something good. Thus, given that I had tons of work to do and not enough time in which to do it, when the phone rang & I saw his name, I got that sinking feeling that said, "Here's another pot-shot at my productivity ....". I was right, he had just seen a potential Iceland Gull (a species with 11 prior reports in the state and none since 2002) at the Canyon County landfill (Pickle's Butte) which sits just a few miles S of Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge and a few miles E of the Snake River. Thus, (if you're a gull :-) the dump is a great place to grab a quick bite of something tasty and then head to a body of water to wash it down!

potential Iceland Gull at Pickle's Butte, Feb 23, 2009 - photo by Cliff Weisse
please feel free to post comments on the ID of this bird

Fortunately for me, Cliff said the gulls had just gotten up and flown away so no need to rush out there. That gave me the rest of Monday and into the late night hours to finish editing a manuscript (officially accepted Wednesday!!!) and finish writing the exam I'd be giving to my Conservation Biology class on Tuesday afternoon. I wasn't sure until I woke up on Tuesday whether I was going to go 'chase the bird' or not. The thing is ... birding in a landfill is a lot harder to justify playing hooky for than birding in the mountains or desert or other natural area. After all, most of us get into birding for aesthetic reasons - fascination with and/or love for nature and b/c it's an outlet for connecting with nature - and I don't really 'peace out' or do a lot of 'bonding with the scenery' at the dump! Thus, even for an Iceland Gull (a bird I've wanted to see out West for a long time), I really had to twist my arm .....

I met Cliff out there on Tuesday AM and he said he'd already seen 'the bird' as well as a few pretty pale Thayer's Gulls (the closest look-alike and closest relative for an Iceland) so we set to looking for it. Cliff also mentioned having seen a 1st-winter Mew Gull and I quickly was able to pick that out (no pics - too preoccupied with finding 'the bird'). Pretty soon, Cliff called out, "Here's a Glaucous!" and, though it took me a few moments, I was able to locate a 1st-winter Glaucous Gull as it flew around with other gulls. We were able to enjoy many good looks at this bird over the next hour. Even though this is one of the more frequent of the 'rare' gulls to appear in Idaho, this is only the 2nd I've seen in the state!! Thus, worth the trip already ...
1st-winter Glaucous Gull (center - photo by Jay Carlisle) - note the pale wingtips and the long pink bill with the dark tip

another view of the same Glaucous Gull - photo by Jay Carlisle

In spite of the very gusty winds (it really was a challenge to stay focused with shaking scopes and all!) and even though it left with a large groups of gulls after about 30 minutes (maybe because it had just swallowed a HUGE landfill morsel that we saw it gorge down while taking flight at one point), we were able to get several views of the potential Iceland - both perched and in flight. I say 'potential Iceland' b/c this is a tough ID and Cliff & I (the only ones to have decent, if any, views of this bird) are still uncertain if we can rule out a hybrid with Thayer's Gull. That said, at one point I could see the potential Iceland on the ground near the Glaucous and both appeared similarly pale (the Glaucous maybe being a touch paler). The big issue for me is that the primaries appear darker than the body and that's not seen on most Icelands (although some similar-looking birds from within the normal range of Iceland Gulls can be found at this link: http://www.pbase.com/jpkln/kumliens_1). Thus, more research .... and hopefully more views of the bird.

.... AND, back to that aesthetic aspect of birding, into the evening on Tuesday I was still removing sand (yes, landfill sand!) from my ears as the wind caused a frequent sand-blasting effect!

Aside from the gulls, we also ran into fellow bird-nuts Cheryl Huizinga, RL Rowland, and Mark Collie out at Pickle's Butte.... Assuming this does turn out to be an Iceland, we saw 7 gull species on Tues, including a 1st winter Glaucous, a 1st winter Mew, several Thayer's, several Herring, and the hordes of California and Ring-billed. Also a potential Glaucous-winged/Herring hybrid ...

But, I haven't counted the Iceland for my list so Heidi still has a portion of the lead (as the Glaucous Gull brought me to a tie!) ....


Sunday, February 22, 2009

Jay pulls even! ... but Heidi regains the lead

Headed out birding on Saturday, Feb 21 along with Heidi, Louie Quintana, and Tom McCabe from Boise and we met up with Gary Robinson (Mountain Home, a long-time MVP volunteer with IBO) at Ted Trueblood WMA near Grandview.
from left: Heidi, Louie, Tom, & Gary plying the waters of CJ Strike Reservoir (probably trying to find gulls to make me happy ;-)

Our main target birds for the day were a couple of White-throated Sparrows (that Cliff, Darren, and Steve - E Idaho birders - had found the weekend before), gulls, and anything else fun. After scoping the main pond at Trueblood and enjoying a variety of waterbirds (including hearing a Virginia Rail) but very few gulls, we moved onto Riverside Rd in Grandview where we searched in vain for White-throated Sparrows (would have been a lifer for at least Heidi, Louie, & Tom) - we'll have to keep searching. But, at one of the spots we ran into 100+ White-crowned Sparrows and, while chatting with the friendly nearby homeowner, we noticed a female Varied Thrush that had perched up pretty high in some dead branches. I was definitely a bit surprised to find this species here (b/c the vegetative cover is not very extensive).

We moved on to the dam at CJ Strike Reservoir where the sometimes elusive Great-tailed Grackles were very cooperative - including a singing male and this silent male that was out in the open.
Great-tailed Grackle male (photo by Louie Quintana)

Much to Heidi's chagrin, this pulled me even with her in our year list competition since she had already seen it in January!!
Heidi looks on disapprovingly while Jay enjoys close views of a cooperative Great-tailed Grackle (photo by Louie Quintana)

In spite of the strong winds, we enjoyed good company and several more birding highlights interspersed throughout the day. Possibly most exciting was a pretty close view of a Long-eared Owl in a Russian Olive thicket (no photo - we didn't have cameras handy and were trying not to harrass this bird). This was a life bird for Heidi and it's always fun to enjoy the excitement that a new species brings - especially something as cool as a Long-eared making itself as long and thin as possible to avoid detection! Other highlights were a Common Loon on the reservoir, a few Red-breasted Mergansers (swimming right behind some Commons offering a nice comparison - according to Tom, the first of this species he'd seen well in over 30 years!!), both Western and Mountain Bluebirds, and - always a favorite for me - an adult male Merlin that was burning some ground.
Western Bluebird female at Bruneau Dunes SP (photo by Louie Quintana)

One of the last birds of the day - and one of the most exciting for Heidi - was an adult Northern Shrike (too distant for photos) that flew across Hwy 78 as we were heading towards the dunes. It took a while to re-find it once we'd turned the car around but it cooperated by perching up at a distance and allowed us to study its features through the scope. I'm always excited to see a shrike of any kind (I became obsessed with shrikes when I studied Loggerheads in CA years ago) and, especially since we'd been aiming to find one for Heidi for months (and I'd heard, "we need to find a shrike" many times ;-), this was no exception. BUT, because I had seen one on the way back from a solo snow-shoeing trip back on Superbowl Sunday, this was a new year bird only for Heidi which means that by day's end she had regained her slim lead (she was pretty pleased about this part!).

Happy birding & blog-reading ;-)


Monday, February 16, 2009

The Competition Begins!

So, some of you many be wondering how this all started:

While still in Venezuela around the turn of the year, Jay (who has kept an ABA area ‘year list’ since 1994) suggested to Heidi via e-mail that she might enjoy starting and maintaining an Idaho year list for 2009 (year list: list of bird species observed in a calendar year). Some history: Heidi and Jay became friends after Heidi became a regular and enthusiastic volunteer at Lucky Peak for the Idaho Bird Observatory in summer 2008. Both are avid birders in their free time and will be in the field a lot doing bird surveys for the bird observatory during the spring, summer, and fall of 2009. Because Heidi is newer at birding (but learns very quickly and has a lot of passion for birds), Jay was thinking that the year list might be a fun way for her to track her progress during her first full year dedicated to birds.

Then, after arriving back to the states and heading out for a birding day, (partly under the evil influence of fellow birders Louie and Harry :-) Jay & Heidi started discussing ways to make it into a fun competition. (… at least that’s Jay’s story—and he’s stickin’ to it—although Heidi suspects he had the competition idea in mind all along!). Although Jay has kept ABA area lists annually and, while supposedly working on his PhD research, tried a big year in South Dakota (314 species; 6th in state) in 2002, he has never maintained an Idaho year list. Thus, 2009 will be the first time either Heidi or Jay has kept an Idaho year list.

Lastly, because it is always a challenge to raise enough $$$ to run the Idaho Bird Observatory’s fall migration study at Lucky Peak, we then realized that we could also make this into a fund-raising effort (see details below). Disclaimer: we fully understand that today’s economic climate is forcing people – including us – to be more careful with $$. Thus, we would very much appreciate any support for the Idaho Bird Observatory you can provide but we would also be very happy to simply get comments, birding tips, etc. from you.

The Handicap
: Because Jay has many more years of birding experience than Heidi and, therefore, is likely to be able to detect/identify more species seen poorly and/or heard but not seen, we agreed that a ‘straight-up’ year list competition might not be completely fair. But, what would be a fair handicap? Jay has more birding experience and knows the vocalizations better BUT Heidi & Jay will be birding in many of the same locations throughout the year (birding on weekends, field work during summer and fall in the same general areas, etc.). During this time Jay will be trying to help Heidi observe and learn as many species as possible (after all, if she’ll be conducting official bird surveys in the summer, it’s in Jay’s best interest that she know the birds!!). Meanwhile, Heidi may or may not be trying her hardest to prevent Jay from getting as many species as possible (after all, it is in Heidi’s best interest!). Strategies such as, “What? that’s not a great-tailed grackle…are you blind?” or “LOOK behind you! An eagle!” may be employed to further her goal of thwarting Jay’s birding. However, Heidi is not completely cruel-hearted, and may ‘allow’ Jay to find the occasional good bird … such as a hybrid sapsucker :).

After long deliberations and discussions with a number of Boise area birders, we have settled on a ‘handicap’ of 20 bird species for the year and 15 species for the mid-year cut-off (July 10). Thus, to win, Jay will have to see 21 more bird species than Heidi for the year and 16 more species by July 10.

The ‘Loser’
: Our friend, and fellow bird-nerd, Melanie (who is very creative and has ‘exotic charm’) has agreed to help embarrass the loser at both the mid-year cut-off (July 10) and the final year list total. We have, in principle if not in detail, agreed upon the ‘punishment’ for the mid-year ‘loser’ but are still seeking ideas for the final year list total.

The ‘loser’ at the mid-year cut-off will have to wear a T-shirt designed (to embarrass) by Melanie during the first week of training the new field crew at Lucky Peak and other embarrassing locations to be determined in the future…birding fieldtrips with the Golden Eagle Audubon Society? classes at BSU? parties with friends? The possibilities for humiliation are endless!

While Heidi and Jay are confident in their creative abilities (thoughts of pink frillies and “I wish I was as awesome as _______” on the loser’s T-shirt are already dancing in their heads) they would also appreciate any other creative suggestions you can offer! Feel free to post these publicly in a blog ‘comment’ or, if you’re more shy (or feeling a bit sneaky and devious!), you can send ideas directly to your birder of choice through email (Jay: jaycarlisle@boisestate.edu or Heidi: heidithebirdnerd@yahoo.com). We foresee inspiring conversations beginning over this topic, and know that if we all work together, we can accomplish something great!

Raising $$ for the Idaho Bird Observatory:
If you are so inclined, 100% of ALL DONATIONS will benefit the Idaho Bird Observatory’s fall migration study at Lucky Peak.
People can support the Idaho Bird Observatory in one of two ways: direct donations or pledging (read more about how to donate <--here or on the side bar) As pledges come in, we will post updates and a bar graph showing who (Jay or Heidi) has raised more $$!! Other Birder’s Year Lists: If you are a birder that is also keeping an Idaho year list in 2009, please feel free to tell us/other blog readers about it and keep us posted!! We may even come up with a ‘2009 Idaho Year List standings’ feature ….

Tips on finding rarer species that we haven’t seen yet? Feel free to send them in!

That's all for now, Folks!

More updates (and refinements to the site) are coming soon!

-Jay and Heidi


Saturday, February 7, 2009

Dams, Dumps, and Cemeteries

Jay and I had a pretty cool day of birding today! 61 species total!
Raven mobsters, Rosy Finches, dashed hopes, gazillions of Robins and more! :D

We started out the morning heading to Swan Falls Dam. On the way, we spotted a couple bunches of Horned Larks (even a couple that were singing) and raptors, including Rough-legged hawks, Golden Eagles, Ferruginous Hawks, Red-Tailed Hawks, and a Prairie Falcon.
We also saw tons of Ravens.

On the road, we spotted some big bird chasing a much smaller bird, flying very fast! We realized it was a raven, chasing a pigeon! the raven followed right on the pigeons tail, and then totally took it to the ground! (poor pigeon) Then a mob of about 6 ravens started attacking the pigeon while it was on the ground. They would swoop over the pigeon's head and tumble it, or walk up and poke at it.
A rough-legged dropped by for a while to check out the action, but didnt end up taking the pigeon, even though it was right in front of him!
(we wondered why the mob didnt kill the pigeon after going to all that trouble....maybe the dude owed them money? ;)
After a while most of the ravens left, and we decided to continue on the road, leaving one dorky raven dancing around not knowing what to do with himself.

At the dam not much was happening. Besides some ravens goofing around on the canyon walls, we saw a bunch o' coots on the water, along with a few common goldeney and a western grebe.

BUT, on the road out of the dam we spotted a flock of unusual looking birds. They flew up by the car, then landed on the side of the road. gray-crowned rosy finches!!!

A LIFE BIRD for me! :D

They ate on the side of the road and worked their way to within a few feet of the car, and we were able to watch them for about 10 minutes. We counted 15 birds. Mostly Hepburn's, with at least 2 of the interior race. They flew and landed a couple more times as we drove up the road.

it was awesome!

Then it was off to Canyon Hill Cemetery for the crossbills. On our way we spotted other birds including a pheasant, meadowlarks, collared-doves, some cute kestrel-couples and some more of the same raptors as before.

At the cemetery we saw pretty much everything except the crossbills! Creepers (one climbing up the side of a tombstone), both kinglets, BC chickadees, yellow-rumps, townsend's solitaires, siskins, house finches, nuthatches, A. goldfinches, starlings, robins, flickers, canada geese, green-winged teals, a cormorant, and mallards. Also a pair of cool displaying red tails!
after more wandering, we finally heard crossbills! a group of four came in and landed in the tree tops. All females, and no white-wing's!

next we headed to Pickle's Butte, where we ran into the SIBA gull group, lead by RL Rowland; just leaving after not finding much there. We tootled around with them for a while, searching for barn owls, and seeing mostly song and white-crowned sparrows and one northern harrier.

A short drive took Jay and I to the park in Marsing, where the third time was not the charm, and the Green Heron still eluded us. (this wasnt surprising though, since with the warm weather came lots of families and fisherman)

We saw plenty of other birds though, including a few immature herring gulls (mixed in with the ring-billed' s and california's) marsh wrens, ring-necked ducks, a pied-billed grebe, common mergansers, and 5 red-breasted mergansers-3 males and 2 females
There were plenty of goldeneyes, but sadly (oh so sadly!) for Jay's year-list situation, not a single barrow's could be found!
He scanned and scanned with the scope (in the shade of course, because DUDE it was HOT!...yes, this was coming from the previously-dubbed tropical flower :) Thats at least one species on Heidi's Idaho year list that's not on Jays! hahah!

then we returned to Canyon Hills Cemetery, with no luck on crossbills. But we were able to find one of both a Cooper's and Sharp-Shinned hawk's.

Our last stop, just at sunset was to Dry Creek Cemetary on Hill road. The hoped-for Eurasian Wigeon wasnt spotted, but in the cemetary itself were TONS of robins, starlings, and california quail! We guessed there were at least 1,000 robins, flying in to roost from all directions. And who knows how many starlings and quail (enough birds that we were surprised we made it out without being poo'd on :) and it was crazy-loud!
we also saw brewers blackbirds, cedar waxwings, juncos, house finches and a great-horned owl there.

it was a totally sweet day! :)