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? ;-)

Friday, August 14, 2009

The elusive & squirrelly Green-tailed Towhee ...

You might reasonably wonder what the victorious (& only sometime gloating) Heidi & I have been up to for the last few weeks. On July 15th, we drove up to Lucky Peak with a couple other IBO crewmembers to get the mist-nets set up for our 13th season of songbird migration study. Since the following morning, we've spent each morning (except this past Friday - when rain & fog from an impressive August cold front spoiled our efforts) capturing, banding, and measuring birds on Lucky Peak. A few more details of the early-season efforts can be found on the IBO blog: http://idahobirdobservatory.blogspot.com/, including the first Hermit Warbler we've ever captured & banded!

Among the rarest of species that we've caught over the years is the Green-tailed Towhee. In fact, we didn't catch or see any at the site until 2004 and through 2008 we'd only captured 4. Thus, on July 29 when long-time volunteer (and bird extractor extraordinaire) Gary Robinson came back from a net run with a big smile and the first Green-tailed Towhee he'd ever seen in the hand, it was a rare moment. We were all excited and Gary got his camera ready but before we could pose it for pictures, it got away (towhees are pretty feisty and sometimes downright spaztic in the hand so this is nothing new). Bumber ... until the next day when Stephanie (a new IBO crewmember) & I found the same bird hanging in net #5 (we knew it was the same because of the band number). I suggested that Stephanie extract it for practice and she declined, saying she was scared to 'flub' it ('flub' or 'fumble' are our terms for when a bird gets away prematurely). So, I took it out and said "shhh" to Stephanie and we walked back and hung the bird (in its carrying bag) on the line and waited for fate to determine who would be the one to process the bird. In a way I hoped that Rob would get it again so that he wouldn't feel so bad for flubbing it the day before ... but when Heidi reached for the bag, I was content in knowing she was very unlikely to fumble the bird as she's usually very sure-handed with the birds. Eager with anticipation, Stephanie & I watched as she pulled the bird from the bag and held it in a perfect grip ... and then promptly let the bird fly away (in fairness, the bird likely kicked its way free ;-). Thus, 2 captures of the same bird and we still hadn't gotten all the data - and Gary still had no picture!

We figured the story was over ... then yesterday, Aug 11, I thought I heard the distinctive cat-like meow of a Green-tailed Towhee near net 7 (but I was moving at the time & only heard it once so I wrote it off as my imagination). Fast forward to today when Heidi returned from a net run saying, "Jay, I've got a bird for you to process .... I'm too scared to do it!" Alas, the Green-tailed Towhee had returned and the pressure was on me to get all the data this time! Fortunately, I was not cursed with butterfingers (this time anyway!) and we got the data and pictures!

An immature Green-tailed Towhee undergoing its pre-formative molt (from juvenile to its first adult-like plumage) - for those interested in details, notice the pin feathers growing in the greater/secondary coverts region photo by Karyn deKramer

Here's the immature Green-tailed next to an immature of its cousin, the Spotted Towhee - which is one of the more common species at Lucky Peak - photo by Karyn deKramer

For a fun version from Rob's perspective, see Rob's very good blog ...

Personally I've been really enjoying the Lucky Peak field season (as I should ... it's my 14th straight fall migration spending at least some time at this awesome site!) ... in no small way due to the fact that we have a great crew that's getting along and working really well together.

The '09 crew and volunteers: Gary, Dave, Carol, Heidi, Rob, Stephanie, Jack, Melody, and Jay

Please come visit if you get the chance! Details at: http://idahobirdobservatory.org/



Thursday, August 6, 2009


little explanation is needed....Jay lost, and here's the long-awaited result :)
thanks to our friend Mel Berg for making such a sweet t-shirt!!!!!

and now for:

The story of Jay and the pink shirt! (yes...Heidi's version :)

step one-Jay admires Mel's handiwork...His favorite part of this shirt is the stunning blue collar (it really brings out the color of his eyes!) and he also remarks that the sparkly hearts on it are just precious! ;P

(okay....so maybe Jay's exact words were more like "oh, crap!" but same difference)

(by the way, the front says "I wish I was as cool as Heidi" and the back reads "Jay 'hearts' Starlings"...all with glittery lettering and 'bedazzling')

step two-Jay puts on the shirt and begins sobbing ;)

Jay here: I seriously was on the verge of tears as I put the shirt on - mostly through laughter but the truth is that pink (especially with that freaking blue collar!) must have challenged my ego a little more than I expected ;-)

step three-Jay regrets unleashing the creative powers of Heidi and Mel

step four-Jay realizes that he really DOES look good in pink ;)


Monday, August 3, 2009

a week in the sawtooths

Alrighty…due to our busyness over the past few weeks, it’s time to do a bit of time-traveling back into the summer to tell you about our week spent doing work in the Sawtooths. Through the Forest Service, Jay and I were contracted to do some counts in the Stanley area of the Sawtooths as part of a study on Whitebark Pine restoration. Certain areas of forest had been chosen as project areas, where controlled burns will be taking place to help regenerate Whitebark Pine in the area (a tree that is a very important food source for many species, including birds like Clark’s Nutcrackers……). Our first stop in the Sawtooths was the Little Beaver Creek drainage. We were able to drive most of the way in to the study area up a beautifully rocky road. Luckily we had decided to take my truck, so we were able to get a bit farther than we would have been able to do in Jay’s Subaru. The trade off though was that it meant I was driving! Yikes! Luckily though, Jay survived the ordeal, with only a few exchanges of: “Heidi, watch out for that rock” “what rock!?.....oh that rock!” :) We made it as far as possible up what was soon to become a 4-wheeler trail, and then our job was to find a decent place to camp. We conveniently found the only safe turnaround spot/slightly flat camping site around and settled in for dinner before bedtime and counts the next morning.
Jay eating dinner in our newly set up camp

Align Center
the view down into the Stanley valley from our camp at Little Beaver Creek…notice the stream running down the road next to my tent!

Jay checking out the view and the snow! (no that’s not a bird in the sky…that’s a skeeter!)

While eating dinner, it didn’t take long for us to notice the abundance of mosquitoes that also shared our camp…yeehaw! We were not excited about putting more icky-sticky bug spray on, but soon found a way to avenge ourselves, while keeping us entertained at the same time :)

"DIE!" ... This didn’t take us as long as you might think ;)
Is Heidi a little twisted or what?

For counts in the morning, we got to hike on many steep and rocky slopes, and even got to hang out in the snow for a while! It was beautiful scenery, and we got to see lots of cool things, including a momma and baby elk, my ‘lifer’ Pikas squeaking at us from the slopes (ohhh, so very cute!), and some higher elevation birds we hadn’t seen much on counts this summer: Pine Grosbeaks, Williamson’s Sapsuckers, and Three-toed Woodpeckers!

Jay and I at one of our point count sites near Little Beaver Creek

After counts we had to return to the highway to get to our next route at Beaver Creek … it was then that we discovered Smiley Creek Lodge! We ordered a tasty burger and a grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich, and it was amazing! (mmm, what a change from peanut butter on a tortilla for lunch!)

Then it was on to Beaver Creek, with another fun road and some more of the cool high elevation birds. We set up in a nice stand of spruce, and right in our (mosquito infested) camp we were able to hear a Golden-crowned Kinglet singing (my first time hearing their song)!

After counts and another trip to eat more of the very addicting food at Smiley Creek Lodge, we headed up to Rainbow Creek, the next site for our point counts. For these counts, we had to leave my car at a campground and backpack in with our supplies to our starting point, about 1.5 miles. After cooling our feet in a mountain stream, we sat down on a log for dinner. We noticed some little green poops on the log, and Jay said they were grouse poo. Then while setting up camp for the night, we were clearing rocks and heard 2 clacking noises from near the road. It sounded like a rock hitting something, but neither of us had thrown a rock over there. We peeked around the trees onto the road, and there we got our first glimpse of ‘Jacques’ the Spruce Grouse! And he was not happy to see us! Apparently we were setting up camp next to his favorite strutting logs, and he was trying to scare us away from them :) We were able to get really close to him as he continued to clack his wings and display at us. He even came toward us a few times! As I set up my tent, he flew to the tree right above me and sat watching as I took over his territory. We couldn’t help but imagine what Jacques was trying to say to us, and Jay soon mustered up his best frenchy accent: “hey you! Get away from my log, eh?” “what are you doing, eh?” ...I think maybe you just had to be there…. ;)
the majestic Jacques, fending me away from his precious log (he’s on the end of the far right log)

Jacques was very cute……and by cute of course I mean ferocious and brave ;)

The next morning we still had a bit of hiking to do before reaching our next point up the slope. Only a few minutes into the count, we heard a familiar clacking noise and saw another male spruce grouse hop down the tree not 5 meters from us! I guess he was just waking up from his nighttime roost, and had been watching us the whole time! Meeting Pierre, the second spruce grouse, was only the beginning of our adventures that day though, since we got to check out some amazing scenery, hear singing brown creepers, and hike some slippery scree slopes during our counts.
at one of our last counts of the day, right before taking on the steep hillside behind us

Our final Sawtooth count area was closer to the town of Stanley at a place called Boundary Creek. To reach this study area, we had to hike a beautiful but long trail (about 3.5 miles) to our camp for the night. On our way up, we got to see an angry Goshawk with a nest near the trail, and got a great view of Redfish Lake and the Sawtooths behind as we continued to climb higher. After a long hike, we suddenly got a new burst of energy when we arrived to a flat camp site and saw that our mosquito friends were already there waiting for us…we set up tents and made dinner at record speed, slapping ourselves and waving our arms the whole time. We did have to pause in our preparations for a while to watch a family of Gray Jays that flew into camp. We whistled a Pygmy Owl call to them, and like the ones in Island Park this spring, they answered back with their own better imitation…cool!
Lucky for us, we were able to find a nice spot for dinner where some very fast winds from a brewing thunderstorm provided some relief from the skeeters. We ate our peanut butter and honey tortillas in peace before: returning to camp, slapping the skeeters that had followed me into the tent, and falling asleep to the sound of the rain. We continued to enjoy the scenery the next day and had a fun time after counts were over with snow angels and a snowball fight, in July! :) It was kind of hot as we picked up our stuff and headed down the mountain, so we were happy when a light drizzle of rain and some thunder came along to cool us off.
at the top of Boundary Creek with a view down to Redfish Lake … (neither of us were ready for the camera to go off ;)

We reached my car at the bottom of the trail, and after grabbing a quick lunch we made our way back to Boise in time for a quick shower before heading up for our MAPS banding day the next morning!