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/




  1. I always look for your postings. Good job.

  2. I guess that little guy just really wanted to meet Jay in person!

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  4. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the "towhee drama" ! Hope to make it up there soon! kg