Friday, March 25, 2011

Flyin' 'roun 'n stuff

They may, at first glance, seem to be simplistic, childish words. But, those four truncated words capture the essence of bird biology. They fly around and stuff. While I've been home on spring break, I've unintentionally photographed a lot of birds in flight. Perhaps I'll do another post later about the "stuff" part later.

A great deal of my birding over break has involved climbing ridges, which provide interesting encounters with flying birds, often at or below eye level. And sometimes, unexpected birds wing overhead--like this trio of cormorants that buzzed me while I was hunting Cactus Wrens and Rufous-crowned Sparrows. "Hold on a sec, there are four cormorants!" you may be thinking. Oh well, I never could count--and I love the word "trio."

The entire Orange County population of Red-crowned Parrots seemed intent on disrupting my Grasshopper Sparrow search in the grasslands above Irvine Regional Park--a steady stream of screeching birds flew overhead, drowning out everything else.

One of my triumphs of spring break was finally snagging Swainson's Hawk for my Orange County list. They are scarce spring migrants in the county, and the last couple springs I suffered heartbreak after heartbreak of failed vigils.

Swallows spend a lot of time flying--indeed, that's when most birders see them. This one is a female Violet-green.

Ah, hawks. I've never been a hawkwatch junkie, but I enjoy seeing them whenever I can. Raptors definitely aren't one of my strong suits--I have the general policy of identifying all accipiters as Cooper's--but this is blatantly a Sharp-shinned Hawk. Check out that tiny head, square tail, dark cap, and wings held in a bold 'S' curve.

I must admit, I have a sizeable soft spot for White-throated Swifts, those sickle-winged devils that scream through the atmosphere like fighter jets.

Birders covet this svelte, pearly beast, better known as a White-tailed Kite. A pair is nesting at Irvine Regional Park near my house; they are positively fascinating to watch as they shriek and whistle at each other, fluttering and sparring in midair above their nest.

I might as well finish with a Red-tailed Hawk flyn' 'roun 'n stuff.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


I issue you a challenge: go to Pere Marquette Park in Muskegon during the winter, look out over Lake Michigan, and avoid seeing the clouds of thousands of Long-tailed Ducks swarming over the water. Accomplish this, and I will surrender you my binoculars, complete with the casserole composed of granola bar crumbs, sand, and dried snot caked in the ocular lenses.

So why care about one measly Long-tailed Duck at Riverside Park in Grand Rapids, a mere half-hour away? Well--Pere Marquette is on Lake Michigan, and Riverside Park is, as its name implies, on the Grand River in landlocked Kent County. Context is important.

But still--why care? There's the superficial excuse of county listing. County listing--the fun and often addicting practice of listing birds seen within a particular county--isn't the entire answer. My Kent County listing career has suffered from limited transportation; ninety-eight percent of my birding takes place either on campus or at Reed's Lake a few miles away. As satisfying as it was to tick Bucephala hyemalis (errr...Clangula...thanks JOHG) on my Kent County list, it wasn't the sole reason for seeing the bird.

Hmmm. The Grand River is choked with ice during the winter, and all the ducks are forced into small patches of open water within feet of the shore. That's it--this particular Long-tailed would offer close, extended study, resulting in a more satisfactory duck experience than the distant flock scenario. But, what of the hormone-charged male Long-tailed displaying to a group of disinterested females within peeing distance at Pere Marquette? Those were good views, for sure--and the birds were even calling.

Seeing birds in unexpected places is one of those inexplicable joys of birding. Let's examine hypothetical situation. If a Barrow's Goldeneye appeared at Riverside Park, would you chase it? Or would you fly to Seattle and watch a whole flock of them? In an ideal world, I would prefer the latter, but the former is more convenient when there's only an hour available before class.