Utah Birds, Utah Birding, and Utah Birders. Promoting the sharing of information, and the conservation of habitat for birds in Utah and elsewhere. We are a group of people who want to share what we know, and create a positive birding experience in Utah.


a blog by and for Utah Birders

My First Binoculars

posted by Tim Avery at
on Friday, December 31, 2010 

On this snowy New Years Eve I spent the afternoon digging through boxes in the basement trying to get rid of some junk, and organize a few things I want to keep. Sam (my fiancé) and I were supposed to be in southern California, enjoying warmer weather and a few new life birds. But the winter storm the blasted Utah on Wednesday and Thursday forced us to cancel—and with it Island Scrub-Jay, California Gnatcatcher, Thrasher and Towhee, Black Skimmer, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Tricolored Blackbird and Yellow-billed Magpie are just an afterthought.

We moved in to our house in Sandy, Utah at the beginning of September and me being a bit of a procrastinator, I still had a one huge box in our garage I needed to go through. So after lunch I dragged the box into the basement and started organizing. Trash, old license plates, binocular case, lacrosse balls, slippers, Frisbee golf disk, lamp, jump ropes, gaiters (damn! I needed you 2 months ago), old CDs, posters, and the list goes on and on. The box in question was about 3’ square and 3’ tall, so it could hold quite a bit of junk. As I neared the bottom of the mess I saw a small black pouch, and as I grabbed it unlocking the clasp, there was my first pair of binoculars.

My first binoculars. Copyright Tim Avery

Nikon Travelite III—a plastic set of 7x20 pocket binoculars that my dad gave me when I was 12 years old. Before this set I had always struggled with a pair of 10x50 Bushnell’s that he kept in the pickup truck along with a Golden Guide to birds. But the Nikon’s were my first pair, and they were the perfect starter set for a young birder. I only used them for about 3 years before I was given a pair of Nikon Attaché (the predecessor to the Nikon Monarch), but in those 3 years, those binoculars saw a lot of birds.

They traveled to Wyoming where they saw my first Lazuli Bunting and Cassin’s Finch. They made a trip to Nevada where Phainopepla and Crissal Thrasher filled the view. They traveled to numerous spots along the Wasatch front, and into the High Uintas Wilderness Area where Pine Grosbeak, Gray Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker, and Western Tanager were all firsts. They made it to southern Utah where they saw my first Gambel’s Quail, Black Phoebe, and Great-tailed Grackle. That little pair of binoculars was responsible for my first 280 or so species of birds—and responsible for keeping my interest piqued and helping me learn a lot about birds those first couple years.

They were a good pair of binoculars—but I outgrew them in my needs as a birder, and my size as a person. I placed those binoculars in a closet, where they stayed till I think 2005, when I let Colby Neuman use them as part of a Halloween costume—ironically the costume was of the stereotypical birder. And since then they have been tossed from one box to another, finally they will be put to rest in a box with a few old t-shirts, where they will hopefully remain for a long time—a memory of my first few years birding.

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Cackling Geese in Utah

posted by Tim Avery at
on Thursday, December 30, 2010 

If you are a member of the BIRDTALK or BIRDNET listservs for Utah you already know about the 16 Cackling Geese Jeff Bilsky and I found in Salt Lake County on December 29th. That count is important to me, and to the overall data pool for this species in Utah for several reasons.

7 Cackling Geese at Decker Lake. Copyright Tim Avery

For starters there is only one other report in double digits for this species in Utah—coming from March 6, 2010 about 50 miles north of Salt Lake City in Weber County. On that day a single group of 16 birds was seen together by David Wheeler. Almost all other reports from the state are of 1 or 2 individuals save a couple of sightings. The sheer number is probably the most important aspect.

Secondly, this is the largest number ever reported in Salt Lake County, where 1,000’s of Canada Geese spend the winters along golf courses and other areas where food and water are available. The location of the largest number of birds at Decker Lake is where the majority of reports from within the county are from. Lake Park also has a fair number of sightings.

Lastly, these 16 birds make up the total number of Cackling Geese I have reported in eBird in Utah prior to this week. I had 2 individuals on the 27th making 18 total sightings before the 29th. The data below is what I pulled form my eBird data:

1 - Decker Lake (17 Dec 2005)
2 - Logan River Golf Course (19 Jan 2006)
1 - Inland Sea Shorebird Reserve (31 Dec 2006)
1 - Logan River Golf Course (21 Jan 2007)
2 - Utah Lake SP (19 Feb 2007)
1 - Lake Park Facility (20 Jan 2008)
1 - Lake Park Facility (16 Feb 2008)
2 - Lake Park Facility (13 Dec 2009)
1 - Decker Lake (26 Dec 2009)
2 - Decker Lake (01 Jan 2010)
2 - Lake Park Facility (04 Jan 2010)
2 - Decker Lake (27 Dec 2010)

As soon as the AOU split Cackling Goose from Canada Goose in July 2004 people began looking for these birds in Utah. There was no doubt that they were here, based off previous specimens taken, and reports of the smaller ssp of Canada goose over the years. But for the most part the birds were over looked, since they weren’t considered a separate species. It wasn’t long before reports started coming in—the biggest issue at first was the similarity to the small Parvipes subspecies of Canada Goose which winters across Utah in decent numbers.

I reported 3 in November of 2004, but believe these birds were not Cackling Geese now that I look back. Now there are several reports each winter of these birds, many occurring along the Wasatch front, with a decent number coming from Washington and Cache County as well. One of the biggest issues with finding these birds in Utah is taking the time to scour through the large flocks of Canada Geese that the Cackling mix in with. It can be a daunting task, but it can also have great rewards—besides the Cackling Geese, you may find a Greater White-fronted, Snow, or Ross’s Goose. And on several occasions Brant have even been reported, and for many Utah birders this is the elusive prize that countless hours are spent scanning flocks of geese in Utah for.

So next time you see a flock of geese at a park or along a road in a vacant lot, take the time to pull over and scan through them—you might find something good.

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Eye color matches molt

posted by Jerry Liguori at
on Tuesday, December 28, 2010 

I want to comment on something that is difficult to see in the field, but often obvious in close-up photos. For many raptors, eye color differs between juveniles and adults. This is true for Bald Eagles, female Harriers, accipiters, many buteos, and a few other species to a lesser degree. Birds such as falcons have the same eye color for life. Eye color change takes longer in some species than in others, and varies between individuals and often sexes. Anyway, take a look at the corresponding photos...the adult Sharp-shinned Hawk on the left has a dark red eye indicating that it is an older adult. It shows faded inner secondaries and darker bluish ones as well. The faded feathers are retained adult feathers from the previous year, and the newer ones were acquired this year. So, this Sharpie has 2 different ages of adult feathers making it at least 2 years old, and by the darkness of the eye, probably older.

Now, look at the Cooper's Hawk on the right. You can see it wears adult plumage, but the eye color is yellowish indicating that it is likely (but not always) in its first year of adulthood. Now look at the brownish secondaries and primaries (which are more boldly banded than the darker, bluish ones), they are retained juvenile feathers from the previous year, making this bird just over a year old. So, as is typically the case, the eye color for these birds matches the molt. A way to double-check this is by understanding the order in which each bird molts its flight feathers. But, that is a longer post for another day. Let’s just note that secondaries 3, 4, 7, and 8 (right wing) and primary 10 of this Cooper's Hawk are juvenile feathers – proper sequence for a bird in its second year.

The same is true for the Red-tailed Hawks above. The light bird has retained juvenile outer primaries 7-10 (paler and unbanded) and secondary 3 and 4 making it a second year bird (in its first adult plumage), and has a pale eye. The darker bird has a brown eye and two separate ages of adult flight feathers (paler faded ones and darker newer ones).

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Report: Skipper Bay Trail, Utah County

posted by Jeff Bilsky at
on Monday, December 27, 2010 

Today after work, I headed over towards the Utah Lake State Park and hiked along the Skipper Bay Trail. Just over a mile hike on a paved path, this is a great spot to explore to catch a snapshot of what birds use the area around the Utah Lake. It is lined with farm fields to the East and the Lake to the West.

During the winter this is a great place to look for raptors and I wasn't disappointed today. I watched an American Kestrel take a mouse and begin eating it while it was still alive. Suddenly, a Sharp-Shinned Hawk was on the scene, attempting to steal the prize. Behind the Sharpie, a Black-billed Magpie. It was an interesting and memorable scene watching the Kestrel fly off being pursued by these two would-be scavengers.

Further down the trail, were a couple more Sharpies and out in the fields an adult Bald Eagle surveyed the entire scene. The most prevalent species by far were the numerous Red-winged Blackbirds that continued to fly past the entire hour I was there, heading North to a presumed evening roost along the lake. Skipper Bay is always a great spot. The pictures in this post were taken there today. Complete e-bird list is below.

Location: Skipper Bay Trail
Observation date: 12/27/10
Notes: Walked back and forth up skipper bay trail. The entire time large flocks of blackbirds were flying over, heading north to a presumed nighttime roost. While an approximation, I believe based on my rough counts that 12,000 is the MINIMUM number I saw.
Number of species: 21

Canada Goose 18
Mallard 15
Ring-necked Pheasant 1
Bald Eagle 1
Northern Harrier 1
Sharp-shinned Hawk 3
American Kestrel 1
Ring-billed Gull 4
Downy Woodpecker 1
Northern Flicker 2
Black-billed Magpie 16
Black-capped Chickadee 4
Marsh Wren 9
American Robin 35
European Starling 200
Song Sparrow 12
White-crowned Sparrow 16
Dark-eyed Junco 5
Red-winged Blackbird 12000
American Goldfinch 8
House Sparrow 13

This report was generated automatically by eBird v2(http://ebird.org)

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The Mystery of Owls

posted by Jeff Bilsky at
on Sunday, December 26, 2010 

There's something about an owl that defies explanation. The feeling that can encompass you upon finding one of these elusive dwellers of the night can be almost spiritual. That is one way to say it. Or you could just say, owls are ####ing awesome.

A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting at the desk I am sitting at now when I heard a noise from the backyard. It was the song of a Western Screech-owl. The adrenaline shot up my spine as I ran like a fool around my house throwing on boots and jacket, and grabbing my binos and a small flash light. It was a rather uncoordinated effort and I'd be lying if I said I didn't bump into a wall. I crept outside, around the side of the house and heard the owl. I snuck closer. The owl spied me before I could see it and flew to the neighbor's yard and continued its song. The rush I felt was euphoric.

An owl in my yard is great. An owl in the mountains is even better. I love hiking around in the summer nights and listening for Flammulated Owls. It is easily one of my favorite things to do and in the right spots, on the right nights, they are seemingly everywhere.

I could tell stories about a dozen Long-eared Owls roosting together in the cold winter, Saw-whets calling with their incessant repetition, a Northern-Pygmy starting down at me, Barn and Short-Eared Owls hunting at Farmington Bay, and the massive Great-Horned Owls silhouetted against dark skies, bellowing out their mastery of the night. These are some of the great experiences of birding in my life and in every case served as a reminder that there is so much more to this world than initially meets the eye.

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Another ‘hugging’ bird

posted by Jerry Liguori at
on Thursday, December 23, 2010 

Related to my last post, I have to mention another bird that elicits hugs -- the Swallow-tailed Kite. For me, they are the most mesmerizing bird in flight….perfectly graceful. On the 6th of May 1993, I witnessed one ‘float’ past the Sandy Hook Hawk Watch in New Jersey and out over the bay towards Long Island, New York…a celebrated bird in NJ. As the bird disappeared into the distance, I turned to the only other person (Linda, since forgot her last name) watching with me that day, and she already had her arms open for a hug! I saw Linda 10 years later while I was counting hawks at Cape May, and the first thing she said was "remember that Swallow-tailed Kite?" Over 17 years later, I can still picture that bird approaching with its beautifully long, tapered, droopy wings, and a tail that appeared as 2 ‘streamers’ trailing behind it. Even more memorable was its effortless, buoyant flight as it never once flapped or wavered on its way north.


Have you ever seen a “northern” owl?

posted by Jerry Liguori at

I recommend anyone who loves birds take a trip north and witness a Hawk Owl, Snowy Owl, or Great Gray Owl in "person". These birds are truly amazing sights in the wild....much more fantastic than they are in photographs! The type of sighting that invokes spontaneous hugs and high-fives. Luckily, they are quite tame and allow you to approach within mere yards, they may even grab a mouse and swallow it right in front of you without ever acknowledging your presence. By far, my most memorable sighting of one of these northern owls was in the spring of 2000. I was counting hawks at Whitefish Point, Michigan and a Hawk Owl was gliding high up in the sky with a bunch of Red-tailed and Rough-legged Hawks. As I was watching it, the owl gave a raspy, screeching call and proceeded to harass a Rough-legged Hawk before moving north and out of sight. Oh, I forgot to mention....the count of 525 migrant Rough-legged Hawks that day was equally memorable!

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Tis' the Season: Gulls Part 4 - Where to Go

posted by Tim Avery at

I’ve talked about the gulls over the past few posts, so now let’s talk about the places to go. Below is a Google Map I created that can be printed or pulled up on your iPhone and/or Droid. I have placed a few place markers on the map to show locations to visit, as well as a short drive that might turn up some passerines while you are at it. Check it out (click on the link below the map for a large version):

If I had a half day to go birding and didn’t want to do too much driving, I would start by visiting the Jordan River at 2300 South to look for Barrow’s Goldeneye and usually a good number of other waterfowl that are present. You can walk either north or south along the river. Heading south you can go to the oxbow area—to the north you hit the 2100 south freeway.

From there I would head west to Decker Lake to check out the gull situation, and see what waterfowl and over wintering shorebirds were around. You can take a nice walk around the lake if you have time or if you are in a hurry—park in the south parking lot, and walk west to the path for quick and close viewing of the largest portion of open water this time of year.

After Decker Lake it’s on to Lake Park where there are usually hundreds if not 1,000’s of Canada Geese during the winter. Scanning the flocks has produced Cackling, Greater White-fronted, and I believe Snow as well as Ross’s Goose over the past few years. This business park and golf course is mostly private property so stick to the roads and empty parking lots to avoid any issues with security.

If you head west out of Lake Park, you will end up at a roundabout with a large pond on the south side of the road. In the past this pond has had a decent sized flock of gulls using it, when other fresh water ponds in the area are frozen over. It is hit or miss, but if gulls are there, they will be pretty close to study. You can park on one of the side streets and walk around the pond or scan from the sidewalk.

From Lake Park, its west and north a little ways to Lee Kay Ponds which on good days is a gullers heaven—on other days it is a desolate wasteland. If the conditions are right a flock of 2,500-5,000 gulls might be found and as many as 10 species have been recorded here. Waterfowl, and a few passerines, and raptors are also usually present.

If you want to go a little further, take the frontage road from 5600 West or 7200 West out to Great Salt Lake State Park. You won’t see a lot of birds along the road, but it slows the pace for the drive, and gives the opportunity to see what is there. Sparrows, Horned Larks, and Shrikes are often seen, as well as a number of raptors. And occasionally Pronghorn, Coyote, or Red Fox are seen in the fields to the north of the road.

The last stop on the loop (which isn’t really a loop) is at Great Salt Lake State Park, which provides a great view of the lake from the south. The birding here is hit or miss, but a wide array of species could be seen, ranging from grebes, ducks, shorebirds and gulls, to passerines, hawks, and corvids. Park in the parking lot and walk the grounds, or scan from your car if the weather is bad.

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Is bird count data becoming irrelevant?

posted by Tim Avery at
on Wednesday, December 22, 2010 

I am pretty sure the title of this probably just sent a number of people into a furor, with a, "How dare he!" or "what does he know?" But before anyone stops reading and writes an angry comment, read on.

The key word in the title of this post is "data".

We have Big Sits, Thanksgiving Bird Counts, Christmas Bird Counts, The Great Backyard Bird Count, and so on and so forth. All of these counts happen on the same day, or week, every year, and some have been going on more than 100 years. There is no doubt that these counts have provided a checklist or series of checklists that over time have created a larger checklist, and shown trends year in and year out. But in retrospect, they are just one day, or one week, and every year there are going to be factors that can skew results year in and out.

The Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is a prime example of this. Each year these counts are held all over the nation and information is gathered, put onto a checklist and then added to the history of that count and that years data. A CBC can be a lot of fun, and it's a tradition well worth keeping and taking part in if you haven't already. But let me for a minute talk about data.

During a CBC we count birds at a number of locations within a count circle for that one day. 1 day. It's one day, and that's where the data becomes irrelevant. On any given day you are going to see a certain number of species at a certain location, and year in and out you will see those same birds. Some days you will see a few different, other days you will miss a few. Every once in a while you will see something rare. But it's just one day and historically if a count has been around for 100 years that is 100 days of data, over 100 years. It gives a peak into a historical time line of that specific count, but as a tool for measuring bird trends it is lacking in enough information.

I would argue eBird is a far more valuable counting system, and will be long into the future than any of these counts. eBird allows any number of people to enter information from anywhere they would like, as many times a day from as many locations as they would like—as often as they would like. This means that any number of people over the month of December could enter all their checklists and have a pretty good data set for the month for locations, for counties, and even the entire state. And every year this information grows, and shows a much more complete picture of what is going on with birds in the state each year.

Currently there are far too few people using eBird out of the vast number of birders that are out there. I would opine that a lot of this has to do with the generational gap. Most young birders are quite religious with using eBird to keep track of sightings. Let's face it, we grew up with the computer age, we like things to be easy, and nothing is easier than eBird for keeping track of sightings. That's not to say that older generations don't use the program, but in terms of birders, there are far fewer younger birders than older, and vice versa those older birders are using programs like eBird far less than the younger birders.

If you've made it this far, I will end by saying I do think that these counts are valuable in a number of ways. They DO add valid data sets to the overall picture. On any CBC I have taken part in I have added my lists into eBird—and many birders do the same. It also give opportunities to introduce new, and younger birders to people who know the areas they are going to be counting in, and give them a taste of what the counts are about. Those birders are often experienced, and have quite a bit of knowledge to share, and are invaluable in spreading the interest in birds.

Great Salt Lake Audubon. Copyright Tim Avery

Let's face it; lots of us that participate in counts often are trying to see as many species as possible. The big number at the end of the day is exciting, and beating the year before, or the record excites people. It's fun, it gets people into counting, and it's memorable. Not everyone is, but I have been part of more counts than I can count on my ten fingers, where the grand total for species has been the cheering point.

The data collected is relevant in the big picture. As part of a data set as a whole it is just as important as every other data point. If it were the only measure, it would be missing far more important information than the historical information tied to the count. However, for the value it brings to advertising and marketing birding—it is invaluable.

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A Day Worth Counting

posted by Jeff Bilsky at
on Tuesday, December 21, 2010 

Saturday, I participated in the Great Salt Lake Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC). A historical perspective of what these counts are about can be found at this link. My team consisted of just 3 total birders. We originally had a much larger cast but several cancellations trimmed it down to myself, Carl Ingwell, and Sarah Nelson. The count is segmented into territories, and for the 4th year in a row, I was assigned to an area that includes the town of Bountiful, a few miles North of Salt Lake City. Bountiful is unique in that it includes Mueller Park, a montane habitat and one of the few places within the count radius to find certain species. So naturally we maximized our time there, but we also drove all around searching neighborhoods, parks and the local cemetery for whatever species we could find. Anyone interested in a comprehensive list, please contact me and I'll forward our counts for the day.

The biggest surprise was a group of Wild Turkeys at Bountiful Ridge Golf Course. We had never seen them in this area before and were shocked. We counted 28 total, many of which you can see in the below photo.

It's always interesting what you come across spending an entire day scouring an area for all signs of bird life. It is a game of slamming brakes, illegal U-turns, shouting, taunting, and a lot of coffee. On this day, we also built a couple of incredible snowmen and then took turns destroying them with full-body tackles.

In the late afternoon, after trudging through the snow in Mueller Park and finding at least a few of our montane targets (Steller's Jay, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Brown Creeper), we called it a day. We were cold. We were tired. But we had fun.

There is always a post-count party to meet up with other teams and share in some food and drink and discuss what was seen. The last few years it has been in a banquet room at the Tracy Aviary. My brain, infused by both a day of relentless bird counting and a healthy amount of celebratory drink, attempted to add a number of the exotics living in the aviary to our day's list. I don't think anyone was as amused as I was. I guess talking to the birds and asking them if they want to be on our list in a loud and obnoxious voice isn't always the best way to make yourself look intelligent.

If you haven't participated in a CBC, make it a point to do so....

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Winter Irruptions: Where did the Waxwings go? Will the Redpolls arrive?

posted by Tim Avery at

Back in November there were good signs that Bohemian Waxwing would be making their way into Utah for the winter, in fashion of years past. Sightings in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, turned into a couple of reports in northern Utah. More impressive was during the 3rd week of November I received an email with a photo of a Bohemian attached taken at Tonaquint Park in Washington County. If the waxwings were already making it 300 miles south of Salt Lake it had to be a good winter for them… right?

Well, here we are just a couple days from Christmas and aside from the initial 3 reports there hasn't been a peep about Bohemians. So what happened?

It's hard to say.

The lack of any more reports seems to coincide with the arrival of several large winter storms that pounded the northern half of the state in late November. We often associate the movements of birds with weather, but in the case of this species the movement is almost strictly food related.

I guess the important question is: were the birds going to irrupt this year? I remember thinking in the past that this species was cyclical in winter arrivals—being seen every other winter in Utah. However looking at the past 6 years, that doesn't seem to line up:

2005-2006 irruption winter
2006-2007 no irruption
2007-2008 irruption winter
2008-2009 no irruption
2009-2010 no irruption
2010-2011 no irruption

We are now on to the 3rd winter in a row without an irruption. Perhaps the few reports were isolated wandering flocks, and an irruption wasn't going to happen. Ron Pittaway mentioned in his "Winter Finch Forecast" that it didn't seem like a good year for them to wander in Canada. Often his forecast is valuable in predicting what types of finches and other winter songbirds might show up in Utah. Obviously we are a long way from Ontario where the forecast is based, and some of the food conditions are different here—but for species that breed across Canada and winter there too, the information can be quite informational.

That being said, this may not have been the winter for an irruption—despite those early reports. With waxwings seeming like they won't make any mass appearances, I look to January and the possibility of Redpolls. According to the same forecast,

"Redpolls in winter are a birch seed specialist and movements are linked in part to the size of the birch crop. The white birch crop is poor across much of northern Canada. Another indicator of an upcoming irruption was a good redpoll breeding season in 2010 with double and possibly triple broods reported in Quebec…"

And along with Common Redpoll come the inevitable chance for Hoary Redpoll, a bird that most Utah birders have not seen in state. Now if you are wondering, "where are the redpolls?" just hold on for a month. Literally.

Looking at past records for redolls in Utah there is a wide array of months with sightings, starting in October and going all the way to March. Most records appear to be from December CBC results, many of which have no documentation—leaving the sightings questionable. A number of documented sightings come from January and February across the northern reaches of the state—seemingly the best time to find a Redpoll in Utah. The only accepted Hoary Redpoll record was in February 1999 in Cache County.

All this being said, now is about the perfect time to start watching those feeders closely, and checking flocks of finches and siskin to see what turns up. Cache County is one of the places where Redpolls should arrive first, and in the past this has been the hub for them during irruption years. From there we can always hope they move south along the Wasatch Front.

Who knows, maybe the redpolls will make up for the waxwings disappointing showing. I personally have high hopes, and if all else fails, spring is just around the corner, followed by songbirds heading north.

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Tis' the Season: Gulls Part 3 - The Big Answer

posted by Tim Avery at
on Monday, December 20, 2010 

Last week I created a post that was a sort of quiz on Utah winter gulls. A few people responded, and to those who did, well done for putting your answers out there. So without further ado, here are the actual answers to compare:

Western Gull (late 3rd winter/into 4th year)
Lesser Black-backed Gull(s) (adult and 3rd winter)
Iceland Gull
(2nd winter)
Mew Gull
(adult winter)
Glaucous-winged Gull
(2nd winter)
Glaucous Gull (adult winter)
Herring Gull
(adult winter)
Thayer's Gull
(2nd winter)
Ring-billed Gull
(adult winter)
California Gull
(adult breeding)
Western X Glaucous-winged Gull
(Olympic Gull)
Possible Slaty-backed or Western Gull
(advanced 2nd winter or 3rd winter)

Okay, so let's talk about the birds. The first individual was the first Western Gull to be recorded in Utah. This bird had pretty much developed all adult traits except for having a black tail and some black smudging on the bill. It stuck around till March at which point it was full on into its 4th cycle and lost those traits. The relatively dark mantle along with pink legs and a large bill help with this ID. The large size along with these marks set it off against the flock.

The 2nd birds are pretty straight forward. Very dark backs, yellow eyes, with yellow legs and big yellow bills with red markings. The front bird is an adult, and the one in back is a 3rd winter. Two Lesser Black-backed Gulls photographed together in Utah in the winter would have been unimaginable 15 years ago, now it is sort of expected. These birds are extremely easy to pick out of the masses of lighter mantled birds. Just compare to the other visible gulls in the picture--namely the California and Ring-billed Gulls right behind these two beasts.

This one could be a curveball for many of us. The diminutive size would seem to eliminate Glaucous Gull, leaving only Iceland Gull as an option. The bi-colored bill along with the dove-shaped head, and light coloration are useful for this ID. In a large flock of gulls, the lack of any dark marking on the bird is helpful in picking it out from the large number of California and Ring-billed Gulls. This species is very rare in Utah in the winter.

This bird was pretty straightforward. Smaller than the California Gull behind, with smudgy head feathers, and a petite-bill with a faint dark marking--the closest similar bird is a Ring-billed Gull. Picking the Mew out by the head and the bill is often the easiest route. Although reported each year, finding a Mew Gull is always a nice treat.

What a hideous beast! The thing that sucks about photos with only one bird is that it is often impossible to gauge the size of the bird. However, for this individual we can tell that it has a relatively large bill in proportion to the body, dirty pink legs, and the gray and smudgy pattern over the entire bird (including primaries that appear lighter than the body) that points to one species—-2nd winter Glaucous-winged Gull. In person you would note the large size which would set the bird off against the tide of smaller gulls. The somewhat plain marking make it stand out against the lighter and darker marking of other species. This species is annual but by no means guaranteed every year.

All pale bird, with white primaries and a pale eye that towers over the surrounding gulls. This one is pretty easy, being a Glaucous Gull. The size and pattern make it fairly easy to pick out against the sea of birds with darker markings which is the case in Utah. A handful of individuals are reported each winter for this species in Utah.

So the angle on bird #7 is a little tough, but a few things stand out. For one it has a nice yellow eye with a visible orange-red orbital ring. It also appears to have a large bill, along with a pale gray mantle, black primaries, and pink feet. All pale winged gulls can be eliminated because of the primaries. California and Ring-billed Gull can be eliminated by leg color (eye color for California as well), leaving the large and 3rd most common Utah winter gull—-the Herring Gull as the answer. This species often blends into the large flocks due to a similar mantle as a Ring-billed Gull, however, the combination of field marks along with its large size help in picking it out. Small numbers over winter each year and can be found at most locations with other flocks of gulls.

#8 is probably one of the toughest in this grouping, mainly because its wings are partially hidden. What we can see is that it has pink legs, a dark eye, a bill that is sort of pinkish fading into a dark tip, a light gray back, and clean, lightly patterned coverts. Nothing really helps with size, but we can say the bill isn't overly large in relation to the size of the bird. The bird isn't an adult—which is why learning all the 3 and 4 cycle gull plumages and patterns is helpful. To start eliminating, let's start with the most common birds, like California Gull which at this point would have either a completely bi-colored pink bill with black tip, or a bill that is starting to turn yellow-gray. The bill is again wrong for a Ring-billed Gull. Herring Gull would also have a bi-colored bill at this point. Although we can't see the wing tips all that well, they don't appear overly pale, eliminating Glaucous, and Glaucous-winged. If you look closely you can see pale edging on the tip of each primary, and if you look at the left wing (you can only see the inside of P10, it looks to be brownish instead of blackish. If you were to flip open a field guide to Thayer's Gull, you would see a pretty good depiction of a 2nd winter bird that looks just like this—BINGO! I have only ever seen 2 second winter THGU in Utah in the winter, making them pretty rare. Most individuals we see are 1st winter birds and adults. Knowing the oddballs can help in IDing them and eliminating other species as well. In terms of picking this guy out of a flock, it would be a little larger than most of the gulls present, and the primaries would be lighter than most of the dark winged gulls, and darker than all of the white-winged gulls.

#9 is pretty easy. Yellow eyes, yellow legs, and a yellow ringed-bill. That would be a Ring-billed Gull. No other species really fits this bird, and being the most common/widespread small dark-winged gull in America makes it easily recognizable. It also is one of the standards to use for picking out other gulls. In Utah I am always looking for birds that are larger, with lighter or darker mantles than California and Ring-billed to find other gulls. It is a good starting point when looking at a flock of 2000 gulls.

#10 isn't really fair as the bird isn't in winter plumage. However, being the Utah state bird makes it a pretty easy pick for Utah birders. The orange-yellow bill, with red and black spot, dark eye, medium dark mantle and dirty yellow legs are a common sight at most parks, and parking lots around the Great Salt Lake. Knowing all the cycles of California Gulls will help in identifying other gulls in the large flocks we scan for other gulls. After doing it for a while, you can easily pick over gulls without having to take a second look at the California's.

#11 is a common sight across the Pacific Northwest. It seems to have a darker mantle like a Western Gull—but not too dark, and paler primaries like a Glaucous-winged Gull—but not too pale. It is sort of the epitome of mass hybridization. Many call it the "Olympic" Gull, named after the Olympic Peninsula where it can be readily studied—however, the rest of us call it a Hybrid, the Western X Glaucous-winged Gull. I don't have a whole lot of ID tips for this species, as it is not a species, and instead a highly variable and often confusing hybrid. I have looked at a flock of 25 of these buggers with each one displaying different characteristics than the next. If you see a gull that looks somewhat Western like, and somewhat Glaucous-winged like, it's a pretty good bet you have a hybrid, and we occasionally see them in Utah in the winter.

Last but not least in my book is a bird that will bother me for the rest of my life. This two day wonder showed up the week after Christmas in 2007. It looked unlike any gull I had ever seen, and seemed to fit one bird that I had always had high hopes of finding in Utah. The bird was large, with a very dark back, a mixed pink and black bill, and a pale but not yellow or brown eye. It resembles a Western Gull which is what some think it might be, it also however resembles an advanced 2nd winter or 3rd winter Slaty-backed Gull—meaning it has several characteristics of a 2nd winter Slaty-backed (like a black tail and the mixed bill), and other characteristics of a 3rd winter bird like the mantle and wings. The issue I had with Western Gull was the "fierce" look of the face, along with the pale eye. Upon reviewing several books I found plenty of pictures that resembled the bird in question (including this individual). In any event, I sent the pictures to a the ID Frontiers list, and as with almost everything I have ever posted there it is a 50/50 split on what people thought, and in the end left me not particularly caring to use the list any longer.

The point of this last gull was that every year we encounter several gulls that we just can't put a positive ID to, or even safely ID in some cases—and even with trying to reach out for help sometimes you are going to get mixed results.

2 unidentified gulls... Anyone have any ideas?

With gulls there are so many hybridizations, and so many strange patterned birds, that it makes for not only fun ID challenges but also some quite frustrating moments. This wasn't a scientific look at how to identify gulls, and didn't cover anything outside of the pictures that were shown. If you really want to get into gulling you need to pick up a gull specific field guide, like Peterson's, and you have to have a spotting scope, especially to scan through large flocks that are sitting on frozen lakes. Most of all you need to be patient, and just keep on looking—with more time in the field identifying gulls becomes easier, and finding rare gulls becomes not a thing of luck, but of hard work persistence.

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Hawk watchers beware

posted by Jerry Liguori at
on Saturday, December 18, 2010 

One of the trickiest aspects of hawk identification is ageing and sexing "brown" (adult female and juvenile) harriers at a distance. Most people are familiar with the rusty colored, essentially unmarked underbody of juveniles versus the paler buffy, streaked underbody of adult females. However, adult females can show rusty undersides (more common in the West) and appear very similar to juveniles, and the underside of juveniles fades to buffy by late fall and appears similar to that of an adult female.

Before "clicking" on the composite above to enlarge it, note the overall color of the 4 birds as they would appear in the field. The 2 left-hand birds appear orangey underneath as you would see on typical juveniles, and the 2 right-hand birds appear buffy resembling adult females. Now enlarge the photo and see that the 2 adult females (1st and 3rd bird from Utah, November) show streaking on the body, and the 2 juveniles are basically unmarked on the body. The 2nd bird was photographed in September and the faded juvenile (last bird) was photographed in December in Utah. Consider that, if the lightly marked adult female was an orangey type, it would be nearly impossible to tell from a juvenile without ideal views.

Yes, there are other plumage differences between adult female and juvenile Northern Harriers (topside color, marked undertail coverts, head pattern, etc.), but they are minor and difficult to pick out without considerable experience. Telling Harriers from other hawks can be difficult alone, so classifying a "brown" Harrier as unknown age/sex shouldn't be a bother.

Happy Hawk watching,
Jerry Liguori

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Photography and bird identification

posted by Jerry Liguori at
on Thursday, December 16, 2010 

Equipment Advances:

Camera equipment has advanced in many ways in recent years, the biggest advancement has been in digital photography. Yes, film cameras can take beautiful photos, especially medium and large format landscapes and the like, but for overall image quality and usefulness regarding bird photography, particularly in-flight, digital equipment is far superior (see images on left). One of the most valuable features of digital photography is the ability to review images on-the-spot through the rear viewfinder. I remember having to wait at least 2 weeks to get a roll of slides back, only to be disappointed with the results. Nowadays, you can review your images instantly to get a feel for the exposure, contrast, sharpness, or composition. The ability to adjust tone, contrast, saturation, and sharpness on-the-spot as conditions change is another valuable option offered by the newer digital cameras. However, overdoing certain adjustments may result in a negative effect. High quality digital cameras also perform better in low light and at high ISO settings than film. Manufacturers try to make improvements each year regarding the precision of the auto-focus and other functions, and this is evident when comparing older model film or digital cameras to new models. Another advantage of digital images is that they are much easier to store and archive than are prints or slides. Some digital cameras offer video recording, and I'm sure most or all will in the future.

Just a note about shooting JPEG vs. RAW. The image size and resolution of JPEG (high quality setting) and RAW photos are the same (but the file size of a JPEG image is smaller). There are advantages to both settings, but the overall advantage of shooting JPEG is greater. This issue can be argued to death, as opinions differ, and alone is worthy of an entire article, which I don't have the energy or time for...but I have tested both settings and compared the results. On most cameras, there is an option to shoot both JPEG and RAW simultaneously, but there are drawbacks in doing so. I just don't prescribe to the theory of shooting RAW "just in case" because a strong enough case has not been made.

Field Observation:

I was a birder long before I took up photography. I studied birds intently and made mental and physical notes as often as I could. My only tools were my binoculars and a notepad....both of which I still carry today (and recommend every birder should). Before 1995, I conducted field jobs and hawk counts without ever taking a photograph, so, I can see how my own attitude and manner in which I study birds has changed from before owning a camera to after. The downside of taking pictures is that I pay much less attention to details of birds and more attention to capturing an image. Is this really a downfall? I don't believe so because I can point out specific details through photographs that would be impossible otherwise. I have used photography as a tool to improve my birding skills by seeing which specific traits in photographs can or can't be relied on in the field. I do find myself neglecting to look at birds altogether at times, and focused on photographing them only. I still enjoy watching birds (well, hawks that is), but I have different goals now than I used to, and these goals include photography in one way or another. It is possible that some new birders start off with a camera and may never truly learn how to observe bird behavior or distinguish vocalizations.

When it comes to a rare bird reported, the first thing people ask now is, and I find myself doing it, "where's the photo?" I think everyone expects to see photos accompanied with rare sightings since so many people walk around with cameras nowadays. It isn't possible to photograph every bird, and many people do not carry a camera around, so field notes are the only documentation available. Often, the better the observer, the better the field notes...but some descriptions just don't make sense. Even a poor photo can be valuable and clinch or negate an ID. On the other hand, a single photo is sometimes impossible to identify, and a description is the clincher to the ID. Regardless, there is no argument that a decent or good photo is much more reliable and identifiable than written notes. I have read perfectly detailed, in depth write-ups up qualified by "I am positive it was a such-and-such" only to see the photo (or photos) that proves the identification to be a mistake. I have also seen poorly written descriptions accompanied by an acceptable photo. These days, I can't write up a rare bird with any detail because I never study it long enough to take mental notes, instead I grab for my camera and say "see photos" in the write-up. This is a lame attitude but I own up to it. Either way, rarities are fun and have value but they are the least important aspect of birding when it comes to bird conservation.

The Internet:

Digitial photography and the internet go hand in hand. The internet is the greatest resource for sharing bird images, information, opinions, or shopping on-line for bird related materials. Years ago, the only way to see someone else's images was to have them in hand. Now, anyone can surf the net and view a multitude of images of any species. With this instant access to a myriad of images, one can compare plumages or traits of interest and learn specific aspects of birds at an accelerated rate. There are many sites devoted to birds and bird identification that are excellent learning tools. On-line sites such as Birds of North America (BNA) cover the identification, life history, vocalizations, subspecies specifics, nesting behavior, etc. for all species occurring in North America. eBird is another site that is unlike any other in that birders can enter their bird sightings into a managed, structured, formatted database. This database makes it easy for people to keep track of all their personal sightings, or view all sightings reported of certain species or area. Seasonal maps of distribution or trends of birds is available as well, along with a host of other functions.

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Austin, Texas - Wild Basin

posted by Jeff Bilsky at
on Wednesday, December 15, 2010 

Well, I'm traveling again for work. Right now I'm in Texas, and luckily I was able to escape from work long enough to do some birding this afternoon. I'm in Austin and did a quick search on ebird for local birding hot spots. I selected a place called Wild Basin. It is just on the outskirts of Austin and appears to be an area that was saved from the "progress" of development - and thankfully so. It was a nice place to hike around for a bit and forget about work and everything else. I had no real agenda other than that, but thought maybe I'd see a local specialty and whatever else might be wintering there. I saw Kinglets and Hermit Thrushes. I found a Field Sparrow and lots of Chipping Sparrows and Orange-crowned Warblers. In the waning minutes of my visit, I came across a Black-Crested Titmouse and uttered an expletive-filled exclamation. It's amazing that such a thing as witnessing life can fill the human spirit with such a rush. This wasn't about a tick mark or a list, this was about seeing that in this little valley, surrounded by houses and cars, and the machines and mechanisms of humanity, lived something that millions of years of evolution and science - and whatever other words we want to try to use to describe it - placed right there. This is life. This is what it's about. Get some!

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Tis' the Season: Gulls Part 2 - The Big Picture

posted by Tim Avery at

Okay, so let's have some fun. Below are 12 pictures of gulls--all of which have been seen in Utah (that is not to say there are 12 species below--you be the judge about what they are). Some might be the same, some might be hybrids, and who knows maybe every one is different.

Go ahead and take a look and if you feel like it, then leave a comment trying to identify the lot of them if you want. Tomorrow I will post a follow up talking about each bird--what they are

Winter Gulls of Utah. Copyright Tim Avery

And that's it! Good Luck, lets see what everyone thinks then check back tomorrow for an updated and explanation.

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Northern Pygmy-Owl Surprise

posted by Tim Avery at
on Tuesday, December 14, 2010 

I went to lunch on Tuesday not expecting anything different from my usual Tuesday. That was until I saw a post come across birdtalk about a flock of Evening Grosbeaks still coming to a feeder in Summit Park. I don't know why, but I am a sucker for that species--so I took an extra hour at lunch and headed up I-80 to go see what I could find.

As I made my way to the area the birds we reported there were no grosbeaks. However, the chorus of Mountain and Black-capped Chickadees, along with Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, and Golden-crowned Kinglet got me thinking about an owl being around. I started to imitate a Northern Pygmy-Owl, and almost immediately I was in a whistling duel with a bird just off the road. My whistle must have been on point today, because after about 2 minutes the bird flew into sight and set up for me to watch. I shot a couple of pretty cool videos with my cell phone--surprisingly way better quality than what my point and shoot gives!

Here is another video from a different angle:

And of course I had to take a few shots--I have never managed a shot of one before, and these were by far the best looks I have ever had at one.

All photos link to a gallery on my website.

Northern Pygmy Owl. Copyright Tim Avery

I ended up watching the owl for about 45 minutes before I had to take off and get back to work. In that time it moved to about 5 different perches, and if you look at the gallery, you will even see it enter an old flicker cavity. What a great consolation prize for missing the grosbeaks... Oh, except I had a flyover of between 25-30 Evening Grosbeaks before I left. That and a Northern Goshawk made for a nice afternoon at Summit Park.

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Montane Species

posted by Anonymous eBirder at

Last winter, almost no montane species spent the winter months in the valley. Of course Juncos, White-Crowned Sparrows and Pine Siskins are regular valley visitors every year, but we got little else in 2009/10.

This year I have monitored the list and my own backyard, and I've seen quite a difference. There have been multiple reports of Stellar's Jays, Red-Breasted Nuthatches, and Mountain Chickadees. Today I observed a Brown Creeper in my backyard and recall at least one other report. So far, from what I know, there have been no valley reports of Cassin's Finches or Red Crossbill.

I have no doubt that the Wasatch Front CBCs will turn up a few Creepers, Nuthatches, Stellar's Jays and Mountain Chickadees this year. In years past, Salt Lake Counts have had a really hard time coming up with some of these species.

I report all of my significant backyard bird sightings to Birdtalk because it gives people an idea of what to look for in their backyards. Not only that, but the more reports that come through, the more we can follow trends. Following the movement of montane species throughout the valley can give you a picture of conditions in our mountains (food supplies, weather, etc). I am personally interested in all reports of montane species that visit backyard bird feeders in the winters, and would like to encourage all reports.

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Birding Alone

posted by Anonymous eBirder at
on Monday, December 13, 2010 

Don't get me wrong… I enjoy birding in groups. Every time a rarity shows up, it's a good chance to see some old friends, and chat for hours. Occasionally I even enjoy the company (and humor) of an Audubon trip. And there is nothing better than a group of friends sitting on top of a peak, surrounded by the golden/crimson hues of a brisk fall day, and watching hawks float by. Over the years, I've met some great birders and good people, and I thoroughly enjoy their company.

I grew up in a small town on a good amount of land. On that land, we had a Crab Apple tree that attracted Waxwings in the winter, we had a marsh that had some Blackbirds, Sunflowers grew wild and fed numerous Goldfinch, Sandhill Cranes would visit the agricultural stubble in the fall and spring, and every winter a Bald Eagle sat atop a fifty foot dead Cottonwood tree right outside our back porch. Right there on our land, I saw the biggest Mule Deer buck I've ever seen.

My grandma gave me a pair of binoculars, my parents gave me a Swiss Army knife, I made a bow and arrow out of willows, and I had everything I needed to explore the fields, marshes and woods. I set up a tree fort in a cottonwood, and made a ground shelter out of the willows on the edge of the marsh. Every day after school, I'd do a little exploring, and I'd camp out there on warm nights. In the winters I'd cross country ski across the land and ice skate across the frozen marsh. Our land (and a couple joints in high school) taught me a lot about myself. I learned to love being alone, and I learned to love exploring everything that nature offers us.

I'm getting to a point in my life where I'm doing everything I can to get back to my roots.

For the past two years, I've had the privilege of getting paid to do a lot of solo birding. During those two years, I've worked in some of the most remote locations in Utah. I wasn't hanging around eBird hotspots, surrounded by other birders, looking at a first state record, all while keeping a meticulous list. I was mostly camping in the backcountry, without cell phone service, and I'd see the same common birds every day. I learned invaluable information about Black-Throated Gray Warblers, Western Scrub-Jays, and Blue Gray Gnatcatchers (which I think are the most diverse birds in the state).

When birding, I like to hike, climb, snowshoe, and ski, take back roads, and discover new places. Mainly, I like to explore. I like to take long looks at birds, and learn something new every time I'm out. I really enjoy learning things from the land & getting back to being a child again; trust me, you won't regret acting like an 11 year old when exploring the Utah backcountry. I can sit down, listen to the growling of a Spotted Towhee and eat an apple without worrying about a rarity around the corner. I can go off on tangents and look for arrowheads for while. I can sit down and meditate under gnarled Juniper Tree. Every time I go out I try to learn as much about myself as I learn about the world around me.

It's not that I don't enjoy the company of others when birding, it's just that the company of others distracts me from what I really do enjoy about birding.


Fuzzy Math--The Utah Edition

posted by Tim Avery at

Just finished reading Ted Floyd’s Fuzzy Math post on the ABA Blog. Like most of what Ted writes or speaks about it is entertaining and informational. The premise for this post is about listing, and what species “count” for a list. Ted uses a recent outing to a park to highlight species seen—some of which were wild, some domestic, some captive, and others which don’t necessarily have a clear cut place. If you have a minute go read Ted’s post then hop back over here:

Click here to read Fuzzy Math

So as you now know (if you did your homework) Ted took an interesting view of the birds observed at the park. Following the whole thing up making the statement that he recently added Indian Peafowl to his Boulder county life list. His reasoning:
The birds are here. They’re meaningfully present in the county. They’re part of the biological and cultural landscape of Boulder County. As far as I'm concerned, they count.
Ah Ted, I could not agree with you more!!! Let’s bring Utah birding into the picture, with several examples that in my opinion make the case for being countable Utah birds.

California Condor

It has now been almost 10 years since the first condors were reported from the Kolob region of Zion National Park in southwestern Utah. This may be one of the hardest to make the case for, being that these birds still rely readily on human handouts to survive. This relic of the Pleistocene simply could not survive in modern times without the help of humans. We were responsible for the demise and now are responsible for the survival—and there is no end in sight for this. I don’t think many birders can imagine a summer trip to the Kolob region with seeing a Condor soar along the cliff tops. These birds are free flying, covering wide expanses in search of food for survival. It just so happens that most of the food they end up eating is being provided by us. Unless the government has a change of plans this project is long term and these birds will continue to be seen soaring “free as a bird”.

Mute Swan

If you have been to Washington County in the past 5 years and visited any number of local ponds or gold courses, you have likely seen the giant Mute Swans that can be found all over the county. It is no secret that these birds were all implants to add a touch of elegance to a pond here and there. But, when a pair of Mute Swan came gliding past me at Southgate Golf course one winter morning, I had to scratch my head and wonder, “how domestic are these beasts?” Any bird that is free flying and surviving without the help of humans would seem to be a countable bird in my book.

Mandarin Duck

This might perhaps be the strangest on my list, and by far the quintessential example of the “Should or shouldn’t it count game”. Mandarin Ducks have been free flying and breeding (limited) along the Wasatch front in northern Utah for countless years. What started out as bird in private collections grew into a small and local population found on random ponds, streams, and canals from Salt Lake to Ogden. Perhaps the most vivid and memorable of the three examples, when you see a Mandarin Duck you don’t forget the sighting. Now the birds obviously aren’t thriving, as we don’t see them at every park, and every pond, but every year several reports surface—letting us know they are still around.

A couple years ago I would have sang a very different story from what I am saying right now. I used to be a staunch supporter of ABA listing guidelines, and what was and wasn’t countable. Since my big year I have taken a huge step back from serious listing, and although I do keep lists, and rather thoroughly with eBird, I have included my sightings of Mute Swan and California Condor on my checklists. These birds do represent an important part of the natural system, despite how they got there or what is keeping them alive. They are there, they are meangingful, and they should count! Of course, I have always been a true believer in what is on your list is your choice—unless it comes to competitive listing. Looking at my big year list, neither Condor nor Mute Swan appears, although I saw both species numerous times.

I guess it really is situational—in that case maybe I need to add black Swan, Swan Goose, Ruddy Shelduck, Muscovy, and a handful of others to the ol’ list :)

Damn birds are great—thanks Ted for bringing this to my attention!

All Photos in this post are copyright Tim Avery.

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