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Practice Photography

posted by Tim Avery at
on Thursday, June 28, 2012 

Every now and again I get an itchy trigger finger for some good shooting--we're talking photos here, not guns.  Usually it happens when I haven't been out birding much, or haven't taken my camera out for a spin in some time.  This summer I haven't been too ardent of a birder, it has been hot, and I have been lazy.  So tonight Sam and I decided to remedy that just a little.  We ended up at Sugarhouse Park so she could feed the ducks--and I could get a little "practice photography" in.

Rock Pigeon in Flight at Sugarhouse Park

Even though I have been photographing birds for over a decade I still enjoy going to the park where I learned to photograph ducks, geese, and gulls and get some easy shooting in.  It's like shooting fish in a barrel--or birds on a pond in this case.  There is no better place to practice taking pictures, or to learn the settings of your camera, than at a local park.  For starters the birds are fairly tame and easy to approach. They are used to people so you don't have to work to hard to setup decent shots.  Aside from being accustomed to people, ducks, geese, pigeons, sparrows, and blackbirds all tend to be pretty easy to photograph even in wild places--we'll call them easy targets.

 House Sparrow at Sugarhouse Park

If you live in the city, there is probably a park nearby, maybe one with a pond where you can practice shooting these easy targets.  If it's close you can time it to be there when the light is just right.  I prefer evenings any time of the year at Sugarhouse.  It puts the sun to the west of the pond, and gives you some really powerful lighting to work with.  Every time I have gotten a new camera body, one of the first things I would do would be to head over to Sugarhouse late in the day and photograph the waterfowl and gulls.  I have gotten some killer shots this way over the years.

Young Mallard at Sugarhouse Park

Here in Utah one of the cool things is that you can spend a great deal of time studying California Gulls in all states of plumage most of the fall, winter, and spring.  In the summer there are usually a few around, but the real spectacle is in the spring.  The best way to find rare gulls when looking through a flock is to learn the most common ones--if you can nail down the California Gull at any age or state of wear that's a good start.  Plus the photo ops are pretty amazing.

California Gull face detail at Sugarhouse Park, April 21, 2008

So next time you just want to get some good photos, and practice working on your skills, take a trip to a nearby park and do some "practice photography".

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Did he say Tremulous Tanager?

posted by Tim Avery at
on Tuesday, June 26, 2012 

So over time I have seen numerous posts talking about bird names and some of the historic names that were a better fit, or some of the current names that don't make sense, or names that just plain suck.  I often wonder why specific nomenclature was used in the first place, or changes later on aside from a species split or lump.  Even then names like Dark-eyed Junco for instance seem like an odd choice for a species that could be defined by numerous other characteristics, aside from that "dark eye".  What about the Varied Junco or the Chattering Junco--I would even be partial to a new grouping, how about the Chattering or Varied Wanderer?  Perhaps speaking to complex mixed breeding of the subspecies we call it the Promiscuous Junco? That might be my favorite for this species.

Dark-eyed Junco or Promiscuous Junco?

How about Rose-breasted and Black-headed Grosbeak--those are great descriptive names for the two birds, but in terms of interesting they seem rather plain.  Gray Jay is one that really stings me--honestly something like Alpine Jay, or Tundra Jay is so much more fitting.  But hey, the "color" gray is descriptive enough right?  And it matches up to the Green, Brown, and Blue Jay--never mind the Scrub or Steller's Jay though, they were after all already blue.

Gray Jay or Alpine Jay?

Birds named after cardinal directions also leave me feeling uneasy.  The Northern Flicker for instance is found far and wide east to west--not to mention across the entire south.  What about the Northern Rough-winged Swallow--are we talking north of the Equator?  Because the Southern Rough-winged Swallow and it's northern cousin meet in up Central America.  Lest we forget the Eastern Towhee and the Western Grebe and the split across this great continent.  Don't get me wrong I understand why some of these birds have the generalized descriptors used for their names--but it just seems like far too many have been done a disservice because of it.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Of course there is one bird above all others that bothers me--the Western Tanager.  It's my favorite bird with a breathtaking pattern and color set.  I can think of a couple name more apt--how about the Aspen Tanager (yes this species spends a great deal of time in Aspen as well as Conifers), or Tremulous Tanager (another take to Aspen, or Populus tremuloides its the scientific name).

Western Tanager or Tremulous Tanager?

I mean saying I saw 500 Tremulous Tanagers in a day sounds way more epic than saying I saw 500 Western Tanagers in a day.  Just the name adds a bit of mystique and interest.  I also wouldn't feign at names like Flammulated Tanager, Fire-faced Tanager, or the simple yet all encompassing Incredible Tanager.  How many times have you heard a birder or non-birder alike say, "Wow that's Incredible!" upon seeing a Western Tanager?

So now that I've told you a couple bird names I would change, if you could change 1, 2,  or a few bird names, what ones would you choose, and why?  Comment below anonymously or using just your name, or a Google account, etc.  I'm interested to see what others have to say!

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2012 Marathon Birding Recap - A Month Late

posted by Tim Avery at
on Monday, June 25, 2012 

It seemed like we just finished our big day when Jeff and I were back at it again with the Marathon Birding Trip for the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival on Sunday May 20th.  Take away a few miles, and a couple hours, throw in 14 other people, and you've got yourself a logistics nightmare trying to get 14 eyes on every bird.  Add in a car breaking down, and an eclipse that darkened the skies 2 hours early and the odds were not in our favor.  Yet, everything turned out alright in the end. In fact some how despite falling behind schedule almost from the start we ended up with our 2nd biggest Marathon total to date--only 6 short of a new record with 136 species recorded.  And something this year that really stood out wasn't just the number of species, but the quality of some of those species we got.  As usual some of the misses make me cringe just thinking about them--and how 150 species should have been a cinch!

But that's neither here nor there so lets talk about the trip.  Just after 6:00am we rolled out of Farmington with 3 mini vans, 2 guides, 3 drivers, 10 participants, and special guest Greg Miller (The Big Year).  Greg was a fun guy to go birding with and provided a ton of interesting information, plenty of funny comments, and made the experience memorable for everyone.  Our first stop was the ponds at the end of Glover Lane which were pretty dead in comparison to past year--very few waterfowl and shorebirds.  Plenty of FORSTER'S TERNS provided great looks for all.  We made our way into Farmington Bay where right inside the entrance we snagged a couple of great birds for the day.  A drake BLUE-WINGED TEAL and a SPOTTED SANDPIPER accompanied the various other waterfowl and shorebirds.  Both SNOWY and GREAT EGRET were picked up along the road to Egg Island.  At the raised parking area we got stellar looks at a WHIMBREL, a number of Long-billed Curlews, and 1 MARBLED GODWIT in the grass to the west.  A lone BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER, and a handful of Dowitchers were in the distance.

Common Yellowthroat at Antelope Island Causeway

Anyways, we left Farmington and headed to Antelope Island picking up AMERICAN CROW on Antelope Drive.  At the entrance station to the park a COMMON YELLOWTHROAT was in the bushes just singin' away.  On the causeway was a shorebirders delight.  Plovers, sandpipers, sanderlings, curlews, willets, whimbrel, phalarope, killdeer, knots, turnstones--it was a Thanksgiving Dinner and there was something for everyone to eat.  We started getting the easy stuff then the really good stuff, then the okay stuff.  People were getting new Utah birds, new life birds, and new year birds.  After a while I got down to business and started scoping the plovers--around 1,200 BLACK-BELLIED PLOVERS were there and mixed in were a few treats.  I found an AMERICAN GOLDEN-PLOVER still in basic plumage and everyone got great looks.  Then it was about 30 minutes of checking bird by bird looking for a reported PACIFIC GOLDEN-PLOVER from the previous day. GOT IT! Feeding on a mudflat about 150 yards out with a handful of Black-bellied.  The bird was still molting and seemed to have all the right features.  Front heavy, long slender bill, short primaries, thick white patch on the neck, and a beautiful golden back.

Possible Pacific Golden-Plover
at the Antelope Island Causeway

After having spent way too long on the causeway, we headed towards the island.  On the way we picked up another GREAT EGRET--funny to see one sitting along the edge of the briney water.  As we entered the island we added a surprise LARK BUNTING--an exceptional new day bird.  Everyone got to see the bird before it disappeared over the hill and we moved on.  We snagged the island regulars on the loop to the corrals and back before hitting the road north to Willard Bay.

Lark Bunting at Antelope Island

At Willard the GRAY CATBIRDS were out in force as well as the orioles, Yellow Warblers, Western Kingbirds, and grosbeaks.  Surprising was that we had ZERO empids here.  As we went to leave the van Jeff was riding in wouldn't start.  After a few minutes they got it started and we decided to head to the Flying J in Willard to decide what to do.  We found out we could get another vehicle delivered but it would be 45 minutes.  We took a break, had lunch then got everyone back in the cars and headed to Bear River Road.  The broken van made it up there, but not before they got the check engine light. We drove a short ways out the road just enough to find 4 EASTERN KINGBIRDS along the fence line. As we headed back towards the freeway the backup car arrived and we switched out vehicles--then headed towards Cache County.

Eastern Kingbird at Bear River MBR

A quick stop at Mantua didn't turn up anything new for the day except a TREE SWALLOW.  We skipped ALL of our usual Cache Valley stops to try and catch up on lost time--plus the potential for new birds was limited.  Our next stop was along the Logan River to scan the cliffs for swifts.  We managed to pick up VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOW--which were flying over the ridges in the hundreds.  Greg spotted a WHITE-THROATED SWIFT amongst the throngs, while a couple high flying birds that looked to be swifts were just specks in the distance.  We also managed to see our only WESTERN TANAGER of the day here--as well as a singing FOX SPARROW, and LAZULI BUNTING.  At a second stop we added AMERICAN DIPPER but nothing else.  Next we decided to try something different.  In the past the road to Tony Grove has always been closed for this trip--this year it was open.  The long drive in and out takes a lot of time, but we added a bunch of species, including a couple birds we haven't had on the trip before.  Most notably were a pair of WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILL that were foraging on the side of the road, and a HAMMOND'S FLYCATCHER in the same area.

American Dipper in Logan Canyon

We picked up most of our high mountain species here, and what we didn't get on the road, we tracked down at Franklin Basin Road.  Big misses were all the mountain woodpeckers minus Flicker.  No sapsuckers, no Hairy, and no Three-toed--and we didn't get any of them later.  In fact the only woodpecker we got all day was NORTHERN FLICKER.  We skipped Beaver Mountain then cruised out of the high country to Bear Lake where we picked up COMMON LOON on the southwest shore. This was a first for this trip route.  It was fun to watch the loons chase and harass one another on the vibrant blue water.  Heading east towards the Wyoming border hoping to pick up some raptors we were missing on a portion of the route that normally produces.  It didn't let down as we added GOLDEN EAGLE and PRAIRIE FALCON along the way.

Common Loon at Bear Lake

Continuing to adjust our route, we skipped out on the majority of the Deseret Ranch Lowlands and instead only drove the first couple miles of Home Ranch Road where we added AMERICAN WIGEON and VESPER SPARROW.  Several WILSON'S PHALAROPE provided great looks just off the road which allowed for a nice photo opportunity.

Jumping the border we made our way to Woodruff Narrows Reservoir in Wyoming and added RING-NECKED DUCK on the water, NORTHERN ROUGH-WINGED and BANK SWALLOWS rounding out the swallows for the trip, and BREWER'S SPARROW which had been scant throughout earlier stops.  As we were leaving the last car with Jeff spotted 3 GREATER SAGE-GROUSE just off the road.  We were a 1/4 mile up the road and had to flip a u-turn to get back.  Our car saw the birds as they disappeared over the hill, and the 3rd car barely got looks--far from satisfying.  But all as not lost--as we turned to leave Mike spotted another grouse further up the road.  We saw one and it disappeared into the sage--so I walked with Greg out to see if he could get a photo.  Little did we know that one bird was with 5 others that waited till we were right on top of them before taking flight.  This time everyone saw the birds as they circled and dropped deeper into the sage flat. By now we were more than 2 hours behind schedule and rolled into Evanston around 7:00pm.  We took a quick dinner break as the sky started to dim as the sun and moon met in the sky to the west.  

"The Eclipse" - Lens Flare 

We had to chop out a couple of huge stops that could add 5 to 10 more species just to make it back into the mountains to try for a few more birds we needed.  We raced down I-80 towards Echo then cut over to Henefer and up East Canyon above the reservoir.  At Jeremy Ranch Road we missed Swainson;s Thrush, it may just be a tad early--but further up the canyon we added HERMIT THRUSH before dark.  A staked out RUFFED GROUSE site had been disturbed by people placing a power generator and gas can 5 feet away form the log the bird was using.  The grouse was there but left the log when I went to see if it was there.  Several in the group did get to hear it drum before it wandered off.  Unfortunately, I imagine this site will probably end up failing due to the generator and people in the area.

Ruffed Grouse in East Canyon

As darkness settled a breeze picked up and the forest grew quiet--Jeff and I both heard a FLAMMULATED OWL hooting but it quickly faded.  As we tried for the birds after we had no responses.  Jeff wandered down the road a few hundred feet and found another owl so the group followed--by the time we got there, silence.  And for 15-20 minutes nothing--well nothing but cars. It became frustrating--but even more so when an Owl out of nowhere would start hooting right as the cars were coming, then stop when the cars were gone. I was beginning to worry that we would miss looks at this tiny owl that was always a special end to the trip.  Then as a car headed up the road and one of the tiny birds started to hoot again I headed towards the sound.  The bird sounded close, and the car passed giving me a clear direction to the bird.  I didn't hesitate, putting my flashlight on what seemed like too small a tree for any owl, but as I scanned up the trunk of the tiny tree, there on the tiny limb was the tiny owl.  Everyone came towards me getting looks at the owl before the bird finally sick of the attention retreated into the woods.

For a number of attendees this was a highlight and a life bird.  For Greg Miller it was a visual lifer, one of very few birds of North America he had heard--but not seen.  Impressive for someone with a life list approaching 800.  While we were trying for the owl at one point Jeff called out a COMMON POORWILL but no one else heard it.  About 5 minutes later I heard the bird, but then it went quiet again.  And that's it.

We made another stop to try for Saw-whet and/or Pygmy-Owl, but nothing responded to my persistent whistling.  We headed back towards Salt Lake, then Farmington getting everyone back around 11pm.  17 hours, 136 species, and more than 300 miles later, another Marathon Birding Trip was over.  At the end of these days it is always crazy to look back and see what you missed.

It's crazy for instance to think that we saw RUDDY TURNSTONES, but not Ruddy Ducks.  Or that we saw WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILLS, but not Red Crossbills.  Or how about the fact we had TWO species of GOLDEN-PLOVERS, but not a single Snowy or Semipalmated Plover.  

Ruddy Turnstone at the Antelope Island Causeway

We had no Scrub or Steller's Jay, no wodpeckers besides flicker, no empids besides Hammond's, and not a single Black-chinned Hummingbird.  This year might have had the most surprise misses.  Over the past 5 years the thing that has seemed consistent was a later than normal spring--this year we were weeks ahead and in the past where birds were clumped together in the mountains in search of food, now they were spread out on territories.  It made for an interesting time--but as always a great marathon trip!

On the drive home Jeff and I talked about the trip and the biggest dislike we have is the amount of driving time between stops.  Too much time is spent in the car trying to get to new patches of habitat to pick up 2 or 3 birds to keep building the number up--so next year we might switch things up a little and change the route to allow more time for birding--and maybe even more birds.  I guess we will have to wait another year to find out!

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Wait, those are different species?

posted by Tim Avery at
on Saturday, June 23, 2012 

As I have made headway in learning many of the birds of Peru while planning for my upcoming trip, I have come across a few groups of birds that have left me scratching my head.  Within so many of these families of birds there are plenty of groups where 3 or 4 similar species exist.  Some are so similar that identification without an audible are probably impossible.  One such group that has caught my attention were the Cercomacra  Antbirds.  Within this group there are 2  sets of 2 similar species.  The Manu and Gray Antbird  are most similar to one another, while the Black and Blackish Antbirds are very similar to one another.  Take a look below--can you tell which are which, or which 2 are in the similar groups?

Easy right? It would help a little if you could see bird #4's back half--then you would be able to see that it has a similar tail to bird #3 with the white tips.  Birds #1 and #2 lack those white tail tips.  If you were to check out page 336-337 in Birds of Peru you would be able to see that the Manu and Gray Antbird have the white tips, while the Black and the Blackish lack white in the tail.

Now if you look a little closer (click on the picture above to see full size), you can see a major feature of each bird that can help separate the two within each sub group.  In each group one bird is more of a slate-gray while the other is more black. One might take that as the major way to group the two, but in this case it's not .

Bird #1 is a Black Antbird, and it is the "blacker" of the two dark tailed birds.

Bird #2 is the Blackish Antbird, the more grayish colored bird of the dark tailed group.  I bet that makes it easy to separate #3 and #4 right?

Since Bird #3 looks to be more black that would make it the Manu Antbird.

And lastly Bird #4 the grayish bird is of course the Gray Antbird.

All 4 of these species occur in the Amazon and could theoretically be seen in relative proximity to one another.  Taking the time to learn how to separate the 4 will save valuable time in the field, and hopefully keep me from having to go to the book--which I will inevitably be doing for plenty of other similar groups of birds.

Within the Antwren family for instance, there are several other small groups that have the same issue as above--I guess I need to nail all these down pretty soon!

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My Top 5 List - Peru Prepping Part 3

posted by Tim Avery at
on Friday, June 22, 2012 

After getting through the first 20, I am finally down to my top 5 must see species for Peru.  

I would say this is a pretty safe top 5, in that I will probably see at least 4 of the 5 without too much work on my part.  The top 5 actually changed pretty drastically from my initial list which had 3 species of tanager.  Unfortunately, 2 of those birds are going to be impossible to get so I decided to switch things up.  But, no complaints here--the list that follows are the 5 birds I want to see more than any other while in Peru.

5. Parrot-billed Seedeater
Some might call it a rather drab bird--not overly colorful and no striking plumage features. What it lacks in color, it more than makes up for in "parrot-bill". It literally has a parrot-shaped bill--but on a sparrow/finch body. It's something of a whimsical looking bird, one that you just want to look at and admire for no other reason than that unique combination of bill and body. Some may be shocked at this point that I included such a drab bird with the amount of color and stand out plumage of the rest of the list--this bird certainly is in a different category. And that's why I like it so much. Not every bird in the tropics is overly colorful, gaudy, or strikingly patterned--and that's what makes some of them so unique. Well that, and in this case obviously the bill!

• • •

4. Chilean Flamingo
Would anyone be surprised that a flamingo made the top 5? Peru boasts 3 species during the time when I will be in country, with the Chilean being the most common and widespread. Part of the allure for me is the lasting impression of Pink Floyd, the escaped Chilean Flamingo from the Tracy Aviary that spent years wintering on the south shore of the Great Salt Lake. Seeing a flamingo in Utah in the wild was a sight to remember. Now actually potentially getting to see 100's in their native region certainly piques my interest. Flamingos are a bird that everyone recognizes--the horrendous yard decor found in garden centers at local hardware stores nationwide is a testament to that. As a birder, I can't think of a more elegant and graceful bird than the flamingo. So with my first opportunity to see one in the wild it had to be a top 5 bird for me.

• • •

3. Gilded Barbet
If you were to look back at my top 10 list for Costa Rica you would undoubtedly find a barbet there. In fact, I wanted to put both of Costa Ricas barbets on the list, but with only 10 species to pick for my top 10 I didn't want to pick two from the same family. Unfortunately, I skunked out on the barbets while there--but with Peru I have the possibility for 3 species--including this golden-orange and streaked beauty. It's not the most colorful of the barbets, but it is very striking. The bold pattern caught my attention in the guide, even on a page filled with red, yellow, green, and blue birds that looked more like something from a Dr. Suess book than the jungles of South America. These "mini-toucans" are awkward like the puffbirds, which probably lends to their charm for me--and is why the Gilded Barbet is my #3 bird for Peru.

• • •

2. Humboldt Penguin
It's a penguin--end of story. No seriously, I don't even need to say anything else, it's an effing Penguin in Peru.

• • •

1. Paradise Tanager
So what could honestly top a penguin--in fact, how could the penguin not be my #1 species to see while in Peru? I have got to be honest, it probably should be in the top spot. If there is one species that has mesmerized me since I found out it could be seen in Peru, it was the Humboldt Penguin. Of the several species worldwide of tropical penguins it is the first I will have the opportunity to see. And its a pretty spectacular species. It's a family that is associated with the Antarctic. They've been the subject of countless movies and documentaries--they are PENGUINS! But I must digress, I cannot help myself--I'm a tanager guy. My email addresses are western.tanager, tanager, and piranga. I have more birding memories involving tanagers than any other--or at least those are the ones that stuck out. It was the hook bird that wasn't my actual hook bird--but when I did finally see one, well I was hooked to them. A tanager was my top species to see in Costa Rica--the Speckled Tanager. Although I didn't get to see one in the wild, I was lucky to spend 30 minutes admiring one in an aviary before I left. My top 25 has been riddled with tanagers--Spotted, Flame-faced, Scarlet-bellied Mountain, and Grass-green. I had to take out Orange-eared and Golden Tanagers because I won't be going to locations where they are found anymore. Add in my number one and of the top 25, 7 would have been tanagers--instead I sit at 5 with my top pick being the gaudiest of the gaudy. This bird looks like it was hand dipped in a fluorescent paint to give it just the right mix of out of this world colors. Each time I flipped through the 50+ species of tanagers found in Peru I ended up back at the Paradise, drooling at the over the top bird. This species exemplifies the tropics through its colors. It could easily be the poster child for tropical birding--I mean it just looks tropical. When we deplane in Puerto Maldonado for our trip up the Rio Tambopota to the Explorer's Inn I will be on the prowl for this tanager. It is a relatively common tanager and rumor has it that all I need to do is spend some time in a canopy tower and I should be in luck. Hopefully I will be in luck and leave Peru with my most sought after species. Because there's a pretty good chance I wont find myself deep in the Amazon anytime in the near future after this visit. Thanks for taking the time to keep up with this drawn out top 25 list. Does anyone have a top 5 or 10 list they want to share--for Peru, the tropics, the USA, or even Utah? It's always fun to share these kind of things we dream about as birders!

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My Top 15 List - Peru Prepping Part 2

posted by Tim Avery at
on Tuesday, June 19, 2012 

So it's been a while since I posted the first 10 on my Peru Top 25 List.  If you need a refresher on those you can check out birds #25 to #16 here.  Now, here I am 2 months out from my trip and although I haven't learned many more birds than I knew several months ago, I have narrowed down the possibilities and finalized the places we are visiting--more on that later.  But for now let's jump into birds #15 to #6 and see some of the amazing birds I hope to see!

15. Many-colored Rush-Tyrant

I don't think I even need to explain why this bird made my top 25. What a combination of colors and pattern. This tiny marsh skulker is a stunning little thing. I should have plenty of opportunities at various locations to see this little stunner. If I can get a photograph half as good as the one above I will be ecstatic. This was a rather safe choice but every time I come across it in the field guide I can't help but admire it.

• • •

14. Yellow-bellied Dacnis

I saw Blue Dacnis in Costa Rica last year--and it was a vibrant blue bird among the canopy. But in terms of wow factor the Yellow-bellied Dacnis is WOW! Yellow and black bird with a red eye. The masked face gives this bird a memorable look, and from what I have read this should be a bird I pick up in Amazonia without too much trouble.

• • •

13. Bearded Mountaineer

ENDEMIC. That's a pretty good reason this bird made the list. Only found in a tiny patch of the country around the Inca capital of Cuzco I will have a few hours to look for this elegant hummer mid way through the trip. Aside from the fact its only found in Peru, it happens to have one of the coolest names of any bird. So unique, and pretty spectacular as well!

• • •

12. Magpie Tanager
It looks like a magpie... But it also looks like a tanager--that would be the Magpie Tanager of Amazonia. It's not hard to see why this bird was given its name, and its an easy to remember bird. There are some vibrant tanagers, and some tanagers with really cool names. This stark black-and-white bird isn't overly vibrant, but the name is pretty awesome--and despite the overall lack of color its not a bird anyone that see will forget anytime soon.
• • •

11. White-eared Puffbird
photo copyright  Octavio Campos Salles

Another bird that I don't think needs much of an explanation. Firstly, Puffbirds are amazing--and I missed every single one of them in Costa Rica. I should have ample opportunities for multiple species, and this one is probably one of the rarest I might have a shot at. The big orange bill and the striking head pattern on the almost comical looking puffbird make it a major prize.
• • •

10. Torrent Duck

There are about half a dozen species of waterfowl I will undoubtedly see while in Peru--and the Torrent Duck is pretty much a sure thing. These birds are a common sight in boulder strewn fast-moving mountain rivers--as their names aptly suggest. This is one of the birds commonly reported from the town of Aguas Calientes--which is the jump off point for Machu Picchu. This is just one of several river specialists in the area, it just so happens to be a pretty cool looking bird as well.

• • •

9. Grass-green Tanager

Another Tanager! You betcha. What a gaudy looker too. The green color is pretty unique in the bird world--throw in that red bill and brown mask and that's a memorable bird. Unfortunately, this bird is probably out of the question now that we are skipping the Manu Road area. But I can still dream about lucking myself into one--maybe.

• • •

8. Red-billed Scythebill
I don't think anyone can argue that the woodcreeper, tree-hunter, foliage-gleaner, scythebill, etc, complex is an interesting amalgamation of birds. They are probably one of the hardest groupings of birds to learn to identify--and to remember the field marks for just due to the number of species and how similar the vast majority of them are to one another. I'm not going to lie, in Costa Rica this was a pain point for me. I only saw a handful of them, but I didn't identify a single one in the field. I took quick notes on each one and then tried to snap a photograph so I could go back and ID them later. It worked--but even with the photos and notes some of those were pretty hard to name. Fast forward a year, and Peru is a whole other story--more species, more similar species, and more confusion. I have for the most part avoided this section of the book as I know it's going to be a game of take notes and photos and hope for the best. But even in the midst of this crazy group, there are species that stick out. The scythebills are one family that is hard not to notice--the big decurved bills on these creatures are stunning. It's like a curlew bill on a woodpecker. The Red-billed Scythebill is the Amazonian species from the group that caught my attention. It's one of just 2 I will have the opportunity to look for and the red bill is a standout feature--plus ID'ing this species won't be too difficult given that unique feature.

• • •

7. Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan
I love toucans--maybe it's a throwback to my childhood and the boxes of Fruit Loops in the cupboard. Toucan's are awesome birds--large billed--almost awkward billed in fact. A mix of colors, and patterns that create visually stunning birds. There are a handful of species of toucans, toucanets, barbets, etc in Peru, and each one is as vivid as the next. The mountain-toucans are unique in that they are found in--the mountains! As opposed to the lower elevation brothers and sisters, these toucan's are a high elevation specialist typically found between 8,000' and 11,000'. I think one thing that really caught my attention of this species was how different it is from the typical toucan. The slate gray body color is pretty striking in itself. Throw in the 5+ colored bill, the red undertail, dark cap, green back, etc, etc, etc, and it's just a visual masterpiece--the perfect mix of everything so to speak.

• • •

6. Crimson-bellied Woodpecker
There were a handful of woodpeckers in Peru that really grabbed my attention when I flipped through the field guide. I could easily have made a list of my top 5 woodpeckers to see in Peru. From the Andean Flicker, to the Little Woodpecker there are some pretty sweet looking birds to see. But in the end I settled on a vibrant, bold, and distinctive Campephilus Woodpecker. How could I not focus on a bird from the same genus as the fabled Ivory-billed Woodpecker? And what birder isn't intrigued by this group of large and powerful birds? These are the woodpeckers that as a child I associated all woodpeckers with--thank you Woody. It was a shock to me when I started birding that the only one I could see in America was extinct--the very similar Pileated belongs to a different genus, and it would be almost a decade before I laid eyes upon one of them. Now almost 20 years later I am still yet to see a species of Campephilus, but will have several too hopefully ogle over in the jungle--and in my opinion the Crimson-bellied is the star of the show.

Stay tuned for my Top 5 List later this week!

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Rescuing an Owl

posted by Jeff Bilsky at
on Sunday, June 17, 2012 

On Saturday June 16th, I was visiting the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah (WRCNU) with a friend. As we arrived, a call came in regarding an owl that was "hanging from underneath a bridge". We volunteered to go check it out and see if we could be of any help. The reports were that it had been there at least a couple of days. After some help on directions, we found the location of the bird and identified it as a Great Horned Owl. It was hanging upside down, at least 50 feet up from its nest and one foot appeared tangled rather severely in what we now know was baling twine. The bird was alive but clearly not doing well. It seemed to flap and struggle a bit every couple of minutes while one of its parents and a sibling looked on from close by. 

After some discussion with a DNR official about our options, we concluded that the best bet for helping the owl would be to try to find a truck with a ladder. Dalyn Erickson at the WRCNU was able to get in touch with the South Weber Fire Department who came over and assessed the situation. The challenge was how to get their truck down to the area below the bridge. It was located on a small dirt road, off the main drive and was gated. Despite these obstacles, they acted quickly and were able to get the truck in and positioned to try to help.

As a handful of hopeful people watched, the fire department sprang into action. Here's a video:

After the owl was handed off, we brought it directly to the WRCNU for assessment.
At this point, they are still working on the owl; it will lose at least 1 and a half toes, but there is some hope that it could have enough of a recovery to be released into the wild some day. We should know more in the coming days.

I thought it was really cool to watch so many people pull together for a common cause. The fire department wasn't obligated to try to help this owl, but they never hesitated once they saw they had the ability to do so. As always, I was amazed by my visit to the WRCNU and all the creatures they are trying to help. If you'd like to contribute to their efforts to heal this owl and the countless other birds and animals they take in, please go to this link .

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Ageing "brown" Merlins

posted by Jerry Liguori at
on Friday, June 15, 2012 

The discussion of how to tell adult female from juvenile Merlins has come up several times in the past few months. There is variation in juvenile and adult plumage and great variation and overlap in race. Often it is impossible to tell adult female from juvenile Prairie Merlin (and the same for black Merlin). However, typical adult female and juvenile Taiga Merlins can be told apart.

 Check out these typical birds, juvenile on the left, adult female center and right (right bird - photo by Pete Gustas, "click" to enlarge). The juvenile is pale with brown streaks and a brown head. The adult female is buffer underneath with broader, "blobby" streaks, and a slate-colored head. The topside is also slate-gray compared to the browner juvenile. Notice the retained juvenile inner secondaries and upperwing coverts on the topside, that are browner in color.

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An Empid Challenge

posted by Tim Avery at
on Monday, June 11, 2012 

Based on a couple recent flycatcher identification challenges on UBIRD I decided to throw together a little quiz involving 6 head shots of empids side by side for comparison. I tried to size match as best I could so that the bills were somewhat accurate based on averages described from field guides.

These pictures were taken at various times in various places around the United States.  All 6 birds pictured (maybe 6 different species, maybe not) do occur in Utah annually.  This is just for fun so feel free to take a stab and maybe talk about why you assigned an ID to a certain bird.  Empidonax Flycatchers are a tough group of birds and we could all use a little  discussion to improve our ID skills!

Click on the image for a slightly larger version.

The hardest part about a visual headshot quiz is that there is no habitat, no song, and no primary projection to help in the ID--all we have is apparent head shape, bill, size, and color, eye-ring, etc.

I will post a full recap on the birds, where they were photographed, etc in a couple days.  If you can't wait, all the photos are posted on my website--but please don't post answers if you go there and look first!

Good Luck!

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Similar-looking species

posted by Jerry Liguori at
on Friday, June 8, 2012 

I was out one day talking birds with Tim Avery and Jeff Cooper, and the topic "telling the difference between birds that appear identical in plumage and shape" such as Sharp-shinned from Cooper's Hawks, and light Harlan's from other Red-tails, came up. I remember saying - telling similar species by their structure and the way they move is like telling a friend or family member from a distance by the way they walk or their figure. Then, Jeff Cooper said "I understand, I have identical twins and I can tell them apart." I remember thinking that is a perfect analogy...."they are identical Jeff, but you are so familiar with them you can tell them apart with ease.

Well, Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawks are very similar in appearance but not identical. The more observing you do, the easier difficult ID's become. I hope to see people out this fall watching hawks in the field, its the best (and really only) way to learn!!! Nothing looks like a Harris's Hawk (photo above, "click" to enlarge), I just like them.

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