Saturday, July 31, 2010

Mountain Bluebird

While staying in Silverthorne, Colorado, during the first week of July this summer, Val wanted to take some photos of boats in the Lake Dillon Marina, so on our way to our daily hike, we stopped in a pullout on the side of the road and hiked down to the bike trail that circled Lake Dillon. While she made her way to the Marina, we saw some yellow birds taking flight into a grove of trees in the scrubby bush habitat between the road and the bike trail. I though that this might be a perfect oppurtunity to find some Wilson's Warblers, but the yellow birds turned out to be Yellow Warblers. I couldn't find any Wilson's Warblers, but I did see a pair of blue birds that I mistakenly took for Scrub Jays or Pinion Jays, but as I looked at my photos later I realized their beaks weren't large enough for these two types of Jays. The pair (Below, 7-6-10) were Mountain Bluebirds - male and female. At the time they didn't register in my mind as what I thought Mountain Bluebirds should look like. They looked too scrubby - not blue enough.

A pair of Mountain Bluebirds near the Lake Dillon bike trail

A year ago when I was camping in Rocky Mountain National Park I witnessed a Mountain Bluebird sitting on the tip of young pine tree, but was too far away to capture a decent photo. So this year, when we set up camp in the same Rocky Mountain National Park campground, one of my goals was to get a good picture of a Mountain Bluebird (This was before I realized the photos I took at Lake Dillon were actually Mountain.Bluebirds).  I arose early after our first camping night with the hopes of scouting out the same area where I saw last year's Mountain Bluebird.  As luck would have it, not only did I spot a Mountain Bluebird, but I noticed it was hanging around a particular tree on the slope of the mountain. Then I saw it enter a hole in a distant tree (Below, 7-8-10) and I knew that it was probably a nest.

I made my way closer to the tree and perched myself on a rock about 20 feet from the side of the tree and waited. In less than 5 minutes, not only did the male return, but was joined by his mate, which entered the hole in the tree several times carrying bugs to probably feed her young. She would perch (Below top, 7-8-10) on the edge of the rim for only a second before disappearing into the hole. Then she would stick her head out for a fraction of a second before taking flight (Below bottom, 7-6-10).  After several attempts of trying to photograph the female I finally decided to focus my camera on the hole and wait for her to return and I was finally able to capture her.

The male, however, was bolder and hung around the tree gaurding his family, so he was much easier to focus on to get some good photo ops (Below, 7-8-10).

Male Mountain Bluebird, looking at me wondering what business I might have with his family housed in the tree behind him.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Scrub Jay

Another Western bird form the Jay family is the Scrub Jay. They are more common along the Pacific Coasts of California and Oregon, and are less common inland; however, all of the photos I have of Scrub Jays are from inland habitats. I saw a few of them in my latest trip to Colorado, but did not get any photos. The photo (Below top, 6-9-09) of the Scrub Jay was taken at Grosvner Arch near Escalante, UT.  We had driven for over an hour on Cottonwood Canyon Road (Below middle, 6-9-09), a windy, dusty dirt road, to get to this back country park, but was well worth the time and dust for both the scenery (Below bottom, Grosvner Arch, 6-9-09) and the Scrub Jay.

Scrub Jay on the outhose roof at Grosvner Arch Picnic Area

My trusty Subaru Forester on Cottonwood Canyon Road

Grosvner Arch - sandstone Arch

Another photo of a Scrub Jay (Below, 12-29-05), I took while we were hiking the South Kaibab Trail in the Grand Canyon, AZ. At the time I took the pic I thought I had taken a picture of a Western Bluebird, but I have since become a learned man.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Clark's Nutcracker

Because I grew up in Wisconsin, and my bird knowledge came mainly from my Grandmother, Mother and one cool bird identification book (which I apologize do not remember its title) which covered mainly birds that resided east of the Mississippi River, I had little knowledge of Western birds. Thus when I saw my first Clark's Nutcracker while hiking in Mt. Ranier National Park in 2006 (Below, 7-22-06), my first reaction was, "What is that?" and my second reaction was, "I've got to get a picture so I can identify it later."  This might be another incident that eventually led me to to be interested in bird photography. I am always very happy when I see a bird I have never seen before, and doubly happy when I can identify it.

The Clark's Nutcracker is part of the Jay / Crow family and has an interesting etymology. It is named after the American explorer William Clark (yes - of Lewis and Clark fame), who encountered one of these birds in 1805 while he was on one of his famous expeditions. Clark's main job was a map maker, but he also took careful notes about the wildlife he encountered. Because he was the first person to introduce this species to the science world, it was named after him. The "nutcracker"part of the name is derived from the fact that these jays feed mainly on pine nuts, and with their long beak are able to dig deep into a pine cone to pull out the edible pine nut. Then they hide little caches of nuts all over the mountainside so they can feed during the long mountain winters. Not only do they count on the Pine trees for their meals, but the Pines count on the Nutcrackers to spread their seed all over to create new seedlings. Quite a symbionic relationship, eh?

Clark's Nutcrackers can be found along mountainsides ranging from New mexico in the south up to British Columbia in the north. I've seen them at Crater Lake Nat. Park (OR), Bryce Canyon Nat. Park (UT), and near Vancouver, Canada. Last summer ('09) Val and I hiked up to the beautiful May Lake in Yosemite Nat. Park (CA), and while we were expoloring around the lake, two Clark's Nutcrackers were chattering away and flying all over the place. They must have been having an argument, becausee they were quite noisy - probably arguing who ate the last pine-nut cache. It seemd that one was trying to get away from the other one, but the pursuer would not let him be. Finally after flying from tree to tree, one landed in the snow out in the open, and soon the other one followed - scolding the first the entire time. In the photo (Below, 6-22-09) the body language says it all, the Nutcracker on the left looks definately defeated with its head and beak pointing down in a slight droop while the one on the right is surely letting him know what he did wrong.

I am not taking any sides here, but can we say "henpecked?" ... or is it "nutcracked?"

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Golden-crowned Kinglet

Another small Mountain bird that nests in conifer forests and forages in low brush is the Ruby-crowned Kinglet.  I was on the same bike path in Silverthorne, CO, as my 7-27 post of the Mountain Chickadee, when I must have come close to a nesting pair of these cute little Kinglets (only about 4" long) because they were vigorously chattering at me and never really strayed too far away. I have never seen a Kinglet before, and was lucky enough to see both a Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets (as beautiful as the Golden-crowns were, my photos of them were of poor quality); however, I was very pleased with my Ruby-crowns photos (Top Below, female, 7-6-10). In fact, if I didn't get the picture of the male (Below Bottom, 7-6-10) with the little patch of red feathers on its crown, I might have had a harder time identifying it correctly. I lucked out, because the "ruby" crown feathers are not always visible.

Just for the heck of it, I'll post a photo of one of the Golden-crowned Kinglets I tried to capture. I was on a hiking trail that the first two miles meandered through a dark deep conifer forest (on the way to Mohawk Lakes near Breckinridge, CO). There was a a pair of Golden-crowns flitting away high in the tree tops of a pine. They wouldn't stay still and stayed high in the tree. I waited for at least 15 minutes (Val will concur, she wondered where I was as she was far ahead of me on the trail) and probably took 30-40 shots, but the best I could get is below (7-6-10). You can see why I was dissappointed in not getting a better image as the bird is very beautiful with its golden crown glowing in a patch of sunlight. Even trying to process the "raw" image in Photshop and lightening up the pic by quite a large percentage, this is best I can offer. The challenges of bird photography. I don't know why the birds can't land in front of me and sit still. What are they thinking? I am not that menacing looking.

Both species of Kinglets flitted around constantly and would stay put for only a fraction of a second before flying to a new perch. The difference in the quality of my photos is purely proximity. I was only a couple of yards away from the Ruby-crowns, but was a good 100 feet or more from the Golden-crowns.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Mountain Chickadee & Black-capped Chickadee

Another common Rocky Mountain bird is the Mountain Chickadee (Above, 7-4-10), often seen foraging in conifer forests. I shot this photo just yards off a busy bike trail in Silverthorne, CO. She was hanging around a Spruce tree with a couple of her older young.  I just missed getting a pic of her feeding one of her youngsters, which was almost as big as her (Below, 7-4-10). The juvenile is on the left.

In Northern Illinois and throughout the Midwest, the Northern East and West is the common Black-capped Chickadee. They are the same size and have the same habits as the Mountain Chickadee. The main visual difference as you can see the Black-capped (Below, 2-9-10 in our front yard, and Bottom, 2-21-09, feeding on suet cake in our backyard) has a full black cap; whereas, the Mountain Chickadee's cap is broken by a wide white eyebrow (which gives it a more devilish look) and has less white in its wing feathers. The Black-capped chickadee's flanks are more buff colored than the Mountain Chickadee's grayish flanks.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Blue Grouse & White-tailed Ptarmigan, Mt. Elbert

Perhaps I need to rename my blog, because this is the second consecutive post that I am including pics other than birds.

Another upland game bird that resides in the Western mountains is the Blue Grouse. While hiking down from a 9 mile hike from Bear Lake to the Fern Lake trailhead in Rocky Mountain National Park (it is cool that we can start a hike in one area and end it in another area, then catch a free shuttle bus to our car), we witnessed a mother Blue Grouse with her brood of a dozen chicks. While none of our chick pics were very noteworthy, I did get a decent snapshot of the mother (Above, 7-9-10) before they all scurried out of sight. Our first thought was that it was a Ptarmigan, but upon further research I believe it to be a Blue Grouse (if anyone thinks it may be another type of bird, let me know - I strive to be accurate).

Another Blue Grouse (Below, June, '06) Val photographed in Mt. Ranier National Park, Washington. At the time we also thought we were seeing a Ptarmigan.

I photographed an actual Ptarmigan (Below, 7/27/'05)  on our climb up Mt. Elbert (Colorado's highest Peak at 14,433' above sea level).  We were about half way up the mountainside when I heard a soft cooing sound. I looked around to locate its origin when I heard it again and saw a slight movement near my feet. The Ptarmigan was sitting no more than a couple of feet off the trail. If it hadn't made any noise, I would have likely trouped right past it as it blended perfectly into its surroundings. I couldn't have been luckier to get such a great shot (especially with my old Sony DSC-H1) of a White-tailed Ptarmigan which is not a common sight. The White-tailed Ptarmigan is the only Ptarmigan species that resides south of Alaska and the Northern regions of Canada. If you are as lucky as I was, you might see one in the highest Colorado Rockies or in the very highest parts of California's Sierras.

Val thinks this photo of the White-tailed Ptarmigan might be an early plant into my subconscious of attempting to become a bird photograper.

We left Val's then Colorado home at 5 AM to get to the base of the mountain to be able to start our hike by 6 AM so we could reach the summit before noon.  As we turned into the dirt road leading to the trailhead, the sun had just peaked over the horizon lighting up Mt. Elbert perfectly for us. How could we not stop to get a picture. An early morning sunlit Mt. Elbert (Below, 7-27-05) is majestically showing itself between a layer of clouds and the rising mist from the valley below - daring us to climb it.

We summited by 11 AM. Photos (Below, 7-27-05) we took of eachother to prove it! We couldn't believe that there was no wind, which is almost unheard of at the top of a Colorado 14'er, and the sun was shining with no sign of the typical mountain storm brewing. If my memory serves correctly, it took us 5 hours to climb up, hung around the summit for about 30 minutes, and only 3 1/2  hours to get back down. So we were back to our car by 3:30 PM.

Jon on top of Colorado's Mt. Elbert.

Val on top of Colorado's Mt. Elbert.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Snipe, "Common" or "Wilson's"

The past two summers we have been lucky enough to camp in Rocky Mountain National Park and we love it - what a beautiful park with lots to offer.  Anyway, one of the things I love about camping is lying in the tent at night and listening to the natural sounds made by those nocturnal beings that one does not often encounter in the daylight. In the numerous places that I have found myself in a tent, I have heard many sounds that when compounded by the dark, just seem to register in the eerie (not scary) column: owls hooting, deer snorting, loons wailing, wolves howling, coyote's yipping, whip-poor-wills calling, bears woofing, etc. 
 Last summer in Rocky Mt. Nat. Park, one of those "eerie" sounds came from the marshy creek area in the valley below Moraine Park Campground. As soon as I heard it I knew it to be either a snipe or a woodcock, or some such upland marsh bird.  It was a sort of a whooping sound that increased in speed and volume as it carried through the night.  Upon returning to Rockford, Illinois, after the trip, I listened to my bird recordings, and sure enough, it was a Snipe. My Audubon Guide just mentions the Common Snipe, while my Sibley's Guide just mentions the Wilson's Snipe. Then the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's website (btw is a fantastic source) mentions both. They look similar and sound similar. The difference is how many pairs of feathers one has in its tail.

So ... this summer while lying in the tent in the same campground, I was hoping to hear the sound again - and sure enough, on July 7, late at night, I heard the hollow winnowing sound carrying across the valley increasing in speed. It was so eerily cool that I made up my mind that when I have a chance, I will go on this "Snipe hunt."  I have further learned that the sound created by the Snipe is not vocal, but it is created when it flaps its wings to create an airflow over its outstretched tail feathers. Each whooping sound corresponds to each wingbeat. This sound is called "winnowing."
The next day after our daily hike, we had some time before we started dinner, so I took a hike down the valley (the same valley with Magpieville, see my 7-20 post), and as I came closer to the creek, the terrain became very marshy. As I was planning my next move, a coyote loped through the tall grass just yards from me. (Eventhough this is a bird blog, I included a pic of the coyote below 7-8-10).

Okay - back to the Snipe Hunt - I was glad I wore my waterproofs, because I decided to slosh through the marsh and eventually I found a shallow enough section to cross the creek. As I was halfway across the creek, I heard the winnowing of the Snipe - it was close. I was a bit surprised to hear it during sunlit hours. As I pulled myself up over the waist high bank on the other side of the creek, I again heard the winnowing. I gained my footing, and reached for my camera as I scanned the terrain. And not more than 20 yards in front of me, sitting on a dead branch of a low bush was a bird with a long beak eyeing me warily - the Snipe! I was stunned - it sitting out in the open in broad daylight. My heart beat wildly, hoping it would not take flight while I was getting my camera ready. I slowly raised my camera to my eye and It remained still - long enough to for me to click off 4 or 5 shots. Then I thought I'd try to get slightly closer, but soon as I moved, it took off in a low flight beating its wings into the brush. But I couldn't believe my luck that I even saw a Snipe, and hoped at least one of my photos turned out (Below, 7-8-10).

Whoever said "Snipe Hunts" were a wild goose chase, didn't chase the correct "goose."

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Yellow-rumped "Audubon's" Warbler , Yellow -rumped "Myrtle" Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warblers were both visible and audible on many of the trails that I hiked while in Colorado. The photo (Above, 7-8-10) was taken on a hike up Deer Mt. in Rocky Mountain National Park. Note the yellow throat, which is one of the main differences between the Western ("Audubon's Warbler") and Eastern ("Myrtle Warbler") populations. 

The Eastern population, also known as the Yellow-rumped Myrtle, has a white throat that wraps around below a darker cheek. As you can see above, the Western Warbler's yellow throat does not extend to its cheek. The photo of the Myrtle (Below, 5-17-09) was taken in Rock Cut State Park in Northern Illinois.  It may have been passing through on its migration further North into Canada or the northern regions of Wisconsin and Michigan. The "Myrtle" will spend summers in the Northeast as well (New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine)

Below (6-26-09) is another Audubon's Warbler (or is it a Myrtle?), taken on the beautiful Alta-Meadow Trail in Sequoia Nat. Park, California. It appears to be a young bird as you can see the yellow throat feathers just coming in. ...Or as I read in the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, the two species (or at least were once thought to be two species) hybridize "freely" where their two zones overlap. Perhaps this is a hybrid? Note the yellow and white throat feathers.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Black-billed Magpie and American Crow

Two other very common birds in the Western Rockies are the Magpie (which can be found year round in the Mountains from New Mexico to Alaska) and the the American Crow (which everyone, with the exception of the extreme Southwest, has in their neighborhood all year long). The photo (Below, 7-4-10) of the Black-billed Magpie  was taken in Silverthorne, CO, along the bike path which runs through town and around Lake Dillon and joins up with a huge network of bike paths throughout the County. Magpies have beautiful black, white, and blue feathers, which are very striking when they fly.

You can always identify a Magpie as it flies by - with the flash of white and blue feathers in its primaries (wingtips)  and  scapulars (shoulders). Although the quality of the photos has much to be desired - I tried to capture a Magpie in flight to show you the brilliant wings - all three photos (Below, 7-9-10, Rocky Mountain Nat. Park) were taken in succession with the Sports "burst" mode.

The American Crow (Below, 7-6-10) was posing on a fence rail for me on the same bike trail as the Magpie in the very top picture.

One of my favorite photos from last year was also in Rocky Mountain National Park in a meadow in the valley below Moraine Park campground, where the Magpies seem to have colonized a particular area - as they were all over the place and made it clear to any non-Magpie (including me) that this was their territory. While I was wandering through Magpieville, a Crow happened to venture in. The Magpies were none too pleased as they began squawking at the Crow, who seemed to relish in infuriating them.  I happened to be in the right place at the right time, and (Below, 7-3-09) I captured the Crow and a Magpie having a staring contest. Although you can't see the expression on the Crow's face, but he certainly seemed to be enjoying taunting the Magpie, which you can see does not have a look of content.

Eventually, the Magpies were successful in driving off the intruder.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Brewer's Blackbirds

I just returned from a fabulous week in the magnificent Colorado Rocky Mountains. What better time would there be to post some photos of Rocky Mountain birds? Over the course of the week, I identified either by sight or sound approximately 60 birds. Of those, 38 made their way into my camera's viewfinder, and of those 38 perhaps about 1/3 of those became acceptable photos.  Everytime I have a "just miss" oppurtunity to get the photo I want, I get frustrated, but then I have to tell myself - that's what's fun about bird photography - it's always a challenge.  Getting a good bird picture is like getting a hit in baseball - you're doing good if you get a hit 30% of the time. Sometimes I am lucky by being in the right place at the right time, and sometimes I get lucky by coming across an unusually bold bird who doesn't scare easily and gives me plenty of chances to try to get it right.

I'll start out my series of Rocky Mountain birds with the Brewer's Blackbird, which we can find migrating through Northern Illinois in early Spring (April and May), but they settle their summers in the Mountain States (Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, and Utah), Canada and the North Midwestern states (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and North Dakota). They are very bold, especially if you get too near their nests. They will hover over you and chip at you until they feel you are no longer a danger to their nesting site. The photo below of a female Brewer's Blackbird was taken in Silverthorne, CO on 7-4-10. As you can see by the picture, she was squawking up a storm.

The photo below is of a male Brewer's Blackbird (note their very dramatic white eye - gives them a demon-like quality) was taken in Rocky Mountain National Park, near the Moraine Park campground.on 7-8-10.

Both of these specific birds were quick to tell me that I had better move on and not linger around their neighborhood; however, being as I was slightly bigger than either of them, I stayed put until the photos were taken. Below, the same two birds were giving me their famous stare down.

No birds were harmed in the taking of these photos.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Grey Crowned Crane

I lied - how about another bird with a crest (actually it is more of a crown than a crest) - just for the fun of it. I took this photo of a Grey Crowned Crane, while mosying around the Atlanta Zoo. It was in the African section in the same area with giraffes, zebras, and rhinos. I am assuming its name implies  grey Crane with a crown, not a Crane with a grey crown.

Sunday, July 11, 2010


8th and last in my series of "crested" birds is another Southwest bird with a great name - the Phainopepla.  To be honest, until the winter of 2008, I have never heard of this bird.  Val and I were hiking in the McDowell Mts. near Phoenix, AZ, when Val took a picture (above, 12-24-08) of this bird. It wasn't until later in the day when we were looking at our photos, Val asked me what kind of bird was in her photo - I had no idea - it wasn't in any bird book I have ever seen -it looked like a black cardinal.  It didn't take much research to find out what it was. It is a fairly common bird in the Southwest. However because of its dark blue / black feathers, it is very difficult to get a picture of it on a bright day with a white/gray sky. 

A year later we purposely went back to the McDowell Mts. hoping to get a better picture. Sure enough, there were Phainopeplas to be seen, but it was another bright day with a white sky, and it was hard to get anything but silhouettes in our photos. Below (12-30-09) I did manage to get close enough to get some definition of the bird, but it was still a challenge. Maybe we'll try again next winter, during our annual winter migration to Arizona.

Saturday, July 10, 2010


7th in  my series of "crested" birds is (I love its name) the Pyrrhuloxia.  They are only found in Southeast  of Arizona, South New Mexico, and Southwest Texas, as well as throughout Mexico. Given this limited range in the States, I was lucky to catch one at fairly close range while visiting Tucson, AZ, last winter. If I didn't read about them ahead of time, I might have dismissed it as a female cardinal. The Pyrrhuloxia's bill is more yellow than the cardinal's orange beak, and there is more red on its face and breast. Below are a couple of photos I took on 12/27/09.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Northern Cardinal

Probably the most well-known of all the Crested birds (6th in my series) is the Illinois State Bird - the Northern Cardinal.  Cardinals are present all four seasons in Northern IL. Their song is very recognizable and their striking red color is easy to spot at their perches within the tree branches. Above (1-31-10) a female enjoying a winter meal at our backyard feeder. Below top (5-2-10) a male at Rock Cut State park, IL; below middle (12-27-09) a male peaking at me between the branches in Tucson, AZ (close to the edge of their Western most range);  below bottom, backlit by the winter morning sun, a Cardinal joined by a Slate-colored Junco at our front yard feeder, both looked at me at the same time when I snapped their photo (1-31-09).

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Stellar Jay

Another Jay (5th in the series) with a crest is very common out West (very seldom seen east of the Rockies). The Stellar Jay is the same shape and size as the Blue Jay, but with a black head, back and breast, and much less white. We saw many Stellars when we were in Yosemite Nat. Park, CA, last summer. I took the pic (Above) of this beggar while we were resting on a longhike in Kings Canyon Nat. Park, CA. He hung around for some time and actually ate some trail mix seed right out of my hand - one bold bird. (Below, June, '06), Val snapped this photo in Mt. Ranier Nat. Park, WA. This shows how large Stellars' crests can be.