Sunday, May 27, 2012

Eastern Bluebirds and other Northern Illinois March Migrants

A female Eastern Bluebird in Rock Cut State Park, 3/24/2012.
I am sorry that due to my work that kept me indoors from dawn to dusk, I missed a fantastic March of unseasonably warm weather that brought many migrating birds up north earlier than usual. I literally was unable to get outside to do any birding until the 3rd week of March. So my list of FOYs and migrating birds is rather short. Newly arrivals that I was able to spot in the last week of March were Eastern Bluebirds (Above), Eastern Phoebes, Turkey Vultures, Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets, and Chipping Sparrows (Below).
Chipping Sparrows showed up at my backyard feeder, Rockford, IL; 3/29/2012.
I neglected to mention waterfowl in my last post about February migrants, so here is a list of early arrivals for both February and March:
February: Buffleheads, Common Mergansers, Lesser Scaups (all three of these first three could very well have been here all Winter), Greater-white-fronted Geese, Red-breasted Mergansers, Ruddy Ducks, and Greater Scaups.
March: Common Loons, Horned Grebes, Eared Grebes, Pied-billed Grebes (Below), and Northern Shovelers.
An Eared Grebe, Bauman Park, Cherry Valley, IL; 3/31/2012.
Pied-billed Grebe, Rock Cut State Park; 3/24/2012.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Early Birds - Eastern Meadowlarks and other February Migrants to Northern Illinois

The early bird gets the  ... uh... the snow cone.
Lapland Longspurs and Horned Lark graze for something to eat on a snowy frozen field near Cherry Valley, IL; 2/25/2012.
Yestreday I blogged about a yellow-bellied Sapsucker that I saw in early February, which would be uncommon for that species to already have arrived in our territory of Northern Illinois. So today I will mention all the migrants who I have observed during the month of February, which officially was still Winter in these parts. As you can see by the picture (Above), even in a light snowfall winter, Northern Illinois still had snow on the ground in late February. Winter residents such as Lapland Longspurs, Horned Larks, American Tree Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncoes were still present for another one or two months.
Because February and March are busy months for my High School Theatre work, I don't get out birding as much as I'd like to. So with that disclaimer, other than the 2/5/12 Sapsucker other "early birds" included: Red-winged Blackbirds arrived on 2/19 (I first heard and saw them in Starved Rock State Park), then were in the Rockford area a day later. Common Grackles and Brown-headed Cowbirds also joined the Red-wings at this early date.  On 2/20, I saw my first American Robins in Espenscheid Forest Preserve. Then a week later while I was cruising the farm fileds near Cherry Valley, looking for winter open field birds, such as the Longspurs and Horned Larks (Above), I heard an Eastern Meadowlark sing from a snow-covered cornfield. I scanned the fields and at first all I could spot was a small herd of White-tailed Deer (Below), until I spotted the bright yellow dot in the sunsetting light (also Below).
A small herd of wary White-tailed deer wondering why I was watching them, Cherry Valley, IL; 2/25/2012.

Can you spot the eastern Meadowlark?
An Eastern Meadowlark eyes its potential perch, Rock Cut State Park, 3/24/2012.
A month later I was following an Eastern Meadowlark as flew back and forth between a tree and the grassland prairie near Olsen Lake in Rock Cut State Park. I finally was able to capture one of its landings (Above). The photo (Below) remains one of my favorites of the year so far.
The Eastern Meadowlark about to touch down, Rock Cut State park; 2/25/2012.
It makes contact ...

Looking proud on its perch, RCSP; 2/25/2012.
Eventhough the pic (Above) is not the best in sharpness, I really like how the background greens and purples of the prairie and the distant trees help set off the bright yellows of the Meadowlark.

Other pics of early migrants below:
Brown-headed Cowbird, Starved Rock State park, IL; 2/19/2012.
Common Grackle, Rockford, IL; 2/19/2012.
Red-winged Blackbird, Starved Rock State Park; 2/19/2012.
Great Blue Heron, Rock Cut State Park,  3/29/2012.
The earliest Great Blue Heron I saw was from the car as I was returning to Rockford on I-39 from Starved Rock State park on 2/19. The pic (Above) was taken a month later.
I saw my first American Robin of the year, Espenscheid Forest Preserve; 2/20/2012.
Sun setting behind the vapor clouds of Byron Nuclear Plant, Cherry Valley, IL; 2/25/2012.
I can't help but include the sunset picture (Above), which I took soon after photographing the White-tailed Deeer and the Meadowlark (Top 3 pictures) from the country roads surroundng Cherry Valley, IL.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Anna Page Park, Rockford, IL

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Anna Page Park, Rockford, IL; 2/5/2012.
On an early Sunday morning of February 5th, I drove out to the west side of Rockford to check out a reported sighting of a flock of White-winged Crossbills. So while I was in the area, I decided to visit Anna Page Park, one of many beautiful Parks maintained by the Rockford Park District. I haven't been there in several years, and not since I have taken up birding as a hobby. I wasn't in the Park for more than ten minutes when I noticed a bird hovering above the trees. I wasn't sure what it was until it alit on a tree trunk. I was totally surprised to see a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Above). This species of woodpecker is not one of the several that will spend the winter in Northern Illinois. So seeing this guy was a treat and I thought that he might be taking advantage of the unusually mild and warm winter (February and March were especially warm) and arrive early. With this unseasonably warm weather, many birders were talking about the potential for migrants to start showing up early in northern Illinois. Another local birder buddy of mine, thought that perhaps this Sapsucker may have spent the winter here. Regardless of its reasons, I was happy to see it. On my trip into the Park, I wasn't able to get very good photos of it, but on my return trip out of the Park, he showed up again in the same area, and he gave me several nice open views.
The same Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Anna Page Park, Rockford, IL; 2/5/2012.
The only other time I saw a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker before this was two winters ago while Val and I were visiting Cancun, Mexico.  However, earlier this spring (1st week of April), while biking to school, I saw another Yellow-belly fly past in front of my bike and land on a utility pole.
The male is very handsome with its red crown and throat contrasting nicely with its white and black striped head. Its black and white mottled back is offset by white flanks and a dirty yellow belly. These sapsuckers normally will spend the winter a bit further south, from the southern half of Illinois all the way to the Gulf Coast and along the Atlantic coast from Deleware to Florida. They will then migate north for the summer to Northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan to the eastern edge of the dakotas and all the way to the Atlantic, In Canada they can be found in the Eastern and Central Provinces but also in the Northern halves of British Columbia and Alberta and even stretch their range into the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and even a bit across the border into Alaska. Not only are they a fun bird to see, but also has one of those names that non-birders like to hear and say.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Yellow-headed Blackbirds & other Cool Unique Bird Sounds Horicon Marsh NWR

A male Yellow-headed Blackbird looking all regal, Horicon Marsh NWR, WI; 5/13/2012.
Just last weekend I posted some pics of female Yellow-headed Blackbirds from a flock of all females near Portal, AZ, that I took during my Springbreak in April. At the time I was happy to see my first Yellow-heads in six years. But was dissapointed that there were no males in the flock. Then last weekend on Mother's Day, Val and I drove up to Wisconsin to visit my parents. We stopped for a brief side trip at the Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge to see if we could find any interesting birds.  The moment I stepped out of the car at the parking lot for the 'floating boardwalk" trail, I heard that rusty gate hinge sound in the distance, the sound that only a Yellow-headed Blackbird would make. Sure enough, one we got out onto the boardwalk, I saw a guy with his spotting scope aimed at some Yellow-heads in the distance cattails across the water. My camera barely could pick up a view of them. But it was cool to see the black body with a spot of bright yellow on top. I took a few obligatory long-distance pics and moved on to other birds.
Yellow-headed Blackbird, Horicon Marsh NWR, WI; 5/13/2012.
When it was time to go - we had to meet some of my siblings and my parents for a Mother's Day brunch, I saw another Yellow-head fly into the cattails that were along the roadside - a much closer picture worthy location.          
"STOP!" I yelled at Val (who was driving), and almost leaped out of the car before the wheels stopped turning. And there was my beautiful male Yellow-headed Blackbird posing nicely for me (Top Photo). While I was focussed on it it took off flying and landed even closer (Above).
Yellow-headed Blackbird, Horicon Marsh NWR, WI; 5/13/2012.
He gave me some good looks, and I was happy to oblige by taking his portrait. While taking his photo, within seconds of eachother, I heard three other bird calls which always make me smile: an American Bittern was "Gallunking" somewhere within the same cattail marsh, along with the "whinny" of a Sora Rail, and then joined by the howling of a Pied-billed Grebe. The trio was rounded off with the "grating rusty-gate-hinge" of the Yellow-headed Blackbird, a quartet of my favorite unique bird sounds. Only a whip-poor-will and a Loon would have made it the perfect concert.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Green-tailed Towhees and Spotted Towhee at the SanPedro Riparian NCA

A Green-tailed Towhee, San Pedro Riparian NCA, AZ; 4/10/2012.
I have seen several Green-tailed Towhees (Colorado, California and Utah) before my visit to the San Pedro Riparian NCA, but never such nice clear views (Above). So I was happy to oblige by taking their photos.
Another Green-tailed Towhee, San Pedro Riparian NCA, AZ; 4/10/2012.
Many of these Towhees were hanging around the feeders at the San Pedro House (Above and Below). These Towhees can be found wintering in the extreme southern borders of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, as well as throughout Mexico. For the summer they will migrate north into Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming and into the southern parts of Montana, and the western edge of California.
Green-tailed Towhee, San Pedro Riparian NCA, AZ; 4/10/2012.
Green-tailed Towhees are fairly common in dry brushy habitats, such as where the San Pedro House stood. They are colorful birds with greenish / yellowish wings, back, and tail, contrasting against a mostly gray body. They sport a bright red crown with black and white throat stripes, and white lores.
A Spotted Towhee skulking in the thickets around Green Kingfisher Pond, San Pedro Riparian NCA, AZ; 4/10/2012.
Green-tailed Towhees weren't the only Towhee species present at the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. I also stalked (it seemd like forever) a Spotted Towhee (Above) which was keeping itself well-hidden in the thickets around Green Kingfisher Pond. I heard it rustling and scratching the dry leaves on the ground, but could only manage to see parts of it at a time - a tail, a back, then a head. Until finally, it hopped up on a low branch and stood still long enough in a semi-open space for me to get its photo (Above).

Friday, May 18, 2012

Then there were 10 - Brewers Sparrows on Green Kingfisher Pond

Three Brewer's Sparrows, San Pedro Riparian NCA, AZ; 4/10/2012.
In April of 2012, I made a second visit to the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, near Sierra Vista, AZ,  and discovered "Greenfisher Pond," which for some reason I totally overlooked on my first visit in December of 2011. This pond is a great attraction for wintering birds looking for water in the Arizona desert. On my last visit I spent my entire birding hike following the San Pedro River and didn't even realize this pond existed. It goes to show that I should have visited the San Pedro House and picked up a map before I started my hike.  In December, I understand, this pond would have been quite "birdy." Now, five months later, there were still birds surrounding the pond, but for the most part,  wintering water fowl would have already vacated the area. American Coots were the only water fowl present, but there were land birds to see: Spotted Towhee, Red-winged Blackbirds, Vermillion Flycatchers, Wilson's Warblers, Lucy Warblers, Common Yellowthroats, Lincoln Sparrows, Northern Rough-winged Swallows, White-winged Doves, a Western Meadowlark, a Cassin's Kingbird and small gang of Brewer's Sparrows (Above). No, I didn't see a Green Kingfisher, but it would have been cool if I did. Since I have become a more avid birder (instead of an accidental birder), I have made it a point to pay closer attention to sparrows, So when I saw the PBB's (Plain Brown Birds - I didn't make this term up) feeding on a bank of the pond, I zoomed in on them with my Sigma 150-500mm lens, and saw that they were Brewer's Sparrows. These Western Sparrows are not present in my homeland of Rockford, IL, so I was glad to get some photos.
... and then there were ten...a family of Brewer's Sparrows, San Pedro Riparian NCA, AZ; 4/10/2012.
I took a couple of photos, put my camera down for a second, and when I looked into the viewfinder there were six Brewer's Sparrows sitting on the bank. I took a couple more pics, and suddenly there were ten of them (Above). I didn't even see them arrive. They were just appeared. The shapes of the bills and the slight streaking on the breasts of the sparrows nearest the water edge suggest that these are younger. Adult Brewer's Sparrows would have a cleaner breast. Also, the majority of the Brewer's at the water edge look as if they are waiting for something or perhaps even watching an adult approaching, expecting a treat?
A Lincoln Sparrow, San Pedro Riparian NCA, AZ; 4/10/2012.

Another Lincoln Sparrow, San Pedro Riparian NCA, AZ; 4/10/2012.
Other Sparrows at the Green Kingfisher Pond included a few Lincoln Sparrows (Above) and Song Sparrows (Below).
Song Sparrow, San Pedro Riparian NCA, AZ; 4/10/2012.

Another Song Sparrow, San Pedro Riparian NCA, AZ; 4/10/2012.
White-crowned Sparrows and a Pyrrhuloxia, San Pedro Riparian NCA, AZ; 4/10/2012.
And of course, there were White-crowned Sparrows (Above) abound, especially near the feeders at the San Pedro House.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Gould's Southwestern Wild Turkey

Wild Turkeys roaming through Ramsey Canyon, Sierra Vista, AZ; 4/9/2012.
Being from the the Midwest where Wild Turkeys are very common, it is not very surprising to see Wild Turkeys anywhere from in the middle of forests to strutting across a busy street with some nearby trees and bushes. However, if I didn't know prior to my visit to Ramsey Canyon that they existed in the Southwest, I would have been surprised when I saw Wild Turkeys, not just once, but three different times in completely different locations of the Canyon. These Southwestern Turkeys are known as the Gould's Wild Turkey and they are slightly larger than their northern relatives and also look slightly different. Gould's Wild Turkeys are one of five subspecies of Wild Turkeys in the country.
A Southwestern Wild Turkey, Ramsey Canyon, Sierra Vista, AZ; 4/9/2012.
The Gould's species that I observed had a lighter and warmer look to them. Their overall body is more brown (compared to the dark cool colors of the Northern species), and lighter back, rump, and tail feathers. These Turkeys I saw in Arizona also seemed to have redder faces, but I don't think that is a common identifying mark.  Check this link for more information about Gould's Wild Turkeys:
A Northern Wild Turkey, Rock Cut State Park, Rockford, IL; 5/23/2010.
The Northern Wild Turkeys (Above) that I have witnessed most of my life seem to be darker overall with grayish/blueish/greenish colorings, and their heads seem to be more bluish/grayish.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Yellow-headed Blackbirds

A cluster of Blackbirds were feeding in a vacant lot, Portal, AZ, 4/11/2012.
After finishing a vigorous 9 mile hike on the Cave Creek Canyon Trail in the Chiricahua Mt. National Monument in southeastern corner of Arizona, I was making my return trip to Sierra Vista. I was driving through the small town of Portal, just outside the Chiricahuas Mts. when I noticed a cluster of blackbirds (Above) feeding in a vacant lot. I needed to stop to refill my water bottle so I thought I'd check out what kind of Blackbirds were there. To my pleasant surprise, mixed in with some Brewers Blackbirds were some Yellow-headed Blackbirds.
A blurry photo of a male Yellow-headed Blackbird, Jackson WY; 6/2006.
The last time I saw a Yellow-headed Blackbird was in June of 2006, in Jackson, WY, and I didn't get a very good photo (Above). So I was happy to have another chance six years later to get a decent pic of this species. The birds were at the back of the lot and I was hoping to get close enough to get a good photo. They were busy feeding and all their heads were buried in the weeds. I took a few photos from the distance and slowly approached the flock to get a closer pic. But they scared easily and scattered in a cloud of wings (Below)
Brewers and Yellow-headed Blackbirds putting distance between them and me, Portal, AZ; 4/11/2012.

A female Yellow-headed Blackbird, Portal, AZ; 4/11/2012.

They landed in an adjacent field so I had to start my approach again. This time I decided not to get so close and tried to pick outsome Yellow-Heads and snapped pics as they lifted their heads to take a breather from feeding (Above and Below).

Another female Yellow-headed Blckbird, Portal, AZ; 4/11/2012.
Later, I noticed that all the Yellow-headed Blackbirds in this flock were females. Males are black (see the Male photo from Jackson, WY, 3 pics Above), while females are brown (2 pics Above).  I read later that these Blackbirds sometimes migrate in all males or females. So I came upon an all female flock which was joined by a mixed flock of Brewers Blackbirds.
Yellow-headed Blackbirds have quite a summer range stretching from the northern Midwest of Wisconsin and Minnesota to the Rocky Mountains and spreading south to Nevada, Utah, Colorado and into Northern New Mexico. In winter they will migrate to southern Arizona, and New Mexico and into all of Mexico. I was probably watching this flock on their northern Spring  migration.


Friday, May 11, 2012

Mexican Jays

Mexican Jay, Cave Creek Canyon, AZ, 4/11/2012.
During my Spring Break this year, I was able to do some hiking and birding in the Chiricahua Mts. National Monument. While hiking on the Cave Creek Canyon I added the Mexican Jay (Above) to my Life List. There was a small party of these raucous Jays flying up and down from the evergreens to the rocky creek feeding on dropped acorns and checking out the picnic tables in this day-use area.

One of the small band of Mexican Jays looking for an opportunistic meal, Cave Creek Canyon, AZ, 4/11/2012.
Mexican Jays are common within a small area of the U.S. - Southeastern Arizona and Southwestern New Mexico, as well as in the Big Bend Area of Texas.  I probably observed at least three different small bands of these Jays during my hike along the Cave Creek. They are very similar to the Western Scrub Jay but Mexicans have more blue on there face (Scrub Jays have a gray cheek).

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Vermillion Flycatchers Galore!

One of many Vermillion Flycatchers that appeared in the San Pedro Riparian NCA, AZ; 4/10/2012.
As I was just reaching the San Pedro River in the National Conservation Area of the same name, near Sierra Vista, AZ, a man and his large dog was coming towards me on the trail.
          "Oh, Great!" I thought, "Dogs and birding do not mix." My opinion was that dogs and their rambunctiousness and excitement to be out on the trail tend to scare birds away faster than even humans.  The man said to me,
          "I've been hearing lots of Vermillion Flycatchers singing, but I havn't been able to spot one yet." He was eying my 150-500mm Sigma lens attached to my Canon Rebel T1i dangling from my chest harness, and said, "I hope you find one for a photo. They sure are beautiful." We conversed for a few minutes about birds and the weather. He was bundled up in a winter-type coat with a knit cap and hood pulled over his head, and complained about being cold and hoped that it would warm up soon. I was in a short-sleeved shirt and shorts. It was over 60 degrees and the sun was rising over the large Cottonwoods and getting warmer. To me, it was a gorgeous day. Anyway, throughout our entire conversation, his dog sat patiently and quietly next to him - not rambunctious, not scaring any birds. I thought I might have to rethink my dogs vs. birding philosophy. We parted ways, and I followed the trail down the bank and I followed the river. Birds were singing. The sun was shining. I was in a great mood and started my early morning birding trek. The man was right about Vermillion Flycatchers. It sure didn't take me long to spot one. It was across the river, a bright red spot against the gray-green drab cottonwood foliage. I snapped a few pics that I knew wouldn't be any good, since it was at a "not quite good enough for pic" distance. Soon I saw another one at closer range - a few more pics. Then another one, and another one. Each one in a better position for a decent photo than the last. Throughout my 3-hour hike, I would guess I observed at least a dozen male Vermillions (Above), and probably another dozen females (Below).
A female Vermillion Flycatcher, San Pedro Riparian NCA, AZ; 4/10/2012.
Vermillion Flycatchers are not usually a common sight, but are found around desert habitat with water and trees available. The San Pedro River serves this purpose and is a likely habitat to find these beautiful red and black flycatchers. Arizona, Southern New Mexico, and the southwestern edge of Texas are the most probable locations to find them in the U.S., but would be much more common in Mexico. In the summers they might travel as far north as Southern Utah. In the winter months they will travel as far east as the Gulf Coast of  Eastern Texas.

Another male Vermillion Flycatcher, San Pedro Riparian NCA, AZ; 4/10/2012.
As you can see (Above) the males of this species have a bright red head, breast, belly and undersides. They are contrasted nicely with black wings, back, tail and mask and bill. On the black wings they have two very pale wing bars.  Females lack the bright red, and are lighter on the back and wings. Their breast will have some feint streaks, and further below pinkish or yellowish under the tail. The photo (two Above) shows a female with pink under the tail, while the photo (Below) shows a female with more whiite and some pale yellowish colorings under the tail.
Another female Vermillion Flycatcher, San Pedro Riparian NCA, AZ; 4/10/2012.
At first, I thought the female (Above) was another type of flycatcher or phoebe, but the white face, dark eyeline, the streaked breast, and the wing bars that are somewhat broken (not as solid as most flycatchers) gave it away as a Vermillion. A couple of more photos (Below) because I was drawn to them and it was hard to resist taking their pictures.

Yet another Vermillion Flycatcher, San Pedro Riparian NCA, AZ; 4/10/2012.
... and another ... same place.
Don't you just love these guys? To quote the man with the big dog, "They sure are beautiful."

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Yellow-eyed Junco, Cave Creek Canyon, AZ

While hiking 9 miles on the Cave Creek Canyon Trail in the Chiricahua Mt. National Monument, Arizona, during my Spring Break from Northern Illinois, I was hoping to see some birds I don't get the chance to see in the Midwest and perhaps a slew of migrants making their way through the area on their way to more northern destinations.  I was somewhat disappointed by the numbers and variety I was able to ID, but was still able to add a few new additions to my Life List (Marked with an ** below):
A Yellow-eyed Junco, Cave Creek Canyon, Chiricahua Mts., AZ; 4/11/2012.
Birds Identified (includes my drive from Sierra Vista to the Monument): American Crow, American Kestral, American Robin (I was hoping for a Rufous-backed Robin - no dice),  Black Vulture, Black-throated Gray Warbler **,  Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Brewers Blackbird, Brewers Sparrow, Brown Creeper, Brown-headed Cowbird, Cactus Wren, Common Raven, Hermit Thrush, House Sparrow, Mexican Jays**, Mourning Dove,  Northern Red-shafted Flicker, Steller's Jay, Swainson's Hawk**, Turkey Vulture, White-breasted Nuthatch, and a Yellow-eyed Junco (Above), Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and a multitude of unidentified PBBs (Plain Brown Birds) along the road on the drive.
A Yellow-eyed Junco preening itself after a cold bath in Cave Creek, Chiricahua Mt. NM, AZ; 4/11/2012.
I was making one of the many crossings of Cave Creek ( I believe I had to cross the creek over 50 times out and back), I saw a bird in the shadows taking a bath in the water. Initially I thought it was an American dipper. It had the shape of a Dipper, was all dark and just hopped out of the water onto a rock. But as soon as it stepped into a ray of sunlight I knew it wasn't a Dipper. It was smaller and not at all as dark as it looked in the shadows. Once I focused my viewfinder on the bird and saw the piercing bright yellow eyes, I knew I had found a Yellow-eyed Junco (Above). So eventhough, this would be ideal habitat for this Junco, I was surprised to see it since the only other time I have seen this species was on the top of Mt. Lemmon in the middle of winter ('09).  This guy wouldn't sit still for a second. He was so busy shaking himself off and preening after his dip in the creek.
The same Yellow-eyed Junco on Cave Creek Canyon Trail, Chiricahua Mt. NM, AZ; 4/11/2012.
I actually feel fortunate to have spotted this Junco as they only enter the US borders in the very southeastern corner of Arizona, and are more likely to be seen south of the border in the Mexican Mountains. They have a very contrasting color scheme: mostly light gray with a rufous back and coverts and tertials. They wear a small black mask, which make their bright yellow eyes and a bicolored bill stand out nicely (dark maxilla and yellow mandible).