Sunday, September 21, 2008

300, Baby!

A while back, I announced that my Life List stood at 298 species, and that I was eagerly anticipating my trip to Cape May in order to break 300. I even foolishly announced a contest to guess my 300th Life Bird.

No one guessed correctly because I reached 300 today, in the Oxbow nature preserve along the Ohio River in Lawrenceburg, IN, with trip leader Charlie Saunders, 5 other birders, and my birder-blogger-buddy, Susan. (Susan hit a magic number herself, but I will let her tell that story.)

Once again, I have no photographs documenting the event. Susan chided me: "Why don't you carry your camera?" Once again, I have a laundry list of excuses: I am already carrying a spotting scope and tripod, a pair of binoculars, and a birding bag with two field guides, pen and notepad for listing, and my lens cleaning kit; my camera has a pitiful zoom and a lame macro function, so that the only photos I get are of the scenery; I am too busy looking at birds to photograph them; you are taking pictures, I will just steal from you - you get the idea. Anyway, this post will be all words, no pictures.

Our primary goals for this trip were migrant passerines (songbirds) and shorebirds, but really, anything with feathers would have suited me. Double-crested cormorants put on a good show. We got to compare and contrast adult and juvenile plumage, watch three clustered together put on a demonstration of synchronized swimming, observe one perched to dry out its water-soaked feathers, and eventually see a flock of 15 or so flying in formation across the sky. We had numerous Great Blue Herons and about a half dozen Great Egrets (or else it was the same bird flying overhead 6 times.)
We got some nice looks at molting male Red-winged Blackbirds. These guys had lost their tail feathers, and so had a distinctively stubby-tailed look that confused me until I saw the classic red epaulets on their "shoulders." We had a few (very few) warblers and some resident songbirds, and we had shorebirds.

My identification skill level when it comes to shorebirds is pretty much "Killdeer" and "Not-Killdeer," but I am working on it. At the first likely spot, we began scoping out long-legged brown birds. "Killdeer, killdeer, killdeer," I muttered to myself as I scanned the distant shore. "Wait! Not-Killdeer!" Time for closer study.

The Not-Killdeer was obligingly standing close to a Killdeer, so I could get a good judge of size. Significantly smaller. I looked at its underside. Plain off-white in color, no obvious streaks or spots. I couldn't really get a good look at its leg color or bill type, both important indicators when working shorebird ID, so I turned to behavior. What was my mystery bird doing? Within a few seconds, it demonstrated pronounced bobbing of its back end. "Spotted Sandpiper," I concluded. Then, I had a momentary doubt - Spotted Sandpipers have spotted bellies. A quick flip through my Peterson's showed that winter plumaged Spotties have plain bellies. I got a shorebird, all by myself! I paused and mentally patted myself on the back when Charlie said, "Kathi is calling that bird a Spotted Sandpiper because it is bobbing its tail." Hah! I can do this.

While I was reveling in my shorebirding skills, someone else found a group of 4 shorebirds feeding together, and I heard "Stilt Sandpipers." I spun my scope around, focused on the group and gaped as Charlie explained the key field marks. (Yellowish-green legs; long, slightly downcurved bill; white rump patch {but not wedge-shaped, which dowitchers show} and a "sewing-machine" motion of feeding. I decided it was a stabbing motion, as in "stilettos stab," to help me remember.) The birds flushed and returned several times, giving us ample opportunity to study them both in flight and feeding. Life Bird #299 - Whoo-Hoo!

In that same pond, we found a Yellowlegs, which we determined was a Lesser, based on the length of the bill. Lesser Yellowlegs are smaller than Greater, but that field mark doesn't help if the two species are not standing next to each other. Instead, look at bill length to distinguish them. In Greater Yellowlegs, the bill is significantly longer than the bird's head, from the base of the bill to the back of the head. Lessers have a bill the same length, or only slightly longer, than their head length. Three "Not-Killdeers," and all identified as to species. It was turning out to be a good day.

A good day was about to become a great day. Susan spotted a duck, which gave everyone fits. I was looking in a completely different direction, and couldn't understand why no one could ID the Mallards, even though the males were in eclipse phase (not their bright breeding colors.) Once I got on the right bird, I agreed with the group consensus. It was a duck.

What could we tell about this duck? It was small, much smaller than the mallards, and only slightly larger than the nearby Killdeer. (Always look for something whose size you know to use as your "yardstick" in the field, unless you happen to have a 12 inch ruler nailed up next to your birdfeeder.) It was plain brown. Ugh. That always means female duck to me, and the way I recognize a female duck is to see what drake she is associating with. Step two: Look for male ducks. None. Double ugh. Step three: Start ruling out ducks I know.

OK, it is a dabbling duck, not a diver (dabbling ducks up-end themselves when feeding, like mallards; diving ducks submerge completely underwater, like grebes. And yes, I know grebes aren't ducks, but they dive.) It is too small and too plain for Mallards, Black Ducks, even Wood Ducks. By process of elimination, I was down to Blue-winged Teal and Green-winged Teal. And, that's where I bogged down. I felt there was a buffy patch near the tail end of the bird, but Charlie wasn't so certain, and was keeping his options open. I fidgeted. Susan decided it HAD to be a Green-winged Teal, because I wanted it to be one so badly.

Why was this ID so important to me? Because, while I have seen plenty of Blue-winged, I had never seen a Green-winged Teal. Susan was appalled. "You have never seen a Green-winged Teal?" You would think I admitted to being a secret puppy-kicker. Yeah, yeah - I don't have a GWTE on my Life List. It has evaded me for three years now. So, sue me.

Eventually, we gave up on the Mystery Duck and walked on down the road. At another viewing spot, complete with benches, we found 4 more MYDUs (MYstery DUcks) in better lighting and with better angles. After some contemplation, Charlie announced his findings: Green-winged Teal, probably two females and two eclipse-phase males. The critical field mark turned out to be that elusive yellowish-buff patch on the rear, as well as a lack of blue on the wings and the size of the bill, smaller than a BWTE's would be. Number 300. I was pumped! In fact, I did the Life Bird Wiggle, as popularized by Bill of the Birds, aka BT3: "Put your hands in the air, Wiggle like you just don't care." (Susan took an embarrassing photo. I expect to be thoroughly humilated by it.) Dancing didn't seem to be enough. There should be some sort of ceremony when you hit a century mark in your birding list. I am going to invent one.

If that wasn't enough, on the drive home, I saw a flock of turkeys along the freeway, a Red-tailed Hawk on a light post, and several large spirals of Turkey Vultures. Plus, I rescued another Box Turtle from a state highway in Clermont County. All in all, a Very Good Day.

Birding list for today:

Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Blue-winged Teal
Turkey Vulture
Red-tailed Hawk
Wild Turkey
Greater Yellowlegs
Spotted Sandpiper
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Downy Woodpecker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Carolina Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Carolina Wren
Black-throated Green Warbler
Palm Warbler
Northern Cardinal
Indigo Bunting
Song Sparrow
Red-winged Blackbird

Thirty-one species, plus a couple that others saw and I missed (Northern Flicker, Magnolia Warbler), and one CFW (Confusing Fall Warbler.) It was yellowish and with wing bars. That puts it firmly in the Pine/Bay-breasted/Blackpoll camp. Visit the blogs of Bill Thompson, III and Jeff Gordon for great discussions of this difficult fall ID. I can't help you with that one.
I'm a shorebirder. (wink)


Mary said...

"You would think I admitted to being a secret puppy-kicker."

You make me howl.

And, you are way over my head when talking about birds.

I saw your dance. I'd love to join you.

nina said...

I would've been very pleased with the sandpiper ID--they're tougher than I can handle. And always backlit when I'm trying to see leg color. Nothing but silhouette.

Nice job on a beautiful day!

Mary C said...

Congrats on # 300! So it turned out to be a green-winged teal. Very nice.

NCmountainwoman said...

A big CONGRATULATIONS! And how nice to have a friend with you when it happened. Otherwise, no one might have captured the happy, happy, joy, joy life bird wiggle.

denapple said...

Congratulations! I tend to view shorebirds as Killdeer and Not-Killdeer too. Lillian Stokes' Shorebird book does some great comparisons.

Susan Gets Native said...

Hey. I don't think the photo of you is embarrassing. I think you look cute and happy.

So there. Puppy-kicker.

Lynne said...

I wanna learn that dance. :)

LauraHinNJ said...

Congrats! I think I saw that pic.