Wednesday, June 30, 2010

BTs Can Play with the Big Dogs!

We interrupt the Potholes and Prairies posts for a Panda update.
Isn't she getting big? Almost 8 pounds and 4 months old.

Stalking her target.
One cannot neglect the older child in favor of the baby, so here's my sweet Holly.

I haven't been able to add the video to this blog post. Maybe if you follow this link, you can see it on my FB page:

Watch the grass at the edge of the pond - Heeeee-re's PANDA!

Who said little short-faced dogs can't swim?

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Birds from Potholes and Prairies

Swainson's Hawk - taken through a fogged-up bus window, this photo does not do him justice.
Ferruginous Hawk - nearly as big as an eagle, and even more impressive when seen perched by the side of the road, on the right-of-way post, and showing all his field marks.
White Pelican. Not a life bird for me, but I still gasped every time I saw these guys. Big white birds impress southern Ohio birders - we don't see too many in our local patches.
Western Grebe - Lifer! Later, I also saw the Clark's Grebe, which looks very similar. My 1980 4th edition of Peterson's Field Guide, eastern version, shows the Clark's as a pale morph of the Western. By the time my third edition of Peterson's Western Birds was published, in 1990, the Western Grebe was split and Clark's Grebe was named as a separate species.
Say's Phoebe - another Lifer.

Common (formerly Wilson's) Snipe was not a life species, but this behavior was quite new for me. I'm used to snipes staying low on the ground, not T-ed up on fence posts. This must be a prairie thing, as we saw many birds doing this.
Bobolinks. Lovely to see and to listen to, trouble to photograph. Here are my best efforts.
One of the fun things about North Dakota is how East meets West. This was really driven home to me by the overlap of two tyrant flycatcher species - the Eastern Kingbird, which lives and nests in my back yardand the very different Western Kingbird, a new species for me.
The Western Meadowlark looks nearly identical to the more familiar eastern species, but his song was quite different.
The ubiquitous Red-winged Blackbird was joined by the beautiful, but much less musical, Yellow-headed Blackbird, a very shy guy when it comes to having his picture taken.
All in all, I got 107 species of birds in four days, including the following 25 Life Birds:

Sharp-tailed Grouse
Red-necked Grebe
Western Grebe
Clark's Grebe
Swainson's Hawk
Ferruginous Hawk
Yellow Rail (heard only)
Piping Plover
American Avocet
Upland Sandpiper
Marbled Godwit
White-rumped Sandpiper
Wilson's Phalarope
Say's Phoebe
Western Kingbird
Loggerhead Shrike
Spague's Pipit
Clay-colored Sparrow
Vesper Sparrow
Baird's Sparrow
LeConte's Sparrow
Nelson's (Sharp-tailed) Sparrow
Chestnut-collared Longspur
Western Meadowlark

In addition, I saw my first USA Grey Partridge (my Lifer was in Scotland in 1999) and a Krider's hawk (not a separate species, but a pale morph of Red-tailed Hawk.)

I definitely recommend the Potholes and Prairies birding festival of North Dakota for both
eastern and western birders. Look in your favorite field guide. This is where the range maps overlap, and everybody has a chance of seeing some life birds.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Prairie Animals and their Homes

As well as 25 species of Life Birds, I also picked up four Life Mammals in North Dakota. The first was on our drive from the Minneapolis-St.Paul airport to Carrington, ND., when we stopped for a late lunch and a rest break at a Subway in West Fargo. (Not to be confused with that movie by a similar name.)

In a suburban yard, we saw this odd looking rabbit, and three weary travelers and eager naturalists in training whipped out their cameras for a photo op.
Later, on the prairie, we saw many of these White-tailed jackrabbits running across the fields or down the road, but I will never forget my first sight of one.

A Meadow Vole scurried out from under my feet in a field one day, too quick for a picture. Lifer!

My life Richardson's ground squirrels were
too far away for a photo, but this Thirteen-lined ground squirrel obligingly posed for his portrait.While he wasn't a Life Mammal, this handsome 2 year old male black Lab was one of the friendliest dogs of the trip, and made me miss my two girls.For Susan, a Dead Mammal, this road-kill raccoon which marked the spot where I saw my first ever Loggerhead Shrike. You can't believe the grief I took from the other people on the bus when I took this picture. Only for you, Susan.

One mammal that got away was the badger, although I saw plenty of their burrows. These holes were big, but hidden in the grass. Stepping in one could severely twist your ankle, if not break it altogether.
Other animal homes were occupied, like this Swainson's Hawk on her nest.I also saw a Ferruginous Hawk nest, complete with two eaglets. Unfortunately, while they were visible in my scope, they were too far away for a photo.

These holes in the bank are the home of Bank Swallows.
What do Cliff Swallows do without a cliff to nest on? Why, they build their jug-like nests of mud under the eaves of an old farmhouse, that's what.
Look at that detail. How can birds build something so fine with only their bills?

As well as keeping a Life List of all the birds I have seen, I also keep a Nest List - those birds I have seen on, or building, their nests. With the addition of both hawks, Red-necked Grebe, and American Coot, I have boosted my Nest List to 51 species.

Coming up: Birds of the prairie

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Birding the Prairie

4:30AM, Carrington, North Dakota.
"All aboard!"

Birding the prairie involves a lot of this:and this:and yet again, this:Whew! Wren made it, safe and sound.

"Save the scope," was the most often heard comment. I guess clothes and skin are cheaper to repair or replace.

Even trip leaders are not spared the ordeal of climbing over, under, or through barbed wire fences. Here, Julie and Paulette "open the gate" for Bill.
Once across the fence line, you find yourself outstanding in your field,
birding away, joined by the occasional nosy neighbors.
Just remember, when the birding's done, you still have to cross that fence to get back home.Not all North Dakota birding involves hazardous fence crossings. Sometimes, you hike a half mile or so along a lake, buffeted by wind and rain.
Or, you simply stop your vehicle in the middle of the road, and enjoy the view.
Just watch out for "rush hour."
One of the funniest sights on the prairie are the street signs, a consequence of the 9-1-1 system. All the roads had to be named, so in a nod toward efficiency, we have a network of "streets" and "avenues."Shouldn't there be a delicatessen, a Chinese restaurant, or a bodega at 22nd St and 22nd Ave?

Some of the day's best birding was here, at the intersection of 44th St and 31st Ave.

And here it was at 42nd St and 32nd Ave. that I had two life-altering experiences. Not only did I see my first ever Clark's Grebe, but also it was here that I became "Prairie Woman."

Next up: Little homes on the prairie

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Great Plains

You read about it in school, but until you have visited there, you cannot possible have any concept of the vast emptiness of the prairies of North Dakota. As far as you can see, there is nothing but grass and sky and water,broken only by barbed wire fencing beef cattle,and long, straight dirt roads that reach to the horizon.
Other than the native cottonwoods that line meandering creek beds, the only places where there are trees are where people have built houses. Even when the people and their buildings are gone, groves of trees and ancient lilac bushes mark the sites of forgotten homesteads.

Thursday, June 10, was my first full day of the Potholes and Prairies birding festival, and it didn't start out well. We left the Chieftain hotel before dawn, and as the sun rose, the skies remained gray and full of clouds, heavy with the pending rain. At our first stop, icy cold raindrops pelleted my face, blown sideways by the ever present wind. Not an auspice beginning.
Between my spectacles, my binoculars, and my spotting scope, every piece of glass I owned was wet. Getting back in the vehicle and drying off didn't help, as condensation promptly fogged over everything. I didn't even bother to open my camera bag till late morning.

By then, we were well on our way to double-digit Life Birds, having seen most of the "specialty birds" that were the focus of our day - Baird's, LeConte's, and Nelson's Sparrows, Chestnut-collared Longspur, and Sprague's Pipit, to name just a few.

Here we are at some lake (I never did learn its name) looking for Piping Plovers, one of the few misses we had on our excursion with Dr. Bob Anderson. I think I ended up with 78 species that day, and 16 Lifers. But, we worked for every bird, as you can see, and our 4pm planned return to comforts of our hotel rooms stretched to 5:30. Whew!! Over 12 hours of birding in wet, cold, windy weather. Don't believe it if someone tells you birding is for wimps.The next two days were slightly better, weather-wise, but the skies were still gray. Fortunately, into every trip, some sun must fall, and by Sunday, the weather took a 180 degree turn for the better. I was almost glad the first part of the trip was cloudy, since it made these vistas so much more dramatic.
Who said Zick always brings rain to a birding festival? She and BT3 led us on the best day, and helped me bag my last three Life Birds, including those elusive Piping Plovers.
"The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say."
Frodo Baggins (JRR Tolkien)

Next post: Birding the Prairie