Black-billed Magpie Mobbing

While doing a “hawk watch” along the Colorado River on December’s trip I had the opportunity to watch another group of corvids harassing a larger bird. In this case it was a group of Black-billed Magpie mobbing a Red-tailed Hawk.

Before I relate the story it seems I keep running into this kind of action. Back in February I posted the story about a Great Horned Owl being mobbed by a flock of American Crows at Johnson County Park. And in early January I saw a group of Blue Jays harassing and chasing a Red-Shoulder Hawk in Geist Reservoir in Marion County.

Now I haven’t been out in the field much lately. So am I just stumbling upon corvids acting like this or does it happen more than I know? I really can’t answer the question but it appears to happen frequently.

Colorado Black-billed Magpie Mobbing

While scanning for raptors along the Colorado River north of Grand Junction I noticed one, then two, then several Black-billed Magpies flying to a distant tree line. Now this seemed odd since I had only seen and heard one or two in the previous hour. In fact I had noted earlier in the trip I heard many more magpies than I saw. Which struck me as acting like a Blue Jay. Not wanting to be seen unless the need arose.

It didn’t take long to figure out what was happening. The magpies were gathering in one tree. Which meant there was something present they could harass.

How many Black-billed Magpies can you spot in this photo? And the Red-tailed Hawk?
Circled in red are the ten magpies I counted though I know there are at least 5-10 more. The hawk is circled in green.
Black-billed Magpie Mobbing
The Red-tailed Hawk finally had enough and flew off.
But only a little further down the tree line before it stopped and the process started again.

Eventually the dark morph Red-tailed Hawk I had seen earlier appeared and the two flew off together. And the magpies must have lost interest since they did not pursue.

Dark-eyed Junco Frustrating Subspecies

This started out like the post on winter Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Wood Ducks in Western Colorado. That post highlighted the fact I had overlooked the possibility of seeing either species on my trip. So, along those same lines I was going to discuss four subspecies of Dark-eyed Junco which are possible in Western Colorado. That will still be the theme. But I’ll also share some thoughts after researching the Dark-eyed Junco frustrating subspecies.

I knew Dark-eyed Juncos were possible in Western Colorado since they had a .06 possibility. I expected to see the usual Slate-colored subspecies until seeing a “different” junco at Connected Lakes State Park.

Once I realized it was a different subspecies I started taking as many photos of juncos as possible. I finally got around to reviewing them last week.

Using Sibley’s Field Guide to Birds of Western NA – pg. 424-426 I found there are 6 subspecies of Dark-eyed Juncos. The first four listed below are possible in the Grand Junction area in winter.

  1. Slate-colored – All NA – Indiana’s
  2. Oregon – Western NA
  3. Pink-Sided – Central NA
  4. Gray-headed – Great Basin
  5. Red-backed – AZ and NM
  6. White-winged – small strip of area from Montana to CO

Slate-colored – No

The nominate subspecies in most of the US is the Slate-colored. It is the one we know in the Midwest – dark gray above and white below. The female is a more gray-brown above. And looking through my photos I didn’t see one on the trip.

Dark-eyed Junco Frustrating Subspecies
Now here’s something I hate to admit. I can’t find a decent Slate-colored Junco in my photo collection. This means I haven’t spent enough time studying Dark-eyed Juncos. This is the only photo I could find in my collection, from 2009. I think I need to take some time with them.

Oregon – Yes

What finally made it dawn on me that I wasn’t seeing the usual Slated-Colored was the different colored juncos at Connected Lake State Park. The junco had hoods.

Once I noticed the gray in the junco didn’t continue in its “normal” pattern I knew I wasn’t seeing my usual juncos.
The dark hood with contrasting white underside is standard for an Oregon.

The Difference

The biggest difference between the Slate-colored and the other subspecies is the bottom of The Bib. On the Slate-colored the bib is slightly convex, on the others a larger concave bottom. (Now if I had a different Slate-colored photo I wouldn’t have to go to Wikipedia – Slate-colored – Ken Thomas – KenThomas.us (personal website of photographer) A Dark-eyed Junco subspecies – the Slate-colored Junco (Junco hyemalis hyemalis)

Pink-sided – Probably Not 

I originally thought this was a Pink-sided but now think it is a female Oregon. The ID indicators for Pink-sided are dull brown back, mid-gray hood, and bright pinkish-cinnamon sides. But those are also ID marks of a female Oregon.

Gray-headed – No 

Since I don’t have a photo I took this off the internet.

By Peter Wallack (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Now for an Indiana Bonus

While searching for a photo of the nominate Slate-Colored Junco I came across the following photo.

Everything about this is saying female Oregon Dark-eyed Junco. What do you think? Johnson County Park, 11/26/16

This post exemplifies why I got into blogging and birding. It “forces” you to look closer and do more research on a topic you might otherwise blow over. And eventually the frustrating part turns into knowledge. This will make my future encounters with any subspecies of Dark-eyed Junco very rewarding.

Female Northern Harrier – Colorado Day 4 Afternoon

Luckily for once extra time at work coincides with the winter Birding Doldrums. I did get out for a few hours last weekend but not much was happening except there are now four Red-tailed Hawks in the neighborhood. So I’ll continue with my December Colorado trip discussing Day 4’s afternoon with the highlight being a female Northern Harrier.

After birding Connected Lakes State Park all morning, the goal was to drive the short distance to Walker State Wildlife Area and scan for Raptors. Probably not the ideal location to scan but I didn’t feel like driving. And there werer eBird reports of raptors flying along the nearby Colorado River.

From what I read it appears birders out west take Black-billed Magpies for granted like we take American Crows for granted in the Midwest. That’s a shame since the magpie is such a beautiful bird, especially in flight.
Sandhill Cranes winter in the Grand Valley so there were flocks overhead each day.
This group was a little lower flying south up the river.
I heard waterfowl to the north but had only seen a few groups of Canada Geese flying until something put all the waterfowl up. Then I realized the full extent of their numbers.

I never did see what made the waterfowl fly. But a few minutes later I got a glimpse of a distant bird flying up river. The bird was large and dark. Even at that distance it didn’t have the feel of a Bald Eagle. The wings weren’t “planky” enough. The elusive Golden Eagle?

Not one afraid to show a bad photo, this was my desperate attempt to capture a distant bird which might have been a Golden Eagle. Not the blob in the tree but way out there, somewhere.
Two bad photos back to back. This was my only photo of a Red-tailed Hawk Dark Morph circling the area during the afternoon.

Female Northern Harrier

The highlight of the afternoon was watching a female Northern Harrier who spent the afternoon slowly cruising the nearby corn field.
female Northern Harrier
She would go up one side of the corn field and down the other, occasionally dropping down hunting something.
Finally she caught her meal which I assume was a mouse.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet Distribution – A Surprise

Prior to heading to Grand Junction last December I checked the status and distribution of species. As I explained in my 6% rule post, eBird bar charts come in handy for getting a feel for likely species. The post points out I’ve found the odds drop quickly for species with a number under .06. Ruby-crowned Kinglet distribution in Western Colorado came in at .04 and Wood Duck .03. Without actual chasing I probably wouldn’t see them. So I made a mental note they might be there and moved on to learn species with higher numbers.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet Distribution - A Surprise
Ruby-crowned Kinglets were very active in several locations and habitats.

Boy was I surprised when I saw Ruby-crowned Kinglets at not one but four locations with seven seen at Connected Lake State Park. I didn’t think Ruby-crowned Kinglets are hardy enough to spend winter in Colorado. I based that fact on Midwesterners only having a slight chance of seeing one locally in winter. And since we basically see them only during migration I thought they migrated farther south.

The bright yellow color of the kinglets also came as a surprise. I’m guessing it’s because I usually see them in spring before they molt. But they still seemed bright…

The same can be said of the Wood Duck. In the Midwest they are usually gone by late November and start reappearing in early spring. I didn’t think they were on the same level as the Blue-winged Teal for early/late migration but earlier than most ducks. So when I encountered Wood Ducks at Connected Lakes that also caught me off guard.

A group of Wood Ducks with American Coots and Mallards. Early December seemed like a late date for their presence.

So what gives?

Range maps provided surprising answers for each species.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet on the left, Wood Duck on the right. From Audubon Guide to North American Birds – www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/

Both winter just south of the Midwest and are year around residents in Western Colorado, something I hadn’t previously noticed. The Ruby-crowned Kinglet distribution shows it’s a year-round resident of the whole Great Basin. And the small circle in Western Colorado is where Wood Ducks are year-round residents.

These encounters once again prove I need to spend more time studying local birds beyond our area. What else I’m I missing about these species?

Northern Flicker Drumming – Colorado Day 3

The plan was to wrap up the December Colorado trip with one more blog. But after reviewing the photos from the final days I came up with several more posts. A couple travelogue type posts and a couple about things that caught my interest. Day 3’s morning was an enjoyable one in the field with a long walk at a state park. Strictly a travelogue day which means not any one highlight but many good views and observations. I’ll go with a Northern Flicker drumming to show my improving video talent. Ha!

Another cool day began at the James M. Robb part of the Colorado River State Park. Once again I had a park to myself.
The park appears to be a series of reclaimed gravel pits. A cold Great Blue Heron kept guard on the lake.
Even though I’m only a mile from Grand Junction the lone noise was a freight train. Plus, the view was great.
The park’s staff had left several dead trees, this one by a pond where an American Kestrel kept lookout. I think he was hunting sparrows in the brush alongside the pond.
Ruby-crowned Kinglets were prevalent on the trip, something I wasn’t expecting. (The Ruby is barely seen in the photo) I’m going to have a separate blog post concerning Ruby-crowned Kinglets in a few weeks.
Wood Ducks were at the park, also not expected. They’ll be featured in the Ruby-crowned Kinglet post.

There were numerous Dark-eyed Juncos but they too are getting a separate blog.

The call of the Spotted Towhee was perplexing until he popped out of the shadows. The call was much louder and grating than I remembered. Or was it the still morning’s air?

A White-crowned Sparrow Tree.
I’ve learned Song Sparrow’s coloring can vary greatly in the Midwest. This Colorado bird seems to be even redder than I remember at home.
Northern Flicker Drumming
As noted above the park’s staff had left many dead trees for birds, like this Northern Flicker.

Now the following isn’t a good video. I was playing around with the video and thought I had a focused video of a Northern Flicker drumming. Turns out there was a small branch in the way. But I had fun in the field watching and recording.

Turn up the volume to catch the Northern Flicker Drumming.

NOFL Drilling

I wrapped up the morning’s walk with a good mix of species – waterfowl, raptors, and songbirds. I encountered three separate Bewick’s Wrens but like any wren they didn’t come out long enough for a photo.

American Dipper – Colorado’s Final Day

Since I don’t know if I’ll ever get done posting about December’s Colorado trip I’m going to jump to the final day. The day would consist of driving from Grand Junction to Denver for a late afternoon flight back to Indianapolis with a little birding. Since there had been snow in the mountains overnight I cut my birding plans from two locations to one. And that’s where I had the surprise of an American Dipper.

The story starts the previous night with heavy snow being predicted in the mountains. In Colorado you can be ticketed for not having snow tires when conditions are warranted. After a call to the car rental agency and looking at the tires with a flashlight, I concluded yes, the tires where the minimum required. Never mind there wasn’t much tread, they met the requirement.

Upon awaking I checked the road conditions and saw speeds over Vail Pass in the 20-30mph range. Which meant it was going to be a long drive. So I decided on one stop at Veltus Park in Glenwood Springs to check for Lewis Woodpecker.

The drive to Glenwood Springs was basically uneventful. I had been there on my previous trip when I think I heard and briefly saw a Lewis Woodpecker. But not long enough to be certain. Since it’s a small park and with the weather I gave myself 30 minutes to loop through the park to find the woodpecker. The listening was hampered by the fact the Roaring Fork River runs alongside the park and didn’t show any sign of the recent drought.

The noise from the Roaring Fork River will be apparent in the video below.

After 35 minutes and looping the park twice I had only seen a few chickadees and magpies. And it was cold with 4 inches of snow on the ground. To the NW I could see a large band of snow coming my way. Time to get moving.

Veltus Park only held 7 species with 3 being flyovers. Black-capped Chickadees were the most numerous.

I started heading along the river back to the car when I heard a tick-tick-tick coming from the river and immediately knew the sound from listening to recordings.

An American Dipper!

Two American Dippers kept chasing each other around the river. I was glad one eventually landed for photos.

Even though the habitat was perfect I didn’t even have the bird on my radar. It took a second to spot two chasing each other around the river. Eventually I lost sight of one but the other stuck around. Luckily the park’s path ran along the river allowing good looks and even photos.

They must have thick insulation because the cold snow and water didn’t seem to faze them. I know I was starting to freeze!
american dipper
As seen in the following video they feed in the river eating algae off the rocks.

The American Dipper Video

I know there are numerous videos of American dippers but I’ll still share mine. The following is a portion of a longer video I took. I initially found the dipper, had it in view, and as you can see lost it. I found it again but didn’t even know it. I’m glad I heard them calling or I would never have thought to look on the river.

AMDI

After a half hour of watching I thought I had better get moving. I was frozen and the sky to the NW was black with a heavy snow. I would like to say the drive back to Denver was uneventful but that would be a lie. Driving in a snowstorm on the flat prairies is one thing, but in the mountains with semi-trucks is another. A story for another day…

Douglas Pass – The Real Reason

The real reason for the December trip to the Grand Junction area of Colorado was to check out my June BBS (Breeding Bird Survey) routes. As I have previously posted the BBS routes are the main source to determine bird distribution in the U.S. and is one of the main factors if a bird is on or off an endangered list.

Besides the two BBS routes I run in Indiana I will now run two in western Colorado north of Grand Junction. Before I volunteered I wanted to make sure the area habitat was not strictly scrub. From the previous surveys I was sure they weren’t but I wanted to confirm. Thus the real reason for the trip.

Real Reason
Both Baxter Pass and Douglas Pass routes are similar. Their 24.5-mile route both start in scrub land and go over mountain passes (the squiggly part of the route lines). I-80 is the white line and the gray line down the left is the Utah border. Taken from the BBS web page.

I ended up at Highline Lake SP around noon and headed to the nearby starting point of the nearer Douglas Pass route. I wasn’t going to bird the route as much travel it to get a general feel of the landscape.

The early morning view from Loma. The BBS route starts 12 miles north of town and winds up and over Douglas Pass, the snow-covered mountain due north.
The route starts in scrub land which was void of birds except the occasional Common Raven.
After a few miles the route starts paralleling East Salt Creek that had numerous Cottonwoods. I’m assuming along the creek is where most of the birds will be in June. This is the view looking back south towards Loma.
The view looking south from Douglas Pass. The road up consists of several switchbacks which will make it interesting where I pull off in June since I couldn’t with the snow on the ground.
The view north from the pass. When I left the Grand Valley it was 40F. It was 15F and strong winds here. Brrr…
Why are there always Common Ravens where there aren’t any other birds? I circled one of the three flying over the pass.
Now I don’t think this Black-billed Magpie brought down this deer but it was sure acting like it.
These two got into a nice argument over the deer before being joined by several other magpies. I bet they fed on this for a week. Or until the state got it off the road.
A final view as I headed down the pass.

The route was what I hoped it would be – scrub to creek side to mountain. I don’t think I’ll have any problem seeing/hearing the norm of 60+ species for this count.

Bring on June!

Western Grebe – No Magic

After my last post on birders trying to turn Common Goldeneye to Barrow’s Goldeneye, you thought I would have learned. Nope. My first day in the Grand Junction area was spent wasting too much time trying to turn a Western Grebe into a Clark’s Grebe.

My first photo from the Grand Junction area. Looking west after the obligatory Starbucks stop. 12/4/16

The day started out exactly like I hoped. Clear and cold (17F). I was at Highline Lake State Park in under a half hour. It was as quiet as birding in winter in Midwest. The difference though was no backdrop noise of cars or machinery like you hear in the Midwest.

The real reason I go to Grand Junction. The wide open scenery. The view north from the south end of Highline Lake.

I was one of the few people at the park besides the rangers. And the birding was slow but I didn’t mind as I walked the trails for a few hours.

What would a stocked lake be without a Bald Eagle? 12/4/16
Of course there were deer. They must be less numerous since the Park Ranger made a point of telling me where the deer were located. 12/4/16
Ruby-crowned Kinglet were numerous on the trip, which surprised me. I’m going to do a separate post on them at a later date. 12/4/16
I stumbled upon a Say’s Phoebe at the south end of the lake. From a distance I initially took it to be an American Robin. 12/4/16
And yes it wagged its tail like all good phoebes. 12/4/16
A group of eight Wilson’s Snipe were on the runoff stream below the dam. A hearty bunch in the cold. 12/4/16

And now about Clark’s, I mean, Western Grebe.

Western Grebe
I first encountered the Western Grebe when they were in the middle of the lake. With the crown looking like it might be above the eye, the one on the right looked possible for Clark’s Grebe. 12/4/16
So I spent more time than I should waiting for them to get closer. 12/4/16
I didn’t mind waiting because I could enjoy the western skyline. 12/4/16
Even at a distance this cropped photo shows the dark surrounding the eye on the first grebe. Obviously a Western Grebe. 12/4/16
I can’t work any magic on the other grebe. The dark area surrounds the eye, though it’s faint.  Western Grebe. It was fun waiting and watching though. 12/4/16

Next on to the real reason for the trip.

Goldeneye – No Question

I have seen numerous Common Goldeneye over the years but never a Barrow’s Goldeneye. During my first year of birding one of my three life chases was for a female Barrow’s Goldeneye. She was hanging with a group of female Common Goldeneye on the Illinois River at Peoria. I easily found the Goldeneyes and spent an hour in the freezing weather but never could turn one of the Common’s into a Barrow.

Goldeneye
Barrow’s Goldeneye at Silverthorne Sewage Ponds. 12/3/16

There had been discussion on the Illinois listserv if one was a Barrow’s or not with the prevailing wisdom the bill was yellow enough for a Barrow’s. I have since seen this argument numerous times as people try to turn a Common into a Barrow’s. Especially in Illinois where a Barrow’s does occasionally turn up in a flock of Common.

Well let me say after spending a couple of minutes at the Silverthorne Sewage Ponds there isn’t an argument on Goldeneye differences. 

Colorado County Birding states the Silverthorne Sewage Ponds are a reliable spot to see Barrow’s Goldeneye in the winter. Since it is only two miles off I-70 I thought I’d stop and see for myself if there is a case for arguing about the species.

It was cold, windy, and snowing in the mountains when I stopped. Luckily the ponds are right on the main drag since I wanted to keep moving and get back down to lower altitude.

Immediately upon exiting the car I saw a group of Barrow’s and immediately recognized them. Not even close to the markings on a Common Goldeneye. I know I was close but the difference was easily apparent. The crescent on the male Barrow’s looks nothing like the round spot on the Common. And the all yellow bill of female didn’t hint at the Common’s mostly black bill.

A zoomed shot of Barrow’s Goldeneye showing the large crescent of the male and all yellow bill of the female. 12/3/16
A few weeks later and I’m on the Connecticut coast looking at a distant raft of Common Goldeneye. Even at this distance there is no doubt they are Common. 12/26/16

 

Other species at the Siverthorne Sewage ponds included American Wigeon, Ring-necked Duck, Barrow’s Goldeneye, and Gadwall . You can’t tell from the photo but the weather was deteriorating quickly. 12/3/16
The only non-waterfowl species at Silverthorne was a Black-billed Magpie, a species I would see at every stop. 12/3/16
I made one more stop on the day at the Gypsum Ponds where a flock of Black-billed Magpies flew over heading to the hills for the evening. 12/3/16

Then off to Grand Junction to start the real trip.

Genesee Mountain Park – CO 2nd Stop

I left off my December Colorado trip with the noise of airplanes and geese at the Denver Airport Road. The geese weren’t quite as loud as the day back in Jan 2015 or the planes as bad as London in April 2016 , but together they made enough noise to be noticed. Especially compared to Genesee Mountain Park.

Genesee Mountain Park
The view north from near the peak of Genesee Mountain Park 12/3/16

Going forward on Colorado trips I plan to take different routes to Grand Junction and bird different areas. Since this was a winter trip I decided to stick close to I-70. I had picked out 3 spots within a couple of miles of the interstate which would give the best chance of seeing species I probably wouldn’t encounter in the Grand Junction area. And since the goal of the trip was to prepare for June’s BBS routes I wanted to hear Pygmy Nuthatches and Mountain Chickadees, species I will encounter in June.

The first stop was Genesee Mountain Park about 20 miles west of Denver. With the chance of snow at higher elevations this was the only high elevation site I planned to bird on the trip. Plus, it is very convenient with the entrance right off the exit ramp.

Upon arriving I was flagged down by Forest Service Workers which didn’t bode well. But all they wanted to know was if I was going to cut my own Christmas Tree. Seems they keep the tree population in check by letting people cut their own trees. I headed to the back of the park to avoid the crowd which meant I had to negotiate through vehicles, adults, kids, and dogs along the narrow park road. And of course it was in a light snow.

The lightly covered path at Genesse Park. 12/3/16

Upon reaching the end of the road my fears of mass people were unfounded as there was only a couple walking their dog. So I expected I would be able to hear the birds. I proceeded up the trail towards the 8300′ peak and it was Quiet.

Quiet.

Unlike the noise at the airport road it was just me and my thoughts. And the wind blowing through the trees.

No birds, just the wind blowing through the pine and fir trees. 12/3/16

It goes on like this for a half hour of walking.

No peeps, chips, or even a Common Raven flying over. Quiet. Knowing I still have over three hours to Grand Junction I decide it’s a bust and take another trial back to the car.

About 10 minutes from the car, which meant about 45 minutes total walking, I finally hear a peep. It is distant in the trees. Should I go on or track it down? I decide to track it down and see birds darting in the tops of the Pine Trees.

Finally Pygmy Nuthatches and Mountain Chickadees. The species I was hoping to see. It’s an active flock and I follow them from tree to tree hoping for a good look and/or photo. I get looks but never a decent photo.

The nuthatches spent most of their time moving rapidly from one pine tree to the next. 12/3/16

With the impending drive I head back to the car where I get one and only one photo of a chickadee.

I got extremely lucky as this Mountain Chickadee only sat still for a second. 12/3/16

On the drive back to the interstate I see a couple more birds and end up with 6 species on the list. At least they were the species I wanted to see. What else should I have expected at elevation on a cold winter’s day?