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Wild Bird Watching

A diary of birds I've observed, with occasional commentary on wildlife conservation issues, spiced up with photos of varying quality. Captions identifying the birds in these photo montages are found on the Wild Birds intro page.

Wild bird montage shadow
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February 26, 2015 [LINK / comment]

Life bird: Smith's Longspur!

Thanks to Marshall Faintich and other alert birders in this area, I was able to see -- and photograph -- a Smith's Longspur today, my first life bird of the year. Two birds of those species were identified at the Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport over the past couple days, and my initial skepticism was quickly dispelled as photos taken by Marshall and by Brenda Tekin clearly showed several key field marks such as two white feathers on the outer edges of the tail, rather than just one such tail feather on each side for the more-common Lapland Longspur. Unfortunately, none of my photos (several dozen at least) showed the tail feathers very well.

There were five other birders with me at the airport this afternoon -- from Roanoke, Charlottesville, and Danville. For them to drive so far was a good indication of how significant this finding was. I had to wait at least 15 minutes before the target bird finally made its appearance, but the wait (in the cold) was worth it. No doubt the recent snow storms created this special opportunity, as many ground-foraging birds are forced to move to cleared areas along roads whenever their preferred open-field habitats become snow-covered.

This is the first time a Smith's Longspur has ever been recorded in Augusta County. [UPDATE: Brenda Tekins informs me that it's the first time one has ever been seen in all of Virginia!] Lapland Longspurs have been seen on occasion in winter months, and some were at the airport yesterday but not today. I last saw a Lapland Longspur in South Dakota in January 2014. This makes #458 on my Life bird list. We also saw several Savannah Sparrows and Horned Larks along the road.

Smith's Longspur

Smith's Longspur, at the Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport.

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow, at the Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport.

Horned Lark

Horned Lark, at the Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport.

I have posted other photos taken today, and in recent weeks, on my Wild birds yearly photo gallery page. Earlier in the day, after lunch* and before my Latin American Politics class, I made a quick trip over to the North River bridge in Bridgewater. There I saw several interesting birds that had been reported there recently:

  • Hooded Mergansers (M & F)
  • Greater Scaup (F)
  • Common Goldeneye (F)
  • American Coots
  • Mallards
  • Northern Pintail (M)

It was the first time I had seen a Goldeneye in over a year, I believe. The photo I took was from a distance and in bad lighting, unfortunately. I almost missed seeing the Pintail, which was right next to the shore less than 40 feet away with a group of Mallards, but caught a glance and then took some photos just before I left. It might have been the same one I saw there last month.

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail closeup, on the North River in Bridgewater.

* I had lunch with Prof. Robyn Puffenberger, who took her Ornithology class to see the Smith's Longspur at the airport in the morning. Quite a coincidence!

February 3, 2015 [LINK / comment]

Three swan day in Dayton

After teaching class at Bridgewater College* this afternoon, I drove over to Silver Lake on the north side of Dayton, about four miles away. I was intrigued by a recent report of a Trumpeter Swan and a Tundra Swan being seen there, so I figured it was worth a shot. Boy, was it! As soon as I arrived, I counted four swans on the lake, along with a hundred or more other waterfowl. Not being very familiar with either species (about all we ever see in this area are Mute Swans), I thought that they were just two Tundra Swans and two Mute Swans. After looking at my photos back home and comparing them to my field guides, however, I realized that the bird with the all-black bill and sloped forehead was actually a Trumpeter Swan, which is quite rare. Wow! Size is another clue: Trumpeter Swans are bigger than Mute Swans (see second photo below), which in turn are bigger than Tundra Swans. When Birds of Augusta County was last published in 2008, there had been only one record ever of Trumpeter Swans, a species which is found mostly in western states. Another was reported in 2011. As you can see, lighting conditions were almost ideal for taking photos.

Trumpeter Swan

Trumpeter Swan, showing the stained head feathers that are typical for this species.

Trumpeter, Mute Swans

Trumpeter Swan (left), next to a Mute Swan.

Tundra Swan

Tundra Swan, immature. ("Ugly duckling"?)

Also on Silver Lake today were several dozen Canada Geese and Mallards, a dozen or more Gadwalls (see the Wild birds yearly photo gallery page), several Redheads, a Wigeon, and a possible Canvasback.

I thought the Trumpeter Swan might have been a life bird for me, but after checking my life bird list, it turns out that I saw some in South Dakota in 2008. To my surprise, however, I realized that I had failed to add Tundra Swan to that list after I saw a flock of them on a pond near Bell's Lane last March. So, after making the revision (for a second time), that makes 49 life birds seen last year, bringing my lifetime total up to 457. Maybe I'll finally reach 500 this year!

* More on Bridgewater College soon...

January 16, 2015 [LINK / comment]

Pintail in Bridgewater

Jacqueline and I drove up to Bridgewater yesterday, and we stopped at the North River to see if any of the interesting waterfowl reported there recently were present. There were just the usual Mallards, plus some Coots and Pied-bill Grebes the first time we stopped there, but as we were crossing the bridge on the way back home, I caught a glimpse of a Northern Pintail and yelled "STOP!" I got out of the car, walked back over to the bridge, which has sidewalks for pedestrians. I managed to get close enough to get some very nice photos, which made my day. At Silver Lake in nearby Dayton, there were a dozen or more Gadwalls, some Redheads, a Canvasback, a Mute Swan, and all the usual Mallards and Canada Geese.

Northern Pintails are elegant birds that are more abundant in western states. They are "dabbling ducks," like Mallards, and are related to Gadwalls. When I took that photo, I didn't realize that it was in breeding plumage, an added bonus. Their non-breeding plumage is rather dull, as is the case with many other birds.

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail (male), in Bridgewater, January 15.

The above photo and others can be seen on the Wild birds yearly photo gallery page. I thought the Pintail might have been a life bird for me, since I knew I hadn't seen that species in years. In fact, the last two times were January 2009 and February 2007, on the (private) farm pond on Bell's Lane in both cases.

Other recent bird outings

Jacqueline and I celebrated New Year's Day by taking a drive through the countryside, passing through Waynesboro along the way. The highlight of the day was at the Eagles Nest Airport pond west of Waynesboro, where we saw a male Canvasback and a pair of Ruddy Ducks. Otherwise, not much going on.


Canvasback (male), Eagles Nest Airport pond, January 1.

On Christmas Day, Jacqueline and I went looking for a Cackling Goose that had been reported on Heston's Pond south of Waynesboro, to no avail. But we did see a few Hooded Mergansers on the Invista (formerly DuPont) pond in Waynesboro. There wasn't much activity in the Bell's Lane area in December, but that may reflect my busy exam schedule and being "under the weather" for about a week. I saw a Northern Harrier on Bell's Lane on December 8 and 21, but none since then. On December 5 I went to Lake Shenandoah, and saw a pair of Common Loons, as well as some Coots and a Kestrel. The previous day I went to the water treatment pond in Stuarts Draft, and some several Ruddy Ducks, a Coot, and a Kestrel. On December 1 I drove out to Swoope in hopes of seeing unusual sparrows, but failed in that endeavor. I did see an adult Bald Eagle, however, as well as some Kestrels. And finally, on November 25, the day after my last blog post about birds, I saw several Kinglets of both species, and got a nice photo of Ruby-crowned Kinglet.

Life bird list recount

At the end of my November 24 blog post, I noted that I had already tied my second-best year in terms of seeing new birds: 1997, when I saw 47 (including one in Peru). I was hoping to do one better, but as noted above I was too busy (or sick) in December to do much birding. Just today I went over my records again, and discovered that I had actually seen 48 new species last year (including a probable Hooded Oriole in Arizona), so I have revised my Life bird list to show that 2014 was indeed my second-best (birding) year ever! [Obviously, my big trip to the desert southwest last June accounted for the vast majority of those species. I saw three life birds in the early winter months, a nice side-effect of the "polar vortex," and three life birds in the Virginia Beach area in November.] My current lifetime total now stands at 456 bird species.

tiny tanager

Favorite warblers
(already seen):

  1. Chestnut-sided warbler
  2. Magnolia warbler
  3. Prothonotary warbler
  4. Blackburnian warbler
  5. Yellow warbler
  6. Northern parula
  7. Black-throated green warbler
  8. Canada warbler
  9. Common yellowthroat
  10. American redstart

Yet-unseen warblers:
(eastern species)

  • Blue-winged warbler
  • Kirtland's warbler
  • Swainson's warbler
  • Bachman's warbler (extinct?)

Yet-unseen warblers:
(western & semitropical)

  • Virginia's warbler
  • Lucy's warbler
  • Colima warbler
  • Crescent-chested warbler
  • Tropical parula
  • Black-throated gray warbler
  • Golden-cheeked warbler
  • Townsend's warbler
  • Hermit warbler
  • Grace's warbler
  • MacGillivray's warbler
  • Bahama yellowthroat
  • Belding's yellowthroat
  • Gray-crowned yellowthroat
  • Bahama yellowthroat
  • Red-faced warbler
  • Painted redstart
  • Slate-throated redstart
  • Fan-tailed warbler
  • Golden-crowned warbler

"Abundant" birds
(ones I normally don't bother counting):

  • European starlings
  • House sparrows
  • Cardinals
  • Tufted timice
  • Carolina chickadees
  • Carolina wrens *
  • Song sparrows
  • House finches *
  • Gray catbirds *
  • Mockingbirds
  • American robins *
  • Blue jays
  • Common grackles *
  • American crows
  • Fish crows *
  • Turkey vultures
  • Canada geese
  • Mallards

  • * Sometimes less common