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Friday, June 15, 2012

ID of the Whimbrel

I received a message late last night asking if the bill length of yesterday's Whimbrel seen in this shot:

wasn't in fact suggestive of Long-billed Curlew (LBCU). I wasn't sure what to make of this, as the bird repeatedly appeared to have strong lateral crown stripes and to lack buffy tones to the body (esp. the underparts) yesterday. However that suggestion gave me enough pause to put some more thought into the matter. An additional photograph that had me wondering was this one:

which sure seems to show a thin bill tip (not the relatively thick bill I am used to on WHIM). But the issue was just how much uncertainty was injected into this entire discussion by the heat waves and extreme distance that the videos/photos were taken in. Heck, in the second photo above the bird appears to lack head stripes altogether! So, could any of these photographic artefacts be trusted?

I returned early this morning, hoping to see the bird again. This time, I utilized my connections with the airport police to request permission to view from beside the terminal itself, which they obliged me on (thankfully). Also thankfully, the bird was still present, and the early morning coolness prevented heat wave distortion. The bird was much closer to me, and I finally saw it in flight, and the ID is confirmed as Whimbrel beyond any doubt. The bird completely lacks any buffy tones in the spread wings, and has pronounced lateral crown stripes, and just isn't large enough for Long-billed Curlew. These are the best two videos from this morning:

The bird should still be visible from the s. Kraft Ave overlook, however at 8:20AM this morning it flew NE out of sight, and may have returned to the 2nd location in yesterday's blog post. So patience may be required. I also would not recommend trying to view from the terminal without contacting airport police ahead of time- you would be getting a lot of unwanted attention from the many security personnel and suspicious passengers, etc.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Kent Co. Whimbrel

This morning via eBird we learned of an exciting discovery within Kent County from yesterday: a rare inland Whimbrel seen by Gus van Vliet at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport at 9:45AM on June 13. This is not a species I expected to see in my lifetime in Kent County, as they just don't often stop inland, and even then it's almost always at mudflats and larger lakes with extensive beaches (which we don't have). So Randy Vandermolen and I immediately gave chase and were very lucky to relocate the bird (thanks to Gus's excellent notes within eBird) just south of the airport terminal shortly after 9AM. We were viewing it from the s. Kraft Ave. overlook north of 52nd St.

Around 11:25AM, however, the bird took flight (per Randy Vandermolen and Albert Rowell) and landed quite a ways to the NE, shown here by this marker. The bird definitely landed in the area, but was not visible once it put down according to Randy. Here is the approximate location it landed: 
Randy said that there was some kind of green vehicle in the vicinity of where it landed, and that when viewing from the s. Kraft Ave. overlook, that the bird was immediately to the east of the several smaller outbuildings just east of the large terminal. In any event, patience may be required if you plan to search for this bird. In terms of where to search for the bird, I suspect the s. Kraft overlook (with scope) is still the best, however one could consider two other options in case the bird is in its northerly stakeout. First is the FedEx building entrance drive off of Thornapple River Dr SE. Park right at Thornapple River Dr and scope from this position looking west. The second position would be from the eastmost point of the Gateway Dr loop (ie. the loop one drives when driving through the airport terminal for arrivals and departures) looking east. Be forewarned, however, that although the airport police are aware of this bird and birders generally, that you will likely be stopped and asked to leave if you're there for more than a couple minutes. Here is a map with both of these optional viewing locations:

Here are my photos from earlier today:
bird is just behind the fence in line with the "P" in airport

bird is on the tarmac front and left

Good luck if you go!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Snowy Plover- turning the page

The past 2 months have been brutal. I have missed more rarities in a row than probably ever before. There was the lifer Ruff which had been seen all day but conveniently disappeared shortly before my arrival well before dusk (the only shorebird on the pond to do so), a county tick Black Tern which disappeared 20 minutes into my 30 minute drive (I have 100s of hours into this one), the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher which disappeared as I began driving to see it (despite 18 straight hours in one place), the Swainson's Hawk which was present at dusk with a strong north wind all night to hold it down (OK, this one was expected), and of course, the 'gimme' Yellow-crowned Night-Heron at the Detroit Zoo heron rookery which failed to show during my visit a while back. I have been frustrated. I have been discouraged.

The silver lining in still being at 362 despite thinking I should have been in the upper 360s, is that none of these species are troublesome over the long term. Most will occur at least annually and it is but a matter of time until I nail them all down. So it was with some trepidation that I left this morning to try for the very rare Snowy Plover found yesterday at Ludington State Park by Chris Lipps and another (anonymous) technician of the MDNR. This, unlike the aforementioned species, is a very rare bird in these parts, the last MI record being from 1994, and one of only 2 for Michigan. Fortunately, the ID was clinched with photos from the beginning, so the only issue was whether or not it would stay the night. It did.
The bird put on quite a show during my visit, repeatedly being oblivious to the close approach of beachcombers, and at one point walking to me for a very close encounter (side note: I did not move, I sat still from a distance of 150 ft., and the bird walked right down the beach in front of me). 

The bird is heavily abraded on its upperparts and wings, and on its primaries as well. These are good signs that the bird is a youngster, hatched last year (ie. a second calendar year). The upperparts have but a few darker brown, fresher, feathers amongst the sea of very pale brown, old, ones. I believe this means the bird had a very limited prealternate molt but have yet to do a literature check.

 Interestingly, the distribution of the dark brown scapulars and mantle feathers (and of the crown feathers) is suspiciously similar to that of the second calendar year Snowy Plover seen at Conneaut, OH and Presque Isle Park, PA about a week ago. See these photos of that individual which has been missing for around a week.

Comments on the similarity (or lack thereof) of the MI and OH birds would be appreciated, as would links to additional photos of either.

Here are the remainder of my best photos:

This is a much anticipated potential 3rd state record if accepted by MBRC. It was seen into the evening at the same site by many others as well.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Snowy Plover at Ludington State Park (per Chris Lipps), June 12

This evening I received a phone message then these photographs of a Snowy Plover taken at Ludington State Park by Chris Lipps this morning, June 12, 2012, around 9-10AM. All of these photos are copyrighted to Christopher Lipps.

The bird was immediately south of the Big Sable River mouth, here: 44.029698,-86.507088

Dave Dister reported to me this evening that he had the bird about 300 yards south of the rivermouth as of 7-7:10PM tonight.

Good luck if you chase this potential 3rd state record!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Harris's Sparrow in Muskegon County

Without a doubt my worst nemesis state bird for many years now has been Harris's Sparrow. I have chased it several times and missed it by minutes, or found out others had it before I arrived and after I left. Thankfully, that distinction is now a thing of the past.

On March 10, 2012 I saw this posting on the Muskegon County Nature Club blog:

I was unable to chase that bird at that time and never heard any followup from anyone, and not chasing was obviously a mistake on my part. But the bird seems to have stuck around, and this morning I saw this eBird checklist from yesterday which was the first information I have heard of this bird since March 10:

Needless to say I rushed to the scene and was lucky to get information from Jonathan Lautenbach that the bird was being seen near the tire pile at the Headquarters building. I had been checking Dave Elbrecht's location up to that point, without luck (or any sparrow flocks). After some looking Jonathan and I both scored our state tick. Here is the map of these locations:
I am not sure why this bird wasn't posted more publicly. It is certainly rare enough to merit posting on Mich-Listers (which requires simply that a bird be a "County rarity", among other things, to be permissible). In any event, I am very glad we didn't miss it before it migrates back to northern Canada! State bird 362 and my worst Michigan nemesis averted...

Here are my pictures and ebird checklist:
Harris's Sparrow, Muskegon SGA Headquarters, April 10 2012Harris's Sparrow, Muskegon SGA Headquarters, April 10 2012

Good luck if you chase it!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

possible dark morph Ross's Goose- an ID quandary

This post is going to be shorter and less extensive than a full analysis, mainly because I do not have the necessary days to do the research. But I think the topic is important enough to attempt to make some progress in lieu of a deeper literature and internet photo review.

The basics: the very rare 'blue morph' Ross's Goose (ROGO) is, for me, a very mysterious critter. I have never seen one in life (maybe 2 total so far) that I was sure wasn't a hybrid or backcross ROGO X Snow Goose (SNGO), and I have never felt that I had a firm grasp on even the bird's very existence. Many of the putative photos I have seen from other states appeared to be phenotypically intermediate, and there is a suggestion that no 'pure' blue morph Ross's Goose exists at all. The Crossley Guide says "blue morph [ROGO] is extremely rare and perhaps a hybrid with SNGO where the blue-morph gene is dominant." National Geographic says "the origin of this blue morph is controversial and is though to be due either to introgression with blue [SNGO] or a recurrent mutation of genes controlling feather color." The source of such sentiments seems to be a handful of papers referenced in the Pyle Guide II. [Pyle, incidentally says "Dark-morph Ross's Geese are very rare and may represent hybrids or back-crosses with dark-morph Snow Geese..."]. Here is one of the citations given in support of this statement:

and the other 3 (which I cannot currently locate online) are:

Williamson, M.H. 1957. Ploymorphism in Ross's Geese (Anser rossii) and the detection of genetic dominance from field data. Ibis 99:516-518.

F. Cooke and J.P. Rider. 1979. The genetics of polymorphism in the Ross's Goose. Evolution 25:483-490.

Kaufman, K., J. Witzeman, and E. Cook. 1979. Pinning down the blue Ross' Goose. Continental Birdlife 1:112-115.

I am not going to go any further into the content of these papers (much of it is well beyond my expertise), other than to say that this apparently well-supported hypothesis (that blue morph Ross's may not exist, since the dominant allele coding for blue morph is strictly a SNGO allele; and that correspondingly any blue morph goose must have some SNGO in its recent ancestry) has long given me pause at accepting any claim of this bird. So it was with extreme interest that I heard of an apparently good candidate in SW lower Michigan (!) Friday evening. I was able to visit the site on March 10 and to obtain fairly close up digiscoped video of the bird while studying it for 1 hour in the late morning. The footage was taken using a Nikon Coolpix p5100 through my Kowa Prominar 884, with Kowa digiscoping adapter and window mount. I did not attempt any still shots. Here are the raw videos (be sure to select 480p quality when viewing):
and here are the best screen captures (please see my discussion of this bird's identity at the bottom of this post):

A few things. First, this bird was with an unprecedented number (for Michigan) of white geese (~152-214 individuals) with somewhere between 26 and 69 pure Ross's Geese , a Michigan high count, at least 30 individuals which are hybrids/backcrosses, and at least 76 pure Snow Geese. Sorting through this mess of morphs, age classes, and intermediate phenotypes presented its own challenges, but here is my impression of the bird's actual traits:

1) Body size. My impression was that this bird was perhaps 5-10% more bulky than the smallest, apparently pure ROGO which were present. But I honestly don't know that this makes the bird too large for a pure ROGO, since there is sexual dimorphism and other allowable size variation within the species. It seemed small enough for what I consider a pure ROGO, but not as small as some individual ROGO.

2) Bill base/facial feathering junction verticality: I tried very hard to discern the exact pattern of this trait, and left not completely sure of its true expression. Most of the time this juncture appeared perfectly or nearly perfectly vertical to me, but at times (visible in some, but not other, captures above) there seemed to be a slight anterior bulging of the facial feathering, or a slight posterior incursion of the superior bill lobe onto the bird's face. I honestly do not know which view is correct, but most of the time the bird seemed to be within the normal range of ROGO to my eye.

3) Bill size and shape: the bird's bill size and shape seemed rather good for pure ROGO most of the time. It was small, triangular, and did not form a continuation of the outline of the bird's forehead like a Canvasback or Ammodramus sparrow (something which often makes me think a bird is intermediate), instead having a 'step down' at the forehead separating the crown from the culmen. I hope I am describing this trait amply. I have seen a dazzling array of expressions of this trait and honestly am not sure how 'flat foreheaded' a bird can be while still being a 'pure' ROGO. But this bird seemed within range of what I consider a pure ROGO, but with less of a 'step down' than some pure ROGO I have seen in person and in print.

4) Tomial 'grin' patch: Although the grin patch looks unnervingly large in some of these captures, I believe that the bird's bill was open in all of these instances. One may be able to confirm this by watching the videos. When the bird's bill was shut fully, as is visible in many of the screencaptures, the patch was very small and of uniform width throughout the bill's length. I do not believe it to be out of the range of normal ROGO.

5) Plumage: The bird's plumage coloration overall seemed consistent with my understanding of a 'typical' blue morph Ross's Goose: black not brown body coloration, white (not gray) wing coverts, white belly, white face, black nape and neck sides, etc. It is an adult based on the fully pink bill and clean white face and belly, I believe (someone please correct me if this is wrong!). But 2 of the bird's traits gave me some pause, not necessarily because I 'knew' they were out of range, but because I wanted some clarification of whether the literature allows for it in a pure ROGO. The traits are a) the lack of extension of the black on the nape all the way onto the bird's crown, and b) the irregular white patch amongst the black on the bird's flanks rather than the more uniform black flank area depicted in Sibley and Nat'l Geographic, etc. I would really appreciate feedback as to whether these 2 traits are acceptable for a blue morph Ross's Goose or if they might be indicative of SNGO introgression. I would also appreciate knowing whether I have missed any other traits which are 'off' for this putative identification.

I think this is enough to get the discussion started. In summary, the bird seems like a strong candidate for a 'pure' blue morph Ross's Goose, to my eye, with a couple possible caveats. Please reply in the comments box below or to my email address caleb.putnam (at)