Project Chekov: Loon

Finally, we get to head back into the water to see our latest featured bird and NEW bird list check mark! This particular subject is often related to Canada seeing as how they chose to use this cool bird on their dollar coin commonly referred to as, yes, the Loonie. This by the way happens to be my favorite coin – I think there would have been better uptake of our failed dollar coin if they had bothered to design it after the Loonie as opposed to having everyone confuse it with a slightly larger quarter.  But money isn’t the topic for today’s post, but the Common Loon is!

Now I happen to really like the looks of this bird – long, sleek and deadly in the water.  According to our friends over at Wikipedia, this bird is so cool it has more than one name with the other being Great Northern Loon.  I actually thought this particular bird was taken at Devil’s Lake up by Baraboo, Wisconsin back in July 2012.  However, when I went back to confirm that it looks to be taken in the Porcupine Mountains instead.   One thing for sure, I wasn’t able to get too close to it having to rely on the reach of The Beast just to get a decent shot of him.  Check that, it may be a him or a her since plumage of the two sexes is similar.    As mentioned, they are extraordinary divers and underwater swimmers capable of chasing down their prey (primarily fish) and either skewering or grabbing it with that dagger of a  bill.  As you can tell from the pictures, they lay low in the water paddling with their webbed feet until they spot a fish and quickly dive under the water (splashless).

Their legs are actually located relatively far back on their body which contributes to the efficiency in the water, but makes it difficult for them to maneuver on land.  They prefer to spend as much time in the water as they can, only coming out when it is time to nest.  This awkward movement on land is how it acquired its name from the word lumme/lum which derives into lummox/awkward/clumsy.   I never had the chance to experience this land difficulty or for that matter see them in the air so unable to provide a firsthand account of their abilities there.  It did look quite graceful on the water.

Interesting enough, they are unable to take flight from land instead requiring them to swim against the wind to gain lift for their large frame.  Once in the air they are considered quite capable.  Looks like they are aggressive if a predator invades its space or has the audacity (a few more times and it will lose the socialist stigma) to come near their nests – that is when that dagger is pressed into action.  Not much else to really say about this bird other than I am looking forward to the when I can get closer shots (although pleased I was able to get my signature composition of head turned across the body).  Oh, one late tidbit – they are the State Bird of Minnesota in case you happen to be asked that at some trivia event (you can thank me later hehehe).

Have a good one – I’m heading to bed

Project Chekov: Kingbird and Killdeer

Today’s featured bird was a bit of a surprise to me.  Linda and I were up in Baraboo, Wisconsin checking out the International Crane Institute and decided to tear ourselves away from the Cranes and take a little walk out on their trails.  Birders will never pass up the opportunity to check out the locals.  We quickly came to a marshy field with an abundance of cattails.  There were a few Red-Winged Blackbirds meandering about on the edges of the treeline, but not a whole lot of activity in the field itself.  At the time I thought this was a little strange thinking this would be a great spot to hang out if I had wings.  About that time I noticed what looked like a dark spot in the middle of the marsh.  Time to bring out The Beast.

Sure enough, it was a bird!  Without a lot of other options I decided to make the best of the situation.  This meant hand-holding an 8 pound glass on a bird that didn’t even fill up one focus point.  The fact that you can actually tell it was a bird is a miracle in itself.   I had to bring the subject in a little closer in the digital darkroom.

While processing the pictures it began to dawn on me this little excursion into the field may have yielded a new check on the ol’ birding list.  To the reference books!  Well, after going through a number of different options I landed on an Eastern Kingbird which .. wait for it… is indeed a new bird – yeah! (assuming it was classified correctly – feel free to weigh in with comments).

Hit the jump to continue reading about this interesting bird

Continue reading Project Chekov: Kingbird and Killdeer

Project Chekov: Junco

It’s been all about deconstructing Xmas around here as of late.  The 13′ tree went down today along with most of the interior decorations.  Not sure which is more work, running a half marathon or hauling all the boxes up and down the stairs!  The good news for me is today’s post is pretty short.  This is mainly due to only having two pictures to show off from our featured bird of the day.  Usually, I have a number of pictures to wade through to find my favorite poses, check for crispness etc.  Not the case with this set, basically processed the entire set of pictures taken of the Dark-Eyed Junco.

We have a lot of these around the house over the Winter months so likely didn’t give them much attention while out in the field.  There are a number of different variations of this particular bird with many regional differences.  I generally do not tend to further classify these birds beyond the standard Dark-Eyed level.  This is the same approach I take to their family as a whole since they are members of the Sparrow family and those are nearly impossible to identify with any certainty.  They Summer in Canada and Winter all across the US.   The Junco is not new to the blog having been introduced twice in 2010 (link here and here).  However, this post probably has the clearest shots of them.

These birds tend to stay on or near the ground foraging for seed and insects (yes) although not sure how many insects are hanging around here in the Winter months (especially with the abundance of snow that has fallen as of late).  Where I see them the most is directly under our feeders foraging for any fallen sunflower seeds.  I always throw a little on the ground to make it easy for them – can’t remember once ever seeing them actually on the feeders themselves.  Chickadees are on the top of the list for least afraid birds around here.  They will hit the feeders as soon as get them cranked up on the pole.  Juncos are second when it comes to boldness.  Whenever I finish filling the feeders I always take about 4 steps back and see which bird is going to be the brave one of the day.  The Chickadee will try some quick test flights in to see if you react at all and then go directly for seed and then proceed to fly off into the nearby trees to eat – they never eat at the feeder.  Juncos will jump out next but forgo the reaction tests.  Juncos do make for a great seasonal Calendar.  When they arrive it is Winter time and you can tell when the Winter is over when you see the last of them at the feeders.  Guessing they flock back to Canada as soon as it’s warm enough for them – that or they just really hate to be around Hummingbirds (they take off about the same time the Hummers arrive).  Not much else to really say about these birds.  Very identifiable in the field, just keep looking near the forest floor – now getting a picture is a pain since they are always jumping around and when they do stop it’s usually in the middle of shrubs and branches making it impossible to get a clean focus.

Looks like our Polar Vortex has retreated – may have to break out the suntan oil!  See you again soon!

Project Chekov: Indigo Bunting

There are birds that have some blue in their palette and then there are birds that are BLUE! The following bird definitely fits into the latter group and one of those birds that are rarely mistaken. Unlike the last post, this entry does result in a new check mark in the birding list – not that I haven’t seen it a bunch of times (especially around where I live), but finally got one in the tin and that is a key criteria for the coveted check. So, without further delay, I present to you the Indigo Bunting.

This specimen was really sporting the blue and based on the other specimens below, you will notice it is actually a little more puffed than usual. My apologies, but I cannot remember the setting where this particular bird was taken. As a result I am not sure if it was cold that day and it was simply puffing itself up or if there might be some other external condition that accounts for the larger than rounder shape – maybe it is just fat (harsh, I know).

I did check into the Blue Bunting which does have a deeper blue and fuller shape, but according to Stokes that is a fairly rare bird so dismissing that for now. Here is a more typical example of an Indigo Bunting that was taken at a different location. A little thinner (umm maybe a LOT thinner). From this angle you can get a good feel for the overall coloring with the deeper almost black highlighting in the wings.

Hit the jump to view a few more Indigo Buntings enjoying our feeders

Continue reading Project Chekov: Indigo Bunting

Project Chekov: Hummingbird

So, we’ve had the big dogs in skies (the Eagles), and those that like a slow paddle in calm water (the Coots), so it only seems fitting that we have a post on the little dudes and dudettes that are constantly going about a 100 miles per hour.

You guessed it, today’s featured bird is the Hummingbird.  Out here in the Midwest (more affectionately called the Midtundra at the moment) we do not have a lot of variety when it comes to these birds so they are pretty easy to identify.  In fact it is ridiculously easy because a quick review of the Stokes reference manual confirms there is only ONE that frequents our area – most prefer to spend their time out in Texas or Central America – Guess catching that Black-Chinned Hummingbird in Vegas was a score (link here) seeing how that is the only other one I’ve really had a chance to check off.  Since this is from our backyard feeder (actually back porch feeder), we proudly introduce the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird.

This isn’t a new bird to the Blog – it actually appeared back in Oct 2012 (link here), so this doesn’t result in a check.  It does give me the chance to talk a little bit about a bird with some interesting characteristics.  First of all, the Ruby part of the name is VERY apparent when they choose to show it.  As you can see in the two males above can hide that coloring and instead show a more boring darker chin.  Not sure if this is a choice they have or if there is some specific angle that really reveals it – wait, getting lazy, let me check that.  So it is all about the angle of the light – there ya go.  Unfortunately, this set of shots must have had bad lighting since none of them really show that bright ruby color.  You can see a little of it below.

Hit the jump to read a little more about these birds and view a few more intriguing shots

Continue reading Project Chekov: Hummingbird

Project Chekov: Grosbeak and Gray Catbird

It’s a two-fer day for the blog and now that the pictures are processed, two more checks in the bird list. The first bird isn’t really new to me an in fact has frequented our feeders quite regularly during the warmer months. I didn’t really think much about it figuring it had already debuted on the web so imagine my surprise when I did a quick search on the blog and came up empty on the Rose-Breasted Grosbeak.

Much like the Cardinal, this particular bird is easy to identify due to the unique coloring.  Oh, and the discoverer made it easy enough to visually tell what type of Grosbeak it is thanks to the rosy patch on .. wait for it .. the breast.  They are fairly common in the Eastern half of the US extending up into Canada.  Like the Flycatchers from the last post, they will eat insects but also feast on fruits and seeds.  The Cornell website noted “they eat sunflower seeds with abandon”.  This is spot on – when they show up I have to spend extra time keeping the feeders full – here is one getting his fill (admittedly a little soft but wanted to show more of the back coloring on the male)

Hit the jump to see the female Grosbeak and our other featured bird.

Continue reading Project Chekov: Grosbeak and Gray Catbird

Project Chekov: Flycatchers and Friends

Today’s post required some assistance from Facebook (shudder).  I was struggling terribly with trying to identify the featured bird shown below.

The problem wasn’t so much the category because the crest and general shape is easily identifiable as a Flycatcher, but there are a number of different types of Flycatchers with subtle nuances.  Every reference book on my shelf was rifled through at least twice trying to narrow it down – even went so far as to go through every page of the Stokes book while traveling up to the Quad Cities to see if I was overlooking some other bird.  When that failed to produce a good match, I went and spent a couple of hours on Google Images to see if there happened to be a hit there – NO LUCK.

The problem isn’t so much the shape.  Based on the smaller stature and the bill, it is pretty easy to ID it as an Eastern Phoebe.  That is assuming you do not focus much on the coloring.  That is the tricky part.  Eastern Phoebes have an all whitish breast.  This one got darker on the bottom.  In fact, it looked the complete opposite of the Black Phoebe which has already made a debut on the blog (link here).  Although there is not a good breast shot on that post, they are black on top and then turn to white half way down.  So that was completely out for this particular bird.  It looked so cute, I could hardly go any further without getting a good classification on it, so I employed my wife to submit a picture on an Illinois Birding Facebook page.  It didn’t take long for some feedback to start rolling in.  One of Linda’s friend’s husband agreed with me that it was an Eastern Phoebe.  So that part was pretty much settled, but was still curious on the coloring.  Here’s another shot … he’s a cutie.

Hit the jump learn about the likely answer to the coloring issue

Continue reading Project Chekov: Flycatchers and Friends

Project Chekov: Eagle

Getting close to my blog quota for the month and we really are not even out of the first week of the new year.  The good news is Project Chekov is still getting into gear which can mean only one thing – yep, another bird post.  The featured bird today is a tad bittersweet for me.  On the one hand it allows me to get through some pictures that were taken awhile back.  On the other hand I would much prefer focusing on the latest series which were just taken last week while up along  the Mississippi.  Just more incentive to get caught up!  As you probably noticed, the bird topic today is the Eagle.

These are second only to owls when it comes to my personal bird photography and really only second because they are becoming much more abundant in places we can easily reach.  When Linda and I started taking pictures of these along the Mississippi River up in the Quad Cities area we would find maybe 5 or so along a particular road we frequently hunted.  Now days, that same road has well over 50-70 of these majestic birds hanging out in the trees with probably another 300 or so circling the surrounding areas.  Definitely a resurgence in their population – not sure if that is just a local phenomena and maybe there is some condition up North that is driving more of them down or they are just prospering as a species.  In either case, we get the benefit of whatever is going on.  The interesting thing is about a third of the birds we saw were juvis so we should have good viewing for some years to come.  There is just something exhilarating about watching these large birds through the big glass as they scan the river surface looking for food.  Once spotted, they’ll unfurl their wings and essentially drop off the branch before gaining enough air under their wings to lift up their strong torsos.  A few circles and those talons emerge from under their tail feathers for the final dip into the water, often times snagging an unsuspecting fish.  The other Eagles in the vicinity will notice this and give chase, but if the Eagle makes it back to the trees it is generally left alone to enjoy a hearty feast of fish.  Every time I get to witness their ability to rip into fish makes me wonder what would happen if they got annoyed by my presence – those razor sharp talons and beak could do some harm.  But then I think – oh, no problem, my UB has my back (collective laughter).   Good for me, the Eagles tend to pay little attention to those annoying people with their cameras.

Having the pleasure to witness Eagles in the wild has a sobering effect when viewing them in captivity.  I have mixed feelings about the whole zoo thing.  As long as the birds are well taken care of and have an environment that is conducive to their lifestyle I have little issue – in fact, if it wasn’t for access to birds in this setting I would probably not be such an enthusiast today.  The other condition that is completely acceptable is rehabilitation or sanctuary for injured birds (again, the latter still needs to have a conducive environment).  When it comes to Eagles, I think injury and recovery are the only lawful means to have one in captivity – may be wrong about that, but that has been the universal reason for all the ones I’ve seen in zoos etc.  Our own Wildlife Prairie Park has Eagle residents and both of those have damaged wings and are unable to fly sufficiently to be in the wild.  Without this assistance they would surely be dead in the survival of the fittest wild.

However, under the protection of WPP, they appear to be well nourished and accepting of their pen.  The hard part for photographers is this particular pen is encased in wire fencing.  As mentioned in a previous post, The Beast can focus through most fences without much issue depending on how close the links are – if you look close at the shot above you can make out some soft areas where the links crossed through the shot.

Hit the jump to see a couple more shots from captivity

Continue reading Project Chekov: Eagle

Project Chekov: Downy Woodpecker

Today we have the fourth installment of Project Chekov, but this one comes with a little bit of uncertainty and mystery.  While processing the feeder shots I came across the image below.

At the time I immediately classified this as another Downy Woodpecker since those can be seen quite frequently hanging out there.  They like to give the impression they are hard working drillers for their food but I’ll see them sneak a trip to the feeders every once in awhile for a snack.  At one point they were showing up a lot more than usual and for the longest time it stumped me as to why.  Later, it became apparent that one of my seed bins had gone bad and it was filled with  ants – the woodpeckers were not so much going after the seed as much as they were the ants that must have been overtaking the feeder.  Clearly the one above was there for the seed.  While uploading it to our photo website the yellow on the bridge of the beak caught my eye.  I had not really noticed that before, as opposed to the more noticeable red highlight on the head for the males.  This prompted a dash for the reference books.  Nothing really conclusive there but part of that is due to the reference shots all being from the side and not directly on (bad reference authors, very bad).  The size led me to believe it was the Hairy or the Downy and since there hasn’t been a lot of Hairy’s around here the best guess is the Downy.  I checked the juvi Yellow- Bellied Sapsucker but that has more markings on the breast and less white for sure).  The Black-backed Woodpecker and Three-toed didn’t match either and didn’t line up with the regions very well.  Without any further input I’m forced to consider it the Downy.  Please let me know your thoughts in the comments, I could be swayed easily at this point.

Here is another shot of a similar bird taken at a different time.  As with the previous image you can see a little bit of the yellow on the bill here as well.  This one is a pretty good match to the Downy characteristics and you can visualize the smaller stature.

So, it is possible the first is not a Downy, but I didn’t want to cheat you out of a post so went with some insurance!

Hit the jump to check that out.

Continue reading Project Chekov: Downy Woodpecker

Project Chekov: Cedar Waxwing and Cardinal

We have reached day three of Project Chekov and to switch it up just a little we have two birds featured today (yeah!).  To be completely honest, the second one was kind of thrown in because I figured it was a good way to get them out of the way quickly.  But let’s get to that in a minute and get right into the featured bird.  I Actually thought this would be a new bird to the blog, however, a quick verification through the blog search capability proved differently.  The Cedar Waxwing actually made its presence known back in Nov 2012 (link here).  Those previous shots were not exactly the best execution and even coined the term crispiless to acknowledge that they were on the fuzzy side (I still like that word).  These first few turned out a lot better in my humble opinion.

The above one is clearly my favorite with the berry in the beak.  These are one of the easier birds to identify thanks to their thick black eye eyeliner and cropped back Mohawk.  Just call them the punk rockers of the birding world.  There are actually two types of these birds, one being Cedar and the other the Bohemian.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a shot showing their back coloring or it would be very obvious since the Bohemian has more colorful highlights.  The Bohemian also hangs out predominantly in the Northwest where the Cedar has a much broader range.

Pretty confident this is the Cedar based on where it was taken (Midwest) and I would have noted it if I saw the prettier highlights so I could make the extra check mark in the bird list.  These are pretty cool birds

Hit the jump to see more shots of the Waxwing and a more common bird to the area

Continue reading Project Chekov: Cedar Waxwing and Cardinal