Thursday, December 30, 2010

Monday, August 16, 2010

California Condors Twenty-five Years Later

Back on August 27, 1981, my father and I went searching for condors on Mt. Pinos in southern California.  After hours of searching, we were fortunate to have two adults fly right over our heads at the lookout there.  At the time, there were no more than 20 something birds left in the wild.  It was a breathtaking experience and one that galvanized my interest in birds and endangered species.  A couple of years later, my buddy Hugh and I made a trip up to the same mountains and again had some wonderfully close condors.  These were some of the last free-flying condors left in the wild.

It seems amazing that some twenty-five years has passed since my last encounter with this critically endangered species.  A previous visit to the Grand Canyon for condors was weathered out, so I was determined to have a look on my way home from a Las Vegas concert weekend.  I arrived about 4:45 pm at the south rim of the canyon.  Within about ten minutes I had spotted the first one, thanks to a tip from a passing walker.  After scoping it from a distance, I decided to find a closer vantage point and was rewarded with some fantastic views of one.  After viewing it for a few minutes, it did some wing stretches and took flight before departing to the west.  While celebrating the moment with a family of curious tourists, a second bird appeared circling nearby.  These one spiraled closer and closer before settling on a rock almost directly below us.  I set up my scope on this bird and a number of curious tourists took turns enjoying this rare creature.

The first condor seen appears to be #223, sporting tag number 3 on its left wing.  The right wing tag seems to be missing.  This male bird was hatched on April 18, 2000 and originally released in February 2001.  The second condor seen is #246 (tag number 46).  Another male, this one was born April 29, 2001.  Both birds were hatched at the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho.  At last count, there are some 372 condors living, 75 of these are free-flying birds that regularly visit the Grand Canyon region.  In recent years, these birds have been spending a lot of time in southern Utah.

Condor #223 sits on a rock outcropping shortly before taking flight for parts unknown.
Condor #246 soaring out over the Grand Canyon.  It is in flight that the massiveness of these birds becomes most apparent.  
Condor #246 coming closer as he prepares for a landing.  
Condor #246 at rest below us.  He was quite the tourist attraction on this Sunday afternoon.  

Friday, April 30, 2010

A Weird Oriole at Cottonwood Campground

On Thursday April 29th I was birding with a group at Cottonwood Campground in Big Bend National Park.  It was mid-morning and we were looking over some birds at the group camp site which is located at the east end of the complex.  At one point, a couple of clients asked about the identity of a certain oriole.  I glanced at the bird and initially thought Hooded Oriole.  Distracted by an Ash-throated Flycatcher, I did not spend any time studying the oriole.  Eventually, I decided to photograph since it was sitting out so nicely.  As I focused on it, I noticed that it was not what I had initially taken it to be.  As soon as I took the first exposure, it turned and flew directly away out of the campground beyond some mesquites and out of sight.  Looking at the photo, I immediately had the hunch that this was some sort of hybrid, and the orange that I was seeing in the tail as well as the bill coloration made me suspect that a Bullock's Oriole was involved.  Despite spending some additional time trying to relocate the bird, it was not seen again.

To me, the bird's structure looks intermediate between that of a Hooded and a Bullock's Oriole.  The tail seems strongly graduated, which is unusual.  The photo gives the impression of there being a great deal of white in the wing panel, though I did not notice this in life.  One of the clients specifically commented on how much white there was present.

The bird also somewhat resembles a Streak-backed Oriole, though the tail pattern seems off for that.  In addition, the body was more extensively orange than is typical of northern populations of Streak-backed which tend to be most intensely orange around the head.  I would enjoy getting feedback and insight from others regarding the identity of this peculiar bird.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Rocky Point Gull Workshop

The first ever joint Arizona Field Ornithologists and Tucson Audubon Society gull workshop was held in Puerto PeƱasco, Sonora on February 20-21, 2010.  Fifteen participants from central and southeast Arizona converged on Rocky Point to sample from the diversity of this gull rich area and to brush up on their gull identification skills.  Chris Benesh and Dave Stejskal led the outing.  In total, ten species of gulls were seen, along with a few interesting hybrids.  Two additional species (Mew and Glaucous-winged gulls) were detected during scouting, but did not put in an appearance during the workshop.  Other interesting sightings included a first cycle California Gull with a band indicating it was banded as a chick last summer at Mono Lake, in eastern California (home of the second largest colony of California Gulls), and an amelanistic Yellow-footed Gull.  A list of gulls seen includes Bonaparte's, Ring-billed, Heermann's, California, Lesser Black-backed, Thayer's, American Herring, Western, Yellow-footed, and Glaucous gulls.  Hybrids included Western X Glaucous-winged and Am. Herring X Glaucous-winged.  

Some of the many elegant Heermann's Gulls that frequent Rocky Point.

Yellow-footed Gull one of the real highlights of the northern Sea of Cortez. 

This amelanistic Yellow-footed Gull stood out in the masses.  Looking all the world like a white-winged gull, its massive proportions helped indicate its real identity. 

Another white-winged gull in the crowd was this second cycle Glaucous Gull that put in a brief appearance.  

This first cycle Thayer's Gull was one of a few seen over the two days of birding.  

A first cycle Western Gull stands next to a first cycle Yellow-footed Gull.  At one time these two were considered the same species.  

This first cycle California Gull sports a band it received at Mono Lake, California this past summer. Mono Lake has the second largest colony of this species.  

Small numbers of these tern-like Bonaparte's Gulls were evident at the sewage ponds. 

A third cycle Olympic Gull (Western X Glaucous-winged) was present at the landfill.  

A first cycle Lesser Black-backed Gull that was present for two days at the sewage ponds.  

The first of two Mew Gulls found at the landfill during workshop scouting.  

The second Mew Gull that was briefly at the landfill during scouting. 

Group scanning through masses of gulls in the late afternoon.