Kittiwake Nature Photography: Blog en-us (C) Kittiwake Nature Photography (Kittiwake Nature Photography) Mon, 16 Mar 2020 07:20:00 GMT Mon, 16 Mar 2020 07:20:00 GMT Kittiwake Nature Photography: Blog 94 120 The Mating Dance of the Buff-breasted Sandpiper "All About Birds" describes the Buff-breasted Sandpiper as a "delicate dove-headed shorebird" that "is unique among North American shorebirds in having a lek mating system". "Delicate" and "dove-headed" are appropriate adjectives:

Buff-breasted SandpiperBuff-breasted SandpiperBarrow, Alaska

They spend our winters in southern South America, and breed in the Arctic. If we're lucky, we can catch them as they migrate through Alberta:


Buff-breasted SandpiperBuff-breasted SandpiperTofield, Alberta But if you're really lucky, you get to go to northern Alaska and find them on their breeding grounds. On a trip there in June, 2018, I was fortunate to see a few engaging in their fascinating mating process. Once a male has established a territory (a "lek"), he waves a wing to attract attention.

Buff-breasted SandpiperBuff-breasted SandpiperBarrow, Alaska

The grass he is standing in is high enough to hide him completely, and his buffy colour matches perfectly with the buffy-coloured grass; waving a wing so the brilliant white underside is visible is a good tactic. Just in case the wing isn't noticed, then a few jumps are needed.

Buff-breasted SandpiperBuff-breasted SandpiperBarrow, Alaska

Here we put it together:

Buff-breasted SandpiperBarrow, Alaska

Once he has the attention of a distant female, it's time to draw her in. This means stepping up the game to raise two wings and rotate around!

Buff-breasted SandpiperBarrow, Alaska

He simply cannot look any finer than this. How could any female resist?

Buff-breasted SandpiperBuff-breasted SandpiperBarrow, Alaska

It worked! Here she is taking a closer look:

Buff-breasted SandpiperBuff-breasted SandpiperBarrow, Alaska She seems to like what she sees, and she lets him know by responding in kind:

Buff-breasted SandpiperBuff-breasted SandpiperBarrow, Alaska

And all that effort paid off:

Buff-breasted SandpiperBuff-breasted SandpiperBarrow, Alaska

(Kittiwake Nature Photography) Buff-breasted Sandpiper Thu, 09 Aug 2018 20:57:11 GMT
The Merlin and the Sandpiper The story starts with a Stilt Sandpiper at McElroy Slough on Inverlake Rd just east of Calgary, Alberta. The poor bird had an injured leg and, although it seemed to be feeding OK, had to keep flapping its wings to maintain balance. Stilt Sandpiper, injuredStilt Sandpiper, injuredMcElroy Slough, Inverlake Rd, Alberta

It was moving around with the yellowlegs - there were about 50 of those, Greater and Lesser, plus close to a hundred dowitchers, and a few other shorebirds like Pectoral Sandpipers and Killdeer. It is on the left in the photo. I deliberately chose a slightly blurry one because it is sad to see the injured leg. 

Not long after I arrived, a Merlin showed up. MerlinMerlinMcElroy Slough, Inverlake Rd, Alberta

It strafed the shorebirds several times, isolating and chasing one small bird each time, and heading for a tree to rest between attempts. I tried to photograph several of these chases, but it is hard to focus on a fast moving, small bird against a variable background.  MerlinMerlinMcElroy Slough, Inverlake Rd, Alberta

I finally got lucky with one chase. All I was doing was trying to keep the Merlin in focus; the chase happened very quickly and the sequence below happened in a second or less (nine frames of a 14 frames/sec camera). It was when I was processing the photos that I realized the Merlin had gone after the Stilt Sandpiper - not surprising since predators tend to go after the weak and injured.

In this photo, the Stilt Sandpiper is lower left, and the Merlin above and to the right. There are also some Bonaparte's and Ring-billed Gulls.

Merlin chasing Stilt SandpiperMerlin chasing Stilt SandpiperMcElroy Slough, Inverlake Rd, Alberta

The Bonaparte's Gulls and Ring-billed Gulls are minding their own business at this point.

Merlin chasing Stilt SandpiperMerlin chasing Stilt SandpiperMcElroy Slough, Inverlake Rd, Alberta

Now the Bonaparte's Gulls realize they are in the path of this chase. In this photo you can see the Stilt Sandpiper's injured leg:

Merlin chasing Stilt SandpiperMerlin chasing Stilt SandpiperMcElroy Slough, Inverlake Rd, Alberta

The Ring-billed Gulls are now watching the action, and the Bonaparte's are realizing they are in the way: Merlin chasing Stilt SandpiperMerlin chasing Stilt SandpiperMcElroy Slough, Inverlake Rd, Alberta

It's chaos as the sandpiper makes an abrupt turn, the Merlin tries to follow, and the Bonaparte's are trying to get out of the way:

Merlin chasing Stilt SandpiperMerlin chasing Stilt SandpiperMcElroy Slough, Inverlake Rd, Alberta

Meanwhile, over by the Ring-billed Gulls, a yellowlegs that must have thought the Merlin was chasing it, plunges into the water.

Merlin chasing Stilt SandpiperMerlin chasing Stilt SandpiperMcElroy Slough, Inverlake Rd, Alberta

The Stilt Sandpiper does a face plant into the water:

Merlin chasing Stilt SandpiperMerlin chasing Stilt SandpiperMcElroy Slough, Inverlake Rd, Alberta The Merlin can't slow down fast enough - I don't believe they can pick birds out of the water anyway:

Merlin chasing Stilt SandpiperMerlin chasing Stilt SandpiperMcElroy Slough, Inverlake Rd, Alberta Smart move by the sandpiper, if it can recover. The yellowlegs over on the right seems to be OK after pulling the same move:

Merlin chasing Stilt SandpiperMerlin chasing Stilt SandpiperMcElroy Slough, Inverlake Rd, Alberta

A zoomed in view of the previous photo:

Merlin chasing Stilt SandpiperMerlin chasing Stilt SandpiperMcElroy Slough, Inverlake Rd, Alberta This is the last shot of this sequence. The Merlin missed, and the Stilt Sandpiper recovered.

Merlin chasing Stilt SandpiperMerlin chasing Stilt SandpiperMcElroy Slough, Inverlake Rd, Alberta

Less than a minute later the Merlin is after another shorebird; it's hard to tell what it is - maybe the same sandpiper - the camera unfortunately decided to focus on the geese:

Merlin chasing Stilt SandpiperMerlin chasing Stilt SandpiperMcElroy Slough, Inverlake Rd, Alberta

Here's the Merlin cruising over the slough, looking for its next target:

MerlinMerlinMcElroy Slough, Inverlake Rd, Alberta

Here it has just given up chasing a dowitcher:

Merlin and dowitcherMerlin and dowitcherMcElroy Slough, Inverlake Rd, Alberta

Cruising again:

MerlinMerlinMcElroy Slough, Inverlake Rd, Alberta

Too bad this photo didn't turn out well, but this is a Ring-billed Gull chasing the Merlin:

Merlin and Ring-billed GullMerlin and Ring-billed GullMcElroy Slough, Inverlake Rd, Alberta

It's a little more clear in this photo:

Merlin and Ring-billed GullMerlin and Ring-billed GullMcElroy Slough, Inverlake Rd, Alberta

At this point the Merlin disappeared for a while, and I had to leave.

(Kittiwake Nature Photography) Alberta Merlin Stilt Sandpiper Mon, 03 Oct 2016 19:35:54 GMT
Seeing what you want to see In June this year I was in Alberta, visiting family, going to Women's World Cup games, and, of course, birding. I have birded in the summer in Alberta before, so I had a relatively short list of target birds, some of which meant going north to the boreal forest. After doing research in eBird and getting advice from a couple of local birders, I went to Sir Winston Churchill Provincial Park, which is an island in the lake Lac La Biche, connected to the mainland by a causeway. I booked a campsite and headed there with great anticipation, and I was not disappointed. It is a birder's paradise, at least in June.

Nashville WarblerNashville WarblerSir Winston Churchill PP, Lac La Biche, AB One of the main targets here was Connecticut Warbler. I didn't know much about this warbler other than it's hard to find. It skulks around on the ground in forest with dense undergrowth. I had looked at photos and had a mental image of a bird with an olive-green back, yellow underparts, a gray hood, and distinct, complete, white eye-ring. One had been found along a trail called the Boardwalk Trail. On my second pass along this trail, I found it - a warbler with an olive-green back, yellow underparts, that gray hood, and the distinct eye-ring. It was making a soft chipping sound as it foraged down low in the undergrowth. It was carrying food, presumably for a nearby nestling. This was fortunate, since birds are reluctant to go to their nests if they know they're being watched, and therefore allow you better views and an opportunity for a photo.

Once I had the photo, I left the bird alone, and happily checked the bird off my mental list of targets.

A few days later I posted a note about my trip to Lac La Biche to the Albertabirds discussion group, with links to some of the photos. One person wrote back to me and kindly pointed out that this bird was NOT a Connecticut Warbler, but the smaller, similar Nashville Warbler. The biggest difference is in the throat - the gray hood of the Connecticut Warbler extends down to the breast, whereas on the Nashville, the throat is yellow.

Well, that was embarrassing.

I've been birding long enough now I shouldn't be making such mistakes. I have excuses - I'd never seen a Connecticut Warbler before, I wasn't expecting Nashville - this was the very western edge of its range and they are not commonly found in Alberta. I've seen Nashville Warblers multiple times, but the possibility didn't even cross my mind. What I found was what I was looking for. I was in a place where Connecticut Warblers had been reported, and I found a warbler that fit my mental image, however poorly constructed that was.

It happens all too frequently. Once you see something, convince yourself that it is what you think it is and apply a label to it, it can be very difficult to view that object in any other way. It applies not just to birds, but to many aspects of life - politics, religion, and so on. There are probably whole books on the subject. This is just one example. I wanted to write about it partly as a reminder to myself to check my facts more diligently, and keep an open mind. I hope any readers will find this example useful too.

As a footnote - I went birding north of Edmonton a couple of days later with a local birder. We found several real Connecticut Warblers, of which I was able to get a blurry photo of one. Had I known then that the Nashville Warbler photo I had was not a Connecticut, I would have tried harder to get a photo with the Connecticut Warbler in focus!

Connecticut WarblerConnecticut WarblerSir Winston Churchill PP, Lac La Biche, AB

(Kittiwake Nature Photography) Mon, 27 Jul 2015 04:08:52 GMT
Alberta Birding June 2014 Yellow-bellied SapsuckerYellow-bellied SapsuckerElk Island National Park, Alberta, Canada I used to live in Alberta and go back to visit family almost every year. Since becoming a birder a few years ago, however, I've had very little chance to go birding during my visits. With more than a few life bird opportunities in the province, this year I was determined to make that change, and scheduled a longer trip than usual in order to fit in some quality birding and bird photography time. With the help of eBird, I could also make birding in Alberta more interesting by starting a province list.

The first few days, however, were still dedicated to family. My son, Least FlycatcherLeast FlycatcherWhitemud Creek Trail, Edmonton, Alberta various family members, and assorted friends participated in the Kananaskis 100 mile relay race (each member of a relay team runs roughly 10 miles). The race starts in Longview and proceeds west and north along highway 40 over the Highwood Pass. I went along to see what the race was like, and was somewhat frustrated by not being able to spend time birding as we had to keep moving along with the runners. I'm mentioning this because one of the highlights of the trip occurred at Highwood Pass summit - I heard several Varied Thrushes "singing" in the forest. We have Varied Thrushes at home in the winter, but hardly ever hear them sing. It's such a unique song it seemed special to hear several of them in one location, especially such a beautiful location.

Great Crested FlycatcherGreat Crested FlycatcherElk Island National Park, Alberta, Canada After my son left to go back to where he lives in Idaho, I went on to Edmonton where I had arranged, through BirdingPal, to go out birding with John Bell. John, a retired university professor, vaguely remembers having my sister in one of his classes many years ago, so it's a small world. He took me out to the Beaverhill Lake area and  Elk Island National Park. There are

many advantages to birding with a local birder - obviously, they'll be familiar with the local hotspots. But less obvious - they can tell you what's common. Back at home the most common empid, grosbeak, and oriole would be Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Bullock's Oriole. Red-necked GrebeRed-necked GrebeElk Island National Park, Alberta, Canada Around Edmonton, it's Least Flycatcher, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and Baltimore Oriole. Also, they can help with the unfamiliar songs, which can be really frustrating if you're still learning to bird by ear (do you ever stop learning?). There's nothing like being in a forest listening to unfamiliar bird songs to make you feel like a beginner all over again. A few highlights from that day were Western Meadowlark, Black Tern, Clay-coloured Sparrow, Hairy Woodpecker, Baltimore Oriole Canvasback mother with ducklingsCanvasback mother with ducklingsElk Island National Park, Alberta, Canada (no photo, though :-( ), a Canvasback with babies, a gorgeous Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a Red-necked Grebe in alternate plumage, a Boreal Chickadee, and the best bird of the day was a life bird - the Great Crested Flycatcher. We heard Alder Flycatcher, which was one of my target birds, but it was deep in the woods and impossible to find. We also saw a chestnut-coloured robin-sized bird fly across a path in front of us at one point - John said it was a Brown Thrasher, another one of my targets. It settled some distance away and sang, but wouldn't come closer so I didn't check it off because the brief glimpse really wasn't an identifiable view of it.

Clay-colored SparrowClay-colored SparrowClifford E. Lee Nature Sanctuary, Edmonton, Alberta I spent one morning walking by myself along Whitemud Creek Trail. Well, not really by myself, because I arrived at the same time as several school buses loaded with children out to explore nature - they divided up into small groups and headed off down the trail. While this could have been very annoying, it was actually refreshing to see their enthusiasm for reading the nature trail signs and chasing down the items they needed to check off their lists. You couldn't help but smile. This trail could be re-named the Yellow Warbler Trail. I counted 16 of them in about one kilometer. A couple of other highlights were a Pileated Woodpecker, and a Spotted Sandpiper on the creek bank. I also got close views of Least Flycatchers and a Red-eyed Vireo.

Rose-breasted GrosbeakRose-breasted GrosbeakClifford E. Lee Nature Sanctuary, Edmonton, Alberta I went out with John a second time, this time to the Clifford E. Lee Nature Sanctuary west of the city. On the way we almost ran over two Grey Partridges - another life bird! In the park we saw more Baltimore Orioles (still no photo), heard a Swainson's Thrush singing, saw a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and got close views of Red-eyed Vireos and Clay-coloured Sparrows. By this time, Least Flycatcher was becoming a junk bird. On our way out, a Ruffed Grouse in the road was almost run over by a passing truck. It's nice of them to hang out on the roads in full view like that, but one wonders how they survive.

Next I went to Canmore. On the way I stopped at the Horse Creek Road marshes, northwest of Cochrane. I did not have much information about this location other Wilson's SnipeWilson's SnipePriddis Valley Rd and Plummers Rd, Priddis, AB than what I found on eBird - there didn't seem to be any convenient spots to pull off the road without risk of going into the marsh, and trucks were driving down the road at high speed. It was late afternoon, a strong wind was blowing, and there didn't seem to be much bird activity, so I left. Maybe that's a better place to visit in the morning on a weekend.

I had hoped to meet up with another Birding Pal from Calgary, but Canmore is a bit out of the way and it didn't work out. However, a Nature Calgary trip took place at Lesueur Ridge - I went to the meeting place and felt very welcome to join the group. It was a wonderful outing - great scenery, fantastic views, and lots of wildflowers and butterflies as well as birds. It was a thrill to hear an Ovenbird, even if we didn't get a good look at it. The singing Lazuli Bunting we found a bit later was much more cooperative. We heard a Hermit Thrush, and the song seemed even more mystical for not being able to spot the singer.

LeConte's SparrowLeConte's SparrowPriddis Valley Rd and Plummers Rd, Priddis, AB From Canmore I went on various days to the marshes southwest of Calgary, to Brown-Lowery Provincial Park, and to Vermilion Lakes and the Cave and Basin marshes near Banff. A prime target was Alder Flycatcher, but it remained elusive. I stopped at one marshy area south of Priddis by accident, attracted by the Wilson's Snipes sitting on fence posts, and ended up finding a Le Conte's Sparrow. From there I went to Brown-Lowery PP, specifically to look for American Three-toed Woodpeckers, and was lucky to find one right at the entrance to the park. Although that was my target, I decided to explore further, and was rewarded with Cape May Warblers - I just wish they would come down lower in the trees! If Whitemud Creek in Edmonton was the land of the Yellow Warbler, Brown-Lowery park was the Cape May WarblerCape May WarblerBrown-Lowery Provincial Park, AB land of the Tennessee Warbler - I counted 21 of them in three km.

I had high hopes for finding Alder Flycatcher in the marshes around Banff. Several had been reported in eBird. I went to the far end of Vermilion Lakes Rd and worked my way back, then walked the fenland trail off Mt. Norquay Rd, and finally went to the Cave and Basin marsh and walked that loop too. Five Willow Flycatchers, but no Alder. However, there was lots to make up for not finding the flycatcher. I took a photo of what I thought were Pine Siskins at the top of a spruce tree - when I looked at the photo on the computer later, I realized they were White-winged American RedstartAmerican RedstartCave and Basin, Banff, Alberta, Canada Crossbills, a life bird! Duh. There were Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets, lots of Warbling Vireos, many kinds of warbler like Yellow, Yellow-rumped, Townsend's, Tennessee, Orange-crowned, Blackpoll, and the best surprise of all - an American Redstart that sat still long enough for a decent photograph.

When I left Canmore for the drive home, I figured I would go to look for the Bobolinks that had been reported on Plummers Rd - it wasn't a life bird but I'd like a better photo. I couldn't find Bobolinks at the reported location, but instead found an Alder Flycatcher, which I had given up on. Yay! From there I went to check out the blind at the northwest corner of Frank Lake. It's a wonderful location! I've never seen back-brooded grebe chicks before, and it was not too late in the year to see them. There were several Eared Grebes with chicks on their backs, and one Western Grebe pair. It's great to be able to get so close to the birds as you can from the blind.

Passing through Lethbridge I stopped at the Elizabeth Hall Wetlands, and walked the very buggy trail around the lake. The reward for putting up with all the mosquitos was finding Common Grackles (a life bird), and getting a better view of a Brown Thrasher (but no photo). Eared Grebe mother and chickEared Grebe mother and chickFrank Lake, Alberta House Wrens and Grey Catbirds were abundant here.

I stopped that night at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park and camped. The bugs were really bad, even by Alberta standards, but where the bugs are thick, so are the birds. I felt a bit awkward walking around the campground with a pair of binoculars in hand, but there were many birds to check out. A somewhat familiar sound led me to a Spotted Towhee - singing a different dialect from what I'm used to. Checking out some robins I found amongst them another Brown Thrasher, one that sat still long enough for photo. Common Nighthawks chirped from overhead. A Rock Wren popped up on a rock at Ruddy DuckRuddy DuckFrank Lake, Alberta one point, very close. There were House Wrens, Cedar Waxwings, Grey Catbirds, Vesper Sparrows, and Western Meadowlarks. Overall a very worthwhile stop.

It was a good trip - in 12 days I tallied 126 species, of which eight were lifers. I put together a gallery of photos from the trip, which includes some from Montana. A smaller collection of the better photos is in the "Latest" gallery, from Brown Thrasher down to Grey Catbird.

(Kittiwake Nature Photography) Alberta Birding Mon, 11 Aug 2014 02:25:35 GMT
The Quest for the Brown-capped Rosy-Finch The story starts last November when I went to Bosque del Apache in New Mexico for a bird photography workshop. The

Black Rosy-FinchBlack Rosy-FinchSandia Crest, NM

workshop was held over the Thanksgiving weekend, and finished on the Saturday. Had I started driving home that day, I would have ended up driving on I-5 the next day - the last day of the four-day weekend. It is the worst day of the year to be driving on I-5 between LA and SF. Instead, I decided to delay my departure by a day, and drive up to Sandia Crest, a 10,679' peak just northeast of Albuquerque, to search for rosy-finches. I had already seen a Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, but the two other rosy-finch species (Black and Brown-capped) can be found with Gray-crowned at the top of Sandia Crest. On a good day, that is. There had been snow a week earlier, and the road to the top still had lots of ice on it, especially near the top. The road is steep, narrow, and windy, and not a pleasant drive with all the icy bits. At the summit is a tea house with bird feeders - an ideal set-up. You sit inside sipping hot chocolate, and the birds come to the feeders. To make a long story short, I stayed there most of the day and saw only Gray-crowned and Black Rosy-Finches. I took many photos and hoped there might be a Brown-capped lurking amongst the others, but a careful review of the photos did not show any. There had been Brown-capped seen there the day before, and more were reported the day after, but not that day. I couldn't stay any longer, so left happy to add the Black Rosy-Finch (photo right) to my lists, but quite disappointed in the missing Brown-capped Rosy-Finch (which I will now refer to as BCRF). [Note - I'm not too worried about driving on snow and ice, having learned to drive in Canada, but I do worry about other people, especially ones that are tail-gating me down such roads!]


Cirque MeadowsCirque MeadowsPingree Park, CO

Back at home I did some research and discovered that BCRF can be found in the Colorado Rockies in the summer. I signed up for a Road Scholar birding and hiking tour to the northern part of the Colorado Rockies, realizing that during the trip it would be unlikely that we would find rosy-finches (wrong part of the mountains), but I could plan for adding a couple of days to the

trip to search elsewhere. The Road Scholar part of the trip was fantastic - we stayed in the Colorado State University campus in Pingree Park, and ventured out every day to different locations to bird. A couple of the days included hikes to scenic areas, where we found many mountain bird species, like American Three-toed Woodpecker and Dusky Grouse, but no rosy-finches. 

As soon as the tour was over, I drove to Trail Ridge Rd in Rocky Mountain National Park. It was a tedious drive. Although as the bird flies it is hardly any distance from Pingree Park, there are no suitable roads. I had to drive

PikaPikaTrail Ridge Rd, Rocky Mountain National Park, CO

east all the way to Fort Collins, south through Fort Collins, and then back west into the mountains. Driving in Rocky Mountain National Park is similar to many other national parks I've visited. There's one road, it is narrow and windy, often with steep drops on one side and no guard rail, and the speed limit is low. I'm not sure if drivers are enjoying the view, or are terrified of driving along such a road, but you end up trailing other cars at a speed considerably slower than the posted speed. It was frustrating - I was on a mission and didn't have much time! I'm not keen on enjoying the view from a car - I'd much rather get out and explore on foot. Besides, when you're driving, especially on a crowded road with steep drops and no guard rails, you need to focus on that task, and not sightseeing - or looking for birds, for that matter.


I had noted in eBird all the locations where finches had been seen, and stopped at all of them. "Rock Cut" had cute pikas and marmots, and lots of pipits and siskins, but no finches. There is a short trail out across the tundra to some rock piles - more pipits, but not much else. "Lava Beds" was more promising with several large areas of scree and patches of snow on the north side of the road, but it was not a pleasant place to hang out. A cold wind was blowing, rain was threatening, there was no trail to get away from the parking area, and the noise of the constant traffic drowned out Mountain BluebirdMountain BluebirdTrail Ridge Rd, Rocky Mountain National Park, CO any other sounds. I had my camera ready, but all the comments people were making about it became quite tiresome ("Oh, what a big camera that is!" and "What zoom is that?" Someday, maybe, I'll come up with a civil reply to these daft comments, but when I'm in a grumpy mood as I was that day, it's best for me to say nothing.). Next was the visitor center - a Mountain Bluebird was nice, but not what I was looking for. One of the rangers said he had seen finches back at Lava Beds the day before (that sounded familiar), so I duly went back and spent far too long studying the scree slopes there, and being studied by curious tourists who'd never seen a large lens up close before. I thought I saw finch-shaped birds flying around, but they were some distance away, and every time they landed, they disappeared behind rocks. 


American PipitAmerican PipitSummit Lake, Mt. Evans, CO Another ranger said she'd seen ptarmigans with young the day before (always "the day before") at another pull-out where BCRF were often found, so another hour was spent there, walking along another trail across the tundra and admiring sparrows (White-crowned) and yet more pipits, but no ptarmigans (that was last year's quest) or finches.


Although Trail Ridge Rd was a bust for me, not all hope was lost. Another hot spot for finches was Mt. Evans, a 14,265' peak with a paved road going all the way to the top - the highest paved road in the nation. There was a chance, I figured, that I could go there that day. Beautiful as it was, there were too many people and too much traffic, so I was glad to get away from the national park. However, Highway 40 to I-70 was not much fun either. At one point, where there were four lanes, I was overtaking two cars going well below the speed limit. As I passed the trailing car, I realized it was a state trooper, and he was speeding up to match my speed. I slowed down a little to match the speed limit, and he moved behind me. I put cruise control on and drove at exactly the speed limit, carefully adjusting to all the variations in speed limit as the road went through several small towns. He followed me for about 20 miles! It was quite ridiculous, not to mention a bit stressful and especially irritating at the end of a trying day.


By the time I got to I-70, it was clear I could not go up Mt. Evans that day. I needed to go east on I-70 for about 9 miles, but it was a Sunday evening, and the Denver-bound traffic going east on I-70 was at a standstill. Instead I drove west to the next town and stopped for the night. The next day I headed back east to Mt. Evans, but I was running out of time. I

Leucistic American PipitLeucistic American PipitSummit Lake, Mt Evans, CO had a deadline for getting home, and reckoned I could spend only about half a day on the mountain. The first stop was Summit Lake, an alpine lake about 5 miles from the top. There had been many sightings of BCRF here in recent weeks, so I was quite optimistic. I walked every place I could (most areas are off-limits to foot traffic), and while I did find something I'd never seen before, it wasn't a BCRF. Like on Trail Ridge Rd, the most abundant bird was American Pipit. They were actually a bit annoying because there were many of them, and I had to check them all out to make sure they weren't finches. Fortunately they have a characteristic shape and bobbing behavior, and a distinctive call note that makes them easily identifiable. However, one of them was very interesting - an almost completely white pipit. Leucistic birds like this are rare, but not unknown. Actually, this might be a true albino, since it is lacking pigment in the bill and legs as well. I wondered how it would survive, being so visible and having no melanin in the feathers to strengthen them (meaning they would be weak and wear out quickly).


Summit Lake was, like many other stops, a beautiful place with great views, but I needed to move on. Near the parking lot was one of those touristy interpretive signs. It mentioned BCRF, and one notable fact it stated was that after BCRF chicks fledge, the birds migrate to lower elevations. I wondered if I was too late in the season and had missed the boat. Finding finches up here above the tree line shouldn't be too hard - down lower amongst the trees would be tough.


Scree slope where Brown-capped Rosy-Finches hang out.Scree slope where Brown-capped Rosy-Finches hang out.Mt. Evans, Colorado

It's a good thing I moved on when I did - when at last I reached the summit, five miles beyond Summit Lake with stops to look and listen, there were only a few parking spots left, and more cars were coming. According to eBird, a pair of BCRF had been seen recently near the last hairpin bend before the parking area. I explored the parking area a bit, and then set out along the "trail" west of the last hairpin bend. It was not much of a trail, since it was a scree slope, but there was another view point at the end of it that looked like it would at least provide a nice view, if nothing else. 


A large number of ravens (about 30) were circling overhead, which did not seem like a good omen. As I picked my way carefully through the rocks, I was deep in gloomy thought - I had about 45 minutes left until my deadline to head home. I wondered what I would do next to look for these birds - another trip to Bosque del Apache was appealing, but it is best visited in winter, when the drive up to Sandia Crest would be unpredictable, considering road conditions. Chains could be required, or it could be impassable. Another trip to the Colorado Rockies wouldn't be bad - it is a stunningly beautiful area - maybe it could be a detour on one of my trips to Alberta - or maybe I should drop this quest for now and explore something more productive, like Texas during spring migration ..... at this point a small brownish bird with a dark brown head zipped by going the other direction, closely followed by another. That was it!!! No doubt at all, nothing else up here could look like that. They flew by a couple Brown-capped Rosy-FinchBrown-capped Rosy-FinchMt. Evans, Colorado more times, giving me at least time to get a poor flight shot, then landed out of sight behind some rocks; I turned around and chased after them, as fast as the rocks and 14,200' altitude would allow.


By the time I caught up to them, one was sitting out in the open on  Brown-capped Rosy-FinchOver-exposed Brown-capped Rosy-FinchMt. Evans, Colorado a rock, easily identifiable without binoculars. Now I wanted a better photo. I raised my camera, focused on the finch, checked the exposure ..... and that's when the exposure meter on my camera went haywire. First it jumped the shutter speed up a stop or two, so the first photo was grossly underexposed. I corrected the exposure to what I thought it should be (1/1000 sec at F5.6 and ISO 800), but the exposure meter indicated that I was underexposed. Puzzled, I adjusted the shutter speed to match the meter, ending up at 1/125 sec. That was way too over-exposed. The bird flew off. I could not believe this was happening! I quickly decided that there was an issue with the exposure meter, and took a few sample shots to test the correct exposure (1/1000 sec). Then, hoping against hope, I got out my cell phone and played the BCRF call. It worked. Both birds came back and settled on a rock long enough to get in a few more photos. Phew.


The thrill of finally finding and photographing the finch was over-shadowed by the camera problem. I decided it had altitude sickness. The car seemed to be in sympathy with the camera - when I turned on the power for the start of the long drive home, it told me it needed an oil change - only 2,000 miles since the last one. Silly car. It has cried wolf like this before, so I ignored it, although such things are a bit disturbing when they happen in places like at the top of the highest paved road in the nation. The camera, however, ended up with a trip to the Canon hospital. I guess I was lucky that happened at the end of the trip - I have a backup camera just for situations like this, but it's not quite as good.


So that was it. I wish I could have found the bird sooner so I could have had more time exploring the mountains, but that's just the way it is with chasing birds. On the other hand, if it weren't for the birds, I may never have gone at all - definitely, one of the attractions of birding is discovering new places. I'm looking forward to researching the next target, and discovering more places.

Brown-capped Rosy-FinchBrown-capped Rosy-FinchMt. Evans, CO


(Kittiwake Nature Photography) Brown-capped Rosy-Finch Colorado Rockies Fri, 01 Aug 2014 19:56:16 GMT
What do Great Horned Owls do during the day? Out at Point Reyes, near the Lifeboat Station, lives a Great Horned Owl. It sits high in a cypress tree, watching hikers and tourists pass by far below. But it isn't exactly idle as it sits there. First, it just looked at us. Great Horned Owl

Then it did a magic disappearing trick with its head: Great Horned Owl

If it had done that first, it would have freaked us out. It looked almost as freaky with this "evil eye" look: Great Horned Owl

But then it went what looks like normal preening mode. Great Horned Owl resulting in all kinds of fluff on its face: Great Horned Owl

Apparently bored with that, it showed us another trick. First it lifted its wing: Great Horned Owl

And then it stretched the wing out all the way, while standing on one leg and crossing its eyes at the same time: Great Horned Owl What a show-off!

(Kittiwake Nature Photography) Great Horned Owl Tue, 03 Sep 2013 23:37:54 GMT
Cliff Swallow Feeding Fiasco What happens when two Cliff Swallows try to feed chicks at the same time? Here's a sequence of photos of two adult Cliff Swallows trying to do just that. First, we have a nest of three Cliff Swallow chicks.Cliff Swallow chicks

The first adult arrives and feeds one of the chicks:Cliff Swallows

A second adult arrives on the scene:

Cliff Swallows There's a bit of confusion as the first adult seems in the way of the second one:Cliff Swallows

I don't know whether Adult #2 is pulling the Adult #1 away, or simply hooks its claws into the first object available, but you can see that it has grabbed the other by the top of the wing:

Cliff Swallows Adult #1 is pulled back, but hasn't let go, as Adult #2 tries to reach the chicks:Cliff Swallows

Adult #2 is slipping back and getting farther from the chicks, while Adult #1 is still hanging on:Cliff Swallows

Adult #2 has both claws on the wing of Adult #1, but it's not helping. The chick, however, is anticipating a meal:Cliff Swallows

This really isn't working:Cliff Swallows

Something's got to give:Cliff Swallows

Adult #2 is trying to climb up Adult #1, while Adult #1 looks like it's planning an escape, even though it is still hanging on:Cliff Swallows

The chick is giving up:Cliff Swallows

What Adult #1 is saying is left to the imagination:Cliff Swallows

Adult #1 finally lets go:Cliff Swallows

That feeding attempt was a fail!Cliff Swallows

Really, it works much better one adult at a time (this is ten minutes later):Cliff Swallow feeding chick


(Kittiwake Nature Photography) Cliff Swallow chick feeding sequence Tue, 20 Aug 2013 04:44:58 GMT
A Ptarmigan Tale At the beginning of August 2013 I spent a weekend in the Eastern Sierra on a camera club field trip. On the last day, everyone else wanted to go home after the sunrise shoot. For my part, having come so far, I was going to make the most of my time out there, and decided to go look for birds, especially the kind we don't have at home, and especially something I could add to my life list. In 2012 I had visited this area with an Audubon field trip led by Bob Power. There had been a few birds we either did not see well or missed entirely. Of those, three I had since found and taken decent photographs of (Short-eared Owl, Common Poorwill, and Black-backed Woodpecker), and one had been my first target the day I arrived in the Mono Lake area on this trip - Pinyon Jay.

That left the White-tailed Ptarmigan. On the 2012 trip we had looked for White-tailed Ptarmigan at Saddlebag Lake, a scenic wilderness in the Inyo National Forest, just outside the east entrance to Yosemite National Park. eBird showed that there had been sightings of the ptarmigan within the last month, in the Twenty Lakes hiking area at the northwest end of Saddlebag Lake. It's an incredibly beautiful place, with a good variety of birds, so I figured I would enjoy a hike there even if I didn't find a ptarmigan. The chances of stumbling across one was extremely remote.

This photo shows the northwest end of Saddlebag Lake. Conness Lakes, where I ended up, is the valley in the upper left of the image.Saddlebag Lake

I arrived at the south end of the lake mid-morning. There are three ways to get to the other end of the lake and back - one is to walk the whole way, one is to take a "boat taxi" across and walk back, and the other is to take the boat taxi both ways. In 2012 we had taken the boat across and walked back - there were many birds as well as beautiful wildflowers - but that hadn't turned up any ptarmigans and besides, eBird seemed to indicate it was necessary to go deeper into the Twenty Lakes area. So I bought a return trip ticket for the boat taxi. The woman who sold me the ticket gave me a map showing a 5 mile loop trail which seemed perfect for the amount of time I had.

It was a bit discouraging to have three dogs and several children on the boat taxi. It was even more discouraging to find that two of the dogs were immediately let off leash on arrival at the north dock. Dogs are wonderful if you want to protect yourself from wildlife, human or otherwise, but not so great if you want to find wildlife. I set off on the trail in a clockwise direction, ahead of the other people who were organizing themselves, and was a bit dismayed to note a bit later that they were following behind. That was not the worst of it - it is apparently a heavily used area, and as I walked along past some of the small lakes, I noticed people fishing and half of them seemed to have off-leash dogs. This didn't seem to bother the abundant juncos, chickadees, and robins, but I was hoping for something a little more unusual.

Saddlebag Lake from Conness Lakes The photo to the right is Saddlebag Lake from the top of the Conness Lakes spillway.

As I stopped to check out a flock of chickadees (it's common to find other birds hanging out with them), a man walking in the opposite direction asked me if I was a birder. I was standing under a tree full of birds with binoculars in hand and a camera with longish lens slung over my shoulder, but I refrained from making the obvious sarcastic response because I sensed he had something to say and was dying to say it. "Do you want to see one of those grouse birds?", he asked. Trying not to look too eager, my response was a major understatement, "That would be nice". He excitedly told me that he had almost stepped on one the day before, and then he pointed up and said, "See that waterfall with the tumble of rocks beside it? It's up there. The falls come from Conness Lakes, where the birds live. There's no real trail, but it's feasible if you don't mind a bit of a scramble". Then he added, "It's farther than you think".

It did look rather daunting, but I still had several hours, and I would definitely regret it if I didn't try. I thanked him and set off cross country to the base of the waterfall, already feeling the 10,000' altitude and load I was carrying. There was no real trail and it probably would not have been feasible to go that way had it not been August, since the ground was reasonably dry in places where it looked like it could be very boggy earlier in the summer. It was not possible to go in a straight line because of all the rocky outcrops hiding small lakes, but before too long I was scrambling up the rocks beside the waterfall. There was a trail of sorts, but it kept disappearing amongst the rocks. However, the only way up was close to the waterfall so any wrong turns were easily corrected.

Conness Lakes

The Conness Lakes valley (shown right) is a classic cirque carved by a glacier, the tiny remains of which was still evident at the end of the valley. A chain of small lakes fills the middle of the valley, connected by shallow streams that are easily crossed. Higher up to the east are a couple more small lakes. The valley was not large, maybe half a mile long and half that wide, but I realized I should have asked for more explicit directions. I had no idea where to look. And in spite of the scramble to get up to the valley, now at 10,500', there were two families with several children and a couple of off-leash dogs. It seemed hopeless. Needing more information I walked along the northwest side of the ponds to where the family group was, and asked if they had seen a small chicken-sized bird. One of the women thought this was hilarious, considering the pandemonium caused by the children splashing and calling to each other in the lake, and the barking dogs, and she seemed rather pre-occupied with making sure the kids didn't wander out too far, while keeping an eye on the adult male members of the group who were precariously scaling a rock slide above us. I appreciated this was a fantastic outing for the families, but not helping me, so I left them to make my way to the other side of the valley, which, as a photographer, was more appealing anyway since it would mean having the sun behind me as I looked at the scene. 

Once on the other side, I found another group of hikers, who, while curious about the very existence of ptarmigans in such an odd place, had known nothing about them beforehand. I decided to leave all the people behind and climb up to the upper lakes, where I hoped I could get a better view. It wasn't far, and with such a gorgeous view you could not find a better location to have lunch, although it would have been improved with the addition of a few certain birds.

American Dipper

I spent nearly two hours wandering around before giving up and starting the hike back to the boat dock. As I crossed the stream back to the west side, I startled an American Dipper (photo left). I'm not sure who was more surprised - me or the dipper. As I watched it express its indignation at being disturbed by splaying its tail and bobbing, two more hikers crossed the stream and stopped to ask what I was looking at. I pointed out the dipper, and said it was poor consolation for not finding ptarmigans. "Oh," they said, "we just saw some of those." I couldn't believe it. "Six of them", to rub it in. "Would you like to see photos?", rubbing it in a bit more and pulling out a point-and-shoot to show me. I declined, and asked where exactly they had been seen. "There is a big rock". Really? That's like standing in a forest saying there is a big tree. I asked them more explicit questions for the location, getting needed clarification, as learned from birding with people who frustratingly think you can see exactly what they are seeing.

Then I had to make a decision. I was already very tired, there was at least an hour more of hiking to get back to the boat dock, and my allotted return time for the boat was 90 minutes away. After that, there was a 5 hour drive home. In addition, when in a hurry I have a tendency to trip over my own feet and have numerous scars to show for it. Up here there were many more trip hazards than my own feet. And all the other hikers had left, leaving me feeling a bit uncomfortable being the last person in this relatively isolated place. But I was so close! It didn't take much thought - I retraced my steps back across the stream and in the direction of the ptarmigans. They were in an area I had scanned with my binoculars, but had not gone very close to.

White-tailed Ptarmigan And you had to get close. At least, I had to get close. I'm certain I walked around the ptarmigans - or scrambled around rather, since they were on a mostly grassy slope, soggy with glacier meltwater and with many rocks strewn about - at least twice before finding them. There were juncos and pipits flitting around for added distraction. Even then, I'm not sure I would have seen them had there not been a juvenile that the mother was softly calling, presumably to help protect it from the monster that was trampling their home. I heard the cooing sound and followed it to find the two, sitting on a couple of rocks out in the open. How did I not see them before? Such is one of the puzzles of birding - sometimes it seems easy to find birds hidden in obscure places, and other times it's hard to see them when they're under your nose.

I would have liked to have stayed a while to take photos, and looked for the alleged other four, but time was running out, and besides, it was clear that I was disturbing the birds and it was better to leave them in peace. The hike back to the boat dock was another adventure - I had taken a circuitous route to get to Conness Lakes and hoped the trail directly back to Saddlebag Lake was more obvious, but it was not a main trail and in places quite ambiguous. There were more creek crossings - a little more challenging with more water in the creeks at the lower elevations. The hike would have been much more enjoyable had I not felt pressed for time. However, I made it to the boat dock with minutes to spare for the ride back to the car. When asked how my day had gone, three words summed it all up - exhausted but happy.White-tailed Ptarmigan juvenile

(Kittiwake Nature Photography) Conness Lakes Saddlebag Lake White-tailed Ptarmigan Wed, 14 Aug 2013 21:11:26 GMT