Thursday, December 30, 2021

Black-Bellied Plover

The black-bellied plover breeds in the far north, mostly the Arctic, of Alaska, Canada and Russia, and portions of western Alaska below the Arctic. It then is highly migratory and winters nearly worldwide along sea coasts. In the Old World it is known as the gray (or grey) plover. 
Orange is breeding, blue is winter and yellow is migratory. 
In spring and summer (late April or May to August) they have a black breast and belly, black face and neck with a white border, a white rump, and are spotted black and white on the back and wings. The bill and legs are black. From mid-August to early September they moult to their winter plumage which they keep until April. The winter plumage is a variable amount of brownish/gray mottling on the back, a smudgy face and breast and a white belly. Juveniles and first winter birds are similar to adult winter plumage, but with back feathers blacker with creamy white edging. In all plumages a distinguishing characteristic is black feathers at the base of the underwing (only visible when the bird is in flight) and black inner flanks. 

I have wanted to see this bird, anticipating the breeding plumage. I finally saw some on Thanksgiving day at Padre Island National Seashore in southern Texas, but in their winter plumage. 

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge - Louisiana

Cameron Prairie NWR (the Gibbstown Unit) is located in Cameron Parish, 25 miles southeast of Lake Charles and 30 miles north of the Cameron Ferry, in Louisiana, and accessible from Hwy 27. It is part of what has been dubbed the Creole Nature Trail, a designated scenic byway known as "Louisiana's Outback" and one of "America's 'Last Great Wildernesses'". It has two separate units: (a) the Gibbstown Unit with 9,621 acres of fresh marsh, coastal prairie and old rice fields, managed to provide food for wintering waterfowl and other water birds; and (b) the East Cove Unit, only accessible by boat, with 14,927 acres of brackish and salt marsh, a nursery for brown and white shrimp, blue crab and many fish species. 

The Gibbstown Unit is located just north of Gibbstown. 1,230 acres was farmed for rice and are now managed for moist soil plants that provide food for wildlife. It is a winter home for ducks and geese, including green-winged teal, mallards, northern pintail, ring-necked ducks, snow geese and white-fronted geese. It is a nesting range for fulvous and whistling ducks, white and white-faced ibis, roseate spoonbills and various species of heron and egret. The Pintail Wildlife Drive, which we drove, is two miles south of the visitor center and is a graveled 3 mile one-way auto route. A half mile boardwalk, which we did not do, is near the beginning of the Pintail Wildlife Drive. The visitor center, which was not open due to Covid, also has a small boardwalk, which we did visit. 

The East Cove Unit is southwest of the Gibbstown Unit, the west end connecting to the southeast end of Lake Calcasieu, reaching as far west as just north of Cameron and almost to Hwy 27 to the east. The marshes of this unit have 19 miles of levee on Calcasieu Lake which are managed to preserve a balance between salt and fresh water and is part of the largest marsh restoration project in the U.S. 
This large turtle was found in the pond next to the visitor center. I initially thought it was a false map turtle, but based on the website now believe it may be a red-eared slider. 

Signs indicating the Pintail Wildlife Drive. 

This is representative of habitat along the Pintail Wildlife Drive. 

By far the biggest presence when we visited, over Thanksgiving Week in 2021, was snow geese. They were feeding in large flocks and honking away. We could not get very close, but I got a few decent shots of them flying-in. 

I've read that blue morph snow geese are more common in the east than in the west. This visit confirmed it. I saw numerous blue morphs, like those above, where they are very rare at the Sonny Bono Salton Sea NWR in southeastern California. 

There were warnings of alligators...

...and we saw one just off a small canal near the road. 

There were also turtles along the bank of the canal, I think they may be river cooters. 

This turtle slipped into the water.

Double-crested cormorant

Neotropic cormorants

Great blue heron

Laughing gull

Bald eagle along the side of the road.

This is a place I would love to go back to, both to get more breadth in different areas of the two units and to see more of it in winter and other times of the year. 

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Barrow's Goldeneye

My December 2021 trip to Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah was pretty uneventful in terms of the number of birds I saw. But two of the birds were firsts for me, the Barrow's goldeneye and the rough-legged hawk. I'll take a few new birds any day over lots of birds I've seen previously. 

I was using my new Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 mm zoom lens instead of the Tamron 150-600 mm zoom lens I've been using. I was taking photos that seemed too far away, but I'm finding that the clarity of the photos with the Canon lens is so good that it makes up for the lesser zoom. A case in point was this mallard with two female Barrow's goldeneyes. They were very distant in the initial photo, I had no idea what kind of ducks they were when I took the photo, but they cropped real well, much clearer than the usual Tamron photos. 
The Barrow's goldeneye is much less prevalent than the common goldeneye. The range map from Audubon shows that it is found primarily in the Pacific Northwest and that where I saw it, just northeast of the Great Salt Lake, it is an uncommon winter visitor. As far as I can tell, my sighting is the only one reported at Bear River MBR on iNaturalist. 
The light blue is uncommon - winter. The darker blue is common - winter (along the coast of Alaska and British Columbia). Dark purple is common - all seasons (see Yellowstone). Lighter purple or violet is uncommon - all seasons. Red is common - breeding and pink is uncommon - breeding. 
It generally breeds in areas of wooded lakes and ponds. They winter on coastal waters and rivers, but may winter far inland on lakes and rivers even in very cold regions. 

The male has a large head with a purplish gloss and a white crescent on the front of the face between the bill and the eye. The the back and wings are black with white spots, and the rest of the body is white. The female has a warm brown head, with a white collar that is often hidden (depending on posture), a gray body and mostly yellow (often more orange) bill, although I find photos, like mine, where the bill is black with an orange tip (see one of the photos in Wikipedia entry). The female is a really beautiful bird. 

Monday, December 27, 2021

Rough-Legged Hawk

The rough-legged hawk is a cold weather bird that breeds in the tundra and taiga regions of Arctic and Sub-Arctic Alaska and Canada and winters (November to March) in marshes, prairies and agricultural areas of extreme southern Canada and much of the U.S.
Rough-legged hawk range from All About Birds.
It is often found wintering in cold, snowy fields with patchy trees. It has developed feathers that reach to its feet to protect it from the cold climates it enjoys. When flying, it has black patches at the wrist and a white tail with a black band at the tip. Males have a smaller belly patch than females and are strongly mottled above with buff and reddish brown, streaky underparts and striped legs. There is a dark morph that can be almost entirely chocolate brown or with some mottling. 

It can hover over one spot by beating its wings quickly. It eats mostly small mammals. 

I'd never seen a rough-legged hawk before until a visit to Antelope Island and Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge on December 20. I thought they were male northern harriers which are gray above, as they have a distinctive white patch above the tail like the northern harrier. I also noted a distinctive bullseye on the back of the head, a white patch with a dark spot in the middle. 

I saw 25 or 30 of them and got photos of 13 of them. Some of my photos follow:
This female has a dark belly patch and a distinctive wrist patch. 

Other, less pronounced wrist patches. 

Bullseye patches on the back of the head. 

Some of my better close-up photos. 

Cold, snowy and icy. 

The lone rough-legged hawk I saw on Antelope Island. 

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Least Grebe

I saw a least grebe for the first time on Thanksgiving Day. Judy waited in the car while I hopped out to make a quick inspection of the Joan and Scott Hold Paradise Pond Birding Center in Port Aransas, Texas. The birding center is very tiny and sandwiched between a bunch of residences and behind the parking lot of a restaurant. It has a pond with two lobes heavily surrounded by cattails. A boardwalk provides some elevation and clear viewing. There were several of the grebes floating on the water and I new it was a new species to me and suspected they were grebes. 

I'd never heard of a least grebe before. That is partly because the only place they are found in the U.S. is southern Texas. Their distribution continues down into Mexico, Central America, portions of South America and the Caribbean Islands. 
Distribution map from Wikipedia. 
Another reason I would not have heard of them is they are very pedestrian looking: nothing flashy, just small and drab, the smallest member of the grebe family. 

The least grebe has a yellow eye, a small thin bill and often fluffs up its rear feathers to expose it black skin and absorb the solar radiation. Breeding birds are brownish gray above, have a blackish crown and throat and brownish chest with pale underparts. Non-breeding birds are paler with a white throat.