Saturday, April 28, 2012

Little Grouse on the Prairie

During this trip, I was able to observe five different lekking grouse: Greater Sage-Grouse, Gunnison Sage-Grouse, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Lesser Prairie Chicken & Greater Prairie Chicken. The final lek of my trip was of the Greater Prairie Chicken which was situated on private ranch land. The property is owned by Bledsoe Cattle Company, a large operation that produces beef primarily for the Japanese market.

Greater Prairie Chicken

Displaying Greater Prairie Chickens inflate their throat sacks and raise their specialized neck feathers (called pinnae) to a vertical position. They also engage in a dancing behaviour which is not quite as energetic as Sharp-tailed Grouse, but is more so than the two Sage-Grouse taxa.

Greater Prairie Chickens Face Off

Interestingly, all five prairie grouse taxa share a very close genetic affinity, despite the morphological differences which are apparent between displaying males of each species. The rate of morphological modification in a population is known to outpace genetic change in species, like these grouse, which exhibit a strong pattern of sexual selection.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Loveland Pass

A fruitless search above the timberline for White-tailed Ptarmigan (documented by my friend Matt in slow motion video).

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Colorado Booming Grounds

Observing Sage-Grouse displaying at the lek has got to be one of the high points of North American birding. After witnessing it in person I can say that the mating ritual of Greater Sage-Grouse is as captivating as it is comical.

Greater Sage-Grouse

Lekking behaviour is complex, but after observing the lekking birds for an hour or two, it is possible to get a rough idea of the area of the lek, the approximate territorial boundaries of each male bird within the lek, and a good idea of the identity of the dominant male ("master cock").

Greater Sage-Grouse

When the males are not displaying you can barely recognize them.

Greater Sage-Grouse

Friday, April 13, 2012

Another One Bites the Dust

I was so thankful when on the final day of our Israel vacation my Canon EOS 40D displayed an error code and hasn't worked since. Thankful may seem like an odd reaction, but I had two very good reasons to be grateful:

1) it happened on the very last day of my vacation and I didn't miss any important photo opportunities; and

2) I got to buy a brand new Canon EOS 7D this week.

I'm leaving tomorrow for my Colorado grouse trip. Should be a good one.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Southern Israel

Greater Short-toed Lark (?)

Southern Israel will always be remembered by me as the land of wheatears and larks. There are a confusing assortment of both, some of which can present some tormenting identification challenges. Was that a Lesser Short-toed Lark or a Greater Short-toed Lark? Do I see a Pied Wheatear or is that a Cyprus Wheatear?

Siberian Stonechat

In my post on northern Israel, I stated that southern Israel is a desert landscape. As we were to learn a desert is any environment which receives less than 200 mm of annual precipitation. However there is still a great deal of difference between desert habitats at the upper and lower extremes of this range. Consequently we developed an appreciation for the many different kinds of desert habitat that we visited. Be that as it may, any way you slice it every locality within the Negev Desert is dry, and desert oases can be counted on to attract wildlife.

Red-rumped Swallow

An oasis can result from a naturally occurring water source, such as a spring fed wadi or a flooding event, but we also took advantage of several anthropogenic sources. Water treatment ponds, date palm plantations and other irrigated agricultural operations were prime targets. Also, we were based in Eilat for most of our second week, which is a city situated on the Aqaba Gulf of the Red Sea. So we were able to see some coastal birds as well including Brown Booby and to our delight a juvenile Sooty Gull (a rarity).

Finally, my description of the birding habitats would not be complete without mentioning the raptor migration as observed from the Eilat Mountains to the north of the city. We witnessed a truly impressive raptor migration on two mornings in the mountains. It is cool in the mountains first thing in the morning, but as the thermals would begin to rise there soon appeared thousands of Steppe Buzzards and Black Kites and smaller numbers of Steppe Eagle, Greater Spotted Eagle, Lesser Spotted Eagle, Booted Eagle, Pallid Harrier and Egyptian Vulture. Hannah even saw a Levant Sparrowhawk which I unfortunately missed.

Spotted Redshank

Altogether we really enjoyed this trip and would recommend Israel for not only its birds but also its ancient culture and down-to-earth people. We came away with 184 species which is only slightly shy of our target of 200. The species tally was fewer than if we had visited Sub-Saharan Africa or southeast Asia, but as a first time trip to a different ecozone it perhaps more manageable than other areas where the species richness is much higher and almost all of it is unfamiliar!

White Storks in migration

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Northern Israel

Egyptian Vulture

This is the first of two posts about our trip to Israel. We spent our first week in the northern part of the country. Northern Israel (north of Jerusalem) is markedly different from southern Israel. Whereas the south is dominated by desert ecology, northern Israel has more variety. Overall, many areas in the north are still quite dry, but there are some moister environments and naturally occurring fresh water is more plentiful.

Spur-winged Plover
Our trip planning was very much influenced by a set of two bird finding guides by Hadoram Shirihai (one volume for northern Israel, and one for the south). Although these guides are now somewhat dated, and some of the locations mentioned are perhaps not as productive as they once were, overall these books were indispensible to us.
There is a lot of aquaculture in northern Israel, and we became quite accustomed to birding the fish ponds of northern Israel. Not only do these ponds attract many of the birds that you would associate with water (e.g. waders, kingfishers, gulls) but also there were many passerine birds to be found in these habitats. Strangely, we observed a low diversity of ducks in northern Israel, except at Agamon Hula where we had a nice variety, the rarest of which was a Marbled Teal.

Speaking of Agamon Hula, this is the place that is situated in the Hula Valley that due to some careful management and environmental remediation, attracts tens of thousands of Common Cranes during both the northbound spring migration and the southbound fall migration. The peak migration of these Cranes occurred before we arrived, however we still obeserved a few thousand of them.

White-throated Kingfisher

Our experience in the Golan Heights is best characterized by the raptors we saw there. In particular, Gamla Nature Reserve was fabulous for up close looks at Steppe Buzzard, Short-toed Eagle, Egyptian Vulture and Griffon Vulture some of which breed in the wadis. This location was also good for Woodchat Shrike and Southern Grey Shrike, Sardinian Warbler and Corn Bunting among others.

With the help of the Shirihas guide books we were quite successful birding on our own in this region. We did meet one person at Agamon Hula who provided some helpful information about the birds there and confirmed some of our sightings for us.

Stay tuned for part II: Southern Israel.