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ID Challenge (for me!) – Glaucous vs. Iceland Gull

OK, I admit it. I often don’t have the patience to scan through large flocks of gulls to find the “oddball”, the one that ISN’T the seemingly ever-present Ring-billed Gull (here in South Dakota). Sometimes, however, you see something that’s clearly so different than you can’t help but notice. That was the case yesterday near Pierre, South Dakota, when I saw a large, nearly all white gull sitting on the ice.  My first thought when seeing the bird from a distance…Iceland Gull, since recent bird reports had frequently mentioned an Iceland Gull being seen in the area. At first glance, that seemed to “fit”.  However, as one who isn’t well-versed in the dark art (I’m think of you Ricky Olson!!) of multi-age gull discrimination…I wasn’t sure. It wasn’t until I got home, downloaded the photos, and did some sleuthing  where I think I can safely call this an immature (probably 2nd winter), quite pale Glaucous Gull. Why?

Immature Glaucous and Iceland Gulls both share some characteristics that were evident in this bird. 1) Pale overall, including pale wingtips without markings. 2) two-toned bill. 3) pink legs.  However, when looking at Sibley’s and online resources, it’s clear the bird has characteristics of a Glaucous Gull.  First…the bird’s size.  There were a handful of Ring-billed Gulls around, and this bird was clearly larger. Much larger. Iceland Gulls are larger than Ring-billeds, but Glaucous Gulls are MUCH larger. With the distance between the Ring-billed Gulls and this gull, it was a bit difficult to judge, but it really did look a much, much larger bird than the Ring-billed Gulls.

Secondly…the head. From this excellent site (South Dublin Birds), it’s noted Glaucous Gulls have a large, flat-topped head, while Iceland Gulls have a more delicate looking, rounded head. This bird clearly has the head shape of a Glaucous. Also…that site is the only one I found that notes a “tertial step”…a clear angle where the tertial feathers on wings meet the primaries when the wing is folded as in the first photo below. Here, you definitely see a clear “step” down where the tertials meet the primaries. Finally, the bill. Young Glaucous and Iceland Gulls both may share a two-toned bill such as this, but the Glaucous Gull has a heavy, longer bill, with parallel top and bottom edges. The Iceland Gull has a much more delicate and smaller looking bill.   The bill on this bird is quite large and shaped as a Glaucous.

So my final call…a first- or second-winter (probably second), very pale Glaucous Gull. Darker juveniles often have a lot of brownish speckling. This bird has a very small amount of that, primarily near the tail. Given that Glaucous Gulls gradually lose that speckling and it’s mostly gone by the third year, my guess is its a second-year bird that’s lost most of the speckling.  Third winter birds generally already have the pale gray mantle of an adult Glaucous Gull. This bird clearly doesn’t have that yet, so it can’t be a 3rd year or adult bird.

In short…the bird looks very similar to the Sibley drawing of a 2nd-winter Glaucous Gull (Page 220 of my Sibley’s guide!).

There…that wasn’t so painful! And it was kind of an interesting challenge to ID. Perhaps next time I come across a flock of gulls, I’ll pay a little more attention and do some similar sleuthing!

Glaucous Gull - Larus hyperboreus

A large, pale gull found near Pierre, South Dakota. Given that others had reported an Iceland Gull in the area, that was must first thought. But upon getting home and seeing the photos in detail, I’m pretty sure now this is a very pale, immature Glaucous Gull. Reasons…1) The heavy two-toned till, with top and bottom roughly parallel. Immature Iceland Gulls also can have a two-toned bill like this, but it’s smaller and more delicate. 2) Head shape…large, flat topped. Iceland Gulls heads are more rounded and smaller looking. 3) “Tertial Step” – an ID characteristic where there’s a distinct “step” where the tertial feathers meet the primaries (unlike Iceland).

Glaucous Gull - Larus hyperboreus

With wings spread, you can see the complete lack of markings on the wings. However, the pale wings, pink legs, and brownish mottling (VERY pale and not widespread on this bird) can be found on both Iceland and Glaucous Gull.

Glaucous Gull - Larus hyperboreus

Another photo of the bird taking flight, showing the unmarked wings (again, characteristic of both Iceland and Glaucous).

New (photographic) lifer! Greater Roadrunner

We don’t get too many Greater Roadrunners up here in South Dakota! Well, ok, there used to be one at the local zoo, but otherwise the closest one is a good 500 miles away. We do vacation in the Southwest occasionally, and I have seen them a number of times. But usually it’s been one running across a road while we drive, or one scooting around a corner in front of us on a hike. I haven’t had the opportunity to ever photograph the species.

We were in Arizona for the holidays, spending a week and just getting back. Our favorite activity when on vacation is hiking, so we visited a number of state parks, Saguaro National Park, and other areas with nice hikes. One thing I’ve noticed in Arizona…many of the birds seem rather “tame” compared to birds here in South Dakota. Even for species found in both places, the Arizona birds seem much more cooperative for a camera. I assume it is because they’re exposed to human beings more than they are here. If you bird a heavily visited area such as the Gilbert Water Ranch in Phoenix or Saguaro National Park (we did both), the birds are used to humans being around.

The Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix is one such place. It’s a large site, with 140 acres to explore, but it’s very heavily visited. As a result, the birds are pretty cooperative. While walking there on our first morning in Arizona, we rounded a bend and saw a Greater Roadrunner parked at the edge of the trail in front of us, hunting some unseen prey. I raised the camera, expecting him to dart away as has every Roadrunner I’ve ever come across. He didn’t disappoint me!  He did indeed dash into the brush. I put the camera down, and we keep walking. I assumed he was gone and I wouldn’t get another opportunity.

I was wrong! As we walked further, he burst out of the vegetation and onto the trail again. This time, he stood there for a long time, letting me shoot quite a few photos before he again took off, chasing…something. I never did see what he was chasing, but he was so intent on following it that I was able to get photos of him in a number of locations, before he settled down on a rock to bask in the cool morning sun.

A photographic lifer! And a much prettier bird than I expected, with the colorful patch on its face.

Greater Roadrunner - Geococcyx californianusGreater Roadrunner - Geococcyx californianusGreater Roadrunner - Geococcyx californianusGreater Roadrunner - Geococcyx californianusGreater Roadrunner - Geococcyx californianus

Photo / Haiku of the Day – Dakota Prairie Falcon

Prairie Apparition

Prowling Dakota skies

A flash across desolate plains

bound for the horizon

Prairie Falcon - Falco mexicanus

When I head to the central part of the state in winter to photograph raptors, I usually do come across a handful of Prairie Falcons during the course of the day. Falcons in general seem to be camera shy, but these guys are particularly difficult to photograph. They tend to flush long before I can get within camera range. There’s always that oddball individual bird, however, and this is one of them. As with every other Prairie Falcon I come across, he DID flush early, while I was still perhaps 50 yards away. However, he was curious! I’d given up on him, but to my surprise he started circling back towards me. I stopped the car and got my camera ready, and was rewarded by a flyby at perhaps 30 feet up, right along the road past my car. One of my favorite falcon shots, given the difficult I’ve photographing these guys. I also love the pose, with the eye contact and the warm morning light.

Winter’s Omen – Photo / Haiku of the Day

Winter’s Omen

Charming you may be,

Harbinger of glacial hell.

Snow Bird? PLEASE GO BIRD. 🙂

Dark-eyed Junco - Junco hyemalis

I saw the first Dark-eyed Junco (what many people around here call “Snow Birds”) of the season in my yard this afternoon. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate having them around in winter. However, they are sometimes the ONLY species in my yard in winter. Seeing one now is the first sign of the impending wintry, Dakota hell, a hell that may not be over until they leave next April. Cute you may be! But I MUCH prefer the seasons when you are not around!!

Who says blackbirds are boring?

It’s been a busy weekend catching up on projects around the house, but I did take advantage of the cool, crisp morning to get out and bird. It wasn’t a great morning. I did come across some migrant warblers, including Canada and Black-throated Green, two I don’t see all that often, but overall it was pretty slow. One thing you do see this time of year though are mixed flocks of blackbirds gathering, and I came across several on the way home. I do sometimes stop to scan them for “goodies” like Rusty Blackbirds, but alas, no Rusty’s this morning.

However, I did stop and watch the biggest flock for a while, and grabbed the camera. Like many birders and bird photographers, I tend to take certain birds for granted, but there really are some beautiful plumage patterns on fall blackbirds here. The flock was primarily Common Grackles, but there were a number of Red-winged Blackbirds, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and European Starlings mixed in.

By the time I got home, I considered the morning a disappointment, as I didn’t think I really got any really nice photos. Once I started downloading and processing photos, though, my attitude changed. These birds aren’t exactly the poster-child for “coveted” birds for birders (or photographers), but there are certainly some gorgeous colors and patterns on these birds. The fall plumage of a young Red-winged Blackbird, and the non-breeding plumage of a European Starling, are both wonderful in terms of the intricate patterns. Blackbirds, boring?  I think I may have changed my tune after this morning.

European Starling - Sturnus vulgaris

Non-breeding plumage European Starling. Probably one of the least-liked birds in North America, given their non-native status and tendency to compete for nesting sites with native birds. But after being here for nearly 140 years…they’re established. They’re not going anywhere. They’re “ours”. And damn it, they are DARNED attractive birds.

Common Grackle - Quiscalus quiscula

Common Grackles ARE native…but for those of us who feed birds in our yards, they may have a worse reputation than European Starlings. They’re pigs! They drive away other birds! In my yard, I’ve seen them kill and consume young fledglings. But…that iridescence, those colors…they are striking birds in the right light.

Red-winged Blackbird - Agelaius phoeniceus

Red-winged Blackbirds may be the most common bird in the state in the summer. I do like the plumage of the young birds, with this young male starting to show a bit of what will be his trademark red shoulder patch.

 

The Autumn Rebel – Photo / Haiku of the Day

The Autumn Rebel

The flamboyant rebel

Defies autumn’s chilly hand

While verdure surrenders

Northern Cardinal - Haiku of the Day

Autumn has arrived in South Dakota, both by calendar, and by feel. A week ago I basted in heat and humidity while working outside all day. This morning I bundled up while I headed outside. The leaves are just starting to turn on most trees, yet it won’t be long before autumn’s brown replaces the summer verdure. I do LOVE the fall though, as it’s usually a pretty active birding period with migrants. While in summer, the brilliant colors of a bird are sometimes lost in the lushness of the surrounding landscape, in autumn stark contrasts are often seen. This is one of my favorite photos, “just” a Northern Cardinal on a crisp fall day, shuffling through the leaf litter looking for food. The warm, late afternoon light, the contrast between bird and surroundings, and the wonderful pose and head turn make it a scene I mentally picture when I think of the wonderful fall season.

Ode to the Sparrow – Photo/Haiku of the Day

Ode to a Sparrow

A whisper in the grass

“Just a sparrow”, overlooked.

Autumn’s hidden jewel

Le Conte's Sparrow - Ammodramus leconteii

We’re approaching mid-September, and with it, one of my favorite birding migrations of the year. Warblers? Fall shorebirds? Migrating raptors? No, I treasure early to mid-Autumn for the wonderful array of sparrow species that migrate through eastern South Dakota. Among them are one of my top 3 species of all time…the Le Conte’s Sparrow. No “little brown job”…not “just a sparrow”…the Le Conte’s Sparrow is a brilliant array of complex patterns and beautiful warm tones.  With a reputation as a “skulker”, they’re a prized birding target for many, but during fall migration here, I’ve found them to be very approachable and rather easy to photograph. Along with the other 20 or so sparrow species that migrate through in the fall, a sparrow bonanza is just around the corner!

 

Photo Haiku – The Literate Pheasant

Ring-necked Pheasant - No Hunting

Probably my favorite photo of all time. This was taken near Presho, South Dakota, on a cold winter’s day. The sun was just rising, when I came over a hill and saw this male Ring-necked Pheasant on the fence. To my surprise he didn’t immediately fly, but stayed in the perfect position while I took several photos. The pose…the light…the setting…and of course, the “no hunting” sign…I couldn’t have staged a better photo set up myself. What better photo to inspire a haiku…

Photo/Haiku of the Day – Season of the Bobolink

Season of the Bobolink

Tinkly spring-time song

Fades away as summer ends.

Golden autumn fire

Autumn Bobolink - Dolichonyx oryzivorus

Bobolink in the warm dawn sun. This morning I went to a remnant tallgrass prairie patch and found a small group of Bobolinks. Males have lost their bold black-and-white breeding plumage, and share the same warm brown plumage as the females now. Rather than post as simply the “photo of the day”, thought today we’d take it one step further to my first ever “Photo / Haiku of the day”.

Differentiating Female (and male) Goldfinch Species

I was on travel for work this week which mean any blogging or work on my website was delayed. When I returned, I had an email that was thanking me for my “Difficult Bird ID” page, where you can find information on differentiating between commonly confused species. There was also a request to add another page, discussing how to tell apart the three North American goldfinch species. I don’t normally think of goldfinches as a particularly difficult group to identify, but then again, here in eastern South Dakota, we only have the one species. Overall, geography is obviously a huge part of identifying goldfinches, as in the eastern half of the country, the only species of goldfinch you’ll find are American Goldfinch.  However, if you happen to find yourself in parts of the southwestern US, you have three goldfinch species you may potentially encounter, with Lesser Goldfinch and Lawrence’s Goldfinch join the party.

The woman who sent the email lived in California and specifically was trying to figure out how to easily identify female goldfinches. That does represent more of a challenge than differentiating male goldfinches, and given that my Difficult Bird ID pages are some of the most visited pages on my entire website, I thought tonight I would go ahead and create another page that talks about ID keys for the three species.

As with many “difficult” IDs, for birders I think that difficulty melts away with experience, particularly when given keys to look for.  Creating a page such as this helps me as well!  I don’t run into Lesser Goldfinch, for example, unless I travel, but I don’t know if I could have identified a female goldfinch as either Lesser or American in the areas they overlap in range, until creating this page. Now I’ll know what to look for (bill color, and undertail covert color are giveaways).

A bit of a pain to create these pages, but as I said, they are frequently visited.  Click below for the new Goldfinch ID page.

Identifying North American Goldfinch Species

Identifying Goldfinch Species (female)

Females of the three North American goldfinch species. Males in breeding plumage? Piece of cake. A little bit harder for the females (particularly American and Lesser), but not bad when you know what to look for.

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