Holiday Birding

Posted by ardeidae on January 02, 2006

Happy belated New Year! I hope everyone’s holiday seasons were good ones. With all the business going on in our lives these days, it seems like these are the best times for families to get together. I spent mine in Nebraska. In my last post of last year, I figured I’d be “trading the warm California sunshine for the more ‘seasonal’ weather”. I was hoping for a postcard White Christmas, but some California weather must have snuck in my luggage, for Nebraska had some record high temps. But I’m not complaining…that weather allowed me to get out and appreciate the local wildlife.

My parents have lived in the same town most of their lives and know the land exceptionally well. When I was growing up, they taught me how to enjoy and respect nature, which I am truly grateful for. My dad recently retired and has had extra time to observe some of the wintering residents. He also knows his wildlife and birds and was more than accomodating in sharing his knowledge.

Birding in Nebraska is a bit different than the birding I’m used to in California. Sunrise is almost an hour later in Nebraska than it is in California, and instead of an hour or more of driving, we were out of town in five minutes. It’s not unusual for me to wake up at 4:30 or 5 to go birding, but I was able to sleep in until 7am, shower, and still be out on location before sunrise!

Red-tailed Hawk at dawn
Red-tailed Hawk
at dawn

Sunrise on the 26th was at 7:51, so we headed out around 7:40. It was a chilly 31 degrees, but clear and calm. Just after leaving town, we made our first spot of the day—a Prairie Falcon (Falco mexicanus). It was a good way to start the day. My dad pointed it out nonchalantly, but I now see that the guide books are listing it as “rare”. A few minutes later put us at our first stop, with a field and row of trees to the right, and a slight, tree-lined valley on the left. Ahead and to the left was a pond protected by some low hills. Just as my dad was mentioning Bobcats (Lynx rufus or Felis rufus) in the area, one magically appeared about thirty yards in front of the pickup, paused for a second, and was gone as quickly as it appeared. Bobcats are elusive and don’t like to be in open area for very long; it was nice to see one in real (wild) life. I realized how cold it really was when setting up my digiscope to get a shot of a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) perched in one of the trees. It’s a good thing I had gloves; metal tripods can get really cold. I was able to snap off a few shots before the hawk took off.

For most of the morning we drove around, spotting birds in flight and stopping for some occasional photo opps. Among some of the specimens seen were White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus), Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta), American Kestrel (Falco sparverius), Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris, and Ring-necked Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) and Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos). One more thing about birding in Nebraska: birds are really skittish. Maybe it’s due to all the hunting, but birds in California seem much more cooperative when posing for pictures and giving autographs. After we got home a little after noon, the GPS showed a round trip of 64 miles.

As a kid, our family did most of our camping at Lovewell Lake in Kansas. From my grandparents’ house, it was a quick fifteen-minute ride across the Nebraska/Kansas border. My grandparents used to spend nearly the entire summer there enjoying the outdoors, camping, boating, and fishing. They left for a day every two weeks to restock and satisfy park requirements. Both of my grandparents were bird watchers. They both had bird books, marked up with the dates they saw their first of the species. They knew all the birds in the area and taught us the names, but I didn’t really have a great interest in learning about them at the time. It’s funny how things come around.

I saw my grandma on Christmas day and on the 28th, my parents and I took the hour drive to spend some more time with her. On our way there, we spotted a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) feeding on a dead calf about 20 yards from the road, we slowed down to take a closer look, but by the time we stopped, the eagle had taken off. Still, we got a great look at such an awesome and powerful bird. Ten minutes later, we were at Grandma’s. We had lunch and headed to the lake, arriving around 2pm. It was 55 degrees, clear skies, and breezy.

Mystery Goose
Mystery Goose
A lot has changed at the lake since I was a kid; there’s now more paved roads, bathhouses, cabins, and boat ramps. Not like “roughing” it like we had to do years ago. My grandpa is no longer here, but the birds he taught me are. The winter doesn’t bring nearly the amount of species as in the other seasons, but the population count of the species that are here are great. Our first stop near the marina turned up birds taking advantage of the good weather and ice to take a nap. Here we spotted Mallard and Canada Goose (Branta canadensis). There were some other geese that weren’t recognizable: mostly brown, white face with black cap, orange bill, white vertical stripe on the chest, and yellow legs. I snapped off a few digiscoping shots, They came out a little blurry due to the wind, but they’re still good proofs. Varous birding guides show that it may be a Canada Goose/domestic hybrid, but if you have any other ideas, please email me or leave them in the comments.
Snow Geese
Snow Geese - a
portion of the flock

Driving around the lake near Cedar Point, we came upon a large gathering of Snow Geese (Chen caerulescens), mixed with Canada Geese and Mallards. I’m no expert counter, but I think it’s safe to say there were tens of thousands of them in the middle of the lake. What an amazing sight!

On the 29th, my parents and I decided to try the same route we’d taken on the 26th, this time in the afteroon. It was around 3pm, 38 degrees, and breezy, with drizzling rain. As we walked through the back yard to the pickup truck, we noticed the neighborhood Cottontail Rabbit (most likely Sylvilagus floridanus) “hiding” in the grass near the bird feeder. She has been seen on a regular basis; and she raised her babies by our garden. She was rather trusting, or thought she was well hidden since we were less than 10 feet away from her when we stopped to take a couple of shots. I didn’t bother her for an autograph.

Cottontail Rabbit
The neighborhood
Cottontail Rabbit

There wasn’t much out and about that afternoon, even as it started to clear off around 4:30. Mostly Red-tailed Hawks and European Starlings. We saw a larger hawk sitting on a wire but with the cloudy sky it was difficult to identify and whenever we tried to stop and set up the scope, it would hop down a pole or two. It finally took off for good behind some trees, but when we started driving away, it came back around. After a couple of short flights it stayed still long enough for me to get a proof shot. It turned out to be a Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus), which is a common sight in the winter. On our return home later that evening, the rabbit was still tucked away in the same place we saw her earlier.

Sunset from the
plane on the way back

On Interstate 80 on the way to the Omaha airport Friday, I saw the occasional Red-tailed Hawk sitting on a telephone pole or fence post, just like I see on the West Coast. As the saying goes, “There are hawks everywhere. All you need to do is look.” It’s so true. I don’t remember seeing any hawks when I was younger, but I guess I just wasn’t looking. I took notice of nature in general, but not in specific. I knew the names of animals that were hunted and the fish that were caught, but I took much of it for granted. It’s different now. I spent many years in a place that I just visited for a week, and it seems like I just saw much of it for the first time. I’ve been actively observing birds for almost a year now, and the joys of birding never fail to amaze me.

I’d guess your goose is a hybrid, with something that had a little domestic Greylag Goose in it, which may account for the bill and leg color. But the rear half is Canada Goose-like.

Posted by Nuthatch  on  01/03  at  05:18 AM

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