My stepdaughter Gwen Keller and I were out at Cowan counting birds for an eSites project yesterday (Tuesday, 29 Dec). We found two Wilson’s Snipe in the shallow eastern end of the lake, visible from the easternmost boat ramp. The lake is down about five feet from normal, apparently in an attempt to control the rampant American lotus, reducing the lake to something like the original Cowan Creek. The birds were busily foraging along the margins.

Peterjohn states that snipe are rare winter residents in the southern and central counties. This is certainly the latest that I have seen it here.

Wilson's Snipe. The striped back and head separate it from the dowitchers.

Another view.  Cowan Lake has been drawn down to the point that it is once again Cowan Creek,

The back stripes are particularly evident on the bird on the left.

Larry Gara and I were taking a census of Cowan Lake for our eSites project when we came across a large flock of geese at the beach. They were mostly Canadas, which have been absent in recent weeks. Immediately apparent were two Snow Geese, but while trying to count the Canadas, I came across a Greater White-Fronted Goose. Larry manned the scope while I tried to get close enough for a couple of pictures. Larry confirmed all the field marks of a greater white-front. I had less success with the photos.

It was late afternoon and the GWFG was in deep shadow and feeding actively. As a result, the pictures are not sharp, owing mainly to the movement of the bird. Close enough for government work, I guess, but not likely to make the pages of Audubon magazine.

Greater White-Fronted Goose

The bird is in left center foreground. Good comparison with the Canada Geese. Note also the two Snow Geese.

The Greater White-front goose in profile

The Breater White-fronted Goose in profile. The bird's motion blurred the photo, but the white front is clearly evident.

GWFG in profile

Antoher profile shot of the GWFG with better view of white front.

GWFG feeding

The Greater White-fronted Goose feeding. The white front is obscured, but all of the other field marks are shown. Absence of black stocking and white chin strap, brown breast with ragged transverse black streaks, lack of bright white lower belly, bright orange legs.

On Thursday, 9 Apr 09, Larry Gara and I spent about an hour with the Lesser Black-backed Gull Larry discovered the day before (8 Apr 09).  The bird was seen on and just off the beach in good light, standing, wading, swimming and flying.  The bird was reasonably approachable so that we were able to get good views and passable photos (see below).

The bird was in very nearly adult plumage.  It was intermediate in size between the ring-bills and Herring Gulls that were conveniently lounging close by.  The mantle was dark gray and very uniform.  The head was white, not streaked or mottled at all.  The legs and feet were yellow.  The beak was yellow with a dark smudge near the tip that was being supplanted by a red gonydeal spot.  The secondaries were broadly tipped with white.  The primaries were long and tipped with little lenses of white.  There was a distinct white mirror near the end of P10.  When the bird took flight, we saw that most of the rectrices were white but some rectrices with dark tips were retained.
Back home, I consulted Howell & Dunn, “Gulls of the Americas,” Olsen and Larsson, “Gulls of North America, Europe, and Asia;” and Peter Pyle’s new Volume 2 of his “Identification Guide to North American Birds.”  It is our opinion that this bird is near the end of the third cycle, nearly into its first definitive basic plumage.  It has all the necessary characteristics except for some retained second cycle rectrices and the remaining black smudge on the bill with an emerging red gonydeal spot.
Larry also had a Lesser Black-backed Gull at this location in 2002.  That bird stayed around for months, so we are hopeful that this bird will do the same.
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Lesser Black-backed Gull swimming.  Note projection of the primaries.  The mirror on P10 is evident on the right wing folded over the tail.  All of the visible primaries are tipped with little white lens-shaped patches.  The broad white tips of the secondaries and tertials are very dramatic.  The bill is marked by the dark smudge that is characteristic of the second cycle, but one can easily see that it is being supplanted by the red gonydeal spot of the full adult bird.  Note yellow iris.
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Lesser Black-backed Gull taking flight.  Note broad white tips on secondaries, tertials, and scapulars.  The white mirror on P10 is very evident.  In this picture the tail is too compressed to reveal any of the rectrices with black spots retained from the previous plumage.

The picture below was taken at Cowan Lake State Park, Ohio, on 2 Jan 09.  The bird is clearly a male Northern Shoveler, but the plumage shows some aspects I have never seen in shovelers.  Note the distinctive vermiculations just above the large chestnut flank patch.  I believe these to be the greater coverts, but I am at a loss to place a plumage of this sort in the life cycle of the Northern Shoveler.

The only reference I can find that has a similar plumage is in Waterfowl by Madge and Burn (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1988).  There is a plate that might be a crude representation of this state and a mention in the text of a “subeclipse” plumage.  Pyle’s new Volume 2 to his monumental Identification Guide to North American Birds does not mention eclipse plumages, much less subeclipse plumages.  As I understand it, the eclipse plumage is actually the alternate plumage in ducks.  In any case, I cannot find a reference in Pyle to secondary covs with vermiculations.

I personally have never had the opportunity to handle waterfowl and would appreciate the input of my elders and betters.  How would you age this bird?

Weird shoveler photographed at Cowan Lake State Park, Ohio, 2 Jan 09.  How would you age this bird?

Weird shoveler photographed at Cowan Lake State Park, Ohio, 2 Jan 09. How would you age this bird?

While we were swanning around Hoover, Rick Asamoto and Shaun Eggleston found a Common Redpoll at the Caesar Creek Visitors Center, which I regard more or less as my home turf.  I went out there this morning to check it out and found it almost immediately (with the help of a nice couple who were already there.)

The bird was coming to the feeder out back.  The people who were there before me had seen it on the feeder, but every time I saw it it was in the company of a flock of goldfinches foraging in the detritus on the ground under the feeder.  The usual drill was that the birds would gather in the trees above the feeder, then descend to the ground and feed for five to ten minutes.  Then the whole flock would suddenly fly away.  In about fifteen minutes the whole process would start again.  I sat through about four cycles of this.

The redpoll was noticeably larger than the goldfinches.  The most obvious field mark was the red cap that gives the species its vernacular name.  The black face, big white wingbar, pinkish-red wash on the breast, and striped flanks completed the identification.
I took up a position on one of the benches outside.  The birds quickly became desensitized to my presence and I was able to shoot a bunch of pictures, the best of which occur below.  For an interactive map of the Caesar Creek area, see the maps page on the header above.
Common Redpoll with American Goldfinches for size comparison.

Common Redpoll with American Goldfinches for size comparison.

Detail showing red poll

Detail showing red poll

Detail showing pinky wash, flank stripes, and wing bar

Detail showing pinky wash, flank stripes, and wing bar

A Black-legged Kittiwake was reported on New Year’s Day at Hoover Dam north of Columbus.  On Saturday, 3 Jan, my son Hugh, a science writer at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, went up to see if we could find it, which eventually we did.  Ned Keller intercepted us in the parking lot and vectored us to the right area.  After checking through three groups of gulls, a nice lad came along and pointed us to it.  In our defense, the bird was sitting on the ice facing away from us, so we didn’t feel too stupid.  Also, we were able to pass along the favor by pointing out the bird to four or five others who arrived later.

After a while, the whole group of gulls got up and flew over to the south side of the dam.  We shifted up to the dam in hopes of getting a closer view.  We failed to find it until someone yelled, “There it goes!” as it saile back over to the north side of the dam and settled again on the ice.  However, it was closer this time and at a better angle to the sun.  I unlimbered my camera, the 400 mm zoom lens and my brand-new-for-Christmas doubler.  Even at 800 mm, though, it was too far away to make a decent picture.  In desperation, I got out my Panasonic point-and-shoot and tried digiscoping, a technique I had given up on a year ago.  But surprisingly, I got a couple of good shots.  I guess the law of averages does indeed work both ways:  you can’t lose ’em all.

Kittiwake in comparison with Ring-billed Gulls

Kittiwake in comparison with Ring-billed Gulls

Detail from previous picture.  The black post-ocular mark, the black "scarf" and the "carpal bar" indicate that this is a first-winter bird.

Detail from previous picture. The black post-ocular mark, the black "scarf" and the "carpal bar" indicate that this is a first-winter bird.

A somewhat more common posture.  Thankfully, the bird moved around a fair amount, giving good looks at all the field marks to those with a bit of patience.

A somewhat more common posture. Thankfully, the bird moved around a fair amount, giving good looks at all the field marks to those with a bit of patience.

While banding birds at Bob Thobaben’s farm west of Wilmington, OH, we caught a series of Field Sparrows with curious growths on their feet.  The first one we caught, we merely noted the presence of the growth.  An hour later, we caught another Field Sparrow with a similar growth.  Sensitized to the problem, we took some pictures of this bird.  Fortunately, it was a retrap.  Bob’s records showed that the bird had been banded only three weeks before.  No unusual growths were noted at that time.

Growth on second bird.  Right leg, ventral side

Left:  Growth on  right foot of second Field Sparrow, ventral side.   Right:  Same growth as seen from left side.

On the next round of the nets, we found still a third Field Sparrow.  This one had four growths of the same sort, two on each foot.

Left:  Third bird showing two growths on each on foot.  Right:  The whole bird.  The growths are barely discernible  at this scale

The growths are about a half a centimeter in diameter and look rather like oak galls.  Bob says he has not see anything like this in thirty years of banding.  Anybody out there know what this is?  How do we account for such a concentration in time, space, and species?  Also, these growths appear to be fast-growing.  What is the cause of that?

Science is all about questions.