September Recap

The sunset on the 18th.

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Bird #504 — Parasitic Jaeger

stercorarius parasiticus

Tuesday, September 11, 2018 — 5:58 pm

Chatfield State Park, Colorado

Eighteen years ago, a Long-tailed Jaeger made an appearance in central Illinois. I drove four hours down and four hours back to see it. 

Over the past few days, two of them have been seen regularly with a Parasitic Jaeger at Chatfield Reservoir, about an hour north of my house. As a Sabine’s Gull was also being seen there, that made two potential lifers and a second-ever sighting. I took off work an hour early and headed up.

Chatfield Reservoir is a large man-made lake created to supply Denver with water. It’s shaped like an upside-down “J” with the larger arm to the west. I had no idea where to look for the birds. I walked along the large peninsula that splits the lake, scanning constantly for large, dark gull-like birds. I found the Sabine’s Gull (previous post), but I  saw nothing that looked at all like a jaeger. I made my way back past the south boat ramp,to a narrow spit that cuts out into the lake. I still wasn’t seeing anything, and had just about determined to call it a day when another birder wandered up.

The first thing he said was that there was a Merlin on the other side of a tree 25 feet away from me. I hadn’t ever seen a Merlin in Colorado, or anywhere else for a long time, so this was good news. But I played it cool and casually wandered to where I could see it and get some photos. 

A few minutes later, Frank (we introduced ourselves at some point) spotted the jaegers flying low over the water on the far side of the reservoir.  For the next half hour, I watched them flying back and forth across the face of the dam. They never came close to where I was standing. The birds were very close in color to the rocks on the dam wall, so they often disappeared. And then, suddenly, I’d find them again. They landed and swam from time to time, but a lot of the time they were chasing gulls, presumably to steal fish from them.

Because that’s what jaegers do. They are essentially the hawks of the sea. I saw one flying  in full-out in pursuit of a gull, and it caught the slower bird in no time flat. Sometimes, one of the smaller jaegers chased the larger one.

Which brings me to the issue of identification. This gets a little tricky. All three birds were immatures, so none of them had the distinctive tail feathers of adults. They were obviously jaegers, darker than the gulls, with flashing white patches on their primaries. Their buoyant, aggressive flight and behavior of chasing gulls is also typical of jaegers.

Two of them were smaller and slighter, with pale heads. These were the Long-tailed Jaegers. The third bird was much darker, with an almost back head and dark brown body that seemed, from a distance. to have some cinnamon tones in the good late afternoon light. 

As I looked, Frank described the field marks of the two species. I couldn’t see much of what he was talking about, but I could see that the darker bird was just a little bit bulkier and larger than the smaller ones. The difference was apparent when they were swimming next to each other or when they were soaring and banking at the same time. 

So how do I rule out Pomarine Jaeger, the third species which looks very much like the Parasitic in immature plumage? How do I justify adding Parasitic to my list when I only saw it at a great distance? Frank had been out in a boat with other birders the day before. He had close-up photos and was showing these to me on his phone as we watched. The deciding factor for me was the comparative sizes:

Long-tailed — length 15″, wingspan 38″
Parasitic — length 16.5″, wingspan 42″
Pomarine — 18.5″, wingspan 48″

The dark jaeger I saw was a little larger, but certainly not 10-inch-wingspan larger, than the smaller birds. I know that isn’t much to go on, and I hope to get back up there this weekend and get a better view. But Frank confirmed everything I was seeing.

I took a little bit of video as the Parasitic Jaeger floated on the water and then took off. It was a very long way away, so these photos from the video show nothing more than a vaguely gull-like bird with dark plumage and white patches on its primaries.

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Lifer #503 — Sabine’s Gull

xema sabini

Tuesday, September 11, 2018 — 4:12 pm

Chatfield State Park, Colorado

Sabine’s Gulls breed high in the tundra along the Alaskan and Canadian coast of the Arctic Ocean. Most of them migrate along the Pacific coast, but every fall, a few show up on the larger reservoirs in central Colorado. I knew I would get one sooner or later.

One was found on Chatfield Reservoir, about an hour north of my house, earlier this week. I was planning on heading up this weekend, but then three jaegers—two Long-tailed and a Parasitic—were spotted at the same place, and I couldn’t let two lifers and a second-ever sighting go by.

I left work an hour early, thanks to my gracious, ever-understanding boss, and arrived at Chatfield State Park a little before 4:00 pm. I had no idea where any of the birds were being sighted, so I just started walking the shore, stopping frequently to scan the large lake with my binoculars and spotting scope. It wasn’t too long before I spotted a black-headed gull swimming in the center of the southwest arm of the lake.

I set up my scope and watched. Most of the time, the gull was swimming, looking back and forth alertly with its head held high. Occasionally it would flutter forward somewhere between three and 15 feet and then land again. I wasn’t close enough to see what it was chasing, if that’s what it was doing.

But I was close enough to see the diagnostic “M” wing pattern. As it’s the only gull with a black head and that pattern, I had my bird.

The photos are all stills from a video I shot by holding my phone up to my scope. 

I continued down the shore and got a little closer to the bird, but it also put it in a direct line with the sun. At this point, it was swimming away from me, and I didn’t see it flutter again. When it turned its head, I was able on one or two occasions to make out the yellow tip on its black bill.

Later, on the other side of the lake, I spotted it, or another one, swimming along the face of the dam.

I chatted briefly with two other birders. I was pronouncing the name of the gull as SAY-beans. They said the first syllable with the “a” in sad and the second syllable as bin, so SA-bins. This got me wondering, so I googled it and discovered that it’s supposed to be pronounced SA (as in sad)-beans. So we were both half right.

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Birding in the Rain

Cassin’s Vireos, which I had never seen, migrate through Colorado in September. It’s the only time of year that they can readily be found. They can show up in pretty much any wooded area, so my strategy to find one was to go birding by trees as often as it took.

On Saturday evening, after Sally and I got back from La Junta, I drove over to work and birded along Monument Branch. There were a lot of birds around—warblers, sparrows, chickadees, etc. I was having a great time.

Meanwhile, a storm popped up right overhead. Storms in Colorado this time of year don’t come in waves. They just build up quickly in a given spot. I took shelter under some scrub oak about halfway down the creek ravine. I figured it put me far below the tallest pines but still far enough above the water so that if lightning struck nearby, I’d have the best chance of surviving. 

When the sun came out over the mountains, it was still raining hard. I saw a rainbow and threw caution to the wind to get some photos and video. That’s my office in the foreground. My window is the third from the left on the second floor. It’s hard to tell in these photos, but the bottom arc of the rainbow was doubled, so this is a complete triple rainbow.

By the time the rain stopped, it was getting dark. I gave up for the day and headed home.

I went back on Sunday evening. Again there were a tone of birds around, including two Warbling Vireos and a Plumbeous Vireo (which used to be conspecific with Cassin’s Vireos).

But again, it began raining, and this time, the storm included hail. I tried to shelter under a pine, but I was still getting pelted. I dashed to a willow bush along the creek. This kept off most of the rain for a bit, but once the leaves got wet, they all pointed down and I got drenched. I finally gave home and dashed for the car. 

I decided to try again on Monday (Labor Day) morning. I drove south of town to Aiken Canyon Preserve. I’d gone about a mile from my car when a morning shower popped up. This one didn’t include thunder. I climbed into the middle of a bunch of scrub oak and waited it out. I had to bend over to protect my phone, camera, and binoculars, so my back got drenched. It lasted about 20 minutes. This time, when the rain stopped, I kept going and was rewarded shortly afterwards by a Cassin’s Vireo. 

The rest of the hike was uneventful, both weatherwise and birdwise.

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