Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Unexpected But Not Surprising

Whew, meant to post this earlier but got distracted. A Little Blue Heron, a Presidential election, a saw-whet owl, and a pesky thing called a "day job" all conspired to keep me from finishing this recounting of a couple of unusual encounters.

On Sunday, November 2nd, while other birders were racing to see the first recorded California Gull in the Cayuga Lake Basin, Reina and I were heading to Corning, NY to help Donna manage the annual Red Baron Half Marathon. We had just reached the bottom of our hill, for some reason discussing the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz, when an oddly-shaped animal crossed the road a few cars in front of us. Not the expected cat, dog, deer, possum, or coyote shape, not quite turkey. Besides, it ran across the road; turkeys seem to take their time, except when they're bee-lining to our feeding station during the winter months.

Because the bird had paused in the middle of someone's yard we had plenty of time to pull on the shoulder to watch and photograph a Ring-necked Pheasant, one of the most colorful birds.

Ring-necked Pheasant, maleAfter running across the road this handsome
male Ring-necked Pheasant loitered in the shade
before disappearing in an overgrown field.

It wasn't overly surprising, like picking out a California Gull loafing with a flock of Ring-billed Gulls in the Finger Lakes, but it was unexpected. I have heard pheasants calling in the fields surrounding the airport but was the first I actually saw. This was the first pheasant Reina had seen, she loved its clown-like coloring, so out of place in western NY where the leaves have mostly faded to a mostly homogeneous hue of brown. I did have to explain why the bird did not have any pink feathers.

By itself that sighting was mildly interesting, but it became more interesting on Tuesday morning. After I voted and dropped Reina at school I traveled my Blue Highway towards Ithaca. As I meandered along a gaudy, colorful patch caught my eye. What I first mistook for someone's discarded trash turned out to be a pheasant partially hidden on the side of the road.

Ring-necked Pheasant, maleMale Ring-necked Pheasant, obscured by roadside vegetation.

Incidentally, doesn't that usually work the other way? At first glance you find an unusual bird, which then morphs into something completely different upon closer inspection (witness Jack Conner's classic "Crested Caracara turned trash bag" story in The Complete Birder*)?

Regardless, what started as a single pheasant wound up being no less than five male pheasants, perhaps more, hiding in the underbrush. I've never seen more than one at a time, and eBird reports the average sighting in the Finger Lakes region of New York is two birds (my six bird report spiked the high count).

That's why I found this grouping, this nye of pheasants, noteworthy. Did you know a group of pheasants is called a nye? According to the Palomar Audubon Society you can also use a nest of pheasants, a nide of pheasants, or (if they're in flight) a bouquet of pheasants. Apparently a covey of pheasants also works, but that's so conventional.

Regardless, it prompted me to wonder if they all hadn't been on the shoulder of the road, how many would I have seen? How many additional birds might have been there, completely hidden by the vegetation? How many have I missed in the past?

The topper was a single hen. I would estimate 99% of the pheasants I've seen are males, the odd female was one I flushed years ago while walking through a former corn field turned old field (various grasses, forbs, and shrubs) behind my parents house. This was the first I've seen close enough to study.

Ring-necked Pheasant, femaleFemale Ring-necked Pheasant, much more patient than the males.

The birds were quite accommodating. I had time to stop, throw the car in reverse, back up, grab the camera and shoot a few shots. The female was the last to leave, perhaps more secure with her more camouflaged plumage.

Ring-necked Pheasant, femaleI'm happier with this shot, no grass shielding her face.

Ring-necked Pheasants must be one of those species that drive field guide map-makers and demographers nuts. They're not native to North America, but they're established coast to coast in agricultural lands. Not only are they maintaining a relatively stable population on their own, their popularity with hunting clubs and private collections augments their numbers, both within and outside their expected North American range. eBird shows a more widespread distribution than the field guides, likely representing these escaped or intentionally introduced populations, including a population on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska.

What do you think? Given the amount of human assistance they receive are pheasants, along with other stocked game birds (Chukars, for example), more likely to surprise birders than vagrants that wander under their own power?

* Though published 20 years ago The Complete Birder remains among the essential books everyone interested in birds should have on their bookshelf.

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4 comments:

A.J. said...

Wow! I'm not answering your questions, but just going gah-gah over your sightings. And, very much missing being at Chincoteague for Thanksgiving. Thanks, as usual, for your insightful posts and cool photos.

jan m said...

I don't know if you saw my post of three Saturdays ago, but a pheasant passed under my willow trees that day. I think that would be near where you saw yours.

scienceguy288 said...

I still love pheasants. But they used to be my favorite bird. Now I know they are just colorful chickens. Basically. Haha.

noflickster said...

Hi a.j. - thanks! I'm bummed about Chincoteague, too, but I guess the several quick trips this year kind of make up for it. Hopefully a longer trip soon!

Jan - I did see your post, and if you're near the airport it doesn't surprise me! I've sometimes heard a bird near the bottom of our hill while driving slowly towards the airport, but never seen one until now. I wonder how many there are in our area.

scienceguy288 - it's no wonder pheasants are so popular with their striking colors and, I assume, their ease to keep in captivity. Something to do with their chicken-like status? It's interesting to see how well they've adapted to our mid-latitude agricultural landscapes, one of the more successful introductions (accidental or intentional notwithstanding).

Thanks for dropping by!
-Mike

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