Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Canada Geese? Cackling Geese? Or Hybrids?

Before you read any further, I recommend that you have your favorite headache remedy handy, because you might need it.

For some background reading on this problem, check out David Sibley's blog post about a confusing flock of white-cheeked geese he encountered in Massachusetts around this time last year.

Also, there was recently a "problem goose" found by Frank Mantlik in Stratford. View my post and Frank's really nice photos. I suggested the bird might represent a "Lesser" Canada Goose or hybrid rather than a Cackling Goose. After getting a few more opinions on it, there actually seems to be a bit of a consensus...that it is not really identifiable and may represent a hybrid Canada x Cackling Goose, as it does not fit neatly into any one particular Canada or Cackling form (as far as we know now, anyway) and shows features of both species.

And more are some examples from past years of "Richardson's" Cackling Geese (Branta hutchinsii hutchinsii) I have photographed/digiscoped in CT. These classic-looking birds are small with a tiny, short bill, short neck, usually squared-off head, and gray tone to the upperparts (often described as "frosty"). The breast color is variable and sometimes shows a white collar between the breast and the neck sock.

this one has an odd growth on its head but is otherwise classic

towards the back right of the group

second from left

So that's what Cackling Geese in CT usually look like. "Richardson's" is the only subspecies of Cackling Goose expected here (though there have been, I believe, two records now of "Taverner's" Cackling Goose in the state).

Anyway, there have been large numbers of Canada Geese around Wallingford, CT this autumn. My single high count was 1700 birds at one location a couple weeks ago. There have been at least a few "Richardson's" Cackling Geese among them, just like the birds photo'd above.

On Sunday, Nov 22, I stopped by MacKenzie Reservoir in Wallingford for another check and found a flock of about 180 Canada Geese somewhat close to the road and in nice afternoon light. Upon studying them I found one classic "Richardson's" Cackler. But that was not the only small or short-billed bird in the flock. I soon realized that this flock had "Canadas" of all sizes, some bordering dangerously close to Cackling size. Not just a couple birds here and there...a significant portion of the flock was puzzling...not our typical migrant Canada Geese, yet obviously not Cackling Geese of any form I knew of.

I called Greg Hanisek who I knew was nearby, so he came by to study the flock with me. We asked ourselves what these birds were as we marveled at the number of small birds present.

Interestingly, this flock of 180 geese was largely separate from the 400+ others on the reservoir at the time, making us wonder if this particular group might have originated from the same area.

First, below are images containing the hutchinsii Cackling Goose, to give an idea of what that bird looked like (marked with asterisk).

The following photos are of the rest of the flock. I've tried to represent the variation in size here, not just focusing on the smallest-billed individuals. Click on the photos to enlarge them, and take a scan through each to appreciate the variation.

a few of the larger birds were hanging out at the water's edge

check out the little guy in the back...

I'm fairly certain that the goose marked in the photo is the Richardson's Cackling Goose

I took a handful of images of that small goose that has the greatly reduced white cheek. You'll see it pop up again in some of the images below; same bird.

Greg noticed that the center bird here had a slight stricture to its neck. Not sure what would cause that. It did happen to have a rather small bill and square-shaped head.

So there you have it. Canada Geese of all sizes, including several smaller ones with short bills. Are these "Lesser" Canada Geese? Hybrids? Could some of the smallest be Cackling Geese that just don't fit either Richardson's or Taverner's forms? (I think the last option is rather unlikely, but who knows).

Please feel free to post thoughts/opinions in the Comments section below.

Thanks for looking. And remember to never combine Tylenol with alcohol, as tempting as it might be!

 - Nick

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Ash-throated Flycatcher

A few days ago I stopped briefly into Sherwood Island State Park (Westport, CT) to see the ASH-THROATED FLYCATCHER that AJ Hand had found a couple days prior. When I arrived the bird was being watched by Tina Green (who had ultimately identified the bird, she knowing that any Myiarchus in November was more likely an ATFL than anything else) and others, making it easy for me! The bird mostly stayed in the canopy but made occasional drops as it actively fed, at one point even visiting the seed feeder.

atop its favorite tree, "the" cork tree

not your typical feeder bird...

 - NB

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Weekend CT birds

Nov 16:
Following Friday's Franklin's Gull madness, my focus shifted a bit for the weekend. Saturday, with brisk NW winds, was primed for a migration watch. Julian Hough and I began at Ecology Park in Branford, a capped landfill with fantastic views just a half mile from the coast. We enjoyed a nice morning flight with decent diversity and a few surprises including being buzzed by a migrating SANDHILL CRANE plus several CAVE SWALLOWS.

Sandhill Crane

Cave Swallow

Bald Eagle

White-tailed Deer

From there we joined the gang at Lighthouse Point where the flight was less impressive than we thought it would be. Still, we had nice looks at a subadult GOLDEN EAGLE and a couple more flyby CAVE SWALLOWS. Northern Harriers were the story of the day, with over 60 tallied.

Golden Eagle

Nov 17:
Sunday was beat-the-bushes day in search of vagrant passerines, but I came up empty on that front. I actually ran quickly into Lighthouse Point early to search for roosting Cave Swallows just after sunrise. I found one bird on the ledge of the carousel building.

Cave Swallow

Otherwise it was pretty slow in the landbird department. It did not help that the winds really kicked up stronger than expected for the afternoon. No rarities for me, but I did have a lingering NASHVILLE WARBLER.

Nashville Warbler

That strong low pressure system really delivered with Franklin's Gulls and Cave Swallows making for a very exciting weekend overall. Undoubtedly there are more goodies to be found this week.

 - Nick