Thursday, February 9, 2017

The PA Black-backed Oriole

Last Saturday morning I had a window to drive with friends to Sinking Spring, Pennsylvania to see the adult male BLACK-BACKED ORIOLE that had been identified coming to a feeder a couple days prior. Before making the trip I weighed the pros and cons whether or not this unprecedented sighting involved a wild bird. I figured the odds were high enough to justify the effort. My biggest issue with this bird is the lack of precedent/pattern with this species in the US (minus the CA bird at the border, also an adult male). But who's to say this species hasn't previously occurred in the ABA other plumages.

Black-backed Oriole is rather closely related to the ABA area-breeding Baltimore and Bullock's Orioles. I don't know much about Black-backed Oriole, but from some online image searching it would appear that females and young males are not dissimilar in appearance from those age classes of our more familiar orioles. Check out some of those eBird checklists with images of the species in Mexico and you'll see what I mean. It would not take much for, say, a few young birds to have slipped through the cracks before now. That age class is more prone to wander. Adult males, less likely to wander...but they are the plumage class that would stand out, like the PA bird. Something to consider.

Here are a few images - really crushed it!  :)

adult male Black-backed Oriole


Monday, February 6, 2017

"BLACK" BRANT - Groton, CT - 5 Feb 2017

Doesn't it often happen that those days you didn't plan on birding turn out to be the best days? I unexpectedly found myself birding the eastern CT coast on Sunday, thanks to both a reported adult Ross's Gull in adjacent Rhode Island and altered social plans. The strategy was to bird this portion of the coast, not far from that Ross's Gull sighting, trying to find the gull in CT all the while ready to cross the border into RI for a short chase if it was refound there. Last week's first cycle Ross's only left me wanting more - why not follow it up with an adult for good measure? As it turned out, mainly out-of-state birders were over the border searching for the ROGU. Can't say I'm surprised. Classic Rhode Island.

I was working the coast from west to east, starting in Waterford. My first couple stops produced nothing exciting, but as I pulled into the parking lot at Eastern Point in Groton I eyeballed a half-dozen Brant that were feeding close to shore - three adults and three youngsters. Through bins one of the young birds immediately popped as a great candidate for "BLACK" BRANT. Obvious were the dark sides, darker shade to upperparts, and a white collar that connected anteriorly. I could not see the belly at this point with the bird in the water, but given the above field marks I would have been shocked to see anything other than dark all the way to the legs. Sure enough this was obvious when the group took flight to the other side of the point.

"Black" Brant with "Atlantic/Pale-bellied" Brant

This is Connecticut's third record of this Pacific form of Brant. The first came in April 2009 and the second in January of 2010. I enjoyed seeing a young bird this time; those broadly edged wing coverts are a nice touch on such a dark bird. A handful of nearby birders who were also hoping to run into the Ross's Gull came by to view the goose.

Other nearby birds included a few COMMON EIDER and PURPLE SANDPIPERS, and a large mixed flock of SNOW BUNTINGS and HORNED LARKS were feeding on the lawn around the parking lot.

I hit a few quick stops in Old Saybrook on my way home, the most productive of which was a half-frozen Maynard's Pond on Ingham Hill Road that produced two REDHEADS and a first cycle hybrid Herring x Glaucous Gull.

The gull stood out among the flock as a pale, frosty Herring-like bird. The bicolored bill and fresh plumage were also quite striking. There must be Glaucous genes in there. I have seen this hybrid combo paler than this for sure, but I have also seen even more Herring-like birds than this, usually juvenile mocha-colored individuals that are darker overall but have that bill shape and pattern with a smooth coffee-colored head. I suspect Glaucous genes in those darker individuals too, but it's just impossible to know where to draw the line with these things.

 - Nick

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Eared Grebe, New Haven, CT - Jan 29, 2017

On a whim Sunday morning I headed out for just a couple hours of local coastal birding. I wanted to check the east side of New Haven Harbor. Close to home and guaranteed to see SOME birds, even if just the common wintering waterfowl. I pulled first into Nathan Hale Park, and one of the first birds I saw was an EARED GREBE diving close to shore. The bird was hanging close enough to be photographed, so I took advantage of this locally rare opportunity.

Eared Grebe is a rare bird in Connecticut, currently an ARCC review species. So it is likely that this is the same individual that had been hanging out in Stratford a week or so prior. In fact, another CT birder emailed me later on Sunday to tell me that she had apparently seen this grebe at Nathan Hale a few days prior but was not sure of the identification, so it had been around for a bit before I stumbled across it.

 - NB

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Adirondack Gray Jays

On my way home from the Ross's Gull yesterday I stopped at Sabattis Bog, thanks to info from Joan Collins. Despite a heavy snow squall and driving winds, the local GRAY JAYS were friendly and confiding.

 - NB

ROSS'S GULL, NY - Jan 26 & 27

Ross's Gull had been my #1 North American bird to see for a while of the few birds I would drive many hours to experience if I had to. Imagine my surprise when I woke up on Thursday morning to an emailed photo of a first cycle ROSS'S GULL. Awesome. Just one tiny problem...I had no idea where and when it was taken. The information began to trickle in piece by piece. I was ready to bail from work at any time if the report was local and recent. "Local" has a mildly expanded meaning when it comes to a Ross's Gull. As we would come to find out the bird was photographed just the day before near the Adirondack, NY town of Tupper Lake.

I had a decision to make once the details came through - drop everything and run, or calm the $#&% down and wait until the next morning. I decided to pack what I could, get in the car, and make my way in that direction. I could always turn around if I changed my mind or received news that the bird was not chase-able. Traffic was thin, and I was approaching the MA/NY border on I-90 when I got some info from a friend that the bird might only be visible from private property. Turn around? Not yet...keep driving and wait for more. Turns out the homeowner and family are longtime birders in the area, and they would welcome small numbers of birders at a time to view the bird. Sweet. Kept going, knowing that I would only have about an hour of daylight with which to work once I arrived, and that was assuming roads would be clear and traffic-free. Lucky enough this was the case, and I arrived at the residence at 4pm. The bird had just flown, so the handful of folks who had been there were on their way out. I would stay the night and try again in the morning if it did not come back. A few others, including Andrew Spencer and Matt Medler who had driven from Ithaca, were also just arriving. We were told that the bird had been commuting to and from the iced-over lake in front of the yard, where it had been feeding on fish eggs and other offal that were laid out on the snow. I don't think we had to wait more than 20-30 minutes for it to reappear for a pre-dusk meal.

Having never seen any video of this species in flight, I was immediately struck by the long-winged impression it gave as it flew in. This really made it appear larger in the air than it does on the ground, where it seems small and dainty. The flight style was about as graceful as you could imagine.

Completely thrilled, we all enjoyed the bird until it left at dusk. The homeowner, Jack Delehanty (son of local birding legends Charlcie and Jack Delehanty), could not have been any more hospitable...and I am not exaggerating when I say that. We all hung out for a while, chatting over celebratory local beer. The few of us who had driven 4+ hours to Tupper Lake decided to stay in the area for the night rather than risking a snowy/icy drive home in the dark. The temp was dropping and the snow was falling.

The next morning we were back at it quite early, hoping for better lighting conditions and some photo ops. The bird reappeared at just about 8am. It proceeded to spend the entire morning coming and going from its feeding area in front of Jack's yard. At one point it was spooked by a Bald Eagle and uttered a short series of grating calls, deftly recorded by Andrew Spencer and coming soon to a xeno-canto page near you.

The overcast slowly brightened as the morning went on, at least temporarily between the frequent snow showers. A subtle salmon-pink wash on its belly became evident during those moments of brighter overcast. We were able to get some images of the bird, though my ISO was higher than I would have liked. Below are some jpeg edits. I actually shot RAW too, which I never do, so maybe sometime I will pull out those files and see how they look in comparison. It's a switch I have yet to make even though I've heard from so many that once I do I will not want to go back. I am a birder first, photographer a distant I haven't been bothered to try.

I finally pulled myself away from the bird around 12:30pm. On my way home I stopped at nearby Sabattis Bog to enjoy the local GRAY JAYS, then for SHORT-EARED OWLS at the Fort Edward Grassland at dusk. Just an amazing 24 hours of impromptu birding.

Almost as memorable as the bird itself were the folks I met during the chase. Just the kindest, most genuine people. I was able to connect more than a few faces with names I had long-known from internet reporting over the past several years.

And here are some images and a brief video of the Ross's Gull - literally the only gull I saw for well over 24 hours!

 - Nick