Monday, August 15, 2016

A week on the Vineyard

Just back from a week on Martha's Vineyard with the family. Birding was sporadic at best, but I did get out a couple times. On Monday, August 8th, I birded the Gay Head cliffs first thing for morning flight. Things were dreadfully slow, and warblers were almost nonexistent. Highlights were five species of swallow/martin including Cliff Swallow and Purple Martin, which interestingly the first reports from MV this year for either species...though I have no idea about the level of eBird participation on that island. A few Red-breasted Nuthatches were presumably migrants, but again I am unaware of their breeding status on the island.

On August 11th I kayaked across Tisbury Great Pond to the flats on the south side of the pond, along the north side of the barrier beach. I was really impressed by the numbers, as ~1700 shorebirds covered the limited mudflats available there. Nothing unusual was seen, but a Red Knot, a solid count of 30 White-rumps, and four flyby Pec Sands were nice to see. Tern numbers and diversity were low, but I eventually turned up two Forster's Terns. Ten immature Lesser Black-backed Gulls were tallied among the more common species, a number that was flagged by eBird.

Other than that, there really was no birding. I did have incidental sightings of Black Skimmers and a juv Yellow-crowned Night-Heron during the week. And on the 10th we took the boat to Bonito Bar at Nantucket/Tuckernuck where several hundred terns were actively feeding. Diversity was better here, with five species including a single-scan count of 55 Black Terns.

Overall I wish I could have tapped into the island's birding a bit more, but that will have to wait for another visit. It's a great place for a outdoorsy person to spend a week with all that open space and some great fall migration potential.

 - NB

Friday, July 8, 2016

Migration heating up

This afternoon I kicked around Stratford and Milford Point for a few hours in search of migrant shorebirds and terns. Results were pretty solid for the date, as I had a dozen species of shorebird and four terns. The shorebirds were all common migrants and breeders except for the continuing RUFF in Stratford. More than a few peep and dowitchers were present to look at, indicating that migration is really kicking into gear.

Terns were highlighted by single CASPIAN and ROYAL TERNS at Milford Point. The Caspian was a quick fly-by, while the Royal was roosting on one of the distant sandbars. Also loafing on the bars was a first summer LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULL among a mixed flock of young gulls.

Record shot of the Caspian Tern as it passed by Milford Point
So far this has been one of the birdier early July's in my area that I can recall. In just a few brief outings this month I have chased a Ruff, seen four Royal Terns and a Caspian, have seen good numbers of migrants for the date, and stumbled across a Snowy Egret with Little Egret-like head plumes (more on that cool bird in a future post). Here's hoping the activity continues and includes something like, say, a stint??

 - NB

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Fall migration underway (incl. RUFF)

Well this must be as long as I've ever gone between blog posts!

Work, travel, work, last few months. Essentially zero local birding, and no Big Day either. But I have been birding while traveling - this includes over two weeks in China and a road trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I plan on catching up with blog posts on those trips, hopefully sooner than later.

But now I am back to a much more normal schedule. No big trips on the horizon for a while. This should mean more local birding and a return to a more relaxed summertime.

Speaking of local birding, the "fall" (AKA southbound) migration of shorebirds is off to a solid start. A few adults of the early-arriving species had already returned by the end of June. Short-billed Dowitcher, Least Sandpiper, and both yellowlegs were predictably first to arrive in any numbers at several east coast hotspots. Other highlights included a few different adult male Ruffs plus the first Whimbrel and Western Sandpipers of the summer. This seems a touch earlier than most years, but perhaps not.

Here in CT, Stefan Martin began the season with a bang by finding a RUFF in Stratford yesterday. Already in the area, I managed a quick detour to see the bird. This is the third Ruff in the state already this year, which has been a fantastic one for this species up and down the east coast.

record shot of the Ruff in Stratford, CT on July 1

The start of the "fall" migration always sneaks up on me. It's hard to believe that birds start moving south so early in summer, but the days are already starting to get a bit shorter :) No worries though...summer has just arrived and we have a few months of warm weather ahead.

 - NB

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Texas - Feb '16

About two months ago I flew to Houston, TX for a medical conference. Before flying home I took some time to get outside and see a few birds along the way. A few photos below.

Mountain Plover

Long-billed Curlew

Common Pauraque

Common Pauraque

Northern Jacana

"McCall's" Eastern Screech Owl

Crimson-collared Grosbeak

Crimson-collared Grosbeak

Greater Roadrunner

Chihuahuan Raven

Audubon's Oriole

White-tipped Dove

Green Jay

White-collared Seedeater

Olive Sparrow

Northern Cardinal

 - NB

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Spring Birding by Boat

Late last summer I purchased a boat of my own, a 20-ft center console, that I have tentatively named "Shearwater." I say tentatively because there is no actual decal on the boat yet, and I reserve the right to change my mind at the last minute if I want to :)

Boating has been in my family as long as I've been alive, so I have been boating and fishing western Long Island Sound for years now (we keep our boats in Norwalk Harbor). But now that I have one of my own, I have the freedom to spend more time birding from it. I can put it in the water earlier in spring, keep it in the water later into autumn, or even trailer it elsewhere if I'd like. Honestly, as far as actual pelagic birding goes, there probably isn't a worse place to keep a boat in New England than western Long Island Sound (we don't even get Wilson's Storm-Petrels on a regular basis). But the opportunity still exists to be out there in case something interesting shows up, like the time we chased this Brown Booby.

This spring I put the boat in the water on April 16th, later than I was hoping due to various schedule and weather conflicts. The following morning Daniel Field and I spent the AM birding the sound between Norwalk and Fairfield. I was hoping that we would run into some plankton-feeding gulls, but that early-spring event had essentially already ended. We did see a decent variety of lingering waterfowl plus an impressive number of Northern Gannets. A few of the birds earlier in the morning were photogenic in nice light (such as the Common Loon below), but by mid-morning the bright sunlight was rather harsh on the water, making photography more difficult (see the gannets).

Common Loon with European Green crab

Long-tailed Ducks

Northern Gannet

Northern Gannet

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Ross's Goose and California Gull

Hey, Stefan Martin just had a really nice few days of birding. On the 19th he and Danny Williams found a ROSS'S GOOSE at Seaside Park in Bridgeport. On the 21st he found a CALIFORNIA GULL at Hammonasset Beach SP in Madison. I saw both of these birds this somewhat expectedly, the other not.

The Ross's Goose continues at Seaside Park, today on the triangular field at the far west end before it flew across the harbor to Black Rock.

Ross's Goose

This evening I stumbled across the California Gull, but not anywhere near Hammonasset. I relocated the bird at the West Haven boat ramp, a good 20 miles straight-line to the west from where it was last seen the evening before. Photos confirm this to be the same individual.

first cycle California Gull
 - NB

Wednesday, March 23, 2016


Here are some photos of the state's first CALIFORNIA GULL found by Stefan Martin at Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison, the current gull hotspot of Connecticut! Huuuge thanks to Stefan for what was simply an awesome find.

 - NB

Monday, March 21, 2016

Two Gulls One Flock ("Short-billed" AND "Common" MEW GULLS)

The annual spring plankton bloom (apparently mostly barnacle larvae) began here in Connecticut a couple weeks ago. This event, which takes place during March through mid-April with varying degrees of intensity, is a magnet for gulls and sometimes waterfowl. Along the rocky central and western CT coast of Long Island Sound the birds sit on the water’s surface and actively pick at the abundant larvae that surround them. I have yet to observe the larvae from a boat, but I have heard from others that the bloom can be impressively thick at times. Sometimes the birds are concentrated in tight flocks, while other times they are rather spread out. These flocks are very mobile and can move west-east or onshore-offshore in the blink of an eye. It is a very hit or miss type of birding. And if you do find the flocks, they may be too far offshore to study closely.

But when you do “hit,” the gull show can be spectacular. With the recent closure of the last bulk-waste landfill in Connecticut, this event is our best shot at large concentrations of gulls in the state. We have no reliable major river roosts (though Southbury along the Housatonic River can be quite good), no commercial fishing industry, and no open ocean. The plankton-associated flocks, however, can be impressive with several thousand birds in view at once during peak activity. Any gull is possible, except probably the pelagic species like Sabine’s Gull and Black-legged Kittiwake. Birders have really caught on to this phenomenon over the past several years and have been working the gull flocks pretty hard. Easily a dozen gull species have been recorded participating in the feast, including Black-headed, Little, Thayer’s, and now three forms of Mew Gull (Common, Kamchatka, and Short-billed). The state’s lone Ross’s Gull, seen in April 1984 at a time of year and location known for heavy plankton feeding, might have taken part as well. Several more species are possible.

The bloom so far this year had produced decent numbers at a few scattered locations, but diversity remained quite low (white-winged gulls in particular have been rather scarce all winter). This began to change over the past few days with a slight uptick in reports of Iceland and Lesser Black-backed Gulls. The Fairfield-West Haven coast had been birded pretty heavily over the past few days, so this morning (March 20, 2016) I decided to look further east, starting with Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison. Straight away I noticed a flock of plankton-feeding gulls directly off Meigs Point. The flock was predominantly Ring-billed followed closely by Bonaparte’s and then Herring. Within an hour I scoped an adult Mew Gull on the water that looked good for “Common” Mew Gull based on first impressions. That bird flew with the rest of the flock towards the other side of the jetty before I could confidently identify it to subspecies. There were a few thousand birds on the water, all now close enough to shore to study quite well via scope. One of the first birds I picked up on was a Mew Gull rather close to shore. This bird looked darker-mantled and was more heavily marked on the head/breast than I recalled from a few moments earlier, but that initial view was somewhat distant and brief, so I thought it more likely that I misinterpreted field marks from a distance rather than there actually being two Mew Gulls present.

Closer inspection of this bird revealed it to be a pretty classic-looking “SHORT-BILLED” MEW GULL (Larus canus brachyrhynchus), also known as North American Mew Gull or just Mew Gull. The English nomenclature can be a bit confusing, so it is much easier to use to Latin names for these forms. The bird was small overall with a particularly long neck and small head. It showed gray upperparts a couple shades darker than Ring-billed Gull, a medium brown iris, a thin greenish-yellow bill with faint subterminal markings, a streaked crown with smudgy brown markings on the neck/breast, and a whole lot of white in the primaries. In particular, p8 had a large white tongue-tip and the trailing edge was quite broad even through the inner primaries.

Folks began to arrive to view the bird, and the more I looked at this pretty obvious brachyrhynchus the more I thought that this was not the first Mew Gull I had scoped earlier. Sure enough, a bit of flock scanning revealed the original Mew Gull, this one an adult “COMMON” MEW GULL (Larus canus canus) of Europe. This bird was nearly in alternate plumage with a white head & breast (save for some sparse crown/head spotting) and a brighter yellow bill. The upperparts were much closer in shade to Ring-billed Gull thus making this the more difficult bird to pick out from the crowd. Its blackish beady eye stood out well on the white head. In flight, this bird showed much more black in the outer primaries including a total lack of white on p8 except for the tip. The white trailing edge narrowed considerably at the inner primaries, a trait that fits the Eurasian forms but not Short-billed Mew.

The two Mew Gulls showed no interest in joining one another. Only for a period of about one minute during several hours of observation did the two birds cross paths. Many birders were able to see both birds thanks in large part to the group of dedicated observers who were constantly relocating them among the always-moving flock. It’s not easy to simultaneously pin down two widely-spaced birds in a flock of a few thousand hyperactive gulls, yet everyone chipped in to get it done.

Mew Gull has occurred in Connecticut eight times, counting these two birds. The first two state records were sight records not identified to subspecies, “Common” Gull has occurred four times, “Kamchatka” Gull once, and “Short-billed” Gull once.

First, the brachyrhynchus:

Possibly third cycle rather than full adult due to small black spots on alula

And the canus:

For one brief moment both birds were in the same frame, albeit rather distantly:

 And a phone shot of birders with part of the mat of gulls feeding off the beach:

[3/21 ADDENDUM: Both Mew Gulls were present again today and were joined by a *state first* first cycle CALIFORNIA GULL found by Stefan Martin while he and a group were searching the flock! Yes, the gulling here at this time of year is very exciting.]

 - Nick