Monday, April 10, 2017

CT Bobcat!

While birding up near the MA border in Norfolk, CT yesterday I was surprised to see this BOBCAT running directly towards me on a paved road. The cat paused to check me out for a moment before scampering into the woods. Definitely an unexpected sighting, especially in the middle of the road at 10am!

subtle spotting on the legs

I think this is about my third New England Mountain Lion...err...I mean, Bobcat, in CT. They're generally secretive, and they must be more common in the northwest corner than where I usually hang out near the coast.

My first CT Black Bear still eludes me, however!

 - NB

Monday, April 3, 2017

Plankton & Gulls by Boat

For some time I've wanted to get on the water to experience the annual Long Island Sound gull-plankton phenomenon, but I never really had late winter access to a boat until 2016. Still, last year I was a bit late and didn't get in the water until mid-April, which ended up being a few days late for the event.

This year was looking no better with a late-season blizzard and marina construction, both out of my control. But we got lucky with a break in the weather on a weekday I was was too good an opportunity to pass up. So I trailered the boat to the Birdseye Street ramp in Stratford for some LIS gull searching on Thursday morning (March 30th).

Joining me were Virginia Parker, Larry Flynn, Frank Mantlik, and Tom Robben...the latter two representing the Connecticut Ornithological Association's Research Committee. Tom and Frank brought plankton collection equipment in hopes of finding a flock of birds in the act of feeding. We were hopeful despite the low numbers of birds seen in recent days.

The Housatonic River held many COMMON LOONS in various stages of molt, which seemed to be feeding on crabs. I've seen them feed on European Green Crabs at this time of year, and these seemed about that size. The waters off Stratford Point were home to many SURF SCOTER and LONG-TAILED DUCK. We turned the corner towards the mouth of Bridgeport Harbor and spotted exactly what we were looking for - a raft of gulls picking at the surface.

The flock consisted mainly of RING-BILLED GULLS with lesser numbers of HERRING and BONAPARTE'S. Our estimate of 60 "Bonies" was encouraging, as this has been a down year for these sprightly birds. Total gull numbers reached 2,000+. This is actually a modest number for the date in this area; peak numbers in past years have reached over ten thousand.

part of the gull flock between us and the Bridgeport (CT) -Port Jefferson (NY) ferry

part of the ever so scenic Bridgeport coast in the background

Bonaparte's Gull (photo by VP)

Bonaparte's Gull (photo by VP)

Bonaparte's Gull (photo by VP)

Bonaparte's Gull (photo by VP)

Tom and Frank broke out their nets and we did a 5-minute tow through the heart of the flock in hopes of picking up whatever they were eating.

Tom monitoring the net being towed (photo by FM)
Tom and Larry
Larry handling the transfer

Very pleased with our plankton success, we decided to make a quick run further west to see if we could turn up other, larger flocks. We made it as far as Penfield Reef off Fairfield, not seeing much of anything, before we turned around to head back to that flock off Stratford. We were able to relocate the birds, though less concentrated this time. An adult "Kumlien's" ICELAND GULL stood out among the crowd.

"Kumlien's" Iceland Gull

We headed for the dock, but not before a quick check of a Greater Scaup flock off the Milford coast. Note to self: scaup do not like boats.

Greater Scaup

Tom took the plankton samples to UConn for analysis - please check out Tom's blog entries for updates and photos. Long story short, we pulled in lots of barnacle larvae (cyprid stage), copepods, and diatoms. Given that these gulls are calmly sitting on the water and constantly plucking at its surface, is it obvious to me that this plankton is what they are feeding on. If they were going after something more active, such as bait fish feeding on the plankton, their feeding behavior would be drastically different (and they would be seen pulling up larger prey).

This was a lot of fun for all of us, and I am grateful for Tom and Frank bringing their research gear on board. Extra thanks to Tom for pursuing the lab results and sharing them with us. I'm looking forward to doing this again...if not again this year before the show is over, then certainly next year.

 - Nick

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Mar 28 - New Hampshire

Virginia and I went on a quest to find her life SNOWY OWL, and the closest reliable bird(s) seemed to be along the New Hampshire coast. We targeted the Hampton Harbor area, where 1-2 Snowies had been seen recently. After an hour or two or checking marsh, beach, and jetty on both sides of the harbor, we stumbled across one perched atop a telephone pole along the main road to the south. Seemingly oblivious to passers-by, the bird kept a casual yet authoritative watch over its territory.

Snowy Owl (photo by VP)

With our quest met with such success so early in the day, we figured we would target a few other birds in the area that we wanted to see. Also in the neighborhood was an adult GLAUCOUS GULL, a big bruiser of a male it would seem, that has been wintering here for several years now. Much like the Snowy Owl above, it seemed to lord over its favorite parking lot along the harbor front.

adult Glaucous Gull
Our next move was to briefly jump over the state line into Massachusetts and drive through the campground at Salisbury Beach State Park, where RED CROSSBILLS had been seen in recent weeks. Without much effort we spotted a vocal flock of 18 circling over the pine-laden campground; we followed them until they landed and began to feed.

Red Crossbill

They were quite vocal, and I did record them. They sounded most like Type 10 in the field, but I have not analyzed anything yet. I will post later, or just amend this one, once I have.

It was not yet noon at this point, and the approaching rainstorm had not yet arrived, so we decided to
make a run inland towards the GREAT GRAY OWL that has been seen in southern New Hampshire for the past few weeks. We made a few detours along the way to search for Bohemian Waxwings, but we were unable to find any between the coast and the town of Newport where the owl was being seen. We were met with quickly deteriorating weather conditions in Newport. Luckily upon arrival we ran across a local birder/photographer who showed us exactly where the owl had been seen the previous night, which was key because the bird had moved around the neighborhood quite a bit since its discovery. We decided that with the worsening weather we would do two "loops" through the neighborhood before heading out. Not long before leaving we crossed paths with a few birders from Long Island and exchanged contact info, all of us aware that it would take some work to find the bird and we seemed to be the only ones looking. No surprise there - it was really starting to rain. Virginia and I were stopped for gas on our way out of town when the phone rang...they had found the bird where it was last seen the night before(!). It was still there, sitting atop a fence post, when we arrived.

The owl seemed unfazed by the rain and was clearly in hunting mode. It was actively searching for prey from that post. Something caught its attention at one point, and it flew to the ground, only to reappear on the post a few moments later with a massive vole in its bill. A quick stab to the back of the neck before tossing it down in one quick shot. Very cool to see.

Great Gray Owl
We left the bird hunting happily in the rain.

Our afternoon search for Bohemians would be cut short by the heavy rain, but no matter. Have to leave something for next winter!


Monday, March 20, 2017

*Happy Mew Gull Day 2017!* - Kamchatka Gull and Thayer's-type thing

Happy Mew Gull Day, everybody. My new favorite holiday, just edging out Festivus.

I realized last year, after a two Mew Gull day, that all three Mews I had found in CT happened to fall on March 20th. Weird. So this year I made a point of gulling on the same date. Fully aware that I was introducing observer bias,  I was still shocked when one appeared. And the kicker - of those four March 20th birds, three subspecies have been involved (two canus, one brachy, one Kam). I didn't look any harder for Mew Gull today than I do on any other gull excursion, of which there are many at this time of year...yet today was still the day I ran into one. Pretty great coincidence.

I actually think this might be the same Kamchatka Gull from April 2015 (which, as it turns out thanks to photo review, had been seen on Nantucket earlier that winter and likely the winter before too! So cool to track vagrants like that.). At first glance it looks pretty identical overall, except that it lacks the pinhole mirror on its left p9 and has a paler iris. These are things that could change with age, one would assume. I'll have to take a closer comparison look later.

This flock wasn't particularly large - just a few hundred birds or so that were filtering in from feeding offshore, presumably on surface plankton as they do this time of year. These plankton-seeking flocks are very mobile. The bird, along with a few of the Ring-bills, took off down the beach and around the corner. Despite alerting local birders immediately, nobody was able to relocate it.

The lighting conditions this morning at Russian Beach in Stratford, CT were brutal. Everything was either backlit or side-lit with bright sunlight. You will not see any pretty pictures here. Judging shades of gray via photo will be even harder than in the field, and it was no picnic in the field either. The slightest change in angle relative to the sun made such difference. I made a point to not correct anything in the images below, unless noted in the caption.

Just before the Kam Gull I had an adult dark-winged Thayer's-type.  Not sure where to draw the line on adults of these birds (however they are related...). Comments welcome as always. There are images further down. First, the Kam.

Overexposed a bit. Darkness of saddle was washed out by the harsh sunlight -it stood out like a sore thumb from the RBGU on mantle shade alone. Tertial crescent really popped. Bill bright yellow and unmarked. Legs bright yellow. Iris was brown and clearly contrasted with pupil with scope views. Coarse streaking to head and neck that extended onto and across breast; breast markings were distinct (as opposed to the smudgy wash of brachyrhynchus)  and had a horizontal blotchy and barred look to them. Forehead slopes into somewhat strong (but not monstrous) bill for a Mew, imparting a snouty look. Body not slim or petite as you would expect in canus or brachyrhynchus.

Gives some idea of the heaviness and blotchiness of the neck and breast streaking. Bird seen head-on briefly in scope, as it shuffled on a rock, to study quality and extent of breast markings but not photographed in that pose.

Note how the broad secondary trailing edge narrows at the inner primaries, a feature of the three Eurasian Mew Gull subspecies

Subject bird at upper left. Best I could do via photo with comparing upperpart shade to RBGU.

Subject bird at center, with RBGUs in frame for comparison

Wish I had gotten more representative (AKA better) photos, but I think the salient features are still obvious, except for the center of the breast. This bird checked the big Kam Gull boxes nicely, though they do get more monstrous and larger-billed than this. Perhaps a female. In brief, heinei in this plumage would show a flat crown and a very white head with pencil-thin streaks across the hindneck, per the excellent Dutch Birding article by Adriaens & Gibbins. That form can be ruled out. Canus and brachyrhynchus ruled out pretty easily as well on a suite of structural and plumage features.

Since you're here, how about this harder one? Thayeri or kumlieni? I go back and forth on how we should treat this identification, and at this moment I'm not feeling strongly either way about birds like this. I might put more thought into this right now if not for it hardly being the bird of the day.

Subject bird at left. Direct sunlight on folded primaries and it still was very dark. Next to adult HERG.

Pale amber eye

Shadows lightened in this photo; more for structure and coarse pattern of head/neck/breast markings than anything

Shadows lightened in this photo; more for structure and coarse pattern of head/neck/breast markings than anything




I don't think I'd go so far as calling the primaries matte black from above - I think a very dark gray would be more accurate(?). Again, tough with the complete lack of neutral lighting conditions. A good Thayer's, if such a thing exists, or no?

 - Nick

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Barrow's Goldeneye - Madison, CT

A drake BARROW'S GOLDENEYE is wintering in the Tuxis Island, Madison area for the third year in a row. Yesterday I finally went to take a look for the first time this winter. After scanning offshore from two vantage points and not seeing it, we found the bird very close to shore while driving the coastal road. A treat to see this locally scarce species so well.

Barrow's Goldeneye
 - NB

Thursday, March 16, 2017

CTYBC Gull Trip

On Sunday March 12th four very hardy and intrepid members of the Connecticut Young Birders Club joined me for a full day of gulling along the Connecticut coast. We should be approaching peak gull diversity over the next few weeks thanks to the annual late winter/early spring Long Island Sound plankton bloom, an event I've mentioned so many times here. During the first two weeks of this year's event numbers have been building but diversity has been very slow to follow. This is often the case during the first half of March. Diversity usually peaks, I'd say, between March 20 and April 10 or thereabouts. So far this season Lesser Black-backed Gulls have yet to make any migratory push through the region as only the known wintering adults have been reported, and all white-winged gulls have been unusually hard to come by. It seemed to be a down winter for first cycle Iceland Gulls in CT, so perhaps that shouldn't be of much surprise.

Anyway, on this day the weather felt more like January than March. While we didn't have to deal with any snow (this was the calm before the blizzard), temps were cold and a brisk wind did not help. That didn't keep us from a really interesting day of gull study.

In the end we recorded six gull species on this day. In addition to the three guaranteed species (Herring, Ring-billed, and Great Black-backed), we had two Bonaparte's Gulls (these should become much more numerous in a matter of days), four Iceland Gulls, and one Lesser Black-backed Gull.

Adult "Kumlien's" Iceland Gull at Seaside Park in Bridgeport:

with Herring Gull

Iceland Gull

Adult Lesser Black-backed Gull at Burying Hill Beach in Westport:

Lesser Black-backed Gull

We also had two very interesting Ring-billed Gulls - one young bird with a Common Gull-like feel to it, and one "white-winged" adult with very little black in the primaries.

First, the Common Gull mimic. This bird stood out among a flock of ~500 Ring-bills by its tiny bill, more rounded head, slight frame and thin legs. We studied this bird for a while, and I really struggled with it. The flock left the beach to feed offshore and we never did see or photograph it in flight. Despite the structural similarity to "Common" Mew Gull, I really think that this was just a runt Ring-billed Gull. While not terribly apparent in the photos, the incoming scaps were every bit as pale as on the surrounding Ring-bills, and most were fringed in white. These two features are pro-RBGU and I think are key on this bird that was otherwise lacking in plumage clues. The wing coverts were rather worn/faded and of little help, and we never got a look at tail pattern. I'm happy to receive comments on these photos.

We spotted this adult Ringer and noticed that it had a huge amount of white to the folded wingtip. Flight views of the wing were impressive.

at right

"white-winged" Ring-billed Gull

Toward the end of the day we found ourselves at Southport Beach in Fairfield, well-known low tide gull roost, especially for Bonaparte's Gull flocks as April approaches. While there weren't many gulls on this day, young birder Aidan Kiley had found a PINK-FOOTED GOOSE here the day before. It was still there when we arrived. A nice way to wrap up the day!

Pink-footed Goose
young birders photographing LBBG

  - Nick