Tuesday, July 20, 2021

I'm Back, Baby! With Trip Reports! How's that for click bait?!

After a very bird-centric 2019 and 2020, I really needed to take a break from the local birding scene to regain some much-needed balance in my life. That Connecticut Self-Found Big Year in 2019 was an endeavor, so I was looking forward to normalcy in 2020. Well, we all know how that went. Turns out, outdoor activities such as birding were the perfect antidote to lockdowns and quarantines, so it was back into the field for 2020! Don't get me wrong...I am eternally grateful to have had a hobby like birding to serve as an outlet during the height of the ongoing pandemic. But after two years of so much local field time, I badly needed a respite.

One of the perks of working as a hospital-based Physician Assistant through the whole ordeal, other than keeping me sane with daily human interaction, was my immediate access to the COVID-19 vaccine. I received my second shot on January 5th.

Two weeks later, I was good to go.

Florida in January, Alaska in March, and Texas/Arizona in April.

I refrained from posting those trips here for a couple reasons. First, social media was ripe with travel shaming from all the self-righteous woke morons that roam the internet these days. Didn't need any of that. Second, I did not want to gloat about vaccination status with so many folks at the time patiently waiting for their age group to become eligible for a shot.

So, without further ado, here are the snappiest trip reports you'll ever read.

Florida Keys - January
Equal parts birding, fishing (bonefish!!), beaching, and eating/drinking. Unbelievable feeling after a very long year. Also incredibly bizarre to be among the first batch of lucky vaccinated people traveling again. A scene I will not soon forget.

Highlights: Cuban Pewee and Black-faced Grassquit
Lowlights: hours wasted searching for PITA Red-legged Thrush

Cuban Pewee

Black-faced Grassquit

Alaska - March
Why visit Alaska in March? For starters, daylight is very reasonable as the equinox approaches, and winter birds have not yet departed. We're talking hundreds of Emperor Geese and dozens of Steller's Eider on Kodiak Island. It is definitely worth a look for the adventurous and curious winter birder.

Highlights: said Emperor Geese and Steller's Eiders. Also McKay's Bunting! (still a species...fuck off, lumpers!)

Slaty-backed Gull

Steller's Eiders

Emperor Geese

Texas & Arizona - April
What do you do when your trip to Big Bend is derailed by a wild fire? You keep your flight to El Paso, but drive west to Arizona for some quick and dirty twitching. Lucifer Hummingbird, Northern Jacana, Black-capped Gnatcatcher, Rose-throated Becard, and Buff-collared Nightjar all bagged in less than 36 hours.

That was a bit too efficient. What to do with the rest of your time??

Well, we drove back eastward to Big Bend, knowing that the classic Colima Warbler trails were closed, took a shot at the Laguna Meadows trail where Colima is far from guaranteed, and enjoyed prolonged views of a singing male. Everything was coming up Milhouse!

Big Bend National Park


Locally, I've kept my promise of generally not birding at all, save for our annual Connecticut Big Day in May, for which we raised a nice amount of money for the Roaring Brook Nature Center in Canton, CT. Our total was 192 species, one shy of our record.

Until next time, whenever that might be!(?)

 - Nick

Sunday, March 21, 2021

possible Sooty x Red Fox Sparrow in CT

Back on January 3rd, while doing the Old Lyme Christmas Bird Count, I came across a lone Fox Sparrow on private property in Clinton that struck me as odd for our usual iliaca "Red" Fox Sparrows in that it had quite a bit of gray on the head and seemed to be lacking much in the way of rufous tones to the body. I did snap a few photos, but the encounter was rather brief and I really could not afford to spend much time with the bird if I wanted to complete my CBC territory. I decided I would come back for it another day.

On the afternoon of the 5th I scattered seed on the ground beneath the bushes in which it was initially seen and returned to the site on the morning of the 6th to find that the local thicket birds had indeed already discovered the seed. Initially present were two Fox Sparrows. Both were standard Eastern fare. Then three. Then four. But nothing out of the ordinary. By this point I was beginning to question the initial sighting, wondering if lighting conditions had something to do with that first impression.

Finally, while watching the seed plot naked-eye, a grayish-brown Fox Sparrow popped into view. Noticing how different this bird appeared even without binoculars was quite telling. A closer look confirmed that this was the sparrow I had seen a few days prior.

I was able to watch and photograph the bird on-and-off for a couple hours, sometimes in direct comparison with the iliaca Reds. I noted the following:

1) Colder/browner/grayer overall (brown was the predominant color impression). Even in sunlight, and comparing apples to apples in the field with iliaca, this bird lacks the same warmth of typical iliaca, both above and below. This includes a reduced creamy wash to the upper breast, which is extremely subtle on this bird. It is just not a very rufous bird overall, even where brightest at the base of the tail, no matter the lighting conditions.

2) The head pattern is grayer and more muted. Iliaca pretty consistently shows rufous auriculars set off by a gray supercilium and nape, and a crown with coarse rufous and gray streaking. This bird's gray bleeds smoothly (not coarsely) into the crown and into the auriculars (on the left side greater than the right, I believe).

3) The back is streaked, though this is muted and cold relative to iliaca.

4) The rear flanks are blurry and have a light brown background color to them. Some iliaca have messy rear flanks, but the background color remains white or off-white.

5) Pale wing covert tips were not very strong, though this is quite variable in iliaca based on wear etc, The photos illustrate just how different this feature can appear from image to image based on angle and lighting.

After researching zaboria (i.e. western/AK-breeding Red Fox Sparrows), they generally differ from iliaca in having more extensive gray to head and back and may be a bit duller rufous overall, but are otherwise quite similar to the iliaca we see here, complete with strongly patterned back, variably pale wing covert tips, and lack of muddy flank background color.

This bird's colder and browner tones combined with the brown background color to the flanks recalls Sooty Fox Sparrow influence and seems outside the range of what is seen in 'pure' zaboria.


Here are some of the iliaca Reds that were also on site:

And here are some direct comparison shots, as close to apples-to-apples as I could get:

I am not married to this ID, but I do think it fits best. Outside input has varied from Sooty x Red to 'altivagans' (a bit of a mystery taxon, likely Slate-colored x Red) to zaboria Red to 'no idea', highlighting the difficulty of intergrade/oddball Fox Sparrow ID on the wintering grounds.

A consulted FOSP researcher suggested the following: "Yes, this bird looks well within what I'd consider could be produced from intergradation between coastal sinuosa [Sooty] and interior [Red], intergradation that I know occurs in south-central Alaska."

I am reasonably comfortable ruling out zaboria Red for the reasons noted above, but beyond that my confidence wanes. It seems highly likely that this bird is from a contact zone somewhere out west.

 - NB

Friday, January 1, 2021

adult Glaucous x Herring Gull (hybrid)

While gulling in the Hartford area this afternoon I noticed a hefty adult Iceland Gull flying in - or so I thought. A closer look at the perched bird and I quickly realized that this was actually a hybrid Glaucous x Herring Gull, a bird I don't often see around here, especially of this age.

What jumped out first, other than the sturdy structure of the bird, was its staring pale lemon yellow eye. Scope views confirmed that there was not a single dark fleck to the iris, which is something that you'd expect to see in our "Kumlien's" Iceland Gulls. The orbital ring was yellow-orange, not reddish. The fine streaking on the crown and nape was not typical for Iceland Gull either, which usually shows a blurry/smoky pattern.

Glaucous x Herring hybrid

first cycle "Kumlien's" Iceland Gull

 - NB

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Year-End Notes

Well, there's no denying that relative to other years in memory, 2020 was mostly a bag of shit. But there is hope for a much better 2021, despite what is guaranteed to be a rough start. The vaccine rollout signifies what is very likely the beginning of the end of this pandemic. Also, here in the U.S. we will be welcoming a President that will almost certainly make our country and our world better off in many ways. So let's drink to that tonight!

On the local bird front, I have ended the year with a goose search, one more northwest finch tour, and a couple CBCs (one more to go).

As I have been focusing some on my state Self-Found list, the "rare goose" section shows a pretty massive gap. I have yet to find my own Barnacle, Pink-footed, or Ross's in Connecticut. My own town of Wallingford was formerly a bit of a mecca for rare geese, but that all changed about the time I moved here some 11 years ago. My theory is that it has something to do with the declining role of agriculture. Most fields that were planted annually are now left alone, leaving very few plots with food for the geese. It is probably not a coincidence that goose numbers and variety have plummeted with the exception of an occasional migrant flock.

So recently I have been venturing further from home in search of geese, so far with plenty of Greater White-fronted, Cackling, and Snow Geese to show for it. A tour along the upper CT River Valley on the 10th had one CACKLING and one SNOW.

"Richardson's" Cackling Goose

Though finch reports have been sparse the last few weeks, I ventured to the NW corner of the state on the 23rd and was lucky to encounter 4 PINE GROSBEAKS near the Great Mountain Forest headquarters in Canaan. They have remained in the area for several days and have been seen by many birders. Other than redpolls at a few locations, it was pretty quite up there. We're always talking quality over quantity in Litchfield County during winter.

Pine Grosbeak, playing hard-to-get high in the conifers

Several of us took a ferry ride on Christmas Eve and enjoyed several Razorbills.


On the way out of the harbor, we spotted Santa getting in some training time before the big day

This year marked the second annual Norwich Christmas Bird Count, and I took the "South" section once again. This time, having worked out many of the kinks from the inaugural run, I tallied 67 species in my section. Highlights included VIRGINIA RAIL, MARSH WREN, 8 flyby EVENING GROSBEAKS, and this Cassiar-like Junco.

"Cassiar" Dark-eyed Junco

Happy New Year! Stay safe. And whenever you're offered the vaccine, please do your part to end this pandemic by taking it.

 - NB

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

First cycle "COMMON" MEW GULL in New London, CT

When seen in Connecticut, Mew Gulls are pretty much always seen in the company of Ring-billed Gulls. So I was not expecting to find one at a tiny beach near the mouth of the Thames River where a whopping six Herring Gulls were resting. And yet that's exactly what flew in soon after I hopped out of the car for a quick scan of the river.

Coming right at me, I picked up on a medium-sized gull and stayed on it until it banked slightly, revealing an upperwing that was very low-contrast for a Ring-billed and a starkly black-and-white tail.


The bird landed in the water not far from the beach and had an obviously tiny, round head with an even tinier bill. It was a slam-dunk Mew Gull of the European subspecies canus. No trouble determining the subspecies of this one!

I had been keen on finding a first cycle Mew Gull locally, as all prior records were of adults or nearly so. So I was pumped about this one.

Luckily it stuck around long enough for me to grab the camera and get some shots. It lazily flew around the adjacent marinas for nearly 10 minutes and appeared quite settled-in, landing a few times, so I figured it would be relocated with relative ease. Wrong! It was not seen again the rest of the day, but it could absolutely still be in the area.

first cycle "Common" Mew Gull, L. c. canus

Also on site was this smart adult Lesser Black-backed Gull, a returning bird to the area for a few winters now

 - Nick