Monday, June 30, 2008

BBC Extreme Pelagic #1, June 28

The 'Helen H' departed Hyannis, MA at 4am on Saturday morning with 75+ eager birders and naturalists aboard. The marine forecast had called for dicey conditions, but the captain predicted a smooth ride. This was a bit of an experimental trip for the BBC. The waters at the edge of the continental shelf have rarely been explored at this time of summer.

Birders search for the first seabirds of the day

Early morning at sea

The hazy morning began with a few scattered Greater and Cory's Shearwaters. Soon we hit the cool waters between Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard where we were smothered by a couple hours of dense fog. As we worked our way south, the water slowly warmed and the pea soup turned into a bright and sunny morning.

Beforehand the leaders decided to head for Atlantis Canyon, which is further west than the usual route. Sea surface temperature maps had revealed warm water there. Before we reached the canyon we encountered our first large flocks of seabirds, with several hundred shearwaters and storm-petrels on the water. We enjoyed the spectacle and scanned for rarities, but we couldn't spend much time here if we wanted to reach the canyon and beyond. As we proceeded south we were greeted by our first MAJOR pod of Common Dolphin. A few hundred of these acrobatic mammals charged the boat at once. They put on quite a display of breaching and bow-riding.

The first of many Common Dolphin

At the canyon we encountered more Wilson's Storm-Petrels and decided to throw out some chum, which brought more birds towards the boat.

Wilson's Storm-Petrels, adults in heavy wing molt

The first Leach's Storm-Petrels appeared. They put in a good showing of over two dozen birds, but they refused to come into the slick (typical of this species). Note the differences from Wilson's, some of which are evident in this photo: long and angled wings, deeper and less fluttery wingbeats, resulting in a nighthawk-like flight.

Leach's Storm-Petrel (click to enlarge)

A pod of Pilot Whales were incredibly cooperative. They loafed at the surface for quite some time.

Pilot Whales (click to enlarge)

Several Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola) were seen in the warm water, including this relatively pale individual.

Mola mola

Our time working east along the edge of the shelf was mainly bird-free. As is typical for pelagic trips, there was a long period with very few birds. At this point we were shooting for quality over quantity. That sought-after rarity never showed itself, and we had to leave the 7,000 foot deep water relatively empty-handed. On our way back north we encountered a spectacular feeding frenzy involving several hundred more Common Dolphin, shearwaters including Manx and Sooty, and storm-petrels.

Greater Shearwater - note the capped appearance

Greater Shearwater

Cory's Shearwater - clean white underparts, dusky head, and straw-yellow bill

Sooty Shearwater

(click to enlarge)

We had to tear ourselves away from this event if we wanted to get home at a reasonable hour (and we were still late).

Vern and Phil relax on the return trip

And back into the fog of the Nantucket Shoals......

Other trip highlights included a subadult Pomarine Jaeger, a few Risso's Dolphins, Humpback Whale, Fin Whale, Minke Whale, and a Leatherback Sea Turtle. It really is a different world out there....

The rarities we had hoped for did not materialize on this day, but many birds, mammals, and fish made this yet another successful BBC pelagic. I've been on deep-water pelagics out of other northeastern states, but none of them produce as consistently good-to-great results as these trips. If you're interested in getting on the July trip, it may not be too late. Word on the street is that a few spots are remaining.

- Nick

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Help...need a car

Allow me to turn this into a wanted ad for a second:

My car died yesterday, and it's looking very likely that the cost will be too much for a 1992 Accord with 250,000 miles on it. If anybody knows of anyone upgrading their old car and looking to sell, please let me know!

- Nick

Monday, June 23, 2008

Summer Doldrums? Nope!

Bird reports really drop off once June 1 rolls around, and they don't really pick up until the first uncommon/rare shorebird is found in late July/early August. Birders call this period the "summer doldrums." As we've seen this year, June is a fun time to be birding because it can be a great month for rarities.

Summer actually happens to be my favorite time of year to bird southern New England. For starters, migration virtually never ends. Northbound shorebird migration fades in mid-June while southbound migration has begun by the 4th of July. Mid-July is prime time for rare Eurasian shorebirds, particularly the stints. Common Terns are beginning to stage at this point, gathering less common species along the way.

Right now I'm looking forward to this summer's pelagic trips more than anything. I've signed up for four out-of-state pelagics between now and Labor Day. Since my schedule changes quite often, I might not be able to make it on all 4 boats, but I'm going to try (even if the grades do suffer just a little bit). This first trip comes this of the BBC trips out of Cape Cod to the edge of the Continental Shelf. I don't think they've ever run a June trip, so I'm not quite sure what to expect, but it'll just be great to be on the water again and see some birds we see only a couple times per year. It will also be an opportunity to attempt digibinning while riding 4-foot swells. Hopefully I can manage a few decent images and put together a trip report here.


Saturday, June 14, 2008

Summer Bird Count

This morning I joined Lee Schlesinger on his portion of the New Haven Summer Bird Count. His area covers most of Orange and a portion of Eisenhower Park in Milford. There were many highlights; may as well start with the most interesting bird.

One of our earlier stops was a small-ish cattail marsh along Meetinghouse Lane, where we had a bird giving a good Alder Flycatcher song at 7:15am. When we returned at 9:05am, the bird was giving the same dead-on Alder song. There was nothing abnormal or Willow-like about this bird's song. I'm thinking that this is probably a late migrant Alder. If it sticks around, I'll try to record and analyze its song...hopefully to confirm that it isn't a Willow singing an Alder-like variation.
Hopefully I'll have more to report on this bird...

Overall I think I added five birds to my Orange list, so I was thrilled. They were: Alder Fly, Willow Fly, Orchard Oriole, Brown Thrasher (multiple), and Green Heron (two). My birding so often takes me to the coast that I rarely bird my own "boring" town, especially in this hot and sticky weather. It was nice to have a reason to get out there.

When I left Lee in the early afternoon, he had tallied somewhere around 75 species for the day. He was going to do a bit more birding around town and elsewhere, so he had a chance to break 80 species for the area. Not too shabby.


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Shorebirds and random thoughts

The spring shorebird migration is definitely winding down now. Numbers are much reduced from 10 days ago, but there is still good variety to be had. I spent the afternoon sweating at Sandy Pt and Milford Pt, tallying 14 shorebird species including a Whimbrel at Milford Pt. Sandy Point held a first-summer Common Tern, my first in this plumage this year.

Birders have noted a few hundred Laughing Gulls at Milford and Stratford, but there are literally just a handful at Sandy Point.

I wish the Mets didn't suck. This team has about as much life as a Tom Glavine fastball.

There were only 5 skimmers at Sandy Pt today, down from 16 a few days prior. Time will tell if any remain in the area to nest.

Our great run of southern and western rarities continues. Today Rollin Tebbetts found a Scissor-tailed Flycather along the perimeter fence at Bradley Airport. This is the first one in CT in several years. I guess I won't be attending my early classes tomorrow....


Wednesday, June 4, 2008

"Western" Willet, Royal Tern, skimmers

Best full species of the day was a Royal Tern at Milford Pt, seen roosting and feeding around the mouth of the river. No photos of that bird; too distant and too brief.

15 Black Skimmers at Sandy Point, several of which were paired off and investigating sites around the tern colony. Hopefully they settle in here for the summer.

Most interesting sighting of the day was of a ratty first-summer Willet at Sandy Point I am calling a "Western" Willet. Structurally the bird looks fine to me for Western. It is overall long and lanky (Eastern is more compact). Bill is long and thin throughout (Eastern bill averages shorter and thicker). If anyone has any thoughts on this bird, please leave a comment below (comments are always welcome on any post, by the way).

"Western" Willet at Sandy Point


Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Black Tern, Pec Sand, White-rumps & camera update

We've reached the first week of June, and right on cue the number of bird reports are dwindling. But as far as I'm concerned, we're still in the middle of the best part of spring migration - shorebirds and terns. Right now certain coastal hotspots are teeming with these birds. This afternoon I walked out Sandy Point near low tide and quickly found a breeding plumaged Black Tern that was loafing around with many Leasts and a few Common Terns. I was able to get reasonably close...close enough to land a few quality photos. Also present were 4 White-rumped Sandpipers.

Black Tern at Sandy Point (several photos throughout this blog can be clicked to see a larger version)

Earlier in the day I stopped into the RR trail in Stratford just after high tide. The marsh was mostly flooded, so birds were scarce, but there was a late Pectoral Sandpiper among a dozen commoners. In another couple weeks we will be calling such birds early fall migrants.

Pec Sand in Stratford

I've now had the brand new Canon A590 IS for about a month now, and I'm finally starting to get a feel for digiscoping with it. Check out the Black Tern shots above, and the Least Tern photo below. Those are my two best shots on the blog I think; they're not bad for hand-held digiscoping. I would certainly recommend this camera to anyone. It's probably the best bang for the buck out there, for those of us on a budget. I bought through Amazon and had the camera with extra memory card within a week for $175 including shipping! You can't go wrong with that, can you? The expert digiscopers are starting to review it as well, with positive opinions so far. I would have to agree. Check out this forum for digiscoping:

In addition to the digiscoping, the ability to 'digibin' is very cool. I've been able to get identifiable shots of warblers in the woods, and it sure helps for documenting a rarity. The Lark Bunting from a couple weeks ago was only in view for 1-2 minutes and I was able to fire off several quick shots. I'm going to have fun with this. So far I suck with flying birds, but some practice should allow me to improve.

It looks like I have much of tomorrow free (I have the week off from school, for once), and I'll likely devote that to shorebirding in the rain if there's no lightening. Here's hoping for a great bird. After that, Kim and I will be spending Thurs-Sun at Lake George, NY. Then it's back to school for the summer...

- Nick