Saturday, October 31, 2009

Vagrant watch

Tomorrow marks the first day of November, which is known as a great month for vagrants (particularly western). It also coincides with the passage of a cold front that has brought about 24 hrs of moderate/strong SW winds to be followed by a light NW wind. This setup at this time of year is known to bring Cave Swallows, Ash-throated Flycatchers, and other western birds to the keep an eye out. It's a fun time of year.

- NB

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Brant update

Regarding last week's BRANT in Norwalk, CT: I have received opinions from two northwestern U.S. Brant experts. Both believe that the bird is likely a GRAY-BELLIED BRANT (the as-of-yet scientifically unnamed population that winters in the Pacific Northwest). The color and extent of the underparts, the shade of the upperpart color, the amount of contrast with the neck sock, and the broken necklace all seem to fit nicely within Gray-bellied Brant.

Very interesting stuff, but there is no way to eliminate an Atlantic x Black Brant hybrid. So it must be left as a probable Gray-bellied. This bird is likely too dark for Eastern High-Arctic Brant.

Several years ago Mark Szantyr photographed a likely GB Brant in Stamford, CT. Take a look at his photo (towards the bottom).

- NB

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Interesting Brant in Norwalk, CT on 10/21

This BRANT (front and center) was among a flock of nearly 300 'Atlantic' Brant (Branta bernicla hrota) that were grazing on the lawns of Veterans Park in Norwalk, CT on 10/21.

Brant are comprised of multiple subspecies. Our typical eastern US subspecies is often called Atlantic Brant (B. b. hrota). Here is a summary of the Brant populations of the world:

- Atlantic Brant (hrota, in part) is the only subspecies that is expected in our eastern US region.
- Eastern High-Arctic Brant (hrota, in part) winters in Ireland. Possibly quite variable in belly darkness.
- Black Brant (nigricans) winters along the Pacific coast.
- Dark-bellied Brant (bernicla) winters in northern Europe.
- Gray-bellied Brant (not currently recognized as a distinct taxon) is a small population that winters in the Pacific Northwest. Highly variable in belly darkness.
**Note that Atlantic and Eastern High-Arctic are combined into one subspecies, hrota. Also, other populations or sub-populations may exist beyond those described here.

The subspecific identification of Brant can be quite difficult, especially when dealing with out-of-range individuals. Here in coastal New England, flocks of Atlantic Brant are quite common, particularly in spring and fall. Black Brant occurs annually as a vagrant to the east coast among flocks of Atlantic Brant. Earlier this year I located CT's first Black Brant in Stratford. The identification of Black Brant is straightforward in most cases due to its distinctly dark underparts and usually complete white necklace.

The trouble here in the East generally lies when "intermediate" birds are seen: those that appear too dark for Atlantic Brant but too pale for Black Brant. The bird in Norwalk, to my eyes, is one of these birds.

So what is it? We can take the list of populations above and eliminate a couple options. First, this bird does not appear to be one of our typical Atlantic Brant due to its dark belly. We can also eliminate Black Brant because, while the underparts are dark, they're not THAT dark. Also, its necklace is obviously broken anteriorly; the necklace of a Black Brant is usually complete. Third, the nominate Dark-bellied Brant of northern Europe can be scratched off the list of possibilities because the flank patches of that subspecies are my online image search I could not find a Dark-bellied Brant with a flank patch nearly as white as on the Norwalk bird.

So that leaves us with three choices:
1) a dark extreme of hrota (Eastern High-Arctic Brant, or maybe even Atlantic??)
2) Gray-bellied Brant
3) hybrid Black x Atlantic Brant
- Note that other hybrid combinations are possible, but Black x Atlantic would be the most likely scenario since Black Brants occasionally show up with Atlantic Brant on the east coast.

The identification of this bird does not appear to be possible (though I would love to be proven wrong!) given our current knowledge. For anyone interested in Brant, Mlodinow and Axelson tackle this very identification problem in an article entitled "Gray-bellied Brant: Identification and Vagrancy" in the May/June 2006 issue of the journal Birding. I used that article for much of the information in this post.

In the article Mlodinow and Axelson mention that many Brant undergo a molt-migration after the breeding season. These individuals move away from the breeding grounds to a different location where they undergo a molt before making their long journeys south. An individual of one subspecies may move to the breeding/staging area of a different subspecies to molt before fall migration. So, it is certainly possible that a Gray-bellied Brant molted with a flock of Atlantic Brant and then proceeded to migrate south with those birds and end up in Norwalk. Unlikely, but who really knows. Gun to my head, I would guess that the hybrid theory is the most likely of the three scenarios above, simply because the occasional Black Brant gets mixed up with Atlantic Brant on the east coast.

Here are some observations about the Norwalk Brant. It appeared smaller than most surrounding Atlantic Brant. Could this be a clue to its identity? Females average smaller than males, so it could be a small female.

left-most Brant

front and center, facing left

Its necklace was bright white but clearly broken centrally. Upperparts were slightly darker than the average surrounding Atlantic Brant. The black neck sock was clearly demarcated from the body, but is not as contrasting as in Atlantic Brant. The bird's belly was a medium gray-brown color that extended back between its legs. The whitish flank patch contrasted well with the dark belly.

stretching wing

left side, bending neck down to feed

Also of note, this Brant did not show any association with a particular adult or any juvenile Brant. At this time of year family groups of geese can often be identified among large flocks because they stick together, with adults guarding their young. In the Norwalk flock many obvious family groups were present, but interestingly this bird was hanging out with many equally unattached adult Brant (which you can actually see in the photos...note the almost complete lack of young birds!).

In short, a very interesting bird. I hope to get some input from the experts. Any thoughts, comments, or corrections would be very welcome.

- Nick

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Hudsonian Godwit at Hammo

A juv Hudsonian Godwit was found today at Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison, CT. Hudwits are increasingly scarce migrants in CT, so I took the opportunity to chase this one.

Digibinned from inside the car.

- NB

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Barnacle Goose, Golden Eagle, sparrows

Birding in bits and pieces can be productive, even though I would have preferred to be in Massachusetts looking at the Brown-chested Martin!

10/11 - Barnacle Goose
Mark Barriger found a Barnacle Goose at a farm in Durham in the late afternoon, and thanks to his prompt reporting I was able to get over there before dusk. Looks were distant, but I couldn't detect any signs of captivity (nor could Mark and Aaron). This bird has not been relocated yet, but few people seem to be trying, probably because of last autumn's chase-able individual in nearby Wallingford.

10/14 - Golden Eagle, record Bald Eagle day, sparrows
I had much of the day off today after a few early hours at school, so I headed over to East Shore Park in New Haven which held many passerines...mainly Yellow-rumps, Palm Warblers, and White-throated Sparrows. Then to Lighthouse Point, where a nice eagle flight was underway. By the time I left around 2pm, a site-record number of Bald Eagles were tallied. The previous record was 15 birds, but today there were about 20 Baldies seen (don't know the final total). The real highlight was an immature GOLDEN EAGLE that provided nice views for the group (surprisingly Julian's first for in the state).

imm Golden Eagle

After Lighthouse Pt I spent some time at the very birdy Wallingford Community Gardens, which held a bunch of sparrows despite the breezy conditions. Highlights were 4 Lincoln's and an adult White-crowned.

Lincoln's Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

- NB

Friday, October 9, 2009


Thursday 10/8 was indeed a good day at Lighthouse Pt, with over 1,000 hawks and a Red-headed Woodpecker seen. Tomorrow (Sat 10/10) is also looking's likely to start slow but pick up as the winds kick around to the NW and the overcast breaks up.

adult Red-headed Woodpecker at LHP

I was able to sneak over to the Veterans Park in Wallingford for 20 minutes today during lunchtime. It was my best alternative to twitching the probable Le Conte's Sparrow seen this morning in South Windsor...something I didn't have time to do. I got lucky and arrived between showers. A good number of sparrows in the community gardens there including 4 White-crowns and 2 Lincoln's, but the real highlight was an ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER, which is a species I've seen very few of in New England. For whatever reason they tend to avoid me.

Orange-crowned Warbler

White-crowned Sparrow

Tomorrow, search for the Le Conte's.

- Nick

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Forecast: Lighthouse Pt this Thursday?

UPDATE 10/7: Tomorrow is still looking good for hawkwatching, but they're calling for clear skies. Bright blue cloudless skies make hawkwatching much tougher on the eyes because the birds do not contrast strongly against the sky...this is why partial cloud cover is preferable. We'll see what happens.
[end update]

Thursday's forecast is currently calling for 15mph winds out of the NW. This is a recipe for a fine day of hawkwatching at Lighthouse Point in New Haven. If there are some clouds in the sky (making for easier viewing), it could be a very good day. I hope to be there, on high alert for Swainson's Hawk, a species I have not yet seen in the east.

Of course the usual caveats apply. The forecast could change, or the birds simply might not cooperate. But as of right now it's looking promising.


Thursday, October 1, 2009

New favorite birding spot?

I've been looking forward to checking out the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Park in Wallingford, CT for several days now. While doing some internet scouting for spots in my soon-to-be new neighborhood I found that this park has community gardens, which is often a recipe for success with sparrows in October.

I made it there late this afternoon and was glad to see gardens, about 75 square yards, thick with plantings, weeds, and seeding grasses. Opposite the gardens were more weeds and shrubs with a small stream running through the middle. John Oshlick put it well when he said it reminded him a bit of the now famous Allen's Meadows in Wilton. If only there was a large weedy-covered dirt mound, it would look incredibly similar. If only it could produce good birds like Allen's...


more gardens

gardens to the left, more shrubs and weeds to the right

small waterway

I think there are trails back there somewhere...

Looking forward to a repeat visit.

And this is what Mackenzie Reservoir looks like right now...plenty of room for late shorebirds.

- Nick

a fun Semi-plover

Milford Pt, CT.....early-mid Sept

A couple interesting features on this bird that otherwise appears to be a normal SEPL.

- NB