Sunday, January 31, 2010

Eastern Screech Owl

Yesterday afternoon's birding along the eastern CT shore was rather slow, but a detour to view a red Eastern Screech Owl on private property was quite nice. Also of note, the "Black" Brant continues in Waterford.

Eastern Screech Owl

- NB

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Ivory Gull Situation

First off, if reading that subject line makes you think of this guy, you're not alone. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, you're a better person than I...

For something like the fourth winter in a row, an Ivory Gull has appeared in the northeastern US. These recent records include Massachusetts (3), Rhode Island (2), New Hampshire (1), New York (1), and New Jersey (1). But there's one coastal state that has been skipped...Connecticut!

The recent discovery of yet another adult, this one in Georgia, combined with all the recent adult records makes one realize that things are not going well for the species in the high arctic. Not that we need circumstantial evidence to see this, because a decline has been well documented. But it starts to hit home when you see the effects first-hand. These birds are likely starving and roaming around in search of food. It's no surprise that they only settle into specific areas when food (fish/bird carcasses) is located.

adult Ivory Gull on freshly fallen snow, Gloucester MA, January 2009

This winter's local Ivory sightings may well involve the same bird. First an adult was sighted in New Hampshire, then on Cape Cod, then on the RI/MA line, and now (as of yesterday) along the eastern RI coast. For us Connecticut birders, this is about as promising a situation (sorry) as we've seen because it's getting closer and closer. But if this bird does continue along the coast to the west, there's no guarantee it will ever enter CT. If it were to reach extreme western RI at Watch Hill, the bird would have two choices. It could either hug the coastline and continue west into Connecticut, OR it could just hop right over to Fisher's Island (NY) and eventually continue to Long Island.

Time will tell. It will take diligent and repeated searching along the CT coast to turn up this bird. We have a really cold snap on its way which should re-freeze some coastal coves, which may help the gull feel a bit more at home.

As of this morning, the Ivory Gull has disappeared in Rhode Island again. I actually was on my way to see it this morning when the snow really picked up and I decided to turn around after seeing a few spinouts on the highway. Good decision. When last seen yesterday evening, it was still a good 35 miles from CT, so it has some flying to do.

- NB

Monday, January 25, 2010

1/24 - "BLACK" BRANT and other eastern CT goodies

"Black" Brant (Branta bernicla nigricans), Harkness State Park, Waterford CT

The past year has been a very good one for unusual Brant in CT. Back in April CT's first "Black" Brant was discovered in Stratford, followed by two possible "Gray-bellied" Brant in Norwalk in the fall.

While searching the eastern CT shoreline for Ivory Gull yesterday I had a few nice birds highlighted by a striking "Black" Brant (B. b. nigricans) that was keeping company with about 70 typical "Atlantic" Brant at Harkness SP in Waterford. First picked up in flight among ~20 Brant, its blackish belly was obvious. It then put down on the water where its white necklace and darker upperparts were seen well. After much time in the water it decided to feed on the lawn, giving fantastic scope views. Phil Rusch, also out looking nearby for IVGU, came over to have a look. Really a sharp-looking bird.

An equally surprising find (given the focus on gulls) was a roosting Long-eared Owl at one of my coastal stops, given away by a few mobbing American Crows. As I approached the ruckus the crows dispersed, and I was able to find the owl hiding in a dense patch of tangles. It actually looked somewhat relieved to see me, not in full alert pose as I expected...perhaps grateful for scaring off the crows!

Long-eared Owl

Phil and I also enjoyed killer views of three uncommon species. First, we located an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull on the icy cove at Harkness with 200+ Herring Gulls.

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Also, two drake Common Eider were hanging out right around the Stonington Fish Pier.

Common Eider; normally rare in CT waters, this is a banner winter with several hundred recently seen

Lastly, two Purple Sandpipers were directly in front of us at the Stonington Pt parking lot.

Purple Sandpiper

No Ivory Gull yesterday, but it was one of those days where we enjoyed fantastic views of several scarce species.

- Nick

Thursday, January 21, 2010

1/20 - Icelands, Glaucs, and a mystery gull (plus a Snowy Owl)

In addition to yesterday's MEW GULL and THAYER'S GULL, James and I had some other interesting birds on the North Shore.

We started off the day at Salisbury Beach State Park with really nothing much to mention. We spent very little time looking for the Sage Thrasher and weren't lucky enough to turn it up though it was seen by others later in the day. Then onto Plum Island where James spotted a Rough-legged Hawk and then a Snowy Owl flying in from the west being harassed by a crow. We had satisfying scope views as we watched the high-flying owl cross Plum Island Sound and drop into the marsh. While on the ground the owl did some curious head-bobbing and seemed on high alert as it looked in all directions. We were anticipating perhaps a pellet regurg or another flight but nothing more developed before we left. At Plum we also had an American Pipit fly by just overhead, Snow Buntings, Horned Larks, a Lapland Longspur and an "Ipswich" Savannah Sparrow. Off Lot 1 were a couple Red-necked Grebes.

Distant views of the Snowy Owl

We then headed for Cape Ann where we concentrated on gulls. Niles Pond was the place to be. Here, in addition to the rarities, we tallied 50+ (!) Kumlien's Iceland Gulls of all ages, 4 Glaucous, and 1 Lesser Black-backed. Including a Black-legged Kittiwake in Gloucester Harbor we had 9 gull species on the day.

first cycle Kumlien's Iceland Gull

The above two images are of a second cycle Kumlien's Iceland Gull, an age that often has a bill pattern like that of a first cycle Glaucous Gull.

first winter Glaucous Gull in the middle of the pack (mostly obscured)

Of course it wouldn't be a day of gulling without a head-scratcher or two. The following bird, about the size and bulk of a medium Herring Gull, had us discussing various possibilities from pale Thayer's to jumbo Kumlien's to hybrid combos. If you'd like to hazard a guess, please do.

all juvenile scaps

Larger than several Herring Gulls

Bigger and bulkier than any Kumlien's Gull present

- NB

1/20 - THAYER'S GULL at Niles Pond

As mentioned in the prior MEW GULL post, James P. Smith and I teamed up for a day on the North Shore, culminating with an afternoon of gulling at Niles Pond in East Gloucester. After not too long we located a classic juvenile THAYER'S GULL on the darker end of the spectrum.

Your typical scope view of the gulls at Niles Pond. An arrow points to the Thayer's.

Darkish mask, dark bill with paling at the base. A hint here of the silvery-white underside of the primaries.

Dark-centered tertials and dark brown primaries with thin pale fringes.

Though we didn't capture any open-wing shots, the bird had a classic Thayer's wing pattern above and below: "Venetian blind" effect on the outer primaries from above, and a silvery-white underside of the flight feathers with thin dark edges to outer primary tips as in this photo by Jeff Poklen. All scapulars appeared to be juvenile feathers. All in all, a rather straightforward Thayer's Gull (if such a thing exists).

- NB

1/20 - MEW GULL at Niles Pond

adult MEW GULL

Yesterday afternoon James P. Smith and I headed northeast for a day's birding along the North Shore of Massachusetts. Our entire afternoon was spent at Niles Pond in East Gloucester, which is a freshwater pond right along the ocean shore that attracts awesome numbers of large gulls, especially when the pond is partially frozen. While the numbers at any one time are impressive enough, there is constant turnover with new birds coming from the ocean and old birds filtering towards the harbor after a bathe and a rest at the pond. It's quite a sight.

I'll spare the narrative and other highlights (incl THAYER'S) for a later post, but long story short our best bird of the day was one of the last. An adult MEW GULL appeared out of nowhere on the ice among the throngs of large gulls very late in the afternoon.

Apologies for the poor images, for which we'll blame the fading light, snow showers, and wind :) All photos are digiscoped and entirely unaltered (except for cropping).

I'm not really sure which form this is, honestly. Not looking right for "Common" Gull, we considered other (both North American and Asian) subspecies in the field. ID complicated by the possibility that this is the same bird seen in the area a month and a half ago. Please leave a comment below with any thoughts/impressions. Please check out James' photos too, which show a hint of the upperwing pattern and one shot behind a Ring-billed Gull.

Expect updates on this bird in the near future.

QUICK UPDATE: The general consensus is that this bird likely belongs to either heinei or kamschatkensis of Asia, with the assumption that this individual was seen multiple times over the course of a couple years along the North Shore. See the MARC Report for details.

- Nick

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Sandhill Crane, Durham CT

Just back from a quick run to nearby Durham to see the Sandhill Crane found yesterday by Joanne Luppi. Too close to home to pass up!

- Nick

Sunday, January 17, 2010

1/16 - possible hybrid gull (first cycle)

[UPDATE 1/21]
Refer to the comments below for updates to this bird, which appears to fall within the range of pure LBBG.

[UPDATE 1/19]
So far I have only heard from one experienced birder; he feels that the bird is most likely LBBGxHEGU and that GBBGxHEGU is pretty much out of the question. I'll post further updates if I hear anything else.

[ORIGINAL POST] A stop at the Pig Farm in Waterford, CT on my way east yesterday yielded a few hundred gulls, one of which was an interesting first cycle bird. The sighting was all too brief, but I was able to get a few photos and then observe the bird in flight.

A few dozen gulls were lined up on a large boulder, all facing me. The bird of interest caught my eye because of its coarsely marked underparts, unlike the uniform muddy brown underparts of your typical first cycle smithsonianus Herring Gull. A closer look revealed a bird the size of a medium-large American Herring Gull with longish legs. Its bill was rather stout and jet black with maybe a hint of paling at the base of the lower mandible, and it had a darker face mask and IMO a rather sloping forehead.

Puzzled, I tried to change my angle to get more of a profile view. At this point the pig feeding was over and the gulls were losing interest as they flew off one-by-one. Sure enough it took flight before I could change my angle very much.

I snapped a couple quick digibin attempts but then focused on watching the bird in flight. In flight the following was notable:
- dark inner primaries, contrasting ever so slightly with the outer primaries (as in first cycle LBBG)
- dark bases to outer greater coverts (visible in the photo below but exaggerated there)
- very pale rump and uppertail, with broad dark tail band (within the broad range of smithsonianus but the tail was not entirely dark)

surprised I got the bird in frame! dark inner primaries and dark bases of outer greater coverts were easily visible in life, but they are slightly exaggerated in this photo

My views and photos were limited, but I think there's enough here to speculate on. My initial thought in the field defaulted to LBBGxHEGU(smith), supported by underparts intermediate in pattern between the two species, a jet black bill, dark inner primaries, long-legged look, and limited white at the tail base. But this was a good-sized bird with a stout black bill and sloping forehead, which actually recalled Great Black-backed Gull a bit, although on a hybrid GBBGxHEGU one would expect a paler inner primary window.

I'm not really sure what to make of it, and the lack of photos of definitive first cycle hybrids to compare does not help the matter.

If anyone has any thoughts, or if I am missing something obvious here, please comment!

- Nick

Friday, January 15, 2010

Southwest trip CANCELED

Well, so much for that. Already packed, I'm glad I just checked the latest weather reports, which included the following statements about the next 7+ days in SoCal and southwest:

Most of SoCal will see 3-6 inches at lower elevations, with perhaps triple that amount in favored areas."

"Since the models are in such truly remarkable agreement, however, and because of the extremely high potential impact of such an event, it's worth mentioning."

In short, the next 2-3 weeks (at least) are likely to be more active across California than any other 2-3 week period in recent memory. The potential exists for a dangerous flood scenario to arise at some point during this interval, especially with the possibility of a heavy rain-on-snow event during late week 2. In some parts of Southern California, a whole season's worth of rain could fall over the course of 5-10 days. This is likely to be a rather memorable event. Stay tuned."

Now THAT is bad luck. Luckily, canceling with American Airlines and Fox Rental Car was entirely without penalty and took a matter of minutes. For once...good customer service without any nickel-and-diming.

I will likely try to reschedule for sometime next month.

- Nick

Off to SoCal and AZ

Tomorrow I leave for 9 days of fun in the southwest. I'll be renting a car and driving my way from San Diego to the Salton Sea through Yuma to Tuscon and lastly southeast AZ. I've been looking forward to this trip for a while, but the current forecast is actually calling for a large and lengthy rain/snow storm in the southwest...just my luck. Even if the weather sucks I'll make the best of it, take some photos, and post my highlights here!

My goal for this trip isn't just to tick and run. Instead, I plan to relax and just bird my way along the route, studying rather than ticking. Of course I'd be glad to tick rarities such as Red-throated Pipit and Rufous-backed Robin, but that's not my focus. In addition to birds I'm looking forward to whatever interesting animals and plants I may encounter. Should be a good time!

- Nick

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Vesper, Harlequin (inland), King Eider

A few more quick hits from the past several days, as I snuck out for some birding between studying, the big exam, and interviews.

Jan 8:
Glastonbury Meadows - Vesper Sparrow

Vesper at left, Savannah at right

Jan 13:
Farmington River - Harlequin exceptional inland find by Sarah Johnston

low-light shot of the Harley

Jan 14:
Hammonasset SP - imm male King Eider, 4 Fox Sparrows

King Eider

Fox Sparrow

adult Sharp-shinned Hawk on a starling

- NB