Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Trumpeter Swans in CT

On Sunday Brian Webster found 2 TRUMPETER SWANS on the Stratford/Shelton line in CT. Thanks to his prompt notification, I was able to view the birds in the late evening. They're the first Trumpeter Swans I've seen anywhere, and these guys were so close to the road that I was able to study them quite well. Don't let the awful photos below fool you (low light is a killer for digiscoping)...the swans were very close and not at all concerned with me watching them. I was thrilled to view them. Thanks Brian for the good find.

Reports will presumably be submitted to the ARCC for review. This is a tricky situation given that the birds' origin is unknown and overwhelmingly likely to be from the Ontario reintroduction project, and incredibly unlikely to be from the retracted original North American populations. More details about the projects are needed. It might be tempting to count this species on my life/state lists, but without more information I am currently not at all comfortable doing so.

If you have seen these birds, and have done some research on their re-introduced populations, please submit a written report to the ARCC. Your contributions are needed!

- NB

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Come to Brazil in October!

For anyone looking to visit the Pantanal of Brazil, I will be co-leading a Connecticut Audubon Society trip to this special location in October of this year. My role will be primarily as CAS escort, while well-known local guide Giuliano Bernardon will provide the expertise on Brazilian wildlife (especially birds by sight and sound).

See the flyer above, and call CAS for a full itinerary! I cannot wait for this trip, which will undoubtedly prove to be an adventure to remember and one heck of a good time!

- Nick

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Quiet time of year

I'm trying here for the same reverse-jinx I succeeded with last year at this time (last time it was entirely unintentional however).

March into April has never been my favorite time for birding. It is sandwiched between mid-winter, when boreal/arctic species such as irruptive finches and raptors are most abundant, and the amazing push of spring migration that begins in late April. Yes, FOY species are trickling into the area, which is getting many birders excited. I enjoy them too, but not quite to the same extent as most. I enjoy birding at all times of year, but this is my least favorite.

Last year I made a blog post saying pretty much the same thing. What followed was an incredibly exciting run of local birds: "Common" Mew Gull, probable Thayer's Gull, Yellow-headed Blackbird, "Black" Brant, and last but FAR from least a Western Meadowlark found and IDed by Tina Green. Each of these records can be referenced in the Mar-Apr 2009 archives on this blog.

I'm generally not a superstitious person, but I'm giving the reverse jinx another try. Hope it works...

- Nick

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Orient Point, NY - Parasitic Jaeger

Glenn Williams, Phil Rusch and I spent a good portion of the day in the New London area in search of storm-blown birds, particularly alcids. The storm of the past two days was intense, packing steady winds of 40-45mph at times with gusts into the 60s! This is nearly Tropical Storm force. Trees fell, thousands lost power, and sadly a couple people actually lost their lives in the destruction.

Our hopes were high for a rarity, but knowing how rare and irregular pelagic birds are in CT waters, we realize that nothing was guaranteed. After wasting the first 30+ minutes of light because the 7:30am ferry was canceled due to high seas, we headed to Harkness State Park in Waterford. Here we didn't have much of note, save for a handful of continuing COMMON EIDER.

Glenn and I decided to head back to the docks for the 11:00am ferry from New London, CT to Orient Point, NY. Our only interesting bird in CT waters was an unidentified large alcid species.

The bird of the day was actually seen while the ferry was docked at Orient Point. Glenn spotted an interesting bird resting on the water at a distance that turned out to be a PARASITIC JAEGER.

Our first views were quite distant and head-on as the bird was on the water. At this point all we could determine was jaeger sp. In early March, Pomarine Jaeger is the most likely jaeger (though still quite rare), so this is what we were expecting. Soon the bird took flight, appearing rather dainty actually, and slowly worked its way closer to us. Despite the wind and fog we enjoyed some really nice views as the bird made short flights right around the docks. It didn't take long to realize we had an out-of-season Parasitic, with the suite of field marks seen...the clinching mark being the thin, pointy central trail feathers well-seen when the bird banked in flight.

a very blurry shot, but my only one showing structure in flight...one would expect broader wings, a more robust body, and dirtier underparts on a Pomarine

to show how close to land it was, you can see the bird in the bottom-right of this photo

- NB

Friday, March 12, 2010

Coastal gull show (and weekend weather)

A now-annual event is currently in full swing in Connecticut: the early spring gull concentration caused by a large plankton bloom in Long Island Sound. To check out the posts from last year, click the label below.

Each year around this time, there is a bloom of some type(s) of plankton along the coast of Fairfield and New Haven Counties, mainly between Norwalk and West Haven. A fantastic concentration of gulls and waterfowl feeds on these minuscule creatures. The gulls, in particular, are impressive. Numbers at single locations have peaked at 10,000 birds!

Last year this event began around March 10 and lasted into April with a peak in the second half of March. This year it began earlier and is already peaking (one would assume, as it is hard to imagine a concentration much larger than the current one).

Yesterday afternoon I went to check things out. I made it down to Short Beach around 2:40pm, not long after low tide. The raw east winds probably contributed to the tide not being very low. The portions of the sandbars that were exposed near themouth of the Housatonic River, particularly on the Stratford side, were covered in about 4,000 gulls. Well in the distance offshore, about 2,000 more were likely feeding on plankton. Unfortunately the birds were too far for close scrutiny, but obvious species such as white-winged gulls could still be IDed. Highlights were 2 ICELAND GULLS (first-cycles) and a GLAUCOUS GULL (first-cycle...not the Long Beach bird). As the tide came in, more birds flew offshore.

This gull event is spectacular and, at the risk of getting a bit too excited, any gull species that has ever occurred in our region is possible right now. As far as reasonable expectations, I have California Gull at the top of my wish list...perhaps surprisingly this species has not yet been recorded in CT. Maybe it's not much of a surprise though...this species is very rare in the coastal northeast.

On another note, coastal New England will apparently feel the brunt of a prolonged storm this weekend. If you're into seawatching, the next few days will provide ample opportunity to view alcids and, depending on where you live, kittiwakes and fulmars. Here in CT we struggle to see even the most common pelagic species. Alcids should be starting to head back north right now, so I think we have a real shot at some alcids in CT waters this weekend.

If you combine both the gull show and the strong east winds, there's a good chance a rarity or two are found in CT this weekend. Of course, it will be difficult for birders to get motivated to leave the house if it's going to rain as much as they're saying.

- Nick

Monday, March 8, 2010


As of today I am a full-time Orthopaedic Physician Assistant (PA). My schedule is a bit irregular, calling for occasional stretches of busy on-call time followed by stretches of off-time. As a result my birding (and posting) will wax and wane. But as I managed during PA school, I will still get out birding often enough!

- Nick

Friday, March 5, 2010

CA/AZ: Red-tailed Hawks of Arizona

We have things easy in the east. I'm no expert on western Red-tails, but while in the southwest I saw a wide range of Red-tail plumages, from light to rufous to dark. I was able to get photos of a few of the birds and figured I would post them here, from light to dark. I saw much more variation than this, but these were the only ones I photographed. Western buteo ID is something I could get into someday, particularly with future visits, but right now I just don't have the time...

- NB

CA/AZ: Juncos of Arizona

During my Arizona birding I spent some time studying the junco flocks. It's not something I planned on doing much of, but once I began to sort through the first flock I was hooked. I'm pretty sure my time spent on Dark-eyed Juncos cost me a life bird or two along the way.

As of right now we have two species of junco in the U.S., both of which occur in Arizona: Dark-eyed (with several subspecies) and Yellow-eyed. This current taxonomic breakdown is a bit controversial among birders. To get an idea about the junco situation, if you are not already aware, check out the ID-Frontiers discussion from a few years ago, sparked by Mark Szantyr and his photos from Connecticut.

In Arizona I observed Yellow-eyed Juncos plus the following forms of Dark-eyed Junco: Oregon, Pink-sided, Gray-headed, Red-backed, and "Cassiar." Cassiar Juncos are intermediate between Oregon of the west and Slate-colored of the east. I'll post images here, form-by-form.

Interestingly, of the dozens of juncos I saw, all but two or three fit neatly into one of the described forms. One of the interesting birds is the Cassiar pictured below, and the other one or two may turn out to be typical first-winter female Oregons once I do some research.

Oregon Juncos:



Cassiar Junco:

Superficially not very unlike our eastern Slate-colored Junco, this bird differed in having a well-defined dark gray hood, a brownish back, and a hint of color to the gray flanks.

Pink-sided Juncos:


On the Pink-sideds, note the blue-gray hood with paler throat, contrasting dark lores, and extensive pinkish sides.

Gray-headed Junco:

Rather gray overall with a red back and pale bill.

Red-backed Junco:

Intermediate in appearance between Gray-headed and Yellow-eyed. Compared to the Gray-headed above, note the bicolored bill and paler underparts.

Yellow-eyed Junco:


Compared to the Red-backed above, note the yellow eye, more extensive red on upperparts (i.e. into the wing), and even paler underparts.

mix of Gray-headed, Oregon, and 2 Yellow-eyed:

- Nick

Thursday, March 4, 2010

CA/AZ: Day 9 (Feb 23) - eastern Chiricahua Mtns and Sulphur Springs Valley

I woke up to 27 degree temps and ice on the car windows. Yesterday's snow levels were above 5500 feet. Willcox itself sits at 4100 ft, so it received only rain. I was worried about black ice on the roads but the puddles had apparently dried up before the temps dropped...gotta love that dry Arizona air.

It was a 2-hour drive to the tiny "town" of Portal. I arrived just before sunup at Big Thicket, just outside Portal, which is known to harbor Crissal Thrashers.

Chiricahua Mountains

had to cross into New Mexico to get to Portal

A local guide and birder named Dave Jasper lives adjacent to the Big Thicket, and his feeders sometimes attract the stealthy Crissal Thrasher into the open to feed. When I arrived the temp had only climbed one degree, and the lack of song indicated that the birds were taking some time to get active.

hey, that's gotta be a good sign

After only a few minutes at his feeders, what hopped out of the bushes but a CRISSAL THRASHER, followed by a second bird!

Crissal Thrasher

I headed up the road to Portal and its one road. This road has a few homes with many hummingbird and seed feeders. With the temp at a measly 30 degrees I wasn't expecting any wintering hummingbirds to be active...that's right about when two BLUE-THROATED HUMMINGBIRDS zipped overhead. I later watched 4 of these big-ass hummers zip around the backyards.

Blue-throated Hummingbirds

Portal's library and post office

The town road was really birdy. A HERMIT THRUSH popped up and posed in fine morning light. I finally got my overdue lifer HUTTON'S VIREOS, and great looks to boot. PINE SISKINS and LESSER and AMERICAN GOLDFINCHES were chattering overhead. I had my first CASSIN'S FINCHES of the trip, another YELLOW-EYED JUNCO, a GILA WOODPECKER, and several other fairly common species.

Hermit Thrush

Cactus Wren

"Audubon's" Yellow-rumped Warbler

My next stop was Paradise, a bit higher in elevation up the east side of the Chiricahuas. As I gained altitude the roads began to show a thin coating of crusty snow, which was actually fine for traction. The problem came when the snow began to melt, turning the dirt roads to muck. My 2WD rental again began to struggle. My first and only TOWNSEND'S SOLITAIRE of the trip was teed up in a juniper along the road.

sloppy roads

The George Walker House in Paradise is a mountainside B&B with fully stocked feeders. The owners happily welcome birders into the yard. Owner Jackie Lewis was sitting on the porch watching the feeders when I pulled up. I inquired about my two targets: Juniper Titmouse and Mexican Chickadee, which had both been reported from the feeders back in December. She informed me that a Juniper Titmouse was making sporadic appearances but they hadn't seen a Mex Chickadee since December. I watched the feeders for over an hour, again keyed in on the juncos more than anything else. I was able to pick out one "RED-BACKED" JUNCO, a form I had not yet recorded.

"Red-backed" Dark-eyed Junco

No titmouse after a while, so I walked up the road in search of them. About a half-mile up the road I found a small flock of 3 JUNIPER TITMICE loosely associating with some "Oregon" Juncos. I would not get my shot at Mexican Chickadee though, simply because my car could not safely get up those roads. Next time I visit AZ, an SUV is a must!

With no shot at the chickadee it was time for more driving, this time another 2 hours to Whitewater Draw outside McNeal. This waterfowl hotspot was on my list for one reason...the gathering of SANDHILL CRANES that occurs here. Numbers in the literature are estimated up to 14,000 birds at this location. On this day I observed about 4-5,000 cranes, which was, by the way, spectacular. The sound was just as impressive as the sight!

a fraction of the Sandhill Crane gathering

A walk along the dike revealed many species of waterfowl including CANVASBACK, REDHEAD, and SNOW & ROSS'S GEESE. Out on the flats were some LONG-BILLED CURLEWS and a RING-BILLED GULL. Just outside the property were two singing "LILLIAN'S" MEADOWLARKS, and a flock of WESTERN MEADOWLARKS were just down the road for comparison. Another GREATER ROADRUNNER was quite cooperative.

Greater Roadrunner

Ross's Goose among Snows

With a couple hours before sunset, I wanted to search the fields north of here for Ferruginous Hawks, which are regular in this part of the valley, sometimes in numbers. The Sulphur Springs Valley is the raptor hotspot of SE Arizona. Over the next couple hours I would see 5 FERRUGINOUS HAWKS and several color morphs of RED-TAILED HAWK (to be detailed in a future post).

immature Ferruginous Hawks

Red-tailed Hawk

view of the Chiricahuas from the west

Yes, this was a lot of driving for one day. Both the Chiricahuas and the Sulphur Springs Valley each require a full day in reality. However my time was running out and I really wanted to see both places today, my final day. It actually worked out pretty well, even though I ran out of light in the valley well before I got to all my desired spots.

The sun sets on my CA/AZ trip.

- Nick