Friday, April 30, 2010

Riverside Cemetery, Waterbury CT

Since I began working in Waterbury I've been thinking of potential spring migration traps that I can check before/after work. One of the spots I wanted to visit was Riverside Cemetery, which lies just to the west of Route 8 and the Naugatuck River. Geographically it has the advantage of running along a river valley, which is a real plus during spring migration. Second, it is a bit of an oasis in the middle of a rather urban setting. It's overall size is not impressive, weighing in at just under 40 acres. Still, it should be enough to hold some migrants.

I made my first visit this afternoon from 2:30-3:30. Most weeks I'm in work too early to bird but the late afternoon is often free, so I'll probably be making several visits between 2 and 5pm. Far from an ideal time, but there should still be some birds. Today I had a small selection of migrants including:

11 Yellow-rumped Warbler
3 Black-and-white Warbler
1 Yellow Warbler
2 Warbling Vireo
1 Blue-headed Vireo

Yellow-rumped Warbler, one of 11 (all males)

The landscape is promising for canopy-loving passerines due to the presence of tall shade trees with a few ornamental spruces scattered around (c'mon Cape May Warbler). There is only limited understory. Two small ponds are present, but they are not surrounded by trees so I'm not expecting anything in the way of water-loving songbirds.

There are some other Waterbury-area locations I want to explore too, but I hope to make semi-regular visits here during May.

- NB

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The flood gates will open

In a matter of a few days, those of us in the southern New England/Tri State area are going to see a slow trickle of migrants quickly turn into a full onslaught. We'll go from seeing mainly Yellow-rumps and Palms to certainly 10+ warbler species (still with plenty of 'rumps and Palms though!).

The spring passerine migration typically accelerates into full swing as the calendar changes from April to May, and this year the weather will exaggerate this rapid change. A slow-moving low has dropped rain on us for the past couple days, backing up birds to our south. The storm is clearing out now, but gusty NW winds will likely keep migration slow until late in the week when winds shift to the SW and we get a shot of summer warmth.

Right now it's looking like tonight will be too cool and windy to promote much migration. Tomorrow night will be a bit warmer and less windy, but still conditions won't be ideal. One would expect Thursday night to be the first night of large movement, and conditions will be even better Friday and Saturday nights.

If you enjoy the spring passerines (and who doesn't), take care of your chores early this week so you can get out and play Friday through Sunday.

As an aside, this weather change will coincide with the best time of the migration period for many southern overshoots. This group includes Prothonotary Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Swainson's Warbler (mega rare), Summer Tanager, and Blue Grosbeak.

- NB

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

East Rock Park's most under-rated spot?

East Rock Park in New Haven, CT is one of the best spring migrant traps in New England. As with many other famous migration spots, such as Central Park and Mount Auburn, ERP serves as an urban oasis for hungry and tired passerines.

If a birder were to visit East Rock for the first time, he/she might not know the best spots among the park's 425 available acres. Two particular trails are heavily birded, while the rest of the park sees much less birder traffic.

The most popular trail, by far, is the "river trail" (on the park map as an Unmarked/Black Trail), which begins at the covered bridge just off Whitney Avenue and runs south along the Mill River. The trail has a nice track record for water-loving rarities such as Prothonotary and Kentucky Warblers (and hopefully someday soon, Swainson's Warbler!!). It is also the best place in the park for the more common Wilson's Warbler, Canada Warbler, and Northern Waterthrush (breeds).

The problem, though, is that the river is on the west side of the ridge, which means that the sun does not hit this path until well after sunrise. The result is that, even on birdy days, you might find yourself working hard for birds.

To be a bit more specific, the habitat along this trail is varied and fantastic for spring passerines. But this is not the part of the park birds generally hit first. Once they find this part of the park, though, they often settle in for several days if weather allows.

The second most popular location is Trowbridge Drive, which is actually a paved road through tall hardwoods and is often more appealing to such species as Bay-breasted, Blackburnian, and Cape May Warblers. The "Archery Field" is a short walk off Trowbridge, which is more likely to hold species like Nashville Warbler, Blue-winged Warbler, and Indigo Bunting thanks to its dry, scrubby habitat. To get to Trowbridge, park at the northern-most parking lot off Davis Street and walk down the paved road at the end of the parking lot. You are now on what birders call Trowbridge Drive, though according to the map this is Famam Drive (technically Trowbridge Dr begins when Famam Drive forks...stay left for Trowbridge and keep right to stay on Famam). At this fork, keep left to officially be on Trowbridge. The bird activity often increases at the fork and beyond.

Most birders visit ERP with the following itinerary: start at the river trail and then move up to Trowbridge if time allows.

In recent years I've grown a bit tired of spending the first hour of daylight along the river trail, seemingly waiting for the new arrivals to trickle down during the morning. Instead I've started at a new location on those mornings I expect a large influx of birds: the Giant Steps.

The Giant Steps is a much more vertical trail that is positioned between the monument and Indian Head. The trailhead is opposite the Rice Field on English Drive. In fact, the most direct route up involves taking a combination of the following trails on the map: solid red, dotted white, dotted yellow. If you continue up the dotted yellow trail, you will ascend all the way up to the monument, which affords spectacular views of New Haven at the very least!

approximate route from the trailhead up to the monument

The advantages of the Giant Steps are twofold. First, it is generally south-facing. For birds heading north over New Haven, the first patch of green they're going to reach is the southern end of the park. Second, it gets sunlight much earlier than the river trail.

I have tried the Giant Steps 1-2 times per year over the past couple years on mornings that I expected to be good, and I have encountered waves of migrants each time, seemingly birds just setting down and drifting northward as they fed. One morning last May was especially notable as I had hundreds of warblers hitting the park early. When I got to the river trail I was surprised to hear several birders say "pretty slow today." Too bad I was the only birder at the Giant Steps that morning!

My current favorite route on migration mornings is the Giant Steps to River Trail to Trowbridge Drive. On mornings during which I expect fewer new arrivals, I would probably start at the river trail to see what birds had settled in there from the previous day or two.

But there's more to be explored. Looking at the park map, I wonder if Indian Head or the Bishop Gate area would be good during the early morning, given their positions more toward the southeastern face.

If I have time this spring I might do some more experimenting with different starting points.

- Nick

Saturday, April 17, 2010

More scope talk

Just back from a visit to Jim & Carol Zipp's store in Hamden, The Fat Robin, where we put a few scopes side-by-side for comparison. I had a nice long look through 3 scopes:

#1) My ol' Swarovski AT 80 HD with the NEW 25-50x Wide Angle zoom eyepiece
#2) Swarovski ATS 80 HD with the new 25-50x Wide Angle zoom eyepiece
#3) Kowa 883 Prominar with 20-60x zoom eyepiece

First off, I was pleasantly surprised that the newest Swaro eyepiece fits my current scope (note: the eyepiece does not lock into place, but it is still very secure). But in direct comparison to setups #2 and #3, this combo did not stand up. The newer Swaro body and Kowa were both obviously better throughout. So much for my cheap idea of only having to upgrade the eyepiece! It's apparent that the optics of my old scope have been surpassed.

Next I put #2 and #3 side-by-side. The weather was overcast but, cloud-cover considered, it was fairly bright. Both images were outstanding. It was immediately apparent that any differences were slight. As the reviews have stated, the Kowa was a touch brighter while the Swarovski's FOV was wider, with the differences most notable at high magnification. I would expect the brightness of the Kowa to really shine in low-light morning or evening situations. With the Kowa at 60x the image is still incredibly bright and crisp.

Kowa cost: approx $2600
Swaro cost: approx $3000 (~$2300 for the body and ~$700 for the eyepiece)
**Note that the Swarovski ATM/STM series, which I noted in my first post about scope research, is $500 more than this combo. The ATM/STM series, as far as I understand, is optically identical to the ATS/STS differs in the magnesium composition of the body, which saves a few ounces of weight. I can't see paying $500 for such a small change.)

Now a bit on digiscoping:
Both brightness and FOV are important when digiscoping, so it appears that each scope has one advantage over the other. Kowa also makes a 25x Long Eye Relief and a 30x Wide Angle fixed eyepiece, which each go for another $340. The Kowa with a fixed eyepiece might give the best of both worlds, as the FOV on the fixed eyepieces is much improved over the zoom. This additional expense would bring the total cost of the Kowa up to that of the Swaro at ~$3000.

Well, I have a decision to make! The good news is that either way, I win :)

Much thanks to Alex Burdo for suggesting that I re-consider the Swarovski ATS/STS line of scopes. You were right on, Alex. They are superb.

- Nick

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Scope talk

Recently I've been considering upgrading my trusty scope, the ol' classic Swarovski AT80 HD. The scope is fantastic and has served me incredibly well over the past 9 or so years.

My first thoughts of upgrading came a couple years ago when I was out in Washington state birding with my friend Ryan Merrill. He had recently purchased the Kowa TSN-884 Prominar ED. One look through that scope and I was hooked....shocked really. I had looked through the newer Swarovski ATS80 HD and the classic Leica Televid 77mm and didn't see much/any improvement over my own Swaro. BUT this Kowa was different...amazingly bright and razor sharp from edge to edge, with such true color.

At that time I was about to begin PA school and was in no position to spend any large amount of money, so I didn't research things further.

Over the past few weeks I've begun researching the scope market to catch up on the latest models and reviews. There appear to be 3 top-rated high-end scopes that pique my interest. I'll write a very brief description of each below. Note that these are based on my online research and not on personal observations. Costs estimates are based on my research and include each model's corresponding zoom eyepiece.

Leica APO Televid 82mm:
Probably the best all-around scope available. Reportedly nearly as bright and sharp as the Kowa with a wider field-of-view through the zoom eyepiece (25-50x). It doesn't zoom up to 60x, which is a zoom level I actually use often, like when scrutinizing feather detail on shorebirds several yards away; so that's a slight detraction.
Cost: $4,000!!! Yeah, you read right. It may be the best of the bunch per the reviews, but by a tiny margin (thanks to the widened FOV). Indications are that it is not worth, for example, $1400 more than the Kowa...

Swarovski's ATM/STM-80 HD:
Swaro's newest version, I'm told this is optically pretty much the same as the ATS/STS line. The difference lies in the new eyepieces, which include a 25-50x zoom that, like the Leica, sports a very wide FOV. Disappointing is the continuing 80mm objective, which has less light-gathering capability than the 82mm Leica or the 88mm Kowa.
Cost: $3,400. Not as much as the Leica, but still a heckuva lot of money...and for a body that is supposedly not much of an improvement at all over the prior model. (If you own the ATS/STS model, perhaps the new eyepieces are compatible with your scope???)

Kowa 883/884 Prominar ED:
An 88mm objective lens delivers likely the brightest images out there with true edge-to-edge sharpness and color. The downside is the smaller FOV as compared to the Leica and Swarovski through the 20-60x zoom. Kowa's best scope ever, by far.
Side-by-side with my 9 yr-old Swaro, the Kowa 88mm provides a markedly superior image. This is not so obvious in bright midday conditions at 20x. But when you crank the zoom up to 40-60x, the difference is striking. The same difference is seen in fading evening light.
Cost: $2600. That's not chump change, but it's much closer to what I'd feel comfortable spending on a scope!

One would assume that the scopes with larger objectives (thus more light-gathering) would greatly aid with digiscoping since lack of light is a real problem with this photographic method (all other things being equal).

So, yes, IMO it would be worth the money to upgrade from my current scope. Given the scopes and prices to choose from, the Kowa 883 (angled) will likely be my choice. I think the Swaro and especially the Leica have out-priced themselves here, especially in the current U.S. economy.

Reviews generally place the Leica and Kowa very close to one another at the top with the Swaro a touch behind.

If anyone has any personal opinions, experiences or reviews, please do let us know.

- Nick

Spring notes

I haven't been birding all that much in my free time lately. I've noticed that I tend to shift my focus to other aspects of life in March and April before spending loads of time outdoors from May onward. In the future this will probably be a good time to do some birding outside of New England, such as getting back to Florida, Texas, or Arizona to see some things I missed the first time around.

I did get out a bit last Sunday. There wasn't much to note really, but it was great to take my first full walks out Milford and Sandy Points in a long while. Soon the sandbars and mudflats will be teeming with migrant shorebirds, but for now just some lingering gulls and ducks are dominating the scene.

Though I'm not much into bugs, I was delighted to see my first Eastern Tiger Swallowtail of the spring while out at Sandy Pt, where the only obvious birdlife was a pair of American Oystercatchers.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

American Oystercatchers

On a different note, while driving home from work yesterday afternoon I was suddenly struck by the amount of foliage that is out already. By looking at the trees, you might think we're in the first week of May rather than mid-April. That will make for more-difficult-than-usual warbler viewing in a few weeks.

- NB

Monday, April 5, 2010

April birds to watch for in southern New England

This unseasonably warm weather has birders, and birds, thinking ahead to the upcoming peak of migration in May. Several early arrivals have been noted in recent days, which is not surprising given the weather.

The forecast for the next few days involves even warmer temps and a stiff southerly breeze, which should mean more early birds and perhaps a few overshoots.

Here are some ideas:
- Swainson's Warbler (learn the song if you don't already, and distinguish it vocally and visually from the waterthrushes)
- Prothonotary Warbler (one each already in NY and MA)
- Yellow-throated Warbler, Summer Tanager, Blue Grosbeak, and early Indigo Bunting
- Swallow-tailed Kite (already a handful of overshoots as close as northern New Jersey)
- Wilson's Plover
- Black-necked Stilt
- Loggerhead Shrike

Another possibility may be Anhinga, but this is one of the more under-appreciated ID problems out there. Single northbound DC Cormorants are often seen soaring high in the sky at this time of year, prompting false Anhinga claims. Many birders are not used to seeing a lone cormorant in full soar with tail spread wide.

Overshoots are not the only unusual birds that can be found in April:
- Fieldfare or Redwing (still not too late! check the robin flocks!)
- Little Gull, or if you're really lucky...Ross's Gull
- Garganey
- Bar-tailed or Black-tailed Godwit
- Ruff
- White-faced Ibis
- Smith's Longspur

Well there are some ideas. Some are likely, such as Little Gull...while others are quite a reach, i.e. Fieldfare. Whether you enjoy the prospect of rarities or the idea of seeing the first colorful spring passerines, you'll probably enjoy being out birding this week.

- NB

Easter morning on the Housy

Yesterday (Easter) morning my brother and I took out his 20' Seacraft for the first time this year. We didn't have much time before we had to be back for family Easter stuff, but we couldn't resist taking advantage of the great weather. From the Birdseye boat ramp in Stratford, we headed a bit upriver in search of Striped Bass. We spent about an hour and were able to muster a single fish.

my brother Andrew with his first fish of a year, a striper

Of course I was just as interested in the birds as the fishing, but things were quiet along that part of the river. A pair of Osprey were entertaining as they followed each other around with fish in tow. Otherwise, about 5 American Coot continue at the boat ramp itself.

- Nick

Thursday, April 1, 2010

April Foolishness

April Fools Day is a perfectly appropriate time to take advantage of gullible people like myself.

A trend has developed over the past couple years involving the internet birding community. In recent years, on April 1, someone on at least one listserv has made a silly post about a false bird report...generally something far-fetched and of no immediate consequence to birders, such as the discovery of an amazing new hummingbird in Belize...or about penguins found to be flying/migrating.

It's all in good fun.

But the line has to be drawn somewhere. This year, a few fools took it too far. A good, credible birder in Rhode Island reported a Northern Lapwing on Block Island. Predictably, folks all over the northeast began to change plans for the holiday weekend in order to view this magnificent bird. I was included. I immediately called my girlfriend and told her that we were going to Block Island for Good Friday. Luckily I didn't cancel other plans or make any reservations...because it was all a hoax. Just a piss-poor April Fool's joke. But others weren't so lucky. Multiple individuals had already altered their schedules and even BOOKED PLANE TICKETS for this afternoon or tomorrow morning. Then the news broke that the reporter was full of shit.

That's pretty bad, but he wasn't the only one. Birders in Cape May also falsely reported a few mega-rarities. These were more far-fetched, but Cape May has a proven track record of turning up some off-the-radar birds during migration.

Consider this a plea to these people to STOP the bullshit. You're not funny. I'm all for a good off-color joke, but nothing about falsifying a bird report is literally funny. When news broke about the Lapwing being a hoax, how many people do you think laughed? Probably not very many. All you were doing was messing with people. And along the way, you inconvenienced many people. Nice job.

- Nick