Tuesday, September 28, 2010

An interesting storm track

Anytime a tropical system so much as brushes us, no matter how weak, it is reason to be alert for birds that may be displaced or grounded by the storm. For example, Tropical Depression 16 currently lies south of Cuba. It may become a minimal Tropical Storm (Nicole) and is currently forecast to ride up the East Coast, possibly passing just to our west as a weak extratropical low.

Sure, the intensity of this storm is not impressive, and it is very disorganized. But its track is interesting: currently in the Caribbean Sea, forecast to clip southeast Florida, enter the Gulf Stream, and continue up the East Coast. Also, we may be on the east side (AKA the "good" side) of this one.

That being said, this one will likely be too weak to provide any excitement this far north. But let's not ignore it. While we won't be talking about Sooty Terns or Tropicbirds or anything like that, we could see a re-appearance of more southern terns (Royal, Sandwich, Skimmers etc) along the coast, or more migrant shorebirds grounded inland. Hey, still enough to make birding worthwhile. At the very least it should contribute to blocking weather, setting up for a potentially large migrant event when it clears for the weekend.

Since bird movements are so closely tied to weather in general, any particularly strong or uncommon weather phenomenon should be monitored closely by birders. This storm would fall into that category, subcategory 'unusual track.'

- NB

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Winter Finch Forecast

This year's Winter Finch Forecast, courtesy of Ron Pittaway of Ontario, is now available online. Thanks to Ron for putting this together once again. Here in southern New England, we're not exactly direct neighbors of Ontario, but one can draw his or her own conclusions for our area from this information.

I really look forward to this report every year.

- NB

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Camera suggestions?

Recent frustrating attempts at digibinning have got me seriously considering a digital SLR for the first time. Having never shopped for one, I'm asking for advice from birders. Since I digiscope when possible (so easy to carry a tiny P&S), I'd be looking to use an SLR for fast-moving subjects and flight shots.

I'd be willing to spend good money if necessary...I know you get what you pay for. I'm wondering what would be better for me...a top-of-the-line setup regardless of size/weight, or a lightweight one. Is there a best of both worlds? New vs used?

What camera/lens combos would you recommend?

- NB

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Sep 10 - Block Canyon pelagic

On Thursday evening I was one of about 40 birders to board the 90' Gail Frances for an overnight pelagic trip to Block Canyon. The canyon lies at the edge of the Continental Shelf. We departed around 10pm so that we would be at the canyon for dawn.

just before sunrise

This trip was one of quality over quantity. Very few birds were tallied, leaving a few pelagic newbies understandably unsatisfied. But for those of us who have been on several deep-water pelagics off New England, we were happy to sacrifice common species for rarities. That is, after all, the idea of doing these canyon trips. The common shearwaters, storm-petrels, and jaegers can be seen inshore. But the warm, blue water of the shelf edge gives us hope for species rare to New England.

Our first notable birds were a few scattered AUDUBON'S SHEARWATERS, an expected species in these warm waters. We ended up tallying 11 for the day.

a very fresh Audubon's Shearwater

It didn't take long for someone to spot a jaeger in front of us. This bird cooperated and all had looks at a juvenile LONG-TAILED JAEGER. This is the most sought-after jaeger among birders around here due to its rarity inshore, but it is actually the most common jaeger this far offshore. A trip to these waters at this time of year gives one a great chance at seeing multiple juveniles of this species.

The jaeger ended up harassing every bird in sight...all 3 of them. In fact, the jaeger was finding the birds for us. First a Great Shearwater, then a storm-petrel or two, one of which may have been a Band-rump/Leach's-type but got away. Then it moved far off and began to chase another bird that I (and I think pretty much everyone else) assumed was the same Great Shearwater at first. But someone (I think Blair Nikula) yelled "BLACK-CAPPED PETREL," and the bird banked again to flash its white rump. It was much too far to discern any real detail, such as whether it was a member of the whiter-faced or dark-faced group. Carlos Pedro was impressively able to grab a photo that showed the general upperpart pattern of the bird. This was a 3rd record for Rhode Island.

We soon ran into a second juvenile LONG-TAILED JAEGER, which also put on a great show around the boat. Photographers would have nailed it if not for the dark skies and intermittent rain showers.

juv Long-tailed Jaeger

As we continued to cruise at depths of around 3,000 feet and temps of ~79 degrees, I spotted a lone storm-petrel on the water. I alerted the captain and we slowly approached the bird. It looked intriguing from the very beginning, appearing large and entirely dark from a distance. Thoughts of Swinhoe's quickly vanished though, when some white became visible at the side of the rump. The bird allowed us to get reasonably close before flushing. When it did, it revealed a narrow but complete white rump and squarish tail (certainly not forked). Its wings were long, slightly bent at the wrist, and it took steady wingbeats with a couple of brief glides on slightly bowed wings. Initial impressions were strongly for Band-rumped Storm-Petrel. Photos by other birders confirmed our field ID as BAND-RUMPED STORM-PETREL, a first record for Rhode Island (if accepted).

The next several hours were very slow, with few birds to be seen, common or otherwise.

Of note, all of our best birds were at or east of the canyon. The water to the west was dead. In general, it seems like a good idea to get as far east as you can along these southern New England canyons during late summer. It just seems to be birdier at the eastern canyons, but pretty quiet to the far west (i.e. Hudson Canyon), if the small sample of summer deep-water pelagics are any indication.

Overall the trip was a success. I would have happily traded many common species for the couple mega rarities we had. Hopefully this trip becomes an annual one, though it needs some improvements for the sake of the participants. First, a faster boat would be preferable if the Frances Fleet has one available. Second, there were no designated leaders on this trip. Third, nobody was stationed on the PA system (which was poor anyway), which really hindered communication between the spotters and the rest of the boat. I jumped on the mic a few times to announce some things, but most communication between passengers was done by yelling, which isn't totally effective.

This was my only chance to get offshore this summer, so I'm thrilled it was a quality trip. One of these days I'll have to look into getting a real camera. Digibinning just doesn't work for me at sea.

the warm, blue waters of Block Canyon

- Nick

Sep 9 - Hammonasset SP

I spent Thursday morning birding Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison, CT from about 0630-1100. The first sharp cold front of the fall season had moved through the day before. The weather began cloudless with a breeze out of the W-WNW, but then became mostly cloudy with a stiff NW wind by mid-morning.

BOBOLINKS put on a big flight, with over one thousand tallied this morning. Flocks maxed out at about 90 birds. There was a modest warbler flight, best of which was a drab young female CAPE MAY WARBLER seen in a mixed flock along the entrance road.

The newly-designated Middle Beach parking lot, next to the brand new pavilion, had a small flock of sparrows in which the clear highlight was a really sharp CLAY-COLORED SPARROW. It's my earliest CCSP by several days, but they typically arrive around Sep 20th or so, making them one of our earlier scarce sparrow species. In checking eBird for their bar graph in CT, I was surprised to see that the month of September was void of records. That bothered me a bit, so I just went and entered all of my local CCSP records into eBird which included a few September birds.

Next I drove to the Nature Center parking lot to find a juv BUFF-BREASTED SANDPIPER and an adult AMERICAN GOLDEN-PLOVER feeding together on the lawn. Later they were joined in flight by a single PECTORAL SANDPIPER, and the trio continued westward, presumably relocating to a different part of the park.

American Golden-Plover and Buff-breasted Sandpiper

juv. Buff-breasted Sandpiper

adult American Golden-Plover

- NB

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Hybrid hummingbird, Ash Canyon, AZ - 3 Aug 2010

UPDATE 9/8/10: It seems certain that this bird is indeed a COSTA'S x LUCIFER HUMMINGBIRD hybrid, apparently the first of its kind recorded.

ORIGINAL POST: Ash Canyon, in the Huachuca Mtns of southeast Arizona, has been a hotbed of hybrid hummers this year. Reported hybrid combos have been "Lucifer x Anna's" and "Costa's x Anna's". On my first late summer trip to the southwest, I was pleased to run into an interesting apparent hybrid.

While watching the feeders at Mary Jo's in Ash Canyon on 3 Aug 2010, I heard a singing Costa's Hummingbird. Upon tracking the bird down, I was surprised to see a bird that resembled a Costa's but had a noticeably long tail. It sang repeatedly while I was observing it, always producing a typical Costa's song.

(click to enlarge)

Since it was singing a typical Costa's song the bird is obviously part Costa's...but its long tail, projecting well beyond the UTCs, tells us that this is no pure bird. Due to the poor quality of the photos, it is difficult to discern exact plumage details. Lucifer Hummingbird breeds nearby, and it makes one wonder if that is the other parent. The long tail with a fork supports that. The bill is a bit longish and slightly decurved, but this may be within range of Costa's(?). The gorget seems a bit less elongated than a typical Costa's should show.

Any comments on this bird? According to Howell (2002), a Costa's x Lucifer hybrid had not been recorded as of that writing.

Another interesting question might be...if not aware of the bird's vocalizations, what would you call it?

- Nick

T.S. Earl delivers!...sort of

After realizing that Earl would not really be affecting CT very much, a few of us decided to head to Cape Cod in search of seabirds. We arrived at First Encounter at dawn on Saturday morning to a strong WNW wind and intermittent horizontal drizzle. The birding began slowly...at first only Common Terns with a handful of Black Terns were moving. Then the weather cleared, visibility improved, and before we knew it, we were in the middle of a very productive sea watch.

Going into today, despite having taken several well-timed pelagics and whale watches out of the northeast, I had not yet seen Sabine's Gull or South Polar Skua. A west coast pelagic would take care of those, but heading into Saturday they were two glaring misses on my life list. I had done a few pelagics, whale watches, and sea watches over the past couple years at times and locations to specifically target them.

On Saturday I got those two birds no more than 15 minutes apart. Marshall Iliff spotted a distant skua that eventually made a fairly close pass. We all had the impression of the uniform cold tones of a SOUTH POLAR SKUA, lacking golden spangling above or warm tones overall. The pending photos should confirm our field identification. Skua identification is often very difficult unless treated with a more extreme or obvious individual, so care should and will be taken before this one goes down in BOLD on my list. But I would expect the photos to back up our field views. Later, a second skua sighting was likely the same bird.

A bit later, I relocated a very distant adult SABINE'S GULL that Blair Nikula had briefly seen earlier. Luckily that bird (or another?) made a much closer pass later in the morning, for all to see.

Other than those two big highlights, we had constant action that included 4 species of shearwater (though I missed the single Sooty), several Parasitic Jaegers, several hundred Red-necked Phalaropes including many great looks, and the 5 expected species of tern. It ended up being a great morning.

It should be noted that this storm did not produce any southern birds for us. This was sorta expected given the position and strength of the storm. Generally, you want to be on the "right" (in this case, east) side of the storm if you don't have a direct hit. We were on the left side, and tropical storm force winds only very briefly brushed the Cape. So Saturday morning's displaced seabirds were birds that would normally be at our latitude at this time of year, but were pushed into Cape Cod Bay by the storm.

Sure enough, the storm dropped a Bridled Tern and Magnificent Frigatebird, plus other southern terns, in Nova Scotia despite its relative weakness by the time it reached that far north. Goes to show you how important the track is.

But nobody at First Encounter was complaining. Getting an identifiable skua from shore is rare enough, and having a steady supply of other seabirds made for an entertaining morning.

On our way back we stopped at the Cumberland Farm Fields in Halifax/Middleboro, MA, where we enjoyed the continuing inland shorebird show. We tallied 15 species of shorebird here including 6 American Golden-Plover, Baird's Sandpiper, 5 Buff-breasted Sandpiper, and a Wilson's Phalarope...plus a few Laughing Gulls.

- Nick

Friday, September 3, 2010

Hurricane Earl approaches

It's a much weakened system as I type this...a minimal CAT 1 with max sustained winds of 80mph. Not quite the healthy CAT 2 that had been forecast! On top of that, the track has shifted ever so slightly east...far enough east to greatly minimize the storm's effects on Connecticut.

The southeast Cape and Islands of Massachusetts still stand a chance to get whacked with some nasty weather. It should be enough to produce a decent seabird show at dawn on Saturday. As of right now, that's where I'll be headed very early Saturday morning. I'd be out there right now if not for work getting in the way.

Despite this storm being weaker and further away than initially expected, remember that it was one heck of a nasty storm just 24 hours ago and has been moving as a cyclone through the South Atlantic, the Caribbean, and right up the Gulf Stream. It has come into contact with many birds along the way, so really anything from that part of the world could be displaced off the New England coast. Even if the odds seem slim, I would get out and look anyway.

Will report back, positively or negatively, following the storm, wherever I end up.

- NB