Sunday, January 30, 2011

COMMON MURRE - first Connecticut record

Congrats to the Newington Adult Ed class on another great find, this time Connecticut's first COMMON MURRE. A looong overdue species in the state, Common Murre had gone undetected despite being relatively common in recent winters in nearby RI and NY waters. In fact, they are apparently common as close as 40 miles from the CT border! This adult bird, in alternate plumage (typical for this species in late January), wandered into LI Sound long enough to be found and even chased by many birders as it slowly paddled its way eastward along the coast.

Common Murre

As we were watching the murre from the Moraine Trail, a Short-eared Owl appeared seemingly out of nowhere right over the murre before drifting towards the marsh behind us.

Short-eared Owl

Common Murre (bottom left) and Short-eared Owl (top right)

Just how expected (or unexpected) was Common Murre in CT? When I wrote the "Next 15 Birds" article for the Connecticut Warbler a couple years ago, it placed #12 on the list. Here is an excerpt from that article:

Common Murre Uria aalge
(3 lists, 26 points)

This ranking comes as a bit of a shock. I had Common Murre pegged for a top 5 vote-getter, yet only three birders included it on their lists! Of the species not yet on the Connecticut state list, no other migratory bird’s normal range comes closer. How close, you ask? Try a mere 40 miles! For example, mid-winter fishing boats out of Rhode Island regularly tally double-digit numbers. (Carlos Pedro and Scott Tsagarakis, pers.comm.).
Perhaps the most promising news comes from the north shore of Massachusetts, where Common Murre has undergone a drastic increase. Prior to 1998, the state’s maximum tally was of merely eight birds. A few double-digit counts were recorded in 1999. (Marjorie Rines, Pers.comm.). Then on December 12, 2002, Richard Heil recorded 420 Common Murres from Andrew’s Point in Rockport. Since then numbers have remained high, with two counts of 200+ and several over 25 from this location. (Richard Heil, pers.comm.).
Numbers have also increased slightly from Cape Cod seawatches. (Blair Nikula, pers.comm.). A New York pelagic in February 2008 produced 49 murres, a new state high. A trend seems to be developing.
So why did ten voters decide to exclude Common Murre from their lists? A vicious cycle is at work here. First of all, only a handful of people regularly watch Long Island Sound during winter coastal storms, which is when this species is most likely to be seen from land. Pelagic birds of any kind are of relatively rare occurrence in the state, so very few people put the time and effort into looking for them. With few observers weathering these storms, even in eastern Connecticut, many of the seabirds that do occur are probably never seen by birders. With our lack of “Sound-watching” and winter boating, I can see why several voters found 10+ species more likely to be seen and documented in Connecticut. Still, you’d think one would wash up on a beach somewhere…"

Since writing that article I've had conversations with a few of the folks who did not vote for Common Murre, and it turns out that at least one or two of them did not realize the species wasn't on the official CT State List. So, perhaps if those couple folks had done their homework (naughty naughty!), it would have appeared higher than #12.

- Nick

Friday, January 28, 2011

Landfill today

A few hours at the Windsor Landfill today were so-so. Gull numbers were decent but not great at ~1500. Enough to pull in something good though. Turnover seemed poor but I was finding new individuals throughout my stay, so there must have been some comings and goings.

Highlights were adult LBBG and a third cycle "Kumlien's" Iceland Gull. There were also a couple interesting young Herring Gulls but nothing really suggestive of a different taxon. I already have a headache tonight so I'll spare the HEGU photos, except for two wing-tagged birds.

**According to the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, the tagged/banded Herring Gulls were banded in the Quabbin area of Massachusetts. I will post more info as I receive it from them.**

Lesser Black-backed Gull

"Kumlien's" Iceland Gull

tagged adult Herring Gull, '11' on left wing and 'K11" on right wing

Herring Gull 'K7'; both wing-tagged HEGUs had leg bands as well (blue on left leg, silver on right leg)

- NB

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Mid-winter ramblings

Another day, another landfill gulling session postponed by snow.

Today's storm arrived a good 3+ hours ahead of schedule, effectively canceling my trip to the landfill with Frank Gallo. We've had a wonderfully snowy winter here in Connecticut. Every storm's highest totals seem to come from somewhere in southern New England, with CT right in the heart of each one. I happen to love it (even when it gets in the way of birding plans). We've already surpassed our seasonal snowfall average, and 6-10 more inches are expected from the current storm.

Back to gulls. Where have they been? The regional gulling scene has been sub-par this winter. Other than a handful of Icelands and the occasional Glauc, it's been quiet here. The center of the continent has been much more exciting, with an early flurry of Ross's Gulls and a couple recent Slaty-backed Gulls. Newfoundland has enjoyed its 'expected' rarities like Slaty-backed and Yellow-legged, plus their second Black-tailed Gull. An early November Ivory Gull out in California had folks thinking another invasion was on the way, but nothing else yet (and just as well, as each vagrant adult IVGU makes me worry more about their status up north). But here in south New England...dullsville.

Hopefully that will change soon. I'll do my best over the next few days, once this storm passes. And if not, I'll be in San Diego for a conference in a few weeks and hope to do some gulling at the Salton Sea.

UPDATE: So much for 6-10". We had about a foot here in Wallingford and many towns in the state, except the NW, exceeded 12 inches. Birding plans thwarted again after having to wait until noon for businesses to open to take care of errands!

- NB

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Bohemian Waxwings in SW Vermont

After spending a night in Killington, VT catching up with some old friends and various microbrews, I took the scenic route home today. Rather than heading back down I-91 I took the drive down Route 7 from Rutland. This road runs north-south through the Green Mountains in Vermont (and continues south into the Berkshires in MA and through western CT all the way to Norwalk).

cold, calm morning with a fresh dusting of snow in Killington

Following up on reports from the Vermont listserv and eBird, I spent a few hours birding the far SW corner of the state, just south of Bennington. Recently Bohemian Waxwings and both redpolls had been seen there.

The area was rather quiet except for two concentrations of frugivores. Monument Road held several dozen American Robins, 8 Eastern Bluebirds, and 20 Cedar Waxwings along one short stretch.

Southern Vermont Orchards on Carpenter Hill Rd, a bit further south, was the epicenter of activity thanks to some rotting apples still on trees. I picked through many more Robins in search of rarer species or perhaps candidates for the nigrideus subspecies, but no dice. First heard, then seen, were BOHEMIAN WAXWINGS. They were scattered throughout the orchard, on both sides of the road, and some were quite cooperative. It was tough to get a firm count, but when the flock coalesced in the air I came up with a count of 38.

Bohemian Waxwings

Southern Vermont Orchards and the view to the east

I drove a few nearby backroads in search of stocked feeders and finches, but could only turn up a single COMMON REDPOLL.

- NB

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Upcoming CAS Trips

In 2011 I'm slated to lead or co-lead two overnight tours for Connecticut Audubon Society: one kinda close to home and one just a bit further abroad. They are as follows:

Baxter State Park (Maine) - June 16-19, 2011
Brazil's Pantanal - September 28-October 9, 2011

In June of 2010 I took a [mostly] solo whirlwind tour of Maine over just 4 1/2 days. I hit a few choice spots from the downeast coast to the far north to the heart of inland Maine. Baxter State Park lies in north-central Maine and boasts a fantastic diversity of breeding birds, with a few boreal specialties being of most interest to southern New Englanders. Boreal Chickadees and Gray Jays are fairly common in the right spots, and lucky birders may glimpse such highly sought-after species as Spruce Grouse or Black-backed Woodpecker. This trip will include stops on the way to and from Baxter, specifically for grassland birds at Kennebunk Plains and for breeding Black Terns at Messalonskee Lake. For my 2010 Maine trip report, which included Baxter SP for a day and a half, click HERE.

As I've mentioned in this space before, I co-lead CAS's 2010 trip to Brazil's Pantanal, and I'm thrilled to be returning in autumn 2011. There is so much to say about this trip that I'm tempted to ramble here, but if you're interested in visiting this place someday, whether with CAS or otherwise, check out my report from last year's trip. It was just phenomenal.

If you have any interest in either of these trips, check out the CAS EcoTravel website and give Andy a call for more info.

- Nick

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Lyman Orchards

Inspired by recent reports of impressive American Robin numbers at Lyman Orchards in Middlefield, CT, I spent a couple hours there today in search of thrushes. I did find some Robins, but not in the numbers seen by others. My max count at one time was about 75 birds swirling in the air above the apple orchards, which came immediately after a Merlin made a dash overhead.

a teed-up Merlin after unsuccessfully pursuing robins

- NB

SLR all the way

I spent this weekend dog/house-sitting at my parents' place in Orange. My mother got a Nikon D5000 with VR 55-200mm zoom lens for Christmas, which I decided to test out briefly on Saturday morning. Having never shot with an SLR, I was curious to see what the "experience" was like - i.e. how cumbersome it was to carry, if/how it affected my actual birding, and what is a 200mm zoom capable of?

Long story short, even after spending just an hour with it, I'm convinced that I need something more than my current digiscoping setup. I was in denial for a while there, but now I know.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Dark-eyed Junco in flight

Turkey Vulture from a considerable distance

I could do without one more thing to carry on me while birding, but the ability to photograph fast-moving passerines or birds in flight was a lot of fun. I am become more and more disenchanted with 'digibinning,' which is really starting to frustrate me.

I'm not ready to buy anything of my own yet, but at least now I know what I'm missing. If I was having fun with a 200mm lens, I'd have a blast with a 400mm.

One other option I'll have to rule-out before such a big purchase is the capability of those 'superzoom' cameras, although I have a feeling that I'd be disappointed for two reasons: they probably do not digiscope as well as my small P&S, and they probably produce lower-quality bird images than a DSLR. The superzooms sound like more of a happy medium between the two options, rather than doing one thing particularly well. But I shouldn't knock 'em until I try 'em.

- Nick

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Swallows and Martins of Brazil's Pantanal

While co-leading the 2010 Connecticut Audubon Society trip to Brazil's Pantanal, I tried to pay as much attention to members of the family Hirundinidae as time allowed. We enjoyed nice diversity, recording the following species:

~Blue-and-white Swallow - a few at the higher/drier locations outside the Pantanal
~Southern Rough-winged Swallow - scattered in various habitats throughout the trip
~Brown-chested Martin - abundant
~Gray-breasted Martin - very common
~Purple/Southern Martin - a single unidentified adult male seen briefly along the northern Transpantaneira; according to Giuliano, Purple certainly occurs in the Pantanal while the status of Southern Martin is uncertain (and perhaps never confirmed?). Males are extremely difficult to tell apart.
~White-winged Swallow - fairly common in the Pantanal
~Barn Swallow - a small group of three along the Transpantaneira
~Cliff Swallow - generally a scarce migrant here, but we encountered a massive flock of ~170 birds along the Transpantaneira on one day and a few scattered birds on other days

Here are some photos and notes on a few of these species, with a focus on those with vagrant potential to the U.S.

Brown-chested Martin (Progne tapera):

All individuals of this species seen well enough to ID to subspecies were of the Austral migrant race fusca, as expected here. This subspecies is characterized by a brown upper breast band with a series of dark dots forming a line down the center of the lower breast.

Trip participant Morris Finkelstein was able to grab a few flight shots of this species with his SLR. Thanks to Morris for contributing these photos.

ID points:
- brown upperparts
- brown upper breast band that extends down the flanks laterally, and a series of dark dots forming a line down the center of the lower breast on P. t. fusca (Austral migrant that has been recorded in the U.S. on several occasions)
- the intensity of the brown breast band varies from rather diffuse to very dark
- the line of dots down center of breast often VERY difficult to see, especially in flight and on distant perched birds
- pale collar behind auriculars that is often quite noticeable at a distance and in flight
- white throat offset by a dusky, low-contrast lateral throat stripe
- white undertail coverts (or lateral rump/uppertail feathers?) sometimes flared laterally to show a thin white patch on the sides of the base of the tail
- moderately forked tail, equal to or just barely projecting beyond the folded wings at rest
- often glides on bowed wings

Gray-breasted Martin (Progne chalybea):

these flight shots are poor, but the general color pattern and tail shape are visible

ID points:
- steely blue/purple upperparts
- the darkness of the gray breast/throat varies, depending on the individual, lighting, and camera settings in photos
- gray breast fades into white/whitish belly and flanks
- lacks pale collar
- deeply forked tail
- tail projects beyond folded wings when perched

Comparison photo:

Two Brown-chested Martins at left, one Gray-breasted Martin at right.
Note the differences in structure noted above, in addition to plumage pattern.

Southern Rough-winged Swallow (Stelgidopteryx ruficollis):

While I did not take much time to study or photograph this species, the two most obvious ways to separate this bird from our Northern Rough-winged Swallow are its frosty rump and cinnamon-tinged throat.

White-winged Swallow (Tachycineta albiventer):

I hope to continue study of these impressive migrants when I return to the Pantanal with CAS in Autumn 2011.

- Nick