Sunday, November 13, 2011

East Shore Park - November Warblers

East Shore Park in New Haven, CT has developed a reputation as one of the best late fall birding spots in the state. The park lies immediately south of a sewage treatment plant that keeps flying insects alive well into the autumn season thanks to, well, the treated sewage pools. These insects have concentrated lingering warblers, a phenomenon that has brought more birders to the park, which has in turn led to more interesting sightings.

Satellite view of the north end of East Shore Park adjacent to the treatment plant

The other specialty of the park happens to be Cave Swallows, which during invasions can often be seen hawking insects over the treatment plant, particularly on colder days. A few Northern Rough-winged Swallows attempted to winter here a few years ago.

This month 10 different warbler species have been recorded at the park so far...not bad for November in New England. Today I had single TENNESSEE and ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLERS plus a late BLACKPOLL.

This place is now OVERdue for a western vagrant (unless you want to count the Cave Swallows). With all the lingering late-fall insectivores, you'd expect a sighting of a western warbler (the state's first Townsend's, perhaps?) or flycatcher by now. Should only be a matter of time...

Here are some photos of a few of this month's birds.

Tennessee Warbler (Nov 13)

Orange-crowned Warbler (Nov 13)

Blackpoll Warbler (Nov 4)

"Western" Palm Warbler (Nov 4)

Hermit Thrush (Nov 13)

immature Black-crowned Night-heron (Nov 4)

- Nick

Friday, November 11, 2011

Overdue western vagrants in Connecticut

Political borders are a funny thing in birding. Whether town, county, state, or continent...most of our listing areas are determined by these boundaries. For those of us who keep a Connecticut state list or reside on the Avian Records Committee of Connecticut, we frequently scrutinize bird status and distribution on a relatively small scale. The sample size for a state like Connecticut pales in comparison to the northeastern US region as a whole, for example. So we have perhaps more "quirks" in our avifauna's history than a larger state might have.

For instance, Connecticut has ZERO records of Townsend's Warbler (widely considered our #1 biggest miss), but New York has about 20. If CT and NY were formed as one state, Connectiyork would have about 20 records and most birders living in what is now Connecticut would have it on their Connectiyork lists and would hardly consider it a statewide "blocker."

Given that we're entering the heart of the western vagrant season here in the east, I got to thinking about birds we're due for in CT...whether already on the state list or not.

First, those birds NOT yet recorded in Connecticut that have been on my mind, in no particular order:

Townsend's Warbler - duh
Black-chinned Hummingbird - this is the year, this is the year, this is the year...
California Gull - would love to find this one myself
Allen's Hummingbird - they've been around us...why not here
Hammond's Flycatcher - probably our most likely "new" empid
Vermillion Flycatcher - I read somewhere that this has been a decent fall for them east of their typical range, though I have not looked into that myself
Sage Thrasher - I'm predicting Hammonasset Beach State Park for this one
Cassin's Sparrow - big drought-related spring movement northeast may result in a couple autumn sightings??
Violet-green Swallow - I just have an affinity for swallows. A stealth vagrant to the east.

And birds that HAVE been recorded in CT, but are simply overdue to return, some more than others...:

Say's Phoebe - ONLY state record from December of 1916 (specimen)! Yes, you read that right.
Ash-throated Flycatcher - For one of the more regular regional vagrants, we get very few of these. I was lucky enough to see one found by Patrick Dugan on private property in Dec 2006 (photo below), but the last chaseable one occurred in Nov-Dec 1996. Many early birds so far this fall...maybe we get another.

Ash-throated Flycatcher

Franklin's Gull - most recent was Oct-Nov 1999
Gray Kingbird - Nov 1992
any "yellow-bellied" Kingbird that ISN'T a Western - We had one Tropical Kingbird in Nov 1990, but zero Couch's or Cassin's so far
"Audubon's" Warbler - Oct 1996
Green-tailed Towhee - April 1991
Brewer's Blackbird - Nov 2002, possibly overlooked?

There are more, but I've been thinking of those in particular. Now I'd just like to have more time to get in the field to look for them.

- Nick

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Texas express?

UPDATE Nov 9th: It now looks as if Friday is the best-looking day for Cave Swallows along the CT coast in the short-term, as it will be the only day with NW wind here (potentially quite potent, which is good). The overall setup has continued to be unimpressive, but since we're entering that peak time for these birds, it may be enough to produce a few along the coast.

Tim Spahr of MA pointed out to me that next week may be more promising...indeed it looks like we'll see a more prolonged period of SW flow, more in line with classic Cave Swallow invasions of recent years. If followed by NW winds, it could be very interesting. But that's well down the road. Plenty of time for things to change.


While at Lighthouse Point on Friday, Paul Roberts mentioned that we would be seeing some SW winds this week. During the month of November us birders in the northeast look for weather patterns like this one - a straight-line SSW flow from Texas to the Great Lakes. It is this pattern that ushers Cave Swallows and other reverse migrants from the southwest to the northeast. In short, these winds carry swallows (and others, hopefully) into the Great Lakes region. Then, the NW winds that often follow the passage of a cold front push the same birds to concentrate along the east coast.

That would be the ideal scenario, anyway. But this is not a terribly impressive forecast. These SSW winds are moderate but not very strong, and they will apparently be even weaker by the time the front moves eastward. Still, we have an OK setup here with a local mid-week warmup, then late-week cold front. I've seen several more promising setups than this, but the way Cave Swallows are trending up in recent years, it should be enough to deliver at least a few to southern New England.

Let's say they arrive here next weekend behind the cold front.

- Nick

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Nov 2 - western Long Island Sound

Yesterday morning I took advantage of relatively calm waters and took the boat out for some fishing. Over on the Long Island side of the sound (NY waters) the fish and birds were well concentrated in the Eatons Neck area, a location typically full of fish at this time of year. The fish were easily located thanks to a feeding frenzy of Laughing Gulls. Mixed in the flock were a single ROYAL TERN, several FORSTER'S TERNS, and a few first-winter BONAPARTE'S GULLS.

Back on the CT side of the sound were a few more FORSTER'S TERNS and a late immature COMMON TERN. A three-tern day in November...not bad!

first-winter Forster's Tern (CT waters)

three more Forster's Terns (NY waters)

- NB

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

"Interior" Nelson's Sparrow - alterus or nelsoni?

UPDATE 11/3 - Julian has made a blog posting with his photos and thoughts on this bird, so check it out. Included are thoughts from Fletcher Smith, author of the recent NAB article on the sharp-tailed sparrows, who agrees this bird fits alterus best.

ORIGINAL POST: Yesterday at Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison, CT Julian Hough and I observed this bright Nelson's Sparrow, clearly representing one of the interior races. It is quite unlike the drab, gray-toned Acadian subvirgatus subspecies that breeds not far up the Atlantic coast to our north. All photos are untouched - only cropped.

Nelson's Sparrow, likely alterus

Separating alterus from nelsoni during migration is a difficult task. A recent article in North American Birds states that approximately 30% of interior birds banded in Virginia during the nonbreeding season could not be assigned to subspecies given current knowledge. If they're tough in the hand, they're tougher in the field.

Here are some notes:
- high-contrast facial pattern with bright orange triangle and gray auricular
- clean orange supercilium without internal markings
- broad, clean gray central crown stripe, generally lacking internal markings
- white braces down the back bordered by brown (not black)
- wing coverts edged with warm brown that look rufous-toned in some shots
- yellow-ochre flanks and breast band filled with bold brown streaking...weakest at the central breast, boldest and brownest down the flanks
- contrasting white belly
- whitish throat that has a hint of pale yellow-ochre color to it

I am not sure that this bird, from these photographs, can be certainly assigned to either interior subspecies. But, some plumage features seem to indicate alterus over nelsoni (namely the back pattern and broad, unmarked central crown stripe). Based on geography, alterus is more likely to occur here than nelsoni. The bird's plumage seems to fall within the range of what alterus is capable of, perhaps even flank streaking so bold. The latest photo spread in NAB illustrates a few alterus every bit as bright as this one. If anyone has differing thoughts, please let me know!

- Nick