Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Recent Rarities (Western Tanager, Harris's Sparrow, Pink-footed Goose, Lesser Yellowlegs)

Over the past two days Carolyn Sedgwick and I have enjoyed some luck chasing a few nice local birds. I was overdue, as I hadn't chased a bird in Connecticut in weeks (months?). It was nice to get out and see a few goodies, with relative ease, no less.

Today (27 Feb) Maggie Jones was very kind to allow us to view and confirm identity of a WESTERN TANAGER that had first visited her yard in Mystic yesterday. We walked up the driveway until the feeders were in view, immediately locating the bird. It proceeded to fly-catch around the yard with intermittent visits to the suet feeder. (Yes, there were flying insects about today. It was a balmy 50 degrees, unusually warm but typical of this very mild winter. Had my first butterfly of the year here - Mourning Cloak.) A very cooperative bird. We left it alive and well after a half-hour of viewing, though an immature Cooper's Hawk was eying the feeders from afar. Hopefully the WETA can keep safe even though it sticks out like a sore thumb among the more common species.

Western Tanager

We followed that up with a successful late-afternoon try for the long-staying HARRIS'S SPARROW in Lebanon. Not soon after we arrived, Annie and Mike Perko of Colchester showed up to throw down some seed as they have been doing since they found the bird 50 days ago. After just a bit of waiting the Harris's appeared to feed in the shadows. We enjoyed really nice scope views of the bird.

Harris's Sparrow

Yesterday (26 Feb) we successfully chased the PINK-FOOTED GOOSE in Middlefield/Durham found the day before by Mark Barriger. Hank Golet was on the goose as we pulled up to the pond in question, and Hank was quick to point out a LESSER YELLOWLEGS alongside a Killdeer at the pond's edge. The goose flock kept its distance but we were happy with the scope views. The LEYE was more cooperative and quite a rare bird in its own right. This is possibly (almost certainly?) the first February record of this species in Connecticut - a record early date.

Pink-footed Goose

Lesser Yellowlegs

- NB

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Shoot first, ask questions later??

You may have noticed that with digital cameras of all shapes and sizes becoming more and more affordable, a growing percentage of birders are arming themselves with impressive photography equipment in the field. It's not uncommon to see someone (like myself) dragging binoculars around their neck with a spotting scope over one shoulder and a digital SLR on the other. Many others carry a point-and-shoot in their pocket for digiscoping. This is a promising trend, as a greater proportion of rare and scarce birds are being documented. It certainly makes records committee evaluations that much easier!

But there is a healthy debate that is growing in the birding community. Some (many?) birder-photographers have adopted a 'shoot first, ask questions later' philosophy in the field. I have personally seen birders, without even trying to identify the bird with optics, immediately pull up their cameras and fire away as many shots as they can, with apparently little interest in watching the bird! This occurs most often with flybys, in which case the birder may never actually get a good look at the bird and would rather rely on photo analysis to make the identification. The question is...is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Well, depends on who you ask. The purist will answer that these birders themselves are losing out on perhaps the most crucial part of bird identification: studying the bird in the field. As a result, their skills, along with the knowledge that would accumulate from field experience, will be slow to develop or even regress if this habit is developed.

But if you were to ask the folks with the quick trigger fingers, you'll be told that 100% certain documentation via photograph is so important that it trumps watching the bird with your eyes. After all, you can prove that you had a Gray-breasted Martin fly by with a photograph, but you can't prove it with a sketch (subjectivity and human error are possible, you know...). Besides, you can observe certain details in still photographs that you can't appreciate when the bird is moving in real time.

Personally, I'm not sure which group I fall into. Both viewpoints are valid in their own way. I have only owned a digital SLR for about 6 months, but I still seem to consider getting photos secondary to studying the bird in real time. Still, I have strayed from this on a few occasions and reached straight for the camera...though often with less-than-stellar results, leaving me wishing that I had just watched the damn thing before it flew away.

I have also noticed that younger birders tend to fall into the 'shoot first' category more than older birders. This is likely a product of young birders growing up with easier access to affordable high-quality digital photography. But this age-related difference is not something I'm a big fan of. Less experienced (which often means young) birders should, in my opinion, be focusing more on honing their field identification skills than analyzing photos on a computer screen.

Then there's this interesting question. Let's say you're on an east coast pelagic trip and you spot a distant seabird naked eye, flying on the horizon. It's too far to ID without optical help so you don't know what it is at this point. Rather than study the bird with optics you grab your camera and fire off a few shots. You've lost the bird, but you got your photos. You look down on your camera's LCD screen and zoom in...to find a barely identifiable shot of a Cape Verde Shearwater. So...can you count it?? If you had pulled up your bins for a peek, you would have noticed a shearwater that resembled Cory's in many ways but was smaller, slimmer, with a thinner and slightly darker bill. You would have suspected Cape Verde Shearwater, gotten others on the bird, and had the captain attempt to chase it down immediately.

Or perhaps it's late November, and you're standing vigil at the Lighthouse Point Hawkwatch in New Haven, CT. A presumed Tree Swallow passes by. Normally you would have studied it using your bins and/or scope, but you want a couple shots of late migrating TRES to post to your blog that evening. Later that night, when you upload the images at home, you drop your glass of wine to the floor like Chazz Palminteri dropped that coffee mug in the scene at the end of The Usual Suspects....photos reveal that the swallow was in fact a Violet-green...first state record. It goes on the official state list, but does it go on yours? In the field you had no idea you were looking at a Violet-green Swallow. It was only ID'ed after the fact with a photo. Sure it was your photo, but still...

What do you do when you're confronted with a shoot-or-study situation? It can be such a difficult call. I'm not sure there's a right answer. It probably depends on the exact situation. What about counting a bird identified solely via photo that could have otherwise been identified in the field? If you have any thoughts, let us know in the Comments section below.

- Nick

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

11 Feb - adult Kumlien's Iceland Gull

On Saturday afternoon Carolyn Sedgwick and I birded the central CT coast and stumbled upon a nice adult Kumlien's Iceland Gull at Circle Beach near the end of Neck Road on the Madison/Guilford line. It's one of the more lightly-marked adults I've seen locally in recent years, with limited gray on p7-p10. In fact when first seen naked eye we took it to be completely white-winged, only to notice the dark pigment with optics. A rather pale iris as well. Skies were overcast and the bird was hesitant to come in to popcorn and potato chips, but we did enjoy a few nice flybys.

adult "Kumlien's" Iceland Gull

- NB

Saturday, February 4, 2012

CT "pelagic" trip

This morning 42 birders boarded Project Oceanology's 65-foot boat out of Groton, CT to explore the Connecticut waters of eastern Long Island Sound (thanks to Phil Rusch organizing a trip sponsored by the Connecticut Ornithological Association).

An organized CT boat trip has not been run in many years. Why the special occasion? From late-December through mid-January, an unprecedented incursion of winter pelagic birds was noted in the middle of eastern LI Sound along the CT/NY border by birders who rode the ferry from CT to Long Island. During this period birders recorded several Black-legged Kittiwakes and Common Murres and at least two Thick-billed Murres. In addition to the rarities were impressive numbers of Northern Gannets, Razorbills, and both loons. Even Minke Whales were reported from the area!! Clearly there was an abundant food source to be consumed.

Phil's brilliant plan was to charter a boat and spend a few hours working this stretch of Long Island Sound. He found a great boat at a fair price (came to $40 per person for 4+ hours on the water). The original date was actually 2 weeks ago but was unfortunately canceled due to snow. We rescheduled for today and headed out under sunny skies and a 10mph WNW breeze.

When we reached the target area, we were incredibly disappointed to find no life whatsoever. Couldn't even scratch up a gannet or Herring Gull. Unbelievable! Apparently the food source had moved out, and so had the birds. We were a couple weeks late.

Halfway through the trip we decided to cut our losses and head inshore to Fisher's Island Sound where there had at least been very recent Razorbill sightings. We were relieved to run into a few RAZO, which included some nice looks at an adult-immature pair feeding off Ram Island.


We also had an uptick in general birdlife. Multiple adult Northern Gannets flew by, and we were able to observe Common Eider and Surf & White-winged Scoter as well.

Northern Gannet

Not exactly what we had hoped for, but it was a great day to be on the water with a few dozen really great birding friends.

- Nick