Sunday, October 28, 2012

Birding Hurricane Sandy

Well, folks. A mere fourteen months after Irene and here we are again.

Hurricane/Tropical Storm/Hybrid Storm/Perfect Storm SANDY is currently forecast to track off the southeastern US coast as a low-end Cat 1 Hurricane, then bend back to the NW and W directly into the coast somewhere between Maryland and Long Island as she loses tropical characteristics. More specifically, New Jersey is the currently predicted landfall location, and forecasters seem very confident in this right now (premature or not?). This is subject to change as we are still 48 hours from landfall, but the models have been in very good agreement today, so that's what I'm going with.

eBird has posted a nice summary that applies to the entire region, much of which overlaps with what you'll read here. Below is a summary of what to expect in the southern New England region, with a particular focus on Connecticut, which has NO open ocean thanks to being blocked by Long Island and various other islands off the RI/NY coasts.

Unfortunately, due to time constraints I'm going to have to keep this brief.

Ducks & Loons - Perhaps the least exciting event here would be an impressive flight of sea ducks (particularly scoters) and loons along the coast and downed on inland bodies of water. Particularly on Sunday before things get really bad. We are in prime time for Pacific Loon, so scrutinize 'em all! (CT prediction: Modest movement before and after the brunt of the storm.)

Shearwaters & Petrels - These larger tubenoses are often difficult to move, but there is precedent for these birds being carried all the way to the Great Lakes in storms past. There are plenty of Black-capped Petrels and Cory's Shearwaters in the Gulf Stream off the SE US right now, so expect some of them to be seen from land somewhere. (CT prediction: If landfall occurs as far south as central New Jersey, getting any of these birds into Long Island Sound would be a reach. I wouldn't expect them, but I will not be upset if I'm wrong :-)

Storm-Petrels - Wilson's and Band-rumped have cleared out by now, leaving Leach's as the OVERWHELMINGLY most likely stormie to be seen. I'd expect a large wreck of this species along the coast given the size and duration of this event. Keep an eye out inland for sure. (CT prediction: Even if Sandy hits too far south to give CT any truly entrained birds, we may see some weakened wrecked Leach's slip into Long Island Sound from the east. This is one of our more likely seabirds with this storm.)

Tropicbirds - It may seem late in the season to think t-birds but not so. Given where this storm came from, tropicbirds are fair game, though possibly unlikely. You'll want the eye for this one. (CT prediction: Nope!)

Frigatebirds - Unpredictable, and often are scattered/wandering several days after storm passage. (CT prediction: I don't really have one, but the safe one is "No!")

Gannets - Probably a significant movement of gannets before and after the brunt of the storm, as with the sea ducks. (CT prediction: more than average for this time of year, as east wind events often result in a spike in numbers in Long Island Sound.)

Pelicans - Brown Pelican is another tough one to predict, but I'm not expecting many with this storm. Sandy has spent a lot of time quite far offshore, and there won't be any southerly winds ahead of the storm to push them up the coast to the north. Also not anticipating many displaced inland where she makes landfall. (CT prediction: Very unlikely.)

Shorebirds - Most of the shorebird migration is over with, but phalaropes are still on the move, particularly Red Phalarope. (CT prediction: Red Phal is very possible, as much as a grounded migrant as a truly displaced individual.)

Gulls - Expect an uptick in Laughing Gull numbers in northern locales with some inland displacement as well. (CT prediction: Moderate to large influx of laughers into Long Island Sound, perhaps an inland sighting too.)

Terns - The "tropical terns" (Sooty & Bridled) are always anticipated with tropical storms, and this one should be no different. I would expect both species to be involved here, with Sooty both inland and coastal while Bridled probably restricted to coastal location. Sandwich and Royal Terns are also infamous for being moved by these storms, so expect both species to occur out of range to the north, especially Royal. (CT prediction: Sooty yes, Royal yes, Bridled no, Sandwich maybe but probably not. Tough call with the Sooty numbers. Perhaps just one or two people will luck into them, but a more widespread occurrence wouldn't shock me.)

Jaegers/Skuas - Most Long-taileds and many Parasitics have already moved through our region, but Pomarine Jaegers should be off the New England coast in pretty good numbers right now. For instance, the Perfect Storm of Halloween 1991 resulted in record numbers seen from shore on Cape Cod, MA. However we know that Parasitic Jaegers on the east coast are more closely tied to land than Pomarines, and there must still be many of these kicking around. I'm going to go with Pomarine as the most likely jaeger, followed by Parasitic, and Long-tailed a distant third. Skuas are tough birds to move very far, but generally there are Great Skuas not too far into the Gulf of Maine at this time of year, so there's a decent shot at a Great Skua from land in Massachusetts thanks to persistent easterlies. South Polar less likely but not out of the question. (CT prediction: This is a GREAT chance to add Pomarine Jaeger to your CT state list given the time of year. Identification of jaegers, especially in poor conditions, is difficult at best. Experience helps a ton. I'm going to say that a few jaegers are reported in CT during this storm, and even though chances are slim, I'll guess that someone gets lucky with a Pom. No skuas.)

Alcids - A touch on the early side to talk about these, but records show that nearly all the regularly occurring species are technically possible. (CT prediction: No alcids of any kind this early.)

Swallows & Swifts - Probably more of a post-storm thing, try to critically identify any swallow or swift you run across. Caribbean Black Swift and rare southern swallows/martins are fair game.

Now that I've rushed this on very little sleep, it's sure to be entirely wrong. There, I have an excuse :) But seriously, this is not quite like anything we've seen before in our region, so the bird forecast is seemingly more difficult. As a rule, be open-minded, as anything and everything (and nothing!) is possible.

I would love to get into more storm birding strategy but don't have the time right now. You could check out my pre-Irene writeup as well, which may contain a couple things about birding during tropical cyclones.

Good luck, and please be safe.

 - Nick

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Strong weather ahead

This week's upcoming weather calls for an alert to all birders in the northeast US, Atlantic Canada & Ontario. We currently have a rather strong low pressure system in the Great Lakes region with an associated cold front draped south to Texas. Ahead of this front is a moderate-to-strong SSW flow in a straight line from Texas to SE Canada. Behind the front we see a sharp drop in temperatures with a moderate north wind.

courtesy of

In late October (and through November), this is classic Cave Swallow weather. The birds are swept northeastward ahead of the front to the Great Lakes/Ontario region. If the front proceeds eastward with strong enough NW winds behind it, the birds will then redirect in a southeast heading, eventually reaching the east coast. It's quite predictable at this time of year.

Cave Swallows are the classic bird species associated with this weather, but really any migratory species from the central/western US is more likely to occur after such an event. For example, Ash-throated Flycatchers and Franklin's Gulls can also be linked to this pattern, though these guys are far less predictable than the swallows. It appears that this front will not clear the region in typical fashion, meaning that locally we won't be seeing NW winds in the immediate future, but the low and front are strong enough to displace birds so we should be on the lookout nonetheless.

This is only Part One of the story this week, and it's the one that is currently getting far less attention in the national headlines. Part Two is Hurricane Sandy, a Category 2 storm that has just passed north of Cuba and is about to move through the Bahamas. The big question is where this storm will be 3-5 days from now. Meteorologists presently have little confidence in the computer models given their variability, but within 24 hours they should have a better idea of what she's going to do. I'm going to hold off on any discussion until we know more, but stay tuned. At the worst, we may have another tropical cyclone on our hands. If not, we should at least see some strong winds behind it that could deposit some of those swallows and other western vagrants to our area.

 - Nick

Monday, October 22, 2012

Oct 13 - Hatteras Pelagic

On Saturday 10/13 Carolyn and I joined Brian Patteson for their annual October trip offshore. For the full story, be sure to check out their blog.

Highlights were a single SOUTH POLAR SKUA and a killer show of Black-capped Petrels. I kept busy scanning for birds and not taking many photos, but I did manage these.

Black-capped Petrel (white-faced)

"Scopoli's" Cory's Shearwater

South Polar Skua

 - NB

Lighthouse Point flybys

The flight of diurnal migrant passerines was mighty impressive this morning at the Lighthouse Point "hawkwatch" in New Haven, CT. Not that it was an unprecedented day...quite the contrary. Late fall mornings after a cold front typically produce bigtime flights of common species such as American Robin, blackbirds, and finches, and others (passerines and not).

Top billing goes to these EVENING GROSBEAKS, part of a flock of 20 that zipped through the park mid-morning.

A close second was this skein of SNOW GEESE that shone like pearls against the blue sky. Sixty-one. Count' em!

Several EASTERN MEADOWLARKS were swirling around the park for a while.

A nice showing by EASTERN BLUEBIRD, with several small to medium-sized flocks throughout the morning.

Watching the spectacle of migration at this site is both amazing and overwhelming on good days. When I pulled into the park just after 7am today, there were hundreds of birds in the air at once.

Of note, the very strong finch flight continued with large numbers of Pine Siskin, Purple Finch, and House Finch, plus the flock of Evening Grosbeaks noted above. And yes, hawks were flying too. I had to leave at noon to get to work, but Lighthouse had just reached a milestone with its 200th Bald Eagle of the year...and 201st, and 202nd...

 - NB

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Common Nighthawk with short p10

Just wanted to throw this one up there for fun. On October 9th at Lighthouse Pt in New Haven, CT this presumed Common Nighthawk made two passes through the park. It's getting late for CONI here, but definitely not too late. There are often lingerers into October. But still, I studied the bird with vagrants on the mind. One feature to look for on Lesser Nighthawk (very rare vagrant this far northeast of its breeding range) is a more rounded wingtip on average, caused by p10 being shorter than p9. However, Common Nighthawks can show p10 slightly shorter than p9.

This individual happened to have a particularly short p10...shorter than I have ever noticed on one. It's likely within the variation of CONI though, since everything else about this bird seems just fine for Common, including the more proximal position of white wing patch.

Common Nighthawk with rather short p10
 - NB

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Interesting NC Emberizids

Last weekend Carolyn and I spent a few days on the southern Outer Banks of North Carolina, drawn mainly by a pelagic trip scheduled for the 13th. We spent some time landbirding at Pea Island NWR on the mornings of the 12th and 14th. Friday morning (10/12) was moderately birdy following a cool night with a light north breeze. We got out early to check out the morning flight at the north end of the island, which wasn't terribly impressive at the old Coast Guard Station. But along the sand road here we had a LARK SPARROW give a few brief distant views. Other than Palms and Yellow-rumps, not much else.

Our next stop was at the impoundment at the north end of the North Pond, which was much birdier and held a nice variety of passerines. I would've liked to have seen what it was like earlier in the morning. Walking down the path we ran into a spiffy CLAY-COLORED SPARROW that was loosely associating with a Chipping Sparrow and a Dark-eyed Junco. While the JUNCO never really showed that well, we could tell that it had a rather convex gray hooded appearance, contrasting with paler flanks and even showing significant contrast with its brown back. I was able to snap some photos for further analysis.

Dark-eyed Junco, form unknown (cismontanus?), Pea Island NWR, NC, 12 Oct 2012
A few things to note are as follows:
 - Gray hood that is convex in shape below ("turns up" at the breast sides)
 - Dorsally, the hood also contrasts with the bird's brown back except down the center of the nape (where it is brown in color)
 - Sides and flanks are generally buffy (and pinkish? light brownish?) but infused with some gray, especially down the flanks

This seems to me to be outside the variation of our typical eastern-breeding "Slate-colored" Junco form, Junco hyemalis hyemalis. The degree to which the convex hood contrasts with the flanks and much of the back recalls the "Oregon" Junco group (Junco hyemalis oreganus) superficially, but the hood of this bird probably does not contrast enough, nor should "Oregon" show any gray in the flanks.

So where does that leave us? Well, given that the plumage appears intermediate between hyemalis and oreganus, the best fit is the poorly-known (relatively speaking) "Cassiar" Junco (J. h. cismontanus). I could go on with a description of what a "Cassiar" Junco is for those who are not familiar with the beast, but it would be laced with confusing caveats and unknowns. Basically, "Cassiar" Juncos (J. h. cismontanus) show traits intermediate between the "Oregon" Junco group (J. h. oreganus) the easternmost "Slate-colored" taxon (J. h. hyemalis) due to gene flow. Junco taxonomy is incredibly complex and there is much we have yet to learn about the different forms and their relationships to one another. For a fascinating read, set aside an hour of your life and check out this ID-Frontiers thread on the subject, as archived by Angus Wilson on his website. It really is worth the time, and afterwards maybe you'll have an opinion on this bird.


Onto interesting sparrow #2, which was seen on Sunday the 14th, also at the north end of the North Pond. This day was much less birdy, as expected given winds with an easterly component. Near the parking area we kicked up this immature WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW.

immature Gambel's-like White-crowned Sparrow, Pea Island NWR, NC, 14 Oct 2012

The bird's bright orangey bill and completely unmarked lores were obvious in the field and confirmed via photograph. These features are typical of "Gambel's" White-crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii. This subspecies nests from west Hudson Bay to Alaska and typically winters west of the Mississippi River. The eastern Canada breeding Zonotrichia leucophrys leucophrys, which is the subspecies expected in the east during migration and winter, is characterized by dark lores and a pink bill. It breeds from east Hudson Bay to the Atlantic coast of Labrador. Here are photos of an immature leucophrys White-crowned Sparrow I photographed earlier this fall in Connecticut.

immature leucophrys White-crowned Sparrow, Wallingford, CT, 25 Sept 2012 (note the pink bill and thin dark line in front of the eye)
But as David Sibley points out HERE and HERE, there's still plenty we have to learn about how far east Gambel's-like birds breed, and in doing so he casts serious doubt on our ability to separate gambelii from leucophrys. There are apparently intergrades along the southern Hudson Bay (not a surprise at all to me, as such closely related taxa often interbreed where ranges meet), and we just don't know how far east these pale-lored, orange-billed birds reach on the breeding grounds.

So, while it seems phenotypically like a straightforward "Gambel's" WCSP, and I'm going to enter it into eBird as such for record-keeping purposes (with a caveat in the notes, of course), all we can safely say right now is that it is a "Gambel's-like" White-crowned.

I think that many birders, myself included, are often over-eager in assigning subspecies names to certain individuals. Despite not being able to positively label these two interesting birds, their study is no less fascinating nor worthwhile. Perhaps in the future, when more is known about the populations in question, we will be able to confidently sort them into one group or another...or maybe not :)

Interestingly, these were the only Dark-eyed Junco and White-crowned Sparrow we saw all weekend. When you think about where these two birds may have come from, combined with the Lark and Clay-colored Sparrows pictured below, it felt more like birding in Texas than the Atlantic coast...only much more scenic!

immature Lark Sparrow

immature Clay-colored Sparrow, retaining some streaking on the breast sides

 - Nick

Monday, October 15, 2012


Carlos Pedro strikes again! After a Little Stint in July and a nice Kamchatka Gull a few years back, Carlos has turned up another mega in his home state of Rhode Island. Out of town til late last night, I was lucky enough to catch up with the bird this afternoon after work before the rain hit.

Wood Sandpiper
 - NB

Monday, October 8, 2012

Western Kingbird @ Lighthouse Pt

The highlight of a really birdy morning at Lighthouse Point in New Haven, CT was a brief visit by a bright Western Kingbird. During the peak of the raptor flight I spotted a yellow-bellied kingbird flying away to the north. Few folks got on it and views were poor. We thought that we would have to leave it at "Western-like Kingbird sp," but I picked up on the bird again a few minutes later, this time on its way back into the park. After a few circles, it finally landed, teeing up on a distant treetop and allowing for specific identification. I ran for record shots and the hawkwatchers enjoyed scope views before the kingbird disappeared. It was last seen flying hard to the north out of the park.

Western Kingbird

Otherwise, we had a really nice hawk flight today until it shut down around 2-2:30pm. Notable was a new park record 29 Bald Eagles (unless others moved through after I left at 3pm!).

 - NB

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Yellow-headed Blackbird at Sherwood Island

A great morning's birding was highlighted by this HY male YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD at Sherwood Island State Park in Westport, CT earlier today.

Yellow-headed Blackbird
 - NB