Thursday, January 31, 2013

Pacific NW birding

Just back from a medical conference in Seattle which allowed for some local exploring during meeting breaks with Frank Gallo, Ryan Merrill, and Jay Withgott. I came away very impressed with the birding that the Pacific Northwest has to offer at this time of year.

This has been a banner season for Asian vagrants in the region, with Red-flanked Bluetail and multiple Bramblings being the current highlights we were able to enjoy last weekend. A Citrine Wagtail on Vancouver Island was last reported on Jan 13th and a Little Bunting was recently a two-day wonder in NE Oregon, so we did not try for those. Both the wagtail and bunting are almost certainly kicking around somewhere nearby but are currently eluding birders.

Vagrants aside, the birding was just phenomenal. The raptor show in such places as the Skagit Valley and Samish Flats just north of Seattle and at Boundary Bay near Vancouver was nothing short of brilliant. Multiple Short-eared (several dozen), Long-eared, Snowy, and Barn Owls were seen well, sometimes absurdly close. Hawks included two (!) Gyrfalcons, a few dozen Rough-legs, and a "Harlan's" Red-tailed Hawk.

If you like waterfowl, you'll have your hands full here. Flooded field after flooded field is covered in swans (Trumpeter and Tundra), geese, and ducks. Eurasian Wigeon are present in surprising numbers, and there's always the chance of finding an Emperor Goose, Falcated Duck, or Baikal Teal among the masses.

On the water, four species of loons are present including a few Yellow-billeds (we saw one), and five alcid species can be expected from land.

And last but not least, we have the gulls. We recorded 10 species plus three hybrid combinations and were able to study them repeatedly. I don't believe that the North American Gull Conference has been held here yet, but it NEEDS to be.

More on all of these in the near future.

 - Nick

Monday, January 14, 2013

Jan 10 - Florida "West"

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Western and Cassin's Kingbirds, Swainson's Hawk, "Krider's" Red-tailed Hawk.

All of the above can be expected on a typical winter day's birding where?

You probably wouldn't have guessed south-central Florida, but that's exactly where I'm talking about.

Florida, while much too flat and humid for my liking, is a fascinating winter birding destination. Sure you have the typical resident specialties and the occasional West Indian stray, but south Florida's collection of wintering western/central birds is impressive in both quantity and diversity.

Dori and I spent most of a day birding inland Florida south of Lake Okeechobee, concentrating on agricultural fields (I had particular interest in photographing Red-tailed Hawks which will be featured in a future post). The land here is flat and open, an inviting habitat for many western species, particularly raptors and kingbirds. Any wet ditch or marsh between farms could hold such desirable waders as Wood Stork or even Limpkin. Birds that us New Englanders associate with the coast, such as Tricolored and Little Blue Herons, are common despite being over 50 miles from salt water. Crested Caracaras and Sandhill Cranes are expected sights while driving. Every soaring buteo should be checked as several species are possible, including Short-tailed Hawk.

Wood Stork

Crested Caracara

Swainson's Hawk #1

Swainson's Hawk #2

Swainson's Hawk #3

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

I left rather fascinated by the area and wanting more time to explore this underbirded region. Perhaps next time we'll be able to bird Stormwater Treatment Area 5 (AKA STA-5), a managed wetland that is only open to birders on select days, where whistling ducks and waders reportedly occur in spectacular numbers and diversity. The property was closed on this day, so we were relegated to the vast farmland surrounding it. Just as well, because I was more interested in the western flavor this habitat had to offer.

As Dori has told me repeatedly since moving part-time to Florida a few years ago, she birds inland Florida during winter more often than she birds the coast. Now it makes some sense to me.

We only had one Scissor-tail and no kingbirds on this day, probably thanks to a strong wind, but Dori passed through the area two days later to find 5 Scissor-tails, 2 Westerns, and a Cassin's.

 - Nick

Jan 9 - FL Gulf Coast 'keets

On Jan 9th I took a midday ride north from Ft. Myers with Dori Sosensky and Lynn James in search of two established ABA-countable parakeets, both of which were easy to find.

Our first stop was Hernando Beach, north of the Tampa area, in search of Budgerigar. We found a flock of about eight birds on Gulf Winds Circle without much trouble. The Budgie numbers have really dropped off in FL, so it may not be on my list for long...

We really worked up an appetite by hardly working for those Budgies, so we headed back south for a sushi lunch which just so happened to be in the heart of Nanday Parakeet country at St. Pete Beach. Just before we reached the Basil Leaf Sushi & Thai, a flock of about 15 Nandays flew by. Didn't even have to try! A few more birds flew past the restaurant window as we were eating. After lunch (which was delicious, by the way) we drove backroads near the restaurant and quickly came across four more parakeets.

Nanday Parakeets
Not exactly a dream day of birding with the exotics and all, but those Nandays are truly handsome birds and provided better looks than my life birds in Brazil a couple years ago!

sunset at Tampa Bay with thousands of birds (mostly terns and gulls) feeding in the distance
 - NB

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Jan 8 & 11 - Miami rarity trifecta (Bananquit, La Sagra's, Spindalis)

I'm recently back from four full days in Florida, based in Ft. Myers with long-time friend and birding mentor Dori Sosensky. We had no set plans for my visit, but when a wintering female Western Spindalis was joined by a Bananaquit and La Sagra's Flycatcher over a 6-mile area near Miami, our itinerary began to take shape. On my first day, January 8th, we would head for the Bananaquit and take it from there (apparently my fingers are incapable of typing "Bananaquit" correctly on the first try...I'm currently cursing out loud).

We arrived at Bill Baggs State Park just after its opening at 8am to find a few birders already looking, with no sightings yet. After about two hours of searching, Dori walked back to the car to get something, so of course the Bananaquit flew into its favorite wild sage bush while she was gone. I jogged towards the parking lot, yelled out to Dori, and returned to the bird for a few seconds of viewing. I was able to fire off a single blurry shot as the bird flew out of the bush back into cover. Over the next little while, Dori was able to get a couple fleeting glimpses, and we did hear the bird call a few times, a short high 'sit.'

Next we headed down the road to Virginia Key for the La Sagra's Flycatcher. Lucky for us Rangel Diaz was already on the bird, eliminating what could have been a difficult search as the bird would reportedly bury itself behind dense vegetation. We watched the bird fly-catch for a few minutes before it disappeared back into the veg, but not before running off a series of its high-pitched 'wheet' call.
La Sagra's Flycacther
Before noon we had seen two of the three West Indian rarities, leaving all afternoon to search for the Western Spindalis that was also on Virginia Key. Despite knowing that this bird had not been very reliable recently, my hopes were high with so much time to spare. Well, I ended up spending the rest of the day without sight nor sound of the Spindalis, with occasional help from a few other birders including its original finder, Larry Manfredi. After the unsuccessful search, Dori and I decided to head back to Ft. Myers with a possible return later in the week.

Fast forward to January 11th, my last day. Eager to give the Spindalis another shot, I left Ft. Myers at 4:30am, this time insisting that Dori sleep as she has seen multiple males in FL over the years, so an unreliable female was not a high priority for her. I arrived around sunrise and immediately went to the area where most sightings have occurred, but no bird. I was going to give it until 11am before heading back to Ft. Myers. After a few more hours of fruitless searching I left the most reliable location and explored a bit. Sometime around 10:35am I heard the bird calling at the far SW corner of the bike trail property and was able to "pish" it into the open for a few seconds, part ecstatic and part shocked that I was actually looking at this thing I had spent over 8 combined hours searching for. The bird dipped back into the shadows but continued to call, a short, high and thin 'seet' which I recorded with my iPhone and have uploaded HERE. The bird also gave two longer, descending 'seeeeerrrr' calls, but I did not get those on tape.

The species Western Spindalis (Spindalis zena) is comprised of five subspecies that reside on various West Indian islands, though further study could conceivably lead to splitting (I am not aware of a comprehensive genetic study). Males of at least two (probably three) subspecies have been recorded in Florida. The most common is S. z. zena (from northern and central Bahamas), followed by a few apparent S. z. townsendi (from Grand Bahama and Abaco), and one likely record of S. z. pretrei (Cuba). Males are often separated by back color, though it is reported that this character can vary in a particular subspecies. Since this bird is a female, its race is currently unknown. As far as I know, field separation of female zena versus townsendi cannot be done with confidence given current knowledge. But perhaps this will be worked out in the future, and voice study could always prove to be significant. If so, the recording could come in handy someday.

 - Nick

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Escape from New York

Kurt Russell would be proud.

On New Year's Day, Ian Worley and Ron Payne discovered a COMMON POCHARD on the Vermont side of southern Lake Champlain, later ID'd by Jeremiah Trimble thanks to the wonder of digital photography.

I made the trip north on Sunday January 6th with Phil Rusch and Greg Hanisek. After a few hours of searching by several dozen birders, the duck was relocated on the NY side. We arrived to very nice views of the bird sleeping, every now and then picking its head up for a quick look before re-tucking. Tick! Everyone on site was thrilled, and many birders had already departed feeling very content with their views of this mega rarity.

Not so fast.

Birders down the line from us noticed a band on the bird's right leg as it began to dive and take short flights. A rumor had been spreading during the morning's search that the bird was banded, based on the previous days' observations. We had hoped this was untrue. Chris Wood was able to get some really nice photos clearly showing a metal band on its right leg. I could not help but laugh; something about dozens of birders from far and wide assembled to view...a pet.

Research into the matter has revealed that a drake Common Pochard, reportedly with an identical metal band on its right leg, was lost from an aviary in New York state. Nail in the coffin.

Despite the bad news the road trip was a lot of fun. Great company, got to catch up with some old acquaintances, and the waterfowl show was simply stellar. Throw in a few Rough-legged Hawks and some bear sausage for breakfast and you have a winning day.

 - Nick