Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Dec 27 & 28 - MA North Shore (Thayer's Gull ++)

Julian Hough, Greg Hanisek and I spent the better part of last weekend birding the North Shore of Massachusetts. Reports from the area had been surprisingly few in the days preceding our visit, thus our expectations were a bit tempered. Still, there may not be a better winter birding destination in New England, so we were game to try. Besides, I think we were all about sick of seeing Common Loons and Black Ducks around home!! :)

Less than three hours from home on Saturday morning we kicked things off at Marblehead Neck for our one-and-only twitch of the weekend. A TOWNSEND'S WARBLER had been frequenting the neck's sanctuary and adjacent backyards for several days. Well-known to CT birders as the Undisputed "How-the-hell-has-this-species-never-been-seen-in-CT-before" Champion of the World, we could not pass up the opportunity to check out this western vagrant. After a bit of watching and waiting the bird appeared at a backyard suet feeder, giving nice looks for all. Once satisfied, we drew the bird a map to Connecticut in the dirt and left.

Townsend's Warbler

From here we spent the rest of the day on Cape Ann, birding from Gloucester Harbor to Halibut Point. We drove to the end of the Jodrey Fish Pier to find a first cycle GLAUCOUS GULL standing in the lot among a few Herring Gulls.

first cycle Glaucous Gull

Despite this early success, gull numbers here were wayyy down from what I'm used to seeing (though I haven't birded here in a few years)...a theme that would continue for the weekend. Two adult and one first cycle "Kumlien's" Iceland Gulls were the only other white-winged gulls we saw in the harbor.

first cycle "Kumlien's" Iceland Gull

adult "Kumlien's" Iceland Gull

Some seawatching from the Eastern Point Lighthouse was overall quiet, but Julian's spot of a DOVEKIE was unexpected and very satisfying. As far as we knew, there had been hardly any recent reports of alcids other than the expected Razorbills and Black Guillemots.

Next up was Niles Pond, another well-known gull magnet. There were no more than 100 individual gulls on the pond at any one time, but there was a steady turnover. Our first scan revealed nothing but the three common species of gull. The pond was ice-free and held some waterfowl, including Lesser Scaup, Ruddy Duck, and a Double-crested Cormorant.

From the other end of the pond we scanned Brace Cove and found a female BARROW'S GOLDENEYE among the Common Goldeneye. Nice looks at this bird at rest, diving, and in flight. Just as I was about to digiscope photos of the Barrow's, Julian called our attention to an incoming gull. His initial impression was correct - we watched as a juvenile THAYER'S GULL landed on Niles Pond. We followed the bird as it actively bathed in the fresh water, concurrently realizing that there were now a couple Iceland Gulls and a Glaucous Gull on the pond. Where did they come from?? Obviously we had under appreciated the amount of turnover on the pond despite the very low numbers at any given time. After about 10 minutes on the pond the Thayer's Gull took flight and headed back out towards Brace Cove where it landed amidst a roosting gull flock at the north end of the cove. We drove around to that end of the cove but were unable to relocate the bird.

From a distance, note the frosty checkered brown upperparts, the darker-centered tertials, and the very dark brown primaries lightly fringed with white. Structure recalls a lightly-built large gull, though this varies with sex.

One of my few photos that shows the tail, which appeared rather solid brown in the field.

Upperwing pattern can be seen in these next few shots...classicly dark outer webs and pale inner webs to the outer primaries.

One of my few photos that shows the secondary bar.

Again a bit of a look at the brown tail.

Secondaries exposed at rest.

Again note the tertial pattern with most (if not all) having wholly dark centers.

First cycle Thayer's Gulls tend to retain their juvenile scapulars well into the winter, and this bird is no exception.

Silvery underside of the primaries with thin dark tips, which is one of the features we first noticed when Julian called out the bird as it sailed into Niles Pond from the ocean.

Here are two heavily cropped flights shots courtesy of Julian Hough:

first cycle Thayer's Gull in flight, by Julian Hough

Feeling great about our day already, we continued north along the coast to Cathedral Ledge to find several Harlequin Ducks feeding below us.

Harlequin Ducks

A THICK-BILLED MURRE was loafing not too far offshore in excellent light...another bird we were hoping for but weren't really expecting! Razorbills and Black-legged Kittiwakes could be seen further offshore.

Thick-billed Murre

We wrapped things up at Andrew's and Halibut Points, which were considerably less birdy and did not hold much of interest while we were there. Of course the rugged coastal scenery and beautiful October-like weather made up for the lack of birds.

Views from Halibut Point. NOT late December weather!

On our drive from Cape Ann towards Salisbury we stopped for dinner at Spice Thai Kitchen in Ipswich...we highly recommend this place, especially their Drunken Noodle! We ended up finding a cheap, clean room just over the state line at the Hampton Falls Inn in Seabrook, New Hampshire.

Julian's contribution to the housekeeper's tip. I think this took him less than five minutes.

Sunday morning was rather wet and raw. Temperatures were still unseasonably warm, but the rain and breeze made it feel much colder. We started at Salisbury Beach State Reservation and found a rather distant SNOWY OWL in the marsh...the first of many we would see today. Seawatching produced the expected species. The best bird was a second-winter male KING EIDER that was actually quite close to shore inside the river mouth. The rain and low light kept us from even trying to photograph that bird, but Eric Labato posted a photo he took later that morning.

On our way to Plum Island we made a few stops along the Newburyport side of the river. We again noted the lack of gulls. We did not see a single white-winged gull along that entire stretch of river, which is not something I thought was possible! On Plum Island we added more waterfowl to our trip list and enjoyed some raptors including Rough-legged Hawks and Bald Eagles. What we lacked in white gulls we made up for in white owls. We ended up tallying an impressive eight Snowy Owls on Plum Island south of the bridge. From one particular spot five were in view at once. As we were leaving the island around 1pm we found one more, making a whopping 10 for the day. A great way to cap a fantastic weekend of birding.

Snowy Owl, digiscoped

same bird, same distance, DSLR w/ 400mm lens

 - Nick

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Is it too late for Cave Swallows?

Not according to the calendar. In past years we have experienced major incursions of Cave Swallows into the 20s of November. One of the first big incursions to CT occurred on November 23, 2002. For a big Cave Swallow event here in New England you usually need two things to happen: 1) a strong SW flow directly from Texas to the Great Lakes region followed by NW winds to push them to the coast, and 2) a successful breeding year for the species at the northern edge of its range. Without the wind, the swallows don't have that extra tailwind they need to make it all the way up here. And without the breeding success there is not a large pool of young birds that are more likely to take the "scenic route" to their wintering grounds.

I have no idea how Cave Swallows did this past summer in the Texas/Oklahoma region. But I do know that we have had not had any decent Cave Swallow setup weather this month. Not surprisingly there have been zero eBird records of Cave Swallow from New England this autumn season.

There may still be some hope. Upon checking the weather this morning I saw that there is a bit of a SW flow forecast on-and-off for the next few days. This is nothing classic...no strong winds and not a "direct" path for very long. BUT it is better than anything we've seen so far this month.

Current US weather on the morning of Nov 22 - a weak SW flow in the target area

If the forecast holds our one shot at Cave Swallow around here will probably come sometime next week. If it doesn't happen then, we'll have to wait for 2015.

 - NB

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Notes from Last Weekend (Nov 14-16)

Here are a few photos, with captions, from this past weekend along coastal Connecticut.

immature Golden Eagle over Lighthouse Point, New Haven, CT

lingering Baltimore Oriole at Harkness SP, Waterford, CT

Lark Sparrow found by Russ Smiley in New London, CT

Among about a dozen Horned Larks in fading light at Hammonasset Beach SP in Madison, CT was one noticeably paler individual. There is much variation in this species throughout North America, particularly regarding upperpart and head color. This pale individual is likely from a different breeding population than the birds with which it is flocking. At least two subspecies of Horned Lark occur in Connecticut...which might make for an interesting future blog post!

 - NB

Monday, November 17, 2014

Nov 9 - apparent hybrid Herring x Lesser Black-backed Gull in CT

I spotted this interesting adult gull as I pulled into my parking space at Long Beach in Stratford, CT about a week ago. It immediately struck me as Herring Gull-like but darker mantled. A quick check of eye color showed a bright pale yellow iris...unfortunate, as this one feature lessens the chance at something mega rare like Vega Gull. Anyway, a glance at a few other features all pointed strongly towards HERGxLBBG rather than a pure bird of some rare taxon. ID points are included in photo captions below.

the right-most bird next to two typical adult American Herring Gulls

Head/neck streaking showing a concentration of fine streaks around the eye that is often seen in LBBG, but thicker on the neck and breast than in your typical LBBG (note that winter head streaking is notoriously variable in HERG).

The dark mantle makes those scapular and tertial crescents really pop. Leg color was ambiguous to me at first...I had to talk myself into seeing definite yellow tones. More below on that.

Structure struck me as very Herring Gull-like...not small, slim and long-winged like LBBG. This was especially apparent on the couple occasions when the bird was directly next to HERGs.

Looking a bit more elongated in this photo.

No retained primaries. P9 and p10 are still growing.

Orange orbital ring. For reference, Herring Gull typically has a yellow-orange orbital ring at this time of year, and Lesser Black-backed Gull should show a reddish orbital ring.

I'd call these legs a yellowy flesh color, with yellow tones strongest on posterior legs and feet. They are less yellow than most presumed hybrid adult HERGxLBBG of which I have seen photos.

An interesting primary pattern, with less black than expected and rather bold white tongue tips (creating a "string of pearls" look).

Overall, I think this one's pretty safely identified as Herring x Lesser Black-backed given the suite of intermediate characters. The only thing that struck me as odd was the primary pattern. Perhaps these Herring Gull genes come from a population that shows less black in the wingtips, like the birds that are typically seen in Newfoundland (which average less black in their wingtips than our local southern New England birds)? If you have seen a putative HERGxLBBG hybrid with such bold white tongue tips, I'd love to hear from you.

 - Nick