Saturday, May 24, 2014

Big Day 2014...188 x2

Last year's CT Big Day effort would have been considered a success if our expectations had not been raised so greatly by our record-breaking 192 run in 2011. I took 2012 off, but was back last year and hoping for a new record. Instead, we came up with 186. Not quite the number we were hoping for, but it did tie the old record that stood for so many years, showing that our 2011 run was no fluke.

Entering 2014, I had set aside over a week for scouting, so my expectations were high. Dave and Fran, the kings of the north, already had their basic route set from the past few years, so they didn't need as much time as in past years to feel comfortable with it. Patrick and Frank had a whole lot going on so their scouting time was more limited than expected, but somehow Frank managed to sneak out most days and cover some of our most productive coastal locations. My schedule flexibility allowed me to cover whatever ground the others could not get to, including the CT River Valley and much of the eastern coast. Overall we had pretty good coverage, but probably not our most ever.

As our target dates approached, it became clear that the weather might keep us from running in that May 19-21 window that we love. On Friday the 16th, Dave Tripp suggested that we go that night. He talked us into it, and it appeared to be the right move. First, there were a ton of migrants already here, and it was looking like a mass exodus was coming on Saturday night once the weather changed. Second, we had quite a bit of lingering waterfowl that was scouted along the coast, which we were afraid might bail with the songbirds once the weather changed. Third, we were hoping for an inland waterbird fallout since rain was forecast for Friday night. Fourth, although it might shape up better later in the week, after our 19-21 window, we did not trust the forecast enough to wait and see. So we decided to go for it. On the downside, we would have much preferred an extra 1-2 days of scouting, and not all of the late breeders were in. For instance, we did not have Acadian Flycatcher pinned down anywhere along our route. It was a calculated risk, but we wanted to try.

Our run was in immediate danger of being canceled though, thanks to a band of heavy rain that was forecast to come through overnight. We were fully ready to abandon ship before dawn if the rain was too extensive. In actuality, the rain wasn't too much of a bother. We had to wait out the downpours for a couple hours, and it may have kept us from ticking Northern Saw-whet Owl, but we did pick up everything else we "needed" during that first night session. By the time dawn came, skies were clearing in the northwest and an unexpected cold breeze greeted us. The songbirds did not like this and weren't exactly singing their hearts out. Our morning in the north was tough at times, as some staked out breeders were missing (White-eyed Vireo) and others just took a bit too long to tick (Cerulean and Hooded Warblers). It was a product of the weather and not the route, for sure. Still, we got most of what we wanted and even ran into a few migrants along the way as hoped for. However those key misses and difficult birds ended up slowing us down over time. It was getting too late by the time we headed for the coast.

We hit the coast on a mission, knowing that we needed to be super efficient to have any shot at all at a record. Amazingly, nearly everything was right where we expected it to be. Iceland Gull...check, White-rumped Sandpiper...check, both scaup...check, check! We cut out the right spots and even ran into a surprise rarity, a Red-necked Phalarope that had actually been found earlier in the day in Guilford (nothing was downed on inland lakes but this bird was surely a product of the previous night's SE winds and rain). Our coastal run was both efficient and lucky, but it still wouldn't be enough. We got to the coast too late and ran out of daylight.

At this point, we knew that our 192 record was out of reach but we had refocused with a new beat the old 186 mark again and set a new second place number. We had some work to do at night, but we had some nocturnal birds to pick up that we probably would have ticked already if not for last night's rain. After hearing Screech Owl, Whip, Sora, and finally a surprise Least Bittern, we ended at midnight with a proud total of 188 on May 17, 2014.

As the next couple days passed, it became apparent that we did the right thing by going early. The 18th through the 20th were unimpressive, with a stiff NW breeze and not much in the way of birds. However, we all had planned on going on a later date, so our schedules were still pretty much clear. We began to talk about trying a second Big Day on Wednesday, May 21, regardless of weather...because we could. The weather for the 21st looked fine in that the NW breeze was finally forecast to die down. Conditions were favorable, but it did not look like we would see any significant migration either. We continued to scout early that week in case we made another run.

On Tuesday morning we decided to give it another go that night. Crazy, I know. We were hoping that we would be able to tighten up the inland route, leaving us enough time to cover as much coast as we needed to, which should lead to an increased total.

We met at 11pm on Tuesday night, pumped and slightly incredulous that we were doing this twice in five days. The air was still and the sky clear, as forecast. Our night started at midnight with a Sora, and we were off from there. We got everything we could have reasonably expected during that first night session except for Great Horned Owl. The quality was stellar, capped by a stridently tooting Northern Saw-whet Owl. So cool. This was the best first night session we've ever had, as far as I was concerned.

Our morning in the north went much more smoothly than it did on Saturday. There was more birdsong in the air, and this theme carried throughout the morning. As a result, we were able to spend much less time looking for individual birds and did not have to rely on as many backup locations. This helped save a ton of time. By late morning we were actually ahead of our record pace despite missing a couple species and not having many migrants at all! Dave and Fran did an amazing job at getting us to the coast at an early hour, allowing us to go much further east than we did on Saturday.

We hit the coast running at Harkness Memorial State Park, getting such birds as the King Eider we had found while scouting, Common Eider, Black Scoter, Surf Scoter, Red-breasted Merganser, Piping Plover, and Purple Sandpiper. We were feeling very, very good.

That didn't last for as long as we had hoped though. After that point, things on the coast were a bit more of a struggle. Birds weren't quite where they were supposed to be. Instead of Saturday's efficient coastal run, it felt like pulling teeth at times. We actually got most of what we were in search of, but there were fewer surprise birds and we had to put in much more time and effort per species. In the end, we ran out of daylight once again...again short of a new record. After dark there wasn't much we needed. We ended up dipping on Great Horned Owl, but our last bird of the day was a calling King Rail that we had found just before midnight the night before! Our total? You guessed it...188! Again.

As our good friend Julian Hough put it, "Glad to see you are improving!" Ha ha...

In all seriousness, over the past 5 years we have gone from hoping to beat the old record (186) to beating it three times and tying it once. The old record is basically our new average. Now that we've upped the stakes, we should eventually reach the mid-190s. 200 is certainly not out of the question, but it has become apparent that reaching 200 on a Connecticut Big Day would take intense scouting, stellar weather conditions, perfect migration timing, and, of course, a bit of dumb luck.

I'm already looking forward to 2015.

 - Nick

Monday, May 5, 2014

CAS trip to the Pantanal, Brazil - October 2015

Over the next year I'll be leading or co-leading a few overnight tours for Connecticut Audubon Society. I will keep links to these trips in the sidebar to the right. Join us for high quality birding, culture, and great fun! Nonmembers from anywhere in the world are welcome of course!

October 2015
Journey to the Brazil’s Pantanal, the world’s largest freshwater wetland and the richest wildlife viewing in the Americas! Covering an area of 360,000 square miles, the Pantanal is a huge complex of aquatic and terrestrial environments resulting in an extremely rich fauna. The variety of birds is astounding, including the endangered and beautiful Hyacinth Macaw, the world’s largest parrot. The Pantanal is also a refuge for many threatened mammals like the Jaguar, Ocelot, Giant Anteater, and Giant River Otter!
For reverse chronological postings from my 2010 trip to the Pantanal with CAS, click HERE.
 - NB

CAS trip to Baxter State Park, Maine - June 2014

Over the next year I'll be leading or co-leading a few overnight tours for Connecticut Audubon Society. I will keep links to these trips in the sidebar to the right. Join us for high quality birding, culture, and great fun! Nonmembers from anywhere in the world are welcome of course!

June 26-29, 2014
Enjoy an escape that takes you to clear mountain waters, lakes abundant with native trout, and the brightest star-filled nights you’ve ever seen—all in the beautiful woods of Maine.
Visit the places where Frederic Church painted his landscapes of Mount Katahdin. Climb away from the busy world among the moose, carnivorous pitcher plants and sundew, orchids, and birds unique to this northern habitat. Northern species such as Bicknell’s Thrush, Three-toed Woodpecker, Black-backed Woodpecker, Gray Jay, Boreal Chickadee and Spruce Grouse are the targets. Breeding warblers may top 20 species, including the stunning Bay-breasted, Magnolia, and Wilson's.

For more information, check out the CAS EcoTravel website and call the office for a brochure!

 - NB

Friday, May 2, 2014

Island Hopping (Part 8 of 8) - At sea & Half Moon Cay (Feb 5-6, 2014)

Feb 5 - at sea, heading west
After six different islands in six straight days we spent all of today cruising back west towards our final port-of-call before arrival back in Fort Lauderdale, most of it without any land in sight.

We did some on-and-off seawatching throughout the day, not expecting much given our experience in these waters the week before when we were heading in the opposite direction. Even though we had few birds again, we were treated to some great quality.

The day began the same way yesterday ended, with an adult RED-BILLED TROPICBIRD. Like the other two tropicbirds of the trip thus far, this one was also distant and not interested in the ship.

Red-billed Tropicbird

Things were quiet after breakfast until mid-morning when we had a brief flurry of activity. The following is copied from my eBird report:

"While scanning off the port side of the 10th deck I spotted distant a high arcing seabird that was about to cross the bow from left to right. Running to the starboard side I followed the bird as it continued on the same heading. Excellent light (sun at back). The bird, in rather breezy conditions, continued its high arcing flight without flapping until it was no longer in view. A small-medium seabird with thickset body tapering to tail, with narrow and pointy wings. Underside of the bird appeared overall bright white with dark underside of primaries and dark carpal-ulnar bar. Upperside showed mostly dark upperparts with a large, gleaming white uppertail patch. There appeared to be a pale hindneck but this was not nearly as apparent as the white rump-area patch."

BLACK-CAPPED PETREL. Too distant to be able to place the bird into dark-faced or white-faced groups.

Later checking of coordinates showed that the sighting came north of Hispaniola, the only island on which the species is confirmed breeding right now. Perhaps heading north to forage in the Gulf Stream off North Carolina? :)

The petrel was soon followed by three more subadult MASKED BOOBIES and a couple of frigatebirds.

Masked Boobies

Around midday I spent another 90 minutes watching the water and was thrilled to have a WHITE-TAILED TROPICBIRD make a distant pass, a new bird for the trip. I did have another Masked Booby as well.

White-tailed Tropicbird

The group got back together in the late afternoon for yet more seawatching before dinner. This evening session yielded only two Magnificent Frigatebirds and a super distant Bridled/Sooty Tern.

Today was all about quality over quantity. Typical pelagic birding...long stretches of birdlessness interrupted by brief moments of great excitement.

flying fish sp.

We ended the day with another fantastic dinner and a successful visit to the Texas Hold'em table :)

Feb 6 - Half Moon Cay (Bahamas)
Half Moon Cay is a small island privately owned by Holland America. Most of the island is undeveloped, except for a small beach resort area set up for cruise passengers. Lucky for us, there are nature trails through the western third of the island. Our time was limited, so we were only able to explore part of this area. We did not even get to sniff the more rugged eastern two-thirds of the island, where seabirds reportedly breed in season. The habitat was primarily tall scrub, and there is a large lagoon and a couple small ponds. Spending some time here during migration would be fun, as would checking out those breeding seabirds (including terns, tubenoses, and tropicbirds supposedly).

With this being our only Bahamian stop and well west of the other ports, we had a chance at a few new species for the trip.

Three species were seemingly omnipresent: THICK-BILLED VIREO, Bananaquit, and BAHAMA MOCKINGBIRD. We were nearly always within earshot of individuals of all three species. Otherwise, new taxa included the West Indian form of Osprey, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Prairie Warblers, and GREATER ANTILLEAN BULLFINCH. Other notable repeats included WHITE-CHEEKED PINTAIL, "Western" Willet, Royal Terns, Laughing Gull, Smooth-billed Ani, and "Myrtle" Yellow-rumped Warblers.

Bahama Mockingbird

Bahama Mockingbird

Osprey (West Indian form)

Greater Antillean Bullfinch

Thick-billed Vireo

Bananaquit (Bahamian form)

We had quite a bit of fun exploring this tiny private island. Like I said, I would have loved even more time here.


low scrub

tall scrub/dry forest


crystal clear water

Heading out to sea in the afternoon, we ran into a feeding flock of birds that was quickly scared by the ship, but not before we tallied 15 Royal Terns, a Brown Booby, and 11 AUDUBON'S SHEARWATERS (finally!).

We cruised back to Florida overnight and disembarked from the ship at 7am.

So, that about does it for this fantastic trip. All participants had a blast. I love this "Island Hopping" idea and was pleasantly surprised with our level of success with the endemics. Hopefully we run this trip again someday!

 - Nick

Island Hopping (Part 7 of 8) - St. Maarten (Feb 4, 2014)

Feb 4 - St. Maarten
Today was our sixth consecutive day of island birding, making those first two full days at sea seem like a distant memory. On St. Maarten, given what we had already seen elsewhere, we had just one major target here: Caribbean Coot. However, the validity of this species has been called into question for some time now, and further research may reveal it to be conspecific with our American Coot. Time will tell.

Anyway, we spent most of our time on the French (North) half of the island because it is less developed, thus birdier, than the Dutch half.

We hit several patches of habitat throughout the day, never lingering at any one site for very long. Most stops had water, either tidal or ponds. Highlights included our best looks at CARIBBEAN ELAENIAS and trip list-padding flocks of shorebirds and ducks. Some of the better shorbs and ducks were Whimbrel, "Western" Willet, Ruddy Turnstone, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, WHITE-CHEEKED PINTAIL, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, and Ruddy Duck.

"Golden" Yellow Warbler

Short-billed Dowitchers

Snowy Egret

We still hadn't sight of a coot by lunchtime, but our local guides were confident. Soon we visited a pond that was covered in waterfowl, including 200 Blue-winged Teal, 50 WHITE-CHEEKED PINTAIL, and finally several coot. A handful of the coot looked good for adult CARIBBEAN COOT with full white forehead shields. We enjoyed this flock for a while before heading back to the ship.

Caribbean Coot, if such a thing exists...

Upon leaving port in the evening we were treated to killer Brown Booby show, with several adults hunting flying fish in the shadow of our ship.

same species, different age...this Brown Booby is a juvenile

Lots of flying fish chasing...

This one plucked a fish from the peak of a wave, very frigatebird-like...

As we got further and further from land the boobies fizzled out and the sea appeared birdless. I stuck out the vigil just long enough to spot a distant flyby RED-BILLED TROPICBIRD, our first identifiable t-bird of the trip (our only other was an unidentified immature early in the trip).

Red-billed Tropicbird
 - NB

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Flood gates about to open??

Today is May 1st but you couldn't tell by the lack of foliage and warblers, thanks to lackluster migration conditions throughout much of the east over the past few weeks. However starting as soon as tonight we should start to see a big change, and the next few days should bring many new arrivals to southern New England. Migration is about to kick into high gear. Enjoy it.

 - NB