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 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

Nov 9 - Orange-crowned Warbler

This autumn has been a good one for Orange-crowned Warblers in Connecticut. There was a flurry of local reports in late October and early November. I finally caught up with one about a week ago in East Haven, CT.

Orange-crowned Warbler, apparently of the expected and widespread celata subspecies

 - NB

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The trick is to *not try*

For the past 2-3 weeks I have spent many hours in the field here in Connecticut scouring fields and thickets for rare birds, particularly for western vagrants. Other than a hybrid gull and a few interesting juncos, I haven't found much of note while birding.

Last Thursday, a rainy and dreary day, found me running errands instead of birding. I brought my bins and camera bag along with me since I knew I would be passing a few fields and ponds worth checking for geese. After picking up some apples and donuts at a farm store, I casually checked a blackbird flock and immediately stumbled upon a YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD.

Dumb luck struck again today. I had a bit of time before I had to meet my father in Norwalk to winterize his boat, so I decided to stop into Seaside Park in Bridgeport to catch some bait for fishing later this month. While driving I glanced into the small horse pen at the park's entrance and noticed a CATTLE EGRET underneath one of the horses. No photos as I was without my camera, and the bird flew within a minute of spotting it anyway.

So there you go. Nothing earth shatteringly rare, but two very good birds for the state while "not birding." I can count on one hand how many individuals of each of those species I have seen in CT (keep in mind I do not year-list, so I rarely chase local birds).

Overall, as we reach the midpoint of November, the rarity season has been a bit slow. Other than a Painted Bunting in Stamford, no true megas. A Barnacle Goose probably ranks as the second rarest bird of the month so far. There have been some good lingering birds and some very scarce species seen too (Lark Sparrow, Western Kingbird, and the two species noted above).

Regionally, there was a great flurry of rarities from surrounding states at the beginning of the month, but this past week was quieter. Still, a Smith's Longspur in MA and a Couch's Kingbird in MD remind us that November is the best month for rarities in these parts. It pays to be in the field looking.

There is plenty of time yet, but one has to wonder what the current (and forecast to be prolonged) unseasonable cold spell will do to any lingering insectivores.

 - Nick

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Interesting recent juncos

We had a big push of Dark-eyed Juncos through coastal CT during the first week of November. I ran into a few impressive flocks of 100+ birds. I checked each flock carefully for odd-looking individuals as this variable species takes many forms across the continent, and vagrants from western populations are sometimes recorded.

Junco #1
Nov 9, 2014 - Long Beach, Stratford, CT

This bird was, oddly enough, completely by itself in dune vegetation with no other juncos in sight. I noticed bright buffy flanks and a shadow of a hooded appearance, which caused me to take notice. Closer looks revealed a bird with very little dark in the buffy sides/flanks and an ambiguous hood shape (concave versus convex). There was no obvious contrast between the bird's back and head, and moderate contrast between a brown back and gray rump.

Junco #2
Nov 3, 2014 - East Shore Park, New Haven, CT

This bird stood out among a flock of well over 100 birds that were feeding on the lawns here. It showed rather warm flanks, an ambiguous bib shape, and some contrast between gray head and brown back except for a brownish crown and central nape. The flanks had a moderate amount of dark feathering.

I have entered each of these birds into eBird as "Slate-colored/Cassiar" Juncos because I do not think they can be positively identified to form. They could very well be within the variation of "Slate-colored", particularly the East Shore bird. I have a tougher time believing that to be the case for the Long Beach bird, but who knows.

"Cassiar" Juncos (J. h. cismontanus) show traits intermediate between the "Oregon" Junco group (J. h. oreganus) and 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, check out this ID-Frontiers thread on the subject, as archived by Angus Wilson on his website.

If you have an opinion on either of these birds, feel free to post a comment.

Junco #3
Oct 30, 2014 - Hammonasset Beach State Park, Madison, CT

 The third and final junco is in a different category than the first two. It shows no "Cassiar/Oregon"-like features. Instead, it shows a pale malar and chin, which are separated by a dark lateral throat stripe. Looking more closely, there is a pale supraloral spot, a hint of a pale supercilium, and even pale areas on the neck sides. These features combine to give the impression of a sparrow-like face pattern. Moving down the body, we see that the flank pattern is atypical for Dark-eyed Junco as the upper flanks are white. In the field I thought I might be seeing a few white-tipped greater coverts, but photos reveal that there are just a few thin white edges present, which appears to be an uncommon but regular feature in juncos.

"Slate-colored" Junco is known to hybridize with White-throated Sparrow. The most obvious hybrids are intermediate in appearance between the two species. But there may be more subtle hybrids slipping by, as the probable hybrids photographed by Mark Szantyr here in Connecticut. Might this bird have some Zonotrichia albicollis genes in it? Maybe!

 - Nick

Friday, November 7, 2014

Welcome to Connecticut

First, read this blog entry by Newfoundland's Bruce Mactavish.

Done? Ok, cool. Note the part about the number of Townsend's Warblers recorded near St. John's, Newfoundland...a whopping sixteen for this western vagrant.

Connecticut, however, has zero records of Townsend's Warbler. It is arguably the most overdue bird to be found in CT...certainly a no-brainer for the top three!

A few days ago I was birding the woods at Lighthouse Point in New Haven, CT. I was pishing and playing a screech owl tape, and birds were coming in. I heard a warbler chip note, at first distantly...then a bit closer. I smiled and thought, "I know that chip note...that belongs to one of three species I'm familiar with: Townsend's (mega rare), Hermit (mega rare) or Black-throated Green (common fall migrant, but very uncommon in November)." These three closely related species have rather similar call notes. With the calendar reading November and western vagrants on the mind, I was desperate for a glimpse of this bird as it came closer. Eventually, it showed, as pictured below.

Black-throated Green Warbler

I don't know why I expected anything different...

 - NB

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Yellow-headed Blackbird in Middlefield, CT

This afternoon I decided to check a few fields and ponds for geese before grocery shopping. I like to do a circuit from Wallingford up to Middlefield and Durham. While driving past the Apple Barrel store at Lyman Orchard's in Middlefield I couldn't help but stop in for an apple cider doughnut. Freaking delicious. Anyway, on my way out of the store I noticed a flock of a couple thousand blackbirds swarming the lawn adjacent to the pond. At about this time, friend Mark Szantyr called, and while we were talking birds I began to scan the flock from my car while it was raining. Immediately a young male YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD popped out among the mixed flock. After abruptly hanging up on Mark I snapped a handful of photos (without closely checking my settings, which were off), and a big female Cooper's Hawk spooked the birds. The flock continued to linger in the area, generally perching in the trees in the rain as the Coop's made repeated passes. I gave Julian Hough a call since he happens to literally work right across the street. On his lunch break at the time, he stopped by for a minute...but we were stuck with distant birds in the rain against a bright gray sky...tough conditions. Realizing that I was never going to be able to effectively scour this flock given the hawk's constant presence and weather conditions, I packed it in for the day.

Yellow-headed Blackbird

 - Nick