Friday, March 27, 2015

Feb 22, 2015 - Seaside Park gulls

Going back a month here. After successfully twitching the Tufted Duck in Bridgeport, CT, Julian Hough and I stopped into nearby Seaside Park and spent a few minutes with gulls that were coming in to bread.

We focused most of our attention on a second cycle "Kumlien's" Iceland Gull.

"Kumlien's" Iceland Gull

"Kumlien's" Iceland Gull

While watching this bird, we noticed a few other individuals showing interesting features.

First, an adult Herring Gull with a rather Thayer's-like pattern, showing a reduced amount of black in the primaries including a fully white tip to p10.

Herring Gull

Herring Gull

Next was a Great Black-backed Gull with rather yellow legs.

Great Black-backed Gull

Great Black-backed Gull

Finally, an adult Herring Gull with dull yellow legs, which is actually regularly seen in late winter and early spring as these birds come into breeding plumage.

Herring Gull

 - NB

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Interesting Wallingford geese

A flock of about two hundred Canada Geese on a dreary day in Wallingford, CT today held a few interesting birds: two small Canada Geese and one Canada hybrid.

First, the small Canadas. Note that the usual caveats to white-cheeked goose identification apply here...there are many pitfalls! For a quick summary, check out David Sibley's blog post on the subject or this article in Cackling Goose ID by Mlodinow et. al.

I find that my confidence in identifying white-cheeked geese waxes and wanes from year to year. Or, more accurately, perhaps flock to flock. I am currently in a "less confident" phase, perhaps owing a bit to recent interest discussions on the topic.

Both of today's small Canada Geese are birds that I usually put squarely into the Canada Goose category, and for all I know that may be correct. But I am going to post some photos here to show just how small these geese looked next to adjacent obvious Canadas. The size difference held up well in the field throughout my prolonged observation. However, in each of these birds, the only thing I would call somewhat Cackling-like was their overall small size. Their bills were less obviously long, as least for Bird #1, but still what I felt was fine for Canada Goose.

Small Canada #1:
This bird was the smaller of the two subject birds. Here, in direct comparison to two obviously large Canada Geese, which I am tentatively placing in the moffitti/maxima group.

at left, next to a large Canada

dark gular stripe

at left, next to same large Canada as above

at right, next to different large Canada

at right

at right

Small Canada #2:
Less impressively small with proportionately longer bill than Bird #1, but still obvious in small size in the field. One of the darker-breasted birds in the flock.

at left

at left

And last but not least, the hybrid. This appears to be a hybrid with a domestic goose. I do not see Snow Goose genes here, due to large size (the bird is a monster), orange legs, and lack of a "grin patch."

hybrid Canada x "domestic" goose

Anyway, a few somewhat interesting birds to chew on. Hey, it was a slow day! I don't see any reason to call these two small Canadas anything other than just that. Comments always welcome.

 - NB

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

"Common" Teal, Barrow's Goldeneye, and more

I woke up on the early side this morning in hopes of getting to the coast for a few hours of birding. Glancing at my phone, the outside temperature read a frigid 18 degrees, which gave me more than a brief pause. I don't know how I got myself out of bed with that piece of information in mind, but I did. And I'm glad I did, because it turned out to be a beautiful day. Once the sun rose the temps climbed into the lower 40s. Combine that with almost zero wind until mid-afternoon, and I didn't have to wear all those layers I brought with me.

On my way to the water I lucked into a flock of Canada Geese in Northford which held an adult GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GOOSE. I continued to the coast, where I started at South Cove in Old Saybrook in search of Bonaparte's Gulls. This used to be one of the two best spots in the state (along with the Oyster River mouth in Milford/West Haven) to view roosting flocks of Bonaparte's Gulls numbering in the hundreds to a few thousand. It hasn't been like that for years now, but I felt like checking anyway. We are in what should be the peak of the "Boney" migration locally, and a mid-morning low tide like today's was traditionally the best time to view the flocks. As expected, though, no birds today. I did a quick loop around Old Saybrook's hotspots, turning up two RED-NECKED GREBES and some PURPLE SANDPIPERS.

I then poked into Hammonasset Beach State Park, where there were few birds to be found (and most of the productive parking lots still blocked from vehicular traffic for the "winter"). Nearby East Wharf in Madison held exactly what I was Jonesing for, flocks of plankton-feeding gulls and waterfowl. Some Bonaparte's Gulls were included. The action appeared to extend well down the coast to the west. I did not leave without scanning the goldeneye flock in its usual location, where a drake BARROW'S GOLDENEYE was still present (found on March 1st).

drake Barrow's Goldeneye (second from left) among Commons at East Wharf, Madison, CT (photo from March 1, 2015)

The feeding flock continued down the Madison coast and well into Guilford, finally ending near Sachem Head. Among the several thousand gulls and ducks were two adult "KUMLIEN'S" ICELAND GULLS and a first cycle LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULL.

My final stop was at Shell Beach in Guilford, where a drake "COMMON/EURASIAN" GREEN-WINGED TEAL was present. Interestingly, the bird often covered its horizontal white stripe with the gray scapulars that lie above it, occasionally being almost entirely concealed. While this may not show in the photos, the bird was viewed very well through the scope and no signs of intergradation were visible. There was no hint of a vertical white breast stripe on either side, and the bird showed bolder white lines on its face, more coarsely vermiculated flanks (scope required), and a subtly more contrasting pale line between the gray flanks and black undertail coverts in direct comparison to nearby American Green-winged Teal.

"Common" (AKA "Eurasian") Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca crecca)

"Common" (AKA "Eurasian") Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca crecca)

note how the horizonal white line can be concealed by the overhanging gray scapulars

 - NB

Friday, March 6, 2015

Abrupt (and welcome!) changes ahead

It has been so cold and snowy for so long that it is easy to forget we're already through the first week of March. The calendar says spring is almost here, yet is feels like the dead of winter. Average high temperatures here in Connecticut are around 40 degrees Fahrenheit, but we have not been even close to that number for most of the past six weeks. Don't get me wrong; we're used to cold snaps, even down here in southern New England, but not without a thaw every once in a while! Many northeastern cities experienced their coldest February on record. In the birding world, visible northbound migration has been nearly nonexistent. The only noticeable local movements have been from waterfowl retreating southward, away from frozen inland rivers and lakes. However, they're about to pull a U-turn.

We are right on the cusp of breaking out of this deep freeze, and with that will come a rapid change in the birding scene here in Connecticut. Spring migration, although subtle at times, will be obvious to those who pay close enough attention.

Waterfowl, forced further and further south by the inland freeze-up, will follow the melting ice back north. It will be time to monitor all bodies of water for flocks of teal, pintail, shovelers, etc. Geese will be moving back through, which should mean a rash of rarity sightings...all flocks should be checked as any of the unusual geese are possible. March is perhaps the best month to find a Tundra Swan in Connecticut; sometimes flocks are briefly grounded by inclement weather. Early March has always been as good a time as any to find a Barrow's Goldeneye among the flocks of Commons. This has already proven true as at least a few have been seen along the coast in the last few days.

You'll likely begin to notice more and more Turkey (and Black) Vultures circling overhead as these shorter-distance migrants begin to filter back from their wintering grounds. Hawk migration generally kicks into gear during the month of March. We don't have any really good spring hawkwatches here in Connecticut, but one can still observe migration in the right place at the right time, particularly later in the month.

It is hard to believe, given how frozen our harbors are right now, that Piping Plovers will be returning to their favorite beaches any day now, while the ridiculous cackle of American Oystercatchers will soon be audible at these same locations. Killdeer, which we should have been seeing by now, will probably arrive by the beginning of next week. Wilson's Snipe will be an easy find at places like Durham Meadows once those fields turn from snow to slop. And American Woodcocks will start displaying too.

March also brings the beginning and peak of the annual "coastal gull show," caused by plankton blooms along the shores of Long Island Sound. It will be interesting to see how the extensive coastal freeze will impact this event, if at all. Expect all the usual species plus higher numbers of Iceland Gulls and staging of Bonaparte's Gulls. Black-headed Gull is more likely early in this event, while your best shot at Little Gull will come toward the end of the month or into early April. One can only hope for the state's second Ross's Gull (the first was among Bonaparte's Gulls in early spring 1983)...but steadily decreasing local numbers of "Bonies" make this feel less likely every year.

As far as passerines go, Eastern Phoebes will go from essentially absent right now to rather common in a few weeks. The rapidly increasing Common Ravens are already on eggs (or working on it...just like Bald Eagles and Great Horned Owls). Tree Swallows often hit the lower Connecticut River first, as they should be doing very shortly.

One species that we haven't seen in Connecticut for years but might expect is Bohemian Waxwing. These irruptive frugivores have been making a significant move to the south in recent weeks and may even continue to do so for a little while longer (even though the calendar approaches spring) as they devour all crabapples in their path. This species made its last significant appearance in the state in April of 2008, so history says that we still have some time to find them before they disappear back to the northwest.

Open country birds such as Horned Lark, Lapland Longspur, and Snow Bunting will also be moving around this month. The longspurs and buntings are particularly worth seeking as they begin to come into striking spring colors. And check all longspurs for rarer species too. Maryland (I believe) had a Chestnut-collared Longspur recently, and Larry Flynn found a Smith's Longspur in Westport, CT during late March several years ago.

March is a bit early to be talking about warblers, but Pine Warblers will arrive on breeding grounds before we hit April. This is also a great month to see and hear Fox Sparrows, which are likely to be singing on warm days.

We can't leave out one of the true harbingers of spring...blackbirds. Red-wings and Grackles have already begun to turn up in a few places, but the floodgates will open soon. Rounding out the passerines, irruptive finches such as Purple Finch, Pine Siskin and Common Redpoll should pass through in small to moderate numbers as they work their way back north, so keep those feeders stocked.

We've all been patiently awaiting spring, and it is finally set to arrive as we know it. It does seem odd writing about a season that still seems so far away, especially on the heels of last night's near record cold. But the wait is almost over. Enjoy the "warmth" (45 degrees is going to feel balmy!) and the change of seasons that we're about to experience. It's been a long time coming!

 - NB

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Feb 16-21 -- Nova Scotia and back

Ever since the Eurasian Kestrel near Halifax, Nova Scotia was identified back in late December, I had been looking for an opportunity to drive up to see it. My anticipation doubled when a Fieldfare joined the party in late January. Just last week everything finally came together, and I headed north with Tom Johnson and Matt Sabatine. We managed to time our departure between winter storms, most notably on the heels of a blizzard that dropped 1-2 feet of snow on our destination. (If you've watched the national news for all of five minutes recently, you might think that we've all been buried alive under snow drifts.) We drove up overnight Monday in hopes of reaching the Fieldfare sometime on Tuesday morning.

Late Monday 2/16 into Tuesday 2/17:
Roads in the US were in fine shape as we drove through a very cold night; temps dipped to as low as -11 degrees Fahrenheit. The Nova Scotia DOT website had still labeled the highway to the Fieldfare as *closed* as we reached the international border. In fact, several highways in that region of the province had apparently not yet been cleared. Nova Scotia in particular really got whacked by the most recent blizzard, which didn't get cranked up until it had reached the Maritimes. As we sat in the Canadian customs office at daybreak waiting to be searched and questioned (apparently they didn't buy our "birding" story...shocker), we figured this delay would only give the plows more time to do their job before we arrived...

The drive through New Brunswick was almost completely bird-less, but we did run into a few nice adult "Kumlien's" Iceland Gulls once we hit Nova Scotia...the first of what would be many this week. We were pleased to find that the road to East Apple River (Fieldfare country) was freshly plowed at the start. Some deft driving on Tom's part got us through a few soft spots, and we were making relatively good time until we caught up to the plow itself, which was steadily inching its way along the final few miles of road. Perfect timing, actually.

Following the plow to freedom!

We arrived to be greeted by the bird's hosts, the Spicers. Kathleen Spicer has been keeping a notebook of visitors since the bird arrived on Jan 31st, and her count had reached into the 80s with us (must be triple digits by now). It was immediately apparent, as we got out of the car, that this was a very birdy yard. Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins were on the feeders, while Snow Buntings and Horned Larks were on the rooftop and in surrounding trees. The finches I had expected, but the open country birds were a bit of a surprise to me. Kathleen was quick to point out the lone apple tree in which the FIELDFARE was almost constantly present during the day, chowing down on frozen rotten apples that it defended voraciously from other birds. Yep, there it was.

The apple tree


We had the bird all to ourselves and watched it for over an hour while it continuously fed on apples, occasionally giving a series of "clucks" and flying up and into the trees across the yard. Any departure from the apple tree was brief, however. Other than the occasional chickadee, no bird dared enter that apple tree. Kathleen told Matt that the Fieldfare even chased off a flock of Bohemian Waxwings earlier that day. I soaked up every second of watching this bird, as Fieldfare had been a species I wanted to see for a very long time. A chase-able Fieldfare turned up in eastern Massachusetts two winters ago, which I would have been very disappointed to miss had I not been on a great family trip to Costa Rica at the time!

With the roads still partially snow-covered, we decided to leave before dark as we had a couple more hours of driving ahead of us. We spent the night about an hour shy of Halifax. Matt tried Thai food for the first time. He could not have disliked it more.

Wednesday 2/18:
Our target for this morning was mega-rarity #2, EURASIAN KESTREL. As we neared the end of Shore Road at Hartlen Point, we quickly found the kestrel perched atop a roadside evergreen. The bird proceeded to fly, perch, and hunt on either side of the coastal road. We watched it catch two voles, at least one of which may have been cached. It seemed to be living very well despite the harsh weather conditions. Despite the fact that the bird was often in view and very active, it proved difficult to photograph, perhaps purposely avoiding flying over our vehicle. We really enjoyed viewing through scopes and binoculars as this bird did its thing.

After spending significant time with the kestrel (and multiple Rough-legged Hawks) we birded back along Shore Road, stopping periodically to scan the water. Tom picked out another of the trip's major highlights in the form of a female borealis-type Common Eider. This bird was rather pale grayish overall, especially in the face, and features shorter and pointier bill processes than the surrounding female dresseri eiders.

female borealis Common Eider

Other highlights along this stretch of road included a male-female pair of BARROW'S GOLDENEYE, several BLACK GUILLEMOTS, and nearly as many "Kumlien's" Iceland Gulls as Herring Gulls.

light morph Rough-legged Hawk

first cycle "Kumlien's" Iceland Gull

Our next stop would be Sullivan's Pond in Dartmouth for gulls and waterfowl. Best birds here were two different adult "COMMON" MEW GULLS, one of which was very cooperative.

Common Gull #1 with Black-headed Gull behind and Ring-billed Gull in front (note the abnormal dark right eye on this RBGU...not something I noticed in the field)

Your typical "Common" Mew Gull primary pattern, including dark bases to p9-10, very little white on p8, and a broken black band on a broad white trailing edge to the secondaries that really narrows at the inner primaries

"Common" Mew Gull #1

"Common" Mew Gull #2 (right side of photo)

Two adult BLACK-HEADED GULLS were also in the mix.

Black-headed Gull

We ended our day watching the harbor near our hotel in Halifax, where we counted 177(!) Iceland Gulls in one evening roost flock plus over a dozen more Black-headed Gulls as Black Guillemots whizzed by.

Thursday 2/19:
With snow in the forecast, our plan for the day consisted of birding the Hartlen Point/Dartmouth area again for another crack at the kestrel and more gulls/waterfowl, etc.

Sullivan's Pond again delivered, today with more waterfowl diversity. We caught up with a mixed flock of dabbling ducks that contained 3 EURASIAN WIGEON and about 10 American Wigeon.

female Eurasian Wigeon

male Eurasian Wigeon

first cycle "Kumlien's" Iceland Gull

Hartlen Point again produced a nice assortment of gulls, including counts of 8 BLACK-HEADED GULLS and 35 Iceland Gulls. We enjoyed a few more moments with the kestrel, but just as we were about to drive off the bird finally decided to fly over us, showing quite well for a few quick seconds!

Eurasian Kestrel

Eurasian Kestrel doing its thing along the rugged Nova Scotia coastline

Eurasian Kestrel

Rough-legged Hawk

With snow falling and yet another storm on the horizon for the weekend, we decided that we should begin our drive back towards home, which would be spread out over a few days. We made it back over the US border into Houlton, Maine for the night.

Friday 2/20:
With a few inches of fresh powder on the ground, we headed towards the Burn Road in Topsfield, Maine in hopes that it would be drive-able. Unfortunately it was snowed in, but we were pleased to find a flock of seven PINE GROSBEAKS make a brief appearance at the road's intersection with Route 1. A bit of exploration along nearby side roads resulted in a brief look at a HOARY REDPOLL among a small group of Commons.

On to the towns of Lee, Lincoln, and Orono for BOHEMIAN WAXWINGS, which had made a major push into the area recently. We found waxwings in each of these towns, plus another flock of Pine Grosbeaks on the University of Maine campus, where we managed to confuse/frighten more than one unsuspecting co-ed while we photographed the birds by lying flat on the ground.

Bohemian Waxwings

Bohemian Waxwing

Pine Grosbeak

Pine Grosbeak

Pine Grosbeak

Pine Grosbeak

We eventually tore ourselves away from these birds to continue south. A report of a/the dark Gyrfalcon in Wells, Maine from earlier that day was enticing enough for us to check out. Unfortunately the bird was only seen briefly in the morning and was not around when we checked late in the afternoon.

Saturday 2/21:
Today was spent birding Cape Ann, Massachusetts ahead of an approaching snow-maker from the southwest. Tom, Matt and I met Jeremiah Trimble and Ryan Schain bright and early at the Jodrey Fish Pier in Gloucester, later joined by Ryan Doherty. Our highest single count of Iceland Gull here reached 57 birds, plus two GLAUCOUS GULLS and a probable second cycle HERRING x GLAUCOUS GULL hybrid.

subadult "Kumlien's" Iceland Gull (same bird as two photos above)

first cycle "Kumlien's" Iceland Gull
subadult Glaucous Gull

At the nearby Fisherman's Monument, Jeremiah and Ryan showed us a continuing hybrid COMMON GOLDENEYE x HOODED MERGANSER...such a cool-looking bird.

male hybrid Common Goldeneye x Hooded Merganser

male hybrid Common Goldeneye x Hooded Merganser

As we watched via radar the weather deteriorate to our south, we called it a day after lunch and headed back to Connecticut for the night. Good thing we did, as roads really began to get sloppy as we got back to my place.

This road trip was well worth the wait and could not have gone much better. Great birds + great company = great success. We even managed to successfully dodge the nonstop parade of winter storms that have been battering the region lately. Nova Scotia during the winter is a fascinating place to bird, highlighted by the presence of several European species.

 - Nick