Monday, November 14, 2016

Weather to watch for this weekend

UPDATE: This was a total dud. Nothing happened...

ORIGINAL POST: The past couple weeks of weather have been quiet around here. Not surprisingly, no major rarity fallouts, though there has been a slow trickle of 'megas' during the first half of November AKA 'rarity month.'

Looks like there will be a potent low that will track through the upper midwest and then northeast into Ontario. The track is similar to last November's storm that brought the unprecedented Franklin's Gull fallout and large numbers of Cave Swallows to the northeast, but a week later. Not sure how strong the storm will be, or if it will impact New England with strong winds (as of right now, winds are not supposed to be very strong here, but the storm is several days out). It's definitely worth keeping an eye on for this coming weekend. If everything comes together, it could mean an uptick in rarities in these parts.

Here are the current forecast maps for Thu-Sun:

 - NB

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Greenland Canada Goose band info

Back on Oct 10th I observed a neck-banded Canada Goose in Wallingford, 'G73,' that I figured originated in Greenland. I just received the following info from Tony Fox:

"This was another Greenland banded Canada Goose, first banded as a female gosling on 18 July 2009 on Lake I in Isunngua, west Greenland, when it was too small to take a collar, so it was simply banded with a yellow plastic leg band(as well as metal band) with the black engraved code GTX.  It was caught again on lake R on 18 July 2014 a couple of kilometres away from its original catch site, when it was decided to add the collar and the leg band was changed to coincide with the code on the collar.  As you will see, since then it is has been a well-travelled bird, with records from Canada as well as New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Mass and NY, so it is simply wonderful to find it staging in Connecticut with you this year!"

 - NB

Monday, October 10, 2016

Today's diurnal migration - excellent!

With today's forecast showing a NNW wind at a steady 15mph, we were expecting a solid hawk flight along the coast of Connecticut. When the wind is that strong migrant raptors are pinned against the coast as they work their way southward, so a place like Lighthouse Point in Connecticut is a fine place to spend a few hours on a day like today. Julian Hough and I started at nearby Ecology Park for a while, then moved to Lighthouse for the bulk of the day's flight. In all, the observers at Lighthouse tallied over 850 migrating hawks, falcons and vultures. It's been a long day of looking at bright blue skies followed by this computer screen, so I only have just about enough energy to post a series of photos from today.

The last bird of the afternoon came in the form of a tired and hungry BLACK-BILLED CUCKOO that actually landed on the lawn upon flying into the park. A couple of late CLIFF SWALLOWS were another welcome non-raptor highlight.

Black-billed Cuckoo

Northern Harrier

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Bald Eagle

Cooper's Hawk
Cooper's Hawk

Cooper's Hawk
Eastern Meadowlark


Saturday, October 8, 2016

October has arrived

Here in southern New England you don't need a calendar to tell you when October has arrived. No, I'm not talking about the disappearance of summer-like weather or the rapidly shortening days. If you're a birder you can tell the calendar page has turned just by the arrival (and departure) of certain species. This has been apparent as I've spent a good amount of time in the field over the first week of the month.

Along the coast, Forster's Terns now outnumber Common Terns.

Forster's Terns

The first "Northern" Horned Larks of the subspecies alpestris can be found in coastal dunes and open spaces.

Horned Lark

Sparrow numbers and diversity skyrocket.

Lincoln's Sparrow

Savannah Sparrows are everywhere

Nelson's Sparrow is a common October migrant in coastal saltmarsh, though this may actually be a hybrid...

Raptor diversity peaks. At one location earlier this week I had 13 species of raptor/vulture in just a couple hours' watching the sky.

Bald Eagle

Cooper's Hawk

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

Hawkwatching often yields a few non-raptor bonuses, such as this adult RED-HEADED WOODPECKER that passed between me and the sun a few days ago.

Red-headed Woodpecker

Yellow-rumped Warblers dominate, while good numbers of Palm Warblers spill over from September.

"Yellow" Palm Warbler

Gull numbers continue to increase while diversity remains on the low side. Still, southbound Lesser Black-backed Gulls are often seen this month, particularly during periods of inclement weather and east winds, some of which we experienced last weekend.

juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gull

Red-breasted Nuthatches have been moving since late summer, and they continue to be common statewide. Perhaps we will see more boreal irruptives as the month progresses.

Red-breasted Nuthatch


Friday, October 7, 2016

Hybrid Barnacle x Canada Goose

Migrant Canada Geese have really hit hard here in Wallingford this week. It seems a week or two early, but they are already here in force. What was meant to be a quick check of Mackenzie Reservoir late this morning turned into a 90-minute scan. There were 2-300 Canadas on the res when I arrived along with one continuing "Richardson's" CACKLING GOOSE that I first saw a few days ago. In this flock were Canada Geese of all body and bill sizes, including a few that in some ways seemed intermediate between Canada and Cackling Goose. This was reminiscent of last year's flock at this same location.

As I was about to move on I noticed a group of Canadas fly into the reservoir, followed by another and another...and so on. Before I knew it, there were 900 birds on the water. I did not notice anything different fly in, but obviously I missed something because a follow-up scan of the geese on the water revealed a hybrid BARNACLE x CANADA GOOSE. It was obvious at first that this bird was intermediate between a Barnacle and one of the white-cheeked geese (Canada or Cackling), but after some study I felt pretty good that Canada Goose was likely the other parent. This is based on the bird's body and bill size. A pure Barnacle Goose is smaller than a Canada Goose with a tiny little triangular bill. This bird's size was about equal to that of the adjacent Canada Geese, and its bill was a bit longer than that of your standard Barnacle. If the other parent were a Cackling Goose, one would expect a smaller-bodied bird with a stubbier bill.

- Nick

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Return of [the?] CALIFORNIA GULL

While starting my walk out Sandy Point in West Haven, CT this morning, I came across a lone gull and noticed naked eye that it appeared to be a very small Herring Gull with a long, narrow two-toned bill. Lifted up the bins, legs?! It took flight. Long, narrow wings. Hardly obvious pale inner primary window. Hmmm. That looks more like a second cycle CALIFORNIA GULL than anything.

I watched the bird sail west down the beach and out of sight. I had snapped off a few photos as the bird was flying away, and upon checking the LCD they only reinforced my field ID of the bird. I was oh so relieved to see that it had landed not far away, right in front of Chick's Restaurant, with a small mixed flock of gulls. The bird was between Herring and Ring-billed in size, and now that I was able to study the bird in the scope to double-check my initial mental notes, the ID was straightforward. It soon took flight again, heading back towards Sandy Point. I was unable to relocate it over the next hour or so.

second cycle California Gull

As far as I can tell, I do not see any reason to call this a different bird than the first cycle California Gull that was first found back in March at Hammonasset by Stefan Martin (first state record) and later stumbled upon by moi in West Haven, where it settled in for several days. The bird's age, location, and female-like structure all add up. One probably can't be sure, as stranger things have happened in the bird world, but the odds are high. I assume it is the same one. I wonder where it spent the summer, as I have been scouring the gulls in that area since early July.

This juvenile AMERICAN GOLDEN PLOVER was also on the beach, taking shelter at high tide from a stiff northeast wind.

juvenile American Golden Plover

 - Nick

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

"Type 2" and "Type 10" Red Crossbills in Connecticut

The Red Crossbill is a bird species that is often referred to as enigmatic; this is accurate in more ways than one. This is a rather nomadic species that sometimes wanders long distances in search of food. Unlike your typical boreal irruptive species that typically move more-or-less south during fall/winter when their local supply crashes, both Red and White-winged Crossbills may move in any direction at any time of year in response to changes in abundance of their preferred conifer seeds. Red Crossbills may even breed in any season of the year if they deem their current food supply and habitat to be sufficient. Thanks to that complex situation, the species' movements can be difficult to predict even with an intimate knowledge of their biology.

If you think that's interesting, there's more. They are just as enigmatic with regard to taxonomy as they are with their movements. Red Crossbill is a widespread Northern Hemisphere species that occurs in North America, Central America, across Eurasia, and even into extreme northern Africa. Here in North America, ten different "types" of Red Crossbill have been described in recent years. These types differ by flight call and often by bill and body size as well. What this means in terms of speciation is currently unclear. Do some or all of these call types represent distinct species? Perhaps. How plastic is the call type of an individual bird? How long ago did each type begin to diverge from another? What do the genetics tell us about their relationships? Where does each call type occur? How much breeding occurs between these types where they overlap?

Today's field birders have two options. can go on recording your sightings as Red Crossbill and not worry about what type you are seeing. Identifying a bird to type takes extra time and work (= hassle, to most people), as you'll see below. And, at least right now, there is still officially only one species of Red Crossbill to worry about anyway! can contribute to the growing knowledge of Red Crossbill status and distribution by identifying birds to type and reporting them as such to eBird. Option two is way more fun!

I don't personally care whether or not any of these "types" are given full species status someday. It is fascinating enough to figure out which types I'm seeing and, in the case of Connecticut where Red Crossbill is not a resident species, from where they might have come. If you do some reading on the subject, you'll see that each call type has a core range, particular pattern of dispersal/wandering, and preferred conifer species.

Here in Connecticut I began to take an interest in Red Crossbill types during the winter of 2007-08, when a sizeable invasion took place. My recordings along the coast revealed mostly Type 10 with a couple Type 3 among them. Fast forward to late autumn 2012 during another major crossbill invasion. Again taking recordings on the coast, where crossbills were concentrated as they moved in search of food, I recorded solely Type 3 birds. Indeed, Types 3 and 10 are known to be highly irruptive and seem to occur here at a much higher rate than the others, at least since folks have been going to the trouble to ID these birds to type. Pretty interesting that Type 10 dominated the 2007-08 invasion, while Type 3 dominated the 2012-13 push. Again, these were large-scale movements noted throughout the northeast and beyond.

I was intrigued by the reports of Red Crossbills in the vicinity of Benedict Pond in Norfolk, CT that began on September 10th. This location is a stone's throw from the Massachusetts border in northwest CT. People were seeing up to a dozen Red Crossbills and a single juvenile White-winged Crossbill over the ensuing days. How long they had been there, who really knows, as this is not a heavily birded location. A couple things made me wonder whether these might actually be a different type of Red Crossbill. First, the time of year. September 10th is a bit early for Red Crossbills to appear during a typical invasion year. Second, the location...far northwest CT only. No sightings along the coast yet, which is where invading crossbills tend to concentrate when they hit CT. Third, I had not heard or read anything on the interwebs about a crossbill invasion beginning anywhere nearby. Connecticut is usually not ground zero for an invasion event; you can often "see" the birds coming, as eBird reports pop up to our north or west and the internet begins to chatter about those sightings. So, your classic crossbill appearances in CT (such as those in 2007-08 and 2012-13) tend to go something like this: reports trickle in from our north/west, birds arrive in CT in Oct-Dec, and they are mainly seen along the coast. Since the Benedict Pond birds did not fit that mold, my interest was piqued more than usual.

I managed to catch up with a few of these birds on September 20th. Views were poor, but they were very vocal as they made a few passes overhead in groups of 1-3 birds. I was able to record three of these flyby's using my iPhone. Spectrogram analysis of the first segment revealed TYPE 2 - indeed different than the highly irruptive Types 3 and 10 that are usually seen in southern New England during invasions.

Spectrogram of Type 2 RECR flight calls; Norfolk, CT on 20 Sep 2016

The Type 2 Red Crossbill, nicknamed the "Ponderosa Pine Crossbill", is a very widespread type. It could conceivably turn up pretty much anywhere in the country. The heart of its range lies in the western United States, and it appears to be uncommon in the east. Despite its nickname, this type is also a bit of a generalist when it comes to conifer preference, although it does particularly well with hard cones such as those of the Ponderosa Pine.

All current eBird reports of Type 2 Red Crossbills. While hardly comprehensive, this gives us an idea of their distribution. Common in the west, scarce in the east.

There are no eBird reports of Type 2 birds from Connecticut. I am unsure whether or not there are any previous records at all.

A few days later I resumed analysis, this time listening to the other two, lower-quality recordings. One of the segments held more TYPE 2 flight calls, while the other segment sounded higher pitched and sharper. Spectrogram analysis of this higher-pitched call left me at a complete loss! I had no idea what I was hearing or looking at. Definitely higher frequency, as confirmed by spectrogram, but not a classic match for any type I could find in my own research.

I emailed Matt Young, resident crossbill expert/researcher at Cornell, for assistance. Matt informed me that this call was a variant of TYPE 10. It is higher pitched, like your classic Type 10 call with which I became familiar in 2007-08, but a bit rougher sounding to the ear due to the sharply descending part at the end. Fascinating. Matt notes that Type 10 is a particularly variable call type. And it is apparently the most common type in the northeast.

Spectrogram of Type 10 RECR flight calls; Norfolk, CT on 20 Sep 2016

Spectrogram of Type 10 RECR flight calls; Norfolk, CT on 20 Sep 2016

All current eBird reports of Type 10 Red Crossbills. Again, with RECR type discovery and the eBird revolution both being recent events, this is just a snapshot.

So, at Benedict Pond in Norfolk, CT we have two types of Red Crossbill and a White-winged Crossbill; that's wonderful diversity especially since we aren't talking large numbers here. I think the highest one-time count has been of a dozen birds, though who knows how many are actually roaming this area. The pine crop sure seems abundant enough to hold many more than that.

The winter finch season is still plenty young. We'll see what else develops over the next few months. I'll update this space as needed.

For anyone interested in reading more about this ridiculously perplexing species, check out Matt Young's Red Crossbill primer.

You can record these birds in many ways, but the easiest (for me) was simply using my iPhone. No accessories needed. All you need is a recording app, one of which is included with the phone, though it is meant for voice memos. I use an older recording app called "Fire" which may no longer be available for download, and I produce spectrograms with Audacity. If you make a recording and would like to do the analysis yourself, feel free to email me with questions and I can describe my process in detail. But if you aren't inclined to go through all that work, you can send your recordings to Matt Young, and he will help you out as his time allows.

 - Nick

Monday, September 26, 2016

Orange-crowned Warbler, Wallingford

I spent a productive couple hours at the Wallingford Community Gardens this morning. Highlights included an ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER and a few LINCOLN'S SPARROWS.

Orange-crowned Warbler

Lincoln's Sparrow


Nearby Mackenzie Reservoir had 240 Canada Geese (no idea how many of these are early migrants versus local breeders) plus my first RUDDY and RING-NECKED DUCKS of the season.

 - NB