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

Monday, September 19, 2016

SAY'S PHOEBE in CT, 18 Sept 2016

Yesterday morning Jeremy Nance found Connecticut's first "chaseable" SAY'S PHOEBE. The only prior two records were nearly a century apart: a specimen from 1916 and a single-observer record in 2012 (Anthony Zemba, private property). Jeremy found the bird in the orchard at Trout Brook Valley, a ridiculously birdy and apparently under-birded location in Fairfield County.

This was my first day using a new Canon 7D Mark II body (with the same 400/f5.6 lens).

Say's Phoebe
Say's Phoebe

 - NB

Monday, September 5, 2016

CT "Big Day", Sept 2, 2016

As last week's weather forecast was clarifying itself, Friday looked like the day with the best bet to witness diurnal migration. I was itching to get out but could not come up with much of a plan other than giving Bluff Point's morning flight a shot. I had done some local shorebirding with sub-par results over the preceding few weeks, so I wasn't too excited about trying that again. The winds during the day were forecast to be 5-15mph out of the north, which is great for hawk migration, but that season is just getting started and figured to not be terribly exciting on September 2nd. It's not late autumn rarity season yet either. So.....what to do?

Determined to spend the day in the field, I wondered about trying a casual Big Day. Despite doing annual May big days for several years now, I had never attempted one at any other time of year. I actually missed our dedicated attempt this past May because I was in China (I swear I'm going to post SOMETHING on that eventually...), so I hadn't felt the logistical big day juices flowing in quite some time. Greg Hanisek and Frank Gallo were up for joining me, so we decided to give it a shot. No scouting, not starting til dawn, and very little strategizing...not exactly what I'm used to!

Of course there was still strategy involved - you just can't help yourself no matter how "casual" the day is supposed to be. Big Days are all about logistics (honestly almost as fun as the birding itself), so we couldn't help but talk a bit about our plan the night before. It basically came down to this: morning flight for passerines, shorebird hotspots around midday high tide, a bit of hawkwatching to pad the list at some point, and kicking around for mixed flocks otherwise. We made a few brief detours for one or two birds here and there, but it we were essentially just "birding" at known hotspots all day. For those of you who are not familiar with May big days, thanks to scouting of territorial breeding birds, you usually aren't doing much looking around to see what's there. Rather, you are looking/listening for the individual bird that is supposed to be at that particular location at that particular time. You either see/hear it or you don't, and you move on the the next target. It is incredibly focused and disciplined. You stick to both the schedule and the route. If you start "birding" during a serious May big day, you're making a mistake. If someone gets distracted and says "let's give it a few more minutes" or "let's just detour down this side road for a second," it is up to someone else on the team to crack the whip and say NO, unless you happen to be ahead of schedule (which is about as rare as a tubenose in Long Island Sound!!). This is counter-intuitive to birders, as we love to explore by nature. It takes some getting used to.

There was not much whip-cracking on Friday. It was not too difficult to stick to our loose schedule, but you'd still be surprised at how you can fall behind schedule without even realizing it.

We started at 6am at Bluff Point in Groton for the morning flight at the so-called "hot corner," which isn't quite as hot as it used to be, it seems. There was a decent movement...certainly enough to keep us entertained for the first 90 minutes of daylight. We had nine species of warbler here, two empids including a YELLOW-BELLIED FLYCATCHER, flyby DICKCISSEL and PURPLE FINCH, and two pre-sunrise COMMON NIGHTHAWKS.

From here we ran directly to Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison, where both BUFF-BREASTED and BAIRD'S SANDPIPERS had been seen the evening before. Lucky for us they stayed the night and were feeding side-by-side in one of the grassy parking lots. A stop at nearby Shell Beach in Guilford netted us a LITTLE BLUE HERON, BROAD-WINGED HAWK, and GREEN-WINGED TEAL among other commoners.

From here we ran west for our shorebird and tern high tide roosts. The Stratford loop, then Milford Pt, then Sandy Pt (if necessary) was the plan. Stratford started slowly and never really improved. We began by missing the Stilt Sandpipers that were there the day before (and, turns out, were also seen early Friday morning). The warehouse pond did deliver with both TEAL, both NIGHT-HERONS, MARSH WREN, and a flyby tail-less BOAT-TAILED GRACKLE.

Milford Point was totally dead at high tide, which must have been the result of some type of disturbance as nothing was roosting on the sandbars. We did end up walking out the short spit at Sandy Point in West Haven, where we picked up some remaining common shorebirds plus FORSTER'S, BLACK, and ROSEATE TERNS among the throngs of Commons.

From here we ran east to Ecology Park in Branford for a short hawk watch. There was a steady trickle of common migrants and local birds. New for us were AMERICAN KESTREL and SHARP-SHINNED HAWK, and we cleaned up COOPER'S HAWK which I had missed earlier.

By this time is was mid-afternoon and we decided to head inland a bit to check ponds for waterbirds and powerline cuts and woods for passerines. These were mostly quick hits. Slowly but surely we filled in some big gaps, as we had not seen several "easy" songbirds. We're talking things like woodpeckers, wrens, grosbeaks and tanagers, etc. Our stops included Lake Saltonstall, Konolds Pond, Downs Road in Bethany, and Durham Meadows. We didn't get anything unexpected, but the beauty of Big Day birding is that a House Wren counts just as much as a Mourning Warbler, so you're pretty excited to find that first Eastern Towhee at 3pm.

Our final stop, at dusk, was the Quinnipiac River in North Haven, where we got our last two birds of the day: Spotted Sandpiper and Bald Eagle. The sunset was pretty spectacular too. We finished at 8pm with 127 species for the day. The ABA-rules record CT Big Day for the month of September is 131, and we gave that a pretty good run. We actually had at least four species in play if we decided to bird after dark (Virginia Rail, Clapper Rail, Barred Owl, Great Horned Owl are all likely in the right habitat), but we decided to call it quits, pleased with our effort and results.

Every Big Day has missed birds, and we definitely left quite a few possibilities on the table.  I'd say our three biggest misses were Wood Thrush, Pine Warbler, and especially Chipping Sparrow.

I/we had a blast doing this. My favorite part was probably birding places I never would have thought of visiting in early September, such as random powerline cuts in Bethany or North Farms Reservoir in my hometown of Wallingford. Perhaps I'll do the occasional out-of-season Big Day from now on.

sunset on the Q River
  - Nick