Saturday, February 25, 2017

Plankton feeding begins

The annual late winter/early spring plankton bloom in Long Island Sound is underway, as of today. Each March through mid-April (starting a bit early this year), thousands of birds congregate along the central and western Connecticut coast to feed on floating plankton (reportedly barnacle larvae). Rare and scarce gulls are often involved in this phenomenon. At its best, the gulling can be nothing short of spectacular. Here's hoping for more interesting sightings this year.

 - NB

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Quebec - Feb 18-21, 2017

I had been itching to road trip north sometime this winter ever since the New Year, when it became evident that this was not going to be an "invasion" year in southern New England. Neither the irruptive passerines nor raptors have made much of an appearance down this way. I actually had plans to do a combo birding/skiing/relaxing trip with my girlfriend, but once that fell through I decided to make the best of my time off by taking that trip north with friends instead. Not exactly the romantic getaway I had planned on, sharing a car with three dudes...

Julian Hough, Frank Gallo, and Frank Mantlik accompanied me on said trip, with the focus being Great Gray Owl photography and seeing any other northern goodies that might be up there. I was up for some exploring too - anything north of Montreal would be new territory for me.

We departed oh so early on Saturday morning and B-lined to Montreal, specifically to Refuge faunique Marguerite-D'Youville south of the city itself. We were met by another birder in the parking lot as we arrived who was there the day before and informed us how slow it was on Friday - only one bird seen, and not terribly active. It had been windy and cold then. Saturday was a different story; we were greeted by sunny skies, warming temps, and zero wind. As we would soon find out, the birds would cooperate today.

We encountered three GREAT GRAY OWLS on this day at the refuge. What was supposed to be a few-hour visit turned into most of the day. We could not pull ourselves away, and who would want to? The birds (one in particular) performed above and beyond anyone's reasonable expectations.

One particularly actively hunting individual put on quite a show for the crowd. It spent several hours searching for prey rather close to the trail and made several short flights, from perch to perch, in its pursuit of a meal.

Great Gray Owl

After a couple hours of watching this owl and enjoying every second, it decided to fly back across the trail, something it had done a couple times already this morning. Rather than passing over the group to the other side, it nearly landed on a woman's head before touching down on my tripod directly in front of me. I stood there stunned for a few moments, unsure of what exactly to do. I was face to face with the largest owl in North America. Completely unfazed, the bird swiveled its head to take stock of the humans on either side of it. Immediately realizing that it was safe, the owl switched its focus to looking for prey again. To give you an idea how close this bird was, I could have touched it without fully extending my arm. I actually had to back up a step to fit the entire bird IN THE FRAME OF MY IPHONE CAMERA. It stayed on the tripod for a few minutes before continuing to the other side of the trail.

photo courtesy of Frank Gallo
photo courtesy of Sophia Wong

photo courtesy of Sophia Wong

photo courtesy of Sophia Wong

I was at the time (and still sort of am) in disbelief. Before you go on assuming that this bird was lured in with pet store mice, you would be mistaken. That sort of behavior is highly frowned upon at this refuge, and we chose to come here largely based on this. Through a day and a half there with three owls we didn't see any sign of anyone doing anything like that. A local birding couple that walks here once or twice per week has never seen anything of the kind here either. The refuge staff patrols the trails here, and everyone's behavior was top notch. Nobody even ventured more than a couple feet off the trail, as per park rules. It was impressive. We had been following this bird for 2+ hours at close range before this happened, and it only approached us this once...the bird was in heavy hunting mode and seemed to use the tripod as just another survey post for a few minutes before moving onto the next treetop. Even after it landed on my tripod it spent most of its time looking away from the humans onto the ground for prey as it was doing from the trees, with only the occasional head turn towards me or the crowd. Certainly didn't feel like it was looking to us for food at all. These are notoriously tame birds to begin with, so I don't entirely understand why some photographers feel the need to bait them. You obviously don't need to feed GGOWs to get killer photos!

Before we knew it, it was 2pm and we were dehydrated and sunburned. We left the refuge on a major high from our experience there. After some regrouping and refocusing, the last couple hours of daylight were spent unsuccessfully searching fields to the west of the city for Snowy Owls and other open country birds like Gray Partridge, etc. We did stumble across this BARRED OWL in a farmhouse backyard. Night near Montreal after celebratory beer & food!

Barred Owl

We decided to head back to the refuge on Sunday morning for one last crack at Great Grays, as we were driving northeast from there and were unlikely to run into any more of this species for the rest of the trip. We refound two of the three owls, but on this morning they were far less active. Tame, yes...but active, no. They began to hunt a bit as we were leaving mid-late morning, but to that point it was nothing like Saturday's show.

Great Gray Owl
Our move was to Quebec City, where a NORTHERN HAWK OWL had been wintering. The weather here was a far cry from the warm and sunny skies we had seen in Montreal. It was much cooler and overcast with the occasional snow flurry. Unfortunately the hawk owl did not show itself that afternoon, but it had been seen earlier that day so our hopes were high for the morning. Ben Barkley did point out a distant SNOWY OWL for us. Night near Quebec City.

Our typical view of Snowy Owl this weekend

Monday morning was crisp and cool, but the skies had cleared overnight and the morning light was beautiful for hawk owl viewing, if only the little beast would cooperate. Upon arrival it didn't take all that long for FM to spot the bird atop a tall spruce in a backyard on the south side of the main road. This side of the road is mostly private, so we crossed the street to the field where we were told the bird had been frequenting. It soon flew towards us and teed up atop a tree in the hedgerow for a short while. It didn't spend much time here before returning to the other side of the road where it proceeded to patrol inaccessible areas.

Northern Hawk Owl
It was brought to our attention that this bird has been fed by locals in that field on the north side of the road. I figure there's a good chance the bird flew into that field to see if we had anything to offer. Just an assumption, but I think a fair one.

For anyone looking for this bird, it can apparently be difficult to find for long periods. See the map below for the bird's habits while we observed it that Monday morning.

The blue pin is the intersection you want to shoot for; park on the side road. The yellow space to the north is the field where it is often seen and has reportedly been fed; you can legally (far as we were told) walk across the RR tracks and observe the bird from the field there. The red area to the south is the space it was hunting when it was not occupying the field. You can legally observe the bird from Chemin Michel-Quezel or Chemin du Roy, but obviously do not enter the adjacent yards without permission. In particular, the owl spent a lot of time around a small ravine to the south of Chemin Michel-Quezel .

It was completely out of sight for some time, and who knows where it was hanging out the afternoon before. It can, and will, go low-profile. During our scope views of the bird on the south side of Route 138 it was often hunting from low perches, eating snow in crooks of trees, and the like.

Very pleased with our morning hawk owl experience, we crossed to the east side of the St. Lawrence River and drove north another 90 minutes for our third and final leg of the trip. Two Gyrfalcons, one white and one dark, had been frequenting the agricultural fields between La Pocatiere and Kamouraska. We drove a loop through prime Gyr habitat, focusing on those areas where the birds had been seen, but came up empty. Night in La Pocatiere.

Not much open water behind me!

Dusk over the frozen St. Lawrence

We had one last shot for the Gyrs on Tuesday morning, again greeted by beautiful light with which to work. It was very cold, down to 1 degree Fahrenheit, but the temps warmed quickly thanks to the abundant sunshine. A thick frost had coated the vegetation overnight, making for some stunning scenery. We drove the Gyr loop again without sign of a raptor of any kind. The only bird of prey we saw on two tours through fine habitat was a single SNOWY OWL on our way out of town. We were actually quite struck by the absence of birdlife in general. This was not surprising given the barren Arctic-like landscape of the agricultural fields. What did surprise us was the dearth of life on the St. Lawrence River itself. Though we did not set aside much time for river viewing, we were treated to sprawling views of the mostly-frozen waterway from several locations. Literally the only birds noted were a few Common Mergansers. Not even a single gull fly-by!

Not seeing a Gyr

Gyr country. Not an effing bird in sight.
We also thought we would stumble across flocks of finches or waxwings at some point, but we would have been completely skunked on those if Julian hadn't spotted a group of PINE GROSBEAKS while driving through Kamouraska along the river.

Pine Grosbeaks
Though we were unsuccessful with the Gyrfalcons (Julian's recent shit luck with this species continues), we thoroughly enjoyed the exploration and the scenery. None of us had been that far north along the St. Lawrence before. A few more birds on this last leg would have been nice, but we gave a strong effort! An awesome road trip for sure. Owls and poutine - check and check!

 - Nick

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The PA Black-backed Oriole

Last Saturday morning I had a window to drive with friends to Sinking Spring, Pennsylvania to see the adult male BLACK-BACKED ORIOLE that had been identified coming to a feeder a couple days prior. Before making the trip I weighed the pros and cons whether or not this unprecedented sighting involved a wild bird. I figured the odds were high enough to justify the effort. My biggest issue with this bird is the lack of precedent/pattern with this species in the US (minus the CA bird at the border, also an adult male). But who's to say this species hasn't previously occurred in the ABA other plumages.

Black-backed Oriole is rather closely related to the ABA area-breeding Baltimore and Bullock's Orioles. I don't know much about Black-backed Oriole, but from some online image searching it would appear that females and young males are not dissimilar in appearance from those age classes of our more familiar orioles. Check out some of those eBird checklists with images of the species in Mexico and you'll see what I mean. It would not take much for, say, a few young birds to have slipped through the cracks before now. That age class is more prone to wander. Adult males, less likely to wander...but they are the plumage class that would stand out, like the PA bird. Something to consider.

Here are a few images - really crushed it!  :)

adult male Black-backed Oriole


Monday, February 6, 2017

"BLACK" BRANT - Groton, CT - 5 Feb 2017

Doesn't it often happen that those days you didn't plan on birding turn out to be the best days? I unexpectedly found myself birding the eastern CT coast on Sunday, thanks to both a reported adult Ross's Gull in adjacent Rhode Island and altered social plans. The strategy was to bird this portion of the coast, not far from that Ross's Gull sighting, trying to find the gull in CT all the while ready to cross the border into RI for a short chase if it was refound there. Last week's first cycle Ross's only left me wanting more - why not follow it up with an adult for good measure? As it turned out, mainly out-of-state birders were over the border searching for the ROGU. Can't say I'm surprised. Classic Rhode Island.

I was working the coast from west to east, starting in Waterford. My first couple stops produced nothing exciting, but as I pulled into the parking lot at Eastern Point in Groton I eyeballed a half-dozen Brant that were feeding close to shore - three adults and three youngsters. Through bins one of the young birds immediately popped as a great candidate for "BLACK" BRANT. Obvious were the dark sides, darker shade to upperparts, and a white collar that connected anteriorly. I could not see the belly at this point with the bird in the water, but given the above field marks I would have been shocked to see anything other than dark all the way to the legs. Sure enough this was obvious when the group took flight to the other side of the point.

"Black" Brant with "Atlantic/Pale-bellied" Brant

This is Connecticut's third record of this Pacific form of Brant. The first came in April 2009 and the second in January of 2010. I enjoyed seeing a young bird this time; those broadly edged wing coverts are a nice touch on such a dark bird. A handful of nearby birders who were also hoping to run into the Ross's Gull came by to view the goose.

Other nearby birds included a few COMMON EIDER and PURPLE SANDPIPERS, and a large mixed flock of SNOW BUNTINGS and HORNED LARKS were feeding on the lawn around the parking lot.

I hit a few quick stops in Old Saybrook on my way home, the most productive of which was a half-frozen Maynard's Pond on Ingham Hill Road that produced two REDHEADS and a first cycle hybrid Herring x Glaucous Gull.

The gull stood out among the flock as a pale, frosty Herring-like bird. The bicolored bill and fresh plumage were also quite striking. There must be Glaucous genes in there. I have seen this hybrid combo paler than this for sure, but I have also seen even more Herring-like birds than this, usually juvenile mocha-colored individuals that are darker overall but have that bill shape and pattern with a smooth coffee-colored head. I suspect Glaucous genes in those darker individuals too, but it's just impossible to know where to draw the line with these things.

 - Nick