Sunday, July 30, 2017

BRIDLED TERN in Connecticut

Falkner Island is a 2.87-acre island that lies about 3 miles off the Guilford, CT coast in the central basin of Long Island Sound. The entire island is part of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge and hosts a large colony of Common Terns plus a few dozen Roseate Tern pairs. During each breeding season the island is manned by researchers/wardens who manage the island for the terns and monitor their breeding attempts.

On Friday, July 28th researchers Cedric Duhalde and James Heuschkel were thrilled and stunned to find an adult BRIDLED TERN on the jetty on the west side of the island among the Common and Roseate Terns. This is the second state record; the first came in 1992 (25 years ago!) guessed it...Falkner Island. Bigtime kudos to James and Cedric for not only finding and promptly identifying the bird, but also for getting word out ASAP, along with some killer photos in their eBird report!

The problem for everyone else is...the terns on the island are just too far to identify from land, even in the best of conditions.

I was tied up at work in Waterbury until 3pm with no hope of getting out early. My boat is in Norwalk Harbor, an hour's drive from work and some 40 miles from Falkner Island. Sunset is 8:12pm. Logistically, it would have taken a minor miracle for everything to come together to even get a chance to see this bird. But, amazingly, everything that could have gone right, did.

I picked up my girlfriend, still unsure whether or not to even try to pull this off, but she was up for the adventure. So to Norwalk we drove, not hitting even a second of traffic. We made a seamless transition to the boat, and we were off. It was too last-minute to mobilize birding friends, so it would be just the two of us. Luckily the gas tank was full as we were about to cover come major ground. We hit the open Sound and were met with nearly flat water. A nor'easter was approaching from the south, and a Small Craft Advisory was due to take effect just 12 hours later, but the wind was forecast to hold off for a while. We received an update from Cedric, who informed us that the bird had not been seen since the morning despite their attempts to relocate. I could feel our chances slipping from slim to none, but we decided to press on. Sea conditions were still great, and we were really enjoying the scenic ride up the coast anyway.

We pulled up to Falkner around 6pm, having made just about record time. That would leave us about an hour of birding before we would have to turn back to avoid running after dark, with some time to spare for worsening conditions. As we arrived, we could see Cedric and James setting up to search the jetty for the tern. They were aware that we were coming to look for the bird, and they could not have been more helpful or forthcoming with information. The perimeter of the island was completely lined with terns, and there was a steady stream of birds coming and going. The occasional Roseate was seen or heard among the throngs of Commons. After just a few minutes, we saw the guys waving frantically and pointing towards the jetty just in front of them. We looked. No Bridled Tern in view. The island is off-limits to the public, for obvious reasons, so docking the boat and joining them on land was not an option.

Now shouting distance away, they directed us to view the jetty from their angle near the dock. Carefully navigating the boat closer to shore while avoiding contact with submerged rocks, we positioned ourselves in line with them, and Virginia was able to spot the bird atop the jetty. A tense moment later, I got on the bird too.

adult Bridled Tern

Beside ourselves and amazed with our luck, we enjoyed the bird for a few very exciting moments. I grabbed a few record shots. The subject bird did not appear settled by any means, and soon it began moving around the jetty. Moments later it took flight, strafed the breeding area, and disappeared over the hill towards the other side of the island. Gone!

Meanwhile, friends Frank Gallo and Patrick Dugan were trying to scope the terns from the mainland, and not very successfully given the distance. I decided that we might have enough time to run them out for a quick look, so we gave that a shot. They quickly found a public dock in Guilford, and we met them there in 12 minutes or so. We returned to the island with only a few minutes to look, especially since the incoming clouds would reduce our twilight later on. The bird had not returned to its jetty. We stretched the limits of our allotted time, nearly circumnavigating the island, now giving ourselves no time to allow for slow-going if the water got choppy on the way back. Unfortunately we did not reconnect with the tern, and we dropped a disappointed Patrick and Frank back at the dock. They would not have another Brown Booby moment on this day. As we would find out later from the guys on the island, the tern did eventually come to its favorite jetty to roost for the night...

Virginia and I needed just a bit more luck to complete our evening, and we got the form of continuing calm seas for the entire ride home. We had timed it perfectly, losing our last bit of twilight just as we arrived in Norwalk Harbor around 9pm. The GPS track put us at 99 miles (!) from dock to dock.

Congrats to Cedric and James, and huge thanks to them for reporting the bird so promptly. That nor'easter skirted the region on Saturday, making for unsightly boating conditions. There has not been any more word from the island, yet, on whether or not the bird was seen on Saturday.

 - Nick

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Long Island Cory's Shearwater variation

Cory's Shearwater (Calonectris diomedea) is a common summer-fall species off the southern New England and mid-Atlantic coasts. Currently two subspecies are recognized by the AOS, and both occur in these waters.

Calonectris diomedea borealis breeds in the northeast Atlantic Ocean and is the much more common subspecies in this region. It is characterized by dark undersides of the primaries and averages heftier in structure.

Calonectris diomedea diomedea (AKA 'Scopoli's' Shearwater) breeds in the Mediterranean and is usually greatly outnumbered by borealis in these parts. It shows quite a bit of white bleeding onto the underside of the primaries, including p10.

It is important to know that field identification of these forms (considered separate species by some authorities) is still being worked out. I certainly struggle with some individuals, while others fit pretty neatly into one form or the other (based on current knowledge, anyway). The bulky birds with little/no white on the underside of the primaries we pretty comfortably call borealis. On the flip side, whenever I see a slender, narrow-winged Cory's winging by, it pretty much always reveals quite a bit of white on the primaries when it banks. Those we call diomedea. But there are some birds on which I'm not comfortable putting a label; they tend to be birds that appear large or intermediate in size with some white bleeding onto those primaries. Are these borealis showing variation? Are they intergrades? Is there another explanation?

Last weekend I did some fishing south of Montauk, NY and came across quite a few Cory's Shearwaters. Though I was multi-tasking at the time thus not able to scour the Cory's as I would normally, I was seeing more birds with white on the primaries than without - the opposite of what I'm used to seeing around here. Over several hours, with a chum slick out, I was able to snap off photos of the occasional Cory's that came through. In this particular area, about 20 miles from Montauk, Scopoli's-types out numbered borealis. There were a couple intermediates. Here is a selection of record photos from that day illustrating the variation in underwing pattern of COSH, from least white to most white. I did not get any shots of birds completely lacking white, which is surprising.

this and the bird above are the same individual

You wonder why there was so much white on the underwing in this particular group of birds. Was it just by chance that we fished around birds that had traveled from the Mediterranean region that day? Is this a particularly 'good' year for Scopoli's Shearwater in our waters? Are Mediterranean birds more likely to investigate the scent of a chum slick (as pointed out to me by Kate Sutherland, Scopoli's do appear to be more likely to linger in the chum slick and closer to the boat than borealis)?

We are early in the local pelagic birding season, so I will be interested to see the ratios that are reported from our waters as the year progresses.

While I'm at it, here are some other photos from the same day. Seabirds were not terribly numerous, but there were always birds in sight. A few common shorebirds were seen and heard migrating offshore. The most surprising sighting of the day came in the form of an adult male Brown-headed Cowbird that circled the boat a few times - not something you expect to see in mid-July some 20 miles offshore.

Great Shearwater

Wilson's Storm-Petrel

Wilson's Storm-Petrel

Cory's (left) and Great Shewarwaters

Brown-headed Cowbird

Brown-headed Cowbird

 - Nick

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Interesting Stratford, CT egret

Yesterday late afternoon at the Access Road pool in Stratford (opposite R.E. Michel building) there was an odd egret standing thigh-deep in the water. It was Snowy Egret-like but had one long head plume and lores that were darker than usual, though still with warm/yellow tones. It did have a somewhat shaggy mane, a feature that is typical of Snowy Egret (and unlike Little Egret). Unsure of what to make of head/bill size and shape, as it appears somewhat large and mean in some of the poor images and more gentle and SNEG-like in others.

Not totally sure what to make of the bird, but I think hybrid Snowy x Little Egret is on the table (versus SNEG with anomalous head plume and darker-than-usual lores). These species breed side-by-side in the Caribbean (Barbados, at least), and hybrids have been reported there. I have personally seen a mixed pair at a colony in Barbados.

Views were poor through the phragmites, scoping was not possible, and I was politely urged along by local police that were monitoring an event across the street (they were only concerned with my safety).

The tall phragmites make viewing incredibly difficult, and beware that this can be a busy road.

Keep an eye out for this interesting bird, and get better photos if you can.

Of note, last summer Dan Field and I saw one of those Snowy Egrets with Little Egret-like head plumes in Guilford, CT...everything else about that bird was classing Snowy. Birds like that are occasionally reported in the northeast - essentially a Snowy Egret with a long head plume or two. IMO likely pure Snowy Egrets, as they never seem to show any other LIEG-like characters, but hybrids not ruled out.

This bird's odd lore color makes it a bit more interesting to me. As are the impression of a more dagger-like head/bill combo from most angles, less recurved rear body plumes and a less prominent mane from which the single long plume arises.

Here's what I was able to pull:

 - Nick

Saturday, July 1, 2017

!Warning...Graphic Content!

Yesterday I took a quick boat ride over to Cockenoe Island in Westport, CT to check out the Common Tern colony. While observing the begging chicks being fed by adults, a small ruckus broke out at the north end of the sand spit. Out from the colony flew an adult Herring Gull with something in its bill. As I had suspected/feared, it was a tern chick. The gull downed the whole chick as effortlessly as Joey Chestnut throws down a hot dog.

I grabbed a shot of the incident from a distance.

Herring Gull with tern chick by the head as adult helplessly tries to intervene

moments later, life goes on in the center of the small colony

It's not easy being a tern chick on Cockenoe Island!

 - NB