Sunday, November 10, 2019

November update

Well, this year's southbound migration has been pretty rough to this point! Here in Connecticut bird numbers have been remarkably low throughout the second half of the year. Shorebirds, warblers, hawks and sparrows were all pretty weak overall. Much of this is probably just luck of the draw. Still, on the occasions when weather conditions have set up for classic migration days, most have been disappointing. In these instances, the appearance of rarities can spice things up, but we've been largely left out of that game too. The rares have been in the region (Massachusetts cleaning up per usual), but we're in a rut here.

Here's hoping for a change in luck as we get into waterfowl and CBC season. November especially is known for its rarities, though we are in the midst of back-to-back early deep freezes, which should effectively push out or kill any non-hardy vagrant insectivores.

This first freeze of the season has really brought the geese in full force. Here is an interesting CACKLING GOOSE from this weekend. It is likely a dark-plumaged "Richardson's" type. Structure is pretty classic for this form in that is has a steep forehead and blocky head overall with a crown that slopes up slightly and peaks towards the rear. The overall darkness of the bird, including the breast with a ruddy tinge, was interesting.


Cackling Goose

 - NB

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Little yellowish jobs

When you spend time in a weedy field in early October, brown isn't the only color you'll be seeing. There are all sorts of little yellowish jobs kicking around. Yesterday morning I had a nice array of late warblers and a Dickcissel, each sporting a bit of yellow.

Dickcissel

Nashville Warbler

Common Yellowthroat

Palm Warbler

Connecticut Warbler - did not want to cooperate!

 - NB

BERMUDA PETREL on the Brookline Bird Club Pelagic (Trip Report)


Below is a copy of our recent BBC pelagic trip report with record photos of most highlights. Yet another hugely successful trip in the books. Here's looking forward to 2020.

BROOKLINE BIRD CLUB “EXTREME PELAGIC”
September 21-22, 2019
Trip report by Nick Bonomo

On the heels of a weather cancelation of our August overnight pelagic trip, we were a bit nervous that the September trip might suffer the same fate. Lucky for us, Hurricane Humberto accelerated into the open North Atlantic, and the Brookline Bird Club would reach the edge of the continental shelf in 2019 after all.

Forty-seven hopeful birders boarded the Helen H in Hyannis early on Saturday, September 21st, in the hands of legendary Captain Joe Huckemeyer and his trusty crew. Capt. Joe informed us that we would face minor residual swell from the hurricane at first, but that seas would progressively calm through the weekend.

We had only successfully run a few of these late September trips before, so these waters remain exceedingly underexplored at this point in the season. We know that the shelf edge southeast of Nantucket produces great birds throughout the summer, so there’s no reason to think the first days of autumn should be any different. Hopes were boosted by the sea surface temperature maps, which showed a core of warm water edging right up to our proposed route. The combination of accessible warm water and sharp temperature breaks is often a recipe for success on these trips. Would we be in for a surprise or two? (Spoiler Alert: Yes.)

Sea surface temps off the northeast coast.
Sea surface temps with our proposed route. H=Hydrographer Canyon, O=Oceanographer Canyon.

Barely out of Nantucket Sound, a juvenile SABINE’S GULL was spotted off the port side. We were able to stay with this bird for a bit, enjoying in-flight and on-water views of this striking larid. We were off to a hot start! Around the same time we passed our first tubenose, a light morph NORTHERN FULMAR that was sitting on the water. At this early date, this cold-water species is rather uncommon in these parts. Little did we know, this would only be the first of a spectacular showing of this species throughout the weekend.


Sabine's Gull

As we continued east of Nantucket, we passed by a steady trickle of gulls and terns. Among the Laughing, Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls were several LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULLS, a species that continues to take over the world. Distant views of BLACK TERNS were had among Common Terns. Our first NORTHERN GANNETS were seen. A flock of three WOOD DUCKS, appearing very much out of place, was heading north towards Cape Cod.

Someone spotted a large whale off the port side of the boat, and we were treated to brief but satisfying views of a HUMPBACK WHALE as it dove out of sight.

The Nantucket Shoals lie southeast of their eponymous island; this expansive patch of undulating sandy bottom is a nutrient-rich area known for constant upwelling of cold bottom water. We could feel the chill in the air as we passed through 60-degree surface temps. Along with this upwelling often comes a concentration of bait and birds. The Shoals were quieter today than we’re used to seeing, though one must be reminded that we did a single transect through a very large piece of water. Still, we had a smattering of GREAT and CORY’S SHEARWATERS, and yet more NORTHERN FULMARS.

While birding at sea, any experience with a land bird tends to be some combination of exciting and somber. There is the undeniable thrill of watching migration in action and being impressed by these individuals that continue to fight for survival while they attempt to reorient themselves. On the other hand, several of these birds may perish from exhaustion before they find land. Our first lost soul of the weekend belonged to a NORTHERN FLICKER. We weren’t terribly far from Nantucket at that point, so there was certainly hope for that one.

As we neared the south end of the Nantucket Shoals, our second woodpecker species appeared in the form of a YELLOW-BELLIED SAPSUCKER. You never know what’s going to appear overhead.

After we pass the productive Nantucket Shoals, we often find ourselves in a relatively birdless stretch until we reach the vicinity of the canyons, which is a distance of about 50 miles. This time, though, several miles before the shelf edge we found ourselves in a swarm of feeding NORTHERN FULMARS, GREAT SHEARWATERS, and WILSON’S STORM-PETRELS. The water here had spiked to 74 degrees. As our fishermen crew would find out, these birds were feeding over Yellowfin Tuna. The count of Fulmars in this flock reached a staggering 70+ individuals, one of which was a dark morph bird.


Northern Fulmar

Eventually we had to tear ourselves away from these birds and continue our journey to the edge of the continental shelf, which we were nearing. OFFSHORE BOTTLENOSE DOLPHINS made an appearance near the boat.

Offshore Bottlenose Dolphins

We arrived at the northern tip of Hydrographer Canyon at 1pm and proceeded to its mouth, where we turned eastward to follow the edge of the shelf. This stretch of “the edge,” which over the next 50 miles includes Dogbody, Welker, and Oceanographer Canyons, has treated us very well in the past. It didn’t take long for our first deep water specialty to pop up in the form of a BLACK-CAPPED PETREL, our first of five (!) sightings for the trip.

The Black-capped Petrel is a species that breeds in the Caribbean and spends much of its time feeding in the Gulf Stream; they are a common sight on pelagics out of Hatteras, NC. The more time we spend offshore southern New England, the more we seem to be encountering this species in the warmer, deeper waters off “the edge.” Close scrutiny off North Carolina has shown that there may be two forms of Black-capped Petrel, often described as “white-faced” and “dark-faced.” The two types differ slightly in plumage and molt timing, though there are intermediate-appearing birds. Interestingly, it seems that the overwhelming majority of Black-capped Petrels seen this far north fit into the “white-faced” category, which may indicate a very real difference in range. In fact, there are no eBird records of “dark-faced” birds north of North Carolina. In keeping with the track record, our first Black-cap of the trip was one of the “white-faced” birds.


Black-capped Petrel

Our first jaeger of the trip, an adult light morph POMARINE complete with “spoons,” was well-seen.

Pomarine Jaeger

The parade of new species continued when a subadult BROWN BOOBY sneaked in below the horizon and popped up rather close to the boat! This is a new species for these BBC pelagic trips, though Capt. Joe has seen a few while out fishing in recent years. The story of the northward explosion of Brown Boobies continues to write itself and is showing no signs of slowing down.

the initial approach

Brown Booby

A bit lost in all the excitement were the first couple LEACH’S STORM-PETRELS of the trip. While we are sometimes treated to boatside views of this species, more often than not they tend to steer clear of vessels. This would be the theme for this weekend, though we did have prolonged views of a handful of Leach’s off the bow while we were underway.

The same Brown Booby made a few more appearances through the afternoon as we continued eastward, occasionally chasing flying fish! It certainly felt as if it was sizing us up for a landing, but that never quite happened.

Our second BLACK-CAPPED PETREL, this one intermediate in plumage type, made a much closer pass than the first one did, thrilling the group. Any encounter with a gadfly petrel is a special one – just can’t get enough of ‘em!

Black-capped Petrel

As we passed Welker Canyon, heading in the direction of Oceanographer, bird volume started to pick up a bit. We saw yet another BLACK-CAPPED PETREL (white-faced). This bird would lead us to an active feeding flock of tubenoses that was working over schools of skipjack tuna. Our trickle of birds had turned into a beehive.

Black-capped Petrel

A few minutes before 5pm the mood on the boat abruptly turned from leisurely to tense when a dainty gadfly petrel was spotted entering the fray. “GET ON THIS PETREL – THE SMALLER ONE!!”

That smaller petrel revealed itself to be a BERMUDA PETREL. The Cahow. The Lazarus species. The east coast pelagic Grail Bird.

There was lots of yelling and cursing and pointing and shutter-clicking all at once. Those first few moments were filled with heavy doses of pure joy and anxiety. I can tell you from a leader’s perspective that it was more of the latter. This is a bird that everybody needed to see. And Pterodromas are quite well known for their fleeting passes! Luckily for everyone on board, we would have no such trouble. This bird performed better than anyone could have hoped. It’s hard to believe, but we stayed with this Cahow for 40 enthralling minutes! Long enough for co-leader Tom Johnson to tell the entire history of the species’ disappearance, rediscovery, and ongoing recovery efforts…all while we were watching this bird do its thing right in front of us. Unreal.





Bermuda Petrel

While the focus was entirely on the Bermuda Petrel for the duration of its stay, one couldn’t help but notice the incredible seabird composition of this flock. At one point also present with the Cahow were Black-capped Petrel, Brown Booby, and Northern Fulmar, in addition to more common species. Three of those are Massachusetts review species!

A bow full of very happy humans. Hey, who just saw an awesome life bird?

The entire boat was on such a high for the rest of the evening that we might as well have been floating over the water. It nearly felt like that, too, as the seas had subsided further. One more BLACK-CAPPED PETREL (intermediate facial pattern) concluded our birding for the day. Perfectly clear skies allowed for the elusive “Green Flash” to be seen on the horizon at sunset – yet another lifer for many on board.

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On Sunday we awoke to glassy seas and Wilson’s Storm-Petrels fluttering through our chum slick. As we were pulling away from the slick, our fifth BLACK-CAPPED PETREL (intermediate) made a brief appearance. A juvenile RING-BILLED GULL, unusual this far offshore, also hung out for a bit.

Wilson's Storm-Petrels at sunrise

Black-capped Petrel

We proceeded to work southwest into deeper, warmer water that surpassed 77 degrees at the surface. With hardly any wind to propel them, we were finding most birds sitting on the water. Perhaps our biggest target of the day was White-faced Storm-Petrel, a species that can be found in these waters somewhat reliably from July to September. We were nearing the end of their known window of occurrence, as their numbers likely peak in August and drop off sharply sometime during September. Still, we were hopeful. Diligent checks of every flock of sitting storm-petrels yielded only more Wilson’s and the occasional flighty Leach’s.

Calm seas made mammal viewing easy, and they stole the show this morning. Several pods of PILOT WHALES estimated at 70+ total individuals seemed to traveling in the same direction as us, followed by smaller numbers of the unmistakable RISSO’S DOLPHINS, showing off their scarred gray bodies, beakless melon-shaped heads, and tall dorsal fins. The beautiful morning light at our backs really seemed to accentuate the contrast between their white scars and gray ground color. We have had great luck finding this distinctive species over the years, specifically in these warm offshore waters.

Risso's Dolphins

With the notable exception of one group of twelve AUDUBON’S SHEARWATERS, bird numbers seemed slimmer the further we pushed from the shelf edge. We decided to angle back northwest towards Welker Canyon. The dolphin show continued with yet more RISSO’S and OFFSHORE BOTTLENOSE for our viewing and photographing pleasure.

Audubon's Shearwater

The shelf edge between Welker and Hydrographer Canyons was quiet, as was Hydrographer itself as we turned northward. A high-flying slim jaeger was spotted distantly in harsh light, which we left as Parasitic/Long-tailed in the field. Examination of photos revealed it to be a LONG-TAILED JAEGER, actually the much more expected of the two smaller jaegers this far offshore. Ah, the wonders of technology.

Black-and-white and Cape May Warblers approached the boat, the Cape May particularly cooperative in that it made several passes and was quite vocal. An odd skeleton-like object was spotted floating on the water’s surface, and our curiosity demanded we check it out. We were a bit surprised to find an OCEAN SUNFISH (MOLA MOLA) very much alive but with one fin badly injured. Here’s hoping it is somehow able to survive that.

Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola)

We were about the leave our target waters at “the edge,” but we felt like we might still have a surprise or two left. As we retraced our steps towards home, away from the canyons and onto the continental shelf, we stumbled across a large concentration of birds only ½ mile from where we had seen those huge Fulmar numbers on Saturday. And just like the day before, the flock consisted of Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, Great Shearwaters, and Northern Fulmars. This time, several POMARINE JAEGERS were getting in on the action.

We were just about to leave the scene when the call of “WHITE-FACED STORM PETREL!!” bellowed out. Everyone raced towards the front of the boat. There it was, kangaroo-hopping between the Wilson’s. Capt. Joe has mastered the art of following individuals of this species, so it was no surprise that he deftly put the bird off the port bow for all to see. This was our last reasonable chance at finding this sought-after specialty of these waters, which made the moment feel that much better. Yet more yells and high fives and rounds of applause aboard the Helen H!


White-faced Storm-Petrel

Now truly headed for home, we still had to cross those productive waters of the Nantucket Shoals. Our first legit flock of phalaropes, a few dozen birds, contained a single RED among RED-NECKED, much to the delight of several on board who were able to tick yet another life bird! We followed this flock around for a few minutes and were able to study the differences between the two both on the water and in flight - the Red Phalarope being larger, paler, having a thicker bill and a broader white wing stripe.

Red (left) and Red-necked Phalaropes

The Shoals continued to produce with a few SOOTY SHEARWATERS, a new bird for the weekend. A pod of the always-playful SHORT-BEAKED COMMON DOLPHINS entertained us for a bit. As we were trying to get better looks at the shearwaters, we noticed a hefty dark bird resting on the water…SKUA! Both North Atlantic skuas are possible in these waters at this time of year, so we would be taking an extra close and very open-minded look. This brute of a bird turned out to be a SOUTH POLAR SKUA, which allowed rather close approach as it sat calmly on the water. Eventually it tired of us and flew off, but not before everyone on board enjoyed awesome views. What a way to end the journey.

South Polar Skua

We pulled into Hyannis that evening a rather elated group (understatement!!). Huge thanks are owed to Capt. Joe Huckemeyer and his crew led by Matt, to Naeem Yusuff and Bobbie Hodson for taking on the monumental task of organizing this event, and to every one of our participants for making this trip possible. Congrats to everyone on a BBC “Extreme” Pelagic that none of us will forget!


Cumulative Trip List

(Excluding Hyannis Harbor & environs. Hourly checklists submitted to eBird. Cumulative estimates below.):

3 Wood Duck
1 Common Eider
1 Black-bellied Plover
11 Sanderling
36 Red-necked Phalarope
1 Red Phalarope
1 SOUTH POLAR SKUA
15 Pomarine Jaeger
1 Long-tailed Jaeger
1 SABINE’S GULL
10+ Laughing Gull
1 Ring-billed Gull
40+ Herring Gull
15 Lesser Black-backed Gull
20 Great Black-backed Gull
17 Black Tern
48 Common Tern
10 Common Loon
675+ Wilson’s Storm-Petrel
1 WHITE-FACED STORM-PETREL
10 Leach’s Storm-Petrel
150+ Northern Fulmar
1 BERMUDA PETREL
5 Black-capped Petrel
90+ Cory’s Shearwater
350+ Great Shearwater
3 Sooty Shearwater
19 Audubon’s Shearwater
1 BROWN BOOBY
40 Northern Gannet
1 Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
1 Northern Flicker
1 Barn Swallow
1 White-throated Sparrow
1 Black-and-white Warbler
3 Cape May Warbler

Complete route as tracked by GPS. Highlights marked by yellow pins. (Birds plotted where they were first sighted.)

Zoomed-in route at edge of continental shelf.

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Leaders: Luke Seitz (WINGS tour leader), Tom Johnson (FIELD GUIDES tour leader), Nick Bonomo (Connecticut Audubon Society EcoTravel tour leader), Naeem Yusuff, Bobbie Hodson

Visit the Brookline Bird Club at https://www.brooklinebirdclub.org/ and be sure to spread the word about these awesome pelagic trips.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Parasitic Jaeger off the CT coast

Hurricane Dorian ever so slightly (and quickly!) brushed southern New England on Sep 6-7. Not surprisingly, it didn't pack much rarity punch here. Still, some southern terns were deposited to Atlantic Canada and could conceivably pass through as they reorient. This possibility added a bit of extra motivation to bird the CT coast by boat sometime this week. Today was my first chance to do so, as I've been busy at work.

I left New Haven Harbor around 8:30am and headed east. The forecast was iffy in that there was a chance a swell could kick up from the east, in which case I would have to abort. Luckily that never happened, and I was able to cover way more ground that I had expected...all the way to the Rhode Island line and back.

Immediately evident was the departure of terns from New Haven Harbor. The theme continued to Falkner Island, where five early GREAT CORMORANTS were roosting. In fact, I didn't see a tern until I hit Madison on the outbound leg of the journey. I ran the middle of the sound, staying on the CT side, all the way to the "ferry lanes" near The Race. It was dead.

three of the five Great Cormorants off Guilford, CT

From there I angled back inshore, entered Fishers Island Sound, and went east all the way to Stonington and the RI line. There wasn't much happening here, either.

On the return leg I ran inshore, sticking pretty close to the coast, checking harbors, breakwaters, islands and jetties. Terns began to show off East Lyme, and they were present on and off westward to Clinton. The greatest concentration was between Old Saybrook and Clinton. COMMON TERNS were dominant except at the mouth of the Connecticut River, where a count of 74 FORSTER'S TERNS was notable. The lower CT River definitely holds the state's highest density of Forster's.

Just west of Cornfield Point I spotted a jaeger pursuing a Laughing Gull in the vicinity of a feeding tern flock. Speeding closer, binocular views revealed it to be a PARASITIC JAEGER, by far the least rare jaeger species in CT. It was a crisp juvenile with warm buff fringes to dark chocolate-brown feathers. I watched this bird terrorize terns and gulls for a little while before it settled on the water.

Parasitic Jaeger





Later this afternoon, Old Saybrook residents and old friends John & Anders Ogren were able to successfully chase the bird from their boat.

Any encounter with a jaeger in CT waters is an exciting event, but being able to get up close and personal via boat is a rare treat.

 - NB

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Quick hit Hudwit and Stilt Sand

I spent the majority of the 5th and 6th in the field with still a pretty heavy focus on shorebirds. We're getting to the point in the season when birders understandably shift their interest from shorebirds and terns to passerines and hawks. There will still be quality shorebirding for a bit longer, though numbers will really drop off (and have already begun to).

An early morning visit to Hammonasset Beach SP on the 5th found hardly any shorebirds on the lawns, but a decent landbird movement overhead. BOBOLINKS dominated, passing in singles and small flocks. The highlight came in the form of my first DICKCISSEL of the year, giving its flight call as it flew westward down the coast.

Some dedicated landbirding in Guilford found a few feeding flocks of common species. AMERICAN REDSTARTS are still dominating the warbler mix, which is typical for the date.

For the midday period I walked out Sandy Point in West Haven. Shorebird numbers never really got very high there this year, and they have trailed off to rather modest numbers at best. Still, there's been a bit of diversity. While I was watching a juvenile LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULL on the water, I heard a nasal bark-like call that I couldn't immediately place. I looked up to see a HUDSONIAN GODWIT flying in from the north. It didn't seem very interested in landing, banked left, and continued out of sight to the east. A juvenile RED KNOT, oddly uncommon in Connecticut, was also present, settled in with the BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER flock.

Hudsonian Godwit (molting adult)

Red Knot with Black-bellied Plovers

Also of note, while my butterfly knowledge is severely lacking, I noticed a CLOUDLESS SULPHUR flying northeastward down the beach and out over the harbor. And then another. And another. I ended up noting five of them on my walk back, which seemed like a lot to me.

Cloudless Sulphur

I began the next day at Milford Point. Hurricane Dorian was due to brush us every so slightly later that day, passing well to our southeast. While the chances of something getting blown into Long Island Sound were slim, the possibility of knock-downs was there. There were no surprises here, but I was happy to see the three continuing AMERICAN AVOCETS once again. Two each "Eastern" and "Western" WILLETS were cool side-by-side.

The outermost fringes of Hurricane Dorian slowly approach

Heading east, Hammonasset was dead quiet. As the outermost rain bands from the hurricane inched closer, I checked Griswold Point in Old Lyme. This used to be a prime shorebird spot, but recent storms have battered and eroded the point to a shell of its former self. Sadly, not even any Piping Plovers or Least Terns bred successfully this year, which is a first as far as I can remember. Anyway, birds were predictably scarce, but a single Tringa-like shorebird flew in by itself, which I had initially assumed would be a Lesser Yellowlegs. Better views revealed it to be a juvenile STILT SANDPIPER, once of those shorebird species that is far more regular in neighboring coastal states than it is in Connecticut. It never really got settled and flew off in a just a couple minutes. Bird of the day, for sure.

Stilt Sandpiper

The wind picked up a bit from the east, and showers began. I spent the next couple hours "sound-watching" from Cornfield Point in Old Saybrook. There were enough terns moving around to keep me occupied, some 600 total of four species (566 Common, 25 Forster's, 14 Roseate, 4 Black).

I stopped back into Hammonasset on my way home, as it was really raining at that point and I expected shorebirds to be downed on the lawns, but again, no dice.

 - Nick

Monday, August 26, 2019

SFBY Spell Broken

The last six weeks or so have been quite slow around here. Shorebird and tern diversity has been low - not something you want if you're doing a big year of any kind. The weather has honestly been too nice. Connecticut lacks extensive shorebird habitat. That fact, combined with our east-to-west coastline and proximity to Long Island, make it too easy for shorebirds to fly right over us on their way south. So, we need inclement weather to drop those migrants out of the sky and force them to land in CT. Other than a couple lines of strong storms and one or two dreary mornings, our days have been dry and sunny! Perfect beach weather, not so perfect shorebirding weather. Not surprisingly, those few moments of inclement weather have resulted in the few appearances by scarce species such as Stilt Sandpiper and Marbled Godwit.

I've been looking forward to the last week of August because, even on beautiful days, diversity should be increasing as we reach peak juvenile migration. Juveniles migrate later than adults and are more likely to wander a bit outside their species' ideal migration route.

Two of those species are "grasspipers" that we almost exclusively see as juveniles in late summer: BUFF-BREASTED and BAIRD'S SANDPIPERS. Right on time, I had one of each at Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison yesterday morning.

Buff-breasted Sandpiper

The evening high tide at Milford Point did not produce anything new for me, but three WHIMBREL were a highlight.

Whimbrel

Black-bellied Plovers and Ruddy Turnstone against dramatic skies

Whimbrel and Black-bellied Plovers

The evening before, I boated to the mouth of the Connecticut River in search of terns. The flock out there did not disappoint - the five regularly-occurring species for this time of year were present: COMMON, ROSEATE, FORSTER'S, LEAST, and BLACK.

Forster's Tern (juv)

Common Tern

Roseate Tern

Roseate Tern

Common Tern (juv)

Forster's Tern (juv)

Roseate Tern (juv)

Roseate Terns

juvenile Common (left) and Forster's Terns

 - NB