Monday, September 6, 2021

Labor Day Weekend - SABINE'S GULL+

Sep 2

The remnants of Hurricane Ida wreaked havoc even in her weakened form here in the northeast USA as she dumped 4-8 inches of rain throughout Connecticut on September 1st. As the low pressure slowly pulled away on the 2nd, skies finally brightened late morning. Temperatures had fallen, humidity had dropped, and there was a solid wind from the north. Off from work for a few days, I figured I would head to Lighthouse Point in New Haven to see if anything was flying. Abby Sesselberg and Paul Cashman were already on watch but had not noted anything moving yet. Not long after my arrival the first migrant raptor of the day ripped through in the form of a MERLIN, soon joined by OSPREY, BALD EAGLE, and NORTHERN HARRIER. A small afternoon flight had developed. Swallows (five species) and swifts were also on the move in numbers. We heard a ROYAL TERN calling from the harbor and soon spotted it from the hawk watch.

Before heading out, I drove down to the beach to scan the water and found several flocks of terns and gulls feeding offshore. Among the COMMON TERNS were a handful of FORSTER'S, a ROSEATE, and two CASPIAN TERNS flew overhead while calling.

[Click images to view larger versions]

Caspian Tern

Sep 3

Conditions overnight, clear skies with a cool north wind, were excellent for nocturnal migration. I headed to Willard's Island (Hammonasset Beach SP) with Severin Uebbing and Cody Limber for morning flight, which was decent but not great. The count was 178 warblers of 11 species.

Black-throated Green Warbler

Canada Warbler

Bay-breasted Warbler

Cape May Warbler

After dropping off Severin and Cody post-Hammo, the afternoon was looking beautifully sunny with a light wind. Why not spend the rest of the day on the water? I had been looking for calm conditions during the late August-early September window to explore Long Island Sound via boat. On paper, this should be one of the best times of year for rarities in the Sound. Long-tailed Jaeger, Sabine's Gull, and Red-necked Phalarope are all migrating right now, and those pelagic populations will take a partially over-land route from their breeding grounds to the Atlantic Ocean, which means that some likely fly over CT each autumn without being seen. Adding to the list of potential rarities, Brown Boobies have made a minor push into the area in recent weeks. From that list, only Red-necked Phalarope is not an absolute mega in Connecticut, and even the phalarope is rare. None of those species can be expected by any means, but the odds of running into something unusual increase from "yeah, right" to "puncher's chance" at this time of year. At the very least, Common Tern and Laughing Gull numbers tend to peak in that window, which means that you're very likely to have birds to look through, rarity or not.

I headed east out of New Haven Harbor and quickly saw the same feeding frenzies that I had scoped from Lighthouse Point the prior afternoon. Armed with fishing gear, I quickly caught two bluefish for the table and put them on ice. The goal was to focus on birds, though, so after going through these flocks I continued eastward. I got as far as Old Saybrook when the sea conditions quickly turned. The wind increased sharply and was now coming out of the west, creating a "wind against tide" scenario that caused a classic Long Island Sound chop to develop. There was no reason to go any further, so I headed back towards home. The birding was OK, though not as many terns and gulls were present as anticipated. In fact, the New Haven area held the most activity by a wide margin. Most notable to me was the presence of five GREAT CORMORANTS, three adults and two juveniles, all clearly recently arrived from the north. Conventional wisdom says it is early for this species' arrival in Long Island Sound, and they are flagged by eBird as such, but recent September boat trips to outer islands and breakwaters have revealed that they arrive earlier and in greater numbers than we can appreciate from shore.

Great Cormorants (right) with Double-crested Cormorants. Adult above, juvenile here.

Terns were represented by the four most expected species for the date: COMMON, FORSTER'S, ROSEATE, and BLACK.

Black Tern

Upon my arrival back to New Haven, the fish and birds were still going strong. This time there were birds further offshore, which I thought held better promise for a jaeger. I also wanted to make sure that they were indeed feeding over bluefish (they were) and not over my first false albacore of the year. Caught and released a few more blues, which always put up a good fight. One particularly impressive school of blitzing blues popped up next to the boat, but while videoing the action I nearly dropped the phone when I noticed that a SABINE'S GULL was feeding just off the stern of the boat! Somehow I managed to stop the video before the expletives started flying. I ran for the stowed camera.

There it was - a fresh juvenile Sabine's foraging over the feeding fish with a smattering of Laughing Gulls. This is only the third state record of this species, the prior two occurring on the dates of September 3rd and 5th. I'd call that a pattern.

I fully expected this to be a short-lived sighting, as many pelagic birds leave the Sound as soon as they can, but to my surprise the bird was casually working the area for food. I was on it for about 20 minutes before the feeding stopped and the birds scattered on the water. I never saw it leave, so I assume it dropped to the water and was lost in the increasingly steep chop.

Sabine's Gull

Sep 4

It was back to Willard's this morning, with Julian Hough, for migration, which turned out to be quite slow. 81 warblers of ten species flew out in an hour and a half. The west end puddles, in fine condition after all that rain, continued to hold shorebirds including STILT and BAIRD'S SANDPIPERS.

Cape May Warbler (top) and American Redstart

Black-throated Green Warbler

Baird's Sandpiper

Stilt Sandpiper

Later in the afternoon I reconvened with Julian and his son Alex for a boat ride off New Haven in hopes of a repeat Sabine's performance. Unfortunately most of the gulls and terns from the previous two days had vanished. Our hopes for something unusual had been dashed. Out of absolute nowhere a small gull flew across the bow of the boat that turned out to be a juvenile BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE. This species is rare in CT and is on the Review List, though it is not in the same realm as the Sabine's. I believe this is my fourth self-found kittiwake in the state. It quickly disappeared to the southeast, more in line with typical LIS pelagic behavior than yesterday's Sabine's encounter.

Black-legged Kittiwake

There was definitely something going on with juvenile kittiwakes over the weekend. On the same day as the sighting above there were two land-based sightings from the NYC/LI region and another inshore MA, plus an inland PA record a day or two later.

That's a few days of quality local birding for sure. It felt good to get back into the swing of things, as autumn migration seems to have woken me out of my non-birding slumber. Monitoring the Willard's morning flight has been a blast, and being able to turn up some rarities via boat is always a sweet surprise.

 - Nick

Friday, August 27, 2021

Willard's Morning Flight - August 15 & 25, 2021

Last autumn I began to explore Hammonasset Beach State Park's Willard's Island as a potential "morning flight" hotspot. Results were encouraging over a handful of attempts. At the very least, the site seemed to be reliable for a modest flight given good migration conditions.

Thanks to a busy work/life schedule, my opportunities to hit Willard's for morning flight are few are far between. When you're talking about a six-week peak window, there aren't many chances to begin with. So I jumped on the opportunity to spend the morning of the 15th standing at the north tip of the tiny island, staring southward in hopes of some warblers migrating early in the season. A cold front had cleared the previous evening, which should have triggered movement overnight.

As I began the walk out at sunrise, there were a few audible American Redstarts and Yellow Warblers, so at least a few birds were on the move. I arrived at the morning flight site to find clear skies and a steady 7-10mph north wind, which would be as useful for producing birds as it would be for keeping mosquitoes at bay. These really seemed like ideal conditions.

There was a steady movement of northbound birds (mostly warblers, per usual here) from 0600 to 0630. There was a drop-off from 0630 to 0700, and eventually a slow trickle from 0700 to 0745, when I concluded the watch.

Overall, 157 warblers of 12 species (plus a single non-flying Common Yellowthroat) flew out, a result I was very pleased with for the date!

The walk back to the car was pretty slow, but did see another Worm-eating Warbler and a Yellow-throated Vireo in a small mixed flock.

Northern Waterthrush

Black-and-white Warbler


American Redstart (left) and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Yellow Warbler

American Redstart

Worm-eating Warbler

My next shot would come ten days later in less-than-optimal weather. In the midst of a heat wave behind Hurricane Henri, winds went light NW aloft the evening before and deadened to calm by daybreak. I still wanted to give it a shot in my attempt to get to know the place better. I arrived a bit late, getting to the north tip about 10 minutes after sunrise. I was really surprised to be greeted by a steady movement of warblers in action. I had a quick 50 birds within 15 minutes, so it was shaping up to be a really nice flight despite the dead calm wind, heat and humidity. But it ended as quickly as it started. That initial pulse quickly faded to a trickle, and the flight was completely over some 45 minutes later.

The final tally was 116 warblers of 6 species, plus Yellowthroat on the deck. Very little was found foraging on the walk back.

 - NB

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

I'm Back, Baby! With Trip Reports! How's that for click bait?!

After a very bird-centric 2019 and 2020, I really needed to take a break from the local birding scene to regain some much-needed balance in my life. That Connecticut Self-Found Big Year in 2019 was an endeavor, so I was looking forward to normalcy in 2020. Well, we all know how that went. Turns out, outdoor activities such as birding were the perfect antidote to lockdowns and quarantines, so it was back into the field for 2020! Don't get me wrong...I am eternally grateful to have had a hobby like birding to serve as an outlet during the height of the ongoing pandemic. But after two years of so much local field time, I badly needed a respite.

One of the perks of working as a hospital-based Physician Assistant through the whole ordeal, other than keeping me sane with daily human interaction, was my immediate access to the COVID-19 vaccine. I received my second shot on January 5th.

Two weeks later, I was good to go.

Florida in January, Alaska in March, and Texas/Arizona in April.

I refrained from posting those trips here for a couple reasons. First, social media was ripe with travel shaming from all the self-righteous woke morons that roam the internet these days. Didn't need any of that. Second, I did not want to gloat about vaccination status with so many folks at the time patiently waiting for their age group to become eligible for a shot.

So, without further ado, here are the snappiest trip reports you'll ever read.

Florida Keys - January
Equal parts birding, fishing (bonefish!!), beaching, and eating/drinking. Unbelievable feeling after a very long year. Also incredibly bizarre to be among the first batch of lucky vaccinated people traveling again. A scene I will not soon forget.

Highlights: Cuban Pewee and Black-faced Grassquit
Lowlights: hours wasted searching for PITA Red-legged Thrush

Cuban Pewee

Black-faced Grassquit

Alaska - March
Why visit Alaska in March? For starters, daylight is very reasonable as the equinox approaches, and winter birds have not yet departed. We're talking hundreds of Emperor Geese and dozens of Steller's Eider on Kodiak Island. It is definitely worth a look for the adventurous and curious winter birder.

Highlights: said Emperor Geese and Steller's Eiders. Also McKay's Bunting! (still a species...fuck off, lumpers!)

Slaty-backed Gull

Steller's Eiders

Emperor Geese

Texas & Arizona - April
What do you do when your trip to Big Bend is derailed by a wild fire? You keep your flight to El Paso, but drive west to Arizona for some quick and dirty twitching. Lucifer Hummingbird, Northern Jacana, Black-capped Gnatcatcher, Rose-throated Becard, and Buff-collared Nightjar all bagged in less than 36 hours.

That was a bit too efficient. What to do with the rest of your time??

Well, we drove back eastward to Big Bend, knowing that the classic Colima Warbler trails were closed, took a shot at the Laguna Meadows trail where Colima is far from guaranteed, and enjoyed prolonged views of a singing male. Everything was coming up Milhouse!

Big Bend National Park


Locally, I've kept my promise of generally not birding at all, save for our annual Connecticut Big Day in May, for which we raised a nice amount of money for the Roaring Brook Nature Center in Canton, CT. Our total was 192 species, one shy of our record.

Until next time, whenever that might be!(?)

 - Nick

Sunday, March 21, 2021

possible Sooty x Red Fox Sparrow in CT

Back on January 3rd, while doing the Old Lyme Christmas Bird Count, I came across a lone Fox Sparrow on private property in Clinton that struck me as odd for our usual iliaca "Red" Fox Sparrows in that it had quite a bit of gray on the head and seemed to be lacking much in the way of rufous tones to the body. I did snap a few photos, but the encounter was rather brief and I really could not afford to spend much time with the bird if I wanted to complete my CBC territory. I decided I would come back for it another day.

On the afternoon of the 5th I scattered seed on the ground beneath the bushes in which it was initially seen and returned to the site on the morning of the 6th to find that the local thicket birds had indeed already discovered the seed. Initially present were two Fox Sparrows. Both were standard Eastern fare. Then three. Then four. But nothing out of the ordinary. By this point I was beginning to question the initial sighting, wondering if lighting conditions had something to do with that first impression.

Finally, while watching the seed plot naked-eye, a grayish-brown Fox Sparrow popped into view. Noticing how different this bird appeared even without binoculars was quite telling. A closer look confirmed that this was the sparrow I had seen a few days prior.

I was able to watch and photograph the bird on-and-off for a couple hours, sometimes in direct comparison with the iliaca Reds. I noted the following:

1) Colder/browner/grayer overall (brown was the predominant color impression). Even in sunlight, and comparing apples to apples in the field with iliaca, this bird lacks the same warmth of typical iliaca, both above and below. This includes a reduced creamy wash to the upper breast, which is extremely subtle on this bird. It is just not a very rufous bird overall, even where brightest at the base of the tail, no matter the lighting conditions.

2) The head pattern is grayer and more muted. Iliaca pretty consistently shows rufous auriculars set off by a gray supercilium and nape, and a crown with coarse rufous and gray streaking. This bird's gray bleeds smoothly (not coarsely) into the crown and into the auriculars (on the left side greater than the right, I believe).

3) The back is streaked, though this is muted and cold relative to iliaca.

4) The rear flanks are blurry and have a light brown background color to them. Some iliaca have messy rear flanks, but the background color remains white or off-white.

5) Pale wing covert tips were not very strong, though this is quite variable in iliaca based on wear etc, The photos illustrate just how different this feature can appear from image to image based on angle and lighting.

After researching zaboria (i.e. western/AK-breeding Red Fox Sparrows), they generally differ from iliaca in having more extensive gray to head and back and may be a bit duller rufous overall, but are otherwise quite similar to the iliaca we see here, complete with strongly patterned back, variably pale wing covert tips, and lack of muddy flank background color.

This bird's colder and browner tones combined with the brown background color to the flanks recalls Sooty Fox Sparrow influence and seems outside the range of what is seen in 'pure' zaboria.


Here are some of the iliaca Reds that were also on site:

And here are some direct comparison shots, as close to apples-to-apples as I could get:

I am not married to this ID, but I do think it fits best. Outside input has varied from Sooty x Red to 'altivagans' (a bit of a mystery taxon, likely Slate-colored x Red) to zaboria Red to 'no idea', highlighting the difficulty of intergrade/oddball Fox Sparrow ID on the wintering grounds.

A consulted FOSP researcher suggested the following: "Yes, this bird looks well within what I'd consider could be produced from intergradation between coastal sinuosa [Sooty] and interior [Red], intergradation that I know occurs in south-central Alaska."

I am reasonably comfortable ruling out zaboria Red for the reasons noted above, but beyond that my confidence wanes. It seems highly likely that this bird is from a contact zone somewhere out west.

 - NB