Monday, February 27, 2012

Woodcocks and Rusty Blackbirds

Gale force winds on Saturday deferred birding to Sunday, hitting mostly local sites.

Falls Twp Community Park held four Iceland Gulls - this time I was sure they were all Iceland since some gull flock flushing by dog walkers made it such that I could see all their heads and bills at some point. No Glaucous, but approximately six adult Lesser Black-backed Gulls.

I visited the nearby Silver Lake Nature Center in adjacent Bristol PA - a place I didn't even know existed until I was scouting around for Rusty Blackbird reports on Sunday morning - and it was a nicely maintained wooded area with trails bordering wetlands and Silver Lake itself. An area across the road that I didn't explore was labeled as swamp/wet woodland. In places the habitat was rather reminiscent of the Ramble in Central Park, complete with traffic noise. Walking the trails there was the normal semi-suburban species: Downy/Hairy/Red-bellied Woodpeckers, one Northern Flicker, one Carolina Wren, Chickadees and Titmice. The Hairy was actually a year bird for me. Then in the phragmites near the stream I picked up Red-winged Blackbirds and then the first Rusty Blackbird. I had good timing here since a moving flock of 25 Rusty Blackbirds came past me near the observation deck, and one or two males were actually singing. Most birds were in or near breeding plumage. After they went past I never saw them again, so I was quite lucky - and 25 was flagged as a high count by eBird. 25 Rusties is probably more than I've seen in the last 5+ years combined, and perhaps my highest count ever. This is a species that is in fairly rapid decline in the north east. Icing on the cake was a Fox Sparrow (also first-of-year) in with the White-throated Sparrows.

This place is certainly worth another look as spring picks up, although it remains to be seen if it's a migrant hotspot - Bristol is dense suburbia but nothing is as dense as Manhattan.

The afternoon was spent in an out-and-back push to Point Pleasant where two visits failed to come up with the Razorbill in the inlet (seen earlier in the day) and the ocean was also quiet with two species of Loons, one fly-by Gannet and a mere handful of Long-tailed Ducks.

The end of a pretty good birding day was at dusk at my traditional Woodcock spot in Central NJ where I listened to at least 3 males peenting (one was so close I almost jumped), making display flights, and making the grumbling call while flying around the area, sometimes chasing each other. Probably the mild winter would make for a strong breeding season this year, since most would have survived to spring.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

White-winged Gulls

Being low-energy on Sunday I confined birding to local spots, which mainly meant Falls Twp Community Park and Trenton-Hamilton Marsh. I went to the marsh looking for Rusty Blackbirds but came up with a pretty normal selection of ducks (Mallard, Am. Black Duck, N. Pintail, A. Wigeon, Gadwall, N. Shoveler, GW Teal, C. Merganser, RN Duck), a Great Blue Heron and virtually no passerines. I did pick up a tick which I found crawling on me while driving. That's one downside to a mild winter...

At Falls Twp park I saw four white-winged gulls on my first visit. I believed these to be four Iceland Gulls but since two were sleeping I wasn't absolutely certain. All appeared to be in first winter plumage. Since the lighting was bad I left for the marsh and didn't return until it started to get sunny towards sunset. It was then that I realized that there were three Icelands and one smaller Glaucous Gull, probably the same birds that I had seen two hours previously. The Glaucous was only a little larger than a Herring Gull and therefore must have been a different one than the massive individual I saw back in January (although both were first winter). Because of a dog walker flushing the flock I saw it and photographed it in flight. Of the three Icelands two were pale but one was much darker, almost close to the tone of some of the paler Herring Gulls (although obviously with pale primaries and a smaller bill). Not bad though: three Icelands and one Glaucous and a few Lesser Black-backed Gulls, and pictures of all the white-winged individuals. A bonus was a fly-over Peregrine Falcon although as usual diversity here is limited.

That actually makes three different Glaucous Gulls in one winter (two at Falls Twp, one in Edison), which is much more than usual - I'm lucky to get just one.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

NYC rarities

Saturday morning saw a pre-dawn sprint to Jamaica Bay with the singular purpose of seeing the male Barrow's Goldeneye on the West Pond. Often enough at this time of year the West Pond is a sheet of ice, but given the nature of the winter there wasn't any ice anywhere. Instead there was a large flock of diving ducks roosting on the pond: primarily Red-breasted Mergansers, Ruddy Ducks and Goldeneyes with not a great deal of diversity (very low scaup numbers, no Canvasback, very few dabbling ducks). The Barrow's was pretty easy to find - at the front edge of the large Goldeneye flock in good light. Distant, so no photos. Goldeneyes started leaving the West Pond at 7:15am, noticeably noisy in flight because of the whistle of their primaries. With 100+ Goldeneyes roosting, finding the Barrows out in the bay itself would have been a big problem. The Goldeneyes were making mating displays (including the Barrows) which was generally true of most ducks that weren't already paired up. Also present were a few Snow Geese, again often absent in Feb as they head further south in response to freezes.

Once satiated by views of Barrow's, I went west to Breezy Point where I did not find any Snowy Owls (and neither did the birder that I met). I spent time scoping the Atlantic - nothing novel except a large flock of Long-tailed Duck and close fly-by Great Cormorant in breeding plumage. On the beach I spent some time photographing Sanderlings.

Finally I came back north across the bridge on Flatbush Ave to Floyd Bennett Field in search of three species: Northern Shrike (for NYC list), Red-necked Grebe (for year list) and Eurasian Wigeon (for year list). I struck out on the Eurasian Wigeon at the first attempt, but found eight Red-necked Grebes on a single scan from Archery Road. Surely a high count for me. Good luck continued when a group of Brooklyn/Manhattan birders showed me the elusive Northern Shrike. The Shrike rewarded some additional patience by hunting along the edge of the runway in plain sight, given some record shot photos that show the residual brown barring of an immature - without the benefit of photos it basically has the coloration of an adult. Finally a return trip to Archery Road gave me straightforward views of the Eurasian Wigeon male, a species that had eluded me at Perth Amboy so far this year. With waterfowl starting to make a move north, the obvious question is how longer most of these birds will stick around.

Having had a pretty successful morning I then proceeded to have a futile afternoon in NJ: not finding any trails into Great Piece Meadows for Rusty Blackbirds (apparently access is informal); failing to find the Northern Shrike at Boonton; not seeing any white-winged gulls at the boat launch in Edison where the species were Herring/Ring-billed Gulls and Mallard. Hard to complain about that, given the successful morning.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

(more) Gulls in NJ

Sunday's route was a coastal one, starting at Point Pleasant for Razorbill and then bouncing up the northern coast. The idea was to pick up coastal water birds to fill out the year list. The weather had other ideas - cold, partially overcast and with a strong westerly breeze and I was almost totally stymied.

Point Pleasant: Dunlin, Black-bellied Plover, Common Loon, Northern Gannet
Little Silver Lake, Wreck Pond, Spring Lake, Lake Como etc: Hooded Merganser, Bufflehead, Mallard, Am. Black Duck, Black-crowned Night Heron, Ruddy Duck, Brant (1), Snow Goose (1). Somewhat of a dearth of interesting birds, low numbers in general, missing the American Wigeon flock at Silver Lake in Belmar etc. I did have two Lesser Black-backed Gulls at Roosevelt Avenue access point in Deal to avoid a complete birding disaster.

I did stop at Sandy Hook at the C (Chokeberry) lot and found very little out on the open water: Common Loon, Long-tailed Duck, distant Gannets and a few Bonaparte's Gulls. The sand was being whipped up by the wind which was ferocious enough at this point to eliminate any enthusiasm I had for scanning from more windswept ocean beaches - there wasn't anything noteworthy looking to the north of C lot along the Atlantic, no sign of any scoters.

I retreated to South Amboy and walked east along the beach from the waterfront park (large flock of Brant) to the Walker Ave mudflats. I was searching for a Black-headed Gull amongst the Bonaparte's flock so it was with some chagrin that from a distance I saw the Bonaparte's take to the air and the flock fragment with about half of them heading out towards rips offshore far enough that you certainly couldn't tell them apart. This actually happened again once I got closer to the flock, leaving 30-40 on the beach once I got within scoping range. The flock appeared nervous in the high wind and the presence of some large Herring Gulls. Put to flight briefly by the big gulls I spotted the Black-headed Gull by virtue of the black underneath of its primaries, followed it until it return to the water with the Bonaparte's, and finally saw the one interesting bird for the day. Apparently my first Black-headed in four years. As is the case in flocks that I've seen them in before, Black-headed don't look much larger than Bonaparte's when in the water, and the red bill is quite subdued in mediocre light in winter, but when it wandered out onto land it seemed almost twice the bulk of a Bonaparte's by virtue of the legs being longer. I got fairly decent looks at it, and this was my only good bird of the day - out in the bay Bufflehead, Red-breasted Merganser, Red-throated Loon and Great Cormorant didn't quite make the noteworthy list, although the Cormorant was starting to sport breeding plumage.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Gulls in PA

Between snow flurries I wandered south of the Delaware River to Falls Twp Community Park in/near Levittown PA for some dilettante gull watching. Dilettante means that you can bird from or near your car, and in fact the first Iceland Gull I saw was seen immediately while scanning the big gull flock before even leaving my car.

That particular Iceland Gull was a fairly hefty first winter, with a second paler and more lightly built first winter bird seen after a more thorough scan. Eventually I was able to pick out a second winter immature Iceland toward the back of the flock with a bicolored bill and a pale gray mantle, but still barring in the tertials. I could not see the entire bird - a shame since I don't see many 2nd winter individuals. There were a few Lesser Black-backed Gulls in the mix - as with the last visit in Jan fewer than expected - and then there was a very interesting "Herring" Gull that caught my attention.

At first I thought I'd finally snagged my first ever Thayer's Gull - the gull had tertials of the same color as the back, contrasting darker primaries, and the overall color of the entire back was checkered and pale. Much paler than most immature Herrings:

with wing-spread shots it even had a primary pattern reminiscent of Thayer's, with pale inner webs, but the hook pattern was a little anomalous:

What eliminated Thayer's was the sheer mass of the bird - big heavy bill and a size/bulk range well within the range for Herring.

Quite an anomalous bird. Probably not Thayer's (by size/bill), probably not Nelson's Gull (Glaucous x Herring) unless it was on the smaller/darker end for that hybrid. It's also superficially similar to Herring x Glaucous-winged Gull which while not unknown on the west coast would be quite an exceptional visitor on the east coast. God forbid it's just a pale Herring Gull, because they are variable enough as it is without getting this bad.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Rehabbing the Undesirables

This article in the NY Times was especially touching:

not least of all because a lot of birders view Rock Pigeons as not much more than sky rats. These non-natives, along with birds like Starlings, House Sparrows and Red-tailed Hawks have my admiration as gutsy exploiters of a very harsh urban environment. It's good to see someone taking sympathy on them.

I have mixed feelings about rehabbers, who in some cases lean towards the overzealous - chasing the AMNH hummingbird around with butterfly nets on the grounds that it was going to die imminently (it's still there, 6 weeks later), or the intervention in the case of "Violet", the Union Sq Red-tailed Hawk which ultimately lead to her post-surgery death (and would have confined her to a zoo like existence had she survived). I like to "give the bird the benefit of the doubt".

But there are a lot of rehabbers that do a lot of good - I've seen the Wild Bird Fund release an Ovenbird at Tanner's Spring, which after sitting there for ten minutes or so just got up and restarted its life in the wild once more. As with the pigeons, it's not like these acts tip the balance on the conservation of any particular species. They are not Whooping Cranes. These are, instead, acts of pure compassion. You could do worse than to donate to their cause.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Shawangunk NWR

Shawangunk NWR is the old Galeville (Federal) Airport near Wallkill in Ulster County NY. In recent years they've been removing the old runways and re-seeding the grassland. While it's not a completed project it's destined to improve the habitat. Savannah Sparrows and Bobolinks breed there (amongst other birds). Henslow's Sparrows have also done so, historically. The project is taking a little time to complete, at least in part because the Shawangunk-Wallkill NWR pair don't have an infinite amount of manpower.

In winter, Shawangunk is a pretty reliable place for owls - perhaps the most reliable place in the region. This year I've seen reports of up to 15 so I made a little pilgrimage north to Newburgh. This was less of a drive when I used to live in NYC. En route I spied a probable Common Raven over the I-87 NY Thruway north of the Harriman tolls and an American Kestrel in the median strip of I-84 west of Newburgh. I also had a Pileated Woodpecker over I-287 in NJ.

The construction project means that you can't walk far into the NWR at present - just to the end of the entrance drive. Viewing is also possible from the north side at the local town park - perhaps with better views. But from where I was the views were just fine. Before sunset the prize was two perched pale morph Rough-legged Hawks and eventually one dark one. There were 5+ Northern Harriers around, mostly juveniles with one adult female and one adult male. The owls started to get up at 4:15pm, quite a bit before sunset. They were hunting, perching and vocalizing. One belligerent owl was dive-bombing a perched Rough-legged Hawk - at one point almost knocking it over and finally driving it from that area. Other owls were fighting with each other a little, as they seem to do when a bunch of them gather. I managed to see about 8 in one scope sweep at one time, so well short of the maximum number, but still a pretty satisfying total given that Pole Farm near me has precisely zero this year.

The bizarre part of the experience was that despite being in Shawangunk in early Feb there was absolutely no snow on the ground. Surely some sort of record.