Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Sandpipers, Owls

A slightly surreal experience on Saturday morning: after finding six Rusty Blackbirds at Silver Lake Nature Center in Bristol PA (my go-to spot for these last two years), I ended up driving east to take in a pretty unusual shorebird combination in a muddy field in New Egypt: one Northern Lapwing, two Wilson's Snipe and six or seven Pectoral Sandpipers.  I rarely if ever see Pecs in spring migration, but then I don't spend much time checking muddy cattle fields in central Jersey.  (I'm a little blase about the Lapwing despite it being a big rarity, since I've seen lots in Britain and this is the 4th time I've seen the [same] birds in the USA in the last 6 months).  I usually experience shorebird migration down on the NJ Delaware Bay shore during may, where Heislerville WMA features tens of thousands of sandpipers feeding en masse prior to their push to Arctic breeding grounds.

Afterwards a little birding in Central Park on Sat and Sun included my main targets: Northern Saw-whet and Barred Owls, and a couple of unexpected spring birds: a female Eastern Towhee and a Brown Thrasher. While the Barred Owl has been impacting the rodent population of the entire winter, the thrasher and towhee are likely local overwintering birds that have wandered into the park.  It's pretty early for a female Towhee and fairly early for a Thrasher if these were longer-distance migrants and they are semi-hardy birds that often succeed in overwintering in milder years.  (It's not as remarkable as the male Rose-breasted Grosbeak that turned up at a feeder in NJ over the weekend, either).

Monday, March 25, 2013

Fieldfare, MA

Fieldfare is a large Turdus thrush that's common in Europe and that I'm familiar with from winters in Britain.  However it's a great deal rarer in the USA, so when one turned up in MA and stuck around for a few days it was too tempting - only just within the radius drivable within one day, but just doable via a 4.5 hour pre-dawn trek, much like last fall's Little Egret on Cape Cod.

Despite a lot of nocturnal driving and a 2:40am departure, I still got there after it put in its first post-sunrise appearance, but the Fieldfare reappeared every 30-45 minutes to feed on a berry bush (barberry?) at the back of a local residence in Carlisle MA.  The homeowner was very amenable and let us birders view it from the back of their garage.  (It was busy on Friday - dread to think what it might have been like on Saturday).  Even with a scope the bird was frequently not all that cooperative - you could detect it flying in and out via the white wing linings but it spent most of its time feeding hidden in the bush.  The white underwings are actually an ID mark when the bird is seen well in flight.  Finally at 10:30-ish the bird popped up on a branch before flying north in the typical heavy lumbering style that is characteristic of Fieldfares (and the related Mistle Thrush) and quite different than American Robins.  Notwithstanding flight style they are quite accomplished long-distance migrants in Europe.

This bird was USA #681.  I was a little fortunate with this one - it was seen the previous weekend, and I saw it on the 22nd with the last sighting being the 23rd, disappointing at least a hundred birders on the Sunday.

Other birds at this location included: Eastern Bluebird, Carolina Wren, Black-capped Chickadee and Hairy Woodpecker.

On the way back into NJ I encountered predictably heavy traffic and then spent some time waiting out the worst of rush hour by watching a Red-necked Grebe fishing in a local park pond in Harrison NJ (right at the border with Kearny) - a little incongruous for an urban setting but the grebe was fishing successfully and this is fairly close to both the Meadowlands and the Passaic River (it's also pretty close to downtown Newark).

Tuesday, March 12, 2013


Since I worked Sunday I went down to Barnegat Inlet/Light on Monday morning to make a late season look for sea ducks etc.  I got there when the tide was still very high and waves crashing over the breakwater from a pretty significant swell, so I made most of the hike to the ocean along the beach.  I discovered a new saltwater channel leading from the breakwater towards the phragmites and evergreen area in the dunes, as a result of winter storms.  An Eastern Phoebe was hunting amongst the pines near the lighthouse and a male Boat-tailed Grackle was singing at the bait shop.  As is typical for March a lot of gulls have paired up and many adults are in near-breeding plumage.

As expected Long-tailed Ducks were the most numerous and vocal, with courtship in full swing although only a few showed signs of being paired.  Harlequin Ducks were also chasing each other around and with the strong current pushing in off the ocean toward the bay, they were easily found at the end of the concrete walkway - normally they're further out.  The Red-breasted Mergansers were far less interested in pairing up, at least at this juncture.  Many Common Loons were present, most showing some signs of pre-alternate molt, and one bird that was most of the way to full breeding plumage.  Only 3 Red-throated Loons were seen.  Great Cormorants were perched on the structure at the end of the north jetty with one hunting along the inlet but they tend to avoid people wherever possible - one look at me and it headed back up the inlet.  Despite being in the 50's it was still very much a late winter rather than early spring set of water birds.

The Eider flock was still at the beach off the south side of the jetty, but apart from inevitable Long-tailed Ducks other sea ducks were elusive.  In the fog and hazy sunshine some silhouetted Scoters came by offshore in ones and twos and threes, but at that range and lighting they were strictly probable Blacks and Surf Scoters and non-definitive.  A handful of Northern Gannets were the other notable birds out on the ocean.

Since I wasn't walking along the jetty because of crashing waves, I saw only a few shorebirds: a Dunlin and Black-bellied Plover on the beach and a Purple Sandpiper perched up on the jetty staying clear of the waves.

The best action of the day was when a panicked flock of Dunlin shot past the jetty, pursued by a Peregrine which I watched pick off one Dunlin in mid-air just by flying it down rather than stooping.  Immediately a slightly larger (presumed female) Peregrine grabbed the Dunlin out of the other's talons - the first Peregrine letting go just before it got too close to the surf.  Then a Great Black-backed Gull pursued the second Peregrine to try and steal the Dunlin from it, ultimately unsuccessfully but a motivated GBB can give a loaded Peregrine a run for its money in flat flight.

Before leaving the barrier island a stop at a bay overlook about a half mile north of the bridge produced a few Horned Grebes and a Scaup sp. flock in the far more sheltered waters of the bay.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Crossbills, Woodcock and futility

Actually the day was front-loaded with futility, since at one point I was 0 for 4 on chased birds.  First I missed Cackling Geese at a park in Parlin, then missed Barnacle Goose at a park in Jersey City, then missed Glaucous Gull at Budd Lake, and there were no sign of Snow Buntings (and also a dearth of snow) at Spruce Run Recreation Area in Clinton Twp.

Lincoln Park in Jersey City did hold a decent variety of waterfowl: lots of Canada Geese, Bufflehead, Red-breasted and Hooded Mergansers, Ruddy Duck, Gadwall, Northern Shoveler, Great Blue Heron and Black-crowned Night-Heron.  Of particular note were 15 Killdeer being even more nervous than normal as a Northern Harrier hunted the area.

Budd Lake had one Red-breasted Merganser amongst the many Common Mergs and gulls of little interest.

Spruce Run had several (10's of) Lesser Black-backed Gulls which allowed study of some immatures of various ages (at least 1st winter and 3rd winter).  No white-winged gulls here either.  A Red-shouldered Hawk was calling and seen briefly near the boat launch.

The day's consolation prize were some cooperative White-winged Crossbills on Princeton University campus, not more than 25 yards from my office, feeding on the ground on fallen sweet gum seeds that line Washington Ave.  These birds have been here since late Jan, although with warming temperatures you've got to wonder how much longer they'll be inclined to stay.  (I've ended up seeing them each day on the 8th-11th).

Final birds of the day was at least four displaying American Woodcock at my favorite local patch near Princeton.  Atypically I actually had decent views of up to four song flights, since it's usually so dark when they really get going that the whole thing is a blur.  The usual peenting, twittering, chirping and the "grumbling" calls were heard.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Gyrfalcon, Tufted Duck, Red-necked Grebe

Back when it was a life bird, I "chased" a Gyr out along Ocean Parkway on the south shore of Long Island a few years back.  Last year (2012) I finally snagged Gyr with three within two hours on a Nome, AK trip.  So of course another of these regionally rare falcons turns up the next winter, inevitably along the same barrier island east of Jones Beach.  Most of the views of this Gyr have been distant, and so it was with me where at 10:30am it was perched a very long way out on an Osprey platform, and then later in the same day (2:30pm) it was marginally closer on some sort of informal boat dock in better lighting.  In both cases it stretched and preened but resolutely refused to fly.  Others saw it closer at the start and end of the day.  Back on Feb 26th Doug Gochfeld got some pretty good in flight photos which suggests it looks paler than it actually does at a distance with its back to you.  The ones I saw in AK were whiter than this.  What clinches the ID is the relatively long tail projection past the wings and the sheer size of the thing relative to a Peregrine Falcon.

That's my first one in the lower 48.

Lesser and Greater Scaup, Hooded and Red-breasted Mergansers, Bufflehead and American Bitterns were also evident at Gilgo Beach while waiting for the Gyr to do something.  One of the Bitterns was quite out in the open in the high tide conditions that morning.

Shortly afterwards the otherwise interesting Red-necked Grebe at Captree State Park seemed a little underwhelming by comparison, as it paddled around the boat docks, sleeping most of the time.

Then north to Huntington on the northern part of Long Island to look for the Tufted Duck.  This is unquestionably the same bird that I struck out on in January when it was in a coastal inlet at Halesite, just a little to the north.  This time around it was markedly more cooperative and was feeding off pond weed in the large pond at Heckscher Park in Huntington in the company of a few Ring-necked Ducks and one Lesser Scaup.  Quite an easy find for a bird that is relatively rare on the East coast, and which I had last seen in NJ in 2002 (my first USA one was also on Long Island in 1999).