Monday, September 26, 2011

Back from California

Marbled Godwit, Point Reyes NS, Sept 18, 2011

I just returned very late last night from a trip out to California spending four days around Point Reyes, a day in Monterey and three days in Big Sur.  A fabulous trip with several life birds and lots of photos.  I will download them today and perhaps get a few up before the day is done.  I still need to total up all my sightings for the trip and that may take awhile.  Stay tuned.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Arcadia meadows and then Goat's Peak

Wilson's Warbler, Arcadia, Sept 16, 2011

Northern Waterthrush, Arcadia, Sept 16, 2011

Palm Warbler, Arcadia, Sept 16, 2011
I began the day at the Arcadia Meadows and then headed up to Goats Peak at Mt. Tom to get some hawk watching in.  Down in Arcadia the recent floods were still in evidence but most areas can be accessed.  There were some good birds around including a couple Lincoln's Sparrows, lots of Song and Savannah Sparrows and warblers such as a Northern Waterthrush, Yellow, Wilson's and Palm Warbler (first of the season).

Broad-winged Hawk, Mt Tom, Sept 16, 2011

Broad-winged Hawk kettle, Mt Tom, Sept 16, 2011

On Goats Peak in a couple hours of watching I had over 250 Broad-winged Hawks as well as several Bald Eagles, a few American Kestrels, a Peregrine Falcon, Osprey, Cooper's and Sharp shinned Hawks as well as several Bald Eagles.  The winds were really moving up on the tower and most birds were really moving by fairly quick.  Some great looks at some of the birds.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The last of the nighthawks...and some nice migration

Common Nighthawk, Belchertown, MA, Sep 9, 2011

Common Nighthawk, Belchertown, MA, Sep 9, 2011
Yesterday I still had at least three Common Nighthawks at the house feeding during the evening but had none today.  As September moves along the nighthawks will disappear until next spring.  Replacing the nighthawks will be a wide variety of migrants.  I came across some nice groups of them today while I explored central Quabbin.  Some movement of hawks was noted as well as several mixed species flocks that included some really nice birds giving great views.

Cooper's Hawk, central Quabbin, Sept 10, 2011 

House Wren, central Quabbin, Sept 10, 2011

Red eyed Vireo, central Quabbin, Sept 10, 2011

Friday, September 9, 2011

Bonaparte's Gull

Bonaparte's Gull showing pink legs, UMASS fields, Sept 9, 2011

Bonaparte's Gull, UMASS fields, Sept 9, 2011

Bonaparte's Gull, UMASS fields, Sept 9, 2011
I spent the morning with Ian Davies checking out a few spots around UMASS.  Despite the apparent heavy nocturnal migration last night little in the way of passerines were noted with the highlight being a Wilson's and Canada Warbler.  With little activity of Orchard Hill we decided to try a few other spots.  We noticed a large group of gulls on the athletic fields and thought it a good idea to make a quick stop.  In among the nearly 300 Ring-billed Gulls was a fresh juvenile plumaged Bonaparte's Gull.  This gull is unusual in western Massachusetts but is usually seen every year.  The bird was fairly dark and made us check it out closely to make sure it was not something even more unusual.  Perhaps this is the same bird that was seen at the Oxbow in Northampton several days ago that was described as a juvenile plumaged Bonaparte's.  I got a few record shots of the bird but the bird was distant.  We then went over to the UMASS horse farm and that was quiet for birds but a field across the street had 25+ Killdeer, a few each of Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers and an unidentified longer winged peep that flew away as I opened a door. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

More on the large swift species

A little more on the large swift species seen by myself at Covey WMA in Belchertown, MA on September 1.  I doubt there is any way to positively identify the swift I saw to species but the evidence certainly points toward Black Swift given the other reports and the track of Hurricane Irene which hit here just a few days prior to the sighting.  The track of the storm came right through the range of the Caribbean race of the Black Swift (Cypseloides niger niger) which is reported as widespread in the West Indies in "A Guide to Birds of the West Indies" by Herbert Raffaele, et al..  It is considered a powerful long-distance flyer and can disperse I have included my description that I submitted to the Massachusetts Avian Records Committee (MARC) as well as a post on Massbird from Marshall Iliff.  Keep your eyes open, you never know what will turn up!

"I was standing at the edge of a marsh area and had a group of Common Nighthawks moving from north to south at 9:40am. I would estimate them at a few hundred feet. After snapping a few photos of the lead birds I put the camera down and noticed three more birds appear. Two were nighthawks but the other immediately struck me as odd. It had typical swift shape but the bird was quite bulky and I would estimate the size as about 1/2 to 2/3 that of the nighthawks. The tail was somewhat broad and was neither forked nor tapered. The tail did seem to me to be a little longer than Chimney Swifts would be in relation to the body. The wings were bulkier and the bird overall was just more solid looking. I got no color beyond dark overall. The wing beats were slower than a Chimney Swift and did not seem as deep.  The bird was in a glide as it went over top of me. The bird was in view for only a few seconds (approx 5 seconds) and then it disappeared behind trees.  I was unable to get the camera up quick enough to get a photo. I moved about 75 feet to a more open area beyond the tree line but I was unable to relocate it.  I continued to look for the bird following the initial sighting but had no luck.  I believe Black Swift comes the closest to matching the bird I was but I cannot say for certain.  Given the hurricane that had moved through on Aug 28 the possibilities are many.  (part of MARC submission)

Submission to Massbird by Marshall Iliff on Sept 7

It has become apparent that Hurricane Irene displaced more than just
seabirds. In addition to the Brown-chested Martin in Cape Chalres, VA, on 28
Aug, which *might* have been related to Hurricane Irene, one other extremely
interesting passerine record has surfaced. Today I saw images of a GREAT
KISKADEE which was photographed aboard a ship in New York Harbor on 28 Aug,
the day of Hurricane Irene's passage. With no other well-documented East
Coast records, this bird does seem likely to have been the result of Irene.
Kiskadees are introduced to and common on Bermuda, so perhaps the storm
displaced a restless bird to New York. Either way, it should remind us to
keep our eyes out and to get out birding this week. [I would not draw a
hurricane connection for the Yellow-green Vireo, especially since it is
molting ad may have been present for some time...but I wouldn't necessarily
rule it out either!]

Of perhaps even more interest, is the fact that I have now heard of four
separate sightings of large swifts on the East Coast in the week following
Hurricane Irene. It seems likely that these all may have been Caribbean
Black Swift, given the track of the Hurricane and the tentative
identification of the Cape May swift as that taxon. These birds may have all
moved back south already, but it would behoove us all to visit known swift
roosts, watch any migrating swifts, swallows, and nighthawks (see below)
carefully, and to generally keep the possibility of a large swift species
mind when birding. Look up, and be alert!

The sightings I have heard of are as follows:
1. Photographed at Cape May, NJ, 28 Aug 2011: Very likely a Black
Swift, and presumed Caribbean given storm's track.
2. Glimpsed over the Hudson River, seen form Manhattan, 28 Aug 2011.
Impression was of "large swift"
3. One seen well moving south with nighthawks (!) at Herman Covey WMA,
Hampshire Co., by Larry T, on 1 Sep 2011. I hope Larry does not mind
me sharing this very interesting sighting. See
4. Two seen by a very reliable observer at James Island, Charleston, SC, in
direct comparison with Chimney Swifts, 30 Aug 2011. Suspected of being Black
Places to check might be any known areas of swift/swallow concentrations
(Great Meadows NWR and Cumberland Farms come to mind), any Chimney Swift
roosts, and any migration spots like Pilgrim Heights, Lot 1 at Plum Island,
or any hawkwatch or ridgeline where nighthawks move. That Larry Therrien's
bird was moving with nighthawks is extremely interesting I think.

Let us all know immediately if you see such a bird. Documenting and
conclusively identifying any large swift will be a real challenge and the
quicker the word gets out the better!


Marshall Iliff

I hope a few more sightings turn up and some positive identifications can be made on these 'large swift species'.  Perhaps all of them have already moved on but there is always a chance a few are still around somewhere on the east coast.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Shorebirds in Deerfield

Peregrine Falcon with Cooper's Hawk in pursuit, Deerfield, MA, Sep 5, 2011

Peregrine Falcon, Deerfield, MA, Sep 5, 2011

Peregrine Falcon, Deerfield, MA, Sep 5, 2011

After hearing word of some odd shorebirds in a flooded soccer field near Old Deerfield I decided to cut my morning trip to central Quabbin a little short and make the trip up there.  The morning at Quabbin had been somewhat quiet but still produced a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Barred Owl and eleven species of warbler. 

When I arrived in Deerfield around 9:40 the shorebirds were all still present with the exception of a Buff-breasted that was there earlier.  The area where all the shorebirds had gathered had been a soccer field but no looked completely different.  The floods caused by hurricane/tropical storm Irene had caused some incredible damage here and deposited a huge amount of mud and debris on the fields.  A large puddle within this landscape was attracting the large gathering of shorebirds.  Most every bird was just a bit to far away to get any good photos and with the deep mud present you did not dare go off the road.  The species that were present while I was there included Baird's, White-rumped, Pectoral, Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Killdeer, Semipalmated Plover and Ruddy Turnstones.  Beyond the shorebirds another interesting sighting was a group of 36 Common Ravens moving north together.  The second largest group of ravens I have ever seen in a single group.  After watching the shorebirds for about 40 minutes a Peregrine Falcon came sweeping in scattering the birds in every direction.  A Cooper's Hawk immediately joined the ruckus by going after the Peregrine.  The falcon came very close to grabbing a Semipalmated Sandpiper but just missed.  The falcon looped around a couple times and then disappeared leaving an empty field behind. 

Friday, September 2, 2011

What loon is it?...Common, Yellow-billed or some hybrid?

Loon species, Quabbin Park, Sept 7,2007

Loon species, Quabbin Park, Sept 7, 2007

Loon species, Quabbin Park, Sept 7, 2007

I have been meaning to post about this bird for months and now I am finally getting around to it.  The story of the bird, the photo and the ID question have been floating around for quite some time and the initial date of the sighting is nearing the four year mark (originally found and photographed September 7, 2007). 
First a little background on the bird.  I came across a series of three images while reviewing old photos of loons and was immediately struck by the appearance of the bird. I have a vague recollection of seeing the bird but dismissing it at the time as a Common Loon with an ‘odd’ bill. The thought of an adult Yellow-billed Loon was not something I was expecting or even thought of as a possibility in Massachusetts in early September at the time. It was just not on my radar screen. Given what I knew of Yellow-billed Loons at the time I was expecting a much larger appearing bill then what I saw but further research now has shown me there is much overlap in bill size between Common Loon and Yellow-billed.  The bird was photographed from the end of the Gate 52 road within Quabbin Park. The weather at the time of observation appeared at least partially sunny with a temperature around 60 degrees F. I believe given the location and the size of the images I was 75-100 feet or so from the bird at the time the photos were taken. I was using a Nikon D50 with a focal length of 300mm at the time the photos were taken.  

Loon species, cropped photo, no other modifications

Loon species, cropped photo, no other modifications

I e-mailed several people whom I consider experts in the field to get their input on this and to try and talk me out of what I believed I was looking at in the photos.  These people included James Smith, Marshall Iliff, Jeremiah Trimble, Scott Surner, Tom Gagnon and a few biologists at Quabbin.  All of those who initially viewed the images have stated it indeed appeared to be a Yellow billed Loon and that the sighting should be submitted for review.  I shot many e-mails with attached photos back and forth to get further opinions on the bird.  Many other experts (those mentioned above plus David Sibley and others) weighed in on the bird and the came to the conclusion that it was indeed an odd Common Loon and not a Yellow-billed Loon.  The possibility of some type of hybrid was also mentioned (which would be even rarer than a pure YBLO).  I may indeed still submit the sighting to the Massachusetts Avian Records Committee for final, official review and to get the information out there that there is a potential ID pitfall regarding Common Loons vs. Yellow-billed Loons.

Some background on why the bird appears to be a Common Loon instead of a Yellow-billed Loon was included in an e-mail from Jeremiah Trimble and included the following:

"I am not sure I have gone into some reasoning why I came to the conclusion (along with many others) that your bird was in fact a Common Loon with an odd bill. One reason was seeing the images at the following links:

While these birds are not as extreme as your bird, I think you can see how they are tending towards it and may in fact be on their way to looking like your bird exactly. Other issues with you bird are the overall bill shape which I think is too short and thick and not as up-turned as a YBLO should show. The thick neck and head also point away from it. Also, the color, while suggestive on the bill, is not quite the clear bright color it should be."
(Jeremiah Trimble, personal correspondence)

Just for some additional background concerning Yellow-billed Loon sightings I have included an e-mail from Marshall Iliff which provided the following information.  This information was sent prior to the final conclusion that the bird was not a Yellow-billed Loon but I found the information interesting nonetheless.

1) The date is extraordinary. Although Yellow-billed Loons in California, Nebraska, and some other areas have summered, these are almost invariably first-summer or second-summer birds. Yours is clearly an adult and the date is remarkable for anywhere outside Alaska!!!

2) Although Yellow-billed Loons have turned up regularly in the Great Plains, Midwest, and Rocky Mountains states over the past 20 years (almost all Nov-Mar), the East Coast has fared very poorly. My impression is that inland loons have been on the rise in the interior of the country as reservoirs created in the last century have matured, become great fish areas, and as loons have gradually “discovered” that they are good wintering areas. Thus, I would attribute the increase in inland Pacific, Yellow-billed, Common, Red-throated, and even Arctic (now two Colorado records). Remember that the Great Plains and Midwest did not have many/any natural lakes until the last century: these are all created by dammed up rivers. Loons now wintering there have surely survived and propagated those inland wintering genes, which is why each year seems to have more inland loons.

3) As I said, the East Coast has been slow to catch up. There have been a lot of questionable or erroneous reports, but very few well-documented valid ones. I know of only 5 Yellow-billed Loon records east of the Midwest:

o Yellow-billed Loon 1 im.? Winter 1999 Hinckley Res., Oneida/Helkimier, NY (photos)

o Yellow-billed Loon 1 12/21/1997 thru 01/6/98 Oswego Harbor, Oswego, NY (photos)

o Yellow-billed Loon 1 early 1930 eastern Long Island, (specimen of mandible ONLY, AMNH skeletal collection 4005)

o Yellow-billed Loon 1 (May 2008, I think) Susquehanna River,

xxx CO., PA (well photographed)

o Yellow-billed Loon 1 date? Georgia, some inland reservoir

(widely seen and photographed)
- Not sure what became of this record:

o Yellow-billed Loon 1 basic im 12/??/1995 12 ?? 1995 "in the ocean along the southern coast", NC (LeGrand et al. 1997, Chat 61 (4))

Also some others from Tennessee, Kentucky…

Sorry for the lack of detail on the PA and GA record; both are recent and I do not have the specifics in my rarities database. The New York “mandible only” specimen has been questioned, but is generally accepted. Not sure of the NY Records Committee has addressed it.
(Marshall Iliff, personal correspondence)

In conclusion I'm not certain what the bird was but the overall consensus is that it a Common Loon with an odd bill or perhaps a hybrid of some sort.  A part of me is disappointed it was not a Yellow-billed Loon as it would be a first state record in a state with a long and distinguished ornithological history.  Another part of me is glad that I didn't miss out on a mega rarity at the time by dismissing the bird as nothing more than a Common Loon with a 'odd' bill.  In the end the entire episode has been a great learning for myself and perhaps others.  I wish to thank those that took the time to look at the photos and correspond with me regarding this bird and provide encouragement to get the info out there despite the time that had elapsed from the initial sighting.  I know I will miss some who assisted but I would like to thank James Smith, Marshall Iliff and Jeremiah Trimble. 

Covey odd swift species

Merlin, Covey WMA, Sep 1, 2011

Tree Swallows, Covey WMA, Sep 1, 2011

Olive-sided Flycatcher with bumblebee, Covey WMA, Sep 1, 2011

Olive-sided Flycatcher, Covey WMA, Sep 1, 2011

I spent the first day of September at Covey WMA in Belchertown and had a spectacular morning.  I will say the highlights were many including a cooperative Olive-sided Flycatcher, a Merlin that zipped in trying to pick off a Tree Swallow, a calling Virginia Rail, an American Bittern, several Green Heron, Common Nighthawks and a very interesting large swift species that moved through with the nighthawks.  I have no idea what species the bird was but it was not a Chimney Swift.  Below is the list for the day:
Wood Duck 2
Northern Bobwhite 1 calling bird
American Bittern 1
Great Blue Heron 1
Green Heron 4
Turkey Vulture 5
Osprey 2
Red-tailed Hawk 2
Merlin 1
Virginia Rail 1
Spotted Sandpiper 1
Least Sandpiper 1
Mourning Dove 10
Common Nighthawk 15
Chimney Swift 1
large swift sp. 1   I was standing at the edge of a marsh area and had a group of Common Nighthawks moving from north to south at 9:40am. I would estimate them at a few hundred feet. After snapping a few photos of the lead birds I put the camera down and noticed three more birds appear. Two were nighthawks but the other immediately stuck me as odd. It had the typical swift shape but the bird was quite bulky and I would estimate the size as about 1/2 to 2/3 that of the nighthawks. The tail was longer than a Chimney Swift and the wings were much bulkier. I got no color beyond beyond dark overall. The wing beats to me were slower than a Chimney Swift and then it was in a glide as it went over top of me. The bird was in view for only a few seconds and then it disappeared behind trees. It did fly directly overhead of me. I was unable to get the camera up quick enough. I hobbled out to a more open area beyond the tree line but I could not relocate it. I really do not know what to make of the bird beyond it being a different swift. I looked for the bird for the rest of my time there but had no luck.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird 4
Belted Kingfisher 3
Red-bellied Woodpecker 1
Downy Woodpecker 3
Hairy Woodpecker 1
Northern Flicker 1
Olive-sided Flycatcher 1
Eastern Wood-Pewee 4
Eastern Phoebe 5
Red-eyed Vireo 5
Blue Jay 14
American Crow 5
Tree Swallow 62
Barn Swallow 1
Black-capped Chickadee 23
Tufted Titmouse 6
White-breasted Nuthatch 3
Carolina Wren 1
House Wren 5
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 2
Eastern Bluebird 3
Veery 1
Wood Thrush 1
American Robin 6
Gray Catbird 10
Cedar Waxwing 6
Blue-winged Warbler 1
Black-and-white Warbler 2
Common Yellowthroat 8
American Redstart 4
Magnolia Warbler 1
Chestnut-sided Warbler 2
Black-throated Blue Warbler 1
Chipping Sparrow 3
Field Sparrow 2
Song Sparrow 11
Scarlet Tanager 2
Northern Cardinal 4
Bobolink 2
Red-winged Blackbird 2
Baltimore Oriole 8
American Goldfinch 32
House Sparrow 2