Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Greenwich Christmas Bird Count

On Sunday the 20th, I joined Ted Gilman, the head naturalist at Greenwich Audubon, and two Connecticut young birders for the Greenwich/Stamford Christmas Bird Count. A storm had put 6-8 inches of snow on the ground, and delayed our start by two hours. Still, we were there, if late.

After looking at the feeders and some bird specimens at the audubon center, we headed to Pheasent Hollow, some sort of gated community next to the audubon center.

On the way I spotted a Kestrel diving at a group of juncos, and we stopped frequently to count the flocks of juncos and robins. When looking at a small group of Red-winged Blackbirds, a Brown Creeper appeared on the tree beside us.

As soon as we got out of the van at our destination, Ted called "eagle," as a flock of geese, a red-tailed hawk, and the eagle all flew by in different directions. Everyone ending up looking at the birds that weren't the eagle thinking that they were, but I think I got a momentary glimpse of it.

Proceeding up the hill, we began to notice a large number of turkey vultures flying by. One came within 15 feet of us. When its a sparrow or gull 15 feet away, its not too amazing. But when the bird has a 5-6 foot wingspan, it is pretty cool. Then a Black Vulture flew by, and we realized that the birds in the trees on the other side of a small depression and stream were all vultures.

This photo doesn't do it justice, but here is what the trees looked like. Each black spot is a vulture, and this is only of portion of the number of birds there:

When we got closer we could see that the vultures were eating a dead deer. Again, terrible photo, but the group on the right is on the carcass. Our final tally was 45 turkey vultures, 3 black vultures.

The other two birders had to leave soon, but Ted convinced them (without any difficulty) to stay to look in a hemlock grove where there had been a barred owl at some point. He warned us that it flushed easily, and that many times all he had seen was a dark, large shape flying away.

On the way into the grove we found a couple American Tree Sparrows, my first of the winter. We slowly walked into the clump of trees and began searching. Nothing.

Then Ryan (one of the CT young birders) saw something and pointed quickly as the owl, only visible as a large bird, flew away. I caught a glimpse. The others missed it. If we had not been very lucky, that would have been it. But we were very lucky, and the owl landed in a tree, somewhat distant but still easily visible. It surveyed the area with dark eyes, at one point glaring directly at us, before flying off into a more distant grove. Wow.

The others had to leave, but after lunch Ted and I went to a country club nearby to look for rusty blackbirds, my longtime nemesis bird, and others.

The birding was a bit slow until we reached the farthest point from the parking lot, where a small stream ran though the woods- perfect rusty blackbird habitat. We were probably standing on a green, but the snow made it impossible to tell. There we found tree and song sparrows, and a group of bluebirds. Then the blackbirds flew in, foraging in the stream practically at our feet. A great way to get a life bird.

There are Rusty Blackbirds in this photo, I swear. I just can't really find them.

A swamp sparrow popped up, and the bluebirds flew back and forth frantically to get our attention: "Look, we are blue! Bluebirds! They're brown. You can barely tell them from grackles! What are you looking at them for?" I imagined them saying.

I left with a life bird, my first Christmas bird count done, and the certainty that I will do it again next year, and the year after that, and after that...

Monday, December 28, 2009

A Brief Book Review- Kingbird Highway

In the same vein as my previous posts, I am ignoring the long posts that I should be writing in favor of a shorter one. I got Kingbird Highway as a gift for Christmas, and was done by the next day.

The book, written by the expert birder and field guide author Kenn Kaufman, relates his "big year," in which he hitchhiked across the country to try to see as many birds as possible, at hotspots from Dry Tortugas and Key West to Gambell, Alaska and the San Juan Islands in the Puget Sound.

The descriptions of two of the birds seen at the latter two are incredible- Sky Lark and Ivory Gull. (Out of the golden mist behind me came a bird the color of deep snow, the color of distant icebergs..., The bird sang from a stage of immense proportions, sang as the soloist before the orchestral growling of the surf...)

I don't have too much to say about it except that it is really good. If you are reading this blog, you should read this book. If you aren't, you still should read it, but I can't do anything about that.

All weekend birding, I kept hearing Rowlett's Owlets not calling from one tree, but after reading it, I knew that they were actually not calling from a completely different tree. (See, a joke you would understand if you had read the book. Yet another reason to do it.)


Happy Holidays, And a Quick Quiz

I have two posts I have to write now, but not the time or the photos to do it. Therefore, here are a pair of photos taken yesterday at Duxbury Beach, MA.

Try to:

a) Find the Bird(s)

b) Identify the Bird(s)

c) Figure out how many birds are in each shot

d) Comment below with your answer

Shot 1-

Photo 2-

Good Luck, Have a Happy New Year, and I'll post the answers at some point.

Friday, December 18, 2009


I am planning on a Christmas bird count on sunday and maybe some owling on saturday, but its going to snow. 8-12 inches predicted by sunday here in NY.

To prepare, I stocked up :-) ...

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Its getting colder...

...but the birding is getting better.

Today I went to the Edith Read Sanctuary in Rye, NY. The sanctuary is right behind a large amusement park, and can only be accessed through the parking lot. There is a large lake on one side of the road and the long island sound on the other. The lake is known for wintering ducks, such as canvasbacks and scaup.

We (that is to say, my dad and I) stopped there first, and scanned. Bufflehead, DC Cormorants, and Mallards were common. There were two american widgeon as well. A Canada x Snow goose hybrid was also interesting. Then I spotted a group of scaup.

Scuap ID is tricky, to say the least. One bird seemed a fairly easy greater. Greenish gloss, forward peak on the head. The other male had purple gloss and a slightly differently shaped head. As close to a definite lesser as I'm ever going to get. I counted it. Life bird.

A red-tailed hawk perched in a tree right next to the nature center. There was one there last february too. Maybe the same bird. This guy was not going to move just because a couple of birders walked by his tree. We got amazing looks. Reddish tail, talons, piercing brown eyes, and all.

Reaching the sound, we stopped and scanned. I spotted a cluster of blobs moving on the rocks pretty far offshore. We moved closer, and got the view of behavior and silhouette that clinched the Id- my life purple sandpipers.

No one has ever been astounded by how purple these sandpipers are, and no one ever will be. They are most definitely gray. They are pretty cool birds though. And tough. That water was freezing, and they were on slippery rocks partially submerged in it. They must have some seriously warm feathers.

Back to the name. Rock Sandpiper, the western version, is well named. So I propose changing the purple sandpiper to the Atlantic Rockpiper, and the Rock Sandpiper to the Pacific Rockpiper. The sand part is a misnomer too. Hence the Rockpiper label. It's perfect.

After pausing to look at the hawk, who was still in the same place as before, we departed.

Before today I had not seen a lifer since September 26. Not a bad way to end a drought.

Below: Purple Sandpiper. Photo from Wikipedia.

Oh, and for anyone waiting for a follow-up on that owl- We missed it. I will try again when the long eared owls arrive, and get 2 species in one trip. At least, that's the plan. It won't work though. They hate me.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Whooping Crane Shot

^^^^^Read the Link first^^^^^


Some conservation efforts involve people who like animals but need to make money, and stuff like that. Compromises are necessary.

Others involve an idiot with a gun and an urge to kill one of the rarest and most beautiful animals in the country (or even the world.)

That one crane is the same fraction of the total population that 12 million people would be.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

With snow predicted for tonight and a saw-whet owl expedition planned for tomorrow, my winter birding has officially begun!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Why Geese are Smarter than People

Above- Shore park brant near sunset.

My local waterfowl spot in winter is Shore Park, a small grassy area with a playground that borders the long island sound on two sides. I have found 9 species of waterfowl there, including all three mergansers and a Black Duck x Mallard hybrid.

So I was slightly worried when I saw the column in the local paper claiming victory in the war against the geese. There are large flocks of canada geese and brant that reside at the park, and most people (birders excluded) don't like them. True, the grass is constantly covered in droppings, and I can see how people might not want that, so the efforts were probably justified. The town bought some sort of lightbulb thing that was installed at knee-height, and is supposed to look like light reflecting off the eyes of a predator. This would make the geese uncomfortable, and they would not sleep there.

I was a bit concerned that the light would drive off all the other waterfowl too, which would make a waterfowl spot somewhat useless (the whole lack of waterfowl thing). I shouldn't have worried.

The first time I biked down this winter, it seemed as though the light was working. That didn't hurt the birding any though. Shore park was completely goose free, but the neighboring yard was covered in geese. I bet the people who owned that house were a lot less amused by that than I was.

The second time I checked, it seemed as though the town was wrong. The park did not actually have any geese on it (they were in the water), but it was again covered in droppings.

I have to look again sometime, but it seem like the geese have the upper hand here.

An imagined converstion between two geese:

Goose 1- Hey, that coyote still hasn't moved.
Goose 2- Yeah, its been in that exact same spot for 3 months.
Goose 1- Pretty stupid coyote. You think it's dead?
Goose 2- Maybe. Lets check it out.
Goose 1- Wait! That's a light! Not a coyote.
Goose 2- Wow. You mean we've been avoiding that place for months because of a light?
Goose 1- Well, at least it's not a coyote. We can go back there now.
Goose 2- Nice.