Monday, November 29, 2010

The Anatomy of a Chase (or, Dipping on a Lapwing)

A 10-step summary of a typical "twitch," from the perspective of my failed attempt at the Northern Lapwing in Connecticut on Sunday. A sort of how-to guide on missing incredible rarities. 

Step 1- Learn about where the bird is. This is generally done through a local Rare Bird Alert or state birding listserv. Example: "Wow, Lapwing in Connecticut! Awesome."

Step 2- Find out where the bird is. Google maps is your best friend in this step. Example: Doing a google search on Storrs, CT shows that it is nowhere near anything. That is a setback.

Step 3- Scheme. If you own a car and have a lot of free time, this step is unnecessary, but for young birders like myself, it is critical. Where will you be nearest to the bird? Would your parents be willing to make a detour? What is there that is close to where the bird is? Think shopping centers, museums, whatever. Example: "We have to drive back on Route 84 anyway, and the lapwing is just 24 minutes out of the way..."

Step 4- Hype up the bird. A lot. If it's an empid, good luck. Example: "It's a really rare plover from Ireland. Striking plumage. Very cool. And its the first one ever seen in Connecticut"

Step 5- Overcome the vast number of obstacles in your path. Examples: The thanksgiving traffic on the Mass Pike, the impending darkness, and the UCONN basketball game.

Step 6- Arrive at the rarity location, after getting lost a few times. There are now three options. Either the bird is there (go to Step 7), it's temporarily out of sight (go to Step 8), or just flew halfway across the continent five minutes before you arrived (go to Step 9)

Step 7- Rejoice, brag, and add the bird to your life list. Blog about how awesome it was, and how great it was to have seen it.

Step 8- Desperately search for the bird and pray your trip will not prove to be futile. Depending on the outcome, go to step 7 or 10.

Step 9- "Oh, you just missed it. Yeah, it flew that way, and kept going. It's probably back in Ireland by now. Nope, absolutely no chance it's coming back." Go to step 10.

Step 10- Despair. Having now wasted a fair amount of time for a great bird that you are not going to see, the Barnacle and White-fronted Geese nearby are small consolation. Yes, the Barnacle Goose is a Code 4 bird too, and the White-front is a lifer, but neither of them are lapwings. Go home, and instead of posting photos of lapwings on your blog, bore your readers to death with a long-winded tale of your failed search.

Can you guess what route I took? And seriously, the geese were good to see. That's not to say they make up for missing the lapwing, but it was not as bad as I portrayed it above. I'll have another chance to see a Lapwing in North America. Maybe. If I move to Newfoundland. 

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Taste of Winter Birding

I went to my beach house in Massachusetts this weekend, which allow me to freeze my fingers off looking for cold-weather birds that would be tricky to find closer to home. Typing on a blackberry, as I am doing now, precludes a full report, but some of the highlights included Great Cormerant, Long-tailed Duck, eiders, Surf Scoters, Bonaparte's Gulls, and great looks at gannets. From a non-birding perspective, 4 seals were fun to see. It's not winter yet, and birding from the same spot at Christmas will be more productive, but an early start and a pair of year birds (GRCO and LTDU) were both good.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Excellent Birds with the Connecticut Young Birders' Club

Where can you see a South American Fork-tailed Flycatcher, a Mexican Cave Swallow, and Canadian  Common Eiders and Lapland Longspurs, all on the same day? Why, Connecticut, of course!

The first field trip of the recently created CT Young Birders' Club was on Sunday, to Hammonasset State Park in Madison, with possibly a few other stops thrown in, time permitting.

Our first stop was the parking lot of Hammonasset, which held a large flock of Horned Larks (including some with very white eyebrows- lark subspecies id, anyone?), a slightly smaller flock of Snow Buntings, and 2 Lapland Longspurs, all birds that are easy to see at Hammo, but, especially in the case of the Longspur, tricky to see at most places. The yellow-and-black faces and odd running gait of the larks, the huge white wing patches of the buntings, and the bold striped pattern of the longspurs make this trifecta fun to watch.

At the water, we scoped out many Common and Red-throated Loons, a Surf Scoter, two White-winged Scoters, 8 Common Eiders. Shorebirds were common on the rocks and jetties, with one Purple Sandpiper along with the more common Dunlin, Sanderlings, Black-bellied Plover, and Ruddy Turnstones.

Land birds in the thickets and brush were somewhat scarce, but included Yellow-rumped Warbler, American Tree Sparrow, and Hermit Thrush.

Leaving Hammonasset, we headed to a Sewage Treatment Plant (sewage = good birds) in New Haven, at East Shore Park. There are more insects there than anywhere else at this time of year (the warmth from the plant, I think), and as a result there are often late warblers and swallows, insectivores that would not usually be around this late in the year.

Our targets were Cave Swallows, a bird that breeds in Texas, Arizona, and Mexico, and winters in  Central America. That is, most winter in Central America. Some end up on the east coast, where they find food at places like East Shore Park. And sure enough, there were two Cave Swallows swirling overhead not long after we arrived- a life bird for me. There were also a lot of warblers around for the time of year. In addition to the expected Yellow-rumped, there were an American Redstart, Blackpoll Warbler, and 2 Pine Warblers. Others had seen Blue-headed Vireo, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and a couple more warblers earlier in the day.

Everyone would have been satisfied with the Cave Swallows and the other good birds, but we made one last stop on the way back to Greenwich- Cove Island Park, new home of the Fork-tailed Flycatcher, a South American bird 3000 miles from where it should be.

I had seen the forktail Saturday, but it was nice to see it again, and I actually got better looks this time. An excellent bird, and a great way to end an extremely successful first field trip.

I didn't really take many photos,(Alex Burdo and Benjamin Van Doren did though- check out their blogs here and here)but here is a very bad photo of both of the Cave Swallows overhead:

I'm weighing whether that can even be considered a record shot - if I hadn't labeled it, would you be able to id the birds? I'm not a photographer, and the good bird, awful photo tradeoff is fine with me.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Fork-tailed Flycatcher

A usually South American Fork-tailed Flycatcher was found a couple of days ago at Cove Island Park in Stamford, just a half hour from my house. I was hopeful it would stay around until the weekend, and it did, so I went today to see it. A great bird. I got very good looks at it. Photos were less good. Two digiscoped shots-

Friday, November 5, 2010

Cape May, Part 2

I guess I really have to write about my second day in Cape May, even if it was practically a month ago. Waiting weeks to write a post is lazy, but never writing it is worse. 

Even though the weather was not a good for migration as the previous night, I still had high expectations for Sunday, if only because I would be able to actually do some birding in the morning, instead of midday to evening. First stop was the dike at Higbee, for the morning flight. Because of the wind direction, there were not too many birds in the morning flight, but I still saw Yellow-rumped, Blackpoll,  and Black-throated Blue Warblers, and a few Parulas. Birding Higbee afterwards was fairly quiet, but there were still plenty of raptors overhead, including an eagle, a few harriers, and tons of Accipiters. Swamp Sparrows made of the majority of songbirds, with one Lincoln's Sparrow as well.

I left Higbee and biked south to the Cape May Meadows, a marsh and wetland birding hotspot on the bay. By this time, storm clouds were quickly rolling in and rain seemed imminant. However, it stayed clear long enough for me to see some more Sharpies, a group of 20 migrating Great Blue Herons overhead, and a few Northern Pintail, which were my first of the year.

A stop at the hawkwatch was cut short by the rain, but I still saw all of the expected raptors, including a peregrine, and more migrating herons.

The final stop was to the CMBO Center, where I bought a CMBO Cape May Warbler hat, walked out of the store, and immediately saw a real Cape May Warbler. Along with a few Blackpoll Warblers, it was an excellent end to a great trip. Or so I thought.

It turned out that that was not the end of the birding. We ate lunch on the water, and I decided to walk on the beach (in the rain) to try to relocate a Royal Tern I had seen driving there. That turned out to be a very good move. I was soaked, but saw Royal and Forster's Terns, Black Scoter, and, best of all, a Lesser Black-backed Gull, all of which were nice birds and good additions to the trip list.

Royal Terns:

Lesser Black-backed Gull:

The final birds of the trip, however, were a huge flock of Black Skimmers loafing on the beach in the main part of town. Skimmers are great birds, with their striking black-and-white coloration and clownish bill, so it was great to see so many of them in one flock. There were at least 300, probably more.

From the front, Skimmers look like cartoon penguins:

95 Species, 1 Lifer, lots of cool birds- a very successful trip!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Yard Birds

Birdwise, we are on the margin of two seasons- fall migration is trailing off, but there are still plenty of late migrants around, and winter birds are starting to arrive. The combination made for some pretty good birding in my yard yesterday. 

I put up my bird feeders on Saturday, hoping for Purple Finches or siskins. No sign of them yet, but when I was filling one of the feeders I spotted a Hermit Thrush on our neighbors' fence- a yard bird. Two Fish Crows flying over were also nice. 

By Sunday, the feeders were hopping with bird activity, and I counted 13 species there, including Red-bellied Woodpecker, Blue Jay, Cardinal, and Carolina Wren. The majority of the birds were chickadees, with a fair number of titmice and juncos as well. They were quite tame, with one chickadee briefly landing on my finger, and were unconcerned by me taking photos of them. 


At one point, I looked up, and was very surprised to see a group of hawks- 2 Turkey Vultures, 3 Buteos, and an Accipiter. I ran inside to get binoculars, and for the next couple hours did a hawkwatch, tallying 84 raptors. The species counts were:

Turkey Vulture- 20
Red-tailed Hawk- 21
Red-shouldered Hawk- 5
Cooper's Hawk- 3
Sharp-shinned Hawk- 18
Osprey- 3
American Kestrel- 1
Unidentified Raptor- 10
Unidentified Buteo- 2
Unidentified Accipiter- 1

Non-raptor migrants were also present, with a few flocks of Canada Geese, a flock of Brant, and a few dozen Double-crested Cormorants all flying over. 

When a small bird with a forked tail fly by, I thought I might have found a siskin, but when I refound it, I realized it was actually a Golden-crowned Kinglet, another yard bird. 

I saw 34 species of birds from my yard, which proves that to find plenty of birds, all you need to do it fill up a feeder, or just look up!