Monday, January 31, 2011

Superbowl of Birding!

This past weekend, the NYSYBC Razorbills competed in the Superbowl of Birding, an annual 12-hour (5 a.m. to 5 p.m.) birding competition in Essex County, MA, and Rockingham County, NH . The club had had a team last year, but this was my first time participating in the rather insane competition- this is Northeastern Massachussetts, for 12 hours, in January. It is usually pretty cold. What separates the superbowl from some of the other birding competitions, apart from the weather, is that the checklist has a weighted points system- a bird can be worth between 1 and 5 points, depending on its rarity. All 5-point birds have to be reported to the organizers, and the team that is the first to call in a 5-pointer gets an additional 3 points.

On Friday night, our team, consisting of Greg Lawrence, Jacob Drucker, Benjamin Van Doren, and myself, planned strategy in the lobby of our hotel room. Our route would be about the same as last year, working from Nahant up to Salisbury, with some modifications based on the scouting Greg had done that day. With birds such as Barrow's Goldeneye, Thick-billed Murre, and King Eider reported that day, hopes were high for some good birds.

First stop the next morning were a few owling spots. At the first, a screech owl and a Great Horned Owl were calling as soon as we got out of the car. 2 and 3 points, respectively. Calling for Barred, Saw-whet and Long-eared Owls was unsucessful, but we were off to a decent start as dawn approached. Our first daylight spot was to be Flax Pond, in Lynn, where a 5-point Northern Shoveler was staked out. We were hoping to be the first to call it in, but we learned that two teams had seen it at 5, presumably with a spotlight. Still, it would be a good bird. Unfortunately, when we got there, the shoveler was absent. Some consolation was in the fact that we saw Ruddy Ducks and American Coots (4 points apiece), but it was still a tough miss.

Next to Nahant, where we picked up more good birds- Greater and Lesser Scaup, Black Scoter, Brant, and Red-necked Grebe in the ocean (the latter being a life bird for me), and Red-breasted Nuthatch, American Tree Sparrow, Mockingbird, Song Sparrow, and others at the stump dump. Another try for the shoveler was also a failure- we learned later that it was seen at a different spot of open water we did not know about.  We move onward to the Jodrey Fish Pier in Gloucester Harbor, where there were many birds and superbowl teams. We quickly spotted two murres- one nearer, which disappeared before I could get it in a scope, which the others IDed as a Common Murre, and one more distant, a Thick-billed that I saw well enough to count as a life bird. Greg found a Black Guillemot was perched on a beam under a distant pier, an odd location for an alcid, and there was a Peregrine Falcon perched on a distant tower. By the time we had left, we had seen 3 alcids, and were surprised to learn that we were the first to report the Common Murre- good for 8 points, plus 4 for the Thick-billed Murre. Very happy with our success, we moved out of the harbor to Eastern Point, adding 2 birds- Red-throated Loon and Purple Sandpiper, as well as more guillemots and some Song Sparrows foraging, oddly, on floating rafts of seaweed.
Thick-billed Murre
At Bass Rocks, we saw the long-staying adult male King Eider, a brilliant, if distant bird. Another rare duck was the Barrow's Goldeneye at Penzance Beach, and Harlequin Ducks were there as well, awesome, if common birds. (4, 3, and 2 points, respectively). We switched drivers and got our lunch/breakfast at Granite Pier in Rockport, but didn't find any new birds. Same a Halibut Point State Park. Heading up to Newburyport, we had made a couple of unsuccessful stops in a row. But our luck turned around. 

Andrews Point, which was dubbed "hell" the previous year, was actually very pleasent, warm and sunny. In contrast to the norm, temperatures were as high as 40 degrees. The birds were nice too- multiple Razorbills (a lifer) and a second King Eider, this one a young male, were the highlights. A little while later, Jacob spotted a Cooper's Hawk perched in a tree. 3 points. Benjamin spotted another accipiter flying by less than five minutes later. Incredibly, it was a clear Sharp-shinned Hawk. 3 more points, and two potentially difficult gaps in our list filled. A stop for Horned Larks, Snow Buntings, and Lapland Longspurs yielded all 3 in quick succession. 8 more points, combined. We were in a celebratory mood as we arrived in Newburyport, but missed the turn for the Wastewater Treatment Plant. When we were turning around, we scanned the flats for birds, and Benjamin spotted a Northern Shoveler, our nemesis from the beginning of the day. We called it in for our second 5-point bird, and one that was completely off our radar after missing the one in Lynn.
Male Common Eider
Crossing the bridge over the Merrimac river to Salisbury Beach State Park, it was around 2 and the clock was ticking. We picked up Common Merganser from the bridge and Bald Eagle from the state park, before heading back south to Plum Island. There were still 3 embarrassing holes in our list- Dark-eyed Junco, Mute Swan, and Northern Harrier. We stopped at the North Pool Overlook to try to find a reported Wilson's Snipe, but got a much better bird when Jacob spotted a Brown Thrasher foraging at the edge of the water. 5 points, plus 3 more, and the last new 5-pointer to be seen by anybody that day. Unfortunately, other birds were scarcer, and we couldn't find harrier, Short-eared Owl, or even a junco. A distant Rough-legged Hawk saved us from a grassland raptor strikeout, and was a nice life bird for me, but apart from the thrasher and roughleg we could not find anything else new on Plum Island. With some time left, we headed to what was to be the last stop of the day- a small blackbird roost in Salisbury. On the way, however, we decided to stop at the Wastewater Treatment Plant, which we had been unable to access earlier because of construction. A 2nd cycle Iceland Gull, our 69th bird, made the detour very worthwhile. At the blackbird roost, we saw Red-winged Blackbird but missed Common Grackle. As the sun set and time wound down, a Northern Harrier flew over, our last bird of the day. 

Back at the Hope Community Church, the finish line, we ate pizza, discussed sightings with other teams, and tallied our score. Our total was 71 species and 140 points, which was 10 species and almost 40 points better than last year, and good for 2nd in the youth category and 8th overall out of 21 teams. Not a bad showing, and a great day of birding.
White-winged Scoter

Monday, January 24, 2011

My Best Birds of 2010

Last year I wrote a post of the ten best birds I saw in 2009. In 2010, however, I went to Costa Rica and did much more birding in general, so I couldn't compress the highlights into anything less than a Top 20 plus 1. Notice that most of them are from Costa Rica, and all but one were lifers. A lot of great birds were left off, because I don't have the time to write a "Best 50 Birds" post, and you don't have the time (or will) to read it. The rankings are a bit arbitrary, but reflect fairly well how happy I was to see that bird, and how memorable the experience was. Starting with #21, the rarest, most colorful, most awesome birds of 2010:

#21-Black-faced Solitaire- My favorite birdsong, this highland bird is a characteristic singer of Monteverde Cloud Forest. With bright red-orange legs and bill, it doesn't look bad either.

#20-Varied Thrush- A nice rarity, both unusual and colorful, that showed up in Central Park in December. Nicely patterned and orange.

#19-Northern Saw-whet Owl- Always a tough bird to find, but well worth it when you can track one down, it makes the list because I got to hold one while watching an owl banding project in October.
#18- Great Kiskadee- A large, loud, common, and charismatic flycatcher from Costa Rica. These guys were everywhere and always fun to watch.
#17- Common Nighthawk- This was my nemesis bird for a very long time, but I finally saw some in September. All nightjars are cool birds, and I was looking for this one for a long time.

#16- Cape May Warbler- One of the last warblers that I hadn't seen, I saw one at close range, fittingly, in Cape May.

#15- Black Guan- A huge black bird that looks like a turkey, sounds like a machine gun, has a bright blue face and red eye, and lives only in the highlands of Costa Rica and Panama. Sounds pretty awesome, right?

#14- Golden-winged Warbler- I was watching a small flock of warblers and sparrows when a brilliant male Golden-winged Warbler popped out of a thicket. Very surprising, and one of the highlights of fall migration.

#13- Golden-hooded Tanager- Tanagers are the epitome of colorful tropical birds, and the Golden-hooded was the most colorful one I saw in Costa Rica. Colored in pale gold, vivid turquoise, violet, and black, it hardly looks like a real bird.

#12- Fork-tailed Flycatcher- The best ABA bird I saw all year, this mega-rarity amazed hundreds of birders in Stamford, Connecticut. Excellent example of a visually striking rarity.
#11- Golden-browed Chlorophonia- A searingly bright bird, colored in neon green, blue and yellow. Plus it's a highland endemic to Costa Rica and Western Panama.

#10- Crested Caracara- It's a combination of a falcon and a vulture. What's not to like. Wildly considered one of the "coolest" birds in North America, I saw mine in the dry farmland of Northwestern Costa Rica.

#9- Black-and-White Owl- A great stakeout bird, the tale of how I saw it makes for a good Costa Rica birding anecdote. If you're in Costa Rica and want to see one, go to the town park in Orotina, look for the ice cream guy. He'll know where it is, as long as you buy an ice cream.

#8- Fiery-billed Aracari- My 400th life bird, it is a lowland endemic toucan with a bright red bill. What's not to like?

#7- Coppery-headed Emerald- Another milestone bird, this time my 300th lifer. It was the only bird I saw that is endemic solely to Costa Rica, rather than being endemic to a habitat or mountain range, like the previous near-endemics I mentioned. A small, bright green hummingbird.
#6-Violet Sabrewing- Costa Rica's uber-hummingbird, one of the largest hummers in the world. There are very few purple birds in the world, and this is certainly one of them.
#5- Blue-crowned Motmot- Motmots are my favorite family of birds, and I got good looks at the Blue-crowned Motmot at various points on my Costa Rica trip. Green overall, with a sky-blue crown. Very cool.
#4- Rufous Motmot- See above, but passes Blue-crowned on the list because it is less common, larger, and because looking up to see one 5 feet away at eye level is very cool. I heard it vocalize as well- a low, hooting tremolo.
#3- Common Potoo- The "stickbird," it looks like a cross between a nightjar, and owl, and a stump. Tough to see, I got lucky when a tour group spotted one while I was walking by.

#2- Scarlet Macaw- The stereotypical parrot, and a symbol of the tropics. Declining in Central America, and restricted to just 2 spots in Costa Rica. The saga of our getting good looks at macaws is another good Costa Rica anecdote.
#1- The winner is... Resplendent Quetzal- No real surprise there. After all, it is a Resplendent Quetzal. Red and luminescent green, with incredibly long tail streamers, it isn't hard to see why the Maya worshiped this bird as an incarnation of one of their gods. Birders do too, more or less.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

CT Young Birders Club- Winter Waterbirds and lots of Owls

Today the Connecticut Young Birders' Club took a trip along the coast of Fairfield County, stopping at multiple spots along the way. Our first stop was Sherwood Island State Park, where some of the first birds that I saw were a large group of Horned Grebes. Finally!! The Horned Grebe had been my nemesis bird for a long time, and I was very happy to finally see some. Other birds of note were Canvasbacks, Goldeneye, Wigeons, and a nice Merlin. We stopped at a few other spots nearby, but did not see too much, so we headed to another location in Fairfield, where we were seeking owls. First, however, we spotted a pipit and a few more grebes (how can I not have seen them until now?!?) by the bathrooms. Heading from there to the owl grove, we had high hopes for multiple species, and were not disappointed.

Almost as soon as we entered the grove (the location of which, by the way, I am not allowed to disclose), Brian started gesturing excitedly and pointing. The reason? A beautiful Long-eared Owl perched virtually in full view, just off the path. After all the time I've spent trying to see a long-eared at Hunter Island, it was nice to get one so easily, and to get such good looks. Second lifer of the day, and a great one at that.
Long-eared Owl!

Brian wasn't done, however, and we had only walked a few more steps when he spotted a Great Horned Owl near the top of a tall pine. Cool owl #2.
I am not a good digiscoper. At all. But still, that is a Great Horned Owl.

For the finishing touch on hoped-for owl trio, Brian (the owl-whisperer) found a Saw-whet Owl perched in a smaller tree, and we had seen 3 owls in less than 10 minutes. It was probably closer to 5 minutes actually. 
The tiny Saw-whet Owl. It was a better view than this photo would suggest.

The owls were the clear highlight of the day, but we still found more birds after ouStrigiform success- Ruddy Turnstones, Black-bellied Plovers, Brant, Red-throated Loon, Long-tailed Ducks, a Fox Sparrow in the parking lot, and a Bonaparte's Gull on the way home. 

It was a great morning of birding, especailly the grebes and owls. Two lifers, lots of year birds, lots of fun. Another young birder, Brendan Murtha also posted about it on his blog here, if you want to see more owl photos.

Good Birding! 

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Birding 2010 in Review

2011 is here, and that means wrap-up and review posts for 2010. First off, a month-by-month summary of last years birding:

January- I started off the year in Pennslyvania, and on the drive home found my first lifer of 2010, 15 Lesser Black-backed Gulls on the Deleware River at Falls Township Community Park. Other birding expeditions build my year list, including a trip to Stratford that netted Lapland Longspur and Saw-whet Owl. The NYSYBC annual meeting took place at Marshlands on the 16th, with the usual winter waterfowl and songbirds present.

February- I went to the Croton Point Eaglefest on the 6th, where I saw lots of eagles and waterfowl, as well as my lifer Redhead. I chased and found the Yellow-headed Blackbird in Chappaqua on the way back. Though not technically a birding trip, the NYSYBC set up tour of the collection of the bird department of the Museum of Natural History, which was really fun and interesting. The latter part of the month was my trip to Costa Rica, the by far birding highlight of the year. I found 174 species, 139 lifers, and such incredible birds a Resplendent Quetzal, Scarlet Macaw, Common Potoo, 15 different hummingbirds, toucans, motmots, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, more than a dozen flycatchers and a handful of tanagers. It was really awesome.

March- March is a slow month for birding, and I did not see that many birds. However, returning migrants such as Tree Swallows and Eastern Phoebe highlighted the NYSYBC trip to Stockport Flats. Other notable birds this month were displaying American Woodcocks at Marshlands and a Snow Goose on a golf course in Mamaroneck.

April- More returning migrants, with Blue-gray Gnatcatcher at Marshlands, Swamp Sparrow and Bluebird at Greenwich Audubon, and a nice Wilson's Snipe at the tennis courts near my house.

May- Obviously excellent, with many warblers and migrants.16 warblers, including Bay-breasted and Cerulean were at Central Park on the 2nd, plus Red-headed Woodpecker and Rusty Blackbird. A very productive afternoon of birding at the Botanical Gardens added Blackburnian and Canada Warblers, with 10 others giving good views as well. Doodletown was excellent as usual, with Cerulean, Blue-winged, and Hooded Warblers highlighting. And to top off the month, a Sedge Wren near my beach house was a cool and rare lifer.

June- I didn't do too much birding, but visited Marshlands a couple times, and birded Jamaica Bay with Benjamin, Jacob and Lila, finding waders such as Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Glossy Ibis, and Little Blue Heron, as well as getting distant looks at my life Barn Owl.

July- I was at my beach house for most of July, finding Bonaparte's Gull, Common Eider, Whimbrel, and my life Arctic Terns at various beaches in the area. Back in New York, I went on the NYSYBC trip to Cupsogue, where shorebirds and terns were everyone, including Western Sandpiper, Red Knot, Black Skimmer, as well as  Roseate, Gull-billed and Sandwich Terns.

August- Back in Massachusetts, a trip to South Beach did not turn up the reported godwits, but there were Whimbrels, a Roseate Tern, some Horned Larks, and Black and White-winged Scoters. A whale-watching trip to Stellwagen Bank had more whales than birds, but there were still a few Wilson's Storm-Petrels and Greater Shearwaters around. I did a "Big Day by Bike" on the 15th, finding plenty of birds, including some unexpected ones, like Broad-winged Hawk, Northern Waterthrush, Eastern Bluebird, Brant, Horned Lark, and Red-shouldered Hawk, posting a pretty good (for August and without a car) day total of 68. A bird walk with the local Audubon hit some good shorebirding spots, and ended up with White-rumped, Stilt, Pectoral Sandpipers and a Wilson's Snipe. A cool yard bird was a Black Tern, which ended up off the beach across the street from my house after a storm. To finish the month, I found a pair of Baird's Sandpipers at Jamaica Bay, a decent rarity and a lifer, and moved from shorebird migration to warbler migration by finding 9 warbler species at the end of the month.

September- One of the better months of the year for birding. I started off with a bang by finding a male Golden-winged Warbler at Marshlands, a lifer at the first fall record there. Two trips to the hawkwatch at Greenwich Audubon were very fun, with morning flight watching early, then warblers in the early morning, and  hawkwatching for the rest of the day. I also found two longtime nemesis birds, one each day- Purple Finch and Common Nighthawk. One weekend later was some of the most fun birding of the year- watching nocturnal migration of warblers from the top of the Empire State Building. We saw more than 800 birds, including cuckoos, catbirds, vireos, grosbeaks, geese, a heron, an egret, and, of course warblers. A Peregrine Falcon added excitement by plucking birds out of the air- diving down from the spire to snag a warbler many times, with sucess 3 times. I got two lifers the next day in Central Park- Gray-cheecked Thrush and Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.

October- I went to Cape May the first weekend of October. The birding capital of the country was excellent as usual, with warblers at arm's length and many migrants of every variety. The best was probably Cape May Warbler, a lifer, plus it was cool to see my first in Cape May. I saw 95 species in 2 days, neither of them full days of birding. I went with Benjamin to Marshlands to successfully look for Nelson's Sparrows on the 11th, and went to the hawkwatch a few more times. Towards the end of the month, I saw the Prothonotary Warbler at the New York Public Library, and banded Saw-whet Owls.

November- This is rarity month, and most of my birding was in the form of "twitches." First was a failed chase after a LeConte's Sparrow at Milford Point, where consolation came in the form of two lifers- Sora and American Golden-Plover. Next up was the Stamford Fork-tailed Flycatcher, which I saw twice. Then the Cave Swallows in New Haven with the Connecticut Young Birders Club. Finally, a post-Thanksgiving twitch after Connecticut's first Northern Lapwing, which I missed by 5 minutes. Sort-of-Consolation birds were Barnacle Goose and my life Greater White-fronted Goose.

December- Rarity-chasing continued when I went to see the Varied Thrush in Central Park, with a Yellow-breasted Chat as a nice bonus. The day after Christmas I was up at my beach house, seawatching, when my life Iceland Gull flew overhead. Last life bird of the year. Other good birds there were both loons and White-winged and Surf Scoters. On New Years Eve I went to the Read Sanctuary in Rye, where I couldn't find redpolls or grebes, but I did see my last addition to my year list- a flyover American Pipit.

A really great birding year. Lots of beautiful birds (quetzal, macaw, tanagers), rare birds (forktail, barnacle goose, varied thrush), lifers (a lot), and memorable birding experiences. (empire state building at night, saw-whet owl banding, black and white owl stakeout in Orotina) Will 2011 top it? I don't know. It would be pretty awesome if it does.

Good Birding!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Dipping, Deja Vu

If you scroll down and read my post Anatomy of a Chase, and replace "Connecticut's first Lapwing" with "Pennsylvania's first Anna's Hummingbird," "missed it by 5 minutes" with "missed it by 15 minutes," and cross out any mention of consolation birds, you have today's birding almost exactly. No need for me to write another painful post.

*side note- dipping, for those of you who may not know, is birder slang for looking for a previously reported rare bird ("twitching") and not finding it. It is not usually very fun.