Wednesday, August 31, 2011

European Panoramas

I just got back from a 10 day trip to Europe, in Paris and Asturias, in Northern Spain. It was lots of fun, and I was able to sneak some birding time into our packed itinerary, seeing 76 species and 60 lifers, including my 500th bird. Highlights were (spoiler alert!) Griffon and Egyptian Vultures, White-throated Dipper, Booted Eagle, Alpine and Red-billed Choughs, Alpine Accentor, Eurasian Curlew (and lots of other waders/shorebirds), Green Woodpecker, and most of the common European songbirds. I got home last night, and haven't gotten around to going through my photos or writing a full post, but here are a few panorama photos that I took during the trip, to set the stage, so to speak. To view the full panorama, click on the photo.

Paris, from the top of Notre Dame
Alpine habitat in the Picos de Europa, above the town of Fuente De
Lake Ercina, one of the two high elevation lakes in the Picos

Friday, August 19, 2011

Beach Birding Part 2- Big Day by Bike

Duxbury Beach, from Gurnet Lighthouse

On Tueday, August 9th, I did a “Big Day by Bike” in Marshfield and Duxbury. I did one last year, on almost the same date, and saw a respectable (for early August) 68 species. I was hoping to beat that total. My planned route was more or less the same- first to Webster’s Wilderness for songbirds and woodpeckers, then to Daniel Webster Audubon for swallows, ducks, raptors, and grassland birds. On to the South River Marsh for Swamp Sparrow, Marsh Wren, and warblers. Lunch at my house, then down to Brant Rock for shorebirds and seabirds, and out on Duxbury Beach for more shorebirds and seabirds. The total distance is about 22 miles.

I started at 6:30 and biked to Webster’s Wilderness, finding most of the really common species on the way, plus a hummingbird and a Red-tailed Hawk. One of the most exciting sightings of the day came right in the parking lot. A clearly agitated Spotted Sandpiper circled the parking lot a few times, and then landed, bobbing furiously. Out of nowhere, a Cooper’s Hawk zoomed in and tried to grab the sandpiper, which took off and managed to escape.

In addition to those two good birds, the wilderness was very productive. I had a calling Scarlet Tanager almost immediately, and quickly found a Common Yellowthroat and a few Red-eyed Vireos. Added to that were a Green Heron at a small pond, a few Wild Turkeys walking along the path, Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers drumming, a towhee scratching in the underbrush, and an unexpected Ovenbird.

An Eastern Phoebe feeding a cowbird was a sad sight, but did add two more species to my day list as I left for the Audubon. A quick tally of my list put me at just over 40-- a very good pace.

Daniel Webster Audubon is known for its breeding colony of Purple Martins and nesting Bobolinks. The former was easy to find, but the latter seemed to have moved on, and Bobolink would prove to be one of the biggest misses of the day. As compensation, however, I was able to find a couple of Red-shouldered Hawks, a Baltimore Oriole, and a singing Yellow Warbler. Phoebes were abundant, and there were a couple of kingbirds as well.

The “wet panne” marshy area did not produce the expected Wood Ducks or Green Herons (I had seen the latter at Webster’s Wilderness though), but it did have Mallards and Black Ducks, and I moved on still on a pretty good pace.

The next stop, South River Marsh, was one I had added in this year, after some scouting turned up some migrant waterthrushes and lots of other birds. It was much quieter during the big day itself, but did have the needed Fish Crows and Swamp Sparrows, with a bonus White-breasted Nuthatch. With my list close to 50, I headed home for lunch.

After lunch, feeling refreshed, I biked to the coast, in Brant Rock, where I added the four common gulls to my list, plus both egrets, a Great Blue Heron, Common Tern, eider, Black-crowned Night-Heron, and the common shorebirds, pushing my list up to about 65- only three below my previous total, and this was before my biggest stop, Duxbury Beach. I headed there next.

At this point, however, new birds slowed substantially. I got to 68, tying last year’s total, quickly, seeing Willet, Least Tern, and Black-bellied Plover. Then I was stuck for a while, biking out on the beach towards Gurnet Lighthouse without seeing any new birds, and still missing Ruddy Turnstone, Least Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs, Sanderling, Killdeer, and Piping Plover. In desperate need of these shorebirds, I decided to walk out on one of the mudflats on the bay side of the beach.

I had been in a similar situation last year- missing key shorebirds, I ventured out onto the flats to try to find them. Last year, I failed miserably, and to add insult to injury, ruined my shoes. This year was shaping up to be similar (minus the shoe part- I learned my lesson and was wearing waterproof sandals), because new shorebirds were nowhere to be found in the flocks of Semipalmated Sandpipers, Black-bellied Plovers, Greater Yellowlegs, and Willets.

Eventually, however, I got an unexpected bonus- a pair of Surf Scoters in the bay, both adult males that made the unusual decision to summer here (they may not have had a choice- it’s possible that they were injured and could not fly). Bird number 69- I was now one better than last year. With that, though, my luck changed. I had Ruddy Turnstones and Least Sandpipers on the flats- numbers 70 and 71, respectively.

Continuing on in hopes of a Lesser Yellowlegs or at least a Sanderling, I reached a few more flocks of shorebirds- mostly semis and semis. Finally, as I was about to turn back, I noticed a bird off in the distance- it was white, either a tern or a gull. If it was a gull it was rather small, if it was a tern, it was very large. Either would be good. Drawing closer, I realized that it was a tern, and as I approached, I realized it was a Royal Tern- a very good bird in Massachusetts, so unusual that I had to write it in on the checklist I was using. The bird took off while I was still rather distant, and I watched it fly out into the middle of the bay and disappear into the distance.

After what was easily the bird of the day, seeing more shorebirds was less important, but I found some Sanderlings anyway- #73. I walked back to my bike and made the final push up to the lighthouse, where previous scouting had turned up Bank Swallow and Wilson’s Storm-Petrel. The swallows appeared quickly, flying overhead and below the edge of the cliffs that the lighthouse overlooks, where they nest. The storm-petrels were much more elusive, and I was wondering if I was going to be doomed to fall one bird short of 75 when I noticed a bird standing on the seaweed covered rocks at the base of the cliff. It was a Brant, another usual bird in the summer, and it was #75 for the day! A final scan of the ocean did turn up a few storm-petrels, and I headed for home with a final total of 76 birds, eight higher than my previous mark. Now I have a new total to try to best next year.

By the way, I’m going to France and Spain for ten days, and am leaving for the airport in 5 minutes or so. I’ll have lots of stories and photos to post when I get back. Until then, au revoir and adios!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Beach Birding, Part 1

Gurnet Lighthouse
  I just got back from 2 weeks at my beach house, in Green Harbor (pronounced Hahbah), Massachussetts. Between all of the the beaching/kayaking/biking/poker/pictionary/beatles rock band playing/jumping off bridges with cousins/aunts/uncles/grandmothers/friends/acquaintances, I was actually able to get in a good deal of birding.

My first birding expedition came when I was able to convince my family that a whale watch out of Plymouth would be a fun trip. Of course, I had an ulterior motive- Stellwagen Bank, where the boats go to, is a very productive pelagic birding location, and I wanted to see some shearwaters. My main target was Manx Shearwater, which was something of a nemesis bird for me, as I had missed it the past two years on whale watch boats. So at my urging, we boarded a whalewatch run by Capt. John’s Boats out of Plymouth on Wednesday, the 3rd of August.

A heron fishes next to the Mayflower II, a replica of the pilgrims' ship
Our first pelagic birds appeared right on cue, as soon as we began to leave the bay- Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, swooping like dark, oceanic swallows in front of the bow, pausing on occasion and pattering their feet on the surface while hovering, as if they were dancing a jig on the waves.

This was the first and best photo I got of a Storm-Petrel. It is the best because you can tell that it is a bird.
There was a fairly long break after that before some new birds appeared, though the storm-petrels were our compainions the whole way. Eventually, as we neared Stellwagen Bank (which is an underwater plateau off Cape Cod), I began to see shearwaters. First was a fairly distant Great Shearwater. Then my dad spotted a pair of shearwaters landing on the water. I identified them as Sooty Shearwaters because of their very dark back and wings, which were the only parts of the birds I could see. I quickly realized my error, however- they were much too small, and as soon became clear when the boat drew nearer, they had white undersides- Manx Shearwaters! My target for the trip, seen right off the bat.

As it was a whale watch, it would be remiss for me not to mention the whales, of which there were many. We began to see they soon after the Manx Shearwaters. A few came right up to the boat, and we got great looks at both humpbacks and minke whales.

Our stops to look at whales provided me with more birding opportunities, as it is much easier to bird on a still boat than a moving one. I was soon able to see the two remaining shearwater species- Cory’s and Sooty, as well as a handful more Manx and one or two more Great Shearwater. On the way back to the harbor, there were more Sooties, a few large flocks of dozens of storm-petrels feeding, and a single subadult Northern Gannet
Check out the wing moult on this Cory's Shearwater
Sooty Shearwater.
The next day, Thursday the 4th, we went to Plymouth Beach. This was also advocated by me, for the purpose of birding the tern colony in the dunes at the tip of the beach. To get there, it is a 3 mile walk out along the beach (and then, of course, another 3 miles back), but with the prospect of rare terns as motivation and the numerous shorebirds along the way make it well worth it. Plus, if the biggest obstacle to birding is that you have to take a long walk on the beach, then that is okay with me.

A typical assemblage of shorebirds on Plymouth Beach
The expedition as a whole was quite successful, with large numbers and decent diversity of shorebirds (Semipalmated Plover and Sandpiper, Piping Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, Dunlin, Sanderling, Short-billed Dowitcher, Least Sandpiper), and 8 species of larids, highlighted by multiple Roseate Terns, both adults and juveniles, at the colony.

Count 'em- 7 Piping Plovers
That's a really pale tern... Notice also that the leftmost bird is a young roseate- all-black bill, black forehead.
Nice Roseate/Common Comparison. Note the pale back and wings, dark bill, and banded legs of the Roseate
An adorable Bonaparte's Gull
On the way back I started to try to photograph shorebirds and terns in flight- not an easy task, given their speed and size, and the fact that I have a point-and-shoot without manual focus. I did get a couple of shots that were almost in focus, though.

That's Gurnet Lighthouse (See top) in the background
I did not notice until much later that the top tern is a roseate.

I also spotted this guy stuck in the sand in the yard of a house on the beach:

Plastic White Stork- a much classier version of the plastic flamingo
The next day, August 5th, I birded with the Friday Morning Birders, a group that birds the south shore every week for a few hours (I think you can figure out when). The highlights of that trip were Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, Solitary Sandpipers, an Ovenbird, a Veery, and some Saltmarsh Sparrows. The sparrows were a year bird for me, the 3rd day in a row I had added to my year list. The weekend was occupied with non-birding activities, but I did bird some more the next week, which will be chronicled in part 2. Stay tuned.