Connecticut Young Birders Club Fieldtrip

23 11 2010

The Connecticut Young Birders Club

After a successful inaugural meeting of the club back in October which was lead by Kenn Kaufman the YBC had picked Hammonasset Beach State Park as the next venue for their fieldtrip. Leading on the day were Frank Gallo (who had kindly volunteered his services in advance), Brian O’Toole and myself.

Manuel, Benjamin, Nicole, Zach and Eamon joined us in Greenwich for the trip down and we met Alex, James and Brendan down at the park. Unfortunately a few members had been forced to pull out at the last minute, but a nice sized group was assembled for the day.

Hardly had we managed to get out of the van, when we had our first decent sighting of the day a juvenile Northern Harrier, which was quickly correctly identified and (aged!) by one of the group. Amazing how many relatively experienced birders seem to be unsure of the difference between female and juvie harriers!

As we gathered in the parking lot, we had to wait for a photographer to stop driving around the field where the Horned Lark flocks congregate so that we could go through the collection looking for other goodies. As we waited we quickly picked up some other nice trip birds including a Sharp-shinned Hawk that was darting around the Nature Center and a lingering Greater Yellowlegs that was sat in the small duck pond at the east end of the nature center parking lot. The yellowlegs actually put on a bit of a show as it performed its best phalarope impression by swimming out across the pond a number of times joining in with a little flock of American Black Ducks.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane....

Once the photographer’s car had disappeared, we had time to go through the Horned Lark flock at leisure. We soon picked up a Lapland Longspur as it scurried across the gravel and although it gave the group the runaround for the while as it ducked low and out of site behind grass clumps and little rolling ridges we finally all got decent views of a the bird. As we awaited better views of the Longspur a small group of Snow Buntings put on a better showing than the longspur, fluttering around the fields and putting down in a number of spots allowing for nice binocular and scoped views of the birds. A few of the group noted the distinctly pale appearance of a number of the Horned Larks and some theories about races and subspecies were thrown around without any real conclusions being formed.

After cleaning up on the expected bunting/lark/longspur show we trotted over to scan the sound from Meigs Point. On the way we picked up our first American Tree Sparrows of the trip and a Yellow-rumped Warbler or two.

The sound was a little quieter than expected, however a few Common Loons were close enough to provide nice binocular views and further out a couple of Red-throated Loons floated around. Although there was not much initially out on the water we did a little better with shorebirds along the breakwaters and down below us on the rocks. We soon had Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderlings and Dunlin under our belts as well as a Black-bellied Plover and after a little more patient examining of the groups of birds a Purple Sandpiper was picked out.

Out on the sound there was some movement of waterfowl, mainly at good distance, but a couple of White-winged Scoters were close enough to be able to see their white wing patches in flight. Best however was pretty much saved until last when a group of eight Common Eiders flew in not too far out (including 2 adult males). Amusingly this was a state bird for me, what a friend might describe as a ‘shame tick’ (a bird that is embarrassing to have to add to ones list). We also spotted a single Surf Scoter that was lounging around just off shore so we eked out two of the three hoped for scoter species if only in small numbers.

A stop at Willard’s Island was essentially a bit of a waste of time, apart from nice views of a Hermit Thrush and with other groups that we’d run into essentially decrying the general lack of birds in the park we decided that perhaps a change of plans was in order.

East Shore Park had been producing some pretty incredible records in recent years for both lingering late warblers and Cave Swallow sightings. With both reported the day before we decided to cut our stop at Hammo short and take a trip detour to East Shore. We didn’t regret it one bit as almost as soon as we stumbled out of the van we had picked up great views of a Red-breasted Nuthatch that was mixed in with a little Black-capped Chickadee flock. Before we wandered over to the area we hoped to pick up the swallows we also picked up a couple of lingering Ruby-crowned Kinglets.

Again we had stumbled onto more groups of birders and started to get information about what had been seen at the park so far. As we were chatting first one and then another Cave Swallow appeared overhead. It took a little while, but with a little patience eventually we all managed to get good distant and then close views of these two vagrants from southern Texas or beyond?!? Then we were on to searching out for other birds that might have decided to hang around and make use of this somewhat warm, wet and buggy park microclimate caused by the water treatment plant situated next door.

First up was an incredibly late American Redstart – seemingly a very dull first fall female that was working through the tree tops and vine tangles in front of the water treatment plant. Then we pished up a rather nicely marked Blackpoll Warbler, that proceeded to do a little preening whilst we all got nice views of this bird in the dense low tangles. Finally the last little lingering goodies we managed to dig up were a couple of rather nice and brightly colored Pine Warblers (typically enough working the small pine trees just inside the treatment centers fence).

A great little on the fly stop, and it had fitted into our day perfectly. Pretty special to get four warbler species on November 21st and highlighted the seasonal nature of birding. Three species of warbler that might hardly have garnered much more than a quick glance a month or so back were now vying for star status with the Cave Swallows for most of the birders there!!!

Cave Swallow - Frank Gallo

So we left East Shore and said farewells to Frank, Vanessa, Alex, Bredan and James and set off with the remainder of the group for an impromptu stop at the Fork-tailed Flycatcher in Stamford (it would have been rude not to!)

We soon made it to Cove Island Park and were delighted to find that the bird was still putting on quite the show. Two great things about this twitch: firstly that it was being excellently managed and two that it was being used as something of a fundraiser for the park.

Too often twitches descend into chaos where the desire to get better views or photos of the bird descend into the kind of crazy behavior that disturbs both the bird and most of the other birders there. Here a nice taped ‘fence line’ had been stuck up to help protect both the bird and habitat.

It seemed to work perfectly and the unmolested bird and had settled in quite comfortably with his new found fame and was more than happy to provide excellent and almost constant close views. Proof in my mind that if you give birds a little room they tend to just forget all about your presence after a while and just get on with doing what they are doing.

In the van after each stop we had been discussing our favorite birds so far of the day, and after each stop a number of different birds had been picked by participants, however after we left Cove and I asked the same question again the response was unanimous – Fork-tailed Flycatcher. It’s hard not too get excited about such a charismatic and exotic bird whether you are a rarities chaser or not.

To summarize it was a fantastic day out with a great group of keen young birders and on top of that we were treated to an endless array of beautiful and somewhat rare birds. Next month the YBC will be focusing on taking part in their local Christmas Bird Counts, but if they are anything like me they can probably hardly wait for the next trip in January to roll around. Thanks to Brian O’Toole, Frank Gallo and the Audubon Greenwich staff for making it all happen!

More reports from the following blogs floridascrubjay(here), flight log(here) and warblings(here).


20 11 2010

Moonwatching - Nov 20th 2010

Just doing some moonwatching photography tonight. Looks like I captured a little birdie on it, I wonder what it could be?

Born Again Twitcher – Fork-tailed Flycatcher

17 11 2010

Fork-tailed Flycatcher - AJ Hand

After thinking that the twitching bug had been well and truly put to bed, a couple of great finds in Connecticut have seen me heading out to twitch birds this fall. Just call me Mr. Hypocrite! Tina Green found the first twitchable Forked-tailed Flycatcher at Cove Island Park in Stamford whilst waiting for her car to be repaired. Pretty crazy – just goes to prove that there is no bad time to go birding!

Talking of twitching, not sure how many people this side of the pond caught up with the BBC documentary about twitchers in the UK? If not I linked it here. If I ever get like these guys just shoot me 😉 Thanks to AJ Hand for the sending me this top quality picture of the bird!

Le Conte’s Sparrow – Milford Point

9 11 2010

Le Conte's Sparrow - AJ Hand

As you probably know I am pretty antipathetic to the whole world of chasing and twitching birds (maybe antipathetic is too strong on reflection but I do like the word so lets leave it in). Apart from my Allen’s Meadows list, I could care a jot for listing in general (nothing wrong with it it just isn’t what excites me about birding). Simply put I’d prefer to spend my free time just looking for birds than sitting in a car driving to look for one someone’s already found.

That said I’ve actually twitched three birds this fall including a Lark Sparrow (thanks to Matt Hoyt) and a Northern Wheatear (thanks to Tina Green, Penny Solum and Mike Warner) at Allen’s Meadows (well I could hardly not chase those could I, they both at my old patch on the same day!!!!).

The third bird was the Le Conte’s Sparrow at Milford Point (as found by Tom Sayers). Although not even remotely related to Allen’s Meadows or even an addition to my county list, I wasn’t going to turn down the opportunity to see a lifer sparrow and a particularly beautiful one at that. Personally sparrows are probably my favorite North American birds. A little challenging, but not like those ridiculous gulls and a secretive beauty that outshines (in my opinion) those gaudy neotropical birds.

Anyway it was a fun day out with fellow Quaker Ridge hawkwatcher Bill Wallace with a couple of nice additions to the days hunt added by Bill and myself including 3 American Golden Plovers and 1 Sora as well as some fairly abundant Nelson’s Sparrows.

I was also pleased to note that the whole thing was pretty stress free. In years passed I might have been fretting about dipping on the bird, but I really just spent the day enjoying the whole hunt and catching up with birders that I haven’t seen in absolutely aeons. Still getting the bird in the gloom at the end of the day certainly didn’t hurt the general enjoyment of the whole experience!

Thanks to AJ Hand for sharing this stunning picture of the bird – simply beautiful., and much better lighting than when I saw it 😉

Quaker Goshawk

7 11 2010

Northern Goshawk - Steve Beal

So the other day at the Le Conte’s Sparrow I was talking with a couple of other experienced hawkwatchers/birders about the trouble that many people seem to have with getting big accipiter ID’s correct. I’m not an expert on them by any means but a good number of sightings at Quaker this year have certainly given me a decent feel for them I think. I thought it might be instructive to post some shots that Steve Beal took of an juvenile Goshawk at Quaker Ridge today and go through some ID pointers.

Northern Goshawk - Steve Beal

It always amazes me how many people don’t seem to look for the relevant features on big accipiters and merely parrot the line that the bird had a big supercilium as if that were some definitive marker (it isn’t by the way, all juvie accipiters can show you a distinct supercilium). It is common knowledge that Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks can virtually overlap in size but it seems to evade most people that the same is true of small male Northern Goshawks and large female Cooper’s, so large female Coopers seem to throw people a little when they encounter them.

Northern Goshawk - Steve Beal

Anyway these pictures show you some of the key features you should look for in flight and many are noticeable on the deck as well:

Structure:(a) Broad ‘thick-set’ body, (beware Coopers with a full crop as they can look bulkier) look at the bulk of this bird and the deep keeled belly, (b) Tail that just looks like a continuation of a thickly built body (Coopers often appear cinched at the base of the tail to my eye), (c) Broad wings with narrow ‘hands’ (can make the bird almost look falconesque flying away from you).

Plumage: a) Uneven and ‘wonky’ bands on tail, (b) rufous wash on nape, (c) buffy bar on greater wing coverts, (c) dark streaks on undertail (d) streaking much heavier than average Coopers Hawk (juvie coops often look pale underneath at distance- juvie Goshawks look ‘dirty’ like Sharp-shinneds), (e) Goshawks tend to look slightly more washed in buff than Cooper’s on the underside, whereas coops show a pale whitish base color to the streaking (f) as pointed out by Brian O’Toole you can even see the white edging to the dark banding on the tail (probably not something to try look for on in flight birds!!!).

Flight Style: Fairly distinctive in my experience this is a big heavy powerful bird thus it tends to be very steady in the soar and comes across almost as a buteo (why wouldn’t it it’s the size of a Red-tailed Hawk!), it can accelerate very rapidly and the wing beats appear powerful none of this lazy flicky flap flap flap glide malarky you get from smaller accipiters but rather a much deeper and powerful flap that propels the bird swiftly and directly.

We don’t get to see many Goshawks, so just in this past seasons watching I feel my personal confidence with this species as grown considerably. I thought it might be helpful to jot down a few thoughts, so any agreements, disagreements or pointers you think I’ve missed feel free to chime in. Hope it might be helpful to a few.

Thanks to Steve Beal for letting me use the pictures. A picture is worth a thousand words!