Long time…

25 01 2010

GH Owl- Matt Thomas

Is it just me or is January the most miserable time of year (I am writing this on a day with 30mph winds and steady sheets of rain). It always seems to take me ages to recover from Christmas (a wonderful time spent in London visiting with family and friends old and new, including my friend Peter’s beautiful new baby girl). Anyway there always seems to be a lag in time recovering from being back in the old country and feeling settled back into life here in the states. That’s my excuse for doing nothing with the blog for a while anyway. It also doesn’t help that January is not my favorite time of year for birding. Although I compile the Big January for Connecticut I have to say that having done one once I pretty much vowed never to do it again. I just can’t handle the endless ‘on the go’ pace of the whole thing – more power to those like Tina, Meredith and Sara who throw themselves into the spirit of the thing with gusto – I don’t know how they find the energy!

Anyway this weekend I was back out on the birding trail running a daytime owl prowl. Now as it is owls are hard enough to find even at the best of times but to get to see them during the day it really takes some serious scouting. I basically spent the majority of the week pulling in favors, begging people like AJ who is something of an owl expert and aficionado for tips and traipsing through pine woodlands looking for traces of owl activity. For the most part I was finding a lot of owl sign and not a lot of owls. You also have the misery of owls that you have staked out suddenly deciding to move on just before the day of the walk. Pretty stressful all in all!

It’s all worth it though when you manage to get to the end of a walk with 5 pretty decent owl sightings under your belt. The day started fairly auspiciously when at the first stop a mob of Blue Jays were squawking intimidatingly around the group of pines I was hoping to see our first Barred Owl in. Sure enough these mobbing birds were onto our quarry much quicker than we were and as we watched their frantic behavior a, thus far, hidden Barred Owl dropped out of the trees and flew off for what it hoped would be a quieter pine to roost. Whilst all the time harassed by the baying corvid mob! As I explained to the group, mobbing birds can be your friends and on a number of occasions they have led me towards an owl camouflaged from a mere human’s eye. With a couple more excellent flyby views under our belts as the bird flew this way and that to lose his pursuers (the jays – not us) we left the owl to deal with his tormentors.

A few more stops yielded some successes and some failures: another Barred Owl perched in some coastal tangles ( but not the Long-eareds that had been hoped for) that provided us with the chance to study the contents of one of the owls pellets and to see the tell-tale whitewash signature that denotes a regular roost. A couple of Great Horned Owls were already getting set up for the serious business of starting a new family for the year, and we had beautiful views of the North-Easts most diminutive owl: the Northern Saw-whet, a bird that one only really encounters in the state in migration and winter.

All in all a pretty successful trip and one that though tough to organize, was all the more rewarding in its success. This year has been a fairly tough one for owls it seems, with very few reports of diurnal owls such as Short-eared and Snowy. Although not reportable in CT, the word on the grapevine is that Long-eared sightings are fewer and farther between than recent years as well. Perhaps the abundance of natural food this year has lead to a corresponding boom in their prey numbers to our north and they just don’t feel the same need to roam south. A good thing for the owls but not so good for your prospective owl hunter!

Thanks to Matt Thomas for the kind loan of a couple of his shots from the trip – thanks for sharing.

Trip Sightings: Barred Owl (2), Great Horned Owl (2), Northern Saw-whet Owl (1).

Others: Canada Goose, Mallard, Ring-necked Duck, Red-tailed Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Herring Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Belted Kingfisher, Downy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Crow, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Golden-crowned Kinglet, American Robin, European Starling, Eastern Towhee, American Tree Sparrow, Song Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Northern Cardinal, American Goldfinch, House Sparrow.





Sunrise Bird Walk – Norwalk Feb 28

28 02 2009
Saw-whet Owl - AJ Hand

Saw-whet Owl - AJ Hand

An enjoyable mornings ‘work’ in Norwalk with some of the regular gang. Nothing majorly exciting  on the day but it always seems to be a fun morning out. Amongst a wealth of ducks, a couple of LESSER SCAUP were a bonus in Norwalk Harbor.

We had a few more cool ducks on the day and I assume there must be some staging up going on pre-migration, as the harbor in Norwalk was packed with Bufflehead.  Over on 14 Acre Pond we had great looks at a few Green-winged Teal and a rather novel (for the site) Common Merganser sitting on this shallow little pool.

Probably the highlight of the walk though was a Pileated Woodpecker over in Weston that put on quite the show for us as it flew in and proceeded to drum on an obviously favored dead branch for some minutes in absolutely perfect light, just a few feet away from us (see Mike’s photo below). It was either that or the glimpses we had of a nesting Great Horned Owl that we came upon.

To round off the walk we stopped for lunch at the rather fantastic SoNo Bakery for sandwiches, soups and cakes. It’s always a nightmare to get a seat in there but the food is well worth the wait.

Pileated Woodpecker - Michael Ferrari

Pileated Woodpecker - Michael Ferrari

Post walk I took Tina’s offer of a ride up to Watertown to see the Northern Shrike that Greg Hanisek found. This was a particularly handsome adult bird and although we had to wait a while for the bird to put in an appearance, there was plenty to enjoy while we waited including an adult Bald Eagle, a few calling Pheasant and some newly arrived? Killdeer.

I have to say shrikes in general are high up on my list of favorite bird species. I also love those northern boreal birds  as they just seem so romantic, so it’s always cool to see a Northern Shrike as it combines both elements. It was a life bird for Tina and a year bird for me so there were high fives all around. It seems like they have been particularly thin on the ground this season after last winters irruption so it was cool to get one in the bag.

After the Northern Shrike, we were all set to head home when we decided on a whim to swing by Westport and just see what was around. We managed to find one of the Eurasian Wigeons down on the Sherwood Island Mill Pond, (Frank Mantlik had reported two earlier in the week) in amongst a raft of 100 or so Gadwall and American Wigeon. Another quick stop produced probably the highlight bird of the day and a most unexpected surprise, a Saw-whet Owl!

Last year I had convinced myself that I had become gods gift at finding these super cool little owls but this winter I had completely struck out thus far. Owl finding is a great leveler in that no matter how good you think you are getting at finding them, it is never easy and always seems to need a little luck. This one was a case of looking in just the right spot,  following the white-wash trail and there it was. A quick call to my friend AJ Hand produced the stunning photo above.

A neat bird and a real thrill to find. Plenty of discussion on owls on the CTBirding list but in keeping with the current rules there are no details on the location. Today though was proof positive though that there is nothing better than the thrill of stumbling on your own owl discovery, spinetingling!

Trip Species List: Horned Grebe, Red-throated Loon, Mute Swan, Canada Goose, Brant, American Black Duck, American Wigeon, Gadwall, Green-winged Teal, Mallard, LESSER SCAUP, Ring-necked Duck, Hooded Merganser, Red-breasted Merganser, Common Merganser, Long-tailed Duck, Turkey Vulture, Red-tailed Hawk, Herring Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, GREAT-HORNED OWL, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, PILEATED WOODPECKER, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, American Robin, Blue Jay, Fish Crow, American Crow, White-throated Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Common  Grackle, Red-winged Blackbird, European Starling, House Sparrow





Sunrise Bird Walk – Daytime Owl Prowl Jan 24

25 01 2009

What no owl? - Luke Tiller

What no owl? - Luke Tiller

Another weekend, another wonderful birding trip. This was my first attempt to run an owl prowl for Sunrise and it turned out to be a very successful day (even if I say so myself). Part of the problem with owls is that personally I believe one needs to be almost hyper sensitive of their needs as they can ill afford to be expending extra energy. Raptors have a hard enough time in winter as it is and birds that are roosting during the day should be left as undisturbed as possible. At the same time it is nice to show people these birds as they are highly appreciated and often they are difficult to find even when you know where and how to look (part of the trip was an attempt to help people decide where to look for and what to look for to find their own owls in the future).

In the event we managed to get good looks at 3 species of owl and best of all it was all done by a very respectful and appreciative group.  I specifically picked public places to look, where the appearance of a few birders wouldn’t make any real difference to the birds usual routine. Highlights of the trip were obviously LONG-EARED OWL, GREAT HORNED OWL and BARRED OWL. The Barred  in particular gave us a great demonstration of how hard these birds can be to find even when you know where they are, as it finally revealed itself to us after we had walked underneath it a couple of times (as had numerous dog walkers, dogs, hikers etc).

There is something still kind of mystical and magical about owls and I love to see them although I do it  rarely (doing some scouting I found a few other owls but most were too flighty, in too vulnerable positions, or just simply too far from the route to share with a group). Sometimes I think the impression is on CTbirds is that there is an in clique of birders that share these sort of sightings, but in my experience there really isn’t. I generally do not share any owls I find and at the same time I pretty much expect the same from my birding friends. Even when I get a tip off about an owl I generally don’t follow up on it as I don’t want to disturb the bird, and for me the real thrill is finding ones own owls. That moment you suddenly stumble on one is quite unbelievable.

I remember the first time I found a Saw-whet, I looked under a tree and found some pellets and expected as usual to look up in the tree and find it empty but to my surprise there the a bird sat winking down at me. A fantastic experience that will stay with me forever. It is that experience that you want to share with people, but at the same time you are always drawn in the other direction of leaving the bird alone to just get on with its life without disturbance.

On the trip I also mentioned the dangers of getting too close to owls especially when they are nesting. Highlighting this was British bird photographer Eric Hosking who famously lost an eye whilst trying to photograph a Tawny Owl (a member of the Strix family which includes Barred, Spotted and Great Grey in the US). He basically became famous after that attack and his autobiography was amusingly titled ‘An Eye for a Bird’.

Of course checking pine stands in winter you are always likely to turn up some other goodies. Highlights included a small flock of WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILLS, PINE SISKINS – almost ubiquitous this winter (I checked online and it is estimated there are as many Pine Siskins in the US as there are Goldfinches so it’s no wonder they appear to be so many in these big incursion years), BROWN CREEPER, MERLIN, 31 BOAT-TAILED GRACKLES and GLAUCOUS GULL (obviously not in a Pine Stand!!!).

A nice day out shared with old friends, some new faces and some amazing birds. Saturdays really don’t come much better. Thanks to everyone for coming and to Shaun Martin and AJ Hand particularly with help locating a couple of these hard to find birds.

Trip List

Mute Swan, Canada Goose, Brant, American Black Duck, Mallard, Common Goldeneye, Hooded Merganser, Red-tailed Hawk, Merlin, Turkey, Dunlin, Herring Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Glaucous Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Great Horned Owl, Barred Owl, Long-eared Owl, Downy Woodpecker, Horned Lark, Brown Creeper, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren, Golden-crowned Kinglet, American Robin, Blue Jay, American Crow, Northern Cardinal, American Goldfinch, Pine Siskin House Finch, American Tree Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Song Sparrow, DE Junco, Boat-tailed Grackle, White-winged Crossbill, European Starling, House Sparrow





Sunrise Bird Walk – January 10

11 01 2009
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GH Owl - Steve Ballentine

Spent a cold but entertaining morning at a few spots in Westport. Highlight of the walk was the sheer number and variety of waterfowl out on Long Island Sound (no need for the early season worries on CT Birds).  Nothing rare in and of itself and the most uncommon ducks (the WW Scoter) were not very cooperative but plenty of great looks at the common stuff and I was quite surprised to see a couple of ‘flocks’ of Red-throated Loons out on the sound, something I have noted a couple of times in migration but not knowingly in mid-winter before (perhaps the impending storm was pushing birds into the sound?)

The bird of the day was a Great Horned Owl (no locations being given on nocturnal owls I’m afraid – in keeping with CTBirds policy), which although sat quite some way up a tree did provide for a good photo opportunity (thanks for letting me use one Steve). Probably the other real highlight was a stunning first cycle Iceland Gull that was loafing round the point at the 9-11 memorial.

A good friend of mine was asking the other day why 1st cycle had replaced 1st winter etc as a favored terminology with gull identification? The Howell and Dunn book has a useful explanation (see online copy here – explanation on page31) which seems to mainly revolve around creating a neutral system to describe birds that either straddle the two hemispheres or are predominantly southern hemisphere breeding birds. The book is a great place to start with Gull identification, although I must admit to finding some of it a bit long-winded. But then again I guess that’s gulls for you!

A couple of other nice finds on the day were some Pine Siskins (almost ubiquitous this year) at Long Shore and a couple of lingering Snow Buntings which were hanging out with a Horned Lark Flock at Compo.

Trip Species List

Common Loon, Red-throated Loon, Horned Grebe, Mute Swan, Canada Goose, Brant, American Black Duck, Mallard, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Greater Scaup, Long-tailed Duck, White-winged Scoter, Common Goldeneye, Bufflehead, Red-breasted Merganser, Hooded Merganser,  Red-tailed hawk, Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, ICELAND GULL, GREAT HORNED OWL, Mourning Dove, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Horned Lark, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren, American Robin, Blue Jay, American Crow, Northern Cardinal, American Goldfinch, PINE SISKIN, House Finch, American Tree Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Song Sparrow,  Savannah Sparrow, DE Junco, SNOW BUNTING, European Starling, House Sparrow