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 – March 15

15 03 2009
N. Saw-whet Owl - Michael Ferrari

N. Saw-whet Owl - Michael Ferrari

So much for my titling today’s walk ‘Spring Awakening’, apart from a load of raucous blackbirds there was little to make one think of spring and a cool and damp morning wasn’t setting much of a mood either. We started at Grace Salmon Park in Westport but without much sign of egrets or the shorebird or two that I had hoped for. OK there were a couple of Killdeer but it’s a stretch to think of them as shorebirds as they are seemingly just as happy mooching about on gravel parking lots at the Wilton Market as they are anywhere else in the world. The only birds of ‘note’ were some Pine Siskins, but after this year it’s hard to think of them as uncommon within the state.

Next stop was a quick one at Compo Beach where we were surprised by the sheer wealth of waterfowl on show.  There were a number of large flocks of Greater Scaup (I pointed out identification of the wing pattern to the group when the birds stretched their wings), hundreds of milling Long-tails and good sized numbers of many other species such as Red-breasted Mergansers, Horned Grebes and Brant. The pick of the gulls loitering offshore was a ‘Kumlien’s’ Iceland Gull which gave the group a good session on identification. Many of the group found the apparent darkness of the primaries surprising for a ‘white-winged’ gull although the name seemed more appropriate with nice flight views. We also went over the theories as to whether the gull is a subspecies or hybrid – answers on a postcard please gull experts. A brief explanation (here), at the present the AOU treats Kumlien’s as as a subspecies of Iceland Gull.

Over at Sherwood Mill Pond the ducks continued to impress with a large mixed Wigeon/Gadwall flock (no sign of the Eurasian). Sherwood Island itself was pretty quiet apart from offshore where a few flotillas of Red-throated Loons and Horned Grebes as well as continuing ducks, many just offshore, were pretty impressive. The cool air and glassy water made viewing conditions almost perfect apart from a little fogginess further out. The only other bird of note a Greater Yellowlegs that certainly appeared to be a recent migrant  arriving from the south as it circled the marsh for a while deciding where to put down.

A quick coffee break (at which we added a calling Red Shouldered Hawk – right over Rt 1) and a few more spots and more waterfowl (I wonder if I am the only birder who has fantasized about one day birding the length of Rt 1 on one long crazy road trip – David Sibley meets Jack Kerouac style). Although we’d had some excellent views of some nice birds the tour would have not been the same had it not been for a fortunate spot as we explored a couple of local cedar/pine stands. I spotted a few large splashes of telltale whitewash and as I followed the wash up the branches there was perched a cute little Northern Saw-whet Owl. At 8 inches this really is one super cute little bird. As I’ve said before it’s always a thrill to find these birds and the first flash of those little eyes as you spot them gives one an unbelievable rush.  The group all had great looks at what was a life bird for a few involved and a treat for everyone. The group all took turns to have a minute or so with the little beauty and after a few memento shots we left him to his morning snooze.

It’s amazing how one bird can really make a morning out special, so even on the dreariest of days out (not that today was one) I always try to make sure to not let my head drop and keep looking at every bird, as you never know when that great bird might show up. I always remember that finding the Harris’s Sparrow at Allen’s was basically down to a last second change of plan after a disappointing soundwatch at Burying Hill Beach. I almost drove straight past Allen’s on the way home but decided to give it a quick try and make up for the rather fruitless morning. Always worth reminding yourself when you are out that with a little luck the next great bird might be just around the corner (or sat in the next tree!)

Trip Species List: Canada Goose, Brant, Mute Swan, Gadwall, American Wigeon, American Black Duck, Mallard, Greater Scaup, Long-tailed Duck, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser, Hooded Merganser,  Red-throated Loon, Common Loon, Horned Grebe, Great Blue Heron, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Killdeer, Greater Yellowlegs, Bonaparte’s Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, KUMLIEN’S ICELAND GULL, Great Black-backed Gull,  Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Monk Parakeet, GREAT-HORNED OWL, NORTHERN SAW-WHET OWL, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Blue Jay, Fish Crow, American Crow, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, White-Breasted Nuthatch, Carolina Wren,  American Robin, European Starling, American Tree Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Northern Cardinal, Red-winged Blackbird, Common  Grackle, PINE SISKIN, 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





More Owl!

28 01 2009

Northern Hawk Owl and Vole - AJ Hand

Northern Hawk Owl and Vole - AJ Hand

AJ Hand, who last weeks owl prowl participants got to meet in the flesh, sent me this stunning picture of the Northern Hawk Owl from New Hampshire. Brilliantly atmospheric and fantastic timing from the photography aspect. Here is the great story that surrounds the shot in AJ’s own words:

“We were shooting this Hawk Owl on Monday, as he sat perched high in a tree,  alertly scanning the countryside. Not long after we got set up, he started cocking his head left and right, and bobbing up and down. Suddenly he swooped down–right at us–and crashed into the snow not 6 feet away. After a brief struggle he popped up with this vole and flew to this perch where he ripped off the head and ate that, then quickly swallowed the rest, neck first . After we got shots of him chowing down,we checked out the murder scene.

It turns out, the vole had been crawling through his subnivean tunnel and came to a spot where it cut across a deep snowmobile track. To continue his journey,  he had to pop out of the tunnel, get across 16 inches of packed snow and reenter the tunnel on the other side of the track. It looked like the owl got him before he even started across, just as he was just peeking out and evaluating the situation. Never had a chance!”





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