A Snowy Christmas 2013

December 24, 2013

_MG_4531 copyAn unprecedented number of Snowy Owls irrupted south this winter and made for some awesome opportunities to see these majestic creatures. Unfortunately since these flights are prompted by too many birds and not enough food, some were emaciated and starving and some were found dead as result. CT did well with several birds being rather photogenic. Thankfully many photographers remained respectable, though people trying to take photos of them with their smartphones continue to piss off everyone that understands that you can’t use your smartphone for bird photography unless the bird is embedded up your nostril. Really people…enough with the phone nonsense :)

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Ace photographer and awesome dude AJ Hand and Alex getting to grips!

I used to think I could age and sex some Snowy Owls. While I think the heavily barred birds with boldly barred napes and minimal white “bibs” are females, and the lightly marked and almost white birds with broken tailbands are males, this isn’t always the case.

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Snowy Sunset

Birds with vermiculated inner greater coverts and primary tips may be first-years (HY) but I’m not sure older birds cannot show these in successive moults, so it really is hard to age and sex birds of unknown age in the field. Individuals often get lighter with age, stay the same, or get darker so there is a whole gamut of variation and overlap. Apparently according to Russian research, first borns in the nest are often paler than successive hatchlings which are darker! Also, some HY males (aged in the hand from banding / specimens) may overlap with adult females and may only be differentiated by size. Pyle mentions tail (?) feather shape (blunt and rounded vs bluntly pointed) as a means of ageing some birds, but this seems hardly useful in the field.

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The only main way of ageing Snowy Owls to calendar year (after HY/SY) is perhaps during June-September when birds have an incomplete primary moult and it MAY be possible to differentiate between old and new primaries.

I have seen few birds in New England I would call “females. This fits the migration pattern which basically is that females, being larger and dominant, take territory further north and it is the males that are “pushed” out further south. It also makes sense, from a probability point of view, that many of these birds are likely HY birds.

So, it seems from conventional wisdom that while we may think a bird is a young bird, or most likely a female (if large and boldly barred) we are likely guessing a lot more than we think we are.

Not seeing the kumlieni for the hyperboreus- an id. put to rest

December 24, 2013

A first-year white-winged gull turned up last year at Long Beach, Stratford, CT It was well photographed and identified by various observers as a Glaucous Gull, then perhaps a hybrid. However, the pix show a bird that fits with kumlieni, albeit a very big one! I had mentioned my opinion at the time, but the bird continued to be discussed ad nauseum with some observers believing the bird to possibly be a hybrid, an opinion I was at odds with since there didn’t seem to be any hybrid characters. Although it returned this winter, it was still reported as a Glaucous Gull despite it having dark-washed primaries, a feature never shown by hyperboreus.

After a careful analysis of the photos, I concluded the pro-Glaucous features to be:

  • It was big!

The pro-kumlieni features to be:

  • It didn’t look like a Glaucous Gull!

Thankfully, it returned this winter in it’s second-winter plumage sporting the expected dusky webs to the outer primaries diagnostic of kumlieni. The bird’s large size was apparent, but not outside the range of kumlieni and I think many observers got too hung up on size and didn’t really assess the bird’s plumage features which, as shown are perfectly kumlieni.

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Note the rather slim body and pointed wings and proportionately large eye. The solid, dusky tail and dusky outer webs to the outer primaries are diagnostic of kumlieni. The large mirror on P10 is visible in the enlarged version._MG_5424

Connecticut Blasts BLACK!

November 4, 2013

2nd November, Fairfield County, CT

“Hey..check your email and check out Frank’s pix of that hummingbird ..” was the cryptic message Nick Bonomo sent me on a balmy Saturday afternoon. I was out with Alex and his friend on the beach and couldn’t make out crap on my phone, but Nick’s message implied that all might not be kosher with it.  I got back to the house and while talking on the phone, I pulled up Frank Mantlik’s photo’s of a “Ruby-throated Hummingbird” he had photographed a few days earlier at a private residence.

At that moment, as the images came up, I spat coffee all over my computer and realised why Nick had called me. It had outer primaries like a .!!@@ hockey stick. It was a young male BLACK-CHINNED HUMMMINGBIRD -1st state record!! Tripping overmyself to grab my gear and make phonecalls, it was apparent that several people had reached the same conclusion and were running around like headless chickens trying to find out if it was still there…problem..the bird had been there a week and it was 3 days prior that Frank had taken the images.

Frank called the homeowner to check and she said she hadn’t seen it in several days..arrgghhhh!!! But, as amazing as birding is, as she was talking to him on the phone, she saw the bird fly past her and feed on some salvia!!! TWITCH ON!!!

As soon as I arrived, the bird immediately flew in and performed down to feet..amazing. It came in several times, occasionally making flights up to hawk insects.Kudos to the homeowner for her hospitality and to Frank for sending out the photos..it could have gone so horribly wrong!

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HY male Black-chinned Hummingbird, CT, November 2nd 2013. Flycatching!

HY male Black-chinned Hummingbird, CT, November 2nd 2013. Flycatching!

3rd November -Lighthouse Point, New Haven, CT

With strong NNW winds predicted I spent most of the day with the crowd at Lighthouse. We were not disappointed. A big push of buteos – Red-shoulderd, tails, Peregrines, harriers, small numbers of accipiters and best of all a handful of Bald Eagles and 5!! GOLDEN EAGLES and a juv. GOSHAWK sans tail!

Juv Golden Eagle (left) and juv Bald Eagle (right) over Lighthouse Point, New Haven (composite).

Juv Golden Eagle (left) and juv Bald Eagle (right) over Lighthouse Point, New Haven (composite).

Stunner! 1 of 5 juvenile Golden Eagles powering over Lighthouse Point, New Haven..setting a new one-day record for this coastal spot.

Stunner! 1 of 5 juvenile Golden Eagles powering over Lighthouse Point, New Haven..setting a new one-day record for this coastal spot.

October 28, 2013

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Finally, in  what has been a lacklustre fall, I dragged my ass into the field to look for birds. A previously reported Lark Sparrow had been seen at Hammonassett State Park, CT so since that was still a nemesis bird in the state, I thought I would spend some time there and give it a go. A great spot for birding, I figured it would be a great place to spend a nice few hours in the field on a glorious fall morning.

Arriving at the spot, I was told it had been seen earlier feeding with some sparrows. I patiently waited and saw nothing. After everyone had disappeared, it suddenly appeared, feeding in the leaf litter in front of me. Unfortunately it was flushed by a cyclist and so good views were brief.

Quite a dapper bird!

Quite a dapper bird!

After a while the bird flew out of some conifers, giving it’s “tink-tink” call and flew across the campground. I followed it and soon relocated it feeding out on the grass. I went all Seal Team Six on it and belly crawled close..unfortunately it remained in the shade for over half an hour. At this point, just as I was going to need a chiropractor for my neck,  it shuffled into some sunlight for a few seconds and I managed a few shots.

Definitely a crippler as sparrows go!

Difficult to age in late fall since juvs moult mostly on the summer grounds and thus lose most of their tell-tale streaky plumage. Since moult in this species is quite complex between geographic populations, it means that fall birds are generally not easy to age on plumage and best aged by the shape of their tail feathers. These looked pointed in other images which would make it a HY (first-year).

Difficult to age in late fall since juvs moult mostly on the summer grounds and thus lose most of their tell-tale streaky plumage. Since moult in this species is quite complex between geographic populations, it means that fall birds are generally not easy to age on plumage and best aged by the shape of their tail feathers. These looked pointed in other images which would make it a HY (first-year).

Planned It! Booked It! DID IT! California September 2013

October 17, 2013
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Alvaro Jaramillo (centre) holds court on the “New Captain Pete” as we hit the continental shelf off of Half Moon Bay.

After a nice early breakfast courtesy of the Fairfield Inn, Phil Rusch, Nick Bonomo, Simon Harvey and myself found ourselves at dawn in Pillar Point Harbor, all prepped for a pelagic out of Half Moon Bay, San Mateo County run by an old acquaintance, Alvaro Jaramillo. I had done several trips out of Monterey in the late 80s and mid-90s with Debi Shearwater but had never ventured out of Half Moon Bay, conveniently only 35 minutes drive from SFO airport! This particular tour of duty involved a couple of Debi’s trips but while birding was OK, for seasoned veterans it was lacklustre. It seemed all the most interesting birds were being seen in Half Moon Bay this fall! So Saturday 14th September so us ready to rock and roll…and roll we did..it was a bit bumpy on the way out!

It was great to see Alvaro and catch up a bit – we had first met when I was a research assistant at Long Point, Ontario in 1991 and he was living in the area. A great, incredibly knowledgeable guy, well-respected in the field community for his field skills he had recently left Fieldguides Inc. to go solo with his travel company Alvaro’s Adventures,  http://alvarosadventures.com  and part of his operation includes running several CA pelagic trips throughout the year that have produced a burgeoning list of seabirds that have included such vagrants as Hawaiian Petrel, Short-tailed Albatross, White-chinned Petrel, Great-winged Petrel and MANY Laysan Albatrosses.

One of the first notable differences from the other pelagics, was complimentary coffee and croissants on the boat as we waited to get underway..nice touch! Alvaro ran a nice trip, engaged with all the participants and gave an educational running commentary about the birds and marine life of Half Moon Bay. A nice trip with a great selection of birds, and I would thoroughly recommend anyone taking a trip out west to take advantage of the convenience of Half Moon Bay trips with Alvaro.

To book e-mail : alvaro@alvarosadventures.com;  or call 650-504-7779.

Click Images for original size

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Several dapper, pterodroma-patterned Buller’s Shearwaters were seen in good numbers

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Great looks at this Pomarine Jaeger with “spooners”. Being a rather northerly wintering jaeger, Pomarines, unlike Parasitic and Long-tailed, begin primary moult in the early fall – this bird is moulting its inner primaries. Dark underwings lacking any barred feathers suggest it is an adult and the breast band and barred flanks suggest it is a female.

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An adult Parasitic Jaeger attempting to kleptoparasitize a worried adult Sabine’s Gull!

Killer looks at many Black-footed Albatrosses

Killer looks at many Black-footed Albatrosses

South Polar Skua...one of two birds seen that unfortunately did not come into the boat and did a hit and run!

South Polar Skua…one of two birds seen that unfortunately did not come into the boat and did a hit and run!

Pillar Point, near Half Moon Bay.

Pillar Point, near Half Moon Bay.

Species List:
Black-footed Albatross
Pink-footed Shearwater
Buller’s Shearwater
Sooty Shearwater
Manx Shearwater
Brandt’s Cormorant
Red-necked Phalarope
South Polar Skua
Pomarine Jaeger
Pomarine/Parasitic Jaeger
Common Murre
Rhinoceros Auklet
Western Gull
California Gull
Wilson’s Storm-Petrel
Ashy Storm-Petrel
Black Storm-Petrel
Red Phalarope
Pomarine Jaeger
Common Murre
Cassin’s Auklet
Rhinoceros Auklet
Sabine’s Gull
Western Gull
California Gull
Arctic Tern
Pacific Loon
Common Loon

Pacific White-sided Dolphin
Northern Right Whale Dolphin
Humpback Whale
Ocean Sunfish Mola mola

Parasitic Jaeger, Cape May Point, 29th Sept 2013

October 10, 2013

While spending time in Cape May with my son, I stopped at the Magnasite Plant in the early evening of the 28th September 2013 to look for Northern Harriers and Merlins that often hunt at dusk in this area. I bumped into Jonathan Wasse and Peter Lansdown, visiting from the UK, and as we were chatting, Jonathan noticed a gull soaring over land and said “That Herring Gull is doing a good job imitating a skua (jaeger)”. Even distorted by the windshield, it didn’t look like a gull and immediately looked interesting and jaeger-like. Jumping out of the car, I snapped a few flight shots as the bird flew over us and drifted away towards Lily Lake. Clearly a juvenile Parasitic from the views we had and quite strange to see it circling over land.

That was the end of that…or so I thought. The following day, I arrived at the hawk watch at Cape May Point, when I was greeted with shouts of “Jaeger on the pond!” Indeed there was! A juvenile jaeger was sitting on the pond close to the platform. From the looks of it, it was the same bird we saw the evening before..and perhaps the same bird that had been seen briefly at the same spot the day before by the CMBO-appointed hawkwatcher Tom Reed.

Juvenile Parasitic Jaeger, Cape May Point, NJ, 9/29/2013 (Julian Hough)

Juvenile Parasitic Jaeger, Cape May Point, NJ, 9/29/2013 (Julian Hough)

The following features were typically pro-Parasitic:
  • Longish-spiky bill , not really stout with a dark-tip that appeared to be a 1/3 or so of the bill
  • Disproportionately small head, with streaky cheeks and a short, steep forehead. The slightly raised crown giving a more triangular-shaped head rather than a domed, rounded head
  • Overall warm cinnamon/nutmeg tones to the plumage, especially the pale upper part feathers and primary tips
  •  Prominent, chevron-shaped primary tips, tinged pale buff-brown, not white.
Identification of juvenile jaegers can be problematical, but the good views of this bird made for an easy identification as an intermediate-type juv. Darker, juvenile Parasitics can be difficult to separate from some dark juvenile Long-taileds. The pale-fringes to the primaries can be shown by both Parasitic and Long-tailed, so they are not diagnostic, but coupled with other features may be used as a supporting character. On some images, the pale fringes to the primaries in Long-tailed tend to be narrower and paler, while those on typical Parasitics, like the Cape May individual, are well-defined and chevron-like.
Overall a great bird to see and photograph!
"Crippling Views" - birders enjoying the unusual occurence of an "on-the-deck" Parasitic (Julian Hough)

“Crippling Views” – birders enjoying the unusual occurence of an “on-the-deck” Parasitic (Julian Hough)

Elegant Terns…are they really occurring in Europe?

September 20, 2013

An ‘orange-billed’ tern currently in Ireland shows characters of Elegant Tern and has again raised the spectre of doubt about whether these are pure vagrant Elegant Terns or….something else.  An assumed returning Elegant Tern was present in a tern colony in France in the 80s and was thought to be the perpetrator of confusing hybrids and coupled with the possibilities of offspring from  known Lessser-crested x Sandwich Terns in Europe, it has caused headaches for adjudication panels throughout Europe, given that Elegant Terns are a rare visitor to the eastern seabord of the US. The fact that the UK has had more claims of Elegant Terns than they should have for this west coast species only adds to the issue of whether such claims are hybrids, especially when these claims involve individuals that actually bear an uncanny resemblance to real Elegant Terns…

Pix of the current Irish bird are here:

https://twitter.com/KerryBirdNews/status/378629525350789120/photo/1

http://www.surfbirds.com/gallery/display.php?gallery=gallery9

I just returned from California where I saw several thousand Elegant Terns, and given the similar time of year thought I would post a few for comparison. I haven’t had time to go through these and do ant research to determine if my ageing is correct, but I am sure someone will correct me, but for now, hope these will be a reference for comparison.

Adult/2nd-w Elegant Tern, Monterey, CA, Sept 2013 (Julian Hough)

Adult/2nd-w Elegant Tern, Monterey, CA, Sept 2013 (Julian Hough)

Adult-w Elegant Tern, Monterey, CA, Sept 2013 (Julian Hough). Pure white tail feathers with outers relatively long.

Adult-w Elegant Tern, Monterey, CA, Sept 2013 (Julian Hough). Pure white tail feathers with outers relatively long.

Adult-w Elegant Tern, Monterey, CA, Sept 2013 (Julian Hough). Same bird as above..note long legs for a tern and note splotches of color visible at close range.

Adult-w Elegant Tern, Monterey, CA, Sept 2013 (Julian Hough). Same bird as above..note long legs for a tern and note splotches of color visible at close range.

First-s moulting to 2nd-w (?)  Elegant Tern, Monterey, CA, Sept 2013 (Julian Hough). Inner primaries replaced contrasting with worn outers and retains darker secondary bar.

First-s moulting to 2nd-w (?) Elegant Tern, Monterey, CA, Sept 2013 (Julian Hough). Inner primaries replaced contrasting with worn outers and retains darker secondary bar.

First-s moulting to 2nd-w (?)  Elegant Tern, Monterey, CA, Sept 2013 (Julian Hough). Note bill color and shape and shape of hood.

First-s moulting to 2nd-w (?) Elegant Tern, Monterey, CA, Sept 2013 (Julian Hough). Note bill color and shape and shape of hood.

First-s moulting to 2nd-w (?)  Elegant Tern, Monterey, CA, Sept 2013 (Julian Hough). Dark webs to tail feather hints at a bird moulting to 2nd-w plumage.

First-s moulting to 2nd-w (?) Elegant Tern, Monterey, CA, Sept 2013 (Julian Hough). Dark webs to tail feather hints at a bird moulting to 2nd-w plumage. Pale whitish tips to outer rects noticeable.

Juvenile/first-w Elegant Tern, Monterey, CA, Sept 2013 (Julian Hough). Dark, but fresh primaries, dark tertial centres age this bird. Note long legs and short bill that is assumed to be still growing. Bill color variable in many birds depending on age and sex.

Juvenile/first-w Elegant Tern, Monterey, CA, Sept 2013 (Julian Hough). Dark, but fresh primaries, dark tertial centres age this bird. Note long legs and short bill that is assumed to be still growing. Bill color variable in many birds depending on age and sex.

First-s moulting to Elegant Terns, Moss Landing, CA, Sept 2013 (Julian Hough).

Elegant Terns, Moss Landing, CA, Sept 2013 (Julian Hough).

PLANNED IT, BOOKED IT…DOING IT!

July 3, 2013
Buller's Shearwater

Buller’s Shearwater

CALIFORNIA FALL 2013 – A Plethora of Pelagics – West Coast-style!

Phil Rusch, Nick Bonomo, Simon Harvey and myself are planning an assault on the wilds of north-central California in September, centered around some pelagics out of Monterey and Half Moon Bay.

I have never been out of Half Moon Bay, a place I have visited before but never from a pelagic perspective. We are taking to the seas from here courtesy of an old friend Alvaro Jaramillo, known to many as a well-respected field birder and all-around top-man!

He recently set up his own tour business, Alvaro’s Adventures, http://alvarosadventures.com/ and part of his operation includes running several CA pelagic trips throughout the year that have produced a burgeoning list of seabirds that have included such vagrants as Hawaiian Petrel, Short-tailed Albatross, White-chinned Petrel, Great-winged Petrel and MANY Laysan Albatrosses.

Albatrosses HMB AJ1

Black-footed and Laysan Albatrosses – the latter is my nemesis bird!

To book e-mail : alvaro@alvarosadventures.com;  or call 650-504-7779

Check out a pelagic slide show here: http://alvarosadventures.com/2012/09/half-moon-bay-pelagic-slide-show-sept-2-2012/

Scripp's-Murrelete

Scripp’s Murrelet

Pink-foot AJ

Pink-footed Shearwater

Similar birds can be seen out of Monterey, 2 hours to the south, but the proximity (30 minutes to an hour depending on traffic) to San Francisco airport is a huge plus for out-of-towners like us that need to do a pelagic then catch a red-eye back to the east coast.

Death of a Needletail

June 27, 2013

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Back in the mid-80s, in my teens, a group of us were birding in Norfolk, UK on 27th May 1985 when news was phoned into the grapevine of a White-throated Needletail Swift – a huge, Asian swift only recorded a handful of times in the UK – at Fairburn Ings, Yorkshire. Usually only an hours drive away if we had been home, we left a trail of burning rubber as we exited Norfolk on a nail-biting, 4 hour drive to Yorkshire.

The bird had been forced down by an advancing storm, which had cleared before we got there and to our dismay, the bird was never seen again! To make matters worse, it later transpired that an old friend of mine known to many, Mr. Steve Dudley, had been volunteering there at the time and was one of the lucky few to see it!

Although I have seen them in Australia and China, It remained one of my most sought after birds that I wanted to see in the UK but never have. Now living in the states, I had to live vicariously through birders when news broke this week of one of these stunning birds hurtling around cliffs on Harris, Outer Hebrides, Scotland.

This startling news propelled birders north and some great photos by Josh Jones can be seen here: http://blog.birdguides.com/2013/06/white-throated-needletail.html

Unfortunately, today sad news dominated the headlines of the birding world, when this bird, capable of speeds up to 112 kph, and being watched by a group of birders, collided with a wind-turbine and died..a truly sad end to an amazing species. See here for pictures: http://londonbirder-birdman.blogspot.co.uk/

Several birders were able to make it to the far north in time to be amazed at how close and well this bird showed before its untimely demise.

RIP!

Least and Long-toed Sandpipers in spring

June 1, 2013
Adult Least Sandpiper, Sandy Pt., New Haven, CT, May 2013.

Adult/ 2nd cal-yr Least Sandpiper, Sandy Pt., New Haven, CT, May 2013.

I’ve never seen a Long-toed Stint in the US or in the UK during my frenetic birding in my twentysomethings. I have come somewhat close though.

I started my twitching career in 1983, a few months after a confiding juvenile Long-toed Stint turned up in the UK in September 1982…a first for Britain at the time, but since demoted to the second after a review of a spring bird in Cornwall in the 1970s that was id. as a Least, but belatedly accepted as a Long-toed, making that the first record. It has remained a blocker ever since. I arrived in Salinas, California in the fall of 1988 with Geoff Kingery and David Sibley and a juv. Long-toed that had been present at Salinas had unfortunately departed prior to our arrival.

I do look hard for Long-toed Stints, it is a bird I fantasize about finding in the east, but with no records east of the Mississippi, it is a rather needle-in-a-haystack venture. I do look at Least Sandpipers though and this one caught my eye – not that it stood out as anything but a Least – but it showed a pale brown base to the bill vaguely reminiscent of Long-toed and also a vague split supercilium. Leasts typically show an all dark bill and I don’t remember seeing many that I checked, showing this pale spot. Anyway, just thought I’d post these shots of this nice individual.

Least Sandpiper, Sandy Point, New Haven, CT, May 2013. Typical adult Least Sandpiper, except this has a noticeable paler brown area at base of bill - a feature often associated with Long-toed Stint.

Adult/ 2nd cal-yr Least Sandpiper, Sandy Point, New Haven, CT, May 2013. Typical adult Least Sandpiper, except this has a noticeable paler brown area at base of bill – a feature often associated with Long-toed Stint.

Here’s a scan of my notebook from a visit to China from a decade ago when we saw a few alternate-plumaged Long-toeds – typically “leggy” birds with broad, rusty-fringed tertials, short bill and a structure that was more Pectoral Sandpiper-like. It will be a sharp birder that picks out a mid-Atlantic Long-toed.

Sketch of Long-toed Stint, China, May 1994

Sketch of Long-toed Stint, China, May 1994


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