A Steller day!

December 23, 2021
Steller’s Sea-Eagle with 3rd-year Bald Eagle, showing the immense size.

Sunday, 19th December trembled with the news that a Steller’s Sea-Eagle previously present last month in Nova Scotia had, despite it’s enormous size and striking plumage, clandestinely made it’s way to Massachustetts. It had been reportedly seen on the 12th December, but news had not filtered out to the masses. It had been looked for in the same area but not found.

Monday, 20th December saw me bleary-eyed wander towards the coffee-maker, checking my phone messages. One message, from local Yale post-grad Severin Uebbing, had asked me if, “I was going for the eagle?” I might if it’s ever relocated I thought to myself, but then the next texts soon cleared my fugue state. News that some local Mass birders had relocated the eagle in the same area that very morning, and it was on view now, was shocking to say the least. “Pick you up after my coffee!”, I said.

And off we drove the two hours to the Mass/Rhode Island border, observers on site already relaying messages and tracking the bird as it moved up and down the river near Dighton State Park, Mass.
About 1/2 hour out, near Providence, we got news the bird had flown north and out of sight and was being looked for. Not good news. The tension was starting to bubble up to the surface. As we headed towards the last known spot on the west side of the river, we got an update that the bird was perched near the Taunton Marina. We were right at the marina, but couldn’t find a crowd, which was unsettling. Scanning the area, I quickly found the crowd – on the opposite side of the river, about 1/2 mile to 3/4 away. Damn – we’re on the wrong side!! Then I looked again and I realized they were all looking towards us….the bird must be in the trees right here, but we were blocked by a boat yard. Panic was starting to well up and a couple of birders showed up, including our friend Alex Lin Moore. We gained permission to access the boat yard and soon, on the far side, with a clear view to the north, we easily located the bird perched not too far away in great light. A veritable donkey in a tree with a bag full of carrots for a beak!! It dwarfed the Bald Eagle next to it. Result!!!

We soaked up the views until around 1:10pm, when the bird suddenly dropped out of the tree, flew north up river, circled high for a moment, showing it’s amazing white forewings, and then, when mobbed by a Raven, continued high to the NW and out of sight. It hasn’t been seen again.

A composite showing the dazzling pattern and stepped trailing edge perhaps suggesting that this bird is a younger adult.

The story of this individual’s wanderings can be found here in this NY Times article . I had been lucky enough to see many of these amazing beasts in Rauso, Hokkaido, Japan a few winters ago and include a few images below.

Observations of Life

May 31, 2021

While my Dad was away, I thought I’d hijack his blog this month to offer some of my thoughts.

2020 was a year that COVID-19 wreaked havoc on all our freedoms.

Everyone has been confronted with difficult times, but as a teenager the stress of lock-downs came at a time when I was already trying to cope with something that’s affected me all my life. As an adolescent, I thought the mood swings and irrational behavior resulted from a neurological mis-wiring of sorts, or maybe “being on the spectrum”, or perhaps even a kind of generalized seasonal disorder. Dealing with it left me overwhelmed with anxiety, frustration and despair. Over the years it became clear that my issues were the result of something worse. Much worse.

You see, my dad is a birder. He watches birds. Who knew that was a thing? It’s an obsession but it looks like an addiction. Over the years, I’ve seen firsthand the toll it takes on those closest to him. He’s had this horrible affliction for as long as I can remember and apparently there is no cure. From the outside, you’d never know he has a terrible disease based on his physical appearance. Aside from making soft grunts every time he moves a little too quickly, he has a full head of hair; exercises regularly; and looks generally healthy (well, as much as a 50something desperately trying to pass for 40 again can look healthy). People who know my Dad ask me what it’s like to have such a “charming and fun father”. If people only knew the degree of mental suffering that lay beneath that self-appointed façade. He tells me that many of his close friends have the disease too. Many of them occasionally visit our house and knowing that now helps explain a lot about his friends. I think that knowing there are other people suffering the same malaise makes him feel less alone.

There are times when my Dad is a functioning member of society, but seasonal fluctuations in behavior, particularly in the first two weeks of May, or from mid-August to early November, make living with him particularly intolerable. Siblings, parents, partners and friends of birders all know what it’s like to live with them during these tough times. I try to be understanding and patient. I really do. My Dad is wonderful and caring, but he just gets so self-absorbed.  It’s hard to connect with him sometimes. When he’s going through seasonal withdrawal symptoms, he paces around the room and just stares out the window, mumbling despondently to himself about, “Where are all the cold-fronts?” or “Will it ever go North-west?”

After all these years I can often predict when he is about to have a full-blown meltdown. The trigger is multiple phone messages usually in short succession. He disassociates from reality and his eyes glaze over while he reads the incoming texts.  I don’t know where he goes in that moment. It then abruptly shifts into frenetic running around the house, interspersed with a lot of Tourette’s-like outbursts. He doesn’t usually swear in front of me, but when he does I know it’s a big deal.

“Where the @!!*##$$! are my @!!*##$$!  keys?”, is quickly followed by the always predictable yelling of, “Alex, get your shoes on! Turn that computer off! Get in the car. Now! What are you doing? I asked you to do ONE thing! For the love of God, why are your shoes still not on? COME ONNN! We have to go. NOW!”  

In those moments, he turns from being the most attentive and loving father to an impatient, maniacal asshole. I start to get anxious. I try to escape to my room to play Minecraft before he can force me into the car to drive hours to some shithole sewage pond to look for a “Mega” or a “Crippler”. I have no clue what those are, or what it all means. It’s like he’s suddenly talking in tongues.

Kidnapped for a twitch to see a Gyrfalcon (for the third time!) and made to hold up the book to feign interest.

 

I just want a normal Dad like my friends have: a Dad that wants to push me on the swings; a Dad that will chase me around at Tag; a Dad that wants  to take me to the park to bond with me (and not just because the park is next to a good gull spot). I remember walks where I would run around, playfully kicking up fall leaves into the air while he often seemed uninterested and distracted. With his head tilted skyward, he would ask in a quizzical manner, “Alex …Do You hear that?“
Sometimes I want to scream, “No! No, Dad, I don’t hear that {F@!!*##$$! } Blackpoll Warbler”. I say the word “F@!!*#$$!” in my head, because he doesn’t like me swearing. I know F@!!#$$!  is a bad word, but he is F!!*##$$!  making me say it. I don’t like to go outside. I don’t want to look at gulls. I don’t want to walk down the beach for owls. I don’t care about the best way to tell “long-billed” juvenile Semipalmated  from Western Sandpipers. I just don’t. I love you Dad. I just don’t understand you.  

20210406_160727

Seagulls suck! This trip to the park magically coincided with the presence of a Ketchup Gull, or whatever it was called, some seagull from Asia that looked like all the rest. Here’s me being made to point it out for one of his pretentious facebook posts.

While there is presently no cure for what my dad has, and I know he can’t control himself, it makes me angry when he loses sight of what’s important in the world. I wish he would love me as much as he loves birds. But I know that will never happen.

I know there are other kids out there suffering with parents like mine. My heart goes out to them and those selfless people that choose to live with these tortured souls that suffer with this lifelong addiction.

As a young child, I had no choice. No way out. But now, as a teenager, it’s time to stand up for myself. It’s time to set some boundaries. I will no longer be tricked into going out with him for “just a little while”. I can stay home alone now. I offer this letter as hope to others. Just know you are not alone and there is light at the end of the tunnel. It’s time to stand strong and take your life back.

Kamchatka Gull, West Haven, CT

April 5, 2021

4th April
Heading home from Easter weekend at Ingrid’s, I dragged my son Alex around Seaside Park, Bridgeport looking for the previous week’s reported Mew Gull, found by Jeremy Nance, but it had gone missing. Pix revealed it to be the Asian/Siberian form kamschatschensis, a larger, darker and stouter-billed version of Eurasian canus and west coast North American brachyrhyncus.

I drew a blank and checked a few spots o the way home, stopping in at Bradley Point to check the loafing gulls there. I’d had several Glaucs and Iceland and had hit pay dirt earlier by unearthing a smashing California Gull. Thinking there may be a chance the Kam Gull might relocate, I made the effort to drop in, but there were few gulls present, so I continued home, notching up a “new” first-cycle Iceland Gull off shore at West Haven Boat Ramp.

5th April
I dropped Alex at school and instead of driving the 40 mile round trip, opted to hit Hammo and bird the area before going back and picking him up. I was not prepared for the brutal wind, driving the temperature down. Despite covering a good area on foot, there was little activity. On my way back to New Haven, I got a call from John Oshlik that he checked Bradley Point and had deftly found a/the Kamchatka Gull loafing on the flats with gulls. Damn! Nice find!! But why wasn’t it there last night??? Finding a Mew Gull locally has been a target of mine and I’ve joked with Nick Bonomo who seems to find Mew Gulls in every flock of gulls he looks at, that I can’t find one to save my life…lol! I had not seen the recent Kam Gull at Stamford in 2019 so I was keen to see this Asian bruiser!

I arrived to find the bird still present and got killer views of it with Frank Gallo and John. The bird was quite tame, coming to food at the main beach before flying off but apparently soon returned to the flats.

A large individual, it was bigger and much longer-bodied than the nearby Ring-billeds and showed the typical “mean” look with pear-shaped head and a long, stout yellowish bill. The eye was grayish, peppered darker, and had a nice vermillion eye-ring. All the above features were classic Kamchatka and at odds with the other forms of Mew Gull.

Naturally Adventurous – a podcast with Ken Behrens & Charley Hesse

April 5, 2021

Sharing this excellent podcast series since some subscribers to my blog may not see my Facebook posts.

Ken Behrens and Charley Hesse will be well-known to many. As well-travelled and respected birders and professional guides they have compiled some great adventures for your auditory pleasure. Laid back and conversational in tone, it gives some insight into the trials and tribulations encountered in the quest to see some of the world’s most enigmatic birds and mammals. Many of us have found ourselves on that knife-edge of bravery vs stupidity in the quest for the ultimate natural experience. Finally a podcast by birders for birders. I heartily recommend you give them a listen.

Click here for Episodes

They also recently invited me on to tell some travel stories from my birding trips, which was a three-part interview because I can make short stories long. Lmao!

https://anchor.fm/ken-behrens/episodes/Episode-31-Charley–Ken-welcome-Julian-Hough-to-the-show-esvvc7

https://anchor.fm/ken-behrens/episodes/Episode-32-Charley–Ken-welcome-Julian-Hough-back-to-the-show-ethfmt

https://anchor.fm/ken-behrens/episodes/Episode-33-Charley–Ken-welcome-Julian-Hough-back-to-the-show-eu30d9

Progne martin sp. in Brooklyn, NY

April 5, 2021

2nd – 3rd April – Prospect Park Lake, Brooklyn, NY

I was heading down to Brooklyn to spend the Easter holidays when, on 1st April, a strange hirundine was found feeding over Prospect Park Lake by local birder Doug Gochfeld. The weather was overcast, rainy and he had noticed a bird hawking over the water with a small group of Tree Swallows. Initially he considered, rightly so, the bird may be a Purple Martin, albeit an early one. To his credit, he quickly realized something was odd about the bird and soon came to realize it was more likely a southern martin, possibly one of the so-called “snowy-bellied” forms – either Caribbean/Cuban/Sinaloan. Identification of progne martins is tough, especially of a lone vagrant.

Several local people were able to see the bird that afternoon and discussion began as to its identity.

I arrived midday on the 2nd, and after dropping Alex off at the apartment, I drove up to the lake to see the bird. The weather was overcast and chilly, and after a few minutes of seeing nothing, I located the bird feeding in a small cove at the west end of the lake. Along with locals, including Ryan Mandelbaum and Doug, we were treated to crippling views as the bird fed low over the water. I’ve zero experience with Caribbean or Cuban Martin, but compared to Purple Martin, it was clear this was a smallish progne martin with a dusky brown head, blue-black ear-covert patch and a contrasting whitish belly. The tail was rather narrowly forked, and overall the bird often looked more like a big swallow than a Purple-type martin.

The following day, I revisited the lake, and the bird was still present, but views were rather poor. I met up with Tom Johnson, Doug Gochfeld and Jay McGowan, and we discussed the bird. Tom had seen Caribbean and remarked he got a larger, more robust feel for that species rather than the smaller, slighter gestalt of the Brooklyn bird. Talk had turned to include Gray-breasted Martin, a form we all had seen in Central/South America, but as normal on such trips, I rarely spend much time studying them. They also vary across their geographical distribution adding to the identification issue. The small size and rather narrow tail fork seemed to be the features making Doug and others lean more into Gray-breasted Martin, an identification that is tentative, based on the limited info and inherent issues in progne martin identification.

Below are some composite shots of the bird taken on the 2nd April 2021. (CLICK FOR HI-RES IMAGES)

A small slim martin, with brown-washed head, dark auricular patch and a paler throat contrasting with a whitish belly and vent. Narrow tail fork and brown-washed flanks noticeable.
Upperparts with bluish washed mantle and median covert and upper rump, contrasting with brownish remiges and rectrices gave it a somewhat Barn Swallow feel.

31st January 2021 – Maine Stay

February 4, 2021

In bright sunlight, colors and subtle buff hues in the supercilium where burnt out. Note the somewhat robust appearance with diffuse brown streaks extending down past the red flanks. The legs are pinkish-horn with darker brownish toes which are pro-coburni. Nominate Eurasian iliacus usually have paler, more flesh-pink tarsi. The “tooth” shaped white tip to the top tertial and pointed rectrices age it as a SY.

The last time I was in Portland, Maine was in January 1997. It was one of my first winters in New England after migrating here from the UK. I saw an Ivory Gull. It was fantastic. A rare denizen of the ice floes of the Arctic north it performed as they often do – with unabashed boldness that belied its appearance.

I nearly made it to Portland again in the winter of 2018; on a half-hearted sojourn to see the Great Black Hawk that had put Portland back on the avian map once again. Late in its stay, this resident of Central and South America had become difficult and unpredictable. So we paused to bird at Salisbury, Massachusetts, but with no news by noon, we turned around and headed back to CT, only to hear news of its reappearance as we crossed the Nutmeg state line. Too late now.  The bird was taken into captivity soon after and succumbed to frost bite. A sad event, but the squirrels of Dearing Park were reported to have uttered a combined sigh of a relief.

So, with news of a Redwing (a Eurasian thrush) being found at Capisic Park, Portland Maine, by Brendan McKay on the afternoon of 29 Jan 2021, it galvanized a few local CT birders into Twitch Mode. It was a yard bird for me, albeit in my hometown of Bolton, UK.  In my boyhood days on the Isles of Scilly, I had scoured flocks of Redwings, Song Thrushes and Fieldfares looking for something rarer, like an American Robin. Now I spend my time scouring flocks of American Robins looking for Fieldfares, Redwings and Song Thrushes. Somebody’s havin’ a larff!

So, since I had not seen one for many years, it would be rude not to go check it out, if only to perform a meditative overhaul of my COVID-induced isolation. And…there was a chance it might be from the Icelandic population coburni, a subspecies tick for me.

Nick Bonomo, Glenn Williams, Dave Provencher, Anthony Viccarelli, Jason Rieger, Phil Rusch and myself, masked up and socially distanced, arrived to find the bird on-show immediately. That’s how I like my rare birds these days – UTBBB (Under the belt before breakfast).

The CT Dream Team onsite!

It was associating with a flock of American Robins, apparently attracted to the sumac and multiflora rose fruit in the park and was performing well at close range in nice sunlight. It was a bit of a pain initially, in that it would always be obscured by twigs and branches, but on the odd occasion, it did manage to find itself out in the open for some nice photo opps.

Showing the red flanks and underwing coverts and brownish-washed flanks.

In shade, the upperparts showed the darker, oily-look to them and the subtle buff tones to the fore and rear of the supercilium became a little more obvious. Here the underparts look more heavily marked with darker centres with diffuse brownish edges fitting coburni.

The feathers of the vent have large dark centres, recalling a Black and White Warbler, a feature noted by Garner et al. as pro-coburni.

Strangely enough, with no recent Redwing experience with which to compare,  it did appear to be a robust individual, appearing closer to American Robin in size, with a big bill and sturdy legs. Not as dark below as some coburni, it was nevertheless an interesting bird showing several traits of Icelandic Redwing more than the nominate European iliacus. In the bright sunlight, it looked bright with a whitish supercilium, and pale mid-belly, but when the bird retreated to the shadows and out of the bright sunlight, it looked a darker, more oily-olive brown color above, with more diffuse brown feather edges to the dark brown streaking that extended way down the flanks beyond the reddish breast sides. The most compelling feature for me was the dark-centered undertail coverts which are described as being typically paler and less well-marked in iliacus. This was a feature mentioned in my old friend Martin Garner’s excellent Birding Frontiers Winter Challenge book.

When I returned home, I had some good discussions with local birder Louis Bevier, and then I reached out to sharp Icelandic birder Yann Kolbeinsson who replied, “To me there is little doubt, this has to be a coburni. Bulky looking bird with darkish legs, heavy streaking on breast (not in the heavier end) but more importantly brown base/streaking down alongside the flanks beyond where the red stops. The streaks also being more arrow/droplet shaped than actual streaks.”

Ebird Checklist with more pix:
https://ebird.org/checklist/S80340150

There is some obvious individual variation between the races, but this bird seems to fit within the paler end of coburni and would not fit a typical iliacus. For example, here’s a bird from Vancouver in Jan 2016 that is classic iliacus on plumage and would be the expected race to show up on the west coast of North America.


Note the greyer-brown tone to the small amount of upperparts we can see, coupled with the whitish ground color to the breast and unmarked belly. The dark streaking breaks up into small delineated droplets on the flanks. Note also the relatively whitish vent. Again, there is variation within iliacus with birds being more heavily marked, but had this bird shown up in eastern North America, it would easily be assignable to iliacus rather than coburni.

After our fill, we searched briefly for the western Black-headed Grosbeak that had been frequenting the park. It was the presence of this vagrant that had been the catalyst for the Redwing being found, but we drew a blank, but managed to see a wintering Dickcissel nearby with a flock of House Sparrow.

Then it was off to Arundel Cemetery, spending time en route looking in vain for Pine Grosbeak, a lifer for Jason. We soon arrived at the cemetery and found the flock of feeding Red and White-winged Crossbills. They weren’t as photogenic as we expected, but it was cool to see these niche-feeders plying their cone-destroying trade. It was at this point that we got an unexpected first for Maine – one that wasn’t on anyone’s radar I don’t think. Crossbills had been calling all the time we were there, and just as we convened to leave, the crossbills flushed in one group, giving their flight calls. Immediately one bird’s call stood out.  It was a Type 4 Red Crossbill! The first recorded in Maine. Woot!! In that moment, Nick Bonomo deserves full credit for having the presence of mind to keep his phone running so he was able to capture the call. We weren’t sure if it was Type 4 or perhaps Type 3, both seemed quite similar, especially when trying to compare the timbre of calls from different quality of recordings with real-world audible experiences. Tom Johnson quickly provided us with calls from a fly-over in New Jersey, but still it was hard to decide for sure which Type we had heard, although we suspected, and hoped it would be Type 4, which Nick later confirmed  by audio-spectrographic analysis.

Red Crossbill – Type 4

Info here:
https://ebird.org/checklist/S80340831

Yeah, I know. You were expecting something sexier! Me too!

Jeff Groth’s landmark work in 1993, laid out the idea that each taxon gives a unique, identifiable call type when in flight. As many as 10 “call types” of Red Crossbill can be found across North America (Groth 1993, Benkman 1999, Irwin 2010), each of which may represent a different incipient species (Parchman et al. 2006).

More great in-depth and helpful info on Crossbills by Matt Young and Tim Spahr here:

We continued on towards Ogunquit to try for a long-staying Rock Wren, another western stray that had taken up residence at Perkins Cove. We had one last shot at Pine Grosbeak at Ogunquit, and it was while we had pulled over to reconnoiter the area, I spotted a female-type Pine Grosbeak perched up along the road. A few minutes later, we got great looks at this bird, ABA numero 600 for Jason!

We failed to see the Rock Wren, but the weather was beautiful and the cove was Maine-scenic. Small flocks of Harlequin’s and the odd eider loafed offshore, but the highlight was the Thick-billed Murre that Jason spotted close inshore.

Brunnich’s Guillemot aka Thick-billed Murre

It had appeared seemingly out of nowhere and showed well. Brunnich’s Guillemot as they were known back in the homeland, was a highly-sought after rarity. Most of the early British records involved dead or moribund individuals showing up on the tide wrack of the Orkney or Shetland Isles. I’ve never seen one in the UK, but I always transport myself back home when I see one here and watch it vicariously through a young twitcher’s eyes.

https://ebird.org/checklist/S80232021

A fantastic day out with good friends and good birds!

Vireo sp

December 8, 2020
 
I wonder would anyone like to comment on this individual and explain reasoning why this is/isn’t a Cassin’s Vireo (or why it is a Blue-headed).

 click for larger images

 

Vireo sp, 9/20/2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vireo sp, 9/20/2020

Sometimes it’s just that easy!

November 21, 2020

October 29th was a shite weather day; raw, windy, and set against a canvas of an all-day deluge of horizontal rain. A good day to be inside, and that’s where I was, catching up on some adulting.  But not veteran CT birder, Frank Mantlik. He was out, “beating the bushes” around Stratford. His late afternoon text alert of a Hudsonian Godwit on the runways at Sikorsky airport, felt “right” given the date and weather. His other report of “an adult American Golden Plover with Black-bellieds” was intriguing given the date. As someone that’s tried to prime CT’s birders, and arm them with the fore knowledge to identify the confusingly similar Pacific Golden Plover, the main window of late July/early August occurrences for that species seemed firmly nailed shut at this point in time.

The initial pic (Frank Mantlik)

However, when viewing the pic he sent, an admirable feat given the conditions, I instantly spat my freshly-brewed cup of British tea all over my phone! Doug Gochfeld replied at the same time, putting words to my actions, “Pacific?”

Yes. Yes it was. The bill, the neckless-look with worn, faded wings screamed Pacific Golden Plover. Hours of pouring through golden plovers expectantly looking and hoping for CT’s first Pacific Golden had come to an unexpected end on this gloomy late October day. Panic set in. I hadn’t even finished absorbing the minutiae of the image as I did the proverbial headless chicken routine running around the house. I grabbed my gear and headed out the door, frantically urging others to do the same.

Frank had to leave, so when I arrived 30 minutes later, I was on my own. It was gloomy and the weather was atrocious. Black-bellieds were scattered across the runway, along with the Hudwit, which was quickly given the tip of the hat and then discarded in search of the bigger prize. After a panic-scan of the small group, I couldn’t find any sign of a golden plover. !!@@##. Was it the only bird NOT here? A few birders began to arrive and started to scan. Suddenly birds got up – a small mixed group of plovers and dunlin flew left and alighted on the runway some distance away. And there, in the middle of the flock, was “the bird”, “Got it. It’s in the flock on the runway. The small, dark one”. Views were horrific, but the hunched and leggy look with a somewhat truncated rear-end hinted at the identification as Pacific was correct.

Over the next hour the bird finally came closer and allowed for better looks. It still retained a decent amount of summer plumage- with black underparts splodges and the distinctive white neck stripe snaking down along the flanks ghosting the pattern of fresh adults. The worn primaries only projecting a short way past the tail tip were classic Pacific. The long bill was a good pro-Pacific Golden feature, and overall the shape was subtly different from the more long-necked and long-winged look of American Golden Plover.

Adult Pacific Golden Plover with Black-bellied Plover (Bruce Finnan). Note the long-billed, somewhat small-headed look with primaries projecting only a small way beyond the tail tip. The slightly broader nape stripe is evident here as is the longish bill giving this a subtly different gestalt from American.

Adult Pacific Golden Plover (Bruce Finnan). The pale stripe snaking down the flanks ghosts that of a fresh adult. Pacifics moult earlier than Americans and are often in full breeding plumage by April when many American’s are still in basic-type plumage. As such, that these tertials and primaries are so worn would seem to fit Pacific too and is probably a good clue in late fall. Pacifics often begin primary moult on the summer grounds, while Americans, being long-distant migrants, begin primary moult on the wintering grounds. An adult golden plover molting inner primaries in late fall would also be suggestive of Pacific. On this photo, the retained bright yellow notches to the scapulars are large and again are pro-Pacific features.


Kudos to Frank Mantlik for doggedly getting out and birding the area and locating this bird that was a long-awaited first for CT, especially since surrounding states have all recorded this species. While it was on several people’s radar, separating both species of golden plovers, as well as eliminating the similar European Golden Plover, can be difficult and luckily being aware in the moment allowed this bird to be identified within a minute and allowed a lot of people to connect.

Thinking Outside the Box

October 16, 2020
Juvenile Yellow Rail, Milford Pt, CT

Yesterday this happened.

I was cleaning the house when a text from Stefan Martin came through to say that a Yellow Rail was sitting in view next to the Coastal Audubon Center at Milford, CT.

Holy Christ! I was immediately in the car, lickety-split, bobbing and weaving (safely) down I-95 to Milford Pt. Why the excitement you ask?

This is the overview provided by Cornell University on their “All About Birds” website: A tiny marsh bird that lives its life concealed by grassy vegetation, the Yellow Rail is one of the hardest birds to see in North America. Perfectly camouflaged in complex patterns of black, brown, yellow, and white, Yellow Rails run as quickly as rodents through dense marsh vegetation. They rarely take flight, but when they do they reveal white patches in the wing.

Yellow Rails are likely annual passage migrants in CT but are essentially invisible transients by virtue of their behavior. Seeing one is a mythical challenge for most birders – many seasoned birders still need this for their life list. Seeing one usually involves a concerted effort; traveling to a specific spot, in a particular habitat, at a predetermined time of year. It may or may not involve milk cartons and rope.

This particular individual had an interesting backstory. It had been found nearby by a local homeowner who found the bird stunned in her yard and, thinking it was a “quail”, brought it to the Audubon Center. It was at that point that the “quail” made a break for it, and exited the box at breakneck speed, landing on the lawn of the coastal center where it had remained in view. I was happy the bird was present. The last “seen” one (a calling bird was found in the spring by Nick Bonomo in the eastern part of the state), was one “in-off” at Milford, many years ago, during a Big Sit. For that bird I had left Lighthouse Pt, and in basically a repeat of the above events, managed a $133 speeding ticket on the way to what was ultimately an empty bush. A bird in the bush is worth two they say – what a load of bollocks!!

Purists at this point will start pontificating on the “countability” factor of this as a valid bird on your list. I had seen Yellow Rails before, so I wasn’t concerned about the ethics of listing. I was just there to enjoy a surreal encounter with a seldom-seen species.

My life bird had been in Texas, flushed from a wet marsh on the gulf coast by 15 birders dragging a rope with a line of empty milk jugs filled with rocks attached to it. The reason for this is that the rumbling cacophony reverberates through the quiet marsh grass, causing these mouse-like rails to take flight, literally jumping onto many a life list in the process. Good deal!

Yellow Rail twitchers

Anyway, regardless that this bird had been described by one birder as being, “been boxed up like a head of lettuce” (thanks Tom Johnson!), it did not detract from the amazing experience of seeing one of these denizens of the marsh in full view. A juvenile, aged by the dull, blackish portions of the bill and barred breast sides, it just sat there quietly. As dusk approached, it didn’t look too healthy. It frequently closed its eyes and a displaced patch of crown feathers hinted at perceived trauma of hitting a window, or some other object, caused us to consider rehabbing it. At dusk, we made an attempt to catch it, but the bird perked up. We decided that it looked healthy enough from the outside, and shepherded it, in a rather comical way, into the nearby marsh edge, where we left it to do what Yellow rails do.

Thanks to Stefan Martin for being the ornithological maitre d and for getting the news out.

Common and Roseate Terns in Flight

August 17, 2020

Juvenile Common Tern (left) and juvenile Roseate Tern, West Haven, CT August 2020 (composite: Julian Hough). Note the stout, blackish bill and hood of the Roseate and the body proportions compared to the Common Tern and the paler mid-wing panel, broader white trailing edge to the primaries and the diagnostic whitish outer web to the outermost tail feather on the Roseate. Click to view hi-res.

A good number of juvenile terns are mixing in with the post-breeding flocks at Sandy Point, New Haven, CT. Juvenile Roseates are not frequently seen here, but several have been present and afforded me a nice chance to study them.

On the deck

  • Standing juvenile Common Terns have pale orange bill bases and pale orange-flesh legs with a clean white forehead.
  • Juvenile Roseate Terns have dark blackish-brown legs, a complete black bill and a finely streaked blackish forehead that often extends all the way to the bill base, giving them a characteristic “hooded” look.

In Flight

In flight, especially at a distance, they can be hard to identify in a large mixed flock of flying terns. Their distinctive, di-syllabic “Chrr-uitt” call is often a clue to their presence and it is definitely a call any would-be searchers should memorize.

In flight, like adult Roseates, juveniles often look a bit skinnier and more “pure white” compared to Common Terns. With experience, they look slightly longer-necked, narrower winged and longer-tailed behind the wing (probably due to their shorter wings than longer tails) compared with the more even proportions of Common Tern. The more whiter plumage, especially the rump and tail and the paler mid-wing contrasting a bit more on average with the dark outer wing may be noticeable. These features will be hard to discern in a mixed flock, flying around, so look for the more rapid, shallow wingbeats of Roseate that is often helpful with experience. The dark, hooded look should also be noticeable at a distance helping cement any identifications.

On closer views, some minutiae, that helps differentiate these two species are:

  • the outer web to the outermost tail feather is blackish-gray in Common Tern and white in Roseate (both adult and juvenile). If the tern you are looking at has a dark outer edge of the outermost tail feather it isn’t a Roseate.
  • on Roseate, the tips to the secondaries and particularly the primaries are broadly edged white unlike in Common Tern.
  • the upperpart markings in Roseate are more contrasting, giving a “black and white” pattern formed by broad blackish “c” marks to the rear scapulars. In Common, the dark subterminal marking are less dark and often the whole mantle is washed with ochre-brown.
  • the outer primaries often contrast with a paler mid-wing panel in Roseates while in Common Tern the whole wing tends to be a more even gray.