An Arctic Blast (from the past)

January 29, 2017
Adult (or 2nd-w) Ross'S Gull, Filey Brigg, North Yorkshire, England 1983 (Dave Burns).

Adult (or 2nd-w) Ross’s Gull, Filey Brigg, North Yorkshire, England 1983 (Dave Burns).

Inspired by the Ross’s Gull currently causing panic in upstate New York, here’s a bit about why this particular species embodies all there is about seeing something magical.

When I was young, long before my teens, the only bird magazine anyone could get over the counter in the UK was the Encyclopedia of Birds; essentially a month-by-month collectable fieldguide, rather than an attractive coffee-table magazine. Each month, the column written by well-known British ornithologist John Gooders was always a treat to read, and a refreshing intro to the trite fieldguide text which followed. To a young impressionable mind, his column always conjured up evocative images of birds and birdwatching both in the UK and abroad.

One particular story always sticks in my mind.

In one particular column, Gooders wrote of the day he had declined a trip to accompany some friends to see an Ivory Gull at Tyneside in the north-east of England. He explained how he had regretted not joining them on that trip after they made an unexpected discovery. They had failed to see the Ivory Gull, but while searching through the endless flocks of gulls, they had found an even rarer and much more mythical species – a Ross’s Gull. Back in the 70s, this gull from the desolate Arctic was much sought after by the British twitching fraternity. Ross’s Gull, as well as other charismatic Arctic species, have always held a special appeal for birders because their occurrences in the UK are less predictable than vagrants from European or Siberian latitudes.

Ross’s Gull was discovered and named after the Arctic and Antarctic explorer, Admiral Sir James Ross. For many years, the breeding grounds of this mysterious gull remained unknown. They were finally discovered nesting in the Kolyma River area in north-eastern Siberia.

Ross’s Gulls however, were a Will-O-the-Wisp, an almost surreal phantom that remained the ultimate prize among the high Arctic denizens that reached our shores.

From the moment I read his story, I longed for the day when I would see a Ross’s Gull; However, being eleven years old, that day seemed all too far away.

Fast forward three years. One February day in 1983, while out birding at my local reservoir, I met another young ‘local-patcher’ named Barry Worsick. We talked, and, after exchanging phone numbers, he invited me out on a car trip the next time “something good” turned up. By sheer coincidence, the phone rang that very same night. Barry’s voice on the other end hinted that “something good” had turned up. He asked, “Do you wanna go see a Ross’s Gull at Filey Brigg tomorrow?” Did I want to go and see a Ross’s Gull at Filey Brigg?! Does the Pope go to mass?!!

My mum agreed to cough up my part of the petrol money which at nearly $4 a gallon puts excessive birding out of reach of the average, destitute fourteen-year-old British lister.

She didn’t seem too worried that I was going to be picked up by a carload of adult men she had never met – at two in the morning – and taken to a place she never knew existed to see a bird she had never heard of. I guess things were different back then!

The night was restless; the excitement of chasing a bird I had only dreamed of was not conducive to sleep. At 4am, a beep of the horn announced my ride was here and I was bundled into the backseat of driver Chris Fogg’s, Datsun Cherry. With Barry in front, I was sandwiched in between Dave “Jacko” Jackson and John Gilligan. I was regaled by tales of recent birds they had seen I had never heard of; Little Bunting at Heswall, Green Heron at Thorngumblad, Little Whimbrel at Sker Point and the infamous “Felixstowe” Stint. As we journeyed through the rolling hills of the Yorkshire Dales in the early hours of 17th February 1983, the collective enthusiasm was heady and pervasive. I didn’t know it then,  but I would spend many enjoyable years travelling with these guys! We arrived at the site just before sunrise. In the pre-dawn gloom, suspicious looking figures were milling about and searching around in their cars for tripods and telescopes. It seemed to me to be an almost clandestine operation. Anywhere else, at an hour that Wee Willie Winkie would eschew, these suspicious looking figures would undoubtedly have had their collars felt by the long arm of the law.

Filey Brigg is a steep, rocky promontory jutting out a half-mile into the North Sea. This area has long been popular with birders for migrants and the rocks below are a favorite high-tide roost for gulls, terns and shorebirds.

Looking down from the top of the Brigg out over Filey Bay, I saw that a veritable football crowd had assembled down on the rocks. I had never seen so many tripods and telescopes! Having executed the steep descent to the base of the Brigg, we skirted over the slippery rocks to take up our position strung out in a line along the water’s edge. Considering the amount of people present it was deathly quiet – the tension of anticipation was thick.

Adult (or 2nd-w) Ross'S Gull, Filey Brigg, North Yorkshire, England 1983 (Dave Bickerton).

Adult (or 2nd-w) Ross’s Gull, Filey Brigg, North Yorkshire, England 1983 (Dave Bickerton).

Suddenly, to my left came a muffled, but excited shout, “There it is!!”

A tremor of panic swept through the crowd; the dead came to life, people slipped, tripods clattered to the ground and people gravitated towards the source of the outburst.

“Where? Where? Where is it? For God’s sake, someone give directions, !*&!!@*56!! DIRECTIONS!!”, screamed one birder.

“O.K! See those gulls out there…”

“ Gulls, there are bloody hundreds of gulls out there, which ones?!”

“ Alright, forget that then.. Umm! See the yacht club in the distance, its flying left, just…going.. past..it ..now!”

“Got it!, Got it!! Got it!!! What a crippler!”

Obscured by the line of birders enjoying the bird to my left, I just caught a glimpse of a wedge-shaped tail vanishing into the early morning mist and was overcome by panic and frustration. Then someone proclaimed, “Here it comes again!”

This time I was ready and quickly got on the bird as it approached. It was so close that I could hardly keep my bins steady as a mixture of relief and elation washed over me. At last, here it was – my first Ross’s Gull. It was a small, dainty gull, with pointy, tern-like wings and that characteristic, cuneate shaped tail. For the next glorious hour, the Ross’s Gull paraded up and down the long line of admirers. An adult in winter plumage, it was a text-book individual. The black, stubby bill and subtle, pink flush on the underparts stood out well against the cold, grey February sky. As it flew in our direction, the birder who was standing next to me, pulled out a stale piece of bread and deftly flicked it out over the water. Simultaneously, the Ross’s Gull (which was no more than arms reach away) dropped and alighted on the water right in front of me! As it picked at the morsel of food, I couldn’t help feeling ashamed; surely this bird-among-birds deserved to be feeding on the equivalent of caviar rather than a day-old piece of Warburton’s Toastie!

Fully satisfied, we left the bird in peace and explored the rest of the Brigg.

Although their appearances in the UK have increased since the late 80s, Ross’s Gulls remain highly prized. I have seen three other Ross’s Gulls since; in 1988, a bald-looking first-winter lingered on a river estuary on the south-coast of England; in 1991, a pink-flushed adult lingered on the wind-lashed coast at Fleetwood, Lancashire; and in 2008 while visiting my folks, I connected with a spring bird at Lytham, again in Lancashire.

First-winter Ross's Gull, Devon, March 1988 (Julian Hough). First-winter's are hard to come by, so along with Paul Derbyshire and a few other stalwarts we trekked the 5 hours down to Devon to see this beast and despite horrible weather managed good looks.

First-winter Ross’s Gull, Devon, March 1988. First winters are hard to come by, so along with Paul Derbyshire and a few other stalwarts we trekked the 5 hours down to Devon to see this beast and despite horrible weather, managed good looks. It remains the only first-year I have seen.

My then wife Dawn at Fliey Brigg - host to my first ever twitch. On a trip back to the UK in the late 90s we payed homage to "the Brigg". I still have fond memories of the gull.

My then wife Dawn at Filey Brigg – host to my first ever twitch. On a trip back to the UK in the late 90s we paid homage to “the Brigg”.

Adult (or 2nd-w) Ross'S Gull, Lytham-St-Anne's, Lancashire, England May 2008 (Julian Hough). It became evident that this bird was not well and unfortunately was found dead two days after I saw it.

Adult (or 2nd-w) Ross’s Gull, Lytham-St-Anne’s, Lancashire, England May 2008 (Julian Hough). It became evident that this bird was not well and unfortunately was found dead two days after I saw it.

Strange to think that, as a teenager I could never have predicted such an occurrence so close to my childhood home. That the unthinkable can happen is a testament to the excitement of birding. Even today, when a Ross’s Gull is sighted, it brings back all of the fond memories of that exciting day, and of the acquaintances that were forged. Every time I am fortunate enough to connect with a Ross’s Gull, John Gooders’ story always comes to mind.

I hope that by now he has seen many Ross’s Gulls. If not, perhaps he could gain some solace in knowing that I am seeing them, in part, through his eyes.

 

 

Ash-throated Flycatcher, Hammonasset SP, CT 12/10/2016

December 11, 2016
Ash-throated Flycatcher, Hammonasset State Park, Connecticut 10th Dec 2016 (Julian Hough). Medium-size bill, pale grey breast and washed-out lemon-tinged belly are all good pro-Ash-throated Flycatcher features. Well-defined white edgings to tertials are often mentioned as a feature more typical of Great Crested Flycatcher, but as can be seen here, Ash-throated can show rather contrasting white edgings. Wing formula visible here rules out similar Nutting's Flycatcher (unrecorded in the east).

Ash-throated Flycatcher, Hammonasset State Park, Connecticut 10th Dec 2016 (Julian Hough). Click for hi-res image.
Medium-size bill, pale grey breast and washed-out lemon-tinged belly are all good pro-Ash-throated Flycatcher features. Well-defined white edgings to tertials are often mentioned as a feature more typical of Great Crested Flycatcher, but as can be seen here, Ash-throated can show rather contrasting white edgings. Wing formula visible here rules out similar Nutting’s Flycatcher (unrecorded in the east).

After having some new spark plug wires put on my car, I had time before picking Ingrid up at the train station so headed off to Hammo to try for the Ash-throated Fly that had been found last week by people on a local bird walk (but frustratingly put out vaguely as a flycatcher seen briefly with few other details) and had been co-operative in the interim. Withing minutes of arriving, I settled into the lee of the copse by Meig’s Point.

After a short while, the bird appeared and was quite actively foraging along the edge of a copse, chasing and catching insects on the tideline, giving great looks. This was much more satisfying than the bird at Sherwood last year and very photogenic.

Ash-throated Flycatcher, Hammonasset State Park, Connecticut 10th Dec 2016 (Julian Hough). Note pallid, washed out underparts.

Ash-throated Flycatcher, Hammonasset State Park, Connecticut 10th Dec 2016 (Julian Hough). Note pallid, washed out underparts.

Small bill, underpart color and saturation, outer tail feather pattern were all typical of Ash-throated Flycatcher, the expected early winter myiarchus to be found in the east. Several have been seen in CT, but until the recent Sherwood Island bird that stayed for a while, previous ones were hard to catch up with.

Ash-throated Flycatcher, Hammonasset State Park, Connecticut 10th Dec 2016 (Julian Hough). Note pattern and extent of dusky tip bleeding onto inner web. Typically best assessed from below.

Ash-throated Flycatcher, Hammonasset State Park, Connecticut 10th Dec 2016 (Julian Hough).
Note pattern and extent of dusky tip bleeding onto inner web. Typically best assessed from below.

The Hammonasset bird was incredibly confiding, performing well for both photogs and birders.

Ash-throated Flycatcher, Hammonasset State Park, Connecticut 10th Dec 2016 (Julian Hough).

Ash-throated Flycatcher, Hammonasset State Park, Connecticut 10th Dec 2016 (Julian Hough).

Thanksgiving – Puerto Rico Style!

December 2, 2016
Great looks at Puerto Rican Screech Owl

Great looks at Puerto Rican Screech Owl

“$150? That’s not right”,  I said indignantly. “It should be $105.”

“Yes, but with the taxes and insurance, it comes to $150”, said the clerk.

“But I don’t need insurance, it’s covered by my license and credit card…what insurance are you talking about?”, I asked, obviously confused.

“Ok, if that is the case, then you can choose to not add it for $105, or add it for $150 –there’s not much difference in price- the choice is up to you”.

“Apparently, the choice isn’t up to me if you already added it without giving me the option first. And you didn’t disclose the fact to me just now that you added on extra stuff. I spoke to your associate Carlos yesterday who confirmed the breakdown of what I would be paying upon arrival and it doesn’t match”.

”Oh..that’s because he wouldn’t have been able to see the contract – I can see that now the reservation is being processed.”

“Well, that makes no sense. Regardless, I didn’t ask you to add insurance, so take it off please.”

Such fuckery by car rental agencies always irritates me. However, once that was rectified, Alex and I piled in and we were on our way to Fajardo, waved off by Greater Antillean Grackles and Gray Kingbirds.

Ubiquitous Gray Kingbird

Ubiquitous Gray Kingbird

A quick 50 minutes later, buzzed by Caribbean race Cave Swallows (much darker rumped than the Texas birds) we pulled into our resort for the week – the El Conquistador at Fajardo, perched expansively on the steep cliffs of Puerto Rico’s north-east coast.

Alex was keen to hit the pool, and it seemed like the thing to do. Ingrid and Indra arrived later that evening and we all chilled out.

The week consisted mainly of chilling by the pool, hot tub and beach-bumming it on nearby Palominas Island. The kids had a blast.

Alex and Indra enjoying the infinity pool

Alex and Indra enjoying the infinity pool (Ingrid Ducmanis)

us

Although not a birding trip, there was some endemics to be had in the nearby areas surrounding El Yunque rainforest.  Dull weather and a general low density of birds made it difficult place to bird in the short periods of time I had.

Time to nail some rainforest endemics...

Time to nail some rainforest endemics…(Ingrid Ducmanis)

 

El Yunque Rainforest

El Yunque Rainforest (Ingrid Ducmanis)

 

Big tree Trail, El Yunque

Big tree Trail, El Yunque (Ingrid Ducmanis)

Two visits, one pre-dawn (to try for Puerto Rican Screech) and an afternoon visit were brief, bur fortuitous in locating a good number of the expected species, but given that I only spent a total of 2 ½ hours actually birding (rather than driving up and down trying to find suitable areas or flocks) I was happy with the bounty. A drive around the Fajardo environs brought home the fact that there was no decent areas to bird, the main highlight was scoring good looks at Green-throated Carib on the grounds of the Fajardo Inn. My other possible “get” – Antillean Crested Hummingbird – proved difficult, although I really didn’t spend time looking for it.

The large and stunning Green-throated Carib

The large and stunning Green-throated Carib

Birding around the private Palominas Island consisted of feeding French fries to Pearly-eyed Thrashers, fly-by Zenaida Doves and small numbers of Brown Boobies offshore . The marshy, tidal area that flooded behind the miniature golf course hosted Black-bellied Plover, Greater Yellowlegs, a distant, brief Sora (difficult in PR) and a nice, surprise tick in the form of 7 White-cheeked Pintails.

Pearly-eyed Thrasher

Pearly-eyed Thrasher

 

Goin' Fishin"

Goin’ Fishin”

 

Ingrid relaxing at dusk on Palominas Island.

Ingrid relaxing at dusk on Palominas Island.

Frustrating to find four calling screech owls at El Yunque at dawn on 22nd and not be able to see them in the huge clumps of bamboo close to the entrance to El Portal Visitor center. A late evening trip to Ceiba Country Inn was more successful. Within minutes of arriving, a calling bird was seen well, at close range and spotlighted..awesome bird!

eBird checklists can be found here:

22nd November –El Yunque
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S32758898

Palominas Island
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S32759485

23rd November – El Yunque
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S32759596

Endemics:
PR Oriole
PR Tody
PR Screech Owl
PR Bullfinch
PR Spindalis
Green Mango
PR Vireo (heard, seen briefly in flight)
PR Lizard Cuckoo
PR Tanager
PR Woodpecker
PR Flycatcher

Other New Birds:
Zenaida Dove
Green-throated Carib
White-cheeked Pintail
Scaly-naped Pigeon

 

A day out with the Circus

October 27, 2016
Juvenile female Northern Harrier, Branford, CT November 2015 (Julian Hough). Note unstreaked underparts and solid boa, often more typical of females than males.

Juvenile female Northern Harrier, Branford, CT November 2015 (Julian Hough). Compared to European Hen Harrier, note unstreaked underparts (particularly vent) and more solid-looking “boa” – features often more typical of females than males in Northern Harrier. (Click for larger image)

It’s late October and the past few days have seen a good blow of NW winds, bringing with them a good bounty of raptors moving through Connecticut. As usual, I have been stuck at work, living vicariously through those counters camped out at Lighthouse Point, New Haven – the state’s premier watchpoint.

Northern Harriers (Circus c. hudsonius) are staple birds at the hawkwatch, charismatic and dashing – a favorite of mine. The NA race hudsonius has become something of a regular vagrant to the UK, with birds becoming annual in the past few years – a surprising turn of events since the first record on the Isles of Scilly in 1982 produced no other records, until a bird that Alex Lees saw on North Ronaldsay in 2008, prompted scrutiny of “Marsh Hawk” characters. After some back and forth and me nagging him incessantly, I believe he was able to have the bird finally accepted. Several others have followed since, including multiples in England and Ireland, some including adult males.

Confusion with “rufous” juvenile Hen Harriers is still a problem from a European context, but with good photos, many seem to fit the classic “Terry’s Chocolate Orange” appearance of juvenile Northern Harrier. Some birds will remain difficult and unidentifiable in a vagrant context –  especially birds like this in Germany!

While split as a separate species by the Europeans, the Americans have yet to adopt this split, although it was proposed in 2015. A paper published by my old friend, Dr. Graham Etherington,  proposes that science supports the recognition of C. cyaneus (Hen Harrier) and C. hudsonius (Northern Harrier) as distinct species.

Hen Harrier is currently unrecorded in the US – except for a wing found on Attu in 1999. However, a bird caught at Cape May would seem to tick all the right boxes as Hen Harrier. I have uploaded the paper here for those interested.

10/23/2016 Sprague’s Pipit in Connecticut..whoa!!

October 25, 2016
Sprague's Pipit, Sherwood Island, CT 10/23/2016 (Julian Hough)

Sprague’s Pipit, Sherwood Island, CT 10/23/2016 (Julian Hough). Click images for larger versions.

Hey Kids! Get in the car…NOW! We’re going on a twitch.

“Don’t ask what that is or where we are going…you won’t care! Get in the car…we gotta leave…NOW!! Alex, why aren’t your shoes on? Where’s your coat? Please..Come Onnnn!!!!”

Sunday 23rd October had been a great day. Ingrid and Indra had left after a lazy breakfast to do family stuff. Lighthouse had been slow for hawks and I returned to the house with Alex’s pal Benny in tow. While they entertained each other I set about sanding the rear hallways to prep them for some painting. By 2pm, I had gotten everything prepped and happened to check my phone and saw a missed call from Greg Hanisek. A garbled message was all that was left. Calling him back, he answered and deciphered his voicemail for me, “Sprague’s Pipit at Sherwood Island..I am already on RT 8 now.”

Jesus, Mary and Joseph! What a mega!

I made a few calls to spread the news and we were off but traversing I-95 on a Sunday afternoon in New York traffic would be like Cannonball Run …grrr!

Sprague’s Pipits are difficult birds to get in the US and, away from the breeding grounds, they are a monster rarity in the east. There’s only a couple of late fall/winter records from Massachusetts (Provincetown and Wachusett) and I don’t believe New York or New Jersey has any records, and until today, it was absent from the CT list.

I made really good time despite folk who can’t drive for @@!! You people (you know who you are), remember that the left lane is for passing, not maintaining synchronized speed with people in the right lane. Executing this simple decision will prevent you from pushing birders in full twitch mode (i.e. me) to the brink of homicide. 🙂

I arrived and parked by the model airplane field and frantically ran over to the small group huddled together in one corner. Breaking the circle, my gaze followed an outstretched arm and finger pointing downwards to small patch of grass. No more than 5ft away, a sandy-colored form broke cover, revealing a staring dark eye and a sparsely-streaked breast that belonged to a full-on Sprague’s Pipit. Holy crap…it was so close! It sensed it was corralled and suddenly flew-up and landed about 30 ft behind us.

Sprague's Pipit, Sherwood Island, CT 10/23/2016 (Julian Hough).

Sprague’s Pipit, Sherwood Island, CT 10/23/2016 (Julian Hough). Very reminiscent to me of Blyth’s Pipit from Asia, a vagrant I have seen a few times in the UK and abroad.

Clearly the bird was tame and confiding. We circled around and with the sun behind us several of us crept closer to the spot where it had landed. We waited…and waited…but nothing appeared.
Edging closer, Frank went ahead and tried to coax the bird out, but the little bugger was like a little furtive mouse, running along the ground like an Old World locustella warbler.

Crippling Views! (Frank Mantlik)

Crippling Views! (Frank Mantlik)

Sprague's Pipit, Sherwood Island, CT 10/23/2016 (Julian Hough). Look at that long hind toe adn equally long hind claw!

Sprague’s Pipit, Sherwood Island, CT 10/23/2016 (Julian Hough)

We finally relocated it further away, and the bird performed beautifully for us in the late afternoon sunlight. What a cracker!! The kids were not as impressed as I was. But who cares!!

It was a lifer for many seasoned birders! This was only the third one I had seen, my previous ones being one in a stubble field in Texas in 2006 and an unsatisfying one in flight calling on my tour to Laguna Atascosa during last year’s Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival.

Hands up those that have seen Sprague's Pipit in CT. Frank Gallo has! (Julian Hough)

Hands up if you have seen Sprague’s Pipit in CT. Frank Gallo has! (Julian Hough)

Sprague’s pipits winter in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. In the United States it occurs from southern California (casually), south-central and southeastern Arizona, southern New Mexico, central and eastern Texas, occasionally found in southern Kansas, southern Oklahoma, very rarely in southern Missouri, Tennessee and northwestern Mississippi south through Arkansas and Louisiana

Found in mixed or short grass prairie throughout the central northern Great Plains of North America. In Canada, Sprague’s pipit breeds in southern Alberta, southern Saskatchewan, and southwest Manitoba. In the United States, they breed in northeastern and central Montana, western and central North Dakota, northwest South Dakota, and in the Red River Valley of Minnesota.

Sprague's Pipit, Sherwood Island, CT 10/23/2016 (Julian Hough)

Sprague’s Pipit, Sherwood Island, CT 10/23/2016 (Julian Hough)

Ageing these is easy. You really can’t! I thought I would be able to age this one on median covert pattern (as is often the case with other pipits, especially Old World ones) but reference to Pyle revealed that there really aren’t any plumage clues to ageing them. Sometimes a Sprague’s pipit is “just” a Sprague’s Pipit…unless it is in CT!

Kudos to young birder Preston Lust for a great find, having the wits and sharpness to work out what it was and be brave enough to put the word out. The bird had gone by morning, so this really was the only chance to twitch it. Amazingly this little field has also hosted Smith’s Longspur and CT’s first (and only) Western Meadowlark!

October 5, 2016

blogDuring the past couple of years, I have been lucky enough to see a handful of first- and second-cycle Long-tailed Jaegers from pelagics off Massachusetts. I have been intrigued by some of the molt and ageing issues presented by these and put some images and thoughts together.
READ MORE…

Going to California….again!

October 3, 2016

Nick and I birded some spots around Madison and Guilford and saw little of note, except for a cool-looking adult hybrid Little Blue x Tricolored Heron in boulder pond at Hammo.

A cool hybrid Little Blue x Tricolored Heron showing well at Hammonassett. One of originally two birds that turned up as juveniles.

Returning home, I checked the local boat ramp looking for gulls, knowing Nick had refound the spring’s California Gull at Sandy Point a few days prior – we assumed it had long gone, but it had obviously been loitering in the area. A collection of gulls sheltering from the NE wind and high tide included a fresh juv Lesser Black-backed, but no sign of any California.

A fresh juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gull sheltering from the inclement weather

I had to leave to do some errands, and while driving down the beach about 1/2 mile away, I noticed a lone gull sitting on the beach. “Ello!” I recognized the bird straight away and pulled on to the kerb to find the California Gull resting on the beach. I got out and grabbed a couple of shots, but the bird was rather skittish. It was now scrappy-looking and undergoing its complete molt into 2nd-basic plumage. Surprising to see the bird still around, but great to see it again locally. I checked again the next day but was surprised to relocate it back at the boat ramp where it had been foraging in the spring.

2nd-cycle California Gull, Sandy Point, West Haven.

 

2nd-cycle California Gull, Sandy point, West Haven.

Californication 2016

April 9, 2016
First-cycle California Gull, West Haven, CT, April 2016 (Julian Hough)

First-cycle California Gull, West Haven, CT, April 2016 (Julian Hough)

After it had gone missing for a week, I bumped into the California Gull still visiting the boatramp. It remained fairly regular giving great views and photo-opps.

I met Brooklyn birding acquaintance Sean Sime and his wife Sarah down there today (9th) to see if I could nail it down for them as they passed through on their way from Rhode Island. It was quiet when I arrived with few gulls – it was not looking good! Alex and I started to throw some bread and within a few minutes Sean picked up the bird flying around. Mark Szantyr arrived at that moment and we all had ridiculous views as usual. (Click for larger images)

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California Dreamin’

March 30, 2016
First-cycle California Gull, West Haven, CT 3/24 (Julian Hough). Without direct comparison, some of the structural features are not clearly evident. The small size, intermediate between Ring-billed and Herring Gull, with disproportionately longer wings, short, narrow tail and shorter legs were quite obvious. The glaucous-like bill pattern was similar to other 2nd -cycle Herring Gulls but the darker grey mantle feathers coming in and dark greater covert panel were typical California. In flat light the pale, anemic legs were grey-green toned on the shins, another feature charactersitic of CAGU.

First-cycle California Gull, West Haven, CT 3/24 (Julian Hough). Without direct comparison with other gulls, some of the structural features are not clearly evident. The smaller size, intermediate between Ring-billed and Herring Gull, with disproportionately longer wings, short, narrow tail and shorter legs were quite obvious in the field. The glaucous-like bill pattern was similar to other 2nd -cycle Herring Gulls but the darker grey mantle feathers coming in and dark greater covert panel were typical California. In flat light, the pale, anemic legs were grey-green toned on the shins, another feature characteristic of CAGU.

Act #1

Well, as if Eurasian Common Gull and (Short-billed) Mew Gull at Hammo wasn’t enough, Stefan Martin, while looking for both these birds the day after I saw them,  photographed a first-cycle bird on the beach at Meig’s point which he identified as a California Gull!!

A long-awaited state first, this was a bird on several peoples’ radar for a long time – a real birder’s bird! The identification is compounded by the vast array of Herring Gull mimics, which makes picking out a California Gull not for the faint of heart – it is a bird that would be easily overlooked by many birders, so Stefan receives big kudos for this one!

Thankfully the bird remained faithful to the beach and boulder pool area at Meig’s point, showing well and  allowing many people to catch up with it before it disappeared by Wednesday.

Act #2

On my way home from work on 24th March, Nick Bonomo and I were discussing on the phone what other new gulls were lurking in the sound – still to be found. He was out checking the local areas. Sitting in the Yale University Gym, New Haven,  I was just about to work-out when I get a call from him, “I’m at the West Haven Boat Ramp – I have the California Gull here!”

This boat ramp is on the west side of New Haven harbor, close to my home and a spot I check regularly, one I had planned to check in the morning! It is 20 miles west of Hammonasset, so Nick’s re-finding was amazing-even better when it was right next to the house.

Leave gym. Get bins and camera. Arrive at boat ramp. See California Gull sitting nonchalantly on the beach. It is dusk, so light isn’t great but Nick, myself and Tony Amato enjoy great views of this bird. Who’d have thunk!

First-cycle California Gull, West Haven, CT 3/24 (Julian Hough). The long, rakish wings are not as evident in this shot, but in flight the longish, spiky bill, relatively narrow tail and Long-tailed Jaeger-like shape to the undercarriage were classic California. The best feature on this image is the nice dark primaries, lacking any pale inner window, dark trailing edge and a second dark bar formed by extensively dark greater coverts, is a must-have for any putative California. The dark tail and heavily barred rump is very Herring Gull-like, but the thin white outerweb to the tail and pale terminal tips are subtle differences from Herring Gull.

First-cycle California Gull, West Haven, CT 3/24 (Julian Hough). The long, rakish wings are not as evident in this shot, but in flight the longish, spiky bill, relatively narrow tail and Long-tailed Jaeger-like shape to the undercarriage were classic California. The best features on this image : the nice dark primaries, lacking any pale inner window; dark trailing edge; and a second dark bar formed by extensively dark greater coverts – all ‘must-haves” for any putative California. The dark tail and heavily barred rump is very Herring Gull-like, but the thin white outerweb to the tail and pale terminal tips are subtly different.

Postscript: the most interesting part of all this, is from photographs, it appears that this is the same bird that was seen, and photographed, by a single observer in Gravesend Bay, Brooklyn in January 2016, before being refound across the sound in CT at Hammonasset and then in New Haven in March 2016.

Two Rabbits – One Hat!

March 29, 2016

Short-billed (Mew) Gull, Hammonasset SP, CT 20th March 2016 (Julian Hough). Note very narrow bill, nicotine-stained blotchiness extending from crown around in a shawl onto the upperbreast. Very extensive grey tongues P8-7 with broad white subterminal "spots". Broad trailing edge.

Short-billed (Mew) Gull, Hammonasset SP, CT 20th March 2016 (Julian Hough). Note very narrow bill, nicotine-stained blotchiness extending from crown around in a shawl onto the upperbreast. Very extensive grey tongues P8-7 with broad white subterminal “spots”. Broad trailing edge very striking! (Click on images for hi-res version)

Sunday March 20th saw me leisurely sipping my fourth cup of java in Park Slope, Brooklyn, contemplating getting Alex and myself together to leave when my phone rang. It was Nick Bonomo, calmly informing me with news that he had found (another) Common Gull in CT, at Hamonassett State Park.

“I know you need it for CT, so wanted to let you know..but..it’s not in view right now”. Appreciative of the personal shout-out about a state Nemesis bird, it kick-started our exit strategy.

We were on the road by 11:30 and had got onto the Brooklyn Bridge when I get another call from NB..”Hey..I am pretty sure there’s two Mew-type Gulls here and the one I just refound in the flock is a !@#### Short-billed!!”.

AAARRGGGHHHHH!!!!

The first documented state record of the west coast race brachyrhyncus, which, if the current treatise on the complex by Adriaens and Gibbins 2016  is anything to go by, may be split in the near future.

Motherfather! Well done Mr. Bonomo – a two-fer!!

It seems that every weekend I am in Brooklyn, someone finds a rare bird in CT. This has necessitated a frantic, white-knuckle, cannonball-type run from the ‘burbs of the Big Apple to the tax-hiked landscape of Connecticut.

Thankfully, I blasted out of Brooklyn and up I-95 into CT not encountering any traffic at all. A mere two hours after leaving Brooklyn, including a quick pit-stop in New Haven, to grab the scope and camera, I Tokyo-drifted into the Meigs Point parking lot at 1:32pm!

I ran down and joined some familiar faces that were overseeing an expansive flock of gulls. The problem was that most were all jibber-jabbering away and not really focused on the prizes at hand. Damn them..I expected to look in one scope and see a brachyrhyncus, and then move on to the next scope and see a canus.

Panicked and fuelled by adrenaline and in full twitch mode, I was ready to commit some GBH at any second, when John Oshlik mercifully said “I’ve got the Short-billed in my scope”.  BOOM…Mew Gull #1!

Note slightly darker mantle, long wings with broad white tertial crescent at rest.Short-billed (Mew) Gull, Hammonasset SP, CT 20th March 2016 (Julian Hough).
Note slightly darker mantle, long wings with broad white tertial crescent at rest

The bird showed briefly on the water then quickly took flight, showing a whopping broad trailing edge to the wing and obvious white subterminal “spots” which gave the bird a much different wing pattern than nominate Canus. The bird circled around and alighted on the stone jetty.

Short-billed (Mew) Gull, Hammonasset SP, CT 20th March 2016 (Julian Hough).

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Within minutes, the bird belonging to the nominate Eurasian race, canus , was found bathing in the water in the lee of the rocks, showing a much cleaner head and a staring, black eye. BOOM…Mew Gull #2!

Holy crap!

With both birds safely under the belt I settled in to take a good look at the canus, noticing the much whiter-headed, dark-eyed look and, in flight, the narrower trailing edge (especially on the inner primaries) and darker areas on P8 lacking extensive grey tongues and with black extending 3/4 up the feather shafts.

_MG_9515 copyCommon Gull, nominate canus, Little Lever, UK, February 2008 (Julian Hough). Note dark subterminal mark to bill, P8 largely dark with no extensive grey “tongue”. Relatively narrow trailing edge, especially on the inner primaries. This individual has a dark, blackish eye in the field.

Growing up in the UK, canus was a North American tick, but a species I was familiar with, but the brachyrhyncus was the main prize. It had been lost for a while in the swirling melee, but thankfully I locked into it as it flew back in to join the plankton-feeding flock in front of us, giving great, prolonged looks. It subsequently took flight, passing reasonably close in front of us giving a decent photo-opp. Excellent stuff.

For a personal account of a great find by Nick, check out his blog here;http://www.shorebirder.com/2016/03/two-gulls-one-flock.html