A Tale of Two Grippers!

May 29, 2017

27th May – Act 1 –  Slam Dunk in Shawangunk!

A singing Henslow’s Sparrow, discovered by longtime birding acquaintances Tom Burke and Gail Benson, at Shawangunk grasslands, near Walkill in upstate NY was tantalizingly close to CT’s western border. Henslow’s Sparrow is a scarce breeder in the north east and basically absent in New England. It was also a nemesis, a ‘bogey’ bird for me. Eons ago, I had missed a November bird in CT that Andy Brand had found in nearby Hamden.  A one afternoon wonder, it was nowhere to be found the following morning when we scoured the area. I had always assumed I would find one “kicking the bushes” in late October, but after 20 years of kicking bushes, I was still empty handed. I would simply  have to twitch one!

Saturday dawned at zerodark4thirty .  An hour and half later, in Walkill, I was having SEVERE PTGSD. That stands for Post-traumatic Gyrfalcon Stress Disorder. I had spent two days dipping a Gyrfalcon that spent the winter here in 2015, so driving the same roads did not evoke warm fuzzy feelings of nostalgia. “!!@@ you Gyrfalcon”, I muttered under my breath as I passed Blue Chip Farm.

I arrived at the preserve and decided to head out to the less dilapidated blind where the bird had been reported singing. I was surprised that I appeared to be the only person here!

The sound and sight of Bobolinks, Eastern Meadowlarks  and Grasshopper Sparrows pervaded the beautiful dawn morning. I made a right, approaching the blind when I met another birder who was equally clueless about where it was.

“ It’s not down there!”, he said, gesticulating in the opposite direction. Almost immediately, after about 20 ft, a bird sang to our left “tsi-lik”, and then again.

“That’s it! It’s really close!”, I uttered. Could we see the little bugger? Could we hell. Then, finally, up it popped, basically 14 ft off the path, in full view. It found the tallest thistle and sang its tiny heart out. After 20 years, it had been that easy!! Several pixels were burnt.

A singing male Dickcissel a few further yards down the path showed well, but light was not great for pix.

I headed back to the car, intent on birding the Doodletown forest area on the way back to CT, for Cerulean Warbler and other woodland goodies, but news of yesterday’s Lesser Nighthawk in northern New Jersey, had been refound sitting on the same path, prompted me to reconsider my options.

27th May – Act 2 –  Turd in the Grass!

Last night, there had been no info on what was only NJ’s second Lesser Nighthawk. Again, frustrating information given that pictures were posted, but no info on exactly where it was, or what the circumstances had been around the sighting. This time I had directions. It was still early and I could be onsite by 10:30am.

And so I was. Walking past the environmental center building, one birder acknowledged the bird was still there and a few minutes later I arrived at the spot. Again, I was one of only two people there, surprising since this was so close to NYC and other large NJ cities – and this is a mega!

The guy present pointed out to me what amounted to a turd – a turd  mostly obscured by grass!

Rather “shitty” views of what amounts to a turd in the grass!!

The path was blocked by cones to prevent disturbance to the bird, but it was also preventing me from actually being able to see it! It was not the views I was hoping for. I could barely see it, let alone photograph it!!

Better views of the front after the bird shimmied over to the other side of the path.


Lesser Nighthawk. Note rather compact shape, with large head, short, rounded primaries and buff barring on primary bases.

Then suddenly, without warning, the little turd started moving..it shuffled on its tiny, swift-like feet and shimmied across the path giving awesome views and allowed a couple of decent photos. It buried itself in the grass on the other side of the path and was then basically out of view! Talk about jammy. What a great little bird!

Lesser Nighthawk. Appeared small and compact in the filed, with rather rounded primaries that fell equal with the tail tip (longer in Common). The cinnamon-buff tones to the face and breast also favored Lesser, as did the obvious buff barring on the bases of the primaries. The lack of a discernible paler, whitish wing patch hints at this being a female, and thus a Lesser.

So, based on these views –  a compact, rich buff-toned caprimulgid- it did appear to be a Lesser Nighthawk as advertised, but I went through the features, just to make sure for myself. Antillean and some Common’s can be warm-toned and I needed to rule them out. Antillean in particular is small, like Lesser, and warmer-toned, but they are unrecorded in the east. Thankfully, ‘cos I don’t really have any experience of Antillean in the day outside of Marathon, Florida!! So…quickly moving on from that one…

The issue is that the south-western form of Common Nighthawk, Chordeiles minor henryi,  unlike most of the subspecies of Common, shows buff-spotting on the base of the primaries – like Lesser! https://cobirds.org/CFO/ColoradoBirds/InTheScope/67.pdf

The other main difference is that Lessers show a short first primary (P10), with P9 being the longest primary, but that does vary in both Common and Lesser with some Commons showing equally long P10 and P9.. and some juvenile Commons showing a shorter P10. Clearly on these images, it is impossible to judge primary placement since it would be folded underneath what is the visible longest primary (which is actually P9 in Lesser).

So, is it possible to conclude this is a Lesser and not a henryi Common – equally as likely perhaps?? I am not sure to be honest, but if I go by what I see on the images, they favor Lesser, but something that should be considered here and ruled out on any putative Lesser Nighthawk.

Anytime you get to see a nighthawk in the day is a good day, especially if it is a Lesser (even if it is in NJ!).

Brooklyn Smash ‘n Grab

March 20, 2017

View of Manhattan from the Brooklyn Army Terminal Pier.

19th March
While Ingrid took care of some chores, I took the opportunity to explore some of the suburban areas of Park Slope and environs, notably the piers south of the apartment. With some guidance from local experts Sean Sime and Shane Blodgett, I scoped out a few spots. (CLICK IMAGES FOR HI-RES FILES)

It was overcast and threatening snow/rain shower, but despite the leaden sky, the moisture held off. Arriving at the Veterans Memorial Pier, I noticed a few distant gulls wheeling around on the water off the Owls Head Treatment Plant. With no access viewing was tough, but a pallid first-cycle Iceland Gull stood out in the haze. After a while, I walked back to the car and was surprised to see a full-hooded, adult Black-headed Gull sat on the railing next to the security booth! Nice.

Adult Black-headed Gull, Veterans Memorial Pier, Brooklyn

The bird soon flew down on to the pier to loaf with some Ring-billed Gulls, and the Iceland Gull did a close fly-by attracted to a person flinging bread on to the pier. A quick check of the Brooklyn Army Terminal failed to find the Mew Gull (brachyrhyncus) seen there by Shane Blodgett over a month ago.

First-cycle Iceland Gull

20th March
With Ingrid and Indra off to the store, I sneaked off for another quick excursion. A quick check of the Brooklyn Army Pier produced nothing different from yesterday. Stopping off in Prospect Park on the way back to the apartment, was lucky in that the juv male Goshawk was sat in one of the tall trees by the feeders. great looks, but backlighting made for some tough images. The bird soon did a fly-by, and I was able to grab some half-decent flight shots, albeit heavily cropped.

Juv Goshawk, Prospect Park, Brooklyn. Relatively small, I assume it’s a male based on size.

The relatively small size and lack of a really bold supercilium could lend itself to being mistaken for a Cooper’s Hawk. Nice broad wings and long-hand and heavily streaked underparts that extend all the way down the underparts, specifically being marked on the undertail coverts are good pro-Gos features.

Canada 2017- Part Deux

March 10, 2017

Positioning myself well, I grabbed one of the few flight opportunities of the morning as this docile bird made a short flight.

The plan was to try and work the Great Grays again this morning. I was beginning to feel better as the days progressed, but still had little appetite due to the lingering malaise. The adrenalin of seeing Chouette Lapone’s at eyeball level was helping though! We had great views of two birds at close range this morning. One bird was roosting and quite docile. None afforded the opportunities that we had yesterday. Just as we were leaving, the one bird began to get active and I managed to grab a quick series of shots as it sailed silently past.

We headed north on the two hour drive to Quebec, hoping to try for the Hawk Owl before dark. There were few birds to see on the trip, but we managed to car-tick several Northern Shrikes, a distant Snowy Owl atop a silo and a lone Rough-legged Hawk (surprisingly scarce) as we sped through open flatlands of farmland.

We quickly found the area the bird had been seen in. We bumped into a couple of NJ birders who had been there for a couple of hours and had failed to see the bird. We knew it had been seen the day before, but as the light waned and the clouds closed in we had to reluctantly give in to defeat. On the way to our hotel, we found a distant Snowy Owl (seen earlier by the NJ guys) in a tree far from the road.

The following morning we returned to beautiful blue, cloudless skies. Standing on the railroad tracks, it was only a matter of minutes before Mr. Mantlik noticed the bird perched on a tall spruce, right next to the car. BOOM! Northern Hawk Owl in the bag.

Frank is happy! After a dismal non-event yesterday, all was well this morning – Hawk Owl -crippling views! (Frank Mantlik)

Thankfully the bird flew towards us and perched in the hedgerow and allowed us to grab some shots for 20 minutes before flying back across the road –  a veritable bullet with wings.

Northern Hawk Owl, doing what Northern Hawk Owls do best this morning – be conspicuous and confiding!

Frank Gallo getting to grips. ( Frank Mantlik)

Truly charismatic birds, seeing a Hawk Owl is always a top shelf experience. We watched the bird hunting in a suburban yard, hunting in a ravine, drinking snow from the crook of a tree, and generally being inconspicuous. If this is where it was the previous afternoon, it was no wonder we didn’t find it.

Since further photo opps were not forthcoming, we bucked out of there and headed south of the river and north towards La Pocatiere, to try and spend time looking for two Gyrfalcons that had been seen in that area recently – a white bird, and a stunning, dark chocolate bird.

Nick takes up the narrative and writes, Very pleased with our morning hawk owl experience, we crossed to the east side of the St. Lawrence River and drove north another 90 minutes for our third and final leg of the trip. Two Gyrfalcons, one white and one dark, had been frequenting the agricultural fields between La Pocatiere and Kamouraska. We drove a loop through prime Gyr habitat, focusing on those areas where the birds had been seen, but came up empty. Night in La Pocatiere.

Nick scoping a birdless horizon silhouetted by a stunning sunset over the St. Lawrence

We had one last shot for the Gyrs on Tuesday morning, again greeted by beautiful light with which to work. It was very cold, down to 1 degree Fahrenheit, but the temps warmed quickly thanks to the abundant sunshine. A thick frost had coated the vegetation overnight, making for some stunning scenery.

We drove the Gyr loop again without sign of a raptor of any kind. The only bird of prey we saw on two tours through fine habitat was a single SNOWY OWL on our way out-of-town.

Distant Snowy Owl surveying its wintry home.

We were actually quite struck by the absence of bird life in general. This was not surprising given the barren Arctic-like landscape of the agricultural fields. What did surprise us was the dearth of life on the St. Lawrence River itself. Though we did not set aside much time for river viewing, we were treated to sprawling views of the mostly frozen waterway from several locations. Literally the only birds noted were a few Common Mergansers. Not even a single gull fly by!

We also thought we would stumble across flocks of finches or waxwings at some point, but we would have been completely skunked on those if Julian hadn’t spotted a group of PINE GROSBEAKS while driving through Kamouraska along the river.”

Male Pine Grosbeak!

We checked a lot of silos, but came up blank – my recent shite luck with Gyrfalcons seems to continue, this is the 8th try for 6 different birds in the last three years..what the flock!!!

Despite this, it was a truly wonderful four days, with some great birds, amazing photo opps and the experience of having one land on your tripod was out of this world! The French birders we met were so friendly and eager to share news of the local birds.

I need to give a big shout out to local Montreal birder (and ace photographer) Simon Bolyn, who was so gracious to my request for help, that it helped make the trip logistics a bit more reassuring. Brian Kulvete from CT and Justin Lawson from VT were both equally helpful in providing “boots-on-the-ground” info that helped make the trip great. Thanks guys!

Canada 2017 – Part 1

March 5, 2017
After (presumably) mistaking one of the photographer's neck warmer for some juicy, furry rodent, when she ducked, it had to re-orient and chose to do it from Nick's tripod, landing at point blank range between both of us. Bold and fearless this bird had been actively hunting, and had not been baited at all. A once-in-a-lifetime experience for all present, this moment subsequently went viral.

After (presumably) mistaking a photographer’s neck warmer for some juicy, furry rodent, this Great Gray had to reorient itself when her ‘victim’ ducked. It chose to do it from Nick’s tripod, landing at point blank range between both of us. Bold and fearless this bird had been actively hunting, and had not been baited at all. A once-in-a-lifetime experience for all present, this moment subsequently went viral. (Photos by Julian Hough. CLICK ON IMAGES FOR HI-RES VERSIONS)

Arranged with military precision, birds had been researched, their locations marked on maps with gps co-ordinates and bags were packed. However, finding myself holed up in the bathroom, less than 24 hours prior to a 4-day birding assault on Quebec, wasn’t in my plans. My son Alex had been sick with a virulent stomach bug and he had kindly shared it with me. Confined to bed and subsisting just on Pedialyte I crashed out all day. When I awoke just after midnight, I felt a tad bit better. I downed some imodium, grabbed a pillow and blanket and collapsed into the back of Frank’s car for the long drive to Montreal.

The main intent was a simple one; find and photograph Great Gray Owls near Montreal  and drive north to Quebec for Northern Hawk Owl and Gyrfalcon. In the last month, there had been a small and localized incursion of Great Gray Owls into the Montreal area

From l to r: Nick Bonomo, Frank Mantlik, Frank Gallo and myself, La Pocatiere, Quebec.

From l to r: Nick Bonomo, Frank Mantlik, Frank Gallo and myself, La Pocatiere, Quebec.

The group de force were Frank Mantlik, Frank Gallo, Nick Bonomo and myself. Nick takes up the story on his blog (www.shorbirder.com):
“We B-lined to Montreal, specifically to Refuge Faunique Marguerite-D’Youville south of the city itself. We were met by another birder in the parking lot as we arrived who was there the day before and informed us how slow it was on Friday – only one bird seen, and not terribly active. It had been windy and cold then. Saturday was a different story; we were greeted by sunny skies, warming temps, and zero wind. As we would soon find out, the birds would cooperate today.

We encountered three GREAT GRAY OWLS on this day at the refuge. What was supposed to be a few-hour visit turned into most of the day. We could not pull ourselves away, and who would want to? The birds (one in particular) performed above and beyond anyone’s reasonable expectations.

Crippling views! A superb Great Gray Owl. The prominent, buffy fringes to the primaries and browner secondaries, age this as a first-year.

Crippling views! A superb Great Gray Owl. The prominent, buffy fringes to the primaries and browner secondaries, age this as a first-year.



Great Gray Owl – incoming! An active bird, it allowed us to position ourselves for some potential flight shots as it hunted along a treeline- and we were not disappointed.

One particularly actively hunting individual put on quite a show for the crowd. It spent several hours searching for prey rather close to the trail and made several short flights, from perch to perch, in its pursuit of a meal. After a couple hours of watching this owl and enjoying every second, it decided to fly back across the trail, something it had done a couple times already this morning. After a couple hours of watching this owl and enjoying every second, it decided to fly back across the trail, something it had done a couple times already this morning. Rather than passing over the group to the other side, it nearly landed on a woman’s head before touching down on my tripod directly in front of me. I stood there stunned for a few moments, unsure of what exactly to do.”

Nick and I were stunned to be literally face to face with this amazing beast!

GGOW up close and personal (Frank Mantlik)

GGOW up close and personal (Frank Mantlik)

“Before you go on assuming that this bird was lured in with pet store mice, you would be mistaken. That sort of behavior is highly frowned upon at this refuge, and we chose to come here largely based on this. Through a day and a half there with three owls we didn’t see any sign of anyone doing anything like that. A local birding couple that walks here once or twice per week has never seen anything of the kind here either. The refuge staff patrols the trails here, and everyone’s behavior was top notch. Nobody even ventured more than a couple feet off the trail, as per park rules. It was impressive. We had been following this bird for 2+ hours at close range before this happened, and it only approached us this once…the bird was in heavy hunting mode and seemed to use the tripod as just another survey post for a few minutes before moving onto the next treetop. Even after it landed on my tripod it spent most of its time looking away from the humans onto the ground for prey as it was doing from the trees, with only the occasional head turn towards me or the crowd. Certainly didn’t feel like it was looking to us for food at all. These are notoriously tame birds to begin with, so I don’t entirely understand why some photographers feel the need to bait them. You obviously don’t need to feed GGOWs to get killer photos!

Before we knew it, it was 2pm and we were dehydrated and sunburned. We left the refuge on a major high from our experience there. After some regrouping and refocusing, the last couple hours of daylight were spent unsuccessfully searching fields to the west of the city for Snowy Owls and other open country birds like Gray Partridge, etc. We did stumble across this Barred Owl in a farmhouse backyard. Night near Montreal after celebratory beer & food!”

A nice backlit Barred owl at dusk posed for some photos by the road.

A nice backlit Barred owl at dusk posed for some photos by the road.


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)


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

Palominas Island

23rd November – El Yunque

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.