Mexico-November 2017

January 6, 2018

This won’t be a great piece of  literary birding prose, but just a few notes and pix of a recent trip to Mexico for a Thanksgiving break. Ingrid and I wanted to escape the northeastern cold and so we headed for the Yucatan, Mexico for some much-needed rest and relaxation. Oh…and birding…definitely some of that!

We planned to head for Cozumel for a few days, before heading down to Tulum. The island of Cozumel has a few endemics and some local races that may be future splits (e.g., Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher, Western Spindalis, Bananaquit, etc.) and also offered a chance to partake in some snorkeling.

18th -21st November –Cozumel
We landed in Cancun, headed outside the terminal and took the ADCO bus to Playa Del Carmen. The bus departed from right outside the arrival terminal. It took about 45 minutes, dropping us off a block from the ferry. We found our way to the ferry, and found that there were a couple of ferry operators. Arriving in the afternoon, there were no ferries between 1pm and 5pm which was a surprise to us, and something to be aware of, if arriving at the ferry in the mid-afternoon. The other, slightly more expensive operators offered a 3pm ferry, so we took that. Return tickets cost two of us 180 pesos total and took an hour or so. Don’t expect to see many birds on the crossing.

We were staying on the west side of the island which is the tourist strip. We were at the Iberostar, an all-inclusive hotel Ingrid had booked, which, as it happened, was right next to the road to the village of El Cedral, about 20 miles south of the ferry port. This was, by pure coincidence, a spot Chris Benesh had given me as a good spot to grab some endemics. Score one for the awesome girlfriend! The hotel was great, right on the beach and for a birder used to living on Twinkies and chips on a birding trip, this was top-shelf stuff!

Our cool digs at the Hotel Iberostar, Cozumel.

The grounds were well-wooded and held a good assortment of wintering warblers, the most abundant being American Redstart, Magnolia, Yellow-throated, ‘Golden” Yellow and the odd Cape May Warbler. Black Catbird was a shoe-in and Tropical Kingbirds sallied from almost every exposed perch.

Magnolia Warbler -one of the commoner neotropical migrants

An easy, slam dunk tick…Black Catbird

After a long day of travel we relaxed in our room, took in the sunset and indulged in the dinner buffet.

The sun sets on Cozumel (Ingrid Ducmanis)

19th November – Cozumel
The following day, I was excited to bird and was up at first light. Walking out along the main road, Northern Waterthrushes skulked around the parking lot, white-crowned Pigeons swooshed overhead and Summer Tanagers called from the dense trees lining the Hotel driveway.  It was birdy, with Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Yellow-faced Grassquits and Black Catbirds in the roadside trees.

Yucatan Woodpecker – smaller billed than the similar Golden-fronted Woodpecker

The track down to the beach, through low dense jungle, offered looks at both Yucatan and the endemic Cozumel Vireo, Yucatan Woodpecker, Caribbean Eleania, Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher, Tropical Mockingbird. I bumped into Chris Benesh and Cory Gregory leading their FieldGuides group. After exchanging pleasantries, I left them to it and carried onwards.

I made it back to join Ingrid for breakfast. We then made our way to the hotel dock and were picked up for our afternoon snorkeling excursion. We booked with Cozumel Cruise Excursions and for $50 per person, we can recommend them for a great couple of hours snorkeling – we visited three spots and saw Sting ray, barracuda, nurse shark and a variety of fish. The water was crystal clear and the snorkelling was fantastic and freshly-prepared guacomole and a beer made it even better.

Downtown San Miguel, Cozumel

Instead of dropping me at the dock, I had the boat drop me off in San Miguel where I picked up a rental car from  The car was an old VW bug…no A/C, hand-crank windows, etc. I was unsure it would ever start back up every time I turned it off! That night, after Ingrid and I had dinner, I set off on an outing to try for some night birds. Cozumel was the only spot that seemed to have spots for Yucatan Nightjar in November, but I was unable to pinpoint any reliable spots. And, given the somewhat sketchy nature of the rental car, I was hesitant to go further afield. I headed for the nearby sleepy town of El Cedral. The road out to El Cedral started right across from the hotel. As I got into town, there was nobody around, no lights, and it was kind of eerie…like a ghost town. As I turned down each lane, dull amber light from the street lights barely penetrated the unpaved edges. The second road I turned down, I noticed the unmistakable shape of a caprimulgid silhouetted on the road. Common Pauraque. It seemed everywhere I drove in this town they danced in and out of the streetlights, giving phenomenal views!

Common Pauraques performed well in El Cedral

20th November – Cozumel
Dawn saw me heading north in the VW Bug, destined for the sewage plant area in the NW part of the island. This area was known as the best spot to see Ruddy Crake and a selection of the island endemics. The track at the north end of the island was notoriously pot-holed and in bad shape. It took me a while to navigate the road before arriving, finally, at the Water Treatment plant. Unfortunately my journey was halted by a huge flooded area that spanned the road. As I pondered what to do, the FieldGuides crew passed me by in their high-clearance vehicles, waved at me, crossed the pool  and vanished into the distance, bound for certain crake success.  As I stood looking at the pool, wondering how I was going to see Ruddy Crake now, I was more than surprised when one walked out of the roadside vegetation, looked at me, and continued walking across the road. Ree-sult!! A few other birds were seen: White-collared seedeater, a brief Green-breasted Mango, Caribbean Dove, Palm, Yellow-throated Warbler and American Redstart. Melodious Blackbirds perchedup in the distance and despite searching, no Western Spindalis (of the Cozumel race) were seen.

Sewage Plant

As I headed back, I found a few Hooded Warblers in the bushes, and a few pewee sp. I was unsure what species were likely here, and given the difficulties of their id, my brief views were inconclusive. A brief stop at the El Presidente Grid – an area of overgrown roads and housing development, produced few birds.

My ISIS-sponsored VW bug birding in the El Presidente grid

Good views of Cozumel Vireo, several Hooded and Parula Warblers were had, but few birds of note were seen. I returned the car, took a taxi back to the hotel and chilled out on the beach with Ingrid.

21st November – Cozumel and Tulum
My last morning was spent birding the road down to the beach adjacent to the hotel. A confiding Yucatan Vireo fed out in the open, several Summer Tanagers flitted around with some Caribbean Eleanias, and the ubiquitous Tropical Mockingbirds and Black Catbirds foraged out on the forest edge. Yucatan Woodpeckers, a Northern Waterthrush and a vocal Northern Beardless Tyrannulet showed well, but not so the only Mangrove Cuckoo of the trip that only called once from deep within the jungle. A Tennessee Warbler was seen briefly but the highlight was walking back and seeing the familiar shape of a hummingbird perched up ahead of me – Cozumel Emerald, my last endemic and at the last hour!!

At the last hour, managed the endemic Cozumel Emerald..a female, beggars can’t be choosers!


The Watcher

We left Cozumel and picked up our car rental in Carmen Del Playa. We rented from for $190 (including all the insurance necessary in Mexico) for 6 days. As many had noted when picking up a car here in Carmen Del Playa, the company is not organized, and despite repeated confirmation from them that someone would meet us at the designated spot, they never showed up and we had to call them. It all worked out, but I would recommend taking a taxi directly to the office to save aggravation. Aside from the pick-up, the car was great.The best part was that we were able to drop this off when we were leaving at Cancun airport, which was convenient.

We headed off south for the hour drive to Tulum, our base for the next 6 days. After a drive through a built up part of town, ticking off Collared Aricaris flying across the main road, we drove down a narrow coastal swathe of road and ended up at Kira’s Beach House.

Kira’s Beach House, Tulum. Incredibly chill and charming

Tulum was idyllic, quirky, charming and absolutely beautiful. The beach house accommodations were awesome and our room was surprisingly modern and spacious. The sand was like powder and the sea was warm, aquamarine and clear.

Ingrid – beautifully rocking the hat

This was just what the doctor ordered and Ingrid was more than happy – this was definitely her kind of place. She had scored two out of two on the accommodation front!

22nd November – Tulum
Spent the day relaxing with Ingrid.

Obligatory vacation selfie. Enjoying the tranquil beauty of Tulum

Doing her thang!

23rd November – Muyil
I headed off at the crack of dawn to Muyil ruins. The ruins were not open until 8 (despite other reports stating that entry was possible prior to the official opening). Heading south on Rt 307, as you enter Muyil, the ruins are on the left. Shortly after, on the left is a bus stop, and right next to that, on the left is a narrow unpaved road that runs down the western side of the ruins and ends at a boat launch. I turned down this road and parked in a gravel parking lot on the right. It was evident that this road was very birdy, with Northern Barred, Ivory-billed  and Tawny-winged Woodcreepers, two calling, and well-seen Mexican (Mayan) Anthrushes, Eye-ringed Flatbill, my first cool Yucatan Jays and a great view of a Stub-tailed Spadebill. Despite many calling, they were incredibly difficult to see. A mixed flock of warblers included Black and White and Louisiana Waterthrush, while other species included a female Rose-throated Tanager and a striking Grey-headed Tanager,

At the boat ramp, two Russet-naped Wood Rails paraded around in the open giving great looks.

Russet-naped Wood Rail showing really well at the boat launch at Muyil


After relaxing back at the beach house, we got dressed and walked down the beach for a cocktail before taking a Thanksgiving dinner reservation at the beach restaurant La Zebra. Amazing ambience, great food and beautiful company made for a memorable evening.

A fantastic Thanksgiving meal at La Zebra restaurant with my beautiful lady.

24th November – Punta Laguna and Coba
An early morning 5am start today. Ingrid agreed to get up at zerodarkthirty and take a trip out with me. The Spider Monkey reserve at Punta Laguna seemed to be a good destination to do some birding and for her to see some native wildlife. We planned to stop at Coba afterwards to check out the Mayan ruins and again, hopefully add a few good species to the list. After a brief pre-sunrise, yet unsuccessful, stop to check for Yucatan Poorwill, we continued on and found the reserve quickly. I had high expectations based on previous reports but it was rather quite in the trees surrounding the parking lot. Ruddy Ground Doves and our first Green Jays were seen. Paying our entrance fees, I declined to take a guide to show us the monkeys. After 50 yds down the path, a spotted a troupe of Spider Monkeys overhead, moving quickly through the trees.

Spider Monkeys performed really well for us at Punta Laguna!

Urging Ingrid to follow me, we kept pace with them until they stopped and fed above our heads for 20 minutes giving great looks. Ingrid was thrilled. On the way back I pointed out a few birds, but I was keen to find the cave that had hosted roosting Mottled Owls in the past – although one of the commonest Neotropical owls, it has eluded me, a real nemesis bird. After some trial and error, we had just found the cave when Ingrid suddenly shouted, “What’s that…something just flew out of the cave”. Figuring it was likely a Mottled Owl, her final directions got me on a life bird…but not the one I expected. A Lesson’s Motmot, not a Mottled Owl, sat motionless on the branch, showing well, and right out in the open. I’ll take it! It would be the only one of the trip!

Ingrid made it quite clear where she was not going, but I descended into the cave and despite looking, no Mottled owls fell into the beam of my flashlight. Dang!!

“Come out, come out wherever you are!”. My descent into a cave looking for roosting Mottled Owls. (Ingrid Ducmanis)

On the way back, several skulking Green-backed Sparrows, a smart Pale-billed Woodpecker and an Eye-ringed Flatbill were seen, and then a couple of low “chup-chup” calls alerted me to my only Kentucky Warbler of the trip, seen really well, but briefly.

It was getting warm, so we headed back to the car, and made a beeline for Coba. As we left, about a mile down the road, flashes of black and orange halted our progress. Several adult male Orange Orioles, a Yucatan endemic, crossed the road but didn’t give great views. But a splendid male Black-cowled oriole did! While parked up, a small passerine flit up briefly and although I could see just the head, it belonged to a female Grey-breasted Chat! Another Yucatan endemic but hardly satisfying views.

It was unavoidable that we would arrive at the ruins later in the morning, and as expected, the place was packed with tourists. We paid our entrance fee and checked off the requisite ruins. Impressive though they are, the event was mired by the busloads of tourists.

Too many people and not enough ruins!

However, several birds made their presence known: Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Tawny-winged Woodcreeper, Lesser Greenlet, Stub-tailed Spadebill, Couch’s Kingbird, Brown Jay, White-breasted Wood Wren and Red-throated Ant Tanager and my only Yellow-throated Euphonias.

Watching several hundred people scale the top of the highest ruin, did nothing to instill excitement, so we left and headed for the nearby lake to try for the secretive Spotted Rails.

We drove to the end of the road on the west side and parked the car. Scanning the reed bed fringes produced nothing! A pair of Orchard Orioles, a few Groove-billed Anis and a lone Limpkin were present, while out on the lake Pied-billed grebe and Anhingas were seen.

Snail Kite showed really well by the lake edge, even taking a Snail just to show Ingrid why they are called what they are called!

Since it was midday, several vultures began to appear and scanning the distant trees, I was shocked to see the distinctive black and white form of a King Vulture. Despite trying to get Ingrid on the bird, it disappeared and never reappeared. A close vulture swooping over the water right in front of us was not typical Turkey Vulture behavior and it was quickly identified as a Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture and gave great views and photo opps, as did a young Snail Kite, showing off with a Snail just to prove to Ingrid how they get their name!

Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture

Adult Zone-tailed Hawk providing awesome views!

Just then, appearing right over our heads, doing its best Turkey Vulture impression was that old mimic, Zone-tailed Hawk. It gave great views before disappearing behind some houses.

Spotted Rail was apparently not going to show, so I gave up and we headed off into town for some lunch. We made our way back to Tulum, glimpsing several Brown Jays crossing the road as well as the distinctive shape of several Keel-billed Toucans.

Keel-billed Toucan

After a long, but successful trip, we chilled out on the beach, soaking up the beautiful weather, swimming and relaxing with a refreshing Mojito from the beachside bar. Tremendous.

25th November – Muyil
Suffering from a head cold, I only made a brief stop at Muyil this morning, which did not provide as much excitement as before and was rather quiet. Birds of note included Brown-crested and Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, several flocks of chaetura swifts, which based on range were Vaux’s. A Gray-headed Dove, White-bellied Emerald, Yellow-backed Oriole, Red-throated Ant Tanagers and Clay-colored Thrush were easy to see, but a highlight was finally seeing a trogon – two Black-headed Trogons chased each other around the treetops giving good views. A search of the scrub and village across the road from the entrance to the ruins produced a Zone-tailed Hawk, a Swainson’s Thrush and several Hooded Orioles.

26th November – Camino Vigo Chigia Road, Felippe Carillo Puerto
This was to be my big birding day out. Feeling much better after a good night’s sleep, I left at 4:45am to drive the hour to the area of Sian Ka’an biosphere reserve. The road that leaves the town of FCP and travels through prime jungle habitat, is well-known and probably THE best single spot for birding on the Yucatan. I left early to try for night birds. I decided to try the track that leads south into the reserve from Hwy 307, some 35 km from Tulum. I found the turn off and despite being great habitat I was bummed not to flush any poorwills off the road. After four km, I reached the unguarded entrance to the reserve and turned around figuring it wasn’t worth going any further. On the way out, just before I reached the main highway, I played the tape of poorwill and nightjar and all I heard was a distant, brief call of a Mottled owl. It neither responded nor came in! Grrr.

Boat-billed Flycatcher was only seen at Viga Chigo road.

I hurried to FCP and arrived at first light and began my exploration of the road. Despite high hopes of a birding avalanche, the area was generally quiet. I stopped at various spots and all was quiet…a Kiskadee here and a Least Fly there, but the trees were silent-ish! I stopped and walked, drove and walked, and gradually began to pick off a few birds one by one. An unseen, calling Mayan Anthrush, hinted at unseen hidden treasures deep within the forest. Two myiarchus-type flycatchers raised hopes they were Yucatan Flycatcher, a difficult identification given the similarities with the local subspecies of Dusky-capped. I had started to get my eye in and figured these were not meeting the grade for Yucatan and the id as Dusky-capped was confirmed by their mournful “weeuu” calls.

Pressing on, birds included Rose-throated Tanager, Boat-billed Flycatcher, Bright-rumped Attila and great looks at a Canivet’s Emerald and a Wedge-tailed Sabrewing. Birds were starting to add up including Ruddy and Ivory-billed Woodcreepers, White-bellied Emerald and Ladder-backed Woodpecker. At one spot, I thought the habitat looked good for Gray-breasted Chat, so I played the call and BOOM! In flies a male..awesome views and much more satisfying than the head of a female!

The heat was increasing, and as I stood quietly on the road looking at a rather barren group of trees, I noticed the silent flicking flight of a trogon – another Black-headed! I happened to turn around, just in time to see a Great Currasow walk quietly across the path, some distance away, and disappear into the forest. Further hard work finally turned up a Yucatan Flycatcher, or at least a bird I was happy fit the mold! Stopping one last time on the way out provided views of some skulking wrens, and in a matter of feet had nailed Long-billed Gnatwren, White-bellied and Spot-breasted Wrens.

I couldn’t help but stop-in at Muyil again on the way back. It was getting later in the day, but still it delivered a few birds. This was probably my favorite birding site. Small parties of chaetura swifts passed overhead, again likely Vaux’s but despite thinking they would appear different to Chimney Swifts, and knowing their size and subtle wing shape differences, I still couldn’t confidently put a name to them on sight, only on range. I’ll post some pix later.

Birding the village area across from the ruins entrance produced Brown Jay, Masked Tityra, Grayish and Black-headed Saltator and a small flock of Northern Rough-wingeds that didn’t show characters of Ridgway’s Northern Rough-winged.


Back at Tulum, I was happy to chill out and relax on the beach and enjoy some r&r, a highlight being my only Cave Swallow of the trip flitting over the rooftop. That evening we ate at the nearby La Onda restaurant for another fine Tulum meal.

27th November – Tulum to Cancun
The last morning Ingrid and I rose early to watch our final Tulum sunrise and what a spectacular send off we had.

Enjoying a pre-coffee sunrise outside our room (Ingrid Ducmanis)

We drove back to Cancun, dropped off the car and headed home, An amazing trip, an amazing place and great birding. Even though I was only birding for a few hours a day, some good planning and hard work managed to produce 90% of the birds a full-on trip might record, so I was happy with over 130+ species, despite missing some wanted birds such as Mottled owl, Yucatan Poorwill and Yucatan Nightjar.

Probably one of the nicest beaches we’ve been on..powder-soft sand and warm, crystal clear water made for a chill time!

I can’t recommend the Yucatan enough as an affordable destination for a birder/non-birding couple. Ingrid had a fantastic vacation and we both got to do the things we both enjoyed. We will be back! Thanks to Megan Crewe, Chris Benesh, Abby Darrah, Larry Sweetland and Niels Larsen for pre-trip help!


Snowy Owls 2017

December 14, 2017

(Click on images for larger, hi-res versions)
Arriving back from Mexico, it was evident there was an incursion of Snowy Owls Into CT. A widespread arrival across the Mid West had hinted at an irruption year and several birds were found at Long Beach in Stratford – a typical “go to” spot for this species.
Alex and I took a ride down and immediately found a bird sat on one of the closest jetties giving great looks in the scope and decent photo opps. (A dark, female- type bird had accompanied this bird but had been flushed twice by a woman with a point and shoot camera. Grrrr!)
A week later, with continued reports of multiple individuals, I made a predawn assault and obtained some decent shots of both individuals. The birds attracted a lot of attention!
Studies by Josephson (1980) and others (see below) have outlined the difficulties in ageing and sexing Snowy Owls. Birds after their first year are in first Adult plumage.  According to studies of known returning birds, it may take four-five years for an adult to reach a definitive basic plumage.
Ageing and sexing Snowy Owls is clearly difficult. In December, First-year (first-basic) males and adult females can overlap in plumage but first-year (first-basic) females are often the darkest and adult males the lightest. However, while that simplistic general wisdom may hold for many birds, some known-aged females never got darker with age, while some known-aged females became as white as older adult males –  clearly field sexing will lead to some mistakes!
Even I had published a note on ageing and sexing them based on a bird seen in Lincolnshire, UK in 1991 (Hough, 1992). In hindsight, and with a lot more Snowies under my belt, that note was perhaps a little simplistic in dealing with ageing and sexing…it is way more complicated than I could ever have known at that time.
While many individual birds won’t be able to be confidently aged and sexed in the field, studies done on the breeding grounds (Seidensticker et. al) and of museum skins hint at certain helpful criteria to focus on:
  • vermiculations on the scapulars, primary tips, and inner greater coverts.
  • barring on the nape
  • presence of barring or spotting on the inner secondaries
  • number of tail bars
  • any molt contrast in the primaries
  • density of barring on the upperparts and crissum
While it is clear that field views may not provide accurate clues to age and sex, some birds can present with enough features that a good guesstimate of age and sex can be attempted.
First-basic birds sport primaries and secondaries of the same generation and have relatively pointed primaries. Tail is similar, though many of these young birds can show growth bars that while visible in the hand, are not visible under normal field conditions. Males generally show spot-like markings on the secondaries that do not touch the rachi, while females tend to show more bar-like markings, often broader and blacker. Males show 2-3 broken tail bars while females typically average more, usually 3-6.

Apparent first-basic male Snowy Owl, Stratford, CT, Dec 2017

Apparent first-basic male Snowy Owl, Stratford, CT, Dec 2017 (same bird as above). a) Pointed primaries with slight mottling; b) three tail bars; c)brownish mottling on tertials and spot -like markings on secondaries.

To summarize, while the darkest, heavily marked birds are likely to be first-basic females, first-basic males can be variable, being dark first-years or light first-year birds. These birds typically have mottling in the scapulars, tertials, greater coverts, and between the bars on the primaries, that will help separate them from adults.
However, some first-year birds may show reduced mottling – a lack of such markings may not indicate that the bird is necessarily an adult.

Apparent first-basic male Snowy Owl, Stratford, CT, Dec 2017 (same bird as above). A rather pale bird, with unmarked nape, narrow barring on underparts, rather extensive white bib (compared to female). Mottling on rearmost scapulars, tertials and primaries suggest a first-basic bird.

I’ve included a few pictures of the recent birds, and past birds from neighboring states that may be helpful. The captions hone in on certain aspects of plumage that may hint at age and sex, but these are by no means definitive and I welcome comments on anything here that is incorrect. Again, these are just suggestions based on the current literature.

Apparent first-basic female Snowy Owl, Stratford, CT, Dec 2017. Larger size, typical of females was apparent in the field. Very heavily barred with reduced white bib, brown mottling on tertials and heavily barred nape. Barring extending onto the vent is also typical of females, especially first-basic individuals.

Apparent first-basic female, Stratford, Dec 2008. Note a)densely barred nape; b)extensive mottling on greater coverts, tertials and some rear scapulars;c) bar-like markings on secondaries; and d) 5 tail bars, with barring extending across both vanes.

Apparent first-basic female, Stratford, Dec 2008. (same bird as above).

First-basic Snowy Owls retain their primaries, tertials and tail until the early summer when they are essentially one year old. By the time we see these birds in Nov/December, they will be second-basic plumage having completed or nearly completed their first primary moult (usually starting with p7). Older birds (e.g.,third-basic) subsequently follow the same molt schedule with p7 being one of the first to be replaced.
So, how do you know in December, if the bird is a first-basic or older? Looking for visible signs of a first-year (see above) and then examining the primaries to see if there is any molt contrast between new, replaced primaries (typically p7) and secondaries. Apparently the differences are subtle, but possible on good close up images of the wing. Also, the newer primary tips often show a more rounded shape with a wider, white terminal fringe.)

Apparent first-basic male Snowy Owl, NY, December 2008. a) Pointed primaries with dark bars reaching to tip; b) spot-like markings on secondaries; and c) three narrow tail bars, Also, shows a noticeable white bib and unmarked vent, further pointers towards a male.

The following references conatin a wealth of information, but as Snowies seemed to be still showing up, hopefully this will help point people in the right direction if they are interested in trying to age/sex birds.


Cramp, S. (ed.) 1985. Handbook of the Birds of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, The Birds of the Western Palearctic, Volume 4 – Terns to Woodpeckers. Oxford University Press.

Hough, J. 1992. Snowy Owl plumages. Birding World 5(3): 96-97.

Josephson, B. 1980. Aging and sexing Snowy Owls. Journal of Field Ornithology 51: 149-160.

McGowan, K.J. 2001. Snowy Owls (Nyctea scandiaca): some recent visitors and thoughts on aging and sexing [online]. Available from: [Accessed December 2009].

Pyle, P. 1997. Identification guide to North American birds – part 1. Slate Creek Press, Bolinas CA. 

Sangster, G., Collinson, J.M., Knox, A.G., Parkin, D.T. & Svensson, L. 2004. Taxonomic recommendations for British birds: second report. Ibis 146: 153-157.

Witherby, H.F., Jourdain, F.C.R., Ticehurst, N.F. & Tucker, B.W. 1952. The Handbook of British Birds, Volume 2. H.F. & G. Witherby Ltd., London.

 Mathew T. Seidensticker, Denver W. Holt, Jennifer Detienne, Sandra Talbot, and Kathy Gray. 2011. Sexing Young Snowy Owls. Journal of Raptor Research 45(4):281-289. 2011


September 11, 2017

Adult female Black and White Warbler

A cold-front, with light N/NW winds sets up, raising the hopes that conditions over a weekend would allow me to collect some wood-warblers! But where would I go? Bluff was the obvious choice – but out of the question – I had Alex, so it had to be somewhere local. Despite a dearth of habitat, spots for consistently concentrating and holding passage warblers are few and far between in central coastal CT. Lighthouse Point it would have to be – it would be funneling birds and although birds are high, it would at least be a spot that would produce migrants. Although I didn’t have high-hopes for a lot of birds “on-the-deck”, I was about to be pleasantly surprised!

Sat 9th September
at 7am, I took up position at the NE boundary of the park. I was flanked by the harbor to the west and it overlooked the last line of trees before the park switches to a suburban development.

It was evident that birds were moving – small incessant “chips and chups” high overhead in the azure sky, could be heard as soon as I had exited the car. The birds were coming thick and fast, foraging and then moving along the line of trees before launching themselves out over the harbor. It was evident that the sky was layered and peppered with neotropical migrants, notably American Redstarts and Blue gray Gnatcatchers  – the biggest flight of that species I has ever seen. The distinctive “blink-blink” of Bobolinks formed a backdrop, moving high above the warblers and invisible to the eye.

I was the only birder present, so numbers are a conservative estimate and I am sure I missed more than a few things.

Eastern Wood-Pewee  6
Great Crested Flycatcher  5
Red-eyed Vireo  50
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher  180    A huge passage of this species occurred on the back end of a cold-front.
Swainson’s Thrush  1
Ovenbird  1
Black-and-white Warbler  4
Tennessee Warbler  1
Common Yellowthroat  30
American Redstart  110
Northern Parula  4
Magnolia Warbler  5
Yellow Warbler  1
Chestnut-sided Warbler  1
Blackpoll Warbler  2
Black-throated Green Warbler  3
Wilson’s Warbler  1
warbler sp. (Parulidae sp.)  50+
Scarlet Tanager  1
Rose-breasted Grosbeak  1
Dickcissel  1
Sunday 9th September
With similar conditions to yesterday but with lighter winds out of the north, I knew there would be birds today. I got there early and took up a position about 6:45 am, slightly more north of where I was yesterday, hoping to get a “warbler id in flight” refresher course. In the 80/90s, when I resided in Cape May, and free from the confines of a day-job, I was able to witness almost every fall cold front!  However, those days are long gone for me and you quickly get out of practice. It can be humbling in conditions, like today,when birds are high and small. That is the case at Lighthouse..birds are already in the stratosphere, so pinning a name to many is tough…but sometimes you get lucky with a few. Assuming you can track these and lock focus with a camera, it provides some “after the event” clues to the dashing dot’s identity!

Uncropped from the camera – this was one of the close birds!

Adult male Cape May Warbler – same bird as in the photo above

Bay-breasted Warbler

American Kestrel  2
Eastern Wood-Pewee  3
Least Flycatcher  1
Red-eyed Vireo  12
Common Raven  3
Black-capped Chickadee  2
Tufted Titmouse  2
White-breasted Nuthatch  1
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher  160    Again unusually high numbers after another night of N winds
Northern Waterthrush  3
Black-and-white Warbler  6
Tennessee Warbler  1
Common Yellowthroat  30
American Redstart  120
Cape May Warbler  2
Northern Parula  10
Magnolia Warbler  3
Bay-breasted Warbler  1
Blackburnian Warbler  1
Yellow Warbler  1
Blackpoll Warbler  4
Black-throated Blue Warbler  4
Black-throated Green Warbler  1
Canada Warbler  1
warbler sp. (Parulidae sp.)  80
Rose-breasted Grosbeak  1
Dickcissel  1
Bobolink  60
So, over two mornings, in one spot I managed 19 sp of warbler – and never saw another birder!! This was surprising since the flight was rather predictable in its occurrence, if not the magnitude. It ranks as one of the best (biggest) flights in many years – certainly the best since I’ve lived here. Bluff Point, our well-known migrant trap totalled 9000 warblers in three hours!!!

Ardenna Overload

September 2, 2017

19th-20th August Cape Cod, Massachusetts

L to r: Nick Bonomo, Phil Rusch, Me, Luke Seitz, Peter Trimble and Dave Provencher

(Click on Images for Hi-Res versions)

With our annual overnight pelagic being weathered out, several of us decided to head up to the Cape to do some birding, especially as we had kindly been given floor space at Peter Trimble’s home.

So, Dave Provencher, Phil Rusch and myself met up at 4 am in Mystic, CT and drove up to Race Point, Provincetown, meeting Nick Bonomo and Luke Seitz en route. There had been a nice showing of shearwaters at Race Point, along with jaegers and, as we had found out, even a South Polar Skua had been seen flying up the beach!

Stopping for a quick coffee, we soon arrived at the parking lot that was lightly shrouded in fog – not good, since that would hamper visibility offshore. Nick had called to say that they were two miles down the beach. We were saved from a long walk by Blair Nikula who kindly came and picked us up and brought us back down to the beach. When we arrived, we had no idea what an amazing spectacle we were about to experience. Feeding right in the surf was a mass of feeding Great Shearwaters, thousands of them…there were birds everywhere. They were feeding on a huge amount of small fish, bunker or Menhaden, that had been pushed inshore.

Blair Nikula and Jeremiah Trimble ankle-deep in Great Shearwaters

Great Shearwater over oily water

As we all stood there, not quite being able to take it all in, we noticed there were not just Great, but Cory’s, Sooty and Manx Shearwaters! Then somebody shouted “SABINE’S!!”

Adult Sabine’s Gull – a dapper bird!

A dapper ad Sabine’s Gull flew out of the gloom and alighted in the water in front of us. My first east coast Sabine’s, it showed well during the morning. Several Roseate Terns and Black Terns paraded by, all against a swarming melee of shearwaters. Foggy conditions made for tough photography, but standing in the surf, surrounded by Great Shearwaters while Cory’s flew up the beach behind us was a surreal experience.

Who needs a boat?

“Hey..get out of the way!” Cory’s Shearwater in the surf..

Manx Shearwater

Manx Shearwater

The rest of the crew went to check out a shorebird, and Blair and I stayed by the car. At this point, I noticed a small, slim-winged Cory’s-type shearwater, which from photos looked good for Scopoli’s! It was distant, but the underwing seemed to fit! Almost at the same time, Blair shouted, “SABINE’S”. Surprisingly, this time it turned out to be a fresh juvenile!! It flew close and landed offshore.

Juvenile Sabine’s first Sabine’s in the east…

I texted the others, who soon rejoined us, and over the next hour we photographed a few more apparent Scopoli’s, surely one, if not the only time, this species/subspecies has been identified from shore?

Apparent Scopoli’s Shaearwater (top left) with a Cory’s Shearwater. Apparently no plumage or size differences are useful (except for some small females?) and the underwing pattern of many Scopoli’s-types is variable. Some have extensive white extending onto the primary bases, but hiow much is enough…

We walked down the beach back to the main parking area, noting a 2nd-cycle Parasitic Jaeger, more Roseate Terns and thousands and thousands more shearwaters!

Second-cycle Parasitic Jaeger

Click here for the ebird checklist

We stopped for lunch and continued to Chatham to try for a Little Stint that had been present for several days. We soon found the bird feeding in a shallow, wet area. We essentially had the bird to ourselves and with some crawling and scurrying through the mud, we were able to field craft the heck out of it and obtain some nice images.

Adult Little Stint, Chatham, Mass. A pretty straightforward identification. I always remain skeptical of claims of juveniles in the east in fall. I am not aware of any except for a bird at Cape May in September 1982. I wonder if that record would stand up to review today in lieu of any other sightings..

Nick getting up close and personal…

20th August – Monomoy

So, after some early morning fun with a brazen skunk, the plan was to take Nick’s boat out to Harwichport and zoom out to Monomoy. This used to be more accessible back in the 90s but unless you have a boat, you can’t get out there now. This has to be one of the best shorebird spots in the east. I had seen a Bar-tailed Godwit out here way back when, and it is known as a July staging ground for Hudsonian Godwits before they jump off into the Atlantic and head south.  We anchored the boat and headed off to the powder hole, a brackish, tidal  pool good for shorebirds. It was a great, birdy spot we had to ourselves, but diversity was low.

Birding the Powder Hole on Monomoy

We had good looks at some Roseate and Black Terns, and a sprinkling of commoner species, but nothing of note. It had gotten hot, so we headed back.

Lunch anyone?? Nice bit of baked Seal…yummy!!

Stopping off at Minimoy, there were tons of birds on the falling tide. Unfortunately, we had no time for landing, especially since we may have gotten the boat stuck. Luke jumped out to scope the distant flock, picking out Marbled and Hudsonian, but they were really distant. We had to be back that night, so we decided not to risk it.

So, although disappointing we never made it offshore, the weekend;s birding was more than a fitting consolation!

Those late summer “Dodgy Dows”

August 6, 2017

Dowitcher, Boulmer, Northumberland, July 2017 (Alan Curry) Present for several days this worn adult (or 2nd cal yr?) showed well on a tidal beach in the UK. Certain aspects of the bird caused locals to consider Short-billed.

My old buddy Alan Curry, from the UK, sent me a pic of this dowitcher that was present in north-east England in mid-July. Long-billeds are vagrants and the more likely suspect, but with a couple of records of Short-billed, any dowitcher must be examined carefully. Assumed to be Long-billed, he had some concerns about the habitat choice (rocky, tidal seashore, rather than inland freshwater), plumage and the obvious fact that this bird has a short bill.

Worn breeding plumage dowitchers are difficult and tricky here in the eastern US. I told him it is not a problem exclusive to the UK. He asked for my opinion on the UK bird to make him sleep a little easier!

Indeed this month a few birds have shown up that people have had trouble with so I figured I’d throw a few comments together to illustrate what I personally look for. The issue is compounded here in the US by the presence of the inland, ‘prairie’ race hendersonii, which migrates along the eastern seaboard in good numbers and is brighter than the Atlantic form griseus, and is slightly larger and more colorful and often hard to separate from Long-billed.

Back to the UK bird? I won’t go into a long treatise of these birds, there are plenty of papers and resources on the web, so this will just be a few things I hone in on. Despite the short bill, I think this is a male Long-billed for the following reasons:

  • First, the underpart color is extensive, reaching underneath the legs. It isn’t as “brick-red” in saturation as many Long-billed’s, but color is variable (especially when represented in photos).
  • The upperparts are quite dark, especially the mantle.
  • A slight neck collar formed by a coalescing of barring/streaks.
  • The internal bars to the scapulars are bright, rufousy colored.
  • The barring at the carpal area is distinctly chevron-shaped, not lozenge/spot-like.
  • The tips to some of the upperparts are white-tipped (similar to tertial  tips of a White-winged Crossbill).

Jizz is hard from this one shot, but it looks like it could well look very rotund/dumpy, but it is hard to judge. Judging bill length, shape and loral angles to me are less important than the features i can see noted above, so find them often misleading or a red-herring. Habitat choice is also misleading since Long-billed can be found in habitat similar to Short-billed (as in this case).

Long-billeds also moult inner primaries earlier than griseus Short-billeds since they are shorter distance migrants, but this bird was fully-winged and any molt clues are likely better off used later in the summer (late August?).

I remember looking hard at dowitchers in Cape May during my years there, trying to separate some hendersonii Short-billed from Long-billed was sometimes a bit of a headache for A UK birder that didn’t grow up seeing them regularly.

Comparison sketch of Long-billed vs Short-billed noting some subtle differences, Cape May, August 1991, Chevron-shaped markings with a paler terminal fringe (if unworn) at the carpal area is the first thing I gauge on difficult birds.

The chance to see Long-billed with both races of Short-billed was key, and even then, some birds can still be tough if not seen well, or heard to call. I still struggle with some individuals.

Ad Long-billed (left) and hendersonii Short-billed (right), Cape May Meadows, August 1991. Note the rotund shape and “greyer-faced” look of the Long-billed. The breast side barring is almost worn off on the Long-billed. The brighter, golden fringes to the upperparts, mantle and tertials are typical of hendersonii.

Flock of Short-billed Dowitchers, Connecticut (Nick Bonomo). This nice shot comprises what appears to be mostly hendersonii (H) and a griseus (G) and one bird that both of us are unsure about (?).

So, just a couple of comments to concentrate and dwell on if you happen to come across a silent, bright dowitcher in July/August.

31st July – Falkner Island, Guilford

August 4, 2017

Click on images for Hi-res versions

On July 28th  two tern researchers, Cedric Duhalde and Alex Heuschkel, discovered CT’s second Bridled Tern, on Falkner’s Island, 3.5 miles off Guilford, CT in Long Island Sound. They quickly posted info on their discovery and allowed birders to mobilize themselves.

The first record, also on Falkner’s Island, was 25 years previous and untwitchable. So this was essentially a second bite of the cherry for everyone. The problem is that the island is off-limits due to nesting terns, specifically endangered Roseate Terns, so it would be a boat-only jaunt, made more difficult because I don’t have a boat! Nick Bonomo has a boat, and together with his girlfriend, they decided to make a dash for it the same evening, pitting his luck against fading light, wind and the unpredictable nature of nature. His story can be found here.

None of CT’s top listers, with a fervor for new state birds, knew of anyone with a boat, so I decided the only way to see it would be to find a boat in Guilford and organize it myself. After calling around and coming up empty on the charter front, the bird was not seen at all on Sunday, so I went about my business and resigned myself to tackling other issues in life. However, that changed on Monday 31st July at 7:15 am, when Capt Lou returned my message and said he was interested in taking people out and he could go that night. That’s great, but with no positive report, I was about to say, “Thanks, but no thanks”, when I get a text:  “Bridled’s back on the jetty!”.  Game on!!

I had several birders keen to go out if I found a boat, so on the way to work, I texted them all to say I knew a man with a boat and Roy Harvey, Frank Gallo, Dave Provencher and Greg Hanisek were to meet me at the Guilford town dock at 4:30pm.

On the way to the dock, it transpired that some webs of allegiances were being spun and, with the potential for conflicts bubbling just under the surface, it started to go all Game of Thrones.

Suddenly, people interested in being on the only organized charter  – and who had been allocated a spot – had already apparently found a boat, been out there that same morning and ticked it – all before we had even arrived at the dock. Of course, having “friends with boat benefits” was obviously at play here, and now filling that slot last minute on our charter with overflow people was easy, but more delicate because I had more friends than seats. People with boats – who weren’t going, or had gone already – were now going again, and people who had boats -who had offered to split costs with passengers, but couldn’t sail on a particular day – were now gripped off when those same passengers found passage on another “friend’s” boat. Some birders even “forgot” they were part of a work party that actually had permission to land ON THE ISLAND that you weren’t actually allowed to land on!

Capt Lou was enthusiastic and interested and soon we were off. A text from one observer alerted us to the fact that the bird was there, but had been flushed by a Peregrine and was not present! Flushed is better than eaten, but it dialed-up the anxiety meter a tad! It didn’t take long to get there, and the evening was calm with blue skies – a wonderful evening on the water.

Watching the bird! It is visible in the picture just below and to the right of the lighthouse.

We anchored in position and started scanning. I moved up to the bow, and was scanning when the bird suddenly appeared in front of me, winging- in from the right. “Here it is!!” The bird made a beeline for the rocks and settled in place, allowing for brilliant views over the next 40 mins! Reeeesssuult!!

Adult Bridled Tern, Falkner Is., CT July

Luckily, on the one pass, it allowed a few shots in flight. The white bleeding onto the primary bases is different from Sooty Tern and useful in flight when head pattern may be hard to discern.

With several of us having chartered a boat to a spot that had previously been “off-limits”, suddenly the bird was twitchable for the masses, remaining faithful to the rocks and jetty on the west end of the island and was subsequently seen by many people over the next few days.

Roseate Tern. A worn individual and not immediately an easy id. Note worn, blackish outer primaries contrasting with greyer inners and long outer tail feathers lacking any dusky grey on the inner/outer webs.

Roseate Tern, Falkner Island, CT. Note white impression, especially of the underparts, long pointed and all white tail. The bill is half black, typical of many breeding birds, but will wear characteristically darker as the season progresses. The pink flush that gives them their name is quickly worn off due to the rigors of breeding.

Back to Blighty – July 2017

July 30, 2017

South Stack Lighthouse, Anglesey, North Wales

As always, click images For Higher-Res versions

It had been a while since I had revisited the homeland. So, a summer trip to England to see my family was overdue.  Mid-July is not an ideal time to bird the best of Britain, but going in summer meant I had a chance to catch up on some birds I hadn’t seen in a while. My good friend Nick Bonomo planned to fly-out to join me. So, some meticulous planning with old friends Paul Derbyshire, Si Smethurst, Chris Mills, and Andy Culshaw ensured Nick would bag as many UK ticks as was possible.

The week leading up to departure had been rather chaotic and stressful, so I was looking forward to getting away and seeing my mum and sister. I arrived jet-lagged in Manchester on 1st July and enjoyed some r&r for a few days. Nick arrived a couple of days later and we left Bolton in the early hours of 4th July, heading for the Welsh valley at World’s End, hoping to bag some lingering “chickens”.

4th July – World’s End, North Wales
Heading through the sleepy and mist-enshrouded town of Minera at dawn, we climbed up onto the moor and within minutes found 11 Black Grouse loafing at a lek site by the road. We had great looks at these molting males before they suddenly dispersed into the surrounding area.

Black Grouse, World’s End, May 2014

Skylark and Meadow Pipits and a brief Mistle Thrush surely enlivened Nick’s morning, but the second target “chicken” aka  Red Grouse, was seen distantly as we exited the valley. We drove through the scenic Conwy valley, adding several common or garden birds to the list – Grey Wagtail, Bullfinch, Chiffchaff, Nuthatch, etc.

We arrived in Penmaeanmawr to meet up with longtime friend Paul Derbyshire. After some coffee, we all headed off to Anglesey. We stopped off en route at Aber Ogwen’s estuary and pools. A good spot that produced a number of Little Egrets – a strange sight considering this was a real rarity during my childhood birding days. Redshanks, Oystercatchers and two unexpected Greenshanks were good shorebirds for my Yankee companion. After a productive stop here, we continued on to Anglesey. With the Cemlyn Bay terns deserting the breeding grounds due to predation, we skipped that spot and headed for South Stack, Holyhead. The weather was overcast and damp, but it didn’t hamper birding. The seabird cliffs at South Stack are picturesque and buzzed with the to-ings and fro-ings of Guillemots and Razorbills and a few Fulmars. The specialty of the spot, Chough, obliged with great views. A few Puffins or “sea clowns”,  as they are known locally,  were loafing in the cove below the cliffs, while careful scanning offshore produced several Manx Shearwaters.

Heading back, a lunch stop in Holyhead for some Fish and Chips was welcomed. A stop at the Inland Sea produced several dapper Mediterranean Gulls, a top target bird for Nick and were surely breeding birds dispersing from nearby Cemlyn?

Aber Valley Falls, N Wales

Back on the “mainland”, the sun had come out and we headed for the delightful Aber Valley Falls to try for some woodland birds. Being mid-July, nothing was really singing, and birding was tough and we failed on Redstart and Wood Warbler. A nice Sparrowhawk and several Common Buzzards appeared overhead as well as a fly over Siskin. Continuing up to the falls, careful scanning of the hilltops revealed a distant raptor that both Nick and I noticed independently. It was an Osprey, carrying a fish, a good bird for this part of Wales and the first Paul had seen here.
Back to Conwy to meet up with another longtime friend Fred Fearn for dinner. We all enjoyed a nice evening at a pub by the harbor, catching up and drinking some beer!

5th July Conwy, North Wales

A flock of juvenile Little Egrets, Burton Mere, Cheshire

A nice day dawned, and we headed off to Conwy RSPB reserve which appeared dead, so we bid adieu to Paul and Fred and continued on to Burton Mere RSPB….a  nice reserve, built on the opposite side of the mere to the famous, and rarity-delivering spot of Inner Marsh Farm. Little Egrets were breeding here and recently it transpired that Cattle Egrets had also nested here…the first breeding occurrence of that species in the UK.

Juv Little Egret…long overdue back home in CT!

We did not see the Cattle Egrets, but highlights included a distant flying Spoonbill and the worst ever view of a Great White Egret, in flight heading away – only my 2nd in the UK. Little Ringed Plover and a Ruff were nice for Nick, but nothing else of note.

We headed back to Bolton, dropped off the rental vehicle and grabbed a brew before Si came by and we headed off straight for the Norfolk coast. We stopped off in East Leake, Notts in the early evening, to twitch a small group of Bee-eaters that had taken up residence at a working quarry and were showing signs of breeding – a rare occurrence in the UK.

A splash of color…this is what Bee-Eaters look like when you get close views, not like when you see them in Nottingamshire. This was one of several at Po Marshes in Italy in 2006.

Nick and Si wondering when we might get good views..

Strangely enough, they showed only briefly, so views were in flight and far from exceptional, and they showed only briefly and distantly by the time we had to leave. They are currently raising two broods! Confiding Yellow Wagtails and a juvenile Green Woodpecker were our only good views of the trip.

Pressing onwards, we had a rendezvous in north Norfolk with some heathland species, European Nightjar being a much-wanted bird for Nick. We made a quick pit-stop to pick up a sandwich, and made it onsite at dusk. Unfortunately, since it was late in the breeding season, there wasn’t much activity. As the light waned, we finally were serenaded by a churring male. It was too dark for decent views and, although it came close and wing-clapped, views in the spotlight were poor. We had other sites, but this first try was a tad disappointing.

We arrived late at our digs, driving by a Barn owl on a sign that only Si saw. Our digs for the next few nights were Deepdale Backpacker’s – a great little set-up. As Nick and I unpacked the car, Si had heard a Tawny Owl calling in the churchyard across the street. Grabbing the flashlight we headed off into an archetypal English graveyard, only to be shouted at by a local busybody from a window “’ere, what are you lot doing over there?” A quick retort of “Just go back to bed” was offered, and the night again fell silent, except for the squeaking of a juvenile Tawny Owl that we saw quickly but briefly. BOOM!

6th July, The Brecks

My longtime friend and top guy Chris Mills had arranged to meet us and give us the benefit of his local knowledge. Chris runs Norfolk Birding and I recommend anyone that wants to bird Norfolk, to seek out his birding skills and guiding expertise  (

The famous four do the Brecks. Nick Bonomo, Simon Smethurst, myself and Chris Mills scouting for Goshawks… (Ssshhhh…we can’t tell you where…)

The weather was great and we hunted down some Breck’s specialties that included: Tree Pipit, Goshawk, Red Kite, Marsh Tit, but struggled with Woodlark at a couple of spots. We had a great laugh and headed off for an afternoon at Lakenheath, our only good spot for some fenland specialties and our best shot at Bittern, Hobby, Crane and Bearded Tit. The weather at this point, suddenly took a turn for the worse and we took shelter in a blind. Si managed a brief flight view of a Bittern and we had great views of Marsh Harrier, Reed Warbler and Kingfisher. Several untickable views for Nick of Bearded Tit and  a heard-only Cetti’s Warbler were frustrating. To be honest, having lived in the US now for many years, I can’t defend how atrociously shite Old World warblers are, and it was no surprise to see Nick less than enthralled by worn Chiffchaffs and Reed Warblers!

My best-ever view of Bittern in the UK, Lakenheath, Suffolk

The rain abated and we headed back, and as the sun came out again, we were treated to a first-summer Hobby that gave good views and also superb flight views of a Bittern that crossed over the path in front of us. No cranes were around, having failed at breeding.

We left enough time in the evening to hit a spot in north Norfolk that held a pair of Montagu’s Harriers. A rare breeding bird, this site was actively monitored and we found ourselves taking position overlooking some beautiful rolling hills and fields. It wasn’t long before I spotted the female in flight. She flew around and landed in a field. Shortly afterwards, the male, tiny by comparison to the female, flew in and made a food pass. We enjoyed distant, but prolonged views of the male sat perched and in flight.

Female Montagu’s Harrier, soaring over the Norfolk countryside at dusk…a rare sight in the UK.

Male Montagu’s Harrier, Extramedura, Spain….this is what the Norfolk bird looked like through a scope instead of a camera!

We headed back to Deepdale and treated Si and Chris to some ale and dinner at the White Horse for their hard work and organization.

7th July – North Norfolk Coast

Up early doors and out to Kelling Heath, picking up Andy en route. On the heath, a calling Turtle Dove refused to give itself up. Continuing on, looking for Woodlarks, we were surprised to bump into a Dartford Warbler without much effort.

Then, as I turned around, two small, stubby looking birds were flying past, “WOODLARKS!!”. The birds flew by, exhibiting their short tail, but against the overcast sky, looks were just silhouettes. They appeared to go down in a patchy area of heathland, so we headed over. As I skirted around a bush, I kicked up a roosting Nightjar from under my feet and shouted out in surprise. The bird, a male, flew past in broad daylight and gave good, if brief, views before disappearing into cover..awesome! Good views of Garden Warbler and Lesser ‘throat eluded Nick, still not bothered, since old world warblers really lack kerb appeal compared to our bright American wood-warblers.

Off to Cley for some tea and bacon sandwiches and a nostalgic trip down memory lane for the boys, regaling Nick of twitches here to see Greater Sandplover, Little Whimbrel and Pacific Swift. There were a couple of roosting Spoonbills out on Arnold’s marsh, but we decided to press on to Titchwell, stopping to look on the sea at the coastguards.

We had high hopes for Titchwell, one of the premier reserves on the east  coast.

Waders abound! “Twitchwell” delivers.

Even in July, it was packed with Avocets and a host of ‘common’ waders that Nick was happy to grill. Several amazing-looking Ruffs, some molting Spotted Redshanks, Black and Bar-tailed Godwits, Redshanks, Curlew, Lapwing and Little Ringed Plover.

Avocet doing it’s thang!

Donald Trump of many killer-looking birds!

On the beach, two Ringed Plovers were good to see, especially since Nick and I had been looking for this long overdue vagrant back home in CT! That they looked like Ringed Plovers to us was refreshing and encouraging!

Scoping godwits and gulls, Titchwell

Simon “vis-migging”…it is hard getting old…

Mr Andrew Culshaw pondering if there is any upside to texting the wife from the field…

A Eurasian Whimbrel hung about on the beach, but was distant. A breeding plumage Common Gull on the beach was the best view of one that we had on the whole trip. Back on the reserve, a few non-breeding Little Gulls were mixed in with the breeding Black and Med Gulls, but little else was seen, though Bearded Tits finally gave themselves up.

Adult Med Gull..always dapper!

Bagging Turtle Dove at last in the parking lot we headed west to Hunstanton where we spent some time photographing swifts and the cliff-nesting Fulmars!

Fulmars cliff-nest at Hunstanton, Norfolk

Common Swift, Hunstanton

We then headed off to look for owls.  At a spot Andy knew of, we managed…finally..decent looks at a Barn Owl quartering the countryside, but no photo opps. As light was waning, a quick stop at a local Abbey, turned up Little Owl..squeaking it onto the list in the last rays of the day!

As usual, off to the pub for some much needed nosebag and some, as Nick put it,  “nice, but weak as piss” ale!

8th July- North Norfolk Coast

Our last morning. We opted for another bash at Titchwell, since that’s were the birds were!

Burnham Norton Abbey…there was a Barn Owl here before Andy scared it off 🙂

A brief, pre-dawn look for Barn Owl came up negative, but good views of a Red Kite overhead and some juv Marsh Harriers were nice.

Red Kite

During the previous afternoon, we had been looking amongst the ducks trying to pick out a Garganey that had been present. It was with a bit of a surprise when Si said, “How close do you want to see a Garganey?”. Confused and intrigued, we looked in his direction and that direction was down. Right outside the hide..literally in the grass was the eclipse male Garganey. Now, I’ve seen birds in Spring, and I know it was a lifer for Nick, but what a pile of shite this bird was!

Eclipse make Garganey

As noon approached it was time to bid adieu to Andy and we made our way back to Bolton, thankfully encountering no traffic.

A brief trip, it was great to spend time with family and great friends and see some birds. Thanks to Andy, Si and Chris for not just scoping out the birds, but to Si and Chris for driving us around and helping with logistics, and also for being great company!

View from Choseley..a spot were Corn Buntings often can be found…but not this morning!



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 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!

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!