Smith’s Longspur, Wilton, CT – Twitch on!

May 2, 2015
Male Smith's Longspur, Wilton, CT

Male Smith’s Longspur, Wilton, CT

TGIF! Friday ended with no real plans for the evening, so I was doing errands at the store, when my phone rang. It was Jake Musser. “Smith’s Longspur reported at Allen’s Meadow! I’m leaving now!”.

Smith’s Longspur was a much-wanted bird in the state – it was essentially a lifer, since the only previous bird I had seen was a skulking b!!@@## of a bird at Jones Beach, NY several years ago. A one observer-photographed-bird, seen by Larry Flynn, in late March several years ago, was not available to the masses and could not be found subsequently by yours truly and others searching in vain the day after.

So, this was the first chaseable bird since the early 70s or so and a state tick for just about everyone alive!

Homeward-bound, via rush hour New Haven traffic, I made a quick pit-stop to pick up the optics and I was on my way.  Although it was overcast, there was plenty of light left. When I arrived it was in view, showing brilliantly, shuffling around a short area of cropped grass and gravel. Occasionally it would flush, giving it’s rippling, liquid-like rattle call.

With a careful, not-too-close approach, I managed to get a few record shots at high ISO. Kudos to Bruce Stevenson for a mega-find and also proactively putting the news out – even when he wasn’t 100% sure of the id. – to allow people to get there tonight!


Gulls Gone Wild!

April 20, 2015

17th-19th April – West Haven, CT (click images for larger view)


First-cycle Thayer’s Gull, West Haven, CT 19th April

After Nick Bonomo refound the adult Kamchatka Gull at Oyster River on the West Haven, Milford border, (first found in Southport, CT by Mayn Hipp and Mike Warner a week previously), Oyster River had been given a good going over by a few locals, mainly because it was a great loafing spot for gulls and hosted CT’s only Ross’s Gull in the 80s.

The birds are frequently disturbed here by Joe Public and when flushed, frustratingly often fly off into the sound and despite checking the area, the Kamchatka Gull had not been seen since. Nick and I did find a surprisingly late Snowy Owl along the same stretch of coast. Later that night, amazingly enough, Keith Mueller, birding the same spot an hour before Nick refound the Kamchatka, had unwittingly photographed another Mew Gull while taking shots of Bonaparte’s Gulls. The images appear to show the Eurasian race of Mew Gull, known as Common Gull.

On Friday 17th, I had left work early for a Dentist appt. Deciding to head down to Oyster River on spec, I was just leaving New Haven, when Nick called to tell me Keith had relocated the Kamchatka Gull back at Oyster River. Panicking, I set off only to hit rush hour traffic. Halfway there I got a call that the bird was flushed by a clammer and was not on view. AAARRRGGGHHHH!!! Relief came when Keith called back and said he had it out on the flats. A mad sprint later and the bird showed excellent roosting on the flats.

Adult Kamchatka Gull, Oyster River, CT

Adult Kamchatka Gull, Oyster River, CT

I spent Sunday afternoon 19th April birding, but  there was no sign of the Kamchatka Gull or any other gulls for that matter. Taking my usual route back to the house, I stopped at the West Haven boat ramp, as I often do to check out any gulls. There were few birds in evidence but I did spot a first-cycle Iceland Gull on the water.


_P9A4672After shooting it for some time, I left. As I was reversing back, I caught a glimpse of a bird landing below the dock, but the metal barricade obscured everything but the underside of the wingtip. It looked surprisingly silvery, but didn’t strike me as Iceland. My spidey sense was tingling, so I stopped the car, got my bins and peered over the barrier to find a first-cycle Thayer’s Gull staring back at me. Holy !!!@@$$$$.


Doing a double-take, I checked off the short primaries with nice silvery fringes, brown, pale-tipped tail and overall bleached, cafe-au-lait plumage. Structurally it was all thayeri with short legs, a slight pot-belly and a disproportionately small, but pear-shaped head. The bill was mostly dark, just beginning to get some flesh-color at the base. Thayer’s retain their juvenile mantle feathers until later in the winter and upperparts seemed to be all worn first generation feathers, again supportive of Thayer’s Gull.

_P9A4882In flight, coffee-coloured (not blackish, or dark brown) tail, secondary bar and outer webs to the outer primaries all screamed..RESULT!!

_P9A4778Nice pale underside to primaries, here the light showing through illuminating the “venetian blind” effect on the primaries.

_P9A4845Note color of primaries and tertial centres being rather uniform and not contrastingly darker as some of the similar, bleached Herring Gulls nearby. What a cracking bird! I’ve always dreamed of finding something like a Mew Gull or a Franklin’s Gull here, but Thayer’s was not really on my radar.

A fantastic few days of birding on my local beaches!

_P9A4254Snowy Owl, Bradley Point, West Haven..a nice consolation for missing the Kamchatka Gull on the first evening.

Yellow-bellied kingbird tail patterns

November 22, 2014

A self-found Western Kingbird, New Haven, CT October 2010. Nice dark tail and pale grey head identify it quickly as a Western, but note the white tail edges are not visible in this view. (Julian Hough)

Vagrant kingbirds such as Tropical, Couch’s and Cassin’s have all been recorded in the north-east and it is only a matter of time before one of these “Western” kingbirds in Connecticut turns into something a bit more exciting.

While Western Kingbird is the expected species, Cassin’s has been recorded in Massachusetts in 2010 (
and recently as last week in Brooklyn, although this was a one-observer sighting and couldn’t be refound.
Pictures clearly solidify the identity (; the second record for NYS after one at Montauk in October 2007 (

The Mass bird was mis-identified as a Western by virtue of its tail pattern, which was blackish and showed prominently white outer webs to the tail feathers, a key id feature of Western. That Cassin’s can show this too means that any yellow-bellied kingbird with a blackish tail and white outer edges may not necessarily be a Western.

A reported Western Kingbird in Bridgeport, without any details of other potential species being systematically ruled out, set off the spidey senses.  Questioning several observers, it seems the bird was distant but the ”white tail edges were apparent” The only pictures we saw seemed somewhat ambiguous – indeed the darkness of the head and tail pattern in one image suggested better photos need to be obtained to rule out Cassin’s. Further images revealed the bird to be a Western, as reported, but it spotlighted some tail features that needed to be expounded upon should observers be faced with a fall, yellow-bellied kingbird.


Tropical (left two birds) and Western (right two birds). Yale Museum (Julian Hough). Note tail and wing color.


Note the greenish band across the breast in the two Tropicals (left) compared with the more extensive grey breast of the Westerns. The Tropicals also show a cleaner white throat. Also, note the pale edge to the tail feather of the rightmost tropical, but compare with the more broader, whiter outer web of the Westerns. From below, the dark charcoal-gray underside to the tail is darker than the pale gray of the Tropicals.

So, just because it has pale outer tail feathers it doesn’t automatically make it a Western (see the Mass individual). So what should you key into when you chance upon a distant yellow-bellied kingbird?

Tropical Kingbird, Panama, February (Julian Hough). Note the long, notched tail, not darker than the wings and long, hooked bill.

Tropical Kingbird, Panama, February (Julian Hough). Note the long, notched tail, not darker than the wings and long, stout bill. Note the obvious pale edges to the tail – easily could be mistaken for those shown by Western?

Western Kingbird, New Haven (same as title photo). Note broad white edge to the tail which is blackish and clearly darker than the wingtips (Julian Hough)

Western Kingbird, New Haven, CT (same as title photo). Note broad white edge to the tail which is blackish and clearly darker than the wingtips (Julian Hough)

  • Bill size and shape and tail seem to be the two main features to concentrate on.  Calls are also invaluable in separating kingbirds, so recording and/or a clear description of the call is important in identifying and documenting the record from a historical point of view.
  • Any yellow-bellied kingbird with a blackish tail that is darker than the wings, is either a Western or a Cassin’s.
  • Both Western and Cassin’s show whitish tail sides, but Cassin’s often lacks this and has pale tips to the tail forming a pale terminal band. They are typically more obvious and include the entire outer vane of the outer tail feather in Western. Sometimes in the field this may not be obvious, so continued observation of an individual may be required to determine the presence and amount of white in the tail.
  • Any kingbird that has a paler brownish tail, that is concolorous with the wings is likely a Tropical or Couch’s. Note that some Tropicals can show paler edges to the outer tail feathers, but this is narrower and less well-defined that Western. Tropicals in particular seem to show a disproportionately long and notched tail.
  • Tropical and Couch’s both show a long, broad and hooked bill tip, larger than either Western or Cassin’s but sometimes, bill size and shape can be hard to determine on lone individuals.
  • Cassin’s and Western have a smaller bill, but compared to Western, Cassin’s have a short, but deep-based bill, often with a curved culmen that gives the bill a stouter, more conical-appearance.

So, a distant kingbird that has an obvious blackish-tail, darker than the wingtips, should get you into the Cassin’s/Western camp and a bird that has a tail concolorous with the wingtips should get you thinking about Tropical/Couch’s.

Separating them from here requires more observation about plumage and how dark the grey areas are on the head, underpart color and tail pattern. This post isn’t meant for covering that in detail, but I found a similar and more in-depth look at this problem by Kevin McGowan here at

Northern Goshawks-problems and pitfalls

October 25, 2014

We are getting into that time of year where well-manned hawk watches begin to see the occasional Northern Goshawk. Here in Connecticut, they are a late migrant, generally occurring in late October into November – all reports are typically of juveniles and not adults (I’ve never seen an adult away from the breeding grounds in CT).

Our well-known, in-state watchpoints (Lighthouse Pt. and Quaker Ridge) are manned everyday, all day, at this time of year and there are few reports of Northern Goshawk. The math is simple. Goshawks are uncommon.

Goshawks are  big buteo-like birds, impressive to see both during the breeding season and on migration. They are also frequently misidentified. The time-honored identification pitfall being big Cooper’s Hawks –  it is these birds that you are likely to see  at Hawkwatches in September; in your backyard, attacking birds at your feeders; or just hanging out at Hammonasett in winter. Could you see a Northern Goshawk in September, in your backyard, or at Hammonasett in winter. Sure, it’s possible…but really, it’s just a big Cooper’s Hawk. CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE.


Juvenile Northern Goshawks (left) and Cooper’s Hawks (right) (Julian Hough). Large juvenile female COHA can be very similar to NOGO, but note the broader body, tail and wings of NOGO. Underpart markings are variable in both, but typically heavier, darker and more extensive in NOGO.

We’ve all made that mistake, been spooked initially by that huge female Coop’s, but when you finally see a Goshawk, it’s often a case of “You know it when you see it”.


Status of “Northern” Red-tailed Hawk in Connecticut

October 11, 2014

An adult  Red-tailed I photographed at Lighthouse Point, Ct on the 14th November 2011 was particularly well-marked that I mused about it having some Western influence. I admit I am not familiar enough with that race to know, but it was distinct enough from typical Eastern (borealis) Red-tails to be noticeable. I recently came across the photo while updating my file library and with some basic research it fits as a typical example of a “Northern” Red-tail, the so-called abeiticola. While not a recognized sub-species, these birds inhanit the boreal forests from Alberta east to Nova Scotia.

From left to right: juvenile Eastern (borealis), adult Northern (abeiticola) and adult Eastern (borealis) Red-tailed Hawks, Lighthouse Point, CT Oct/Nov.

From left to right: juvenile Eastern (borealis), adult Northern (abeiticola) and adult Eastern (borealis) Red-tailed Hawks, Lighthouse Point, CT Oct/Nov 2011. (Julian Hough)

Birds show overlap in many plumage traits, juveniles in particular being harder to pigeonhole as abeiticola than adults. Compared to borealis, they are generally darker-throated, have more densely marked belly bands due to more globular streaks and are often more buffy-toned on the underparts, particularly the upper breast.

These features are all noticeable on the CT bird, together with more lightly-marked secondaries and darker tips to the outer primaries, giving a more Broad-winged-like wingtip pattern (though I don’t believe this is a separating feature, it does stand out).

As  increased buteo migration through Lighthouse Point ramps up in October and November, hawkwatchers should look out for these birds so we can try and assess their occurrence compared with more typical Eastern birds.

Thanks to Jerry Liguori for discussion and comments.

October 10, 2014
" mateys" From left to right (back): Frank Mantlik, Phil Rusch, Julian Hough, Nick Bonomo, Pat Dugan. (Front): Sara Zagorski and Tina Green

“ mateys” From left to right (back): Frank Mantlik, Phil Rusch, Julian Hough, Nick Bonomo, Pat Dugan. (Front): Sara Zagorski and Tina Green

A stalwart band of CT birders headed off to Hyannis on 22nd for the (almost) annual  Brookline Birdclub Overnight Pelagic trip to the deepwater canyons and continental shelf 100 miles south-east of Cape Cod.

The marine forecast was for rough seas but downgraded quickly to a forecast that amounted to 4-6ft waves and a 15-20 knot wind out of the NE. It was going to be rough. We were just glad we were going!

24th August

Hopped up on Bonine, we left at 6am. The sail out was quiet, but reaching the cold water of the Nantucket Shoals, several  Cory’s and Great Shearwaters made an appearance as did two brief Parasitic Jaegers and a distant juvenile Long-tailed Jaeger provided far from satisfying looks.

It's all smiles early doors...but wait for it!

It’s all smiles early doors…but wait for it!

The ride out to the shelf edge was again quiet, save for the odd phalarope and accompanying Wilson’s Petrel and a single Leach’s Petrel that powered by the boat. Cory’s and Great Shearwaters were seen and as we neared the deeper and warmer water, the expected Audubon’s Shearwaters began to be seen in rather unusually high numbers. Audubon’s  like the deep and warm water and are a sign that we are in the “zone” for the offshore specialties.

Scopoli's Shearwater? A bird with obvious white tongues protruding into the primary bases, but is it enough to call?

Scopoli’s Shearwater? A bird with obvious white tongues protruding into the primary bases, but is it enough to call?

Chimp-o-mania! How you really identify Scopoli's on a pelagic.

Chimp-o-mania! How you really identify Scopoli’s on a pelagic.

It was while watching Audubon’s, that the hoped-for shout of “White-faced Storm Petrel” went out and despite the increasing wind and swells, this bird showed really well for everyone around the boat. It would be the only one of the trip.

The only White-faced Storm Petrel of the trip (but you only need one!) performed for everyone!

The only White-faced Storm Petrel of the trip (but you only need one!) performed for everyone!

By now, the increasing wind and gathering seas had begun to hamper our passage eastwards along the canyon walls and we were not able to cover as much of this part of the ocean as we would have hoped. The 2012 trip had been able to get out farther to the east and it was this area that had yielded the Barolo Shearwater, good numbers of Band-rumped, several White-faced and the Red-billed Tropicbird.

Still we ploughed on, stopping to chum. The rough seas made for an unpleasant afternoon for a lot of participants…nothing is worse than trapped in an aluminum can bobbing in the ocean a 100 miles offshore!

More Wilson’s and Leach’s appeared and then the first of only a handful of Band-rumped’s appeared in the slick. Audubon’s began to wrack up into double-digits as did the amount of people chumming – the pitching and rolling rendered a good number of participants seasick and retired them to their bunks. A couple more Band-rumped’s performed, but they were few and far between, with Wilson’s and Leach’s predominating as usual.

Leach's Petrel

Leach’s Petrel

Then, about 3pm, I noticed Marshall and Nick looking quite intently in one direction. Out on the far horizon, a very distant bird was arching across the horizon. It looked interesting…distant shearwater..maybe…or something else? I went over to join them and we got on the bird and Marshall, in his excited feverish way, bellowed out “Get on this bird!”. The bird rose up, and Marshall shouted out “it’s a pterodroma”, and as it banked, I saw a white tail and I blurted out “Black-capped Petrel!” The pitching of the boat and distance made viewing difficult and only a few people were able to get on it. As the bird dropped against a backdrop of the sea, it became obvious to the three of us at least, that it was quite grey-looking and didn’t seem to sport much of a noticeable dark cap. Obviously troubling, it didn’t quite have the look of a distant Black-capped that we were all familiar with..“It might not be a Black-capped!” Marshall uttered as he attempted to direct people to a bird that was quickly getting distant and difficult to see.  I am sure at that point, all – least my thoughts entertained the notion that this grayish pterodroma, with pale underwings and no obvious collar MIGHT be a Cahow!  In those few seconds, despite the distance, Ian Davies managed to grab a couple of shots that when blown up clearly showed a Black-capped Petrel.  A great bird for Massachusetts!

As the light waned, several people retired to partake in the baked ziti dinner. Several of us remained on the top deck, still scanning as dusk encroached. To his credit and diligent scanning Marshall again picked up a bird on the horizon, and shouted out “Black-capped Petrel. Distant. Going left!” We managed to keep on the distant bird and while looks were better in that it was identifiable, even at this range, it was far from satisfying. People downstairs, being made aware that something was going on by the muffled commotion and assumedly choking on their ziti, scrambled to get out of the cabin. Amazingly enough, the bird turned and began to come toward the boat…closer…closer, until it was clear it was making a beeline for us.  Finally the bird came in and gave one close pass along the starboard side for photographic purposes and gave everyone a great look as it banked and veered away!

Black-capped Petrel - one of three birds, but thankfully after playing cat and mouse finally raked itself down the side of the boat for some ggod looks (photo Nick Bonomo)

Black-capped Petrel – one of three birds, but thankfully after playing cat and mouse finally raked itself down the side of the boat for some good looks (photo Nick Bonomo)

25th August

A rough night ensued- tethered to the ocean floor like a cork in a bucket! I slept hardly a wink and dawn greeted me feeling really crap! Not quite nauseous, but definitely felt better, a fact reinforced when I saw what Ian Davies looked like! He looked like I felt. He recounted how, minutes earlier, he had managed to lift his head from puking to see a distant, and third Black-capped Petrel slink silently across the horizon before most had awoken.

I had taken up a sole position at the front of the boat when out in front I noticed a gleaming white bird up ahead. I knew instantly what it was going to be and just as I opened my mouth to shout, someone from the stern bellowed out “TROPICBIRD. 11 ‘O CLOCK”. We motored up on the sitting bird, getting great looks. Obviously a Red-billed on bill size, it suddenly took flight only to be engaged by a Pomarine Jaeger that appeared out of nowhere. The birds put on a great fly-by, but I failed, through sheer photographic incompetence to secure good images!

Red-billed Tropicbird - really two for two on these trips...can't I get a White-tailed? Canna, canna

Red-billed Tropicbird – really two for two on these trips…can’t I get a White-tailed? Canna, canna

Red-billed Tropicbird - an example of how to kill a fly-by mega! (Photo Nick Bonomo)

Red-billed Tropicbird – an example of how to kill a fly-by mega! (Photo Nick Bonomo)

We gradually made our way back towards Nantucket shoals. At some point, I decided to take a break, and awoke to the alarming slowing of the boat. Running upstairs, I was greeted with the news that a South Polar Skua made a pass down the side of the boat, but despite it being close and a huge dark bird, it somehow suddenly vanished into the ether! You schnooze, you lose!

The last bit of excitement, came when we chased down a juvenile dark, Long-tailed Jaeger, that put on a great show trying to out run us.

Stunning dark juv. Long-tailed Jaeger - Fwaaww....look at that rump!!

Stunning dark juv. Long-tailed Jaeger – Fwaaww….look at that rump!!

All in all, another productive, amazing pelagic despite not being able to explore as far east as we had wanted to. Thanks to Ida and the Brookline Bird Club for organizing this trip!



Confusing Calidrid, Milford, CT July 16th 2006

July 28, 2014

I came across these photos I had saved in my “unknown” folder.  It is an adult bird that I came across while scouring through a big flock of Semi-ps.

It didn’t instantly stand out as anything I could put my finger on, except that it resembled both Semiplamated and White-rumped Sandpiper to me, but I don’t believe it either of those species. I considered the bird might be a hybrid, but the obvious one White-rumped x Dunlin doesn’t fit this bird, and if it is possibly a hybrid, does it looks more like White-rumped x Semiplamated Sandpiper?

I believe these images were digiscoped by Nick Bonomo. Although he did well to get any images, they are not of the highest quality but some key features can be seen.

Long-bodied, quite horizontal in stance with an attenuated body.

Bill, at least in one image looks quite long and fine-tipped.

Upperpart feathers and wing coverts dark-centered and pale-fringed and fairly uniform.

Off-white underparts with obvious and well-marked streaks.

Dark tail and rump in flight.


DSCN0364 DSCN0363 DSCN0361 DSCN0366

Land of Ice and Snow

February 9, 2014

A quick morning’s birding around Stratford and Milford over the weekend, yielded two-three Snowy Owls and a few Rough-legged Hawks. Great looks at the Snowies, including one being harassed by a Northern Harrier and adopting it’s defensive posture with wings splayed wide open.

_MG_6015Several close Rough-legged’s allowed good looks, including a smashing dark-morph bird that I chased down in the car by Sikorsky Airport. From a European perspective, Rough-legged Buzzards, as they are known across the pond, don’t occur in this dark morph. Stunning birds! _MG_5901A few years back, while birding on Plum Island, Mass, I came across this really tame dark morph Rough-legged which showed brilliantly hunting rodents right in front of us!

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The German harrier – some comments

January 21, 2014
HY male Northern Harrier, Milford, CT, USA (Julian Hough)

HY male Northern Harrier, Milford, CT, USA (Julian Hough)

So, after looking at the images, here’s my thoughts on this particular bird:
  • eye-crescents look too white and bulbous, especially toward the rear of the eye .
  • the nape is perhaps not as dark, or solid as I might like, even though it appears somewhat hooded at a distance
  • the streaking across the breast and along the flanks seems more in line with a young male, since females, generally from what I can gather, tend to be the less streaked. The streaking along the flanks seems well-marked, so that doesn’t mesh well with the age as a young female.
  • the color of the underparts looks fine for hudsonius.

Primary Barring

Females can show less bars and a wider middle secondary bar compared to males. Primary bars (excluding the dark tip) of 15 banded female Northerns in Cape May had the following:
  •  P9-7 varied on both male and female. Males averaged 6 bars (lowest 5, highest 7) while females averaged 5.6 bars (lowest 5, highest 8).

The German bird shows 4 bars on these feathers and thus fits better with Hen Harrier

Vent Pattern

One feature I need to look at is do juv Hen harriers often (always??) show dark-centered under tail coverts while hudsonius tend to have uniformly rufous vents (hair-like shaft streaks in young males, but not really visible in the field). This bird appears, from the images, to show a hudsonius-like vent, but again I am not sure based on my knowledge, if Hen Harriers frequently show this. Northern’s, as far as I have seen, never show dark, redpoll-like markings on the undertail coverts which makes the German bird better for hudsonius – or a hybrid? -than perhaps a Hen.
I often find I change my mind when re-examining images of these kinds of birds (!) and also wonder about a hybrid  possibility and whether that can be ruled out, especially if the under tail coverts in juv. (HY) Pallid and Montagu’s  are unstreaked and Hen’s are streaked. I do not go to the hybrid theory quickly, but the head pattern and underpart streaking strike me as odd for that age class of a putative hudsonius and overall fit better with Hen.
It is an interesting bird, but in my opinion doesn’t fit neatly the criteria for a vagrant Northern Harrier . Further in-depth info on Northern Harriers can be found here:
Thanks Ralph for the shots!

Interesting “orange” harrier in Germany

January 21, 2014
Ralph Aumueller kindly sent me these images of an interesting harrier.
“When we found the bird on jan. 5th, our initial impression was of a pallid harrier, an impression what we had to reject immediately as we found the bird five-fingered, broad winged and so on. So it´s a Hen Harrier of some kind, but ruling out hudsonicus causes us quite a headache.
Almost all id-features neatly fit in the pattern awaited for a Northern Harrier (hudsonius), but we are much too inexperienced with that taxon. We are aware, however, that the underwing-pattern seems not to suggest a hudsonicus, with the barring on the outer primaries at the very lower (too low?) end of its range of variability. Additionally the middle secondary bar seems to be to wide. However we found in the literature that females tend to show a more cyaneus-like pattern in this respect. So we really reached the point to need  the help of an expert on that topic. May I therefore kindly ask you for  your opinion on the bird´s id? That would be fantastic!
Best wishes,
S0, in light of the recent British and Irish records of vagrant Northern Harrier (C.c hudsonius), this bird seems quite striking and scary. What do others think of this bird and what would you call this if you saw it. Be interested to hear people’s opinions on this before I post my comments I had sent to Ralph.


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