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.


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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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An interesting “Buff-bellied” pipit, Cheshire, UK, January 2014

January 14, 2014

American Buff-bellied Pipit (rubescens), Connecticut, USA, Jan 2008

A vagrant Buff-bellied Pipit (aka known as American Pipit or confusingly Water Pipit here in the US) is being seen at a coastal marsh in the north-western part of the UK. Buff-bellied Pipits, of the race japonicus, also occur in Asia and winter in the Middle East and this race and the Nearctic race rubescens show a great deal of variation and so separating these two in a vagrancy context may be difficult with some individuals.

While Buff-bellied Pipit, of the Nearctic race rubescens (American Buff-bellied Pipit) has occurred several times in Britain and Ireland, the Siberian race japonicus (Siberian Buff-bellied Pipit) has not, so it is worth noting the plumage features of any vagrant Buff-bellied Pipit to determine race.

Basically, the dumb-down cliff notes are that Siberian birds are:

  • pale-legged
  • rather pale below with a noticeable eyering
  • large, club-ended malar and streaked blackish below with rather tear-shaped spots/streaks.

American birds are:

  • darker-legged
  • rather plainer above,
  • being less streaked, more buff-below with rather more brownish, blurry streaking.

However, individual variation and wear and geographical variation across their ranges makes the “simple” criteria just mentioned somewhat useless in a vagrancy context, and identification is often easier if you are standing in Israel or Connecticut respectively!

The individual in Cheshire can be seen at (scroll down for the images if necessary) :

Initially, on a comment I posted on Martin Garner’s Birding Frontiers site I had thought the bird seemed fine for American Buff-bellied Pipit, but further photos seemed to show a bird with rather contrasting upper wingbar, rather large blobby malar and well-defined dark streaks on the underparts. I was cautious and wondered if the bird could be a Siberian Buff-bellied, but having no field experience of that race, I was in unchartered waters and wanted to add some caution to my initial support of the bird.

So, I dug up some pictures I had taken of a bird here in New Haven for comparison (see below) and also a link to Siberian Buff-bellied Pipit here:…f-bellied.html.

All three images, American Buff-bellied Pipit (rubescens), New Haven, CT, January 14th 2008.
Based on Pyle et al., 1987,  the pointed centres to the median coverts and the blurry, non-indented edges to the greater coverts makes this bird a first-winter (HY). The Cheshire bird is a first-winter by the same features.


3_rubescens_NewHaven_CT_Jan15th 1_rubescens_NewHaven_CT_Jan15th 2_rubescens_NewHaven_CT_Jan15thOverall a buff-brown bird, with non-contrasting wingbars and dull buff underparts. Underpart streaking is brown, not blackish and there is no pale contrasting eyering or large, dark, ‘blobby’ malar. Note the dark brown, not pale legs.

After reviewing images, and taking into consideration variability, with all things considered, the Cheshire bird is more likely American based on the overall plumage tones, plainer mantle and underpart color but it is certainly not straightforward. If the bird had been the rather white-below, heavily streaked Siberian birds, perhaps it would be easier, but since they vary so much, a vagrant may often be hard to assign to race.

American Buff-bellied’s have a distinctive, di-syllabic “pip-it”, “pip-it” calls that may help distinguish it from Siberian birds but I have no experience with that race.

A great educational bird that has generated some insightful discussions in the UK for those that want to read more on this bird:

The Ugly Show

January 1, 2014

After a flurry of Snowies hanging out at Long Beach over Christmas, despite consecutive days of doing the death march down Long Beach before sunrise, with fellow friends AJ Hand and Jim Zipp, we failed to score any photo opps.

CAM01153We did find one bird at Milford Point, or at least we thought we did did until we saw this sign on the Visitor Center window..

CAM01154When I returned home I found out one bird, that had been frequenting the harbor near my house, had showed up again briefly. But, when I arrived at the spot there was no owl to be found. Grabbing some breakfast before I went over to check the War Memorial at the bottom of my street, I got a post from John Oshlic  saying he had the bird actually perched on top of the war memorial. “Err, Nick, I’ll have those eggs and home fries to go…NOW!”

Two shakes of a lamb’s tail later and breaking the speed limit,  I had clocked the little beauty from the exit ramp as I got off the! Turns out, it was an ugly little bugger!!


Long Wharf, New Haven, CT…right by the house. I even got it on my “birds I’ve seen while running” list later on that day, sat out on the mud flats.Tick!



Breakfast! You can see the bird on top of the memorial!

The bird’s right eye seemed to be injured but it was hard to determine if the stain was old blood or from something else.

_MG_5708With birds starving and emaciated, it is no wonder some of these poor birds don’t seem to be doing well! Hope this guy is finding food!

"Ashy-face" - the bird at Milford looked as though it had been dragged through a hedge backwards and was later seen at Long Beach with an apparent broken/injured leg. :(

“Ashy-face” – the bird at Milford looked as though it had been dragged through a hedge backwards and was later seen at Long Beach with an apparent broken/injured leg.😦

A Snowy Christmas 2013

December 24, 2013

_MG_4531 copyAn unprecedented number of Snowy Owls irrupted south this winter and made for some awesome opportunities to see these majestic creatures. Unfortunately since these flights are prompted by too many birds and not enough food, some were emaciated and starving and some were found dead as result. CT did well with several birds being rather photogenic. Thankfully many photographers remained respectable, though people trying to take photos of them with their smartphones continue to piss off everyone that understands that you can’t use your smartphone for bird photography unless the bird is embedded up your nostril. Really people…enough with the phone nonsense🙂


Ace photographer and awesome dude AJ Hand and Alex getting to grips!

I used to think I could age and sex some Snowy Owls. While I think the heavily barred birds with boldly barred napes and minimal white “bibs” are females, and the lightly marked and almost white birds with broken tailbands are males, this isn’t always the case.

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Snowy Sunset

Birds with vermiculated inner greater coverts and primary tips may be first-years (HY) but I’m not sure older birds cannot show these in successive moults, so it really is hard to age and sex birds of unknown age in the field. Individuals often get lighter with age, stay the same, or get darker so there is a whole gamut of variation and overlap. Apparently according to Russian research, first borns in the nest are often paler than successive hatchlings which are darker! Also, some HY males (aged in the hand from banding / specimens) may overlap with adult females and may only be differentiated by size. Pyle mentions tail (?) feather shape (blunt and rounded vs bluntly pointed) as a means of ageing some birds, but this seems hardly useful in the field.


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The only main way of ageing Snowy Owls to calendar year (after HY/SY) is perhaps during June-September when birds have an incomplete primary moult and it MAY be possible to differentiate between old and new primaries.

I have seen few birds in New England I would call “females. This fits the migration pattern which basically is that females, being larger and dominant, take territory further north and it is the males that are “pushed” out further south. It also makes sense, from a probability point of view, that many of these birds are likely HY birds.

So, it seems from conventional wisdom that while we may think a bird is a young bird, or most likely a female (if large and boldly barred) we are likely guessing a lot more than we think we are.