Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Northern Berks on Sunday, 1/24

This past Sunday we decided to head out to the northern Berkshires. (Someone hoped to find a Massachusetts Hawk-owl.) I was a little concerned having heard about the "devastation" that the December ice storm had wrought. However compared to places like Holden and Rutland and other parts of Worcester County, they seemed to have fared pretty well. It is always fun to see the same places in the different seasons. This view looking north from Cheshire towards Vermont is usually lush and green and filled with Turkey Vultures and very close to the huge Cliff Swallow colony.
Don't get me wrong, there were still some birds around. But these turkeys certainly seemed like they would have preferred that lush green valley as well.
There's a great WMA along Stafford Hill Rd. in Cheshire that is wonderful to bird and butterfly in spring/summer/fall. But today we were confounded by some very large machinery. Not exactly sure what they were doing in there, but hoping it won't disturb the area too much. BTW, all of this area is in the 3 blocks Mark & I signed up for this year doing the Breeding Bird Atlas. This includes quite a bit of the towns of Windsor and Cheshire. Besides coordinating for Worcester County, we usually try to take blocks outside of our local area as well. (Not too hard to do when you're crazy like us and sign up for 9-10 blocks each year!)
The one species that seemed to be just about everywhere was Bluejay.
And we were delighted to find great numbers of Pine Siskin. Even though we put out thistle seed at our feeders, we are in the city, so you just don't get the flocks of siskins that we've been hearing about. We'll hear them fly over and we've had one or two stop for a bite, but it was fantastic to see and hear large numbers in lots of different places in the Berks.
Driving along the back roads is not just good for feeders, but also farm animals. Now goats and pigs are probably two of Mark's favorite domestic animals, but he was especially thrilled to find "goats in coats"! Not something you see every day. Of course this prompted one of our silly conversations about the alliterative quality of animals. We struggled to move beyond "cats in hats" and somehow "pigs in wigs" didn't quite conjure up the same image as "goats in coats". Needless to say the conversation then went off in tangents and if I were to share it all with you, you would definitely wonder about us.....unless you already know us.
Back to the birds....I included these next two shots of Pine Siskins not just because these are my first documentable shots of Pine Siskin, but because when I got home and looked at the photos, I was struck with the overall "lightness" of the bird in the lower middle part of the photo. It definitely shows more yellow than the other 3 siskins.
Once it turned around I noticed far less definitive streaking on the breast (much more diffuse) and even a yellowish cast about the face. Could this be the Bonaparte subspecies from the southwest? The following is an excerpt from a description Mark sent me from BNA.
(Bonaparte). Resident from n. Baja California, s. Sonora, and w. Chihuahuasouth to at least Michoacán, Mexico and east to Hidalgo and extremew.-central Veracruz. Although birds in mountains of n. Baja California areascribed to this race by Am. Ornithol. Union (1957), a study by Unitt et al.(1992) suggests that these should be assigned to C. p. pinus . Compared withnominate pinus, longer winged, less extensively and more diffusely streakedon underparts, paler overall, yellow in tail more extensive (Grinnell 1928,Unitt et al. 1992).

If anyone has more experience with this subspecies, I'd love an opinion.
We ended our winter foray to the northern Berks and wandered back to Worcester thankful for yet another day in the field birding.


Monday, January 26, 2009

Plymouth Ivory Gull - Saturday, 1/24

So having 2 Ivory Gulls in Massachusetts at the same time is totally unheard of (unless you remember back to the 1800's). So we decided to go to Plymouth to see this adult bird, especially since we heard that the scene there was more manageable. And it was! When we arrived just before 8, there were about 75-100 birders already there. Judging by the numbers of out-of-state plates on cars, it was apparent that folks were from all over. I overheard one women saying she had flown in from Texas the night before. Now I totally understand going for a spectacular bird when it's in your home state or even fairly close by (the NH Hawk Owl) but I don't think I could justify the carbon footprint of flying in from Texas.
Anyway the crowd was far better behaved than the Cape Ann group (maybe it was all of those out-of-state birders?) I'm not sure how I feel about throwing out chickens for the bird. But I'll leave that controversy to others to debate (which I've heard they've been doing on Massbird.)
It was actually fun to see some folks that I haven't seen for a while, and a number of people came up to express their condolences to Mark on the recent passing of his mother. Maybe is was the size of the parking lot or just knowing that I wasn't on a tiny peninsula, but it definitely felt more manageable and less chaotic. And because of that we didn't flee the area! We decided to poke around and see what else we could find.
We went as far south as that restaurant on 3A (it used to be Bert's) right past the entrance to Plymouth Plantation and just at the start of the road out to Plymouth Beach. Along the seawall we were treated to a Sanderling poking among the Herring gulls -- the size difference is amazing!
We spotted two more picking in the snow in the parking lot....what for I have no idea, since it didn't look like a rack line to me.
Actually, there were quite a few of them along the seawall and it was great to see them behaving differently than they normally do.
As we headed north up 3A we stopped by Stephen's Field. The parking lot runs down right to the bay where we've often had Lesser Black-backed Gull (not this time) and there's a tiny, tiny pond where we have had Gadwall or Hooded Mergs. This time the pond held a few Mallards and Blacks, but also this female Bufflehead. She seemed quite happy to be in there by herself.
Although as we looked out to the bay, we noticed she was only a short flight from other seaducks, including Common Eider, Common Goldeneye and other Buffleheads. BTW that's Plymouth Beach in the background.
We did have a pair of Gadwall floating in among the ice flows.
And we did scour the shore of Plymouth Beach looking for a Snowy Owl, but to no avail.
One of the nicest surprises was this Kingfisher working hard for a meal. It's always great to hear their "rattle" call in the dead of winter. You know that means there's probably open water nearby. With not too much else around we decided to check in on the Ivory Gull (which had moved from the parking lot out to the long jetty that goes out into the bay) and stop at another overlook just north of the jetty. We could see that there were Brant in there, and you always want to check in case there's a Black-bellied in among them.
It was nice to see the size comparison with the Canada Geese.
Both species were in this area due to the plentiful Eel Grass so we spent some time just going over the flocks to see what else might be tucked in.
While sitting there we had 3 Dunlin fly in and land right over the seawall in front of us. They were a little skittish flying up the shore and then back again several times before finally settling down to feed.
This provided some really close observation and great looks at the slightly decurved bill on these birds (especially the one on the left).
As we headed back Rt. 44 to 495, we decided to stop by the Cumberland Farms fields off Rt. 105 to check for Rough-legged Hawk. We had a beautiful dark-phase bird flying out quite a ways, but we didn't see any Short-eared Owls. But this place is definitely worth another trip in late February for photography, hopefully of both species.


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Ivory Gull -- YES!

First let me acknowledge that my last blog entry was definitely pissy (and it didn't take Mark commenting on it for me to realize it), but if I'm going to do this blog then sometimes that's gonna happen. So let's put that aside and talk about Monday. I decided to take Monday off and we headed up to Cape Ann as soon as Mark got the first report that the Ivory Gull was still being seen. As much as I was excited about seeing the bird, I was a little apprehensive about the "crowds" that might be there. As it turned out, I was justified in both. When we approached that last part of the road out to the parking lot it was clear that the numbers of birders were huge. There was a truck with a plow parked across the road and it was clear that we would have to hike in from the Audubon property near the yacht club road. Actually talking with the two guys trying to get down to plow the Coast Guard property at the lighthouse was quite interesting. I won't go into the gorry details, but they were delightful and I was somewhat ashamed of being a birder....again. They had been waiting for over an hour to get to one of the guys' homes to plow out and had politely asked people parked along the road to move their vehicles so they could get in -- virtually none of the birders would do it. I even had a conversation with one birder who thought I was referring to the Coast Guardsmen when I said something to Mark about "the assholes". He commented that those two guys should realize the importance of this bird and just be patient. When he realized I was talking about the birders being total jerks he quietly moved off a few feet. Mark never made it out to the parking lot at the dogbar and I actually went just to let the birds know that the Gloucester police had been called and they would be ticketing and towing shortly! I admit I did take a minute or two to snap some shots, but with all the camera power present I didn't need to add to the chaos.
After apologizing again to the two Coast Guard guys for the rudeness of most of the birders present, we took off, both agreeing that we needed to get out of the zoo.

We decided to check out Rocky Neck and see if the gazebo owl was still present; but it wasn't there. We did enjoy the noises coming from the seals out on the rocks and commented how they sometimes look like any number of previous fat cats we've had.
Looking out at Ten Pound Island we had a Cooper's Hawk finishing off a meal and we just stayed put for a while enjoying the solitude and talking about the scene at Eastern Point and an article Mark's been planning to write for Bird Observer....more to come.
We decided to stop at Jodrey Pier on the way out and check the gull show there. There were decidedly less birders and the Iceland Gull show was quite enjoyable.
As we watched the flocks of mergansers, eider and goldeneye, Mark spotted the Black-headed Gull fly in and land with a flock of Black-backs.
The size difference was astounding; it almost looked like a shorebird among the bigger gulls.
Then someone spotted the Ivory Gull which had come into the inner harbor to feed and the handful of us that were there got some spectacular views....and without the craziness of the hoardes.
My inability to get one of the picture-perfect shots as he flew by at close range, made me realize (yet again) that I have to take time to read the manual that came with the camera and expand my repertoire of settings.
After just 2-1/2 hours on Cape Ann, we grabbed lunch and headed back to Worcester satisfied that we "erased" the earlier chaotic sighting with this much more laid-back viewing.

Now let's just hope there aren't any more super rare birds found for a while!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

A Bitter Cold Day Ends in Bitter Frustration

So after diddling around in the Brookfields on Saturday morning so we could pick up seed at Bill's store when it opened, we came home unloaded the seed, put out some additional feeders since it was so cold and the birds had to eat. Then we got some lunch and tried to get warm ourselves. So when Mark finally checked emails some time after 2 we learned that an Ivory Gull had been putting on a spectacular show at Eastern Point since before that's the bitter frustration. What the hell good does it do to have a cellphone if no one ever calls about the good things???? As I sit here Sunday morning watching yet another snow storm dump on us, I think it's been the perfect end to a perfect week (notice the sarcasim). So here's how we spent our Saturday rather than viewing an Ivory Gull..... It was interesting to watch a large flock of turkeys trying to stay warm in the sub-zero temps. Some of the birds were fluffing out every feather they had and tucking their bare-skinned necks underneath. It was like they were trapping whatever warmth they could generate.
In West Brookfield right near the outflow of Wickabog where it flows under Rt. 9 into the Quabog River we did find 2 Black Ducks tucked in along the icy shore.
There were also two pairs of Hooded Mergansers as well. They were diving and feeding like it was almost balmy.
But it was pretty clear that the river is starting to close in, and these little ducks (though very hardy) better get their little duck tails out of here before they are breaking ice with their pointed beaks! You could almost see the ice building up along the shore and moving further into the middle of river in some places.
We decided to check the marsh in Warren that's in our Christmas Count area, but it, too, was frozen and the blackbirds we had in December seemed long gone. We did have some crows that barely moved when I braved out of the car to get a photo.
Probably the nicest bird was this Red-shouldered Hawk sitting at the edge of the same marsh on New Reed St. This was actually our 2nd Red-shoulder of the morning and this one seemed intent on finding any of the little animals whose tracks were everywhere.

So we ended our morning with a 20-degree swing in temps (-10 to +10) and headed out to pick up our bird seed. And ironically this was just about the exact time Jeremiah Trimble was finding the Ivory Gull. Another tale of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I guess I'll chalk it up to the miserable colds we've both had all week or just bad karma!


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Local Forays - January 10th & 11th

This past weekend we tried to get some owling in Saturday morning since there had been such a great moon Friday nite and there was very little wind. Unfortunately, there had been so much snow and ice we worried about finding Saw-whets. We decided to try Rutland State Park since we've had good luck owling there in the past and usually Coldbrook Road stays open in the winter as long as there isn't a humongous blizzard. Driving in there in the dark is always a little can often hear animals moving through the woods. So it was no surprise to look in my rear view mirror and see this coyote trotting down the road after us. Seriously, he looked like he was going to come right up to the car! In my excitement I tried to lure him in with a Dunkin' Donut. Of course, any self-respecting carnivore wasn't going to even look twice -- which he didn't.
The only owl were ever saw was this Barred Owl, which came in as we whistled a Saw-whet call. As you can see I still haven't quite figured out the metering on my camera, so the shot is quite blurry, but it's the best of a bad series of photos. I definitely have to look into taking a digital photography course that Richard Peterson recommended!
We ended our pre-dawn efforts at Barre Falls Dam with a meager 2 Barred and 2 Great Horned Owls. Our fears about the little owls moving out seemed to be true. We hoped that we would have some finches flying over right at dawn, but other than a lone Snow Bunting (who I tried spishing in) it was pretty quiet. So we decided to move west and go as far as Quabbin so we could get home before any flakes fell.
We decided to take Pleasant Street out of Barre (instead of Rt. 122) going past the Buddhist Center. That back way of going into Petersham is always a nice alternative, since you go through some nice farmland. It's also the "back way" into Brooks Woodland Preserve (Trustees property) and a great farm complex on Maple Street after Pleasant turns into East Street in Petersham. Turkeys are usually a regular feature. We watched a few fly across the road and then pick among this huge pile of silage.
And we weren't disappointed watching a flock mingling in with the cows.
We also had this Red-tail trying to get firmer footing on any icy pine tree bough.
As we turned into the road to the Administration Building at Quabbin, Mark spotted a good-sized herd of deer picking through a recently-cutover area. But there wasn't much in the way of birdlife. We did go through an agonizing 15 minutes watching a deer swim all the way across the reservoir. We estimated it was just over a mile and the deer look exhausted when he finally came out of the water on the western shore. It was a short, morning trip as we headed back to Worcester so we could pick up stuff at the store and settle in for another snowstorm.
Sunday afternoon, after the snowblowing was done, we headed out to the Wachusett Res to see if there was anything hanging around. Fresh snow always gives that "clean" look to everything. The reservoir was starting to freeze in a lot of places, and we were concerned to find 3 first-year loons still hanging around. They need a long "runway" to get airborn, and if it continues to freeze up I'm concerned these guys won't get out of here. There was also a good showing of Common Goldeneye, Hooded Mergansers and one Black Scoter. We had hoped to find the Canvasback we found on the first.
One place you can always count on finding waterfowl is the "Pond That Never Freezes" least that's what we call it. If you go to Google Map you'll see this small section just south of Coachlace Pond right behind the water treatment plant in Clinton. I'm not sure whether this is spring fed or just polluted, but the ducks and the geese pile in there when everything else is frozen. In addition to the geese and mallards, we had Black Duck, Common Goldeneye, scaup and the Canvasback! It's lousy trying to get a view of this place, but the gate was open to the water treatment plant, so we drove in (probably highly illegal, but there were no signs and no one was there to ask).
There were also lots of land birds in the bushes and tangles next to the fence right off Rt. 110, and we had a Flicker in addition to the Robins and Bluebirds feeding on the berries and sumac.
It's always fun to get good landbirds in the winter. And a real plus when you're this close to home!