Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Turner Reservoir - Sunday afternoon 2/15

On our way home from Fairhaven, we decided to stop and check on the Tufted Duck at Turner's Reservoir. Technically it's the James V. Turner Reservoir (aka as the East Providence Reservoir, it includes South, Central and North ponds.) When we got to the main part of the reservoir (the causeway on Rt. 152) we were disappointed to find that much of the pond on either side of the road was frozen -- no sign of the Tufted. However, we were delighted to find a number of other waterfowl, including Canvasback, Ring-necked and Ruddy Duck.
This photo shows the size difference with Canada Goose being the big man on campus.
But the Canvasback were the real special birds for me. Sometimes you can see large rafts on the Cape in winter, but Sunday there were only four and each one really stood out.
I've always considered it a somewhat large duck...that is until you see it next to a Canada Goose.
Even sleeping you can pick out that chestnut color on it's head. I remember when I first started birding I really had to double-check to make sure it wasn't a Redhead. Now I can't imagine confusing the two. That long, black bill and sloping forehead are really distinct -- not to mention how white the body of the male Canvasback looks.
There were also close looks at Ruddy Duck, although I didn't see any signs of the males starting to go into breeding plumage.

We decided to check the upperparts of the reservoir (actually called Central Pond Reservoir on some maps), since this is where the Tufted Duck had been earlier in the winter. One of the best ways to view the major part of the pond is to park in the tractor trailer pulloff right where Narragansett Park Drive (off Rt. 1A) takes a 90 degree turn -- just past the little pond near the Hasbro complex. You cross the train tracks and follow a well-worn path through the woods. There's a wonderful bike path right along the pond and we had to walk down a bit before we found the Tufted in with a group of Ring-necks.
Now I'm not sure whether this is the same duck that was at Apponaug Cove, but it's interesting that this bird reappeared here either the same day or the day after the one in Warwick disappeared.
The tuft didn't seem quite as long or feathery as the one in Warwick, but that may have been just the lighting or the distance from which I was viewing the birds.
One of the things that was a little disconcerting was to see a Mute Swam challenging the flock and displaying a very defensive posture in an attempt to force the ducks out of "his" pond. I've seen Mute Swan chase Canada Geese off when they're on the nest, but trying to intimidate the ducks that were so much smaller just seemed like bullying!
All in all, very satisfying looks at waterfowl and I was very glad we made the side trip on the way home.


Fairhaven & West Island - Sunday 2/15

I am so grateful to be able to post this blog entry. For the past 2+ weeks I have been having internet problems and it has made posting an absolute chore....if I can even get on. The uploading of photos is the longest part and often the connection goes out before I can get to writing. Hence the delay from Sunday. In any event, we traveled to southeastern MA on Sunday to check for early signs of spring and especially to follow up on a report Mark had of great views of Ruddy Turnstone at West Island. Fairhaven was alive with Brant and geese. Flocks definitely seemed to be restless and I can only hope things are starting to move around a bit getting ready for the trip further north. The major route we follow in Fairhaven is to get off 195 just east of New Bedford on Rt. 240 and follow that through the intersection with Rt. 6 and head south on Sconticut Neck Rd. This is a long peninsula road with a turn off to West Island almost at the southern tip.
We often check down some of the side roads for overlooks of New Bedford Harbor on the west and Nasketucket Bay on the east. A key road to check is Edgewater (where we've had Oystercatcher and Yellow-crowned Night Heron in years past). Other good overlooks include Bonney, Seaview and Grandview Avenues. There's a great (but a little sketchy) farm on Windswept Drive (on the east side) where there are usually great flocks of geese. Try as we might, we couldn't make any of the 700+ geese into anything other than Canada Geese.
Down one of the roads to the west we did have a nice flock of scaup very close in. As they flew off to join a larger group we got great looks at the wing stripes. Studying the photos later showed me just how challenging it can be to tick off all the field marks and how they come together to help with the id.
The flock was largely Greater Scaup, but I couldn't be 100% positive that there wasn't 1 or 2 Lessers in with them.
As we turned off to West Island (well posted) we made the usual stop at Hoppy's Landing to check the gulls. Much like the geese....nothing unusual.
Mark still decided to throw out some old donuts (just for entertainment purposes) and it did allow for some "in flight" shots.
At the very end of West Island there's a beach parking lot with an old submarine watch tower left over from WWII. I haven't been there in summer so I can't tell you if it's totally crowded, but in winter it's fairly quiet and there's usually some shorebirds working the rack line. Oddly enough, we didn't have any sanderlings. But there were Dunlin and the Ruddy Turnstones we had hoped for.
Ruddy Turnstones really are odd little shorebirds. Not as common as Sanderling or Dunlin in winter and they seem to be pretty local. It's nice to be able to study their winter plumage before the ones come through in April heading back up north to breed. Also kind of neat was watching them feed on the barnacles and other small crustaceans on the exposed rocks. They really know how to work that bill.
These closeups give you a good look at the structure of the bill of these birds. Definitely made for turning stones....
This shot of turnstones and one Dunlin will give you a good sense of size comparison.
Most of the Dunlin I saw were working the rack line and they seemed a little skittish since there were other people walking the beach and even a couple of dogs.
This one little guy allowed a rather close approach, and I wondered if he thought he was actually hiding behind the rock or if he thought his shadow was some kind of other bird there to protect him.
After we had our fair quota of shorebirds, we decided to poke into the many thickets the line the east side of the island. There are lots of little cottages and year-round homes along the streets that run back up to the main causeway road. There's usually something good to find if you work at it. But on Sunday we seemed to have more than our usual "non-bird" sightings -- even for two people that are always looking for the unusual.
We spotted this "bird" in and among a yard absolutely FILLED with tchotchkes. There was an assortment of horses too, but this was the only black stallion among them.
There were five or six white ones arranged somewhat in a circle and we couldn't quite figure out whether the owners were trying to re-create a carousel or whether they were just weird. Their entire yard was some kind of bizarre sculpture park.
Not to be outdone, the yard next door also had an assortment of "sculptures"....including this one perched on the corner of their house. Just when I think that Mark and I are weird, I realize there's always someone out there that makes us look sane!
You can imagine how strange it is to stop and look at the all the scrubby patches in and among these houses. But right next to one of these places was a great little patch that produced Carolina Wren, White-throated Sparrows, along with a bunch of Chickadees and Song Sparrows.

After leaving West Island we came across a flock of Starlings flying up to the phone lines and then back down to the lawns. Upon closer observation, we realized that most of the "starlings" were actually Brown-headed Cowbirds.
It was interesting to see a number of females in the with the larger groups of males. As much as I hate to see cowbirds moving back into the area as breeding birds, I do see it as a sure sign that spring is right around the corner.
After leaving West Island and the Sconticut Neck Rd. area we did a quick check of fields along Shaw Road....again more Canada Geese. We never really checked out the wonderful bike path the crosses this entire area. It was filled with lots of walkers by the time we finished at West Island. We did, however, have a pair of mockingbirds definitely on territory and displaying to each other.
On the way home we stopped at Turner's Reservoir in East Providence, RI, to check on the Tufted Duck.....but I'm going to do a separate post on that little side trip.


Sunday, February 15, 2009

Valentine's Day at Salisbury & Plum

So Valentine's Day is one of those days that some people absolutely love and others absolutely hate. As far as Valentine's Day goes as a "holiday" I put it in the same category as St. Patrick's Day....I can't quite believe it's really a holiday, but you need something to celebrate in February when you're sick of snow and ice, so why not? But for Mark & me it takes on a different meaning, since it's also our anniversary! Now don't me wrong, we're not these sappy, ultra-romantic types that celebrate with roses and chocolates -- in fact my goal is to try to find a card that expresses our unique personalities. Also we don't have a very traditional anniversary celebration, since we mark the day with a serious "renegotiation" and a decision as to whether or not we'll stay married for another year. Now this is way more than you need to know about us, but since I was mentioning Valentine's Day, I thought I had to go all the way and tell you the real deal. Anyway, on to birding. We decided it might be a nice quiet day to go to Salisbury and Plum and try for Snowy Owl and, hopefully, photograph the much-photographed White-winged Crossbills. As we drove onto Salisbury we noticed an out-of-state trip right at the entrance to the campground and hoped they had the crossbills...which they did. But as fate would have it, as they were crowding in on the birds, the flock took off and I managed one not-so-great photo of a pair in the pines.
So we decided to try to get down to the boat ramp before the out-of-state trip in the hopes of finding a Snowy before it, too, got flushed. It was fairly quiet there and we had a small flock of Common Goldeneye working the river right off the boat ramp.
We did manage to spot a Snowy Owl, but it was quite far out and pretty well camouflaged in and among the many snow lumps. In fact we checked hundreds of lumps before we found the Snowy.
As we were leaving the road to the boat launch there's a small group of pines on the left and Mark spotted a Merlin tucked into one of the pines. We stopped for a good look and when he didn't fly off, I was able to get my best photos of Merlin ever. Based on the coloration, this is most likely one of the eastern populations of Merlin (Taiga). There are 3 distinct populations (plus interbreeds) so it's always good to see if you can get it down to exact population.
He must have just had a good meal, since he stayed put the entire time, and we left without even flushing him.
We spent quite a bit of time driving and walking the campground trying to photograph the crossbills as they moved around. Finally, we pulled off and staked out an area which was close to where they were feeding. There was one other photographer and he was getting incredibly close to the birds....and they didn't seem to mind. So I got out and just parked myself near a picnic table and waited them out.
And I wasn't disappointed.
We had about a dozen birds (only part of the initial flock we saw) and they seemed quite intent on feeding on the ground among the fallen pine cones and snow and ice patches.
One female even perched up on one of the barbecue grills, although I have no idea what she thought she would get to eat there. I think she was just trying to get a good view of the surrounding area, since she flew down to a nearby batch of fallen cones and started to feed.
So besides the obvious great looks and killer photos, I was just happy to be able to study their behaviour. This was probably the closest views I've had of these birds, and watching them work their incredible bills was absolutely fascinating. It was also freezing with the wind blowing pretty strongly, so we decided to head off to the beach overlook (not much to see since the winds were from the west and everything seemed pushed offshore) and then on to Newburyport.
And that's where we ran into the hordes. Suddenly....Mark "remembered" he had read something on Massbird about the EAGLE FESTIVAL!!! It was amazing. There were people everywhere. In fact, you couldn't even get near Joppa Flats. Every place we would normally pull into for a look at the river had a sign "Viewing Area" and tons of people. So we decided to fore go Plum Island (with which I do have a love-hate relationship) and we made a quick stop at the Coast Guard Station on the northern end of Plum Island (still hoping for snow buntings or longspurs).

We did find our own flock of White-winged Crossbills there and managed a few more photos. And on the way back Mark spotted a dark-phase Rough-legged Hawk sitting out in some trees near the airfield.
We decided to call it a morning. We had gotten our target birds (Snowy Owl and WW Xbills) plus some great looks at Merlin, so basically we were satisfied. Oh, and yes we did have some eagles flying around, but since we go to Quabbin regularly...well let's just say we may be a little jaded.

On the way home we talked about the Eagle Festival and I must admit I'm torn. I think it's great to get folks excited about birds any way you can (other than through hunting), but it does bring alot of people into an ecologically-sensitive area. My thinking is probably colored by my personal feelings about Plum Island. It's probably heresy to say this but.....I don't really like to go birding on Plum Island. There, I said it! I'll probably get death threats now, but I find it a small place with way too many people. In fact, one of the things I celebrated about 2008 was the fact that we didn't go to Plum once all year. We used to go to Plum all the time when we first started birding, and there have been some great birds and I have some great memories of it. But in the last few years, especially, I've come to really enjoy going to areas that are not as well known. Also after decades of birding in a state that is coastally-biased, I find that I get tremendous satisfaction in finding great birds inland!

So as we headed back to Worcester we discussed all our usual "anniversary negotiations". And in case you are interested...yes we did decide to stay married for a 27th year!


Monday, February 9, 2009

Tufted Duck in Warwick RI - Sunday, 2/8

Sunday morning we decided to drive down to Warwick, RI to see the Tufted Duck that was putting in an appearance at Apponaug Cove. We had never been there before but we thought we would check out the cove and then meander back to Providence by checking spots along the west side Narrangansett Bay up along the Providence River and into the corridor. When we pulled up to the lower part of the cove, we immediately spotted a group of scaup along the edge out behind Ray's Bait Shop. Even at a distance the Tufted Duck was fairly easy to spot with the white sides and gleaming black back.
There was a dock that allowed a little closer approach, but the birds were still all tucked in and it was hard to get good looks (except through the scope). So after taking umpteen photos, I was able to find a handful where you could actually see the tuft.
Even though the bird never untucked his bill, there was a slight breeze and every once in a while the wind would blow the tuft around enough so I could get a discerning photo. After studying the bird for about 15-20 minutes we moved further down the cove in search of the Redheads that were reported.
There was a marina there and there were lots of Hooded Mergs and Coot in the area as well.
Some of the Coot actually came quite close as they darted in and among the pilings.
On the far side of the cove we found another large group of scaup and with them with what looked like another Tufted Duck. After studying it for quite a while at a distance we determined that it was actually a hybrid Tufted x Scaup, since the tuft was this short and stubby thing and the back was flecked with more gray than solid black. Take a look in Sibley's and you'll see what I mean. We decide to try to drive around on the other side of the cove in and among the houses to see if we could get a better look....and also to try to get some shots of the Redheads that were interspersed in the various scaup flocks.
While still somewhat distant if you enlarge the photo by clicking on it you'll see a number of Redheads throughout this flock. We did get additional looks at the hybrid, but I wasn't to get a photo.

We started to head back up to Providence, through Cranston, and checked out a couple of places where we had found Widgeon in previous years.
At the end of Shaw Road, of 117A (Broad St. in Cranston) we found a large flock of Coot and an even larger flock of American Widgeon right off the Edgewood Yacht Club. We looked for Eurasian Widgeon, but didn't find any.
We spent some time admiring the birds in their spring plumage and then headed back into the corridor and checked out both Bold Point and Swan Point Cemetery in Providence.
Since neither place seemed to have much (there was another large flock of Scaup off the north end of Swan Point almost to Pawtucket) we decided to head back to Worcester and call it a short day. With a high temperature of 56 down in Warwick, even Mark started to get spring fever!