Friday, July 31, 2009

Bears, Balloons and Birds = The Berkshires

Several trips to both the northern and southern Berkshires introduced us to some wonderful areas for birding. We were checking out several possible blocks for next year's atlas efforts -- both for Mark and me to take, as well as some further-afield block-busting efforts. Our trip to the Sandisfield, New Marlborough and Otis areas brought some great farms and lots of ponds....although bird life was a little on the quiet side. It will be fun to see if this Belted Kingfisher has a burrow nearby.
And we certainly saw Great Blue Herons coming and we'll have to keep a sharp eye and ear out for those small, hidden "rookeries". Sometimes we come across as few as two nests in some of the more out-of-the-way marshes.
In addition to lots of open fields, there were some quite beautiful wooded areas, with streams meandering through the understory. You just know there will be Louisiana Waterthrush and Winter Wren singing in the spring in this area.
Most of the species we did see were birds in family groups and quite noisy. This Yellow-bellied Sapsucker was making a racket, although it was totally camouflaged on the bark when we did find him.
And, of course, our best sighting in this area was this HUGE bear running across the street in front of our car. It was big, and I probably should have been a little more careful when I jumped out with my camera to try to get a shot before it totally disappeared into the woods!
We also came across the Green River Festival in and around the Greenfield, MA area as we were heading out Rt. 2 to check out the northern Berks. It was relatively early in the a.m. and the balloons were just taking off.
I've always wanted to go up for a ride, but after seeing this one balloon hitting into the trees (and coming very close to power lines) I realized that picking a reputable balloon ride operator is a must. Plus I'm not sure I'll ever get Mark to agree after watching a rather hairy landing.

One of the things I've come to love about the Berkshires is the amount of plant life you come across. This huge field of Crown Vetch was not only colorful, but also alive with all sorts of insect life.
And this Eastern-tailed Blue was just one of the butterflies we came across in the Monroe area.
At the Whitcomb Summit in Florida, Mark convinced me to act like a total tourist and get this shot of The Elk. At least I can add it to my collection of schlocky tourist attractions and garden trinkets.
But once you get off the beaten path, and poke around back roads, you do come across some pretty amazing views. This one is from some DCR property at the top of Mt. Raycroft. We used to go there 20+ years ago to look for (and find) Mourning Warbler, but over the years the road hasn't been kept up and people were definitely discouraged from going there. Recently, though, it's been improved somewhat so it was quite nostalgic (and a little romantic) to find ourselves at this same some again. In fact, this was where we had our first bear sighting in Massachusetts.
All along the road we came across lots of Fireweed, which I don't recall seeing outside of the Berkshires, although I'm sure it's in other places. It just seemed to be everywhere along recently disturbed power lines.
And while we didn't find a Mourning Warbler, there were other good representatives along the power lines, like this male Indigo Bunting.
This Ovenbird was definitely agitated when we stopped to spish....
....and this very young Chestnut-sided Warbler was curious as well.
Since we were in the neighborhood (sorta) we had to stop in Adams and see if the Black Vultures were still at the farm along Walling Rd. And they were!
The pair was actually on a large rock at the back of the fields preening and grooming each other! The numbers of Turkey Vultures continue to be outstanding at this one farm as well.
We spent about 2 hours parked by the side of the road in this one spot, waiting for the Black Vultures to go up.
Unfortunately, they stayed on the ground. Most of the TV's took off though.
And you could always tell when they were getting ready to go up -- they spread their wings just like a cormorant drying their wings and then took off in 2's and 3's.
There was also an newly-fledged Indigo Bunting in the cornfield right next to where we parked. And later on we came across a recently-fledged Eastern Phoebe that was still begging to be fed.
In the Cheshire blocks we're looking at for block-busting, we came across a very busy mud-dauber wasp gathering just the right kind of mud for his nest. Now bees and wasps are not my favorite creatures, so standing still enough to get this photo was a feat in and of itself! Clearly this creature was so intent on what he was doing, he didn't give me a second thought.
As we continued to check out side road and back roads in the area, we came across a family of Ruffed Grouse crossing the road. The mother was on one side and obviously calling her "teenage" brood to follow. The young birds were quite slow and cautious crossing the first part of the road, but as soon as they had the other side clearly in sight, they ran.
As we approached the area where we had seen the mother and 3 birds duck in, we were surprised by the male grouse doing quite an exotic distraction display.
And these are just some of the reasons why the Berkshires -- both north and south -- continue to be one of my favorite places to bird in the state.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Inside Quabbin in mid-July

I took a few days of vacation at the end of last week, just so Mark and I could do some low-impact birding now that the atlas work is winding down. On Thursday and Saturday we took advantage of our atlasing permit to drive in the Gate 35 and 40 areas of Quabbin. We did manage to add a few new species in a number of the Worcester County blocks and we upgraded a whole bunch of other sightings. But basically we spent some quality time in a very special place! The only drawback were the hordes of deer flies and mosquitoes! While at Grave's Landing (above) we had several adult Common Loons -- but never saw a young bird. In fact we're not even sure if the birds were pairs or whether there may have been other birds on the nest nearby.....just don't know. At one point all the loons were flying around and calling and we thought they may have been flushed by a fisherman.
As we were focusing on one of the close calling loons we heard a huge splash not very far off to our left and turned to watch an adult Bald Eagle IN THE WATER "struggling" exactly where we had seen a calling loon a few seconds earlier -- we never saw the loon again. But the Bald Eagle seemed to be swimming to the nearby shore and while we couldn't 100% confirm that he was dragging something.....
our hypothesis is that the eagle took the loon and was swimming with it in his talons. Now we didn't come to this conclusion lightly; last year we were told by the DCR that a Bald Eagle had killed and eaten a nesting loon on one of the nearby islands. And in talking with Bart Kamp he confirmed having seem something similar at Wachusett and actually saw the eagle emerge on land with the killed loon.

So here's the $64,000 question. What happens when you have one protected species preying on another protected species -- who does the government back?

All in all......a very weird sighting!
After we left Grave's Landing we had another slightly strange sighting...
We had an Eastern Wood Pewee nest building! Seems kinda late, but the bird was definitely either building or repairing a nest and calling constantly. Only one bird was seen and we weren't sure if the nest had been damaged by the heavy rains recently or whether another nesting attempt had failed and he/she was starting all over. If you look closely at the nest below you can see the hole in the bottom which the bird was definitely working on.
But some nesting attempts obviously did work -- this young Common Yellowthroat was definitely interested in our spishing.
Both of our forays into Quabbin were done in this summer's typical weather -- foggy, drizzly and sometimes actually raining. But even in that weather Quabbin is a beautiful place. As we looked out at the big phragmites island at the end of Gate 35 we found a pair of Mute Swans. Now many of you know how much Mark loves his swans, so this was a particularly disturbing find. We didn't confirm any young, but it was an obvious pair working in and out of the phrags along the west side of the island -- it's only a matter of time.
With all the damp weather, we had an abundance of Indian Pipe "in bloom".
But there were bright spots of sunshine on both days, so we also got some this very sharp Northern Pearly-eye (Enodia anthedon)
and a very active Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus)
which moved around very fast until the sun dipped behind some clouds and then he would just land on the road and wait for the next break of sunshine.
In addition to the birds, plants and butterflies, we also came across this very cooperative Wood Frog at one of our stops. It was really interesting to see how he could camouflage himself so perfectly against the leaf litter so that when you looked away for a minute to check out a bird you actually had to re-find him when you looked back.
One of the nice things about frogs is that they let you get really close with a macro lens.
So in a couple of day's of slightly bizarre sightings, the next two pictures just add to the experience.

This Black-throated Blue Warbler is not really trying to imitate Linda Blair. I actually snapped a photo just as he turned his head to preen and this was the result.
And this American Woodcock was definitely acting strange. He/she kept running back in forth in the tire-track ruts on this little side road. Whether or not it had babies nearby we could never confirm, but definitely an unexpected sighting deep inside Quabbin.
A great couple of days with some totally unique we're off to the Berkshires to see if we can top this.


Sunday, July 12, 2009

Our Final Two Blockbusting Trips

Two very different trips ended our Breeding Bird Atlas blockbusting efforts for 2009. On Saturday, 7/11, ten of us traveled north to Lunenburg to finish the Ayer 2 block. Alan Marble, Dan Berard, Donna Schilling, Simon Hennin, Wendy Howes, Alan Howes, Marci Driscoll and Deb Berard joined Mark and me for the 4 hours required by each team to finish the block.While quite a bit of bird song had dropped off, we still managed to get a total of 74 species in the block (26 Possible, 5 Probable and 43 Confirmed). Both Wendy and Alan and Mark, Marci and I were lucky enough to have young-of-the-year Killdeer in this rather urban block. Ours was at the back of a new housing development (parts still unfinished, so lots of dirt mounds) and even though the bird looked pretty able to fend for itself, there was a parent bird nearby trying her hardest to distract us.
Finally with the sun out and the temps popping a bit, we were also treated to some butterflies, including this Silver-spotted Skipper, which was my first of the year.
Red-winged Blackbirds, including young one, were still in their nesting territory in the reeds along the western edge of Lake Shirley.
All in all a nice morning birding, but nothing tremendously surprising, except the lack of warblers. We only confirmed Chestnut-sided and Common Yellowthroat! There was so much development and fragmented woods, it's hard to believe it was just a bad day. And we did have 2 Green Herons, which was nice since they've seemed pretty scarce in so many of our other blocks.

On Sunday, 7/12, another group of us finished up the season's blockbusting covering two tiny, tiny mini-blocks in Bristol County. Our first stop of the morning was Gooseberry Neck in Westport (the formal block name is South of Westport-12). It took 8 of us only 2 hours to thoroughly cover this fragment of a block, and we had a bet going into it on how many species (other than Observed) would be added for this block. Our 2nd block of the morning was even smaller - South of Westport-09. This block (and I say that laughingly) consisted of about 1500 feet of road at the very end of Acoaxet right on the line with Rhode Island.
The crew joining Mark and me on both of these blockettes consisted of Kim Kastler and John Liller, Deb and Dan Berard (who have been with Mark and me on every single one of our block-busting trips so THANK YOU) and the newlyweds (recently returned from Costa Rica) Kevin and Rebecca Bourinot.
Most of the landbirds were pretty tame, including Robin and Brown-headed Cowbirds....
and lots of Catbirds. A couple of surprise landbirds included Black-billed Cuckcoo (thanks to John and Kim) and a Pine Siskin flyover (thanks to Mark's great hearing). On the siskin, though we did speak with a local woman who said they were still showing up at feeders??? In the Acoaxet speck the crew did have Mockingbird on the nest as well.
The surprise find of the morning (thanks to the Berards) were two separate groups of not-yet-fledged Common Eider. Luckily Deb caught Mark's and my attention before we headed off to our sector of the block and I was able to get a number of shots of the first group. Dan tells us the second group had even downier chicks in it.

At a distance you can spot the adult female just by size....
And when we got closer it was hard to get a good look at this young ones constantly bobbed up and down trying to feed.
There were two adult females with 5 young birds......and a sixth young eider was trying to catch up with the group and calling for mama all along the way.
I was able to move fairly close to the feeding birds and it was a fascinating study because the babies still seemed to have a forehead. It was almost like they hadn't fully grown into their bill shape yet.
One of the females was quite protective of the group and seemed to "herd" them together once she noticed me taking photos.
She did calm down once I kept walking, and since this stretch of the beach (fairly close to the boat ramp) gets a lot of traffic, I assume she has someplace among the rocks that she can retreat to once the people and dogs really start piling in.
Definitely the bird of the day -- since I know I've never had breeding Common Eider in Massachusetts!

In between doing these two mini-blocks we took a break from a great sit-down breakfast at the Bayside Restaurant -- that little place on Horseneck Road right across from Allen's Pond Sanctuary. We did a mini-compilation on the first block and ended up with 28 species (17 Confirmed, 2 Probable and 9 Possible.) Kim Kastler won the pool with the closest number of 25. The rest of us were in the low to mid-teens, so it proves that optimism pays off. Our total list for Gooseberry Neck included an additional 11 of Observed species, including two Wilson's Storm Petrels gotten off the point by Rebecca and Kevin and a Northern Gannet.

Our list for the Acoaxet parcel was a tad lower with 11 Confirmed, 4 Probable and 5 Possible (total atlas species of 20) and 7 Observed.

For Mark and me today formally ended our atlasing for the season. We've finished 9 blocks this year and with the help of some great friends "busted" an additional 7 blocks. I really think that block-busting has it's place in the atlas project. It's important to pick the right dates to do it so that you truly maximize the number of species you can confirm, since you won't being going back again to upgrade those Possibles. But then there's always next season!