Monday, January 25, 2010

Birding the Upper Cape - Wood's Hole to Sandwich

In late January we decided to escape the snow on the ground and poke around some of the thickets and coves in the Falmouth, Wood's Hole and Sandwich areas. We started in the Sippewissett area at Wood's Neck Beach and then headed down to Wood's Hole with a stop at "The Knob"at the end of Quissett Harbor.
The tangles along the road in the area of the cape are fantastic for holding onto landbirds. We had Cardinals doing their spring song....
...along with Song Sparrows...
and White-throated Sparrows.
In Quissett Harbor we had small flocks of Bufflehead -- which seemed to be everywhere in this area.
The harbor must have been good for fishing, as we had this gorgeous male Red-breasted Merganser right along the wall next to the road. It pays to be the first people out in the morning, since everything seemed to be up close and personal.
So many people see Wood's Hole as the jumping off point to Martha's Vineyard, and in summer this probably isn't one of my usual stops simply because of the traffic. But in the winter you get to see all it's charm. Known for being the home of the Wood's Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) you can see the history of the area in the buildings and architecture.
There's a great little park near the aquarium where you can scope Great Harbor and look out toward the private land along Penzance Point Road.
One of the things I really like about this area is that it takes it's connection to the sea seriously. Instead of really hokey nautical decorations, you find statues depicting various sea creatures and plaques in the sidewalk with squid, horseshoe crabs, lobsters and other marine wildlife.
The harbor also gave us our first looks at flocks of eiders and scaup for the day.
Leaving Wood's Hole (a little reluctantly) we took the coastal road to Falmouth, stopping to check various thickety areas for lingering landbirds.
Behind the Town Hall in Falmouth we had more scaup, a Pied-billed Grebe and a nice Great Blue Heron flew in and sat sunning himself on the edge of the pond. We also had a few Ring-necked Ducks in the area as well.
This over-wintering Hermit Thrush was enjoying the sun and allowed me to get quite close for a few shots.
I think this Sharp-shinned Hawk was doing the same thicket birding that we were -- the only difference was he actually went into the thickets and I don't think he had any intention of taking photos!
We stopped at the little Mill Pond in Marston's Mills as we headed up Rt. 149 towards Sandy Neck, and there were small numbers of Gadwall (like this female) along with Hooded Mergs and another Pied-billed Grebe.
It was very windy at Sandy Neck and we didn't have much so we decided to head to Sandwich. We wanted to check the Fish Hatchery for over-wintering snipe so we walk along the brook and while we didn't find any snipe, we had really great (though fleeting) looks at Winter Wren.
This little bird is more like a mouse than a bird -- he just seems to pop into any small hole and disappear. Mark's really good at making squeaking sounds so I was lucky enough to get a few shots off during one of the nano seconds when he popped out.
We made a stop at the head of the canal and found a nice flock of Brant grazing on the grass surrounding Joe's Fish Market.
And there were a few close Red-breasted Mergs and Common Eiders, but it wasn't really hopping with the large flocks of Eiders I've seen in past years.
But before leaving the cape we decided to go down to Bourne and check out the area around the railroad bridge where a female King Eider had been reported. This was not an area we've been to before, so it was fun exploring (and we were a little embarrassed that we'd never been here!)
Right at the bridge we found a great parking lot and realized we had great views of the eider at this end of the canal. We were looking across to the Mass Maritime Academy and saw that you could already park and bird from that side as well. After decades birding in the state, all we could say was "Duh". I couldn't believe we had never explored this area.
We starting checking every female eider, but most were Common Eider like the one above. Nice looks, but you really needed a scope to check the larger flocks. Mark did manage to find the female King, but by the time we lowered the scope to my height, I couldn't refind her.
I think it had something to do with the THOUSANDS of eider that were in this area. The flocks were truly fact, I'm surprised we found eider anywhere on the cape today given the numbers that were at this end of the canal.

As we headed off the cape, we realized we would need to come back again and explore the non-cape side of this area.....maybe next weekend.


Sunday, January 17, 2010

Searching Salisbury for Sage Thrasher -- Sunday, January 17th

Last Sunday (1/17) we decided to make a trip to Salisbury to search for the Sage Thrasher. As some of you who read my blog already know, I'm not a huge fan of birding the north shore. Maybe it's the throngs of birders one has to contend with, or the feeling like you're on a conveyor belt -- birders have come and ticked off birds before you, and there will be another batch of birders right after you leave. Whatever the reason, I don't often go willingly (or at least without at least one snide comment). But Sunday was a picture-perfect day. The beaches weren't crowded, and the numbers of birders actually meant that many more pairs of eyes trying to spot the Sage Thrasher.
As we prowled around the parking lots, a group of birders went back along the road and spotted the bird perched in a small cedar tree about 1/10 of a mile south of the main entrance road into the campground.
The bird fed for a while and then headed into a nearby thicket....
and then popped back to the cedar tree, where he stayed perched for all to see. Everyone present had great looks at the bird over the course of about 30 minutes -- clearly a very cooperative bird and not at all like the little skulkers they can be.
A spin around the campground didn't bring any surprises in terms of crossbills or Snowy Owls, and the boat ramp seemed unusually quiet -- maybe due to the dredging that appeared to be going on during the workweek.
We did get the usual gang of seals out on the disappearing rocks as the tide came in. And if you enlarge the photo you can see a Dunlin hanging out with the leftmost seal.

Having been in Salisbury for about 90 minutes, we were surprised not to see any raptors. And as we were leaving a Red-tailed Hawk perched right in front of us just to prove the area wasn't devoid of hawks.
We decided to skip Parker River, but do Plum along the river to the bridge. Behind the museum we found a few small flocks of Long-tailed Ducks; although the big numbers clearly haven't begun to build up yet.
Further down the island (right across from Plumbush) Mark spotted a Kestral sitting on a feeder in someone's backyard. As we turned around to see if we could get photos, the bird jumped down on the ground and started to dig in the grasses....obviously having seen or heard something of interest (in the it's almost lunchtime sense.)
We watched the bird for about 10 minutes as it continued to (unsuccessfully) pursue it's prey....
before flying off to the nearby phone lines.
The bird truly seemed perplexed as she tried to figure out whether or not to try again. We don't know what she decided, since we left as other birders came along and stopped to see what we were looking at.
As we travelled up-river to the Towle factory, we were hoping for eagles, or Barrow's or even unusual gulls -- but things were definitely on the quiet side. We had some small flocks of Common Goldeneye, but nothing we could even try to make into a Barrow's.
So having spent a good morning, we decided to head back down 495. Along the way I did pull off the shoulder to take a photo of the big red dog with the bone cutoff that stands in a field near Haverhill.

Not knowing what this was supposed to represent, I went home and did some research. The piece is part of Dale Rogers "American Dog" series. And while it was a great "lawn trinket" photo, the artist does more than that. Besides his Big Dogs (which was a travelling show this past summer on the north shore, he's done pieces I find really nice that aren't dog related. Here's a link to his studio website so you can check it out for yourself. And be sure to visit the Sculpture Gallaries on the website.

That's what I love about going around the state birding -- there's always something to see!


Eurasion Green-winged Teal in Newton - January 16th

One of the things I dislike about writing a blog when I'm tired is that I often make inadvertently deleting this blog that I uploaded yesterday and just needed to put some finishing touches on! Oh well, here's Take Two.Saturday morning we woke up with a host of birding possibilities. Do we go to the North Shore and look for the King Eider? Or to Salisbury to search for the Sage Thrasher? Or to the southern Berkshires where we can enjoy the solitude but probably find little in terms of birds? After getting the requisite coffee and Coke (and Dunkin Donuts) we decided to head into see if we could find the Eurasian Green-winged Teal (sometimes called Common Teal) behind the Newton City Hall.
We searched the open water flowing through the meandering pond, criss-crossing the bridges and peering under overhanging branches, but all we were able to turn up were about 18-20 Mallards.

After checking the outflow of the pond, we decided to cross Commonwealth Avenue at the intersection with Walnut and check a larger pond -- Bulloughs Pond -- which appeared mostly frozen. We parked along Walnut St. and Mark spotted a number of Mallards near the entrance to the culvert which crosses under Comm Ave. and sure enough there were also two teal -- a female and a male.
After much patience we confirmed that the male was indeed the male Eurasian after seeing the white horizontal stripe -- notable even through the heavy brush.

After 15-20 minutes the birds flew up, joined some Mallards and put down in the City Hall pond across the street. We hopped into the car, drove back and were able to spend the next 30 minutes getting great looks from the northern bridge (closest to Comm Ave).
The three major characteristics of the Eurasian GW Teal were notable: 1) The broad white horizontal scapular stripe; 2) The lack of the white vertical bar found on our Green-winged Teal; and 3) the creamy, much bolder, outline of the green patch on the head (above and below the eye.)

The female, on the other hand, I'm not sure about.
After getting home and checking a number of different resources, it seems that female GW Teals can prove quite difficult to ID. One resource did talk about the darker top to the head and darker facial pattern of the female American Green-winged Teal -- which would seem to indicate that this female is an American GW Teal. However, other resources stated that the only sure way to ID females is in the hand.
No such problem with the male though!
This shot of the the bird head on gives you a great view of the bolder, pale outline around the green head patch.

Even some of the minor characteristics were noted; like the pale bar in front of the black line on the flank. The breadth of the white scapular stripe compared to the black tells you it's not a hybrid.
This was a very accommodating bird and it was great to be able to study it and get good photos. When I got home and went to compare these photos with American Green-winged Teal, I found that I didn't have any digital shots of Green-winged Teal!

A totally enjoyable morning in Newton!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Winter Birding in South Bristol County - Sunday 1/10

Having spent Saturday visiting "aht" in CT, we decided to indulge in a full day's birding on Sunday. But where to go? At this time of the year, birds can be rather scarce in MA unless you venture to the coast....which is exactly what we did. However, we went to the south coast where the birds are plentiful and the birders are scarce.Driving across 195 in Swansea and Somerset in winter you come across the various crossovers of the Lee and Cole rivers. This is an area that we wrote up as part of the IBA project for Mass Audubon several years ago. (BTW whatever happened to that project???) Anyway this area is filled with HUGE numbers of Canada Geese, Mute Swan and various other species of waterfowl usually including Brant, Widgeon (American & European), Gadwall, Goldeneye, Bufflehead, mergansers, etc., etc.
We had a total of 18 species of waterfowl for the day and ended up with 327 Mute Swans in the appropriately-named town of Swansea.
Between this area and the Fairhaven area where we spent our time, we had almost 3,400 Canada Geese....they were everywhere! Interestingly, we only had one "odd" goose and that was a Cackling Goose first thing on the Lee's River.
At the town beach in Swansea we had good numbers of Brant...over 700 for the day...
and large flocks of Mallards, with a good number of Black Ducks mixed in.
Bufflehead were out in force, with just over 700 between the two areas.
And we had a good representation of Hooded Mergansers this late in the season.
Loons and grebes seemed on the low side, with this little guy being one of about 70 for the day and Common Loons only numbering 4.
This area also provides great "thicket" birding, so you invariably have to drive down residential streets to get to some of the good thickets off Gardiner's Neck Road in Somerset. And there's always the hope of something this large statue on this small lawn. This is one that will definitely go into my collection of lawn trinkets. In fact as I filed away this photo I realized just how many of my favorite lawn trinket photos came from this area of the state....hmmmm
While not as plentiful as inland (only 48 noted), American Robins were around wherever there were still good berries to be had.
And we had a smattering of Yellow-rumped Warblers hanging in.
After about 2 to 2-1/5 hours we moved onto the Fairhaven area. We covered all our usual areas along Mattapoisett Neck, Shaw's Cove and Gellette Roads and then headed down Sconticut Neck Rd. At the little overlook of the offshore island we had numbers of Common Eiders, and Blacks and Mallards were on the ocean since the little pond nearby was complete frozen.
Mark was able to scope Ruddy Turnstone and Sanderling along the rocky end of the island.
One of our best finds of the day was an "Ipswich" Sparrow in with a small flock of Savannahs on the lawn at the house right at the corners of Sconticut Neck and Nelson Ave.
You really need to enlarge these photos and then compare them to the Savannahs to appreciate the differences in coloring and size.
The variation among Savannahs can be seen....
but when you compare it to an Ipswich it's really obvious.
Even from the back the rump color gives it away. I was thrilled to get some really close shots of this very cooperative bird.
As we headed back up Sconticut Neck we took our usual detour out to West Island. The thickets right before the last turn to the beach can often hold great wintering land birds. But it can be a tough existence for Cardinals this far out.
But Chickadees and Titmice seem to do quite well.
It was a little unusual to find a pair of Mockingbirds cooperatively sharing the same bush...they're usually so territorial in winter.
But you can't always count on a cooperative Rufous-sided Towhee to pop out and pose for you!
The rocky shore along the tip of West Island can sometimes provide looks at shorebirds, unusual species of ducks -- we've had Barrow's Goldeneye twice in this area -- and even some interesting raptors. But that was not to be today.
The one surprise bird was an American Pipit who flew in and proceeded to pick along the rack line looking for something good to eat.
It was so frustrating to walk a little, then the bird flew a little, then I walked a little, he flew a little....and we kept this up for about 15 minutes.
I was able to get some great shots and hopefully this will provide enough documentation for the current "powers that be" to convince them we really had this bird.
Of course, we wanted to double and triple-check to make sure it was an American Pipit and not something even more unusual.
But American Pipit it was!
Going to the north end of West Island along Dogwood Road, we were able to scan all of Round and North Coves and the surrounding marshes in the hopes of finding a Snowy or Short-eared Owl.
We did have a little excitement when we spotted a raptor moving across the marsh towards us.
As it got closer we thought it might have been a Short-eared Owl....
But when it passed by quite close it was obviously a Northern Harrier hunting the marshes.
We watched it fly in and among the houses along the edge of the marsh.
Since the bird had very little of the rufous coloring of a juvi, we concluded she was an adult female hunting her area.
As we headed off West Island we stopped to check the scaup flocks in the cove along the west side of Hoppy's Landing. We had had almost 500 Greater Scaup earlier near Ocean Grove and here we had another, smaller flock of about 200 birds here.
Some of the birds were close enough to shore to allow good photography in the afternoon sun.

We worked our way back up Sconticut Neck Rd., stopping at various overlooks, with many of the same species -- Bufflehead, Canada Geese, a few Brant -- and then jumped back on 195 heading west to Providence and then back up 146 to Worcester.

We had a grand total of 49 species for the day. I know it doesn't seem like a lot, but for a cold January day it was great. Plus the looks at the Ipswich Sparrow, the pipit and the harrier were worth the price of admission for me. And after this weekend's birding, Mark's January list is up to a whopping 84!

Now if it would only get a little warmer......