Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Fabulous Cape Cod Class Trip - 9/25

Mark & I took off Friday (the 24th) and headed down to the Cape to spend some time birding before leading the class trip on Saturday. We were scheduled to do a whale watch out of Provincetown on the Dolphin Fleet, but the winds were so strong we opted to bird the area from land. Since this class is about IBA's we knew we were still "legal" so to speak. Our first stop on Friday was Chatham Light where we had a fabulous jaeger and tern show. Things were too far out for photos, but we spent about 30 minutes with our scopes just enjoying the show. Unfortunately, the area was still hopping with tourists, so every 3-5 minutes people would stop to ask us if we were seeing any whales. So we decided to head up to the Nauset/Orleans area but we did stop at Cowyard Road in North Chatham and had a flock of about 18-20 Oystercatchers tucked in out of the wind on a sand bar. We weren't hitting the tides right, so our shorebirds were far off. We did have 2 Whimbrels fly at Chatham Light though.
At Nauset Marsh we had flocks of Greater Yellowlegs and a couple of Forster's Terns in with the Commons.
With the tides still high we wouldn't have seen much if some kayakers hadn't put them up.
We had a few harriers and some good numbers of both Snowy and Great Egret.
We knew we would be back to visit Hemenway Landing at dusk for the night heron show, so we decided to check out Coast Guard before checking into our motel.
We were able to drive up and find a parking space, which was lucky for us since Mark found two different Dickcissels in a large flock of House Sparrows along the road just below the parking lot. We also ran into Alan Marble birding the area with a friend.
This one Dickcissel wouldn't let me get a good clean shot of his face....but the other one was much more obliging.
And much more colorful as well!

We checked in, had an early dinner at the Fairway Restaurant and then headed out to check out the night heron show. We were totally surprised to find about 20 other birders doing the same thing. The darker it got, the more birds finally flew out of their roost. We ended up with 9 different Yellow-crowns and at least double that for Black-crowns. Unfortunately, trying to photograph those birds when they're on a mission was next to impossible.

Saturday morning the winds were still blowing hard so when everyone assembled at MacMillan Wharf we decided to try out hand at pelagics from land. Based on the show the day before at Chatham we were hoping for something similar at Race Point or Herring Cove....and we would be on solid ground rather than holding onto the railings for dear life.
We did have a few whale sightings from Race Point and there were some Gannets fishing both there and later in the morning at Head of the Meadow.
The plumages were highly variable in the birds we saw....ranging from almost full adult to very dark juvenile birds.
One of the highlights was getting the Sandhill Crane in the soccer field along Rt. 6 in Provincetown.
We had it on Friday afternoon and it was still there Saturday morning when we went to meet the class at the wharf. However, when we all came back and hour later, there was a girls soccer game in progress so we spent some time looking for it at the airport (but we dipped.)
We made another attempt mid-morning, and sure enough the soccer game was over and the bird was back out on the field probing in the grass for grubs, worms and beetles.
It was interesting the number of people that stopped right along Rt. 6 to ask what it was. I now have a good selection of Sandhill Crane photos in just about every posture....although I never got it in flight.
We hit Herring Cove hoping to see more jaegers and maybe even some shearwaters....and the winds seemed right.
There were Laughing Gulls everywhere, although I never got one in flight which was a huge miss on my part.
Although I made up for it with Bonaparte's Gulls!
Sure enough there was a terrific tern and jaeger show right off the point. Most of the birds stayed just far enough out of camera range.....
but 1 or 2 chasing terns came in close enough to allow me to get a shot or two.

As much as I would love "the" great photo, I really enjoyed watching them harass the terns. I felt like I really learned how to identify this species and will, hopefully, be in a better position in the future. Most went down as jaeger species, but we did have a couple of identifiable Parasitic and Pomarines.
As we headed out of Provincetown we decided to check out High Head and see if we could luck out and find a Western Kingbird or something. This is part of the area we do on the Truro Christmas Count, so it was fun to be there when the summer residents were still keeping their feeders filled.

As we came up the hill we were dismayed to find Juncos though! Oh no, these are probably some of the same birds we'll see in a few months on the Christmas Count. We also had some immature White-crowned Sparrows as well. After making the loop on the sandy roads, we stopped to check the feeders again and Mark spotted a Lark Sparrow!
This little bird gave me such a hard time though. Part of it is the little mouse-like nature of the bird, but part of it was also my height. Everyone was just a bit taller (okay a lot taller) and they kept seeing it pop it's head up.
Finally in desperation, I opened the sun roof on my vehicle and stood up to gain the necessary height! It was amazing to watch this bird literally disappear for minutes at a time and then reappear in a different part of the lawn. I have some photos where the bird is so well-hidden that all you can see is a piece of the face and his eye. It's like a "Where's Waldo" puzzle.
We left High Head and began heading off the Cape. We did make another try for the Dickcissels at Coast Guard, but being a Saturday they weren't allowing any private cars up until after 5 and the Shuttle Bus didn't seem like a good option for us at this point.

We checked in at the "stump dump" in Nauset, but being mid-afternoon anything that had been there was we said out goodbyes to the class and headed back to Worcester.
I don't think I've had a trip where jaegers, Sandhill Crane, Lark Sparrow and Dickcissel all show up on the same day. It had been a great trip!


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Class Trip #2a & 2b -- Hawkwatching

Given that mid-September is THE prime time for hawk watching in Central Mass, we had two different trips -- the 18th and 19th. Our first foray was with a combined group comprising some class members as well as participants from a lecture Mark gave at the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, MA. This is a wonderful museum complex overlooking the Nashua River valley and Mount Wachusett. It's a different kind of museum with connections to Louisa May Alcott's family (and Transcendentalism), Native American heritage, art and nature....very eclectic, but it all comes together wonderfully. Here's a link for you to check it out They currently have a great exhibit of bird art so you should make time to go there and see it.
As any hawk watcher will tell you, you really want some clouds against which to pick out the we were hoping. Unfortunately, there were so many low clouds all morning that our count on Saturday was rather disappointing. We did, however, have double-digit numbers of Osprey migrating along the Nashua River.
Picking up that first hawk is always exciting, even though it can be rather far out. There's always those few moments when you're trying to get everyone on the bird AND identify it at the same time.
Sooner or later it usually gets close enough for a good look through scopes. Since Osprey tend to be in singles when they migrate, it's a good way to warm up for what you hope will be the big kettles of Broadwings.
When things are slow you also keep an ear out for land birds migrating. Mark heard a warbler chip at the far end of the parking lot and was the only one to wander down and check it out. Therefore, while the rest of us were looking at an Eastern Phoebe, he was the only one of us to get the Connecticut Warbler! I've often said it pays to watch where Mark's wandering off to, because he doesn't usually do something without a darn good reason.
The picture above is a classic profile shot of a buteo moving over us fast. This one turned out to be one of the local Red-tailed Hawks, which is probably why we were able to see it.
Other than a few Sharp-shinned hawks, a small handful of Broadwings, the previously-mentioned Ospreys and Redtails, we had to content ourselves with nice looks at Kestral and Turkey Vultures (which we all now know are not really hawks, but more closely-related to storks.) It was a nice morning trip, with a small group of folks, and lots of people stopping by on bicycles, cars, etc. to ask what we were doing. As it turned out, Saturday was actually a big day....later in the afternoon. Both Goat's Peak out in the Connecticut River valley and Mount Watatic to the north reported 5,000-6,000 Broadwings passed over after about 2 p.m.

We were a wee bit disappointed when we heard that Saturday night but since we had another hawk watch with the class planned for Sunday, we had high hopes.

Sunday's skies appeared more promising when we started the trip around 7:30 at the Lover's Leap pulloff in New Salem. This area had a spectacular view to the north and full to the east so we've been wanting to try it out for hawks. It seemed like an ideal location when you consider the birds they get on Mounts Tom, Watatic and Wachusett.
While way to early for thermals and, therefore, kettles to build, first thing in the morning can be a great time to get landbirds passing through the trees nearby. In fact, in about a 20 minute period right after 7 we had great numbers of warblers and vireos in the trees just below the overlook. We had about a dozen Parulas, along with Nashville, Connecticut, Black-throated Green, Blackpoll, Cape May, Magnolia and Redstart. And we had Red-eyed, Blue-headed and Philadelphia Vireos as well.
Most birds moved through so quickly it was almost impossible to get any shots, especially in the dim early morning light. Both this Red-eyed Vireo (above) and Northern Parula (below) were a little more cooperative.
We also had a few Scarlet Tanagers move through later in the morning.
Looking to the north as the mist was rising, we started to see our first hawks of the day.
Watching a bird come straight at you gets that adrenaline rush going since you always imagine it will be something totally fantastic.....
even though it may only turn out to be a Sharpie. I have to keep telling myself, though, that I love accipiters and don't really need something exotic to keep my interest when I'm hawk watching.
Even the Turkey Vultures that pass over close by can be totally impressive.
We did have a good show of Sharp-shinned Hawks, and when someone asked if we ever see Cooper's Hawks during migration, this one appeared right on cue. There was some question initially as to whether we were seeing a large Sharpie or a small Coop, but when the bird passed close by, you could see both the larger head protruding and the much longer tail. It's always fun to be able to see the field marks right in the field!
We also had several Bald Eagles, but since we're just at the north end of Quabbin that's to be expected. Surprisingly we didn't have even one Osprey. We did have a few 20+ kettles of Broadwings, but, again, not the larger numbers we had hoped for. I think out total count of Broadwings for the morning was just over a couple hundred.
And the local Red-tailed Hawks visited several times....sometimes just circling up in a small thermal...
and sometimes passing so close that I felt I could reach out and touch it!

Even though we never turned up the thousands of hawks everyone hopes for, I couldn't think of a nicer way to spend a morning in mid-September. And, hopefully, there's always next year!


Sunday, September 19, 2010

First MAS Class Trip -- Saturday, 9/11

Eight of us enjoyed a nice early fall morning at Quabbin Park with the first trip of Mark's birding class. This semester's class is focusing on migration in the IBA's (Important Bird Areas). IBA's are designated areas that were nominated several years ago based on certain criteria established. If you want to find more information, here's a link at Mass Audubon At Winsor Dam we had a couple of great looks at Bald Eagle, but the hope was to catch some migration (since that is the focus of the class!) Both White-breasted and Red-breasted Nuthatches were around. In fact, this year seems to be shaping up as a good year for RB Nuts -- we've had them everywhere this fall. Although the ability to get a photo like this White-breasted continues to elude me.
Prairie Warblers seemed to be in some numbers on this fine Saturday morning. We had our first group in the bushes near the Spillway.
And at the Windsor Memorial (that little pull-off going up the hill) we were greeted by 4 species of vireos....
Red-eyed peeking out of the grape leaves.
Philadelphia Vireo using the same grapes leaves....and we had both Warbling and Yellow-throated flitting through the trees as well.
This Eastern Wood Pewee was still singing.
From the Enfield Lookout we had a smattering of hawks -- this Red-tailed Hawk is likely a resident since he kept reappearing while we were there. Unfortunately, with a totally clear blue sky, hawk watching is difficult so we moved on after about 30 minutes.
At the Blueberry Patch we found a family of Cedar Waxwings -- this young one was still being lured by an adult bird with a berry in it's mouth, but appeared unwilling to go off and eat on his own.
We watched and waited, hoping to find "feeding young" behavior for the Breeding Bird Atlas, but alas the parent flew off with the berry still in mouth and young bird in tow.
At the powerlines between Goodnough Dike and Rt. 9 we had this American Lady trying to catch some morning sun before heading out.
After coming out of the easternmost entrance on Rt. 9 we headed back to the Administration Building to pick up cars and stopped along the marsh hoping for fall marsh birds.
We had a good number of Wood Ducks and a Kingfisher, but no Solitary Sandpiper or Green Heron...oh well.
We made a quick stop at the Fish Hatchery and caught a Sharp-shinned Hawk going up in a thermal. And of course the Killdeer which seem to enjoy this area as they stage for migration. We had only about 15 or 16 birds....but sometimes we can get up to 50-60 so hopefully there's still more to come.
This is a great area to get close looks at these guys, although sometimes they are skitterish and fly off. This time I was lucky enough to get the bird just as he was taking off so I could get a good look at the rump color and wing pattern -- I'm not always this lucky.
We ended our morning-only trip just about noon back where we started -- at the Winsor Dam near the Administration Building. Judging by the numbers of hikers, bike riders and families with strollers....we ended at just about the right time.
A few die-hard class members followed Mark and I up Rt. 202 to the pull-off north of New Salem to see if the clouds were better there and spent about another hour hawk watching.
All in all, a very enjoyable first class trip!