Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Our Backyard Birds in the Snowstorm

With all these snowstorms, the feeders in our backyard are pretty active. Not with any unusual birds, but the juncos and white-throats are visiting non-stop. Of course, the cardinals show up throughout the day as well. The hardest part of all these storms is keeping a fairly clear path out to the feeders so you can keep them full!
Of course when the Bluejays come in with a flourish, everything scatters. These guys certainly know how to get to the front of the food line. They remind me of the bullies in school who would just cut in and push the little kids out of the way.....not much you can do.
The juncos are pretty resilient though....
That is until the real predators show up!
I was standing on the back porch just getting some typical shots of the White-throated Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos, when this young male Cooper's Hawk bombed into the bushes trying to catch a meal for himself.
He sat out in the open and then dove into the bushes trying to flush birds. With all the cold and snow, it seems we have 1-2 Cooper's Hawks (there's a larger adult bird) visiting regularly as well.
It's nice to know that there's birds to watch, even if we can't get out as much as we'd like. And while I truly love these Cooper's Hawks, I'll be happy when spring comes and they guys move off to some more isolated wood lots to set up their nesting territory.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Early Christmas Presents -- Birding on 12/24

Having taken a couple of days off for last-minute Christmas shopping (I am not one of those organized folks that have it all done by Thanksgiving) I felt I was in pretty good shape. So Mark & I decided to go to Gardner to see if we could find the Townsend's Solitaire that Tom Pirro had posted the day before. We arrived about 7:30....and it was bitter cold. And we weren't the first folks on the scene. There were a couple of birders from the Boston area (whom we didn't know) and they hadn't seen anything yet. Within the next hour a number of other birders had arrived on the scene and at 8:35 Mark spotted the bird flying into the field.Unfortunately a number of the eastern birders had given up already, but the rest of us spent a good hour watching the bird feed on bittersweet. We even had the bird do a bit of it's song as it flew into a close apple tree. Eventually the Solitaire flew off to the southwestern part of the field and then appeared to fly directly west across the street. I know folks have checked for this bird during the Westminster Count and failed to turn it up, but at least it was a "count week" bird based on the sightings this Christmas Eve morning.
We decided to head back to Worcester and check the airport for snow buntings and horned larks and also for a very dark raptor we had the day before. It looked like a small dark Rough-legged Hawk, but neither of us were very sure so we wanted better looks.

We did not turn up the hawk, but we did have nice looks are flocks of Horned Larks feeding in the parking lot right next to the runway.
There was a flock of about 60-70 birds and they kept flying up, out to the grasses along the runway and then back to the parking lot. This was a great chance to study the different plumages and try to age the get totally familiar with their tinkling little call in flight.

If you enlarge the photo below, you can see on the "horns" on the head pattern giving rise to the bird's name.
We also had a similar-sized flock of Snow Buntings in the area, but they were even more skittish than the larks.
Again nice plumage study between the winter male above and the female below.
Since it was quite cold (and I did have some last-minute stuff to do) we headed home very happy with the birds we had gotten....especially the Solitaire. All in all a very nice Christmas Eve.

Later in the afternoon while I was making the lasagna and chicken parmesan for Christmas dinner at the kid's, Mark yelled out that there were crows mobbing something in the backyard. Since it was just after 3:30 we thought it might be the Cooper's Hawk that visits our feeders. Since I was in the midst of food preparation, I didn't immediately drop everything and run out with my camera.

Within 30 seconds Mark yelled again that the crows had flushed an owl into some dense pines, and this time I dropped what I was doing and grabbed my camera and ran.
After poking into the pines I flushed a Barred Owl out onto a bare branch. The bird was obviously a juvenile and looking around for an early meal.
Even though the crows had flown off, he seemed more wary of what birds might come and yell at him then he did of me and my camera. We watched the bird for about 15 minutes and hoped he would stay around to feed on some of the mice that were surely visiting the food under our feeders at night. We also hoped the bird would stay close to back yards for moving around and not do too much street crossing. They last thing in the world we wanted was to wake up Christmas morning and find a dead Barred Owl in our neighborhood (which we didn't).
What a great way to end a very birdy Christmas Eve day.


Sunday, December 19, 2010

Christmas Count #2 -- Worcester 12/18

Our second Christmas count of the season is the Worcester count. I love doing a xmas count so close to close in fact that we were able to pop home for lunch! Our territory is really centered in and around the town of Boylston and includes some of Northboro. We started owling about 5 a.m. and I was able to get this shot of the tree lit up on the Boylston commons. Much like Sturbridge we ticked the four common species (Great Horned, Barred, Screech and Saw-whet) with the Great Horned putting on a great show of "duetting" which is a sign of courtship. Our goal is to be on the hill overlooking the Boylston Town Offices at dawn, so that we can get the first birds flying over...usually crows and gulls. This time the sunrise was totally spectacular.
And the gulls were flying out from Wachusett Reservoir in good numbers in the dawn light....
with some of the them actually being colored by the light. This Ring-billed Gull looked really exotic when it flew over at dawn.
We also try to hit South Bay at the reservoir early so that we can get any ducks that might have put down overnight. We were really excited to find a flock of Goldeneye...and even more excited to find a drake Barrow's right in the middle!
We've had Barrow's inland before, but this is the first time we've found one on an inland Christmas count. It was even more special since this year is the first in about 30 that Mark & I decided to formally give up doing the Cape Ann count. And that's where we usually get a Barrow's.
When we got the compilation we found ours was only 1 of 4 (the other 3 females were in Lake Quinsigamond.) When we checked on "ours" the day after the count we found that there was now a female with the male in South Bay. And a check of Lake Quinsig only turned up 2 females.

Our walk out to Scar Hill bluffs was cold and windy....and there weren't alot of birds on the reservoir.
However, we did have a pair of adult Bald Eagles perched in a tree off towards South Bay.
Tooling around the farmlands in Boylston turned up a brightly-colored Red-shouldered Hawk. It seems in the past few years we've turned up more and more of these wintering Red-shoulders in Worcester County.
And, of course, there's always the search for the more common this small flock of House Sparrows in a backyard in Northboro.
We had a good number of Red-tailed Hawks as well. But we didn't get any accipiter species at all, which was a little bit unusual for our sector.
Mockingbirds seemed to be fairly well-represented and they were defending "their" bittersweet patches vehemently.
One thing that was a little disconcerting were the numbers of USDA inspectors out in the Worcester/Boylston area checking for the Asian Long-horned Beetles. Unfortunately, they have found them spreading north-northeast from Worcester. Some of the area around near the Worcester Country Club and the Department of Correction has already been clear-cut.
However, the folks we saw looked like they were doing the poison injection instead. I spoke to Dave Small recently and he said that while it's a good alternative to clear-cutting it's very labor intensive and you have to do it more than once. All of that equals $$$ so I can't imagine most towns have the budget.
We spotted this perky Red-breasted Nuthatch near the Correctional Facility in the later afternoon....
and this White-throated Sparrow popped out when we played the screech owl tape. We also had about 3 or 4 Hermit Thrushes in the same area, along with a number of Robins feeding on the fruiting trees.
We finished the day back out at South Bay watching the gulls return to the reservoir for the evening. The numbers seemed much larger than when we watched them leave at dawn, but we didn't do a formal recount knowing that others from the count were stationed at other parts of Wachusett expressly for the purpose of counting the gulls.

We met for the compilation with John Liller (count circle coordinator) at MAS Broad Meadow Brook and got to compare notes on the full day's event. One of the highlights was that we were able to count one of the best feeder birds on any count we've ever done....Rufous Hummingbird.
This little female had been coming to a feeder in Worcester since early October, and Mark had been in touch with the homeowner. Even though she had previously taken her feeders down when we had the warmish spell back in November, the bird lingered. Finally Beth opened her garage and put her feeder inside so that the bird could feed out of the cold. We discussed with her the likelihood that the bird would survive and since it didn't seem like it was going to leave we asked her how she felt about having the bird banded.

Mark got in touch with a registered bird bander who came out to Worcester, caught and banded the bird (and confirmed it was a female Rufous) and reported that she was in very good condition and he seemed to think she was putting on weight and might be getting ready to take off. Sure enough the next day she left...and hasn't been back to Beth's feeder. So we're all hoping to get a report from down south of this banded female at someone else's feeder.

With a total of 84 species for the day, the Worcester count was indeed a very good one!


Saturday, December 18, 2010

Christmas Count #1 -- Sturbridge 12/14

It was a cold, windy day for the Sturbridge count this year, so many of the ponds had started to freeze. Mark's and my area of the count is called "West Brookfield" since most of our area centers around that town. There are 8 sectors covering the full Christmas Count circle and ours is in the northwest quadrant. The small sliver of open water at Lake Wickabog had hundreds of Canada Geese and eagle-eye Mark spotted a Snow Goose right in the middle of the flock. A nice way to start the day! Of course since we did start before dark for owls (we had the usual 4 species to be expected) it really wasn't the start of the day....just the start of daylight birding.
At the outflow of the Wickabog into the Quabog River near Rts. 67 and 9, we had over 30 Hooded Mergansers. There were also good numbers of Mallards, a handful of Black Ducks and an American Widgeon. The latter is not a bird often found on this Christmas Count.
A lot of our territory runs through the back roads on the south side of Rt. 9 and some of the thickets were hopping with Chickadees early in the morning.

When we stopped to play the screech owl tape, we were able to bring in this Carolina Wren ...
and it seemed that the numbers of Cardinals were up in our sector as well.
With a light dusting of snow on the bushes, it was actually looking like a Christmas card waiting to be printed. (Or maybe that image popped into mind since I'm woefully late in doing anything for Christmas this year.)
We met Val & Scott Surner at noon to compare notes, since our territories are adjacent and we often spend time in the afternoon with Val mopping up both our territories, but Scott was able to join her this year, so we kept our afternoons confined to the different territories. However, we were excited to hear that Scott got a Woodcock (with photo documentation) in Val's territory.
After search much of the day we finally were able to get a flock of Turkeys at the barn in West Brookfield along Wickabog Valley Road. This is usually where we get them on the count, but 3 previously drive-bys today turned up nothing...guess #4 was the charm.
We met in Bill's & Nancy's story (Bird Store and More) in Sturbridge for the compilation at 5 and everyone got to compare notes. It turned out to be a rather average count, with 73 species recorded for the day. And we didn't have any terribly rare species or lingering warblers. Still it was a fun day, rather close to home and ending with a good group of people sharing stories and pizza!

So it's 1 down and 3 Christmas Counts to up, Worcester.


Saturday, December 11, 2010

Getting Ready for the Christmas Counts

Up and out early to check out some areas in anticipation of our first Christmas Count of the season -- Sturbridge on December 14th. As we were filling up with gas in Worcester, there was one of the resident Red-tails it it's usual perch..... high atop the tower at the Immaculate Conception Rectory on West Boylston Street.
Wishing we were doing the Worcester count, we flushed a Barred Owl on Flagg Street! The owl flew low across the road in front of the car in front of us, and we were in the right spot at the right time.
We checked the gull, geese and Mallard flock at Orlando's, but also there were no unusual waterfowl. However, the numbers of Canada Geese and Mallards were quite impressive. Of course, it helps that the farmer pulled up and dropped off several bins of old bread!!! In fact you can see one of the Ring-billed Gulls walking with a big piece of toast in its bill.
In Southbridge we had a nice water seep with lots of Junco's, Chickadees and Tree Sparrows.
And I was lucky enough to catch this White-breasted Nuthatch just as he took off to fly at the sound of the screech owl we were doing.
We decided to check out the Westville Dam area....and it was definitely looking very winter-like.
But at the southern end of the park (near the picnic area) there was a nice flock of Canada Geese with a Greater White-fronted Goose. We certainly hope the bird will stay for the Christmas count, but at least we will have gotten it on count week since we are within 3 days of the start of the count.
After checking out the Southbridge area for different pockets of birds we headed back to Worcester to make a stop at the All Faith's Cemetery. We had heard that in the afternoon there was a Screech Owl sunning himself in one of the Wood Duck boxes that can be seen right from Hope Avenue.
Sure enough, the little guy was there filling up the hole to the max!

We realized that we had both started and ended our day with owls.....and both within the city of Worcester. You really can't ask for more than that -- except that they'll still be around on the Worcester Christmas Count.