Monday, February 28, 2011

Bohemian Waxwings and other northern Berkshire finds

Since I'm not a skier or snowboarder, getting me out to the northern Berkshires in the dead of winter has got to hold some promise of good birding. So the report of a large flock of Bohemian Waxwings was just about the right thing to do it! In Windsor, right along North Road, we found a group of out 30 birds feeding in an old apple tree. If you click on the phot below to enlarge it, you'll get a sense of just how intricate the coloring is on these birds....something you often only get glimpses of when they're sitting still.
Since there were plenty of rotting apples to go around, I wondered whether this was some sort of pre-mating aggression and if this bird really just didn't want to share.
While I often think of these birds as beautiful, when they actually sit still and look at you they actually seem to be scowling.
However, there is no way you can't still call it a beatiful bird. Just look at the subtle coloring change from various shades of brown to various shades of gray. Since these birds are only an irruptive species in our area, I was thrilled to get a chance to really study the patterns, their call, their overall jizz.....a truly handsome species!
Of course, a trip to the northern Berks in February means you're catching Ravens as they start to set up nesting territory, which means they can be quite noisy.
Snce we were in the neighborhood, we spent some time traveling the back roads between Windsor and Cheshire. We hoped to find shrike (not) and maybe an early Black Vulture where we had them last year in Cheshire (not) so we had to make do with this very cooperative Red-tailed Hawk.
We did come across several feeding stations which had Redpoll visiting though.
On the loop back to Windsor, we stopped to appreciate some of the regular birds in one of the forest this Hairy Woodpecker just launching himself off.
And this Red-Breasted Nuthatch who was very interested in the tape we were playing of Boreal Chickadee. Of course, we didn't get a Boreal Chickadee....
but we were treated to signing Brown Creeper on a number of stops. The photo below is like a "Where's Waldo" of this cryptic little bird....even when it's right in front of you.
As a photographer, I love getting shots of birds (like this one) where it has been particularly challenging for me to get a decent shot in the past.
So while I loved seeing the Bohemian Waxwings, I think getting this shot of Brown Creeper was more rewarding. And it made a winter trip to the cold and snowy northern Berkshires ever so worth it!


Sunday, February 27, 2011

Quabbin in February

We made several quick trips to Quabbin during the month of February; partly because we were trying to get some morning birding in between predicted snowfall and partly because you can always count of seeing something! On the way out we often check the north end of Wickabog Lake and that means driving by a small farm where they keep a half dozen pigs. Obviously some of the pigs have had their young already. Turkeys have been somewhat scarce with all the snow, so finding a small flock coming to someone's feeders is always a treat.
Even on a relatively clear day, looking north from the Enfield Lookout can put winter into perspective!
And with little open water, it's always nice to find a flock of geese; although I don't know where they were heading....maybe all the way to the Connecticut River.
But the real stars of the winter-time show at Quabbin are the Bald Eagles. This year we seem to bump into them just about every time we go...even driving along Rt. 9 near the marsh, which is where we had this adult and immature almost touching wings!
At the state fish hatchery in Belchertown we were there when the state workers were picking up dead fish from the pools. This adult eagle came swooping in and we had the feeling that had we not been there the workers might have left some "table scraps" for the eagle.
As it was we got a chance for great close-ups and the bird kept passing fairly low over the containment pools and we wondered whether he was going to just pluck a salmon from the pool.

We did get a chance to talk with one of the workers and she told us that that's exactly what the eagles often do. They don't really worry about it since the real problem is when the Great Blue Herons come back and just treat the place like a 24-hour buffet. That's when they have to put the nets over the pools.

The big excitement for us, though, was seeing our first Killdeer of the year which had returned during the previous week....I guess any sign of spring will cause excitement!
Back at Quabbin proper, outside the Administration Building, there was a fresh carcass. We had had one the previous week but it was much further out so watching the eagles come down to eat was definitely a scope job at best.
This one, however, was relatively close, so we were able to get great looks at it feeding on the deer.
Nothing else came into the carcass while the eagle fed, but we did have a coyote and a fisher on another carcass far out and to the left of the Gate 8 fishing access.
A pair of eagles have already set up their nest looking out from the Administration Building, so it should prove to be an active eagle show for some time still to come.


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Class Trip #3 -- Fairhaven & Mattapoisett

With the cooperation of Mother Nature, we got our final class on "Birding the Southeastern Coast of Massachusetts in Winter" in. We visited Fairhaven and Mattapoisett on Sunday, 2/13 and had a great day. We started at Fort Phoenix in Fairhaven which is an historic site. Sitting at the entrance to New Bedford Harbor, the fort was the site of the first naval battle of the American Revolutionary War in May 1775. Three years later it was attacked and destroyed by the British but rebuilt after that and named Fort Phoenix after the mythical bird which rose from the ashes!
It was manned during the War of 1812 and the Civil War and there are still 5 Civil War cannons at the site today....
along with a rebuilt Revolutionary War cannon that was captured in the Bahamas by a ship on which John Paul Jones was an officer. I was amazed to find so much history from 3 significant wars so close to home. If you're interested, you can get much more history than I've given you by going to any of several sites on Fort Phoenix, including a blogspot site.
But as interesting as the history is, we were there for birds....even these Mute Swans which flew in and out several times during our stop.
Landbirds were pretty scarce on this trip, so this little Song Sparrow was fun to watch going in and out of the ramparts.
There were Long-tailed Ducks making their strange call and displaying to females in the harbor as well.
Fort Phoenix was the westernmost boundary of our trip. From there we headed to the easternmost end in Mattapoisett at Ned's Beach. It seemed a bit quiet for seaducks and we certainly didn't have the drama of watching a Peregrin eating a Bufflehead like the last time we visited.
But we did have two Snow Buntings feeding on the grass (yes there was grass and not snow in some spots) near the lighthouse.
This is a somewhat unusual bird (at least for us) in this area. In fact, it may have been the first time we had anything except a flyover and I'm not even sure about that. Of course, we were a little jaded given the show that had gone on in December and January at the Worcester Airport. However, there were some members of the class that hadn't seen Snow Buntings this winter, yet, so it was fun to watch them preen. I'm just not used to seeing only 2 birds....where was the rest of the flock?
We had a large group of Canada Geese in the fields along Shaw Cove Road; but even after checking every bird we had to concur they were all Canada's.
Near the golf course on Reservation Road we had a cooperative Yellow-rumped Warbler. Some of the class really wanted to take this as a sign of spring, but Mark wouldn't let them. Still they felt good seeing a warbler and a bit of yellow!
We had some nice flocks of Greater Scaup out in the bay....
and at the end of Sconticut Neck Road we had a nice flock fly by fairly close to where we were standing.

We almost missed them, since we were all so intent on studying the Glaucous Gull which was right in front of us!
It was a great size comparison with the Herring Gull.
And we were able to really study the bill structure, including the defined dark tip, and the flatter look to the head...not as round as the Iceland Gull we had on the Plymouth trip. Also the wings didn't extend as far beyond on the tail as in an Iceland.
The bird was very cooperative and flew only a short distance, as if to show up every wingtip before resettling. Much like the Snow Bunting, this is a not a common bird for us in the Fairhaven area; in fact it might actually be our first Glaucous Gull in this area.

As exciting as that was, we were even more thrilled to find an unusual Brant at West Island!
For decades Mark has said to check every Brant for a "dark-bellied" or Black Brant. And this time we lucked out. There was a small flock near the rocks just east of the major beach entrance and one bird with a dark belly was standing on the rocks.
We were able to get all scopes riveted on this bird, and it clearly shows the darker belly on this bird. We watched the flock for about 15 minutes, before they flew off. Mark has spent the last several weeks researching everything he can find on this species and feels this is not the common Brant we usually find along the Massachusetts coast.
Also at West Island we had a small flock of Dunlin.
And with them was one Ruddy Turnstone blending in very well to the rack line along the beach. I had walked up to get closer photos of the Brant and I almost stepped on this bird before I saw him. When I got back to the class they had not seen the Turnstone in their scopes. It took a few minutes to pick him out from the dried seaweed but finally everyone got a look.
We made a couple of quick stops at various overlooks heading back up Sconticut Neck and finally called it a day and headed back to Worcester. In our last class the following Wednesday, we were able to compare shots of the Glaucous and Iceland Gulls and it was quite informative.

So after 6 weeks, our short, 3-week class that had been thwarted by class and trip cancellations due to weather finally came to an end. Of course, we are all excited for spring migration which really is just around the corner!


Thursday, February 10, 2011

Class Trip #2 -- The Canal

On Sunday, February 6th, we got our second class trip in. And it was quite a beautiful day. We met near the Railroad Bridge in Bourne and with just six of us on the trip we managed wonderfully in just two cars. We decided to bird both sides of the canal near the RR bridge and then head to Falmouth in hopes of finding the Harris' Sparrow, head up to Sandy Neck, do the Sandwich end of the canal and then circle back down to Bourne. The Bourne end of the canal on both sides is wonderful for close looks at large numbers of Common Eider.
The tides weren't perfect for close looks, but we did have eiders moving all around and managed really close looks at both male and female ducks.
This is the peak time for breeding plumage on the males, and they really are quite beautiful. We spent some time looking for a female King Eider....but to no avail.
There seemed to quite a bit of traffic in the canal this Sunday morning. For some reason the last couple of times we were hear, we did have much in the way of cargo ships, but today was something different.
We watched several tugboats escorting barges loaded with cargo up through the canal from Buzzard's Bay to Cape Cod Bay.
It was interesting to watch the Common Loons trying to stay out of the way of the boats, which brought some quite close to the shore.
Unfortunately our side trip to Falmouth proved futile. When we arrived at the house where the Harris' Sparrow was being seen, the owner informed us that she had not seen the bird that morning at all. We were speculating whether the milder weather had prompted the bird to move on; however, we learned that the bird was back in the same neighborhood the next day. So it was just a case of us being there at the wrong time.

We decided to head up to Sandy Neck and stopped for at Dunkin Donuts to use the facilities and refresh on coffee and donuts. As we were waiting for everyone to assemble back at the car, I noticed a particularly beautiful weather vane and decided to photograph what might be our only heron "species" of the day.
Unfortunately, Sandy Neck was as disappointing as Falmouth had been. They're doing some construction in the area, so parking was very restricted and the small observation platform where we've set up scopes before was behind a fenced off construction site. We did manage to get a couple of good sightings of whales from shore before we headed off to the north/east end of the canal.
We had a nice mixed flock of Sanderlings and Dunlin on the rocky shore near the restaurant (not sure of the name, I think it's called Hemispheres). For the class it was a great study of these two winter shorebirds comparing the coloration and bill structure.

After a while Mark gave me the okay to try to closer to photograph them, and I was doing well until a local came along running their dog. Although it did provide a couple of good shots of the shorebirds in flight.
We also had some Purple Sandpipers on the jetty on the far side of the canal...a tough look even in the scope. And while we didn't have any alcids (Razorbills have been somewhat frequent in this area), we did get nice looks at Harlequin Ducks (which were unusual for us in this spot) and these Long-tailed Ducks that were somewhat close.
Again, providing great opportunities for the class to study the plumage differences between female and male birds. As it turned out I don't have a lot of shots of this species, so it was a nice bonus for me to be able to get close enough to actually see the long tail on this male.
We poked around the nearby Sandwich Marina and had this very close female Red-breasted Merganser paddle out from under some nearby pilings.
And, as usual, we had a nice flock of Brant on the grass near Joe's Seafood store.....
In addition to the ducks going into breeding plumage, you see the same thing with gulls. This adult Greater Black-backed Gull couldn't have been more handsome.
Landbirds were fairly scarce (except at feeders) so this little Song Sparrow seemed kind of lonely as he poked around by himself in the grasses under the benches.
We headed back down Rt. 6A, over the Bourne Bridge and picked up cars in the parking lot near the RR bridge where we had left earlier in the day. As everyone was pulling out, I spotted a hawk perched in the trees at the far end of the lot. So we ended the our list for the day with this Cooper's Hawk.
We ended our trip with a total of 36 species in this relatively compact area and had very good looks at several species of waterfowl....just what one is supposed to do on the southeastern coast of Massachusetts in winter!