Monday, January 27, 2014

A Cold January Weekend

This post will cover two different trips from this past weekend (January 25th and 26th).  On Saturday we headed out way before dawn so that we could see the Short-eared Owls that have been hanging around the Honey Pot in Hadley.  We got there about 6:15 and had two birds hunting the fields west of the dike; however, it was quite dark and I really wasn't able to get any decent photographs.  After about 20 minutes they seemed to disappear and we headed back to the top of the dike to see if we could spot them.  Since it was starting to get light we thought they might have gone to roost.
Sure enough we ran into a couple from Connecticut and they said they had the birds go down into the taller grasses east of the dike and never saw them fly out.  However, as we were standing there a Peregrine Falcon came flying into view and perched up on the telephone pole about 20 yards from where we were standing.
It appeared to have caught something and preceded to spend the next 30-40 minutes having breakfast.  We walked under the bird to get back to our car and she didn't seem to mind a bit that we were there!
We weren't able to tell definitively what she was first we thought it was a pigeon; however, upon checking the feet in the photos we're not sure.  It looks somewhat like the feet of a chicken -- so if you have any good ideas, please let us know!

We birded all the fields and ended up seeing a couple of Bald Eagles along with this greatly Rough-legged Hawk.
Of course, the crows were not about to let this guy fly through their area without giving him a hard time!
Having spent about 2+ hours we decided to check a few other spots in the area before heading back to Worcester since we had been up before 3 a.m. so we could get out for the owls before dawn.  We had the usual Savannah Sparrows along Aqua Vita Rd. and then decided to head to the East Meadows since we could hear a large number of geese in the river.  The roads seemed in pretty good shape so we were able to wind around to an area overlooking the river and definitely found out where all the cackling was coming from...
We had about 700 Canada Geese stretched up and down the open part of the river and we had about 150 Mallards (and some Black Ducks) also in the same area.
After scanning a bit we also found 3 adult Bald Eagles perched even further up the river on the ice.  Up until now we had been having somewhat of a banner day as far as birding goes....however, as I turned the car around I must have hit something hidden under the snow and Mark yelled "Sheila, you've got a flat".

Well we immediately threw the scope in the car and I high-tailed it back to solid ground.  We made it to the parking lot of Northampton Aeronautics and called AAA.  Luckily the office of the flight school was open and they were totally cool with out using their parking lot to wait and even offered us the warmth and comfort (and bathrooms) inside.  It was only about 10 minutes for AAA to arrive and he got the spare on (not a full-size spare) fairly quickly and suggested we stop at one of the tire stores in the area to see if we could get the flat repaired.  We headed to Pete's Tire Barn where they confirmed that the tire could not be repaired and they, unfortunately, didn't have our tire size in stock.

It was only a little after 9:30 so they suggested we check in at Town Fair Tire just down the road.  I called first and they told me that while they didn't have the tire in their shop they could get it from West Springfield by 1:30.  So we headed down to Town Fair, checked in, did the paperwork and got everything paid for so we could get the tire on and head home as soon as possible.  Remember, we've been up since before 3 (Mark was up around 2) and we were fading fast.  We called our good friend, Val, and she arranged to meet us for an early lunch.  While we were tired it was definitely an unexpected pleasure to get to spend time with Val.

After lunch we headed back to the tire store and that's when we started to worry.  Every 15-20 minutes they told us it would be about another 15-20 minutes.....finally a little after 3 the truck pulled in and we felt relieved....especially since it was starting to snow and we still had a 90 minute drive home.  The final straw came when the guy we had been dealing with told us that they had ordered the wrong tire and while they would put one on they would need to order the right one and I would have to come back out to Northampton next week to switch tires.  I didn't know whether to use every curse word I know or just cry!!!  I actually did neither and I'm determined to get a local Town Fair Tire to help me resolve this craziness.  So after almost 15 hours we arrived back home and I have to tell you my garage never looked so welcoming!  I do have to say, though, that those three hours we got to bird in the morning were great, Short-eared Owl, Peregrine, Rough-legged, 6 Bald Eagles, Horned Lark, Snow Buntings....a solid list.

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Since we had such a bad experience the day before, we decided to stay closer to home on Sunday.  So we headed down to Providence to bird along the Seekonk River.  This was an area we used to do all the time a few years ago when we were documenting birds in the Blackstone Corridor, so it was comfortable and fairly close to home.  It was also a great birding day for waterfowl!

We pulled down to the Pawtucket Boat Launch on School Street and were immediately greeted with a (likely) first- winter Glaucous Gull sitting right across the water from the parking lot.  The bird actually stayed the whole time were were there and I now have about 30 great shots of a Glaucous Gull (not complaining)!
note the long bi-colored bill

the slight bulge on forehead seems noticeable here
notice the beefy size even when compared to a Black Duck

While the Seekonk is quite wide just south of the landing, at this point it gets fairly narrow before passing under Rt. 95 and officially turning into the Blackstone River just north by Slater's Mill.
Since this stretch was partially open it seemed to concentrated several species of ducks....
Buffleheads were in great plumage

Female Common Goldeneye
Flock of Greater Scaup
Common Mergansers

Ruddy Duck
There was really so many ducks to look at, and they were all being focused through this narrow channel between the ice to the south and the beginning of the Blackstone.  One of the more exciting ducks, though, was this Aythya species.  While we can't 100% rule out a hybrid, in all likelihood this is a female Tufted Duck (possibly an eclipse plumage male).
Certainly the tuft and the dark back color fit with a Tufted....
but Mark was concerned with the bill seeming larger than on a Tufted.  Also the black tip to the bill fits nicely with a Tufted Duck.
But we differed on the overall size.  I thought it was fairly small and Mark wasn't as sure (he tends to be very cautious whenever it comes to unusual species)
After checking our European guides I think we're both comfortable calling it a Tufted.  When we were doing the census on the Blackstone we would run into a Tufted every year or two so this seems to be a good area.
Before leaving the Pawtucket landing, we made sure to photograph this memorial stone so that we could Google the "Mackinac Disaster" when we got home.  It turns out that there was a ship whose boiler exploded just after leaving Newport Harbor and many of the passengers were from Pawtucket.  Some of the details were pretty horrific.

As we heading south along the Seekonk we made our usual stops; first behind the ice factory at Phillipsdale Landing, which was mostly frozen as you looked across the river to Swan Point Cemetery.
Although looking north towards the sewage treatment plant, there was open water.
And we found 5 Canvasbacks in and among a large group of Ruddy Ducks.  This area of the Seekonk has always been a good area for Canvasback.
Heading further south we stopped at the dead end on Waterman Avenue and found the two remaining species of mergansers fairly close in.
 Both female and male Hooded Mergs were right below our overlook....

And two female Red-breasted Mergansers were in this stretch of the river as well.  On the far side of the river (just below Waterman Grille) we also had Gadwall and Widgeon along with numerous more Hoodies.

Our furthest point south was at Bold Point in East Providence where we hoped to find larger numbers of ducks in Providence Harbor.
However, the area produced more in the way of sparrows than waterfowl....although we had our first Mute Swans from Bold Point.  As soon as we pulled into the parking lot, we noticed a number of sparrows feeding on the ground.  We had about a dozen Song Sparrows.....
and 6 or 7 Tree Sparrows feeding as well....
And the surprise was this little Field Sparrow holding it's own against the Trees, juncos and Song Sparrows!
We headed up the west side of the Seekonk (which was pretty frozen) to our last stop of the day -- Swan Point Cemetery.
Swan Point is notorious for closing the roads down to the three overlooks of the river, and even though there wasn't a real icy condition, the roads were blocked off.  Using the scope we were able to count gulls out on the ice and check the outflow near the sewage treatment plant and saw that the Ruddies and Canvasback were still hanging out.
We drove around the cemetery looking for any signs of Screech Owl.  There are a lot of old trees with great holes for a Screech Owl to sun themselves....  I tried calling at one point and we hear a distant response, but we never got a sighting.  We did have flocks of juncos and robins since there are a lot of Holly trees and it seemed like there were a decent amount of berries.  This one robin  was either "baking" himself in the sun or had gorged himself on holly berries and just sat in this one spot.
Of course no trip to Swan Point Cemetery is complete without a stop at the grave of H. P. Lovecraft....especially to see what trinkets people have left.  Mark theorized that the reason there was a pencil stuck in the ground was that someone was trying to channel Lovecraft's writing ability and would come back to gather the pencil in the spring before trying to write their own science fiction story!
We headed back to Worcester having had a great day in the field and tallying a list of 38 species for the day...but a total of 17 different species of waterfowl.  This is an area that is easy to do, especially from the Worcester area, and always produces some great winter sightings.

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So if you minus out the car problems from the Northampton trip, the weekend was a successful winter birding weekend overall.  


Saturday, January 18, 2014

It's been TWO YEARS!

Can't believe that I haven't done a new post since the end of's amazing how often I thought about it and how many times Mark would say "why aren't you doing your blog anymore???"  So here's my first blog post for 2014 and I will definitely blog more often than every two years going forward!

Yesterday, Friday, 1/17, we went to Cape Ann (also almost 2 years since we've done that).  We wanted to see some white-winged gulls (and we weren't disappointed).  After being in stop-n-go traffic on Rts.3 and 128 during the morning rush hour, I realized why we don't go there as often as we used to.  However, it was beautiful and certainly worth at least a yearly visit.
When we arrived at Jodrey Pier we were greeted with flocks of Common Eider and smaller numbers of Red-breasted Mergansers.
The eider were in their best plumage and you could tell they were starting to pair up
Of course the Red-breasted Mergansers were looking pretty spiffy too...although sometimes it's just hard to take them seriously with their crests blowing all over -- sorta looks like a bad hair day!
While it was fun to watch all these guys head in to the docks for scraps from the fishing boats, our reason for being on the pier in the first place was to look for white-winged gulls.  It didn't take very long to find the fishing boat with all the activity and we could certainly see the gulls looking for any handouts they could get.
We spotted at least 6 Iceland Gulls and 2-3 Glaucous Gulls, so we worked our way along the dock until I could get some decent shots
This Iceland was quite accommodating....and then a Glaucous came in just so we could do a size comparison
Unfortunately none came as close as the Greater Black-backed Gulls
But it was still nice to watch the gulls flying in and out and get a chance to reacquaint myself with the major fieldmarks
After checking for any alcids that might also have moved up into the harbor (none) we started to wend our way out to Eastern Point, making our usual detour to Rocky Neck for a look out at Ten Pound Island
While there weren't as many ducks as we've seen in other winters, we did spot a Snowy Owl out on the island, but couldn't get any closer looks.
So we had to content ourselves with some of the Rocky Neck "specialties" this statute with the obligatory "Go Pat's" cap

As we continued on to Eastern Point we stopped at every water overlook for ducks, alcids or any other unusual gulls -- but it was a strangely quiet day.  We did have several close loons
and great views of some of the ships still out in the harbor.
When we got to Eastern Point we were delighted to find a pair of American Widgeon and a Gadwall in the little cove by the lighthouse along with the usual array of Black Ducks
After scanning for alcids (we did have a Black Guillemot) we decided to head along the coast to Bass Rocks (we missed seeing the King Eider) and then ultimately to Rockport
Along the way we scanned Thatcher Island for more snowies and checked every eider flock for the King...but we didn't luck out.
But for me what the made the entire trip worthwhile were the looks (and photos) of Harlequin Ducks in several stops in Rockport (the Granite Pier, Cathedral Ledge and Andrew's Point).  Now I know that Harlequin's are expected every winter in these waters, and they certainly have been seen in increasing numbers for more than a decade.....still I get blown away every time I see a drake in breeding plumage!
Pair at the Granite Pier
And the numbers were impressive, especially at Andrew's Point....
At the end of the day, Mark tallied 150 Harlequin Ducks....and a mermaid!
We made a final stop at Folly Cove and then headed back to Worcester.  BTW the drive back was MUCH better than the drive took us just shy of 1-1/2 hours from the rotary to home.

So as I sit here in my office at home typing this I'm looking out at the 3 inches of snow we were NOT supposed to get today (and it's still snowing) and looking at the contrast with all the sunshine and blue skies of yesterday at Cape Ann.  Maybe my next blog should be some of the highlights from last summer so we can all enjoy looking forward to what's ahead!