Sunday, March 30, 2014

Gulls, herons and my first Big Night ~ Saturday, March 29th

With the forecast for "warm" rains (I realize that's a relative term) we decided to get out before dawn and see if we could find any leftover frog or salamander migration to vernal pools.  We drove some back roads in Spencer, Sturbridge and ended up in Warren....but we saw no sign of a "big night."  In case you're not familiar (or have a different definition), the Big Nights I'm talking about are those few nights in early spring when there has been some warm rain and frogs and salamanders that have been buried in the mud for the winter emerge and move to ponds and vernal pools to mate and lay eggs.  Often this means that they are crossing roads and sometimes you're able to go out and see them migrate to the pools in the forest.  Unfortunately, they often get run over in the process, especially if they are crossing a somewhat busy road.  My worst fear is running one over myself....or finding some that have been flattened by other cars.

Even though it was quite dark, there were no signs of them moving, so we decided that we would try again Saturday night after a nice warm day and more rains.  Once daylight arrived, we decided to bird for the morning and then head home to rest before going out again at dark.

In West Warren we came across this red fox out hunting.  He or she probably had a den nearby and was looking for food for the mate or for the young kits.
Most foxes tend to be somewhat curious and as soon as I stepped out of the car to take a photo, she stopped and gave me one of those long looks.
In a marshy pond in West Warren we found a dead salamander.  This little guy probably couldn't survive the winter if the pond was too deeply frozen.  The interesting thing about this salamander is that it looks like a Four-Toed Salamander.  Mark made that identification based on the extremely white belly with distinct black spots....which is a definitive field mark for the 4-toed.  These have a very spotty distribution and it would have been great to find a live specimen.
We checked the nearby cell phone tower for the nesting Osprey we found last year, but I think it's still a little too early inland for the Ospreys to return.  Of course in the nearby pond on Dunham Road we did have a nice pair of Wood Duck....
...and Great Blue Herons were all over.  There must be a rookery somewhere nearby.  I just love this shot of the heron with the Hooded Merganser sailing by in the background.
We decided to take some back roads up to the Brookfields and check at least two places where we knew there had previously been Great Blues nesting.  At the small pond along Old West Brookfield Road we found this River Otter out on the ice having a meal.
He dove into the small open spot several times and each time he came out with another fish.
The north end of Lake Wickaboag is starting to open up and we had several Great Blue Herons there, along with a pair of Common Mergansers.  At Coys Brook in West Brookfield we also had Great Blues, many of which had great breeding plumage.
I have to admit, I never get tired of Hood Mergansers.  Not only are they sharp-looking little ducks, but them seem to follow the ponds north as soon as there is the smallest bit of open water for them to fish in.
At Coys Brook we have several pair.  They do breed in the area and, as a cavity nester, compete with Wood Ducks for the nest boxes good holes in trees.  Although while I have heard of Wood Ducks going into peoples' chimneys, I've never heard that Hooded Mergs do that.  The male Hoodie below has just caught a bullhead for breakfast.  If you zoom in on the picture you can see the "whisker" on the catfish.
There were several Ring-billed Gulls flying around trying to steal the fish from the ducks... a great display of kleptoparasitism.
We decided to check the rest of the waterways in the Brookfields before heading up towards Hardwick and Petersham to check out the status of open water there.  At the Rt. 148 bridge crossing of the Quaboag we had a nice flock of Ring-necked Ducks.
And at Lake Quaboag we had a adult Lesser Black-backed Gull.  Notice the size difference between the Lesser Black-backed and the Herring Gull on the left and the Ring-billed Gulls.
It was a great study of all the field marks (including the yellow legs.)  The only thing missing was a Greater Black-backed Gull to complete the size comparison.
The bird flew off twice while we were there...once traveling to the west end of the lake very close to the main road.  It seemed to be drinking water and flew back when a local pulled his pickup truck into the driveway nearby.  The second time it flew off was when the Herring Gull headed out to check out some ice fisherman.  This bird then headed way to the back of the pond where there were also ice fisherman out.  We tried to call a few people and I had a text later in the afternoon from a friend saying that when he got there about 3 hours later, he couldn't re-find the bird.
While we were checking out South Pond (Quacumquasit) and the WMA with Pussy Willows, Red-winged Blackbirds, Tree Sparrows and the like, I got a text that there was a Black-headed Gull at Orlandos in Charlton.
Since this was relatively close as the crow flies, we headed down to check it out.  Sure enough there was a small dark-headed gull milling around among the Ring-billed Gulls.
We couldn't get terribly close but with the scope we were able to see it was a Black-headed and not a Bonaparte.
At one point all the gulls flew up and the bird seemed to disappear.  We checked the smaller pond just up the road by the red barn and sure enough it was sleeping in and among other Ring-billed and Herring Gulls.
After about 10 minutes all the gulls took off from the smaller pond and resettled back in the larger pond and the bird was with them.  When I got home I realized that I had gotten a shot of the birds wings in flight (notice the partially obscured bird with the dark legs in the center of the photo below.)  The wing pattern is one of the distinctive differences between Black-headed and Bonaparte's gulls.
All in all a very satisfying gull day in Worcester County.  We zipped up to Petersham to check on ponds further north in the county to determine if looking for frogs and salamanders made sense there yet.  But things were still pretty frozen.
At Gate 41 we did have some recent beaver activity and a small flock of chickadees along with one or two Golden-crowned Kinglets.
So we headed home to sit out the afternoon and get psyched for going out again after dark.  The temps were in the high 30's when we left about 7:15 so we decided to stay a bit closer to home rather than head back out to Warren.  Also the rain wasn't too bad at this point, and since it was supposed to get much heavier (and I hate driving in the rain, especially at night) we decided to re-check the roads in closer to hom.

We had our first Wood Frog in Leicester on some back roads just north of Rt. 9 and as Mark helped him across the road I tried for a photo.  Unfortunately I wasn't prepared for how quickly the frog would move once he warmed up from Mark's I missed the shot.  But not to worry since once we got on some of the roads in the more unsettled areas we started to find more Wood Frogs.  At once point we were both out of the car and picking up the frogs and placing them in the leaf litter at the side of they road they were heading towards.
We found our first dead salamander in the same area that 4 Wood Frogs were crossing, so we knew we had made the right choice to stay close to home.

As we were coming around a corner (very slowly) near a low swampy area, we both spotted two different salamanders crossing the road ahead....and they were Spotted Salamanders!  As Mark went to rescue the one with the longest distance to go, I photographed the one closer to the edge of the road.  They were quite cold and sluggish.
Mark picked them both up so that we could get them to safety....
...and they seemed a little revived by the warmth of his hands.  The one at the top of the photo below wiggled off into the woods pretty quickly after we put him down.
You cannot imagine how elated I felt after finding these Spotteds!  I've never done a Big Night before and always wanted to.  Even though it was totally tense making sure I didn't run any over while I was driving and hoping that I wouldn't see any run over, I can understand why people get psyched doing this.  It was totally amazing to be out on this rainy spring night and help frogs and salamanders get to their breeding pools.

We ended up with just these two Spotted Salamanders, but we had close to 15-20 Wood Frogs.  I think I smiled all the way home....even driving at night in the rain!


Friday, March 28, 2014

Pink-footed Goose ~ Thursday, 3/27/14

If you're a birder in New England, you'd have to be living under a rock not to have heard about the Pink-footed Goose along the Ct. River.  We tried for the bird on Monday, since we had a fairly free day.  Even though we had seen a previous bird in Rutland, MA during the Worcester CBC a few years ago (thank you Kevin Bourinot) I was hoping to get some decent photos of the bird.  Now I probably have tons of SLIDES since we saw hundreds of Pink-footed Geese when visiting Holland 20 years ago, but no great shots since going digital back in '08.

We did not get the Pink-footed, but did have some nice views of Snow Geese and a small group of dark morph birds (formerly thought to be a separate species called the Blue Goose.)
The Snow Geese flew off from the field in Whatley soon after we arrived....
...however, the separate flock of 6 dark morphs flew back in after about 30 minutes...
 ...and they stayed for a while.  We did check other fields in the No. Hatfield and No. Hadley areas, but never caught up with the Pink-footed.

Just yesterday (Thursday) we had another free day so we decided to head out and look again and also to check out some areas in southern Vermont where large geese flocks were reported.  On our way out we spotted this nice herd of White-tailed deer browsing in a field just west of Ware.
When we got to the Stockbridge Road area in North Hadley there were hundreds of geese in the field.  We didn't immediately see the Pink-footed, but then Al Richards nicely stopped by to let us know the goose was just up the road behind some barns.  And sure enough we got there and immediately picked out the bird.
I'm sure there are photographers that have gotten much better shots of the goose, but I tend to be more of a birder in situations like this and I'm very aware of getting too close or flushing the bird.  So these are about the best shots I got...and certainly recognizable.
After studying the bird for about 20 minutes some of the geese started to fly off and the Pink-footed took to the air with them.  Fortunately for two birders who showed up literally 5 seconds after it left the bird was refound almost immediately on Knightly Road about 1/4 of a mile away.
We also had a nice male American Kestral hunting some of the fields in the area as well.
Our plan from here was to head north, stopping in Montague to check out the canal and Barton Cove and then continue on to check out the fields along the river in Vermont. 
 We hoped to find the 4 White-fronted Geese that were sighted two days before in the canal, but we didn't find them and had to settle for this stunning male Northern Pintail.  He was mingling with the Mallards.
At Barton Cove we had nice flocks of Ring-necked Ducks, Goldeneye, Bufflehead, Common Mergs, a Canvasback and Long-tailed Duck.  And the adult Bald Eagle was sitting in the same tree that we had him in a few weeks ago.  The female must be on the nest nearby.

From Gill we headed up through Northfield and then headed up Rt. 142 along the river to Vernon, Vermont.  We were checking on a report of Snow Geese and White-fronted Geese in with a flock of about 1,200 Canada Geese.  We found the field but they were empty.  We drove some nearby roads to see if we could get looks at the river, but we were blocked by the Vermont Yankee power station and dam.  We eventually did get okay looks through a chain-link fence....we saw lots of Canadas, about 30-40 Snow Geese, but no White-fronted.  The areas was amazing though and probably worth another visit to check on the goose population.
On the way back down to Massachusetts, I snapped this shot of a sign along the road.  The area looked just like a normal dip in the road so I thought I would be able to google it and find out why it was called "Witch's Gutter."  Unfortunately a quick check pointed me to some very technical archaeological papers, but it does appear that the name goes back quite a long time, since it was also referenced in some land deeds of Vermont Governor Hunt back in the 1700's.  So if anyone can find out more, I'd love to hear about.  But I do love to "collect" weird signs....and this certainly fits the bill.
We were home by early afternoon and totally enjoyed exploring this new area.


Monday, March 24, 2014

Local Signs of Spring ~ Saturday (3/22) and Sunday (3/23)

Since we went to the south coast on Friday, we decided to stay local and look for signs of spring in our own backyard on Saturday.  We decided to check for open water at the 'Boro ponds....we visited Suasco in Westborough, the Sudbury Reservoir in Southborough and then Little Chauncy and Bartlett Ponds in Northborough.
Unfortunately, a lot of the water was still frozen, or at least partially frozen.  At Bartlett Pond we did have several Mute Swans that were already paired up.  We even had one swan on a nest already.
But the big show of the morning were the numbers of Grackles that we found at Little Chauncy.  We had large flocks constantly passing over...each flock in the hundreds.
They were everywhere.  I think Mark's final estimate was more than 1,500...and all in this relatively small area.  We had them in the marsh right at the entrance to Little Chauncy and then we had large flocks feeding on the grounds of the old state hospital.  Other than that, we ran into small groups of 5 or 6 throughout the day.
It was amazing just to listen to the sound of all these birds filtering through.  I tried taping a bit with my Iphone, but it doesn't really do it justice.  The poor Red-winged Blackbirds that were trying to set up their territories in the marsh were just about frantic with all of the activity of the Grackles as they passed through.
We drove into the state hospital grounds hoping to walk in the trail to the WMA area, but there were already quite a few people running their dogs, so we checked the soccer fields for any unusual geese among the Canadas.
They were a bit skittish and took off when I started photographing them.
Since things were somewhat quiet except for the blackbirds, we decided to head out to Bolton Flats to see if there were large blackbird flocks there as well.
The fields were filled with Canada Geese coming and going, and we could hear small numbers of Grackles and Red-wings in the marsh, but there weren't anywhere near the flocks that we had at Little Chauncy.  But we did have a pair of Pintail put in....and our first-of-the-year Tree Swallow flying around.
We drove up the 117 side of Bolton Flats and were finally able to drive into the area behind the red barn.
 The Still River was just that...pretty still.  We didn't have any ducks in the immediate area.  Although just down the road in the major pond area of the flats, Mark counted numbers of waterfowl.  We had both Mergs, Green-winged Teal, swans, Ring-necked Ducks, plus the usual Blacks and Mallards.  Unfortunately, since they built those house there about 15 years ago, they're really the only people that can get good looks now.
So we had to content ourselves with the Tree Sparrows and good numbers of White-throated Sparrows that were in the area.
On our way home we checked all the back fields around Neck Road, the soccer field and the model airplane field, but it was pretty quiet. 
 We spent some time admiring the Speckled Alders that were throughout the area...
 ...and we had a Red-tailed Hawk...
...and a Killdeer fly over, but that was about it.
We checked Wachusett on the way home, but it, too, was still pretty frozen.  Although the area around River Road had definitely started to open up a bit.  We had Tundra Swans, Common and Hooded Mergansers and a lone Ring-necked Duck (male) in the open water.

Even though we didn't have any unusual early migrants, you could definitely tell spring is on the upswing just based on the song.  Everyone was singing their spring song and it was really quite nice.

On Sunday, we decided again to stay local.  We thought it would be fun to trace the Quineboag River from the Connecticut border (near Dudley, MA) to it's other end in Brimfield.  We hoped that we would find lots of waterfowl if we could get some good overlooks of the river.

We headed to Southbridge knowing there are lots of stretches we could view there, along with being able to check out the Westville Dam area before we headed west.  We had done several Southbridge blocks for the breeding bird atlas so we were quite familiar with the area.  Our first stop was to be where the Quineboag meanders through the Southbridge Industrial Park (the old American Optical complex.)  At the little parking area near the hotel and conference center, we had our first real sign of spring in Worcester County....we heard the chip of an Eastern Phoebe along the river.  We had another one later in the day in the Brookfields, but this is the only one I was able to photograph.  I'm willing to bet that this bird will be nesting under the bridge within the next few weeks.  Of course, that assumes an optimistic outcome for him with the forecast for record cold and a storm on Tuesday into Wednesday.
A very cooperative Downy Woodpecker checking out the Japanese Bamboo growing along the river.
There's a great stretch of the Quineboag in Dudley (West Dudley Road), with a rail trail that heads north to Sturbridge.  There was quite a bit of open water, and we even had people fishing from the shore...not ice fishing, regular fishing.
But we had almost no waterfowl.  We did flush a pair of Wood Duck across the pond.  It looked like they might have been checking out possibly nest holes in the trees right along the bank near the start of the rail trail.
We poked into a couple of other places and had a few Common Mergansers.  However, the river was running pretty swiftly so I think any other ducks probably headed to calmer waters.

We checked in at Westville Dam and had Mallards, a Black Duck and several Common Mergs below the dam in the water.  
We knew that the road through the lower part of the recreation area was still closed but we decided to check out along that lower part just in case.  And while we had a Tree Swallow the day before flying over Bolton Flats, we had 20+ flying along the river in the Westville recreation area. 
We followed the Quineboag up through Sturbridge, Holland and finally to Brimfield.  Again, a good number of Common Mergansers, a few Hoodies and lots of Canada Geese.  We decided to go back to Sturbridge to check on the Great Blue Heron rookery and then head home through the Brookfields.

We had checked the heron rookery the weekend before and counted about 19 nests from the previous year, but we didn't see a bird in the area.  As we were following the river, though, we did have a nice breeding-plumaged Great Blue in the river so we thought there might be one or two back this weekend.  Much to my surprise there were 11 nests with activity....
...birds either repairing the nest from the previous year, sitting on the nest already (had they laid eggs upon arrival?) and in the case of one nest, there was a lot of courting behavior going on.  What a difference a week makes at this time of year!
We headed up to Brookfield and stopped at the river crossing of the Quaboag along Rt. 148.  We had a nice flock of Ring-necked Ducks and still a few Common Mergansers.  Still no Red-winged Blackbirds on territory from the back of the Brookfield Cemetery, but we did have a pair of Mourning Doves preening each other on top of one of the larger stones.
A check-in at Coy's Brook in West Brookfield had lots of displaying Hooded Mergs... least until a tractor came rumbling down the road and scared them to the back of the marsh.  We also had another group of Tree Swallows trying to find some insects very close to the open water.
As I finish writing this blog, I'm looking out the window on this cold Monday (high temp for the day so far is 28) and hoping that the Tree Swallows and the Phoebe make it through the next few days of cold temps and possible accumulating snow.  I hear the Cape is supposed to get hammered by the storm Tuesday night, and all I can think of is how many of these early spring migrants aren't going to make it.

Of course with warmer weather in store for Friday and next weekend, I'm going to believe that any swallows or phoebes I see then are actually ones that I saw yesterday.  Now how's that for "the glass is half full" thinking?