Tuesday, February 14, 2017

South Florida retention pond

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Limpkin, Boynton Beach FL
This Limpkin walked around the pond, passing maybe 25 feet from the house. Not especially skittish.

One prominent feature of the South Florida landscape are the retention ponds. Every housing development has one, sometimes several; it's typical to see a circle of houses with a little pond in the middle.

These ponds aren't very deep, and aren't too clean, but they help contain runoff and keep oil and fertilizer and other pollutants out of the water supply. Plus, where there's water, there will be birds, especially since the ponds often have some fish in them.

Our friends Adam and Judy live in a South Florida development, and have a little retention pond in the backyard. The homeowners' association hasn't done much landscaping around it, so it's just a pool at the end of the lawn, but they still have birds, which we greatly enjoyed when we visited last month. There was a big flock of White Ibises that hung out must days like huge pigeons.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; White Ibises, Boynton Beach FL
acting like they own the place

And a pair of Limpkns were frequently present.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Limpkin Boynton Beach FL
Limpkins foraging

I'm guessing they were a mated pair, since I saw them passing food between them.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Limpkin Boynton Beach FL

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Limpkin, Boynton Beach FL
At evening the Limpkins flew across the pond, giving an raspy call.

Occasionally there was a Great Egret, and once a Great Blue Heron. At sunset, ducks would settle on the pond and around the shore; usually Mottled Ducks, but our last evening there thirty or so Ring-Necked Ducks decided to spend the night there.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Great Blue Heron, Boynton Beach FL
Great Blue Heron on a drainage pipe

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Great Egret, Boynton Beach FL
Great Egret at work

Plus there were flyovers by Osprey, Turkey Vulture, Kestrel, Merlin, and Peregrine Falcon--that really made the Ibises jump--and a visit by a Royal Tern who fished for a while and then flew on.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Royal Tern, Boynton Beach FL
Tern hovering on the hunt

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Royal Tern, Boynton Beach FL
Tern in the evening sky

Oh, I didn't even mention the Anhingas, or the Cormorants, or the Killdeer... I think we had 16 species, Just amazing stuff to find in the backyard.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

You keep your own list

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash;
count that Grebe!

There's a Simpsons episode that involves birdwatchers, and has the line: "You cannot count birds you've seen at the zoo, on stamps or in dreams." That's a good rule, but for most other cases a common saying among birders is, "you keep your own list". Unless you're in a competition, like a Big Year, what birds you count is completely up to you.

For competitive purposes, the rules can be more complicated. Was that bird just released into the wild after being rehabbed? Did it escape from a pet owner? Did it hitch a ride on a ship from Bermuda? These are all cases where you're not supposed to count the bird.

A Red-Necked Grebe showed up last Wednesday on the Reservoir in Central Park. That's a very nice bird for Manhattan. There was one who stayed for a month or so in March/April of 2014, and a handful of other sightings. I went out to see it Thursday morning and got a decent look. It was hunting happily. Its dives were interesting to watch; it levered itself up out of the water and plunged in with surprisingly little splash. That's different from (for example) a Pied-Billed Grebe, which just kind of ducks quietly underwater with little fuss.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Red-Necked Grebe, Central Park
A lucky shot--too blurry but I like it. Look at those feet!

This bird, it turns out, was released by the Wild Bird Fund earlier on Wednesday. It had been picked up in, I think, Brooklyn (where it's slightly more usual) with some injury, and rehabilitated by the WBF, who usually release their patients in Central Park. I thought the usually released waterfowl in the Lake, though because getting to the water's edge at the Reservoir involves going over a fence.

Look at the photo of the bird diving--see how far back its feet are? Grebes (and loons) have their feet way back on their body. That makes them faster underwater, but it also makes them very awkward on land. If you're releasing one, you probably want to put it right in the water rather than make it drag itself down a bank.

Anyway, there has been some discussion about whether people are counting the Grebe on their New York County lists. I am, myself.

Meanwhile in Berks County Pennsylvania, a bird called a Black-Backed Oriole has been seen around a feeder in a town called Sinking Spring. This is really problematic for people who keep lists, because that's a bird from central Mexico that doesn't migrate any distance. There's never been a sighting north of the border---well, that's not right. There's never been a sighting north of the border that a state records committee has decided was a real vagrant. There was one in San Diego, California that they eventually--after a couple of years--decided must be an escapee. It summered there twice, then showed up in January, and that apparently decided them against it because reasons.

So, again, except for people doing competitive listing, it doesn't matter. Go chase the bird if you chase rare birds, it's undoubtedly a hell of thing to see. I'm fine if they count it, too; everyone keeps their own list. I will say that if the records committee accepts this, I'm going to start counting this one:


That's a Yellow-Fronted Canary that showed up one Fall, foraging with Sparrows on the great Hill in Central Park. That's an impossible vagrant, and though it's on my eBird list (eBird doesn't care where a bird came from; you see it, it's on the list) I don't count it. But it's not much more unlikely as a vagrant than that Oriole, in my opinion.

I think I only count one bird on my own list that wouldn't normally be countable in competition.

Ed Gaillard: recent &emdash; European Goldfinch, Central Park
I'm a wild one!

This European Goldfinch wintered in Central Park twice, 2011-12 and 2012-13. It flocked with House Finches until it started singing, at which point they drove it away as a dirty foreigner. Then it hung out with American Goldfinches, who (being real Americans) didn't care where he came from. He left Central Park when they left. (American Goldfinches mostly don't summer in the Park.)

I didn't see any specific evidence that he was an escapee, so I counted him. They're migratory; vagrancy is not impossible. I think they're even countable in some states farther north.

Ed Gaillard: recent &emdash; European Goldfinch, Central Park
mysterious stranger

The European Goldfinch didn't come back after the second summer. That's probably not a good sign for his well-being, but who knows? Anyway, he's on my list.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Fort Tilden

Ed Gaillard: recent &emdash; Fort Tilden
Rock rock, Rockaway Beach

Just before New Year's, I went out to Fort Tilden in the Rockaways. I'd never been there before; there are some seabirds that are fairly easy to find there in the winter that I'd never gone looking for.

It's not too bad a trip--took the 5 to Flatbush Avenue and the Q35 bus, very easy. (That's apparently also the way to get to Floyd Bennett Field, by the way.) Once I got there, I found that the maps I had didn't correspond to the territory, but eventually I found a path from the far end of a field next to a parking lot, which led right to the beach.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Horned Larks, Fort Tilden
Horned Larks, working quietly

While traversing that field, I saw some Brant, and when I raised my binoculars to take a look at them, I realized there was a small flock of Horned Larks quietly foraging nearby.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Horned Larks Fort Tilden
what a lark!

Very pretty birds, only somewhat wary. Really the best view of Horned Larks I've had, even though it was a gloomy day with poor light.

Arriving at the beach in an intermittent light rain, I quickly spotted a lot of Scoters. There was a flock of what I think were a mixture of Surf and Black Scoters a hundred fifty or so yards out--a bit beyond where the waves began to build, anyway--and a few White-Winged Scoters closer in (though not close enough for decent photos). A pair of what were clearly Black Scoters flew by, and a bit later several Gannets did the same, so I quickly had the two main species I had come for.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Common Eider, Fort Tilden
not-so-Common Eider

Then I spotted a pair of dark ducks with rather elegant profiles, swimming inside the first breaking waves. These turned out to be Common Eiders, which I hadn't expected at all. (And another life bird!)

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Common Eider, Fort Tilden
Palling around

I think these are a male (in back) and a female, transitioning to breeding plumage. They stayed pretty close in, sometimes right at the end of the little jetties along the beach.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Common Eider, Fort Tilden
close to shore

The photo above gives you an idea how close in they were.

Another thing I didn't expect was a Peregrine Falcon, skimming low over the wet sand and putting up a group of gulls. I think it was hunting Sanderlings, of which there were plenty.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Sanderlings, Fort Tilden

The Sanderlings moved along the beach in small groups, fine to about fifteen birds at a time, foraging for a while and then flying, always going west.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Sanderlings, Fort Tilden
determined birds

I went east, toward Jacob Riis Park, as the storm broke up and the light broke through. The whole beach was empty, by the way, until I was nearly at Riis Park. A bit spooky, but peaceful.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Long-Tailed Duck, Fort Tilden
PC Duck

One Long-Tailed Duck flew in, just before I passed an older man and his granddaughters going the way I came. Farther along, a couple of fishermen were casting into the waves, while more gulls waited patiently for a meal to present itself.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Common Eider, Fort Tilden
Seascape with Eiders

I'll finish up with one more photo of the Eiders in the surf. I highly recommend a visit if you don't mind the winter solitude.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Pileated Woodpecker!

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Pileated Woodpecker, Loxahatchee NWR, Florida
at last!

So went to Florida last weekend, visiting friends in Boynoton Beach and birding, birding, birding. One of the highlights was this handsome Pileated Woodpecker we saw at Loxahatchee NWR. This was a life bird for me, We spotted it by first hearing its slow and extremely authoritative banging on a tree in the Cypress Swamp section of the reserve (which is quite beautiful). I have been in likely Pileated habitat several times in the last few years, but never saw one. A real thrill!

I'll have more to say about the trip later, but for now--the Loxahatchee refuge, the last remaining bit of the northern Everglades, is under threat because the land is owned by the State of Florida, and the Governor would like to sell it to his big contributors in the sugar industry. You can find a list of action items about helping save the reserve at the Friends of Loxahatchee website.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Christmas Count and New Year's Birding

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Great Blue Heron, Central Park
moody heron portrait

The 117th Annual Central Park Christmas Bird Count went off on December 18th. I attached myself to the group doing the southeast park of the park. Led by Ranger Wu from the Parks Department and Lynn Herzog of the Linnean Society, we set off from 72nd Street near Bethesda Fountain, down the Mall to the Pond and the Hallett Nature Sanctuary, then up to the Zoo and vicinity before retiring to the Armory for soup and the collation of the counts of the various groups covering the park.

It was a foggy morning, but not too unpleasant, and fairly birdy. We had Juncos on the Mall, and both Sharp-Shinned and Cooper's Hawks. The Hallett Sanctuary was full of raccoons--no, I mean really full of raccoons, like a couple of dozen sleeping in the trees--but there were Ruby-Crowned Kinglets along the Pond shore, and then waterfowl.

Did I mention it was foggy? See the Great Blue Heron above for proof. Not great for photography, alas, unless you like this kind of low-contrast atmospheric portrait.

Anyway, probably the best bird was a Northern Pintail duck who'd been hanging around teh Pond for some weeks:

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Northern Pintail, Central Park
cryptic Pintail

and which we took for a female. Now, this duck looked pretty mcuh like that at least through Christmas, but on New Year's Eve, Elena and I went down to the Pond to see it again:

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Northern Pintail, Central Park
what a difference a week makes

That's quite a change! Our Pintail is revealed as a handsome young male.

There was also a drake Green-Winged Teal there...and both were still there the next day to help get my 2017 list off to a good start.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Green-Winged Teal, Central Park
getting a taste of city life

Both these ducks have been thoroughly corrupted by city life, and were in the scrum begging for food from the people who feed ducks. It's a living.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Green-Winged Teal, Central Park
streeeetch that wing!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas Goose

The Pink-Footed Goose is a cold-weather bird. They breed in Greenland and Iceland, and they winter in northern Europe and Britain. The field guides say that it's an extremely rare vagrant in North America (for example the online Audubon guide: "Strays that have gone the wrong direction have been found in North America only a couple of times, in eastern Canada"), but since about 2011 they've been increasingly common, and there are several in the New York City area at the moment.

One of them is in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, and I went to see it on Friday.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Pink-Footed Goose, Van Cortlandt Park
Pink-Footed Goose for Christmas!

I may have mentioned this before, but as a rule, if you're looking for a reported rare bird, look for the birders before you look for the bird. When I got to Van Cortlandt Park--a straight shot up the to the end of the #1 IRT subway line--I spotted people with scopes on the Parade Ground, scanning a huge flock of Canada Geese. This saved me from having to circle the flock myself--there had been warnings online about how shy and nervous this goose flock was. You don't want to be the bozo who flushes the rare birds.

Anyway, the scope owners turned out to be NY birding luminaries Gail Benson and Tom Burke, and they kindly gave me looks through their scopes at the Pink-Footed Goose and also a young Snow Goose in the flock.

I moved on to nearby Van Cortlandt Lake, where there was said to be a Cackling Goose and a Northern Pintail duck.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Mute Swans,  Van Cortlandt Park
Swans always lend a touch of elegance

Most of the Lake was frozen over, so there were a lot of waterfowl crowded into a small area of open water at the south end. A pair of Mute Swans brightened up the scene, and a phlegmatic Great Blue Heron perched on a branch over the water only a few feet from the path along the west shore.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Great Blue Heron, Van Cortlandt Park

The birds on the open water included lot of Canada Geese and Mallards, several Shovelers, one American Black Duck, one Pied-Billed Grebe, and a few Ruddy Ducks.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Ruddy Duck, Van Cortlandt Park
Ruddy Duck stretching out

Eventually I found the Northern Pintail, a drake. From a distance he was quite handsome, but when I saw him close up he was a bit scruffy. Well, it's winter.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Northern Pintail, Van Cortlandt Park
contemplative Pintail

The Cackling Goose never appeared--at least I saw no notably small Canada-type geese--and I eventually headed back to the Parade Ground to see if perhaps I might get a closer look at the Pink-Footed Goose.

There were at least a thousand geese on the Parade Ground when I arrived but almost immediately half of them were put to flight by a single large dog some schmuck decided to let run through Dogs are not allowed on the Parade Ground, by the way, and there are prominent signs to that effect. However, many dog owners consider themselves to be special beings not subject to rules. I will admit it was somehow inspiring to watch fine hundred geese rise up in a body, circle, and fly off.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; American Crow, Van Cortlandt Park

A single crow stayed behind around the.southernmost soccer nets. There remained a large body of geese at the extreme north end of the field. These geese proved to be not shy or nervous at all. As I approached, I watched two kids passing a soccer ball back and forth going south along the east edge of the flock without disturbing the birds at all. Then an oblivious young man talking on a cell phone walked right through the middle of the flock; the birds near him walked out of his way, but they didn't even honk at him.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Snow Goose, Van Cortlandt Park
There's no gooses like Snow Gooses

I spotted the Snow Goose first, near the edge of the flock at the north end. I walked around to the west side, staying only about ten yards away; the birds didn't pay any attention at all to me. Finally I saw the brown head of the Pink-Footed Goose, also very close by, and I was able to get some nice photos of the rarity.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Pink-Footed Goose, Van Cortlandt Park
Very cooperative

And so I got my Christmas goose. The Pink-Footed Goose was a life bird for me, my 280th species. Happy holidays to you all!

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The WETA Clan

The morning of the day before Thanksgiving, someone walking through City Hall Park heard an odd birdcall, and looked around to find a Western Tanager up in the trees. The Western Tanager (referred to in a lot of tweets and other online reports by its bird banding code, WETA) is not normally found east of Colorado; the last time one was seen in Manhattan was in the spring of 2008.

Ed Gaillard: recent &emdash; Western Tanager, City Hall Park
Western Tanager (WETA), looking down...

Word got out by early Wednesday afternoon, and, well, you know what happened next.

Ed Gaillard: recent &emdash; Birderazzi, City Hall Park
...at the WETA Clan birders looking up

OK, so, the crowd was smaller when I was looking for it after work on Wednesday. I failed, as did everyone else that afternoon as far as I know. On Thanksgiving Day itself, however, a steady stream of birders succeeded. I don't know how their families felt about it, but after all, the day is all about the bird.

Friday morning, I emerged from the subway at 8:10 in the morning and immediately spotted a fellow with binoculars outside the park. He put me on the bird and...well, about the easiest twitch I ever had.

Ed Gaillard: recent &emdash; Western Tanager, City Hall Park
too busy to pose!

More birders showed up shortly after. The Tanager was quite active and occasionally calling, but the light was horrid and the bird very hard to photograph.

Saturday, Elena came downtown with me, and we had views in somewhat better light. Still hard to get a good photo, though. The crowd was even larger than before.

Ed Gaillard: recent &emdash; Western Tanager, City Hall Park
what are they doing down there?

The Tanager is apparently still there today (Tuesday 11/29), so if you're among the dwindling number of New York City birders who hasn't seen it yet, there's still hope. It likes the tall trees in the northeast part of the park, along the path between the back of City Hall and the Tweed Courthouse.

Ed Gaillard: recent &emdash; Yellow-Breasted Chat, Millennium Park
Chat in a roundabout...

The WETA isn't the only good bird in the park. A second Yellow-Breasted Chat has been in the for several weeks, mostly in the traffic circle just to the south (which has a sign that says "Millennium Park", which is a good joke). Sometimes it ventures closer to City Hall.

Ed Gaillard: recent &emdash; Yellow-Breasted Chat, City Hall Park
I get around

Also a few other warblers are lingering: an Ovenbird is on that northern path just a bit west of the WETA area, and quite confiding.

Ed Gaillard: recent &emdash; Ovenbird,  City Hall Park
Steppin' out

At least two Black-Throated Blue Warblers are also present. Mostly they stay way up in the same trees as the Western Tanager, but the male came down for a drink at a little birdbath nearby.

Ed Gaillard: recent &emdash; Black-Throated Blue Warbler, City Hall Park
Black-Throated Blue at the birdbath

Usually, smaller birds are very wary of larger ones at a birdbath, even if they aren't actively chased away but this little guy wasn't taking any crap from the sparrows.

Ed Gaillard: recent &emdash; Black-Throated Blue Warbler, City Hall Park
you are not the boss of me

There's also a couple of Common Yellowthroats around, one of which likes to assert it's presence.

Ed Gaillard: recent &emdash; Common Yellowthroat, City Hall Park
Look at me! I'm also a pretty pretty bird!

The trees also hold more common birds including several Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers (the WETA and the Black-Throated Blues are taking advantage of the wells the Sapsuckers drill in the trees, which attract insects), Hermit Thrushes, and American Kestrels, all of which are nice to see. The lawns host the normal wintering sparrows--the suddenly-ubiquitous White-Throated Sparrows, Juncos, Song Sparrows, and Fox Sparrows.

Ed Gaillard: recent &emdash; Fox Sparrow,  City Hall Park
winter Fox