Saturday, October 22, 2016


Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Sharp-Shinned Hawk and prey (Mourning Dove)
thus is the cycle of nature renewed

A couple of weeks back, I walked around the Great Lawn in Central Park, looking for an Eastern Meadowlark that had been reported there earlier.

We didn't find it. Near the end of the circuit, behind the baseball backstops on the east side of the lawn, we watched a little mixed flock. House Sparrows, Mourning Doves, a couple of Robins and Juncos, and one little bird we eventually pegged as a Yellow-Rumped (Myrtle) Warbler.

Then suddenly all the birds took off at once. They were only a couple of feet off the ground when a blur came from the left...

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Sharp-Shinned Hawk and prey (Mourning Dove)
just landed

...and suddenly a juvenile Sharp-Shinned Hawk materialized standing on top of a Mourning Dove. The hawk stayed there a while, sometimes shielding the pref with a wing.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Sharp-Shinned Hawk and prey (Mourning Dove)
on guard

That's a cloud of feathers on the ground behind the hawk. It didn't pluck those--they were knocked off the dove by the force of the impact.

After a few minutes, the hawk took off with the dove in its talons--I didn't catch the flight in a photo, but it was quite something since the prey was nearly as big as the predator--and landed in an oak nearby.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Sharp-Shinned Hawk and prey (Mourning Dove)

There, the hawk calmly plucked feathers from the dove and began its meal. Blue Jays screamed all around, but they kept a good distance.

This is the second time I've been present when a raptor took a bird while I was watching. The first time, was a Kestrel, and I can't say I actually saw it happen. I was watching a mixed flock of sparrows under the feeders at Evodia in the Ramble, and there was a sudden presence and one of the Fox Sparrows was missing, and only then did all the little birds take off. Kestrels are that fast.

Ed Gaillard: recent &emdash; American Kestrel with lunch, Central Park
what the heck, let's have another look at that Kestrel

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Rock me, Ammodramus

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Nelson's Sparrow, Randall's Island
At last we meet, Mr. Nelson!

I've mentioned the term "nemesis bird" a few times. This is a species that a birder has had several, or many, opportunities to see and has failed every time. I'm still not sure I'm a good enough bider to really have a nemesis bird, but I used to consider the Connecticut Warbler mine. Once I saw one, I shifted my nemesisitude to the Nelson's Sparrow.

Nelson's Sparrow is a member of the genus Ammodramus, a scarce and secretive group of grassland and mash sparrows that usually have some orange on their face and/or breast. Nelson's is a sparrow of salt marshes--it used to be considered the same species as the endangered Saltmarsh Sparrow (the combined species was called "Sharp-Tailed Sparrow", and some older books call this bird "Nelson's Sharp-Tailed Sparrow").

Nelson's Sparrow is rare in this area, but it does occur in migration and in the Fall a few show up every year in the little salt marsh on the northern edge of Randall's Island, at the eastern end of the Bronx Kill. So when on the morning of October 1 there were reports from there that several Nelson's and a possible Saltmarsh Sparrow were present, I dropped my other plans for the day and off I went.

I arrived just before high tide, and found Roman Brewka, a fine photographer, out on the rocks--a sort of loose jetty protecting the marsh on the East River end--with a tripod set up in the rising water. He told me that the the birds were around, so I waited at the edge of the rocks, not wanting to clamber out to where Roman was set up. It wasn't long before we detected three birds in the tall grasses.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Nelson's Sparrow, Randall's Island
uncropped at 300mm on a micro 4/3 camera, fairly similar to the binocular view

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Nelson's Sparrow, Randall's Island
cropped version

Two were very secretive, but the third came out and posed a bit before leaving.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Nelson's Sparrow, Randall's Island
well, for this kind of bird, this is "posing a bit"

Unexpectedly, though it was supposed to be a hour past high tide, the water continued to rise, and I decided to retreat until the high tide was well past. I took a walk around the northeast shore of Randall's Island, and down the Bronx Kill, and returned three hours later. Two other birders were out on the rocks, and this time I did crawl out on the rocks for a better view into the marsh. This time, it was a long wait, but eventually the birds showed up. Again, only one really came out to be photographed. I got the photo at the top of this post, and this one:

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Nelson's Sparrow, Randall's Island
Nelson's with a snack

I think it's a very pretty little bird, and it was fascinating watching it attacking the grass stalks, moving from the bottom to the top and gleaning seeds from them.

I mentioned a possible Saltmarsh Sparrow. I don't believe I saw that bird, but Roman has photographs of it taken just before I arrived in the morning. Oddly, he hasn't posted any photos of the Nelson's.

There was also some discussion on the bird mailing lists about if the Saltmarsh or one of the other birds might be a hybrid. The thing is, Nelson's/Saltmarsh might not be a very good species split--the sparrows interbreed freely, and hybrids can't readily be told from the parent species. So it's kind of a mess.

But from everything I've looked at, the birds I photographed look seem pretty clearly Nelson's and the one Roman has posted photos of looks like a Saltmarsh. The main differences (as far as I can tell) are that The orange on the breast of a Saltmarsh is much lighter then the color on the face, maybe even absent; and the Saltmarsh is more heavily streaked and the streaks don't end neatly on the upper breast but extend down on the belly.

I'm quite happy with seeing the Nelson's Sparrows--I'm pretty sure all the ones I saw were Nelson's--and not disappointed not to have gotten the Saltmarsh as well.

I'm not sure what my new "nemesis" is. Maybe American Pipit, another bird that shows up during Fall and Winter on Randall's Island, but that I've never set eyes on. Maybe this year.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

More shorebirding at Jamaica Bay

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Semipalmated Plover, Jamaica Bay
Very cooperative Semipalmated Plover

Shorebird season winds down in September--at least that's how it seems to this novice shorebirder--but I had a nice visit to Jamaica Bay towards the end of the month.

After my misadventures the last time out, I decided to start with the south end of the East Pond, and that worked out well. Coming down the very first trail to the edge of the pond, I was greeted by this...

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Dunlin, Jamaica Bay

A Dunlin! Right in front of me! Several Dunlins, in fact, and my very first. It took me a bit of time to work out what I was seeing, and I wasn't sure until a Finnish birder came along a bit after they (and most of the peeps hanging out with them had flown). He had seen them and confirmed my ID.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Dunlin and Semipalmated Sandpiper, Jamaica Bay
a Dunlin with one of the remaining Least Sandpipers

Dunlins are the last of my easy life shorebirds, I think. One thing to notice here is the grey on the shoulders ("scapulars") and upper back. Those are new feathers--these birds were transitioning into their very gray winter plumage. The sharp-looking reddish feathers on the butt are actually very worn, and from the bird's breeding plumage.

Peep numbers were way down from a few weeks before, but there were still some Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Semipalmated Sandpipers, Jamaica Bay
Semipalmated Sandpipers.  I really like the way the water blurred on this one

The water level in the pond was quite low and I was able to walk halfway up the east side to the area called "The Raunt". I could have gone farther, but it would have involved some scrambling.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Black-Bellied Plover, Jamaica Bay
Black-Bellied Plover. Yes, that's right. The belly is only black in breeding plumage.

At the Raunt I had a great close view of a Black-Bellied Sandpiper. There were also a lot of sleepy peeps that I did not try to identify. I was told there was a Baird's Sandpiper in there somewhere, but you can't prove it by me.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Black-Bellied Plover, Jamaica Bay
Black-Bellied Plover waking up some peeps

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Sanderlings, Jamaica Bay
Sanderlings, also kind of awake

There was also a Snowy Egret dancing through the shallow water. Many more egrets were on the west shore of the pond.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Snowy Egret, Jamaica Bay
dancing egret

I saw several Monarch butterflies, which was nice.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Monarch Butterfly, Jamaica Bay
Monarch Butterfly contemplating a goose turd. Damn, I'm artistic.

Beside the Dunlins, the highlight was the Semipalmated Plovers, who were mostly at the extreme south end of the pond where I first came in. They were still there when I returned.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Semipalmated Plover, Jamaica Bay
Plover pictures, please

I never made it up to the north end of the pond, though I did go past Big John's Pond (completely dry) and the overlook, where I saw a group of American Wigeons and a flyover by a Caspian Tern (immediately identifiable by its huge red bill).

I think that's mostly it for shorebirds for me until Spring.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Lunchtime twitching in Central Park

One of the nice things about living and working in New York City is that when the rare birds show up, they're usually not far away. This month, I had a couple of opportunities to see excellent birds on my lunch hour.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Connecticut Warbler, Central Park
cooperative Connecticut

September 6, there was a report in the morning of a Connecticut Warbler in Central Park, near the Pilgrim statue on 72nd Street. So I decided that it was a good opportunity for a quick "twitch" (originally British slang; a trip made specifically to follow a report of a rare bird). I took the Madison Avenue bus up and walked along the 72nd Street Transverse until I spotted people peering into low shrubs on a the little hill below the statue.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Connecticut Warbler, Central Park
not actually going to perch in the tree, mind you

Here is a thing I've learned: if you're looking for a skulky ground-hugging bird on a hill, try to get below it. It will be easier to spot looking uphill than down (where all the vegetation will screen the bird from you).

It worked this time. It wasn't long before I spotted the Connecticut walking around in the shrubbery. This was a very cooperative bird (for a Connecticut), and he spent some time in the open. All in all, twenty minutes on the bus, a half-hour looking at the bird, twenty back downtown--I was back at my desk practically before anyone noticed I was missing.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Virginia Rail, Central Park
spot the birdie

A few days later, a report of a Virginal Rail drew me out again. Usually, when that species is spotted in Central park, it's because one ran into trouble and was treated by the Wild Bird Fund, and after rehab,released in the park. Under The Official Rules, you're not supposed to count such a released bird. So there were apparently frantic calls to the rehabbers--who reported that they had not released a Virginia Rail, and there was much rejoicing.

Even better, this normally reclusive bird was right out in the open in a spot (the bridge where the Gill empties into the Lake, which will only mean anything to Central Park regulars) offering great close views.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Virginia Rail, Central Park
oh, there you are!

Anyway, I had some adventures getting to the spot this time--wound up walking from 68th and Park to about 77th in the middle of the park--and the bird was gone by the time I got there. Woe and despair! I searched for a half-hour, and decided I needed ti get back to work. As I was deciding what the best way of getting back might be, I looked at Twitter and found that the excellent birder Steve Chang had re-found the rail nearby, at a little pond (more of a big puddle) in the area called called the Swampy Pin Oak.

I hustled over there, and in the shadows of the sheltered pond, was able to spot the rail. I got a life bird on my lunch hour, a very successful twitch. I wasn't even that late getting back to work.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Learning shorebirds

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Yellowlegs, Dowitcher, others (Jamaica Bay)
a cozy scene

I'm not good at identifying shorebirds. That's natural; before this year, I never really looked at them much. I saw the few that showed up at Inwood Hill Park or on Randall's Island, but those few are pretty easy to ID. When I started going to Jamaica Bay, things got harder.

At the end of August, I birded the north end of Jamaica Bay's East Pond for the first time. That's where most of teh interesting reports come from, and I've had some trouble figuring out what I saw. So, I'm hoping some of my readers can help me our with a couple of problems.

Now, not all of the birds new to me were hard to ID. White-Rumped Sandpiper, for example. I had intended to go down the west side of the pond, because that's where the easiest footing is. Instead, I missed the path, and wound up in the northeast corner of the pond, which is identified on the maps as the "North Muck".

Well, yeah, it was muddy. But I managed to get down through the reeds to a place where I could see a bit of the shore. There were some small sandpipers there, that seemed a bit larger than the Least and Semipalmated peeps I knew. I wondered if they might be White-Rumped, and I tried to edge myself into a a better position to see them.

That's when I stepped into about 6 inches of very soft mud. I tried to pull my foot out, lost my balance, and wentdown with a loud squishy sound. The peeps flushed, and as the flew off, I could clearly see their white backsides. ID confirmed.

After extracting myself from the embrace of the earth, I made my way back to teh solider western edge of the pond, a little beach of wet sand. There I saw the cozy scene at the top of this post. I thought it was a nice photo; I also thought it was a Greater Yellowlegs on the left, a Dowitcher (probably Short-Billed) next to it, and...what the heck were those birds in the water off the right end of that log?

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Yellowlegs, Dowitcher, others (Jamaica Bay)
Yellowlegs, Dowitcher, and ...?

They're pretty bulky. Their bodies seem about the same size as the Yellowlegs. Watching them, I had no clue at all what they might be. Sitting with my field guides at home, I still have no real idea. Could they be Willets? They're supposed to be kind of bulky and dumpy.

Here's a shot where the mystery birds are in profile (and another Dowitcher has showed up).

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Yellowlegs, Dowitcher, others (Jamaica Bay)
Hope I got their good side

Any ideas?

At least with those birds, I knew I didn't know what I was looking at. This next one is a little embarrassing. I saw this group of three just hanging out, not feeding actively:

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Three Amigos (Jamaica Bay)
the Three Amigos

and I said "OK, those are more Dowitchers". There were Dowitchers all over the place that day. I actually knew them the first time I saw them (on my previous trip) because of their feeding style--"like a sewing machine", just like it says in Peterson. Anyway, I think they were all Short-Billed, because that's what people had been seeing at the East Pond.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Three Amigos (Jamaica Bay)
one of these bills is not like the others

It wasn't until I got home and looked at my photos that I realized something was off. One of these birds has a shorter bill, and stands a little taller in the water. I think that's a Stilt Sandpiper. Here's another shot of them:

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Three Amigos (Jamaica Bay)
quite companionable

I really, really should have noticed those differences while I was watching them. Clearly my observational skills aren't what they should be. Anyway, what do you think?

I did definitely see some Stilt Sandpipers later, feeding actively near more Dowitchers. They were easier to tell in action--the long legs and shorter bills bean their butts tilt way up in the air when they bend down to feed; Dowitchers stay more horizontal. (right?) So I noticed that, at least.

I didn't go too far down the shore--I saw that map called the next inward bend "Dead man's Cove". Since the "North Muck" had been so exactly right, I thought it was better not to test it.

Any help will be gratefully received.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Road Trips (2): Quincy MA

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Ruby-Throated Hummingbird, Traveler Food & Books
Ruby on rail

Our other road trip this summer was to Quincy, Massachusetts for our favorite science-fiction convention, Readercon, which I blogged about a couple of years ago.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Purple Finch, Traveler Food & Books
such purple, very finch, wow

Our friends Barbara and Jim drove us up, and as we do every year we stopped at Traveler Food and Books in Union CT (they seem to have no website, but here's a newspaper story about them). They have good food, a used bookstore in the basement, and they give away free books with every meal; highly recommended.

They also have bird feeders right outside their window, and the feeders are quite active.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Red-Bellied Woodpecker, Traveler Food & Books
eating on the run

So we got in some bird-watching while we ate. (I don't seem to have ever blogged about the place before; how odd.)

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Rose-Breasted Grosbeak, Traveler Food & Books
looking sharp

Even through the window, I got some pretty decent photos. The hummingbird feeder was used by four birds, which I think were a female with two fledglings, and a male.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds, Traveler Food & Books
showing the kid the ropes

Telling a female from a juvenile is hard with Ruby-Throateds, but I saw one plain-throated bird bird show up with another on two occasions, and the second bird I think was different each time.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Ruby-Throated Hummingbird, Traveler Food & Books
what the heck, one more hummingbird photo

And the male came from the opposite direction. Males have nothing to do with raising the young, anyway.

Readercon used to be in Burlington MA, and we'd go to Middlesex Fells on the first morning before the con began. This year, we went instead to the nearby Blue Hills Reservation. It seems very nice, but we got there a bit late in the morning, so the birding was slow. We did hear a bunch of singing Scarlet Tanagers, but nothing presented itself for a good photo.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Young male Red-Winged Blackbird, Quincy MA
full bloom of youth

The hotel in Quincy was set on the top of a hill, and at the bottom was a nice pond. Ther were geese and ducks, of course, and a Green Heron hunted on the far side. Closer up, the Red-Winged Blackbirds were abundant, including the interesting bird above, one of a group of what appeared to all be young males. Note the epaulettes; I don't think I've seen them so yellow before.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Black-Capped Chickadee, Quincy MA
color photo, black-and-white scene

Also there were chickadees chasing each other around in low trees. This fellow had a lot to say, both singing and scolding.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Road Trips (1): Prattsville NY

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Bobolink, Prattsville NY
not a sparrow

I'm sorry my blogging has been so sparse lately; I'll try to do better. Summer birding has also been pretty sparse, though it's starting to pick up. While it was slow, we went on a couple of nice road trips.

The first was to a friend's summer place in Prattsville NY. We've been up there around the summer solstice the last couple of years, and it's always great.

As before, the highlight was all the nesting Bobolink in the fields at the nearby crossroads. Interestingly, thefemales were very active and I got some wonderful close-up views of them. I'm not sure what was different from previous years--perhaps they got an earlier start with their nesting, since some of them were clearly carrying food.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Bobolink, Prattsville NY
"bug in beak went my love flying..."

I had never seen female Bobolinks so close before, only perching up briefly on power lines. In fact, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what these odd largish sparrows were, until one of the males popped up nearby giving the same contact call as the "sparrows".

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Bobolink, Prattsville NY
3-2-1 contact!

On the farm itself, most of the usual nesters were around--Prairie Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Indigo Bunting, Song Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow--plus one I'd never had there before, a very loud Ovenbird in a stand of trees. The were mostly prety cagey this year, though, and I didn't get a lot of good photos.

One Common Yellowthroat did come out for a visit, bathing freqently in water pooled on the plastic cover of a sandbox in the yard.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Common Yellowthroat bathing, Prattsville NY
making a splash

Also, a gorgeous male Ruby-Throated Hummingbird enjoyed a feeder right off the porch. I spent a couple of hours photographing him as he visited every nine minutes like clockwork. Somehow, I was never able to get a sharp photo with the right angle of light to really show off his throat. I'm pretty happy with this snap, though--oh, those feet.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Ruby-Throated Hummingbird, Prattsville NY
a clockwork Ruby