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

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Jamaica Bay, July 4th Weekend

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Song Sparrow, Jamaica Bay NWR
this means you!

At the beginning of July, Elena and I went out to Jamaica Bay with some friends. Although it's still a little early for shorebirds, some interesting birds had been seen there and we wanted to get the lay of the land.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Black Skimmer, Jamaica Bay NWR
Skimmer skimming

We arrived just about at low tide. On the West Pond side, things were a little slow. There were a number of egrets, both Great and Snowy, and some Boat-Tailed Grackles were out on the mud flats acting like shorebirds. A few Gulls and Common Terns. Then as the tide began to turn, I saw three black-and-white birds with red bills, low over the breach in the pond.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Black Skimmer, Jamaica Bay NWR
against the tide

They were Black Skimmers, doing what they do best. They were so graceful as they skimmed the surface, flying against the tide. They looked like they were in slow motion, though they were obviously flying quite fast. It was so mesmerizing that I didn't manage to get a shot with them all in the frame. Thrilling to see!

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Osprey Nest, Jamaica Bay NWR
Osprey suburb

Elsewhere at Jamaica Bay, nesting is in full swing. The Osprey platform at the West Pond has two young birds on it, and there's another Osprey nest north of the North Garden

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Osprey, Jamaica Bay NWR

There were a lot of Yellow Warblers around, and many singing House Wrens. Over at the East Pond, I counted fifty-eight adult Mute Swans. I understand that some have seen well over a hundred, plus cygnets.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Mute Swan, East Pond, Jamaica Bay NWR
you, I don't trust

We didn't see any cygnets, but this adult cruised back and forth in front of us, clearly very suspicious, so I assume he had a nest nearby.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; American Oystercatchers, East Pond, Jamaica Bay NWR
loafing Oystercatchers

On the far side were a large collection of Oystercatchers--I counted 25--and many Glossy Ibises. There were a number of Forster's Terns and Least Terns, hunting by hovering over then water and then plunging in with an impressive bang.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Snowy Egret, Big John's Pond
the stare of the Egret

There were only a few birds around Big John's Pond--it was only a couple of hours after low tide--but we had nice close looks from the blind at a Snowy Egret and several Glossy Ibises.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Glossy Ibises, Big John's Pond, Jamaica Bay NWR
Ibises at work

Alose a bunch of Black-Crowned Night Herons were hanging out, including this juvenile, who I guess is so young he's still kind of gray-downy instead of teh brown-streaky appearance I'm used to with young BCNHs.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Juvenile Black-Crowned Night Heron, Big John's Pond
young and lovely

There were fewer shorebirds than I expected, but of course we didn't try to go around the muddy areas at the north and south ends of the East Pond, not having knee-boots. We didn't see any of the reported rarities--no White-Faced Ibis, Royal Tern, Gull-Billed Tern, or Cattle Egret, but we had a great time.

Monday, June 13, 2016


Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Dickcissel, Central park
Fine young Dickcissel

Late in the Spring migration, Central Park got an unexpected visitor in a young male Dickcissel. Dickcissel are midwestern birds. We get one or two here in the Fall, usually young birds going off-course in their first migration. Getting one in the Spring was very unusual, but welcome--the autumn birds are rather dull, resembling big House Sparrows, while this was a fine male--probably in his first Spring, judging by the small size of the black V on his yellow breast, and the presence of some white in the black area.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Dickcissel and House Sparrow fledgling
Go away kid, ya bother me

When Dickcissels show up here, they usually associate with flocks of House Sparrows, which makes sense--they're brownish seed-eating birds, like female Dickcissels, and they forage in flocks like Dickcissels. This bird was no exception, though it didn't get along with the sparrows as well as the autumn visitors I've seen before. They quarreled a bit; perhaps that was due to the rush of testosterone in the young Dickcissel.

The Dickcissel seemed especially bothered by the House Sparrow fledglings, whose begging drove it off its perch a couple of times.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

A Magic Tree

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Blackburnian Warbler, Central Park
Blackburnian Warbler (male)

Another great phenomenon of migration is the "magic tree". Sometimes, a certain tree will just be full of migrants, especially warblers, for an hour or two, busily feeding and giving great looks to anyone who passes by. Central Park had a Magic Tree on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend. It was just off the plaza of Belvedere Castle, and it was something to see.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Bay-Breasted Warbler, Central Park
Bay-Breasted Warbler

I had some of the finest close views of Blackburnian and Bay-Breasted warblers I've ever seen, all in a low honey locust tree in beautiful morning light. A crowd of birders stood only ten or twelve feet from the tree--the birds didn't care.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Blackburnian Warbler, Central Park
Blackburnian Warbler (female)

It's not clear to me why certain trees get so popular. There wasn't anything obvious about this one--just an ordinary-looking tree, not especially lush--a little scraggly if anything. But it was in flower and the flowers must have been full of bugs.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Bay-Breasted Warbler, Central Park

The low branches of the tree were basically at eye level, so we got some fairly unusual views of foraging warblers, like the Bay-Breasted above and the Blackburnian below.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Blackburnian Warbler, Central Park

In all, I saw ten warbler species in this one small tree: Blackburnian, Bay-Breasted, Blackpoll...

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Blackpoll Warbler, Central Park
Blackpoll (female) apparent first- spring female Chestnut-Sided:

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Chestnut-Sided Warbler, Central Park

Magnolia Warbler{

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Magnolia Warbler, Central Park

Yellow Warbler:

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Yellow Warbler, Central Park
fie on your "gravity" well as American Redstart, Common Yellowthroat, Black-Throated Blue Warbler and Black-Throated Green Warbler. There were also a couple of Red-Eyed Vireos.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Red-Eyed Vireo, Central Park
Red-Eyed Vireo

Amazing tree, amazing morning.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Blackburnian Warbler, Central Park
there may be a quiz

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Bay-Breasted Warbler, Central Park

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Mother's Day Fallout

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Prairie Warbler, Central Park
Prairie Warbler

One thing you will hear birders talk about is "fallout". This doesn't have anything to do with nuclear weapons--it's about bird migration. Sometimes during the spring migration, when conditions are just right--southerly winds at night, then rain a little before dawn and heavier storms just to the north--you wake up in the morning to find that migrating birds have descended on local parks and green spaces in huge numbers. They've been forced to fly low by the rain, and some have had to turn back from the storms in the north, and they all fall out of the sky after a long night's flight to frantically feed and then rest for the next night's flight.

On Mother's Day, May 8, New York City had an epic fallout event. By noon, according to one experienced birder's compilation of observations over a hundred species of bird had been seen in Central Park, including two dozen kind of warbler.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; American Bittern, Central Park
American Bittern

In the Ramble, three very unusual migrants were within a hundred yards of each other. In the area called the Oven, and American Bittern spent the day hunting in the tall reeds. It's bulbous form was clearly visible from the rocks overlooking the Oven from the west ("Willow Rock").

After the early rain, it turned into a beautiful day, and many people rented rowboats on the Central Park Lake. When they approached the Oven, birders would call to the rowers to turn back so as not to disturb the Bittern by coming too close.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Chuck-Will's-Widow Central Park

Fifty yards to the northeast, a Chuck-Will's-Widow roosted very close to a path. Chuck-Will's-Widow (named for its call) is a nighttime hunter of insects. By the time it was discovered in the mid-morning, it had eaten its fill and was quietly waiting for evening, relying on its cryptic coloration to hide it from the large mammals only a few yards away.

Let me digress here. On twitter, I saw a drawing by Alan Messer of the Chuck and environs. It's a great example of how drawing can sometimes be much truer than photography. The detail and depth-of-field of the drawing were simply not possible in a photo under the dim lighting.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Yellow-Crowned Night Heron, Central Park
Yellow-Crowned Night Heron

Fifty yards in the other direction from the Bittern, a Yellow-Crowned Night Heron hid out at the end of the Point, red eye glaring balefully out of the depths of a willow tree. So, three birds, all rare visitors to Central Park, sen within about ten minutes.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Veery, Central Park

Of course, there were a lot of more expected migrants. All the brown thrushes were in, like the Veery above. On the south slope of Summit Rock, right by Central Park West, Tom Fiore had sixty thrushes in an area about 40x50 feet, including Hermit Thrush, Veery, Swainson's Thrush, Wood Thrush and Gray-Cheeked Thrush at least.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Cape May Warbler, Central Park
Cape May Warbler

Maybe the biggest story was the warblers. According to Tom Fiore's end-of-day roundup of sightings, people saw at least 28 species of warbler in the park (among 115 or more total species) by day's end.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Hooded Warbler, Central Park
Hooded Warbler

Considering that there are only 35 or 36 species of warbler that move through the area in migration, and three of them are normally done migrating before May, 28 in a day is really impressive. (I had only twelve that day, myself, and 48 total species, but a big chunk of my day was spent on social obligations.)

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Red-Bellied Woodpecker, Central Park
Red-Bellied Woodpecker

And of course, the full complement of permanent resident birds were on hand. Here's a Red-Bellied Woodpecker portrait to finish up.