Friday, March 10, 2017

Big White Birds

Just because, here's some photos of the big white wading birds of Florida.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Snowy Egret, Greek Cay
the more I look at this one, the more I like it (Snowy Egret, Green Cay)

Some of the birds at the wetlands parks are quiet used to people and go about their business within a few feet of the boardwalks.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Great Egret, Green Cay
up close and personal with a Great Egret at the Green Cay boardwalk

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Great Egret, Wakodahatchee
Great Egret hunting, Wakodahatchee Wetlands Park

Cattle Egrets were happy to get close as well. At Wkosahatchee, a bunch of them flew up onto the boardwalk railing only a few feet away from us.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Cattle Egret Wakodahatchee FL
no, you back off

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Cattle Egret Wakodahatchee FL
Let me tell you something, buddy...

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Cattle Egret Wakodahatchee FL
more 'tude

I looked at this next one a long time while photographing, and then again at the photo at home. It's a Cattle Egret, too, just in a slightly different state of plumage.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Cattle Egret, Wakodahatchee FL

Here's an odd one out for the big white birds. This is a Little Blue Heron--they're white in their immature plumage:

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; LIttle Blue Heron, Loxahatchee NWR
odd one out

I'll finish this up with a White Ibis in nice light:

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Whte Ibis, Wakodahatchee FL
damn fine lookin' bird

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Long-Eared Owl

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Long-Eared Owl, Central Park

Birders have a complicated relationship with owls.

Owls are beautiful, and mysterious, and thrilling--the sight of a hunting owl skimming silently over a field is not something you will soon forget. So they are very desirable to see.

Owls are usually very hard to spot. They're mostly active at night, hunting in the dark. During the day, they sleep. They roost in trees, with foliage the denser the better. Other birds know owls are dangerous, so if they find one, they set up a racket to try to drive it off or at least disturb its rest. Their alarm calls attract more birds, who make more noise, which brings more birds--this is called "mobbing". For a birder, the best way to find an owl in the day is to listen for jays or crows mobbing it. In turn, jays and crows are smart and know that if a bunch of people are looking in a tree, there might be something interesting going on.

So birders want to find owls, but they worry about disturbing them, and they worry that other birders will disturb them, and they worry... anyway, a lot of birders don't like having an owl roost reported on "social media". But a lot of birders want to see owl reports. On any given mailing list or forum, there's likely to be a flame war about owl reports every six months or so.

On the Manhattan Bird Alert twitter recently, someone reported where an owl roost had been five hours before, and holy cow! the screaming. The report had been on already (I guess eBird reports don't count somehow?) and said that the bird had been flushed by Blue Jays and wasn't there anymore. Apparently, it is now unethical according to some people to suggest that a particular section of the park might be worth looking closely at. Also. it's terrible to lead people to birds instead of letting them find them themselves, according to some guy subscribed to a bird sighting alert. OK, then.

Anyway, there's also word-of-mouth.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Long-Eared Owl, Central Park

On Saturday afternoon, I was birding in Central Park. I walked down Locust Grove pondering if going straight to the Ramble would be better than a diversion through the Shakespeare Garden. Two people passed me, parents of an avid young birder. Had I heard about the owl? they asked. They told me their son had just texted them about it. He was at Inwood Hill and had gotten a text about from someone who heard t from the guy who found the owl. (Anyone remember that ad, "if you tell two friends, they'll tell two friends, and so on, and so on..."?) Anyway, he said that there was a Long-Eared Owl "low in a tree in the Shakespeare Garden".

And so there was. It was quite low, about 12 feet up a Yew tree; about eye-level if you were standing on the path going up past the sundial (if you know the Shakespeare Garden, that will make sense...) where a photographer was already set up with one of those lenses that cost as much as a decent used car and weigh only a little more.

The bird was actually quite well-hidden from that vantage. I found my best views on a path farther away from the tree and a little below it on the other side. Within twenty minutes, there were around twenty people there, all standing at a fairly respectful distance. People filtered in and out; probably fifty or so came and went over the next couple of hours, the crowd size remaining pretty constant.

Birds filtered in and out as well. A few jays came around a couple of times and yelled at the owl for a few minutes; but they didn't hang around long, which was odd. Usually they keep yelling until there's a big crowd of birds around the roost.

A score or so of House Sparrows occupied a nearby tree for ten minutes or so making tsip alarm calls. Then they left. A single Titmouse visited every few minutes, scolding. All-in-all, it wasn't exactly peaceful, but it wasn't a full-scale mobbing.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Long-Eared Owl, Central Park
why not another owl photo? why not, indeed!

The owl was asleep some of the time, but woke frequently with the wild-eyed "who dares disturb me?" look that is typical of Long-Eared Owls. I'm not sure how much the people disturbed it, overall. The Shakespeare Garden is pretty well-trafficked on a nice weekend afternoon, and the path directly under the tree is normally popular. The birders were steering the crowds away from that path, and some Central Park Conservancy staff came along to watch and keep order.

Nobody tried to climb the tree. People have told me that that has happened in the Park sometimes. Also, nobody ever put the sighting on the twitter alert, which is pretty remarkable restraint. It's not clear to me whether that actually cut down on the crowd much. Most of the Park birders know each other, so the grapevine was pretty effective in getting the word out. Also, I think reports did start to show up on eBird while I was still in the Park.

I heard there was a pretty good crowd watching the owl fly out at dusk. It didn't return to the Shakespeare Garden on Sunday, or anywhere else in the Park that I heard.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Awesome Majesty

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Turkey Vulture, Loxahatchee NWR, Florida
not a good sign

I have no particular point here, just showing some more photos from Florida. This Turkey Vulture buzzed me a couple of time while I was walking around Loxahatchee Refuge. It had been a longish hike, and I was flagging a little, but I felt that the bird was a being a bit presumptuous.

Ed Gaillard: recent &emdash; Alligator, Florida
don't walk on that log!

At Wakodahatchee Wetlands Park, this alligator waited patiently for a mistake.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Cattle Egret, Florida
marching to his own beat

Nearby, some Cattle Egrets flew right up on the boardwalk railing. No fear at all.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Wood Stork, Florida

A Wood Stork flew right past me at Green Cay. Quite startling; they are surprisingly quick. I was lucky to get any kind of shot at all.

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.