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 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

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Chat chat

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Yellow-Breasted Chat, Trinity Church
Very bird, such urban

We've had a lot of Yellow-Breasted Chats in Manhattan this Fall. By "a lot", I mean three or four--they're never an abundant bird here.

There was one in Central Park at the end of October, that I mentioned in an earlier post, and then two appeared in lower Manhattan--one in a traffic roundabout just south of City Hall, and one in the yard of Trinity Church. I wasn't able to get downtown to look for either until last Friday.

Trinity Church is a rather unlikely birding spot. The churchyard is fairly small, there's not much ground cover, and there isn't a water source. Nevertheless, birds show up there--75 total species at last count--, which we know mostly through the diligent efforts of Ben Cacace.

Last Fall, a pair of Connecticut Warblers showed up there. Like the Chat this year, these normally reclusive birds put on quite a show for a throng of birders. Not by choice, certainly; as I said, not much ground cover.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Winter Wren, Trinity Church
a real cutie

The church was doing some work on the churchyard last year, which is mostly done (though the Chat did like hiding in the raining construction material in the northwest corner of the yard).

They've put up a lot of low wire fencing to separate the paths from the grave plots, which is good even for the birders. Last year there was a little problem with one or two photographers stalking the Connecticut around the graves, lumbering like Frankenstein's monster. Some people just don't know what they're doing. You've got a big long lens, you don't need to try to get within ten feet of the poor bird. Sheesh.

Anyway. No such problems this year, and the Chat was relatively little disturbed by the assembled bird paparazzi (there were a dozen or so when I was there, even though the Chat had been there over two weeks by that point).

There were a few other birds around as well--a very cooperative Winter Wren, and two or three Hermit Thrushes.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Hermit Thrush, Trinity Church
memento birdie

As of today (11/23), the Chat is still there--three weeks and counting.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Yellow-Breasted Chat, Trinity Church
a long engagement

Monday, November 14, 2016

Avoidance tactics

Ed Gaillard: recent &emdash; Golden-Crowned Kinglet, Randall's Island
here's looking at you, kid

So I guess I'll just go on blogging about birds as if nothing's happened.

Speaking of avoidance mechanisms, I made my usual trek up to Randall's Island on the day of the NY Marathon. I live east of First Avenue, so if I don't get out of the area before 8:30am on Marathon Sunday, I'm pretty much stuck there until late afternoon unless I walk a couple of miles each way to get in and out of the area.

Ed Gaillard: recent &emdash; Song Sparrow, Randall's Island
Song Sparrow watches out

The north end of the island was pretty quiet. The first few Brants have arrived for the winter, and there were a lot of Song Sparrows and Savannah Sparrows. The Song Sparrows were pretty cooperatve.

Ed Gaillard: recent &emdash; Savannah Sparrow, Randall's Island
landscape with Savannah Sparrow

I followed a group of Savannah Sparrows north along the eastern shore. They were a bit less approachable than the Songs.

Ed Gaillard: recent &emdash; Savannah Sparrow, Randall's Island
inclined to fly

I did get a couple of decent photos of them anyway. The usual gulls were around. Mostly Ring-Billeds and mostly distant, but there was a Herring Gull on the rocks on the shore.

Ed Gaillard: recent &emdash; Herring Gull, Randall's Island
curious Herring Gull

There were a few Laughing Gulls in their winter plumage. I don't recall seeing many in the county so late in the year before, though eBird didn't blink at them. I didn't succeed in turning any of them into more unusual species.

Ed Gaillard: recent &emdash; Laughing Gulls, Randall's Island
who's laughing now?

The little freshwater wetlands across Central Road from Icahn Stadium was also quiet. There were a couple of late migrants: a Black-Throated Blue Warbler skulking around the underbrush, and a Monarch Butterfly in the flower garden just south of the marsh.

Ed Gaillard: recent &emdash; Monarch Butterfly, Randall's Island
Monarch of all et cetera

It looks like they're putting in another water feature in the wetlands area, and also they seem to have completed a bike/pedestrian path just east of the marsh, right outside the wastewater treatment plant. I look forward to seeing what's up back there on a later visit.

Not much was doing at the Little Hell Gate saltmarsh: a few Mallards and one Black Duck, a few sparrows, and along the southern path, several Golden-Crowned Kinglets very active in a tree.

Ed Gaillard: recent &emdash; Golden-Crowned Kinglet, Randall's Island
ready for takeoff

In the next tree sat a single tired-looking Ruby Crowned Kinglet.

Ed Gaillard: recent &emdash; Ruby-Crowned Kinglet, Randall's Island
contemplative Kinglet

Along the River's Edge Garden )between Little Hell Gate and the Ward's Island pedestrian bridge) there were a few more Savannah Sparrows, and one Black Capped Chickadee who scolded me vigorously while feeding.

Ed Gaillard: recent &emdash; Black-Capped Chickadee, Randall's Island
hungry but talkative

The Marathon was still going when I got back to First Avenue. Up in that area, the crowd was much thinner than in my neighborhood, but there were some spectators.

Ed Gaillard: recent &emdash; 2016 New York City Marathon, about 103rd Street
watching the race

Friday, November 4, 2016

Vermont/New York

Ed Gaillard: recent &emdash; Covered Bridge, Charlotte VT
Don't strain your eyes, there's no bird in this photo (Covered Bridge, Charlotte VT)

Elena and I went to Vermont last weekend to visit some dear old friends who live right by the shore of Lake Champlain. We had a great time! It wasn't great birding weather, but we did get some in.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Horned Grebes, Lake Champlain
Grebes a crowd

There were a lot of Horned Grebes right offshore--just a little too far to get really good photos in the overcast light. I hadn't realized that Grebes were so social--they were typically in groups of three to five birds, with some groups up to eight.

Raptors were romping along the shore, too--Red-Tailed Hawks, Northern Harrier, Rough-Legged Hawk (lifer!). There were Ravens around as well, who sometimes chased the hawks or were chased by them.

I also spent a couple of hours at the Charlotte Park and Wildlife Refuge, which is just beautiful and I recommend it to anyone who goes to that part of the state. I had some noce close views of Hairy Woodpeckers, and watched a Cooper's Hawk chasing a flock of Robins.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Turkey Vulture, Charlotte VT
"Here's the world-famous vulture sitting in a tree"

On our way to the airport Sunday morning, we saw this Turkey Vulture just hanging out in a tree by the road. Some might think that's a bad omen, but not me.

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

We actually got home early enough that I went over to Central Park in the afternoon to look for the Yellow-Breasted Char that's been at Sparrow Rock (near Tanner's Spring) for a week or so. I had tried several times to see it in the mornings before work and failed, and Sunday continued the streak. I've dipped several times in a year on a species of bird pretty often, but this is the first time I've dipped on the same individual bird five times. But I was consoled by a very cooperative Blackpoll Warbler.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Blackpoll Warbler, Central Park
Blackpoll and berry

I did eventually catch up with the Chat this week--for about ten seconds, and couldn't get a photo in focus. Oh well. Bird's still there as of Friday afternoon, so I may have more chances to miss it again.

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.