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Saturday, June 24, 2017

A Week at Hog Island

Last week (June 11-16, 2017), I was able to attend the “Coastal Maine Bird Studies for Teens” program at Hog Island.  For myself and the twenty others in the program, this was an amazing opportunity to explore the birds and different habitats of Maine.  Our teen leaders for the week were Josh Potter, Corey Husic, and Heather Richard.  Our session was also lucky to share the island with a talented group of people in the “Arts and Birding” program.

On Sunday, we all arrived in the afternoon and then had a chance to meet everyone who was going to be on the island for the week.  Everyone ate dinner together before we played games to get to know each other.  When it finally was dark, we went on an owl prowl.  We called the owls by imitating them but not by playing recordings.  The only owl we did hear was a Northern Saw-whet Owl, a lifer for many in the program.

The next day, we had an optional six o'clock bird walk; however, it was well-attended.  Then we ate breakfast before going on a "shakedown cruise" during the morning, exploring the area around Hog Island.  We returned for lunch, followed by a longer hike around all of Hog Island.  During this hike, we separated and slowly walked through the middle of the island to listen to all the sounds we heard.  After dinner, we had a presentation by Steve Kress about bringing puffins and other birds back to Eastern Egg Rock.  

On Tuesday, after breakfast and another six o'clock walk, we got on the boat for the short ride across to the mainland.  Once there, we piled into the two vans to drive to different spots to bird.  Our first stop was McCurdy Pond Road.  Here, we walked about a mile down the road, listening (and looking) for warblers.  We briefly saw a Northern Waterthrush and got good looks at a male Scarlet Tanager.  Our highlight, while not either of those birds, was one briefly seen and heard: a Ruffed Grouse.  While we were looking at the Scarlet Tanager, the grouse took off from the base of a hemlock right next to the road.  We could hear its wing beats as it took off; it had been just five feet from us off the road.  Our next stop was Great Salt Bay Farm Wildlife Preserve.  Here we saw nesting Bobolinks, getting great looks and pictures.  

We also had a low adult Bald Eagle, also allowing for great photos.  After eating lunch, we continued on to Hidden Valley Nature Center.  While not extremely birdy, this place gave us a chance to investigate the kettle-hole bog and its plants.  
Pitcher Plants and Sundews

We were also able to see the cool nest of an Ovenbird close to one of the trails.  We then drove back to the dock, with one stop to hear a singing Prairie Warbler.  After dinner, we had a presentation on bird song by Angelika Nelson.

Our third day was the most exciting: getting to land on Eastern Egg Rock.  Eastern Egg Rock hosts a breeding colony with Arctic, Roseate and Common Terns, Black Guillemots, and Atlantic Puffins.  
Black Guillemot on Eastern Egg Rock

After the boat ride of about an hour and climbing into the dory to land, we were dive-bombed by terns as we made our way to the lone building, called the "Hilton," on the center of Eastern Egg Rock.  Once introduced to the five interns currently on the island, we split into two groups.  My group had an opportunity to sit in blinds (more like three-foot-square boxes) while the other painted and worked on building a new, larger blind.  We sat in our blinds for about two hours.  My blind looked out at terns, mostly common with a few Arctic, some occasional guillemots and about six puffins.  The puffins would disappear into burrows and loaf on a big rock.  

Banded Atlantic Puffin photographed from a blind

While the blind was not very large, the bucket with a cushion was comfortable enough, and due to the roof you were safe from the terns.  The terns did land on the roof of the blind sometimes, but they couldn't peck you.  After sitting in the blind, photographing and watching the birds, I was pecked and attacked by the terns almost immediately upon emerging.  After eating lunch together, we split back into our groups.  My group helped widen some of the trails that were growing in and then sat on the roof of the “Hilton.”  On the roof, there was one pair of terns that sat on the corner, watching you and attacking if you moved too much.  

Common Tern on the "Hilton"

Common Tern attacking us as we sat on the roof

From the roof, we were able to scope nests of Common, Roseate and, although a little farther away, Arctic Terns.  Then, it was time to climb back into the dory and head back to Hog Island.  That evening, we had presentations on photography by Derrick Jackson and Drew Fulton.  

Thursday morning was an early one: we started off with a sound-recording workshop at 4:15 AM.  Only about nine people managed to get up, but it was worth it.  We went in groups of three around the island, recording the different birds.  Then, being done by 6 AM, we all set off on the normal bird walk as well.  For our last full day, we headed to Burnt Island to do some banding.  With bander Anthony Hill, we set up three nets and caught one each of nine species: Swainson's Thrush, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Common Yellowthroat, White-throated Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Magnolia Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler and Golden-crowned Kinglet.  It was great to see these birds, especially the male Black-throated Green up close; however, the real highlight of the day was 8 Sitka Spruce or Type 10 Red Crossbills.  We identified them as Type 10 based on the spectrogram of the recording someone took.  They flew over, and then perched in the tops of spruce trees for some quick photos and looks.  On the way back to Hog Island, we went by two islands with nesting Double-crested Cormorants, not very common nesters in Muscongus Bay.

Double-crested Cormorants nesting on a rocky island
Overall, this was an amazing week, complete with birds like puffins that you don't see every day.  If you would like to see more photos and hear more stories, come to my presentation to the Birding Club of Delaware County in October.  Hog Island offers programs for families, teachers, adults and teens.  I thank the National Audubon Society, for giving me an Ambassador Award, and the Valley Forge Audubon chapter for their sponsorship, both supporting my week at camp.

Kristen Johnson

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A Few June Days in Cape May

Mrs. BadBirder (aka Kellie) and I recently spent a pleasant few days in Cape May. The birding was pretty good for June. Here’s how it went:

Friday morning (6/16) we started out at the Beanery (Rea’s Farm). We read that a Prothonotary Warbler had been heard at that location, and we hoped to find it. Last summer we caught a fleeting glimpse of the Prothonotary in the swampy area by the old railroad tracks, so we thought we’d try there. As we approached the area, sure enough we heard the bird. We weed-whacked our way back into the swamp, and we caught a quick sight of the bird as it flit from one tree, to a second, to…gone! No pics.

We continued to wander around until we came to the wooded cut-through from the field adjoining the winery to the first field by the parking area. Again, we heard the Prothonotary, but this time we were rewarded with some nice views and managed to get some pics. Not a lifer, but always great!

Prothonotary Warbler

We also flushed some young turkeys, which was fun…

One of the little ones.

Mom in flight

…and we got a view of a Black Vulture whose name must be “Napoleon” (or something like that). We found 33 species in all.

Napoleon the Black Vulture

We spent the rest of the day reclining on the beach (even when a thick fog rolled in).

Saturday morning we were back at it, this time at Cape May Point State Park. We had heard there was a Northern Bobwhite that had been hanging around, and we hoped to see it. We once caught a glimpse of one at Bombay Hook, but we mainly resigned ourselves to only hearing them. Getting a good view of a bird that loves the underbrush seemed unlikely. We pulled into the lighthouse parking lot, got out of the car…and it sounded like the bobwhite was broadcasting over a loudspeaker! Turns out the bird was perched in a cedar at eye-level right next to the hawkwatch platform, singing his head off. We took a lot of photos, most any one of which would have been a keeper.

Northern Bobwhite

The bird finally hopped off the tree, walked across the sidewalk, out into the parking lot, then took off towards the beach. It was so fun I almost could have quit for the day right then — but we were glad we didn’t.

We spent about three more hours on the yellow trail, seeing (among the total of 40 species) some Tom turkeys, a Yellow-breasted Chat, and a Orchard Oriole building her nest (we also saw an adult male and one, maybe two, young males singing away).

[NOTE: If you haven’t see the eBird challenge for June, it’s all about using Breeding Codes in reports.]

Orchard Oriole with nesting material

Construction work

Well, another good day birding. So we spent the afternoon doing a little shopping, etc., then settled into our place to enjoy Happy Hour. And just as we started working on a second glass of Prosecco, I opened up Facebook…only to find that a rare Forked-tailed Flycatcher was being seen ALL DAY at Cape May Point State Park! While we were there! WTF? (A couple of you might have gotten a profanity-laden email/text of frustration from me about this…I have a great skill at missing the “big ones,” and here we go again).

Well, not this time! We hopped into the car (trust me…I was fully sobered with determination) and raced back to the Point (just a short drive from our place). I expected to see absolutely nothing (as usual), but as we pulled into the parking lot I noticed a small group of birders (a couple of well-known ones among them) training their scopes on the scrub between the parking lot and the beach. We raced up to join them and got magnificent views of the Forked-tailed Flycatcher, both perched and flying.

Forked-tailed Flycatcher

The show lasted for at least a half-an-hour, until it flew off towards the beach in the direction of the retreat house.

I followed the serious birders over towards the beach and glommed on to their views of shearwaters. I got a good view of the Great Shearwater (my second life bird in an hour), but couldn’t honestly figure out the Cory’s they were watching (so I missed out on that). As I gave up squinting through a scope at distant sea birds, the flycatcher made one more pass back across the parking lot.

To finish off the night, our new friend the Bobwhite was sitting up on the hawkwatch, singing in the sunset.

"... White!"
Sunday, we birded the Meadows. We spent some time with the Least Terns, who were feeding, and also managed to get a couple of Sandwich Terns among the Forster’s Terns and Laughing Gulls on the far side of the eastern pond. We enjoyed the half-dozen or so American Oystercatchers as well. We also caught sight of an Osprey chick in the nest.

Least Terns
American Oystercatchers
American Oystercatcher
Sandwich Tern (long black bill with yellow tip, larger size, a bit crested is on left) with Forster's Tern

In all, 64 species without working too hard at it. I’m sure there was more to be had, but what we had was great.

We had to leave Monday morning for work, which always makes us a little crabby.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Help with Downy and Hairy Woodpecker Identification.

Many times when I’m in the field with a group of birders and we encounter a black and white type woodpecker, I hear the question “is that a Downy or a Hairy?”  Mostly this question is asked from beginners or less experienced birders, but, I have been with seasoned birders and birding alone when I’ve heard that same question.

These two species are not in the same category of difficulty as molting gulls and shorebirds, so we should be able to conquer the identification in short order. Of course, if you want to get good at woodpecker identification as well as bird identification in general, you must spend considerable hours at home studying your reference material and then a considerable amount of time in the field putting what you've learned into practice.

All the field guides tell you the best ways to separate Downy and Hairy Woodpecker is by the difference in size, bill shape and size, the presence or lack of dark spots or barring on the outer tail feathers and vocalizations.  

Ok, so let’s break down these suggestions and see if they help with the identification.

Downy Woodpecker (left) & Hairy Woodpecker (right).
Size: This field mark is difficult to use without experience. Hairy is much larger than Downy but this is hard to appreciate unless you happen to come across these two species simultaneously on the same tree. Very unlikely. 

Here are two photos I was lucky to get in my yard of both species together. In each photo the size difference is quite evident.

Downy Woodpecker (left) & Hairy Woodpecker (right). 

Other photos showing the obvious size difference.

Here you can see the smaller size of a Downy Woodpecker which can be held in my cupped hand. 

Hairy Woodpecker, on the other hand, is larger than my hand. 

Downy Woodpecker (top) & Hairy Woodpecker (bottom). 
Downy Woodpecker (top) & Hairy Woodpecker (bottom). 

Bill size: Once again experience is helpful. Determining bill size on a solitary bird can be difficult but not impossible and a good sustained look is helpful. Downy will show a short, pointed bill and with a good look from different angles, it can be described as a small chisel. Hairy, on the other hand has a whopping chisel of a bill. 

Downy Woodpecker (left) & Hairy Woodpecker (right) bill comparisons. Hairy Woodpecker bill is noticeably thick at the base compared to the Downy's narrow base. Bill length is very noticeable in these side-by-side images. Obtaining a good view of this field mark will greatly assist in making the identification. 

Dark spotting/barring on the outer tail feathers: Once again, a good close look is really needed to appreciate this field mark. As far I can tell, Hairy Woodpecker has complete white outer tail feathers. Downy has dark spots or bars on the outer tail feathers but in my experience they vary from very apparent to faint to very faint. 

These images show the variability of the dark barring on the outer tail feathers of Downy Woodpecker. Hairy Woodpecker outer tail feathers are white without barring.

Vocalizations: The differences in calls are absolute identifiers and will assist in making the proper identification. I also recently learned that their is a difference in “drumming” between the two species with Hairy having a faster drumming rhythm. Might be worth checking out.

Whinny call - Hairy has a loud robust whinny, while Downy is softer and weaker in nature.

Downy Woodpecker - whinny Pennsylvania (Joe Verica)

Hairy Woodpecker - whinny New Jersey (Jeff Ellerbusch)

Call note - Downy sharp but soft, reminds me of a Song Sparrow call note. Hairy sharp, loud and emphatic.

Downy Woodpecker call note New York (Brad Walker)

Hairy Woodpecker - call note Pennsylvania (Joe Verica)

Drumming - Downy is steady, evenly paced but not rapid. Hairy is steady and rapid (supposedly is the fastest drumming of all North American woodpeckers)

Downy Woodpecker -drumming Vermont (David Eberly)

Hairy Woodpecker - drumming Vermont (Roy Pilcher)

Status and Distribution and Geographical Variation: Status and Distribution cannot really be used to assist with separating the two species. Both species occupy the same range and habitats and both are fairly common within their range. Downy may appear less shy and thus more numerous and I would guess that on an average field trip in appropriate habitat the ratio of Downy to Hairy might be 2:1 or 3:1.  Birds from the Rocky Mountains are generally darker with less wing spotting.

Geographical Variation - The photo on the left I took on Mt. Charleston, NV and shows the Rocky Mountain race of Hairy Woodpecker which has a lot less wing spotting and a very dark back which is quite striking when first seen. The Hairy Woodpecker on the right is from West Chester, PA.

I hope this blog simplifies the ID problem a little.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

This was the winter of my discontent - NOT!

Organ Pipe Cactus - near Ajo, AZ
      Some of you are aware from my emails that my wife Jill and I spent the winter in Scottsdale. I was happy to make the sacrifice so someone else did not have to. You may thank me later. Arizona offers great birding opportunities, as you know, particularly if you are willing to do a little chasing and travel to the southern parts of the state. Here’s an account of the fifteen (fifteen!) lifers I got in Arizona, and on my return trip back to Pennsylvania through the lower Rio Grande valley of Texas.

Lifer 1 - Rosy-faced Lovebird

      I got this Phoenix area specialty one day when I read an eBird post from a birder who had seen it in the morning and posted promptly. I drove over to the spot and they were still foraging in the trees where the eBirder had reported them. The lovebirds are not rare in the area, but if you don’t have their nest sites staked out, you just have to kind of run into them in the course of your daily travels, Over several months, I did this, eventually learning their call and flight characteristics. Those suckers can move! Indeed, the silhouette and speed are pretty good field marks. Near the end of my winter stay, I found a pretty large nesting colony of them in a local shopping center, and was able to post it to AZNMBIRDS, so others could find the bird easily. If I do this right, there should be a photo of the bird on one of their nesting trees below. You probably have to take my word that they’re RFLO.

Lifer 2 - Red-breasted Sapsucker

Red-breasted Sapsucker

      This bird has wintered in the same Scottsdale municipal park for at least two winters. It was while trying to stake it out - I later determined in the wrong park - that I read about the lovebirds on eBird. I returned the next day, this time to the right park, and got the bird. Cell phone photo below.

Lifer 3 - Groove-billed Ani

      At Veterans’ Oasis park in Chandler, AZ, A Groove-billed Ani got photographed by a non-birder who decided to show his photos to a birder friend. This, of course set off a round of twitching which lasted for the few days that the bird stayed around. I still didn’t have a decent camera, so you’ll have to rely on my word that the cell phone photo below is of the ani, and not a grackle.

Groove-billed Ani

Lifer 4 - Streak-backed Oriole

      It was time for a road trip. Jill and I headed for Portal, AZ, where this bird appeared to be settling in for the winter at the well-tended feeders of Bob Rodrigues, a retired Forest Service worker who spent his career in Alaska, but decided that 22 hours of darkness in winter wasn’t his ideal retirement environment. Bob is generous enough to invite the public in to view his feeders, and through his efforts, the bird stayed all winter, and many birders ticked this species off their lists. I got no photos, but you can see some of Bob’s here:

Lifer 5 - Ruddy Ground-Dove

      On Thanksgiving Day, I checked AZNMBIRDS, and a male Ruddy Ground-Dove was seen in a Tempe park at about 8 AM, associating with Inca Doves. I couldn’t leave for a few hours, but I got there around noon and the brightly colored bird was right where the poster said he’d be, and I added another lifer. I even returned with Jill the next day, and it was still there. (no photos)

Ruddy Ground-Dove (internet photo)

Lifer 6 - Rufous-backed Thrush

      I had previously tried several times for this bird at Catalina State Park, near Tucson, but come up short. The same (presumably) bird had been present in the same park last year, when fellow BCDC member Nick Pulcinella tried and missed it because he arrived on a day when large crowds were present for an event. This is a very popular park, and is busy on weekends. Two different birds started showing up at a house in the Santa Cruz Flats area northwest of Tucson. This is a large agricultural area and is very productive for birds, especially raptors, in winter. Anyway, the birds were appearing regularly, so I made the 90 minute drive to the area to be rewarded with great views and my sixth lifer of the trip. A bonus - while viewing the thrush with some local birders, some Inca Doves came in for a drink at the resident’s hose, which was dripping a bit. Accompanying them was a beautiful male Ruddy Ground-Dove!

Lifer 7 - Rose-Throated Becard 

      In Tubac, AZ - a town between Green Valley and Nogales, which is on the Mexican border, A male becard started putting in regular appearances, though short ones. I got up early and joined a group of birders waiting to stake it out in its usual spot at the usual time it showed up, and it appeared for a few minutes, as if keeping to a regular schedule. The beautiful bright collar was easily seen, even at a distance, so there were a lot of satisfied birders.

Lifers 8 and 9 - Buff-breasted and Tufted Flycatchers

      A pair of Tufted Flycatchers, a mostly Central American species, showed up at Carr Canyon - right on the border with Mexico. The bird was being seen at a campground at the top of a winding dirt road, which, fortunately for me, had just been regraded, making it pretty easy to negotiate, even with my minivan. In the few days before I made the trip down there, Buff-breasted Flycatchers also began showing up, making it a chance for two lifers. This was near the end of March. I traveled down there, along with enough gear for an overnight, in case I needed another shot at it the next day. As I drove south, that seemed to be a distinct possibility, because the temperature was dropping, the sky was increasingly black, and it began to rain, which I thought would be snow at the higher elevation where the birds were. When I arrived, however, the weather had improved considerably. As I suspected, there was some new snow at elevation. As I got out of the car, I made the acquaintance of a few AZ birders who had arrived to find the Tufted Fly. We walked the area, and another couple of birders pulled up to do the same. The man of the pair came up to me and said, “Hi, I’m John Harding.” I replied, “John, it’s me - Carl Perretta!” John is an old birding friend from the Philadelphia area who wrote the book, “Birding the Delaware Valley Region.” I have a copy on my bookshelf. He is a long-time DVOC member, and may even have been a BCDC member at one time. He and his wife Eleanor had flown in from Philadelphia for the Tufted Flycatcher, which he had missed on an earlier trip to SE AZ. It was like old home week, and a pleasant surprise for both of us. John said he was looking to make the flycatcher number 760 for his North American list. Of the nine birders at the campsite looking for the bird, five were from Pennsylvania. As we waited and searched, we observed anything that flew into view. That’s when I got my Buff-breasted Flycatcher. One nice thing about this bird is that for an Empidonax, it is pretty easy to ID by sight, with its distinctive coloring. As we sauntered around the area, a small bird flew in and actually perched on a rock. It had a very noticeable crest, giving it an almost titmouse-like appearance. It was the Tufted Flycatcher. With my brand new camera, I was able to get a couple of shots that won’t win any prizes for artistic merit, but which were good enough for documentation purposes. They were practically the first photos I ever took with the new camera my wife had bought me for my birthday. I’ll include one here.

Tufted Flycatcher
Lifer 10 - White Wagtail

      This was truly a gift. A White wagtail - an Asiatic species - started showing up at a small sewage plant in the town of Ajo, AZ on March 29. Ajo is about two hours south of where I was staying in Scottsdale. We were going to start the drive back to PA on April 1. I waited one day to see if it stayed, and it did. It was reported on March 30. This gave me exactly one day to see it before I had to leave. I rose in the dark on March 31, and started the drive to Ajo in order to arrive at dawn. I got to the ponds before the sun was up, along with a husband and wife from Mesa, who were also there for the same thing. As the sky lightened slightly, the woman from Mesa said, “There it is.” I was able to get on the bird immediately, and got my 10th lifer of the trip. She posted immediately to eBird. The time was 6:19 AM. I fired up my new camera, and again got a few documentation quality shots. The bird had shown up so quickly that I was back in Scottsdale before 10 AM.      

White Wagtail
Lifer 11 - Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet

       Few things are more unsatisfying than that pesky “heard only” section of your life list. This bird was a long term resident of mine. With Nick Pulcinella and Al Guarente, I heard this bird distinctly many years ago when we birded the lower Rio Grande valley. I saw it fly away at a distance then, but it could have been a titmouse for all I knew. Fortunately, the bird has a pretty distinctive call. As Jill and I were returning home through Texas, I was determined to add this not-particularly-rare bird to my list of seen birds. Because Nick had recently been through the area, and because he has more experience there than I was, I was able to use him as a valuable resource. Nick recommended Estero Llano Grande State Park as a great destination, and he was right. The ranger there told me where to find a pair of tyrannulets that had begun a nest. He had actually roped off the area with caution tape to keep birders and photographers from disturbing the birds, but if I kept a respectful distance, I could observe and photograph them. The result is below, and I’m particularly proud of it. Also at the park I got some pix of Clay-colored Thrush. That’s the nice thing about going back to an area like this. You get to see birds again that you’ve only seen once or twice.

Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet

Clay-colored Thrush
Lifer 12 - Green Parakeet

      Nick told me about a roosting area in McAllen where the birds gather by the hundreds, right before sunset. I got some stills and video.

Green Parakeets
Lifers 13, 14 and 15 - Ferruginous Pygmy-owl, Audubon’s Oriole, and Tropical Parula

      These I got by paying the fee to enter the famed King Ranch on a tour for birders. A knowledgeable docent drove us around in a van to the spots on the ranch which are known to provide habitat for many great birds. At our very first stop, where we were simply to leave our cars, the guide got excited and said, “Audubon’s Oriole!” She had heard one and turned around to see it in a tree. Even she was rather excited, as this was not an expected species for the trip. I was very satisfied because I had seen one on my earlier trip to Texas, but it was on the wrong side of the Rio Grande! If I kept a Mexican list, it would have been one of the few members. As we searched the parking area, one of the group spotted the real prize - the Ferruginous Pygmy-owl. I got a few less-than-perfect shots, but one shows the eye-like spots on the back of the head. Tropical Parula got added in several other places on the route. It sounds very similar to its  Northern cousin.

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl (back of head)

Looking front

      In addition, I re-observed many Texas specialties like White-tipped Dove, Gray Hawk, White-tailed hawk, Green Jay, Green Kingfisher, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee, Scaled Quail, Plain Chachalaca, and others. I’ll include some photos.

The always magnificent Crested Carcara

Wiley's Coyote's Dream Dinner

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Plain Chachalaca

      I still have a target list for Arizona, and I’m hoping to make a dent in it in future years. Red-faced Warbler, Greater Pewee, Black-capped Gnatcatcher, and Rufous-capped warbler are just a few names.