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Sunday, November 2, 2014

Identifying House Finch and Purple Finch

This Fall Migration has produced a nice influx of Purple Finches into southeast Pennsylvania. Each week, it seems, there are more and more reports and increasing numbers. 

The North American Haemorhous finches (Cassin’s, House and Purple) have distinct adult male and female plumages. This both helps and hinders us in making the proper identification. For all practical purposes, we will limit this blog to the two species that are currently being found in our region – House Finch and Purple Finch.

It seems that whenever we have an irruption of Purple Finches there seems to be confusion about how to separate the two species and a resulting increase in the number of House Finches misidentified as Purple Finches.  

Let’s take a look at both species.

HOUSE FINCH – this is the common “red” finch we see in our area all year. They are easily found at backyard feeders, where they indulge on sunflower seeds. They can also be found, with some regularity, in edge habitat feeding on seed heads or berries. Adult males are bright orange-red on the forehead, throat, and breast with a brown back and wings. They have brown, vertical streaks on the flanks and belly. The rump is also orange-red. Adult females and juvenile males are a plain brown and streaked overall. The face is plain without any sharp or distinctive markings. The tail on both sexes has a shallow notch.

PURPLE FINCH – this species visits our area in fall beginning in late September and can be found throughout winter until early May. Purple Finches can usually be found every fall/winter but numbers vary yearly depending on the amount of natural food available near their breeding grounds. When food is scarce in their post breeding areas (southern Canada and the New England states), they descend into the mid-Atlantic which is happening this fall. Similar to House Finches, they can be found at backyard feeders but not nearly in the numbers as House Finches. Unlike House Finches, Purple Finches can be found in a variety of habitats including mixed deciduous and coniferous woods, old fields and forest edges. Adult males have a deep pink head with a raspberry colored crown, eyeline and malar. The back is brownish with some pink edging and the rump is pinkish. Adult females and juvenile males have a brown head with distinct whitish stripes on the face. They are heavily streaked on the belly and flanks. The tail on both sexes is short and deeply notched.

Identification Keys – what to look for.

Size and Shape – Overall, House Finch appears as a slim bird, whereas, Purple Finch looks stocky or chunky.

Tail – Tail length and shape is a good separating field mark. House Finch as a short notch.  

Purple Finch has a deep notch which is a very good field mark to use especially if you’re looking at a perched bird from below or a flying bird overhead. 

Color of adult males – House Finch shows a bright red-orange over the head, face, breast and upper belly. Purple Finch shows a soft, purplish-red or raspberry red color to head down to the belly.

Face pattern of adult females – Female House Finch has a very plain brown face with fine brown streaking throughout. Female Purple Finch has a nice dark brown head and a face that has a bold white eyeline and malar stripe. Both of these white streaks are hard to miss. If these are not present, you probably are looking at a female House Finch.

Flank streaking – Adult male House Finches have a considerable amount of brown streaking to the flanks and belly. Adult male Purple Finches have a varying amount of brown streaking with some birds having little if any streaking. 

Adult female House Finches are covered with fine to medium brown streaking along the flanks and belly. Adult female Purple Finches have prominent thick brown streaking in those areas.

Even distant birds in flight can be identified if you get a good look. Concentrate on the general size and shape, overall color, rump color, tail and flanks.

Call notes – Luckily for us, both species call frequently when flying. Learning the call notes of both species will go a long way in helping you make the identification. I would guess that about 70% of the Purple Finches I have identified this fall have been “heard only” birds passing overhead.

House Finch makes a “cheep” similar to a House Sparrow. 

Purple Finch makes a sharp “pic” or “tek” note. 

I hope this blog will help with your finch identifications.

Photographs by the author.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

In the Zone at Cape May

Zone-tailed Hawk (photo by Dave Eberly)

          There we were, standing on a platform above the beach along Coral Ave, just the five of us. Gary Becker, Rob McGraw, Bob Kelly, Dave Eberly and myself were birding around the cape this morning just hoping to pick up a few good birds, maybe a jaeger or Connecticut Warbler. We were watching a pod of Bottlenose Dophins passing the beach in front of us when Gary gets a text message. He reads it out loud. "There is a probable Zone-tailed Hawk that just passed over the hawk watch platform. We believe that it is now over the beanery". I can't believe my ears. A ZONE-TAILED HAWK? 
            Well thoughts start running through my mind like, should I suggest we head to the beanery to try to relocate the hawk? Then I think, Chances are not very got since the bird is on the move. It this point I just figured we wouldn't see the bird and so I just kept quiet. Then I looked up in the air and in the distance I saw what I thought was a Turkey Vulture approaching and said Out loud, "Here comes the hawk", not really believing it could be the actual bird. So I just put the scope on the bird and what is the first thing I see, a black tail with a broad white stripe. I yelled out that this is the Zone-tailed Hawk just as Dave was thinking the same thing.  Dave was quick to react and get his camera and he was able to get some record shots of the bird as it soared directly over us. As you can see in the photos the white tail band, the silver primaries and secondaries, and the translucence outer primaries confirming the identification. 
              We watched the bird sail out over the bay and out of sight, headed for Delaware. So I assume we were the last persons to see the bird in New Jersey. My understanding is that the bird was then spotted at the Cape Henlopen hawk watch 22 minutes later, as the crew there were put on alert by text messages from everyone in Jersey.
               What a thrill it was for all of us to be able to participate in the sighting of the first record for the state of New Jersey of a bird that is normally found only in Arizona, Texas and points farther south in Central America. This bird appears on the heels of another great bird found by Nick Pulcinella at Cape May a few weeks ago. The Whiskered Tern, only the third record for North America was discovered by Nick at the hawk watch in Cape May (see blog post below). 
Adult Zone-Tailed Hawk - broad white tail band and silver lined wings
           Thanks to my fellow birders for such an enjoyable weekend.

Monday, September 15, 2014

A MEGA day at Cape May

Question Authority! 

One of our father-son talks when my son Josh was growing up was about questioning authority and that experts aren’t always correct. I was hoping that he would learn to question the norms of society, think independently and as a result develop a pattern of critical thinking. So please keep the term Question Authority in the back of your mind when reading this blog.

I was pretty excited when I left home at 5:15am on Friday, September 12th to travel to one of my favorite birding destinations, Cape May, NJ and to do one of my favorite things, photograph flying songbirds. If you are into witnessing visible migration, then standing on the Higbee Dike as the morning flight of songbirds erupts is like nothing else in birding. Trying to photograph these small bullets is challenging but the dividends can be outstanding. 

(Check out this photo taken by Tom Reed on August 24, 2014

Since it usually takes me about two hours to get to Cape May, I knew I would still have at least a couple of hours to enjoy the flight. And as we all know, "best-laid plans of mice and men oft go astray” and things started to unravel as soon as I entered Route 55 south. As anyone who has driven this road knows, Route 55 is like getting permission to play NASCAR driver for an hour and cars are zooming down the highway well above the posted 65 mph speed limit. But something was different today, just as my dear hybrid got a head of steam, traffic slowed and slowed and slowed and then stopped. Traffic radio was reporting a serious accident near the Vineland Exit and a subsequent five mile backup (aka standstill). After about forty-five minutes, traffic started to again move ever so slowly and the gorgeous sunrise made the crawl tolerable. But alas my hopes were quickly dashed as all traffic was being re-routed across the median and onto Route 55 north, the opposite direction of the Cape May songbird flight. This detour funneled us onto an exit that understandably was bumper-to-bumper. Thank goodness for the GPS because dead reckoning would not have led me out of this mess since I had no idea where in New Jersey I actually was, and I was in urgent need of relieving my bloated bladder of the bottle of OJ and the Wawa coffee that I enjoyed before the interruption of my NASCAR run. Very long story short, I arrived at the Higbee parking area at 9:30am, a record breaking trip of four hours and fifteen minutes from West Chester accompanied by a record breaking number of expletives. Needless to say, the songbird flight was over. 

I birded the Higbee trails which were now fairly quiet with only a handful of Common Yellowthroats and a few White-eyed Vireos for companions. What was really strange was that I only met three other birders. Higbee can pack birders in like sardines but not today. 

Sharp-shinned Hawk soaring over Higbee fields.
Great Crested Flycatcher near the Higbee parking area.
Moving on I decided to try another of my favorite Cape May birding experiences and walk  the streets of Cape May Point looking for migrants. Many of the yards along these streets have extensive cover and searching for birds here can be fun. You never know what’s going to pop out, a Rock Wren of many years ago or more recently a Eurasian Tree Sparrow. Today there were a few Palm Warblers and a Red-breasted Nuthatch to enjoy. 

Palm Warbler near St. Peters church.
I crossed over to the beach at St. Peters and found a nice collection of gulls and terns just asking to be photographed. The birds were very cooperative and I spent about 45 minutes sitting next to the flock and enjoying their foolery. 

One of two Surf Scoters, probably juvenile males, offshore of Cape May Point.
Juvenile Laughing Gull. 
Juvenile Laughing Gull.
Juvenile Laughing Gull.
Adult Herring Gull.
Adult Herring Gull. 
Juvenile Great Black-backed Gull.
Juvenile Great Black-backed Gull.

Juvenile Great Black-backed Gull.
Adult Forster's Tern.

Adult non-breeding Forster's Tern. 
Adult Common Tern.

Juvenile Common Tern.

Adult non-breeding Common Tern.
Juvenile Common Tern.
A very noisy juvenile Common Tern.

I then drove over to the Hawkwatch where I thought if I was lucky, I might be able to get a few 
images of flyby Peregrines or Merlins. There was a small crowd on the Hawkwatch Platform with the counter calling out a passing adult Bald Eagle and discussing whether the very high accipiter was a Sharpie or Cooper’s. I noticed a couple of Black Terns feeding over Bunker Pond and looking a little more carefully, one of the Black Terns looked different. Right off the bat the bird was larger and 
bulkier, the wings were broader and a light smokey-gray color. The belly appeared to have dark 
blotches and most of all it had an outstanding white cheek patch. I knew right away it was a Whiskered Tern. On a birding trip to Spain in 2002, we stayed in the small town of El Rocio in a hotel that catered
to visiting birders. The building was set next to a large wetland and I could sit on the balcony and watch 40-50 Whiskered Terns as they fed over the marsh. The image of the gray wings and body accented by the white cheek patch stuck with me. I overhead the two hawk counters, Louise and Alec, discussing 
this unusual black tern so I went over to them and asked if they were talking about the gray tern that 
was with the Black Tern. They said “yes” and I told them it was a Whiskered Tern. They seemed a 
little startled and I told them why I thought this (went over the field marks and having seen them in 
Spain etc.) but it just didn’t seem to register with them and anyway they told me they had contacted 
some experts who would be arriving shortly to check out the bird. I was a little surprised there was no European Field Guide available at the hawkwatch, after all, this is Cape May and birds have shown up here from Europe, Asia and even South America. Okay, so I felt a little disrespected and when a 
middle-aged man of Italian descent feels disrespected bad things can happen. Usually phone calls are made and contracts are put out, but, I tried to look at the situation from their point of view. They didn’t know me from Adam and I was not part of the Cape May birding “inner-circle” or even the “extended family” so why should they listen to me. If I were them, I’d like to think I wouldn’t do the same, but I probably would, so I called off the contracts and just took as many images as I could (thank goodness 
for digital photography). Unfortunately, when the expert calvary arrived, the bird had gone. So when 
they huddled around my camera to look at the images in the viewfinder, Mike Crewe, who has 
extensive experience with the species in both Europe and Africa, said instantly “that’s a Whiskered 
Tern, a molting adult.” All hell then broke loose as multiple texts and calls were made to alert the local clan and any visiting birders of this MEGA tick, except there was a problem......the bird was gone. Several search parties were dispatched to check possible locations. While the search was on the Black Tern returned to Bunker Pond with the wayward Whiskered Tern in tow. The birds remained at the 
pond for some time allowing everyone to enjoy nice views. The bird left once again and was quickly discovered sitting within a flock of gulls and terns on the beach at the State Park. At this location the experience was just awesome. The bird was resting a mere 15-20 feet away and was not disturbed at 
all by the barrage of clicking camera shutters. The bird continued this pattern of resting on the beach 
and feeding at the pond and then resting on the beach and feeding on the pond for the remainder of the day. Understandably, the bird attracted many birders and it was nice to see some veteran BCDC 
people, Tom McParland, Honey Stewart and Jim and Linda Waldie. I also ran into a long-time birding friend from Ephrata, Eric Witmer. Eric has a strange history with Whiskered Terns at Cape May. 
When the first Whiskered was found in 1993, Eric and his family were vacationing in nearby 
Wildwood and had come down to Cape May for a visit. While walking around the area, Eric met a 
group of “out-of-this-world happy” British birders who had just discovered North America’s first Whiskered Tern. He saw the bird through their scope and became perhaps, the first North American native birder to see this species. Now, Eric was down for a pelagic trip that was to sail at 10pm and 
as he was getting his camper set up nearby, got a text about the tern and was able to drive over and 
see it. It would not be fair if I didn't mention that there is also a sad component to this superb birding event. When the 1993 Whiskered Tern finally settled in for a time near Little Creek, DE, my long-time birding companion and cousin, Al Guarente made about 15 unsuccessful trips for the bird. Now, 
this very cooperative bird is nearby and where is Al...... a few thousand miles away birding the Pacific Northwest. Oh well.

Black Tern (above) and Whiskered Tern (below) over Bunker Pond, Cape May Point
State Park. Notice the size difference and the broader wing of the Whiskered Tern appearing almost Common Tern like.
Adult non-breeding Whiskered Tern over Bunker Pond, Cape May Point State Park. Dark, blotchy belly, dark cap and white cheek.

Adult non-breeding Whiskered Tern over Bunker Pond, Cape May Point State Park. Broad grayish wings, dark cap and white cheek.
Adult non-breeding Whiskered Tern over Bunker Pond, Cape May Point State Park. Broad wings with grayish underwings, dark cap and brillant white cheek.
Adult non-breeding Whiskered Tern on the beach at Cape May Point State Park.
Garyish upperparts, brown primaries, dark cap, white cheek and wide, pointed red
bill with black proximal mandible.
I’ve birded Cape May probably a hundred times and the place never ceases to amaze me, you just never know what is going to turn up. So my blue funk of a day that started off discouragingly, had a very splendid ending with the arrival of North America’s third Whiskered Tern, which, by the way have all been found at Cape May.     

As an aside, when Josh started to question my authority, I thought maybe that life lesson could have been skipped.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Birding Brazil's Pantanal with Michael De Rosa

I recently came back from an 8-night independent trip to the Pantanal ‑ the largest tropical fresh water wetlands in the world. Wetlands equals birds. All arrangements were made on-line. Google translate was a big help as many places have no English speaking staff. My only problem was a thunderstorm that closed the Philly airport and I missed my flight to Rio, and as a result, a day in the Pantanal. I spent the day at the Georgia aquarium (Atlanta) with its two 25-foot long whale sharks. 

I flew from Rio de Janeiro to Cuiaba (via Brasilia) where I picked up a rental car (stick shift) and an English speaking guide (for 3 days). From there I drove to Pocone and the start of the Transpanteniera. For the most part it is a dirt road with over a hundred and twenty wooden bridges. Built in the early 70s, it was never finished once it became clear that the annual flooding made it impractical to maintain. It is now a corridor through the Pantanal that ends at Porto Jofre. The road is very drivable in the dry season. But there were heavy downpours the last two days of my stay that turned the road to mud and made the drive back ‘interesting’. Taking about 6-hours to go about 80 miles with lots of sliding and skidding. Before I left I was given some advice: go slow and stay in the middle of the road, the first 15-20 km would be the worst (no), and the rain would let up after about 25-30 km (forecast was wrong). For most of the trip the car was in second gear trying to maintain a speed fast enough not to get bogged down in the mud , but not so fast that the car ended up in a bank.

I stayed at the Pousada Rio Clarinho, basic but good, appeals to budget and independent travelers-no English or Spanish, St. Tereza (SouthWild Pantanal) more upscale (small pool), part-owned by an American, gets birding and photo tours, feeders and lots of birds around lodge including Hyacinth macaws, and lastly the Pantanal North Hotel in Porto Jofre at the end of the road, also more upscale (pool), no English, gets lots of fisherman and those looking for jaguars, good birding around lodge and Hyacinth macaws. Pouso Alegre visited twice on day trips from Rio Clarinho—birds and very good for mammals-got a brief view of a tapir and longer views of marsh deer. Missed a tamandua anteater. At all three places meals were buffet style and lunch and dinner always included rice and beans (feijoada).
Transpantaheira: A 140 km road from Pocone to Porto Jofre. Mostly dirt with over 120 wooden bridges.

One of the many bridges. There was a temptation to slow down, or stop on the bridges and check for birds.
Most of them are not marked. You know you are approaching one when to road starts to rise.

Greater Rhea: Seen only at the beginning of the road.

Jabiru: A very large stork about as tall as the rhea. Each year the pair adds to the nest. Monk parakeets or other small birds nest underneath. The jabirus provide security, and the small birds are part of an early warning system.

 Only the Andean Condor has a greater wingspan than the Jabiru.

 Jabiru Chicks

Yellow-billed cardinal: Very common

Yacare Caiman: Even more common

White Woodpecker

Campo Flicker

Flower #1

Agami Heron: I was very lucky to see this rare heron out in clear view. Boatman phoned it in, but a group of birders arrived a few minutes after it went to ground. Two days later I saw a pair, also along the Pixiam River.

 Speed bumps

Chestnut-eared Aracari

 Black Crowned Night Heron (immature)

Rufescent Tiger Heron. It was nesting season and I saw several nests. At one, a capuchin monkey had stolen an egg, and I could hear the heron complaining, and the monkey crunching on the egg.

Immature Rufescent Tiger Heron

Silver Tailed Marmoset: They chew holes in bark and lap up the sap that comes out.

Saffron Finch

Striated Heron: Common but very wary. Was once considered to be the same species as the green heron found in the US.

Pied Plover

Hyacinth Macaws: Largest members of the parrot family. Endangered due to habitat destruction and the pet trade. Making a comeback in the Pantanal and often seen and heard.

Blue and yellow macaw: Being re-introduced back into the Pantanal.

Capybara: Our largest rodent.


A quick grab shot of a pair.

Boat-billed Heron

 Southern Screamer: Lived up to its name.

 Giant River Otter: Several sightings and in one case the boat got to close to a den and the otter bit the paddle.

Greater Potoo: They always roost in the same place. Once you know where it is you can keep going back.

Capped Heron: uncommon

 Another one

Wattled Jicana: Common but never seem to stay still. 

 Flower #2

 Tuco Toucan: Largest member of the family at a feeder.

Two Tuco Toucans Together

Southern Crested Caracara

Roadside Hawk: Lunch time

Black-Collared Hawk

Giant River Otters

Blue-CrownedTrogon: The only member of the family in the Pantanal.

Orange-Backed Troupials

Scarlet-Headed Blackbird
Masked Water Tyrant

Vermillion Flycatcher: Common but hard to sneak up on.

Wood Stork

Caiman: I was told the black spot is a parasite.

Ringed Kingfisher
Amazon Kingfisher (female)
Muscovy Duck
Blue-Crowned Mot-Mot
Bare-faced Curassow pair
Large-billed Tern
Monk Parakeet: Common, noisy, and very hard to photograph. Most images are green blurs.
The first time I saw this species it was flying over Sheepshead Bay (Brooklyn) in 1969.
Baywing: At feeder
Turquoise-Fronted Amazon: Most often seen (backlit) and heard flying overhead. This one was at its nest.
Long-Tailed Ground Dove: This dove, and the others below, found around feeders at St Tereza.
Scaled Dove
White-Tiped Dove
Eared Dove
Black-capped Donacobius: Always seen hanging onto an aquatic plant.
Neotropic Commorant
Cattle Drive: Most of the land in the Pantanal is part of  a cattle ranch- (fazendas).
I ran into two cattle drives on the way out.

Plumbeous Ibis
Buff-necked Ibis
Glittering-bellied Emerald: Near a feeder at St Tereza-it also attracted a Glittering-throated Emerald.

Chaco Chachalaca: Common, noisy and wary-feeder St Tereza
Rufous Hornero: Pair at nest

White-winged Swallows
Pauraque: At dusk landed on the railing of a boardwalk right in front of me.
I got within two feet before it decided it wasn't invisible and flew off.

Cattle Tyrant: On a giant Victoria water lilly. Can be seen 'riding' on live stock and capybaras.
Southern Lapwing

Cocoi Heron
Most of the travelers that make the trek to Porto Jofre are going fishing or looking to spot a
Jaguar. On the river there were four flotels catering to fisherman. Got to sample pacu (related to piranhas),
caught by one of the guests, at lunch-very tasty. The Pantanal is one of the best places to see a jaguar.
One tour operator, for a price, will give you a money back guarantee that you will see a jaguar.
That was one of the reasons I was there. Boats go out in different directions looking for one.
Once they spot one, they  radio in the location. My boatman got the news and off we went. As we approached two boats were leaving, and they signaled to go down a small channel where another boat waited.

Julinho, guide in sunglasses, said to look at the bush to right of the roots of a large tree.
This is what I saw through a 400mm telephoto and also with my binoculars.
With my bare eyes I just saw bushes. Can you spot the large, well-fed male jaguar?

After cropping and increasing the exposure, you can see what I saw from a better angle.
A third boat showed up and we collectively spent 90-minutes watching the jaguar. We hung out,
— the jaguar hung out. He lay down, got up, sat down, drooled (not a good look for a fierce jaguar), walked a short distance and peered out. All his movements were very slow and deliberate. 

I passed the time looking, and listening to the birds around us. In a tree behind us there were
some melodious thrush-like wrens, and a raucous colony of yellow-rumped caciques. Overhead 
egrets, herons, ibis, and parrots flew by, going to their roosts as the sun set. A few  yellow-billed and large-billed terns scooted by. A pair of orange-backed troupials flitted through the trees in front of us, and a family
of curassows pecked at the ground for food. A black-capped donacobius landed on an aquatic plant,
while noisy monk parakeets carried on in a tree to our right. My boat left as dusk approached.

Michael De Rosa, Ph. D.