Friday, November 29, 2013

Searching for Newton's Eurasian Green-winged Teal

As I mentioned in the last post, there was an eBird report from Ryan M. from this past Monday indicating that a drake Eurasian Teal was found at Newton City Hall. Because Green-winged Teal (American) and Green-winged Teal (Eurasian) are clunky names for the purpose of writing, I'll just refer to the later as the Eurasian Teal (known as the Common Teal to the rest of the english speaking world). See the post from last year about the recurring Eurasian Teal for background, pictures, and discussion on identifying the different Green-winged Teals.

Hooded Merganser Pair at Newton City Hall
Ok enough with semantics. A Eurasian Teal was seen and I wanted to find it. So in between cooking yesterday, I went to Newton City Hall to go searching. I got excited when I saw a pair of Mallards and a pair of Hooded Mergansers (phone and binocular pic), but my spirits dropped as I slowly began to realize that there were no teals, nor did Bullough's Pond have any birds on the water in my quick glance. Fortunately, a pair of Golden-crowned Kinglets was quite entertaining to watch (full checklist here). I was starting to get really worried that the recent dredging had turned the marshy, weedy, birdy City Hall ponds into the poor habitat reflecting pools they were intended to be by Fredrick Olmsted (who also designed the Emerald Necklace). Green-winged Teals love marshy habitat that is now absent from City Hall and I was worried that we had improved away the Teals.

Hermit Thrush in Cold Spring Park
On my way home I even drove through Newton Cemetery to scan the ponds, but again just turned up Canada Geese, Mallards, and Hooded Mergansers.

I couldn't give up yet. So this morning I headed to Cold Spring Park and at 8:45 this morning it was quite cold. And so most of the ponds were frozen. I did manage to track down a flock of 12 Mallards in one of the streams, but no teals were to be found. I did hear a Brown Creeper and saw a Hermit Thrush, but interestingly, there was another thrush, that didn't have as much red on the tail as I was expecting. But given the time of year, that is the most likely option still (let me know if you have any ID thoughts and full checklist here)

After Cold Spring Park I just couldn't give up on the Eurasian Teal yet. With ice on the ponds, I thought that the ponds at Newton City Hall might just have enough current to keep them open. So I headed back there and was so disappointed when the grounds crew had leaf blowers cleaning up the park. No way any duck in their right mind would still be around. I walked up to one of the foot bridges and heard lots of junco call notes while movement on the water caught my eye. Ducks - teals - horizontal white stripe - Eurasian Teal! I couldn't tell if his lady friend was an American or Eurasian type, it might be possible to tell females apart, but it is still very challenging. I kept my eyes on the pair before a native Green-winged Teal drake joined them. They all headed to the farthest North pool nearer the leaf blowers before they disappeared. I don't think they flew off, so I wonder if they were hiding in the outflow culvert that leads to Bullough's Pond.

Green-winged Teal (Eurasian) at Newton City Hall
I was relieved to think that the pond dredging hadn't completely put off the Eurasian Teal, though I wonder if he will stick around the same amount without the marsh. And I am calling this The Eurasian Teal, because I'm increasingly convinced that all of the sightings within the area are probably the same individual. His primary haunt is Newton, and has been seen every Winter (Nov-March) since he was first sighted in Cold Spring Park in 2009. So this is the 5th consecutive year that there has been a Eurasian teal seen between Concord and Newton with only one year where he wasn't seen in Newton. But at no point in time have there been two Eurasian teal sightings on the same day at different locations. In fact there are times when he disappears from his usual Newton location for a few days and has a brief sighting elsewhere. Here is a quick list of eBird sightings for Eurasian Teals within at 15 mile radius.

2009 January. A Eurasian Teal sighted at Cold Spring Park.
2009 March 13. A sighting in Sudbury
2009 March 16 - April 4. Repeated sighting at Cold Spring Park. (There were also 5 days were he was absent in March which corresponds with a single sighting at Great Meadows NWR on March 25.) There was also an article in the Newton Tab about the bird.

2010 Jan-Feb: Repeated sightings at Newton City Hall
2010 March. Several sightings at Nine Acre Corner in Concord.

2011 March: Several sightings at Nine Acre Corner in Concord. If I remember this was a particularly harsh winter and all the local water was frozen, so its not too surprising that he wasn't seen in Newton or earlier in the year.

2012 Nov-Dec. Repeated sightings at Newton City Hall. (Again there was a stretch of time the bird was absent while a few sightings turned up on the Charles River by Norumbega Park which, if my memory serves, corresponded to a cold snap and ice on local ponds.)

2013 (so far) Nov. Two Newton City Hall sightings.

Green-winged Teals (European Drake and unknown female)
Newton City Hall
Now that I feel good saying that this is indeed the same individual, The Newton Eurasian Teal. I just looked up Green-winged Teal lifespan and see that 20 years is the average lifespan, so it is certainly possible that the Newton Teal could keep returning to us for a while. We will just have to keep looking for him. If he has any breeding success then we should also think about the possibility of hybrid Teals. Hopefully I'll get a chance to go see him again this winter and we'll be able to find him in the coming years.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Exotic Duck Chase: Mandarin Duck at Leverett Pond

Mandarin Duck
Last week on Massbird there was a flurry of posts about a Mandarin Duck drake that was spotted at Leverett Pond in Brookline. Mandarin Ducks hail from far Eastern Asia (including Japan, Korea, China, and Russia) and have never been known to grace our continent as a vagrant. Therefore the assumption is that all Mandarin Duck sightings are individuals that have escaped from captivity and indeed there are two known breeding populations in in the states ( North Carolina and California) that have been established from escaped birds. Sadly though their wild populations are greatly reduced as much of their habitat has been developed.

I have only seen two Mandarin Ducks before, and these birds were in Newton. A pair of Mandarin Ducks were actually housed in a gardening / landscape exhibit in the mall in the Winter of 2010-2011. While not wild, I was struck by how beautiful they are and how similar they are to our native Wood Ducks! The females are remarkably similar and then more and more I was able to see similarities the longer I observed the drake.

This initial encounter made me quite excited to have the chance to see a Mandarin Duck in a more realistic environment. Not to mention it had been observed in the company of a flock of more than 30 Wood Ducks, which would be a spectacle in and of itself. So, Monday morning with temperatures in the teens, I took the T to Brookline Village in search of this exotic duck.

When I arrived at the pond, much of the pond had a thin crust of ice. Fortunately the outflow was clear of ice and contained a large number of birds: Mallards, American Black Ducks, Canada Geese, a few Wood Ducks, even a Double-crested Cormorant, and a statuesque Great Blue Heron who tucked her head away trying to stay warm. A small knot of gulls were standing out on the ice, while Red-tailed Hawk flushed a flock of ducks from the center of the pond and they all circled off. I kept working around the pond and found the typical passerines in the trees and brush. Soon I ran into another birder who was saying she had just seen the Mandarin Duck but it just took off a few minutes ago and she pointed North. What luck. I wished I had been able to drag myself out into the cold a little earlier. As we were talking a flock of ducks landed on the pond and so glimmer of hope returned.

Raft of 36 Wood Ducks

I counted 36 Wood Ducks in the center of Leverett Pond but no hint of the Mandarin Duck showed itself. I took a few moments to enjoy the spectacle of the Wood Ducks and decided to head back down the Muddy River, the direction the Mandarin reportedly flew, on my way into the city.

I peered into every corner of the "river" as I kept walking and turned up Mallards, Canada Geese, Black Ducks, and 3 hooded Mergansers. Firmly in the Riverway section of the Muddy River I checked out an area where I had seen a Wood Duck in the past, but no luck. So I carried on to the foot bridge and peered around the corner, when the water exploded. Three ducks flushed flying away crying "jeet jeet jeet", but one of the ducks had a bright white face and pick bill, it was the Mandarin Duck! He had been hanging out with a pair of Wood Ducks. The two males circled off to the South leaving the jittery female still calling in the pool. Not very chivalrous.

Mandarin Duck with Wood Ducks
So I turned around walking South back to Leverett Pond and was finally able to see the Mandarin Duck where he was "supposed" to have been from the start. While he was further away, he also wasn't flying away allowing for great views. He truly was stunning. While the large white facial crescent, orange "beard", and raised orange feathers on his back that make up a "sail", he was much brighter than the Wood Ducks despite the similarities.

Walking in to work, I was then thinking about how long this Mandarin drake will be here with us. If he makes it to spring if he would pair up with a local Wood Duck. Though any crosses seem unlikely as Mandarin Ducks apparently have a different number of chromosomes despite the fact that Mandarin and Wood Ducks are the only species in the genus (Aix). Maybe he will stick with the local Wood Ducks and he'll be a local fixture for years to come, similar to the Eurasian Teal that frequents Newton in the winters (see last years post).

Speaking of the Green-winged Teal (Eurasian) that has spent the last few winters in Newton.... he is back! I just saw an ebird report from Newton City Hall. I am looking forward to going to find him again. Maybe that will be my next post...

Sunday, November 3, 2013

White-winged Scooters at Chestnut Hill Reservoir.

I stopped at Hammond Pond and Chestnut Hill Reservoir on my way to work mid-day. My first stop at Hammond pond I was excited to find the first Hooded Mergansers of the season. Two crisp males and a female were working the far shore. I was also hoping for some Ring-necked Ducks, but I didn't see any. There were plenty of Mallards though and a Great Blue Heron. Among the gulls, one appeared to be different that the others, but they all flew off before I had a chance to turn my attention their way. The full list of birds from Hammond Pond can be found here.

Pied-billed Grebes, American Coot, Double-crested Cormorant
 My next stop was Chestnut Hill Reservoir. I was excited to see that the water was littered with birds. Mostly they were more than a hundred Ruddy Ducks in small rafts. And there were quite a few gulls, including Ring-billed, Herring, and Greater Black-backed. Also it was fun to see a number of American Coots that have returned as well, while Pied-billed Grebes and Double-crested Cormorants were present (how many species can I fit in a picture...). When I got to the tip of the peninsula I found Mallards and a single American Black Duck, but out on the far side were 3 dark ducks that I couldn't make out. I even tried to take a picture to enlarge on my camera, but still no luck. When I got to work though I loaded the pictures on to the computer and was surprised that one of them had a small white spot in the center of the head (bird on left, click to enlarge picture), they must have been White-winged Scooters! Not a common bird around here, they have been seen once before at the Reservoir and twice migrating over Millennium Park. Fortunately I saw that two other birders had also seen the White-winged Scooters before I was there, making me feel more confident on the ID. I also saw that I missed a female Green-winged Teal (eBird list with pictures of scooters and teal). But the White-winged Scooters were quite a treat. The full list of birds from Chestnut Hill Reservoir can be found here.

White-winged Scooters

Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Halloween Raven

Common Ravens
 This morning I was waiting for the T in Newton Centre when a strange croak made me look up from my reading. I think my brain had already figured out who was producing the low raspy throaty "kraa kraa kraa" but I almost couldn't believe it. Flying low, down the middle of the tracks came the large black corvid, thinking fast I tried to remember what else I could look for to confirm the ID and remembered the tail. American Crows tail feathers are all similar lengths, so the tail appears rounded when fanned out. But this bird's outer tail feathers were distinctly shorter than the center tail feathers, clinching the ID of Common Raven. And then he was past, heading down the line into Boston, still calling. (Audio recording can be found at All About Birds along with downloadable ID guide for Crows and Ravens). I've had a few birds at Millennium Park that I thought could be Ravens, but was just never sure enough. I later realized that today was Halloween, a fitting time to find my first Massachusetts Raven. Poe would be proud.

This picture is obviously not Newton, I took it on a mountain peak in Virginia several years ago, but thought its always nice to have picture if possible. Also, as demonstrated in the picture, Ravens will soar and glide on thermals more like hawks, which crows don't do, so observing flight patterns can help with the identification.

On a side note, I took a walk in the very light drizzle in Cold Spring Park this afternoon before the trick-or-treaters were out. The highlights were a large loose flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers, 2 Hermit Thrushes, and 2 Brown Creepers. I'll have to come back during a better season so see what the park has to offer.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Orange-crowned Warbler at Fenway

Orange-Crowned Warbler
 Last week I stopped by the Back Bay Fens and the Victory Gardens for a spot of birding. There had been a massbird post that mentioned a Chat, Orange-crowned warbler, Clay-colored sparrow and White-crowned sparrow just to mention a few. I was enticed and decided that Fenway would make a nice start to the day. I started at the Victory Gardens, initially encountering a large flock of house sparrows, which I carefully combed through hoping for something a little bit more native and fun. But no sparrows other than Song and White-throated Sparrows would turn up that morning. Several Great Blue Herons rose up from the Muddy River heading upstream and giving their loud harsh croaking calls.

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers
I did manage to find two young Yellow-bellied
Sapsuckers chasing each other around the gardens. My first for the state, so they were extra exciting. Slowly some of the warblers seemed to appear, at first just a couple of Blackpolls, then a Yellow-rumped Warbler, and a Common Yellowthroat rounded out the usual suspects for warblers. At this point I ran into Mary Luo and she went in search of the sapsuckers. I carried on and several rows later a little movement caught my eye, so I focused on the bird hiding under the leaves in a raised bed of one of the garden plots. As the bird hopped about my excitement grew, the plain gray face with white eye arcs and the dusky yellow breast with faint gray streaks gave away this bird as the Orange-crowned Warbler! Fortunately it cooperated for just a minute and allowed me to take a couple of pictures and to admire some of her brighter green patches before disappearing into the foliage again.

Orange-Crowned Warbler
At this time I saw Mary Luo again who had gone to find the sapsuckers, I tried to wave her over to see the Orange-crowned too. But by this time the bird had disappeared into the undergrowth, with Chat-like skulking and stealth skills. We kept searching the gardens and found many of the usual residents. I also stopped by the area by the war memorial as that has been a good spot in the past and turned up a couple more Blackpolls. I saw later that the Chat was seen elsewhere in the Fens, not by the Victory Gardens, but the Sapsuckers and Oranger-crowned Warbler already made a great day. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Autumn at Hammond Pond

Wood Duck
 I had a little bit of time each day of this weekend in the afternoon to stop by Hammond Pond to see what might be around. Wish I had been able to make it at a better time for birds as it felt slow. I had a small list, but still had a great time enjoying the birds and autumn foliage. The highlights were getting great views of a Pied-billed Grebe and numerous Wood Ducks that cooperated. Additionally a fearless Ruby-crowned Kinglet came right up to investigate me (I wish I had my camera that day, but he was so close I wouldn't have been able to focus anyway). It was enjoyable just to admire him and not worry about taking a picture. I also found a Blackpoll and two Yellow-rumped Wablers.  The Yellow-rumps were back by the vernal pool, or at least what used to be the vernal pool. It has had so little water this year that it's turned into more of a field. I kept hearing more birds hiding in the 5 foot tall brush, but they seemed disinclined to reveal themselves. All the other birds were around the edge of the pond.

Pied-billed Grebe
Full list:

Wood Ducks
Pied-billed Grebe
Great Blue Heron
Gulls sp.
Blue Jays
White-breasted Nuthatch
Buteo sp.
Blackpoll Warbler
Yellow-rumped Wablers
House Sparrows

P.S. Ok, while not at Hammond Pond this news is still cool. This afternoon I was really surprised to find a Clay-colored Sparrow in the yard associating with the neighborhood flock of house sparrows! She was an obvious 'odd duck' in the flock being much smaller and brighter buff colored. Fortunately having seen the one at Nahanton Park recently made me confident with my identification. But it is certainly a reminder to check out those yard birds too!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Rainy Day Birds at Millennium Park

Lesser Yellowlegs
 I stopped by Millennium Park this weekend during some of the rain showers that we've been having. There had been recent reports of some good shorebird diversity that I was hoping to check out. But when I got to the boat ramp there was a boat with two fishermen right by the train bridge, and no shorebirds in sight on the mudflats. Before too long a Great Egret came flying in followed by a sandpiper! I knew quickly that it's long yellow legs were a dead giveaway for a Yellowlegs, but it took me a little longer to hone in on the shorter thinner bill to decide it was a Lesser Yellowlegs. Let me know if you think I might be in error (click on the pictures to enlarge). By the time I left the river, two Killdeer had joined the mudflats as well. Also of note were Golden- and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, as well as Yellow-rumps and a Palm Warbler (western). I only wish the Palm had chosen a more photogenic location to pause for this shot! 
Lesser Yellowlegs

 The full list is bellow: 

1 Canada Goose
3 Mallard 
1 Great Blue Heron 
1 Great Egret 
2 Killdeer 
1 Lesser Yellowlegs 
1 Belted Kingfisher 
1 Downy Woodpecker 
2 Blue Jay 
2 Black-capped Chickadee 
1 Golden-crowned Kinglet 
1 Ruby-crowned Kinglet 
1 Gray Catbird 
1 Yellow-rumped Warbler 
1 Palm Warbler (Western) 
1 Chipping Sparrow 
Palm Warbler (Western)
1 Song Sparrow 
8 sparrow sp. 
1 Northern Cardinal 
1 American Goldfinch 
6 House Sparrow

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Confusing Fall Warblers at the Reservoir

Blackpoll Warbler
 Yesterday morning I stopped by Chestnut Hill Reservoir to see what I could find of fall migrants. When I first scanned the water I was a little surprised to find exactly nothing on the water. While something could have been hiding at the far side, I couldn't make anything out. The only thing close was a gull sitting on the little patch of rocks. So I headed up the hill behind the ice rink with warblers on the brain. Some blue jays were calling but the only other sound was that of squirrels munching on acorns and then tossing them down, nearly on my head.

Around the back of the hill things started to get a little better as I stopped to investigate a call note. As I was peering though the branches trying to resolve the bird, a beautiful Red-tailed Hawk came soaring down the trail and up into a tree. I know that owls are supposed to be the silent birds of prey, but this Red-tail was certainly stealthy.

Blackpoll Warbler
As I turned my attention back to the call note more movement was discernible. A beautifully plumaged male American Redstart was skulking up in the branches never giving a clear view. But who else could have that pattern of black an orange? After he headed off, the call note came closer to reveal what Rodger Peterson referred to as a confusing fall warbler. Now looking back I'm sure it was a Blackpoll Warbler.

I carried on around the reservoir picking up some Black-capped Chickadees and Tufted Titmice before I made a point to check out the rocks for potential shorebirds. The full turned out to be a Ring-billed Gull (later many more and a Herring Gull would join it). There were also two sleepy Mallards among the rocks and a pair of Spotted Sandpipers who were in winter plumage and lacking the telltale spotted breasts.  I always enjoy watching Spotted Sandpipers up close to watch than bobbing their tails as they search for food.

Yellow-rumped Warbler
When I got to the peninsula I suddenly came across a whole flock of migrating warblers. As none of them were in brilliant breeding plumage again they all fell into the confusing fall warbler category, at least it felt that way. I started to pick out details on the most common type in the flock. White wing bars on gray wings, yellowish green, streaking on sides, eye line, white under-tail coverts. It took me a little while when I got home to go over the guide books, but I'm pretty sure the vast majority of my confusing fall warblers we Blackpolls. They seems to be everywhere! Looking at photos later helped even more to pick up on more details like leg color and see the yellow on the foot (click to enlarge pictures). After being able to recognize this one type, I started looking for birds that were different. One I thought might have a faint chestnut hue to the sides like a Bay-breasted, but that was probably just wishful thinking.

Palm Warbler
Other warblers did start to appear though. The Yellow-rumped warblers were quite easy when they would flash their diagnostic rumps, but they were a little confusing with out that field mark. Through the streaks on the breast and the little yellow shoulder patches helped the identification. I also noted the dark gray face with week eyebrow and light throat that extends around the neck a little. Fortunately the Northern Parulas were not very confusing at all, the gray back with green patch across the center was unmistakable, especially when combined with the yellow throat and white wing bars. A Black-throated Green Warbler was also present wasn't much of a challenge with the streaky black bib and brighter facial markings. 

Palm Warbler
My next challenge was a little brown bird with yellow under-tail coverts. As the two best candidates for this field mark are Common Yellowthroat and Palm Warbler. Yellowthroat was eliminated as this bird lacked the yellow throat and the back was warm brown instead of an olive brown. Palm warblers can be divided into Eastern (Yellow) and Western forms. The Easterns have extensive yellow underneath and in the supercilium (eyebrow) while Westerns have the yellow mostly restricted to the under-tail coverts. I was fortunate get a few bad shots of this bird and to me looks more like a Western but I'm not completely sure. I was hoping that someone might have thoughts on this identification. In the spring most of the birds migrating along the Atlantic coast and Eastern states are the Eastern/Yellow type but in fall we can easily find Westerns as well. Also, Western Palms tend to migrate earlier (September) and the Eastern/Yellow variety, which may also help point to a Western.

Eastern Wood-pewee
Mixed in with the warbler flock was a Downy Woodpecker and a flycatcher. I think the flycatcher is an Eastern Wood-Pewee, but unfortunately I've come to rely on vocalizations so much for my identifications and this was a silent bird.

Overall it was a great Fall morning with lots of fun with migrating warblers. I also found this really helpful and simplified view on confusing fall warbler identification from the McGill Bird Observatory. I'm looking forward to my next chance to get out and practice my confusing fall warblers! 

Monday, September 2, 2013

A Rainy Hammond Pond

Green Heron
 Last night we had dinner by Hammond Pond and the Eastern Kingbirds and a Spotted Sandpiper that I manage to make out enticed me to stop by the pond again this morning on my way to work. But this time I came prepared with binoculars and a rain jacket.

When I arrived there was a nice light rain that certainly wasn't slowing down the avian life at the pond. I very quickly saw a group of Least Sandpipers and a single Spotted Sandpiper that flew up close to my vantage point. (I was having trouble making out the yellow legs of the Least, but based on plumage I'm pretty sure they were Leasts. I was realizing that I've been started to depend on zooming in on pictures to help identifications. But there easily could have been other peeps around too). After I got tired of staring at the peeps to see if anything other than a Least might be mixed in, a Solitary Sandpiper came to join the party (solitary indeed).  Through the rain I focused on what I thought were stumps or sticking
Spotted Sandpiper
up out of the water. Those logs ended up revealing themselves into lazy, snoozing Double-crested Cormorants and I was able to spot the white facial markings on 2 distant Wood Ducks and every time I turned around there seemed to be another Green Heron!

As for passerines the going was a little slower. Catbirds were pretty ubiquitous around the pond. Snippets of songs and calls gave away the presence of Black-capped Chickadees, a Downy, Blue jays, Goldfinches, and an American Crow. I thought I may have heard a Hairy Woodpecker and some Cedar Waxwings, but I just couldn't be sure. A Grackle was working the shoreline but my favorite passerine was a Common Yellowthroat who
Great Blue Heron
popped up by the vernal pool to investigate me. I was hoping a few more migrants might be around, but they easily could have been laying low in the rain.

The rain was starting to let up as a Great Blue Heron made his entrance to start stalking the mudflats. I took this as a sign that perhaps I could brave the camera for a few shots. After a minute or so, a Green Heron flew directly at me, and for a normally skittish creature, seemed to be posing for me (top picture).

P.S. I also checked on the two orchids I found back in the spring and they are still there and doing well, though without their conspicuous flowers. I was glad to know that they haven't been disturbed.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

An August Morning at Chestnut Hill Reservoir

Double-crested Cormorant
 I have been quite the reformed birder recently. I've hardly done any birding at all in fact, even though the weather has been so nice and mild. But yesterday morning I managed to sneak in a walk around Chestnut Hill Reservoir and get in a little birding.

The cool weather made for a very pleasant walk. The highlights were some Sandpipers (Least and Spotted) on the exposed rocks on the east side and I also heard the song of a Back-billed Cuckoo that came drifting over the water from the direction of the hill on the eastern edge of the reservoir. I have been feeling the distinct lack of cuckoos, so hearing just the one snippet of song was a treat. And the Least Sandpipers are only the second record for the reservoir on ebird. See the full list below.

Red-Eared Slidder
Beyond these I was also struck by the green-blue eyes of the cormorant. I haven't seen any this close in a while and I never noticed their eye-color before. Quite magnificent. While walking, I scared up some turtles in a couple of places and snapped a few pictures. Later at home, I realized that the turtle had a red patch on the side of its head and therefore wasn't the typical painted turtle. So a quick internet search revealed that it was a Red-Eared Slidder, which is native to the Southern US and Mexico. But as popular pets, they are frequently released into the wild and have become invasive. But I was still excited to identify a new turtle. (If you click on the picture to enlarge you should be able to make out the red-ear patch.)

Widow Skimmer Dragonfly

Double-Crested Cormorants
Spotted Sandpiper
Least Sandpipers
Great Black-backed Gull
Gull sp.
Black-billed Cuckoo
Chimney Swifts
Northern Flicker
Blue Jays
Black-capped Chickadees
Tufted Titmouse
Least Sandpiper
White-breasted Nuthatch
Yellow Warbler
Common Grackle
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Spying on the Backyard Birds

 While I wasn't out and about birding in June, I was trying harder than ever to spy on the birds in the backyard. Instead of sitting on the back steps while eating breakfast, I employed the Audubon BirdCam, which I had received as a gift. It is a motion activated camera that is supposed to be designed for monitoring a feeder or nest box. While I have neither of these, that didn't stop me of strapping it to trees to see what birds and other wildlife I could find.

So far it has captured a mourning dove, catbird, chipmunk, rabbits, grackles, a group of starlings, and a family of robins. While the pictures can't compete with my dSLR, the idea of getting regular "reports" on backyard bird life without active participation is quite exciting. I'm still trying to get the hang of it and learn the best settings and I would love
to find a nest to monitor. So hopefully I'll have occasional BirdCam updates too. I'm also hoping that one of the sporadic neighborhood turkeys will cross its path. Speaking of, I had better go put the memory card back in the camera.

P.S. With the cool and pleasant air Friday night, we had lots of windows open and I was lucky enough to hear the hoots of a Great Horned Owl drifting in the open windows!

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Fieldnotes from Oregon

Rufous Hummingbird
 June is typically a month where I don't bird much following my May migration birding binge. To make up for my lack birding and posting this past month, I'll share some birds from a recent trip to Portland, Oregon.

While in Portland for a short trip two weeks ago, I was able to get away one morning into the hills around the city. This was my first time birding outside of the Eastern US (I have to remind myself that the Midwest is still eastern when it comes to birds) and so when I started my walk, I was overwhelmed by how different the woods were and by so many new bird songs. I normally can identify most birds by song, or can at least recognize that a song is familiar. That way I know to pay closer attention to a song I'm not familiar with. But in Oregon, every where I turned the bird songs and calls were new! Even the familiar Black-capped Chickadees sing a different song than the typical "phoebe" that I am so accustomed to.

Spotted Towhee
When I first started to get my head wrapped around the bird sounds, I started to pick out familiar birds like American Robin and the beautiful song of a Swainson's Thrush. Then I recognized a Wilson's Warbler's song and was able to spot this bright yellow bird with black cap (fortunately I had just encountered one this spring to help me learn the song). But soon I was able to make out other songs and calls and follow them to an empidonax flycatcher that I was later to ID, with help of a recording and spectrogram, as a Pacific-slope Flycatcher. Then the Spotted Towhees and "Oregon" Juncos started to reveal themselves to me.

Band-tailed Pigeon
Walking along I was able to find a family of Chestnut-backed Chickadees, a Stellar's Jay, a couple of Band-tailed Pigeons, and a distant "quick three beers!" call of an Olive-sided Flycatcher. At this point in time I was lucky enough to run into a local birder who quickly started to ID some more Pacific-slope Flycatcher call notes and two resident hummingbirds. The male Rufous Hummingbirds already headed south, while the usual male Anna's Hummingbird was conspicuously absent (or so I'm told). Fortunately there was a female/juvenile bird of each still around to enjoy. While I would have loved to have seen the flashy males, these two hummingbirds were zipping about chasing each other, chasing off crows, investigating the birders, and generally giving quite a spectacle.

Anna's Hummingbird

Black-headed Grosbeak
We then went hunting for a Black-headed Grosbeak that we could hear singing (his song is very similar to that of our Rose-breasted Grosbeak). Eventually we were able to track him down and were able to watch him singing high in a tree. The drumming and calls of a Red-breasted Sapsucker were sporadically evident, but again perseverance and luck allowed us to find one and watch him as he performed a territorial drumming on a old snag. The Red-breasted Sapsucker's voice is similar to that of our Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and they both also share an irregular drumming (movie below).

Black-throated Gray Warbler
My West Coast birding friends keep telling me how much they miss East Coast warblers, so I didn't have high hopes on finding many warblers, especially as migration was completed.  But the Wilson's warblers were quite vocal and active and fairly ubiquitous, I was able to get a few good views of them. Additionally, I was lucky enough to spot a Black-throated Gray Warbler high up on a branch in the woods. And last but not least, just as I was concluding my briding, I left the path and was back onto the street when a bright Orange-crowned Warber landed in a ornamental tree right in front of me to sing his trilled song.

It was morning that I will not soon forget.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Pink Lady's Slipper Orchid at Hammond Pond

Pink Lady's Slipper Orchid (Cypripedium Acaule)
 Ever since I got my National Audubon Society's Regional Field Guide (so far my only non-bird field guide) and learned of orchids native to the US, the idea of searching for these beauties has captured my mind. I assumed that such amazing plants and flowers as these orchids could only be in remote locations such that I would never be able to find them. Then I moved here and started reading Suzette's blog, Bird News of Nahanton Park, to learn that at least one native orchid, the Pink Lady's Slipper, can be found in our local Newton, MA parks. For some reason I was never free in the spring to explore the park while the orchids are blooming, so I was very excited when my neighbor had told me that she had just seen some orchids at Hammond Pond.

So last weekend, after some time at work, I dropped by Hammond Pond and Webster Woods and headed into the woods in search of orchids (and of course a few birds too) with my camera and tripod. Back in the woods, I was lucky enough to not only find two flowering plants, but also what I think was a third plant that did not have a flower spike. The flower is so amazing that it gives this orchid its name. Cypripeduium acaule, commonly known as the Pink Lady's Slipper or Moccasin Flower is named for the pink pouch (In the Cypripedium orchid sub-family, the labellum forms this pouch) that superficially resembles footwear (though I think other Lady Slipper Orchids have more of a slipper appearance).

Cypripedium acaule
I was inspired by my encounter with these Pink Lady's Slippers to read more about these amazing plants of our suburban wild lands. I think the coolest thing I learned about them was their method of pollination. On the front of the pouch, where it folds in, is actually a trap door (best seen on the top picture). Only strong species of bees are able to push their way into the pouch as they are drawn to the flower by its color and a faint sweet odor that the bees associate with nectar. But once the bee forces its way inside the pouch, he finds that there is no nectar or reward and he cannot exit the same way. Instead the pouch forces the bee to climb up the inside of the pouch towards the top. This top opening of the pouch is partially obscured by the column (which contains the stigma and pollinium) and the staminode (a more burgundy flap on the column). As is visible in the picture to the right, the column and staminode create two routes out of the pouch through which the bee can make his escape. As the bee exits, his back comes into contact with the yellow waxy ball of pollen (also visible in picture). Now this bee being a smart bee, will most likely have learned that the Pink Lady's Slipper flower has nothing he is interested in and traps him to boot. And thus the bee will not make the same mistake twice. But if we and the Pink Lady's Slippers are lucky, then this bee will be of the adventurous variety and will, against logic, visit a second Pink Lady's Slipper. While he navigates this trap and maze once more, this time the pollen already on his back will adhere to the stigma of this second flower just before he reaches the opening to have yet more pollen deposited on his back. (There is an excellent blog post here with a photograph labeled with the bee's route through the flower)

Cypripedium Acaule
Because most bees are likely to quickly learn to avoid Pink Lady's Slipper flowers, only about 5% of flowers are pollinated in a given year. This may actually be advantageous as seed production is very taxing to the plant. But to make up for this dismal pollination rate, Pink Lady's Slippers can live on average for about 20 years! Their low pollination rate, long life span, and very specific habitat requirements makes it very important to not disturb these orchids so that we can protect our native population.

I have to say that I look forward to observing these Pink Lady's Slipper orchids in the future and one day I'll have to venture forth in search of more of our wild orchids.

P.S. I did mention I was looking for birds too. Some of the best finds were Great Blue and Green Herons, Cedar Waxwings, Red-eyed Vireos, a Great Crested Flycatcher, and for a few seconds I had a great view of a stunning male Rose-breasted Grosbeak!

Monday, May 27, 2013

Beautiful Morning at the Reservoir

Gray Catbird
 I visited the Chestnut Hill Reservoir this morning to take advantage of the beautiful weather. I know we needed the rain we've had this past week, but it was nice to take advantage of a warm sunny morning and some of the birds were thinking the same. As soon as I got out of the car, I could hear the songs of Baltimore Orioles and American Redstarts. I also heard several Blackpoll warblers, but I couldn't see them.

Yellow Warbler
The water of reservoir was relatively slow with only some Canada Geese and a few Ruddy Ducks, but no other waterfowl. The main action was along the shores for passerines and above the water for many Chimney Swifts and Tree Swallows. I thought that I might have caught a few note of a Brown Trasher, but wasn't completely sure and was unable to find the singer. While many of the birds seemed to be up in the canopy and happy to stay there a few intrepid individuals came up to investigate me, including this catbird and the yellow warbler. I was particularly excited to get such a great view of this tiny puffball of a yellow warbler. I have only seen a few this spring so far (though Nahanton Park is crawling with them). I always love to see birds up close to admire the details of their feathers and just enjoy the moment of mutual contemplation.

Canada Goose  10
Ruddy Duck  6  
gull sp.  1
Chimney Swift  9
Red-bellied Woodpecker  1
Eastern Kingbird  1
Baltimore Oriole
Warbling Vireo  2
Blue Jay  2
Tree Swallow  3
Black-capped Chickadee  2
White-breasted Nuthatch  1
Wood Thrush  1    
American Robin  6
Gray Catbird  1
European Starling  3
American Redstart  1    
Northern Parula  1    
Yellow Warbler  2    
Blackpoll Warbler  3   
Song Sparrow  2
Northern Cardinal  3
Red-winged Blackbird  1
Common Grackle  8
Baltimore Oriole  2
House Sparrow  15

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Warblers and Wild Flowers at Houghton Garden

White Trillium or Wake Robin (Trillium grandiflorum)
 In my second blog post when I visited Houghton Garden in the winter, I mentioned that it seemed like a good place for spring warblers. So yesterday morning I decided to visit on my way to work. While driving over I was listening to my Peterson field guide CDs "Birding by Ear" and trying to learn the waterthrush songs, which was very fortunate because the first song I heard when I got out of the car at 9am was the song right after the waterthrushes! It sounded like the two-parted song of the Nashville warbler which would be a first of year for me (more on this in a minute).

Upon entering this small piece of habitat I was able to find black-and-white warblers, yellow-rumps, and an American redstart (the picture is from earlier this week in Boston) were the only warblers that I was able to see. Up in the trees were plenty of black-throated blue and northern parula song, though they stayed up in the canopy and never decided to show themselves. And down in the bushes a skulking common yellowthroat sounded off. Then while standing by the little damn
American Redstart
that keeps the pond full I heard another song I had only just listened to, the 3-parted song of a Tennessee warbler. Now this was a lifer for me. I tried in vain to see the Tennessee but had no such luck. While I was excited to add the Tennessee warbler to my life list, I later noted that it isn't a common bird around Newton. Pete and Haynes both have most of the ebird sightings which primarily come from Cold Spring Park and Nahanton. In addition to warblers, I was also excited to see and hear a stunning Baltimore Oriole.

May Apple (Podophyllum peltatum)
While many of the birds refused to be seen, Houghton Garden's flora was earning its keep. The ferns are all coming up with a wide variety of foliage forms (one day I'll figure out how to identify them) and many woodland flowers were evident. I was particularly impressed with the trillium specimen, but later learned that trillium (and especially trillium grandiflorum ) are victims of their own popularity with gardeners. They have become threatened as most (if not all) plants available were harvested from the wild. I took pictures of some in hope that I might be able to identify the flowers (Do you know what the flowers below are?).

When I got home last night I listened to recordings of the Tennessee and Nashville warblers and am no longer sure about the Nashville's ID. When I have time later I'll another post with recordings and spectrograms.

Red-bellied Woodpecker  1
Downy Woodpecker  1
Warbling Vireo  1
Blue Jay  1
Black-capped Chickadee  2Tufted Titmouse  2
White-breasted Nuthatch  1
American Robin  10
Gray Catbird  3
Black-and-white Warbler  1  
Tennessee Warbler  1
Nashville Warbler  ?
Common Yellowthroat  1
American Redstart  1
Northern Parula  3
Black-throated Blue Warbler  2  
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle)  1
Northern Cardinal  2
Common Grackle  2
Brown-headed Cowbird  2
Baltimore Oriole  1
American Goldfinch  2
House Sparrow  5