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.