Monday, December 22, 2014

The Elusive Snowy Owl and the Unexpected Grasshopper Sparrow

Grasshopper Sparrow
 On Saturday night I saw an email from the Boston Birds group about a sighting of a Snowy Owl at Millennium Park! So I thought it would be fun to try and find it Sunday morning and was able to convince the little one, who kept saying "maybe snowy owl", to join me for the walk. While we were unsuccessful at finding a Snowy Owl (the park is likely too heavily used for a Snowy to stick around. We did however run into Matt Garvey who mentioned that he had just spotted a Grasshopper Sparrow in with the flock of American Tree Sparrows in front of us. We looked and couldn't find it, but on our way back to the car we passed the same spot and this time were able to find the Grasshopper Sparrow!

I was pretty excited to add this to my Massachusetts list! I've heard lots of them out in the midwest before and even caught a very short glimpse of one, but here at Millennium Park this bird was feeding out in the open and giving ample opportunity to observe it. I even snapped a picture, but due to the low light and wiggle child on my back, non of the images came out very crisp, but at least its a record shot.

I hope you all have a great holiday season and a happy New Years!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Nighthawks Over Newton

Common Nighthawk
 Things have been busy this summer and I haven't had much opportunity to get out for some birding. But so far this summer has been a great one for Common Nighthawks. Last year I don't think I found any, but this year has been a different story as I've often heard their "pent" calls from a open window or while walking. In the last month though I've seen quite a few as they fly over the yard (and numerous other Newton locations) at dusk. I'm not sure why, but these Nighthawks always make me really happy. Maybe its because I'm rarely birding when I find them, so they are just an unexpected bonus.

I took a walk at Mass Audubon's Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary today, much too late for serious birding (but blue jays were the biggest hit with my hiking companion). The weather was perfect and the scenery was fantastic. Back in the woods I caught a loose warbled song that was likely a Pine Warbler, a not so subtle reminder that Fall migration is here and I aught to get out birding more!

Friday, August 1, 2014

Osprey Over Hammond Pond

Hammond Pond

Eastern Kingbird
 Last weekend while running errands in Chestnut Hill, I decided to check out Hammond Pond (without my main camera) and see if there were any shorebirds around the pond. I was not disappointed as I quickly found some very vocal and active Spotted Sandpipers chasing each other around. They were the only shorebirds, but it is probably early yet for the handful of others that frequent the pond. Additional highlights included a number of Green Herons that could be seen in the shallows around the pond. Up in the trees an Eastern Kingbird was so busy bringing a fledgling food, that they didn't mind me and I received some great views. And as I was leaving an Osprey made an appearance over the pond. This was only my 2nd sighting of an Osprey at Hammond Pond and 4th record in eBird, so it is always nice to see one. I actually just realized while putting this post together that the Osprey is visible as a small dark speck in the picture of the pond.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Photographing Piping Plovers and Least Terns at Dawn

Piping Plover
 I know its been a while since the last post and this isn't Newton birding, but I hope the images will make up for it. I had a photography class with Michael Milicia back in the spring on camera operation and exposure settings and our second class was supposed to be a field session photographing Piping Plover chicks and Least Terns in early June. But instead we spent all of June getting this trip up to the North Shore rained out and rescheduled, so I was excited when we finally caught a break in weather and schedules on July 2nd when it looked to be a great day for weather. But before I go into the details on the trip, I first wanted to offer a little information on the conservation status of these two species.

Both species are protected in Massachusetts and the Piping Plover is listed as threatened at the federal level. In addition to nesting on the sandy beaches of the East Coast, both birds also nest along sand bars and beaches of the major rivers and great lakes. And these interior population of both birds are listed as endangered. So how did these birds get into such dire straits? Both species are beautiful and their feathers were highly prized in the 19th century as fashion accessories in lady's hats. So we killed them, and lots of them. In Massachusetts, the Least Terns bottomed out at only 250 pairs at the turn of the 20 century. After this both birds ran into the same trouble, their breeding habitat on sandy beaches is also highly prized for development and recreational use. A trip to the beach is the quintessential summer vacation regardless of whether it is a day trip, hotel, or vacation house. This all led to the 1980's when the Piping Plovers hit a low of only 800 breeding pairs for the Atlantic Coast.

Least Tern Chick and Adult
Fortunately, due to the tireless efforts of conservationists and conscientious beach-goers, their populations have rebounded. Here in Massachusetts, we have some of the largest populations of Piping Plovers on the Atlantic Coast, with almost 500 breeding pairs as of 2005. And the Least Terns in the state are back up to 2,500 breeding pairs. But there is still lots of work to do as development and people further encroach upon their habitat and predators (like crows and gulls) decimate eggs and chicks. (Numbers from Wikipedia and

My first encounter with a Piping Plover was actually recounted in this blog, where I found a couple early in the season after they had just migrated. Though Least Tern are often found at Belle Isle Marsh, I've always thought they were much more fun to watch than the Common Terns. So when Michael suggesting these two species as photography subjects I was thrilled.

Sunrise over the Atlantic

Though I was less thrilled at 3am when my alarm went off. The goal was to be down on the beach and set up for sunrise, which offers a warmer gentler light that photographers crave. But standing on the beach at 5am with the smell of salt and the sun just creeping up over the ocean was a sight to behold. And to top it off, we were surrounded by plovers, terns, and Willets! The plovers were harder to see, being so well camouflaged, while the terns were easy to spot as they were flying all over the place.

In the back of my mind I kept thinking about whether or not my actions were disturbing the birds, or not. Because even before the photography, we wanted to make sure that we didn't cause harm or distress to the birds. One thing I was amazed about was how small and aggressive Least Terns can be. I've always seen them at a distance on their hunting grounds, not near a nesting location. Even when we were walking well away form the roped-off areas with the chicks and nests, they would dive-bomb our heads (I never knew they had partially webbed feet before!). But as soon as we would lay down, they stopped being alarmed and ignored us instead. Adults would even land just a few yards away. Later we saw one of the researchers checking on nests in the roped off area, he was carrying a tall pole to prevent the terns from attacking him. Apparently they attack the tallest point (e.g. you head or pole) and are quite able to draw blood if they think you are too close. But in addition to our own skin, it was important to prevent the parents from being so stressed that they abandon their nest or chicks.

Least Tern
The other thing that helped in not stressing the birds was a lens rental. For this event I decided to make the most of the trip by abandoning my 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 zoom lens and renting a 300mm f4 and 1.4x teleconverter for the day from Lens Pro To Go. Which had the added benefit of increased focal length (magnification) at 420mm (630mm equivalent due to my 1.5x crop factor sensor) and better image sharpness. So we could stay further away, and get better images.

I had a blast crawling around in the sand and having a front row seat to the lives of the Piping Plovers and Least Terns. Add to that the challenge of trying to capture all that beauty in the single press of the shutter definitely made it lots of fun, though may have made me less aware of the moment itself focusing on the camera so much.

Piping Plover Chick
The Piping Plovers hunt visually for food, scurrying up and down the sand, looking for small invertebrates to eat as their short beaks aren't good for probing far into the sand. The parents don't even feed their chicks as they are able to forage within hours of hatching. Instead, after hatching the parent's primary role is to protect the chicks from the elements and from predators. The former is easily accomplished by brooding, where all the chicks run up to the parent and get tucked under-wing, helps keep a chick warm and dry. For a great example of brooding, check out the second picture on Michael Milicia's website. And for predators, the parents act as a decoy to draw the attention away from the chicks, who's first line defense is actually amazing camouflage against the sand.

Piping Plover Chick
We actually saw both defense mechanisms at work, with parents drawing our attention away from the chicks and we never had a prayer of finding a chick until it moved. My Piping Plovers pictures turned out much better for the adults, as the chicks are challenging, especially when they aren't brooding and have the safety of a parent nearby. The young chicks look like cotton balls on toothpicks and once we found them, they were busy feeding and never stopped. We found chicks that varied in age from just a few days old, to almost fledged, so it was interesting to see the transition all in one morning.

After first focusing on the plovers, we turned our attention to the terns. Least Tern chicks share the camouflage against the sand as a defense mechanism. I even saw a couple of chicks "flop" onto their chins and they immediately disappeared against the sand, just another wind swept mound of sand. Once or twice an adult would give a warning note and the chicks would scamper as fast as they could back up the beach towards the nests. Unlike the plovers, the Least Terns need to actively feed their chicks, as they won't be able to fish until they can fly. So several times we witnessed adults flying in with small fish that were passed off to the chicks, who swallowed them whole, even when the fish was the same length as the chick!

Least Tern Feeding a Chick
While the plovers were spread out, with each pair having staked out an area, the terns are more colony nesters, meaning we got to witness much more interaction between them as the adults would also squabble amongst themselves.

As the sun rose in the sky making the light harsher, more people began to appear at the beach, though fortunately those walking near the plovers gave the families a wide birth, careful not to disturb them. Eventually, we decided to call it a day around 9am, after more than 4 wonderful hours photographing and watching the birds. In reflection, when birding I often hunt around for more species, but on this day, the goal was to capture a few moments from the lives of the Piping Plovers and Least Terns. So I spent more time with them than I ever would have birding, not to mention laying down on the sand, to see the world from their perspective. And I have some fun photographs to help remember the day.

Area of beach with nesting Piping Plovers and Least Terns

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Shorebirds and a Surprise at Belle Isle Marsh

Black-bellied Plover
 I headed out to Belle Isle Marsh in Boston for Memorial Day morning birding. It had been a while since I had been birding away from Newton and Belle Isle Marsh offered a change of scenery and habitat with the bonus of shorebirds and terns that don't frequent our parks. The sky was gray and overcast with a light drizzle, but I figured the shorebirds wouldn’t be too deterred by a little rain. (Sorry about the pictures, these birds were way out there.

One of the first finds was a female American Redstart who was singing, which I wasn't expecting. When I got out towards the marsh, the bright white Snowy Egrets were easy to pick out, but then more movement became evident and revealed Black-bellied Plovers, Semipalmated Plovers and some peeps. When planes flew over Belle Isle for their approach to Logan, the shorebirds would startle and fly around before resettling. During one of these games of musical chairs, I was able to find a few Short-billed Dowitchers. Their burgundy breasts and long bills made them stick out from the Black-bellied Plovers (notice the black "armpit" on the plovers in flight). Another airplane and subsequent round of musical chairs revealed a couple of Willets, with large amounts of white in their wings.

One of my major reasons for coming were the terns, and both Common and Least Terns
Black-bellied Plovers and Short-billed Dowitchers
put on quite a show, hovering and plunge diving into the salt pans to catch fish. The tide was actually quite high and provided ample water near the paths so they were relatively close to watch. Unfortunately their small size and fast flight made a mockery of my photographic attempts. The terns were also joined in their fishing endeavor by an Osprey. I usually think of terns as much more elegant when fishing with their tucked-wing plunge-dives, while Ospreys are the awkward uncoordinated cousin just haphazardly splashing I to the water. But yesterday I got to see some elegant fishing from the Osprey who swooped low over the pans and snatched a fish in flight. 

While I was out on the main platform watching the march, it decided to rain in earnest, so I tucked my camera under my rain jacket and thought it might be time to head out. As I left the platform an American Kestrel tore off over my head, she was carrying prey and being mobbed by song birds, but I was still excited to have my 2nd Kestrel in MA.

Short-billed Dowitchers
I thought I’d check one last pool on my way back to the parking lot. As I went down the little path to the small cement overlook, a small bird lifted off from the reeds. All at once a couple of visual cues impinged upon my brain. Really small heron shape, buffy / caramel colored body and wings, patches of greenish-blue on back and wings. Before I had even processed all the individual pieces, the ID came to the front of my mind. Least Bittern! What kind of crazy luck was that!

The first time I had visited Belle Isle March, I had been informed that it was a good place to find Least Bitterns. But slowly through subsequent visits I’d all but given up hope of ever finding one. While they may be relatively common in suitable habitat, they are notorious for their secretive habits and are hard to find, let alone actually see. Fortunately we here in Boston have several good locations for Least Bittern with Belle Isle Marsh, Great Meadows in Concord, and of course Plum Island. But you never know, in January of 2012 there was a sighting of a Least Bittern in Newton just south of Nahanton Park.

After the Least Bittern I decided birding in the rain wasn’t so bad and tacked on a Willow Flycatcher, but my day was already made.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Houghton Gardens: The Warbler Rest Stop

Female Northern Parula
Sorry for this late post, things have been busy.

At the end of last week, I stopped by Houghton Gardens and Hammond Pond. I have always though that Houghton Gardens would be a great place for warblers, so when I read a report from Marygrace that included a Prairie Warbler, I figure this was be a great time to see Houghton Garden’s Potential.

It really was a good day for warblers. Singing Blackpolls, Black-throated Greens, and Black-throated Blues, and Black-and-whites greeted me. A Northern Parula was spotted working a spider web. I couldn't decide if she was looking for bugs caught in the web,
American Bullfrog
or if she was gathering it for nesting material, though the later seems unlikely. If you look closely in the picture you should be able to see the spider webs. High in the canopy I eventually tracked down two songsters to reveal Magnolia and Chestnut-sided Warblers. I thought I might hear a Blackburnian song, but had trouble tracking it down. If an American Redstart wasn't nearby, I would have been more confident of a heard only identification. Though while searching for the singer I startled an Ovenbird. Through in a Pine Warbler, a Yellow-rumped Warbler, and a Yellow Warbler and you get quite  a good density of warblers in the tiny Houghton Gardens.

Common Yellowthroat
The diversity of plants and dense brush must make Houghton an ideal road-side rest stop on their northward migration. Just across the tracks into Webster Woods behind Hammond Pond and the spacing between trees is great, the understory is more open, and a veritable desert to the warblers. They all seem to have decided that Houghton Gardens was the place to be. Though I was able to add Cedar Waxwing, Common Yellowthroat, and a Wilson's Warbler to the morning, just so that Hammond Pond could redeem itself.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Black-billed Cuckoo in Newton Center ....

Before today Black-billed Cuckoo had not been reported this year in eastern Massachusetts; today so far four have been reported to ebird. This bird started in the tiny wetland behind our house in Newton Center, and moved around the neighborhood.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Reservoir Redux: For the Warblers and Swallows

Prairie Warbler
 After having a great day on Saturday with the Caspian Tern at Chestnut Hill Reservoir (blog post), there were a number of reports on Massbird of Prairie Warblers (in the morning from Peter), then reports added Yellow-throated Warbler, and all five of the likely Swallows for New England: Barn Swallow, Tree Swallow, Rough-winged Swallow, Bank Swallow, and Cliff Swallow (reported in the afternoon by a number of the Ryans, Sam, and others). Needless to say, this morning I had to check it out.

The Prairie Warbler was fortunately found relatively quickly, though I had trouble picking out his song from all the other warblers present. The Yellow-throated Warbler took a lot more work and I was aided by other birders. While slightly less exciting since I had already found the Yellow-throated Warbler at Nahanton Park, this time I had better views, which was much appreciated. Beyond the rare Yellow-throated and uncommon Prairie, all around the number of warblers was astonishing.

Yellow-throated Warbler
After finding many of the warbler on the hill, I headed over to the peninsula where a number of swallows could be seen flying around. Luck was with me this day, after a couple of Barn Swallows, the next bird I started tracking was a Cliff Swallow, the light patches on the rump and forehead were giveaways. I was eventually able to add the other three Swallows for a full Swallow sweep. Unfortunately I wasn't able to get any pictures of the Swallows (I didn't even try), but Ryan did yesterday (link). The Northern Rough-winged Swallows, Cliff Swallow, and Prairie Warbler, were all new birds for me in the state.

I'll keep the text short today and let the pictures do the work . There is also a short video of the Prairie Wabler below, it doesn't do his song justice though. Here is a link to the full checklist and a big thanks to the other birders I met today and to all who reported their findings.

Black-throated Green Warbler

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Caspian Tern and Warblers at the Reservoir

Caspian Tern
  Yesterday morning I took a short walk at Chestnut Hill Reservoir with the little one. As soon as I opened the car door, I could hear lots or warblers up on the hill and Yellow-rumped Warblers were in the trees all around the parking lot. On the grass, several Savanah Sparrows were foraging.

But before checking out the warblers, I went to scan the water as there had been reports over the last few days of a Caspian Tern, though I didn't think it was likely I'd find one. Just when I was satisfied that all the birds on the water were gulls and there wasn't a Tern present, I saw a large white bird dive into the reservoir. Gulls don't usually do that! It was quickly  obvious that this was the Caspian Tern when I spotted that thick bright orange bill and dark underwing primary feathers. The bird circled for the next 10 minutes as we watched before I lost sight of him. 

Yellow-rumped Warbler
Next I set my sights on the hill and the influx of warblers that it contained. I could hear songs of a Black-throated Green Warbler and a Northern Parula but try as I might all I could find were yellow-rumps, there were just that many up in the trees. Down lower in the under story Palm Warblers flitted about. I would have been impressed by the number of Palm Warblers, but the Yellow-rumps had already taken that prize. Additionally there was a singing Ruby-crowned Kinglet and I thought I heard the song of a Dark-eyed Junco, but had a hard time believing it until I was able to see it, it is getting late for juncos to still be here. Especially now that the warblers are arriving. I'm very much looking forward to seeing them again.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Hooded Warbler at Boston Public Gardens

Hooded Warbler
 After having success in tracking down the Yellow-throated Warbler at Nahanton my attention was next captured by the reports of a ridiculously tame and easy to find Hooded Warbler at the Boston Public Gardens. Hooded Warblers have been particularly guiling to me, my only previous record was a heard only bird, where I was able to recognize its primary song, but a much more experienced birder could recognize its secondary song.

Now this is an important point as I every time I have ever heard a Hooded Warbler song in Massachusetts, my hopes have always been dashed when I discovered that the singer was a Yellow Warbler. Much to my chagrin, Yellow Warblers often times sing the Hooded Warbler’s primary song (I’ve also learned that there are a few other pairs of warbler like this, like the Black-throated Blue Warblers who do a dead on Cerulean Warbler Song).

White-throated Sparrow
So when I kept reading of the scores of people who were able to find this Hooded Warbler I decided to take a shot at it too. Hooded Warblers, like the Yellow-throated tend to be more southern but also like to spend time in low dense cover, so an opportunity like this should be seized if possible. Before I found the Hooded though, I turned up both Kinglets and a Brown Thrasher, which is another first sighting for me in the state.

Hooded Warbler
The striking contrast of black and brightest yellow was truly stunning to observe and I was a little surprised by the white patches in the tail that he would keep flashing with a flick of his tail. True to his warbler relatives, he was a little ball of energy and always on the move. Dashing and darting on the ground looking for prey or short, fluttering, acrobatic flycatching sorties. He was pretty tame and seemed nearly oblivious to the people that filled the gardens, though to be fair, they passed him by without any notice either. It always amazes me to think about what kind of wonders we all might walk pass, without even knowing about it.

Brown Thrasher
Though as we worked his way around the pond, he slowly began to approach a young couple on a park bench. While he carried on his energetic antics just feet from the bench, they did not fail to notice him. After he had given us quite a show, I had a nice chat with the couple about the providence of this particular bird. I enjoyed getting a chance to share our amazement that any such thing as beautiful as this Hooded Warbler should ever visit us.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Early Migrants Around Newton

Green Heron
 On my way to work yesterday I stopped off at Hammond Pond (checklist), Houghton GardensLost Pond / Kennard Park, and finally Newton City Hall.  When I pulled into a parking spot at the overlook for Hammond Pond, a bird flushed from the grass by the inlet and I was surprised to see a Green Heron. (I later learned this is only the 2nd eBird record for Green Herons in MA this spring!) Usually I think of Green Herons as skittish and shy, but this bird only flew a few feet before landing. I hadn't even gotten out of the car yet and I was busy watching him with my binoculars. When he disappeared from view behind a bush. I slowly opened the door, and using the car for cover, crept around the side. There was no sign of a green heron, so I stopped being careful and approached the water's edge looking at for waterfowl. Just when I had forgotten about the heron, he leapt up from right in front of me, a testament to their camouflage, and landed in the adjacent bush. I immediately crouched and froze, starting a staring contest at a distance of 4 meters.

He eventually decided I wasn't interesting and began to use slow and calculating movement to make his way to the outer branches that overhung the water. I'd seen this look before, this was a master hunter on the prowl, creeping up on his prey. Eventually he was poised right above the water and leaning so far forward that I thought he must fall over.

Green Heron with Fish
At about this time, the Red-winged Blackbirds had taken notice of me and were scolding while Wood Ducks and Common Mergansers swam past. Then the familiar rattle of a Belted Kingfisher greeted my ears. I glanced up to observe the kingfisher flying towards me, catching sight of me, then turning back around to find another hunting perch, all the while giving her rattling cry.

Splash! I whipped my head around and the Green Heron was in the water. He had fallen in, as I feared he must, but wait - there was small fish clamped tightly in his bill! He made an awkward leap and returned to the branches, crest raised, to enjoy his meal. Now if only that darn kingfisher hadn't chosen that moment to fly by, I'd have seen the strike. But its hard not to look at a kingfisher. At this point the heron looked up and seemed to notice me as if for the first time and for posterity's sake, decided it was time to wander off into the grass surrounding the pond.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet
What a site to witness. But it was time to see what the rest of the pond had to offer. When I entered the woods, exuberant Ruby-crowned Kinglet song greeted me. Further along the trail I was pleased to find an Eastern Phoebe and my first warbler of the year with a bright yellow Palm Warbler. The high wheezy call notes of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher guided my eyes to find several of these mini-mockers scattered through the woods. At the back of the woods I was lucky to see a Hairy Woodpecker chasing a Downy Woodpecker, it was great to compare them side-by-side and see how different their bill shapes are.

Back in Houghton Gardens (checklist), I found more of the usual, including another Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. I was hoping that a Pine Warbler might be gracing the gardens, but I did not hear any. I did manage to finally see a Ruby-crowned Kinglet though.

Next I headed over to Lost Pond and Kennard Park (checklist) hoping that the larger area of evergreens might hold a Pine Warbler. I really enjoy the Lost Pond area, though it isn't quite as bird-y as other Newton birding locations. This morning the pond held a few Mallards and a female Wood Duck. And while looking for ducks, this Ruby-crowned Kinglet started to sing near by and came even closer so that we had great views of each other (I was really excited to see that this picture turned out so well).

Pine Warbler
Further down the path there was another Gnatcatcher but once I got into the pines of Kennard Park I started to hear some musical trills. I thought to myself that it was likely a Pine Warbler, but I have a hard time identifying the trills by ear. It took some doing, but eventually I found a songster close to the trail and was able to follow his loud song back to a bright yellow Warbler. Finally a Pine Warbler. I sometimes have a hard time with Pine Warblers as they migrate on the early side, aren't as abundant in fall, and true to their name much prefer habitat with pine trees.

Then at the end of the day, I stopped by Newton City Hall (checklist) and picked up Chipping Sparrow, another Palm Warbler, and a Yellow-rumped Warbler. Now I had hit the trifecta of the common early Warbler migrants.

P.S. As a side note, Cornell Lab of Ornithology and The Warbler Guide are offering free downloads of warbler quick finder guides that look useful. Just visit All About Birds and sign up to get the download.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Fieldnotes from St. Louis

American Kestrel
 In March I had the opportunity to travel to St. Louis and the surrounding areas in Missouri and Illinois. Even though this area has many familiar birds, the relative abundance is quite different. As our Massachusetts farmland reverts to forest or is developed, grassland birds have been in decline. But the mid-west has lots of farm land, so these species are much more common. I had a blast seeing how common American Kestrels were in the area. As a kid, this was one of my most desired birds to see, so the chance to see and photograph them perching on wires right outside the hotel was fantastic.

American White Pelican
 One of the other great features of this area is the Mississippi River. Or more precisely the Mississippi flyway. Nearly forty percent of our waterfowl migrates along the Mississippi and Creve Coeur Lake had tons of ducks, including Canvasbacks and Lesser Scaups

Back at the river though, kettles of hundreds of American White Pelicans could be seen slowly wheeling their way north as they followed the river. I was lucky to have a couple of birds fishing on the river and afforded close views. Check out the horn on top of the bill that they grow during breading season.

Bald Eagle
Another major user of the river is of course the Bald Eagle. Its been a long time since I saw such a high concentration of Bald Eagles. I love watching them soar and those long straight wings are very distinctive.

One of my favorites experiences with Bald Eagles occurred on a canoeing trip. There were lots of eagles on the river, but at one point two eagles flew at each other, locked talons, and started plummeting towards the river. Just as they were about to reach the water, they broke apart and when their wings opened, the force of air on wing was so great it made a loud audible snap! And then they flew off. Later I learned that was part of their courtship ritual.

Okay I take it back, that wasn't one of my favorite experiences with Bald Eagles, it is one of my favorite experiences with the natural world.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow
I have to apologize for this bad picture of an introduced bird, but no talk of birding and the St. Louis area could be complete without the Eurasian Tree Sparrow. While I'm more partial to the American Tree Sparrow, the Eurasian Tree Sparrow is a close relative of the House Sparrow. But unlike its wide-spread relative, the Eurasian Tree sparrow is less aggressive and hasn't spread far from its site of introduction in St. Louis.

To me they also have a much friendlier appearance, or maybe I was just glad to add this bird to my life list.


This next bird was a mystery for me. I just couldn't place it as an Eastern Meadowlark or a Western Meadowlark. There was a flock of 5-7 birds and heard a Western song from at least one member of the group, but what about the individual pictured? If you would like to guess don't read on as I discuss the results below.

My first line of thought was location. This area has a greater frequency of Eastern than Western Meadowlarks. Secondly, the song was Western, though the songster was likely a different individual. Then I looked at the malar (area behind the bill) and notice the limited yellow, Eastern birds have less yellow in this area. My forth clue was that the markings on the head have less contrast, more like a Western.

Finally I looked to google and found this great page from Cornell Lab or Ornithology that compares field marks. This lead me to look at the barring on the tail feathers. Which looks Western.

To make sense of all of this I contacted some local birders who informed me that the thin barring on the tail is the best distinguishing visual feature and the song is really diagnostic. Additionally fresh plumages hide the yellow on the malar, so this feature doesn't appear until the feathers have worn off the buffy tips to reveal the yellow. That was a lot of work to learn that my ears didn't deceive me, this was indeed a less common Western Meadowlark!

I certainly learned a lot about Meadowlark identification, which I'll have to see if I can practice again soon.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A Birding Blitz: Newton and Beyond

During March 20-22, I ended up having a few days with the little one so the two of us set out on a birding blitz for the last day of winter and first two days of spring. Our rules were that our outings had to be entertaining and fit between naps and meals. So it ended up that most stops were about 30 minutes and I could only bring my binoculars. Sorry, no camera meant no pictures. But we had a blast.

As birding wasn't happening as heavily as usual I'll keep thing short and with highlights. Also this post is delayed as the Northern Pintail took precedence for posting. 

Crystal Lake (checklist)
While the lake was still frozen a pair of Canada Geese didn't mind as they grazed in someone's yard. I was excited to find a tree with 7-8 Fish Crows a couple of blocks away all giving their nasal calls. I didn't hear the tell-tale "na-uh" but they didn't make any classic American Crow calls either.
(Update from this morning: The lake is now open and hosting a raft of Common Mergansers, both American and Fish Crows were calling too. checklist)

Drumlin Farm
I thought at least I'd catch up with some Eastern Bluebirds here, but alas the bird life was non existant that afternoon. I did enjoy getting to see the hawks and owls in the exhibits up close though. And the newborn lambs were a big hit with the little one. 

Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary (checklist)
I'd never visited before and was excited to see how beautiful Broadmoor is. The highlights were Eastern Bluebirds (checking out nest boxes already) and a Winter Wren. It has been a long time since I've had the pleasure of viewing a Winter Wren. I'll definitely be coming back. 

Charles River by Commonwealth Ave. (checklist)
Highlights were definitely the diving ducks with Ring-necked Ducks, Common Mergansers, and Buffleheads

Hemlock Gorge
The only bird life was a faint call note that I couldn't make out, but that didn't detract from the natural beauty of Hemlock Gorge on my first visit. 

Lost Pond (checklist)
The pond was still frozen, but singing Juncos and House Finches were refreshing signs of spring. 

Hammond Pond (checklist)
I was very excited to see that the ice was finally breaking up! Seeing Canada Geese and a pair of Mute Swans in the open water on the far side gave me a ray of hope. Hammond Pond did not disappoint with Ring-necked Ducks, Common Mergansers, Mallards, and 6 Wood Ducks! The little one was so excited by the Ring-billed Gulls wheeling overhead or when the ducks would fly right past us. Just as we were leaving a Turkey Vulture teetered as he soared over the pond on his dihedral wigs. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Northern Pintail Drake at Chestnut Hill Reservoir

Northern Pintail
  After a a couple of days of a birding blitz (maybe that is for another post), I knew that the ice on the local ponds was breaking up and had been keeping an eye out on eBird. So when I saw that a Northern Pintail was seen at Chestnut Hill Reservoir over the past few days I decided to check it out on my way to work this morning. I was fortunate to find my life Northern Pintail as a female at Jamaica Pond back in January, so today I was really hoping for a drake.

Wood Duck
When I turned onto Chestnut Hill Dr. from Beacon, I saw large group of birds on a small patch of open water. My heart skipped a beat as I caught a fleeting glimpse of a drake Northern Pintail in the mix, that color pattern is quite distinctive! After parking I made my way back towards the West side of the reservoir I added Common Mergansers, Hooded Mergansers, and was surprised to see a female Wood Duck in a flock of Canada Geese. Additionally a Song Sparrow sure new it was spring from his non-stop singing (full checklist here).I saw a flock of ducks take off and was hoping the Pintail wasn't among them, but fortunately he was still in the same place and keeping company with a group of Mallards.

Northern Pintail Preening
I think that many of our local ducks are quite beautiful (Mallards, Green-winged Teals, Wood Ducks) but none of them holds a candle to a drake Northern Pintail in sheer elegance. The long and slender profile combined with the chocolate brown head with white accents and the textured back make him a pretty dapper sight. I kept thinking that he was dressed in him finest suit and there were no ladies to be impressed. Maybe he'll fine the female that over-wintered between Jamaica and Leveret Ponds. He even flashed his green speculum feathers while preening. I spent maybe 10-15 minutes watching him and taking pictures. Much of the time while I was there he was vocalizing with a soft trilled whistle, much sweeter than a Mallards harsh sounds. But honestly, what else would you expect from a duck dressed like that? He actually sounded similarly to the Eurasian Teal at Newton City Hall. I tried to take a video so as to share his vocalizations but I'm afraid its a little jittery as the post-processing stabilization didn't work at all! But I thought I'd still include it just for the vocalizations, which will probably require that you turn up for volume a fair amount.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Snowy Owl at Boston's Belle Isle Marsh

Snowy Owl
 Two winters ago (the 2011-2012 season) had a great influx of Snowy Owls, so back in December I was amazed to watch an even larger invasion of Snowy Owls occur this winter as reports from all over the state and the rest of the East Coast poured in, this was going to be one of the biggest Snowy Owl seasons recorded. I knew that I would have to go and find at least one of the owls, so when I saw reports on Massbird of reliable Snowy Owls at Belle Isle Marsh in Boston, I made my plans.

Red-tailed Hawk
My first visit at the beginning of February sadly turned up no owls, but I was pleasantly surprised to find a state first Eastern Meadowlark out in the marsh. I thought my eyes must be playing tricks on me, but apparently there were other recent sightings of the Meadowlark. This is one of the reasons I love birding at Belle Isle Marsh, it has some fantastic habitat and has given me the opportunity to find many birds without needing to tack on a long drive. Some of my favorites memories from past visits to Belle Isle include watching Least Terns diving into the salt pans, startling Bobolinks from the trails, and hearing Willets calling from the marsh.

But this winter, the landscape has been drastically altered into a snow and ice scene suitable to the far arctic reaches of this planet. Ice flows lay broken on the marsh as the tide repeatedly lifted and dropped them on higher ground. Only the banks of the channels and few tall marsh grasses escaped the blanket of snow. Fortunately Belle Isle's current resemblance to the arctic tundra has led to a Snowy Owl or two taking up residence this winter. With a total of three visits in February, last weekend was the charm as I finally caught up with this bird that so many people had been reporting.  As my friend Greg and I walked out to the boardwalk overlooking the marsh, I was able to spot something that looked suspiciously like a Snowy Owl before I even raised my binoculars. Greg works down the hall from me and we've been swapping stories about Snowy Owls since we met, so it was quite a pleasure to finally get a chance to find one together.

Belle Isle Marsh

We must have sat on the edge of the boardwalk in the chilly wind for 20 minutes just watching her rest in the sun. Her head swiveled around to take in her surrounding and would occasionally look directly at us with those huge yellow eyes before resuming her vigil. Snowy Owls can have quite a lot of variation in how much dark brown barring they have in their feathers. As the owls grow older they become whiter and male owl tend to be lighter than females, though there is much overlap in the amount of barring (I found a much whiter Snowy Owl at Duxbury Beach 2 winters ago). This owl from Belle Isle seems to be slightly on the darker side, but there are definitely still darker individuals.

Mute Swans
With difficulty we tore ourselves away from the Snowy to check out the rest of Bell Isle Marsh. Out in the water American Black Ducks, Mallard, and Buffleheads were evident. One of the coolest sightings were two sets of three Mute Swans that flew overhead. I momentarily got my hopes up for Tundra Swans, but they were still beautiful to watch as I've rarely seen them fly before. The rest of the bird life included some usual winter residents, though I also saw reports of plenty of raptors, Horned Larks, and Snowy Buntings.

After telling some of my other co-workers about the owl (who doesn't love a Snowy Owl?), I heard that one of my co-workers thought he saw a Snowy Owl at Newton Center Playground maybe about 8 years ago. Just when I thought we'd never find a Snow Owl in Newton, though it would probably still take some uncommon luck to repeat that feat. So I'll leave you with a link to the ABA Blog about crazy places that Snowy Owls have been found during this winters invasion.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Hooded Merganser Study

I've always thought that Hooded Mergansers were one of the most beautiful birds to be found during the winter. They are usually way out on the water and are a little shy, so getting really good views or pictures of them is always challenging. I lucked out though on December 30th with two pairs of Hoodies in the Emerald Necklace in Boston. They didn't seem to much mind me, so I ducked behind some trees to take pictures and was treated to great views of them up close. I would always try to guess where they might resurface after a dive and was often quite surprised! (Click to enlarge the pictures)

Hooded Merganser (Male)

Hooded Merganser (Female)

Hooded Merganser Landing

Monday, February 3, 2014

2013 Recap and Recent Sightings and Thoughts

Mute Swans on the Charles River

 Since 2013 was the first full year of this blog I thought it would make sense to do a 2013 recap. A quick look through my eBird records for Greater Newton, which including immediately adjacent birding area (see here), give year count of 106 species while my Newton life total stands at 130 species.

I'll just list some of my favorites for the year:

Common Redpolls at Nahanton
Redheads at Hammond Pond
Tennessee Warbler at Houghton Gardens
Eurasian Green-winged Teal at Newton City Hall (and Bullough's Pond and Cold Spring Park)
 Yellow-breasted Chat, Philadelphia Vireo, Lincoln's Sparrow and Clay-colored Sparrow of Nahanton
Common Raven in Newton Center

Oddly I went the whole year without seeing any Ring-necked Ducks. Previously they were easy to find at Hammond Pond in the winter.

Red-tailed Hawk After the Hunt
Okay onto 2014. A few days ago I stopped by Millennium Park (the source of this posts pictures) after making a stop at Nahanton in search
 of the Northern Shrike. Part of my logic for visiting these places is that a Shrike was seen at Millennium back in Dec. They can have fairly large winter territories and prefer open spaces like fields and marshes. Given the sightings at Millennium and Nahanton this winter, it may not be too much of an assumption thinking that its territory may center on the Charles River and the wetlands at Cutler Park and surrounding areas.

But alas I did not find the Shrike. I did however get to watch as a Red-tailed Hawk launched himself off a telephone pole and swoop down into the fields and then return with a small mouse like critter. I then got to watch a lesson in mouse anatomy as the hawk ate lunch. The thing that surprised me the most was that he didn't seem to fall onto his prey that quickly, I almost thought he had decided to gently land and then spend time in the grass. It wasn't until he flew back to the light pole with prey in his talons that I knew for sure what had happened. Other than the excitement of witnessing the hunt from beginning to end, only some of the regular birds were around (full checklist here).