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.