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.