Monday, August 27, 2012

Still slogging away at the shorebirds ...

So far this year, I've seen 36 species of Shorebird in New York State but I'm still hoping for three or four more before the year is out.  To that end, I'm still hitting the shorebird spots on Long Island at least three or four days a week, hoping for a Hudsonian Godwit, a Red Phalarope, or one of the rarities that could still potentially show up here.  Hadn't had much luck of late so was excited on Sunday afternoon when, while I was watching American Golden Plovers along Doctor's Path near Riverhead, Andrew Baksh called to say that two Hudsonian Godwits had just been found at Jamaica Bay.  The problem is that Riverhead is on the East end of the Island and Jamaica Bay is on the West end, and unfortunately by the time I got there, the birds had vanished.  After checking the West Pond and the South end of the East Pond at Jamaica Bay I gave up on the Hudwits in the fading light, but resolved to try again on Monday.

I didn't get the early start I wanted this morning and unfortunately, just as I was booting up in the parking lot near the East Pond I got the update from Andrew that there was still no sign of the Hudwits.  Nevertheless I went in and enjoyed good looks at the American White Pelican, an American Avocet, and a decent selection of shorebirds.   Steve Walter reminded everyone that the Hudwits were seen on the high tide, so having five hours to kill before then I wandered East to check Jones Beach, Oak Beach and Heckscher State Park, racking up a decent selection of shorebirds, but no Hudwits and nothing new for the year.

Back at Jamaica Bay in the afternoon, I had to deal with a massive thunderstorm, so pushed back into the phragmites (no-one wants to stand on a mud-flat with a metal tripod in a thunderstorm) and hunkered down under my umbrella.  When the storm cleared, there were a *lot* of shorebirds to look at and, even if the Hudwits didn't show up, I spent a pleasant couple of hours wading through them.

Buff-breasted Sandpiper (2 shots)

One of the first birds I picked up was a BUFF-BREASTED SANDPIPER, a bit of a shock on the East Pond but presumably dumped by the storm.  Andrew Baksh arrived soon afterwards and saw that bird, and quickly found a Western Sandpiper, a bird that has been in short supply on Long Island this year.  We also racked up a pretty decent shorebird list with 17 species at the high tide.  Hudsonian Godwit however, will have to wait for another day ....

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Stumped by a Peep - a lesson in Summer Peeping ...

Perhaps the best thing about this year is actually learning the local birds - as in really learning them.   It has been many years since I looked at Shorebirds; in fact, before this year, the last time I spent a solid multi-day block of time on shorebirds, was probably in Thailand in 2003.  So my immersion in the shorebirds of Long Island has been a lot of fun.

Today I learned some new things - partly about birds, but more importantly about how I approach bird identification.  As I was heading down to the bay this morning, I got a call from Derek Rogers who had found a peep that seemed very odd/promising to him.  He described a bird that was smaller than the Semipalmated Sandpipers, had black legs, lots of white-edged rufous on the back, short projection, and a short bill.  A simple sentence, but right there he had eliminated 7 of the 9 peeps (black legs eliminate Least, Temmink's and Long-toed, the short bill eliminates Western, short projection eliminates Baird's and White-rumped, and the rufous eliminates Semipalmated).  What's left are Red-necked and Little Stints; both very good birds in the Eastern US.

I had plans to get gas and breakfast on my way to the bay, but after the call, I went straight to the parking lot.  Derek was still there but on his way out.  He had some distant photos but it was clear that I needed to get some better ones and get a better look at the bird.  I booted up and headed in to the East Pond.

I quickly found "the bird" and took a bunch of photos - I tend to shoot at a distance and then crop later so its really hard to see anything meaningful on the viewfinder of the camera after the fact.  The bird was interesting though and I went through the process of eliminating options.

Black legs: not Temmink's Stint, Least Sandpiper, or Long-toed Stint.
Short projection: not White-rumped Sandpiper, or Baird's Sandpiper.
Rufous of the uppersides: not a Semipalmated Sandpiper.
Short Thick Bill (and no 'anchors' on scapulars): not Western Sandpiper, or Little Stint.
Black/rufous wing-coverts: not Red-necked Stint (they would be gray).
Which leaves .... well nothing really.

So having eliminated all 9 peeps I was at a bit of a loss and sat staring at the photos for a long time while Derek texted me for an opinion or an answer.  I might have waited until I got to my bird book library on Friday but I had to consider "other birder" pressure - if this was something good/rare, and it was subsequently identified as such, folks would be mad that I hadn't got the word out promptly giving them a chance to see it.  So I either had to posit an ID, or ask for help.

Logically, either this was a new species (a tad unlikely), or one of my rules for peep ID was wrong.  So assuming my rules were wrong I started to go back through them, and ask some tangental questions.  Clearly Little Stint was top of mind given the recent sighting in Connecticut.  Is that bill short/straight enough?  Not really.  Is that a fork in the eye-strip?  Yes, sort of, but not really as pronounced as it should be.  Are those 'white braces'?  Yes, sort of .... but overall, the bird just didn't feel right.

So was I missing something with the bird?  Was that mud covering green legs and not black legs after all?  Again, perhaps, but even if it was, the bill was just too thick for Least.

The one question I didn't ask, interestingly enough, was "do Semipalmated Sandpipers sometimes have rufous uppersides?"  For some reason this was hard-coded as an absolute rule in my mind, and probably had been for many years.

So coming to a dead end, and feeling the pressure to get the word out quickly, I folded, and e-mailed Shai Mitral and Andrew Baksh.   I also threw up some photos on the New York Birders page on Facebook. Derek in the meantime, had e-mailed his pal David Sibley.

The quick answer was that this was an unusually bright and colorful Semipalmated Sandpiper.  Duh ....

So the lesson learned.  Get out of the rule set and look at the bird.  If a bird doesn't fit into the model, then take a step back and think about what it looks like.  Learned a lot today ....

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Photospot: Baird's Sandpiper at Jamaica Bay

Wandered around a bit today picking up numbers, if not variety, of gulls, terns and shorebirds at Jones Beach, Heckscher SP and Jamaica Bay.  Bird of the day was this juvenile Baird's Sandpiper.  Don't see a lot of them so took a bunch of photos.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Is it still a 'Grasspiper Slam' if you take 2 days to do it?

After yesterday's epic drive I was looking forward to a day off but it wasn't to be.  Enjoyed a quiet morning until I got a text from Andrew Baksh saying that there was a Baird's Sandpiper at Jamaica Bay.  Given that I'd looked so hard for one yesterday I figured it was worth a try, so off again...

Arrived at the East Pond of Jamaica Bay at 12:45pm.  There were lots of birders leaving the East Pond as I went in and several told me that the Baird's had flown and hadn't been seen in a while.  Pushing on (I'm stubborn) I worked my way North along the East shore of the pond checking all the peeps.  Luck was on my side today and within a half hour I got a call from Andrew Baksh saying that he'd relocated the bird at the North End near the island.   Sure enough, 10 minutes later I caught up with Andrew and the Baird's (NYS 2012# 336).

Baird's Sandpiper in Urban Setting (2 shots)

We also had a curious and perplexing dowitcher.  Everything about it looked Short-billed but it called frequently and every call was a Long-billed call ("Keep" or "pip-pip-pip").  I don't like Dowitchers ...

Just nipping up to Buffalo to look for a gull, back soon ...

3am Saturday morning and I'm awake and trudging through darkness and rain to get the car.  I'd originally planned to go out to Long Island again, but after three trips out there during the week, I've talked myself into running the 5+ hours up to Montezuma NWR instead, mostly for a change of scenery.  By 8am I'm getting close to Montezuma but a new plan has been slowly taking over as I slog along the long miles of I-87 and I-90.  On Friday Willie D'Anna had a FRANKLIN's GULL at Niagara and, while I know it's a really stupid idea to chase a gull that hasn't been pinned down yet, I'm a big fan of gulls.  So when the Montezuma exit comes up at 8:30am, I speed past and drive the extra three hours to the village of Wilson on the Lake Ontario shore East of Niagara.

Well turns out I was right .... it as a dumb idea to chase a gull that hasn't been pinned down.  Willie has gone off to chase a Sandwich Tern and, while Betsy D'Anna does head out a couple of time to check for the bird (and e-mails me some suggestions on where to look), I'm pretty much searching on my own.  Lake Ontario is awfully big it turns out, and after 4 hours of searching I realize I'm going to have to head back if I plan to get back by midnight (as promised).  Franklin's Gull will have to wait for another day ...

Caspian Terns on Lake Ontario (2 shots)

So turning around with a nearly 9 hour drive ahead of me, I make the fatal mistake of checking bird alerts.  The folks of Long Island are seeing lots of American Golden Plovers and a Buff-breasted Sandpiper.  So are the folks at Montezuma so this time, when the Montezuma exit comes up, I pull off and head over to East Road, arriving around 6:00pm.

Montezuma NWR is a really neat place and today it is very birdy.  There are Bald Eagles and Sandhill Cranes, lots of ducks and herons and quite a few shorebirds.   Joining a group of birders, we quickly pick up 4 AMERICAN GOLDEN PLOVERS (NYS 2012 # 334) and then a BUFF-BREASTED SANDPIPER (#335), one of my all-time favorite species.  I spend a lot of time looking for the previously reported Baird's Sandpiper, hoping for the 'Grasspiper Slam' but come up empty.   Still, the thorough search adds 2 Wilson's Phalaropes, a Red-necked Phalarope, 5 Common Gallinules and a Virginia Rail.  By the time I look at my watch, prompted by a dusk-calling Eastern Screech-Owl, its 7:45pm and I know I'm in for a long night of driving.

Home at 2am, and back to bed.  23 hours on the road, 1,000+ miles of driving, and no Franklin's Gull.  That's just how it goes some times and, as a believer in birding karma, I'm hoping I stored up a good balance today to be cashed in at a later date.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Barola (Little) Shearwater - Nova Scotia

Way to go Tom Johnson - that's one helluva bird this side of the Atlantic!  A mere handful of records of this species from the ABA area.  Great pics on his eBird checklist.


Thursday, August 16, 2012

Blasts from the Past: Maned Wolves

[Random shots from my travels around the world over the years]

One of the coolest Natural History activities to do in Brazil is to go and check out the "feeders" at the Caraça Sanctuary in Minais Gerais.  I have chickadees at my feeder in New York, but the folks at Caraça have something a little more exciting.  

After reading about it for years, I finally got to check it out in August 2004 on a birding trip with Philip Dempsey, Judy Davis, and Michael Duffy.  Caraça is an active monastery which has preserved a significant slug of good habitat around it.  To make ends meet, the monks have converted part of the monastery into a hotel and market themselves primarily to eco-tourists.  The rooms feel very much like monks' cells, well, because they were monks' cells at some point.  The food was basic, but the beer was cold and the birding around the monastery was pretty good (lots of Swallow-tailed Cotingas), even if the weather was a little mixed.  The highlight however, was the "feeders".

After dinner we went to a terraced area overlooking the grounds and, along with 20 or so other tourists, positioned ourself around the edges, leaving the center area open.  At the appointed hour a monk appeared and placed a tray of meat in the center of the terrance, banging on the tray and making enough noise to attract potential dinner guests.  And then we waited, silent with the proverbial baited breath, to see if the star animal would come in for dinner ....

Is that something in the shadows?

The Maned Wolf comes cautiously up onto the terrace ...

Dinner is served ....

Judy, Michael and Philip (and their beers) ...

Charismatic Megafauna .....
Just a very neat natural history experience and well worth the trip.  Makes the Gray Squirrels and Raccoons at my feeders seem a little too tame somehow.

Photospot: Common Dolphins off Montauk

More shots of the Short-beaked Common Dolphins that have been hanging out close to Montauk this Summer.  There don't seem to be any whales close inshore but the dolphins have kept things interesting while the birding is slow ...

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Pelicans and Shorebirds on Long Island today ...

Wasn't sure what to do this morning so wasn't rushing to get on the road.  I was thinking that I might check the sod-farms around Riverhead even though its still a bit early for Grasspipers.  While I was dithering over coffee I got a text from Andrew Baksh who had just found an AMERICAN WHITE PELICAN at Jamaica Bay.  So I had a plan, and rushed off to the car, arriving at the East Pond at around 8am and quickly finding the bird (NYS 2012 #333).   Now if only I could find a Brown Pelican ...

American White Pelican
Anxious to get to the pelican, I'd run into the East Pond in sandals and with just my bins and camera.  Not really able to study the shorebirds, I turned around and walked out, passing Patricia Lindsay and Rob Bate heading in to look for the bird.  I did see a White-rumped Sandpiper, but otherwise a brief, but rewarding stop at Jamaican Bay.

White-rumped Sandpiper
Next stop was Jones Beach West End, where I hoped for a 2 Pelican day but the Brown Pelicans that had been there on Saturday have failed to return since then.  I did get a Marbled Godwit and a Whimbrel and spent some time with a gang of Long Island birders who'd gathered at the spot mid-morning.

Then off Out East; I'd seen some shorebirds on a sod field near Manorville a few days back but couldn't stop for them at the time so I wanted to return to check them out.  The grasspipers turned out to be just Killdeer but at least I worked out how to check that particular sod farm in September.  More sandpipers ended my day at Heckscher State Park where a small puddle held 7 Pectoral Sandpipers and an assortment of other shorebirds.  Studied Pectorals up close for the first time in years; Sharp-tailed Sandpiper has been found in New York before now, but not to be today.  This particular spot looks good for a range of shorebirds this Fall though, assuming we get enough rain.

Pectoral Sandpiper (two shots)

Monday, August 13, 2012

Western Wanderers - hoping for lots this Fall ...

Still wallowing in the Summer Doldrums but there are signs that migration may be starting up again.  Warbler migration is slowly picking up, with more species being reported daily from Central Park, and shorebird migration continues to crawl along.  New York State year-bird #332nd was a shorebird; a MARBLED GODWIT seen at the Ponquogue Bridge flats on Friday, but I'm still hoping for 4 or 5 more species before we're done.  I'm also still hoping for a hurricane in the hope of getting some of the goodies we all enjoyed here last year in August - no sign of one so far though.

Also on the passerine front, the Fall can produce a wide range of Western wanderers on Long Island so I'm naturally hoping that we have a good season.  The first of the season here, a LARK SPARROW, showed up at Jones Beach a few days ago and, while it wasn't a year bird, I dropped by to see it today. The bird was feeding in the weeds growing from cracks in a concrete parking lot and was very confiding.  I pulled the car up about 50 feet away from it but it came closer and closer during the 15 minutes I watched it, eventually allowing for some decent photographs.  Let's hope there are more Western birds coming along behind this one.

Lark Sparrow at Jones Beach

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Dolphins, dolphins everywhere, but not a bird to see ....

Another CRESLI Whale-watching trip, this time joined by Dave Klauber and Bobby Rosetti, two veterans of pelagic birding trips around the world.  We had low expectations but if you don't put the time in, you don't see things, so we settled in to scout the near-shore waters South of Montauk.

Not too much to report on the bird front with the only tubenoses being 35 Wilson's Storm-Petrels and 3 Cory's Shearwaters.  There were a few other birds about, including a Northern Gannet, a Black Tern, and a scattering of Loons, and Common Eider.  We also had a few migrant shorebirds, some ID'd as Sanderlings, and managed to pick a Roseate Tern from the feeding Common Terns around the point.  No Pelicans or Frigatebirds this time, perhaps next week ....

Inshore Bottlenose Dolphins
The "non-birds" put on a better show; appropriate considering we were on a whale-watching boat.  We had 50+ Inshore Bottlenose Dolphins and 20 Short-beaked Common Dolphins.  We also had more breaching Basking Sharks, an airborne Atlantic Needlefish, and a few small Mahi Mahi chasing bait on the surface.  We even had a migrant Red Bat that powered past us on its way towards Montauk.

Short-beaked Common Dolphin
'Beast of the Trip' though was a herp - a LEATHERBACK SEA-TURTLE that we came across about 5-miles South of the Montauk Light.  My photo was terrible (the head went down and the turtle dove just as I found it in the frame), but it's always a thrill to see these dinosaurs in person.  It was also my 4th species of Sea-Turtle seen from Montauk this Summer.  So few people realize that all this life is out there, so close to shore - I have surfing friends who have never seen a dolphin from Long Island despite spending thousands of hours in the water.  While the birds weren't the best, there are much worse ways to spent a Wednesday.

Leatherback Sea-Turtle (honestly)

Monday, August 6, 2012

Are there really Long-billed Dowitchers?

So Monday morning and back to the grind, which for me means back to Jamaica Bay and the shorebirds - I know, it's tough to be me.

Got to the North end of the East Pond at around 8:00am and quickly saw that there were quite a lot of birds to be seen.  Andrew Baksh, who lives at Jamaica Bay (maybe he burrows into the mud at night) and I hope one day will find us that Little Stint he's been looking for all Summer, was working ahead of me but otherwise I had the North End to myself.  I worked down to a good vantage point and scanned for the next three hours, seeing perhaps 1,800 shorebirds of 15 species.  Not bad for New York City.

Among the highlights today were four American Avocets, a Pectoral Sandpiper, and a couple of Wilson's Phalaropes.  The most common birds were perhaps 750 Short-billed Dowitchers and 800 Semipalmated Sandpipers and I spent the next four hours trying to winkle something more interesting out of them but failed to come up with any Western Sandpipers or rarer peeps.  Dowitchers are always a challenge here and I've been struggling to find a Long-billed Dowitcher all year, getting increasingly frustrated as others have seen them while I go blind staring at the hundreds of Short-billed Dowitchers, looking for the subtle differences that are so tricky at 100-yards in difficult light.  Today I had a couple of good prospects, but they blended back into the pack and failed the second look test in every case.  I eventually gave up and started taking Avocet photos and, while I was watching them, a lone dowitcher flew close in front of me and called "KEEP" - LONG-BILLED DOWITCHER! (NYS-2012 #331) - before flying in to the roost.  Jumping on my scope I tried to follow it in, but couldn't pick it up again, let alone get a photo.  So frustrating!  I will get a photo before the Summer is out ....

Three of the Four American Avocets present today.
Away from the shorebirds, I spent a little time with a couple of Yellow-crowned Night Herons and tested my auto-focus against a turbo-charged Peregrine that stopped by for a shorebird brunch.  The water-levels at the bay continue to look great (thank you to the National Park folks to manage it) so I'm pretty optimistic for some more good things later this Summer.  Is it greedy to ask for more after four Ruffs and five Avocets?  Nah ....

The Peregrine Falcon that dropped by for a little shorebird brunch ...

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Another new Atlantic Shearwater to worry about?

Once upon a time there were just 5 species of Shearwater we had to worry about in the North Atlantic (Great, Cory's, Sooty, Manx, Audubon's) and life was good.  Then along came some splitters and pointed out that the situation was probably a tad more complex than we had thought, leading to Yelkouan Shearwater and Balearic Shearwater.  More recently, we got to start fretting about Cape Verde Shearwater, and the one I missed this Spring off Long Island (while I was in the Adirondacks, feeding the mosquitos and not seeing Spruce Grouse) still rankles a bit.  Now, it looks as though Scopoli's Shearwater (the Mediterranean breeding populations of Cory's Shearwater) is set to become a species too.  So, in short, no more off-the-cuff Cory's Shearwater IDs and each bird now has to be studied to tease apart these sister species.

Went out on the CRESLI (Coastal Research and Conservation Society of Long Island) Whale-watching trip on the Viking Fleet yesterday.  A number of New York birders including Corey Finger, Richard Fried and Shaibal Mitra initially planned to go, but they dropped out one-by-one leaving just me, Jacob Drucker and Lila Fried boarding the boat at 9:30am.  I rarely go out with this crew because they are primarily focussed on Whales and Dolphins, stray often into Rhode Island waters, and don't tend to go very far offshore.  Having said that, it is a cheap way to get out on the water and for only $75, you are at least out there 10-30 miles South of Long Island, and who knows what might show up.

As it happens, there wasn't that much to see bird-wise, or whale-wise for that matter, but we did eventually bump into a pod of about 60 Short-beaked Common Dolphins which made the Whale-watching part of the trip a big success for the, mostly French, tourists on board.   A Kemp's Ridley-Turtle was also notable, albeit seen briefly, as were a couple of breaching Basking Sharks.

Short-beaked common Dolphin (2 shots)

Back to the birds and we worked pretty hard all day, picking up a single Parasitic Jaeger, 95 Wilson's Storm-Petrels, 15 Great Shearwaters and about 20 "Cory's Shearwaters".  Within the Cory's, some were indeterminate, most were the borealis ssp. but one bird looked pretty good for a SCOPOLI'S SHEARWATER, showing lots of white on the primaries.  I don't think it's a slam-dunk, the white is not as crisp as some of the illustrations/pictures I've seen, but it was at least intriguingly different and we reported it as a "possible" Scopoli's, putting photos out there for comment.

'borealis' Cory's Shearwater - note all dark primaries.

Possible Scopoli's Shearwater (2 shots) - note pale bases to primaries.

Scopoli's is supposed to also be smaller, lighter in build, and paler than Cory's and while it did seem to be a lightly-built bird, paleness is really difficult to discern when so many of the Cory's were in molt and looking pretty scruffy.  Still, an interesting bird, and no doubt one that we'll all be getting used to (expert at) differentiating if indeed it does get split.

Update:  as of September 2012, the BOU has split this species.  Who knows whether the AOU (or Clements, which matters more for World Listers) will follow suit.