Friday, December 26, 2014

Yet another Rare Kingbird in New York City

Couch's Kingbird in Greenwich Village ...

I had a hangover this morning.  I think one is probably supposed to have a hangover the day after Christmas so I really hadn't planned to do very much today.   We woke up late and while we had breakfast I flicked through the posts and emails that had come in over night.  I saw that the Cassin's Kingbird was still being seen in Brooklyn, skipped over some other kingbird related titles, then stopped dead and did a re-wind.  One of the kingbird titles didn't say Cassin's at all but actually said Couch's/Tropical Kingbird in the West Village!  Well that was a surprise ....

The bird had apparently been first seen over six weeks ago and the finder, wondering if it might be a Western Kingbird, had reached out to more experienced birders for help.  They'd suggested he get a photo, thinking no doubt that a kingbird of any sort was pretty unlikely in the center of the heavily urban West Village.  Yesterday he did finally manage to get a photograph and forwarded it along to his birder friends - not a Western Kingbird, but something much better (although tough to ID from a photo).  So the word got out last night, and this morning New York's birding mob assembled on Washington Street in the Village eager for yet more kingbird action.

Before I could go birding I had to run some errands and drive over to Williamsburg to drop off Kelvin.  On the way we actually passed within a block of the bird's location but I resisted the urge to try to sneak in a quick stop and planned to retrace my steps a little later.  While I was in Brooklyn I got to check the list serves again though and learned that the bird had been re-found by Jacob Drucker, Doug Gochfeld, et al and definitely identified as a COUCH'S KINGBIRD - the first record for New York State and one of only a handful of records for this South Texas specialty anywhere in the NorthEast.  By 11:00am, chores done and I was free to come back and look for the bird so I came back to Manhattan, headed to the Village, found the gaggle of birders (bird clearly not in sight), parked the car, and took my place in the stakeout line with half the serious NYC and Long Island birders already on site.

I didn't have to wait long, and about ten minutes later, while I was chatting with Andrew Baksh, the bird flew over the building behind us and landed a strip of trees in front of an apartment building.

Couch's Kingbird, West Village, New York County, NY (December 2014)
Photo: Seth Wollney (used with permission)
The bird seemed to be in great health and seemed to have no problem finding things to eat.  Earlier in the morning it had apparently been seen collecting bluebottle flies from the apartment building terraces, but it also hawked and caught several insects on the wing while I watched it.

The presence of 40 or 50 strange people with binoculars, telescopes and giant camera lenses also drew more than a little interest from the locals, many of who stopped by to see the rare bird from Texas that was inexplicably hanging out on their city block.  It was also quite fun to see the different reactions from people - the people who were fascinated by the rare bird versus the people who were quiet disappointed that we weren't watching some celebrity or other.  The bird also made the press with several blogs (like this one, which seems trendy) and even the New York Post (our own Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid) giving it a mention.

So as of now, we have two super-rare Kingbirds in New York City - one a state second record, and this one a state first.  Wonder what will show up next?

Update 1/1/2015: both Kingbirds are (amazingly) still hanging on in New York.  Spend the morning looking for the Cassin's Kingbird in Brooklyn with no luck.  Again though, when I left to get lunch, the bird showed up at it's habitual spot (this time found by Rick Cech) and I was able to circle back and get it.  Perhaps it doesn't come to the garden until it gets warmer, but even then, I think the bird is looking weak, with drooping wings, not sure it'll make it much longer.

With the Cassin's under my belt, I decided to try for the Couch's and headed back to Manhattan.  Once I'd got there and found parking spot, I checked the list serves and saw that the bird was being seen at West 11th Street and West 4th, quite a way from the original spot, and where I'd parked.  I schlepped over there, all the way passing birders who had seen the birds and said that it had already left the area and flown to a private (and non-viewable) garden area.  Still, I pushed on, and arrived at the previous location, settled in for a wait, and after only a couple of minutes the bird flew back and started hunting from the trees and fire-escapes on nearby buildings.

While the Cassin's looked, well hungry, and I didn't see it eat this morning, the Couch's is clearly still finding food to eat.  It seemed to be picking insects (bluebottles?) off the white walls of the brownstone buildings at the intersection and seemed to be feeding successfully the whole time I watched.  I'm not optimistic for the Cassin's but I'm hopeful that the Couch's may make it through the Winter.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Sometimes You Get Second Chances .... Cassin's Kingbird in Brooklyn

A blunder then redemption ....

Got a late start today but when I finally got moving I decided to get off Manhattan and do some Brooklyn birding.  I headed over to Floyd Bennet Field (a disused WWII air base, now mostly wild space) not with any particular goal in mind but there had been a Cassin's Kingbird seen briefly at that spot last week and it seemed as good a place as any to look for late Fall migrants.  The Kingbird was a well documented single observer bird and only the second ever seen in New York State.  Many birders had searched extensively the next day and failed to relocate it, and with no sightings all week it was a pretty safe bet that the bird was long gone.  Rarities aside though, I had a good feeling about Floyd Bennet and figured I might find something interesting lurking in the grass and scrub around the disused runways and hangers.

Today started out well with a quick check through the Horned Lark flock on the Cricket Field actually producing a Lapland Longspur.  I always look for them here, but I never find them, so my luck was clearly in today.

Bad photo of a Lapland Longspur with Horned Larks but it's the only one
I got before the birds flushed (they came back but I didn't want to bug
them too much)
There were plenty of other birds to see too - some Red Fox Sparrows mixed with Field Sparrows, a flock of Eastern Bluebirds, lots of Myrtle Warblers and a good mix of raptors.  I got into 'the zone' and started having a really fun time working through the grasses and scrub just counting sparrows.  As I worked the area behind the communal gardens though, I saw a bird that stopped me in my tracks.  I got just the quickest glimpse of the bird flying away from me, but the subliminal impression it left was a "Western-type" Kingbird.  I saw only the back but the wing and tail shape fit really well - I turned around and spent the next 30 minutes trying to get another look at the bird.

Now while I was busy looking for the bird, my brain was working overtime.  Was it a Kingbird?  Was it the Cassin's Kingbird?  That seemed really unlikely given that it had been searched for unsuccessfully all week - so perhaps my mind was playing tricks on me.  Wishful thinking?  I was practically muttering to myself after a half and hour and had pretty much convinced myself that I'd hallucinated.   Fearing for my mental health I decided to take a break and drove out of the park to get some lunch.  Not 20 minutes later the phone rang.  Andrew Baksh was on the line.  "Are you still at Floyd Bennet?  The Cassin's Kingbird is still here.  It's in the area behind the communal gardens".  Perhaps I should consider another hobby ....

So humble pie for lunch and back to the gardens to look for the bird again, this time with lots of company as 30 or 40 birders had quickly joined the hunt.  When I got back the news wasn't good.  The bird had flown off to the East, survived an attempted attack by a Sharp-shinned Hawk, and vanished behind some pines lost to sight for 20 minutes or so by the time I got there.  With so many people looking though it was only a matter of time before it was re-found and sure enough it popped up a half hour later right back where I'd seen it in the morning.

Cassin's Kingbird (2 shots)

This bird was a second state record for New York State and a State Bird for me (I'd been close to the first record in Montauk - I was on a fishing boat just off-shore when it was found, but by the time I got back to land the bird had vanished).  My second State Bird in two weeks ....

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Invincible Common Ground-Dove of Jones Beach

Vagrants and the return of early Winter birds on Long Island

So this weekend was a good weekend for vagrants on Long Island, but not really a good weekend for vagrants sticking around to be seen by birders.  Two separate White-winged Doves were found at either end of the Island but neither remained in place long enough for others to see.  Not that many birders would have chased them in any case as just about every birder on Long Island was out trying to re-find a Cassin's Kingbird (2nd state record) that one lucky observer saw and photographed on Saturday in Brooklyn.  Sometimes the birds just don't cooperate ....

I really wasn't too concerned about the rarities this weekend; I'd decided to go out to East Hampton on Friday and had plans to do some local birding and some gardening (last chance for bulbs!).  My original plans would have had me stay 'East of the Canal' all weekend, birding in Montauk and the Hamptons, but a peculiar individual bird got in my head and persuaded me to change my plans....

About 2 weeks ago someone found a Common Ground-Dove at the Coastguard Station at Jones Beach State Park in Nassau County.  As a second New York state record the word was put out quickly and birders rushed over to the park to see it - only to be ordered away from the station by a Coast Guard 'Trainee' who clearly though a group of middle-aged folk with binoculars were a terrible threat to the base and national security, perhaps an advance guard for the Islamic State's planned invasion of suburban Long Island?  Undeterred, birders came back the next day and dodged the Coast Guard patrols only to see the dove get taken and carried off by a Merlin ... game over.  It seemed that I was not fated to add this species to my state list (I'd missed the previous record 4 years ago).

Or perhaps not.  Fast forward a week and 'another' Common Ground-Dove was found a couple of hundred yards away; this one missing a tail.  Could the original bird have survived a Merlin attack?  Looks like this was one tough dove and I wondered if it might stick around, braving the cold and the density of migrating raptors at Jones Beach.  Each day brought a new report of the bird still being seen so on Saturday morning I gave in to the pressure and ran back West to Jones Beach to see if I could find this dove.

Turns out the bird was easy to see - as I pulled into the parking lot I noticed a small lump out in the open and sure enough, it was a Ground-Dove feeding in the weeds that grow in the cracks between the concrete slabs in the lot.  I pulled up the car and took some photos then parked and started to walk back only to see the bird flushed by a birder who clearly hadn't seen it before it took off.  So, with the bird out of view, I decided to call it a success and head back to my original plan of birding in the Hamptons.

Common Ground Dove (2 Shots)

So back to the Hamptons where I hit a bunch of local spots on Saturday morning and did the standard Montauk circuit on Sunday morning.  There were a few of the Winter birds back in the area - American Tree Sparrows at Napeague and Snow Buntings at Mecox but most of the Winter goodies that people come out to the East End for just weren't back in place yet.

There's a lot of white under a Snow Bunting ...  (at Mecox Inlet)
A sea-watch did produce a lot of Common Loons, 3 Scoter species, Greater Scaup and Common Eiders but no Alcids yet.  Time on the gulls flocks turned up the usual species and even a few lingering Laughing Gulls but none of the good Winter gulls that should show up soon.  Even Larry the super-regular Lesser Black-backed Gull that Winters in Napeague hadn't made his way back to his regular beach yet.  Just a few weeks early I guess but I did see some good things and felt like I was getting back into the swing of birding the local spots.

Perhaps the best things I saw on Sunday were actually mammals.  Two Gray Seals put on quite a show fishing close to shore at Montauk Point - I forget how big these guys are (we only have Harbor seals to look at all Summer) and am always shocked when one pops up in the scope at close range.  I also got to spend some quality time with a couple of very tame Red Foxes who I came very close to at Teddy Roosevelt County Park.  These guys were very relaxed in my presence and sat calmly as I walked by less than 50 feet away - so relaxed in fact that I wondered if I was about to have to fend rabid foxes off with my tripod.  Luckily they let me pass safely and rabies-free.

One of two Red Foxes in Montauk - one day I'll see one of Montauk's mythical Gray Foxes ...

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Northern Wheatear in New York City

Brooklyn in the rain for a New York City bird ...

After a super busy week I was really ready for some outdoor time on Saturday.  I didn't get round to checking the weather though so when I finally did I was just a bit disappointed to see that the forecast for New York was basically ... well torrential rain all day.  Still, being Welsh (I essentially grew up in a place where light rain is a Summer's Day and a nice break from the typical weather - i.e. heavy rain) I figured I'd go out anyway so headed over to Brooklyn to look for a Northern Wheatear that Shane Blodgett had found earlier in the week.

Shane may well be the ultimate patch birder; he flogs the Brooklyn shore spots and consistently finds rarities.   Skills + persistence = results.  The bird had been seen on-and-off during the week with many folks dipping and assuming that the bird had left.  Still, last night there was another report, and then this morning Rob Jett reported that the bird was still present, so off I went, sloshing through the rain on the BQE to the Plumb Beach parking lot.

When I got there I quickly found a mob of birders standing around in the light drizzle but heard that the bird hadn't been seen in a while. So we set up for a stake out and waited for the bird to reappear, which it duly did when Dave Klauber spotted it flying towards a railroad sleeper in the marsh not 30 minutes later.

 Wheatears seem to like something to perch up on, but in the marsh there weren't a lot of places to sit on - just a couple of driftwood logs, including this railroad sleeper.  The wheatear (or 'wet' ear) worked around the giant log, jumped up on it a few times, and kept coming back to it as a hunting perch.

This particular bird had been around all week and several folks have asked about it's age and sex.  Turns out that's not easy to determine.
 Here's Angus Wilson's take on an earlier New York Wheatear (opinion of a local expert birder ) and this stuff is way beyond my pay grade.

Several other local bird bloggers also got better shots (without torrential rain).  Here's the blog from Corey Finger for example.

 This was my 4th Northern Wheatear of 2014 (the others all being in Newfoundland) but only my second ever in New York State and my first for New York City!

I do have a soft spot for this species.  As a kid in Wales, Wheatears were the first real migrant of Spring (absent the odd Bank Swallow or Sand Martin as we called them) and were eagerly anticipated.

The Wheatears showed up on the coast in late March and were the heralds of the Spring migration to come.  We used to comb through the flocks of Wheatears (often in the cold with driving rain - some things don't change) looking for Ring Ouzels and trying to separate the Greenland Wheatears for the "Common" Wheatears.  Seeing one always takes me back to my childhood in Wales.  The rain today just added to the authenticity of the experience.

And rain it did.  While we were watching the bird the heavens opened and light rain was replaced by a torrential downpour (I mean real Ark-building weather) soaking everyone foolish enough to be standing out on a beach looking for birds.  I was completely soaked through, wet jeans, wet wallet, and a wet phone (which promptly died when I got back to the car, and never recovered).  So I see an iPhone 6 in my future ...

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Whiskered Tern in Cape May, New Jersey

A quick twitch for another European vagrant.  A tale of three twitches.

Twitch #1: In 1985 I was a rabid teenage birder simply itching to see new species.  With no car, and no birders in the family, my options were limited but desperate to see new things I decided to start hitch-hiking to chase rarities in the UK.  One of the first twitches was to chase a WHISKERED TERN that had shown up in Devon.  Three rides, three hours, and I got the bird!  So easy (although I did meet some "interesting" people on the way).  I thought the trip a great success and many similar trips were to follow in the coming years.

Twitch #2: Fast forward 8 years to 1993 and I was living in New York when a Whiskered Tern showed up at Cape May, and was later re-found in the Bombay Hook area of Delaware.  By that point I'd seen the species in several countries (and have since seen it in several more) but, this being an ABA bird, Philip Dempsey and I drove down to try to see it.  We dipped....

Twitch #3: Fast forward another 21 years and on Friday I heard that Louise Zemaitis had found another Whiskered Tern in Cape May, NJ.  I woke up on Saturday morning to a barrage of photos of the bird on Facebook - it seemed to be sticking, so perhaps I should try again?  Some quick texts to old birding buddies Philip Dempsey and Michael Duffy and come Sunday morning we were on our way at 6am with a 3+ hour drive ahead of us.

Cape May Lighthouse (photo: Michael Duffy)
On the way down we were a little troubled at the lack of reports and the puzzling silence on Facebook.  Had the bird left?

Stopping for coffee somewhere in central Jersey we all anxiously checked our phones and (to our great relief) got word that the bird was still being seen.  When we got to Cape May at 9:15am the news wasn't great though; the bird had been seen a couple of times early in the morning but hadn't been seen for some time.  We'd come all this way though so we settled in to watch and an hour later the word got out that the bird had reappeared on the beach in the tern/gull roost.

Whiskered Tern - dead center in this long-distance record shot.
Mission accomplished - although too far away to get decent shots.  So after watching the bird until it wandered off, we decided to do the same and hit some local birding spots.  Heading back to the beach an hour or so later we again got distant views of the bird and watched it until it picked up and flew over to feed at Bunker Pond.  While I never did get more than record shots we did get to watch the bird for 20 minutes as it fed over the fresh water.  An interesting feeding style, swirling over the pond then dropping to grab damselflies (?) on the water surface.  Nice views, great bird.  Only the 3rd record for the ABA ever.  Very glad we came.

Whiskered Tern - two distant flight shots.

The bird was good but perhaps the best part of the day was catching up with old friends.  I don't often get to bird with Michael and Philip these days (Michael became a world-lister and Philip a surfer).  I also got to spend time with Louise Zemaitis and Michael O'Brien, Jeff Gordon, Mary Gustafson, etc.  A veritable who's who of the birding world in one place.  Who knows, perhaps I should twitch more often ....

Photo: Michael Duffy
Postscript: 8 days later and the bird is still there (no doubt having been seen by every serious ABA lister by now).

I'd assumed that Whiskered Terns ate small (tasty-looking) damselflies but I've since seen photos that show it eating large migrant dragonflies.  Given the location, and the abundance of large migrating dragonflies, there's no reason it wouldn't stay for another week or two before (presumably) heading South to the dragonfly-rich wetlands of Florida.  Potential for many other state firsts here ....

Saturday, September 13, 2014

California - Orcas, Albatrosses and Condors

A rare weekend off - chasing some Bucket List critters in California

Just back from California and somewhere between tech stuff in San Francisco, wine stuff in Napa, and a visit to LA, I managed to squeeze in some birding in Monterey County.

I haven't done a Debbie Shearwater Pelagic Trip since the 90's but booked a couple for the weekend.  Had hoped to do both but, given the schedule, I had to choose one and given the locations, opted for an 'old school' Monterey trip - not likely to produce lifers, but most likely to produce nostalgic memories (these things get important when you're a worn-out old world-lister).

Joined the crew at 7am and met Debbie (who didn't remember me from the old days), Brian Sullivan (on board bird expert and eBird grandee), and a crew of birders some newbies, some pelagic veterans.  The weather was perfect with flat seas, almost no wind, and overcast skies - given my tendency to hurl chum in the smallest of waves I was really excited for a nice, low key, pelagic sampler.  Definitely looked like it was going to be a great trip, and it was.

Black-vented Shearwaters - lots of these in the Sooty Shearwater flocks ...
Once out of the docks, and past a nice selection of Shore (rock) birds, including Black Turnstone, Wandering Tattler, Surfbird and Black Oystercatcher, we soon headed out into the bay.  Shearwaters were everywhere, in staggering numbers.   Apparently the anchovies are recovering and there were vast flocks of shearwaters  chowing down within sight of land.  This place is just truly awesome in terms of the biomass of interesting things.

As we worked out way out we spent several hours pushing the shearwater flocks around.  The trip the day before had had a Flesh-footed Shearwater (good bird) so Debbie was keen to spend time kicking the shearwaters around to see what was there.  There were tens of thousands of Sooty Shearwaters, thousands of Black-vented Shearwaters, lots of Pink-footed Shearwaters and even a few Manx Shearwaters (newly breeding in the Pacific?).  We also had a brief look at a bird that felt good for STREAKED SHEARWATER, but not seen by all and none of us got good photos.  Definitely a Shearwater day on a Shearwater Journey.

Pink-footed Shearwater
Shearwaters aside, we did get a good mix of other pelagic species.  A Scripts's Murrelet was the class act among many Cassin's and Rhinoceros Auklets and lots of Common Murres.  A good smattering of Red-necked Phalaropes, Sabine's Gulls, and single Northern Fulmar (please split these Pacific Birds - so obviously not the same species) also added some interest.

The world's rattiest Northern Fulmar
There were also Elegant and Common Terns, a nice mix of Pomarine and Parasitic Jaegers and a few gulls to look at.  Never a dull moment for an East Coast birder on a West Coast pelagic.

What was missing though was Storm-Petrels.  A single Black-Storm Petrel, not seen by me, was the only Storm-Petrel record on the trip.  Each and every trip is different ... the joy and the frustration of pelagic birding.

One of the best things about West Coast pelagics though is the presence of LOTS of sea mammals.  

Dall's Porpoise
 We had 8 species of Sea-mammal on this trip: Sea-Otter, California Sea-Lion, Northern Fur-Seal, Harbor Seal, Humpback Whale, Harbor Porpoise, Dall's Porpoise, and ORCA!

A family of 6-8 Orcas came by while we were watching the Murrelet and we were able to follow them for maybe a half and hour.  Truly awesome to finally see Orcas - a bucket list species and a check mark ....
Black-footed Albatross over Orcas (pretty cool) ....

As usual (for me at least on a West Coast Pelagic) the star bird was am "East Cost" bird (although to be fair, a West Coast race, and potential split).  The shout went out from the bow that there was a "Booby flying towards the boat" and soon we had a Brown Booby in the chum slick and later found it's roosting log and got some good shots.  There have been several Brown Boobies in New York over the last few weeks - none of which I got organized to chase - so the irony of seeing one in California wasn't lost on me.  Nice bird and a state bird for me.  I've now seen them in three states, eventually I'll get one in New York ...

Black-footed Albatross
So with no plans for Sunday, we decided to look for Condors - California Condor is technically still extinct in the wild and how often to you get to chase extinct species?  A quick morning trip to Pinnacles National Park drew a blank (although I did get my life Yellow-billed Magpies nearby).  So an afternoon trip to the Ventana Inn in Big Sur became my last hope for this species on this trip.  When we got to the restaurant (and Condor stake-out) the waitress informed me that there had been a juvenile Condor seen that morning, and that "we never see Condors here".  Half way through lunch through I spotted a distant juvenile condor and then a closer adult - perhaps the waitresses need bins?     Short-ribs, beer and Condors ... not a bad way to spend an hour or two .... but unfortunately my camera was having problems so no photos.  Still, a good reason to go back to a beautiful spot and no complaints on my part.  Perfect weekend break ... maybe I'll even bump into a Lawrence's Goldfinch one day ....

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Ghosts of Gone Birds

A little off topic but a cool thing to know about ...

Doing a little PR for a good cause here.  I am fascinated by island endemics, island biogeography, extinct birds, and wildlife art.  A few years ago I came across a project that encompassed all four
things ....

The Ghost of Gone Birds project reached out to artists and asked them to paint images of extinct species (obviously many were island endemics) to raise awareness around bird extinction, etc.  It's very much a UK thing but should probably be much more widely known.  The fact that they included some of my favorite (non-bird) artists prompted a few unexpected purchases ... six of which now hang in various rooms.  If you aren't aware of it, definitely worth checking out ...

There's also a book by Ralph Steadman for purchase Ralph Steadman: Ghosts of Gone Boids which might get someone inspired (or just gather dust on a coffee table).

Great cause though ... felt I needed to give it a plug ....

Ralph Steadman - counter-culture icon with his painting of the extinct Guadalupe
Caracara - just bought it, haven't hung it yet.
Just got this image as a birthday gift - the extinct, giant, flightless, St. Helena Hoopoe - yes, there once was a giant flightless, hoopoe (as late as the 1500's when European's and their cat and rat pals arrived on St. Helena).

The prey in it's mouth is the (almost certainly extinct - last seen in 1967, despite searches in the 70's and 80's) St. Helena Giant Earwig.  Some still hope that this critter still exists somewhere although obviously the chances are dimming with each year that passes.

St. Helena, being so isolated once had a great selection of endemic species, including perhaps 2 rails, a pigeon, a pterodroma, the hoopoe, and a Sand-Plover (which is still hanging on).

There were also apparently once an amazing diversity of plant species (some apparently being slowly managed back from the brink) on an island now dominated by invasive weeds.

Let's hope that the Giant Earwig is clinging on somewhere.

Dodo - this image hangs over the couch in my New York City Apartment.
Palla's Cormorant - another very cool image of a bird we somehow lost.

Discovered by George Steller in 1741 who said that "they weighed 12-14 pounds, so that a single bird was sufficient for three starving men" Though cormorants are notoriously bad-tasting, Steller said that this bird tasted delicious, particularly when it was cooked in the way of the native Kamtchadals, who encased the whole bird in clay and buried it and baked it in heated pits (Source: Wikipedia).  So you can guess what happened to them, and the last birds were seen in 1850. 

A contemporary of such other cool lost species as Steller's Sea-Cow (how cool would it be now to have giant sea-cows hanging around your favorite Alaska birding spots).

This picture hangs over the pool table in East Hampton (along with Audubon's Labrador Duck), although perhaps, given their culinary-driven demise, I should move them to the kitchen ....

Anyway, great cause, hope I got someone interested in checking it out ... fighting for these unique scraps of evolution is absolutely worth it ... you fight battles to win wars.  Don't let the demise of a single unique form go unchallenged ....

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Madeira ... the quest for Zino's Petrel

Random trip to Portugal and my first Life Birds in quite a while ....

So sometimes you have to do something spontaneous.  My plan for last week was just to chill in East Hampton but, after a mellow weekend I got yanked back to the City for meetings on Monday and Tuesday and rather than head back out for July 4th, I decided I wanted to go somewhere different.  After sifting through the available choices on Monday, I hit the phones and the internet and booked tickets to Madeira hoping to pick up some life birds and in particular ... a Zino's Petrel.

I had the flights and the hotel but no firm birding plans so I stalked the folks at Madeira Windbirds hoping to charter a boat for a pelagic trip and figuring I could also add some endemic land birds over the weekend.  After a few false starts Catarina Fagundes from Windbirds called me back and said they could shuffle their schedule, get me out on a boat (if they could get their hands on 60lbs of fresh chum) and also offered a couple of land bird excursions where I could could join scheduled trips and see all the good species and sub-species on the island.  It sounded good so I wired some money for boats and chum, cancelled the rental car I'd booked and jumped on a plane on Tuesday night.

Settling into the somewhat over-formal Reid's Palace Hotel in Funchal - Churchill hung out there apparently and it looks like they're still dressing for dinner as though they're expecting him to show up at any moment - I took some quiet time before the birding started the next day.  After recovering from my jet-lag on Thursday morning, I joined Catarina and her partner Hugo Romano to get started on the birding on Thursday afternoon, local and endemic land birds were promised, and I was excited to see something new.

'Madeiran' Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs maderensis) the local, and blue-ish race of
Common Chaffinch (and not yet split).
'Madeiran Firecrest' (Regulus madeirensis) - almost every authority or listing guru
splits this as a good species (outside the US).  When I asked my local hosts as to
why the AOU hasn't split this yet (?) their response was that 'Americans are a bit slow'.
So land birds on an island are somewhat limited and Madeira is no exception with just a handful of species, but most of which have evolved into distinct sub-species (and perhaps ultimately species). First stop was the Santa António da Serra area where we quickly got 'Madeiran' Chaffinch, 'Madeiran' Firecrest and the local sub-species of European Robin among other things.  Then after a quick stop for Spanish Sparrow and the local sub-species of Gray Wagtail in Caniçal, we headed over to Ponta de São Lorenço in search of more open country birds.
European Robin (Erithacus rubecula microrhinchos) - not sure this is a good sub-species? 
Spanish Sparrow - apparently introduced and declining but we saw quite a few birds at a small colony.  
They apparently nest in the native palms which are being decimated by a weevil introduced in non-native plantings imported from Egypt.  Same story the world over ...
Berthelot's Pipit - a regional endemic which occurs on Madeira and on the Canary
The grassland community had some interesting birds including a trio of species - Berthelot's Pipit, Plain Swift and Island Canary - which are all endemic to the Atlantic Islands (Madeira, the Canary Islands, etc.).  We also spent some time looking for, and finally found, some Rock Sparrows (Rock Petronia) and saw several of the local race of Eurasian Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus canariensis).  Everything here seems to be diverging in some way.

Bulwer's Petrel - first on the chum and with us for the whole trip. 
White-faced Storm-Petrel - perhaps my favorite pelagic species.
Friday afternoon was Pelagic time! You can see more details on the type of trip that Windbirds offers at Winbirds website along with more pictures, etc. We were heading out in the afternoon hoping to intercept Zino's Petrels as they returned to the island in the evening after feeding offshore all day.  The sea at  Ponta de São Lorenço was deceptively flat but as we cleared 'the channel' and headed out to the North side of the island the waves picked up and we pushed our way out 15 miles through quite choppy seas to an area Catarina knew well before deploying chum and settling in for three long drifts in our chum slick (perhaps 5 hours in the slick - and I didn't throw up, even once!).

The trip out might have been choppy but it was also very birdy.  We passed two large feeding groups of Cory's Shearwaters numbering several hundred birds, the first feeding over a group of Bryde's Whales (pronounced Broo-dah's) and Short-beaked Common Dolphins, the second feeding over a Sei Whale and a group of young Atlantic Spotted Dolphins.  In the mix we also had some Manx Shearwaters and a single FEA'S PETREL (as much as a I wanted a Zino's this bird had a hulking great bill and flew like a Fea's - probably the locally breeding 'desertas' race who's island home was visible in the distance).

Once out in the chum slick we spent the time waiting, waiting, waiting with nothing but BULWER"S PETRELS for company.  We always had a couple in the slick but nothing else came to join them until around 8pm when the sun started to get lower and suddenly Storm-Petrels appeared.  First up was a WHITE-FACED STORM-PETREL which danced it's way up and down the slick for an hour or so, then a visit from a MADEIRAN PETREL (nice to get Band-rumped Storm-Petrel at a breeding island) and then a late EUROPEAN STORM-PETREL.  Not a bad haul of chum birds, but even though we stayed out so late that we ended up coming back to land in complete darkness, we did not luck out with a Zino's ....

Saturday was a full day looking for land birds.  TROCAZ PIGEON was a life bird for me, the first one in over a year.  I'd expected to have to go to the Laurel forest for them but we went first to a cliff site where we could scope them high on scrubby trees on a relatively sparsely forested slope (although we did see on later at the Laurel Forest site).  An interesting single-island endemic, with perhaps 2,700 birds left on the island (and in the world).

Interestingly it seems that it's ancestor was the Common Wood-Pigeon and that that species apparently arrived and evolved separately on the island on two separate occasions.  The first invasion produced the Trocaz Pigeon, while the second (presumably later) invasion evolved into a distinct sub-species of Wood-Pigeon (Columba palumbus maderensis) which went extinct in the early part of the 20th century.  Who knows, maybe Wood-Pigeon will colonize again (there have been some recent records) and start a third species? Island endemics, and Island Biogeography are endlessly fascinating .... 

The Laurel Forest habitat was actually pretty cool - green and semi-tropical on an island that up until now had looked pretty arid and brown.  In addition to the laurels there were several species of 'heather' some chest high, some basically small trees.  There were also some unique looking plants like 'Pride of Madeira' (left) which is apparently common as a transplant in California and is actually a great hummingbird plant there.  One local tour company famously even used a photo of this species, complete with feeding hummingbirds, on their local tour brochure.  Who knows, perhaps next time I come I'll bring a box of Black-chinned Hummingbirds, I'm sure they'd do well here (kidding).

There is also apparently and endemic dragonfly, no doubt some endemic butterflies, etc. and for a while I was wishing I had more time to explore the non-vertebrates on the island.  I did see a lot of the endemic Madeiran Wall-Lizard (Lacerta dugesii) though so at least I got one new non-bird for the Life List.

The afternoon saw us birding at Ponta do Pargo, again a grassland area where we added Pallid Swift, Red-legged Partridge, several calling Common Quail and the local sub-species of Spectacled Warbler (orbitalis) and Common Buzzard (harterti).  Then after a quick stop for Common Waxbills it was time to go back to the hotel for dinner and a nap before round two with the Zino's Petrels - if the Zino's wouldn't come to me, then I'd have to go to the Zino's ....

Back in the van at 9:30pm for a drive to the Pico do Arieiro - jagged mountain tops 6,000 feet above sea level and well above cloud level that night.  Once we cleared the clouds we were presented with a truly awesome sight, ragged mountain peaks floating above the island under a sea of stars and bathed in silver moonlight.  Truly quite an awesome place to go look for birds.  Hugo and Catarina offer the Windbirds Night Trip for Zino's Petrel during the breeding season and, as it was my best and only chance to actually see one, we were soon hiking off along steep moonlit trails along the mountain tops to one of the few known breeding colonies of this rare seabird.

By 11pm we were set up on a razorback ridge line with steep cliffs descending vertically into the clouds on either side of a narrow trail.  Sitting quietly we'd been told that the birds would come in to exchange incubation duties at nest burrows on the cliffs below us and that we might hear and see some.  Sure enough, not long afterwards we heard a 'whooshing' sound as a bird passed over us in the darkness (the breeders apparently go silently to the nest burrows) followed by the eery calls of several Zino's flying around us (non-breeders visit the colony at night and make lots of noise).  Putting the moon to our backs we were able to see the birds, firstly ghost-like silhouettes, but when they came close and caught the moon light, we could actually see what they were.  Perhaps  half a dozen or more birds kiting around, sometimes in close formation, skimming the cliff edges and blasting by within feet of us as we stood still on the trail.  In minutes, Zino's Petrel went from 'most wanted lifer' to 'heard only' to 'not-quite tick-able views' on the hierarchy of 'not quite on the life list'.  Notwithstanding the rules of World Listing though, it was an awesome experience to be there in such an mid blowing place with this incredibly enigmatic species wheeling and wailing around us.

As luck would have it though, we weren't done yet.  It turns out that we weren't alone on the mountain that night and as we came back up towards the parking lot (several hundred steep steps that were a bit easier going down earlier) we bumped into some researchers who were trying to band and radio-tag petrels.  We'd left them alone earlier but, as they were packing up for the night, we went over to talk, and just as they were taking their nets down, a petrel flew into the mist net (!).  Once they'd processed the bird, they were kind enough to let us see one in the hand - truly an honor - sometimes life just works out perfectly.  And yes, based on what I'd seen so far that night, and seeing this bird go into the net, I did add ZINO'S PETREL to my life list.  One of the best natural history experiences I've had in years.

Back at the hotel - and watching a Barn Owl hunting around the hotel grounds at 2:30am - I had a chance to reflect on the trip.  Very glad I came, a truly wonderful break and great experience - even if they do speak Brazilian poorly here.  Hugo and Catarina are real pros and highly recommended.  Definitely a weekend trip to consider if you find yourself in range of Madeira (it's only 12 hours from New York!). 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Birds, Whales, and Turtles off Hatteras North Carolina

Two days of pelagic birding off North Carolina

Just back from a quick three day trip to North Carolina and Virginia.  It's been a long time (15 years?) since I've managed to get down to do a Brian Patteson Pelagic Trip, but inspired earlier this year, I signed up for two trips last weekend with Alvaro Jaramillo (who also made it easy to link and pay online).

Thursday mid day saw me sneaking away from work and running out to LaGuardia for a flight to Norfolk, Virginia.  Once there, I grabbed a rental car and drove down to Hatteras, North Carolina.  The weather was crappy - thunder storms all the way down - and it was a long drive - but I was optimistic that it couldn't last all weekend so I checked into my hotel, sorted my kit and set the alarm for 4am Friday morning, super excited to get out into the gulf stream for the first time in many years.

Friday morning was windy and raining but I headed over to the dock and when I saw people loading chum onto the boat I figured we'd probably go out.  Brian appeared shortly thereafter and confirmed that we were going, so after a quick orientation we were soon heading out to sea.  The sea in question was pretty rough though and, even though I took my dramamine I was soon throwing up as we plowed through 'snotty' waters for two hours (I'm just not a good sailor what can I say).  Over the years I've got used to this sort of start to the day - praying for death at dawn and throwing up for an hour or two, then my body eventually gets used to it and I'm finally glad I came.  It's sort of an act of faith but as I always say, 'you don't look, you don't see' and in the case of pelagics 'if you don't suffer, you don't see'.  This morning's crew was serious, with Alvaro Jaramillo, George Armistead, Naeem Yusuff (of Brookline Bird Club Pelagic fame), Nick Block, and half of the top birders from Chicago on board ... a very capable crew and a good sign for some interesting birds.  So I slogged my way though the waves and the sea-sickness knowing that it would probably all be worth it in the end .... and it was.

Soon enough (well perhaps not soon enough at the time) we reached the Gulf Stream, the waves died down, and we got started with the birding thing.  As it turns out we got started quickly, as not long after we arrived in the calmer 'blue' waters someone shouted "Tropicbird!" and all eyes went up as a juvenile RED-BILLED TROPICBIRD came over boat.  Not a bad start!

Red-billed Tropicbird - a crappy photo of a really cool bird and an ABA Bird for me.
The next five hours were really very birdy, exactly what you come to North Carolina for.  Cory's, Great, Manx and Audubon's Shearwaters zipped by the boat.  Wilson's, Leaches' and Band-rumped Storm-Petrels followed the chum line, and several Black-capped Petrels came by to check out what was on offer.  All classic Gulf Stream stuff.  You don't get this in New York!

We also got some Bridled and Arctic Terns and some cool cetaceans (Short-finned Pilot-Whales and 'Offshore' Bottlenose Dolphins).  I simply love it out in there - flying fish, sargassum, leaping Mahi Mahi, lots of birds, simply awesome.

Bridled Tern - one of three we saw over the weekend. 
Arctic Tern - always a good bird on the East Coast.
As a special bonus Kate Sutherland (Brian Patterson's extraordinary first mate / onboard biologist) even scooped up some Sargassum so we could look for 'critters' and we got to see several crab and shrimp species plus a few Planehead Filefish (Stephanolepis hispidus) which was a Life fish for me.  The good feelings even got me through the miserable ride back to the dock ... more waves ... ugly ... but I managed to resist the urge to kiss the ground when we got back to the dock (I have done that before).  Great day ....

Audubon's Shearwater - we saw lots of these on both days.
Saturday dawned, well way too early.  Another 4am alarm call and as I stumbled out of the hotel room at 4:30am I was greeted by a spectacular thunder storm with arc lightening and torrential rain.  For a while I though Brian would surely cancel the trip but by the time I got to the marina the rain was dying down and I saw Kate heading to the boat (and heard a Common Nighthawk) so I figured we were probably good for round two.  Sure enough, the storm was heading offshore so, despite the pyrotechnics, we were off again at 5:30am and ploughing through more rough seas (yes, I threw up again) before finding calmer waters when we got to the Gulf Stream a couple of hours later.

Today's birds were not quite as good, in fact it was pretty flat compared to the day before.  We did see lots of Black-capped Petrels, quite a few BAND-RUMPED STORM-PETRELS, but no terns, no Tropicbirds, and in fact the birding was almost dull for those of us who'd been out on Friday (although our fresh faces doing a one-day tip were thrilled with the birds we saw).

Black-capped Petrel  (2 shots) - the only Pterodroma we saw over the weekend,
but we saw lots of them and no-one ever gets tired of watching the amazing wind-surfers. 

Band-rumped Storm-Petrel - easy to ID once you have your 'eye in'.
Things picked up and got really exciting though when we headed back in late in the afternoon (and once I'd put my camera away).  First up was a giant LEATHERBACK SEA-TURTLE (my best look ever) and, while we were looking at that incredible prehistoric critter, another Bridled Tern came by, soon joined by Royal and Black Terns.  The we had the 'mega whale' experience ....

Leatherback Turtle  Photo: Alvaro Jaramillo (used with permission)
Although the birds are always top of mind on a pelagic trip, the highlights of this weekend were probably actually the cetaceans.  We had 'Offshore' Bottlenose Dolphins, Short-finned Pilot-Whales, and Cuvier's Beaked-Whales, but the star for me was a pod of FALSE KILLER-WHALES that came to ride our bow-wave for 20 minutes on the way back in that afternoon.  This was a species that I'd always wanted to see in the Atlantic and when they appeared and came over to the boat I was simply ecstatic, awestruck, giddy, whatever.  These fast-moving, super-smart, small whales eat Tuna, Billfish and Mahi Mahi, and use their big brains to catch these fast-moving fish.  They seemed genuinely curious to see us, turning their heads to look at the 'apes' on the boat and coming back many times to try to interact with us,  Such amazing creatures and the wildlife highlight of the year so far.

False Killer-Whales (2 shots)  Photo: Jim Gould (used with permission)

Sunday morning was supposed to be a bit of a let-down after the pelagics but it actually turned out to be pretty good.  An early morning stop at Pea Island NWR produced a juvenile Reddish Egret, a Wilson's Plover and a nice selection of shorebirds including Black-necked Stilt and American Avocet.  Then off to the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia, where despite 'Alaska-quality' blood-sucking bugs, I was happy to add SWAINSON'S WARBLER along with lots of Hooded and Prothonatory Warblers and an Acadian Flycatcher.

Special thanks to Alvaro and George for putting this together and all the expert spotting on the boat, and of course thanks to Brian and Kate for running this amazing operation.  A truly great trip, very glad I came.  Remind me to do this more often ....