Sunday, November 29, 2009

Israel - puzzling Redstart - March 19th 2004

redstart sp. phoenicurus sp. Grofit fields, Chevel Eilot, Israel. 19th March 2004.

This female Redstart has always bothered me. It bothered me when I found it feeding in the fields of Kibbutz Grofit, Southern Arava, and it still bothers me now. After three hours of watching and photographing it I came away feeling very unsatisfied that I hadn't been able to identify the bird with any level of certainty. On range it could only be a Common Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus or a Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochuros, with Eversmann's Redstart Phoenicurus erythronotus occurring just once in Israel as a vagrant in November 1988.

It always looked large, pale and somewhat wheatear-like as it foraged around the manure piles. The bird's behavior was much closer to Black Redstart than Common Redstart and it fed exclusively in open areas, only retiring to the edge of a date plantation when flushed. The 'pallid' feel to the bird was apparent in the field and reflected in the images. The bird had cold blue-gray upperparts and a very faint panel could be seen on the closed wing, perhaps suggesting a female Common Redstart of the form samamisicus (Ehrenberg's Redstart). At least four forms of Black Redstart have also been recorded in Israel and the females of some of these forms can apparently approach Common Redstart in overall appearance.

I'd be very interested in receiving some feedback on this bird and whether or not it can identified with certainty. Thanks very much indeed!

Update: December 3rd, 2009. I asked for opinion on this bird on the Surfbirds identification forum and received responses from Peter Adriaens, Brian Small and Lee Evans. They were all in favor of a female Common Redstart
Phoenicurus phoenicurus, albeit a bit washed out and pale, but a Common Redstart all the same. Apparently females of the nominate and samamicus can be so similar in appearance they are not safely assigned to subspecies. Thanks to everyone for viewing the images and to those who responded with comments.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

MA - NE Quabbin Fox Sparrow - 11/25

Fox Sparrow. Quabbin, Gate 35, Franklin County, MA. November 25th, 2009.

Dull, drizzly, but incredibly mild conditions persisted all day. The day started well with yet another November Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, this time on Redgate Lane, Amherst just up the road from North Whitney Street. Later in the afternoon, I decided to have a look at one of the Quabbin gates (35) in the North-east part of the watershed. The powerline cut was quite lively here with 30+ White-throated Sparrows, and a really fine (Red) Fox Sparrow. Some 300 American Robins and 18 Cedar Waxwings were also here.

The reservoir held a few widely scattered Common Loons (8) and I had close views of a pair of Bald Eagles attempting to take (unsuccessfully) a Common Merganser. Five Hooded Mergansers also flew in with some Mallards and Black Ducks.

Bald Eagle over a drizzly Quabbin Reservoir, Franklin Co., MA. November 25th, 2009.

On the way home, despite the precipitation, I tried for Northern Saw-whet Owls in a couple of spots and met with success in one of these. I'll be offering a more complete update on my saw-whet findings later this month.

Northern Saw-whet Owl. New Salem, Franklin Co., MA. November 25th, 2009. Image taken using Canon Powershot A590, without zoom or any optical aids.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

MA - Quabbin Beaver, Fox Sparrow - 11/20

Had a late afternoon drive out to New Salem followed by a walk down to Quabbin Reservoir from Gate 22. The walk very pleasant and peaceful highlighted by a Fox Sparrow feeding with a relatively large flock of Dark-eyed Juncos about a 1/2 mile from the gate. The reservoir itself held about 8 Common Loons and 4 Horned Grebes from this vantage point, and I was treated to great views of an inquisitive Beaver just offshore.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

MA - Yard Sapsucker - 11/18

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker - First-winter male, North Whitney Street, Amherst, Hampshire Co., MA. November 10th, 2009. Unusual in November, though earlier this year we had one at our feeders in January. This bird was digi-binned from the back window on Nov 10th, but another or the same appeared briefly in front of our apartment on November 18th.

The day began well with an early morning Snow Bunting passing West over North Whitney Street, Amherst at about 7am. Not quite countable as a yard bird, but not that far away either. It was certainly nice to hear the clear ringing calls as it passed overhead. Then came a Common Raven, again calling, but this time visible (naked eye) from the yard. Common Ravens have been fairly frequent over North Whitney Street since August which seems like a slight shift in occurrence as we only used to see hear them here in the winter months. Around noon, our second Yellow-bellied Sapsucker of the month appeared in front of the apartment but was too quick for the camera. It may have been the same bird as that photographed above, taken on November 10th.

In the afternoon I had a drive out to the Quabbin and visited Gate 5, only the second time I've tried this particular gate. As I arrived, two immaculate juvenile Bald Eagles passed so close that I could hear the air whistling through the feathers - nice! They were probably heading for roost. Just offshore, a lovely adult male Long-tailed Duck was diving and preening. It was the only bird on the water that I could see! With dusk fast approaching I managed just a couple of blurred shots.

Long-tailed Duck - Adult male, Quabbin Reservoir, Hampshire Co., MA. November 18th, 2009.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

MA - Cackling Goose still around - 11/11

This rather nice example of a (Richardson's) Cackling Goose is still being seen periodically on the Turner's Falls Power Canal. Brian Kane first reported it on November 1st, and last reported it on Sunday morning, November 15th with several reports in between those dates. These images were taken on a brief afternoon visit on November 11th.

Friday, November 13, 2009

MA - Northern Saw-whet Owls

Northern Saw-whet Owl. Montague, Franklin County, MA. November 2nd, 2009. Taken with Canon Powershot A590, no additional optical aids.

My introduction to the smallest owl in the Eastern US was on a freezing January night on Nantucket, thirty miles south of Cape Cod. That night, back in 1998, is still amongst my favorite birding memories. Susannah and I had arranged to go owling with Frank Gallo, but by 9:15 pm Frank hadn't showed up. We'd just about settled in for the night when Frank drove up in an open-sided jeep, driving with his shirt sleeves rolled up and no gloves - it was below 20 degrees F and we wondered what sort of evening we were getting ourselves into! Even worse, Frank drove us to what looked like a set of playing fields surrounded by a few pines and thickets. Surely this wasn't the place for saw-whet owls? We were then marched down a track, tennis courts on one side and pines on the other. He began whistling apparently trying to imitate a saw-whet song. I must admit at that point I really questioned our decision to leave our cozy hotel room. But in less than a couple of minutes Frank had two Northern Saw-whet Owls calling back and forth, and even spotlighted them several times for views. It was an amazing experience, and being relatively new to birding in the US, I was convinced that I could do the same thing and call up my own saw-whets when ever I came across a nice belt of pine trees! I couldn't have been more wrong. Frank had made it look easy. He knew exactly where to look, how to call them and exactly the time of night to see them. Since that first 'Frank Gallo experience' I've had relatively little success in seeing the bird in the field myself. I find this pretty remarkable considering the amount of field hours that I've logged, especially in the New England area. Veit and Petersen describe it as "uncommon" in Massachusetts, but in this video Scott Weidensaul describes it as"incredibly common". Intrigued, I've taken on a self-motivated 'study' to try and find out a little more about this owl's winter distribution and habitat preferences in my local area. Broadly speaking that's Hampshire and Franklin Counties, mostly within thirty minutes driving time from our home in Amherst. Thus far, with the help of some generous owl enthusiasts, I've now found them in the towns of South Amherst (2), Amherst (1), Shutesbury (2), Montague (1), Leverett (1) and Hatfield (1). The effort in finding them is considerable and I'm growing to accept no more than a 33% success rate. Actual sightings are rare and most observations are of the heard-only type. Thankfully, the owls have a distinct range of vocals with most of the calls being relatively easy to recognize.

Northern Saw-whet Owl. Montague, Franklin County, MA. November 2nd, 2009. Taken with Canon Powershot A590, no additional optical aids.

Of major interest has been the discovery of other owls whilst trying to coax saw-whets to respond. Just over the last few days I've seen Great Horned, Barred and Eastern Screech Owls all being drawn in some way to saw-whet imitations.

Eastern Screech-Owl. Red phase, Woods Hole, Cape Cod, MA. November 7th, 2009. Beautifully hidden,
this bird responded quite aggressively to a commercial sound recording of Northern Saw-whet Owl. I wasn't looking for screech-owls at the time.
Taken with Canon Powershot A590, no additional optical aids.

Eastern Screech-Owl. Red phase, Woods Hole, Cape Cod, MA. November 7th, 2009. Crop from above image. Taken with Canon Powershot A590, no additional optical aids.

Barred Owl. Shutesbury, Franklin County, MA. November 11th, 2009. This bird flew in silently straight over my head and landed above the trail just a few meters in front of me when I was imitating Northern Saw-whet calls. Just seconds earlier, I heard a saw-whet call a couple of times deep into the woods off the trail. Taken with Canon Powershot A590, no additional optical aids.

Over the course of the winter I'm hopeful of discovering more Northern Saw-whet Owls whilst attempting to keep tabs on the birds already found. There's at least some possibility that some birds are simply 'staging' whilst on migration and will not stay throughout the winter. More to come.

Friday, November 6, 2009

MA - small larid, Ring-billed? - 11/05

presumed Ring-billed Gull - first-cycle, Barton Cove, Turner's Falls, Franklin County, MA. November 5th, 2009.

In late October Frank Bowrys mentioned seeing a possible Mew (Common) Gull at Barton Cove, Turner's Falls. His bird was a first-cycle and since that time I've been making scans of the cove's Ring-billed Gull flock on a regular basis. Today, this bird caught my attention. Initially it was breast on, swimming between two Ring-billed Gulls and looked tiny, roughly comparable to seeing a Franklin's Gull on the water between two Laughing Gulls. When it turned its head, the bill looked small, petite and mostly dark. At this range (c.200 meters), dusky markings around the eye gave the head a very different look to the accompanying Ring-billed Gulls, and for a moment I felt sure that this was the bird that Frank had seen in late October. I ran (literally) to the parking lot closest to the dam where the gulls 'free-load' from bread thrown for the ducks. A handful of Ring-billeds were on the water but the bird in question was missing. Could I really have been that mistaken? I turned around to face the parking lot with my back to the river, and there standing alone on the bike path was the gull of interest. It still looked dusky, petite and maybe even darker mantled than most Ring-billeds present. The head and bill jizz was especially dainty but the bird flew and landed back in the water before I had chance to get some reasonable images.

Sadly, by this time, most of the Ring-billeds were heading back up-river for roosting so I couldn't get any good images of the bird in question directly alongside typical Ring-billed Gulls. However, this image set may give an impression of how the bird appeared in the field. As I watched and photographed it at very close range, I couldn't see any actual plumage features that would be unusual for first-cycle Ring-billed Gull, and certainly couldn't find anything that would point strongly toward this bird being Mew or Common Gull.

As it happened, after seeing the images Frank was able to confirm that this individual and his own observation did NOT match. I'm not quite sure what the make of this bird, other than it being a 'runt' Ring-billed Gull. I've seen small birds before but nothing quite like this, and would have said it was about 5-10% smaller than average in direct comparison to the Ring-billeds present.

It also means that Frank's bird is still out there!!

NB. Several American Tree Sparrows at Unity Park as well.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

MA - Cackling Goose - 11/05

Richardson's Cackling Goose (left). Turner's Falls, Franklin County, MA. November 5th, 2009. Classic individual with small stubby bill, steep forehead and 'boxy' head shape. Overall quite frosty-looking with nice broad pale fringes to the upperparts. This bird shows a warm-buff tone to the cheek, similar to other birds that I've seen in the CT River Valley. Also present, 700 Canada Geese, 6 Common and 2 Hooded Mergansers.

Another Cackling Goose, this time at Turner's Falls power canal and possibly the same reported there by Brian Kane at about 9am on Sunday morning. It's shaping up into another good fall for this species, this being my fifth in the Pioneer Valley alone with others being reported elsewhere in Massachusetts.