Wednesday, December 16, 2015

MA - mid-week round up

The last few days have remained incredibly mild for the time of year, though the recent spell of warm air gave way to cooler northerlies today (12/16). Locally, it's been a bit of mixed bag of bird species with nothing in particular jumping out though the owl theme continues. Last night (12/15), just as I  stopped at a pull-out on Bascom Road, Gill a Northern Saw-whet Owl flew through the beam of the headlights and alighted in a roadside oak! By the time I'd sorted out the camera it was gone but I was pretty happy with the observation and it was my first in Gill this winter.

Purple Finch - male, Gill, Franklin Co., MA. December 16th, 2015. Photographed before sunrise.

This morning (12/16) I had a cracking male Purple Finch on North Cross Road in Gill, in fact the quiet roads in Gill seems to be only area where I'm seeing this species with any sort of consistency at the moment - pretty much every day.

Common Goldeneyes - Turner's Falls, Franklin Co., MA. December 15th, 2015.
A small portion of the considerable roost that gathers on the power canal most evenings.

At Turner's Falls, the Goldeneye roost has been typically unpredictable but some evenings have produced up to 75 birds and included a female Barrow's Goldeneye on the 13th. The Lesser Scaup also continues at the power canal but two Greater Scaup above the dam at Unity Park were new on the 15th.

Lesser Black-backed Gull - adult, Turner's Falls power canal Franklin Co., MA. December 15th, 2015.
The left-most bird in both images above.

Last week's single Kumlien's Iceland Gull remained just that, a single! I was hopeful of more this week but so far it hasn't happened though the adult Lesser Black-backed Gull continues with almost daily appearances at the gull roost, although some evenings it can arrive very late.

 Northern Harrier - juvenile, Gill, Franklin Co., MA. December 10th, 2015.

 Swamp Sparrow - Gill, Franklin Co., MA. December 10th, 2015.

Notable December birds for Gill last week included a juvenile Northern Harrier and a Swamp Sparrow on Ben Hale Road, both on the 10th. The latter is usually very difficult to find in the winter months in our area. 

'Cackling-like' Geese (3) - Turner's Falls power canal, Franklin Co., MA. December 15th, 2015. Three newly arrived birds with the gray cast and broad pale fringes to the upperparts often associated with the expected form of Cackling Goose in our area - B.c. hutchinsiiBut I wonder if the bill length of these birds might eliminate Cackling Goose and point towards something else? They were still present on the 16th. 

*Three more confusing white-cheeked geese arrived at Turner's Falls on the 15th. These birds initially looked so distinctive that I was able to pick them out easily with the naked-eye. They showed several pro-hutchinsii features but on closer inspection I was put off by the bill length which just didn't look stubby enough for a typical Cackling Goose. For the time being, I'm just going to leave them as 'Cackling-like' Geese but I can't help but wonder if B.c. parvipes (Lesser Canada Goose) should be seriously considered for this group? I also recalled David Sibley's excellent blog post on "Cackling-ish Geese" from December 2014;

Sunday, December 13, 2015

MA - a little more owling

We are currently locked in a crazy, warm spell with calm sometimes foggy days and near wind-less nights. It's so warm that you'd be forgiven for thinking that it's early spring. Eastern Chipmunks are still active in our yard and this evening I heard a Spring Peeper at Turner's Falls power canal - just crazy for mid-December!

Yesterday evening I was out with Matan and decided to try a couple of spots in Gill for Eastern Screech-owl. Just about all of my Franklin County screech-owls have come from the hotspot of Turner's Falls where, with a little effort, it's not too difficult to hear or sometimes see one. Gill on the other hand is a different story altogether. With a bit of effort it's possible to find Barred, Great Horned and Northern Saw-whet Owls in Gill with some regularity but despite living in the area since 2010, screech-owls have eluded me altogether, and that's not for a lack of trying.

But yesterday evening was different. Just after 5pm I tried a couple of spots on River Road close to the Connecticut River. At the first, one owl gave the classic descending whinny calls, distant but unambiguous all the same. At the second, I had two birds calling back and forth for a few seconds, both giving a peculiar screech or bark that sounded (to me) quite reminiscent of the 'kew' calls of Northern Saw-whet Owl. So, at last, screech-owls do exist in's just taken me five years to find them!

Friday, December 11, 2015

MA - an Iceland last!

Turner's Falls has finally turned up a Kumlien's Iceland Gull in what has to be the slowest start to the winter gull season that I've known since I started watching the area regularly in 2005. The power canal has hosted a first-cycle bird for the last two evenings, and almost certainly the same bird was first noted by David Moon on December 8th. These shots were taken on an incredibly balmy, foggy evening with unseasonably warm temperatures.

Kumlien's Iceland Gull - Turner's Falls power canal, Franklin Co., MA. December 11th, 2015.

MA - Dickcissel in Gill 12/10

 Dickcissel - River Road, Gill, Franklin Co., October 7th, 2011.
In a poor view, it might be very easy to gloss over this species as a female House Sparrow.

Though I'm usually quite guarded about claiming 'heard-only' observations, there a few bird sounds that jump out as being absolutely unambiguous - Black Rail would be one of these, a song or call so distinctive that you really don't need to see it to be sure of what you're hearing. Yesterday morning was still, calm and slightly foggy. I was wrapping up a three mile jog when, amid a cacophony of post-roosting House Sparrows and House Finches I heard the clear rasping, buzzing calls of a Dickcissel coming from a private yard in Gill. It called half a dozen times or so before I jogged on and took a gamble on what to do next. It was 07:30 in the morning, folks were rushing to work and getting ready for school and the location was undoubtedly sensitive. I decided to return in the quiet of mid-morning with a camera and try and relocate it, an exercise which of course failed! The flock of House Sparrows and House Finches had dispersed indicating that the favored hedgerow was just a roosting spot and nothing more. I'll be keeping my eyes and ears open over the forthcoming days but in the mean time, here's a couple of pics of the only other Dickcissel that I've found in Gill on the much more typical date on October 7th (2011). Winter Dickcissels are not unprecedented in Massachusetts and some of them find refuge among House Sparrow flocks........all the more the reason to check those flocks of House Sparrow lurking around Franklin County! Looking at the above dorsal shot from Gill back in 2011 it's easy to understand why a Dickcissel might vaporize among a flock of good old Passer domesticus!

Dickcissel - River Road, Gill, Franklin Co., October 7th, 2011.
In a clear view, the sulphur-yellow breast and facial markings should jump out in any flock of House Sparrows.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

MA - more owls

Barred Owl - Gill, Franklin Co., MA. December 9th, 2015.

Continuing Sunday's owl theme, I was intrigued enough to head back to Arcadia Meadows on Tuesday (Dec 8th) hoping for another close encounter with Asio owls but it wasn't to be. Again, I had prolonged views of a Short-eared Owl hunting over the meadows, sometimes sparring with two juvenile Northern Harriers but the views were nothing like as good as we experienced on Sunday due mostly to heavily overcast skies - dusk came in early and thwarted any aspirations that I may have had for photos. On the plus side, Arcadia Meadows did produced my only Lapland Longspur of the fall/winter when a dog walker pushed a calling bird up from one of the fields. Meanwhile, on the same afternoon, a good friend observed an Asio owl, probably a Short-eared, on the eastern bank of the Connecticut River in Hadley at dusk. 

Short-eared Owl - Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary, Northampton,  Hampshire Co., MA. December 8th, 2015.

On the way home, I tried for Saw-whet Owls at a sweet spot in Gill which had produced them before. After five minutes of whistling, a Barred Owl responded with a prolonged series 'hoo-aw' calls so close I was able to get a pretty good sound recording on my iphone. The next day I found a Barred Owl hunting in the day in Gill, again really nice prolonged views.

 American Tree Sparrow -  Gill, Franklin Co., MA. December 9th, 2015.

 Cedar Waxwing -  Gill, Franklin Co., MA. December 9th, 2015.

The fields and hedgerows around Gill continue to be productive with good numbers of Cedar Waxwings, especially on River Road, and American Tree Sparrows increasing as the winter progresses. This morning (Dec 9th) I had 25 of the latter on North Cross Road and a further 35 on River Road. Less expected were three fine male Ring-necked Pheasants on North Cross Road on Dec 7th, and a huge flock of 250 Brown-headed Cowbirds near Upinngil Farm on Main Road also on Dec 7th. I've seen local cowbird flocks numbering 35-40 birds before, but 250 is by far the largest flock that I've encountered in Franklin County.

 Red Squirrel - Northfield, Franklin Co., MA. December 7th, 2015.

  Brown-headed Cowbirds -  Gill, Franklin Co., MA. December 7th, 2015.
A small portion of the 250 or so roadside birds near Upinngil Farm

Ring-necked Pheasants -  Gill, Franklin Co., MA. December 7th, 2015.
Three fine males, 'survivors' from released stock. 

Down at Turner's Falls, very little in the way of new birds but the Greater White-fronted Goose turned up after a 10 day absence on Dec 7th when the continuing Cackling Goose and Lesser Scaup were also present. An adult Peregrine also continues around the Great Falls Discovery Center.

 Cackling Goose - Turner's Falls, Franklin Co., MA. December 7th, 2015.

Greater White-fronted Goose - Turner's Falls, Franklin Co., MA. December 7th, 2015.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

MA - owl evening

Short-eared Owl - West Meadows, Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary, Northampton, Hampshire Co., MA. December 6th, 2015. 

The events of the day took the family south towards Easthampton in the afternoon. At the back of my mind I couldn't help but think about the one or two Short-eared Owls that have been consistently reported from Arcadia Massachusetts Audubon Sanctuary over the last month or so. So with our business out of the way, the whole family headed towards the West Meadows of the sanctuary. Immediately two juvenile Northern Harriers appeared and kept us entertained until dusk started creeping in. All of a sudden, three birds were sparring over the meadows and one of them was a Short-eared Owl. Despite the fading light, the owl put on a prolonged show, quartering over the the managed fields close enough for an eight-year old to have good naked-eye views! The owl settled out of view in the meadow but remarkably, just I was about to climb into the car to leave, two owls appeared together on the opposite side of the road and seemed to be engaged in a dispute. It was all over in seconds and whilst one was a certain Short-eared Owl, the other which I saw again a few minutes later, could have been a Long-eared Owl or, at the very least, I couldn't rule out Long-eared Owl for the third bird. The habitat looks appropriate for both species so hopefully future visits will reveal more.

It was a classic, damp, chilly winter's evening and a real joy to watch these predators quartering over the meadows. I've seen very few Short-eared Owls in the Pioneer Valley and all of them have been in Hampshire County close to the Connecticut River. Sadly, I've yet to find a similar 'sweet spot' in Franklin County. Many thanks to Larry Therrien for tips on how best to observe the owls at Arcadia.

All images taken at dusk, Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary, West Meadows, Northampton, Hampshire Co., MA. December 6th, 2015.

Friday, December 4, 2015

MA - Gill morning and this week's notes

Hermit Thrushes - two individuals at two different locations, Gill, Franklin Co., MA. December 4th, 2015.

Very birdy in Gill this morning. A brief stop to watch a Northern Harrier quartering over a meadow turned into a one hour event that was full of birds. Three Horned Larks, a couple of Hermit Thrushes, over a dozen Eastern Bluebirds, 25 Cedar Waxwings and loads of Dark-eyed Juncos, American Goldfinches and American Tree Sparrows kept me busy for a while. At least three Pileated Woodpeckers were in the area and remained vocal throughout the morning as they have been all week. Earlier, an adult Peregrine headed south over North Cross road and had me wondering if it could be one of the Turner's Falls adults out on a foraging mission? Peregrines have always been quite scarce and inconsistent in Gill away from Barton Cove.

Horned Lark - Gill, Franklin Co., MA. December 4th, 2015.

 Northern Harrier - juv/first-winter, Gill, Franklin Co., MA. December 4th, 2015.

 Peregrine - adult, Turner's Falls, Franklin Co., MA. Nov 30th, 2015.

Merlin - Unity Park, Turner's Falls, Franklin Co., MA. Dec 1st, 2015.

Merlin - Unity Park, Turner's Falls, Franklin Co., MA. Dec 4th, 2015.
As in previous winters, pretty regular at this spot especially in late afternoon.

At Turner's Falls, waterfowl migration is definitely tapering as might be expected in early December but a female Greater Scaup at Barton Cove was new on Nov 30th, as was a female Ring-necked Duck at the power canal on Dec 3rd, and a male Bufflehead there on the 4th.  Otherwise Common Goldeneye numbers are building up with 95 at the power canal on Dec 1st, when 75 Common Mergansers were also present, and Hooded Mergansers continue to build up at Barton Cove with 60+ on Dec 4th. The first-year male Lesser Scaup, first detected on Oct 26th, remains in the area as well as locally scarce American Wigeon (3), Merlin and Lesser Black-backed Gull all of which continued throughout the week.

American Wigeons (3) - with Mallards, Turner's Falls, Franklin Co., MA. Dec 4th, 2015.

Lesser Black-backed Gull - adult, Turner's Falls, Franklin Co., MA. Dec 3rd, 2015.
Long staying bird present through out the week with Herring and Ring-billed Gulls.

With the lack of freezing conditions good numbers of Canada Geese remain in the 'greater' Turner's Falls area with about 1000 birds this week. Cackling Geese have been present daily, with five on Dec 1st including a new arrival that may have been seen by Hector Galbraith in Hinsdale, NH on Nov 30th.

Otherwise, Barred OwlsNorthern Flickers, American RobinsCedar WaxwingsAmerican Tree Sparrows and a Snow Bunting have enlivened the roadside birding in Gill this week.

 Cackling Goose (lower left) - arriving with Canada Geese, Turner's Falls, Franklin Co., MA. December 1st, 2015. 
Same bird featured below (left).

Cackling Goose - Turner's Falls, Franklin Co., MA. December 3rd, 2015. 

Thursday, December 3, 2015

MA - first Northern Shrike

Inspired by thoughts of recent Townsend's Solitaires, I had a spin around some areas of Bernardston, MA and Guilford/Vernon, VT hoping to find some suitable areas to check. The end result was desperately quiet but the drive home had a nice treat in store as I spotted a Northern Shrike 'teed' up on a low bush between farm buildings in Northfield. It didn't stay long and soon got flushed by the farmer as he drove close to the shrike in his truck.

I wasn't expecting a shrike to be perched quite so low, or quite so close to habitation and I very nearly passed it off as a Northern Mockingbird but there was a warmness to the breast tones that forced me to stop the car and take a look......I was glad I did!

Northern Shrikes are partially irruptive winter visitors to Massachusetts but this fall/winter does not seem to be especially good for them and I've seen very few reports in the state so far. Northfield and Gill however, seem to be pretty consistent areas to look for them and I usually discover one or more each winter.