Sunday, December 27, 2009

MA - Christmas Day Robins - 12/25

During a family visit to Groff Park in Amherst on Christmas Day, the open grassy areas were littered with good numbers of American Robins. Perhaps 300 were present in all and, as usual, I patiently went through them optimistically hoping for an Old World thrush of some kind - maybe a Fieldfare or Redwing. Needless to say I didn't get lucky with mega rarities but I did find a good looking example of the blacker-backed form of American Robin T. m. nigrideus (Newfoundland, Labrador and Quebec). Typically I see a few of these each winter and in early spring, sometimes in small flocks. This winter, however, they seem to have been decidedly scarce in the Pioneer Valley so I was especially pleased with this handsome dark-backed male.

American Robin - Adult male showing characteristics of 'black-backed' form T.m. nigrideus. Groff Park, Amherst, Hamsphire County, MA.

Also in Groff Park today, four species of woodpecker including a Northern Flicker inspecting a cavity (!), plus a Golden-crowned Kinglet in our yard on North Whitney Street, Amherst.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

MA - Turner's Gulls - 12/18

Lesser Black-backed Gull - adult L.f. graellsii with Ring-billed and American Herring Gulls, Barton Cove, Franklin Co., MA. December 19th, 2009.

Lesser Black-backed Gull (adult L.f. graellsii) with American Herring Gulls, Barton Cove, Franklin Co., MA. December 18th, 2009.

Kumlien's Gull - first-cycle, Barton Cove, Franklin Co., MA. December 18th, 2009.

Despite a few icy blasts from the North that left Barton Cove almost completely frozen by 12/19, the number of large gulls at Turner's Falls hasn't changed much for a couple of weeks now. Usually less than 200 large gulls come in to roost or pre-roost gatherings. What appears to be the same adult Lesser Black-backed Gull and the same first-cycle Kumlien's Gull have featured on most of the evenings that I've checked. Both were present on 12/19.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

MA - Northampton CBC - 12/20

Clay-colored Sparrow. North Hadley, Hampshire Co., MA. December 20th, 2009. My first in mid-winter in MA, and Scott's third in about thirty years of doing this particular count! This bird was feeding with a large flock of Song and American Tree Sparrows by the Connecticut River in North Hadley and was quite difficult to observe. We saw it about six times in late afternoon but rarely had it perched in view for more than a few seconds at a time.


Despite getting an unavoidable late start, I joined Scott Surner for the Northampton CBC once again. Our sector covered the Hadley Floodplain east of the Connecticut River, roughly from Hadley Cove to North Hadley. It was hard going this year with a fresh dusting of snow, very cold temperatures and a brisk Northerly wind that persisted throughout most of the day.

However, as always with this count, there were surprises in store highlighted by a Clay-colored Sparrow in North Hadley. We also found a Snow Goose on the river at Hadley off the Aqua Vitae Road, a Northern Pintail with Mallards at North Hadley, 6 Eastern Bluebirds, 40 Horned Larks, a Lapland Longspur and a Snow Bunting in the Hadley Honey Pot, and some nice concentrations of American Tree Sparrows with over one hundred tallied for the day.

More photo highlights from the day;

Snow Goose - Hadley/Northampton, Hampshire Co., MA. December 20th, 2009.

Northern Pintail - female (lower right) with Mallard. North Hadley, Hampshire Co., MA. December 20th, 2009.

Lapland Longspur. Hadley Honey Pot, Hampshire Co., MA. December 20th, 2009.

Snow Bunting. Hadley Honey Pot, Hampshire Co., MA. December 20th, 2009.

As usual, a most enjoyable day with good birding and good company.


Thursday, December 17, 2009

MA - Long-eared Owl, Snow Geese - 12/17

Long-eared Owl. Smith College campus, Northampton, Hampshire Co., MA. December 17th, 2009. Not only a rare bird in Western MA but a rare opportunity to observe one in a completely exposed day-time roost. Clearly my approach to checking for them in extensive stands of pine and spruce in wilderness areas isn't the right one! My sixth species of owl in the Pioneer Valley since late October.

A brutally cold day with temps only in the low 20s, plus a brisk cold NW wind that never eased up all day. As fortune would have it, I was working at my computer when Seth Kellogg circulated an email concerning a Long-eared Owl at a roost in a deciduous (!) tree on the Smith College campus in Northampton. I couldn't leave straight away but an afternoon visit found it still roosting out in the open in an 'Armstrong Maple' (apparent hybrid) just south of the Nelson Library,Sm or 25-30 yards north of the small Smith College parking lot off Green Street, Northampton. The bird seemed unfazed by its admirers, birders and passers by alike, barely moving during thirty minutes of observation.
Snow Geese (6) - with Canada Geese, CT River, Hadley/Northampton, Hampshire Co., MA. December 17th, 2009.
On the way home I checked the Connecticut River from the East Meadows in Northampton and found six Snow Goose amongst a pre-roost gathering of c.1300 Canada Geese. Also present, some 25 Common Mergansers. This particular corner of the East Meadows and the adjacent Northampton airfield was the last spot where I observed Long-eared Owls in Western MA, back in February 2007. JPS

Sunday, December 13, 2009

MA - Recent sightings - mid-Dec '09

Snow Goose (foreground) - distant 'digibin' shot, Mill Valley Rd, Hadley/Amherst town line, Hampshire Co., MA. December 14th, 2009.

Apologies for letting my blog posts slip lately. The first two weeks of December provided a few decent birds locally as well as the first real taste of winter, enough to freeze most of Barton Cove on December 13th. Random sightings summarized below;

Dec 1st: Barred Owl at dawn apparently hunting, Redgate Lane, Amherst.

Dec 2nd: Northern Harriers at North Maple Street and South Maple Street, Hadley. 35 American Pipits in corn stubble field, South Hadley.

Dec 3rd
: Amherst College Trails; Barred Owl (2), Northern Flicker (1), Winter Wren (2), Hermit Thrush (1).

Dec 4th: Winter Wren, North Whitney Street, Amherst.

Dec 5th: Snow Bunting over North Whitney Street, Amherst. Eastern Screech Owls; 1 base of Skinner SP, Hadley, 1 (Gray phase), South-east Street, Amherst.

Dec 6th: Barred Owl, Mountain Road, Hatfield.

Dec 7th: Kumlien's Gull (1st cycle), Lesser Black-backed Gull (adult), Turner's Falls.

Kumlien's Gull - (with American Herring Gull) Turner's Falls, Franklin Co., MA. December 7th, 2009.

Dec 10th: Red-breasted Merganser 2, Barton Cove, Gill. Kumlien's Gull 3 (1st cycle), Lesser Black-backed Gull (adult), Turner's Falls/ Barton Cove.

Dec 13th: Lesser Black-backed Gull (adult), Barton Cove, Gill. Quabbin Gate 8; Sharp-shinned Hawk seen catching, killing and eating Blue Jay, Hairy Woodpecker (4), Downy Woodpecker (3), Dark-eyed Junco (130), White-throated Sparrow (60), Golden-crowned Kinglet (6).

Dec 14th: Snow Goose (adult), Mill Valley Road, Hadley/Amherst town line with 120 Canada Geese. c. 100 Horned Larks in the same field. Great Horned Owl calling at dusk off North-east Street, Amherst.

Dec 15th: Pileated Woodpecker over Amherst town center, heading North. Also, 2 Pileated Woodpeckers regularly in Wildwood Cemetary, Amherst throughout.

Also, pair of Great Horned Owls regularly at dawn along North-east Street, Amherst throughout the period.

Red-breasted Mergansers - female-type, Barton Cove, Franklin Co., MA. December 10th, 2009.

Barton Cove, Gill, Franklin Co., MA. First real ice of the winter on a gloomy Sunday afternoon. The specks at the edge of the ice are roosting gulls.

Lesser Black-backed Gull. Adult/near adult, Barton Cove, Franklin Co, MA. December 10th, 2009.

Lesser Black-backed Gull (right) - Adult/near adult, Barton Cove, Franklin Co, MA. December 13th, 2009.

Ring-billed Gulls. Barton Cove, Franklin Co., MA. December 13th, 2009. Note the tiny, short-legged bird in the center.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

MA - Saw-whet update - 12/01

Northern Saw-whet Owl. New Salem, Franklin Co., MA. November 25th, 2009.

The start of a new month seems like a good time to reflect on Northern Saw-whet findings since late October. Over the last month I've had 15 contacts (birds heard or seen) from 45 individual stations with repeat visits to some stations. Of these, I can be fairly certain that two contacts (on different nights) involved the same bird. Overall, I think 14 individual birds have been found. While this might seem like quite a few, the overall success rate is pretty low........about 26%. Success (heard/seen) is being measured against an individual survey, each survey lasting 20-30 minutes. At least some of this can be attributed to vocal response or perhaps more accurately, lack of vocal response. Some birds are doubtless present but simply don't vocalize. On one occasion, we watched a bird fly in silently towards us after just one minute of saw-whet imitation (whistling simple repeated 'tooting'). However, the same bird didn't vocalize until eight minutes later. Many references suggest that saw-whets are silent at this time of year and I think it's quite feasible that the success rate will improve during the course of the winter, especially from late January onwards. We've recorded saw-whets in the following towns: Amherst (2), Hatfield (1), Leverett (1), Montague (1), New Salem (1), Shutesbury (5), and South Amherst (3). Locations in Belchertown, Pelham and Sunderland have also been surveyed but have yet to produce a positive result.

On the whole it's been quite fascinating. An actual 'visual' versus a 'heard-only' makes a huge difference to moral and the five birds seen so far have been very satisfying. Other owls have also been detected, including Barred Owls (9) and Great Horned Owls (2)
, but no Eastern Screech-owls as yet. The absence of the latter may be attributed to elevation and habitat preferences but it's a little too early in the study to say.

Habitat of Northern Saw-whet Owl. Hatfield, Hampshire Co., MA. December 1st, 2009.

All of the locations in our area supporting Northern Saw-whet Owls contain mixed (rather than dense coniferous) woodland and all of the locations, with the exception of one, have at least some Eastern Hemlock within the habitat composition.

Poor attempt at a digibin shot.

I'm very grateful for the comments and help that I've received from fellow owl enthusiasts, and especially to Brian Kane and Larry Therrien who have joined me for several nights in the field.

MA - Kumlien's Gull - 12/01

Kumlien's Gull - First-cycle with Great Black-backed and American Herring Gulls.Turner's Falls, Franklin County, MA. December 1st, 2009.

First of season Kumlien's Gull at Turner's Falls this afternoon amongst eighty or so large gulls and and up to 40 Ring-billed Gulls. No sign of the long staying (Richardson's) Cackling Goose, with far fewer Canada Geese on the power canal than on previous visits. I did, however, see over 1000 Canada Geese heading south along the CT river during my afternoon visit. As far as I know, the Cackling Goose was last seen by Brian Kane and his parents on Thanksgiving morning. Also a nice flock of about 25 Common Goldeneye, 1 Hooded Merganser and 1 Common Merganser.

Of note yesterday morning (Nov 30th) at dawn, 1 American Woodcock giving 'twitter' calls over North-east Street.

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.