Wednesday, January 30, 2019

MA - Barred Owl big day

Barred Owl - Montague, Franklin Co., MA. January 29th, 2019.

Yesterday (Jan 29th) I made a spur of the moment decision to drive the quieter roads of Franklin County in a low-key but focused searched for Barred Owls. Motivation had received a boost the previous day when I unintentionally came across two Barred Owls relatively close to each other around the Montague Sand Plains. Unknown to me at the time, Brian Kane had actually seen four Barred Owls the previous day within a very short period of time just a little further south. Although Barred Owl is perhaps the most frequently encountered of the three regular breeding owl species in Franklin County, the sheer numbers of owls being seen and reported during the daylight hours must surely point to an incursion of birds from further north? In addition, all the birds that I found yesterday were in similar habitat - fields edges and/or woodland fringe over looking tall, rank grasses, and quite often in very open situations. In contrast, I usually find our residents pairs in mature, mixed forest.

The tour went well and did not disappoint. I closed the day with eight Barred Owls seen, six of them photographed. Ironically, Susannah had also seen a Barred Owl in the yard across the street from our house in Northfield that morning but she only told me about it in the evening! 

Although we had an incursion of Barred Owls about three years ago, the most obvious indicator of those birds was the amount or roadkill to be seen especially along Interstate 91. I haven't seen anything quite like the current influx since we started living in Franklin County in fall 2010. The remarkable numbers and plain visibility of the owls is something to behold. On the sobering side, a couple of the birds were ridiculously docile, perhaps starving, and uncomfortably close to roads. 

Barred Owl - Gill, Franklin Co., MA. January 29th, 2019.
This was the only owl from the day outside of Montague town limits.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

MA - adult Thayer's Gull perhaps?

Iceland Gull (adult) L. g. kumlieni/thayeri  -  Turner's Falls, Franklin Co., MA. January 29th, 2019.

For the third time inside a week at I've come across an adult Iceland Gull that looked like a pretty good candidate for thayeri. The gull watching at Turner's Falls has been pretty sensational over the last two weeks with good numbers of Iceland Gulls (L. g. kumlieni) showing up in the roost on most evenings. Typically, five to seven Iceland Gulls have been present with all of the age classes represented but yesterday evening (Jan 28th) Scott Surner and I tallied no less than 10 Iceland Gulls, three of which were adults including one dark-winged bird that I might have also seen the previous week.

Since I don't have any definate records of thayeri for Turner's Falls I often look out for potential candidates in a location where dark-winged kumlieni are uncommon but certainly expected in most winters. Even so, this bird jumped out and appeared (to me) to tick a number of boxes for thayeri. 

I understand that the photos are of marginal quality but I'd certainly be interested to receive any feedback from those more experienced than I with adult Thayer's.

All of the images were taken this evening (Jan 29th) in dull, overcast conditions with light, drizzly showers.

Friday, January 25, 2019

VT - Golden Eagles in Putney

Golden Eagle (first-winter) - from Putney Great Meadow, Windham Co., VT. January 23rd, 2019.

January 23rd looked liked it would be a nice transition day between the frigid temperatures of the 21st/22nd and the balmy but horribly wet forecast for the 24th. Since January 6th, a steady series of Golden Eagle reports from Westmoreland, New Hampshire had piqued my interest, especially since I'd missed all of the birds reported in Windham and Franklin Counties during what appeared to be an exceptional fall for them. Westmoreland, as the eagle flies, is only 30 miles upriver from my home in Northfield but as I know the adjacent side of the Connecticut River a little better, I decided to take my chances and have a morning looking across the river from Putney Great Meadow. And, seeing as the 23rd is my birthday, I felt like I could justify going a little further afield than my local patch.

Golden Eagle (first-winter) - from Putney Great Meadow, Windham Co., VT. January 23rd, 2019.
Three more images of the first individual that gave the most prolonged views.

Arrival at Putney Great Meadow was not pretty with no obvious way of getting into the site and included six to eight inches of fresh snow. But after some effort I was inside the meadows trudging around in deep, soft snow scanning for raptors and anything else that might come my way. Initially things were quiet, very quiet in fact to the point where I considered giving up and heading back south. But a flock of 85 Snow Buntings got things moving in the right direction and as I carefully scanned the tree tops and hillside across the river toward Westmoreland the first breezes of the day picked up. Almost instantly, Red-tailed Hawks started lifting up above the tree line and the very first raptor lined up my scope was a crisp, pristine first-winter Golden Eagle! I could hardly believe my luck as it gave fairly prolonged views soaring and gaining height as the initial breeze became wind. Hoping that the southern wind would drift the bird my way was a little too much to ask for as it went into a glide heading straight down river towards Putney town itself. And that was my day, or so I thought, but minutes later I was watching another Golden Eagle, this one much lower and heading north before it went into a dive seemingly settling in some massive riverside evergreens. It had to be a second bird as the first was long gone and heading south. I waited for a while hoping for more views but it seemed to have settled. In the mean time, watching Redpolls foraging in the open fields with Horned Larks, and Snow Buntings perching high in the tree tops along the river provided a touch of the bizarre.

Snow Buntings alighting in tree tops Putney Great Meadow, Windham Co., VT. January 23rd, 2019.

Snow Bunting  Putney Great Meadow, Windham Co., VT. January 23rd, 2019.

Red-tailed Hawk  Putney Great Meadow, Windham Co., VT. January 23rd, 2019.

Golden Eagle (first-winter) - from Putney Great Meadow, Windham Co., VT. January 23rd, 2019.
A second individual heading north just above tree line. 

Getting out of Putney Great Meadow was even harder than getting in but I was thrilled with the result and the modest hardship seemed well worth it. Heading south on River Road toward Putney, I came across another very large raptor with an obvious dihedral showing a lot of white in the tail, surely another immature Golden Eagle?! Roadside parking was tricky but I fired off a number of images before raising my bins. The next eagle to come into view was an adult Bald what had happened to my apparent Golden? Sure enough, a review of the images revealed that I was right, the first bird that I'd seen from my moving car was a first-winter Golden Eagle. Could that be three Golden Eagles one morning? Well, quite possibly but I think it's equally possible that the bird on River Road was the first immature that I watched heading south from Great Meadow. Either way, three sightings of Golden Eagles was way more than I could have expected just 30 minutes from home - absolutely delighted!

Golden Eagle (first-winter) - Stoneholm Farm, Putney, Windham Co., VT. January 23rd, 2019.
The third sighting of the morning about two miles south of Great Meadow but note the white 'flash' on the left wing 
very similar to the first bird photographed at 10:53 hours. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

MA - Glaucous Gulls a-plenty and January update

Glaucous Gulls (3) - Turner's Falls, Franklin Co., MA. January 22nd, 2019.

January 20th brought the first proper weather event of the winter depositing a wintery mix of snow, sleet and freezing rain to much of the north-east. In Franklin County we received about eight inches of fairly fresh, crisp snow which was a welcome relief as we seemed to skip the forecast ice accumulations. It finally felt like winter after a relatively comfortable start to the New Year. Although not obvious on the day of the storm, the impact of the Arctic blast was evident at Turner's Falls with the sudden arrival of three Glaucous Gulls at the power canal including a fine adult. Glaucous Gulls are not especially common in Franklin County and multiple arrivals even less so. To have three together from a modest total of just 55 gulls was even more impressive. The evening's tally also included a newly arrived first-cycle Iceland Gull and the long staying an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull - not too shabby!

Glaucous Gulls (2) - Turner's Falls, Franklin Co., MA. January 22nd, 2019.

Iceland (first-cycle) Glaucous Gull (second-cycle) - Turner's Falls, Franklin Co., MA. January 22nd, 2019.
Not a strong evening in terms of volume of roosting gulls but certainly high on quality. 

Aside from weather events, mid-winter does bring some stability to the local birding scene with relatively few changes taking place throughout the month. Waterfowl gathered in numbers where ever the Connecticut River remained ice free, most specifically at the Turner's Falls power canal and the fast flowing water below Vernon Dam in Vermont. Since each locations is less than 15 minutes drive from home in Northfield, I divided my birding between both. The diving duck situation below Vernon Dam was pretty sensational in mid-month with up 95 Common Goldeneyes, 25 Hooded and 15 Common Mergansers, a Bufflehead and no less than 3 Barrow's Goldeneyes on the 15th and 17th with the latter being composed of one adult male, one adult female and one first-winter male. In contrast, Turner's Falls, whilst hosting a couple of female-type Buffleheads has been notable by its lack of Barrow's Goldeneyes with none reported so far this winter. But, overall, the concentrations of waterfowl along the Turner's Falls power canal have been spectacular with up to 2400 Canada Geese, 540 Mallards, 33 American Black Ducks, 60 Common Mergansers 45 Common Goldeneyes, and 12 or so Hooded Mergansers. In addition, one or two Cackling Geese have been present (on and off) throughout January and are clearly attempting to winter in the area rather than push on further south.

Cackling Goose (center) - Turner's Falls, Franklin Co., MA. January 19th, 2019.

Barrow's Goldeneye (male) - with Common Goldeneyes, below Vernon Dam, Windham Co., VT. January 17th, 2019. 

Aside from the more recent Glaucous Gulls, two Lesser Black-backed Gulls, one adult and one third-cycle remained at Turner's Falls up to January 19th at least. Up to four Iceland Gulls on any given evening in January though plumage features suggested that there were certainly more than four different individuals involved. A Glaucous Gull, quite possibly the same first-cycle that we found on the Christmas Bird Count in late December, was present at Barton Cove, Gill through until January 5th at least.

Lesser Black-backed  Gull (third-cycle) - Barton Cove, Gill, Franklin Co., MA. January 3rd, 2019.

Glaucous Gull (first-cycle) - Barton Cove, Gill, Franklin Co., MA. January 3rd, 2019.

Common Yellowthroat - Northfield Meadows, Franklin Co., January 3rd, 2019.

Passerines included two species that I wouldn't normally expect in January with Common Yellowthroats continuing to hang on in Northfield Meadows. I had sightings of singles there on the 3rd and the 11th - I'm still having trouble coming to terms with the idea of wintering yellowthroats in Franklin County! Perhaps slightly more expected though still noteworthy for mid-winter, a Gray Catbird in the riverside thickets below Vernon Dam on January 15th. It's going to be interesting to see if either of these species survived the exceptionally cold snap around January 20th?

Gray Catbird - Vernon, Windham Co., VT. January 15th, 2019.

Hermit Thrush - Gill, Franklin Co., MA. January 10th, 2019.

Eastern Bluebird - Gill, Franklin Co., MA. January 10th, 2019.

Raptors were few during the first three weeks of the month though the impressive numbers of Barred Owls in our area provided some compensation. But an adult Red-shouldered Hawk in Turner's Falls on the 8th, a male Sharp-shinned Hawk on Ben Hale Road, Gill on the 10th and a Peregrine over the Turner's Falls power canal on the 21st were all noteworthy. 

Red-shouldered Hawk (adult) - Unity Park, Turner's Falls, Franklin Co., MA. January 8th, 2019.

Peregrine - over Turner's Falls power canal, Franklin Co., MA. January 21st, 2019. 

Sunday, January 20, 2019

ME - the Great Black Hawk

Great Black Hawk (immature) - Deering Oaks Park, Portland, Cumberland Co., ME. January 16th, 2019. 

Great Black Hawk, not a species that would have been on my radar for vagrancy to New England and yet this individual has settled down for the winter in an urban park in Portland, Maine seemingly having little trouble dealing with the extreme cold, snow and ice. The excitement around the black hawk's initial discovery in early August was huge before it promptly disappeared after spending a few days around a neighborhood in Biddeford only to reappear again in Portland in late October! After moving around and then disappearing once more, it was eventually pinned down to Deering Oaks Park in Portland where it allowed hundreds of birders to catch up with it from late November.

Naturally, I followed the story with interest but for some reason just couldn't work up the motivation for the three hour drive from Northfield until early January. That day, January 6th, Josh Layfield and I ventured to Portland and promptly dipped on the hawk, despite four or five hours of concerted effort with other birders around the park. It was simply nowhere to be seen. But in the early part of this week, a series of positive reports sparked my interest once more and I decided to make the solo trek back to Portland. Within an hour of arrival, a lovely couple from Gilsum, New Hampshire located the black hawk mantling a Gray Squirrel and were kind enough to wave me over. And there it remained for the next ninety minutes or so completely demolishing the Gray Squirrel. Watching this large raptor remain in the same spot for the best part of two hours was intriguing to say the least. It seemed oblivious to human disturbance - passers by, dog walkers, and then even the local kindergarten came out and set up camp to play in the snow no more than thirty meters from where the bird was stripping the squirrel! It completely ignored all the action going on in its immediate surroundings and just got on with the business of feeding. I admit to being very surprised at just how comfortable the black hawk was around people and its urban environment in general.

It's really intriguing to wonder just how this tropical species, breeding no closer than northern Mexico, would end up attempting to spend the winter in Maine? And even more intriguing to think that it's almost certainly the same individual photographed as a potential first ABA record on South Padre Island, Texas by Alex Lamoreaux back on April 24th!

Update January 20th: sad news via Facebook - it would appear that the Great Black Hawk was found in distressed condition and has been taken into care and transported to rehab at Avian Haven ('ll be offering updates as and when more news comes in.