Tuesday, December 29, 2020

MA - 120th Northampton CBC - Hadley


Northern Harrier (juv/first-winter) - Hadley Honey Pot, Hampshire Co., MA. December 20th, 2020.
A good day for harriers with multiple sightings involving at least three individuals. 

Sunday December 20th saw Brian Kane and I join our friend Scott Surner for his traditional sector of the Northampton Christmas Bird Count. Though we haven't always been able to join Scott for the count every December, Brian and I have always made the effort, as long as time and weather permitted. Indeed, I first did this particular count with Scott way back in December 2005! This year Annie Nugent joined the team for the first time and as always it turned out to be a massively enjoyable day enriched by fine birding, decent weather and great company. It was around 19 deg F at dawn, calm and overcast throughout the day until around 14:00 hours when the forecast snow showers started in earnest and effectively closed play for the day. Annie and Brian quite sensibly departed at that point while Scott and I trudged on through the snow until 16:00 hours but couldn't muster a single addition for the day's tally!

Annie Nugent, Brian Kane and Scott Surner - Hadley, Hampshire Co., MA. December 20th, 2020.
Careful, socially distant CBC in action. 

The day delivered 49 species, slightly lower than the 53 - 55 species that we typically record in Scott's sector. We began at Hadley Cove steadily working our way north through the Aqua Vitae Road, Hadley Honey Pot, and finishing at the end of Meadow Street, North Hadley. Portions of the Connecticut River were frozen over and the river wasn't quite as lively as we'd seen on previous counts. Moreover, late afternoon snow flurries interfered with observations upriver in North Hadley, a section of the river that often produced surprises in the past. 

Yellow-rumped Warbler - Hadley DPW, Hampshire Co., MA. December 20th, 2020.

Eastern Phoebe - Hadley DPW, Hampshire Co., MA. December 20th, 2020.

Black-capped Chickadee - Hadley DPW, Hampshire Co., MA. December 20th, 2020.
The Hadley sector is always good for this perky, crisply marked species. 

In the event, the day was as much about chasing long standing 'lesser' rarities as much as it was about actual 'bird finding' and I'm really not sure if we came up with any species that hadn't been identified and established in the weeks prior to the count. Our tally included a couple of late/wintering migrants at Hadley DPW - Eastern Phoebe and Yellow-rumped Warbler, and two rare sparrows, or rather locally rare sub-species of sparrows in the form of an 'Ipswich' Savannah Sparrow and the gambelli form of White-crowned Sparrow. We eventually ended up having excellent views of both sub-species on the Aqua Vitae Road which proved to be one of the more enjoyable parts of the day. Being an incursion year, we also found several large flocks of Common Redpolls but never came close to finding a Hoary Redpoll, failing to repeat our success with Hoaries in the 2012 count. Flocks of Horned Larks were scattered fairly frequent throughout the day but few settled and we had to work especially hard to find just a handful of Snow Buntings and a single Lapland Longspur, though the latter just happened to be a nice male. 

White-crowned Sparrow - Aqua Vitae Road, Hadley, Hampshire Co., MA. December 20th, 2020
First-winter showing characteristics of the gambelli subspecies. 

'Ipswich' Savannah Sparrow (center) - with Savannah Sparrows, Aqua Vitae Road, Hadley, Hampshire Co., MA. December 20th, 2020. 

'Ipswich' Savannah Sparrow (in flight) - with Savannah Sparrows, Aqua Vitae Road, Hadley, Hampshire Co., MA. December 20th, 2020. 

Northern Mockingbird - Aqua Vitae Road, Hadley, Hampshire Co., MA. December 20th, 2020. 

Raptors were few but we did well for Northern Harriers with at least three seen, as well as Bald Eagle, Peregrine and Merlin. As so often happens on Christmas Counts and Big Days, we had our share of agonizing misses but one that really stood out for me was Feral Rock Pigeon. In the early part of the day we joked that at least one bird we could guarantee was Feral Pigeon. Scott was a lot more cautious and indicated pretty heavily that we might have our work cut out to find one. How right he was! Even our best bet at the Coolidge Bridge was bereft of Feral Pigeons, certainly a big change in status from the years that I've done the count and Scott tells me that the Coolidge Bridge used to support hundreds of pigeons in decades past. Even so, to spend an entire day birding in the Connecticut River Valley missing Feral Pigeon struck me as bizarre!

Brian Kane, Scott Surner and Annie Nugent - Hadley Honey Pot, Hampshire Co., MA. December 20th, 2020. 

Common Mergansers - Hadley Honey Pot, Hampshire Co., MA. December 20th, 2020. 

Common Redpoll - Hadley Honey Pot, Hampshire Co., MA. December 20th, 2020. 
One of a flock of about 25 just as the snow showers set in for the rest of the day. 

Hadley Honey Pot at dawn - December 20th, 2020. 16 Horned Larks were feeding along the dike at first light. 

Starting count day at 19 deg F really didn't feel that bad compared to the previous morning when I ran three miles in Gill at - 2 deg F/ - 19 C!

As always, it was tremendous fun being out in the field with Scott and friends, and taking part in this long standing, traditional event. This year, quite naturally, we approached the count safely and carefully using four separate vehicles and keeping our distance in the field. It worked surprisingly well and proved to be no real detriment to the count. As to the bigger picture, well the overall participation fielded no less than 186 observers who identified 86 bird species and counted some 36374 individual birds! Thanks very much to Janice F. Jorgensen and Amanda Kallenbach, co-compilers for this year's count. And of course, special thanks to Scott Surner for putting up with us for yet another year!

Sunday, December 27, 2020

MA - Boxing Day Grosbeaks


Pine Grosbeak - Federal Street, Greenfield, Franklin Co., MA. December 26th, 2020. 

After a balmy wet Christmas Day, the next day was pretty much business as usual with temperatures barely above freezing all day in combination with a raw North-westerly wind. But driving the streets of Greenfield and Turner's Falls did produce Pine Grosbeaks, lots of them! Sixteen were still present at a well reported site on Federal Street in Greenfield, actually right outside the local MacDonald's. Turner's Falls had three on L Street and a further nine on 3rd street, just west of the Avenue A intersection. And today (Dec 27th), a further five Pine Grosbeaks flew along the powerline cut through Highland Park in Greenfield. I must say it's an absolute treat to have these birds around, and even better to be able to find them so easily. We haven't seen numbers like this since the winter of 2007/08 and the consensus appears to be that the current influx is bigger and more widespread than the event of 12 years prior. One big difference between the two incursions seems to be adult males or rather the lack of them in the current incursion, and I still await my first!

Pine Grosbeak - Federal Street, Greenfield, Franklin Co., MA. December 26th, 2020. 

Water levels on the Connecticut River have remained extremely high since the Christmas Day thaw but the Barrow's Goldeneye seen in Turner's Falls that day appears to have moved on. Several checks of the power canal roost have not produced the goldeneye numbers seen that morning, especially the seemingly high numbers of first-winters males. Having been optimistic that the Barrow's might show up again, I'm now getting the distinct impression that it was perhaps just a one day wonder. On the other hand, checking for the Barrow's did produce an unseasonable Green-winged Teal at the power canal on the 27th and a female American Wigeon at Barton Cove, Gill the previous day.

Green-winged Teal (right) - first-winter male, Turner's Falls power canal, Franklin Co., MA. December 27th, 2020. 

Friday, December 25, 2020

MA - Christmas Day Barrow's Goldeneye and other goodies during Christmas week


Barrow's Goldeneye ( first-winter male) - extreme right with Common Goldeneyes, Turner's Falls power canal, Franklin Co., MA. December 25th, 2020.

Christmas Day brought freakish weather conditions to much of Western Massachusetts with balmy sixty degree temperatures at dawn combined with squally, heavy rain showers that persisted throughout the day. The packed snow that had looked so permanent on Christmas Eve disappeared overnight and, combined with the heavy rainfall, resulted in very high water levels on the Connecticut River. 

Barrow's Goldeneye ( first-winter male) -  with male Common Goldeneyes, Turner's Falls power canal, Franklin Co., MA. December 25th, 2020.

Barrow's Goldeneye ( first-winter male) - Turner's Falls power canal, Franklin Co., MA. December 25th, 2020.

Barrow's Goldeneye ( first-winter male) - extreme right with female Common Goldeneye, Turner's Falls power canal, Franklin Co., MA. December 25th, 2020.
Greater Scaup  (female) upper left with female Common Goldeneye. 

Greater Scaup ( female) -  at left with Common Goldeneyes, Turner's Falls power canal, Franklin Co., MA. December 25th, 2020.

As I approached the Turner's Falls power canal I noticed a flock of foraging Common Goldeneyes with another flock flying in just as I parked up. Things looked promising and it wasn't too long before I focused on the small bill, steep forehead and bulky 'mane' of a Barrow's Goldeneye. It was stunning first-winter male and my first of that particular age-class after many winters of seeing only females and a handful of adult males in the greater area of Turner's Falls. The whole flock put on a fine show close to the guard rail, much appreciated as the heavy rain would have made it difficult to bird away from the vehicle. The Barrow's Goldeneye was certainly a new arrival and a species that I've been watching for since late fall. Additionally, another new arrival was a female Greater Scaup neatly mixed in with the 55 or so Common Goldeneyes present, plus a couple of continuing female Buffleheads

Sage Thrasher - Hinsdale Setbacks, Cheshire Co., NH. December 24th, 2020.
Continuing from Dec 19th when it was first found by Cory Ross. 

Around noon, we had a family Christmas Day walk in the rain along the snowmobile trail at the Hinsdale Setbacks and found the continuing Sage Thrasher hopping across the trail in front of us. I'm still having trouble wrapping my head around the fact that a Sage Thrasher is attempting to spend the winter just 15 minutes up the road from our home in Northfield!

Pine Grosbeaks - Unity Park, Turner's Falls, Franklin Co., MA. December 18th, 2020. 
Up to three continuing in the park from Dec 15th. 

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker - Montague Plains, Franklin Co., MA. December 18th, 2020. 

Aside from the Barrow's Goldeneye and Sage Thrashers (another continues in Hatfield, MA) the general excellence of local birding continues seemingly unabated. Pine Grosbeaks have been moving into urban and suburban areas and almost any fruiting tree seems to be fair game for them with sizeable flocks showing up in Greenfield, Turner's Falls and Montague and smaller numbers in Gill. Common Redpolls have been widespread with the biggest flocks (close to 100 birds) at the Turner's Falls power canal and the Hinsdale Setbacks. Red Crossbills continue to feature at the Montague Sand Plains with 1 - 35 birds on all of my recent visits and smaller flocks in Gill and Huckle Hill in Bernardston. Evening Grosbeaks (1) and White-winged Crossbills (2) were last seen over Gill Elementary School on Dec 19th and unfortunately I still haven't managed to connect with either species for photos!

Monday, December 21, 2020



Sage Thrasher - Hinsdale, Cheshire Co., NH. December 21st, 2020. 
First state record found by Cory Ross on December 19th. 

Absolutely incredible! Another Monday in December and another Sage Thrasher! Found, and photographed by Cory Ross on Saturday (12/19) at Hinsdale Setbacks, with news circulated more widely by Steve Mirick on the NH Birds listserve on Sunday evening. Not only the second in the Connecticut River Valley inside a week but also a stunning state first for New Hampshire. 

Sage Thrasher - Hinsdale, Cheshire Co., NH. December 21st, 2020. 
First state record found by Cory Ross on December 19th. 

No surprise then to find me at the Hinsdale Setbacks on a calm, misty and quite pleasant Monday morning. What did come as a surprise was the lack of birders present with Jason Lambert being the only birder on site when I arrived at about 8:35 am. Three hours later I was on verge of leaving with nothing to show other than a couple of possible glimpses of the bird flying across the snowmobile trail some 200 yards north of the parking lot. No sooner had I committed to my final check of the morning than Jason beckoned me over.....he'd relocated the thrasher! Moreover, it was only 50 yards from the parking lot and totally unconcerned by the local fisherman drilling holes in the ice only yards from where it fed on Winterberry and Multiflora Rose. It put on the most fabulous show for the half dozen birders that had since gathered, and I last saw it disappearing north parallel to the snowmobile trail at around 12 noon. 

Rusty Blackbird - Hinsdale, Cheshire Co., NH. December 21st, 2020. One of five present. 

Aside from the thrasher, the setbacks were pretty birdy today with five Rusty Blackbirds, four Eastern Bluebirds, a Swamp Sparrow and at least 90 Common Redpolls being some of the highlights. Jason also reported seeing a late Gray Catbird. Nice birds indeed but I'm still having trouble wrapping my head around the fact that there are now two Sage Thrashers just thirty miles apart in Connecticut River Valley. With birds present in Cheshire County, NH and Hampshire County, MA, surely there must be a chance of finding one lurking in Franklin County?!

First and foremost, gracious thanks go to Cory Ross for the incredible find and initial photos, to Steve Mirick for getting the word out to a wider audience and to Jason Lambert for keeping in touch during this morning's search and neatly locating the bird just before I was about to leave!

'Twitching' New Hampshire style. The snowmobile track looked like this through much of the morning.
I don't know why but I somehow expected a lot more birders to be present and looking for the thrasher, a state first no less. 

After three hours of hard searching Jason Lambert (lower right) finally locates the thrasher and inspires a modest gathering !

*Sage Thrasher is a true denizen of the vast sage brush flats and high desert of the American West. A relatively short distance migrant, I've most easily found them in numbers on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada in Mono County, California in September. They're evidently pretty hardy birds with singing males already on territory when we visit Greater Sage-grouse leks in late April around Walden Colorado, that's at a time of year when temperatures at dawn are often well below freezing. To find one in south-west New Hampshire way east of its normal range is absolutely extraordinary. 

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

MA - leucistic Canada Goose, Snow Goose and more at Turner's Falls

leucistic Canada Goose - Turner's Falls power canal, Franklin Co., MA. December 16th, 2020.

Yesterday evening (Dec 15th) saw a leucistic Canada Goose at the Turner's Falls power canal. It looked and behaved like a new arrival and an indication that at least a few new parties of Canada Geese are still passing through. It was still present today and especially distinctive, looking creamy white and light brown overall with a reddish-pink bill. I checked carefully for signs of hybridization (with Graylag or Greater White-fronted Goose for example) but came away feeling pretty confident that the bird was a pure Canada Goose but with aberrant pigmentation. In fact, most of the features appeared to simply 'ghost' the natural plumage features of a typical Canada Goose. A nice looking bird for sure and one that I enjoyed watching. On the last two evenings it's departed NE with the first groups of Canada Geese to leave the canal for evening feeding. 

leucistic Canada Goose - Turner's Falls power canal, Franklin Co., MA. December 15th, 2020.

Snow Goose - Turner's Falls power canal, Franklin Co., MA. December 16th, 2020.

The long staying Barnacle Goose and Cackling Goose continue to show incredibly consistently, but this evening the brief appearance of Snow Goose was more of a surprise. It didn't appear to like the look of the power canal and, unusually for any scarce goose at Turner's Falls, departed SE entirely alone. The 60 or so gulls present included a single (first-winter) Iceland Gull. 

Barnacle Goose - Turner's Falls power canal, Franklin Co., MA. December 15th, 2020.

Cackling Goose (center) - Turner's Falls power canal, Franklin Co., MA. December 15th, 2020.

Earlier in the day, I spent some time searching for the reported Sage Thrasher in Hatfield, Hampshire County and came up empty though did enjoy some close Common Redpolls and three flyover Red Crossbills. The previous day also saw Red Crossbills at the traditional spot in the Montague Plains where I recorded 25 (Type 10) and a single Type 2 or Ponderosa Pine Red Crossbill

Common Redpolls - Hatfield, Hampshire Co., MA. December 16th, 2020.

Red Crossbills - Montague Sand Plains, Franklin Co., MA. December 15th, 2020.

Monday, December 14, 2020

MA - Sage Thrasher in Hampshire County!


Sage Thrasher -  Hatfield, Hampshire Co., MA. December 14th, 2020. Something of a 'mega' for interior Massachusetts, about the 5th state record. 
Originally found on December 13th. 

Yesterday as I walked the alder/birch scrub patches by the Turner's Falls power canal I couldn't help but think about lingering rarities. Considering the time of year, it was a remarkably balmy afternoon fueling random thoughts of finding a MacGillivray's Warbler or something similar from the west. Naturally, such fantasies only rarely become real but I was more than happy to find a late Common Yellowthroat, a record that compared favorably with a steady series of Common Yellowthroat reports from Northfield Meadows in Dec/Jan 2018/19. Moreover, this yellowthroat was a sharp male and watching it was a staunch reminder that fall migration '2020' wasn't quite over. 

Common Yellowthroat - Turner's Falls, Franklin Co., MA. December 13th, 2020.

Late on Sunday evening, a good birding friend sent me a couple of really nice images of an obvious Sage Thrasher, a species I know well from many trips to the Western US but I nearly fell off my chair when I read and processed the content of her message. The thrasher had been photographed by her friend that afternoon (Dec 13th) no more than 30 minutes down the road in Hampshire County! Not only an exceptionally rare bird in Massachusetts, but also the first ever to be found deep in the interior - all four other records had been coastal. 

Sage Thrasher - Hampshire Co., MA. December 14th, 2020. About the 5th state record. 

Though narrowly outside Franklin County, the site was still well within my 'self-imposed' drive time limit and I made a plan to arrive at the site just after first light. The morning was not the best. It was dull and gloomy with periodic bouts of heavy snow. The half-a-dozen or so birders present had to work very, very hard to eek out just a few glimpses but after three hours of effort I left the site feeling satisfied with the views that I'd had. On the other hand, I couldn't help feeling a few twinges of angst since I felt sure that simple birder presence was enough to interfere with the bird's ability to feed undisturbed. Apparently I wasn't alone in these thoughts and I believe, at least for the time being, a decision has been made not to release the exact location in the best interests of the bird. 

In recent years late autumn/early winter has proven to be an exceptionally productive time for Western vagrants in the Connecticut River Valley . The Sage Thrasher falls neatly within a pattern that has so far produced Mountain Bluebird in Turner's Falls, MacGillivray's Warbler and Pacific-slope Flycatcher in Hadley, Say's Phoebe in Westminster, VT, and Varied Thrush in Westport Village, NH to mention just a few, and all of them since fall 2016.  

As always, the final word and gracious thanks go to the finders and friends who passed on the information, and to the birders at the scene who worked together to relocate the bird on the morning that I visited  - thank you all!

NB. As if that wasn't enough for one day, the Barnacle Goose and the Cackling Goose once again graced the Turner's Falls power canal in the evening!

Barnacle Goose (adult) - Turner's Falls power canal, Franklin Co., MA. December 14th, 2020.
Long staying individual present in the Greenfield/Turner's Falls area since November 23rd.