Saturday, February 23, 2013

Out with the Owls: birds #89 and 90

Being outdoors after dark is  a special experience, and always brings back fond memories of friends, campfires and night hikes. It's amazing how much a landscape which looks so familiar during the day can look different when darkness has rendered the trees, rocks and water in shades of gray. I always find this transformation to be revelatory - for one thing, being out in the woods at night challenges us to use our sense of hearing in a more intense way and for another, once our eyes adjust, especially if there is a little moon or starlight, there's something great about realizing that a flashlight isn't really a necessity for exploring after dark. Up until last night most of my birding had taken place during the day, with the exception of one unsuccessful attempt to see Woodcoks last year, which was really more of an early evening activity. But last night my girlfriend and I joined an "owl prowl" program at Mass Audubon's Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary in Natick, MA to go out and search the forest for these mainly nocturnal predators.

With my New England birding big year in full swing now, I knew I would also need to add owls to my year list and I thought this would be a great way to not only find and hear them, but to learn something about their natural history as well.  I was particularly impressed to learn that Great Horned Owls actually like to eat skunks, a fact which I had not previously known. It was also surprising to learn about the dietary predilections of the Eastern Screech Owl, which will take prey ranging from tadpoles to mice to other Eastern Screech Owls under certain circumstances.

After a slideshow and auditory presentation designed to familiarize us with the more common species of owl we were likely to hear, we split up into three groups and headed outside. Our group took a route that brought us along the edge of a large open field which was covered in half-melted snow. The moon shone down through the clouds, giving us ample light to see the path as we crunched along. It wasn't until we entered the forest that we heard our first owl, an Eastern Screech-Owl calling from the far side of a marsh, its eery, trilling voice ringing out clearly in the windless night. We stood quietly and listened intently and were rewarded with more of this unearthly song, soon joined by the deep hooting of a Great Horned Owl.Not long after the Great Horned Owl made its presence known we heard something else calling from the darkness - a group of Eastern Coyotes were howling not far away. It brought me back to the last time I had heard coyotes, in a very different setting, sitting out on top of boulder in southern California in the summer. As I've said before, sometimes the best thing about birding isn't the birds, it's all the places you see and the things you experience as you look for them.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Checking in: Day #53 of my New England birding big year

I had read reports of Canvasback ducks in the area but discovered these two quite by accident while scanning the Charles River in Newton. For me, a big part of the fun of birding is finding unexpected species and exploring new places. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
As I continue my New England birding big year I plan to sit down occasionally and offer some thoughts on things I've noticed, and the ways in which my plans and approach shange as the year progresses. One of the biggest changes I've made so far in these first 53 days is to shift my birding big year focus from only Massachusetts to all of New England. I did this for a couple of reasons, including the fact that I plan to be out of state quite a bit, and with limited time when I'm not working I really wanted to be able to count some amazing birds I've seen in Rhode Island, including a Thick-billed Murre, Sandhill Crane and Northern Lapwing. I suppose it's bending the rues a bit, but then again, I made them for myself in the first place.

The second change I've made is that as of today I've decided to suspend my email subscription to the Massachusetts e-bird rarity alert notice. I still plan to check out e-bird and to look at the ABA Massachusetts birding lists online, but I was beginning to feel like instead of going out and searching for birds based on my knowledge of avian life, geography and ecology, that I had begun to "shop" for my birds, gleaning updates on a daily basis on the whereabouts of every unusual species someone spotted. I still think the emails from e-bird and the online resources are great and really valuable, I'm just going to try and use on them less.

In terms of things I've learned or noticed, I have been having great fun joining birding field trips run by Mass Audubon. I've gone on three this year and have already signed up for two more. One excursion was run by the center at Joppa Flats where I got to see my very first Bald Eagle, while two others were led by Strickland Wheelock out of Drumlin Farm and took me to Rhode Island for a whole host of rare birds and some amazing views of wintering ducks, grebes and loons. On these outings I've been continually impressed by the more advanced birders in the group, who display an impressive depth of knowledge and a marked willingness to share that knowledge with other less-experienced birders (including myself, of course !)  I've also enjoyed exploring new places and having a chance to sharpen some of my ID skills.

As I write this I am already thinking about my next outing, to look for owls. Hopefully in the next blog post I write I will be able to say that not only have I added a species or two to my list, but learned something new from my rambles in the natural world. That's really my main goal every time I go outdoors.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Monday, February 18, 2013

A frozen day afield

It was pretty cold out today, but the sky was bright and blue as I continued my pursuit of a New England birding big year. Today I explored the Concord section of the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. I had hear from several people that this was a good spot to go birding, and it defintiely looked like it would have great potential in warmer weather - it offers expansive wetlands and  trails that follow the river nearby.

Great Meadows national Wildlife Refuge is a complex of different5 locations offering diverse habitat for birders, photographers and anyone who wants to enjoy nature to explore. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
 With a cold wind blowing forcefully I didn't see much bird activity at first, but after I crossed over the dike in the middle I began to hear birdsong from the trees and soon came across one of several Downy Woodpeckers I would see today.

A male Downy Woodpecker searches for insects along the trunk of a tree at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord, Massachusetts. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

In addition to the Downy Woodpeckers there were also a number of Song Sparrows and Black-capped Chickadees around, the latter singing quite loudly as they moved from one spot to another in the trees and brush that lined the trail. As I was walking around I stopped to talk with other birders who had decided to brave the cold, and one of them told me about a Marsh Wren that had been seen regularly not farm from the parking lot, so after I completed my circuit along the edge trail I decided to take another look near the first foot bridge. I stood quietly to the side scanning the vegetation and a little section of open water, and it wasn't long before I saw the wren. It looked a little worn, but definitely hardy, and seemed totally unperturbed by my presence. I watched it for a while as it hopped from one place to another, inspecting little sections of vegetation, then disappeared under the bridge only to pop back up again. At one point it came so close I probably could have reached down and picked it up in my hand. With the Marsh Wren, I reached 88 species for the year so far. I think reaching 300 is defintiely going to take some luck and a lot of planning, but I'm hopeful that if I can continue at a good pace, I will have 100 species by March and 200 by the end of May.

I decided to make one more stop before heading home, at Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary in Lincoln, MA. I didn't add any new species to my year or life list, but I did see 14 different species, mainly the expected winter birds, but also a very nice Eastern Blue Bird and a few Wild Turkeys. All of this winter birding has me dreaming of summer ...

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

A "chevron" of geese and some wonderful winter ducks in Rhode Island

This weekend I joined a group of birders looking for wintering sea ducks along the coast of Rhode Island. image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Yesterday morning I dragged myself out of bed at 6:30 AM, got dressed and headed over to join a program focused on wintering ducks in Rhode Island with a group from Mass Audubon's Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary. I figured since I had had such great luck last time on the "Mission: Possible" trip, where I added several new life birds including Northern Lapwing and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, that it would be worth going on another excursion with Drumlin Farm. And once again, I was not disappointed. Our group of 8 included both novices and more experienced birders, and was led by two expert guides who were eager to share their knowledge and enthusiasm, Strickland Wheelock and Barrett Lawson (author of A Bird Finding Guide to Costa Rica). The morning started off in the Drumlin Farm education center parking lot, where about a dozen Wild Turkeys were present, picking up fallen birdseed under the feeders, while a  Carolina Wren and a Hairy Woodpecker called from unseen perches.

As we drove south light snow began to fall and we started to wonder if the predicted "dusting" might in fact turn out to be a little more robust. As it turned out the snow came and went during the day, but the sun never appeared and it was very cold in the coastal areas we birded. As we drove along someone asked what a "gander" was, as in the expression "what's good for the goose is good for the gander" which led to a serious search via smartphone, which in turn led us to discover several alleged names for groups of geese, including a "chevron" of geese, which could make sense given the "V" formation Canada geese tend to fly in, and a "plump" of geese which made no sense to me.  In any case, throughout the day we say many chevrons of Canada Geese and no shortage of plumps of Brant.

Our first stop of the day was along a rocky section of shoreline in East Providence, where I got my first really good look at a Greater Scaup, a new life bird for me. They were quite close and easy to see with binoculars. The Scaup were joined by Common Goldeneye, Red-breated Mergansers, a Common Loon and a Horned Grebe. One of my side projects for the winter has been to try and get better at winter plumage loon and grebe ID. So far it's going slowly, but I think at this point I can confidently tell a Common Loon from a Red-throated, so that's progress, I suppose. With the Hairy Woodpecker, Greater Scaup and an American Wigeon, I was at 80 species for the year, and feeling optimistic about the day.

After we were done exploring this piece of shoreline we drove over to a field where a Ross's Goose had been reported, mixed in with a very large flock (plump ? chevron?) of Canada Geese. This would have been an extremely exciting find so we were all pretty excited. In the end, Strickland ID'd it as a Snow Goose, which was still exciting (and a life bird for me), so the Ross's Goose remains to be found for my list.  Brant were positively everywhere yesterday, and even in this field covered in Canada Geese we managed to find a small group of them feeding on the grass. Along the water we also saw two seals, seemingly content to bob in the water, their heads peeking out from among the waves.

A "chevron" of Brant prepare to take off from the water.This was just one of several groups of these winter geese we encountered during the day. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

The lone shorebird of the day was a solitary Sanderling feeding at the water's edge among a group of Herring gulls. We drove through along some  beautiful shoreline and past some very promising salt marsh and wetland habitat which I would defintiely like to revisit in the spring and summer. Following the Snow Goose I added 6 more species to the year list: a group of Cedar Waxwings whizzed by overhead during one stop, several Great Cormorant were seen sitting on the edge of the ice, two Northern Pintails showed up on a reservoir and in the same spot we saw a group of American Coot way out in the distance diving for vegetation and popping back up to the surface. We also saw a Gadwall along the coast, and the highlight of the day for me was a stop at Beavertail State Park, where I got to see one of the most beautiful ducks (in my humble opinion) one can see in New England, the Harlequin Duck. There were several groups of them floating around in the surf, and I got a very close look at both the males and females.

This group of Harlequin Ducks was a very exciting find yesterday. Not only were they a new life bird for me, but they brought my New England birding big year total to 87 species to date. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

With the Harlequins I was up to 87 species for the year in my quest to reach 300 species seen in New England during my 2013 New England birding big year. My thanks to Barret and Strickland for a great day of birding.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Friday, February 8, 2013

A little pre-blizzard birding

Chestnut Hill Reservoir in Boston sits under a layer of ice, while darkening skies overhead presage the coming blizzard. image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
With a major blizzard expected to hit southern New England today I decided to get outside early and see if there might be any interesting birds around. I was also curious to see if I might notice any different behavior ahead of the impending storm. My first stop was at Chestnut Hill Reservoir, where I hoped there might be a little open water and perhaps some ducks. Unfortunately the reservoir was covered in ice and there was a decent wind blowing, with only a few gulls standing far out on the frozen surface. I did manage to see a Golden-crowned Kinglet and a Blue Jay, but otherwise there wasn't much bird activity.

With things quiet at the reservoir I headed over to Cold Spring Park in Newton, where I can usually count on mixed foraging flocks and other winter regulars. While I was there I added 8 more species to my day list, including Downy Woodpecker, White-breasted Nuthatch, Blue Jay and Northern Cardinal. The highlight of my stop at the park, however, was a chance to photograph some Mallards up close. These ubiquitous birds are often taken for granted by both birders and the general public, but they are actually very nice looking ducks. I wanted to share the photo below of a female Mallard because it shows very clearly the blue patch on the wing, bordered by white on each side, as well as the coloration of the bill. A personal project of mine has been to try and get better at picking American Black Ducks out of crowds of Mallards, so I've been paying particular attention to female Mallards lately when I see them. I've also been taking some extra time when I do positively identify a black duck to look at the subtle but important field marks, beyond just being darker overall.

The key field marks for identification can easily be observed on this female Mallard, including a blue wing patch bordered by white and a yellow-orange bill with a dark mark in the center. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

This female Mallard was with a group of fellow Mallards feeding in an open section of stream in Cold Spring Park. I've noticed that the stream in this location has consistently been open throughout the winter. After a while I wandered over to Newton City Hall (but not before spotting 3 Wild Turkeys in the Newton Cemetery) where there wasn't much bird activity at all - in fact I only saw two birds and ID'ed one of them - a Rock Pigeon. I did stop inside, however, to ask about the large construction project going on in the City Hall park. I was hoping it would turn out to the be the case that they were dredging the stream bed there, and the clerks at the front desk told me that this is exactly what they are doing. Birding in this location the last few years I've noticed the buildup of road sand and sediment, so hopefully this will help improve the flow of the water and the overall health of this small ecosystem. The City of Newton deserves kudos for this initiative.

Thanks for reading and stay safe and warm if you're in the northeast today.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

New England Big Year 2013 - Chasing rare birds in Rhode Island

A group of birders head out into a farm field in Tiverton, Rhode Island, in search of Vesper Sparrows and other unusual winter birds. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
As things in life often do, my big year plans have recently changed a bit - instead of doing a Massachusetts big year, I've decided to do a New England big year. The reasons for this are manifold, but chief among them is the fact that I have a busy work schedule with limited time, and I know with a fair degree of certainty that on some weekends I will be in Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire or Maine. I came to the decision to expand the geographic range of my big year based on these plans, and on the fact that I live within a relatively easy drive of both New Hampshire and Rhode Island, two states which are great for birding. Rhode Island, with its endless miles of coastline offers innumerable beaches, wetlands and other great bird habitat to explore, especially in the winter, and New Hampshire will offer me a chance to see Boreal species which I might otherwise miss this year. My new goal for the year is to try and reach 300 species seen/heard in the 6 New England states.

So yesterday I went on a group trip organized by the Mass Audubon Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary, and met a great group of birders and some very knowledgeable trip leaders. Even before we left the sanctuary I got a great look at some nice biurds, including several American Goldfinches and a Carolina Wren which was singing loudly from behind an old wooden fence. I began this expansion yesterday with a  great day of birding in Rhode Island, where I added 14 more species to my year list, and 5 new life species. One of my new life birds, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker showed up on an early stop in the day, at a small wildlife sanctuary near Tiverton, Rhode Island.  I

A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker clings to the side of a tree at a wildlife sanctuary near Tiverton, Rhode Island. These rare visitors to New England eat sap and insects. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Seeing this new bird was very exciting, as I had previously spent a few lunch breaks scouring the Boston Public Garden in search of a reported sapsucker seen along Arlington Street. In addition to this bird, we were also lucky enough to see three other species of woodpecker in the same area - Downy, Red-bellied and Northern Flicker (yellow shafted).  Along with the woodpeckers came other birds - titmice, chickadees and even a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. In just a few minutes I had added 3 more species to my year list and new bird to my life list. We continued on in the woods, looking and listening, and I heard  a Golden-crowned Kinglet calling from some brush, which was exciting.

Our next stop was a big farm field, open and covered with the stubble of last year's crops. As we scanned the field our trip leader pointed out a group of about 20 small birds moving low to the ground across an open section of the field. I looked through my binoculars and added another life bird to my list - the Horned Lark. As we made our way around the fields I added another species to the year list: Savannah Sparrow. We searched hard for any sign of a Vesper Sparrow, but none were seen.

 A marsh beside farm fields in Tiverton, Rhode Island attracts a wide range of winter birds, from American Tree Sparrow and Black Ducks to the rare Sandhill Crane. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
We next checked some marshes and an open section of beach, with fields in the distance. It was here that we got an amazing look at a Sandhill Crane - a life bird for many of the people in our group, and certainly for me. We were able to watch it fly high above the field for several minutes as it flapped and glided. A very cool bird, and one I would really like to get a closer look at sometime soon. it also made me wish I had a better camera - I got a couple of photos, but the bird just looks like a little grey speck against a blue sky. At this point I was pretty happy with the trip, I had added two new life birds and many to my year list, including a solitary Turkey Vulture seen from the car. The day was not over yet, however, and we made two more great stops. One was at an open section of beach where I added Surf Scoter and Thick-billed Murre to my life and year lists, and another was along a road in front of a farm where I had the opportunity to see two Northern Lapwings which had shown up in a field. Although I could only get a marginal look at them through my binoculars, there were plenty of generous people there who were willing to let others peer at these super rare birds through their spotting scopes.

A rocky beach in Rhode Island was one of the last stops in a day of birding the Ocean State. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

All in all it was an amazing day of birding and a lot of fun. Maybe next time I'll hit New Hampshire, as this big year continues.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.