Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Big January Update-92 Species

It has been a typical cold and snowy January here in Connecticut. Focusing my efforts on adding species to my list has definitely made the month more enjoyable but I'm looking forward to the conclusion of Big January. I found that my patience was growing thin as I struggled to add a measly six new species to my list this weekend. I've been cursing at species that don't have the courtesy to show up when I'm looking for them. I've also been calling other drivers "Buffleheads" when they get on my tail because I'm driving too slow while searching for birds. I suppose that's not really an insult, it just sounds like one.

Most of my success this weekend came in Old Saybrook. I was able to get my first really good look at Long-tailed Ducks (old Squaw) through my scope. The lighting allowed me to get a really detailed view of the markings and shape of these striking birds. I saw four of them all together including two males.

I moved on to a place around the corner from Saybrook Point that I've always referred to as the causeway. A portion of the water always seems to remain open there in the winter. It is difficult to get a good view of the birds here because you can't stop on the causeway. I thought I caught a glimpse of what might have been Bufflehead on my way over-(the duck not a driver) but I couldn't be sure. I parked my car on the end and walked all the way over to the other side. As you can hear from the video it was quite windy as it has been much of the month. I spotted about seven of them in the distance as I have before in this same location for the past three years. That's one thing good about doing Big Januaries each year. You start to remember locations that certain species always seem to be. It was on my way back that I my real surprise came...

I was pleased to find a Ruddy Duck swimming directly below the bridge and that was my 90th species of the month! A certain tune came to mind that Kermit The Frog used to sing, although my words are a little different for the occasion: -Ruddy Ducky-you're the one. Number 90 is so much fun!

That same day, I also visited Hammonasset again. I figure keep on checking there until the well runs dry. The well finally ran dry for me at Hammo but I did manage to add a single species that has been eluding me all winter. I saw 6 White-winged Crossbills in the ornamental pines in West Beach Parking lot. They flew in, landed on some cones, and flew away after staying for all of 10 seconds. They were easy enough to identify though. I found some Dunlin (above photo) that were feeding along the shoreline edge near Meig's point. Nice to watch even though they were already on my list.

Here's the video to go with it. You can see how they have that down-curved bill. They are darker than the Sanderlings that you see in Connecticut during the winter.
I was disappointed with my results on Saturday, especially considering the amount of effort I put in. I started out over at a place called Station 43 in South Windsor. I walked along a mushy, snow-covered trail until reaching an area where you have to cross a small stream. It was there that I saw my one and only new species at this location-2 Swamp Sparrows. After getting a nice look at the sparrows, I tried to calculate my best course to get across the tiny stream. I calculated wrong, as my foot went through some ice and into the water. I didn't last long out in the fields before I decided it best to warm my feet up in the truck. The only thing I saw of interest at the Newberry Road area besides the sparrows was a Belted Kingfisher. It put on quite a show of shake, rattle, and roll.
I drove to Vibert Road which is just a different access to the same series of fields-(big fields for CT). When I reached the end of Vibert Road, I walked about two miles through the fields. I didn't see anything new there. I was hoping for a cowbird or grackle but there wasn't a sign of either one. I did enjoy viewing a pair of adult Bald Eagles perched in a tree (above photo).

I was contemplating calling it quits for the day even though it was only about 10:30 am. My feet were freezing and it just didn't feel like my lucky day. Then a light bulb went off in my head-I've got dry socks in my back seat and maybe-just maybe an extra pair of boots kicking around in the back of my truck. I pulled my truck into a parking lot, opened my tailgate, and there they were- Winter boots! Like Popeye after eating a can of spinach, I was rearing to go again. Since there is no hunting on Sundays, I decided to visit Glastonbury Meadows which is similar to station 43 in some ways.
As I was pulling in, I saw a flock of Red-winged Blackbirds pass over. This game me hope for seeing the grackles and cowbirds again.When I got into the fields, I finally saw what could be a grackle in a tree. It was too slim to be a crow and too long to be a Red-winged Blackbird- unless of course it was two Red-winged Blackbirds standing end to-end. Drats!! Foiled again!! The only new species that I found after walking 4 miles through snow covered fields was White-crowned Sparrows. There's always plenty of them here and I always find them in the same location. So my total number of species after this weekend is 92. I have one more Saturday to try to surpass my previous year's total of 94. By the way things have been going, it would be difficult for me to reach 100 but you never know.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Big January Update: High Octane Birding

On Saturday, January 17th I met up with a group of birders in New Haven for a field trip that focused on covering a number of locations along the western shoreline. At our first stop, someone spotted a Black-headed Gull which would have been a lifer for me but by the time I zeroed in on the bird it was time to for us to leave . The gull was smaller than the others but had its head tucked in and facing the other way. Needless to say, that one didn't make my list.

The leader of this Hartford Audubon trip, Adrian, first introduced me to the species listing game referred to as "Big January" three years ago. I asked him how long the trip would last but already knew the answer-until it gets too dark to see the birds. Not everyone lasted until the end but those who did were rewarded with a days list that totaled 60+ species of birds.

After gathering at a public parking lot and quickly setting up carpools, we were off in a cloud of smoke. I'm not even going to bother trying to give you the details of all the various locations we visited. They included several stops in New Haven, Milford, Bridgeport, and Stratford. These trips are run at a frantic pace. When you arrive at a spot, you need to set up your scope, quickly identify targeted species, and be ready to move on to the next location in the blink of an eye. You snooze-you lose. This is not usually my preferred method of birding but it is an extremely effective way of adding species to your list. I missed out on a few species that were seen by others in the group including Horned Grebe and Long-tailed Duck. I probably got a glimpse of them in my scope but not enough so that I was confident of their identities. Even though I missed a few species, by the end of the day I was able to add 16 new species to my January list: Brant, Wood Duck, Gadwall, Eurasian Wigeon, American Wigeon, Greater Scaup, Lesser Scaup, American Kestrel, American Coot, Killdeer, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Glaucous Gull, Monk Parakeet, Field Sparrow, and American Pipit.

Let me fill you in on a few details about the day. First of all, it was quite cold. The thermometer never reached 20 degrees during the entire day but it was tolerable. I carpooled with a guy named Joe (he drove). We were loaded up on high test coffee which made for a surplus of rapid-fire conversation. This led to us missing a few turns along the way, thus we arrived at a few of the locations a little late. Joe spotted what was for me, the bird of the day. We had a terrific view of a male American kestrel with its colors fully illuminated by sunlight as he perched in the open on the edge of a tree branch. Kestrels have been few and far between in Connecticut lately-and oh what a terrific view it was!

Later that morning, we spotted a Merlin in a tree with its prey. It was plucking the feathers out of a bird which we believed to be a Snow Bunting. The funny thing is that we saw the whole scene take place as we were leaving a Dunkin Donuts. At least it gave me a chance to finish my sandwich. You see, on these trips there is an imaginary timer that lasts about five minutes in which you have to use the restroom, place your order and finish your coffee. If you dare get food-like I often do-you will be eating on the run. That is one of the rules of the Big January field trips. You eat, hit the restroom, and get back in your vehicle within five minutes. Otherwise, you'll be looking through a field guide in an empty parking lot and talking to yourself!
Another fun moment came when we made a stop in Stratford where we hoped to get a glimpse of a Snowy Owl .We never did see one, although I did spot a white plastic bag that looked sort of like a Snowy Owl off in the distance. We ran into the compiler of the rare bird reports for Connecticut (Roy) while we were there. As we were getting ready to leave, we saw him waving for us to come back. They had found a male Eurasian Wigeon , and all of us were able to get a nice view of it. Its dark reddish head made it really stand out amongst the others. We also made a quick stop at one beach where a Gluacous Gull had been reported. We barely made it out of the car before the Glaucous Gull flew right over our heads! You could easily make out the black-tipped pink bill of the predominantly white gull.

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One of our last stops turned out to be a productive one. We saw 12 American Coot, 1 Wood Duck, a Belted Kingfisher, and an American Pipit within five minutes of pulling into a parking area overlooking a bay-(or whatever). Above is a quick video in which one of the coot looks like he caught a sardine or something.

I didn't have much time to take pictures and of the 20 photos I did take of birds, none came out good. Here is a photo of two of the many Brant we saw on Saturday. They look like Canada Geese but are pretty much all black in the face and neck. We finally ended the day when we didn't even have enough light to confidently identify ducks that were twenty feet in front of us to be Mallards.
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The next day brought us about 8 inches of snow. I took a ride over to the Portland Fairgrounds which is only a few miles from my house. As soon as I got out of my truck, I saw a Red Fox crossing the field. I barely had a chance to capture any video but did manage to capture it on film for a few seconds before it headed off into the woods. I walked about six miles through the snowy fields and trails on Sunday and only managed to add one new species, a Pileated Woodpecker. I'm not complaining though-a Pileated Woodpecker and a Red Fox sighting still makes for a good morning. I wonder where all the grackles and cowbirds are?
My January birding has pretty much been limited to weekends. I did manage to add a Fish Crow which has been hanging around a Copaco shopping center in Bloomfield for the last year or so. My total for January now stands at 86. I'll be back on my own again this weekend trying to add more species to my list but from this point on, it's going to be difficult.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Podcasts Are For The Birds And The Birders

Over the last few years I've occasionally heard radio programs about birds. Although I think it's always good when there are programs that bring awareness about birds or the environment, I can't say that I always find these programs to be entertaining. For the most part, I would rather watch birds out in the field than hear about them on the radio. Many of these programs are geared more toward the general public than they are toward active birders.

A few months ago, it was brought to my attention by Nancy of The Zen Birdfeeder Blog that there were several sites which offer podcasts about birds and birding.

Here are three that I've enjoyed listening to:

I started listening to Birdwatch Radio about two weeks ago. One of the main reasons this show is so entertaining can be attributed to the host, Steve Moore. He has been birding for many years but is humble about his abilities as a birder. He first became interested in watching birds when his grandmother bought him a birdfeeder as a gift when he was a boy.

Steve interviews a variety of people that are connected to birding including birders, birding bloggers, tour leaders, authors, magazine editors and optics dealers just to name a few. He keeps the interviews sounding fresh by asking questions that are interesting to his audience and the people he is interviewing. Steve has an excellent radio voice and always sounds as though he is very interested in what his guests have to say. Great program-I highly recommend it! The more people that listen to this program the more programs that can be produced. I have listened to all sixteen episodes and enjoyed every one of them. Hopefully, there will be more programs coming soon.

This Birding Life is hosted by Bill Thompson III, editor of Birdwatcher's Digest ( my favorite birding magazine). I haven't listened to all of the episodes yet but three that I really enjoyed were: episode #17-adventures in Birding with Bryan Bland- episode #9 A Conversation with Ken Kaufman and the hilarious episode # 6-The Perils and Pitfalls of Birding. Bill's interviews with his guests seem more like casual conversations. This unedited style allows the guests to go into more detail with their response to questions. I found the audio level to be a bit low at times. Maybe this is partially due to the fact that I listened to it while riding on a bus. It might be helpful if they enhanced the audio by increasing the volume level on the voices.

Laura Erickson's For The Birds -I almost overlooked this one. I noticed that most of the podcasts appeared to be more about birds than birding. I decided to listen to the programs any way and was pleasantly surprised. Laura has a hypnotic speech pattern which makes the information she presents seem more interesting and the material itself seems to go beyond the standard textbook information. She expresses her opinions on a variety of with a healthy dose of sarcasm. I enjoy listening to people who aren't afraid to express their opinion, even if I don't always share the same opinion.

In one podcast Laura talked about how she went camping by herself for a week and how enjoyable it was to be able to watch birds at her own pace. I've been camping on my own several times so I can relate to how enjoyable birding is when you're surrounded by nature in total isolation. Several of the podcasts are humorous, even silly at times. I'm looking forward to listening to the rest of the programs soon.

If you haven't listened to these podcast programs before, I hope you give them a try. If you don't have an mp3 player, you can purchase one for less than $50. They are well worth the investment.

Are there any other nature podcast that you would like to recommend?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Proteus The Possum

I woke up early Saturday morning and headed down to the shoreline along route 1. I arrived there a little too early and had some difficulty finding someone open for breakfast at 6am. I finally came upon a new place called Jamms, in Westbrook. And Jam they did! They had Robin Trower (heavy-duty 70's guitarist) cranking on an mp3 boom box while I ate my spinach and mushroom omelet .
I hadn't checked out the tide chart and was disappointed to find that it was high tide. That kind of messed things up for finding shorebirds. I decided to check some of the marinas along the main road. I was pleased to find numerous Red-breasted Mergansers like the one in the top photo ( even though they had already been added to my January list) . You can see many of the field marks that distinguish it as an adult breeding male. It has a thin reddish bill which is not as thick at the base as a Common Merganser's is. Also visible, is the shaggy crest and dark area below the white portion of the neck.
I saw lots of Hooded Mergansers as well. I sat on a dock and took time out to enjoy watching them. Their markings showed up beautifully in the morning light and it was fun to watch them dive for food. I never get tired of seeing them. Here's a cool fact about Hooded Mergansers that I found in Cornell's All About Birds site:
The Hooded Merganser finds its prey underwater by sight. The merganser can actually change the refractive properties of its eyes to enhance its underwater vision. In addition, the nictating membrane (third eyelid) is very transparent and probably acts to protect the eye during swimming, just like a pair of goggles.
After checking out various places in the area to no avail, I stopped by Hammonnasset again. I added a few species while I was there including: Peregrine Falcon, Common Loon, Great Blue Heron, Belted Kingfisher, and Red-breasted Nuthatch.
Once again, I managed not to find any White-winged Crossbills that have been reported here lately. There was no shortage of Pine Siskins though.
It snowed on Sunday so I stayed pretty close to home. I had to work hard driving through snowy roads to add Hermit Thrush, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Ring-necked Duck (at Haddam Meadows), and Great Cormorant. On Monday, I was able to find a Merlin, and 20 Snow Buntings that were mixed in with hundreds of Horned Lark. That brings my January total to 68.
-Birds aren't the only thing I saw during my stop at Hammonasset. I also met Proteus the Possum while I was out on Willard's Trail.
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- Proteus the possum lives in a tree
-he was searching for food but then he saw me
- he ran past the trail
-as I followed his tail
-now I've brought you this video to see

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A Charlie Brown Birding Moment-January Species Total- 56

I started birding this weekend on Saturday by participating in the Hartford Audubon Christmas Count on Saturday. It was originally scheduled for December but postponed due to snow. I was assigned a list of some new areas to try that were all new to me. Birding new areas always intrigues me but the combination of low temperatures and high wind made the birding conditions unpleasant. The highlights on this particular day included 2 Bald Eagles, Rough-legged Hawk, Brown Creeper, and Hairy Woodpecker. I saw all of these species near the ferry park area in Glastonbury. As I scanned my binoculars across the icy river, I spotted what appeared to be two chunky white geese in the water. I was excited because I thought they might possibly be a species that was new to me but they were quite distant. I hurried to my truck to get my scope and tripod. When I came back, the geese were just barely in view further down the river. I pointed the scope towards them and saw.....nothing. One of the lenses inside my eyepiece had come loose and I couldn't see a thing. That was the end of that. That's what I call a Charlie Brown moment.

I visited another cool spot called Addison Bog Preserve which was also in Glastonbury. It's strange that a black spruce bog would be hidden behind a condo complex. I counted 14 Golden-crowned Kinglets in the cedars along the trail. It also leads up to some power lines that offer some more birding opportunities. I didn't get a chance to check out the bog itself but plan to make another visit there in the spring.
I read about a few White-winged Crossbills showing up in places like Barkhamstead area and Hammonasset lately. Although I had my fingers crossed while visiting both those places, I didn't find any crossbills. The only things that were crossed were my eyes after staring at all those pine cones. I read an interesting article about where to look for White winged-Crossbills . It tells you which types of coniferous trees these birds prefer. It would be a lot of fun to find a White-winged Crossbill in an area where one has not yet been reported. No luck so far but if they stick around long enough I hope to find some eventually.
I took a trip to Hammonasset on Sunday which turned out to be another cold and windy day. At least the sun was out this time. There were quite a few gulls around...
.... including this Iceland Gull which had the attention of several birders. I saw 55 species my first weekend which doesn't seem to bad but I received a report that 69 species were seen on Hartford Audubon's New Year's Day trip. That's okay because I like to see how many I can find on my own before getting any help. Here's my list so far: Canada Goose, Mute Swan, American Black Duck, Mallard, Surf Scoter, Common Goldeneye, Common Merganser, Red-breasted Merganser, Ring-necked Pheasant, Red-throated Loon, Turkey vulture, Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier, Cooper's Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk, Dunlin, Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, Iceland Gull, Greater Black-backed Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Great Horned Owl, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Blue Jay, American Crow, Common Raven, Horned Lark, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, Carolina Wren, Golden-crowned kinglet, Eastern Bluebird, American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, European Starling, Yellow-rumped Warbler, American Tree Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Song Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Northern Cardinal, Red-winged Blackbird, House Finch, Pine Siskin, American Goldfinch, and House Sparrow.

I came across species number 56 today at a surprising location, the mall. As I was walking out of the mall, I heard what sounded like Cedar Waxwings. I figured that it was probably starlings which are much more likely to be seen at a mall and do make a sound that reminds me a bit of waxwings. I looked up in the top of a seven foot tree surrounded by a block of cement and there were six Cedar Waxwings. They were close enough that I could have touched them with my hand. Hopefully I can resolve my eyepiece problem quickly so I can get on with my list.

Here is a video of the Connecticut River as seen from Glastonbury on Saturday. Turn your volume down if you don't like the sound of wind blowing into a microphone.