Monday, December 28, 2015

6 Reasons I Like Winter Birding

With the exception of days when we have severe weather conditions winter is one of my favorite times of the year for bird-watching .
Here are 6 reasons that I like winter birding:

1: Trees with bare branches and fields of gold: That makes birds much easier to find.
2: The silence of freshly fallen snow: There is something very peaceful about taking an early morning when the ground is coated with freshly fallen snow.The snow provides natural soundproofing which makes everything seem quiet and peaceful. 
 3: Appreciation of more common birds: Once spring arrives everyone is chasing tropical migrant birds. You tend to forget that we have some beautiful birds year round.
 4) The air seems cleaner in winter: This makes everything seem stand out vividly, including birds.
 5) Interesting birds sometimes show up in winter: For example, crossbills or Pine Grosbeaks as seen in the photo above. 
6) There's always the shoreline: Inland birding can be hit or miss during the winter in Connecticut but there are always plenty of birds near the shoreline. Every January birders doing a "Big January" are able to find over 100 species (sometimes nearing 150) in Connecticut. A good portion of those birds are found along Connecticut's shoreline.

So there may be days when it's too snowy or too cold but I'm looking forward to plenty of great mornings of birding in Connecticut this winter!

Saturday, December 26, 2015

A White Pelican Christmas At Old Saybrook

 I took a ride down to south cove in Old Saybrook hoping to get a glimpse of the 3 American White Pelicans which had been reported there. The lighting wasn't good but I was happy to get a photo capturing my first view ever of pelicans. With temperatures reaching 70 degrees and white pelicans instead of a white Christmas you would think we were in Florida instead of Connecticut!

Monday, December 21, 2015

Every Bird Counts On A Christmas Count!

It's that time of the year when the Christmas Bird Counts are in full swing. What I love about these counts is that many birds that we might take for granted like the boisterous Black-capped Chickadee become an important part of our Christmas count lists. 

American Goldfinches may not be as brightly colored in the winter but I still like seeing them picking seeds from the weeds.

Hooded Mergansers are a fairly common sight during the winter months in Connecticut but they are awesome! Christmas bird counts are a great tradition. If you've never  participated in one and would like to give it a try then give your local Audubon chapter a call. They are often looking for birders to help cover their territory and it's a fun way to spend a Saturday or Sunday.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Tundra Swan Reminder Of Do's And Don'ts

 I was at  Haddam Meadows state park a couple of weeks ago and noticed a large number of Mute Swans on the Connecticut River. One of the general  rules of birding is that whenever you see a large flock of common birds it's a good idea to check them carefully to see if a rare bird might be mixed in with the flock. I half followed that advice as I checked through the flock of Mute Swans but did so halfheartedly. I even thought I caught a glimpse of  one that had black bill but then the swans moved further down the river. It would not have taken much effort for me to walk further down the trail but instead I opted for getting breakfast and calling it a day.
 The following weekend I stopped by the same park and ran not a couple of birders. I asked them if they were seeing anything interesting and they told me about the Tundra Swan (rarer bird) that had been reported here a few days earlier. Sure enough, it was there just as I'm sure it was there the weekend before right under my nose.
Reminder to self # 1: Do make sure to check through through the flock thoroughly.

Reminder to self # 2: Don't assume it's unlikely for a rare bird to be in the mix. Have some faith that a rare bird might really be there so you don't just go through the motions.

Reminder to self # 3: Don't take a breakfast break until you find the bird you're looking for.
The day after I saw the Tundra Swan I did some Sunday morning birding on a patch of hunting land in Cromwell. Before walking the trail I stopped at a small town park that overlooks the Connecticut River. There were some Common Mergansers and Canada Geese within close view but on the opposite side of the rive I saw 3 birds that I was unable to identify with my binoculars. Wouldn't you know I decided to leave my spotting scope at home. I ended up using my camera at full zoom to try to get an identification photo. I was eventually able to figure out that the mystery birds were White-winged Scoters which I was more excited about than the Tundra Swan. I underestimated the rarity of A Tundra Swan and overestimated the rarity of seeing a White-winged Scoter inland. Although, I do believe that the importance of a sighting is in the eye of the beholder.

Reminder to self #4-Don't Forget Your Spotting Scope: Always bring your spotting scope just in case: The frustration of not having it when you need it is much worse than the little effort it takes to throw it in the trunk.

Reminder to self # 5-Do Use your camera for ID shots: If you're not sure of the identification of a mystery bird make sure to take a photo or video of it. Even a crappy photo might be helpful for identification purposes.

Reminder to self # 6-Do Brush Up On Rare Birds: Familiarize yourself with rare bird possibilities in your area before you see one so that you don't become flustered when you have a chance encounter.

I have no ambition to become an elite birder but that doesn't mean I want to repeatedly make the same mistakes. Hopefully I can eventually eliminate some of these bad habits. 

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Distant Goldeneye From A Scenic Cemetery

I took a ride down to Essex this weekend in hopes of finding Common Goldeneye on the Connecticut River. It was a sunny December morning and I could hear several White-breasted Nuthatches calling to each other from the hardwood trees which border the property. 

The vista alone from  Riverview Cemetery  made the trip worthwhile. Way out in the distance I could see small specks moving around and making ripples on the river.

The thing about diving ducks is that they dive a lot which is fun to watch but frustrating when you're trying to snap a picture from a distance. I finally managed an id shot after uttering a few words to myself that shouldn't be spoken from behind a church. Thanks to the eBird alert feature and the eBird user who reported the goldeneye I was able to find what I was looking for. 

That makes species #167 seen in Middlesex County for the year. This doesn't mean anything but it was fun seeing all those birds along the way. The real joy this morning was sitting on a cemetery bench taking in the view and soaking in the sunshine. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

I Prefer Photos Over Scientific Bird Jargon

For me the enjoyable part of birding is all about the places you go, the birds you see, and the circumstances under which see them. Another aspect I have come to enjoy is being able to log in some of my sightings online and letting eBird organize them for me. One thing I didn't like about eBird is that I found their system of  uploading photos to be inconvenient so I didn't bother.

That can be a problem when you are reporting a rare bird like a Fork-tailed Flycatcher (1st photo) or Black-backed Woodpecker (2nd photo). When you report a rare bird like that you are expected provide details describing the bird using terms like tertial feathers, supercilliums, and blah blah blah. I always feel silly using these kinds of terms. I don't like pretending to be a forensic ornithologist. It's like being forced to wear a suit when you're a t-shirt and jeans guy or learning a couple of French phrases to use on vacation when you don't really speak the language. It just feels phony like I'm copying it right out of a field guide.

 I am thankful that eBird has set up an easy drag-and drop photo system making things much easier for the user. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

County Bonus Bird-A Red-headed Woodpecker!

The end of the year will soon be here so I continued my search for birds in Middlesex County. This healthy looking Fox Sparrow took a break from scratching through leaves to survey its surroundings.
It was so nice to get a closer look at a Red-throated Loon making it easier to see the features which differentiate them from Common Loons like the thinner upturned bill and head/facial markings.
 I teamed up with another birder who showed me some new birding locations in Middlesex County. While we were at one of these new locations a friendly local gave us a tip which helped us find a previously unreported  Red-headed Woodpecker (immature bird-only adults have the solid red head)This is only the 3rd one I've ever seen and a first for Middlesex County. 
That was an unexpected bonus and was surely the bird of the day!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Some Ducks Prefer Ponds That Are Off Limits

 This is the time of the year that there are plenty of migrating waterfowl in Connecticut. I've already seen several seen  Gadwall, Northern Pintail, and American Wigeon this month (old photos in that order) but the majority of ducks that I've seen have been in ponds or reservoirs hidden behind no trespassing fences. 

 I found a raft of 150 Ring-necked Ducks in a reservoir where the only viewing area was along the side of a busy highway with no parking. I found another reservoir that was completely off limits but a neighbor with a view of the water allowed me to take a look from their yard. There was over 200 Ruddy Ducks resting in the water like they didn't have a care in the world!

 It was disappointing that I couldn't really share the information because there was no legal place for birders to view them. I don't want to encourage other birders to break no trespassing laws and I'm sure the ducks don't mind having places to go where no one disturbs them.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Train Tracks Are A Connection To The Past

 There's something mysteriously appealing to me about old train tracks. Many of them are no longer used by trains and have been converted into rail trails used for recreational use. Whenever I take a walk along them I imagine them as being a secret link from the past to the present.
 In Connecticut many of the old tracks are located along the Connecticut River. This is the castle which was owned by the actor William Gillette who played Sherlock Holmes on stage many years ago. He also had a his own train with tracks that ran around his property high up along the banks of the Connecticut River. It was a nice way of entertaining his guests.
 I was recently birding at Haddam Meadows and took advantage of a free ride in a pick-up trucks that was adapted to fit the old tracks which run along side the park.
I go birding several times a year on old train tracks or ones that have been turned into rail trails. I love the way they cut a straight line right through the landscape.  They may necessarily be birding hotspots but they give you a good vantage point from which to appreciate the habitat and birds in the area.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Birding With Ghosts

 I've always had a fascination with legends, folklore, and tales of the supernatural. I don't necessarily believe in any of the tales I hear or read about. My philosophy is that I am skeptical of everything but at the same time try to keep an open mind. 

In some cases there are historical events which led to stories about hauntings and other supernatural tales. It was an attempt to explain things that people didn't understand at the time. At one time people said vampires were responsible for symptoms we now know were caused by tuberculosis (consumption back then). During the time of the Salem witch trials, witchcraft was blamed as the cause of  some people who suddenly started talking and behaving strangely.It was recently theorized that those hallucinations may have been caused by moldy rye flour. Spoiled rye produces ergot which is a hallucinogenic. 

Science answers most questions but I don't still don't believe that we have all the answers. I am always curious even if there is only a small chance of something having an ounce of truth to it. I remember a commercial for Ivory soap that said it is 99 and 44/100 % pure. I always wondered what's in that other 66/100 that they're not telling us about? 

 The cemetery shown in the above photo is the site of one of those stories. I don't want to say where the cemetery is or what the story was about because there are still living relatives in the area that would prefer the story remain buried.
On this particular day I didn't see any ghosts,witches, or vampires. Only a Pileated Woodpecker in some nearby woods hard at work.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Off-season At The Heron Rookery

This month I've been trying to find birds in my county that I haven't seen yet this year. I made two visits to the town heron rookery, Even though the herons left there nests months ago there were still half a dozen hanging around the area. The water has dried up significantly since the spring but I was pleased to have my first sighting of a live woodcock this year (unfortunately, I found a dead one in the spring). Last week another birder found a group of Pectoral Sandpipers here. I believe I saw a few this weekend but wasn't able to make the positive ID because they flew off before I had a chance to get a good look. Probable but not definite. Sometimes you have to let it go even though it hurts.
I did make a positive ID on a couple of yellowlegs  (not this one). Only a couple of months left with my county list stuck at 155 for the year. I'd like to crack the 160 mark for the years end. I like staying within the county. I've always been a fan of local sports team so trying to find as many types of birds locally is kind of fun. I don't have to waste much gas and it,s an incentive to discover new places within your area.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Don't Look A Gift Bird In The Bill/Beak

I wish that I could tell you that I'm filled with joy and excitement every time I'm out bird-watching but that would be a lie. The truth is that there are days when I feel uninspired by what I'm seeing and wonder why I wasted my time bird-watching when I should be doing something else more important. I know from experience though that this is a temporary condition that is brought on by my current state of mind. Nature is always spectacular but we are not always receptive to the beauty it offers.

Looking back, I can remember the exactly where I was and what I was thinking when I took these photos. On the morning I took the photo of these Wood Ducks I was on my way to another promising birding location.Two male Wood Ducks were out in full display posing for me but I just had to get to that next spot. When I reached the desired location birds were nowhere to be found, other than a Song Sparrow or two.
 I came across this Red-tailed Hawk on another day when birding was overall slow. Red-tailed Hawks are so common that I didn't take time to appreciate this awesome bird of prey perched out in the open on a tree stump just a few feet away from me.
 Ho-hum-nice to see a Hermit Thrush as I was driving to the next birding spot. Little did I know that it would be the best bird of the morning.
 I was at a forest swamp the morning I saw a pair of Sharp-shinned Hawks. 
 They were chasing these bluebirds as  they were being chased by Blue Jays. At the time, I was disappointed that I had driven so far out in the forest but only saw 10 bird species. Looking back at the photos I realize what a privilege it was to witness nature in action.
It was a slow day at Hammonasset the day I took this photo. There was nothing new or out of the ordinary, I thought but when it's the middle of winter with a foot of snow on the ground I'll be dreaming of a warm summer day when I can see 10 Great Egrets gathered together in a marsh.

It's easy to miss what's right in front of us if we're too busy looking ahead. 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Blood Moon Tonight

I went out in the backyard to catch a glimpse of the lunar eclipse tonight. It was almost at its peak by 10:15pm. I can see why they call it the blood moon.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A Day Of Broad-wing Heartbreak

 I've made a point of making a visit to at least one hawk watch each year but last year I was surprised when I was able to tally up a few hundred broad-winged Hawks passing over one of my local patches. I still have very little knowledge about the art of hawk-watching but I know that most of the Broad-winged Hawks pass through Connecticut during a 2 week periods starting about the 10th of September. I've learned also that your best chance of seeing large numbers Broad-wings would be on a day that there is a northerly/westerly component to the wind. 

Everything seemed to be set up perfectly on Monday. It was the right time, the wind direction was perfect, and I had the day of from work. I decided to pack a picnic lunch and spend the entire day watching hundreds of  Broad-wings forming kettles over my head before streaming along on their journey. I was all but sure that they would be coming. 
During the first half of the day I saw Bald Eagles, Northern Harriers, Sharp-shinned Hawks, and several Osprey, but only 4 Broad-winged Hawks. I was discouraged but still hopeful that they would come through in the afternoon. 
The clouds were fluffier after lunch which is good and the wind still coming from the northwest. After several hours of hawkless skies, I finally decided to call it a day. I don't know what the problem was. Maybe the wind was too strong or the recent surge in deflated footballs had an effect on the atmospheric pressure. Whatever the reason, it was disappointing. I did take note that things were slow at some of the other hawk-watching sites on that day as well so I'm not ready to give up on my local spot just yet. I plan to give it another shot this weekend. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Birding Before Breakfast:Birding Before Sunrise

  I find that getting up extra early in the morning to go birdwatching is a special experience.

There's something soothing about starting the day with a brightly lit moon set against a dark sky. The night air has scrubbed away the noise and air pollution. I can sense the start of a new day not yet spoiled by the frantic pace of a world at work. 
Just before sunrise twilight casts its golden glow across a lake.The  energy which surrounds me feels different. It seems we are constantly aware of time; the places we need to be and things we need to do but for that short period just before sunrise, time seems to stop. There's no place I need to be and nothing I need to do. 
 I usually have a big breakfast at a diner before I go birding but I decided to do it the other way around this weekend. I stopped for coffee at a little country store. It still has some of that antique charm from 1905 when it first opened. I was there just as hot blueberry scones were coming out of the oven. The perfect choice to go with my coffee.
There's a distinct clarity to the sound of a birds song and movements when set against a background of silence. It leads me to think that the sounds we don't hear can be as important as the sounds that we do hear. All that seems to matter is the air we breathe, the sounds we hear, and the birds we see.

Then all to soon, the spell is broken. Once again, there are places to be and things to do. It leaves me with one lingering question-Why?  

Monday, August 31, 2015

Summer Surpassed Winter As My #3 Season

Spring has always been my favorite season in Connecticut with the fall season being a very close 2nd. Winter has always been 3rd on my list and summer has always come in last place. This year, as of today, I have made the decision that summer has officially surpassed Winter as my 3rd favorite season!

It started with my first definitive sighting of the elusive (to me) Black-backed Woodpecker. I was able to capture a photo to remind me that it wasn't just a dream. Technically it was spring when I saw it but on my calendar summer starts at then end of May
Of course, the horrendous winters we've had in recent years had a lot to do with my sudden conversion.
 This year I decided to embrace summer birding instead of trying to avoid it as I have in past years which led to some fun sightings such as this which was boldly defending territory near the nest.
It the summer of Night-herons I was able to see Yellow-crowned and Black-crowned both adult and immature birds like this one.

 I want to apologize to summer for all the hating I've sent your way over the years. It's not your fault that blood-sucking bugs and humidity are your friends. As for Winter; I'll say we've had some good times together but you'd better get your act together if you want to make it back to number 3!