Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Big Year: A Birders Review

When I compare the efforts and obsession of the characters depicted in the movie The Big Year and I think of my own efforts, I almost hesitate in calling myself a birder.  The movie was based on a book and the the book was written by one of the birders depicted in the movie.  I must admit that is the extent on my knowledge of the background of the movie but I was still looking forward to it with anticipation.  I even went to see the movie on opening night, something I'm not sure I've ever done before.

What is a "Big Year"?  In the world of those slightly obsessive bird watchers, called birders, there is an unofficial challenge some attempt, to see the most bird species possible in North America during one calendar year.  The movie follows the story of three men who are attempting a Big Year and meet at various bird sightings.  It delves into the world of birding while also keeping a human story line by showing the personal lives of each and how the Big Year attempt impacts those relationships.

I like it!   I really like it!  I went in assuming I would hate it, an entire movie, a comedy, devoted to making fun of something I have such a passion for.  The truth is, I'm not sure I would like it so much if I weren't a birder.  I admit that birding isn't the most alluring hobby for most, although it's not stamp collecting or anything.  The movie actually gives the world a glimpse into birdwatching without ridicule (well maybe a little), and is relatively entertaining.

I giggled at many points in the movie, most of the time over birder-esque things.  I think there could have been a little more slapstick comedy in it.  I mean we've all had some falls while hiking through the woods or been so focused on finding THAT bird that we've stepped in something unpleasant.  And while there were a few of those moments, mostly by Jack Black's character,  I think there could have even been more.  I mean seriously.... no one even got pooped on. 

The non-birding guy I went with said that he enjoyed it... but I think the thing he laughed at the most was when we got out of the movie and the first thing I did was to check my phone and the CT Bird Listserv to see if anyone had reported anything interesting.  Yeah, I think I'll laugh a little more at myself too.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Window Strikes Again

Almost every morning that I drive into campus, I make a swing under what I have started to call the 'corridor of doom'.  It's not 1 but 2 floors of elevated glass hallway that connect two buildings here at work.  I guess I should clarify, two unoccupied buildings here at work.  I've asked if they would be willing to lower the shades all the time, at least until people move in.  Of course, the answer is that it is an impossibility because it's automatically programmed to close and open based on temperature in the blah blah blah.  I must admit to me it sounds like, the hallway is too pretty to keep shaded and I'm not going to put the trouble into figuring out how to do it. 

Casualties of the Corridor of Doom: Ruby-throated Hummingbird and Black-throated Green Warbler

One fall we had a HUGE fallout of Juncos and unfortunately many did not survive.  Luckily, that has been by far the worst accrual of death we have had due to window strikes.  I can't blame all the death on those corridors however; our building also has three ground-floor passageways with glass on both sides.  One side of one passageway causes most of the window strikes in our building and we've been lucky that we have gotten away with hanging newspaper on the windows and no one has taken it down.  Lucky except... there's a glass door with a glass header over it and the birds still fly into that. 

Last week I went out for a quick walk-through the courtyard and didn't see anything by the windows and was happily enjoying the White-throated Sparrows that have just shown up on campus, the American Robins feasting on random berries, and a Common Yellowthroat hopping around in the underbrush. 

Then as I was heading in the doors, here was this little bird sitting on the cold cement slab panting.  Ruby-throated Humingbirds are still migrating through Connecticut with mostly females and first year birds left.  Most of the hawkwatch sites count the Ruby-throats they see and by this time the numbers are starting to drop off with most of the birds already reaching the southern U.S. on their way to Mexico and South America to overwinter. 

Ruby-throated Hummingbird- female/ immature type

So why did I pick this bird up and not just leave it where it was to recover?  Hummingbirds burn a lot of energy and they have a very small body which doesn't retain heat very well.  I picked it up to donate some of my body heat while the bird was recovering.  After a few minutes of sitting on my open palm, it recovered enough to fly up to a tree branch in the sun about 15 feet above me.  I watched it for about five minutes but it was still sitting in the tree when I left, I figured it could probably do without the stress of having me still so close. 

Ruby-throated Hummingbird- recovering from window strike

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Birds and Vegetables

After reading a post on the CT bird listserv I headed over to the Stratford Community Garden to look for a bird that I had never seen before.  A Dickcissel is a House Sparrow-sized bird that breeds throughout the Midwest and winters in Central America.  Every now and then a few birds get turned around and head east instead.  A local Stratford birder had reported two at the community garden and I was lucky enough to find one!  A life bird!


Another great bird that was stopping by the garden was two Bobolinks.  Bobolinks are normal migrants through our area but they aren't as often seen as heard.  That's why I was excited to see these two.


Bobolink- notice the sharp tail feathers

One last little surprise was a Marsh Wren who was pretty elusive.  I heard a few short chip call notes and saw it hop up and down on some fencing but it never really came out into good view.  This was the best shot I got.... pretty sad.

Marsh Wren

I had another great day today in the birding world.  I joined the Sunrise Birding group led by Luke Tiller on a warbler walk and we were successful!  The best part of this trip was the first fifteen minutes when we found a little group of warblers, two of which were life birds for me!  Both a Prairie Warbler and a Blackpoll Warbler were part of the group!  Not that they are unusual or even uncommon warblers, it just shows how much time I haven't put in to birding during migration.  No pictures this time but I'm sure now that I have seen them, they will show up everywhere.  Case in point, first great looks at a Wilson's Warbler (not a super common bird) was this week at work, my first CT sighting in fact and today we had two Wilson's Warblers in full view on our walk.  Oh Birds!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Yes That Many Hawks!

Last year at work my coworker Sue and myself took a two-hour break on a mid-September day to experience an amazing piece of natural history that's visible from many spots in Connecticut.  This time of year is prime time for the migration of Broad-winged Hawks.  These small Buteos breed all over the Northeast and begin a mass migration south every year at this time.  Our hawk migration last year was great BUT we realized quickly we needed to spend more time watching for a real idea of what was flying over.  So, this year we planned a full day to set up shop in the corner of a parking lot and count some hawks.  Luckily, the weather conditions leading up to the day and the day itself was perfect for Broad-winged Hawk migration.  Check out the results here.

Osprey: un-modified

For anyone who hasn't taken part in a hawkwatch, I wanted to give an idea of what hawkwatchers are looking at and how one goes about identifying the dots.  The first thing to do is prepare for a neck-ache.  We took out plastic Adirondack chairs that were slightly reclined so we could keep our eyes to the sky without having to get too sore.  But as soon as we see a hawk it's time to jump up quick and get ready to follow it with your binoculars.  It's not an easy task to identify a bird that can be thousands of feet above you.  The first step is to identify the silhouette of the bird.

Osprey: lightened to show plumage

This Osprey has a very distinctive shape with very long wings in relation to the body length. The wings are also fairly narrow and have a bend along the leading edge.  Osprey that are fairly close are also easy to distinguish with their strong contrasting plumage of light and dark.  Two other groups of raptors that are common at this time of year are the Accipiters and falcons.  These two groups are similar in size and both have long narrow tails but the Accipiters have broader wings with the back edge usually curved.  The falcons have pointed wings and the trailing edge of the wing is fairly straight.  Accipiters also fly by doing a few quick wing beats and then a quick soar.  Falcons tend to flap their wings for longer periods of time before gliding across the sky. 

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk: ventral view showing belly band

The group of hawks known as Buteos, like the Red-tailed Hawk above, tend to have fairly bulky wings and shorter tails.  They also have a bulky body appearance.  Often there are easy clues in the color of the plumage to identify the species.  Red-tailed Hawks are mostly pale below with a darker band across the belly and also a dark spot in the middle of the leading edge of the wing.  Red-shouldered Hawks on the other hand are identified by locating two pale crescents at the ends of the wings.

Kettle of Hawks

Here's what we really see though when counting hawks such as these Broad-winged Hawks that migrate at this time of year in huge numbers.  We look at behavior in most cases to get an identification of birds at this distance.  When there are that many hawks and they are all flying together and behaving similarly at this time of year, you can pretty much make an identification that they are Broadies.  But when we can get a little closer by looking through binoculars you start to pick up more features.

Broad-winged Hawk kettle

Now we can see that they are all about the same size.  They all have similar silhouettes and are flying in the same manner.  While it's easy to count when the birds are streaming, going over in one long stream of birds, it gets more difficult when they form these kettles where they are trying to use the thermals to gain altitude again. 

Broad-winged Hawks
 Finally, When we get a better look at a few closer up we can see that they are mostly white underneath with black fingertips on the wings and the trailing edge of the wing also has a black line.  Notice the strongly zoned tail with equal amounts of black and white.  Both of the birds above are Broad-winged Hawks, sometimes size is difficult to judge depending on how high up birds are and also, every species has variation in the size of individuals.  That's why as a hawkwatcher you have to look at a bunch of smaller characteristics to be able to finally make an identification.

In the end, all of our work was well worth it.  We had a great day outside and saw quite a few different species.  And it's great to hear people react... "You saw that many hawks, here?", when we tell them we saw over 1800 raptors in one day.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sun, Wind, and Hawks!

I spent the morning with the Connecticut Butterfly Association members and other butterfly enthusiasts at Lighthouse Point Park in New Haven.  We gathered this morning to tag some monarch butterflies as they migrate their way south to Mexico.  Monarch numbers were low but it was still an enjoyable time and the best part.... I just walked across the field and did some hawkwatching when we were done!

I didn't bring the camera because I figured I wouldn't need it since the hawks would be too high to get decent images.  For the most part that was true until the afternoon when a male Cooper's Hawk flew over our table, a resident Red-shouldered Hawk made a trip around the field, and an Osprey decided to fly fairly close and check us out.  We has strong winds today, almost making it chilly, but they were coming mostly from the East and not exactly the best for a hawkwatch.  I have no idea what total numbers were but here are the raptors I remember seeing, migrating or not.

Northern Harrier
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Cooper's Hawk
Bald Eagle
Red-shouldered Hawk
American Kestrel

I picked up a few ID hint/ helps but as one would expect...  I still need a ton more practice.  We are planning on doing a hawkwatch at work this Friday as long as the weather and winds look good for it.  With what we've seen around so far it should be great. For this past weeks hawks at work.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Baby Hawks

Cooper's Hawk- first sighting
I went over to lunch today at the roomies parent house in Orange, whose yard has many large spruce, hemlock, and white pine trees.  While sitting outside we had a number of hawks flying around the yard or sitting in the trees calling loudly.  At one time there were 2 hawks visible flying through the air, with up to four hawks calling.  I never saw an adult bird but here are a couple shots of the immature birds I did see.  Finely streaked chest, mid-sized bird, and rounded tail indicate it's a Cooper's Hawk (Accipter cooperi).

2nd bird

2nd bird- calling

Not a flattering picture but shows the tail feathers well!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

First Pelagics!

A friend of mine decided on her 30th birthday that she would make a list of 30 things to do throughout the year.  One of the items was to go on a whale watch and I very willingly told her I would come along.  Since I began my more serious birding pursuits 2 years ago, I haven't had a chance to get out on the water and so my official list of pelagic birds was at 0.  Yup a big fat goose egg.  Yesterday that all changed when we took a three-hour drive up to Gloucester, MA and boarded the Privateer IV of the 7 Seas Whale Watch

My plan was to study my Sibley guide a bit during the days leading up to the watch.  Also, I wanted to see if I could find a list of species that had been seen by other birders in the area who had recently done some pelagic watches.  Once again life got in the way and so with only one list of birds seen on the 7 Seas trip from last week and a quick glance over of about 5 species we headed out to sea.  Within 20 minutes I felt a bit more secure that I wouldn't miss too many birds as the naturalist mentioned that she would talk about some of the birds we were seeing as well.  She lied.  This is pretty much a whale watch and if you happen to see some birds you are in luck.  The naturalist did mention on the way back in (near the end of the trip) that she had seen 2 species of birds while we were out.

Herring Gull- a sign you're getting close to land

By the shore we had the usual suspects making an appearance, Herring Gulls, Ring-billed Gulls, Greater Black-backed Gulls, and a few Laughing Gulls.  Then as we made it out into more open waters the first bird I saw was a Greater Shearwater.  The bird came close enough to positively ID with only my quick study session and I was able to shoot a few pictures to verify later on. 

Greater Shearwater- views of the top and bottom

Greater Shearwater- showing ID marks- black cap, white underside with some buffiness, and dark under tail coverts.

As we got a little further out I started to notice some smaller birds here and there close to the surface.  Robin-sized, dark bird with a white rump patch.....  It must be a Wilson's Storm-petrel.  The naturalist did inform us at one point that this species is the most abundant species in the world but unless you went out on the water (or to their breeding grounds in the "arctic").  You would never know.  By the way, according to Sibley, they breed in the subantarctic. 

Wilson's Storm-Petrel- white rump is a quick way to ID

I did snap a few pictures of these resting Shearwaters as we motored out to the area where whales had been reported.  I tried to get an ID as we zipped by but wasn't able too.  Now that I can look at the images though it's clearly visible that they are Manx Shearwaters.  The white c-shape behind the eye and the white 'butt' clearly separate it out from the other species. 

Resting Manx Shearwaters

Manx Shearwater- note there is no buffiness on the underside

A few more Greater Shearwaters flew by and then I was distracted by the surfacing humpback whales.  We saw a total of 10 humpback whales and 2 minke whales and then we headed back to Gloucester.  On the way back I  did catch a look at this dark Shearwater that the image confirmed was a Sooty Shearwater.  I had thought I had seen some in a group feeding far out earlier on as well. 

Sooty Shearwater

The bird highlighted below was an added bonus.  I totally admit that at the time, I didn't have a clue as to what it was.  We were speeding back toward shore and I was chatting with my friend when something caught my eye.  I left off the conversation mid-sentence and picked up my camera to snap a few shots.  With the speed the boat and the bird were travelling I knew I didn't have a shot at getting an ID on the bird in the field.  I had completely forgotten about it until I was checking out my pictures from the day and I realized I had caught a shot of a Cory's Shearwater. 

Cory's Shearwater- the yellow bill is a give away.

All in all a great day on the water, 4 Shearwater species as life birds and a Wilson's Storm-petrel too.  The water was as smooth as lake water and we barely had a cloud in the sky.  A few random peeps flew toward shore but way to fast to get an identification on and a lone Great-Blue Heron also looked like he was heading toward Cape Cod for a vacation.  I can't wait to have a chance to get out on the water again. 

Northern Gannet- surprisingly only one of a few seen.
If you want to see the whale on the trip, check out my general nature blog....  Daily Dose of Dorkiness.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Slow Drive Home

I admit it.... I've been cheating on my blog, not like writing down fake birds, but like.... writing other blogs.  The past 2 plus years I've been focusing my outdoor time looking and learning to identify those feathered dinosaurs of today.  With the quiet birdy days of summer upon us my interest have broadened and I've started a more general nature blog HERE.  That's not to say I haven't been birding, every day I've been scouring the campus at work, and co-authoring the West Campus blog.  All of this has lead to me ignoring my birding blog having nothing left to blog about. 

Monk Parakeet nest

So, today I decided to take the long way home and stop by the garden in Stratford where there are quite a few good bird species.  In the spring I heard many warblers migrating through and all throughout the summer Song Sparrows and Baltimore Orioles have been making their presence known.  Another loud call that can be heard every time is that of the Monk Parakeet who have two nests in a large white pine tree in the middle of the parking lot. 

Monk Parakeet close-up

I personally am not a fan of these birds or any plant or animal that has been brought into the state by humans whether on purpose or by accident.  I wont however, go into that because there are so many differing opinions on such matters and my goal of the blog is to encourage people to read it and go out bird watching.  Needless to say these birds seem to be here to stay and one can only hope that there wont be repercussions.  The two nests in this tree seem to be supporting a smallish colony, I can only guess of about 10 birds. 

Painted Turtle

I also made a quick stop at Wooster Park Pond on my way and couldn't believe how low the water has gotten.  The water was filled with Lochness monster-sized carp and snapping turtles but no ducks.  Many American Goldfinch flew around the pond, a few even landing on the 'island' at the northside of the pond.  One sandpiper made a brief showing as it flew across the pond before disappearing up stream.  I'd guess it was a Solitary Sandpiper although, I'm no good at those shorebird things.  :-)

Monday, June 27, 2011

California-Point Reyes

Before heading west I check out a couple of local Audubon groups websites and found out that one was planning a field trip to Point Reyes National Seashore.  I contacted the trip leader and asked if I could tag along and was excited to hear that I got a thumbs up.  Our first stop at Drake's Beach didn't yield too much, although, it was my best look at a Wilson's Warbler of the trip.  Although, The sighting wasn't much more than a quick glimpse.  A juvenile Great-horned Owl was much more cooperative and we all got some great looks.

Our next stop was further out the point at the former Coast Guard Rescue Boat Launch, where we walked around behind the rangers housing and down to the beach.  The walk down to beach had great overlooks into the deeper ocean where we excited found Pigeon Guillemots.  Other nice sights were Western Bluebirds, Common Loon, Western Grebe, Brown Pelicans, and another Great Horned Owl.

Pigeon Guillemot- Life Bird!!!

Great-horned Owl

Common Loon

California Quail- first good look

One of our last stops with the group was behind the rangers regional office, a few trees lined the drive and surrounded the building but beyond was open grasslands all the way to the sea.  Highlights at this stop included, Bushtits, White-tailed Kite, Western Meadowlark, Black Pheobe, and California Quail!!

We wrapped up the day with a quick hike at the Bear Creek Visitor Center on the San Andreas Fault Trail.  The same woodland birds I had been seeing around the area were here as well.  Good looks at both Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers were a nice mix from all the open habiat specialist we had been seeing.  Before dividing up I got information from some of the birders that Common Murre nested out at the light house were we had not made it because of the wind that assaulted us all day.  Common Murre being a potential life bird for me I made a quick pitstop in town to gas up and made the hour drive back out to the lighthouse.  It was definitely worth the time and gas! 

Once I got out to the light house I walked the mile out to the light house observation tower, the wind was mild on the way to the platform but once there the breeze must have been close to 50 mph.  Eyes tearing I stared through my binoculars over the edge and coupld barely see blobs flying out from the rocks.  Even with these bad looks I could still tell, I had Common Murre!! 

Common Murre

"close-up" of the Common Murre

Then rubbing my eyes I made a discovery, they were everywhere coating the rocks.  A smile on my face I headed back to the car and out of the wind.

Eyes tearing but still a great time

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

California 2011

Well, I made a trip out to California for a work conference and headed to the Bay area 6 days early to do a little birding.  I had huge intentions of blogging my way around, especially since I was flying solo for this trip.  Some how I still didn't have enough time or energy to blog enroute and instead here I am weeks later at least posting a few pictures.

I flew out on a Tuesday and didn't spend much time birding as the weather wasn't great.  By mid afternoon the next day the skies had cleared and took a walk along the beach behind my hotel in Half Moon Bay.  This was a great little area and I wish I had planned some more time.  Best bird (and life bird) for my time here was a MacGillvray's Warbler that made a quick showing but didn't have time for a photo. 

Here is a few of the western species that did make a decent appearance.

California Towhee- behavior reminds me of our eastern Cardinal

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

Route 1 somewhere between Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay

Red-winged Blackbird- some California birds only have red on the wing

White-crowned Sparrow- in coastal areas as common as Song Sparrows

Spotted Towhee

Whimbrel- one of the few shorebirds from the trip
I had actually headed down to Santa Cruz to visit the natural history museum (not worth the drive).  The first few photos were from the lawn and the drive back to Half Moon Bay.  If I ever head back to CA I will definitely spend more time in this area.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

New Yard Bird

In the birding world of lists, one that can bring the most enjoyment to almost all is the yard list.  One simple reason is that there are no 'standards' for what you can count.  If you want to add it to your yard list when it was in your neighbors yard, go ahead.  If you want to restrict it to anything that only lands in one of your trees or on your yard and not include flyovers.... go ahead.  I count anything on my yard list as anything that I can hear or see from my yard.  Some people might find that a little broad but when your lot is measured in square feet and not acres, I think some leeway is allowed.

Today, I had a new yard bird and it's a good one.  I was on my way to put the trash out and for the first time in awhile a Downy Woodpecker was on the suet.  I stopped in my tracks so it could eat in piece for a few minutes.  While I was standing there a flash of red in the trees caught my attention and I lamented having to wait even longer to move because I thought a Northern Cardinal was coming into the feeder.  I kept my eyes on the trees though, as the flask of red seemed overly bright.  A couple of seconds later a Scarlet Tanager moved into view.  A great neotrpical migrant to add to my yard list.  I still haven't replaced my zoom lens so I only got a few bad pictures.  Here's one super zoomed. 

Scarlet Tanager

I tossed some oranges in a feeder out back but I doubt the Scarlet Tanager will come for a snack.  There have also been Baltimore Orioles in the neighborhood in the past and they like fruit as well!  Here's a link for more information on the Scarlet Tanager.

Also, I have a pair of American Robins nesting on my deck.  It's a bit of a pain since they spook every time I go out onto the deck and grill.  Here's a phone picture looking down into the nest once the birds had taken off.

American Robon Eggs

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Littlest Falcon

Three different species of falcon call Connecticut home, Peregrine Falcon, Merlin, and American Kestrel.  The American Kestrel, the smallest of the three falcon species, is an open prairie or grassland hunter in general, feeding on almost any small moving animal.  They are known best for their love of grasshoppers and dragonflies as food for their young.  Unfortunately, this habitat is becoming compressed in the state and compounding that with a reduction in nesting spots, the population of nesting kestrels has dropped.  Recent efforts by bird lovers such as Art Gingert and Tom Sayers have helped these falcons bounce back, if even just a little.

Now for my story:  Yale's West Campus is approximately 130 acres, many of it wooded, but the majority is landscapes lawns and some natural grassy areas.  We have been working to encourage the landscapers to retain as much 'natural' habitat as possible in hopes that it will attract more bird species.  Our current species count on campus is at over 100 and American Kestrel is one of those we have seen on frequent occasions.  So, it didn't take long for us to begin to wonder if maybe a kestrel would want to use campus to raise their young. 

Sue (my coworker) and I decided to try and get a nest box to hang in one of these natural grassy areas.  We made contact with Art Gingert who supplies nest boxes in suitable habitat but he felt ours was not good enough quality to be able to give us a box, when other better habitat was in need.  We however, have a tough time giving up so easy and instead dug into our pockets and pulled together enough money to buy the supplies to build our own box.

After months of delay (it was winter anyway), we volunteered Nate another coworker to help us put together the box.  After about 7 months of the wood sitting around, two weeks was all it took to get the box together and ready to hang.  Last Wednesday was a nice sunny day, we had some spare time, and a nest box ready to hang.  Here are a series of pictures from the afternoon.

Lynn (Me) showing off the finished product

Hanging the kestrel nest box about 12' from the ground.

Nate doing some final touches

If you have an interest in learning more about American Kestrel, information can be hard to find, I'd suggest starting here

Information about Tom Sayers work in CT can be found here.

Directions from Art Gingert on how to build a nest box can be found here

We are keeping our eyes on the box and around campus in general for kestrels.  I'll keep you posted with any updates.