Archive for the ‘Summer’ Category

Matinicus Rock, Part 2

(Be sure to also see Part One of this post.)

A spectacular Matinicus Rock sunset, with Moe's tower on the right.

If one visited Matinicus Rock during the day, finding evidence of Leach’s Storm-Petrels (short of checking burrows) would be hard to find. At night, though, Leach’s calls sometimes fill the air. We checked a plot of storm-petrel burrows on three occasions to assess the number of chicks fledged per nest (called productivity).

One night I walked down the boardwalk, recording with my phone. Almost immediately you’ll here a close storm-petrel, followed by some ones further away. Also notice a lot of Arctic Tern and Laughing Gull noise–and of course, the foghorn. Listen to some Leach’s Storm-Petrel calls.

The storm-petrel chicks are probably one of the cuter things in the world.

As I mentioned in Part 1 of this post, Manx Shearwaters nest on the island in small numbers, too, making Matinicus Rock the country’s only known breeding location for these birds (there are more in the Canadian Maritimes and off of western Europe). We used infrared cameras to detect activity in possible shearwater burrows, but shearwaters could also be heard calling on dark nights.

One night, I recorded a Manx calling in the distance. The bird starts after the first foghorn blast (at about 0:09) and continues for six seconds. It sounds like low, deep, labored breathing. Listen to a Manx Shearwater.

An infrared camera in position above a possibly active burrow.

Terns, shearwaters and storm-petrels are not all that Matinicus Rock has to offer–in fact, it’s much better known to be an alcid island. Razorbills, Atlantic Puffins, and Black Guillemots all nest on the island in numbers.

One of many charismatic Black Guillemots.

A Black Guillemot chick!

A guillemot showing off its red feet.

A guillemot with a rock eel, a major component of their diet.

Common Murres, while not island breeders, often hang out on the north end of the island.

Razorbills, though, are one of the island’s most interesting colonial nesters. Unfortunately, they nest early, so by the time I arrived in late July the Razorbill chicks had all fledged. Luckily, many were still hanging around during that time, though they had all but vanished when we left Matinicus Rock in mid-August.

Razorbills congregated at sunset strip, these with some puffins and a murre.

The real stars of the island, though, were the Atlantic Puffins.

Puffin with a mackerel.

We tried to recapture a puffin with a geolocator that had been affixed last year--and, although he sat right next to our box trap, he never stepped up.

A few second-year puffins were around.

Part of the work we did with puffins was resighting their bands. This consisted of sitting in blinds and finding close puffins with visible bands–then reading and recording them to note puffin presence and movement.

We “grubbed” over 200 puffin chicks this year–that is, we took them out of their burrows to band. Grubbing is sometimes a challenging process, taking strategy, skill, creativity, and determination.

A puffin chick, just asking to be grubbed.

Grubbers, the tools of the trade. Each grubber (one small, four large, and one supergrubber) has a small hook at the end that we can snag on a chick's leg to coax them to within reach. Puffins' legs grow very quickly and are very sturdy; no birds were ever hurt during the grubbing process.

The monstrously long supergrubber comes in handy with those hard-to-reach chicks.

A three-person grub in progress. We got the chick.

Burrow 591 with chick, "General Santa Anna" (we name all the chicks), barely visible in the back. This would be a job for the supergrubber.

The "complex". Lots of chicks to grub inside!

Another successful grub in the works. I got this one in the end!

We found a couple pairs of small alcid wings on the island as well, having apparently been killed by a Peregrine Falcon, probably this past winter. The wing chord, at 114 mm, fits perfectly for Dovekie!

We did have a chance to go off-island for a boat trip. A great boat trip, as it turned out.

A group of Great Shearwaters.

Great Shearwater.

Northern Gannet.

We saw a number of jaegers from the island and a couple from the boat.

Our target--Troppy, the Red-billed Tropicbird! This bird has summered in the area for years.

Troppy flew right over us!

Common Eiders nest on Matinicus Rock in addition to the other seabirds.

Another great sunset from the Rock.

And on our last day, we were treated by a brilliant Prothonotary Warbler!


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Matinicus Rock, Part 1

(Be sure to also see Part Two of this post.)

I just returned from three weeks on Matinicus Rock, in Maine’s Penobscot Bay. About twenty miles off the coast of Rockland, the 23-acre Rock is home to a diverse array of breeding seabirds, including Atlantic Puffins, Razorbills, Black Guillemots, Arctic and Common Terns, and Leach’s Storm-Petrels. Matinicus Rock is also the only known breeding location of Manx Shearwater in the United States. I had the privilege of working with these species with others from the Project Puffin Seabird Restoration Program. It was a great experience.

Matinicus Rock is home to a historic 19th-century lighthouse and light tower, a boat house, and the one-room Audubon house. The house has no running water or plumbing–though, of course, there is a fast internet connection. Drinking water comes in jugs from the mainland, and there’s a rainwater cistern under the house for washing dishes, clothes and hands. Electricity good enough to power lights and small devices (no large refrigerators, for example) comes from a few solar panels out front. There’s a propane stove and small propane fridge. Oh, and the foghorn sounds every fifteen seconds and is loud enough to be heard for three miles.

The light house and light tower.

When I arrived on July 20th, tern work was starting to wind down. We stumbled across the occasional young chick, but the majority of the surviving progeny were approaching fledging age. Over 800 pairs of Arctic and 200 pairs of Common Terns were present on the island this year.

Common Tern. Notice the black-tipped long-ish bill, black cap with considerable white above gape, dark "wedge" in outer primaries due to molt, and lack of long tail streamers (all points to compare with Arctic).

Common Tern, again.

Commons also show a sizable black trailing underwing edge to the primaries.

When perched, the dark outer primary wedge is visible. One can easily see the newer, lighter inner primaries, and the older (4) outer primaries.

The size of the wedge can vary, though. This bird shows five dark outer primaries. Notice also the length of the tarsus (from the "knee" to the foot) on Common Tern.

Part of the tern work consisted of 3-hour feeding stints, during which we recorded all of the feedings that took place–including the time it occurred, the type and size of fish, which chick it was fed to, and which adult performed the feeding.

A tern plot. Each numbered stake corresponds to a nest, and (in most cases) a chick or two.

Common Tern carrying a mackerel.

Common Tern with a pollack.

Common Tern with a snipefish.

Common Tern with a sand lance.

Common Tern attempting to feed a butterfish--a fish that many chicks can't swallow. When butterfish makes up a large portion of tern diet, the chicks don't do very well.

Common Terns often dive-bombed us, while the Arctics were a bit less aggressive.

Arctic Tern. Notice the completely red bill, the smaller white space between cap and gape, and the long tail streamers.

Also notice the uniform upperwing on Arctic.

And, importantly, the thin trailing edge to the outer wing, instead of Common's thick edge.

Also see the short legs and the lack of newer primaries (Arctics always molt all their primaries before migrating north in spring).

Arctic Tern with a...larval lobster?

Juvenile Arctic Tern.

Young Arctics share the thin black trailing edge under the primaries.

And Arctic juveniles have light secondaries.

Common Tern juveniles are generally browner on top with more orange, larger bills, and darker secondaries.

(And, of course, the thicker dark trailing edge to the primaries.)

Also interesting were subadult terns. I noted a couple first-summer Arctic Terns (all in the inter-tidal zone), and several presumed second-summer Common Terns up in the colony, but I couldn’t confirm any were actually nesting.

First summer (second-year) Arctic Tern.

Apparent second-summer Common Tern--with white speckling in crown and remnants of a carpal bar.

A similar-aged Common Tern.

Another presumed second-summer Common with more white in the crown.

Sunsets on the Rock were spectacular, with each day a new variation.

Go to Part Two.

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Extreme Pelagic

Sunrise as we headed out to sea.

This weekend I was lucky enough to join about 45 other birders on a pelagic trip out of Hyannis, MA, on Cape Cod. This was part of the Brookline Bird Club’s “Extreme Pelagic” series. Why extreme? Well, we left at 5 am on Saturday, August 28th and returned 38 hours later, after traveling over 150 miles out to sea and seeing some great birds!

As we motored out of Hyannis and passed Nantucket, everyone was optimistic. It was turning out to be a sunny day with light winds, not too cold and not too hot. Common and Black Terns flew by, but their numbers dwindled the farther out we went. It would take about 6 hours to reach the continental shelf, but there was no reason why birds couldn’t be found sooner! A small sandpiper flew by, appearing long-winged and with a brownish wash to the face and neck. It wasn’t seen well, but I was pretty confident it was a Baird’s Sandpiper. Not long after, a large flock of large shorebirds was spotted to the west. Whimbrel was the first guess, but photos revealed that, no, they were Hudsonian Godwits in the midst of a very long migratory flight to South America, quite a rare sight. The day was off to a good start.

A flock of 51 Hudsonian Godwits. Others' pictures came out better than mine, and the structure and bills of the birds are more clearly visible.

As we continued on, birds were spotted sporadically. A small group of Sanderlings here, assorted gulls there. Then the boat started to turn around, and it was quickly announced that we had passed a possible skua on the water. Skuas are very high up on the ocean food chain. Big, bulky aggressive birds, they (like jaegers) often steal food from gulls. There are two possible species, South Polar and Great, with South Polar spotted more  in summer. Neither is seen very often.

A skua alright, but which kind?

Brown tones and a white spot behind the eye . . .that’s no South Polar, it’s a Great Skua!

Great Skua!

We threw some chum into the water for this guy and he came in a little closer!

Great Skua is a hard-to-find bird in the northeast, and it set the tone for the rest of the trip. Soon after we left the skua, we crossed paths with our first Great Shearwater, Cory’s Shearwater and Wilson’s Storm-Petrel.

Great Shearwater (formerly "Greater")

Nantucket was getting smaller and smaller, and pretty soon it was out of sight altogether. It was just us and the birds (and the mammals). I went out onto the bow, to hopefully have a better chance of photo-ops. Then, a cry came up from the back of the boat. Two jaegers were flying toward us! The captain quickly slowed us down to give them a chance to catch up. Marshall Iliff, one of our leaders, quickly identified them, “Structurally, they’re Long-tailed Jaegers!” As the birds flew overhead, the first was definitely a Long-tailed, but photos revealed the second to be the slightly larger Parasitic Jaeger. Both were juvenile birds – hard to identify.

Long-tailed Jaeger. Notice the round-tipped middle two rectrices (tail feathers), the slender shape and small bill.

Parasitic Jaeger. Slightly more bulky, with pointed middle tail feathers (not really visible in this photo).

After a while the water started to get noticeably warmer – at one point it reached 80 F – meaning we should be on the lookout for some of the rarer, more southern species. We chummed a bit, throwing out popcorn and bits of suet, which attracted quite a following of storm-petrels. Soon a Leach’s Storm-Petrel was spotted. Although they look very similar, there are some subtle differences in plumage (Leach’s has no white on undertail coverts, carpal bar is paler than Wilson’s but reaches the leading edge of the wing), but the easiest way to differentiate the two is by flight style. Wilson’s Storm-Petrel has a very swallow-like flight, where as Leach’s has a much more bounding nighthawk-like flight. Leach’s is also distinctly longer-winged.

Wilson's Storm-Petrel, liking our popcorn.

A small group of Wilson's.

Great Shearwater, also attracted by our chumming.

Scanning through the Wilson’s, I saw an orange bird among them. Huh? It was a Baltimore Oriole – no doubt lost at sea. The poor bird was so tired that it landed on the boat. Jeremiah Trimble, one of our leaders, just picked it up, but it was so emaciated (probably flying for at least 24 hours) that it didn’t care. I think it started eating a little bit and made it back to land via cardboard box, where it was released.

Hatch-year Baltimore Oriole.

We left the Wilson’s Storm-Petrels and went farther into Hydrographer Canyon, toward warmer waters. Suddenly, a shout of “White-faced Storm-Petrel!” was heard from the left side of the boat. Everyone raced to the railing to catch a glimpse of the most-wanted bird on the trip. After some searching, I spotted the pale Storm-Petrel ridding the waves in its classic, almost comical, kangaroo-style. The bird sets its wings out, horizontally, and proceeds to hop from wave to wave using its legs, almost like a skipping stone. We found a total of TWENTY-TWO White-faced Storm-Petrels over the weekend (including 17 on the second day), the highest daily and trip count perhaps in all of North America.

White-faced Storm-Petrel!

An insane look at a White-faced Storm-Petrel.

If the trip stopped then and there, I think everyone would’ve been happy. But we still had a day and a half to go! We started chumming again, and it was late afternoon. Lots of Wilson’s arrived quickly, but one stood out to Marshall.

“I like this bird, I like this bird a lot. For Band-rumped.”

Apparently he had spotted a Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, but it was toward the back of the chum slick and not many people could find it. Band-rumped is “intermediate” between Leach’s and Wilson’s in many ways. First, there is a little bit of white on the sides of the rump (Wilson’s has a lot on the rump and undertail coverts, and Leach’s has no white on the undertail coverts). Its wings are longer than Wilson’s but shorter than Leach’s, and it has a faint carpal bar (somewhat like Leach’s) that doesn’t reach the leading edge of the wing (like Wilson’s). Its flight style is more powerful and arcing than Wilson’s, but less nighthawk-like and springy than Leach’s.

We maneuvered the boat to get a better look, but not many people had satisfying views. We moved on a ways and tried chumming from a different spot, and, sure enough, a few Band-rumpeds were spotted, some passing very close to the boat on a few occasions.

A Band-rumped Storm-Petrel. Bowed wings in a glide is also a mark for this species.

And, to round out the day, we got great looks at Manx and Audubon’s Shearwaters in the setting sun.

Manx Shearwater. Notice the amount of dark coloration on the face and the white undertail coverts.

Audubon's Shearwater. Notice the much whiter face . . .

. . . And dark undertail coverts.

We anchored near Welker Canyon for the night. On a couple of occasions, storm-petrels, attracted by the light, actually landed on the boat!

In the morning we set sail back along the shelf edge to Hydrographer Canyon, with the hopes of adding to the 5 White-faced Storm-Petrels we had seen the day before, as well as perhaps finding some new species for the trip. Well, we had no problem finding more White-faceds – they were everywhere! By the time we left Hydrographer Canyon we had tallied 17 on the day, making 22 the trip total! The previous trip (2-day) record was 6 and day record was 3. Wow.

We did see other birds, too. Pomarine and Parasitic Jaeger juveniles (no adults on the trip) were found, but didn’t give us nearly as good looks as the skua or the other jaegers had.

Even though this jaeger looked pretty bulky, a look at the tail shows a pointed rectrix, which only Parasitic Jaegers have (enlarged in bottom left).

On the way back toward land, we encountered another skua! Unfortunately it promptly turned around and flew away before we could identify it, and we couldn’t catch up. As a consolation, both Red and Red-necked Phalaropes posed on the water for us.

See if you can find the Red-necked Phalaropes amongst the Reds. Smaller, with darker, more patterned backs and smaller bills.

A flock of 9 Red Phalaropes.

As we left the warm waters and returned to cooler ones, the birdlife changed as well. We started seeing Cory’s Shearwaters again, and pretty soon those gave way to gannets, and then terns and gulls. By that point we knew we were close to land.

Cory's Shearwater

Immature Northern Gannet.

As we docked I heard someone say, “Wow, we totally crushed the record.”

“Until next August,” another replied.

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Here are some pictures of a White-tailed Kite spotted in Stratford, CT this morning. What an awesome bird, all the way from Florida/Texas/Louisiana (or potentially even further)!

Other birders posted photos; here are a few links to additional pictures:
Frank Gallo
Alex Burdo
Scott Kruitbosch

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For the past couple weeks I’ve been doing a lot of birding along the New York coast. Late summer (yes, mid-July is late summer in the birding world) brings many early migrants to the area. These include some songbirds (Louisiana Waterthrush and Yellow Warbler are good examples), but also large numbers of shorebirds and other coastal species. What better places than Cupsogue Beach, on the south shore of Long Island, and Jamaica Bay, south of Queens?

Sorting my sightings reverse-chronologically, this afternoon I stopped my Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge to see a just-found Black-bellied Whistling-Duck. This species normally occurs in Florida and Texas only, but strangely enough, it’s been found in many northeastern states this year, including New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. There is a possibility that some of these birds are escapees, but many (including the one I saw today), had no leg bands and normal feet (captive waterfowl often have clipped toes). Global warming? Possibly, but who knows. . .

A content Black-bellied Whistling-Duck surveys several birders watching from afar.

Rewinding to last weekend, I spent an adventurous half-day at Cupsogue Beach park with the New York State Young Birders Club. Despite a failed seawatch in the early morning (just wasn’t one of those days), we headed out to the flats at low tide to observe the large congregation of shorebirds and terns. Luckily we had the help of superb NY-area birder Doug Gochfeld, who found most of the notable birds that morning. Highlighting those was a Sandwich Tern, followed by other nice terns (Roseate, Royal, Gull-billed, Least, Common). Western Sandpiper, an adult, provided a good opportunity to study its structure (more upright stance, different head shape than Semipalmated), and several of the the declining Red Knots were heartening to observe as well. Of course, I managed to not get a photo of any of the notable birds seen that day. Not sure how that happened. Returning to the parking lot was an interesting experience, as it was about six hours after the time we got out there — in other words, high tide. Some faired better than others; it depended on if you were unlucky enough to step in a low area while wading to shore.

A close flyby American Oystercatcher. Really cool looking birds.

The state-endangered and federally-threatened Piping Plover nests at Cupsogue.

A relaxing Least Tern (state-threatened).

A Snowy Egret, great to see, as always.

A Saltmarsh Sparrow checks us out in the early morning light.

Just as a side note, I visited Jamaica Bay last week also and saw lots and lots of terrific birds, led by American White Pelican, Hudsonian Godwit, Least Bittern, Long-billed Dowitcher, Black Tern and Tricolored Heron, but I had left my camera in the car to prevent it from being dropped in the East Pond while slogging through the mud and water. Bad decision, since there were lots of photo opportunities and I never actually tripped. Inexcusable, I know. Next time.

As a further aside, I was up in Connecticut (away from the coast) doing some bird banding earlier in the month, and got to band some really cool birds that you don’t normally think of as CT residents, like these three:

A really nice male Magnolia Warbler. Probably my second-favorite warbler.

A female Blackburnian Warbler, my first favorite! Unfortunately we didn't catch any males that day, though there were many singing high above us.

A female Canada Warbler, from the bog down below us. Some really nice habitat in that area of northwest Connecticut.

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ABA Camp Colorado

I know what you’re thinking – my last post, only a week ago, was about a birding camp. Well, I was lucky enough to be able to go to the American Birding Association’s Camp Colorado as well. I joined 16 other avid young birders to bird the various habitats that Colorado has to offer, from Rocky Mountain peaks to sagebrush plains. Leading the group were excellent birders, Michael O’Brien and Louise Zemaitis (VENT tour leaders) and Chip Clouse from the ABA. Michael is a co-author of The Shorebird Guide and the ground-breaking CD Flight Calls of Migratory Birds, in addition to being one of the best birders in the country. Needless to say, we were in for a great week.

I arrived at the Colorado Springs airport a bit before 1:30pm on the afternoon of June 26, only to find that I had just missed the first van taking kids to camp. No matter, I’d just wait a bit for the next one. Well, it turned out that the “next one” didn’t come until after 6pm… I used the time to finish reading a book I had started on the plane and talk to the few campers that had already arrived. We got to our camp, just outside of Woodland Park, CO, as it was getting dark. Everyone had been assigned a tent to share with a few other campers, but since it was raining the leaders decided to let us all sleep upstairs in the main building that night.

The next day we got up early (this would become a regular pattern) and headed out to the Hayman Burn area, a place where a huge fire had swept through in 2001 and was in the beginnings of regrowth. On the way we stopped at a marshy area and found some really nice birds, most surprisingly a whole flock of Evening Grosbeaks, one which landed only about 30 feet from us! We also saw western birds like Brewer’s Blackbird, Band-tailed Pigeon, Black-headed Grosbeak, Western Bluebird and Violet-green Swallow.

A cooperative Evening Grosbeak in the Hayman Burn area.

We traveled to different spots within the burn area, finding Mountain Bluebird, Townsend’s Solitaire, Western Tanager and Red-naped Sapsucker. Chip led us to his Breeding Bird Atlas territory, a census that lasts 5 years and documents what species of birds breed where in the state. We split up into groups and attempted to find and “confirm” different species in the area, by finding evidence that they were breeding. My group was able to confirm MacGillivray’s Warbler, Mountain Chickadee, and Hammond’s Flycatcher. Other spots we birded that day included a grassland area (Western Meadowlark, Vesper Sparrow), and around our camp once we returned. Good birds there were breeding Williamson’s Sapsuckers and a group of Clark’s Nutcrackers flying over the ridge. Michael O’Brien gave a terrific presentation on birding by ear in the afternoon.

Mountain Chickadee carrying food -- confirmed!

The male Williamson's Sapsucker at his nest.

We awoke the next morning (in tents) to the sound of Red Crossbills, (more…)

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Hog Island 2010

The Hog Island Ornithology Camp, in coastal Maine, was created in the 1930s to foster a desire to learn and care about the environment and the wildlife that inhabits it. Still running today, despite some economic troubles, I took part in this year’s Hog Island Coastal Maine Bird Studies for Teens. It was a great five days; I got to meet 14 other enthusiastic young birders, as well as famous and important figures in the birding community, like Kenn & Kim Kaufman, Scott Weidensaul and Steve Kress. Enjoy a recap of the week in pictures:

The sun shines our first evening at Hog Island.

The view of the "Queen Mary," one of the main buildings on Hog Island, that connects to the dock.

Early morning bird walks with Kenn Kaufman (holding scope).

Ospreys nest on the Island.

And guillemots scour the bay.

Bald Eagles also nest on Hog Island.

(Lots of guillemots.)

An Upland Sandpiper, believe it or not.

Singing Savannah Sparrow.

Rubythroats buzz about the gardens.

Here, Scott Weidensaul bands one of them.

Eiders live not too far from us.

Here, females are attempting to sneak their young by this hungry Great Black-backed Gull.

Our first view of Eastern Egg Rock...

..home of puffins...

...and more puffins...

...and more puffins...

...and more...


We got to land on the island (thank you Steve!) and see birds up close, like this feisty Common Tern.

The gulls and terns were none too happy with people walking through their colony! I got pecked on the head more than once...

But boy, was it worth it. Common Tern feeding a chick, perhaps only a day or two old.

More puffins, of course.

But more terns too. Here's a Roseate.

Common Tern chicks seemed to be the only young terns to have hatched this early in the month.

But guillemots were raising young too.

Leach's Storm-Petrels, not often seen by the light of day so close to land, also nest on Eastern Egg Rock.

Arctic Terns definitely had quite a presence on this tiny 7-acre island.

This one has a geolocator attached to its leg.

Did I mention there were guillemots?

If you sat still, they'd return to their favorite rock, even when you were 20 feet away...

Red feet!

Another cooperative Roseate.

ANOTHER RAZORB-- oh, that's a decoy.

We also took a gorgeous hike through the interior of the island.

Lots of neat habitats.

The understory was incredibly healthy.

A far cry from what I'm used to in NY.

Insectivorous pitcher plants were cool to see.

The beach was pretty neat too.

A trip to the mainland brought us this really cooperative Virginia Rail.

And in honor of International Guillemot Appreciation Day:

Quite a celebration. I guess guillemots are pretty cool birds.

And as the sun goes down on the last day of camp...

...it couldn't be any more pleasant.

Until next year...

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