Thursday, March 31, 2011

Newborn Birder

Something I haven't really mentioned here is that I went on the recent Belize trip "virgin,"  that is to say, without pre-trip studying. To read about why, and what happened, check out my March 29 post on the multi-authored American Birding Association blog. The ABA blog, by the way, has some great writers and is really worth following for the latest in birding, nationwide. I keep the link to the ABA blog under My Blogs list.

And by the way, if you write a bird or nature blog and want to spread the word about it, leave a comment - there's plenty of good writing out there that needs to be shared!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

More Photos from Belize: Some ABA Area Possibilities

Continuing with Belize, still trying to make it regionally-relevant. Here's a trio of birds that have at least occurred in the ABA area, though not exactly regularly. . .

[Admittedly, I didn't know there were Cinnamon Hummingbird records for the ABA area until I got home and started reading about it.  There are apparently two, one from July 1992 in Patagonia, AZ and one from 1993 at Santa Teresa, New Mexico. Sounds like an invasion that never materialized. There might have been more since, don't have the resources here to check. This one was at Belize City, March 12, 2011. Click to enlarge photos.]

[Moving to the other extreme in size: Jabiru nest near Crooked Tree, Belize March 13 2011. Jabirus have not only straggled into Texas, they've made it all the way to Oklahoma! They soar like Wood Storks, and Wood Storks have made it to the northeast. Make sure your "stork" has black flight feathers, all I'm sayin'. . . ]

[I even know people who have seen Fork-tailed Flycatcher in Cape May. . .not me, though. Sigh. The extremely long tail and deeply notched primaries indicate an adult male, not normally the age we get when a vagrant appears. Remember, if you get a distant candidate and the tail waves in flight like this one's, it's a Fork-tailed; Scissor-tailed Flycatcher tails are stiff. Somewhere along a Belizean road, March 16, 2011.]

Up next, since I'm still couch-bound and going through photos - the prettiest birds of Belize.

Confined to the Car. . .

[This Horned Grebe at Sunset Lake in Wildwood on Sunday was nearly all the way to breeding plumage, only a little to go on the head and neck. Kathy and Roger Horn stopped by there later and found 3 Horned Grebes, all looking similarly spiffy. Click to enlarge photos.]

Isn't it fine to take a stroll as spring unfolds, or wouldn't it be? A messed-up knee has me car-bound for a bit (and fun meds keep me on the passenger side for the next few days), so where would I bird from the road if I were me?

Plenty of options, lead among which Sunday March 27 were the Atlantic side pools, bays and marshes from Two Mile Landing/Ocean Drive north to Stone Harbor. I've been hankering for arriving egrets and herons, and certain duck numbers are building, along with their antics. At different locations we hit tight flocks of 50-75 Red-breasted Mergansers and Buffleheads churning the water with feeding and courting activity, and smaller numbers of Long-tailed Ducks and scaup. American Oystercatcher numbers are building on sod banks and flats, too. Other by-car options this week would include the Delaware Bayshore from Norbury's Landing south to Cape May for Northern Gannets and gulls. Hoping to get up to Heislerville to car-bird soon, and maybe seek some arriving landbirds in Belleplain this weekend. Better done by bicycle, but it's spring and you do what you can. . . . at least I got a yard bird out of it Sunday morning, that being a Boat-tailed Grackle, which, though I live only a few blocks from Delaware Bay salt marsh, has eluded the yard list until now.

[60 or so Bufflehead were on the "Coast Guard Ponds," part of the Two Mile Beach unit of Cape May National Wildlife Refuge along Ocean Drive, opposite Two Mile Landing. With them were over a dozen Lesser Scaup, some of which are in the above photo with female and male Bufflehead (buffles are the right two birds.) Lesser Scaup's white wing stripes cut off at the outer secondaries, halfway out the wing. Remember, Lesser Scaup have lesser white. If these were Greater Scaup, the stripe would continue out onto the primaries. But notice how the light can play with this field mark, and your head: the harsh backlighting here illuminates the primaries and creates a ghost wing stripe. Click to enlarge.]

[These two female Red-breasted Mergansers fed under the free bridge to Nummy Island. Many others were in Great Channel there, and another major flock of mergs, at least 75 birds, was concentrated in a channel in Grassy Sound, south of the big bridge into North Wildlwood.]

[Soon we'll take Great Egrets for granted, but not in March. These flew in from the south and landed heavily on Nummy Island Sunday evening, clearly arriving birds.]

Friday, March 25, 2011

Six yellow Warbler Pics

[Put the lemon in the coconut - this male Yellow Warbler lingered in a coconut palm on the coast of Belize, March 17 2011. Yellow Warblers are very widespread and involve complex taxonomy, e.g. Dunn and Garret's Warblers book give it over 20 pages. The pictured bird, the aestiva subspecies, is "our" Yellow Warbler, and winters from Mexico through Central and into South America. It is very much a habitat generalist on the wintering grounds, which helps explain why it remains relatively common while other warblers decline. Click to enlarge.]

By March, don't your eyes crave yellow? The American Goldfinches in pre-alternate molt at my feeders show more yellow every day, which is great, but what we really need are WARBLERS! Decent movements of Pine Warblers have already occurred in Cape May and more can be found singing at breeding sites every day. We can hope for the first Yellow Warbler shortly after tax day.

In the meantime, they say Americans should travel more. I agree, and not just for birds, but they do make a fine excuse. So off to Belize we went.

We wound up recording 24 North American warblers among close to 300 bird species during our Belize trip a week ago. Ours was certainly not an exhaustive tour, but some of us talked about returning with backpacks to explore where birders seldom go, visions of Harpy Eagles in our heads. Sounds like heaven.
Belize is a quite small country on the Caribbean, with the Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula to the north, from which launch many trans-gulf migrants bound for the shores of Texas and Louisiana; Guatemala to the west, and Honduras to the south.

Not counting the locally breeding Grace's Warblers and Gray-crowned Yellowthroats, here are the warblers we encountered: Blue-winged Warbler, Golden-winged Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, Northern Parula, Yellow Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Cape May Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Palm Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, American Redstart, Prothonotary Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler,  Ovenbird,  Northern Waterthrush, Louisiana Waterthrush,  Kentucky Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Hooded Warbler, Wilson's Warbler and Yellow-breasted Chat.

In six weeks that list or one like it will be attainable in the mid-Atlantic - can't wait!

[Belize is at the the center of Magnolia Warbler winter range. In some brushy habitats it was the most common bird we encountered! This funky looking one, still in prealternate molt, lounged in our Belize City hotel courtyard. Click to enlarge.] 

Belize really helped me dial in on one of Magnolia Warbler's calls, an inflected, nasal nieerf that they seemed to use as the primary wintering call.I've heard it stateside, and I bet now that I know it well I'll hear it more.

[Cape May Warblers winter mainly on Carribean Islands or hugging the coast, where this one posed in Hopkins, Belize just a stone's throw from the water. March 18, 2011, click to enlarge.] 

[Male Hooded Warbler bathing in a rain shower outside the cabana. Hoodeds winter mainly in lowlands from Mexico and the Carribean to Panama. That white flash is a good field mark as they flit away back home in Belleplain State Forest, NJ. Near Hopkins, Belize, March 20, 2011, click to enlarge.]

[Yellowstart: dark lores indicate a first spring male American Redstart, not a female. Not all of them show the dark breast spotting this one has. Note also the orangy (as opposed to yellow) breast, wing and tail patches. This was another cabana buddy in Hopkins. Redstarts winter mainly from Mexico south through northern South America. March 20, 2011, click to enlarge.]

"Mangrove" Yellow Warbler, a candidate for future splitting from Yellow, in mangroves, where else, on a cay off Belize. This species or subspecies (or subspecies -ies) has been seen in Texas and California, even nesting on South Padre Island, but, well, good luck with that. I'd seen the bird a bunch of years ago on the mainland coast of the Sea of Cortez; it was delightful to meet up with it again March 18, 2011.]

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

FOY Louisiana Waterhtrush - in Belize

[We saw more Northern Waterthrushes than Louisiana's in Belize, but this one is a Louisiana - on the deck of Pook's Hill Lodge. Click to enlarge.]

As predicted, my FOY (First Of Year, a good acronym for birders) Louisiana Waterthrush was in Belize, although the Cape May FOY will not be far behind. Indeed, many Louisiana Waterthrushes had pulled out of Belize when we were there last week, and some had already reached breeding sites in the southern U.S. I see, for example, that Nate Swick had one March 20 at Eno River State Park in North Carolina. Cape May birds arrive within a stone's throw of April 1, and north Jersey streams get their's only a few days later.

One of the best field marks to separate Louisiana Waterthrush from Northern shows well on the bird pictured above, which we watched while drinking our morning coffee. Louisiana's eyebrow, or supercilium, is white, bold, and long, and generally widens behind the eye. Northern's is narrower, shorter, often buffy, and never widens behind the eye.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Belize - Hopkins edition

A big highlight yesterday was a flock of several hundred orioles, both Baltimore and Orchard, which flew out of a vast area of orange groves and seemed to be preparing to roost for the night. Up in the mountains, as predicted, I saw my first Louisiana Waterthrush of 2011 - on the steps of the Pook's Hill Lodge! Other North American migrants have included Kentucky, Hooded, and Black-throated Green Warblers, plus a sodden Broad-winged Hawk after a downpour, with Double-toothed Kites overhead!

Magnolia Warbler seems to be the single most common warbler migrant we've seen in Belize, of about 19 species, and we've found it in virtually all habitat types.

I'll get some photos up here on return to Cape May next week.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Belize - Crooked Tree Edition

Rather than spend space on endemic Yucatan Jays or the Squirrel Cuckoo we're hearing from the bar ( see the Twitter posts for some of that), folks back in the U.S. Might be interested in knowing the more common North American migrants we're finding. In order of abundance, the most common warblers here have been Magnolia, American Redstart, Northern Waterthrush, Yellow, Black-and-white, and Yellow-throated. We haven't hit primary forest yet, where things like Kentucky Warbler should pick up.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

What's Next?

One of my favorite eBird tools is the arrivals/departures report, because one of the funnest things in birding is to track when each species returns each year. Thus, one for example can create a report of arrivals for all of New Jersey in 2011 so far, and see that a number of traditional March arrivals are already in: Tree Swallow, Forster's Tern, Piping Plover, Laughing Gull, and Osprey - and all but the last got here in February, not March! There is a definite trend in earlier and earlier arrivals, in part due to increased observer effort and in part almost certainly due to global warming.

So, what's next? Well, a check of last year's arrivals proffers some likely candidates, like Cattle Egret (last year on March 16), Barn Swallow (March 20), or Glossy Ibis (March 24). I'm going with Cattle Egret, but await even more eagerly the first Louisiana Waterthrush of 2011, just because I love this species and its voice and all it recalls: fast flowing streams, trout lily blooming on the banks, and perhaps trout in the creel. In south Jersey they're in slower, but still moving water. Right around the first of April is when Louisiana Waterthrush will be back in south Jersey, perhaps a few days later in the northern part of the state.

The next blog will be the Belize edition, since we're off to that tropical paradise next week, where, come to think of it, I could find my first Louisiana Waterthrush of 2011 on its way north!

[This Cattle Egret was found by Tom Reed in Cape May on March 16 last year; here it glares at the Little Blue Heron that joined it March 22. I'm guessing Cattle Egret as the next NJ arrival of 2011, though there are plenty of other candidates. Click to enlarge.]

Monday, March 7, 2011

Identification Tip: Redhead

[Several Redheads have mingled with the Canvasback flock at Edwin B. Forsythe NWR, late afternoon today. How would you pick the two center birds from the pack?]

I was talking with some folks the other day about sifting diving duck flocks for Redheads, and the age-old problem of separating this species from Canvasback came up. It's really not that hard, and the great thing is that if you are a shape/structure birder, you can do it readily, and if not, color works too.

As to color, check the photo above. Even at this fairly great distance, Redhead heads are RED - not orangy red - but the real key is the back color. Canvasback is a very pale duck, any plumage, while Redhead is more like a scaup, with a gray back. It's also got a blue bill with a black tip. We're talking about males here, though even female Canvasbacks are paler than female Redheads.

As to structure, Canvasbacks have heads that slope. Think of a doorstop, the slanted device you stick under doors to keep them from closing. Redheads have steep foreheads and shorter bills - their heads wouldn't slide under a door.

When you're checking out Canvasbacks, or Redheads, in your field guides, check out their range maps. A number of North American birds migrate nearly as far east-west as north-south, and this pair does just that.

Red-throated Loons Staging at the Mouth of Delaware Bay

[This Red-throated Loon was remarkably confiding as it pushed prey up against the beach near the Cape May Ferry terminal, a definite weekend highlight. Click to enlarge photos.]

As we crested the dune at Douglas Park, north of the Cape May Canal near the ferry terminal, we were delighted to find a Red-throated Loon feeding literally against the beach. When it dove, I raced down to the water and plopped down in the sand, hoping for the closest photo opp. I've ever had on this species. A game of cat and mouse ensued - the loon was not at all shy, but covered a lot of water on each dive and surfaced unpredicatably. Eventually I just settled in one place and waited for it to give me a chance. Great fun, and a wonderful opportunity to study this species at close range.

We bumped into Mark Garland and his group at the park. Mark pointed out 3 Horned Grebes in the channel, and we discerned an adult Great Cormorant perched on the channel marker at the end of the Higbee jetty. The shorebirds Vince had (see his comment on the winter shorebird post below) were apparently somewhere else, but Kathy and Roger Horn found one of the Black-headed Gulls farther north along the bay.

March is the month Red-throated Loon numbers begin building in Delaware Bay. At peak, thousands may be present at one time, but the phenemon lasts for weeks so many more individuals could be involved, staying a while and then moving on. An iconic field trip is to hit Sunset Beach and nearby points in latest March or early April, to see not only loons but also Northern Gannets, which can be in the hundreds or thousands as well.

The Common Redpolls continued at my feeders all weekend (though to the chagrin of some visitors, not constantly!), and several other CORE reports emerged around Cape May.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Common Redpolls!

[American Goldfinches repel a Common Redpoll while another counts his blessings, at my feeders in Del Haven, NJ today. Click to enlarge.]

Tchip. Tchip Tchip.

I know that sound. . .running late for work, but freeze in my tracks and go back for the camera, because it's a new yard bird, Common Redpoll. More than one actually, at least three, joined the American Goldfinches at my feeders this morning. In the last month, a minor rash of CORE's (banding code for Common Redpoll) has appeared in NJ:

[Common Redpoll sightings in NJ in the last 60 days - all have been in the last month. Courtesy of eBird.]

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

I.D. Tip: Lessons from a Red-winged Blackbird

[Red-winged Blackbird, Nummy Island, NJ, Feb 23, 2011. Click to enarge.]

Good friend Tony Leukering is working up an article and needed some Red-winged Blackbird photos, which set me to re-examining this one of a stretching male from Stone Harbor last week. There's a lot going on, the sort of stuff that gives us the chance to practice the adage, "Know thy common birds."

Most birders would recognize this bird as a male Red-winged Blackbird, but is it an adult or immature (second year, SY, or after second year, ASY, in bander lingo)? And where, exactly, is the red (and yellow) wing patch? Answer to the latter is on the lesser and median coverts, beneath which (or to the right of in this pic) lie the black greater covers and beneath, still farther right, are the stiff flight feathers, the primaries on the outside and secondaries inside.

On the outstretched wing we can count that this Red-winged, like all icterids, has 9 primaries, and that the outermost one (P9) is short. Specifically, it is shorter than P6, a useful in-hand mark to separate Red-winged Blackbird from western cousin Tri-colored. Tri-coloreds, by the way, don't move around much and haven't been recorded east of Nevada, so we almost certainly will never need to deal with one in the east unless someone sticks it in their glove box and brings it here. So there's no need to try to pry the occasional Red-winged Blackbird with pale yellow (almost white) on the coverts into the Tri-colored hole.

And note, as you probably have on other Red-wingeds, that all that red and nearly all the yellow can be hidden under the scapulars, or shoulder feathers, of a perched Red-winged. They often hide their colors when at feeders, to avoid confrontation with other males.