Tuesday, September 22, 2015

This Thing Happened, Part Two

Last week I blogged about an unusual bird that appeared at the Higbee Beach WMA, NJ, dike during the morning flight of September 15, 2015. I've been reflecting about whether to go public with it or not, and have decided, well, what the hek. You can read about Glen Davis's thoughts about this same bird here; Glen also decided to go public with this observation.

This stuff is sometimes pretty boring, but still essential to the maintenance of a state's checklist, and useful as we monitor the expansions and contractions of our birds' ranges and populations.

The following is constructed from the NJBRC's excellent sighting report form.

New Jersey Bird Records Committee
Species: Kirtland’s Warbler
Scientific name: Setophaga kirtlandii
Number of birds: 1
Sex (if known): Unknown
Age/plumage (if known): The density of the streaking below was less than on the breeding birds I saw in Michigan in May, 2014, suggesting female or first fall. I am working off illustrations and photos, not experience, on aging.
Place, including nearest town, and county: Higbee Beach Dike, Cape May, NJ
Date(s) & time(s) of your observations: September 15, 2015 at about 8:00 a.m.
First and last dates bird was present, if known: only September 15, 2015
Date of completing this form: September 15, 2015, about 2 hours after the sighting.
Observer making this report: Donald P. Freiday
Address: [redacted]
Telephone: [redacted]
E-Mail: [redacted]
Other observers (if possible, each should submit this form): Glen Davis, Mike Lanzone

Who found the bird? Independently by Don Freiday, Glen Davis, and (not sure if i.d’d) Mike Lanzone
Who first identified it? Freiday and Davis

Optical equipment used: Freiday used Zeiss 8X42 FL’s
Distance from bird: estimate 40 meters straight overhead when first glassed, then headed away to the south-southeast.

Weather and light conditions: Great. Sunny, blue sky, wind northwest 5-10, bird was lit from sun behind us and later, as it passed over headed south, to the left (east) of us.
Was the bird photographed? Yes, by Mike Lanzone, but photos are apparently unidentifiable.

Was the bird videotaped or recorded? No.
If so, are photographs and/or recordings included with this report? No

If not, are they accessible to the Committee? How (for example, URL?) Maybe, check with Mike Lanzone, but when he looked at the back of his camera a few minutes after the sighting he said they were not helpful.
Indicate your prior experience with this and similar species:  I saw Kirtland’s singing and chipping (not flight note and not flying) several times for extended periods of observation on its breeding grounds in Michigan in late May 2014. My only experience is with singing or calling males. As to the similar species, i.e. those considered below, I’ve seen 100’s to 1000’s of all in all conditions, including overhead in flight.

What books, illustrations, and advice did you consult? When? Sibley app on my iPhone five minutes after the sighting (mainly to silently query Glen Davis about what he was thinking); Sibley FG and The Warbler Guide app 2 hours later.
Was this report written from notes made during, or after, the observation? This is being written up on my computer now that I am home, about two hours after the sighting. I made no notes at the time of sighting, but carefully reflected on what I had seen before looking at any guides. The only conversation about the bird’s field marks I had prior to writing it up was with Glen Davis, and the extent of that was exchanging the notion that the streaking pattern on the underparts was “weird,” and that I thought it was a KIWA, and Glen had reached the same conclusion. I believe I have been careful not to corrupt what I saw with what one finds in the field guides.

Description: Include information on the bird's plumage, shape and size, vocalizations, habitat, behavior, etc. Describe what you actually saw. Sketches are helpful. (THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF THE REPORT; RECORDS WITHOUT DETAILS WILL NOT BE VOTED.)

This was a day of a big, diverse flight (27+ warbler species), following an immense flight the day before of ca. 56,000 birds, mainly warbler sp.'s (I was not present for the massive previous day flight). A cold front passed 2 days prior to this sighting, winds remained more or less NW since, skies clear the night before and the morning of the sighting. September 12&13 had lowish volume but diverse migrations; September 14 had a one hour 56,000 bird flight first thing in the morning; and the date of the observation,  September 15th, 2015,  was the classic big, diverse flight that happens many years in mid-September in Cape May. The September 15, 2015 flight was the best morning flight I’ve observed in the 8 years I’ve lived in Cape May. My full list for the morning, sans this bird, is at
http://freidaybird.blogspot.com/2015/09/this-thing-happened.html .

I blogged about the weather conditions the day before this sighting. That blog can be found at
About 8:00 a.m., the bird in question came over medium-high. When I detected it was almost straight overhead, headed south. When I first saw it, I got that electric feeling you get when you see a different, rare bird.

It was the kind of bird that you say to yourself, "I'm not calling this one until I am sure." About the time I was saying this to myself, Glen Davis, the official morning flight counter at Higbee, said, "No way! I'm not even going there." I knew right away he was on the same bird.
I had about four seconds of reasonably good, basically straight-up binocular views of this bird, in good light and good focus, then watched it fly away until it disappeared over the trees to the south-southeast. I opted to watch it and try to identify it, rather than snap off some photos. Then I stood silently for maybe five minutes, processing, ignoring the ongoing flight. I carefully considered what I had just seen, the field marks I felt I could reliably say I saw well, evaluating what, if anything, was missing to confirm this identification (other than a photo, or independent corroboration.)

What I saw: a warbler in flight. I did not develop a good read on the size of the bird, except that I could tell it was not small, so definitely bigger than a Northern Parula or Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. It was alone in my field of view during the observation, a fairly rare incident on this big flight morning, so I had nothing to directly compare it to. It was southbound, against the grain of the main flow of the morning flight. It was stocky, with a broad chest, and its wingbeats seemed slower than any of the 1000’s of warblers I’d seen that day so far, suggesting a larger warbler. Its underparts were entirely yellow except for white undertail coverts, and it had dark streaking below that I initially described later to others on the dike as “weird.” Glen Davis agreed on the weird part when we discussed the sighting a few minutes later, though we did not discuss the specifics. As I saw it, the streaking was in 2 or maybe three fine dark rows along each side of the bird’s underparts, right under the wings, with a few flecks in the center of the breast. Its tail had a dark base, with white at the distal ~ half, with black corners at the tip. The underwings seemed dark. The face was plain; if there was an eyebrow or eyeline they were not obvious. I did not notice anything particular about the wing shape. It seemed fairly long tailed. With the view I had, I can’t say anything about the bird from above.  I did not notice anything else particular about the bird’s flight style, e.g. whether it was steady or buffeted, or whether in undulated or jinked side-side. One might think that four seconds with a bird in flight, plus a few more watching it disappear, is not enough time to absorb these details, but I feel pretty confident about them.
From my first look, after the initial jolt, I thought this bird was a Kirtland’s Warbler, even though I’ve never seen one in flight overhead.

After about five minutes of cataloging all this in my mind, I dialed up the bird on the Sibley app on my iPhone, to the view of the first winter in flight. Nobody had said anything out loud about what the bird might have been, and I think it was only the three of us that actually got on it.  I walked over to Glen Davis, held up the phone, and said, "That bird we just had going south?" Nobody had said anything out loud about the bird’s potential i.d. up until then.
Glen said, "That is EXACTLY what I was thinking." Then later, Glen said, "Thank-you." Thus, Glen and I arrived at the same conclusion independently.

I believe Glen, Mike Lanzone, and I were the only 3 who got on this bird. Mike took some photos which turned out not to be identifiable, at least not by looking at the back of his camera. Mike said he thought he heard the bird, and wasn't sure if the flight note matched Kirtland’s. I did not hear the bird call, and am unfamiliar with its flight note because I've only encountered this species on its breeding grounds in Michigan, in May, 2014, and never in a view like this.
Later, coincidentally, I was chatting with Richard Crossley on the Cape May Point State Park hawk watch platform about where he had been this morning, since he was not on the dike. Without any information about this sighting, he said, "Oh, I was out looking for a Kirtland’s Warbler along Sunset. It's the perfect time of year and perfect conditions for one.”

Name the species you consider ID contenders; explain how you eliminated each. If there is not complete agreement on this ID, state who disagrees and why.
Magnolia Warbler does not fit because of shape and tail pattern, and the nature of the streaking below, and because I should have perceived it as small. Prairie Warbler does not fit because of the tail pattern, because I perceive PRWA UT coverts as looking yellowish, though maybe not as bright as the rest of the underparts, plus I should have perceived a Prairie as thin and small, not stocky, plus the streaking pattern below is subtly different, usually thicker than what I saw, except first winter PRWA, which is variable and sometimes lacks defined streaking, but never has a tail pattern like the bird in question. Prairie's show a ton of white on the tail. Cape May Warbler does not fit because this bird was definitely not short-tailed, I did not perceive it as small, the face/nape pattern was wrong, and the streaking pattern does not fit.

As to who disagrees, Mike Lanzone seemed unsure, particularly about the call he thought he heard. I haven’t talked with Mike in detail about what he saw, nor have I talked with Glen in detail about what he saw. I know Glen and I and Mike are all three reluctant because identifying flyover warblers is a risky business.

This comes down to whether an observer or observers can reliably i.d. a rare warbler in flight. And, whether a sight record without photographs, even when corroborated by two experienced independent observers,  can be accepted, especially for an exceedingly rare (in this case, first state record) observation.

I am confident that we saw a Kirtland’s Warbler. Despite that, I am concerned that the conditions of this sighting may not be adequate for a first state record, and thus this may need to fall into the “tantalizing” realm. If the records committee believes Glen's and my observations match, this sighting becomes more valid. I have not shared this write-up with Glen or Mike [until now].

Date: 9/15/2015

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