Sunday, April 26, 2015

Alabama Part 3: Rarities

 [Gray Kingbird, near the "Goat Trees," Dauphin Island, Alabama, April 20, 2015.]

Rarities add a little spice to birding, not that the gulf coast needs much spice (the crawdads were almost as spicy as the birding!]  We tracked a couple goodies on our trip, including the Gray Kingbird above, and below, a Black-whiskered Vireo, the first North American lifer I've had in a long, long time.

[Black-whiskered Vireo, Shell Mounds, Dauphin Island, AL, April 19, 2015.]

Alabama Part 2: Diversity - Warblers

[Kentucky Warbler, Shell Mounds, Dauphin Island, Alabama, April 21, 2015.  A male, as told by the bold black on the face. Getting this photo took all the stalking skills I could muster, since Kentucky is a notoriously elusive critter.  It was also dark; this was shot at ISO 6400, 1/200th of a second. Click to enlarge all photos.]

As explained in the previous post, I'm just back from a week in coastal Alabama, where we had, among ~160 bird species, 29 (!) species of warblers! And many, even the skulkers, were readily observable as they fed hard after their 600 mile journey across the Gulf of Mexico.

We couldn't quite manage to find that 30th species, though we tried hard.  Swainson's Warbler and Mourning Warbler were among the missing prospects, but still, it's hard to complain about this kind of diversity. Here's a sampling:

[Male Bay-breasted Warbler, Audubon Sanctuary, Dauphin Island, AL, April 21, 2015.]

[Male Cape May Warbler at Bottlebrush on Dauphin Island, AL, April 20, 2015.]

[Worm-eating Warbler, Dauphin Island, AL. We saw Worm-eatings almost every day.]

 [Above, Louisiana Waterthrush, and below, Northern Waterthrush, Shell Mounds, Dauphin Island, AL April 20, 2015. How to tell them apart?  Note the Lousiana's whiter eyebrow, that extends well past the eye and even broadens slightly rearward, as well as it's bigger bill and buffy wash on the flanks.  It was a little late to be getting Louisiana on the coast, they are early migrants.]

Up next:  a couple Alabama rarities.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Sweet Home Alabama, Part 1: Abundance

 [Part of a flock of 40 Indigo Buntings at the Shell Mounds, Dauphin Island, Alabama, April 19, 2015. Click to enlarge all photos]

Some dear friends and I spent the past week on the Gulf Coast, which is where birders often go in April to witness the spectacular trans-gulf migration of neotropical migrant birds, like warblers, vireos, tanagers, orioles, and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.  Both diversity and numbers of birds can be high when conditions are right, which means right for the birders, not the birds. Basically what you want is either north winds or, even better, rain, on the coast or out in the Gulf of Mexico to make migrating difficult, and force tired birds down in the first available patch of cover.

We were in a new spot to witness this amazing annual phenomenon, new for us anyway.  Most birders think Texas when they think of fallouts along the gulf, and rightly, but the other gulf states have legendary birding as well, and we chose Dauphin Island, Alabama for our stay.

[Dozens of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds thronged to the feeder at our rental house on Dauphin Island during a rain squall, April 20, 2015.]

Some of our high counts of birds were impressive - 75 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, 25 Red-eyed Vireos, 25 Scarlet Tanagers, 40 Indigo Buntings - even though we didn't hit true fallout weather conditions.  And I'm glad - seeing stressed, tired birds can be, well, stressful and tiring. . .

[One that didn't make it - a Wood Thrush washed up on the sand at Dauphin Island, April 22, 2015. In severe weather conditions, thankfully rare, thousands of birds can perish before they reach shore while migrating across the Gulf of Mexico.]

[It's not just land birds - shorebirding can be excellent on the gulf, as these hendersoni Short-billed Dowitchers, western Willet, and Sanderling attest.]

[Alabama abundance of a different kind - blooming White-topped Pitcher Plants at Splinter Hill Preserve, north of Mobile, Alabama.  Bachman's Sparrow was singing in the background.]

Up next: diversity (29 warblers!)

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Wandering Around Cumberland, NJ and a Scaup I.D. Tip

[Mixed flock of scaup and Common Goldeneye in the Maurice River, Bivalve, Cumberland County, NJ, February 21 2015. Click to enlarge all photos.]

Lately, mainly I've been doing what ducks are doing, which is look for open water, and that's hard to come by this winter.  Ducks and geese have been maintaining a little open patch on the big pond at Cox Hall Creek WMA, in Villas, NJ, and there has been a fun and interesting changing cast of characters in that pool including up to three male Redheads, both male and female Canvasback, Common Mergansers, Green-winged Teal, Northern Pintail, and the more usual suspects.

Yesterday I wandered up to Bivalve, near the mouth of the Maurice River in Cumberland County, NJ, with my son Tim, and we found a different bunch of ducks where the strong current has kept the river open.

[Male, rear, and female Greater Scaup, Maurice River, Cumberland County NJ.  Scaup are tough to i.d., but in flight most are easy.  Note how on these birds the white wing stripe extends well out onto the primary feathers. If these were Lesser Scaup, the white would be confined mainly to the secondaries, appearing as a white patch on what is classically called the speculum on duck wings.]

[Male Bufflehead and Hooded Merganser, similar head patterns on very different birds.]

[Male Common Goldeneye, a scarce bird in southern NJ but regular on the upper bay and on the Maurice River. We had dozens on the Maurice on Saturday.]

[Nice adult Red-shouldered Hawk near Turkey Point on Saturday.]

[Fresh water is always a limiting factor for wintering "half-hardies," such as this Brown Thrasher, which found some in a drainage ditch at Turkey Point, Cumberland County, NJ on Saturday.]

Other cool birds we saw included a light morph Rough-legged Hawk and a Short-eared Owl, both out hunting at Turkey Point at about 1:00 p.m. And a delightful flock of Wild Turkeys along Route 553 between Bivalve and Dividing Creek, scratching grain out of a snow-covered field.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Battle of the Predators

"This kind of stuff only happens in Africa," I told Beth, my daughter Rebecca, and her partner Leo when it was all over. But we weren't in Africa.

We, together with a group of lucky friends and fellow birders, had just witnessed something truly remarkable at the end of Mott's Creek Road in Atlantic County, NJ.  This site overlooks the Mott's/Mullica wilderness of Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge (it's officially known as the Brigantine Wilderness, which also includes Holgate and Little Beach Island).

Shortly after we got to Mott's Creek, at about 4:15 p.m., a dark morph Rough-legged Hawk flew past at close range and perched for a time nearby.  The bird was missing a large patch of flight feathers in its left wing, marking it as a bird that has been seen there in recent days by other birders.  Meanwhile, a Short-eared Owl hunted over the marsh with a few Northern Harriers, a typical scene at Mott's Creek.  The marsh here is pristine, un-ditched, and apparently rich in meadow voles and other prey, and is arguably the best place in coastal NJ to see these species.

The dark Rough-leg flew off, and we were enjoying the other birds when a flock of American Black Ducks flushed - and an adult Peregrine Falcon rocketed across the marsh, HIT ONE IN THE AIR AND BROUGHT IT THE MARSH.  This was startling, even for an awesome predator that used to be known as the "Duck Hawk." American Black Ducks are big birds, weighing 41 ounces to the Peregrine's 25 ounces (these are average weights as published in the Sibley guide), so this successful act of predation was a feat. But after a brief struggle on the marsh, the deed was done and the Peregrine began feeding. . .until the dark Rough-legged Hawk reappeared, pumping over to the Peregrine and stooping on it, DRIVING IT OFF ITS PREY.  The Peregrine responded by making repeated acrobatic strafing flights at the hawk, shrieking in outrage.  Several times the hawk tipped over on its back, thrusting its talons upward at the diving falcon. 

Crazy, but wait, there's more.  An adult Bald Eagle appeared, and for a time the Peregrine diverted its attention to the eagle before the falcon took a nearby perch to sulk.  Then a harrier glided over the rough-leg, which was now feeding on the duck, and the harrier thought about taking a stab at the hawk, thought better of it, and simply landed on the marsh nearby.  Next an adult Great Black-backed Gull checked out the hawk, made the same decision, and perched on the marsh opposite the harrier.  The harrier and the gull reminded me of hyenas waiting near a lion kill on the Serengeti.

At this point most of the other birders had gone, and it was nearing dark, but there was one more act to the play.  A light morph Rough-legged Hawk flew in low over the marsh, stooped briefly on the dark one, then it too thought better of it and flew onward.  The marsh quieted down, even the Short-eared owls went to bed, and we departed.

[Unfortunately, I have no photos of this amazing evening, since my camera is back to Nikon AGAIN (and you may be seeing one p.o.'d blog here in the near future if they don't fix it right this time), though the truth is the events were too far off and it was a little dark for good photos - but not for great views with scope and binoculars.]