Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Wordless Wednesday 4/28/09

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Monday, April 27, 2009

Weekend birding, April 26-27

We are now into late April, and the birding is going to start getting crazy soon. In New England we had another taste of migration and finally the warm weather that we come to hope for after a long cold winter. With warm winds coming from the south starting Friday, a lot of birders were hitting their favorite spring hot-spots to see what migrants might've show up - and few were disappointed. Far from being a "fallout" of epic proportions, there were reports from all over New England of warblers, orioles and tanagers showing up.

As for myself, I had a pretty good weekend with a lot of FOY/FOS (first-of-year or first-of-season) birds. On Saturday, my plan was to join our friends Laura and Mark on a trip to Salem Woods in Salem, MA - mere minutes from where I used to live in Salem, but never really birded. Unfortunately, we didn't set the alarm (counting on my internal warbler alarm to go off) and actually overslept a bit. It was bright, sunny and warm, and I couldn't let missing the start of the planned walk ruin what could be a good day of birding, so when Paul and Diana called to say they were heading to Mt. Auburn, Pam and I were ready to go. It certainly wasn't as "birdy" as it will be in a mere 2-3 weeks, but still quite nice. We easily saw the Great Horned Owl in the dell (which I've posted about in previous weekends) and got some great new migrants, including Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, Black-and-white Warbler, Northern Parula, and Blue-headed Vireo. There were also plenty of Hermit Thrushes, Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers still around. After a few hours, and as it got into the hotter part of the day, we decided to call it quits, and they dropped us off back at home. I was antsy still to be outside, and after a quick lunch and before I had to bring the car in for a scheduled service, we headed over to Horn Pond down the street in Woburn, where we added Yellow Warbler and an early Eastern Kingbird to the new arrivals list - mixed in with Wood Ducks, Phoebes, Flickers, Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers that have been around for a few weeks. After that, it was time to take care of the car, relax a bit, take a quick shower and join the family (parents came to town, and my sister and her husband live in the next town overr, so it's pretty nice and easy to get togther occassionally) for dinner. A long but very satisfying day.
On Sunday, Pamela had a lunch date with several of her co-workers in Boston, so she planned to sleep in - meanwhile I was torn about what direction I was going to head. I was leaning to going to Wompatuck State Park in Hingham, MA where by buddie Eddie was leading a walk. Wompatuck is a great place for migrant and he always gets some good birds on these spring trips there. I just wasn't sure I'd be able to pull myslef out of bed in time to make it down there for the 7am start time. Well, I slept terribly Saturday night (maybe all the Greek food then ice-cream I had that night? nah!) so was up early and actually made it to Hingham about a half hour early. He had a good sized group and we headed off to see what we could find. Walking in, we heard our first Ovenbird, and listened to the difference between Pine Warblers and Chipping Sparrows - which could sometimes test the best ear in spring. Also heard my first Eastern Towhee of the year, followed by my first Black-throated Green Warbler, then Northern Waterthrush. This has traditionally been a good spot for Louisiana Waterthrush (in fact, I believe I had my 'lifer' here a few years back with Eddie) and had high hopes as there have been other reports in New England of the birds showing up, but we missed it today, although another birder reported it a little further up the road in th park. By the time we arrived, it had stopped singing though. Perhaps next week. But the best bird of the day happened just before that - I received a call from our friend Rob, who was also in the park but prefers not to bird in a group, that he and Cory were watching a Hooded Warbler. We got the grou there in time to see the bird but it had moved off quite a ways, and only about 3/4 of the group had got on it. Another very interesting sighting that we had, thanks to an astute observer was a pair of Pine Siskin building a nest. These little finches occassionally make it down to MA in the winter, but this year some seem t have stuck around and are building nests. I've heard of several, and while this pair were working on their nest, there is another pair that I've heard of that has already hatched chicks!

DescriptionAt around 11:30ish we wrapped it up, and I headed north, thinking I would make a quick stop in Concord to check in at the heron rookery were I had seen Pileated Woodpeckers excavating a cavity a few weeks back. It is not a well known area as it is at the edge of a residential neighborhood, and there is unfortunately very little parking. After determining that there was no place I could park where I wouldn't be towed, since the three parking spots provided were all taken, I decided to head back to Horn Pond. I should mention that while I had been seeing and hearing a lot of great birds this weekend, I wasn't really getting any good photos (well, I got lots of photos of bare branches, etc where birds had been) and was starting to think that when I posted aain to the blog that it was going to be all narrative and no pics! :( While heading back, I received calls from Paul and our friend Linda to let me know that a Yellow-throated Warbler was spotted a little earlier in the day at the Arlington Reservoir, so I headed the car in that direction. A second call from Paul after he arrived telling me to be sure to bring my camera as the bird was flitting about at eye-level sparked the hope that maybe I would get a few photos after all. Within moments of arriving I was enjoying some stunning looks at the rather uncommon for New England warbler. Managed to get a few shots off too. Again - not National Geographic quality (mine never are) but I'm pretty happy with the way they came out...

Bird Photography Weekly #35

Tree Swallow - Tachycineta bicolor

For me, yet another harbinger of Spring is when the Tree Swallows start to return. I started noticing my first Tree Swallows a few weekends back. Without a doubt, some of the best pics I will ever get of a swallow, as these dynamic fliers will never be caught by my lens when they are in flight. This seemed to be a favored perch next to the salt pans on Plum Island, where you were also able to see them hunting for food and setting up house in the many nest boxes that are put up for them there.

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Skywatch Friday 4/23/09

American Kestrel hover-hunting over the North Field on Plum Island in Massachusetts.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Bird Photography Weekly #34

Elf Owl - Micrathene whitneyi

We had a great weekend birding, and got a few 'good' photos (most of which are on my previous post from Saturday) but haven't had a chance to even look if anything I took on Sunday came out that I could've used for my BPW post. Instead I decided to look and see what I had from previous years from this date, and although these weren't taken on the 20th, they were taken during a birding trip that I was on last year at this time in Big Bend National Park. We heard this little guy the night before and decided to chack back the next day to see if we could see him. Lo and behold, not only did he pop his face into the hole while we were looking, he preceeded to come out for a few minutes to stretch his wings and look around!

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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Townsend's Warbler in Massachusetts!

I feel as if I've been neglecting the blog lately - haven't had as much time to bird as I like given the time of the year, and so haven't had much to blog about. But this weekend is a bit different.

It started yesterday after work, where I attended a presentation by Scott Weidensaul (author of the Pulitzer Prize nominated "Living on the Wind" as well as many other books) about migratory birds, and to support the Birds & Beans project which encourages coffee-drinkers to drink shade-grown bird-friendly coffee. Some of you more faithful readers (actually, are there any?) may recall that back in the beginning of March, I blogged about attending a few presentations by Kenn Kaufman on the same subject. I'm glad that I did, because although the end message is the same (and one which I fully subscribe to and encourage you to also) Scott is another fantastic speaker. Good sense of humor, engaging topics, very well spoken, etc. If you have a chance to see him speak, by all means, get it on your calendar and go. My only regret is that it fell on the same night as the Brookline Bird Club meeting (of which I am a board member) so I did have to duck out a few minutes early in order to get over to Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology building to help set-up. Our speaker for the club meeting was Peter Alden, a previous president of the club, a long-time New England birder and naturalist, as well as being the author of the National Audubon Society's Field Guide to New England (among many others.) The meeting was excellent, and our outgoing president (and close friend) Laura made note of the fact that myself and our webmaster, Jason both blog and Twitter, and that she recently joined it herself, and sees great potential for it in our birding community- so if anybody had questions about it to come and talk to us. It was encouraging to see that there were a few people that had heard of it and were interested in more. (Incidentally, Jason twitters here for himself AND here for the club.) It was a long but very satisfying evening from a social-birder aspect.

This morning though it was down to the business of birding. Reports of our early migrants had started rolling in, and I was determined to see a few warblers today. One bird that hit the radar, then sightings spread like wildfire was a Townsend's Warbler that was spotted at the Chestnut Hill Reservoir, and had continued for several days. For those that don't have a range map handy, this is a warbler seen primarily west of the Rockies. Mind you it does show up in the east occasionally - in fact, I saw my life one two winter's back when one spent the better part of the winter in somebody's backyard in Cambridge, just two block from Pamela's apartment. So for some reason when I woke up I thought, "I don't need to go chasing that bird, I'll just go to Mt. Auburn Cemetery and see what's around." Mind you, choosing to go to Mt.A to go birding is never a bad choice, and especially not in spring, but... what the heck was I thinking?!? If nothing else, I ought to have been thinking of my blog and you, my loyal readers. (hello? I know your there - I can hear you tapping the "ESC" key)

As I said, Mt. Auburn Cemetery rarely disappoints. One of the first birds I noticed after parking the car was the first of probably about one hundred Palm Warblers that I would see today. But the first warbler of the season is always pretty special so I was excited. It was followed by both Ruby- and Golden-crowned Kinglets, and then one of the Great Horned Owls that set-up residence in "the dell." I wandered a bit and tried for a Louisiana Waterthrush that had been seen earlier in the week and dipped. Then moved on to a tree that I had seen a sapsucker working on a few weeks before. I had hoped that it would be lower on the tree for better pis, but no such luck. The sapsucker was there, and I watched him defend his sap-wells from two nuthatches, a Downy Woodpecker, and a Red-bellied Woodpecker. Without moving my feet I also saw a flicker and heard a Hairy Woodpecker- making it a 5 woodpecker day in under 5 minutes. (I love it when that happens!) The sun started to break it's way through the clouds, and I decided to try a bit of digiscoping of the Great-horned Owl - I had found a good position on a hill that was distant, but gave a nice full-face angle, and a comfortable distance. (Although high in a tree and generally unconcerned with birders and photographers, I still hate to think I am contributing to anybody or anything losing sleep!) In the time that I had the scope set-up, I was able to show the owl to well over 30 very interested viewers (several from PA, but I didn't catch what group they were with - some horticultural society) which felt great. Also chatted a bit with another woodpecker enthusiast, and was able to bring him and his friend (new to birding, enthusiastic, and pleasantly patient while we talked woodpeckers for a while) to the sapsucker (and do a little more digiscoping).

Of course, it seemed like everybody I spoke to had gone earlier to see the Townsend's Warbler and of course, words like "cooperative" and "stunning" were thrown about, making me feel dumber and dumber for not going. So I decided that I'd take a stab at it. What the heck, couldn't hurt, and checking the GPS unit, not too far away. (Oh, and did I mention that Pam was having her hair done today and I promised that I'd be home when she got in. Umm... yeah, I should NOT make any promises when out birding.) So I found the spot, ran into a few other birders that had just arrived and had not seen the warbler yet, as well as a few others that HAD just seen it. On our way to the general location where it was seen, we were treated to several Brown Creepers, (one of which was so cooperative, I couldn't help but take his picture), more kinglets and Palm Warblers, several Pine and Yellow-rumped Warblers, and another Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. And soon, one of them spotted the Townsend's. And let me tell you, I wasn't disappointed that I went. It stayed pretty high up, and I kept taking photos, telling myself the entire time that shooting warblers against the sky was a fruitless pursuit, but just kept going in case something came out. I got a couple that were ok...

And then I wanted to find that sapsucker again. I just can't help it - I constantly want better pics, and the sapsucker is one that I hadn't got a photo I was really happy with yet. I am def happier with these than any of my previous ones.

But, I will keep striving to get better!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Wordless Wednesday 4/15/09

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Monday, April 13, 2009

Bird Photography Weekly #33

Roseate Spoonbill - Ajaua ajaja

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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Wordless Wednesday 4/8/09

Male (above) and Female (below) Scarlet Peacock - Anartia Amathea

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Monday, April 6, 2009

Another new owl for the year

Birding this past weekend was a bit difficult. Friday morning I woke up with a sharp pain in my neck, which eventually brought me to the emergency room. Anybody who knows me well will tell you that I don't admit pain or need of medical attention easily. (Two years ago I suffered from bi-weekly gall bladder attacks for almost 9 months before I went to a doctor and had it diagnosed.) Thankfully the doctor seemed to thing it was nothing more the a severe muscle spasm, and was prescribed Valium to relax the muscle and Vicadin for the pain. Unfortunately, that meant I had to cancel the trip I was leading Saturday for the Brookline and Menotomy Bird Clubs. I was pretty disappointed about that, as it seemed like I was going to get a quite a good turnout, including some new birders, which I always enjoy. Saturday dawned beautifully, and I was restricted to bed, and had every intention of being good and giving the muscles the rest they needed...

...until the phone rang, that is.

Not two miles from where I used to live in New Hampshire a Great Gray Owl had been spotted. Now this was not a life bird for me, but it was for Pamela, Paul & Diana, (and it was a Great Gray after all) so I doubled my dosages and off we went. (I actually considered sending them off without me, but not for long) And I'm glad I did because we got spectacular looks at the bird. And I have to admit, it was quite heartening to see that everybody there acted responsibly and kept a respectful distance from the bird. It seems to me that it might be a bit late for this bird to be around, and I wonder how long it has been in the area. The bird was not seen at all on Sunday, but it was refound again on Monday in the same general area of Dame Road in Durham, NH.

A few additional photos can be seen here.

On Sunday I was feeling a little bit better, and was going a bit stir-crazy stuck in the house, so Pam took me out for a little while and I got some of my best Snowy Owl photos so far, which I posted on the previous post. Gotta love a weekend when you get great looks and pics of owls!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Bird Photography Weekly #32

Snowy Owl - Nyctea scandiaca

We are just getting to the end of the season where we are seeing these beautiful owls. And since I had a close encounter with one this weekend, I thought it would be a good opportunity to use the photos for my BPW, as soon I will (hopefully) be posting some spring migrants.

I also had another great opportunity to photograph another owl this weekend, but you'll have to check back to see those pics and read about that one. In the meantime...

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Friday, April 3, 2009

Skywatch Friday 4/3/09

Scarlet Ibis coming in to roost in mangroves in the Caroni Swamp in Trinidad.

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Thursday, April 2, 2009

Snowy Owls at Logan Airport - part 2

Some time back, I posted a link to an local public radio article about Snowy Owls at Logan International Airport here in Boston, the focus of which was gentleman named Norm Smith, who works for Mass Audubon and monitors the status of the owls at the airport, as well as capturing and releasing them in safer locations and in a few instances, placing transmitters on a few birds to learn more about their movements.

Recently, Norm posted to massbird (our local list-serv) with a little more history and an explanation of what he does. I found it fascinating, and thought that you would as well.
So with the author's permission, here is a little more about Norm Smith's work with Snowy Owls in his own words:

"I thought it would be important to give a little background on how Mass Audubon became involved with birds at Logan Airport. On October 4th 1960, an Eastern Airlines propeller driven Lockheed L-188 Electra crashed into the sea while attempting to take off from Logan Airport after starlings were ingested and stalled three of the four engines. Tragically, 62 people lost their lives. It was the first commercial airliner crash in Logan
Airport's history, the deadliest air disaster in New England history at the time, and it remains the most deadly crash in US history involving a bird strike. Although starlings caused that crash, gulls, due to their large size and high number at Logan Airport, were also of great concern. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) made funds available to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to study the cause of bird concentrations at airports and FWS contracted Mass Audubon to carry out studies on the gulls at Logan under the direction of William H. Drury, Mass Audubon's director of research at that time.

Over the next year, observers counted 38 bird strikes including mostly
gulls, but also including starlings, dunlins, various ducks and a snowy owl. The recommendations by Drury and his colleagues were to remove the
phragmites from the airport as the birds were roosting in the vegetation, remove the gull nests from between runways, and close nearby dumps to remove feeding opportunities. The first two recommendations were
immediately adopted and the Massachusetts Port Authority also filled in wetlands on the airfield and established a "gull patrol" to frighten away the birds with exploding devices and occasional gunfire. This was the beginning of bird patrols at airports across the country whose job is to keep birds off the airfield from sunrise to sunset every day of the year.

In 1981, after a bird strike involving a snowy owl at Logan Airport, I was contacted by FWS to study the snowy owls on the airfield. They contacted me because I had been involved with them in other projects involving the
study or capture of raptors. That winter, I began observing the owls' movements on the airfield, collected pellets, and captured and banded the owls to determine where they may go or find out if they returned to Logan
sometime that winter or in future years.

Prior to the winter of 1985-86, I received a color marking permit from the FWS Bird Banding Lab, allowing use of an approved temporary dye that lasts approximately three months, in order to identify individual owls at Logan I found that some owls stayed only a day or two at the airport; others were there all winter. During the winter of 1986-87, I banded 43 snowy owls at Logan and in January of that winter had 23 snowy owls that could be seen on the airfield at one time. During that winter, there were at least five snowy owls involved in bird strikes but no damage to aircraft was reported. Through my observations I found that the presence of the owls on the airfield discouraged other birds from feeding or roosting in the area near the owl. We also found that attempts during the day by the bird patrol, when the owls were in a roosting mode, to harass the owls and remove them from the airfield, created a greater risk of a bird strike than just leaving them alone on the airfield. However, the owls would become active and go into a hunting mode as soon as the sun went down, just as air traffic began to increase. The jets are traveling at such a fast rate of speed and the blinding lights around the airfield sometimes make it difficult for hunting owls to avoid an approaching aircraft. As a result, owl strikes usually happen at night. Most bird species that are active during the day can usually be dispersed from active runways by the bird patrol using cracker shells which are similar to exploding sky rockets. This does not work with the owls because of their nocturnal habits.

In the winter of 1992-93, a snowy owl was sucked into the engine of a small jet during takeoff destroying one of the two engines. Fortunately, the jet was able to return to the airport and land under the power of the remaining engine. After that incident the decision was made by the FAA, FWS, and the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife that all snowy owls should be captured and removed from the airport and released south of the airport at Duxbury Beach early in the season when the birds are thought to be moving south and north of the airport to Parker River Refuge later in the season. As soon as the required permits were in place the owls were captured, banded, color marked and relocated. The color marks were helpful to determine if the owls would return to the airport and also to see where else they may be sighted.

Prior to my investigations, the general consensus was that the lack of prey on the birds' breeding grounds is the primary reason that snowy owls come to New England; and that most never make it back to the arctic. I
found it strange that in years that I captured high numbers of snowy owls, most were individuals born that year and in excellent condition. Several banded owls returned to the airport years later. In 1999, I was very
interested in potentially placing satellite transmitters on several owls to follow their movements. I called Mark Fuller, raptor biologist at the Snake River Birds of Prey Field Station and a world leader in the tracking of raptors to see if he was interested in collaborating in such a project. One question I had for Mark was whether the transmitters adversely impact the raptors in any way. He has had no evidence that the transmitter he has placed on various species of birds including raptors has in any way affected their stress level, hunting ability or migration movements. I then applied for and received the necessary permits and was trained on how to properly attach the transmitters. I first placed a transmitter on a captive snowy owl to see how it would adjust to the transmitter and the Teflon harness. After one month, I could not find any problems or concerns related to the transmitter or harness. Each transmitter including the harness weighs a total of 30 grams. The average weight for a snowy owl we have put transmitters on is 2200 grams which keeps us well below the maximum 3% of the bird's body weight permitted by the Bird Banding Lab. To put the weight of a transmitter in perspective of the common prey of a
snowy owl; an average meadow vole weighs 36 grams, a brown lemming averages 68 grams and a Norway rat is 300 grams. Through collecting and examining over 5,000 pellets as well as observing numerous prey captures
Snowy Owls eat rodents, small mammals, insects, fish and a number of birds including geese and other raptors. The one piece Teflon harness is very smooth and is underneath the surface feathers. Snowy Owls hunt in open habitat so they do not fly through trees and shrubs, reducing the risk of the harness becoming entangled. The harness is connected to the transmitter by means of a thread which decomposes over time, allowing the transmitter and harness to separate from the body and fall to the ground.

Out of the 14 satellite transmitters we have put on snowy owls to date, three owls have been shot in Massachusetts (something we didn't expect and wouldn't have known without the transmitters to recover the bodies), one made it to upstate New York where it either died or took the transmitter off, and the other ten returned to the arctic in the vicinity of Baffin Island. My study has shown that snowy owls are not coming to New England because they are in poor condition as the prior literature has surmised. Rather, they are coming here because of a good food supply in the arctic, creating a strong breeding year with more owls to take a nomadic journeysouth. We also know that many owls return to the arctic. We now know this because of the satellite transmitters that were placed on those owls.

Banding these snowy owls has also been important as we have seen a number of owls return to the airport years later. For instance, one snowy owl returned to Logan 16 years after being banded, and it is the oldest known wild snowy owl in the world to date. Our 28 years of research has also shown that Logan Airport has the largest known wintering population of snowy owls in the northeast. As far as stress to these birds as part of our investigations is concerned, I have not seen any documentation showing that stress from birders, photographers or researchers impacts owls or other raptors. If anyone is aware of any reliable documentation that indicates otherwise, I'd be interested in reviewing it.

It was a great year for breeding snowy owls in the arctic this past summer and as a result we have observed good numbers of owls this winter. As of today, I have banded 40 snowy owls this winter, including 30 captured at Logan Airport. Twelve of those were released at Duxbury Beach and 18 were released at Parker River Refuge. All but two of those owls were hatch year birds and all in excellent condition. Many visitors to Parker River and Duxbury Beach this winter had an opportunity of a lifetime to see a snowy owl up close, learn about their habits, adaptations and what we have learned from the longest ongoing wintering snowy owl study in the world.

Unfortunately, five snowy owls were killed at Logan this winter as a result of bird strikes and who knows how many others would have been killed if we didn't relocate them. I have had reports of our color-marked owls this winter from Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New Jersey and Virginia. On a number of the owls I banded this winter and recaptured the color mark has already faded away and is no longer visible. I am always interested in reports of color marked snowy owls.

Two years ago at the International Owl Festival in the Netherlands, I helped form a Snowy Owl Working Group with participants from Norway, Finland, Greenland, Canada, USA and Russia to collaborate on research
related to the global population and status of snowy owls. This winter Mass Audubon's Snowy Owl Project helped fund a much needed snowmobile for researchers in Russia so they can continue a 25 year study on breeding snowy owls. Our goal is to better understand, appreciate and protect these magnificent creatures so future generations can enjoy them as well, especially in the face of significant threats, like climate change, to the
habitat of these birds."

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

April Fool's Day

Still one of my all-time favorite April Fools Day "pranks"

Wordless Wednesday 4/1/09

White Peacock, Anartia jatrophae

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