Tuesday, June 29, 2010

BBC Extreme Pelagic Birding June 2010

This past Saturday, I joined the Brookline Bird club once again for one of their "Extreme Pelagic Birding" trips.  The BBC runs at least 3 pelagic birding trips each year, leaving from Hyannis MA, and steaming out to the edge of the continental shelf, and each lasting a (very) full day or are overnight trips.  I've written before about some of these trips.  I am not sure I have the intestinal fortitude to handle an overnight trip, but I really enjoy the full day trips.  And when I say "full day," I mean it!
We leave port at 4am (meaning that we need to be in Hyannis by no later than 3:30am) and usually don't get back in until after 10pm. And like any pelagic trip (or almost any birding trip for that matter) you never know quite what you are going to see.  Some trips are amazing with either unbelievable numbers of birds, or species that you didn't expect (one trips had 6 White-faced Storrm-petrels, another picked up a first US record Macronesian Shearwater), others might be low on the bird front, but have great whale sightings, and then every now and again, you get one that just seems to be a bust.  Luckily, I have never had a "bust" trip.  I should note also, that a bad trip for one birder might be a great trip for another - I think it all has to do with expectations, and sometimes where you are situated on the boat (and if you happen to get seasick.)

Greater Shearwater                                                                   Cory's Shearwater

On this particular trip, we didn't see anything especially rare on on the bird front - we saw the four 'expected' shearwater species for New England waters: Greater, Cory's, Manx and Sooty.  Also we saw the two more common storm-petrels: the worldwide abundant Wilson's and the less common Leach's which we got really great looks at.  I think that the avian highlight of the trip for many were actually the several close-up looks we had at the Leach's Storm-petrels, as we usually only get a few on a trip, and often times they are flying away from the boat.  We had at least 6-7 on this trip, and a few actually flew pretty close to the boat, giving everybody really good comparative looks so that it was quite easy to differentiate them from the numerous Wilson's Storm-petrels.
Wilson's Storm-petrels dancing on the water

 Leach's Storm-petrel

The other highlight of the trip were the other ocean-going critters that we encountered.  We stumbled across a few pods of Common Dolphins which are always a treat to see, especially as they come in close to the boat to 'play' in the wake.

And we encountered not one, but two Blue Whales - certainly not common for our New England waters, as well a single Sperm Whale, a few Pilot Whales, and Risso's Dolphins.

Another highlight, and another first for these trips, was a Green Sea Turtle.

One disadvantage of staying on the lower deck of these trips (which is great for bird photography) is that it's pretty difficult to see (or photograph) the cool things that are just below the surface.  The folks on the second deck not only got great looks at the turtle, but also of a shark that apparently approached the turtle and took a bite out of it's carapace!!  For some really excellent photos, check out these by one of the trip's guides.

Inasmuch as the birds went, even though there was not a lot of variety, I enjoyed my first pelagic trip using the new camera, and playing with the settings, trying to follow flying birds, etc.  I think I did a lot better with it than I had with my mega-zoom in the past, and although maybe not as adept with it as many of the other fine photographers on board (thanks to those who had suggestions and tips for me) I'm pretty happy with the results.

*** ADDENDUM: For those that are interested, Steve Mirick (one of the great spotters/leaders of this trip) has posted some additional interesting info from the trip.
A map showing the route of the trip is here
A chart showing all the species that have been seen on these BBC pelagic trips can be found here

Monday, June 28, 2010

Bird Photography Weekly #96

Greater Shearwater - Puffinus gravis

Photos were taken during a Brookline Bird Club "Extreme Pelagic" birding trip this past weekend. Easily, the Greater Shearwater was one of the most commonly seen birds of the trip. More photos of this species as well as others will follow later with week.

PS - as always click on the photos to see larger versions!

To see some great bird photos from around the world, check out:

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The inside of a legend

Well, a legend among birders anyway. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker and its status among the extant bids of the world still is debated, although without any definitive proof (ie a good, clear, un-doctored, acceptable, photograph of a live bird) in the several years of searching since Cornell Lab of O. initially announced that the bird had been re-found, the debate has quieted down a bit.  For many of us, the closest we will ever come to seeing this bird is in museum specimens (I'm lucky to live so close to Boston where there are specimens on display in the Museum of Science as well as close to Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology) or seeing older pics on-line.

There is a page I stumbled across years ago, and revisit every now and again, but I don't believe I ever shared it with my readers.  The Digimorph page contains a "library is a dynamic archive of information on digital morphology and high-resolution X-ray computed tomography of biological specimens."
(Anyone remember that line from the classic 80's song "Turning Japanese" by the Vapors - "I want the doctor to take your picture, so I can look at you from inside as well - well these folks are doing it for us on specimens from nature)

Of course, one of the first things I did was search on woodpeckers, and they have not one, not two, but three CT scans of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker specimen.
Head shot with skin and feathering 
Full body with skin and feathering 
Head shot of skeleton only

(They also have one of a Golden-fronted Woodpecker as well)

There are a few things I'd like to point out about this - they are not just photos but movies of the CT scans that can be shown from several different views and can be "scrubbed" so you can stop and examine the views.  My personal favorites are the "3d Volume Rendered movies" and if you don't look at anything else, check out the ones of the skeletal head shot which show the "hyoid apparatus" and the horns wrapping around the back of the head and into the eye socket.
(For those of you that wish to learn a bit more about these terms which refer to the tongue, here is a fantastic article about the Anatomy and Evolution of the Woodpecker's Tongue.)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Wordless Wednesday 6/23/10

Baby Snapping Turtle

Get Wordless over at Wordless Wednesday

Monday, June 21, 2010

Bird Photography Weekly #95

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker - Sphyrapicus varius

PS - as always click on the photos to see larger versions!

To see some great bird photos from around the world, check out:

Friday, June 18, 2010

Late post - Boreal Birding Trip in NH

Last Saturday, I led a trip to from Massachusetts to New Hampshire for my annual Brookline Bird Club/Menotomy Bird Club co-sponsored Boreal Birding trip. I usually plan for Caps Ridge Trail as the trailhead is the highest in NH at a little over 3000', allowing you to drive into Bicknell's Thrush
territory.  But, since the access road to Caps Ridge Trail had still not been opened by NHDOT, we chose a back-up plan of taking the tram to the top of Cannon Mountain, followed by birding at Pondicherry NWR and finishing at Trudeau Rd in Bethlehem, NH.

The Cannon Mountain Tramway proved to be a very pleasant alternative - informative and very scenic, even in the clouds and drizzle.  At the top of the mountain, we walked the short circuit trail and were treated to good numbers of Red-breasted Nuthatches, Dark-eyed Juncos, and Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, with singing Winter Wrens and Blackpoll Warblers everywhere. It also wasn't long before we heard - and then got great looks at the big target bird of the trip - singing Bicknell's Thrush. (On one bird, we were able to see the back of it's throat at times!) In all, we heard at least three and probably 4 Bicknell's Thrushes.

A few more scenic views, then we headed back to the tram for a comfortable ride back down the mountain (with hot chocolates and coffees in hand from the visitor center - truly plush boreal birding).
 (view looking south in Franconia Notch)

We then continued on to Pondicherry NW,R we walked in the entrance trail from Hazen Road, finding warblers all along the way, including Blackpoll, Black-throated Green, Black-throated Blue, Chestnut-sided, Nashville, at least three Canada Warblers, American Redstart, Northern Parula, Ovenbird, Common
Yellowthroat, as well as Hermit and Wood Thrushes and Veery.  In addition to the birds, we also encountered, Butterflies, Dragonflies, Damselflies (including both Ebony and River Jewelwings) and a number of other interesting insects, which I am woefully undereducated about.

We worked our way towards Little Cherry Pond where we watched both male and female Black-backed Woodpeckers visiting a nest cavity. Then on our way back out, watched an immature Yellow-bellied Sapsucker call and participate in an intersting behavior consisting of perching parallel to a horizontal branch and dropping its wings on either side of the branch(almost like when a raptor "mantles" over its food). Common Loon and an American Bittern at Big Cherry Pond were great sightings as well.

We stopped for a lunch break and rest stop then continued on to Trudeau Road, where we were able to add Magnolia and Black-and-White Warblers to the day list as well as a few Alder Flycatchers, several Rusty
Blackbirds (and great looks at another Canada Warbler) and stood amongst at least a dozen Cedar Waxwings, hearing their bills clapping shut as they were fly-catching insects in the air around us.
I've always thought that these were such handsome and dapper birds, and getting to see them like this really is a treat.
In all, our group of seven had a pretty nice day (despite the weather), tallying over 50 species of birds, some cool bugs, and with some wonderful scenic views, an and enjoyable tram ride.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Oregon trip - Part 3

On our last full day in Oregon, we woke to beautiful clear skies, and high hopes of ticking off a few more species, before driving back to Portland in the evening.  Steve picked us up again at our motel in the morning, this time we were joined by another birder who was hoping to fill in a few species on her Oregon list (her ABA list was over 700 already - a pretty amazing feat - maybe someday I'll get there too.)  I do not remember all the places that we went in search of birds this day.  One place I do know that we hit was an area known as the "GW burn" where we had brief looks at Three-toed Woodpecker (not long enough for a photo though) and much as we tried,were not able to relocate the bird or a nest cavity.  We moved on to another area where we added Pileated Woodpecker to our growing list of picidae, but off in the distance I spotted something that was easily as exciting as any species we'd seen yet.

That seemed like a pretty big owl... but wait - that's a young bird with some downy feathers still... a fledgling Great Grey Owl!!!  We "oohed" and "ahhed" about this bird for a while, discussed what a great sighting this was, how some of us had never seen a fledgling Great Grey, and speculating that an adult must be pretty close by.  As we were leaving it started to vocalize - then we heard another owl answering it!  Following the voice of the second bird rather than finding the adult, we found a second fledgling!
Hard to top something like that!  Continuing around the area, we heard a few woodpeckers, and found some excellent examples of their work:
 Black-backed Woodpecker cavity - note how deeply the bottom edge is beveled.

Three-toed Woodpecker cavity - less beveled than the Black-backed's work.

Not a nest cavity, but a perfect example of a Pileated Woodpecker's work-working abilities, when there is good food to be had.

Another bird in this area that I was not expecting but always happy to see were a few Grey Jays:

And soon after, keeping with the "grey" theme, we encountered a beautiful adult Great Grey Owl.
After sightings like this, the rest of the day was gravy.  Another location we stopped at proved to be Lewis's Woodpecker heaven - I lost count of the number when I realized that there were more than a dozen just in one area, though they tended to remain just beyond the reach of my lens for good photos.
I love these beautiful, colorful woodpeckers!  And that wasn't the end of the day's color - we were treated to short performances by Varied  Lazuli Buntings, as well as by the usually skulky MacGillivray's Warbler.
And, of course, if you are speaking about color west of the Rockies, you can't leave out the colorful Western Tanager.
We wrapped up our day later in the afternoon with some nice close-up looks at very curious Pygmy Nuthatch.

We then loaded things up into the rental car and headed back to Portland, where we spent the night at a very plush comfortable hotel near the airport thanks to some amazing pricing we got to Priceline.com.

Oregon is a beautiful state, and although we really only saw a very small part of it, thanks to the scenic coastlines, wonderful people, and great birding opportunities, it was a great trip that I would recommend to anyone - birders and non-birders alike.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Wordless Wednesday 6/16/10

Ebony Jewelwing

Get Wordless over at Wordless Wednesday

Monday, June 14, 2010

Oregon trip - Part 2

Last week I posted about the first half of our trip to Oregon, where we spent a few days on the coast in Cannon Beach. Here I am going to continue to tell you about the last few days that we spent east of the Cascades in and around Sisters.  We had made arrangements to bird with my buddy Steve Shunk, who is probably a bigger woodpecker fanatic than I (he's writing the Peterson's Guide to the Woodpeckers of North America, which hopefully will be out towards the end of next year) and who owns and runs Paradise Birding.  If you have the opportunity to ever bird with Steve, I would highly recommend it - he really knows his stuff, not to mention he's just a great guy.  Our first day out, Steve picked up us bright and early and within 10 minutes we were watching our first target of the day, a stunning pair of Williamson's Sapsuckers:

Note that in these first 10 minutes we also spotted Northern Flickers (the red-shafted variety) and more Hairy Woodpeckers (one of which had a nest cavity in the same tree as the above sapsucker!)  We then continued on to Cold Springs Campground where Steve suspected there was a pair of sapsuckers where one was a Red-breasted Sapsucker, and the other was a Red-breasted x Red-naped Sapsucker hybrid.  He picked the call note out pretty quickly, and soon we were getting nice looks of the hybrid:
It then flew to another tree and into a cavity where it proceeded to continue excavating the nest cavity.  We spent quite a bit of time watching (and photographing) as one ofter another mouthful of sawdust were thrown from the cavity.
We then continued on to see what else we could round up while there.  This was one of the places I knew were one place to check out for one of my biggest targets of this part of the trip - White-headed Woodpecker, but we didn't happen upon any here.  We were treated to quite a performance by a Spotted Towhee:
As we continued on to our next stop, Camp Polk Meadow Preserve, we spotted a pair of White-headed Woodpeckers going to a cavity at eye level right beside the road! We moved the car back a bit and stepped out to watch them as Steve noted the GPS location of the cavity. We could hear young at the cavity and when one adult went in and didn't emerge again after a few minutes, we decided to move on, not wishing to influence their behavior in any way.  And there were likely to be many more WHWO's over the next day - Sisters is a great area for them.  At Camp Polk Meadow, we had several Wilson's Warblers, a skulking MacGillivray's Warbler, a singing Yellow-breasted Chat (which is pretty uncommon in OR) another pair of White-headed Woodpeckers, as well as calling Virginia Rails, and a Sora in the little pond area.
Heading back through Sisters we spotted a pair of California Quail sitting out in the open which I got a quick pic off before they scampered away.
A quick check of another nest site that Steve knew of ticked another woodpecker off the list - this time a pair of Lewis's Woodpeckers.
Soon after (in another location) we also ticked off Downy and Black-backed Woodpeckers - is it any wonder that this area can be easily called a Woodpecker Wonderland?
We stopped for lunch at Camp Sherman as well as checking out to see what other birds were in the area (another good spot for White-headed Woodpeckers) and we watched another pair of sapsuckers going to an eye-level cavity with another Red-breasted x Red-naped Sapsucker Hybrid.
Yes, this is an area where there are quite a few hybrids.  Steve has made quite a study of them, and actually had an article printed in Birding Magazine back in 2005 about recognizing hybrids.  The article can be found in PDF format here.

While we were watching the sapsuckers, Steve's sharp ears picked up the peeping of some nestlings nearby, which turned out to be a cavity full of Red-shafted Northern Flicker chicks!
While on this trip, I wasn't just interested in the woodpeckers (although it was indeed very difficult to pull my attention away from them) but also some of the regulars out there.  Whereas we have Blue Jays here in New England, which can be easy to look past because they are common, out in Oregon, the more common jays are the Stellar's Jay, and I really wanted to get a photo of them.
Another comparison could be the chickadees.  Here in New England, Black-capped Chickadees are never very difficult to find, whereas while we were east of the Cascades, Mountain Chickadees were pretty easy to come across.
Even the juncos, which are the same species, have different races, and the Oregon race were almost constant within earshot.

I've spent a lot of this post talking about White-headed Woodpeckers, but haven't posted any pics yet.  We'd seen several, but spent more time looking than photographing, as they seemed pretty skittish.  Before the day was over though, I'd revisited one of the nesting pairs we'd seen earlier, and using the car as a blind, took a few minutes to photograph one of my favorite birds of this trip.

We did have one more full day with Steve, with quite a surprise, but I'll save that for one more post...