Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Iceland or Thayer's Gull?

Gull identification, especially for juveniles, can be very challenging. Many an expert birder will take a pass on ID'ing them. This past January, while in Duluth, we stopped at Canal Park to work through the resident Herring Gull flock looking for any rarities (Glaucous, Iceland and/or Thayer's Gull). We found one very interesting 2nd cycle Gull, that the locals had named "Herman".  It was named "Herman" because the locals could not decide on whether it was a Thayer's or an Iceland Gull (split about 50-50 on the ID), with it being a hybrid as a third possiblity.  I made sure I took a lot of pictures of "Herman" and then sent several of my best photos to my New Jersey experts for their opinions on "Herman".  Six New Jersey experts looked at my photos, two said it was a Thayer's Gull, two said it was an Iceland Gull, and the last two punted (one stating that he does not do juvenile gulls).  Still a 50-50 split.  Sometimes you just have to accept that you will not be able to identify a bird, even when you have good photos.  Any opinions on what Herman is?


2nd Cycle Herring Gull & "Herman" (behind), note differences in their wings

Nemesis Bird 4 - Ross's Goose

January had ended with me adding three Nemesis Birds (Great Gray Owl, Iceland Gull, & Barred Owl) to my Life List.  Since i was on a role with local species, I decide I would focus my efforts on the only probable Nemesis Bird I still might find during the winter here in New Jersey - Ross's Goose. Unfortunately, very few Ross's Goose sightings were reported during the first two weeks of February, and my own efforts, during those same period also came up empty. My first promising lead came out of the New Jersey Rare Bird Alert for February 17, 2001, with a report of a single Ross's Goose found among 5000+ Snow Geese in Upper Freehold.  Fortunately for me, I travel through that area everday on my way to/from work, and know that a large flock of Snow Geese has been wintering in this area for years. What an awesome sight it is to see that  flock taking off, looking like a white cloud rising up from the ground, just after dawn on my drive in to work.
I would need to locate where the flock was feeding first, and then try to find a single small white goose in a flock of 5000+ larger white geese. Knowing the area well made locating this Snow Goose flock fairly easy; unfortunately, most of the geese were too far out in the field for me to get a good look at them and could not locate a Ross's Goose that weekend. However, I did find 3 Cackling Geese among them. Cackling Geese look like small Canada Geese and definitely stand out among a flock of Snow Geese.  My second promising lead came out the following week, of the New Jersey Rare Bird Alert for February.  A pair of Ross's Geese were reported in a flock of Canada Geese in a Park in Toms River. What a stroke of luck, this park was about 10-15 minutes from my home and two white geese would definitely standout in a flock of Canada Geese.  It took me about 2 seconds to locate the two Ross's Geese after I pulled into the Park's parking lot. Almost too easy. Hard to believe, but I've just run out possible Nemesis Birds that I could possibly find during the winter here in New Jersey.  But don't worry there is always another Nemesis Bird for me to chase! I am traveling to Puerto Rico this month and another opportunity to find a Mangrove Cuckoo.  Talk about a Nemesis Bird - I've been chasing after a Mangrove Cuckoo for 26+ years.  Wish me luck!

Ross's Goose

Cackling Geese in with Snow Geese

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Nemesis Bird 3 - Barred Owl

After adding two Nemesis Birds to my Life List in 2 weeks (Great Gray Owl & Iceland Gull), I did not think January could get any better. My former Nemesis Birds, like the Great Gray Owl, seemed like they stayed on the top of my target list for a few years. Finding an Iceland Gull, my new #1 Nemesis bird, just 2 weeks later, had never happened to me before. Fortunately (unfortunately?) there always seems to be another species waiting to become my next #1 Nemesis Bird. One tropical species, the Mangrove Cuckoo, has successfully eluded me on every trip into mangroves, for over 26 years since my first trip down to the Ding Darling NWR on Sanibel Island, Florida, is a prime candidate for my #1 nemesis bird. However, since it was still only January, and I would not be traveling to any area with mangroves until March, I decided to pick a local species and really focus my efforts on trying to find it before my Trip to Puerto Rico in March. Out of my 15 possible lifer species remaining on the New Jersey List, only 4 species might be found in New Jersey during the Winter, but only two of these species - Ross's Goose and Barred Owl, had I actively chased. The question was which of these two speices should name as my next Nemesis Bird?  My answer arrived in an E-mail from a birding friend later in evening on the Friday I found the Iceland Gull. My friend had seen a Barred Owl that afternoon down at Brigantine (Edwin B. Forsythe NWR) and included a photo of it in her E-mail. We had been trying over multiple trips over several years to find me a Barred Owl,  so she knew that I would be very interested in this bird. Unfortunately due to a prior commitment, a trip down to Brigantine,
would have to wait until Sunday afternoon! However, since Brigantine also hosts a large flock of Snow Geese in winter, there always is the possiblity of finding a Ross's Goose among them.  On  Sunday afternoon, I drove down to Brigantine, arriving about 3:00 PM.  My first stop along the wildlife drive was the Gull Pond, where off in the distance, in the general location where my friend had seen the Barred Owl (and at the far end of the drive from my current location), I could hear an Owl calling. The problem was this Owl was only doing a single "hoot" each time it called, so I was unable to ID it by its call. As for the Snow Geese, I was able to locate a large flock of several thousand birds but they were just too far out on the Salt Marsh to even try to search for a Ross's Goose. At least the Short-eared Owls were cooperating that afternoon. Then close to sunset, I finally arrived in the general area where I thought I had heard the Owl, except it had stopped calling.  After a fruitless search in the area, where my friend had seen the Barred Owl on Friday, I got back into my car to finish the rest of the wildlife drive, ready to admit defeat.  I maybe gone another 100 yards when I got a very brief glance of a large bird as it flew across the road before disappearing behind some trees.  I quickly drove up to the point where I last saw  it got out, started to scan the area and there sitting in a tree about 20' off the road was a Barred Owl!  My third Nemesis Bird in two weeks and my second in New Jersey in just 2 days.  Amazing!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Nemesis Bird 2 - Iceland Gull

After returning from Duluth and finally seeing my Nemesis Bird - Great Gray Owl, it was time for me to decide on what species should become my next #1 Nemesis Bird.  Should it be one of only16 species on the New Jersey State list that would be a lifer for me or something else? Since I had no out of state birding trips planned until March, I thought I should focus on a New Jersey species that I could possible find here during the winter, which cut the possiblities from 16 down to about 4. The heavy snows of late December and early January help me to decide that trekking into the woods after a Nemesis Bird would not be good idea, which narrowed my choices down to a coastal species, and of these there was only one possibility in the winter - Iceland Gull. However, my next birding opportunity (two weeks after Duluth) was with a birding couple that I had met in Panama. They were driving down from Connecticut one Friday morning and asked me to guide them to see some of Jersey Shore winter birds. However, since they had seen Iceland Gull before, it was not a target species for the trip.  If the weather conditions are right, Barnegat Light is one of the best locations on the East Coast to find certain species at close range like Harlequin Duck, Long-tailed Duck and Purple Sandpipers. As my luck would have it, turned out that Friday afternoon had the perfect conditions, so we headed down to Barnegat Light for these species and whatever else we could find.  As I promised, all 3 of these species were very cooperative, providing them with great close looks. However as we started back towards the beach, I scanned a flock of gulls sitting on the beach, close to the jetty.  There among the flock of Herring Gulls was one slightly smaller white bird, a first year - Iceland Gull! My second Nemesis Bird in two weeks.  Oh if they all could be this easy!

Harlequin Ducks

Purple Sandpiper

Long-taild Duck

Iceland Gull

Nemesis Bird 1 - Great Gray Owl

Hi Everyone:  Not quite sure how we got into mid-February so quickly!  I remember getting off the plane from Mumbai, India on December 1st, then suddenly it was mid-January and I was getting on a plane to Duluth, Minnesota,  ready to face sub-zero temperatures in pursuit of my Nemesis Bird - the Great Gray Owl. If you have been birding for any period of time you have at least one Nemesis Bird, usually a relatively "common" bird but for some reason you are just unable to "get" it. The Great Gray, the largest of our owl species, was "alledged" by my guide, Kim Risen, to be a year-round resident in the Sax-Zimm Bog, about an hour's drive outside of Duluth. Although Kim over 4 prior trips out to Duluth (2 in mid-winter) had put me on many a great bird, all his efforts to locate a Great Gray for me had been in vane.  So much so that I jokenly would tease him that I had a greater chance of seeing Bigfoot! Hopefully my 3rd winter trip would be different. Although Winter birding in Northern Minnesota is really hard core, I was able to convince my friend from Massachusetts, John Mitchell, to join me on this trip. We met in Minneapolis and then flew up to
Duluth where we met up with Kim and headed out for Sax-Zimm.  The next few hours were a repeat of my prior trips, lots of miles covered but no Great Gray Owl, then just before sunset my guide received a phone call from a friend, that had located a Great Gray Owl just a few miles away from our current position.  We raced to location and there sitting up in tree about 50 feet off the road was Great Gray Owl. But it doesn't end there.  What an awesome bird.  Nemesis 1 eliminated!

Great Gray Owl

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Song Sparrows

The Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) is common a year-round resident in my backyard.  With its loud and distinctive song, and bold field marks (see below), it is one the easiest species to identify here on the East Coast; and therefore, is one of the first birds that I was able to identify for my life list. 

My "typical" Song Sparrow - note its gray and brown head streaks
and broad brown breast streaks and large central spot

Here, in New Jersey our Song Sparrow is the "atlantica" subspecies (below).  They are easily attracted to your feeders; and when phished, tend to quickly pop up and will usually sit out in the open providing a good look. If there was any sparrow that I could have said that I felt comfortable identifying, it would have been the Song Sparrow. 

M.s. atlantica - Barnegat Light, New Jersey

However, like the Savannah Sparrow, the Song Sparrow also has a number subspecies, and I learned this year that some of the subspecies along the West Coast look very different from the "atlantica" subspecies in my area. Fortunately, was able to photoraph two of these West Coast subspecies.

I saw my  first new Song Sparrow subspecies ("kenaiensis") while up in Seward, Alaska this past June.  Fortunately, I heard the familiar song of a Song Sparrow first, and then was able to locate the singer - a large, dark sparrow. If I had seen this bird first, my initial impression would have been that it was a dark Fox Sparrow, and not a Song Sparrow.  Its was also much shyer and didn't respond to phishing, and therefore,  it took me several days before I was able to get a decent photograph  (below) of it.

M.s.kenaiensis - Seward, Alaska

I observed a  second new subspecies ("morphina") this August, on Washington's Olympic Penninsula.  This subspecies is also darker that our "atlantica" but not as big or dark as a "kenaiensis"; and as you can see from the photo below, it was also molting which didn't help.  Fortunately for me, it also was readily attraced to a feeder and was not a shy as a "kenaiensis".

M.s.morphina - Sequim, Washington

These two recent encounters with different and distinct looking Song Sparrow sub-species just helped to reinforce my opinion that when I am traveling, I need to try to photograph all of the species I encounter.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

West Coast Gulls

The week before Labord Day, I took my son on a vacation out to Seattle and over to the Olympic Penisular. Since it was not an official birding trip for me, I birded whenever I could and still managed to get get 92 species including 5 lifers.  However, Gulls were the one group that I did get to spend a lot time on, especially around our hotel in Port Angeles, identifying 9 species over 8 days (Glaucous-winged, Herring, Western, California, Glaucous, Mew, Ring-billed, Heermann's and Bonaparte's Gull). Unfortunately for me, it was probably the absolute worst time of the year to try and ID these gulls!  Right now, I am so glad that I took that class on Gull ID earlier this year. Understanding that both year class and molt were significant factors in their ID probably saved my sanity!! Problem #1 was that for each of the 9 species, I might have been looking at an adults, juveniles or between 1 and 3 other year classes (cycles); Problem #2 was that any two of the first 5 species could hybridize; and Problem 3 was that  it seemed like just about every gull that I looked at that week seemed to be in some stage of its pre-basic molt.  Take a look at what I was up against:

The red spot on this gull identifies this bird as an adult, and the more grayish color to the primarys suggest a Glaucous-winged Gull, however; where are the white tips to the primarys? and don't these primaries look darker than is normal for a Glaucous-winged Gull? Initial impression - it is a Glaucous-winged Gull.

The all black bill makes this gull a juvenile, but based upon the appearce of its wings, it is well along on its1st cycle pre-basic molt.  Unfortunately it is hard to tell if those primarys are going to be black or gray. My initial impression - it is a possible Glaucous-wing Hybrid.

The black tip to this bill, means this is an immature bird, based on the appearance gray on some of the secondaries, this bird is in its pre-2nd cycle molt.  The brownish color to the primaries indicate they are old and bleached out, and probably were black not gray. My initial impression - a possible Herring Gull hybrid??

The black tip to this bill, means this is bird is also immature; however, based on the large amount of gray on the secondaries, this bird appears to be in its pre-3rd cycle molt. The older primaries are bleached brown, while the new ones are black. My initial impression - a possible Herring Gull hybrid??

This gull also has a bill with a black tip, but the rest of the bill is red. Fortunately only one of our West Coast gull has this combination - an adult Heerman's Gull.  This one is in its adult pre-basic molt. 

As you can see trying to ID West Coast Gull's in late August/early September can be an extreme birding challenge.  Many an experienced birder would just ignore the whole group. What was I thinking? If I wanted to be challenged by a difficutly group, I could have gone to Central America for Flycatchers.  Wait, what am I saying?  I am going to Panama at the end of October. The good news is  there I will have a guide to help me.

Friday, August 27, 2010


Don't know how it happen but it suddenly just a week before Labor Day.  Was it just mid-June when I got back from Alaska?  Where did the summer go?  I think my problem was that I didn't get the opportunity to do that much birding this summer;  although, I did spend a lot of evenings sorting through the 1950 photos I took in Alaska (I'll post more Alaska Photos later).  While up in Alaska, I started playing with my camera's macro setting by photographing a variety of small Tundra flowers.  I learned that I could just trust my macro autofocus and just "blindly" snap photos. Turned out to be a great lesson, for when I was able to get out this summer, it was usually in the afternoon when it was sunny and hot - not great for birding but a great time of day for observing insects like Dragonflies and Butterflies. Dragonflies are a challenging group to photograph; however, I've learned that a perched dragonfly usually did not view my camera and out-stretched arm as a threat, allowing me to get my camera to within inches of it.  Knowing that I could shoot "blind", I was able to get the following photos.  Enjoy.

Bar-winged Skimmer

Widow Skimmer

Halloween Pennant

Blue Dasher

Monday, June 28, 2010

Bristle-thighed Curlew

One of the primary reasons birders make a pilgrimage out to Nome in early June is to find the Bristle-thighed Curlew (Numenius tahitiensis). The Bristle-thighed Curlew is an Asian species, similar in appearance to the Whimbrel, and is the rarest breeding bird for any birder to see in North America. It probably is not that rare a species in Alaska; however, except that it prefers to breed on dry tundra of exposed ridges.  Nome just happens to be the "closest/easiest" location in Alaska to where you can find breeding pairs. 

We left Nome early on the morning of June 7th, to drive north ialong the Kougarok Road for about 72 miles, out to a location called the Coffee Dome.  Five vehicles parked on the side of the road and a line people walking up the hill about a quarter of mile above us, told me we had arrived at the Coffee Dome.  Next came the "fun" part - walking over 1/2 mile up-hill to the top of the ridge. Tundra is very deceiving, it looks very flat and dry, but can be very wet and hummocky, so you have to carefully pick your way through it.  As we got over the first ridge, we could see over 20 birders standing in one location on the next ridge, binoculars up.  A Bristle-thighed Curlew overhead in a display flight.  After circling, it landed about 70 yards off to the side between my small band of climbers and the main group.  For the next hour or so, the bird and 1or 2 more put on a great show for us, making the even harder trek back down the hill well worth it.   My pilgrimage to Nome was now a success!

     Bristle-thigh Curlew on its High Ridge Habitat
                        Bristle-thighed Curlew
       Birders waiting for the next display flight

Monday, June 21, 2010

Arctic Tern

I just spent two weeks on my first birding trip to Alaska. It was a fanastic trip, with over 145 species, I am still working out how many were lifers (about 30) or new subspecies (another 30+) and took lots of photographs that will take me a few weeks to get through.  I look forward to posting plenty of highlights from the trip over the next few days/weeks.

My wife and I arrived in Nome on June 5th, met with our guide, and after checking in at our hotel did a brief trip down along a portion of the Council Road to Safety Sound.  Along the way, we came across this Arctic Tern sitting on the ground just 5 feet off the road.  It turned out to be sitting on its "nest" (really it was just a small depression in the sand) containing two spotted, brown eggs.  The bird and her mate were fearless defenders of the nest, so we never got closer than 15 feet from their nest when we tried to get out of the car. As long as we stayed in the car, the bird would quickly settle down and return to the nest, allowing me to get these photos out the car window. We noted the location of the nest and planned to visit it throughout our 5-day stay in Nome.  For the first 3 days, we found the bird sitting on the nest as we slowly passed by its
location; however on day 4, the bird was missing. As we drove closer, we noticed that the eggs were also gone!  We never did find out what happened; although I suspect it was a preditor that had found the nest, I still hope that the eggs hatched and then the 2 chicks were led away from the road and down closer to the water line.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Great Crested Flycatcher

The Great Crested Flycatcher is the largest flycatcher commonly found in my area. They tend to be very vocal, with a distinct and easily recognized call, making them a relatively easy species to identify and then locate. Unfortunately, they also tend to stay high up in the canopy, making them difficult subjects to photograph. So imagine my surprise on Saturday afternoon when this bird landed on a sign just 10' away from where I was standing and decided to pose for me.  Some days you do luck out!

                            Great Crested Flycatcher

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Warbling Vireo

Saturday moring was my last scheduled Birding Class for this Spring. Since it was later in the season then I normally lead these trips, I knew the trees would be fully leafed out, and expected it would be a challenge to locate any of the warlers, vireos, orioles, etc, that we should hear singing up in the canopy. So it came as no surprise initally that we were having trouble locating a Warbling Vireo. However, something was different about this bird. Normally a singing Warling Vireo would call only a few times from one location before moving, and it is this movement that should ultimately give away its location. However, for some reason this bird continued to sing from the same location. Finally, after a few minutes of searching in the area where I thought the Vireo had to be hiding, I spotted a nest, and there sitting in the nest was the Vireo singing away! Although woodland species sing on their territories, they tend to be secretive about their nest location, so it was a surprise to see this Vireo singing from its nest. 

                   Warbling Vireo singing from its Nest


Sunday, April 25, 2010

The heat wave we had earlier is month has definately affected the birding in my area. While most of our summer migrants and summer resident species seem to be on schedule, except for White-throated Sparrows, most of our winter resident species and waterfowl already have departed for the summer up north.  Usually I can find most of these species throughout most of April, but not so this year. As a result, there have been few birds around for me to photograph this month. So for the last few weeks I have turned my attention to other winged creatures (Butterflies and Dragonflies).  They are also fun to watch, can be  a challenge to identify, and because of their small size diffuclt to photograph. They tend to fly off just before I can get close enough to take a picture.  With so few birds around, I had time to work on my approach.

                             Black Swallowtail Butterfly
                  Female Blue Corporal Dragonfly

Friday, March 26, 2010

European Starling

The European or Common Starling is very common species here in New Jersey and along with two other common species, the Pigeon (Rock Dove) and Canada Goose, one of our most detested. Introduced into New York City's Central Park 120 years ago, it is an agressive species that has spread across the United States and nearly wiped out our native Eastern Bluebird.  Most birders rarely give it a second look once they have IDed it. However, an unexpected result of my recent class on Gull Identification is that I've also started to take a closer look at some of these overlooked species. As it turns out, I find European Starlings in their breeding plumage to be an interesting species.  Next time you see a Starling, take a second look and see if you agree.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Ring-billed Gulls

I built on the lessons that I had learned on plumage & molts from last weekend's Class on Gull Identification by spending this week reviewing all of my gull photographs, trying to ID each gull to year class. The Ring-bill Gull takes 3 years to become an adult. Although, it is a common gull here in New Jersey (especially in Winter), I found that I had been over-looking 2 year old birds (2nd Cycle), thinking that they were just dull looking adults. Juvenile and 1st cycle birds clearly look very different from the adults; however, differences between 2nd cycle birds and adult are much more subtile (bill color, the amout of white on wing tips).  Gull Identification is definately advanced birding! 



                             1st Cycle

                            2nd Cycle
                      Adult - Basic Plumage
                   Adult - Alternate Plumage

Sunday, March 7, 2010

American Herring Gull

I went down to Cape May on Saturday for a full day of class on Gull Identification. We spent most of the day focusing our attention on the American Herring Gull. We must have looked at close to 1000 gulls in the field and then viewed more on slides in the class room.  Herring Gull Identification? How hard can it be to identify the most common gull on the Jersey Shore? The answer is it depends! Adult Herring Gulls look nearly identical in either their Basic (non-breeding or fall) Plumage or in their Alternate (Breeding or Spring) Plumage and just about anyone can recognize an adult.  The problem is that it takes a Herring Gull four years to become an adult and each immature year class (called cycles) also has a different appearance in their Basic and Alternate plumages. A first cycle Herring Gull looks very different from an adult. Suddenly we now are up to eight different plumages for the species (and we didn't even address subspecies variation). Then to make matters even worse, they don't molt and grow in their new feathers over night. So a molting a gull will have an intermediate appearance that can be anywhere in between its Basic and Alternate plumages! Talk about a challenge! Now for the good news, most species of gull go through a similar sequence of molts from juvenile to adult. So knowing what a Herring Gull looks like at all ages and molts becomes essential when you are scanning a large flock of gulls trying to locate one rare gull. Turns out Gull Identification is very advance birding.

                               Immature - First Cycle 


                    Adult - Basic Plumage 


                           Adult - Alternate Plumage

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Carolina Chickadee

Sometimes it is the "easy" birds that are the most difficult.  A friend from Massachussets, John Mitchell, was down in the area on business and wanted to do birding trip with me a week ago Friday.  Prior to the trip, I sent him the NJ Bird List and asked him to identify what species he wanted to see/photograph.  Based on his Target List, I decided we would start our trip at Barnegat Light, then drive down to Cape May for a few hours and then hopefully have enough daylight left to finish off the day at Brigantine (Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge). It was a great day of birding, with good weather and mostly very cooperative birds that allowed us to hit all 3 birding locations. Out of the 71 species we saw that day, 16 were on John's Target List including at least 3 lifers. Although most species were very cooperative (one mixed flock of Dunlin and Purple Sandpipers actually landed at John's feet as he was photographing some nearby Harlequin Ducks), it always seems that one lifer species just will not cooperate. For John that day, it turned was the Carolina Chickade! Although, both Carolina (south) and Black-capped Chickadee (north) are common here in New Jersey, there is only a narrow band in central New Jersey where their ranges overlap. The Carolina Chickadee, especially down in Cape May, should have been an easy bird to find and then photograph.   

                               Carolina Chickadee
                         Black-capped Chickadee

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Long-tailed Duck

The jetty at Barnegat Lighhouse in winter is one of my favorite birding locations. With temperatures rising into the 40's and winds out the west-northwest, weather conditions yesterday and today were nearly perfect (a little windy) for trips out to the end of the jetty. Here Harlequin Ducks, Purple Sandpipers and Dunlin can be so tame that it is almost guaranteed that you will have great, almost at your feet, looks at all three species. Other species (including all 3 Scoters, Common Eider, Long-tailed Duck) are also usually seen but rare are they as cooperative. However, today was was one of those rare days when Long-tailed Ducks nearly stole the show away from the Harlequins. This Long-tailed Drake was especially cooperative.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

American Woodcock

Two Snow Storms in the last week have dropped at least three feet of snow here in South Jersey, which has had a significant impact on our local birds especially ground foraging species.  One of these species is the American Woodcock, normally a very secretive species. Under normal conditions, I would either locate an American Woodcock too late in the day for a decent photograph or only see it as one explosively took off close to my feet. However, knowing that American Woodcock have been forced out of the woods by the deep snows, I drove down to Cape May today hoping to get some decent photographs of one. It seemed like just about any bare patch of over a few square feet harbored some birds, mostly White-throated Sparrows and American Robins, with a few Fox Sparrows, Northern Cardinals, and/or Yellow-rumped Warblers mixed in. Then with just a little more effort, I managed to locate two American Woodcock.