Sunday, August 21, 2016

Leach's Storm-Petrels in New York State

John Shemilt, Angus Wilson and I took advantage of a favorable offshore window in early June and decided to do an overnight pelagic trip on Captain Shemilt's boat, CLIII. We left Shinnecock Inlet on the morning of June 3, 2016. We were just on the heels of a fun day trip the previous weekend, 5/29, where we encountered good diversity and hoped to repeat our success. We set CLIII's autopilot due southeast of Shinnecock toward Ryan and McMaster Canyon (aka The Claw) where we planned on searching for a noteworthy temperature break in and around the deep water at the bottom of the continental shelf edge at 1000 fathoms. It was in this area that we would encounter record breaking numbers of Leach's Storm-Petrel while in the middle of a midnight feeding frenzy.


Most Leach' Storm-Petrels breed in the northwest and northeast Atlantic where they nest within burrows on rocky islands. The closest colonies to offshore New York waters are off the coast of Massachusetts and Maine but nesting ranges north to Labrador. Adults take turns incubating/parenting and will travel long distances to sea, sometimes for days, prior to returning to their respective burrows. Most of the offshore NY effort data compiled thus far shows a strong connection with Leach's and deep water at the edge of the continental shelf break and beyond. While Leach's are commonplace in deep water it is quite unusual to see them up on the shelf in shallower water. As if foreshadowing our Leach's themed trip, we encountered two of them on 6/3 in roughly 280 feet water at N 40 68.623, W 71 30.950, much further up the shelf than we typically see them. 


Leach's Storm-Petrel - South of Ryan and McMaster Canyons at 1000 fathoms


As expected, Leach's numbers increased as we approached the top of The Claw and were clearly outnumbering Wilson's Storm-Petrels, the inverse of our 5/29 trip just a week prior where Wilson's were the dominant storm-petrel species (162 WISP vs. 77 LESP). As nightfall approached we decided the south end of the The Claw near the 1000 fathom line was as good a spot as any to get some rest. 

Leach's Storm-Petrel that landed in the boat. Note forked
tail but with undivided white rump patch. 

It was a still, moonless night and like every overnight pelagic I was in and out of sleep, half awake, but in a constant state of sporadic dreaming. I woke up shortly after midnight after hearing what I thought was a calling Leach's Storm-Petrel. A few seconds passed and I heard another. I crawled out of the lower cabin and saw John standing there. "There are Leach's everywhere." Leach's Storm-Petrels were calling in every direction. We did not have the boat lights on (only the dim transom and stern lights for safety purposes). I grabbed my high powered LED flashlight and panned across the motionless sea to find swarms of Leach's Storm-Petrels 360 degrees around the boat as far as the light could penetrate the darkness. The upper water column was stacked with tiny translucent baitfish and copepods and it occurred to us that we were in the middle of a Leach's feeding frenzy. It wasn't long before Leach's began flying into the boat and bouncing off of our outriggers.  We conservatively estimated 200 individuals but this was likely a gross underestimate given the magnitude of the spectacle. There is just no real safe way to count at night. After 90 minutes of witnessing the event, and helping a couple of birds back to sea, we finally called it a night. The non-stop calling continued throughout the night and I could barely sleep with all the excitement. 


Close up of Leach's Storm-Petrel showing the peaked forecrown and
obvious tubenose. Same individual as photographed above. 
The next morning yielded continued high numbers of Leach's in our man made chum slick but nothing close to the spectacle of last nights natural feeding frenzy. The surface of the boat had several areas stained with red Leach's Storm-Petrel excrement, possibly krill or another similar copepod. Our overall Leach's tally, including the midnight madness, was 388 individuals within a 23 hour period. Our Wilson's tally was 224. Just how many Leach's were out there on the night of June 3rd? If we could have quickly turned on the sun I wouldn't at all have been surprised to see upwards of one thousand birds. The amount of life within the upper surface was stunning and it was remarkable to witness this nocturnal feeding frenzy while listening to their playful, yet haunting calls. A link to a 47 second compiled sound clip can be accessed at my soundcloud page.

Leach's Storm-Petrel excrement. The reddish tinge suggests a diet of krill, or another similar copepod, which likely comprised a large portion of the sea life we noted floating within the ocean surface. 

Leach's Storm-Petrel, photo by John Shemilt.






Monday, August 4, 2014

New York Storm-Petrel Madness

It was bit of a bumpy ride out to "The Tails" (north end of Block Canyon) on the night of July 31st. The seas were a bit unsettled but the offshore forecast for the following day, 8/1, was of favorable conditions with light wind. It was roughly 3:00 AM when Captain John Shemilt, Angus Wilson and I arrived along the western edge of The Tails. It was a moonless night and we spent the leading hour slowly navigating our way through the pitch black, playing close attention to the radar and watching for lobster pots. The moonless night added to an incredibly enhanced sky with stars brilliantly twinkling in every which direction. The pre-dawn sun light eventually began to make an appearance on the horizon but not before we situated our trawling rigs and communicated our morning strategy.

The plan was to lay down a chum slick composed of menhaden oil and cubed suet, trawl around the canyon for game fish and routinely circle back to check on the slick. Sea conditions were perfect, tiny amount of swell but completely glassy on the surface. We laid down our slick at about 4:45 AM and began to work the trawl. No hits yet and a small number of Wilson's Storm-Petrels buzzed by the boat, likely headed to where we put down the chum. We eventually circled back and soon noticed a flock of Storm-Petrels pattering on the surface. They had found the slick and didn't take long for Angus to quickly spot a WHITE-FACED STORM-PETREL rapidly "pogoing" along on the edge of the slick. Lighting was still minimal but the repetitive kicking and sailing feeding behavior easily separated the White-faced from the Wilson's Storm-Petrels. Pelagodroma, the genus name for White-faced Storm-Petrel, means "sea running" and this is clearly evident in the birds behavior. To our luck, the White-faced decided to head straight at the boat, briefly lending itself to some record photographs. This bird would eventually be driven off by a commercial vessel who repeatedly pounded our slick after mistaking it for a natural one. White-faced Storm-Petrel is a rare, non-breeding visitor in Atlantic waters (North Carolina to New England) and is most often found inshore of the gulf stream within canyon lands.
Risso's Dolphin @ Block Canyon
We continued to fish the canyon for a bit longer and eventually started heading a bit west toward the Middle Grounds. A pod of RISSO'S DOLPHINS made a few appearances. Always good to have our cetacean friends nearby, a good indication of sea life in the area. Sure enough, we'd eventually pick up an Albacore Tuna while working the trawl through the Middle Grounds. The next round of excitement came from a small black & white shearwater off the bow of our vessel. The AUDUBON'S SHEARWATER glided past us and eventually put down on a small mat of sargassum weed, a favorite foraging feature for this species where they can easily locate and dip for small fish that are attracted to this offshore weed. Superficially similar to the more commonly inshore spotted Manx Shearwater, Audubon's structurally differ by having a lighter build, longer tail, with dark under tail coverts and seemingly shorter/broader winged with usually a bit more white on face. In light wind, Audubon's glides more buoyantly than Manx with a lower more fluttery flight. We would eventually spot two more Audubon's Shearwaters, which were three of a measly 5 total individual shearwaters that we would spot during the entire day (2 Great Shearwaters later on). Where were all of the shearwaters? We normally pass several Cory's during our trek back to the mainland but not a single one throughout the entire trip.


Little did we know the excitement had only just begun. We set our course for the south and toward the Rabbit Ears at Ryan & MacMaster Canyon in our continued search for fish and other deep sea life. We encountered a couple of LEACH'S STORM-PETRELS just north of the canyon ledge and proceeded to set another chum slick, this time consisting of a large Mackerel block and a couple of my frozen experiments (ground beef fat mixed with ground Butterfish, whole Shiners and infused with Menhaden oil). There were very large mats of sargassum dispersed throughout this canyon, something interesting had to be in here. We picked up a small Mahi Mahi while trawling through the weeds and soon thereafter kicked up two BAND-RUMPED STORM-PETRELS right off the bow of our vessel. Captain Shemilt predicted there would be more Band-rumpeds working our slick and he was spot on (he also predicted the White-faced Stormy from earlier in the day). Frustrated with all of the weeds we ended up pulling in our lines and spent the next hour plus studying and photographing 8-10 BAND-RUMPED STORM-PETRELS that we found in our chum slick, along with the expected 80+ Wilson's Storm-Petrels. The Bandies obliged us with excellent views and photo opportunities as they buoyantly glided and flew about the slick, sometimes at great speed and with more authority in comparison to the nearby Wilson's. A worn Leach's Storm-Petrel paid us a visit while we were studying the Band-rumpeds which was fun to have as a side-by-side comparison. 
Band-rumped Storm-Petrels breed on select islands off the coast of NW Africa and Portugal and are rare, non-breeding visitors here in Atlantic Waters where they wander about the gulf stream and usually just beyond the continental shelf. Also in the slick were the two Great Shearwaters that I had mentioned earlier in the post. Amazingly these would be the only two Greats that we saw the entire trip! Several passes, and plenty of photos later, we decided it was time to split and head back north to do some trawling at "The Dip." As we cruised north we noticed an extremely athletic pod of dolphins, effortlessly leaving the ocean surface and putting on a quick but entertaining aerial show. The STRIPED DOLPHINS disappeared beneath the surface and never did return for photos.  We arrived at The Dip and it was here where we'd catch a beautiful White Marlin, likely in the 80 pound range, that was lit up in color. Usually these game fish will lose a little bit of their brilliance and their overall tones fade out by the time you get them to the boat. This was not the case as we managed to the get the Marlin alongside the boat fairly quickly and John hoisted the fish into the boat by its bill. Struck by its beauty, Captain Shemilt decided it was only right to release this fish back into the ocean.  


White Marlin                                                            Photo by Angus Wilson
The end of an excellent day exploring the edge of the continental shelf. It was a day of quality over quantity and we weren't complaining. Here a few additional photographs of Band-rumped Storm-Petrel taken in our slick at Ryan & MacMaster Canyon:

This bird showing a weak carpal bar, typical of Band-rumped Storm Petrel.
Also of note is the obvious wrap-around of white band on rump, slightly
concave tail but more or less square tipped (variable depending on viewing
angle and subspecies), long wings held relatively straight rather than crooked
like Leach's

Poor lighting but note the extensive white wrap-around of rump band. And
again the square shaped tail (not deeply forked like Leach's) with long
wings and legs tucked within, not extending beyond tail tip like Wilson's. 

Fresh individual with a full set of primaries and rectrices. Caution needed
when separating subspecies but overall size, tone and molt timing seems
consistent with Grant's. This bird showing a relatively pronounced carpal
bar but still with a square tail, not forked like Leach's, and a wide, even
wrap-around white rump band. 












Sunday, April 27, 2014

Willow Ptarmigan in Three Mile Bay, New York

The Mission and How It Unfolded:

Photo Credit: Eugene D. Nichols - This is the first photograph of
what will likely become the 1st NYS record of Willow Ptarmigan
On Thursday evening, April 24, 2014, I received a pix message from my friend Eugene Nichols looking for some ID assistance on an "odd looking white bird that flew like a grouse?" I nearly dropped my phone when I saw photos of what looked like a ptarmigan. He perfectly described what may have been either a Rock or Willow Ptarmigan. "All white, black outer tail feathers, feathering throughout legs and feet, etc." Eugene is very observant, a great naturalist, and lives on Point Peninsula. He was making his evening waterfowl rounds when he noticed this odd bird and luckily he managed to grab some photos with his phone. I urged him to share the photos with his friend and colleague, Jeff Bolsinger and it wasn't long before Eugene and Jeff had Friday morning plans to try and relocate and well document this suspicious looking Ptarmigan. For those that might be wondering; A Willow Ptarmigan is a "chicken-like" upland game bird that spends its life in the arctic tundra and its a really big deal when one is seen in the lower 48.

Reality hadn't quite hit me yet until the Friday morning text exchanges with Eugene. "He and Jeff had relocated the bird and Jeff was getting great documentation shots." This is when the wheels started turning and my brain would be consumed by the thought of driving up to Point Peninsula and seeing this rare visitor of the northern tundra. I almost dropped what I was doing and left mid-morning but decided I'd take a deep breath and finish out the work week. At this point, early afternoon had come around and word was out on various birding list serves. Several friends expressed interest in teaming up on this excursion and it wasn't long until the enthusiastic, Arie Gilbert confirmed that he was definitely going to try for the bird, leaving early Saturday morning and kindly offering me a seat in his vehicle. I was in. And I wasn't going to miss this bird.

Willow Ptarmigan (non-breeding male), Three Mile Bay, New York, 4/26/14

3:00 AM on 4/26 came around pretty quickly and I popped out of bed, hopped in my truck and met Arie at his house in Babylon. It was a long ride built with anticipation but the soothing text message that I received from Eugene "The Ptarmigan Guardian" Nichols was of a positive relocation effort. The bird was there and all we had to do was make it to Point Peninsula (and hope the Ptarmigan didn't get whacked by a Snowy Owl). Arie, Ian Resnick and myself arrived on the scene at 10:50 AM. Expecting a mob of people, it was a tremendous surprise to only see a small handful of birders on site and we immediately got the Willow Ptarmigan. For the next 90 minutes, the male Willow Ptarmigan would put on an absolute show. Usually the birders are the ones to approach the birds, but in this case the Ptarmigan actually approached us! We were all set up along the road/beach edge when the Ptarmigan literally walked right up to our group. Not a word was spoken and all you could hear was the sound of camera shutters. The bird, in typical ptarmigan fashion, could be less concerned about us birders but did a great job clipping buds off of willow saplings and strutting around the beach front.

Pending review by the New York State Avian Records Committee, this is the first New York State record of Willow Ptarmigan and this species has barely ever breached the lower 48 states. Congratulations to Eugene Davenport Nichols on an outstanding discovery. For additional info check out the ABArare blog: http://blog.aba.org/2014/04/abarare-willow-ptarmigan-new-york.html

Willow Ptarmigan (non-breeding male), Three Mile Bay, New York, 4/26/14

Willow Ptarmigan (non-breeding male), Three Mile Bay, New York, 4/26/14
Willow Ptarmigan (non-breeding male), Three Mile Bay, New York, 4/26/14

Willow Ptarmigan (non-breeding male), Three Mile Bay, New York, 4/26/14
And finally, here's a map zoomed in on the area that the Willow Ptarmigan was ranging within during our visit on 4/26/14 (highlighted in yellow) always staying between the road and bay. 








Monday, February 10, 2014

Pulling Mussels from a Shell


Purple Sandpiper feeding on mussels, 1/9/14 at Cupsogue Beach County Park
Image captured with an iPhone, Meopix Adapter & Meopta S2 Spotting Scope
I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a Purple Sandpiper feeding away from rocks before? This was no major surprise to me but I am used to seeing them on jetties and rock pilings rather than on sand/mud flats. This was the case this past weekend when I came across this stunning solo Purple Sandpiper feeding on the various exposed mussel beds at Cupsogue Beach County Park in Westhampton. This bird selectively probed and extracted the meat out of several mussels during my observation, which was also new to me. Some quick internet research specifically suggests that mussels, along with other mollusks, are a favored food source for Purple Sandpipers. Something I should have known I suppose. Pretty cool and even better to witness the behavior while in the field. Purple Sandpipers are known to be very tame and if you approach in a non-threatening manner you can often go home with some solid photos.

Purple Sandpiper posing for the camera, 1/9/14, at Cupsogue Beach County Park. Image captured with an iPhone, Meopix Adapter & Meopta S2 Spotting Scope


Purple Sandpiper showing off its claws. They sure can use the extra grip while scurrying along algae covered rocks. Image capture with an iPhone and Meopix Adapter taken through a Meostar S2 Spotting Scope



Purple Sandpiper mussel extraction complete. Image captured with an iPhone and Meopix Adapter taken through a Meostar S2 Spotting Scope




Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Female Eurasian Wigeons - What To Look For

Every winter, wigeons migrate down the Pacific and Atlantic Coasts where they spend time dabbling in  marshes, ponds and tidal flats. Long Island has no shortage of these ecological features and in turn is a  great place to study the less common Eurasian Wigeon.

Every waterfowl season, birders enjoy sifting through groups of American Wigeon, and other dabbling ducks, in search of Eurasian Wigeons. Adult male Eurasian Wigeons in full breeding plumage are very easy to identify and stick out like sore thumbs among flocks of other ducks. Females, on the other hand, are a bit more difficult and require careful observation. Here, I will share several photos of female Eurasian Wigeon, share some thoughts and point out some of the key features that have worked for me when separating female wigeons of both species.

One of the first things that I always notice with female Eurasian Wigeons is how warm and chocolate-toned their heads are in direct comparison with female American Wigeon. Female American Wigeon usually appears more gray-toned than brown. I say usually because there are some American Wigeons that can occasionally show a bit more of a brownish tone, but never as rich as the Eurasian females, at least with my experience in both species. This is the single most standout feature that allows me to hone in on this species.
Female Eurasian Wigeon (below) with female American Wigeon (above). This photo reveals several key features in distinguishing both species, the most obvious being the overall difference in head and breast tone. The Eurasian Wigeon is more richly brown on the head blending down through the breast vs. the colder, gray-toned American shown above. Also, note the gray toned upper scapulars (filling in behind Eurasian Wigeon's head). Photo taken in West Sayville, NY on 1/19/14 with an iPhone and Meopix Adapter through a Meostar S2 Spotter
If you get stumped by head tone, there are several other features that can help guide you toward correctly separating these species. An important area to focus on is the bill/head interface. Take a close look at where the bill meets the feathers on this wigeon's head. An American Wigeon will usually show a black border here. The thickness of the border here is variable and will sometimes be unnoticeable but its worth having a look. Notice there is no border within this interface on the Eurasian Wigeon image below.
Eurasian Wigeon - Noting the same features as above, but without the comparison to American Wigeon. Also, note the gray upper scapulars. Photo taken in West Sayville, NY on 1/19/14 with an iPhone and Meopix Adapter taken through a Meostar S2 Spotter

In this final photo of a female Eurasian Wigeon (below) we look at two additional clues, probably more noticeable and reliable than the black border trick mentioned above. Notice the pale gray fringes on the upper scapulars of this bird, seemingly consistent with female Eurasian. This photo shows it well but you can also note this feature on the above images. Finally, hen Eurasian Wigeon tends to show matching tones on head and breast, blending together well. Female American Wigeon shows much more contrast and we will look at some additional photos to reiterate this field mark.
Hen Eurasian Wigeon (bottom) with drake American Wigeon (top) - Image reiterating the gray fringes on the upper scaps of the female Eurasian Wigeon along with the more blended tones on head and breast. Photo taken in West Sayville, NY on 1/19/14 with an iPhone and Meopix Adapter taken through a Meostar S2 Scope

Next, we'll take a closer look at an American Wigeon female. Again, always going back to the gray, cold toned head. Also note the contrasting tones between the head and chest area. This will appear to blend together on a female Eurasian Wigeon showing much less contrast.

Female American Wigeon - Image reiterating the two-toned contrast between head and breast. Image captured with an iPhone and Meopix Adapter taken through a Meostar S2 Spotting Scope.
Finally, hen American Wigeon generally appear brighter and more strongly patterned above as shown with this individual. This bird is barely showing a black border at the bill/face interface but this is good, as it reiterates the variability of this feature. 
Female American Wigeon - Image reiterating the two-toned contrast between head and breast, bright and strongly patterned above and barely showing a black border at the base of bill (highly variable but never seen on Eurasian Wigeon hen). Image captured with an iPhone and Meopix Adapter taken through a Meostar S2 Spotting Scope




Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Top 3 Summer Highlights - 2013

1) White-faced Storm-Petrel, Block Canyon, August 20, 2013:
It was August 19th when I received an email from John Shemilt that he was looking for a 3rd individual to join his team, on August 20th, to hunt for the much sought after Big-Eye Tuna in the Hampton Offshore Invitational fishing tournament out of Shinnecock Inlet. How could I resist? I scrambled around a bit, made sure things were squared away at work and decided to jump in on this last minute invite to try and catch a tournament winning fish. John had caught a nice Big-eye not long ago and was hoping to repeat during tournament week. I should mention that John and Keegan are both expert pelagic birders, so for obvious reasons I enjoy spending time with them. Fishing while birding, or birding while fishing? I'm pretty sure it doesn't get any better than that. I have to say, August 20th was a very slow day offshore, both for birds and fish, but that's just how it goes sometimes.

White-faced Storm-Petrel                    
We blasted off out of Shinnecock at roughly 5:15 AM (Can't quite remember but there was an official start time to the tournament). All of the tournament boats were lined up, inside of the bay, just waiting for the clock to tick. We first set off to Rhode Island waters where we trolled around for the morning, searching for life and hoping to attract some fish with the spreader rigs. Unfortunately, all of the fish we marked were some 300-400 feet beneath us. Reports of fish, and some other marine life, were being reported at "The Tails" or "Fish Tails." This is the north end of Block Canyon, shaped like a fish tail of course, and is a popular fishing location (roughly 90-100 miles south of Shinnecock Inlet). We ripped over to The Tails, reset the spreader bars and headed into the canyon. We picked up on a moderate-sized pod of Rizzo's Dolphins and Keegan asked John to follow behind them. Bam! We had a Big-eye on, and it was a really big fish. Keegan manned the rod while he and John communicated back and forth, strategizing as they fought this monster of the sea. After nearly 2-hours of fighting, we lost the fish. All that returned to the surface was a bent, nearly straightened hook. Only a really big fish has the capability to bend out a hook and John and Keegan would not have been surprised if that fish weighed near or above 300 pounds. Needless to say, we were devastated, shocked, speechless.
White-faced Storm-Petrel

We mustered up the will to reset the spreader bars once more and give it another shot. Our final attempt was fruitless so we packed up and started gunning back for Shinnecock Inlet. We were going nearly 30 knots, probably 10-15 minutes north of The Tails, when John suddenly yells, "WHITE-FACED STORM-PETREL"!!!!!! John and Angus Wilson had several White-faced Stormies on a recent, previous trip and this life bird was on my brain the entire time we were offshore. This was a memorable moment and probably one of the most unique birds that I have ever seen. This small, paddle-winged, master of the ocean surface put on an absolute show for us. We circled the bird 3-4 times and watched as it picked food from the ocean surface, darted behind swells, "surfing" waves and disappearing, almost as if it dove under water. To think how lucky we were to see this bird is also beyond me. They are difficult to spot to begin with and if this bird wasn't 10 feet off the starboard side, while we were blasting north at 30 knots, we never would have seen it. This goes down as one of my most memorable experiences and I feel very fortunate to have seen this. 

2. Chuck-Will's-Widow, Fire Island, June 22, 2013:
Chuck-Will's Widow - iScoped with Meostar
S2 Spotting Scope and Meopix Adapter
Tyvek suits, duct tape, deer ticks and poison ivy is what it took to see a Chuck-Will's-Widow and its chicks out in the middle of the dense coastal forests of Fire Island, New York. This sounds challenging but its not far off from the fairly routine hazards of my daily work at the Nature Conservancy. It's not fun when its 90 degrees out but it was well worth the battle on June 22nd. I was assisting friend and colleague Jordan Rafael with some vegetation monitoring on this particular day, knowing darn well from his expertise that Chuck-Will's can and have nested in the nearby vicinity. For some odd reason, Chuck-Will's Widow can be seen and heard in various locations throughout Fire Island National Seashore but are scarce elsewhere on Long Island. I took a previous trip to Watch Hill on June 19th and heard 7 birds calling, all from the boat basin alone! This really opened my eyes to the potential density of this species across the seashore.

Chuck-Will's Widow - iScoped with Meostar
S2 Spotting Scope and Meopix Adapter
We made our way through the dense woods to each veg plot while carefully surveying the ground for chicks and even "nests." Chuck-Will's don't actually construct nests. They simply lay their eggs on open ground and rely on their amazing camouflage to hide and secure the eggs while incubating. According to some excerpts from Arthur Cleveland Bent's Life Histories of Birds, Chuck-Will's Widows will sometimes drop their eggs within 3-5 feet, sometimes the same spot, of the exact location that they nested in the previous year. Amazing.

After about an hour of trekking, we flushed an adult Chuck-Will's Widow. The bird weaved and soared through the dense forest with ease, making various croaking noises and calls and eventually perched up on a dead Shadblow snag. I had clear, unobstructed views and began firing away with my iPhone/Meopta set up. Jordan quickly spotted 2 chicks on the ground in the approximate area from which the adult had flushed. We would discover a third chick hidden underneath a nearby dead pitch pine. We did not linger very long as the adult was obviously concerned with our presence. The few minutes that we spent observing this family group would go down as one of the top highlights since I've been birding.

3. Henslow's Sparrow, Fort Drum, 6/29/13:
Henslow's Sparrow - Distant iScope image captured with my
iPhone and Meopix Adapter through a Meostar S2 Spotter
It was very difficult to pick a my 3rd and final favorite highlight of the Summer, and I'm still a bit undecided. I suppose if I picked a top 5 I'd have to include Long-tailed Jaeger and Hudsonian Godwit but in no particular order as I have fond memories of each one. I've always had an interest in the Ammodramus genus and Henslow's Sparrow (Ammodramus henslowii) has been one of my most sought NY birds.

I planned a western slope birding mission in late June this past Summer. My friend Eugene Davenport Nichols has a place on Long Point, right along the shores of Chaumont Bay on Lake Ontario. Eugene is a master naturalist and botanist and is also one heck of a fisherman. We planned both of the above during my visit with a few target birds in mind; Henslow's Sparrow, Sedge Wren and Black Tern (on their breeding grounds). He'd help me land my life Walleye up in Alexandria Bay on this trip. Eugene is also friends with Jeff Bolsinger, who has the birding scene of St. Lawrence County on lock and agreed to spend a morning with me at their place of employment, Fort Drum.

Henslow's Sparrow - Distant iScope image captured with my
iPhone and Meopix Adapter through a Meostar S2 Spotter
Jeff led us to to various locations within the complex but wasted no time in taking us to Henslow's Sparrow territory. Henslow's Sparrow is a grassland bird that prefers wet, grassy meadows with very limited trees and shrubs. Their population has been steadily declining through the years and there are now very few places to find them in New York State. This species is notoriously difficult to detect as they are very secretive, usually running through the dense grassland to avoid detection rather than retreating in flight. Luckily, their call notes do carry and a trained ear can usually pick them up from a considerable distance, as was the case when we finally located a bird after hours of searching. We tried several locations and almost lost hope when Jeff decided, as a last resort, to try the "trolling method" where we would drive slowly along the grassland road and just listen. Sure enough a Henslow's called and we all simultaneously froze as if a bomb had dropped (not an uncommon occurrence at Drum apparently). We had great scope views of the bird and I managed some distant, record iScope shots for the memory. Another Ammodramus down and only two to go (Baird's and Le Conte's) but this was a good one and I was happy to score in my home State. Below is a short video clip of the Henslow's. You can watch as the bird lifts its head and belts out its short song, which is often described as a high pitched, insect-like "tsillik." Can you pick out the song among the many other singing grassland birds in this video?

video


Friday, August 9, 2013

Godwits on Long Island, NY - Early August 2013

Hudsonian Godwit, 8/9/13 - image captured
with an iPhone and Meopix Adapter taken
through a Meostar S2 Spotting Scope
Its been quite a while since my last blog post, 2 months to be exact. The Summer tends to grab a hold of me as I'm busy working 2 jobs, attending weddings, parties, etc. There is much less time for me to enjoy the outdoors and go birding. And when the birding opportunities come about, I always feel rushed, like I have to think about where and what I'm going to have to do next. For this reason, I now have to choose my birding locations strategically and hope to maximize my time. I always look forward to the Fall when I can get back into my groove and spend hours upon hours wandering sites looking at birds and enjoying nature.

This week was one of those weeks where I had to squeeze in my birding. I decided that Jones Beach West End would become a morning routine. It is more or less on the way into my office and if I got there early enough I could get in a solid hour or so of birding at the Coast Guard Station. Why go to Jones Coast Guard Station? Its a great location to comfortably view shorebirds and other goodies that may drop into Jones Inlet or loaf on the nearby sand bar. But the real reason that I kept visiting Jones this week was in hopes to find a HUDSONIAN GODWIT. I would say that this is a nemesis bird for me; a bird that constantly seems to escape me. I gave up on chasing this species and decided I'll just find my own one day. Well today was the day that I finally came across a molting adult HUDSONIAN GODWIT and the 5:15 AM wake ups payed off quite quickly.
Hudsonian Godwit, 8/9/13 - image captured with an iPhone and Meopix Adapter taken through a Meostar S2 Spotting Scope. Note that this bird is molting out of its alternate plumage, barely retaining some specks of rufous along its belly, flanks, and under tail coverts. 
Hudsonian Godwit, 8/9/13 - image captured
with an iPhone and Meopix Adapter taken
through a Meostar S2 Spotting Scope
While I was analyzing a leg band on an American Oystercatcher, I noticed a flock of about 20 Black-bellied Plovers land in along the east side of the sand bar. I thought I noticed a different bird in the mix. Was it a dowitcher? I quickly took my focus off the Oystercatcher and scanned the newly arrived flock of birds. Standing there by itself was a Hudsonian Godwit in belly deep water. I watched the bird preen and bathe for a few minutes, took a couple of record photos, and decided to call some friends before quickly putting the word out to the masses. I continued to watch the "Hudwit" preen and bathe until is disappeared tight behind the inside of the sand bar. I knew the bird was still there but it just wasn't in view. Finally the bird, along with a larger formed group of Black-bellied Plovers, took to the ocean, flying across the barrier beach. It looked like these birds were on a mission and I had little faith they'd return.

Hudsonian Godwit is not a mega rarity or anything but its a tough bird to get here on Long Island as the majority of the birds are quickly passing through. It is very easy to miss this species on migration, and many people do, as we don't get huge numbers. They are also known for making nonstop flights over several thousand miles as they migrate from their Arctic breeding grounds down to their wintering grounds in South America. They basically just pick up and go, no lingering. Being in the right place at the right time is the best way to get set up for seeing a Hudwit. Marbled Godwits tend to linger a bit more offering a much better probability of sighting one. This juvenile Marbled Godwit, shown below, was photographed in Westhampton Beach on August 6, 2013. Marbled Godwits are much larger than Hudsonian Godwit and stand out among other shorebirds. Hudwits, being the smallest of the godwit tribe, can easily tuck in among other groups of shorebirds and can be overlooked. Especially when loafing with large groups of dowitchers, willets or yellowlegs.
Juvenile Marbled Godwit, Westhampton Dunes Overlook, 8/6/13 - image captured with
an iPhone and Meopix Adapter taken through a Meostar S2 Spotting Scope