Monthly Archives: November 2015

Vancouver to LA – Birding and Cruising.

The trip was really supposed to be in celebration of the completion of a writing project. But when I booked the trip, I knew that if said project was not completed, the trip would be a much-needed break – a welcome respite – from a project that has, well, been quite a project! Unfortunately, it’s the latter, and even worse – I’m working on the project on the plane, in the hotel, and on the boat (OK, so working on the boat didn’t actually happen). But the birding has been amazing, and the break has been very welcome, and downright therapeutic.

Boarding my flight in Portland dark and early on Wednesday the 4th, a long-awaited birding adventure was in store. But yeah, I was leaving Maine at the peak of rarity season! Of course, when I landed to – barely – grab my connection in Chicago, I see the report of a Townsend’s Solitaire at Schoodic Point and the reappearance of a Franklin’s Gull at Sebasticook Lake (and so it begins!). But it was of little consequence; life birds awaited!

For a couple of years, I’ve been wanting to join Paul Lehman and company on a West Coast “repositioning cruise.” This is when those massive cruise ships move from one port to another, mostly to switch from the starting point of one season’s itinerary to the other. Sailing predominately well offshore, passengers come aboard for a short getaway, or just a long weekend escape. And these trips are a helluva deal! For birders, the passage through deep, open water from a large, stable platform that even allows you to use a spotting scope to study passing seabirds – it’s low-cost, multi-day, deep water pelagic.

Good friends Adam Byrne and Brad Murphy from Michigan were joining me, as we joined Paul, Barbara Carlson, and several other birders for a sail from Vancouver, British Columbia to LA. But Adam, Brad, and I were meeting up early to do some Pacific Northwest birding. None of us had been to British Columbia before, so we had a few life birds each to seek, and more importantly, since we had to fly all of the way to Vancouver – we might as well get our money’s worth, right?

Frequent flier miles delivered me to Vancouver a day before Adam’s arrival, so I took a train to our hotel, settled in, and took a walk. Of course, I began to experience the culinary delights of this fantastic foodie city, as well as sample some of the birdlife in a few small urban parks. I started to get familiar with how dark the local Song Sparrows were, and reacquaint myself with the snappy call note of “Oregon” Dark-eyed Juncos. I also refreshed my memory about how impossible it is to identify large gulls in the Pacific Northwest, although at least a few adults looked identifiable. My dinner at a Ramen bar was a perfect end to the day, and a good way to ring in my trip to this cultural city.
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I could enjoy these dark Song Sparrows all day!

Day 2, 11/5: Vancouver.
I covered over 10 miles this morning, walking from my downtown hotel to Stanley Park, and around the entirety of its perimeter. Passerines weren’t in large supply, but it’s been far too long since I have seen the likes of Chestnut-backed Chickadees and Anna’s Hummingbirds. An American Dipper at the bay’s edge was a welcome surprise.

And the birding along the shoreline was spectacular. I very well may have seen more Barrow’s Goldeneyes this morning than I have seen in sum throughout the East; there was one raft of over 150! A couple of Eurasian Wigeons joined big groups of American Wigeons, a few Cackling, one Snow, and one Greater White-fronted Goose were in lawn-feeding groups of Canada Geese, and Surf Scoters were plentiful. Mew and Ring-billed Gulls, a few Thayer’s Gulls, and a mess of large gulls that were mostly – in quantity and presumably genetically – Glaucous-winged.

More of these dark Song Sparrows and lots of “Oregon” Juncos, several Bald Eagles, and impressive cityscapes – not bad for a morning walk!

Adam arrived in the early afternoon, and after lunch at a Frites Granville (deep fried poutine, need I say more…but the kimchi and Korean beef-topped fries was much better), we spent a pleasant few hours, including a little bit of sunshine at Stanley Park. Adding a few more species to the triplist, including “Sooty” Fox Sparrow, we mostly spent the time taking advantage of the nice light to photograph Barrow’s Goldeneyes and Mew Gulls, among others.
Am in Stanley Park.
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Korean-Belgian-Canadian fusion!

Pm…back in Stanley Park.

River Otter devouring flounder.
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So many Barrow’s Goldeneyes!


Day 3, 11/6: Vancouver.
Light rain and drizzle returned by dawn, as Adam and I headed for the hills. Rain continued, steady at times, as we hiked around Cypress Provincial Park looking for forest denizens, especially Sooty Grouse. While we didn’t see much – the conditions were not very bird- or birder- friendly, seeing scattered Varied Thrush was a real treat, along with a Red-breasted Sapsucker, several small flocks of Red Crossbills, and other resident species.

We fetched Brad at the airport; or triumvirate now complete. Real Chinese food (noodles with roasted chicken, broth, veggies, etc.) stuck to the bones – which was needed for the damp and chilly visit to Delta’s Boundary Bay. Adam needed Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, so we thought we would just spend a couple of hours trying to get lucky.

We were a little unprepared for what a task finding one specific shorebird would be. I’ll let the photos explain.

There were easily several hundreds of thousands of birds, 90-95% or so were Dunlin and Northern Pintail. Healthy amounts of American Wigeon and Green-winged Teal were supplemented by Black-bellied Plovers, 10+ Eurasian Wigeons, groups of gulls – mostly Glaucous-winged and Glaucous-winged intergrades, some Sanderlings, a couple of Western Sandpipers, and one particularly interesting, short-billed peep. Perhaps the one that got away!

Am in Cypress Provincial Park.
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Boundary Bay.
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Day 4, 11/7: Vancouver.
Rain was falling in earnest as we departed the city, once again heading for the hills. Thanks to a tip from a local birder, the suggestively-named Grouse Mountain ski resort was our destination. The rain continued, and got heavier and visibility dropped to near nothing as we gained a little elevation.

But the place was busy, and the Skyride tram was running, and for a price, we were whisked uphill. It was still raining…hard. Was this worth it? What self-respecting bird would be out in this?

And then Adam found a Sooty Grouse!

The only non-pelagic lifer for all three of us expected on the trip, this was a most-welcome development. For a moment, we forgot how soaked to the bone we were. And this was no dumb grouse! He would come out to feed in a little weedy garden, and then return to a shed/small livestock pen to preen. After a bit, it was back out into the rain.

We too finally went inside, the triumvirate triumphant, had some coffee and/or hot chocolate, and then went back out for another visit with the grouse, and some quality time with Black-tailed Deer and Gray-crowned Rosy-finches.

With rain still falling, wind and fog as bad as ever, we packed it in, dripping our way into the tram, and back down the hill. Unfortunately, conditions were even worse at Cypress Provincial Park, and although the donair stop for lunch was great and hit the spot, the rain finally defeated us all on a near-birdless walk at the park. It was time to retreat.
It might be raining a little…but Sooty Grouse!

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Day 5, 11/8: Vancouver.
Stanley Park was the destination again today, wanting to spend more time looking at birds – any birds – than driving to more distant sites. I added a few more species to my trip list, including some good studies of Pacific Wren. But the tame Chestnut-backed Chickadees, joining Black-caps in looking for handouts stole the show.

Making our way towards the airport, we spent our last hour of birding in Vancouver at Sea and Iona Islands. More huge flocks of Dunlin were impressive, and several additions to the list ranged from Pied-billed Grebe to Long-billed Dowitcher to Trumpeter Swan.

But before we knew it, it was time to return our rental car, hop on the train, and make our way to Canada Place and the Star Princess – our floating-city home for the next three days, and our big, steady platform for pelagic birding. In other words, the real reason for this trip was only now about to begin!

Another morning in Wonderful Stanley Park.

“Do you think the Chesnut-backed Chickadees get fed here?”

I will always stop to photograph Wood Ducks!


Anna’s Hummingbird.

Setting Sail.
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Day 6, 11/8: Victoria.
As the sun came up, we were docking in Victoria, only a short trip across from the city of Vancouver. While Brad and Adam set off in search of Skylarks and Red-breasted Sapsuckers, I joined the rest of the group of birders in walking to Beacon Hill Park. The triplist grew with the likes of Barred Owl, Bewick’s Wren, and Ancient Murrelets.

I lingered too long at one thicket, lost the group, but spent an enjoyable couple of hours wandering around this lovely park. Oregon Junco, Fox Sparrows, Song Sparrows, and Spotted Towhees were everywhere, with the ponds chock full of Mallards and American Wigeon. Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets, Golden-crowned Sparrows, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, and Anna’s Hummingbirds were plentiful, as were “more bona fide” Northwestern Crows (if there is truly such a thing). Feral Common Peafowl added a splash of color, and a “Slate-colored” Dark-eyed Junco was on the rare side of things. I passed through a couple of waves of Bushtits, adding a dose of frantic and noisy excitement to the walk.

I took a spin through a sliver of downtown, finding a single “Audubon’s” Yellow-rumped Warbler in a small city pocket park, along with several Bewick’s and Pacific Wrens, and a bunch of Oregon Juncos. Rhinoceros Auklets in the inner harbor were a very pleasant surprise.

The boat departed at 2:24 – next stop: LA! While we only had a couple of hours of daylight left, we made the most of it, as birds were plentiful. Masses of Mew Gulls, rafts of Common Murres, and later, scattered Northern Fulmar – our first tubenose of the trip – were encountered, while my last additions to my Canada List were ticked off – Brandt’s Cormorant, Black Brant, and Heerman’s Gull. Our first two Pomarine Jaegers, a single Red Phalarope, and two White-winged Scoters were added to the trip list as well.

The sun was setting, as the productive waters at the mouth of the Straight of Juan de Fuca off Flattery Point, Washington were just coming into view.

I bet you can tell which day the sun finally came out!

Barred Owl.

Golden-crowned Sparrow.

1st winter Glaucous-winged Gull (presumed close enough to pure).

“Sooty” Fox Sparrow. Worst-placed bread-bag clip litter.

Spotted Towhee.

Brown Creeper.

March of the Mallards.

..and American Wigeon.

Anna’s Hummingbird.

Common (Feral) Peafowl.

Hen  Eurasian Wigeon (note nearly concolorous head, neck, and body and lack of black gape spot. Underwings, especially the axillaries, were gray, clinching the ID.

“Slate-colored” Dark-eyed Junco.

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Rhinocerous Auklet in the harbor.

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The Olympic Mountains.

There were a few Mew Gulls on the water.

11/10, Day 7: Off Oregon.


Passing through Washington waters overnight, we awoke in Oregon, about 40 miles off the north-central coast. As soon as there was just enough twilight to see, birds began to appear. And other than about an hour in early afternoon, it did not stop until it was dark. And the most dedicated of us had to drag ourselves, exhausted, achy, and hungry, off the bow.

It was amazing.

Birds all day. Marine Mammals were constant. At one point a dozen Humpback Whale spouts, a hundred or so Pacific White-sided Dolphins, and perhaps thousands of birds were in view. Northern Fulmars were the most abundant tubenose through early afternoon, when Sooty Shearwaters began to take over. I picked up two life birds, Buller’s Shearwater (well over 30) and Flesh-footed Shearwater (after frustratingly missing one earlier, I found one in the big evening feeding frenzy and saw the third of the day). Unfortunately, I also missed the “bird of the day,” an early morning Mottled Petrel. I wasn’t the only one, and unlike most everyone else on the trip, that was the one Pterodroma that wasn’t a lifer for me, so if I had to miss one great bird on the trip, that’s the one I would be least disappointed about. But still.

My lifer Northern Right Whale Dolphins joined Dall’s Porpoise, a Fin Whale, a Minke Whale, Northern Fur Seals, Elephant Seals, and California Sea Lions on the day’s mammal list, while additional avian highlights included Laysan and Black-footed Albatrosses, Black-legged Kittwakes, Cassin’s and Rhinoceros Auklets, a single early Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel, a few Pomarine Jaegers, a couple of Pacific Loons, Common Murres, and plenty of gulls, including the first Western and California Gulls of the trip.

One of my other highlights, and just possibly my “highlight of the day” were several “nursery groups” of Mola Mola. Young molas, in groups of 4-7 or so, were moving south or lounging at the surface, usually with a gull or few in attendance. I’m not quite sure why I was so smitten with these, but I kinda wanted to hug one. I know, very scientific of me.

It truly was an amazing day, and as dusk was falling, the boat passed through a massive aggregation of dolphins, gulls, Sooty Shearwaters, and plenty of Pink-footed and Buller’s Shearwaters. This was the group that contained my lifer Flesh-footed Shearwaters, so it was a stupendous finish to an absolutely fantastic day on the water! And yes, with near constant activity from dawn to dusk, we are all exhausted, and frankly, I am unsure of how I am even seeing a computer screen right now.

I think I will sleep well tonight, although the anticipation of what tomorrow might bring will no doubt impact a needed full night of rest!
Off the Oregon Coast.

Northern Fulmar.

Black-footed Albatross

Laysan Albatross

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Buller’s Shearwaters.

Black-footed Albatross.

Pacific White-sided Dolphins.

Mola Mola.

Buller’s Shearwater.


11/11, Day 8: Off Northern California.

The air and seas were warmer as we found ourselves due west of Point Reyes shortly after sunrise. A nice following breeze – strong enough for seabirds to be flying, but in just the right direction to keep us warm and comfy at the bow – raised expectations, especially after the stellar day yesterday,

A Black-footed Albatross at first light also stoked the excitement, but as the day went on, and the lack of seabirds continued, many were left to reminisce about yesterday. Red Phalaropes were the most abundant bird of the day, by far, with a fair number of Northern Fulmars. Ashy Storm-Petrels started to show in 1’s and 3’s, including one that was grounded on the ship and was trying to hide in a corner. No doubt disoriented by the ship’s lights during the night, this “wrecked” bird could have had a long day were it not for two alert walkers who let us know. We raced over, identified it, inspected it, and then let it go off the stern – none of us had ever seen a storm-petrel fly as fast and direct as it booked it away from this floating island full of two-legged predators.

A Peregrine Falcon likely rode with us for a while today, and later in the afternoon, the regular appearance of a Brandt’s Cormorant – far from its nearshore environs – suggested a bird that was also resting on the boat now and again. The flock of 34 European Starlings, nearly 60km offshore, was a little harder to explain, however!

The long, tiring day of scanning the waters only produced a few new species for the trip, including a few Leach’s Storm-Petrels and a couple of Red-necked Phalaropes. But other than a scattered few Sooty and Pink-footed Shearwaters, several Pomarine Jaegers, a couple of Buller’s Shearwaters, and early Laysan and a handful of Black-footed Albatrosses, it was a slow day on the water. Very slow.

A few pods of Common Dolphins, several Humpback Whales, and a loafing Blue Whale were mammalian highlights…until dusk, when four Orcas steamed towards the ship, breaching and tail-slapping as they went by. While today was not the epic seabird and mammal day that yesterday was, the few of us still hanging on to the bitter end were rewarded with an Orca show. I for one was not complaining. Because breaching Orcas.

Off Big Sur, California.

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Wrecked Ashy Storm-Petrel.

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11/12, Day 9: Los Angeles.
Docked in the busy port of Los Angeles well before sunrise, I stepped outside to take in the crisp, dry air, and take a gander at some Western Gulls and a flycatching Black Phoebe. Adam, Brad, and I were anxious to disembark, ready to pack in a full day of twitching LA-are specialties.

Three thousand plus people trying to jam through customs is never quick, but apparently today was particularly nightmarish. Two and a half hours later, we were finally off the boat, picking up our rental car, and finally on our way.

The first stop was Huntingdon Beach Central Park, in pursuit of now-countable Scaly-breasted Munias. It didn’t take long, and although introduced, these really are festive little birds, and an ABA-Area bird for all three of us (we had all seen them elsewhere around the world). A few White-faced Ibis, Black and Say’s Phoebes, and other common urban park denizens were also noted.

It took us longer to find our quarry at Legg Lake Park, but after covering the entire park without any luck, Brad’s lifer Tricolored Blackbirds were right at the parking lot where we began – exactly where my friend Catherine Hamilton told us they would be. Luckily, we had some other fun birds in the meantime, including single Townsend’s Warbler, Hutton’s Vireo, Lesser Goldfinch, and a pair of Red-whiskered Bulbuls. The trip list grew by 14 species.

The time to find the blackbirds and some traffic en route put us way behind schedule as we entered Compton and headed for Colonel Leo H. Washington Park – the last “stronghold” of the once-common, established exotic, the Spotted Dove. I have a confession to make: this was a bird that only I needed. Yes, I was chasing an exotic. But honestly, it was such an interesting place to head to for a new bird (for the ABA-area), that there was a little bit of allure added. Readers of this blog know how much I love urban birding – and it doesn’t get anymore urban birding than this!

Unfortunately, despite quite a bit of searching, the Spotted Dove remained unseen. With so few left, they can be tough to find, and although Catherine promised they have been reliable here of late, she also cautioned that they are easily missed. We talked to a few residents who seemed to be used to random birders showing up in an otherwise less-than-touristy neighborhood and one guy playing soccer stopped to tell me about the Cooper’s Hawk that was catching rats in the alley behind his house; a short while later, a Coop flew overhead. Several other conversations helped prove that many inner-city residents do have a connection and appreciation for nature, as described by a recent study on urban residents’ recognition and valuation of birds in cities. I often sing the praises of the value of urban greenspaces to migratory birds, but these places are even more valuable to residents packed tightly into a confined space, desperate for the connection to fresh air and recreation of all kinds.

But yeah, all of this musing was really displacement behavior for my 1) decision to actually look for Spotted Dove instead of heading to straight to a park that would have had a lot of good birds, perhaps including my nemesis, Williamson’s Sapsucker, and 2) our failure to see it! We also checked Salt Lake Park – perhaps no longer hosting the dove, but at least that park had a few more birds, including some treats for us Easterners – Acorn Woodpeckers and Cassin’s Kingbird in particular. But alas, no Spotted Doves. Two residents, taking a break from chatting, pointed out a Peregrine Falcon on a transmission tower high overhead. Perhaps it knew where to find the doves.

By the time we took our first spin through Washington Park, we realized that with traffic building there was no chance to hit another site, so we just used up the remainder of daylight not seeing Spotted Doves. But, there’s little doubt I would never have seen Compton or Huntingdon Park were it not for searching for these birds, so there’s that. I guess.

As the sun set, Adam and Brad dropped me off at a hotel near the airport (“conveniently” located directly under landing planes) as they headed off to catch their red-eye flights. Thwarted by traffic and our dip on the dove, our afternoon of birding with Catherine turned into a dinner and beers. We caught up and reflected on Spotted Doves, or lack there of, and the meaning of life and listing. Or perhaps we talked more about the flavor composition of the beers we enjoyed.

Legg Lake Park.

Brewer’s Blackbird.

11/13, Day 10: Los Angeles.
A Cassin’s Kingbird was calling on the roof of my hotel to usher in the dawn, as I boarded my airport shuttle for the quick trip to the final leg of my journey. I have little doubt that I will be on another “Repositioning Cruise” sometime soon – I might be hooked. It sure was more comfortable than rolling around on a dedicated pelagic – and with unlimited food (but yeah, “bland” was my most used descriptor…I used a lot of hot sauce!) and several bars, this was pelagic birding in style!

Although I only ended up with three life birds (Sooty Grouse, Buller’s Shearwater, and Flesh-footed Shearwater), one ABA-area bird (Scaly-breasted Munia), three California birds (Buller’s, Leach’s Storm-Petrel, and munia), and a boatload of Canada birds (I had not birded west of Ontario before), I would deem this trip an utmost success. In fact, I had a great time, enjoyed birding with good friends – old and new – and experienced a completely different avifauna. And no “Megas” were missed here in Maine!

Here’s my total triplist, in order of appearance:
1. Rock Pigeon
2. Mallard
3. “Oregon” Dark-eyed Junco
4. Song Sparrow
5. European Starling
6. House Sparrow
7. Northwestern Crow (with “better” birds later in Victoria?)
8. Glaucous-winged Gull
9. White-crowned Sparrow
10. American Robin
11. Black-capped Chickadee
12. House Finch
13. Lincoln’s Sparrow
14. Canada Goose
15. Cackling Goose
16. Ring-billed Gull
17. Red-breasted Merganser
18. Great Blue Heron
19. Double-crested Cormorant
20. Barrow’s Goldeneye
21. Golden-crowned Kinglet
22. Horned Grebe
23. Thayer’s Gull
24. Northern “Red-shafted” Flicker
25. Surf Scoter
26. American Wigeon
27. Pine Siskin
28. Common Merganser
29. Bufflehead
30. Belted Kingfisher
31. Spotted Towhee
32. Mew Gull
33. Pelagic Cormorant
34. Bald Eagle
35. Bonaparte’s Gull
36. Common Goldeneye
37. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
38. Anna’s Hummingbird
39. American Dipper
40. Eurasian Wigeon
41. Greater White-fronted Goose
42. Brown Creeper
43. Downy Woodpecker
44. Snow Goose
45. Chestnut-backed Chickadee
46. Red-breasted Nuthatch
47. Hooded Merganser
48. American Coot
49. Red-winged Blackbird
50. Golden-crowned Sparrow
51. Fox Sparrow
52. Common Raven
53. Lesser Scaup
54. Red-necked Grebe
55. Red-breasted Sapsucker
56. Varied Thrush
57. Red Crossbill
58. Hermit Thrush
59. Northern Harrier
60. Eurasian Collared-Dove
61. Brewer’s Blackbird
62. Northern Shoveler
63. Northern Pintail
64. Green-winged Teal
65. Dunlin
66. Black-bellied Plover
67. Sanderling
68. Western Sandpiper
69. Herring Gull
70. Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch
72. Stellar’s Jay
73. Pacific Wren
74. White-breasted Nuthatch
75. Wood Duck
76. Western Meadowlark
77. Gadwall
78. American Goldfinch
79. Pied-billed Grebe
80. Peregrine Falcon
81. Long-billed Dowitcher
82. Sharp-shinned Hawk
83. Trumpeter Swan
84. Red-tailed Hawk
85. Black Turnstone
86. Harlequin Duck
87. Barred Owl
88. Bewick’s Wren
89. Ancient Murrelet
90. Common Loon
91. Purple Finch
— Common Peafowl
— “Slate-colored” Dark-eyed Junco
92. Bushtit
93. “Audubon’s” Yellow-rumped Warbler
94. Rhinoceros Auklet
95. Common Murre
96. Pigeon Guillemot
97. Pacific Loon
98. Brandt’s Cormorant
99. White-winged Scoter
100. Red-throated Loon
101. Northern Fulmar
102. Heerman’s Gull
103. “Black” Brant
104. Pomarine Jaeger
105. Red Phalarope
106. Pink-footed Shearwater
107. Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel
108. Sooty Shearwater
109. Cassin’s Auklet
110. Black-footed Albatross
111. California Gull
112. Black-legged Kittiwake
113. Laysan Albatross
115. Short-tailed Shearwater
117. Ashy Storm-Petrel
118. Leach’s Storm-Petrel
119. Red-necked Phalarope
Los Angeles
120. Black Phoebe
121. American Kestrel
122. Great Egret
123. Snowy Egret
124. White-faced Ibis
125. American Coot
126. Green Heron
127. Greater Yellowlegs
128. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
130. Say’s Phoebe
131. Osprey
132. Turkey Vulture
133. American White Pelican
134. Ruddy Duck
135. Lesser Goldfinch
136. Hutton’s Vireo
137. Townsend’s Warbler
138. Orange-crowned Warbler
139. Western Grebe
140. Northern Mockingbird
141. Black-crowned Night-Heron
142. Cooper’s Hawk
143. Mourning Dove
144. Common Yellowthroat.
— Red-whiskered Bulbul
145. Great-tailed Grackle
146. Tricolored Blackbird
147. Allen’s Hummingbird
— Yellow-chevroned Parakeet
148. Acorn Woodpecker
149. Cassin’s Kingbird

1. Eastern Gray Squirrel
2. Douglas Squirrel
3. Harbor Seal
4. River Otter
5. Black-tailed Deer
6. Dall’s Porpoise
7. Humpback Whale
8. Elephant Seal
9. Fin Whale
10. Northern Fur Seal
11. Pacific White-sided Dolphin
12. Minke Whale
13. California Sea Lion
14. Short-beaked Common Dolphin
16. Blue Whale
17. Orca
18. Fox Squirrel

Portland Eviscerates Capisic Pond Park

Several years ago, I joined a group of concerned residents in working for substantial restoration of Capisic Pond Park following the necessary – and federally mandated – replacement of the sewer line that runs the length of the park. The post-construction restoration plan was essentially “spread some grass seed.”

After countless meetings, public hearings, and workshops, a plan was implemented that not only limited damage from the construction process, but improved it. Over $150,000 was spent on restoration, including extensive planting of native plants to not only beautify the park, but improve biodiversity. Birds, and the many birders who frequent this little treasure of an urban park, would benefit.

Over the years, as those plantings have slowly come into their own, and began to bear fruit (literally!), bird diversity has only continued to increase. From the continued presences of Orchard Orioles – the only breeding pair known in the state, to a wealth of migrant sparrows, to rarities (including just last month, one of only 6 or so Ash-throated Flycatchers to ever be seen in Maine) have attracted birders from far and wide.

On Monday, Jeannette and I headed to Portland to work the productive micro-habitats and micro-climates in urban areas to search for rarities, and “lingering” migrants. We began our day at Capisic Pond Park.

And we were greeted by this:

We were appalled. We were horrified. We were saddened.

What the hell has happened?

According to the Facebook page for the Friends of Capisic Pond Park, posted on October 31st:
“Don’t be alarmed by the mowing and cutting that will be done in the first week or so of November. It is important to mow the park for several reason. First, and most important, if the small trees and brush aren’t mowed and cut periodically the meadow environment will transform (in time) into a forest. Just like the open farm fields of the 19th century that covered virtually all of Maine are now woods, Capisic Pond Park will move from field to brush to forest unless it is mown and tended. Second, regular cutting will spread seeds and improve the habitat overall. Lastly, we will again be able to see the pond (what’s left of it, anyway) and access the ice (!) during the months before everything regrows next Spring and Summer. FOCP members Donna and Steve Williams and Andy Graham met with Jeff Tarling of Public Services on Friday October 30th to walk the park and talk about what should and should not be cut – we are fortunate to have Jeff as a knowledgeable and caring partner.

“Also – if you were wondering about the trees being cut on Capisic St near the pond, this is the first preparation for the pond restoration work to be done next year. Apparently this will be an access point for the equipment needed to dredge and remove the spoils next August and September.”

This wasn’t a “haircut.” This was a clear-cut.

Quite frankly, I am left to question either the motives or the expertise behind the decisions that were made – at least beyond the third rationales listed: “…we will again be able to see the pond.” And the reason I question whether that clear-cutting had anything to do with anything other than what site-lines some people preferred seems simple as the other reasons given are complete B.S.

1) Cutting is not necessary to spread seeds. Plants are built to do that on their own, either through wind, animals, or gravity.
2) Improve habitat? Granted this depends on what habitat you are trying to improve, but I would argue that this type of mechanized treatment did not in any way improve habitat for much of anything at Capisic. In fact, it damaged or even ruined the habitat for most of the species that frequent the park.
3) Selective cutting, girdling, or other low-impact methods are widely available to eliminate forest succession, especially on a scale as small as Capisic. Almost any other treatment would substantially improve and augment habitat, not ravage it. And that goes for the aesthetics, too – the place is a mess right now.

So I fail to see what was accomplished here, other than opening up some views or fitting in with some outdated philosophy that parks should be open. Actually, what was accomplished was that the value of Capisic Pond Park to most migratory (just about all passage warblers), breeding (including both Baltimore and the famous Orchard Orioles) and year-round resident species (i.e. Northern Cardinals) was severely, and very negatively, impacted.

The significant improvement in food source diversity (especially for frugivores) from the park’s restoration was set back by a decade – or permanently if native plants are not replaced and restored. This heavy-handed, unselective approach favors invasive species, as they out-compete regenerating natives. If left alone, Capisic will end up with significantly more Asiatic Bittersweet, bush honeysuckle, and Multiflora Rose after this misguided effort. Limited biodiversity begets limited biodiversity.

And we’ve seen this throughout the city, for example, the Eastern Promenade, where – despite the efforts of a handful of local residents attempting to stem the tide of invasives – city mismanagement continues to accelerate their spread and the degradation of the habitat. Portland has already ruined (for birds and birders) the “Dragon Field” (behind the Quarry Run Dogpark), annihilated critical migratory bird habitat along West Commercial Street and wiped out any shelter of any sort along the Fore River Parkway Trail, and continues to assault any sort of cover in roadside edges and overgrown lots (all critical for disoriented and exhausted migrants, and “pioneers” that are attempting to overwinter after possibly becoming “stuck” in the city. Portland stood by as Evergreen Cemetery had a road plowed through it and neglect continues to degrade the pond areas – despite being the most-visited birding location in that state. See a pattern here?

And through all this, little ol’ Capisic Pond Park stood as the lone bastion of hope. Residents, birders, engineers, and city officials came together to not only restore the park after the sewer reconstruction, but actually improve the habitat for migratory and resident birds. And birders have been reaping those dividends, as improved plant diversity continues to provide a greater array of native foodstuffs as the replanted vegetation matures. And that has meant more birds.

I was proud of what was accomplished at Capisic Pond Park. I – and many others – worked tireless to make that happen. A lot of time, effort, dedication – and yes, a substantial amount of money – was invested.

And then, with a few passes of a brush-hog mower, it was gone. All of that time, effort, dedication, money, and concern, wasted. Just like that. Poof.

I’m sickened by what I saw at Capisic Pond Park on Monday. And personally, it will be hard for me to go back. There will always be birds in the park – it’s truly an urban oasis, and some migrants will have no choice but to search for food here. However, the knowledge of how much better the bird habitat, and therefore the birding, should be will forever be a reminded to me about how much time and energy I have wasted fighting for birds in the City of Portland.

But at least I can simply go somewhere else. If you’re a bird in Portland, you’re running out of choices.

Birds on Tap – Roadtrip: Ducks and Draughts! 11/15/15.

scaup scanning

The second “Birds on Tap – Roadtrip!” of 2015 was another resounding success.  As a follow up to our first event in August that featured shorebirds in Scarborough Marsh, we once again partner with the Maine Brew Bus to offer a fun, bird- and beer- filled outing.

Our theme for the this tour was “Ducks and Draughts,” and so we headed northwest to Sabattus Pond in Sabattus, one of the premier duck-watching sites in Maine, and arguably THE waterfowl hotspot in late fall in the southern half of the state. After pick-ups in Portland and Freeport, the bus, Paul (our driver and beer guide for the day), and I arrived at the south end of Sabattus Pond. It didn’t take long to know why this place is such a destination for birders at this time of year.

A large number of ducks were immediately encountered, but we soon focused our attention on the pair of Redheads – rare, but fairly-regular migrants in Maine – that were a “Life” or “State” Bird for some. For others, it was nothing more than the pleasure of seeing this attractive bird!
group at south end

We covered the three primary hotspots on Sabattus Pond, amassing a total of 17 species of waterbirds. In addition to the Redheads, highlights included a Red-necked Grebe (rare in Maine’s interior), 24 American Coots, 4 Northern Pintails, 6 Green-winged Teal, and several hundred Ruddy Ducks. Although a relatively low number for here, “several hundred” Ruddy Ducks is not a statement uttered anywhere else in Maine…and especially not when proceeded by the word “low!”  Other waterbirds species seen today included Lesser and Greater Scaup, Mallard, American Black Duck, Ring-billed and Herring (1) Gulls, Buffleheads, Hooded and Common Mergansers, Common Goldeneyes, and one Great Blue Heron.
group on east side

Sabattus also affords the opportunity to study the two scaup species together, so we took plenty of time to go over this identification challenge. Side-by-side, the major differences are often readily apparent, so we practiced our skills to apply them to a homogenous group, or worse, the “dreaded” lone, single, distant scaup!

Having our fill of the nuances of Aythya identification, Paul took charge and delivered us to Lewiston’s Baxter Brewing. But as we stepped out of the bus at the renovated mill, it was back to the binoculars and scopes as we enjoyed a Peregrine Falcon pair – one busy feasting on a Rock Pigeon lunch – a top a nearby building.  With that, it was beer time!
outside Baxter

The first brewer in New England to can all of its beer, Baxter is known for such go-to brews as their Pamola Pale Ale and especially, their Stowaway IPA. Less well-known, however, is their ultra-creative 10-gallon Small Batch Series. Samples of Tarnation Lager, Phantom Punch Winter Stout, and Bootleg Fireworks Double IPA were enjoyed and discusses, and I simply had to quench my curiosity (as well as my thirst, of course), with the Small Batch “Sweet Tea Chai Spice Stout.”
baxter tour 2Baxter tour

A tour of the brewery and the brewing processed followed, and soon we were off – with one last quick look at the Peregrines, heading down the Androscoggin River to Freeport for a date at Maine Beer Company. Samples of Zoe (Hoppy Amber), Mo (Pale Ale), King Titus (Porter) and one of my absolute favorites, Lunch (IPA) were served, and a few folks sampled their most recent Pilot 8, their take on a Kolsch. Fueled by the delicious brews, we continued the discussion of…well, ducks…and draughts!
MBC beers

outside MBC

The “Birds on Tap – Roadtrip!” series, a partnership between the Maine Brew Bus and Freeport Wild Bird Supply will continue in 2016. In fact, several new tours are in the works, which we hope to announce soon. Stay tuned!

The Rarity Fever Juices are Flowing – It must be November, and There was a Storm…

Rarity season is upon us, and there’s no better time for a big ol’ storm. Especially with an impressive southerly flow before and during the storm, and a strong cold front clearing things out behind it, my “Rarity Fever” symptoms got fired up.

Just look at those extensive southerly winds on Friday and Sunday, for example…
wind map,10-28-15

wind map,10-30-15

…following Thursday’s storm system.
surface map, 10-29-15

Heavy rain Wednesday night into Thursday gave way to a few hours of well-above normal temperatures and mostly sunny skies before winds and rain began to pick up in the late afternoon ahead of the cold front. I was able to squeeze in a visit to Sabattus Pond in the early afternoon, hoping for storm-grounded waterbirds.

While it was simply gorgeous out, the waterbird numbers remained below seasonal-norms here. A continuing pair of Redheads was the highlight, and a pair of White-winged Scoters was just the type of rare-inland migrant seaduck I hope to find after some weathah’. Otherwise, waterbird counts were modest: 219 Ruddy Ducks (well, modest for Sabattus – this is an epic count for anywhere else in the state!), 164 Lesser Scaup, 75+ Ring-billed Gulls, 62 Mallards (not sure where the masses were today), 41 Bufflehead, 39 Greater Scaup, 36 Ring-necked Ducks, 16 American Coots, 13 American Black Ducks, 11 Canada Geese, 2 Common Loons, 1 Mallard x black duck hybrid, and 1 Double-crested Cormorant.

On Friday, with southwesterly winds (more rarity wind!) gusting ahead of a secondary cold front, I spent the morning in Cape Elizabeth. While I had Cave Swallow on my mind, I settled for a nice mix of late migrants, including four species of warblers (Orange-crowned at Kettle Cove, my 4th of the year; Blackpoll and “Western” Palm at Pond Cove, and scattered Yellow-rumps), a Gray Catbird at Kettle Cove, and an Indigo Bunting on private property.
BLPW,PondCove, 10-30-15_edited-1

With a light (but decent-for-the-date) migration overnight, I started at sunrise at “My Office” at Sandy Point to take in what’s left of the Morning Flight. Calm winds seemed to preclude as many birds from reorienting here as I would have expected based on the decent-for-the-date radar image overnight. However, it was a very pleasant morning with nice little flight featuring good late-season diversity. I tallied a total of 247 migrants, led by an even 100 American Robins, 66 Dark-eyed Juncos, and a nice total of 14 Snow Buntings. “Tardy” birds included 3 “Yellow” Palm Warblers, an Eastern Phoebe, 2 Hermit Thrushes, a Red-winged Blackbird, and best of all, a late Black-and-white Warbler that I found in the trees after my Saturday Morning Birdwalk group had joined me.

But on Sunday, vagrant-hunting was the name of the game. Although I did not organize a South Coast-wide “Rarity Roundup” this year for the first time in a decade, Kristen Lindquist, Evan Obercian, Jeannette and I ran my usual Portland Rarity Roundup itinerary, scouring the Portland peninsula for vagrants, “lingering” migrants, and other surprises. It was not exactly the birdiest of days on the Portland Pen’ but the Eastern Promenade was fairly productive, led by 2 Orange-crowned Warblers, a Palm Warbler, a Field Sparrow, and three Hermit Thrushes.
Here’s a terrible shot in the dawn dark and drizzle of one of the two Orange-crowns.

Elsewhere in the East End, we turned up a Hermit Thrush on Anderson Street, and a Gray Catbird on Sheridan Street, but then the passerines really dried up. The usually-productive stretch of woods on either side of West Commercial Street has been rendered useless, and was essentially devoid of birds.

On the riverside, there’s development, clearing a great stand of birch and scattered crabapples that once resided here:

But it’s a city, and development occurs, and there are lot worse places for trees to be cleared. The abandoned railyard and old docks along this stretch of degraded river is hardly habitat worth conserving. “There are more important places to protect,” as Evan stated. However, it was at least some habitat for tired and disoriented migrants that found themselves in the city and looking for food and shelter.

But degraded urban “brownfields” are exactly where development should occur. More frustrating – and rather perplexing – however, is the continued ravaging of quality habitat throughout the city by the City of Portland. From incredibly valuable parkland habitat at the Eastern Promenade to scattered thickets on undeveloped hillsides, it’s as if Portland doesn’t want birds to find refuge in the city. Of course, there are “other considerations” for this land mis-management, but that’s a blog for another day. But the misguided efforts to do whatever it is the city thinks it’s going to accomplish by clear-cutting what was the best strip of woods on the peninsula, reduced habitat for migrants – and resident species from Black-capped Chickadees to Hairy Woodpeckers, to Barred and Great Horned Owls (breeding) to this:

What a mess, and what an abomination! And what a waste. So yeah, there weren’t any birds here, either.

So after lunch, we gave up on the city (and crossed off several birding hotspots from the list…don’t get me started about what they have done to the Fore River Parkway Trail area!) and headed to Cape Elizabeth.

Unfortunately – especially with an increasing southerly wind in the afternoon – it wasn’t overly productive here. In fact, several of the best hotspots were incredibly slow – as slow as I have ever seen them at this time of year. However, we did hit some hotspots, led by a great amount of activity at Trundy Point. The five Snow Buntings on the beach were nice (photo below), but a feeding frenzy of 40+ Common and 6 Red-throated Loons, a single Red-necked Grebe, 1 Bonaparte’s Gull, and a goodly amount of Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls made for a fun visit. Northern Gannets were diving further offshore as well.
SNBU, 11-1-15

Maxwell’s Farm was productive, too: 17 Eastern Bluebirds, 5 American Pipits, and a Wilson’s Snipe led the way, and we had another snipe flying over little Joe’s Pond Park in South Portland. Mill Creek Park might have been the birdiest stop of the day – even if it was almost all Mallards and Ring-billed Gulls, however!

We then finished up the day, with the sun setting, at Portland’s Back Cove, with arguably the bird of the day – a late American Golden-Plover going to sleep with 9 Black-bellied Plovers and 5 Dunlin at the edge of the marsh. It was a nice way to cap an enjoyable day of birding with good friends, with the senseless optimism of Rarity Season keeping us going through nearly 14 miles of walking and searching.

No major rarities were to be found at Reid State Park on Monday morning, either, but Jeannette and I enjoyed a lovely, birdy walk on a beautiful morning. 8 late Semipalmated Plovers joined 151 Sanderlings on the beach, along with 8 American Pipits and 18 Snow Buntings. A lingering Nelson’s Sparrow (subvirgatus) was in the saltmarsh, and we spotted a Northern Harrier flying south, low over the water offshore. In the water, winter ducks and waterbirds are rapidly increasing: 31 Red-necked Grebes, 15+ Red-throated Loons, all three scoters, and a whole bunch of Long-tailed Ducks were among the growing legions today.

And then, I came into the store for a couple of hours of work this afternoon and was distracted by a Dickcissel at our feeders!

After spending so much time sifting through urban House Sparrow flocks yesterday, of course one would show up right in front of me. It was a long overdue addition to our store’s yard list – #114! And it was my 5th mainland Dickcissel of the fall.

While the appearance of a vagrant after a storm could simply be coincidence, storms can facilitate the departure of already-wayward strays (to oversimplify things a bit). It’s hard to pin any one bird down to any particular weather event, but the appearance of a Swainson’s Hawk (about 6 or 7 state records) that was nicely photographed at the Cadillac Mountain Hawkwatch in Acadia on Friday, only served to further flare my Rarity Fever Symptoms. However, despite my best efforts, I didn’t turn anything of great significance up this weekend, and nor did anyone else in Maine.

From the lack of birdlife in many Portland spots (the ones that still have vegetation that is!) and especially in the warm Cape Elizabeth microclimates that I have been checking, it’s possible that the mild weather (remember we’ve only had that once cold snap so far) has simply not yet concentrated lingering/pioneering individuals and wayward vagrants in the little nooks and crannies that we seek them in at this time of year. And with a very mild week in store, perhaps it will be a little longer before we see them concentrate.

But there is one thing we can be sure of: there will be a “Mega” rarity soon. How do I know? Because I am going away during Rarity Season!