One of two Nelson’s Sparrows at Kettle Cove in Cape Elizabeth on Thursday, this one had much more well-defined streaking than the other. It doesn’t seem crisp and clear enough to be an “interior” subspecies, however, but I can’t help but wonder if there are Saltmarsh Sparrow genes in here, too.
A good week of October birding – at least when it wasn’t pouring again – included a goodly total of 5 Orange-crowned Warblers and a nice mix of “late” migrants. And finally, a morning at Sandy Point! My observations of note over the past seven days included the following:
1 CLAY-COLORED SPARROW and 1 BAY-BREASTED WARBLER, Wolfe’s Neck Center, Freeport, 10/22 (with Saturday Morning Birdwalk Group).
1 Orange-crowned Warbler and 1 Common Yellowthroat, Elphis Pond, Biddeford Pool, 10/23.
1 Orange-crowned Warbler and 1 Blackpoll Warbler, etc, East Point, Biddeford Pool, 10/23 (with clients from Maine and Pennsylvania).
Scoter sweep at Sabattus! All three scoters were present on Sabattus Pond on 10/25 – perhaps only the second time I have ever had the hat trick here. 26 SURF SCOTERS, 21 BLACK SCOTERS, and 16 WHITE-WINGED SCOTERS joined 302 RUDDY DUCKS, 80 Greater and 44 Lesser Scaup, etc. (with Jeannette).
2 Orange-crowned Warblers, 2 Nelson’s Sparrows (see photo above), and 12 Semipalmated Plovers, Kettle Cove, Cape Elizabeth, 10/27.
My observations of note over the past seven days included the following:
1 continuing HUDSONIAN GODWIT, Wharton Point, Brunswick, 10/15 (with Saturday Morning Birdwalk group; the 247th all-time Saturday Morning Birdwalk species!). Observed at closer range later from the Maquoit Bay Conservation Land.
1 Indigo Bunting, Wolfe’s Neck Center, Freeport, 10/16.
Incredibly morning at Bailey Island, Harpswell with Jeannette on 10/17: 1 ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER, 1 CAPE MAY WARBLER, 1 Blue-headed Vireo, 1 Red-eyed Vireo. 6 total species of warblers; 7 species of sparrows. 400+ Dark-eyed Juncos, 200+ Yellow-rumped Warblers, 150+ White-throated Sparrows, 150+ Song Sparrows, etc, etc.
1 ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER, our yard in Durham, 10/17.
My birding levels were closer to par for me this week, albeit concentrated on building our new yard list! The last two group tours of the year – both by boat – were conducted this week, with overall great success. It was also nice to have a few mornings to get some casual birding in before work. This is my favorite time of the birding year, afterall!
1 Marsh Wren (in a dry patch of burdock!), our yard in Durham, 10/8.
1 Long-tailed Duck (first of fall), 3 Snowy Egrets, 115 Surf Scoters, etc, Birds of Casco Bay Boat Tour, 10/9.
1 Indigo Bunting in a very light morning flight at Sandy Point, Cousin’s Island, Yarmouth, 10/10 (total – 87 migrants).
½ Day Pelagic out of Boothbay Harbor on 10/11: 1 Common Murre, 1 Parasitic Jaeger, 1 Pomarine Jaeger, 3 Northern Fulmars, 1 Lesser Black-backed Gull, etc. Full trip report with photos and annotated checklist, along with my Stercorariidae mea culpa can be seen here.
Our third and final ½ Day Pelagic with our partners Cap’n Fish’s cruises out of Boothbay Harbor took place on a glorious fall day on Tuesday, October 11th.
OK, let’s get right down to business: it was NOT a South Polar Skua. This is not the first time a mea culpa was issued over a Stercorariidae. It won’t be the last. Certainly not my last, anyway. But yeah, I got this one wrong, and I apologize.
We spotted a large, dark, and very heavy-looking skua/jaeger in flight parallel to the boat. Captain Nick did an exceptional job of staying with it, staying parallel to it, affording incredible views for an unusually long amount of time. We were traveling at 18.2 knots, and the bird was slowly taking the lead. When it looked like it was thinking of landing, I had Nick angle slightly away so as not to make the bird concerned. It worked! It landed, we slowly worked our way up to it, and almost circled it before it took off. High-fives were exchanged. Smiles reigned. We got a skua! Big, barrel-chested, thick dark bill, and short tail. The very cold tones and extensive molt strongly suggested South Polar Skua. It would be a life bird for many.
I was convinced in the field, and I was convinced when I got off the boat. Everyone I talked to was convinced too. Other than a small feeling that the bill looked a little long, and the bird looked a little, well, not-menacing on the water, I had little doubt. But as I announce on all of my pelagics, all jaeger and skua identifications are provisional until I can review photographs.
The doubt -err, fear – began in the evening, as I looked over Jeannette’s shoulder as she began to sort photos. Starting with the skua, I wanted to make sure it was in fact a South Polar, and not a Great. That was my only real concern. But then I saw her pics. I was observing through 8x binoculars, she was shooting at 400mm. Details would likely emerge that I could not see in the field. And I didn’t like those details.
That rear end did look a little tapered. The bill did seem a little thin. And wait, is that barring in the underwings? Uh-oh. Are we sure? What about the location of white within the outer primaries? Is it too narrow? And boy, it looks cuter on the water than I expected. And that bill does look two-toned and kinda long.
Photos were sent to a friend. The shadow of doubt cast over the room. He immediately said “Pomarine.” But we discussed, and he left it off as “but I could buy this as a skua.” Another friend “That’s a skua.” “I’m flip-flopping…maybe a hint of barring on the undertail and underwing coverts, but it looks so skua-like…the molt pattern is identical to one I saw a couple of weeks ago.” Back and forth with these three friends continued. I posted to the Skuas and Jaegers of the World Facebook page; “Definitely a skua…” said the first commentor. Books and papers were referenced.
More photos were received. And discussion continued. Some photos showed what could be nearly impossible to argue was anything other than a South Polar Skua. I only wanted to look at these.
Sheepishly – knowing how tired he must be after a long drive to and from in the same day, I asked my friend Bill Thompson to check his photos. He jumped right on it, and sent this.
Is that the beginning of the long, round-tipped central tail feathers of a Pomarine Jaeger? They’re so broad. And the rest of the tail is a worn, ratty disaster. That would explain why it looked so short-tailed in the field. But that bill looks short, stout, and all-dark.
I asked for an underwing shot.
Yeah, that looks barred. But still, that bird was a massive keg.
These photos were entered into the various discussions, and uncertainty ruled as I finally passed out from boat and skua-induced exhaustion.
I awoke – stalled in turning my phone on – and what little glimmer of hope was crushed when I opened some emails from Tony Carapella that clearly showed a Pomarine Jaeger. I mean clearly, unequivocally, without a doubt.
“And upon further review, the call on the field is overturned. After the play, personal foul, unnecessary roughness on the trip leader’s self esteem. 15 yards…”
Sorry, folks, I got this one wrong.
But, hey, the rest of the trip was decent, too, even if we scratched the headliner off the top. Right? Please tell me it’s all OK?
Of course, this wasn’t the only quandary on the day either. Late in the trip, three jaegers gave us the slip. I am hoping someone got some distant photos that might yield a hint, but for now, they will go unidentified. There were also two larger dolphins within a small group of Atlantic White-sided Dolphins. Kelsey and I are still trying to figure things out. Stay tuned. They were not skuas, either, however.
Several Northern Fulmars included one that eventually gave fantastic views. We had a few Black-legged Kittiwakes, and Captain Nick did an amazing job getting us a close look at the first one that was loafing on the water. We also had an American Pipit fly-by, and a Yellow-rumped Warbler land in the cabin and rest for a while before departing.
And it was an absolutely, insanely gorgeous day. The water had only a slight ripple, there was virtually no swell, and it was warm with plenty of sun (but just enough high clouds to reduce the glare). There could not be a better day to head into deep water in the Gulf of Maine.
In fact, the unreasonably benign conditions allowed us to motor even further offshore than usual to explore a new area. After finding two of our favorite spots a little, well, low on birds, we headed out about 28 miles to an area we found on the map known as “Mistaken Ground” where the bottom plunged to a depth of 918 feet. I accept the name as a warning that maybe this would not be a good decision. But alas, it was where most of our action was. I could have spent all day here.
While the chum slick failed to work, perhaps because it wasn’t windy enough to waft the odor towards hungry birds, and there were long stretches with virtually no life in sight, overall, we had a solid list for merely 4.5 hours offshore. The proximity to deep water and interesting underwater topography afforded by starting from Boothbay Harbor allows us to run these trips in a shorter timeframe, especially for those learning to get their sea legs. And today was definitely a day for building up one’s oceanic confidence. Confidence in skua identification, however, well, that is another story. Apparently, my “mistaken ground” was thinking I could identify these birds before studying photos on the computer!
Here’s the annotated trip list:
8 Canada Geese
970 Common Eider
113 Surf Scoter
12 White-winged Scoters
24 Rock Pigeon
1 POMARINE JAEGER (see treatise above)
1 PARASITIC JAEGER (one of the three distant birds that turned out to be identifiable from photos)
2 Unidentified jaegers
1 COMMON MURRE (spotted in outer harbor by a few observers)
1 Razorbill (confirmed from jaeger photo bomb)
9 Black Guillemots
7 Black-legged Kittiwakes
2 Bonaparte’s Gulls
145 Herring Gulls
1 Lesser Black-backed Gull
51 Great Black-backed Gulls
3 NORTHERN FULMAR
1 Red-throated Loon
15 Common Loons
242 Northern Gannets
75 Double-crested Cormorants
2 Great Blue Herons
2 Bald Eagles
8 American Crows
1 American Pipit
1 Yellow-rumped Warbler
1 Unidentified passerine.
1 Minke Whale
1 small pod of Atlantic White-sided Dolphins
2 unidentified larger dolphins (still working on ID possibilities but we have no conclusive photos yet)
It’s been a crazy two weeks! Other than two wonderful weekends on Monhegan – personal and professional – and an incredibly Sandy Point Morning Flight last week, my birding has been seriously limited. With the weather pattern and so many rarities around, this was frustrating, but as of today, we have (mostly) completed our move from Pownal to Durham.
Monhegan Island, 9/22-9/26. Highlights included 1 LARK SPARROW, 6 LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULLS, 3 CLAY-COLORED SPARROWS, 2 DICKCISSELS, 1 ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER, 16 species of warblers, and an insane falcon show. Complete Tour Report and daily checklist here.
Sandy Point Morning Flight, 9/29: 6,183 migrants of 69 species highlighted by 1 BLUE GROSBEAK, 20 species of warblers, and my 195th all-time patch bird in 2 high-flying Little Blue Herons! It was a great enough day to deserve its own blog, which can be found here.
1 Brown Thrasher, here at the store, 9/29. Our second ever in the garden here.
Pownal Morning Flight, 9/30: 289 individuals of 29 species. Complete list here. Our last morning flight at our old property, with a final yard list of 136.
Monhegan Island, 9/30-10/2 with Jeannette. We were here for a friends’ event, so birding was not always the priority. Nonetheless, we had some good birds included the continuing juvenile RED-HEADED WOODPECKER, at least one continuing CLAY-COLORED SPARROW and DICKCISSEL, 1 Red-bellied Woodpecker, our first coastal Pine Siskin of the fall, a late Veery, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers in every apple tree, warblers on the ground, and a big Yellow-rumped Warbler morning flight on the 1st.
I arrived on the island on Thursday (9/22). Be happy that the tour didn’t start this day. It rained. A Lot. However, I was greeted by 6 Lesser Black-backed Gulls on Smuttynose Island upon my arrival: 5 adults and 1 juvenile. It turned out to be one of the highest counts ever on the island. That would also turn out to be my birding highlight of the day, as a short jaunt in the afternoon only yielded one species that I would not end up seeing with the group: a juvenile Ring-billed Gull, which is actually a very uncommon bird out here.
The sunset, however, was worth the trip, and the clearing skies foretold some good birding to come.
Overnight, a moderate migration on clearing skies brought many new birds to the island. The group met at 9:00, and we picked up the rest of the day’s participants as their ferry arrived. It was very windy today, but all day long, whenever we found a pocket of shelter, we found birds. It was mostly Yellow-rumped and Blackpoll Warblers, as expected for the date, but there was a decent smattering of diversity.
Between the winds and the raptors, birds were keeping low though! But speaking of raptors – wow, the falcon show! It was incredible. There is absolutely no way of knowing how many Peregrine Falcons and Merlins we saw today, with birds whipping by overhead. Some were hunting, and likely circling the island to do so, but it’s also possible that there was a steady flow of birds moving south, only pausing to wink at the island. It was impossible to quantify, but it was a whole lot of fun to watch!
We enjoyed quality time with Cedar Waxwings, Monarch butterflies, and enjoyed some gorgeous Question Mark butterflies as well. White-crowned Sparrows were rather conspicuous, and we had a good lesson in duck identification with Mallards, an American Black Duck, and a hybrid thereof all side-by-side.
Wind was whipping all night long and continued to gust well over 20mph as of sunrise. With a high-pressure system building in, and powerful Hurricane Fiona passing well to our east, the wind would just not let up. Several ferries were cancelled, and if you happened to be in the room that a screen door was slamming up against all night (ahem), then maybe you were not as rested as you would have liked.
The Gray NEXRAD radar was down, but the Caribou station showed a moderate flight of birds overnight with marginally lighter winds over the mainland. A light morning flight – mostly strong-flying Blackpoll Warblers – didn’t portend a lot of birds had arrived, but pockets of White-throated Sparrows and Yellow-rumped Warblers in places where they weren’t yesterday suggested otherwise. In fact, there were a bunch of birds around, and it was a very productive morning!
We visited with two cooperative Dickcissels that have been around for days, caught up with the lingering Lark Sparrow, and were among the lucky ones who caught up with an early Orange-crowned Warbler. All before lunch.
And while the wind continued to gust, and uncountable falcons continued to wreak havoc, anytime we found a corner of shelter, we found birds – and often lots of them! White-throated Sparrows littered the woods, and because of the wind, many birds were insanely easy to see.
One of the highlights were warblers on the ground – hatches of large flies were feasting on rotting apples below laden trees, and with no flying insects able to survive a foot into the air today, we spent a lot of time looking DOWN at warblers.
Finally, as dusk fell, the winds subsided. Unfortunately, by early nightfall, the winds were already a little more westerly than we would have liked. Come Sunday morning, a surprisingly light morning flight, dominated by Yellow-rumped Warblers almost exclusively, reflected the lack of the northerly component overnight. Birds seemed to be in lower quantities overall – a lot of Blackpoll Warblers had apparently departed – and with calm conditions (so, so welcome), there were fewer concentrations of birds.
Throughout the day, it was relatively slow by Monhegan standards, but we just kept adding new species to the triplist, and basking in repeated stellar views. The two Dickcissels were in their usual place throughout the day, a juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gull continued, and later in the morning we found a Marsh Wren – very uncommon out here.
In the afternoon, we had a splendid sparrow session. We had our longest looks yet at the Lark Sparrow, but after a report of one Clay-colored Sparrow at the same spot, we arrived to find three! A Lincoln’s Sparrow even came out into the open to join the Song, Chipping, White-throated, White-crowned, and Savannah Sparrows, making for an impressive total of 7 species of sparrows from one spot! Of course, the comparative experience makes all the difference in learning these species – as most look so very different from each other. Well, most of them did, anyway! A solid 76 species were tallied by day’s end.
The last day of the tour was Monday the 26th, and our time was winding down. So were the number of non-Yellow-rumped Warblers. Some light showers overnight may have put a few birds down, but winds were southwesterly thereafter, and the Caribou radar (the Gray station was still down) showed little movement. The morning flight was therefore virtually non-existent.
We found an Indigo Bunting, and later, an Alder Flycatcher confused and disoriented, stuck in the ice cutting display building of the Monhegan Museum. Three Clay-colored Sparrows were still present; we had good looks at two of them at the school and had another session comparing them to the variety of ages of Chipping Sparrows they were cajoling around with. The Lark Sparrow also performed nicely for us again.
It felt very slow, especially in the afternoon, when we took time to enjoy Fringed Gentian and repeatedly “dip” on a Red-headed Woodpecker that most everyone except us had eventually seen. Yet interestingly, we kept finding new species for our day’s list, and by the time the tour ended in time to catch the 4:30 ferry to Port Clyde, we had accumulated our highest species total of the weekend – a goodly 81.
The apparent abundance of some species – such as White-breasted Nuthatch, which we conservatively estimated included the presence of 4-6 pairs despite apparent omnipresence and Blackpoll Warblers on the ground – continued to impress as well.
With today’s new additions along with Laughing Gulls on our ferry ride back, our total trip listed amounted to 95 species! So despite the strong winds that howled for the first two days of the tour, and unfavorable southerly winds for the last day and a half, our 95 species was exactly average for the 11 years we have run the trip on this same weekend. 16 species of warblers was a mere one species below average. Taking our challenging weather into consideration, I would absolutely call this a win! Plus, we were on Monhegan, so all is well, as an average day/weekend on Monhegan sure beats the same anywhere else – for so many reasons.
* denotes ferry ride only
23-Sep 24-Sep 25-Sep 26-Sep