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Cayman Islands, February 2018


Endemic Cayman Brac subspecies of the Cuban Parrot.

Jeannette and I spent our winter vacation this year in the Cayman Islands. Spending a week from February 23rd to March 1st, we continued to foster our love for island biogeography and our pursuit of island endemic birds.

The Caymans don’t have a lot of endemic (or near-endemic) bird species, but it does have plenty of endemic subspecies. And while these might not be “countable” on some published list, they’re just as fascinating to us. We didn’t have a lot of time for our trip this winter, so we wanted to visit an island where the relatively-limited amount of “target birds” would give us plenty of time to enjoy the other finer things of island life: food, snorkeling, and perhaps even a little R&R!

We arrived around lunchtime on the 23rd, and were immediately greeted by the endemic subspecies of Greater Antillean Grackle, as well as Northern Mockingbirds and Smooth-billed Anis.

For cost-effectiveness, we stayed away from the famous 7-Mile Beach (which, by the way, is actually only about 5.5 miles long), but with a 1.5 mile walk, a free shuttle, or a quick taxi, we would be right in the thick of things. Bananaquits – one of our favorite birds in the world – were common in the plantings in and around the hotel (and most everywhere else in the Caribbean) and they could keep us entertained for hours.

On our first morning, we decided to do a little exploring, taking the public mini-bus away from the touristy areas and along the south shore past Boddentown. We got dropped off at a spot on the map labeled “Meager Bay Wildlife Sanctuary” and just started walking. While it turned out there were no trails in the sanctuary, walking a dirt road on its eastern species here, such as LaSagra’s Flycatcher, our lifer Yellow-faced Grassquits, Common Ground-Doves, and especially “Golden” Yellow Warblers.  Migrants from North America, led by Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers, also included the likes of Gray Catbirds, Northern Waterthrushes, a single Belted Kingfisher, and a couple of Yellow-throated Warblers.

Walking back towards Boddentown, we found a dilapidated viewing platform which overlooked the mangrove bay, and with it, our list grew considerably!  Lots of ubiquitous Black-necked Stilts were joined by Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, scattered Pied-billed Grebes, a flock of Blue-winged Teal, and much more.

Unusually heavy and persistent rain (it was the dry season, after all) plagued the western end of the island all day, so we were lucky to only encounter a few showers and a couple of brief downpours on our walk. Afternoon beach or snorkeling time was washed out, however; but we did relax with some Winter Olympics on the television as palm trees whipped in the wind outside our window.

Day 3 was our big birding day, as we were to be picked up by the island’s only birding guide: Geddes Hislop of Silver Thatch Excursions. While most birds are fairly “easy” on Grand Cayman, we always hire a local guide for at least some part of our trip to learn the sites, learn about the birds, and learn about as much of everything about a place as we can!

Of course, local expertise always improves birding success, and within a short time, Geddes had shown us our lifer West Indian Whistling-Ducks in a canal-lined subdivision (a new habitat that this regional endemic and Globally Threatened species may be adapting to here)…

We stopped at Pedro St. James Historic Site where we saw our first Loggerhead Kingbirds of the trip (endemic subspecies), and some very-surprisingly-early displaying White-tailed Tropicbirds.

The Botanic Park was the money spot though, where within minutes, Geddes offered up point-blank views of two of the major targets: Vitelline Warbler (found only here and on Swan Islands off of Honduras)…

…and Taylor’s (or Grand Cayman) Bullfinch (or, depending on the authority, the endemic subspecies of Cuban Bullfinch. Like the Vitelline Warbler, they were stunningly cooperative.

male Taylor’s Bullfinch

Geddes’s access to private property produced our best views we would have of Grand Cayman subspecies of the Cuban Parrot, before we worked our way around a few freshwater habitats (certainly at a premium on a limestone/coral atoll).

The island’s only virgin forest, within the North Coast Ridge, was amazingly productive, with oodles more Vitellines and bullfinches, but also the endemic subspecies of Thick-billed Vireo, the endemic subspecies of Yucatan Vireo (also a lifer for us), and a heard-only lifer Caribbean Dove. Given the terrain, going off the road in pursuit of this secretive ground dove did not seem wise, and so we decided to leave uninjured and just enjoy the fact that we heard one – a bird that seems to be on the rapid decline here.

We had spotted an Anhinga yesterday from the viewing platform at Meager Bay, a real rarity according to Geddes. So we returned on our way back to see if it was still around. It was – as were 2 more! Here’s a distant “doc shot” of one of them.

We also twitched some Trinidadian doubles for lunch – one of our favorite foodstuffs before returning back to our hotel. There was a lot of really good food on the island, but by far our best meal of the trip was our dinner visit to Vivo in West Bay. Once again, we took the bus for an inexpensive ride out of the tourist Mecca, and walked over a mile to get to this hidden gem.

A vegan and vegetarian restaurant that serves Red Lionfish – an invasive species that is destroying the reefs of the Caribbean? Yes please!  I wanted to do more part by eating as much lionfish as I could get my hands on, as there’s nothing more sustainable than eating a local invasive species. Thanks to an intense and coordinated effort by the government of the Caymans, including persuading chefs to feature it, we learned that they are really making a difference with controlling this destructive fish. It just goes to show you: humans can overfish anything!

My stir-fried lionfish with local veggies and achee, and Jeannette’s poached lionfish with Asian-style broth meant there were at least two less Lionfish raving the ecology of the Caymans. It was also darn tasty, too.

But we also have to give a shout-out to our delicious two appetizers, the beet and avocado tartar and the coconut “ceviche.”

And the views were pretty tasty, too.


Hmm..based on the success of promoting lionfish hunting and eating, perhaps the invasive Green Iguanas that are eating everything on land could be next?

We were back on the buses the next morning (I mean, come on, for between $2.50 and $4.50 per person we could go just about anywhere! Sure beats a rental car…let alone driving on the “wrong side” through those chaotic George Town rotaries!), making a second visit to the Botanic Park. We had only missed two species with Geddes, Western Spindalis and West Indian Woodpecker – both of which are endemic subspecies, and we had a few photos to improve upon.

Although we didn’t find the tanager or the woodpecker, Jeannette got some great photos of Yucatan Vireo, and others.

And we added more migrants to our triplist, including Worm-eating Warbler, Ovenbirds, and Prairie Warbler. We also enjoyed a few more “Grand Cayman” Parrots, but none of the views were nearly as good as the day before.

Female Taylor’s Bullfinch.

Following a bus ride and a long walk back to our hotel, we hopped in a cab back to the airport.  We got to see Little Cayman as our plane touched down, but after just a few minutes, our puddle jumper made the 10-minute jump over to Cayman Brac, one of the “quiet” islands where we would spend the next two days.

No lifers were to be expected, but we did have three more endemic subspecies to track down – subspecies found only here, or here and Little Cayman. While checking out the mangrove pond across the street from our room, the first of those put in an appearance: Red-legged Thrush. Unfortunately, the related Grand Cayman Thrush was considered a full species, but has been declared extinct since at least the mid 1940’s, due to deforestation, hurricane damage, and collecting.

We had a rental car for our one full day on “Brac” to make the most of our brief visit (traffic and rotaries are less of a concern here than on the big island!)

We began again across the street, where this wetland proved to be one of our best birding locales of the trip. We quickly picked up some more West Indian Whistling-Ducks while waiting for our car to be delivered. Then, it was off to the parrot reserve and interior forest.

The Brac subspecies of Vitelline Warbler was almost as abundant as the nominate subspecies was on Grand Cayman, and in short while we spotted several “Cayman Brac” Cuban Parrots.

Female “Cayman Brac”Vitelline Warbler; parrot photo above

We flushed a Barn Owl – likely one that was roosting in a limestone cave or sinkhole – which paused briefly on an open limb, and we got better views of Red-legged Thrush.

Thick-billed Vireos and a variety of North American migrants were also commonplace.

At Lighthouse Bluff, the highest point in the Caymans at 140 feet above sea level, we were delighted with Brown Boobies wheeling around the updrafts, and several birds on nests along the bluff-side trail.




Peregrine Falcon

Pat’s Kitchen was a very welcome lunch stop, serving delicious local goodness, including “Bake Beef,” roasted Cayman-style and from a cow raised just down the road (possibility acting as a lawnmower in someone’s yard).

In the afternoon, we snorkeled – finally! – encountering Eagle Rays, Tarpon, and at least one uncomfortably-inquisitive Barracuda, right outside our abode. And then it was back to our “hotel pond,” where we added Short-billed Dowitcher (definitively; we had one in the distance at Grand Cayman), and among them, at least one Long-billed Dowitcher. Even with a scope, most of the dowitchers here were too far away to identify. The Tricolored Heron show was also particularly entertaining.

The next morning, we got an earlier start and walked the nature trail in the Parrot Reserve once again, getting great looks at more Red-legged Thrushes, Thick-billed Vireos and Loggerhead Kingbirds. We realized how lucky we were yesterday, however, as today the parrots did not show themselves well.

Loggerhead Kingbird


Atala

Snorkeling in the sheltered “kiddie pool” at the park for the wreck of the M/V Tibbets was extremely relaxing, easy, and the brilliant rainbow-glistening cuttlefish that wandered by was more than worth the effort.

After refueling at Pat’s Kitchen once again, we explored some of the caves (no bats, sadly), and since this was a Lovitch vacation, we had to pay an obligatory visit to at least one landfill!

Just feral Red Junglefowl, a small group of Smooth-billed Anis, and scattered Northern Mockingbirds here, however.

The “hotel pond” earned another check, and this time it was a total of 7 West Indian Whistling-Ducks that made the visit worthwhile, including this cooperative foursome.

We definitely would have enjoyed a little more time on The Brac, but it was already time to begin the trek home, and so we were off to the airport for the short flight back to Grand Cayman. Calling Semipalmated Plovers on our walk home after dinner added to our list.

On our last morning, we did contemplate giving it once last shot at Western Spindalis and West Indian Woodpecker by taking the bus to Botanic Park. However, we thought wiser of the journey and decided to play it safe and just go for a swim at the beach. Beating the crowds more than confirmed our decision!

Geddes had mentioned there was the chance of West Indian Woodpecker anywhere on the island, but we didn’t think that included the beach!  But I was in the water and Jeannette was reading in the sand when one flew in to the small public park nearby and began to call. We must have been quite the sight wandering through the parking lot in our bathing suits pointing into the trees!  But we were rewarded with really great looks at the endemic subspecies of this Red-bellied-like woodpecker.

With our last hour, Jeannette worked the hotel grounds to improve upon photos of the grackle and Smooth-billed Ani, while I checked a few thickets for migrants and visited with our favorites, the Bananaquits.

We cajoled our cab driver into stopping for Jamaican patties for lunch on our way to the airport, and with the week almost up, we were back at the tiny international airport.

And sadly, this is where our real adventure began! A “mechanical issue” delay turned out to be a punctured tire, and the replacement had to be flown in. Over 4 hours later, we were finally on our way.

We had long-since missed our connection home, so Charlotte, North Carolina was as far as we would make it today. Useless American Airlines couldn’t find us a hotel (or at least, one cheap enough for them to pay for it) so we booked our own. Now, to their credit, they did – upon our return – reimburse us for it. Unfortunately, this was the last time they would be anything less than terrible.

After a twelve-species lap around the hotel (yay, Carolina Chickadees and Carolina Wrens!), we were back at the Charlotte Airport. No big deal, things happen, and of course, we would rather the gouged tire be found before lift-off!  Unfortunately, things took a turn for the much-worse when our flight to Portland was cancelled a half hour before boarding due to the strengthening Nor’easter.

The woman I talked to on the phone at American definitely deserves credit for doing her best to try and get us home, but with the next available flight to Portland being 3 1/2 days later, and no flights to any airport much closer in the foreseeable future, we elected to just rent a car and start the drive (expecting that AA would at least help out with the incurred cost, I cannot believe how stubborn, useless, and downright condescending and dismissive they were when we inquired about reimbursement upon our return. After such a miserable journey, being treated so poorly will make us avoid this airline at all costs in the future).

It wouldn’t have been a good day in a plane, because it was hard enough to drive! Strong cross-winds all day made for bare-knuckle driving, with our little Ford Focus feeling like it would be lifted right off the road. The swaying tractor trailers were more of a concern, however.

We tried to make the best of it, enjoying Black Vultures, counting Red-tailed Hawks, and stopping for dinner at a Waffle House. Seven hours later, we made almost made it half of the way home when we pulled into a motel in Hershey, PA (we took the interior route to avoid the megapolis on a Friday during a storm!).  With fierce winds continuing, little sleep would be had in our shaking and rattling motel, adding to the dread of the next morning’s trip.

What should have been a 7.5 hour drive turned into over 10 hours thanks to traffic in New York, and of course, Connecticut. But in the last light at dusk upon our return to Maine, our first Maine Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles were spotted from the highway.

But we were home, albeit three days late. Luckily Bonnie and Sam were available to hold down the fort, and John stepped in to lead a birdwalk. And, I was back in time for our Birds on Tap – Roadtrip the following day.

At the very least, our drive gave us time to reflect on the trip. Lots of time to reflect. We discussed the seemingly short-sighted, rampant development, and especially the filling in of mangrove forests – the first line of defense against rising seas and increasingly-frequent strong storms.

But we also were optimistic of the fact that the islands were wealthy enough to put money and effort into conservation – such as the culling of lionfish, or hopefully, the protection of endemic species. While a nearly-invisibly small percentage of Cayman Islands visitors will ever lift binoculars, hopefully we did our incredibly small part in showing the value of ecotourism, even to well-developed islands such as Grand Cayman.

And despite American Airline’s best efforts, we still had a great trip to the Cayman Islands (but yeah, despite our attempts at finding silver linings, that trip home was horrific), and thoroughly enjoyed its birds. Like all of the islands we visit, local food and culture comes a close second, and the overall speciation of remote islands never ceases to amaze.

From the Cayman Brac subspecies of the Cuban Iguana…

…to endemic Silver Thatch Palms, the National Tree.

And of course, the birds.


White-crowned Pigeon

Here’s our complete birdlist from the trip:
Grand Cayman:

  1. Greater Antillean Grackle (endemic subspecies)
  2. Northern Mockingbird
  3. Smooth-billed Ani
  4. Brown Pelican
  5. Royal Tern
  6. Bananaquit (endemic subspecies)
  7. Magnificent Frigatebird
  8. White-crowned Pigeon
  9. Yellow-throated Warbler
  10. White-winged Dove
  11. Palm Warbler
  12. American Coot
  13. LaSagra’s Flycatcher
  14. Gray Catbird
  15. “Golden” Yellow Warbler
  16. YELLOW-FACED GRASSQUIT (lifer for both of us)
  17. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  18. Northern Waterthrush
  19. Lesser Yellowlegs
  20. Belted Kingfisher
  21. Common Gallinule
  22. Northern Flicker (endemic subspecies)
  23. Common Ground-Dove
  24. Black-necked Stilt
  25. Great Blue Heron
  26. Great Egret
  27. Pied-billed Grebe
  28. Anhinga (rare)
  29. Black-crowned Night-Heron
  30. Osprey
  31. Peregrine Falcon
  32. Double-crested Cormorant
  33. Blue-winged Teal
  34. WEST-INDIAN WHISTLING-DUCK (lifer for both of us)
  35. Little Blue Heron
  36. Green Heron
  37. Loggerhead Kingbird (endemic subspecies)
  38. White-tailed Tropicbird
  39. Cattle Egret
  40. Caribbean Eleania (endemic subspecies)
  41. VITTELLINE WARBLER (near-endemic; lifer for both of us)
  42. TAYLOR’S (“Grand Cayman Cuban”) BULLFINCH (endemic; lifer for both of us)
  43. Cape May Warbler
  44. Zenaida Dove
  45. Black-throated Blue Warbler
  46. American Redstart
  47. “GRAND CAYMAN” CUBAN PARROT (endemic subspecies)
  48. Least Sandpiper
  49. Lesser Scaup
  50. YUCATAN VIREO (lifer for both of us)
  51. Northern Parula
  52. CARIBBEAN DOVE (heard only; lifer for both of us)
  53. Thick-billed Vireo (endemic subspecies)
  54. Black-and-white Warbler
  55. Snowy Egret
  56. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  57. Ruddy Turnstone
  58. Spotted Sandpiper
  59. Black-bellied Plover
  60. Rock Pigeon
  61. Worm-eating Warbler
  62. Ovenbird
  63. Prairie Warbler

Cayman Brac:

  1. Tricolored Heron
  2. Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
  3. RED-LEGGED THRUSH (endemic subspecies)
  4. Willet

VITELLINE WARBLER (endemic Brac subspecies)

“CAYMAN BRAC” CUBAN PARROT (endemic Brac subspecies)

  1. Barn Owl
  2. Brown Booby
  3. Merlin
  4. Short-billed Dowitcher
  5. Long-billed Dowitcher
  6. Barn Swallow
  7. Cliff Swallow

Grand Cayman:

  1. Semipalmated Plover
  2. West Indian Woodpecker (endemic subspecies)

And finally, here’s two more photos of a Bananaquits. Because Bananaquits!

2018 Maine Birds Prediction Blog

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Yup, it’s that time of year again. It’s not just time to celebrate the end of an often-tumultuous 2017, but to also look forward to another year of avian wonders. That means it’s time for my annual Predictions Blog, where I view into my crystal binoculars and attempt to forecast some of the “new” birds to grace the State of Maine, and my own personal state list, in the coming year.

But first, let us check in with my 2017 Predictions post, and see how I did.

An impressive five birds were new to Maine in 2017. Once again, Keenan Yakola and the Seal Island NWR crew struck gold. This time, it was a completely unexpected Gray-tailed Tattler, an Asian species that came from who knows where, that briefly visited on August 14th. Needless to say, it was not anywhere near my predictions list.

A Snowy Plover at Reid State Park on June 13th – that Jeannette and I were lucky enough to see that first evening of its very short visit – was not on my long list, but is much more explainable as there are plenty of East Coast records to our south.
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One of the additional contestants for Birds of the Year honors falls to the Cassin’s Vireo that my Monhegan Fall Weekend tour group refound and helped identify on September 30th. Briefly seen the day before, highly suggestive photos piqued our interest. But it wasn’t until Bill Thompson’s stellar photos as our group relocated the bird on the 30th confirm the identity. Or at least, confirm the ID short of a DNA test. I’ve included some of Bill’s photos in my tour report at the blog entry linked here.

This Western species could have occurred in Maine before, but it is extremely challenging to identify out of range. Short of photos as good as Bill’s, truly confirming an  occurrence had kept it off my predictions list.

The other two new birds for Maine, however, were on the list. The Fieldfare (#10 on my list) that was serendipitously discovered on April 19th in Newcastle, as was seen by hundreds of birders through the 23rd.
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This distant, phone-scoped photo does not do the bird justice!

Number 15 on my list was Vermillion Flycatcher, which was discovered on April 17th at Hog Island. However, no one could have imagined how first state records would be found in 2017: It was spotted and identified by someone sitting at home watching the Osprey platform webcam!

So I scored two points for correct predictions in 2017, plus one bird (Snowy Plover) that made my honorable mentions list. Two species not on my list – or likely, anyone elses! – were also added this year. Therefore, my predictions for the next 25 species to occur in Maine for 2018 is now:

1) Neotropical Cormorant
2) Graylag Goose
3) California Gull
4) Roseate Spoonbill
5) Spotted Towhee
6) Hammond’s Flycatcher
7) Bermuda Petrel
8) Black-chinned Hummingbird
9) Common Shelduck
10) Audubon’s Shearwater – on “hypothetical” list, but I think the record is good.
11) Little Stint
12) Anna’s Hummingbird
13) “Western” Flycatcher (Pacific-slope/Cordilleran)
14) Common Ground-Dove
15) Allen’s Hummingbird
16) Redwing
17) Western Wood-Pewee
18) Spotted Redshank
19) Zone-tailed Hawk
20) Gray Flycatcher
21) Ross’s Gull
22) Lesser Nighthawk
23) Elegant Tern
24) Black-tailed Gull
25) Common Scoter

Meanwhile, I was happy to add five species to my own Maine list this year as well. There were the aforementioned Fieldfare, Cassin’s Vireo, and Snowy Plover. Jeannette and I also caught up with a Magnificent Frigatebird at Pine Point on June 12th, during its all-too-brief visit.  We were quite the sight, dressed in our finest going-out clothes walking the beach with cameras, binoculars, and a scope; we were on our way to dinner in Portland for our anniversary! We called ahead – we were going to be a little late for that reservation.
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That’s a heckuva year on its own!  Unfortunately, however, none of those were on my personal Top 25. I did see #7, however, the Fork-tailed Flycatcher at Gilsland Farm on June 16th, the first day of it’s relatively-long (for this notoriously one-day wonder) five or so day stay. See photo at the top.

My Great Skua (#1) nemesis continues, with several weathered-out boat trips out of Bar Harbor. However, I did get out on whale watches on a handful of very productive occasions. The boat of Boothbay Harbor was extremely productive this summer and fall, so I certainly put in the time, and had some truly remarkable pelagic birding in the process. But alas, one distant “unidentified large predatory seabird was the closest I cam to getting this feathered monkey off my back.

Unbelievable, I missed another Say’s Phoebe (#4) on Monhegan – this time by about 2 hours! I also missed two Franklin’s Gulls (#10), both “one minute wonders:” Dyer Point on July 5th and Wharton Point on November 6th. There was also that darn Brown Pelican (honorable mention) that was present at Prout’s Neck June 19-23, when I was leading my WINGS tour and not in southern Maine. Sporadic reports for much of the summer, as it appeared to be moving up and down the coast between Prout’s Neck and Plum Island, MA continued to torment me. Overall though, I have to be quite pleased with the rate of success on my few chases!

So now, my updated list for my own next 25 species in Maine is:

1) Great Skua
2) Eurasian Collared-Dove
3) Graylag Goose
4) Say’s Phoebe
5) American White Pelican
6) Neotropic Cormorant
7) Tundra Swan
8) Franklin’s Gull
9) Brown Pelican
10) California Gull
11) Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
12) Slaty-backed Gull
13) Boreal Owl
14) Calliope Hummingbird
15) Cerulean Warbler
16) White Ibis
17) Gull-billed Tern
18) Hammond’s Flycatcher
19) Yellow Rail
20) Loggerhead Shrike
21) Spotted Towhee
22) Roseate Spoonbill
23) Ross’s Gull
24) Virginia’s Warbler
25) Common Shelduck

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Just missing Maine – or at least missing detection in Maine – was this juvenile Common Shelduck that arrived in New Hampshire in August and stayed around for a few weeks. With increasing reports in the East, it’s only a matter of time before one shows up in Maine, and we begin to consider these of natural, wild origin.

Why There are No Birds at Your Feeders Right Now.

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Fall favorites at feeders, Dark-eyed Juncos have been slow to arrive in yards due to a combination of factors. This blog will attempt to explain why, in this case, the sky is not in fact falling.

For most of the past two months, we have been spending our time here at the store mostly answering the question “Where are all of my (feeder) birds?”

Your feeders have been slow. Our feeders have been slow. And feeders throughout all of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic have been slow. We’ve talked to reporters about this. We’ve talked to our seed distributor about this. And we have talked to many of you, our loyal customers and friends, about it. We’ve also written about it on our Facebook page, in our eNewsletter, and a synopsis will appear in the next edition of Freeport Wild Bird Supply News.

But I wanted to expand on it here, and at the very least, have all of the FACTS in one place.

Let’s start with this: Birds always prefer natural food sources (our feeders are only a helpful supplement) so if they can find what they need in their natural habitats, they do not need to visit our feeders nearly as often. If there’s ever proof-positive to finally kill this silly myth about birds being dependent on feeders, seasons like this are it!

So let’s talk about what’s really happening. And as usual in nature, it’s not completely simple. It’s a myriad of issues and events that have collided in a “perfect storm” of low feeder activity scenarios.

1) Abundance of Natural Food Sources.
For the most part, it is the abundance – or paucity – of natural food that determines how much activity you will have in your yard. This is particularly significant for our seed-eaters, like finches and sparrows, and fruit-eaters, like waxwings. Many trees go through “masting” cycles. This is a survival strategy in which a tree will produce a huge amount of fruit or seed one fall, followed by one or more years of very little production. Therefore, in the high production years, there is so much seed/fruit that predators cannot possibly consume it all, and the tree is all but guaranteed that a large number of its seeds will survive to germinate.

This fall has been a high production year for several common tree species. The same acorns you are swearing at in your lawn are a big part of the reason that your have less birds at your feeders. Take a look at the spruces next time you are out for a walk in the woods; you will see that most of those trees are brimming with cones, especially White and Red Spruces. And I don’t recall the last time I’ve seen so many cones on Eastern White Pines.

Many seed crops are excellent to our north as well, so we will have to wait and see if our “winter finches”, such as Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins, make it down our way this year. Interestingly though, the spruce cone crop is the best it has been in over a decade in the northeast – this could bring big numbers of Red and White-winged Crossbills this winter, and large numbers have already arrived to breed in western and northern Maine (more on “irruptives” a little later).
PUFI
Purple Finches have been in short supply this fall, and are likely to not be around much this winter due to plentiful favored foods to our north.

2) Record Mild Fall.
October is on pace to set an all-time record high by multiple degrees. This is an incredible deviation from average. When it’s this warm, the energy demands of our birds are lower, reducing the need to consume as many calories to keep warm. And the lack of snow or ice has kept natural food uncovered and accessible. Insects are still out, and open water is easy to come by.

3) Facultative Migrants
While most of our long-distance migrants (like warblers and orioles) are long gone, having returned home to the tropics, many of our later-season migrants (like blackbirds and most of our native sparrows, as well as most of our waterfowl) are facultative (or “flexible”) in their timing. They can adjust their respective arrival and departures based on abundance and/or access to food. Dark-eyed Juncos, White-throated Sparrows, Fox Sparrows, and the last wave of blackbirds are still not here in Southern Maine, lingering as far north as they can for as long as they can. These birds will move a short distance south as soon as they have to, and if the winter is a short one, they will begin to work their way north earlier – or even “overwinter” further north than normal. Not even a freak snowstorm will affect them – they are built for it, and will make range adjustments as needed.

4) Irruptives
With the abundance of natural food to our north, many species (such as the so-called “winter finches” like Purple Finch and Pine Siskin) are simply not coming south this year, although we do have hopes for the wintertime appearance of Common Redpolls. We expected this – as outlined in the annual Ontario Winter Finch Forecast – and those birds are very few and far between this fall. In fact, we knew in August that it would not be a “winter finch year” because of how few Red-breasted Nuthatches (only a handful in all!) were moving past Sandy Point in August and September. After record-setting flights in late summer/early fall last year, it was safe to assume that there would not be an irruption this year.

While residents are still around (in some winters they leave when our food is not abundant), they are busy feeding on the abundance of spruce and White Pine in our area.
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White-winged Crossbills are in western and northern Maine…hopefully they’ll arrive at the coast this winter by way of post-breeding dispersal.

5) Memory Bias.
Humans inherently think of the recent past first, and so we find ourselves often comparing this fall to last fall, which saw exceptionally high feeder visitation thanks to the prolonged drought we had experienced throughout the summer, greatly reducing perennial seed crops. Some of the masting trees were at cyclical lows, and cyclical lows of many cone and seed crops. And irruptions of Red-breasted Nuthatches, and to a lesser extent Pine Siskin and Purple Finch, were underway.
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Red-breasted Nuthatches have plenty of spruce, pine, and other natural food sources throughout our region this winter.

6) The Filthy Feeders and Stale Seed Catch-22.
When activity is low at feeders, we can become a bit blasé about maintenance. Not keeping feeders clean and filled with fresh seed will only make it less likely that birds will want to frequent your yard. And, with the recent prolonged wet weather, you want to make sure that mold is not becoming a problem, or that seed is not getting clogged in the feeder. No one likes to waste seed, but if it has been sitting in a feeder untouched for more than a month or so, it is time to toss it and start over. This is especially true for Nyjer, hulled sunflower, and shelled peanuts, which are most susceptible to the elements. (If you dump it in the woods, rest assured that something will eat it, or at the very least nothing will be harmed by it. If mold is visible, however, it is best to bury it). Clean your feeders, and disinfect them with a mixture of one part white vinegar to four parts water if mold was present. Fill your feeders halfway until activity builds up again if you are concerned about waste. When birds return and they find stale or spoiled seed in your feeders, they’ll continue right on by.

7) The Big Picture
We certainly do not want to downplay the significance of population declines in many of our bird species due to a whole host of large-scale issues (a topic for a different article), but rest assured that “your” birds are probably doing just fine from one year to the next over the short term. In fact, most of our resident “feeder birds” have steady, if not in some cases, increasing populations. Climate Change is affecting bird populations. Habitat loss is affecting bird populations. Cats are killing up to 4 BILLION birds a year. Windows are killing up to 1 BILLION birds a year. We could go on.
However, this has not changed in the past 6-8 weeks. Those long-term declines are often subtle and hard to detect without coordinated scientific investigation. We have absolutely zero evidence that populations have crashed in the short term. All it takes is a walk in the woods (like on our free Saturday Morning Birdwalks!) to see that the birds are out there. In fact, there are a lot of them out there, and they are doing just fine. They just don’t need our feeders right now.

8) It WILL Change!
Natural food supplies will slowly get used up, nights will get colder and longer, and our facultative migrants will come. Eventually, we’ll see some snow and ice that will make it harder to find the remaining natural food, and when all of those things happen, our feeders will be ready for them!

We hope this helps clear up some of the misinformation out there. And please do share this widely – we want to get the word out. And finally, if you have any additional questions, feel free to drop by the store.

December 13th Update:  With the arrival of winter – rather suddenly – here in Maine, including a second significant snowfall in a week followed by a thick coating of ice, the birds that have been around us all along – just not at feeders! – have come back in full force. Based on our own yard, our feeders here at the store, and numerous reports from customers in-person and via Facebook, it’s clear that birds have returned en masse. Dark-eyed Juncos have inundated many feeders once again (increase from 4-6 at home to 28 by the end of the day on the 12th) as the ground got covered. And American Goldfinches, that have been numerous in the woods feeding on birch and alder, descended on nyjer feeders (as long as that seed was fresh!) as ice coated the trees. For example, we increased from 2-4 a day at home and up to 4 a day at our store to 12 and 14, respectively by the morning of the 13th). But alas, still no “winter finches” in our neck of the woods. They’re back…for now.
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Are Common Redpolls on their way for the winter to cure the bird feeding blues? The Winter Finch Forecasts suggests that they will get here, eventually.

Hawai’i!

In January, Jeannette and I headed to Hawai’i for our winter vacation. Like all of our vacations, birding is first and foremost, but local food is a close second. And beer.  Oh yeah, and Jeannette was also running a marathon.

In 2013, we visited Oahu and Kauai, which I recounted in this blog. This time, it was Maui and the Big Island.

The Big Island is special to me, as my first field job out of college was there, working with the Palila. Seeing this endangered, finch-billed honeycreeper was one of the primary motivations of the trip, as Jeannette had not seen it before. Nor had she seen hot molten magma. I also left the island without seeing two of its endangered endemics. And neither of us had yet been to Maui, which featured another three endemics.

So off we went.

After an 11-hour non-stop flight from NY’s JFK, we arrived in Honolulu. It did, however, take me all of those 11 hours to confirm that the familiar-looking face just one row in front of me was my cousin Gloria that I hadn’t seen in 25-30 years!  What are the chances!

We reconnected briefly, and then went our separate ways for now. Common Mynas, Zebra Doves, and Cattle Egrets greeted our arrival to the 50th state, but it was dark by the time Jeannette and I landed on Maui – about 20 hours of travel later.

1/13: Day 2/Day 1 of actual vacation.

Needless to say, it was not an early start, but we did eventually motivate and get things started the right way, with macadamia nut pancakes.
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We then checked out the Kanaha Pond Wildlife Sanctuary near our hotel, where we were greeted by Pacific Golden-Plovers (Kolea) on the path…
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…and much to our surprise, a wayward flock of 6 immature Snow Geese.
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After our first plate lunch, in Kihei, we checked a nearby wetland, where Jeannette got here lifer African Silverbill and photographed from Scaly-breasted Munias.
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We then spent a few hours birding the Coastal Boardwalk of the Kealia Ponds National Wildlife Refuge…
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..enjoying Hawaiian Coots and “Hawaiian” Black-necked Stilts,
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…a plethora of Black-crowned Night-Herons,
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…and no small number of Cattle Egrets.
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We spent a while in the shade of the viewing platform at the end,
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…when I began to shout to Jeannette, “Large Gull! Take Photo!”
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After some review later and consulting others, it was clear that this was indeed a 2nd-cycle Slaty-backed Gull – a real mega-rarity for the islands, and quite possibly the first on Maui.  Not that we came to Hawai’i to see a Siberian bird, but still! And since the mechanisms of vagrancy fascinate me – especially how they result in the colonization of islands and the eventual adaptive radiation that leads to mind-blowing speciation (and specialization) – and are one of my primary interests in visiting islands as we so often do, this discovery was not only thrilling, but also fit the theme of why we were here.

We decided to celebrate at Maui Brewing Company, which included one of my favorite – and Jeannette’s most favorite- brew of the trip, the Imperial Coconut Porter.

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…followed by a delicious dinner at Da Kitchen, where the ubiquitous spam musubi was taken to a whole ‘nother level with a panko crust and a little deep-frying!
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1/14: Haleakala National Park

This was a relaxed day of sight-seeing and casual birding in Haleakala National Park. What a remarkable place!
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While Chukar was the only bird we saw in and around the crater,
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…we did have some good birding a short distance downhill at Hosmer Grove.
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There, we caught up with Jeannette’s lifer Hawai’i Amakihis (a possible future split), and our first endemic, the Maui ‘Alauahio.
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Gorgeous I’iwis and Apapanes were impressively abundant, with many of the I’iwis dropping down from the tall, non-native trees to feed in the Mamane tree blossoms in the native scrub-forest.
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1/15: Race Day!

Jeannette was a little busier today than I, partaking in the Maui Oceanfront Marathon, starting in the dark at 5:00am and finishing (a new personal record) 3:57:17 later.
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A swim at the beach was followed by an absolutely outstanding lunch at Star Noodle, including these pork katsu buns…
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Kohola Brewery was our next stop – Jeannette earned it (and I had to drive here there), which offered what turned out to be my favorite beer of the trip, their Mighty 88 DIPA.

Afterwards, we took the twisting and turning our way around the north side of the island back to Kahului.
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1/16: Waikamoi.

Today was a special day for us. Thanks to our connection to Chuck, a docent for the Nature Conservancy on Maui, we were granted permission to join him on a tour of the famous Waikamoi Preserve. Some years ago, Chuck actually hired me to show him his lifer Nelson’s and Saltmarsh Sparrows here in Maine, and then we reconnected in the restaurant of the Asa Wright Nature Center in Trinidad!
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This was our one chance of the trip for the two critically endangered endemics on Maui: the Akohekohe and the Maui Parrotbill. As we spent a good couple of hours waiting, watching, and listening from the platform.
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Unfortunately, wind and a lack of Ohia blossoms likely impacted our birding, and we only glimpsed two quick fly-bys of the Akohekoke. The shape, size, and overall dark color eliminated anything else, but even though the looks were good enough to identify, Jeannette and I decided we didn’t want to count it.

We also heard a Maui Parrotbill, but with a 6-acre territory, the chance of spotting one of these inconspicuous mid-story-dwellers was not good. We did see plenty of Maui ‘Alauahio, however, and regardless, we felt truly privileged to even have the opportunity to visit this special place.

Of course, the day after a marathon, Jeannette could have done with a few less than the 250+ stairs!
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After a little picnic, Jeannette and I poked around Hosmer Grove some more, working on photographs of Apapane…
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..and I’iwi.
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We worked our way downhill, into the adorable little town of Paia. There, we rendezvoused with our friend Amanda – the former cook of the Schooner French here in Maine, on which we take our Birding by Schooner tour – who flew in from Kauai just to say hi. OK, and join us for an amazing dinner at The Mill House, where local ingredients and flavors were taken up a few notches.

1/17: Last day on Maui.

Amanda joined us for a little casual birding at Kahana Pond, where we once again ran into the flock of Snow Geese.
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Jeannette and I then headed back to Kealia Ponds NWR, to visit the interior portion of the refuge.
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Chock full of Hawaiian Coots,
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…Black-crowned Night-Herons,
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…tons of “Hawaiian” Black-necked Stilts,
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..and a really great variety of ducks. A vagrant Great Blue Heron was spotted – another nice addition to my Hawaii state list.

We then made a cultural stop at the Sugar Museum on our way back to town.
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Tin Roof, the restaurant of Top Chef contestant Sheldon Simeon, was our lunchtime destination, and it most definitely did not disappoint.
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And with a little extra time before our flight, we checked out the backside of Kahana Pond, where we literally were attacked by a very defensive Nene.
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While the video does the encounter more justice, I can assure you, we did NOT pass this sign! If we had, we might not have survived.
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A Belted Kingfisher was yet another rarity for us to discover – although I later learned it was probably a bird that was around for a little while.  We also took some time to photograph some of the introduced birds, like Common Mynas.
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And then it was off to the Big Island for the second half of our trip.

1/18: Hakalua National Wildlife Refuge

We joined a tour with Hawai’i Forest and Trails in order to venture up the slope of Mauna Kea – on the opposite side of the mountain where I worked with the Palila – and into the wet forest of Hakalau National Wildlife Refuge in search of the two endemics that I have not seen, and a few more lifers for Jeannette.

The howling winds in the saddle caused some consternation, but we arrived at the Puu Akala tract of the Hakalau NWR under crystal-clear skies and without even a puff of wind. In addition to being incredibly gorgeous, weather-wise, the mature forest of massive Koa and flowering Ohia trees was just chock-full of birds.
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There were lots of I’iwis and Apapanes, and plenty of Hawai’i Amakihis.
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But a mere 15 minutes into the hike, the primary quarry for many, the critically endangered Akiapola’au was detected by our guide, Gary.
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We observed this confiding juvenile for over 20 minutes, as it demonstrated its unique adaption. The “Swiss army knife” of honeycreeper bills, the Aki uses its lower mandible to hammer like a woodpecker, and it’s long, decurved upper mandible for extracting tasty larvae and for exploring in lichen and moss.  It’s the best remaining example of the extraordinary evolution that began with one flock of wayward Asian rosefinches (or so we know believe).
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The forest was just beautiful here, and although there was some pig damage, the combination of invasive species control, fencing, and the elevation above the current mosquito line (and the devastating avian diseases they carry) hinted at the diversity, abundance, and wealth of unique life that was once found throughout all of the islands.
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While we were looking at that first Aki, our lifer Hawai’i Creeper joined it, and another was seen even better a little later. We also caught up with a couple of pairs of spritely and colorful Akepas.
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The creeper and the Akepa were the last two endemics I needed to see on the Big Island, but Jeannette also cleaned up with her lifer Omao, Hawai’i Elepaios, and her most-wanted, the I’o or Hawaiian Hawk.
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Thinking about more of the wonders of island biogeography and evolution, we glanced down to check out the native mint that perfectly fits the pollinating bill of the I’iwi.
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And back at the van, we marveled at the success of the Endangered Species Act and its resultant invasive predator control and captive breeding program that brought back the state bird, the Nene, from the brink.
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With the Endangered Species Act and other environmental safeguards under ravenous attack in Washington right now, it serves us well to never forget that extinction is forever. If we don’t act quickly, Akiapola’au, I’iwi, Hawai’i Creeper, Akohekohe, Maui Parrotbill, and so many others will go the way of the 95 species of endemic birds that have gone extinct since the arrival of humans in Hawai’i.

As we descended from the mountain, Pueos (“Hawaiian” Short-eared Owl) were conspicuous, and late in the day, Gary pulled out a flock of introduced Red Avavadats from a roadside ditch – another life bird for us. Cute lil’ fellas.

Dinner at Kona Brewing Company was outstanding, with their Pineapple IPA being my favorite brew of the evening. Clearly they were a lot more than the rather pedestrian Longboard Lager that they are most recognized for.

1/19: Palila Hunting.

But speaking of Endangered species, today was our day to search for Palilas in the dry forest of Mauna Kea, where this specialized species lives almost exclusively on the flowers, seeds, and insects hosted by the Mamane.
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We met up with our good friend Lance Tanino, who runs Manu Conservation and Birding Tours.  There wasn’t anything professional today, just out birding with a friend whose four-wheel drive and high-clearance vehicle was critical in making it to the Palila Discovery Trail within the Mauna Kea Forest Reserve.
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It was a long, hot, and windy day, and unfortunately, we had to work really hard for only a brief view of a Palila (and a couple of others heard calling). It wasn’t overly satisfying, to be honest, but Jeannette had a “countable” look, and I did spend four months with the species!

It’s not usually this hard to find, even if there are probably less than half the number of birds as when I – and two years earlier, Lance – worked with the bird.  But eventually, walking around on lava in the heat brought back some of the less fond memories from our time here, so we headed downhill.

A photogenic Pueo was spotted on the way,
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…and then we found some Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse at a new location, which was exciting as this was the one introduced bird we both really wanted to see. Because sandgrouse are wicked cool.
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Despite the disappointment of not seeing the Palila as well as we would have liked – even though we tried to claim we were satisfied with the effort- we still decided to celebrate at the Big Island Brewhaus, where we devoured these outstanding Kung Pao macadamia nuts..
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And enjoyed one of the most interesting beers of the trip, their Red Sea of Cacao, brewed with molasses, chocolate, pink sea salt, and pink peppercorns. We at least had sandgrouse and friendship to celebrate!  And great food and beer!
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1/20: Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.

On this solemn Inauguration Day, we could think of no better way to celebrate what is great about our country than visiting one of its premier Crown Jewels. Volcanoes are unstable, unpredictable, and at any moment can erupt and cause massive death and destruction. It seemed even more appropriate today for some reason.

And Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is truly a remarkable, special place. If you haven’t been…you must!

We heard several Omao, spotted a few Hawai’i Elepaio, saw an incredible number of Apapanes, Hawai’i Amakihis, some Nenes, enjoyed White-tailed Tropicbirds soaring around the caldera of an active volcano, and spotted Black Noddies offshore.

However, today was about volcanoes, geology, and Earth at its most raw and primal. There are the steam vents and sulfur deposits,
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…not-very-old-in-the-big-picture flows of hardened lava,
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…and stories of yesteryear in intriguing petroglyphs.
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Eroding lava creates sheer cliffs and arches,
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…and some impressive scenery.
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Lava tubes and collapsed craters showed where molten magma once flowed.
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But it’s Kilauea that steals the show, especially when she’s this active.
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And while the caldera, as viewed from the Jagger Museum and observatory is pretty amazing, it was well worth the effort to make a late-day trek out to see the ocean entry, where “new” land is meeting the sea.

We rented bikes for the 3.5 mile ride (on a nice, fairly flat gravel road) to the overlook of the active entry. It’s just far enough to be safe – but also just far enough for decent photos, but this at least gives you a hint at the fireworks.
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1/21: Back to the Dry Forest!

Despite our late night viewing hot, molten mag-ma, we were up even earlier than usual the next morning. Lance was not surprised to get the message that we “needed” to try again to see the Palila better, and luckily he was free and willing to take us back up the hill.
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The wind was really howling down low, and the forecasts of increasing trade winds really had us worried. We almost called it off. But Palila. So off we went.

Arriving at the Palila Discovery Trail, we were greeted by clear skies and barely a puff of wind. It was simply perfect, and in only about 20 minutes we had great looks at a feeding male Palila. We had even better looks at perhaps the same male a little while later, and Jeannette finally had her satisfying lifer view. No luck with photos, unfortunately, but she did finally get some good Hawai’i Amakihi shots.
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We were all a lot happier as we headed downhill this time, back into the howling winds along the coast. We walked Waikoloa Beach in the hopes of stumbling upon a Bristle-thighed Curlew, but alas, all we had were a few Koleas and a couple of Wandering Tattlers.
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Birder beach gear.

After lunch, we bid adieu to Lance and worked some local hotspots, padding my state list.  It’s rare that it is do far into a Lovitch vacation before we visit a sewage treatment plant, but wow, the Kealakehe Wastewater Treatment Plant was incredible!
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I tallied a remarkable 6 state birds, headlined by the mega-rare Marsh Sandpiper that has been present here this winter (we had previously only seen them in Thailand). Western Sandpiper and Buffleheads were a little less rare, but still new for Hawaii for me, as was Cackling Goose…
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…and both American (several) and Eurasian (one drake) Wigeon.
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Yellow-billed Cardinal was actually new for Jeannette, as well, although we would see a bunch more in Hilo.
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Nearby Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park was the home of my 100th species in Hawaii – an overwintering “Black” Brant.
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Two Laughing Gulls was another nice addition, and we took some time to study and photograph some of the more common shorebirds, like this Ruddy Turnstone – one of the few common, regularly-occurring migrants that spend the winter in these distant islands.
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Oh yeah, and a bunch of Green Sea Turtles as well!
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We really needed another day (or two, one on each island), but this was our last evening. Pineapple’s in Hilo was a great last meal, where I had the “Hilo Plate,” which was a finer version of the plate lunches we have been eating so often.
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And appropriately enough, we parked near this mural.
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1/22: Last Day.

There’s never enough time in any vacation, and that reality set in this morning. In fact, despite lodging at the lovely Inn at Kulaniapia Falls for the past three nights, we hadn’t even seen the waterfall in the backyard during the day!  Jeannette went for a run in the morning, so I just strolled around the property, enjoying the flowing falls (that was really showing the signs of the heavy rain overnight) and some of the common introduced birds from all corners of the globes: Northern and Yellow-billed Cardinals, Scaly-breasted Munias, House Finches, Japanese White-eyes, and Yellow-fronted Canaries. I also had an unusually cooperative pair of Hwamei – where was the camera when I needed it?
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The rest of the morning was spent casually birding Hilo, between rain showers, mostly to procrastinate on heading to the airport. Wailoa River State Park (that produced a number of life birds for me nearly 20 years ago!) offered up a rare Canvasback – my 25th state bird of the trip (here with the two migrant Ring-necked Ducks that were present)
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Among the multitudes of mutt ducks of questionable origin,
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…there were Hawaiian Coots, another vagrant Belted Kingfisher, and this unreasonably confiding Nene with a satellite transmitter on its back.
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We said goodbye to some of the familiar friends of birding in the islands, especially the adorable little Zebra Dove.
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Lokowaka Pond yielded another Canvasback among some Lesser Scaup, and a bunch of roosting Cattle Egrets, but there was no better way to finish a trip to Hawai’i than with brunch at the famous Ken’s House of Pancakes, ending the trip the same way we began…with macadamia nut pancakes!

But just to extend the trip a little longer, we picked up some flavors of the island at the airport gift shops.
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We departed Hilo for the short flight to Honolulu, passing by Maui which poked out from the clouds,
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…including the marathon route.
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And then it was time to board our long flight back to the East Coast and begin our journey back to the real world.

Unfortunately, the long flight afforded plenty of time to reflect on said real world, including the endemic Hawaiian birds that we got to see, and the ones on Maui we did not. While we had a great trip on so many levels, including seeing some of these spectacular birds (that truly do put “Darwin’s finches” to shame!), the reality is not as happy as our vacations might suggest. A litany of threats is impacting these birds: development, invasive species, disease, and climate change. The Endangered Species Act – the only reason there are still Nene, for example – is under assault, and without it, most of these endemics don’t stand a chance.

If you enjoyed this blog – and I of course hope you did – please take a moment (I mean, you made it through this excruciatingly long entry; you can spare a few moments more.) to learn more about these imperiled species. The American Bird Conservancy’s Hawai’i program page is a good place to start.

Then, take a minute to call your Senators (here’s a link to all of the local offices where you can leave messages). Tell them to uphold, protect, and increase funding for the Endangered Species Act, and to reject the assault on one of our foremost environmental statutes. Urge them to reject Ryan Zinke for Secretary of the Interior, and any other nominee who has spent a career attempting to gut the ESA.

Because the Palila needs us right now.

2016 Fall Rarity Season Redux Part II

Well, it’s finally cold out! And snowy. Yeah, winter is here, and with it, I expect some hot birding!

After a fairly slow start to the Rarity Season, as I recounted in my last blog, November continued to be slow. A Cattle Egret continued in Pittson through 11/22, and the long-staying Marbled Godwit surprisingly (and rather incredibly) continued through at least 12/4.  Meanwhile, the usual smattering of otherwise “late” rare-but-regular birds were spotted here and there like Yellow-breasted Chats and Dickcissels.

Once it finally got a little colder, a little snow and ice fell (especially to our north and west), and natural food sources became harder to find, excitement finally began to pick up a little. With warm coastal microclimates and pockets of seasonally abundant food finally starting to concentrate birds, a few goodies began to turn up -just not as many as there should have been. In fact, it was not a very good second half of November, as far as second halves of November usually go.

As usual, I combed my favorite haunts, with several visits to my favorite late fall/early winter hot (pun intended) spots, including the Saco Riverwalk, patches in Cape Elizabeth and Harpswell, etc. In doing so, I found quite a few late/lingering/pioneering/stuck birds such as a Common Yellowthroat and a Winter Wren at Kettle Cove on 11/27; a male Wilson’s Warbler and 2 Ruby-crowned Kinglets in the remaining un-clear-cut woods at the western end of the Eastern Promenade in Portland on 11/27; a Wood Duck at Old Town House Park in North Yarmouth on 12/1; 2 Northern Flickers and a Double-crested Cormorant along the Saco Riverwalk on 12/2; an incredible Saturday Morning Birdwalk on 12/3 that yielded Red-shouldered Hawk, Black-bellied Plovers, a hen American Wigeon, along with Ruddy Turnstones and Purple Sandpipers; a female Wilson’s Warbler on Bailey Island on 12/4; plus a Hermit Thrush in our Pownal yard on 12/5; as well as the usual smattering of Swamp Sparrows and a few Chipping Sparrows here and there.

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Rather unexpected considering the date, location, and especially the insanely confiding behavior, this Red Knot was at Wharton Point in Brunswick on 12/1 as I spent the morning guiding for a client from Maine interested in learning the local winter hotspots.

Shockingly, however, despite combing the coast from Kittery through Wells all day on 11/28, Jeannette and I didn’t turn up a single thing out of the ordinary – it might have just still been too warm to concentrate birds in Maine’s “banana belt.” With temperatures in the mid to upper 40’s for several days at the end of November into early December, our wait for real cold weather continued.

Same was true as I thoroughly birded the greater Biddeford Pool area from the Saco Riverwalk through Timber Point on December 2nd with good friends Barbara Carlson and Paul Lehman visiting from California. We enjoyed some good birding, led by this Pacific Loon we found of East Point, but nothing unseasonably “lingering.”
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This heavily-cropped phone-scoped photo shows the rounded head, dark back and hindneck, small straight bill, and even the narrow chinstrap (not always present or visible) of the Pacific Loon. It was also much smaller than nearby Common Loons, as well as darker and with a different profile from the Red-throated Loons also present.

Paul and Barbara had been birding their way from New Jersey, and the same refrain was heard everywhere: “it’s slow.” The coastal thickets, migrant traps, and other seasonable hotspots are just not what they usually are this time of year. Although there are a smattering of rarities here and there, it’s just not that “good” right now overall. At the very least, I know we’re not alone here in Maine!

Trying things further afield, Evan Obercian, Jeannette, and I scoured the Belfast area on the 6th. Unfortunately, the only bird of note we turned up was a single Ruby-crowned Kinglet in East Belfast.
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However, well-stocked feeding stations have became a bit of a hotspot, as they often do at this time of year. “Feeder Rarity Season” began with a one-evening wonder Harris’s Sparrow in Central Maine on November 18th. Four days later, a Bullock’s Oriole showed up at a feeder in Camden and stayed through at least 12/3. Luke Seitz and I drove up to successfully twitch it on Black(bib) Friday – my 374th species in Maine!
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Two Dickcissels continue at a feeder in Clinton, but a female Black-throated Blue Warbler coming into a feeder in Portland was perhaps the most unexpected of all.

Other recent, more-seasonal highlights for me included a Northern Shoveler amongst 13 species of waterfowl at Sanford Lagoons on 11/22; 24 American Coots at Chickawaukie Pond in Rockland/Rockport on 11/25; a Rough-legged Hawk over Richmond Island from Kettle Cove on 11/27; a continuing American Coot at Fortune’s Rocks Beach on 12/2; and the “Blue” Snow Goose continues in the Greater Yarmouth Goose Fields through last week. Jeannette and I also had a great visit to Sabattus Pond before the snow began to fall on 12/5, tallying an excellent late-season total of 16 species of waterfowl despite the pond being about half covered with a thin layer of ice. A rare-inland female Long-tailed Duck, 3 Gadwall, 1 drake American Wigeon, a pair of Northern Pintails, 21 Green-winged Teal, 1 Ring-necked Duck, and 73 remaining Ruddy Ducks were among the highlights.

Finches continue to trickle in and through, with scattered Evening Grosbeaks and Red Crossbills over the past couple of weeks. And some more birds of the season included all the fun stuff like Harlequin Ducks and Purple Sandpipers along the coast, Snow Buntings scattered about, etc.

So, although we lament what the season has yet to bring – for example, I’ve only had twospecies of warblers (Yellow-rumped and Wilson’s) so far this December compared to the insane total of 10 that I accumulated in December of 2015 – there really is never a “bad” season of birding here in Maine! It’s just that our expectations are elevated at this time of year.

But now it’s cold. And snowy. That should finally push birds to the coastal microclimates and migrant traps. And in less than 2 weeks, Christmas Bird Counts get underway, believe it or not, and hopefully a return to more seasonably cold weather will turn up the heat on the birding season!

2016 Rarity Season Part I

In my last blog, I predicted some great birding was in store for us here in Maine. Our entry into “Rarity Season” coupled with an active weather pattern was undoubtedly going to make for some exciting birding in the near future. It certainly started off with a bang!

Immediately following the Nor’Easter that drenched us on Friday, October 28th…
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…a Sabine’s Gull was discovered on Sabattus Pond.
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This gorgeous gull was my 373rd species in Maine, and while I knew I was going to see one sooner than later, I expected to finally get one in Maine waters during my Washington County Weekend tour (we were close!), and not well inland on a small lake!

Whether blown inland by the strong winds or “grounded” as it cross-cut over land, this pelagic is not what one expects while scanning the ducks at Sabattus.  An early 1st Winter Iceland Gull (later, two), and a rare-inland sweep of all three species of scoters (9 Surf, 4 Black, and 1 White-winged) were all related to the weather as well.
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Similarly, an adult Black-legged Kittiwake out of place in a pond at Fortune’s Rocks Beach on Sunday was likely storm-related. Although regular to downright common offshore, this is not a bird we usually see onshore in southern Maine.
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One can only imagine what else was on the 2,600+ lakes in the state of Maine during and immediately after the storm! Jeannette and I did check a few spots around Sebago Lake on Halloween, but it was surely too long after the storm, and the only birds of some note we turned up were single Dunlin and Black-bellied Plover (fairly rare inland, especially this late) at Raymond Town Beach.

I bird hard this time of year, doing my best to finish projects and keep my schedule as clear as possible to afford as much time in the field during these fruitful weeks. While I skipped birding in Portland, I did cover a lot of ground, and searched for odd birds in odd places, as well as focusing on the seasonal “migrant trap” hotspots.

In doing so, I found a few good birds, including this Lark Sparrow (always a treat away from Monhegan) at Pott’s Point in Harpswell on 11/10:
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As for wayward vagrants seen around the state by others, there were quite a few from the south: a Blue Grosbeak in Portland on 10/31, a couple more Yellow-breasted Chats were found here and there, and most surprisingly, a Blue-winged Warbler in Saxl Park in Bangor on November 7th – this early migrant simply has to be a reverse-migrant or 180-degree misoriented migrant from points south; right? And the headlines, from the southwest, as a Cave Swallow reported from Cape Elizabeth on the 12th.

From the west (and/or mid-west) came a Clay-colored Sparrow at Two Lights State Park on 11/6 and a few scattered Dickcissels around the state (but where are the Western Kingbirds this year?). A Cattle Egret in South Thomaston on 11/6 and another in Pittston on the 13th could have come from either direction.

But it’s not just rarities that make this time of year so much fun. There are all of the regular migrants that are still “lingering.” Some of the late birds that I have seen in the past weeks included a Red-eyed Vireo along the Saco Riverwalk and 1 Semipalmated Sandpiper at Biddeford Pool Beach on 10/30, a Red-eyed Vireo at Sandy Point on 11/1, a Pine Warbler and a late-ish Winter Wren on Bailey Island in Harpswell on 11/4, a slightly tardy Yellow-bellied Sapsucker with Jeannette at Beaver Park in Lisbon on 11/8, a Turkey Vulture over Falmouth on 11/11, two Winter Wrens on Peak’s Island on 11/14, and a smattering of Hermit Thrushes.

Other birders also reported the usual slew of truant migrants, such as a smattering of Baltimore Orioles, a couple of Scarlet Tanagers, and a decent variety of late warblers here and there. There’s still a Marbled Godwit, 4 American Oystercatchers, and 2 Red Knots at Hill’s Beach in Biddeford Pool; I enjoyed them on the 30th, but they continued to be reported through at least 11/2 with the godwit still being reported as of 11/12!  A few Long-billed Dowitchers were reported, with the one at Sabattus Pond on 11/5 being at the most unexpected location.

The winner, however, is the immature female Ruby-throated Hummingbird that appeared at a feeder on Cousin’s Island in Yarmouth on November 10th! I viewed it the next morning and it continues through today, the 14th. Although the photos taken by the homeowner looked good for “just” a Ruby-throat, I hoped I was missing something from the still images. Any lingering questions/hopes I had were dashed however.

That being said, it’s still a great record. Through our store we have been promoting keeping up hummingbird feeders into November for over a decade, and our database of observations after early October is growing. When I first got a call yesterday, I was sure this was going to be “a good one.” It was Nov 10th after all!

Amazingly, this is the same house that hosted a Selasphorus hummingbird last fall! In other words, it sure does pay to keep those feeders out, even if it’s “just” a Ruby-throat!
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Other, more seasonal, highlights for me over these two weeks included the following. Jeannette and I had 100 Horned Larks along Mayall Road in Gray/New Gloucester on 10/31; 18 Snow Buntings and 13 Horned Larks flew over Bailey Island on 11/4; a Lapland Longspur with 6 Horned Larks were at Stover’s Point Preserve in Harpswell on 11/10; two Ruddy Turnstones were at Winslow Park in Freeport on 11/12 with the Saturday Morning Birdwalk group – one of only two or three places in the state we regularly see them during the winter.

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This Barred Owl on Bailey Island on 11/4 was a treat. Any day with an owl is a good day!

Meanwhile, the new arrivals – including many species that will be spending the winter with us – continue to arrive, my “first of seasons” this week included 2 Common Goldeneyes at Sabattus Pond on the 29th, 2 “Ipswich” Savannah Sparrows at Timber Point in Biddeford on 10/30…
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…lots of Horned Grebes arriving all over, 2 Harlequin Ducks at East Point in Biddeford Pool and 3 Purple Sandpipers at Hill’s Beach on 10/30.

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There were also plenty of Dunlin and Sanderlings around this week, such as this one Dunlin nestled amongst the Sanderlings on Biddeford Pool Beach on the 30th.

Waterfowl migration is in full effect, and not just at Sabattus Pond (although that is certainly one of the top spots in the state). Scoters, Long-tailed Ducks, Red-breasted Mergansers are all piling in, and dabblers are also on the go, such as the single drake Northern Pintail and American Wigeon at Great Pond in Biddeford on 10/30. Common Mergansers are also now arriving; I saw my first migrants at Sebago Lake on 10/31.

Jeannette and I visited Sabattus on a gorgeous, warm day on the 8th, with glass-calm conditions allowing for careful combing through the masses: 649 Ruddy Ducks, 510 Mallards, 176 Lesser and 119 Greater Scaup, 104 American Black Ducks, 73 Buffleheads, 69 Hooded Mergansers, 40 Common Mergansers, 13 Northern Pintails,11 Common Goldeneye, 8 Green-winged Teal, 5 White-winged and 1 Surf Scoter, 4 American Wigeons, 4 Common Loons, and a very-rare-inland Red-necked Grebe.

On 11/13, I returned with a Birds on Tap – Roadtrip! tour with our partners at the Maine Brew Bus. Although I didn’t count everything as carefully as I do when on my own, “Fall Ducks and Draughts” did record 600+ Ruddy Ducks, 3 Gadwalls, AND 2 White-winged Scoters amongst the 14 species of waterfowl present.

The “Greater Yarmouth Goose Fields” have been slow this year so far, likely also due to the mild weather and lack of early snowfalls to our north. In fact, the only “good” goose so far has been a “Blue” Snow Goose that showed up during the week of October 17th continuing through at least 11/11.  Canada Geese numbers remain rather low however; I have still not surpassed even 600 total birds this season.

There’s still some passerine migration a’happening, as well. For example, my last two days at Sandy Point for the season yielded 221 birds on 10/31 (led by 123 American Robins and 18 American Crows) and 131 on 11/1 (led by 59 Dark-eyed Juncos and 44 American Robins). Common Grackles and a smattering of Red-winged Blackbirds are still heading south, although their numbers are greatly reduced over the past week.

Sparrows also continue to move through, with lots of Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows on the move, and my first American Tree Sparrow arriving at the Yarmouth Town Landing on 11/5 during our Saturday Morning Birdwalk, followed by more as the weeks progressed. A White-crowned Sparrow at Biddeford Pool on 10/30 was getting late, but there are still scattered Chipping Sparrows here and there as usual, including one still here at the store’s feeders.
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This junco on our back porch on November 6th appears to be of the inter-mountain subspecies/hybrid swarm often labeled as “cistmontanus.”  It’s definitely not a pure “Oregon” Dark-eyed Junco, and the curved hood with buff of the sides traveling up to below the fold of the wing, however, suggest that this is not a pure “Slate-colored” Junco either.

And speaking of feeder birds, a recent spate of Evening Grosbeak reports (I have heard or seen several 1’s and 2’s recently, but 6 were at Old Town House Park on 11/3), along with an uptick in Purple Finches and Pine Siskins are suggestive of a decent winter around here for at least some of the finches. I also had a few single Red Crossbills fly over in a handful of locations recently. And the first Northern Shrike reports have started trickling in.

But overall, we’re off to a fairly slow start to the November Rarity Season. My guess is the lack of cold fronts early in the fall ushered fewer birds east (e.g. Western Kingbird) but also it remains fairly mild. I’m just not sure birds have begun concentrating yet in places that birders find them (like coastal migrant traps, city parks, etc). But as temperatures continue to drop, this might change. Afterall, after a very slow November last year (also very mild), December was simply incredible.

As the shorter days get colder (maybe), I would expect more birds to begin turning up, especially at feeders and along the immediate coast. The coming weeks always produce something remarkable.

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A blast of cold, Canadian air finally arrived this past weekend, as evidenced by the wind map of 11/11.

However, it might be hard to top the incredible and unprecedented White Wagtail that showed up in Rye, New Hampshire on 11/2 through early the next. You know I’ll be trying though!

The 2016 Bicknell’s Thrushes of the White Mountains Tour

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Perhaps if our annual “Bicknell’s Thrushes of the White Mountains” tour wasn’t so darn successful each year, I could justify relieving myself of the stress and high blood pressure I suffer from this tour!  As I often say, if I could control the weather, I would probably do something a little more lucrative than bird tours, but since I can’t, I might as well lead tours for one of the most enigmatic and range-restricted breeding birds in North America. It doesn’t help that it’s also a real challenge to see – especially in a group and especially without an overnight backpacking trip – and the places we go have some of the wildest weather on the continent!

Every year, as we descend Mount Washington – where the thrushes are getting harder and harder to see (perhaps due to declines, over-playing of tapes, or, more and more, I believe due to competition with the Swainson’s Thrushes marching up the mountains) without everyone getting a satisfactory view – I say “never again.” I was especially worried this year, as the forecast for rapidly strengthening winds through the night jeopardized our second effort.

But before we ascended the mountains, we began our birding by heading from Freeport straight to the White Mountains. Pondicherry National Wildlife Refuge was our destination. Jeannette came along on the tour for the first time this year – mostly just to find out where we eat our delicious meals! – and so as co-leader, she took half the group for some casual birding in the area, yielding great looks at an American Bittern, Pied-billed Grebe, and Yellow-bellied Flycatcher among many others.

My half of the group went for a hike. We heard an Olive-sided Flycatcher, had a Coyote walk out into the open and check us out before bounding off, and oh, yeah, we had this:
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And these breathtaking views.
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Even more remarkable was the fact that the Presidentials, including the summit of Mount Washington, were crystal clear all day.

Once again together, we made another check of the Whitefield airport marsh, where the Pied-billed Grebe was still calling, and all five species of swallows (Tree, Barn, Cliff, Bank, and Northern Rough-winged) were zooming around as steady rain began to fall.

Back in Gorham, we had a little R&R time, visited with this Mourning Dove that was nesting on a light fixture at our hotel’s restaurant (Everybody loves bacon! Or, is this dove’s name “Bacon?”), and then had another delicious meal with the gracious staff and owners of the Saalt Pub and Libby’s Bistro.
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They got us on the road quickly, and fueled up, we joined Ernie and the Mount Washington Stage Company for an after-hours van trip up to the summit. Remember those earlier images of a clear summit? Well, that was then…
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Ice left over from a storm a few days prior.

And with winds rapidly approaching 50mph, Ernie held the doors, and we hopped back into the van to get to work. Enough of this tourist stuff!
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Unfortunately, the winds were picking up at lower elevations as well. Some of my favorite spots for the thrush were just whipping with wind. We heard two birds calling at one spot, and two more a short distance below, but we had little hope of seeing them until we found some shelter.

And when we did, the fog was so dense that we could barely see. Apparently, neither could the thrushes, as one bird flew from behind me and either hit me in the head as it flew across the road, or I simply felt the wind from its wings as it made a last-second turn. Needless to say, that was a remarkable close encounter, and the folks who were looking in the right direction at the right time were witness to my near death-by-thrush experience.

A short while later, it actually perched up briefly, but just in the wrong place for most of the group – including myself – to get a view. At our last stop, at least 4 birds were singing, and most everyone at least glimpsed one or more birds in flight, but it was getting late, getting dark, and getting quite cold. It was time to head downhill and back to Gorham.

While just about everyone saw the bird “well enough to count,” and the birds’ vocal performance was about as good as I have ever experienced on Mt. Washington, the lack of total satisfaction was palpable.

My concern about the next day’s weather increased, especially with the need for a better view of the reclusive thrush. And come morning, with winds already howling in Gorham, I was resigned to Cannon Mountain simply closing their tram line.

So we birded the Trudeau Road area, enjoying whatever was not blowing away. More sheltered patches of woods yielded several Canada Warblers, at least six singing Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, and one of the longest looks at a Northern Waterthrush you’ll ever get: and it was about as high as you’ll ever see one as this bird was singing from the very top of a 40 foot tall dead tree!

We looked at plants like Rhodora, and enjoyed the wind for at least limiting the presence of mosquitoes.
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Arriving at Cannon Mountain, I was relieved to find the tram open, and we were in the first car up to the summit. While the winds were reasonable, the fog was not, and it began to pour.
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But the downpour was short lived, so we moved on through the fog…
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…and then we heard a Bicknell’s Thrush call nearby. And then it was perched on an understory branch, calling, and we were all looking right at it!  It stayed there for a solid 30 seconds, allowing prolonged, and breathtaking views. It was satisfying.

I was relieved.  And as if on queue, the fog began to lift.
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And our next loop around the trail yielded another singing thrush, but also stellar views!
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We celebrated with coffee, hot chocolate, and/or cinnamon rolls, before triumphantly riding the tram back down the hill. Smiles were abundant.

A couple of short birding stops on our way through the mountains yielded Alder Flycatchers and a variety of warblers, but we didn’t turn up a Mourning Warbler we were seeking. We did, however,  see a Moose! So that’s a win.

Our traditional celebratory lunch at Moat Mountain Brewery in North Conway saw the group in high spirits, and enjoying great beer and food. I celebrated with gluttony.
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Also as per tradition, I make a stop or two on the way back to Freeport, and after hearing chatter about covered bridges, I decided to skip more mediocre mid-afternoon birding in strong winds and kept people guessing as we weaved around the back roads to Fryeburg, ending up at the historic Hemlock Bridge.
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A Broad-winged Hawk flew over the river with about half of a snake, and Chipping Sparrows sung from the parking area. But it was time to head home, and with our last fun stop, we iced the cake of another wildly successful “Bicknell’s Thrushes of the White Mountains” adventure. I guess we’ll just have to do it again next year!