Tag Archives: Dunlin

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!

Interesting Still-Breeding-Plumaged Dunlin at Pine Point, 9-20-15

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Earlier today, I found an interesting Dunlin at Pine Point, at the mouth of Scarborough Marsh. It flew in from across the channel on the incoming tide, and landed up Jones Creek, a couple of hundred feet away.

It was an adult bird, including an extensively black belly, and it appeared pale above and rather small. I needed a better look, but as I waited for the bird to slowly come closer, I posted to the Maine-birds listserve of a “…pale-backed Greenland (or other European-type)-like Dunlin,” mostly to alert other birders in the area (there were quite a few today as usual here). Based on the fact that this bird looked small, pale, and had not yet undergone molt, my mind immediately went to one of the “European” subspecies.

The bird had come considerably closer by the time Noah Gibb and Leon Mooney arrived, and it was clear that this was not a short-billed bird, perhaps on its own eliminating the Greenland subspecies arctica (one fitting this description was photographed this summer at Popham). But I will admit to not knowing the full range of variation in bill length among all of the 10 subspecies of Dunlin, so we went to work photographing and studying the bird.

We agreed that the bird appeared small (although the three other “typical” juvenile Dunlin that were present were never seen nearby, a comparison that would have been most helpful) and “not short-billed.” It wasn’t the longest, droopiest billed Dunlin that we’ve seen, but well within the range of our typical migrant subspecies, hudsonia.

As the bird came closer, plumage details and patterns blurred by heat shimmer and scope-shake in the 20+mph winds at a distance became more discernable. Arctica, the smallest and shortest-billed subspecies, also has a small belly patch. I don’t think this bird would be characterized as being short-billed or with a small belly patch.

Meanwhile, in response to my Maine-birds post, Louis Bevier chimed in that the subspecies arcticola which breeds in northwestern Canada and Alaska “is somewhat paler-backed than our typical hudsonia and delays molt until after migration.” That was not something I had remembered, but it’s been a while since I’ve done much reading on the subject. However, The Shorebird Guide by Michael O’Brien, Richard Crossley, and Kevin Karlson – which I grabbed as soon as I returned to the store – references arcticola as molting on the breeding grounds, as does our typical hudsonia. Bevier also stated that it is from “northern Alaska and the West Coast,” but that, I believe is actually referring to pacifica, which also molts on the breeding grounds (Arcticola winters in Japan, Korea, and China).

The Shorebird Guide cautions that “a few individuals of pacifica, arcticola, and hudsonia migrate before molting extensively.” While I could not see any signs of molt on the wings, back, scapulars, etc on this bird, of course some birds don’t always molt according to the book. Injuries (none obvious) or malnutrition (harder to decipher in the field) could delay molt, and some individuals can suspend molt for similar reasons – and others, such as simply being “screwed up!”

The only other reference I have handy here at the store is Richard Chandler’s Shorebirds of North America, Europe, and Asia which offers a similar array of caveats about subspecific identification. While saying “identification to race may be possible in favorable circumstances, most readily in breeding plumage,” it then goes on to warn that “At the end of the breeding season, separation will often be difficult, as feather wear renders the distinctions less obvious and upperparts become dull and blackish.”

It’s late September, and therefore it’s well past the end of the breeding season, making feather wear a serious issue. While I couldn’t see anything that suggested extreme wear (like on the flight feathers of a retarded 1st summer bird), there’s no doubt that any colors we were seeing were likely paler, and perhaps considerably so, than what the bird would be in fresh plumage.

Chandler takes the time to reason that “It is not easy to identify any of the races of Dunlin in breeding plumage away from the breeding grounds…Since races are established largely on the basis of the average characters of specimens taken on the breeding grounds, variation between individuals and differences between sexes, as well as variation with time owing to fading and wear as the season progresses, result in caution being needed when attempting to assign race to any particular individual. Consequently, there will always be more than an element of speculation with the racial identification of many migrant Dunlins in breeding plumage.”

So where does that leave me with subspecific identification? Completely and utterly unsure.

Is this simply a hudsonia that has not molted yet for some odd reason? Maybe. Is this an arctica, like my first impression? I don’t think so anymore (too long-billed and with too much black on the belly). The only thing that is definitive is that this is an interesting and educational bird. Hopefully, it will be seen again, and perhaps better photos – and photos with “normal” Dunlin – could be acquired. But for now, I am fine with saying “I don’t know.”

I present an array of phone-scoped images for you to ponder (or not). I’ll also send this link out to those who know more about Dunlin subspecies than I do. It’s going to be a busy two weeks for me (Birds on Tap!, Monhegan tour, than travel to a trade show), so I may not get back to an analysis of the analysis for some time, but if anything revelatory becomes apparent, I’ll discuss that here.

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9/23 UPDATE: Jeannette and I observed the bird again yesterday, 9/22 and Jeannette took excellent photos, as usual. It was also a whole lot closer, allowing for much more detailed study. You can ignore those awful photos above, this is what the bird really looked like!
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So, the next session with the bird shows several pertinent details:
1) This bird IS in molt, as several new coverts and tertials are visible.
2) The outermost primaries (especially as you can see in flight) ARE indeed very heavily worn (it could be a 1st summer/2nd winter bird afterall?).
3) The size and structure looks more than fine for our typical subspecies, hudsonia.

Those, combined with the details of the plumage, show that this is undoubtedly NOT a European bird. Instead, it is either one of the North American subspecies in very retarded molt (or perhaps a vagrant East Asian bird). I’ll synthesis what I learn when I return in a couple of weeks, but for now, I wanted to get these much more useful photos posted for you to ponder, enjoy, and/or ignore.