Tag Archives: Sandhill Crane

2016 Bradbury Mountain Spring Hawkwatch Season In Review

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The 10th annual Bradbury Mountain Spring Hawkwatch wrapped up on May 15th, bringing a remarkable season to a close. Although I did go up for two hours to hope for a vagrant Mississippi or Swallow-tailed Kite on the 20th, netting five migrants (2 Sharp-shinned Hawks and 1 each of Broad-winged Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, and Merlin. All immatures as expected on the late date). It was worth a try!

Anna Stunkel, a College of the Atlantic graduate and veteran of the Lucky Peak hawkwatch in southwestern Idaho, was the 2016 Official Counter, and she did an incredible job. A tireless observer and interpreter, she introduced hundreds of visitors to the project, and to our numerous local Bald Eagles! While Jeannette and I covered her days off – when rain didn’t do the job for us – or whenever else we got a chance, our many volunteers, especially Zane Baker, Tom Downing, Dave Gulick, Chuck Barnes, and Rick Hartzell were priceless. No hawkwatch is successful without a loyal cadre of assistants – spotting birds, answering questions, and bringing food – so thanks to you all!
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The 2016 season total of 4,785 between March 15th and May 15th was our second highest total in the ten years of the project, and an impressive 17.6% above average (we exclude 2007 from our data analysis due to a change in methodology after this “trial” year).

Oddly enough, we amassed this tremendous total despite losing 16.5% of our possible coverage hours (9am to 5pm EDT) to weather, including fog, rain, snow, or high winds. The 414 total hours of observation was actually 6.6% below our average.

343 raptors passed the watch on April 17th, topped by the 980 tallied on 4/22 and 585 on 4/23. Those two amazing days changed our season dramatically – we went from worrying about a record low count to dreaming about a record high! 3,165 of our raptors passed through between April 16th and April 28th, accounting for 70% of our total flight.

Two rarities were recorded, headlined by a Black Vulture (our 7th of all time) on May 12th, and perhaps even rarer according to the season, a Broad-winged Hawk on March 20th (our previous earliest date was April 3rd, 2008 which itself was an outlier). We hypothesize that this was not a vanguard of the usual long-distant migrants arriving from Central America so early, but rather a bird that wintered either in South Florida or perhaps even well north of usual range thanks to the mild winter over the East.

Although southwesterly winds – our best conditions – were rare this spring, numerous days of west and light northwest in April, combined with sunny conditions and few weather systems during the peak weeks of our flight produced our great count, led by above average numbers of Osprey, Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, American Kestrel, and Merlin. On our biggest day (4/22), light westerlies eventually turned to the southwest, and westerlies rotated around to the southeast on the following day.
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However, the mild winter and early onset of early spring – including snow-free conditions over much of the area on the first day of the count and ice-out already occurring on larger rivers – got the season off to a quick start, but also meant we missed a number of birds that had already continued north before the count started on March 15th. Below average numbers of Turkey Vulture, Bald Eagle, Cooper’s Hawk, Northern Goshawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, and especially Red-tailed Hawks were the result. “Locals” of each from Day 1 also affected our count as we had to err on the side of caution early on to not overcount local birds (especially vultures and eagles) every time they flew around the mountain. It was a very, very different season from the 2015 count, in which winter never seemed to want to go away.

However, our record low 1 Peregrine Falcon is not as easy to explain – perhaps the constant westerlies just kept this predominately more coastal migrant far enough towards the coastline of Casco Bay.

As always, we also keep track of non-raptor migrants to the best of our ability.
2,010 Double-crested Cormorants, 1457 Common Grackles, 1028 Canada Geese, 918 Tree Swallows, and 747 unidentified/mixed blackbirds led the way.

Sandhill Cranes are now an annual occurrence, and this year we tallied four birds: 2 on 3/26, and one each on 4/16 and 4/25. The expansion/colonization/recolonization of Maine by this magnificent species continues, and our hawkwatch is apparently well placed to sample their return flight. Other noteworthy migrants included a White-winged Crossbill on 3/17, migrant Bohemian Waxwings on 3/26 (50) and 4/19 (29) with numerous visits by small flocks to the Common Juniper at the summit, and two Blue-gray Gnatcatchers (4/22 and 5/3).

A total of 92 species were seen and/or heard from the summit, including regular vocalizations from local Barred Owls and a variety of warblers.

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  2016 Avg. 2008-2015 difference from average
Black Vulture 1 0.8 33.3%
Turkey Vulture 260 272.5 -4.6%
Osprey 513 431.1 19.0%
Bald Eagle 68 77.6 -12.4%
Northern Harrier 132 98.6 33.8%
Sharp-shinned Hawk 744 715.1 4.0%
Cooper’s Hawk 69 74.1 -6.9%
Northern Goshawk 2 7.9 -74.6%
Red-shouldered Hawk 75 91.4 -17.9%
Broad-winged Hawk 2123 1545.0 37.4%
Red-tailed Hawk 245 270.4 -9.4%
Rough-legged Hawk 0 0.9 -100.0%
Golden Eagle 0 0.5 -100.0%
American Kestrel 429 359.3 19.4%
Merlin 76 69.1 9.9%
Peregrine Falcon 1 5.4 -81.4%
       
Unidentified Raptor 47 47.3 -0.5%
Total 4785 4067.9 17.6%
       
Hours 414.25 443.5 -6.6%

Of course, this project doesn’t happen without your support of Freeport Wild Bird Supply, but we can’t do this without the support of Bradbury Mountain State Park and our co-sponsors, Leica Sport Optics. Our sincerest thank you goes out to Sunshine Hood, the new park manager at Bradbury (we can’t wait to grow the project with you!), and Jeff Bouton and Stan Bucklin of Leica.
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But most importantly, this project doesn’t happen without all of you joining our counter at the summit, learning about raptors, migration, and conservation. To show your support for the project, and to raise funds for future needs (counter’s salary, new signage, etc), check out the exclusive Bradbury Mountain Hawkwatch t-shirt by North Yarmouth’s Coyote Graphics. It features Michael’s original artwork of the view from Bradbury within the outline of raptor on the front, and raptor silhouettes by the 2016 Official Counter, Anna Stunkel on the back.

We look forward to seeing you at the summit again beginning on March 15th, 2017 – or perhaps sooner if weather conditions align (like more kite weather!)
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Potential “Lesser” Sandhill Crane, North Yarmouth, 4/24/15

A mere decade ago, Sandhill Cranes were a truly rare bird in Maine. Birders from around the state traveled to Messalonskee Lake in Belgrade in the hopes of seeing “the” cranes. Even that pair, or two, was remarkable.

My, how things have changed!  31 in a field together in Norridgewock last fall. The 10th of the season passing the Bradbury Mountain Hawkwatch earlier today. My best guess is that there are now at least 2 dozen pairs breeding – or attempting to breed/prospecting – around the state.

All of these birds are big, gray (rustier in spring), typical “Greater” Sandhill Cranes that are the expected subspecies in eastern North America. Whether colonizing or re-colonizing the state, there’s little doubt that Sandhill Cranes are becoming a “bird of Maine.”

There is a lot of variability in how much rusty-brown staining is shown by each Greater. Some have decidedly more than others – a feature acquired by preening with tannin-rich mud, or so we think. And every now and then there is one that looks a little small – especially when seen alone in a field. But nonetheless, I have not seen, seen photos of, nor heard any reports of any cranes in Maine that were anything other than “Greaters.”

And then there was this bird that Andrew Wolfgang and I saw this morning at Old Town House Park in North Yarmouth (my 140th Patch Bird!).  Andrew spotted it first, but we both immediately thought “wow, that is small and brown.”

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To me, this looks just like a “Lesser” Sandhill Crane: the smaller, more northerly subspecies that breeds in the high Canadian Arctic and winters mostly in Texas and the southwest. The noticeably small size – even without anything else around to compare – was so apparent, as was the more squat, or even “dumpy” shape.

And look at that tiny (relatively speaking!) bill!  I’ve never seen even a runty Greater that looked like that. And of course, there is the extensively-rusty plumage. Again, although this feature is variable, this bird’s thoroughness of the staining, from the middle of the neck through the “bustle,” looks a lot like a Lesser to me.

The bird was across the river from the park’s northern side, in a private field. Not that I was going to flush it, but if it was to take flight, I would have liked to photograph the wing pattern which could be an aid in identification.  Intriguingly, however, a few hours later, Andrew had a Sandhill – the aforementioned 10th of the season – pass by the Bradbury Mountain Hawkwatch. We’ll take a look at his distant photos to see if we can figure out if it’s the same bird or not, and take a look at the wing pattern if possible.

I have some more reading to do, and I will be sending these photos to some knowledgeable colleagues. However, with Feathers Over Freeport this weekend, it might be a few days before I can delve further into this intriguing bird. In the meantime enjoy and/or ponder some more photos, and stay tuned.

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UPDATE, 4/27:  As I suspected, comments received from friends and respected colleagues all agree that this bird looks very small, very small billed, and is impressively rusty (yes, even for spring). Those features combined would be rather coincidental, BUT, the spread wing shot would be helpful. But the reality is this bird is alone, and as I discussed, everything is subjective. How small is it really? How brown is it really?

Of course, even if this was small enough and small billed enough, with a typical “Greater” standing next to it, subspecific identity is likely impossible based on our current knowledge. Individual variation (in both “Greater” and “Lesser”) is wide, and there is likely an intermediate population of the two subspecies that might render such analysis moot. Some even argue that it is more of a clinal issue and two distinct subspecies may not even exist.

So, as expected, no firm conclusions can be drawn. We can prove nothing here. That being said, for those like me who are always learning, and always willing to learn, the analysis of such interesting individuals is worthwhile on its own, both to learn about status and distribution of cryptic species/identifiable forms and for our own personal growth as birders.

Common Teal to Northern Lapwing; American Woodcocks to Wood Ducks: 5 Great Days of Spring Birding!

Well, that was a helluva good five days of birding! And, I covered a heckuva lot of ground in the process. Yes, spring – and spring birding – is finally upon us.

After checking local hotspots on Thursday morning (lots of Killdeer and my first Eastern Phoebes), I began my trek eastwards after lunch. I was giving a presentation and book signing at the Maine Coastal Islands NWR headquarters in Rockland, thanks to an invite from the Friends of Maine Seabird Islands. On the way, I hit a handful of water overlooks, with the only birds of note being my FOY Fish Crows in downtown Brunswick and FOY Double-crested Cormorant in Damariscotta Harbor.

But then I arrived at Weskeag Marsh, and that was most productive. Highlighted by two drake “Eurasian” Green-winged (aka “Common”) Teal, a nice diversity of waterfowl also included two pairs of American Wigeon and a pair of Northern Pintail. I flushed two American Woodcocks and four Fox Sparrows from the short trail that leads to the viewing blind. Afterwards, I found a single 2nd-Cycle Glaucous Gull with four 1st-cycle Iceland Gulls still at Owl’s Head Harbor.

Here’s a poorly phone-scoped image of one of the Common Teal, showing the bold horiztonal white bar across the wing and the lack of a vertical white bar on the side of the chest.
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Spending the night with friends, I then met up with staff from the Coastal Mountains Land Trust for a walk around their Beech Hill Preserve to discuss and offer suggestions as to augment and improve bird habitat there. A spiffy male Northern Harrier and a Northern Shrike (my 11th of the season!) were me rewards.

I then took the (very) long way home, checking farm fields on my way to the Hatch Hill Landfill in Augusta. Although 900-1000 gulls were present at the dump – a nice number for here – all but 5 were Herring Gulls (plus three Great Black-backed and 2 Ring-billed). At least 10 Bald Eagles were still present however.

Working my way down the Kennebec, I checked the mouth of the Abagadasset River in Bowdoinham, which I found to still be frozen. Nearby Brown’s Point, however, had open water, and duck numbers were clearly building, including 44 Ring-necked Ducls and 50+ Green-winged Teal. Back at the store soon thereafter, I found our Song Sparrow numbers had grown from four to 12 overnight.

As the rain and drizzle ended on Saturday morning, the birdwalk group convened, and we headed inland (for the first time since December!) to work the “Greater Yarmouth Goose Fields.” Highlighted by two Cackling Geese that were first located on Thursday (a couple of hours after I checked the fields in the fog, dammit!) and yet another Northern Shrike (our third week in a row with a shrike on the birdwalk!), this very productive outing is fully covered on our website, here – as are all of our birdwalk outings.
IMG_3244_CACG,GreelyRd,Cumberland,4-5-14One of the two Cackling Geese, phone-scoped through the fog.

Normally, the birdwalk’s return to the store is the end of my birding on Saturday, but not this week. Soon, Kristen Lindquist, Barb Brenneman, and I raced off to Jordan Farm in Cape Elizabeth to twitch a real “mega,” the stunning Northern Lapwing! Discovered Friday evening, the bird was enjoyed by many throughout the day on Saturday, but it was not seen again on Sunday despite much searching. This is the 4th record of lapwing in Maine, and the third in just three years! I consider myself exceedingly fortunate to have seen the last two. My distantly-phone-scoped photos of the Cape Elizabeth bird hardly do this stunner justice.
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Yet even still my birding day was far from over, as Saturday night was our annual “Woodcocks Gone Wild at Pineland Farms” dusk trip. Keeping an eye on the weather (the rain had cleared, but increasing winds were a concern), Jeannette and I wondered if we should postpone the outing. Moments after we decided to give the go-ahead in the afternoon, the winds began to gust – a lot. Then, at about 5pm, they died. When our walk got underway at 6:30, there was a little breeze once again, but it was not enough to keep the woodcocks from going wild! In fact, it’s possible that a little wind kept the birds’ display a little lower – especially the first handful of flights – which resulted in quite possibly the best show we’ve ever had here! At least 7 males were displaying, including one repeatedly right over our heads – and at least two more silent birds were observed flying by. Add to this lots of American Robins and a Northern Shrike before the sun set, and the group was treated to a wonderful spring evening performance!

Next up was Androscoggin County on Sunday with my friend Phil McCormack. While our primary target was a pancake breakfast at Jillison’s Farm in Sabattus, we were also hoping for a Redhead that was discovered on the outlet stream at Sabattus Pond a few days ago. Well, the pancake chase (the more important one!) was successful, but the Redhead chase was not. However, a very good day of birding was enjoyed nonetheless.

Scattered ducks on the river including Ring-necked Ducks and Common Mergansers, a couple of pockets of Tree Swallows, and other assorted species were trumped by two flooded fields along Rte 136 in Durham. With ponds and marshes still frozen, ducks are stacking up at more ephemeral – but unfrozen – habitats.  Thousands of ducks and geese were present, mostly Canada Geese, Mallards, and American Black Ducks.  However, between the two fields, we tallied an unbelievable 273 Wood Ducks (probably about quadruple my previous high count in the state). Two immature Snow Geese were my first of the year, and very rare away from the coastal marshes in the spring. 18 Green-winged Teal, 12 Ring-necked Ducks, 10 Northern Pintail, and two pairs of American Wigeon were also among the masses.
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Although these phone-scoped photos hardly do the scene justice, they should at least give you a taste of what things looked like.

After brunch, we birded the west side of the Androscoggin River (more Ring-necked Ducks and Common Mergansers, etc) before spending our last hour of our birding (half) day at Bradbury Mountain.  Our disappointment over missing an unprecedented 9 Sandhill Cranes was alleviated when #10 was spotted, along with my first two Ospreys of the year.

After four days of extensive birding, my Monday agenda at the store was lengthy, but the weather in the morning was just too good to pass up!  A spin of the local waterfowl hotspots was fruitful.  The Goose Fields yielded the two continuing Cackling Geese along Greely Road, along with my first American Kestrels of the year, and my FOY Wilson’s Snipe, also along Greely.

No luck finding a lingering Barrow’s Goldeneye in the Harraseeket River, but at Wharton Point, a group of 7 Northern Shovelers was one of the largest flocks of this species I have seen in Maine. My first Greater Yellowlegs of the year was also present, as were 60+ Green-winged Teal, 16 Ring-necked Ducks, about 30 distant scaup, 8 American Wigeons, and 1 Northern Pintail among several hundred American Black Ducks.

Two joyous hours at the Brad were full of raptors: 127 birds had past the watch when I departed at noon, including 4 Osprey. Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks continue to add to their all-time record tallies. Hundreds of Canada Geese were sorted through, hoping for a rarity, while other migrants included Tree Swallows, American Black Ducks, Common Mergansers, and Great Blue Herons.

Furthermore, signs of a good flight last night included the return of Golden-crowned Kinglets to the area – after we were virtually devoid of them this winter, and an increase in Red-breasted Nuthatches (relatively few and far between this winter as well), Song-Sparrows, and at the store, a Fox Sparrow – a bird we don’t get here every spring due to our open habitat.

So long story short, it’s been a great few days of birding!  But now, I should probably get some work done!