Fork-tailed!

Fork-tailed Flycatcher

So a Fork-tailed Flycatcher showed up at Chandler Pond in Brighton yesterday or the day before. Fortunately, I had worked late one day last week and had a few extra minutes to get over there first thing today. As you’ve already seen, the bird was still present and cooperative.

It was bouncing around between several trees. I spent most of my time trying for flight shots. Unfortunately, the camera’s rather heavy and most times when I put it down for a second and started seeing who else was around were the times when the bird flew.

But not every time:
Fork-tailed Flycatcher

Note that the 3 outermost primaries have notches, making this the southern savana subspecies, which is expected.

A few more of my better shots:

Fork-tailed Flycatcher

Fork-tailed Flycatcher

Fork-tailed Flycatcher

Note the yellow crown patch visible in that last one.

And one very close to excellent shot:

Fork-tailed Flycatcher

The primaries are more visible here.

Too bad the bird didn’t move the hundred yards or so down the road to the Newton and Middlesex county line.

Waxwing on a stick

Waxwing on a stick

Took a ride out to Groton this morning. Even though there have been in the hundreds of Bohemians up in Newburyport and elsewhere, I wanted them more for the county. Nothing in the trees as we arrived, but after grabbing a muffin and waiting in the car for a few minutes, four waxwings flew over. I jumped out and went back to check the trees and this single bird was sitting way up at the top. The light was awful but I was still plenty happy (although if you want a good picture, look at Anne’s from downtown Boston).

County bird #256!

Pine Grosbeaks finally

So it’s an irruption year for Pine Grosbeaks and they’ve done all they can to avoid me. A calling bird that we never found at the top of Mt. Watatic last year did get it onto my year list. This year, we tried in Royalston on a freezing cold day that had all the birds hiding for the short time we were able to stand being out. While out at Ethan’s for a weekend, I did get a very brief fly-by view at the Athol McDonald’s, but that’s not very satisfying.

I was beginning to think I wasn’t going to get any photo ops and wasn’t going to be able to get them on my Middlesex County list (kicking myself for not going out to Groton early in the winter when they appeared to be pretty regular). Fortunately, on Thursday, Paul Peterson reported several at the train station in Lincoln and Marj Rines found them again Friday. Although it was supposed to be nasty all day Saturday, it wasn’t raining when I got up, so we took a quick ride out. The train station trees were just about stripped bare (although a few of the waxwings that had been around showed up along with a bluebird). We wandered down through the community gardens looking for other fruit trees and found some in front of the police station. Unfortunately, there were no birds in them. Continuing on to the Codman Estate, we were rewarded with a fairly good view of a Pileated Woodpecker. The rain picked up, so we headed out.

Today, I started by not doing much of anything ad finally decided to try again around 9:30. The train station looked empty, so I drove past the police station (also empty) and headed to Nine Acre Corner. I attempted to enjoy my first Green-winged Teal and Northern Pintails of the year, but the freezing wind made it difficult. There had been a White-fronted Goose around, but the majority of the geese were behind vegetation or in horrible light. Barbara Volkle and Steve Moore drove up, agreed on the difficulty with the geese and we all headed back to the other side to try from there. No luck with the geese and the Killdeer that Barbara and Steve had seen had also gone into hiding, so I headed back to the train station.

On the way back, I cut down 126 to Codman Rd. to check for the Pileated again (Marj had mentioned that it appeared to have been working on a hole for quite awhile last year). At the stop sign, the car in front of me was being slow, so I looked to the police station and noticed a brighter spot in the trees. The car was still sitting there and there was no one behind me, so I grabbed my binocs and had a Pine Grosbeak. I went back to the train station to park and ran over and found at least 4 birds feeding in the trees right in front of the station, including one gorgeous adult male.

And since I’m sure no one read all that, here’s the pictures:

Pine Grosbeak

Male Pine Grosbeak

Male Pine Grosbeak

Male Pine Grosbeak

Note how many berries he started eating and didn’t finish.

(Update: in the comments, Norm Levey points out that they eat the pips and not the fruit itself)

Male Pine Grosbeak

Male Pine Grosbeak

A couple waxwings joined them as well.

Cedar Waxwing

I headed off to other things but caught Barbara and Steve as they drove up and was able to point them to the police station.

After my parents got home in the afternoon, they decided to take a run over and see them themselves. We got to the police station with empty trees. There was an odd call from across the street and we looked up and all saw a grosbeak. After a few seconds, we realized we were all looking at different birds. They flew back into the fruit trees, giving much better views. Unfortunately no adult male this time, but still good for everyone to get them.

Pine Grosbeaks

Second bird almost visible there.

Pine Grosbeak

Duck Walked

So the Waltham Land Trust duck walk was today. Luckily it was fairly warm (although the wind made it feel a bit cool) and the path was mostly clear.

I don’t want to say unfortunately, but 50 people showing up was rather scary. Once we got to the first wooden overlook, it turned out ok. Until then it was a big clustered and crazy (the fact the the hoodie disappeared before most people got on it didn’t help much). At the overlook, we were able to get nice looks at the Hooded Mergansers and Ring-necked Ducks and spent a good bit of time getting everyone to the front to see. The ring-necked show at the second overlook was even better and the female Common Goldeneye was around for a while as well.

We lingered there for quite some time. I debated ending the walk there as there wasn’t likely to be much up further, but someone who had walked over to the start mentioned seeing a few things he didn’t know across Newton St. so we headed over. A few more mergansers and mallards were about it, although a few of us spotted 2 black ducks as we returned.

Although not the birdiest walk, people seemed very excited. Many commented on how they weren’t aware of how much could be found along the Charles (or any small bit of habitat in general). Between seeing this and corresponding with others about various places in Waltham, I’ve realized that there’s a need to document as many places publicly as possible. I’m going to start adding to the 3 site pages I already have up (both more sites and more details about the individual sites) and need to start looking at the eBird import tool to get all my old data up there.

And we saw:

  • Canada Goose – 30
  • American Black Duck – 2
  • Mallard – 100
  • Ring-necked Duck – 12
  • Hooded Merganser – 11
  • Ring-billed Gull – 40
  • Rock Pigeon – 2
  • Downy Woodpecker – 1
  • American Crow – 4
  • American Robin – 4
  • Northern Mockingbird – 2
  • European Starling – 25
  • Dark-eyed Junco – 2
  • Common Grackle – 1
  • House Sparrow – 20

Winter List 2007

Stealing an idea from the Canadians, here’s a December-February list for Waltham. Dates and locations are the first sighting. Birds in bold are my first Dec-Feb sighting in Waltham.

The List:

  1. Canada Goose (12/1, Met State)
  2. Mute Swan (12/2, Hardy Pond)
  3. Wood Duck (1/19, Charles)
  4. American Black Duck (12/2, Cambridge Res)
  5. Mallard (12/2, Cambridge Res)
  6. Green-winged Teal (12/2, Hardy Pond)
  7. Ring-necked Duck (12/2, Charles)
  8. Common Goldeneye (12/2, Cambridge Res)
  9. Hooded Merganser (12/1, Lot 1)
  10. Common Merganser (12/2, Cambridge Res)
  11. Ruddy Duck (12/2, Cambridge Res)
  12. Great Blue Heron (12/2, Cambridge Res)
  13. Turkey Vulture (2/25, Beaver St)
  14. Sharp-shinned Hawk (12/23, Lot 1)
  15. Cooper’s Hawk (12/2, Cambridge Res)
  16. Red-tailed Hawk (12/1, Lot 1)
  17. American Kestrel (12/23, UMass Field Station)
  18. American Woodcock (12/1, Lot 1)
  19. Ring-billed Gull (12/1, yard)
  20. Herring Gull (12/1, Star Market)
  21. Great Black-backed Gull (12/2, Cambridge Res)
  22. Rock Pigeon (12/2, Hardy Pond)
  23. Mourning Dove (12/1, Lot 1)
  24. Great Horned Owl (12/1, Met State)
  25. Belted Kingfisher (12/2, Hardy Pond)
  26. Red-bellied Woodpecker (1/5, Met State)
  27. Downy Woodpecker (12/1, yard)
  28. Hairy Woodpecker (12/1, Lot 1)
  29. Northern Flicker (12/2, Charles)
  30. Blue Jay (12/1, Lot 1)
  31. American Crow (12/1, Trapelo)
  32. Fish Crow (12/22, Charles)
  33. Black-capped Chickadee (12/1, yard)
  34. Tufted Titmouse (12/1, yard)
  35. White-breasted Nuthatch (12/1, yard)
  36. Carolina Wren (12/2, yard)
  37. Winter Wren (1/5, Met State)
  38. Golden-crowned Kinglet (12/6, Paine)
  39. Ruby-crowned Kinglet (12/2, Charles)
  40. Eastern Bluebird (1/5, Met State)
  41. Hermit Thrush (2/3, Lot 1)
  42. American Robin (12/1, Lot 1)
  43. Northern Mockingbird (12/1, Lot 1)
  44. European Starling (12/2, Cambridge Res)
  45. Cedar Waxwing (12/1, Lot 1)
  46. American Tree Sparrow (12/1, Lot 1)
  47. Savannah Sparrow (12/7, UMass Field Station)
  48. Song Sparrow (12/1, Lot 1)
  49. White-throated Sparrow (12/1, Lot 1)
  50. Dark-eyed Junco (12/1, yard)
  51. Snow Bunting (12/23, UMass Field Station)
  52. Northern Cardinal (12/1, Lot 1)
  53. Red-winged Blackbird (2/15, Charles)
  54. Common Grackle (2/24, Charles)
  55. House Finch (12/1, yard)
  56. American Goldfinch (12/1, yard)
  57. House Sparrow (12/1, yard)

Based on Massbird (and other lists) postings and eBird reports, there were at least 215 species in state this season.

So 57 again, same as last year. Not too bad. Did miss ravens repeatedly and probably some other stuff.

Cumulative total: 78

Last Year

Greater Boston CBC 2007

Last Sunday was the Greater Boston CBC. Scheduled for 12/16, we were snowed out. Somehow, my team was able to have better attendance on the rescheduled day, unlike most teams. Unfortunately, we were snowed out of several areas and had to replan most of the day.

We started with the usual owling, which turned out to be a waste as we heard nothing. Meeting up with the full team at 7:00, we had a Red-tail replacing last year’s Cooper’s in the same tree. We quickly headed to Dunback, where I found the Great Horned Owl with a little help from the crows. We wandered around the rest of the pines and down to the gardens without much of anything and were ready to move on by 8:45.

Our next stop was Brookhaven, where the nature trail was too snowy. Walking around the parking lot to make sure the pond was frozen, 16 Cedar Waxwings flew by, being chased by a Sharp-shinned Hawk.

We moved on to Falzone Field, which was also too snowy. There were big numbers of robins and mourning doves and what was presumably the same Sharp-shinned landed across the field. Willy the screech owl was out, so we headed over, although he decided to go back into hiding before we got there.

We took a quick detour to check Met State for redpolls and then went to Beaver Brook. There, we found out why we never covered it before. It’s in Belmont’s territory, so we left and went to the UMass Field Station. There was an Accipiter perched that looked like a Cooper’s, but before we could get closer two small white birds flew in. Snow Buntings! My first for Waltham, and only the second record that I know of (also here).

Snow Bunting!

As we started into the field, someone asked about the kestrel the group had here last year. A couple seconds later, we turned around and there was a kestrel sitting on one of the trees behind the building! I headed for the pines to check for owls, while the rest of the group went for a better look for the buntings or to the community gardens. The kestrel flew right overhead. The pines were empty (as always) but the far back corner of the field had a lot of common birds. Walking was rather tough here, sinking in with almost every step.

We moved on to Lyman Pond. Most of the group went to see if the Screech-Owls were back, but I decided to check the pond itself for any open water. There was a small strip, which had a Great Blue Heron and a Mallard. I was about to gloat over the heron, but it flew to the other end and everyone saw it.

Next up was the Paine Estate, which was completely dead. It was close to lunch time, so we headed to the high school and Kennedy. There wasn’t much around, but it put us in a good place for the people that had to leave. We headed to Wendy’s.

While eating lunch, we pretended to count gulls and starlings. Much better was the kestrel that perched briefly in the McDonald’s lot across the street and the flyover Great Blue Heron.

After finishing lunch, we headed to the Charles. We quickly found all the good ducks (23 Ring-necks, 8 Hooded Mergansers, 18 Commons, 3 Goldeneye) and another couple herons. We split up at the 2nd overlook and I continued on to the baseball field. A few more of those ducks were around, but the big highlight was a pair of kestrels. They were very active, flying around and landing on the light towers and vocalized quite often. They were joined on the tower by a Herring Gull and a Cooper’s Hawk flew through as well.

Kestrel on Light Tower

There was also a very cooperative Red-tail right by Newton St.:

Red-tail

Red-tail

We returned and found the group that had gone to check the waterfall back at the parking lot, looking at a Fish Crow. We moved on to the Gore Estate, which was too snowy to walk around, although I took a quick run to the fenced-in field.

Pretty much out of accessible places, we went to drop the rest of the group off before heading home to count feeder birds for the rest of the day. On the way, we made a brief stop at Hardy Pond, which had surprisingly large numbers of Mallards considering that it was totally frozen.

Definitely a better day than I expected. Thanks to Judy, Joyce, Christine, Eric, Lew, Barbara, and my parents for helping.

Thanksgiving Weekend

A few photo highlights from all over Thanksgiving weekend:

Bluebird in New Salem:

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

Bluebirds as Great Meadows:

female Eastern Bluebird

male Eastern Bluebird

Their Red-bellied friend:

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Looks like the red belly is actually visible there.

Screech-Owl:

Eastern Screech-Owl

Salisbury Crossbills:

Red Crossbills male and female

Red Crossbill male

Red Crossbill male

And Redpolls:

Common Redpolls

And a Rough-legged Hawk at Plum:

Rough-legged Hawk

Sparrow Identification

This is work in progress. I’m adding photos as I get them and working on the text as I think of improvements. If you have something to add, use the contact page and email me.

Here’s a secret for fall birding in the east: Sparrows aren’t particularly difficult. Don’t focus on details of plumage and they sort themselves out pretty easily.

Before going into details, I will say that my experience is almost entirely on the east coast and that western birds may pose more challenges, but this advice should be fairly useful to everyone. I’ll also say that a lot of this essay is based on the Sparrows: The Generic Approach chapter of Kenn Kaufman’s Advanced Birding.

So how do you go about breezing through a flock of sparrows? You focus on the shape and general color pattern. Yes, the same holistic approach that’s so big with hawks and shorebirds now. Chances are 90% will sort out easily, leaving just a few to focus more carefully on.

Start with Song Sparrows obviously. Not only are they the most common, almost year-round, but they also are somewhat intermediate in shape, so you can easily compare them to almost every other sparrow. There’s probably one within 5 minutes of you right this second, so as long as it’s light out, take a 15 minute walk and study one.

Ok, so what did you notice? Overall it was reddish or brownish, with a round head, relatively typical body, and long rounded tail. Lots of somewhat thick streaks, a big eyestripe, and some other markings.

Now go find a Savannah Sparrow, which is fairly similar in markings. But it’s also much trimmer, slightly flatter on top of the head, and more of a yellowish-brown. With those observations, they’re two very different birds. Most other sparrows are similarly distinct when you consider more than just plumage. Let’s try to describe some.

  • Chipping Sparrow

    Chipping Sparrows are small and appropriately tightly proportioned. In summer, the bright chestnut cap makes them obvious. In fall, they show a moderately patterned face and when flying a gray rump. They outnumber any similar-shaped bird by several orders of magnitude, so they’re pretty easy.

  • Clay-colored Sparrow

    Clay-colored Sparrows are basically the same as Chipping Sparrows. They’re much, much rarer. I’ve only seen a few, but they did stick out with a much stronger face pattern. Stronger lines along the cheeks and pale between the eye and bill creates a reasonably different impression. Then get the bird to fly and look for the brown rump, which doesn’t contrast with the rest of the backside like a Chipping Sparrow does.

  • Field Sparrow

    Field Sparrows are quite distinct. Pretty much shaped like a Chipping, but the face is utterly blank. The bill is pink and the head in general seems to have a pinkish cast. Nothing is really similar, Grasshopper Sparrows can be similarly blank-faced but have huge heads.

  • American Tree Sparrow

    Slightly bigger than a Chipping but fairly similar. They stick around in winter in Massachusetts and outnumber the smaller sparrows in in late fall into early spring. The bicolored bill (black on top, yellow below) is a good mark, as is the black spot on the breast. The head is fairly plain with an obvious cap.

  • Brewer’s Sparrow

    An exceptional vagrant that I haven’t seen. Check every Clay-colored, but probably outnumbered by them by at least the same amount that Clay-colored is outnumbered by Chipping.

  • Vesper Sparrow

    This one gives me trouble. I think it’s because the Peterson illustration was of a totally plain bird, when they’re actually much more like a Savannah Sparrow from the side. The white outer tail sticks out, as does the eyering and less of an eyebrow.

  • Lark Sparrow

    I keep missing these in the east, but they’re very distinct from my memories in Arizona. On the large size, with a very different facial pattern. You won’t overlook one.

  • Lark Bunting

    Another vagrant I don’t have any experience with, but they don’t appear to be similar to any other sparrow. The white in the wings looks like it’s obvious.

  • Savannah Sparrow

    Already talked about. A trimmer, paler Song Sparrow with a short tail.

  • Grasshopper Sparrow

    Plain-faced and large-headed. An obvious eye-ring and a very flat head.

  • Henslow’s Sparrow

    Very rare, but a greener Grasshopper with an even larger head.

  • Le Conte’s Sparrow

    Another rarity. Yellow-orange on the face, with a fairly flat head. You’ll need a good look to eliminate Sharp-tailed.

  • Sharp-tailed Sparrows

    I’m considering these two together. Orange-faced, with a huge bill. Not easy to separate the two however. If you’re not in a salt marsh, it’s almost certainly a Nelson’s, but good luck on the coast.

  • Seaside Sparrow

    Another one I don’t have a lot of experience with, but another one with a huge bill. Unlike Sharp-tails, Seaside is very dark overall. Quite distinct.

  • Fox Sparrow

    Large and red in the east. Take a Song Sparrow, make it bigger, make the streaks more heavy, and add red and turn down the brown and you have a Fox Sparrow.

  • Song Sparrow

    Already discussed and the basic reference sparrow. On the large side, fairly rounded, with a long, rounded tail. Fairly dark, with heavy streaking on the belly and face.

  • Lincoln’s Sparrow

    A tighter Song Sparrow. Slightly trimmer, with flatter angles. Overall less patterned, both in heaviness and in amount. Combination of gray head and buffy throat and upper breast give it a fairly distinct appearance.

  • Swamp Sparrow

    Somewhat like the cross of a Song and White-throated Sparrows (depending on angle, can easily look much more like a White-throat than anything else). Brighter back than a Song with a grayer head. No streaking on the front.

  • White-throated Sparrow

    Big and bulky with an obvious facial pattern. Almost as good a reference as Song Sparrow.

  • Harris’s Sparrow

    Another one I don’t have experience with, but cross a White-throat with a House Sparrow and you’re probably reasonably close.

  • White-crowned Sparrow

    Very flat backed. Shape is quite unique, almost more so than the head pattern. Crown very pointed.

  • Golden-crowned Sparrow

    I don’t remember much about the one I’ve seen, but fairly similar to White-throat in shape with a different head pattern.

  • Dark-eyed Junco

    Distinctive colors.