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).
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.
There was also a very cooperative Red-tail right by Newton St.:
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.
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
There’s been a Gray Jay at the top of Mt. Watatic for the last few weeks now. Of course,
I had a bunch of commitments and last Monday was the first day I could get up there. It
was cloudy and the mountain was covering with screaming kids and barking dogs. The bird
was seen before and after we were there, but not in the couple hours we spent at the
top. And to add insult to that, we tried taking the road down, ended up somewhere
totally wrong and then had to walk back up. The road was supposed to be easier than the
trail, but it turned out to be much steeper and was actually a good deal harder.
So today, we tried again. As we were getting out of the car, Fred Bouchard pulled up
with a few friends. We walked up together, which turned out to be good as
we kept the pace slow enough to not have any major issues. At the top, we found one
photographer who had been seeing the bird, although it wasn’t around at the moment.
We spread out a bit to look without success. The photographer found a Pine
Grosbeak, although he was the only one to see it. We did hear it well at least. After
running over for that, I returned to checking out the edge and very shortly after the
bird flew right in. Everyone else appeared to see it right at the same time. It soon
flew in to the group and grabbed food, moving off for a few minutes and then returning.
Fred and his friends had to leave. We stayed around for a few minutes and not only did
the jay return, but it took peanuts directly out of my mother’s hand!
The walk down was easy, at least after I stopped slipping on the ice at the top (there
was a little snow up there as well). I think only 5 species on the trip, but no
I’m guessing it will be almost impossible to make it the hill in another week or two, so
go soon if you haven’t already.
Catching up a bit.
Last weekend, I participated in the Menotomy photo
workshop. It wasn’t the best day (rather windy) and I was a bit short on time. The birds
weren’t overly cooperative either.
One House Finch was quite cooperative, letting us get good angles to the sun.
The goldfinch posed as well.
And just to show the amount of cropping involved on these shots, check the original.
And a nicely posed Song Sparrow. The post was a bit ugly, overexposing it seemed to make
it look a little better.
You can see photos by other participants starting
here. Under Photostream
on the right, keep clicking the bird on the right.
Note: This page was originally up in November 2004. I’ve put it back up to solicit opinions again. Last time was inconclusive, but with 3 year’s more study, we’ll see.
Canada/Cackling Goose – Waltham, MA, 11/2004
ID Frontiers discussion #15 and related
Also James P. Smith’s sighting of a Tavener’s Cackling Goose in Amherst (2009/11/10 can’t open the page)
The first 8 pictures were taken from a pond in a private apartment complex. The last
picture is from the UMass fields on Beaver St. The bird has been seen from the baseball
field at the intersection of Beaver St. and Waverly Oaks Rd. down to the pond behind the
Bentley fields. All pictures on this page were taken with a Canon Powershot Pro 90IS and
are probably overexposed.
Lately, David Sibley has been talking a lot about first impressions. Normally, I find my impression to be accurate. Occasionally I’ll think I’m wrong, study for awhile, and then end up back with my first thought. But occasionally you end up way, way off.
Sunday was a great example. I was leading a Menotomy walk at the Waltham St. Fields. Working the edge of the field was pretty slow, a few decent birds but they weren’t cooperative. We were working our way to the fields beyond the creek, when Karsten Hartel spotted a slightly larger bird perched at the top of a stalk of corn. He got a scope on it, and in poor light, we both blurted out Dickcissel.
We moved over a few feet to get it in better light and noticed that it seemed rather dark for a Dickcissel. Nothing else sprang to mind though. I snapped a few pictures and everyone started pulling out field guides. Obviously not a Dickcissel. Cowbirds looked somewhat close, but that just seemed wrong.
We watched a little more and couldn’t see anything to say it wasn’t a cowbird. The bill seemed a bit longer, so we considered Shiny, but dismissed it. It still didn’t feel right for Brown-headed, so we spent a good bit of time looking after it flew.
And then I got home and downloaded the pictures:
Suddenly it looks exactly like a Brown-headed Cowbird. Note that the upper mandible appears to be overgrown slightly and crosses, which throws the shape off slightly. At least the rest of the trip turned out well, lots of good looks at some nice birds
Shots of the presumed Macaronesian Shearwater (Puffinus baroli) from the BBC Pelagic trip Aug. 25, 2007. I’ll admit I barely looked at the bird. When it was first called as a Manx, I looked at the size of the crowd and decided to stay away and look for other birds. When the ‘this bird is very interesting’ call came over the loudspeaker, I fought my way in a bit and spent most of my time with the camera and not really studying the bird. I was towards the back of the crowd, not trying to push through, and frequently missed shots because someone ended up in front of the camera.
Plenty of other people were taking photos, they’re all being compiled onto one web page, which I’ll link to when it’s publicly announced.
Things to note in the photos:
- the white face, especially around the eye
- the small bill
- the pale panel on the wings
- white undertail coverts
- very white underwing, with just a small bit of black along the edge
Note that someone started to move in front of me on the above shot, which explains the softness.
Two versions of the following two shots, the second of each has been brightened somewhat (these appeared too dark on a couple CRT’s that I checked but look good on LCD’s)
These next two shots were taken as the bird went near the sun, and are heavily backlit.
Besides the plumage characteristics, I’m struck by the shape of the head. Here’s a comparison of a Manx, an Audubon’s, and the above bird. The Manx was sitting on the water and does have its head turned slightly. The Audubon’s and Macaronesian are both in flight (Macaronesian has been blown up to 200%). The angle of the head meeting the bill seems to be tighter on the Macaronesian and the head has a very different peak. Is this a real difference or just an artifact of these few photos?
Today was an excellent day, good birds everywhere. Starting at Arlington Res with just under 50 species, including 5 species of swallow, 6 warblers, and 5 blackbirds. A quick stop at Arlington Great Meadows was less productive (I was hoping for duskywings and elfins, but the clouds kept butterflies away), but I picked up a few more good birds including a Brown Thrasher, an Eastern Towhee, and a flyby Accipipter.
Later in the day, we headed out to Great Meadows in Concord. It was surprisingly slow, with only cormorants, mallards, geese, and swans on the water. A few Least Sandpipers made the trip worthwhile though.
Quiz: which one’s which?
This parula was singing in a bush well below eye level, wish the shot was a little better.
And this guy was singing right above (and another to the side, and 3 more further, and …)
Now you see me
Now you don’t
That got boring, so let’s sing instead.
No clue what this one was up to
Savannah posed nicely.
As did this Least Sandpiper later in the day at Great Meadows.