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.


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.

Gray Jay!

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.

Gray Jay

Gray Jay with food

Gray Jay

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!

Gray Jay sampling food

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.

Menotomy Photo Workshop

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.

House Finch

House Finch

The goldfinch posed as well.

American Goldfinch

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.

Song Sparrow

You can see photos by other participants starting
. Under Photostream
on the right, keep clicking the bird on the right.

The Goose

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

Sibley Discussion

Marj Rines’ photos (via Wayback Machine)

Glen Tepke’s

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)

Goose picture 1

Goose picture 2

Goose picture 3

Goose picture 4

Goose picture 5

Goose picture 6

Goose picture 7

Goose picture 8

Goose picture 9

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.

First Impressions

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

Cape Trip

Just back from a few days on the Cape, pretty good, relaxing time. Late afternoon arrival Thursday, just enough time to eat and walk around a bit. Laughing Gulls are always nice but otherwise nothing interesting.

Friday started out extremely foggy, so we sat around and had a leisurely breakfast. It started clearing towards 8:30, so we headed out to Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. It was probably 15 years since I was last there and I didn’t remember a thing about it.

After checking out the exhibits (I’m always amazed at how small things look up close), we started on the Silver Spring Trail. Quiet there with some common stuff but nothing of any real interest. One huge robber fly didn’t want to be photographed.

We then headed out to the bird blind and Goose Pond. A surprise along the walk over was a flock of Oystercatchers overhead. Plenty of shorebirds around the pond and a few Green Herons as well. Lots of Yellowlegs, a Short-billed Dowitcher, many Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers, and a few Semipalmated Plovers. A couple bright red dragonflies buzzed by, I assume Needham’s Skimmers but I’m not familiar enough to be sure (and they’re not exactly identifiable on the wing anyway). A hummingbird flew through. There was one interesting sandpiper, looked potentially like a Baird’s, but it was a bit more distant and there were too many screaming kids to stick around.

Semi Plover

Least Sandpiper

Green Heron with Fish

Not sure why I didn’t pull out a Semi Sandpiper.

We then walked out to the boardwalk. On the way, a Whimbrel flew over. It took a few seconds to catch on to the calls and then wait until it turned to double check the bill. I need to spend more time on the coast to make these birds more routine. At the beach were lots of Yellowlegs and a few Black-bellied Plovers.

On the way back, we checked Try Island. It was quiet, a few Eastern Kingbirds calling around and not much else. Looking out, I saw a few Great Blue Herons and another Hummer. Another one of those robbers almost posed this time.

Robber Fly, presumed Proctacanthus

It was quite hot at this point, so we headed out and looked for lunch, ending up with eggplant subs. We then headed to Nickerson State Park. Walking in the from the parking lot at the entrance, we found a couple of very close Hairy Woodpeckers. Checking a few ponds and clearings didn’t find anything good and we headed back. Almost at the car, we had a nice flock of Pine Warbers, a Red-breasted Nuthatch, a few chickadees and titmice, and some Chipping Sparrows.


With Saturday being the pelagic, I wanted some simpler food for dinne. Hearth n Kettle wasn’t too bad, steak tips were all done right and fairly tasty. After that, we took a short walk and ended up at the used book store. They had an interesting selection, mostly textbooks, but I picked up a copy of Pettengill’s eastern guide for $5. Then off to bed.

2:45 and I was wide awake just ahead of the alarm. Left for the boat at 3:10 and was at the dock by 20 past. We milled around for awhile before they let everyone on. Given the way people checked in, looks like you could sneak right on as long as you could avoid Ida for the day. On the boat, I grabbed a seat at the table by the food and got ready to nap. The boat left the dock at 4:05 and was at full engines by 4:20.

Awake again a little after 6, it wasn’t that long before we had a few birds. Several gannets flew by and then we came across a Pomarine Jaeger sitting on the water. I jumped up for the Jaeger and got moderate views as it took off.

A bit more down time as everyone got breakfast but we eventually had a few shearwaters including my first Cory’s in Massachusetts. A couple flocks of phalaropes went by, none that I saw well. That was followed with more down time. And then…

“Manx Shearwater coming in” called over the loudspeaker. I took a quick look, saw the mob at the front of the boat and decided to stay back and look for other birds. A minute later, the call over the loudspeaker was that this bird was interesting. I grabbed the camera and started attempting pictures. Glad I did, as you can see.

Fifteen minutes later, we finally lost the bird. Everyone went running for books and to compare photos. Even then, it was pretty clear that the bird was a Little (we’d learn about the split of Macaronesian later). I worked my way to the upper deck to show the leaders my photos. While doing so, we finally realized that it might be a good idea to look for more birds.

Things stayed relatively slow. A couple Audubon’s Shearwaters came through, another state bird. Lots of Wilson’s Storm-Petrels around but we weren’t able to find anything better in them.

We moved through Veatch’s Canyon and headed to Hydrographer’s. Still not a lot. Somewhere along the way, a Band-rumped Storm-Petrel was found. I picked up the bird immediately, but didn’t get a good view. People around me weren’t on it, so I stopped looking and started pointing. They found it, but it disappeared pretty quickly. I saw it well enough to say not a Wilson’s, but needed more for a life bird.

We were heading back, getting a few more Greater Shearwaters and more petrels. Eventually we had 2 Sooty Shearwaters, which is shearwater species #6 on the day. I can’t find the results of the NC trip that found the Cape Verde Shearwater, but that would be the only other time this may have happened on the east coast.

On the way back, we had a few more highlights. A nice flock of Red Phalaropes was close enough to get good views before they flew. And shortly after, someone whistled and pointed. A large flock of large brown shorebirds was flying low over the water. They were announced as Hudsonian Godwits, which made a lot of sense when I thought about it. Beyond that, we didn’t have much in birds before it got dark.

I haven’t even mentioned the great mammal and fish show. We got good looks at several species of whale, including a Sperm Whale. Lots of dolphins as well. Fish included a Manta.

Some pictures below (and Macaronesian):

Sperm Whale spouting

Sperm Whale spout

Sperm Whale diving

and Dive

Audubon's Shearwater


Audubon's Shearwater

Note the dark undertail coverts.

Wilson's Storm-Petrel


Greater Shearwater with Storm-Petrels

Greater Shearwater with some company

Manx Shearwater

Manx Shearwater

After getting a good night’s sleep, it was time to head home. On the way, we stopped at Miles Standish State Forest. I was hoping to catch up with a few of those coastal plain dragonflies and anything else of interest. We started with a stop at the Torrey Pond Rd. trail. At the first pond, a spectacular Comet Darner was flying around. Unfortunately there wasn’t a big window to view, so the chance of getting a picture was pretty much none. But the Golden-winged Skimmers were cooperative:

Golden-winged Skimmer

As were some Martha’s Pennants:

Martha's Pennant

This Golden-winged was a little too friendly:

Spider with Golden-winged Skimmer

I think the spider is Araneus bicentenarius (also known as Giant Lichen Orbweaver). At least people on bugguide think so.

Also lots of spreadwings that I didn’t really try to identify and other stuff more typical of home. We checked the ponds by the road. One had lots of the things I’ve mentioned above, plus several Carolina Saddlebags, the other looked like a typical one from home.

We drove on looking for a couple other ponds. Unfortunately we couldn’t find them, so we headed to the headquarters. It was very quiet here, and since the trail was overgrown, we didn’t stay long.

Punctured Tiger Beetle

And that was the trip, which has taken me far too long to type up.


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?

Shearwater heads


Been way too long since I’ve updated this thing. I keep meaning to, but between the BBA and other surveys and things I haven’t gotten around to it. Today I uploaded the NC Trip Report finally. I’ve got a bunch of updates on the Waltham-related stuff to get online sooner or later and plenty of other pictures that I need to go through and deal with as well. Also need to add the trip reports to the nav bar and stuff. One of these days.

North Carolina Trip

I spent May 23-28, 2007 in North Carolina on a Don Wilkinson Birding Tour. Four of us (me, Don, Nancy Eaton, and Lynn Abbey) participated. We all flew in to Norfolk, Virginia on the 23rd and immediately drove to New Bern, North Carlina, where we went to the Croatan National Forest for Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. We spent the night there, found Bachman’s Sparrow back at the Croatan the next day and then headed to Manteo with a stop at the VOA site to try for Henslow’s Sparrow. We spent the next morning at Alligator River NWR, looking for Swainson’s Warbler and then spent the afternoon on the shore at Bodie Light and Pea Island NWR. We then had two lackluster days offshore. The last day was spent getting Swainson’s Warbler and then working our way back to Norfolk.

Overall, we had 135 species (I had 129+) and everyone got at least one life bird. Detailed daily notes are on the individual pages, a trip list is below.