Monday, January 5, 2015

Kings of New York

If you got to this page looking for "King of New York" featuring Christopher Walken, one of the coolest cats ever to grace Hollywood screens, then my apologies but don't leave so quickly. The Kings I am referring to are the winged celebrities that showed up in New York, in 2014. By winged, I mean birds - A Cassin's Kingbird (Tyrannus vociferans) found on November 15th by Kai Sheffield and refound by Clemmens Glasser and a Couch's Kingbird that might have been around as long as the Cassin's Kingbird but only reported by Gabriel Willow on December 25th, after obtaining photos of the bird from his friend Zack Winestine.

Couch's Kingbird in the West Village Manhattan NY
Both these birds set the birding communities abuzz and many people from far and near made the twitch to get these birds on their life, state and county lists. If you think I am overstating the excitement caused by these two visitors, you only have to look at some of the media coverage that they got. The Couch's Kingbird (Tyrannus couchii) due to the fact that it is a 1st state record and very likely where it was first observed (Jane and Washington Streets in Manhattan) got more coverage with many reports like the one by CBS. It was also reported that my favorite Game of Throne actor Peter Dinklage was also observed asking about and was shown the Couch's Kingbird. Now, that would have been a coup to have gotten his photo for my "Birders in the Field Album."

Cassin's Kingbird at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn NY.
So what's the big deal about these two birds? Well, for starters they do not belong here. Cassin’s Kingbird, is a breeding flycatcher in northern and central Mexico and the western United States. This is a bird whose distribution is determined by its preferred elevation range. Although most of the breeding population in the United States is in south and central California, Arizona, New Mexico and west Texas, Cassin’s Kingbird also breeds regularly in southern Nevada, southern Utah, southeastern Colorado, southeastern Montana, eastern Wyoming, southwestern South Dakota, and extreme western Kansas and Oklahoma (Tweit and Tweit 2000).

Couch's Kingbird
Couch's Kingbird is, a permanent resident throughout the central and southern portions of its range. In Texas and northeast Mexico Couch’s Kingbird is an irregular migrant; with some individuals wintering in the south especially in colder winters and most frequently from the northernmost parts of the breeding range. (Brush 1999, Lockwood and Freeman 2004). Lockwood and Freeman 2004 further characterize the Couch’s Kingbird as a common to uncommon summer resident in the lower Rio Grande valley and locally uncommon further north in the South Texas Brush Country.

Cassin's Kingbird
So by now the picture becomes a bit clearer on all the hubbub over these two Kings of New York.  The Couch's Kingbird, is a 1st State Record (meaning the first time it has been recorded in the state) and the Cassin's Kingbird is a 2nd State Record, the first one found by my good friend Andrew Baldeli on October 13th, 2007 on Gloucester Avenue off West Lake Drive in Montauk Long Island.

Nope, it was not a Kim Kardashian Milk Shot do over; it was better - a Couch's Kingbird
If you are a birder in New York and have not seen either of these birds as yet, I suggest you make an effort to do so. They have been around long enough for you to have by now planned a trip to NYC. If chasing/twitching is not your thing, that is fine but think of the story you would be able to tell in years to come about your quest to see the Kings of New York. Now, if that does not tempt you, I don't know what will.

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Thursday, January 1, 2015

Backyard Birding - A Hardy in January

It was the last day of the year and I decided I would go out and pickup some bird food for my feeders as I was getting down to my last few bag of Sunflower seeds.

As I stepped out to check on the feeders, I caught a flash of yellow/orange as a bird flew off the feeders heading towards a row of shrubs. Obviously my presence startled it. I did not have my bins but my initial impression was an Oriole. After fetching my bins, I searched and found the subject hiding in the Pines.

It was a Baltimore Oriole, I aged it as a 1st fall male and after waiting patiently, I was able to see it well once it came back to the feeders and birdbath.  I was excited to see this bird on the last day of the year and wondered if it would stick around for January 1st. As it happened it did; I picked it up after returning from birding in Manhattan (more on that in another post), making a stop at home before heading to Brooklyn.

For my yard records, December 31st was the latest sighting of a Baltimore Oriole and January 1st is the earliest. Fitting for my first post of 2015.

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Monday, December 8, 2014

In search for Cackling Geese at Van Cortlandt Park Bronx, NY

After trying for and missing the Geese flock at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx on Saturday November 29th, I returned on Sunday the 30th and was able to spend a few hours studying the some 1800 + Canada Geese on the Parade Grounds.

I was pleased to find not just one Cackling Goose but several (totaling 6), after carefully eliminating those smaller Lesser Canada types from the flock. In my own empirical observations, I have learned that one of the fallacies of picking out a Cackling Goose from the flock of Canada Geese is relying alone on size, which results in many misidentifcations.

It gets tougher with the lone bird; fortunately, Geese being the social creatures that they are, if we come upon a mixed flock like the one in Van Cortlandt Park, it gives us a chance to study them at length and learn more about the nuances of the various inter-grades and subspecies.

All of the 6 Cackling Geese I found that day were of the common subspecies of Cackling Goose we expect here in the NYC/LI area, which would be the B. h. hutchinsiiRichardson’s.

Both are Cackling Geese; note the color variation on the back as well as the head.
If you have trouble picking out Cackling from the larger white-cheeked Geese some of the following identification indicators might help. Start with the Bill and Head - If you take a look at the following image, you would notice that (A) The overall shape of the head is blocky/squarish, the base of the culmen shows a steep incline to the forehead. (B) The bill is comparatively smaller than the larger white-cheeked geese.

If the Bill and Head pass the first two indicators above, pay attention to the size and general appearance. Ask yourself these questions. (A) Does the Cackling candidate have a shorter neck than the nearby white-cheeked geese? (B) Does the legs look shorter than the nearby white-cheeked geese?

If the first two sets of identification indicators pass successfully, then you may want to look at the plumage.  (A) The black stocking on the neck often ends in a border near the breast giving a "white collar" look. This is sometimes more prominent than others and is variable within the larger white-cheeked geese so exercise caution when relying on this field mark. (B) Some folks rely on the silvery look on the back but that is also variable with some Cackling showing a darker back.

Cackling above with "white-cheeked Goose (presumably Canada) below.
If you want a more in depth approach at distinguishing Cackling from the larger white-cheeked Geese, then you might want to check out David Sibley's article here.

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Thursday, November 27, 2014

Clay-colored Sparrow - what to look for

One of the toughest spizella identification challenge familiar to many NY birders, is with separating fall and winter Chipping from Clay-colored Sparrows. Sometimes, you might get lucky with that one bird that has all the field marks that stand out but more often you will be presented with views of a bird where it is tough to make the distinction and nail the ID.

This one is for you to figure out.
Here we have two spizella candidates. The one on the left is an obvious Chipping Sparrow. Right...or maybe not. What do you think? What about the bird on the right?  This is the dilemma many birders face when having obscured views.

Experienced birders have shared some of their observations online and in some birding literature.  For example, using the details around the eyes of both birds to make a distinction has been discussed by some such as David Sibley. Where Chipping Sparrows shows the eye arc above and below broken by a dark line on both front and back. Clay-colored Sparrow, does not show that; hence, what some term the "open face" look. That, is a very useful field mark but what else could one use in the field?

Clay-colored Sparrow Jones Beach, October 2014
Others have also referred to other field mark nuances such as the size and color of the gray nape on a Clay-colored vs Chipping as a way to make the distinction, the lines that run along the sides of the crown onto the nape and the clear lores of a Clay vs the marked lores of a Chipping. 

Same Clay-colored Sparrow as above.
There are many things to look for in distinguishing the two. Here, I will share with you a few tips that I find helpful when comparing the two in the fall. Lores on a Chipping will be dark, while it is pale on a Clay-colored. Nape on a Chipping Sparrow will be brown or brownish with dark streaks, while it would often be grayish with much paler streaks on a Clay-colored Sparrow. Some other field marks to pay attention to include the color of the ear coverts as well as the moustachial stripe.

A different Clay-colored Sparrow. This one photographed in Queens on 11-3-2014.
Using some of these field marks coupled with your own experience should help you in the field.  Keep in mind that there is a lot of variation in Chipping Sparrow; any candidate for Clay-colored Sparrow, that is not a slam dunk should be carefully studied before making the call.

Share some of your experiences on what you look for when studying a flock of Chipping Sparrows in trying to find that rare Clay-colored Sparrow. Were you successful? What were the ID clinchers?

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Thursday, November 6, 2014

Backyard Bird # 120

Dickcissel (center) with House Sparrows and a Red-winged Blackbird.
Migration, whether spring or fall, provides a great opportunity to entice birds that you would not ordinarily have in your garden. It has certainly helped to bump the number of bird species observed in the backyard. I have been rather fortunate to record (all with photo documentation) a number of very good birds such as Eastern Meadowlark, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Hooded Warbler, White-winged Crossbill and Evening Grosbeak to name a few. On November 4th, I recorded number 120 for the list of birds seen in the backyard.

Dickcissel, a new yard bird - number 120.
This bird was one I thought I had a shot at albeit a long one and I was thrilled at confirming that the bird that I saw with my naked eye, which I thought was paler in the face than the rest of the House Sparrows, was none other than a DICKCISSEL. It is the second one that I have found in Queens, this year in a matter of weeks, the other one about a week ago at Big Egg Marsh in Queens.  Today, made it 3 consecutive days that this Dickcissel was seen; I hope it sticks around. Perhaps, attracting other uncommon to rare birds to stop in at the feeders. At 120 species, who knows what will be my next new yard bird. Any guesses?

Dickcissel with House Sparrows.

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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A Tailless DICK in Queens NY

DICK, in the birdwatching world, is a four letter bird banders code for Dickcissel (Spiza americana). This is not a common bird for us in the NYC metro area and our best shot at finding one is often during the fall migration. It just so happened that I stumbled upon one at Big Egg Marsh in Queens NY on October 28th.

This was an interesting looking Dickcissel made so by the fact that it was not well marked and tailless. In studying the plumage, this bird appeared to be a 1st winter Dickcissel. The braces on the back looked pale and the plumage included slight streaks on the chest heading towards the flank. Coupled that with its drab look made for an interesting study in the field. A good bird for Queens and a first for me at Big Egg Marsh. Some photos are provided for studying.

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Friday, October 31, 2014

A Larophile's Delight

For anyone who might not be aware who or what is a Larophile, it is one who arguably spends too much of his or her time sifting through flocks of gulls enjoying the challenge of identifying, aging and just studying them. In Queens NY, we have a dearth of locations for good gull congregation and often times I find myself further out east on Long Island in search of a good gathering to comb through.

Recently, some sites on Long Island have given birders (those larophile types) a chance at observing the not so common Lesser Black-backed Gull (larus fuscus) in a variety of plumage. I first chanced upon 23 such beautiful birds on  October 11th and then on October 19th, I had 31. If you think those numbers are high, then this would impress you. My friend Tom Burke recorded 46 LBBG on October 18th, all seen at Jones Beach West End parking lot. These are fantastic numbers with most of them being sub adults (ranging from 1st summer, 2nd summer and upwards), there was even a nicely marked immature bird in the mix providing for an excellent study.

Immature LBBG on left with immature GBBG on Right.

This time of the year is an excellent time to look for LBBG flocks as they gather along coastal sites gearing up for migration. I have yet to find one that is banded but I keep looking. We know so little about where our Lesser Blacked-backed Gulls are coming from (presumably Greenland) and where they are going for the winter.  I have provided some photos for study.

2nd Cycle LBBG.
The photo above is one that I am calling a 2nd cycle Lesser Black-backed Gull. This flight shot shows quite a lot of black in the tail with some gray in the mantle.
A3rd Cycle LBBG on left with A2nd Cycle LBBG on right.
This photo is an intriguing one as both of these Lesser Black-Backed Gulls are in advanced stages of their respective cycles. The one one the left I was satisfied to label a 3rd cycle; however, my friend Amar Ayyash a real hard core larophile, suggested that the same bird is more advanced and almost to adult stage. I am satisfied with calling it an advanced 3rd cycle. The bird on the right I am calling an advanced 2nd cycle. What are your thoughts?

Adult LBBG.

Now that you are have seen a few photos of different ages of Lesser Blacked-backed Gulls. Do you think you could age this one?

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