Monday, February 29, 2016

Greater White-fronted Goose, My Newest Queens County Bird

It is getting harder to add new birds in my home county of Queens NY. When I found out via the RBA (Rare Bird Alert) on the 12th of February that a Greater White-fronted Goose was seen at Flushing Meadow Park in Queens on February 10th. I was like Blistering Barnacles!?! With all the tools these days that are used to report birds, I was disappointed that this bird was not posted or shared for several days. It is not like GWFG is a common bird in Queens. Heck, according to eBird this was only the 4th such record. I looked for the Goose the following day (Saturday) in frigid temperatures with no luck.  Another Queens birder, Corey Finger, who works his county list with religious fervor, also had no luck on that day. An entire week went by and life and work got in the way of checking for that bird again. Truthfully, I had chalked it up as a miss. On Sunday February 21st, when I got a text message from Corey that the Greater White-fronted Goose was being seen again at Flushing Meadow Park, I swung into gear, elated that I had another crack at the bird. Not without some drama though, as Corey texted me while I was suiting up to report that the Goose had flown after being flushed by a dog. It did not go far though and ended up at the north end of Flushing Meadow Lake and was still there when I arrived.

Greater White-fronted Goose (Anser albifrons)
I spent some time watching the Goose on the lake and then on the shores where I observed its behavior as it fed among a flock of "white-cheeked Geese" it was associating with. This was one of the palest GWFG, I have seen and it seemed a good fit for a. albifrons it seemed rather paler looking than a.flavirostris which is the Greenland race .  It appeared comfortable and only got nervous when dogs were in the vicinity. It was a dog that caused it to relocate as I watched it get spooked onto the Lake by one park visitor who thought nothing to have his dog wander off-leash.

Greater White-fronted Goose (Anser albifrons)
Here is one of the last looks that I had that day of the Greater White-fronted Goose as it sat on the lake after being flushed by an unleashed dog. There are park rules about dogs off-leash but it seems most people don't care to follow them and often no one from Parks is around to enforce these rules. Too bad because several birders who arrived a bit later could not re-find the Greater White-fronted Goose. Making me even more grateful that I saw it when I did.

2nd from R- Greater White-fronted Goose (Anser albifrons)

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Friday, February 26, 2016

Cackling Goose - A Photo Study

As a supplement to my post on the Cackling Goose Conundrum, I present a few photos of Cackling Goose (presumably b.h.hutchinsii). I have been looking at the subspecies of Cackling and other interesting "White-cheeked Geese" and the variation makes the ongoing study quite interesting.

This Cackling Goose shows a small bill and head and really falls well within the range of the Cackling species of "White-cheeked Geese." This is considered to be Richardson's Cackling or Branta Hutchinsii Hutchinsii. The head shape is not as blocky looking; however, keep in mind that head shape could show a lot of variation for a number of reasons such as posture.

This Cackling Goose also shows the classic small bill expected on a Richardson's Cackling or Branta Hutchinsii Hutchinsii. Note the head and forehead shape. There is more of a sloping effect instead of the steep look often seen with b.h.hutchinsii.

Here we have two Cackling Geese side by side for comparison. Small bill and small head all stay consistent. Note the variation in head shape. Do you think this is legitimate or a result of the difference in posture. In this photo you could see that the plumage is a bit different where one is slightly darker than the other. Also, look at the cheek patch to see the subtle differences.

Rather than posting additional individual Cackling Geese photos, I have decided to throw this out. Take a look at this crude collage of "White-cheeked Geese" head shots.  How many do you think might be Cackling Geese? Identify them by number.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Reporting Banded Ring-billed Gulls

On Sunday, while I was ticking my Queens County Greater White-fronted Goose, I put in some Gull study time and was rewarded with a banded Ring-billed Gull. As with every time I find a banded bird, I was thrilled and ensured I was able to read and document the band. Last night, I processed and submitted my find and within hours, Professor Jean-Francoix Giroux had a reply. See the certificate.

If you see a banded Ring-billed Gull (RBGU), please try and get the information and submit your find to

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Cackling Goose Conundrum

Where do I start with this post? Let's see, I have written in the past about finding Cackling Geese at several locations in the NYC Metro and Long Island areas. In one such post, I included several tips on how to identify Cackling Goose in the field--in our case, this was related to the expected subspecies b. Hutchinsii Hutchinsii. The post (see here) was not very technical but I did provide some starting points that any birder with a critical eye and patience to sift through flocks of "White-cheeked Geese" would find useful. Additionally, I also included a link to David Sibley's online series (a work in progress) that is an excellent starting point in distinguishing Cackling from larger "White-cheeked Geese."

Is the 3rd bird from the right a Cackling Goose? What about the 8th Goose from the right?
A recent "White-cheeked Goose" (see link to photos here) in Central Park NYC which was first identified as a Cackling Goose then as a possible Lesser Canada Goose has stirred up a useful discussion. For some, it was a bit amusing while others like myself, took it quite seriously. Some have mused that the fuss about the Central Park Goose, is much ado about nothing. Apparently, birders on Long Island and other parts of New York deal with these types of larger than average "Cackling Types" every season during Geese migration. Contextually, that may be true but the discussion opened up a very interesting debate on what do with the odd "White-cheeked Goose" that shows up whose features does not fit the conventional wisdom (ID features from literature by Bird Experts) that birders have relied on since the AOU split in distinguishing Cackling Goose from other "White-cheeked Geese." While much has been written on how to identify and separate the Cackling Geese subspecies, almost one feature has been consistent in the literature and is considered a primary indicator. It is HEAD and BILL shape. Size and plumage are considered to be secondary indicators by birders and researchers.

Classic looking Cackling Goose (b.h. hutchinsii) in Queens NYC
The Central Park Goose to many, including those considered "Geese Experts" did not not pass the expected Richardson's Cackling Goose ID features and so began the debate on what it was? I myself took the position that it was not a Cackling Goose based on my experience of observing Cackling Geese in the field and speculated that it was one of those "Lesser Canada Type" things (for lack of a better term) or a Runt Branta Canadensis. The question on identification was posed on ID Frontiers (a listserve for BIRD identification discussions) and it set off a discussion that was quite educational. When Geese researcher, Ken Abrahams, responded that he thought that the Central Park Goose was a very difficult ID and conservatively called it a "Hutchinsii Variant" I was not surprised at all. I have often suspected that we probably had larger than the expected b. Hutchinsii Hutchinsii slip past us but wondered at the use of "variant." It seemed to me a term used for lack of knowing what the Central Park Goose really was--still, it was interesting to have a researcher confirming that on the breeding grounds, larger Cackling Geese have been observed. What bothers me though, is the lack of evidence in the form of photographs. I have crawled the web for such examples and I have yet to see these larger than average Cackling Geese clearly identified in any photos with supporting literature. Perhaps, someone will set me straight after reading this post and point me to resources.

A very pale breasted Goose. B.c. Canadensis or something else??
Additionally, out of the discussion was the premise that there was no chance of "Lesser Canada" (B.c. parvipes) occurring in our area. I had long decided, based on records and range, a Lesser Canada would be quite rare in our area; however, I was still intrigued that some commentators were taking the position that the chances of seeing B.c.parvipes in our area was almost zero percent. To make matters even murkier, the discussion got into whether there was any difference in Taverner's vs Lesser Canada. Hello...say what!?!  That bit, was even more astounding with several researchers weighing in having different opinions! It seems from this discussion that there is a need for a re-write on the subspecies of Cackling Geese. The thread on ID Frontiers has hit a lull but could get active again; at the moment the consensus is that the Central Park bird is NOT a Cackling Goose. With species overlap, environmental changes and an obvious learning curve with the "White-cheeked Geese" complex, we are sure to have this discussion again. My advise to birders who encounter Geese like this would be to document it but don't get hung up on affixing a label.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Kumlien's Gull in Queens NYC

These days, I have been spending more time with Gulls instead of worrying about my year list which I should add is not too shabby at over 140 species for the state. Gulling in my home county of Queens is not easy due to the lack of good Gull spots. Nevertheless, every now and again while not even looking for the uncommon Gull, something of note will show up like this Kumlien's Gull that I saw on 1-17-2016, flying over Jacob Riis Park and landed at Fort Tilden where I got good looks. Below are a few photos.

Kumlien's Gull at Fort Tilden Queens NY
Kumlien's Gull, is considered by many authorities a subspecies of Iceland Gull. There are two subspecies: nominate glaucoides and kumlieni. The latter birds are called Kumlien's Gull. Birds that appear intermediate between Kumlien's and Thayer's are referred to as hybrids. The American Ornithologists' Union (1998) checklist (and supplements through 2006) allows two races of Iceland Gull within North America: L. g. glaucoides, breeding in Greenland and wintering as far south as the northeastern United States, and L. g. kumlieni, breeding from Baffin Island north to Ellesmere Island and as far west as Coats Island in northern Hudson Bay (Gaston et al. 1986 ('s, is the default subspecies for North America because of the range. This bird, is considered to be an adult Kumlien's Gull.

Kumlien's Gull at Fort Tilden Queens NY
Confused as yet? It gets even muddier. The species intergrades with Thayer's Gull on northern Baffin Island and Southampton Island (Snell 1989; Gaston and Elliot 1990) and was considered conspecific with it by Godfrey (1986) ( Some in our NY area will not even entertain the talk of "Thayeri" type, preferring to suggest that Thayer's Gull, is just another form of Iceland Gull. Fascinating stuff which every now and again leads to interesting discussions on our local NY list serve.

Shot showing the primaries as the bird was landing.
I would have loved to get good spread wing shots of this bird but it began to snow and the light deteriorated rather quickly. I barely managed one decent flight shot of this bird as it moved from one location to the next. Iceland Gulls are worth studying carefully, especially if you come across 1st - 3rd winter types. If you have never heard of the Hampton's Scale, check it out.  Steve Hampton's scale, is a neat tool that can be used to work out where your bird might fit in terms of the glaucoides-kumlieni-thayeri form.
Kumlien's Gull at Fort Tilden Queens NY

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Paving The Putnam Trail - An Engineer's Perspective

Birders on the Putnam Trail in Van Cortlandt Park, Bronx NY
On December 7th 2015, I published a post alerting readers that plans to pave the Putnam Trail that runs through the Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx NY, were once again rearing its ugly head. Here is an engineer's perspective. Margarita Eremeyev, an engineer presents her case in a letter to Community Board 8 in the Bronx on why she thinks supporting the plans to pave the trail with asphalt is a bad idea. Margarita who lives near Van Cortlandt Park, is a frequent user of the park who spends a lot of her time near the wetland area and once she found out about plans to pave, got involved with the "Save The Putnam Trail" effort.

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Wednesday, February 3, 2016

2015 Christmas Bird Counts Recap...

In lieu of doing individual posts, I decided on a summary for all the CBC's I did in 2015.  This year, I managed to get in 4 Christmas Bird Counts. Three of them, Montauk, Captree and Southern Nassau were on Long Island while the other one was in the Bronx/Westchester. In two of those counts I am an area leader--Captree and the Bronx. This requires a bit more work than just showing up to count as, recruitment, planning, coordination and execution are all critical ingredients for a successful count.

I am a firm believer that a leader, is only as good as the team he or she surround themselves with so I am always looking at match-ups and recruitment along with skills as a package. Some folks are of the opinion that only skilled birders are required but I encourage new birders to participate in the counts because this is the way to grow and develop the team. 

A few "dodgy" looking characters sheltering from the wind.
The first count for 2015 that I participated in was in Montauk LI, on December 19th. This count, required a bit of driving since it is all the way out on Eastern Long Island and is one of my favorite. Mostly, due to the camaraderie and hosting provided by Karen and Barbara Rubinstein, Angus Wilson, Naoko Tanese and Vickie Bustamante. Additionally, the last few years I have driven up the day before with Tom Burke and Gail Benson and that is one of my favorite things to do. My Montauk team is the Lake West Drive Team laden with some "dodgy" but highly skilled characters. The toughest part of the count is the seawatch which often times is conducted in weather only crazy folks would be out in. I recall one year that it was so cold, some of us were experiencing a situation where our eyelashes were getting iced up. Not this year.  Although windy, it was not too bad. We ended up with a total of 111 species despite battling strong West to Northwest winds all day. The highlights were Ash-throated Flycatcher, Green Heron, Dovekie, Clapper Rail, Virginia Rail, King Eider, Short-Eared Owl, Snowy Owl and Common Redpoll. I opted not to stay for the compilation dinner but stayed over night on Long Island thanks to the generosity of my friends Patricia Lindsay and Shai Mitra.

This is a sought after bird on most of our CBCs.
Staying overnight on Long Island saved me the long drive into and back from Queens. The next morning on December 20th, I linked up with Joan Quinlan and we did our morning Owling as I began my second CBC of the year, the Captree Count. As Captain of the Seatuck area, I had several teams covering a number of areas plus I had mine to cover. Unlike our "Black Rail" year, Joan and I did not have anything spectacular but we had a good time. Our Captree overall count was "122 species way above our ten-year high which was achieved without any boreal irruptive species" (Shai Mitra and Pat Lindsay). The highlights being, Tufted Duck, Long-billed Dowitcher, Prairie, Nashville and Orange-crowned Warblers and a Lincoln Sparrow. We did not have any saves this year but my Seatuck team did a great job and we hope to do even better next year.

Yellow-belied Sapsucker is always a good bird to get.
On December 27th, I participated in the Bronx/Westchester CBC. I have done this count for several years with different teams. This year was a bit different as it was my first crack at Captaining the West Bronx. Bronx birding, has a special place in my heart for many reasons including the history and I was excited at a chance to contribute to a great tradition. It was challenging as the West Bronx, covers a lot of territory which requires a lot of bodies to get ample coverage. Despite a few regulars not being able to participate, we held our own and did reasonably well. Karen Hue was my partner in crime and we got off to a good start by picking up Eastern Screech Owl in Van Cortlandt Park around 4:30 a.m. in the morning before heading off to our own turf, which was the Bronx Botanical Garden.  Overall, the count ended up with 114 species with the highlights being, Black-and-White Warbler, Snowy Owl, Great Egret, Laughing Gull, Barred Owl, Saw-whet Owl, Nashville Warbler and Orange-crowned Warbler. Our West Bronx team had a total of 61 species with 2 saves, Red-breasted Nuthatch (Bronx Botanical Garden Team) and Nashville Warbler (Woodlawn Cemetery team).

Red-breasted Nuthatch another good CBC bird.
My final CBC was on January 2nd, when I participated in the Southern Nassau CBC. This was my final CBC of 2015 and we had a good turn out with over 80 participants. I was on the Atlantic team led by Rich Kelly. My team and I found the seabirds to be scarce but we pounded it out. I coaxed Joan Quinlan out to join me and to cover my areas for Atlantic. Overall, the count recorded 130 species which was the highest for all the CBCs taking the crown once again. Our highlights included Osprey recorded by the Atlantic and Bladwin team was the first ever recorded on count day, Lark Sparrow (Atlantic Team) and Ravens (Massapequa Team) were the second only ever record for the count. Other notables included Turkey Vulture, Bald Eagle, 3 Pine Warblers, 4 Orange-crowned Warblers, Eastern Phoebe, Yellow-breasted Chat, Blue-winged Teal Northern Saw-whet Owl and Baltimore Oriole to name a few. The final count was wrapped up with the traditional dinner at Otto's Sea Grill.

These counts require a lot of planning and the compilers/organizers do a lot of the work which involves getting permits, assigning captains their roles, assisting in plugging team gaps and most important dealing with the various personalities. You would be amazed at some of the "drama" that some birders are into. I want to acknowledge and thank all the compilers and organizers, Notably, Karen and Barbara Rubinstein, Angus Wilson, Naoko Tanese, Vickie Bustamante, Shai Mitra, Patricia Lindsay, Michael Bochnick and his wife and anyone else whose contribution to organizing, planning each CBC and making them possible. Thank You!

If anyone is interested in joining my West Bronx Team for 2016, please e-mail me at, I am already getting my teams lined up. Note: If you are into the drama thing, pretend that you did not see this request!

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