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Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Philadelphia Airport Snowy Owl

On Jan 5, the weather was turning bad with a week of subfreezing temperatures forecast.  Birds were few and far between at my backyard feeders, so I wanted to make a quick drive to see what I could find down by the river in order to get my #20BirdMDR.  Since this has been a big Snowy Owl year in the East, for the past month I've been regularly driving the road behind the Philadelphia airport hoping one would show up there.

This time, as I pulled over to scan the westernmost part of the airport, I noticed a yellow operations vehicle out on a service road near the runway.  As I put my binoculars up to check it out, I saw something white flying.  Away.  Through the snow.  150 yards away.  For about 5-10 seconds.  Then it was gone.

 The bird was white with dark flecks, big headed, and long heavy-winged.  Fortunately, I've seen Snowy Owls in flight at a great distance before--in the 1990s.  I knew that's what it was, even though it was the worst look in the world, so I called it in.

The next day, local birder Al Guarente relocated it, and soon others were getting great looks at it--as it regularly landed on the airport fence or on light poles over the road.

I was super jealous of the good looks they got over the weekend, and finally on Jan 8 I was able to see it on the ground about 80 yards from the road, and get these shots through my scope (iPhone 6 with Kowa 883 scope).

Rare birds are rare, you don't always find rare birds.  But it pays to regularly go birding, and even to look for hoped for rarities.  Sometimes it pays to make yourself go birding in bad weather.  It pays to go out and make sure you find your 20 species for the day.  It pays to let other folks know what you see, so they can further verify it and enjoy the bird themselves.

And it's just nice to spend some time with visitors from the far north or other distant realms.

It's a cool world out there.  Go see for yourself.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

My Top 10 Birds of 2017

So by the numbers, 2017 was better than average for me, though not particularly stellar.

I did manage to get my official (old) ABA area list to over 700, just before the area was expanded to include Hawaii.  This normally would be a huge accomplishment that I would celebrate, except that I feel like I should have hit this milestone about 10 or 15 years ago (My ABA #600 was Kirtland's Warbler way back in 1997).  I guess I just haven't traveled as much this last decade as I did in the past.  Oh well!  I'm an official ABA 700 club member now, when all the big boys are now in up in the 900s!

I also got to bird in Spain, The Netherlands, and Mexico this year.  These were all work trips, with a little bit of designated birding, mostly on my own.

All in all, I added 4 birds to my ABA area list (Cassia Crossbill, White-winged Tern, Common Greenshank, and Corn Crake).

I was able to add 23 additional birds to my World list--8 in Mexico and 13 in an eight hour layover in Madrid.

Here are my Top 10 favorites for the year:

10) Eurasian Penduline Tit
When you start flipping through European field guides, this is one of those cool birds you hope to see.  I finally ran into a troop of them in Madrid on a whirlwind 6 hour layover trip out from the airport on my way to The Netherlands.

9) Spotless Starling
OK, its just a starling without spots.  No big deal.  But growing up prejudiced against starlings in the US, it was fun to start seeing other starling species.  I never did see one close enough to get a good photo.  And there really isn't much to see.  But it was fun to see anyway!

8) Spanish Sparrow
Growing up in the US, was also prejudiced against House Sparrows.  My friends in Europe love them, and are working tirelessly to stop their precipitous population declines, and I've learned to love them for that.  But these fancy House Sparrow cousins were a must see bird for me on my layover in Madrid.  Fortunately I came across a bush full of these bad boys and was glad to see them.

7) Cassia Crossbill
I've been a big fan of the crypto-species crossbills ever since learning about their diversity back in the early 1990s.  When this form was declared a good species by the AOS this summer, and learning that I had just lost Thayer's Gull to lumping with Iceland Gull, I made a detour up into the hills of southern Idaho to search for this bird on my way from Utah up to Oregon this summer.  I wasn't able to get very satisfying looks, but had at least one flyover calling this call type.  I look forward to going back up to this beautiful area again (I saw four moose up there in just over an hour) and getting better looks someday.  Looking for new birds takes you to great places you'd otherwise maybe never visit.

6) Eurasian Griffin
Another favorite from my Madrid layover.  I scanned dozens of these guys looking for a Spanish Imperial Eagle that never showed up.  But these crazy looking Old World vultures were great to see in and of themselves.

5) White-winged Tern
I moved to the East Coast for the first time in 1994, when this bird was almost annual in the DelMarVa area, so it was on the top of my most wanted birds list.  Then it pretty much stopped showing up.  I was out West this summer when one showed up in western PA, then one showed up during the Big Sit at Tinicum NWR 10 minutes from my house.  I was there early the next morning and got to watch it for 20 minutes or so before torrential rains set in and the bird disappeared, never to be seen again.  Unfortunately, it was too far away for photos, but great to watch as it patrolled back and forth along the back edge of the main impoundment on the refuge.  Super bonus to this bird for being my official ABA Bird #700!

4) Gray Silky-flycatcher
My favorite bird from my Mexico archaeology trip this summer.  I wasn't able to chase any of the ABA area record birds over the years, and am usually too far south in Mexico to see it.  But they were all over at several sites I visited this year, including the great pyramid at Cholula.

3) Eurasian Hoopoe
I must have first seen a picture of this crazy looking bird shortly after I started birding.  During my layover in Madrid this spring, I heard distant hooting and was able to track down this guy calling in a tree off in the distance.  Not the best digiscoped pics, but really happy to see this beauty.

2) Corn Crake
When I bought my first field guide back in the early 1980s, this bird was a dream bird illustrated in the old Golden guide.  There had been records up to the 1960s in the Eastern US, but then nothing.  I hadn't had a chance to look for them in Europe, and when one showed up on the side of the road on Long Island this fall, I dropped everything and took off to chase it.  It turned out that the drive was the hardest part about seeing the bird, as it was spectacularly easy to see parading around on the shoulder of the highway.  Bonus points on this bird for being able to show it to my teenage son, who joined me for the chase.

1) Smew
I've wanted to see this stunning merganser ever since I probably first saw it depicted in the new National Geographic field guide in 1983.  My trips to Europe have always been miss-timed to see this bird, but this past March there were still a handful around in The Netherlands when I traveled to speak at an urban nature conference there.  I still hope to see one in North America someday.  But in the meantime, I've bonded with these beauties in their native land.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

May Update 2017 Project 25/50/100/200

As of the end of May, my photo standings for the year are:

  • Mammals   6/25 
  • Herps         8/50
  • Moths       0/100
  • Birds     118/200

I'm doing OK on birds, but way behind on the others.  Since moving from NJ to PA, I need to find a new source of moths, as my yard here is not attracting them as much as our old NJ yard.  Also depending on a trip out to Utah and Oregon to get me more mammals and herps this summer.

A few photo highlights from May:

Snapping Turtle, John Heinz NWR, PA

Musk Turtle, John Heinz NWR, PA

Pileated Woodpecker, Home, Wallingford, PA

Semipalmated Sandpiper, Spruce Run, Hunterdon, NJ

Thursday, May 18, 2017

2017 Project 25/50/100/200

A little game I'm playing this year is to see if I can take identifiable photographs of:
25 Mammals
50 Reptiles or Amphibians
100 Moths
200 Birds

So far I'm doing terrible on Reptiles and Amphibians, have no moths, and 98 birds.  I've been posting most of my photos on Facebook, but will start doing updates here as well.

Today I spent half an hour in the yard trying to photograph, without a lot of success, several of my yard birds.

Better photos desired, but at least the following are (almost) identifiable:

Nesting at the golf course across the road, 2017 Bird#94 Baltimore Oriole
Home, Wallingford, PA

2017 Bird#98 Chipping Sparrow in the driveway
Home, Wallingford, PA

So hard to photograph with a bridge camera--2017 Bird#96 Chimney Swift
Home, Wallingford, PA

2017 Bird#97  Carolina Chickadee
Home, Wallingford, PA

Thanks to my friend Bob Ferguson for the inspiration for this game this year.  He's playing a similar game, with higher totals (and no moths).

Friday, May 12, 2017

Where I've Been

I've been A.W.O.L. here at the Birdchaser blog for over a year.  Most of my social media time is now on Facebook.  I post most of my bird photos and sightings on my personal profile.

But you can also join a couple of new Facebook birding groups I've started.  I'll be back here more frequently, but check out these groups and hope to hang out with you there on Facebook as well.

20 Bird Minimum Daily Requirement--this one's to share the challenge of finding at least 20 bird species every day, even when you don't have time for "official" birding.

Yard Birding--this one is for taking your backyard birdwatching to the next level, bringing hard core birding to your yard, balcony, or patio.

Birdchaser talk at Penn Museum in Philly

Looking forward to giving an all new Maya birds talk this Saturday at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia.   More details here.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Top 10 Birds of 2015

Most of 2015 was dedicated to my Backyard Big Year.  So I didn't chase many birds.  Or build much of a list outside of my yard.  But I did manage to get 14 lifers--all but one from my July research trip to the Lacandon Maya region of Mexico.  I also picked up 3 new Hunterdon County birds.  In line with my backyard birding emphasis, I also managed to add 30 new species to my yard list.  So this list may not be as exotic as past versions, but here it is, in totally subjective order, my best birds of 2015.

10)  Crested Caracara  When my friend David Harrison found this first Hunterdon County record, I was hanging out with friends at the Princeton University Art Museum.  By the time I was able to get to Holland Township to look for the bird, it was too late in the day.  Another all day search came up empty.  Finally on my third attempt, I was able to see this bird fly by in the fog and rain.  A great new addition to my county list.  Thanks, David!

9)  Barn Owl  At the start of the year this may have been my most wanted Hunterdon County bird.  I'd chased one a couple times and missed, and there were no publicly available sites to find these birds.  So in February when a pair were seen feeding over a field in Ringoes, I hoofed it down there and got some good looks at dusk.  Most daytime sightings are of birds at a nest or roost, or of a bird flushed from a roost.  So getting to watch them hunt was a really great.

8)  Peregrine Falcon  This isn't that rare of a bird, but I'd never seen one in my yard until this year when I saw two while conducting hawk watches in my yard.  The second one was a nice adult bird that soared directly over my house.  What a treat!

7)  Wild Turkey  Again, not a rare bird, but one that was on the top of my most wanted list for my yard this year.  I had seen them within a couple miles of my home, but never in my neighborhood.  One day as I was sitting working on my computer, I looked up and saw a hen turkey walking down along the edge of my yard.  Nice yard bird!
Not a great shot, but the best I could manage as the turkey walked away

6)  White Hawk  A stunning bird, one of my favorites from my Lacandon Maya trip in July.  Several of these birds were seen soaring around Metzabok, the Lacandon Maya village where we worked.

5)  Little Gull  A regular visitor to Spruce Run in April, I didn't think I could get it for my yard list but when I heard that there were a couple consorting with Bonaparte's Gulls I got out my scope and spent the day scoping the area I could see to the west of the reservoir and was able to pick out a small dark-underwinged gull with a distant swirling group of Bonaparte's Gulls.

4) Mourning Warbler  a new species for my yard this year, I was able to audio record a spring migrant bird and determine that it was from the Nova Scotia population.

Hear audio of the bird here

3) Common Redpoll  You can see photos and read how I used audio to attract this bird to my yard in a snowstorm here.

2) Thick-billed Murre  My only new ABA bird for the year, when one showed up close to shore on the Jersey shore, I took a break from my backyard big year to chase this alcid.  We got crummy looks at the bird as it moved farther offshore, so would definitely like to get better looks sometime.

1)  Ornate Hawk-Eagle  Perhaps my favorite new life bird from my Lacandon Maya research--I was able to snap this picture through my binoculars.  A huge forest hawk with long plumes on its head.  What's not to like?

Looking forward to a new year, to get out of my yard more, and to achieve some additional birding goals.  I'm close to the 700 ABA milestone, so need to finally take care of that this year. Who knows what else the new year will bring!?!

Thursday, October 15, 2015

2015 Machine Assisted Big Sit

Pre-dawn BigSit in the backyard
I love the Big Sit.  A few years ago I managed 47 species seen or heard from my backyard in one day.  So that was the bar to clear this year.

I was tired and didn't get up until 5:30, and started off the morning listening to my OldBird21c microphone for an hour.  No birds.  No nocturnal migrants calling overhead.  A stiff 9 mph north wind wasn't helping.  I was nervous, but headed outside to the 17 foot count circle when I started hearing

1.  White-throated Sparrow (calling at 6:35am)

On a good morning, I can get my 20 Bird Minimum Daily Requirement in under an hour.  But birding was slow and it took a long time to get new birds.  Slowly but surely, the birds started appearing:

2.  American Crow (calling at 6:36am)
3.  Northern Cardinal (calling at 6:42am)
4.  Blue Jay (6:43am)
5.  Carolina Wren (6:49am)
6.  American Robin (6:50am)
7.  Tufted Titmouse (6:57am)

In the first half hour that was it.  Super slow.  Painfully slow.  Not how you want to start a Big Sit!  Over the next hour I managed to find:

8.    American Goldfinch (7:08am)
9.    Downy Woodpecker (7:08am)
10.  Canada Goose (7:09am)
11.  White-breasted Nuthatch (7:11am)
12.  Morning Dove (7:14am)
13.  House Finch (7:15am)
14.  gull sp. (sadly, didn't see it better, distant flyby at 7:27am)
15.  European Starling (7:30am)
16.  Cedar Waxwing  (7:46am)
17.  Northern Flicker (7:49am)
18.  Brown-headed Cowbird (8:00am)

Forget blue screen, blue skies are death to birding
And that's it.  During what should be the busiest hour of the morning, that's all I could get.  Wind was blowing.  It was a beautiful day, with clear blue skies.  The worst kind of day for birding!    Over the next hour, all I could add was

19.  Pileated Woodpecker (distant calling bird at 8:17am)
20.  Chickadee species (probably most of what we have are hybrids here 8:44am)
21.  Turkey Vulture (8:58am)
22.  Cooper's Hawk (flyover at 8:58am)

That's a long hour with few birds.  Things picked up a little bit the next hour, but it was still too slow for what one would want on a record-setting Big Sit.

23.  Ruby-crowned Kinglet (first of the fall, singing at 9:11am)
24.  Red-bellied Woodpecker (9:15am)
25.  Yellow-rumped Warbler (FINALLY a warbler at 9:15am)
26.  Gray Catbird (where have you been all morning?  at 9:29am)
27.  Black Vulture (10 at 9:34am)
28.  Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (9:36am)
29.  Chipping Sparrow  (should have been around earlier, but appeared at 9:41am)
30.  Red-tailed Hawk (soaring in the distance at 9:45am)

Almost 4 hours to get to 30 species.  Horrible!  I limped along finding:
31.  Chimney Swift (getting late, distant soaring bird at 10:20am)
32.  American Kestrel (not an easy migrant to see from my yard, at 10:33am)

I was dying.  A long way from my goals for the day.  Then it got good with

33.  Cackling Goose (a locally rare flyover with Canada Goose flock at 11:30am)
34.  Golden Eagle (another hard to come by migrant here at 11:40am)
35.  Sharp-shinned Hawk (11:49am)

Reviewing NFCs in the field
Then things stalled.  I would say died, but I was trying to have hope.  While there were no birds in the yard, I called in my assist from my OldBird21c microphone.  While sitting in the yard I reviewed the overnight recording from after midnight.  What a disaster--Only 11 calls all night long--but I was able to add:

36.  Savannah Sparrow (NFC)
37.  Gray-cheeked Thrush (NFC)
38.  Swainson's Thrush (NFC)
39.  Common Yellowthroat (NFC)

And that was it until after almost two hours with no new birds I tried playing an Eastern Screech Owl call to see if it would pull in any migrants and got

Calling all migrants
40.  Eastern Bluebird (coming in to owl recording at 1:52pm)

I soldiered on for the rest of the afternoon, but ended with only a few more additions--

41.  Tree Swallow (4:05pm after a two hour drought of no new birds)
42.  Black-throated Green Warbler (getting my hopes up again at 4:26pm)
43.  Merlin (Yes!  bring on the birds at 4:42pm)
44.  Eastern Phoebe (5:17pm)

And then it got dark, with no new birds.  As it got dark, I got out my recording again and was able to call up

45.  Eastern Screech Owl (at 7:02pm)

OldBird21c microphone
And that was it.  Short of the record.  But all was not lost.  There was still hope.  Now it was up to my OldBird21c microphone.  If we could get a decent migration, with calling birds overnight, there would still be a chance to best my record.  And the birds and the microphone didn't disappoint!  After reviewing the recording I was able to add:

46.  Northern Parula (NFC)
47.  ZEEP call (a NFC that was probably a Blackpoll Warbler, but could have been something else)
48.  Palm Warbler (NFC)
49.  Black-throated Blue Warbler (NFC)
50.  Swamp Sparrow/Lincoln's Sparrow (NFCs are super similar and may not be separable)
51.  Dark-eyed Junco (NFC--making up for the one I thought I heard earlier in the day but never appeared)
52.  Ovenbird (NFC)
53.  Green Heron (NFC)

As usual, there were some odd and as of now still unidentified NFCs on the recording, so perhaps at some point I'll be able to add additional species, but for now, this is the official tally and new Big Sit record for my yard.  So after a miserably slow day of birding, persistence (and the assist from my microphone!) payed off.

I love the Big Sit.  I love sitting in the yard in one spot all day and watching the sun come up, move overhead, and then descend below the trees and set.  All while I'm sitting there looking for birds.  It's a great Zen type of exercise, which is good, at least it helps the blood pressure when the birding is as slow as it was today!

Can't wait for the Big Sit to roll around next year!
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