Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Filling the Gaps (25-30May2016)

Now that I have 294 out of the 346 species seen in North Carolina this year, and 280 plus photographed, I can focus on filling the gaps and also getting better pictures of species already photographed.

During my son's soccer practice, I found a family of Barred Owls which cooperated for photos despite having low light.

Here is the two owlets which are almost adult sized now.

The one on the left was practicing his hunting skills, continuously scanning the creek bed and doing that cool head wagging thing that owls do.

At one point he dove down to the creek bed but came up empty taloned.

Big stretch.

Mommy or Daddy.

Friday was the beginning of a long weekend in the mountains with family but of course I managed to get in a little birding.  We stayed at a house in Wolf Laurel up North of Asheville near the TN border.  Big Bald on the Appalachian Trail was only a mile away.

Chestnut-sided Warblers were the most common warbler.

This Broad-winged Hawk flew by on Saturday morning as I drank my morning coffee.

Indigo Buntings were also very common and singing like crazy.

On Saturday we hiked Big Bald as a family and ran into the Big Bald Banding group.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

This TV flew by.  We did not attempt to band it.

A bird in the hand is worth 2 in the bush.

This Chestnut-sided Warbler looks a little disheveled but I assure you it flew away after this photo and probably was back to singing minutes later.

My nephews and wife tackle Big Bald.

Unfortunately I did not get many birds and despite trying hard to locate some Saw-Whet Owls after dark, I dipped.  However, the sunsets made it worth while.

Apparently the Eye of Sauron was not far from Big Bald.  However, I stayed away from that evil place.

Sunday I took the family up the BRP to the Bull Creek and Tanbark areas to look for Cerulean Warblers but by the time we got there in the afternoon the birds were not signing and we could not locate them.

Scarlet Tanager at Tanbark Tunnel.

Up at Craggy Gardens I did manage to find this Canada Warbler.

More awesome sunset pictures taken on Sunday.

Finally on Monday morning I had an hour of birding outside the house before we headed back home.

I thought this flycatcher could have been an Alder or Willow but in the end I decided on Wood Pewee based on the very long wings. It never did vocalize.  Photo is heavily cropped.

Hairy Woodpecker! A bird I had earlier in the year but never photographed.

Long bill and no black dots or barring on outer tail feathers.

Finally, I convinced my family to let me stop at Civitan Park in Winston Salem on the way home to get the Warbling Vireos hanging out there.

Heavily cropped and lightened picture of a Warbling Vireo with some weird stuff on this face and neck.  Perhaps he has some mite infestation?

Although you would expect more from the mountains it was actually quite slow and I missed several species which I expected (Saw-whet, Crossbill, Grouse etc...).  I will have to go back up by myself so I am not stressed out about pleasing my family and can bird early and late as necessary.  Besides, I need to go get that Brown Booby up in Catawba county that was just reported.  Too bad I did not know about that yesterday, I drove right by the exit on the 40.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

"A Three Hour Tour" (20-23-May2016)

Why do people go on pelagic bird trips out of the East Coast specifically?  Let's analyze that question.  In order to fully understand this, first we must take into account why you would not go one:
1. Two plus hours motoring out to Gulf Stream/Shelf and two plus on the way back is a ton of travel time not withstanding the travel time necessary to get to the Outer Banks which is pretty far for most folks.
2. Hotels on the OBX are not cheap, add the cost of the Pelagic itself (which is reasonable considering the overhead costs for operator), the cost of food etc when out there and the cost of gas to drive to the OBX it is quite a pricy endeavor.
3. Possibility of being dreadfully ill for 10 hours straight.  I am lucky enough to not get sea sick, but even watching someone else being sick for prolonged periods is unpleasant.
4. Possibility that you will not see any of the birds you are hoping for.

Now let us look at the many reasons why you should go on pelagics if you are truly a birder that loves to look at birds:

Pomarine Jaegers were the bird of the day Friday.  Not because they are the best bird individually, but because there were so many.  We had about 10 circling the boat at one time.  To be honest that might not be a good thing because Jaegers hassle other types of birds and maybe kept other birds away.  However, it was nice to be able to compare the different aging and color morphs.

This particular bird had small "spoons" which is the term for the central tail feathers on a Pomarine Jaeger.

When I first saw this photo it was a silhouette and I did not know what to make of it.  Maybe the bird had a really fat tongue disease?  Once I lightened the picture up I remembered that Brian or Kate was tossing sardines to the birds.  This silhouette problem is a common one for me on pelagics especially when the clouds are bright and there is a ton of light.  This is because I usually always shoot in AV (Apperture Priority) mode which is good in most cases back on land.  However, one of the spotters on the boat (Pete) explained that I would be better off shooting in Manual mode.  So I am making it my business to finally learn this mode which requires setting shutter speed in addition to ISO.  However, I was not about to start learning on the boat, so I kept it in AV for this particular trip.

A nice adult light morph "Pom".

You could eat a bowl of cereal with those spoons!

Wilson's Storm-Petrels are the most common birds on a Spring/Summer Pelagic.  Some ID marks: white rump wraps around to under tail coverts, long legs go past tail and most importantly they are the most adorable of all East Coast pelagic birds.  On the West Coast the Murrelets have them beat on the cuteness scale.

Black-capped Petrels are super graceful fliers and pretty badass to boot.  In fact they will hassle the Jaegers.  These interesting birds breed in the Caribbean and make feeding forays all the way to the shelf break off NC.  That is some pretty long distance food runs.  "Honey, I am going out for a snack.  Be back in 24 hours and about 1000 miles".  Most of the individuals we saw on Friday were the white faced sub-species or breeding population.

Yet another one of the many Pomarines we saw.

Audubon's Shearwaters - these little shearwaters are right behind the Wilson's on the cuteness scale but that is about all they have going for them because they are not nearly as graceful in flight as the other shearwaters in my opinion.

Red-necked Phalarope!  They did not stick around long so I was not able to get any really crisp shots.

Audubon's Shearwater

Arctic Tern!  Nice clean white/gray wings with no black wedge like the Commons.  Also, very small head not projecting nearly as much as a Common.

This bad boy did not stick around very long so I was lucky to get these shots which are heavily cropped.  Note the all red bill with no black tip which is a Common Tern field mark.

Nice to see these Red-necked Phalaropes in breeding plumage.

Pom with medium sized spoons.

Pelagics are full of waiting and if you want to see all the birds on offer you have to be ready when one presents itself.  I saw and even photographed every single species we encountered which is not usual for me.  This above photo was one of the worst photos obtained but I think diagnostic.  A Leach's Storm-Petrel does not usually stick around long and their erratic flight patterns make it a photographers nightmare.  This is a ventral shot showing that the white rump does not extend to the under tail coverts which makes it a possible Leach's or Band-rumped.  When you see these bigger Storm-petrels next to a Wilson's they really stick out.  The Leach's has a very distinct flight style which can be compared to a Common Nighthawk. Another field mark, the tail is notched where the Band-rumped is not.  Of course it helps when the boat crew spots the bird and points at it giving you the ID on a silver plate.

One further note, the reason I was so heavily focused on pictures this time as opposed to just looking at the birds is three fold:

1. I have a Basal Cell Carcinoma on my right lower eye lid and any sun exposure makes my eye start to water and get really uncomfortable.  I have an appointment for consultation and surgery in June but in the mean time I have to wear sun glasses.  Try looking into Binocs with a pair of sun glasses, it is not fun and I pity all you glasses wearers out there.

2. I have seen all these birds before and now I am really using the camera as a tool to note some of the details on the birds that were not possible when just looking at them for a fleeting second.  With the camera, after the bird flies by I can pull up the image and look at the plumage differences.  This helps me with refining my ID skills.

3. I am after all doing a photographic big year.

I love these intermediate aged Poms, the plumage is really snazzy looking IMHO.

I am pretty sure Elton John wrote Tiny Dancer after taking a pelagic.  If you look closely you will see yellow webbing in between these Wilson's SP's toes.

Parasitic Jaeger!!!  This was a surprise as there was about 8 Pomarine Jaegers circling the boat at the time.  Brian noticed the bird was a bit smaller and the long tail initially had him thinking Long-tailed Jaeger but he quickly corrected himself.  Some field marks: long pointed "prongs" or central tail feathers, smaller size and fewer white "shafts" in the primary feathers.

Another view although the prongs are close together here you can almost see separation in the tip.

Here you can see the separation in prongs a bit more.  The bird was doing a quick fly by and never flared the tail feathers which would have made ID easy.

Trindade Petrel!!!!!  I am horrible at IDing these bad boys but after this trip I think I have learned a few things which might help me to not shout the wrong ID.  Several times this trip I yelled Trindade only to find out the dark bird was a Sooty Shearwater.  At one point I got the boat on a bird and yelled "Sooty" only to be corrected by Brian over the PA that it was a Trindade.  My philosophy is it is better to get the boat on the bird even if the ID is wrong but what I am trying to train my brain to do is shout something helpful like "large brown bird" if I am not sure of the ID.  Thus far my brain has decided to just shout the first thing that comes to mind which is better then not saying anything at all but I still want to improve.  I am not sure I could ever be a good spotter.

The above bird has a small bill which makes it a petrel and the lighter plumage in the underwing is further out towards the tips while a Sooty would have the white more central in the wing.

Cory's Shearwater - An easy shearwater to ID when up close as it has a yellow bill and clean white underwing.  They also have a slow lumbering flight which is characteristic.

At one point we had what appeared to be a Sooty Shearwater and a Trindade Petrel next to each other which you would think is nice for a comparison but when these birds are flying by so fast it actually was frustrating more than anything else.  I didn't know which bird to focus on.  The above shot is obviously bad but I left it in here to illustrate how difficult it is to tell these birds apart when in a speed blur.  Even now I am not sure which is which.  They almost both look like Trindades to me.

Sooty Shearwater - long thin bill makes this easy ID.  Also relatively thick and stocky looking.  The Trindade is more elegant.

Sooty Shearwater - light under wing restricted more to middle of wing. Definite stocky look to this bird.  The blue collar worker of the Shearwaters.

Speaking of big brown sea birds, a dark color morph Pomarine Jaeger made me re-evaluate my impression of the Jaegers.  This bird was beautiful!

Chocolatey goodness!

This brown beauty was large and in charge.  Probably a female as the females are larger than males.

Another example of how I should be shooting in Manual Mode.

Sooty Shearwater

I was really lucky to have Brian let me reel in a Mahi after he quickly hooked up into a couple within seconds of putting his lines out. I didn't have time to take off my camera so I just reeled it in with camera and binocs in place.  Kind of awkward but fun as heck.

The fish was actually bigger in reality but it was bending away when the picture was taken.

Well that was it for Friday, not a bad day at all.  Saturday's pelagic was canceled due to weather.  Thanks Kate for having me come early on Friday as I would have been pissed driving all the way to Hatteras only to find out the trip was canceled.

Since I had a second pelagic lined up I stuck around and decided to bird the OBX and also some spots near Alligator and even as far down as Mattamuskeet on Saturday.  On the way down to Lake Landing I tried hard to listen for Black Rails in the Black Needlerush on the sides of the roads especially near Pains Bay but I was unsuccessful.

Bank Swallows were still working the impoundments at Lake Landing but that was about it.  All the shore birds had moved on and even the waders were gone.  So much for my Ruff and White-faced Ibis.

Marginally better Bank Swallow pictures than my last attempt.

WTF!!! A Wood Duck in the middle of the road?  Birds never cease to amaze me.

At the Wanchese Marshes I ran into a group of three Britts that I had met on the previous day's pelagic and they told me they had a possible Baird's SP on the north side of Manteo.  I was skeptical but intrigued enough to check it out.  The bird they described was still feeding at the little beach they saw the bird at.

Semi-palmated SP - I can see how they got confused on this bird.  When viewing the wing extension at certain angles it appears the wings are longer than the tail.  However, the bird was not buffy like a Baird's.  They had been duped because once they decided the wing was longer than the tail they flushed the bird and saw no white rump and process of elimination gave them Baird's.  I did not hold this against the Britts because if I was in the UK I would be messing up IDs left and right.  To their credit, they independently sent me an email later correcting themselves.

When viewed from the side, this Semi has fairly equal length on wing and tail.

On the way back to Hatteras I stopped once more at the puddle formed at Oregon Inlet Marina.  The diversity of shorebirds was astounding.

IDing the Yellowlegs in attendance was easy at the time seeing that both were present for side by side comparison but now that I look at my photos I am a bit stumped. The bill length and the fact that the bill is slightly upturned would have lead me to call this a Greater, but the relatively sparse barring would have me say Lesser.  Sometimes I am just happy to identify a Yellowlegs without having to nail down the species and this is one of those times.

Stilt Sandpiper - nice to see them so close and in breeding plumage to boot.

I was loving the conditions and reflections.

As I was watching this bird, the alien mothership locked him in a tractor beam and sucked him up for some testing. Or maybe it was just a reflection in the water.

I checked all the Semi-palmated Plovers thoroughly for a possible Common Ringed but no luck there.

Long-billed or Short-billed Dowitcher - I would say Short based on the rufous petering out on belly but some folks reported these Dowitchers as Long-billed which is certainly possible.

Barring the Bahamas, this is the closest I have been to Black-necked Stilts so I took advantage.

BN Stilts are very clean birds, making sure to pick any nasty bits off of each other as witnessed here.

I really enjoyed that Puddle Party but it was time to move on.

Very late Bufflehead at Pea Island.

I headed over to the Lighthouse Campground at Cape Point looking for Steve but he must have been busy finding Eiders and not calling me.  So I made do with a bunch of Meadowlarks.

The light was perfect.

A quick walk to the beach flushed an American Bittern and this close relative of the Honkycronk (Great Blue Heron).

Great Egret voicing his displeasure at being flushed.

Pelagic day 2 was on Sunday and a beautiful day it was.

Only a couple miles out and Brian called out possible Gannet or Booby so we sprung into action in the bow.

It turned out being a late Gannet as evidenced from the yellowish color on head.

I love a Black-capped Petrel.

At the time I took this photo it was when a Band-rumped SP was called out, but looking at this picture I am not so sure.  He either has something in his bill or this is the gonzo of SPs.  However, I did get other photos which I think are definitive.

Bigger bird is Band-rumped Storm-petrel.  See how the white rump does not extend all the way to undertail coverts.

Also the legs did not dangle down and out as they do on the Wilson's.

I hope to get better pictures later this summer but these photos will do for now.

A nice group of 4 Bridled Terns made a brief visit.

His/her back is a lighter gray than would be expected on a Sooty.

That's when things got a little silly.  We mentioned to Brian that we had a group of Mahi in back of the boat so he threw the engine in idle and starting tossing sardines.  He already had a bunch of Mahi in the freezer from Friday so instead of hooking up he called in a close by charter boat.

Mahi Mahi (Dolphin fish/Dorado) and a large Remora.

The charter boat immediately hooked up and the guy in green was handed the rod.  This guy looked like he had never reeled in a fish before.

I have never seen anyone reel in a fish of this size with the rod butted against a leg like this.  It was kind of awkward and it took the guy a while to finally get the fish in to the boat.

Not a bad sized fish though.

Ok back to birding!

Wilson's SP

Cory's Shearwater and Wilson's SPs


All the ones I got photos of were of the Borealis sub-species but we did see at least one Scopoli's.

How do these molting birds fly is beyond me.  You can be sure a plane with a large chunk out of the wing would not work well.

White-faced breeding population Black-capped.

We ended up seeing 4 Trindade Petrels in the two days I went!  Many people people dip on these so I counted myself lucky although I would have liked to trade 1-2 for a Fea's or Bermuda.  In fact I would have traded all 4 for a Bermuda.

A particularly fat looking Wilson's.


This Black-faced Black-capped was so dark underneath and had such a wide collar that I almost thought it was a Bermuda.

Out of focus chocolatey goodness - Tridade Petrel

Trindade - these birds come up all the way from an island of the coast of Brazil.

This particular Trindade made a bunch of close passes but it is one fast bird.


Great Shearwater!!!!!

As Great Shearwaters do this bird came in close and offered great looks.  The only Great of the whole 2 days.

Easily IDed by the mottled axillaries.


It was extremely windy and wavy when we ran into this Black Tern so I am happy I came away with a recognizable picture.

What an awesome 2 days at sea and now you can see my case for going on pelagics far exceeds the negative aspects.  That being said, I don't have problems with sea-sickness so maybe I am biased.

On the way out that night I searched in vain for the reported Olive-sided Flycatcher at Bodie Island Lighthouse but probably it was already too late in the afternoon/evening and it had gone to roost.  Steve and I did have about 10-15 Chucks calling though.  We tried to spotlight some but the photos didn't work out.

I am not counting this as photograph because it is not identifiable but just wanted to show you what the crappy photos were looking like in this half dark light.  Steve had the spotlight on the bird but my camera was too far for a flash to work and the light was not enough.  Two birds were on the road and the eye shine is just barely showing here.  I will have to make a better effort later but the mosquitos were distracting.

I was falling asleep at the wheel on the way home so I stopped in Williamston, NC and crashed at the Hampton Inn.

Next morning I was really close to the VOA site at Bear Grass, NC and I knew a buddy that was doing a survey of Henslow's so I hooked up with him and thankfully they were able to locate at least one singing Henslow's Sparrow.  It was not nearly as cooperative as the one from last year, but I will take any looks I can get for Henslow's.

Nice olive colored head, streaky back with scaly appearance and of course skulky behavior.

Look at that Schnoz!  Typical Ammodramus honker.

The VOA site is an awesome site and should be opened up to the public soon. They are in the process of taking down all the towers and trucking the metal debris off site. It sounds like they will keep plenty of Henslow's habitat and pepper in some trails and of course the obligatory shooting range.  Because what says "I love nature" like a cacaphony of guns going off? I am sure the Henslow's will love the sound of artillery.

Plenty of Pitcher Plants on site.

I can't think of a better way to close this trip out than with some good quality pics of a new year bird.  So here we go....

This Grasshopper Sparrow was in exactly the same spot as last year!  I love a dependable bird.

Probably overkill on the pictures but what can I do when a bird is just posing like that?

What a freaking amazing week!!

This weekend - clean up on aisle 5!  I am headed to the mountains for a family vacation but I might just look for a Ruffed Grouse or something while I am there.