Tag: Black-capped Chickadee

I almost struck out in Rochester

Red-bellied Woodpecker, Abraham Lincoln Park

Last Day Lifers in Rochester

We spent Thanksgiving week this year in Rochester, New York. It’s was a great trip – good weather and good family times. Birding-wise, there isn’t a lot to see in Rochester in late November, unless it’s an irruption year for boreal species like Snowy Owl and Common Redpoll. It either wasn’t one of those years, or it was too early. Still, birders had been reporting a Bohemian Waxwing and a trio of Pine Grosbeaks at a place called Webster Park, both of which would’ve been lifers. I dutifully headed there the first morning I was in town. As often often happens when you’re birding out of town, I wasn’t exactly sure where to go. The eBird hotspot was “Webster Park–campground area.” There was a quarter-mile long road that turned left into a campground area, so I basically walked around the area. I saw a few birds, but no Pine Grosbeaks or any waxwings. It wasn’t until the end of my stay that I ran into some local birders, who told me which loop trail with the crabapple trees the Pine Grosbeaks had been favoring.

I came back the next morning and, despite the additional presence of a half-dozen other birders, didn’t find any Pine Grosbeaks and couldn’t pick a Bohemian Waxwing out of a flock of two dozen Cedar Waxwings. Each day, the Pine Grosbeaks were reported either before I arrived or in the afternoon after I left. I stayed home on Thanksgiving, but was out again on Friday morning. The wind was gusty. There was occasional light drizzle. And I didn’t see any grosbeaks or waxwings. Saturday was the last day of our trip, and thus my last chance. I showed up at 8am, apparently 15 minutes after the Pine Grosbeaks had made a brief stop at the crabapple trees. After an hour of half of stalking the same quarter-mile of trail, my patience was finally rewarded. I heard the Pine Grosbeaks before I saw them.  Conveniently, they then flew atop a pine tree for clear views. They’re big finches with some delicate plumage. 

Another lifer target for the trip was Eastern Screech-Owl. There were scattered reports of these tiny creatures across town. But given their excellent camouflage, I either needed to get incredibly luck or some local intel. I ended up scoring the intel. Thanks to my multiple trips to Webster Park failing to find the Pine Grosbeaks, I crossed paths with local birders who gave me suggestions. One woman directed me to two specific trees where I might find an Eastern Screech-Owl. I checked them both one day, and struck out. But on the morning of our last day in Rochester, before I went to Webster Park for my 4th try at Pine Grosbeak, I found the little dude pictured below in a tree cavity in Abraham Lincoln Park. These little owls aren’t much bigger than your hand. And despite their name, they don’t screech.

Eastern Screech Owl

While I was failing to find lifers, I did manage to see some good birds that don’t call Los Angeles home. During my travels, I saw Long-tailed Ducks lounging and feeding just off shore on Lake Ontario. A lone Tundra Swan was calling in flight during a hike, and then stood on a frozen pond bellowing for companionship. A crow mob at Webster Park distracted us from the lack of Pine Grosbeaks and led me to a Barred Owl. Among the many woodpeckers I saw, I found a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker working a leafless tree at Mendon Ponds. And I finally got a (distant) photo of an American Black Duck.

Long-tailed Duck, Lake Ontario

You fully appreciate the species diversity of Los Angeles when you travel to somewhere like Rochester in late fall. For the month of November, birders have reported seeing 142 species in eBird in Monroe County, New York, compared to 299 species in Los Angeles County. Granted, LA County is much bigger than Monroe County. but consider this: for the entire state of New York, eBirders have only reported 263 species in November. I didn’t have a single checklist in Rochester with more than 18 species, whereas counts in the 20s and 30s are common when birding Los Angeles. In Rochester, if you’re walking parks or forest, it’s Black-capped Chickadees, American Robins, Northern Cardinals, Downy Woodpeckers, and Blue Jays on every list. After that, it’s a scattering of a few others species. I was surprised by the almost total absence of sparrows and other ground birds.

Our last adventure during the trip was to a place called Wild Wings Birds of Prey Facility. It’s located at Mendon Ponds, and is a non-profit educational organization. They care for injured birds of prey that cannot be re-released into the wild. You can walk around the cages where they keep many of the birds, and get point blank views at all kinds of hawks and owls. Visiting on Thanksgiving weekend is a treat, because they’ve got many of the animals out of the cages with handlers. While we were there, we got to see Peregrine Falcon, Eastern Screech-Owl, Short-eared Owl, Gyrfalcon, Swainson’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk all on a handler’s arm. Inside the cages they had a Northern Saw-whet Owl, two Snowy Owls, Long-eared Owl, Great-Horned Owl, Bald Eagles, Barn Owls, Barred Owls, and a Pileated Woodpecker. I can’t describe how much of a treat it was to get arms-length views of all of these birds. 

On top of that, another amazing thing about visiting the Wild Wings Nature Center is the chance to hand-feed some wild birds. They sell birdseed at the nature center, and over the years enough humans have walked the trails in the area with their hands full of birdseed that the Tufted Titmice and Black-capped Chickadees have grown accustomed to feeding out of your hand.



Birding Downeast Maine (2021)

Bobolinks Maine

Bobolinks on alert

Birds from a Week in Maine (2021)

Every July for most of the last 12 years, we’ve taken a vacation to Maine. My spouse’s relatives all live in the northeast, and we converge on a spot right near Acadia National Park. COVID prevented us going out there last year. But with all 4 of us fully vaccinated, we braved the emerging wave of Delta variant cases and flew across the country. 

Since this year’s trip to Maine was our first since 2019, it meant that I got to see a lot of East Coast birds for the first time in a long while. There were several Bald Eagles around, perched in trees, on snags, waiting for a dead fish to turn up. Winter Wrens could regularly be heard singing their impossibly long and winding songs. Black-capped Chickadees flitted about in small groups. And one of my favorite North American warblers, the Blackburnian Warbler, was a regular high up in the pines (alongside Black-throated Green Warblers).

The habitat where we stay is dominated by pine forest, but there are also big fields of wild grasses and flowers, and trails take you past some small creeks and a couple of ponds. Deciduous trees line the clearings. There isn’t a lot of low bush cover. As a result, there aren’t very many birds on the ground. Still, in my 10 week-long visits, all in the first half of July, I’ve managed to find 84 species.

The fields provide critical breeding habitat for the declining Bobolink. Bobolinks winter in the pampas grasslands of South America, and fly 6,000 miles to breed in the northern United States. It’s always great to see the sharp outfits of the males. The same fields occasionally produce American Woodcocks, but the encounters are unexpected and brief. I’ve only managed to get a single blurry photograph of one flying away from me.

 One thing you get in Maine that you we don’t deal with in Los Angeles is mosquitos. In some spots, you’ve got 5 seconds of standing still to get a bird in the binoculars before the maddening buzz begins. Both the Common Yellowthroat and Common Grackle above were doing their job to keep the population down. Question: would more mosquitos mean more birds? If so, would it be worth it?

Wherever you do find bushes, you’re likely to find a Gray Catbird or two (and a family of Song Sparrows). The catbirds are fairly loud and conspicuous, so getting a good shot of one isn’t that much of a problem. Hidden in this photo is the rusty-red undertail. The Hairy Woodpecker below was part of a 3-bird group that was moving through the forest very loudly. The White-throated Sparrow was quiet while I saw it, but you frequently hear their “oh-sweet-Canada” song from far off. Cool story: a new White-throated Sparrow song has emerged in the 21sy century and is spreading across the continent.

Since it is July, and spring starts late in Maine, there were baby birds all over. There was even an active nest above the back porch. I reached up with my phone to check if there were eggs, and found 5. Our presence unfortunately kept the parent Eastern Phoebes away from the nest most of the day, and I’m worried it won’t be successful.

Eastern Phoebe nest Maine

Eastern Phoebe nest above the porch

American Robin hatchling

American Robin hatchling playing possum

The forests were also full of the entrancing song of thrushes. By the end of the week I was able to distinguish unseen Hermit Thrushes from Swainson Thrushes. These photos show the visual difference between the two: the Hermit Thrush on the left has a grayer head, white eyering, and a redder tail. The Swainson’s Thrush on the right is buffier around the eye, and the back and tail more uniformly colored.

For the second time during a Maine visit, a few of us went on a boat ride out of Bar Harbor to the Gulf of Maine. The first trip a few years ago went to Petit Manan Island and targeted seeing Atlantic Puffins. This one was a straight-up whale watching trip. That meant that our big catamaran spent most of the time going 35 knots headed 40 miles off-shore. With overcast skies, some wind, and chop, that made bird-spotting quite challenging. Whale-wise, it was a great success. We found a Humpback Whale, and stayed with it for just over an hour.

Bird-wise, there wasn’t a ton of action. We didn’t come across any big flocks of pelagic birds. When we did see birds, the naturalists on-board weren’t much help. “There’s a few shearwaters at our 2 o’clock” and “the small birds bounding across the surface are storm-petrels” is better than nothing, I guess, but not much better. Is one a Cory Shearwater, by chance? Care to help me pick out a Leach’s Storm-Petrel from the Wilson Storm-Petrels? 

I did manage my only lifer of the trip to Maine on the boat: a pair of South Polar Skuas. These dark, pot-bellied birds were flying low over the water while we were speeding back to harbor. They had a small white patch at the end of the wings, somewhat like a nighthawk. I wasn’t sure what they were, and put “skua?” down in my notes. I fired off some shots, hoping they wouldn’t be too blurry. Back ashore, it was pretty clear that they were South Polar Skuas. They breed further south on Earth than almost any other bird and “winter” (our summer) in waters across the globe, including the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. They are aggressive bullies – chasing shearwaters and gulls and terns, forcing them to drop any food they catch. 

South Polar Skua Maine

South Polar Skua (lifer!) very far from the South Pole

The boat ride also produced some good looks at Great Shearwater, Northern Gannett, and Wilson’s Storm-Petrel. A couple of Razorbills flew over the bow, and a lone Atlantic Puffin cruised past. And we got a good show from the Humpback Whale. 

Great Shearwater Maine

Great Shearwater

Humpback whale Gulf of Maine

“Thar she blows!”

One last bird picture, of the boss of the chicken coop: El Guapo. He’s mean, he’s loud, and it’s a good thing there’s fencing between him and us. But god bless him for all his work, because there is nothing like fresh eggs in the morning.

Chicken Maine

El Guapo

I didn’t get to explore much during this trip outside of where we were staying. After our visit, we drove to Cape Ann in Massachusetts. A couple potential lifers were possible on the way. Upland Sandpipers had been seen outside Portland, Maine, but disappeared before we took the road. We stopped at Scarborough Marsh to try for Nelson’s Sparrow, but we didn’t get there until mid-day, and only had 30 minutes. Luck wasn’t on our side and I struck out. But I have no complaints. As always, it was a great trip.