Sunday, January 27, 2013

Ice Hole

The brutally cold weather this last week really put a damper on the birding this weekend at the shore.  Barbara and I busted on EVERYTHING that we tried for today in Cape May. No Western Grebe. No King Eider. No Crossbills.  We did get 2 Razorbills flying past Cape May Point so I guess that was a bright spot.  I just learned a valuable lesson - freezing temperatures make birds move away from frozen places so don't go visiting frozen places looking for birds.

Here is a photo of Lily lake in Cape May today. It was about the only open fresh water for miles. Look at all of the ducks and geese crammed into that little ice hole.

Of course, none of the birds that we needed were there, but there were still some nice looking ducks out there.  Here is a pretty nice photo of a Gadwall standing on the ice.

We left Cape May after busting for the birds that we hoped to see and screamed up the Parkway back to Assunpink to try for those damned weird geese again.  Busted again there.  The lake is completely frozen over. The only things on the ice were a few swans and a guy trying to kite surf.

We even busted on White-winged Crossbills at Assunpink even after our friends told us that they just saw 2 of them. And, even though we ran into Scott Barnes (expert birder from NJ Audubon) and his friend Linda (another expert birder) who were also looking for the birds and couldn't find them either.

Thankfully, our friends Patty and Steve told us that they saw a Long-eared Owl earlier down in Medford area.  We are just glad that we left time to go see it.  It was awesome!  The owl was in the woods in dense trees. Check out how camouflaged the owl is against the trunk of that pine tree.
Long-eared Owl
We can't tell you where the owl was because we were sworn to secrecy. We are protecting the owl's privacy so that it can do what it does best during the day which is be camouflaged and rest. 

I don't know how much birding I'll get in before heading to Cleveland for a workshop, but I'll let you know if I see anything interesting.  I forgot to post this photo of the moon last night at Jake's Landing.  It was just stunning.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Easy Does It

I did pretty good today even though I took it easy.  I didn't even get out of bed until 7:30, did some laundry, made breakfast, shoveled the whole driveway (it snowed 2 inches last night), straightened up the house, packed the car, got my hockey gear together and got another Big Year bird while drinking a cup of tea - all before 9 AM.  There is one - exactly one - Pine Siskin visiting my bird feeder.  They are usually in gangs but not this one. He (or she) is mingling with a bunch of Goldfinches but I don't care. It counts as another bird for the Big Year contest.

I left the house and headed down to Pennypack on the Delaware. I blogged about this place awhile ago. It is a park next to the prison that is right on the Delaware river where the Pennypack creek ends.  There is a well known Bald Eagle's nest which is being attended again this year. It is also a great place to watch the river for all sorts of ducks, gulls and other birds.  Today, Roxy and I sauntered up to the river and were treated to a few male Common Goldeneyes courting a female. It was a real treat because these ducks are usually farther north. This is the first time that I can recall seeing them on the Delaware river, nevermind doing their courtship dance.

The photos aren't great again due to sun glare. The sun was directly behind the ducks.  Here is a photo showing the male Goldeneye (should be obvious - it's the duck with the golden eye) and Bufflehead

Goldeneye and Bufflehead
 Here is a really terrible photo showing the courtship behavior.  There are 3 males and 1 female (second from the left) in this photo.  All of the males are making a really cool noise and throwing their heads back and bobbing to impress the female.  It was fun to watch.

Common Goldeneye - courtship
Again, I took it easy.  Roxy and I walked the path at the park to the end and got to see a few more Big Year birds including American Pipit.

I dropped Roxy at Di and Barabara's house and played a hockey game (we won 5-4).  After the game, Barbara and I packed the car and headed to the shore.  We stopped at a new place called Mannington Marsh on the way. All of the standing water is iced over, so we didn't get to see alot of birds, but we did get 2 more Big Year birds - Tundra Swan and Snow Goose.  We also saw a few hundred Coots crammed into a pretty small hole in the ice trying to stay wet.  Those poor birds just need to hang in there until Monday when it is supposed to warm up.

Speaking of iced over, we had a bit of surprise when we showed up at the shore -  iced over toilet and frozen drain traps on all of the sinks.  Uh oh.  No big deal. Staying with the "take it easy" day, we turned on the heat and went out to Jake's for a beer and salad.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Sound the Trumpets

Life bird(s) #734 and Big Year bird(s) #95 are Trumpeter Swans.  There are 2 of them swimming around the Schuylkill river in Pottstown this winter. There are no other Trumpeter Swans within hundreds of miles. That makes these birds worth checking out.

This contest is a little ridiculous in that I have to chase after unusual birds when normally I would not. Don't get me wrong, Trumpeter Swans are worth traveling to Pottstown for. They are elegant. The photo below doesn't do them justice. I only got to see this pair by running out onto a bridge that is closed to get a better look up river.  Yes, I said the bridge is closed. In fact, it is so closed that it doesn't show up on the GPS map. The view was worth it.

Trumpeter Swans
There is a strategy to this Big Year contest. In order to contend, you need to understand the seasons and you need to know which birds to see at what time of year.  Take ducks, swans and geese for instance. All of these weird geese and swans that I am chasing now will be gone by March or April. They will return to the far north for the summer and will probably migrate in the right direction next fall bypassing the Delaware Valley. So you see, I have to see them now or lose out on counting them for the contest.

Here are a few other photos from the day.  The Gadwall was an unexpected surprise. This is truly a handsome duck. Sublime in it's brown and gray tones. Confident in it's dapper appearance while the others ducks are gaudy. What do you think?

While picking through the quazillion Canada geese over the weekend looking for the weird ones, I got a little sick of looking at them. But when you see a pair swimming together, you can't help but snap the photo.

Canada Geese
We are heading to the shore with a spreadsheet full of "target" birds, a tank full of gas, and a lot of caffine-fueled energy.  We hope to get 9 target birds and will end up with others that are "common" to add to the list too.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Wild Goose Chase

That is what we were on today - a wild goose chase. If I want to be a contender in the Billing's Big Year contest, then I have to go look at birds that I would normally not drive out of my way to see.  There are a few rare geese around the area this year, so I have to go see them.  You know that the other contestants are going to see them, so I have to see them too.  What a pain (it's only Jan 20th and already I'm typing "what a pain"). I planned this day around a hockey game in Bridgewater NJ to try to get one or more of the "weird" geese. 

Greater White-fronted, Barnacle, Cackling and Pink-footed (which Lori and I saw in Nov but doesn't count unless I see one in 2013) are the weird geese that we were after. We didn't get any of them.  In fact, there were barely any geese anywhere that we looked this morning. We drove around and around and only saw a few groups of geese. We did see some ducks and a Red-throated Loon on Lake Assunpink.  After a few hours, we decided to go see the Northern Lapwings since Di and Barbara hadn't seen them yet and the light was so much better today.  I'm glad that we saw the Lapwings again because the light really showed how iridescent they are.  The birds were way in the back of the field as usual, so the photos are brighter but still grainy due to the distance.

Northern Lapwing
 Here is a view showing how far away the birds were, but even more interesting was how they were not spooked by the cows.  That big steer came pretty close to the Lapwing and that bird didn't budge.

Northern Lapwings and Cows
Di and Barbara gave up after this and I headed north for an hour to play hockey. We won 3-0. I didn't score but I had an assist which counts as a point on the score sheet. 

The bigger news is that I went to the Lyons VA Hospital grounds after the game which was about 15 minutes from the rink and got the Greater White-fronted Goose!  I parked in the golf course parking lot (yes, the vets have a golf course) and started scanning the geese in the field.  It took all of 3 minutes for me to find the odd ball. It was directly in front of me!  The photo isn't great but you can clearly see that this is NOT a Canada goose.The Greater White-fronted is also a life bird for me, so a double win there.

Greater White-fronted Goose
Of course, as I write this I am reading reports from other birders that they saw the Barnacle goose at Spruce Run Reservoir which I drove right past on my home because it was dark (aaarrggghhhh). 

Friday, January 18, 2013

Big Year Coming Up

Birders are nuts. You already know that because you read this blog and/or you are a nutty birder.  Us birders can be loosely labeled as "Listers", "Birdwatchers", "Photographers", a combination, or none of the above.  For a long time, I referred to myself as a "birdwatcher" since I would go out birding but also look at other things and not obsessively chase after stuff.  I would refer to myself as a "photographer" since I usually carry the camera and try to photo document our sightings.  I would consider myself a casual "lister" since I enter my sightings into eBird and I like to keep a tally of the total number of birds that I have seen (732, by the way). 

This year, I am taking it to a whole new level - "Nut Job".  This year, I am doing a "Big Year" by taking part in the DVOC Billings Big Year contest.  To win the contest, you need to see more birds than anyone else in the contest.  You can only count birds seen in the DVOC area which is basically the Delaware Valley.  All birds must be seen in 2013.  The prize is a whopping $200, but it also gives the winner bragging rights.  I do not foresee winning the contest but I think it will be fun to see if I can stay in the ballpark with the other contestants.  To give you an idea of the challenge, the 2011 winner was Mike Fritz (super birder) with 363 species. 2012's winner has not been announced yet. 

I had a total of 245 last year which included Arizona and California.  I have a long way to go for sure but I already have 84 species in January which includes the Northern Shrike that I posted last time and the 3 Northern Lapwings which I got to see yesterday in a muddy cow pasture in Jersey. 

Northern Lapwings are rare birds that are usually found in Europe. When they do show up in the U.S. they are almost always found north of Massachusetts which makes it even rarer that they would be in Jersey.  In addition to that, finding 3 together is unheard of!  Here is a photo of the nasty cow field taken with my iPhone.  The birds are in the photo but they are waaaay in the back. 

Cow Pasture with Lapwings
Here is a terrible photo of 2 Lapwings taken with my iPhone through Marty's scope.  Thank goodness Marty from the DVOC showed up with his scope or I would not have gotten to see the birds very well.

Northern Lapwings

I could kick myself for not shooting video of Roxy and her cow friend. The cow practically sprinted over to the fence when it saw Roxy and then stuck his head through the barbed wire to sniff her. It was pretty adorable. I also didn't have my camera with me since I dashed out of work early to get there. 

Anyway, I'll be counting on some of you to help me organize my craziness this year and go after birds that I need for my Big Year List.  I'll be counting on others for encouragement. But most of all, I hope that we can all have fun with it.  I'm off in search of weird geese and winter finches this weekend. Wish me luck.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Somewhat Busted Again

OK. I think I am over the disappointment of missing the Prairie Falcon again.  I have been birding, but have not been able to process photos or post due to overwhelming work schedule the past week or so.  Here is a quick recap of latest birding efforts:

I went to Tinicum on Thursday morning in an attempt to redeem myself from the Amish country bust.  There has been a Northern Shrike hanging around there for a month or so.  It took some time and alot of luck, but I did get the shrike.  Just as I was giving up to go to work, I happened to look over my shoulder, through the tangle of trees and vines that line the path and there it was - sitting on top of a thin stick just like a shrike is supposed to do.  I snapped a few terrible photos before it disappeared. Whew! Redemption! Bird # 731 for the life list.

Northern Shrike

Northern Shrike - cropped
 I also saw 3 American Tree Sparrows which is pretty unusual. I snapped these photos for proof in case anyone questions the report.  It's a shame that I didn't get a photo of the front to show the central breast spot.

American Tree Sparrow
 The second photo isn't very good but you can see 3 birds in it.
3 American Tree Sparrows

On Saturday, I dragged Diane and Barbara along to do the Mid Winter Bird Census at Pennypack Park. We were at it for hours and only got 28 species total.  We busted on owls again and really got steamed about it because I was sitting in my car at 6:30 AM listening for owls along Bloomfield Rd for 30 minutes.  I finally got out of the car and walked into the woods when it was light enough to see where I was going and here comes 3 birders out of the woods who said that they saw a Screech Owl moments earlier.  AARGH! I should have gone into the woods at 6:30.  The other bummer of the day was the weather which was overcast and damp, so no photos.

On Sunday, the same 3 of us headed to the shore in hopes of seeing a few rare species that had been reported all week. One is a Townsend's Warbler which is a western bird.  I have a pretty good photo of one from my trip to San Francisco last April  but no photo from yesterday. We did see the bird, but once again the weather did not cooperate for photo opp.  We did take a photo of the moment which I think is very interesting.  This is probably the first time in my birding life that there were so many women chasing this bird without any men in sight.  I only know 1 of the women in the photo and Di and Barbara aren't in it. That would make 7 women which is unusual.

Looking for the Townsend's Warbler
We were also looking for the Crested Caracara which we never did see.  We drove up and down Seashore Road. We stopped at the dump several times. We drove on dirt roads.  Never saw the bird - BUST.

Another cool thing that we saw on Sunday was 2 immature Bald Eagles trying to catch ducks on a lake on our way home.  We saw the commotion while doing 50 MPH around a bend.  I turned the truck around and got to see the eagles swooping down to the water while the Bufflehead ducks dove underwater to escape the talons.  The eagles never did catch a duck. They flew off to try their luck somewhere else.  Pretty neat though.

I don't know when my work schedule will calm down or when the sun will shine again, but I will try to get out and get some more photos soon.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Busted and Bitter About It!

Lori, Tara and I made the trip to Shippensburg again to try to see the Prairie Falcon that has been wintering there for the past several years.  You may remember that Lori and I busted on this last year.  Well, guess what? We busted again yesterday.  We saw lots of Amish buggies and bikers.  We saw lots of Red-tails and Kestrals. We saw a Turkey and and a Harrier.  We saw hundreds of pigeons and starlings. We even thought we saw the Prairie Falcon. But after reviewing the photos, we concluded that the bird we thought was the Prairie was probably another Kestral or something.  Sigh.  Busted.

Busting while chasing rare birds is nothing new to birders and to us.  We generally shrug it off and keep going however, sometimes I just get bitter about it. The bitter part comes in to play here for sure because as we were trolling around the Amish farm fields busting on the falcon, Di texts me with this photo of an adult Bald Eagle sitting in a tree at Lemon Hill - the same Lemon Hill where Roxy and I walk EVERY OTHER DAY OF THE YEAR! Yes, bitter about it.  This photo is taken with her iPhone for Pete's sake.  Bitter.

Adult Bald Eagle - Lemon Hill Phila.
So, I'm steaming mad the whole drive home (2 hours on the Turnpike) and then get an email from my mother asking" what kind of hawk is this in her backyard". She sends this photo of a Sharp-shinned Hawk taken with a point and shoot through the screened in lanai.  Ugh.  I'm really going to scream.

Sharp-shinned Hawk - Florida
Topping off the bitterness is the reports on the Internet this morning from a few other birders stating that they saw the Prairie Falcon yesterday on the same road that we were on for 4 hours.  We only saw one other guy looking for the bird and he said that he didn't see it.  Double Ugh!

I don't know if I'll get over this any time soon.  Of course, there was no sign of the Bald Eagle at Lemon Hill today either.  Don't try to console me either.  I just want to be bitter about it for awhile.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Happy 2013!

We went to Peace Valley Park (Lake Galena) on New Year's Day to find the Rough-legged Hawk that has been reported over the past few weeks. These hawks are rare in our area. They nest in the arctic tundra and winter in open fields usually north and west of PA. Bucks county would be at the southern edge of their wintering grounds.  They are not as plentiful as our regular Red-tailed Hawks anyway, so seeing one is noteworthy.

I am soooo glad that we made the trip. Di spotted a hawk in a tree almost immediately as we pulled into Sailor's Point parking area.  We got out to the truck and tried to get a view of the distant bird but poor Barbara is still on crutches so I told them to get back in the car so we could drive up the road a bit.  That was a lucky move on our part because the bird we were looking at was NOT the Rough-legged Hawk. How did we know? Because the Rough-legged Hawk met us at the top of the parking lot sitting in a tree about 20 yards from the entrance! WOW.

We stopped the car right on the road and watched the bird for a few seconds thinking for sure that it would fly off but it didn't.  Then, the weird part started happening - cars, trucks, bikers, and joggers went past this bird at varying speeds. The jogger even stopped to look at the bird while jogging in place. The bird didn't flinch. It didn't care one lick about the people and vehicles. It just sat there on its branch looking for rodents in the field.  I got out of the truck and snapped a bunch of photos while standing at the driver's door.  Then, I followed a few bikers up the road another 30 yards to get a different angle. The bird didn't care.  I loaned the bikers my binoculars so that they could get a better look at the bird.

You can tell immediately that this bird is different.  No other hawk in our area has this black belly and lighter chest. The first photo is full frame (not cropped at all) so that you can see how close we were to this hawk. Mind you, we were ON THE ROAD. We didn't venture into the woods chasing it.

Rough-legged Hawk
Occasionally, the bird would look right at us like in the photo below.
Rough-legged Hawk
This next photo really shows the reason for the name "rough-legged".  These hawks live in the tundra, so they need extra protection from the cold. They have feathers all the way down their legs to the feet just like Snowy Owls and Ptarmigans to keep the heat in.  Check out those white spats.
Rough-legged Hawk - cropped
Just after that photo was taken, the bird took off and landed right in front of me and the bikers in the grass.  It was trying to catch a meal. It stomped around in the grass trying to feel a vole of something.  Again, un-phased by us humans standing 10 yards away gawking at it.  The next photo shows the under-side of the wing pretty well.

Rough-legged Hawk

Rough-legged Hawk
 The next photo shows the hawk just before it took off and landed in another tree right above the road. 
Rough-legged Hawk

Cars and trucks drove right under the hawk as it sat there. Barely 6 feet separated the top of the truck and the hawk's tail feathers. I couldn't resist snapping this next photo from the sunroof as we drove under the hawk!

Rough-legged Hawk - from truck sunroof
A New Year's event to remember!  The only regret from the day was that it was super overcast which makes the photos kink of gray. On the plus side, I like the snow in the background when the hawk is on the ground.