Monday, May 31, 2010

A day on the Piedmont

Yesterday I felt like a change of pace and drove NW through Carroll Co. and into the Northern part of Frederick Co. in search of upland birds. The farm country up there is very picturesque, with small freshwater ponds amongst the grazing fields, and small streams and river valleys lined with riparian vegetation cutting through the crop fields. The avian fauna is quite distinct from that on the coastal plain, with American Kestrels perched on phonelines, pairs of Red-tailed Hawks soaring over their territories, Warbling Vireos singing along the streams, and Bobolinks displaying over the hay fields. Best birds of the day were a Red-headed Woodpecker perched on a utility pole in a field, 3 singing Dickcissels (year bird # 316!) and a Vesper Sparrow perched on a utility line.From the top: Red-tailed Hawk, Dickcissel, and Bobolink.
Some other common roadside birds were
Eastern Kingbird (above) and Barn Swallow (below):

Delaware Bay May 26: Part II

After completing the wildlife drive loop at Bombay Hook, I headed back south past Port Mahon to the Dupont Nature Center at Mispillion point. This is traditionally one of the best gathering points for shorebirds on the Delaware side of the bay, and that held true today as well. The beaches surrounding the inlet hosted several hundred Red Knots (perhaps thousands), Dunlins, Semipalmated SP, Turnstones, Dowitchers, and Black-bellied Plovers. I was joined by many other birders viewing the spectackle, and particularly enjoyed the company of a birding couple visiting from Kentucky. They had just spent nearly two weeks at Magee Marsh in Ohio during the peak of warbler migration and could not praise this birding hotspot enough!While we stood at the viewing platform chatting, I spotted a fly-by Black Skimmer and shortly after I detected a first-summer Lesser Black-backed Gull swimming amongst the many Ring-billed, Laughing and Herring Gulls. A Royal Tern rested for a minute on the dock pilings:
At a creek near the Dupont Center I spotted several Clapper Rails scurrying around in the mud. While sitting on a rock waiting for a rail to come closer, a Seaside Sparrow decided to take a bath in a tiny pool of water right next to me:
My final destination of the day was Fowler's Beach, part of the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. Rumors were that a recent storm had made significant damage to the sand dunes, placing the protected brackish inland lake in direct contact with the sea through an inlet dug out by the storm waves. What was at first considered an ecological disaster may turn out to be a beneficial change of the habitat, because most of the dune sand had been pushed inland to form a sand bar in the shallow brackish pool now the home of a huge colony of Least Terns! I counted at least 76 individuals sitting, most in pairs, with a steady stream of birds flying in and out of the inlet bringing food to their mates: The sandbars in the pool also functioned as a roost for resting terns and shorebirds, with several hundred Red Knots (above), Sanderlings, Black Skimmers, Forster's and Royal Terns, a Common Tern and an extremely late migrant Bonaparte's Gull!

A great day to be out:o)

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Delaware Bay May 26: Part I

My trip to Delaware Bay got delayed a few days, but probably for the better as the shorebird numbers were predicted to peak in close synchrony with the peaking horseshoe crab spawning this week leading up to the full moon on Friday. The perfect weather conditions Tuesday night tempted me to try for Black Rails at Elliott's Island Rd. in Dorchester Co., Maryland so I got up at 1:30AM in order to arrive at the saltmarshes well before dawn. I arrived at 3:45AM and was greeted by a calling Barn Owl, Chuck-will's-Widows, Marsh Wrens, Saltmarsh and Seaside Sparrows, Willets and Black-necked Stilts. The frog chorus was quite ear-deafening but no Black Rails were to be heard. Only rail heard during an hour was a single Virginia Rail. Perhaps the near-full moon lighting up the marshes kept the rails quiet?I had a long day ahead of me so I headed NE and arrived at Port Mahon, Delaware shortly after 6AM. I was delighted to see hoards of shorebirds feasting on plenty crab eggs. Many horseshoe crabs were stranded between the boulders filled along the shore to protect the road from erosion and I joined the many bird enthusiasts in helping them back into the safety of the bay. Semipalmated Sandpipers, Ruddy Turnstones and Dunlins dominated the flocks of shorebirds, with a few Short-billed Dowitchers, Willets and Least Sandpipers mixed in. I only found a single! Red Knot and to my surprise a fly-by American Avocet!Next stop was Bombay Hook NWR, where the freshwater pools were dominated by Egrets and Glossy Ibises, Black-necked Stilts (1 female on nest), about 20 American Avocets, several hundred Black-bellied Plovers, Semipalmated Plovers, Dunlins and least Sandpipers.Snowy Egret (above) and Great Egret (below): Highlights were 2 Am. golden-plovers, and a White-rumped Sandpiper. Clapper Rails, Willets, Marsh Wrens and Seaside Sparrows were singing all over the saltmarshes:
Swamp Sparrow:Seaside Sparrow (above) and Marsh Wren (below):
Black-necked Stilt (above) and Black-bellied Plover (below):More will follow soon!

Friday, May 21, 2010

There's gold in them thar marshes

The next warbler on my hit list was Prothonotary Warbler, so the target area this morning was the Halethorpe Farms Ponds along the lower Patapsco River. I was not disappointed! As soon as I stepped into the woods between pond #5 and the river I heard a male singing on the opposite (Anne Arundel Co.) side. A second male held a territory by the creek draining the pond into the river and offered a few photo opportunities. While watching the Protho I noticed a lot of warbler activity in the canopies. Turned out they were almost all female Blackpolls, with a few Redstarts mixed in. Also heard a couple N. Waterthrushes chipping in the wet woodlands. On the exposed mudflats at the eastern end of the pond, I counted 7 Spotted Sandpipers, 4 Least Sandpipers and a Killdeer. Two Ospreys were seen fishing around the pond. The third Prothonotary Warbler I heard singing by the pond near the western shore was busy mate-guarding his female on her foraging trips. Nearby, a pair of American Redstarts had set up shop. By adding Warbling Vireo to my yearlist I passed 300 species in the US this year!
Spotted Sandpiper (above) and Yellow Warbler (below):A handsome American Redstart

Tomorrow I am heading out to Delaware Bay to witness the shorebird feeding frenzy on horseshoe crab eggs. I hope to get some shooting done before the forecasted thunderstorms set in.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Patapsco strikes again

With a recent report of Kentucky Warblers, I visited the Henryton Area of Patapsco Valley State Park this morning. The weather was nice and cool with high song activity in the woods. Clearly, a new wave of Blackpoll Warblers is upon us because the whole forest was buzzing with their thin monotonous "tze-tze-tze" notes today. But they were almost matched by the short spinning songs of BAY-BREASTED WARBLERS. I made a conservative estimate of 7! singing males on my 3/4 mile long walk upstream along the river. Along the trail I flushed Belted Kingfishers, a drake Wood Duck, Solitary Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper, Pileated Woodpeckers, Swainson's Thrush, Wood Thrush, Veery, and finally a pair of KENTUCKY WARBLERS!!This was only my third encounter with this super-skulky Forest-Interior species. Waterthrushes of both species were also out in force today, but of course dominated by the local Louisianas.
Swainson's Thrush (above) and White-breasted Nuthatch (below):
I was also fortunate enough to get some decent shots of a beautiful male Baltimore Oriole in the Sycamore trees lining the river banks:

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Just another day at school.....

Okay - a quick stop at Pigpen Pond at UMBC campus on my way to the lab turned into 3 hours heading in and 1 1/2 hours on my way home.... There was a nice group of warblers hanging out by the creek running next to the pond and at the pond I was greeted by an adult Yellow-crowned Night-Heron:)
I have had Alder Flycatchers at this location during spring migration previous years, but never have I had 3 on the same day! They were singing their hearts out around the pond and in the dense edge vegetation along the creek.Of the ten warbler species seen, the 3 Wilson's Warblers were the highlights but a Canada Warbler, 4 singing N. Waterthrushes and several Blackpoll Warblers were also entertaining.
Female Wilson's Warbler (above) and Northern Waterthrush (below):Female Northern Parula and Magnolia Warbler (above), male and female Blackpoll Warbler (below):
Of other co-operative birds were:
Eastern Kingbird (above) and male American Goldfinch (below):Second-year male Baltimore Oriole:
May RULES!!!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Time to refresh ID key on "wood-thrushes"

With the recent influx of migrant thrushes across the Mid-Atlantic region it is time to revisit the ID key to distinguish these similar and skulky birds. As such, the photos below are not chosen for their wow-factor, but because they show important identifying features and reflect typical conditions under which these mostly groud-dwelling birds are often encountered and ID'd.I will examine each species in the order at which they arrive on spring migration. The earliest arriving Catharus thrush is the Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus):First, the tail and rump are the most most brightly colored parts of the bird contrasting against a rather dull gray-brown back.Next, they have a narrow white eye-ring surrounded by washed-out gray cheeks and heavily spotted breast.
The second species to arrive is the Wood thrush (Hylocicla mustelina):In addition to its much larger and bulkier body, the most striking feature of a Wood Thrush is that the neck is the most brightly colored body part. The golden neck stands out against the otherwise uniform rufous brown crown, back, wings and tail.
This photo shows the boldly spotted bright white underside contrasting against the rufous brown upper parts.
Third species to arrive, usually overlapping with lingering Hermit Thrushes is the Veery (Catharus fuscescens):With a bright rufous back it superficially resembles a Wood thrush and when seen from behind it could also be confused with a Hermit thrush. However, there is no contrast in color between crown, back, rump and tail and when viewed from the side or front (as shown here) you'll notice the nearly complete lack of spots on the breast. Typically, only a few brown streaks or spots can be discerned on the buffish or rufous colored upper breast.
Next to arrive are the three most northern species, the most numerous of which is the Swainson's Thrush (Catharus ustulatus):
The Swainson's thrush is best identified by its bold, buffish eye-ring on a warm buffish cheek and olive-brown upper parts.
Like the Hermit Thrush they have bold spots on the upper breast, but the spots do not stand out as contrasting against the more buff throat and upper breast.
Mixed in with the flocks of Swainson's Thrushes and typically occurring in a 1:10 ratio is the Gray-cheeked Thrush (Catharus minimus):
The best distinguishing feature of this species is an overall featureless appearance, lacking bold eye-ring and any warm rufous coloration. Seen from below they are inseparable from a Swainson's Thrush, but from the side the lack of eye-ring and gray cheek is diagnostic. They also have colder gray upper parts compared to Swainson's thrush and the last species in the group; the rare Bicknell's Thrush (Catharus bicknelli). Unfortunately, I have not acquired any photos of this species yet. It is supposed to display a warmer more rufous coloration to the wings, rump and flanks compared to Gray-cheeked Thrush. However, there is much overlap in plumage between these two species and they can only be safely distinguished by song and call vocalizations. They are passing through the Mid-Atlantic region as I write so pay close attention to the calls of any Gray-cheeked Thrushes. Many birdwatchers have successfully confirmed their identity by testing their response to limited playback of both Gray-cheeked and Bicknell's vocalizations.