Thursday, October 22, 2015

Birds in a Changing World: Killing Birds: Invasive species in Hawaii

Hawaii is a tough place to go birding, as I found out while visiting the U.S. extinction capital to present at a conference.
Read about it at Birds in a Changing World

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Gambling on a Gambel's Sparrow

Yesterday I was helping band birds with Natalia out at a beautiful Piedmont Prairie restoration site near the Uwharrie National Forest, when we caught a White-crowed Sparrow.

White-crownes aren't all that common in North Carolina, so getting to catch and handle one was an exciting diversion from the hordes of Song and Field Sparrows. But something about this bird made it a little bit extra special:

White-crowned Sparrow
Can you see it?

The lores (space between the eye and bill) are pale, when they -should- be filled with a black line connecting the black of the broken eye ring to the black crown stripe at the base of the upper mandible. At least that's how birds in the east, belonging to the nominate subspecies, leucophrys, are supposed to look.

Here's an example of a typical eastern adult.

Sibley illustrates this difference in his Second Edition and provides some detailed commentary about the five subspecies on his website:

The bird we caught looks like a good candidate for the Western Taiga (Gambel's) White-crowned Sparrow, which might be a rare find in North Carolina. The Birds of North Carolina: their Distribution and Abundance website lists just two prior records: a specimen collected from the mountains in late Oct. 1932, and a report of one at a feeder near the coast on the odd date (for an overwintering species) of July 14, 2007.

But a quick perusal of the Carolina Bird Club photo gallery turns up several examples of birds that might make decent Gambel's, or at least east-west intergrade, candidates.  See here, here, here, here, and here.

Sibley, further discusses the distribution of winter subspecies and observes that pale-lored White-crowns are found in the east far more frequently than we should expect given what we know about the north-south orientation of Gambel's migration. He laments that... "it just doesn’t seem like these birds should show up in the east more often than, say, Harris’s Sparrow."

North Carolina has 9 records of Harris's Sparrow.  How many Gambel's-looking White-crowned Sparrow records would their be if birders were looking out for them and reporting them?

Some of the comments below Sibley's post suggest that up to 10% of wintering White-crowns appear to be Gambel's type in Southern New England, so perhaps the little sparrow we caught isn't quite so unexpected.

If we take a closer look at those lores, you can just make out a hint of blackness to the feathering.

OK.  How about an even closer look.

Could this bird be from the intergrade zone between leucophrys and gambeli?

This bird wintering in Los Angeles certainly seems to lack even this hint of black and is probably a good standard for 'pure' gambeli.

Gambel's White-crowned Sparrow, Los Angeles, CA
Heck the front of the eye ring isn't even broken and the bill looks way more yellow-orange (rather than pink-orange).

Wherever the bird we caught came from and whatever subspecies to which it may belong, it's fun to discover that there's still so much we don't understand about relatively common and well-known North American birds.

What do you think of this bird?  Would you bet on Gambeli? Third North Carolina report?

Sunday, August 23, 2015

A pair of boobies off Hatteras

This weekend was Natalia's first time officially spotting on a pelagic.  While she performed admirably for a couple days out in the Gulf Stream aboard the Stormy Petrel II, a sexier pair of boobies ended up stealing the show. 

You never know what to expect when rolling the dice on a pelagic trip, or hell, in birding anywhere, but on Friday's trip we encountered something unprecedented.  We first spotted a distant sulid--a young Brown Booby, which uncooperatively picked up and flew away from the boat. Not 15 minutes later as we were creeping up on a flock of sitting shearwaters I heard Brian's voice over the radio urging us to look at the "big white bird in the middle."

Masked Booby with Cory's Shearwaters

This booby was far more friendly than its Brown cousin and seemed content to preen with its shearwater friends while we ogled from close range.

Masked Booby

It looked like it was molting into its first set of adult or near-adult feathers, giving it a bit of a mud-spattered look. 

Masked Booby
The mud-spattered thoughts were too offensive and off it flew.

Masked Booby
With two boobies around and the hot, still weather, it was feeling like the Caribbean out there, so not surprising that Bridled Terns also put in a good showing.

Bridled Tern
Otherwise, the weekend provided the usual summer pelagic species found off Hatteras.

Great Shearwaters
Cory's Shearwater (with Masked Booby)

A north wind turned the ocean into a roller coaster on Saturday which brought a lot more Black-capped Petrels in close to the boat.

I rate myself a pretty lousy sea bird photographer and this pic captures my lack of skill, while at the same time the Black-capped Petrel essence.  They're so fast it's all I can do to keep one in frame!

Black-capped Petrel - has places to go
The Saturday trip also offered some good looks at Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, which we missed entirely on Friday.

Thanks to Brian Patteson and Kate Sutherland for organizing the trips and making it a fun weekend.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Three more NC birds with one stone

Last post I said this would never happen again: three NC birds ticked in one day.  Yet, here we are just a couple months later and its deja vu with the blog titles.

North Carolina birders had been bemoaning a relatively long drought of exciting chase-able rarities.  Such negative feelings apparently made an impression upon the birding gods, which conjured in relatively short succession a couple of cooperative mind-bogglers (1st and 5th state records).

So the day began innocently enough.  Natalia and I set off after work toward Grandfather Mountain for a leisurely mountain chase trip.  But as we were passing through Burlington I got word of a Western Kingbird just 15 minutes north of Winston-Salem.

Within an hour I was staring at a NC bird that had many times eluded me--what birders would call a nemesis bird.

Western Kingbird, First Forsyth County Record (and an odd NC record for mid-august)

August is an especially weird time for one of these western vagrants to show up.  October would be typical and they are far more frequently found along the coast.

Western Kingbird, Forsyth County, NC

After Natalia and I watched this odd kingbird zip out of sight behind a barn, there were no subsequent sightings that afternoon or the following day.  A less-than one-day wonder.  And finally a WEKI that let me see it before vanishing.

After a night camping in the mountains near Boone, we were up early to be one of the first to enter Grandfather Mountain.  After a short wait at the iconic Swinging Bridge we were greeted by North Carolina's 1st documented Townsend's Solitaire.

Townsend's Solitaire, Grandfather Mountain, NC
August was a weird time for this bird to show up here.  Typically when this atypical species is discovered as an East Coast vagrant, it's the dead of winter.

Townsend's Solitaire, Grandfather Mountain, NC

Grandfather Mountain executive director, Jesse Pope is a keen birder and has been all over this bird and keeping Carolina Birders appraised of its comings and goings (Curtis Smalling of Audubon North Carolina was the original finder).  Jesse says it has been very loyal to the patch of spruce trees in the vicinity of the swinging bridge.  Could the bridges squeaks, reminiscent of solitaire song, have called it over to NC from the western mountains of its home range?

As a bonus, the spruce cones at Grandfather have produced a bumper crop this season, setting up prime conditions for viewing the elusive and erratic Appalachian Red Crossbill.

Red Crossbill, Grandfather Mountain, NC

These birds' specially evolved crossed bill used for prying open cones are an evolutionary fascination.

Red Crossbills, Grandfather Mountain, NC

This was a lifer for Natalia as well.

Since things had been going so smoothly, we decided to swing by upper Lake Norman on our way back east to try and catch up with NC's 5th Limpkin record.  We had to rent a kayak and paddle a couple miles upstream to get to the muddy cove it has been haunting the past couple weeks.

Thankfully our blistered fingers and paddle-sore shoulders were not in vain and this Floridian beauty made a show of bashing open mussels right before our eyes.

Limpkin, Iredell County, NC

I had always thought that the limited range of large snails (i.e. Apple Snails) is what limited the extent of Limpkins in the US, but this lost individual has apparently been subsisting on mussels for some time.

Limpkin, Iredell County, NC

Another pair of birders was out kayaking to see the Limpkin this day and the owner of Long Island Paddle Sports called the bird a 'godsend' for all the business it has brought him.  He joked about importing flamingoes so he could enjoy another birder bump.

Limpkin, Iredell County, NC

Speaking of birder bumps, the one at Grandfather over the past few days has been substantial.  Jesse estimated at least 100 birders have visited specifically to see the first state record Townsend's Solitaire.  At $20 per head entrance fee, that's not an insignificant windfall for the non-profit.  It will continue to balloon as long as the bird continues to stay faithful to its copse of spruce by the bridge.

For me, this trio of unexpected birds was a personal windfall of sorts.  Not that I expect the checks to begin showing up in the mail, but if new NC birds keep coming in threes maybe one day I'll crack 400. 

Friday, June 12, 2015

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Three NC birds with one stone

Natalia and I had a little getaway to Wilmington last weekend and took the opportunity to follow up on some unusual birds that have been hanging around southeastern North Carolina.

Shortly after dipping on Swallow-tailed Kites a few years ago with Nate Swick, the species was finally confirmed to be breeding in the Cape Fear River floodplain forest just below Lock and Dam #1.  Since they seem to be spreading northward, I figured they would get easier and easier each year.  At long last my patience has paid off.

Swallow-tailed Kite, above US-87, NC

We had our first sighting at the intersection of US-11 and US-87 as one cruised over the road in front of us.  We called Mark K., who, also searching for kites, was waiting for us to meet him about 5 miles further down the road.  This kite had vanished over the trees, so we decided to continue on to our rendezvous.
But we had only made it a quarter mile before two more kites crossed the road.  We pulled off at the first opportunity, a church parking lot, and were treated with the spectacle of eight (8!) Swallow-tailed Kites circling over our heads

I managed to get four out of eight Swallow-tailed Kites in one frame

I've seen these beautiful kites in Florida, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Colombia where they are common, but they are relative new-comers to NC. 

Only three Swallow-tailed Kites in this capture, but gives a nice perspective on how high they sometimes soar.  Also notice the middle-distance bird in the bottom left is molting flight feathers and has a much shorter tail.  Immature or molting adult?

Poor Mark arrived on the scene just after the kites had vanished.  We dallied around for 20 minutes in vain and then continued on to our original destination, an abandoned Monk Parakeet nest where kites had been seen earlier in the day.

We didn't see any kites, but where pleasantly surprised to see a pair of "Quaker birds," as they are called in pet store parlance, adding twigs to the nest.

Monk Parakeets, Northwest, NC

Monk Parakeets are native to southern South America, but are commonly owned as pets. Escapees have established large populations in the US--and not just in South Florida, but in northern cities as well.  Breeding in NC has been documented sporadically since the 1970s.

Monk Parakeet, Northwest, NC

According to locals, this pair has been in residence for a few years, but has yet to successfully fledge any chicks.  Apparently European Starlings (another exotic species, ironically) have taken to feeding on parakeet eggs.

We cruised around a bit longer with Mark hoping to lend him some of our Swallow-tailed Kite juju, but after a short, unsuccessful while we parted ways.  We wanted to get to the beach with time to see one more odd bird.  This one was over from across the pond, rather than from down south.

A Black-headed Gull had been hanging around Mason Inlet at the north end of Wrightsville Beach.  It turned out to be a real bird-chasers bird: sitting in plain sight in exactly the expected location.

Black-headed Gull, Mason Inlet, NC

These gulls are super common over in Europe and wander over the North America regularly, but this is the first one in a few years to be found in NC and then stick around for lots of birders to see.

Some may debate the "countability" of Monk Parakeet, but that quibble aside, it was cool to add three species to my NC in one day!  That hasn't happened since a pelagic I took in 2012. And I only added 5 species in all of 2014. So I don't ever expect to have such a day in this state ever again.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Birding North America's Deep End

Any serious ABA-area lister with the stomach for pelagic birding has to make at least one pilgrimage to Cape Hatteras to venture offshore with Brian Patteson.  Hatteras provides convenient access to gulf stream waters and continental shelf break, with unparalleled opportunities for deep Atlantic Ocean bird species unlikely to be encountered anywhere else in North America.

The best chance to see the most elusive target species lies at the end of May when Brian runs his 'spring blitz,' with 11 consecutive trips.  It represents a sort of mecca for elite North American birders.  The Attu guides with decades of Alaska vagrant-hunting under their belts come out here year after year, hoping for a mega-rarity or a better look at the mega-rarity they glimpsed on a previous trip.  One Canadian birder on board was sheepish about his ABA list of 'only' ~750.  Another birder in town from Montana signed up for all 11 trips, hoping to sweep the table of rarities in one season.  Other birders had arrived from Oregon, the British Isles and Austria, all well-seasoned twitchers keen for a rare chance to tick multiple life birds in a few days.

I enthusiastically took the opportunity to spot on the first three trips of this season.  I've done plenty of spotting aboard the Stormy Petrel II, but this was my first time at it in May and under such pressure to perform.  Luckily Brian and his first mate, Kate Sutherland do all the heavy lifting, and I had the sharp eyes and big lens of Mike Lanzone to help carry the spotting burden. 

Day one was Pomarine Jaeger day.  I'm not sure how many crossed our path throughout the day, but there was almost always one trailing the boat, taking futile swings at the scurrying Wilson's Storm-Petrels and dipping into the wake for chum.
Pomarine Jaeger

Pomarine Jaeger

Pomarine Jaeger and Wilson's Storm-Petrels

Every now and again one would make a low pass over the bow just out of arms reach.
Pomarine Jaeger

The biggest surprise of the day was a young Bridled Tern loafing around on flotsam.  Spring is the breeding season for this species, so they are rather uncommon offshore until late summer. 

young Bridled Tern

Day 2 was another big one for kleptoparasitic species.  We had a couple Parasitic Jaegers around the boat and then a pair of friendly South Polar Skuas.  It was wild watching the Black-capped Petrels divebomb these birds.

Parasitic Jaeger (dark morph)
South Polar Skua

Just after the first of the dark Parasitic Jaegers appeared, a second odd dark bird showed up, but this one was a pterodroma--a Trindade Petrel!  This is one of the rare gadfly petrels that we hope to see.

Several Arctic Terns braved our attendant skuas and jaegers and fed in the wake, giving close enough looks for all to tell them apart from the similar Common Terns which were also seen frequently. 

Arctic Tern

A few Arctic Terns had been recently blown onto shore in North Carolina by the passing of a tropical storm.  I hadn't been able to chases these birds, so was glad to see them offshore and add them to my list.  Apparently all you need to see them out on a pelagic in May is a bit of an easterly breeze.

Arctic Tern

The east wind also seemed to bring out the Leech's and Band-rumped Storm-Petrels.  We saw several of each on our second day.

On Day 3 a front arrived bringing much cooler weather and winds out of the north.  This seemed to blow away the jaegers and skuas and most of the storm-petrels, but there seemed to be just as many Black-capped Petrels around, so we had a mind for pterodromas.

We had more arctic terns and the usual assortment of Sooty, Cory's and Audubon's Shearwaters--seen each day so far.  But other than a few tantalizingly brief and/or distant glimpses of Trindade Petrel our day was looking to be a bit of a bust.  But at 1:30, just as we were about to begin our run back to shore Brian shouted, "Fea's Petrel four o'clock!" In zipped a gray-backed petrel with dark underwings bouncing in and out of the swell.  For a panicked few moments we shouted instructions on its rapid movements.  It disappeared in the chum slick for a few moments before taking off again.  I watched it bound off into the distance.  It would appear above the horizon slightly smaller after each successive arc until it became a small dot and then disappeared. 

Sometimes it takes some quick reflexes and sharp eyes to catch a glimpse of the rare petrels.  When they come in to the boat they don't often stick around and pose for photos and are then miles away again in a moment.  It boggles the mind to think of the hours of preparation and effort that go into an outside chance of a brief view of these elusive birds.  I had been out on many pelagic trips out of Hatteras and until this moment Fea's Petrel had eluded me.

(the not-at-all rare, but crowd-pleasingly cute) Wilson's Storm-Petrel

If you fancy your odds make sure to book in advance as the spring blitz trips always fill in a hurry.  See for more information.  For far superior photos of some of these birds by Mike Lanzone and Kate Sutherland's accounts, see the seabirding blog: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3.

For the first time on a pelagic, I followed ebird's suggestion of submitting a new checklist every so often while offshore.  I found this to be rather tedious at first, but it has its rewards.  Now I have a better understanding of the route we actually take on this trip.

eBird GPS fixes outlining the teardrop-shaped pelagic route

I was surprised to find that a few of the points outside the inlet actually landed in what ebird considers to be Hyde County, so I got a few unexpected county ticks for my trouble (Arctic Tern and three shearwater species). 

Monday, March 23, 2015

Yeah, Mon... Jamaican Birds

Jamaica doesn't have much of a reputation as a birding destination, which is a real shame, since the lush Caribbean island is home to 30 endemics (depending on how you split them and/or declare them extinct).

Red-billed (morph?) of the Streamertail (a.k.a "Doctorbird," Jamaica's National Bird), Blue Mountains

With round-trip flights to Kingston for $350, Natalia and I simply couldn't afford not to head to Jamaica for some spring break birding.

Jamaican Woodpecker, Blue Mountains

We started in the Blue Mountains, famous for coffee.  Areas suitable for coffee production (wet, mountainous, second growth) are always good for birding and the Blue Mountains were no exception.

Jamaican Tody, Blue Mountains

We spotted 15 endemic species (half!) in the first fantastic couple hours.  We were elated, and then began to worry that we had made a mistake in hiring a guide.

Jamaican Euphonia, Blue Mountains

It turns out that birding Jamaica is really, really easy...especially compared to the neighboring island of Hispaniola, where a third of the endemics are nocturnal, hyper-local, endangered and/or undergrowth skulkers.

Jamaican Oriole, Blue Mountains

Lyndon Johnson's (our guide, not the former US president) laconic attitude reflected the low-difficulty birding.  He arrived 15 minutes late to meet us, and then by 10 am when we had exhausted our opportunities for lifers in the Blue Mountains showed no interest in joining us for additional birding at a more distant location that afternoon.

Jamaican Pewee, Blue Mountains

So we continued on our own down the north slope of the Blue Mountains to the seaside town of Port Antonio.

Jamaican Vireo, Blue Mountains

Lyndon met us again the next morning to lead us to Jamaica's #1 birding site: Ecclesdown Road.

View from Ecclesdown Road

This narrow road follows a hill slope giving views off one side into tree tops and valley as it winds through wet foothill forest.  The topography is ideal for excellent viewing of forest birds, which are everywhere.  Fully 100% of the non-extinct endemic species can be found at this site alone and we managed to score all the ones we needed in just a few hours (those pictured and discussed below, plus: Jamaican Crow, Yellow-billed Parrot and Black-billed Parrot). 

Once again, by noon we seemed to be out of birds to see.  We asked Lyndon about White-tailed Tropicbirds, but rather than show us the spot, he gave us vague directions and went on his way.  When we tried to follow up on his tropicbird tip a couple days later we ended up lost and asking a lot of strange bird questions to bemused rural Jamaicans, who probably didn't know the difference between a tropicbird and a pelican.

Oh well.

The exception to the EasyEndemics rule in Jamaica are Crested Quail-Dove, Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo, Jamaican Blackbird and Jamaican Owl.

The Quail-Dove was the only one of the four that we might not have seen without Lyndon's help.  He showed us a trail off the road in the Blue Mountains where a couple can be seen foraging in the leaf litter. We got great looks at these and then after returning to the road flushed a third up into a branch where it sat dumbly for a solid minute.

The Jamaican Blackbird is supposed to be one of the hardest birds, but we saw a few each of the three days we spent birding in appropriate (wet forest) habitat.  Don't be fooled by it's mundane appearance, this is a bad-ass bird that has evolved to fill the empty niche left by the lack of foliage-gleaners and woodcreepers in Jamaica.  It can be seen gleaning the moss-covered branches or heard thrashing around inside large bromeliads.

Jamaican Blackbird, Ecclesdown Road

The Jamaican-Lizard Cuckoo eluded us until we saw 4 at Ecclesdown Road.

Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo (family-friendly view), Ecclesdown Road

Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo (cloaca view), Ecclesdown Road

The final endemic we ticked was the Jamaican Owl, which roosts in a tree at Frenchman's Cove just up the road from Port Antonio.  Lyndon had no backup plans for this species, so we were relieved to see it in its usual spot on our second try.

Jamaican Owlinator (you have been owlinated), Frenchman's Cove

Halfway through day three and we had all the endemics in the bag, so we rewarded ourselves with a couple relaxing beach days at the paradise of Frenchman's Cove.  This place is a gem. The body surfing might possibly be the best in the world.

To top it off we saw a beautiful White-tailed Tropicbird flying around outside the mouth of the cove.  Awesome!  Goes to show that sometimes its best to let the birds come rather than go chase. This is especially true in Jamaica.

After a couple days in paradise we reluctantly pried ourselves away to return to the Kingston area and bird the inauspiciously-named Hellshire Hills.  The desert scrub here hosts a completely different bird community, including our target, the Bahama Mockingbird.

Bahama Mockingbird, Hellshire

The mockingbirds were mercifully easy and we were able to leave the hills before the hellish heat got too bad.

Bahama Mockingbirds, Hellshire
Yes, while all the birds that begin with "Jamaican" are endemic to Jamaica, it turns out Bahama Mockingbird can be found outside the Bahamas...

We got our final lifer of the trip in Hope Gardens in Kingston.  Ricardo Miller, the owner of Arrowhead Tours, who set us up with Lyndon, gave us some tips on where he had recently found a couple Northern Potoos roosting here.

Northern Potoo, Hope Gardens


In the end we probably could have seen all the endemics without guidance.  Possible exceptions were the Crested Quail-Dove, the Jamaican Becard and Jamaican Elaenia.  The Becard and Elaenia we only encountered once each and were able to see because Lyndon recognized their respective calls and pointed them out. 

Lyndon also showed us a pair of Caribbean Doves at the Crested Quail-Dove spot.  The doves aren't endemic, but have a small range and are shy and uncommon in Jamaica, so this was a nice bonus.

Speaking of doves, you may as well call Jamaica the 'island of the doves," because it hosts such an abundance and diversity of Columbids.  We saw 9 species of pigeony-dove-type-things.

White-crowned Pigeons clamored around in the treetops of urban Port Antonio

White-crowned Pigeon, Hope Gardens

And the endemic Ring-tailed Pigeons were practically raining from the sky along Ecclesdown Road.

Ring-tailed Pigeons (Jamaica endemic), Blue Mountains

We had to be careful not to trip over Zenaida Doves in Hope Gardens.

Zenaida Dove, Hope Gardens

We also saw a couple Ruddy Quail-Doves at Ecclesdown Road, but we dipped on Mourning Dove--an unbearable tragedy.

Spring migrants are starting to show up in North Carolina now, but there were plenty of warblers still laying about in the Caribbean (we got 12 species) where they compliment their endemic cousin, the Arrowhead Warbler.

Arrowhead Warbler (Jamaica endemic), Blue Mountains

So that's Jamaica.  Go there for the easy endemics, but do yourself a favor: embrace the island rhythms and save some time to relax on the beach.  Who knows, a tropicbird may just pay you a visit.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Hellshire

92 species seen; 32 lifers; other endemics not previously mentioned: Chestnut-bellied Cuckoo, Jamaican Spindalis, Sad Flycatcher, Rufous-tailed Flycatcher, Orangequit, Jamaican Mango, White-chinned Thrush, White-eyed Thrush, Yellow-shouldered Grassquit and the likely-to-be-split "Jamaican" Olive-throated Parakeet.