Monday, December 30, 2013

big day highlights

in honor of Neil Hayward's record-breaking big year, I thought I'd take advantage of mild weather and a day off to do my first "big day" (see list below). 

kicking things off at the Huntley Meadows Monday walk did not disappoint, as I picked up a life bird (American Wigeon) and many other lovely water birds.

made my way up to Dyke Marsh/Belle Haven in hopes of more water birds, and though the weather was gloomy, the second life bird of the day (Canvasback; part of the raft shown below with buildings for scale) lifted my spirits. the raft of Canvasbacks was massive, as were the numbers of Great Blue Herons and Ruddy Ducks.

after lunch and coffee, I finished the day at Riverbend Park, where water birds were in full display. from Common Mergansers to Buffleheads to Pied-billed Grebes to a flock of well over 50 American Coots, there was plenty to keep my mind off the quickly-dwindling temperature. this, by the way, was the second time in two weeks that the group of American Coots were present at Riverbend. you can find them on the northwest side of the island (south of the boat ramp).

in all, I managed 60 species (I'm sure the number would have been much larger were I more skilled at IDing). a good day indeed.

list with locations
Canada Goose (all 3 sites)
Gadwall (all 3 sites)
American Wigeon (Huntley)
American Black Duck (all 3 sites)
Mallard (all 3 sites)
Northern Shoveler (Huntley)
Northern Pintail (Huntley)
Green-winged Teal (Huntley)
Canvasback (Belle Haven: huge raft!)
Redhead (Riverbend)
Ring-necked Duck (all 3 sites)
Bufflehead (all 3 sites)
Hooded Merganser (Huntley)
Common Merganser (Riverbend)
Red-breasted Merganser (Riverbend)
Ruddy Duck (all 3 sites)
Pied-billed Grebe (Dyke Marsh; Riverbend)
Double-crested Cormorant (Dyke Marsh)
Great Blue Heron (all 3 sites)
Black Vulture (Riverbend)
Turkey Vulture (Riverbend)
Bald Eagle (Riverbend; Huntley)
Red-shouldered Hawk (Huntley)
American Coot (50+ at Riverbend!; 1 at Huntley)
Laughing Gull (Belle Haven)
Herring Gull (Belle Haven)
Ring-billed Gull (Belle Haven)
Great Black-backed Gull (Belle Haven)
Rock Pigeon (all 3 sites)
Mourning Dove (all 3 sites)
Red-headed Woodpecker (Huntley)
Red-bellied Woodpecker (all 3 sites)
Downy Woodpecker (all 3 sites)
Hairy Woodpecker (all 3 sites)
Northern Flicker (all 3 sites)
Pileated Woodpecker (Riverbend)
Blue Jay (all 3 sites)
American Crow (all 3 sites)
Fish Crow (all 3 sites)
Carolina Chickadee (all 3 sites)
Tufted Titmouse (all 3 sites)
White-breasted Nuthatch (all 3 sites)
Winter Wren (Huntley)
Carolina Wren (all 3 sites)
Golden-crowned Kinglet (Riverbend; Dyke Marsh)
Eastern Bluebird (all 3 sites)
American Robin (all 3 sites)
Northern Mockingbird (Huntley)
European Starling (all 3 sites)
Eastern Towhee (Huntley)
American Tree Sparrow (Dyke Marsh)
Song Sparrow (all 3 sites)
Swamp Sparrow (Dyke Marsh)
White-throated Sparrow (all 3 sites)
Dark-eyed Junco (Riverbend)
Northern Cardinal (all 3 sites)
Red-winged Blackbird (Huntley)
Rusty Blackbird (Huntley)
House Finch (Dyke Marsh)
House Sparrow (Riverbend)

Sunday, December 29, 2013

new england revisited

spent a few more days in Connecticut and Massachusetts for xmas break, and although the birds weren't particularly plentiful, I did manage to add 10 new life birds to the list.

I've been meaning to pay a visit to Quabbin Reservoir for a few months now because it's by far the hottest birding spot in central Mass. unfortunately, the birds simply weren't around on this day snowy day. I did luck out, though, when I spotted a large group of Snow Buntings. I'd never seen these birds before, but I knew instantly that they were something special once I saw their beautiful white wing patches in flight.

a couple of days later, I made my way to Hammonasset in hopes of rare coastal birds (and maybe another Short-eared Owl!). there weren't any owls visible, but I did manage to see a few lovely birds. among others life birds, I saw Lapland Longspurs, Horned Larks, Ruddy Turnstones, and Black-bellied Plovers. I was also entertained by Northern Harriers hunting over the fields, as well as an enormous flock (150ish!) of Yellow-rumped Warblers.

and a seal!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Great Falls CBC & Barred Owl

We had 43 species at our Great Falls CBC (my first CBC!), and as Marshall pointed out, the Barred Owl was definitely the highlight. Though at one point a pesky Downy Woodpecker tempted the owl to have a snack, he mostly just sat still, basking in the sun.

I also had good views of two Common Loons. One was swimming solo in the middle of the Potomac, and the other was swimming with a Common Merganser, the two apparently good enough buddies (mates?) to want to stay near each other for upwards of 5 minutes.

(Oh, and as a bonus, here's a Downy Woodpecker pecking the ice-covered tree in our backyard.)

Thursday, December 5, 2013

first lesser scaup

Drove over to East Potomac State Park this morning because eBird's Hotspot map showed some really promising numbers. Well, as with all things in the birding world, results are unpredictable, no matter how much data you sift through, and today's trip proved to be an unmitigated disaster. There wasn't even a single sparrow to report. No cardinal, nor robin, nor mallard. So I packed up shop and headed dejectedly back toward the suburbs.

But, lo, what's that ducky shape over thar!? I quickly pulled over to the shoulder, got my bins and camera, and jumped out of the car. It was a lone waterbird, and I immediately suspected it was a Goldeneye. Delighted, I snapped a few photos, hopped back in the car, and rushed back home so I could study my findings.

Turns out, as experienced birders know, more than one duck has a golden eye, and in this case, I had a Lesser Scaup on my hands. As names go, Lesser Scaup doesn't quite compete with Goldeneye, but the bird is a stunner, nevertheless. And it's a life bird!

Monday, December 2, 2013

175 (and a noteworthy 176)!

Birded New England (this time at Windsor Meadows State Park) again this past weekend, and I picked up life birds 175 and 176.

175 was a Ring-necked Pheasant (aka, long-tailed chicken); 176 was a Peregrine Falcon. The latter is certainly not a rarity, but somehow it eluded me all summer/fall. And although I didn't see it "in action," the perched falcon still made quite an impression. That's a bird I'd not want to bump into in a dark alley.

The Ring-necked Pheasant was the biggest surprise, though. Hell, I didn't even know the bird existed until the moment I nearly bumped into it in the brush!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

First Green-winged Teal and Northern Pintail

Joined up with NVBC for a walk at Huntley Meadows this morning, and just as Larry promised, the waterfowl were in abundance. (I should also note that he promised Red-headed Woodpeckers, and he delivered on that, too!) The Gadwall and Northern Shovelers were lovely, no doubt, but it was the Green-winged Teal and Northern Pintail that really got the blood pumping for me. Larry was kind enough to put them in the scope for me after I explained they were life birds, so I got some really excellent views (and a couple of decent pics, too).

Friday, November 22, 2013

First Ring-necked Ducks

Took a long walk through Lake Fairfax Park this morning. The birding wasn't spectacular, but the large group of Ring-necked Ducks on the lake was a terrific discovery. There were about 30 in total, and the males were the vast majority. I was able to watch them for over an hour, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if they're still lounging around.

Something else of note: a male and female Mallard were copulating in the middle of the pond. Guess the warm weather has us all feeling a little frisky...

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Dead Great Blue Heron

Birded Burke Lake this morning with the NVBC. Results were variable but it wouldn't have mattered to me if we'd only seen an empty lake... it was just that beautiful today. We did manage to see a gorgeous White-crowned Sparrow, Brown Creeper, Red-shouldered Hawk, Common Loon, and Bonaparte's Gulls. But the most news-worthy sighting was a dead Great Blue Heron hanging in the trees across the lake (on the island where the rookery is). It was a hauntingly sad discovery, and as much as I didn't want to look or take pics, it seemed a good idea to record the moment.

After lunch, I joined Donald Sweig and Ralph Wall for some Riverbend Park birding. We were mostly on the lookout for ducks (and the recently-reported Goldeneye!), and though the Goldeneye and Surf Scoter were nowhere to be found, we were still quite pleased with the results. Ruddy Duck, Gadwall, Pied-billed Grebe, Horned Grebe, Mallard, Black Duck, and a bounty of Buffleheads entertained us for 2 full hours. Perhaps the most extraordinary viewing of the day, though, was the male Hooded Merganser. I'd seen Hooded Mergansers before, but they were either juveniles or females. So today's male was a real treat for me. Thanks to both Donald and Ralph for letting me hog their scopes!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Merlin @ Great Falls? Yep!

The weather was warm but overcast, so the birding was slow going at Great Falls this morning. As we were finishing up the walk, though, the group spotted a bird across the Potomac that looked awfully falcon-ish. After views through scopes from different angles, and after scanning no less than three field guides (print and mobile), we determined it was a Merlin! A rare bird indeed for Great Falls, it was also a life bird for me. And even though it was a long distance away from shore, it was nice to be able to watch it preening--which is to say, sunbathing rather than flying by overhead at light-speed as they're wont to do. (Please excuse the lighting of the photos: long distance + gray day does not a good photo make.)

Friday, November 15, 2013

Surf Scoter at Riverbend Park

Thanks to a tip from Donald Sweig, I paid a visit to Riverbend Park this morning in hopes of finding a Surf Scoter. Within 5 minutes of my arrival, I found the Scoter after scanning a large group of Buffleheads. (The Scoter is in the foreground of the above picture.) I was lucky to have prolonged views, too, including moments of preening, moments in flight, and moments of direct interaction with the Buffleheads.

Among the other spectacles at Riverbend this morning: (Mute?) Swan, Lincoln's Sparrow, Winter Wren, two Belted Kingfishers, a vocalizing pair of Bald Eagles, and over 50 White-throated Sparrows.

After Riverbend, I stopped by Lake Fairfax to spend some time on the water. Among the many Canada Geese, the Bar-headed Goose was easily visible, as was a lone Snow Goose. Saw a couple of Hooded Mergansers take flight and then spend time near each other just cruising the lake. Also lucked into two Killdeer patrolling the shore near the bridge.

As I made my way up to the soccer fields, I found a Hermit Thrush, Eastern Towhees, White-throated and White-crowned Sparrows (as well as Song, Field, Swamp and Chipping), Dark-eyed Juncos, Golden-crowned Kinglets, and Carolina Wrens galore. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Red-shouldered Pals

Joined Bill Brown, Joe Coleman, and others for a midweek walk in Loudon County. Our first stop was at Lyndora Park in Ashburn. As expected, things were sparrowy, with a smattering of other usual suspects. A nice treat for me were the Killdeer on the soccer pitch. As they grazed in the sunshine, a large man in a large tractor plowed the field. The Killdeer barely blinked.

After a couple of hours at Lyndora, we drove over to Broadlands Wetlands, whereupon we spotted two Red-shouldered Hawks perched in a tree across from the Harris Teeter parking lot. And, as Bill mentioned in his VA-Bird posting, three of us stuck around just long enough to see a group of Killdeer and Wilson's Snipes take flight. An excellent conclusion to a lovely morning.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Barred Owl (finally!) @ Great Falls

After waiting all summer and autumn, I finally saw the Barred Owl all the Great Falls gang told me I'd see if I just kept checking. With one part good luck from having the wife in attendance, and one part good luck from having such a great group of birders to spend time with, and one part good luck from having Ralph hustle up the trail to get my attention--it finally happened. And, man, really, it was worth the wait.

By the time I sprinted the 200 yards up the trail, all the while panicked that the owl would take off before I could get to him, I was overwhelmed by adrenaline and anxiety. And for the first 4 or 5 photos, I couldn't keep my trembling hands still enough to get a decent shot. (As it was, the shots I managed to get aren't great, but they'll do the job.) But as was our good fortune, the owl was in no hurry to part ways. He simply acknowledged us, closed his eyes, and continued basking in the sun.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

King Rail, Snipe, and Other Firsts

What a day at Occoquan Bay NWR! Our very large group started off this gorgeous autumn morning with a few sparrows and kinglets, but things really picked up once we reached our first body of water. Two life birds appeared just 2 minutes apart, with a Wilson's Snipe taking flight (and making two pass-overs!) and a King Rail taking to the air just long enough for a lucky few of us to get a glimpse. Not long after, the King Rail vocalized quite clearly, much to the amusement of all. It was really quite a performance, albeit a short one.

We proceeded to the bay in hopes of a waterfowl show, and boy did we get one. One of the first things we noticed was 4 Bald Eagles patrolling the waters, periodically swooping down in hopes of picking off some ducks. The most noticeable prey were the Ruddy Ducks (another life bird), but American Coots (yet another life bird) and Mallards were also targeted.

Someone spotted a silhouetted Horned Grebe in the distance, though I wouldn't have counted it for my own life list had Elton not managed to give me a clearer shot through the scope some minutes later. Sure enough, though, the Horned Grebe was in full view, the red eye as clear as day. In the same vicinity, we had views of two Bonaparte's Gulls, life bird #6 on the day!

And then just minutes later, Kurt ID-ed a Rusty Blackbird, a life bird for me and clearly a treat for a few others in the group. (Some of my best pics of the day can be found of this Rusty and one of his "chums.") And just beyond these Rustys was a view of some Gadwalls, life bird #8 on the day. Amazing!
But... despite these great results, the highlight of the day for me was the discovery of two Bald Eagles perched together in a tree. We all had relatively prolonged views of these two magical creatures before each went its separate way. I'll just let the photos do the rest.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Greater Yellowlegs (and other surprises)

For my final birding trip in New England this past weekend, I drove over to the New Haven area to explore the birdiest locale in the region: Hammonasset Beach. I joined up with the Audubon Shop of Madison, CT, and enjoyed excellent autumn conditions with some seriously experienced birders.

We kicked things off with some beach birding and quickly spotted both Common and Red-throated Loons. A couple of Dunlins flew nearby, with a Northern Gannet not far behind. Within 10 minutes, I'd picked up 4 life birds!

We moved on to a lookout on the east side of the park, managing to spot a couple of Greater Yellowlegs in a pool of water near the parking lot. At the top of the lookout, we put the scope on a solitary Purple Sandpiper standing on a rock, seemingly wholly uninterested in testing the frigid waters. Two more tics on the life bird list!

Moving northward to a walking path leading to a boardwalk, we spotted two Buffleheads gliding slowly through the reeds. They were nice enough to do a couple of loops, so we had extended and crystal clear looks. One more life bird!

But that wasn't all. Not by a long shot. When we reached the end of the boardwalk and began tallying the list for the day's walk, the leader commented that we just needed one more species to reach 40. Almost instantaneously, one of the group members squawked, "Long-eared Owl!" Immediately, frenzy took hold of the group, folks scrambling for scopes and cameras, with nearly half the group of 20 announcing, "life bird!"

The owl was in clear view, albeit a long way (200 meters) from the boardwalk. But despite the unobstructed views, consensus was tough to reach, and after 20 full minutes of wavering, negotiating, pleading, praying, and bargaining, we decided the owl was in fact a Short-eared Owl. A magnificent bird nevertheless, and certainly quite rare in that area, but a Long-eared it was not.

For me, though, it was life bird #8 on the day. A terrific result for a terrifically beautiful beach. And I'll always remember that boardwalk and that owl. Always.

Friday, November 1, 2013


Thanks to the kind folks at Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton, MA, I was able to pick up my 150th species: Dark-eyed Junco. I know they're trickling into our area now, but this was a chance to get 1) a preview and 2) a little New England birding under my belt. (And I don't mind admitting I still have no idea how to tell a Black-capped from a Carolina Chickadee.)

A very experienced birder at Arcadia pointed me to the exact location where I could expect to find the Dark-eyeds, and sure enough, there were a dozen right in front of me. Buffed up and squinty-eyed, the Dark-eyeds were more concerned with the strong wind than with my presence, so I got a long look at them. I didn't have the camera with me, though, so I'm including this painting from Crista Forest.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

First(ish) Common Merganser

Meant to post this sooner, but I was waiting for the right photos to add. Last week at Great Falls, we spotted a couple of Common Mergansers (a life bird for me), but I didn't get terrific views, at least not enough to satisfy my curiosity. I'm happy to say, though, that we saw some Common Mergansers today, and this time I was able to snap some photos for further study. (I'm confident now that I saw the same species last week.) At one point, a male Mallard floated in next to the Mergansers. It was a good ol' fashioned pose off. Gorgeous birds, both of them!

We also saw loads of Yellow-rumped Warblers, both kinglet species, and some thirsty Cedar Waxwings. Combined with the juvenile Eagles, Brown Creepers, and multiple Pileateds, it was a pretty spectacular day.