Wednesday, April 27, 2011

An unusual Blackpoll Warbler

Yesterday morning I photographed this unusual adult male Blackpoll Warbler in the beach plum behind the north observation deck on Sandy Hook.

It was unusually early, for Blackpolls are normally among the last of the warblers to come through, although not unheard of early.

Assuming this is an adult male (based on its overall color, the strong malar stripe and the unstreaked black cap), it is unusual to show a white eye arc and a white supraloral. None of the guides I consulted mention the possibility of males showing these characters, and I had certainly never seen it before. These are characters more often associated with females of the species.

The throat and malar area look normal for the species. Male Blackpolls often have a few black feathers on the chin, as does this bird.

Here is the bird from another angle. I don't see anything unusual here either.

The bird was by itself and did not vocalize. It foraged quietly for insects in the beach plum.

Does this bird show a mix of mostly male and some female characters? Or is it a hybrid with another species? Or do male Blackpolls sometimes show eye arcs and a white supraloral?

Having thought about this a little more, it seems likely that this bird was not quite finished with its prealternate molt. In basic plumage it has that eye arc and the supraloral. Most wood-warblers have a prealternate molt early spring, as I'm sure does the Blackpoll.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Gambel's White-crowned Sparrow

Gambel's White-crowned Sparrow
Yesterday evening, while birding the Boy Scouts Area on Sandy Hook, I found this 'Gambel's' White-crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii.  This subspecies breeds on the northern tier from Alaska to Hudson Bay, and winters south through central Mexico, generally rarer eastward (Chilton et al. 1995).

It differs from the here on the Atlantic coast more expected nominate subspecies in having white/gray lores (black in leucophrys), an orange bill (pink in leucophrys), and a dull brown and olive back (ruddy brown and gray in leucophrys).

Here's a (crappy) photo of the nominate subspecies, in which some of these differences can be appreciated. I took this photo in dense fog on the 13th of April, 2011, here on Sandy Hook.

nominate 'leucophrys' White-crowned Sparrow
Compare this to the gambelii subspecies I photographed on Sandy Hook yesterday:

Gambel's White-crowned Sparrow
Since the gambelii subspecies does winter in very small numbers on the East Coast, it's impossible to infer where this bird spent the winter. It could be a western stray, but it could just as well have wintered among nominate conspecifics here in the East.

A detailed study of White-crowned Sparrow subspecies identification, highlighting the complexity of the issue, can be found on David Sibley's blog.

Cited literature:
Chilton, G., M. C. Baker, C. D. Barrentine and M. A. Cunningham. 1995. White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:
Sibley, D. (2010) White-crowned Sparrow Zonotrichia leucophrys. Blog entry on separation of White-crowned Sparrow subspecies,

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Impressive morning songbird flight

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Hot on the heels of a strong falcon flight last Wednesday, today's push of warm Easter weather brought another slew of migrants to Sandy Hook. I had a feeling it could be good, so I went to the observation deck at 7 AM - well before the normal start of the count.

I was glad I did, for those first few hours I saw many, many hundreds of birds fly past the platform. Three species made up the majority of the flight: Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, White-throated Sparrow, and Yellow-rumped Warbler. Gnatcatchers were particularly numerous - far too many to count: I estimated between 500 and 1,000 flew past the platform those first few hours. Many landed in the tree directly behind the platform, some even on the observation deck itself. They were a constant stream, all heading NNW.

White-throated Sparrow
Hundreds of Yellow-rumped Warblers flew by, as did hundreds of White-throated Sparrow. (After the count, during a little 'fun birding' I found several large groups of them scratching through the leaves, with a few White-crowned Sparrows mixed in.)

adult male White-breasted Nuthatch
Nuthatch migration was again evident, with 28 White-breasted and 3 Red-breasted Nuthatches flying past the count site.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Birders that came up to the platform later all had happy smiles on their faces, as they listed all the first arrivals they had found that morning. Besides Yellow-rumped and Palm, I had Ovenbird, Blue-winged Warbler and Black-and-white Warbler, all near the observation deck. Others had found Nashville, Black-throated Green, and Prairie Warblers, as well as Summer Tanager, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and many other migrants.

Will all those birds be here again tomorrow? A locally well-known birder often says that "the first thing birds want to do when they get on the Hook, is leave". And, with the exception perhaps of some hawks, this has also been my impression. Often they're here today, gone tomorrow.

It looks like the next big wave of migrants can already be expected Tuesday.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Epic falcon flight

adult male Merlin
This afternoon I witnessed a falcon flight of truly epic proportions, one that has not been seen on Sandy Hook within the last eight years, and perhaps never before. The spring hawk watch at Sandy Hook has been going for decades, but only has data starting 2004 for the Hook, so that's the dataset I'm looking at. There was an exceptional kestrel flight on April 12, 2009, when a staggering 226 American Kestrels were logged as migrants.

Today's count, however, blew that number out of the water: 282 American Kestrels passed Sandy Hook in a matter of hours! At just slightly past the midway point of the season, this is already by far the best season on (recent) record for American Kestrel, with 664 logged so far... and counting!

As expected, Merlin did great too, with 78 individuals counted as migrants. The bird in the photo above landed in the Locust Grove just east of the hawk platform for a photo during the last hour of the count.

Also expected - at least by me - was a Swallow-tailed Kite that made a brief appearance around 4:30 EDT. When yesterday I saw how the weather forecast was shaping up for today, I knew I would have more than a passing shot at getting it. I started the count late, for the Hook was fogged in all morning, but as soon as the fog broke, there were raptors flying. When the flight reached a certain level of intensity, I figured there had to be a Swallow-tailed Kite in there... I spotted the bird lazily circling between the Lighthouse and the Officer's Building, seemingly not in a hurry to go anywhere. However, shortly after it turned around and went back south.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Spring migration of White-breasted Nuthatch

adult female White-breasted Nuthatch
The familiar White-breasted Nuthatch is generally a resident species, with only some northern and western populations undertaking some migratory movements in some years (Grubb & Pravosudov 2008). On Sandy Hook, I've been told by many local birders many times over, the Red-breasted Nuthatch is usually easier to find, and some consider White-breasted Nuthatch "actually a reasonably good bird to get on the Hook". But where I do most of my Sandy Hook birding, i.e. on the northern tip, I always see more White-breasted than Red-breasted Nuthatches. Usually not more than one or two, though, and certainly not every day.

Today, however, migrant "WB Nuts" were everywhere, and I tallied a total of 30 individuals flying past the platform, all headed to the very northwestern tip of the Hook. Several landed in the tree behind the observation deck, and one even landed briefly on the deck's information panel. The majority were tree-hopping. Others were higher, a few even at a considerable height. What would they do once they hit the northwestern tip and see all that water, I wondered? Would they turn around, like raptors often do? Or would they gain more altitude and just go for it? I never saw them come back, so I assumed most of them were actually making the crossing.

For such a familiar species, surprisingly little still is known about the White-breasted Nuthatch, particularly regarding seasonal distribution patterns. Irruptive fall movements have been noted; for example, nearly 300 individuals were tallied during the fall of 1968 at the Bake Oven Knob hawk watch in Pennsylvania - against only 53 in all previous fall seasons of 1961-1967 combined (Heintzelman and MacClay 1971, cited in Grubb & Pravosudov 2008).

Summarizing this and other largely anecdotal accounts - all from fall seasons - Grubb & Pravodusov (2008) theorize that these movements possibly consist of juveniles, which they feel would explain why there is "little evidence of a return spring migration in this species".

Ron Pittaway's Winter Finch Forecast 2010-2011 mentions the Red-breasted Nuthatch's latest irruption, which was well underway by late summer 2010, but doesn't talk about the WB Nut.

eBird's monthly maps do not reveal a spring migratory pattern either.

Several birders who came up the platform today mentioned they had found multiple WB Nuts while birding the Hook for morning songbirds. So it wasn't like the same three birds were flying circles around the hawk platform, there was actual movement, noted by multiple observers. Detected movement was strongest during the first two hours of the count (between 8 and 10 EDT) but went on until late morning, early afternoon.

So where did today's birds come from? And where are they going?

Cited literature:
Grubb, Jr., T. C. and V. V. Pravosudov. 2008. White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:
Pittaway, R. (2010) "Ron Pittaway's Winter Finch Forecast 2010-2011", published on eBird's web site

Friday, April 15, 2011

White-winged Gulls

Glaucous Gull
Following up on the previous post, that same gull flock from which I pulled a putative "Nelson's Gull" last Wednesday today had both white-winged species, Glaucous and Iceland Gull. The two Glaucous and one Iceland I saw all seemed 'pure' individuals;  the hybrid "Nelson's Gull" was not  relocated.

Glaucous Gull with Herring Gulls
For that matter, neither were the two Lesser Black-backed Gulls I found in that same flock on Wednesday. I suspect this flock has a huge turnover, and virtually anything could show up here. It comprises mostly Herring Gulls (70%, I estimated), with Great Black-backed and Ring-billed Gulls present in smaller numbers.  I tried counting the flock on the east side of the False Hook, and came up with 1,400. Several hundreds more were situated on the western side of the False Hook, but by the time I got there, substantial reshuffling had taken place and an additional count seemed futile.

Glaucous Gull, with Manhattan and Coney Island in the background
All too often, I hear birders dismiss the gulls as "too difficult". There is of course a bewildering variation among immature Herring Gulls, which some find intimidating and others a huge turn-on. But the two 'white-winged' species, Glaucous and Iceland, stand out and are easily found in a gull flock.

Iceland Gull, not exactly hard to spot in this flock
This flock may well have other species less easy to pick out. The weather forecast for tomorrow is strong on-shore winds, so the best birding on Sandy Hook tomorrow will likely not be provided by the raptors, but by the gulls.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Nelson's Gull

Today, Sandy Hook was shrouded in dense fog, which gave me a day off from hawk counting and provided me with an opportunity to scour the Hook in the mist for birds. The northern tip of the Hook is never so wildly beautiful and mysterious (and devoid of people) as in dense fog.

At the very tip (the "False Hook") I found this unusual-looking gull. At first I thought it was a Glaucous Gull, but I quickly realized the wingtips were too dark for that species. Somehow the bird seemed too light to be a Herring Gull. Not knowing what I was looking at, I decided to try for some photos.

I now believe it to be a first cycle 'Nelson's Gull', i.e. a hybrid between Glaucous Gull and American Herring Gull. It shows a mix of characters from both species, and Howell & Dunn's authoritative Gulls of the Americas (2007) lists that combination under the header "widespread hybrids". Confirmed interbreeding occurs in the Mackenzie Delta, Northern Territories, Canada (Howell & Dunn 2007), a potential source for this individual.

I also considered first cycle Slaty-backed Gull and first cycle Thayer's Gull, but Glaucous Gull x American Herring Gull seems a better fit. Especially the crisply bicolored 'Glaucous type' bill does not fit first cycle birds of either species, but is good for 'Nelson's Gull'. There's other disqualifying field marks. I do confess I am not a larophile, so I welcome discussion of the finer ID points from the initiated.

Cited literature:
Howell, Steve N.G. & Dunn, Jon (2007) Gulls of the Americas. Peterson Reference Series, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York.

First wave of warblers

Palm Warbler
The first wave of warbler migration has reached Sandy Hook: yesterday there were tens if not hundreds of Palm Warblers throughout the Hook, with some Pine Warblers here and there. Another warbler - Common Yellowthroat - was heard singing from across North Pond both Sunday and Monday mornings, but on Tuesday appeared to have moved on. I found two American Bitterns in its place. Myrtle (Yellow-rumped) Warblers have been around a bit longer, in fluctuating numbers. We haven't really had a big wave of them yet.

adult female Pine Warbler
Orange-crowned Warbler and Black-and-white Warbler have also been reported, and very soon warbler variety will pick up even more, as the other species cannot be far behind now. Possibly the next warm front will bring them to Sandy Hook.

Right now, the Hook is dripping with Slate-colored Juncos, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Palm Warblers, Hermit Thrushes, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Savannah Sparrows, Chipping Sparrows, and Song Sparrows. All these birds are here in good numbers at the moment, and are easily seen.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Great kestrel flight

The second warm front in a fairly short time brought a second wave of American Kestrels passing Sandy Hook yesterday. On the 6th I had 67 kestrels; yesterday I got to 155. This is a respectable number, but by no means a record, for 2009 had 226 and 2008 had 179 for single day counts at Sandy Hook. Most recent years, however, the peak flight of the American Kestrel here has been double, not triple digits. This species is in decline throughout the Northeast, even though largely sedentary urban populations seem to be doing fine.

Like other falcons, American Kestrels are often midday or afternoon flyers, and indeed the majority of these birds passed in the afternoon.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Good early April hawk flight

A pretty good early April hawk flight was seen at Sandy Hook today, with good overall variety and a particular strong showing of American Kestrel. Several Red-shouldered Hawks, including at least two adults (one of which is pictured above), were noted, although none were seen leaving the Hook. That's good news for those of my readers who want to see Red-shouldered Hawks but weren't able to make it to Sandy Hook today.

The falcons of course did not linger. Most of the falcon flight was made up of American Kestrels, but there were a few Merlins also and even a Peregrine Falcon.

Last year, the peak flight of American Kestrel occurred on April 6, back then with 85. Today, exactly a year later, I got to 67 kestrels. Last year, I had a small wave of first migrant Merlins also around this time, with 13 on the 6th, 8 on the 7th and 21 on the 8th. That was 42 Merlins in three days - a wave that, curiously, no other hawk watch recorded. This year, I had 13 Merlins on the 4th, none during the 2 hours of counting on the 5th, and then today just 3. It will be interesting to see if this wave of kestrels is followed by a smaller wave of Merlins in the days ahead…

Browse last year's Merlin posts here.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Northern Saw-whet Owl

I got up a little earlier than usual this morning, to help bird bander Tom Brown with some Northern Saw-whet Owl banding here on Sandy Hook. Tom has been banding songbirds on the Hook and elsewhere in the metropolitan area for years, and last fall started banding at night here on Sandy Hook with an audio lure for saw-whets. He caught more than he expected back then, and this spring is trying again for saw-whets. The individual shown above was his third this spring. We aged it as a second year bird, so born last year.

We wondered if severe winter weather was responsible for the contrast between the fall and spring numbers of saw-whets.