Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A Massachusetts Swainson's Hawk

Our Birdathon team and at least one expert have reached a consensus on the "mystery bird."  The bird was a light-morph adult Swainson's Hawk, rare in the east, and very rare in spring.

For perspective, the Massachusetts Avian Records Committee has seven attested sightings going back to 1978, but only one in summer, the rest in fall (when people are actually looking for these).  Veit and Peterson's Birds of Massachusetts lists ten attested sight records between 1955 and the early 90s, with a few in spring.  Before that we turn to Griscom and Snyder's Birds of Massachusetts, who list quite a few records of varying authenticity stretching back to the shotgun era in the 19th century.  Never common in the east, the Swainson's Hawk was neverthless not a rare bird in the era when much of Massachusetts was farmland.

Lacking a picture of our own, here is one by Brian K. Wheeler (1998) of an adult light-morph:

Image from Brian K. Wheeler (1998).  Hawks in Flight Gallery.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Birdathon! With Mystery Bird Quiz!

May 17th at 6pm through the 18th at 6pm I birded with Pam Sowizral, volunteer coordinator at Drumlin Farm MAS and team captain, and friends Joanne Normandin, and Mary Brogan and Bruce Black.  As the "Free Agents," we chase some rarities like Manx Shearwater and other rarity reports, but mostly we are free to bird wherever it is good.  This year we decided to spend the 18th birding locally around Concord (influenced by Ludlow G., of course; I had nothing to do with it) and Wayland.  The tyranny of Birdathon is the 24 hour window, which meant a Saltmarsh Sparrow missed the cut by ten minutes on Friday, and a Ruby hummer missed it by 5 minutes on Saturday.

After seeing some of the usual suspects at Revere Beach and Belle Isle Marsh on Friday night, we hit Great Meadows in Concord very early for Least Bittern and rails, but it was pretty quiet overall.  We then headed to the Punkatasset/Mill Brook area of Estabrook woods for warblers and forest birds.  We had some good luck, with Swainson's Thrush, Lincoln's Sparrow, two Black-Billed Cuckoos, many Magnolias, Parulas, Redstarts, a Nashville, two Wilson's, and the star of the morning, a Baybreasted that gave pretty good views.  We then headed into the forest for Scarlet Tanager, Peewee, Pileated, many Ovenbirds, and singing Brown Creepers and a Winter Wren.

Our next stop was the no-longer-obscure Gate 13C Massport Trail on Rt. 62, where we had two more Baybreasteds, many Blue-Winged warblers, a Chestnut-Sided, Prairies, many Towhees and Wood Thrushes, and Field Sparrows.

After all my forced marching, the team was tired and broke for lunch.  Invigorated, we headed to an overlook at Hanscom field to try our luck at Upland Sandpiper.  No dice, but we had numerous Bobolinks and several Meadowlarks, with the local Redtails and Kestrels providing some entertainment. In all, a good Birdathon, with 117 species but notable misses.

Then, Pam noticed a very curious raptor rise off the field, briefly tangle with a Red Tail, then circle rapidly on thermals and move to the north.  Four of us got on it with scopes for about four minutes before we lost it in the clouds.  None of us risked fumbling for iPhones to attempt a shot--it was moving too fast and it was simply too far by the time we realized it was "interesting."  We have proposed an ID and it is currently under review.  But I present our one bit of physical evidence, the sketch and field marks I hurriedly put together after losing it in my scope, without reference to any guides.

In short, uniform gray back, long, straight, unbanded tail, pointed wings with dark flight feathers and white underwing and slight bend at "elbow," smudge across neck, soaring with slight dihedral and flat wing-tips, gliding with slight inverted dihedral.  Buteo flight style, accipiter tail, falcon-like wings.  Size smaller than Red-tail, larger than a Peregrine.  Bird 118.

What do you think?

P.S.  Not to shirk Wayland, where we had another Wilson's, Orchard Oriole, killer looks at a Black-Billed, our nemesis Cedar Waxwings, and two Solitary Sandpipers.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

May 9th Update: Migrants

As Bob Dylan wrote, "a change in the weather is known to be extreme," and with the arrival of a large southern low pressure system have come warblers and other delayed birds.

Today Ludlow G. had his first confirmed Black-Throated Greens at the Massport trails at Hanscom, with rising numbers of Northern Parula and Common Yellowthroat (which seemed very delayed), a Black-throated Blue, and perhaps even more Blue-Winged, which are thick on the ground in several early successional areas in north Concord.  Additionally, first Red-Eyed Vireo, but still awaiting Veery, Blackburnians, Magnolias, and Redstarts.  This pattern looks like it will hold through the weekend, so we might get some good birds.

Today also brought the first positive reports from Mt. Auburn, with first double-digit warbler counts, and Middlesex Fells, with a very good report of arrivals.

Of course, most trees are fully leaved out, so we won't see much.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Early May: a Ludlow G. Update

I've been so busy trying to finish the semester, bird every free minute, and enter and accept lists that an update on Ludlow's Big Year in Concord is long overdue.  It seems only a few weeks ago that this project cleared 100 species and 200 still seemed far away.

Even with the slow start to migration because of a huge high pressure system blocking southerly flows, Ludlow is off to a good start with all the early warblers accounted for, although in minute numbers.  Palms and Yellow Rumps came in on time, but many are lingering.  There has been a very slow trickle of Northern Parula, Nashville, Northern Waterthrush, and Ovenbird (with only single digits seen for each), but beginning around May 1-2 Blue-Wings arrived on territory around Hanscom, along with Prairies and Black and Whites, all in good numbers.  They, at least, seem roughly on time.  But there is a dearth of Common Yellowthroat and nary a Black Throated Green has been reported, and only one Black throated Blue.

Rose Breasted Grosbeaks arrived a few days ago, along with a few Scarlet Tanagers, Baltimore Orioles, and Brown Thrashers seem to be back on territory.  Grey Catbird is still scarce.  Savannah and Field Sparrow are back in good numbers, and a few Vespers have been seen/heard.

Upland Sandipipers were active at Hanscom on May 2 and 3, but no reports since, so either nesting has begun, or these birds were moving through.

Unbelievably, Ludlow G. is at 156 species as of May 6 at 3pm.  200 seems easy, right?  Maybe it is a conservative number, but it will get hard soon.  But, given the pace I think the Concord Birds project might be in position to give Dick Walton's Great Meadows checklist (from 1985) of 220 birds a good run.  Stay tuned!

Edited to add on May 7: With first reports of Red Eyed Vireo, BT Green, Chestnut-Sided warbler, and the results of Steve Arena's first marshbird survey of Great Meadows (King Rail, Least Bittern, Common Gallinule), Ludlow jumped to 164 species today.  With the arrival of a southern weather pattern over the next few days, we should begin seeing more migrants.