Saturday, January 2, 2016

Concord Birds Project 2013-2015

The advent of 2016 marks the end of the three-year Concord Birds Project, a collaborative inventory of avian life in Concord.  Harking back to the days when birders kept and published town lists, our goal was simply to inspire some competition and see how many birds we could find in Concord.  And we did, logging 225 species that first year and 246 over the course of three years, drawing on a robust collection of over 2,300 eBird reports that represent thousands of contributed field hours.  

The concept was simple:  birders shared their Concord eBird lists and field notes with a virtual birder we called Ludlow G., who was the virtual companion to every party in the field and who gathered all their sightings into a single observer database on eBird.  Since eBird does not yet gather data at the town level, this was my way of doing it; someone with programming skills could streamline this process, but it would be less fun than corresponding with so many great birders and following their discoveries, list by list.

Given the interest generated by the project, it evolved into a longer term effort to assemble a robust, high quality data set of birds sightings on which to base a revision to the existing Concord checklist by Dick Walton, which dates from 1984, and Ludlow Griscom’s from 1949.  I have been collaborating with Cole W., a very talented young birder, on editing a new checklist, and we hope to publish it this year.  

The historical checklist stands at around 360 species, but in just three years some really cool birds were encountered such as a Swainson’s Hawk, Barn Owl, LeConte’s Sparrow, Prothonotary Warbler, and Mississippi Kite.  Nice surprises were breeding ravens, rediscovering territories for Louisiana Waterthrush and discovering a breeding population of Canada Warblers, deep in the swamps of Estabrook Woods. Habitat change and loss have brought losses:  shore-birding at Great Meadows is much diminished, Ruffed Grouse are nearly gone, and Goshawk and Blue-headed Vireo no longer breed in Estabrook Woods.

For now, I want to thank the many birders who answered questions, offered guidance, and contributed lists and field notes.  The list is very long, but among them I want particularly to thank Cherrie Corey, Jason Forbes, Willy Hutcheson, Chuck Johnson, Sam Miller, Simon Perkins, David Sibley, Bob Stymeist, the indefatigable Great Meadows survey crew of Alan Bragg, Kathy Dia, and Will Martens, and of course the dynamic duo of Cole and Jalen Winstanley.  To all named and unnamed, many thanks for the birds, and good birding to you in 2016.  And yes, that shadow might be Ludlow G. so make sure to count every bird, no matter how common.

David Swain

Friday, August 14, 2015

ABA Camp Avocet 2015; Guest Blog #4

Hi birders, its Tim. Once again, I'll be sharing with you my wonderful experiences at Camp Avocet. Check out my first three posts if you haven't already.

Day 4 of camp was our long looked forward to trip to Cape May. Because we were to take the ferry from Lewes to Cape May, we had a late start for birding since the departure time for the ferry was 8:45.

Even if we had a late start, the ferry was nice and cool, compared to the rest of the week, and we saw many flocks of feeding Wilson's Storm-Petrels, Brown Pelicans, Lesser Black-backed Gulls, and some of the group saw a Black Tern and a Sandwich Tern (both would have been lifers), neither of which I saw. I was starting to get  worried that I wouldn't see a Black Tern again at camp, but I knew there would be more Sandwiches at Chincoteague tomorrow. Like Gull-billed Terns, Sandwich Terns are rarities in Delaware even though in surrounding states they are regular.

Once we arrived at Cape May, We headed straight to Higbee Beach, a great songbird migration spot during fall, but sadly, it wasn't even near the peak of songbird migration. We split up into two groups, but neither of the groups were too successful. We managed to pick up American Redstart, Northern Waterthrush, Ovenbird, and Black-and-White Warbler, but otherwise it was unpleasantly hot and quiet bird wise.

After Higbee, we headed to Cape May Point for lunch where we met Richard Crossley. We birded around after lunch, and all I could think about was how hot it was. We did find some Black Skimmers and a horde of Mute Swans though.

We then headed to the Observatory Giftshop, where Crossley gave us a talk about how to become an experienced birder (in his awesome British accent) and we bought birding books and guides. Little did we know that a Great Shearwater had washed up on a beach a couple months ago, and that we were going to be able to study it. Steve Howell taught us about feather groups, why shearwaters have tube noses, and much more while handling the handsome bird. Because the shearwater was frozen, Steve asked if we could microwave it so that it would be easier to move it's wings. I think we might have been the first people on earth to nuke a tubenose.

After studying the shearwater, we headed to The Meadows for some last minute birding at Cape May. This turned out to be the most productive of the places at Cape May, as there was a continuing American Wigeon there (very rare at this time of year). We also found a pair of Gadwall, two Pectoral Sandpipers, a load of Glossy Ibis, and a Great Egret eating an eel.

As we were scanning the pools, I decided to look on the other side of the dike and look for shorebirds there. Two small terns were heading down the channel, and I checked them to see if they were both Leasts. The one in front had oddly dark wings, but it was the same size as a Least. Then I got a glimpse of the black patch on the back of the head. I yelled; "BLACK TERN," and everyone got on it in the long prior of time that it fed and perched with the other terns on the mudflats. It was a juvenile bird, with very long, dark wings, but with a very short tail and small proportions. That Black Tern was by far the coolest bird I saw at Camp Avocet, even though it wasn't an adult.

On the ferry ride back we got looks at another Black Tern (this time I saw it), a Surf Scoter, and some of the group witnessed 6 Whimbrels fly over the boat in a flock.

After settling into our rooms at the Virden Center, Raymond (one of our instructors) saw an eastern Screech-Owl fly into one of the large trees in front of the dorms, and several people got to see it. I heard it only, along with another responding from the cedars grove.
So that was Day 4 of Camp Avocet, I'll also be blogging days 5 and 6. Goodbye until the next post!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

ABA Camp Avocet 2015; Guest Blog #3

Hi birders! It's Tim writing, and if you've missed the other posts in my guest series here is the link for the first post and here is the one for the second post.

After writing about Bombay, I realized that I totally forgot to give credit to the awesome instructors that ran the trips. It was great to spend time with local experts and just overall great birders. Our instructors were Bill Stewart (a local and the ABA Young Birder Programs director), George Armistead (ABA Events Coordinator), Holly Merker, Steve Howell (author of many ornithology books), Raymond VanBuskirk (Leica representative), and our intern Mike Hudson. Thanks so much guys and gals for a such a wonderful experience at Camp Avocet!

Anyway, after a good night's sleep, we had breakfast a little later than we did the day before, but we still got birding pretty early. Today's escapade was to Prime Hook, a more coastal place than Bombay Hook, and much closer to the Virden Center.

We started at Fowler Beach Rd., which at the start is shrubby, fieldy habitat, where we got Bank Swallow, White-eyed Vireo, and Blue Grosbeak, and near the end is a saltmarsh great for Seaside Sparrow and Clapper Rail. We had mediocre views of over 20 Seaside Sparrows, which were lifers for me, but I guess that's basically the best you can get with an Ammodramus sparrow. The Clapper Rails also were very showy, crossing the road multiple times and skulking where they thought we couldn't see them but really could. We also met David LaPuma and Mike Lanzone, two great birders from the area and they accompanied us until we went to Cape May the next day.

At some point the road became only accessible by foot, and we walked to the beach from there. The really cool birds started there. Soon after, the saltmarsh opened up to show big pools of water, filled with terns (Common, Forster's, Caspian, and Least), Laughing Gulls, Black Skimmers, Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plovers, lots of American Oystercatchers, tons of herons and egrets, both yellowlegs and both subspecies of Willet, two Whimbrels, and best of all, a Gull-billed Tern. Even though they breed farther north, Gull-bills are strangely almost absent on the Delmarva peninsula, so this was a great sighting. We also had multiple Bald Eagles and a Red-shouldered Hawk in the distance. American White Pelicans had been reported here recently, but we weren't able to locate them. Here is the Fowler Beach list.

After we had scoured Fowler Beach, we headed to Prime Hook Beach Rd., where we got most of the same species plus some Long-billed Dowitchers and a flyover Cattle Egret. Our Prime Hook Beach sightings can be seen here. Most of us were getting tired of the heat, so we headed back to the Virden Center to eat lunch.

After lunch (and an intense grape fight), Steve Howell and Michael Lanzone did two great presentations, Steve's was about the 12 steps of bird identification, and Mike's was about patch birding. I learned a lot from both of the talks, especially the identification presentation.

Shortly afterwards we had dinner, another great meal, following was another late visit to Cape Henlopen, this time to Gordon's Pond and Herring Point. The Gordon's Pond trail actually goes through a piney forest before actually arriving at Gordon's Pond, and it is a great place to find Brown-headed Nuthatch. We did succeed in finding over 10 Brown-headed Nuthatches, as well as a Brown Thrasher. At Gordon's Pond there was a multitude of roosting terns and egrets, mostly Caspian Terns and Snowy Egrets, and some Black-necked Stilts, but otherwise it wasn't as filled with birds as Prime Hook.

Our second stop was Herring Point, just across the street from the Gordon's Pond Trail trailhead. A complete surprise for me was 10 Lesser Black-backed Gulls, a normally rare bird in most of North America, but somewhat common in some sections of the mid-Atlantic coast. We also had an adult male Surf Scoter, a lifer for most of the inland birders. Here is the list for both Gordon's and Herring. At that point it was after 8, so we retired to the Virden Center for the night.

I hope you guys are enjoying my posts, goodbye for now!

Monday, August 10, 2015

ABA Camp Avocet 2015; Guest Blog #2

Hi birders! It's Tim again, and if you haven't read my first post here, here's the link.

Continuing from my last post, we woke up fairly early at 6 (normal for me) to get breakfast at 6:45 and get on the road at 7:45. Before breakfast, we were allowed to do a little birding around the dorms, so my roommate and I got ready quickly and witnessed the huge flocks of blackbirds, grackles, cowbirds, and starlings dispersing from their roosting sites. The number of starlings even dwarfed the number in Boston! Although considered rare in Delaware, we also witnessed flocks of White Ibis flying from their roosts. Apparently, White Ibis are undergoing a range expansion, which usually starts with a large irruption of birds farther north of their normal range. They were all juveniles, surprisingly.

Breakfast was spectacular, but if you were hoping for real syrup on your waffles, pancakes, or french toast, you're out of luck. We had much conversation, telling each other about cool birding experiences and other random topics.

We started our first full day with a bang by going to Bombay Hook, debatably the best birding hotspot in Delaware, even though it was an hour away from Lewes. We arrived at Bombay around 9, and immediately we stopped the car because someone had heard a bobwhite. We ended up seeing two feeding in someone's driveway with Mourning Doves, and it was a lifer for the majority of the western kids.

The visitor's center at Bombay had many martin boxes, allowing some close views of a species that is very common in Delaware but very local and rare in Massachusetts.

Our first stop was at Raymond Pool, by far the most productive place at Bombay Hook, and it was spectacular. Almost 250 American Avocets dotted the shallow pool, along with a couple Black-necked Stilts, tons of Short-billed Dowitchers, appreciable counts of Stilt Sandpipers, many peeps, huge numbers of Snowy and Great Egrets, 50 Glossy Ibis with a couple White Ibis, 2 Tricolored Herons, Semipalmated Plovers, and probably even more. The humungous numbers allowed for close study of the shorebirds, letting us pick out a Pectoral Sandpiper, some Western Sandpipers, and 12 Long-billed Dowitcher (a lifer for me). Our group split into 3 groups; beginner, intermediate, and advanced shorebird experience, and we learned a lot about shorebirds.

We visited a couple other pools after Raymond, but one of the highlights was hearing and seeing a Grasshopper Sparrow in one of the fields between the pools.

Another very cool stop was Finis Pool, a boggier body of water home to many Little Blue and Green Herons. We ate lunch in the forest around Finis, and were surprised to find an Acadian Flycatcher nest with nestlings and a parent (another lifer). We got brief glimpses of the parent briefly coming to the nest to feed the chicks, along with many calling Eastern Wood-Pewee, a calling Yellow-billed Cuckoo (which I didn't hear) and a calling Barred Owl (which I also didn't hear).

While driving the wildlife loop, our conversations were interrupted by someone screaming "LEAST BITTERN!!" I got a brief glimpse of the bird crossing the road, but some people in our van missed it, and the other van didn't see it at all.

After returning to Raymond Pool and experiencing the cool shorebirds again, we headed out of Bombay and explored some of the local hotspots. Here is our list.

One place we stopped, I believe it was called Stave Landing R., produced some nice marsh birds such as Marsh Wren and the local subspecies of Swamp Sparrow, the Delaware Swamp Sparrow. Delaware Swamp Sparrows have a slightly more musical and slurred song than the nominate race, kind of like a Pine Warbler but slower and more defined. Here is the list for Stave Landing.

While we were in the vans, we went over a bridge famous for it's Cliff Swallows, which have declined on the East Coast recently, and many people got to see them (except for me). We also stopped at Fort DuPont State Park, where we witnessed many herons coming and going from their roosting place on Fort DuPont Island. Strangely, around Delaware City Cattle Egret and Little Blue Heron are much more common than the other species because Fort DuPont Island is a huge breeding colony for those species. Here is the Fort DuPont list.

That afternoon, we had dinner at ABA Headquarters in Delaware City where we ordered pizza. We took a tour around the HQ and then just hung out in a large room and told stories about birds. At this point, we had an idea of what everybody's names were, but we still went around the room and told our name, our favorite bird, and where we live. There were kids from all over at this Camp, and a surprising amount were from the west. One of the boys lives in Gunnison, Colorado, and Gunnison Sage-Grouse are common there! I still can't believe it!

After dinner, we headed back to the Virden Center. Curfew was at 9:30 every night, and although some kids chatted for a little after that, we basically stuck to the rules. The early curfew was helpful though, considering how early we had to wake up each morning.

The quote of the day (from Steve Howell) was "If Long-billed Dowitchers were poisonous, and Short-billed Dowitchers were delicious, we would surely know how to tell them apart."

Sunday, August 9, 2015

ABA Camp Avocet 2015; Guest Blog #1

Now for something completely different! Last week Tim was in Delaware with ABA's Camp Avocet, and since my blog is so lame, I have begged him to spice it up to bring in more readers.  Take it away!

Hi, I’m Tim, David’s son, and I’d like to share my experience at Camp Avocet, an ABA Young Birder’s camp. These posts will be mainly for people going to Camp Avocet next summer so that they’ll know what to expect. I had an absolutely spectacular time with experienced young birders like me, and would be a great opportunity for any birder between ages 13 and 18 to become part of the young birding community. 
Camp Avocet is based at the Virden Retreat Center in Lewes, Delaware (pronounced Lewis) and we go on many field trips to local and famous hotspots around there. Delaware is a major staging place for migrating shorebirds and a great place to find breeding terns, so the camp is focused on those families. Delaware also is the northern reach of some southeastern songbirds, so we get many opportunities to see these specialties.
Campers arriving at the Philadelphia Airport have to first survive the treacherous 2-3 hour drive to Lewes, still a short drive compared to campers driving from Massachusetts (that’s me!). After a long day of traveling, some campers arriving before dinner are treated to a walk around the Virden Center, producing large numbers of Blue Grosbeak (a lifer for me) and a couple White-eyed Vireos. Oh, did I forget to mention the heat? Delaware might have no forest whatsoever, and incredibly humid days, but I felt none of it because I was having so much fun!
After dinner (the food at the center is excellent), we took the vans to Cape Henlopen State Park for a view of the sunset at “The Point.” We were lucky to find many Royal Terns (another lifer), a Common Loon (rare at this time), Spotted Sandpipers, a Black Scoter on the beach, Ruddy Turnstones, Common Nighthawks “beenz”-ing, and surprising numbers of Orchard Orioles. Here's our eBird list.
Our dorms were arranged into two buildings separate from the Virden Center and you would be paired with one or two other campers that are around your age. My roommate and I happened to both be from Massachusetts, so we shared stories about the birds we had seen before.

I believe I’ll be doing a post for the next 6 days for every day I was at Camp Avocet. So until Day 2, adios!

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Carolina Wrens and the Winter of 2015

There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that Carolina Wrens took a big hit this winter in Massachusetts, but I haven't seen anyone offer some hard numbers.  Here is a local perspective drawing on my eBird data from January through May.

On a very local patch level, this winter's effect on Carolina Wrens in my neighborhood was not at all subtle: they were decimated, with none remaining at the end of the storm cycle in March and not a single singing bird through April. Looking through my yard and neighborhood patch records in eBird between January 1 and end of May, I can illustrate what happened with some numbers.

With a sample total of  92 lists recorded between January and the end of May, I can show this break- down by lists per month/lists reporting CAWR/High Counts:

Jan: 15/13/4
Feb: 14/7/3
Mar: 21/4/1
Apr: 17/0/0
May: 24/12/3

Over this period the Concord Birds Project gathered 204 lists which show virtually the same picture town-wide. These are the recorded high counts by month:

Jan: 4
Feb: 3
Mar: 2
Apr: 1
May: 3
June: 3

The weather, of course, introduced a lot of sampling error, but birders essentially did what the birds did, concentrated at feeders!

In an average winter my neighborhood has 4-5 singing birds, and this January was not different, with nearly all surveys recording numerous birds. This changed markedly in February, with only the surveys through mid-month turning up the usual birds. The beginning of the snow cycle concentrated the birds at feeders, notably ours and one other that usually sustains a couple birds. Going into the storm cycle we had our usual two birds which over-winter and breed in our yard. Then one disappeared, then one was found in our garage (that -12F morning) in visible distress, then a frozen bird turned up at our basement door (gifted to MCZ).

Now at the MCZ, Harvard

It was all over by about the third week of March. April was cruelly silent.

Our Carolinas were eating suet regularly and munching on a large nut block (which also sustained a Pine Warbler through the winter), but apparently Carolina's also seek shelter and supplies of arthropods under porches, in crawl-spaces, in garages, and in brush piles.  The deep snow effectively sealed off virtually all of those food supplies. I realized too late that our brush pile had become completely covered.  Carolina Wrens not so much froze as simply starved, I believe, as did a great many other birds, such as Canada Geese, whose food sources were buried or frozen.

May saw a very slow appearance of a few birds, but in unusual areas. I typically hear only two birds in the neighborhood these days. Only one singing bird is, I believe, a survivor, very likely one of the two birds which a local couple (with a huge feeding station) reported had pulled through, so my numbers might be an over-sampling of my very local experience.  House Wrens, on the other hand, have been plentiful.  While this might be because I am paying more attention to wrens, but it could be that they have been able to use good habitats formerly taken by "yard bosses."

Drawing on a wider data set for the eastern counties of Massachusetts, eBird generates this line chart for the frequency with which lists over this period reported Caroline Wren.  Essentially, the species fell off a statistical cliff.

Your comments welcome.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

A Year in Numbers: 2014

"How'd you do?"

You know the question.  It's both sincerely curious and not-so-subtly competitive.  I haven't been birding many years (barely seven, I think, and I entered my first eBird list fall of 2009, for what it's worth), but I have a pretty good idea now of what is a "normal" year for me in numbers:  about 220-30 birds in Massachusetts, but about 180 of them in my town alone.  I am a local birder.  In 2012 I chased a bit and saw 249 in my state, but full time work and a family just don't go together with state-wide listing.  Local is where it is at.

Which is why 2014 was so different.  We traveled.  The kids are old enough to appreciate longer trips, and I had a sabbatical from teaching, so it was a great year for seeing new places and finding new birds.

Early July:  my son and I took a "boreal" trip to northern New Hampshire and Vermont.  Yes, it was a bit late for good activity, but we had a great time exploring bogs and spruce forests.  Perhaps the highlights were Cannon Mountain, where we heard both Bicknell's and Swainson's Thrushes; Pondicherry NWR, where we had goshawk, Philadelphia Vireo, nesting Sharp-shinned Hawks, Bay-breasted and Canada Warblers, and Lincoln's Sparrow; and Moose Bog near Island Lake, VT, where we had Ring-necked ducks and Pied-billed Grebes on territory.  The bugs were ferocious and rain drove us home a day soon, but what a great trip.

Late July/Early August:  Yellowstone NP and Grand Teton NP, plus Bozeman, MT and the Gallatin Valley.  The kids adored Yellowstone, particularly Hayden Valley, where we saw many bison, wolves, grizzlies, white pelicans, delightful Japanese tourists, and open skies.  Yellowstone netted me 14 lifers Overall, we were less enamored with Grand Teton, but the birding was good, too, with 5 more lifers.  Back in Bozeman, where we were staying on either end of our trip, we lucked into a local guide who showed us some local hotspots in the Missouri Headwaters Area, and we picked up a few more new birds.

Texas:  my marvelous wife sent me to Texas for the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in November.  It is a cliche that first-timers really load up on lifers in Texas, but the cliche is true.  It got 49 lifers in 5 days of birding, and saw 167 birds, more than we saw in Montana and Wyoming combined.  Man, it was fun!

Florida:  Finally, a family trip at Christmas to the Orlando area netted my son and I some good birding time.  We missed most of the birds we had targeted, such as red-cockaded woodpecker and Bachman's sparrow, but saw around 90 birds on sporadic trips near where my parent's live.

Overall, I picked up 95 lifers and saw 362 birds in 2014 to get me to a grand total of 419 (300 of which are in Mass.).

Next post will be a year in record shots (some resembling actual photography!).