Thursday, December 11, 2008

Female Ring-necked Duck—Mystery Solved!

Ding Ding Ding- We have a winner! I am confident to say this mystery duck that I saw at Four Ponds Conservation Area in Pocasset, MA is a female ring-necked duck.

Source: Lloyd Spitalnik's Wildlife Galleries

Leah at BlueBirdFriendliness gave me a good tip about Scoters and Eiders, and I was fairly confident that it was a Female Common Scoter in 2nd year breeding plumage, but the ring on the bill was lacking in the pictures I found.

As my friend Dave always tells me, if there is a key characteristic missing then it probably isn't a match and keep looking. I should have known better but didn't think I could get any closer.

Thanks to Andy at for helping me solve this mystery! I better study up and spend more time outdoors so I can get a little sharper.

Common Scoter 2nd Year Female Breeding Plummage: Possible Mystery Duck ID

Thanks to Leah at Bluebird of Friendliness for the tip on the Mystery Duck ID (shown above). I looked at some pictures of Ruddy Ducks, Eiders and Scoters. I found a great picture of a female Common Scoter in 2nd year breeding plummage that looks like a close match.

Source: Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

White-throated Sparrow and Other Backyard Visitors

I was out in the yard again on Saturday practicing with my tripod. It's very tricky how I need take the camera off the mount to flip it around so I can either aim up or aim down. It's still pretty cool though and I'm excited about the stable pictures that I'm able to get now.
Since our back lawn has tree-lined borders on either side, that is naturally where the birds like to hang out. Unfortunately it looks like I like to spy on my neighbors with binoculars and tripod-mounted camera!

Tufted Titmouse:

White-throated Sparrow:

Dark-eyed Junco:

Carolina Wren:
Ok- so the Carolina Wren and White-throated Sparrow aren't the greatest, but those birds are fast! They're so tricky to photograph. Practice makes perfect :) Can't wait to get out there again.

Four Ponds Ducks

Armed with my new Dynex tripod I made a special trip to Four Ponds over Thanksgiving to try and get some decent Bufflehead pictures once and for all.
My mom and Steve joined me. We left poor Marsy (our black lab) at home since we didn't want her to scare the birds away. Even with all of these things in my favor--tripod, no dog, known Buffleheads on a small pond-- I still cannot get a decent picture.
We went directly to the pond that borders County Rd. since we saw the ducks there on our way to the Barlow's Landing Rd. parking lot. I quietly moved ahead and crouched down to set up my tripod. I went with the 60" lightweight one since I thought it would be best for carrying while birding. I figured I could easily kneel down and still aim the camera up whatever bird I was trying to get. Well, that's easier said than done when you're trying to shoot ducks in a pond surrounded by bushes. That, and the fact that they're easily spooked. Wonder why....

I was able to find some holes in the branches of the bushes and got at least a few shots.

Male Bufflehead:

Very distant shot of a Hooded Merganser pair:

It was very difficult for me to get the camera to focus on the ducks, and when I did they were still blurry since they were on the other side of the pond. It also must have been entertaining watching me fumble around trying to adjust the camera angle on that thing.

Steve wasn't paying attention anyway- he was busying watching the house sparrows scramble away because of this guy.

Juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk:

The hawk had been in a tree directly above where I was taking pictures, and then flew to the other side of the pond, which is when I got the picture above. The most noticeable characteristics about this hawk were its small size, it's buffy-colored breast, the white spots on its back, and the barred tail.

Before leaving this pond my mom pointed out this very pretty bird's nest among some bittersweet:

I'm not so bad when I'm actually trying to focus on the branches!

Here's the final picture from the day. It's a mystery duck to me. I took Larry's suggestion and tried posting it to a photo-sharing sight, but didn't get very far. I went to Bird Forum, and once I remembered what my username and password were I tried posting the photo, but the size restrictions were just too much and I gave up since it was taking so long.

Can anyone suggest another, more user-friendly bird photo-sharing site? I do want to get into the habit of running my mystery photos by skilled birders, but in the meantime I want to share this photo anyway.

The most distinctive thing about it is the all-white cheek/face and the thin band on the bill. However, the sun was very bright so there's a chance the whiteness of its face could be exaggerated.
I've referenced all of my guides, and usual bird websites to no avail. But, I did discover a helpful guide on the Ducks Unlimited site: Shortcuts to Duck ID.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Project FeederWatch- Week 3

It's been raining all day but that hasn't stopped the birds! They were a little slow to rise, but sure enough around 11:00 they were swarming the feeders. I couldn't believe how active they were even when the rain was at its heaviest.

It's been just the usual suspects so far, but I did see an interesting sparrow. Since I've been watching from the safety of my covered porch I wasn't able to get close enough to get a good shot, and had to rely on the strength of my Canon PowerShot's zoom. Fortunately I had the steadiness of my new tripod in my favor. It's not very tall, but I can set it up on the table in the porch. It works out pretty well.

The rain has added an interesting element to my shooting today. Some of the pictures make the birds look like they have white specs on them.

Dark-eyed Junco and Tufted Titmouse:
Male Northern Cardinal:

Blue Jay and Squirrel:
I know squirrels are a nuisance but I don't see very many of them (this is maybe the second time I've seen one at my feeder) and I thought this was a cute picture.

I also had a sparrow visit briefly, but I couldn't get a good enough picture because the rain was coming down hard when I saw it. The most distinguishing characteristics I saw with my binoculars were a dark grey underside and brown wings/top feathers. My best guess is a Swamp Sparrow.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Project FeederWatch- Week 2

I just completed my second count for Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Project FeederWatch. I happen to have today off so I was able to spend more time than usual watching the feeders in my backyard.

It was a light week, compared to last week:
Black-capped Chickadee- 4
Blue Jay- 1
Dark-eyed Junco- 2
Tufted Titmouse- 1
White-breasted Nuthatch- 1
Northern Cardinal- 2
Song Sparrow- 1
The Song Sparrow was the only one that threw me off because I'm not used to seeing them when they start to bulk up for winter.

Here are some additional pictures of my second feeder, hung on a fallen scrub pine tree. It doesn't look too nice laying on our back lawn, but I haven't had the heart to cut it up because the birds love it. Considering the open landscape of our back lawn, it's nice to give them someplace to hide from raptors while they're visiting the feeder.

Here is a Black-capped Chickadee at the feeder. They especially love this feeder because I only fill it with the black oil sunflower seed, and it's a lot easier to get at it since there's a tray on the feeder.
Here is a picture of some bittersweet vines that cover the trees at the back border of our yard. One of the questions on the Project FeederWatch questionnaire was about the presence of fruited trees/shrubs in your yard. The birds seem love the bittersweet berries- I saw a Tufted Titmouse and some Chickadees climbing on them just now. Since I know it's poisonous to humans, I had never thought of birds eating it. I just did a search online and found some information in online gardening forums saying birds do eat it.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Project Feederwatch

Today is the official start to Project Feederwatch, operated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. This is my first year participating and I'm excited because it will make me much more disciplined about birdwatching. I've never done counts before, so I think it will be helpful in getting into the habit of doing that.

Although today is the official start date, I won't be starting my counting until Tuesday. I've decided to count on Tuesdays and Wednesdays since the odds of me being around are much higher than the weekends. Plus, it will be good motivation to get up early to watch the feeder before work (and start my day earlier on Tuesdays and Wednesdays). With the time change, it's actually daylight when I get up now so it shouldn't be too hard.
This morning I went out back for a practice run. I knew there would be a lot of birds since I had been hearing them outside starting around 7am. The feeders were in rough shape (the smaller one was empty, and the long tube one only had seed at the very bottom and it was difficult to get at).

That didn't bother the birds though—the yard was teeming with groups of dark eye-juncos, titmice, and Carolina wrens. I was most excited about the Carolina wrens since I find that they're usually pretty shy. The video I got of the Carolina wren's song at my parents' house on the Cape shows just how hard they can be to capture- they're constantly flitting around. I also had never observed more than two at a time. As you can imagine, their activity this morning caught me entirely off-guard. I counted about 7 max. at one time. They were hanging out in the maple tree right outside my bedroom window. I usually only see them in low brush. Even stranger, one at a time, a few of the boldest ones visited the tube feeder! Ironically, the Project FeederWatch site features an image of a Carolina Wren at a feeder, so I guess it's not as rare as I thought:

Image source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Here is my official count from my time out there this morning:

Blue Jay - 3

Northern Cardinal - 2*

Tufted Titmouse - 4

Dark-eyed Junco - 8

Carolina Wren - 7

White-breasted Nuthatch - 2

House Sparrow - 8

Song Sparrow - 1

American Robin - 3
Black-capped Chickadee - 2

I'm also supposed to record temperature and precipitation. I didn't really pay close attention to it this morning, but I do know it's not raining and it's 63 degrees. I'll have to pay closer attention to that on Tuesday.

*According to the data collection rules, males and females must be counted separately even if they are sexually dimorphic (males and females look different). They can only be counted as 2 if they are both seen at the same time. In my case I had a male and female pair on the feeder tree at the same time.

Here are some pictures from this morning.

Tufted Titmouse:

Song Sparrow:

Monk Parakeet Nests in Bridgeport, CT

Here are some pictures I took last weekend in Bridgeport, CT. Steve and I went to a concert in New York on Halloween and then on Saturday we went for a walk in nearby Bridgeport with some friends. Our friend Katelyn wanted to show us the monk parakeets but they were nowhere to be found. I did take some pictures of their huge nests. An urban legend she had head was that a priest kept them as pets and when he died the birds were released since there was no one to take care of them. I just did a little bit of research and didn't find anything that interesting- most sites just say they're the result of families tiring of them and releasing them since they didn't make very good pets.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Semipalmated Plovers and Sanderlings in Sandwich

Whew- that's a lot of s's in that title.

These are some pictures I've been sitting on since my trip to my aunt's beach in Sandwich, MA back in August. It was the same day I got the video of the herring gull eating the dead fish.


Group of sanderlings and semipalmated plovers:

Semipalmated plover:
I've been doing some birding here in Bridgewater, but haven't had too much luck yet in terms of lifers or rare birds. It's probably a combination of the lack of time now that I've adopted a commute and also poor planning on my part in terms of time of day.

Steve and I ventured into Hockomock Swamp on Sunday and 99% of the birds I saw were chickadees, except for a gray/yellow warbler that I spotted right before getting back into the car. I watched it with my binoculars, but by the time I got my camera out it was gone. It had a gray hood and yellow stomach. Those were the most distinguishable characteristics and unfortunately there are several warblers that fit that description. Connecticut Warbler perhaps?

I did have the opportunity to join the Brookline Birding Club for a trip to Cumberland Farms in Middleboro. Thanks to Christopher at Picus Blog for the invite. They were birding for sparrows that day, which is a bit too advanced for me (they all looked the same!), but it was a good learning experience nonetheless.

Another birding update- I joined
Project Feederwatch for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
It's my first time doing it and I'm really excited since I haven't been able to have a bird feeder until now. I'm a marketing analyst so I enjoy gathering and working with data and can appreciate the detailed instructions they gave to ensure the data they collect is as scientific as possible. I'm still trying to decide what my count days will be. Has anyone done it in the past? Any tips?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Eastern Phoebe- a First-time Backyard Visitor

There was finally a break in the weather yesterday so I decided to make a quick birding trip to nearby Stiles and Hart Conservation Park. According to the park profile it's "A Bird Watchers Paradise—A Nature Lovers get away right downtown." Despite having high hopes for my third trip to Stiles and Hart, I walked away without any good pictures. Sightings included the usual suspects-- blue jays, chickadees, titmice, downy woodpeckers, a flicker, among others.

Surprisingly, the best pics of the day came from my very own backyard. I have a suet basket, along with two birdfeeders set up, and noticed this Eastern Phoebe earlier in the day and was able to catch it on a return trip later in the day.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Domestic Goose Hybrid (Swan Goose?) in Farm Country

I just keep striking out today. First, I can't find my Sibley Guide (that's what moving will do to you) and now the Cornell bird site, All About Birds, is down. With the resources I have available I've come to the conclusion this is a White-fronted Goose, although I can't find pictures of any with such a huge bump on the beak. I first was looking at pictures of the Greylag Goose, but they were lacking the white band at the base of its beak.

These pictures were taken right after we moved into our new place in Bridgewater, aka "Farm Country" according to me. I've always been able to identify the region where I lived—I grew up on Cape Cod, I went to college in Central Pennsylvania, I've been living in and around Boston for the last 5 years. Now that we've moved to Bridgewater I'm at a loss. Maybe we live on the South Shore? That's the closest 'region' name I've been able to come up with so I decided to make up my own since I don't really feel like we live on the South Shore. I like Farm Country :)
And how appropriate that the first birding pic I took in our new town is of an agricultural bird! We were exploring the conservation land behind our house and came up on this large goose wading in this little river.

Here are some other pictures from the day:

Notice the birdhouse in this last picture. There are several throughout the conservation area. I can't wait to go back there again. The last few trips I made with my camera I didn't have much luck. I'm hoping to catch some migratory birds- that is, if they stop over in Farm Country. I hope so!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Juvenile Herring Gull

It's tradition to take a walk down to the beach whenever we have a family party. This one was at my aunt's house in East Sandwich, on Cape Cod.

I stopped to take some pictures of this beautiful juvenile herring gull, then moved on and photographed some sanderlings and semipalpated plovers. On my way back; however, I saw the same juvenile gull picking at a dead fish. I took some video of it pecking at it, so if you're squeamish you might want to pass on this one.

Here's the video:

Monday, August 25, 2008

Osprey and Northern Mockingbird on Cape Cod

These pictures are from my trip to the beach with my mom last Thursday. I was hoping to get some pictures of the Osprey (and her fledglings if they were still around) and sure enough she was out making some passes over Shore Road.

I was also following this Northern Mockingbird, who was very active. I followed it down to this dead tree where some sparrows were also hanging out. The Mockingbird was jumping and climbing about the tree like a monkey until finally perching atop one of the tallest branches of the tree, shown in the right-hand side of the picture.
Here's the close-up of that shot.

Later on I heard the Osprey, which alerted me to get my camera out quickly.

I wish I had had it with me back in July when the fledglings were out for practice flights. Their "bleating" calls caught my attention and there they were- probably four or so- flying in the exact same spot over Shore Road. About two minutes later their mother came from the other side of the road (where there are woods) and met them. Shortly after they made their way back to their nest atop the man-made perch. We have lots of these perches around Bourne (and other parts of the Cape).

According to an article in The Enterprise, Ospreys were almost completely wiped out in Massachusetts due to DDT. Apparently ospreys and other birds of prey are extremely susceptible to pesticides. There were just a dozen of them left before agencies stepped in. As a child I remember my grandmother and mother pointing out and explaining what the giant perches were. It was several years before I actually noticed the birds out flying around.

One particularly memorable encounter occurred at the same spot as Thursday- Monument Beach. This was back when I was babysitting in high school and I took the kids down to the beach to walk around. We oblivious to the fact that the perch was even there, and were wading in the water near the marsh and to the left of the road out to Tobey Island. All of a sudden the mother appeared, fervently protecting her young up in the nest, screeching and diving at us. Needless to say, we made that a short trip to the beach.

The Enterprise article goes on to share other interesting information about the osprey's nesting habits and conservation history in Massachusetts.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Spotted Sandpiper at Charles River

These first pictures are from my birding trip to the Charles River three weeks ago. It took me a while to figure out what these little wading birds were, but I feel pretty confident they're Spotted Sandpipers. According to Cornell's All About Birds Website (see the link in my blog's sidebar) they're extremely common on the edge of nearly any water source throughout North America.

I returned to the river today and was able to get some more pictures, this time of a solitary bird teetering on top of the lilypads:

Let me know what you think of my ID. The turning point came when I got to step 11 in my methodology: the National Geographic Birder's Journal. Sometimes it takes getting a fresh perspective to be able to see the way. Then I returned to my Sibley Guide to see his description of the Spotted Sandpiper that's when I picked up on the yellow bill notation in Sibley's description. Aside from the spots on the body, that was one of the most distinguishable characteristics and somehow I had missed it on my first pass through the book.

Identifying Birds

It took me an especially long time to identify a wading bird I had seen at the Charles River about three weeks ago. We were going through a dry period and the river was very shallow. The dam near Watertown Square was a prime spot for viewing herons and other wading birds. I took several pictures of two small birds that I guessed were sandpipers or something in the same family. I kept putting off identifying them in favor of posting pictures of other birds from the trip that I was sure of (the black-crowned night heron, eastern kingbird, juvenile wood ducks, juvenile downy woodpecker). It's not to say I was lazy during this time, it's just that sometimes it takes me a really long time to identify a bird.

I thought it might be interesting to share my methodology:

1. Upload the pictures from my camera

2. Delete the blurry pictures

3. Move the good pictures into a sub-folder labeled "Keepers"
4. If I don't have any good close-ups I'll zoom in and crop a picture using MS Paint. Those edited pictures will also get moved to the folder "Keepers"

5. Next, I'll work on identifying the birds I am not sure of, beginning with my Sibley Guide:

6. If I don't have any luck, I'll do Google searches for the the species that are the closest matches.

7. First I'll do a Google Search and then when the engine suggests browsing Image results I'll click on those.

8. When I click on a Google Image result I am quick to click "See full size image." rather than let the Web page load completely.
Birding blogs tend to load very slowly because of the number of images on the page, and depending on the number of posts on the page, it can be rather long, and I don't want to waste time scrolling through the images. That's why I click the short-cut Google gives in the frame at the top of the page. That way I can see the image from the thumbnail right away.

9. If I don't have any luck with the leads from my Sibley Guide I'll turn to my second bird guide, a book I picked up at Marshall's actually. It's "The Complete Encyclopedia of North American Birds" by Michael Vanner.

I find it helpful because it features pictures rather than illustrations. It doesn't offer the full range of male/female/juvenile images, but it's still helpful in verifying a hunch from a Sibley illustration.

10. If I get any good leads from the Encyclopedia I'll do additional Google Image searches.

11. If I'm still having trouble I'll reference my National Geographic Birder's Journal, which is very comprehensive, but these illustrations are in black and white and don't have details like size.

12. My final step for verification is one last Google Image search to confirm my identification.

I went through all 12 of these steps in fact to get to the identification of the two Spotted Sandpipers I saw teetering across the rocks at the dam.