Delaware: A Twitcher’s Playground

I had just gotten back to Newark, DE after a 500-mile marathon drive from Charlotte, NC. I was on the downside of a 5-hour energy and the audiobook voices of Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow were running rampant through my head.

Staggering into my room to lay down and rest my frazzled bum, I heard my housemate Taj Schottland screaming from down the hallway. Oh no, I thought.

Was there a rodent loose in the basement? Were there scantily clad babes at the door?

No and…no.

Instead, Taj alerted me that there was a King Eider in southern Delaware at the Mispillion River Inlet. Bzoink. My first reaction was NO. I WON’T. My second, involuntary brain calculation ran as follows a.) King Eider = state bird b.) must go now.

An 1.5 hour later we were standing on the deck of the Dupont Nature Center overlooking the Mispillion River flow into Delaware Bay. After moments of bird-less anxiety, we leaped into the air as a young male eider swam out from its sandbar recluse. The bird was visible for only ten seconds before it swam behind a wall of phragmites. Check out Tim Schreckengost’s account of this bird by clicking here.

Mission accomplished. Delaware year bird #260.

After the momentary elation, a tiny pang of guilt hit us. The come down. 1.5 hours of driving to watch a bird for ten seconds, only to turn around again? What’s wrong with us??

To solve this moral quandary, we drove another thirty minutes south to meet up with Tim Schreckengost and Ben Zyla at the Dogfish Head Brewery in Rehoboth.

What’s the moral of the King Eider Story? The moral is that in Delaware, even after 5 p.m., you can drive to the other end of the state, get a state bird and a couple beers, and get home by 9 p.m.

Okay, now let’s rewind a few months, back when I didn’t care about state and county lists.

That’s the attitude I brought with me when I moved to Delaware for graduate school in January. Although I’m a very serious birder, it took me a month to drive five minutes to see the 1st state record Anna’s Hummingbird. At the same time, I turned a blind eye to countless other nearby vagrants, whether it was a woodstar, fieldfare, or godwit. Rather than mooch off others discoveries, I’d always found greater thrill in the search for the unfound… or… maybe I just saw it as a waste of gas and time.

Then why did I drive down for a King Eider? A bird I’ve seen a bunch of?

Things change.

How?

You just have to move to Delaware. If, for whatever sadistic reason, you wanted to convert a sane person into a twitching lister, just tell them to pack their bags and move to The First State.

For state and county lists, nowhere is the playing field more level, the terrain more accessible. 3 counties. 1 state.  90 miles north to south, 30 miles east to west. Hilly and deciduous in the north, flat as a pancake marsh, pine, and agriculture to the south. It’s that simple. Highest elevation? A paltry 450 feet. There is nothing standing between you and running circles around this state.

Newark Reservoir, one of my new favorite haunts in Delaware. Best bird at the reservoir so far this year? Red-necked Phalarope.

It doesn’t hurt that packed within Delaware’s 2,500 square miles are some of the premier birding hotspots on the east coast, including Delaware Bay, Bombay Hook and Prime Hook NWR. The tiny state boasts around 405 recorded species, including mega rarities like Whiskered Tern, White-winged Tern (three at one time) and European Golden-Plover.

I’ve now lived in Delaware eight months, and have become a compulsive state lister. Whereas I still scoff at breaking it down to counties, I’m not sure about anything anymore. I’m obsessed.

Anyways, I’d tell you more but I’ve got to go… I need to add Black Tern to my fledgling state list. And yes, I’m willing to mooch.

More stories to come.

THE TUBENOSE THAT LOST ITS WAY…

I would like to introduce Bobby Wilcox, a good friend of mine, who just got started in field ornithology. I had the pleasure of working with him this spring in Blythe, CA and along the lower Colorado River. Recently, Bobby found Arizona’s second state record of Sooty Shearwater. Here’s his story!

Part of what makes me a birder is that I love looking at any bird, all the time.  If one is out there looking and paying close enough attention they are bound to witness beautiful moments perpetrated by the commonest of birds that might otherwise be overlooked.  A proud father House Sparrow feeding his new baby discarded crumbs from your breakfast table.  A mother American Coot tirelessly scouring the bottom of a pond to bring up tasty morsels for her two begging zebra striped fuzz balls.  While these moments are precious and wonderful, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that part of what keeps me going out there to the same spots day after day is the possibility of stumbling upon a diamond in the rough.  I think every birdwatcher, from casual to maniacal can relate to the thrill of getting an unexpected lifer or encountering a cryptic bird and then feverishly sketching notes and details and putting your Sibley through its paces in search of a positive ID.

When I left my house in Yuma, Arizona at 6 a.m. the other day my plan was to get in a couple hours of birding, scour the countryside for flooded agricultural fields (notorious shorebird traps in the desert), hit up nearby Mittry Lake and maybe pick up a few terns or early migrant ducks and head home before 10 a.m. so I could get in a jog before the temps topped 100 degrees.  My first stop was a flooded field that had been draining for days leaving mudflats behind.  The shorebirds were abundant and fairly diverse and I was excited to pick up my first Snowy Plovers of the year, figuring this would probably be my ‘best’ bird of the day.  As I was getting ready to head out it started blowing up a gale and I had to retreat to my car lest my optical equipment (including my eyes) get sandblasted.  I thought to myself that this was perhaps an inauspicious omen for my planned morning of birding and briefly considered heading home.  In the end I decided to try Mittry Lake anyway since it was somewhat sheltered by mountains and as I recall, I really didn’t have anything better to do.

Half an hour later I pulled into a favorite spot of mine that looks out on a big open expanse of lake as well as a marshy area with a hidden pond that is sheltered from the main body of the lake.  By this time I can pretty much enter my eBird checklist without even getting out of my car (6 Western/Clark’s Grebes, 50 Coots, 2 Least Bitterns, 2 Green Herons, 1 Snowy Egret, a few Pied-billed Grebes, Loggerhead Shrike, flyover flock of White-faced Ibis, etc., etc.) but I always stop there anyway because there are lots of birds and you just never know what you might see.  So I set up my scope and started tallying up the usual suspects when half a kilometer off in the distance something caught my eye.  When I locked onto it with the naked eye I just saw a fairly large brown bird with long wings fly low over the surface of the water and then come in for a landing on the surface.  My first thought was cormorant but when I zeroed in with the scope it was clearly not a cormorant.  From that distance it appeared to be gull-shaped with a gull-like bill so this is the point from which I began my ID process.  It would be a phenomenal understatement to say that gulls are not my specialty so I decided to use this rather cryptic bird as an opportunity for study since it was the only bird there that I hadn’t seen 100 times already.  I took out my notebook and began to scribble down features: gull-like, dark brown overall, all dark head with a very clean, sleek look, bill somewhat lighter at the base and dark at the tip, throat and breast feathering a bit lighter brown than back, wingtips also darker than back, seen initially flying low over water then landing and floating.  This is what I wrote down as I popped on my scope adapter and iPhone and let the cameras roll.  Once I had some notes down I cracked the Sibley and started sifting through the options.  At this point I was pretty convinced it was a juvenile gull so I’m leafing through the gull section giving closer examination to the ones with potential.  I narrowed it down to Herring Gull, California Gull and Heermann’s Gull but I couldn’t convince myself that any of them quite fit.  A few times I almost decided to pack it in and just send the pictures to my gull-obsessed friend David Vander Pluym but as I was mulling this option over in my head the bird kept floating closer and as I mentioned before, I had nothing better to do, so I kept watching and videoing.  When it approached to within about 150 m I began to get the suspicion that there was more to this ‘gull’ than I had originally surmised.  Upon closer inspection I began to notice a peculiar structure at the base of its upper bill and thought, ‘No, this can’t possibly be a tubenose, can it?’.  I’d never even seen a tubenose before but I was well aware that they are open ocean birds so if I was indeed seeing one on a tiny lake in SW Arizona, this bird was pretty far from home.  I went back to Sibley with a new focus and kept watching the bird, all the while becoming more convinced of its true identity.  Then all of a sudden I was blessed with the moment I’d been waiting for as the bird lifted it’s long narrow wings to reveal a bright silvery white panel on its underwing (sadly my phone had died by this point due to all the previous videoing).  Sooty Shearwater!!

Sooty Shearwater at Mittry Lake, Yuma Co, AZ on 5 August 2013. iPhone photo by Bobby Wilcox.

Or at least I was pretty sure based on my incredibly limited knowledge and the agreement of the field guide with my observations.  Shortly after the fortuitous wing lift, it took off and skimmed the water for a few hundred meters before landing again near the shore.  I hurriedly packed up my gear to drive over and get a closer vantage.  Unfortunately there was a car in front of me on the way over and I think it flushed the bird and by the time I got there the bird was nowhere to be found.  The wind was whistling by this time so he must have just lifted off and caught a breeze back home.

Sooty Shearwater at Mittry Lake, Yuma Co, AZ on 5 August 2013. iPhone photo by Bobby Wilcox.

I puttered around the area for a while but came up dry so headed home to pull some screen shots from my video and get them out to some experts to make sure I wasn’t just making this all up.  It took the aforementioned David Van der Pluym and partner Lauren Harter, two Southwest birding luminaries, about 2 minutes to verify my suspicions and excitedly inform me that they were immediately driving down from Lake Havasu City (3.5 hours away) to try and resight it.  Sadly, the combined efforts of the three of us and local birding superstar Henry Dutwiler and his wife failed to produce the bird but another open ocean bird, the Brown Booby, was found just a few miles north of my initial Shearwater sighting.  It would seem that these birds were probably just enjoying a leisurely soar over the Sea of Cortez, a hundred odd miles south of here, when the wind kicked up and they just happened to be at the wrong altitude and before they knew it they were on a podunk lake in the middle of the desert.  This is a fairly common phenomenon that often occurs during tropical storms and the like but can obviously also happen on really windy days with no storm in sight (see David and Lauren’s blog for more detailed info on this topic – http://phainopeplafables.com/2013/08/07/inland-seabirds/).

So the moral of the story is, when the weather sucks, go birding anyway!  You might just get lucky and find yourself in the right place at the right time.  And to top it all of it turns out this was only the second state record for Sooty Shearwater and the first one was found dead so it’s kind of like the first and a half record.  First tubenose, lifer and second state record all in one bird…not too shabby.

Check out Bobby’s photos on the AZFO Photo Documentation page as well.

Good birding!
Bobby Wilcox

King Eider at Mispillion Inlet

Last Tuesday, Chris Bennett posted that he had a King Eider at Mispillion Inlet, AKA the DuPont Nature Center. He sent the report out around 2:00 PM, but I didn’t find out until Taj Schottland messaged me about an hour later. Luckily, Mispillion Inlet is only 25 minutes from my field house and Ben Zyla and I were on spot in no time. Chris was still there when we arrived and pointed us in the direction of the bird. Although distant and wrapped in heat haze, we had decent scope looks of our lifer King Eider!

King Eider at DuPont Nature Center (Mispillion Inlet), Kent Co, DE on 13 August 2013. Digiscoped with an iPhone 4S + Celestron Regal M2 80ED & Phone Skope Adapter. iPhone photo by Tim Schreckengost.

We think this bird is an adult male in eclipse plumage. Compare the bird pictured above (I know it’s a terrible photo, but for what it’s worth) to this immature male that Alex Lamoreaux of Nemesis Bird photographed in Cape May earlier this year.

According to eBird, this represents the first August record of King Eider for Delaware. In fact, there aren’t many records for the northeast in August. There are records from Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and Maryland.

King Eider eBird Records for August. Credit – eBird.org

This is an exceptional sighting and is the only bird being reported in the east this month, August 2013. King Eiders breed in the arctic and winter along the northern half of the east coast and in southwest Alaska and the Bering Sea in the west. A quick look through eBird records shows about a dozen sightings, give or take, in Delaware, all-time.

It’s an unusual year for sea-dwelling waterfowl with Common Loons, Black Scoters, and Red-breasted Mergansers summering along the east coast. Some of these birds that are showing up now may have failed during the breeding season and dispersed early. Why do you think this is happening? Let us know in the comments!

Again, thanks to Chris Bennett for getting the word out quickly! Since the initial report, dozens of birders have twitched the eider. It is still being seen today, August 18.

Nikon Promo – amazing deals on Nikon’s PROSTAFF series!

Nikon is running an EPIC deal on their PROSTAFF line of optics. If you’re in the market for a new spotting scope or pair of binoculars, you should click on the image below and check out their specials. It’ll change your life. The promo is running from August 2nd to September 22, 2013.

One-a-Day eBird Challenge – How are you doing?

Robert introduced the One-a-Day eBird Challenge a year or two ago. Since then, I have made submitting an eBird checklist a top priority each day. I submit checklists from my yard, gas stations, grocery store parking lots, state parks, etc. You get the point, right? It’s not hard to submit one checklist each day, especially with BirdLog for iOS and Android. BirdLog is a necessity and should be on every birder’s smartphone. Check out Robert’s review of BirdLog here.

Continue reading here…

Have a GoPro? Phone Skope has a setup for you!

Recently, Phone Skope released adapters for GoPro‘s Hero 2 and Hero 3 cameras. They have an adapter to give you a digiscoping adapter as follows – GoPro Hero 3 + Spotting Scope & Phone Skope C-2 Adapter. They also have an adapter for the GoPro Hero 2. Check it out on a Vortex Razor HD below.

Here’s a bit from Phone Skope on the product: “Simply attach our unique C-2 Pro Skope Kit to your GoPro and then you will be able to connect your go pro to most all optical devices!”

Check out this video on the installation of the adapter:

Be sure to check out www.phoneskope.com for your smartphone digiscoping needs! They make an adapter for most smartphone and spotting scope/binocular combinations. Also, follow Phone Skope on FacebookTwitterPinterestYouTubeGoogle +, and Instagram!

What do you think? If you had a GoPro, would you use it for digiscoping? Let us know in the comments!

Birding Delaware: Indian River Inlet to Bombay Hook

Two weeks ago, Alex and I, along with a few birding friends, tore it up in southern Delaware. We didn’t plan on doing a “Big Day,” but instead were planning on a full day of casual birding. After a late night of birding and hanging out at Dogfish Head, we started the morning searching for Prothonotary and Yellow-throated Warblers at Prime Hook NWR. Turkle Pond Rd. (eBird Checklist) is the hotspot for these particular species during the breeding season. Unfortunately, the birds were not singing this particular Sunday morning.

Continue reading here…..

Ruddy Turnstone at Cape Henlopen State Park, Delaware on 29 July 2013. Digiscoped with an iPhone 4S + Celestron Regal M2 80ED & Phone Skope Adapter. iPhone photo by Tim Schreckengost.Birding Delaware: Indian River Inlet to Bombay Hook