A Week to Remember

It’s right around September that the lines get drawn in Delaware. For the past month and half you’ve been driving to Kent and Sussex counties to scour mudflats, impoundments, and potato fields. Maybe you’ve taken a break and looked for roosting terns at Prime Hook and Port Mahon. You’ve seen an amazing array of birds – grass-pipers, golden-plovers, pelicans, and ibis. Your car is covered in a fine layer of gravel dust, your legs have bloody red smears on them, and you still haven’t seen a Curlew Sandpiper. You’ve had a great time but it’s starting to get a bit repetitive.

Maybe its time for a change of scenery, you think.

Thankfully, you don’t have to go far. Drive north an hour to the Piedmont, to the land of steep hills and sinuous roads, to the land of broad-wings and mixed-species flocks.

September is prime time for birding in northern Delaware. It’s the one time of year that birders flock from the south to the north. The pendulum, at least for a while, shifts. For us who live in Newark and Wilmington, it also means it’s the one time of year when our birding commute is a short one. No more carpooling on the way to Sussex, wracked with guilt as we watch our odometers spiral higher and higher.

Instead, I’m fifteen minutes from home, perched on a grassy hill at Ashland Nature Center in Hockessin watching raptors zip by, waiting in anticipation for the big broad-winged push. I’m waking up at the crack of dawn to drive one mile to Middle Run Natural Area in Newark to sift through migrants dripping from the trees.

This past week in northern Delaware has been a spectacular one. Bouncing between Ashland and Middle Run, I’ve tallied around 110 species, including 26 species of warbler. The species highlights have certainly been the rare migrant warblers at Middle Run, including Connecticut and Golden-winged. People go many years without seeing these species, and I’ve been lucky to see both within a week.

Golden-winged Warbler at Middle Run Natural Area on 13 September 2013. Photo by Derek Stoner.

But that isn’t it. It’s more than the species list that’s got me going. It’s been the surreal spectacle of it all – feelings that are hard to put into words.

The first moment that comes to mind occurred at Middle Run on September 6th and 7th, after the passage of a cold front. Dawn on the 6th revealed dozens of warblers streaming from tree line to tree line, concentrating in the trees illuminated by the first rays of sun. The sky was filled with their flight calls. Soon, the birds settled into the forest edge and scrub, and the next few hours passed in a birding-crazed blur. Here is a link to the ebird checklist from the morning of the 6th.

At dusk that same day, several of us were standing in front of the tree island in the tall grass meadow, birding as the sun went down. As we stood transfixed beneath them, dozens of warblers bounced around the treetop in a frenzy of zugunruhe. There was no need to spot a particular bird, just scan the tree, and you would have a whole new set of individuals to identify. As darkness finally fell and the birds disappeared, we all just stood there laughing in elation. It was truly amazing.

The second highlight of the week took place at the Ashland Hawk Watch. As my friend Taj wisely said, what makes or breaks a hawk watch are the people. I couldn’t agree more. Thankfully, the people at the Ashland Hawk Watch are exactly what you want: knowledgeable, easy-going, and full of good stories.

Of course, having lots of raptors doesn’t hurt either, and September 13th-15th didn’t disappoint. Anticipation was in the air as the weekend started out, after several days of southerly flow were broken by a strong front. The expected numbers didn’t materialize however, as winds remained strong and the weather somewhat unsettled. Although several hundred birds were seen on the 13th and 14th, there was still a sense of discontent. We wanted thousands.

I decided to sleep in on the 15th, exhausted after a few days of binge birding. My first mistake.

Second mistake? Leaving my phone on silent. As I finally woke, I saw I had seven new text messages.

“A kettle of 1,000 Broad-wings is over the hawk watch.” Oh God.

“Everyone get to Ashland now.” Bzoink. 5 minutes later I was out the door.

I arrived just as the tally hit 4,000 Broad-wings, and before the day was over it was to surpass 7,000. I lay on my back watching kettles circle overhead in the cloudless sky. It was dreamland. And of course, wonder is best served with good company… and that was certainly the case. Here is a video of a large kettle of Broad-winged Hawks over Ashland on the 15th.

Aside from the birds in New Castle County this week, I’ve spent time with great friends and made a lot of new ones. I got to witness the great hordes of an enthusiastic next generation at the ABA Young Birder Conference at Ashland. I got to hear a young birder correct his Dad as he asked his son if he had seen the bird species called a “Kettle.” The response? “Gosh, Dad. A kettle’s not a bird.” Late that night, surrounded by friends old and new, I rolled around in laughter at Pish & Twitch. Mad respect to my fellow rappers.

From left to right, Tim Schreckengost, Alan Kneidel, Ben Zyla, and Taj Schottland

All in all, I’ve got to say, September has solidified its position as the best month around. How do I know? Saturday night I kneed a hole in the drywall I was so excited. And September’s only half over! So… see you out there. There’s a front coming through.

Follow Migration with the Bird Migration App for iOS!

A while ago, an app surfaced called Bird Migration (for iOS only), developed by AppArchitect. The app gives you access to iOS friendly views of the National, Northeast, Southeast, Central Great Lakes, South Mississippi Valley, Upper Mississippi Valley, Great Plains, North Rockies, South Rockies, Northwest, and Southwest radars, but more specifically the reflectivity. With the a of the screen, you can see migration in real time. It’s that easy!

The app also gives you real-time winds from Weather Underground and links/access to radar predictions and analyses from various bird blogs. Bird Migration is free in the app store.

On a side note, I wrote up a summary of all the bird migration resources available online – The Ultimate Guide to Migration Online. Check it out!

Bar-tailed Godwit at Chinc – Twice!

During the month of August, I made the hour and a half drive to Chincoteague NWR, twice. The reason for both trips was to see the MEGA – Bar-tailed Godwit. The first trip took place on August 5th, where I met up with studs like Alex Lamoreaux and Tom Johnson as well as a dude doing a Big Year (you’ve all seen the movie, right?) and several other folks I’ve never met before.

Before I started the drive, Alex texted me that the bird was not refound, yet. I decided to make the drive anyway, just to meet up and bird with friends I only get to see every couple of months. When I rolled into the parking area at the Tom’s Cove Visitor’s Center, I saw Alex and proceeded to shoot the you know what for about fifteen minutes. I then suggested we walk across the road to look in Swan Cove as I saw several large shorebirds in the pool when I drove in. We walked over and started scanning through the birds – “Willet. Dowitcher. Marbled Godwit. Hey, wait, what is that dowitcher-type bird with a bicolored bill? Oh man, that’s it!” We jumped for joy as we drooled at the sight of this European rarity. OK, so maybe we didn’t drool, but I know Alex was close. We watched the bird for over an hour and got exceptional scope looks.

Bar-tailed Godwit (ssp. lapponica) - Virginia

‘European’ Bar-tailed Godwit at Chincoteague NWR, Virginia on 5 August 2013. Digiscoped with an iPhone 4S + Celestron Regal M2 80ED & Phone Skope Adapter. iPhone photo by Tim Schreckengost.

The second round ensued on August 24th. After a morning of bird surveys, Ben Zyla and I made the trek down to Chinc. Ben was looking to add the bird to his growing ABA year list. Again, we rolled up to the Tom’s Cove Visitor’s Center and started scanning Swan Cove. A few other birders were there and had already spent several hours searching for the bird. Discouraged and having no luck with the MEGA, Ben did what any sensible birder would do – look through flocks other than the flock of Marbled Godwits we stared at for what seemed like hours. Boom. He found it. The Bar-tailed Godwit was mixed in with a nice, tidy flock of Willets.

‘European’ Bar-tailed Godwit at Chincoteague NWR, Virginia on 24 August 2013. Digiscoped with an iPhone 4S + Celestron Regal M2 80ED & Phone Skope Adapter. iPhone photo by Tim Schreckengost.

Epic. Ben was stoked, as were the the rest of the bird nerds present. We watched the bird for an hour or so. It took flight several times and flew over to Tom’s Cove, then came right back. Eventually it decided to chill with it’s own kind – Marbled Godwits, and that’s when we hit the road back to Milton.

Bar-tailed Godwit (ssp. lapponica) - Virginia

‘European’ Bar-tailed Godwit and Willet at Chincoteague NWR, Virginia on 24 August 2013. Photo by Tim Schreckengost.

Two for two. I consider that a success. Until next time, bird hard my friends.

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