Us northern birders are out of our minds! I read that it was -21F in Buffalo yesterday and I felt it out there too. Meh. Bird tough or go home bored. So I have been seeing a Bufflehead hen or two hanging out in one of my local birding haunts (see pics from my last post) and I decided to keep checking back for the possibility of a Drake's arrival. My persistence payed off today and I braved the weather to get in with the smallest duck in North America. "One of these things is not like the other." If you know that song... good luck getting it out of your head!
This picture gives you a good idea of how tiny these adorable diving ducks really are. I had seen many Bufflehead form afar before today, but my close proximity in this instance allowed me to actually hear the Bufflehead's voice. Oh.My.Goodness! It was the cutest little growling-like noise I had ever heard. He called and called until his hen came paddling in next to him and I was even afforded an opportunity to hear her little laughing-like sounds as well. Awesome stuff! I couldn't believe the iridescence of the Bufflehead drake. It's a show stopper for sure!
I was also able to catch up with an adult Red-tailed Hawk tucked into a conifer tree trying to stay out of the wind and cold. This hawk has an amazingly colored belly band.
Closer inspection even allows you to see the frost around its eyes and blood around its beak.
I swung in real quick to check on the Great Horned Owl to finish off my night. Hope she and her eggs are warm enough up there.
Not much to say today. Getting the opportunity to photograph ducks up close is a product of the sub-zero temps we've been having in Buffalo lately. Most of the open water is frozen solid so we've been getting great concentrations of ducks in the small openings left. I've talked with my mentor (an expert) and we have decided the female Great Horned Owl is sitting on eggs. This is going to be a fantastic Winter and Spring! Pics:
Stopped in to look at some ducks today (26JAN2014) with excellent results. Right off the bat I had a close encounter with an American Coot that really hammed it up.
The next think I noticed was a possible melanistic female Mallard. That light patch of solid color above the eyeline and on the throat is not supposed to be there. Neato!
As I scoured the raft of ducks in front of me for any rarities or anomalies in plumage of the regular customers, the most beautiful Northern Pintail Drake came out of nowhere and really worked the camera for a minute. What luck!
I've seen a lot of Northern Pintails this winter, but none had ever come this close to me. I was really just reveling in the good fortune I was having on a random outing when it suddenly went silent. That's when things got real. In a lightning flash the raft to the right of me exploded into a flock. A juvenile Red-tailed Hawk came in at a real nice clip and actually stooped on a Mallard about 10 feet in front of my eyes. It was such a fantastic spectacle that it honestly took my breath away. I had to remind myself to exhale after the Hawk landed on a branch right above my head. I even had to take a few steps back to grab some stills. This might be my favorite photograph I've ever taken of a Red-tailed Hawk.
The Red-tailed Hawk did not disappoint. I'm going to call her a "she" because of the sheer gargantuan size. She actually jumped off the branch and stooped right over my head after another duck. The duck was no fool and tucked down as low onto the water as she could instead of flying up in the air and was spared for the day. The Hawk took off into oblivion leaving me awestruck and adrenaline filled. She didn't even act like I was there. Unreal.
It just couldn't get any better! No. It got better. She flew off into the direction of the nest she was previously raised in. I had discovered the old nest earlier in the Fall, and since I always stop by every large nest I know about in hopes of Great Horned Owls moving in, I decided to follow up. Today was my lucky day! This beautiful Great Horned Owl was staring me right in the face as soon as the nest came into view. I almost couldn't believe it. I looked around the base of the tree and was greeted by the complete lack of human footprints or owl pellets. That meant that she was undiscovered and probably on her first day or so of claiming the nest. I've been very careful not to disclose my location in this post because it is vital she stay as undisturbed as possible in the first few weeks. Once she has her Owlets fledging from the nest around May I might make the location known so birders can come in for pictures when the owls are more used to the people and location there. I can't stress enough how important it is to keep this nesting site a secret for now. If you happen to locate the nest using my pictures or detective work, please do not spread the word. Droves of people showing up could force her to flee the area and find another nesting site. A losing situation for everyone. Without further adieu, the reason I go birding:
I've included a gallery of additional pictures from the day, and until next time...
Bird hard and lifer,
Not a single lifer lately, but some great birding has gone down. I made it out with my friends, Kevin Rybczynski and Rick Thomas yesterday. Our main mission was to get the Long-eared Owl at Oatka Creek park as a lifer for Rick, but it turned out we had enough time to scour the countryside between Rochester and Buffalo for Northern Shrike, Rough-legged Hawks, and others. We were able to locate the Long-eared Owl in its secondary roosting location and it provided quite amazing views for all of us, and possibly the best views ever as a life bird for Rick. Happy that we had completed the main mission, we hit the back roads looking for a few other things like Eurasian Collard-Dove and the aforementioned raptors/murderous passerines. We spotted many interesting things like Eastern Bluebirds, Horned Larks, two Snowy Owls, and tons of Red-tailed Hawks, but were skunked on all of our target species. The act of birding never fails to be fruitful though, and we were all pleased to come across this fantastic specimen:
The Merlin is a medium sized falcon of maximum awesome. These blazing bullets of death can eat up to 900 song birds a year. Here in Buffalo NY and on the east coast in general we mostly get the Taiga race. This male shows off the beautiful coloration they get the "blue jacket" nickname for. The west coast gets the Pacific (black) race, and middle America gets the Prairie Merlin, who is the palest in overall coloration. In my quest to sex and id the race of our find, I noted an interesting nuance in the sexual dimorphism of the Taiga race. The male Taiga Merlin actually has a distinct black line in his lores, whereas the female has none. This could prove to be a handy tool in discerning male from female Merlin in the field. You can clearly see the black line just under the nostril that connects to the eye in the lores area. Scouring tons of field guides and pictures on the net, it is clear that female Taiga Merlin only has a blank lores area.
The Northern Shrike has continued to elude me despite going on a couple hour mission with my friend Sue Barth the other day, and looking again yesterday with boys. Luckily Sue and I were able to round out our day watching at least 7 Short-eared Owls barking and jousting over a large field with the added bonus of an adult male Northern Harrier. While I do see tons of Northern Harriers, I usually only see females and juveniles, so witnessing a Gray Ghost is always a pleasure. The day was heavy overcast and the birds came out late so I wasn't afforded any pictures, but I managed a few others over the last couple days.
I made it out to Oatka Creek Park in Scottsville NY today. Many thanks to Jim Adams and his wonderful, "A Year in Oatka Creek Park" blog. I don't think anyone would have found the lifer I scored today if it were't for his efforts. I was also emailed detailed directions by two awesome birders named: Glen Marrer, and Kat Kirsch. The bird was not at the location these two had found it in earlier, but my friends and I spotted a few Tufted Titmouse, Black-capped Chickadees, and a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers. I was lucky enough to meet up with a guy named Jim who found the bird earlier in the week at a different roosting location. He and his girlfriend led my group to the normal stomping grounds of Owl after we had looked around at the previous location for a little while. Thanks for that whoever you were. What a fantastic and cooperative bird it turned out to be. My friends, John Sullivan, Cody Kamalii, and I spent about five minutes admiring this nocturnal beauty who was sitting just a few feet off the trail in a big ol' tree. I'll let the pictures speak for themselves:
I also took a nice stroll through Reinstein Woods in Buffalo NY the day before (15JAN2014) and snapped a few pics of a Red-tailed Hawk that lives there. I spotted an additional SSHA, and 2 COHA while there.
Stopped into Buffalo NY's famous Central Terminal on the way home from work today. I was greeted by a Peregrine Falcon ripping the feathers from a fresh kill at the top of the building and another staring up at it from the nest box. It was hazy, cold, and windy today, but both falcons were very active. One flew over my head so low and fast that I did an involuntary fist pump like when your team scores a big touchdown.
I noted three Rock Pigeons around the building. They always seem to be there and I must say in the most scientific way as possible that the Central Terminal Pigeons have to be the most gangsta Pigeons in all of Buffalo. What kind of hard knock would live next to a 240mph death machine that calls you lunch? Snapped a few grainy pictures despite the lighting and weather.
I was able to take a nice trip out with my good friend and mentor, Alec Humann around the Niagara region of NY the other day (08JAN2014). What a day it was! We headed up to Meahl Road in Lockport NY to start our adventure by scanning the fields for Short-eared Owls. While we didn't see any right away, we did come across a few Northern Harriers. This boded well since the two species share the same prey items and hunting grounds. I asked Alec if we could swing around a long road to circle a huge field and I ended up spotting a large flock of Horned Larks right away. I wasn't able to snap any good pictures, but they did end up flying right over Alec's truck, and I could make out the yellow and black facial features of the bird in my bins while I heard them singing away as they flew over. This was a pretty sweet deal as I had never seen Horned Lark, and you can't beat a lifer flyover. Not two minutes later I was slapped in the face with yet another lifer! Alec spotted a dark mass in the corn field just as we started to pull away and slammed on the brakes. There it was! A Short-eared Owl in the middle of the day. The strikingly beautiful bird was sitting about 100 meters off the road in an old corn field and I was able to pull off one good picture as the sun came out from behind the clouds and said, "Savor this moment forever." So it was said, so it was written:
What an incredible predator! They're known to be active in the day when food is plentiful, but we suspect this one might have been flushed from its roost by something or other. I tried taking some better pictures but the Shortie continued on its journey across the expansive field. Sometimes one is enough. I'll never forget my lifer now. Alec and I drove all the way out to Wilson Tuscaroga State Park where I often play disc golf in the summer and then straight up to the Wilson Pier. Both of us wanted to see Northern Shrike and I needed one for my life list. Try as we might, there was not a Shrike in sight. I've been studying this murderous passerine for a while and I might be slightly obsessed with the bird. Ah well. You can't win 'em all. We saw tons of Red-tailed Hawks, and both common accipiters (SSHA & COHA) on our journey up to the pier. There we spotted tons of various ducks including a sole Canvasback that I didn't expect. The complete list of new birds is reflected in my year list dated 08JAN2014 and can be seen my clicking >here.<
We headed back to Meahl Rd. hoping to put our eager eyes onto some Rough-legged Hawks with the possibility of more owls, and we were not disappointed! Out of nowhere... as if in repentance for not giving us a Northern Shrike, the bird gods decided to drop a light morph juvenile Rough-legged Hawk on our heads. I can't get enough of these arctic raptors! They've got feathers all the way down their tibia, tarsus, and almost onto their feet! I wasn't able to get great pictures because of the fading light and distance, but any identification picture is a good one. Here is the best of the bunch, followed by a less focused shot with a better angle:
I left the house with my head down. I never looked up once as I walked to the car. I drove to my friend, Jim's house staring intently at the road and never looking up. I was bound and determined not to have my first bird of 2014 be an invasive species. Despite all my efforts, I failed. "Miserably failed" would be a much better way to describe it. A small flock of little brown birds flew across the street on the way to my friends'. UGH! House Sparrow. Not the way I wanted to start my year. I was kind of fooling myself into believing I couldn't be sure they were House Sparrow when I saw a tree full of dark black objects as I drove along. Nooo! European Starling. Unreal. My first two birds of the year are invasive species. Just to rub it in, the bird gods decided to line a roof with plump little grey blobs right in front of me. I couldn't believe it. Rock Pigeons. Three invasive species to start my year. Meh. They have their roles.
On my way to Squaw Island North, a fellow birder reported that there was a Lapland Longspur spotted with Snow Buntings on the Railroad tracks that cross the border into Canada. What luck! I need that bird for my life list and the tracks are right on Squaw Island. I pulled up with my friend Jim and scoured the entire length of the tracks from both sides and turned up nothing but two Song Sparrows. Unfortunate. I really wanted that Lapland Longspur. I listened to its songs and looked at a couple of pictures on the way there. What a beauty. Jim and I gave up and continued as planned for Gulls on the river. We walked down to the lock where I was greeted by a huge group of Ring-billed Gulls with a Herring Gull for good measure. Just two days ago the entire place was filled with Bonaparte's Gulls. I noted that the river inlet there was frozen over now, and I postulate that might be the reason for the change in birds. There were a few Bonaparte's Gulls around, but nothing like when the area was free of ice. A couple of female Red-breasted Mergansers, American Coots, and a Female Redhead were hanging around the lock there.
I noticed two other birders with scopes down the pier and I made my way over to them in hopes of getting some good information on peculiarities they might have seen. My original intention was to re-spot an adult Black-legged Kittiwake that I discovered a few days prior. It was my first real rare bird alert and come to find out, these two guys were looking for it. They had no luck and I suspect it was because this particular Black-legged Kittiwake was flocking with the Bonaparte's Gulls whenever I saw it. I guess their absence in the area had something to do with it not being there. A birder Named Peter spotted a first year Iceland Gull out in a raft of Ring-billed Gulls and I got it as soon as I looked out. I love the almost pink hues they have. I was able to spot a Bald Eagle near their nest on Strawberry Island while I was standing there enjoying the ice flow down the river. It made a pleasant sound as it was constantly being crushed against itself. I was a little disappointed that the Bonaparte's weren't out in good numbers because I wanted the Kittiwake and a Little Gull for 2014, and their absence meant I wouldn't likely find the other two birds I was really looking forward to. Not all was lost though. You can't beat a Bald Eagle and on our way out I spotted a female American Kestrel carrying a mouse up to a telephone pole. Good stuff indeed. 2014 is going to be a great year.