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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Six Golden Grosbeaks in Petersham, Massachusetts

In the beginning there was light and a quite obnoxiously loud BANG. Fast forward 13 billion years or so and you get me. You have my permission to stop at any given point between me and the beginning. Maybe you will stop by in the Jurassic to observe that peculiar creature the Archaeopteryx or maybe you will decide to see the last Dodo, perhaps you will even wish to see the Elder Things battle with the Star-Spawn of Cthulhu. But I do insist that you eventually come to pause on me and preferably on the day of October the 28th, 2012. I have two reasons to chose this great date. First off; on this date in time I was alive currently suffering through my thirteenth year of life and secondly; this was the day that I scored my first flock of Evening Grosbeaks.

I had on this date taken it into my head that I was currently the soul New England birder who had not seen the aforementioned grosbeak, though to be fair to my earlier self there must have been at least a few other New England birders who suffered from the same lackingness as I. Whatever the case I was goaded by the constant stream of infuriatingly delicious local reports of the species and I decided that a quick bike ride around town could do me little damage. I, in fact, nearly lost my left hand to frost bite later that same day but at the hour of 9 am I knew nothing of that future. My mind made up, it was in no time at all that I found myself seeing for the first time a clip to add to my birding history about three minutes long that will be forever graven into my brain (unless of course I forget it). In general it was a fairly unremarkable three minutes for the average muggle but to me these three minutes, which were more than likely just a prolonged one minute, were quite special.

In Minute Number One I take my bike out the garage and slowly wheel it down our dead-end road on which for most weekends dwell I. On reaching the base of the road the bike, for no reason whatsoever neatly topples from under me and sends me and all my geeky-ness sprawling. I not-so-neatly pick myself up, scramble back onto the seat of the bicycle and turn right heading for the center of town. My wheels complete 70 or so rotations at regular cadence before with barely a screech the bike again comes to a halt. This time although the vehicle tumbles the ground, I do not. 

Minute Number Two is played out something like this: after the bike comes to a halt I release the handle bars and extract myself from the device. I then proceed to call my younger brother back from in his position in front of me (he had, to my annoyance, insisted on accompanying me on this ride although, he bike-less, had to jog the route). I turned my attention, which at this point in time was employed through my ears, to my right and began to analyze the sound that had so rudely disrupted my revery of the still spinning bicycle wheels.

The noise in question was obviously the call note of a passerine. It was a soft purring chip resembling what you would vocally get if you bred a Great-crested Flycatcher with a House Sparrow (if such a thing were humanely possible). It was at this point that my brother reached me and we first set our eyes upon the golden form of the Evening Grosbeak. 

It's golden colors were so brilliant that I had to remind myself not to scan the surrounding trees in hopes of seeing perched in one of them Yossarian, stark naked and eating chocolate covered Egyptian cotton being handed to him by the ever hopeful Milo Minderbinder. (As an abrupt aside, might I suggest that anyone observing me now should quickly rewind at this point to the Mediterranean island of Pianosa, circa 1944, on the day of one Snowden's funeral attended by the tree-d Yossarian. For not only is it undoubtedly the strangest funeral you will ever go to it is also at the exact location that Pianosa's only endemic bird is observed for apparently the first and last time (and was described as a brilliant gold not unlike my grosbeak).

Minute Number Three runs its course in a startling 60 seconds. In this time I watch the grosbeak flutter about in a Sugar Maple where it's distinguished plumage sets off a seeming blast of flames; its colors blending with the red and yellow of the maple's last few brilliant leaves. I can almost hear the crackle of the fire.

In the last thirty second dash before my three minutes run dry I witness a flash of white as the wings of the bird open and close and send it whizzing into the air where it blends with the drifting gold of so many leaves caught and tossed in the wind. I lose the grosbeak in the falling foliage but then I see the flash of white again and this time it is joined by five similar, dancing white and gold comrades. They drift to the top a of tree where they perch. Their huge bills stand out prominently against the overcast skies. The gray light falls on them softly and it bleaches the colors out of their feathers, replacing the vibrance with a dark imitation. They blur into the background, and, for a moment, I see them as the last six leaves on a bare tree and I watch as the fall breeze plucks at these leaves and pulls them free from the grasp of the tree but the leaves float up instead of spiraling downward as any self respecting leaf should. I see flashes of white once more and realize my mistake as the six grosbeaks disappear over the treetops. 

ABA Bird of the Year
For anyone wishing to see more birding excitement stick around on this date for a few more hours and you will see me watching a pair of Lark Sparrows a five minute walk from my house.  

Friday, October 26, 2012

Wood Sandpiper - Marsh Meadows Wildlife Preserve, Jamestown, RI - Oct/15/2012

The sandpiper did not think he was in Africa anymore.

After the billows of winds had picked him up and carried him, his inner compass had not been quite sure what to think. He had known there was water below him, an endless expanse of sickening blue, land had appeared after days at sea, the water seemed calmer and the winds gusts were less forceful, he had put down in a marsh surrounded by roads, cars and noise, apart for some cormorants and egrets he had remained alone, with the one nagging thought that he had no clue to his whereabouts. He was quite sure he was now completely lost. 

The birders didn't think he was in Africa either. After his initial discovery, he had, in minutes, seemingly become a celebrity. 

The bird was, as with most things still in early life, unsure of what to think of this new popularity. He suspected he enjoyed the attention but wasn't certain, mainly because he didn't have a clue why he was suddenly so liked. 

The birders knew the answer to this question, to them the answer was simple, this bird did not belong here. He was in fact the first Wood Sandpiper ever in recorded history to enjoy the delights of fresh Rhode Island seafood.

Once the sandpiper was informed of the rareness of himself, he was quite willing to be enjoyed by all. 
My mothers favorite feature of chasing a rarity is not the watching of the bird, but the antics of the mass of birders.

I must admit that the beauty of this quaint little shorebird exceeded my expectations.
On the fifteenth of October, two days after it had been discovered by RI birder Carlos Pedro (the discoverer of an equally confused, first state record Little Stint earlier in the year) we finally had the time to make the 45 minute drive from our house in the center of East Providence down to Jamestown's Marsh Meadows Wildlife Preserve. 

Our arrival at first seemed ill-timed and although there were twenty or so birders along North Road, which cuts directly through the marsh, the bird had remained hidden all morning. We were now faced with three options: the first was to wait with the other birders on the road. The second was to go for a short walk along the rocks at Beavertail State Park and hope that the birders had turned up something when we passed back along the road on the way home. The third plan involved us driving to the other side of the marsh and trying our luck on the sanctuary trails that abutted the marsh and which gave great views of the wetland. 
A birder observes the first Wood Sandpiper ever discovered in New England.

This third plan was soon agreed upon by us and in no time at all we were walking down the wooded trails of the refuge. The first loop we made of the trails turned up nothing unusual, other then the terrifyingly exciting sight of all twenty birders who had just minutes before been chatting quietly with one another as they scanned the marsh with their thousand dollar optics, now dashing along the far side of the swampy terrain. Needless to say we freaked out and sprinted away as fast as we could while being weighed down by binoculars and cameras and in my case a scope. Thus began a harrowing 20 minute sprint. First we tried running down the grassy verge of highway which goes past the entrance to the trail we were on and was in the general direction the birders had been running to. When we finally decided that the marsh and highway were not in fact connected at any crossable point we turned around and sprinted equally as fast back to the trail head and circled another loop of the wooded trail. This time we tried to find away across the marsh to the birders who had now stopped running and were instead happily observing something.

The first observation platform which was more of a bench really, seemed not to have any safe route to the marsh as did the second. The third was surrounded on all sides by phragmites but here it appeared that others likewise minded had cut through the tall grasses and made it safely to the marsh. We followed this rough trail until we reached the point where the phragmites was replaced by by a lower, native grass. Here the trail seemed more defined and we had no trouble walking the short distance to the birders and the Wood Sandpiper. 

Needless to say the bird was there and it was beautiful. We watched it for at least 45 minutes while our mother (who had steadfastly refused to walk through the muck and mire) grew slowly more impatient for our return. The only disappointment of the day was the loss of my notebook which now has been laid to rest somewhere in a deep puddle in the marsh.   

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A Book Review of the Birds of Europe

Birds of Europe 
text by Peter J.Grant and Lars Svensson, 
illustrations by Dan Zetterstrom and Killian Mullarney, 
Princeton Press, 1999 

A while back I attempted to compile a list of book reviews describing my top ten favorite guides. I failed this milk-run of a mission and tossed up only 8 such reviews, the last two have remained unwritten. I've decided to temporarily skip #2 (The Shorebird Guide by Michael O'Brien, Richard Crossley, and Kevin Karlson) and cut right to the last, and in my opinion, best guide. Enjoy: 

Have you ever ID'd a scoter by the way it dives? Or a Red-throated Loon by how it's neck moves in flight? Or distinguished the offspring of a Pochard male and a Tufted Duck female from the young of a Pochard female and a Tufted Duck male? No? Well that's probably because you haven't read this guide. This Princeton Press field guide is the ultimate bird guide: 400 sturdy pages of birding knowledge. Complete with amazing illustrations, 4-color range maps and comparatively long species texts, it covers everything from the Red-throated Loon to the Indian Silverbill. What other book fits illustrations of 20 Common Buzzards, 18 Honey Buzzards and 1 Marsh Harrier into one average sized page while still being completely visible? On top of the amazing quantity of the illustrations each picture is surrounded by field identification notes. Every description gives size, habitat, scientific name, the scarcity of the species in England, identification details and voice. The book include 848 species, 23 of which are introduced and 103 of which are vagrants. Indeed every species recorded in Europe before 1999 is covered. Nearly every species has a illustration of a certain behavior, gives a side-by-side comparison with another similar species, or merely shows a habitat preference. Whatever the case, in the way of illustrations, this book is not lacking! One feature I particularly like are the family introductions. Most of these are just a paragraph long but a few, like the intro for the gulls, are excessively long (but not in a bad way). The gull introduction contains 7 paragraphs on IDing gulls, their food preferences, their molt cycle and general observation tips. Along with these 7 paragraphs 30 individual gulls of numerous different species are illustrated.      
  The back of the book has a partially illustrated chapter on vagrants, a list of accidentals (rarer then vagrants), and partially illustrated chapter on introduced breeders. In short I have nothing wrong to say about this book. It really is the perfect field guide. All field guides at least attempt to set themselves at the top, but so far all but this one have succeeded in nothing more then failing when compared with this pinnacle of birding knowhow.