New England Coastal BIrds

New England Coastal BIrds

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

"The Witch of November Brings a Few Gifts"

     Saturday, November 23, 2013- Sachuest Point NWR, Middletown, Rhode Island- "Another November Pelagic Blow Out"! -  With the cancellation of the BBC pelagic trip a few weeks ago I was really looking forward to the Rhode Island pelagic trip organized by Carlos Pedro today. Prior to this pelagic trip, I carved a few more decoys that I was hoping to deploy off the stern of the Admiral Frances in the chum line with Carlos' blessing of course! I made a pair of Gannets, a Northern Fulmar, a pair of Kittiwake, a Lesser Black-backed Gull, and a few alcids. Being a bit early for alcids, I just wanted to try floating these decoys since I had made them using a new design, and wanted to make sure they floated properly on the sea. And besides, maybe a Razorbill or two would pass by the stern!? The alcid decoys included one each of Razorbill, Common Murre, Thick-billed Murre, winter Puffin  and a Dovekie. The winter plumage Black Guillemot and a few more Razorbills were still on my painting table.

     But that didn't really matter, because the Witch of November was still casting her windy spell across New England. With Northwest winds gusting up to 30 was a good call to cancel the trip. It might have been a productive day for seabirds, but the vessel would take a pounding and it really wouldn't be very comfortable or imprint pleasant memories for many new seabirders onboard! >

      Lesser Black-backed Gull>

      Kittiwake pair (adult in front, juvenile rear)>

       Juvenile Black-legged Kittiwake, Northern Fulmar and Gannet pair>

     After Carlos notified everyone Friday afternoon, Jen and I still wanted to enjoy the day birding on the Rhode Island coast. During the week, Snowy Owls have been reported all over New England; and two being reported in Rhode Island. One was being seen at Sachuest Point NWR at Island Rocks on the eastern shore of the Refuge. Jen really likes Owls so we decided to try for this bird first. When we were putting on our coats and gloves at the parking lot in Sachuest, I heard my name and looked up to find three familiar faces: Linda Gardrel, Barbara Sherman and Carlos. They were also getting ready for the cold temps helped along by that really biting northwest wind, for the walk across the Refuge to look for the Owl.

    Jen and I joined Carlos and walked leisurely down the path to the eastern shore. Linda and Barbara on the other hand were on a mission; they left us in their dust as they disappeared down the path! They were joined by other birders and the search for the Snowy Owl began.

     Island Rocks are made up of several large islets and forming huge boulder clusters. Everyone searched hard for the Owl but it was either not there, or hunkered down on the lee side of one of the islets trying to escape the biting wind. But there were a few birds to enjoy: Common Eiders, Scoters, Harlequin ducks, and a flock of Purple Sandpipers dodging the crashing surf on the outer ledges. With everyone standing on one of the observation platforms searching for the Owl, Carlos made a suggestion that the Owl may possibly be standing along the edge of the shoreline escaping the wind. That is exactly what I was thinking as I was walking down the slight incline of the shallow bluff. When I walked out from the bank, I looked up and down the shoreline but didn't see an Owl. However, I looked across the wide expanse of the Sakonnet River which is approx. two and a half miles, I noticed a large cloud of birds over the fields on the Little Compton side. At first I didn't pay much attention to it figuring they were Grackles or Starlings. But, I thought that maybe everyone on the platform might be interested, so I walked back up the edge to find an empty platform; everyone had gone! Jen told me that they all left and then walked north along the trail.

     I told Jen about the birds across the river and she positioned our scope to look at them. When she focused the scope she said-"I think you should look at these birds"! When I did, I was stunned a bit. Gulls: a few thousand of them! By now, they had spread out along the shore of Little Compton. When I first saw them, they were in a huge cluster coming off one of the open fields. I picked up my camera to take a few very long distant shots, and I was able to capture the last bit of the remaining spread out flock. Some were heading north and landing in another field(?) and some were flying down and landing in the river on the Little Compton side. Jen suggested that we drive around to Little Compton, but since most of the Gulls landed in a private filed(s) it would be tough scanning through them, especially since I didn't know where they were going. Here are a few shots of the last of the flock after they scattered; some north and some into the river. (This shot is from over two miles away)>

     Even though this was only a very small percentage of the Gulls I saw, this is still a good number of Gulls!>

     Jen and I started north on the path to see if we could find everyone and we were in luck; they were coming down the path towards us. I told them of the "cloud of Gulls" and through their binoculars the last remaining few could be seen as they dropped into the fields.

     Jen and I decided to leave the Refuge and head over to Beavertail Point SP, Jamestown which is our favorite spot on the coast of Rhode Island. We exchanged phone numbers and said good-bye to everyone. Our first stop after leaving the Refuge was the Newport Water Supply impoundment which is northeast of the Refuge. This is a good area for waterfowl in the winter and with the strong northwest wind, the waterfowl might be sitting in the lee near the road. This is always been a good spot for rafting Scaup. I parked the car in one of the small pull-offs, and peeked over the top of the berm. Just over the edge about fifty yards north was a raft of four hundred Scaup.>

      Ruddy Ducks are just about always here in the winter and there were many scattered around such as this drake which popped to the surface a few yards from me>

     With all these mostly Greater (and many Lesser) Scaup close-by, I decided to start looking through them for Canvasbacks and/or Redhead....which I didn't find. But I did find a single drake Ring-necked Duck in the middle of the raft>

     Drake Greater Scaup stretches its wings.>

     Large number of hen Scaup in the raft. While I was looking at the Scaup, my phone rang. It was Barbara. She told me that they had just watched a Goshawk being mobbed by three Harriers in the Refuge, and was I still nearby? I thanked her for the tip, and Jen and I drove back to the Refuge.

     When we reached the northeast corner of the Cove by the entrance to the Refuge, this flock of Bufflehead was feeding in the waves close to the shoreline>

      When I was watching the Buffleheads, I looked up and spotted this Hawk hanging in the strong and gusty westerly wind near the point. I thought at first if this could be the Goshawk, but the I realized that this is not something a Goshawk would be doing, this was a Redtail.>

     And then came the mobbing Harriers defending their turf>

     This Harrier realized that it might have made a mistake. It passed below the Redtail, and then looked over it's back to make sure the Redtail wasn't making any moves on it!>

    Saved by its mate!>

     This Harrier flipped completely over to maneuver away from the Redtail>

     Having had enough fun, or possibly thinking they drove the Redtail off, the two Harriers flew down the Refuge and over the parking lot heading towards the marshes by third beach>

    Which is exactly what the Redtail did!>

     Figuring the Goshawk was long gone, we turned around and drove over to Beavertail. The first bird we saw when we drove into the Park was this adult Redtail hovering into the strong westerly wind right over the first parking lot. I took these images from the open window of our car>

       There were over three hundred seaducks on the east side of the Point, mostly Eiders.....

      .....and a few flocks of hen and juvenile Black Scoters......

     .....and a few Harlequins.>

      Jen checked our email, and found the alert that one of the Snowy Owls had been found back at Sachuset. However it was not sighted at Island Rocks, but on the western shoreline near the one small pine tree along the Refuge loop coastal trail. So we headed back to the Refuge. We parked the car in the Refuge parking lot for the third time this morning. After a quick "pit stop" in the Refuge Information Center, Jen and I started down the Trail to the pine tree just visible a few hundred yards down the trail. As we got closer, I didn't see any birders gathered, which was obvious, the Owl had moved. We walked down to the Point, but didn't see the Owl. I thought it would be best to head back to the car so we could enjoy the rest of the day at the other spots along the coast we wanted to stop. These were: Scarborough Beach, Point Judith, lunch at Captain Jacks in Snug Harbor and Grassy Point to see "brat"- Jen's affectionate nickname for the Lesser Black-backed Gull which we always stop and visit on our way home from a day in Rhode Island.

     Just as we turned to walk back to the car (instead of doing the whole loop) Jen noticed a few large pine trees about a hundred yards up the eastern shoreline. She said that maybe they meant these pine trees? We walked to the pine trees and looked up and down the shoreline, but still no Owl. And the ironic circumstances of being in the "right place at the right time" just as it would be written in a birding adventure book.....we were just about ready to turn around and leave when I spotted this large white bird flying towards us down the shoreline!>

     I couldn't believe it! I told Jen, here comes the Owl...and it is heading right towards us!>

     This beautiful white ghost of an Owl came closer and closer.......

     .....and closer......

     ......until it passed right by us within fifteen feet!>

    Thankfully I use an adjustable 100mm - 400mm lens so I was able to back it off to get the entire Owl in my image!>

     The Owl passed right by us.......

     .....and vanished behind the large boulders on the small point where we were standing. What a stunning bird, and what a wonderful gift to have it fly by us so closely being able to see its squinting eyes, its fluttering feathers and to hear the wind pass over its long outstretched wings! Jen and I were thrilled!!!>

     I wondered where the Owl had gone figuring it went farther down to the point and probably on the outer boulders separated from the land. Or maybe it flew out to Cormorant Rocks about a mile off the Point. There are plenty of Purple Sandpipers and  Harlequin Ducks out there for prey, and/or at least it would have solitude!  But just as quickly as the Owl passed by the small point where we were flew back and headed back north along the shoreline from where it came from a few minutes ago!>

    The Owl settled on a large boulder.>

     Here are a few cropped images>

      Soon we were joined by others including some of the nicest and friendliest birders Jen and I have had the pleasure to meet.......

       .....including Linda Gardrel (left wearing a burgundy coat and a large smile, Barbara Sherman and Bob Weaver)>

     Carlos Pedro (Left) and his nephew Dylan>


     Carlos takes a few more pictures.......>

      ........Bob thinking about taking a few more!? >

       The Owl as viewed through the pine tree being used as a hide and camera support>

     While we were all commenting on the Owl, someone said, :where is it"?? The Owl had flow off without us seeing it.....(we were all too bust gabbing). But it was re-found flying out and over the sea heading for a few isolated boulders just off shore. Since it was Saturday morning, the foot traffic was steady along the trail which probably annoyed the Owl.>

     It landed on a larger islet just offshore>

     Oh yeah, there were a few Gannets flying just offshore!>

     The Owl settled in on the top of the islet but still close enough to shore to watch it>

      My main fascination is for waterfowl, and there were enough of them (such as these Harlequins) to divert my interest for just a little while anyway! After taking a few last looks of the Owl, Jen and I decided to leave. We said good-bye (again) and headed back to the parking lot.>


      Drake and three hen Harlequins>

     Two Horned Grebes>

     Another birder found this Red-necked Grebe>

     I didn't see any White-winged or Black-headed Gulls at Scarborough Beach, Point Judith and Galilee Harbor so it was time for a late lunch and a bit of time to warm up a little....and no better way to do that than to stop at Captain Jack's! While the Swordfish was on the grill, a cup of hot chowda' and a few steamin' hot clam cakes got the chilled blood going.....washed down with ginger ale and lime!>

      With warm hands and hearts, it was time to drive a short distance west to Ninigrat Park. Jen and I make it a point to end our day in Rhode Island visiting the winter resident Lesser Black-backed Gull at Grassy Point. "Brat", as Jen calls him/her is just about always there and will pay us a brief visit or two...providing we bring it a little catfood treat!  I wanted to try something a little different this time. Since I made the Lesser Black-backed decoy, maybe it would be fun to see if "brat" accepted the decoy and would come to it.

     I also mentioned before that I wanted to photograph as many birds as I could with their decoy counterparts. This was the first Lesser Black-backed decoy I have ever made, so I thought it would be best to try it with the Grassy Point winter resident first.>

     With the decoy now floating and drifting away from shore......

      .....I tossed out a few cups of catfood, and waited to see what happened. At first, there was only one Gull visible on Ninigret: an adult Herring Gull. But "brat" may have been nearby. She (Jen assigned a gender to the Gull) was probably nearby and watching us. Since she is use to our routine, she suddenly appeared as the second cup full of kibble left my hand. She came from across the pond heading right for us..... 

     She circled and passed by us twice, obviously looking things over well......

      ......and then headed directly for the floating kibble and the decoy along with a few other Gulls that came out of nowhere!>

      Brat wasn't bothered by the decoy at all. Just what I wanted.....a Lesser Black-backed Gull with my Lesser Black-backed Gull decoy in the same picture! I was concerned that maybe the decoy could possibly stress the Gull, but it accepted it without any problem.>

      And more Gulls came from every direction joining Brat (left) obviously alerted by the screaming from the other feeding Gulls>

      A Ring-billed Gull with all white p10 mirrors (upper left). This is not often seen in Ring-billed Gulls>

     Another shot of the Ring-billed Gull with the all white p10 mirrors>

      Brat (left) with friends>

     I am always looking out for unusual Gulls like this very large Herring Gull with a very dark mantle.>

       Good profile look at the Lesser Black-backed Gull (Brat)>

      My decoy didn't seem to bother this Herring Gull>

      Jen and I had fun with the Gulls, Brat and my decoy. After an hour the sun was leaving the day and began painting the western sky. Sorry to say, it was time to leave. We said good night to all the Gulls (and Brat of course) and walked back down the trail to our car. As we did, the sunset became more intense. Even though the pelagic trip was cancelled, Jen and I had a great day in Rhode Island with the Snowy Owl, wonderful people, warm chowda' and of course Brat!

     Good Night Rhode Island!