New England Coastal BIrds

New England Coastal BIrds

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Arctic Snow, Southern Coal and more Arctic Snow

     December 8, 2013- Hammonasset Beach SP, Madison, CT- Well,  Jen is off this week for vacation  and that can only mean one thing----more of those dreaded "Honey-do's"! First one on the list was to go to Hammonasset this morning and pick out our Christmas tree. We purchase our tree each year from the "Friends of Hammonasset" that set up their display near the Park's entrance. Each year we try and purchase a different tree; last years being a Fraser Fir, the year before was Jen's favorite Balsam Fir. But this year a different species caught my eye and Jen agreed. We picked out a beautiful Concolor or White Fir which grows in the western US. The tree itself is thick and full, and will look spectacular after it is decorated.

     With the tree purchased and the first check mark ticked off the list, Jen went west down Route 1 to visit her parents. Of course I had a few minutes to spare before I went for chore #2, so I drove into the Park to see if any Snow Buntings were around. I am designing another competition sculpture piece featuring a small flock of Snow Buntings and a pair of Lapland Longspur. I can never have enough field study time or enough images of my subjects to inspire a piece. I was able to obtain many images of five Lapland Longspur last week in the Park. Even though I do have a few folders full of Snow Bunting images, more would be most can never have enough reference. In the Nature Center parking lot were two dozen Horned Larks accompanied by a dozen Snow Buntings.>

     All the birds were acting nervously, they moved around every few minutes. Looking around the grassy lot, I noticed a few piles of feathers: some from Mourning Doves and others from what appeared to be Horned Larks. That probably explained the reason for the birds to be so jumpy. It looks like a Peregrine, Merlin and even the Harriers have been taking advantage of these feeding passerines.>

     Off they go again......

       .....and right back to the same spot!>

     There was one exceptionally large adult in the flock>

     After enjoying these wonderful Arctic Buntings for half an hour, it was time to leave for the second task on my list! I had to run up to Essex to the Butchers Shop to pick up some smoked haddock and smoked sea scallops for Jen's Scottish Holiday chowder. Jen's family is of deep Scottish decent, and mine of course; German. For the Christmas season, my mother would make traditional German fare- Roast Pork and sauerkraut, Sauerbraten, and of course like any other German household; Stollen! One of Jen's favorite traditional Scottish dishes she makes is Cullen skink! I know, what is that? Cullen skink is a wonderfully hardy smoked Haddock chowder.......and hers is exceptional!

     Driving up Route 9, I was approaching Exit 3 which was the exit for the Butcher's Shop- Cliff's Quality Meats        (They are the only shop I know that sells smoked Cod and Haddock....just in case you wanted to try making Cullen skink)! As I got closer to the exit, I looked up in the sky over Route 9 and saw a small kettle of  Black Vultures. I grabbed for my camera (which was on the front seat of my truck) and looked for a place to pull over. In my excitement of seeing the Black Vultures, I drove right by the exit. When I finally stopped my truck, I took a few shots of the small kettle as it drifted over my truck heading southwest. I counted seventeen birds and watched them as they vanished over the distant trees. >

       Since I missed the exit, I could just go north a mile to exit four, turn around and head back south and get off the exit this time. Just as I was ready to pull back onto Route 9 from the shoulder, I turned my head to the left to look into my mirror to check the traffic. When I did, I caught a large white shape out of the corner of my eye plopped right on top of the utility pole across Route 9. I thought to myself, that looks like a Snowy Owl! It took a couple of seconds before I realized I should grab my binoculars. When I did, there it was! (here is a cropped shot)>

      I went north, turned around and started off Exit 3. As I drove down the exit ramp, the Owl was still perched on top of the pole. I glanced over and could see Essex Plaza was just behind the fence separating the exit ramp and the driveway into the plaza.

      The traffic light changed just as I approached the bottom of the ramp. I made a quick right and another quick right and I was in the parking lot of the plaza. The pole that the Owl was perched on was about fifty feet off the edge of the parking lot. There was a large tree nearby that offered a good safe hide to observe and photograph the Owl from a respectable distance>

     The Owl perched quietly just a few yards from the edge of the busy highway. It looked quite relaxed and comfortable on its roost>

     The Owl's movements were minimal, turning its head occasionally in all directions......

        .....over its shoulders.....

      .....and looking down the exit ramp.>

     Occasionally a gust of cold wind would blow its feathers around.....

       .....but it is obviously use to this, it didn't flinch a bit.>

     I had a feeling that my hiding behind a tree, taking pictures of the sky would attract attention from the patrons of the stores in the Plaza who had absolutely no idea what I was doing. When everyone approached me, they could see that I was looking at the beautiful white Owl perched on top of this pole. Of course with the added attention and small gathering, the Owl paid close attention to us.>

     Understandably, with the excitement of the Owl came the iphone cameras. I politely told everyone that had gathered to not crowd the Owl by getting too close. I suggested the tree was the barrier and not to get any closer. Everyone graciously respected that suggestion, and the Ooos and Ahhhsss continued; this was a pretty exciting encounter. With the presence of the Owl came the questions of what, why, how and where and I did my best to narrate the natural history of this Arctic traveler and migratory stress that this bird is experiencing. After ten minutes everyone seemed satisfied and enlightened about this unusual white Owl perched on this utility pole.They began to leave and I was again alone....just me and this magnificent Owl>

      I watched the Owl for nearly an hour. My creative brain absorbed every feather, feather movement, head movement and facial expression of this bird. I have been wanting to carve a full sized Snowy Owl for many years, but I just didn't have the field time with one to completely "feel" this species. This Owl has given me a wonderful gift; I think I am now ready to start!

     As I drove away...(Oh yeah go to the butcher shop) I stopped at the end of the exit and looked back. I took a few more images to show just where this Owl had settled...completely contented. Amazing!!>

      Later in the day, Jen had finished the Cullen skink, and the aroma of the smoked haddock filled my studio all day making a long day even longer until suppertime!

      Traditional Cullen skink is either made with mashed potatoes to thicken the broth or it can be run through a food mill to make this dish a thick chowder. Jen makes hers a bit differently and leaves the potatoes, fish and scallops whole like a classic New England chowda'! All I can say is, if you are a fan of chowder, you have to try Cullen skink; it is absolutely my favorite chowder....sorry Portland, Boston and Newport!

      One of my other tasks was to trim the tree, put it in the stand, water it, and put it in its place so (we) can decorate it (hint-Jen is the one who really decorates the tree- I tend to quietly leave the room during the process). We like to decorate our tree in with a coastal New England theme complete with shells, sea stars, cranberries and popcorn, Yankee candles, and small hand carved decoys and birds made by many of my bird carving friends. Here is our nearly completed tree>

     And....the finished tree!>

       December 3, 2013- Hadlyme Ferry Landing, Hadlyme, CT- "Latin American Flycatcher Just Down the Street"-  I received an email two nights ago from Paul Desjardins and he confirmed that a friend of his had been contacted by a birder that believed he found and photographed a Fork-tailed Flycatcher at the Hadlyme ferry slip in Hadlyme. The ferry slip is on Route 148 which is the road that Jen and I live on in Killingworth about 8 miles to the west. I wasn't sure if I was going down to see the bird, I am really pressed for time with Christmas commissions. I know its a rare bird, but I just wasn't excited enough about it to go. If it had been a rare seabird or Gull, I would be spending the night in my truck making sure I was there at the first streak of light; I don't have the passerine palette like others do.

     It is often interesting how events happen . I received a phone call last night from a birder who was at the ferry slip with his wife yesterday morning and they saw the bird. They were thrilled beyond belief, so much in fact they commissioned a Fork-tailed Flycatcher carving from me. That gave me the reason to go. If I was going to carve a bird realistically that I have never seen, especially a Latin American species, could there be a better opportunity?  Being so close to my home, what better way to study the subject?  I will be completely honest; I am glad I did!

     Route 148 heading east ends at the CT River in Chester (west side of the river). In the spring, summer and early fall, you can take the small car ferry that takes you across CT River and the several hundred yards from shore to shore. Unfortunately, the ferry shut down about a month ago, so that meant an eight mile drive around going over the East Haddam bridge, through East Haddam, past Gillette's Castle to the Hadlyme ferry slip.

     When I pulled into the small parking lot by the ferry slip, it was packed with cars with license plates from CT, NY, Mass., NH and PA. A crowd of nearly fifty people were standing around patiently waiting for the Flycatcher to return. It had been  there a few minutes ago, but was seen flying up and over the cliff side to the area near Gillette's Castle. As I walked towards the crowd, I could feel that cold wind ripping right down the CT River. And judging by the amount of fidgeting birders, I could sense many of them felt it too! I hear my name called and I look up to see a familiar face; Doug Koch from upstate NY. Doug is a phenomenal photographer (  ) and travels extensively around the world pursuing (what I believe to be) his favorite subject: seabirds. I have run into Doug on a few pelagic trips in New England, and also at Coney Island a few years ago for the Gray-hooded Gull.  Doug introduced me to his friend Debi Kral another terrific bird photographer and one of the leaders of the Raph Waterman Bird Club in Dutchess County NY. who was taking the day in CT for this Flycatcher and (hopefully) a Snowy Owl.

    Looking around I see many familiar faces from CT: Russ Smiley, Jerry Connolly from the Audubon shop in Madison, Donna and Fred Nowak (image below) and Hank Golet whom I had the great pleasure meeting today. I also met many new birders including photographer Keith Carver from Mass., and Kelly Leahy Radding, a gifted Wildlife Artist.

     We all stood around sharing birding adventures and stories, and anxiously waiting for the Flycatcher to return. Fifteen minutes later, someone pointed to the sky and said here it is! We all looked up just in time to see this small long-tailed Flycatcher sallying in from the hill and then landing on the upper branches of one of the trees bordering the parking lot.>

     After a few minutes this beautiful Flycatcher flew down form the tree and landed in the tangles that blanketed the side of the cliff. Everyone had a good view of bird nestled among the twisted vines and bushes.>

     The Flycatcher would move around from branch to branch giving us all a really good look at its flying movements.>

      Ten minutes later the bird was off again heading back for the upper branches of the trees near the ferry landing. Although in some of my images the bird looks close, but in fact most of the images are cropped...the bird was usually ten to twenty yards away>

       It started feeding on the berries on the outer reaches of the small branches>

      It's feeding behavior was interesting to watch. It would sally off it's perch and then grasp a berry while hovering in flight. This type of in-flight grasping of the fruit immediately reminded me of a......

     .......Central American bird; the Resplendent Quetzal when it is feeding on Aguacatillo fruits (little wild Avocados). Quetzals have very small and weak feet which are designed and suited for perching. Quetzals cannot reach for fruit while perched on a branch, while Flycatchers can. When feeding, Quetzals have to fly off their perch and grasp a fruit while it is hovering, only returning to its perch after it has secured an aguacatillo, small fig, blackberry or any other food item>

      The Flycatcher fed on berries for five minutes while being joined by a small flock of Bluebirds.>

      When it had finished feeding on the small berries, it few off ......

     .....and settled in on a branch over the small marshy pond below the trees>

      This is the actual distance that everyone viewed the bird from. Note: there has been much talk lately about birding ethics from birders and/or photographers. Everyone here (and with the Snowy Owls recently) were very respectful of the bird and not once did I see anyone display anything other than profound integrity for the bird. The Flycatcher was busy being a Flycatcher and everyone gave the bird its space!>

     These are cropped  from the above image>

    Off again! The bird then flew to the gate rail and started hawking a few small flies>

     Then back to the matted mass of vines and brush along the cliff face. You can see the bird at the top tight of the image, of course getting quite a bit of attention from everyone!>

     The Flycatcher seemed to use this area as a resting spot, and sometimes for a bit of casual dining!>

     I really have to admit, even though I don't (and should) spend too much of my field study time with passerines (Patrick is working on me about that) this bird is spectacular! In fact it really is quite special >

     Not only am I drawn to the sculptural shape of this bird with its twisting long tail, but the soft earthy grays and umbers (with a hint of violet and magenta) are so subtly beautiful!>

     As the bird perched, it slowly opened up that scissor-shaped tail which garnered quite a bit of excited response from everyone!>

     Wow! That's a good one!>

     The bird continued to dazzle everyone by moving around on the matted cliff face.>

     More posing.....I almost get the impression that this bird enjoyed showing off!>

     It took off again, and this time right over my head so close I thought I felt its wings brush my hat!>

      It landed on one of the posts by the edge of the river and started hawking insects again>

     It remained by the river for a short time sometimes settling in the small trees along the riverbank.>

      I am sure there were many pictures taken today...I know I shot over 2500!>

    Again it moved this time perching by the barn which highlighted the bird with a different background.>


     At one point I walked away from the other photographers to look at some of the images in my camera and to report the bird on my iphone. I looked up just as the bird landed on this post no more than ten feet away from me.>

      From this perch the Flycatcher started watching the ground......

      .....and would jump down often.....

     .....grabbing a small bug or fly.>

    And then fly up again and repeat this hunting technique which was happening close enough to me that I had to back-off my lens a bit.>

     A little earlier that morning I was talking to a very excited birder and he really wanted this bird to fly up onto one of the tall posts so he could get a picture of it. The bird made another leap up off the ground......

     .....and right up onto the top of one of the tall posts.....the birder had gotten what he wanted! Fantastic!>

     From the post and back to the brush basket along the cliff.>

    A little bit later, I decided I had enjoyed and experienced this bird enough, it was time to head home to my studio. Just as I turned to head back to my truck, the bird flew off and landed in a small tree near where i was standing. This time I could see that it had captured a large beetle.>

      At one point, the Flycatcher banged the beetle into the branch and then started rubbing it across the branch. I appeared this behavior was to stun the beetle by banging it and then trying t remove the legs by rubbing it across the branch.....a behavior similar to how Bee Eaters stun and remove the stingers of bees and wasps before swallowing them.....

      .....which the Flycatcher did right after!>

     Back to perching along the river.>

     The Flycatcher made several passes over the Ct River hawking small bugs and flies, and then returning to a perch on an old driftwood log.>

    I last saw the Flycatcher as it (again) laded over my head in a small tree. These are a few shots that leave a lasting impression in my mind as to just how beautiful this bird was/is! I feel blessed to have been able to experience this bird since I wasn't so passionate about it yesterday.  I am now filled with inspiration and am very anxious to carve this bird! I will post images at another time when I start this carving.

     As I was leaving, this rare Flycatcher was still entertaining everyone!

       Here is a Fork-tailed Flycatcher decoy carving I did two years ago for a fund-raiser.>

      Keith Mueller
      Killingworth, CT