Best Birds 2015 Edition

Truth be told, I am actually surprised I birded and generated a list at least once every month! I did cut it rather close with February and November. Perhaps  I should change my  handle to badbirder….  Anyway 27 minutes until the clock strikes 12….

So how many lists did I submit? It was an  up and down year, but over all lower than  in years past.  This was also the first year that I was in grad school for the entirety of the year. Grad school and birding do not go as well together as one would think!

Lists Submitted to Ebird by Month

month 2013 2014 2015
January  50 2 26
February  34 4 1
March  25 4 4
April  22 26 12
May  24 36 13
June  16 10 15
July  5 3 19
August  22 6 6
September  4 9 2
October  8 17 4
November  5 5 1
December  8 9 5
Year 223 131 109

So still respectable?  In regards to species, it became even more extreme with ups and downs.  I had a drop of 98 species between September 2014 and September 2015, but an increase of 101 from January 2014 to January  2015.  Travel makes a difference!

Species By Month

month 2013 2014 2015
January 70 30 131  (65) *
February 52 39 17 (0)
March 60 46 40
April 48 87 52
May 114 162 101
June 64 85 54 (0) **
July 37 32 48 (0) **
August  65 40 45 (13) **
September  72 102 10
October  57 114 34
November  63 86 6
December  79 90 65
Year 200 222 287 (169)***

* Includes Florida birding efforts.NY/NJ totals in ()
** Includes Honduran birding efforts. NY/NJ totals in ().
*** Global total. NY/NJ totals in ().

In Florida, Tara and I picked up 100 species, and while I don’t have all the records updated yet, I believe I also observed 100 birds in Honduras (ebird currently has 81 listed).

As I compile this review, what surprises me the most is now many life birds I picked up.  Traveling for nearly  3 months really helps!   So  91 new lifers added to the list.  I won’t bore you by listing them all.

However, I will close with some of my favorite photos already  shared this year:

And my  clock  warns me that I have less than  5 minutes remaining…

Belated Big-Day Blah

On New Year’s Day after all the birders’ lists reset in a moment much like Anti-Christmas (instead of getting everything on your list, you lose it!), Tara and I returned to Sandy Hook hoping to repeat last year’s successes. It was just the two of us: the other six people intending to come along didn’t make it for various reasons.

This year we did not have our own videophotographer, nor did we have a repeat of 2014 success.  I say that, then I fact check it and I’m off.  In 2014, we had 22 species (+2 other taxa) whereas this year we had a grand total of….. 36! Another year under our belts and a scope makes a world of difference.

I believe the first bird of the year was a Sanderling.  It may also currently be the most photographed bird of the winter.  I was continuing to play with the borrowed Nikon 3200 and the rented Sigma 500mm.

Sanderling struggles with a snack. Sandy Hook, NJ. Photo taken on January 1, 2015 with a Nikon 3200, Sigma 500mm.

Sanderling struggles with a snack. Sandy Hook, NJ. Photo taken on January 1, 2015 with a Nikon 3200, Sigma 500mm.

A second day with the camera saw improvement.  This time I had a sense of where the camera wanted to focus.  Generally not where I wanted it to!  We’re continuing to work through our differences.

Tara scanning the ocean. Sandy Hook, NJ. Photo taken on January 1, 2015 with a Nikon 3200, Sigma 500mm.

Tara scanning the ocean. Sandy Hook, NJ. Photo taken on January 1, 2015 with a Nikon 3200, Sigma 500mm.

It was a very small outing and a very cold day.  We typically start off at Lot B and scan the shore and ocean.  Well, Tara scans and I take photos of Sanderlings. Lots of Sandering photos.

Then we head over to the bay side where we discovered pretty much the same species as we did four days earlier.  I chased sparrows while Tara scoped out the ducks.  Sparrows were camera shy, but a disgruntled Greater Scaup put up with a few photos (and a misidentification!).

Ring-necked Duck on a bay-side pond. Sandy Hook, NJ. Photo taken on January 1, 2015 with a Nikon 3200, Sigma 500mm.

Ring-necked Duck on a bay-side pond. Sandy Hook, NJ. Photo taken on January 1, 2015 with a Nikon 3200, Sigma 500mm.

Next we headed to the forest interior.  I was searching for owls while Tara was searching for everything else. (We typically use the divide and conquer method.)  There were reports of a Northern Saw-whet Owl, but we dipped.

However, we did find some other species.  We heard the Cedar Waxwings before we could locate them.  Eventually they moved into the trees directly above us and I attempted to photograph at an 80 degree angle.  It was challenging.  My arm was trembling from fatigue!  It’s challenging to hold up a 5 pound lens.   So I decided to lay down on the cold, paved ground and shoot from my back.  It’s more effective than shooting from the hip when using a camera.

Cedar Waxwing, taken from a horizontal position. Sandy Hook, NJ. Photo taken on January 1, 2015 with a Nikon 3200, Sigma 500mm.

Cedar Waxwing, taken from a horizontal position. Sandy Hook, NJ. Photo taken on January 1, 2015 with a Nikon 3200, Sigma 500mm.

Along the path that follows the road we discovered a few Northern Cardinals, a sprinkling of White-throated Sparrows, and a devoted Downy Woodpecker.  In the photo, note the nictitating membrane covering the eye, protecting it from bits of flying wood.

A busy Downy Woodpecker. Sandy Hook, NJ. Photo taken on January 1, 2015 with a Nikon 3200, Sigma 500mm.

A busy Downy Woodpecker. Sandy Hook, NJ. Photo taken on January 1, 2015 with a Nikon 3200, Sigma 500mm.

We scanned Horse-shoe Bay picking up Common Goldeneye and a Greater Scaup somewhere along the way before heading out to the North Shore.  We opted to walk all the way out to the shoreline.  By this time I was carrying all the gear (scope and the camera!) through very loose sand. What a workout.  Warmest part of the day.  We got there to see there wasn’t much.

However, upon inspecting the grassy dunes behind us we witnessed formations of feathers.  I was curious to see how well the camera could handle flight so I snapped away.

Snow Buntings in flight. Sandy Hook, NJ. Photo taken on January 1, 2015 with a Nikon 3200, Sigma 500mm.

Snow Buntings in flight. Sandy Hook, NJ. Photo taken on January 1, 2015 with a Nikon 3200, Sigma 500mm.

As we were watching, we noticed that sometimes the flock looked…. different.  Eventually I got a photo confirming our suspicions.  There were multiple flocks flying around the dunes.  Above you can see the Snow Bunting Brigade while below you have the House Finch Posse.

Sandy Hook. Photo taken on January 1, 2015 with a Nikon 3200, Sigma 500mm.

Sandy Hook. Photo taken on January 1, 2015 with a Nikon 3200, Sigma 500mm.

I like the way they’re flying directly at the camera and the complete chaos.  Eventually, the sun worked it’s way down the sky and we called it a day. January second would bring a 6am flight to Florida and there was packing to do.

Sunset at Sandy Hook on the first day of 2015. Sandy Hook, NJ Photo taken on January 1, 2015 with a Nikon 3200, Sigma 500mm.

Sunset at Sandy Hook on the first day of 2015. Sandy Hook, NJ Photo taken on January 1, 2015 with a Nikon 3200, Sigma 500mm.

New Goals, Old Goals

An end of year New York Times tweet admonished, “Before setting new goals, evaluate the previous ones.”  So today I should begin by reviewing 2014’s resolutions. Last year, in what is no longer my shortest post ever, Renewed Resolve, I outlined my resolutions:

  • Continue working on warbler identification.
  • Work on identification by song.
  • Learning more about my camera and how to take better photos. (from Prairie Birder)

Camera Resolution

Considering I’ve uploaded 300 photos over the course of the year, that’s nearly 1 per day I have consistently worked with my camera, most particularly discovering it’s limitations.   I’ve gotten shots I’m happy with, shots I can live with, and shots that only belong in the trash heap.

I’ve also reached a point of frustration with the point and shoot, and the one I have in particular.  So I’ve decided to upgrade to a dSLR.  I haven’t decided which one (Canon or Nikon?), but I’m borrowing a Nikon currently and have rented a 500mm sigma lens for my upcoming trip to the Everglades (I depart tomorrow…. in 9 hours!), so continuing to work on photography will stay on the list.

Sanderling with a snack.  Taken with Nikon 3200 Simga 500mm. Sandy Hook. Photo taken on December 27, 2014.

Sanderling with a snack. Taken with Nikon 3200 Simga 500mm. Sandy Hook. Photo taken on December 27, 2014.

Songs Don’t Resonate for Me

I think any progress I made has been eroded by time.  This might need to be a life goal.   I did work on it significantly this year.  I can tell you that Tennessee Warblers have a three part (sometimes two) whereas Nashville have a two-part song.  What it sounds like?  Haven’t a clue at the moment.  To my ear, Hooded Warblers sound like they’re saying “Nice to, nice to meet you!” but to other birders that’s the description for a different warbler.  Chestnut-sided?

Female Hooded Warbler, first of three Hooded Warbler sightings. Doodletown Rd, Bear Mountain State Park. Photo taken on May 17, 2014.

Female Hooded Warbler, first of three Hooded Warbler sightings. Doodletown Rd, Bear Mountain State Park. Photo taken on May 17, 2014.

Wibbly-wobbly with Warblers

Warblers and songs sensibly go hand in hand.  I had first looks this year at Blackburnian, Chesnut-sided, Hooded, Worm-eating, Kentucky, Cerulean, Bay-breasted, Grace’s, and Red-faced.  (The last two in Arizona.)  So it was a good warbler year!  I began to really explore two warbler hotspots: Garrett Mountain (New Jersey) and Doodletown Road (New York.), but then the season ended.   Think it needs to go back on this list.

Aptly named Red-faced warbler.  Miller Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken on June 16, 2014.

Aptly named Red-faced warbler. Miller Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken on June 16, 2014.

Therefore, after serious reflection and a strong need for sleep, I’m just going to keep my 2014 resolutions, thanks.

  • Continue working on warbler identification.
  • Work on identification by song.
  • Learning more about my camera and how to take better photos. (from Prairie Birder)
  • Submit at least 1 paper for publication

I will add one new resolution, however. I need to get focused and get at least one of the two proposed papers out from my Masters Thesis.  So this way I won’t feel so guilty when I miss birding to work on it….

The Unadorned Sanderling

One of the most delightful excursions occurred on Santa Cruz Island when we visited Tortuga Bay. It takes a bit of effort to get there, but it’s definitely worth it. When I brought my laptop home with all my 4000 unedited photos, my family beelined for the Tortuga Bay images because it is essentially paradise.  White sand beaches, empty white sand beaches, mangroves, birds and other wildlife.

Sheer perfection.   No photoshopping here. No airbrushing, trimming the waist, enhancing the beak, etc.  What you see is exactly what I saw.

Sanderling takes a vacation

Sanderling takes a vacation. Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz, Galapagos, Ecuador. Taken January 13, 2014.

One in A Hundred

When one intends to embark on a Big Day, one brings along their own cinematographer, no?  If you haven’t tried this I highly recommend it.  Mind you, it wasn’t my intent.  That would have been very pretentious.

I was embarking on New Year’s Big Day 2014 with a friend from grad school.  When I arrived at her house to pick her up, she asked if I would mind if a friend of hers tagged along who studies cinematography and was interested in filming the day.   So three of us embarked for Sandy Hook.   Between the late start and  one of the party needing to catch a flight, we had a very small window.

Upon arrival, we headed out to the tip, to North Beach, which we frequently don’t get to bird much there is usually little time left by the time we arrive.  But ebird suggested that was the place to be with reports of good winter birds.

Our official first bird of the year was the Long-tailed Duck.  We crested the dune and right in front of us, close to shore swam a fine looking male.

Long-tailed Duck swims close to shore.

Long-tailed Duck swims close to shore.

It was quickly followed by a Northern Gannet, the three gulls (Herring, Ring-billed, and Great Black-backed).   Watching the Long-tailed Duck swim south, we scanned and quickly came across a Red-throated Loon.

What a start to the year!

Red-necked Loon swims closer to shore.

Red-necked Loon swims closer to shore.

I was lying on the sand, working on capturing the loon and the duck, when a sanderling flew past twice, then landed and ran past.

Sandering zips past, never noticing the human and camera horizontal on the sand.

Sanderling zips past, never noticing the human and camera horizontal on the sand.

As we moseyed down the beach, we realized we were being trailed by at least 100 people.  A very bizarre moment.  Like a tour bus spilling its occupants out at Times Square.  Then it happened.

We were walking north and I spotted a white spec in the brush on the horizon.  Could it possibly be?  So snug and smug!  Not a sentient plastic bag, but a Snowy Owl!

IMG_5987 IMG_5992 IMG_5995I managed these three images from a safe distance.  As we stood there watching, other people quickly became aware of our find.   Unfortunately not everyone was as cautious as we were, and the owl spooked.  Our remaining looks weren’t nearly as good, but we saw a Snowy Owl!

We didn’t have much time remaining, so we made our way to the bayside where we picked up a flock of 20 House Finches and a number of ducks including Horned Grebe, Pied-billed Grebe, and a Red-breasted Merganser in flight.

Horned Grebe is a pleasant surprise.

Horned Grebe is a pleasant surprise.

So that was the first day of 2014 down. Not too many birds, but enough to whet our appetites.  However our cinematographer found birding suitably intriguing, spent the drive back reading the field guide, and is hoping to return in the spring for round two.

I probably won’t get a chance to bird again until late January, at least not here!