Saturday, December 27, 2008

Harlequins at Halibut Point

As it turns out I did muster up my courage (and some willpower) to head out early Thursday morning. Up at 4 am and out the door by ten to 6. I got all bundled up--two layers of socks, new boots, leggings on underneath my jeans, boybeater, long-sleeved shirt, sweatshirt, jacket, and I had gloves, a ski-mask (with just one big opening for the eyes), my hat with earflaps, and my scarf in my backpack ready to go. I drove up to Rockport listening to my favorite Rage Against the Machine songs (helps to feel more awake) and then belted out some tunes from Taylor Swift's new album (odd juxtaposition, I know).

I got out there on the scenic overlook, ready to face the cold and the wind. was fine. No wind to speak of. And not that chilly, even though it was just barely dawn. A nice surprise, really.

I spotted a group of Harlequin ducks and cheerfully headed down closer to the shoreline.

I was at Halibut Point for about an hour and a half, taking tons of pictures of the Harlequins, and getting shots of all the other birds who treated me to a fly-by:
common eiders

a double-crested cormorant

6 white-winged scoters

2 surf scoters (a new lifer!!)

A common loon, a couple red-breasted mergansers, and a long-tailed duck were also in the area. Actually, common loons followed me wherever I went that entire day.

On my way from Halibut Point to Gloucester Harbor I stopped by at Folly Cove Landing to get some shots of a group of American Black Ducks. They were joined by a female red-breasted merganser (who I suspect to be the same bird I had seen earlier flying past in the general direction of the cove), a common loon, some ring-billed gulls, and a raptor I was unable to identify. I was just about to put my car in reverse and leave Folly Cove when I saw the raptor fly up and land in a tree. So, out the camera came again, just after I had packed it away in its case.

Then it was off to Gloucester. Hung around by the Fisherman's Memorial, taking pictures of the 2 common loons I saw there, the 5 or 6 long-tailed ducks (They seemed to be working on a chorus tune or something, made quite a bit of noise. Made me giggle at them fondly.), and the big bunch of common eiders hanging out not too far from the memorial. They were also making quite a fuss, with funny little muffled squeaks. Not sure if that's an accurate description, I just remember that they, too, got a fond giggle for their vocalizations. Once they saw me walk up to the railing by the side of the water, they swam over, no doubt expecting some bread crumbs.

I don't mean to leave out the gulls, it's just that I've been so enraptured by diving ducks lately.

A quick stop at home to upload the contents of my memory cards to my brother's computer, and I was off again, this time to Wachusett Reservoir. It was one of the places on my "need to explore" list, and I just sort of chose it at random. Went hiking along some of the trails, near-ish to South Bay, I believe, and was a little disappointed when I got close enough to the water to survey a large portion of the reservoir--a solitary bird-dot. You know what I mean by "bird-dot", right? Well, it turned out to be a common loon, which I watched for a little while as it dove and foraged underwater. The loon would stick its head underwater to survey potential prey, as far as I know, and then lift its head up for a moment. A few times it would scan underwater, lift its head up briefly, and then proceed to dive under, but at one point it seemed to be having some rotten luck. It repeated the scan-then-lift-head-up process several times again and again without diving, then seemed to resign itself to preening.

More hiking the trails led me to black-capped chickadees, a couple of downy woodpeckers (I have yet to see a Hairy), a white-breasted nuthatch, and at least a dozen kinglets. I was delighted to see them, I'd forgotten how much I missed those little guys. I still insist that they like having their picture taken. Such curious little birds. Once my presence was known, they flitted closer and closer to me, begging to have their pictures taken, but not willing to give up all the dignity of wild creatures. To maintain the self-respect of wild creatures, they hop around too rapidly to make taking their picture too easy. Funny little fellows.

Then I was more or less exhausted, and quite satisfied with good pictures of Harlequins, a new lifer, and seeing some kinglets again for the first time in weeks.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Brave Winter Weather Birds

I may never tire of black-capped chickadees. I just adore them.

Anyway, I had a lovely Christmas with my family. My boyfriend's family spoiled me rotten (again) and gave me a very nice feeder, a pole to put it on, and bird seed. I'm excited to get back to school so I can set it all up. If my apartment complex gets uppity and says we can't have it in the backyard, I'll be heart broken. They're very strange about what we're allowed to keep in our backyards.....oh well. I keep scolding myself for not putting up a feeder earlier in the year, since I've read in a few different places that birds typically start scouting out food sources (which yards have feeders, for instance) in the Fall. Hopefully if my apartment complex gives me their blessing and I do set the feeder up, the birds will find it and enjoy it, even if I did put it up late.

In addition to the three bird books I opened as early Christmas gifts and the feeder, I also got a new camera (Panasonic Lumix with 10.1 megapixels and 18x optical zoom) and binoculars. I'm hoping that tomorrow morning I can get up enough courage to brave the cold and head down to Halibut Point. The last time I went I had my aging Powershot, and I'd really like to get some better pictures of the purple sandpipers and the Harlequin Ducks.

Those purple sandpipers are tough little guys, borderline crazy. Of course, I guess the ducks are even more insane, since they're diving into the freezing cold water, completely submerging themselves. Now, I realize that they've developed physical characteristics that enable them to survive in these conditions, but it still blows my mind. I mean, polar bears, whales, seals--I have a much easier time seeing them in icy cold conditions. That's probably because I just think "Oh, blubber. They're alright." But birds are such light-weight creatures, it's harder for me to think "Oh, their feathers are designed to trap body heat, and they also repel water."

One I finished typing that last bit I thought "Geez, I'd better look into this a little more before I keep rambling on, they'll think I'm an idiot." So I did some quick online research (not the best technique, I know). I was already aware of how feathers overlap and trap body heat, and that feathers also repel water (very very cold water if you're a crazy purple sandpiper). Now I know that when I see a duck balancing on one foot and holding the other up close to its body, it is trying to keep warm. Tucking the bill and face beneath a wing is another way to keep warm.

One thing I was clueless about until about 5 minutes ago is the system of blood vessels in a bird's feet that help to minimize heat loss. I must admit I don't completely understand it, but apparently this system is even more sophisticated in penguins than in other birds (which makes sense).

Maybe I'm just a wimp, but I'm still going to think "BRRRRRR!!!!" when I see those ducks and sandpipers out there on the chilly New England coast, whether it's the ducks diving under the numbing waves or the sandpipers huddled on the rocks getting splashed by them.

Happy holidays, and think warm thoughts!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Hard Drive Bites the Dust

So, my laptop's hard drive died last night. I'm obviously thrilled. Guess posting pictures on here will have to wait, since my external hard drive isn't compatible with this compy.

No birding today, but I'm enjoying the three birding books I got last night as an early Christmas present. I thought I'd start summarizing some of my past birding "adventures" while one of our cats, Merk, naps in my lap.

It all kind of started this summer before our family cruise to the west coast of Mexico. I hit the town library about a week before we were scheduled to leave, planning on getting a general feel for the flora and fauna of the areas we'd be visiting. I was especially excited for snorkeling, since in the past I've had a blast snorkeling in the Caribbean. And, this time my boyfriend's family was lending me a camera and an underwater case for it so I could photograph all the fish my little heart desired (they spoil me rotten). I got a general idea of the birds I might see in Mexico, but it wasn't until we were actually there that something just clicked. Brown Pelicans, Magnificent Frigatebirds, and I even sniped a few pictures of a Hooded Oriole (I'm very proud that I even spotted him to begin with).

I also got to see Heermann's Gulls, which I thought were quite pretty as far as gulls go (I think I've seen too many fast food parking lot gulls, and now I'm a little prejudiced towards gulls in general). I try to keep in mind that they're not all like that, and that the ones that are, are simply adapting to what we've done to their environment.....I think.

I almost forgot about the two West Mexican Chachalacas we spotted near the beach in Puerto Vallarta where we went snorkeling!

Once we got back from the cruise--forget about it. I was hooked. I went birding at a few local parks and forests, my backyard, and the neighborhood pond armed with only my aging PowerShot camera and the $20 binoculars I bought on the cruise ship. The first all-day birding expedition I went on was to Plum Island and Parker River NWR. I didn't realize at the time what a great place that was to start at. Since then I've seen Parker River included in several lists of the "Best 100 Places to Go Birding in the US" and similar lists. I went with my Dad and borrowed my grandmother's binoculars for the trip. It hadn't been long, and I didn't know what I was doing at that point, but I still managed to see several new species on that trip, including a Common Eider. Walking the beach we spied him resting on a seaweed-covered rock at low tide. Through the binoculars I could just barely make out that distinctive Eider bill shape, that forehead that goes into the bill in almost a straight line. I'd been flipping through my guidebook, and thought the Eiders were pretty--I wanted to see one. So, off the socks and shoes came, and I slowly began picking my way closer to the bird through the slippery rocks. I got decent pictures with my elderly camera, but withdrew from the water as soon as a sea snake/worm looking thing wriggled by my foot. I'll post the picture of it later, it was pretty scary-looking.

About a month later I went back to Parker River during the height of the Tree Swallow migration. That was another excellent trip, and I can't wait to visit there again during spring break.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Day Stuck Indoors

Despite the fact that I'm now on my Christmas break from school and itching to go explore Assabet, Oxbow, and Great Meadows NWRs, I was stuck indoors today while the wintery siege of the region continued. Apparently as of last night thousands of people were still without power (it's been more than a week).

I did get to do a little window birding, though. Shuffling sleepily downstairs for some breakfast, I looked out the window and saw dozens of birds whizzing all over the backyard. After running back upstairs for the camera, I watched them for about half an hour. Tons of robins. Some starlings mixed in, too. There were a few squabbles between the two while they foraged, but nothing more than a chirping of "Watch it, you!" My next door neighbor's tree proved to be quite a favorite, I'm going to have to find out specifically what kind of tree it is. A male cardinal alighted in the branches, but it was a bit too crowded for his tastes and he took off. Saw a couple of flashes of the white secondaries of a mockingbird or two where our property meets the woods.

If only it had stopped snowing.....I would've had my dad's snowshoes strapped on to my new boots in a flash and been off to the neighborhood pond (not aluminum showshoes, I'm talking about snowshoes, the wooden variety you might see nailed up to a lodge wall in a decorative X).

It strikes me as a little strange to jump into my blog this way, but I can't really think of a better way to do it. I live in Middlesex County, MA and go to school in Monroe County, NY. So far I've been birding (in MA) at Parker River NWR, Halibut Point State Park (which I never would have visited if it weren't for reading another birder's blog!), some local parks, (in NY) Braddock Bay Bird Observatory, Hamlin Beach State Park, Mendon Ponds Park, Montezuma NWR, and Irondequoit Bay. I've got two big maps on the wall of my room in my apartment back in NY--one of Massachusetts and the other of the Finger Lakes Region. Both are riddled with color-coded push pins marking out where I've been and where I want to go birding in the future.