Saturday, December 31, 2011

Common Eider

A pair of Common Eiders, Andrews Point, Rockport, MA; 11/12/2011.
While visiting Halibut Point State Park in Rockport, Massachussets, looking for sea birds that I wouldn't find in the Midwest. One of the first birds I saw was a female Common Eider floating in the the rough waters near the rocky shore.  While I was focussing on this Eider, a Harlequin Duck floated right into my viewfinder (my Christmas Day post).  Later while exploring the Andrews Point, only a few minutes away from Halibut Point SP, a rather large flock of Common Eiders (A pair Above) flew in and landed several yards off the shore line. The female on the left are all brown with a barred wing pattern, gray bill that extends to the crown leaving virtually no forehead. They also have a long lighter eyebrow.  Males (on the right) are black and white with a yellow bill. Their heads and backs are white, with black wings and a black crown.
A fly-by female Common Eider, Halibut Pt SP,MA, 11-12-11
The Eiders stayed quite far out to sea, but the closest one came to me was a female that flew by not far off the shore (Above).
A female Common Eider and a Harlequin Duck enjoy the wave action at Halibut Pt SP,MA, 11-12-11

Wave action at Halibut Point Sate Park, Rockport, MA; 11/12/2011.
Eiders like the rough sea near rocky shorelines similar to the photo (Above).
A male Common Eider, Andrews Point, Rockport, MA; 11/12/2011.
Males (Above) are black and white with a yellow bill. Their heads and backs are white, with black wings and a black crown.
A juvenile male Common Eider, Andrews Point, Rockport, MA; 11/12/2011.
Within the flock that landed at Andrews Point, there were many adult females and males, but also some juvenile males (Above), which look similar to adult males, but their necks and heads are mostly black. During the summer, Common Eiders can be found along the extreme northern shorelines of Canada and Alaska - the Hudson Bay, Baffin Island and the other islands of Nunavut in the Arctic Circle.  For the winter they will migrate a bit south along the north Atlantic seaboard as far south as Virginia, and along the Aleutian Islands and the North pacific Coast of Alaska and Canada. They can be found year round in the North Atlantic along the eastern Provinces of Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, and Labrador. In the States they can be found year round along the coast of Maine. As I noticed in the summer of 2008, the first time I saw a Common Eider, they may spend their summer months as far south as Rhode Island (Below).
Female Common Eiders rest on some seaweed covered rocks, Judith Point, Narragansett, Rhode Island; 7/29/2008.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Harlequin Duck - an ornamental duck for your merry Christmas

A beautifull marked Harlequin Duck floating in the Atlantic, Halibut Point State Park, MA; 11/12/2011.
Merry Christmas!  There is no bird (at least duck) more beautiful to feature on Christmas Day than the Harlequin Duck (Above).  One of the main reasons for my wanting to visit the Massachusetts Atlantic coast
was to try to find one of these torrent ducks. After reading John Nelson's article about "Birding Hotspots Near You" in the October 21, issue of Bird Watching ( ), I was motivated to try to get away for a long weekend to someplace interesting and with potential birding possibilities. Since I was too busy to get away during the long Thanksgiving weekend, I decided that I would try to find a place to go during the Vetrans' Day weekend, of which I had a 3-days away from school. The "hotspots" that the article featured were in Nestucca Bay NWR, Oregon; Middle Creek WMA, Pennsylvania; Merced NWR, California, and the Rockport Headlands, Cape Ann, Massachusetts. All of these places sounded interesting, but since Val has relatives in the Boston area, and one of the highlighted birds from Cape Ann was the Harlequin Duck among other sea birds that I do not get a chance to see here in the Midwest. Since Cape Ann is not more than an hours drive north of Boston, I proposed to Val a quick mini-vacation to the area.  Initially, she thought I was kidding, but I assurred her I was serious. She could see her relatives who she doesn't get to visit very often, and I get to go birding in places that I would not be able to do very often - a win-win situation. At the very least, a win-lose situation - even if I don't get to see the birds I would like to, at least she would get to see her relatives, so it would not be a wasted trip. She agreed.
A fly - by Harlequin Duck, Halibut Point State Park, Rockport, MA; 11/12/2011.
Since most of Val's relatives were busy during the day of our arrival, our plan was upon landing at Logan Airport in Boston, we would rent a car and immediately drive up to Plum Island (Parker River NWR - see my last few posts about birds from Plum Island), spend the day there, drive back to Boston, stay with Val's Aunt (Hi Celeste), then the next day drive out to Cape Ann and visit the "hotspots" that John Nelson mentioned in his article.  In his article, he said never to "gaurantee" that one will see a bird, but he mentioned that he has never failed to see a Harlequin Duck in at least one of three locations. So I thought, why not give these locations a try? The first hotspot was Halibut Point State Park in Rockport. After a short hike through some beautiful scenery past a water-filled- no longer in use quarry, we reached the ocean's coast, and within minutes I saw a female Common Eider (A bird I only have seen once before a couple of years ago in Rhode Island) riding the waves near the rocky shoreline.  While I was focussing on this Eider, another water bird floated right into my viewfinder. Lo and behold, it was a Harlequin Duck (Top photo). As it bobbed into and out of view in between the 2-foot waves, I managed several good pics. Later as I was exploring the rocky shoreline, another harlequin Duck flew by at quite a clip, but I was lucky to get a bead on its flight path and burst several shots (Above), which turned out to be one of my best photos (in my opinion) of 2011.

Harlequin Ducks riding the waves crashing into the Cathedral Rocks, Rockport, MA; 11/12/2011.
After completing our visit to Halibut Point State Park, we drove along some shoreline streets to further explore the area, and checked out two other hotspots that John Nelson recommended - Cathedral Rocks and Andrew Point. Near Cathedral Rocks, I hopped out of the rent-a-car, and ventured out onto the rocks so I could better see the ocean's shoreline. Within seconds I saw four more Harlequins (3 male, 1 female) riding the waves in a small cove (Above). They were content to let the waves push them to whereever it led them. As a wave would carry them over a rocky ledge, and when the wave subsided, the ducks would stay on the rock until another wave came along and washed them off the rocks where upon they would let the waves carry them to their next destination. This continued for several minutes until they decided they had enough of the waves and then climbed up higher onto the rocky ledge where the waves couldn't reach them (Below).
A row of Harlequins, Cathedral Rocks, Rockport, MA; 11/12/2011.
Native to Europe, Harlequins are also found in both the East and West ends of Canada in the summers, as well as in Alaska in the West and Greenland in the East, and year round in the Aleutian Islands. In winter months they can be found along both the North Atlantic and North Pacific coastlines. So my hats off to John Nelson from Bird Watchinmg Magazine for leading me to these magnificent ducks.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Dunlin & Greater Yellowlegs, Plum Island, MA

Vibrant colors on the Pines Trail,  Plum Island, MA; 11/11/2011.
My last few posts dealt with Sanderlings, Semipalmated Sandpipers and Black-bellied Plovers, but I also saw another two shorebirds during my day on Plum Island, Massachusetts. The Greater Yellowlegs (Below) is a shorebird that I have seen in the Midwest, and is also found coast to coast throught Canada in the summer, and keeps itself along both coasts during the winter.
A Greater Yellowlegs, Parker River NWR, Plum Island, MA; 11/11/2011.
But it was the second shorebird that I noticed, which was separated from the other sandpipers probing the beach as a collected flock. This shore bird appeared out of nowhere. I was in the same general spot for several minutes and was surprised I didn't see it before. As I took its picture, I was thinking it seemed a bit larger than the Semipalmated Sandpiper of the similar brownish color. It certainly wasn't as white as the Sanderlings. I turned my attention back to the main flock, then looked for the lone shorebird again, but it was nowhere in sight. I was lucky to get that one photo (Below) because I didn't see it again. While sorting out my photos at day's end, I came to the image of this bird and upon seeing this shorebird with its long curved bill, I confirmed it was neither a Sanderling nor a Semipalmated.
This lone Dunlin appeared for a brief moment near a flock of sanderlings and Semipalmated Sandpipers,  Sandy Point, Plum Island, MA; 11/11/2011.
Again, because of my lack of identification skills of the subtle differences between many Sandpipers, I needed to check my guidebook (The Sibley Field Guide...)to identify this one. The long curved bill and the geographic area narrowed down my choices to Western Sandpipers, Dunlins, and Stilt Sandpipers. It is possible that all three of these could be found along the north Atlantic coast during their fall migration. However, it would be rare for the Western Sandpiper to be seen north of New York during the winter but certainly could be seen as it is migrating through. I decided that the bird I saw was larger than a Western Sandpiper which would be in between the size of Sanderlings and Semipalmated SP's. Stilt Sandpipers would be the right size and could also be migrating through, but their legs are yellow, so I dismissed these. Dunlins would be the most common of the three as it is a winter resident along the entire Atlantic Coast as far north as Maine. and its size and colorization seemed about right being slightly larger than a Sanderling and much larger than a Semipalmated and a Western, but the same genral color and markings. I was excited that I could add a Dunlin to my Life List (#340), and wished I paid more attention to it to get a better quality photograph.

Tomorrow and the next couple of weekends I'll feature photos of birds that I found along the Rocky Atlantic shores of Rockport and Glauster, Mass.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Black-bellied Plover and Western Sandpiper, Plum Island, MA

A boardwalk leading out to an Atlantic beach on Plum Island, MA, 11/11/2011.
Plum Island has a varied beautiful habitat to attract many types of birds, but shore and water birds specifically find this area a fantastic place to live or as a stopover on their migration routes. I particularly was hoping to find a Piping Plover, which calls Plum Island its summer home, knowing that by the middle of November they may already have left for their winter grounds.
Waves incoming, Plum Island, MA; 11/11/2011.
After searching several beaches, searching for some shorebirds, about all I observed were Herring Gulls so I turned my attention to the waves crashing onto the beach. While I was taking pictures of the Atlantic waves,  I noticed a shore bird appear near a salt water puddle. Its short bill suggested to me that it was a Plover and not a Sandpiper.
Black-bellied Plover, Plum Island, MA; 11/11/2011.
It wasn't a Piping Plover, but it still was a new a new bird to add to my Life List, a Black-bellied Plover in its nonbreeding plumage. These Plovers are very similar to the American Golden Plover, but this bird's (Above) belly was too white to be that of an American Golden.
Black-bellied Plover,  Plum Island, MA; 11/11/2011.
Black-bellied Plovers are found inside the Arctic Circle in the northern shores of Alaska and Canada during the summer months. It would have been cool to see this Plover's breeding plumage as males sport a black breast, throat and face set off with white under the tail and along the sides of the neck that run up along to its forehead.  In its nonbreeding plumage, they lose their contrasting white and black feathers and become more drab (Above).  Their undersides become whiter, but the rest of thier bodies,  become more brown, with streaked breast and a white eyebrow. They will spend their winter months along both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, which of course, is where I saw this guy.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Semipalmated Sandpipers - Plum Island, MA

Sandy Point Beach, Plum Island, MA; 11/11/2011.
While chasing after Sanderlings on Sandy Point on Plum Island, who in turn were chasing waves (yesterday's post), I noticed a bird that didn't seem to fit in with the rest of the flock. It was slightly smaller and had darker plumage on its back.
Which one of these is not like the other? Sandy Point, Plum Island, MA; 11/11/2011.
I must have been observing these Sanderlings for quite a few minutes, when it occurred to me that one of them didn't have the same markings, but was following and doing everything the Sanderlings were doing.  I figured it looked like a Semipalmated Sandpiper or a Least Sandpiper (Both which could have been migrating through), but because I wasn't completely certain about my identification of shorebirds, I had to wait until I was able to use my bird guide and make a sure ID.
Can you spot the Semipalmated Sandpiper among the Sanderlings? Sandy Point, Plum Island, MA; 11/11/2011.

Semipalmated Sandpiper, Sandy Point, Plum Island, MA; 11/11/2011.
After a few minutes the Semipalmated Sandpiper separated itself from the Sanderlings so I could isolate it in a photo (Above). Then I noticed there were two Smipalmated SP's (Below). They are often found on mudflats feeding together with their close relatives, the Least and Western sandpipers, but in this case, with Sanderlings.
A couple of Semipalmated Sandpipers hanging with a flock of Sanderlings, Sandy Point, Plum Island, MA; 11/11/2011.
The markings and size of these two birds were similar to both the Semipalmated and the Least Sandpipers, but the bill is what helped me determine it was a Semipalmated. The Least SP's bill is slightly longer, thinner and droops down more than the Semiplamated SPs. It was fortunate for us to see these Sandpipers while they were on their long migration route south.
A swarm of Semipalmated Sandpipers over the Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick, Canada; 8/1/2008.
Perhaps the most numerous shorebird in North America, sometimes occurring by the thousands during migration, Semipalmated Sandpipers spend their summers on the mudflats of  Northern Canada surrounding the Hudson Bay and the many islands of the Northwest Territories. They travel a long way during their migration route, flying all the way to South America to spend their winters. A couple of summers ago, while Val and I were  exploring the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick (Canada), we had the good fortune to witness thousands of these Sandpipers, on their way North, "fishing" for insects and mollusks out in the bay. They flew in a swarm (Above) chasing the insects, changing directions all together, which made them look like a wave in the air.
A fling of Semipalmated Sandpipers, Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick, Canada; 8/01/2008.
The photo (Above) is about the closest I could zoom in to get some shape of each individual Sandpiper. However, I was able to get a bit of video (Below) that captured the crazy movement the fling of Semipalmated's as they moved back and forth as a collective group, simulating a wave.

A video clip of a "timestep" of Semipalmated Sandpipers cruising the Bay of Fundy for insects on the oceans surface; New Brunswick, Canada; 8/1/2008.
The name of these Sandpipers has an interesting origin. The word "semipalmated," refers to the birds' toes, means "half-webbed." The toes are only slightly lobed at their bases and help them to walk on mud without sinking. According to, a group of sandpipers has many collective nouns, including a "bind", "contradiction", "fling", "hill", and "time-step" of sandpipers.
A Semipalmated Sandpiper, Sandy Pointy, Plum Island, MA; 11/11/2011.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Sanderlings - New Wave Chasers

A small grain of Sanderlings were the object of our amusement as they chased waves in and out of the beach at Sandy Point, Plum Island, Massachusetts; 11/11/2011.
As promised, today I have some fun pics of a flock of Sanderlings being the ultimate wave chasers. They would scurry out as far as the surf's edge would take them. Then as a newly formed wave merged toward the shore, the Sanderlings would hustle back away from the wave. As soon as the wave receded, they would quickly feed on the invertebrate prey that the waves deposited in the sand, and then wait for the next wave. This action was repeated for hours.

Sanderlings - running into the surf getting in position for the incoming wave, Sandy Point, Plum Island, MA; 11/11/2011.
Sanderlings - running away from the incoming wave,  Sandy Point, Plum Island, MA; 11/11/2011.
Sanderlings - quickly feeding on the morsals left behind by the receding wave, Sandy Point, Plum Island, MA; 11/11/2011.

....And repeat ....
Running in ... waiting for the next wave ...

...running out ...
...and quckly feeding...
This would go on for hours and the Sanderlings, busy at their feeding frenzy, soon became very accustomed to me being there, and let me get quite close. In the photo (Below two pics), I hardly needed to either zoom in with my Sigma 500mm lens, nor had to crop the photo later in photoshop.

Sanderlings, hurdling the wave's edge, waiting for their meal to be deposited at their feet,  Sandy Point, Plum Island, MA; 11/11/2011.

Another pic that needed no zooming in or cropping, sanderlings, Sandy point, Plum Island, MA; 11/11/2011.

Some wilder wave action off the Atlantic Coast, Plum Island, MA; 11/11/2011.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Sanderlings, Parker River NWR, Plum Island, MA

A lone Sanderling feeding amongst the rocks at Sandy Point, Plum Island, MA; 11/11/2011.
A month ago, I had the pleasure of witnessing a grain of Sanderlings playing and feeding in the waves off of Sandy Point on Plum Island in Massachusetts. The Sanderling (Above) was a bit unusual to be on its own as they are more often found in medium to large flocks (or "grains" as would tell you ... ). 

The rock-strewn beach at Sandy Point on the southern tip of Plum Island was a great place to find sea and shorebirds, Massachusetts; 11/11/2011.
Sanderlings are among one of the worlds most distributed shorebirds as they can be found in five continents (Europe, Asia, Africa, and both North & South America). In the our continent they will be found in extreme northern Canada and in the Arctic Circle during the summer months. In winter they will migrate south and will put up residence along both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts on sandy beaches which produce lots of oceanic wave action.
Sanderlings flying over the Atlantic scouting out beaches to aid their feeding frenzy, Plum Island, Massachusetts; 11/11/2011.
A pair of Sanderlings flying over the Sandy Point Beach, Plum Island, Massachusetts; 11/11/2011.
This late in the year, Sanderlings will already be in their non-breeding plumage (Above), mostly white underneath with pale gray back, tail and crown, and a darker shoulder and tips of its primaries with a broad white stripe which can be seen when in flight (Above two pics). Because they spend their summer months in the Arctic, we very seldom get to see their wonderfully colorful reddish breeding plumage.

Val's late evening photo of a grain of Sanderlings in full breeding plumage, Pistol River Beach, Oregon; 7/13/2007
A few summers ago (well before I became more serious about bird photography) while Val and I were exploring the beautiful Oregon Coast and taking photos of a gorgeous sunset (Below), Val was fascinated by a small flock of sandpipers chasing waves in and out and she took some pics (Above). These happened to be Sanderlings in their breeding plumage, with reddish heads and wings giving way to a mottled gray and red near their primaries. This reddish color was beautifully contrasted by their white bellies and underneath the tails.

Tomorrow, I will feature a few photos of these fun birds chasing waves.

As the Sanderlings were chasing waves, Val and I were chasing sunsets, Pistol River Viewpoint, Oregon; 7/13/2007.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Scoters & Parker River Nationl Wildlife Refuge, Plum Island, MA

A boardwalk leading to an ocean beach, Parker River NWR, Plum Island, MA; 11/11/2011.
Yesterday I posted about the rare sighting of a Greenland's Barnacle Goose on U.S, soil - in particular, on Plum Island near the Parker Riv NWR's Visitors' Center.  A month ago, during my brief 2-day trip to Massachusetts,  I was hoping to see and photograph birds that I wouldn't ordinarily see in the Midwest, my stomping grounds, and I wasn't disappointed. Immediately, I was able to see the Barnacle Goose, and during the few hours spent on Plum Island (Above: 11/11/2011), I was able to identify almost 40 bird species and net six new birds on my Life List.

A chattering flock of House Sparrows in a bush waiting to invade the Visitors' Center feeders, Parker River NWR, Plum Island, MA; 11/11/2011.
I saw a few land birds (Blue Jays, House Sparrows (Above), several finches and many PBB's - "plain brown birds" that were too swift and hidden to identify); however, most of the birds I saw were water birds - swimmers, dabblers, divers, waders, and shorebirds.

A Great Blue Heron,  Parker River NWR, Plum Island, MA; 11/11/2011.
Water birds identified: Canada Geese, Barnacle Goose**, Mute Swans, Mallards, American Wigeons, American Coots, Northern Shovelers, Gadwalls, Ruddy Ducks, Red Heads, Common Eiders, several species of Scoters (White-winged**, Black**, and Surf**) (Below), Buffleheads, Hooded Mergansers,  Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons (Above), Double-crested Cormorants, Sanderlings, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Western Sandpipers**, Black-bellied Plover**, Greater Yellowlegs, Ring-billed Gulls, Herring Gulls, and Great Black-backed Gulls**.
** denotes new birds added to my Life List.
A float of Black Scoters bouncing in the Atlantic waves off of Sandy Pt., Parker River NWR, Plum Island, MA; 11/11/2011.
One of my Life List additions, Black Scoters (Above & Below), were fun to see as they were bouncing in and out of view out on the active Atlantic waves. Getting a quality photo was out of the question as they were tiny dots in my view finder being quite a bit off shore and constantly being hammered by 2-3 foot waves. They were true surfers riding the waves. At one moment they would be in view on a wave's crest and in the next moment disappear in the trough between two waves.
A close up of some Black Scoters, Parker River NWR, Plum Island, MA; 11/11/2011.
Male Black Scoters are quite striking with their complete black jet body with a bright yellow knob (Below) on its bill, like a lghthouse lamp in the night. Females are less striking - brown overall bodies , lighter on the cheeks with a darker crown.

Another pair of Black Scoters, and a better look at the yellow knob on the male's bill,  Parker River NWR, Plum Island, MA; 11/11/2011.
In the summer months, Black Scoters are found on the two extreme coasts - northeast Canada and far northwestern Alaska. In the winter, they will migrate along both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

A female White-winged Scoter, Parker River NWR, Plum Island, MA; 11/11/2011.
Another Scoter that I added to my Life List is the White-winged Scoter (Above & Below) which landed near the shore while I was chasing some Sanderlings (Next weekend's post).
Although not a great photo, it's a better look at the female White-winged Scoter's oval white loral patch and white patch behind its eye, Parker River NWR, Plum Island, MA; 11/11/2011.
White-winged Scoters are slightly larger than Black Scoters and like the Blacks are found along both the Atlantic seaboard and Pacific coast during winter months. In the Summer, Whit-wings are found throughout western and northern Canada and Alaska. Although I didn't locate a male of this species, they would be a treat to see with its dark brown body, white secondaries on its wings, red-orange bill tip, and a white "comma-shaped" eye patch.