Tag Archives: Bradbury Mountain Spring Hawkwatch

Townsend’s Solitaire at Bradbury Mountain!

It was a very good day up at the Bradbury Mountain Spring Hawkwatch, sponsored by Freeport Wild Bird Supply and Leica Sport Optics. The 2017 Official Counter, Zane Baker, had the day off today, so I was the counter for the first half of the day. Jeannette took the second shift, and were it not for Sasha’s declining health, I definitely would have remained until day’s end. We were having too much fun!

With light southwesterly winds aloft (and light and variable at the surface), record warmth, and perfect timing, we knew it was going to be a big day. Zane could not stay away, and Katrina Fenton, the 2012 through 2014 Official Counter, was visiting from New Hampshire. Several other local birders were present as well, as were hawkwatchers from New Hampshire and Mid-coast Maine. After a slow, somewhat chilly start, the day, and the hawkwatch began to heat up.

At approximately 11:10, I spotted a Black Vulture soaring over Hedgehog Mountain. It was low and relatively close, affording prolonged scope views for over five minutes before it drifted away to the north or northeast. Several personal first-of-years included 7 Northern Flickers, 1 Barn Swallow, and 3 Yellow-rumped Warblers. 2 Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and 1 Ruby-crowned Kinglet were also first of the season for the count site.  We also had a steady trickle of migrant Tree Swallows, along with a smattering of other passerine migrants. Later in the day, two Sandhill Cranes (our 6th and 7th of the season) also passed overhead.

A steady light flow of raptors was adding up, too. 209 were tallied when I departed at 1:00, led by 59 American Kestrels and 37 Broad-winged Hawks, but a decent total of 11 species in all. (A goodly 361 was our final tally by day’s end).

Sure, we had a little rarity fever on our minds, especially after the Black Vulture (downright expected on such conditions in early to mid-April), but all hell broke loose at 12:18pm EDT. 

Then, a medium-small passerine came flying towards us, moderately high, and suggestive of an Eastern Bluebird with a thrush-like flight and shape. But as I lingered on it, I realized it was definitely not a bluebird – its flight was faster, steadier, and it was solidly colored. It also seemed a little larger and longer. It was backlit by the sun, it was coming right at me, but it was looking odd. 

As it got closer, I said “get on this passerine…Katrina, get your camera!” as she was closer to her long lens than I was to my superzoom. As it passed right overhead, still a little backlit, I yell, “TOWNSEND’S SOLITAIRE!”

A slim bodied, long-tailed, thrush-like bird passed overhead, with a screaming wide, bold, and buffy stripe through the near-center of the wing (obviously known to be the base of the flight feathers).

As it flew over, then headed straight away, it was finally getting into better light. And it looked gray. Quite gray. As I was calling for it to “turn, turn!” Katrina was unable to find it in the viewfinder, so switched to bins. Zane got on it, as did a couple of other birders, including Don Thompson.

Unfortunately, it did not turn, and I never saw the upperwing. I also never got a real handle on the tail, beyond silhouette.

I don’t think we had really clinched the ID yet, even though I knew it had to be a Townsend’s Solitaire. Only the Catharus thrushes share that wide and distinct buffy wing stripe, which I will address in the notes below.

I stepped aside, turning over the watch to Zane, and wrote two pages of field notes. Only then did I consult a Sibley, and I discussed the bird with others, especially Katrina who was the only other person it saw it fairly well in binoculars.

  • Bold, buff wingstripe obvious, from based of inner secondaries to end, or nearly so, of outer primaries. Wide and fairly even throughout.
  • With sun behind it, it first looked all-dark, with little to no contrast (actually thought of a blackbird at first), but got lighter as it passed roughly overhead, distinctly solid gray as it went straight away. But it was never in perfect light.
  • First impression was of a thin tail, which it may have then partially opened at one point, but as it was going away, no detail was seen (i.e. overall color or white fringes).
  • Only other possibility was a Catharus thrush, but that seems even less likely to be overhead at 12:18pm on April 11th in Maine. While Hermit Thrushes are just now arriving, and we do occasionally see “morning redetermined migration” throughout the day (e.g. some Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers, along with at least one surprisingly high Eastern Phoebe today), Catharus thrushes usually don’t reorient, and if they do (at least at Sandy Point in the fall), it’s immediately after sunrise.
  • Question: could the back-lighting have made the wingstripe look wider and bolder from below? From my experience at Sandy Point, when in fact a Catharus does go overhead, that wingstripe is obvious, but it is not as obvious as in this bird. And of course, no lightening scenario would make a brown bird look cool gray.
  • Tail seemed long, and the body especially seemed too slim for a Catharus. It did not have a broad chest or pot-bellied appearance, as it was uniformly more tubular (even slimmer than a bluebird). Smaller and much skinnier than a Wood Thrush, yet larger and longer than a Veery, we of course went to Hermit Thrush as a fallback (due to seasonal status; but see discussion below).
  • Upperwing not seen. Tail pattern not deciphered.

Discussion:

– Katrina: “When I finally got on it (in bins; heading away but now in the best light we had it) it did not look brown at all, and definitely appeared gray.” Zane also thought it looked gray, not brown.

– Katrina thought the tail looked long, body slim and not pot-bellied like a Catharus. And she reviewed my notes with no additional comments or edits.

– We then consulted Sibley Guide to Eastern Birds (2nd edition): Underwing coverts not obviously pale as in Hermit Thrush, wing pattern of solitaire only similar to Swainson’s or Gray-cheeked Thrush/Bicknell’s Thrush. Of course, what would one of those species be doing here now, and flying overhead in the middle of the day? Even if a vagrant/pioneering individual of one of those species wintered far north of usual range, why would it be in flight in the middle of the day? But Townsend’s Solitaires are on the move about now, and do migrate diurnally (like bluebirds).

The light was simply not perfect, and we were unable to get photos, so we carefully discussed the bird. With several birders of various levels of experience around us, we took this as a “teaching moment” to go through the process and exemplify the caution needed to make a call of a rarity under less than ideal circumstances.  But through the process of elimination, we simply cannot come to any alternative conclusions. It was too gray, too slim, and too out of place for a Catharus thrush; we could not figure out how the lighting or the view could have resulted in a solidly-gray undersides with little noticeable contrast (definitely no spots!). Also, I’ll fallback a bit on my initial excited call of Townsend’s Solitaire.

While we would have loved a longer and closer look in better light (or a brief alightment on a nearby tree!), and of course a photo, it is impossible for me to believe this was anything other than a Townsend’s Solitaire, a rare but regular vagrant to the Northeast. This was a new record for the Bradbury Mountain Spring Hawkwatch, and the park in general. And it might very well go down as the bird of the season.

2016 Bradbury Mountain Spring Hawkwatch Season In Review

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The 10th annual Bradbury Mountain Spring Hawkwatch wrapped up on May 15th, bringing a remarkable season to a close. Although I did go up for two hours to hope for a vagrant Mississippi or Swallow-tailed Kite on the 20th, netting five migrants (2 Sharp-shinned Hawks and 1 each of Broad-winged Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, and Merlin. All immatures as expected on the late date). It was worth a try!

Anna Stunkel, a College of the Atlantic graduate and veteran of the Lucky Peak hawkwatch in southwestern Idaho, was the 2016 Official Counter, and she did an incredible job. A tireless observer and interpreter, she introduced hundreds of visitors to the project, and to our numerous local Bald Eagles! While Jeannette and I covered her days off – when rain didn’t do the job for us – or whenever else we got a chance, our many volunteers, especially Zane Baker, Tom Downing, Dave Gulick, Chuck Barnes, and Rick Hartzell were priceless. No hawkwatch is successful without a loyal cadre of assistants – spotting birds, answering questions, and bringing food – so thanks to you all!
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The 2016 season total of 4,785 between March 15th and May 15th was our second highest total in the ten years of the project, and an impressive 17.6% above average (we exclude 2007 from our data analysis due to a change in methodology after this “trial” year).

Oddly enough, we amassed this tremendous total despite losing 16.5% of our possible coverage hours (9am to 5pm EDT) to weather, including fog, rain, snow, or high winds. The 414 total hours of observation was actually 6.6% below our average.

343 raptors passed the watch on April 17th, topped by the 980 tallied on 4/22 and 585 on 4/23. Those two amazing days changed our season dramatically – we went from worrying about a record low count to dreaming about a record high! 3,165 of our raptors passed through between April 16th and April 28th, accounting for 70% of our total flight.

Two rarities were recorded, headlined by a Black Vulture (our 7th of all time) on May 12th, and perhaps even rarer according to the season, a Broad-winged Hawk on March 20th (our previous earliest date was April 3rd, 2008 which itself was an outlier). We hypothesize that this was not a vanguard of the usual long-distant migrants arriving from Central America so early, but rather a bird that wintered either in South Florida or perhaps even well north of usual range thanks to the mild winter over the East.

Although southwesterly winds – our best conditions – were rare this spring, numerous days of west and light northwest in April, combined with sunny conditions and few weather systems during the peak weeks of our flight produced our great count, led by above average numbers of Osprey, Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, American Kestrel, and Merlin. On our biggest day (4/22), light westerlies eventually turned to the southwest, and westerlies rotated around to the southeast on the following day.
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However, the mild winter and early onset of early spring – including snow-free conditions over much of the area on the first day of the count and ice-out already occurring on larger rivers – got the season off to a quick start, but also meant we missed a number of birds that had already continued north before the count started on March 15th. Below average numbers of Turkey Vulture, Bald Eagle, Cooper’s Hawk, Northern Goshawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, and especially Red-tailed Hawks were the result. “Locals” of each from Day 1 also affected our count as we had to err on the side of caution early on to not overcount local birds (especially vultures and eagles) every time they flew around the mountain. It was a very, very different season from the 2015 count, in which winter never seemed to want to go away.

However, our record low 1 Peregrine Falcon is not as easy to explain – perhaps the constant westerlies just kept this predominately more coastal migrant far enough towards the coastline of Casco Bay.

As always, we also keep track of non-raptor migrants to the best of our ability.
2,010 Double-crested Cormorants, 1457 Common Grackles, 1028 Canada Geese, 918 Tree Swallows, and 747 unidentified/mixed blackbirds led the way.

Sandhill Cranes are now an annual occurrence, and this year we tallied four birds: 2 on 3/26, and one each on 4/16 and 4/25. The expansion/colonization/recolonization of Maine by this magnificent species continues, and our hawkwatch is apparently well placed to sample their return flight. Other noteworthy migrants included a White-winged Crossbill on 3/17, migrant Bohemian Waxwings on 3/26 (50) and 4/19 (29) with numerous visits by small flocks to the Common Juniper at the summit, and two Blue-gray Gnatcatchers (4/22 and 5/3).

A total of 92 species were seen and/or heard from the summit, including regular vocalizations from local Barred Owls and a variety of warblers.

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  2016 Avg. 2008-2015 difference from average
Black Vulture 1 0.8 33.3%
Turkey Vulture 260 272.5 -4.6%
Osprey 513 431.1 19.0%
Bald Eagle 68 77.6 -12.4%
Northern Harrier 132 98.6 33.8%
Sharp-shinned Hawk 744 715.1 4.0%
Cooper’s Hawk 69 74.1 -6.9%
Northern Goshawk 2 7.9 -74.6%
Red-shouldered Hawk 75 91.4 -17.9%
Broad-winged Hawk 2123 1545.0 37.4%
Red-tailed Hawk 245 270.4 -9.4%
Rough-legged Hawk 0 0.9 -100.0%
Golden Eagle 0 0.5 -100.0%
American Kestrel 429 359.3 19.4%
Merlin 76 69.1 9.9%
Peregrine Falcon 1 5.4 -81.4%
       
Unidentified Raptor 47 47.3 -0.5%
Total 4785 4067.9 17.6%
       
Hours 414.25 443.5 -6.6%

Of course, this project doesn’t happen without your support of Freeport Wild Bird Supply, but we can’t do this without the support of Bradbury Mountain State Park and our co-sponsors, Leica Sport Optics. Our sincerest thank you goes out to Sunshine Hood, the new park manager at Bradbury (we can’t wait to grow the project with you!), and Jeff Bouton and Stan Bucklin of Leica.
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But most importantly, this project doesn’t happen without all of you joining our counter at the summit, learning about raptors, migration, and conservation. To show your support for the project, and to raise funds for future needs (counter’s salary, new signage, etc), check out the exclusive Bradbury Mountain Hawkwatch t-shirt by North Yarmouth’s Coyote Graphics. It features Michael’s original artwork of the view from Bradbury within the outline of raptor on the front, and raptor silhouettes by the 2016 Official Counter, Anna Stunkel on the back.

We look forward to seeing you at the summit again beginning on March 15th, 2017 – or perhaps sooner if weather conditions align (like more kite weather!)
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Common Teal to Northern Lapwing; American Woodcocks to Wood Ducks: 5 Great Days of Spring Birding!

Well, that was a helluva good five days of birding! And, I covered a heckuva lot of ground in the process. Yes, spring – and spring birding – is finally upon us.

After checking local hotspots on Thursday morning (lots of Killdeer and my first Eastern Phoebes), I began my trek eastwards after lunch. I was giving a presentation and book signing at the Maine Coastal Islands NWR headquarters in Rockland, thanks to an invite from the Friends of Maine Seabird Islands. On the way, I hit a handful of water overlooks, with the only birds of note being my FOY Fish Crows in downtown Brunswick and FOY Double-crested Cormorant in Damariscotta Harbor.

But then I arrived at Weskeag Marsh, and that was most productive. Highlighted by two drake “Eurasian” Green-winged (aka “Common”) Teal, a nice diversity of waterfowl also included two pairs of American Wigeon and a pair of Northern Pintail. I flushed two American Woodcocks and four Fox Sparrows from the short trail that leads to the viewing blind. Afterwards, I found a single 2nd-Cycle Glaucous Gull with four 1st-cycle Iceland Gulls still at Owl’s Head Harbor.

Here’s a poorly phone-scoped image of one of the Common Teal, showing the bold horiztonal white bar across the wing and the lack of a vertical white bar on the side of the chest.
COTE,WeskeagMarsh,4-5-14

Spending the night with friends, I then met up with staff from the Coastal Mountains Land Trust for a walk around their Beech Hill Preserve to discuss and offer suggestions as to augment and improve bird habitat there. A spiffy male Northern Harrier and a Northern Shrike (my 11th of the season!) were me rewards.

I then took the (very) long way home, checking farm fields on my way to the Hatch Hill Landfill in Augusta. Although 900-1000 gulls were present at the dump – a nice number for here – all but 5 were Herring Gulls (plus three Great Black-backed and 2 Ring-billed). At least 10 Bald Eagles were still present however.

Working my way down the Kennebec, I checked the mouth of the Abagadasset River in Bowdoinham, which I found to still be frozen. Nearby Brown’s Point, however, had open water, and duck numbers were clearly building, including 44 Ring-necked Ducls and 50+ Green-winged Teal. Back at the store soon thereafter, I found our Song Sparrow numbers had grown from four to 12 overnight.

As the rain and drizzle ended on Saturday morning, the birdwalk group convened, and we headed inland (for the first time since December!) to work the “Greater Yarmouth Goose Fields.” Highlighted by two Cackling Geese that were first located on Thursday (a couple of hours after I checked the fields in the fog, dammit!) and yet another Northern Shrike (our third week in a row with a shrike on the birdwalk!), this very productive outing is fully covered on our website, here – as are all of our birdwalk outings.
IMG_3244_CACG,GreelyRd,Cumberland,4-5-14One of the two Cackling Geese, phone-scoped through the fog.

Normally, the birdwalk’s return to the store is the end of my birding on Saturday, but not this week. Soon, Kristen Lindquist, Barb Brenneman, and I raced off to Jordan Farm in Cape Elizabeth to twitch a real “mega,” the stunning Northern Lapwing! Discovered Friday evening, the bird was enjoyed by many throughout the day on Saturday, but it was not seen again on Sunday despite much searching. This is the 4th record of lapwing in Maine, and the third in just three years! I consider myself exceedingly fortunate to have seen the last two. My distantly-phone-scoped photos of the Cape Elizabeth bird hardly do this stunner justice.
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Yet even still my birding day was far from over, as Saturday night was our annual “Woodcocks Gone Wild at Pineland Farms” dusk trip. Keeping an eye on the weather (the rain had cleared, but increasing winds were a concern), Jeannette and I wondered if we should postpone the outing. Moments after we decided to give the go-ahead in the afternoon, the winds began to gust – a lot. Then, at about 5pm, they died. When our walk got underway at 6:30, there was a little breeze once again, but it was not enough to keep the woodcocks from going wild! In fact, it’s possible that a little wind kept the birds’ display a little lower – especially the first handful of flights – which resulted in quite possibly the best show we’ve ever had here! At least 7 males were displaying, including one repeatedly right over our heads – and at least two more silent birds were observed flying by. Add to this lots of American Robins and a Northern Shrike before the sun set, and the group was treated to a wonderful spring evening performance!

Next up was Androscoggin County on Sunday with my friend Phil McCormack. While our primary target was a pancake breakfast at Jillison’s Farm in Sabattus, we were also hoping for a Redhead that was discovered on the outlet stream at Sabattus Pond a few days ago. Well, the pancake chase (the more important one!) was successful, but the Redhead chase was not. However, a very good day of birding was enjoyed nonetheless.

Scattered ducks on the river including Ring-necked Ducks and Common Mergansers, a couple of pockets of Tree Swallows, and other assorted species were trumped by two flooded fields along Rte 136 in Durham. With ponds and marshes still frozen, ducks are stacking up at more ephemeral – but unfrozen – habitats.  Thousands of ducks and geese were present, mostly Canada Geese, Mallards, and American Black Ducks.  However, between the two fields, we tallied an unbelievable 273 Wood Ducks (probably about quadruple my previous high count in the state). Two immature Snow Geese were my first of the year, and very rare away from the coastal marshes in the spring. 18 Green-winged Teal, 12 Ring-necked Ducks, 10 Northern Pintail, and two pairs of American Wigeon were also among the masses.
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Although these phone-scoped photos hardly do the scene justice, they should at least give you a taste of what things looked like.

After brunch, we birded the west side of the Androscoggin River (more Ring-necked Ducks and Common Mergansers, etc) before spending our last hour of our birding (half) day at Bradbury Mountain.  Our disappointment over missing an unprecedented 9 Sandhill Cranes was alleviated when #10 was spotted, along with my first two Ospreys of the year.

After four days of extensive birding, my Monday agenda at the store was lengthy, but the weather in the morning was just too good to pass up!  A spin of the local waterfowl hotspots was fruitful.  The Goose Fields yielded the two continuing Cackling Geese along Greely Road, along with my first American Kestrels of the year, and my FOY Wilson’s Snipe, also along Greely.

No luck finding a lingering Barrow’s Goldeneye in the Harraseeket River, but at Wharton Point, a group of 7 Northern Shovelers was one of the largest flocks of this species I have seen in Maine. My first Greater Yellowlegs of the year was also present, as were 60+ Green-winged Teal, 16 Ring-necked Ducks, about 30 distant scaup, 8 American Wigeons, and 1 Northern Pintail among several hundred American Black Ducks.

Two joyous hours at the Brad were full of raptors: 127 birds had past the watch when I departed at noon, including 4 Osprey. Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks continue to add to their all-time record tallies. Hundreds of Canada Geese were sorted through, hoping for a rarity, while other migrants included Tree Swallows, American Black Ducks, Common Mergansers, and Great Blue Herons.

Furthermore, signs of a good flight last night included the return of Golden-crowned Kinglets to the area – after we were virtually devoid of them this winter, and an increase in Red-breasted Nuthatches (relatively few and far between this winter as well), Song-Sparrows, and at the store, a Fox Sparrow – a bird we don’t get here every spring due to our open habitat.

So long story short, it’s been a great few days of birding!  But now, I should probably get some work done!