Monday, February 15, 2016

Lord I Was Born a Brambling Man

Lord I was born a Brambling man
Trying to make a living while birding as much as I can
And when its time for a road-trip, I hope you’ll understand
That I was born a Brambling man.

I am quickly moving up the ladder to more and more difficulty getting lifers here in the US. Some travel is almost always involved, but clearly some forms of travel are “normal” while others are less so.

Take road trips for example. I am blessed to enjoy the journey part of travel. Sometimes a trip to nowhere on a scenic road is all I need to vicariously amuse myself; be it by bicycle, motorcycle, or car. Others though, cannot fathom the idea, and with time constraints flying is certainly more expedient. Or is it?

I look back fondly to the days of yore when I could simply show up at the airport, wait for the shuttle, and pay on the plane en route. No more. Now it’s a lot of wasted time trying to find a flight that doesn’t break the bank, and can bring you there and back without wasting a lot of time on the travel part. Add in the getting there before the flight part and waiting for luggage and then getting the car yada yada and a road-trip is not nearly as bad as some describe.

My choices were spend a lot on flights and car rental, or look at a map, figure out travel times and logistics, and get a willing co-conspirator. Earic Miller took another more expeditious approach. He simply coerced me into going by playing upon my weakness.

Among the ABA code 3 birds I have lusted after, the Brambling is right up there. The problem has always been that they had tended to show up west of here and usually way west. Earic claimed that someone had boasted about how he had ventured from Maryland to Ohio and back in one day.  Sounded impossible to me, but nevertheless it was in fact closer than from here.

But the damage had been done. I started to look at maps and plan and ruminate. Could it be done...? And then to make things worse he threw in that there was a Kelp Gull there as well. I have already seen a Kelp Gull, but another opportunity at a rare bird when in the vicinity would be a waste. A look at the maps some more and they were separated by a mere 30 miles... Hmmmm. 

The window of opportunity was coming up fast and a decision had to be made. The best plan of attack would be to leave after work on Wednesday, and return Thursday. Eminently doable, but what about the weather?

There is so much information available to us nowadays, yet some things remain not as refined as we would like sometimes. For example, wouldn’t it be great if we could get the weather forecast along a route? Well as reported they were predicting more than 50% likelihood of precipitation yet only 0.2" accumulation. Seemed to be not insurmountable...

Despite some understandable trepidation and questioning as to whether I had completely lost my mind, { some say yes, and long ago...} I made the decision to go ahead with our plans. After all, I have met several other birders over the years who have done far longer {worse?} as well as read the accounts of the others who also did this sort of trip. So why not?

Why 'yes' some of you may ask as well. Opportunity for seeing a great bird, of course. But not to be ignored, an important factor is gasoline prices are at remarkably low levels that just ~beg~ you to road-trip. For those who would decry carbon emissions; sorry, a flight would still burn far more fuel. What was the lowest price we saw? $1.25!!! That just SCREAMS road-trip. Screams I tells ya.

I picked Earic up and we departed by 8pm. We stopped for fuel and food after a couple of hours. So good so far.

By 3am we stopped for more gas, and a snack, and to stretch the legs some more. But now thar be snow. 

The 'check-in' thing caused some minor confusion and / or guessing on FB. This was mildly amusing.

It has been a long time since I traveled this far west on I-80. I forgot that there are no street lamps, and worse yet - no roadside reflectors. I still have pretty good night vision, but at times the snow became quite dense and hard to see through. Following trucks and heeding their speed ‘suggestions’ seemed prudent, and helpful in telling where the road was located much further away than could be seen otherwise. 

By 5 we got to Ravenna Ohio where a rest-stop provided welcome warmth and a bathroom break before catching some z’s in the car. We were essentially mostly there, and this was a good place to rest. My bones are a lot older than from the time when I might have chosen to snooze in the car, but I am pleased to say that as far as discomfort levels go, it truly was not that bad. A down vest on me and a thick parka as a blanket and I was toasty warm despite the temperatures in the teens.

good power nap of an hour and a half or so, and we awoke to continue to our first target: Kelp Gull. By this time there was a good 3" of snow on the ground; a significant underestimation by the meteorological community. What a great profession! Be wrong most of the time and never get fired! Though concerning to me, the snow was dry and not a significant hindrance to travel. Removal by plows was now beginning.

Arriving at the Springfield rink, the daylight was just making its presence known. We looked out onto the lake and could not see any gulls, but noises made us look up to see hundreds circling above. Oh no! Were they departing for the day already?

They had been spooked by ? but eventually most settled down onto the lake and we found a good vantage and began scanning with scopes. Among the many Herring and Ring-billed Gulls we finally found a black backed gull, but it was just a Great Black-backed, not a Kelp. We kept looking, and a few at a time other birders joined us. A few more candidates appeared, but clearly none was a Kelp Gull.

A short time later, someone announced that they had begun to plow the lot where we had parked, and we made tracks to go move our vehicles. I got a look at an adult bald eagle that was flying by and that had just flushed the resting gulls again. Then I arrived at my car to see the tail light, bumper and hatch smashed. The plow driver got out of his truck and apologized, saying of all things that he had not seen my car! Sure a gold station wagon completely devoid of snow in a pure white lot, and he somehow overlooked it. 

My car,er was a parked while looking for a Kelp Gull
When it wound up being wronged by a pick-up truck
He plowed the snow and into me and hey, what the f...
dings dents and dipping on the bird sure sucks

He did give me his insurance info and even suggested calling the police for a report so one can say he was careless, but at least he did not act like a jerk. Keeping fingers crossed re the ins co. though...

My visit to Ohio had a real impact
I was in a sleep deprived haze so if I should have had a more angry response I could not muster one. Wow, two strikes. One figurative: we never did see the Kelp Gull. The second unpleasantly literal. And here I thought with the snow and all the time spent on the highway an incident would be more risky, but while the car was parked in the center of a lot? At least the damage did not hinder our safe return.

With police report filed and a final fruitless last look for the gull, we set off for our second quarry.  It was a wee bit solemn: Earic having dipped on a lifer, I having been dinged and dented. But far worse things could have happened. 

By this time much of the roads had been cleared and driving was less stressful for the 30 miles or so to the next location. We arrived and found a sign that said Allerdale Park and entered, only to find it was the wrong parking lot. The bathroom gods were smiling upon us though, as this was the lot with a restroom, so the wrong turn was fortuitous and as I told Earic, ‘intentional’. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

We drove a short way further and stopped in front of the house hosting the feeders. With the teen temperatures and the snow that had started to fall again, I was hoping we might have found a place to squeeze into and be lazy from the road. No luck. The road was way too narrow, too busy, and there was no place to pull off. For a country road it had more than its share of traffic, so as planned we bundled up and walked back from the lot. 

We set up scopes and hoped for the best. I told Earic, who was complaining of the cold, that some folks said the bird was seen within a few minutes while some reported having to wait a few hours for it to show up. He was confident that with the current conditions the bird would be by shortly, and hopeful. He was wearing rubber boots for the snow, but not so good for the frigid temperature. His feet were freezing.

While we waited we enjoyed a nice variety of 20 or so visitors to the feeders. Finally, and off to the side easily obscured from view by the tree in the front yard, I spotted the bird! It was a Brambling in fine display! ABA #707 for me even if I suffered a fender bender to get the lifer.


A very nice bird, and I was glad I was encouraged to go see it. With a distance as large as this, the intel from the Ohio lists was helpful because this species { same bird? } was in the relatively same vicinity in the recent past, was site faithful, and lingered to about April. So yeah it was a ways to go but I felt confident that we would be able to score this beauty and score we did. 

Earic not wasting time returning to the car for warmth

Having enjoyed the bird and cognizant of the return trip that awaited us, we set off home. Thankfully the roads had been cleared and the snow had abated making for travel at a more relaxed and accelerated pace. Earic drove while I snoozed. We were back by 7pm. Another successful epic journey. 

Monday, February 8, 2016

Boy, You Really Are Gullible.

Having achieved my goal of doing a big NYS year last year and coming in with what I consider a respectable outcome, I have put birding on the back burner for now so that I can resume so many other pursuits that had fallen by the wayside.

Or so I thought. Yesterday I got a call from Earic Miller, who is hellbent on thwarting my plan to be more responsible. “Have you seen the Massachusetts reports?” No I replied.  “There is a Yellow-legged Gull up in Turners Falls, wouldn’t that be a lifer for you?” Hold on and I’ll check Avisys... Why yes, it ~would~ be a lifer... but its kinda late in the morning already. “Well the bird shows at the end of the day when it comes in to roost.”

Fiendish fellow that he is, here is the report Earic mentioned.

Date: Thu, 4 Feb 2016 01:24:12 +0000 (UTC)
From: "James P. Smith"
To: MASSBIRD , massbird world

Subject: [MASSBIRD] Gill/Turner's Falls - Yellow-legged Gull

Greetings birders,

First let me preface this by saying that the identification of this bird is still a W.I.P and will obviously require final ratification from MARC.

However, a large gull in full breeding plumage has been seen at Unity Park, Turner's Falls for the last three evenings (Feb 1st-3rd). It has very close resemblance to a Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis). Feedback from the North American Gulls Facebook page and the European Gulls Facebook page along with renowned gull experts including Bruce Mactavish have pointed overwhelmingly to this bird being a genuine Yellow-legged Gull. Moreover, an expert from Europe has even indicated that it may from the michahellis group from the Atlantic coast of Iberia. However, this is still early days and key for us has been trying to eliminate a much more expected Lesser
Black-backed x Herring Gull hybrid. I've already seen two of these in past winters at Turner's Falls and was treating this as a potential hybrid when first discovered on Monday evening.

Images of this striking looking bird can be seen here; http://pioneerbirding.blogspot...

The bird has strongly favored Unity Park, Turner's Falls for the last three evenings. This evening, in horrible conditions, it was already present at Unity Park with a handful of RBGulls when I arrived at 3:25pm, though frequent flushes from Bald Eagles spoiled the viewing after that time though I last saw it at 4:45pm. However, in better conditions it has been arriving after 4pm and last night came in quite late, though still well before sunset.

In addition, I also saw the bird in rural Gill this morning at about 08:25am. Remarkably, it was a lone large gull flying south with a flock of about 150 Canada Geese (!!!) low over Munns Ferry Road. I only pulled over to check it because I never, ever see large gulls of any kind in the fields around Gill - I could hardly believe that that lone bird was the Yellow-legged Gull! After dropping my son at school I returned to that site but failed to find any geese or the gull. However, this might just suggest that the Yellow-legged Gull has different feeding habits to the other large gulls roosting at Turner's Falls - just a thought.

For anyone interested in looking for this bird, by far the best option is Unity Park in Turner's Falls after 4pm. There are three public parking spots there - one at the Fishladder, one at the recreation area/skateboarding park and one at the Canalside bike trailhead. All of these spots will offer access to the gull flocks coming into the cove to roost. The gulls can also be viewed from Riverview Drive in Gill and as the ice recedes, this will most likely be the favored roosting spot for large gulls. However, the area is residential and parking may be limited. In addition, there has been some tension between home owners and birders in past years especially when a decent rarity shows up such as the Slaty-backed Gull back in 2009. I've already informed some residents to expect more birder traffic in the forthcoming days.
I cannot rule out a day time visit from this bird, either at Barton Cove or the Turner's Falls power canal. However, based on recent patterns this seems pretty unlikely. I didn't see any large gulls at 9am this morning for example.

I wouldn't regard the identification of this bird as being totally sealed but it's getting very close to that stage and it now seems very unlikely that it will be dismissed as a hybrid.

Good birding,

James P. Smith Gill, MA

So a quick check of mapping logistics and other concerns we met up an hour or so later for the trip. It was a balmy 50 degrees, nice spring weather. The roads were as they should always be, not congested and with traffic moving freely. Yay!

It took no where near as long as estimated, which is always a good thing, and a pleasant surprise. Upon arrival in Turners Falls, we stopped in to refuel, and get our bearings. The GPS was confused and could not orient itself, but we made our way down to the water’s edge and began scanning.

There were plenty of birds on the river, but near the dam was an ice flow that the larger gulls were loafing upon. We set up vigil here, and picked through the birds. Unfortunately the bird was not present.

As time passed, more people showed up; both here and on the other side of the river. More were on the other side though, as that is where the light was better. Rows of telescopes and cameras lined the shore there, while a much smaller group was where we were, perhaps because of much more limited parking.

4pm came and went. The bird had been coming in top roost at that time over the past three days, but so far nada. We were anxious, and so were the Canada Geese who began squawking. Eventually small groups of them took off from the ice for parts unknown.

While they were getting antsy as it was after 4:30, we noticed high up above that gulls were coming in and making their way slowly down onto the ice raft. Many eyes were trained on the birds, but it was Earic with his antiquated and dark field of view Spacemaster scope that was the first person to locate the bird! The rest of us got on it quickly, and one person present called fellow birders on the other side to make sure they knew the bird had arrived as well.

The other side of the river had far more birders, but as far as I was concerned, we had much better views and a much better vantage point. Looking at the bird we were able to see and especially compare the field marks against the Herring Gulls. Darker grey mantle, not a trick of the light, not as dark as Lesser Black-backed: check. Smaller spots on the primaries: check. Small white mirror on p10 and tiny white mirror on p9: check. Large red spot on the bill: check. Clean white head devoid of grey streaking: check. Distinctly yellow legs: check. Red orbital ring: check.  The only field mark missing was one mentioned in neither European guide, but mentioned in National Geographic. The latter stated that the head should be more square-headed, but we did not see that feature presenting itself. 

Yellow-legged Gull ...?

Yellow-legged Gull ...?
And that was crucial because despite my being satisfied the ugly specter of hybrid is always lurking waiting for the opportunity to take the wind out of one’s sails. OTOH it would appear to me ( as well as others more experienced with this bird ) that there were several consistent features that suggest YLGU and hopefully dismissed LBBG/HEGU hybrid. We’ll have to wait and see.

I was also able to get some shots, but the angle of the ambient light was not optimal. Actually it was horrible: being nearly from right in front of us with the sky overcast, and the sun was setting. Sheesh. But what the conditions ruined for great shots of this bird, it made up for in spades with a spectacular sunset. 

A probable lifer putting me at 706 ABA birds.  Hooda Thunkit. Thanks Earic.

But wait, there's more!

Upon hearing of our success, Arlene Rails wanted to give it a try as well on the weekend.  She cleverly enticed me to go back up there by locating a highly rated brew-pub / restaurant called The People’s Pint,  conveniently a stones throw away from the target’s location. How easily I am coerced by the promise of good beer, my achilles heel. Such is my burden to bear.

Based upon the bird’s M.O. of only being sighted reliably when it comes to roost at sunset, we were in no rush to depart. This gave Arlene and I time to put in a walk around Belmont Lake before departure. Beautiful day and conditions for a walk, and the park was pleasantly underpopulated. Of course the snow meant they had not unlocked the upper gate, and we, ahem, chose to hop over it. Unfortunately in the process she lost one of her bracelets. The next day she asked to revisit the gate and see if it was where she thought it had dropped, and it was! Phew.

With news that we were definitely going others who could not make it on the first attempt signed on but at the last minute one had to pull out to attend to a storm repair, so it was Arlene, Pelican, and I that went.

The weather and traffic gods were on our side, and we made excellent time there. Of more pleasing news, a conveniently situated Dunkin Donuts for caffeination and commensurate micturition followed by the ever so pleasing refueling of the car at $1.75/gal! How can one avoid road-trips with this gas price situation? I’m taking advantage of it while I can because we all know its going to go back up, and sooner than we want it to. 

Continuing the short distance to the birding site, initially we stopped on the south side of the river. We conversed with the assembled crowd and confirmed several things. It had not been seen yet, and the view was significantly more distant so it was decided to continue on to the north side.

Gill, MA

We encountered several cars in the limited pull-outs. We squeezed in and set up scopes. The goils set up next to two fellows looking at the resting gulls and struck up a conversation. One possessed of a British accent put us on a Lesser Black-backed Gull in with the other gulls.

After a bit more conversation electrical impulses started flowing between my brain cells and I postulated about the identity of this fellow, who it turns out was the original discoverer of the bird. I inquired: “Mr. Smith?” he replied in the affirmative.

This led to more in depth discussion of the gull’s possible genetic provenance. It seems that the head shape discrepancy Earic and I discussed as well as wing length and leg length was an issue and of concern to records committee members, as well as those who had been burned by a previous ‘good looking’ candidate that finally revealed itself to be of mixed parentage.

In the birding world miscegenation is frowned upon. Personally I don’t necessarily think less of this bird. Okay so I can’t count it on ‘official’ lists, but truly that is ONLY so that we can compare apples to apples with regards to list size. If you are not a rabid lister, this doesn’t really matter. So I will count it on my life list with an attribute of ‘pending acceptance by the records committee’ until accepted or if determined otherwise, as ‘hybrid’. But the bird won’t go POOF in a puff of smoke and disappear if it is determined to be a hybrid, only it’s countability, and that is not by far the only criteria by which I enjoy birds. Along with life birds and year birds I rather enjoy sightings of birds performing all sorts of behaviors that can be far more interesting than just ticking them onto a list.

So I may not have a lifer after all, but then who amongst us hasn’t lost one here and there due to lumps, or gained an ‘armchair’ tick by splits. Its just how it goes. One mustn’t cry over spilled milk. I mean who cares about milk anyway? Now spilled beer on the other hand - horrors! ...Ahem.

Well it was looking like the bird wasn’t going to show. It was getting later and later and darker and darker. Slowly, more and more folks packed it in and left. I offered that the other day I noticed that the gulls first appeared high above, and then made their way down to the river. And shortly after saying so, they did. Of course in the fading light trying to pick out one rarity from amongst all the others while they were in flight was attempted, though without success.

While many gulls came in, as they had the other day, they all took flight. Something spooks them but what we don’t know. After they settled in again and in very faded light, the three of us as well as James Smith and another local birder were the only ones left.

I had moved off to the left to better view some birds obscured by the trees in front of us, and then I spotted a bird with a clean head and darker back. I called to the others and they all took a look through my scope. YES! I had spotted the bird
at the 11th hour and gotten it for Arlene and Pelican. The view was not the best given the lighting and the yellow legs being obscured, but after Pelican’s "protestation" James confirmed that it was in fact the bird we were hoping to see. I offered that it was a BVD bird {meaning ‘better view desired’ } while he offered that it was a LSS bird {meaning ‘ leader says so’ <g>} This got Arlene and Pelican to more readily accept the sighting and thus my reputation was preserved. Thanks James. Of note too, Earic, had been the first to spot it on our last visit. What can I say? Us New Yorkers are none too shabby birders.

Congratulations and farewells concluded, we headed off to see if ‘The People’s Pint’ lived up to its reputation. Even James recommended it. Well we were not disappointed! The beverages were excellent and very creative!! Arlene ordered a “Slippery Slope” A combination of Pine Hill Orchards cider (Colrain, MA), honey, malted barley and fresh ginger, this is one beer that goes down easy but packs a punch. Flavor profile is light bodied with a subtle ginger character and a smooth finish. Expect notes of hard cider, ginger, honey and some citrus. (ABV: 9.5%•OG: 1.071•IBUs: 7)

I ordered an Oatmeal Stout, followed by a ‘beer flight’ which was a sampler of several other beers. It is a painful pleasure when it is hard to choose what you want next, but I had to have the “Ghost Farmer Imperial Brown Ale” A collaboration between The People’s Pint and Stoneman Brewing from Colrain, MA ( We combine recipes for an Imperial version of our Farmer Brown with Stoneman Brewing’s “Ghost Hog” Imperial Brown Ale and the result became “Ghost Farmer.” We aged this big beer in Berkshire Mountain Distilling whiskey barrels for 2 months. Rich notes of caramel, toffee, cocoa, vanilla, and whiskey with a smooth and warming finish. (ABV: 10%•OG: 1.086•IBUs: 75)

Pelican ordered wine. Groan. Oh well, you can lead a Pelican to a brew-pub, but you apparently can’t make her drink beer.  Nevertheless, we all enjoyed the place very much. The atmosphere, the food, the drink. What a great way to conclude a wonderful and successful road-trip.