Saturday, February 28, 2009

Raptors Highlight Coastal Birding

On a coastal birding trip during the winter, I expect to see a few unusual gulls. I expect to see many sea ducks, like the three scoters and Common Eiders, and maybe (very maybe) if I am very lucky, a King Eider. I expect to see diving ducks, like the Common Goldeneye and Bufflehead, and especially the wonderfully patterned Harlequin Duck whose plumage is rivaled only by the Wood Duck. I expect to see Red-breasted Mergansers with their wild crests blowing in the wind. I was not disappointed in these expectations.

On a winter coastal birding trip, I also expect to see Horned Grebe. On a really good day the single wintering Eared Grebe in the Gloucester harbor might seen, and in the ocean off of Cape Ann I might see a Red-necked Grebe. The Eared Grebe was missed but I did see the Horned and Red-necked Grebes.

On a winter birding trip around Cape Ann, I expect to see the Black Guillemot. An alcid that is black with big white wing patches in summer, in the winter is it a gray and white bird which disappears against the gray and white winter ocean. When it is seen, it dives, because that is what it does, but it often feels as though the bird is deliberately teasing. I also hope to see other Atlantic alcids, those ocean birds that come ashore only to breed - like the Common or Thick-billed Murre, the Razorbill, and the Dovekie. I saw the Dovekie in early January, only the second time in my bird watching chronicles that I have recorded it. All of these alcids have been reported, and were probably present at various places off shore, but I did not find them on this trip.

Birding around Cape Ann in the winter, I know where to look for the Great Cormorant, cousin of the very common Double-crested Cormorant which often occurs up in our area. The Great Cormorant winters along the New England and mid-Atlantic coast, then returns north to the Canadian maritime provinces to breed.

I expect to see Common Loons at many places along the coast and in the harbors; its plain gray and white winter plumage is a striking contrast to the handsome breeding plumage of the loons we may see on some of our lakes and ponds in the summer. From time to time, I even see a Red-throated Loon, though in the winter its red throat is just a memory.

On a winter coastal birding trip, these are the birds which I expect to see. What I do not expect, is to have a winter coastal birding trip that is an outstanding day of hawk watching - or more precisely - raptor watching.

It started late Friday afternoon with a quick trip to Salisbury Beach. Even in winter, I expect to see Northern Harriers hunting over the frozen marsh. This one was a male. The male harrier is one of the most beautiful hawks in flight - gray above, white below, with contrasting black primaries and a trailing black edge on its long wings. The harrier’s hunting style is a dipsy-doodle, rocking and rising on long wings, then dipping low across the marsh grasses, tipping left and right.

But the harrier was unable to mind his own dipsy-doodle flight. A dark bird with pointed wings swooped at him, sped upward, circled rapidly, dove at the harrier again in a deliberate near miss. Merlin.

On Putney mountain, a streaking hawk that brings a breathless what-was-that? - is a Merlin. Coastal hawk watchers know the Merlin as a bird with attitude, the falcon that will harass anything flying, often for what appears to be sheer fun. But this Merlin seemed to have a dual purpose. She was defending her hunting territory, while also hunting opportunistically. The harrier dipped toward the top of pine trees, flushing song birds into the air. With precise timing, the Merlin dove at the harrier, turning the much larger bird away from the trees, then instantly veering to make a grab at a flushed songbird. The Merlin came out of her dive with empty talons - this time. The flight display we watched made it clear that the Merlin would dine soon.

The next morning on the Jodfrey Fish Pier in Gloucester harbor, I turned my scope to the Gloucester town hall. A Peregrine Falcon was wintering in the bell tower. Before I could find the falcon’s perch, someone in the group was pointing overhead. The Peregrine was on the wing. Effortlessly it circled over the piers, the warehouses, the harbor, patrolling hundreds of yards in seconds. Sea ducks were nervous; even gulls were uneasy, milling aimlessly. At first, the Peregrine’s flight did not seem all that impressive as it flew above us, until we timed the passage from the pier to the warehouse a quarter mile away where pigeons scattered to safety at the last fraction of a second. The Peregrine’s flight demonstration, by itself, defined good birding for the day.

Mid-afternoon, we drove north from Cape Ann for a return visit to Salisbury Beach. A large bird with v-shaped wings flew above the state highway. As it came low over the roadway, the back-lighted wing pattern was not that of a Turkey Vulture. Rough-legged Hawk. A wide berm allowed us to pull over, and spill out without the risk that our binoculars would get run over by a passing car. Two dark morph Rough-legged Hawks hunted over the open fields, and chased off a pair of Red-tailed Hawks. Hawks of the tundra, Rough-legged Hawks often winter in coastal marshes and open farm lands. This pair seemed unwilling to share the fields with the resident Red-tails.

At Salisbury Beach, our target was the wintering Snowy Owl. We were looking for a bulky white bird, probably perched somewhere in the snow covered marsh or nearby dunes. Simple to sight, right?

Inside the state reservation, cars lined the road. On the cold, windswept marsh, there could be only one reason for those parked vehicles. A couple of hundred yards from the roadway, tens of thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment was lined up, pointed at the top of a dune. We joined the line-up that was ogling the handsome male Snowy Owl.

As for the Snowy Owl - well, this powerful Arctic predator regarded the lined up bird watchers and photographers with imperious detachment. He knew that he was lord of his realm and assumed that these strange creatures would keep their distance. And they did.

Eventually we moved on to the frozen and unoccupied campground - unoccupied except for the day-visiting winter birders. We did not find the White-winged Crossbills which we had seen the previous afternoon, but the Merlin was there. This time, she was perched atop a leafless tree, surveying her realm. Her feathers ruffled slightly in the wind, but otherwise she was the unruffled guardian of her realm.

The winter coastal birding yielded what was expected and was a day of good birding. But the unexpected show from the hawks and the owl made it a day of great birding!

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