Friday, June 20, 2008

Birding in Boston

A new job, and my induction is in Boston, Massachusetts. When I landed it was in the midst of a serious heatwave with temperatures only normally seen at the very height of summer. Being a an Englishman/mad dog I went out for a walk with no suntan lotion in jeans and thick top, as soon as I'd checked into my hotel. Big mistake, I lasted thirty minutes before returning to my room with my tail between my legs, at least I had walked the flight out of my system though, and seen some new birds :)

The Charles River flows through the heart of Boston and is as large a river as the Thames where it passes through London. Along its course I encountered American Herring Gulls, Ring-billed Gulls, and a number of Double-crested Cormorants:

Along the banks of the river too were a number of birds, including this Common Grackle:

According to my field guide they 'sometimes have a blue-ish tone to their head'. Right. I'd say that was really rather blue actually. Their eyes are great too and the way they fan their tail when sat on a perch and best of all is their call 'grackle, grackle', brilliant :)

Further along there was a freshwater puddle on the concrete, and a group of bathing Starlings were joined by this Killdeer, in the middle of Boston!

I pursued a Baltimore Oriole though the trees but as well as my wilting in the heat, the bird proved very elusive. I did however get very close to this Black-crowned Night Heron, in a small group of trees by a busy intersection:

You can tell how hot it was as the bird didn't want to fly and was 'panting' to try and regulate its body temperature, I left it be. Well, after that brief foray into the city it was time to knuckle down and get to work, that was until Saturday when Helen joined me for the weekend :)

I was as keen as mustard to drag her out first thing as there are a number of prominent birding sites close to Boston. For our first stop we chose Plum Island, a Wildlife Refuge just up the coast from Boston itself. I made my only serious gaffe of the trip here, I didn't notice the speeding limit and was stopped for doing 45 in a 25 zone. The parks authority policeman was not very amused and frankly neither was I. Thankfully he decided against ticketing us though I believe it was a close call. Lesson learned, I am going to faithfully obey the speeding limits in America, wherever and whenever!

The next lesson we learned was that there are a lot of biting insects in that part of the world at this time of year, so having been let off by the policeman, we were back in our car within 10 minutes and driving to the gate to 'borrow' some insect repellent. Despite a liberal dosing I got into double figures with my bites, whereas Helen only managed 5 but had a much more severe reaction to all of them! So next time extra Deet strength insect repellent will be packed.

We then drove all the way back to Car Park no 5 at a very respectable 22-23 mph and parked up. The policeman by now must have thought all English people were indeed as crazy as he suspected. The first bird we identified and probably the most common bird on the refuge was the Red-winged Blackbird:

I still think the American Robin is the closest New World relative of our Blackbird, I think this bird got its name due to its colour rather than a very close genetic relationship. On the first path itself, a pair of Mourning Doves:

And wading in the pool off the path, this Snowy Egret:

A very similar bird to the Little Egret. After a short while it took off and flew past:

We walked through the 'marsh habitat area' with Helen slapping at my back and shoulders as the mosquitoes queued up to land and try and get at me through my clothes (a couple succeeded). Our naivety was rewarded with excellent views of some Cedar Waxwings:

They really are stunning birds and if you saw one in the UK you'd be doing very well :) We decided to walk along the road by the maintenance area as there had been sightings of an American Bittern, but to no avail. We did however get to watch a multitude of Bobolinks , including their frequent habit of chasing smaller birds (typically Savannah Sparrows). I took a number of photos of Bobolink's but they proved to be fast moving and elusive birds, which is surprising considering just how noisy they are!

Further along the road we spotted this Willet, in a rather unusual habitat:

As you can see it was struggling to maintain balance which proved rather amusing.

Back with the car, we headed to the last car park and up into the observation tower. There wasn't much to see flying around, but this male Song Sparrow was singing long and loud in a bush halfway down the tower. I think he noticed the attention he was getting:

From the tower we crossed over for a walk to the beach. Perched on the railing of the planking, this Brown-headed Cowbird, this time with no cows about:

You can tell from the background there are a lot of purple flowering things on the island. Back towards the car, another Cedar Waxwing, this time with the plumage on its head being blown to form a 'crest':

Heading back along the Island and toward the exit, we spotted a pull-out we hadn't seen on the first few trips up and down and went to have a look. Again nothing much moving about but there was a pair of Brown Thrashers by the blind, this one took cover as we approached:

On the pools by the road, we spotted a Great-white Egret. We'd seen (presumably) the same bird earlier, but much further away, this time it was close enough to photograph, I like the swamp goo you can see attached to it's foot:

Another relatively common bird on Plum Island is the Eastern Kingbird. The bird is reminiscent of the Old World Flycatchers and is indeed a Flycatcher:

Our last and most fleeting sighting on Plum Island was a small group of Glossy Ibis, they flew in and over a pond and then off again, they didn't even land, luckily we were in the right place at the right time. Having seen Ibis in South Africa and an escapee in Norfolk helped us ID the birds on the spot:

Next we decided to head to another Audubon of Massachusetts refuge, this one at Ipswich River, a 200-acre refuge, the largest in the state. The very friendly volunteers at the information centre at Joppa Flats just off Plum Island gave us directions.

En route we stopped for a 'sub' lunch and spotted this female Wood Duck on the pond at the back of the store, she had a large group of youngsters but they (sensibly) scuttled to cover very quickly as we approached:

We got out of the car at River Island and headed to the reserve house. It genuinely is a house, with feeders in the garden, a lawn, etc. Not at all like the RPSB. They did have insect repellent and a few books but a real money-raising opporutnity missed there I think.

On the approach to the house, this critter was unpreturbed, munching at the grass and, we think, some thrown nuts. It looks like a Marmot.... but I have no idea what it is... anybody know?

In the car park we'd seen a large bird of prey being mobbed by a smaller bird of prey. We left the house and started the first trail, which led behind the house and guess what was perched in the tree right in front of us?

I think it's a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk, again any feedback much appreciated:

Whatever it is it was huge! On the feeders at the rear of the house, were a couple of oustandingly coloured birds, Northern Cardinals:

If I were that colour with a large hawk only 50 feet away up a tree I wouldn't be perched out in the open on a feeder! Maybe the colour and sheer bravado is part of their display? Stunning birds though, absolutely stand-out.

We headed into the refuge, which did indeed encompass a number of different habitats, this being a mixture of woodland and swamp (and alive with crawling, flying and buzzing beasties):

In a tree a Yellow Warbler sang:

Further along the path and in another swampy bit I snapped this bird. My guess is it's a juvenile Red-winged Blackbird, by the colour, posture, bill shape and location, but I really don't know for sure:

On the water this almost perfectly formed Lily:

Ducking across our path we spotted this Grey Catbird who flew to a perch to watch us pass-by:

Another Grey Catbird this time watching prospective meals from a bridge over swamp:

It'd been a year since we last walked anywhere in America, so time to get reacquainted with the very squeaky and deeply cute Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel. This one was so 'not terrified' it sat and cleaned its tail in the shade of a big tree:

All about the woodland were the very brightly coloured but very hard to photograph Baltimore Orioles. This is just about the best shot I managed:

This one was working on the nest, whether repairing or completing I don't know, there were also fledglings being fed too:

So just one day out but a fabulous day. I'd particularly like to be around that area in Spring Migration, I gather the numbers of waders that passage along the coastline are truly astounding to behold. Fingers crossed.

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Sunday, June 08, 2008

Greenock Cut and Leighton Moss RSPB

Saturday was forecast to start well but with cloud and potentially showers moving in so we set off early. Frankly getting out of the hotel was a relief. This time we had booked two nights in the Willowbank Hotel in Largs. The room was the smallest yet, as was the bed, itself another soggy pudding. The fittings were all original 1970's and the shower turned instantly from hot to cold as soon as another guest used any water. It was the second most expensive hotel on our travels and we quickly decided to check out there and then and to book a Premier Inn near Martin Mere in Lancashire, which would help break up the journey home and we could drive whilst it rained. I must also mention breakfast, available to non-guests as £12.50 a head, consisting of tea or coffee, toast (white only) and preserves (marmalade). Plus you choice of a cooked breakfast. I asked for poached eggs on toast and got an egg on a single slice of toast. The juice is brought to you on request, no doubt to save more money. Really tight and contrasted wholly by our experience on the Sunday morning with the £5.25 all you can eat (and drink) continental breakfast at Preston East.

We met up with family again on Friday evening and had a really good time and got (not very) quietly sozzled :)

On with the walk. The Greenock Cut was completed as a formal walk in 2007, and consists of a loop from the visitor centre, taken anti-clockwise to ensure the best views of the Firth of Clyde, of about 7.5miles. As we started the walk a couple of Curlews were flying and calling across the reservoir by the centre, their calls filling the air, a much broader repertoire than the usual estuary calls we have encountered before, it ensured the walk started with a smile.

After the first gentle climb and about 1.5 miles into the walk you turn out onto the cut and the first views across the Firth. You have to go quite a long way along the cut before the views aren't dominated by housing and industrial facilities, but it is worth the wait:

and here:

We spotted a dove on the wires below. We walked past it and decided to have another quick check. Turns out it was a male Cuckoo:

It's worth clicking on for a closer look. He was diving down from the wires to feed, you can see him here having returned from a successful foray:

He also was watching us watching him but was quite undisturbed, as we'd sat on a bank to observe:

We finished the walk in three hours and decided to head south, with the hope of getting to RSPB Leighton Moss ( in time for a cup of tea before the visitor centre closed. We needn't of hurried as the centre has a later opening than most so we had time for tea and more cake before going on to the reserve.

Leighton Moss is another very pleasant spot with a real good feel about it. We started by checking out the public hide, nothing much to see but I enjoyed watching this Black-headed Gull perched in front of the hide:

Just short of where the path to the Griesdale and Tim Jackson hides splits, we watched a male Bearded Tit/Bearded Reedling gathering food and flying to the nest and then off again to hunt. The flights were very brief, and made for excellent viewing with the naked eye but impossible to photograph! Still an excellent bird to watch.

From the Griesdale hide we watched a Little Egret padding about in a tree, as they do, a Grey Heron hunting on the water close by:

And tracked a female Marsh Harrier as she flew closer and closer to the hide, being mobbed by lapwings as she flew. Eventually she was around five yards from the front of the hide, hovering and calling (very loudly), far too close for the lens I had mounted and too brief for a change but an excellent experience. I snapped her a little further away, in the fading light of the early evening:

The reserve staff told us Spoonbill had been seen on the salt marshes so we headed on there but no luck. Instead we watched a large group of summering Black-tailed Godwits, joined by these birds, which I presume are juvenile Dunlin, though I cannot be sure?

Their feeding was very 'knitting needle'. Could they have been juvenile Black-tailed Godwits?

Sunday morning was bright and very warm, so another prompt start put us at the door of Martin Mere WWT at opening time. We went straight to the 'wild' section of the reserve, but it was very quiet. There were a few juvenile Shelduck, including this lone bird:

And waddling around this Mandarin drake, probably a captive bird out of its pen but it has stunning plumage:

It was time to head home. We resolved that our next trip to Scotland, whenever we are able to take it, will take us North of Edinburgh and include the Cairngorms and if possible some time in Shetland. Best get planning then.

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Muirshiels Country Park

Thursday was grey with the threat of showers on the East coast and absolutely bouncing on the west coast so we decided to head up to Loch Leven, north of Edinburgh, a substantial inland body of water. The reserve itself was very pleasant and I'm sure at other times of the year there's lots about but we found it very quiet, with a few warblers (Blackcap, Willow and Sedge) singing a pair of Bullfinch and a number of Song Thrushes. We checked out the hides having walked to the top of the hill - this being the view from the top:

But as I said it was very quiet, so we had tea and cake. We were at a bit of a loose end as we were considering going to the Isle of May where a Common Rosefinch had been seen a few days previously but the weather was closing and we didn't want to blow the whole afternoon. In the end we decided to head to Tentsmuir Forest on the coast, south of Dundee, and popped in to the Eden Estuary on the way - the tide was out but we could still see Wigeon and Merganser on the water, along with the more regular ducks we'd already encountered on the trip.

Tentsmuir was a great choice. It was very quiet, except for the military exercises occurring to the East of Dundee (lots of artillery explosions, bursts of heavy machine gun fire and low flying fighter-bombers), and with lots of wildlife. We heard Scottish Crossbill on three occasions but weren't fortunate enough to see one. We did spy a pair of Treecreepers:

We walked through the forest to Tentsmuir Point NNR, which was even quieter, we saw only one other human. It is an idyllic spot though:

Halfway across the bay a large group of Grey Seals was lounging as the tide came in. Time was running out though as we had to head back to the hotel to meet up with some family for dinner, so we headed back to the car park and the trip back to Aberlady.

On Friday morning we checked of the Kilspindie and headed first to Lochwinnoch, en route to our evening destination of Largs. Lochwinnoch, like Loch Leven is a nice enough spot but again at this time of year, really very quiet. This Carrion Crow had managed to scavenge a fish, I don't believe it would have been capable of 'catching' it:

Lochwinnoch was exhausted as a location within about an hour even though we tried to find Common Sandpiper by walking out along the River Calder, into the reserve, and up the river a way looking for Dipper, both without luck. We decided to try and follow the river higher into the hills and traced it to something called Muirshiels on the map.

It was a splendid decision. On the single-track road up to the park we encountered both Spotted Flycatcher:

and our first Mistle Thrush of the holiday:

When we got to the park there were no other visitors, it being one of the best kept secrets of this part of Scotland (why !?!). The staff were delighted to have visitors and gave us a very detailed description of the park and its birds, including Hen Harriers, Grouse, Dippers, Common Sandpipers, Cuckoos, various Warblers, Scottish Crossbill, Stonechat and Whinchat, etc, etc. They recommended we try out the short downhill walk to a waterfall where the local Dippers had nested but they warned us the young had already fledged, sure enough there was nothing about. We headed up the river, following a 4x4 track on to the moors for about a mile and a half. En route we heard at least four cuckoos and enjoyed distant views of two of them. Down on the river a wader was making a right racket, it was in fact a pair of Common Sandpipers:

This is a view back down the path showing the river and the open moor land beyond:

From the track and above the woodland almost every bird encountered was a Meadow Pipit, this chap was watching us watching him:

Another further along, singing and calling before taking off to do a singing/parachuting song flight:

On the way back to the visitor centre we spotted a male Cuckoo calling, he was joined by a female who then dropped to the floor, feeding or laying an egg, we don't know, but we'd not seen a female before.

We headed down to the waterfall again, having seen a distant Dipper on a branch of the river but too far away to photograph. Again no joy but sat on the fence was this Whinchat:

Having seen this bird, this close, I am sure it was a first and that the bird I identified as a Whinchat last April on the Sussex Coast (Garden Birds and other sightings...: and then to Eastbourne... Day 1) was in fact a female Stonechat. We were able to get reasonably close and take a few more shots before the bird took flight:

It's great to be able to look back and observe mistakes we have made in identification. Each time we go out we learn more about the birds around us, their appearance, behaviours, movements, songs and calls, and each day we still make mistakes but we really are learning and by knowing more, we are seeing and hearing more and are more aware of what is around us.
We enjoyed Muirshiels so much that we changed our plans for Saturday. Initially we had planned to visit Great Cumbrae Island, by catching a ferry from Largs - now we fancied visiting another of the visitor centres in the Country Park (it being a vast expanse) and going for another walk.

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