Sunday, October 21, 2018

"Sharp-tailed" Sparrows On Fall Migration in Connecticut

Below is my latest contribution to the Connecticut Audubon Society's "Bird Finder" series, emailed to all members.

"Sharp-tailed" Sparrows On Fall Migration In Connecticut 

I went out to Milford Point though the Connecticut Audubon’s Coastal Center hoping, unsuccessfully it turns out, for better photos of the mega-rarity Roseate Spoonbill that has been reported in recent Bird Finder articles.  My consolation was coming across a nice flock of sharp-tailed sparrows in the Spartina marsh along the outer sand dune.

With a nice early morning sun behind me, these pretty little sparrows popped in and out of clumps of tall grasses and even gleaned Spartina seeds from the mud flats literally at my feet. A Marsh Wren harassed any sparrow that invaded its space, and the sparrows themselves did not seem to get along, even though they were obviously “birds of a feather” and flocking together.  I’ve tried several times for this photo-op and was finally rewarded, although it was just as much fun observing their antics and feeding behavior.

    A "sharp-tail" Indeed:  This one is a Nelson's Sparrow

“Sharp-tailed” Sparrow Identification

Once considered a single species, sharp-tailed sparrows are now recognized as two distinct species: Nelson’s and Saltmarsh Sparrows (Nelson’s are named for an early 20th century naturalist who was also Chief of the Bureau of Biological Survey).  Although they are similar in appearance, with good looks they are readily distinguished. Key ID features include the sharper black streaking on the breast of the Saltmarsh compared to blurry and fainter streaks on the Nelson’s; darker ochre face coloration on Saltmarsh; and whitish stripes down the Saltmarsh’s back, sometimes characterized as “braces” or “suspenders.”  Identification can be complicated somewhat in the Fall as some of the birds may still be molting into prebasic (or “winter”) plumage and the distinctions noted above may be less evident.

   Nelson's Sparrow (Ammospiza nelsoni)

   Saltmarsh Sparrow (Ammospiza caudacuta)  

Status and Conservation 

Only the Saltmarsh Sparrow breeds as far south as Connecticut, where it is being closely studied by UCONN’s Dr. Chris Elphick and his associates, but both can be seen all along Connecticut’s coast during fall migration.  The status of the Saltmarsh Sparrow as a breeding species in Connecticut (and elsewhere in its range) is somewhat troubling according to current research looking at the effect of rising sea levels on nesting success, since these birds build nests low in Spartina marshes.  For more about this and Dr. Elphick’s research see Saltmarsh Sparrows Fight to Keep Their Heads Above Water from the New York Times (September 17, 2018). 

Because of this and other trends, including habitat degradation generally, Saltmarsh Sparrows are considered “Vulnerable” by the IUCN Red List and may be downgraded to “Endangered” according to the Birds of North America Online species account (BNA Online). The Connecticut DEEP Endangered, Threatened and Special Concern Species list identifies Saltmarsh Sparrows as a species of special concern.

Although not afforded the same level of concern, Nelson’s Sparrows face similar habitat and climate challenges.  While Maine and a few other states have designated Nelson's Sparrow as a Species of Special Concern, further study of this species is needed, again according to BNA Online.

Where to Find “Sharp-tails

Although late September through October is the prime time-frame for migratory sharp-tailed sparrows, both species may be seen well into November in Connecticut.  One of the best places to look include the aforementioned Connecticut Audubon Coastal Center at Milford Point along the edges of the Spartina alternaflora marsh that encircles the lagoon created by the outer sandbar off the main beach.  Hammonassett Beach State Park and marshes near the Town of Guilford boat ramp and the East River State Boat Ramp in Guilford are other good migration sites and Saltmarsh Sparrows nest in these locales as well.


While Saltmarsh Sparrows are restricted - in breeding, migration, and wintering habitat - to tidal salt marshes of the Atlantic coast, Nelson’s Sparrows have three geographically distinct subspecies including one populating inland marshes of central Canada.  Saltmarsh Sparrows also exhibit unusual breeding dynamics, with males ranging over large areas mating with many females and females undertaking all of the parental care responsibilities.

© C.S. Wood October 2018

Friday, August 24, 2018

Bird Camping in the North Maine Woods

Bird Camping in the North Maine Woods

Feeling Thoreauesque - actually a need to escape the current state of affairs - I resolved to challenge myself to a solo expedition to Baxter State Park in Maine.  Ostensibly for birds and photography, I think I was really yearning to get away from trucks and motorcycles, planes and helicopters, newspapers and television news, and maybe even people, even if just for a day or two. 

On the way to my friend’s home about 3 hours south of Baxter, I stopped in Massachusetts to pick up an amazingly easy life-bird: a Trumpeter Swan.  Sitting exactly where the latest eBird report had it, all I had to do was pull over and stick the lens out the window.  

Trumpeter Swan

Trumpeter Swans normally range from the Great Lakes through parts of northwest US and Western Canada up into Alaska.  They occasionally roam or wander to the East Coast but I had never had occasion to track one down.

Hoping this was a positive omen, I pushed on planning to stop for a Little Egret (a European egret quite rarely found on this side of the Atlantic) hanging out in Scarborough Maine along the coast.  Regrettably, no fewer than three dead stop traffic jams scotched that plan if I wanted to reach Unity Maine in time for cocktail hour and supper.  I’ll try on the way home instead.

After a pleasant evening with friends I lit out for the north early the next morning and birded my way into Baxter, hitting some possible Three-toed and Black-backed Woodpecker spots, unsuccessfully, along the North Woods roads that service the vast commercial timber forests.  This road is not for the faint of heart.  Although I was fortunate that the logging activity and associated truck traffic was low, the Golden Road (it is anything but) was still an adventure.  Really just a linear corridor of potholes and washboard ribbing interspersed with a couple hundred yards of pavement every few miles, the Golden Road is the main route to the logging areas of the North Woods.

I took the back way into Baxter up Baxter Park Road, another misnomer as it was only metaphorically a “road”, more like a steep, dried up stream bed.  Spotting a lump in the path, I rattled off a dozen or so shutter clicks of what I thought was a Spruce Grouse.  A close look later turned it into a Ruffed Grouse, still a nice bird to see and photograph but not the North Woods specialty I hoped for.

Ruffed Grouse

Thankfully, entering the Park proper put me on a real paved and maintained road.  Stopping at the welcome center, I asked about the unpronounceable place I was heading for: Nesowadnehunk Field Campground.  I was told I had quite a trip remaining and in fact it was almost another hour before reaching the site.  Baxter is a big place, but the drive was certainly pleasant through forests, along lakes, and past views of Mount Katadhin, complete with patches of snow still in late June.  

Mount Katadhin

Henry Thoreau visited the Katahdin area twice (he spelled it Ktaadn), and though circumstances prevented him from reaching the summit both trips, he provides his typically detailed description of the effort and the natural wonders he found on the way in his journals.  Scaling Katahdin is probably beyond likelihood for me at this stage of the game, but I consider close proximity an achievement of sorts.

When Thoreau visited Katadhin in 1846 he described “a wholly uninhabited wilderness, stretching to Canada: no horses, no cows, no vehicles—nothing but river and evergreen woods.”  I found my campground perhaps not quite so unblemished, but no planes, no motorcycles, no lawnmowers, no dogs and plenty of river and evergreen woods.  Relatively speaking, I felt as remote as Thoreau did. 

I certainly found some solitude: Nesowadnehunk (pronounced, I learned after several inquiries and much practicing, nesOHwednunk) Field Campground had one occupant - me - when I arrived.  A part time ranger departed before dusk and I was left with only bird song, deer flies, and mosquitos for company. 

Nesowadnehunk, by the way, is probably a Penobscot Indian word meaning “may the biting flies drive the white man off our land.”  On Thoreau’s first trip he noted “I was fortunate also in the season of the year, for in the summer myriads of black flies, mosquitoes, and midges, or, as the Indians call them, ‘no‐ see‐ums,’ make travelling in the woods almost impossible; but now their reign was nearly over.”  His second trip was not so benign, insectwise:  “Our best nights were those when it rained the hardest, on account of the mosquitoes.”  Of course, he did not have Cutter’s Deep Woods, a ¼ inch layer of which actually prevented the loss of much blood for me.  

I find myself taking on a crotchety “get off my lawn” persona these days as I complain about the constant interruptions that diminish the enjoyment of nature: the delivery truck that roars by just as you lock your lens onto a bird; the helicopter that swoops in the instant you start your recording of a thrush; the bystander who asks “whatcha looking at, birds?” while you try to coax a chip into revealing itself.  None of these distractions arose at Nesowadnehunk for the first few hours, leaving a feeling of accomplishment even beyond that of finding and photographing “good” birds.  Despite my doctor’s criticism, after the fact, about travelling alone in an area with no cell service, that too I considered an achievement. 

Even protected from most fly bites, the constant swarm about my head complicated camp set up, but I pitched my tent and then headed up Park Tote Road for some evening birding.  I was rewarded with another lump in the dirt road, this time a real Spruce Grouse hen brooding her chicks on the road, as apparently they are wont to do.

Spruce Grouse

Rain drove me into the tent at about 8, but it was clear at about 2 AM when nature called and rewarded me with the Milky Way hanging overhead.  Sunrise was sublime and birds were actively gathering breakfast for new broods. 

Nesowadnehunk Field Campground

A pair of White-throated Sparrows - one white-striped and one tan-striped - gleaned moth worms and other insects from a spruce tree.  According to Birds of North America Online (Cornell Lab of Ornithology), "These differences in plumage and karyotype are maintained by negative assortative (disassortative) mating – each morph mates with its opposite." 

White-throated Sparrow - White-striped Morph

White-throated Sparrow - Tan-striped Morph

I spent a few hours along the Tote Road, no luck with Black-backed Woodpeckers but enjoyable views and a few photos of some North Woods specialties.

Boreal Chickadee

                                                      Red-breasted Nuthatch

I was pretty well spent by noon, after 8 hours of hiking, birding, photography, and insect fighting.  One last feeding of the mosquitos and deer flies as I broke camp and packed the car, and a leisurely 2 ½ hour ride back to Unity, once again in time for cocktails and supper.

Thoreau wrote about his visit to the Katadhin area:
“I suspect that, if you should go to the end of the world, you would find somebody there going farther, as if just starting for home at sundown, and having a last word before he drove off.”  

It does feel like the end of the world here, at least at times, but regrettably you know the real world is always only a few miles away.  In a way, missing out on Black-backed Woodpeckers might be a good thing, because it will likely bring me back to Baxter.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Worm-eating Warbler 
(Helmitheros vermivorum)

I recently wrote the following column for the Connecticut Audubon Society's Birdfinder series, which is distributed to the Society's membership.

I was first introduced to the wood warblers while banding birds with Noble Proctor at East Rock Park back in the mid 1970’s.  One of my earliest (recognizable) bird photos was of Noble holding a Worm-eating Warbler and since then, like most of us, I’ve been smitten by the songs, colors, habits, and variety exhibited by this family of birds. 

Worm-eating Warblers (“WEWA”) are not the fanciest of warblers: their colors are drab brown (“caramel” according to David Sibley) to blend in with their habitat and their song is a simple trill.  Perhaps their main attraction is their affiliation with the dark and deep woods of our State and the challenge they pose in trying to get a good look at one.  They are known for their feeding habits of hopping through the understory and picking insects from hanging dead leaves (BNA Online).


Although WEWAs bear some resemblance to the Waterthrushes and to Swainson’s Warbler, they are in a separate genus, Helmitheros, in fact the sole representative of that genus. Once seen well, they are unlikely to be confused with any other expected species in Connecticut.  The trick is, of course, seeing one well.  More often WEWAs are identified by their song, although this, too, poses a field ID challenge.  

The simple trill of a WEWA is quite similar to the songs of the Pine Warbler and the Chipping Sparrow, both of which may occur in adjoining or overlapping habitats. The former may usually be ruled out by its strict affiliation with pine trees, and almost always high up on them. The latter may be more problematic: I once spent some time tracking down what I was sure was a WEWA, deep in the woods, only to come across a proudly territorial Chipping Sparrow.  With practice, however, the faster pace and drier trill of the WEWA, combined with the habitat, allow for confirmed identification.

Finding Worm-eating Warblers in Connecticut 

WEWA populations in Connecticut, and elsewhere across their southern New England range, have likely benefitted from reforestation over the past several decades and the bird may be found all across the State in extensive deciduous and mixed forests.  According to the BNA Online account “The species is considered area sensitive and nests in highest densities in forests of at least several hundred hectares.”  Nest sites are on the ground, typically on steep slopes or ravine banks.

In the lower southwest corner, a reliable spot is The Nature Conservancy’s Devil’s Den Preserve, where this species has been closely studied since 1991.   Flanders Land Trust’s Whittemore Sanctuary in Woodbury is a relatively accessible location for finding this bird and in the eastern part of the State, multiple WEWAs are reported on eBird at Nehantic State Forest in Lyme during breeding season.  WEWAs are one of the specialty warblers (including Cerulean and Hooded Warblers) that nest in the Macedonia Forest along River Road in Kent.  During migration they may be seen at any of the typical warbler stopovers, such as Connecticut Audubon’s Birdcraft Museum in Fairfield and East Rock Park in New Haven. 

During the 1982-1986 Breeding Bird Atlas research, WEWAs were found in over 30% of the Atlas research blocks; the new Bird Atlas project now underway will provide some interesting insight on the status of this species in Connecticut, where it is near the northeastern edge of its breeding range.  Despite the benefits of reforestation noted above, continuing fragmentation of woodlands in Connecticut may eventually reduce the available habitat.

All Photos © C.S. Wood 2018

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Bird Trekking Into the Chiriqui Cloud Forest of Western Panama

We are back in Panama, a year after exploring the Darien and Canal Zone and this time in the country's west regions of the Caribbean coast and the Chiriqui highlands on the Pacific slopes.  Most of the same folks from last year: Dan, Mark and Linda, Ed, and me plus new friends from Canada Margaret and Harvey.

Fresh off of three days of rain and wind in the Bocas del Toro archipelago, a storm of apparently historic proportions, we headed over the continental divide toward the Chiriqui highlands of western Panama.  We stopped in the fog and mist a few times and managed to find some pretty good flocks of songbirds.

    Near the Continental Divide

Including a variety of colorful tanagers.

    Bay-headed Tanager 

    Emerald Tanager

The trip over the mountains was nothing compared to what awaited us:  a 10 kilometer, one hour ride up to the Mount Totumas Cloud Forest EcoLodge on what is apparently intended to be a road, but is closer to a cow path.  Only days before, the road was impassible due to the same rains that soaked us on the Caribbean coast.  This trek took me back to the Harpy Eagle adventure we undertook one year ago in the Darien, which involved a 35 kilometer dugout canoe ride up the rain swollen Chucunaque and Membrillo Rivers, with a return trip through a 90 minute thunderstorm overhead as if Joe Btfsplk from the old Lil’ Abner comics was in the canoe with us.  You can read about that trip here:  A Harpy Eagle Trek in Panama  

    The Road to Mount Totumas

We were welcomed to the Lodge by a swarm of hummingbirds.  Over our three days, 17 species of hummers were seen buzzed around the feeders and flowers, including the Fiery-throated Hummingbird and the Scintillant Hummingbird, both found only at high elevations.  The Lodge sits at about 6300 feet above sea level.

   Scintillant Hummingbird 

   Fiery-throated Hummingbird

We spent the first two days hiking and birding around the cloud forest, good workouts that turned out to be training sessions for the trek scheduled for our last day: a hike into the Amistad National Park.  Departing at the reasonable hour of 6:30 AM, just as daylight bloomed and no rain fell, we headed into the forest, skirting the east base of Mount Totumas and following rugged trails up and down into Amistad Park.  Or so Jeffrey, the owner of the Lodge and one of our guides, had described the trail the night before.  We were soon wondering when the “down” part came into play, and in retrospect it seems the hike in and the hike out were both uphill the whole way.  

Being relatively fit old geezers, we soldiered on, rewarded by looks at some birds found only here, and other birds that were lifers for the world-listers in our group.  We were in a zone of elevation that overlapped the ranges of Slate-throated Redstart (2000’ to 6900’) and Collared Redstart (above 6000’), and we lucked into one of the latter actively gleaning.  Twenty minutes or so of working with our junior guide Reinaldo allowed Dan and me to get good photos of this Chirique highlands endemic.

    Collared Redstart 

    Slate-throated Redstart

   Eye-ringed Flatbill (lifer # ?? for Ed)

Other wonders were discovered along the way:  a King Snake; a long-tailed weasel; a leaf-imitator katydid; picture-winged butterflies; and footprints of puma, peccary, and tapir.  And finally, as we neared the end of our trek, we had nice looks of Mantled Howler Monkeys sitting in the rain, which had returned as a fitting coda.  They looked wet; we could relate.

    Mantled Howler Monkey

   Documenting Leaf-imitator Katydid

When we reached the lodge, though, rain had stopped and our guide Jesse pulled out yet another lifer for Ed, Cherrie’s Tanager.  The male Cherrie’s is indistinguishable from its Carribbean slope relative, Passerini’s Tanager, but the females can be told apart.  I might note here that these two tanager species are somewhat unique in being named after people, instead of color or characteristics, like Emerald Tanager, Bay-headed Tanager, Speckled Tanager, and Blue-gray Tanager.  

   Blue-gray Tanager 

Neotropic birds in general, and especially hummingbirds, have such delightfully descriptive names:  violetear, green-crowned brilliant, fiery-throated, purple-throated, blue-chested, snowy-bellied; you almost don’t need a book to name them.  And even the less colorful are well-described: no fewer than 19 different shades of brown were found on our list of possible species, including ochraceous, russet, and cinnamon.

   Lesser Violetear

    Violet Saberwing

    Purple-throated or White-throated Mountain Gem (female)

    Purple-throated Mountain Gem (male)

   White-throated Mountain Gem (male)

After nearly 8 hours on the trail, 5.7 miles of trekking, and nearly 1500 feet of elevation gain (net gain of about 700 feet), we were ready for cocktail hour and another fine meal. 

    Our Amistad Park Trek Route

Birds still teemed about the Lodge and we had time for a few more photos before dark fell, including a nice rainbow providing us a fitting sendoff.

    Rufous-collared Sparrow (one of 19 shades of brown on our checklist)

   Flame-colored Tanager

Interestingly, the places we stayed – Tranquilo Bay and Totumas EcoLodge - are both projects of US expats who had remarkable vision, energy, and inventiveness, building self-sufficient, off-the-grid, but remarkably comfortable facilities.  Websites here:  Mount Totumas Cloud Forest EcoLodge and Tranquilo Bay Resort

You can flip through these and additional photos here:  Panama 2017

All photos © C.S. Wood