Saturday, January 05, 2008

A New Life Bird for the New Year

Rough-legged Hawk on Power Lines / Photo by John and Karen Hollingsworth (USFWS)

The Great Swamp in winter provides opportunities to see some unusual birds, if you know where to look for them. This afternoon, my mother, sister, and I set out to find some of the more interesting species reported recently.

Our first stop was the wildlife center on Long Hill Road. We quickly encountered a northern shrike, perched high in a tree above the first of the blinds along the boardwalk. I would have passed it off as just another gray bird on a gray day, except that it struck fear into the smaller birds gathered at the bottom of the tree. Dark-eyed juncos froze with their heads turned sideways to look at it. A flock of black-capped chickadees mobbed the shrike until it finally flew across the meadow where it set off another explosion of alarm calls. It turns out that chickadees are better at identifying members of the genus Lanius than I am.

Another surprise waited inside the blind. Just outside the blind's windows, not ten feet away, an American bittern stalked through a puddle. Being a bittern, it stood very still and moved its feet very slowly. I have never seen a bittern for so long and at such close range before, so it was my first chance to study the subtle and intricate feather patterns on the bird's back. Field guide illustrations do not do justice to this beautiful bird. An American tree sparrow at the feeder - normally a noteworthy bird for me - almost seemed banal by comparison.

The "Friends" blind - the blind at the far end of the boardwalk - had an assortment of waterfowl gathered into one huge flock. I saw wood ducks, black ducks, an American wigeon, a green-winged teal, northern pintails, as well as the unusual suspects. My sister added a gadwall to that list. There were probably other species as well - either too distant or obscured by larger birds. Near the blind a pileated woodpecker called repeatedly before it flew across the trail.

A subsequent drive along Pleasant Plains Road yielded two rough-legged hawks (life birds!) perched in two separate trees. I think that both were light morph, rather than Patrick's dark morph hawk, but it was difficult to tell with that light and viewing angle. Also present along the road were a few northern harriers, American kestrels near the bookstore, and red-headed woodpeckers near the gated bridge. Several small groups of wood ducks flew back and forth across the road. At dusk, hundreds of red-winged blackbirds and thousands of common grackles flew past the overlook. Unfortunately neither owl species reported from Pleasant Plains Road made an appearance today, even at dusk. Maybe we will have better luck another time.