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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Bad Weather Magic - Randolph

Two nights back I decided after work to drive down to Randolph's Great Western Industrial Park. This was based on a report I gleaned from Facebook indicating the north pond had water again and shorebirds were present. The weather was threatening and it is always breezy at this place, but the report had 5 birds I hadn't seen yet, so that density was worth any kind of inconvenience.

Upon arrival, the area was devoid of humanity. Rain started within minutes, but my windbreaker came out along with warmer clothes from my stash I keep in the car. A short binoc survey showed some peeps moving about so I got the scope setup and draped it with a towel.

Being bad at shorebirds in general I decided I needed to make this a learning op and had Sibley open in the car so I could reference from views and really try to figure the two peeps I was seeing. It took a while, but I finally feel confident that I can tell the visual difference between semipalmated sandpiper and least sandpiper. The yellowlegs of the least are a give away, but in poor light while wading that can be beyond tough. I instead focused on overall feel of the bird in color tone (least looking much darker) and then observing the amount of neck and throat coloration. Finally I tried to focus on bill, knowing that Least is decurved. Once I had these ideas in head and then verified that Sibley indicates a grayer overall feel to the semipalmated I digiscoped a few shots to study later. (Found out at home that I got shots of Least, but don't appear to have them for semi-palmated.) Either way I feel I got a good education on the two birds when compared and have a better foothold and these peeps than ever before.

As this was happening I did see a larger bird come out from behind the grass tufts in the pond. This was the dowitcher that was reported and a lifer for me no matter the type. (Long or short billed.) I talked out the features as I watched the bird in the scope. Telling myself it had a clean orange toned neck and breast, long bill (relatively speaking), upper parts mottled, etc... After it went back out of view I then grabbed the book and knew I needed to figure out which of the two it was. (Earlier report indicated long.) As I studied the pics I realized what I had verbalized fit best with a short-billed. I then digiscoped a few shots for later reference and posting to FB group. I would later find that friend Kevin Smith saw the bird earlier and called it a short-billed and the original poster revised his post with short-billed also. This was a great lesson to always observe with a fresh eye and objective attitude. Going in and saying, I'm going to see a long-billed may taint my ability to see all the pieces needed for a good id. This was a great learning exercise that I plan to continue using.

The pool did also yield additional looks at Solitary Sandpiper and Lesser Yellowlegs, birds I had already this year, but I still focused on for id purposes. It was helpful to see them near the peeps so I could gauge relative size and get a feel for those type of elements real time.

Lesson two came from reading the original posters comments to me to also look out for singing Grasshopper Sparrows. I had at first assumed he was mistaken since I knew Savannah Sparrow could be found nearby and they also have a buzzy call. I then made an important decision. Approach the situation like you haven't been there before. I started to stroll down the street looking and listening. An Eastern Meadowlark was talking and then I saw a Savannah on the rock pile. I knew this to be a location for them and listened for the call I had just looked up in Sibley to get the note progression compared to Grasshopper. Turning back towards the car I then heard a faint buzz on the wind. Scanning the grassland I found another bird on a stalk of dry grass. The call was a different cadence and structure and I realize they had been hiding in plain sight. My assumption that Savannah were in place so nothing else would be here was as false as they come. Getting a look at the bird I confirmed the field marks and locked in a new life bird and one on my top 10 of the year. The big lesson being, stop making assumptions. Look for birds where they can live even if another already lives in that location.

 Jacked up from the addition of 4 year birds I drove down to the main pond near the church. This is where the magic happens. I start watching the pond and soon realize that something is wrong with the "swallows" skimming. They are to large and moving much slower than normal. This is when I realize that assumption is getting a hold of me again. I assume that any skimming bird over water is going to be a Swallow so I nearly ignored the fact that I'm staring at a group of black tern. Another lifer and a top ten bird for the year. These graceful black birds were amazing to watch as they moved like swallows, but with less urgency. They would at times hit the water to snag a minnow and then lift off to continue. At one point 25 or more were swirling around the pond at one time.

While watching them and taking pics I became aware of a foreign sound behind me. I turned and put the binocs up only to find 3 Bobolink in the grassland area. Another year bird and a top ten bird from last year. This is whenI realized I heard the same call again from behind me. I turned back to the pond and found a Bobolink only 75' from me in the grass nearby. More pics ensued and I stood in awe of the moment. It wasn't over yet though as I heard a group of birds start racing back and forth over the water and realized they were shorebirds again. I followed them with the binocs as they zipped back and forth. I realized a number of them had black bellies and were a shoe-in for Dunlin. This again is a life bird for me. As they all took off to the south I saw another flock of birds to the right. This large mass of birds flew a bit like what I have seen from Lapland Longspur. The problem was size. This flock was to large so I was thinking starling or something like that, but they wouldn't be balled up at this point. As the binocs came up I found them to all be Bobolink. eBird flagged this as an unusual number (85) but it was what it was. A large flock of migrants that was amazing to see.

As I drove out of the location I was greeted by another Grasshopper Sparrow on a post that seemed to be saying, now that you have identified us and paid attention, we can be friends.

A stop at Lake Byllesby west end park access yielded a great comparative look at Caspian Tern and Forster's Tern. They look comically larger than the Forster's and in the waning light and deteriorating weather provided another great year bird. Also found were DC Cormorant (some white bellied younger ones) and also a good number of Pelican. Before leaving I did some Warbler watching and got nothing new, but some good looks at a decent mix of birds.

 This whole evening was a great example of awesome experiences coming in bad weather. The entire time I was the only person around to witness the events.

It begins

This is mostly for me, as a way to summarize the things I learn while birding. It will be a collection point for locations I visit, birds I see, cool things that happen, and just all things bird and/or wildlife related. The chances this continues long term is likely slim also, but much of that depends on how,much I have to say and the kinds of things that happen. I will post about the past, present, and future in hopes of extending my knowledge on birds.