Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Back Road Pay Off?

I recently wrote about some paths, those less traveled, that I'm taking to work these days. Well, except when I'm running later than usual, which is about half the time. Because they are lightly, if at all, traveled back roads I can drive slow, stop when I want, and take in the bird life as it comes. Nothing really unusual has appeared, no longspurs, larks, crossbills, or the like. Until today.

In last Sunday's post, Signs of Spring, I'm afraid I left the impression spring was pushing winter out the door with a swift kick in the pants, then slamming it shut for the year. It was a valient effort, but around here we know winter always gets a foot in the door and rages back. This back and forth goes on through March, often into April, once in recent memory to May (the Great Mother's Day Blizzard, where you could watch all sorts of neotropical migrants foraging on the snow within a couple of feet of you, so I'm told). But I digress.

Today the weather turned back to winter, unleashing conditions that would prompt normal people to leave the back roads in favor of those that get the attention of plows and salt trucks. Not being normal (I'm a birder!), I figured the trusty Subaru and I might score some good winter birds through the agricultural lands. A flock of Pine Grosbeaks, anyone? I've spied a few fruiting trees that look like candidates.

I found nothing along the first five or so miles, literally. Not a single bird was in sight, not the usual flock of Rock Pigeons, no bluebirds on the wires, not even a crow or Mourning Dove on the wing. As I came over a small rise I saw one of the sights I was hoping for: a flock of birds eating grit in the road. I stopped, not needing to pull over, and got the bins on them. Redpolls, about 80 of them. A quick scan showed half a dozen were House Finches, a more focused scan showed one interesting redpoll. Larger than the rest, smaller than the finches, and paler. Frostier. Could it be a Hoary?

All of the discussion this year about redpoll identification has prompted me to look carefully at these birds, but I'm convinced this was a Hoary Redpoll. The birds were fairly skittish, flying into the neighboring tall grass and shrubs, then back to the road, then back into the vegetation, and so on. I had about ten minutes with them before the entire flock took off to the west, and during that time I wasn't able to get a single photo, poor or otherwise. From the AllAboutBirds website:

Similar to what I saw today, little-to-no streaking, pale breast
(no pink wash), comparatively stocky-necked and short-billed.
The bird I saw was even frostier on the wings and head than this bird.

Here is the day's checklist, with comments, I submitted to eBird. Note that I did not see two of the three key characteristics Jochen relies on. I could only consistently view the breast and flank streaking, no views of the rump or undertail coverts (in the above picture you cannot see the rump or undertail coverts. In spite of that, would you be comfortable calling it a Hoary?). We'll see if my paltry description, sans photographic evidence, is enough to be accepted.

Location: Terry Hill Road, North
Observation date: 2/27/08
Notes: Conditions: 100% clouds, 0 wind, light snow, T= ~20*F. Slow drive along Terry Hill Road, stopped to study a flock of approx. 80 finches eating grit off the road. The flock flew back-and-forth between the road and scrubby bushes and tall grass during the 10 minutes I watched.

One redpoll stood out as larger than rest, but smaller than the House Finches. Overall it looked lighter with very faint streaking on the breast/flanks and an all-white breast. The bill didn't appear as long as neighboring redpolls, giving the "pushed in" look. I did not see the rump or undertail coverts, and was not able to get a picture. The flock eventually flew off to the west, I did not relocate it in the evening.
Number of species: 5

Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis 1
Mourning Dove - Zenaida macroura 3
House Finch - Carpodacus mexicanus 6
Common Redpoll - Carduelis flammea 75
Hoary Redpoll - Carduelis hornemanni 1

Note that I did finally find a Mourning Dove and a Red-tailed Hawk.

/Update, 02 March 2008
Adding in the post I sent to the Cayugabirds-L listserve. Thanks to Nick and mon@rch for alerting me that it never made it (via the comments), I resent it today. I should have included this in my original blog post as it has more detail than the eBird submission.

Shortly after 8:00 AM this morning (Wed, 27 Feb) I observed a possible HOARY REDPOLL out of the Basin, on Terry Hill Road near the border of Schuyler and Chemung County. I was able to watch the bird off-and-on for about ten minutes. The conditions were not great, with 100% cloud cover and steady snow.

Slowly driving north I had stopped to watch a flock of birds eating grit in the road, approximately 80 redpolls and six house finches. While watching from my car I noted a single redpoll that stood out in size and paleness, appearing larger than the rest of the redpolls and lighter on the back, wings, face, and flanks. From my viewpoint (mostly through a windshield, periodically through my open driver's window) I noted that streaking on the sides was minimal and very faint and I did not discern any pink on the breast. It looked to be very white in the wings, reminding me somewhat of the white edgings on the coverts and flight feathers on a Black-capped Chickadee's wing. I did not see a clear view the rump or undertail coverts, though the streaking on the upper back seemed less pronounced than the surrounding birds. In profile this bird's bill appeared shorter than that of the neighboring birds, giving a "pushed in" look.

The flock was a whirlwind of activity, sitting still for maybe 30 - 45 seconds before wheeling into the surrounding shrubs and tall grass, then returning to the road to start the cycle again. I had no trouble re-finding the bird on the road, but was unable to keep it in view when it disappeared into the surrounding vegetation.

Unfortunately, I was unable to get a photo, when I tried to lean out of the car to try the flock flushed, headed west, and disappeared out of sight. I'll be traveling this road again to see if I can re-find the flock.
/End update

Resources I've been reading and re-reading about redpolls:
Perhaps needless to say, but I'll be taking that back road and watching for redpoll flocks for the next couple of weeks!


slybird said...

Hey you should post that.

~ Nick

mon@rch said...

Ya, I would have to agree with Nick!

noflickster said...

slybird and mon@rch - Thanks for suggesting that, you let me know my post never made it through! I re-sent it today. Bad timing, I've been on very little "gmail" this week so never noted my post didn't appear.


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