On Wednesday, I did a trip with my dad down to the south coast of Rhode Island in search of some target birds. Our first stop was in a small neighborhood in Middletown, just north of Newport. A Painted Bunting had been visiting some feeders in a few back and front yards. I didn't have much hope as we pulled into the neighborhood and we sat in the car wondering what to do. I got out and walked around a bit, scoring nothing much except a single Common Grackle, a first for the year. I checked a driveway where I heard a Lapland Longspur had been feeding on a spread of bird seed. No luck with the longspur but instead there was a Savannah Sparrow, another first of year. Checking back at the original address I heard about for the bunting, there was a man shoveling outside and I asked him about the bird. He was very nice and told me the bird had been visiting his feeder regularly but he hadn't seen it for the past couple of days. He suggested I could go into the garage and look in the mirror out the back door at the feeder setup. He had a mirror arranged next to the door so you could watch the feeders without flushing the birds. I watched for a couple minutes until another birder showed up. Just as he got to the door, a flash of bright red popped into the small tree between the feeders. The bunting stayed for a few seconds and flew off. What luck! I ran to get my camera and waited at the door until the bird showed up again. I secured a few photos through the glass and decided to move on when the bird didn't show up for a few more minutes.

From there we continued south to Newport. A bathroom stop turned into an involuntary perusal of the inside of the oldest library in the country. I hoped for alcids on the cliff walk, but I didn't hold any high hopes. Our first stop along its length came up with Lesser Scaup, Black Scoter, American Wigeon, and Great Cormorant as some of the highlights. At the southern end we found Harlequin Ducks and Horned Grebes but not much else. Black Scoters numbered in the hundreds and passed now and then in small flocks. No alcids were to be seen.  Across the bridge to Jamestown we had many ducks at Fort Getty, but no Barrow's Goldeneye. A Merlin and a single Sanderling at Mackerel Cove Beach. At Beavertail State Park, once again not an alcid to be seen. Black Scoters and Common Eiders numbered in the hundreds, and rafts of them rode the swells coming into the cliffs. Horned Grebes were mixed in here and there. Horned Larks or Snow Buntings also weren't to be found, even though the wind had blown areas of ground free of snow. 

Across another bridge and headed down Rt 1 two birds flew towards us over the highway. As they got closer I began to pass them off as crows until one lifted up into the wind and began to dive with force towards the other. As they passed directly overhead I could see through the skylight of the car the large size and diamond tail of a raven as the crow above it continued to harass it. Along Card's Pond Rd in South Kingstown we came across an immature Red-shouldered Hawk perched directly above the road. Shortly after we found a flock of fruit-eating birds consisting of Cedar Waxwings, Eastern Bluebird and American Robins. Scanning a flock of hundreds of Canada Geese in a nearby field I failed to pick out another species. A feeder in front of a house brought in a large flock of 90 Horned Larks from a field across the street. Small groups of the larks would venture to the feeder, only to fly back to the field when flushed by a car. Scanning the flock of larks several times I surprisingly failed to pick out a Lapland Longspur, a bird I thought would be a given in a lark flock this large in this area. Searching through the sparrows in the thickets around the feeder I finally managed to pick out an immature White-crowned Sparrow.  Moonstone Beach was beautiful but very quiet. The water was dead calm and it was fun to investigate what the rising and falling tide had done to the snow and ice on the beach. The feeders at Trustom Pond NWR held a Yellow-rumped Warbler visiting the suet feeder and a male Eastern Towhee which scratched at the seed on the ground for a couple minutes before disappearing. I photographed the birds here for a while, testing out my flash in the dim lighting.

On the way back to Rt 1 we pulled over for a quick view of Perry's Mill Pond where there was a flock of 15 Northern Pintail and 2 American Wigeon among the Mallards and American Black Ducks.

All in all, it was a very good day with 1 lifer and 6 year birds.

On January 7th Paul Peterson discovered a Black-backed Woodpecker in the Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston. On my 5th time looking for it (long story) I was finally able to secure a view and some photographs. Hundreds of local birders have been flocking to see this bird as it is a first record for Boston and one of about 12+ records for the state. This species is a northern resident, with the closest place to reliably view one in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Even in its normal range this bird is often very hard to see so a bird in Boston is quite the spectacle.  A beautiful large woodpecker (about the size of a Hairy Woodpecker), the male Black-backed is a striking bird with a glossy black head and back, a white malar (mustache) stripe, and a white belly with thin black barring. Top this off with a bright yellow cap and you get a very handsome bird. The species can be very sedentary, chiseling away the bark on dead pines until the tree is swathed with large bare patches. This is exactly what the Forest Hills bird has been doing. When Paul discovered it, there were already bare patches on many trees in the cemetery, compelling many birders to wonder how long the woodpecker had already been in the area. 

(Edit: This bird ended up sticking around for quite a while and I was fortunate enough to observe it on four separate occasions.. This photo is from April 6.)

I started the year off on January 1st with a full day of birding. Patty O'Neill and I planned on finding a few of the local rarities which have been sticking around. We started off with the Grasshopper Sparrow in Mattapan, one of many great finds by Paul Peterson. Near Mass Audubon's Boston Nature Center, the bird has been hanging out next to an old gravel parking lot behind a Mass Biologics building. It proved very easy to find, flushing from a hidden spot in the mown grass up to a short pine tree. This is exactly what it did when I saw it the first time. It even flushed into the same tree. Thankfully, this bird is cooperative and reliable, as I've been duped by Grasshopper Sparrows in the past. We had some short but good views of the bird as it perched in the tree and then it flew back down to another hidden spot in the taller grasses and weeds and we moved on. We stopped at Milton Landing but had no luck with the eagles. Even with the early morning sun shining from the direction of the trees in which they normally perch, there clearly weren't any eagles. Several Common Mergansers, two Double-crested Cormorants, and a calling Northern Flicker made up for their absence, the latter two species being relatively good finds for January. The cormorants are regular at this spot in winter, often roosting on the docks. From here we drove to Weymouth for the continuing King Eider but unfortunately had no such luck even though it was seen later in the day. We did however, pick up an assortment of seabirds including Long-tailed Duck, Common Eider, Surf Scoter, Bufflehead, Red-breasted Merganser, Common Loon, and Horned Grebe. Passerines were scarce as usual at this spot with three Northern Mockingbirds being the highlight. To the nearby Stodder's Neck in Hingham we picked up the Lark Sparrow almost immediately upon entering the park. There was some obvious sparrow action when we pulled into the lot and upon entering the gate, there were several Song Sparrows and I caught a very brief view of the continuing Audubon's Warbler. We were discussing where in the park the Lark Sparrow had been hanging out recently when it literally flushed from our feet. It flew only a few meters before it settled down into the grass again. We took a few minutes to enjoy the front-lit bird in front of us before we headed back to the car. At that moment I got a call from Dan Burton that there was a slew of postings on Massbird about a Prairie Falcon on Plum Island. Without much hesitation (as it would be a state bird for Patty, and certainly a life bird for me), Patty and I were back in the car and headed north.  From Hingham, it took approximately an hour to reach Plum Island where upon asking the throngs of birders it was clear the falcon hadn't been seen for several hours after it had taken off in a southerly direction. Nonetheless, we birded the island and picked up Snowy Owl, Rough-legged Hawk, Northern Harrier, Greater Scaup, Black Scoter, Red-throated Loon, and Red-necked Grebe among other birds. We ended the day by checking Cherry Hill Reservoir for the Greater White-fronted Goose, but came up empty with a mostly frozen pond and no birds in sight. The tally for the day was about 45 species.

In the morning on the 2nd I started out to check a couple of my local spots. A quick pass by Turner's Pond revealed a completely frozen pond with only a few Ring-billed Gulls roosting in the middle. Walking from there to the Milton Cemetery, I passed through Milton Academy where I was happy to add a calling Fish Crow. Entering the cemetery from Gun Hill St I had a Winter Wren calling in the creek just where I was hoping to find it. In the cemetery I soon had a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, which was an unexpected bonus. On the far side of the cemetery I found an unfrozen area of flooded creek with produced four shy Wood Ducks and eight even shyer Mallards. I tallied a few other birds for the year including Red-bellied and Downy Woodpecker (which we surprisingly didn't get on the 1st), Golden-crowned Kinglet, Carolina Wren, Mourning Dove, White-breasted Nuthatch (another surprise miss on the 1st), and American Goldfinch. Later in the day I was able to bird Jamaica and Leverett Ponds. Jamaica Pond was full of ducks with the new freeze. I imagine quite a few smaller ponds were frozen which tends to concentrate birds on the open ponds. American Coot, Pied-billed Grebe, Ruddy Duck, Hooded Merganser, Ring-necked Duck and Gadwall(!) were all new birds. A Mute Swan at Leverett was the only unique bird there. These tallies bring me to today with the addition of Hairy Woodpecker and Brown Creeper two days ago for a total of 65 species so far. Not entirely shabby.

Avian Obsession © 2021 Evan Lipton

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