Wednesday, December 31, 2008

One Year, Three Hundred Fifty Birds, and an Education

New Year's Eve came and went, and no new birds reported, so I coasted into the new year with lots of time to reflect and look back at all that I had done in 2008. It's hard to believe that a year ago I was just starting with the goal of hitting 300, and racing from bird to bird to front-load my list as quickly as possible. There's something about this activity for me that makes my memory seem sharper, and I can picture being in the swamp at Fort Drum, the snowy trails of Bloomingdale Bog, and the hot days at Cupsogue, all as clearly as if I were there again. It's been an incredible year, and I got an education in birding that I could have only had through love, not money. I was schooled by all the masters of the New York birding scene: Shane Blodgett, Shai Mitra and Pat Lindsay, Doug Futuyma, Tom Burke and Gail Benson, Willie D'Anna and Betsy Potter, Bob Spahn, Peter Dorosh, Tom Stephenson and a dozen others, each of whom was generous without exception in sharing their vast knowledge and experience. That coupled with all the great reports and help from people all over the state, and I feel as though I was really just the driver and photographer, and that the true birding was done by everyone who spends their spare (and not so spare) hours in the field, feeding their hunger to be with the birds. I am certainly a better birder for it, and maybe a little different as a person.

The checklisting was what drove me, and for that I'm grateful. The competitive appeal of checklisting can make you do things you might never do...wait for eight hours in the snow, in one spot, to glimpse a reclusive Townsend's Solitaire, or make a dozen eight hour trips upstate to see that newly found bird, to sleep in the car in a parking lot in order to be at the "right place" at sunrise, and to spend a year of your life in non-stop pursuit, whenever and wherever it takes you. Checklisting is the little evil for the greater good. Because in fact what turned out to be truly valuable this year was all the in-between moments...the hours spent with Shai studying terns while waiting for a rare one to appear, the "unproductive" walks in Massawepie Bog for the (never seen) Spruce Grouse, the long but always too-short summer days spent checking the inlets of Long Island, and the hundreds of conversations and encounters with all the passionate birders of this great state.

On New Years Eve I went for a walk with Mary Eyster in Prospect Park, where I began birding, and we had a nearly perfect day. It was crisp and clear, and we had some beautiful birds. A gorgeuous male Purple Finch came into a call and perched a few feet away. The feeders had a festive congregation of doves, red wing blackbirds, nuthatches, Fox Sparrows and woodpeckers. A flock of Robins moved from one tree to the next, and called the alarm as a powerful Red-Tailed Hawk came soaring in throught the trees. There was no chasing here...just a walk in the park, with birds. And that's how I hope to spend many more days as this bright new year unfolds.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Trip to Peru

The year is starting to wind down now, with less than two weeks till New Years.  November was a dissapointing month for rarities, most notable being the absence of a Ash Throated Flycatcher this year.  However, where one expected bird fails, an unexpected bird appears, and so it was with a Northern Hawk Owl that showed up in Peru, NY, near Plattsburgh at the top of the Adirondacks.  Hawk Owl is a great rarity for New York, certainly not a yearly thing, and is a very cool bird.  They live in the Boreal Forest in Canada and Eurasia, and they hunt both day and night.  They can spot prey up to 1/2 mile away, and can hear and catch a vole or other target under up to a foot of snow.  They have a long tail, unlike other owls, and do have a somewhat hawk-like appearance and behavior, perching on treetops or posts and scanning for food. 

I couldn't get up to Peru for several days, but I wasn't too concerned with this bird.  A Hawk Owl that appeared in Bloomingdale Bog a few years ago stayed for a couple of months.  I got a window of opportunity on Thursday night, so I drove up and got into Plattsburgh a little after midnight.  The next morning I was at the spot at daybreak.  At first I wasn't seeing anything, so I drove around a little, and found a large Snow Bunting flock and a few crows.  The crows worried me a little, since they are known to mob predators like hawks and owls, and I didn't want them suppressing this bird.  As I came back to my original position my fear was realized, as first one and then 1/2 dozen crows started hectoring a bird in the apple orchard across the street...it was the Hawk Owl.  The owl was pushed off its perch and flew into the orchard where I couldn't see.  The crows lost interest, and I thought I might have a long wait ahead of me before the owl showed itself.  But I underestimated the owl, and within minutes it swooped up and perched on top of a telephone pole by the road.  I drove a little closer and got some photos in the overcast morning light.   The bird seemed completely uninterested in me, and looked intently towards the ground, swiveling its head back and forth.  At one point it got especially interested in one spot, sat more upright, and then suddenly swooped down and splashed into the snow.  Whatever it was, it missed, and it flew back up to its perch to continue the hunt.  I spent a couple of hours watching and photographing, and didn't see it catch anything in that time, but it wasn't for lack of trying. 

In addition to the owl there had been reports of a flock of Bohemian Waxwings in the area, and although I've already listed them this year I certainly wanted to see them again.  I drove the local roads for a while, and at one point got onto a distant Waxwing flock that turned out to be most if not all Ceday Waxwings.  I gave up around 11, and headed back to town for lunch.  As I pulled up to Becky's diner I saw a berry bush across the street that was covered in Waxwings, mostly Cedar, but including 3 Bohemians and 3 Pine Siskins.  I parked near the bush and used the car as a blind, and watched and photgraphed for about half an hour as the birds fed on the abundant berries.  The colors of these birds almost look spray painted on, and that combined with the red berries and the red building behind nearly knocked my eyes out. 

I had the day's special at Beckys (spagetti and red sauce...all eight of the other customers were having it, too), and then headed back around noon.  Then the snow started, and I came back in the blizzard.  What took about 5 hours the night before took 8 1/2 hours back, but I returned to a beautiful, snow-covered Brooklyn.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Buffalo Shuffle


Just before we left for San Francisco, an American Avocet turned up on Grand Island near Buffalo. There was no way to make it up there before our trip, but I kept my fingers crossed that the bird might stick around. That coupled with the Mew Gull sighting at Niagara falls gave me high hopes that the following weekend might be a good one.

The bird stuck, and so on Thursday I used my miles to book a flight to Buffalo on Saturday, the day after my return from California. I was encouraged to see the bird reported seen for the fifth day in a row on Friday, and was starting to think Saturday would be a quick and easy pick up. I was hoping that the Mew Gull might be refound as well, since there would be a good number of birders out on the Niagara River on the weekend. I was up before 5am on Saturday for my 6:40 flight, and it was a quick trip from the Buffalo airport to the island, so I was in the spot before 9am. I found the areas where the bird had been sighted right away, and started to search. And search. And search. No bird. There had been a cold snap the night before, and the water the bird had been feeding on was mostly frozen. Undeterred, I started to spread out my search area, and ultimately walked most of the shoreline along the south tip of the island. Aside from a Bald Eagle flyover, and some very skittish ducks, I came up empty-handed.

A gull was still possible, so I went over to the Falls and met up with Willie and Betsy and some of their friends, who were all scoping the thousands of gulls above the falls. We had a great time picking through the birds, and as per usual I learned a lot just being with these birders. About an hour in a darker-mantled bird was spotted...maybe a Lesser Black Backed Gull, but the tertial crescent was too wide. The bird was standing in a flock, but we were able to maneuver around for a look at it's legs...pink! Excitement was starting to mount as the possiblity of a Slaty Backed Gull became more real. We stayed with the bird for about an hour, and I had my camera ready when the entire riverfull of birds lifted off at once. I got off mabye a dozen photos before the possible Slaty was lost in the thousands of airborne birds, and then I just stood back and marvelled at the spectacle...possibly more birds in the air than I have ever seen at once. When we went through the photos, there were a couple of good wing shots, and there was the famous "string-of-pearls" pattern on the wing...it was a Slaty! This was actually my second of the year, after the gull that showed up at the Cornell compost piles, which is remarkable for the New York area.

I flew back that night to participate in the Captree Christmas Count. We had a great time scouring that region of Long Island for birds in teams, and then had the traditional dinner where all the numbers were tallied. I love Christmas Counts and will be on a couple more before the year is over. At dinner I checked my email and my fears were realized when the Avocet was re-reported, in the exact spot I had looked. After some hemming and hawing, talking to Willie, and checking and re-checking the weather reports, I used my last "silver bullet" and booked a frequent flyer flight to Buffalo for Monday.

It was deja vu as I got up at 5 and headed to the same parking spot at the airport. A quick flight, car rental, and I was back again at Grand Island before 9. This time instead of a cold breeze there was a warm (for Buffalo!) wind and light rain. The ice was gone, but when I first got there and scoped I didn't see the bird. Dreading the possibility of an extravagant double-miss, I walked down to the brushy water's edge, and woosh!, up flew the Avocet. It had been standing right by the sidewalk. I got a few shots and watched it circle back and land by an old barge. There were a lot of weeds and bushes there, so I took advantage of the cover and made an old-fashioned photo stalk...it was successful, and I managed to get lots of shots of the bird from about thirty feet before stealthily retreating to my car. It was a pleasure to call and book an earlier flight back to New York, to wait for the next rarity to show itself.

Friday, December 12, 2008

San Francisco Treat

Jessica had an opening for her art work this week at Rayko Gallery in San Francisco.  I didn't want to be away for too long, but I also wanted to see the show and be with her, so I went out for three days.   San Francisco was beautiful, and we had a great time eating burritos, shopping, and seeing my sister for her birthday.  Most importantly, though, we did a lot of birding.  There were several birds I wanted to try for while I was out there, so I posted to the San Francisco list and got a lot of great information on where and when to find my target birds.  What that boiled down to was spending a day going from park to park--and San Francisco has a lot of parks. 

We took a trip to Oakland to try for Tufted Duck at Merritt Lake...no Tufted, but we did have ridiculously close looks at Ring Necked Duck, Scaup, Glaucous-Wing Gull, California Gull, Eared Grebe, Western Grebe, and White Pelicans.  We also had a couple of "Puget Sound" gulls, hybrids between Glaucous Wing and Western Gull, which are very common in the pacific northwest.  From there we went to the Palace of Fine Arts, where we had a flock of Mew Gulls to study...I spent about an hour photographing these birds along with Ring Billed Gulls, their closest confusion species, and gained a little more confidence on being able to ID one on the east coast if one ever shows up (they do, occasionally).   We walked nearby Crissy Field, and had Orange Crowned Sparrows, Western Grebe, Brewers Blackbird, as well as more gulls, a Common Yellowthroat, and lots of Killdeer.  Nothing rare, but that's the fun of birding in a new place...even the common birds are new and interesting.  The Presidio was next, and we had beautiful looks at the Golden Gate Bridge, and scanned the waters around it for alcids an such.  I could swear I had a Pacific Loon, but it dove and I never relocated it.  There were Ravens, Townsends Warbler and Chestnut Backed Chickadees, and more Pelicans. 



The sun was getting low, so we raced down the coast to Lake Merced, where we had flocks of American Coots walking around us as we searched for Tri-Colored Blackbird (found three), and Clarks Grebe (found one).  A Mew Gull was perched on a power line with some "rock doves", highlighting the artifice of rarity...that bird on the East Coast would bring dozens if not hundreds of chasers, and here it's just another pigeon.  As the sun set we hit Ocean Beach and had several Snowy Plovers, including one with four colorful bands on its legs.  Willet and marbled Godwits were probing the sand along the oceans edge, and several variety of gull soared overhead.  We didn't see all the target birds that day--missed Western Bluebird, Says Phoebe, Tufted Duck, and several others--but it was nearly perfect nonetheless.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Take a Stand on Boreal Birds

I recently received an email from Paige Knappenberger at the NRDC about the Canadian Boreal Forests. If you're not familiar, the boreal forest in Canada is a major breeding zone for many birds...if you're wondering where the birds are all migrating to in the spring, the answer may well be the boreal forest. Recently Canada's prime minister made a major step towards preserving this vital resource, but there are still significant threats that could severely impact the birds of our hemisphere. Tar sands development is a destructive oil mining process that has been implemented in the boreal forest, and which is doing untold damage to the breeding ground for many birds. If you want to make a species extinct, destroying its breeding grounds may well be the most effective method, as the birds are frequently unable to adapt to this loss of habitat and simply die without producing offspring. It's up to us to make it unequivocably clear to the world's leaders that this kind of mining is absolutely unacceptable...it is the worst kind of short-sightedness that could impact every human generation to come. These forests are a heritage for the world, and the oil companies are literally stealing that heritage for their own gain. Please check out these links, and contribute your voice to let them know that we will not stand for this kind of theivery.

http://www.nrdc.org/media/2008/081202b.asp

http://www.nrdc.org/wildlife/borealbirds.asp

You can also send a letter to the Canadian government at:

http://www.savebiogems.org/birds/

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Last Probable Bird

At the beginning of this year I compiled a list of all the birds I might see. As the year progressed, I broke that list down into categories: Probable, Possible, and Rarities (Yearly, 2-5 Year and 5 years +, referring to the general frequency that they show up in New York State). Each time I'd see a new bird I'd remove it from the list. Today, with just one month to go in my Big Year, I crossed off the last Probable Bird, the Thayer's Gull.

My search for this bird started in January, when I drove up to Niagara Falls in that first hectic month to join Willie D'Anna and Betsty Potter to go gulling. At that point there were several gulls I needed, and Niagara is the place to be for gulls. In the winter thousands upon thousands of gulls come to the falls and the Niagara river to flock and feed, and in those months Niagara probably sees more species of gull than anywhere else in North America. Iceland and Little Gulls are commonplace, as are Lesser Black Backed Gulls. Glaucous are less common but usual, and Black Headed Gull is not out of the question. Rarer gulls like California are seen annually, and birds like Ross's Gull, Ivory Gull and Slaty Backed Gull have all been seen here. Of course, these rarer birds are mixed in with monumental flocks of Herring and Bonapartes gulls.

That first trip was both exciting and rewarding...Willie is one of the great gull experts of New York, and is a great guy to boot. Betsy is keen-eyed and great at picking out that "odd" gull. Spending a day with them on the river is like reading three gull books, and more fun. We spent a lot of time on Thayer's that day, and although we had several "candidates", we never had a textbook bird. I should say that Thayers gull is a VERY difficult ID, to be attempted only by experienced and serious gull watchers. While I find I've been able to pick out Thayer's candidates on the river, I would never trust myself to make a definitive ID (and no one else would trust me, either!), so without Willie I'm not sure seeing the bird would be possible. I'd venture to say that this is the only bird like that for me in New York...everything else I can ID by call or fieldmarks or photos, albeit with multitudes of mistakes along the way and confirmation from more experience birders. That's the thing about gull ID, which is different from any other bird watching...it requires both good eyes and carefully trained thought. The bird must often be pieced together as in a detective novel before a final ID is reached. This is especially true of Thayers, a species with a checkered and sorid past. The Thayers was split from other gulls in the 70s through research that has been put into serious question...many believe that much of the study that defined the bird was simply fabricated. It is somewhere between an Iceland and Herring gull in shape and markings, and IDing one is like walking a razor...too far one way and it's an Iceland, too far the other and it's a Herring. A definitive bird is hard to come by, and so on that first trip I had to leave empty handed.

Back to this weekend, and it was time to try again. Right around now is a great time to look for large gulls at Niagara...they arrive earlier in November and by January the Thayers will start to leave. We had tried to go up last weekend, but snowy weather and poor visibility waylayed the trip. This weekend looked better, so after Thanksgiving we headed up to the Falls to try again. We birded above Adam Beck, a large power plant that feeds off of the Niagara, and the best spot on the river to look for Thayers. When you bird there you're actually on the Canadian side, looking back at the US...the birds there tend to glide back and forth over the border (to them the river) with frequency. The gulls are several hundred feet away and below, so you get the odd perspective of watching them from above. That allows for good study of their upper wing pattern, which is a clue towards finding a gull. When we first got there I was amazed by the number of birds...thousands of gulls milling around the river as far as you could see.

It's overwhelming to try and pick that Thayers needle out of a Herring haystack, but we got to work, and soon had several candidates. Unfortunately, these first birds were lacking in some way...legs not bubblegum pink, some black on the underwing, not enough black on the upperwing, not enough streaking in the head, a yellow eye instead of a black one, structurally not quite right. So we persisted, and persisted. The temperature was probably around freezing, but there was a cruel east wind that seemed to suck the heat right out of me, despite my three layers, parka, gaiter, and thermals. At one point I started shaking too hard to see through my binoculars. After warming up in the car for a bit and having a cold lunch, we continued. At about 1:30 we had been at Adam Beck for five and a half hours, and although we'd seen some good stuff (including a California Gull), we hadn't found our bird.

And then it happened...one of the other birders who had joined us picked up a candidate. He called it out as it passed the various landmarks around the power plant, and I finally got on it. Looks good, I said, and Willie agreed. I got out the camera and Willie guided me onto the bird. I started shooting, and the more we looked the better the bird got. Looking at the photos, we couldn't find any major flaws. That's as good a Thayers as we're going to see, said Willie, and I was happy to hear it. We headed back just as a cold rain began, and I was glad to have worked hard for this bird, to have spent hours for it and really shopped around, sharpened my eye and then saw what we were looking for, and I was glad to have had Willie and Betsy's company, both of whom, despite many years of birding, seemed as excited as I was to have found a classic Thayers.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Ilsa's Brief Return


One of the birds I've been hoping might show up this November is a hummingbird. By now, all the Ruby Throated Hummingbirds that we see in the summertime have migrated, and any hummingbird you see is likely a western bird. On the 8th a post came up from Norm Klein in Northport, Long Island, that Ilsa was back. Ilsa is a Rufous Hummingbird that spend many weeks at this spot two years ago, feeding on the carefully tended feeders that Norm and his wife put out. She made it far into the winter, and then finally headed south. No one saw her last year, so what happened to her was unknown. Now she had returned, and I sped out to Northport right away to get a look.

When I got there no one was home, but Norm had posted that visitors were welcome, so I tentatively walked up the driveway and found the half-dozen feeders they have in their back yard. No hummingbird, but Hairy and Downy woodpeckers, sparrows, cardinals, finches, nuthatches and others were all enjoying the bounty. Norm and his wife soon arrived, and we spent a little time watching from his back porch. Suddenly, the hummingbird was there. These birds are so small and fast that sometimes it seems like they just teleport into a place. She buzzed the hummingbird feeders, and then was off again. We waited, and she came back, several times over the next hour or two. Each time I got photos, but never really exactly what I wanted, which is a spread-tail shot. This bird is a Selasphorus hummingbird, and the bird seen two years ago had been speciated to Rufous...but there is another Selasphorus, the Allen's Hummingbird, and separating the two is one of the trickier IDs in North American birding. Really the only way is a spread tail shot, which shows subtle differences in the tail feathers (retrices). We all strongly felt that this had to be Ilsa, but nonetheless wanted to be certain. I got a few almost open tail photos, and nothing in them suggested Allen's (that would be a first state record), so I'm going with Rufous, and therefore Ilsa. Besides, what are the odds that another Selasphorus hummingbird would show up in the same spot?

Ilsa wound up staying only a couple of days. Norm showed me his guest book from a couple of years ago, when hundreds of people came by to see the bird. I was hoping she'd stay again...what better remedy for the short, cold winter days than a fiery-colored hummingbird buzzing through the bare branches? After six days, though, Norm posted:

So, Ilsa, the selasphorus hummingbird, has flown off one more time after only a two day+ stay; and sadly this is probably my last posting about her. I wish her well. As was said by a sentimental Rick:"We'll always have Paris."
-Norm K.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Seeking the Swallow

Last week at Hamlin Beach there was a flight of Cave Swallows...38 in a morning. The next day, there were 11. So on Election Day Jessica and I got coffee, waited an hour to vote, and got in the car with Monkey to drive six and a half hours north to the shores of Lake Ontario. We met up with Bob Spahn, who had been keeping us up to date on the swallows, and spent the late afternoon looking out over a marsh where the birds had been seen in previous years. No luck with the birds, but luck with the election made up for it that night, and we were up early to try again. We got to Hamlin Beach at 7am, and spent four hours
watching out over the water. We had a group of Red-Necked Grebes, Cackling Goose, many flyover Siskins, a few Bluebirds, Horned Lark, Snow Bunting, Pipits, and a pair of Rough Legged Hawks, but no Cave Swallows. We had to be back in the city by five, so we said goodbye to everyone at the lake watch and headed back south.


The next few days I tried to figure a way to get back up to Hamlin...it's the most reliable spot for these birds, but not the closest, and I had a lot of work to do for the next week. I decided the best plan was to work Jones Beach each morning that I could, work in the afternoons and evenings, and then if that didn't work, find a way to do another Hamlin overnight. I did my first day at Jones Beach on Tuesday, and it was a beautiful day. Along with the potential swallow moving along the barrier beaches, this past week had a large movement of Pine Siskins and Goldfinches. On the first day I was there Ken Feustel counted 6800 Pine Siskins flying over in the first couple of hours in the morning. Siskins aren't easy to see here most of the year, so I really enjoyed seeing a couple of large flocks land in the trees around me, and I spent an hour or so taking photos. You have to take these opportunities when you get them!

I also spent a couple of hours near the beach itself watching for swallows. When I first pulled up I spotted two distant swallows flying away, and couldn't ID them. Those were the only two I saw. The dunes in that spot are pretty wide, and swallows are small. It wouldn't be hard to miss even a number of birds if they went by to your right or left. I walked out to the jetty, which is at least god excercise, and then back again...still no swallows. I did have a pretty cooperative Perigrine Falcon on the beach, Northern Harriers in the dunes, and a couple of active Merlins that seemed to be very pleased with all the little birds migrating through.

The next day I tried again, but this time a little earlier. I can't say I care for this Daylight Savings thing...I know it's supposed to help the farmers, although no one's every really explained that to me properly...but it means I have to get up an hour earlier to make sunrise. So I was up at 5:30 and at the beach by 7. I headed out to the beach first, making the swallows my priority. I was in the dunes for about forty five minutes. I was starting to think alot about how easy it would be to miss these birds, and about how I was going to get back up to Hamlin before this whole movement was over. I started to walk back to the parking lot, and noticed a couple of small birds heading my way. I was thinking: Not sure...don't look finchy...better photograph these...these are swallows!...calm down and get the shots...hope this works... and then they were past. I went through the half dozen shots I got, hoping for a clean ID. There was one. A swallow with a short, squared tail, tawny rump, and pale throat. Cave Swallow.

That now familiar wave of relief came over me--another six hour car ride wasn't going to be necessary, at least not for this bird. I walked out to the jetty again to see if anything interesting was going on. As I got close to the point another pair of swallows flew past...they didn't even veer or slow down when they hit the channel, but just dove low and kept moving over the waves. I was able to get a few photos off on these birds as well, and while the shots weren't as definitive they did show a collared swallow, most likely Cave. These birds came an hour after the first pair, so while they might have been the same birds, it seems more probable that they were a different pair. Later I spoke to other birders on Jones who had seen one and two Caves repectively, and Doug Gochfeld reported 8 Cave Swallows on Breezy Point later that day.

Looking back on this week, the search for the Cave Swallow had all the elements of chasing birds, good and bad. The long drives, the waiting, and all the things that come in between you and the bird: the other birds you see along the way, the people who join and leave the search, the habitats both familiar and new, and all the things that you come out to see besides the bird. The bird becomes an afterthought...it's the smallest part of the week that you spend looking for it. I come from a hunting family, and when I was a teenager I hunted with my father. To some hunting is repugnant, and I guess it is to me sometimes, too. But in the kind of hunting we did, the killing was the least of it. It was the travel, the camping, the new experiences, and just being outside...in a way the gun was just a way to go outdoors and still feel like you had a purpose. Maybe birding has replaced that purpose for me now...it isn't the "kill"that's fulfilling, finding that rarity. The rarity is just the motivation that propels me to get out and open my eyes, look around, and see more than I ever would have.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Return to Ithaca

As I've said before, a Big Year is more driving than birding, and that has certainly been true this week.   Sometimes all that road time pays off, though, and the past weekend was one of those times.  On Saturday I was out with Peter Dorosh, who was leading a trip to the Pennsylvania Avenue Landfill in Brooklyn.  This landfill has been capped, and is in the process of being converted into a park.  They've covered the top of the 40mil barrier that covers the trash heap with soil, and planted grasses and trees.  These are starting to take hold, and it seems very promising as a new bird habitat for Brookyln.  We had just spent time IDing a perched Broad Winged hawk when I checked my email and saw that Tom Johnson, Shawn Billerman and others had seen both Pacific Loon and California Gull on Lake Cayuga.  I started doing the now very familiar calculations in my head...sunset at 6:15, daylight savings tonight, 4 1/2 hour drive there, need to stop home first for monkey, girlfriend's patience being tested...OK, it looked possible.  I said goodbye to the group and was headed back upstate. 

I got to Aurora around 4pm and went straight for the California Gull.  Shawn had been very helpful on the phone, so I had a good idea of where to look, a gravel spit at the mouth of a stream that empties into Lake Cayuga.  There were around 150 gulls on the spit, and many more Canada Geese around them.  The Canadas can be a pain in the butt in a situation like this...they are nature's alarm system, and I wasn't able to get closer than 100 yards before they started to call out their warning honks.  I was forced to scope from a distance, and it wasn't long before many of the gulls started to fly up and leave, no doubt to roost for the night, probably out in middle of the lake.  My fantasy of driving up, seeing both birds, and driving back dissappeared with the gulls, so I went to Long Point park, just a few minutes away, to scope for the Pacific Loon. 

As some of you may recall, the Pacific Loon has been a nemesis bird for me this year...I put in about fifty hours of birding last winter staring out over that cold lake in mid-winter, straining to see something other than the Common Loons.  I can say from experience that if there is chop on the lake, or if the birds are feeding (by diving underwater) or distant, your chances of finding this bird are slim.  Tonight, though, the conditions were good...smooth water, not too cold, and there were a number of Common Loons around.  But, no Pacific.  So when it got dark I went into Ithica, had dinner at my favorite New Orleans inspired restaurant, and then came back and slept in my car at Long Point.  The next morning I was up before first light, and on the shore with my gear as the sun came up.  There were considerably more loons now, and I methodically worked my way through them.  Pacific Loon is definitely different from Common, but it's not blatant, and the distance and fog can make ID-ing a little tricky.  Lucky for me the birds were moving towards shore, and sure enough there was a smaller bodied, smaller billed, rounder-headed bird among them...Pacific Loon.  I got a number of photos, and later I went back to them several times, only half-believing that I'd finally seen this bird which had been akin to the Loch Ness Monster earlier in the year. 

Heartened by my success with the loon, I went for the gull.  There still weren't a lot of gulls on the spit around 8am, and I spent an hour there before deciding to wait a bit and come back.  I got a quick breakfast, and also checked around some of the local farmer's fields where I'd seen gulls the night before.  I came back around 10 or 11, and now things were looking better...the flock size had tripled, and gulls were continuing to fly in.  I'd seen this with the Slaty Backed Gull earlier in the year on Cayuga, where the gulls seemed to follow a predicable schedule...they'd be on the lake until 8 or 8:30, then fly to the compost heaps a few miles away to feed, and then return to the lake later in the day.  Likewise, the California Gull had been spotted around 10:30 the previous day, and so it made sense to come back around the same time. 

There were now a number of people with their scopes out searching for the gull.  It's not an easy bird to pull out of a crowd, and it was probably and hour before I finally happend on a bird, slightly smaller than a Herring Gull, with black and red marks on its bill, slightly darker mantle, yellow legs  and ... could it be? ... yes!  all black eye.  California Gull.  After going through this painstaking process, I was triply impressed by Tom Johnson's initial sighting of this bird...I mean, we KNEW that the bird was probably there, and it still took a number of us a long time to find it.  Tom didn't know before he saw it that it was even there.  I found it inspirational to know that those kinds of skills are possible--I figure just a few thousand hours of study and field time and I'll be there!

The two target birds seen, I could now relax a bit and do some birding.  I stopped at the Cornell Lab of O (rnithology) to look for a Red-Shouldered Hawk that is sometimes resident.  It hadn't been reported recently, so I got some nice shots of the birds at the feeders, and walked around a bit.  It feels good just to be at this spot, one of the centers for birding knowledge and study in the US.  After I'd absorbed some of that good energy, I walked back out to my car.  I was just getting in when I looked up and saw a circling hawk...not a red tail...not a broad winged...red shouldered!  I got a lot of photos (I needed a better photo for this bird), and then got in the car and headed off.  Sometimes--not everytime, not even often, but sometimes--everything just goes your way.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Another Twenty Fours Hours Upstate

This past week I've been birding locally and waiting for another rarity to be reported. November is the best month for Western vagrants in New York, and I'm expecting at least one or two birds to show up from the west coast. Last week there was a Say's Phoebe reported in Batavia, but it didn't stick around so I couldn't chase it (Batavia is near Buffalo, about 6 hours by car). Then on Monday another bird showed up...Sabine's Gull near Niagara Falls. I had to work Tuesday, so I couldn't go up right away, but on Tuesday night at about 8:30pm I got in the car and aimed north. Around one in the morning I stopped and slept for a few hours, and then continued around five, reaching Squaw Island at 8am. It was beautiful but cold, with snow flakes swirling in the air and fresh snow on the ground. I had on all my hardcore winter gear...parka, thermal underwear, turtle, ski gloves, and that kept the weather out. Being comfortable is critical, since these chases can often mean long hours of waiting in the wind and weather. The bird wasn't immediately apparent, and I misread the emails about where it had been seen, so I headed upriver along a bike path rather than downstream to it's last reported location. The river separates New York and

Canada, and as I walked under the Peace Bridge I could see the Maple Leaf flag flying overhead. There was a big congregation of birds about a mile up towards the head of the river, so I went that way and found a nice flock of Bonapartes Gulls massed and feeding in the fridgid water. Along the shore were Bufflehead, mixed ducks, and a single Snow Bunting, my first of the season. The crisp air and the birds reminded me of my trips at the beginning of the year, and the pleasure I'd had of scanning the flocks of gulls for an odd bird all came back in a rush. My scanning was unproductive, though, so I turned back and headed back downstream. As I walked I saw a little white bird feeding in the water near shore, and saw instantly that it was a phalarope. I photographed it and got good looks, and then headed back to my car to make a positive ID from the photos...I knew it was Red-Necked or Red Phalarope, but wanted to make sure of which. The ID turned out to be tricky for me, and I'm not very experienced with these birds, so long-story-short I decided on a probable Red-Necked (this was the more likey bird), and called Willie D'Anna to let him know and, if the bird was rare enough for the area, to get the word out. Willie did and I later found out that it was in fact a Red Phalarope, a very unusual bird.


Willie also corrected my misimpressions about where the Sabines Gull should be, so I went downstream on the hunt. I saw another birder ahead of me, but I was taking my time and didn't catch up to him right away. I had seen a flock of Bonapartes Gulls across the river, and spent some time looking through them for the bird, as well as admiring and photographing some gulls that were on the near shore. Still no Sabines. I finally reached the other birder as he got to his car, and after a little chit-chat he asked "Did you see the Sabines?". I had walked right by it! I ran back, scenarios of the bird flying off and never being seen again running through my head, and there, not three feet from the shore, was the Sabines, bobbing in the eddies. I had been so focused on the far shore and on the gulls in flight, I hadn't thought to look right at my feet. The gull was unbelievably tame and cooperative...several times it floated directly under me, not ten feet away, as I snapped away with my camera. It would bob downstream, picking food out of the water, and then fly back up and repeat the process. I saw the famous "three wedges" pattern on its wings as it flapped upstream, and then got amazing looks at it's back and head as it floated past.



I spent a while with the Sabines, and then headed back to Buffalo and celebrated my 343rd bird of the year with hot dogs and onion rings at Ted's, a famous local eatery. I had a seven hour drive back, and I broke it up by stopping at Montezuma Wildlife Management Area, where there were thousands of Ring-Necked ducks, as well as American Wigeon, Coots, Green Winged Teal, Pintails, and a variety of other ducks. One interesting surprise was a pair of juvenile Pectoral Sandpipers, who stopped briefly on a mud flat before flying on, no doubt feeling behind schedule on this late date in migration. The movement of the ducks on the water, the snowy landscape highlighting the remaining autumn-leaved trees, the chill wind blowing into the open car window and the warmth of the car heater, all put me in a peaceful state of mind that lasted the long drive back to Brooklyn.

video

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Today I got a call from my neighbor Allison.  Allison is a vet at New York City Veterinary Specialists, and she had an unusual patient that she needed help with.  It was a wild bird that had come in with a broken leg, and they though it might be a King Rail.  Not having seen a King Rail this year, I was naturally interested, and drove over right away (I'm not sure what the rules are on sighting a wild bird in a veterinary clinic, but either way I wanted to see it!)  When I got there I saw that it wasn't a rail, but in fact an American Woodcock.  The bird was clearly not well, letting its head drop onto the table when not propped up.  Stacy, also working at the clinic, was in charge of the bird, and was treating it with food and bandages.  I advised feeding it worms once it was in better shape...Woodcocks have special flexible bills that are designed to probe through loam and leaf litter for worms.  Stacy was doing a great job with the bird, and I heard later in the day that the bird was still alive and had perked up considerably.  
Handling a bird up close is a different experience from seeing it through binoculars in the field...I love getting a different perspective on a bird, and feeling a closer connection with the animal than I get from a scope view.   I'm sure the bird was not as thrilled to be close to us, and once again the bird's ill fortune was the birder's gain.    Thanks to Allison for giving me the opportunity to see this beautiful bird!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Northern Race

On Wednesday I was in Central Park when I checked my email and saw that a Northern Wheatear had been reported in Loweville, a town above Utica.  It was 11am, and having just driven down from Utica the day before I knew it would be at least five hours up there...sunset was at 6:15....it would take an hour back to Brooklyn by train...I could just make it!  Assuming of course that the bird stayed put.  I was back home by 12:15, downloaded a couple of podcasts, and out the door by 12:30.  On the way up I was checking my email and rerouting my google maps every 30 minutes or so.  Several email updates assured me that the bird was being cooperative and hanging around...but google maps kept telling me it was a longer drive than I thought it should be.  I pushed the car a little faster - I find that 10mph over the speed limit or less and the cops leave you alone...so I was at 74 mph the whole way.  As I came in to Utica I judged the daylight left with my fingers (each finger that the sun sits above the horizon is about 15 minutes)...I still had a chance.  My gas gauge was getting dangerously low, but I didn't dare stop for fear that I would show up a minute after the bird left...and yes, this does happen, so not a totally unfounded worry.  Finally I was up at the farm where it was seen, and saw a couple of other cars there...a good sign...I was out of the car and running, and there it was, a Northern Wheater, perched up on a woodpile.   In the photo below the woodpile is on the left and you can just barely make out the bird on top.



It was about 5:30, so the sun was setting and the light was beautiful, and the bird was extremely tame.  I was hesitant to get too close at first, but the other birders assured me that this one wasn't going anywhere, so I was able to stand about fifteen feet away with a couple of other photographers and get great photos.  After a bit the other birds left and I was alone with the Wheatear, when it hopped down on the ground and then swooped up and perched on a post not five feet away.  I didn't have a camera in hand so I was actually forced to stand perfectly still and just watch...we looked at each other for a few moments, each curious about the other.  For me it was the first time I'd seen a Wheatear, a probable weeks-old bird that had probably just flown down from the barren fields of the Far North, and the bird probably looking at a close-up human being for the first time in it's life.  After a few moments, the photographer in me took over--I lost my cool and tried to reach for a camera, and the bird flushed back to the woodpile.

Tom Magarian, who had reported the bird, came back and invited me to join him and Tom Carrolan to check on the bird radar station he monitors.  We headed up in his car to the base of one of the many giant wind turbines that dot the landscape there.  Being at the base of the turbine was awesome, and I didn't grasp the scale of these giants until I was underneath one.  They are comprable to the Statue of Liberty, if the Statue of Liberty was slowly swinging her arms around in a circle.  There are little flags around the base that warn you not to get to close, since the turbine itself can have an energy field around it.  In the picture at the right you can see my car and a small trailer, and the trailer is the radar station.  It has two antenna that spin, the type you see on top of larger boats, on on top of the trailer and one attached to the side, so that there is both a horizontal and vertical reading.   The radar can pick up the movement of birds, and give a good idea of the scale, altitude and timing of migrational movement.

After checking that everything was working with the radar, we went back down to town and had dinner.  Both Toms have done counting at hawk watches and at Cape May (in addition to other things), so it was edifying to listen to them talk about any bird subject.  Counting at Cape May is kind of a college education in bird identification...Cape May is one of the, if not the, best spots for birds on the East Coast, and the counters spend all day, most days, for a couple of months, counting and ID-ing the birds that pass by.  By the time you're done you may have seen hundreds or thousands of birds that you might only see a handful of in a year elsewhere, plus rarities that are seen almost nowhere else.  In addition, Cape May is a central focus for some of the most famous birders in the field, and apparently it's not uncommon to run into people like David Sibley or Pete Dunn.  It's hard to imagine a better way to improve one's skills and knowledge about birds and birding.
 

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Adirondack Sojurn

Timing is everything when it comes to finding birds.  The difference between missing and seeing a rarity can be a matter of seconds, and a birding spot that is flush with warblers one day can be dried up the next.  Likewise in a big year, being in the right area at the right time of year is important.  I don't want to be upstate when a rarity shows up on Long Island, or visa versa.  So this Sunday, when the migration activity seemed to be dying down, and with the weather not promising any immediate bird movement, I decided use the opportunity to take yet another "quick" trip to the Adirondacks.

I say quick because it's for one overnight, but there's nothing quick about the six hour drive it takes to get to Tupper Lake from Brooklyn.  We left at 6am, and were out in the woods by 2pm, searching for the elusive Spruce Grouse.  When we pulled up to the spot a grouse flushed immediately, but I could see by the color and the tail band it was Ruffed Grouse, a relatively common bird in the Adirondacks.  Spruce Grouse, on the other hand, is one of the hardest birds to see in New York, evidenced by the fact that this was my fifth trip to this spot, the only "reliable" place to look for them.  In my experience, grouse are unpredictable and hard to photograph in this area.  Frequently the only look you get is when the bird exlodes out of the brush it was hiding in and flies away.  Occasionally you get the other bird, the one that just stands there, six feet away, eyeballing you before it saunters off.  The birds we had this time were definitely the former.  The grouse we flushed was the only one we saw that day, so we were back at the same spot before daybreak the next morning in the hopes of finding a bird on the road.  These birds sometimes dust themselves in the road, and some birds also eat sand or grit to help them digest their food.  In any case, this are is privately owned, and we weren't allowed to walk anywhere but the road, so the road was where we looked.   We didn't find anything else but some bear scat, and as we walked back a gorgeous full moon came up through the trees.

The next morning we we back before daybreak.  We walked slowly, staying on the road margins to muffle our footsteps.  We were about halfway through the area that Spruce Grouse have been seen, when a bird blew up about 10 feet to my right and flew directly away and down the road.  I went for my camera and found that it was tangled up, and by the time I had it at ready the bird had settled back into the dense spruce forest.  The bird was very dark if not black, and my impression was Spruce Grouse.  My heart was racing, and now I made my next mistake.  Rather than wait and hope the bird came back to the road, I walked down to the spot where I'd seen it go into the forest.  Right as I got there, there was another explosion and the bird flew back into the woods, this time gone for good, without me seeing it again.  Needless to say, I was a little frustrated, and pissed at myself for not having the camera up and ready while I walked.  We had one more grouse along the road, and I had the camera ready this time, but it was a Ruffed. 

We were there for about four hours, and then headed back, with a stop at Ferds Bog.  Ferds was lovely with the changing leaves, and we spent an hour there and got good looks at a pair of Black Backed Woodpeckers, as well as a couple of Gray Jays.  The Three-Toed Woodpecker here has been known to associate with the Black Backs, but not today apparently.  We headed back to Brooklyn and got home around nine.  It was another beautiful trip to the Adirondacks--sans target birds, but beautiful nonetheless.