Sunday, March 30, 2008

Western Promises

Immediately on my return two new rarities showed up in the New York area. First a Western Grebe on Staten Island, and second a Western Tanager in Central Park. It was a nice change of pace not to need to go upstate for a rarity, and each bird was just a short car ride away. The Tanager has been very cooperative, spending time in a bush at 81st street on the West Side of Central Park. I took my dog Monkey and we soon found a group of binoculared folks viewing the bird, which has been feeding from Sapsucker holes (like the previous Scott's Oriole in Union Square; you can see them in the photo). We all had a nice view and took photos, and then it was a quick drive to Brooklyn. Lovely.

The Western Grebe was a bit trickier...I spent some time working the Staten Island waterfront, going from park to park and scanning the water in less than ideal conditions (chop and glare). I spoke for a while with a retired fireman who was helping to build a retaining wall adjascent to Lemon Creek Park (for a future condo development). Later I ran into a few birders who told me they had tried to signal me while I was talking from across the bay...they were trying to point out the Grebe I was looking for, and which I had walked directly away from after my conversation. Thankfully the bird remained where the birders had seen it, and I was able to go back for some good views.

Friday, March 28, 2008

A Texas-Sized Entry

It's been a couple of weeks since my last post, in part because of my recent trip to Texas. I've posted a gallery of Texas birds here. I went down for Fotofest, a biannual fine-arts photography conference where photographers come from around the world with their portfolios and meet with gallery owners, book publishers, collectors, museum curators and the like. I was in Houston for five days, and although it made me nervous to be out of NY State for any longer, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to steal a few days in the Rio Grande Valley, considered by many to be the best birding spot in the US. I spent four glorious days driving up the Rio Grande River from South Padre Island on the coast to San Ygnacio in the interior. The birding spots there are legendary, from South Padre Island itself to Santa Anna to Bentsen to Falcon State Parks. The area borders Mexico (at times I was a literal stone's throw away from Mexican soil), and you never know when a Mexican bird will stray north into the area. At the same time, the western and eastern sides of the US butt up against each other in Texas, so you have birds converging from both halves of the country. To give a sense of the variety, a recent Big Year birder logged 522 species in one year, as opposed to the NY State record of about 340.

After Fotofest, I drove about six hours from Houston to the southern tip of Texas, Brownsville. The next morning I drove across the bridge to South Padre Island. It was spring break, but it was early on Friday and so the hordes were still a few hours off. I met Mary Beth Stowe, an experienced birder from McAllen, TX, who was kind enough to let me join her in her bird count for the island. Despite the sunbathers and springbreakers, South Padre is a mecca for birders, and although we weren't in high migration yet there were still lots of beautiful birds to be seen. One of the joys of birding a whole new area is that many of the birds, even the common ones, are "life birds", seen for the first time. I'd actually seen two life-birds in Houston just picking up my rental car. Here I had a first view of a Clapper Rail, Common Moorhen, Reddish Egret, and Mottled Duck, as well as a big flock of Black Skimmers, Terns and Lauging Gulls. Coming from New York in early March, which is relatively quiet, it was great to be in a place so alive with birds.

From there I crossed back to the mainland to Laguna Anacosta, a costal park that is also a great birding spot. Driving up the road to the park I saw my first Roadrunner, Curve Billed Thrasher, Inca Dove and Harris' Hawk, and that was before the entrance! Inside were a host of other birds, including Green Jays and Altamira Orioles, and a migrant Indigo Bunting. The park also holds 70% of the US Ocelot population, but I wasn't lucky enough to see one. I spent about six hours exploring the area, and then went back to South Padre. This time I did get a taste of the crowds, and whereas the bridge crossing took five minutes that morning, it took an hour now. Every car around me was blasting either Hip Hop or Justin Timberlake. I got an overpriced bite to eat and fled back to the mainland again and up the Rio Grande Valley.

The next day I met up with Mary Beth again, this time at Bentsen State Park for a tour she was co-leading. At the visitor center we spotted a Couch's Kingbird flopping on the ground, and by the time I got to it it was dead. It had flown into one of the windows at the center and broken its neck. This is a very common occurence, and I've been told that windows account for bird mortality only after cats (yes, cats...they are a major source of mortality for birds in this country). The silver lining of this ominous start to the day was that we got to really examine the bird...being able to touch a wild bird is always exciting, since generally I almost always experience them with my eyes and at a distance. The Couch's is bright yellow with an olive back, and it's feathers are soft like fur.

We continued at Bentsen and saw some great stuff...Mississippi Kite, a Northern Beardless Tyrannulet, and several other South Texas specialties. My next stop was Santa Anna, another park on the border, but on my way I stopped at a private nature reserve called the Blue Mockingbird. In fact, it's a private home with a couple of acres of land that has been highly landscaped to attract birds. Over the years the spot has accrued some really impressive rarities, and today was no exception. A White Throated Robin was hanging out there, and it appeared almost immediately after I showed up. This bird is a rarity for the US, period, not just Texas, and was probably the rarest bird I saw on the trip. The folks who pointed him out to me turned out to be two couples that were doing a birding trip of their own, and I met up with them again at Santa Anna later in the afternoon. We had a very nice time working our way around the ponds and woods of this famous reserve, and they pointed out some lizards, snakes and butterflies that I might never have seen. We had a Zebra Longtail butterfly that I'm told is very unusual. Butterflies seem to become a passion of a lot of birders, and in that Zebra Longtail I may have seen a future obessession...

The next day was Falcon SP and Salineno. I found a great hotel by Falcon, by which I mean a clean place for $40/night that wasn't a chain. Chains are a cancer in the Rio Grande Valley, and one is hard pressed to find a meal or bed that isn't identical to one in a thousand other cities in America. This place was an oasis, and only minutes from the park. I was up before sunrise and, on a tip from my friends at Santa Anna, was at the ranger station early listening for Common Paraque, a reclusive and noctural bird. Their voices are distinctive, and I heard several before heading to the feeders where a Green Tailed Towhee had been seen. The Towhee appeared as predicted in the first half-hour before sunrise, along with a pair of Black Throated Sparrows and a Cactus Wren. I was gone by 8am, as the Easter revelers pulled into the parking lot to set up their picnics.

At Salineno there was already a group chainsawing wood by the river to start their holiday barbeque. There was also a Canadian couple who, like me, were looking for a Muscovy Duck fly-by and for Red Billed Pigeon, which reside on an island in the Rio Grande. We did wind up spotting the Pigeon, though the Muscovy Duck eluded us. We also visited the feeding stations, where after a bit of a wait we spotted an Audobon's Oriole among the other colorful birds and the large flock of Red Winged Blackbirds eating the peanut butter and seed put out for them.

My last stop that day was at San Ingnacio, where the specialty White-Collared Seedeater is sometimes seen. I spent two hours alone at the feeders there without any luck. I parked by the river, and as I left I waved to a Mexican family on the opposite bank, also celebrating Easter.

I drove part way to Houston, stopping at a hotel and sleeping off the severe allergies that I'd picked up in South Texas. Several people there told me they had never had never had allergies until they visited the Rio Grande Valley in the spring, and I guess I'm one of them as well. The allergies let up as I headed north, and mostly cleared within a day or two. On my way to the airport the next day I stopped at the Attwater Prarie Chicken Reserve outside of Houston. This rare prarie area is the home of some of the last Greater Prarie Chickens in the US; the birds are restocked frequently and are still barely holding on. They are rarely seen. I did enjoy a walk in the prarie and found a Grasshopper Sparrow, as well as a several hawks and passerines. It was a soothing way to spend a morning before flying back to New York and my Big Year.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Love is in the Air

The beginning of March has been relatively slow, but things are definitely moving now, and the birds activity is on the rise. This morning I visited Prospect Park with my friend Nicole, and we witnessed a dramatic Canada Goose fight on the lake. It's coming into breeding season for many birds, and so there should be inevitable jockeying for dominance. In general birds have a lot of mechanisms for avoiding direct physical contact...for example, birdsong may be a way for breeding birds to establish territory in a non-violent way. Sometimes, though, things just escalate, and so these two went at it like a couple of professional wrestlers, making a major commotion as they thrashed around the other ducks and geese. Canadas are big birds, and its impressive to see them throw themselves around like that. This shot shows the end of the fight when one bird finally turned tail and headed for the other side of the lake to cool off.

Later that day I went from birds at war to birds at love, when I joined Rob Jett at the Ridgewood Resevoir. This area is under hot debate right now, with the city trying to convert it into (totally unnecessary) ballfields and the majority of residents as well as NY birders and others trying to preserve it as an important natural habitat, which are extremely scarce now in the five boroughs. Here's a link to the Ridgewood Reservoir preservation group. We walked around the park, which has a beautiful lake and undisturbed woodland, and some nice habitat for our target bird, the American Woodcock. These birds have just recently started to come through on migration, and they breed in the area. They are often seen at Floyd Bennet field this time of year, and a pair was seen in Prospect Park last spring. Woodcock are hard to see on the ground, as they are very well camouflagued and match earth colors of the leafy forest floor. This photo was taken at a distance in near dark conditions, so it's not great quality, but you can get an idea of how they blend into their environment. But during breeding they blow their cover in a spectacular way. Right around dawn and dusk, the male "peents", making a loud call, and then rockets up into the air with a whistling sound, and flutters back down to the exact same spot on the ground to do a mating dance for the female that he is courting. It's very cool to see, and we were lucky enough to see a least two pairs of birds performing tonight. Tonight love was literally in the air, and I guess that means Spring can't be far behind.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Lake Cayuga, Part One Million

OK, maybe not one million, but it seems like it. I put in two more days circling Lake Cayuga looking for the elusive Eared Grebe (the Pacific Loon seems to be gone from the lake altogether), and despite it being seen recently, I skunked out again. That's not to say that I didn't see some interesting things...while photographing a flock of horned larks on Center Road the first day, I saw this deer suddenly run across the field in front of me. Looking back behing it, I saw what had been chasing it: a very disappointed looking coyote. The coyote turned and made its way back into the woods.

On the lake, the temperature was around 10F with a wind of about 20MPH, which means my gloved fingers go number after about 3 minutes standing outside and scoping. The Canada Geese were bearing it, as usual, despite being covered in frost and snow. Birds are out in every condition all the time, with no relief, and still seem to thrive. Mallards dive to feed just a few feet from packed ice in the middle of winter. A pair of Red Tailed Hawks sit by the side of the road, scanning patiently in the cold for an incautious mouse or bird. Back on the lake, a large flock of snow geese creates a white, feathered disk floating in the center of the chilly blue waters.