Documenting the Birding Adventures of Scott Whittle
Saturday, May 24, 2008
Fort Drum Day 1
I got upstate on Thursday night and slept in the car in a parking lot, and then got up early to pick up a couple of reported birds in the area. First stop was Whiskey Hollow, where an Acadian Flycatcher had been reported by Bill Purcell. The Acadian is one of a group of flycatchers that are most easily ID-ed by call rather than appearance...it's very similar to Acadain and Willow flycatchers, and not dissimilar to Least and Yellow Bellied. This is the time of year to study these birds since they are calling pretty regularly, and that let's you get a definite ID on them before studying their physical characteristics. The Hollow was just that...a wooded ravine with a natural spring and tall trees. I hiked into the area that looked right, and started walking. In about ten minutes or so I heard a faint call that sounded right, and another few minutes got me close. The bird was distant and seemed to be moving around quite a bit. As I came up on a clearing, I spotted a young fox, who saw me as well and ran off. I played the Acadian call a few times, and soon the bird was closing in, moving from perch to perch. I had my recording equipment and got the call on tape, and then finally got close enough to get some decent photos. In the distance I heard a Black Billed Cuckoo calling, but missed getting it on tape as well. The whole seen seemed idyllic and beautiful--another quiet spot in NY State that I would have never known about if I hadn't undertaken this Big Year.
After Whiskey I moved on to Lake Oneida, where a Sedge Wren had been reported by Andrew VanNorstrand in a marsh. With his helpful info, I was able to find the spot quickly (wearing my trusty rubber boots), and had not one but two Sedge Wrens calling back and forth to each other, and got a photo of one when it came up briefly to look around. This was an easy way to get a tough bird -- Sedge Wrens are few and far between in NY. Nearby on Lake Oneida I had my first Black Tern, a beautiful tern with white wings and a black body.
Now I headed up to Fort Drum to get my permit for accessing the military installation. I really had no idea of what to expect...maybe some big airfield, or a grassland or two? In fact, like many military installations, Fort Drum is mostly undeveloped land, which is periodically used for military training. It covers a vast area with mulititude of habitats, including large grasslands (good for Henslow's and Grasshopper Sparrows), wooded sections (20 species of warblers breed here, including the elusive Mourning Warbler), and marsh (good for Least Bittern). I stopped at the permit office and got my papers for the next days trip, to be led by Jeff Bolsinger, who has studied the birds at Fort Drum for over twelve years.
I did a little birding the rest of the day at Perch River WMA (a distant Common Moorhen and some very close Marsh Wrens were the hightlights), had dinner, and then forayed out onto the installation at around 9pm for Whiporwill. Jeff had pointed me in the right direction and I had one calling in the distance, weirdly mixed with the sound of taps being played on the military base.
The next morning I was up and ready to go, and met Jeff and the other trip participants at the permit office. We carpooled into the installation, and soon were in a giant birding playground. We quickly had Vesper Sparrow (common here), and Clay Colored Sparrow, both singing. These birds which are tricky to see downstate are easy as pie at Fort Drum, which was part of my motivation for coming. We also had multiple Grasshopper Sparrows, as well as a couple of distant Upland Sandpipers.
Our next stop was a sandy open pine forest, where we had four(!) Red-Headed Woodpeckers, flying around and apparently still working out mates and breeding territories. These are really beautiful birds, and it's a shame that they have declined so severely in NY in the past years. It was treat to see more than one in one place.
Next we headed out the large fields which, in addition to a helicopter graveyard, had several Henslow's Sparrows. Another tricky bird to see due to habitat, the Henslows needs fields that are mowed infrequently, which has become rare in the state. Henslows are similar to Grasshopper Sparrows, and at a distance might be hard to ID. One trick Jeff taught me is to watch for how long the bird throws its head back in song...a very brief movement is Henslows, because its song is so much shorter than Grasshopper. We could see this on a distant bird that was too far away to hear the song clearly, but who we could see was singing with quick snaps of the head.
Next was a marshy area for Least Bittern...this is another elusive bird that, unless you're kayaking in the right place at the right time of year, can be very hard to see. I was very excited to get a chance to hear or see this bird, so I was thrilled that we got once calling distantly in the cattails. I got a recording of it, but really wanted to see it as well, which I got a chance at the next day...
We wrapped up looking for warblers, notably the Mourning, but as it was later in the day now the birds were mostly quiet and we didn't have any luck. The group disbanded, but I followed Jeff out to nearby Cape Vincent to check out a reported pair of Marbled Godwits. I then turned around and went out back to Fort Drum.
My name is Scott Whittle and I'm a professional photographer (www.scottwhittle.com). I have an MFA in Photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. I started birding as a teenager, and then dropped it for many years. I started to bird again in 2007, and have been birding since then in Brooklyn, NY and Cape May, NJ.