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.

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 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 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.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Plum Bird in Brooklyn

After birding Plum Beach for Nelson's and Sharptailed Saltmarsh Sparrows on Sunday, I saw a post on Wednesday morning that an even "better" bird had shown up there...LeConte's Sparrow.  This is one of the rare sparrows that we occasionally see in NY.  Last year, I was with a group of birders at Tilden when Shane Blodgett got us on to an immature LeContes.  This year, the bird was found by Doug Gochfeld (yet another rarity he found this year, after Red Necked Stint and Wagtail), an it was an adult.  Jess and I drove to the beach and saw the now familiar site of a group of birders searching for a rarity.  We fanned out and meandered over the dunes and marsh hoping to re-spot the sparrow.  This went on for about forty-five minutes, during which time several more birders and photographers arrived.  Suddenly the call went out..."over here!" and we were  on the bird.  It showed briefly and went back into the brush before I could get a look, and we all went back into slow-search mode, but with considerably more adrenaline in our systems.  The bird finally popped back up and gave everyone good views before landing on the ground and scurrying under some brush.  Again with the walking behavior, which I'm coming to believe is the best way for a bird to hide itself.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Connecticut in Central Park

A couple of weeks ago I went to Prospect Park with Peter Dorosh, Mary Eyster and Tom Stephenson, and we heard a Connecticut Warbler sing it's song, which was enough for me to mark it as "seen" on my year list. Still, I wanted to really see the bird, and I've been trolling Prospect and other venues hoping to find one walking around. The trouble with this bird is that it walks on the ground instead of flitting from tree to tree, so even if you're just a few feet from it you can still miss it completely.

As it turns out, the best way to see a bird is still to have someone else spot it and tell you where it is. So this morning while I was out looking in Prospect for a Connecticut that had been seen the previous day, I checked my email and saw that the one that had been seen in Central Park was still there. I drove over and was there in an hour, but it turned out there was no rush. In the Pinetum area of Central Park, on a lawn by a maintenance area, was a first year Connecticut. What a weird bird! It was ambling around as it picked up insects off the ground and out of the air. I've seen several Oporornis warblers this year, including Kentucky and Mourning, and they also walk on the ground, but this bird just sort of waddled, almost like an armadillo, and moved very slowly across the lawn in meandering loops. As we stood there it clambered over to us, seemingly never noticing our prescence, and actually got within about five feet of me. Another birder there told me he once had a Kentucky Warbler walk between his legs. I was there for about forty five minutes, and it just continued to waddle. At one point it did come out of the grass and climbed up on some rusting machinery, but then it worked its way back down and onto the lawn again. Watching all this just confirmed why it's so tricky to spot one of these birds...if there had been any ground cover, it would have been invisible. It makes me wonder how many are in the parks right now, unhurredly collecting insects before flying south, completely unnoticed.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Migration Weekend

This weekend turned out to be one of the best of the fall, and I wound up in one of the best spots for it. On Friday I saw that we had good northwest winds, and emailed Peter Dorosh to see if he wanted to do a half-day at Fort Tilden, a great place for fall sparrows. We were there with Shane Blodgett last year when he spotted a LeContes Sparrow, and I was hoping there would be something equally exciting this year.
As it turned out, Peter was running a Brooklyn Bird Club trip to Tilden, so Saturday morning we met at 6:45am and a group of us headed out. The conditions were very good, with good winds and weather, and a sharp edge of clouds overhead indicated that a front was passing by, and that birds might be dropping in behind it.

We spent the first hour or so looking for sparrows, and didn't see much more than Savannah and Song sparrows. Then Peter got a text from Seth Ausabel, who was working another section of Tilden, and the avalanche began. Seth had Yellow-Throated Warbler, very rare for fall in NY...we hurried over and got a few glimpses of the bird. As we were standing around, Peter called out on a flycatcher in a tree, and it was a Western Kingbird. We got good looks at that bird, and then went over to the community gardens and had both Bobolink and Dickcissel. A short while later we spotted a couple of sparrows in the grass, and one of them was a Lark Sparrow. So all in all we had three rare birds and two uncommons in a matter of an hour or two. This was hard to top, so we moved on to Floyd Bennet Field on our way back, and had great looks a Clay Colored Sparrow, and finally a Ring Necked Pheasant. Overall, a spectacular day, and not just because of the birds we saw. Being out with the bird club and really birding (as opposed to driving seven hours, birding one, and then driving home) was a nice change of pace from my chase-y schedule. As the year winds down, I'm hoping to do a lot more actual walking around and looking, with fewer "target" birds and less of an agenda.

Of course, that doesn't mean I'm adverse to the odd chase here and there. The next day I was going with Jessica to her grandparents house when Shane Blodgett called with some interesting sparrows at Plum Beach, so we decided to stop there first for a quick look. That turned into about an hour and a half, with several of us getting great views of both Saltmarsh and Nelsons Sharptailed Sparrows, including a nelsoni/alterus race of the Nelsons, which is typically seen in the middle of the continent, and not coastally. Birding with these other birders was, as always, a great education, and it is amazing to me how much they know about birds. At some point the only way to learn some birds is to be with a more experienced person in the field, and I've certainly had that happen over and over this year. Incidentally, the Nelsons was my 340th bird, which means I'm getting into the upper realms of New York big years, with hopefully many more rarities to come in the next three months. Even though we're getting to the end of the year, I feel just as excited as when I started nine months ago, with more avian surprises to come!