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'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'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 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 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 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.