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