Birding porn

Haha! Got your attention, didn’t I!

After a long day dropping our son off at college, I had time to sit down with the day’s emails. 

First, a big sale from Swarovski! Oh, do I want a really good spotting scope, but there’s no way to justify buying one that’s worth more than the car I cart it around in. So for now I’m just lusting.

Some interesting sightings lately. The last time this uncommon seabird was reported around here, last winter in Buffalo, all my bird list messages went straight into spam folders for weeks. And it’s happening again… Yes, Brown Boobies have been sighted at Lake Champlain!

Bird banders, for convenience while cataloguing vitals as quickly as possible, use four-letter abbreviations: OSPR for Osprey, BCCH for Black-capped Chickadee, EAPH for Eastern Phoebe, and so on. In Brooklyn today, observers found a small sparrowish bird, in markings like a miniature Eastern Meadowlark. The Dickcissel is named for its dry chirping song. And its four-letter code is, of course… DICK. That’s right. While wandering around in a salt marsh, several experienced birders  observed DICK.

Categories: Why? | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

Scenes from a picnic table

I had some time to kill, so I sat down at a table in the Corning Preserve and watched the natural world go by.

Young birds everywhere!

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“Are you sure you don’t have any stale bread?”

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Sturnus vulgaris, uncharacteristically sleek.

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Gray Catbird, featuring rufous underparts.

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Papa House Sparrow, another snappy dresser.

 

And on the table:

Tiny color-coordinated spider of the quickly-scurrying variety.

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The smallest imaginable leaf-hopper. Species unknown — I googled ‘leafhopper green curly tail’ unsuccessfully.

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And an amazing caterpillar, soon to grow up to be a White-marked Tussock Moth. Its head shone like a coral bead.

 

Categories: Bird photos, insects, Usual suspects | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

Bird everywhere you go.

The meeting place for a recent field trip was a suburban Dunkin’ Donuts. So all we could expect there would be dumpster divers like Starlings and House Sparrows, right?

Wrong. Turns out there’s a storm catch basin behind the store. In 20 minutes, we saw Eastern Kingbirds, Eastern Phoebes, Cedar Waxwings, Red-winged Blackbirds, young American Crows begging, American Robins, a Baltimore Oriole…

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… and two Green Herons, almost blending into the muddy foliage.

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AND the first of an even dozen American Kestrels for the day!

Categories: Bird photos, Field trip, scenery | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

Leavin’ on a jet plane (not).

Just because a birder goes to the airport, it doesn’t follow that she’s hopping a flight to some exotic bird-filled destination. The airport itself can be the goal.

Grassland species like this Savannah Sparrow love the short mowed fields at Albany International Airport. (International, by virtue of a once-weekly flight to Montreal.)

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This Grasshopper Sparrow liked the area so much he had to sing about it.

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Pk-tk-bzzzzzzzzz!

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At Saratoga County Airport I watched a few Horned Larks. I think this was a juvie — it begged for attention from a male who steadfastly ignored it.

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Birds and planes weren’t the only winged things worth watching. This Black Swallowtail cruised the clover.

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Of course, whenever I think of birding at the airport I remember our phenomenal Snowy Owl sightings this winter. This may be my favorite photo ever.

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Airports: not just for TSA harassment!

Categories: Bird photos, Field trip, insects | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

If it’s Tuesday this must be Newcomb; or, a whirlwind tour of the ADKs

 

At 4:00 AM my alarm went off. At 4:02, a second alarm, just in case… Only for you, birds. Only for you. I grabbed my gear and stumbled off into the still-dark morning, the only sound the unwearying Carolina Wren. We met at our rendezvous, and then up to the North Country for a long day birding.

I don’t often see Common Loons in full breeding plumage. They’re usually in plainer winter garb while passing through the local lakes. On Little Tupper Lake, we watched two preen and dive.

Sabattis Circle Road paid off immediately. A Broad-winged Hawk carrying prey exited fast, pursued by Blue Jays. At least a dozen warbler species, four thrushes, and an assortment of sparrows and vireos serenaded us. When we stopped, within minutes some Gray Jays squabbled by (more on those later!). After a family of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers moved through, we were almost complacently dismissive of another woodpecker, until we realized its solid dark back marked it as one of our target species for the day — Black-backed Woodpecker. Lifer!

In the background we’d been hearing a flycatcher sound off — che-bek, che-bek. Or was it? More of a che-LEK? We fine-tuned our ears and confirmed — Yellow bellied Flycatcher. Second life bird of the day!

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We could easily have spent the rest of the morning walking along the road, listening to bird song and examining the bog plant life.

But we had plenty of place to go yet. Off to Paul Smiths Visitor Interpretive Center!

I hadn’t been here in 25 years and the place has certainly changed. I want to move in…

Another place you could easily spend a day or more wandering the trails, but we just took a quick look across Heron Marsh for possible waders. No luck, so we broke for lunch at Steve’s hot dog wagon. Don’t be a meanie, buy a weenie! How could we resist?

Next stop was Bloomingdale Bog and its famous performing Gray Jays. The way it works is, on the way in the trail, you place your offering on the altar — or, toss some nuts on the platform feeder. By the time you head back, the jays have passed the word and they’ll be waiting for you. Offer food on your palm and they’ll fly in and grab it. I had one immature Gray Jay swoop in for walnuts, and I was so excited I couldn’t even think of trying to use my camera. I was one of the lucky few — the birds might have been unnerved by our numbers (a dozen) and the quantity of treats offered. Where to go first??

Oddball sighting of the day — this Vesper Sparrow, normally seen in grassland areas like shorn fields and airports. What was it doing here?

Bird life was quieting down as the day heated up, so I switched my focus to insects.

Our final destination was Intervale Lowlands, in Lake Placid. How I wish we’d had a whole day here, too! The 160 acre preserve is intensively managed and monitored to study population,weather and habitat changes and visitors are encouraged to share their observations to build up the databank.

So now I’m planning out a multi-day excursion for next year, giving all those sites (and others!) the time and attention they deserve.

Categories: bird behavior, Bird photos, Field trip, flowers, insects, Life bird!, New bird, Rara avis, scenery | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Taunted by an empid.

So, you’re feeling confident in your bird ID? Greater/Lesser Yellowlegs, first-winter Blackpoll/Bay-breasted Warbler, worn-plumage Sparrows no challenge anymore? well, my young Padawan, do I have a bird family for you.

MEET THE EMPIDS!

That’s birder shorthand for the baffling family of Empidonax flycatchers. Around here we have Alder, Willow, Least and Yellow-bellied, and every bloody one of them is “Best identified by call.”

But what do you do when they don’t call?

That’s the puzzle we faced today at Mosher Marsh, a wetland preserve near Amsterdam, NY. This empid flew to the top of a shrub and posed for us.

“Left profile!”

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“Or is my right profile better?”

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“How about a rear view? That help?”

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(He offered us full-frontal, too, but I wasn’t quick enough to catch a shot.)

We stood on the boardwalk and stared at him. A Willow Flycatcher called from the right. “FRRRITZ-bew!” An Alder Flycatcher replied from the right. “FREEbeer!”

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And our International Bird of Mystery sat in the middle, saying nothing.

At length we gave up the struggle, entering on our trip list the admission of defeat: Empid Sp? An air of mockery followed us in retreat.

 

 

Categories: bird behavior, Bird photos, Field trip, scenery, What am dat bird? | Tags: , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Ithaca is birdeous, too. Or, frequently distracted by birds.

For five years now I’ve wanted to spend some time birding around Ithaca but we always seem to be in a rush, dropping kids off or picking them up. So when Will’s graduation was near we decided to spend a few extra days, booking a cabin in Robert H. Treman State Park.

You have to drive across the creek to enter the campground.

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The first afternoon, after unpacking, we lounged about listening to the falls and forest sounds. A pair of Carolina Wrens chattered nonstop, fluttering from tree to roof and under the rafters, I realized the squeaking was coming from a nest and one by one the fledglings popped out, bounced off the ground and almost immediately fluttered up to anything they could cling to: a tree trunk, the side of the cabin, or ME! One tiny bundle of fluff clung to my shirt for a minute before gathering the energy to take off into the hobblebush, and another used me as a rest stop while flying between trees.

Eventually five young wrens had emerged and the parents lured them away — all but one, the bird on the left above. It was the last one out of the nest, last to get off the ground at all, and as long as I watched was never able to fly more than a few feet. When I saw it last it was hunkered down in some undergrowth. The parents by then had stopped calling to it and moved off with its stronger sibs.

One afternoon we walked part way up the Rim Trail — we had a deadline that day, so only went halfway up and had to pick up the pace on the way downhill. There was still time for a long look at a Scarlet Tanager overhead, a satisfying look after trying to catch a glimpse the day before at Buttermilk Falls. How something the color of a firetruck can be so hard to see among green leaves! But this guy decided to be generous with his beauty.

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After this we really did had to hurry, so when I saw a warbler with a yellow face and black throat, I mentally checked it off as “Black-throated Green, seen a million of ‘em,” and kept going. We were almost back to the cabin when I slapped my forehead — bright yellow face, black at the back and top of the head — damn, I’d charged right past a Hooded Warbler, the best look I’d ever had.

Of course we had another reason to be in Ithaca besides birds and hikes…

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…though birds made an appearance at graduation too. One of the resident Red-tails soared overhead and landed on a light pole to rearrange its lunch.

A model plane equipped with a camera took aerial photography of the festivities.

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I kept mistaking it for another hawk.

And here’s our star of the show:

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William L. Feldhusen, BA, Math.

Categories: bird behavior, Bird photos, Mammals too, Nests | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

My father always called them field glasses.

 

I don’t know if that was an army thing, or just old-fashioned on his part. But whenever we started out on a drive, he’d ask, “Do we have field glasses?” The answer was always ‘yes’, of course. They lived in their case hanging from the driver’s seat headrest. They watched ospreys and gulls, shorebirds and seabirds, and on one memorable occasion a Snowy Owl.

Eventually my interest in birding deepened and $25 bins from Sears didn’t cut it anymore. So I moved up to these:

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Notice the wear of 25 years, eroded paint, rubber eyecup rotted and replace with a glued-on washer, the adjustable diopter loose and needing to be screwed back on regularly. Even the button with the maker’s name and numbers is long gone.

I’d been saying literally for years that I wanted, needed new binoculars, but every time I had money put aside Real Life interfered. New tires for the car, textbooks, a new roof, new tires for both cars… So I carried my old ones, and waited.

I broke my elbow this winter, broke it badly enough to need surgery, as badly (the surgeon said) as it was possible to break it. Long cold months housebound, and to cheer me Bill said, “I think it’s time to buy those new binoculars.” Well, except that I couldn’t bend my arm far enough to hold them, lacked the strength to lift them, and couldn’t fine-tune the focus with my clumsy hand. But now I had something to look forward to! Just like with my shoulder, I told the PT my goal — get to warbler-neck position by mid April. Slowly, slowly I gained more range of motion. And then on April 13, this happened:

We drove up to Wild Birds Unlimited in Satatoga and spent several hours trying out all the pairs in our price range (and some wildly out — hello Swarovskis!), ultimately settling on Eagle Ranger ED 10x42s. On sale, too!

Of course we promptly had to take them for a test run, so stopped at the nearby Bog Meadow Brook Nature Trail, a rail trail running through wetlands and woods.

A pair of Great Egrets stalked the shallows.

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Palm Warblers are among the earliest to come north, but this little guy didn’t want to move into the light.

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So, after six weeks, how do I like them? I’m delighted! There’s been a learning curve, of course — they’re heavier than my old bins, and with increased  magnification, I sometimes don’t realize I’m focussed on a more distant tree! But the amount of light they let in, compared to my oldies, is amazing. I can actually see the colors on a sparrow’s beak and leg! I’m really looking forward to shorebird season and how much plumage detail I’ll be able to pick out. I can tell this will be a long and happy partnership.

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I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

…hopefully with better lighting.

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Bird photos, Field trip, Tools of the trade | Tags: , , , , | 14 Comments

Pine Bush ramble, 5/31/14

I decided to check out some of the outlying areas of the Albany Pine Bush that I hadn’t visited before. It was a perfect day for a walk, and the lupines were in bloom.

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I looked at the spot off Lincoln Ave where the Red-headed Woodpeckers were last year. No one had reported seeing them so far, but it’s always worth a try for such striking birds. No luck, but I watched these guys soak up the sun before catching a thermal. So sue me, I think Turkey Vultures are photogenic.

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There’s a bird in here somewhere…

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Oh! There he is! Well, that wasn’t very helpful at all!

Take my word to it -- it's a Red-eyed Vireo.

Take my word to it — it’s a Red-eyed Vireo.

Indigo Buntings weren’t any more cooperative so I put down the camera and just enjoyed their blue lightning glow in the sun as they flashed in and out of cover.

This Eastern Phoebe posed with its breakfast — a huge long legged horrifying spider. Go Phoebe!

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Categories: bird behavior, Bird photos, Field trip, insects, scenery | Tags: , , , , , , | 12 Comments

With a little help from my friends…

… or, how the internet helps me bird better.

The big news two weeks ago was GYRFALCON! in the grasslands. A couple of very experienced birders spotted the falcon first and it was all over the internet by 10. I read it a few minutes later and was torn — a Gyrfalcon! Not just a lifer but a glamorous one! But we have to take Randall back to school! But surely he won’t mind a 130 mile detour! But–

Fortunately for my sanity, by 10:45 the bird was gone away. Even if I’d torn up the highway at 10:02, I would have missed it. Here’s an account and picture by one of the lucky few to see this rare visitor.

Instant reports, instant photos — just a few years ago, we depended on the local bird line to inform us, five days late, of notable sightings. If we were lucky, the eyes in the field could dash to a pay phone to start the phone tree. Today, someone saw a Willow Ptarmigan* in Jefferson County. Within an hour, the report was on a dozen rare bird lines. An hour later, photos. Two hours later, GPS coordinates exact to the bush. More pictures, plans to carpool from Long Island and NYC and Buffalo, comparison to a Ptarmigan seen in Montreal during the winter, historical records — information I wouldn’t even know to look for pouring forth. How did I get so lucky?

Even though I knew the odds of the Gyrfalcon returning were beyond long, it was a nice enough day-after to warrant a trip upriver. With all the binocs focussed up there, some other good birds had been detected — a Golden Eagle, a Tundra Swan — and with the winter finally broken a few migrants might start wandering up.

The flooded fields at Wrights’s Loop were predictably ducky and the trees were screaming with icterids, a few of them Rusty Blackbirds. This once-numerous species has been in serious decline for decades, no one knows why.

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Along the river, fewer ducks but more species. The dabblers had all arrived. The huge rafts of Canada and Snow Geese had dispersed. And the Osprey pair were back to their nest.

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Entering the grasslands, I rolled my windows down and was delighted by an Eastern Meadowlark in song.

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I counted five of my darling Kestrels along the way. A species of special concern, indeed.

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I tried to turn every pair of heavily flapping wings and slight dihedral into the previous day’s Golden Eagle, but they were all Turkey Vultures laboring against the lack of thermals to glide on. I did locate the Tundra Swan, in a distant farm pond. Would I have squinted at that distant white smudge, if I hadn’t been made aware of the possibility? Probably not (to be honest).

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Then I saw this guy. Dark-bellied, and perched on a ridiculously small twig, my first thought was Rough-legged. But its head was too dark, so Red-tailed? Well, whatever it was, it was civil enough to stay put while I snapped a dozen pictures, and still hadn’t flown when I left after prolonged scoping.

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So I came home, loaded my photos, and looked at this. And looked at it. And thought, and looked some more. Finally I decided I would never be able to decide on my own, so I took the question to the jury of the internet, to the Facebook Bird ID Group Of The World. Within minutes I’d been helped to the answer — bare legs, large head, and light lower belly = Red-tailed hawk. But then things got really interesting — not just any Red-tail, but Buteo jamaicencis abieticola, the Northern Red-tailed Hawk. My mind was officially blown. I’d never heard of this large heavily-marked Canadian variant. (I was pleased to see the author say that seen ventrally -that is, front on- and at a distance, it could be mistaken for a Rough leg. Vindication!)

Using traditional resources, I would have kept at it, probably eventually concluding without real satisfaction that it was some weird Redtail and never knowing why. Instead, with a little help from my internet friends, I know a little more. And I know how much more I need to know.

You looking' at me?

You looking’ at me?

 

 

*For more on the amazing Ptarmigan, look here!

Categories: Bird photos, Field trip, First of season, What am dat bird? | Tags: , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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