King of the Pond vs the Demon Duck

I don’t visit Vischer Ferry much during the summer. But as the days get shorter the clouds of mosquitoes thin out, and once again I can check the paths for migrating birds.

It’s not just that fall plumage warblers are harder to tell apart, but the thick foliage only allows frustrating brief glimpses of birds in quick motion. Nevertheless I was able to find a half-dozen warbler species: Black-and-white, Canada, Magnolia, American Redstart, Blue-winged, and Common (should be Ubiquitous) Yellowthroat. And for all the pictures I took, I don’t think I got one feather in focus…

Some people say Roger Tory Peterson’s one error was labeling that plate ‘Confusing Fall Warblers.’ It sets up an expectation of difficulty that is, with a few exceptions, exaggerated. It might have been more accurate to say ‘Fall Warblers: Easier than silent sparrows!’ Or ‘You want confusing? Check out shorebirds!’

Waterfowl are a lot more cooperative. This Great Blue Heron stood like a sculpture framed in green.

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At a nearby reservoir, male Wood Ducks were transitioning into nuptial plumage. This fellow’s blue-green iridescent wings caught my attention, but it’s his eye that makes the picture.

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I’d never noticed that furious crimson eye so clearly before. Probably because full breeding plumage is so stunning!

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This was taken a bit later in the season last year, in October. For some reason he had formed an attachment to a female Mallard and escorted her all around their little pond.

Categories: bird behavior, Bird photos, ducks, herons, vischer ferry | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Owl right

I moaned a bit late last year about not being able to find a Screech Owl locally. This year I’ve had better luck, having heard one call a few times (though not close enough to count as a yard bird!). Then there were these guys…

You see a bird somewhere once, and every time you pass that way you check the same dead snag or lucky tree. Years ago, before I was seriously birding again, someone saw an Eastern Screech Owl in a roost box in Saratoga. And religiously, every time I passed by there I’d give it a peep. I have no idea how many times I checked — it’s on my regular route up to the grasslands — but it must have been upwards of one hundred. Then one sunny morning in February I looked up to see this sleepy face.

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At Five Rivers in April, this little owl chose to roost in a hollow tree not 15 feet off a busy trail, and if you weren’t looking for it you’d pass right by.

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So that’s Screech, Great Horned, and Barred for the year. We didn’t have another arctic invasion of Snowy Owls, and the deep early frozen snowpack may have sent the Short-ears south to more hospitable hunting areas. I’ll see what the winter brings!

Categories: Bird photos, owls | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

More action at the Flats

Shorebirds continue to trickle in at Cohoes Flats. We local birders need to set up a rota so someone’s there every day to greet the newcomers. Just this week in addition to the Willet we’ve played host to a Dowitcher, probably Short-billed.

Important protip – always go for the butt shot for those all-important undertail coverts!

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Now, I know what you’re going to say. “Naomi, if that’s a Short-billed Dowitcher, what the heck does a Long-billed look like?!?” Answer: practically the same. They were considered the same species until the 1950s and their beak lengths overlap. Peterson’s Birding By Impression says they “…have long been regarded by experts as unidentifiable in many field conditions…”, and who am I to argue with the experts? But I’ll try. First, Long-bills are more central-to-western, while Shorts migrate down through New York and New England. Longs are more uniformly and darkly red, while Shorts are lighter to white on the belly and vent. Their flight calls are different, but who wants to scare the bird off to ID it? In conclusion, the odds favor Short-billed Dowitcher, but I’ll readily accept correction.

Also here today, a Black-bellied Plover.

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Keep looking — there’s a shorebird in there!

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All part of the Cohoes Flats experience — lots of nooks and crannies for cryptically-colored birds to vanish into.

Great egrets are passing through too, probably a dozen or more this week.

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Killdeer up the wazoo, of course, and their little cousins Semipalmated Plovers. One black necklace instead of two.

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Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, much easier to tell apart when mixed flocks are dashing around.

Upturned longer bill and thick legs on the Greater (right).

Plus an excitable and ambitious Merlin pursuing a crow.

With today’s cold front passing through, I wonder what tomorrow will bring?

Categories: Bird photos, cohoes, shorebirds | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

A fine crop of frogs

We have an assortment of rain barrels outside and earlier in the summer, we were nightly serenaded by a Gray Tree Frog rattling away. It didn’t seem likely he’d manage to call in a mate, but unbeknownst to us we were hosting orgies and in a few weeks the barrels and every other container with a few inches of standing water was full of eggs and, soon, tadpoles.

They scrubbed the barrels clean of algae and as they transformed, wiped out the mosquito larvae that usually plague us.

And now they’re growing up and moving out on their own. Despite these pictures, the color of the barrels doesn’t seem to have any bearing on the frogs’ color. The ones in the dark barrels are developing faster, though.

Good luck, froglets!

Categories: the occasional herp | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

A glorious Gyrfalcon, 2/17/15

On a hot sticky day, nothing is better than remembering a quintessential winter bird.* Gyrfalcons, like Snowy Owls, make occasional irruptions down from their arctic territory and this winter they were spotted in some unexpected locations.

One of those surprise spots was in Wallkill, NY, a mere 90 miles away. It was showing up reliably for over a week at a horse farm, so the Thursday birding group packed up and headed down to find — that’s right — the one day when it was a no-show. Due to car problems we had to leave early in the afternoon and naturally we got a call halfway back that the Gyr had returned to its usual post and was putting on a show. Grrr!! Dipped on the sight of a lifetime!

A few days later it was a brilliant sunny calm day, and my dear husband persuaded me to give it another try. (Well, it may have sounded more like “Either go, or stop talking about it!”) So back down to the horse farm where I joined the crowd of birders scanning the trees in vain. Suddenly everyone’s phones went off and we all piled into cars to drive some 10 miles praying all the way, to find this.

I’ve been through these photos a dozen times and I just can’t cut the number back any further. Here, enjoy this Glorious Gyrfalcon gallery.

There was speculation this might be a female, based on it being just plain massive. I can’t say for sure, but to me she’s my beautiful girl. This is how far away she was at 50x zoom:

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But let’s crop things a bit! She was eating prey the whole time. I think it was either a Mallard or a Common Merganser, by the bright orange feet that popped up against the snow.

After an hour she seemed to be full, and stopped eating to preen. A bit of duck between the toes:

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…when suddenly a Sharp-shinned Hawk buzzed her, trying to drive her off and steal the remains.

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No way. She stuck to it, and even crammed down a bit more food.

I was awed by her sheer size. If a Peregrine is a flying greyhound, a Gyrfalcon is a bull terrier on hyperdrive. Look at that powerful deep chest and strong legs.

Even her back is stunning.

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After nearly two hours during which she paid no attention whatsoever to the throng of admirers and cameras firing off like artillery, she finally roused – that’s shook her feathers into position – and took off, circling over us and away. I didn’t even attempt to photograph her then. I didn’t want anything to come between my eyes and such an experience.

The Shawangunks at sunset, as I lingered waiting for the Short-eared Owls to come out.

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After a few unplanned alternate routes (OK, I got lost), I returned home exhausted but exhilarated.

The happy birder

*The one good thing about not posting for months is I’ve got a backlog of great birds to fill in during the August doldrums.

Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I aten’t dead.*

I ended 2014 on a down note, but this has been a decent birding year despite an awful lot of Real Life™ intruding. But I shall strive to blog on, nevertheless!

It’s appropriate to start again today since I hit a significant number — 200 bird species in my Region 8 area, with the unexpected arrival of this ghostly-pale Western Willet at the Cohoes Flats. Willets (Eastern subspecies) are common all along the coast and I saw them often back in my Queens days. Up here, though, we get the Western sub, and not many of them. A quick check of eBird showed this is the first report since 2011!

I had to play with these photos a bit to bring out the subtle colors of the bird. In the glaring sunlight against bleached rocks, the Willet almost disappeared.

This may be my favorite bird picture I’ve ever taken. I was disappointed at first that I hadn’t caught the wing fully extended, showing off the bold black-and-white pattern, but I love the arc of stretch and the tiptoes.

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I shifted over to my perch above the spillway. The lighting was marginally better but the change in elevation made the bird almost invisible. Only its reflection gave it away!

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Just how long are those legs?

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Birders (and parents of small children!) are likely the only people who can’t wait for summer to be over. A change in shorebirds is the earliest sign that migration is just beginning. It’s almost time for Confusing Fall Warblers!

*Obligatory Pratchett reference.

Categories: Bird photos, cohoes, shorebirds | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

It’s been that kind of year.

The kind of year where I spend hours puzzling over these two photos only to finally concede that yes, it was just a Song Sparrow. Maybe I was better off when I only copped to knowing three sparrow species.

Categories: Bird photos, Usual suspects | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Last dip of the year

I heard about an accessible Eastern Screech-owl roost box over in Albany County, so I headed out early yesterday morning. Couldn’t ask for a nicer location: a quiet country road with enough shoulder to park on, the box visible from the road, sun shining despite the 20F temps. So I settled in and waited for the bird to come out and bask.

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And waited.

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And waited…

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Well, at least I’m consistent.

Categories: Bird photos, Nests | Tags: , | 2 Comments

Losing my mojo

I’m finding it difficult to keep up my motivation for the year’s end. There’s been a lot of RealLife™ going on. No club trips scheduled, I’ve missed a month of Thursday Birders, and (believe it or not!) I’m getting a bit tired of birding alone. No winter raptors, no winter finches. I hope the upcoming Christmas Bird Count season can shake me out of the doldrums.

I try to console myself with some Green-winged Teal.

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Oh well — it’s a balmy 26F with no gale force winds, so before the scheduled mid-week snowpocalypse I’m off along the rivers hunting for anomalous gulls.  It’s the only game in town now!

 

Categories: Bird photos | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Song of the snow

After our unexpected Thanksgiving snowfall, I spent Black Friday hitting up a few local spots. Things were quiet everywhere. Maybe the birds were as surprised as we were! Farmers hadn’t had time to spread manure yet, so the fields glittered in the sun while a few sparrows foraged for weed seeds.

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This Song Sparrow and a half-dozen friends dipped in and out of the snow under the watchful eyes of a late-lingering American Kestrel.

Categories: Bird photos | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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