… 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.
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.
Entering the grasslands, I rolled my windows down and was delighted by an Eastern Meadowlark in song.
I counted five of my darling Kestrels along the way. A species of special concern, indeed.
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).
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.
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.
*For more on the amazing Ptarmigan, look here!