First of season

We are all impatient.

The problem is (not that I’m complaining), it’s felt like March for most of this winter. Warmest and least snowy winter on record in the Albany area. When it’s 60F and sunny, how can we help expecting spring birds?

But I look out the window and see Dark-eyed Juncos and American Tree Sparrows. Red-breasted Nuthatches have only just abandoned my feeders for the Rensselaer hills, and the Spring Peeper chorus, while loud, hasn’t reached its ear-shattering peak yet.

Some things have certainly been earlier than in other years. The big Spotted Salamander migration (down a hill and across a road) happened two weeks ago. Usually it’s not until the end of March at the earliest. They’re responding to local conditions, though. The ground is soft, the rain is warm, and that’s all they need.

Birds migration is triggered by day length among other things, and as a wise man said today, they don’t know what the weather’s like 1500 miles to the north. They don’t outfly their food supply. If we keep having these mild winters, though, and bugs hatch out earlier before the birds are here for the feast, will they find enough food to reproduce and feed their young ones?

So we miss you, spring birds. But take your time. We’ll be waiting for you.

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Categories: bird behavior, First of season, Why? | Tags: | 1 Comment

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

Welcome back!

I know, we still have to get through March, Albany’s two heaviest snowfalls were in March, the Polar-freakin’-Vortex is on its way south again…

but the first Red-winged Blackbirds of the year sang in my yard today.

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Categories: Bird photos, Feeder birds, First of season | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

Duck duck no geese.

Yay, I got out for a bit of birding today! Most local reports were coming from the Mohawk so we headed out to cover the Cohoes -to-Crescent run.

There were not large numbers of waterfowl, but a nice variety. The usual Mallards and Common Mergansers appeared wherever the water was open. The best spot was by the Crescent hydropower plant, where this flock of mixed Aythya ducks (plus one odd fellow) gathered.

I’m going to do my best on ID here. Correction welcome!

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The leftmost bird is a female Canvasback. They’re pretty uncommon around here. Next are two Redheads and three Scaup sp? Leading the pack, with the white band near the tip of his bill, is a Ring-necked Duck.

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The ones with red heads are Redheads (duh), and the white-sided ones I’m hazarding are Greater Scaup, because they’re a really clean white, while the almost-identical Lesser Scaup is a bit grayer. If you look closely, one duck in the middle has a bit of white on its face above the bill — that’s a female Scaup sp. Front left is the Canvasback.

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Aythya ducks at rest, and here comes the odd man out. Cruising towards the flock is a very handsome male Long-tailed Duck.

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Isn’t he a beauty? You’ll see his eponymous tail in the next picture.

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The Canvasback is in the center of the flock here. Her long neck is a good field mark.

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Quiz time! How many species here?

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The fifth bird from the left might be a Lesser Scaup. I wish I could be sure, because the we’d have all five local Aythya species in one small flock.

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They were quite distant by now.

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And where were the gulls today? I was hoping to see Iceland and Glaucous but we only had the three year-round species, and not many of them. The ice here above the spillway is usually wall-to-wall squawking squabbling gulls. At least three Bald Eagles wandered around setting up the few gulls present.

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“What am I, chopped liver?”

Also seen but not photographed, three circling Black Vultures! And if the first vulture isn’t a sign of spring, I’d like to know what is.

OK, since you’re obviously dying to know, the local Aythya ducks are Greater and Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked, Redhead, and Canvasback. In that order, Aythya marila, affinis, collaris, americana, and valisneria. The Long-tailed Duck rejoices in the name of Clangula hyemalis.

Categories: Bird photos, Field trip, First of season, Rara avis, scenery | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

Spring at last!

You can tell it’s here by the stack of books next to my bed. Field guides, warbler ID books, bird call CDs, tales from other birders’ Big Years — I’m ready for waves of migrants.

Some people like to waste their spring mucking around in the dirt of their gardens. Me? I’ll let this energetic leaf-scratcher do my raking.

Fox Sparrow

Fox Sparrow

(No, he wouldn’t come out from behind that post, even when I asked politely.)

The Fox Sparrows will rummage around under trees and in leaf piles for a week or so before heading off north, and that will be the last of them until they make a quick stopoff in the fall. I love their warm chipmunk color.

Categories: Bird photos, Feeder birds, First of season | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

FOY kind of day

On my usual circuit around Snyder’s Lake I saw my first little chickenbeak — a Pied-billed Grebe. They dive vigorously when startled, but also make a stealth dive where they just sink below the surface, leaving only their head exposed, like the conning tower on an avian submarine.

Taken last year at Montezuma NWR

We walked down the road just before dusk. Spring Peepers are just beginning their evening chorus in the swamp across the road, and as we passed the fields we heard two American Woodcocks peenting and whistling. On the way back in the dark, a Killdeer flushed from the cow pasture calling a single note of alarm. Overhead what might have been a bat flittered by. I did see some moths and insects in the air, so in-flight snacks may be available.

General list of what’s been in the neighborhood in the past week:

European Starling, American Crow, Blue Jay, American Robin, House Sparrow, Ring-billed Gull, Red-tailed Hawk, Common Merganser, Common Goldeneye, Mute Swan, Ring-necked Duck, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, Mallard, Canada Goose, Dark-eyed Junco, Hooded Merganser, Eastern Bluebird, Black-capped Chickadee, Downy Woodpecker, Turkey Vulture, House Finch, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, American Goldfinch, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, American Tree Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Northern Mockingbird, Bufflehead.

3 species new for 2012.

Categories: Bird photos, Feeder birds, First of season, NYS 2012, Species count, the occasional herp, Usual suspects | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Conversation with a Kestrel, 3/11/12

Sunday was the kind of day when my dad used to gather us up and go for a drive. The beach was a favorite destination when we were kids, an afternoon of swimming, beachcombing, and sunset-watching. In later years he and I would go birding out to Orient Park. So in the spirit of a spring day, I took a meandering drive up to the Winter Raptor Fest.

The Hudson was quiet until I crossed onto one of the many River Roads, this one across from Schuylerville. It’s a few miles of dirt road, river on one side, fields and sloughs on the other. A half-dozen Snow Geese shone out among thousands of Canadas in an embayment. I’ve been watching a shallow pond thinking it would be a great duck stop, and this week the migrants had arrived including my FOY Green-winged Teal.

The best part of the Raptor Fest was the chance to see birds of prey up close. This Broad-winged Hawk had been wing-shot. Sorry for the horrible lighting, but she was inside a yellow and blue circus tent on a brilliantly sunny day.

The rehabber had the difficult task of answering questions ranging from the complications to the bird’s respiratory system from a broken bone, to one person who couldn’t seem to get that ‘healed’ did not mean ‘all better’, and why this bird would sadly never fly again.  Add the inevitable bored fractious infants with parents determined to stick it out to the end, and it was a frustrating presentation redeemed by the chance to see the Broad-wing up close.

Inside the barn the rehabbers had Barred, Screech, and Saw-whet Owls, and this little charmer:

 

Rufus is an American Kestrel, “rescued’ by a well-meaning but uninformed person who found him fledged, out of the nest on the ground, and assumed the poor little thing would die without human intervention. Which consisted of feeding him on hamburger and lamb, leading to metabolic bone disease. That’s the avian equivalent of rickets. Rufus’ wing bones are strong enough for limited flight, but his feet are deformed and he would soon starve if he had to hunt.

He is very socialized to crowds, but doesn’t like certain handlers. Whenever the woman holding him spoke, he glared at her and screamed KIKIKIKIKIKIKIKIKIKIKI loud enough to be heard outside and down the driveway.

I like this picture, showing how huge his eye is on a Robin-sized bird, and the notch in his beak for severing the spinal cord of a mouse. And yes, he was KIKIKIing here.

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Mallard, Canada Goose, Hooded Merganser, American Black Duck, Northern Pintail, Ring-necked Duck, American Widgeon, Green-winged Teal, Bufflehead, Common Merganser, Common Goldeneye, Snow Goose, Red-tailed Hawk, Bald Eagle, Black-capped Chickadee, American Crow, Blue jay, European Starling, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, Mourning Dove, Rock Pigeon, American Robin, Eastern Bluebird, Tufted Titmouse, Dark-eyed Junco.

26 species, 1 new for 2012.

Categories: Bird photos, Field trip, First of season, OMG bird, Species count | Tags: , , , , | 6 Comments

Way the hell ‘n’ gone, 2/23/12

This was definitely the farthest afield I’ve gone with the Thursday group. Reports of siskins and waxwings tempted us north to Warren County and then some. First stop was in Warrensburg, looking for a flock of Cedar Waxwings with possible Bohemians mixed in. No sign of them, so off to Thurman Station where among the Eastern Bluebirds and Goldfinches, we heard the zippy zeeeeet! of Pine Siskins all around us.

Onwards and upwards again, past Stony Creek, along Harrisburg Road as it got narrower and less populated until it ended in an icy trailhead. Here it was mid-February and we had to go nearly 70 miles to find snow! I have no idea how we got there; maps seem to indicate we were on the other side of the river… Again we were surrounded by Siskins and little else but a quick flyover by a Bald Eagle and a Raven.

Back at Warrensburg, the Waxwing flock returned. Careful scrutiny may have disclosed a Bohemian Waxwing or two among the 50 Cedars, but given the poor light I don’t feel I can say I saw one. See the last photo in this post for a picture of both Waxwings in bright sunlight.

On the return trip I drove through Saratoga County along the Hudson, mostly seeing the usual ducks. Route 4 between Schuylerville and Stillwater is pretty desolate midweek, and when I saw a Raven at the side of the road I was able to pull over and watch him tear at a dead rabbit for several minutes before another car disturbed him. I see large crows and think they are ravens, but when I see a raven I wonder how I could have made such a mistake, there is such a difference in size, scale, and flight.

To complete my journey south I heard my first-of-year Red-winged Blackbirds calling. Males only — when I see the ladies approving their choice in real estate I’ll believe it’s almost spring.

Red-tailed Hawk, Tufted Titmouse, American Crow, Ring-billed Gull, Mallard, Black-capped Chickadee, American Robin, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, Pine Siskin, Eastern Bluebird, American Goldfinch, Common Raven, Blue Jay, Cedar Waxwing, Purple Finch, Northern Flicker, Mourning Dove, Rock Pigeon, Wild Turkey, White-breasted Nuthatch, Canada Goose, Greater Scaup, Song Sparrow, Great Black-backed Gull, Common Merganser, American Black Duck, Herring Gull, Northern Mockingbird, American Widgeon, Red-winged Blackbird.

31 species, 5 new for the year.

 

Categories: Field trip, First of season, NYS 2012 | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

What’s new this week

The spring birds are trickling back up. On Snyder’s Lake I saw two pair of American Widgeons and three young Mute Swans, their white still touched with grey. Common Grackles, Brown-headed Cowbirds and Redwings add their calls to the barnyard blackbird flocks. And today, after being tricked by redtails a few times, the FOY Turkey Vulture! Like the Redwings, it was about a week earlier than last year.

And tomorrow, six inches of snow! I love the northeast!

Categories: First of season, NYS 2012 | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

RWBB, hell yeah!

Bill told me after his morning walk he had heard a Red-winged Blackbird calling Tuesday morning. Yesterday I stopped by a little marshy area and heard and saw a dozen males konk-a-ree-ing their hearts out, epaulets flashing.

Last year my FOY RWBB was March 3, so we’re a bit early. This time last year the snow was thigh-deep and we hadn’t seen bare ground since before Christmas.

Categories: First of season, NYS 2012, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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