Life bird!

Local surprises

I didn’t always have to travel to find cool birds this year. Some of the most unexpected were just a county away!

This first lifer has a kind of morbid backstory. We were traveling to Pennsylvania for a funeral, and my husband asked if I wanted to break up the drive anywhere. Well, I said, there’s this Acadian Flycatcher in Middleburgh… We followed directions, drove past floodplains and into the hills, and right on target we hear the bird loudly ordering ‘Pizza! Pizza!’ Not a big rarity for our area – Region 8 is just a bit north of where Acadians are comfortable. I wonder if they’re a species like Carolina Wren and Black Vulture experimenting with expanding their range.

The Lark Sparrow up in the Fort Edward grasslands last Christmas was the subject of my most frustrating search ever. So when reports came in of one at the Wilton Wildlife Preserve, I had to go for it. It took some patience, but finally emerged so we could admire its striking facial markings.

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The Preserve is very similar geologically to the Albany Pine Bush and hosts a population of the endangered Karner Blue Butterfly. A major hatch was underway as we walked the sandy trails.

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Alert birders at Thacher Park noticed something odd about a Mockingbird – its wing patches were buffy instead of white, and it had a distinct eyering. That meant it was another western vagrant, Townsend’s Solitaire.   These thrushes frequent canyons and cliffs, eating juniper berries. I guess cedars at the edge of the Helderberg Escarpment felt just like home.

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At a suburban Albany bird feeder someone different came for dinner. Another sparrow that’s unmistakably different! Why can’t they all be this easy to pick out? Harris’s Sparrow is, for a change, a mid-continental bird that rarely roams, and this one drew admirers from all over the state. The homeowners patiently put up with gear-laden hordes roaming their back yard, but I’m sure they were grateful when the bird finally disappeared after Thanksgiving.

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‘The Patagonia Picnic Table Effect’ is a well-known birders’ phenomenon.

Basically, it means when birders turn out for a rarity, the concentration of skilled eyes tends to pull out more notable birds. In a fine example, the Harris’s wasn’t showing itself so we poked about into other promising tangles. One of the party urgently whispered and gestured towards a clump of multiflora rose where we saw… yes… a Bohemian Waxwing! The bird I’d hunted for three years, driving hundreds of miles in vain, right in front of me!

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After last winter I swore I’d never chase them again, that the damned bird would have to come to ME.

And it did.

In the end, the one lifer that I didn’t chase was the most satisfying of the year.

Categories: Bird photos, Field trip, Life bird!, OMG bird | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Red-necked Grebe-inspired lifer dance!

It’s getting harder to add life birds to my list when I don’t GO anywhere. Red-necked Grebe is one reliable migratory visitor I should have had a while ago. I’ve almost seen them several times — usually a glimpse of tail feathers as they dive. So I was happy to put up with gusty wind and drizzle this morning to watch one cruise around a roadside pond while rush-hour traffic streamed by into Troy and Albany.

I’m not sure if the brownish tint on its neck is a vestige of the rich chestnut breeding plumage, or an artifact of bad light. At any rate, you can see the pointy-headed look and yellow bill that are diagnostic.

Often it came up with a small fish in its beak before submerging for the next course. You can sort of see here how far back the feet are set, like a loon’s. The species name, Podiceps, literally means ‘butt foot’.  Although they’re powerful swimmers their feet are not webbed, but lobed.

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I hope it sticks around until a sunny day so I can get better pictures, or at least watch it in comfort.

And that’s life bird #290ish, NYS bird 262, and year bird #208. Onward and upwards!

Categories: Bird photos, Life bird! | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

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

One of these birds is not like the others…

Can you tell? Hint: these are all Goldeneye. The brown-headed birds are (probably*) all female and immature Common Goldeneye, and all but one of the black-and-white birds are male Common Goldeneye. That one exception…

Do you see the one that doesn’t match, a visitor from the far north and west?

That’s a male Barrow’s Goldeneye, life bird and NYS Species #255! After striking out twice last weekend, I was lucky that the bird was still hanging around this morning. So after errands we headed back upriver hoping third time was the charm. I was beginning to despair when the river looked nearly birdless, but then a good flock of waterfowl moved in and at last (with help) we were able to pick him out of the crowd. We spent the pleasantly springlike afternoon enjoying the ducks’ courtship performances.

Despite their best yodeling, the ladies did not look impressed.

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Look at that beautiful eye! It’s obvious where they get their name.

Goldeneye are diving ducks, so sometimes just as I was getting the camera on them they’d do this:

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A Song Sparrow affirmed that spring really is coming, and he just had to sing about it!

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*One sharp-eyed birder spotted one female with more yellow on her beak — probably a female Barrow’s. I was happy enough to be able to pick out the male!

Categories: bird behavior, Bird photos, Field trip, Life bird!, New bird, Rara avis | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Year-end highlights, 2013

 

January’s bird of the month was the pair of Sandhill Cranes at Crescent.What a thrill to see them so close up.

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February was gull month. I added three lifers to my list: Iceland Gull (below, with 3 Herring Gulls), Lesser Black-back, and Glaucous Gull, plus Little Gull in July. They really aren’t all the same! I begin to understand Laridaephiles!

And another!

March is the first stirring of spring, bringing the earliest Blackbirds and Tree Swallows. Waterfowl are on the move! 

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe

There’s nothing better than April for a birder. Everything is coming! Almost as birdy as May, and fewer bugs! Tree and Chipping Sparrows switch places again. The earliest Warblers flit through the still-bare treetops. Shorebirds are bolting north. And herps are making their own short migrations.

Spotted Turtle

Spotted Turtle

All right, I take it back about April. May. May. MAY. Every day brings new migrants, new nesting birds, so many colors and voices there’s no time to blog or photograph or even think, sometimes. It’s all I can to to absorb every brilliant moment. I saw my first Hooded Warbler, my first Golden-winged Warbler, my first Vesper Sparrow. I heard a King Rail! Hummingbirds, Orioles, Swifts! These trees were dripping with warblers.

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June, and things are calming just a bit. The residents are settling down to the business of nesting. A field trip to Montgomery County showed me an Upland Sandpiper, doing exactly what an Uppie is supposed to do — pose on a fencepost and whoop his wolf whistle. A side trip to the neighboring town of Root produced a surprise — a Clay-colored Sparrow singing from the top of a shrub! A two-lifer day!

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July is the time to settle in and do some birdwatching, instead of birding. See fuzzy-headed fledgelings at the feeders, Tuftless Titmice and short-tailed Catbirds begging and nagging. Some of the territorial sniping has calmed and birds, like us, are just hanging out at the lake trying to stay cool. Hey, is that a Grasshopper Sparrow? Lifer!

Solitary on left, Yellowlegs on right

Solitary on left, Yellowlegs on right

For shorebirds, August means summer is over and it’s time to head south from their far-north nesting grounds. I caught this Sanderling on a rest stop at Cohoes. The surprise of the month was a pair of Red-headed Woodpeckers in the Albany Pine Bush, first I’d seen since moving up here. And after seeing my first pair ever of Cliff Swallows, I looked carefully at the power lines on my road and found a new yard bird, too.

The warblers sweep back down in September in ‘confusing fall warbler’ plumage. Look carefully, and you can pick up species missed on the way up. I found my Philadelphia Vireo that way. Fortune favors the prepared, they say. I’d been looking for a Philly to complete the category, and so I was ready when I saw him — another lifer. The (white) Little Blue Heron was a surprise, though. In the style section, Pirate Birding was all the rage.

I spy with my little eye...

I spy with my little eye…

October, the month of mist and spiderwebs. Unexpected birds like these Tundra Swans show up with migrating waterfowl. Here one day, a hundred miles south tomorrow, any sighting pure chance.

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November’s big goal — I swore that this winter I would see a Short-eared Owl, if I had to pitch a tent on Fitzpatrick Road to do it. And I did! (See the owl, that is, not camping on the old tent-ground.) And up in the Adirondacks I caught glimpses of Boreal Chickadees, just as adorable as their Black-capped cousins. But the number of species has dropped by a third since last month, and I swear I recognize every beak at the feeder. Still I have something to be thankful for– a new camera, and better photos to look forward to sharing.

December — it’s Christmas Bird Count time! Pray that good bird hangs around until count day! Hope it flies over my sector instead of crossing the river! Swap tall tales of CBCs present and past, and how easy we young punks have it today — the old timers birded on foot! in the snow! barefoot! uphill both ways! just to score every Blue Jay! And sometimes (whisper it) ditch your count for a bird so cool you just have to see it.

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So I end the year the way I started it, with a big charismatic bird that doesn’t mind being gawked at.

 

Categories: bird behavior, Bird photos, Christmas Bird Count, Feeder birds, Field trip, Life bird!, New bird, NYS 2013, OMG bird, scenery, the occasional herp | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Roosevelt Truck Trail, 11/2/13

Hello! Welcome to everyone who’s visited, ‘liked’, and left comments! This should put me on my mettle to post more regularly.

Continuing my effort to become more familiar with the ‘Dacks, I joined a club trip up to the Minerva/Newcomb area. The weather not unpleasant for the north country in November, close to 50 and almost still. The rain held off in the overcast sky until we were leaving.

The Roosevelt Truck Trail is an old dirt road, now driveable only with DEC permission to reach two nominally handicapped-accessible campsites. Given that they’re just flat areas with picnic table, fire ring and an outhouse between them, I think they would only be suited for someone who’s still pretty mobile. In any case, it was obvious no one had driven through in a while.

The air was fragrant with evergreens — cedar, spruce, white pine and balsam fir. The fallen needles silenced our footfalls.

The trail rolled gently for 2 1/2 miles, then we turned and strolled back. Overhead a Common Raven rattled while Golden-crowned Kinglets see-see’d from every tree. Black-capped Chickadees were joined by their northern cousins, Boreal Chickadees, a brown-capped version with a wheezy, scratchy call. We never got a decent look at them despite their numbers, but they called their identity clearly enough. Life bird!

The other target bird for the day was the Black-backed Woodpecker, another boreal conifer-loving species. We didn’t find one, despite listening carefully for the soft tap of their bug hunting, but this tree showed they are present in the area. Their feeding technique is to strip the bark from dead trees to reach insect larvae under the surface. They prefer burned-out stands of trees, and after a few years move on to newly burnt territory. Their population is suffering due to forest fire supression.

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On our way in we met a bear hunter. We didn’t see any bear, but did find a few piles of fresh-ish bear scat.

Just down the road, abandoned freight tracks ran north and south. We followed them for a while, past rock cuts, bogs and ponds.

The lake, mirror-still a few minutes before, dimpled with rain.

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I’ll be returning in the spring. Goodbye and keep cold!

 

Categories: bird behavior, Field trip, Life bird!, NYS 2013 | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

In barren lands, 5/25-26/13

My first overnight trip with the bird club!  By happy coincidence two of the destinations were just a hop down the road from my friends, who really needed a visit. (Hi Millers!) An afternoon of catching up, an exhibit opening at the Antique Boat Museum, and early to bed for the big day ahead.

So the first stop of the trip wasn’t that close. The Tug Hill Plateau, west of the Adirondacks, is best known as the snow capital of New York. Montague, the town where I met up with the rest of the group, holds the state record for heaviest one-day snowfall — 77 inches! Fortunately the day, while chilly and damp, was snow-free. We rambled down Running George Truck Trail (and no, I don’t know who George was or why he was running) near Lowville. It was quiet down there and the birds busied themselves with more important things than entertaining the out-of-towners.

Bog near Lowville

Bog near Lowville

From there we ran up a few more exits on I-81, getting off at Watertown. We spent a few hours at Chaumont Barrens, a rare alvar grassland habitat — a thin layer of soil over limestone that supports plants found nowhere else in New York State.

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The other endemic rarity at Chaumont is the Golden-winged Warbler. A population in serious decline, they hybridize with and often sound like more common Blue-winged Warblers. We heard a brief burst of song, but no sighting.

The limestone is exposed in places, revealing fossils.

The trail loops through the open plains, over a limestone expanse with ankle breaker crevasses, through a dark and ominous forest, and back to a softer woodland floored with wild phlox, the closest I’ve seen to an English bluebell wood.

When I returned to Chaumont the next morning to finish walking the loop, I finally heard, loud and clear, the distinctive bzz-bzz-bzz! of the Golden-wing. Despite peering for a half-hour, I never did see the bird though he called constantly from the same spot, frustratingly just out of sight. Given the fragility of the landscape, I didn’t want to go thrashing through the undergrowth in the hopes of getting him to move. Sometimes you have to accept what the bird is willing to share with you.

From there we went on to Perch River WMA, nearly 8000 acres of wetland. During waterfowl migration it must be an awe-inspiring sight, the empondments filled with hundreds of thousands of ducks, geese, and swans. In late May we were seeing the resident birds. Black Terns and Caspian Terns danced overhead, Marsh Wrens giggled in the cattails, American Bitterns skulked in grass not quite tall enough to hide them, their beaks pointed skyward convinced of their invisibility.

My notes got a bit scrambled, but I’d estimate I saw about 70 species over the two days. And when I run away up north to see my friends again, I’ll have two amazing natural places to revisit. Maybe the Golden-wing will honor my persistence with a glimpse next time!

Categories: Bird photos, Field trip, flowers, Life bird!, New bird, Rara avis | Tags: , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Numbers thus far, 2013

I haven’t been regularly updating my sightings and numbers, so here’s an update. I got close to my informal goal of 200 NYS species last year so for 2013 I’m making an effort to pass that number. And I think I’ve got a good chance — my list so far is about 180 and climbing, with new life birds notably increasing at the rate of almost two a month. Chasing has been variably successful, like the Upland Sandpiper on a fencepost just where he was supposed to be, followed by a completely unexpected Clay-colored Sparrow. Club trips and leads on the listserv led me to Hooded Warblers and Cliff Sparrows.

HMBC’s area guide has sent me to unexplored corners of our counties and told me what to watch for when I’m just tooling around town. A true labor of love, Tom Williams’ Capital District Bird-finding Calendar compiles years of local observations into a timetable telling me who’s where and when.

Migration was funky this spring. General wisdom is that prevailing weather patterns sent birds westward, away from the coast. We also didn’t have good fallout weather, and the few drop-ins stayed only a day or so before they were off. It’s been a slow haul getting a good Warbler collection. And shorebirds? Fuggeddaboudit. Spotted, Solitary, the odd Yellowlegs — that’s it. I’ll have to study up on fall plumages and try to catch them on the way south.

I’ve done a lot of work on song recognition this year. It all comes down to attention — the difference in tempo between Red-eyed Vireo and Blue-headed‘s repetitious song is clear if I don’t dismiss it without really listening.

Weak points? ID. Still. Really, they’re not all Song Sparrows. And if a more experienced birder calls out a species I’m not familiar with, I need to remind myself to double-check its identity. Expectations can fool the best of us!

And no, I’m not going to inflict all 180-odd names on you. Here’s a look at the portable version.

Scan copy

Scan

Anybody up for chasing a Mississippi Kite? It’s just down the road a piece!

* indicates a life bird.

Categories: Bird photos, Life bird!, NYS 2013, Species count, Tools of the trade | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Wilson Powell Sanctuary, Old Chatham 4/30/13

Been here… been there… been to all the usual spots. Time to check the local field-trrip guide. Hmm, Wilson Powell Sanctuary isn’t too far away…

Some wrong turns and a twisty route through northern Columbia County later, I arrived at the sanctuary. It was still early spring and the trees had only begun leafing out. Wildflowers carpeted the forest floor.

The trail starts rising gently to a steep slope on the edge of a ravine where I heard Northern Waterthrush, Ovenbirds, and my first Worm-eating Warbler. A pair of Broad-winged Hawks whistled overhead. At the top of the trail you take a left to find yourself on Dorson’s Rock, looking over the Hudson Valley to Green County.

A Raven flew so low I could hear it push the wind through its wings.

Back down near the parking lot, there’s a pond and marshy area. A Snapping Turtle had just hauled herself out of the winter’s mud and basked.

It’s a nice place for a saunter.

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37 species, one new life bird.

Categories: Field trip, flowers, Life bird!, the occasional herp | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

Appreciating the subtleties

After you’ve been birding for a while (she says with a world-weary sigh) you run out of new flashy birds, and at last have to get down to the subtle not to say niggling details. One of the first for many beginners is the difference between Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers. These guys (well, ladies and one guy) were very cooperative in showing off relative body and beak size. Not so visible here are the plumage cues. Look closely and you can see Downies have dots, as they say — the outer tail feathers have small spots or bars, while Hairys’ are clear white. Also, Downies descend. Their whinny drops down at the end, while Hairies call on a more constant note.

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I have long maintained* there are only four types of Gull — Great Black-backed, Ring-billed, Laughing, and All The Rest aka Herring. Turns out I’m wrong, and given a push I can acutally ID one more! Iceland Gull is a not-too-uncommon visitor in winter.  One of our club members had posted pictures of a few hundred gulls and sort of challenged us to pick out the odd bird. After lots of squinting, enlarging, flipping through books and images, and squinting again, it’s true what they say. The bird did suddenly leap out at me and I wondered how I couldn’t see it before.  Given the rare combination of ice on the Mohawk and mild temperatures, I ventured out. When I saw the gulls so close to shore I whipped out the binocs and really focused.

Can you find it here?

Somewhere in here is a pale-winged gull.

Somewhere in here is a pale-winged gull.

OK, I can’t either. Try these.

Iceland Gull snoozing

Iceland Gull snoozing

And another!

And another!

Dark bill, allover light buffy color, no gray ‘mantle’, and no black on the wingtips. Immie Iceland! In all I saw three Iceland Gulls, got a good feel for relative size (between Herring and Ring-billed) and once again had the importance of pay attention driven home.

The only thing cooler than a new life bird is finding and IDing the bird myself. With the generous help, always, of more experienced birders.

*out of sheer laziness.

Categories: Bird photos, Life bird!, New bird, NYS 2013, What am dat bird? | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

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