New bird

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!


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.


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!





*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.


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.


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!

IMG_5603 2

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.




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.


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

Short-eared owl, 11/21/13

So there I was last night, sitting on the hood of  my car peering into the thickening dusk, looking for a owl I just KNOW isn’t going to be there. Why do I bother? Anyone else goes to this spot, the bloody birds zoop back and forth across the road like commuters running for a train. Me? Five tries, five strikeouts. Why do I even bother? Why…


Wait. Rewind.


It’s Thursday morning, so I’m getting up at the edge of dawn, layering on the thermals and scraping hard frost from the car windows. Upriver, searching for waterfowl. All quiet on the riverfront: the Canada Geese are probably all out in cornfields foraging. Up in the Washington County grasslands, only a few raptors present yet. But it’s 40F, no wind and sunny, so you don’t waste a November day like this.

Reports from Saratoga Lake suggest a chance to pad our year numbers. I haven’t often birded around there — there’s not a lot of public access to the waterfront. (That was one of the hardest things for me to adjust to when we moved up here, that I couldn’t just walk along the shore. The first thing any of us kids learned on Long Island was the High Water Mark Rule: anything below the wrack line is public property, be damned to fences and ‘No Trespassing’ signs. Doesn’t work up here…) So I get an extensive guided tour of how to sneak legal peeks at the often frustratingly-distant waterbirds, where the Purple Martins nest, and the secret password that gets you in almost anywhere. Want to know what it is?

“I’m looking for The Eagle.” Yup. No one takes you seriously if you say you’re looking for gulls or sparrows. Mention an eagle and previously suspicious people will jump out of their cars to point out the exact tree The Eagle perches in.

I pick up a Horned Grebe at the extreme edge of scope range for my year count — 212 for the state, 202 for the region!

At 3:30 I’m back at my car in Mechanicville. You know the thing about Mechanicville? It’s about halfway between home and the grasslands, where in an hour or so Short-eared Owls hunt in the winter dusk. (You thought I’d never get back to the owls, right?)

And that’s where we came in, me on the hood of the car, increasingly frustrated, almost ready to pack it in as the last light fades. Then a gliding form ghosts along a hedgerow, color almost the same faded dun as the grasses, wingbeats soft as it courses just above the brush.

It stays in sight for perhaps three breaths before vanishing into the treeline. My life look at a Short-eared Owl. At last!

(year count: 213 for the state, 203 for Region 8)

Categories: Field trip, Life lists, New bird, NYS 2013, OMG bird, Species count | Tags: , , , , , | 7 Comments

Running the category — Red-headed Woodpeckers, 8/2/13

That’s what they call it on Jeopardy! when a contestant answers all the questions in a row. For me, as a lister, it’s when I fill in a family on the local checklist. Some are easy — blackbirds, gallinaceous birds, wrens. Shorebirds are more difficult, since most of the species on the list aren’t residents and it’s pure luck if you’re looking in the right place when they touch down for a day. For the three years I’ve been keeping track, I’ve gotten 12 of the 13 raptors — Northern Goshawk is my nemesis. One of these days I’ll do the pre-dawn hike up into the High Peaks to see and hear Bicknell’s Thrush. Until then, my thrush list is one short.

I had plans, when I travelled to Ithaca in a week, to squeeze in a side trip to Montezuma NWR. Target bird: nesting Red-headed Woodpeckers to fill out the Picidae grid. They are just stunning birds, and I’d only ever seen one in my life, over 25 years ago: I was dog-walking in Forest Park in Queens when I heard rapping overhead. I looked up and saw a Red-head working away, not 20 feet up. Locally, there have been perhaps half a dozen sightings in 10 years, mostly immature birds, or adults that only stayed briefly.

Then, a surprising notice as I checked the local birdlist early Friday. Red-headed Woodpecker? In the Pine Bush? Well, that was worth getting up for!

I followed the excited directions (only getting lost once) and arrived to find not only two birders, but two birds! A pair, carrying food! That mean young, and that means a new confirmed breeding bird for the Pine Bush!

Be sure to click on this link for a great photo of the pair.

I watched them for close to three hours. They seemed very unbothered by the presence of a dozen observers as they foraged from tree to tree and sometimes on the ground. We also caught a glimpse of a bird, about the same size, dark-headed and with mottled black/white wings, which may have been a fledgling. The adults seemed to favor one particular broken branch, returning to it repeatedly. One flew to a nest-hole-sized cavity in a dead pine and spent some time poking its head in and out. We didn’t see any sign of a young one in there, though. There might just have been a bumper crop of grubs to harvest.

At one point we were standing directly under a tree the woodpeckers flew in and out of! If all my chases ended this successfully, I’d… well, I’d be out birding even more than I am. Apparently the birds are indifferent to the site reclamation work that’s been going on there for weeks — tree removal, undergrowth and invasives being cut back, to create an open understory which is just what Red-heads like. It will be fascinating to watch in the coming years and see if they can start to make a comeback.


So. Woodpeckers, seven for seven!

Categories: bird behavior, Bird photos, Field trip, New bird, OMG bird, Rara avis | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

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

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.


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

Century bird

It’s cold with 40 mph wind gusts and the driveway hasn’t been dug out yet, so — time to update. It’s only been (eek) 4 months!

The last time we spoke I was cheering having seen yard birds #96 and #97. In looking over the list, I realised I had forgotten Red-eyed Vireo which is not only present in my yard but nearly ubiquitous in the summer. So there I was at 98 and holding…

Then in early October I heard the long melodious song of a Winter Wren, disproportionately loud for its tiny size. This adorable little peanut foraged around the feeders for a few days. #99!

And why am I posting a truly dreadful picture of a Hooded Merganser, a bird I see nine months out of the year? Because on 11/1, this beauty and his mate were yard species #100! Hey, it only took 20 years and two months to get there.


That’s 14 new species this year. I know there are still warblers I’m missing, and I don’t look UP nearly enough to see what’s passing through. Cold be eagles, could be snow geese… So what will #101 be? I’m scouring the swarms of Common Redpolls for the odd Hoary. Wish me luck!

Categories: Feeder birds, New bird, Species count, Yard first | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Saratoga County, 1/19/12

(OK, the Thursday group went back out to Saratoga Co. today [1/26] while I was at home hacking a lung up, so I’m just gonna pretend this is what I did today. Because it’s what I’d much rather be doing.)

FBotD was an American Crow cawing as I scraped the windows on a clear frosty morning. First trip with the Thursday Group since my fall, hooray! Our destination was open water on the Hudson at Stillwater and points north, and the Ft. Edward grasslands. We headed upriver stopping at boat launches and shuttered fish-fry shacks, where among the Mallards and cross-breeds we saw wintering ducks. A Carolina Wren bubbled and giggled his oversized song.

How cold was it in the morning? I’ll let these frosted Canada Geese tell the tale.

At the dam in Northumberland five flashes of white caught our attention. Two were certainly Snow Geese, but the other smaller three raised a lot of debate. Snow Goose? Ross’s Goose? A crossbreed? They cruised in close formation with the two larger geese, leaving us with photos and questions.

Moving on to the grasslands, Rough-legged Hawks gave us excellent looks as did an immature Bald Eagle along the river.  The highlights of the day for me were a huge flock of Snow Geese, several hundred at least, rising from the stubble, and the first Horned Larks I’d seen in over 20 years.

Common Merganser, Hooded Merganser, Ring-necked Duck, Herring Gull, American Crow, Canada Goose, Ring-billed Gull, Common Goldeneye, European Starling, Rock Pigeon, Carolina Wren, Bufflehead, American Robin, Greater Scaup, Red-tailed Hawk, Mourning Dove, Hairy Woodpecker, Black-capped Chickadee, Dark-eyed Junco, Downy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, White-breasted Nuthatch, Snow Goose, Rough-legged Hawk, Bald Eagle, Eastern Bluebird, Horned Lark, Great Black-backed Gull, Northern Cardinal, American Black Duck, Mallard.

31 species, 10 new for the year, 1 new to this list.

(Oh man, I missed out on a Golden Eagle on today’s [1/26] trip. Rats!!)

Categories: Bird photos, Feeder birds, Field trip, New bird, NYS 2012, Species count | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

“I should like to be a merlin,” said the Wart politely.*

Today was my first birding excursion in over six weeks. It was just a quick drive to Cohoes and Peebles Island, but it felt so good to be out of my yard! I chose the destination because I wanted to see something really impressive to start the year off, and figured a Bald Eagle would fill the bill.

Well, the weather has been so mild so far that the Mohawk isn’t frozen yet, so the eagles don’t need to gather at the open water by the falls. We did see one adult soaring, but most of the show was thousands of gulls swirling against the dark clouds like a cyclone of white confetti. A few ducks and geese in roadside ponds and a soaring Red-tail padded my list, but I was wishing for a WOW bird. We pulled into the parking lot at Peebles Island less than an hour before sunset. We strolled along the river’s edge reminiscing about last year’s floods as a few pigeons zipped by. As we leaned on the bridge railing before turning back to the car, a slender-winged shape glided past — a Kestrel, perhaps, but it seemed browner and a bit large. She lit on a dead snag and relaxed, scratching an ear, stretching a wing, extending her tail. I could see then the less-defined falcon eye makeup and sideburns, and the more uniform brown back and darker body, even in the glow of the low sun. I’ve seen Merlins before, but never one at almost eye level, 100 feet away, and perching unfazed by passing cars, dogs, and nuthatches. We watched her until the sun was setting.

Merlin, female or immature.

Oh, for a better camera!

This photo ©Jessie H. Barry from

At home: Dark-eyed Junco, Black-capped Chickadee, Downy Woodpecker, White-breasted Nuthatch, American Crow, Blue Jay, American Goldfinch, European Starling, Tufted Titmouse, Red-bellied Woodpecker.

At Peebles Island/Cohoes: Common Merganser, Red-tailed Hawk, Bald Eagle, Ring-billed Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, House Sparrow, Canada Goose, Mallard, Merlin.

21 species, 11 new for the year.



*In The Sword In the Stone, part of young Wart’s training to become King Arthur  is magical transformation into all sorts of living things. He spends a night in the castle mews in the shape of a merlin, listening to the barracks-talk of the birds.

Categories: Bird photos, Feeder birds, Field trip, New bird, NYS 2012, OMG bird, Species count | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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