OMG 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.

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

Sandhill Cranes at Montezuma, 9/25

For me the highlight of any trip to Montezuma NWR is a Sandhill Crane sighting. This wasn’t the most we’ve seen on a visit, but it certainly beat the weather last time — temps barely above freezing, howling wind, and occasional blinding horizontal snow squalls.

On this day, though, conditions were ideal, at least meteorologically. Road conditions, though… not so much. The birds were hanging out at Knox-Marsellus Marsh so we turned onto the dirt Towpath Road. The last time I was there it wasn’t bad so we headed down optimistically. Well, that didn’t last long. A few potholes, then more, and soon they turned into muddy pits across the entire road.  I got tired of scraping the sides of the car so we decided it was wiser to park and walk the last half mile in.

And when we finally got there:

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I love the one lying down like a long-necked hassock.

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I get so excited seeing 14 Sandhills –my heart would fly right out of my chest if I ever saw a sight like this!

Categories: Bird photos, Field trip, montezuma nwr, OMG bird | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hey, where’d the shorebirds go?

The flats at Cohoes were deserted today except for a few dozen gulls. And half the reason why was perched in a cottonwood tree.

Undaunted, I scoured the rocks without finding even a Killdeer. As the Peregrine in the tree to my right took off

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a second, previously hidden, shot out of the trees to my left and together they strafed the gulls on the rocks and spillway. When the sky was white with gulls, the pair took off towards a flock of pigeons on power lines and I last saw them heading upriver.

Later at Papscannee, I saw three of the Peregrines’ little cousins. This Kestrel was perched on a wildly swaying twiglet much too thin for its weight.

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Peregrine and prey, 1/9/14

(Squick warning — if you don’t like guts — literal guts — view with caution.)

The Thursday group started out at Albany Airport. Whoop de doo, three Snowy Owls. We’re almost (not quite, but almost) blasé about them now. A pair of Harriers and a Rough-legged Hawk hunted, skirmishing briefly with the owls and resident Redtails. Off to the river!

While on our way we got a call that the Redheads were still hanging out by the Crescent power plant, so that was our first stop. Not a great look in the shimmery lights, so I tried to get closer while the rest of the group went above the dam to scan gulls. When I caught up, everyone’s attention was fixed not on the mass of gulls on the ice, but about 50 feet offshore where this immature Peregrine Falcon was plucking his catch of the day — a Ring-billed Gull. Feathers everywhere!

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Acckkk! Bllffttt! Pttooi!

Then he got down to business. Neither a crowd of admirers nor a passing Redtail deterred him from lunch.

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It’s winter. Food is too important to be distracted.

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Feathers stuck to his back, beak and tail.

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Oooh, guts.

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Finally a Bald Eagle buzzed the gull flocks and that was one disturbance too many.

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Leftovers, anyone?

Categories: bird behavior, Bird photos, OMG bird | Tags: , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Owls & hawks, hawks & owls… 12/30/13

I can’t help it. I love those birds of prey.

Several Snowy Owls have been seen at Albany Airport recently.

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This was by far the whitest Snowy I’ve ever seen, so most likely an adult male. When it was first pointed out to me it had its head turned 90 degrees away an it was indistinguishable from the rest of the snow lumps along the runway. I love the tiny devil horns! I don’t see that feature mentioned in the field guide descriptions but it shows in almost every photo I’ve seen this winter. One theory is that the birds this far south are food-stressed and have less body fat, so the ‘ears’ show more. I don’t know… the birds found dead or taken in for rehab are usually underweight, but does correlation imply causality? The RPI bird wasn’t lacking food — it was devouring crows regularly for several days —  and it had visible horns.

Further down the runway I saw this darker and probably younger bird.

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There was a third owl on the grounds that day, and a Short-eared Owl was reported too, but I missed them.

A pair of resident Redtails enjoyed the sun.

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Then I circled around to the other side of the airport, scanning a swirl of Horned Larks for a few elusive Lapland Longspurs. (Winter plumage is not as striking as the breeding male in the link.) No luck there. I really do like birds that hold still…

 

 

 

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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

There are cat/bird interactions…

… and then there are CAT/BIRD interactions.

Hunter (that’s his name and he lives up to it) had a squirrel. Had, until someone dropped in for dinner…

©Dan Miller

©Dan Miller

Ginger, the cat inside, is saying, “Dude, you’re on your own here.”

©Dan Miller

©Dan Miller

Photos taken by Dan Miller. Thanks!

Categories: bird behavior, Bird photos, Feeder birds, Mammals too, OMG bird | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Schenectady count and … OMG SNOWY OWL!!!!!11!!!!!!

It’s cold. Wicked cold, snot-freezing cold, why-didn’t-I-stay-in-bed cold. But it’s opening day of Christmas Bird Count season, and I was off to Schenectady County.

At 8°F, pigeons huddled for warmth on light poles. As the sky brightened a few birds ventured down to the pavement, joined by others from across the lot. When they all erupted into the air, we realized one of the ‘pigeons’ was a Cooper’s Hawk. It gave up the attack quickly and swung off into a tree. And we started our route.

Things settled into a routine pretty quickly. Cruise slowly along the road, windows cracked for chip notes, get out, stand around stamping our feet, jump back in the car and crank the heat. Repeat, adding a few birds at a time for a few hours. It seemed to be getting colder as the morning wore on. The birds had better sense than the birders.

Then the news raced across the local list — Snowy Owl at RPI! I recognized the location right away. All the times I’d driven my kids to classes there finally paid off! I decided to bail from the count, and the count followed me across the river to Troy where right where he was supposed to be was a beautiful immature male Snowy Owl.

I love my new camera.

I love my new camera.

He gazed around looking sleepy. Cars entered and exited the parking lot, birders gathered and oooohed and gazed. The only thing that caught his interest was a vehicle squeaking like a tremendous rodent. For that, he opened his eyes.

Until a pigeon darted by. He followed the bird’s flight, turning his head nearly 90 degrees.

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Then he turned around…

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… and did what birds usually do when planning a hasty takeoff. (No, I did not take a picture of that.) And in a heartbeat, too quickly for me to follow with the camera, he took off.

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Categories: bird behavior, Bird photos, Christmas Bird Count, Field trip, OMG bird | Tags: , , , , , | 7 Comments

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

Swan conundrum

I drove upriver today. Things were quiet, not even the big Canada Goose flocks I saw last time. But up near Fort Miller, I saw two white shapes in with a hundred geese. Much too large for Snow Geese. Mute Swans?

Nope!

Three swan species inhabit North America. Mute Swans were imported from Europe, intended to decorate park ponds. They took off and became an attractive nuisance, aggressively chasing off native waterfowl and incautious picnickers. They are easy to distinguish with gracefully curved neck, wings arched over the back, and a mostly-orange beak.

The two native swans are Trumpeter and Tundra, challengingly similar at a distance. Trumpeter is a bit larger, Tundra often has a bit of yellow on the lores (the area between the beak and eye), and if the bird is calling their voices are distinctly different. But when seen from across the river? A tough call.

So I crowd-sourced it to my birding group. Opinions varied, but another birder photographed a pair of swans in the same area a few hours earlier, that were very distinctly Tundras complete with yellow spot. It seems reasonable that two swans, just a short while after, in the same location, would be the same birds, right? So tentatively, and subject to better intel, I’m saying that local species #201 is Tundra Swan. *

 

*And if they do turn out to be Trumpeters instead, that’s cool too. Still local #201.**

 

**And then there’s the debate about whether Trumpeters are “officially countable” or not. As an introduced species — or is it re-introduced? That’s a whole ‘nother question — they haven’t been breeding in New York long enough to be on the NYSOA checklist. Whatever. It’s a hella cool bird, the world’s largest waterfowl, and was effectively extinct in most of North America by the beginning of the 20th century. Breeding programs helped bring it back from the brink, and the population is showing a steady increase. They’re still troubled by habitat pressure from territorial Mute Swans, and like most dabblers are also very susceptible  to lead poisoning.

 

And yes, I did reach my stretch goal! How many more will I see?

Categories: bird behavior, Bird photos, Field trip, NYS 2013, OMG bird, Rara avis | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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