Return of the Blog

It lives! No, I haven’t given up on blogging. And I certainly haven’t given up on birding!

A few months ago, the hard drive on my computer failed catastrophically. Fortunately, we’d learned from the last time that happened and ran a continuous backup. Dragged a ten year old PowerMac out of the closet and we were set… except for one problem. It can’t run any updates after, oh, 2013. So no iTunes, no Firefox, no Netflix, no iPhoto, no WordPress – the list goes on.

And I have so many birds I want to share, but the pictures are stuck in my camera! I decided I’ll write posts and store them as drafts until I get technologically caught up. Or should I publish them, and add photos later?

What do you think?

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Yeah, yeah, yeah.

I know. At least I can do a year’s-end wrap-up.

In several parts, so I’ll have something to post for a few days…

Part one: Extralimital chases!

I always gripe about missing birds that everyone else saw, so this year I’m happy to say I had several successful long-distance expeditions! First, of course, was the glorious Gyrfalcon in Wallkill, told in more detail here. In late December a very similar bird showed up in the same location. A return visit? Nobody knows — this time it was a one-day wonder.


In April, in roughly the same area, a much weirder wanderer dropped in. Crested Caracaras are not migratory birds – they aren’t expected north of central Texas and Florida. So what was this one doing in Orange County, New York? Mostly hanging out at a small golf course, eating roadkill possum provided by the owners. It looks like an attenuated Bald Eagle with a bad toupee, and walks like a Secretary Bird. This one was was especially interesting, because it was missing its left eye. That didn’t seem to interfere with its scavenging or flying: it was seen a few months later in Massachusetts. I hope it finally figured out where South is…

IMG_2456 6.17.36 PM


In June I added two species to my ‘Heard Only’ life list (yes, I have multiple subcategories of life list, don’t we all?), both skulky birds with fortunately distinctive songs. Yellow-breasted Chat is a large unwarblerish warbler with a Catbird-like jumble of song fragments and noises. Some observers were lucky enough to see it perched high and displaying, but when I was there it never came out of dense tangled cover.

Henslow’s Sparrow, searched for on our annual club trip to Perch River WMA, was even more frustrating. We stood by the roadside in the drizzling rain and maybe saw a wingtip flash by. I suspect the bird doesn’t fly, but rather crawls on its belly like a reptile. An Amish family on their way to Sunday service just shook their heads: “Crazy English.”

Many years ago, before eBird, listservs, or the all-knowing internet, I tried to find a Painted Bunting in Florida based on a location in a birding guide that had last been updated… when? No luck that day, so when I heard a spectacular male was hanging out in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, it was time to revisit The City for the first time in years. Things sure have changed, especially bird-finding. GPS to find our way, eBird to check it was still present, and a whole network of cooperative birders to get to the exact spot. And there he was:


We ran out of adjectives. Technicolor! Luminous! Tie-dyed!

Media coverage was non-stop. Not just the bird, but vagrant birders got a moment of fame. If you’re curious what I look like when geeking out, here you go.

So that’s the year in out-of-town lifers. Tomorrow, local surprises!


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A glorious Gyrfalcon, 2/17/15

On a hot sticky day, nothing is better than remembering a quintessential winter bird.* Gyrfalcons, like Snowy Owls, make occasional irruptions down from their arctic territory and this winter they were spotted in some unexpected locations.

One of those surprise spots was in Wallkill, NY, a mere 90 miles away. It was showing up reliably for over a week at a horse farm, so the Thursday birding group packed up and headed down to find — that’s right — the one day when it was a no-show. Due to car problems we had to leave early in the afternoon and naturally we got a call halfway back that the Gyr had returned to its usual post and was putting on a show. Grrr!! Dipped on the sight of a lifetime!

A few days later it was a brilliant sunny calm day, and my dear husband persuaded me to give it another try. (Well, it may have sounded more like “Either go, or stop talking about it!”) So back down to the horse farm where I joined the crowd of birders scanning the trees in vain. Suddenly everyone’s phones went off and we all piled into cars to drive some 10 miles praying all the way, to find this.

I’ve been through these photos a dozen times and I just can’t cut the number back any further. Here, enjoy this Glorious Gyrfalcon gallery.

There was speculation this might be a female, based on it being just plain massive. I can’t say for sure, but to me she’s my beautiful girl. This is how far away she was at 50x zoom:


But let’s crop things a bit! She was eating prey the whole time. I think it was either a Mallard or a Common Merganser, by the bright orange feet that popped up against the snow.

After an hour she seemed to be full, and stopped eating to preen. A bit of duck between the toes:


…when suddenly a Sharp-shinned Hawk buzzed her, trying to drive her off and steal the remains.


No way. She stuck to it, and even crammed down a bit more food.

I was awed by her sheer size. If a Peregrine is a flying greyhound, a Gyrfalcon is a bull terrier on hyperdrive. Look at that powerful deep chest and strong legs.

Even her back is stunning.


After nearly two hours during which she paid no attention whatsoever to the throng of admirers and cameras firing off like artillery, she finally roused – that’s shook her feathers into position – and took off, circling over us and away. I didn’t even attempt to photograph her then. I didn’t want anything to come between my eyes and such an experience.

The Shawangunks at sunset, as I lingered waiting for the Short-eared Owls to come out.


After a few unplanned alternate routes (OK, I got lost), I returned home exhausted but exhilarated.

The happy birder

*The one good thing about not posting for months is I’ve got a backlog of great birds to fill in during the August doldrums.

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Why why why?

I always swear I’m not going chasing any more. Then I hear about another local rarity and boom! I’m out the door.

I headed back to Collins Lake this morning in search of the Cackling Goose again, but in spite of the skilled eyes and best efforts of a half-dozen birders, we couldn’t pull anything out from the hordes of Canadas that was small enough.

Third time is not the charm. I will be strong! I won’t go back tomorrow! I swear it!

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Poem #2

We are supposed to wait at least 30 days after mailing to share our poems. *sigh* It’s hard to wait!


‘storm coming’


The sodden stagnant air begins to move

leaves turning silver-side

a trace of cool against my neck

The blanket lifted, lofted, blown away

as we jolt and laugh

at the thunder-stroke


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Oh no, not again!

I went out to the car this morning, tossed some stuff in, shut the door and walked around to the driver’s side. At least, that’s what I meant to do…

What I actually did was have my feet fly out from under me on the ice I knew was there under a thin skim of snow. I fell straight down onto my back, and my right elbow slammed into a ridge of ice.

Yes, that’s my second bad break in 15 months, and this one will need surgery too. So I’m grounded for the winter. The only bright side is that I wasn’t carrying my scope, camera, binocs. See you in the spring, I hope!


ETA — that should be 26 months, not 15. I mean I’m a klutz, but not that bad.

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Redpolls: maybe too subtle

The Common Redpoll invasion continues. After the first crazy surge of 75+ at a time, it’s settled down to a daily breakfast and dinner crowd of between 25 and 35. They can still empty a pound of thistle seed in two days and enjoy sunflower seed in moderation too. A friend reports seeing them forage in a large forsythia bush, and they’ve cleaned off the standing weed heads in my yard.

Of course when any bird shows up in hordes like that, a good birder keeps her eyes peeled for the anomaly. Is it, could it be, a Hoary Redpoll?

This is a Common Redpoll. Brace yourself for teh cute.

Common Redpoll

Common Redpoll

And this one — it’s lighter. A bit larger. Beak a bit petite. Less streaky on the sides and undertail. But is it light/large etc enough?

Hoary or just pale?

Hoary or just pale?

We’ve all been racking our brains trying to sort out the incredibly subtle differences between Common and Hoary Redpolls. Sibley has page after insanely detailed page trying to sort them out.

Then yesterday I read this article suggesting that we’re all wasting our time. What we’re seeing is Common Redpolls, period, and their plumage is too variable to sort out. The post itself is light in tone though backed up with studies, but there’s some real serious ornithology going on in the comments.

So what are the odds of seeing a Hoary Redpoll, if the beast even exists? Pretty good if I travel to the Arctic tundra. Around here? Maybe. Just maybe.

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Crawling towards 100

Gray dogwood, popular hangout

The yard list creeps up slowly. Last evening I went out, hoping to add some migrating Common Nighthawks. No luck with them, but I did spot two juvenile Scarlet Tanagers (more olive-yellow) foraging in company with Cedar Waxwings among the white berries of a Grey Dogwood bush. Later a raptor wheeled overhead whistling — a Broad-winged Hawk.

So, two new birds for my yard list, bringing it up to 97.

Just dropped in for lunch.

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Slow season

It’s a quiet time of year, birdwise. Even the Red-eyed Vireo has stopped chanting. Time to brush up on confusing fall warblers and shorebirds before the tide of migration sweeps back.

Many of the backyard birds are on their second brood, so once again I’m seeing comical bob-tailed catbirds and tuftless titmice. I thought at first this was a pair of Baltimore Orioles, until I saw the tufts of fledgling down still poking through.



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The Central Park Effect

I’m looking forward to seeing this. I never birded Central Park much — Jamaica Bay was my stomping ground — but it is an oasis in a desert of concrete and steel.

At about 0:40 is why I’m working my PT so hard — warbler season! Got to be able to get those binocs high by May!

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