Posts Tagged With: life bird!

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.


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!


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!

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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.




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

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.



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


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


The Thursday Group went down to Papscannee in the beautiful stretch of amazingly rain-free days last week. Some sandpipers, some ducks, aaannndd I’m sorry, all the shorebirds look too alike for me (except for co-operative Dunlins, see later post). We got  really nice looks at a Lincoln’s Sparrow, not common around here. Then a flock of little birds with white feathers bordering their tails flew over. Their flight pattern resembled the undulation of Goldfinches, but faster, more erratic and abrupt, then they disappeared into tall grass. American Pipits! They popped out of the grass, circled overhead with a flight call of ‘pip-pit, pip-pit’ and then zoom out of sight again. I could see the white outer tail feathers like a Junco, but a slimmer, lighter-colored bird with a buffy color underlying the streaked breast.

Two new species for my life list! But I wasn’t really satisfied with my look at the Pipit. When I add a Life Bird, I like to have a Life Look at it. They never stopped moving and once down, determinedly skulked. So today being the last nice day predicted for some time, I headed back for another try. And there they were! Foraging in the open, about 15 feet from the car window. I had several minutes to study them so close two birds filled my binocs, until a car sped down the dirt road scaring up crows and Pipits (Pipits. I just like the name.) What had seemed to be a small flock turned out to be at least 60 birds hidden in the stubble. Over the next hour I watched as they moved from corn to grass to mud in constant restless action. I tried getting pictures, but… you can guess. So here’s a picture by a pro.

American Pipit ©Clay Taylor, from Swarovski Optik Digiscoping Gallery.

Dig those crazy-long nails. Pipit!

Categories: Field trip, Life bird!, New bird, What am dat bird? | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge

May was a very birdful month and I’m still catching up on my postings. Our big trip was to Montezuma NWR, the wetlands at the north end of Cayuga Lake. Since we had to be at the Ithaca end of the lake anyway, I really wanted to spend some time exploring this amazing habitat. I have a habit of road-birding which (I am told) can be unnerving for my passengers, so I was delighted to see Montezuma was perfect for me. No foot traffic is allowed. Cars must stay on the loop road with plenty of pull-offs for wildlife viewing. Given the unpromising weather, ours was the only car for a while, making it possible to drive while looking through binocs. Not that I would ever do that.

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We arrived on a drizzly grey morning, so right off we weren’t going to bother with warblering. MNWR has a nesting population of Cerulean Warblers, sky-blue birds that frequent the very tree-tops, and staring straight up into the rain will only get you a stiff neck and wet binoculars. Maybe they’ll still be there in August. A young fox trotted along the road’s edge, stopping to sniff, crunch something up, and leave some messages along the way. As we climbed an observation tower, a robin flew off calling angrily. We had scared her off her nest on the steps. Doesn’t she know the real estate mantra, ‘Location, location, location’?

If you’ve never seen your fill of Great Blue Herons, this is the place to come. We saw at least 50 in one marsh. I tried very hard to turn some into Sandhill Cranes, but they wouldn’t cooperate. Other waders included Green Heron, Great Egret, and Glossy Ibis, looking exotic and Egyptian. Lots of assorted ducks and grebes and a pair of Trumpeter Swans, and we had some good long looks at the weird Common Moorhen. They swim like a duck, have a head like a chicken with a wad of gum stuck to the forehead, and long-toed heron feet. They shared the flooded-field habitat with elegant Black Terns. This particular remote wetland was supposed to be our best chance of seeing the cranes. We did see Bank, Barn, and Tree Swallows, and an active Purple Martin colony.

Raptors included Red-tailed Hawks, American Kestrels, Ospreys, Turkey Vultures, and several Harriers including one pale grey male. I prefer the old name, Marsh Hawk, or Owl-faced Hawk would be a good name. Oh, did I forget to mention Bald Eagles? Yeah. Soaring overhead, fishing, perched five at a time in trees — yup, we saw a few eagles.

Shorebirds — oy. Little peeps, long-legged waders, busy-footed sandpipers, and most of them too far off to comfortably identify. Is it lazy birding to say I enjoyed just observing their lives for a while, their swift foraging, sudden flight, dash and stillness. “In Boston yesterday an ornithologist said significantly, ‘If you held the bird in your hand –;’ but I would rather hold it in my affections.” — H. D. Thoreau.

It was getting late in the afternoon; we were tired and as wet-footed as herons. We stopped at one last pull-off which offered a slightly elevated view down into the marshlands, giving us a better idea of the lay of the land. I was kind of discouraged — I really hoped to see a Sandhill Crane. Then suddenly a huge gray bird, bigger than a heron, flying with its neck extended, trumpeting its wild cry. I grabbed Bill’s arm, shouting, “There it is! There it is!” How exciting for my target bird to be the very last bird of the day!

We spent the night at the Hotel Clarence, and if you’re visiting the Seneca Falls/Montezuma area, I highly recommend it. It has vastly more character than the chain motels, for much the same price. And their cable included BBCAmerica, so we got to watch Doctor Who!

It poured overnight and was still raining lightly in the morning, and we did have a deadline for arriving at Cornell, so we did one more quick loop around, stopping to watch carp struggling to sneak from the barge canal into the waters of the refuge. Baffles on the sluices letting water flow from the Refuge to the canal stop most of the fish, though a few get through and are the source of startling leaps and splashes in the marsh. I filmed the carp-et of fish (thanks Caleb!).

And then we drove down the east coast of the lake through rain and dense fog, picked up our young man and his belongings, and headed home. Hmmm, it’ll be late August when we have to bring him back… migration time!

Categories: Bird photos, Field trip, Life bird!, Mammals too, OMG bird, What am dat bird? | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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