Sunday, March 23, 2014

New York's Fake Spring

Birds from Urban Manhattan at the very start of Spring ....

So March is a trying time for birders.  The temperatures start to warm, precocious Spring flowers poke up through the grass, bold trees start to think about budding, and there's a hint ... just a hint ... of migration.  Birders can feel Spring in the air and pour out of their 'cabins' (well you can go 'cabin-crazy' in an apartment too, and the average New York City apartment isn't all that much bigger than a cabin) and start birding like its mid May.  You can almost taste the warbler song to come, or feel the flood of migrants on their way.   But we do have a (long ... painful ... frustrating ...) month to wait, and the forecast is for more snow next week.  Early signs of Spring are just a tease, and this weekend we got plenty of them ... just enough to make sure that next week's scheduled snow storm will be doubly frustrating.

Spent a few hours in Central Park both days this weekend.  I was trapped in the City by work and a broken Range Rover that had to go to the car doctor (urban cars take a beating - provided in part this time by a homeless guy with a tire-iron).  I did manage to clear two mornings for the Park though and put in a bit of effort to see as much of the 'pre-migration' as I could.

Baltimore Oriole - Central Park, New York County, NY (March 2014)
Photo: Ryan Walker (used with permission)
Saturday was actually quite balmy and I went in early with hopes of seeing an American Woodcock (there had been many reported) and a Rusty Blackbird (at least one had been seen the week before).  I started near the Tupelo Field and almost immediately flushed a woodcock, getting no more than the traditional split-second, corner of an eye view.  Still, it was a year-bird and I was sure I'd see more.  I worked The Ramble for a couple more hours, enjoying the relatively mild (it actually wasn't snowing for once) temperatures and did come up with a few things.  A Swamp Sparrow was a year bird, and I did get a look at one of the two over-wintering Baltimore Orioles, but I never did come up with another woodcock and couldn't turn up a Rusty Blackbird despite checking all the likely spots.  The highlight of the day was an abundance of (Red) Fox Sparrows with several singing birds and a dozen or more hanging out at various spots around The Ramble.  After flogging the area, I decided to give up and go to look for the Red-necked Grebe that had been hanging out on the reservoir.  Red-necked Grebe is a good bird for New York City and this one was the first one seen in Central Park in perhaps thirty years.  I have the vaguest recollection of seeing one on the Hudson River back in the early '90s but my eBird records from back them as patchy and this promised to be a county bird in eBird.  The reservoir unfortunately was now un-frozen so, while folks last week had seen the bird at point-blank range in one of the few ice-free patches on the reservoir, I had to make do with super-distant views across the water.  The bird was described as 'transitional plumage' but it looked like a drab Winter bird to me, still I was glad to see it (and officially add it to the county list).  So I declared victory and headed off to do grown-up things ...

American Woodcock - Central Park, New York County, NY (March 2014)
Photo: Ryan Walker (used with permission)
Sunday was colder ... there was a storm coming and it felt very much like a Winter day with the promise of (the forecast) snow to come.   I got to the Park later than the day before but was almost immediately rewarded with a 'migrant' when I came across an Eastern Phoebe hawking for (microscopic) insects on the fence-line near one of the lawns.  Not long afterwards I did find a 'sitting' woodcock after an hour of scanning likely fenced-in spots (spots without fences are hopeless due to the army of dog-walkers who run their dogs through The Ramble every morning - yes, there's a leash-law, yes it's ignored) and sent a text to Ryan Walker who I knew really wanted to see one.  American Woodcock is perhaps one of my favorite North American birds - charismatic, cryptic, and comedic, especially when walking like a little clockwork toy - simply an awesome critter.  I simply never tire of them but eventually I pulled myself away, mostly worried about drawing too much attention to this bird for fear of others flushing it.  So on to 'the feeders' to see what was around while I waited for Ryan to come in to the park.  Central Park has a huge feeder operation; hardly a surprise for a city so stuffed with birders - there are probably more birders within a mile of Central Park than live in the average US state.  The dedicated volunteers put out quite a smorgasbord, filling tubes, coconut feeders, traditional feeders, and 'schmeering' suet and seeds on trees and on the ground.  Of course this gathers a good selection of birds and today everything cooperated.  In no time I'd seen a Pine Warbler, two Baltimore Orioles, a couple of Brown Creepers, and a Carolina Wren, in addition to the more traditional feeder birds.  Several tourists (they didn't have bins) came over to ask about the 'orange birds' and I have to admit, it is quite a spectacle.  Many thanks to the dedicated volunteers who keep it going.

Pine Warbler - Central Park, New York County, NY (March 2014)
Photo: Ryan Walker (used with permission)
Getting cold, and running out of time, I waited to make sure that Ryan got his American Woodcock and Pine Warbler before leaving for the office.   Luckily though, my 2pm call got moved to 5pm, so after a few hours I was able to come back and add Black-Crowned Night-Heron at the South end of the Park before heading back to the reservoir for another look at the Red-necked Grebe (yep, definitely a second bird) and a rare (for Central Park) American Wigeon.  Not a bad haul of birds for March.  Please let Spring come soon, this Winter has been way, way too long ....

Monday, March 17, 2014

Suburban Miam for ABA Birds and Exotics (Part 2)

More suburban Miami birding.

SATURDAY (continued)

From the Strip Malls in the morning to 'Disney Birding' in the afternoon ... at least that's what Carlos said.

Having hit our targets in the morning in suburban Miami we headed North into Palm Beach County in the afternoon.  There was actually an ABA bird for me to chase there, the recently accepted Nanday Parakeet, but we also planned to do some shameless year-listing at the 'Disney-like' birding spots in the county.

I don't love these places, the crowds of weekend birders on the boardwalks are a little ... hmmm ... awkward, and I've never loved places where crowd gather to wander and chat in a birding spot.  Still,  we had time to kill and we hoped to see some year birds while waiting for the parakeets.  First stop was the Green Cay Wetlands & Nature Center where the predictable crowds of birders over the age of 70 were strolling around the boardwalks causing traffic jams near every basking alligator or close great egret.  We did get good birds, adding Mottled Ducks, Wood Storks, Anhingas, Least Bittern, Purple Gallinule, and lots of Soras.  Best nature sighting at this spot was a very confiding River Otter which posed for photographs close to the boardwalk.  There were crowds, lots of chatter, and the whole place did feel like a theme park, but the wildlife was tame .... and close.  I won't post any point-blank photos of herons or egrets (OK, just a few) ...

Wood Stork (I feel bad for posting this, but it's Florida) ...
American Bittern (they look colder in New York) ...
River Otter (two shots)

Then on to Wakodahatchee Wetlands where we added some Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, more close herons and a surprise (for me) Neotropic Cormorant.  Apparently this bird has been around for a while and was overlooked for quite a while before being identified from photos taken by a New York birder.  Nice to see one in full breeding plumage, close to the ... cough ... boardwalk.

Neotropic Cormorant in full-on breeding plumage, close to the board walk.
Ignored by almost all the birders present that day .....
This spot also gave me an ABA bird.  We were supposedly killing time before going to see some Nanday Parakeets at a known roost site nearby, but while we were there we had some fly-over Nandays.  Just as well as it turns out as the roost site turned out to be a dud later in the evening.  Great add to the ABA list.

Nanday Parakeets, recently added to the ABA list.


So back to the Bulbuls at dawn and back to walking the suburban street of Kendall.  I always feel awkward walking suburan streets and using bins to stare into people's gardens.  I'm always expecting to hear sirens but perhaps the folks in this neighborhood are used to strange people with bins wandering their streets.  Even so I'm almost manically friendly to anyone we encounter - cheerful 'good mornings' at uncomfortably loud volumes.  Amazed that I haven't been jailed.

Bulbuls however were not cooperating so we gave up after an hour and tried another area a little to the North.  We did add a few more warbler species in a truly tiny patch of native vegetation, and added another introduced parrot (by now you know I love them) when some Monk Parakeets flew over.  Still, after another hour of searching we were still drawing a blank, and then 'as if by magic' two Red-Whiskered Bulbuls flew silently over us (a few feet over our head) and flew on, vanishing into tall trees behind houses.  Crappy, but diagnostic, views (red vents), and even though we could have kept searching for better views I'd frankly had enough of the suburbs and it was time to move on.

Not a Short-tailed Hawk even though it showed a classic Short-tailed Hawk field mark - soaring
with Turkey and Black Vultures.   Turns out at Broad-winged Hawks winter in South Florida too.
So onwards and back to Matheson hoping for Short-tailed Hawk.  Perhaps they'd moved on already and, despite a couple of Broad-winged Hawks joining the vulture kettles, we skunked on that local goodie.  We did hear some Orange-winged Parrots but couldn't get a view as they passed over, and got another look at the La Sagra's Flycatcher, but we were running out of options and I pushed Carlos to bug a friend of his who was rumored to have Shiny Cowbirds at his feeder.  So Carlos made the call and, after a stop for excellent Peruvian Seafood (hey I was on vacation) we headed off to Homestead on a cowbird hunt.

Shiny Cowbird (hiding behind Red-winged Blackbird) in Homestead.
The cowbird hunt is detailed in a  previous post so I won't repeat but Shiny Cowbird was a good bird to add for the state and the ABA.  After that, I was starting to get fatigued (we aren't used to sun in New York) so after a quick stop for shorebirds (and a shocking number, 40+, of Lesser Black-backed Gulls ... who knew ... ) I called the trip and headed back to the hotel.  Great trip, good birds, great guiding from Carlos.  A very nice way to spend a weekend away from New York.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Suburban Miami for ABA Birds and Exotics (Part 1)

A quick trip for ABA birds in Miami

When I was in Miami in February I saw an Aaratinga Parakeet on South Beach.  The trip was most definitely not a birding trip, and I had to list the parakeet as 'aaratinga sp.' as I saw it from a cab and couldn't stop to ID it properly, but it gave me an urge to come back and do a few days birding in the Miami area looking for some of the local specialties.

It took me a couple of weeks to get back but on Friday the 7th of March I flew back to Miami and arranged to meet up with Carlos Sanchez (local birding expert) for two days of birding in the Miami area.


An early start at the University of Miami Campus and a quick introduction that Miami is simply not like other cities.  Muscovy Ducks ("Florida Feral Type) loafed around the lake and a Spot-breasted Oriole sang loudly and obviously from a tree near the parking lot.  We also checked out local trees and bumped into a flock of Scaly-headed Parrots (not ABA-countable but apparently breeding locally in small numbers).

Muscovy Ducks are common and obvious in the Miami suburbs.  Technically countable
in the ABA area (perhaps a technicality) and certainly they seem to be doing well in Miami.
Spot-breasted Oriole.  More local and restricted (and ABA countable).
Scaly-headed Parrot.  Not ABA countable, but apparently breeding locally.
Buoyed by the easy oriole we headed off the the Baptist Hospital area in Kendall and a search for the local Red-whiskered Bulbuls.  Carlos has scouted the area a few days earlier and found a number of bulbuls, some even vocal, but we put a couple of hours in at the site and simply couldn't come up with one.  Oh well, we had another day to look so no panic at that point.  We did pick up more exotics though, adding Common Hill Myna, Mitred Parakeet, Yellow-chevroned Parakeet, and Egyptian Goose.  None countable in the ABA yet but all clearly well established and perhaps on their way to countable status.

Mitred Parakeet.  Common and obvious in the Miami area but not (yet) countable
in the ABA.
Egyptian Goose.  Another established local (not countable yet).
Then on to a local office building to look for White-winged Parakeet (on the ABA list).  As we parked on a side street a few parakeets flew over us calling, and walking around the corner we came up to a breeding colony in ornamental palms around the entrance to an office complex.  The birds allowed close approach and plenty of photos so we dallied for a while.  I was liking the exotic birding thing.

White-winged Parakeet (two shots).  So much more obvious and separable from Yellow-chevroned
Parakeet in flight .  Why this one is on the ABA list and Yellow-chevroned isn't is a bit of a mystery.

And then on to Matheson Hammock to look for the long-staying La Sagra's Flycatcher.  I had seen this species once before in the Bahamas but I have to admit that seeing it every day on my eBird ABA Rarities update email had made me really want to get this individual.  This is a species that shows up almost annually in South Florida but it is a Code 3 bird and so many other birders had seen it this Winter, and I really wanted to add it.

Arriving at the park we split up to look for the bird but before we'd gone too far I heard the flycatcher calling back in the mangroves and we circled back towards the parking lot, zeroing in on the call.  Before long the bird got came in closer and eventually popped out on some trees in the open at the edge of the picnic area.  We had great views/photos and, this being the only time during the morning that we saw other birders, we were able to get some other flycatcher hunters on to the bird (why aren't there more local birders here?).  Very happy to get this one so easily, a very cool bird.

La Sagra's Flycatcher (2 shots).  Looking quite 'Pewee-like' in the first shot but more of a
classic look in the second.

We finished our morning in Miami with three more stops in urban settings for good birds.  We had a group of Bronzed Cowbirds in a strip mall parking lot, some Common Mynas in yet another parking lot, and some Purple Swamphens in a pond near a bigger parking lot of another shopping mall.  All fascinating species (the cowbirds at least are naturally occurring and not introduced) but all good countable ABA birds.  The variety in Miami is truly fascinating even if the birding locations aren't exactly a 'wilderness experience'.  We did spend a lot of the morning in parking lots.

Bronzed Cowbird.  A stop sign and a bicycle in the background at the parking lot where they
hang out.
Common Myna.  Out second Myna species of the weekend and another strip-mall specialist.
This one is countable though.
Purple Swamphen.  Who knows how these things got here (this is an Asian race based
on the grey head).  Regardless of how they for here though, they certainly seem to be
Part 2 to follow ....

Monday, March 10, 2014

Photospot: Cowbirds ... Really? Yes Cowbirds ....

Had the rare privilege (at least in the ABA Area) of seeing three species of Cowbirds at feeders in Homestead, Florida on Sunday with Carlos Sanchez.  I don't spent so much time looking at Cowbirds in New York other than to scan flocks for odd blackbirds, but I have to admit it was actually pretty cool to have multiple species at the same place.  And they do give good iridescence ...

Brown-headed Cowbird.

Bronzed Cowbird - a good bird in the ABA area and they do really pop on the iridescence front.  We saw several in strip mall parking lots in urban Miami but also a few in suburban Homestead.  Another potentially invasive species that hasn't really been able to get far beyond the borders.

Another Bronzed Cowbird shot, this one from urban Miami ( a strip mall) on Saturday.

Shiny Cowbird (hiding behind the Red-winged Blackbird).  Folks thought that these things would be the next invasive species but they seem to have stalled and remain a (Code 3) ABA rarity confined to a few spots in Southern Florida.  Common in the Caribbean but they probably aren't going to make it in the US in any numbers.  I though it looked pretty cool - maybe rarity overcomes prejudices?

Monday, March 3, 2014

Eight (8!) Species of Goose on Long Island

An amazing weekend of Winter birding on Eastern Long Island ...

So February was "urban" with a lot of time in New York City and long-weekend trips to Miami and New Orleans.  Great restaurants, good company, and lots of fun, but by the end of the month I was having what I call a 'biophylia attack" and really needed to be outside a city for a few days.  Drove out to East Hampton on Thursday morning and did work conference calls from the house in Northwest Harbor so I could be totally free and unscheduled (and outside the City) by dawn on Friday morning.  The plan was to go birding all day Friday, Saturday, and perhaps part of Sunday.  I had no other plans, and I was very excited for some totally uncluttered "outdoor time" ...


Well, Friday dawned .... cold ... and windy ... but mostly cold.  I let the dogs out for a run, re-filled the feeders in the yard, and drank coffee on the deck.  After ten minutes I was wondering if this outdoor thing was such a smart idea and whether it might not have been a lot smarter to fly down to Florida for the weekend.  But I'd made my choice, and I was already Out East, so I layered-up, jumped in the car, and headed off to Shinecock to start the weekend.

Shinecock (pronounced Shin-eh-cock, after the local Native American tribe - just thought I'd clarify that) has been very birdy this Winter and Derek Rogers had reported that there was sand-replenishment activity going on near the jetty earlier in the week; almost always a magnet for interesting gulls looking to have their lunch pumped up onto the beach for them.  I got there early and set up to scope the gulls but quickly realized that my time there would be short as I was shivering within minutes of getting out of the car.  Still, there were lots of gulls to be seen and even a quick scan turned up two Iceland Gulls, an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull, and a Glaucous Gull along with a good mix of commoner gulls, Brant (Goose Species #1) and sea-duck.

Glaucous Gull - Shinecock Inlet, Suffolk County, NY (March 2014) - two shots
Saw this bird on February 28th and March 1st.

Admitting that I'm basically wimp, or at least wasn't prepared for the weather, I gave up on scoping the sea and decided to do some car-birding along Dune Road.  I found two Snowy Owls fairly easily - the stragglers from this year's incredible invasion (I'd had three there earlier in the year) but couldn't turn up a Bittern or a Rough-legged Hawk from the car, and given the cold and the wind-chill, decided to head inland where I could actually do some real birding.
Snowy Owl - Ponquogue Bridge, Suffolk County, NY (January 2014)
Took this photo in January but saw the same bird this day in February.
My next stop was the Riverhead area and particularly the fields around Roanoke Avenue where three good birds had been sighted earlier in the year (Yellow-headed Blackbird, Black Vulture, and Pink-footed Goose).  I'd looked for all three on several previous occasions and seen none, but I figured I'd give them another chance.

Arriving at the Reeve's Avenue Buffalo Farm (yes, real Buffalo, or Bison I guess) I actually found a big flock of Canada Geese (Goose species #2) and jumped out to scope it.  I quickly found a Cackling Goose (Goose species #3) but once again couldn't find the Pink-footed Goose and, given the cold, soon gave up to go and look for the blackbird at the buffalo farm.  While I was scanning the buffalo field though (blackbirds like buffalo "chips" it turns out) I heard more Canada Geese flying in and then a loud squeaky call leapt out from among the honks of the Canadas.  Spinning around I got bins on the flock and there, among them, was a Pink-footed Goose!  (Goose species #4).  Only my second ever Pink-footed Goose in the ABA Area, and so I was feeling pretty proud of myself (and cold) and gave up for the day, returning home in the early afternoon.


My original plan for the day was to work Montauk but given the lack of interesting sightings there recently, and the fact that many New York City birders were coming out to look for geese, I decided to re-route to the same area as the day before.  First stop was to confirm that the two Tundra Swans were still present on Hook Pond (Corey Finger has asked me to scout them for him) and then I checked several of the local ponds, finding some Redheads on Cooper's Neck pond for a welcome year bird among ponds that were mostly iced-over.

Shinecock had basically the same species as the day before (but many more birders including the Brooklyn Bird Club group), although I did manage to add an Ipswich Sparrow and a (probable) Seaside Sparrow after "flogging" some sparrow habitat in the much warmer weather.   By the time I got to Reeve's Avenue I though the excitement was done or the day and I pulled up to a group of birders including Derek "Goose Man" Rogers expecting to chat rather than add more species.  We soon had some excitement though when Derek found a second Pink-footed Goose in the assembled flock of 5,000 Canada Geese (there had been rumors, but this was conformation) and re-energized we picked out two Cackling Geese, and a Greater White-fronted Goose (Goose species #5) in the minutes that followed.

Just then we got word that Ken Feustel had found a Barnacle Goose over in Sagaponack (about 45 minutes East of us) and several of us got the sense that this was shaping up as an historic goose weekend on the East End.

I decided to try for the Barnacle, even though I was nervous about leaving the main goose flock (turns out I was right to be nervous), and so I headed off East, stopping briefly to pick up a Snow Goose (Goose species #6) on the way.  Arriving at the Daniel's Lane goose field I set up to scan but it was quickly obvious that the Barnacle Goose wasn't there at the time.   I did see another Greater White-fronted Goose, and so felt optimistic, especially given that there were lots of geese flying into the field.  Opting, for once, to be patient, I set up to wait/scan, and about 20 minutes later was rewarded when the Barnacle (Goose species #7) flew in from the West in a group of Canadas.  Seven species of goose in one day, how could it get any better?  I felt pretty good when I headed home right after ... that is right up until I got home and checked my email only to find out that Shia Mitra and Pat Lindsay had just found a Ross's Goose back at the Buffalo Farm.  Oh well ....

Barnacle Goose - Sagaponack, Suffolk County, NY (March 2014)

Now I had to get that Ross's Goose, so I headed back over to the Riverhead area at first light and started working goose flocks.  The first two flocks I saw just had Canada Geese, but as I got to the Roanoke Vineyard area I saw Ari Gilbert and Bob Adamo scoping something South of Sound Avenue and, pulling a "legal" U-turn, I was soon looking at the Ross's Goose (Goose species #8).  For a while I thought about trying to see all eight species in a day but after scanning the area for a while, and seeing both Pink-footed Geese, and a White-fronted goose, but failing to find a Cackling Goose, my time ran out and I had to run home to get back to the City for a dinner reservation.

Ross's Goose - Riverhead, Suffolk County, NY (March 2014)
Record Shot (a mile away at 70x and an iPhone with no adaptor)
Still, eight species of goose in a weekend was a really neat experience and I was very happy with my haul of waterfowl for the trip.  Twenty-eight species of waterfowl, including eight species of goose.  And maybe I will go to Florida next weekend ....

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Geese and Gulls in the Cold

So it's been a while, frankly after the big year in 2012 I was burned out (and "phased" as we say in the UK - I don't know why we say it, but we do).  But recently the birding thing has felt right again and I've been venturing out a little more, even despite the less than birder friendly temperatures this Winter in New York.

I did look at birds in Rio De Janeiro over New Years, and actually saw my first bird of 2014 at midnight when a Masked Water-Tyrant was flushed by the explosive din of the New Year's fireworks.  I've also started to do eBird reports (I love eBird) and have been pottering a little out in East Hampton.

On Monday, the urge to bird was strong after two days locked up in the office over the weekend so I took a 'mental health day' and jumped in the car to do some New York City birding.  First stop was Randall's Island to chase a previously reported Barnacle Goose.  I'm not (never) sure on the provenance of these Winter geese in New York but a couple of Barnacle, the odd Pink-footed and a few Greater White-fronted Geese show up annually in the Winter in the state.  This bird was interesting mostly because it showed up in New York County (think Manhattan and it's smaller 'off-shore' islands) and a vagrant goose in the most densely populated county in the US, one that would be  considered densely populated by any global standards, sounded like a good add.  So at 9am I slogged my way across 42nd Street, through Times Square and up the FDR highway to the RFK Bridge and Randall's Island.

The goose as it turns out was relatively easy to find, largely due to good directions from Richard Fried.  I worked my way over the the baseball fields in the NorthEast corner of the island and soon saw a flock of about 200 Atlantic Brant with some Canada Geese mixed in.  A binocular scan quickly turned up the Barnacle Goose in the mix and I was able to get a few record shots without getting too far from the car.  Not getting too far from the car being a major priority in birding in New York in the Winter.  Barnacle Geese really are a very cool looking bird though, so crisp well marked, a treat to see one up close.

Some folks have speculated (probably correctly) that this is the same bird that spent last Winter in Van Cortland Park in Bronx.  The same and other folks have also speculated that the bird's choice of urban parks casts a lot of doubt on it's provenance.  Honestly, I'm never sure about vagrant geese, but these days I try not to worry about it too much.  I'm sure some are adaptable former escapees from collections, but we've all also heard the story of Barnacle Geese deemed escapes by local experts on the basis of the fact that they were banded, right up until someone photographed the band, send it in, and discovered that they had been banded as wild birds in Scotland (!).  We'll probably never know for sure, but it was a neat bird, and a nice add to my New York County list.  Good start to the day.

Feeling emboldened I decided to try for another recently reported New York City rarity so crawled down the BQE (a New York City highway which actually has an interstate designation but which has never seen cars move at interstate speeds) to the Veteran's Memorial Pier in Brooklyn.  The pier had hosted a Common Gull for the past two days and so I figured I'd just drop by and pick up the gull before maybe heading out to Riverhead to look for the Pink-footed Goose that I'd missed twice so far this year.  Well best laid plans .... birding just doesn't work that way.

Four hours in the freezing cold on the pier, constantly scanning the hundred of Ring-billed Gulls failed to turn up the Common Gull.  I even went to a local deli and bought a bunch of bread rolls, having a lot of fun feeding the Ring-billed Gulls (what is it about feeding birds that's so much fun?) but failing to attract the vagrant.

I did see an Iceland Gull, a Eurasian Wigeon, and some Purple Sandpipers (all nice), and I also got to watch a Peregrine trying to make a meal of the local Rock Pigeons.  But as for the Common Gull, four hours and no luck.  At the point that I started shivering I knew I had to call it a day and so wound my way back to Manhattan and a hot meal.  A nice day out, with some good birds and plenty of fresh air, but perhaps my not year-listing has taken the edge off my hunger for chasing things.  In 2012 I would have stood there on that pier for days on end looking for that gull, but then again, I'm not sure that was any more fun.  Enjoying what I see, and not too upset about what I don't ..... seems like a good balance ...

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Gyrfalcons are really, really cool.

So first let me say that Gyrfalcons are incredibly cool, perhaps one of the coolest birds likely to ever show up on the East Coast in Winter.  Birders are quite simply blown away by them and many wait years before they finally get to see one of these incredible high Arctic falcons.  They've been impressing people for a very long time too, Viking Kings and Medieval Monarchs coveted them and their image has been used in everything from fine art to fantasy fighter-jet designs.  Every birder hopes to find one of these incredible birds one day and in fact there have been a couple reported on the East Coast this Winter ... but somehow they seem to have generated as much angst as they have excitement.

Gyrfalcon by John James Audubon (perhaps one of his best known pieces).  Unfortunately,
most Gyrfalcons are gray or brown and the pure white form is rarely seen down here in
the South (well this is the South if you're a Gyrfalcon).
In early January a Gyrfalcon was found in the Connecticut River Valley in Central Massachusetts but the bird was hard to pin down and thus seen only occasionally by a few lucky observers.  Then last week hotshot Mass birder Marshall Iliff managed to find out where the bird was roosting every night - quiet an achievement in and of itself - and suddenly had to face a real dilemma.  Gyrfalcons are apparently still at risk of being trapped by falconers, and it seems that this has happened recently to at least one falcon.  If Marshall publicized the location of the falcon's roost he might be putting the bird at risk.  On the other hand, there are an awful lot of birders out there who would really, really like to see a Gyrfalcon.  In the end he compromised, setting up a sign-up sheet for folks who wanted to visit the falcon roost, a method which would hopefully let keen birders see the bird but allow the locals to vet out those who might be out to do no good.  Not sure if this approach will work, but after a lot of obvious angst, this was the approach that the Mass birders chose to take and initial reports seem positive.

I'd largely ignored the Massachusetts falcon shenanigans (I've already seen two Gyrfalcons in Massachusetts) until early Saturday morning when I got an email from Angus Wilson.  Apparently several New York birders had reported a Gyrfalcon on Long Island five days previously and the news was just getting out now (!).  Needless to say, a lot of folks (myself included) who hadn't heard a thing about it were a little 'surprised'.  Still I tried to put it out of my mind, and at 7am when I got up to go birding, I decided against going to chase a five-day-old Gyrfalcon record and headed out to Montauk instead.

Montauk was pleasant and I spent a happy few hours looking at scoters, eiders, two Iceland Gulls, some Great Cormorants, and several other nice Winter birds.  Then, just as I was scanning Ice-House pond for ducks, I got a call from Corey Finger ... apparently the Gyrfalcon had been seen again a few hours earlier.

Whenever Corey calls me with news of a rarity I am always at the wrong end of the island.  Today was no exception but I didn't hesitate to head back to the car and plot a course to the location of the last sighting.  These drives are excruciatingly tense experiences and each 'real-time' update just adds to the stress level.   It took me an hour and thirty minutes to get to Gilgo Beach and while I was driving I heard that the bird had been re-found but was very distant.  I heard that the ID was not 100% pinned down but that it looked good.  I heard that it was now raining heavily (which I hoped would keep the bird in place) which was severely impacted visibility - a distant blob in the rain.  I heard that the bird had been seen to flap it's wings and was definitely a large falcon.  Every minute was an eternity but in the end I pulled into the parking lot and joined Corey, Seth Ausubel and Pat Lindsay (and soon thereafter Shai Mitra) who were scoping a distant falcon in the rain.

The falcon was a long way away but my first impression was positive.  It had the 'husky' look that Gyrfalcons have, and more importantly it had relatively short wings what projected only part way down the tail.  While the views weren't great I pretty quickly realized that this was a 'Gyr' but stuck around for a while hoping that the weather would clear or that the bird would fly.  The rain kept coming though and the bird stayed hunkered down so in the end I reluctantly headed back Out East hoping for better views the next day.

A 'lump' on an Osprey-platform  ..... which at 60x through the scope turned out to be
the Gyrfalcon.  The photo below is massively cropped but you can see what it is.

I didn't rush back to Gilgo Beach on Sunday so when I pulled into the parking lot at around 9am I joined a fairly large group of birders who were watching the bird.  Over the next couple of hours we had distant, but satisfying, scope views of the Gyrfalcon sitting on Osprey-platforms, flying across the marsh, and even catching, plucking, and eating a Black Duck.  Lots of birders arrived throughout the morning and everyone seemed pretty excited, and relieved, to see the bird.  Here are some better photographs (and some commentary) from Corey Finger over at 10,000 Birds.

So why had it taken nearly a week to get the word out on this bird?  Well apparently the folks who'd originally found the bird were worried about falconers after hearing the story from Massachusetts (as recounted here).  Unlike Mass though there wasn't an attempt to organize broad access to the bird and only a small group of 'friends of the finders' were let in on the secret and saw the bird during its brief first appearance.  The news of the sighting only came out five days later when the finders, having not seen the bird in a while, assumed that it had left the area and was thus safe from threats.  Can you fault their intent ... no, not at all ... although I think the location of the bird would have made it really hard for a falconer to do it harm.  Still, Long Island has a horrible history of record suppression and of cliquish birding circles not sharing information.  Things seem to have been a lot better in recent years but a situation like this definitely reminded a lot of folks of the 'bad old days' and left a bad taste in a lot of mouths.   There are probably no right answers to a situation like this, but I'm sure it'll be much discussed in the coming months.  In the end, most everyone who wanted to see the bird got to see it, so I'm sure that all will be forgiven.  Who knew that watching birds came with all these social and ethical dilemmas?

In the end I was happy (although I am going to buy a new digiscope rig after the frustration of trying to get any kind of shot at that distance).  The Gyrfalcon was a state bird, only my 3rd in the ABA, and only the 7th one I've ever seen.  A very special bird, and I'm glad I got to see it.