Saturday, June 25, 2016

Back to New York

From 3-Michelin-Star Restaurants in Paris to the Muck of Jamaica Bay

Saturday, June 25 - Jamaica Bay

Flew back from Paris this week and started getting back into New York mode.  I hadn't missed a lot of birds but there were a few year birds on offer down at Jamaica Bay.  Decided to do a leisurely morning visit and wandered down to the preserve by about 8:45am.  The main target was a White-faced Ibis, a bird that had been found two weeks ago and seen on and off since then, but not for a few days.

Settling in at a nice shady patch in the phragmites at the South end of the East Pond I decided to just wait it out and see what came along.  There were a few Ibis around but all seemed to be Glossy Ibis.  I could tell though that there was turnover, with a Ibis or two leaving every 10 minutes or so, and a few new ones dropping in for a freshwater drink after feeding in the salt marsh.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
There were a couple of other year birds I was hoping for too, and they actually popped up pretty quickly,  A trio of Black Skimmers (280) swept past not long after I arrived, and some diligent scanning produced a single Gull-billed Tern (281).

Black Skimmer and Gull-billed Tern seen later from the "Raunt"
I was here fro Ibis though so every 5 minutes or so, I scanned the little group of Ibis on the far bank to see if the target bird had dropped in.  There were never more than 6-8 Ibis present, but while I was there perhaps 25-30 individual birds made brief appearances before heading off to feed again in Jamaica Bay.  After about 45 minutes, and scan 9 or 10, a White-faced Ibis (282) magically appeared in the little group.  Very nice ...

Crappy record shot - digiscoped at 70x on the scope (and extra zoom from the iPhone)
And so on to Big John's Pond, which had an intriguing bird I was curious to see (or more realistically hear).  The Blind (hide) at the pond was predictably full of photographers taking thousands of shots of the resident breeding Barn Owls, but I birded the area for a bit listening for quite a different species.

Barn Owls in Boxes ... pretty much how I see all my Barn Owls these days ...
The U.S. has good turtles ... Eastern Painted Turtle ....
The 'Other' Night-Heron .... Black-crowned ....
Standing quietly on the trail I could hear at last two Willow Flycatchers ("Fitz-Bew") and then, after drifting South a bit, I heard a distinct Acadian Flycatcher ("Pee-Zah").  A new bird for Queens County New York for me (Number 233).  It had been previously reported, an odd location for the species, but not entirely unsuitable habitat.  Good bird.

So after checking the West Pond, and toying briefly with the idea of going back to the East Pond, I headed back to the City.  When I got out of my car, I checked emails and saw that Ken and Suzy Feustel had just reported a Ruff from the East Pond.  Hmmmm ... I'd had such a good morning, seen all my target birds, I guess I should have expected a karmic rebound like this.  Still, there's always tomorrow .....

Sunday, June 26 - Jamaica Bay

Got to the East Pond at around 7:30am, and on the way got updates that Corey Finger had already seen the Ruff (yay!) but that he couldn't relocate it a little later (Boo!).  Spent the next four hours with many other birders carefully scanning the East Pond but alas, at least as of when I had to leave, no Ruff.

"So are you doing a big year?" someone asked while I was there.  "Never again" I replied.  It does seem that some have speculated through.  So let me give some context ....

By the end of June in 2012 my New York State year list was 322 Species.  Ironically, Ruff was that 322nd species, seen at Montezuma NWR on June 25th.  That's 40 species ahead of where I am this year.   Even if I did want to do a big state year, which I don't, I'm way behind the pace and have missed way too many rare, and not so rate birds already.  You can't just bird hard (which I am) in New York and build a big year total, Big Years are a completely different game requiring lots of chasing and few misses.

I do have a New York State goal for this year though, which was to see 300+ species and stay in the Top 10 of the NYS "Hot 100" on eBird.  Just something to motivate me, and so far I seem to be on track ... but another New York Big Year?  Hell no!

Just setting the record straight ....

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Second Chances

Another attempt at the Garganey in Western New York

Well after promising that I wasn't going to do another drive to Western New York after two 10-hour round trip dips (!) of course the Garganey at Montezuma stuck around and was seen Tuesday, Wednesday, but not on Thursday.  I'd been chatting with Corey Finger who wanted to go try for the bird on Saturday and finally, and against my better judgement, agreed that if the bird was seen on Friday, we would do the drive again on Saturday in hopes of un-dipping this bird.

Sure enough, the bird was seen in Friday, and after reassuring Corey that there was no rush to leave early as the bird was only ever seen in the afternoons we left Manhattan at 6am Saturday morning and pushed across New Jersey, Pennsylvania and up into Western New York, again.  All the way, I kept telling myself that, if I didn't see this bird, I was never chasing a bird in Western New York ever again, but at around 8:30am we got word that the bird was being seen.  Sounded promising.

By the time we got to Montezuma NWR at around 11:15am though, the people who'd seen the bird earlier had all left, and the bird was no-where to be seen!  Not again!

Nothing to do but try though, so we set up to scope and spent the next three hours carefully scanning the area where the bird had been seen earlier that morning.  Slowly the number of birders built up as more people joined the vigil, so that by 2:30pm there were maybe 25 or so birders spread out along the road.  The bird however refused to show, and losing heart, Corey and others decided to make a side trip to look for the local Prothonotary Warblers while I opted to stay and keep scanning.

Just as the Warbler crew started to drive away, I got a glimpse of pink and white, a tiny, but promising hint of the right colors, hidden behind some cattails at great distance at the other side of a body of open water.  With the car leaving, I opted to shout out, and folks quickly gathered, only for a Wood Duck to emerge from behind the cattails.  Duh!  How could I possibly have done that?  I shouted "Never Mind, My Bad" and people dispersed and got back into the car .... and then the GARGANEY (279) emerged from cover just behind the Wood Duck!

I think this is what they call a "record shot" but it is a Garganey
Photo: Corey Finger, used with permission.
What followed was a mad scramble and I juggled getting taller people looks through my scope, and running to other people, who were not on the bird, and focussing their scopes on the spot.  Shai Mitra took charge of giving directions, but the bird was distant, partially hidden in the cattails and drifted in and out of view.  After a manic five minutes though we were able to get everyone on the bird which slowly drifted out into the open, giving the whole crew distant but clear scope views.  Talk about an adrenaline rush ...

So that felt good!  And even if the drive back to Manhattan was very, very long, we were both still happy that we came for the bird.  I'm sure there'll be debates about the provenance of this bird (like any rare duck) but date and location seem good and video I've seen of the bird doesn't seem to show bands (rings) or any odd plumage wear, etc.  Not sure you can ever be 100% sure with any bird that is kept in collections, but for me I decided to add this bird to my ABA and New York State lists unless someone coms up with a good reason not to.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

June Birding on (and off) Long Island

A few random birding thoughts from the early Summer

I don't really do a lot of birding in the Summer.  Instead of standing in mud looking at shorebirds and being bitten by nasty bloodthirsty flies, I tend to prefer floating around in my pool drinking Caipirinhas.   Can you blame me?  Plus June tends to be a bit of a travel month, with inevitable trips to Europe (London, Copenhagen and Paris planned this year) so I tend to miss a lot of stuff in June.

Saturday, June 4 - Long Island

A state bird was on offer!  A Black-necked Stilt, a bird I needed for my New York State list, was found on Thursday at Shirley Marina Park in Suffolk County.  Would it stick until Saturday?  Yes, it did, and I rushed out to see it on Saturday morning.

Arriving at the "Marina" (which is really just a parking lot and a boat ramp), I drove around trying to get a view of the ponds to the East of the lot where the bird had been reported.  No luck there, so I parked and tried to walk back to a sand dike that might offer a view, only to find a bunch of birders on top of it, no way up, and directions to walk back all the way to the other end of the lot and come around by a different path.  But at least the bird was still there and Gail Benson was kind enough to let me have a look at it in her scope ... Black-necked Stilt (269) and New York State Bird number 386!

After hanging around at that spot, enjoying some Seaside Sparrows, Little Blue Herons, Purple Martins and other coastal birds (plus catching up with Tom Burke, Garry Chapin and other birders who had come for the Stilt).  I headed over to EPCAL in Calverton in the hope of catching up with a Blue Grosbeak for the year.

Blue Grosbeak is one of three species (along with Yellow-throated Warbler and Summer Tanager) that I think of as "Southern" birds that Climate Change has brought to Long Island.  When I first came to New York in the early 90s, these were species I saw only in Southern New Jersey, but now all three breed in small (but presumably expanding) numbers on Long Island.  I had good directions to a pair at the airstrip (an old jet-fighter manufacturing plant) at EPCAL and so pulled up, walked along the trail, passed a close and incredibly photogenic Grasshopper Sparrow (always bring your camera!) and got close-up views of a beautiful singing male Blue Grosbeak (270).  Nice.

Back to the road where I passed a couple of Long Island birders I recognized.  They had just tried for the grosbeak and not seen it (oops), and had been looking for a Summer Tanager that Shai Mitra (probably the most prolific and diligent Long Island birder) had seen a week or so ago, but again had drawn a blank.  So I gave them fresh directions to the grosbeak, and wished them good luck, then crossed the road and started hearing a singing male Summer Tanager!  That bird at least stuck around, and I saw it, a female, and perhaps a third (immature male?) bird, and was able to get several other birders good looks at the male.  I guess I just had good karma today.

So, with no real plan, I drifted back towards the City and sat in traffic a lot as I got closer in.  On a whim I decided to go to Jamaica Bay to look for Clapper Rail and Tricolored Heron for the year list, but as I was crawling along the Belt Parkway, quite close to the exit for the preserve, I picked up an email from Karen Fung noting a "phalarope" (later identified as a Red-necked Phalarope) at the East Pond in Jamaica Bay ... perfect timing!  Not 20 minutes later, I emerged from the reeds at the South end of the pond and joined Andrew Baksh and Adrian Burke (later joined by Corey Finger, Tristan Lowery, and other Albany birders) for good looks at a close, male Red-necked Phalarope (271) (always bring your camera!).

Then to the West Pond, where I did add the planned Tricolored Heron (272) and Clapper Rail (273) before fighting traffic back to the City.  Nice day (although when I got home I found out that I'd driven right past a singing Prothonotary Warbler ... oops).

Snapping Turtle laying eggs at Connetquot River SP

Sunday, June 5 - Connetquot River SP

Well if Saturday was charmed, Sunday was cursed.  I was supposed to be going on an offshore, overnight, pelagic trip on Sunday night with dreams of South Polar Skua and Yellow-nosed Albatross (hey, it could happen), so I didn't want to do too much birding on Sunday, figuring I'd need a nap before an overnight run out to the Hudson Canyon a hundred miles offshore.  On Saturday though, Ken and Suzy Feustel had found a Prothonotary Warbler and a Least Bittern at Connetquot State Park (the two species I said I'm missed for the Spring in the last post, and both potential Suffolk County birds for me) so I figured I'd run out there quickly, mop up those two species, then head back to the City for a pre-pelagic nap.  Great plan, right?  But things did not go as planned.

For a start, we could find neither of the target birds, and even though we thought we heard the Prothonotary at one point, it turned out to be a vocally talented Common Yellowthroat instead.  Then while we were there, we got word that Jay McGowan had found New York State's first ever Garganey, a mere 6.5 hour drive away at Montezuma NWR (so not enough time to get there and back in time for the pelagic).  And then the pelagic was cancelled due to weather .... ho hum.  Oh, and there were an awful lot of ticks, and terrible traffic back to the City.  Good days and bad days balance out I guess .... I went home and had a cocktail.

Black Terns are common breeders in Upstate New York
Monday, June 6th - Montezuma NWR

Well from cursed to heartbreaking.  I just could not resist chasing the Garganey and so got up at 4am and drove five hours to Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge (New York is a very large state).  When I arrived at around 9:30am, I met a whole gaggle of New York birders but no-one had seen the bird.  So we scanned, and we scanned, but drew a blank.  Even after taking a break to get some local year birds - Trumpeter Swan (274), Blue-winged Teal (275), Black Tern (276), Prothonotary Warbler (277) which improbably breeds up that far North, and Sandhill Crane (278), I kept coming back to scan the area where the Garganey had been seen.

Prothonotary Warbler (habitat), there's one singing in there, trust me ....
A straggling Snow Goose at Montezuma
But it simply wasn't going to happen that day and, despite hours of scanning, I came up empty and had to leave at 3pm to make the five hour drive back to the City for a dinner appointment.

The drive back was long, and I got pulled over by a local cop again (and again got let off with a warning - thank you polite cops of upstate New York).  So after four hours of driving, when finally stuck in traffic and feeling safe to check my emails .... I learned that the Garganey had just showed up again .... I decided to give up and find another hobby.

A bit of a cursed weekend.  I guess that's birding .... maybe fly-fishing would be a better hobby ...

Sunday, May 15, 2016

After the Wave - Filling Out the List

Peak Migration around New York City - Week 3

Tuesday, May 10 - Central Park

Sunday did in fact turn out to be the 'day of the year' in Central Park (and many other City Parks) with over 120 species of bird, and 28 species of Warbler reported in Manhattan's "Green Lung".   Monday was also very good, with many of the same birds remaining, but unfortunately I had to work that day.

Tuesday morning was beautiful, perfect weather setting off the amazing fresh green leaves of late Spring.  There were quite a lot of birds around too and I saw about 50 species, including 14 species of warbler in an hour-and-a-half on the way to the office.  I also added two year birds, ironically within seconds of each other, with a Solitary Sandpiper (242) flying by Bow Bridge and a Blackpoll Warbler (243) in a  tree overhead.  I also looked hard for the Summer Tanager, Bay-breasted Warbler, and Black-billed Cuckoo that I'd missed over the weekend but no luck there.  Plus I realized that I was still missing Orchard Oriole for the year ... fast becoming my Spring nemesis bird this year.
Not the ugliest place in the world to bird ....
Thursday, May 12 - Central Park

Another gloriously beautiful day and a few more birds.  Bumped into a lot of birders in the Park that morning (including old friend and global conservation hero Nigel Collar of Birdlife International) and all agreed that it was really quiet.  I felt it was really quiet too, but at the end of the brief morning walk-through I'd seen 16 species of warbler, although mostly just 'onesies and twosies' with no particularly rare species.  Best bird of the day came as I walked into the Park and heard a distinct "Where -We" call from dense cover near the Upper Lobe.  No question what it was but I wanted to at least lay eyes on this Empidonax flycatcher for additional confirmation, and managed to get a brief look at this Alder Flycatcher (244) before losing the bird as it moved North.

Not long thereafter I saw a tweet about a Bobolink near the Delactorte Theater.  I was close so wandered over, heard the bird, and joined a small group of birders nearby who I assumed were watching it.
"Sorry, it flew North" they said.
"Nope ... it's right here, figured you were watching it" I replied.  And we all quickly repositioned and at least hear the Bobolink (245), the R2D2 of birds, singing high in a tree for a while.  Good morning.

But still no Orchard Oriole ....

Saturday, May 14 - Rockland / Orange Counties

Time for a break from Central Park so I picked up Michael Duffy at 6:30am and headed North to Doodletown Road in Rockland County.  There we met up with Tom Socci and spent a couple of hours working one of my very favorite birding spots in New York.

Doodletown is an old settlement that has since been abandoned and left to the woods to reclaim.  The remains of the roads are still there though, affording relatively easy, and tick-free (important in New York) trails into great habitat.  It's famous for it's warblers but all sorts of good mid-atlantic species breed here, and of course there were lots of birders there today too.

The habitat at Doodletown Road and a Cerulean Warbler at the top of a tree 

We started climbing the trail as soon as we got there and struggled to penetrate the wall of bird song that overwhelmed us.  Soon enough though we heard the distinctive buzzy song of Cerulean Warbler (246) and blocked out the rest of the chatter to focus on these star birds.  While we were watching then we also got a glimpse of the nemesis Orchard Oriole (247) but I was so focused on trying (and failing) to get decent Cerulean shots that I pretty much ignored it.  Further up the trail we had plenty of cuckoos, with at least five Yellow-billed Cuckoos and a single Black-billed Cuckoo (248).  I also heard an Acadian Flycatcher (249) but, with over 20 species of warbler in the bag, we then mostly focussed on getting Doodeltown's most desired warbler species.   We had good intel and headed to the spot where it had been heard singing the week before.  As we got closer, returning birders confirmed we were on the right trail and then, just before we got to the site, we heard a Kentucky Warbler (250) singing.  A few tense minutes of listening later, the bird broke cover and, quite uncharacteristically for this usually skulking species, sang loudly from trees right over our heads for five minutes.  Great bird.

Kentucky Warbler - Photo: Tom Socci (used with permission)
After a quick, and unsuccessful, look for Timber Rattlesnakes - we'd bumped into superb all-round naturalist Rick Cech who gave us directions, but no luck - we decided to rush over to Sterling State Forest in Orange County while the birds were still singing.

Scarlet Tanager
Sterling is another great spot, although I always have mixed emotions when I come here.  It's the last stronghold of Golden-winged Warblers in Southern New York but they are slowly being replaced/overwhelmed by Blue-winged Warblers and no-one is sure how much longer they can hold out.  Sure enough, it didn't take us long to find a pair of Golden-winged Warblers (251) and got to watch the familiar pattern of the male Golden-winged trying to keep a male Blue-winged sway from his female.  Make Golden-winged Warblers spend a large chunk of their day doing this and it has to impact breeding success.  Every year there are more hybrids and few Golden-winged Warblers in New York.  It's quite sad to watch in real time.

Prairie Warbler
Two different Golden-winged Warblers 

Indigo Bunting ... always a crowd-pleaser
At Sterling we also had an unexpected bonus bird.  A Broad-winged Hawk (252) flew low over the woods and must have crossed close to a Barred Owl (253) nest, unleashing a storm of complaints from the owls.  Always good to get an owl in the day ...

Sunday, May 15 - Nassau and Queens Counties

I made a tactical mistake today and headed to the coast rather than going to Central Park.  Of course, all day the Manhattan Twitter Bird Alert buzzed with sitings of rare birds and now potentially missed year birds for me.  Bay-breasted Warbler, Mourning Warbler, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Philadelphia Vireo, and even a Common Nighthawk.  Oh well, can't get them all ...

I did have a great few hours at Jones Beach though, added a few year birds and got to see a nice smattering of migrants on what turned out to be a cold and windy day.  That at least kept Jones Beach's infamous mosquitoes at bay so the birding was chilly, but pleasant.

On the year bird front I quickly added Least Tern (254), Common Tern (255), Semipalmated Sandpiper (256), Semipalmated Plover (257) and a couple of fly-over Short-billed Dowitchers (258) at the Coast Guard Station.  Then I put the scope away and wandered off into the Median area in search of migrants.  There were actually quite a few to be had too, with Magnolia Warblers, Scarlet Tanagers, American Redstarts, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and a late Blue-headed Vireo all scattered through the pines.  Along the medians were yet more warblers, one group containing two Yellow Warblers, a Magnolia, a Prairie and a spiffy female Blackburnian.  Other goodies included a female Bobolink, a White-crowned Sparrow, and a Chuck-will's Widow (clearly the bird of the day for most).
Blue-headed Vireo (above), and Blackburnian Warbler

I also got a crash course in flycatcher ID when I spotted an Empidonax flycatcher, clearly a Traill's but looking all contrasty and big-eye-ringed to me (both good signs to Alder Flycatcher).  Looking back at the photos though, the bird seems to be less distinct, and given the habitat and location, seems more likely a Willow Flycatcher (259).

Willow Flycatcher ... probably ...
Next stop Jamaica Bay where visions of Tricolored Herons, Clapper Rails, Black Skimmers, were all to be quickly disappointed as the West Pond turned out to be almost birdless.  I did add some Least Sandpipers (260) and spent a lot of time looking for a previously reported roosting Common Nighthawk but alas, it wasn't to be, and getting chilled I decided to call it a day and head back to Manhattan.  I should probably have gone to Central Park instead, but hopefully some of those goodies will stick around into next week.


I stopped blogging the Spring, but I did add a few more year birds in Central Park before migration was over (although I did not take my camera) :

Monday, May 16 - Central Park

Gray-cheeked Thrush (261), plus one that I was worried that I was going to miss - Bay-breasted Warbler (262)

Wednesday, May 18 - Central Park

Tennessee Warbler (263), and a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (264) and a Summer Tanager (265) that appeared at exactly the same place and the same time.

Thursday, May 26 - Central Park

One last gasp for Mourning Warbler (266), plus lots of Eastern Wood-Pewee (267), and a clutch save on Olive-sided Flycatcher (268)

So overall I did pretty well.  35 species of warbler including two rarities (Swainson's and Hermit) and missed only one .... the striking, crowd-pleasing Prothonotary Warbler which just didn't show up in Central Park this Spring.  As for other Spring migrants, I missed Blue Grosbeak (which I could get as a breeder on Long Island) and a few random, not really expected, goodies (like a Least Bittern that showed up in Brooklyn).  But overall, I pretty much mopped up.  On to Summer ....

Sunday, May 8, 2016

An Epic Day of Roadkill Watching in Western New York

A Long Drive to Dip a Gray Kingbird

A few weeks ago, a Loggerhead Shrike was found in Western New York.  I want to see a Loggerhead Shrike in New York State but Western New York is a long way from the City, about 5 hours drive each way.  So I dithered and procrastinated and in the end I didn't go (which turned out to be just as well as the day I could have gone was the day after the last sighting of the bird).  Then, a week later, someone found a Gray Kingbird in Western New York ... oh come on!  This bird too seemed to be sticking around and every day last week I saw reports of the bird being seen.  I wanted to go, but I also didn't want to do a 10-hour drive on my own, so I hinted on-line and Corey Finger, blogger, union organizer, left wing agitator, and notorious enabler of birding misadventures, suggested he might like to come along.  So 'what the hell' I thought, let's do it, and extending invitations to two young birders (Adrian Burke and Tom Socci) who'd been helpful to me recently in regards to Seaside Sparrows, I planned to leave early on Saturday and do the long drive to the Kingbird.

Gray Kingbird, Photo: Nathan Goldberg (used with permission)
Saturday morning at 4:45am I got a text from Corey Finger, he was downstairs, ready to go.  Went down, grabbed a Latte, picked up the Land Rover and then picked up Adrian (Tom couldn't make it) and we were off.  Out across the George Washington Bridge, an hour or so across New Jersey, take a right in Pennsylvania and drive North for an hour or so, then take a left at Binghamton in New York (stopping for McDonalds and gas) and head off into the wilds of Western New York.  Just 5 hours after leaving, and having been pulled over for speeding only once, we arrived at Conesus Inlet ready to bird.  Did I mention that Western New York is a long way away?  We were sooooo ready to get out of the car by the time we got there ...

Truth is though, we'd arrived in an apprehensive state of mind.  We weren't the only New York City birders heading up to chase the Kingbird that day.  Sean Sime and his Brooklyn crew had gone up early and reported that the bird had not been seen that morning so far.  As we arrived we picked up another voicemail from Sean saying that his team had to leave, but that they hadn't seen the bird.  Still, I wasn't too stressed, the Kingbird had been seen the day before only in the afternoon, and there was obviously a lot of habitat for the bird to wander around in.  We grabbed scopes and set out to find us a Gray Kingbird.

Lots of snags and lots of bugs, but no Gray Kingbird ...

Three and a half hours later ... no Gray Kingbird.  We scoped every snag we could see, tried all the likely areas, and just couldn't come up with the bird.  I guess the change of weather (it wasn't raining at Conesus after 6 days of rain) gave the bird the chance to move on, or even head back to Florida where it belongs.   We had officially dipped ...

Ironically, while we couldn't find our target bird, and had just experienced an epic long-distance dip, it actually retuned out to be an excellent day as a general natural history experience.  There were a lot of herps, and it was very cool to see some after the long New York Winter.  We saw Leopard Frogs, Bull Frogs, Green Frogs, a Wood Frog, American Toads, Eastern Garter Snakes and lots of Northern Water Snakes.   There were bumblebees and dragonflies and even a few Spring flowers and butterflies.  There were also a few returning migrant birds and I added 5 year birds during our time in Livingston County - Cliff Swallow (224), Eastern Kingbird (225), Marsh Wren (226), Common Yellowthroat (227) and Lesser Yellowlegs (228).  The most interesting bird however was a Great Horned Owl that Adrian spotted in trees in the marsh ... not so often you get to see a big owl in the day time.

Northern Water Snake - fat and happy eating frogs ... don't pick these
up, they're very bitey ...
So back to New York.  Another five hour drive with Corey doing his best to distract us with gratuitous eBird checklists in every county, often featuring nothing more that American Crow, Common Grackle, and Red-tailed Hawk ..... but now many eBird reviewers knew of our passing.  We did however amass an impressive (and somewhat macabre) list of roadkill for the day ... yes we list roadkill, we're birders, we list everything.   Among the species highlights on the days roadkill list were Black Bear, Beaver, Coyote, Porcupine, Woodchuck (plus a probable Fox Squirrel - a rare mammal in New York) along with the ubiquitous White-tailed Deer, Gray Squirrel, Virginia Opossums, Raccoons, and Striped Skunks (Smelled only).  Hey, it's a natural history experience of a sort, and it was a very long drive.

Until next time Western New York ....

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Week of Rain

Peak Migration around New York City - Week 2

Wednesday, May 4 - Central Park

It rained all day Monday and Tuesday and persistent North winds kept migration on hold.  I wasn't expecting much more in terms of migration on Wednesday but at least the weather forecast had a gap in the rain early in the morning, so I went into the Park at 6:30am.  It was raining .....

At first the birds were also really quiet, but it did pick up a little and briefly stop raining, before I had to leave at 8:30am to head to work.  I had a few warblers - Worm-eating, Blue-winged, Prairie, Cape May - and of course checked every Black-throated Green Warbler VERY CAREFULLY.  Best bird of the day was a Yellow-throated Vireo (219) one of a few species that had been present but eluded me all week in the Park.  Still waiting for the big wave of migrants .... any day now ....

Thursday, May 5 - Central Park

The Upper Lobe, Central Park
No rain in the forecast for the first time in a week!  Thrilled to not be wet for once while grabbing another couple of hours in the Park before work.  Sure, it was still a drab cloudy day, with temperatures 20-degrres below normal, but it wasn't actually raining for a few hours.  There was a lot more bird song early in the morning but, apart from an obvious increase in Gray Catbirds, there wasn't much difference in terms of new migrant arrivals.  I did see 14 species of warbler and spent a little 'give back' time helping some beginner birders get their lifer Blue-winged and Prairie Warblers.  I also picked up a few new year birds including a somewhat cold and sad looking Ruby-throated Hummingbird (220) a single Least Flycatcher (221) and a very random Bank Swallow (222) drifting North across the Great Lawn. Things are slowly happening but still waiting for the big push ..... any day now ....

Friday, May 6 - Clinton Cove Park

Just as I got home on Thursday night I saw a tweet from Adrian Burke reporting 3 Seaside Sparrows in a small park on 55th Street and the Hudson River (OK, that was unexpected ... there's not a lot of saltmarsh habitat in Hell's Kitchen!).  That's only 13 blocks from my apartment so I really should have walked up there right away, but at the time I was just too tired to go out again.  Of course on Friday morning when I woke up .... the rain had resumed ... and not just drizzle ... solid, heavy, business-shoe-ruining rain.  I lay in bed for a while debating whether to get up early and go chase these birds, and in the end I did go out slosh my way up to the park.  The habitat did not look terribly promising, this is a new park, essentially just an adjunct to the riverside running and biking trails that separate the West Side Highway from the Hudson River.  There was a small lawn, a handful of ornamental trees, and a border planted with small scrubby rose-looking plants.  The border was obviously the place to look and right there, feeding feet from the highway, were some American Robins, a Gray Catbird, a couple of Chipping Sparrows, and three very soggy and very out of place looking Seaside Sparrows (223).  A year bird, but also a new bird for me for New York County (essentially Manhattan).  Glad I got up, even if I did ruin a perfectly good pair of business shoes in the process.

Seaside Sparrow - Photo: Tom Socci (used with permission)
Saturday, May 7 - Livingston County in Western New York
(Gets it's own blog post)

Sunday, May 8 - Central Park

This was going to be the day!  The winds finally turned South on Saturday afternoon and the rain was finally forecast to stop.  Surely the migration would explode North on Saturday night and Central Park would be hopping with birds on Sunday morning?  Right?  Well ... yes....

Up at 5:30 and in the Park a little after 6am.  Good news was that it wasn't raining, but the Park didn't really seem all that birdy and early encounters with birders like Doug Kurtz suggested that perhaps we hadn't had a big migration event.  I did start picking up a few year birds though with Scarlet Tanager (229) and Lincoln's Sparrow (230) joining the list near Strawberry Fields.  Moving on to The Upper Lobe I added Swainson's Thrush (231) and Great Crested Flycatcher (232), plus a Spotted Sandpiper (233) at  Turtle Pond, but none of the species were new arrivals.  Had there been migration overnight?

The answer to this question came at about 7:15am when the skies opened unleashing a couple of hours of torrential rain, and all hell broke loose with thousands of migrant birds swarming North through the park.  IT WAS ON!

Over the next few hours I got completely soaked (I bird in the rain) but I also saw 22 species of warbler, adding Canada Warbler (234), Blackburnian Warbler (235), Magnolia Warbler (236), Wilson's Warbler (237) and Red-eyed Vireo (238) to the year list.  At one point, in torrential rain, I engaged a flock of about 50 warblers near Turtle Pond that contained 14 species ...  and dozens of other warblers passed overhead without landing and getting identified ... this is what makes Central Park so awesome in migration.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron at The Point
Given the obvious migration it was only a matter of time before someone found some other goodies.  I told Adrian Burke what there would be a Chuck-Will's-Widow somewhere in the Park that day (I'd glimpsed a bird earlier that I thought might be a nightjar but couldn't re-find it) but other goodies showed up first.  In fact Herons took a front seat for a while when Bob DeCandido and Deb Allen found an American Bittern and a Yellow-crowned Night Heron  (239) at the Point.  Both great birds for Central Park and both probably a little stunned to find themselves with an audience.

American Bittern (3 shots)

I was also lucky enough to bump into a Yellow-billed Cuckoo (240) before I had to leave, but eventually I had to go.  Overall, I had 82 species of bird in the tiny area that is The Ramble ... and of course, someone found the Chuck-Will's-Widow just after I left.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Hermit Warbler in Central Park

Peak Migration around New York City - Week 1 (continued)

Sunday, May 1 - Central Park

The weather forecast for Sunday was not encouraging, in fact it called for rain starting around 7am and continuing all throughout the day.  I'd originally planned to go out to the beaches but I eventually thought better of it and decided to grab a quick hour in Central Park before the rain came.

The rain started pretty much on schedule but it was light and tolerable.  In fact the rain probably helped keep the number of people down and while I birded from 6:30am to almost 11am, I saw very few other birders - unusual on a weekend in May.  There were also quite a few birds around, mostly Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warblers but I also saw two Worm-eating Warblers (215), my first American Redstart (216) of the season, and a total of 13 species of warbler overall.  While there didn't seem to have been all that much migration overnight, there clearly had been some movement as I also saw several Veery (217).   And then something special happened ...

i'm told I don't do enough scenery or context shots, so here are a couple
from the Ramble, and Turtle Pond in the rain ...

By 9:30am the rain was getting heavier so I went to the boathouse to rent coffee and buy something to eat.  I tried to bird back through The Ramble after that but I was getting wet - once again wearing shorts and sandals - and getting cold too.  By 10am I gave up and headed out via the West 77th Street entrance, planning to head back to the apartment and warm up.

As I was leaving the Park I noticed Karen Fung and Alexis Lamek (who until then I'd never met so knew only as the French guy who looks like √Črik Ripert) intently staring at a bird.  As I came over Alexis asked me what I thought of the warbler, which promptly sang a song that sounded to me like a Black-throated Green Warbler song.  I looked up, saw black and white bird with a yellow head, heard the song and confidently identified it as Black-throated Green.

"But it has a black back" said Alexis

"Black-Throated Green doesn't?" I said, fumbling for my Sibley app on the iPhone.  Oops!

The long and the short of it is that, while we were expecting to see a Black-throated Green Warbler, the plumage was all wrong.  It had a black back, a plain white belly with little streaking, no yellow on the vent, a black nape that narrowed to form a line on the back of the head, and an otherwise clean yellow head.  The plumage was HERMIT WARBLER, pretty much solid on all the expected field marks.

The problem though was the voice, which didn't fit our expectations for Hermit Warbler songs. To be fair, the bird was high in trees, there were many warblers singing, and it was raining quite hard (i.e., not ideal listening conditions).  On top of that, none of us also had much experience with Hermit Warblers, at least on breeding territory.  However, the song I was hearing sounded like a series of slightly buzzy single notes - like the 'zee zee zee" at the start of Black-throated Green Warbler song and sometimes something that sounded like full Black-throated Green (add an additional phrase to the end).  While we were mostly getting just song fragments rather than the whole song, all of us had the impression of Black-throated Green song while watching the bird.  Most of the Hermit Warbler calls on the Sibley app. (which we played after losing sight of the bird to compare songs) start with a series of paired notes before a slurred second phrase, and I'm pretty sure I heard single rather than paired notes.  If I had a do-over I might have tried a recording, although I doubt I'd have got very much given the range and the rain.

Given our concern over the song not being right, I floated the idea, which seemed to make sense at the time (but seems stupid now) that perhaps it was a hybrid of some sort, but realizing that whatever it was, we had something good, we got the word out on Twitter and the State-wide Listserve.  And the bird promptly vanished ...

Luckily for us though Karen had managed to grab a couple of distant photos despite the rain, and they helped a lot in terms of settling our view on the ID.   In fact Karen gets a huge credit for somehow managing photos of a small fast moving warbler high in a tree ... in the rain ... with her back-up camera, with the two of us pressuring her to get a photo (by comparison, I'm a wimp - I didn't want to get my camera wet so I left it at home).

Heroic photo effort (given the conditions): Karen Fung (used with permission)
While the song was unfamiliar, I gather that there is a lot of variation in Hermit Warbler song and that they vary by area, and in the presence of similar species (e.g., Townsend's Warblers).  So not so impossible that a Hermit in the East might sound somewhat atypical.

So, while there will be some ID debate (especially given the confusion we spread with our initial struggle with plumage versus song), I'm pretty sure the bird we saw was a Hermit Warbler.  And, as I sit here on Monday I'm savoring a second amazing warbler in Central park in one week, and a second New York State life bird for me!  I also learned a humbling lesson about not making assumptions and studying birds.  I dismissed this bird based on song, and if Alexis hadn't been so persistent, would not have focused on it.  Alexis gets huge credit for finding the bird and sticking with it, bringing skeptical birders along to the right ID (which I suspect he came to a lot earlier on in the process).  A great lesson for me.

Update (5/2/16):  

Unfortunately the bird was not re-found, meaning it was seen only by the three of us (and a handful of birders who passed through and saw the bird before we ID'd it).  There has of course been some local debate, especially given our comments on atypical song and on the presence of a darker auricular in one of the photos.  Karen was smart enough to post this bird on some national ID sites though and get the opinions of national/Western birders with more experience of the species.  Consensus seems to be that the plumage is good for a pure Hermit Warbler and most seem unconcerned about the atypical song (variation in Hermit Warbler songs seems to be widely experienced and expected).