Thursday, April 28, 2016

Spring Sparrows Out East

A few early Spring migrants in The Hamptons

Saturday, April 23 - 'Hamptons' Coastal Spots

Had the whole weekend Out East but was obliged to spend Friday mostly on work and house related things.  The weather was beautiful with clear blue skies, warm Spring temperatures and no wind - perfect birding weather.  I ended up crashing early on Friday night with a plan to get up early and spend the whole day birding.  So imagine my disappointment when Saturday morning dawned foggy, rainy, and cold.  Oh well ...

Still, a plan was a plan so I set off, a little later than anticipated, to cover a series of coastal spots in East Hampton and Southampton townships.  To keep it interesting, I gave myself a goal of finding ten (10) New York State year birds for the weekend, and headed out excited to see some migrants.

First stop was Georgica Cove, one of the priciest pieces of real estate in the county with mansions surrounding the pond on most sides, but also a decent birding spot with one remaining access spot where you can get views of the pond.  Today Georgica gave me some signs of Spring and some year birds to start the day off right with a Green Heron (1), and a good mix of swallows present, including Tree and Barn Swallows (2) and Purple Martin (3).

Next stop Mecox Inlet, where single Forsters and Caspian Terns (4) were mixed in with a more typical Winter bird selection.   Then I crossed over into Southampton and headed over to Dune Road to bird the salt mashes there.

Little Blue Heron
Dune Road was cold and I was of course under-dressed but I persevered and slowly started adding a good selection of things.  I stopped at Ponquogue, Triton Lane, Tiana Beach, and Dolphin Lane, and found a good few new Spring arrivals.  There were dozens of Great Egrets, mostly migrants, in the marshes along with a few Snow Egrets and a single Little Blue Heron, a good bird Out East.  I also added newly returned Eastern Willets (5), and a Northern Rough-winged Swallow (6) among the many Barn and Tree Swallows.  My main focus though was a search for Clapper Rail and the two local Ammodramus sparrows and while I failed to find the rail or a Seaside Sparrow, I did get to spend some quality time with a group of five, super cute, Saltmarsh Sparrows (7).

Saltmarsh Sparrow, rarely seen in the open like this.

On to the Quogue Wildlife Refuge where a Hooded Warbler had been reported the week before.  The East End of Long Island is really not a good place to see Spring warblers, they all seem to turn left at the Hudson or pass right over us.  I still need Hooded Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler and both Waterthrushes for my Suffolk county Life List, so this seemed like a good shot to at lest clean up one of these embarrassing county list gaps.  Alas, it was not to be, and after an hour at the refuge, shivering in cold, wet weather, I gave up and left the warblers for another day (in all probability for another year).

If warblers wouldn't cooperate, then back to sparrows and off to Gabreski Airport to look for the local breeding Vesper Sparrows (8) which quickly surrendered.  I also bumped into a Grasshopper Sparrow (9) there which was unexpected and I initially though was a notable sighting, but apparently others have seen them there recently and it looks like they are in fact breeding at this site.  Nice bird to see, and good to see another colony of this scarce grassland breeder Out East.

Vesper Sparrow in its natural habitat - fences
By now cold and, somehow thinking I had 10 year birds (when I really only had 9) I headed back to East Hampton and birded some of the local spots near my house in Northeast Harbor.  Least Terns had not returned to the local colony yet, although Piping Plovers have been hack for some time.  The woods around the house were also really quiet, just not a lot of migrants returned so far.

Sunday, April 24 - East Hampton / New York City

Saturday afternoon brought word that Gail Benson and Tom Burke has found a Wilson's Plover at Ponquogue - I'd been there ta the high tide, they at the low tide.  There was no point chasing that bird in the morning so, while I waited for the tide to drop I checked several local woodland and marshland spots.  Acabonac Harbor did have a mix of shorebirds and added Ruddy Turnstone (10) to the year list.  Sammy's Beach also gave me year bird when two, beautifully lit Glossy Ibis (11) flew in and started feeding behind a Great Egret.  Otherwise, the selection of birds was very much the same as the day before.  Also, a run along Dune Road looking for Plovers later that day, drew a blank.

Greater Yellowlegs at Napeague Marsh
So , leaving the cold Winter weather of the East End behind I headed back to the City ... where it was Spring!  The two hour drive felt like it had transported my forward a month in time.  A 20-degree temperature difference was great, but also Spring was just so much further along in the City.  Most of the trees in the City were in bud, and many were leafed out already, while the oaks Out East haven't even started to bud yet.  It really was a beautiful Spring afternoon in Manhattan, so I decided to do some more birding and went to Central Park.

Even though it was late in the day, and things were generally quite quiet, I was hoping for some more year birds and some warblers in particular, and I got what I wanted, adding Black-and-White Warbler (12), Northern Parula (13), Louisiana Waterthrush (14), Northern Waterthrush (15), and Wood Thrush (16) to the year list.  

Some tough birding over the weekend - it really was too early for shorts and sandals - but overall quite a nice haul of year birds.  Looking forward to the next weekend, and the peak of migration.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Photospot: Pine Warbler on Long Island

A quick stop today to get the Yellow-throated Warbler at Connetquot State Park in Suffolk County.  The Yellow-throated was a Suffolk County bird for me - why have I never made time to see the ones present over the last few years?  Not sure .... but this bird showed well several times singing high in a tree.  Alas I didn't get any useable photos but I did spend some quality time with this Pine Warbler.  A common breeding bird on Long Island, they even been in my yard in East Hampton, but they are quite spiffy un-close ....

Pine Warbler (4 shots)

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Not so Upland Sandpiper

A Strange Visitor to the Barrier Beaches ....

So earlier this week, I happened upon a Facebook message chain where a very frustrated Tim Healy was lamenting dipping an Upland Sandpiper.  Guessing that the bird might be local on Long Island I chipped in and found out that the bird was frequenting the median strip of the Ocean Parkway near Oak Beach in Suffolk County.  Needless to say, this is not exactly ideal Upland Sandpiper habitat!  The strip at this spot is no more that 50 feet wide, and the bird was feeding within feet of cars and trucks cruising by at 50-60 miles per hour.  This did not sound like a bird that might be around for long ....

Upland Sandpiper - Oak Beach (Photo: Taylor John Sturm, used with permission)
Upland Sandpipers are a declining species in New York, and in the Eastern US in general.  They are, of course, a grassland species, and most of our grasslands have been turned into housing, or handed over to intensive agriculture over the past 50 years.  The species had thus grown increasingly scarce and, although once a regular breeding bird on Long Island, I haven't seen one here in perhaps 20 years.

I really did not expect to see this bird.  One by one all the local Long Island birders reported seeing it but I really didn't think it would stick around all weekend (and thought, and yes, hoped) that it would resume it's journey North before too long.  I had work commitments all week and social commitments all weekend, so the earliest time that I could possibly get to Oak Beach was Sunday afternoon, and in my opinion there was no way that bird would stick around (and not be hit by a car) that long.  But on Sunday morning, the list serve reports told me that bird was still being seen, so I persuaded Kelvin to take a more 'scenic route' back to the City ... and ... I got to see the bird ....

iPhone record shot .... don't judge me ....
Hope this bird makes it (and doesn't end up as road-kill).  I love this species ... pocket curlews .... but unfortunately a good percentage of the world's curlews have gone extinct already (and even the Eurasian Curlew, so common in my Welsh childhood, I heard this week is now endangered).  Upland Sandpiper even has an evocative Latin name - Bartramia longicauda - named after John Bartram, a pioneering colonial era naturalist, best known as a botanist, but one of the first Europeans to see many of the species of the Eastern US.   I wish this one good luck on his/her journey North though .... hope it finds a good place for the Summer.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Boreal Birds and Poutine

A quick run North to add some "Boreal" Species to the Year-List

I'm at my best as a birder when I plan, and at my worst when I don't.  So this weekend, being very much unplanned, produced some very mixed results bird-wise.

With no real plans for the Easter weekend I debated a number of different options before deciding, essentially at the last minute to "Head North" for Boreal birds.  Sounded like a good idea at the time, so with little research, not a peep at the weather forecast, and no fixed itinerary, I booked a hotel in Lake Placid, jumped in the car at 5am on Friday and headed up to the Adirondack Mountains.

For New Yorkers, to get all the State's resident birds, inevitably means a trip (or 8 trips on my big year in 2012) to the Adirondacks for so called "Boreal Birds".  What do we mean by that?

True Boreal species that breed in the pockets of Boreal habitat (essentially high altitude spruce / tamarack bogs) in the Adirondacks.

1. Black-backed Woodpecker
2. American Three-toed Woodpecker
3. Boreal Chickadee
4. Spruce Grouse
5. Gray Jay

And then there are some other Northerly breeders that come down to the coast irregularly.

1. Red Crossbill
2. White-winged Crossbill
3. Pine Grosbeak
4. Evening Grosbeak
5. Common Redpoll (and Hoary Redpoll for now I suppose pending the inevitable lumping)
6. Pine Siskin
7. Northern Shrike
8. Bohemian Waxwing

Some of these species come down to the coast quite frequently (think Pine Siskins), some much less regularly (I've seen one Bohemian Waxwing and two Evening Grosbeaks on Long Island ever), and of course some never come down (try reporting a Spruce Grouse in West Islip and see what response you get from the local eBird reviewer).

Friday, March 25 - Adirondack Mountains

Planning matters!  And so, with no planning, I rather predictably bombed today.   Sabbattis Bog produced a Ruffed Grouse (a year bird), some Golden-crowned Kinglets, and a few Pine Siskins, but no Boreal Birds.  Losing faith I jumped over to Bloomingdales Bog - a "gimme" site for Gray Jay - and saw .... no Boreal Birds.   And then it started to snow ... which turned to hail ... and I decided I didn't like birding any more ....

So I drove to an area with cell reception, cancelled the hotel in Lake Placid, made a hotel reservation in Montreal, messaged a bunch of friends to say I was heading there, and drove North towards the Canadian border.  Four hours after I'd been standing in freezing hail in a damp New York forest, I was in a nice warm French restaurant eating amazing Canadian food, drinking good French wine, and hanging out with good friends.  Plan B turned out to be a good choice.

Saturday, March 26 - Quebec

Mont Tremblant National Park, Quebec 

So, despite the great French food the night before, I still had no plan, and no Boreal birds.  I didn't want to cross the border again so soon, so actually decided to head further North and drove up to Mt. Tremblant National Park, about two hours North of Montreal.  It's one helluva pretty place and I once saw some Pine Grosbeaks there so I figured I was bound to just randomly bump into Boreal birds, even without any research.

As compared to Friday, Saturday was at least a beautiful day, and even if I'd seen no birds, the trip would have been a really neat drive through great scenery.  There were also actually birds .... finches .... tens of thousands of finches.  The roadsides were full of feeding/gritting Pine Siskins and Common Redpolls and everywhere I drove, I flushed them by the hundred.  While this was pretty cool at first, it soon became quite troubling .... I'f I drove too quickly I risked hitting and killing them (not the smartest things and they often flushed in front of the car as I got close) but if I drove too slowly I just pushed a bow-wave for small finches in front of me down the road.

Common Redpoll
Common Redpoll and Pine Siskin
In addition to the two finches mentioned there were also a fair number of Purple Finches and a single Evening Grosbeak.  At one point I though I heard some White-winged Crossbills too, but I never heard them a second time to let that record go.  It was a pretty day, lots of birds, few species, and good scenery.  All good stuff, but soon enough I headed back to the more human-centered pleasures of Montreal .... did I mention how amazing the food is in Montreal?

Sunday, March 27 - Adirondack Mountains

Well after two bad birding days, but a lot of good food and wine, I was hoping my luck would change ... and it did!  Back to the Adirondacks where on Friday I could do no right, and today ... I could do no wrong.  Birding is a funny, sometimes cruel, but always interesting hobby.

To begin with, the weather was a lot better - sunny, warmer, and (important for Boreal birding, so much of which is done by ear) windless.  And secondly, for some reason, birds practical threw themselves at me all morning ... not that I'm complaining.

I had limited time so I really intended only to spend time at Sabattis Bog before making the long drive back to the City for Easter Dinner.  I set the destination in the navigation system on the Range Rover and sat back, passively letting it make all the decisions, until I realized that I was passing through the village of Bloomingdale.  So taking control back from the computer I decided to make a quick stop at Bloomingdales Bog where I'd skunked on Friday and ended up spending some quality time with a very cute Gray Jay (Year Bird, and a real "Boreal").

Gray Jay at Bloomingdale Bog

Then on to Sabattis Bog where I quickly found another Gray Jay and then watched as a small red car pulled up and a woman got out, closely followed by said Jay, to put out some food at an improvised bird feeding area.  The woman was of course Joan Collins, Adirondack bird guide and all around encyclopedia of all things avian in the mountains, coming to put out raisins for her Gray Jay friends and suet for a very tame, and quite pushy Red-breasted Nuthatch.

Gray Jay - Sabattis Bog
While it was great to catch up with Joan; who I hadn't seen in a while, she was also very generous with her local information and within minutes I had re-planned the rest of my morning and headed off East towards the town of Newcomb.  Where, over the next couple of hours, I really cleaned up on the local birds adding in quick succession .... a Northern Shrike ... a couple of Evening Grosbeaks ... a Red Crossbill ... a couple of Boreal Chickadees ... and a Black-backed Woodpecker (5 New York State year birds, one after another).

Black-backed Woodpecker nest hole
The woodpecker was perhaps the most interesting as Joan had previously discovered a pair excavating a nest hole ... months earlier than they would traditionally do so.  Climate Change is having a huge impact on the birds in the Adirondacks  - Blue Jays now overwinter (at what cost to Gray Jays?) - Swanson's Thrushes are breeding higher and higher on the mountains (pushing out Bicknell's Thrushes?), and everything is breeding earlier.  While it's fascinating to see what's going on, it's also a little worrying and Joan, with her incredible on-the-ground knowledge is documenting it all.

Reluctantly though, I was timed out and still had a five hour drive to the City so had to leave.  I came to the Adirondacks eight times on my big year in 2012 and have only been back a couple of times since.  I've definitely missed it, and I'll be back soon.  As for Montreal ... I'll be there sooner ...

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Slogging Through March in New York

The worst birding month of the year ....

So back from Asia to the huge anticlimax that is March in New York.  Late April and May are spectacular here but March, well March is blah.  Migration is starting to happen but we are still getting snow storms, the Winter birds are leaving, and the Summer birds are still few and far between  But still, we persevere ....

Saturday March 12th - Central Park

With little to chase, but just the earliest hints of migration underway, I focussed on what was available close to the apartment.  Checked Central Park Reservoir, hoping for a reported Horned Grebe, which surprisingly according to eBird would be new for my New York County list ..... but I dipped.  Then down to The Ramble where I did catch up with an Eastern Phoebe (year bird!) and a singing Rusty Blackbird. A tiny hint of Spring.

Sunday March 13th - Bryant Park / Central Park

First to Bryant Park where I spent a very happy 20 minutes watching an American Woodcock (year bird!) toddling around in a bed of daffodils.  Quite simply one of my favorite species of bird in the world.

Then to Central Park where the Horned Grebe surrendered (New York County species number 200 - although I can think of a few more species I've seen that just never made it onto eBird).   Also added a Merlin which was both a year bird and a New York County bird.

Saturday March 19th - Queens and Nassau Counties

Hard to get get motivated in March but I came up with a small list of potential year birds and set off to find them.  First stop was Jamaica Bay for the regular nesting Barn Owls.  When I arrived, I bumped into Ken Feustel who was clearly there for the same thing.

There are Barn Owls in there, trust me ....
Working our way over to the 'Barn Owl Box' we settled down in the blind to see if the owls were planning to show.   Twenty minutes later they hadn't done so, but we knew they were in there so Ken took a risk and made (what was perhaps the lamest ever attempt at) a Barn Owl call.  And the Barn Owl popped it's head up and looked out of the box for a split second! Year bird!  But no photo ...

600 Snow Geese flew over while I was at Jamaica Bay, while newly arrived
Tree Swallows are choosing their nest boxes

Next stop was Jones Beach where 26 newly paired American Oystercatchers and a single pair of Piping Plovers both joined the year list.  Then a tour of local saltmarshes until I was able to add a newly arrived Osprey as well.  Not the most exciting birding though, especially after the recent Asia trip so I soon gave up and came back to the City.  Roll on April ....

Boat-tailed Grackle at Jones Beach.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Asian Urban Birding (Part 4) - Hong Kong

A Quick Stolen Morning of Birding in the New Territories

I really hadn't planned to do any birding in Hong Kong.  I arrived late on Sunday night from Singapore and had a ton of meetings on Monday and Tuesday before flying back to New York on Wednesday.  When I looked more closely at the schedule though it looked like there might be a window to get some birds in on Wednesday morning between my early morning calls and my trip to the airport.  Needing some local expertise I reached out to some local guides but drew a total blank, then on Tuesday I got an email from John Allcock (local birding expert and eBird reviewer) ... his plans had fallen through and he could bird with me in the New Territories on Wednesday morning if I wanted to .... of course I wanted to!

Wednesday March 9th - Various Hong Kong Hot Spots

Up at 3am for conference calls and then checked out of the hotel 5:30am.  The hotel was the very fancy Four Seasons, and I checked in as a business man but checked out as a bird bum (dressed in well worm, sweaty, dirty, birding cloths, that I'd worn in Singapore).  I also asked for a cab to an out of the way place in the New Territories rather than to the airport.  I suspect the hotel staff were a little confused.

Finding my way to Tai Po Station, and after a Starbucks breakfast (they serve real British-style Sausage Rolls in Starbucks in Hong Kong - awesome!) I managed to find John in the station parking lot and we were soon off to Tai Po Kau Nature Reserve for some early morning forest birding.

The reserve was a really neat piece of secondary forest - all the primary forest was apparently cut down during the Japanese occupation in World War 2 - and was a surprisingly positive story.  The forest is re-growing and the birds are apparently re-colonizing.  Many species have come back to Hong Kong, some natural re-arrivals and some no doubt helped by the local Buddhist tradition of buying and releasing song birds.  The weather was pretty grotty, and the birds were a little quite this morning but we did manage to get a small list of forest birds including a Pygmy Cupwing (formerly Pygmy Wren-Babbler) and a calling Chinese Barbet, a recent colonist and a life bird for me.

Next stop, with the rain easing off and the sun coming out, was the legendary Long Valley, an area of government-subsidized traditional farmland and paddy-fields.  This habitat is long gone from modern Hong Kong except in this small area where old ways are preserved, and it truly is a birding spectacle, quite literally stuffed with birds.

Chinese Pond-Heron (only one Pond-Heron here) and Pied Avocet 

A mix of vegetable fields, paddy fields, ditches, and areas of fallow land really seem to be a really rich bird habitat.  Lots of shorebirds and a few herons filled the fields and a good mix of wintering passerines inhabited the field edges.  We saw 4 species of pipit (Olive-backed, Red-throated, Richard's, and American), Little Buntings, 2 types of Eastern Yellow Wagtails, lots of 'Stejneger's' Siberian Stonechats, and even a Chinese Blackbird.

I have a soft spot for Wood Sandpiper, one of the first 'rare' birds I saw as a
kid in Wales.
On the shorebird front, there were lots of Wood Sandpipers, Common Snipe,  Little Ringed Plovers, Pied Avocets and Black-winged stilts (Marsh Poodles).  The shorebird I wanted to see here though was Greater Painted-Snipe, a life bird for me, and John (who had previously done research on this species) diligently worked the fallow fields until he found me some.

Great Painted-Snipe thinking we can't see them.

While we were talking (and birding) I mentioned that I still needed Black-faced Spoonbill and, still having a little time before I had to get to the airport, John suggested a quick stop at the Nam Sang Wai Wetlands to see if we could find some.

This stop turned out to be another very birdy spot with lots of shorebirds (Marsh Sandpipers, Spotted Redshank, Common Greenshank, Avocets, Stilts, etc.), herons, ducks, and an Eastern Marsh-Harrier.  But no Spoonbills ... and with time running out we admitted defeat and headed off to find me a taxi to take me to the airport.  As we left the area though I caught a glimpse of some white birds through small gap in the mangroves ... somehow they seemed wrong for egrets so I asked John to pull over and 'humor me'.  We waked back down the road and found a gap in the mangroves and .... Black-faced Spoonbills!  Life bird!  And a great way to end the trip .... 193 species of birds ... not bad for some stolen time on what was otherwise a trip characterized by busy days of meetings and busy nights of conference calls.  Got me thinking about what birds I can see on my next trip to Asia.

Crappy record shot of Black-faced Spoonbills ... but a life bird!
So trip over, I changed out of my stinky birding cloths on the roadside and put on clean cloths for my 16-hour flight to New York.  Figured I'd probably still smell bad but it wouldn't be obvious who smelled like a salt marsh if I changed my cloths.  Until next time Asia ...

Asian Urban Birding (Part 3) - Singapore (cont'd)

Sunday Morning in Singapore City

Up early again for more birds, but this time on my own and I'd decided to stay local.  Leaving the hotel I couldn't find a cab so ended up walking through central Singapore with my bins and camera, working my way to my destination, a newish park called Gardens By The Bay.  This park is really, very Singapore - it's new, clean, and obviously very expensive.  A large area of reclaimed land by the water that has been immaculately landscaped with dense plantings, multiple water features, lots of sculpture, and some interesting restaurants and exhibits.  It's certainly not the wilderness, but there were a lot of birds there .....

Singapore is quite literally stuffed with bird photographers.  They outnumber birders dozens to one, and most of the birding sites I'd visited that weekend were thick with them.  I'd heard that there were some good birds at the Gardens - a Black Bittern and some Wandering Whistling-Ducks - and so I wandered around the various ponds looking for them.  Then I rounded a corner and there were 30 photographers standing next to a lotus pond .... I guess I'd found the right place ....

Black Bittern (above) and Yellow Bittern (below)

Wandering Whistling-Ducks
White-throated Kingfisher
This particular lotus pond seemed to be bird-central at the park and perhaps as many as 50 photographers (but no birders) came and went while I spent a half hour there.  The Whistling-Ducks were in this pond along with 4 Yellow Bitterns, an Oriental Reed-Warbler and the Black Bittern even flew in for a quick visit.  

While everyone seemed to be in that one area, I got itchy feet and decided to wander off to see if I could find more species.  Most things around the park were the local common species but I did find a Tiger Shrike (such a cool name for a bird) and some White-rumped Munias among other things.  I also saw a Peregrine Falcon which somehow seemed very out out place over a park in the tropics.  In total I saw 33 species, not bad for a park in the center of a major city.

Olive-backed Sunbird, female - the common sunbird in Singapore
Tiger Shrike - such a cool name for a bird.
Pink-necked Pigeon - pretty bird, but it's the most common pigeon locally.
Too soon though, it was time to leave.  I had to check out of the hotel and, after an epic lunch (Singapore is the most amazing food city with an epic fusion of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Western influences) it was time to head to the airport for the next flight .... off to Hong Kong!