Sunday, February 12, 2017

Great Gray Owls in New York ... Finally!

One of My Most Wanted State Birds Finally Shows Up ....

Saturday, February 11 - Massena, New York

There are two Robert Moses State Parks in New York.  One is an hour os from my house on Long Island, the other is 7 hours from Manhattan (and 9 hours from East Hampton).  So for me to go to the latter one, means there is a seriously good bird there.

For the past week or so there have been rumors of Great Gray Owls in the very North of New York State.  That in and of itself if not unusual; most years there are rumors of Great Gray Owls but they almost never seem to turn into real birds.  There were birds in the 70s and 90s and a bird in 2013 (that for some reason I didn't chase, probably burned out after my big year) but I haven't really had an opportunity to see this species in New York. This year though, the omens were good with a massive invasion of owls into neighboring Quebec, a handful of New York sightings reported to local newspapers, and then, the moment I'd been waiting 20 years for .... a specific Great Gray Owl record from New York, with detailed location, and photos, when  I was available and interested in chasing it!  Game on!

So at 5am on Saturday I was on my way North, heading for that other Robert Moses State Park, this one near Massena on the St. Lawrence River, North of the Adirondack Mountains at the very Northern tip of New York State.  It took me almost 7 hours to get there, and I pointedly avoided checking the list serve emails on the way up (it's not like I was going to turn back).   As I pulled into the park though I allowed myself a peak at the email and the news was good ... 2 GREAT GRAY OWLS were being seen along one of the roads in the park.  Not ten minutes later I pulled up to a bunch of parked cars and a group of (albeit freeing cold) birders watching the owls.  Oh, why can't they all be this easy - after my horrible year of long-distance dips in 2016 - this was an amazing site.

There were two owls in view and they pretty much did everything you want owls to do.  They did some perch hunting, flew around a bit, changed perches a lot and came close to the road, and one even did some awesome hovering thing over the (hopefully) vole-infested grass.  Quite a show and a very, very cool to add to my state list (NYS #393).

There weren't really all that many other birds present, a few chickadees, crows, ravens, etc.  and a single Rough-legged Hawk.  I did a quick detour to look for a previously reported Barred Owl (no luck) but bumped into a birder who gave me directions to a NORTHERN SHRIKE which was definitely another great add for the state year list.

Northern Shrike - another backlit photo, sorry ...
So onward.  Super happy with my owls, I headed further North with a  plan to add a few more.  I crossed the US-Canadian border near Cornwall Ontario and headed NorthEast toward Montreal, stopping at a small suburban preserve and adding Great Gray Owl to my Quebec list too (joining previous sightings in Ontario and Minnesota).  Nice day ... but cold ... and I had dinner plans in Montreal.  Plans at perhaps my favorite restaurant in North America ... Joe Beef.

Two very old school dishes at Joe Beef - Flanc de Cerf, Dauphin et Foie Gras
and Gateau Marjelain 

Sunday, February 12 - Adirondacks, New York

Up shocking early after Saturday night's excesses and off to the Adirondacks.  I knew I didn't have much time given a forecast snow storm but figured I'd at least have the morning to bird.  The day started really well when, not long after dawn I crossed the U.S. border and had a Barred Owl hunting by the side of the road somewhere in Clinton County.  So on to the Adirondacks to see if I could clean up the available boreal specialties in a single morning.  Well I can dream can't I?

A quick stop at Oregon Plains Road added a BOREAL CHICKADEE  among the more common locals.  Then on to Tupper Lake where I added EVENING GROSBEAK and to Sabatis Bog which gave me Ruffed Grouse and GRAY JAY.  While I was in Brazil a few weeks ago a ROSS'S GULL showed up at Tupper Lake - it arrived just after I left ... and left just before I got back, allowing every serious birder in NY to see it except me (and Corey Finger who was apparently in Austria).  That's a bird I really want to see in New York, in fact I've never seen one in North America.  So driving through Tupper Lake had a certain bitter-sweet element to it, and I did scan the lake, just in case .... but no dream gull.
Birding cars aren't meant to be neat and clean ....
The snow also started to come down hard at that point though and I reluctantly decided to start heading South.  That unfortunately took me into the storm and the next 7 hours were a pretty stressful drive through heavy snow (almost a white-out blizzard at some points), bad roads, traffic jams, car accidents, and other wintery travel fun.  There was a brief highlight when I saw two BOHEMIAN WAXINGS in Indian Pond, but otherwise the ride South to the City was long and stressful.

Not a bad haul of birds though.  A New York State bird, 9 NYS year birds, and a smattering of new county birds on both sides of the border.  By no means did I do a boreal clean-up though - couldn't find a Black-backed Woodpecker, and came up short on Winter Finches other than the grosbeak.  Also, when I got back to New York, I found out that Joan Collins had had two male (!) Pine Grosbeaks sitting out on the road at Sabatis Bog just after I left.   So while I got a lot of stuff on my quick swing through the Adirondacks, I clearly would have seen a lot more had I birded it properly.  Still, always happy to have a reason to go back to the Adirondacks (or Montreal for that matter) so I'm sure I'll find a time to head back up there again.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

White-winged Potoos and 2 Days at Porto Seguro

Bahia, Brazil (Part 2)

After leaving Boa Nova we settled in for another long day of driving, this one without benefit of target birds so pretty much just a long slog down to the coast.  Out destination with the picturesque seaside town of Porto Segura (which is essentially where Brazil was founded around 1500) a sleepy place with long beaches, lots of palm trees and and lots of mellow old world character.  After a long day of driving, the charms of the Best Western Shalimar Beach Hotel, which included a pool, abundant caipirinhas and some good Brazilian seafood, outweighed any chortles about the very 1970s name.  A few good bottles of Brazilian Cabernet later, we were all wiped out, ready for sleep, and excited to explore new habitat in the morning.

Tuesday, January 31 - Estação Veracel, Porto Seguro

Our birding destination for the next two days was the famous Estação Veracel reserve and some adjoining areas.  Targets included some hummingbirds, cotingas, and a star nightbird.  So at first light we were off and walking the roads, scanning tree-tops and checking out flowering bushes with high hopes.  WHITE-WINGED COTINGA turned out to be fairly easy to see and we picked up five of them over the two days, although most were distant as cotingas tend to be and we were never able to come up with the rarer Banded Cotinga despite some serious searching.

White-winged Cotinga - Male (above) and Female (below)
Difficult birds to photograph at long range int he tops of trees. 

The area was very birdy though and yielded such goodies as HOOK-BILLED HERMIT, Red-browed Parrot, Bare-throated Bellbird, and the distinct local forms of Turquoise Tanager and Ringed Woodpecker.  We also had an up close and personal experience with a couple of Barred Forest-Falcons, and a really nice mix of forest species overall.

King Vulture and Turquoise Tanager (the White-bellied Atlantic Forest form)

The target bird for this part of the trip was indisputably the local, rare, and hard to see WHITE-WINGED POTOO.  While the species ranges widely across the Amazon, it's not common or reliable anywhere, and there just simply aren't that many places where you can have a good shot at seeing one.

Estação Veracel is one of those places though as Brett Whitney had found a bird here several years ago and that same bird (or it's descendants) has been regularly seen by birders year after year.  So just before dark we drove up to "the snag" where the bird is usually seen and, after it got dark Brett whistled the potoo song and we waited to see if the bird would give us an audience too.  There was some tension as the group had missed the bird the previous year, but I was optimistic, it just felt good.

The forest at night is usually quite loud, although most of the noise comes from cicadas, crickets and frogs, not birds or large mammals.  There were a couple of Common Pauraques calling away though and a single Short-tailed Nighthawk called a few times nearby but remained unseen.  After a good 15 minutes of listening, I heard what I though was a response and raised a hand as a silent signal to Brett.  Moments later, he stopped whistling and whispered to the group that the bird was nearby and just behind us.  From there on in, we all had to stay still, silent, and stay focussed on the snag, the tension eventually breaking when two Potoos sailed over us, silhouetted agains the starry sky, and came into the trees infront os us calling and singing, occasionally sitting up in the spot lights and giving us excellent views of this most wanted species.

My best shot of the White-winged Potoo - you can sort of see what it is ....

Wednesday, February 1 - Estação Veracel, Porto Seguro

After the excitement of the Potoos, a few too many Caipirinhas and some good Brazilian wine, we dragged ourselves up again for another crack at some of the birds we still needed at Veracel.  We never did get the Banded Cotinga or the Racquet-tailed Coquette, but we did get great perched views of a HOOK-BILLED HERMIT, and more decent views of several other local specialties.  One of the local park employees told us he'd seen Harpy Eagle within the last year - perched, and eating a sloth! - so the this piece of habitat is still clearly in decent shape and very important.

Swallow-winged Puffbird and White-crowned Manakin

Away from the birds, we did actually manage to see a few mammals on this last day.  For a Neotropical Trip, we didn't see much in the way of 'non-birds' during the week - a few Guianan Squirrels, a handful of Geoffrey's Tamarinds, two Brown-throated Three-toed Sloths and a (lifer for me on the last day) BAHIAN PORCUPINE were the only mammals we saw.

Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth and
Bahian Porpupine (which stubbornly hid it's head from photographs)

All too soon though it was time to head to the airport, fly to Salvador, and later for me, fly to São Paulo where the Fazano Hotel, D.O.M. restaurant, and business meetings all waited.  A big change of pace from life in the forest, but I'm very glad I got the chance to sneak a week of birding into the schedule.  Big thanks for Field Guides and Brett Whitney for making it happen.  I've birded SouthEast Brazil several times before - this brought my Brazil list to 602 species - but I'm sure it won't be the last time I bird here.  Great country, awesome food, great people, beautiful scenery, and amazing birds .... oh, and don't forget the caipirinhas ....

Postscript:  I did finally get some Vatapá back in São Paulo where celebrity chef and Brazilian food icon Alex Atala added it to a Palmito dish as part of the 16-course "maximus' tasting menu at D.O.M. (along with his signature formiga/ant dish).

Wild Amazonian Ants that taste just like Lemongrass and
Palmetto with Varapá

Alex Atala - Brazilian Food Master and owner/chef at D.O.M., currently ranked
the number 12 restaurant in the world.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Pink-legged Graveteiros and 3 Days in Boa Nova

Bahia Brazil (Part 1)

This trip was a bit of a whim.  I'm a retired (recovering?) world lister which means I don't do stuff like this any more, but every now and then, a trip hits me as something fun to do.  I'd always wanted to go to Bahia, eat Vatapá (the real local stuff), and I have a real soft spot for the Brazilian SouthEastern Rain forest.  So when I got an email from Field Guides offering a one-week short trip, really just an extension to their NorthEast Brazil trip, with the legendary Brett Whitney as leader,  I went ahead and booked it, planning to combine it with some business, food, and personal things for a 10-day Brazil vacation.

So on January 25th I flew via São Paulo to Salvadore do Bahia, joined Brett and 5 other world birders, and got ready for a fun few days in some of the relic forests of central Bahia.

Salvadore do Bahia - a super intersting place.  Portuguese and African cultures,
baroque churches, Brazilian food, colonial architecture.  A rare photo of me in
the blue tee-shirt below ...

Friday, January 27 - from Salvadore to Boa Nova

This day was basically a travel day, and a long one.  We left the hotel in Salvadore at 4am to catch a ferry across Baía de Todos os Santos and then basically headed SouthWest all day along roads of mixed quality to end up in Boa Nova in the evening.  To keep us sane, Brett added a handful of birding stops.  Some Scarlet Ibis and shorebirds along the Rio Jaguaripe were a treat, as was a longer forest walk near Valença which gave us some nice birds, most notably the Eastern (and presumably soon to be split) form of STRIPED MANAKIN.

Bird of the day though was always going to be the unusual and recently described PINK-LEGGED GRAVETEIRO if we could find one.  A species described only in 1996 it clings on in remnant canopy trees left after the forest was cleared for cocoa plantation.  The farmers leave a few trees to shade the cocoa, and this seems to be just enough for the Graveteiros to hang on in what looks like farm country, despite the fact that it was once a forest bird.

By mid afternoon we were in the right habitat, a mixture of cattle fields and what looked like open forest, that is until you noticed that the entire understory of the forest was single species feeding the worlds insatiable need for chocolate.  Our first stop came up empty, but at the second stop Brett had a nest staked out and, after playing take for a few minutes, a pair of birds appeared up around their nest high in a forest-edge tree.

Pink-legged Graveteiro singing from just above it's nest.  Not the most
exciting bird to look at, but recently-described, local, and rare.
Happy with the Graveteiro, perhaps ironically my most wanted bid on this trip, I settled back into the long ride and shifted focus to Boa Nova which we eventually reached, checking into a very basic hotel and eating take-out pizza for dinner (the only non-Brazilian food we ate on the whole trip).

Saturday, January 28 - Boa Nova National Park

Brett once voted Boa Nova the most important, threatened place for birds in South America.  A new National Park, although with no park infrastructure that I could discern, the town sits at the border between wet forest, dry forest and caatinga and is incredibly rich in bird life, including chances to see several very range-restricted species.

We started the day a little outside the park in a patch of forest on top of a dry ridge.  The very last of the moisture from the trade winds that feed the Atlantic Rainforest just reaches these dry ridges and provides just enough liquid (in the form mostly of mist) for small strips of forest to survive in an otherwise dry scrubby area.  We came to this patch to follow up on recent rumors of a breeding pair of Rieser's Tyrannulets (a near mythical species seen only a handful of times) and saw the recently vacated nest, but unfortunately did not see the birds.   We did however manage to get great views of two very range restricted antbirds that were major targets for the trip, the SLENDER ANTBIRD and the NARROW-BILLED ANTWREN both of which put on great shows for the group.

Narrow-billed Antwren (above) and Caatinga Antwren (below)

In the afternoon we wandered a trail in the super birdy Wet Forest in the National Park, adding lots of species including Bahia Spinetail (I wanted to see birds with Bahia in the name seeing as I was in Bahia), Rio de Janeiro Antbird, Striated Softtail and Black-throated Grosbeak.
Rufous Gnateater (above) and Slender Antbird (below)

Then, as it got toward sunset, we drove a little further to a stake-out site for another one of the major trip targets, the never easy, but always impressive GIANT SNIPE (a bird at least twice the size of a Common or Wilson's Snipe).  As it got dark we started to walk down the hill towards some wet fields where Brett had seen the snipe in prior years.  We passed a Common Pauraque and a Scissor-tailed Nightjar on the way, but tonight was a Snipe-Hunt, no time for nightjars.  As we got to the spot we started to work our way under a barbed wire fence, expecting to play tape and try to lure in a snipe, but the first people under found a snipe waiting for us, right out in the open not 30 feet from the road.  Now if only these things were always this easy!  We all had amazing views, the Giant Snipe itself, while initially nervous and crouched ready to flush, eventually got over us and started to wander around feeding, pushing it's truly enormous bill into the wet grass looking for worms.  We all had amazing views, and got back to the hotel early enough for an extra Caiparinha before dinner ... what's not to like?

Giant Snipe, at this stage still ready to flush ....

Sunday, January 29 - Boa Nova National Park

The major target for today was another "Bahia" bird, the very restricted and hard to find BAHIA TYRANNULET.  This bird was much more typical of rare birds though in that it required us to walk steeply up hill on a bad trail all morning ... in the rain ... and when we got to the site, the bird was no-where to be seen.  Now that's more like the type of birding I remember!  Knowing that the bird was probably around somewhere - he'd seen it here in past years - Brett tried to toot up some action using Least Pygmy-Owl calls.  We were soon joined by a real Least Pygmy-Owl, a swarm of freaked-out hummingbirds and small passerines, but unfortunately, not by a Bahia Tyrannulet.  Until, then there it was, not joining in the mobbing, but skulking quietly through canopy foliage overhead.  It took a while for us all to get good views, and I never got even the crappiest record shot, but the bird was seen well.  Mission accomplished, allowing us a more leisurely descent on the trail and the addition of yet more antbird species to the list.

Least Pygmy-Owl, getting them agitated is a good way to attract rare tyrannulets.
After a pleasant afternoon exploring some of the drier habitats near town, dinner proved to be another highlight of the trip. Boa Nova is a pretty basic place, certainly not known for it's fine restaurants, but in years past Brett had made the acquaintance of a local lady who sometimes cooked for visitors in her home. Tonight she had agreed to cook for us, and she put out a table groaning under the weight of amazing home-cooked local specialties.   A fabulous meal, and a great experience ... did I mention how much I love Brazilian food?

A home cooked meal in Boa Nova, Bahia.

Monday, January 30 - Boa Nova Area

Last morning in Boa Nova and, hoping to pad our Bahia lists, and get Masked Duck for a group member who really wanted one, we headed to a local fazenda which had a nice wetland area "stuffed with birds".  Unfortunately the historic local dry-spell had dried up the marsh but we spend a very pleasant few hours with dry-country birds before slogging 500 kilometers to the East to Porto Seguro, our base for the next part of the trip.

Suiriri Flycatcher, Spot-backed Puffbird and Silvery-cheeked Antshrike

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Mopping-Up the Geese

A January Ritual - Getting all 8 Species of New York Geese on the Year List

Saturday, January 21 - Nassau and Suffolk Counties

Haven't really had a lot of free time and anyone could tell that just by looking at my year-list which is trailing way behind the top birders on this year's eBird "Hot 100" for New York.  I had a few hours in the middle of the day on Saturday though so decided to get out and try and grab some of the Winter species that might not stick around until I had more time to bird.

First stop was a 'gimme'; the PINK-FOOTED GOOSE in Valley Stream has been simple and reliable all Winter (although it's the first one ever seen in Nassau County) and was a quick and easy add to the year list along with a Cackling Goose that has also been at the site for weeks.

Pink-footed Goose
With that being so easy I decided to venture further East, and headed an hour of so to the Farmingdale area which had recent reports of Barnacle, Cackling and Ross's Geese ..... and after two hours of searching ... I saw none of them.  Oh well ...

Feeling a little frustrated, I decided to go another hour or so further East again to search for a Sandhill Crane in Wainscott.  Not sure why I did that to be honest as Sandhill Crane wouldn't have been a County Bird for Suffolk County, and it's not a bird I'm ever likely to miss in New York in any given year.  As a species, they really aren't all that uncommon in New York but they are quite rare on Long Island and they certainly don't show up here every year ... and I like cranes.  The debate was academic though as I managed to dip that bird too, and also struck out on a search for Short-eared Owl and American Bittern along Dune Road.  Some days you don't have good karma I guess, but at least I managed to connect with some Ross's Geese for the year.  Seven of New York's eight goose species accounted for, one to go ....

Sunday, January 22 - (mostly) Richmond County

Awoke to a city shrouded in fog but decided to head out anyway and try to add a few more of the interesting lingering birds around New York.  First stop was on Staten Island (a borough I visit rarely even though it's quite close) and a stake-out for a PAINTED BUNTING that had been hanging out for a couple of weeks in some beach-side scrub.  Despite all the hoopla about the celebrity Painted Bunting in Brooklyn last Winter, the species shows up most years in New York State, although they are often found at feeders with limited access, and more usually 'little green jobs' rather than showy adult males.  This bird was billed an an immature male, but basically a (mostly) 'little green job'.

Painted Bunting and Lesser Black-backed Gull
Terrible photos on a dark foggy morning

The bunting turned out to be quite easy to find so I moved on to try for a Red Crossbill that had been hanging out nearby.  I'm always fascinated by Crossbills and love to see them but, after two hours of carefully scanning pine trees and pine cones, I had to admit defeat with this particular bird.  This bird was reputed to be difficult to see, feeding quietly in the pines and not moving much or calling.  I had expert directions from Michael Shanley and Isaac Grant, but still couldn't managed to winkle her out.  I did however add a total of 9 species to my (albeit tiny - 106) Richmond County list though, and made a mental note to get over there again in the Spring to work on that county list total.

With a few hours to spare before a commitment in the City I worked out that I could run back out to Suffolk County and have a quick second shot at the BARNACLE GOOSE.  This time the 'twitch' turned out to be incredibly easy and quick.  Pulled up to the site ... saw the goose and shot a few distant record shots through a metal fence and an orange wooden fence that separated the geese from the road ... watched as another birder/photographer walked up towards the geese ... and flushed them all.  Oh well, didn't have much time to spare anyway.

Barnacle and Canada Geese shot through two fences ....
So mission (sort of, mostly) accomplished.  My NYS year list is still just 120 species, 20+ species behind the early leaders, and 30 species behind my Big Year pace.  Still 2017 is going to be a year of birding travel, not a local big year, so I can't get too obsessed about any of that (I promise I won't get obsessed .. honestly ...).  Plus I did get all 8 New York goose species, something that has now become a January ritual, and added a few county birds to one of the counties I want to build up list-wise.  Not a bad weekend considering how little time I had.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Puffins, Dovekies, Razorbills and Murres

A Winter Pelagic out of Brooklyn

Until yesterday I had never managed to go out on a Winter Pelagic birding trip in New York State waters.  That's not to say that I hadn't tried to go out - in fact I'd booked on at least four or five boat trips that had been cancelled due to weather - I'd just never actually managed to get out there.  So the omens were good for January 2017, with Paul and Anita Guris organizing a trip on January 7th out of Brooklyn ... which was to course cancelled due to weather (!).  Luckily this time though, the boat captain gave us an alternate date, and despite the threat of another snow storm, at 3am on Friday morning I was driving to Sheepshead Bay Brooklyn in search of a boat and a whole bunch of similarly judgement-challenged birders planning to spend a brisk January day out on the Atlantic Ocean.

The plan quite simply was to motor out fifty miles into deeper water, hopefully arriving in an area frequented by working scallop dredges and other fishing boats by first light.  Then we'd lay a chum slick and 'tow' a bunch of gulls around with us while we looked for other species.  The trail of gulls would make us look like a fishing boat discarding by-catch and hopefully attract other, rarer species to join the gulls.  Well that was the plan anyway ....

Black-legged Kittiwake (2 shots)

By 7:30am, the sun was up, and even though it was cold, gray, and cloudy, there were birds to be seen around the boat.  We did establish a chum slick (diced Menhaden and Beef Suet) and had a bunch of gulls behind the boat all day.  Most were Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls but we did have a single Lesser Black-backed Gull and a lot of Black-legged Kittiwakes stay with us for part of the day.  The gull flock was also supposed to attract Northern Gannets and NORTHERN FULMAR, and both species did show up in very small numbers, but neither species stayed long  The Fulmar was a State Bird for me (#392) and one of my main reasons for coming out on the trip, so I was very happy to see a couple of them even if they didn't put on the kind of show we were hoping for.  The gulls were also supposed to attract Great Skuas, an almost legendary bird in the Western North Atlantic.  Almost every birder on the boat wanted this species, and all but a tiny handful need it for their New York, ABA, or even Life List.  I definitely need it for New York and would love to have seen one, but despite hours or scanning, today was not our day.

While the Skua did not cooperate, the Alcids most definitely did.  As the sun came up we were treated to many fly-by Razorbills and quite a lot of fly-by Dovekies.  Dovekie, a starling sized puffin relative, are really very hard to see from shore.  Experienced sea-watchers in New York might get a couple of distant ones zip by in their scopes in the average year, but for many of the riders on the boat this was a highly desired state/ABA/Life bird.  And we saw lots and lots of them ... I'm guessing perhaps 75 Dovekies, with the captain making an effort to get the boat close to several individuals on the water for photographs.

Nice as Dovekies are, they weren't my target bird.  I'm one of the lucky ones who gets to see Dovekies most years while sea-watching at Montauk, but the same could not be said for ATLANTIC PUFFINS which never come close to shore.  I've waited a long time to see a puffin in New York (a species I've seen only in Maine, Canada, Iceland, and in the UK) and as the day wore on with no sightings I was starting to get stressed that this might not be the day I got them after all.  Then around lunch time, the boat slowed and voices were discussing a bird visible from the bow.  When I heard the words "dusky face" I knew what the bird was and, after a tense few minutes trying to get on the bird, Atlantic Puffin joined my New York State list (#291).

Dovekie (above) and Atlantic Puffin (below)

While birds were the main goal, and it being Winter we weren't expecting much else in terms of vertebrate life out in the cold sea, we did actually see a few non-bird highlights.  Best for me were a pod of BLUEFIN TUNA mixed with a pod of Short-beaked Common Dolphins.  Others apparently saw a whale spout (I missed it) but I did get good views of a couple of Harbor Porpoises ... a species I'm always happy to see.

By 2:30pm, with only a couple of hours of light ahead, it was time to come back in and once again admit defeat in the search for Great Skuas.  On the way in though we had to pass through the 'Murre-Zone' and would add another bird that would be a lifer or state bird for many on the boat.  Common Murres are remarkably loyal to a band of water 23-25 miles offshore in New York in the Winter.  I've seen them before in this zone, and as soon as we motored into the right area, we started to see Common Murres and saw in the end perhaps ten of them.

Common Murre (3 shots)

Darkness overtook us before we reached land, and as we pulled into the dock in Sheepshead Bay, we arrived to several inches of fresh snow that had fallen while we were out at sea.  Not the most fun drive back to Manhattan, but it was a very fun day at sea.  Two state birds (Atlantic Puffin and Northern Fulmar) and four year birds (Lesser Black-backed Gull and Common Murre) made it worthwhile.  I took the opportunity to book myself on two additional Paulagics (June and August) and I guess I'll keep doing the Winter ones and hoping one day for a Skua.  I will get my New York State list to 400 one day (392 currently) and who knows, maybe Great Skua will be that 400th bird.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Hummingbirds in the Snow

A truncated day of Winter Birding in Suffolk County

Plan A today was a Winter Pelagic trip out of Brooklyn with hopes of adding Atlantic Puffin, Northern Fulmar, and who knows maybe even Great Skua to my New York State Life List.  An approaching Winter storm killed off that plan yesterday though so on to Plan B.

Plan B was a quick, pre-storm, goose chasing trip in Nassau and Western Suffolk Counties and I started at Lake Ronkonkoma, the furthest East I'd planned to go, adding two Tundra Swans to the year list.  This pair of birds had wintered for several years at Hook Pond in East Hampton, but after arriving as scheduled this year seem to have found the pond not to their liking and moved on a new Winter venue.   Checked them off quickly there and then checked my emails and decided to move over to a new Plan C.

Plan C involved running much further East to the North Fork in Eastern Suffolk County (on the assumption that the snow would hold off for a bit longer) and chasing a TOWNSEND'S SOLITAIRE that had been found there the night before.  The email updates from the NYS Listserve this morning included one from Mike Higgiston that said the bird was still present.  And so off Out East ...

An hour later I joined a group of very cold birders, including Pat Lindsay who was nursing pneumonia but still keen to get this bird (the first in Suffolk County for 10 years?).  After a cold 25 minute wait, a couple of "beep" calls and the solitaire popped up on top of a dead tree, giving me Suffolk County Life Bird number 316 and another opportunity to take bad, silhouetted record shots of this species.

The distinctive silhouette of a Townsend's Solitaire - I have a history of
taking bad photos of this species.
By now though it had started to snow and a quick check of the weather indicated that, while New York City was expecting maybe 5 inches of snow, the East End of Long Island was due for perhaps 10-12 inches.  Clearly time to head back West before conditions got too dangerous.

There was one more stop I wanted to make though.  Not one, but two RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRDS had been wintering in a yard in Aquebogue (which was sort of on my way) and with the snow coming, this could well be my last chance to see these birds.  A quick call to Margaret, the very generous and gracious home owner, granted me permission to visit and so 20 minutes later I was standing in a very bird friendly yard with Margaret, Bob Adamo and Pat Paladino in what was now a driving snow storm looking for hummingbirds.

Margaret has at least four hummingbird feeders, two of them heated, and had even put up heated roosting areas for the birds.  Sure enough we quickly saw a Rufous Hummingbird visit one feeder, then (another?) visit a second.  Not sure I've ever seen Hummingbirds in snow, except perhaps in the high Andes, and these were only my 3rd and 4th individual Rufous Hummingbirds ever in New York State.

So heated feeders do seem to work ...
Shivering, and worried about the snow, I decided to call it a day and crawled back to the city behind snow plows, dodging car accidents and two-wheel drive cars skidding all over the road.  A little bit of a white-knuckle experience, but I'm very glad I got to be outside for a while.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Early January on Long Island

A few days of Year-Birding to start 2017

Sunday, January 1 - Montauk and Shinecock

I think by now I can categorize it as a ritual.  I have started my year list in perhaps 7 of the last 15 years with a sunrise sea-swatch at Montauk Point, and it never disappoints as a great way to start a year of birding.  This year was relatively mild, and after a quick stop en-route to add Great Horned Owl, the day started there with a beautiful sunrise over the Atlantic as it got light enough to distinguish the birds.  And there were plenty of birds ... highlights including thousands of scoters of all three species, hundreds of Common Eider and a scattering of other sea-ducks, loons and grebes.  Specialty birds also put in an appearance with a couple of Black-legged Kittiwakes, a Red-Necked Grebe, nearly 75 Razorbills and a fly-by DOVEKIE (plus a Gray Seal).  Not a bad start.  23 species in all, and the year-list 2017 was officially on it's way.

After Montauk I worked my way back West, stopping at a number of local spots picking up more species at each of them.  Highlight for me was a GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GOOSE at Further Lane Fields in East Hampton (it's hard to tell but the picture below is a mansion lawn, not a  grassy field ... it's a big lawn and a big mansion).

Greater White-fronted Goose in a Canada Goose Flock
By lunch time I'd worked my way to Shinecock Inlet where a couple of Harlequin Ducks and a Glaucous Gull were both good close views.  The local Snow Buntings were also quite confiding, but unfortunately, the only Snowy Owl of the day stayed at a very respectable distance.

Harlequin Ducks

Can you spot the Snowy Owl?
Glaucous Gull
I finished the day off back at the house in Northwest Harbor watching my feeders and drinking wine on the deck, coming out again just after dark to hear my local Eastern Screech Owl become Owl species number three for the year.  Not a bad way to start 2017.

Monday, January 2 - Robert Moses State Park and Cammann's Pond

Up early, but unfortunately I had to head back to the City with the dogs in the car, allowing me only two or three quick stops on the way back in.  Stop one was Robert Moses State Park where I managed to dip a couple of Ross's Geese that had been present for several days but had apparently moved on.  There was a nice consolation though in the form of a single Lapland Longspur, a bird I rarely see more than one or two of in New York in the average year.

Lapland Longspur
Last stop of the day was Cammann's Pond in Nassau County, where I'd dipped a BLACK-HEADED GULL a few days earlier.  No problems this time though as the bird was on the water near the parking lot and I saw it before I'd even turned off the engine.  A new species for me for Nassau County (#214) and a bird I missed altogether in New York in 2016, so I was happy to call it a day and had back to the city with a nice haul of 92 species on the year list.

Black-headed Gull
Not a bad start to the year ....