Monday, July 30, 2012

Brown Booby in New Jersey

So, I'm laying in bed at 5am this morning, wondering whether to go to Cupsogue or to Jamaica Bay, and I realize that I'm honestly not all that excited to do either.  My usual morning troll through bird alerts and e-mails, fails to come up with any other exciting New York options but, while I'm wondering if there's something else to do, I see the chatter from New Jersey.  Apparently a Brown Booby has popped up at a small, inland lake in Warren County.  Even though I know I'm not supposed to cheat on New York this year, I just know instantly that I'm going to go for it this morning.  I need a break from New York so I crawl out and nudge the car past the Brooklyn Bridge and over to the Holland Tunnel.

For some historical context: through the 90s (back when I was a serious local birder), even though I lived in New York, I birded mostly in New Jersey.  Birding for me back then meant heading South or West, and almost never East.  I spent a lot of time at Cape May and, while participating in four World Series of Birding, spent a ton of time scouting the state in the Spring.  Even in Winter, I was more likely to be found along the Jersey Shore (or at Cape Anne) than at Montauk.  In fact, when I slipped into World Listing in the 00s and stopped birding locally, my New Jersey list was still bigger than my New York list.  Fast forward 20 years though, and I haven't really done any birding in the state since; so am excited to add a State Bird for the first time in many years.

The drive out is easy and the navigation system on the Range Rover guides me easily into the parking lot at the lake.  Walking over to the shore, I see Rick Wright and a couple of other locals with scopes set.  The bird is sitting at the far end of the lake on a dock and apparently had just finished a fishing trip so will probably be sitting there for a while.  Now what on earth is a Brown Booby doing in this small, shallow freshwater lake in the heavily wooded farmlands of Warren County?  Birding is full of mysteries ....

After a half hour of waiting for closer flight views I end up joining a group of local birders who hike a trail (the Blue Trail) over towards the bird.  The trail ends at a gravel road, but it isn't posted so we make our way closer to the lake.  Before we get there however, we hit some black and red "no-entry" signs, and while they don't look very official, I demure when some of the group push on.  At that point though I'm close to the water, so I take advantage of the fact that I'm wearing sandals (I live in Teva River-Runner shoes) and wade out into the lake.  The lake bottom is hard (Marl?) and just 20 feet out I find myself with a distant (50m) but unobstructed view of the Booby.

Got my "proof shots" and so headed out.  The guys who got closer (found a way to work around the signs and stay on public property) got truly excellent shots.  A very cool bird for New Jersey.  Now if I could just get one in New York .....

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Extinct Birds ... fascinating ... but so sad ...

Thanks to Chris Sharpe for posting some great photos of extinct species here.  So sad that they had Passenger Pigeons and Carolina Parakeets in captivity but no-one tried to breed them to save the species.  We've made so many mistakes, but hopefully are learning from them.

Eskimo Curlew (Photo: Don Bleitz)

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck in Jefferson County

So after helping others get year-birds all weekend, I figured I was due for a potential year-bird for myself.  When I saw a report of a Black-bellied Whistling-Duck pop up on Sunday afternoon I got excited for a second before I saw where it was .... right up on the St. Lawrence River in Jefferson County, at least 6 hours drive each-way from the City.

I knew that I couldn't go on Monday in any case so I decided to wait and see if the bird was seen that day before I committed to the drive.  I monitored the list-serves all day on Monday but saw no reports.  In the end, I broke down in the evening and called Gerry Smith (a local birder) who confirmed that the bird was sticking but that it wasn't always easy to see.

So at 4:15am on Tuesday, I jumped in the car and drove the 6 hours up to Clayton, New York (the last exit before the Canadian Border and closer to Kingston, Ontario than any significant population center in New York).

When I arrived at the site I checked the marina and then did a thorough search of all the docks and hidden corners in the inlet, but came up empty.  Gerry had told me I might have to wait the bird out so I headed back to the car to find a spot to settle in for a long wait.  As I came back through the marina, a guy in overalls came out of the marina buildings and asked if I was "looking for the duck" (I though he was going to tell me to move my car).  A quick chat and he'd given me a couple of other places to look so I got back in the car and headed out to a spot where I could scan the nearby shore of the St. Lawrence River.  Within seconds, I spotted a group of loafing mallards on the shore across the inlet and there, sitting among them, was the Whistling-Duck (NYS 2012 #330).

Black-belled Whistling-Duck
Spent a half hour with the duck and took a few photos then headed South, stopping briefly at Dog Hill Road where I once again did not see a Gray Partridge.  Ran South for the next 7 hours and got home at around 7pm in time for dinner.  Long day ...

Monday, July 23, 2012

Blasts from the Past: Wood-Rails

[Random shots from my travels around the world over the years]
Giant Wood-Rail from Argentina and Rufous-necked Wood-Rail from Brazil.   I have a soft-spot for Wood-Rails but still need to get over to see Little Wood-Rail one day .....

Giant Wood-Rail
Rufous-necked Wood-Rail

Playing Tour Guide - Birds, Turtles and Dolphins on Long Island

I had Greg Lawrence visiting Long Island from Rochester this weekend with a long list of potential year-birds that this coast-deprived upstate birder was anxious to get.  The weather unfortunately did not cooperate with solid rain on Friday making for some tough conditions and a NE winds on Saturday canceling our planned boat trip.  We persevered however and did manage to winkle out a few things.

Friday: started at JFK Airport with a pick-up and a run over to Jamaica Bay.  Given the rain, we started on the West Pond hoping for Tricolored Heron and Gull-billed Tern but saw neither and had to make do with a very large gathering of several hundred Least Terns and dozens of assorted egrets.  Next came the East Pond, where at we were at least able to pick out "Rufous" RUFF at the North end among the good assortment of shorebirds present.  Then on to the South end of the East Pond where we added the REEVE to our collection, but unfortunately left Jamaica Bay with no year-birds for Greg.

As an aside though, the addition of "Rufous" Ruff now does mean that I've seen all four on New York State's 2012 Ruffs - not sure anyone else has them all.

Running East we made a few stops on the South Fork.  Pike's Beach was quiet and the rain dissuaded me from forking over $15 at Cupsogue, however, we did add the first of many Piping Plovers at Tiana Beach, finally getting a year-bird for Greg.  Stops later at Mecox and Sagg Main didn't add too much on the freshwater side but both sites had Great Shearwaters feeding close to shore (year bird #2).  Finishing off at Sammy's Beach, Cedar Point, and Scoy Pond, and adding nothing out of the ordinary, we gave in and called it quits at around 6pm.

Long-tailed Duck
Saturday: dawned clear and, even though the timing wasn't great, we ran over to Cupsogue to see what was around at the high-tide.  A surprise Long-tailed Duck was the first bird of note, quickly followed by a Royal Tern (#3), a Roseate Tern (#4), a Whimbrel (#5) and a good assortment of shorebird, including "Western" Willet.

We also took the time to look for Saltmarsh and Seaside Sparrows and, after skunking at the first couple of spots where I'd had them recently, lucked out at the third spot with 3 Seasides and a Saltmarsh (#6) at close range.

Dip of the day was Eastern Box-Turtle, a herp that Greg really wanted to see and while I tried at a number of my best sites, I couldn't come up with one.  Of course, when we got back to the house we got to hear that my dogs had found one in the tomato patch earlier in the day and that all of my other house guests had seen it.  Needless to say, it was nowhere to be found by the time we got there.  Turtle-chasing is a lot like bird-chasing it turns out ... "should have been here earlier" ...

Seaside Sparrow
Sunday: started way too early, with a 4am alarm call and dawn stops at Napeague to listen for Black Rails (none) and Eastern Whip-poor-wills (3).    Then off to Montauk for a quick boat trip, spending 7 hours between 8 and 25 miles South of Montauk and East Hampton.  The birds were a little disappointing but we did have several hundred Wilson's Storm-Petrels (#7), 8 Great Shearwaters and single Cory's (#8) and Manx Shearwaters (#9).  A phalarope sp. (probably Red-necked but too distant) provided a moment of excitement, but it was the non-birds that stole the show.  A couple of Humpback Whales breached a number of times early on and we were also lucky enough to see about 50 Inshore Bottlenose Dolphins quite close to Montauk Point.

Inshore Bottlenose Dolphins
Rounding out the trip were great looks at a Loggerhead Sea-Turtle and an assortment of fish including a small Basking Shark.  Shame about the birds, but the critters were worth the trip.

Dropped Greg Back at JFK on Sunday night with 9 year-birds for his 2012 NYS Year-list ... and a life turtle, even if it wasn't the one that he hoped for.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Some birds just insist on being seen ....

 ... or so it seems.  In particular this American Avocet simply insisted on joining my NY year-list.

Friday morning and I'm up early to drive Ryan to Newark Airport for a flight to Mexico (I'm jealous).  We sail out there but after dropping him off I have to crawl back through rush-hour traffic and navigate the weekday morning experience of the Holland Tunnel.   By the time I get back to TriBeCa, I'm in no mood to get back in the car so I decide to stay in the City for the day.

At around noon, I finally check my e-mails and find out that an AMERICAN AVOCET has been being seen all morning in Ithaca (insert curse word here).  Ithaca is just about far enough away to make it a pain to get to - at least a five hour drive if you include getting out of the City in the middle of the day.  So I rationalize, and decide that there's bound to be one later in the year at Jamaica Bay and ignore it.

On Saturday morning I wake up thinking I've made a terrible mistake and am quite convinced that this is the only American Avocet that I'll get a chance of in New York this year.  I start sending e-mails to folks, looking to see if it's still there.  No-one is posting anything but perhaps all the locals saw it yesterday and aren't checking (turns out off the locals were driving to Montreal for Little Egret, but I didn't know that at the time).  Finally, the ever reliable and helpful David Nicosia responds.  He hasn't heard anything about the bird but he's heading over that way now and will let me know if its still there. I wait for a couple of hours but finally give in to impatience and call David on his cell-phone.  He is on site, he is scanning, and the bird has moved on.  Glad I didn't drive up there but now I'm nervous that I missed my one shot at Avocet for the year.

Sunday morning, out on the flats on Cupsogue where Shaibal Mitral is leading the New York State Young Birders group, and a small group of local regulars has joined to form a social birding crowd.  We're enjoying Black Terns and "Western" Willets among other things when Rich Fried gets an e-mail that an American Avocet has just been found at Piermont in Putnam County.   Closer, but with Summer weekend traffic still and six-to-eight-hour round-trip from Hampton Bays, so I decide to keep the faith that one would eventually show up closer to home.  I go so far as to predict that the bird will no doubt show up at Jamaica Bay the next day.  Not sure I believe it, but I really don't want to do that drive on a Sunday afternoon.

Monday morning, after an early start checking the local hot-spots (which haven't been so hot of late), I get back to the house at around 9am and see the predictable e-mail that Andrew Baksh has an American Avocet at Jamaica Bay.  I swear, that man must sleep in the phragmites and bird the place 24-hours a day, seven-days-a-week.  Not that I'm complaining, I'm glad he found it, and given the habitat, I'm pretty sure this bird will stick around for me.  So this is only a 5-hour round-trip from East Hampton and I'm on my way in no time.

American Avocet at Jamaica Bay
Parking at the North lot, I'm quickly booted-up and on my way in, but soon pass a birder coming out of the East Pond who has discouraging news.  He says that there are almost no shorebirds on the North end of the pond and that he hasn't seen the Avocet (!).  Pressing on, although admittedly in a bit of a gloom, I pass another birder (Tristan Lowery?), who say that he *has* seen the Avocet, and as I emerge through the phragmites tunnel, a quick scope-scan quickly gives me a distant Avocet (NYS 2012 #329).

In fact the North End is positively awash with shorebirds (who was that mystery pessimist - a secret agent working for one of my competitors?) and among the hundreds of SBDOs I pick out a REEVE, 6 Stilt Sandpipers, good candidates for Western Sandpiper and Long-billed Dowitcher (no photos, no count), and a GULL-BILLED TERN.  It really looks like good birding, even though the mid-day heat is more than this pale-skinned Celt can really handle.  I retreat from the sun and head back East ... but I'm happy I went.

Gull-billed Tern (with Short-billed Dowitchers)

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Do Henslow's Sparrows really exist in New York?

I saw my life Henslow's Sparrow in Pennsylvania in 1992.  Relatively newly arrived in the US, my friend Jim Shoemaker invited me out to get a my life bird at a breeding site that he knew near his childhood home near Wilkes-Barre.  We went out, arrived at the site at dawn, and quickly had great scope views of the birds singing while sitting up in the grass.  I saw a few more birds a little later that Spring.  Not so tough really, not sure what the big deal is .....

Fast forward 20-years and come the Spring of 2012, I hadn't seen another one since.  So I knew I'd have to do some work if I wanted one for my New York year list.   To cut a long story short, I put in some miles and some hours and I've had 5 Henslow's "experiences" so far this year.  Today I officially declared victory and stopped trying to get better views.  Henslow's turns out to be the most mercurial and frustrating of birds.  Perhaps that first day was a fluke after all.

May 22nd - Triangle Road: late in the day with Joan Collins and Richard Fried.  Joan can hear Henslow's Sparrows and now Richard can hear them too.  I can't hear them.  Or can I?  What does a grasshopper fart sound like?  Are they similar?  Eventually I get on what the others are hearing and it does sound good, but I'd really like a look at a bird.  We spend a fair amount of time there but we don't see any birds, and even though I'm more comfortable with the calls, I pronounce the whole thing a most unsatisfying experience and head back to the mountains to get back to the serious business of not seeing Spruce Grouse.

June 2nd - Dog Hill Road: with Benjamin Van Doren.   We get to the Perch River site mid-morning and we don't hear any Henslow's Sparrows, despite others having reported them recently.  I know that Benjamin has been skeptical about the Triangle Road site but agree to run up there anyway.  We get there mid day and we don't hear any Henslow's Sparrows there either.  Benjamin says the habitat looks wrong and can barely contain his skepticism.  Henslow's Sparrow would be a life bird for him.  I think they're punishing his lack of faith and sitting tight-lipped just out of view.

June 12th - Dog Hill Road: an impromptu side-trip on the way from Rochester to NYC (it's only an hour or two out of the way, each way) inspired by Chris Wood's recent Gray Partridge sighting.  It has been raining all morning and by the time I get to Perch River it really doesn't look like its going to be letting up any time soon.  When I pull into the Gray Partridge site (which is also the Henslow's site) I have low expectations, but even though its raining, there's a Henslow's Sparrow singing in the field.  I listen for a while, get out of the car, get soaked, get back in the car, and decide to call it a day and head South.  The rain is now torrential and the six-hour drive South is miserable.

July 10th - Dog Hill Road: it's dusk and I'm cruising slowly along the road hoping for Chris Wood's famous Gray Partridge (famous in my imagination at least).  As I pull into the small parking lot I'm surprised to hear a Henslow's Sparrow calling loudly and close to the road.  I get out and listen, perhaps a second one calling too, and then flight views and a brief perched view.  How very cooperative!  With the light fading though, the camera stays in the car and I resign myself to a 4am alarm call, hoping that they'll be sitting up and singing early in the morning.

July 11th - Dog Hill Road:  fortified by Ramada Inn instant coffee, I head out early and get to Perch River at around 5am.  As I pull up to the site with the windows open, I can hear Henslow's Sparrows singing from the car.  I jump out, walk over the edge of the grass closest to the nearest of two singing birds, and turn on the camera.  After a lot of squinting, many mosquito bites, and a few position changes, I spot the bird, point the camera, and take about 100 completely out-of-focus shots!  In the low light my auto-focus just can't distinguish the small brown streaky sparrow from the large brown streaky field of grass.  But as the light improves, the camera gets a bit smarter and I manage to get the all important "proof" shot (below).

Henslow's Sparrow
So the last two days, the birds were positively easy - sitting out in the open (ish), singing loudly, and hanging out close to the road.  On other visits to the same site, there was not even a hint of the birds.  Perhaps the low light (dusk, dawn, heavy rain) helps a lot, or perhaps the bird is just mercurial.  Either way, I'm sure they're under-recorded, and that there are more out there to be found.  I do have to admit though that I've actually grown quite fond of them during this whole process.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Beware the North Muck - Danger!

Like many New York birders, I've seen the maps of Jamaica Bay's East Pond showing the "easy" and "difficult" passage through the mud, and the myriad names of bays, mud-spits and other geographic features.   Dead Man's Cove always sounds so much more interesting than Sanderling Point for some reason, even if it doesn't necessarily get better birds.  If I'm honest, I've also laughed to myself about the the "DANGER!" annotations at several spots around the pond presumably denoting deeper mud.  How deep could it be after all?  While I admit that the "North Muck" has always looked like an area that I didn't really want to get too close to, I figured that the mud depth would change incrementally, allowing a wayward birder plenty of time to reverse course.

Well after last week, when a birder went chest-deep into the North Muck and had to be rescued by Rangers (a rescue apparently taking several hours) before being hosed down in the parking lot, well lets just say I'm following the map very, very carefully from now on.

No worries today though, the East Pond behaved perfectly.  The temperature was pleasant, perhaps 15-degrees cooler than the weekend, with cloud cover and even a pleasant breeze.  I just don't know why folks complain about the place, it was positively lovely this morning.  I also had the place to myself - only once was I yanked off my scope to be interrogated by anxious-looking Ruff hunters - quite a perfect morning of shorebirding in fact.

Pectoral Sandpiper (with Least Sandpiper and Short-billed Dowitcher shadows)
Among the 800-1,000 shorebirds at the North end of the East Pool today I managed to winkle out two New York State year-birds; a Pectoral Sandpiper (#325), and a couple of Stilt Sandpipers (#326).  All birds that had been reported by many folks over the weekend while I was Out East, so nice to do such a comprehensive catch-up on a Monday morning, even if I was 'dowitcher-blind' by the end of the day.

Maybe something other than shorebirds tomorrow .....

Saturday, July 7, 2012

More Cupsogue / Dune Road Shorebirds

Spent the last two mornings on the rising tide at Cupsogue Flats hoping for a few new shorebirds.  I seem to be in a bit of a year-bird slump with others having seen five or six species recently that would have been year birds for me.  By far the best thing I missed was the Brown Booby that Derek Rogers and Ari Gilbert had at Cupsogue on Thursday, a truly great find.  While I wasn't expecting that bird to put on a repeat performance,  there have been a few shorebirds around that I wanted to catch up on.

Cupsogue is slowly changing as fall migration gets underway with subtle changes in the mix of birds from week to week.  The dominant shorebird now is Short-billed Dowitcher, including a couple of nice red-breasted "Prairie Race" type birds.  Tried hard to winkled out a Long-billed Dowitcher, but no luck so far.

Short-billed Dowitcher
Other have included an increasing number of migrant Least Sandpipers, the odd "Western Willet" and a good mix of terns, which today included 5 Black Terns in various plumages.

Least Sandpiper
Back along Dune Road I picked up Yellow-crowned Night Heron and an American Bittern (my second recently, but an unseasonal record down here on the coast, presumably an early migrant).  Best bird so far this weekend though was a WHIMBREL at Ponquogue (NYS year-bird #324).  Never a predictable bird here and a good one to get out of the way.

American Bittern
Whimbrel (sometimes you have to just grab a shot to prove that you saw it)

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Blasts from the Past: Peruvian Hummingbirds

[Random shots from my travels around the world over the years]
A couple of neat, and quite similar, hummingbirds from coastal Peru.

Peruvian Sheartail

Oasis Hummingbird

Another day, another Ruff ...

This one was at Jamaica Bay (found by Andrew Baksh a few days back) on the East Pond.  Lots of birders getting good looks today.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Gray Tree Frogs and other critters in the yard

For the past couple of weeks we've had a Gray Tree Frog in the swimming pool.  Each evening it calls from inside the pool filter and each time I catch it and move it back to the woods, it finds a way to return the next day.  Eventually I gave up and left it in sole possession of the pool.  We've theorized that perhaps the pool filter amplifies the frog's calls in a way that entices it to keep coming back.  Either way, it seems attached to the spot.  It seems happy, although we aren't too confident about his chances with the lady frogs.

Gray Tree Frog
And here are some of the other Reptiles and Amphibians we've had in the yard recently ...

Eastern Milk-Snake
Northern Ring-necked Snake

Eastern Box-Turtle

Eastern Spadefoot Toad

Anyone fancy a Sandwich?

While driving Out East on Long Island on Thursday, I get a call from Shaibal Mitra who has a Sandwich Tern in view on the flats at Cupsogue.  I'm only 45 minutes away, so I re-route, but within minutes he calls back to say that a mosquito-spraying helicopter has come by and cleared the flats completely, with the Sandwich Tern last seen heading East.  And so a weekend of searching for Sandwich Tern begins ....

Sandwich Terns aren't all that rare in New York, but they certainly aren't common and you do have to go and look for them.  They drop by the flats and tern colonies along the Long Island beaches in Summer each year and sometimes, as after Hurricane Irene last year, can be quite regular.  In other years though, they aren't as abundant and could be missed, so I wanted to try to get this species while it was being reported.

On Friday, I'm offshore on a boat in the morning, battling 8-10 foot swells and not seeing much in the way of sea-birds, so of course when I get back to land I hear that almost every East End birder has seen one or more of perhaps three Sandwich Terns at Cupsogue during the day.   Against my better judgement, I head over there at the high tide, missing the last report by 45 minutes and again dipping the Sandwich Terns.

Red Knots

I have something of a love-hate relationship with Cupsogue.  On the plus side, the birds are great and I spend three hours there on Friday night enjoying large numbers of shorebirds, including Red Knots, White-rumped Sandpipers, etc.  There are also good breeding birds to see, like Saltmarsh and Seaside Sparrows, and I even add a Suffolk County year-bird when a Little Blue Heron flies over.  On the downside, Cupsogue is crowded, costs $15 to park, requires a hike through, well let's just call it "mud", has rapidly shifting tides, and a healthy population of ferocious biting insects.  Not everyone's idea of an ideal day at the beach.

White-rumped Sandpiper and Semipalmated Sandpiper
Saturday, and round three with Cupsogue.  Even though I know that the evening and the rising tide will be better (based on an Andrew Baksh post from the night before), I'm restricted to a morning visit and decide to give it a try anyway.  There are lots of birders, and lots of terns, including Roseates and a few Royal Terns, but no Sandwich Tern, at least while I'm there.  In fact, no-one sees one on Saturday, so I'm wondering if the birds have moved on.

Saltmarsh Sparrow
Sunday presents a last chance to try the flats and I arrive at 3:30pm to find Seth Ausubel leaving the flats after an epic all day session.  I can't get out as far as I want to due to the rapidly rising tide, so I make a strategic retreat, stopping and scanning as I work my way back to dry land.  When I get there, and clamber out onto the muddy trail-head, I turn for one last scan, and pick up a distant Sandwich Tern!  After many hours of scanning the flats, it popped up just as I was about to give in and call it a day.   I get some truly horrible iPhone shots at 60x through the scope, call Seth (who unfortunately is well on his way back towards the City) and then squelch up the trail and back to the car.  New York year bird #323, and perhaps Cupsogue isn't such a bad place after all ....

Sandwich Term with Common Tern