Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Cold, White, North .... of New York.

Just back from a quick two-day trip to NorthEastern New York, a bit of a change from Long Island, but a bit of a challenge in terms of temperatures and conditions.  My plan was to head up to Long Lake in the Adirondacks, look for Hoary Redpolls, then head down to the St. Lawrence Valley with Joan Collins to look for Winter birds.  I made a hotel reservation in Lake Placid with a vague plan to either check out some boreal forest spots on Wednesday, or of heading down to the Champlain Valley if I still hadn't found some of my target birds they day before.

These Common Redpolls descended on my car when I arrived in Long Lake,
presumably looking for the sand and grit I tracked in with me.
Leaving the City at 3:15am, I pulled into Joan Collin's driveway near Long Lake almost exactly 5 hours later and was immediately surrounded by a swirling flock of 200 or so Common Redpolls.  Joan has a big feeder set-up and gets large numbers of redpolls every other year when they surge South.

So reluctantly exiting the car, and scrambling for an extra layer of clothing, I greeted Joan and got down to the serious business of winkling Hoary Redpolls out of the Commons.  Luckily, the flock, while skittish, stayed fairly close to the feeders, and we soon had two females and brief view of a stunning almost pure white male.

Female Hoary Redpoll (2 shots)

While there's still some debate about the taxonomy of Redpolls I keep to some simple rules ... pure white rump and undertail, stubby bill, limited streaking = Hoary.  It may be a gross oversimplification but it's probably OK for now, at least until people really pin down the taxonomy of these beautiful birds.  Work seems to be ongoing with experts suggesting a number of forms that may or may not be good species.  They're certainly variable though, and here's another interesting link that has all of the (currently) recognized North American forms (species? sub-species? races? or whatever) together on one feeder.  Fascinating little critters.

Joan unfortunately had a family emergency so we had a bit of a false start before I headed off down to the St. Lawrence Valley in the early afternoon.  I was in search of Pine Grosbeaks, Northern Shrikes and Bohemian Waxwings so cruised roads and the locations of previous sightings in Canton (Nothing), Potsdam (Nope) and Massena (Nada).  Somehow I was sure I'd bump into these birds fairly easily but I was really struggling and it wasn't until I cruised some roads NorthEast of Massena that I finally bumped into two Pine Grosbeaks followed twenty-minutes later by a flock of 22 Bohemian Waxwings.  Of Northern Shrikes I saw nothing, and the search for Grosbeaks and Waxwings had consumed my daylight so I had to turn South and made my way back up into the Adirondacks to the welcome warmth of my regular hotel in Lake Placid.

Wednesday dawned .... well cold.  When I turned off the alarm my iPhone said the temperature was -17 degrees Fahrenheit (-27 degrees Celsius) and I seriously though about turning over and sleeping in.  Still, I'd driven a long way and I don't get up there all that often, so the birding urge took over and, putting on every item of clothing I'd brought with me, I headed out to start the car.  I'd hoped that I could pick up boreal birds driving Oregon Plains Road and listening, but of course I had no such luck.  That left nothing for it but getting out and hiking Bigelow Road and heading into Bloomingdale Bog.  The Bog was bruttaly cold, but also birdy and I could hear Black-capped Chickadees almost as soon as I got away from the road.  Pushing down towards the 'feeder' I saw four Gray Jays sitting quietly on the  tops of nearby trees and, while I hoped that they might come down to visit, they really didn't seem to want to move in the cold.  The chickadees also kept up quite a racket on both sides of the road and before long I heard a Boreal Chickadee calling from behind a group of Black-capped Chickadees.  I followed them for a while, struggling for a look at the Boreal while my face and hands stung in the cold air.  It took me perhaps another ten minutes to see the bird and, as soon as I had, I jogged back to the car (and I'm not one of nature's natural joggers), slammed the doors and turned up the heat, heated seats, and even the heated steering wheel until I got feeling back in my hands and face.

When I got to the car I was ready to head South right away but, as I thawed-out, I figured I already had Gray Jay and Boreal Chickadee so I may as well go and look for a Black-backed Woodpecker.  So, bracing myself, I headed back onto Bigelow Road.  I quickly heard a woodpecker tapping away a fair ways back from the trail but, as I was looking for a route to bush-whack in, I head a loud "kweek" call .... Hairy Woodpecker.  So pushing on, it took me another twenty face-numbing minutes before I heard another woodpecker, tapping gently, almost imperceptibly, and close to the trail.   Sneaking closer, I pushed into the trees and bingo ... a female Black-backed Woodpecker.  So back to the trail, and I didn't stop moving again until I was out of the mountains and down in the, relatively balmy (0-degrees F) Champlain Valley.

Rough-legged Hawk in the Champlain Valley.
The rest of the trip wasn't all that noteworthy bird-wise.  I saw some Rough-legged Hawks near Lake Champlain, but found both the recent 'Pochard spots' completely frozen with no ducks to see.  I ended up down at Shawangunk hoping for Short-eared Owls but my promise to be 'back home for dinner' meant leaving by 5pm and the owls had not yet started their show by the time I had to leave.  Still, it's a neat spot and I was treated to a show by 11 Northern Harriers, 2 Rough-legged Hawks, and even a Coyote.

Northern Harrier at Shawangunk (2 shots)

So not a bad trip.  A 'tad nippy' as we'd say in the UK, but a good selection of birds that I'm not likely to see at home in Suffolk County.  The trip, inevitably started more 'Big Year version 2.0' rumors but if people think about it, they'd see that I'm not hitting many of the birds (Townsend's Solitaire for example) that I'd be obsessing about it I was doing another big year (which I'm not!).  Enjoying the birds I'm seeing though ...

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