Monday, May 29, 2017

Henslow's Sparrow, Chuck-wills-widow, and Yellow-throated Warbler ... a Big Memorial Day of Birding

Some Aggressive Year-Listing in New York State

Saturday, May 27 - Cupsogue and Dune Road, Suffolk County

I had three free mornings over Memorial Day this year, the afternoons and evening were chock-a-block with social commitments but the morning were mine, and I was determined to use them.  So up at 5am on Saturday and off to Cupsogue County Park for a morning of coastal birding and hopefully a pile of year birds.

First order of business was a sea-watch.  I am pretty rusty these days as I don't sea-watch nearly as much as I used to, but it didn't take long to get my 'eye in' and there really wasn't all that much happening out there to be honest.  Best seabird by far was a single Sooty Shearwater that whipped by heading East, otherwise the view was just Common Terns, Northern Gannets and Common Loons.  A Black Tern did make a quick appearance, but my hopes of Arctic Tern drew up blank, both here and at the tern roost later.

Dunlins are amazingly cute in breeding plumage
So there are two options to get out to the Shorebird/tern roost at Cupsogue - a short walk through knee-deep muck that sticks to your feet, smells for days, and is full of sharp fragments of clams - or - a slightly longer walk along sandy beaches that involves fording several slightly deeper channels.  I chose the latter and was glad I did because I got to spend some intimate time with some very tame shorebirds.

White-rumped Sandpiper and Ruddy Turnstone

Beyond the common shorebirds and a whole lot of Common Terns and Black Skimmers, there really wasn't a whole lot to see.  I did get a Little Blue Heron (always good in Suffolk County),  Clapper Rail, and a singing Seaside Sparrow.  Not bad in total though, 48 species and a very pleasant start to the weekend.

Barn Swallow and Short-billed Dowitcher

Next stop was Dune Road where I saw a lot of the same things but added a few goodies at Triton Lane where Saltmarsh Sparrow finally surrendered to the year list (after several previous attempts) and I saw another two Clapper Rails (three seen Clapper Rails in a day is never bad).  So by the time I had to head back for a lunch appointment I'd seen 60 species, 7 year birds, and was pretty happy with how this plan was working out.

Common Tern and Red Knot

Sunday, May 28 - Quogue, Suffolk County and Shawangunk, Ulster County

So I thought up this plan, while drunk, on Saturday night.  I got up at 3am (!) and drove over to Quogue to 'do' nightbirds.  First stop was the Dwarf Pines Preserve in West Hampton and in perhaps one of the most shameless pieces of year-listing I've ever done, I pulled into the parking lot, lowered the windows, heard some Eastern Whip-poor-wills, closed the windows, and drove off.

For the next stop in Quogue, I at least gave my target bird the respect of getting out of the car.  Chuck-will's-widows are much scarcer than Eastern Whip-poor-wills in New York State, with perhaps only a hand-full of breeding pairs on Long Island.  The site I stopped at was a traditional site and a 'chuck' had been heard here earlier in the month - I'd also heard this species here on my big year in 2012 - so I was pretty optimistic.  Sure enough, as soon as I got out of the car I heard the "widdle-widdle" call of a Chuck (well that's how they sound to me anyway, I guess the 'chuck' bit doesn't carry as far as the widdles).  All going according to plan ... so back in the car before 5am and a three-hour drive North to Ulster County .... did I mention I was drunk when I though up this plan?

Henslow's Sparrow 
OK, so the Henslow's Sparrow found at Shawangunk earlier this week was bothering me and I really, really, wanted to see this bird ... not sure why, but I did, birding is funny that way.  Perhaps because I'd been there last Saturday and not found it (it was found a few days later on a trail we didn't bird), and perhaps just because they are awesomely cool and I've only ever seen a couple before in 25+ years in New York.  Whatever the reason, I really wanted to see this bird, so off to Shawangunk National Grassland I went, for the second time in two weeks, but this time starting before dawn and a few hours drive further away to the East.

Given that I'd promised to be back for brunch, and had a 4-hour return drive, this trip had to be surgical; I literally had a 30-minute window to get the bird and get back in the car ... and ... it worked out perfectly.

Another shot of Henslow's Sparrow
I got to Shawangunk, and started to hike out to the area that the bird had been seen, but before I even got to the site I could hear the bird singing, and when I got there, a line of giant camera lenses pointed directly to the bird.  Easy!  Plus ... I got bonus Dickcissel and Upland Sandpiper year birds and was back in the car for the drive home after 30 minutes.  Ruthless ... the perfect twitch.

Henslow's Sparrow is a very cool bird though .. they are ...  well .... 'complicated'.  They have a wide range but are nowhere common.  They have ultra specific habitat requirements, which seems to be grassland burned 4 years ago, nothing else will do ... mow the grass every year, no Henslow's.  Then they also have this adorable little song, the bird throws every ounce of it's energy and contorts it's whole body into this song, and what comes out is ... well sort of "twislik" ... how could you not love this species ....
Monday, May 29 - East Hampton and Great River, Suffolk County

Raining, a lot at 5am, so I really should have gone back to bed, but of course I didn't and ended up getting cold and wet checking three local shorebird spots and seeing ... well not a lot.

Horned Lark
Had time for one last stop on the way in though so, after battling epic Hamptons traffic (Memorial Day and the rain made it perhaps the worst I've ever seen), I nipped in to Bayard Cutting Arboretum in the hopes of getting New York State's only singing Yellow-throated Warbler.

As soon as I got out of the car I could hear a Yellow-throated Warbler singing so I walked across the road and (this so often happens unfortunately) ran into a photographer and his son, who were playing a recording of the bird.
"The bird is right here" he said, and it was, right above them in the tree.
"So why are you playing tape to a breeding bird?" I replied.  "In fact to New York's only pair of breeding Yellow-throated Warblers?".
He sort of mumbled, said he though it was a migrant and that he would stop ... but by the time I got back to the car I could hear him playing again.  This guy with his (hobbyist) mid-price camera gear, was obviously totally focussed on getting a decent shot of this bird, no matter what the cost .... for what end?  A Facebook shot?   Not like this was his livelihood ... but cameras do strange things to people.   A sad way to end a great weekend of birding.  But it was a great weekend of birding.

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