Monday, June 25, 2012

Ruffing it at Montezuma NWR

So there are days, where I honestly hope that no-one finds a rare bird.  Furthermore, if someone really, really, has to find a rare bird on those days, I'm always hoping that they find it at a location close to where I am at the time.  Sometimes I get my wish, but today was not one of those days.

Mid-morning and a second hand report of a Ruff at Montezuma popped up on the Cayuga Birds list-serve.  There were photos, so no doubt about the ID, but no-one seemed to know if the bird was still there.  I joined in the throng of birders looking for confirmation; the prospect of a six-hour drive mid-day (and a late night return) was not an appealing one, unless I knew for sure that the bird was being seen.  For a while it looked like the bird was not going to be re-found, but then, at 12:30pm, word came in that the bird was in sight and I grabbed my birding bag, jumped in the car, and started the all-too-familiar run up I-87 to I-90.

As I got close to Montezuma, I realized that I had no idea where I was going, but a quick call to Greg Lawrence produced a thorough set of e-mail directions and I was able to pull in to the site at around 6pm.  Luckily the bird was still there, and I was able to get some nice scope views (and terrible iPhone photos) of the bird.

Only my second ever Ruff in New York State, and only my 5th in the ABA.  A nice molting male and a great, and unexpected add to the year-list (#322).  The bird apparently left that night and was not seen again the next morning.  Glad I made the drive.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Snark! (Spruce Grouse) in New York

One of my toughest and yet, most rewarding birds of 2012 was the legendary Spruce Grouse.  A tiny, and declining population clings on in the central Adirondacks, very much isolated from their nearest neighbors in Vermont and Quebec.  I tried for this species on several occasions and, despite having some good local information, failed to find one on several trips.

So this was attempt number six for Spruce Grouse - my own personal New York State 'Snark Hunt'.  This time however,  I was feeling pretty confident, having lined up some expert help from some DEC biologists who'd taken pity on me after my long unsuccessful vigils at Massawepie Mire.  I slept in late after the previous night's failed search for Yellow Rails, so I didn't get to the Tupper Lake area until 8:30am, allowing time for a little birding before the meeting.  Best bird by far was a Philadelphia Vireo, which was a bit of a surprise, even though I knew they'd been reported in the area, but I also saw a Ruffed Grouse which caused a brief moment of excitement.  Soon enough though it was time to head off for my rendezvous.

When I arrived at the meeting place, there was a quick change of plans as my DEC friends, while driving over, had found a female grouse with 5 young on a nearby road.  Knowing how much I wanted to see the bird, they had thoughtfully, left someone behind to track the bird, while the others came to get me.  So within 2 minutes of arrival, the promise of a long day tracking down secretive grouse turned into a quick drive and "road-side" views of a Spruce Grouse family.  Why couldn't it be this easy the other five times I'd tried for this species?

Spruce Grouse (4 shots)
While the birds initially stuck to dense cover, as they got used to our presence they came out on the the road and started feeding on the road-side.  Four of the young stuck to cover, and flew across the road when they crossed, while number 5 here confidently strutted across in front of us.

Took a ton of photographs and spent a half an hour watching the bird.  This was one of my key targets for the year; a bird that many New York birders don't have.  Well worth the time and effort.

As a footnote: after I left, the biologists apparently captured the female and discovered that the bird had been captured and banded back in 2008, making her the oldest known bird in NYS.  With only 100 or so individuals left in the state, a proven breeder like this is a really important bird and it was a real privilege to see her.  Wishing the DEC the best of luck with their recovery plan.  It would be a huge loss to let this species go so hopefully the State's recovery plan can have an impact and keep the Spruce Grouse in New York.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Fea's Petrel off Montauk, NY

The second half of our Pelagic on the 19th produced a real star bird; a FEA's PETREL, which if accepted by NYSARC will be a first for New York State.  We stopped to check out an area of 62-degree water about 8-miles SE of Montauk and soon noticed some small Bluefin Tuna chasing bait on the surface.  While we were watching, a smaller gray sea-bird slipped between the Great Shearwaters at our stern, and I turned to see a well-marked gray pterodroma, with dark underwings and a strong dark "M" pattern above.  Panic ensued as we got the boat turned and headed off in pursuit at speed enabling a few shaky photos, but enough to confirm the ID.

For Fea's Petrel, key marks included the dark underwings, plain gray tail, black "M" mark, black bandit mask, and the lack of a white rump or cap/collar.  The only debate left is potential Zino's Petrel, and that hinges on the "build" of the bird and, more importantly, the size and depth of the bill.  Looking at photos of Zino's and Fea's, this bird looks like Fea's, albeit at the small-billed end of the spectrum.

Discussed the ID with Angus Wilson, Ned Brinkley, and Steve Howell and submitted it to the New York State Avian Records Committee (NYSARC) as a Fea's Petrel.  Currently awaiting their decision.

Not a bad start to the Summer pelagic season.  It certainly got people excited to get out there and look - you just never know what's out there.

First Summer Pelagic

Met up with Capt. Max Kramer and left Montauk at 5am, with no clear expectations, to see what we could find.   We started out about 20 miles South of Quogue and drifted / slowly cruised South and East for most of the day, ending up about 35 miles South East of Montauk.  We made many stops and chummed pretty solidly throughout the day resulting in a constant stream of birds visiting the boat.

Great Shearwaters seem very confident around boats and stayed with us all day, as did the Wilson's Storm-Petrels.  I estimated that we saw 200 Greats and 60 Wilson's during the day.  Despite watching the Storm-Petrels all day I wasn't able to pick any other species out though, and we'll perhaps have to go out further to find them.

Great Shearwater

We also had 6 Cory's Shearwaters, 2 Sooty Shearwaters and a single Manx Shearwater.

Corey's Shearwater

Manx Shearwater

Perhaps the most exciting thing though was the almost constant presence of Jaegers, starting with the beautiful Pomarine Jaeger that found us as soon as we started chumming.

Pomarine Jaeger

We also got to spend a lot of time with "Jaeger sp." pondering the ID of a number of birds in different plumages.  This one in the end, I settled on as Long-tailed Jaeger despite the very Parasitic Jaeger looking tail extensions.

Long-tailed Jaeger

Amongst the "non-birds" the clear highlight was a 15-foot Basking Shark but we also saw Blue Sharks, Bluefish and feeding Bluefin Tuna.

Basking Shark

In year-bird terms (the point after-all), I added 5 species to bring the total to 319.  A very promising start to the season and nice to be able to get out and find my own birds at sea.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Is it Shorebird Season Already?

Locked up at home with a sick dog who just got back from knee surgery.  No way I could get out of the house on Friday and so, of course, Michael McBrien finds a breeding plumage Curlew Sandpiper at Cupsogue (a bird that would be a State Bird for me).  The bird promptly vanishes with the high tide though, so it doesn't look look like I bird that I'm going to get.  Can't get everything, right?

Fast forward to Saturday, and it looks as though the Curlew Sandpiper might be sticking after all.  Lots of birders are out looking, and before long reports start coming in from Pike's Beach at Westhampton Dunes.   So dog-sitters are arranged and I jump in the car and run Out East, crawling through Saturday beach traffic to get to the site at around noon.  As I'm pulling in to the parking lot, Shaiba Mitra calls to say that the bird has moved and is being seen on a sand spit a little way along the beach, a fact confirmed by a returning party of successful birders that includes Tom Burke and Richard Fried among others.  So, while the last 15 minutes of the trip take an eternity, I eventually stomp up the beach, climb over a dune, and there it is, a beautiful dark red shorebird glowing against a background of white sand.

Grabbed a couple of quick iPhone pics really just for the record, then I have to rush back to the city to get back to dog-sitting duty.   Worth the trip though and a great year bird (#314).

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Wood Turtle at Massawepie, NY

While the three-day Spruce Grouse stake-out at Massawepie Mire was a bust (Snark Hunt?) there were a few consolation prizes, most notably my life Wood Turtle.  We were driving along a dirt road (I'm not going to share the exact location here) when we noticed a turtle standing in a tire track at the side of the road.  I assumed it was one of the nest-prospecting Painted or Snapping Turtles that we'd seen so many of that day but even a wing-mirror view made it pretty obvious that it was something different so I slammed on the brakes and ran back for a better look.  As I ran up, I have to say I was simply stunned to finally see a real live Wood Turtle just standing there; my first after 22 years in New York and birding and herping in the Northeast.  What a simply beautiful animal.

Took a couple of quick iPhone shots and was about to run back to the car to get the real camera when we heard another vehicle speeding along from the other direction.  Fearing for the turtle, and ourselves, I moved the turtle off the road and quickly ran back to move the car.  Should probably have gone back for better photos but didn't want to move the animal again, or disturb it too much.

Its hard to believe that this species was once a common sight all across the Northeast and across New York State.  A victim of habitat fragmentation, and both professional and amateur collecting for the pet trade, the species has all but disappeared from most of its former range.  Wood Turtles are now considered endangered in New York and the DEC was thrilled to get this record.  Let's hope there's a good population hanging on in the area.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Massawepie Marathon - the search for Spruce Grouse

During late May and early June I spent five days in the Adirondacks, largely in and around the Massawepie Area.  I spent part of each of May 22nd and 23rd and June 1st, 2nd, and 3rd in the area, at various times in the company of Joan Collins, Richard Fried, Benjamin VanDoren, and Mark Manske among others.  The main point of the vigil was to look for Spruce Grouse, in which I failed spectacularly (the Great Snark Hunt) but there were some great birds to be seen nevertheless.

Mourning Warbler
Breeding warblers are a highlight of any late Spring trip to the Adirondacks with 18 species breeding in the Massawepie area alone.  There are also a good range of other Northern breeders to be had, including Alder and Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, Brown Creepers, Winter Wrens, Golden-crowned Kinglets and Ruffed Grouse.

Alder Flycatcher
Among the specialty breeders, I was able to take side-trips to see Bicknell's Thrush at Whiteface Mountain and Northern Goshawk with young at a secret nest location.  Although I didn't target any of the boreal specialties I did bump into Boreal Chickadees and Gray Jays, while White-winged Crossbills, Pine Siskins and Purple Finches all popped up from time to time.

Gray Jay
Away from the birds, a close Coyote surprised on the trail was probably the highlight among mammals, while Wood Turtle was the clear star among the reptiles.

So much to see in this most remarkable of parks and, even though the Spruce Grouse didn't cooperate, time spent there is never wasted.