Saturday, October 27, 2012

Photospot: Western Kingbird at Jones Beach

Was trying to drive the dogs out to East Hampton this morning but got distracted by bird alerts twice.  The second was a scramble for a shrike sp. at Heckscher S.P. which turned out to be Northern (I hoped for Loggerhead needless to say).  The first was a quick stop for a Western Kingbird at Jones Beach S.P.  The bird was right besides the road as I pulled in ....

Western Kingbird (2 shots)

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Rochester all is forgiven ...

So I haven't written in a while.  It's not as though I haven't been birding - I've been out every day - it's more that I haven't been *seeing* anything.  Sure, there are Pine Siskins and Red-breasted Nuthatches at my feeder (and I've already had fly-over Evening Grosbeaks and expect them to join soon too) but simply no year birds.

Pine Siskin on the feeder on the deck (I have a lot of feeders)
Hit one of those rough patches recently where I didn't seem to be able to do anything right.  Was mostly out in East Hampton and birding Long Island every day but didn't seem to have any luck finding, or chasing, anything.  On Sunday I dipped Brown Pelican (again) on Staten Island, and on Monday I dipped Say's Phoebe at Robert Moses S.P.  I even contrived to jigger last week's scheduled to drive back from a board meeting in Boston so as to get 3 hours at the Wood Sandpiper site in Rhode Island.  I was there from 12pm to 3pm but the bird wasn't seen between 9:20am and 4:15pm.  One helpful birder even called me as I was on the New London (Connecticut) to Orient Point (NY) car ferry at 5pm to let me know that the bird was back (!).  I believe the young people use the term "FML".

So when I saw Monday's reports of a huge (77 birds) CAVE SWALLOW flight at Hamlin Beach State Park near Rochester, I figured it was time to head North to break the routine.  Checking with Greg Lawrence, who assured me that 'this was the week' I headed North on Tuesday morning for the 10-hour drive from East Hampton to Hamlin.  By the time I got to Syracuse though, the weather was starting to look pretty iffy and texting Greg, he helpfully suggested that maybe Thursday or Friday might be better days to come up.  By that time though I was committed but, by the time I got the the Marriott in Rochester it was pretty clear that it wasn't exactly swallow weather.

Wednesday was bit of a bust.  Nasty North winds and rain showers made for tough birding but I slogged away all day alternating between bouts of Seawatching, sorry I mean Lakewatching, and checking local ponds, creeks and marshes for swallows.  No Cave Swallows but I did find a few White-winged Crossbills, some Snow Buntings, a couple of Lesser Black-backed Gulls, and a decent selection of birds given bad weather (I even had a swallow, albeit a Barn Swallow).  At about mid-day I made the decision to stay another day and so called the Marriott to extend my stay and also relaxed, knowing I'd have another chance in better weather tomorrow.

Then at 4pm I checked my email - Jay McGowan had reported 5 ROSS'S GEESE from Montezuma.  I jumped in the car and headed South, wondering if I had enough time to get there in good light.  As I drove, both Greg Lawrence and Benjamin Van Doren texted me with the same news (thank you) and so I was really excited when I pulled up on East Road and jumped out to scan Knox-Marsellus at around 5:40pm.  The only problem was that white geese really stand out, and there were no white geese in the marsh!  Suppressing a moment of panic I started to scan the Canada Geese and, as I was about half way across the marsh, Snow Geese flew through my scope.  I tracked them until they landed; a group of about 30, with 3 'Blue Geese' among them, but when I scanned them it was obvious that none were Ross's.  Then, not a minute later, a group of five more white geese dropped into the Snow Geese and it was immediately apparent that they were much smaller.  Cranking the scope up to 60x I could also see the facial structure, and breathed a huge sigh of relief.  ROSS'S GOOSE (NYS 2012 #345).

So back to Rochester, and after room service, a movie, and a decent night's sleep, up again and back to Hamlin Beach SP at dawn.  The weather didn't look too promising but as I watched the sea, I mean lake, it started to improve.  There were some shady looking characters in the parking lot so I stayed well clear of them until I realized (bins are wonderful things) that it was Andy Guthrie, Dave Tetlow and (later) Kurt Fox.  Andy was kind enough to come and retrieve me from the beach, and reposition me in the parking lot where I stood a better chance of actually seeing the swallows I'd come for (local knowledge is also a wonderful thing).  And then, CAVE SWALLOWS (NYS 2012 #346) started flying over, at first in pairs, but later in large groups.   I saw 102 of them in total before I had to leave.

Cave Swallow
It turned out to be a great morning of birding (what a difference from the day before) with lots of Cave Swallows, Pine Siskins, and even a Parasitic Jaeger thrown in for good measure.  Plus it was great to connect with so many people I knew only as eBird posts before.  There was even a fly-over Lapland Longspur (NYS 2012 #347) for good measure, although I missed all the Evening Grosbeaks that came through earlier.  By 10:30am though I had to leave if I was going to make dinner in New York City (NYS is big!) and so I drove for 7 hours back to the city.  As I was almost home Corey Finger called with a possible Pink-footed Goose in Queens, but I persevered and went back to the apartment.  Suspect that's a wild goose chase story for another day ...

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Where are the Westerners?

The NorthWest winds kept up solidly here through the latter part of the week and I've been sitting on the edge of my seat (and slogging back and for along the beaches every day) waiting for Western vagrants.  They have been popping up, but unfortunately not in New York.  There have been Ash-throated Flycatchers in Massachusetts, Townsend's Solitaires in Ontario and Pennsylvania, not to mention a scattering of (not so Western but still good) Northern Wheatears in almost all the states surrounding New York.  Ho hum ...

Friday afternoon I did get a break when Andrew Baksh posted a WESTERN KINGBIRD at Breezy Point and I was able to rush down there and, after a tense 45-minute search in high winds, found the bird in a sheltered area near the original site (NYS 2012 #344).  No (in focus) photos unfortunately but I was very relieved to get that bird, worried that I might have missed it this year already.

Friday night, looking at the weather, I was convinced that we were going to get something the next day so hit Jones Beach Saturday morning with a heady sense of anticipation.  There were certainly lots of birds - many, many thousands of migrant passerines - but nothing terribly unexpected.

Golden-crowned Kinglet
Red-eyed Vireo
Rarities aside, it was actually very pleasant to spend time up close and personal with so many birds though.  Brown Creepers and Winter Wrens had started to show up, and the mixture of sparrows had now switched to be mostly White-throated Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos with a few White-crowned, Field, Song, Chipping and Swamp Sparrows in the mix.  Northern Flickers and Eastern Phoebes were perhaps still the most obvious migrants, although the Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets might be the most confiding.  Add Hermit and Swainson's Thrushes, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, and a range of hawks and falcons to the mix and it really was a great morning of birding.  Perhaps the most exciting moment was a pale, grayish, washed-out Meadowlark that I flushed twice and got a couple of glimpses of on the ground.  It looked interesting, the head-markings were not all that pronounced, but I could never get a decent look at it, let alone photos, and lost it when it flushed for the third time.

Pine Warbler
While warbler variety has collapsed, the numbers remain very high.  Today I had over 500 individual warblers although all but 14 of them were Yellow-rmped (Myrtle) Warblers.  Perhaps the most interesting bird of the day was a Yellow-rumped Warbler, perhaps leucistic, perhaps a hybrid.  An interesting little bird though with bright white cheeks that stood out even at a distance.

Odd 'white-faced' Yellow-rumped Warbler (2 shots)

When I got home, I was still surprised and disappointed that no-one had manage to turn up a Western vagrant all day.  Then the phone range, and I did in fact hear about a Western vagrant after-all.  Isaac Grant called me to say that he briefly had a Western Tanager in his yard on Staten Island today but hadn't been able to re-find it for some hours now.  While I'd have loved to get that, I'm glad that the forecast came somewhat true in the end (and no, I'm not commenting on the Wood Sandpiper in Rhode Island) ....

Friday, October 12, 2012

Jaegers are Rare in Brooklyn. Who knew?

Let me start by saying that I'm a huge fan of eBird, particularly of the democratization on birding information, which I think was sorely needed.  The structure of the database though, particularly the focus on maps, and counties, does produce some interesting quirks.  A bird that might be considered quite regular (and barely worthy of review) in one area might be a major rarity 10-miles to the West in a different county where there are more birders (and more people concerned with county-specific records and lists).  I seemed to stumble into one of those fault lines on Wednesday ...

I'd been stuck in the city all day on Tuesday, so even though it was windy and raining on Wednesday morning I really needed to get outside.  I decided to stay local and headed down to Floyd Bennet Field, figuring I could still push the sparrows around, even if it was raining, and in fact hoping that the rain had grounded a Lapland Longspur of a Northern Wheatear (hey, I can hope).

The first thing I noticed as I pulled in was there were a lot of gulls sitting in the parking lot.  It must have been a lot rougher out to sea than it looked from the shore.  Diverting from my planned route, I pulled into the lot and started scanning the gulls, quickly noticing a darker bird sitting behind them at the back of the lot.  As I got closer, the dark bird turned out to be a Jaeger, sitting on the ground, soaking wet, and looking very sorry for itself.  To me it looked very small, especially in comparison to the surrounding gulls, appearing smaller than the Ring-billed Gulls, and being dwarfed by the Herring Gulls.  While it looked really dark, I put that down to it being wet, and getting a 'round-headed, small billed' feel to the bird (just my impression at the time) I took a few photos and put it in the BirdLog App as PARASITIC JAEGER.

Being a fisherman, and regular 'chum-user', I see a lot of Jaegers in the average year, and have put quite a few into eBird this year (although almost all from Suffolk County).  So I was a little surprised to get an eBird review email within hours of the checklist uploading, and being of a suspicious nature, I wondered what had triggered the quick question?  Was it late for a Parasitic Jaeger perhaps?

So when I got home, I downloaded the photos and started to double-guess myself (digital photography, the curse of modern birding).  So the mantle color could go either way; a wet brown bird looks a lot like a black bird.  The bill was pretty thick though, and strongly bi-colored, and then there was a black cap that did seen to extend down somewhat on to the lower face, but perhaps not as far back behind the eye as you'd expect for Pomarine.  So I wavered, and wondered if perhaps it was a very small Pomarine.

I ended up putting photos on Facebook (New York Birders page) and sending some to local experts Doug Gochfeld, Andrew Fansworth, etc.  Not too much agreement on the ID, probably as you'd expect for a couple of photos of a bird hunkered down in the rain.  There was some (half serious) consensus however that I should have flushed the bird and got some better shots of it standing, or flying (although generally birders tend to frown on a guy with a camera flushing a bird in search of a better shot).

So, as of right now, I still tend to think this is a Parasitic Jaeger, based on my initial feel for size and build, not being convinced about the extent of the back on the face, and believing that the dark mantle comes from the rain (but experts feel free to chip in).  The eBird guys would prefer I made it Jaeger sp. noting that this is the first Jaeger record for 'mainland' Brooklyn in the last 7 years (!).  A good example of the geographic boundary creating a rarity from a bird considered relatively regular just a few miles away.  Wish I had flushed the bird now ...

Update (10/14/12): when all else fails I usually go to my old friend Steve N.G. Howell for ID advice.  He came down firmly on Parasitic Jaeger, but also thought I should have flushed the bird!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Playing Whack-a-Mole ...

Chasing rarities in New York is like playing Whack-a-Mole; a good bird pops up on Long Island then quickly vanishes, then one pops up 600 miles to the NorthWest, and promptly vanishes, and so on ....

Given the distances, and the time required to cover them, I have to be a bit selective about what I chase.  Running to Buffalo to a bird means that I'm going to miss anything that shows up on Long Island for a day, perhaps two.  Conversely, bashing the bushes on Long Island might not yield anything while a good bird in the NorthWest might stick for a day and, in retrospect, have been possible to see.  Given that many birds stay for short periods during the October migration, the calculus can drive one insane.  Is this bird going to stick?  Should I do a 1,000-mile round-trip for that bird?  What does the weather look like tomorrow, and am I going to miss a wave-day by going?  In October, I find myself asking these questions almost daily.  I'm also a little gun-shy to be honest - two long range dips recently (Franklin's Gull and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper) have made me reluctant to run North.  On the other hand though, Long Island has just not been performing this Fall so far.  What to do?

On Thursday I committed to Long Island for the weekend and moved Out East for a four day stay.  Was hoping for Western Kingbird, Northern Wheatear, and who knows what else.  On Friday afternoon, a Western Kingbird was reported at Montezuma NWR!  That's a 9-hour drive from East Hampton on a sunny weekend day, so there was no way I could get there while it was still light.  So I decided to skip that bird, and as luck would have it, it stuck for only a couple of hours in any case.  So had I gone, I would have missed it.

Swamp Sparrow (juv.)
So I stayed out East and kicked bushes on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and saw .... well not all that much really.  I did see lots of sparrows including another Clay-colored Sparrow, a bird that, while no doubt still over-reported, is definitely getting more abundant in New York as it expands its breeding range East.  But still, no rarities on Long Island.

Clay-colored Sparrow
Then on Sunday night Richard Fried posted a sighting of a LeConte's Sparrow at Floyd Bennet Field in Brooklyn.  Rob Jett had found the bird earlier in the day and had posted it on a Brooklyn Text Alert system but the posting hadn't made the jump to broader distribution until the evening.  Too late to go then, but a 4am start on Monday morning put me in Brooklyn by 7am where I heard from Andrew Baksh that the bird had been seen that morning.  Well, to cut a long story short, turns out that the bird had not been seen.  Looking at photos in better light, Andrew decided he couldn't be sure he'd seen the LeConte's and quickly put that word out (a stand-up thing to do). While many of us flogged the area for hours that morning, there were no further sightings of the LeConte's.  And so another bird, slipped by me.

After birding Floyd Bennet for a while (which was crawling in huge numbers of common migrants) the rain finally drove me in to the City.  Just as I got home I got a text from Benjamin Van Doren saying that a Franklin's Gull had been found at Montezuma NWR.  Now here was a dilemma.  On the one hand, if I left right then, I could (just) make it to Montezuma while it was still light.  On the other hand, both the previous 2012 Franklin's Gull records had stayed in one place for only a couple of hours.  To play Whack-a-Mole or not?  In the end I decided that if the bird stayed until the evening, then I would go the next day.  Sure enough, the bird was reported at 5:40pm (meaning of course that I could have seen it if I'd gone straight up that day) so I set the alarm for 3:30am.

By 8:30am on Monday I was passing Syracuse on I-90 when Benjamin texted again to say that Jay McGowan had just seen the gull.  So by 9:30am I pulled up on Towpath Road, got some positive news from a passing British birder, parked, grabbed the scope, scanned the roosting gulls, then scanned out further on the mud, and .... FRANKLIN'S GULL (NYS 2012 #343)!

Franklin's Gull - an iPhone shot of the bird about a mile away!
So success, a finally a break in the run of consecutive dips (which I really needed to be honest).  Showed the bird to a few people, some of who were looking for it, and some of who had no idea it was there.  Then spent a very pleasant morning birding Montezuma, adding an American Avocet, some Long-billed Dowitchers, and just generally enjoying seeing Bald Eagles, Sandhill Cranes and the like.  Then 6-hours back to NYC for dinner, and on to the next species ...

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

October is for Sparrows ...

One of the best parts of October, apart from the fall in temperature (always a huge plus for us Celtic types), is sparrow migration.  I like sparrows; small, skulking, cryptic, uncooperative, little brown jobs.  Perhaps a nostalgia for the migrant traps of my childhood in Europe, or perhaps a shadow of my erstwhile love affair with tapaculos.  Either way, I'll happily spend all day kicking bushes and spishing my way through a field, endlessly entertained by the pursuit of a brown blur or a persistent ticking sound.  To each their own I guess.

I spent all morning at Jones Beach SP (Nassau County) and Robert Moses SP (Suffolk County) until the rain pushed me back toward the city.  It really did feel like October, and the birds had changed accordingly.  Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warblers were everywhere and part of a decent movement of birds that included Eastern Phoebes, Gray Catbirds, Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Palm Warblers, and Northern Flickers.  There were also lots of sparrows ....

Savannah Sparrow
The most abundant sparrow was Savannah Sparrow, with small groups scattered along the shoreline and median at Jones Beach.  Through the morning though I was able to winkle out a few more species, first Chipping Sparrow, then Song Sparrow, then a Lincoln's Sparrow, a Swamp Sparrow, and a small group of White-throated Sparrows.  Also had a good LBJ of a different kind when a group of 27 Pine Siskins dropped in for a brief stop before continuing their journey West (it's going to be a Finch-Year!).

Lark Sparrow
Moving over to Robert Moses, I was surprised to quickly find a Lark Sparrow in exactly the same spot that I'd found last week (or at least I thought I'd found it until I saw that Doug Futuyma had also posted it).  The bird was in the median near Field 2 and flew into exactly the same bush that last week's bird had flushed into.  Seems unlikely that it's the same bird, especially as Doug, who saw last week's bird better than I, noted it as a drab individual, while this one clearly was not.  So probably my 4th NYS Lark Sparrow of the year; not as rare as I once thought.

I also thought I kept hearing juncos, but couldn't see any.  My brain wasn't quite ready for juncos, although the year really is marching on, but I heard several call and then eventually saw 4 Slate-colored Juncos near Field 5.

Slate-colored (Dark-eyed) Junco
Then, just as I was heading back to the car, another species popped up and I got some shots of a young White-crowned Sparrow (a Suffolk County Year-bird).  Feeling inspired, I thought I might try for some Seaside/Saltmarsh/Nelson's sparrows but then the rain came, and birding was pretty much over for the day.

White-crowned Sparrow (2 shots)

Monday, October 1, 2012

New York State Big Year update ...

So yesterday, on the last day of September, I stopped of at Plum Beach in Brooklyn and, following Shane Blodgett's most excellent directions, added Nelson's Sparrow (NYS 2012 #342).  I actually saw a couple of Nelson's, part of a big wave of arrivals that allowed many New York birders to add that species over the weekend.  A nice way to end September, and hopefully to draw a line under a pretty crappy Summer birding season.

So, to update.  I came into the Summer at a record setting pace, having hit 300 species in May, and having high hopes for setting a new mark for the NYS year-list.  Fast forward to the end of September, and I'm not even sure I'm going to get to 350.  The reasons:

- A poor pelagic season.  Partly because I spent too much time in-shore (6 stubborn birdless trips), which in the end just didn't produce new species, even after the amazing June start.  Partly because my planned off-shore trips were either weathered-out, or just didn't produce.  Either way, I missed 3 or 4 species I was hoping for.

- No hurricane!  So no storm-wrecked terns, tropicbirds, etc.  I haven't even been able to get a Brown Pelican this Summer!

- A poor vagrant Summer.  There just weren't many Summer rarities this year, and I had a rough time with the few I could chase (Franklin's Gull and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper put 1,600 miles on the car, but nothing on the list).

So I'm actually glad to change the season, and enter the last quarter of the year needing 12 species to break the NYS record.  So where am I going to find 12 species?  There are still a few possible options:

1) The dreaded Winter Cod Boats - slogging out to deep water in the Winter could yield: NORTHERN FULMAR, RED PHALAROPE, ATLANTIC PUFFIN, DOVEKIE, or (very long-shots here) perhaps a Skua, or a Thick-billed Murre.

2) Waterfowl/Gulls:  I could chase ROSS' GOOSE around Montezuma, or hope for a PINK-FOOTED GOOSE on Long Island.  Perhaps a SLATY-BACKED GULL or a MEW GULL will show up at Niagara.  Then there's always the chance of say a TUFTED DUCK ....

3) Winter Passerines: The most obvious missing bird this year is still LAPLAND LONGSPUR and I'll chase 'em 'til I get one (I will not miss Lapland Longspur in New York this year!).  Then I'm hoping that this Winter's Finch Forecast comes through and I can add a HOARY REDPOLL, and who knows, maybe even a PINE GROSBEAK.

4) Gifts from the West:  I'm still smarting that all three of this year's Western Kingbirds showed up while I was bobbing over a largely birdless Hudson Canyon, 90-miles from shore.  To add insult to injury, as we came in, and still stood a chance of chasing one of them, a bridge operator kept us waiting for over an hour at the Loop parkway draw-bridge, guaranteeing we'd miss it.  So that one may be gone, so perhaps an ASH-THROATED FLYCATCHER, or a vagrant warbler (Black-throated Gray and Hermit Warbler have showed in recent years), or a SAY'S PHOEBE, or a WESTERN TANAGER, CALLIOPE HUMMINGBIRD, or ....

5) Others: Aren't we due for a NORTHERN HAWK-OWL?  Or a BOREAL OWL? Or hey, what ever happened to CAVE SWALLOWS?  I'm hoping that we get at least one really unexpected rarity, a la the Lewis's Woodpecker, Northern Lapwing, etc.

So, while that sounds like a lot of species, I've named only ~25 species here, and some of them are 'once-in-a-lifetime' birds in New York State.  So .... it's going to come down to the wire .... and, after a Summer, where I couldn't seem to catch a break, I'm hoping for a bit more luck in the home stretch.  We'll see .....