Monday, December 31, 2012

NYS 2012 Big Year Summary (The End)

Just some random stats, thoughts and observations from the 2012 Big Year.


  • I birded (as in posted one or more eBird checklists) on 285 days in 2012.  This may be a bit of an understatement as I wasn't aways as good an eBirder as I should be.
  • I saw 361 species in New York State.
  • That was 95.5% of the 378 species seen this year in New York State.  Which means I missed 17 species seen by others.
  • With a little more effort and organization, I should have been able to get 4 or 5 more.  With luck, who knows - I do believe that 375 is possible in a year in New York State.
  • I cheated in New York State only 4 times - Brown Booby and Crested Caracara in New Jersey, Wood Sandpiper (dipped) in Rhode Island, and a week in the Turks & Caicos.
  • I birded in 34 of New York State's 62 counties and drove through a bunch more.  Even though I got around a fair bit, the bulk of my birding time was really concentrated in three areas - New York City/Long Island,  the Adirondacks/St. Lawrence, and the Montezuma/Rochester area.  Almost all the birds I saw this year were in one of these three 'corners' of the State.
  • I drove approximately 40,000 miles by car, and took 10 boat trips in search of birds.
  • I stayed in a lot of Marriott Hotels, and ate way too much food at Service Areas on I87 and I90.
  • I have still never seen Niagara Falls or been to the Statue of Liberty.
Connecticut Warbler turned out to be quite easy this year.

Despite everyone thinking that I "saw everything" I actually missed a lot.  Some birds I couldn't really try for but there were plenty of "Dips" where I drove, often many hours, and failed to see a bird reported previously by others (Sharp-tailed Sandpiper in Rochester, Franklin's Gull in Niagara, White Pelican near Buffalo, Slaty-backed Gull at Newburgh, Brown Pelican on Staten Island, Pink-footed Goose on Long Island, Le Conte's Sparrow in Brooklyn, Le Conte's Sparrow near Ithaca, Say's Phoebe on Fire Island, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher on Jones Beach, Gray Partridge near Perch River, etc., etc.).  There were also birds I spent a lot of time looking for and did not see; three in particular absorbed huge numbers of miles, hours, and mosquito bites (Yellow Rail, Black Rail and Gray Partridge).  And then there are the birds that I could have seen but didn't get to for logistical reasons (Red Phalarope, Northern Fulmar, Atlantic Puffin, etc.).  No-one can see everything but I certainly had my share of heart-breaking misses....


During the year I did see quite a few other vertebrate species (I really don't keep lists on invertebrates).  Among the mammals I saw a Northern Right-Whale, several Humpback Whales, a Minke Whale and lots of Common and Bottle-nosed Dolphins.  I also had a Black Bear, several Coyotes, Red and Gray Foxes, and lots of smaller critters.  I saw surprisingly few herps, which suggests perhaps that herp-watching requires a different focus from bird-watching.  Among the best things herp-wise were four species of Sea-Turtle (Leatherback, Green, Loggerhead and Kemp's Ridley), my life (!) Wood Turtle, and the scarce Eastern Tiger Salamander.  I didn't really keep a 'fish list' but several breaching Basking Sharks were quite a spectacle as were a group of Bluefin Tuna feeding on baitfish on the surface.


In no particular order, big thanks to the many people who helped in some way with the big year (if I forgot you, I didn't mean too, I'm just tired).  So thanks Andrew Baksh for finding me a bunch of birds and keeping on my case as I flagged this Summer.  To Greg Lawrence for the Niagara Frontier, and Joan Collins for the Adirondacks.  To Richard Fried for being such a good egg all year as I chased and then beat his hard-fough record.   To Corey Finger, Benjamin Van Doren, Angus Wilson, Shai Mitra, Patricia Lindsay, Tom Burke, Isaac Grant, Peter Polshek, Jim Ash, Hugh McGuiness, Andy Guthrie, Derek Rogers, Bob Adamo, Willie D'Anna, Paul Guris, Jacob Drucker, Larry Master, Mark Manske, Chris Wood, Jay McGowan, Matt Young, Luke Tiller and the many, many other birders who shared information or helped with advice and counsel.  To the eBird reviewers for putting up with my onslaught of records from all over the state and my utter lack of expertise in all sorts of places.  To Steve N G Howell, Ned Brinkley and Michael O'Brien for the seabird help.  To Philip Dempsey and Michael Duffy for being enablers and producing bourbon and bacon at strategic moments.  And last of course to my partner Ryan for putting up with the insane goat-rodeo that a big year inflicts on a home and family life - I promise, I'm done.

As I write this it's getting dark in NorthWest Harbor so, unless a very loud Boreal Owl starts calling right next to the window, I am done for the year.  And so on to 2013 ...

[A Summary of the Big Year - including the highs and low, the euphoria and the despair, can be found in four parts in previous posts.]

NYS 2012 Big Year Summary (Part 4)

Is a very birdy month with lots and see and lots to hope for.  I spent a lot of time (most days) on the barrier beaches and at the East End of Long Island hoping for Western Kingbird, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Northern Wheatear and the like but really didn't turn up much in terms of new birds.  I did chase, and dip a Say's Phoebe, and did finally manage to connect with a Western Kingbird at Breezy Point.  The Kingbird was my only year bird from Long Island though and one of only 5 that I managed to turn up all month.

Western Kingbird - this one was at Jones Beach.
The other four year birds all came from road trips.  After dipping Franklin's Gull once in Niagara County I was a bit gun shy about chasing another one up there, but when one showed up at Montezuma NWR I took the risk and managed to get the bird the day after it was found.  Montezuma also gave me my only Ross's Geese of the year on rain-challenged trip to the Rochester area.  I also managed to add Cave Swallow and Lapland Longspur at Hamlin Beach SP, and even though I subsequently saw both species down on Long Island, seeing Cave Swallows migrating along the shore of Lake Ontario was a very memorable experience.

October also brought us Hurricane Sandy which did not bring me any birds, a single Leach's Storm-Petrel was the only bird I could legitimately call a 'Storm Bird'.  I did however bring a lot of destruction and misery to many of the low-lying coastal areas of Long Island, and effectively closed large areas of the barrier beaches for the balance of year.  We actually got off pretty lightly out in NorthWest Harbor with no real damage other than some downed trees.  It did create a sort of 'lost week' phenomenon though as we hunkered down with no heat, or power, and with limited gasoline supplies keeping me close to home.  I spent weeks looking for my Brown Pelican, but still no luck.

So into 'rarity season' at 347 species.  It seemed like I was close to breaking the record back in June and then had crawled along, seemingly no closer to the record, ever since.  I still needed 6 more species, and perhaps a couple of spares just in case.  As I looked over the prospects, absent pelagic birds (which I never got in any case) I'd really need a spectacular crop of goodies to show up in New York if I was going to break that 352 mark.  And we did indeed get a spectacular crop of November rarities ...

On the vagrant front I ran up to Canastota for a Harris's Sparrow, and to Athens for a Western Tanager.  I got Virginia's Wabler (!) and Painted Bunting in Queens,  and Northern Lapwing and Brewer's Blackbird at Montauk.  Both ends of Long Island producing at once, and who knows what we might have had if the Sandy-damaged beaches had been open to birders.

Pine Grosbeak - part of what turned out to be an epic 'Finch-Year' with large
numbers of Crossbills, Siskins, and other Winter Finches invading the State.
Ironically, with all these high profile vagrants my 352nd species (tying the record) was Pine Grosbeak and my (record breaking) 353rd species was Dovekie.  Both good birds, but neither a vagrant per se.  The Dovekie, part of a very good year for this species at Montauk so far, came on November 24th and was a huge relief.  After slogging away all Summer/Fall the November spurt hurled me over the record very quickly so it felt very strange to not be chasing that number after so many months of looking at it stubbornly staying out of reach.

And so into the home stretch with 356 species and still time to add a few more to 'put it out of reach'.

 I did try to get out to sea on fishing boats but had four December trips cancel for lack of bookings.  Pelagic birds really did become the big gap in my list this year with 5 or 6 additional species left on the table due to my less than impressive pelagic effort.  I did however manage to catch up with a Brown Pelican (no-one expects to get their year Brown Pelican in December) thus avoiding an embarrassing miss for the year.   I also got to catch up with another long-time nemesis bird, one which I had chased and dipped often including two painful missed already this year, when Corey Finger gifted me a LeConte's Sparrow in Queens.

LeConte's Sparrow - a long-time nemesis on the East Coast.  I chased it this
year in Brooklyn and Ithaca before getting this gift in Queens.
With the year waning, and my enthusiasm fading as thoughts turned to next year, I did still manage to summon the energy to chase a few more things.  A Tufted Duck in Western Suffolk County was a quick run, but a Townsend's Solitaire in Seneca County wasn't.  Finally on December 28th I ran up to Lake Placid to add Hoary Redpoll, giving me my 361st and last NYS year bird of 2012.

And so I guess I'm all done and I wonder what it will feel like tomorrow not having a New York Big Year to work on.  Although I'll be honest and say that this project was a bit of chore at times, especially during the Summer, overall it was a wonderful experience.  I saw a lot of really neat birds, got to visit some great places, and met a lot of really interesting people.  It was a terrific way to get back into birding in the NorthEast after years where my only serious birding was done on vacations to the far-flung corners of the world.  I learned a ton, and am slowly getting back up to speed in terms of birding skills.  Was it worth doing .... yes, absolutely.  Would I do it again .... hell no.

I'll do one last post with some stats and 'Thank Yous' and then the Big Year is done ...

Sunday, December 30, 2012

NYS 2012 Big Year Summary (Part 3)

So I came into July at 322 species (only 30 shy of the state record) and with an epic June behind me.  I was feeling pretty good about myself and my prospects for breaking the record in the Summer.  After all, Richard Fried had seen a ton of Hurricane Irene waifs and strays, pelagic birds, and other vagrants in the Summer.  Visions of 365, or even 375 swirled in my head.  And then .... well I basically hit a wall and endured three months of pretty crappy birding.  I put in huge numbers of hours and miles, and added very few birds.  I guess Big Years aren't all fun and giggles.

In total I added only 8 year birds during the month of July.  Almost all of them seemed to be hard fought.  A Sandwich Tern required multiple visits to the baking, fly-bitten flats of Cupsogue before it surrendered, and Whimbrel gave in only after an epic number of days searching the bays and flats out East.  I did pick up a few shorebirds, with Stilt Sandpiper, American Avocet and Pectoral Sandpiper at Jamaica Bay and again have to thank for Andrew Baksh for (practically living in the mud at Jamaica Bay all Summer and) keeping me up to speed on the shorebird comings and goings.

Considering I spent so many dozens of hours standing out feeding the biting flies and risking sun-stroke or drowning at Cupsogue, it's perhaps ironic that I wasn't there on the day that Derek Rogers and Ari Gilbert had a Brown Booby fly right over them on the flats.  My attempts at pelagic-birding were also dismal failiures with several charters producing very little in terms of birds and my resorting to Whale-watching boats to get out to sea (they didn't produce much either).

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck after a seriously long drive.
To add birds I ran up to St. Lawrence and Jefferson Counties twice (it's an awfully long way to St. Lawrence County).  One trip added a Black-bellied Whistling-Duck but another added Sedge Wren and Common Nighthawk only after literally days of searching.  And I still couldn't find a Gray Partridge (!) despite serious hours and effort on my part.

So after the dismal July, I was hoping August would be better .... but it wasn't.  I added only 6 species the whole month although I was out birding every day.  With no Summer hurricane, there just weren't a lot of birds to chase.  I did run up to Niagara for a Franklin's Gull but missed it.  I also spent a lot of time out on whale-watching boats, and while I did see lots of dolphins and sea-turtles, I didn't add any birds.

Presumed 'Scopoli's Shearwater' out of Montauk.  Not a species as of yet
but maybe a split one day.
The only adds for August were five species of shorebirds and an American White Pelican at Jamaica Bay.  No vagrants, no seabirds, not all that much fun to be honest.

So this month had to get better right?  Maybe some vagrants?  Or a hurricane?  Or some rare seabirds?

On the plus side a Fork-tailed Flycatcher caused a mad scramble and was a state bird for me - while I missed Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Ash-throated Flycatcher and Say's Phoebe this year I can hardly complain after lucking into quick views of the short-staying, and infinitely rarer Fork-tailed.  I also managed to finally get out to the Hudson Canyon for a real pelagic trip (after several other bookings on pelagics and fishing boats were cancelled).  Audubon's Shearwater and Leach's Storm-Petrel got to join the list at least, even if we didn't connect with any of the real pelagic goodies.   On the shorebird front, Hudsonian Godwit finally made it onto the list after several misses and a lot of time spent searching for this species.  I was getting through the list of expected birds, it was just really, really hard work.

I ended up seeing lots of Red-necked and Wilson's Phalaropes this year
but somehow managed to miss Red Phalarope.  These Red-necked Phalaropes
were out at the Hudson Canyon.
Even with these birds though, I still only managed 6 year birds in September.  Ever willing to jump in the car for a 15-hour round-trip drive I ran to Rochester for a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper but was a day late.  I also started to get nervous about Brown Pelican as I stubbornly managed to miss the very few that showed up this year.  Seabirds in general did not go well for me this year and by the end of September it became obvious that I'd botched my Summer pelagic season and now missed a good handful of species that were possible with better planning.

Richard Fried had been kind enough to share his record 2011 list with me and I kept staring at this big cluster of year birds that he got in the Summer, and that I simply wasn't replicating.   It's not that there weren't birds around, there were plenty of birds and it was actually a pretty good shorebird season overall (and I did see 38 species of shorebird in New York State this year).  I think it was more that the Summer really highlights the downside of Big Years, and the flip-side of all those endorphins from year birds in May.  Big Years are by their nature extremely goal focussed and it gets tougher and tougher to get new birds as the year moves on.  A great day of shorebirding where I saw 15 species of shorebird including a Ruff at Jamaica Bay would be a really great feeling in any normal year, but this year ... no Hudsonian Godwit .... no smiles.  To be honest I really wasn't having a lot of fun with the whole project by this point and, if I hadn't already sunk so much time into it I would seriously have considered easing off.  At the very least I went into October with 342 species, serious doubts about breaking the record, and really hoping for a change of luck.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

NYS 2012 Big Year Summary (Part 2)

And the Spring migration that I've been waiting for finally gets underway.  This isn't a time for rarities so much, but rather a 'mopping up' operation.  Over the next six weeks I can get most of New York's migrant breeding birds without going too far from home, but each one that I miss requires a trip to look for them in their breeding habitat.  Too many misses and I'll be running around like crazy chasing breeding birds through June instead of focussing on the rare ones.  So through April and May I find myself doing a lot of migrant watching.

I end up getting 56 year-birds in April almost all from New York City parks and the State Parks on the South Shore of Long Island.  Barn Swallow is my 200th species of the year on April 6th and other 'good birds' include a Yellow-throated Warbler at Riverside Park, a Prothonatory Warbler in Bryant Park, several Kentucky Warblers in Central Park and a Golden-winged Warbler in Crocheron Park in Queens.  That bird turns out to be my last add of the month but things are looking pretty good as I head into May with few misses to worry about so far.

Golden-winged Warbler in Queens.  Photo - Corey Finger (used with permission).
Misses are an odd thing to think about as almost anything that I'd missed up until now could feasibly be found later in the year in the 'second winter'.  Come April though a new class of 'permanent' misses appear with Spring overshoot migrants that might not show again and aren't going to give me a second chance.  Fortunately there aren't too many of these this April; a Bullock's Oriole upstate is a one day bird and not chaseable while being lucky enough to see one of the Swallow-tailed Kites that showed up in just that ... luck.  Those two were the worst of my April misses so I actually considered myself to have done pretty well.

Is my absolute favorite month of the year in Eastern North America (and large chunks of the Palearctic too for that matter).  Migration is at full force and life seems to be flooding back to every habitat in our area.  It's a month that I could happily be outdoors in Nature every single day, and this year I think I might just well have been.

May started with a good vagrant bird for my 250th bird of the year - a breeding plumage male Yellow-headed Blackbird which had set up territory near Binghamton.  It also included my 300th bird when I managed to levy my local network Out East to track down a calling Northern Bobwhite on the North Fork of Long Island.  In total I added 57 new year birds in May, ending up at 306 and feeling really positive about breaking the record.

On the record front, by now I was pretty much openly acknowledging that I planned to try to break the New York State big year record and had even given an interview to Corey Finger at 10,000 Birds that said as much.  Things seemed to be going well and once again I missed very few birds - a Swainson's Hawk and a possible Swainson's Warbler being the most notable misses.  It was also a lot of fun racking up such big numbers of year birds day-after-day.  You get  a lot of endorphins from checking things off a list.

The almost mythical Henslow's Sparrow - crappy shot, great bird.
Other May highlights included a lot of time out at night on Long Island failing to find Black Rails but hearing lots of Eastern Whip-poor-wills and successfully tracking down one of New York State's few breeding Chuck-wills-widows.  I also chased down Upland Sandpipers at Blue Chips Farm, Bicknell's Thrush at Whiteface Mountain,  Henslow's Sparrow at Perch River, and Arctic Tern at Cupsogue Flats. On the vagrant front I finally caught up with a White-faced Ibis at Jamaica Bay after many, many hours of searching, only to have Shai Mitra then find another one about 400 yards from my house in Northwest Harbor (!).  I also got Mississippi Kites, a bird I was fretting about bumping into, when a pair showed up and started to build a nest at Sterling Forest.

Coming out of May I was in pretty good shape with a very defined list of breeding birds still to hunt down and a fair amount of time to do it before shorebird season kicked off in July.

Involved a lot of miles as I slogged back and for across the North Country trying to track down those scarce, or even semi-mythical, breeders that are often the envy of many a New York Birder.

Spruce Grouse (a small and declining relict population hang on in the Adirondacks) became something of an obsession and 'Hunting the Snark' as I came to call it took me to these mountain bogs, and fed a lot of mosquitos, three times this month.  I had good intel from local birders and research scientists, including the location of a breeding pair, but it still took me six long days of searching before I finally bumped into a mother and young at Spring Pond Bog.

The Snark!  Or Spruce Grouse.  A lot of hours went into this bird.
Other long-haul trips netted me breeding King Rail in Western New York and Northern Goshawk near Potsdam, but I failed miserably in my attempt to track down a Gray Partridge that Chris Wood had seen in Amish Country near Perch River.  Shorebirds also started a bit early with a Curlew Sandpiper at Pike's Beach and a Ruff at Montezuma.  I felt really good about this last bird having raced up there as soon as I heard about it and got the bird late in the day.  Sure, it was a 14-hour round trip but surely this would be the only Ruff seen in New York this year .... and then Andrew Baksh found 4 or 5 this Summer at Jamaica Bay (details of several Ruffs here at Birding Dude - Andrew Baksh's most excellent blog).

Curlew Sandpiper at Pike's Beach.  This was my first digi-phone shot and I was quite encouraged
but I haven't been able to get much in terms of results since.
Perhaps the best bird of the month though, and certainly the best bird that I found myself this year, was a total and complete surprise.  I'd been debating how to get offshore to look for Pelagic Birds.  Richard Fried in his record breaking year, had been taken offshore several times by Angus Wilson and John Shemilt and had managed several really good birds.  I was pretty sure this was not going to happen for me when I finally worked out who John Shemilt was and realized the he was the guy I yelled at for driving his truck all over the shorebird flats at Mecox.  So I was pretty much on my own.  While June was early for seabirds, in past years I had seen a lot of jaegers and shearwaters South of Montauk while fly-fishing for Mako Sharks (all catch-and-release).  So, chartering a shark-boat and captain, I headed off and spent a day chumming in and around the shark fleet about 30-miles South of Eastern Long Island.  And we had quite simply the most amazing day of sea-birding that I've ever had in New York waters.

Cory's Shearwater looking very imposing and close to the boat.
To cut a long story short we had all three Jaeger Species and hundreds of shearwaters often up close to the boat.  By the time we had to head back to Montauk I couldn't imagine a better day of birding and then .... a Fea's Petrel flew close by the boat!  Luckily the captain was able to pursue the petrel and I was able to get some shots because no-one would have believed me had I not got photos.  A first record for New York State and a truly awesome bird.  With Fea's Petrel, Spruce Grouse and Curlew Sandpiper in New York in the same week this truly was a 'purple patch' and perhaps the highlight of the year.  The Summer, and almost all the sea-birding I did after that were certainly a bit of an anticlimax.

The Fea's Petrel, a first for New York State.

NYS 2012 Big Year Summary (Part 1)

So while I realize that no-one believes me, this really was an accidental New York State Big Year and I really hadn't planned it in advance.  The extent of my pre-planning was to invite an old birding friend, Philip Dempsey, to bird with me on the East End of Long Island on New Year's Day.  Our plan was to bird hard for a day and see how many species we could come up with, hopefully capturing some of the nostalgia of New Years Days gone by when we were young and rabid birders.  Fact is that neither of us had done much birding in recent years; careers, relationships, and other hobbies (fly-fishing in my case, surfing in Philip's) had pushed birding to the back seat.  So a bracing day of Winter birding would be a fun (and harmless) thing to do and that really, honestly, was the extent of the plan for 2012.

So our day went well and we found some good birds Out East.  It started with a pre-dawn Screech Owl in my yard in Northwest Harbor and ended 73 species later with one of the last birds being a Snowy Owl at Shinecock.  We saw nothing particularly unusual or rare that day and perhaps the best bird was a Glaucous Gull which we found at Sagaponac.  We certainly saw nothing like the Mega-rarity that Doug Gochfeld and Andrew Baksh turned up when they found New York State's first Grace's Warbler at the other end of Long Island.  Philip and I got the call from Angus Wilson but opted to stick to our original plan and stay local (would someone who was doing a big year skip a shot at a Grace's Warbler?).  We had a good day, enjoyed our time in the field and even picked up six more species, including a Mountain Bluebird, on the way back to the City the next morning.

Grace's Warbler - photo by Andrew Baksh, one of the original finders (used with permission).
Then an odd thing happened - the result perhaps of a strange series of coincidences.  My partner Ryan had introduced me to eBird during the Summer of 2011 and I had started to enter local birding records into it.  Back from our New Years Day trip I entered the birds we'd seen and discovered that you could see real-time league table of other birders year-lists.  And, almost certainly as a result of every other serious birder in the state abandoning their New Years birding plans to go and chase the Grace's Warbler, it tuned out that Philip and I were doing rather well on that list.  In fact I think we were briefly number one and two.

So perhaps, I thought, I'll see if I can see 100 (soon adjusted to 150) species in January.  And the rest, as they say is history.

The 'Winter that Never Came' allowed for a lot of birding time and I was able to run around collecting species that had been reported around the New York City area.  In addition to the Grace's Warbler I was able to add a Rufous Hummingbird at the American Museum of Natural History, a Barnacle Goose at Seatuck Creek, an Eared Grebe and a Eurasian Wigeon at Jamaica Bay, and a Black-headed Gull in Brooklyn.  Soon enough though the supply of local birds dried up and so I had to look further afield.

Rufous Hummingbird at the American Museum of Natural History
- photo by Greg Lawrence (used with permission).
In late January Philip and I headed up to the Adirondacks where we met up with Joan Collins and did two days of Winter birding.  Philip was between girlfriends at the time so could be talked into such a trip given copious assurances about unseasonably mild temperatures.  While we didn't get everything we wanted, we did add 14 year birds, including Boreal Chickadee and Gray Jay.  That put me in range for my 150-species January target and I got there with a Long-eared Owl at Hunter's Island in the Bronx on January 31st.  All done ...

Or perhaps not.  Having got back into the habit of birding I ended up adding another 31 species in February to end the Month at 181.  I finally caught up with the Barrow's Goldeneye at Jamaica Bay after multiple attempts and added a White-winged Dove on Staten Island.  I also cleaned up on local wintering birds now that I'd learned how to search eBird and had set up a 'Needs Alert' for New York State.

February, being mild, also allowed two more trips to the North.  A second Adirondack's trip with Joan Collins added Black-backed Woodpecker and an American Three-toed Woodpecker, one of New York State's superstar, hard to find residents.  The other trip was my first real foray to the NorthWest of New York and, after picking up two Western Grebes on Cayuga Lake and a King Eider at Sodus Bay, I met up with Greg Lawrence for a Niagara gull trip.  Greg and Joan were not people I knew before this year and in both cases I reached out to names I saw on eBird, looking for help in areas I didn't know well.  Joan turned out to be a professional bird guide (I had no idea) and Greg turned out to be a college student.  Either way, I managed to press both into service as unofficial regional helpers, the first of what became a network of new friends across the state helping me keep abreast of goings-on bird-wise.

Anyway, back to Niagara where Greg and I had a great trip adding Little, Thayer's and California Gulls to my year list.  My first time ever at Niagara and I didn't actually see the Falls - my parents live in Wales, and even they've seen the Falls.

Fun with Gulls at Niagara.  Herring, Iceland, Ring-billed, and
California Gulls.  Photo - Greg Lawrence (used with permission)
Oh, and another thing started to happen in February.  People started to notice my year list - most assuming I was some kind of new birder but a few remembering me from 20-years ago when I was last seriously birding in the NorthEast.  And people started to reach out, including a chap called Richard Fried (who I'd never heard of but learned was the current holder of the New York State Year List record at 352 species) who messaged me via Facebook to ask if I was doing a Big Year.  At the time I still wasn't sure.

Is a dull month where, if you've birded hard you'll have seen all the Winter birds and be waiting impatiently for migration to start.  The month started off in spectacular fashion though with the discovery of a Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch at Nancy Loomis's feeder North of Utica.  After that star bird however, normal service was resumed and it went back to being ... well just March.  While I added 12 year birds during the month it was quite the slog as I waited impatiently for more migrants and chased down early arrivals even though I knew they'd be abundant in just a couple of weeks time.  My last bird in March was a Northern Saw-whet Owl in the 'Owl Woods' at Braddock Bay near Rochester and I had to work really hard for that bird.  Still, with Spring Migration just around the corner and 193 species in the bag, I was actually starting to think I might actually do a big year.

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch

Friday, December 28, 2012

A last run North - Hoary Redpoll in Lake Placid.

This being a 'Redpoll Year' Hoary Redpoll was perhaps the last year bird that I was reasonably confident of seeing before December 31, 2012.  My eBird Needs Alert (if you don't have one, get one) has been popping up Hoary Redpoll sightings for weeks now but I have been waiting for birds coming to feeders before I made one last slog up to the North Country for perhaps one last year bird.

The undisputed king of redpoll feeding is a chap called Larry Master who runs literally dozens of niger feeders (not to mention Flying-Squirrel, Golden Eagle, and Fisher feeders) at two sites near Lake Placid in the Adirondacks.  I've kept in touch with Larry for the last couple of months, and although he's had a few good redpoll sightings, the mild weather has made the redpolls a hit-or-miss thing and less than guaranteed.  So when he emailed me yesterday, in the midst of 18-inches of fresh snow in Lake Placid, to say that things looked good for redpolls, I quickly planned one last trip Up North.

Leaving NYC at 4am I made good time and rolled in to Lake Placid, after a quick stop for a roadside Northern Shrike near the Olympic Ski-jump Center, about five hours later.  Heading over to Larry's house I met his pack of friendly dogs, and his gracious wife, and was ushered into Larry's living room where Derek Rogers was already watching a set of feeders through a picture window.  There were certainly redpolls around, in fact a flock of about 90 redpolls was milling around the treetops in the yard but seemed reluctant to come to the feeders.  So we waited and watched, and slowly the redpolls got more confident and came down to the trees around the house.  On their second visit, Derek spotted a redpoll that stood out as obviously white in a flock of buffy-beige birds.  Even with the naked eye this bird popped out of the flock so we struggled to get better looks through bins and I took some distant record shots.  Undertail coverts looked good ... rump looked good ... bill looked good ... and the overall coloration and structure of the bird all seemed right for Hoary Redpoll.  This particular bird just wouldn't come down to the feeders though and even though we all three got decent looks I wasn't able to get a great photo.

Hoary Redpoll - not the best shot.  The two dark tail marks aren't necessarily
bad for Hoary Redpoll by the way and this bird did not have any fine streaking
on either rump or undertail coverts.
Soon thereafter Larry's children and grandchildren started arriving for family Christmas things so Derek and I tried to make our excuses.  Larry, being the most gracious birding host offered to show us his other feeders and so we convoyed over to his 'farm' in the 'Intervale Lowlands' to check out dozens more feeders and another crop of birds.  There were American Tree Sparrows, Red-breasted Nuthatches, a few Hairy Woodpeckers, and Larry showed us a pile of deer carcasses designed to lure in Golden Eagles.  Before long I picked up a small group of Bohemian Waxwings, a state bird for Derek and then we settled in to watch the local redpolls in the hopes of another Hoary.

The redpoll flock here was quite flighty and moved around a lot, but even in the distance, Derek and I kept zeroing in on a particular bird that looked really good.  Derek, using his new iPhone digiscope mount thingy, was able to get some good shots and when we looked at them later, it was pretty obviously a female Hoary Redpoll.

Hoary Redpoll among Common Redpolls - Photo: Derek
Rogers (used with permission)

So 'mission accomplished' so to speak - HOARY REDPOLL (NYS 2012 #361), I decided to head South for the 5+ hour drive back to the City.  On the way back I got a constant stream of texts from Derek who, with his girlfriend and other family, was staying in the area for the holidays.  First he had a Northern Shrike, and then he had a perfect male Hoary Redpoll.  I'm not jealous ....

A perfect male Hoary Redpoll, and perhaps Derek's Christmas
Card next year.  Photo: Derek Rogers (used with permission)

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Characters of the Central Park Birding Scene - Lee Rogers.

I thought this was worth re-posting - interesting article in the New York Times.  I've seen this birder around and pointed out birds (and had birds pointed out to me in return).  No idea she was homeless, but I always thought she had good eyes.  I guess I'm a better observer of birds than of people ...

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Not done yet - Tufted Duck on Long Island.

So after Saturday's drama with the LeConte's Sparrow, or the 'Great LeConte's Suppression Scandal" as I've come to call it, I figured the year was close to done.  I still hoped to get up North for a Hoary Redpoll, and perhaps (although it now seemed unlikely) offshore for a Northern Fulmar or an Atlantic Puffin.  Either way the universe of potential species had shrunk to perhaps 3 or 4 in my mind and I spent Sunday helping with the Sagaponac Christmas Bird Count in pouring rain, not expecting to see any more year birds locally for a while.

Come Monday though I got a slap in the face when word came in of not one, not two, but three potential year-birds right here on Long Island (!).  I was taking it easy on Monday morning and had several meetings to attend, albeit by phone, on Monday afternoon.  The weather was also lousy so it really didn't occur to me to go out birding and I figured, it being a week day, that there wouldn't be anyone out to find things.  Then, at around 10am I picked up a New York State Birds update from Andy Guthrie who had seen four (4!) species of alcid so far that morning from Montauk Point, among them a Black Guillemot (potential year bird #1).  So I raced over to Montauk, wondering if the weather was creating a freak alcid phenomenon and, when I got there at around 10:20am I heard (via text) about a Tufted Duck (potential year bird #2) in Western Suffolk County, and a Black Rail (potential year bird #3) not far away.  And I'd spent most of my morning sitting on the couch drinking coffee ….

Well, the rail wasn't exactly pinned down, and I worked out that I couldn't get to the duck and back home in time for my meeting, so I decided to stick with the Montauk plan and sea-watch.   I joined Andy Guthrie, Joe Giunta, and Peter Polshek for another 90-minute vigil at the concession stand (which has some shelter from the rain and wind) at Montauk Point.  Well, we didn't see any Guillemots, or any Murres or Dovekies for that matter, but we did see some Black-legged Kittiwakes, a lot of Razorbills, and later (at Montauk Inlet) a Black-headed Gull and a Kumlien's Gull.  Not a bad morning, but no year bird.

And so at 5am on Tuesday I made a mad dash from the house to the car in the darkness and through a torrential thunder storm (what a way to start a day).  Many of the roads out in East Hampton were flooding and that, and the morning NYC-bound traffic crush, made it a slow slog to Huntington, but I got there at just about first (birdable) light.  There were plenty of ducks in the harbor but, as the light got better and I could see further, I could tell that none of them was a Tufted Duck.  Not long thereafter I was joined by Corey Finger and Mike Schiebel and we continued to scan the area hoping that the duck would pop up.  Mike remembered being told that the duck spent time around some floating docks to the South of the overlook and, almost as soon as we turned to face that direction, Corey saw the bird come drifting out from behind a dock and start preening not 50-yeards away from us.  TUFTED DUCK (NYS 2012 #360).

Tufted Duck (2 shots)
Tufted Duck is a species that I remember being much more regular in New York 15+ years ago when they showed up annually on the East End and even in Central Park.  These days though they are scarce on Long Island and so I had wondered whether one would show up before December 31st.   A big thanks to Brent Bomkamp for finding the bird and getting the word out yesterday.

So back to Northwest Harbor, stopping to pick up breakfast, and to a day of pre-Christmas shopping, tree-decorating, etc.  I have feelers out for the exact location of the Black Rail but I'm not terribly hopeful of picking that needle out of the very big haystack that is Southern Long Island.  I will absolutely try for Black Guillemot again though ….

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Third Time's a Charm - LeConte's Sparrow in Queens.

I have to admit that I was very, very happy to see this bird yesterday.  I have a terrible history with this species having chased them numerous times in New York and New Jersey but not once before yesterday had I been able to lay eyes on one anywhere on the East Coast.  I did see/hear a couple once on breeding territory in Minnesota but, given the Big Year, I really hoped to get one in New York this year so I could kill off another local nemesis bird.

Things hadn't worked out so well so far this year though and, although I chased after a LeConte's Sparrow in Brooklyn, and another one that was seen by many near Ithaca, I missed them both.  While I certainly hadn't ruled this species out, I really wasn't expecting to get one this late in the year, so when Corey Finger called yesterday and asked how long it would take me to get to Queens, I was pretty psyched.

As usual when these calls come in, I was at entirely the wrong end of Long Island and in this case I was birding at Napeague and enjoying a nice slow day poking around the marshes counting sparrows.  A LeConte's meant I was definitely going to run West though so I slogged back to the car and set a course for Queens, dreading what can sometimes be a long and painful run in traffic.  On the road I got some photos from Corey via text and the ID certainly looked good, at least as far as I could tell from glancing at iPhone shots Corey had taken of the screen on the back of his camera.  And mercifully today the traffic actually cooperated so I drove up onto the Edgemere Landfill at around 12:15pm (after a quick two and a half hour drive) and saw Corey and Andrew Baksh standing out on the grasslands.

LeConte's Sparrow (4 shots)
Looping around to where they stood I was treated to close-up views of a very cooperative LECONTE'S SPARROW (NYS 2012 #359) skulking about in a weedy ditch.  The sparrow popped up a few times within minutes of my arriving and allowed great looks and some decent photos - remarkably cooperative for this species (no spishing required).  None of us had actually seen many LeConte's before (I'd seen only 2) so we spent a fair amount of time noting, and discussing, field marks.  We worked through all the other Ammodramus sparrow species and eliminated them one-by-one while having the luxury of being able to continually refer back to a text-book LeConte's that kept popping up, sitting out in the open, and giving beautiful views.  When I think about all the miles I've walked through grassy fields in search of this species, it's amazing just how easy and cooperative this bird was.

There was a problem though.  The status of access to the Edgemere Landfill is apparently less than clear, and while I had just driven in and tried to look as though I was supposed to be there, it wasn't clear that the site was readily accessible, especially if birders started showing up in numbers.  The Queens birders were understandably nervous about getting birders shut out the day before the Queens Christmas Bird Count so made the decision to delay announcing the bird.  Oh, and apparently there's also a problem with wild dogs (!).  Corey discusses the dilemma over at 10,000 Birds

Still, controversy aside, it was a terrific bird and I was very grateful for the chance to see it.  So what's next?  360 would be a very nice number for a New York State year list ....

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

OK, One Last Twitch - Townsend's Solitaire at Seneca Lake.

So I was beginning to think that maybe my year list was done.  My fourth attempt to get on a Winter offshore fishing boat was cancelled due to lack of bookings and there still haven't been any chaseable Hoary Redpolls as of yet.  So perhaps 357 species was as far as I was going to go, although I'd often tell people that perhaps a Townsend's Solitaire would be turned up on a Christmas Count somewhere.

Turns out I had the species right, but my timing was way off.  On Sunday Benjamin Van Doren texted me to say that Tim Lenz had found a Townsend's Solitaire at Sampson State Park on Lake Seneca.  It was too late to run for it then, and initial reports that the bird was with (typically nomadic) waxwings didn't bode well for it sticking.  Nevertheless, the bird was seen by several birders on Sunday afternoon so, despite the long drive, I knew I'd probably try for it if it stuck.

Townsend's Solitaire (photo by Jay McGowan - used with permission)
Monday and Tuesday were "City Days" for me and I couldn't get away at all, but I was encouraged to hear that the bird was still present, albeit not always easy to see.  The bird was also observed chasing Cedar Waxwings around, a much better sign, suggesting it had established a Winter feeding territory.  So when I heard that it had been seen on Tuesday afternoon I set the alarm for 4am and got an early start on Wednesday.

At 9:35am I pulled into the site and found five other birders, including Joe Giunta and Janet Akin, who reported that the bird had apparently been seen at 7am and 8:55am.  In both cases it had stayed true to its pattern and followed a long period of feeding invisibly in the dense juniper scrub with a brief appearance on top of a leafless deciduous tree.  And so with nothing to do but wait, I started a circuit, wandering the trails and roads nearest to the favorite area and scanning trees for distant birds on the sky-line.

By 10:45am the birding group had changed with some leaving (Joe planned a quick visit to Montezuma NWR for Tundra Swans and Sandhill Cranes and had just left, planning to return) while we also had some new arrivals.  Then as I walked the road for the fifth or sixth time, I saw a promising bird sitting high in a tree some distance away and as soon as I got my bins on it yelled out that I had the bird.

Townsend's Solitaire (honestly)
The nearest birders ran over and at least three of them got a view of the bird before it took off and flew South, vanishing in the dense vegetation.  I also got a few shots - perhaps the worst Townsend's Solitaire shots published so far, but at least there was no doubt about the ID.  TOWNSEND'S SOLITAIRE (NYS 2012 #358) and a State Bird for me.

Given the the bird typically only showed once every two hours I decided against waiting for a repeat performance and headed on back to the City for dinner.  On the way I did get a call from Joe Giunta to say that the bird had showed again a couple of hours later and that all the birders present had great views (and better photos I'd imagine).

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Photospot: Kumlien's Gull at Montauk.

Hopefully this bird will spend another Winter at Montauk Inlet.  One of two Iceland Gulls at Montauk right now.

Kumlien's (Iceland) Gull (5 shots)

Monday, December 3, 2012

Yard Birding: Eastern Screech-Owl ...

When I first bought the house in NorthWest Harbor six years ago one of the first things I did was to establish a feeder station and hang a bunch of bird-boxes and bat-boxes.  In fact the bird-boxes went up before most of the furniture was delivered.  We've had a very mixed record with both, attracting Eastern Bluebirds, Tufted Titmice, Black-capped Chickadees and (unfortunately) House Wrens to the bird boxes but have yet to have bats use their custom-built homes.  That's not to say that mammals don't use the boxes however as I frequently find White-footed Mice in the chickadee box and gray squirrels took over the owl box as soon as we hung it up.  I suspect if we found a large enough box we could get Raccoons to move in too but I think we have quite enough trouble with them already.

Two years ago, in an effort to actually see the Eastern Screech-Owl that we so often hear in the yard, my partner Ryan hung an additional three owl boxes in likely looking spots.  For the first year or so we diligently checked them and changed the sawdust as instructed but, as so often happens, they soon got left to their own devices.

Eastern Screech-Owl (2 shots)
Then yesterday afternoon, a lovely mild day after a freezing couple of days out here, I happened to glance out the kitchen window and noticed that the black entrance hole on the front box was missing (the entrance hole usually stands out from a distance).  Now I've been fooled before, thinking that there was an owl in a box only to grab bins and see that the hole had been stuffed full of oak leaves by a squirrel.  This time though, there really was a Screech-Owl in the box, and a red-phase owl to-boot.

The owl seemed to be enjoying the weather and popped up a few times that afternoon.  While it watched us when we were in the driveway it didn't seem all that concerned, but then again it's probably watched us many times from various roost sites without us knowing.  Although I tried to stay focussed to see it fly-out, other things distracted me and I missed it.  Still, hopefully it'll be around for a while so I'll have other chances ...

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Nemesis Bird Surrenders - Brown Pelican in Montauk.

So I guess that every Big Year has a bogey bird (if you're a Brit) or a Nemesis Bird (if you're a Yank) and mine for this year was shaping up to be Brown Pelican.  My mid-November I was pretty sure I'd missed this bird even though I'd been looking for this species since May.

Brown Pelicans aren't really all that rare on Long Island and some years they can be relatively common.    Last year for example Hurricane Irene pushed a bunch of them up to the Island and they sat around on docks and jetties for months being generally easy to see.  This year though there was no Summer hurricane and so no Summer pelicans.  There were a few records of birds seen by sea-watchers in May and then just a couple of records of day-trippers from New Jersey that showed up in New York waters, fed for a few hours, and then hightailed it back South.  There really were only two sightings that were 'chaseable' but on both occasions the birds showed at the West end of the Island when I was at the East end.

Now I sea-watch *a lot* - often two or three days a week - and all Summer I was out on a fishing boat or a whale-watching boat at least once or twice a week.  That's a lot of time looking at the water around the Island so, as one-by-one the other birders on Long Island all got their pelican (and I didn't), the word of my Nemesis Bird started to spread.  By the Fall most New York birders knew that I was missing this species and it had become a bit of a running joke in the New York birding community.

Brown Pelican (3 shots)
So by October I started to run the 'Pelican Route' Out East almost every day I was here - a sequence of spots that pelicans tend to roost when they are in the area (Sammy's Beach, Cartwright Shoal, Lazy Point, Fort Pond Bay, Duryea's Lobster Dock, West Lake,  and East Lake in Montauk).  If I was birding in Montauk, or even going out to lunch, I'd run the route on the way out or the way back.  I figured that if a pelican did show up then I'd at least have a shot.  But no pelicans ....

Then came Hurricane Sandy and it did produce a pelican (!) - but only for Shai Mitral and Pat Lindsay who saw one from Orient Point on the North Fork.  I was on the South Fork that day.

By November I was starting to loose hope but I did keep running the Pelican Route three or four times a week; I'm stubborn, what can I say.  There were also still some pelicans around in Massachusetts and Rhode Island but one by one, they ended up with wildlife rehabbers, getting fed up and shipped down to the Carolinas.  One even showed up tangled in fishing gear near Shinecock, and it too ended up getting a free ride down to North Carolina in the back of a station wagon heading to a family Thanksgiving.  And so I'd pretty much given up on the species as we headed into December and then on Thursday I heard third-hand of a pelican report from Montauk.

I wasn't Out East on Thursday afternoon, and was heading to Albany on Friday, but I did hear from Vicki Bustamente that folks had been out looking for the bird on Friday but that they didn't find it.  Still, when I got back Out East I headed out to Montauk on Saturday morning and ran the Pelican Route one more time.  At the second to last stop - West Lake, Montauk - I scanned the gull roost and .... well .... there was a BROWN PELICAN sitting there with the gulls (NYS 2012 #357)!

At this point it almost feels a little anticlimactic.  I've spent so many hundreds of hours looking for this species that to have seen it feels a little unreal.  There's almost a sense of loss if that makes any sense.  So I guess I'll need a new Nemesis Bird .... how about Pink-footed Goose?