Sunday, February 24, 2013

Gyrfalcons are really, really cool.

So first let me say that Gyrfalcons are incredibly cool, perhaps one of the coolest birds likely to ever show up on the East Coast in Winter.  Birders are quite simply blown away by them and many wait years before they finally get to see one of these incredible high Arctic falcons.  They've been impressing people for a very long time too, Viking Kings and Medieval Monarchs coveted them and their image has been used in everything from fine art to fantasy fighter-jet designs.  Every birder hopes to find one of these incredible birds one day and in fact there have been a couple reported on the East Coast this Winter ... but somehow they seem to have generated as much angst as they have excitement.

Gyrfalcon by John James Audubon (perhaps one of his best known pieces).  Unfortunately,
most Gyrfalcons are gray or brown and the pure white form is rarely seen down here in
the South (well this is the South if you're a Gyrfalcon).
In early January a Gyrfalcon was found in the Connecticut River Valley in Central Massachusetts but the bird was hard to pin down and thus seen only occasionally by a few lucky observers.  Then last week hotshot Mass birder Marshall Iliff managed to find out where the bird was roosting every night - quiet an achievement in and of itself - and suddenly had to face a real dilemma.  Gyrfalcons are apparently still at risk of being trapped by falconers, and it seems that this has happened recently to at least one falcon.  If Marshall publicized the location of the falcon's roost he might be putting the bird at risk.  On the other hand, there are an awful lot of birders out there who would really, really like to see a Gyrfalcon.  In the end he compromised, setting up a sign-up sheet for folks who wanted to visit the falcon roost, a method which would hopefully let keen birders see the bird but allow the locals to vet out those who might be out to do no good.  Not sure if this approach will work, but after a lot of obvious angst, this was the approach that the Mass birders chose to take and initial reports seem positive.

I'd largely ignored the Massachusetts falcon shenanigans (I've already seen two Gyrfalcons in Massachusetts) until early Saturday morning when I got an email from Angus Wilson.  Apparently several New York birders had reported a Gyrfalcon on Long Island five days previously and the news was just getting out now (!).  Needless to say, a lot of folks (myself included) who hadn't heard a thing about it were a little 'surprised'.  Still I tried to put it out of my mind, and at 7am when I got up to go birding, I decided against going to chase a five-day-old Gyrfalcon record and headed out to Montauk instead.

Montauk was pleasant and I spent a happy few hours looking at scoters, eiders, two Iceland Gulls, some Great Cormorants, and several other nice Winter birds.  Then, just as I was scanning Ice-House pond for ducks, I got a call from Corey Finger ... apparently the Gyrfalcon had been seen again a few hours earlier.

Whenever Corey calls me with news of a rarity I am always at the wrong end of the island.  Today was no exception but I didn't hesitate to head back to the car and plot a course to the location of the last sighting.  These drives are excruciatingly tense experiences and each 'real-time' update just adds to the stress level.   It took me an hour and thirty minutes to get to Gilgo Beach and while I was driving I heard that the bird had been re-found but was very distant.  I heard that the ID was not 100% pinned down but that it looked good.  I heard that it was now raining heavily (which I hoped would keep the bird in place) which was severely impacted visibility - a distant blob in the rain.  I heard that the bird had been seen to flap it's wings and was definitely a large falcon.  Every minute was an eternity but in the end I pulled into the parking lot and joined Corey, Seth Ausubel and Pat Lindsay (and soon thereafter Shai Mitra) who were scoping a distant falcon in the rain.

The falcon was a long way away but my first impression was positive.  It had the 'husky' look that Gyrfalcons have, and more importantly it had relatively short wings what projected only part way down the tail.  While the views weren't great I pretty quickly realized that this was a 'Gyr' but stuck around for a while hoping that the weather would clear or that the bird would fly.  The rain kept coming though and the bird stayed hunkered down so in the end I reluctantly headed back Out East hoping for better views the next day.

A 'lump' on an Osprey-platform  ..... which at 60x through the scope turned out to be
the Gyrfalcon.  The photo below is massively cropped but you can see what it is.

I didn't rush back to Gilgo Beach on Sunday so when I pulled into the parking lot at around 9am I joined a fairly large group of birders who were watching the bird.  Over the next couple of hours we had distant, but satisfying, scope views of the Gyrfalcon sitting on Osprey-platforms, flying across the marsh, and even catching, plucking, and eating a Black Duck.  Lots of birders arrived throughout the morning and everyone seemed pretty excited, and relieved, to see the bird.  Here are some better photographs (and some commentary) from Corey Finger over at 10,000 Birds.

So why had it taken nearly a week to get the word out on this bird?  Well apparently the folks who'd originally found the bird were worried about falconers after hearing the story from Massachusetts (as recounted here).  Unlike Mass though there wasn't an attempt to organize broad access to the bird and only a small group of 'friends of the finders' were let in on the secret and saw the bird during its brief first appearance.  The news of the sighting only came out five days later when the finders, having not seen the bird in a while, assumed that it had left the area and was thus safe from threats.  Can you fault their intent ... no, not at all ... although I think the location of the bird would have made it really hard for a falconer to do it harm.  Still, Long Island has a horrible history of record suppression and of cliquish birding circles not sharing information.  Things seem to have been a lot better in recent years but a situation like this definitely reminded a lot of folks of the 'bad old days' and left a bad taste in a lot of mouths.   There are probably no right answers to a situation like this, but I'm sure it'll be much discussed in the coming months.  In the end, most everyone who wanted to see the bird got to see it, so I'm sure that all will be forgiven.  Who knew that watching birds came with all these social and ethical dilemmas?

In the end I was happy (although I am going to buy a new digiscope rig after the frustration of trying to get any kind of shot at that distance).  The Gyrfalcon was a state bird, only my 3rd in the ABA, and only the 7th one I've ever seen.  A very special bird, and I'm glad I got to see it.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Turtles and Snowy Owls, walking the beaches in Winter.

I haven't really done a lot of birding of late.  It's been cold out here with a fair bit of snow and an almost constant freezing wind that makes seawatching seem pretty unappealing at the moment.  There also just hasn't been that much around, with very little turnover in the birds on the East End and nothing very exciting reported for a while.

By far the biggest Natural History highlight of late was a rather sad one and had nothing to do with birds at all.  We were walking the dogs on Sammy's Beach in East Hampton last week and noticed that the dogs were very focussed on a dark object up ahead in the tide line.  As we got closer we could see that the object was a turtle (!), not something you expect to see on a beach in New York in February.

Kemp's Ridley Sea-Turtle in East Hampton.
The turtle certainly looked dead but I know enough to know that it's really hard to tell if an apparently dead sea-turtle is really dead or just 'mostly dead'.  Apparently turtles stunned by cold water go into some kind of torpor which allows them to shut down non-essential functions and survive in a coma-like state for some time.  The only way to tell for sure is to take an internal temperature reading and needless to say I was in no position to do that out there on the beach.  So I called the folks at the Riverhead Foundation, the experts who do know how to handle situations like these.

The Riverhead Foundation runs a marine animal rescue operation and sends teams out to help stranded whales and dolphins.  In the late fall they also end up rescuing quite a few 'cold-stunned' Sea-turtles that have stayed in the North Atlantic too long and been caught out by the rapidly falling water temperatures.  Quickly warming a stunned turtle will kill it, so they've developed a process to gently bring the animal back to temperature and seem to have a good success rate with saving them.  After getting a description from me, and asking me to send them photos, the Riverhead folks identified our turtle as a Kemp's Ridley Sea-Turtle, a critically endangered species that has been reduced to just a handful of breeding colonies world-wide.  They also unfortunately said that the turtle looked dead from the pictures but they asked us to mark the spot by standing up a stick in the sand and they dispatched a team to collect the turtle to make sure.  At the very least the specimen might yield some useful data and this was a very late date for a turtle to be this far North.

On the bird front, not much has changed.  I did manage to spend some time with the Hick's Island Snowy Owl today.  Of all Long Island's wintering Snowy Owls this one has been the most regular but perhaps the least reliable.  It winters on an island but still gets pushed around a bit by clammers, duck hunters, and the like so tends to stay away from the roads and other areas where birders could see it.  A lot of birders look for this individual over the average weekend but it's almost never reported on a Saturday or Sunday.  Today, it was sitting out in the open, although it was a long way away and my photos were 'record shots' rather than wildlife art.

Snowy Owl, Hick's Island.
I also did a circuit of the gulls and ducks today.  We've had 2 Barrow's Goldeneye at Montauk and some good gulls including 2 Iceland Gulls and 2 Black-headed Gulls.  Today there were still quite a few scoter and eider around and even a few razorbills out at the point.   Gull-wise I managed only a Lesser Black-backed Gull and an Iceland Gull, but I did enjoy spending some time with a close flock of Bonaparte's Gulls.  I've watched this flock a few times as it's the one which the Black-headed Gulls tend to join when they're feeding in Lake Montauk.  When I've seen the Black-headed Gulls on previous occasions the flock has always been distant.  So when I saw the flock was close to shore today I was excited at maybe getting some better Black-headed Gull shots, but unfortunately today the flock was 100% Bonaparte's.  Still, they're a spiffy gull and they'll be gone soon enough so it was fun to watch them while they were there.

Bonparte's Gulls (2 shots)

 So onwards, and looking forward to next week's Pelagic Trip (fingers crossed that it goes) and dreaming of finally getting Atlantic Puffin for my New York State List.  Not a bird I'm likely to get seawatching so, as unappealing as an early March trip offshore sounds, sometimes you just have to go for it.
OK, just one more Kumlien's (Iceland) Gull, this one from Iron Pier on the
North Fork.  I really like this species.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Urban Birding: In the Rain in Central Park.

Today was not meant to be a good day, I'd put off a whole bunch of unpleasant things until I couldn't avoid them any longer, and then I ended up having to deal with them all at once.  My morning was filled with hassles with the DMV, tax issues, then a couple of hours at the dentist (the perfect morning!).  I was supposed to go to lunch afterwards but, when I left the dentist I decided I needed to be outside so I grabbed some bins, cancelled lunch, and headed to Central Park.  There were a few good birds reported recently and, even the forecast promised rain, I thought I might look for some of them.  Mostly though, I just needed to spend some time outdoors.

Heading to the Ramble I wandered over to the feeders and decided I was going to stake it out until I saw a redpoll.  Other birders had seen redpolls recently but my visits to the Ramble had produced neither redpolls nor siskins and I was feeling like I was missing out.  Almost as soon as I arrived it started to rain but I figured I'd jut ignore it and was soon joined by a birder (Allison Rea?) so at least had I had some company while I waited.  We chatted as we stood in the rain and I kept a basic scan pattern where once every minute I put bins to each of the feeders, left to right.  There was plenty of action at the feeders with lots of American Goldfinches, a Brown Creeper, and even a few Red-winged Blackbirds giving hope for an early Spring.  Then after about 20 minutes of the same routine, and "as if by magic", there was a female Common Redpoll on one of the sock feeders.  I hadn't seen the bird come in, it had simply appeared silently at a feeder while I was looking elsewhere.   Luckily I able to quickly get Allison on to it and it turned out that it was a life bird for her, seemingly making her day.  It always feels good to get a fledgeling birder a life bird, but I was also pretty happy to see a redpoll in New York City as I think it's been years since I last saw one here.  So mission accomplished I left the feeders with a smile on my face as I wandered off into the rain in search of the next thing.

Buoyed by the redpoll I walked the Gill hoping for a Rusty Blackbird (no luck) then headed over to the Shakespeare Garden to look for a Saw-whet Owl.

Northern Saw-whet Owl in the Shakespeare Garden in Central Park
Photo: Brian Padden (used with permission).
There had apparently been one, or perhaps two, Saw-whet Owls in this area for the past few days.  Many local birders had seen this (these) birds so I was hopeful of bumping into one, even despite my horrible owl karma.  Some people have good owl karma and seem to find them easily, and others (like me) just can't seem to find them for love nor money.  I'm not sure what it is that separates these two species of birders, it could be a pattern-recognition thing, patience, past sins, or just dumb luck but I am definitely in the subset of birders that simply can't find roosting owls.  I diligently searched all the yew and cedar trees, peered into the hollies, and scanned the pines in the area but today fit the usual pattern ... an hour of careful searching .... and no owl.

While I wasn't seeing an owl I got an email that Tom Fiore was seeing a Black-headed Gull up at the Reservoir so, after admitting defeat on the owl I headed up there to look for that bird.  I got there perhaps an hour or so after Tom had seen the bird and, although I scanned the gulls for thirty minutes in the pouring rain, I couldn't pick out a Black-headed Gull from the hundreds of Ring-billed and Herring Gulls on the causeway.  I did bump into Tom though who showed me some excellent photos of the bird that he'd taken that morning, a little disappointing but enough incentive to ensure I'll be back to look for it another day.

And so with time marching on I had to start heading back South.  Tom, who I'd hoped had good owl karma, went back to look for the owl, but even though we saw lots of whitewash, and met a nice French birder who showed us where it was a few days ago, we still couldn't come up with it.  Some things are just not meant to be I guess so I gave up and went to look for the Iceland Gull that had been reliable on the Lake for the past few days.

Iceland Gull, Central Park Lake.  Photo: Brian Padden (used with permission).
Needless to say there was no Iceland Gull either, sometimes luck is with you, and sometimes it isn't.  I summed up my visit as having got one of the five species I'd tried for  ... but at least it was raining (!).   But even though I'd missed most of what I was searching for I actually really enjoyed my visit to the park.  I didn't get my target birds, and the weather was awful, but I was happy I guess because I just needed to have some outdoors time, and I got it.  Central Park does wonderful things to bad days ....

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Yard Birding: Nor'Easter Nemo - snowed-in for days.

So busy with grown up stuff all last week but watched the approach of Nemo (since when did Nor'Easters get names too ?) with interest.  Some of the locals got out birding on Thursday and Friday but didn't see much other than larger than normal numbers of Black-legged Kittiwakes out at Montauk Point.  I thought I might get out too over the weekend but any illusions I might have had of birding were quickly squashed when the storm actually hit.  We had 2-feet of snow overnight on Friday and, given my unplowed 150-foot sloping driveway, that was pretty much it as far as birding was concerned.  Nothing to do except stay in and relax all weekend.

White-breasted Nuthatch at the feeders in the yard.
On Saturday morning I got up early to look at the snow and shoveled a path to dig out and refill the feeders.  Two of the feeders had actually been brought down by the storm so I had to dig them out and re-hang them.  The effort was worth it though as I've had huge numbers of birds coming in over the weekend.  From nowhere we now have a flock of 80-100 House Finches at the feeders for the last two days (not quite Redpolls but cool nevertheless).  I rarely see more than a few House Finches out here so I have no idea where this multitude came from and they just appeared with the snow along with a flock of White-throated Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos.  While I have no rare birds to report, we do have 200+ birds at the feeders at any given moment right now, and who knows how many Chickadees and Titmice are cycling through as like most people I think I vastly underestimate the numbers of roving birds that swing by once or twice a day.  It's really quite satisfying to realize that we're feeding this many birds.

The birds didn't seem to care that the feeder wasn't in it's usual place.  This
is the only suet feeder so as soon as I dug it out the woodpeckers appeared
and didn't wait for me to re-hang it.
So I've kept putting out pounds of seed and I'm hoping that we're making a difference in what must be a really tough time for the local birds.

Downy Woodpecker - we had 8 at the feeders at one time yesterday so who
knows how many visit during the day.
Still waiting for a Common Redpoll or a Crossbill at the feeder but in the meantime just feeling a real responsibility to 'keep the seed coming' as the birds seem to be so needy given the weather.  The finch flock seems to be spending the whole day close to the feeders and I've noticed Juncos roosting in the ornamental evergreens right up against the house (for heat?).   Hoping the finch and sparrow calls will attract other things that happen to pass through the neighborhood.

We tend to ignore House Finches but a flock of 100 is actually pretty neat.
We'd probably get all excited if this was an irruptive Northern finch.

Characters of the Central Park Birding Scene - Starr Saphir.

I met Starr back in 1991 and did some birding with her, including a World Series of Birding, in New Jersey in the 1990s.  She was dedicated to birds and birding and is responsible for hatching and fledging many new birders.  Saw her a lot in Central Park, and even out of Long Island, in 2012.  She was one of the fixtures, and perhaps the best known member of the Central Park birding scene.  She passed away recently - here's the obituary in the New York Times.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Western Winter Birds on the East End.

After spending almost a week in the City I was very excited to head Out East (to the East end of Long Island) on Wednesday afternoon.  I was thinking that I might go out on a 'deep sea' fishing boat on Saturday but hadn't confirmed any plans and was waiting to see how the weather looked.  In the meantime there were a few things around that seemed worth spending some time trying to see.

While this wasn't the original plan, as I passed Manorville I realized that I was a bit ahead of schedule and so, with a little push from Derek Rogers, I decided to go and look for the Ross's Goose that had been found in Riverhead.  It seemed a little early to go straight to Merritt Pond where the bird had been roosting, so I ran some local roads and checked goose flocks hoping to pick it up.  With no luck on that front I headed over to the pond feeling pretty confident that I just had to wait it out.  On-site with a couple of other birders by 4pm we stood and watched as geese started to dribble back to their roost site, first in small groups, but later in a constant stream.  I had promised to leave by 4:30pm but, upon hearing that the bird had been seen closer to 5pm the night before, I called home and adjusted my leave time back half and hour.  There were lots of Canada Geese, perhaps two or three thousand on the pond, and as the light faded they kept streaming in.  I picked out a single Snow Goose and kept scanning each incoming flock for a small white bird, but none had come by 5:00pm.  Finally, at about 5:20pm I realized that I was late, and was probably going to dip this bird as even if it did show up now I wouldn't be able to ID it for certain in the failing light.  So I headed home to NorthWest Harbor and made plans to return another day.

Thursday was filled with work and errands but Friday looked good for another try for the goose.  The weather had been awful with gale-force winds battering the house for days so I'd given up on any pelagic aspirations.  There were also a group of Brooklyn and Queens County birders coming out to Montauk so I figured I might meet up with them for a bit.  Then I got a text from Frank Quevedo that changed my plans completely and I re-routed to look for the Yellow-headed Blackbirds that he had found near Calverton the day before.

At about 10:00am when I got into the Riverhead area I figured I'd make a quick stop at Merritt Pond to see if the Ross's Goose was about.  As soon as I pulled up though I got a call from a local birder (who shall remain anonymous given that it was 10:00am on a work day) to say that he and another local were watching a Yellow-headed Blackbird right then over on Edwards Avenue in Calverton.  So I jumped back in the car and zipped over there only to arrive ten minutes late and hear that the flock had moved on up the road.  We checked Edwards Avenue and then split up to look for the blackbird flock.  This was a really good chance to see the blackbird as it was with a feeding flock of only several hundred mixed icterids so, while it might wander widely during the day, it was probably  still in the area, at least for a while.  I ran North, then West, then South, then back East and got nothing so decided to widen the circle and ran North again, then East, then South, and bingo .... blackbirds.  A flock of about 300 birds flew over me just East of where we'd started out originally.  I jumped out of the car and got bins on them quickly picking up a YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD (they stand out) and then was able to get scope views of it when they briefly landed.  I called (anonymous birders) and, as the flock moved South, tried to get ahead of them again but the road and the birds quickly parted company and I lost them.  Still, great bird, and species number 302 for Suffolk County.

A typical birding scene in Suffolk County.  1,800 Canada Geese and a white goose
(through a 400mm lens),  through a scope this white goose turned out to be a Ross's
Goose (the second shot is heavily cropped but you can get the ID at least).

So onwards, and I decided to follow up on a Nelson's Sparrow report down at Cupsogue so drove down there and spent a few happy hours spishing and stomping the marshes.  No ammodramus sparrows on any type that day, but that might not be surprising given the howling winds.  So back to the goose fields for one more try and I started to slow and painful slog of 'detailing' goose flocks, working East from Calverton.  There is a lot of goose-hunting on Long Island so the geese are skittish and move around a lot which can make finding a specific bird a bit of a challenge, but still I figured I'd bump into it eventually and if not I planned to go back to the roost site.  Throughout the day I'd kept in touch with the City birders by text so I was thrilled when an hour later Corey Finger reached out to say that he, Doug Gochfeld and Shane Blodgett had re-found the Ross's Goose over on Doctor's Path in Riverhead.  Within minutes I was over there and looking at distant, but very satisfying views of species number 303 for Suffolk County, ROSS'S GOOSE.

Kumlien's Gull near Montauk Inlet.
Saturday was quiet, although I did see two Barrow's Goldeneye and a Kumlien's Gull in Montauk.    Montauk has been quite quiet bird-wise this Winter, and the normally massive scoter and eider flocks don't seem to be here this winter (did Hurricane Sandy scrape the sea-floor clear of mussel-beds?).  Good birds did show up elsewhere on the island, including another Ross's Goose found by Derek 'Goose-man' Rogers, but I had to stay local that day.  Still with two Western wanderers, both life birds for Suffolk County on Friday, I'm not complaining about the weekend.

The surviving Trumpeter Swan at Yaphank.
The last interesting bird of the weekend also had a bit of a Western flavor in that these days it's a bird more readily associated with Yellowstone than with Long Island.  Trumpeter Swans were once common here though and a lot of work has gone into what has become a successful restoration effort for this species which had been missing from the East for some time.  On Long Island they are still a rarity but we have had a pair winter in each of the last three years in Yaphank.  I've seen them a few times and I have to admit that I have a soft spot for this species, especially when they are beating up on the local Mute Swans.  In fact, when you see these impressive birds one wonders how we ever lost them in the first place .... I mean, what kind of person would shoot a Trumpeter Swan?  Unfortunately we recently learned that this type of 'person' is still very much alive and well on the island when one of the Yaphank swans was found with shotgun injuries and a broken wing.  The bird subsequently died in the care of a rehabber so today I felt I should stop by and visit the remaining, and last Trumpeter Swan on Long Island.  A very sad story.