Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Catching up on Warblers just North of New York City ...

A quick circuit of state parks and other hotspots North of New York City.

So I thought I might go to Cape May today to look for kites (they had Swallow-tailed and Mississippi Kites yesterday) but when the alarm went off at 4am, by brain was willing but my body said "No", there was just no way I was up for that kind of drive today.  Just too tired I guess, so I turned off the alarm, got up at 6am and instead headed North to some of the State parks North of New York City in search of some of the warblers that I'd missed this year in Central Park.

First stop was Doodletown Road, a nice trail in Bear Mountain State Park about an hour North of the City.  This park is famous for it's CERULEAN WARBLERS, a bird I'd missed in the Park this year and was obviously popular with New York birders this week as I saw many old friends.  The trail was very birdy with 15+ species of warblers including a lot of migrant Tennessee Warblers, an Olive-sided Flycatcher, and a nice selection of local birds.  My focus was very much in the two specialty warblers there though and I soon had a nice look at a male Cerulean, and then a brief look at a female at a nest.  I also got to hear, but not see, a KENTUCKY WARBLER (thanks to Jeff Ritter).  When I bumped into Rich Cech later he said that you basically come here for those two species, and they cooperated remarkably well.  A very cool spot ... two target species ... done.

Cerulean Warbler nest .... saw the female building it when I first saw it, but
she didn't come back for a photo.
Black Racer ... a very cool snake seen warming up on the trail.

After Doodletown I headed over the Sterling Forest SP with a plan to see a GOLDEN-WINGED WARBLER.  As I pulled in to the site I bumped into a gaggle of New York City birder (Richard Friend, Peter Post, Anders Peltomaa, Brian Paden, etc.) who quickly gave me good directions to the warbler sites.  A half hour later, after some advice from some photographers, I did find a Golden-winged Warbler which was singing and vigorously defending it's territory from a Blue-winged Warbler.  The sad thing about this site it that it's very much on the front-line of the war between Blue-winged and Golden-winged Warblers and sadly the Blue-winged Warblers are winning.  Over the years I've been in New York the number of Golden-winged locations has slowly declined each year as each site has winked-out one-by-one with the Blue-winged Warblers slowly absorbing their sister species and pushing them further North.  We're not sure how much longer we'll have Golden-winged Warblers here and this is basically the last place 'downstate' that you can see them reliably.  But they're still around this year so I made the most of the views .... really neat bird ....

Golden-winged Warblers (3 shots)

Blue-winged Warblers (the villain of the piece) ....
Having got the three warblers I came for, and still having time to kill, I decided to joint Richard Fried and co. and head up to Blue Chips Farm (a 600-acre horse farm) to hopefully add an UPLAND SANDPIPER for the year list.  Richard and I got brief views of a distant sandpiper, one of my favorite North American birds, but couldn't get the others on it before it vanished behind a fold in the field.  So on to the Shawangunk Grasslands, a former airport that has been restored as grassland habitat and had a great selection of grassland birds (declining in the East).  We had Eastern Meadowlarks, Eastern Kingbirds, Eastern Bluebirds, American Kestrel and lots of displaying Bobolinks.  We also had two singing GRASSHOPPER SPARROWS - a bit of a surprise as we didn't realize they were there but apparently they've come back with the habitat restoration and numbers are increasing.  This site was also one of the last 'downstate' sites where Henslow's Sparrow used to breed (another species declining sharply in the East) so let's hope they make it back there too.  A very neat spot, and nice to see a grassland habitat on the rebound.  I definitely should come North more often; even though I was only an hour-and-a-half North of the City, it really did feel like a day in the country.

Postscript:  the next week several birders bumped into (Eastern) Timber Rattlesnakes at this site - my most wanted Eastern herp.  Should have stayed longer, and looked harder I guess.  I really need to be more patient ....

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A Day off in Newfoundland.

Unexpected day off to actually bird in Newfoundland.

So after the easy hits (and epic birding day) on Monday.  I found myself with a totally free day on Tuesday and planned to simply, well just go birding.  I'd asked Jared Clarke for some suggestions and he kindly gave me some locations so I got up early, hit a Tim Hortons, and headed out for my favorite sort of day ... no plans, limited cell-phone reception, unfamiliar place ... and birds .....

First stop was Cape Spear, which as cold and birdless, so I soon retreated to the boreal forests around the settlement at Blackhead (I presume this was named after a geographic feature, not a skin problem) and spent a happy couple of hours slowly working thought 'boreal' (black spruce) forest.  I wanted Pine Grosebeaks and Boreal Chickadees and got both relatively easily, along with a supporting coast of Pine Siskins, both Kinglets, Fox and White-throated Sparrows, and Yellow-rumped Warblers.  The dawn chorus was also supplemented by 'drumming' Ruffed Grouse and 'winnowing' Wilson's Snipe ... a very happy couple of hours for a 'lowland' birder.

Pine Grosbeak and Boreal Chickadee ... rare treats for a largely coastal birder. 

Then back along scenic coasts to the Goulds area where I'd really hoped to get photos of yesterday's Black-tailed Godwit.  No luck with that, although I spent a fair amount of time looking and did luck-out with great views of a River Otter that swam around in the marsh, came up on to the bank (do otters do anything that doesn't look like they're playing) and was so preposterously photogenic I completely forgot to pick up me camera.  Sometimes you just have to look and not worry about the optics, it was a special moment.

Next was Bidgood Park (on Jared's suggestion) where I planned to kill a few hours in what seemed like a pleasant, but not necessarily birdy, local park.  While I was getting out out the car though, and before I was set up, I heard a crane bugling.  "Nice" I thought, "didn't realize they had Sandhill Cranes here".  The bird called a few more times and I looked up, got brief binocular views and got back to business, getting set up to to birding.  It was only after a few steps that I thought to check the range map .... Sandhill Crane it tuns out was rare and accidental in Newfoundland.  With all these East winds and Eurasian vagrants, did I overlook a Common Crane?  Did I see a black neck?  No ... surely I would have noticed that, right?  Yes, it wasn't that high ... I would have noticed.  So Sandhill it was, but it turns out that even that was a rare bird (Alvan Buckley still needs it for Newfoundland) so a good find nevertheless.

The other rare bird I found at Bidgood Park was a bit of an oddity, but in a similar vein.  At the far end of the marsh I heard and saw an Eastern Phoebe.  Again after the fact I sort of had a vague recollection of the locals talking about a vagrant phoebe somewhere and I took photos just in case this was a different bird (they are very rare here apparently).  As none of the locals have since commented on this bird, I'm guessing it was the one that they'd already found.  Rarity is a function of geography it turns out ....

Eastern Phoebe ... garden bird in New York, rare in Newfoundland ...
Next stop was back to look for the European Golden-Plovers in the hope of getting better photos.  The birds were not on the field when I pulled up but just as I was leaving I saw a flock flying by and was able to get a few more shots (not all that much better) and an accurate count ... 58 (Jared's ~60 was pretty good it turns out).

European Golden-Plovers (two more shots)

After that, and chilled to the bone, I sort of gave up for the day, ran back to St. John's and checked the  ponds for ducks, adding 4 TUFTED DUCKS at Kent's Pond and intending to go back to the hotel.  I thought I was done for the day, but the time in the car had warmed me up and, as it was still early, I though better of it and returned to Goulds for another crack at the godwit.  No godwit, but while I was there I met some local birders who (were jealous of my crane but) gave me directions to another Northern Wheatear.  By this time I was getting really cold and chilled but decided I'd like to end on a high note so headed over to Ruby Line Pond (farm?) to the "shit pile" to try to add one more good bird before I gave in.  Sure enough, when I got there, there was a male Northern Wheatear on top of said pile, and I was happy to end my weekend on a high note with a good bird.

Northern Wheatear on a 'shit pile' ... the local term, not mine ...
In the end I had 70 species for the trip, 3 ABA birds and numerous year-birds.  It was a really great adventure and I'm sure I'll be back.  Keep finding those European vagrants and I'll book a flight.  Great trip ...

Chasing "Euro-Trash" Shorebirds in Newfoundland.

A quick trip for some ABA birds in Newfoundland, Canada ....

So OK, I'll admit it.  I have a crappy ABA list.  Most of my friends have at least 700+ but I'm languishing somewhere in the 640s and have never really focused on it.  I guess for two reasons, i) because when I first moved to the US in 1991 the idea of chasing vagrants from Europe in the NorthEast just wasn't all that appealing and, ii) once the World-listing bug kicked in I just couldn't see the thrill of trolling the Southern borders of the US for birds I'd already seen in Mexico, or sitting in the rain in Alaska hoping for a bird that I'd either just seen in Thailand, or which breeds in my parents' garden in Wales.  Time I guess gives your perspective though, and now that I'm safely past my World-listing phase (and now that I've been here a while and see European birds less regularly), my ABA list is starting to get more interesting.

I also blame eBird for this change of heart.  Every day I get an email detailing ABA rarities, and while I'm usually able to ignore it, sometimes birds just stick in my mind.  So after weeks of seeing reports of LaSagra's Flycatcher in Florida I went to see it.  Then I just had to see a Sinaloa Wren in Arizona.  Neither were Life Birds, but both somehow stuck in my mind and just had to be seen (I'm not even going to try to explain the psychology).  More recently, the alert was filled with news of an incredible invasion of Eurasian shorebirds in Newfoundland and, after watching it for weeks, I gave in to the urge, booked tickets, and headed up to St. John's on Sunday.

Before leaving I'd made contact with local birding experts Jared Clarke and Alvan Buckley who assured me that the birds were still there (but that they could leave any day).  I'd arranged to bird with Jared on Monday so counted down the days, checking the eBird reports to make sure the goodies were sticking, until I finally I landed in St. John's in an Ice Storm on Sunday night (quite a change from watching warblers in shorts in New York that morning), scraped the ice of my rental car windshield, and drove through driving hail and freezing rain to the Marriott in St. John's Harbor.  Next morning, after clearing a thin layer of snow (!) off the car (and wondering exactly what possessed me to do this), I pulled up to Jared's driveway at 7:15am, and headed off to look for a troika of rare Eurasian shorebirds, all of which would be new for my ABA list.

First stop was Cochrane Pond Road in Goulds, just South of St. John's.  We pulled up to a field that was full of oddly shaped brown lumps ... cow pies?  No, they were EUROPEAN GOLDEN PLOVERS, lots of them.  We guessed that there were about 60 of them hunkered down in the field, but later we got some decent looks and got some (distant but diagnostic) photos.  First ABA birds of the trip, and it took seconds after getting bins out of the bag .... this was looking promising.

'Cow-pies' turned out to be 60-ish European Golden Plovers hunkered down in a field
(with a diagnostic ID shot down below).  A bird that is annual in Newfoundland but
which arrived in unprecedented numbers this Spring.

So that was easy!  And so, after trying to get closer via a couple of different roads (and failing), we decided to head off to look for the next target - after all, these birds could leave at any minute, the pressure was on.

Next stop was Third Pond in Goulds, where we walked across a race track (horses) to overlook a nice marsh and lake.  The target here was BLACK-TAILED GODWIT and there had been up to three of them the week before.  At least one of the godwits was supposed to be lingering and we learned that it had been seen that morning although the bird was apparently distant and being seen on the other side of the lake.  Setting up scopes, we scanned and .... no godwit.  So we just hunkered down in the cold and kept scanning the area where the bird had been seen earlier that day (left of the plastic bucket apparently).  After ten minutes, Jared, who'd borrowed my scope, got the bird and pulled me over to the eye-piece.  It was a good job he did because the bird, which was frequenting a small muddy area of field that was largely obscured from us, wandered out for a minute or so then turned around and drifted back out of sight.  No photos, but decent views, and a very spiffy breeding-plumage Black-tailed Godwit joined the list ... ABA bird number two.

OK, so two quick ABA birds and time to drive South for the star bird, North America's third record of COMMON REDSHANK (although the records each involved multiple birds) which had been hanging out at Renews, about an hour South of where we were, for the past week or so.  So back in the car and off we went, luck definitely seemed to be on our side.

An hour later, we pulled up to the 'Redshank spot' where another local guide (Dave Brown?) and his client had scopes set up by the side of the road.  We jumped out expecting the redshank, but it turns out that it wasn't there and they were just watching the worlds tamest Northern Wheatear (not exactly a bad bird though).

The world's tamest Northern Wheatear (2 shots)

Nice bird, but not what we were there for, so while I photographed the wheatear, Jared wandered along the beach and within minutes, a shout and excited waving alerted us to the fact that he had 'the bird'.  The Common Redshank turned out to be equally confiding and allowed decent photos.  This is a bird that breeds near my parents' house in Wales and one which I saw daily growing up, but here in North America it did in fact seem very special.  ABA bird number 3.  Mission accomplished ....

Common Redshank - ABA 'Code 5' and a very special bird in North America.

So by 10:45am, we had all three target birds and Dave's client was on the phone changing his flights and canceling his hotels so he could go home early (he apparently had no intention of actually birding on this trip - he was shown his ABA birds and was done).  I had a day and a half left before my scheduled return flight however, and I really wanted to go birding.  Newfoundland was spectacular and I really wanted to get to know it better, see some more birds, and maybe even find a few more things (the locals were convinced that there was a European Oystercatcher out there somewhere).

We don't get a lot of icebergs in New York ... as I said, Newfoundland was different
and spectacularly scenic.
So with an afternoon 'at leisure' we decided to bird Cape Race, dragging Dave's reluctant client along with us.  We saw some really cool things - 3 Snowy Owls, Glaucous and Iceland Gulls, Black Guillimots, Razorbills and Common Murres, two Pomarine Jaegers, another Northern Wheatear, and even a dead Sperm Whale.  A really nice afternoon of birding in spectacular scenery.

One of three Snowy Owls at Cape Race ... the last of the biggest invasion in
living memory.
On the way back to St. John's we even added some Gray Jays, a few Merlins, and (even though we were too early for Atlantic Puffins and Nothern Fulmars), enjoyed some great birding in some spectacular spots.

Afternoon birding highlights (for me anyway) included Gray Jays and Ruffed

By the time I dropped Jared off at his home and wound my way back to the hotel I was exhausted (and realized that I hadn't eaten anything all day) but I'd had a great day of birding, 3 ABA birds, multiple year birds, and a really good time.  Local lobster for dinner, a few cocktails, and an early night.  Great day ...

Postscript:  the Black-tailed Godwit was not seen again after Monday (I looked twice on Tuesday but didn't see it).  The Common Redshank also apparently departed either on Tuesday or Wednesday as an extensive search by Alvan Buckley and Neil Hayward (of record ABA Big-year fame) also came up blank despite many hours of searching on Wednesday.  Seems I got there just in the nick of time ....

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Central Park .... Real Spring At Last.

A great weekend of birding in Central Park, including 20 species of Warbler.

So I changed my plans this weekend.  The original plan was to drive North to Vermont for the Garganey (an ABA bird) on Saturday but a change of weather on Friday allowed the duck to move on and also produced a real influx of migrants locally.  So instead of driving hundred of miles I decided to stay close to home an just bird in Central Park.

The Park in May is, truth be told, a bit of a circus.  Birders can sometimes outnumber birds and the already large cadre of New York City birders are supplemented by visitors, bird walks, and a huge number of birders who really only come out to look for warblers in the Spring.  There's a lot of bad ID's, a lot of chatting and socializing, and huge crowds form when a good bird is seen.  It's not for the faint of heart - Isaac Grant says it's like birding at the zoo - but if you can deal with the birders, there are also lots of good birds.

Friday was promising, lots of new migrants arrived, and after last year's 'nonslaught' where weather stalled migration for weeks it was obvious that the weekend would be very birdy.  So I spent two long (7 hour) mornings in the Park and saw a total of 79 species in the small (less than a square mile) wooded area called The Ramble where most birders tend to congregate, and most birds tend to be seen.  Birded with various people including Christian Copper (famous for swearing at a Blackburnian Warbler in the the movie Birders, the Central Park Effect), Morgan Tingley and Ryan Walker.  A pretty good weekend.  Here are some of the highlights in photos:

Scarlet Tanger - lots of these around, plus a single Summer Tanager.
Northern Waterthush - maybe a dozen or more of these in damp spots around the Park.
Prairie Warbler
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting (above) and the crowd looking at the Indigo Bunting (below).
Yep, that whole crowd was just for an Indigo Bunting - pretty trumps rare in
Central Park in the Spring.

In all I think 25 species of warbler were seen in the Park this weekend (I only saw 20).  Spent most of Sunday looking for a Kentucky Warbler (other parks in NYC got them this weekend but we didn't) but in the end had to settle for Hooded and Worm-eating Warblers, although Black-billed Cuckoo, Lincoln's Sparrow, and Yellow-throated Vireo were also worth an honorable mention.

Hooded Warbler - male (above) and female (below)

Blue-winged Warbler
Worm-eating Warbler - one of three I saw this weekend (2 shots).

The birders were also entertaining.  I saw plenty of mis-IDs including Prothonatory Warbler (Yellow Warbler - although there was a real one I missed), Connecticut Warbler (Nashville Warbler), and Philadelphia Vireo (Warbling Vireo).  I also saw raised voices over the use of tape and flash photography.  As I said, the Park in Spring is quite a scene, but in the end the birds were good and (almost) everyone was happy to just soak them up for a few days.  Let's hope it stays this good for the next few weeks ....

Update:  of course, once I left the Park someone did in fact find a Kentucky Warbler, subsequently seen by many other birders.  Have to learn to be more patient I guess ....