Sunday, December 6, 2015

Painted Bunting in Brooklyn

A celebrity bird in New York City ...

So this week's excitement was a small, multi-colored bird in Prospect Park, which despite not being all that rare, seemed to light up social media and draw lots of TV camera crews to the park.

The bird was found mid-week and quickly became a media sensation.  Every news station in New York sent camera crews and published the usual stories about birders 'flocking' and 'twittering' and 'chirping' about a bird variously described as "rare as a unicorn" and "once in a lifetime".  The reality is of course a little different, it really isn't all that rare (30+ New York State records), and even a number of males over the past few years.  But, it was a very accommodating bird, and lots of people got to see it, so I guess people could be given for getting so excited about this one.

Some media coverage here:

New York Times
Doug Gotchfeld's quote at the New York Post
CBS News

And so on ....

I thought I wouldn't stoop to go and see this bird but on Saturday morning Nathan RemGold told me he was driving down from Cornell for the bird and I suggested he pick me up.  The bird was easy to get, you just had to find the scrum of birders
trying to see it.   It also gave great views, being almost completely oblivious to it's adoring audience and coming very close to the wall of bins and lenses.

While we were there, we adopted a reporter from Channel 12 News and helped her get some footage of the bird, and also edited her script for her report that day.  Lots of birders were being interviewed and getting some important messages across - the importance on native plantings in City parts, etc.  At least this will hopefully get more people into urban birding.

Painted Bunting - photo by Nathan RemGold (used with permission)
Went back on December 28th and took my camera this time.  Got some better shots of the Painted Bunting plus a bonus Black-headed Gull and Orange-crowned Warbler.  Not a bad haul for an hour in the park.

Painted Bunting - Prospect Park, Kings County, NY (December 2015) 2 shots

Black-headed Gull (plus Canada Goose) - Prospect Park, Kings County, NY (December 2015)

Saturday, December 5, 2015

'Western' Flycatcher in Central Park, New York

So mid-week a birder posted a sighting of a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher in Central Park.  Birders who saw the post raised an eyebrow.  While not an impossibly late date, an empidomax this late in November should perhaps more logically be a Western vagrant than a late Eastern migrant, so multiple birders went out and searched for the bird the next day but unfortunately didn't re-find it.

Red-headed Woodpecker
Fast forward to Friday, and the bird was finally re-found and re-identified as a 'Western' Flycatcher.  At least one photo was taken and the eye-ring and wing details pretty much clinched it as a 'Western'. So the word got out and the hunt was on.  This was a super-rare bird for New York State and the crowds were sure to gather on Saturday.

'Western' Flycatcher used to be a species but in 1989 it got split into Pacific-Slope Flycatcher and Cordilleran Flycatcher.  The two species are notoriously difficult to split based on plumage and it's a brave birder who splits them away from breeding territories.  Generally the IDs rely on song - Cordilleran is slightly more 'buzzy' but Winter birds rarely call, let alone sing, so this was going to be an ID challenge.

On Saturday morning I was out in East Hampton meeting with contractors, and buying a new wine fridge (well you can't store your Bollinger in any old wine fridge and I settled on the Viking model).  I was itching for news though and sure enough Adrian Burke posted that he'd re-found the bird mid-morning,  By 10:30am I was on the road, and after struggling to find a place to park on the upper east side, got to the Ramble area of Central Park by about 1pm.

As I walked into the Park I bumped into Tom Burke and Gail Benson who told me that the bird had been seen well all morning but had vanished about a half hour ago (!) this does seem to be a pattern when I twitch things.  Undaunted, I headed to the site and spent two hours looking for it, drawing a blank but at least getting some intel (including speaking with Isaac Grant who had heard the bird sing and was settling on a Pacific-Slope ID).  When my parking meter was up though I had to move on (2 hours in New York FYI) so I went to the NYC apartment and settled in to do some work.  Moments later I got the text that the bird was being seen again (oh, come on!) but it was too late to go back so I made plans to try again on Sunday.

While I couldn't see the bird, I could study about it, and I learned a lot.  It turns out that calls in the field aren't really all that useful other than a few distinct contact notes (and you really need some serious technology to be sure about that).  Plumage differences are also not helpful.  In addition, recent analysis has found a fairly significant overlap zone with lots of hybridization - the California birds may well be Pacific Slope, the Colorado birds may well be Cordilleran, but to the North, many birds are integrades.  To cut to the chase, this probably isn't a good split and it probably isn't going to stay split for ever.  But in the meantime, to get it on the state list required an ID.

Sunday morning I went in early to the Park and started a search pattern, visiting all the spots where the bird had been seen the day before.  I was there by 7:30am but by 8:30am I was still drawing a blank.  I met up with Brent Bomkamp and we continued to check the previous locations while catching up on past years of Long Island birding and seeing a Red-headed Woodpecker (scarce in New York).  We were still chatting when Brent looked up and shouted, "There .. that's it" and a small yellow bird flitted over our heads and vanished behind one of the (curiously covered) fences that have been set up as part of a Ramble rehab program.  The flycatcher stuck around and even though we were initially peering through a fence we could get all the details we need to make sure we had the right bird.  Deb Allen quickly joined us, and both Brent and I took a quick break to post on the New York State Listserve (Brent) and the Central Park text alert (Me).  But when we looked up, the bird was still there, on our side of the fence and Deb was able to get some good photos.

Two shots by Nathan Remold (used with permission)

Once we got the word out, lots of birders came over and saw the bird.  It didn't look all that healthy to be honest but it was actively feeding.  So we all got good views, and the crew of Cornell birders that came down got good audio recording and even took some 'poop' away to do a genetic analysis.  I saw the bird defecate once but unfortunately on the wrong side of a fence.  Later that day, an enterprising Cornell birder jumped a fence and managed to scoop up an oak leaf with some feces on it and spirited it away to Cornell. The analysis is apparently scheduled for next week (a DNA kit has been ordered).

In the meantime, the sonograms strongly suggest Pacific-Slope Flycatcher contact note, but I guess we'll see what the science comes up with.  Doubt the bird will be accepted by the NYS Avian Records Committee but its fascinating to see the process unfold and see the experts try to to pin down this ID.  Hoping that the young guns at Cornell work this out.

Best portrait I've seen of the 'Western' Flycatcher - by Deb Allen (used with permission)

My hunch on this bird is Pacific Slope - based on what I heard.  But I guess we'll have to wait on the analysis to see what happens.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Big Dipper

Two big misses in New York State

One of the truisms of birding is that the more you look the more you see, and conversely, if you don't go birding you don't see very much.  Recently my schedule has kept me tied to the City with occasional trips to East Hampton and, not-surprisingly, I've ended up missing some good birds as a result.

On May 16th Shai Mitra and Pat Lindsay found a BAR-TAILED GODWIT at Jamaica Bay (and not the bird previously reported from New Jersey).  They stumbled into the bird right next to the main trail on the West Pond and got the word out quickly allowing a handful of first responders to get distant looks at the bird before it flew off a short-time later (other birders were still en route and missed it).  I had birded the morning in Central Park and then headed to the office, getting word of the bird's arrival and departure simultaneously when I checked my email in the afternoon.  It would have been an ABA bird for me so I spent 7 hours there the next day, birding the rising tide in the hope of a repeat performance, but lightening did not strike twice.

The next week, during the week, a LITTLE EGRET was found at Gardiner County Park in Suffolk County.  Another potential ABA bird but this time I knew I had no chance of chasing it until Sunday - a combination of work and house guests meant that I couldn't possibly get away until that day so nothing to do except hope that the bird stuck around.  The signs were good when the egret remained loyal to the same site a second day but, perhaps inevitably, it didn't stick around for the weekend (as least as far as we know).

My consolation that weekend was some nice local birding, enjoying breeding birds and some late migrants near my house in NorthWest Harbor.  I did see breeding Least Terns and Piping Plovers with young, the full-suite of 30-or-so species that breed in and around the yard, and two new birds for my yard list, a WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW and a surprise BROAD-WINGED HAWK.  Very pleasant local stuff and for the record I did, as always, check each of the 5 Snowy Egrets at the local marsh very carefully ....

White-crowned Sparrow - new for the yard list and
Scarlet Tanager - two males singing close to the yard this year 

Convinced that my bad luck had settled in, I really debated whether I should chase the next good bird that came along.  When Deborah Allen found a FRANKLIN'S GULL at Plum Beach in Brooklyn this week I wondered if I'd even try to go and see it, especially after my 5 failed attempts at the Mew Gull in Brooklyn this Winter.  The signs looked better for this one though as the Franklin's Gull seemed to have paired with a Laughing Gull and was being seen regularly during the week.  Plus I'd seen the species before in New York State - a good bird but not one I desperately needed so I figured my chances might be better.

As it turned out, this twitch was easy.  I walked up to the site, saw a group of birders with scopes, walked over and was soon on the bird.  It was a bit distant for good photos but I was able to grab a few record shots and had a nice chance to study Laughing and Franklin's Gulls side by side.  All very pleasant, and even though it took me over an hour to drive the 5 miles back to the City (gotta love New York in Summer), it was a nice trip and hopefully a sign that my luck is turning.

My photos were distant and not really very good but for some better photos check out Andrew Baksh's blog post here.

There be sharks!

If you don't know Ocean Search then you should really check it out.

So the movie Jaws introduced us to the idea that Great White Sharks live on the US East Coast but the fishermen and other nature folks have now this for generations.  Unfortunately the history of sharks on the East Coast is more than a little bit one sided ... we killed them ... and continue to kill them ... in large numbers.  Montauk in particular was, and is, a center of shark slaughter ... sickening photos of sad little men standing next to dead sharks are still on display every week, even today.  But there is a bit of a bright spot ... the folks at Oceansearch have been tagging and tracking sharks on the East Coast and have started the long, slow, process of changing their image from Man-Killers to the amazing complex creatures that they are.

Recently the New York Post (our local Rupert Murdoch owned tabloid) ran a story about about the shark above ... transformed of course into a 'man-eater' headed to New York (Everybody panic!  Think of the children!).  The reality of course is that Great Whites are part of New York's ecosystem and have always been just off-shore (conspicuously not eating surfers and bathers for hundreds of years as it turns out).  Maybe if we get to know them a little better we can start turning the PR around.  Check out the Oceansearch Website ... we really need to help these incredible creatures with their image and build the number of people demanding better protection for shark species.

Mary Lee (she shark above) moves along the coast from Florida to Massachusetts
I also saw a great story today featuring a Tiger Shark ... a BIG Tiger Shark.  I sort-of conceptually know that they are 'out there' off the East Coast but have never seen one.

This was a pretty big Tiger Shark captured and (mercifully) tagged off the Carolinas recently (See story here).  No doubt we'll see this tagged shark cruise the beaches of the East Coast over the coming months and again, not eating our children.

The website also has links to tagged Mako and Blue Sharks.  Makos in particular being over-fished by "sport" fishermen (why does killing a shark seem to be a substitute for manhood for some sad people?).

So check it out.  The more people are aware, the better the chances of conserving out apex marine predators.  Sharks in general could use a lot of PR help and this may be a start.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

New York Spring

Random birds for Spring Migration ....

It's been a 'bitty' Spring with little time off but a few good days here and there.  Slowly filling out the year list though and adding a few decent species here and there.

Saturday, May 3rd
Had a choice to make today - chase a (lifer) SMITH'S LONGSPUR in Connecticut or an ABA bird BAR-TAILED GODWIT in New Jersey.  I chose wrong.  Spent a pleasant few hours watching robins and song sparrows on a soccer field in Connecticut, but the Longspur was long gone.  Running errands on Long Island later, I was at least able to add a couple of Blue Grosbeaks - small consolation but a good bird nevertheless.
Blue Grosbeak - Robert Moses SP, Suffolk County, NY
Sunday, May 10th
So after a birdless day in Central Park on Saturday I decided to go North and chase the warblers on their breeding grounds .... and I was very glad I did.  Ended the day in Putnam, Orange, and Rockland Counties with 21 species of warblers including Golden-winged, Tennessee, Hooded, Cerulean and Kentucky Warblers.  Hit Doodletown Road, Sterling Forest State Park and a side trip to Blue Chips Farm where I dipped Upland Sandpiper.  In addition to the warblers I got a WOOD TURTLE a Box Turtle and some lizards.   Very nice day out in the country.

Bear Mountain State Park
Worm-eating Warbler (above) and Hooded Warbler (below)
Doodletown Road is the most amazing place and I had a bizarrely interesting birding experience birding it today.  As I started up the trail I ended up in synch with a Mennonite (?) family (my best guess based on the attire the women were wearing).  One of the three teenagers in the group had serious birding skills and great ears and eyes.  He was calling birds (correctly) left right and center - and where I could add or correct him, it was based on experience rather than skills.  Clearly not someone connected to the birding community, but this kid had promise. Hope he gets to develop his talents.

Once again though I managed to miss the best non birds seen that day.  Others saw a TIMBER RATTLESNAKE (this is a great spot of them but I never see them) and a BLACK BEAR.  One day I'll see the rattlesnakes - they are apparently always there but my timing always seems to be off.  Will just have to keep going until I see one I guess.

Tuesday, May 12th
Did a Long Island run with Nathan Remold, a visiting Cornell/Chicago birder.

Black-billed Cuckoo - Jamaica Bay
Started at Jamaica Bay where we got an incredible 84 species - lots of coastal birds and lots of migrants, including Orchard Oriole, both Cuckoos, Lincoln's Sparrow, etc.  We also got some good costal birds and nice mix of Spring shorebirds.

Later stops included Dune Road in Quogue where we got Nathan's LIFER Seaside and Saltmarsh Sparrows.  Took me a few stops, but I was eventually able to deliver the local amadromus .....
Solitary Sandpiper - Jamaica Bay

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Crested Caracara in Orange County, New York

Another State bird chase, and not a dip (for once)

After 6 days 'dipping' the Mew Gull in Brooklyn I was pretty much over the State listing thing.  I'd had a good run over the Winter, adding Common Ground Dove, Cassin's and Couch's Kingbirds and Thick-billed Murre.  Then I'd hit the wall with the Mew Gull and repeatedly failed to see it despite lots of effort and lots of hours.  Maybe State listing wasn't something for me?

Last Thursday though a CRESTED CARACARA was found in Orange County, and I watched with interest to see if it would stick.  Caracaras in the NorthEast have been an interesting phenomenon recently.  I chased and saw a bird in New Jersey in 2012 and since then, individual Caracaras have shown up in various spots across the NorthEastern states, never staying long in one place, with the suspicion being that only one (or two) nomadic birds were involved, wandering around from place to place but never really hanging out long enough for birders to chase them.  Within the last six months there were even two New York State records, both good, but both brief views - a sight record from upstate and a bird photographed by a non-birder in a yard on Long Island (!).  Neither bird stayed around for others to see, but we all suspected that there was at least one bird 'in the area' and so when this bird showed up, many were curious to see if it would hang around long enough for people to chase it.

As it turned out, this was the lucky break, the good bird if you like.  This particular Caracara seemed to have found a couple of good carcasses (a deer and a possum - nothing beats a good stinky possum carcass if you're a caracara) and was still in the same area on Saturday (when unfortunately I couldn't go).  On Sunday when I woke up, I checked the list-serves and it turned out that the bird was still on site ( a tribute to the quality of this particular partly-decomposed possum I suppose),  so I decided to go, jumped in the car, and headed North.

When I arrived at the site (a golf course in Orange County) the bird was perched back in the woods giving good scope views but no photographic opportunities.

Thirty minutes later, the bird too off, circled the area and came to check out the Possum carcass that it had previously been feeding on.  It didn't land - perhaps there were too many birders there - but it did give good flight views.

Having had great views, I spent some time socializing with the assembled birders.  The Caracara came out a few more times before finding a thermal, gaining a lot of altitude (think speck), and heading off to the North.  It looked to me as though the bird had left, but apparently it came back later in the day, so it must have just been either chasing Turkey Vultures (looking of new carcass - that's what they do apparently) or heading to other feeding spot it already knew.  Whatever it was doing though, it came back to the original site (and possum carcass) and has been there for several days since.  A very accommodating bird allowing pretty much every serious New York State birder to add this species to their sate list.

So overall a great experience - New York State bird #382 - plus a pleasant Spring day outdoors.  Maybe this State Listing thing isn't so bad after all.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Suckers and Fish Listing

Some interesting blog posts and a shout out for a conservation issue ....

Going a little off the bird topic and on to my other favorite group of vertebrates, fish.  I am a fisherman, mostly a fly-fisherman, although I grew up in the UK fishing all three disciplines.  We went GAME FISHING for Salmon and Trout with fly-rods (and sometimes spin tackle), sat for endless hours COURSE FISHING for carp and pike, and spent many cold Winter days SEA FISHING either by surf-casting or by fishing from piers.  Fishing was very much a core of my childhood outdoor life and, while it was ultimately surpassed by birding in terms of time and attention, I still occasionally pick up a fly-rod and have cast them into waters as far flung as Alaska, Quebec, Argentina and Japan over the years.  I am also completely fascinated by the diversity of fish, which in may ways is the same fascination I have for the diversity of birds.  Fish are just harder to go and watch.

Smallmouth Buffalo - Photo by Ben Cantrell - the image that started me off
on a fish theme this morning.
Laying in bed this morning and skimming Facebook I came across a great article by Matt Miller on Suckers over at The Nature Conservancy Blog.  A cruelly misunderstood and unfairly maligned group on native fish, that I've seen but never caught, led me to an interesting couple of hours of immersion in a whole other sphere on natural history.   I figured I'd share some of what I learned, and also give a shout out to some of the folks doing great conservation work in this area (on the theory that any publicity for a good cause helps)

Ben Cantrell - a leader in the Rough Fishing movement
Suckers it would seem are a very oppressed group on native fish, often killed on site by anglers who wrongfully think that they are invasive, and damaging to fisheries.  In a world where trout and bass rule US fishing (and dominate what has become a very commercial sport), these natives are unfairly seen as 'competition' for the 'more desirable species' and persecuted to the point that species are struggling to survive.

This article led me to a whole other world of folks who actively fish for these species, a world called Rough Fishing (cousin of the UK's Course Fishing?) and to some fascinating stories from that sub-culture.

One of the best blogs I found was Ben Cantrell's Fish Species Blog which details adventures with fish that aren't all Bass and Trout.  One of the best articles, and a revelation to me, was a post on "Microfishing" where folks go out and pursue species usually considered too small to have any sporting interest.  The name of the game isn't a macho battle against a giant fish but rather a celebration of the diversity of fish species.  Now they really had my attention, as for years I'd keep a list of species of fish I'd caught with a fly-rod but had always been too self conscious to go deliberately target tiny fish just to add to my list.  But other people do!

Redband Darter: Photo by Ben Cantrell (hoping he doesn't mind the shout out)
These Rough Fishermen, are having fun, actively engaged in conservation, raising awareness, and keeping lists.  It's really like birding with rod and line and of course, where there are lists, there are people who take it to the next level and get seriously competitive.  Just like in birding someone is going to take that competition to the extreme, which in this case is a guy called Steve Wozniak who writes a blog called 1000Fish detailing his attempt to catch 1,000 species f fish on rod-and line.

Steve Wozniak (and friend) with a Silver Buffalo
(Spoiler Alert: it took him 10+ years and 60+ countries but he did catch 1,000 species, and is now over 1,200 - the Tom Gullick of the fishing world).

After reading about his exploits for hours I was itching to go and catch fish and to re-start my fishing life list (would eBird include fish do you think?).  I also had an urge to share - fish conservation is unglamorous and all the money and attention gets sucked up by the 'sport' fish leaving a lot of great native species struggling for attention.  Read some of the blogs.  There are good people doing important work out there.

Late March Cabin Fever

Just itching for Spring .... and recovering from Gull-issues

I keep meaning to do a blog post, truly I do, it's just that I haven't really had much to blog about nature-wise so far this year.  To date 2015 has been dominated by work (yes, I do work) and snow, and neither of those things has really been very conducive to looking at nature or nature blogging.  Even my travel - Montreal, London, Wales, Washington DC) has not really been very outdoor oriented so far, and I just haven't seen a lot of stuff worth reporting.

This week, it snowed again, but at least there's something about a late March snow storm that makes you feel like the worst may now be over and that Winter might be finally behind us.  For whatever reason, I was really feeling the cabin fever today, a sure sign that Spring is coming and that my nature addiction is close to kicking back in again after a dormant Winter.  Looking forward to putting Winter away and getting out there once again.

 The 2015 birding year actually started out relatively well for me and I managed to grab some free time and get out a few times locally in the first few weeks of the year.  Some good birds quickly joined the list - Couch's Kingbird in the West Village, Cassin's Kingbird in Brooklyn, Harlequin Ducks at Montauk, a drake King Eider and Iceland Gulls at Shinecock, Tundra Swans in East Hampton, and a Cackling Goose near Riverhead.  I even managed to get a State Bird when I chased down a THICK-BILLED MURRE in Montauk Harbor (NYS #381).

Thick-billed Murre - lousy shot but it was a state bird!
I soon started to get that slipping feeling though.  Others were going out birding more, and finding great birds, and I simply wasn't keeping up, not with the time I had available to me to get out into the field.  For a brief while I fought the rot, chased the Pink-footed Goose (dipped) near Riverhead, the Barnacle Geese (dipped) near Calverton, and the GYRFALCON (yes!) near Wallkill, but eventually I had to recognize that this is just not going to be a big year list year for me in New York.
As of today, I've seen only 110 species this year in New York State, while the more serious guys are already in the 160s.  I've missed way too many Winter birds to be able to catch up - no Snowy Owls, no Glaucous Gulls,  no Barrow's Goldeneye, etc.  I'll just have to enjoy what I see and not worry about year-lisiting this year.

Harequin Ducks (above) and Common Redpoll (below) good January birds
out on the East End this year.

The bird that really killed my year-list this year was actually a gull.  A Common Gull no less!  Well technically a Mew Gull (although that's currently the same species as Common Gull), and actually not at all common here, thousands of miles away from the Pacific NorthWest where it makes it's home.  The bird was found by Shane Blodgett and showed up, as rare gulls are prone to doing, in a shopping mall parking lot in Brooklyn.  Many birders got to see it the first week or so it was there (while I wasn't able to travel) and then it fell into an infuriating pattern of vanishing for days or weeks before suddenly and unexpectedly popping up again in the same area.  I really wanted to see this bird which would have been a new species for New York State for me, and it also happens to be a species I've tried for and missed previously.  So I decided to devote a few hours to a search......

Herring Gull, MEW GULL, and Ring-billed Gull - photo: Shane Blodgett (used with permission)
And so I ended up spending the better part of five (5!) days standing, freezing, in parking lots in Brooklyn (and not the trendy bits of Brooklyn), looking at gulls.  Every couple of hours a little old Russian lady might come by, empty a bag of stale bread, and start a mad swirl of activity as hundreds of gulls, dozens of Rock Pigeons, and even a few Brown Rats squabbled over the feast, but most of the time Mew Gull 'watching' involved just standing around in the cold, periodically checking hundreds of Ring-billed gulls to see if 'the bird' had flown in.  After each session I swore I would give up on this gull and go look for other things, and then a few days later someone would see the damned bird, and I'd give it one more try.  In total, this single bird took more than 50% of the free time I had for birding in the first quarter of 2015.  And no ... I did not see the bird.

Iceland Gull - people often reported seeing the Mew Gull with
this Iceland Gull.  It was stubbornly solo while I was there though
And so, as we roll in to Spring I'm ready to put the Mew Gull behind me and move on. I almost gave it one last try this Saturday after a sighting was reported on Friday.  In the end I was saved my Shane though, he emailed me to say that he'd seen photos of the Friday sighting and that the bird was just a dark Ring-billed Gull.  Even though I'd already sworn that I wouldn't try again, Shane new that I probably would (and he was right - I am that stubborn).  But now I'm letting it go, and moving on, and getting excited for Spring.

Postscript:  I finished writing this blog post, went out to brunch with Kelvin and had a mimosa or two(enough to ensure that I could no longer drive for the day).  After brunch I checked my emails and, total predictably, Andrew Baksh posted that he and Angus Wilson had been watching the Mew Gull in Brooklyn for the past couple of hours.  After a week or so absence, the bird had literally reappeared while I was writing this post.  I give up ....