Sunday, February 21, 2016

Rusty Blackbirds and Thick-billed Murres

Mopping up some year birds and county birds on Long Island

So the plan today revolved around two target birds - Rusty Blackbird, which I needed for the year and for my Suffolk County Life List, and Barrow's Goldeneye, which would only have been a year bird, but I like them a lot, probably my favorite duck in the world.

First stop was Fuch's Pond in NorthWestern Suffolk County, one of a number of potential Rusty Blackbird spots I'd planned out from eBird.  This is a species that really isn't doing well in the US, with populations having crashed over the last twenty years.  On Long Island it's gone from being a regular wintering bird in numbers to being decidedly scarce during the time I've lived here.  When I first moved to New York I'm guessing that hundreds wintered on Long Island, but today the number of wintering birds might be a dozen or so, and given their wandering nature they've become decidedly hard to see.  My plan today was to devote the whole morning to the species though, and hit all the spots where they had been seen this Winter.

By 8:00am, I pulled into Fuch's Pond, having already had a year bird when a Killdeer flew over the car on the way in.  Rusty Blackbirds had been seen here regularly over the past couple of week so I was pretty optimistic about bumping into one (although I had three other possible sites lined up just in case).  Indeed, as I walked the trails at the preserve and could swear I was hearing a blackbird but couldn't see one, but as I came back to the parking lot, there it was, a Rusty Blackbird perched on top of a tree doing it's weird gurgling call - Suffolk County Bird #309!

Luck was clearly on my side this morning so I hit some other local spots and quickly added a couple more year birds with Purple Finch and Winter Wren joining the list.  So by 9:30am, I'd run out of things to do locally, and knowing that I had to wait for the low tide in the late afternoon for the Barrow's, I suddenly had time to burn.  Checking the Listserve, the answer was obvious ... time for a quick trip to Montauk.

During the week someone had found a Thick-billed Murre at Montauk (same place I had one last Winter).  While it was just a year bird, any Murre is a good bird in New York and I was surprised that this one had lasted so long.  Generally speaking, a Murre that comes into a harbor is not a healthy Murre and so by now I thought this bird would be making its way through the digestive system of a Great Back-backed Gull.  So when I saw that it had been reported alive and well in the morning, I though I may as well go and see it.

Bonaparte's Gull (2 shots)

By 12:30pm I arrived at Montauk Inlet and started to scan ... and nope, no Murre.  Remembering where last year's bird had spent it's time, I repositioned to Star Island and joined some other birders in scanning for the bird, but still no Murre.  Then, as luck would have it, some birders who I'd never seen there before showed up and said they'd just had the Murre on the East Jetty of  Montauk Inlet.  So everyone back in the cars, quick run around Lake Montauk and scopes out at the East Jetty.  Couple of Snow Buntings, nice ... five Great Cormorants, nice ... Thick-billed Murre!

Thick-billed Murre - not yet Gull food ...
Turns out we seemed to be a having a mini Thick-billed Murre invasion this week with several other birds reported on the East End and even one found that day in Brooklyn.

So mission accomplished and back to the original plan, an almost certain Barrow's Goldeneye at Sand's Point in Nassau County.  Well let's just say that lucky streaks don't last forever and there's no such thing as a certain thing in birding.   After an hour and half of scope work, I came up empty.  Oh well, such is birding ...

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Chasing Gold in Dutchess County

A quick run North for a Golden Eagle (because sometimes you have to do things like that)

So, to be honest, I might just be getting a little tired of Long Island birding, so this morning I figured it was time for a change. One of the most intriguing eBird reports locally this year has been a single Golden Eagle that has been seen regularly in Dutchess County (about an hour and a half North of the City on the East bank of the Hudson River).  So for a little variety in the birding diet, I figured I'd head up that way on Sunday morning and so hit the road at 7am with eagles on my mind.

Based on the eBird reports I had just the vaguest idea of where the eagle was hanging out but when I got to the area it didn't take me long to work out what was going on.  I quickly added Pileated Woodpecker and Eastern Bluebird to the year list and then was thrilled to add a Ring-necked Pheasant.  Then I saw another pheasant, then two more, then .... well let's just say they were everywhere, with perhaps 50 or more in the fields near Dover Plains.  Turns out that the area has several gun clubs and that they obviously stock a LOT of pheasants (all the birds I saw today were male by the way).  These pheasants were also obviously recently released ... by which I mean they were DUMB!  I had to stop the car to let one of these birds wander slowly across the road in front of me .... he was lucky that time ... but when I came back to the same place an hour later, sure enough there was a roadkill pheasant on the roadside.  But it solved the mystery of why so many raptors seem to be hanging around in this rea ... lots of pheasant meat ....

One of many, very dumb, pheasants ...
I wasn't here for pheasants though so I started cruising the roads looking for raptors and soon started to see eagles ... well Bald Eagles, and lots of them.  There were at least ten Bald Eagles just loafing around on tall trees in the river valley and, with more time looking, also lots of Red-tailed Hawks, a Cooper's Hawk and a really pretty adult Red-shouldered Hawk.  But no Golden Eagle, so I spent a couple of hours scanning and driving the roads hoping to bump into the star bird.

After almost two hours of this routine, I drive a road I'd tried several times before, but which gave a good view of a broad river valley, and there, I finally saw a kettle of soaring birds.
2 Red-tailed Hawks ...
2 Bald Eagles ...
a Sharp-shinned Hawk ...
a super-high Black Vulture ... very cool ... and a year bird ...
and what's that ....
So I jumped out of the car to try to get some records shots ... and I'm afraid that's pretty much all I got ....

Golden Eagle (two shots) - distant and heavily cropped, but it's a Golden Eagle! 

So very happy with my morning in Dutchess County, and I managed to move my Dutchess County list from a 'pitiful' 18-species to a 'just embarrassing' 43-species ... still, it's progress.

On the way back I stopped in another much neglected county, one I really never bird in), and chased a Black-headed Gull in Larchmont in Westchester County.  Needless to say I dipped (second Black-headed Gull dip of the weekend), but I was still pretty happy with my expedition to the North of the City.

Update:  turns out that the area I birded today was subject to some controversy in past years where birders did not respect local landowner rights and trespassed on private property.  Would not have published the exact location had I known, and I've since removed many of the exact details.  If you saw the original post and plan to go, please be very careful to respect the locals and property rights.  Lots of places to see eagles, no need to cause controversy.

Harlequin Ducks and Purple Sandpipers

A few more year birds from (mostly) Nassau County, NY ....

A late start today but I'd worked out an itinerary in advance so I felt like I was getting some productive birding in anyway.  First stop was Jamaica Bay where a quick, snowy, hike in to the East Pond produced a good mix of waterfowl including all three mergansers and a drake Eurasian Wigeon.  Then on to Nassau County and a quick stop at Caarmann's Pond Park to pick up Black-crowned Night Heron for the year list - this seems to be a great spot for wintering night herons with at least ten in view while I was there.  As an added bonus I also saw a Rough-legged Hawk from the Meadowbrook Parkway shortly thereafter - the day was starting out really well.

One of 10 Black-crowned Night Herons at the pond
And then on to Jones Beach, which I've visited several times this year so far, but today I vowed to get out of the car and do some real birding.  Ironically, the first good bird I saw was very much from the car - as I pulled into the West End parking lot several birders had re-found the Lark Sparrow that I originally found a few weeks ago.
I found this Lark Sparrow several weeks ago ...
The bird was on narrow entrance road, so while the birders wanted to see it, the non-birder cars behind resented the delay in getting to the beach parking lot.  I tried to stop and get photos but in the end I had to just grab a record shot and move on.  Interestingly, of the 5 (?) Lark Sparrows that showed up in late December / early January, only this one is still here (or still alive?).  

I've always thought of the walk out to the Jetty at Jones Beach as a bit of a 'death march' as, despite being only three-quarters of a mile, the soft sand makes the walk a cardio work out.  Today of course a layer of soft snow lay on top of the soft sand so extra cardio for all ... but it's not like I don't need it.  Once I  eventually got there though, it really was quite birdy - Common Eiders, Long-tailed Ducks, Horned Grebes, Red-throated Loons, and a single Razorbill under a flock of 30+ Bonaparte's Gulls.  The jetty itself also had a very photogenic group of 15+ Purple Sandpipers and a single Harlequin Duck, both of which I managed to get photos of.  This tiny jetty is an isolated piece of rocky shore habitat in a land of land featureless sand beaches and so it does tend to be a regular spot for both these quintessential rocky shore birds - very nice to get them so close and cooperative though.

15 Purple Sandpipers and a Harlequin Duck were hanging out at the Jetty. 

After slogging back to the parking lot, I decided to stay on foot and keep working the pine trees in the entrance road median,  The weather was actually a balmy 40-degrees so it was actually quite pleasant trying to pick up some land birds.  Nothing super-unusual had been seen recently but my goal was Red-breasted Nuthatch for the year list and a half an hour later I managed to find one closer to the Coast Guards Station.  Mission accomplished and on to other things.

After that I hit a bit of a lull.  Poking around Jones Beach and Southern Nassau County hoping for some shorebirds didn't really produce very much so I decided to look for Monk Parakeets instead.  Driving along route 27A - a densely packed and busy strip of suburban shops and small businesses - is usually a good bet for finding them.  I found one nest fairly easily in Babylon but there were no parakeets in residence.  Short thereafter though, while stopped at a red light, I happened to look up, waiting for the light to turn green, and sure enough, there was some 'green' on the light.  I wonder if these lights are heat lamps for the parakeets, they certainly seem very adept at using man-made heat-sources to make the Winter more bearable for them.

And so back to the City.  A stop at Bush Terminal Piers Park, where several good gulls (a Black-headed Gull and a Glaucous Gull) had been seen earlier in the day, was cut short when the park ranger (?) closed the park at 4pm and asked all the birders to leave.  But here will be other days ....

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Jaguars in the U.S.

Sharing a great article from the L.A. Times ...

Always fascinated by stories about big cats in the U.S. there are many more than people think - Ocelots, Margays, and Jaguars along with the more common Mountain Lions, Canadian Lynx and Bobcats.  I also have terrible luck with them - in 25 years in the US I have seen precisely one Bobcat (Florida) and one Canadian Lynx (Alaska).  Cats therefore hold a powerful mystery for me and I'm quite intrigued when I see an article about them.

Jaguar photographed in Arizona (Credit Wikipedia I think)
So I saw this great L.A. Times Story today (which I wanted to share here) with video of a Jaguar in the mountains near Tucson.  We've known they were there for some time, but eh article says this is the only wild Jaguar living in the US (I doubt that's true).  Apparently the big spotted cats once ranged widely across the Southern and Southeastern US, but of course we pushed them out of most of their historical range at the point of a gun.  The cling on in Mexico, although the treatment of big carnivores was not better there than it was in the US and I'm amazed that a few manage to hang on.  The story in Arizona isn't always inspiring either - incompetent biologists (who 'accidentally' killed a Jaguar while trying to collar it), hostile landowners, etc. - but still there are a few of these magnificent creatures in our country, which means that a population survives South of the border, and that there is hope for the species in this part of its historical range.

Jaguar by John James Audubon - the background looks more SouthEastern than
SouthWestern and apparently these cats once called much of the US SouthEast
home too.
I know I'll never actually see one in the US, but somehow it feels great to know that these magnificent big cats still can find a place to live in our country.  It's also a tribute to the amazing resilience of the big cats that they can survive when we were able to wipe out the Mexican Wolves and Mexican Grizzlies that once shared the apex predator role with them in the South West.

I've had terrible luck with Jaguars in South and Central America, and have never seen one - once missing one by a heartbreaking 5 minutes in Belize - but one day, hopefully, I'll bump into one of these amazing cats.  Until then, it's enough to know that they're still around and even still hanging on in the Southwestern U.S.