Sunday, May 15, 2016

After the Wave - Filling Out the List

Peak Migration around New York City - Week 3

Tuesday, May 10 - Central Park

Sunday did in fact turn out to be the 'day of the year' in Central Park (and many other City Parks) with over 120 species of bird, and 28 species of Warbler reported in Manhattan's "Green Lung".   Monday was also very good, with many of the same birds remaining, but unfortunately I had to work that day.

Tuesday morning was beautiful, perfect weather setting off the amazing fresh green leaves of late Spring.  There were quite a lot of birds around too and I saw about 50 species, including 14 species of warbler in an hour-and-a-half on the way to the office.  I also added two year birds, ironically within seconds of each other, with a Solitary Sandpiper (242) flying by Bow Bridge and a Blackpoll Warbler (243) in a  tree overhead.  I also looked hard for the Summer Tanager, Bay-breasted Warbler, and Black-billed Cuckoo that I'd missed over the weekend but no luck there.  Plus I realized that I was still missing Orchard Oriole for the year ... fast becoming my Spring nemesis bird this year.
Not the ugliest place in the world to bird ....
Thursday, May 12 - Central Park

Another gloriously beautiful day and a few more birds.  Bumped into a lot of birders in the Park that morning (including old friend and global conservation hero Nigel Collar of Birdlife International) and all agreed that it was really quiet.  I felt it was really quiet too, but at the end of the brief morning walk-through I'd seen 16 species of warbler, although mostly just 'onesies and twosies' with no particularly rare species.  Best bird of the day came as I walked into the Park and heard a distinct "Where -We" call from dense cover near the Upper Lobe.  No question what it was but I wanted to at least lay eyes on this Empidonax flycatcher for additional confirmation, and managed to get a brief look at this Alder Flycatcher (244) before losing the bird as it moved North.

Not long thereafter I saw a tweet about a Bobolink near the Delactorte Theater.  I was close so wandered over, heard the bird, and joined a small group of birders nearby who I assumed were watching it.
"Sorry, it flew North" they said.
"Nope ... it's right here, figured you were watching it" I replied.  And we all quickly repositioned and at least hear the Bobolink (245), the R2D2 of birds, singing high in a tree for a while.  Good morning.

But still no Orchard Oriole ....

Saturday, May 14 - Rockland / Orange Counties

Time for a break from Central Park so I picked up Michael Duffy at 6:30am and headed North to Doodletown Road in Rockland County.  There we met up with Tom Socci and spent a couple of hours working one of my very favorite birding spots in New York.

Doodletown is an old settlement that has since been abandoned and left to the woods to reclaim.  The remains of the roads are still there though, affording relatively easy, and tick-free (important in New York) trails into great habitat.  It's famous for it's warblers but all sorts of good mid-atlantic species breed here, and of course there were lots of birders there today too.

The habitat at Doodletown Road and a Cerulean Warbler at the top of a tree 

We started climbing the trail as soon as we got there and struggled to penetrate the wall of bird song that overwhelmed us.  Soon enough though we heard the distinctive buzzy song of Cerulean Warbler (246) and blocked out the rest of the chatter to focus on these star birds.  While we were watching then we also got a glimpse of the nemesis Orchard Oriole (247) but I was so focused on trying (and failing) to get decent Cerulean shots that I pretty much ignored it.  Further up the trail we had plenty of cuckoos, with at least five Yellow-billed Cuckoos and a single Black-billed Cuckoo (248).  I also heard an Acadian Flycatcher (249) but, with over 20 species of warbler in the bag, we then mostly focussed on getting Doodeltown's most desired warbler species.   We had good intel and headed to the spot where it had been heard singing the week before.  As we got closer, returning birders confirmed we were on the right trail and then, just before we got to the site, we heard a Kentucky Warbler (250) singing.  A few tense minutes of listening later, the bird broke cover and, quite uncharacteristically for this usually skulking species, sang loudly from trees right over our heads for five minutes.  Great bird.

Kentucky Warbler - Photo: Tom Socci (used with permission)
After a quick, and unsuccessful, look for Timber Rattlesnakes - we'd bumped into superb all-round naturalist Rick Cech who gave us directions, but no luck - we decided to rush over to Sterling State Forest in Orange County while the birds were still singing.

Scarlet Tanager
Sterling is another great spot, although I always have mixed emotions when I come here.  It's the last stronghold of Golden-winged Warblers in Southern New York but they are slowly being replaced/overwhelmed by Blue-winged Warblers and no-one is sure how much longer they can hold out.  Sure enough, it didn't take us long to find a pair of Golden-winged Warblers (251) and got to watch the familiar pattern of the male Golden-winged trying to keep a male Blue-winged sway from his female.  Make Golden-winged Warblers spend a large chunk of their day doing this and it has to impact breeding success.  Every year there are more hybrids and few Golden-winged Warblers in New York.  It's quite sad to watch in real time.

Prairie Warbler
Two different Golden-winged Warblers 

Indigo Bunting ... always a crowd-pleaser
At Sterling we also had an unexpected bonus bird.  A Broad-winged Hawk (252) flew low over the woods and must have crossed close to a Barred Owl (253) nest, unleashing a storm of complaints from the owls.  Always good to get an owl in the day ...

Sunday, May 15 - Nassau and Queens Counties

I made a tactical mistake today and headed to the coast rather than going to Central Park.  Of course, all day the Manhattan Twitter Bird Alert buzzed with sitings of rare birds and now potentially missed year birds for me.  Bay-breasted Warbler, Mourning Warbler, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Philadelphia Vireo, and even a Common Nighthawk.  Oh well, can't get them all ...

I did have a great few hours at Jones Beach though, added a few year birds and got to see a nice smattering of migrants on what turned out to be a cold and windy day.  That at least kept Jones Beach's infamous mosquitoes at bay so the birding was chilly, but pleasant.

On the year bird front I quickly added Least Tern (254), Common Tern (255), Semipalmated Sandpiper (256), Semipalmated Plover (257) and a couple of fly-over Short-billed Dowitchers (258) at the Coast Guard Station.  Then I put the scope away and wandered off into the Median area in search of migrants.  There were actually quite a few to be had too, with Magnolia Warblers, Scarlet Tanagers, American Redstarts, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and a late Blue-headed Vireo all scattered through the pines.  Along the medians were yet more warblers, one group containing two Yellow Warblers, a Magnolia, a Prairie and a spiffy female Blackburnian.  Other goodies included a female Bobolink, a White-crowned Sparrow, and a Chuck-will's Widow (clearly the bird of the day for most).
Blue-headed Vireo (above), and Blackburnian Warbler

I also got a crash course in flycatcher ID when I spotted an Empidonax flycatcher, clearly a Traill's but looking all contrasty and big-eye-ringed to me (both good signs to Alder Flycatcher).  Looking back at the photos though, the bird seems to be less distinct, and given the habitat and location, seems more likely a Willow Flycatcher (259).

Willow Flycatcher ... probably ...
Next stop Jamaica Bay where visions of Tricolored Herons, Clapper Rails, Black Skimmers, were all to be quickly disappointed as the West Pond turned out to be almost birdless.  I did add some Least Sandpipers (260) and spent a lot of time looking for a previously reported roosting Common Nighthawk but alas, it wasn't to be, and getting chilled I decided to call it a day and head back to Manhattan.  I should probably have gone to Central Park instead, but hopefully some of those goodies will stick around into next week.


I stopped blogging the Spring, but I did add a few more year birds in Central Park before migration was over (although I did not take my camera) :

Monday, May 16 - Central Park

Gray-cheeked Thrush (261), plus one that I was worried that I was going to miss - Bay-breasted Warbler (262)

Wednesday, May 18 - Central Park

Tennessee Warbler (263), and a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (264) and a Summer Tanager (265) that appeared at exactly the same place and the same time.

Thursday, May 26 - Central Park

One last gasp for Mourning Warbler (266), plus lots of Eastern Wood-Pewee (267), and a clutch save on Olive-sided Flycatcher (268)

So overall I did pretty well.  35 species of warbler including two rarities (Swainson's and Hermit) and missed only one .... the striking, crowd-pleasing Prothonotary Warbler which just didn't show up in Central Park this Spring.  As for other Spring migrants, I missed Blue Grosbeak (which I could get as a breeder on Long Island) and a few random, not really expected, goodies (like a Least Bittern that showed up in Brooklyn).  But overall, I pretty much mopped up.  On to Summer ....

Sunday, May 8, 2016

An Epic Day of Roadkill Watching in Western New York

A Long Drive to Dip a Gray Kingbird

A few weeks ago, a Loggerhead Shrike was found in Western New York.  I want to see a Loggerhead Shrike in New York State but Western New York is a long way from the City, about 5 hours drive each way.  So I dithered and procrastinated and in the end I didn't go (which turned out to be just as well as the day I could have gone was the day after the last sighting of the bird).  Then, a week later, someone found a Gray Kingbird in Western New York ... oh come on!  This bird too seemed to be sticking around and every day last week I saw reports of the bird being seen.  I wanted to go, but I also didn't want to do a 10-hour drive on my own, so I hinted on-line and Corey Finger, blogger, union organizer, left wing agitator, and notorious enabler of birding misadventures, suggested he might like to come along.  So 'what the hell' I thought, let's do it, and extending invitations to two young birders (Adrian Burke and Tom Socci) who'd been helpful to me recently in regards to Seaside Sparrows, I planned to leave early on Saturday and do the long drive to the Kingbird.

Gray Kingbird, Photo: Nathan Goldberg (used with permission)
Saturday morning at 4:45am I got a text from Corey Finger, he was downstairs, ready to go.  Went down, grabbed a Latte, picked up the Land Rover and then picked up Adrian (Tom couldn't make it) and we were off.  Out across the George Washington Bridge, an hour or so across New Jersey, take a right in Pennsylvania and drive North for an hour or so, then take a left at Binghamton in New York (stopping for McDonalds and gas) and head off into the wilds of Western New York.  Just 5 hours after leaving, and having been pulled over for speeding only once, we arrived at Conesus Inlet ready to bird.  Did I mention that Western New York is a long way away?  We were sooooo ready to get out of the car by the time we got there ...

Truth is though, we'd arrived in an apprehensive state of mind.  We weren't the only New York City birders heading up to chase the Kingbird that day.  Sean Sime and his Brooklyn crew had gone up early and reported that the bird had not been seen that morning so far.  As we arrived we picked up another voicemail from Sean saying that his team had to leave, but that they hadn't seen the bird.  Still, I wasn't too stressed, the Kingbird had been seen the day before only in the afternoon, and there was obviously a lot of habitat for the bird to wander around in.  We grabbed scopes and set out to find us a Gray Kingbird.

Lots of snags and lots of bugs, but no Gray Kingbird ...

Three and a half hours later ... no Gray Kingbird.  We scoped every snag we could see, tried all the likely areas, and just couldn't come up with the bird.  I guess the change of weather (it wasn't raining at Conesus after 6 days of rain) gave the bird the chance to move on, or even head back to Florida where it belongs.   We had officially dipped ...

Ironically, while we couldn't find our target bird, and had just experienced an epic long-distance dip, it actually retuned out to be an excellent day as a general natural history experience.  There were a lot of herps, and it was very cool to see some after the long New York Winter.  We saw Leopard Frogs, Bull Frogs, Green Frogs, a Wood Frog, American Toads, Eastern Garter Snakes and lots of Northern Water Snakes.   There were bumblebees and dragonflies and even a few Spring flowers and butterflies.  There were also a few returning migrant birds and I added 5 year birds during our time in Livingston County - Cliff Swallow (224), Eastern Kingbird (225), Marsh Wren (226), Common Yellowthroat (227) and Lesser Yellowlegs (228).  The most interesting bird however was a Great Horned Owl that Adrian spotted in trees in the marsh ... not so often you get to see a big owl in the day time.

Northern Water Snake - fat and happy eating frogs ... don't pick these
up, they're very bitey ...
So back to New York.  Another five hour drive with Corey doing his best to distract us with gratuitous eBird checklists in every county, often featuring nothing more that American Crow, Common Grackle, and Red-tailed Hawk ..... but now many eBird reviewers knew of our passing.  We did however amass an impressive (and somewhat macabre) list of roadkill for the day ... yes we list roadkill, we're birders, we list everything.   Among the species highlights on the days roadkill list were Black Bear, Beaver, Coyote, Porcupine, Woodchuck (plus a probable Fox Squirrel - a rare mammal in New York) along with the ubiquitous White-tailed Deer, Gray Squirrel, Virginia Opossums, Raccoons, and Striped Skunks (Smelled only).  Hey, it's a natural history experience of a sort, and it was a very long drive.

Until next time Western New York ....

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Week of Rain

Peak Migration around New York City - Week 2

Wednesday, May 4 - Central Park

It rained all day Monday and Tuesday and persistent North winds kept migration on hold.  I wasn't expecting much more in terms of migration on Wednesday but at least the weather forecast had a gap in the rain early in the morning, so I went into the Park at 6:30am.  It was raining .....

At first the birds were also really quiet, but it did pick up a little and briefly stop raining, before I had to leave at 8:30am to head to work.  I had a few warblers - Worm-eating, Blue-winged, Prairie, Cape May - and of course checked every Black-throated Green Warbler VERY CAREFULLY.  Best bird of the day was a Yellow-throated Vireo (219) one of a few species that had been present but eluded me all week in the Park.  Still waiting for the big wave of migrants .... any day now ....

Thursday, May 5 - Central Park

The Upper Lobe, Central Park
No rain in the forecast for the first time in a week!  Thrilled to not be wet for once while grabbing another couple of hours in the Park before work.  Sure, it was still a drab cloudy day, with temperatures 20-degrres below normal, but it wasn't actually raining for a few hours.  There was a lot more bird song early in the morning but, apart from an obvious increase in Gray Catbirds, there wasn't much difference in terms of new migrant arrivals.  I did see 14 species of warbler and spent a little 'give back' time helping some beginner birders get their lifer Blue-winged and Prairie Warblers.  I also picked up a few new year birds including a somewhat cold and sad looking Ruby-throated Hummingbird (220) a single Least Flycatcher (221) and a very random Bank Swallow (222) drifting North across the Great Lawn. Things are slowly happening but still waiting for the big push ..... any day now ....

Friday, May 6 - Clinton Cove Park

Just as I got home on Thursday night I saw a tweet from Adrian Burke reporting 3 Seaside Sparrows in a small park on 55th Street and the Hudson River (OK, that was unexpected ... there's not a lot of saltmarsh habitat in Hell's Kitchen!).  That's only 13 blocks from my apartment so I really should have walked up there right away, but at the time I was just too tired to go out again.  Of course on Friday morning when I woke up .... the rain had resumed ... and not just drizzle ... solid, heavy, business-shoe-ruining rain.  I lay in bed for a while debating whether to get up early and go chase these birds, and in the end I did go out slosh my way up to the park.  The habitat did not look terribly promising, this is a new park, essentially just an adjunct to the riverside running and biking trails that separate the West Side Highway from the Hudson River.  There was a small lawn, a handful of ornamental trees, and a border planted with small scrubby rose-looking plants.  The border was obviously the place to look and right there, feeding feet from the highway, were some American Robins, a Gray Catbird, a couple of Chipping Sparrows, and three very soggy and very out of place looking Seaside Sparrows (223).  A year bird, but also a new bird for me for New York County (essentially Manhattan).  Glad I got up, even if I did ruin a perfectly good pair of business shoes in the process.

Seaside Sparrow - Photo: Tom Socci (used with permission)
Saturday, May 7 - Livingston County in Western New York
(Gets it's own blog post)

Sunday, May 8 - Central Park

This was going to be the day!  The winds finally turned South on Saturday afternoon and the rain was finally forecast to stop.  Surely the migration would explode North on Saturday night and Central Park would be hopping with birds on Sunday morning?  Right?  Well ... yes....

Up at 5:30 and in the Park a little after 6am.  Good news was that it wasn't raining, but the Park didn't really seem all that birdy and early encounters with birders like Doug Kurtz suggested that perhaps we hadn't had a big migration event.  I did start picking up a few year birds though with Scarlet Tanager (229) and Lincoln's Sparrow (230) joining the list near Strawberry Fields.  Moving on to The Upper Lobe I added Swainson's Thrush (231) and Great Crested Flycatcher (232), plus a Spotted Sandpiper (233) at  Turtle Pond, but none of the species were new arrivals.  Had there been migration overnight?

The answer to this question came at about 7:15am when the skies opened unleashing a couple of hours of torrential rain, and all hell broke loose with thousands of migrant birds swarming North through the park.  IT WAS ON!

Over the next few hours I got completely soaked (I bird in the rain) but I also saw 22 species of warbler, adding Canada Warbler (234), Blackburnian Warbler (235), Magnolia Warbler (236), Wilson's Warbler (237) and Red-eyed Vireo (238) to the year list.  At one point, in torrential rain, I engaged a flock of about 50 warblers near Turtle Pond that contained 14 species ...  and dozens of other warblers passed overhead without landing and getting identified ... this is what makes Central Park so awesome in migration.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron at The Point
Given the obvious migration it was only a matter of time before someone found some other goodies.  I told Adrian Burke what there would be a Chuck-Will's-Widow somewhere in the Park that day (I'd glimpsed a bird earlier that I thought might be a nightjar but couldn't re-find it) but other goodies showed up first.  In fact Herons took a front seat for a while when Bob DeCandido and Deb Allen found an American Bittern and a Yellow-crowned Night Heron  (239) at the Point.  Both great birds for Central Park and both probably a little stunned to find themselves with an audience.

American Bittern (3 shots)

I was also lucky enough to bump into a Yellow-billed Cuckoo (240) before I had to leave, but eventually I had to go.  Overall, I had 82 species of bird in the tiny area that is The Ramble ... and of course, someone found the Chuck-Will's-Widow just after I left.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Hermit Warbler in Central Park

Peak Migration around New York City - Week 1 (continued)

Sunday, May 1 - Central Park

The weather forecast for Sunday was not encouraging, in fact it called for rain starting around 7am and continuing all throughout the day.  I'd originally planned to go out to the beaches but I eventually thought better of it and decided to grab a quick hour in Central Park before the rain came.

The rain started pretty much on schedule but it was light and tolerable.  In fact the rain probably helped keep the number of people down and while I birded from 6:30am to almost 11am, I saw very few other birders - unusual on a weekend in May.  There were also quite a few birds around, mostly Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warblers but I also saw two Worm-eating Warblers (215), my first American Redstart (216) of the season, and a total of 13 species of warbler overall.  While there didn't seem to have been all that much migration overnight, there clearly had been some movement as I also saw several Veery (217).   And then something special happened ...

i'm told I don't do enough scenery or context shots, so here are a couple
from the Ramble, and Turtle Pond in the rain ...

By 9:30am the rain was getting heavier so I went to the boathouse to rent coffee and buy something to eat.  I tried to bird back through The Ramble after that but I was getting wet - once again wearing shorts and sandals - and getting cold too.  By 10am I gave up and headed out via the West 77th Street entrance, planning to head back to the apartment and warm up.

As I was leaving the Park I noticed Karen Fung and Alexis Lamek (who until then I'd never met so knew only as the French guy who looks like √Črik Ripert) intently staring at a bird.  As I came over Alexis asked me what I thought of the warbler, which promptly sang a song that sounded to me like a Black-throated Green Warbler song.  I looked up, saw black and white bird with a yellow head, heard the song and confidently identified it as Black-throated Green.

"But it has a black back" said Alexis

"Black-Throated Green doesn't?" I said, fumbling for my Sibley app on the iPhone.  Oops!

The long and the short of it is that, while we were expecting to see a Black-throated Green Warbler, the plumage was all wrong.  It had a black back, a plain white belly with little streaking, no yellow on the vent, a black nape that narrowed to form a line on the back of the head, and an otherwise clean yellow head.  The plumage was HERMIT WARBLER, pretty much solid on all the expected field marks.

The problem though was the voice, which didn't fit our expectations for Hermit Warbler songs. To be fair, the bird was high in trees, there were many warblers singing, and it was raining quite hard (i.e., not ideal listening conditions).  On top of that, none of us also had much experience with Hermit Warblers, at least on breeding territory.  However, the song I was hearing sounded like a series of slightly buzzy single notes - like the 'zee zee zee" at the start of Black-throated Green Warbler song and sometimes something that sounded like full Black-throated Green (add an additional phrase to the end).  While we were mostly getting just song fragments rather than the whole song, all of us had the impression of Black-throated Green song while watching the bird.  Most of the Hermit Warbler calls on the Sibley app. (which we played after losing sight of the bird to compare songs) start with a series of paired notes before a slurred second phrase, and I'm pretty sure I heard single rather than paired notes.  If I had a do-over I might have tried a recording, although I doubt I'd have got very much given the range and the rain.

Given our concern over the song not being right, I floated the idea, which seemed to make sense at the time (but seems stupid now) that perhaps it was a hybrid of some sort, but realizing that whatever it was, we had something good, we got the word out on Twitter and the State-wide Listserve.  And the bird promptly vanished ...

Luckily for us though Karen had managed to grab a couple of distant photos despite the rain, and they helped a lot in terms of settling our view on the ID.   In fact Karen gets a huge credit for somehow managing photos of a small fast moving warbler high in a tree ... in the rain ... with her back-up camera, with the two of us pressuring her to get a photo (by comparison, I'm a wimp - I didn't want to get my camera wet so I left it at home).

Heroic photo effort (given the conditions): Karen Fung (used with permission)
While the song was unfamiliar, I gather that there is a lot of variation in Hermit Warbler song and that they vary by area, and in the presence of similar species (e.g., Townsend's Warblers).  So not so impossible that a Hermit in the East might sound somewhat atypical.

So, while there will be some ID debate (especially given the confusion we spread with our initial struggle with plumage versus song), I'm pretty sure the bird we saw was a Hermit Warbler.  And, as I sit here on Monday I'm savoring a second amazing warbler in Central park in one week, and a second New York State life bird for me!  I also learned a humbling lesson about not making assumptions and studying birds.  I dismissed this bird based on song, and if Alexis hadn't been so persistent, would not have focused on it.  Alexis gets huge credit for finding the bird and sticking with it, bringing skeptical birders along to the right ID (which I suspect he came to a lot earlier on in the process).  A great lesson for me.

Update (5/2/16):  

Unfortunately the bird was not re-found, meaning it was seen only by the three of us (and a handful of birders who passed through and saw the bird before we ID'd it).  There has of course been some local debate, especially given our comments on atypical song and on the presence of a darker auricular in one of the photos.  Karen was smart enough to post this bird on some national ID sites though and get the opinions of national/Western birders with more experience of the species.  Consensus seems to be that the plumage is good for a pure Hermit Warbler and most seem unconcerned about the atypical song (variation in Hermit Warbler songs seems to be widely experienced and expected).