Monday, May 29, 2017

Henslow's Sparrow, Chuck-wills-widow, and Yellow-throated Warbler ... a Big Memorial Day of Birding

Some Aggressive Year-Listing in New York State

Saturday, May 27 - Cupsogue and Dune Road, Suffolk County

I had three free mornings over Memorial Day this year, the afternoons and evening were chock-a-block with social commitments but the morning were mine, and I was determined to use them.  So up at 5am on Saturday and off to Cupsogue County Park for a morning of coastal birding and hopefully a pile of year birds.

First order of business was a sea-watch.  I am pretty rusty these days as I don't sea-watch nearly as much as I used to, but it didn't take long to get my 'eye in' and there really wasn't all that much happening out there to be honest.  Best seabird by far was a single Sooty Shearwater that whipped by heading East, otherwise the view was just Common Terns, Northern Gannets and Common Loons.  A Black Tern did make a quick appearance, but my hopes of Arctic Tern drew up blank, both here and at the tern roost later.

Dunlins are amazingly cute in breeding plumage
So there are two options to get out to the Shorebird/tern roost at Cupsogue - a short walk through knee-deep muck that sticks to your feet, smells for days, and is full of sharp fragments of clams - or - a slightly longer walk along sandy beaches that involves fording several slightly deeper channels.  I chose the latter and was glad I did because I got to spend some intimate time with some very tame shorebirds.

White-rumped Sandpiper and Ruddy Turnstone

Beyond the common shorebirds and a whole lot of Common Terns and Black Skimmers, there really wasn't a whole lot to see.  I did get a Little Blue Heron (always good in Suffolk County),  Clapper Rail, and a singing Seaside Sparrow.  Not bad in total though, 48 species and a very pleasant start to the weekend.

Barn Swallow and Short-billed Dowitcher

Next stop was Dune Road where I saw a lot of the same things but added a few goodies at Triton Lane where Saltmarsh Sparrow finally surrendered to the year list (after several previous attempts) and I saw another two Clapper Rails (three seen Clapper Rails in a day is never bad).  So by the time I had to head back for a lunch appointment I'd seen 60 species, 7 year birds, and was pretty happy with how this plan was working out.

Common Tern and Red Knot

Sunday, May 28 - Quogue, Suffolk County and Shawangunk, Ulster County

So I thought up this plan, while drunk, on Saturday night.  I got up at 3am (!) and drove over to Quogue to 'do' nightbirds.  First stop was the Dwarf Pines Preserve in West Hampton and in perhaps one of the most shameless pieces of year-listing I've ever done, I pulled into the parking lot, lowered the windows, heard some Eastern Whip-poor-wills, closed the windows, and drove off.

For the next stop in Quogue, I at least gave my target bird the respect of getting out of the car.  Chuck-will's-widows are much scarcer than Eastern Whip-poor-wills in New York State, with perhaps only a hand-full of breeding pairs on Long Island.  The site I stopped at was a traditional site and a 'chuck' had been heard here earlier in the month - I'd also heard this species here on my big year in 2012 - so I was pretty optimistic.  Sure enough, as soon as I got out of the car I heard the "widdle-widdle" call of a Chuck (well that's how they sound to me anyway, I guess the 'chuck' bit doesn't carry as far as the widdles).  All going according to plan ... so back in the car before 5am and a three-hour drive North to Ulster County .... did I mention I was drunk when I though up this plan?

Henslow's Sparrow 
OK, so the Henslow's Sparrow found at Shawangunk earlier this week was bothering me and I really, really, wanted to see this bird ... not sure why, but I did, birding is funny that way.  Perhaps because I'd been there last Saturday and not found it (it was found a few days later on a trail we didn't bird), and perhaps just because they are awesomely cool and I've only ever seen a couple before in 25+ years in New York.  Whatever the reason, I really wanted to see this bird, so off to Shawangunk National Grassland I went, for the second time in two weeks, but this time starting before dawn and a few hours drive further away to the East.

Given that I'd promised to be back for brunch, and had a 4-hour return drive, this trip had to be surgical; I literally had a 30-minute window to get the bird and get back in the car ... and ... it worked out perfectly.

Another shot of Henslow's Sparrow
I got to Shawangunk, and started to hike out to the area that the bird had been seen, but before I even got to the site I could hear the bird singing, and when I got there, a line of giant camera lenses pointed directly to the bird.  Easy!  Plus ... I got bonus Dickcissel and Upland Sandpiper year birds and was back in the car for the drive home after 30 minutes.  Ruthless ... the perfect twitch.

Henslow's Sparrow is a very cool bird though .. they are ...  well .... 'complicated'.  They have a wide range but are nowhere common.  They have ultra specific habitat requirements, which seems to be grassland burned 4 years ago, nothing else will do ... mow the grass every year, no Henslow's.  Then they also have this adorable little song, the bird throws every ounce of it's energy and contorts it's whole body into this song, and what comes out is ... well sort of "twislik" ... how could you not love this species ....
Monday, May 29 - East Hampton and Great River, Suffolk County

Raining, a lot at 5am, so I really should have gone back to bed, but of course I didn't and ended up getting cold and wet checking three local shorebird spots and seeing ... well not a lot.

Horned Lark
Had time for one last stop on the way in though so, after battling epic Hamptons traffic (Memorial Day and the rain made it perhaps the worst I've ever seen), I nipped in to Bayard Cutting Arboretum in the hopes of getting New York State's only singing Yellow-throated Warbler.

As soon as I got out of the car I could hear a Yellow-throated Warbler singing so I walked across the road and (this so often happens unfortunately) ran into a photographer and his son, who were playing a recording of the bird.
"The bird is right here" he said, and it was, right above them in the tree.
"So why are you playing tape to a breeding bird?" I replied.  "In fact to New York's only pair of breeding Yellow-throated Warblers?".
He sort of mumbled, said he though it was a migrant and that he would stop ... but by the time I got back to the car I could hear him playing again.  This guy with his (hobbyist) mid-price camera gear, was obviously totally focussed on getting a decent shot of this bird, no matter what the cost .... for what end?  A Facebook shot?   Not like this was his livelihood ... but cameras do strange things to people.   A sad way to end a great weekend of birding.  But it was a great weekend of birding.

Monday, May 22, 2017

A Mad Scramble to 'Do' Spring Migration in New York

Three Weeks of Migration Madness

Back from three weeks in Asia at the start of May and checked in to see what I'd missed in New York.  Turns out that migration was well underway and in fact I'd missed a good early push, so much so that when I checked where I was on the "Hot 100" for the year in New York State on eBird ... I wasn't even in the top 100.  So some catching up to do ....

Black-billed Cuckoo
So into a routine.  Up at 5am, neglecting the gym (it's not pretty) and spending a couple of hours in Central Park each morning before work, then occasionally hitting the park, or another, after work for an hour to chase a specific bird.  The weekends I jumped in the car and ran around in the counties just outside the city to add more birds.  Over the course of the first three weeks of May I added 93 species to the year list, all basically in or around New York City (and yes, as of today I'm back in the Top 10 of the "Hot 100" which means I'm basically back in with the pack.

Kentucky Warbler (Photo: Anders Peltomaa, used with permission)
Most of the month was actually pretty flat, with Northerly winds slowing migration to a dribble, but there were a few epic days that even the old-timers had to agree were amazing.  I saw nothing particularly rare, and am in fact missing several species that I could have seen had I been here for the whole migration, but there were some memorable moments.  A Kentucky Warbler in Washington Square Park briefly became a local celebrity with the local drug dealers (just selling loose joints, nothing dramatic) asking us if we were looking for the 'Little Kentucky Bird".  Several Bicknell's Thrushes were reported, and I even chased one but didn't see it (I've never seen one away from breeding territories), although I did have a nice consolation views of singing Gray-cheeked Thrush.  I also had several Summer Tanagers, a Blue Grosbeak, a couple of Olive-sided Flycatchers and 31 species of North American Wood Warbler (which means I'm still missing 3 or 4 possibles).

White-tailed Deer and Cerulean Warbler 

The Power Line Cut at Sterling State Forest - the most reliable site for Golden-winged Warblers in the Southern
part of New York State.
Among the day trips.  A very wet swing through Albany, Schoharie and Otsego Counties in a rain storm provided American and Least Bitterns, Virginia Rail and other marsh birds.  A trip to Rockland and Orange Counties yielded Golden-winged, Cerulean and Mourning Warblers (plus a second Kentucky Warbler) and Acadian Flycatcher.  Ulster County chipped in grass birds like Bobolink and Grasshopper Sparrow while Suffolk County gave me Vesper Sparrow.  Queens County gave me Little Blue Heron and some shorebirds, and I was even able to pick up some county birds like my first Purple Sandpipers for New York County.  The tapestry of a Spring Migration year list slowly coming together.

Shawangunk Ridge in the background at Shawangunk Grasslands
Bobolink and Grasshopper Sparrow

So after the craziness, back to a more stable routine.  This morning I got up at 5am and went to the gym, ignoring reports of Bicknell's Thrushes (which I never see anyway).  Feeling like I'm pretty much caught up now so I can focus on rarities and travel and don't need to be running around quite so much.

And as of today - New York State Year List 2017 = 257 / Rank 9
World Year List 2017 = 917 / Rank 27

Postscript:  within days of my writing this, and stopping the mid-week birding and going back to work (and the gym) both a Swanson's Warbler and a Henslow's Sparrow showed up in or close to the City.  I've seen both before in New York but both are VERY good birds here and I wasn't able to go and see either.  Oh, and several Bicknell's Thrushes showed up too .... you can't see everything ....

Friday, May 19, 2017

Tarsiers and Endemic Birds in Sulawesi

(Hopefully) The Second of Many Trips to Wallacea

Alfred Russell Wallace  was basically a Welshman, or at least was born in Wales so we are claiming him as ours despite his dodgy English/Scottish ancestry.  He's not all that famous today, but he essentially discovered "Evolution" (for which Charles Darwin pretty much stole the credit) and has a Biogeographic Region (Wallacea) and a "Line" (The Wallace Line) named after him.  The Wallace Line, which he drew, separates an Asian type fauna found in the Oriental Region (Mainland South East Asia, Java, Sumatra, Borneo, and Bali) from a more Australasian type fauna found in Wallacea (the Lesser Sundas, Sulawesi, the Moluccas, etc.).  One the one side, Apes and Tigers, on the other Cockatoos, Tarsiers, and Cuscuses.  It's not quite that simple, but I grew up utterly fascinated by his writings, travels and the evolutionary and geographical processes that shaped this part of the world, and many others.  He really is the father of Biogeography, and the Patron Saint of Island Biogeography (Read This Book if you haven't, the best book of Island Biogeography ever written) and I've been intrigued by it, and him, since I was a kid.

Only once (twice technically) before have I crossed the Wallace line - in 1996 I crossed from Bali to Lombok (and back) and went on to Sumbawa and Komodo on a Dragon-Quest.

So I've been itching to go back, and with a long weekend free, and already in Singapore, it sounded like the perfect opportunity to get back to Wallacea.  In this case, the magic island of Sulawesi (formerly Celebes) was the goal, and I had a scant four days there, so I was determined to make the most if it.

Thursday, April 27 - Manado to Batu Putih

Lots of flights from Singapore, via Jakarta to Manado, and when I emerged from the airport into a scrum of predatory taxi drivers .... there was no-one there to meet me ... O ... K...  I wonder sometimes if I'll drop into some remote place, with emailed plans to meet a local guide at some time and place, and not have them show up.  So far it hasn't happened, touch wood, and this time too turned out just fine when after a few minutes of fending-off money hungry-local cabbies, Esli Kakuahe, my local guide, popped up with a sign saying "Mr Anthony".  So off we went to Batu Putih, roughly a two hour drive through an island dominated by coconut palms and churches (this certainly isn't Muslim Java) to the Tangkoko Lodge and my destination, Tangkoko National Park.

Yellow-billed Malkoha and Silver-tipped Imperial Pigeon

We actually got to Batu Putih village with time to do some birding that afternoon and, after checking in at the lodge, we birded around town picking up some of my first Sulawesi endemics including Yellow-billed Malkoha, Isabelline Bush-hen, Yellow-sided and Gray-sided Flowerpeckers, and Purple-winged Roller.  We also went to the edge of the National Park, picking up Silver-tipped Imperial Pigeon, Sulawesi Hanging-Parrot and a couple of White-necked Mynas.  The highlight for me though was a Barred Buttonquail with three tiny black downy young that ran across the road in front of us then crouched in nice close view in the roadside vegetation.  Even though it's not a Sulawesi endemic, and not globally rare, I've always wanted to see a Buttonquail - I grew up with the mythical "Andalusian Hemipode" in my field guide, a mysterious bird, now extinct in Europe - so finally meeting one in the wild as an amazing experience.  I was still savoring it as I ate my fried fish and rice at the lodge, checked out the Sulawesi Scops-Owls that roosted outside the dining room, and tucked in for the night super-excited to bird the Tangkoko forest in the morning.

Sulawesi Scops-Owl
Friday, April 28 - Tangkoko National Park

Up early and off into the forest where we saw lots of very cool endemic birds and got savaged by many hundreds of tiny, ferocious, ankle-biting ants.  The forest itself was very open with not a lot of understory, which made getting around relatively easy (although stepping on the hundreds of two-inch-long fat, gray, millipedes that carpeted the forest floor was a little cringe-worthy, but there was simply no way to avoid squishing the odd one, not matter how carefully you walked), and the birds were relatively easy to find.  In no time at all, we'd racked up a bunch of target Sulawesi endemic birds like Bay Coucal, Black-billed Koel, Sulawesi Babbler, and Pale-blue Monarch.  Birds of prey were also lurking in the canopy, and we tracked down Spot-tailed Goshawk, Vinous-breasted Sparrowhawk and a very photogenic immature Sulawesi Hawk-Eagle who posed for us while  calling loudly through the forest, presumably hoping for a parent to drop by with food.

Sulawesi Hawk-Eagle
Sulawesi us also pretty much ground zero for Kingfishers and has a host of endemic species, five of which I hoped to see on this trip, and three of which we did in fact see that morning.  Lilac-cheeked Kingfisher is a beautiful, subtly colored creature that we saw along the entrance trail, while not far away a Green-backed Kingfisher lurked in deep shadows.  Finally, we also saw a Sulawesi Dwarf-Kingfisher after a long search of likely ravines and nesting areas.  All very nice birds, although the darkness of the forest meant that my photos of these gems were largely all terrible.

 The morning also produced two star mammals, the ultra-rare Sulawesi Crested-Macaque and the weirdly adorable SPECTRAL TARSIER.  I have always wanted to see a tarsier, and was shocked when Esli nonchalantly pointed to a gnarled fig tree and said "tarsier' before moving on to look for birds.  My response was a little more excited and I stopped to spend a little time with this crazy primitive little yoda-like primate.  Perhaps the coolest animal I've seen all year, and definitely the highlight of the Sulawesi trip for me.

Tangkoko is pretty much THE place to see the Sulawesi Crested-Macaque which occurs only here and on some nearby islands.  The population on mainland Sulawesi is tiny (3,000?) a result of persecution by farmers protecting their crops and locals hunting for bush-meat.  It is a very charismatic creature, most notably for it's odd black coloring (most macaques are a grayish brown color) and it's distinctive ape-like facial features.  They were also quite tame in the forest - perhaps unusual for a species that's still hunted - but at least here, close to the main trail, they allowed us to walk by them quite closely without paying us much mind.  A very cool primate, and I'm not usually all that fond of primates.....

After a siesta - simply too hot in the early afternoon - we returned to the forest and added yet more endemic birds.  Highlights in the afternoon included the majestic Knobbed Hornbill, Ashy Woodpecker, Sulawesi Mynah, and two 'hard to get' parrots, Azure-rumped Parrot, and Yellow-breasted Racquet-Tail.  Great day in the forest, and they even had beer at the dining room at the lodge!  Sulawesi is definitely not Java.

Knobbed Hornbill and Ashy Woodpecker

Saturday, April 29 - Tangkoko Overlook and Mangroves

Spent the day around the edges of the park picking up new things like the dapper White-faced Cuckoo-Dove, Sulawesi Cicadabird, Pygmy Hanging-Parrot, Golden-mantled Racquet-tail and the spiffy Black-naped Fruit-Dove.  A bit of time invested in the swiftlets overhead led me to conclude that there were three species - Sulawesi, Uniform and Glossy - present, well that was my best guess, I'm not very good at swiftlets.  Then as the day warmed up and thoughts turned to lunch, our target bird soared into view, another classy raptor the Sulawesi Serpent-Eagle.  A nice morning of birding along a road, and not a single ant-bite, although by now may ankles were itching like crazy and did so for the next five days.

White-faced Cuckoo-Dove and Sulawesi Serpent-Eagle

In the afternoon, we drove a little further to a mangroves area at a small river-mouth.  Out target here was another of the endemic kingfishers, the impressive Large-billed Kingfisher and it didn't take us long to find one.  We then basically just killed time, enjoying birds like Great-billed Heron and Rainbow Bee-eater until it got late enough to head back to the overlook to do some owling.

Large-billed Kingfisher
The weather in the evening unfortunately didn't cooperate for the owling, and light rain made it difficult to do very much, but we did manage to pull in a Minahassa Masked Owl.  We saw the owl several times in the lights, mostly flying over us, and we heard it call in response to the tape, but unfortunately the rain pretty much killed the chance of a photograph.  For me it as a bit deal though; after 40+ years of looking at birds, I finally saw a second member of the genus Tyto (yep, I'd only ever seen Barn Owl before that night so I was pretty excited to see a Masked Owl).

Monday, April 30 - Gunung Mahawu

The start of a very long trip home with flights from Manado > Jakarta > Singapore > Hong Kong > New York.  There was still time for a last stop though so we made our way over to Gunung Mahawu, hoping for another of the endemic kingfishers, Scaly-breasted Kingfisher.  We didn't have a lot of time at the reserve and unfortunately we never did find the kingfisher, but we did have a great selection of other endemic birds.  Sulawesi Woodpecker, the stunning Sulawesi Myzomela, Citrine Canary-Flycatcher, Island Flycatcher, and Sulawesi Blue-Flycatcher were all great additions to the list.  We did puzzle for a while over a strange, furtive bird in the leaf-litter which I later worked out was Chestnut-backed Bush-Warbler and we were gifted a visit from a Speckled Boobook that sat in the open and watched us right up until a split second before I got my camera focussed on it.

Island Flycatcher and Citrine Canary-Flycatcher

The stunning Sulawesi Myzomela
Too soon though time ran out and I had to head to the airport.  Sulawesi is a magical place and a short trip was no more than an amuse-bouche, priming me to come back for more.  I will absolutely be back there before too long.

Barred Rail at our pre-Airport lunch

Sunday, May 14, 2017

A Weekend in Australia

A Quick Trip to Perth and a Great Weekend of Birding

Saturday, April 22 - Perth

You know you've been flying too much when the idea of going to Australia for the weekend seems reasonable.  True, I was in Singapore, so Perth in Western Australia was only a five-hour flight away, but still, that's an awfully long way to go for a day and a half of birding.  My original plan, knowing that I had only from Friday night to Sunday night free, was to go to Way Kambas in Sumatra.  That plan fell through though and some on-line research revealed that yes, there were direct Friday and Sunday flights to/from Perth.  So all I needed then was a guide (a day and a half in an unfamiliar continent is no time to be "working things out") so when Peter Taylor from Birding SouthWest replied to an email to say he could guide me that weekend, I had a plan.

Singapore Airlines is one of my favorites and everything went like clockwork on Friday night, leaving me exhausted but excited in a hotel in downtown Perth by 1am.  The alarm was set for a very civilized 6am for a 7am pick-up and, at the appointed hour when we met, I was happy to accept Peter's suggestion that we "head for the hills" to start our day.

It's been a very long time since I was in a place where almost all the birds were completely new to me.  What was that thing that sounded like a baby goat?  What about the large black things that flopped along like kites or fruit bats?  Was that a Kookaburra?  Kangaroos!

First stop was Victoria Dam - and poor Peter had to put up with me being a lost kid, with a big goofy smile on my face soaking up the new and unfamiliar.  It was a truly awesome couple of hours wading through the blizzard of new birds, mostly new genera or even families.  The goat sound was Australian Raven.  The floppy fruit bats .... Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos.  Yes, there were Laughing Kookaburras, but apparently they aren't native so not a good thing.  And yes, there were Kangaroos ... two Western Gray Kangaroos hopped casually across the trail in from of us and off into the Eucalyptus woodland.  How Australian was that?  I was thrilled.

Western Spinebill and Gilbert's Honeyeater

We walked down to the dam and then on to the picnic area and new birds came at me fast and thick.  There were Red-capped Parrots and Western Rosellas, Brown, Gilbert's and New Holland Honeyeaters, White-browed Scrubwrens, Western Thornbills, Western Whistlers, Weebills, Red Wattlebirds, Gray Fantails, all sorts of cool unfamiliar things.  We paid special attention to Fairywrens and even though most were in eclipse plumage I was thrilled to see lots of Splendid Fairywrens and a couple of Red-winged Fairywrens.  Australian Robins were also very endearing, with Scarlet Robin and White- breasted Robin at the camp ground along with adorable Red-eared Firetails.    Just a wonderful 2 hours and 7 minutes (from eBird).  A really great way to start my trip and if I had any regrets, it's only that it occurred to me right then that I would never again have a first morning in Australia.

Scarlet and White-breasted Robins

Red-eared Firetail
Next stop was further up into the hills surrounding Perth and as we worked our way into Collins Road in Beverley I got another wave of new birds.  As soon as we got out of the car we had Rufous Treecreepers (not at all like the treecreepers I'm used to), Gray Shrikethrush (neither a shrike nor a thrush), and White-browed Babblers (you guessed it, not a babbler).  Other goodies there included Blue-breasted Fairywren, Spotted and Striated Pardalotes, Restless Flycatcher, and Western Yellow-Robin.  By the time we stopped for lunch I'd probably had 50 life birds.  Totally overwhelmed, but definitely not complaining.

Rufous Treecreeper and Restless Flycatcher 

Blue-breasted Fairywren
The afternoon was pretty much the same and included a big mixed flock of Carnaby's and Baudin's Black-Cockatoos.  With Long-billed and Little Corellas, Galah, and the three Black-Cockatoos, that made SIX lifer species of cockatoo for the day.  Not bad considering I'd only ever seen one species of cockatoo in my life before.

Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo
In the heat of the afternoon we switched over towards water birds and had a really great selection of ducks, shorebirds, wading birds and others at Bibra Lake and Alfred Cover Nature Reserve.  By the time Peter dropped my back at the hotel at around 7pm, I was exhausted.  Plans for exploring Perth were replaced by room-service and a hot bath ... hey, I had a lot of life birds to absorb.

Sunday, April 23 - Perth

Up and at 'em again on Sunday morning.  This time starting in sand dunes at Floreat Beach.  The targets here (two more Fairywren species) would not cooperate but there are worse places to dip things than standing on a beautiful coast watching Common Bottlenose Dolphins, Parasitic Jaegers and Australasian Gannets from the beach.

Rufous Night-Heron and Spotless Crake 

The rest of the morning was taken up by the wetlands of Herdsman Lake where we had a huge variety of super tame waterbirds to keep us amused.  Freckled Duck was the star bird rarity-wise for good looks at Spotless Crake, Buff-banded Rail, Rufous Night-Heron and Yellow-billed Spoonbills were all memorable moments for me.

Yellow-billed Spoonbill
After a last stop at King's Park - a wonderful Victorian park with large areas of native vegetation between the ornamental planting and heroic statues - my time had unfortunately come to an end.  Back to the airport and back up to Singapore.  This trip was not nearly long enough but I was faced with a choice ... two days of Australia or no Australia ... and I gather it's possible to get direct flights from Singapore to Darwin .....