Posts Tagged ‘Birding’

Apparently these Black-bellied Plovers and Red Knots can't read.

It’s 3:30 AM on January 1st, 2011, and my alarm clock is beeping. Two hours of sleep, not bad, considering the date. Time to finally start off the year right!

Fast forward an hour. I, with a few other intrepid birders, are on the way to the barrier beaches on the south shore of Long Island for the Southern Nassau County Christmas Bird Count.

5:32 AM. Our first stop is on the side of the parkway, with no other noises save for the sound of a jet overhead and the roar of the pounding surf not far away. We are looking for Barn Owls, which would be a good species for the count. The recording plays the unearthly screeching hiss of a barn owl…

Not far away, the answer comes, “CKSHHHHH!”.

My first bird of the year, a Barn Owl! Not bad…

We continue the rounds, finding no other Barn Owls on our pre-dawn circuit. An American Woodcock in the headlights makes for a great second bird, however.

It's dawn, and you know what that means: a seawatch from Jones Beach!

As the sun begins to rise, we head to the beaches. In the parking lot, five Common Redpolls fly over the car. Snow Buntings rattle as they whirl over the beach. There are all three scoters on the water, plus Common Eiders, Bonaparte’s Gulls and thousands of passing Dunlin.

On the way back to the car, these two Peregrines put on a show.

Some aspects of the birding are disappointing: as hard as we look, no Northern Gannets are to be seen from the beach. But other parts are great. American Bittern and Red-shouldered Hawk are great birds for January 1st, and Red-breasted Nuthatches, a Fox Sparrow, a Gray Catbird and a Swamp Sparrow aren’t bad for the side of the highway…

We saw 47 American Pipits during the count, including this one (from a flock of 20).

Northern Harrier

As the day progresses, we tick off most of the common species (one surprising miss is American Goldfinch!). A final search for Short-eared Owls as the sun sets proves fruitless, but it doesn’t dampen the mood–a great first day of the year!

A close Horned Grebe at Pt. Lookout, while we were looking at some Harlequin Ducks.


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The view from the Empire State Building, taken with my phone. I suppose I could've tried harder to get a good scenery shot, but there were birds to see!

This weekend I joined the New York State Young Birders to do a bit of city birding. On Sunday, 9/26, we visited Central Park–a classic place for all sorts of migrating passerines. But the night before (yes, the night before), we birded a spot far more unorthodox–the 86th floor of the Empire State Building.

As many birders know, many songbirds choose nighttime to migrate. This is probably due to a combination of factors–a cooler and more stable atmosphere, a decreased risk of predators (more on this in a bit), and more time to do other stuff during the day. On Saturday night, we got lucky by picking a night when there was a large amount of migration taking place. We saw over 800 birds (visible because of the floodlights on the top of the building) flying south from about 9:30-11 pm, and it was quite a sight.

So how does one bird the Empire State Building?

First, buy a ticket online, at esbnyc.com. They’re $20 a piece. Then, get to the building a little after sundown–it can take a long time to get through all the lines. I arrived at the building at 8 and didn’t get to the 86th floor observatory until 9. In the fall, position yourself at the northwest corner of the building, and look up. Birds can be seen crossing the top of the building or flying around the side. Be careful of moths, because they can sometimes seem like birds. But moths are generally much smaller, fly more erratically, and if there’s a substantial wind they will get pushed in the direction it’s going very easily.

We saw some interesting stuff up there, both species-wise and behavior-wise. In addition to warblers, vireos, thrushes, catbirds, grosbeaks, cuckoos, and your other normal nocturnally migrating passerines, we saw two heron-like birds, as well as a small flock of Canada Geese. We also saw a few Northern Flickers (distinctive) and a Downy Woodpecker or two. I’m sure I’m forgetting some birds, but the vast majority were a real challenge to identify–the floodlights make everything look pale yellow, and unless the bird is really low and has distinctive markings (e.g., Northern Flicker, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Downy Woodpecker, etc.) it is very tough to ID to species.

As the night progressed, birds started appearing more grouped together–many birds came through in groups of 4 or 5, and we had one loose group of 12 at around 10:30. On a couple of occasions, birds also interacted with one another, chasing each other around (like what I’ve seen in morning flight). Interesting . . .

I did managed to get some photos of these birds. They redefine the term “crappy photo,” but you can get an idea of the kind of views we got of these birds.

We tentatively called this a Great Blue Heron. The weird thing is that the trailing feet aren't visible. Not sure what to make of that (maybe they're just not that reflective).

A cuckoo--Black-billed, perhaps?

Vireo/warbler sp.

Like us, Peregrine Falcons take advantage of the lights. We saw at least 15 chases and about 4 successful kills--it just plucked songbirds right out of the air!

Prairie Warbler, maybe? (Or Magnolia?)

It was a really fun and interesting experience–I’d love to get up there again and try different camera settings to see if I can pull off any better shots. Plus it really tests your knowledge of structure and flight pattern while giving you almost no color information to work with. A good way to improve your ID skills.

But that wasn’t the whole trip. We met at 7:30 am the following morning to bird Central Park. One might think, with all the birds flying by during the preceding night, the park would be saturated with birds. But, unfortunately, a massive nocturnal flight doesn’t always translate into a banner day the following morning. We had excellent diversity, though.

The trip started out in Strawberry Fields, and we soon ran into our first migrants–Northern Parula and Blackpoll Warbler. Brown Thrashers started calling from the thickets (we would see at least 10 over the course of the morning), and a couple people caught a glimpse of a Gray-cheeked Thrush (not me). The overall bird numbers were disappointingly low, but we pressed on. On the south part of the field we encountered another small group of birds. A couple Swainson’s Thrushes and–wait–another Gray-cheeked (only one person saw this one). Palm and Blackpoll Warblers showed up, as did White-throated Sparrow, Eastern Phoebe, and our highlight of the day–a brightly patterned Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. Also spotted was a Common Nighthawk, an unusual (and slightly late) migrant in the park.

We pressed on, finding more thrashers and some scattered warblers (we added Black-throated Blue). Swamp Sparrows called, and above us flew American Kestrels and an Osprey. Moving north, we headed to the Ramble, a spot well-known for warblers. It paid off–we stayed there for the rest of the morning and found many birds within its bounds, including an impressive amount of Swainson’s Thrushes and a few more Gray-cheeked (I finally saw one)! Azalea Pond was a particularly good spot–Magnolia and Black-and-white Warblers, Purple Finches, Winter Wren and Wood Thrush all appeared nearby. Other migrants in the vicinity included Scarlet Tanager, Pine Warbler, Indigo Bunting, American Redstart, Northern Waterthrush and a smattering of others.

We ended the birding portion of the trip at Belvedere Castle, spotting Great Egret, Gadwall, Mallard, and Wood Duck on the pond below (or at least I was told that was the last birding stop–I had to leave).

And just to prove that the quality of the above photos was a product of the lighting conditions and not awful photography skills, here is a photo of the best look I’ve had at a Gray-cheeked Thrush from Sunday, when there was actually some sunlight:

Gray-cheeked Thrush

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Here are some pictures of a White-tailed Kite spotted in Stratford, CT this morning. What an awesome bird, all the way from Florida/Texas/Louisiana (or potentially even further)!

Other birders posted photos; here are a few links to additional pictures:
Frank Gallo
Alex Burdo
Scott Kruitbosch

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For the past couple weeks I’ve been doing a lot of birding along the New York coast. Late summer (yes, mid-July is late summer in the birding world) brings many early migrants to the area. These include some songbirds (Louisiana Waterthrush and Yellow Warbler are good examples), but also large numbers of shorebirds and other coastal species. What better places than Cupsogue Beach, on the south shore of Long Island, and Jamaica Bay, south of Queens?

Sorting my sightings reverse-chronologically, this afternoon I stopped my Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge to see a just-found Black-bellied Whistling-Duck. This species normally occurs in Florida and Texas only, but strangely enough, it’s been found in many northeastern states this year, including New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. There is a possibility that some of these birds are escapees, but many (including the one I saw today), had no leg bands and normal feet (captive waterfowl often have clipped toes). Global warming? Possibly, but who knows. . .

A content Black-bellied Whistling-Duck surveys several birders watching from afar.

Rewinding to last weekend, I spent an adventurous half-day at Cupsogue Beach park with the New York State Young Birders Club. Despite a failed seawatch in the early morning (just wasn’t one of those days), we headed out to the flats at low tide to observe the large congregation of shorebirds and terns. Luckily we had the help of superb NY-area birder Doug Gochfeld, who found most of the notable birds that morning. Highlighting those was a Sandwich Tern, followed by other nice terns (Roseate, Royal, Gull-billed, Least, Common). Western Sandpiper, an adult, provided a good opportunity to study its structure (more upright stance, different head shape than Semipalmated), and several of the the declining Red Knots were heartening to observe as well. Of course, I managed to not get a photo of any of the notable birds seen that day. Not sure how that happened. Returning to the parking lot was an interesting experience, as it was about six hours after the time we got out there — in other words, high tide. Some faired better than others; it depended on if you were unlucky enough to step in a low area while wading to shore.

A close flyby American Oystercatcher. Really cool looking birds.

The state-endangered and federally-threatened Piping Plover nests at Cupsogue.

A relaxing Least Tern (state-threatened).

A Snowy Egret, great to see, as always.

A Saltmarsh Sparrow checks us out in the early morning light.

Just as a side note, I visited Jamaica Bay last week also and saw lots and lots of terrific birds, led by American White Pelican, Hudsonian Godwit, Least Bittern, Long-billed Dowitcher, Black Tern and Tricolored Heron, but I had left my camera in the car to prevent it from being dropped in the East Pond while slogging through the mud and water. Bad decision, since there were lots of photo opportunities and I never actually tripped. Inexcusable, I know. Next time.

As a further aside, I was up in Connecticut (away from the coast) doing some bird banding earlier in the month, and got to band some really cool birds that you don’t normally think of as CT residents, like these three:

A really nice male Magnolia Warbler. Probably my second-favorite warbler.

A female Blackburnian Warbler, my first favorite! Unfortunately we didn't catch any males that day, though there were many singing high above us.

A female Canada Warbler, from the bog down below us. Some really nice habitat in that area of northwest Connecticut.

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Gray Jay at Bigelow Road.

Ok, not really an adventure by some’s standards, but certainly an intense adventurous weekend…

The moment I was told that the NYS Young Birders Club was doing a field trip to the Adirondacks for Bicknell’s Thrush, I was in. Despite the very good chance of finding this very range-restricted high-altitude thrush that only breeds at certain locales in the northeast (almost all over 2900 feet), it was also chance to find more of the boreal birds. I’d been to the Adirondacks once before, this past winter, and I was itching to see what it was like with all the neotropical migrants (warblers, thrushes, etc.) around as well.

The only problem was that trip was just one morning. Anyone who has birded in this area knows there are TONS of great birding spots, and no one location has all the specialty birds that call these mountains home. The choice was clear: I had to find a way to go up for the weekend, not just one day. Luckily, Arthur, from a local Audubon chapter was able and willing drive for the weekend, and with my friend Ryan coming along as well we figured we could split the expenses between the three of us to make them manageable. A plan was soon developed — I handled the motel ($55/night ain’t bad), Arthur did the car rental (no one had a car in good enough shape with decent gas mileage), and Ryan…came along for the trip ;).

But enough background; on to the birds… We arrived at the Hawkeye Motel on Friday night (6/11), and discovered that it wasn’t half bad. Our only complaint was a faulty shower head, but $55/night for two nights split three ways — $40 per person — was worth it. In our first few minutes after arrival, we found Field Sparrow, Black-and-white Warbler, and Purple Finch. The restaurant we ate at that evening (“The Wilderness”) even had two Ruby-throated Hummingbirds coming to a feeder just outside the window, in perfect view.


I had decided that Spruce Grouse was one of the birds we should try to get. A rarely-seen uncommon resident of spruce forests, this bird has been declining in New York, due in part to the fragmentation of its population into the small pockets of suitable habitat remaining in the Adirondacks. In order to maximize our potential for finding the bird, I planned morning stops to Massawepie Mire and Spring Pond Bog, perhaps the two spots most well known for the frequency in which grouse are seen. We planned to get to Massawepie around 6, which meant leaving at 4:30…which meant getting up by 4. The forecast was also foreboding. “Occasional showers in the morning developing into a steady rain during the afternoon” was none too promising. But we didn’t let it bother us. Up we got at 3:45 and we were out the door at 4:15. We picked up Greg, another young birder who was staying for the weekend, and headed west toward the Mire. No rain yet.

Unfortunately, it only took about 20 minutes for the first rain drops to fall on the windshield, and by the time we reached Massawepie it had become pretty steady. We needed to keep to the schedule to have time for everything, though, so we birded. Overshooting the trailhead by a mile or two didn’t help much (stupid GPS…but we did hear a singing Mourning Warbler), so we got started at the correct place around 6:20.

Grouse like dirt roads because they can dust in them, a cleansing behavior, but the roads were now muddy and we realized that our chances for Spruce Grouse were even slimmer. But there were many other birds to be seen (or at least heard). Palm Warblers lined the path, White-throated and Lincoln’s Sparrows sang, Eastern Bluebirds called, and Magnolia Warblers flitted back and forth. We also heard Winter Wrens singing their bubbly song. Little did we know we would tally more than 30 of these by the end of the weekend. Unfortunately, none of our target boreal specialties showed themselves (yes, we did go to the right spot). Plus, there were tons of biting insects out, even in the rain, and of course we were soaked. On to Spring Pond Bog.

A White-throated Sparrow at Spring Pond Bog.

The rain had abated considerably by the time we showed our pass (obtained from the Nature Conservancy) to the gatekeeper and rolled in to the preserve. We drove slowly through prime Spruce Grouse habitat with no luck, but we did find a Ruffed Grouse, and — finally — some boreal birds! Gray Jays and Boreal Chickadees both showed well, and we heard, but did not see, the two Yellow-bellied Flycatchers. Other breeders such as Blackburnian and Nashville Warblers, Hermit Thrush, and Olive-sided Flycatcher were around as well. We spent around three hours total at Spring Pond Bog, but we frustratingly could not find the actual bog path! It was very annoying, but we managed okay anyway, leaving with many new birds for the day (and lifers for some).

My lifer Yellow-bellied Flycatcher!

We stopped quickly at a Stewart’s in Tupper Lake for lunch and made a beeline for Paul Smiths VIC (Visitors Interpretive Center). Adirondack Park is five million acres, so it’s understandable why so many of the birding places are spaced out. Still, drives of 30-90 minutes between birding stops were a drag, even if unavoidable. We arrived at Paul Smiths after checking two spots that had been suggested to us for Black-backed Woodpecker (guess what: nothing). While on the Boreal Life Trail we heard the distant drumming of a woodpecker that seemed consistent with our recordings of Black-backed, but no one knew for sure and we never saw it. On the way back Greg was almost assaulted by an angry Ruffed Grouse mother protecting her young. It charged him, tail up and wings held outward, and then scampered into the woods to draw our attention away from its family. We left the area quickly to avoid further disturbance. An unforeseen plus was a Northern Saw-whet Owl nest box I had just found out about the day before. Unfortunately, it seemed the young were fledged, but just to make sure we whistled and played a bit of the call. Just when we were turning around, we heard the unmistakable “toot toot toot toot…” of a saw-whet many meters down the trail. We debated searching for it, but Greg thought it would be a bad idea to risk exposing the bird to the Blue Jays that were around. We agreed, and returned to the car.

Boreal Chickadee at Spring Pond Bog.

It was mid-afternoon (around 4 pm), and with only 2 hours to go before we were due in Wilmington, we upped the pace. (more…)

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Burden Preserve is a fairly new park, owned by the town of New Castle. The first time I’d been there was this past Sunday, and boy, did it exceed my expectations. Both Hooded Warblers and a Kentucky Warbler were singing full steam, even at mid-day, and the habitat was excellent (despite tons of barberry).

Today I went back, itching to try out my new camera lens. Unfortunately, no Kentucky this time, but the Hooded did sing a few times, and there were other cool birds to see…here are a couple pictures:

This Ovenbird sang out in the open for us!

My first decent look at a Black-billed Cuckoo. A terrific look, too...

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Sunrise on the Bashakill

This morning, the NYS Young Birders Club went to Sullivan County, NY for our May field trip. Our destination, the Bashakill, is probably the best birding spot in the county and can be terrific for migrants during the spring and fall. I and two particularly intrepid young birders camped (with a parent) nearby so we could start early.

So, my alarm went off at 3:30 am, and we were on Haven Rd listening for birds by 4:10. The frogs were deafening, making it hard to hear anything in the marsh, but we soon picked out Swamp Sparrow, Eastern Kingbird and Tree Swallow from the din. Soon after, an American Bittern began its characteristic deep “oong-KA-chunk” call. Because the frogs were so loud, there was some discussion with our trip leader, Lance (a superb leader, by the way), about trying a certain road nearby known for Whip-poor-wills. We decided it might be worth it. We started back toward the cars, only to stop halfway because, you guessed it, a Whip-poor-will was calling somewhere in the valley. How convenient.

It was getting light now. Wood Ducks flew by in small groups, and a small flock of Bobolinks passed over our heads. A Common Moorhen called to the north (we luckily got to see it too), and Northern Rough-winged Swallows joined the Tree Swallows already in the air.

The rest of our group arrived by 6, and we headed off to a nearby trail, the “Stop Sign Trail”, to look for migrant warblers and other songbirds. Blackpoll, Black-and-white and Yellow Warblers, plus Northern Waterthrush, were all around, but nothing compared to the loads of migrants present in the days before. It seemed as though nearly  all the migrants had left the night before we arrived. A flyby Pileated Woodpecker did lift the mood a bit.

The club looks for migrants

Lance told us not to worry, and we moved on to another area, the Nature Trail section of the Bashakill. Though there were not as many migrants here as well, there were some — Veerys and a Gray-cheeked Thrush sang as we walked in, and Canada and Wilson’s Warblers each made an appearance, among others.

Cuckoos can be hard to see, but this Yellow-billed Cuckoo was relatively cooperative

Rumors of an Acadian Flycatcher nearby prompted us to walk along the road outside the entrance to the nature trail. (more…)

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