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Sunday, January 14, 2007

Finishing a year of birding

Last Road Trip (click to enlarge)

(Map credit - Google Earth)

Just a quick note before getting to my post. I don’t have many photos from this last trip. Unfortunately, when the temperature drops below freezing, the batteries in my camera freeze and stop working. I just found some home-made solutions that might help for future cold outings.

On Friday, 12/29, Shane picked me up in front of my place at 2:00am. Thursday had been a long day travelling from Montauk and back, but today would be grueling. I slept for a couple of hours on my living room sofa so that I wouldn’t wake my wife as I prepared for the last leg of our big year of birding. Our birding agenda was Webster Park and Penfield (near Rochester), Willsboro and several ports along Lake Champlain, then the Saranac Lake Christmas Bird Count in the Adirondacks.

Shane wanted to finish the year with 344 species on his list. His tenacity, skill and good fortune had generated a low buzz among many New York City birders as he likely already observed more species in a single year than anyone in the state. But Shane had set himself a goal of 344 species and nothing would stop him from squeezing every last drop of daylight out of the year.

From Brooklyn we drove all night to Webster Park, on Lake Ontario. At first light we met Dominic Sherony, a birder from Northern NY, in the parking lot. He had offered to help us find some Bohemian Waxwings in that location. We had been to Webster Park once before, back on March 11th. On that date we were looking for a Varied Thrush but were unsuccessful. Nothing is really certain in nature but I was very confident that we would find a Varied Thrush today as one had been hanging around someone’s bird feeders about 10 miles south of Webster Park. Shane had made arrangements with the homeowner for us to come by at 9:30am to see the thrush, so we had limited time to try and locate a Bohemian Waxwing. We concentrated on searching shrubs and small trees that still held berries. Both cedar and Bohemian Waxwings would be feeding on fruit. Not far from the park entrance we encountered a small group of Cedar Waxwings perched in a small sapling, but no bohemians. We hiked the West Loop trail which traverses a large secessional habitat. It’s probably normally frozen by mid-winter but today the ground was soft and slick with mud. At the south edge of the loop is a dense stand of conifers. We only encountered two or three other people and, unfortunately, the park seemed equally devoid of bird life. Dominic lead the way as we headed south, to Rick Flood’s house.

Rick isn’t a birder but is observant enough to recognize an unusual and striking bird at his feeders. He contacted a birder friend who identified the bird as a Varied Thrush. The sighting was posted on the Genesse birding forum and Shane contacted Rick. Varied Thrushes are rare vagrants in the northeast so, once the word got out, Rick was probably inundated with e-mails from people requesting his address. He was extremely hospitable and happy to share his discovery with us. His bird feeder area is shaded by two or three large hemlocks. Rick explained that, when coming to feed, the thrush would perch high in the trees then gradually move down the branches until he felt it was safe to hop to the ground. Dominic and I settled in a spot on the floor near a sliding glass door that looks out towards the base of the hemlocks. At 10:15, just as Rick described, the Varied Thrush appeared perched on a branch high in the hemlock. He slowly made his way to the ground where he pecked at a piece of bread. Next to him was a female House Sparrow, which created an interesting juxtaposition of the non-descript and the showy. His plumage was more intensely colored and patterned than I had expected. He was like a robin in royal garb. I could have stayed all morning watching that bird but Shane reminded me that we had about 225 miles of road ahead of us. We thanked Rick for allowing us into his home, Dominic for helping us in Webster Park, then hit the road heading to Willsboro.

Varied Thrush (Ixoreus naevius) in Penfield, NY

(Photo credit - Rick Flood)

-Click here for a free Varied Thrush desktop photo-

Willsboro is a small village on the Adirondack plains at the western edge of Lake Champlain. We chose that location because someone had reported seeing a flock of Bohemian Waxwings in a tree next to the Paine Memorial Library. The library was easy to find, the waxwings were not. There was a cherry tree adjacent to the building that still held lots of fruit. Several recently planted saplings across from the library, at the edge of the Bouquet River, were also filled with fruit. I felt optimistic that all those food sources would have the waxwings remaining in the area. Unfortunately, it was beginning to get dark and the only waxwings next to the library were Cedar Waxwings. We were going to be staying in Saranac Lake at my friend’s Jason and Gail’s home, so we had at least another 37 miles ahead of us.

Jason and Gail are friends from the city who moved north 6 or 7 years ago. I’ve stayed in touch with Jason and this would be the first time I’ve seen him, his wife and their boys since they’ve moved. Matt Young, who was also participating in the Saranac Lake Christmas Bird Count, would meet us at the house later that night. It was great getting to catch up with old friends; it was even nicer finally getting a full 8 hours of sleep before spending the day birding.

We awoke Saturday before sunrise to a snowstorm. The wind was calm so, despite the fact that our binoculars would be nearly useless, it was actually really nice outdoors. Shane, Matt and I met Joan Collins, Sean O’Brien and Fuat Latif at the Bloomingdale Bog trail on route 55. After brief introductions we drove two of the three cars to Oregon Plains Road, near the end of Bigelow Road. Bloomingdale Bog traditionally has the highest count of Black-backed Woodpeckers on the Adirondack count so there was a very good possibility that Shane and I would get to see one. We birded along Oregon Plains Road up to the intersection of Bigelow Road. I was walking with Sean ahead of the rest of the group when Sean thought that he heard something. My head was so bundled up I could barely hear anything. He walked a few yards to the edge of the woods and pointed up at a Black-backed Woodpecker whittling wood from a tamarac. Unlike most woodpeckers who use their bill like a jackhammer, the black-backed uses his bill like a chisel to chip off pieces of wood. Their work is much quieter than other woodpeckers. I waved the rest of the group over. Shane got to us first but couldn’t see the bird. Then it flew across the road and into the woods. Black-backs don’t pay much attention to humans so Shane walked into the woods to find her. When he returned he had a wide grin and small wood chips mixed in with the snow on his wool cap. He described to me how he stood directly beneath her as she carved away at the tree looking for insects, never giving so much as a look at him. For Shane that was two species down and two more to go.

Bloomingdale Bog CBC morning (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Rob J)

Matt is an ornithologist who’s area of interest is, what birders refer to as, winter finches. In particular he is interested in the family of crossbills. Generally, the Adirondacks is the only location that one can reliable find the northern finches. For reason that I don’t understand, some winters large numbers will move much farther south than their normal range. The first White-winged Crossbill that I ever saw was at Fort Tilden in the borough of Queens. Anyway, he was good to have around as I hadn’t seen a Red Crossbill for the year and, without the use of my binoculars, his knowledge of their call would be helpful. Less than 10 minutes after we got to see the woodpecker, Matt called out that he could hear a Red Crossbill. I watched as it approached us then flew directly over our heads. A few minutes later I spotted one at the top of a conifer. At that point Shane reminded me that he still needed to find the Western Grebe on Lake Champlain and the unconventional bohemian. Joan, our group’s leader, was sympathetic to our fervor and didn’t mind that we left the count early to head east...again.

-Click here for info on winter finch irruptions-

When we arrived at Port Kent the snow had stopped but the lake was virtually blanketed by an opaque fog. The lake wasn’t completely obscured from view, but we could only see a short distance out into the water. I would have preferred the snow. We drove south along the coast periodically stopping to scan the water at wide, lakeside vantage points. We observed a nice assortment of waterfowl, Common Loons and Horned Grebes, but no Western Grebes. I’ve never seen a Western Grebe but have read and seen nature programs about their incredibly complex courtship dance. I searched the Internet and found a short video example of their elaborate ballet:

At about 5 miles north of Westport we decided to drive back towards Willsboro on the small side roads. We turned onto Clark Road and zig-zagged our way through a patchwork of farms eventually ending up back at route 22 in Willsboro. Bohemian Waxwings still managed to escape our checklist. We did have an amazing experience, though, along the route.

On Cross Road, just east of Christian Road, Shane pulled the car over. We had noticed a large flock of Snow Geese descending onto one of the fields south of us. What, at first, appeared to be just a few hundred geese, grew to a couple of thousand over the next 30 minutes. Skeins of Snow Geese arrived from all directions. I scanned each flock for the more compact Ross's Goose but never located one. As the noisy birds were landing in the distant field, Shane spotted a Northern Harrier standing silently on the ground in a field much closer to us. Then, flying in from the field behind us, a flock of Horned Larks landed on a berm of tilled soil a few yards from the edge of the road. We searched through the flock for something different and Shane located a pair of Lapland Longspurs and a single Snow Bunting. A truck rumbled down the road and flushed the entire flock of birds. They merely circled around the edge of the field then returned to the same spot. I wanted to stay longer but it was overcast, getting close to sunset and the chance of finding any new birds was slim to zero.

We returned to Saranac Lake in time to change our muddy boots and drive to the Christmas Count compilation dinner at the Saranac Lake Hotel.

After another good night’s rest we packed up the car while it was still dark. We decided that, instead of driving straight back to Brooklyn, we’d skirt the edge of Lake Champlain, as well as, check the library at Willsboro, one final time. The weather was sunny and clear. Visibility on Lake Champlain was excellent. We made four or five stops at the edge of the lake, each time spending at least 20 minutes trying to find the grebe. On the lake we tallied Common Loon, Horned Grebe, Canada Goose, Mute Swan, Wood Duck, American Wigeon, American Black Duck, Mallard, Greater Scaup, Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye and Hooded Merganser. Unfortunately, we never located the previously reported Western Grebe. We drove one more loop through the farmlands looking for Bohemian Waxwings, stopping at every single tree, shrub and occasional orchard we found. It was a beautifully scenic drive but we eventually admitted defeat (by the waxwings and grebe, anyway) and pulled onto the expressway, heading south to Brooklyn.

Shane finished the year two species short of his goal of 344. I ended our big year 15 species above my goal of 300. On the way home, we were, at first, fairly quiet and pensive. I would guess that Shane’s lack of conversation had a lot to do with exhaustion. Over a four day period he drove his car for over 1,000 miles. My head was clicking through images, like a slideshow, from 12 months of birds, people and places. I asked Shane what he thought his most memorable moment was from the year. We talked back and forth for nearly 5 hours about highlights, missed birds and people who helped us throughout the year.

Shane Blodgett, Sean Sime and I began 2006 by trying to reach 300 species in the state as a group. I don't own a car and wasn't able to put in the same hours as the other guys so didn't lose my mind quite as thoroughly. We spent as much time as possible birding the state together and helping each other find species that we "needed". I tried to cover most of our exploits on this blog. Between the three of us, we were able to document every observed rarity. So many people helped us, either directly or through the various state birding forums, that it would be impossible to thank them all personally. They kept us updated on sightings and passed on a wealth of information on the state's species abundance and migration patterns. I’ve learned more about birds and New York State in 2006 than I have in the combined past 5 years. But, more than anything else, I’ve enjoyed the camaraderie and, sometimes silliness that results from cramming three (or four; I haven’t forgotten you Doug) men with unconventional personalities into a car for hours at a time.

Sean Sime will be giving a slideshow and lecture about the year on March 27th at the Museum of Natural History:

“A ONE-YEAR SEARCH FOR THE BIRDS OF NEW YORK STATE”, Sean Sime, The Linnaean Society of New York, Photographer

Information on the program time and location can be found here: Linnaean Society Programs

In the meantime, here's a brief, chronological look back at our year in pictures:

- - - - -

Saranac Lake, Bloomingdale Bog, Port Kent, Port Essex, Willsboro, Westport, 12/30/2006
Common Loon
Horned Grebe
Snow Goose
Wood Duck
American Wigeon
Greater Scaup
Lesser Scaup
Common Goldeneye
Hooded Merganser
Common Merganser
Red-breasted Merganser
Bald Eagle
Northern Harrier
Red-tailed Hawk
Black-backed Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker
Gray Jay
Common Raven
Horned Lark
Boreal Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
Varied Thrush
Cedar Waxwing
Dark-eyed Junco
Lapland Longspur
Snow Bunting
Purple Finch
House Finch
Red Crossbill
White-winged Crossbill
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch

Other common species seen (or heard):
Canada Goose, Mute Swan, American Black Duck, Mallard, Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Rock Pigeon, American Crow, Black-capped Chickadee, American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, European Starling, Brown-headed Cowbird, House Sparrow

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