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Sunday, May 20, 2007

Birding Doodletown

Black Cherry flowers

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

The Brooklyn Bird Club booked Shane to lead a group of birders on a trip to Doodletown. I’ve gone hiking and birding in that area of Harriman State Park several times and really enjoyed the scenery, flora and abundance of breeding birds. I signed up for a spot on the trip as soon as registration opened. It would be the first time since the City Birding Challenge, 8 days ago, that Shane and I would go birding together. Compared to the day of the challenge, the pace would be much slower and total time birding a lot shorter. I really do enjoy the City Birding Challenge, but it’s something that I only have enough stamina for once a year.

Click to enlarge

(Photo credit - Google)

Doodletown is located along the Hudson River and only about 40 miles (as the crow flies) from midtown Manhattan. When walking along the trails that wind through the forested area that was once a thriving town, it feels more like the backcountry of the Catskill Mountains. Many city birders make it their destination during the 3rd week of May. Several species of woodland birds that are only seen in New York City’s parks on migration, can be found nesting in Doodletown. One species that is of great interest is the Cerulean Warbler. Their name comes from the latin word, caeruleus, meaning sky blue. They are sublimely beautiful birds who choose a lofty perch from which to deliver their ascending, buzzy warble for, seemingly, hours on end. The bad news is that Cerulean Warblers are in serious danger of extinction due to habitat loss. Several conservation groups have placed protecting the Cerulean Warbler at the top of their priorities.

Cerulean Warbler

(Photo credit - Robert Royse)

-Read more about efforts to save the Cerulean Warbler-

At first, the weather didn’t seem like it would be in our favor. When we began the morning it was overcast and gloomy. On the drive north we passed through some patches of drizzle. Fortunately, shortly after parking the cars in Harriman State Park and ascending Gray’s Hill on Doodletown Road, the storm clouds moved on and it was sunny the rest of the trip. My first bird of the day was a chickadee, actually a pair of chickadees. They were busy at a nest cavity near the edge of the parking area. A few dozen yards beyond the trail Shane pointed out 2 or 3 hyperactive Blue-gray Gnatcatchers feeding in the tree branches above us. At about the same time, we noticed a small flock of Cedar Waxwings perched in a sycamore. I almost always hear waxwings before I see them. Their ultra-high pitched whistle has an omni-directional quality that is usually hard for me to pinpoint.

Birding Doodletown Road

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

Moments after we saw the Cedar Waxwings, Shane walked over to me and calmly asked, “Do you remember what the three species of birds were that we would ‘definitely’ see during the City Birding Challenge, but somehow missed?” Let me think, Black-capped Chickadee, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and Cedar Waxwing. There might be a lesson buried somewhere in that bit of serendipity, I can’t be sure. An Olive-sided Flycatcher perched in a crooked snag cried out, “Quick, three beers!” Not a bad suggestion, but I would have preferred the three birds.

Drying after morning rain

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

Purple Cress - Cardamine douglassii (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

Two Cerulean Warblers had been reported along a trail just beyond Doodletown Lake. Before reaching the area Shane decided first to detour to another location. It was the former site of an old church. All that remained of the building was the foundation near the center of a grass meadow surrounded by forest. Last year Shane, Sean and I found a Cerulean Warbler at the spot on May 31st. A few yards before reaching the trail that opens onto the meadow, I began to hear the buzzy song of a cerulean. Most of the group was enjoying two male and two female Hooded Warblers a short distance down the trail. Hooded Warblers are striking birds, and we were all thrilled by the sightings, but they suddenly seemed commonplace once everyone learned that there was a Cerulean Warbler in the vicinity.

I tracked the singing warbler to the end of a short trail that jutted into the woods on the south side of the meadow. It was actually more of an alcove than a trail. At one point, while watching the brilliant blue and white bird, it flew down from its high perch into a tulip tree sapling only a few feet from the ground. I’m usually the tallest person on a birding trip and, shortly after getting satisfying looks at the cerulean, I ducked out of the way and walked to another section of the meadow. Shane and I were the only experienced ear-birders in the group and I want to give them all a chance to see the bird. By the end of our time at Doodletown we counted 6 male and 2 female Cerulean Warblers. It seemed like a high number, which is good, but we couldn't be 100% certain that some of the individuals weren't ones we had encountered elsewhere.

Our detour to the small meadow turned out to be an excellent decision. There were at least 2, and possibly 3, Cerulean Warblers in the location. Other noteworthy birds singing and foraging in the trees surrounding the meadow were Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Yellow-throated Vireo, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Blue-winged Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler and Baltimore Oriole. One unexpected was of a
Golden-winged Warbler. Mary first spotted the female bird at about eye level. It was very cooperative and, for several minutes, continued feeding in the shrubs and vines along the edge of the old church’s concrete foundation. In addition to our group of 13, there were several other birders present who “oohed” and “aahed” at the sight of the boldly marked black, white and gold bird.

After birding Doodletown, the trip’s agenda called for a visit to a nearby area referred to generically as “Mine Road”. It is in that location that Golden-winged Warblers are usually found. In addition, there is a very specific stretch of road between several numbered telephone poles where a Lawrence’s Warbler has been observed each spring for the last few years. The Lawrence’s Warbler is actually the hybrid result of interbreeding between Golden-winged and Blue-winged Warblers.

Golden-winged Warbler

Blue-winged Warbler

Lawrence’s Warbler

(Photos copyright “Powdermill Avian Research Center”)

While searching for a simple definition of Lawrence’s Warbler I came across a “Birder’s World” photo of the week contest winner. The photo was taken “near Bear Mountain” so there is a likelihood that it is the same one from Mine Road.

While we were still hiking within Doodletown John Criscitiello noticed a large insect on his shoulder and flicked it off. I looked where it fell and found a freshly emerged dragonfly. John must have brushed against a shrub and inadvertently picked up the hitchhiker. The insect looked like he was struggling on the ground because his wings hadn't yet "inflated" and dried. I gave him a little assistance with a stick, then hung it in a shrub. It was interesting how, after he grabbed hold of the stick, he instinctively assumed a vertical position. At home I looked through the field guide “Dragonflies Through Binoculars” by Sidney Dunkle, but got the impression that it may not be possible to identify the insect while it is still in an incomplete transition state. Maybe some kind of darner?

Recently emerged dragonfly (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

I sent a note to my friend, Jerry Layton, who studies dragonflies and would likely have some insight on the insect’s identification. Here is his reply:

Date: May 27, 2007
Subject: RE: Some insect images


[ ... ] Although it is tough to tell at that early stage, the dragonfly looks like Genus cordulegaster. The species, perhaps, northern form of maculata (most common at this time in spring). Less likely is Brown Spiketail (it's more southern), or Arrowhead (obliqua) - more summer but spots on abdomen, from what I can see, don't match up. [ ... ]

So, after all that, I'll jump in and go with maculata. [ ... ]


I wouldn’t know a Cordulegaster maculata from a ... well, nearly most any dragonfly. That’s when websites like this come in really handy.

Today was the first spring day that I noticed lots of fresh Tiger Swallowtails flying around. One individual that I stumbled on must have emerged very recently as its wings were perfectly formed and vividly colored. He was trying to climb up on a vertical surface, no doubt to allow his wings more time to dry. A tall blade of grass that he was attempting to scale was bending under his weight and he kept getting blown off. I gave him some help and used the opportunity to take some close up photos.

Recently emerged Tiger Swallowtail (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

After gassing up the cars, we drove the short distance to Mine Road. A narrow border of forest has been cut in most places parallel to Mine Road. The habitat is secessional and primarily composed of grasses, wildflowers, shrubs and a small number of saplings or small trees. It is these open areas at the edge of the woodlands where one is likely to find Lawrence’s Warbler, or for that matter, Golden-winged and Blue-winged Warblers. I forget the exact numbers, but I believe that the annual Lawrence’s on Mine Road is found between telephone poles #139 to #144. Those words look as weird as they sound, but, apparently, there is something special to that particular bird in that area so he comes back every year. It seemed almost too simple. We parked the cars and walked back down the road, checking the numbered plates on the telephone poles. Eventually, we got to the correct area and Mary, the eagle-eye that she is, spotted the Lawrence’s Warbler perched in a Black Cherry sapling.

Yellow Rocket (Barbarea vulgaris)

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

Spring Cress (Cardamine bulbosa)

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

As we walked along that stretch of road our ears were serenaded and eyes dazzled by several Indigo Buntings. They were nearly all brilliantly plumed male birds and were perching on telephone lines, in trees or chasing each other from their respective territories. Blue seemed to be the color of the day as we also spotted an Eastern Bluebird in a clearing near the cars.

I’m not sure if everyone in our group got to view the Lawrence’s Warbler. It didn’t stay in the sapling very long and flew back and forth across the road a couple of times until I lost him. We eventually gave up looking and returned to the car. Just as we started back I heard the faint, sibilant “beeee BZZZZZ” song of a Blue-winged Warbler or, as the case might be, a Lawrence’s Warbler.

A bit farther up the road is Stillwell Lake. A dam at the south end of the lake is known for its nesting Cliff Swallows. Unlike the typical mud nest of the closely related Barn Swallow, these amazingly agile swallows construct completely enclosed, structures that look like upsidedown igloos. As soon as we walked to the edge of the lake above the dam, we found a few active nests. I’m not sure why, but I found the swallows irresistibly cute when they stuck their heads out of their tiny, mud caves. They evoked an image of a bored kid somewhere in the city, leaning on his elbows and staring out of his apartment window on to the streets below.

Cliff Swallow in nest (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

By the time everybody had their fill of Cliff Swallows (or mosquitos), it was 4:30PM. We stashed our gear and headed back to Brooklyn.

The trip was a success in many ways. Shane found the group all the targeted species, and then some. We tallied a respectable number and diversity of birds. If I include the Lawrence’s Warbler, which isn’t technically a species, we observed 72 species of birds. Add to that a wealth of spring flowers, emerging butterflies and good company, and I’d guess that everyone went home tired and happy.

- - - - -

Doodletown & Mine Road, 5/20/2007
Double-crested Cormorant
Cooper's Hawk
Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Spotted Sandpiper
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Chimney Swift
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Eastern Phoebe
Great Crested Flycatcher
Eastern Kingbird
Yellow-throated Vireo
Warbling Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Cliff Swallow
Barn Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Eastern Bluebird
Wood Thrush
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
Cedar Waxwing
Blue-winged Warbler
Golden-winged Warbler
"Lawrence's Warbler"
Yellow Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Prairie Warbler
Bay-breasted Warbler
Blackpoll Warbler
Cerulean Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Worm-eating Warbler
Louisiana Waterthrush
Common Yellowthroat
Hooded Warbler
Canada Warbler
Scarlet Tanager
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Eastern Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Common Grackle
Orchard Oriole
Baltimore Oriole
American Goldfinch

Other common species seen (or heard):
Canada Goose, Mute Swan, Mallard, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Downy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Crow, American Robin, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, Song Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, House Sparrow

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