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Monday, December 25, 2006

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Bronx Christmas Bird Count

Mist on Twin Lakes (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Rob J)

Bronx River from Hester Bridge (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Rob J)

Yesterday I participated in the Bronx/Westchester Christmas Bird Count. For the second year in a row the area that our team covered was The New York Botanical Garden. It was also the second year in a row that weather predictions were “less than optimal”. Last year was pretty miserable as the rain came down all morning, sometimes in torrents.

This year's team consisted of Steve Nanz, Dennis Pippin and myself. Thankfully, our efforts weren’t really hampered by bad weather. It sprinkled lightly for about the first hour of daylight and then it was merely overcast until around lunchtime. It was also unseasonably warm. After lunch, we were walking to our next location and Steve was eating his dessert. I asked him if he ever imagined that he’d be wearing lightweight clothing and eating ice cream on a New York Christmas Count. I just hope this winter’s weather is a single year anomaly.

Wing coverts of a dead Red-winged Backbird

(Photo credit - Rob J)

The birds appeared to be much more abundant at the botanic garden than at Floyd Bennett Field last weekend. One disappointment was not being able to locate the Western Kingbird that had been seen near the Rock Garden. It had been present from November 26th up until December 16th. I’d like to think that he moved on, however, the presence of two Cooper’s Hawks, five Red-tailed Hawks and a Merlin makes me wonder. Most of the trees are bare and the majority of overwintering bird’s plumages are in the gray, brown and black range. A bright yellow bird makes an easy target for a hungry predator. At one point we observed a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk running around beneath some shrubs trying to snag an unwary sparrow.

We had one highlight that sort of made up for the missing kingbird. While scanning a group of trees I located a Great Horned Owl. He was aware of our presence but didn’t appear too concerned. Later in the morning, after we had circled the garden a few times, we inadvertently came upon the same tree that the owl was perched in but from the opposite side of the trunk. What we couldn’t see from the original location was that he was perched next to his mate. Steve quickly spread the legs of his tripod, focused his camera and snapped a few shots of the sleepy birds. The sun was beginning to peak through the clouds and cast a glow on the owls. I told Steve to let me know when he was ready to take a photo. When he did I pursed my lips and made a low, mute squeak. They opened their eyes and looked at us for a moment before drifting back off.

This is the time of year when Great Horned Owls begin breeding. It is for that reason that if you ask me the location of the owls, I’ll ignore you. Don’t take it personally. Urban owls are under enough pressure so I think it’s probably a good idea to give them a little space, especially when they’re trying to raise a family.

Great Horned Owls (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Steve Nanz)

-Click here for more info on Great Horned Owls-

- - - - -

NYBG, Bronx CBC, 12/23/2006
Canada Goose
Northern Shoveler
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl (2.)
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
Northern Mockingbird
European Starling
Northern Cardinal
Chipping Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Red-winged Blackbird
Brown-headed Cowbird
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

Thursday, December 21, 2006

December update

I’ve been feeling a bit guilty lately because I haven’t updated my blog much this month. But then, it also hasn’t been a typical year of birding for me. Sean, Shane and I began in January by birding at Montauk Point, the eastern most point of Long Island. Over the course of the year we’ve searched for birds at the southeastern-most part of New York State to the northwestern extreme and many points between. Expect to see a map here next month. So, here is a rundown of were we’ve all been during this home stretch of our big New York State year beginning with December 1st.

I didn’t go out on the February pelagic trip to the Hudson Canyon so I missed out on what was described as the best trip in the history of “Sea Life Paulagics”. If I had any chance of passing 300 species for the year I had to go out on at least one boat. The next trip was scheduled for December 2nd and I booked a spot as soon as possible. December 1st rolled around and Saturday’s marine forecast called for gale force winds and very high seas. The trip was cancelled and rescheduled for that Sunday.

Shane had already blown passed Sean and myself in total species on his quest for a big year, however, with an extra day on his hands, he decided to drive up to Niagara. He drove straight through, slept in his car for 2 hours, then met up with Willie D’Anna to search for a Thayer’s Gull and Slaty-backed Gull. He found the thayer’s easily enough but the slaty-backed was on the “wrong” side of the Canadian border. They weren’t able to persuade him to fly over to the US side. Having successfully added one more bird to his list, he turned around, drove back to Brooklyn and prepared for Sunday’s boat trip out to the Hudson Canyon.

Sean and Joe at Long Beach

(Photo credit - Rob J)

Niagara seemed a little out of the way for a one day trip so Joe, Sean and I went out to Long Beach and Jones Beach early Saturday morning to search for (primarily) any unusual swallows among the Tree Swallow flocks. An exhaustive search through, approximately, 200 swallows feeding within the dunes near the inlet didn't reveal anything other than Tree Swallows. One unexpected sighting from that location was a lone Royal Tern flying low above the jetty.

Lapland Longspur

(Photo credit - Sean Sime)

Scanning a flock of Snow Buntings in the parking lot at Jones Beach West End 2 turned up a single Lapland Longspur. There was a fairly large flock of buntings feeding along a circuit from the east end of the parking lot, in the sand at the south and west end, and onto the paved western-most parking lot. We spotted a second longspur in a small group just before we departed. It differed significantly from the first individual in that it still retained quite a lot of its breeding plumage. Three Long-tailed Ducks, a common and Red-throated Loon were in the water in front of the Coast Guard Station.

The inlet at Long Beach was virtually devoid of seabirds; no Harlequin Ducks and only a single Common Eider. The 3rd jetty west of the inlet was crawling with a mixed flock of shorebirds which included 4 Purple Sandpipers.

After a quick lunch break we decided to drive out to Northport to check out the selasporus hummingbird in Norm Klein's backyard. As other's have reported we quickly found the hummingbird and it was extremely cooperative. I posted Seans’s photos farther down the page.

New York Bight (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - NOAA)

Hudson Canyon (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - NOAA)

-What is the New York Bight?-

Fortunately, the front that moved through New York waters on Friday had cleared our area by late Saturday. Sunday’s trip was a go. This would be my first pelagic trip and, when I booked it in October, I anticipated arctic conditions 50 miles out to sea. Like everything else this season, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The seas were extremely calm, the wind relatively warm and, according to Paul Guris, the water out at the edge of the Continental Shelf was in the mid-60s.

Jones Inlet at dawn (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Rob J)

As we motored south through Jones Inlet I noticed three fisherman on the jetty, silhouetted by the most brilliantly orange sunrise that I’ve experienced this year. It felt like a positive portent for the day ahead. I spent virtually the entire day outdoors as the scent of the ocean, cry of gulls and feel of cool, crisp ocean air against my face clears my mind and reinvigorates my brain. Tom Burke was on the trip so, given his wealth of knowledge and patient demeanor, I stuck close by so I wouldn’t miss anything. I was hoping to add several alcids to my year list but didn’t want to get greedy; I’d take any new year birds.

Watching from the bow

(Photo credit - Rob J)

On our way to the canyon there was a long stretch of water that seemed like the pelagic equivalent of a desert. I was beginning to think that the entire day would be a bust but more experienced birders assured me that it fairly typical. As I mentioned in a previous post, a Dark-eyed Junco passing through that zone seemed relieved to see our ship and joined us for the duration.

We observed several flocks of Bonaparte’s Gull, most of which were eating the crumbs that feeding schools of tuna were leaving behind. Occasionally some of the fish would break the surface, exposing their sharp-edged, streamlined form.

There didn’t seem to be a great diversity or abundance of birds near the canyon, possible due to the unusually warm weather. I did, however, get to see two birds that were new to me (Northern Fulmar and Little Gull) and experience up close and personal, Common Dolphins riding the ship’s wake.

Common Dolphin

(Photo credit - Rob J)

New for my year list were Northern Fulmar, Red Phalarope, Little Gull and Iceland Gull. Another nice highlight was close looks at a flock of Manx Shearwaters sitting on the water.

As we were returning to port I spotted a large fin that was, curiously, just bobbing in the water. I was standing at the bow with a few people and called it out. Angus Wilson, who was the trip leader, seemed very excited and told us that it was a Basking Shark.

Coast Guard Station (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Google Earth)

After the pelagic trip both Sean and I took a short breather. The marathon birding had become exhausting. Apparently, nothing seems to stop, or even slow down, Shane. On Thursday morning, December 7th, I received a phone call from him. He was at the Coast Guard Station at Jones Beach. He didn’t go looking for anything in particular but, while scanning the water, stumbled upon a Black Guillemot in the bay. I was near a computer so I posted the information while we were talking. Several people managed to see the bird before it of them wasn’t me.

Black Guillemot

(Photo credit - Shane Blodgett)

On December 10th I spent several hours birding in Prospect Park. It was my first long day in the park this winter, although it wasn’t like any winter days in recent memory. I image that the unusually mild weather has played a big role in our winter birds not arriving. The large flocks of White-throated Sparrows and juncos that usually overwinter in the park were scarce. The only area of activity was at four feeders that Peter has put up on Breeze Hill. At that one, small location were Mourning Dove, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Red-breasted Nuthatch, White-breasted Nuthatch, Fox Sparrow, Song Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Northern Cardinal, Common Grackle and American Goldfinch.

The diversity of waterfowl on Prospect Lake was low for this time of year. There were plenty of Northern Shovelers in small, discrete circles spinning around at the south end of the lake. Ruddy Ducks were in fair numbers but there were no American Wigeon, Ring-necked Duck or Hooded Merganser. A single Bufflehead was on the Upper pool.

Northern Shovelers on Prospect Lake (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Rob J)

On December 13th Sean, Shane and I received a call that an American White Pelican had been seen on Van Cordlandt Lake, in the Bronx. It was nearing the end of the day so Sean and I drove up to the Bronx as fast as possible. We hadn’t counted on traffic jams on every road around New York City so we didn’t arrive until it was almost dark. We didn’t find the pelican, but there were two young men driving golf balls from the shoreline into the center of the lake (and presumably the birds). It's unclear if their activities caused the bird's departure, but it couldn't have helped. The following morning Shane and I drove up to the lake before dawn. We were feeling very optimistic, which really meant, that if we couldn’t find the pelican, it was someone else’s fault. We didn’t find it but never quite figured out who to blame.

Gadwal at JBWR (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Rob J)

Floyd Bennett Field (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Google Earth)

The annual Brooklyn Christmas Bird count is usually the last Saturday before Christmas. This year it was held on December 16th. This year would be my 6th year of participating with the team that covers Floyd Bennett Field, Four Sparrow Marsh and Dead Horse Bay.

Dawn at Floyd Bennett Field (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Rob J)

New York City birders have all been watching this winter’s warm weather, concerned that it would affect species diversity and abundance for the count. Our worry was realized as, at the compilation dinner, it became clear that many bird species were seen in very low numbers. At Floyd Bennett Field we were unable to find a single Savannah Sparrow. Savannah Sparrows breed in the grassland habitat and can almost always be found throughout the year. We did manage to find two meadowlarks, which are becoming increasingly more rare around NYC.

Walking the grassland at FBF (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Rob J)

I’m optimistic that next year will be more productive.

Geese on the runway

(Photo credit - Rob J)

Paper Birches

(Photo credit - Rob J)

Woodhenge at Dead Horse Bay

(Photo credit - Rob J)

Finally, our most recent road trip was on Tuesday to Montauk Point, Camp Hero and Oak Beach Marsh. Our target species were King Eider at Montauk and Yellow Rail at Oak Beach Marsh. King Eiders are scarce but regular winter visitors to Long Island’s coastline. The Yellow Rail, on the other hand, is extremely rare and was discovered by the Christmas Bird Count team that was surveying that section of barrier beach. For a change, I wasn’t feeling very optimistic about finding a bird - the Yellow Rail. Not only are they rare in this part of the country but are, in general, very secretive.

White-winged Scoter

(Photo credit - Rob J)

The plan was to arrive at Montauk Point at dawn, find the King Eider quickly, then start working our way back west. Apparently, the King Eider didn’t get the memo. We never located him. There were thousands of Common Eiders, Black Scoters, Wing-winged Scoters and Surf Scoters in rafts along Montauk Point’s coast. Locating a single, different bird among such large flocks really was like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. We spent all morning at the point then drove a short distant south to Camp Hero. It was a valuable lesson studying the various plumages of Common Eiders, but I would have preferred studying a King Eider.

Shane & Doug at Camp Hero

(Photo credit - Rob J)

We arrived at Oak Beach at low tide and walked along the highway to the marsh entrance. A narrow path cut through a dense section of phragmites and opened onto the south side of the marsh. My first thought as I scanned the expansive marsh was that the folks who found the rail were incredible lucky. At its widest, the marsh is about .25 miles. It is approximately 1 mile long. We only had about 1 hour until sunset, and with only three people walking the grass, I didn’t think we’d find the Yellow Rail. It’s a beautiful habitat and I’ll return some day, but looking for a 7.25 inch bird in the dying light isn’t something I’ll try again any time soon.

Shane listening to rail calls

(Photo credit - Rob J)

Oak Beach Marsh (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Rob J)

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Still here

Long Beach on the last "real" winter day

(Photo credit - Rob J)

This is just a quick note to let you know that I haven't dropped off the ends of the earth. I've been really busy with various things but have finally gotten around to editing and uploading recent photos. Look for my recap of the last two weeks by tomorrow afternoon.


Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Selasphorus hummingbird on Long Island

This past Saturday Sean, Joe and myself drove out to Norm Klein's house in Northport. Norm has had a selasphorus hummingbird hanging around his backyard for several days. I'm using only the bird's genus name as separating the very similar Allen's Hummingbird and Rufous Hummingbird are extremely difficult in the field. Sean was hoping to get some photographs of the bird so that a positive identification could be made.

We arrived at approximately 3pm and, over the next two hours, Sean shot dozens of photos of a very cooperative hummer. Below are some of the highlights.

Rufous Hummingbird? (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Sean Sime)

Monday, December 04, 2006

Unusual pelagic bird

Yesterday I went on a pelagic birding trip to the Hudson Canyon, south of Long Island. I'll post a complete report later but, for now, I just want to tell you about an unexpected visitor on the trip.

"Pelagic" junco (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Rob J)

It was around 12:30pm and we had been motoring south for about 5 hours. I was positioned in a strategic spot on the bow with a few other people. Suddenly, somebody behind us yelled, "There's a passerine flying up behind the boat!" I ran down the narrow starboard walkway towards the person who had spotted the bird. As I was approaching the stern I saw a small bird flying along side the rear of the boat, desperately trying to catch up with us. When he got close enough to the boat's stern he flew up and onto the railing. It was a tiny Dark-eyed Junco. Understanding the concept of small birds migrating across open water is very different from actually observing it. It was an unnerving shot of reality to see that 19 gram bird struggling to stay aloft 42 miles from land.

Looking for more crumbs (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Rob J)

After a brief rest on the railing he hopped down onto the deck and began searching for something to eat. He must have been exhausted and hungry as he showed little concern for all the people on board. Occasionally he would fly a short distance over the water and return to the boat. While we were all looking for seabirds the "pelagic" junco spent most of the day hopping around between our feet. We didn't have any bird seed in the galley but people gladly shared crumbs of cracker, cookies or whatever we thought he'd enjoy. Everyone on the boat also watched him like he was a toddler constantly getting under foot. At times the deck was very crowded and, as the bird scrounged for food, he would weave a path between all our feet. At one point he flew up onto the bow and just stood there looking out over the water. He was only about two feet from Tom, Gail and myself. I suddenly had a bizarre image of the film "Titanic" performed by sparrows and yelled out, "I'm king of the world!"

Our special visitor hung around on the boat all day and, as far as I know, returned back to port for some R & R.

"I'm king of the world!"

(Photo credit - Rob J)

Friday, December 01, 2006

There and back

Recent trips (click to enlarge)

It seems like weeks have passed since my last trip report. Oh, that’s because it has. Where do I begin? With the “Wunderschmucks” in the home stretch of our first “Big Year” in New York State, I think we’d all agree that it was more exhausting than we expected. Over the last 2 weeks we’ve collectively traveled from Montauk Point to Niagara Falls and made stops at, seemingly, all point in between. I don’t own a car and have had to rely on Sean and Shane for the more distant birds. With that in mind, I began the year hoping to reach 300 species in the state. As of this writing I have tallied 304 species. Sean and Shane, throwing caution to the wind (and lots of gas money) stand at 332 and 334, respectively. I find some aspects of marathon birding lots of fun but it also cuts into the quality of my observations. Over the last two weeks there were occasions when we would locate a new bird for the year, look at it for 5 minutes, then, literally, run to find the next one. There are days that I prefer to slow my pace and allow the natural environment to envelop my senses.

Collectively, we’ve been to the following locations in New York State since November 16th:

Tomhannock Reservoir (Troy), Bloomingdale Bog (Bloomingdale), Niagara, Savannah Mucklands, Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge (Seneca Falls), Lenoir Preserve (Yonkers), Marshlands Conservancy (Rye), New York Botanic Gardens (Bronx) and Montauk Pt. (Montauk).

At this point in the year we have, for the most part, located all of the expected species of birds. The last 6 weeks of the year will have been spent chasing state rarities. So far, Shane has managed to tally almost all of the odd, western species that have been reported and will probably finish the year ahead of Sean. I expect to come in third, a few species ahead of Doug. Since my last report we’ve added the following rarities:

Ross's Goose, Cackling Goose, Barrow's Goldeneye, California Gull, Thayer's Gull, Rufous Hummingbird, Hammond's Flycatcher and Western Kingbird.

Ross's Goose among Snow Geese

(Photo credit - Shane Blodgett)

Cackling Goose (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Sean Sime)

Canada Geese in flight (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Sean Sime)

I wasn’t able to go along on a trip up to Niagara for some gull species that are, in all likelihood, not going to be seen any close to NYC. Sean is actually taking another run up there tomorrow to try and find a Thayer’s Gull. I don’t think I have it in me anymore to make that kind of “day trip”.

Thayer's Gull

(Photo credit - Sean Sime)

California Gull

(Photo credit - Sean Sime)

-Click here for info on gulling the Niagara River-

-Click here for more info on gull identifcation-

One of my more interesting days was this past Sunday. Sean picked me up at 5:40am and we drove to the Marshlands Conservancy, in Rye. It was still dark when we arrived and we flushed a Great Horned Owl from a tree near our parking space. He landed in a stand of pines near the entrance and called a few times. We searched for the reported Hammond's Flycatcher until approximately 10am but never located it. We found out that night that neither did the dozens of other birders that came later in the morning. We then headed over to Lenoir Preserve and, in about 10 minutes, found the Rufous Hummingbird that has been hanging around. It was very cooperative as it visited a feeder at the wildflower garden or perched in the adjacent shrubs.

Rufous Hummingbird at Lenoir Preserve

(Photo credit - Shane Blodgett)

We hopped back into the car then sped over to the New York Botanic Gardens to look for the Western Kingbird that was reported Saturday night. I called Shane on my cellphone for more detailed directions as we were following the signs to the "Rock Garden". His help was unnecessary, though, as Sean quickly spotted the bird above the Rock Garden nursery gate. This spot is about 75 yards short of where Shane had observed it. The kingbird was hawking for insects high up (most of the time) along the back edge of the restricted area. At one point, as the kingbird was sallying from a bare branch in a large oak, I noticed a Red-tailed Hawk perched above him. The hawk seemed mildly interested in the flycatcher and jerked his head from side to side, following the small, pale yellow bird's movements. I think a Merlin or Sharp-shinned Hawk would be more likely to snatch a kingbird from the air than a lumbering Red-tailed Hawk.

Western Kingbird in the Bronx

(Photo credit - Shane Blodgett)

Early Tuesday morning Sean and I made a mad dash to Tomhannock Reservoir to locate a Barrow’s Goldeneye. From there we planned to stop at the Marshlands Conservancy for a second try for the Hammond’s Flycatcher.

Barrow's Goldeneye (left) and Common Goldeneye at Tomhannock

(Photo credit - Shane Blodgett)

We were parked along side the reservoir when the sun came up and, from the car, could see several flocks of waterfowl. Sean found the Barrow’s Goldeneye almost immediately. I wanted to get better looks so we spent a little more time scanning large flocks of Canada Goose, American Wigeon, black duck, Mallard, Ring-necked Duck, Common Goldeneye and Common Merganser. It took a bit longer than expected by I finally got great looks at the Barrow’s Goldeneye at it paddled along about 20 feet from the shore.

-Click here for more info on Western New York Birding-

8 point buck at Marshlands Conservancy

(Photo credit - Rob J)

Trying to find the Hammond’s Flycatcher in Rye was more challenging. Arriving at around 11am we walked the grounds for almost 30 minutes scanning the areas that it has been seen previously. Sean had a recording of the flycatcher on his iPod and I brought along a pair of small speaker. The first time the call was played we thought that we heard a muted reply. There is a field next to the area where the flycatcher was discovered. What was once probably a rectangular patch of ground planted with fruit trees in now a tangled maze of multiflora rose vines, porcelain berry vines, wild raspberries and just about anything else that can trip you up or tear at your skin. It was within this area that we thought we heard the bird call. We moved to a spot where we had the best vantage point of the vine-draped garden. Sean played the recording again. Almost immediately after Sean stopped the recording a hammond's responded with the full three part song. We looked at each other in amazement. An extensive search that included many thorns in my arms and legs (and a tick on Sean’s leg) was unsuccessful. We’ve run down the list of all the birds in the area and none make a sound that is even close to that of a Hammond’s Flycatcher. However, since it is a bird that neither one of us has ever seen, we decided that the audio identification wasn’t sufficient to count the bird on our list.

-Click to see Andy Guthrie's photos of the Hammond's Flycatcher

-Where to go Bird Watching in Westchester-

This weekend (hopefully) we’ll be in a ship above the Hudson Canyon looking for seabirds. Tomorrow’s trip was cancelled due to bad weather but it has been rescheduled for Sunday. With a little luck I’ll have something interesting to post on Sunday night.

American Bird Grasshopper (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Rob J)