Sunday, May 1, 2016

Hermit Warbler in Central Park

Peak Migration around New York City - Week 1 (continued)

Sunday, May 1 - Central Park

The weather forecast for Sunday was not encouraging, in fact it called for rain starting around 7am and continuing all throughout the day.  I'd originally planned to go out to the beaches but I eventually thought better of it and decided to grab a quick hour in Central Park before the rain came.

The rain started pretty much on schedule but it was light and tolerable.  In fact the rain probably helped keep the number of people down and while I birded from 6:30am to almost 11am, I saw very few other birders - unusual on a weekend in May.  There were also quite a few birds around, mostly Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warblers but I also saw two Worm-eating Warblers (215), my first American Redstart (216) of the season, and a total of 13 species of warbler overall.  While there didn't seem to have been all that much migration overnight, there clearly had been some movement as I also saw several Veery (217).   And then something special happened ...

i'm told I don't do enough scenery or context shots, so here are a couple
from the Ramble, and Turtle Pond in the rain ...

By 9:30am the rain was getting heavier so I went to the boathouse to rent coffee and buy something to eat.  I tried to bird back through The Ramble after that but I was getting wet - once again wearing shorts and sandals - and getting cold too.  By 10am I gave up and headed out via the West 77th Street entrance, planning to head back to the apartment and warm up.

As I was leaving the Park I noticed Karen Fung and Alexis Lamek (who until then I'd never met so knew only as the French guy who looks like √Črik Ripert) intently staring at a bird.  As I came over Alexis asked me what I thought of the warbler, which promptly sang a song that sounded to me like Black-throated Green Warbler.  I looked up, saw black and white bird with a yellow head, heard the song and confidently identified it as Black-throated Green.

"But it has a black back" said Alexis

"Black-Throated Green doesn't?" I aaid, fumbling for my Sibley app on the iPhone.  Oops!

The long and the short of it is that, while the bird sounded like a Black-throated Green Warbler (at least to us), the plumage was all wrong.  It had a black back, a plain white belly with little streaking, no yellow on the vent, a black nape that narrowed to form a line on the back of the head, and an otherwise clean yellow head.  The plumage was HERMIT WARBLER even if the voice didn't sound anything like the Hermit Warbler recordings on the Sibley app.

I floated the idea, which seemed to make sense at the time (but seems stupid now) that perhaps it was a hybrid of some sort, but realizing that whatever it was, we had something good, we got the word out on Twitter and the State-wide Listserve.  And the bird promptly vanished ...

Luckily for us though Karen had managed to grab a couple of distant photos despite the rain, and they helped a lot in terms of settling our view on the ID.   In fact Karen gets a huge credit for somehow managing photos of a small fast moving warbler high in a tree ... in the rain ... with her back-up camera, with the two of us pressuring her to get a photo (by comparison, I'm a wimp - I didn't want to get my camera wet so I left it at home).

Heroic photo effort (given the conditions): Karen Fung (used with permission)
While the song was unfamiliar, I gather that there is a lot of variation in Hermit Warbler song and that they vary by area, and in the presence of similar species (e.g., Townsend's Warblers).  So not so unlikely that a Hermit in the East might pick up a Black-throated Green accent.

So, while there may be some ID debate, as I sit here on Sunday I'm savoring a second amazing warbler in Central park in one week, and a second New York State life bird for me!  I also learned a humbling lesson about not making assumptions and studying birds.  I dismissed this bird based on song, and if Alexis hadn't been so persistent, would not have focussed on it.  Alexis gets huge credit for finding the bird and sticking with it, bringing skeptical birders along to the right ID (which I suspect he came to a lot earlier on in the process).  A great lesson for me.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Swainson's Warbler in Central Park

Peak Migration around New York City - Week 1

Monday, April 25 - Central Park

So peak migration!  The best three weeks of the year in terms of birding in New York, and so I changed my patterns to grab little slots of time in Central Park before and after work.  Year birding gets me motivated so I'm going to add the New York State year bird numbers to the new birds I add in these posts ....

On Monday I met up with Chris Cooper and spent a very pleasant couple of hours before work in the Park.  I have a Spring rule to ration my birding time - I either bird for two hours, or until I have 5 year birds.  On Monday, the two came roughly at the same time, starting with House Wren (198) and Blue-winged Warbler (199) at Strawberry Fields.  Then we moved on to the Ramble proper where literally hundreds of Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warblers swarmed every tree around the Upper Lobe.  The 'Rumps' were so thick that we both gave up looking for movement and turned to just trying to bird by ear, straining for chip notes, or snippets of song suggesting other species.  Black-throated Green Warbler (200) managed to have itself be heard about the 'Rumps' as did a single Prairie Warbler (201), but it was Chris who heard and tracked down the season's first Black-Throated Blue Warbler (202).  A very birdy morning and a great start to the week.

Black-Throated Blue Warbler and Wood Thrush

Thursday, April 28 - Central Park

I was running a little late on Thursday, so skipped Strawberry Fields and went straight to the Ramble.  There weren't a lot of birders around, the weather was overcast and cold, and compared to Monday, there didn't seem to be a lot of birds.  I did check out the Ramble pretty thoroughly though, visiting each of the hotspots (and in Central Park every clearing, water feature or group of trees has a name) hoping for my five year birds.

While it was quiet, there were a few year birds to be had ... a Warbling Vireo (203) at the Maintenance Meadow and an Ovenbird (204) in Muggers Woods both joined the year list.  I also bumped into some photographers at The Oven who had a female Cape May Warbler (205) and picked up a Nashville Warbler (206) nearby.  That was four year birds so, in the hope of finding another, I headed over towards Bow Bridge, a good spot for an early Yellow Warbler maybe?  What I found there though was a group of about 25 birders with big goofy smiles on their faces, all chattering away.  At first I just drifted over to the edge of the group, trying to work out what they were looking at, but couldn't see any obvious target bird there, so I walked over the Chris Cooper and asked what was up.  The answer was quite a shock!

It turns out that the group had all just finished watching a SWAINSON'S WARBLER (207) over at Strawberry Fields.  The first Swanson's in the Park since 1990 and the first in the City (or New York State for that matter I think) since 2005.  This was a very rare bird .... and I hadn't heard about it.  Argh!

So, off to Strawberry Fields as fast as my dignity would allow .... I can move surprisingly quickly when I need to.  Rushing up to the 'Imagine Mosaic', a tribute to John Lennon, close to where he was shot and killed, I looked around for a group of birders and quickly found a bunch laying on the floor and crawling around the edge of some thorn bushes attempting to look underneath them.  As I walked up to them, I could tell I was in the right place and the warbler sang from the center of the bushes.  It was in there, just not visible from anywhere other than on the floor so, despite being dressed for work, on the floor I went and found myself staring at the target bird not eight feet in front of me.  Awesome bird!  What a start to the Spring.

Birders peering into a bush .... 'nothing to see here' .... Photo: Cindy Hwang Schulz (used with permission)
and the bird itself, captured in the open by expert Central Park photographer Deb Allen

And another shot from Brooklyn Bird Club President, Rob Bate ....
After the Brooklyn Painted Bunting, of course this bird also made it quickly to the mainstream press, and yes the word "chirp" was used again.  Here's the New York Post article and I'm sure there will be others.

Friday, April 29 - Central Park

Walked through the Park on the way home from work and added Yellow Warbler (208) and Rose-breasted Grosbeak (209) to the year list.

Saturday, April 30 - Central Park

I spent all morning in the Park and worked really hard to get my 5 year-birds.  The first two were easy with Chestnut-sided Warbler (210) and Indigo Bunting (211) quickly joining the list.  I then joined up with Chris Cooper and rushed up to the North End of the Park following reports of Hooded Warbler and Orange-crowned Warbler.  We cheated and took a cab North but still managed to miss the Orange-crowned, although our luck was better with Hooded Warbler (212) and we got great looks at two of them.  Definitely one of my favorite warblers.  After a bonus Chimney Swift (213), I then spent the next three hours looking for year-bird number five, finally bumping into a Baltimore Oriole (214)  back in the Ramble in the early afternoon.  I worked hard for the fifth year bird!  Today felt like a bit of a slog at times, but we did get a bunch of good birds.  And on into May ... the best month of the year!

Hooded Warbler
Sunday, May 1 - Central Park

This day turned out to be interesting enough for its own blog post.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Spring Sparrows Out East

A few early Spring migrants in The Hamptons

Saturday, April 23 - 'Hamptons' Coastal Spots

Had the whole weekend Out East but was obliged to spend Friday mostly on work and house related things.  The weather was beautiful with clear blue skies, warm Spring temperatures and no wind - perfect birding weather.  I ended up crashing early on Friday night with a plan to get up early and spend the whole day birding.  So imagine my disappointment when Saturday morning dawned foggy, rainy, and cold.  Oh well ...

Still, a plan was a plan so I set off, a little later than anticipated, to cover a series of coastal spots in East Hampton and Southampton townships.  To keep it interesting, I gave myself a goal of finding ten (10) New York State year birds for the weekend, and headed out excited to see some migrants.

First stop was Georgica Cove, one of the priciest pieces of real estate in the county with mansions surrounding the pond on most sides, but also a decent birding spot with one remaining access spot where you can get views of the pond.  Today Georgica gave me some signs of Spring and some year birds to start the day off right with a Green Heron (1), and a good mix of swallows present, including Tree and Barn Swallows (2) and Purple Martin (3).

Next stop Mecox Inlet, where single Forsters and Caspian Terns (4) were mixed in with a more typical Winter bird selection.   Then I crossed over into Southampton and headed over to Dune Road to bird the salt mashes there.

Little Blue Heron
Dune Road was cold and I was of course under-dressed but I persevered and slowly started adding a good selection of things.  I stopped at Ponquogue, Triton Lane, Tiana Beach, and Dolphin Lane, and found a good few new Spring arrivals.  There were dozens of Great Egrets, mostly migrants, in the marshes along with a few Snow Egrets and a single Little Blue Heron, a good bird Out East.  I also added newly returned Eastern Willets (5), and a Northern Rough-winged Swallow (6) among the many Barn and Tree Swallows.  My main focus though was a search for Clapper Rail and the two local Ammodramus sparrows and while I failed to find the rail or a Seaside Sparrow, I did get to spend some quality time with a group of five, super cute, Saltmarsh Sparrows (7).

Saltmarsh Sparrow, rarely seen in the open like this.

On to the Quogue Wildlife Refuge where a Hooded Warbler had been reported the week before.  The East End of Long Island is really not a good place to see Spring warblers, they all seem to turn left at the Hudson or pass right over us.  I still need Hooded Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler and both Waterthrushes for my Suffolk county Life List, so this seemed like a good shot to at lest clean up one of these embarrassing county list gaps.  Alas, it was not to be, and after an hour at the refuge, shivering in cold, wet weather, I gave up and left the warblers for another day (in all probability for another year).

If warblers wouldn't cooperate, then back to sparrows and off to Gabreski Airport to look for the local breeding Vesper Sparrows (8) which quickly surrendered.  I also bumped into a Grasshopper Sparrow (9) there which was unexpected and I initially though was a notable sighting, but apparently others have seen them there recently and it looks like they are in fact breeding at this site.  Nice bird to see, and good to see another colony of this scarce grassland breeder Out East.

Vesper Sparrow in its natural habitat - fences
By now cold and, somehow thinking I had 10 year birds (when I really only had 9) I headed back to East Hampton and birded some of the local spots near my house in Northeast Harbor.  Least Terns had not returned to the local colony yet, although Piping Plovers have been hack for some time.  The woods around the house were also really quiet, just not a lot of migrants returned so far.

Sunday, April 24 - East Hampton / New York City

Saturday afternoon brought word that Gail Benson and Tom Burke has found a Wilson's Plover at Ponquogue - I'd been there ta the high tide, they at the low tide.  There was no point chasing that bird in the morning so, while I waited for the tide to drop I checked several local woodland and marshland spots.  Acabonac Harbor did have a mix of shorebirds and added Ruddy Turnstone (10) to the year list.  Sammy's Beach also gave me year bird when two, beautifully lit Glossy Ibis (11) flew in and started feeding behind a Great Egret.  Otherwise, the selection of birds was very much the same as the day before.  Also, a run along Dune Road looking for Plovers later that day, drew a blank.

Greater Yellowlegs at Napeague Marsh
So , leaving the cold Winter weather of the East End behind I headed back to the City ... where it was Spring!  The two hour drive felt like it had transported my forward a month in time.  A 20-degree temperature difference was great, but also Spring was just so much further along in the City.  Most of the trees in the City were in bud, and many were leafed out already, while the oaks Out East haven't even started to bud yet.  It really was a beautiful Spring afternoon in Manhattan, so I decided to do some more birding and went to Central Park.

Even though it was late in the day, and things were generally quite quiet, I was hoping for some more year birds and some warblers in particular, and I got what I wanted, adding Black-and-White Warbler (12), Northern Parula (13), Louisiana Waterthrush (14), Northern Waterthrush (15), and Wood Thrush (16) to the year list.

Louisiana Waterthrush (above) and Northern Waterthrush 

Some tough birding over the weekend - it really was too early for shorts and sandals - but overall quite a nice haul of year birds.  Looking forward to the next weekend, and the peak of migration.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Photospot: Pine Warbler on Long Island

A quick stop today to get the Yellow-throated Warbler at Connetquot State Park in Suffolk County.  The Yellow-throated was a Suffolk County bird for me - why have I never made time to see the ones present over the last few years?  Not sure .... but this bird showed well several times singing high in a tree.  Alas I didn't get any useable photos but I did spend some quality time with this Pine Warbler.  A common breeding bird on Long Island, they even been in my yard in East Hampton, but they are quite spiffy un-close ....

Pine Warbler (4 shots)

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Not so Upland Sandpiper

A Strange Visitor to the Barrier Beaches ....

So earlier this week, I happened upon a Facebook message chain where a very frustrated Tim Healy was lamenting dipping an Upland Sandpiper.  Guessing that the bird might be local on Long Island I chipped in and found out that the bird was frequenting the median strip of the Ocean Parkway near Oak Beach in Suffolk County.  Needless to say, this is not exactly ideal Upland Sandpiper habitat!  The strip at this spot is no more that 50 feet wide, and the bird was feeding within feet of cars and trucks cruising by at 50-60 miles per hour.  This did not sound like a bird that might be around for long ....

Upland Sandpiper - Oak Beach (Photo: Taylor John Sturm, used with permission)
Upland Sandpipers are a declining species in New York, and in the Eastern US in general.  They are, of course, a grassland species, and most of our grasslands have been turned into housing, or handed over to intensive agriculture over the past 50 years.  The species had thus grown increasingly scarce and, although once a regular breeding bird on Long Island, I haven't seen one here in perhaps 20 years.

I really did not expect to see this bird.  One by one all the local Long Island birders reported seeing it but I really didn't think it would stick around all weekend (and thought, and yes, hoped) that it would resume it's journey North before too long.  I had work commitments all week and social commitments all weekend, so the earliest time that I could possibly get to Oak Beach was Sunday afternoon, and in my opinion there was no way that bird would stick around (and not be hit by a car) that long.  But on Sunday morning, the list serve reports told me that bird was still being seen, so I persuaded Kelvin to take a more 'scenic route' back to the City ... and ... I got to see the bird ....

iPhone record shot .... don't judge me ....
Hope this bird makes it (and doesn't end up as road-kill).  I love this species ... pocket curlews .... but unfortunately a good percentage of the world's curlews have gone extinct already (and even the Eurasian Curlew, so common in my Welsh childhood, I heard this week is now endangered).  Upland Sandpiper even has an evocative Latin name - Bartramia longicauda - named after John Bartram, a pioneering colonial era naturalist, best known as a botanist, but one of the first Europeans to see many of the species of the Eastern US.   I wish this one good luck on his/her journey North though .... hope it finds a good place for the Summer.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Boreal Birds and Poutine

A quick run North to add some "Boreal" Species to the Year-List

I'm at my best as a birder when I plan, and at my worst when I don't.  So this weekend, being very much unplanned, produced some very mixed results bird-wise.

With no real plans for the Easter weekend I debated a number of different options before deciding, essentially at the last minute to "Head North" for Boreal birds.  Sounded like a good idea at the time, so with little research, not a peep at the weather forecast, and no fixed itinerary, I booked a hotel in Lake Placid, jumped in the car at 5am on Friday and headed up to the Adirondack Mountains.

For New Yorkers, to get all the State's resident birds, inevitably means a trip (or 8 trips on my big year in 2012) to the Adirondacks for so called "Boreal Birds".  What do we mean by that?

True Boreal species that breed in the pockets of Boreal habitat (essentially high altitude spruce / tamarack bogs) in the Adirondacks.

1. Black-backed Woodpecker
2. American Three-toed Woodpecker
3. Boreal Chickadee
4. Spruce Grouse
5. Gray Jay

And then there are some other Northerly breeders that come down to the coast irregularly.

1. Red Crossbill
2. White-winged Crossbill
3. Pine Grosbeak
4. Evening Grosbeak
5. Common Redpoll (and Hoary Redpoll for now I suppose pending the inevitable lumping)
6. Pine Siskin
7. Northern Shrike
8. Bohemian Waxwing

Some of these species come down to the coast quite frequently (think Pine Siskins), some much less regularly (I've seen one Bohemian Waxwing and two Evening Grosbeaks on Long Island ever), and of course some never come down (try reporting a Spruce Grouse in West Islip and see what response you get from the local eBird reviewer).

Friday, March 25 - Adirondack Mountains

Planning matters!  And so, with no planning, I rather predictably bombed today.   Sabbattis Bog produced a Ruffed Grouse (a year bird), some Golden-crowned Kinglets, and a few Pine Siskins, but no Boreal Birds.  Losing faith I jumped over to Bloomingdales Bog - a "gimme" site for Gray Jay - and saw .... no Boreal Birds.   And then it started to snow ... which turned to hail ... and I decided I didn't like birding any more ....

So I drove to an area with cell reception, cancelled the hotel in Lake Placid, made a hotel reservation in Montreal, messaged a bunch of friends to say I was heading there, and drove North towards the Canadian border.  Four hours after I'd been standing in freezing hail in a damp New York forest, I was in a nice warm French restaurant eating amazing Canadian food, drinking good French wine, and hanging out with good friends.  Plan B turned out to be a good choice.

Saturday, March 26 - Quebec

Mont Tremblant National Park, Quebec 

So, despite the great French food the night before, I still had no plan, and no Boreal birds.  I didn't want to cross the border again so soon, so actually decided to head further North and drove up to Mt. Tremblant National Park, about two hours North of Montreal.  It's one helluva pretty place and I once saw some Pine Grosbeaks there so I figured I was bound to just randomly bump into Boreal birds, even without any research.

As compared to Friday, Saturday was at least a beautiful day, and even if I'd seen no birds, the trip would have been a really neat drive through great scenery.  There were also actually birds .... finches .... tens of thousands of finches.  The roadsides were full of feeding/gritting Pine Siskins and Common Redpolls and everywhere I drove, I flushed them by the hundred.  While this was pretty cool at first, it soon became quite troubling .... I'f I drove too quickly I risked hitting and killing them (not the smartest things and they often flushed in front of the car as I got close) but if I drove too slowly I just pushed a bow-wave for small finches in front of me down the road.

Common Redpoll
Common Redpoll and Pine Siskin
In addition to the two finches mentioned there were also a fair number of Purple Finches and a single Evening Grosbeak.  At one point I though I heard some White-winged Crossbills too, but I never heard them a second time to let that record go.  It was a pretty day, lots of birds, few species, and good scenery.  All good stuff, but soon enough I headed back to the more human-centered pleasures of Montreal .... did I mention how amazing the food is in Montreal?

Sunday, March 27 - Adirondack Mountains

Well after two bad birding days, but a lot of good food and wine, I was hoping my luck would change ... and it did!  Back to the Adirondacks where on Friday I could do no right, and today ... I could do no wrong.  Birding is a funny, sometimes cruel, but always interesting hobby.

To begin with, the weather was a lot better - sunny, warmer, and (important for Boreal birding, so much of which is done by ear) windless.  And secondly, for some reason, birds practical threw themselves at me all morning ... not that I'm complaining.

I had limited time so I really intended only to spend time at Sabattis Bog before making the long drive back to the City for Easter Dinner.  I set the destination in the navigation system on the Range Rover and sat back, passively letting it make all the decisions, until I realized that I was passing through the village of Bloomingdale.  So taking control back from the computer I decided to make a quick stop at Bloomingdales Bog where I'd skunked on Friday and ended up spending some quality time with a very cute Gray Jay (Year Bird, and a real "Boreal").

Gray Jay at Bloomingdale Bog

Then on to Sabattis Bog where I quickly found another Gray Jay and then watched as a small red car pulled up and a woman got out, closely followed by said Jay, to put out some food at an improvised bird feeding area.  The woman was of course Joan Collins, Adirondack bird guide and all around encyclopedia of all things avian in the mountains, coming to put out raisins for her Gray Jay friends and suet for a very tame, and quite pushy Red-breasted Nuthatch.

Gray Jay - Sabattis Bog
While it was great to catch up with Joan; who I hadn't seen in a while, she was also very generous with her local information and within minutes I had re-planned the rest of my morning and headed off East towards the town of Newcomb.  Where, over the next couple of hours, I really cleaned up on the local birds adding in quick succession .... a Northern Shrike ... a couple of Evening Grosbeaks ... a Red Crossbill ... a couple of Boreal Chickadees ... and a Black-backed Woodpecker (5 New York State year birds, one after another).

Black-backed Woodpecker nest hole
The woodpecker was perhaps the most interesting as Joan had previously discovered a pair excavating a nest hole ... months earlier than they would traditionally do so.  Climate Change is having a huge impact on the birds in the Adirondacks  - Blue Jays now overwinter (at what cost to Gray Jays?) - Swanson's Thrushes are breeding higher and higher on the mountains (pushing out Bicknell's Thrushes?), and everything is breeding earlier.  While it's fascinating to see what's going on, it's also a little worrying and Joan, with her incredible on-the-ground knowledge is documenting it all.

Reluctantly though, I was timed out and still had a five hour drive to the City so had to leave.  I came to the Adirondacks eight times on my big year in 2012 and have only been back a couple of times since.  I've definitely missed it, and I'll be back soon.  As for Montreal ... I'll be there sooner ...

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Slogging Through March in New York

The worst birding month of the year ....

So back from Asia to the huge anticlimax that is March in New York.  Late April and May are spectacular here but March, well March is blah.  Migration is starting to happen but we are still getting snow storms, the Winter birds are leaving, and the Summer birds are still few and far between  But still, we persevere ....

Saturday March 12th - Central Park

With little to chase, but just the earliest hints of migration underway, I focussed on what was available close to the apartment.  Checked Central Park Reservoir, hoping for a reported Horned Grebe, which surprisingly according to eBird would be new for my New York County list ..... but I dipped.  Then down to The Ramble where I did catch up with an Eastern Phoebe (year bird!) and a singing Rusty Blackbird. A tiny hint of Spring.

Sunday March 13th - Bryant Park / Central Park

First to Bryant Park where I spent a very happy 20 minutes watching an American Woodcock (year bird!) toddling around in a bed of daffodils.  Quite simply one of my favorite species of bird in the world.

Then to Central Park where the Horned Grebe surrendered (New York County species number 200 - although I can think of a few more species I've seen that just never made it onto eBird).   Also added a Merlin which was both a year bird and a New York County bird.

Saturday March 19th - Queens and Nassau Counties

Hard to get get motivated in March but I came up with a small list of potential year birds and set off to find them.  First stop was Jamaica Bay for the regular nesting Barn Owls.  When I arrived, I bumped into Ken Feustel who was clearly there for the same thing.

There are Barn Owls in there, trust me ....
Working our way over to the 'Barn Owl Box' we settled down in the blind to see if the owls were planning to show.   Twenty minutes later they hadn't done so, but we knew they were in there so Ken took a risk and made (what was perhaps the lamest ever attempt at) a Barn Owl call.  And the Barn Owl popped it's head up and looked out of the box for a split second! Year bird!  But no photo ...

600 Snow Geese flew over while I was at Jamaica Bay, while newly arrived
Tree Swallows are choosing their nest boxes

Next stop was Jones Beach where 26 newly paired American Oystercatchers and a single pair of Piping Plovers both joined the year list.  Then a tour of local saltmarshes until I was able to add a newly arrived Osprey as well.  Not the most exciting birding though, especially after the recent Asia trip so I soon gave up and came back to the City.  Roll on April ....

Boat-tailed Grackle at Jones Beach.