Thursday, April 16, 2015

Crested Caracara in Orange County, New York

Another State bird chase, and not a dip (for once)

After 6 days 'dipping' the Mew Gull in Brooklyn I was pretty much over the State listing thing.  I'd had a good run over the Winter, adding Common Ground Dove, Cassin's and Couch's Kingbirds and Thick-billed Murre.  Then I'd hit the wall with the Mew Gull and repeatedly failed to see it despite lots of effort and lots of hours.  Maybe State listing wasn't something for me?

Last Thursday though a CRESTED CARACARA was found in Orange County, and I watched with interest to see if it would stick.  Caracaras in the NorthEast have been an interesting phenomenon recently.  I chased and saw a bird in New Jersey in 2012 and since then, individual Caracaras have shown up in various spots across the NorthEastern states, never staying long in one place, with the suspicion being that only one (or two) nomadic birds were involved, wandering around from place to place but never really hanging out long enough for birders to chase them.  Within the last six months there were even two New York State records, both good, but both brief views - a sight record from upstate and a bird photographed by a non-birder in a yard on Long Island (!).  Neither bird stayed around for others to see, but we all suspected that there was at least one bird 'in the area' and so when this bird showed up, many were curious to see if it would hang around long enough for people to chase it.

As it turned out, this was the lucky break, the good bird if you like.  This particular Caracara seemed to have found a couple of good carcasses (a deer and a possum - nothing beats a good stinky possum carcass if you're a caracara) and was still in the same area on Saturday (when unfortunately I couldn't go).  On Sunday when I woke up, I checked the list-serves and it turned out that the bird was still on site ( a tribute to the quality of this particular partly-decomposed possum I suppose),  so I decided to go, jumped in the car, and headed North.


When I arrived at the site (a golf course in Orange County) the bird was perched back in the woods giving good scope views but no photographic opportunities.


Thirty minutes later, the bird too off, circled the area and came to check out the Possum carcass that it had previously been feeding on.  It didn't land - perhaps there were too many birders there - but it did give good flight views.


Having had great views, I spent some time socializing with the assembled birders.  The Caracara came out a few more times before finding a thermal, gaining a lot of altitude (think speck), and heading off to the North.  It looked to me as though the bird had left, but apparently it came back later in the day, so it must have just been either chasing Turkey Vultures (looking of new carcass - that's what they do apparently) or heading to other feeding spot it already knew.  Whatever it was doing though, it came back to the original site (and possum carcass) and has been there for several days since.  A very accommodating bird allowing pretty much every serious New York State birder to add this species to their sate list.

So overall a great experience - New York State bird #382 - plus a pleasant Spring day outdoors.  Maybe this State Listing thing isn't so bad after all.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Suckers and Fish Listing

Some interesting blog posts and a shout out for a conservation issue ....

Going a little off the bird topic and on to my other favorite group of vertebrates, fish.  I am a fisherman, mostly a fly-fisherman, although I grew up in the UK fishing all three disciplines.  We went GAME FISHING for Salmon and Trout with fly-rods (and sometimes spin tackle), sat for endless hours COURSE FISHING for carp and pike, and spent many cold Winter days SEA FISHING either by surf-casting or by fishing from piers.  Fishing was very much a core of my childhood outdoor life and, while it was ultimately surpassed by birding in terms of time and attention, I still occasionally pick up a fly-rod and have cast them into waters as far flung as Alaska, Quebec, Argentina and Japan over the years.  I am also completely fascinated by the diversity of fish, which in may ways is the same fascination I have for the diversity of birds.  Fish are just harder to go and watch.

Smallmouth Buffalo - Photo by Ben Cantrell - the image that started me off
on a fish theme this morning.
Laying in bed this morning and skimming Facebook I came across a great article by Matt Miller on Suckers over at The Nature Conservancy Blog.  A cruelly misunderstood and unfairly maligned group on native fish, that I've seen but never caught, led me to an interesting couple of hours of immersion in a whole other sphere on natural history.   I figured I'd share some of what I learned, and also give a shout out to some of the folks doing great conservation work in this area (on the theory that any publicity for a good cause helps)


Ben Cantrell - a leader in the Rough Fishing movement
Suckers it would seem are a very oppressed group on native fish, often killed on site by anglers who wrongfully think that they are invasive, and damaging to fisheries.  In a world where trout and bass rule US fishing (and dominate what has become a very commercial sport), these natives are unfairly seen as 'competition' for the 'more desirable species' and persecuted to the point that species are struggling to survive.

This article led me to a whole other world of folks who actively fish for these species, a world called Rough Fishing (cousin of the UK's Course Fishing?) and to some fascinating stories from that sub-culture.

One of the best blogs I found was Ben Cantrell's Fish Species Blog which details adventures with fish that aren't all Bass and Trout.  One of the best articles, and a revelation to me, was a post on "Microfishing" where folks go out and pursue species usually considered too small to have any sporting interest.  The name of the game isn't a macho battle against a giant fish but rather a celebration of the diversity of fish species.  Now they really had my attention, as for years I'd keep a list of species of fish I'd caught with a fly-rod but had always been too self conscious to go deliberately target tiny fish just to add to my list.  But other people do!

Redband Darter: Photo by Ben Cantrell (hoping he doesn't mind the shout out)
These Rough Fishermen, are having fun, actively engaged in conservation, raising awareness, and keeping lists.  It's really like birding with rod and line and of course, where there are lists, there are people who take it to the next level and get seriously competitive.  Just like in birding someone is going to take that competition to the extreme, which in this case is a guy called Steve Wozniak who writes a blog called 1000Fish detailing his attempt to catch 1,000 species f fish on rod-and line.

Steve Wozniak (and friend) with a Silver Buffalo
(Spoiler Alert: it took him 10+ years and 60+ countries but he did catch 1,000 species, and is now over 1,200 - the Tom Gullick of the fishing world).

After reading about his exploits for hours I was itching to go and catch fish and to re-start my fishing life list (would eBird include fish do you think?).  I also had an urge to share - fish conservation is unglamorous and all the money and attention gets sucked up by the 'sport' fish leaving a lot of great native species struggling for attention.  Read some of the blogs.  There are good people doing important work out there.



Late March Cabin Fever

Just itching for Spring .... and recovering from Gull-issues

I keep meaning to do a blog post, truly I do, it's just that I haven't really had much to blog about nature-wise so far this year.  To date 2015 has been dominated by work (yes, I do work) and snow, and neither of those things has really been very conducive to looking at nature or nature blogging.  Even my travel - Montreal, London, Wales, Washington DC) has not really been very outdoor oriented so far, and I just haven't seen a lot of stuff worth reporting.

This week, it snowed again, but at least there's something about a late March snow storm that makes you feel like the worst may now be over and that Winter might be finally behind us.  For whatever reason, I was really feeling the cabin fever today, a sure sign that Spring is coming and that my nature addiction is close to kicking back in again after a dormant Winter.  Looking forward to putting Winter away and getting out there once again.

 The 2015 birding year actually started out relatively well for me and I managed to grab some free time and get out a few times locally in the first few weeks of the year.  Some good birds quickly joined the list - Couch's Kingbird in the West Village, Cassin's Kingbird in Brooklyn, Harlequin Ducks at Montauk, a drake King Eider and Iceland Gulls at Shinecock, Tundra Swans in East Hampton, and a Cackling Goose near Riverhead.  I even managed to get a State Bird when I chased down a THICK-BILLED MURRE in Montauk Harbor (NYS #381).

Thick-billed Murre - lousy shot but it was a state bird!
I soon started to get that slipping feeling though.  Others were going out birding more, and finding great birds, and I simply wasn't keeping up, not with the time I had available to me to get out into the field.  For a brief while I fought the rot, chased the Pink-footed Goose (dipped) near Riverhead, the Barnacle Geese (dipped) near Calverton, and the GYRFALCON (yes!) near Wallkill, but eventually I had to recognize that this is just not going to be a big year list year for me in New York.
As of today, I've seen only 110 species this year in New York State, while the more serious guys are already in the 160s.  I've missed way too many Winter birds to be able to catch up - no Snowy Owls, no Glaucous Gulls,  no Barrow's Goldeneye, etc.  I'll just have to enjoy what I see and not worry about year-lisiting this year.

Harequin Ducks (above) and Common Redpoll (below) good January birds
out on the East End this year.

The bird that really killed my year-list this year was actually a gull.  A Common Gull no less!  Well technically a Mew Gull (although that's currently the same species as Common Gull), and actually not at all common here, thousands of miles away from the Pacific NorthWest where it makes it's home.  The bird was found by Shane Blodgett and showed up, as rare gulls are prone to doing, in a shopping mall parking lot in Brooklyn.  Many birders got to see it the first week or so it was there (while I wasn't able to travel) and then it fell into an infuriating pattern of vanishing for days or weeks before suddenly and unexpectedly popping up again in the same area.  I really wanted to see this bird which would have been a new species for New York State for me, and it also happens to be a species I've tried for and missed previously.  So I decided to devote a few hours to a search......

Herring Gull, MEW GULL, and Ring-billed Gull - photo: Shane Blodgett (used with permission)
And so I ended up spending the better part of five (5!) days standing, freezing, in parking lots in Brooklyn (and not the trendy bits of Brooklyn), looking at gulls.  Every couple of hours a little old Russian lady might come by, empty a bag of stale bread, and start a mad swirl of activity as hundreds of gulls, dozens of Rock Pigeons, and even a few Brown Rats squabbled over the feast, but most of the time Mew Gull 'watching' involved just standing around in the cold, periodically checking hundreds of Ring-billed gulls to see if 'the bird' had flown in.  After each session I swore I would give up on this gull and go look for other things, and then a few days later someone would see the damned bird, and I'd give it one more try.  In total, this single bird took more than 50% of the free time I had for birding in the first quarter of 2015.  And no ... I did not see the bird.

Iceland Gull - people often reported seeing the Mew Gull with
this Iceland Gull.  It was stubbornly solo while I was there though
And so, as we roll in to Spring I'm ready to put the Mew Gull behind me and move on. I almost gave it one last try this Saturday after a sighting was reported on Friday.  In the end I was saved my Shane though, he emailed me to say that he'd seen photos of the Friday sighting and that the bird was just a dark Ring-billed Gull.  Even though I'd already sworn that I wouldn't try again, Shane new that I probably would (and he was right - I am that stubborn).  But now I'm letting it go, and moving on, and getting excited for Spring.


Postscript:  I finished writing this blog post, went out to brunch with Kelvin and had a mimosa or two(enough to ensure that I could no longer drive for the day).  After brunch I checked my emails and, total predictably, Andrew Baksh posted that he and Angus Wilson had been watching the Mew Gull in Brooklyn for the past couple of hours.  After a week or so absence, the bird had literally reappeared while I was writing this post.  I give up ....

Friday, December 26, 2014

Yet another Rare Kingbird in New York City

Couch's Kingbird in Greenwich Village ...

I had a hangover this morning.  I think one is probably supposed to have a hangover the day after Christmas so I really hadn't planned to do very much today.   We woke up late and while we had breakfast I flicked through the posts and emails that had come in over night.  I saw that the Cassin's Kingbird was still being seen in Brooklyn, skipped over some other kingbird related titles, then stopped dead and did a re-wind.  One of the kingbird titles didn't say Cassin's at all but actually said Couch's/Tropical Kingbird in the West Village!  Well that was a surprise ....

The bird had apparently been first seen over six weeks ago and the finder, wondering if it might be a Western Kingbird, had reached out to more experienced birders for help.  They'd suggested he get a photo, thinking no doubt that a kingbird of any sort was pretty unlikely in the center of the heavily urban West Village.  Yesterday he did finally manage to get a photograph and forwarded it along to his birder friends - not a Western Kingbird, but something much better (although tough to ID from a photo).  So the word got out last night, and this morning New York's birding mob assembled on Washington Street in the Village eager for yet more kingbird action.

Before I could go birding I had to run some errands and drive over to Williamsburg to drop off Kelvin.  On the way we actually passed within a block of the bird's location but I resisted the urge to try to sneak in a quick stop and planned to retrace my steps a little later.  While I was in Brooklyn I got to check the list serves again though and learned that the bird had been re-found by Jacob Drucker, Doug Gochfeld, et al and definitely identified as a COUCH'S KINGBIRD - the first record for New York State and one of only a handful of records for this South Texas specialty anywhere in the NorthEast.  By 11:00am, chores done and I was free to come back and look for the bird so I came back to Manhattan, headed to the Village, found the gaggle of birders (bird clearly not in sight), parked the car, and took my place in the stakeout line with half the serious NYC and Long Island birders already on site.

I didn't have to wait long, and about ten minutes later, while I was chatting with Andrew Baksh, the bird flew over the building behind us and landed a strip of trees in front of an apartment building.

Couch's Kingbird, West Village, New York County, NY (December 2014)
Photo: Seth Wollney (used with permission)
The bird seemed to be in great health and seemed to have no problem finding things to eat.  Earlier in the morning it had apparently been seen collecting bluebottle flies from the apartment building terraces, but it also hawked and caught several insects on the wing while I watched it.

The presence of 40 or 50 strange people with binoculars, telescopes and giant camera lenses also drew more than a little interest from the locals, many of who stopped by to see the rare bird from Texas that was inexplicably hanging out on their city block.  It was also quite fun to see the different reactions from people - the people who were fascinated by the rare bird versus the people who were quiet disappointed that we weren't watching some celebrity or other.  The bird also made the press with several blogs (like this one, which seems trendy) and even the New York Post (our own Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid) giving it a mention.

So as of now, we have two super-rare Kingbirds in New York City - one a state second record, and this one a state first.  Wonder what will show up next?

Update 1/1/2015: both Kingbirds are (amazingly) still hanging on in New York.  Spend the morning looking for the Cassin's Kingbird in Brooklyn with no luck.  Again though, when I left to get lunch, the bird showed up at it's habitual spot (this time found by Rick Cech) and I was able to circle back and get it.  Perhaps it doesn't come to the garden until it gets warmer, but even then, I think the bird is looking weak, with drooping wings, not sure it'll make it much longer.

With the Cassin's under my belt, I decided to try for the Couch's and headed back to Manhattan.  Once I'd got there and found parking spot, I checked the list serves and saw that the bird was being seen at West 11th Street and West 4th, quite a way from the original spot, and where I'd parked.  I schlepped over there, all the way passing birders who had seen the birds and said that it had already left the area and flown to a private (and non-viewable) garden area.  Still, I pushed on, and arrived at the previous location, settled in for a wait, and after only a couple of minutes the bird flew back and started hunting from the trees and fire-escapes on nearby buildings.

While the Cassin's looked, well hungry, and I didn't see it eat this morning, the Couch's is clearly still finding food to eat.  It seemed to be picking insects (bluebottles?) off the white walls of the brownstone buildings at the intersection and seemed to be feeding successfully the whole time I watched.  I'm not optimistic for the Cassin's but I'm hopeful that the Couch's may make it through the Winter.


Saturday, November 22, 2014

Sometimes You Get Second Chances .... Cassin's Kingbird in Brooklyn

A blunder then redemption ....

Got a late start today but when I finally got moving I decided to get off Manhattan and do some Brooklyn birding.  I headed over to Floyd Bennet Field (a disused WWII air base, now mostly wild space) not with any particular goal in mind but there had been a Cassin's Kingbird seen briefly at that spot last week and it seemed as good a place as any to look for late Fall migrants.  The Kingbird was a well documented single observer bird and only the second ever seen in New York State.  Many birders had searched extensively the next day and failed to relocate it, and with no sightings all week it was a pretty safe bet that the bird was long gone.  Rarities aside though, I had a good feeling about Floyd Bennet and figured I might find something interesting lurking in the grass and scrub around the disused runways and hangers.

Today started out well with a quick check through the Horned Lark flock on the Cricket Field actually producing a Lapland Longspur.  I always look for them here, but I never find them, so my luck was clearly in today.

Bad photo of a Lapland Longspur with Horned Larks but it's the only one
I got before the birds flushed (they came back but I didn't want to bug
them too much)
There were plenty of other birds to see too - some Red Fox Sparrows mixed with Field Sparrows, a flock of Eastern Bluebirds, lots of Myrtle Warblers and a good mix of raptors.  I got into 'the zone' and started having a really fun time working through the grasses and scrub just counting sparrows.  As I worked the area behind the communal gardens though, I saw a bird that stopped me in my tracks.  I got just the quickest glimpse of the bird flying away from me, but the subliminal impression it left was a "Western-type" Kingbird.  I saw only the back but the wing and tail shape fit really well - I turned around and spent the next 30 minutes trying to get another look at the bird.

Now while I was busy looking for the bird, my brain was working overtime.  Was it a Kingbird?  Was it the Cassin's Kingbird?  That seemed really unlikely given that it had been searched for unsuccessfully all week - so perhaps my mind was playing tricks on me.  Wishful thinking?  I was practically muttering to myself after a half and hour and had pretty much convinced myself that I'd hallucinated.   Fearing for my mental health I decided to take a break and drove out of the park to get some lunch.  Not 20 minutes later the phone rang.  Andrew Baksh was on the line.  "Are you still at Floyd Bennet?  The Cassin's Kingbird is still here.  It's in the area behind the communal gardens".  Perhaps I should consider another hobby ....

So humble pie for lunch and back to the gardens to look for the bird again, this time with lots of company as 30 or 40 birders had quickly joined the hunt.  When I got back the news wasn't good.  The bird had flown off to the East, survived an attempted attack by a Sharp-shinned Hawk, and vanished behind some pines lost to sight for 20 minutes or so by the time I got there.  With so many people looking though it was only a matter of time before it was re-found and sure enough it popped up a half hour later right back where I'd seen it in the morning.

Cassin's Kingbird (2 shots)

This bird was a second state record for New York State and a State Bird for me (I'd been close to the first record in Montauk - I was on a fishing boat just off-shore when it was found, but by the time I got back to land the bird had vanished).  My second State Bird in two weeks ....

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Invincible Common Ground-Dove of Jones Beach

Vagrants and the return of early Winter birds on Long Island

So this weekend was a good weekend for vagrants on Long Island, but not really a good weekend for vagrants sticking around to be seen by birders.  Two separate White-winged Doves were found at either end of the Island but neither remained in place long enough for others to see.  Not that many birders would have chased them in any case as just about every birder on Long Island was out trying to re-find a Cassin's Kingbird (2nd state record) that one lucky observer saw and photographed on Saturday in Brooklyn.  Sometimes the birds just don't cooperate ....

I really wasn't too concerned about the rarities this weekend; I'd decided to go out to East Hampton on Friday and had plans to do some local birding and some gardening (last chance for bulbs!).  My original plans would have had me stay 'East of the Canal' all weekend, birding in Montauk and the Hamptons, but a peculiar individual bird got in my head and persuaded me to change my plans....

About 2 weeks ago someone found a Common Ground-Dove at the Coastguard Station at Jones Beach State Park in Nassau County.  As a second New York state record the word was put out quickly and birders rushed over to the park to see it - only to be ordered away from the station by a Coast Guard 'Trainee' who clearly though a group of middle-aged folk with binoculars were a terrible threat to the base and national security, perhaps an advance guard for the Islamic State's planned invasion of suburban Long Island?  Undeterred, birders came back the next day and dodged the Coast Guard patrols only to see the dove get taken and carried off by a Merlin ... game over.  It seemed that I was not fated to add this species to my state list (I'd missed the previous record 4 years ago).

Or perhaps not.  Fast forward a week and 'another' Common Ground-Dove was found a couple of hundred yards away; this one missing a tail.  Could the original bird have survived a Merlin attack?  Looks like this was one tough dove and I wondered if it might stick around, braving the cold and the density of migrating raptors at Jones Beach.  Each day brought a new report of the bird still being seen so on Saturday morning I gave in to the pressure and ran back West to Jones Beach to see if I could find this dove.

Turns out the bird was easy to see - as I pulled into the parking lot I noticed a small lump out in the open and sure enough, it was a Ground-Dove feeding in the weeds that grow in the cracks between the concrete slabs in the lot.  I pulled up the car and took some photos then parked and started to walk back only to see the bird flushed by a birder who clearly hadn't seen it before it took off.  So, with the bird out of view, I decided to call it a success and head back to my original plan of birding in the Hamptons.


Common Ground Dove (2 Shots)

So back to the Hamptons where I hit a bunch of local spots on Saturday morning and did the standard Montauk circuit on Sunday morning.  There were a few of the Winter birds back in the area - American Tree Sparrows at Napeague and Snow Buntings at Mecox but most of the Winter goodies that people come out to the East End for just weren't back in place yet.

There's a lot of white under a Snow Bunting ...  (at Mecox Inlet)
A sea-watch did produce a lot of Common Loons, 3 Scoter species, Greater Scaup and Common Eiders but no Alcids yet.  Time on the gulls flocks turned up the usual species and even a few lingering Laughing Gulls but none of the good Winter gulls that should show up soon.  Even Larry the super-regular Lesser Black-backed Gull that Winters in Napeague hadn't made his way back to his regular beach yet.  Just a few weeks early I guess but I did see some good things and felt like I was getting back into the swing of birding the local spots.

Perhaps the best things I saw on Sunday were actually mammals.  Two Gray Seals put on quite a show fishing close to shore at Montauk Point - I forget how big these guys are (we only have Harbor seals to look at all Summer) and am always shocked when one pops up in the scope at close range.  I also got to spend some quality time with a couple of very tame Red Foxes who I came very close to at Teddy Roosevelt County Park.  These guys were very relaxed in my presence and sat calmly as I walked by less than 50 feet away - so relaxed in fact that I wondered if I was about to have to fend rabid foxes off with my tripod.  Luckily they let me pass safely and rabies-free.

One of two Red Foxes in Montauk - one day I'll see one of Montauk's mythical Gray Foxes ...

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Northern Wheatear in New York City

Brooklyn in the rain for a New York City bird ...

After a super busy week I was really ready for some outdoor time on Saturday.  I didn't get round to checking the weather though so when I finally did I was just a bit disappointed to see that the forecast for New York was basically ... well torrential rain all day.  Still, being Welsh (I essentially grew up in a place where light rain is a Summer's Day and a nice break from the typical weather - i.e. heavy rain) I figured I'd go out anyway so headed over to Brooklyn to look for a Northern Wheatear that Shane Blodgett had found earlier in the week.

Shane may well be the ultimate patch birder; he flogs the Brooklyn shore spots and consistently finds rarities.   Skills + persistence = results.  The bird had been seen on-and-off during the week with many folks dipping and assuming that the bird had left.  Still, last night there was another report, and then this morning Rob Jett reported that the bird was still present, so off I went, sloshing through the rain on the BQE to the Plumb Beach parking lot.

When I got there I quickly found a mob of birders standing around in the light drizzle but heard that the bird hadn't been seen in a while. So we set up for a stake out and waited for the bird to reappear, which it duly did when Dave Klauber spotted it flying towards a railroad sleeper in the marsh not 30 minutes later.

 Wheatears seem to like something to perch up on, but in the marsh there weren't a lot of places to sit on - just a couple of driftwood logs, including this railroad sleeper.  The wheatear (or 'wet' ear) worked around the giant log, jumped up on it a few times, and kept coming back to it as a hunting perch.

This particular bird had been around all week and several folks have asked about it's age and sex.  Turns out that's not easy to determine.
 Here's Angus Wilson's take on an earlier New York Wheatear (opinion of a local expert birder ) and this stuff is way beyond my pay grade.

Several other local bird bloggers also got better shots (without torrential rain).  Here's the blog from Corey Finger for example.



 This was my 4th Northern Wheatear of 2014 (the others all being in Newfoundland) but only my second ever in New York State and my first for New York City!

I do have a soft spot for this species.  As a kid in Wales, Wheatears were the first real migrant of Spring (absent the odd Bank Swallow or Sand Martin as we called them) and were eagerly anticipated.

The Wheatears showed up on the coast in late March and were the heralds of the Spring migration to come.  We used to comb through the flocks of Wheatears (often in the cold with driving rain - some things don't change) looking for Ring Ouzels and trying to separate the Greenland Wheatears for the "Common" Wheatears.  Seeing one always takes me back to my childhood in Wales.  The rain today just added to the authenticity of the experience.

And rain it did.  While we were watching the bird the heavens opened and light rain was replaced by a torrential downpour (I mean real Ark-building weather) soaking everyone foolish enough to be standing out on a beach looking for birds.  I was completely soaked through, wet jeans, wet wallet, and a wet phone (which promptly died when I got back to the car, and never recovered).  So I see an iPhone 6 in my future ...