2018 has been different. Very different from 2017 in which I ran around all over doing a New York Big Year. I was pleased with my results, and I am also pleased to not be driving around all the time now, even more so that I no longer commuting.
Trying to get my home office up to speed has been a challenge, and means not doing much birding. There has been a few club trips and now with the weather warming and the migration beginning, I have been venturing out more.
But like the siren's call beckoning, I've been lured.
Mostly, it has been the rarities that have stoked the fires. In January a Slaty-backed Gull was found on the Cayuga River in Oswego. Its a lovely area, had been up there a few times in the past for a Clark's Grebe, and then back again to get the now lumped Thayer's Gull.
Arlene Rails was interested in getting the SBGU, it would have been a lifer for her. It would have been a state bird for me. We planned a leisurely trip; driving up on a Saturday afternoon, spending the night, and birding the next day before returning.
After breakfast we drove up the river stopping at a number of vantages, and then the places the bird had previously been reported. We saw Glaucous and Iceland Gulls, and one interesting probable Great Black-backed Gull that I tried to make into our quarry, but it was unfortunately not. Someone had suggested that it was a hybrid. Not sure about that, but interesting nevertheless.
We were surprised at the paucity of other birders present. It was suggested that they had all tried for the gull the day before, and with no positive reports no one bothered this day. It was unseasonably mild for January, and despite the dip, we enjoyed birding in this scenic corner of the state. We located a nice comestatorium named Dino's House of Burgers that also offered up a nice selection of frosty beverages. Ah, consolation beer ain't so bad, and it would only have been a ~state~ bird...
Then in the middle of February a Green-tailed Towhee was found in the town of “Montezuma”. It was actually at the feeders of someone in Port Byron, a very short distance away. An ebird report let the address slip, and I got some additional info from local birders. With a day off coming up Earic Miller, Lisa Shrimpke and I made the trip.
We arrived to find present fellow birder John H, 'The Hound of the Basherkill' . We also met other birders who had also traveled quite some distance in hopes of seeing this bird. We spend a long time looking at the feeders in a futile attempt before finally calling it a day. I was not pleased to discover in talking with the home owners that it was not their idea to obscure their location, and in fact they welcomed birders. I wish I had known the location sooner as I would have been able to go and probably would have seen it. What took place was an unnecessary amount of “caution” that was unwarranted.
I imagine the thought process was: "There's going to be a problem, lets keep this quiet, because, you know, birders are such..." and so it was obscured and off of the lists.
A better approach IMHO would have been a posting to the state list like the following:
"A rarity was found in a private yard. View the bird from... Parking is limited on a narrow road. Please do not block the road or driveways, do not venture past the curb onto the property unless invited, and be polite and courteous to the owners and neighbors. Please do not knock on the door or otherwise enter the property. If we do this we can welcome birders to see it for as long as it visits; if we don't, then you will ruin it for all those who try after your visit. PLEASE help us to make sure that all who wish to visit get the opportunity to do so. IOW act like an adult and don't make the rest of us look bad”
So I had dipped again. Was I losing my mojo?
Then a few days later word came that the Slaty-backd Gull had been located a short distance west of Oswego near Seneca Falls. Pat Pallas Reed Bunting was interested in going; he had actually tried and dipped on the Oswego bird the day before Arlene and I had made our attempt.
He formed a posse consisting of us as well as Mike Zino's Petrel and Bob Prothonotary. On the long ride up we exchanged war stories, and I lamented that Mike got such great photos of the Fieldfare he chased, while I had gotten by far one of the worst pictures ever, where you had to struggle to make it out through the barberry it was obscured within.
I further lamented that overall I have had great success chasing birds, but that I often get lousy pictures and with my recent two dips, I feared I was losing my mojo. Pat looked over at me pensively, and then said: “ I hope you get a lousy picture of the gull”
We arrived at Van Cleef lake to the pleasant sight of a phalanx of birders looking, not merely milling about! We pulled into a spot, got out, and a nearby birder offered us a look as he had the gull queued up in his scope. YES! There was much rejoicing; a state bird for two of us and a lifer for two of us. Nice too was a Lesser Black-backed and a Greater Black-backed Gull all within the same view for a nice comparison.
Who also was present? None other than the woman who had the towhee at her house. She relayed that it had not been seen since, but welcomed us to try again if we wanted. We did, but not surprisingly we did not find it.
We did go to look for the Gyrfalcon which has been present in the area for several years. Apparently it roosts at night in a quarry, and we had been told that dusk is a good time to see it when it returns. We drove a round for a while, and I spotted a Northern Shrike!
Getting hungry, we found a good eatery in Seneca Falls called Parker's Grill & Taphouse. They had a very nice selection on tap, and we celebrated our good fortune.
We returned to the falcon's location and drove around the farm roads some more. It is a huge area, and we were not the only ones looking. Towards the end of the day, we did get a brief look at a falcon that I equivocated about, and after some more time it was getting close to the time when heading back was being contemplated in earnest.
But before we did, we decided to give it 'one more try'. We were glad we did! As we drove slowly down the road the Gyrfalcon graced us with a cross flyby that made us gasp and rejoice. YES!
Slaty-backed Gull, Northern Shrike, and Gyrfalcon. Not too shabby!
Flash forward two months. I had not been out birding more than once or twice. In fact at the time I was doing paperwork, having just finished with some patients, when the phone rang. It was Bob Prothonotary excitingly asking if I had seen the recent email. No I replied, I have not looked at my emails all day; why? Pat Linnet just found a Wood Sandpiper at Timber Point!
WTF!? The email was postmarked 15 minutes earlier, and a quick check with google revealed I had roughly a half hour til sunset and a 20 minute ride to get there. I scrambled to get my things and hit the ground running.
I alerted Phil Jabiru along the way as he was nearby and most likely able to get there before sunset. I arrived to find a firing line of a dozen or so birders fixed upon the off-track Tringa. Viewing conditions were ideal with the bird positioned with the sun to our backs. The only downside was that it was hella windy and cold! It had been 80 a few days prior, and it was the first of many times since then that I have uttered that 'spring has been canceled'.
The wacky weather had brought a severe rain storm up the coast and dumped a excess of water everywhere, including this golf course whose grass was flooded making an enticing feeding opportunity for 'Woody' and his friends – Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Willet, and Dunlin.
While I was partaking of the gawk and smirk fest, the phone rang. It was Earic Miller calling to inquire about the plan for the next day. He asked what are you doing? I'm looking at a Wood Sandpiper I replied. He responded with an incredulous and somewhat scornful 'What?' I explained with restrained glee the circumstance that it had only been found and reported recently, very late in the day.
His scorn and frustration was partially deflected by proceeding to ask if we were keeping with our plan formulated earlier in the day. That being to venture upstate for a Western Meadowlark reported the day before. We had planned to leave the next day if it had been reported again, and having gotten positive reports the twitch was a go.
Amazing. A rarity shows up and a mega rarity shows up. This crazy weather has produced good birds! Earlier in the day it had rained buckets, but by sunset it was cold but clearing – perfect for getting a good look at the piper. And no, I did not get a picture; I left home without my camera. I did get scolded by Dunlin Schulman in this regard though.
But worrisome was the forecast for upstate: rain all day but some early morning snow. Piffle. It should reach 42 degrees, so no problem, right...?
We met Avian Resnick and Lisa Shrimpke early the next day and set off on our journey. This also gave me the opportunity to test out my new phone. Got the Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus and wanted to see how it stacked up against the hype. The significant internal memory was great for navigation, as google maps indicated that parts of the route may not have service, and I took it up on the offer to store map info for anywhere the signal might be lost. Nice feature! Previously I had used the 'Here Maps' app for 'offline' navigation, after finding out the hard way years ago in Arizona that the best birding locations are out of range of data signals! Now, it seems that one app will do all I need. It worked seamlessly; I was able to tell when there was no data because the Pandora app stopped playing.
Speaking of which, having switched to unlimited data it was a new experience to listen to uninterrupted music; having transitioned from cassettes, to CDs, to ripped CDs and my anachronistic style of listening to 'albums', to Pandora's offerings. So 5 hrs of uninterrupted music and nav and the phone battery hardly cared. Yes!
Even for a seasoned twitcher, day trips of this length can elicit concerns. Will there be traffic, will the weather be a factor, will the bird be there!? Well the traffic was practically non-existent there and back for a most pleasant cruise. And the weather held out until we cut west across farmland in Homer off I-81. As we traversed the rolling hills the snow began to fall. Some sections were coated in white, and then over the next hill the fields were devoid of snow. It varied from flurries to large flakes, but mostly the warm air kept things inconsequential.
We arrived at the hotspot, and found an area wide enough to pull off the road. In very short order Avian and Earic heard a meadowlark singing, and they tracked it down. Or up; Avian spotted it in a large roadside tree and Lisa got some photos. I tried to get a recording on my phone, and did so, but the wind was howling and much of what was recorded was just that. But in the background one can hear the Western Meadowlark. Yes! Drive up and hear it singing. And not to mention two state birds in two days for 422 New York State birds!
|Western Meadowlark - Photo by Lisa Scheppke|
Listen to a bad recording of the song here
|Western Meadowlark - Photo by Lisa Scheppke|
We visited Montezuma next where we saw Purple Martins, lots of both Teals, Caspian and a few Common Terns, a Tundra and Trumpeter Swan, and a White Pelican. But it was getting past lunch time and a celebratory beer was in order. We went to Parker's Grill & Taphouse in Seneca Falls again.
Following lunch we went back for another look at the Meadowlark. Unfortunately it was windy, cold, and snowing, not the most conducive conditions, so we started heading back. We made one final stop at Meyer's Point for a try for the reported Cave Swallow, ( it too, like the Wood Sandpiper was uncharacteristically present in the spring vs the fall when more likely ) but it was not to be. Lots of Barn and Tree and a few Rough-wings, but again the snowy conditions were not optimal.
The only real issue with the weather was on a stretch of 17 just east of 81. The micro-climate was colder and the snow was sticking to the road making the cars form a 40 mph caravan. After a short while, the conditions improved and we proceeded unimpeded.
Three state birds so far this year. Not too shabby. And it looks like a lot of stuff is showing up all over. There is even the possibility being raised that a large wader seen at Breezy Point may have been a mega rare Eurasian Curlew. And don't get me started on the goodies in Arizona!