Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Tuesday Morning Birding

Birding is a great way to teach logical thinking. Of the many birders who go see a given bird, only a small percentage, perhaps 1-3% { my unscientific estimate} actually bother to post either a positive or negative report. After a while, most everyone who wants to see the bird has pretty much seen it, so even if it is being seen the probability of it being reported drops precipitously. What is worse, is that fewer people go to see birds that are no longer reported, and it spirals on downward. However, that does not mean the bird is not there, ALL it means is that there have been no reports. Not that the bird is gone.

Suspecting the difficulty in finding the Northern Shrike played a part in its lack of reports, I used my morning to try and find it. I drove around the runways that allow access by car, hoping that by covering more area my probability of locating it would be increased. It was not. But I did happen by a flock of Pipets and they landed close by allowing a great look, if not a long enough one for me to get the camera on them.

I eventually ended up at the waters edge, and decided to look for another sought after species; Red-necked Grebe. Several visits here and one by boat and I have not been able to find one, and there was a report of several! Well I guess there has to be some challenge or this pastime would be too easy and not give any feeling of accomplishment.

I set up my scope and began to scan the water. Lots of Bufflehead and Red-breasted mergs, and a handful of Horned Grebe. And then something different. It was well out there, but the wind and heat lines were not too bad. It dove and resurfaced, and I was able to keep relocating it. And then it joined two Common Goldeneye, and I had a nice side by side to allay any ID doubts. Yes, I had found a Barrows Goldeneye!

When I had satisfied myself that all the Red-necked Grebes were adept a diving well ahead of my scope’s view, I made my way to the north west part of the park { called the north 40 } and decided it was such an exceptionally gorgeous day { I think it hit 60 degrees? } that I would walk the runway to the end and back. Who knows, I could get lucky.

Luck counts! Though it was otherwise quiet for the most part, I kept looking at the treetops for a likely suspect. And just like I have always found them before, a Northern Shrike was perched prominently. It flew a short distance, and I tried to approach it closer for a few shots. It was located in perfectly bad lighting. Oh well, a few ‘documentary’ shots were fired off, and then it was harassed by a Mockingbird. I would have loved to get the two of them in the frame but they both moved on.

Northern Shrike

Time to move on, I walked back to my car. On the way I heard a call note and found a Tree Sparrow. At the end of the runway, I watched a female Kestrel hover and dive for prey.

I stopped at Jamaica Bay, where I learned from another birder that the two Eurasian ducks I was after were not seen, so I went to the west pond instead. Had a nice assortment of ducks, as well as lots of Snow Geese, and my FOS Canvasback and Shoveler.

A last stop before running into work, I went to w 10th avenue to try for the Eared Grebe again. No luck. I posted my findings to the lists, and got a call from Andrew Baksh who was able to head out and get the Barrows for himself. What a good day.

Four Out of Five Ain’t Bad

I want you, {I want you }
I need you, {I need you}
while there ain’t no way I'll ever find all of you
I don’t feel sad, {don’t feel sad,} cause two out of three ain’t bad *

So being skunked on 6 birds is new record for me. Embarrassing actually. Jean Loscalzo, Eric Miller, and I revisited Manhattan on Sunday to try to make up for our missing all 6 target birds the week prior.

We started by heading up to Inwood for the Dicksissel, this time we were prepared by bringing seed that we put down. There were no shortage of House Sparrows, and they were joined by a Cardinal, Mockingbird, two Song Sparrows, and a White-throated Sparrow.

What was curious was how flighty the hosps were. They would fly down, and fly back to the fence repeatedly. The other birds were not as jumpy, and would often stay through several back and forths by the hosps. They kinda looked like Sanderlings going towards then away from the water.

Eric theorized that hawks must be flying down the path and picking them off, and we took note of an Accipiter and three circling Red-tailed Hawks. We hoped to see a Bald Eagle like last week but did not.

Two of the numerous Rock Doves came down and partook of the seed we put down, and then without warning a Red-tailed Hawk took a swipe at the Doves but missed. So it would seem that Eric was spot on with his theory. 

We spent two hours but no Dicksissel. The sun was warming, but the wind was picking up too and blowing off the river it felt colder. Time to move on. We went to Union Square with requisite worrying by Jean that we would not find a parking spot. Sure there was no lot as in Inwood, but without an inordinate amount of searching we found a place to park the car, and it was only around the corner from the park.

We headed straight for the south-west corner where the Gandhi statue was located and began to look for a Yellow-breasted Chat that has been resident for some time. Within a few minutes of looking, Jean and Eric simultaneously called out There's the CHAT!

As we jockeyed for a good viewing position, I finally got a clear view as the bird came out from under the plants and was able to get a few photos. We also attracted the attention of a woman sitting on the bench quite next to us. She was a tourist from Edmonton Alberta Canada, and wanted to know what we were all excited about. Jean and I explained that we traveled into town to see this bird, pointed it out to her and showed her the image on my camera. We also explained its rarity for place and time of year. She was impressed by the unknown { to her } network of birders on the internet who shared information, and it seemed to make her day more interesting and enjoyable too. I enjoy sharing in this manner with non-birders.

Yellow-breasted Chat
Having gotten our main target, Eric mentioned that there was a White-crowned Sparrow in this park as well. We split up to look for it as we didn’t know where it was being seen reliably, and he ended up spotting it within moments nearby.

We then headed back uptown for the Museum of Natural History’s Rufous Hummingbird. Again, some of us pondered the paucity of parking potential, while I said we’ll drive around and eventually find something. It took maybe all of ten minutes, but a spot was located in front of the Historical Society by Jean no less, and we were able to continue our quest.

A short walk brought us to the west 81st street entrance of the museum and the feeders. We quickly surveyed the east then west plantings, and Jean found the hummer sitting on a plant. We watched it fly over and feed at the sugar-water feeders put out for it, and then it returned to perch and afforded photographic opportunity.

Rufous Hummingbird
We then ended up at the Boat House where we had hot beverages and I shared, quite possibly, the best mushroom soup I have ever had. Walking past the Delacort Theater, we saw a huge flock of Grackles, perhaps 100 or so. They flew gracefully in formation about the tree tops, and then all of a sudden they flew chaotically as they tried to avoid an attack by a Merlin.

Then we headed thru Central park towards Hallett Sanctuary in search of the Red-headed Woodpecker. On the way we meandered and got a view of Pale Male and his new babe as they sat on a building adjacent to where their nest is located. Two “enthusiasts” sat vigil by the pond, and let us view the hawks through their scopes.

Without the wind and because of the mild temperature it was quite a pleasure to walk through the park. We made our way further south and to the fence around Hallett Sanctuary. The lighting was bad as we looked in, so we tried walking around east. That side meant a long walk around “the pond” so we went back the other way, and along the sanctuary’s west side. Success! Eric spotted the immature Red-headed Woodpecker as it flew into a tree, and we got some nice looks. Just after we found it, a Manhattan birder came looking for the bird too, and we were able to get him on the bird as well.

Red-headed Woodpecker

At this point the decision was made to go back to Inwood and try again. We spent another hour, but the bird was a no show. It was reputed to be one of the last birds to come down for the seed, but come on, what a diva. Or maybe it was snatched by a hawk?

Admittedly a disappointing start and finish, but heck four out of five ain’t bad!

* apologies to Meatloaf

Monday, January 30, 2012

Trying to Fill in Some Holes in the Afternoon

In this golden age of birding, ones purview has been greatly expanded by information technology facilitating the advent of the ‘power-birder’. Time permitting, I am trying to see as much of the goodies as possible this year, and hoping to find a few on my own too.

This past Saturday’s agenda was to start by trying  for the Eared Grebe and Eurasian Wigeon at Jamaica Bay. A beautiful fall day in the midst of winter, unseasonably warm weather was again a pleasure to be out and enjoying.

I began at West 10th in Broad Channel, and spied the usual suspects of gulls, Brant, Horned Grebe, and Hooded and Red-breasted Merganser. Of course the Bufflehead and scuap were nice to see up close and personal. After and hour or so a boater came motoring through the mass of assembled birds, put them up to the far side, and then swung around to leave, going thru them a second time. This made them fly over closer towards Jamaica Bay.

When they seemed to settle in to far to see well even by scope, I headed over to the refuge. Unfortunately, by this time the wind had picked up something awful, and looking south was untenable. The west pond was full of Ruddy Duck, but nothing exceptional. I then decided to head over to the east pond and get out of the wind chill.

The land birds here as by the west side were silent. Looking out I gained Snow Geese! Scaup and lots more Ruddy, but nothing more of note. By this time it was getting near 4, and I headed to the Alley Pond Restoration for another attempt at Wilson’s Snipe. This bird inhabits this location so my frustration is well justified for not finding them on most visits in the recent past.

Setting up at the north end, I scanned the Ring-necked Ducks, Green-winged Teal, and Pied-billed Grebe. I then examined the sand spit at the south end, and trained my scope on the shore adjacent to it. And there it was! Finally, I found a Snipe after missing it so many times. As Eric Miller had suggested to me on a number of occasions, it was best to use a scope. That advice paid off.

So it may sound like I just acquired a scope... No, have had one for a long time, but mostly I had been lazy. In my defense, it can be a bit much carrying camera, binos, and a scope. That is until I started using a trick I noticed that Corey Finger uses. He angled the aiming bar down [ is that what it’s called? ] locks the up/down pan of the scope, and then hooks the bar over his shoulder such that he can walk with the scope and ~both~ hands free.

I tried this myself, and found that it works great as long as I don’t walk too far as the pan mechanism eventually slips a bit. Tightening the knob helps, but I got tired of twisting it so tight and then having to undo it when needed. Instead, I fashioned a small hook to hold the aiming arm in position, and this allows rapid set and release.

This hooked over the shoulder is more comfortable for me than on the shoulder, and does not need a hand to hold it in place. I can also keep it there while reaching for and or using my camera or binos.

Just like Thursday where Eric seemed to arrive synchronously, this time it was Mike Feder. He came over and inquired about the Snipe, a bird he was also in search of, and I had the pleasure of saying: “look through the scope”. So both he and I have satisfied one of our year list goals.

Shortly thereafter, some of the folks who had just returned from the day’s pelagic also showed up and they stepped up to get their view as well. We then all birded down the path hoping to scare some things up, but it was quiet. With light fading and dinner calling, further birding would have to wait til the morrow.

Friday, January 27, 2012

If it's Thursday, I Must be Birding

Thursday is a good day to take care of errands, but it's a better day to bird. Today my quest was to try to relocate an Audubon’s flavored Yellow-rumped Warbler. It had been reported for a few weeks in Sunken Meadow STPK, and it was about time I saw it too.

This bird was not a lifer, and not even a state bird. But it was a county bird and a previously un-experienced plumage. I have seen adults out west, and a few years ago a nice winter adult was in Tobay Beach in Nassau county. This bird was by far a much more subtle ID and my hat goes off to Shai Mitra for picking out this immature female.

There are plantings mixed with Cedars that flank the north,south and east sides of the eastern most lot. Word had it that the bird had been favoring the snow-fenced clump of plants at the east end of the lot. I started there, and walked south until I came across a mixed flock of Song and White-throated Sparrows feeding on the lawn. Picking through them, I also spied a few Black-capped Chickadees working the cedars. Good!

The birds were slowly working their way west, and I followed along. It was nice to be standing still amongst them, and they started to feed all around me, as they began to accept my presence. I had begun to think I was not going to find my target, when I spied a smaller bird with white in the tail fly into one of the cedars. It was a Myrtle, and shortly I go a look at another Yellow-rumped, but this time I was presented with an altogether different looking bird.

The bird in question was not what I was expecting, based upon the bird I had seen back in 2009. There was no bright yellow throat. There was also no supercilium, and there was small yellow patches on either side of the throat. Hmmm.

I lost track of the birds as they flew off undetected. I decided to make a few rounds to see what else I could find. A nice variety of stuff was about, and the sound was quite calm and flat. Made for nice views of the Horned Grebes and Common Loons. A few Oldsquaw also put in an appearance.

When I got to the creek, I was surprised to see over 6 great Egrets. Runners were all about on the trails and their stomping by put the birds up so I lost count, but they and a whole mess of Mergansers were chowing down on an ample supply of fish.

I would have to say the best part was that this creek had on it all three mergansers, and at he same time! I like getting all three in one day, but all three on the same creek in the same view? Nice! I am more accustomed to the Common Mergs being on big rivers, but here I was watching them at close range chasing their quarry up against the phragmites at the waters edge and really chowing down!

Another birder showed up, and we chatted a bit as we relocated the Chickadee flock in the eastern patch of Cedars. Again the Audubon's made an appearance, and this time with the light at a different angle we saw a bird that looked just like the immature female as illustrated in National Geographic.

Satisfied, I birded my way out, and stopped to check the large flocks of Robins. I picked two Cedar Waxwings out of te bunch, but alas, no Bohemians... yet? 

I then headed west to Queens in hope of relocating the Pink-footed Goose seen in Alley Pond Park.  I started at the south end of the restoration area, trying to locate Snipe but dipped. There were no geese on the lake either. But shortly, and as if on cue, Eric Miller unexpectedly showed up and we walked the paths to see what we could turn up. Scaup, Bufflehead, Ring-necked Duck, Pied-billed Grebe, and Green-winged Teal were on the pond, but land birds were scarce. Finally, on the sloping lawn on our way out we had the western Palm Warbler, and a Rublet. But no Orange-crowned. perhaps it's the weather, or perhaps Eric is losing his touch? The Orange-crowned Warblers usually swarm about him like worker bees around their queen.

Being in such close proximity to Fairway, it seemed implausible that I would not peruse their beer selection. What better way to cap off the day than with a Young's Chocolate Stout? Withe my provisions in hand, I made a pass by Kissena park, but there were no geese to be found there either.

With the light fading and the rain falling harder, made my way home ever so slowly, caught in traffic that did not relent until I was practically all the way. Fortunately my liquid consolation made the memories fade into my delectation.

Monday, January 23, 2012

A Day at the Museum.

Teddy Roosevelt did not come to life, and no one got slapped by a monkey, but the behind the scenes workings of the museum sure came to life! Mary Normandia set up a private “behind the scenes” tour exclusively for Queens County Bird Club Inc members and we got to see parts of the massive collections used predominantly by researchers and other privileged guests, but not open to the public.

Set to start at 1pm, a small number of us met earlier to try to get some of the Manhattan specialties, as long as we were in the neighborhood. Some of us met at Inwood Park hoping to see the Dicksissel. When Jean Loscalzo Mike Feder and I arrived, Eric Miller and Jeff Ritter were already there. Eric waved us on as we arrived, and we thought they were on the bird in question. They were not, but they had a beautiful adult Bald Eagle on the top of the hill of and cued up nicely in the scope!

Thinking that the birds might come in to food, some of us went to get some seed, while Eric and Jeff went after other targets. On our return, Andrew Baksh was on site, also with the Eagle cued up; and was somewhat disappointed to learn that we had already seen it earlier. Find us the Dicksissel we said, but it was not to be. Strike one. Andrew also let on that he was bailing on the museum tour in favor of a potential life bird - Slaty-backed Gull upstate. Priorities.

Jeff and Eric met up with Ian Resnick in Central Park to track down the Barred Owl that had been seen in the Pinetum, while Jean and I took the train to Bryant Park hoping for the Yellow-breasted Chat, and perhaps the Ovenbird. Nope and nope. Holy cow. We gave it a good try, and got some free snacks from the ‘teach kids how to eat expo’ then took the train back uptown to meet up for the tour.

When Jean and I returned to the museum, we tried entering through the subway access as instructed, but there was a sign saying to go around to the front even though they were letting people exit that way, I explained to the guard that we were to be meeting staff, but he wasn’t having any of it and we walked all the way around to the front, and back down two flights of stairs to be right where we started from. *&%DR#R!

But the timing was good, no sooner did we get to the basement than all the others in our party assembled as if by cue. Peter Capainolo, Scientific Assistant: Division of Vertebrate Zoology - Ornithology of the  American Museum of Natural History came out to greet us, and we were led by Peter through a locked but unassuming door to the bowels of the museum.

We began in one of the older parts of the museums facilities, where Peter does his work preparing study skins, skeletons, or ‘pickling’ of entire animals. Here is where the ‘unpleasant’ parts of the museum work gets done, removing tissue etc. Peter explained the process, and detailed how it has changed over time due to prohibitions against using toxic compounds, and how it has also stayed the same. Mainly, soft squishy parts are not necessary, while the hard parts, ie bones are. Whole critters are pickled first in formaldehyde, and after the tissues are fixed, stored in Ethanol.

Peter explained that for ornithology, ‘study skins’ are prepared so that various measurements can be done of bill, wing and other parts, especially over time and to compare populations etc. This entails removing the entrails which are largely not of study value, and thus Mary’s disappointment who emphatically wanted to see the gonads. Sorry Mary, wrong museum.

Another preferred method for study is skeletal preparation. Peter showed us samples of birds that had been partially processed. These had most everything but bony parts removed, with a bit of the  ‘jerky’ muscle tissue remaining. Labeled with a tag on the foot, and tied in a neat bundle, these birds sat in the freezer until ready to be brought to the ‘cleaning facility’ where all soft parts are removed on even the tiniest and most fragile of bones by Dermestid beetles.

When Ian heard the beetles were used to clean up, his interest was peaked, but Peter quickly pointed out they are Dermestid, not domestic beetles. They are kept in a separate building so that they can minimize the risk of them getting to the rest of the museum’s collection and ruining them.

Down the hall in this dark, dank, and antiquated part of the museum, we were shown the room full of trays full of boxes of bones, each marked carefully with identifying numbers lest one be misplaced. It was fascinating to see these items, and try to guess what species or even genus they came from.

We then boarded a freight elevator of the type I no longer believed to exist. The type where the inner and outer doors are closed manually, and there are no floor buttons; rather a lever that is pushed forwards or backwards to make the car go up and down, and requires a bit of trial and error to get it to line up with the desired floor. These you will find in old movies that had elevator operators.

What was intriguing was that I noticed that the floors went from 5 to 4M to 4 and then 3. Hmmm. If we get off on 4m will we be inside John Malkovitch’s head, before being dumped by the side of the NJ turnpike? But enough conspiracy theories, we were there to see the bird collection.

On the 3rd floor we got a nice sampling of the skins and many an OO and AH was elicited. Peter showed us the drawers of the Falcon skins, and quizzed us on what birds we think they might be related to, alluding to their not necessarily being hawks. If you guessed Parrots you win the prize, a relation I would never have guessed. Polly want a burger?

Moving on, we saw my favorites, the hummingbirds. It was something to see in your hand the minuteness of the Bee Hummingbird, and have the others to marvel at their colors and diversity. Peter also told us of current research on bird coloration being done, where it is being revealed that some birds may have ultra-violet colorations visible to them, but not noticed by our eyesight without the help of special cameras. He told us that it appears that Male Chickadees have UV markings, while the females do not; revealing that there is stuff going on that we are not aware of in the bird world.

We ended with the birds of paradise, a nice study in variation within a species, and discussions on how DNA is being used to find “crypto-species”. Note this is not trying to find Bigfoot, or the Loch Ness Monster, but rather species that by typical means of size, color, song etc may be indistinguishable. Peter told us that the “Herring Gull” colony at Captree State Park may in fact be a colony of 3 identical looking but reproductively isolated species, ...and you thought the Crossbills were hard!

Although some of us did not want to leave, after spending more that twice the time with us as he had planned we bid Peter a fond adieu and heartily thanked him for a fantastic experience. He made the tour beyond merely informative and quite entertaining at the same time. And as far as Peter’s protests of not being a people person, none of us were having any of it because we had a blast with him.

After the tour Jean, Seth Ausubel and I tried for the ‘live’ Rufous Hummingbird that has been at the museum entrance, and maintained our streak No bird. So the three of us went to the pinetum to try our luck looking for the Barred Owl. We weren’t disappointed. But only in that our streak continued. By now, it was late and dark enough that trying for the Red-headed Woodpecker was out of the question. Wow. Six birds missed. And Andrew’s Slaty-backed was a no show. At least Eric and Ian reported having seen an Eastern Phoebe.

With the way our luck chasing the rarities was running,  it seemed the whole day was as if we were in ‘Peter’s world’, where successful chasing only involved opening the correct cabinet drawer. The better birding was by far in the museum. Thanks Peter!

To see photos of the tour taken by Seth, check out his face book album here

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Brilliant Start to the New Year

At various times in the past I have been encouraged or coaxed into doing yet another CBC. My two 'standards' are the Bronx and Queens counts, but this year I was given a sucker punch by a nasty stomach virus and missed out on the Bx CBC.

So this year I was 'volunteered' for the south Nassau count, and found out about some nifty places on the Queens / Nassau border I'd previously not explored. It's a good thing I'm not much for new years partying, because it made it that much easier to get up way too early on January 1 to count birds.

Though cold, the weather was pleasant enough, and it even warmed up enough for us to remove layers. The birding was as to be expected for a winter's day, though it was punctuated by a simple text message Jean received.

Grace's Warbler Point Lookout

 What else does it say? Lets Go!! While some others may not have immediately grasped the significance of the report, I pointed out in a hurried and 'enthusiastic' manner that this bird is not ever been seen in New York, and probably not on the east coast as well! The New York status was quickly verified by checking my Avysis checklist in my Palm Treo.

Lets go! I said emphatically again, but there was some hesitation on the part of the other CBC participants. I pointed out that Point Lookout was not that far away, so we could go and come back in short order. I convinced Jean and then Eric. But George steadfastly wanted to stay on task and was detectably annoyed [ or worse ] that some of us were jumping ship.

So Jean Eric and I decided to run over to try and see the bird, while George and another birder stayed behind. I felt no remorse; this was not a count I was that 'committed' to, and this was after all a monumental find. Jean remembered that we had planned to leave early anyway to attend her niece's birthday party. For Eric's part, his plan was to see the bird then return and resume the CBC. I gladly offered to run him back afterwards.

So I fired up Loretta [ my GPS ] and had her guide us to our destination. But speed limits and traffic lights are the bane of Power Birders everywhere. They provoke that special twitchy nervous feeling one gets when contemplating how close yet how far one is from a bird that they hope to get to in time to see.

Arriving on location, we were amazed by the hoard of birders already assembled. But this is a good thing! More eyes makes finding a target easier! In fact the scene was like a who's who of birding in Kingbird region 10. Present too were other members of our CBC who also got the message and made a 'detour'.

And in short order the bird was pointed out, though at first furtively. Depending on where you were standing, the tangle of Pine branches made catching a glimpse acutely critical. Thankfully, the bird was largely accommodating and no one to my knowledge left disappointed. Those with cameras were able to get some rather nice shots, and much to my chagrin, several noticed the absence of mine. Groan. I had left it home as I thought it would be easier to travel light.

 Sated in that peculiar '1st State Record' way, we drove back to drop off Eric, and then headed east. On the way I convinced Jean that we should shoot out to Wading River and try for the Mountain Bluebird we had dipped on previously. After glaring at me, she conferred with her sister and learned that things had been pushed back a wee bit, and this gave us a modicum of breathing room.

We now had time to stop home and change from birding gear into more presentable attire, and venture for the bluebird. Arriving on the location we spied another car pulled over a short way down, and the occupants began pointing a long lens in a suggestive direction. We joined them , got on the bird, and this time I also had my camera!

Wow, what a day... what could make it better? BEER! Well a short way down the road we perused the fine selection of beers at a distributor, and I availed myself of some Mother's Milk. Mmmm.

And oh yes, the party was nice too.