Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Virginia’s Warbler ~Almost~ in Virginia - Epic Journey #1

Sunday Feb 26, 2012

Eric Miller asked me if I was going to try for the Virginia’s Warbler that has been residing in Maryland. It turns out that I had been asked the same question by Jean Loscalzo earlier in the week, and it would seem that the prospect was gaining steam, with my chasing juices started to flow.

I had a life Virginia’s Warbler many years ago in California. I had made a trip out to the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve in 1989 because I longed for seeing warblers, and I heard that this was a good place for seeing them. While there, I saw a few familiar and a few new warblers, and crossed paths with Dick Dunlap for the second time. He and I crossed paths coincidentally once before chasing rarities from the LA-RBA.

He asked me what I had seen, I rattled off a small list, and pointed in the direction of a Nashville  Warbler I had just seen. In typical Dick format, he said: “No it’s not, that’s a Virginia’s Warbler” I took another look, and waited for the bird to come into view completely. Either I was mistaken in my initial ID or this was another bird, but this was my life Virginia’s.

Ten years later I did a trip to Colorado and Utah with Ian Resnick, and Virginia’s Warbler was one of our target species. I had several potential places on the itinerary, but this is one of the few species that we dipped on. So when I called Ian and asked if he wanted to go, he didn’t hesitate.

So three out of four of us had the potential for a lifer, the weather forecast was great, and we were chock full of enthusiasm. We left dark and early at 5am to try to beat the traffic that lumbers down the highway in a manner consistent with the occupants’ indecision about whether or not they are actually interested in getting to their destination. The other side of the coin with little traffic, is that there are less people on the road who can speed and be caught by the cops instead of you. We dodged a bullet or two, and made good time to our destination.

Along the way we were pleased to see four Bald Eagles amongst the more expected species. Although truth be told, with the heart warming success of this species, perhaps it should be considered an ‘expected species’ at this point. They are turning up all over the place. Yippee!

In the sky above us, there were also lots and lots of Snow Geese. Huge flocks were on the move, and this would continue throughout the day climaxing at sunset with thousands flying by in the fading light.

Arriving at the Pickering Creek Audubon Center in Easton MD, I inquired of our party if anyone had come across any info about where to look. All we knew was that it was being seen in the Groundsel. But in short order we found some other birders, and they had just seen the bird and told us where to look. Here is a map.

Eastern Bluebird

Before long, Ian and Eric heard the bird calling, and they got the first looks. The bird moved around a bit but we were mostly able to tell where it was by its call notes. When the warbler wasn’t calling, I checked the sky for raptors and found Black Vultures in amongst the Turkey Vultures, as well as more bald Eagles, and a pair of Red-shouldered Hawks that were calling. Nice. Eric took a walk down another path and he heard a Barred Owl call.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Black Vulture
Eric and Ian went over to the north edge to see if the view was better, while Jean and I stayed on the east side. We were joined by a fellow from Philadelphia who like Ian and Eric, could easily hear the calls. Together the three of us tracked the birds movements and helped each other get on the bird for the best of the furtive views.
Field Sparrow
At one point the bird came very close, and we were able to see it in all its glory. The eye-ring was nicely visualized, as was the pattern and coloration. Alas, it is a warbler which means it starts its day with several cups of very strong coffee, the effect of course is non stop movement - ie not allowing for a decent picture. Dang you Songbird Coffee! But at least I can say that I have seen the bird twice!

Virginia's Warbler. No really, its in there!
After we collectively were satisfied with our looks, we took off east for Lewes where a Western Grebe had been reported. We arrived at the ferry terminal to find a few birders with scopes looking at the water, but our hopes were dashed when we learned that the bird had not been seen all day. What is worse, it was said that it had been within 20 feet of the waters edge. That would have been nice, but in its place was a Horned Grebe, and its closeness allowed for nice pictures of it instead. Out on the water were also some Surf Scoters, and Red-breasted Mergansers.
Horned Grebe

Arriving at the same time as we did was a couple from New Jersey. He an avid birder bent on getting the Western Grebe, she a partially willing significant other apparently dragged along for the ride. Disappointment at the no-show of the Grebe turned to elation at news of the warbler we had just seen. Jean helped them with as much directional information as possible, but it would seem that the roughly 75 miles west to the warbler may have been too much. I hope they went, got it, and she was treated to a nice dinner in recompense for putting up with her birding partner.

We decided to go down the road to Cape Henelopen and try from some other vantage points, but it became clear the bird was not there. We then went to the nature center where the Brown-headed Nuthatches and Carolina Chickadees do not disappoint! If you need these birds, especially the nuthatch, this is the place to go!

We then set off for Bombay Hook NWR. There were a number of targets that we wanted to see there and time is off the essence. At our first stop we got the Black-necked Stilt as well as some Greater Yellowlegs in Raymond pond, and heard Screech Owl calling! Eric also heard a Great Horned Owl call, but it was too distant for the rest of us to hear.
Brown-headed Nuthatch
Carolina Chickadee
As for the Screech, call it cynicism, paranoia, or experience, but Ian and I took a walk out to the road in the direction of the calls to make sure it was not someone playing a tape. Also, it was only 4:30 and it seemed a bit early and bright for the bird to be calling. No Tape. Heard only counts!

Continuing on the tour we saw nice numbers of Green-winged Teal and Pintail. Also seen were at least 60 Tundra Swans. With light fading, we made our way out of the refuge. But before we could exit, we heard Woodcocks peenting, and I saw a flew display. A nice cap to the day. We then beast a hasty retreat for the long ride home, which thankfully was mostly devoid of traffic. 

Monday, February 27, 2012

Saturday in the Park with Ge... er, Ian and Eric

Saturday Feb 25, 2012

My plan had been to catch up on some rarities in Staten Island on Saturday. The weather had other ideas, being brutally windy though not as cold as one expects in February. That plan on hold, I was catching up on other things when I got a call from Eric, and he and I met up with Ian at the Kissena Corridor to try for the elusive Orange-crowned Warbler.  

I have tried as many as 10 times for this bird, and keeping with ‘the Universal Laws’ of birding it became insulted and had been deliberately avoiding  me. See “Spiteful Avoidance”.

It was so bad that even when the bird had just been seen I could not relocate it. See “The YSHBH Constant”. So in keeping with my chronic irony poisoning, it figures that on the day one presumes that birds would be hunkered down and uncooperative, we find the bird.

I arrived first, and began to slowly bird the area. A few Bluejays and Robins were all that were evident. Continuing west past the community gardens, I flushed a Cooper’s Hawk and wondered if its presence might have made the smaller birds more prudent. 

I got a call from Eric who started at the Velodrome end, and he had a large flock of blackbirds, but on the way over I met up with Ian and the Junco flock. Known to associate with the Juncos, I started looking around for the OCW. It then called and Ian found it in a tree behind us. It then flew right past us before I could get a look, but landed in some shrubs and was better situated.

Naked eye, and through my bins, this individual looked very yellow! In fact two other birders had commented on it to me, saying how bright this individual was. I thought perhaps it was a bit of birding salt in my nemesis wounds, but Damb! It was uncharacteristically bright!

It was so bright, and the grey on the head made me question the ID. Looking in Dunn, my recollection of the brief looks made me wonder if it were not in fact a Nashville Warbler; a thought that had independently been thrown about by some others. 

Orange-crowned Warbler

It was not until I had the chance to review my photos that I was able to see the faint streaking on the breast. What a nice bird!

We ended the brief outing by spying a Ring-necked Pheasant, and then departed to prepare for our adventure the next day....

Ring-necked Pheasant

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Deja View All Over Sullivan County Again

Thursday Feb 23, 2012

The winter finches in Sullivan County deserved another chance, so with a ~much~ better forecast I made another try. Gary Strauss, Eric Miller and I set off at 7am; Eric was confident that the weather conditions would be far better for us than what I had the week before. Essentially we did a repeat tour of last Thursday’s agenda.

Cooley Bog
We went straight to Cooley road hoping that as had been suggested. The White-winged Crossbills were reported to show better earlier than later in the day. We had only driven a short way up the road when Eric told Gary to stop: “I hear Siskins”. I rolled down the window as Gary stopped, and ~then~ heard the Siskins. Gary and I marveled at Eric’s hearing acuity, and got out to see a large flock of this bird feeding on the cones in the conifers. Found with them were BC Chickadees and a pair of Hairy Woodpeckers.

Pine Siskin
Looking at Crossbills at the Bog
Exhausting the bird sightings at this location we moved on to the bog on Cooley Road. Remnants of snow was everywhere, but it was clear and bright. We happened upon Dave Klauber and Bobby Rossetti, who had seen the Crossbills in the trees around us. Here too, the trees were noisy with the Siskins, but we didn’t have to wait long for some Crossbills. 

Of course, Eric heard them calling, and we spotted them at the tops of the trees in short order. These birds like to pose and cue up, so they are a real delight compared to so many skulkers in the bird world. A few landed here, and a few landed there and we got good looks at both males and females. 

White-winged Crossbill

After some time they massed together and flew off, I estimate as many as 15 birds. Satisfied with our success and our views, we took this as the cue to move on, and we headed for Willowemoc. Hoping to see some Eagles here, we scanned the river view from the road, as well as the hills in the distance that the week before we had no idea were there. No Eagles of either flavor, but we did see a Raven, adding to the one we heard only at the bog. 

Red-breasted Nuthatch
 We continued down Fluggertown Road, and stopped in a number of places where the Siskins were partying. Mixed in with them were good numbers of Red-breasted Nuthatch, and large numbers of Black-capped Chickadees. This was the case in several places and we were astonished to see upwards of a dozen Chickadees in a tree responding to our spishing. 

Black-capped Chickadee

The feeders at the corner of Cooley Mountain Road and Smith Road held the same species as before, but Eric was glad to get to see the Purple Finches. We then surveyed Smith road on our way to lunch, stopping at the same pizza place. 

Purple Finch
The 'Sign'

After lunch we stopped in on the Shrike in Fosterdale, and got nice views of the bird. A local inquired about what we were looking at, and was surprised to hear about the visitor to her neighborhood. You have to love a bird that perches prominently. And we took advantage of this by getting great scope looks and some nice pix.

Northern Shrike

As before the final leg of our journey was to Shawangunk NWR. We perused the copious Canada Geese at Blue Chip Farms, but alas could not turn one into a Cackler. So down the road to Galeville County Park we went, where the Short -eared Owl show was just beginning.

There were a few photographers in the lot when we arrived, and I was told there had been little to no activity until shortly before we arrived. Timing is everything! But weather counts too. With the sun unobstructed by clouds, it was difficult to see part of the fields because it made you look into the sun, something I generally try to avoid. 

Short-eared Owls in Shawangunk NWR

4-4 owls were flying about and perching prominently on the trees out in the distance. The Harriers were also on patrol. And this time, the Rough-legged Hawk was seen much better in the better light conditions. Unfortunately, unlike last week the numbers of both the owls and harriers were much lower; not the “show” they had put on previously. But hey, that’s what makes birding interesting: a different experience each time.

One final cap to the day were Bluebirds way out in the field that Eric {who else} heard calling. We spied one of them cued up in a tree 1000 feet away or so, ...and me and Gary just looked at each other and wondered what it would be like to have hearing like that.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Birding Robinson Crusoe Style in New York Waters

Sunday Feb 19, 2012

What’s better than being out on the ocean in the spring or fall? Being out in the winter when the weather is comparable! The spate of mild weather continues, and for those who have experienced the rough seas and the brutal temperatures of winter pelagics past, all I can say is for the time being this climate change is a pleasure!

So a group of 7 of us, plus Captain Bob went out on an inshore pelagic. Present were Seth Ausubel, Pat Aiken, Heidi Lopes, Benjamin Van Doren, Doug Gochfeld, and Corey Finger. We went out the Rockaway inlet a ways, and down the coast a bit before returning to cruise within New York Harbor and Jamaica Bay.

This year has been a good one for pelagics due to a better than average concentration of Alcids [ or so I think] and as previously mentioned it has been uncharacteristically nice with temps in the 40's and low to no wind and little to no wave action. 

Northern Gannet

Our plan was to peruse what might be out in the immediate ocean as early as possible. We got an early start by debarking at 6:30; it’s nice to have an enthusiastic group. We were not disappointed with a decent number of Razorbills, and feeding Gannets. Who doesn’t enjoy watching them plunge into the water? Also seen were Surf Scoter, gobs of Oldsquaw, and Great Cormorants in breeding plumage replete with white flank spot.

Great Cormorant

We then headed over to Swinburn and Hoffman islands, where we saw lots of roosting gulls, and quite a number of seals. The latter seemed to be as curious about us as we them!

Harbor Seals at Swinburn Island

Heading back over to the Brooklyn side, we patrolled Gravesend Bay and found an Iceland Gull and a Purple Sandpiper, and a raft of a whole mess of Greater Scaup.  It is nice to see them return around here in numbers, It was a bit harder to find them a few years ago.

Peregrine on Gil Hodges Bridge

We next headed over to Jamaica Bay in search of ducks and grebes. Stopping at the Gil Hodges bridge we saw a Peregrine sitting on the tower. Along the way Corey began chumming the gulls in with bread and popcorn attracting mostly Herring, but some Ring-billed and Great Black-backed Gulls as well. As we passed by Floyd Bennett Field we spied Gary Strauss on shore who spied us in his scope and saw the Iceland Gull off our stern. One of the Herring Gulls was banded, and Doug made note of it and was able to track it down to Appledore Island NH. It hatched in July 2011.

The grebes did not disappoint with numerous Horned Grebe being seen all about, and 4+ Red-necked Grebes in the east side of the bay. Continuing past the archery road, area, we scrutinized the shore but could not locate the Eurasian Wigeon that has been there recently amongst the numerous Am. Wigeon.

We headed over to Canarsie Pol, and had no special gulls there, and passing by Ruffle Bar Doug was able to pick out te Barrows Goldeneye in the distance. Hoping to get a closer look, Captain Bob obligingly motored us closer to Ruffle Bar, and a we bit to close to Nova Scotia Bar. The later is not visible until one is grounded upon it, so there we stayed for about an hour an a half as the dead low tide rose enough to get us floating again.

I felt certain that mutiny was imminent, but calm seas and calmer heads prevailed. In fact we had quite a good time doing a ‘Big Sit’ from the center of the bay. So what if we spent some time at a bar?  The weather could not have been better, and we basked in the warmth, -yes warmth -of the sun on the deck of the boat. We even got as many as 15 species including Turkey Vulture.

We pondered of Heydi and Pat who was Ginger, and who was Mary Ann. Corey who can go all of 5 min w/o eating, devoured all our remaining chum, half of the captain’s sandwich, and then stated: "We’re totally going to eat Arie Gilbert if it comes down to cannibalism."  I evidently was not consumed, but if anyone knows when Benjamin is...

Lest you think that navigation, particularly in inshore waters is “easy” a NYC Audubon trip on the same day got stuck in a sand bar at Swinburn Island too, and had to be towed off.  Sand happens. 

An added bonus was reconvening at Floyd Bennett Field after the trip and we got the Lapland Longspur in amongst the Horned Larks, and the others stayed and got a view of the furtive Northern shrike. 

For more on this trip and some nice pictures see Corey’s blog at

Friday, February 17, 2012

If its Thursday, I Must be Birding #3

Winter finches gives one a reason to look forward to winter! John Haas recently reported the arrival of Crossbills and Siskin in Sullivan County, and the forays into the area gave an impressive list of possibilities to experience.

Gary Strauss, Bob Hayes and I set off at 7am to get a few target birds. Our first stop was at Fosterdale, where a Northern Shrike has been reported. We got off route 17 and proceeded to follow “Loretta’s” directions, but curiously, as we got near she went haywire and stopped responding. We drove past the road we were looking for because she was ‘stuck’ back near where we got off the highway. When we got to Lake Huntington, I knew we had gone too far, so we turned around. Zylstra Road did not have a sign off 52, only one at the other end on Short Cut. When we finally found Zylstra Road, we began to look for the Shrike, but did not see it . We then drove a short way ‘around the corner’ of Zylstra on to  Shortcut road, and looking back towards the farm buildings I spied the Shrike as it flew into a small tree. Lifer for Bob, nice looks for me and Gary.

Interestingly, Bob has tried repeatedly for the Shrike at Floyd Bennett, and dipped repeatedly. This bird is atypical of it’s northern ilk, who seem not to be disturbed by human approach. I have never met a Northern Shrike that was not acutely concerned with the proximity of people, and so with all the commotion at Floyd Bennett its no surprise most people report multiple trips are necessary to find that bird.

This bird was different; we observed from the road a good distance away, and the location probably means it has a lot less disturbance. The species must have been golfers in previous incarnations.

We departed for our next target, the White-winged Crossbills and Pine Siskins that had been reported from the bog on Cooley Road. It had begun to snow ever so lightly, but as we got to Cooley Road it really began to come down and was coating the roads. We tried as best as conditions permitted, but it was a white-out.

We decided that we would try the feeders at the corner of Cooley Mountain Road and Smith Road. This homeowner has hosted many good birds in the past, including Evening Grosbeaks. The viewing was much better here with loads of Dark-eyed Juncos and Am. Goldfinch predominating. BC Chickadee, Downey WP, Red-bellied WP, Cardinal, Mourning Dove, Bluejay, and a lone Red-winged Blackbird.

In the window above the driveway to the house, the homeowner has placed a sign where he posts sightings of Evening Grosbeaks! Unfortunately, there are no listings yet. If visiting here, please be sure to park off to the side of the road so you do not obstruct traffic. This remote location does have a fair bit of traffic from locals, so it pays not to irk them so that the hospitality of the feeder’s owners is not jeopardized and we can continue to enjoy them.

The snow and lighting conditions did not lend themselves to any photographic opportunity, so we perused slowly the various roads hoping to see additional birds and or feeders. Some homes that had hosted feeders in the past did not have them filled, and we saw little activity in the snowfall, but we did find a family of Bluebirds on top of a Cedar.

We tried to find lunch at this point and be forewarned that this area is bereft of eating establishments. The diner that was at the Cooley Road exit off of what is now the old rout 17 is closed. We tried finding a diner in Liberty, but many restaurants there are closed too. The Pizza Place on Main Street is your best bet.

The snow looked like it was slowing down, and we headed back to Cooley Road. It then picked up and got even heavier. Doh! The scenery was a winter wonderland, but impossible to bird in, especially in the vicinity of the bog. We tried to go to the Willowemoc DEC fishing lot to look for the reported imm. Golden Eagle, but it was a wall of white.

We decided to leave, surprised at the amount of snowfall. Cooley road was even being plowed! 17 was only a bit better, and as I expected, once we passed Wurtsboro, the climate changed and we had rain instead of snow. We then decided to continue on to Shawangunk instead of calling it a day. We were glad we did.

We approached via Blue Chip farms, and saw hundreds of Canada Geese which we scanned. No unusual geese were with them that we could see, so we continued to Galeville County Park. In the past I used to bird from the Shawangunk NWR parking lot on Hoagerburgh road, but we went straight to the county park on Long Lane, as one can park with a direct view of the grasslands.

It was lightly raining / snowing, so standing outside of the car was not exactly welcoming. But in short order we saw a lot of activity and getting out for a better view was worth it! Short-eared owls were sitting on top of many of the trees, and flying about too. They would drop into the grass and all in all I estimated at least 12, but it could have been more. There was one rough-legged Hawk that we found sitting on top of a tree, and it was being harassed by the owls. There were many Harriers around too, and they were chasing, harassing and competing for food with the owls. What a show!

With light fading, we had timed our arrival perfectly. We had satisfying looks at the owls and other raptors, but alas, no photographic opportunities, and it was time to go. Hopefully, the Crossbills will remain in the area, and will be joined by other desirable species for a trip at a later date.

A map of these locations is >here<

Thursday, February 2, 2012

If its Thursday, I Must be Birding #2

There are birds that are just too good to pass up, and then again there are birds you will probably see, but I for one hate famous last words like: “ I’ll just wait until ... ...and I’ll get it then”. Saying that is the kiss of death. Its not that I am superstitious { I’m not, because being superstitious is bad luck } Its just that nothing in life is that certain.

Having succeeded in getting a target bird and a bonus bird on Tuesday, my agenda for Thursday was lessened by no longer needing the Northern Shrike. Good thing too, its not always the easiest bird to track down. Now I can focus on two birds that are always a pleasure to see: Yellow-throated Warbler and Harris’ Sparrow.

Both birds have been nearby in Connecticut, but until there was more than one reason to take a longish ride my chasing juices did not get pumping. I would have gone if either was a life bird, but a year bird? Two birds makes it much more appealing. {Reasonable?}

And a co-conspirator helps too. Long rides are made for listening to music or for conversation. I have converted Bob Hayes, AKA Captain Surley the dive-master, into Captain Bob the birder. He still has a lot of holes in his life-list, so he gets an actual lifer, while I get a vicarious lifer.

We met dark and early and set off for our first target the Yellow-throated Warbler. This is the type of bird that anyone, birder or not, reflexively blurts out wow!

We made good time because of favorable traffic conditions, and an easy location to get to. I set up my camera next to a tree a ways from the feeder, and we waited for the bird. There were none around when we arrived, or maybe our arrival scared them off. Soon though, one by one birds came in. The Black-capped Chickadees led the way and others followed.

With my eyes on the feeder, Bob called out “there it is” as he saw it fly into the tree right above us. It then obligingly went to the feeder and put on quite the show.

Yellow-throated Warbler
When sated, we went on our way to our next target, a Harris’ Sparrow. On the way, I spied an albino Turkey Vulture! I yelled for Bob to stop, and he pulled over to the side of the highway. Unfortunately, I could not get him on it through he trees, nor could I get a photo.

We kept an eye out, but could not relocate it as we made our way, and on arrival we saw another birder parked at the destination. It turned out to be none other than Mike Perko, whose wife Annie is the original discoverer of this gem.

Mike has been keeping vigil on the bird and putting down seed to ensure that as many birders as possible who want to see the bird will have the opportunity. He directed us to where the seeds were and predicted how the bird would come in.

While waiting for the bird, I walked around a bit and had a nice flock of Eastern Bluebirds, and a few Am. Tree Sparrows amongst the more common stuff. Looking into the field behind us I spotted an adult Bald Eagle. There are everywhere lately or so it seems. Yay! DDT didn’t do them in, and more importantly conservation works!!

As predicted, Mike saw the bird fly into one of the small trees by the wall, and then made its way from the wall to the seed pile. Gorgeous bird, best example of this species I have ever seen - definitely worth the trip.

Harris' Sparrow
The trip back to Queens was uneventful, and after I got back to my car my phone told me I had a message. Eric Miller was inquiring if I wanted to bird some, and so I met him at Kissena instead of heading home. We tried to relocate the Orange-crowned Warblers he had had, but no dice.

We did relocate a Great-horned Owl, and looked for his leucistic White-throated Sparrow with Andrew Baksh who had also joined us. Comparing notes, I was gratified that both Eric and Andrew were keen to help me with my effort to make this a big year [ of sorts ]

I want to try for as many species as possible, not limit it to NY, and not go too crazy. In addition to the mornings activities, I added Pheasant, Winter Wren, Swamp Sparrow, and the owl, to name a few.

As the light was fading, we watched as a large flock of mostly Grackles massed in the trees before heading down to roost in the Phragmites. Earlier, Andrew had picked out a Rusty Blackbird, another year bird for me! The birds were a bit nervous, and for good reason.: a Coopers Hawk was trying to pick up dinner. Eventually, a lone bird was nabbed by the Coop, and as we were walking out Andrew spotted the GHO again in a tree. What a day!

Great-horned Owl