Monday, February 23, 2015

A Fantastic Day Of Birding In The Black Dirt Region, That Is Until Pat Took Pete’s Lemon Slice...

What’s up with the weather lately? Weather never used to be this crazy, but it helps to look at the trends and make your best guess as to how things are going to turn out. I could have taken the easy way out and cancelled the trip, but what fun is that?

I’ll tell you what is not any fun though. Driving on the remnants of the snow and ice that was treacherous in a few places. One such place was on a sharp curve on the southern state parkway. A few cars collided with each other and the divider. And the remarkably stupid others on the road decided it was best to linger on site oblivious to the cars *behind* them that would need a place to go. I managed to maneuver my vehicle between the [ expletives deleted ] other drivers and continue on safely.

We, that is Arlene and Pete, met up with the others at a designated McDonald in Orange County. Those others being Ian, Nancy, Lou, Pat and Rich. One other had wanted to join us but responsibilities and displeasure with the conditions had made him bail out. So eight of us set out to explore the Black Dirt Region of Orange County NY.

This region is famous for what else? Black dirt. This rich soil is great farmland, and apparently a good thing to grow all sorts of onions within. But to us birders, it hosts a lot of winter specialties on the fallow fields, and made known to us fellow New York birders by the regions own expert birders.

We proceeded to the first birding stop, and not unexpectedly the road was impassable due to snow cover. Undeterred, we explored adjacent roads and discovered a very active feeder. The local birds availed themselves of the bounty in the largely otherwise desolate landscape.

Large numbers of Juncos, Cardinals, and White-throated Sparrows caused quite a commotion, and were joined by Chickadee, Downy, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers as expected. But unbeknownst to us, there was a smaller yet active feeder in the house right behind us. Eagle ears { is that a legitimate expression?} Rich heard and alerted us to White-crowned Sparrow. YB1.

We all got looks at the immature bird, and shortly thereafter located several more in the trees surrounding the original feeder. We had 8+ with at least 2 adult White-crowns. And then they started singing! (The White-crowneds thankfully, not the trip participants )

Exhausting the possibilities here, we moved on, noting a plethora of Crows. I’m just guessing, but I think crows must really like onions. Not sure why else there are so many in this area.

Hopeful for finding raptors, we scrutinized many a crow to make sure were not missing out on something more desired. And then as we passed a large field we saw what looked like some crows flying with a raptor? Good thing we had the FRS radios so that all in our caravan were simultaneously aware of sighting.

And then upon closer inspection the raptor revealed itself to be none other than a Short-eared Owl! With the improved lighting conditions the bird was such a beautiful sight and we were all very psyched! Unfortunately, most of the other roads I had hoped to explore in this portion were snow bound. But the Owl made it all okay.

We proceeded to Missionland Road and began to explore some more. The snow cover was again evident and implicated in the paucity of birds. Or so we thought. As we approached the more southerly sections we kicked up some Horned Larks. Of course, those with hearing heard a Lapland Longspur with the Larks. Looking at them before they flew off, some saw it, and some (yours truly) did not. Dang. But by this time the day was revealing beautiful sunshine and moderating temperatures. All were glad we did not cancel this trip.

At the end of the road we scoped a bit and found our first Rough-legged Hawk. Later we back-tracked to gain egress and in the process found more birds hiding in the weeds. We remarked that primrose seeds seemed to be popular with finches; it was what we found a Redpoll consuming, on our Montauk Trip. Here they were being picked over by lots of Goldfinch as well as several Tree Sparrows. Here Rich also located some Rock Pigeons, and patted himself on the back for this discovery.

Moving on to the Wallkill NWR,  Rich reminded us of a place on the way that had feeders which we located and stopped to inspect of its offerings. There were the usual suspects, and more White-crowned Sparrows; always nice to see especially the adults.

In the parking lot, the sun continued to shine brightly. We found some more Rough-legged Hawks, and spotted Bald Eagles, Black and Turkey Vultures, and Ravens. But the pickings were otherwise slim, and the natives were getting restless. Fearing another unfortunate cannibalism event, I relented and permitted the consumption of the midday repast.

After the savages were sated, I led them further afield to the Camel Farm. Pat of course had to question me: “camel farm?”. “Yes” I replied, “ Have I ever lied to you”?  “No” she said. “I just don’t believe you.” I instinctively reached for a non-existent Windsor knot at my throat to adjust from side to side, but it was not present to assuage my disquietude.

On the way we stopped at the no-name road. Here we discovered another sizable flock of Horned Larks, as well as hitherto missed Snow Bunting. No additional Lapspurs though.

After some photos were obtained, we went to the Camel farm. It is in reality a sanctuary for abandoned animals with nowhere else to go.  And yes, Pat, there be’d camels. And Zebra. And donkeys etc.

Having exhausted the known possibilities here, we traveled to Blue Chip Farms. A Gyrfalcon had been sampling the local duck and pigeon cuisine since just before or Croton trip, and this was an opportunity for others (who were not as enthusiastic as I was a few weeks ago ) to get a chance at the bird.

We assembled along Old Fort Road and looked and hoped for the best. We got it! The best weather imaginable that is. We were in gorgeous warm sunshine without a breeze and temps in the 40's; after all the recent brutal cold! A special sighting was an almost adult Bald Eagle who flew low and over head, and more vultures. But no Gyrfalcon.

Not seeing a bird is never the most pleasant thing, but many of us took the opportunity to catch up with folks we tend to see only at occasions like these, while waiting for our luck to change. I for one enjoyed meeting folks I have previously only known from the internet. Its nice to put a face to a name.

One thing I found a bit off putting however, was the ‘carbon foot-print’ lament espoused by some people present. Really? Cannot one simply enjoy a beautiful day outdoors without guilt and recrimination? As far as limiting carbon foot-print, we car-pooled. For anyone who wants to feel good about themselves by sitting at home and patting themselves on the back because they did not get out and enjoy the spectacle of nature I ask: “what else do you enjoy by not actually doing it?” I am proud to be part of a club that gets out and has those great outdoor experiences.

As darkness began to approach, we first took a ride down Bates lane, hoping to see a reported Red-headed Woodpecker. We did not, but instead found a whole mess of turkeys feasting on something within a large pile of straw that was probably used horse bedding.

We ended the day’s birding by going to the Shawangunk NWR  hoping for the evening Short-eared Owl show. Didn’t happen. Oh well. So we went to get dinner at Lombardi’s in Gardiner NY, and guess what, just like always, there was an excessive wait. Should have made reservations. But in birding its hard to schedule things. We instead went to our alternate destination, the Gilded Otter Brewpub in New Paltz. Beer. Yay!

We had a pleasant dinner while doing the day’s list. We also commented upon the stark contrast in numbers as compared to last year with so many Short-eared Owls, Rough-legged Hawks, and Lapspurs back then. And we missed Harrier! One never knows - that’s what makes birding so interesting.

The only minor complaint was from Rich, who lamented we had neither camel nor Short-eared Owl for Ulster County. All in all a most spectabulous day. Until Pat took Pete’s lemon slice...

Monday, February 16, 2015

Eagles yes, and Gyrfalcon YES!

This past weekend 2-8-15 I participated with QCBC for its annual Croton Point trip. It is always a great trip, and this year was no exception. What is becoming clearer, is that removing deadly toxins from the environment has a beneficial effect on the creatures that were harmed by it.

Just like the Osprey, Bald Eagles have become ridiculously easy to find nowadays. If one travels to places where they concentrate, then one is overwhelmed by them.Yay!

We began by meeting at the end of the road by the train tracks, a location where the tributary flows under the tracks to join the Hudson river.  An auspicious start to the day was three adult Bald Eagles flying over our heads as we arrived.

On the water up stream was a nice assortment of waterfowl. All three Mergansers were present, and one unusual sight was an male Hooded Merganser trying to put the moves on a female Common Merganser. I can just imagine his rap: "Hey baby, have you read 50 shades of grey? Once you get hooded you ..." Other nice finds on the water were several Redhead, and a Kingfisher in a tree.

All around we were able to easily find eagles. On the ice, flying overhead, and in the trees.  One bird in particular caught my attention in a tree top. It was a dark raptor with a white head, and a dark stripe through the eye and down the neck. Was it an Osprey? No. Was it a Bald Eagle? Proba..yes.., but I'm calling it an Ospreagle! That's my story and I'm sticking with it.

Moving on to Croton Point we stopped at the toll both where a feeder had been set up nearby. American Tree Sparrows were the first good birds here. Moving along to the camping area, we were dismayed to find it rather well occupied. We later learned that it was populated by workers doing the construction on the new Tappan Zee bridge.  This may be why we did not find any owls in the usual places, but birding is never a guarantee.

Flocks of Tree Sparrows as well as White-throated Sparrows were feeding on exposed areas, and we observed a flock that was attacked by a Red-tailed Hawk who flew in very low and stealthily.  We found the usual suspects here: Titmouse, Chickadee, Goldfinch, more Eagles, but nothing unusual unless you count the heard only wrens.

That is until Dunlin deftly picked out two Pine Siskins from the very numerous Goldfinches! YB1. When i say there wee a lot of Goldfinches, i mean there were a lot! They were doing a major job eating the seeds of the beech trees, but they were in the underbrush and all over as well. 

On the Landfill came some real prizes. Snow Bunting and Horned Lark of course; the latter quite amusing to me as I spotted them well ahead of a small splinter group of ours well ahead of us. I watched as that group was walking and apparently chatting so much that they were oblivious to the two birds that they kept flushing. I alerted those with me to watch the shenanigans, we collectively chuckled, and then catching up to the others we suitably chided them. Yacking instead of birding, sheesh!

But by far the best birds were a few raptors being harassed by Crows. Getting on them was made a bit more difficult as those carrying scopes earlier had chosen to store them in their cars before we climbed the hill. But when they flew more field marks were discernible and they were revealed to be a Coopers Hawk and an adult Red-shouldered Hawk! YB2.

After returning to the car, we went to the nature center to eat our lunch in warmth while observing the feeder birds through the window. Once again we were a day late for 'Eagle Fest', {by design} and they were out of the delicious eagle chowder and other soups served the day before. They did have a pot of quite good coffee though.  Nothing special at the feeders though.

Our next stop was Black Rock after a very cursory stop at  the model airplane area. No Screech or RHWP. On the way to Black Rock we spotted Black Vulture, YB3, but surprisingly I still do not have TVs. Go figure. The Ring-necked Ducks were in spectacular plumage and always a sight to behold. We had Pied-billed Grebe and Coots, but alas no screech here either.

Our next stop was Georges Island. Guess what. More Eagles. They have really been surging in their recovery, and just like Osprey, and are becoming ubiquitous and approaching 'trash bird' status. YAY!!!  Another nice find here was a raft of Canvasback. Of course 'eagle ears Rich Kelly heard a strange call he alerted the rest of us to. We pondered it and proposed several possibilities, and then finally it was revealed that it was issuing from Pileated Woodpeckers! YB4. We saw them fly off a bit but we tracked them down on some trees on  a far shore. There were two; an amusing sighting as some stated the bird was on 'the curved tree' while others saw it on 'the wide tree'.

Two young ladies approached us and inquired if we had seen the eagles. Of course I responded: "There are eagles here!?!" I had them going for quite a bit before someone went and ruined it. So we showed them the Canvasback and Pileateds and told them of the other birds we had seen before we departeed for our next stop.

At Verplanck we scored  Great Cormorant, and more of what we had already seen. I also got an email reporting that the Gyrfalcon in Wallkill had been seen! I inquired if anyone wanted to go, but the others were too tired, disinterested, or leery of the weather forecast. Phil Jabiru was very interested, although it was a long walk back if he said no; I was his ride! He contacted his accommodating wife and we were a go. We left the others to go one to the trips last stops knowing that anything else was unlikely, and we had already gorged ourselves on eagles.

Interestingly, it was only a short distance before precipitation made an appearance on my windshield. Undaunted, we pressed on, even with the precipitation increasing. The one distracting factor though, was that it took a while to get to a major highway.

But we got there, and flakes were a falling. But we saw the sight we hoped for: folks lining the road looking for the bird. We joined them and learned that it had been perhaps a half hour since its last sighting, but no longer than 20 minutes later someone yelled out: "there's the bird". YB5.

The bird flew powerfully from one tree to another; stopping at some of its reliable and favored perches before settling for a tree at the far side of the field. In what could best be described as 'eyegasms' folks viewing the Gyrfalcon gasped and exclaimed various things denoting their pleasure at seeing the bird. Both Phil Jabiru and I attempted pictures, but the distance, overcast, and the snow fall made for crappy results. Oh well. I was happy to see this bird, and it was superbulous!

After we were satisfied with our views, we high tailed it out of there to get away from the storm. Driving south and east made for continually improving conditions. Phil even made it home before the time he had anticipated. We were both very glad we made the attempt!

Fortunately for others, it appears the bird is going to stick for a while.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Things That Go Bump In The Night

So very early am Saturday I hear a thump which rouses me from sleep. Never a good thing to hear, but got up to investigate after reassuring myself that it was not something bad. I quickly learned that one of the clothes rods in my walk-in had collapsed; one of the supports had pulled the screws holding it in place off of the wall.

I went back to sleep, and then when I awoke at my usual time, set upon repairing this. Why am I mentioning this? Because I would much rather have been out birding. Emails and text messages were received, and of some desired species.

As is par for the course, what should have ben a simple and quick repair took a bit longer. More tools than anticipated and more difficulty finding the appropriate hardware. But when completed I am very certain that it will not fall off again.

Shortly thereafter, Arlene called to inquire what I was up to, having been similarly detained by responsibilities that morning. Mentioning the items at Jones Beach everyone else was seeing, it seemed like the right place to go.

En route, we stopped for lunch at Ben’s Best. Getting out of the car in the lot we both heard then exclaimed: Fish Crow! YB1. I then proceeded to taunt and tease Arlene because she had never had a tongue sandwich. She tried it, admitted it was not bad, but stuck with pastrami. Go figure.

Upon arrival at Jones Beach, we were checking out groups of sparrows when it became apparent that a significant percentage of other birders were present as well. And so were the parks police...  We found a few Tree Sparrows in the mix with Savannah, YB2 White-throat and Song.

Moving on, we drove into the west end 2 lot; spying more sparrows on the grass. On of them was a Field Sparrow. Nice. YB3. I then got a call from Grouse who had a Pipet cued up in front of him. We made a bee line for him and got nice looks at it. YB4. We returned to field 2 to look for the reported Lapspurs, and exchanged greetings with Ed Thrasher and Bob Prothonotary. While we were not successful within the lot, those two were and they called to tell me. They found a flock of Horned Larks on the median, that held two Lapspurs in beautiful plumage replete with chestnut collar no less! YB5.

This produced a mini traffic jam of sorts, with birders in the left lane, left shoulder, and on the right shoulder. We were all gawking at the cooperative birds when one of the numerous, and I mean numerous parks police cars present that day, drove right across the grass to come over and berate us.

He dispersed the flock by doing so, as well as most of us who didn’t want to hear what he might have to say. Unfortunately Jeff Critter was somewhat detained by fiddling with items in his trunk. I hope the worst thing that happened was a tongue lashing.

We returned to the lot and scanned from the car for the Snowy Owl. No luck, but a big raptor flew low over the dunes in front of us and as we watched it we began verbalizing: ...not a Harrier, not a Red-tailed, not a Red-shouldered, not a Carpie/Shoopers... ...Yes! Northern Goshawk!! YB6, and for me oh so special because it’s a species I never see often enough. I wish I could find where this fellow likes to rest so I could get a better view and perched.

We told some others, and they relayed that it had been seen a few times during the day. We moved on to check field 1, and began scanning. Arlene spotted few birds in the dunes, which turned out to be a flock of Black-bellied Plovers. A nice find, but shortly thereafter she called my attention to a white lump in the distance. I braved the cold and biting wind to get my scope on it and confirmed that she had indeed spotted a beautiful all white Snowy Owl. She looked thru the scope at her find, and then started doing the happy dance.

We got back into the car to warm up, and we perusing a bit more when another park vehicle came over to us. What now? He just came over to inform us that the lot was closing and that we had to leave. Phew.

We decided to stop at field 10 on the way back; a Glaucous Gull had been seen there earlier. Driving in, we again spotted a group of sparrows on the grass and we stopped. And once again, this prompted a police vehicle to come racing over. “What’s the problem?” she asked. Nothing I replied; we’re just looking at the birds, and showed her my glasses.  Hmmm. Very attentive... too attentive IMHO. Bored probably.

We checked the vicinity but there was nothing out of the ordinary. Driving on, we stopped on the side of the Wantaugh to check out a buteo that was kiting.  I was hopeful it would have been a Rough-legged Hawk, but it appeared to be a Red-tailed. Of course we would have gotten a better view if yet ~another~ parks police had not driven up and shooed us away. And to think they were nowhere to be found a week ago and for some time before that. I hope thy go back to being scarce.