Monday, March 2, 2015

Evening Grosbeaks On An Epic Journey Upstate

With choices to make about the last weekend of February several were thrown up in the air. I was leaning towards Montauk Point, but a fateful encounter with Bob Prothonotary got the subconscious juices flowing.

Phil Jabiru and I encountered him and his buddy Ed Thrasher at Jones Beach while we were doing some casual birding the previous Thursday. Casual and expected species were augmented by a few desired year species. Starting with a Fox Sparrow ( named due to its habit of being a complete bullshit artist and complaining that universal healthcare is somehow a bad thing ) that paraded unabashedly on the lawn adjacent to the police station. YB1.  We then proceeded to the Coast Guard Station where we located a Saw Whet Owl. Others were present, and I did my best to prevent anyone from licking the bird.

We also walked the median and searched the lots and were amazed by the huge numbers of Yellow-rumped Warblers. There were good numbers of Juncos as well, and some Tree, Song, and White-throated Sparrows for good measure.

In hopes of getting better looks at the Northern Goshawk that has persisted but been mostly an elusive to rapid flyby, we drove around a bit. This payed off in spotting the rare-this-year Red-breasted Nuthatch. It displayed nicely for me! YB2.

Running into Bob and Ed again, Bob told me his experience recently upstate. He got the Tufted Duck but missed the Evening Grosbeaks. He provided lots of info, but also that he flew upstate. Phil and I then took off to check other places.

In typical Goshawk style, as Phil and I departed the west end section, we saw the Goshawk fly by on the other side of the road. Oh well, another view for me, and a lifer for Phil: not bad. But both of us wanted a perched view as so few have stumbled across. As far as other discoveries, we picked a lone Redpoll out of a flock of Goldfinches at Oak Beach.

Ruminating on Friday, I plotted the coordinates on a map and realized that it was a mere 250 miles. Need to fly there? Piffle! The next day I consulted with co-conspirators Arlene and Phil, and a plan was hatched. It is such a pleasure to have the company of those that don't need to be convinced or coerced, and it doesn't hurt if they are just as craz... er,.. enthusiastic. 

Checking with the regional listserves, I put together a plan. First stop, Evening Grosbeaks at the home of the warm and lovely Linda Salter, Cayuga Lake for Tufted Duck and then Trumpeter Swans, and finally over to the other side of the lake for Gyrfalcon.

Folks on that list were helpful. But...

I saw the following exchange on the Cayuga listserve, and was quite taken aback by it. It is a public forum, so I have just cut and pasted the exchange below. The ‘weird’ characters are from the website, not me.

I was piqued by the incongruity of their participation in a listserve designed to share bird sighting information, while “proudly” proclaiming their selfishness. I don’t get it.

If I were to call someone selfish, I cannot envision a scenario in which they would take that epithet as a positive, nor a circumstance in which I could mean it as a positive. This person is apparently an exception.

They go on to say: “More importantly for me, I really don’t want to have a bunch of other birders (even my friends) show up and interfere with that very personal interaction.”

I am so curious to find out the reaction of the so called friends referred to in that statement. Perhaps I am reading it incorrectly, but to my ear it says: “sorry friend, you would have ruined it for me”. Ouch.

I can understand how a mob of people gawking at a bird can at times be off-putting, but to say: “even my friends”? Wow. I suppose a  true friend would accept them as they are; but in my experience ‘true’ friends are very rare and hard to find. Perhaps this person is blessed with true friends. Or is a misanthrope, take your pick.

What was also ironic to me, was that they signed their email with their professional credentials which included working for “Public Engagement in Science Program” at the Cornell lab of Ornithology. Huh? Is that not the epitome of ironic?

Other thoughts that occurred to me were, what would my boss say if they read this statement, and what would a member of the public say if they participated in one of their programs and later read the statement.

For myself, birding is the pleasure derived from observing birds, but with various levels of joy depending on the circumstance. For instance, seeing a bird is good while seeing a special bird, perhaps a rarity for example, may be more exciting. Better still, is being the individual to first locate a bird, and finally, the best by far is when you can share that experience with others.

From time to time I have run across birders who prefer to bird alone for one reason or another. Surely there is something meditative about doing certain things alone.

I have also found that there is a ‘golden number’ of people to bird with, perhaps no more than 6 total. Even one person in addition to myself and more birds are found; (you can’t be looking everywhere at once. ) But as the number of people increases, there is a tendency for groups of people to split off, and if it is a organized birding walk, many leaders have amusingly referred to it as ‘herding cats’ - an example of diminishing returns.

So as far as reporting birds and sharing that information, it seems only right that if you glean information that you should also reciprocate. Truly a small price to pay. A candle doesn’t lose anything by lighting another candle. Unless you are a selfish candle and you want to keep others in the dark? 

see for yourself below...

Hello All,

I was stimulated by Dave’s well-written email to offer an anti-rant. (And, Dave, please keep your rants coming, because I do enjoy reading them!) Maybe the fact that I don’t have a cell phone and rarely carry my little trac-fone with me says a lot about how I approach birding. Encounters with birds, rare or common, are very personal for me. I think it is great that others get so excited about chasing birds that others have reported, but that is not for me. More importantly for me, I really don’t want to have a bunch of other birders (even my friends) show up and interfere with that very personal interaction. If that is selfish, then I guess I’ll wear that label proudly. I am a scientists (both ecological and social) and a conservationist, yet I am reluctant to submit my sightings to eBird because I don’t want my personal experiences to be treated as data by others. I know I’m a bit weird about all this compared to most people. I still have not chased the Tufted Duck, which I’ve never seen in my life. There was a White-eyed Vireo on the other side of the Lab of O pond for three days a year or so ago and I never trekked the 150 yards out to see it. Please don’t think I am an anti-lister, either. I recently was in CA for work and passed the 500 species in the US mark (Surfbird) pointed out to me by Brian Sullivan (along with my life Black-vented Shearwater, Common Murre, Rhinoceros Auklet, and Pacific Loon -- see I do go birding with others sometimes!). Soon after Brian left, I stumbled upon a bird I did not recognize other than to know it was some kind of sandpiper-ish bird. I sat for a half hour taking notes, drawing pictures, and taking a few pictures. Then I had to go do work. Later that night I was excited to find out that I had encountered a Wandering Tattler (#501 in the US for me; California Thrasher was my last new one at #502 and California Condor had been #489 ). I did send Brian and a couple other CA birders a couple pictures for confirmation. But, I was thrilled and felt a real sense of discovery because I encountered the bird on my own and had a half hour to really observe it by myself. I know that is a very different experience than the ones desired by other birders. And, I totally support Dave’s point of view and do encourage others to share their sightings if they want to. Just please don’t expect me to want to 😊!

Thanks Dave for stimulating this discussion.


Jody W. Enck, PhD
Public Engagement in Science Program
Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Hey, everybody!
I know seeing a rare bird is tremendously exciting, and I certainly wouldn't have wanted Mark to miss seeing the chase & interactions or getting those fantastic photos (plus congratulations on a fantastic life bird!). But please if at all possible before leaving a rare bird try to get word out on the text message rare bird alert system. If you are not on the text alert system, or don't want to take your eyes off the bird long enough to text about it, call someone else and have them put the word out. There were people in the field yesterday afternoon who also had been trying to find the Gyrfalcon and could've returned quickly. A Gyrfalcon was also seen two other times this winter with no text RBA sent out. But when Tim Lenz did get the word out after a few minutes of viewing at least 6 additional birders got to see it that morning.
Similarly the Tufted Duck has been quietly seen recently when there was a guy from out of town who was asking about it. I know it may seem like old news, but these are still rare birds that people would love to get a chance to see. Thanks.

--Dave Nutter

But I digress.

So we departed my house at 4:30 am. Ouch. But worth it. We got off the island and away from potential traffic so we would not be delayed in our quest.  And the lack of traffic persisted throughout the day and even up until we got back to 287 in Rockland County that night!

Looking at the map, I thought it best to take the major highways for speed and ease of travel, but the GPS said the fastest route was to bail off of 17 { eventually to be renamed I-86 } in Roscoe and take 206. There were ever so minor diminution of speed as we passed through the occasional town where the speed limit is 30, but again there was virtually NO traffic and we traveled unimpeded.

The trip kinda reminded me of some trips upstate in the past with my friend Jared, { yes Jean, he really does exist } where he would keep an eye on the map and inform me of each upcoming turn while I drove at my non lackadaisical rate of speed. This route also exposed us to the splendor of the countryside that is upstate New York. Add to that exceptionally clear conditions offering breathtaking vistas, a blanket of pure white snow everywhere except the roads, and the brilliant sunshine, and the travel experience in and of itself was worth it.   

One of the most beautiful sights of the  trip was when we passed through the town of Walton. The west branch of the Delaware ran through the town, and the vapors rising off of the river coated the trees making the coated trees glisten in the golden sunshine. I regret not stopping to take a photo.

At times however, I questioned the sanity of he GPS because the route called for frequent turns: every 5-10 miles was a turn left or turn right. But checking the overall progress showed that we were on track.

And making great time. I had heard from Bob Prothonotary that the Evening Grosbeaks were reputed to visit Linda in the morning only, and that he arrived too late and unfortunately did not get to see them. 

With a target arrival time between 10 and 10:30, our arrival at 9:30 was great. Linda also said that the birds were not being seen in the afternoon or later, so morning was best. We met two local birders who had been there since 7am, and saw them at that time. But they relayed that the birds had not returned since, and it was time for them to move on for their other targets.

Come 10 am or so, I spotted some lumps high in the trees in front of Linda's home. As she had informed me the day before, the birds would typically stop in those trees before venturing down to the feeders. YB1 [ du jour ], and lifers for Arlene and Phil.  Linda also ascribed the furtiveness to the presence of Goshawks.

Phil wanted to see a Gos to make up for the BVD view two days prior, but they were not located. We got to see four female and two beautiful male evening Grosbeaks, so no one was complaining. With daylight burning, we set off for our next destination.  It was so nice to visit with Linda again. What a lovely and generous woman. 

Did I mention it was very cold?  The thermometer in the car had single digit readings for most of the way once we were past Westchester.  At one point it said 0, and we wondered if negative temps were a limitation of the car's software. Linda told us it had been 10 below zero that morning at her home!

I mention this because we were going to a lake. Would it be open or frozen? It was frozen at our first stop. But the most recent sighting location of the Tufted Duck had small open patches, dominated by the most Redhead Ducks I have ever seen. There were some Canvasback, Ring-necked, Lesser Scaup, and Buffleheads, but not our quarry. We checked a few other locations but again, no TUDU. We did add Common Goldeneye, Pintail, and Coot, but a dip on the TUDU. Maybe it should be called the Tuff duck just like Cap't Bob does?

Interestingly, there were Tundra Swans everywhere. Interesting, because in 2013 when I was also trying to do a big year { crap, am I doing a big year again? } all I could find were Trumpeters, and no Tundras! We did locate a secretive Sharpie hopping around under a shrub, perhaps trying to keep its kill a secret from those who might want to abscond with it, and an immature Bald Eagle. We ended up seeing at least 5 eagles. My they are recovering nicely!

We continued north up to Union Springs where we were seeking reported Trumpeter Swans. What we found was a quaint mill pond full of water fowl, but no Trumpeter Swans. A nice consolation was a Red-necked Grebe.

Before stopping here we scanned an impressively large flock of waterfowl in Aurora. Had we more time we would have set up scopes in a vain attempt to pick out something good from the multitudes of Goldeneye, Scaup, and Redheads.  But limitless time we did not have. This was a day trip, and we made haste for our next stop after satisfying ourselves that we gave this spot a good going over.

On the other side of the lake we found others standing vigil, hoping to locate the reported Gyrfalcon. No luck so far, but I did recognize a fellow from another club that I had met at the ABA summit in Delaware. He told me his name { again } but of course I have already forgotten it. We decided to drive the roads a bit and see if we might get lucky this way rather than staying in one spot.

We located some Red-tailed Hawks, and a Coopers Hawk, but little else. Surprisingly, we did not even see a Turkey Vulture all day! I suppose they are discouraged by the omnipresent and numerous Crows.

Winding our way back to the others, we passed others cruising for a falconing, but conferring with them only turned up the disappointment. We stopped back at the original stake-out, and I ran in to two ladies I met looking for a Henslow's Sparrow in Brooklyn, as well as in the backyard of a fine 12 year old birder in Mount Sinai who had a visiting Bohemian Waxwing. They were from Buffalo, and members of the Buffalo Ornithological Society.  And while I cannot recall their names { jeez, birders should wear name tags! } I do recall them telling me their newsletter is the Prothonotary, which I told them should more appropriately be called the 'Buffalo Wing'.

Besides trading hellos and clever quips, they told me they had just had a Northern Shrike a short distance down the road.  Needless to say, I thanked them, gathered the troops, and headed off in search of the beast. I had been remarking from time to time on the journey upstate that the habitat looked so good for Shrike, and I was surprised by there having been so few reports to date.

We found the location; it being staked out by others who stated this was another known good location for the Gyr. We inquired if they had the Shrike, but they did not. Scanning with naked eyes the opposite side of the field,  I found a Red-tailed, and then a bright spot caught my eye. Getting my scope on it confirmed I had located the Shrike. Yes! YB2

Arlene was impressed with my picking it out at that distance, but I reminded her that a: I have looked for shrikes before so knew what to look for, and b: it was sitting facing us, with the sun at our back; the brightness of it's breast quite a beacon and in many ways despite the distance, hard to miss.  And a nice consolation for having dipped on the other birds.

The birder next to me, Arlo maybe? had his two young sons in tow, and they were playing in the cold yet bearable conditions: bright sun and ~no~ wind!!!. He asked one of them if he wanted to see the shrike. The boy was less than enthused. Ah youth, and concomitant lack of focus. Good thing it was not a school trip or we would be mandated to administer Ritalin. 

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