Friday, October 30, 2015

A Sparrow and a Booby Prize

With reports of Nelson’s Sparrow being seen all about, I of course wanted to see one for the year before they get lumped back with Saltmarsh. Several trips to Cupsogue, Dune Road, and Gardener’s Park but I kept missing the bird. Dang.

With a report of two at Plumb Beach back on Monday the 26th, Tuesday seemed like a good opportunity. Phil Jabiru, Nancy Trogon, and I met there are walked out into the full moon flooded marsh. Not very birdy, but about half way down I spished up a bird. We got nice looks before it flew back into hiding. Sometimes birds are very accommodating and queue up nicely, while at other times they are frustratingly skulky.

Well at least we saw the bird nicely. Nancy got one frame off, but the bird as you can see below appears a bit blurred. Oh well you can’t have everything, though I now have my 320th bird for the year. 

Nelson's Sparrow
After this success, we tried Floyd Bennett Field and had a very nice walk. White-crowned, White-throated, Savannah, Field, Swamp, Song, and Junco were seen. The deep red of the Virginia Creeper and the Sumac really colored up the place nicely. But more birds to write home about could not be turned up.

By lunch time it was time for Nancy to get going, so Phil and I headed to Jones Beach. Again we did a lot of walking; I was thinking how soon enough it would be colder and the walking outdoors might be a bit less pleasant. Nevertheless it’s a great place to walk around, and we had a repeat of the mornings sparrows, except for the Nelson’s, but with the addition of the persisting Lark Sparrow.

For a change, we decided to try field 6 and look for gulls. Nothing unusual, but with reports of Jaegers, we scanned the ocean. Lots of Gannets were about, but not that close in. No feeding flocks of gulls to harass, so no Jaegers either.

But one ‘Gannet’ caught my eye. It was different in having a black trailing edge to the wings. Look as I might, I could not discern any speckling nor disruption of either the black nor the white parts. OMG. Could this be a Masked Booby? 

Distance, lighting, and angularity necessary to observe this bird as well as desired were a challenge. I studied the bird for as long as possible, and tried to get Phil on it as well but could not. I left the bird feeling like it was not a Gannet. Coloring my thoughts was the report five days earlier of a putative immature Masked Booby from Cape May.

Probability states that it would not be a Masked Booby. Possibility influenced by a marked uptick in the number of vagrants everywhere and especially first state records seemingly being reported every week meant to me that nothing can be taken for granted.

I went home and poured over my references. The more I looked and read, the more I felt like it was a Masked Booby. But was the look I had sufficient to rule it in? I consulted with a few experts who offered me their opinions and assistance. Apparently some of the markings require quite a good look from much closer, and together with structural differences the distinction can be made. Begrudgingly, I have had to accept that it was most likely a 3rd year Gannet; the plumage most similar to Masked Booby. 

I will keep looking. At least I will be better prepared should another similar looking bird crosses my path. And who knows, maybe I will find one.

Friday, October 23, 2015

A Powerbirder et al In Search of A Power-chord Player

A bird that I was hoping to have visit NY this year, Townsend’s Solitaire, made an appearance albeit upstate. It was discovered on October 18th and relocated on successive days, so with an opportunity to go see it available on the 22nd, a posse quickly formed.

John Gaggle-o-geese , Phil Jabiru, Pelican, and I met at 6am. The traffic gods had other thoughts though. It was a slow tortuous crawl to the bridge, made a bit more pleasant by a nice sunrise.  

Sunrise on the Throgs Neck Bridge
Then it was smoother sailing from then on. The thruway is uninspiring, but a good way to get upstate expeditiously. Once we got off the highway, I was at home with the types of roads I love: small, winding, and picturesque.  With the fall foliage, it was blessed eye candy. 

The beautiful roads in upstate New York
With a lot of turns here and turns there, it was amusing to me on how the GPS routed us, especially compared to the more grid-like roads downstate. But that’s what makes a road trip more interesting.

Eventually we arrived at John Boyd Thacher State Park  and began looking for a sign for the visitor’s center and the Indian Ladder trail.  

Indians used to use this...
We stopped in to the visitor’s center and inquired of the park staff, but she was unaware of the celebrity in her midst. She did point us in the right direction, and we headed off to find our bird. A photo of the tree the bird favored had been posted online, and it proved helpful. The trail actually turns sharply and heads down from the Helderberg Escarpment to the valley below. We diverted to the picnic area adjacent to where they were busily and noisily constructing a new visitor’s center.

Arriving in this small field, we were immediately disappointed that there were no other birders present, and then fell into more disappointment as we could not locate the bird! We looked around, and realized that as tasty and tempting as the abundant fruits on the Juniper were, the bird was elsewhere.

With no bird to wow us, we explored and looked at the other birds present. Not a whole lot, but certainly better than nothing. Robins, Bluejays, Juncos, Chipping Sparrows, and 2 flocks of Pine Siskins flying by. 

The Posse
If the bird was there we certainly would have found it, but it was adept at hiding. This is counter to my previous experiences where it liked perching prominently. So we looked more, hoping that we had not gone a long way for naught.

The views off of the escarpment were spectacular. The foliage was brilliant yellows, oranges and reds and looking into a valley made the vista all the more impressive.  We walked around and we all could not help but take a lot of photos. 

What a view!
At some point, a birding couple happened by, relayed they had not had the bird today, but had seen it the day before. Groan. Later still another local birder John R. joined us, and despite more eyes we could not locate it.

With hopes that reports might give us a plan of action, we learned that it had been seen at the overlook the day before, and that it had been seen at this location earlier in the morning.  We exchanged cell#s with John R. and we went exploring elsewhere. 

Overcast yes, but again, what a view!!
What this place lacked in birds [ at least on this day ] it more than made up for with scenery. Clearly the view and the foliage was the star. We checked numerous spots down the road but to no avail. And the day was an odd day meteorologically. Lots of different clouds at different altitudes, and intermittent sprinkles of less than 2 minutes. Then John R. sent a text message that he was giving up. I was hoping it was a “it’s here”, but no.

Then it started to rain on us. Great. But it stopped rather quickly as we headed back to the car, and the sun came out for an ambient lighting experience that was unique: dark and foreboding over that way, bright and cheerful over there, and meh in that direction. And then a rainbow appeared right in front of us in the valley. One end appeared to head straight to the ground, and it was all I could do the restrain Pelican from pushing me off the cliff to retrieve the pot of gold. 

A Sign From the Birding Gods?
We decided to head back and have another look to see if our luck could turn. Back at the trail-head lot, with a light drizzle, Phil and I opted to leave our cameras behind. I joked: ‘that’s a way to guarantee we’ll see it!” Pelican and I headed off down the path, with John and Phil trailing behind.

Once we got to the clearing, I saw a bird sitting on top of the chain link fence enclosing the construction site. It swooped down for a bug or such and then landed, but the view was all I needed. THATS THE BIRD!  Pelican and I got good looks and I yelled out some more to Phil and John.

They arrived in time to see the bird in the nearby tree, and camera-less, we were forced to take photos with our phones. I still have not mastered aiming that thing, and the bird was in the top of the view instead of the center, but there it was. The ‘insurance shot’.

Bad shot, but its in the top left corner
Shortly there after it flew to a Juniper by the edge and I volunteered to go back for the cameras. I instructed Phil to keep an eye on it, and made my way back up the trail. I also called John R. To let him know we had the bird and he simply replied: “I’m making a u-turn.”

By the time I returned the bird was squarely hidden in the back of the Juniper, but Phil was great at keeping a tab on where it was, helping me, another birder who showed up, and that fellow John R. when he returned.

Finally, the bird flew out from its seclusion and alighted at the top of a tree as is more characteristic. It called a few times softly. We all then got great views and enjoyed the  visitor from out west. The bird was at 42.655473, -74.016603.  

Townsend's Solitaire
Clearly we were all pleased and relieved, and John G. mentioned that one of my observations: ‘Chasing a good bird often brings one to remarkably nice places that one might not otherwise explore’ was right on the money. What a beautiful place this park is. I had never even heard of it.  Goal accomplished for us all, and I am at YB 319.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Don't Shoot Until You See The White Of The Ibis

A nice group of 10 of us met at the Prospect Park Zoo for a QCBC walk I was leading on the brisk morning of October 18. Most of us were surprised by the chilly weather, and those that brought a bit of extra warmth were glad they did. At one point, though happy with my new  tchotchke-enabled gloves, ( they permitting swiping on the screen of the smart phone ) I was perturbed by presence of chilliness in my hands which I thought should not be. Checking the weather, it was only 38!  In the shadows of the trees it felt cooler, and thankfully, in sunlight it felt oh so good. What a gloriously beautiful day to be out though, without a doubt. Quite a difference from last year’s dreary overcast. And kudos to Mr. Olmstead for a spectacular park. Beautiful.

The birds thought so too. They were all over, and in good numbers. At the entrance was a large flock of Grackles, perhaps 50 or so being characteristically noisy.  One of the first good sightings was a Turkey Vulture also as we entered the park. Coopers Hawk and Red-tailed Hawks were about as well.

The joint was jumping, with Rublets and Goblets all around, only competing with Butter-butts for sheer numbers. But with a lot of skillful eyes picking through them we also found Parula, Magnolia, Blackpoll, lots of Palm, and Black-throated Blue. But this was not the end of the warbler show...

By the ponds in the lullwater we had a nice showing of quackiderms, highlighted by a Wigeon and a few Shovelers, as well as a geriatric ward of Coots. Not to feel left out, woodpeckers put in a good showing as well predominated by Flickers, but Red-bellied, Downey, Hairy, and Sapsucker were also spotted.

Last year’s Philadelphia freedom was not reprized. On that trip we had a remarkable 7 of those Vireos sighted. Zilch were seen today, but Red-eyed and Blue-headed were seen, the later in good numbers.

Also in large numbers were the following: Phoebe and Hermit Thrush. Requests were made for Swainson’s Thrush, but it was not to be. The other requests were for Connecticut Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler, and Nashville Warbler. Two out of three ain’t bad, or so says Mr. Loaf. Which two? Read on.

As the day went on, more and more people began to show up at the park, turning into thronging masses present to walk and show support for breast cancer awareness. The park was eventually turned into a sea of pink clad marchers, enthusiastic cheerleaders, music and event support stations and noise! Lots of noise! As near as we could tell they were completely oblivious to our desire to find birds! Sheesh! But it was so encouraging to see so many out in support of an important and worthwhile cause.

We did our best to stick to less traveled paths and quieter areas, and did pretty well. But even so, there is a curious phenomena in busy city parks where some birds become oblivious to people. One such bird was along the lake by the cemetery path, but being passed by lots and I mean LOTS of people. This Pine Warbler was at our feet, a mere 3-6 feet away affording great looks and photos. What a thrill! And oh how I wish more birds were so amenable. 

Pine Warbler
Eventually, we ended up at the ‘picnic house’ area, and off in the distance I spotted activity by an enclosure where they were encouraging native plant restoration and planted saplings. From the picnic tables we spotted movements in the grass in front of the enclosure, and though made up of a lot of Chipping Sparrows, other goodies were present as well. One such was a drab little warbler that satisfied one of the ‘requests’, and was confidently IDed by Steve S. as an Orange-crowned Warbler.

Checking the weeds, (though some objected to that moniker,) we saw much activity. The best by far was a Nashville Warbler, satisfying another ‘request’ and going above and beyond. This little beauty posed for us in sunlit splendor. 

Nashville Warbler
It was about this time that the crowds and the noise were overtaking us, noon was approaching, and an email was received via the listserve from Isaac Brant alerting to the location of a White Ibis in nearby Staten Island. As it was, some had to depart anyway, and a quick inquiry of the group had half having to head home shortly while the other half was enthusiastic about chasing a rarity.

So it was decided to conclude the Prospect Park portion of the trip, which by all accounts was quite good, and attempt to incorporate an impromptu twitch into the wilds of Staten Island. Note: yours truly had attempted to find what appears to be the same Ibis when it had been spotted at Prospect park and then Greenwood cemetery back on the 13th. 

Three cars set off while the others bid us adieu. John Gaggle-o-geese and Pelican set off on their own, while Caesar Cassin's Vireo followed Arlene and I.  Following the GPS directions, and being frustrated by Sunday traffic, I was further annoyed by the navigation instructions unexpectedly changing its mind from time to time. Bear in mind I could not simply decide to turn when I thought I had to proceed straight ahead; traffic congestion and being followed made that untenable.  Eventually I decided to follow a course to the highway and ignore previous suggestions for turns and even u-turns!

I made it to the Verrazano bridge, and thought it was clear sailing from there on. But the traffic gods are consistent in punishing those who venture onto this island by strangling them in slow traffic. A few miles down the highway traffic slowed to a crawl, so what else is new. And then the phone rang.

Pelican and John were still in Brooklyn having been hamstrung by traffic, closed on ramps, and bad GPS info that sent them in circles. Having touched base we continued on to our quarry, while they informing that they were being delayed a bit.

Fortunately, we got to where we wanted to be. Picturesque? Far from it. This was a very industrial area and the polar opposite of picturesque. Oh well.

We parked at the end of River Road behind two other cars. Other birders no doubt, always an encouraging sign. And as we started for the railroad tracks to walk upon to the requisite pond, Isaac Brant and Michael Sharpie came walking out. They informed us that the pond was on the left about a half mile down, and that the bird was there, but sometimes obscured by walking behind the Phragmites.

We walked on, hobbled a bit by the uneven spacing of the rail ties and the rock ballast. But walk on we did. Eventually we arrived at the pond and looked around. There was a Great Egret off to the left where we were told the bird was, as well as some Yellowlegs. Off to the right was a Great Blue Heron, and when I put my bins up I spotted the White Ibis right behind it!
In with the mix was also a female type Pintail.

We got great looks and set up the scopes for even better looks.   I set upon photographing the Ibis. This bird was a lifer for Arlene and a NY State bird for Caesar and I. For me it was NYS yearbird #318, and NYS #410 for me.

White Ibis (l) Great Blue Heron (R)

White Ibis
Pelican and John G. called again and had just arrived, but they had to traverse the tracks to get to us. We told them the bird was still there...

We observed the bird for just about 10 minutes. {I now know this from the time stamp on my photos.} Then a Great Egret landed next to the Ibis and flushed it! We watched as it circled over the pond, and we hoped it was going to land again. It just kept circling however, and getting higher and higher.

I called Pelican, but she didn’t hear her phone ring, and then as she and John came around the corner Arlene and I were jumping up and down arms flailing and pointing up and own in the air, desperate for them to see us and catch a glimpse of the bird as it flew past them.

They never averted their eyes from the ground. In an effort to not stumble on the uneven surface, the missed an opportunity to have possibly seen the bird at last as it flew by. GAAAAAAAAAAAH. 

Shortly thereafter a text message came in from Isaac, who was still at the parking area. He inquired if the bird had flown, because they just had a White Ibis fly by. I was saddened to report that the bird had in fact just taken off. He said that he and Michael watched as it disappeared into the distance far to the south and east.

Due to the vagaries of Brooklyn traffic and the capriciousness of GPS navigation, our co-conspirators just missed the bird as did other birders who showed up afterwards. A bittersweet end to an impromptu twitch, and I did my best not to impose the "YSHBH Constant" upon the others.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Hiking? Nope, Birding Cha Cha Chat

The weekend began by wanting to do some exploring and be active. More active than birding per se, the birds alas, do not let one maintain a continuous high level of activity leading me to conclude that birding is in a sense a lazy pursuit.

Caleb Smith Park was ripe for exploration. I have discovered some superb places as a result of chasing a bird to a given location. I figured if we were not distracted by knowledge of birdiness, we could explore and hike and be active like we know we want to be.

We were in the car and ready to leave when an email came in from the listserve. Isaac Brant found a LeConte's Sparrow at Floyd Bennet Field. I mentioned it to Arlene and she just smiled and said “Lets go!”. She's such an enabler. ;)

Well, it would be a year bird for me and a lifer for her, and a pretty uncommon bird to boot so we made our way there. The place was stupid with sparrows, and wind! But not the LeConte's. We did have White-crowned, lots of Savannah, and other birders had a Nelson's but with the high wind we eventually decided to go elsewhere.

Fortuitously a report came in about a Yellow-breasted Chat at Jones Beach, and that was a bird I had missed on several occasions so far this year. We headed that way as it was on our way home and arriving at the Coast Guard station we saw a phalanx of birders congregated at the hedgerow, waiting for the Chat. Isn't that usually how one sees a Chat?

An inquiry revealed that the Chat had actually been seen regularly and recently, but was, well, acting like a Chat: being furtive and skulky. Steve Tanager, who had seen the bird earlier, suggested to me that the line of birders right in front of where the bird liked to sun itself was keeping it scarce. If we were further away, the bird would probably reappear. Not sure how to affect this I declined waiting around per his advice, instead walking behind the hedgerow to peruse the nice selection of sparrows. Vesper, Field, Swamp, Song, Chipping, White-throated and White-crowned. 

Vesper Sparrow

We went back to the other side when the crowd had dispersed. We took up position on the far side of the outer hedgerow and this spectacular bird took up position on a branch to sun itself. Wow. And after several failed attempts, YB 317. 

Yellow-breasted Chat

A Lark Sparrow was also reported from the entrance to West End 2. Arlene, Pelican and I decided to head that way, spotting a Creeper and Red-hatch along the way. 

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Pat Pallas Bunting saw us walking, kindly offered us a ride to the Lark Sparrow, and showed us exactly where to look. Another nice bird for the day and a lifer for Arlene.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015


Its my favorite time of the year. Vagrants can show up and all the rules about what ~should~ be present are thrown out the window. What will show up?

The first goodie to show up was a Say’s Phoebe in Staten Island, but it was a one day wonder on the 28th of September. Missed it. Dang. Such poor manners.

Then a Western Kingbird was discovered at Robert Moses STPK. on October 1 but reportedly disappeared pretty much as soon as it was found, and could not be relocated.  I attempted to do so that day later in the afternoon but the cold and wind and general unpleasantness of the environment provided no encouragement to being successful in my quest. I struck out.

Then a few days later on October 4 another was found in Queens. I was pleased to have gotten a heads-up call about it on that Saturday, but stayed home to take care of Arlene Rails who had one F%$# of a bad headache. Fortunately the next day she felt all better, and Corey Shearwater reported that the bird was still present and that it had the good moral fiber to stick around for an additional day. Arlene and I went to look for it and I got a nice year bird for number 316, while Arlene enjoyed a lifer courtesy of Lisa Shrimpke, who found it.

In the intervening time I had made several visits to Bobby Mo STPK., and of course attempted to find the WEKI that had been reported at least once more since its discovery. The golf course and  the volley ball courts seem to be good migrant traps, and with the marsh at Captree and Captree STPK. so close in proximity, an all around good place to bird in Suffolk county.

Additionally I have been scouring the marshes looking for one of The Nelson’s Sparrows that have been appearing here and there, but sadly, not when ~I~ am looking; at least not yet. Arlene and I walked all over Cupsogue this weekend looking. All we got was wet feet.

On October 11 Klemens Thrasher spotted and photographed an adult White Ibis fly over Prospect Park, and more remarkably, it was relocated the next day at nearby Greenwood Cemetery. What a place! Definitely worth a visit to bird and for its picturesqueness and history. Sadly, upon the arrival on the 12th by my posse which included Earic Miller, Jean LeConte Sparrow, and Lisa Shrimpke, the Ibis was nowhere to be found. Dang again!!

Also on this day Pete Myarchus re-found the WEKI at Bobby Mo. So naturally, Phil Jabiru suggested we attempt to relocate it. Why not? We arrived on site to find Keith Cassowary*  and his father searching without luck. Phil and I decided to walk the outer beach access path instead of the one adjacent to the golf course, and we saw lots of bird activity. That activity was made up of a lot of individuals of a few species though: Robins, Yellow-rumps, and Flickers. *They got the bird later in the day.

There was a smattering of other birds too, like Goblets and Rublets, and Savannah Sparrows, and the occasional hungry Merlin. And then I saw an unrobin-like Robin land at the top of some Autumn Olive and it was the bird! We got nice looks before it and we moved on.

We decided to try the gold course, and ran in to Dave Clapper and Pelican on the way. They were directed to where we had the bird. After an uneventful perusal of the course, we returned to the scene of the crime, dismayed to find that all assembled there had failed to relocate it.

We joined the search, and after a while Dave and Pelican having had enough, figuring the bird was gone, and departed. Ugh. Phil and I remained along with Sy Schiffornis and Joe Jacana. And while as is often the case on stake-outs, the focus shifts to BSing rather than birding per se, I happened to look up at the right time to see the bird flying towards us  and was able to yell loudly enough to alert Dave and Pelican and get us all on it, . It seemed that this was the day the WEKI relaxed a bit and let its hair down and afforded looks. Other days it had not been as cooperative.

Afterwards we headed over to the volley ball courts and the board walk at field 5. We added Swamp, Field and White-crowned Sparrow.

I think this is the first time I have ever had 2 separate WEKI not counting places where they are normally found. To add some additional intrigue, as I am writing this another[?] was just reported from Jones Beach.

So where’s the %$%# Say’s, Ibis, Hudwit, and Nelsons that I have missed so far??? (Says the greedy author.) 

I shall have to console myself with a seasonally appropriate beer.