Wednesday, March 16, 2016

On a Redwing and a Prayer

For a long time I have been jonesing for a Redwing. Some of you might think I am referring to a Red-winged Blackbird, often referred to in a more simple form as ‘Red-winged’ or ‘Redwing’ but you would be mistaken. A Redwing is a Thrush, while a Red-winged is a Blackbird. Just to confuse you even more, in Europe the bird they call 'Blackbird' is a Thrush. Sheesh... er, no Thrush.

The Redwing: Turdus iliacus or the “Hippy Thrush” is a European bird, in the same family as our Robins. It is a very rare visitor to our continent, as evinced by its ABA code 4 level. Some describe it as the miscegenistic product of a Robin and a Waterthrush, but they have been roundly criticized for this. Others refer to this and other vagrants in the thrush family as “Euro Turds”, when looking for them in the far more likely location of Newfoundland. As enticing as the reports may be, it’s a wee too far away for a day trip.   

With recent reports albeit not very local, I was nevertheless getting more hopeful. I have been scanning the seemingly ever larger flocks of Robins for the past few years, hopeful that I would find one of these birds. In a way, they are overdue. This prolonged checking either irritates or amuses my co-conspirators, but if one wants to find a bird like this, scanning the flocks of Robins is the best way to do so. From a previous exchange on the intertubes: “(Q) How many Scaup must one look through to find a Tufted Duck? (A) All of them”

When a Redwing was found recently in New Hampshire I was both piqued and a bit frustrated. To quote another post on the intertubes: “Why do the good birds have to be found on Sundays?”

It was found by birder Chris McPherson on March 13. For better or worse I first found out via Farcebook, as using the listserves is no longer preferred method of disseminating sighting info. To be fair, I am not in the habit of checking the New Hampshgire list; though a bird of this magnitude usually is cross posted. Ah, too many lists... eburd... farcebook. Too many sources of information can be just as bad as not enough...

It should come as no surprise that I checked for updates on that following Monday. I was not however holding my breath, because this bird is a notorious one-day-wonder. I unsuccessfully went for one in Reading PA and for another in Rhode Island. Verily, a nemesis bird for me and many other birders.

But this bird reappeared! Its always a great sign when a bird exhibits site fidelity. With that in mind I made inquiries for co-conspirators. A plan was hatched and despite the weather forecast which deterred one potential participant, Earic Miller, Capt’n Bob and I made our way up to the  quintessentially New England town of Hollis NH in search of this good bird.

The day began dark dreary and damp. But the traffic gods were with us and we made our way effortlessly to the prescribed parking location. The fields that the enormous flocks of Robins were frequenting were adjacent to a school, so good judgement was needed in order not to alarm the school officials and ruin it for other birders. We went to and parked on Jeff Smith Way as instructed in the NH list posts. Other cars were present, so that was a good sign, but no birders were in evidence.

We checked the field in front of us, but as far as we could tell they were all Robins. We then walked over to Love Lane where there was more fields, but no parking.  Off in the distance we spotted a couple who appeared to be intently looking at something, and they being Carla and Sam, birders from Acton MA, were on the bird! I ran back to the car as did Earic, because we hadn’t wanted to bring our scopes out in the misty rain. 


With the bird foraging near the fence, and roughly halfway between where we were and where Carla and Sam were stationed we got on it rather quickly much to our delight. I got my scope on it, shared the view with other birders present, and there was much rejoicing. MUCH rejoicing. And then Bob said: “Great, lets get something to eat.” 

Redwing. Zoomed in on crappy photo :(

The bird was a distance away. I was content with scope views, and did not venture closer lest the bird be spooked. As a result and partially due to the lighting conditions, my attempts at photographing the bird were much less than good. Add to that camera settings that had been altered perhaps by leaving the camera on and it being jostled in the car. I managed just a few shots before the bird disappeared. While chimping, I discovered that they were over exposed. Groan.

Not wanting to stay standing out in the misty rain, Bob sought shelter in his car while Earic and I tried to relocate the bird after it had flown off. I was hoping for an opportunity for better photos and we did our best, but there was a lot of area to check, lots of Robins, and the mist seemed to have the uncanny ability to fall sideways and ~into~ our optics making the view blurry. Repeated drying of the lenses helped only temporarily.

Eventually with the writing on the wall and stomachs growling, we gave up searching and called it quits. We had an uneventful trip back with minimal traffic; this time thankfully Earic’s presence ( yes I blame him ) did not result in damage to the vehicle.

The birds M.O. can be found here as well as a map of the location

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

A Powerbirder's Vindication

With word of a Bullocks Oriole upstate, not surprisingly, many inquiries were fielded on the presumption I would be going. Such a reputation... A posse formed, consisting of myself, Earic, Lisa Shrimpke and Cap’t Bob. Seeing as we would be in the area, we were to try for the Golden Eagles at Storm King, as well as Saw-whet Owls reported in nearby Black Rock Forest.

Bob graciously volunteered to drive, while we left logistics up to Lisa. My only requirement was that we had to be back in Queens by 4pm so that I could attend to appointments later that evening.

A bird coming to a feeder. I thought it would be a dam slunk. It turned out to be a damp slog. We arrived at the home of David Baxter, a most gracious fellow who welcomed birders to view the bird from his driveway or back yard. It was cold and windy and raining, despite the forecast for clear skies and only slight chance for a sprinkle.

Once there, we met a nice couple who had driven down from the Adirondacks that morning, as well as a group of 3 women who were also standing vigil. All we got was wet. Nevertheless, as is my custom when visiting someone’s home for a bird, I brought a bag of seed. I feel giving money is icky and uncomfortably mercenary. It also might in the worst case scenario foster a climate where people charge to see their backyard birds. I have heard that this happened in a few cases, and it is disappointing. IMHO the only thing better than seeing a good bird is getting others on it as well. David came out of his home to retrieve the seed as we were leaving and said: “ This was unnecessary.” I replied: “ I believe the birds would disagree, and thank you for the hospitality.”

Our next stop was Storm King where the frigid breeze { tamale?} was not conducive to standing outside scanning with a scope. Of course one can only access the pull-out safely from one direction on 9W, so time was wasted finding a place to turn around. We scanned the favored roosting areas on the side of the mountain, but it was not there nor could we find it soaring nearby. Dip 2.

Finally we went to the Black Rock Forest. We drove up to the visitor’s center, where they graciously permitted us to park in their upper lot, even though we were really supposed to park in the lower lot. They also gave us their best guess as to where the owls might have been, and that was a significant walk up the road, and then some exploring. Oh well, we passed: no time. Dip 3

We made our way back home, with Lisa wanting to stop yet again. We did not, Bob reminding her that we had a predetermined time for return that we had to keep to. The moral of the story is the better you plan, the better your chances for success; at least eliminating back tracking or stopping at places where a lot of time was needed to be allotted.

Flash forward a few days and I learned that Bob Prothonotary had planned an attempt with some of his co-conspirators. This was a good thing as an attempt to iron out a plan with Lisa proved overly cumbersome due to her need to do more responsible things, (sheesh!) and was ultimately dropped.

After conferring with who was and was not going, space was available for me to join Ed Thrasher, Bob Prothonotary, and Doug Fulvetta. 

I was a bit surprised that Ed was driving, as he had told me he was not enamored of long trips, and besides they make his back and legs uncomfortable. I was also surprised that maneuvering off of the island was nowhere near as familiar to any of the three them as it is to me; frequent trips and experience there from having its benefit. So I became the defacto navigator.

On the way, Ed and I listened while Doug and Bob recounted tales of wonderful birds seen in places Ed and I had never been. Ed steadfastly drove, while I alerted him to impending turns. Both of us sighed repeatedly at all the bird names we did not recognize. Ed and I both though Bob and Doug were making the names up!

Nearing our destination, we made our way past what I referred to as ‘bucolic’ scenery, Doug commented on my choice of words. But windy country roads with open fields and sparsely placed homes is a pleasant diversion from the congested urban and suburban sprawl I am far too accustomed to.

Finally we arrived, and as we pulled up behind the one other car present I pondered two things: gee, shouldn’t more folks be here? and: They are looking at something!  We were adjacent to a pond next to the home where the Bullock’s had been, and then we saw it!!! The best part was that we didn’t even have to get out of the car!

Who was it that had clued us into the bird’s location?  Friends Andy, Jennifer, Bill and their friend (whose name always escapes me) from New Jersey.  They travel in a pack and I frequently find at the site of good birds. I gave Jennifer the requisite hug of ‘hello’ and ‘we just got another good bird’. 

For Bob, Doug and myself, this was but a year bird. A ~good~ year bird, but a year bird nonetheless. We three had seen the previous one in 2007 that was also in Ulster county. Ed however, scored a lifer! Ed I have learned, is a man of few words, but his smile spoke volumes. I managed a few crappy shots, but pleasing binocular looks nonetheless. 

And then hoards of birders arrived. We stayed a while longer hoping to get better looks but the bird was reclusive.

Bullock's Oriole

We then plotted our next location. Doug suggested Shawangunk NWR for Rough-legged Hawk and Short Eared Owl. A bit of route discussion ensued, so I offered that I had it saved in one of my many maps. We let my “Loretta” do the talking though Doug had his own GPS and a DeLorme Atlas, perhaps not as comfortable with the new technology as he would like.

When we got to Shawangunk, we met up with the ‘Jersey Crew’ again who were just leaving, having seen both Rough-legged and Short Eared. They also informed us of a Cackling and Greater White-fronted Goose on nearby Bates Lane. We had very distant views of a Short Eared and several Harriers as well as a vocal Bluebird and a male Kestrel, but no Rough-legged.

On Bates lane we quickly located the flock of Canada’s in question, and Bob found both target geese straight away. He then produced lunch for us all in the form of raps with veggies and horse  radish hummus. This was great: a good division of labor. I navigated, Ed drove, Bob brought the comestibles, and Doug... Doug... er Doug postulated that this had evolved into an excellent day of birding, though the point could be made that there was intelligent design in play too.

"The Rules"

We were not ready to give up yet, so I suggested the Black Dirt Region where I had 4 Rough-legged Hawks on a trip I led there recently. It didn’t hurt that there had been a recent report of a Gyrfalcon there as well.  Loretta guided us there flawlessly, and we had at least two on Indiana Road. With talk of White-crowned Sparrows at Walkill on my previous trip as well, interest was expressed. No sooner had we gotten out of the car than I asked Bob if he still wanted to see a White-crowned Sparrow. Two were right where I said they would be; in the ditch by the entry to the lot. A year bird for him.

We walked the Liberty trail towards Merritt Island, but could not find a Gyr, though we did find a Bald Eagle. Later that Eagle was probably what put up a massive amount of waterfowl in the Jersey section of the loop trail, but the sun was in our eyes so we could not ID the spooked birds very well.

All in all an excellent day of birding and compared to my last attempt at the Bullocks et al, this was a pleasant vindication of my bird finding prowess.