Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Montauk & Massena

Not every birding trip is an epic journey, and travel is fun. Seeing great birds close to home is fun too. I made the effort to get the Barrows Goldeneye that had eluded me and was rewarded with nice looks at its usual haunts, the ever so posh Sands Point.

Earic Miller and Lisa Shrimpke joined Liz Ardcuckoo and I, and we were coerced into a vain attempt at relocating the Yellow-breasted Chat Liz had found months ago.  We did not succeed, but Earic heard a Winter Wren and we got to see it. It was a year bird for me so a nice get.

After much debate, and Liz bidding us adieu, the three of us set off to Patchogue to try for the spurious Tufted Duck. What kind of maniacal quackster frequents a pond on alternating days? Once again, we, and yes I, was skunked. Perhaps the terminology should be updated to: “I was tufted”?

Tuesday night I picked up a new car, perhaps long overdue. Thursday was a major snowstorm after Wednesday’s inexplicable 65 degree weather. Over a foot of snow meant shoveling and household chores I prefer to postpone instead of a ride in my new wheels. Or did it.

Late in the afternoon I heard through the grapevine that a Yellow-headed Blackbird had been seen at a feeder in Nassau county! It was discovered because the home owners took a picture and being unable to ID it, posted it on Facebook. I made an effort to secure permission to visit despite the snow, but by the time I heard back it was too late in the day top arrive before sunset.

I did go there the next day before work and met Mike Zino’s Petrel and Pat Pallas Reed Bunting. There was a flock of 50+/- Grackles circling the area, but no definitive sightings. One bird Mike and I both saw had white flashes in the wings that we saw as the flock flew over head, but time ran out for me and I had to depart.

The weekend arrived and I was still not feeling a trip to New Jersey. I wasn't feeling like I was ready to travel long distances anywhere. Though after some musing, I met Arlene Rails and we decided to give the very Tuff ted Duck another try.  We scanned this 'popular with the quacking crowd' pond for some time without the desired result.

And then I got a text from Pelican. It read: “So are you chasing the Guillemot, or the Great Gray Owl?” WTF?!?!  I checked the intertubes and saw a report of a Black Guillemot in Montauk harbor. I coyly asked Arlene “Would that be a life bird?” she smiled and said yes, and said “lets go!”
Great Gray Owl
I am not one to refuse a lady. We high tailed it to the highway and made our way to the west jetty. Setting the car in park I leaped out to get a look while she prepared herself in the warmth of the car.

The inlet was devoid of much save three Common Loons. The end of the west jetty had two SandPurples, while the east jetty had three Great Cormorants. I turned my attention to the back of the harbor, and there by the coast guard’s patrol boat was the bird! I ran over to get Arlene and she got an ‘insurance’ view of this lifer.

I suggested that we relocate to get a better look at the Coasties. As we pulled in, I saw Bobby Sanderlingi pulling out, having tried to relocate the bird himself. I told him it was hidden behind the patrol boat, and we all went over to get a closer and better look. Nice find Bobby!
Black Guillemot
During the jubilation for Arlene’s life bird, we got another call from Earic. He was out in Pennsylvania looking for the Black-backed Oriole of questionable provenance, and was inquiring about a run for the Great Gray Owl way upstate in Massena NY.

After the ensuing conversation, we contemplated a run. The caveat was that it would have to be an overnighter. I did not want to push a run for this bird, and did not think Arlene would want to do it. Unexpectedly she was enthusiastic and the wheels started turning.

As time passed and things progressed, we were en route home when we decided to go for it. Part of my rationalization was spending the night [ because 400+ miles each way was a stretch even for me ] ~and~ the birds we could get in the Adirondacks on the way back. We had missed Evening Grosbeak on the Ross’s Gull twitch, and it stung being so close to where they were and blowing it.

We contacted Earic again, and relayed our plans to leave in a few hours. Thing was he was still in PA! This was a deal breaker for us, and it greatly disappointed him.  We carried on, secured a room, and did logistical mapping etc,. Importantly we prepped and psyched ourselves for an epic journey.

Hours later on the thruway several counties away from home, the phone rang. It was Earic again. His question: if he got a ride up there could he get a ride back with us. Seems he had talked Shrimpke into going, but she had decided to extend her trip into Canada for other Owls that were around. A ride back? This was fine by us.

We had an uneventful expeditious trip up the thruway to the exit for Lake Placid, and then had to deal with the smaller roads, speed restrictions through towns, and murderous lake monsters trying to hitch a ride.

A stop in Saranac for fuel and leg stretching was amusing for observing the winter festival’s ice castle and ice moose. The conversation with the clerk while she was making me an root beer float ( hey, it has the word ‘beer’ in it, and its Stewarts ) was a modicum of disheartening though, when she said she used to live in Massena and how far and how long we still had to go...

But we pressed on in the teen degree temps and eventually reached our lodging. Ahhh. Finally! Thing was, the clerk on duty seemed to be more fatigued than I was if that was possible. Took way to long to simply acknowledge my presence. He inquired nothing of me, simply came out of his office in response to my ringing the bell. He went straight to the computer, never looked my way, and after a lot of clicking around, eventually reached over to a sheet of paper on the counter which was my reservation. He placed it on the counter and asked for my ID. After inspecting it he handed me the keys, pointed to where I would find our room, and said good night. All without making any eye contact. Odd and somewhat creepy.

Arlene bless her heart and several other internal organs ( but not her spleen. Definitely NOT her spleen ) saw fit to bring some beer. In our rush to get to the room we left some things in the car, but when I found out that was one of the items I had to rescue them! 10 degrees will make them explode, and while you shouldn’t cry over spilled milk, beer? No way!

She brought some delicious Cappuchino Stouts that Mike Zino’s Petrel hates for some reason. It was the perfect way to unwind from the long ride. Thanks Leanie :)

The next day we awoke in no particular rush much to her delight. We took our time getting ready for the day’s adventure, and ate breakfast at our leisure. An atypical start to a birding day!

By 8:30 we headed off to the frustratingly named Robert Moses State Park. Why you ask? Because there is a Robert Moses State Park here on Long Island. Really? They couldn’t come up with another name or a differentiating modification? How about “Bobby Mo State Park?”

We appeared to be among the first there, and we drove the roads slowly hoping to find the majestic creatures. We had flocks of Robins, but not a whole lot of bird activity. Eventually more and more cars arrived, and they were all birders except for the a state trooper.

Checking in with Earic, I learned that they were still a short distance away and that Laura Corella had joined him and Shrimpke on the trip. They left at midnight Saturday, instead of earlier as we had done, hoping to arrive by around the time we would get to the park. Laura texted me asking if she could get a ride back. I said yes of course, and asked how then would Earic get back?

They finally arrived, and we crossed paths. We as well as others were cruising the area hoping to find at least one of the two birds. Eventually we saw some folks stopped by the side of the road. We inquired of them, and were told this was the area they were located the day before. We decided to give waiting here a try too.

After a while, another person stopped along the road, but he got out and was carrying a camera and started pointing it at something. I started the engine and drove up. There on top of a broken tree was a superbly gorgeous Owl. There was much rejoicing! A splendid only second ever sighting for me, and a lifer for Leanie!
Great Gray Owl
I called the others because they were not with the growing crowd. Those chucleheads went off to find a bathroom! While birding?? What are they nuts??? They eventually deigned to join us, and we all enjoyed this evocative creature. We transferred Earic & Laura’s stuff to my car, and after we had our fill of this bird we made tracks.

There were two reasons for our hasty departure. One, was it was a long ride home any way you slice it. Two, lucky us - they were predicting a major snow storm, that they named Orson. Yay. We hit the road for Tupper Lake as the first flakes fell.

The roads progressively worsened, but we made it to Tupper Lake in okay time. Passing the factory with the large smoke stack, we didn’t even have to slow down to see the reliable Northern shrike that was perched on his favorite tree. And we didn’t stop because we were on our way to try for the blasted Evening Grosbeaks we missed the last time around.

We went to the incongruous house: the one with the bird feeders and confederate flag ( Yay! We lost!? ) and pulled over to observe the desolate feeders in the falling snow.  It was some time before a few birds flew in; Leanie was the one to see the Goldfinches that alighted upon the far feeder.

Studying them I was elated to spot a Pine Siskin with them and blurted out SISKIN! They have been scarce so far this season, so it was a gratifying year bird get. But sitting there for a while longer we were still without our target.

I for one had to use a restroom ( and yes, its okay if I need to ) so we all decided to take a break from the stake-out and utilize the nearby McDonalds. We then headed back to the feeders and as I drove up I saw a bird and YES! It was a lone Evening Grosbeak!! Hey one Siskin and one Grosbeak, I’ll take it!

Satisfied, we continued on our way, not having room to dawdle. Our next stop was not too far away at the feeders on Sabbatis Circle road where the Gray Jays were more than accommodating. There were lots of Chickadees too, though nary a Boreal Chickadee. Other birds were Blue Jay, Hairy Woodpecker, and Redhatch.

The snow relentlessly falling, we delayed the inevitable no longer and hit the road home in earnest. It was slow going all through the rest of the ‘dacks, with not much improvement once on the thruway. As I predicted, once we were below Albany the roads were clear, but then another road hazard was present.

The road is only two lanes, and some folks like to travel in the left lane. Too many of the bastards don’t want to relinquish it and allow you to pass! Flash your headlights? They’ll just ignore you, and most of them had NJ license plates. Just another "nice" thing to say and think about Joisey.

Despite the road constipation, we made it home in good time and thankfully not too late. I hit the pillow like a sack of potatoes. Nice! And to think, what are the odds of two recent trips to Montauk on a Saturday were followed by an epic journey upstate?  This brings my NYS year list to 157 and my NYS life list to  to 415 :)
Not every birding trip is an epic journey, but this one sure was!

Monday, February 13, 2017

A Tour of the Black Dirt Region with the QCBeasties

After discovering this productive region of New York some years back, the Black Dirt Region has become a regular trip for me to lead. A group of us met in Goshen consisting of Rich Kelly, Pat Aitken, John Gaglione, Arlene Rawls, Phil Uruburu, Ian Resnick, Donna Schulman, Bob Hayes, and Liz Patrick. We also met up with Steve Walter, but he was not on the trip proper; just doing his own photography thing.

We began by diverting to a local hot-spot to follow up on a report of a Barred Owl. We had a lovely walk in the cold yet windless morning air and enjoyed the sunrise if not an owl. Typical dickie birds were about and the area was capped off with a Ring-necked Pheasant spotted on a berm along side the road.

After hitting the beginning of the tour, we began to see the sought after specialties. We had numerous Canada Geese in the Walkill River, but searching within them did not reveal any goodies. That’s because they flew over our head in a nice V formation; they being 12 or so Snow Geese.

Of course there were ample Red-tailed Hawks, and as expected, Harriers, but upon reaching ‘the’ area, we had one then another Rough-legged Hawks. Better still, we spotted one, then three, and finally four total day flying Short-eared Owls. The birds were very cooperative and we all got great looks and photos.
Short-eared Owl      Photo: Steve Walter

Short-eared Owl      Photo: Steve Walter

That is to say, ~without~ going off the dirt road and into the farm fields. I have come to learn that after we departed, something approaching a small hoard of birders and / or photographers were in the same location enjoying the owl spectacle. I am not privy to whether access to the farm fields at this time of the year is permitted, ignored, or has not yet been realized by the owners, but not having first hand knowledge of what can and cannot be done with respect to this patently private property, I chose to lead my group within the bounds of what I knew to be absolutely permitted: restricting ourselves to the public road.
Rough-legged Hawk

There was much chatter about the trespassers on fazebuk, where some distressing opinions were voiced. One offered that in the absence of “no trespassing” signs, it was okay. No. Its not.

Unless you obtained permission, or were informed by a reliable source that entry was permitted, stay the heck out. Just because you saw others doing it, doesn’t mean they had permission, and if not for you, then for other birders and photographers who subsequently visit the area.

Suppose you saw a shop with a broken window and people running in and running out with TV’s. Would you then similarly presume that ‘they were doing it’ so it was okay? 

American Kestral
For the umpteenth time: Do Not Trespass. It is a lot harder to get permission ~after~ you have aggravated someone than before.  Trespassing shows a lack of respect, is unlawful (duh), and paints birders and photographers in a bad light. Again, it will ruin it for subsequent visitors.

If that doesn’t dissuade folks then soon we will have animosity towards all of us, be us guilty or not, and perhaps a switch to how they treat trespassers out west: shoot first.
Northern Harrier      Photo: Steve Walter
...Back to the trip. We continued to mission island where we scanned the nervous Horned Lark flocks, but could not find any Longspurs with them. Walkill NWR had more waterfowl in the open water and Harriers, but nothing unexpected. We did an abbreviated walk looking for sparrows, but the after lunch sluggishness, and the wind having picked up discouraged a more lengthy exploration.

At this point we normally would depart for Shawangunk, but as we had the owls so well,   I suggested a different option. I had heard reports of Evening Grosbeaks in Ulster county, so the group agreed to try our luck.

We checked numerous locations and despite our best efforts, we never did locate any. Most of us then did some additional exploring of the winding Ulster roads and enjoyed that, if not seeing some birds. The day was capped off with a tasty dinner at Mr Sushi.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Um, Of Course Its A Day Trip...

The last time a Ross’s Gull. showed up in New York was on March 20, 1994. It was in Jones Inlet, and insinuated within a flock of 1000's of Bonaparte’s Gulls. Trying to find it and stay on it was very challenging. VERY challenging. I was one of the lucky folks who saw it.

The 1994 bird was the second NYS record. The first was many years prior at Montauk Point, and is questioned by some or so I am told. March 20 was a special day at the inlet for other reasons: I had 10 species of gull that day: Herring, Lesser Black-backed, Greater Black-backed, Ring-billed, Iceland, Glaucous, Bonaparte’s,  Little, and Black-headed in addition to the Ross’s in the inlet.

Undoubtedly, the first accepted / well documented sighting was in 1975 in Massachusetts. You can read about in this archived article that appeared in the New York Times.

As you can see, this bird is a really big deal. Normally one would travel to the arctic circle to see it, so a trip upstate is a relative bargain! ( And not indicative of impending mental collapse)
Ross's Gull

That I had many inquiries regarding a trip to see this bird should not come as a surprise. But I was not ready to commit because my chase-ability algorithm had not indicated a high probability of success as of yet. That and I had committed to cover leading a trip for a friend who needed to be there for his mom.

That is not to say that I did not keep my nose to the wind.

During the course of the day on our trip to Montauk, we read our emails. After all it would be rude not to; what with someone making the effort to write them. It became clearer and clearer that there was ample food around and that the bird would most likely stick. Tupper Lake hosts many ice fishermen and apparently they gut the fish and leave the offal on the ice for the Bald Eagles... and the occasional Ross’s Gull. 

In the car with Pelican, she was doing her best: “I’m a rational responsible person” imitation. But her friend Charlotte Kiskadee was not having it: “Who are you kidding Pat, you know you want to go”. Add a text inquiry from John Gaggle-o-geese, and then a plaintive inquiry as to my interest, and we had a plan. A quick text to Arlene Rails and she was in too.

We met at 5 am for the 330 mile trip. It was a beautiful day, and just as always, once we were into the Adirondacks it began to snow. I think it’s a requirement.  But Pat is a good driver and she has an all wheel drive car so we had no issues.

Once we were near the lake, I reminded the others that the bird had been seen along the highway on the lake’s open water, so we switched to being birderers. As we passed the Tupper Lake boat ramp, I saw folks with scopes and cameras and yelled out “pull in there”.

When the car stopped, I grabbed my bins and camera and ran over to find the bird. YES! For some reason the others took their time, and Arlene complained that I had not waited for them. What? Are we eating dinner and I have to wait for everyone to be served? You guys can dawdle all you want, I was there to see a bird and didn’t want to risk missing it.

She further disparaged me by reiterating that I had claimed it was not that important and yet I ran off without them. I reminded her that yes, I had previously seen this bird, but that it was a ~lifer~ for them, so dawdle if you must, but having traveled all that way, you bet your sweet ass I wanted to see it and wasn’t in a rush to ~miss~ it you dawdlers! Two of those present it is worth mentioning, were ever so slightly delayed in their arrival at another good bird, so my concern was not without merit nor precedent. Also of note, this sighting was at 11am, and by 12:30 the bird had vanished and could not be relocated much to the dismay of those that arrived later than we did. So there Arlene. Dawdler.

The view from the boat ramp was okay, but the gull kept returning to a spot a short distance away where some edible stuff was on the ice. We noticed other birders there, and went to that location. The views were spectacular! There was much rejoicing.

Notice the look of 'joy' on her face.

Other birds were about the area, and we went off in search of them after we had a sufficient fill of this cutie. John and Pat had heard of a Northern Shrike, so we went to its last known location. We drove around and tried to dodge the snow flakes. Amazing sunshine one moment and near blinding snow the next.

The first places we tried were a bust, but later we saw likely Shrike habitat, and pulled into a convenient parking lot. We got out of the car and were preparing to walk and search when John said: there it is! It was perched as Shrikes are supposed to be, at the top of a tree. There was much more rejoicing!

Northern Shrike

We then perused the scene of the crime ( the home where the Ross’s Gull was first located ) where Earic and Shrimpke had seen a Barred Owl, but the snow began to fall in earnest again and we could not find it.

We then checked some feeders in and about town in hopes of finding Evening Grosbeaks that those two had also had, but dipped again. So after a quick bite to eat we hit the road for Newcomb. We stopped in the visitor center where the feeders had nothing unusual, but the docent there gave us a map to houses in town where Bohemian Waxwings had been seen.

We drove around, and stopped but saw nothing. Then as we were pulling away I spotted the Waxwings in the Crabobble tree right in front of us. More rejoicing!

Bohemian Waxwing

We made a few more circuits hoping to score the Grosbeaks, but we did not. We then made tracks for Lake Champlain. Despite an unfortunate course selection, we corrected and made it there before the sun set. Scoping the available ducks did not find us a hoped for Tufted Duck, and ironic comments were made that "they are going to show up on Long Island".

Son of a B... the very next day ( Monday ) they ~were~ found on Long Island. What’s worse, on that day at Lake Champlain both Tufted Duck ~and~ Barrows Goldeneye were located. Doh!

And it gets better. The next day ( Tuesday ) a few of us went in search of the TUDU and despite many eyes and much time spent looking, we could not find it. Then it was relocated Wednesday. Double Doh! Unbelievably, Friday I learn it returned to Swan lake. WTF!! I take Tuesdays and Thursdays off, and so does this duck! Gaaaaaaa!

UPDATE:  Brendan Frogmouth has informed me that: "We've had ROGU a few times in between though: 1995 Niagara, 2003 Rochester, 2008 Niagara, 2012 Cayuga Lake." 

Today on the plus side I was able to see the Barrows Goldeneye with Liz Ardcuckoo Patrick, though depressingly yet another attempt for the Swan lake TUDU was for naught.  But at least I've gotten some leads on more goodies!

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Leading Some QCBeasties on a Trip to That Fabulous Place: Montauk Point

Pat Aitken, Rich Kelly, Charlotte Miska, Nancy & Lou Tognan, Bob Hayes, Gary Straus and guest Blair Brounton met on a really nice winters morning at the point. After the requisite pit stop we set up scopes behind the restaurant. The birding was good right away. All three Scoters, both Loons, ( Common and Red-throated; ~not~ Rich and Pat ), Common Eiders and Oldsquaw. In the distance, but not to far to get ~great~ looks, were numerous Razorbills.

At some point Rich said to me: hey, take a look at that Eider down there... Yes! It was a female King Eider and nice and close! Further out were Gannets along with a few Bonaparte's Gulls.
f. King Eider

f. King Eider

There was a modicum of wind, and as time marched on it grew stronger. We moved closer to the lighthouse, and then over to the Camp Hero side, but nothing of note beyond the Herring, Great Black-backed Gulls, and Red-breasted Mergansers, so we moved on to Deep Hollow at Rich's insistence.
Bonaparte's Gull

Bonaparte's Gull

The large flock of geese we spotted on the way to the point was gone, but we perused the area anyway. Here we added Ring-billed Gulls before we noticed a bunch of geese flying over head. In with them was a Snow Goose. We went across to the park and climbed the hill to look into the ranch’s pond. From here anyone who had not already gotten a look, got to see the Snow goose.

East Lake drive was a bust. We stopped at a vantage point to look for a potential Barrows among the Common Goldeneye, and despite a candidate it didn't pan out. That and the wind became quite annoying making the shake of the scope and the diving of the birds the definition of ‘challenging’.
Rich however did enjoy saying "Osmia". At the east jetty we scored a nicely plumaged Great Cormorant
Great Cormorant

We had better luck at the west jetty where Rich spotted an immature Iceland Gull, and then I spotted an adult. Next we went to the ice house and fort pond bay and then fort pond. As predicted we found Pied billed Grebe. By Kirk Beach we scored Redhead and some Ring-necked Ducks.

We made stops at Napeague and though somewhat bird-less, we saw a cute young seal on the beach.
Harbor Seal

At East Hampton there were we saw lots of geese we could not find any rarities but a few of us saw a Peregrine blast by.  Our next stop was at Wainscott to try for the Crane which was a no show, but Pat somehow picked out a Greater White-fronted Goose in the ridiculously large flock of Canada Geese. The rest of us had quite a lot of trouble finding it as it was obscured by other geese. You also could not see its legs in the tall grass, and while feeding it kept its head down where it could not be seen except for the most brief looks. But we all eventually saw it.

With lots of geese in the air as well, I looked up to see a smaller bird and picked out a Cackling goose for us. Again, no Crane but a 4 Goose day ain't bad.

Our final stop was at Shinnecock and Dune Road. The Harlequins were enjoying the surf just west of the west jetty. The inlet and the ocean was sadly unproductive, as the wind was blowing hard. In the back of the inlet we saw lots of seals resting on a sandbar in the back of the bay.

Snow Buntings were in the dunes, but Boat-tailed Grackles were absent. Nor could we find the Snowy Owl or Bittern. Dang. We headed back towards the inlet to have dinner at Oaklands restaurant, but a banner said it was closed for an event. Not trusting it, we drove in to the lot and saw another banner, so yes, it was not available for dinner. While there I suggested we scan their docks for a Glaucous and there it was! A nice cap to the day bird wise, and we set off in hopes of finding a place to eat. We were going to try up by Montauk hwy, but passing Tully’s market I remembered they had a restaurant around back. We went there for dinner and were all pleasantly surprised: a nice ending to the day. 


The recounting of this saga would not be complete without mentioning the ever present specter of a mega rarity looming over our heads all day. That being the Ross’s Gull up in the Adirondacks by Tupper Lake.

Some people remarked that they were surprised that I had not jumped ship from leading the Montauk trip to chase this bird. Yes folks, I did not. All of us contemplated the great distance involved and the unpleasant possibility that it might not stick even if we had gone.

But as the day wore on and reports came in that the bird was being seen it both delighted and tormented us. Another long day with an even longer journey after the day’s birding? What, are we nuts? ( don’t answer that)

The turning point came when Pat made another disparaging remark about committing a chase and Charlotte rebutted by saying: “Who are you kidding Pat, you know you want to go”. Pat's perfidy exposed, she asked if I was in. How could I say no to a lady? (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)