Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Big Year Movie and Beginning Birding

I'm way too exhausted right now after spending all day celebrating my solar return and being on this planet 29 years, or maybe I'm just in a food coma. Anyway, the blog post I was going to write tonight isn't going to happen until tomorrow, because I can't focus. But to clue you in to tomorrow's exciting post, today I did some birthday birding and was rewarded with the best rush of migrants I have ever seen in my two years of birding. It looked like the trees were raining warblers in two main pockets! I even got a birthday life bird, and some birding with one of my absolute most favorite local birders...but more on that tomorrow...

I instead felt like joining in on the birding blog blowup (and on Facebook birding pages) about the trailer that just came out about the upcoming movie The Big Year. It will be a movie about three birding dudes who go on their Big Year, and yes it is based on the book (from what I've read it sounds like 'loosely' might be added in there). I'm excited because I love Jack Black, he's enough to get me to go see almost any movie to begin with. A movie that might be about birding is even better, even though Hollywood has a history of being kind of mean to us. But we'll see...

The discussions seem to be focused on what this movie will do for birding and the birding world. I find the conversations fascinating and the range of predictions fun. My prediction is that it probably won't do too much to birding besides making it a bit more visible to the general public, which is nearly always a good thing. It might get some young impressionable people into birding, and to me this is the most important effect and the most likely. The movie looks like there is a lot of action, and action appeals to youth, and some kids might think, "Hell yes, looking for birds looks exciting!"

There are two concerns with this. For one, based on the trailer, birding isn't nearly as 'exciting' as what happens in said trailer. I have not nearly faceplanted while skiing in an attempt to see a hawk. Birding is exciting in its own special way, however. It is more likely to appeal to the Pokemon crowd rather than the crowd that is into extreme sports and explosions (although, I DO like destruction and explosions myself).

The other concern is the timing of the movie. If it is going to appeal to new birders, it is not coming out during the prime time of year for them to begin. October 14th is the release date, in the heart of fall migration. I've been birding for about two years (or is it three?) and today even I still found fall migrants daunting and the sheer number, difficult to keep up with! Being familiar with the common species seems the best way to know your fall migrants. All of these variables present serious problems for the absolute beginner, and I fear they would turn off a birding newb right from the start. Of course, there could be those people who let the idea marinate in their minds before starting, and they would begin in winter. I've heard a lot of skilled birders say that learning birding in winter would suck or does suck, though I have never asked why, but I don't doubt for most people it would. I began birding in late winter and found the small amount of species and having mostly commons as a base for spring migration that year incredibly handy (and I studied Sibley all winter).

The only thing to do now is to wait and see, and should I run across any new birders, to encourage them and maybe even guide them along so that fall migration doesn't kill their interest dead.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

One Ear Open

Despite having to deal with the annoyance of daily life in larger amounts lately, I've still had my ear tuned to the birds outside. Yesterday on my drive to work I had a nice view of a northern mockingbird flying right across my windshield (nope, didn't hit it), with its attractive white wing patches flashing. It actually made me jump for a second in alarm, but I've been fatigued every day this week so I probably wasn't quite awake.

This early afternoon, while working on my training, I had a black-capped chickadee repeatedly calling "chick-a-dee-dee; chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee" just outside one of the porch windows. My guess is he or she does not like the next door neighbor's outdoor cats any more than I do.

This afternoon while getting stuff out of my car, I heard quite a few strange calls at first. The most distinctive was a fluttering descending trill, which I immediately recognized as the Carolina wren! I couldn't find the little guy, which is not surprising as he was hiding in this enormous, supremely bushy evergreen in the backyard. He eventually started singing loudly, exuberantly. Note that this guy rarely sings "teakettle" but rather something along the lines of a car alarm (not the ones that simply honk). I really should look further into this specie's migration patterns. I know they only recently started staying up here late into the year, possibly not even migrating at all, but it still stumps me because I never used to see or hear them at all.

I've also taken vague note of all the huge American crows all over the roads. They have been snacking on the large amount of roadkill, almost all squirrels and chipmunks. I usually do a double-take to see if I've seen a raven, but usually no such luck. I get a kick out of them merely walking a little bit to the side of the road upon seeing my car from a distance, and then as my car draws near, they pick up a bit of speed and then eventually hop, stopping just outside the white line, waiting for my car to pass. Anyone who thinks a crow is dumb has simply not been paying attention.

Friday, September 2, 2011

So Busy!

I must admit to seriously slacking on birding this week. It's not a lack of interest thing, the end of August/September always picks up for me, even if I'm no longer in college. While summer is winding down and other people are getting ready for fall, my tempo picks up massively. Outside of training to become a transcriptionist (which I've had a blast with so far), putting things in motion to transfer my other job back up to my county (and working at it), getting Southern Adirondack Audubon all set up on Facebook, and seriously mowing through this fantastic cooking book I found, I simply have been distracted.

A Carolina wren has still been sticking around, although not as frequently singing in the early mornings, at least not so close to the window that he wakes me up. A downy woodpecker only shows up if fresh suet is put outside, and it tends to be gone within 24 hours. Those two black-capped chickadees I watched during Irene are still around, still perching in the ugly dying lilac bush and visiting the seed feeder regularly. Today I was surprised when I walked out to the porch to see a pudgy beady-eyed tufted titmouse perched on it. They are one of my absolute favorite birds of all time, so I was excited, but we also seem to never have them at the feeder! The bird could have been migrating through, or is maybe here to stick around during the colder months. Either way, it is welcome to stay.

I've also taken joy into watching the ring-billed gulls that are always foraging the Saratoga Hannaford parking lot. That store sells a lot of breads in packages without securely closing tops so there are always crumbs for them. Other food items get dropped by kids. One day I watched as one gull wolfed down about twenty pieces of popcorn in only a few minutes. I was jealous. I noticed they will also watch me and come near (but not extremely close) when I'm on break, much to my amusement, but I tend to finish all of my snacks. Today was a bit creepy though, one gull was blatantly tilting its head to stare down at me, and when I walked to the other side of the lamp post it was on, I realized it had changed position so it could stare down at me from a better angle. Just a bit creepy...

Monday, August 29, 2011

Post-Irene Birding

I wasn't sure what I even expected after Tropical Storm Irene rambling through the area. All of Sunday, upstate NY was pummeled with heavy rains and winds up to 60 mph. It made me think less of a hurricane and more like a late autumn day, especially with how cool it was. The winds did little destruction in my immediate area, but I know people with trees down on their roofs, and Vermont got hit really badly.

This morning I woke up around 5:30 AM, and was displeased to see that it is now still dark out at that time! I recall lying back down on my pillow and snoozing a bit, still managing to make it to the Betar Byway at 6:20 AM, with the sun just coming up. Moments before I got there, I had a sharp-shinned hawk fly over the nearby Hannaford. This wasn't out of the ordinary, I've found an adult and a juvenile at Betar this year.

I immediately noticed a large upsurge in the numbers of eastern wood-pewees right near the parking area! They must be migrating through today, as there is no way the breeding season suddenly caused that rise in numbers. They were flitting about, calling, occasionally calling. The chickadees who like that spot seemed disturbed by their appearance.

There were the usual numbers of black-capped chickadees, northern cardinals, American crows, and cedar waxwings along the Byway. The gray catbirds seemed a little more active than usual but Betar always has a large number of them. The American goldfinch number seemed greatly reduced!

There was a pair of additional belted kingfishers this morning near the beach. There has been a pair near the inlet all summer, and they were there this morning. As I was standing there watching them, to my delight the double-crested cormorant juvenile I've watched for weeks flew right over my head! I was afraid he wouldn't find shelter in the winds and would perish, but they do seem hardy. I had also worried about the great blue heron many fellow Betar walkers have noticed but the bird was hunkered down by a pier way on the north end of the Byway, sheltered by nearby trees and bushes; it was not at all moving and was standing in a position that made me believe it was napping.

By the beach was a little pocket of fall migrants! I was absolutely delighted, and wondered if Irene made them drop in. A really fat flycatcher with an incredibly short tail was bouncing around some low branches, making a sort of 'whit' call repeatedly. I noticed the very thick eyering, and along with the other descriptors, has me thinking this bird was a least. Either way, I was excited to see any Empid. flying around today as it might be one of the last for the year for me. Along with the flycatcher there were a few other tiny birds flitting about in the low bushes! I had a confused-looking red-eyed vireo pop out from the lowest corner. The location had me thinking it was a migrant as well, and I'm a little sad to see them go finally. The first year male American redstart of whom I only really saw the wing and tail was fantastic. He was making a sharp sort of trill-y call note and moving at lightning speed among tiny limbs. And then, a juvenile chestnut-sided warbler popped into plain view, with it's odd lime-green and deep gray shades! I've recently studied them online so I would know them when I saw them, and this one was unmistakable, despite me never having seen a juvenile one before in person! It was almost as great as getting a life bird! Chestnut-sided warblers just don't seem common at Betar at all.

I was sad to leave the migrant pocket behind, but I had to check the rest of the Byway. And it was fairly quiet, with no species out of the ordinary. There were plenty of mallards with one American black duck following them, but the wood ducks seem to have gone. Of woodpeckers, I had a pileated, downy, and red-bellied. I had a yellow-bellied sapsucker there the day before Irene. Tufted titmice were here and there, singing their 'peter' song.

My other favorite experience of this walk was the family of Carolina wrens all purring, trilling, and singing their 'teakettle' song! I've only ever heard one there all summer, so to get three on one side and one on the other side of the Hudson River was amazing.

Also notable, when I got home around 7:30 AM, was that I also had additional Carolina wrens at my house. It sounded as if there were three, two more than my usual one! Their migration pattern is still new to me, so I'm not completely sure if some migrant and some now stay in upstate New York for winter.

So, the impact from Irene wasn't exactly as interesting as I expected, but there is NO way I am going to complain about seeing fall migrants! In years past I seemed to have missed actual pockets of birds moving through, getting only one here and there. This experience was a nice treat after a storm moving through the area.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Hurricane Irene

I must admit that I won't be birding this weekend for the most part, if at all, all due to Hurricane Irene making her way up the coast. We also had a separate system affecting us today; I intended on going to Betar Byway, but sporadic rainstorms would sneak in as soon as I'd get ready to leave. I watched the chickadees in the huge pine in the neighbor's yard and listened to the blue jays screeching and begging (maybe there are juveniles too), and the white-breasted nuthatch visited briefly. So for now it's just waiting and watching. The storm tracker makes it look like we're getting something between a Cat 1 and a tropical storm this weekend, though I know that those things change frequently.

I'm not completely knowledgeable on how huge weather systems affect migrating birds, but I can imagine that plenty will get blown off course somewhere.

I also forgot to mention that the Carolina wren that has continually been here was extremely loud at 6:40 AM yesterday morning. With the crows soon cawing in, my guess was something was alarming them all. The wren alternated between an alarm clock version of the teakettle song and a loud trilling purr for about ten minutes. When I awoke again around 9 AM, he was quiet.

Southern Adirondack Audubon Facebook Page

For those of you in upstate New York and into birds, or just into birds in general, you should "Like" the Southern Adirondack Audubon Society Facebook page I just created. It's an idea I've had for some time now, and brought up at a board meeting (why yes, I was on the board) in spring before I suddenly found a cool bird research job and got distracted. It apparently has marinated in the minds of my fellow lovely board members, as the president messaged me about 7 hours ago asking if I may get started on such activity! I didn't have to think twice. It is in a very rudimentary stage for now, as I'm exhausted from training all morning and working this evening and then grocery shopping, but once I communicate with my fellow birders over there in SAASland, things should come together. The Events page is bare as August tends to be our quiet month, although if I remember quickly, we get VERY busy in the fall! There are also many related bird events in the area this autumn from other organizations/non-profits, and then when winter comes we do surveys. So we should have a lot to mention on our Facebook page.

Our (I'm still also a member and like to speak on behalf of SAAS when we do cool stuff) programs are absolutely worth going to. They aren't always directly about birds, but we've had great stories told, including that by Steve Mackey of hiking the Appalachian Trail, and Jackie ( of fame) and Sue (who keeps this beautiful blog: talking about wildflower walks, loaded with beautiful photos.

I don't usually talk about SAAS in my blog, but I really should. I love the local Audubon chapter and the people I have met through it are some of the most amazing people I have met in my 29 years. I think the org is understated and not as well-noticed as it should as a local establishment. So I take it upon myself to at least talk about SAAS things in this blog, and to keep that Facebook page updated.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Bog Meadow Brook/Quechee Gorge

A few days ago I went searching for a different birding spot since I'm so familiar with Betar, I can predict what's going to be there. This is not a bad thing, but it gets quiet over there during early fall migration, and I wanted a place less predictable for myself. And thus, my drive to Saratoga Springs, NY.

I highly recommend Bog Meadow Brook Trail if you're anywhere nearby, at almost any time of the year (though spring = mud, winter = deep snow). The main parking lot is on Route 29/Lake Avenue but I find the first leg of the trail isn't great for birding because you can hear the traffic for quite a ways. There's more parking on the other side, off Meadowbrook Road just before County Rd 67 (take Exit 14 from I-87 and head east on Union Avenue/9P).

Bog Meadow is an old railroad track mostly grown over without rails left; there are some wooden boards perpendicular to the trail, I wouldn't recommend walking on them if they are wet unless you feel like slipping and smacking your head against a nearby tree. The entire trail is almost all varying levels of marsh, save for one section of forest with a lot of understory growth. One section includes a boardwalk over an open wet area, and further along you come across an even larger wet area - great for spotting marsh-loving herons and the occasional egret or, as we had in spring migration, a northern shoveler, first spotted by yours truly.

My latest walk along this trail was really productive. There were plenty of fledglings all down the trail of various species, and a nest that included two American robins nearly ready to fledge themselves! And fall migration is apparently hitting this spot already. Solitary sandpipers do not breed in this area as far as I know, and I first became acquainted with the species in the spring at the yellowthroat research site just north of Skidmore College. A pair stayed for a week or two there, before finishing off their migration north. I ran across yet another pair at Bog Meadow two days ago at the boardwalk marsh, one standing guard on a rock, the other slightly bobbing it's head while foraging as if it had a mild case of hiccups. If I had not been sure of their ID based on either field markings, I eventually saw the characteristic white spotting on their upperparts and clean white breast and flanks. These guys were my best spotting of the day/week!

There were multiple great blue herons along the trail in the wet spots, lazily walking about at the boardwalk marsh. One heron found himself in a more dangerous spot in the larger wet area along with an obviously spooked green heron trying to hide along the shore I was walking along. Both birds would try to find a hiding spot, and then be forced to alight for a few minutes, grazing the water with their feet while trying to stay out of a red-tailed hawk's way. The hawk would be invisible somewhere along the tree line but call consistently before swooping down over the water and back up again. I also had a red-tailed hawk calling near the forest, and it had flown down so low over my head that my reflex was to duck. The herons also might have been freaked out over the presence of an osprey, of which I had never seen at Bog Meadow in the past! A belted kingfisher was consistently flying about over the water and calling in alarm.

Another species I had never seen at Bog Meadow in the past and saw two days ago was a yellow-bellied sapsucker. Even more amazing, this one was a juvenile, complete with a gray head with two broad white stripes - if you look in the Crossley Guide, you can check this out. The only way I knew the species was by looking at it's back, wing, and tail black-and-white pattern. Bog Meadow is rife with other woodpecker species. This time I heard a red-bellied woodpecker and downy woodpecker.

The most irritating observation for birders this time of year at Bog Meadow is the load of flycatchers, mostly Empids, and therefore nearly unidentifiable as they are quiet due to the end of the breeding season. I had quite a few. One was likely a yellow-bellied based on the shape of it's eye-ring. I also had other flycatchers, including a juvenile great crested and a bunch of eastern wood-pewees, the latter of which still sang.

The sparrows are mostly gone now, although I had a late swamp sparrow singing.

Bog Meadow was predictably caked with cedar waxwings and American goldfinches as Bog Meadow is full of berry-producing plants and trees for the waxwings, and the goldfinches had recently been breeding. American redstarts and yellow warblers are still around in tiny numbers, as are warbling vireos and red-eyed vireos.

I heard raspy chipping along a wet part of the trail and had a laugh, as it was obvious to me what I was hearing - a common yellowthroat. I am glad they are still around. This little guy popped right up into clear view for a few moments before flying off. I can certainly say I will miss them when they finally all migrate.

Yesterday I headed out to finally explore Queechee Gorge, located in Central/Western Vermont. It was worth going, although the birding there is not great. I had a yellowthroat there, a redstart, a yellow warbler, and my favorite sighting of yesterday, predictably a spotted sandpiper right at the base of the dam, foraging around the rocks. This was the first time I got a great view of a spotted sandpiper, and the way they bob their entire body really makes it an easy ID.

If you head out to Quechee for anything, visit VINS. It's not my favorite nature center, but they do have live birds of prey and you can walk there from the gorge. The surrounding shops otherwise don't have a lot of bird-related items, though the Quechee Visitor Center alerted me to the Connecticut River Birding Trail, which I did not even know existed!