Sunday, October 25, 2009

Indian Summer on Betar Byway

Earlier this morning I wandered on over to the SGF Betar Byway, having no idea what birds I might see. All I cared about at first was just how comfortable the temperature of the air was, and the subtle warm breeze blowing in my face. It was a nice break from the bitterly cold weather typical of the Northeast this time of year.

The Byway, unfailing in blowing my mind with the diversity it holds, excited me greatly. I did not have to walk far to find a large flock of all sorts of species! From the start of the path (behind the American Legion - stop now at the little nature kiosk/plaque as there's some useful postings of birds one may see, including the common goldeneye) one could hear the intensely loud, manic repetitions of a northern mockingbird. How exciting! It seemed to be in spring mode, repeating those familiar songs 3x one would hear in May here. It sat nearby in a shrub, eyeing me intently, and I noted that it made me think vaguely of a cuckoo with it's tail slightly longer than it's body. There is also what I call the "half-tree," rising taller than a dead stump but no longer a tree, either. It is full of holes. Those holes today were full of eastern bluebirds, who were very busy flitting about and calling mournfully and quietly. Lately they sound like they are calling out sadly due to the decay of summer and spring that comes certainly with autumn. There were also three purple finches which I noted looked as if someone dumped little buckets of magenta paint on some pine siskins, the paint dripping down their heads, breasts, and bellies. A lone dark-eyed junco raced around the bare branches in this area, and a few tufted titmice showed up right in front of my binoculars seemingly out of nowhere to stare right back into them. A downy woodpecker and a male hairy woodpecker raced around their own trunks seeking the last few insects.

Near this grouping of open trees there is a shore marsh that during the summer months is home to plenty of red-winged blackbirds and many visiting tree swallows. There were still red-winged blackbirds just as territorial, and an almost neon-red male northern cardinal who seemed to be trying to desparately to blend in, with no luck. Two other cardinals were off on the other side of the Byway, calling, hidden in the shriveling yellow shrubbery leaves. Nearby, a white-breasted nuthatch was calling out "yenk yenk yenk yenk." Off on the Hudson River waters, about 20 ring-billed gulls were restlessly flying around in their own social group. On my walk back, this same spot hosted 3 breeding male mallards and possibly two of their ladies.

Along the Byway there were also the more common birds that people tend to overlook. I myself don't always get excited over them, but I know without them there, making noise, calling out my presence to everyone else around, and weighing down their perches, nature my seem almost a lonely place. These were the many blue jays, American crows, and American robins that seem to watch over the woods, making them safe for the smaller birds. There were also plenty of acrobatic black-capped chickadees, showing off their abilities to twirl around and hang upside-down from smaller branches and calling out a hoarse "dee-dee-dee" to get attention.

Further down the Byway, one comes across a large open field to the left, and a patch of trees to the right. This is one of my favorite spots here in the summer, but it was intensely quiet today except for the lone American goldfinch flying over and calling out "potato chip!"

The rest of the Byway is fairly quiet this time of year, at least bird-wise. Here is where I often meet locals on their morning walk. They sometimes stop me, as they did today, to share their bird stories (little old ladies love the cardinals that visit their feeders), ask bird questions ("Where have all the birds gone?"), and sometimes request advice ("Why am I finding dead bluebirds in my bluebird houses?"). I enjoy these chats, because they put into perspective, or actually make the answer to "What really is a birder?" confusing. These people are not birders probably in the sense of not having the conservation knowledge, every species knowledge, and don't actively go out searching for rares and low population species, but they can certainly tell you all about the behavior of the birds they do know, as they watch them intently almost every day. They can tell you what species are along the Byway, and where they live (as can I) there. They also often know about recent sightings there. These "nonbirders" make the pretentiousness out of true birders I have witnessed seem even sillier and ridiculous.

My next favorite spot is where there's a small pool of water to the left, a water works building straight ahead, and down the slope to the right is a large inlet. This was an exciting, busy spot today. People were amazed and awed by a lone leucistic gray squirrel that had it's own feast tree. It would come to the bottom of the trunk, grab a nut, and race back up the tree to it's favorite perch, out in the open, on display for everyone while it shelled each nut. If one can get a closer look at this squirrel, one sees that it's coat is faintly light gray closer to the skin. But from a distance it looks like a completely bleached-out gray squirrel. I had a chuckle at how unfazed it was by everyone gawking at it. Near the squirrel were two red-bellied woodpeckers flying through, a male visible with his cherry-red head stripe.

Down the slope I found seven ducks that still have me a bit mystified. I immediately wondered what species I was seeing, thinking maybe it would be a lifer, so I know these are certainly no regular mallards. They were making mallard sounds however...they just didn't look like them very much, except one had a patch of the familiar shiny green head. Upon a search through my Sibley's, they looked much more like American black ducks but not quite those either! There's a fair chance I came across some Mallard x American black duck hybrids. I would think being familiar with both species, a hybrid would not look alien to me, but these seemed very strange.

Up the hill, around the water works I went, and came to the other side of the inlet, and noticed something kept briefly blocking out the sun ahead of me. Looking up, I immediately noticed a hawk making quick, tight circles, it's dried-blood-brown tail flashing in the sun. It was low enough so I could see it hunching up it's feet under it's body. The underside of the wings were almost all soft white, except for a black crescent on each. On turning a sharp angle, I could see the upperside of the wing briefly, which looked to match the color of the undertail except for a large white patch on the outer wing. It also called briefly, sounding just like out of an old Western movie. This surely was a red-tailed hawk. I am unsure as to what color morph it may be, though it certainly was rather light-colored for this species.

While not birds, also noticeable in the quiet inlet were three turtles resting upon a log. I have lost by turtle identifying skills over the past two years, but these looked to be painteds, enjoying one of the last days of warm sun in the Northeast.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Autumn Geese

I have been unable to "go birding" (as they say) this week but my drives to and from work have brought me some treasures. It has been unseasonably warm this week (apparently reaching nearly 60 degrees Fahrenheit - odd though that customers shamed me all day for not being able to get outside in the warmth considering that they should be ashamed of themselves for not hiking as much as I did in the heat all summer and saw many wonderful things), bringing out flocks of birds in droves, beautifully noisy ones. On one barely exciting evening drive home, I was met with a surprise flock of about 200 blackbirds making as much noise as they possibly could. They were not identifiable as they were moving very quickly and I suspected they were carrying some friendly species with them rather than being a monospecies group.

House sparrows are extremely abundant in Hudson Falls and are of course fat and noisy like human children who have lived on nothing but McDonalds. Funny how I would find the children quite annoying but the sparrows lively and fun.

My favorite sightings this week are the large gatherings of Canada geese and ring-billed gulls at the mowed cornfield by Adirondack Community College. I drive past at a specific time each morning and evening but I suspect you could drive by there at any time and see them. I usually count about a hundred geese, and one day saw about 60 gulls nearby. I find it interesting that geese-haters speak of the large grouping as if the individuals were merely a bunch of random hoodlums who got together to form this evil geese-gang...if you look more closely, you can see that the large group is broken into many smaller ones. These are family units. Now that you know this, you will never be able to look at a couple hundred geese the same again, not as a large random gathering.

People also seem to hate seeming them for they are apparently a signal to many that winter is soon upon us. To me they are a calming sight...if you remember, about a month ago I was worried that the oncoming colder weather and fall migration would bring us very few birds to enjoy for the winter. I'm absolutely pleased to see such plump, large, subtly-colored icons of autumn in enormous numbers, not to mention the gentle onslaught of white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos recently.

I cross my fingers for hopefully another winter with a few surprise irruptions...

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Dealing With Data

Part of the reason I made an effort to get a bachelor's in science is my love for data. I love Excel, spreadsheets, numbers, lists, and anything else you can think of related to dealing with data. I even enjoy applying arbitrary guidelines to data just to get an idea of info that can be gleaned from the raw.

But even I, sometimes, cannot tolerate the long hours it takes just to do anything with data. My field notebook, begun in April and trailing through multiple little composition books (they are 4 1/2 x 3 1/4 inches) and sometimes loose pieces of paper, logs nearly every bird I have seen since then. And boy, have I seen PLENTY of individuals. I am always, always birding.

I have spent most of today, minus eating, attempting to input my data from my field notebook from August up to the current date into ebird.org. I am now tired and cranky and not even near finished, and realizing that I have lost some recent loose pieces of paper that show some rather high counts of geese in local cornfields. I will probably not be able to find these papers. These feel like newb mistakes, which is highly irritating. Oh, the woes of going through all the little mistakes of something that is still a bit new to oneself, so that one can become a better birder over time.

Warren County Bike Trail

I've had various discussions that have left me confused...sometimes people tell me I should be grateful that I have nature trails nearby. Strange, as I have lived in many places and have never lacked for them. But what I mostly find strange is that the major 'nature trail' we have right here just outside the blue line of the Adirondacks does not see much use besides some cyclists.

So for you locals, I encourage you to check out the Warren County Bike Trail. It's not just for those who have two wheels. Yesterday morning, three of us nature lovers (Sue and Jackie) got up bright and early to begin about a 5 mile, 6 hour ramble here from Round Pond to the southern beach of Lake George. It felt like the dead of winter temperature-wise, but there was not a lot of complaining as we were all fascinated by what potentials were laid out ahead. The weather was actually much better than what was called for, as the sun was shining upon us for most of our adventure.

I paid little attention to many of the plants, besides virgin's bower, one that I had previously been unfamiliar with. I believe what we were seeing were the seed heads, which I found impressive, but anything in nature that creates squiggles or curves fascinates me. Also amazingly impressive were the witch-hazel trees/shrubs lining portions of the trail, in brilliant yellow. Witch-hazel really stands out amongst the typical deciduous trees of the mixed forests north of the capital region.

I paid attention to the birds, as I always do. What fascinated me was to find the further north we went, the pattern of birds changed to those who enjoyed more of the shrubby habitat to those of deeper, more northern woodlands, as one would expect as one slowly makes their way into the Adirondacks. Juncos, a bird at home in coniferous forests, didn't appear till we crossed the route I tend to consider the Adirondack Park border. It also became much quieter bird-wise past this route, also seemingly typical of deeper forests...some stretches I neither heard nor saw a single bird for dozens of minutes at a time.

Upon looking at my field journal, the very first part of the trip now seems unfamiliar to me. It is not a route I tend to follow, as part of the trail here is along the roadside, one that I find dangerous in the afternoon hours. However, there was definitely bird activity even here:

- downy woodpecker
- common raven (2 - the low crawnk call they give really broke the silence)
- blue jay (20+)
- American crow (4)
- black-capped chickadee (10+)
- white-breasted nuthatch (2)

The next part of the trail felt like home to me, and if you've followed my blog in the past or know me, you know the bike path from Birdsall (a name that makes me chuckle) Road to Ash Drive is a frequent visiting spot of mine, as the Glen Lake fen is home to dozens of red-winged blackbirds during the spring and summer months, and the occassional indigo bunting or bay-breasted warbler. We slowed here for photos and I fell into my old birding pattern:

- white-breasted nuthatch
- American robin (6)
- cedar waxwing (2)
- black-capped chickadee (10)
- red-winged blackbird (about 30, 2 males and 2 females seen hanging with grackles)
- american crow (7)
- blue jay (4)
- Canada geese (10)
- common grackle (about 50 in a flock that landed in front of us in a cacophony)
- white-throated sparrow (3)
- mallard (3 males, 2 females swimming around the fen)
- great blue heron (it tried to blend into the reeds but the sun was right on it)
- pileated woodpecker (hammered while we were around, which made such a fantastic loud sound!)
- song sparrow

From Ash Drive there is a more forested part of the trail that I always thought of us plain, and probably lacking in birds, as my one previous walk down it turned up nearly nothing. I was completely surprised at what was found, and Sue knew of an off-trail trail that had a wet area that was apparently where white-throated sparrows go to party. We had a good laugh at how their poor renditions of "Oh Sweet Canada, Canada, Canada" (or "Old Sam Peabody" which I don't prefer) sounded like really old recordings, and some individuals stopped halfway through the song as if it was just too much for them. I got some good views of what I think of as one of the more beautiful sparrows:

- white-throated sparrow (14)
- American robin (5)
- blue jay (6)
- black-capped chickadee (19)
- red-winged blackbird (2)
- white-breasted nuthatch (3)
- American goldfinch (15, 3 of them were juvenile males and 3 were females...goldfinches still confuse me at this time of year, their pale gray coloring just still seems so unusual to me, so it's a good thing they are usually calling, "Potato chip!" or, "Are you here?")
- cedar waxwing (4)

If one is birding on the Warren County Bike Trail, one should stand at the intersection with Glen Lake Road and enjoy the birds there, as they love the messy, viny, shrubby habitat right on the corner. This whole section all the way to Route 149 is interesting bird-wise. There are also spots you can visit off the trail that have American wintergreen, though if you ask me I wouldn't eat many of those berries on an empty stomach. It's interesting to read that wild turkey will occasionally snack on it, as I noted yesterday that we were certainly in turkey habitat. If I remember correctly, this was also the spot with fun Lycopodium spores:

- white-breasted nuthatch (7)
- American goldfinch (14)
- northern cardinal (1 absolutely stunning female, another hidden one nearby making those piercing chip notes, likely the male)
- white-throated sparrow (8 of those who need singing lessons)
- blue jay (8)
- black-capped chickadee (22)
- song sparrow (one actually still singing!)
- downy woodpecker (2)
- cedar waxwing (7)
- American robin
- brown creeper (I'm truly excited about this sighting. I have a difficult time finding them, and this one was flitting about on multiple tree trunks rather than spiraling up any one of them)

Route 149 to Route 9 is not as exciting bird-wise, and it is a portion of the bike trail I'm likely to pass up for a regular birding spot, unless I absolutely desire to see large numbers of juncos again (and I very well may as that species really tugs at my heart-strings). It is very quiet in spots as it is a deeper forest habitat, and I noticed quite a bit of road noise. Also, this is where I consider the border of the Adirondack Park begins, and one can tell by the birds - this is where juncos begin, and larger numbers of chickadees occur. There's what appears to be an old road or rail trail near a monument in this section that is worth a gander, as it is full of lichens and clubmosses. Here in my field notebook I wrote with excitement, "Pixie cups! Running cedar!":

- hairy woodpecker
- American robin (5)
- dark-eyed juncos (7 - it is actually difficult for me to call them dark-eyed, as I call them by their subspecies...up here they are the slate-colored)
- white-breasted nuthatch (4)
- cedar waxwing (2)
- black-capped chickadee (28)
- unknown sparrow, at first thought, wondered if it was an American tree, and glances at a field guide seem to be confirming this.
- blue jay (4)
- unknown woodpecker species drumming in the distance, such a great sound in the woods
- northern cardinal
- downy woodpecker
- common raven

The last stretch, from Route 9 to Lake George, is interesting. For the most part it was also a bit disappointing bird-wise, except for an exciting incident closer to the lake. I was a bit annoyed that the trail yet again ran alongside the road, but there's a fun stop at Magic Forest (a really old fun park), with creepy huge statues of Uncle Sam, Paul Bunyan, and Santa Claus. If you really have a look down a hill nearby, you can see a giraffe and two palm trees. Don't ask me why such randomness...I have never understood Magic Forest. The habitat further along got a bit interesting, there were a few invasive Norway maples, and a lone sassafras that even in this weather is still delicious:

- blue jay (2)
- American crow (4)
- black-capped chickadee (14)
- white-breasted nuthatch (2)
- dark-eyed junco
- red-bellied woodpecker (a male making a loud, high-pitched 'cue cue cue' call - I'm not yet familiar with this call)
- hairy woodpecker (a female...she was being chased around by the agitated red-bellied! It was really exciting to watch the showdown)
- downy woodpecker (was near the other woodpecker drama, calling away)
- American crow

Our rambling concluded at the Lake George Battlefield Park and Fort George State Park. I did not bird here, as I was too busy taking in the park. I've walked alongside it many times, yet never entering until yesterday, and was absolutely impressed with it's expansive size and scattered tree forest. The view of the mountains and the lake are stunning from that viewpoint and the sense of history there makes it worth a visit. There's also delicious pizza in Lake George!