Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Thanks, Cold Front

This is my first winter birding, and the only thing that has been persistent through it has been the unexpected. Not that this is unusual up here near the Adirondacks in this season - the weather can change as quickly as it does in summer on the east end of Lake Erie. But seeing birds out of season, in odd spots, likely due to quickly moving bad storms displacing them has been a pleasant, though sometimes concerning surprise. Also, the weather doesn't really allow for planning ahead. Sue P. and I agreed a few days ago to get together this morning with Jackie D. for a little nature walk on the Betar Byway. I expected something like overcast skies and maybe flurries, since it's been snowing a lot lately.

Nope, instead a cold front rips through, with clear skies, a painfully bright winter sun, and bitter gusts of wind up to 50 mph with a windchill of -15*F that made your eyes water. Sue called me before meeting mentioning cutting it short and hitting up the Peppermill. I was down, so she contacted Jackie.

I got to the Betar Byway (off Beach Road entrance) first, being totally excited that I finally had some time with buddies to scout for birds and possibly plants not completely massacred by the brutal weather. As soon as I pulled in and put it in park, I spotted a large bird flying in from Route 9 direction, over the small pool at the Public Works building, and landing on a snag on the other side. I thought, "Hmm...I really doubt that's a heron, but what could that possibly be?" It landed, and I saw the bright white tail and head, and nearly screamed for joy. An adult bald eagle! I grabbed my binoculars, jumped out of the car, and saw in clear view the yellow-orange hooked huge bill, yellow-orange talons, and the dark chocolate-y brown almost black solid body of feathers. It had also raised the ire of some American crows, which flew right at it's head. The eagle seemed to take no notice, sitting there patiently, looking around. I looked again and again, thinking I was maybe dreaming, till Sue came along and I exclaimed to her what I was seeing. The eagle eventuallly grew tired of being harassed and flew off south down the side of the river.

It was unfortunately way too cold for us three to tolerate the wind for long and we headed off for a good chat and some food and drink at the Peppermill, one of my favorite spots in the area. I also got a surprise gift from Sue, a collection of Thoreau's journal entries on birds! I couldn't be happier for some great reading.

We did head back and tried to enjoy a short 15-20 minute walk north on the Betar Byway, and at points I completely forgot that it was cold. One of them being seeing a surprise hermit thrush in plain view, feathers all bunched up, sitting in the sun. It moved around a bit so I got to see all potential identification features it has, including the rufous tail contrasting with it's duller brown uppersides, blackish spots smaller than those of a wood thrush, and the strange dipping behavior - a quick upswing and then slowly lowering it again. I could not believe my eyes. I knew the thrushes should really only be around here during the breeding season, not the dead of winter. Why now? Did it stay? Did it get lost? Did it get stuck in the recent crazy storms across the United States? Birds by Bent claims sightings in New England of this species is not unusual on the coldest of winter days. That doesn't change the stange, dream-like appearance of it flying into my sightline.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Birder With No Toleration for Winter

I have a tendency not to write entries that are even remotely off-topic from birding, but I noticed my entries have been not so forthcoming in the past few months. Of course, the time change and much, much shorter days do not help, as I was doing quite a bit of birding in the late afternoon. But I have also been feeling horrible since mid-October. Needing to sleep 8-9 hours a night and tossing and turning through odd vivid dreams and nightmares and waking up exhausted anyway, feeling mildly awake for about 3 hours and then being tired again by 4 PM and seriously needing a nap by 8 PM...lack of concentration, a ruination of memory, irritability, bouts of seriously intense inner rage, boredom, anxiety, depression, less desire for socialization, constantly hungry for carbs, always cold no matter what...really kills my ability to get up early to go out and enjoy what little sunlight we have and to be fascinated by the colors and sounds and behaviors of our winter birds. I sit here nodding off at my laptop over a book or bowl of food around dinnertime and am unable to function for the rest of the evening and night (unless I'm at work, and my evening job is easy as pie). Emails sit in the inbox for days and I forget they are even there sometimes. Minor errands and chores not getting done for days because I have no energy and no motivation. I dread Christmas as I have not even begun shopping because I can't drag myself to the store and the mental energy needed to decide gifts is too much. I feel like I'm drowning in a deep brain fog...

*shakes first at the sky*

Is it spring yet?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Birding in a Snowstorm

If you ever get the chance, go birding at the beginning of a snowstorm. I forgot the science behind bird movement and fronts and low pressure systems, but bird activity was crazy today with birds trying to find shelter and food. I decided to stop by the Betar Byway since it's along the Hudson River and figured the waterfowl would be out as well. Just...bring gloves with you. I did not...my hands were so stiff and red within 10 minutes! It didn't help that it was probably 25 degrees. Also bring something to keep wiping your binoculars off with, since the flakes will be sticking to them. :)

The American crows were out in full-force and I think I undercounted at only 12. I'm pretty sure another flock moved in further down the river. Six ring-billed gulls looked like they were fully enjoying themselves, swimming around on the Hudson. At the end of my walk I saw two adult gulls with a juvenile, and wondered if it was the mom and dad and teen gull family I saw not long ago at Hovey Pond. Four mallards flew over at some point and I later saw two adult males and two adult females swimming in pairs. I only counted three blue jays bouncin around quietly in the branches. Lately I've been getting a kick out of how I can never see their eyes, always hidden by a branch. Out of sight, out of mind?

The female downy woodpecker searching diligently for food on a trunk was a great sight. A white-breasted nuthatch was just below her, running circles around the trunk and then straight down about a foot. I saw two more white-breasteds further down.

I was pleased with seeing many of the popular winter birds all around the same area today. I counted about 11 black-capped chickadees, 4 tufted titmice (both species of birds people tend to describe as drab and bland grey in color, but all I noticed was the orange-y and creamy yellows they have), and 4 dark-eyed juncos. I was also completely fascinated with the picture-perfect view of a bright red and black male northern cardinal sitting in the open on a perch, chipping away, with the snow falling all around him. I later counted 5 more hiding and chipping. Two American goldfinches flew overhead at some point.

The river and riparian habitat was really busy in this storm. I spotted a pair of hooded mergansers quietly allowing the flowing river to carry them north. There were three unidentifiable ducks, and from my view looked possibly like American black ducks. They were certainly in the vicinity, I watched 10 of them standing in the only part of the inlet that was not frozen. One section near the river got about 20 noisy American robins that refused to sit on any perch for more than a few seconds. They kept calling a loud, sharp "tut tut!" A flock of 15-20 cedar waxwings stopped nearby for about a minute before flying off back across the river. A female pileated woodpecker clung to a tree and hammered away at an already fairly deep hole. Another woodpecker nearby, which I could not ID, had a softer, shorter, yet very rapid steady rhythm.

Just before the snow actually began to fall, I was surprised by about 150 Canada geese flying southwest overhead, over the river. I would not doubt that they were headed to Moreau.

I took an extremely brisk walk back up the Byway, hoping to not have to drive on the roads when slippery and by the time I got near the entrance, I was bombarded by the sounds of about 30 house sparrows moving in. It was a little odd hearing the sounds of spring and summer on one of our most winter-y days.

December 8 - Moreau Lake, after first snowfall!

December 7th was apparently the official first day of winter in my area, as it was the day of our first small yet wintery snowfall. I decided to enjoy the "back way" around Moreau Lake on such a sunny (but bitterly cold) day.

Anyway, it's list time! This was a great day for birding, and writing out the entire walk (I made it all the way out to Mud Pond and back around the main path by the Nature Center) would take soooo long. Here's what I heard and/or saw:

6 American goldfinches
3 tufted titmice
10 white-breasted nuthatches
3 red-breasted nuthatches
3 blue jays
52 black-capped chickadees
45 Canada geese flyover from Rt 9 area to land by first phragmites stand
3 ducks flying away, possibly mallards
hooded merganser
pair...I was hearing gulping sounds from the lake at first, and unfamiliar with the call, it sounded like bullfrogs in summer
20 dark-eyed juncos
6 male mallards, 7 female mallards
3 American black ducks - you may note I was having some trouble telling them apart from mallards, but this time I got to see both species side-by-side in the bright sun, and it was obvious. The black ducks were much darker, duller, had grey faces and that dark grey crown. Mallard females have a really robust-chestnut or rufous brown on them compared! The black ducks also had bright yellow bills and the mallards had orange.
1 male American black duck x mallard hybrid
red-tailed hawk - I seemed to have spooked the hawk from it's perch in a tree in the camping area, as it flew off, causing me to gasp with wonder and amazement, and then it called! It was the highlight of this trip for me.
1 golden-crowned kinglet - I never found it, but heard it calling. I am not all that familiar with these birds, but have spent plenty of time listening to their calls so I'd be familiar, and the call with right on.
4 mourning doves
250 canada geese sitting in a row on the lake by the phrag stand when they were finally finished flying in overhead. It was a sight to see, and you could hear them no matter where you were around the lake.
1 northern cardinal
1 female common merganser swimming on the lake by herself

I had a good laugh watching a chickadee sitting in some reeds. It probably thought it was getting good shelter from the trees hanging over, but the breeze was blowing and the branches still had snow on them...the chickadee who was diligently watching me got hit in the head by falling snow! It shook it's head, looked all around, called "chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee" and then flew off. I was also psyched in this area to find muskrat scat on a large rock. A book I have calls it a "post office" which I find amusing.

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Also notable, and this happens every time when I come back up from Moreau Lake State Park, I saw about 25 rock doves sitting on the wires at the Exit 18 corridor. They are completely undisturbed by the high level of traffic going on under them.


November 29 - 4 Part Birding in Only 4 Hours

On November 29th I was on a birding roll. I was worried it would be one of the last "nice" days of the winter, one with little snow on the ground. Looks like I was right, so I'm glad I did this.

First stop was Ash Drive. I remember being devastated by the horrible mowing job on both sides of the Warren County Bikeway. So many beautiful dogwoods more than a year old were murdered. There's no explanation anywhere for why this happened, and it seems completely senseless to me. I looked at some of the other woody plants/small trees in the area, and it was quite clear that the mowing done in such a destructive manner had not happened in this area in recent years passed. I really hate humans sometimes...

However, it was quite cold and clear that morning, and birding was not all that great. I spent more time looking at the trees, trying to ID some using what I had read so far in the Sibley Guide. I did catch sight of an adult mallard pair swimming around in the marsh. A pair of American goldfinches sang "potato chip" as they flew overhead. An American crow called in the distance...about eight black-capped chickadees came out to see what was going on. I heard three white-breasted nuthatches calling from tree trunks. About seventeen blue jays came flying in at one point, possibly as a mob, and left just as quickly. I counted seven dark-eyed juncos, one with just as much chestnut-brown (mostly on the wings) as had slate-grey, which perched on eye-level branches rather than hiding in the brush as they usually do. I apparently attempted to describe their various calls in my journal. I wrote that they have a "dry chek-chek" and another call described as "a dry two-two-two." They are certainly not the most melodic birds, but I noticed today that their ringing trill sounded like cheery, tiny bells.

There are also powerlines that run overhead in this area, and for the first time I could clearly hear the electricity buzzing through them.

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I then ran off to stop at the Country Club Road parking lot to walk another portion of the badly damaged Warren County Bikeway. Upon immediate entrance, I heard three eastern bluebirds calling! They stayed hidden on the other side of a tree line, but their mournful calls were loud and clear.

This area was inundated with American crows and black-capped chickadees on this day...I counted eleven of the former, and twenty-eight of the latter. There was a group of American goldfinches at one point, about eight of them. Blue jays would periodically, extremely quietly, bounce around in the brush. I counted five. Woodpeckers are irritatingly and surprisingly difficult to see this time of year, the poor light helps them to blend into trunks...here I had two that I could hear scratching, pecking, drumming, but could not ID. I did hear a loud, sharp "KYOOOOO!!!" at one point, which in the past I have noted tends to be a northern flicker or red-bellied woodpecker (to me they sound fairly similar). Both species have been seen here. There were of course also about a dozen tufted titmice and a couple of white-breasted nuthatches, typical upstate NY winter birds.

I got quite a surprise at one point! A small brook runs along the trail here, which attracts wrens. While I was standing watching a chickadee, I hear a ringing, quick, very clear call with a dramatic pause in between the phrase in groups of three...it sounded like the bird was calling, "Figaro, figaro, figaro!" I immediately recognized it for a Carolina wren, despite not being all that familiar with this specific call. Sue P. and I actually refer to them as the Cheeseburger bird, as the ones we heard during the summer were calling what sounded like "cheeseburger" 3x in a row...a similar call, but "figaro" has more of a rolling sound.

There is great brushy habitat just past an arborvitae stand that blew me away on this day...it was full of dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows! Birders I met over the past year made me think these species are shy and will hide from human contact, but I can assure you these individuals did not. One sparrow sat right out on a branch in plain view, repeatedly making a sharp, loud chip, seeming to be an alarm call alerting the more hidden individuals (about 14 others) of my presence. Three of them were not paying attention and instead snacking on blue dogwood berries. One was singing it's broken casssette sounding song. The juncos were flitting all about, saying "chek chek!" There were about 15, another one with the mix of grey and brown.

Also spotted were two house finches, both on the ground foraging and calling to each other. They were promptly scared into the trees by a group of elder humans that sounded like they were talking about further destroying the area.

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Off to Hovey Pond I went! The gardens there were still fun to adventure in even though most plants have died off. I found a few herbs still fairly fresh and smelling delicious. One mint was so strong that it resembled the menthol in Vicks VapoRub. There was also some hardy lemon balm and thyme. I also nearly screamed with glee to find some bayberry - so fragrant during the summer, and so rare up here. I also found some purple and yellow violets in perfect shape hiding in a small yew.

It was rather quiet here too, with only two black-capped chickadees. Two American goldfinches flew over, and one white-breasted nuthatch called from a tree near the marsh. Four rock doves flew over as well. Ring-billed gulls flew overhead, and an adult pair with a juvenile landed in the center of the pond and sat there for quite some time, before mom and dad flying off, leaving teen gull all by him or herself. He or she had some beautiful reddish-brown wingtips! There was also a mallard party in the marshy pond, with six adult males and two females.

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Last stop was Cole's Woods, located between the YMCA, Aviation Mall, and the Northway. It's a really neat spot, a forest crammed in the middle of a small city and large commercial area. The only drawback is being able to hear the Northway traffic in all points.

The place was loaded with black-capped chickadees - I counted 46 in all, which I noted sounded like bells that day (I walked the perimeter of the woods, by the way). There were also three dark-eyed juncos, three American goldfinches, eight white-breasted nuthatches, two tufted titmice, and three American crows. I was surprised that when I heard some scratching in a tree and looked up, a lone red-breasted nuthatch was in perfect view, as if it was just waiting to be identified. I also heard and spotted a common raven flying from the water tower to the Aviation mall. I noted that it sounded like a ring-billed gull with a sore throat.