Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Winter? Not so Bad

Birding has been great the past two days (I've had them off, as I'll be working 12 hour shifts the next two). I'm not sure what it is, as days earlier this winter have been less 'productive.' Maybe the birds are now having a harder time finding food with the recent snowfall, as most of the individuals I saw today were very busy foraging (I was not this time around). I have no complaints, and even got surprises!

Yesterday was a relaxing visit to Ash Drive/Glen Lake Fen. There had been exactly one human couple the entire time, which is rare there. I had a blast checking out all the dried winter grasses, feeling all the fuzzy staghorn sumac stems, touching the edges of the huge thorns on the trunk of the black locust I always visit there, and enjoying the glare of the small, bright white birch trees. The fen was almost completely frozen over, so no waterfowl to look for. I snuck down a little trail to the ice, and caught sight of mouse tracks leading from one tiny bush to another.

At first the birds seemed slim in density but soon enough there was a steady cacophony of tufted titmice, one of my absolute favorites. They followed me all along the entire trail. I'm so used to hearing their hoarse call that to hear them brightly singing, "Peter Peter Peter!" on a sunny, bitter winter day struck me as odd. I was surprised I only had two black-capped chickadee visitors, they're sort of the staple winter woodland bird in the Northeast. Four white-breasted nuthatches all of which loudly call out ank ank ank in alert to my presence. One blue jay made one short call, a deedle that sounded as if it should be coming from one of the first computers in existence, or maybe R2D2. A northern cardinal couple chipped at me for a bit before returning to munch on grapes.

The surprises, however, came from reminding myself to keep an eye on the sky. I was watching an ice fisherman sitting on the middle of Glen Lake, only to have my eye caught by a gleaming white movement in the sky above him. I instantly knew it was a gull, but I thought, "Wow, that is awfully large for a ring-billed." And then I noticed no gleaming from the upperside on the turns it made as it circled above. I steadied my binoculars on the gull, and noticed the near-black wash across the upperwings! A black-backed gull. At Glen Lake. I couldn't figure out if it was a great or lesser, but was glad to see one around. I've seen quite a few this year, despite my understanding that they are not common here. I pondered this, and minutes later, caught sight of a small, strangely shaped silhouette piercing through the sky at a rather high speed. Upon closer look I figured out that it was a little American kestrel making it's way to the tall trees nearby! I haven't seen one in months.

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Today I woke up to a much more dreary day, but fairly warm for winter. I just didn't feel like going out there but made myself. I walked the easy path of Betar Byway in SGF, ground I have covered dozens, maybe even a hundred times by now. I can point out all the spots I've seen all sorts of species, and what they were doing. I could tell stories of individual birds I've seen repeatedly there. I even caught myself today staring at a sign there where I had once seen a big pudgy bluebird resting. It makes meeting humans on the trail a bit irritating, many of them make comments that make it apparent they assume it's my first time being there, and make comments regarding how few birds I will see since it is winter now. Okie doke, I say, and pity how ignorant they are of their surroundings. Betar is a great spot for birding on a good winter day. It's also a great spot to stand near the river and watch and hear the ice crack and buckle, as I did today.

The American crows were out in full force, and while I did not take the time to really count them, there had to be 30-40 of them, eventually mobbing something that was out of my sightline, unfortunately. It was likely the red-tailed hawk I saw there recently, who was getting mobbed at that point. I enjoy the steady rowing of the wingbeats of crows and got to see plenty.

This is a fantastic spot to watch northern cardinals as there are plenty here due to the heavy source of food. Plenty of berries to go around. I noticed the cardinals are almost always eating grapes rather than anything else.

There's also a great mix of small birds that love the underbrush (there's plenty of underbrush here)! Dark-eyed juncos are here and there, loudly trilling. There's a distinct spot loaded with house sparrows, whether you like them or not. Today I got quite the treat, two American tree sparrows that seemed rather bold - they were out in the open by the brush, bouncing around in the snow, even resting on the pavement at times. One seemed not bothered by my presence as he picked through a bunch of dried leaves. A white-throated sparrow was also very busy foraging in the underbrush. I also heard a Carolina wren (another spot to see one is the Warren County Bikeway at Country Club Rd) calling it's breathy, descending trill in the distance.

Betar of course also had it's typical winter forest birds, black-capped chickadees in curious droves, white-breasted nuthatches scaling branches and trunks, blue jays sneaking around mid-tree, and tufted titmice yelling to everyone that I was there. Betar can also be busy with woodpeckers - today I only had two downy woodpeckers, one male and one female.

American black ducks, six of them, were hanging out in one of the very few open pools of water on the Hudson. No other waterfowl to be seen.

I was surprised to see two northern mockingbirds silently perched on a branch out in the open, nowhere near each other. I see one all spring and summer there, for some reason did not expect even one in the winter. They look rather plain with an innocent face this time of year. Much different from their spring and summer persona and look.

There are a few trees along the Byway I always look at, as they're known for having fairly frequent, high levels of bird activity. One was notoriously quiet on my first pass, but on the way back, I heard this horrible sound coming from multiple fat little birds perched in that tree, a sort of metallic, very loud chattering. I have never heard such an awful sound from a bird, and it sounded as if they were upset. Looking up in the tree, I was confused and amazed at the assortment of species - two cardinals sitting together quietly in the middle of the tree, a nearby tree with two cedar waxwings squished against each other and also contained a bunch of eastern bluebirds, and the major tree also containing bluebirds and four house finches. I initially wondered if maybe the finches were the cause of the noise, but unless they could throw voices, it wasn't them. They were huddled down on the branches, barely moving, looking very cold and not opening their little bills. I watched the bluebirds, and noticed that each time I would hear one of those obnoxious calls, a bluebird would have it's bill open and would be fluttering it's wings and moving all around the branches. I was surprised. I know of only one sound out of a bluebird, and it's a soft, mournful fall of a note. I counted nine bluebirds in all, only maybe four were this active and loud. I wondered if maybe they were young.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Old Man Winter

I must admit, winter is the hardest time for me to get out there to go birding. It's the short days and the unpredictable Northeast winter which is also rough on the birds, and with our migratory birds finally gone for the season, some days can lead to very few individuals. The lack of a variety of wild food sources (unsurprising) also make me a bit less interested.

I've still managed to get out and have still wound up seeing some neat bird-related events and species in the past few months.

One of them I just saw in the past hour, the hour before day breaks (it's now quite dim as the sun likely has gone below the horizon). Hundreds - not dozens, literally hundreds - of crows flying in a messy, loose stream, low overhead, heading to their wintering night roosts near the Hudson River. If one was not looking up one might not have noticed, as the crows made no noise.

The lack of noise from those crows was almost surreal, considering that most times upon seeing them, it's due to them cawing loudly, which I got to witness earlier today over the Hudson. I tried birding Betar today, but the wind was constant and extremely bitter, causing my face to become quite painful. I just had to turn around and slowly trudge back and nearly ignored the cries of about a dozen crows behind me, obviously agitated. My curiosity got the best of me and I spun around to see them dive-bombing a red-tailed hawk I had watched earlier in my walk (he or she had been soaring quietly against the whitewashed winter sky as if enjoying the cold streams of air). The hawk flew against the crows as if it found them silly and not at all a threat or annoyance.

Earlier in this season of darkness and brisk cold (makes me able to understand why some of the best metal comes from the Nordic countries; the freezing cold can be hell on earth) I got to watch in clear view, a tiny golden-crowned kinglet flitting about the branches at Bog Meadow. Absolutely stunning colors and a cute face. I even got the best view of the top of it's head, the orange-streaked yellow crown bordered by black. I thought, a photo of one taken on a snowy branch would make a great Christmas card. But even more astounding is how the little bird just cannot stay still. It's as if it is manic, unable to handle perching on a branch for more than a few seconds, needing to visit every single tree nearby. I'm guessing this is part of it's feeding strategy, as it gleans and even hawks insects. I guess if you're going to catch a certain prey item, the best way to do so is to move like it.

I actually feel as though I've missed out on a few species this winter, including the medium-sized owl I spotted in some snowy grasslands yesterday morning at 6:55 AM, pine siskins, grosbeaks, snow buntings, and the finches have all somehow disappeared. I did get a bald eagle earlier on, flying low overhead, low enough to clearly spot the white tail and head.

Ah well, 3-4 more months to go! Before I know it, I will be swearing at my field guides over warblers I've troubled myself to ID and getting a stomachache from overdoing the foraging.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Birding, Interrupted

Seems often when I come back to the blog idea, life kicks me into a gutter somewhere, which causes me utter writer's block. But I'm picking the pieces back up, and thus coming back here.

Today I went out for some solid birding after a week of dealing with, well, crap! The weather was fantastic. I enjoyed the soft warmth of the sun and the light breeze on my face while walking the Betar Byway. Apparently, the birds enjoyed this weather as well, I was impressed with the sheer numbers this time around. Usually for all species I see there I get an individual here, another one there, and can only get a decent number by totaling those at the end. Not today. Today we had large migrating or foraging (or mating?) groups.

Example: I kept watching ring-billed gulls singly flying north up the Hudson River, which didn't surprise me - they often head to downtown Glens Falls, sometimes to grab some fries at Burger King. I was surprised when I headed to the beach only to see a gathering of almost 200 just resting in a tight group right on the river (it's apparently shallow enough where they could stand in the middle). Closing one's eyes, the calls could make one feel they were at the ocean.

Behind them, a large group of rowdy Canada geese were resting along the opposite shoreline, some up on the grassy spots behind a business. I enjoy seeing them in their large gatherings this time of year, and their calls, while annoying to some, are a comfort to myself.

A small foraging group of hooded mergansers lingered between the two species, being much more active, and annoyingly harder to see.

Cedar waxwings were also in large numbers at Betar today, somewhere between 40-50 sitting in about 5 consecutive trees. They were mostly quiet, and didn't seem to be busily foraging. I spent time trying to see if they had a Bohemian amongst them, but by definition of such a word, that wouldn't really make any sense. An amateur birder stood nearby with his own bins, staring in awe at such beautiful beings, yet apparently unaware of exactly who they were until questioning me later. I was extremely pleased to find someone else where I was in birding only a few years ago - curious, thirsty to know everybody with feathers, making friends of such strangers.

Waterfowl were busy today as well there - dozens of mallards took up the inlet as their private space for mating. I heard an assortments of sounds from them, plenty of whistles, flapping of wings and slapping of them on the water, some quacking. I find it odd they should be mounting females this time of year, but they performed such acts last year as well, and in various places (one can see this taking place now at Hovey Pond). About 20 American black ducks lingered within their circle, possibly mating with them. About four wood ducks were taking shelter amongst their lair, hidden by some brush.

Songbirds were fairly uncommon today, and if they were around, they weren't apt to make themselves visible. I did catch a glimpse of a female northern cardinal, and a few others chipped from the brush. Chickadees, the forest keepers, would pop out here and there from a branch to alert the others, and a few blue jays practiced their hawk mimicry. I watched one ripping apart a leaf nest high in a tree; in search of what, I had no idea. A white-breasted nuthatch ran up and down a trunk, calling out. But finches and sparrows were notoriously absent, probably disappointed that it wasn't colder, as bitter temperatures seem to really bring them out.

Woodpeckers hung around those waxwings, foraging. A female downy woodpecker and a red-bellied woodpecker lingered within their social gathering. Pileated woodpeckers were further down by the beach, calling to give the forest a more jungle-like feel, and one flew overhead while I was on the beach with the amateur birder, looking awfully large and primitive. They make it possible for me to imagine that the Archaeopteryx once existed.

One last notable species lingering around was the northern mockingbird, apparently perched on the far side of the river from myself. I listened to it calling for almost 20 minutes non-stop, unable to get a clear hearing on the calls themselves, but I enjoyed the bright, cheery quality that causes one to think of early spring. It seemed as though even he, like many locals, is hoping for a mild winter.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Unexpected Visitors

I had a fantastic visit to the feeders at exactly 4 PM a few afternoons ago. As soon as I exited my car, I heard a fast, repeated, descending breathy trill, one I couldn't place and wasn't sure I'd ever heard before. I searched for the location of the bird, quickly found across the road but not sighted. I waited patiently in the driveway, and the bright orange-y and cinnamon brown tiny ball of feathers darted across my path, loudly but still breathlessly trilling, then landing on the feeders. A fellow bird then began making a call sounding like a hollow wooden stick being tapped against a drinking glass, over and over, before also flying onto the feeders. Running and grabbing my binoculars, I quickly found the upright short tails and exaggerated, huge white superciliums leading right to the back of the head! There was also a pale white throat and buffy belly on these two cute little Carolina wrens. These feeders, as far as anyone knows, have not seen Carolina wrens in the 9 years they have existed. I've seen plenty in the area in general. It's likely they were simply migrating on through. I was delighted to have them for the 10 minutes they lingered. They loved the suet. The male (the one who trills) got on top of the feeder, trilled some more, while his lady made more 'dit' sounds, as they have been described, and the male bobbed up and down repeatedly like an oompa loompa, cracking me up. They were soon off, probably to head a bit more south.

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Today I finally headed over to Moreau Lake State Park, after not having visited for probably two months now. There are huge areas of land quiet of birds, but other spots are prime - the lake itself, the Nature Center, and what I call the Reed Trail that follows the wetland full of phragmites on one side. The lake today held common mergansers - two females and a male following them around; a great blue heron flew overhead, making soft flapping sounds; about a dozen American black ducks were lingering; 32 Canada geese were noisily enjoying the calm waters while about 150 more flew over later on. Most of the park presented black-capped chickadees (the keeper of the forest), blue jays, and white-breasted nuthatches. The Nature Center grounds were caked with dark-eyed juncos, who were happily trilling while foraging on the ground, and a few made strange, hollow, reed-like tew tew tew tew calls. The trees near them had some tufted titmice, who fed with them. Another tufted titmouse was closely followed by a white-breasted nuthatch wherever it went. A male downy woodpecker peeked out at me, making not a sound, compared to the more exuberant red-bellied woodpecker whose calls were a bit too close to a northern flicker to tell them apart without a good view.

I later watched a male pileated woodpecker creeping it's way all over a trunk before quietly flying off, had a snack on some delicious wintergreen berries, and saw about 30 mallards lingering around one of the wetland areas.

It was a beautiful day for some decent birding, but being closely followed the entire way by a strange male human was disturbing.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Yay, I'm Back to Posting!

Wooo I've come back to the blog! It's not that I really left it, but I simply couldn't keep up with myself all summer. I met a fellow 'young' birder and have gone birding with him regularly which has been fantastic, worked two jobs, and went hiking when I wasn't birding. I simply couldn't do one more thing at the time.

I've noticed that autumn birding has two modes, probably no more, and it is maddening. If it's sunny, you won't see much of anything at all, and will come down with a case of birding doldrums (and you will probably freeze your bum off). If it's rainy/overcast/post-rainstorm, it's as if the sky opened up and every bird in existence has fallen out into every square inch! There seems to be no in-between.

I've had this experience this week with one new spot. Autumn is probably a terrible season to explore a new place in the temperate zone for this simple variation. After much reading online of multiple uncommon/rare species at the Vischer Ferry Preserve by Cohoes, NY, I just had to finally go. Overall, I'm psyched that I have twice this week. But I've just come back from my second visit, and today we had sunny mode. Very few birds. It drove me nuts. I went there on Tuesday for the first time and fell in love with the habitat, to begin with. It's a very wet, flat area, some forest, a canal with great riparian/edge habitats, cattail marshes, brushy areas, open ponds. Trails, while well-used, were not completely eroded away (though some are muddy) or over-marked. I was glad it seems to be one of the few spots that haven't turned into some dumbed-down-for-general-public interpretive center with a million kiosks and signs.

The number of birds on Tuesday - WOW. I've only ever seen flocks like this at an actual migration stopover site - never in Warren and Washington counties of NY. About 30 mourning doves in one tree alone, about 30 cedar waxwings feeding on berries, swarming from bush to bush, 50-100 white-throated sparrows. Some readers may still say that's small scale, but when you've got them all together like that in a small area, it's overwhelming when they're all flitting about non-stop. I absolutely welcomed the challenge. Unfortunately, with the sunny weather today, nothing of the sort was occurring.

The species I've been getting there have made it all worth it. There are plenty of the common species there. But what's amazing is that as soon as I got out of my car at the main lot, a black-throated green warbler was calling persistently! Seems awfully late in the year. I also got, believe it or not (recent records from others at VF confirm these species), a Lincoln's sparrow, which was in with a large flock of white-throated and song sparrows, and a Swainson's thrush. These are life birds for me, and I've been on the search for the Lincoln's sparrow. Against a song, the Lincoln's really only shows subtle differences, mostly in the buffy wash, and the finer dark breast streaks. Oh, and of course the wren-like call (the call is like that of a marsh, but the length nearly seems to reach that of the winter)! This individual (and I believe there were two) was a fairly persistent singer, alert to my presence was he or she. The funniest thing is that it never made it's head visible to me, no matter how much it flitted about. But I definitely saw the buffy wash on the flanks, the breast, and when it moved, a bit of a buffy mustache. I've read they can be elusive birds; this one couldn't have made itself much more obvious. And I was delighted.

The Swainson's was more of an oddball sighting. I was mostly done with birding, and was staring at a tree that stood out to me. Moved my eyes a bit, focused on a branch, and there it was, unmoving and quiet. It never called, and only turned around once for me to see it certainly had no rufous tail, canceling out the possibility of the fairly common Hermit (and it definitely was not a wood thrush!). I at the time had no idea what I was looking at, besides thrush, so I took copious notes. I even read Sibley's blog. After some research, it was plainly obvious it had to be a Swainson's. Hooray!

I also had a great double-crested cormorant sighting there, off Ferry Drive. An adult was riding a moving log down-river, swam off up-river, then got stuck in a current it wanted to go up, refusing to go back down-river. In it's attempt to go up and getting swept down, it wound up going in circles in one place about 10 times before finally giving up and going with the flow. I had myself a hearty laugh.

Today the birding there was awful, but looking into one of the open wet areas in one of the large marshes, I spotted the shape of a small duck and yelled to J. that I was seeing something. Binoculars up, I saw a dark, brick-red head and white bar on the side on beautiful light-grey body. Not knowing my ducks well from memory of a guide, J. immediately pointed out to me what I was seeing was a green-winged teal! Another life bird for me. There were at least two males, amongst a group of 10 ducks (not all identifiable, light was harsh).

Also notable was a Canada goose there with large portions of white mottling on the neck and head where it should have been black.

And again, another notable species, two black-backed gulls flying overhead at Ferry Drive as well. Could not tell of which black-backed species they were, however, probability says they were likely great black-backed gulls.

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Must mention the pair of adult bald eagles hanging around Peebles State Park. One flew off early on, the other rested on a perch high in a leave-less tree for the half hour I sat there with J. watching ring-billed gulls, domestic geese, and some double-crested cormorants enjoy swimming around the river. The bald eagle called every time a bird would fly overhead, giving a good alarm to potential sightings.

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Keep an eye out, I may update soon with highlights from the massive amount of summer birding I did. There were some great sightings this year, propelling me further into this lifestyle.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Not-So-Common Moorhen

Yes, I know it's been almost two months and I haven't updated, right through the busy migration season. Believe me, I have definitely been birding! In fact, my lack of updates mostly has to do with me birding so much that I couldn't keep up with the updates. I'll do a spring migration summary soon, as it's not so much birding the same spots that interests me as it is when all the species came back this year. I wish I had long-term data to compare this too, as there's concern out there whether the change in weather patterns (and we've had a weird one this spring) has been affecting migration arrival dates.

However, I can't let my fantastic day of birding go by me. Today I headed out early to the West Rutland Marsh (in Vermont), as I have only been there once before, in late fall, in the worst weather for birding. The enormous quiet marsh looked extremely promising, however.

I was the only one there when I arrived this morning, but apparently this is a popular spot for mostly birders. This is an enormously welcome change from upstate NY, where all my birding spots are popular with non-birders who don't really know the birding ethics. It also gave me knowledgeable people to share info with. Now that I'm back in NY I'm a little sad that I don't have a spot like this closer. My local area seemingly is devoid of seasoned birders. It was fun being at West Rutland Marsh and seeing others getting excited over the same things that make my day.

It was bitterly cold this morning at the marsh, as there's nothing taller than a cattail (though the main boardwalk does have a tree nearby) blocking out the wind. This did not stop me. I hunkered down and watched the dozen or so highly visible and noisy male red-winged blackbirds either in flight or on the cattail reeds. A yellow warbler and common yellowthroat sung their songs from the brush on the other side of Marble Street. Three Canada geese flew overhead, belting out their autumnal honks. A few American goldfinches passed by overhead with their "potato chip" flight call. I watched for a bit as a black-capped chickadee tore the fluff out of a cattail head, it scattering in the breeze. I stood on the boardwalk, wondering if this was all there was and my hour drive was in vain. I turned around to see two iridescent blue and white tree swallows swoop in front of my face, bubbling, and landing in the nest box at the boardwalk entrance! Tree swallows fascinate me, not only for their color and song, but also how they seem to float on the air, exactly in the same form as a kite. I could watch them for hours. Later on when a bird photographer came along, one of the swallows would alight on the boardwalk railing about a foot away, in the sunlight, perfect composition for a photo or two.

The barn swallows came later in the day, and I was in awe of them. I have had the hardest time finding them in upstate NY, and have missed them dearly since I moved back from Erie, PA, where I would be attacked on a regular basis by them in a beach bathroom.

There were a few birds that I thought a strange addition to this habitat. There was a mourning dove cooing and periodically flying around the reeds. A common grackle briefly joined the blackbirds. Later on, an American crow was forced over the marsh by some mobbing blackbirds.

The eastern kingbirds I saw seemed, at first, randomly scattered throughout the marsh, not making any sounds at all or their buzzy "pew"s being drowned out by the blackbirds. I watched as they sat majestically, preening or fluffing up the gun-metal grey crown tufts. They seem to lord over the marsh, or may just seem that way to me as I view them as a huge version of an eastern phoebe with a beautiful white tail tip. They are also not at all shy, sitting right on the boardwalk to get a great view of us humans.

Approaching the edge of the boardwalk, I came upon a rather tall brush that mostly obscured the view. On the other side a cacophony of sound began. The calls sounded like the woodcock's "peent" interspersed with an extremely melodic song that resembled the tinkling of bells, but almost electric in quality. I at first had no idea what I was hearing, and softly leaned over to peer into the bush only to see the tiniest wren in alert-mode, with it's tail almost as long as it's body sticking straight up, totally stiff. I was tempted to scream for glee, but instead start writing notes...it's body and tail were a brilliant dark rusty orange-brown, with a few spots of grey interspersed with an intricate black and white pattern, these spots mostly on it's mantle and what looked to be the secondaries. They were very alert, which made them fun to watch, and I soon realized there were plenty of them singing all throughout the marsh. They are unsurprisingly called the marsh wren.

I then started hearing some odd, very unfamiliar calls. I looked for the bird from the spot with the most indescribable calls first, and was rewarded immediately (though I did apparently write a description of one call from this individual - a soft, heron-like 'unk unk unk unk unk unk'). Sitting in a small pool of water surrounded by phragmites and cattails was a charcoal-gray head with deep black eye, and a long fairly thin bill that was bright orange with a bright yellow nail. It completely blew my mind. A common moorhen was sitting staring at me in hiding! These are not at all common birds in this area, and a birder later told me that they are quite rare there - to the point where Audubon's posted list of 12 months of West Rutland Marsh did not even include such species. Words cannot describe how exciting this is for myself.

There were two songs that were completely unfamiliar to me which I myself tried to write down how they sounded to me and then matched them up with Sibley's voice descriptions. This worked surprisingly well, further causing me to view Sibley as my birding bible. The first call was a low, throaty, somewhat hoarse "gidik" repeated about eight times - this is apparently that of the male Virginia rail, of whose presence was later confirmed by a local and frequent visitor. There were actually TWO other calls of another species, though I cannot describe one of them (Sibley describes it as a sharp, whistled kooEE). The other I described as a long, descending, "to-WEE-eee-ee-ee-e-e-e-e-ee," which is that of the sora. I did not see either species, but hearing them was enough to be delightful.

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I took a short walk south down Marble Street and right back onto Water Street to head to the open area of water on both sides of the guardrail, but found it much less exciting than the boardwalk. I did however grab a pamphlet of the interpretive walk (which I did not go on this time) which I suggest grabbing, there's a lot of nature info! I spotted one male mallard sitting by himself in the reeds, quiet. There were, of course, plenty more exciting marsh wrens and noisy red-winged blackbirds. There was a lone eastern kingbird looking regal, and a tree swallow bubbling about. What I did not expect to hear was a trill, more musical and a bit more extended than that of the chipping sparrow but very similar, except this trill blatantly descended and faded. While I cannot find a sound clip of a swamp sparrow actually descending at the end of the song, it is the only sparrow that hangs out in marshes that Sibley actually describes as having a descending trill. (And if you're wondering, it did not always descend at the end.)

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I headed back to the boardwalk area and chatted for almost an hour with some kind locals. During this time I heard and/or saw a few 'extras', including a song sparrow that called once, a broad-winged hawk a photographer and I caught sight of while it was being mobbed, a common raven we heard and then saw, also being mobbed, and while I was sitting on a rock writing in the journal for Audubon near the one tree, a brilliantly colored Baltimore oriole sat right on the top, peering down at me, and then called out it's song multiple times before flying off, apparently before the photographer could take a photo. That bird felt like a gift just for me on my extremely great birding adventure.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

March 20th - Equinox Birding

I spent the first day of spring birding for approximately 5 hours in my favorite spots Warren/Washington Counties. While I'd like to add to that list, it was nice revisiting areas that had previously been caked with snow and therefore somewhat inaccessible.

While some people use the calendar alone to validate the beginning of spring, I've also noticed it in a few other ways lately. The obvious American robin now using it's spring/summer/fall foraging habitat of the front lawn; Eastern bluebirds returning to birdboxes made just for them; a plethora of red-winged blackbirds making their way back north to set all marshes alight with buzzy, harsh calls of "conk-la-ree" and their higher-pitched, whistled, though still buzzy, "See-errrr." Also notable, though not exactly bird-related and more horrifying...the deer ticks are out now. There's a particularly nasty spot of them between Mud Pond and Spier Falls Road (Moreau Lake) where the habitat turns brushy/grassy; I'd advise you to either not visit there or wear long pants and rock the Repel Permanone and do a thorough post-check if need-be.

So yes, March 20th! The spots I'm mentioning are all easily accessible and public, so visit them if you wish. I will warn that if you try to do them all in one round trip, it might actually take longer than the 5 hours I did, as I also spent part of that time joyriding and making great time. But alas: I checked out Dunham's Bay marsh (Bay Road boat lot), SGF Betar Byway, Hovey Pond/Park, and Ash Drive at Glen Lake.

Dunham's Bay possibly was my favorite that day. It was quiet, no other people around, and just stunning to look at, the still water hidden behind many reeds. Two Canada geese were lazing about and preening from time to time. A pair of mallards followed suit, but staying quite some distance from them. I saw a bit more activity from another duck pair, each individual alternately diving briefly...the lighting obscured their colorations and markings a bit, but from what I saw I was almost certain that it was a pair of common goldeneye! Fellow birders all winter long kept letting me know of sightings in the area but I never caught sight of this apparently more elusive species.

Betar Byway had a "more of the same" feel to it for me, but I'm eagerly awaiting migration, as I miss the vireos and warblers that litter this trail in the spring. Not that "more of the same" is at all negative. This is a fantastic birding spot, always something to see...this is where I first noticed the inundation of red-winged blackbirds, one handsome male sitting in a high perch, showing off it's black wings tipped with red and yellow primary colors. Canada geese are now back in this spot, as are house sparrows. The tufted titmice and northern cardinals are still here in larger numbers, and I finally spotted an American black duck after their brief hiatus from the inlet here. My walk back up the Byway was the better half; right near the Hudson River shoreline, for even non-birders to get a good sight of was a handsomely painted pair of hooded mergansers, actively foraging with their extended dives and popping back up in another location. I finally got a great sighting of the red eye of the male. Many people stopped to stare for a bit and then asked, "What are those birds?" Further up was a flock of noisy ring-billed gulls and an even noisier group of common grackles, another bird I didn't notice all winter but are back with the blackbirds. I know this time last year I was saying as a newer birder I didn't find a single species to be a pest...my annoyance has grown for this species alone, as in my trips I have noticed they tend to drive out the smaller birds both with just showing up and in the extremely raucous sounds.

Hovey Pond/Park was quiet, but this is not unusual for this spot, likely due to it's unfortunate location in a busy commercial area. I also tend to get distracted by the volunteer-planted/maintained gardens here. Also worth checking out, and something I didn't notice before, is that many of the trees that dot this landscape are labeled - notable trees included the dawn redwood, pin oak, river birch, Colorado blue spruce, and a shrub called Caragana arborescens. Birds located here on the vernal equinox: mallards, mourning doves, red-winged blackbirds, crows, and a black-capped chickadee.

Ash Drive had a couple of creepy fishermen, but I ignored them to enjoy the sun setting. At this point in my walking I started to resent just how complicated human life can be and wished to spend my life in the much more simple wild. This spot also gives me the worst desire for migration to occur soon as it's a spot with high levels of bird activity and occasionally gets much sought after flycatchers. Right now it's still fairly calm, though one can hear over a dozen red-winged blackbirds at the marshy fen and over at Glen Lake. There's still high levels of black-capped chickadee activity, and the grackles have invaded this spot as well. I was psyched to see a lone turkey vulture (I tend to refer to them as TVs) softly rocking along a warm jet of air overhead. Even this early in the year the bikeway at this spot reminds me of the lazy warm days of summer.

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Also worthy of note from last night though not a confirmed sighting was an early evening potential spotting of a great blue heron flying over the Rte 9L area just north of Rte 149. It was too large to be much else, and had the flight pattern/style of the heron, but again, lighting really killed my ability to figure out exactly what it was. I would not think a sighting of such a bird would be unusual there, as Dunham's Bay marsh is just north/northwest of there.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Country Club Rd/Sweet Rd Bikeway

I've been psyched that the time change has left a good hour or so after work (if I am not working my other job after) to explore locally. However, I have been unable to really handle much physical exercise for the past two weeks...I took a hard fall down an icy ridge on the Moreau Overlook in Moreau Lake State Park, the only thing stopping me a tree with approximately a 6" diameter, and a jagged rock the size of nearly a basketball, right to the coccyx. There was almost no walking down the rest of the trail, and there's been little of that since. But I couldn't resist the t-shirt weather today brought to the area and headed out to the Warren County Bikeway at it's junction with Country Club Road. It's a short easy walk that softly winds it's way to Sweet Road, where I usually turn around rather than battling with traffic to hear the birds.

The weather was great. I merely wore some sneakers, jeans, and my work t-shirt...it was a pleasure to bare arms to the sun and feel not a bit of icy cold yet see snow all around me. I had a chuckle seeing many locals also on the trail, dressed as though the forecast was calling for a blizzard.

It looked like spring was just slightly kissing the trail. I believe I spotted some pussy willows littered with their fuzzy buds. I could smell the neon green moss sighted all along the trail edges. Tiny streams/brooks followed alongside the path, fresh with snowmelt. I also noticed an increase in the activity of what I came for: the birds.

American crows frequent this spot anyway, though never really visiting the trees right near the bikeway. They seem to linger in yards or in nearby marshy spots. I caught sight of one using a dried phrag as a tool.

American goldfinches were in rather large numbers here, at least compared to winter. I didn't see a single one, but could hear their canary-like songs in nearby trees.

The red-winged blackbirds were out in full force. I didn't hear them all winter; perhaps one could consider them a sign of spring. I saw either a juv or a female perched high up in a deciduous tree, appearing to be enjoying the sun's warmth. The rest were hidden in the reeds in the marshy areas. I welcomed their bubbly alarm chirps and well-known "conk-la-reeeee" calls that non-birders associate with the hot, long, humid summer days.

Black-capped chickadees littered the trees as usual, this being their year-round native habitat. I simply took note that there were fewer than during winter, and left them to their acrobatics and watchfulness. One called out a long, lonely-sounding, thin, wavering, "Phoeeeeee-beeeee." I liken that call to a rusty old playground seesaw.

There were less woodpeckers, though I heard a brief call from either a downy woodpecker or a hairy. Seems the winter birds are leaving the spot they frequented all winter long.

I heard and saw one pudgy American robin resting near the red-winged blackbird in the tree. I've been hearing a lot of people mention them as the sign of spring, yet I do not associate them as such. I often think them late compared to migration peaks, and I see them all winter long.

White-breasted nuthatches and red-breasted nuthatches were both present, one each. There was also a dark-eyed junco making it's own popping alarm call and ringing trill. A pair of mourning doves quietly flew overhead, their wings not making their characteristic whistle.

White-throated sparrows are still in this area in the wet brushy habitat just before the arborvitae stand. Despite the "broken cassette recording" song Sue and I became familiar with in the autumn, I am unsure that the new melodic songs I heard today near their location actually belonged to them. But I saw the male clearly, as if it posed just for me in the reeds. They are such enormous sparrows, and the yellow lore is a dead giveaway.

The Carolina wren was in it's usual spot, this time singing, "Figaro figaro figaro figaro," rather than it's car alarm call. It sounded rather cheery today. I still have not got a sighting of it, which is a bit frustrating.

I couldn't believe my ears the rest of the ramb. le, however. I'm used to this location being home to northern cardinals and even getting a good-sized count, but today I counted between 8-10 that were calling non-stop, apparently more to each other than to anything else and not necessarily for alarm. They too have a popping alarm call, but today they were actually singing just as much with their loud, clear, bright, "Pew pew pew, wit wit wit wit." The long pause in-between gives an almost haunting effect to the echoes their replies make.

I was completely blown away by a blue jay hiding nearby. At first I was hearing the alarm call of the northern flicker and got excited that I might get a sighting of such a spastic, elusive woodpecker. I rested up against a tree to get a better view, and saw the silhouette, thinking it an odd shape for a flicker. It bounced out into the sun, called, and I could see the blue...the blue jay mimicking perfectly the flicker was better than seeing the flicker itself.

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Other neat stuff from this short walk:

- Pileated woodpecker holes, fresh ones
- Andy, a coworker of mine from way back in the day, who has been avidly biking for, if I remember correctly, over 10 years. I see him on a fairly regular basis on the local bikeway in various spots. I was pleased to talk birds with him briefly before he went back on his way.
- My buddy Mike D., another person I haven't seen in quite some time, also out on his bike. It was a pleasure seeing him out!
- one eastern chipmunk, not at all bothered by my presence
- cirrocumulus, or "mackerel sky"

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Wise Old Owl Helps Me to Remember

Tonight (at exactly 11:30 PM) I heard a great horned owl while trying to get in the door that was nearly frozen shut. I have not heard a GHO in the wild in the past, only in captivity, two years ago when I was helping out at a wildlife rehab center (there was a huge, lovely, blind GHO who would call whenever you put a mouse nearby). So hearing the first few notes of the call caused me to stop dead in my tracks, standing with the door wide open, lock in key, completely shocked. I stood looking around at how bright everything is from the full moon, looking at the silhouettes of the trees, and waited...it seemed almost a full minute before it called again, a low, slightly raspy, slow "Hooooo HOOOOO...hoooo...hoooooo." I listened to it one more time before realizing my finger was becoming extremely painful - it seems I may have gotten a bit of frostbite on it from pumping gas in the arctic cold. Faaaannnntastic.

And then it dawned on me how easily I could ID such a species with hardly ever seeing or hearing it...while standing there listening to that call, I pictured in my mind the blind GHO from the center...it's my photographic memory, combined with audio! I'm naturally very visual and can remember things I see for long after I forget their names. I'm also quite aural, and remember sounds long after (I'm also very musical). My memory is a bit weaker on the sounds side, so if I hear the sounds alone when first learning them I might have some trouble learning what it belongs to. But once I see the bird opening it's bill and making noise, I'm bound to remember what that sound belongs to by trying to imagine it later on when I can only hear it. THAT is my trick! And it happens so swiftly and so naturally that it never dawned on me before.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Sky and the Earth

Those are the objects the bluebird is said to represent by it's colors. The blue I saw flashing before my car's windscreen two days ago was something more deep blue, resembling the deeper ocean or royalty. I could not decide, but I was so surprised to see that color in the dead of winter, even though I do know the bluebirds stick around. Females are quite a bit 'duller' in color, if you can even call them dull at all, so this was likely a handsome male making it's way across the Ridge Road/Haviland Road intersection in Queensbury. Haviland seems to be a popular spot for this species, the early spring sighting I had of a bluebird last year was down Haviland, by Adirondack Community College.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Sporadic Birds

I have not done any solid birding since last post, but I always keep my eyes open. This winter has been a strange one in the Northeast - lack of plenty of snowfall, bitterly cold temperatures, and apparently no major irruptions of any species. I have not even seen a snowy owl this year (I usually see them at some point along Tripoli Road in Washington County). And the feeders are eerily quiet compared to last year with the massive exodus of pine siskin. It makes winter feel a little bit lonely.

I have seen all over Warren County some fairly solitary crows (though in fairly moderate numbers) waddling on top of the short snowbanks, looking for whatever food they can find. They also love roadsides as plows shove any food items to the side; I have seen plenty of crows with what look to be bits of baked goods.

Drives along Quaker Road have spots of rock doves (pigeons) resting plumply on the wires over the stoplights. Not many people like those birds, but I get a chuckle from seeing how round and large they are, sitting on a tiny line in the sky.

I also haven't seen many goldfinches this year, but spotted a bright yellow male flying around. Despite that they stick around in winter, I still think of them as a summer bird.

A mockingbird flew closely to my windshield while I was going 55 mph this week. I am not sure how it maneuvered in such a way to be completely missed by inches, but I got a nice view of the spread black and white undertail.

A single pileated woodpecker called from the woods by Aviation Road while I was at the Aviation Mall earlier this week, parked near Target. It called louder and louder the closer a solitary man walked to the thin corridor of trees by Friendly's.

I've been quite happy to watch the sun set slightly later and later in the afternoon. It seems like spring is so far off, but maybe I will get an early sighting of a bluebird in the next month or two, coming out of the deeper woods, it's winter home in the Northeast.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Winter of My Discontent

Winter is really beating me down. I've had no energy for weeks, and thus you guys don't see any birding from me happening. I forced myself to get out on this sunny day, being tricked into thinking there might be an inkling of warmth (see if I ever believe a weatherman again). It was as bitterly cold as has been for weeks, but I kept going! It also helped to run across Sue P. It fascinates me how I could have a week of crappiness but I run into one person who cheers me right up - plus it helps to have someone to chat about fun nature things with. It is not often that I find someone who is knowledgeable and excited to talk about things like birds and trees. I periodically complain about my peers, because most of them are more concerned with looking cool, getting wasted on a weekly if not daily basis, and smoking tons of weed, and having no true interests, so someone like Sue (or Jackie) is pure gold!

The bald eagle was not out today, but I noticed they tend to be bad weather bird sightings. Today is sunny, clear, and bitter. Actually, today wasn't all that great for birding overall, I'm not quite sure where the birds go when it's nice in winter. Odd that they aren't hanging out on the branches in the sun! I also noticed the river was almost all ice, compared to my last Betar Byway venture, so there was no chance of seeing mergansers this time.

I took notice right off that the pool at one of the water works buildings at the Betar Byway is now covered with banging pie tins, obviously to keep birds away from the pool. I thought that odd, as I have never seen a single bird hanging out there recently. Humans...I don't understand them.

I first headed towards the beach. Walking along I heard hidden American goldfinches calling their summer song. A white-breasted nuthatch was a bit less hidden, running around the trunks. I saw off to the treetops to the left a bunch of American crows having a fit, chasing something around. I stood and watched and got a glimpse of a shaggy-looking red-tailed hawk trying to shake them off in flight. I chuckled at how it looked like the hawk was expending much less energy circling and soaring than the crows were in harassing and wildly flapping. Silly crows.

The beach didn't have anything bird-wise to show me though I enjoy the view of the river from the boat launch and stood and looked around. I made my way back up towards the inlet and spotted three American black ducks enjoy what looked like some bathing in the tiny bit of open water hidden from the sun by tall trees. The ice around them periodically moaned but they seemed not to mind.

Walking back up to the Beach Road I heard a pileated woodpecker deeper into the woods.

This is when I found Sue and chatted with her for 50 minutes about all sorts of fun things!

Off I went back up the Betar Byway, up the hill, looking over the steeper hill onto the inlet. I wonder if the water in the inlet stays open all winter, as there's a large portion of it available for waterfowl. The same old American black ducks were down there, eight of them today, also bathing. The sun was shining on them and I got a rare sighting of their stunningly beautiful purple speculums bordered with a thick line of black. I have heard other birders talk about how bland these ducks are, but I find their muted dark browns and this patch of royal hue to be stunning.

I managed, with intensely painful hands (I do not know why the cold does this to them as I do not leave them exposed to the elements - I noticed it has only been this bad since I suffered a bout of Lyme), to make it all the way to the other end of the Byway. Along the way I was greeted with alarm calls from black-capped chickadees who were well camoulflaged. I heard plenty of loud, bright, cheery "peter peter peter peter!" and was shocked. Rarely do I actually hear tufted titmice singing instead of also alarm calling. I'm quite certain the last time I heard one singing was in May! They seem to prefer hoarsely yelling at things to get away. They too made the dreary winter woods seem more summery.

American crows
were all over, flying across the Hudson River multiple times to sit on various roosts. They couldn't seem to get comfortable. One nearby crow had a large hunk of something whitish/yellowish in it's bill and made me think of a small vulture when seen from a distance.

I was surprised to see a red-breasted nuthatch spiraling a trunk right in front of me, then hanging upside-down from a top branch, before pecking wildly at it's underside, causing bark to rain down on me. The only way I can describe the call it had today was a high "yip yip yip yip yip yip." White-breasted nuthatches were nearby, having a quieter, calmer snack lower on some trunks.

I got to see two male northern cardinals, both of whom were obviously quite disturbed by my presence. Another hidden cardinal called at some point. The cardinals looked like huge blobs of red feathers with a red mohawk and black mask. I'm not sure if it's their outfit or my experience with their bills that makes me think they appear as formidable opponents. They sat in low brush, peering out at me, making quite loud, metallic, clinking chips.

The field was surprisingly quiet - I always expect to see dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows there, but it never happens. However, the woods edge brought the sounds of two downy woodpeckers squeaking at each other, but I could not find them. It was strange that the rest of the Byway was lacking in woodpeckers today, usually it's loaded. I did also get to spy a chunky little dark-eyed junco well-hidden in some brush further north.

There is a special spot along the Byway that I love, thick with shorter trees all close to each other and completely covered with bittersweet. I sometimes worry that this spot could easily be demolished by the trees toppling under all of those viny plants. But for now it's been a great home to plenty of birds...in the summer I saw many, many yellow warblers hanging out there. Today I heard a cacophony of calls, sounding much like the American goldfinch but missing the more complex melodies; I suppose one could describe it as sounding more like a bunch of parakeets chattering. I could not find them in these trees, so looked lower in the brush where a single version of the chatter came from, and spotted myself a brightly red with thick brown underside streaks house finch. It never saw me, as it was busy picking off bittersweet berries nearby.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

ebird

I certainly need to keep up with ebird, I just put in 2 months worth of birding data and it took me maybe 6 hours. It doesn't help that using ebird is actually rather time consuming itself. Just figuring out the mileage of the trips I take alone takes a lot of work. But it is still fun. Ebird organizes lists for you (though I can't say the lifelist for me is accurate because I did not have actual data for a few species from my past).

The best thing I looked at on there was seeing that for Warren County I am ranked #1 both by species and by completed checklists. Not for the competition, but because birders seemingly don't pay much attention to this county as nearby ones. I had 63 species for this county, making up 63% of the total, and 30 checklists (ebird has not even yet updated all the input of data I did today). Below me is someone with 16 checklists, one with 9, two with 7, and a bunch of 1's.

I was also ranked #1 for Washington County for number of checklists, at 40, and ranked #4 by number of species (making up 31% of the species for this county).

Saratoga County seems to be much more heavily birded, and I've done my fair share there, but only came in at #5 for checklists and #10 for species (making up 41% of the species for this county).

Fascinating! I often wonder who the other birders are with the high numbers, and if they have passed by me quietly without me noticing that they are fellow birders.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Bald Eagle, part 2 (or 3)

I was thrilled to see my weather website proclaiming that today was warmer than yesterday, so I jumped in my car with birdsong CD and drove off to the Betar Byway. I parked, the only one there, off Beach Road and got out only to find that it actually felt colder than my snowstorm birding of yesterday. I grumbled and headed down Beach Road Hill and got a better look at the European starlings that were hanging out in the brush yesterday. They were beautiful blacks, purples, and greens with bright white spots all over, and shaggy feathers on their heads. They seemed as though they were playing something like musical branches, without the music. An individual would alight on a branch, then fly off to where a previous starling sat while another starling took it's place. Odd birds, they are. I noticed a big blotch of orange off the edge of a branch, which I thought was odd. It was the orange of an eastern towhee which made no sense for this season. The orange flew and landed near some red berries and I soon came to find two brightly colored, pudgy American robins with bright white eye rings wolfing down as many berries as they could find. They were mostly quiet, making a soft "tut-tut" when I got too close.

I checked out the inlet which was quiet today, no creaking this time. A white-breasted nuthatch yanked nearby, but all was quiet otherwise, until the jungle-like raspy trill of a red-bellied woodpecker broke the air. I looked all about for it, not finding it, till it flew right overhead to land on the side of a dead tree. Their nature is curious when compared to that of other woodpeckers. The other species tend not to care of my presence and ignore me; the red-bellieds become quite hyper, constantly alerting everyone else to my presence and running fast circles around the trunk to reach the top of the snag to peer down at me.

I wandered slowly to the beach, seeing a house finch couple resting in low branches and a nearby male northern cardinal loudly chipping away, flicking his tail and jerking his head back with each call note, turning semi-circles on the branches he sat on. The beach itself and nearby Hudson River were seemingly quiet, a few large American crows sitting in the branches of nearby trees. I scanned the waterline (and where forming ice met the sluggish water) and came to a lump of something awfully red. I watched it for awhile, trying to discern what sort of animal had recently been torn to shreds and left dead on the ice edge. No such luck, there was no form to it. I thought it odd that good, fresh meat was going to waste, and even stranger that the crows were not picking at it. I watched and watched but nothing happened, and turned around to head to the trail, when behind my back I heard a strained gull-like call, much like that of the red-shouldered hawk, one that I'm pretty sure doesn't have a wintering range here. Odd...I swung around to see the adult bald eagle coming in for a landing near the meat with a crow trying to intercept. The crow flew back into the branches, and the eagle gently set down near the dead animal, rustled it's wings and tucked them in neatly, walked up to the lunch and slowly pulled flesh away over and over for about 15 minutes. I thought it odd that such a large bird whose behaviors look fragile and pre-determined so as seemingly not to cause excess strain would be chosen for the national symbol.

I left the eagle to his or her lunch and headed to the Byway trail. At this point I was yet again cold right down to my bones. I noticed there is always a slight breeze here from the river, a very damp one, no matter what season. It makes winters bitterly cold here. I trudged along anyhow, meeting a friendly boston terrier and his master at one point, and another dog and man later on, both of whom were interested in the eagle but neither one seeing it.

The American black ducks were out but in lesser number today and much less snow-covered. They still seemed half frozen, standing in the little bit of open water in the inlet. Black-capped chickadees, mourning doves, American goldfinches, white-breasted nuthatches, and northern cardinals all called along my short walk to the first pier. Stopping here, I saw flashes of white from two waterfowl out on the river a long distance off. Looking through my bins, they appeared like two tiny loons with extra thin, long bills and too much white on the sides. I was thoroughly amused at how this is the exact description I read just last night in a book about identifying hard-to-ID species and realized I was looking at two male common mergansers. I rarely see them, so this was a treat. I waited and waited for them to dive, and they eventually did, in unison. Both guys with dogs stopped by to ask what I was seeing, and I could barely speak to them due to being half-frozen like the black ducks. Both asked, "What are mergansers?" I was more than happy to explain.

On my drive around Washington county after my birding trip, I was excited to see multiple red-tailed hawks in different locations. One was sitting right near the road, sitting in the snow, seeming to be concentrating heavily on whatever was under it's talons. I wondered how many other people passing in cars did not even see the large raptor.

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Yesterday I noted that I heard two screams at the Byway beach that sounded much like that of a little girl. I am now somewhat certain that they possibly came from the bald eagle.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Whoa, More Snow!

This seems to be the snowiest, coldest winter upstate New York has had in a few years! Though I have not yet forgotten the incredible Valentine's Day blizzard a few years back. I have photos to remind me.

But that's okay, today's early afternoon squall that bulldozed through the South Glens Falls area was not going to stop me. It was clear when I went out driving, but as soon as I arrived at the Betar Byway, the snow began to fall. I couldn't decide whether to be annoyed or happy, so I decided to just fully try to enjoy it.

I unfortunately had never been birding in a snowstorm with this type of snow, and quickly found out that visibility was cutting really low. I had to ID birds by shape and song alone (and where I had previously seen certain species along the Byway many times before). I literally could not see any color on any of them. Add to me not wanting to move much because despite my layers, the dampness of the bitter air was cutting down right to my bones. My bins are also good at collecting snow. I spent 25 minutes wandering around the Beach Road entrance of the Byway, not heading down the actual trail much of the way.

Fortunately I caught sight of some mallards in the pool just before the snowfall became heavy. There were two breeding males with their soft grays and metallic greens, a lovely female with her reddish and tan-browns and blackish spotting on orange bill, and a fourth mallard with a plain orange bill with black nail - likely another adult female. They did not stay for long once the snow fell heavier.

I wandered over to the beach-side view of the inlet, where I see the turtles, heron, and phoebe in warmer months. At first it seemed no one was around, but I heard a few black-capped chickadees hiding in the branches, and spotted a few silhouettes of ducks where the water was still open. I stood watching them, planning on getting a better view of them when I started hearing the strange sound of the ice in the inlet cracking and splitting. It was as if the entire earth was going to open up before me.

I wandered to the boat launch at the beach. At this time, I could not see across the Hudson at all, it was just a white sheet. I saw some hunched-up American crows resting on high branches in some deciduous trees near the beach, and one of them poking around the edge of the ice on the river. I stood on the pier, and heard twice what sounded like a little girl letting out a loud scream. It was certainly a hawk of some sort, probably unamused with the presence of the garbage-picking birds. I thought it odd to also hear a group of about 6-10 American goldfinches flying overhead. A downy woodpecker called at this point, probably disturbed by their sudden intrusion to it's resting spot.

At this point I was thoroughly shivering, toes cold despite 2 layers of socks and my comfy hiking boots. I was not about to let up though, still needing to scout out the inlet ducks. Around the pool I went, the utterly quiet pool, snowflakes flying in my eyes, making checking the trees impossible. I got to the other side and started my way along the Byway and peered over the ridge to get a better view of the inlet. I was surprised! I got my first view of ducks being caked by snow! Fifteen American black ducks were huddled together, some resting on the open water, others standing on tiny ice islands. Most had their heads under a wing. All had a layer of white on their backs and heads. I thought it odd that they did not occasionally shake it off, flapping their wings, as I myself was doing (well, I don't have wings). They obviously deal better with the winter weather than I.

Happy with my sighting, I jogged back as quickly as I could up Beach Road hill, but I soon was stopped by my curiosity. Beach Road hill has a densely brushy area to the left when running up it, and I started to see rather large (just smaller than the average crow) dark birds quietly rustling around the dead shrubs. Up my binoculars go...European starlings! Many birders would be annoyed or disgusted at their presence, but I rarely see them here, and enjoy their strange sounds (which they weren't making today), and love their tiny numerous white spots on such miserably-colored feathers. I wondered what they were up to, as there were about 12 of them refusing to sit still on any one perch, making a broad zig-zag pattern by heading up to the highest branches and then gradually skipping from branch to branch down to the brush again. I also wondered if they usually hang around some local softball field or school yard.

I decided I was finished and headed to my car, which I parked at the main waterworks building off Beach Road. This is a trailhead for the Betar Byway, and if you follow the trail left, you head through wooded forest with very little understory. I rarely visit it, as the birding is very poor, and seemed to rarely be visited during the summer by locals. So I was surprised today while warming up my car and cleaning it off to see many locals coming in to walk their dogs along that path during a snowstorm. And they all looked miserable!

My trip back north was a bit unnerving, the roads were slippery which for me was fine but I watched many other drivers slide all over the roads. At the intersection of Quaker Road and Ridge Road in Queensbury, a woman in a compact car did a 180 at the green light, nearly slamming a waiting car. She tried the same turn again, and slid again, almost the same way.

Heading up Ridge Road brought a nice surprise, as I got a solid view of a pileated woodpecker clinging only about 8-10 feet up a telephone pole right alongside the road by the Wesleyan Church. It was almost as if it was watching us silly, vulnerable humans risking our lives, for his or her own enjoyment.

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I received for Christmas a surprise CD of 'Birds of the Forest.' I was elated, though I know most nature CDs wind up with cheesy Kenny G-like music in the background. My CD says 'Tranquility Music' on the side and I have been concerned that I am going to hear piccolos and sax or some other world music instrument. I chucked the CD into my car today and hoped for the best...no music at all! In fact, it has 6 tracks of pure birdsong, running about an hour. Each track is a different habitat, each one with a brief habitat label. I wanted to scream for joy and jump around like a kid in a candy store. There are songs of savannah sparrows, red-bellied woodpeckers, chickadees, a few different owls, and plenty of other species I didn't yet identify because I instead tried to picture myself walking through these habitats. I'm now having a good laugh that my favorite habitat track right now is labelled as 'Florida Wetlands.' I would think I'd have more enjoyment listening to one that seems more close to home (such as 'Afternoon Forest'). And before I forget, there's even a thunderstorm in one track. While my blog is typically advertising free (besides me mentioning Wild Birds Unlimited here and there because that store ROCKS), feel free to glimpse the CD I'm talking about here: http://www.tranquilitymusic.us/products.htm It's amusing to see it is the ONLY nature CD there without music.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Recalling 2009

I don't really truly recognize January 1st as my New Year. My New Year comes the first day in early spring (usually around the Chinese New Year, which this year falls on Valentine's Day) when the scent of soft brown earth is on the air, the breeze no longer makes your eyes water, and the faint memory of running around playing with bubbles comes back. This is before the robins sing and the tulips bloom.

But alas, my nature friends are revisiting their nature haunts throughout 2009 and I couldn't resist. It was my first year truly birding, my first year really spending much of my free time out rambling around, enjoying the wild. And the great memories that come back are too awesome to not make honorable mentions:

- my first true bird presentation, for plenty of third graders who were visiting Moreau Lake with their schools, absolutely a great opportunity

- all the full moon hikes at Moreau, usually attended by my nature buddy Sue, with Environmental Educator Dave checking out all sorts of stuff to show everyone who couldn't keep up with speed-demon Naturalist Gary. Highlights of these include Gary doing a crow call and a mob coming in bringing a scarlet tanager with it, a truly dark walk, enjoying the scenery of the moon from the footbridge, weird noises Sue and I tried to scope out over the lake one night, and all the times other Dave cooked delicious hot dogs

- making the new lakeside trail with the boy scouts

- Wilton Wildlife Preserve birding with Rich Speidel and a group of seasoned birders - possibly the best birding trip I've had so far, as he has intense patience and was excited to help me see some lifers and took the time to go exploring with me to find them

- other WWPP birding, especially hearing and seeing Eastern Towhees for the first time ever (seeing my first Karner Blue butterfly hit the spot too, and long summer afternoons of resting near the open field listening to field sparrows)

- all of my solo hikes in Moreau Lake - highlight was shadbush up top of CP trail inundated with cedar waxwings, 1000' up!

- seeing other new sites right in the local area, such as the Glen Lake fen, Pilot Knob Ridge, Cole's Woods

- tasting many plants I have never tried before - wintergreen berries! Snacking on jewelweed seeds, sassafras, birch...

- Trailapalooza 2009 with Sue P. and Jackie D. - so much win

- meeting nature lovers and new friends Sue and Jackie and learning so much from both and seeing things I've never seen before with them (like frostweed!), enjoying long chats with Dave A., meeting other nature nuts briefly on my walks and discussing what has been seen

- so many hours of watching bird behavior and getting to know the feathered citizens better due to that. You don't really know birds until you see them sunning, fighting each other, wolfing down berries so quickly that their entire faces get covered with juice, and freaking out because a bee is nearby...and missing them when they go on vacation just as you would human neighbors. You don't really truly know your local area until you get to know the more wild side of it.

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Another huge plus this year was getting to see many bird species I had not previously seen and learning plenty of bird songs. I tallied up the species I saw in 2009 (take note: this is not my LIFE list, but a YEAR list) and my list totaled 93 species just for a 30 mile radius. Highlights:

- the one common loon I saw a few times swimming around Moreau Lake. An ethereal sighting. Did not sing till one day with Sue and Dave on Spring Overlook trail which gave me goosebumps.

- the juvenile double-crested cormorant I saw on the Hudson River off Betar Byway this autumn...the best fisher I have ever seen.

- a great egret hiding in the quiet, still marshy pond off Bog Meadow Trail.

- the green herons, osprey, and belted kingfisher that made Delegan Pond in Wilton a fantastic birding spot this summer.

- wood ducks and more belted kingfishers hanging around Mud Pond this autumn.

- the whistle of the broad-winged hawk throughout summer.

- recent adult bald eagle sighting in SGF with Sue!

- a spring merlin couple in Oneonta in their town park, seeing one of the individuals tearing apart a nestling of another species

- hearing red-bellied woodpeckers throughout summer and eventually figuring out the strange song belonged to them

- seeing a likely pregnant female yellow-bellied sapsucker on one of my first-ever trips in Moreau, in the woods near the beach/playground

- my first blue-headed vireo sitting two feet in front of my face on Western Ridge trail and then disappearing, only to defecate on my head

- all brown creepers. Always. <3

- finding out that Carolina wren populations here are actually higher than I was once told, enjoying describing their wide variety of songs with Sue, including renaming it the Belushi bird hearing it sing "Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger!"

- my first time hearing the amazingly long song of a winter wren, pointed out by Sue while on Spring Overlook trail with Dave

- all blue-gray gnatcatchers in Moreau Lake

- all eastern bluebirds and their mournful songs

- all wood thrush, veery, ovenbird, and hermit thrush songs (and seeing that wintering hermit thrush recently), making the wet woods of this area dreamy and of another world

- gray catbirds for being the most hilarious bird

- northern mockingbirds being such earworms with their ability to copy so many songs and human-made noises

- while all the warblers I saw were wonderful, the most notable was hearing a prairie warbler in the power-line corridor at Moreau Lake and people not believing me for months after

- field sparrow, savannah sparrow, meadowlark, and R2D2 bobolink songs making hot, long summer days much more enjoyable

- broken tape-recorder white-throated sparrow songs in late fall, witnessed by Jackie, Sue and I on Trailapalooza

- the pine siskin irruption that lasted shortly into the beginning of 2009. I miss those birds dearly.

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One last thing to note is that 2009 was a continuation of the reminder that nature can seriously make you ill, maim you, and possibly kill you. The increased spread and explosion of populations of ticks has concerned and terrified me. I remember the days when one could lay in the grass and not even know what a tick was because they weren't around here. This summer I was bitten almost a dozen times and fought off another bout of Lyme Disease. May you all enjoy 2010 with increased applications of permethrin to your clothing.

To another year of happy birding, hiking, rambling, and nature blogging!