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.

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