Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Big Year Movie and Beginning Birding

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

One Ear Open

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 2, 2011

So Busy!

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

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

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

Monday, August 29, 2011

Post-Irene Birding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Hurricane Irene

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

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

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

Southern Adirondack Audubon Facebook Page

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

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

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

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Bog Meadow Brook/Quechee Gorge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Rainy Days

It has been raining nonstop for two days now, and this is not a complaint. We had some extremely hot summery days last month and I'm grateful to not be sweating out of every pore. The problem is the birding...I just lose my desire to wander the trails for birds in the rain, even after spending some days this summer in total downpours and even a thunderstorm looking for yellowthroats.

I did manage to get out with J. earlier this week and we had an absolute blast. Birding alone is great fun, birding with a great fun is the best. We spent the hours joking - corny jokes and dark humor are our favorites. We weren't even seriously birding, just driving down Towpath Road (there are many Towpath Roads around here, if you need directions to this one, leave a comment!) at maybe 10 mph peering out the windows and chatting. It wasn't too "bird-y" of course, breeding seasons are finishing up or done. My favorite sightings for the evening were a pudgy fledgling American robin in the road and a green heron perched in a tree - my first green heron through my new binoculars, and I got amazing views! The robin cracked me up as he had two tufts just above his or her eyes, so just looked silly. I was concerned with the bird being on the road but it bounced off into the grass nearby.

Also notable was the great blue heron wading in the creek that runs along Towpath Road. This is not at all an unusual sight here, but they are always welcome during a birding trip. There were plenty of American goldfinches all along the road and pockets of black-capped chickadees, but otherwise it was mostly quiet. We left Towpath and drove along a bunch of quiet country roads which was relaxing but didn't offer much. My excitement came when we stopped alongside a brushy area and I heard faint raspy chips - a common yellowthroat! We could see the bushes shaking wherever the bird was moving along, but it never popped up into view for an entire ten minutes.

Speaking of yellowthroats (oh how I miss them now that I've worked with them), a male was my first bird on a short walk at Ash Drive by Glen Lake late last week. Again, I was alerted to his presence by the raspy chips, much to my delight, but I couldn't find him on the other side of a thick bush. He sang, and then gave a flight song, but had apparently stayed out of view the entire time. A few friends thought I would be sick of those guys once I finished the field job, but I just feel a deeper connection with yellowthroats now that I've watched nearly 30 of them do what yellowthroats do all summer. The chip notes are so familiar to me that it reminds me of not needing to look at a friend to know who it is when he or she speaks.

I'm likely headed out for the first time on Saturday to Rutland Audubon's monthly walk - I have met a few people from there and they are extremely nice and the marsh is one of my favorite spots. Makes me wish the week was over already!

I've also woken up to a Carolina wren every single morning (between 6:30 and 9:00) for a month now since I've been back to the HF house. HF house is in a run-down suburban location, so it's not a great place for birding at all. The most we get are chimney swifts (which I adore), black-capped chickadees, a northern cardinal pair, a pair of downy woodpeckers and their one or two fledglings, tons of house sparrows, and sometimes a white-breasted nuthatch. The Carolina wren is a treat, and there never used to be one here. I'm not even sure this one will stay for the winter, but last winter I noticed one in the dead of winter up the hill from here! When I first came back in mid-July, the Carolina wren just sang his car alarm song. In the past week I've noticed he's now singing variations of that song and also making the purring trill call they are known for. Why the change in song, I'm not sure, although I assume it is the same individual. I've even caught him singing on the other side of the house around 7 PM. While I would love him to stick around all winter, I would understand if he left until spring!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

August Doldrums

This title just had to go with the last one!

It's now August, and birders in the Northeast, you know what that means...the bird world becomes awfully quiet. It's far past spring migration, it's pre-fall migration, and it's right after the breeding season for most songbirds. I do most of my birding by ear so for me it's very noticeable when the birds have simply stopped singing for mates and territories so much. And it has begun. Even the non-birders at Betar Byway have noticed.

This quiet and reduction in numbers of sightings (which was also mentioned on Hudson-Mohawk Birds' Yahoo Group) combined with the intense August heat and humidity tends to decrease my birding for the month, and I'm guessing it does for a lot of birders. Heck, even J. has been focusing a lot more on astronomy and Southern Adirondack Audubon doesn't even have an August program. I don't quite have another hobby to be so obsessive about, so I've gone back to reading about food, particularly how to prepare various types of food items. I've also gotten into couponing, being frugal, and simple living. And well, there's that job hunt...I'm currently impatiently awaiting a reply back, and yet it is only early Saturday.

So what WAS at Betar today? Well, I guess I missed retired DEC guy. Wood Duck guy was there today, and he showed me great photos from a nightcam of some moose and deer and a bear in his yard. The juvenile double-crested cormorant who I've seen there repeatedly like a trusty old friend was nowhere to be seen. And the juvenile cooper's hawk I enjoyed watching flying around the beach area while escaping some crows was not there. But the place is now loaded with American goldfinches! It is their breeding time, and Betar does have thistle. Cedar waxwings are everywhere there since all the berrying plants are ripe and one can never get enough views of those guys. There's been in increase in black-capped chickadees there and I'm not sure why, unless the increase is due to all the fledglings. American robins are of course all over there now, I saw a nest last week that had nestlings so close to fledgling status. And while I couldn't find the two juvenile still-fuzzy Canada geese that have been there on the edge of the river, I did catch a view of 17 adults swimming in the middle of the river.

There have also reliably been some barn swallows where I used to see tree swallows (and the tree swallows have been absent). I've had a blast peering at their extremely forked tails with my new bins. There's a great blue heron that has been lingering, even non-birders ask me about the bird. Today the heron was hiding way off past the beach, along the shoreline. I later spooked the heron from the tiny pool of water when you first enter Betar if you park near the beach parking. Woodpeckers are everywhere here, I tend to get plenty of downies, a flicker, a red-bellied, and a pileated. Yellow warblers are still around in very low numbers, as are Baltimore orioles...the American redstarts are gone. The Carolina wren I've heard since early May is still in the same spot, singing loudly (and I was woken by one this morning). I'm still getting plenty of catbirds mewing and scolding me. Song sparrows are aplenty, and be careful if you think you're hearing a towhee - I followed a towhee song one day only to find it was coming out of the head of a song sparrow, much to my confusion.

Sneak around the inlet and you're likely to find one or two juvenile wood ducks and maybe the adult female. Kingfishers and kingbirds are still around that spot, as are eastern phoebes.

The vireos are petering out too, I only had two red-eyes and two warblings.

So while birds are wrapping up their summers, I really wish the weather would wrap it up too!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Post-Research Blues

I've finished the summer research on the social structure of a common yellowthroat population. I've been having a conundrum - Southern Adirondack Audubon I'm sure would love me to do a write-up for their newsletter, so do I talk about the research in here too? Or do I wait?

The universe has administered beatings ever since that finished - I came down with Lyme Disease 2.0, the antibiotics have constantly made me nauseated, I cannot find a full-time job (but I do now have 2 part-time retail ones, meh) and instead of going to do more research I desire to try to pay off one of my student loans instead. And, well, things aren't working out with that due to the job misery! GAH.

I've snuck some birding in lately though. I'm back regularly at the Betar Byway, and have made a new friend out of a retired DEC guy who has begun frequently walking there too. He's super cool, and I hope he can make it to the Audubon walks on Fridays at Betar, as he wants to go. I also met a really neat fisherman from Arizona there. Betar is, of course, bird-y as ever, and if you live in this area and haven't been, well, get your butt over there. My current favorite is the juvenile Double-crested Cormorant who apparently is in love with that part of the Hudson River. The perfect sighting of a juvenile Cooper's Hawk being mobbed by crows was also amazing, watching the hawk wheel and dart through the trees. A fledgling yellowthroat made it's way over there one day, causing me to seriously miss research.

I also bought binoculars - REAL BIRDING binoculars, finally, after two years! I will not discuss was I was using before. Too embarrassing. This trip was also somewhat embarrassing, as I obtained a speeding ticket driving back from the first shop I went to.. I also will not mention what shop that was, but it was terrible. The owner has become a bitter man, and has a collection of only one very terrible brand. So I drove back up to Wild Birds Unlimited in Wilton, NY and tried out 4 pairs of binoculars. This might not sound like enough to you, but I had been there in May and tried out a lot more. It didn't take long this time for me to want to refuse to give back a pair of 8x42 Eagle Ranger ED bins. These things are amazing. I nearly fell over the first time I looked at an actual bird through them. I have a really hard time putting them down at all!

Yesterday I finally summited Buck Mountain (2330 ft, 6.6 mile trail)! I've tried this before, but the trail is rather brutal - steep, rocky, with some wet crossings, and no good views until the very summit. I regretted not bringing my binoculars yesterday, I could have received great views of hermit thrushes, of which the woods were loaded with, surpassed only by a surplus of red-eyed vireos who sang all the way up until near the top. The habitat near the summit changed to stands of red pine mixed with hemlock, and other stands of striped maple - this was loaded with woodpeckers, including hairy, pileated, and what sounded like yellow-bellied sapsuckers. The summit itself was chock-full of blueberries and huckleberries all ripe and so there were purple finches and cedar waxwings, and I wasn't surprised to be visited by a few dark-eyed juncos: I always find them on mountaintops here in the summer. A lone common raven called loudly near the summit, unseen.

Monday, June 20, 2011

West Rutland Marsh, VT

If you're ever passing through western Vermont and head anywhere remotely near Rutland, definitely stop by the West Rutland Marsh. It's not far to the west of downtown Rutland (and to the east of Castleton State), right off of Route 4A; though, if your car cannot handle a really bumpy road covered in gravel, it might be best to avoid Marble Street and Whipple Hollow Road, which both run along the marsh.

I took J. out with me early in the morning yesterday as we have a few times in the past. Usually it's very quiet there, but this time we ran across an older woman, apparently a local birder. We exchanged a bit of information on birds seen there before she took off. J. and I then slowly wandered down the boardwalk that juts right into the middle of what is mostly phragmites and cattails. Even midsummer, the marsh is inundated with swallows. There is a bird box right at the entrance to the boardwalk, and the tree swallows obviously had a nest inside. Plenty of barn swallows and a few northern rough-winged were also tumbling overhead. Later on, while not a swallow, a chimney swift, probably from downtown West Rutland, came along for a visit.

Two willow flycatchers had also chosen the marsh as their nesting site this season and we got great views of them even though they are extremely nondescript birds. I think we enjoyed listening to them singing a bit more; the ones at this site seem to say, "RITZ-bew" rather than the softer "FITZ-bew" I hear around farmlands in NY. An eastern kingbird pair took up a bush at the end of the boardwalk for their nesting location and weren't too shy even when we got close.

The vegetation at this point has grown quite high, providing great cover, and not-so-great views of just about anything else we heard yesterday. This to me is not a problem, since I absolutely enjoy birding by ear, though J. and I were a bit eager to see rails. We mostly failed, although he caught sight of a fast-moving sora amongst the reeds. I never got a good view, but the sora performed various calls and songs, from their typical "ko-WEEE-EE-ee-ee-ee" fading whinny to outright screaming. I was disappointed that we couldn't hear any Virginia rail this time. Our least bittern from the spring was nowhere to be seen or heard, though the birder had confirmed it was still around. If there were any ducks or herons nearby, I wouldn't have known, but we did have a great blue heron and a green heron fly overhead. The reeds are also full of marsh wrens and swamp sparrows singing, and of course plenty of red-winged blackbirds. And J. and I got quite a surprise yesterday - a perfect view of a belted kingfisher (male) repeatedly hovering over the marsh and then diving down for fish! J. and I were captivated and watched for probably about twenty minutes. We were interested over him periodically going out of view after diving, and guessed that he might have been bringing fish to young.

The birder had mentioned that the groups that get together for walks there tend to walk the four miles around the marsh. I was skeptical, but J. and I enjoy adventuring and decided to try it out anyway. It was too far in by the time we realized that one side of the marsh was fairly pointless for birding (though it did offer a few ovenbirds, veeries, redstarts, a yellow warbler, and I got a great view of a female common yellowthroat for J.) and that the connecting road was extremely far away. This lead to joking around, random conversations, and munching on apples rather than much birding. The road we were on did eventually lead to open view and we got a view of a few crows mobbing a red-tailed hawk.

The roads do eventually lead back around, and we found where Rutland Audubon had set up an interpretive trail with small markers, most of them mentioning ecological habitat (such as the black ash habitat, which lead to me making immature jokes which cannot be repeated here). At that point it was way too hot in the day for much birding, but I did notice common yellowthroats fairly evenly spaced out, many of the males singing. A female popped out at one point, carrying an insect, likely to her young.

There is also a power line corridor habitat up the hill nearby which was once suggested to us by someone from Rutland Audubon, although I have been unsure as to whether it's actually off-limits. This did not deter J. and I from going up there last time, however, and we found it to be a good place to get warblers. It's also a great place to get scared out of your wits as to the locals visit the site frequently to shoot off their guns! Despite terrifying, I have found them friendly and not at all wary of random birders wandering around. Just...make sure you know which way they are shooting before you go off-trail!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Red-eyed Vireo and the Unexpected

Sorry for the pause, everyone! I started as a field research assistant in May on a common yellowthroat (cute little warblers) project in Saratoga Springs, NY and am still helping out on that; what a strange experience it has been. I will talk about that in a near-future post.

What I want to talk about today is something I actually witnessed in a common yellowthroat during the project - birds making sounds you just do not expect. Now, my strength in birding lies in recognizing songs and calls. Birds' songs and calls just absolutely fascinate me, and I love learning all of them; even more fun is knowing who is out there in the morning just by listening to them 'talk' to each other. But being still fairly new to the game, I've focused on learning the typical song and then maybe one call, what you would find with most modern birdsong software or reading the 'voice' section in a field guide. So it's been a bit surprising to hear other calls and songs going on out there that might be typical but all the guides and recordings glossed over (like the typical male rattle of a breeding yellowthroat) or maybe even a song or call that the species rarely ever makes.

The past two mornings I've been out trying to watch this extra secretive female yellowthroat and seeing where she's building a new nest (her old one had a predation; mmmm yummy eggs). She has absolutely tested and broken my patience level. At the same time, she's in a great habitat spot for birds in general - it's wet, there's also a field full of tall grass, there's a hidden trail nearby in the woods, and it's seems there might be a field nearby as well. This spot has had yellow-throated vireos, red-eyed vireos, scarlet tanagers, indigo buntings, an abundance of woodpeckers (saw a pair of pileateds today loudly exploring the trees), solitary sandpipers moved through in May just nearby, and a kingfisher has been going back and forth recently. I also had the surprise of hearing a black-billed cuckoo's song ringing through the woods there about a week ago!

Yesterday morning I began hearing this quiet yet persistent call that never seemed to stop and went on for over an hour. It was pleasant to the ear, but it was strange that in all my birding in similar habitats I had simply never heard this before. I've never heard it in recordings, either. It could best be described as sounding like "TSITSI doom," with the TSI notes being distinctly separate but repeated very quickly as half-notes. The "TSI" had a chiming, high-pitched quality, much like you would find in a chickadee or kinglet. The "doom" was interesting - it wasn't really musical, but instead sounded like a mix between a kiss and a soft knock on hollow wood. It was far enough away yesterday that I only heard the phrase and it sounded as if there was a pause between it, but I found out today there wasn't a pause...this bird would 'say' the phrase and then sing the "doom" note at regular intervals with pauses between them, much like this: "TSITSI dooom...dooom...doom...TSITSI dooom..." and so on. It would also sometimes throw in an extra "TSI" before the phrase.

After two hours of trying to find this female yellowthroat she had disappeared for a good long while...I'm convinced yellowthroats have perfected teleportation technology and use it frequently, suddenly re-materializing far away from where you last saw them. While she was gone, curiosity got the better of me, and I lurked to the woods to follow this incessant call. I stood under the only opening in the trees I could find and hoped for the best and pished away. Surprisingly, the bird plopped onto the branch just above my head and called again! I looked up, and saw the white breast and belly, and pale yellow vent and the rather large size, and then it peered over the branch, showing off it's red eye, black eye-stripe, white supercilium, and black bordering the supercilium. I was rather surprised to see a red-eyed vireo peering down at me, though the persistence of this call led me onto a vireo yesterday as a wild guess.

I don't know what to make of it still. I've googled and googled but everything only references the robin-like song and it's "MEEeeer" whining descending call. I have not sat with the Macaulay library yet, but things don't seem promising with the lack of literature from the most knowledgeable birders that have existed.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Migrants Galore - Betar Byway

With it being sunny and near 80 degrees this morning, I couldn't help but to go outside. In fact, I headed all the way to the Betar Byway in South Glens Falls. I'm here about every three days - ever since March the number of species has been slowly increasing.

Until now. Now they have massively exploded! I am unsure of why I was thinking I wouldn't see anything unusual today, though I haven't paid much attention to the weather forecast either, besides enjoying a day of thunderstorms and some overcast skies and cooler weather. I didn't even keep up with Hudson-Mohawk birds, which would have obviously alerted me to the mass migrant influx - there are many other birders' posts currently discussing what migrants they are seeing nearby.

So imagine my surprise when even from the step out of my car I start hearing migrants that are first-of-season for me. Not even a kid in a candy store could have been that overjoyed. My walk took me twice the time it has been, because I was extremely careful to make sure I got every bird I could today.

Betar Byway is now inundated with yellow-rumped warblers (aka butterbutts, a nickname I recently became amusingly acquainted with). I couldn't be happier - the past two years, I never really got many. Today I couldn't walk anywhere without either seeing a pair hanging out with each other, or an individual eating inchworms. I'm still not entirely familiar with their song, so I had a great time just listening to all of them. They sound like quiet, bored American goldfinches, or maybe a goldfinch with a classier, more refined song, and the trilling quality is of note. I also noticed they sometimes have an end note higher than the rest of the song, though it quickly drops to finish the song out. It is not all that distinct, so keep an ear out for them.

Betar is also loaded with, yes, goldfinches, and cedar waxwings, but those guys have been there. There were also a ton of grackles, which was not surprising (but fun). Also of actual note in enormous numbers now, which IS notable as part of the recent influx, is the tree swallow. I had nearly two dozen of them today!

White-throated sparrows are also now moving through the area in large numbers and this is not just taking place at Betar. It always confuses me to hear the "Oh sweet Canada" song this time of year.

The other notable migrants at Betar today are as follows:
- common yellowthroat - I had one calling (do not confuse with the Carolina wren - wren songs tend to be longer, less distinct, and the 'wit' on the end of the yellowthroat's call distinctly separates it from that of the wren), and badly wanted to go find it, but I was being watched be fellow Byway walkers and the yellowthroat was on private property. Damn.
- yellow warbler - one small male sitting right at eye level, singing loudly.
- red-eyed vireo - only one calling. I had to stick around and listen to make sure I was even hearing a vireo - guess I was just that amazed.
- black-throated green warbler - called right near my car, once, and never again.
- Empidonax flycatcher - of course, it wasn't calling! I watched it glean for a bit and gave up.
- broad-winged hawk - only heard calling. Had I not heard one yesterday in Corinth, I would have thought a silly blue jay was messing with me.
- double-crested cormorant - there was a pair in clear view swimming around the river and where the inlet meets the river. The male even had his crests!
- ruby-crowned kinglets - we had these last weekend at Bog Meadow, so I wasn't as surprised, and I had them last year here for a week. I was still excited, knowing this might be my only chance to see them at Betar this year, because they will likely move on soon. I got a great sighting of one today, with it's white (broken?) eye-ring, gold-dusted wings and uppertail, a white wingbar, general "angry" look...and then it scolded me harshly before hiding in the brush.
- eastern kingbirds - I nearly passed the first one off as a large phoebe, then decided to have a second look and spotted the obvious white tail tip. Duh.
- swamp sparrow - I listened for a LONG time to the trills I heard today. There was at least one at a hidden vernal pool (I know if it's existence mostly due to hearing a massive amount of frogs there last week) with a loud trill a bit more musical than a chipping and blatantly fading at the end.
- chipping sparrow - a few of these with their mechanical trill, unless I'm wrong and there were a few pine warblers hiding where there are no pines.

Also notable, but has been there for a month or so, was a lone pied-billed grebe. I had seen two grebes in a pair earlier in the month, so maybe this one was just out for a dive. I also spotted a flying cooper's or sharp-shinned hawk - assumption would lead me to sharp-shinned, as J. and I had spotted an adult last month, and I had a juvenile sharp-shinned earlier this month. And just because they are fun, I will note the belted kingfisher and brown creeper. There are also so many other species to note there - plenty of woodpeckers, for example. That Byway is absolutely worth going to at any point of the year, any weather, as it is a very bird-riddled spot.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Trip to Binghamton, NY and PA

Birding this year has been insane. In a fantastic way. I started in March (I really need snowshoes, being indoors all winter drives me nuts) and on my first evening of the season, got a woodcock calling and flying right past my head! The excitement and great sightings has yet to slow down, and I doubt it will, as it's only the very beginning of migration.

So now I get to play catch-up with all this rain and cold weather. This has been extra amusing in a ridiculous way for me - Saturday night the driver's side window on my car broke, and I've been without a window to roll up all week. This did not stop me from transporting my old Dell and some magazines out to my best guy buddy on Sunday and Monday, who lives just across the NY border in Friendsville, PA. The drive was horrendous though. One really has no idea the amount of deafening road noise and intensely cold wind surrounding a car on a highway until there's absolutely no way of getting away from it. I probably looked battered and beaten after my three hour drive.

It didn't stop me from birding while out there, although it was bitterly cold to the point of even sleeting on my trip's second day (I spent it at my old college stomping grounds in Oneonta, NY). Saturday was low-key, as I was more focused on my friend and our eating adventures, and despite him not being a birder, he took interest in what was around him, having me point out the different species we were seeing, which I had a blast with. Binghamton and Vestal, NY of course get a lot of crows and starlings.

His lake-side house in Friendsville, PA was quite a different treat. During the day Saturday we walked around a small portion of the lake (I'm guessing it was the east side, at least by map) despite winds blowing at a fairly consistent 40 mph. Not a lot of birds, but the lake offered up three ring-necked ducks (a male and two females). American robins hung around on the road, and a red-winged blackbird called in the distance. When I later left at 2 AM Monday morning, I got to point out to him an American woodcock that was persistently calling down the road from his house. My friend had then mentioned that he's heard that call many nights for years. I must say I'm a bit envious.

Monday birding in Binghamton was terrible, though I also had a hard time finding any birding spots there. I used ebird to find one nearby urban spot, and my guess is it's fairly good for waterfowl on a day when the Susquehanna River isn't rushing, as I only had a few Canada geese.

Monday afternoon I spent in Oneonta, NY and the birding was surprisingly bad there. It's also off-season for Franklin Mtn's hawk watching and so their feeders were also down. I had also visited Emmon's Pond Bog nearby, and while I love the walk, I was bombarded with sleet the entire visit and thus got very few birds, all common. If you ever get to go out there, please visit the bog, even if the weather includes things like hurricane-force winds, tornadoes, or even lava. That bog is something to see, and even though I had not visited it in three years, it had haunted my mind.

Next blog, which I promise will be soon (within the week, I swear), will be about my birding trip on Saturday to Bog Meadow Brook Trail in Saratoga Springs, NY with Rich Speidel and a bunch of fellow birders. Good times were seriously had by almost all (except that one guy that complained about the cold the whole time).

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Young Birders

For first mention, earlier I did not go birding. Can you believe I'll actually ever admit to that? Downsizing my belongings came first as I begin a new era of my life (starting my CAREER). However, that did not leave me bird-less. My storage unit is hidden away behind a major highway in West Glens Falls, with a small corridor of trees in between. It is seemingly hostile to songbirds, but the corvids were out there while I was re-packing. Four ravens hung around at first, and left a short while later. Some crows came by later. Two were certainly calling as American crows. IMagine my surprise and delight when I third with a higher-pitched voice called out, "uh oh!" four times before leaving! I suspect I was met with a fish crow. It has been mentioned to me that they are randomly, uncommonly spread throughout the area.

This past week deserves it's own entry, which will come soon. I had about 5 days of FANTASTIC birding at the Betar Byway. Certainly get yourselves there if anywhere in the vicinity. And make sure you span that river!

The issue currently bothering me is one I have been asked by many older birders as of late. Me being young and into birding makes me a bit of a circus act, which I find mildly irritating. Though, I can't really blame anyone as I myself occasionally notice the lack of youth in ornithological/birding circles that I show up in. But age has often been brought up to the point of distracting me from the real reason I even go to events and walks in the first place - to talk about birds and all issues relating to birds!

So I'm often asked, how do we get more young people like you into birding? I have thought long and hard about this to the point where I'm probably causing brain cells to implode. Environmental education is prominent in my field, and often creates decent jobs for people with my education and background, and this is the question most needing an answer if one is to be a successful educator.

After hours of thinking, pondering, going back over my life, remembering all the psychology articles I've read, this is going to be my answer: I just don't know. That's right, I have no idea. Sorry, older birding folk, I don't have the magical answer. I can't speak for all youth. I know that's horribly disappointing, but there's not much I can do about it. I would prefer you ask youth themselves how they might be more interested. Not that they would even know. And I myself am an outlier. I did not care to be popular in school, and I succeed academically far above most of my peers, and I was much more introverted than most of them. I really wouldn't have a clue how to get "the cool kids" into something likely seen as very "uncool" to their peers. I can bet, unfortunately, that to them birds are still those horribly sewn emblems on a crappy sweatshirt that their grandma wears.

Even worse, I grew up as a gamer. Heavily into gaming, at that. I remember playing videogames for hours after getting out of school (homework first!). I lost track of how many times I beat Tetris and Super Mario Bros. I probably played every first-person shooter made for every Nintendo system before Nintendo 64 was made. This horrifies the pro-outdoors-for-children anti-tech anti-videogames crowd that has become trendy in the past few years. I also like to tell them I would also spend hours watching videos on MTV (videos on MTV?! remember those?). I don't remember hiking as a child or teen, and while I do recall playing on playgrounds periodically, I am not sure I really spent much time outdoors overall. You will not hear me joining this crowd that totally abhors anyone under the age of 30 playing on a computer for even two seconds, nope. Never.

I do have ideas. Youth love technology. They love gaming and the Internet and social media sites. Appeal to them through those, and you're halfway there. But also don't talk to them through those sites like you're a boring grandma, either. Appeal to them with the gross stuff, the cool stuff, the fun stuff. Weird things they can tell their friends about. Make your Facebook pages and your Twitter accounts - abhor these, refuse to use them, and you're already losing the battle. And while you're using technology to appeal to younger people, don't forget that nothing compares to real life experiences. People of all ages love seeing birds up close. Your organization does banding? Invite some kids to check the birds out. Set up programs to have rehabilitators show their birds and talk about them. Put some feeders up and point out the birds to younger people. If you're crafty, look around at the cute styles that appeal to youth, and make crafty bird things.

I have less ideas about how to get young people to actually join Audubon chapters and really get involved in the more political side of conservation issues. That's an interest that just came naturally to me. Going green is trendy right now, and I suspect actually getting youth involved in conservation efforts, such as getting school classes involved, might do the trick. I do recall being forced to volunteer for my health class in high school - maybe Audubon chapters can find out of their local schools do this, and offer to let students partake in chapter conservation efforts to fulfill that requirement.

I've also noticed just being young and into birding sparks an interest in even younger peoples' minds. I frequently bird a very busy walkway, and I've become somewhat of a regular in the minds of non-birders. Younger kids, especially younger girls, have excitedly exclaimed, "Look, she's birding!" I'm not sure exactly what appeals to them so much about seeing me with my binoculars, but I'm glad it has an effect.

But most of all, I ask that you stop focusing so much on age. I understand that you may worry that your chapter might not survive at some point because of the older ages of your members. But it is this intense focus on age and the demands on the young that already are motivated and passionate in the birding world that drives us somewhat nuts. I almost feel as though older birders feel as though I owe them an explanation. I don't have one. I simply followed what interested me, with some help along the way. The same pathway I took takes people in all sorts of obsessive, passionate directions. Mine just happened to be birds.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Last Snowstorm of Winter?

Last night and today the Glens Falls region got pummeled with snow and sleet, complete with wind blowing that stuff sideways! When I left work last night at 10, you could not see to drive and the roads were terribly slippery. I'm not sure how I ever made it.

Today I spent hours shoveling a foot of snow out of the driveway and off my car. I cursed Mother Nature for this, wondering why I wasn't going to be allowed to see many birds for yet another day. And then, as a neighbor was saying something similar, above his head I caught sight of a bird with a large wingspan, showing white and black underneath. I completely ignored the neighbor at that point to realize I was staring at a turkey vulture (first one for me this year!) soaring through the thick snow.

Not long after, while attempting to break through a sheet of ice in front of the house, I suddenly heard a cacophony of calls close by - a large flock of house sparrows had visited bushes in a nearby yard. I guessed they might have been looking for food.

I had to take a phone call after all my shoveling was finished, and found that it was warming, the snow began melting, and the sun came out. I peeked outside near the feeder, and caught sight of a male and female cardinal, dark-eyed juncos, house sparrows, white-breasted nuthatches, and black-capped chickadees making all sorts of calls and looking for the last bit of food that may have been left in that feeder. It was as if they were gathering together to cheer the hopefully last snow of the winter.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Winter Lull

I had quite the break there, and so did the birds around the house for awhile. But I am back, just as the birdsongs are...for the past three weeks I have woken to sweet songs of the cardinal (now singing the 'purdy purdy' song, which sometimes gets lengthened to 'purdy purdy, pew pew pew pew'), song sparrows (who don't call all winter), and the Carolina wren, which almost always sounds like a car alarm. I am not even sure where the wren had gone to, they stick around all winter but mine had disappeared for about a month. Seems the utterly nasty weather as of late might have made them sparse from an open feeder. The juncos also came back around yesterday to feed, loudly trilling any time I snuck outside but not flying off. Seems they trill just to alert each other but are not afraid.

I've had a pause in my outdoor surveying adventures, but only to begin Operation Environmental Position. In the 3 years since I've graduated college I have amassed enough money to feel comfortable following a more adventurous route and to get into the field I love the most! Working a full-time and a part-time job and doing the full-time job of searching has left me unable to put aside day-lit time as of late. It also doesn't help that there has been a rash of amazing albums in the past few weeks (if at all interested, please check out Sean Rowe: his music is beautiful and he's a fellow naturalist type!).

Things are also getting exciting bird-wise locally. This year is the first Winter Raptor Fest for Washington County, a two day festival all about the birds that so dearly need human attention in order to keep their populations up, as the habitat they depend on is rapidly diminishing. There will be all sorts of demonstrations of birds, talks, and fun activities (I'm psyched about the sleigh rides). I already got to check out one of these demonstrations a few weeks ago at the Aviation Mall which included great live birds and great people who are helping them. If interested in going, it's next weekend, March 12th and 13th at the Little Theater on the Farm in Fort Edward. I highly suggest it, you won't be disappointed! You'll be supporting the birds I myself have surveyed and watched hunting and perching majestically throughout that habitat.

I'm also happy to say a piece I wrote was recently submitted to the Southern Adirondack Audubon Society's newsletter, The Fledgling. Hooray for me! I'm obviously into science/nature writing, so this was a great opportunity.

Pardon me if this entry was more of a promo piece. There are just great things happening now even in the depths of winter when bird activity is at the lowest. Soon enough the snow will be melted enough and I will be able to post more about what the birds around me are up to. I can hardly wait to hike the local forested mountains, take in a warm breeze, and be surrounded by the calls of many warblers.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Carolina Wren

I've taken a bit of a break from birding, as temperatures recently dipped to -27*F overnight, and not rising much above zero. That is a bit much for this birder, even despite being hardy enough to accompany J. on three major surveys in recent weekends.

This winter has brought me an ability to answer the confusing question non-birders love to ask: "What is your favorite bird?" I find this an odd question. How can one choose, when one loves all birds? As soon as you choose, the personalities and songs and memories of visual observation of another species often comes back to haunt you.

But there is one whimsical character I cannot seem to ever get enough of. And this is the Carolina wren. I don't know how I never spotted them last winter, as they were in the back of my mind, with memories of my first encounter with one being during summer banding. There are notes back to the early 20th century that show that they were first beginning to invade New England around that time, not more recently. And yet, they seem to be here in droves. I can't walk far without encountering a spot I have seen them (unless in very urban areas or very rural). They seem to enjoy thick brush with bare branches located near water.

Two have planted themselves in the backyard here for the winter, apparently a male and female pair. I spotted them again the other morning. Both were perched on bare stems of a lilac bush, fluffed into tiny balls to protect against the frigid air. They were of rich chestnut brown spotted with lighter hues, and broad, obvious off-white long eyebrows. The apparent male bobbed up and down in Oompa Loompa style, and making a chirping trill. The female, quiet and still, gazed up at him as if to mock him. They finally did not seem to mind my presence; earlier in the winter they would take off at first sight of me. They may have also been unwilling to leave the bit of food they can find during this awfully harsh winter - the post stocked full of their favorite suet right by said bush.

I've also enjoyed their skill at hide-and-seek. They will call from a conspicuous branch, loudly, with their rolling variations of the "tea-kettle" call. Then they will take off, as if to attempt to lure you into their game, and then easily blending right into the background, even if still in plain view, as they are often the same exact brown hue as the trees they hang around. J. and I once spent probably almost 20 minutes attempting to find one in a thick tree with absolutely no luck, despite the bright, clear, obnoxiously loud car alarm songs they're more apt to make during the warmer months. I usually make no effort to find them when birding alone, knowing full well that they are better at the child's game than myself.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Winter - I Lied

Actually, winter is kind of awful. This is my first winter spent regularly birding, and well, no sir, I don't like it. I love the species we (J. and I) have been getting, species I would not see here in the warm months, but that's about all I love about winter birding. And for those of you reading this from outside my local area, winter here means blustery, bitter cold winds, temperatures hovering around 20 degrees F, and plenty of snow. That can easily mean wet, frostbitten extremities if not careful, hypothermia, and a general feeling that maybe one should be in hibernation. I find the combination of wet hiking boots and socks with extremely painful toes, the biting wind freezing you right to your core, and that wind blowing directly into your face to the point where your eyes water almost as intolerable as having the stomach flu. Not to mention the lighting in winter is horrendous - it's nearly impossible to ID most birds that are even only a few feet from you without a decent-powered scope - hawks far away in binoculars are absolutely laughable.

With that said, I've been blessed with J. having borrowed a scope apparently from Audubon peoples for our Fort Edward IBA surveying adventures. He also has great raptor identifying skills (and other winter bird ID knowledge), which I currently lack. I can bet if all of that wasn't in my winter birding, I wouldn't even be bothering! If you haven't yet been out to the Fort Edward IBA region, I highly recommend it, as long as you have every piece of winter clothing you can find in your nearest sports gear store. There are uncommon birds to be seen out there that you might not find in many other spots, since grassland habitat is disappearing.

I've had great joy in finally seeing snow buntings and horned larks. These are species entirely new to me in person, and seeing them in big foraging flocks makes it even better. Snow buntings are likely the cutest species in the upstate New York region, with their beady little black eyes on white or tan backgrounds, and a blending of mostly white with various brown and blacks on their tiny bodies. Seeing their flock from a distance, you can easily ID them after watching them for only a short time as they have a distinct feeding habit that looks almost as if they are giant fleas - hopping up into the air, fluttering for a moment, to land back down nearby. Upon closer look, you find out that they fly up only to reach nearly the top of a tall blade of a grass, grasp onto the stem, so that their body weight pulls the dried plant down to the ground, where they sit on it and eat the seeds on the top. This feeding task is repeated over and over by nearly every individual in the flock, and is quite entertaining to watch as it seems as though it takes great detailed skill.

Horned larks don't seem as distinct from a distance, and in poor lighting, can apparently be misidentified as a flock of plain brown starlings. Look closer though, and focus on the faces of winter birds. Despite a plain-appearing body, they have stark yellow on their faces and black masks (the black horns are surprisingly not all that noticeable). They hold themselves in what to me seems a slightly alert position. You can find them feeding in a fairly good-sized flock, either on the side of the road, or in piles of snow-less manure.

The raptors just unfortunately don't hold as much interest for me as they do J. I've noticed that you can usually find them perched in all parts of a tree, or in flight at such a distance that you can only ID them using a scope, and even then it can be questionable. I find this utterly frustrating, especially since buteos and accipiters when in flight are mere blends of white and black at different parts of their bodies. We do get the occasional Cooper's or Sharp-shinned hawk (habitat seems to scream Cooper's to me), usually without positive ID of one or the other, as they tend to be perched and hiding their tails. The rest are red-tailed hawks (best sighting this winter was me silently pointing to a terrified-looking juvenile snacking away at a deer carcass only a few feet from the road), northern harriers, and both light and dark phase rough-legged hawks. Owls are noticeably absent, though I guess in years past the IBA has been productive with snowy and short-eared owls.

My favorite winter sighting so far, however, occurred earlier today. I was standing around freezing nearly to death while J. was being much more attentive to surveying. I was convinced that death was imminent. Then my mind decided to drift, and I thought the 'summer song' I was hearing was a figment of my imagination, a wish for the warm months with the hot sun beating down on us, listening to all kinds of insects buzzing in the humid windless atmosphere. I have no idea what brought me out of this dreamland, but I realized I was still hearing that song and went following it, realizing what it likely was. It was a trill somewhere between mechanical and musical, and buzzy. I threw my (sadly broken) binoculars upon it's location, and gasped - the large bird, straw-colored and yellow and black, jumping up into the air and fluttering while singing, over and over, was not a sight one would even expect to see in the dead of a NY winter! A lone male eastern meadowlark, bouncing up and down in a tiny patch of bare dirt by the road, seemingly desperately calling out for one of his own species. I felt rather sad - can it handle the winters here? It is out of it's supposed winter range here. And what was it doing already in breeding plumage? So many questions, with no apparent easy answers. I again felt that death was imminent, but this time not my own.