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.

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