Sunday, December 28, 2014

December 27/28 - two more year birds and a beaver tree.

Ann and I went upstate a little way on this last weekend of the year to try to add a couple more birds to my 2014 NY year list. After going to our local farmer's market Saturday morning - which not too surprisingly was a bit sparse this post-holiday weekend - we headed up to Ulster County. Specifically, we went to the Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge near Wallkill. This old army airfield, near the scenic "Gunks" was formerly called Galeville and is close to the Blue Chip Farms horse breeding farms. As the days left in the year are dwindling to just a few, so are the possible additions to my year's bird list. However, I knew I had an excellent chance to pick up two species here - Rough-legged Hawk and Short-eared Owl. We arrived a few minutes after 2:00 pm. All the blinds we could see scattered around the grasslands seemed to have long lenses sticking out of them. Ann and I settled ourselves in the main parking area on one of the old runways and watched and waited. Northern Harriers were hunting all around the fields. A birder/photographer who was set up in the parking area said he had seen Rough-legged Hawk earlier, but no Short-eared Owls yet. We enjoyed the harriers while we continued to watch. Finally, I spotted a dark phase Rough-legged Hawk perched in a tree quite a distance away. Even with the spotting scope it wasn't much more than a large dark lump of a buteo. Then local birder Ken McDermott arrived. I knew from eBird reports Ken had seen both of my target species there the day before. Ken told us the Short-ears had become active at 4:05 the previous afternoon,so we figured we still had a bit of a wait. However, the owls decided to start hunting earlier today, because at 3:05 I spotted one coming in from the north, the direction Ken said to watch. Soon there was another Short-eared, and another, and another. I am not sure how many were hunting over the fields, we estimated at least a half-dozen, but it was hard to be sure of an accurate total since birds were constantly dropping out of view on to the ground or behind rises in the terrain as they hunted. Certainly, at one point we had five in view at once over one small portion of the grasslands. While enjoying the show, I spotted a large bird in a distant tree, which through the spotting scope was a nice light phase Rough-legged Hawk. Though distant, it was a nicer view than the earlier bird. As sunset approached we drove over to Blue Chip Farm, where Ken told us there were three Snow Geese on the fields with the Canada Geese - two adults and an immature. The Snows stood out and were easy to spot.

On Sunday, following a suggestion from Sean Sime, we drove to Stissing Mountain near Pine Plains in Ulster County on the east side of the Hudson. We were hoping to find one of the Golden Eagles that regularly winter in this area. We had no luck with the eagle - it was overcast and not very good flying weather for big raptors - but we did have a very nice walk in the Nature Conservancy's Thompson Pond preserve. We have been here before, but not for a few years. When I got home this evening, I checked my records. I knew my life Golden Eagle had been at Stissing Mountain years ago with the late Tom Davis, my birding mentor. My records show Tom and I saw two there on December 28, 1974 - forty years ago to the day. It would have been fun to celebrate that anniversary with another sighting!

Ann and I did have one fun sighting of a non-avian nature on the walk. Near the shore of Thompson Pond, not far from the trail Ann spotted a large tree that had been almost felled by a beaver. We didn't see the beaver, but its chewing on the tree was unmistakable.

Beaver gnawed tree, Thompson Pond.                                                       © Joseph DiCostanzo
Close-up of beaver workings.                                                                                     © Joe DiCostanzo
Ann and I had a fun weekend in the field. The Rough-legged Hawk and Short-eared Owl put my year list for New York State at 307, my best one year total in New York since birding with Tome Davis forty years ago when Tom was the first birder to break 300 in a year in New York. It was a much harder task in those days when there were many fewer birders in the field finding birds and it was decades before the Internet and cellphones made discoveries on rarities almost instantly available to everyone. I have three days left to add to my total and Sean and I are planning one more hunt around Long Island, so I may still pick up some before midnight Wednesday.

Friday, December 26, 2014

December 26 - Merry, MERRY, Christmas!! - Couch's Kingbird in NYC

I was having Christmas dinner with my family in Brooklyn yesterday evening when my cellphone rang with a call from Sean Sime. I thought this must be something strange for Sean to call me during Christmas dinner - I knew he was also having Christmas dinner with family in New Jersey. He was calling to tell me about a report of a possible Couch's/Tropical Kingbird in the West Village in lower Manhattan. The bird had apparently been present for weeks, but had not been seen by any serious birders until a photo was sent to Gabriel Willow with a question about it possibly being a Western Kingbird. Gabriel recognized that it was either a Couch's or a Tropical Kingbird, only safely identifiable by voice. Word was now circulating about the bird. I told Sean I would certainly try for the bird this morning and would keep him informed. (Sean did not know if he could get in from New Jersey today.)

Ann and I got home from Brooklyn late last night so I was not up as early this morning as I had planned, but I figured, if the bird has been around for weeks, and it apparently was most regularly seen in the late-morning, I did not need to get there at sun-up. I had just finished breakfast when Sean called to say the bird had been refound a few blocks from its original location (Washington St. between Jane and Horatio) and that it had been heard calling and was definitely a Couch's Kingbird. I told Sean I would be hoping on the A subway train. (Sean said he had permission to temporarily abandon his family in New Jersey and race in for the bird.) On my way to the subway, I called a few friends to make sure they knew about the bird. John Walsh, hadn't heard but as I was going into the subway he checked his email and told me it had just been posted as being seen back at its original location on Washington St. The ride downtown was frustrating because of delays on the A train, but I finally made it to 14th Street and 8th Ave. Coming out of the station, I received a text from Sean that he had gotten in to the city, seen the bird, and was already headed back to New Jersey to rejoin his family. As I arrived at the corner of Jane and Washington I met other birders who told me the kingbird had flown off about five minutes earlier! This started a frustrating wait of over an hour watching for the bird with an ever increasing number of birders arriving all the time. Finally, the bird reappeared and for the next 45 minutes or so put on a fabulous performance hawking insects from the bare trees, mostly in the center of the block on the west side of Washington St. The bird then flew up to a taller perch closer to Horatio before disappearing onto the roof of 99 Jane St. At that point I called it quits andf headed for the office.

Couch's Kingbird, New York City, December 26, 2014                                                              © Joe DiCostanzo
This was # 305 for my New York year list and # 414 for my New York State list. Incredibly it was my 11th new bird for the state this year! I am normally happy to get one new bird for the state in any given year.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

December 25 - Merry Christmas!

No birds or natural history notes today - at least not yet - just a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from Ann and me.

Right now, here in Inwood, about an hour after sun-up the rains of the last two days have finally stopped and the skies are clearing in the west. With a predicted high temperature approaching 60, it looks like it is going to be a lovely day! (Slipped in some natural history after-all.)

[UPDATE: Just before 10:00 am spotted from our apartment window, two Bald Eagles soaring over Spuyten Duyvil.]

[UPDATE 2: Visited my family in Park Slope, Brooklyn in the afternoon. While putting packages in the trunk of the car to move on to one of my sister's home for Christmas dinner, heard and saw Monk Parakeets and a Common Raven calling and flying over. The raven was new for my Kings County list - number 275. When I used to live there years ago, I never would have dreamt of the possibility of a raven in Brooklyn!]

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

December 23 - early Christmas presents

Just over three weeks ago, on November 30, I picked up three year birds to get to 301 for the year in New York State. Though I have down some birding since then, I hadn't picked up any more year birds until Tuesday, December 23. My friend Sean had to do an errand on eastern Long Island that wasn't far from St. Charles Cemetery in Farmingdale. Barnacle and Greater White-fronted geese have both been seen there recently and Sean and I both needed these species for the year. It seemed a good way to perhaps pick up a coupe of more year birds, so I went along. The trip was a success and we were lucky enough to get both geese fairly quickly at the cemetery with a large flock of Canada Geese. We were pleasantly surprised to find four Greater White-fronted Geese before they flew off.

Barnacle Goose (2nd from left), St. Charles Cemetery, Farmingdale                                                                    © Sean Sime
Greater White-fronted Geese, St. Charles Cemetery, Farmingdale                                                      © Sean Sime
One additional bonus for the day was a Northern Saw-whet Owl that Sean knew about at an undisclosed location. He had previously seen the owl, but it was new for my year list, so with the geese I picked up three year birds for the day and raised my total to 304 for the year in New York.

A final birding present for the day was adding a bird to my life list. It was what I call a "bureaucratic life bird". I received an email from an eBirds moderator telling me I needed to update one of my old bird lists. It seems that the "Blue-crowned Motmot" I saw in Trinidad over thirty years ago has been reclassified as an endemic species - the Trinidad Motmot - different from the motmot on mainland South America. Since I had also seen the bird in Brazil, this netted me an additional species on my world lifelist.

Monday, December 15, 2014

December 14 - Inwood Hill Park - Thayer's Gull

Yesterday on the Inwood Hill Park part of the Lower Hudson CBC, Alan Messer found and photographed an immature gull on the pier at the end of Dyckman Street on the Hudson River.. The bird intrigued Alan and after consulting some references last night he sent me some photos wondering about it being a Thayer’s Gull. I have circulated them to a few people and the consensus is that it looks good for a Thayer’s. Alan saw the bird yesterday morning around 9:45 am.

possible immature Thayer's Gull (left)                                                                        © Alan Messer
possible immature Thayer's Gull                                                                         © Alan Messer

possible immature Thayer's Gull                                                                           © Alan Messer
Opinions? If anyone refinds the bird, please get the word out. I will be looking for it probably tomorrow morning.

[UPDATE: So far I have heard from about half a dozen birders, most with experience with the species, and all have said the bird looks like a Thayer's Gull, so I have taken the word "possible" out of the title of this post.]

December 14 - Inwood Hill Park - Christmas Bird Count

Every December Adele Gotlib organizes the northern Manhattan portion of the Lower Hudson Christmas Bird Count. On Sunday, December 14 the group met at Dyckman Street and the Hudson River at 7:30 - 7:45 am. From the end of the pier there James Knox spotted, and I managed to miss (!), what was easily the best bird of the day - a Purple Sandpiper on the rocks below the La Marina restaurant just south of the pier. This is possibly a first record for the species here in northern Manhattan. To be fair to myself, nearly everyone in the group missed the bird. James spotted it and only a couple of others saw it before it disappeared around the south side of the rocks. Everyone headed down the new bike trail to try for the bird, but it was not found again.

After the frustrating miss at the pier we broke into groups to cover different areas. Seven birders and I headed up into the woods in Inwood Hill Park, while Adele led a group along the Hudson north through the ball fields. James took others to Swindler's Cove and Highbridge Park and others headed down to Fort Tryon Park. The eight of us in the woods further divided into two groups of four to scour the woods along the ridge in Inwood. And it did need to be a scour. I have been doing the bird count in Inwood for about twenty years now and this was probably about the quietest I have ever found the woods. A few titmice, even fewer chickadees, White-throated Sparrows, White-breasted Nuthatch, Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied woodpeckers, a couple of Red-tailed Hawks were about all we found. The best species I saw from the ridge was two Red-breasted Mergansers flying over and out to the river. The most activity was in the Clove where people put out bird seed. Late-morning most of the Inwood counters rendezvoused at Muscota Marsh at the 218th Street entrance to the park, where a number of us warmed ourselves with takeout hot chocolates from the Indian Road Cafe. We did pick up a few more birds here with a Cooper's Hawk sitting in a tree across the small bay and an immature Black-crowned Night-Heron flying in to join a second immature roosting in the trees on the edge of the point. James called me on my cell at that point to ask how things were going and when people would be meeting again down on Dyckman where Adele had arranged for the NYC Parks Department building by the playground to be open for the group. James had done better than the rest of us with a Baltimore Oriole and a Black-throated Blue Warbler down by Swindler's Cove.

The group broke up at Muscota Marsh with some heading home and Adele and some heading back to Dyckman. Ann (who had joined us at Muscota) and I in to our apartment for lunch with a guest we had staying with us. After lunch I went back down to the pier at Dyckman to try another search for the Purple Sandpiper. I was unsuccessful, but did run intro Adele and some of the others again. A few of us decided to walk down the bike path along the river to its end in case the sandpiper was along the rocks somewhere. I spotted a raven flying over the Palisades across the Hudson, which I first thought wouldn't count for the day since it was in New Jersey, but then remembered, of course it did since this was the Lower Hudson Count and was not restricted to New York. On t5he way down the bike path we ran into James coming back. He had seen a Bald Eagle soaring over - another nice addition to the day's list. We continued to the turnaround at the end of the bike path and as we headed back north Adele spotted a Bald Eagle overhead. It was a subadult in an interesting plumage. It had a full white head and tail, but still had considerable white underneath the wings and on the underside of the body. I called James to ask him what plumage his eagle had been in. He told me his had been a young, all dark bird, so this was a second Bald Eagle for the day. Further up the bike path Adele spotted a western race Palm Warbler ahead of us for another nice addition to the day's list. The afternoon's birding proved to be more interesting than the morning's mostly empty walk through the woods!

Friday, December 12, 2014

December 11 - Central Park - Ring-necked Ducks and Bald Eagle

On Thursday morning, on the way to work I decided to take a quick detour to the south end of the Reservoir in Central Park. There were the usual ducks for this time of year with good numbers of Ruddy Ducks in the southwest section and Northern Shovelers along the west side. I had entered the park from West 86th Street. Much of the track on the west side of the Reservoir above 86th Street is closed for construction so I walked along the south side to the pump house near the East 85th Street corner of the Reservoir. In this corner there were a few Hooded Mergansers and three male Ring-necked Ducks. However, the best sighting, though probably not as rare as the Ring-necks, was an adult Bald Eagle circling over the middle and southeast section of the Reservoir.

Monday, December 8, 2014

December 7 - western Long Island

After yesterday's rains it was clear and cool with strong northwest winds. Ed Eden and I went out to Point Lookout and Jones Beach to try for a few life birds for Ed. We started at Point Lookout. The first breakwater out from the parking lot was covered in Dunlin. I was sorry I had forgotten my camera in the car, since it would have made a nice picture. The breakwater had a carpet of several hundred Dunlin, fairly evenly distributed over it and all facing into the wind, which meant all facing us. Scanning through the birds the occasional nearly white spot of a Sanderling really jumped out of the dark Dunlins. Then Ed spotted an even darker bird on the outer edge of the rocks - a check through my scope confirmed it as a lone Purple Sandpiper, but unfortunately it dropped down into a crevice, out of sight, before Ed could get a good look at it. We walked east along the beach towards Jones Inlet. The next breakwater had 30 - 40 Common Eiders off it. At the inlet breakwater Ed spotted his main target bird of the day, a pair of Harlequin Ducks - a life bird for him. The birds were very cooperative and gave us excellent views, swimming past us and then flying westward to the middle breakwater. Satisfied here we headed back to the car. Offshore there were a few Common Loons and Horned Grebes. On the way out of the parking lot there was a small flock of Pine Siskins flying around, evidently put up by a roving Sharp-shinned Hawk.

At Jones Beach, we first stopped at the Coast Guard Station parking lot. We scanned the island across the way, hoping for the lingering Marbled Godwit that has been present for weeks, but there was no sign of it among the Black-bellied Plovers, Dunlins, Sanderlings, and two American Oystercatchers. The hedgerow along the Coast Guard fence was quiet except for a Northern Mockingbird. We ran into a few other birders, including Sy Schiff. They told us there wasn't a lot around and no one had seen the godwit. With that negative reports Ed and I decided to head over to the West End 2 parking field. On entering the lot we immediately turned east and started driving along the north edge of the lot. In a short distance I told Ed to stop! On the pavement in front of us was the Common Ground-Dove that has been lingering here for more than a month now.

Common Ground-Dove, Jones Beach                                                                            © Joseph DiCostanzo
This was Ed's second life bird of the day. I called Sy on his cell to let him know about the dove. After a few rings he answered. When I told him where the dove was, he said: "I was photgraphing it and had to put down my camera when you called." I looked around and saw that unnoticed by me Sy had driven up in his car just a little to our right.

After a rest stop Ed and I checked out the "swale" in front of the buildings on the south side of the parking lot. We could see several flocks of landbirds swirling around the area. They were primarily Horned Larks and a good number of Snow Buntings mixed in. The birds kept picking up, flying around and then settling to feed for a minute or so before picking up again. Scanning through the birds on the ground, I quickly picked out a Lapland Longspur - Ed's third life bird before 11 am! I don't know exactly how many longspurs were there since we never saw more than one at a time, but everytime the birds landed it would it would take less than a minute to pick out a longspur. Talking to Tom Burke and others later they said they estimated six to seven longspurs were present. While walking the beach to the east side of Jones Inlet, I spotted another Longspur in a flock of Snow Buntings that landed on the edge of the dunes. At the inlet there was a good group of Common Eiders, perhaps the same birds we had seen earlier from the Point Lookout side. There were also a few Surf and Black scoters.

Later in the morning Ed and I were treated to nice views of a very white Snowy Owl. In keeping with the usual informal rules on reporting owls, I will not mention precisely where we found it, but Snowys have been found around the New York area in the last couple of weeks, but not in the incredible numbers of last winter.

Snowy Owl                                                                                                 © Joseph DiCostanzo
The above picture was taken from a good distance away and is cropped and blown-up. We gave the bird lots of space. At one point it had a bunch of Snow Buntings running around it.

In the afternoon, Ed and I headed west to Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn to try for the continuing Cassin's Kingbird still lingering there. This turned out to be our miss of the day. Another birder told us the kingbird had been spooked by a passing Cooper's Hawk about a half hour before we got there. As far as I know the kingbird was not seen again in the afternoon despite a number of birders looking for it.

I didn't add anything to my New York year list, but it was a great day's birding and any day you can get another birder some nice life birds is a good day.

[UPDATE: Ed sent me an email that when he checked his records he found he had seen Lapland Bunting (as it is known over there) in England in 2010. So he only had two life birds, plus a North American bird. Still, a very good day!]

December 6 - Inwood Hill Park

Went out for a brief walk Saturday morning before the rains started. The best, and only unusual, sighting was an immature Bald Eagle harassing a gull over the Hudson River, seen from the overlook up on the ridge.