personal essay

On Chasing

A bird gets lost or confused. A bird finds a place somewhere far out of range. A bird likes this spot for the food and company. A bird stays for however long it feels like. A bird goes home. Or dies there.

You hear about a bird. Do you chase it?

Do you immediately drop everything, put your life on hold however active? Or do you make a plan? Do you fly? Or do you only drive? Do you travel alone? Or do you prefer travel with other birders? Do you only go to public places? Or do you not blink twice at visiting a private property?

If you live in the Northeast as I, do you recall the Yellow-headed Blackbird of Stamford, Connecticut in 2014? It’s native to central and western North America, extending as far east as Michigan. The Painted Bunting of Brooklyn in 2015? It’s native to southeast United States and Central America. The Corn Crake of Long Island in the autumn of 2017? It’s native to Eurasia. Did you see them?

For those not in the know, “chasing” a rare bird or a new ABA (American Bird Association) area bird is a gamble to acquire a life bird – so especially sought by experienced birders – or to witness a historical ornithological event. The appearance of the bird can be attributed to going beyond its range during migration, a huge storm, or simply a wintering visit. A rare bird is a wonderful or shocking surprise. But an ephemeral time phase. A birder might not see it because they have no way of knowing when the bird wants to try going home. The length of stay can last an afternoon, a week, or even an entire season. Such variation is what makes chasing a gamble. A birder has to guess if traveling is worth the time and money or not. Or they just leap at it.

Birders who like chasing have an “itch.” The degree of the itch varies from person to person, usually influenced by financial privilege and/or by how far one is willing to go (literally and figuratively speaking) depending how much one’s got going in one’s life.

All this to say, chasing is stressful. In either a positive or a negative way. Thrill or anxiety – pick, quick.

Or some birders don’t have an itch. They experience nothing.

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I don’t like gambling.

Before moving upstate, I have chased only twice. The first was a Cackling Goose close to home last winter. I had to take care of something in the area. First chase, first success.

The second time, this early winter, I went for the American White Pelican at Playland Lake in Rye. I delayed a few days before driving down. No pelican in sight on any of the small islands. I lingered for at least forty minutes, walking along the lake, before I gave up and went home. The pelican was sighted ten minutes after I left. I didn’t have another chance to chase it because it flew off for good later that afternoon.

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Birders are regularly observing Snowy Owls at the Finger Lakes Regional Airport. Snowies irrupt as far down as Long Island from the Arctic (where they breed) when the small mammal populations are down.

Within the first week I moved, I visited Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, my favorite birding place. The wetlands complex was totally frozen over – I would not be “ducking” that day. Dismayed, I drove up to the visitor’s center. I learned about the Snowies at the airport while chatting with the guide.

I made my way immediately. Unfamiliar with the area, I didn’t know where to look, so I kept to the entrance of the terminal driveway. I left without a lifer.

I realized days later that I hadn’t signed up for the eBird alerts for counties in the area. Hourly, not daily. Done.

Half a month later, my friend and Saw Mill River Audubon board president Val Lyle was staying in Ithaca for a few days. I’d invited to take her around the lake to find ducks. eBird reports regarding the Snowies suddenly boosted in activity the day before our trip. We went for the owls first.

Bearing the eBird comments in mind, we went to the locations where the Snowies were sighted. Our car crawled on the roads, searching farm fields and all kinds of poles and farm equipment. We lingered at the empty hotspots.

The only bird we saw was a male American Kestrel hunting along the powerlines.

Since then, I received consistent daily eBird alerts – at least one per day, the Snowies sighted around the same locations, and a few more. The owl territory expanded. In case you are wondering why I don’t chase after them more often: The drive to the airport alone lasts 50 minutes; I easily burn a quarter of a tank of gas there and back and wandering. Not only does a drive cost a lot of time and gas, the amount of sitting is despite the constant motion feels hollow.

I only tried again this past Tuesday morning, on the 13th. Eleven alerts in one day for five different locations raised my confidence. I burned the lists’ comments in my mind, hoping to rely on the Snowies’ pattered behavior.

For two hours, I floated between the town of Varick and the airport. I went to every location at least twice. Only I to keep an eye left and right on every field, every pole, every potential perch while trying to drive straight at 30 MPH felt slightly hellish. Find the white blog, find the white blob. It could be perched on a high point, among dozens of lamp posts, telephone poles or sock poles. Or it could be sitting anywhere on the expansive ground, white-ish bird against stark white snow.

It was only when I returned home I noticed that these eBird alerts were two days behind, the checklists actually from the Sunday the 11th. Then, I received the first county alert for the 13th: someone saw a Snowy at the most frequented hotspot ten minutes after I decided to go home.

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Rusty Blackbirds are one of the fastest declining birds in North America. I can only count my sightings on one hand. It was somewhat fortunate that I saw them twice last December. The previous time, in autumn of 2015.

I stated in my last post that a male Rusty has been hanging around the Cornell Lab of Ornithology feeders. As of now, it’s been almost a month.

Unfulfilled from that horribly unproductive excursion for the Snowies, I half-halfheartedly chased the Rusty that afternoon. I wanted a little exercise from all that sitting while driving. A meditative walk through Sapsucker Woods should help. As I walked up to the Lab entrance, I balked at the idea of “the third time’s the charm.” If it weren’t the case for the Snowy, why should it be for the Rusty?

The air smelled of late winter, of lengthening sunshine. My leisurely pace crunched the fluffy snow. My breath remained invisible. Muted Route 13 traffic never lessened. A subtle breeze rattled sapling beech tree leaves. Four males Red-bellied Woodpeckers trilled, vying for territory. One trill was high-pitched – a first-year male giving his all.

A swampy aroma arose from the thawing stream behind the pond. A chickadee dee-dee-dee‘d. A female cardinal chipped. An almost familiar song erupted. I couldn’t decide if I were listening to a male cardinal or a mockingbird – I heard only cardinal, but with rapid-fire force and gurgle quality.

I crossed the bridge. A call uttered from within the shrubs before me. A mimid – a mockingbird it is, or a thrasher! I pished. The female cardinal popped up, crest fired-up. Determined to attract the mimid, I pished more.

The bird leapt to a high branch with gusto. I looked through my bins. He had yellow eyes. His music was a musically mechanical burble. The early afternoon sun shined almost blindingly behind him. I couldn’t see his plumage. But he had yellow eyes.

His gaze never left my figure. After a moment, he switched from singing to calling. He then took off and flew to perch high on a tree farther back in the woods. I lost sight of him.

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Small Things

The male mallard’s curls.

The woodcock’s call.

The kestrel’s kiting.

The Cape May warbler’s cheek.

The catbird curiously tilting its head.

The American wigeon’s muted squeaks.

The coughing of the suet-bound red-bellied woodpecker.

The hasty departure of a thousand red-winged blackbirds.

The per-chick-o-ree chorus of an American goldfinch flock.

The white-throated sparrow kicking back snow.

The accipiter’s feeder crash.

The barred owl’s stare.

The belted kingfisher’s distant rattle.

The young red-tailed hawk’s relentless pleas for food.

The male hooded merganser lowering his crest.

The aggressive caution in a chickadee’s eyes.

The spectacles of a blue-headed vireo.

The cormorant’s dragon pose.

The grackle’s walk.

The sleeping screech.

The blue of a blue jay.

The black of a black tern.

The whimbrel’s eyebrow.

The hunched great blue heron.

The black skimmer chick’s begging wings.

The chimney swift’s twittery wing beats.

The rotund silhouette of a cold junco.

The red berry poised in a waxwing’s mouth.

The rusty blackbird flipping wet leaves with its bill.

The barn swallow peering down from her nest.

The collective nap of purple sandpipers.

The winter wren’s camouflaged skulk.

The splatter from a tern’s dive.

The shoveler’s foraging circle.

The raven pair’s love chatter.

The Canada goose’s hiss.

My 2018 Resolutions

First, a review of My 2017 Resolutions (please read first).

1a/1b: I achieved the first part. Because of my Magee Marsh trip, I became more motivated to study warbler songs. I developed a multi-step learning process with several sources that specialize in both sound and sight. I did manage to memorize a few songs I hadn’t before (i.e. manage to do playback inside my head), notably Hooded and Black-and-white. Unfortunately, I couldn’t accomplish much of the second part. The cold, rainy, windy weather at Magee Marsh hampered warbler migration, hence also my chance to put my studying to the test. Then a few days after the trip, I sprained my foot. I was bed-ridden for two weeks – during the exact time-frame of the height of warbler migration. I even missed Saw Mill River Audubon’s annual Doodletown trip. I did see an Ovenbird and had a couple more good looks at Canadas. Another plus: two lifers, a Cape May and a Nashville at Magee Marsh.

2: Weekly visits to a personal local hotspot failed. The corner of the Croton Reservoir that runs along Baptist Church Road in Yorktown has good ducks. I love ducks. I  wondered what I would see and hear during non-winter months. But the road is narrow and windy and full of blind curves. And because there has been more commuter traffic in Westchester in general, there is also a lot of traffic on Baptist Church Road. I got tired of cars often missing me by a hair as I stood on the side of the road. There was no good time of day to go birding there. (DEP owns the land by the water. A routine police car admonished me for literally standing one foot off the road.) I lasted until early April. I realize in hindsight I could have gone to another part of the reservoir, but I really stood by sticking with that one spot on Baptist Church Road. I don’t particularly mind I quit altogether.

3: I got a portable GPS! Late in the year, since it was a holiday present. I’ll definitely put it to use when I drive by myself to my upcoming SMRA trip to the Adirondacks.

4: Not really achieved….not what I had in mind, at least. I did attend board meetings, having been initiated as a Board of Director in April. My state parks job had me working weekends, which, I think, did make it harder for me to connect with events and people. (Silver lining: I managed to learn more about invasive plants and trees because of this job. I even helped to remove some in parts of Fahnestock and the Highlands.) As of this month, I’ve resigned from the board since I’m moving away. So a possibility of undertaking this resolution again is shot.

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Now for my 2018 resolutions. Four/five resolutions are a lot. I simplified things.

1: Keep studying warbler songs.

2: Connect with people at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in any way I can (I am moving to Ithaca, after all) and with Chemung Valley Audubon, the closest chapter to Ithaca.

3: Purchase a scope. I regard November 20, 2018 as my five-year anniversary of becoming a birder. I’ve withheld acquiring one since I wanted to feel confident that my birding hobby will last for years to come. You see, I have science phases (geology as a child, ecology as a preteen, astronomy as a high school and college student). Unlike these other subjects, I can socialize with so many people who share this amateur ornithological hobby. That’s what makes it different. Here’s hoping. I think five years is a good milestone for acquiring a scope, an expensive but much needed investment. I do love waterfowl watching most.

The Owls of Ossining

For the first time in four years, I went owling for the Peekskill Christmas Bird Count. On December 16, I left my home at 4 in the morning – too early for even my local Dunkin Donuts – to meet Charlie Roberto and Hillary Siener at Teatown, the latter of whom works as Teatown’s Director of Environmental Stewardship. (You’ve met Charlie in my 2016 Peekskill CBC post. I failed to mention that he is the captain of the Ossining circle. Christine McCluskey couldn’t join us. She moved away recently, so it was just Charlie and me for the rest of the day after owls.)

We launched at 4:30. Our first location was near the visitor’s center. We got out of the car. The tape recorder Charlie used for years finally died on him. Fortunately, Hillary had brought a speaker with her and she connected it to her device. She played Eastern Screech-Owl.

She heard the screech first, then Charlie. Only the woods and the snow reached my ears. After another half-minute of playback, and a couple more minutes waiting, I heard the screech for myself. It was somewhere in front of us to our right. I couldn’t gauge how far away it was, but it might be enough to say that I barely heard its whinny, a phrase of descending notes. My colleagues had far better ears than mine, having more experience.

The screech whinnied and whinnied and whinnied. It merely aimed to re-claim its territory. Hearing the call in the dead of a frigid night, behind so many leafless trees, I couldn’t help but romanticize it. Melancholic, lonesome, otherworldly, spiritual.

Next, we did playback of Barred and Great Horned. No response. Still, the screech whinnied, unperturbed by the “presence” of these larger owls, unyielding to the fact that “they” may eat it.

I heard the screech even as we went back to the car. I wondered how much longer it would keep calling.

Our next stop was less than a mile away from the visitor’s center, at a gravel lot by a couple trails. Hillary and Charlie tried the main three – Screech, Barred, Great Horned – plus a fourth contender, Northern Saw-Whet Owl. We perked up when we started hearing the “Who cooks for you?” phrase repeatedly. But, based on the direction from which the call came, Hillary concluded we were hearing Teatown’s captive Barred, hit by a car some time ago.

Moon barely a sliver, yesterday evening’s fresh snow cover lighted our night vision. Ready yet not ready for birding, I relented to resting my eyes more than once as I listened. I reassured/fooled myself that doing so would sharpen my hearing. Needless to say, I’m not one to fall asleep very easily. I had to utilize my vision in case an owl appeared in the trees around us. Charlie said that a Barred has done so before in this location during a count. He with his flashlight and Hillary with her headlamp slowly waved their lights across the tree branches.

Only the captive Barred called. We retreated to the car to drive somewhere else. For the next few locations, our playback yielded nothing. Get out of the car, play Screech, wait; play Barred, wait; played Great Horned, wait; get in the car, drive. Etc.

The idea of 16°F feels like nothing. Standing still in such a temperature for a few minutes as a breeze gently wafted through did more than chill my extremities. My toes hurt so much that the pain distracted my ability to concentrate. I overestimated insulated winter boots and one pair of wool socks. Forget foot warmers – I wanted to light my toes on fire.

We drove up to Cliffdale Farm. Charlie’s phone died. Hillary’s device was near-drained as well. Charlie hooted Barred, then Great Horned. Silence.

I had the idea to imitate Screech myself. As a joke, why not. Once in a while, an SMRA colleague of mine would whistle the Screech’s calls during her walks if pishing failed and she wanted to the birds to show up for her attendees. I once tried it out myself when I chased a red morph screech at another local park. That warranted no owl but I did get harassed by chickadees and nuthatches.

I whistled the whinny a few times and then a couple tremolos. Silence.

Charlie and Hillary thought I was doing playback on my own phone. I was caught off guard that they were impressed. “You’re doing that at the next spot,” said the former.

We drove to a pond off of Glendale Road. No sooner than did we climb out than Charlie told me start. I whinnied and tremolo’d a bit and paused. It took a few tries shake off my nervousness. After no response I whistled again.

Right away, a faint silhouette fluttered into the trees at eye level. Charlie immediately shined his flashlight. I froze.

“Saw-whet!” Charlie exclaimed.

Lifer! Target bird!

I wanted to keep the Saw-whet around as long as possible for him and Hillary, and thought that continuing to whinny would help. It took great effort to control my giddiness and not laugh, thus faltering my impression. I was beyond delighted that I got up at 3:30 to forsake sleep and warmth to go owling in the cold.

This Saw-whet seemed much larger than the rescue I saw at Sharon Audubon (in general, they are 7-8 inches tall). Hillary’s first impression was Screech. But that oversized head, cutesy face, and general coloring were far too dissimilar. Amazingly, the little one stayed where it perched, studying us, questioning what exactly dared to intrude on its territory. We all positively ID’d the owl as Saw-whet.

The Saw-whet then flitted to an adjacent tree. I wondered if stopping or continuing my whinnying would be better. I settled on continuing. I heard Hillary’s phone clicking away. Charlie rushed to retrieve his camera from the trunk. After roughly ten seconds, Charlie managed to focus. On cue, the Saw-whet flew into a small clump of hemlocks to the other side of the road. We rushed over. I whinnied more, but we saw the Saw-whet no more.

I couldn’t help but jump up and down in circles. After high-fives and Charlie’s camera regrets, we hopped back into the car and resumed owling. (Hillary’s photos came out horribly blurry, unluckily.) We visited a few more places with groves of pine and spruce. My Screech didn’t entice any more owls to respond until the very last location, Hawkes Avenue. A Great Horned hooted away in the distance. The more I whinnied, the more it hooted. When I paused, it paused.

7:00 passed. Night had already well-faded into day. We moved on to diurnal birds.

Hateful Things About Birdwatching (Continued)

You forget your binoculars.

You never seem to go hawkwatching at the right time.

You sprain your foot just when spring migration fully kicks in.

The bird turns out to be a decoy.

Bothersome insects. Especially: Gnats haunt your face and ears in spite of bug spray.

Walking on a path, you do not notice a bird foraging near the path until you reach within a foot of it, and so it silently flies into the vegetation to hide away from you forever.

Every American Redstart sounds like nothing.

You excitedly observe a lifer raptor. It takes off to stoop a prey, a hateful invasive songbird, but when it returns to its perch, you realize it has in its talons one of your favorite native songbird.

A worthlessly argumentative someone who clearly knows less about birding than you attempts to assert that their ID is correct in spite of your overwhelming evidence that your ID is, in truth, correct.

You are the only birder at your work.

A birder who does not take into consideration the birds’ welfare. Example: A birder who overtaxes playback.

A birder overtaxes playback so you explain why such action is detrimental, yet the birder contentiously defends themselves.

You repeatedly miss warbler fallouts.

You repeatedly miss general migration fallouts.

Crumbs from your snack or drops from your drink fall into the crevices of your binoculars.

After certain novices recognize you for your expertise and obtain your email, they persistently send you absurd ID requests with photos or videos of questionable quality.

An obvious non-birder approaches: “See anything good?”

Alexandra: A novice birder comes up to you and asks what you’re looking at. You take your eyes off the bird to offer directions, and you lose the bird in the meantime.

Mothing: An Interlude

Ever since I started working for State Parks,  I haven’t had as much opportunity to go birding. My “weekend” is on weekdays. I’m missing every one of my Audubon chapter’s Saturday-Sunday trips and I feel deprived of my yearly shorebirds. (I still need to acquire that GPS.) When breeding season was still active in June and July, I turned to birding by ear and was temporarily appeased. But songbird action truly seems to shrink to non-existence in August.

As a way to fill in this sorry hole, I’ve turned my attention to moths. They’re all over Fahnestock SP. I see different species every time I go to campground bathrooms. I felt an itch to know their names – just like my previous itch to know the name of the little dark gray sparrows I first saw foraging in my backyard garden.

These critters are entirely new to me and so very much more difficult to get into: There are 11,000 species in Eastern North America alone. Think of Empidomax flycatchers, then times that by a couple thousand. So many subtle moths exist in the first place, then they and even the more distinctive species become worn as the season progresses. Even with photos, I want to tear my hair out because:

  1. I can’t decide between four different species; or
  2. I think I have the ID – but my moth looks so different from the one in the field guide even though it looks so similar, yet it looks not quite the same as other species on that page.

If you want to explore the depths of your self-doubt capabilities, turn to moths.

  • “How many worn Porcelain Grays have I been seeing? Are they really all Porcelain Grays? What about worn Small Engraileds??”
  • “So sure I’ve got a Yellow-slant Line, but those median lines aren’t quite as thick…”
  • “This looks so much like a very worn Sub-gothic Dart/Dingy Cutworm/Bristly Cutworm. But the posture/wingspread in the photo is different the moth’s in the guide…”
  • “I feel like I’m seeing two different moths when they’re in different lighting.”
  • “Why can’t I find this moth? What’s in my photo then?? Does it really even exist?!”

Mothing isn’t as a common a hobby birding. Thankfully, a birding friend directed me to a Facebook group wherein experienced mothers are glad to come to one’s aid.

Like with birds, however, there are also highly distinctive and colorful moths. I can believe it. It’s just like subtle butterflies. Among my flashy lifers are Blinded Sphinx Moth (the moth pushed me into getting my Peterson’s), Showy Emerald, False Crocus Geometer, Painted Lichen Moth, and Ailanthus Webworm. I have quite a few target lifers: Giant Leopard, Virginia Creeper Sphinx, Polyphemus, Rosy Maple, Graceful Ghost (for that name alone), and Early Buttom Slug Moth (again, for the name).

Unlike with birds, I can actually use my tactile sense to interact with them. This way, their existence seems more concrete. Certain species don’t mind perching on your finger. Although they may be somewhat reluctant to get on, they seem even more reluctant to get off. Some moths like the Nais Tiger are so fuzzy I feel tempted to pet them (I did pet the Nais Tiger but I barely felt the mane on my fingertip).

A huge difference between birders and mothers is that the latter IDs their subjects by Latin name rather than by common. The authors of my Peterson’s undertook the task to supply common name-less moths with common names – more of a feat, a bizarre feat, for certain moths, especially a group called the Daggers have such curious appellations (Interrupted, Funerary, and Retarded Daggers, anyone?). I’m trying not concern myself with Latin names yet. I feel that it doubles the difficulty of mothing. Even moths within the same so-called group have different genus names, such as Emeralds and Slug moths.

My life list is currently shy of 30, my last certain lifer a Pale Beauty in my own backyard. Summer is the height of moth season, but some species are active throughout autumn. By the end of that season, I do hope to return to my home-base, the birds. But come next spring, I’ll be at it with the moths again for sure!

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A friend (Forest Tent Caterpillar Moth).

Times of Trouble

On Sunday a couple weekends ago, I was trail stewarding at the Bull Hill Loop trail head, in Putnam County. I had to manage the table by myself early in the afternoon. I usually listen and look out for birds when I trail steward all day long in order to help the time pass, especially during visitor lulls. The number of species to add on my list dwindled to zero. I heard the same birds sing over and over – Red-eyed Vireo, American Redstart, Brown Cowbird, etc.

Not far into the woods, a few American Crows started cawing raucously. Sometimes they caw when simply talking with one another, but their tone hinted that they were mobbing something instead. I looked up in their direction. I couldn’t see them. The cawing continued. A small moment passed. Then a Red-tailed Hawk appeared into view overhead, followed by more than a half dozen crows.

To watch a mobbing is of the most exciting events in birdwatching. It happens all year round whenever passerines (perching birds a part of the Passeriformes order, which includes songbirds, woodpeckers, corvids, etc.) gang up and attempt to kick raptors out of the area. They boisterously call and even dive at the raptor. During breeding season, eggs, nestlings, and fledglings are easy pickings for carnivorous birds. It’s fun to watch a robin chase a jay; an oriole or a kingbird closely glide above a hawk or crow; and flocks of crows, jays, and grackles harass a hawk or owl. Sometimes even vultures – carrion eaters, of all things – get mobbed. I feel bad for them.

I’ve seen so many Red-tails during my 3.75-something years as a birder. They are the most commonly observed raptor in the lower Hudson. But I picked up my bins because why not? It’s always nice to view a raptor so up close.

A couple of the crows started to sound strangled with desperation. The group frantically chased after the Red-tail, which continued to glide, delicately evading every one of its pursuers. When I put my bins on the hawk, I could see that it tightly held a young crow in its talons.

I didn’t have more than two seconds. Mobbing scenes happen rapidly. Though the young crow looked like an adolescent, a couple weeks passed its fledgling stage. Small, with fully grown plumage. And it looked alive. Calm. Knowing struggling to be futile. Waiting for its family to rescue it.

The Red-tail and the crows headed towards the river, out of sight. I could still hear the frantic cawing. Seconds later, the Red-tail appeared overhead again. Four crows trailing behind, it swiftly glided to the north. I didn’t have time to even grab my bins, but its talons appeared empty – no black blob against a light undercarriage.

The desperation stopped right after the Red-tail disappeared. The cawing lingered, sparsely piercing the air. Some of the crows stayed close to the river. Others flew away, towards the woods. One crow, clearly a sentinel, perched high in a tree a hundred feet away from the trail head, across the the road. The sentinel craned its head to and fro. A long moment passed. Two crows flew over to the sentinel. They chatted a little. And then the three headed into the woods.

The crows remained quiet for much of the afternoon.