trips

My First Trip to Magee Marsh

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The entrance to the boardwalk trail at Magee Marsh on Friday. We had to be careful not to slip on the boards. © S.G. Hansen

When migrating warblers reach Lake Eerie, they see a rather large body of water, decide not to cross, and use Magee Marsh as a rest stop. They have traveled thousands of miles and are exhausted. Early next morning, they eat and sing upon rising, and then they fly over Eerie to Canada, where they will reach their breeding grounds.

In my previous post in which I detailed my process for studying warbler songs, I stated an upcoming Saw Mill River Audubon trip to Magee Marsh. The entire trip lasted May 1-9. I opted for the first half – from the 1st to the 5h (the 9th was my birthday and I didn’t want to spend 9 hours traveling). This trip seemed like a fantastic chance to fulfill my New Year’s resolution of observing more warblers – both the numbers and species. I hoped for at least fifteen species a day and a few lifers (keep in mind, Sibley’s fold-out guide covers 38 warblers). How about a Prothonotary or Kirtland’s?! I was thrilled at the idea of a colorful collage of warblers at eye and ground level instead of craning my head up to the canopy the entire time and suffering “warbler neck.” I felt totally confident about identifying warblers by sight. However, at the beginning, I felt anxious that the songs I studied would fly out the window as soon as I got there. Bird songs vary in the field…application takes practice.

Now that the trip has passed…. Suffice to say, I didn’t see Magee Marsh at its fullest potential. When you’re repeatedly told that warblers are trickling from the trees at every angle, and you don’t feel agoraphobic in spite of the throng of like-minded birders, you go in expecting a certain level of birdiness.

Ever since I caught birding fever, I quickly learned that expectation can be met with disappointment. The birds are unpredictable. What you get is what you get. Alternatively, the outcome might be better than what you originally sought.

Now when it comes to weather, you pray pray pray. During the weeks leading up to the trip, leaders Anne Swaim and Charlie Roberto closely followed the forecast. Initially, the weather was ideal: sunny and warm. But as time progressed, the predictions changed. The forecast eventually stuck with cold, wet, and windy. A storm was supposed to occur on Thursday, when we scheduled a ferry to Pelee Island.

We only had two “good” days out of five: Monday afternoon (my arrival) and most of Wednesday, which, though a tad cold for early May, were sunny. The other days were not great. Songbirds hate high winds, thus so do I. It was windy and overcast. Warblers don’t feel so inclined reveal themselves if there is no sun, which draws out insects. Warblers pretend they don’t exist when the wind feels like it can tear off a car door.

Though the rain didn’t start until the afternoon, our Thursday ferry to Pelee Island was cancelled. We still made a trek to the boardwalk trail spotted decent birds. Friday was the worst. It rained all day long. The wind by Lake Eerie’s shore felt and sounded like hurricane-level. The joke “Hold onto your hats!” was told one too many times.

Our hotels were half an hour away from the Magee Marsh, so we drove back and forth on Route 2 every day. We passed the same landmarks and fields and ponds multiple times. On Thursday and Friday, we could truly see how much rain was falling. The rivers and ponds rose drastically. Egrets huddled in the vegetation to escape the downpour and the wind. Another day or two of this storm and Route 2 could have flooded. Large puddles coated the farm fields. One side road was closed to due to flooding.  On Thursday late afternoon, we tried a brief visit to Metzger Marsh but left immediately. Lake waves were washing over the part of the parking lot. On our way out, a lower stretch of the driveway was flooded by several inches. It wasn’t flooded when we drove in.

Charlie and Anne mostly drove us to various hotpots around Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. Waterfowl, shorebirds, and wader birds would the warbler void. As we crept by on the narrow roads, we scanned from our vehicles through open windows. The wind blustered in. The rain pelted us, sharp as needles. When we stopped every fifty feet, not everyone ventured outside. Most of us expected actual May weather and were under dressed, even with rain pants. (I didn’t have rain paints – extra misery points for me.) I mostly stayed inside too. I made up my mind to go out unless Anne or Charlie put their scopes on something different or exciting. I couldn’t handle this read-a-book-by-the-fireplace weather any longer. The rain kept falling. Eventually, we resorted to strictly observing from within our vehicles, windows closed.

No matter the weather, actually, there were a lot of highlights as we went around Ottawa and visited Metzger during the week. I’m thankful that waterfowl, shorebirds, and wader birds don’t mind cold and wet weather. I heard Trumpeter Swans for the first time. I saw more Blue-winged Teal than I have had at Montezuma NWR. I finally had an opportunity to see Dunlin in their breeding plumage, with rusty backs and patch black bellies. I had never seen so many Great and Lesser Yellowlegs at once. We observed more than thirty Sandhill Cranes throughout our five days, flying, calling, foraging, and walking. Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons were everywhere, especially along Route 2.

We also saw an American Pipit in breeding plumage (not something you’d get in Westchester County), a great number of Bald Eagles, a flock of 40 Wood Ducks, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, a handful of Swainson’s Thrushes and Horned Larks, a large flock of various swallows flycatching all around us as we walked the beach, a Lark Sparrow and several Red-headed Woodpeckers at Oak Openings Preserve, and an Eastern Whip-poor-will sleeping mere feet away from the Magee Marsh boardwalk (a surprise lifer!).

In spite these highlights, I can’t help but feel more disappointed than content. I went on this trip solely for warblers. I spent a lot of money on it. Did I set myself up for disappointment in spite of my philosophy? On this scale, it hurts. It’s hard to escape bitterness.

I couldn’t bring myself look at the eBird lists from the 6th to the 9th. I finally asked someone who signed up for entire trip how things went. Though the weather was sunnier, the wind didn’t calm down. No improvements in warbler diversity except for a sighting of a Prothonotary. He and the others also saw Marbled Godwit, Least Bittern, and Soras. Alas, all potential lifers. Birding is fun yet so cruel.

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We spent a lovely afternoon at Oak Openings Preserve on Wednesday. Charlie found a ring-necked snake. I got to hold it! When it doubt, snakes. © Philip Heidelberger

I personally observed 17 warbler species over the course of the five days: Northern Waterthrush, Blue-winged Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, Cape May Warbler, Northern Parula, Yellow Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Palm Warbler, Pine Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, and Canada Warbler.

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We’re trying to get on a not-so-cooperative Canada Warbler. © Charlie Roberto

Many were First of Year, mostly observed on the boardwalk and the Ottawa NWR Crane Creek Trail. The Blue-winged and the Prairie were heard-only’s. I saw so many Yellow-rumped and Palm that I was done with them by the end of the trip (as said before, I wanted diversity). Expressing this sentiment aloud brought out teasing from Charlie. As beautiful as these warblers are…well, I wasn’t the only frustrated person. I also heard and saw many Yellows. I nearly confused one’s song for that of a Chestnut-sided Warbler. In fact, I was surprised to not have observed Chestnut-sided at all! I missed my favorite warbler.

One of my favorite of the trip is the Orange-crowned. The only other time I got one was more than a year and a half ago at Cape May. Although I wasn’t confident I would be able to ID it on my own, I still counted it as a lifer. It’s plumage is a subtle olive-gray. Rather drab like the Warblering Vireo. Speed forward through time, I saw up to four during this trip. These little guys were literally over my head (kind of what I generally expected for every other warbler during the trip). I had such excellent looks that I was able to notice the diagnostic flank stripes and eye line. My ID skills have definitely improved since Cape May. Additional good looks include Canada, Black-throated Blue, Black-throated Green, and Northern Parula.

I barely missed the two Blackburnians a couple others saw Monday afternoon, one of the better days. It would have been a year bird, but I’m glad to have missed it over my first-ever Nashville Warbler. I got only a glimpse of it. The Nashville didn’t perch out in the open long, though my first look was a good enough: soft blue-gray head, warm yellow throat and breast, a fine olive back, and a bright white eye ring. I had admired the bird from afar in the Warbler Guide’s photos. Seeing the Nashville personally proved again that the live bird in front of you is quite astounding. I thought I would have trouble ID’ing by sight like – and might even confuse it with – the Connecticut and Tennessee, which are the more subtle-colored warblers. Though as soon as I put my binoculars on it, “Nashville” clicked right away. I gladly present the fact that I was the only person in group to have observed it that day.

One other warbler counted as a lifer: the Cape May. I had considered it a “mythical bird” (others used to be the Barred Owl, Harlequin Duck, and Red-breasted Nuthatch). You haven’t seen it yet other people have. It’s the subject of many photos and videos. You can’t believe such a bird exists. Too much of a striking creature, simple in its own life yet profound in yours. How can this plumage pattern have formed, and those particular colors? When will you chance come?

I was lucky saw two individual Cape Mays two days in a row. The first one – someone notified me as we slowly strolled on the boardwalk and I practically ran over to the spot. I had a little trouble getting on it since flitted deep in a shrub some yards away from the boardwalk. As soon as I found, I locked my eyes on it until it went out of sight a couple minutes later. This one’s plumage was more intense than what I’d seen in my field guides’ illustrations. Strong yellow, deep orange cheek patches, and dense black breast streaks. It foraged near the front of the shrub, obligingly staying put in one spot for more than two seconds, clinging to the flimsy ends of branches upside down, pecking the underside of leaves for insects.

The next day, we had just completed the boardwalk and lingered outside the entrance. A small bird swiftly fluttering in a short tree caught my eye. At first look I noticed streaks on a yellow breast – yellow warbler – but the streaks were too dark and heavy. “Cape May Warbler!” A crowd drew around.

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Photographer eyes on the Cape May Warbler. © Charlie Roberto

This Cape May was lighter than the other, having finer streaks, cheek patches colored a more delicate orange. It foraged so thoroughly and out in the sunny open that everyone in our group got their bins on it. No one should miss this warbler or dare to give up on it when it’s so cooperative.

Of course, now I must return to Magee Marsh one future May. I have a feeling that my yearning for more warblers will never subside even after then.

Magee Marsh also seems like an extraordinary duck habitat. Thank goodness I can turn to ducks for their reliability.

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Yes, I’m smiling. It wasn’t so windy when this photo was taken. With my friend Kathleen, a luckier trip go-er who went with the flow and didn’t mind the lack of warblers. © S.G. Hansen

Visiting the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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After four and a half hours of driving, here we are. © S.G. Hansen

Saw Mill River Audubon went on a trip to upstate New York this past weekend. We visited the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca for a few hours and spent the remainder of the time at Montezuma Wildlife Refuge. I had been to Montezuma before – twice – but never to the Lab.

The Lab was established in 1915 by ornithologist Arthur Allen. Students, scientists, educators, researchers, and citizens scientists collaborate to fulfill the Lab’s mission: “To interpret and conserve the earth’s biological diversity through research, education, and citizen science focused on birds.” Perhaps you have heard about their webcams, or their informational websites All About Birds and Birds of North America. They are most known for their ornithology program, but also offer majors in, for example, evolutionary biology, ichthyology, and animal science.

The Lab is located in Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary. Early in the 20th century, Allen and artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes wanted to save the woods from logging. They purchased 150 acres after receiving a wealthy student’s donation. Allen and Fuertes chose to name the land after the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker; it was the first place in the Cayuga Lake region where sapsuckers were spotted breeding. Over time, more and more acres have been added, totaling more than 220 today.

After we arrived and checked in, we lunched by the lake. Canada Geese, Mallards, and American Black Ducks foraged for food on the gravel shore by the building. I never had such close views of black ducks. They are the second-most common ducks I see, behind mallards. In the distance, black ducks usually look like plain dark blobs. Here, I could make out the finer details of their plumage. Certain ducks such as this may not look as grandly vivid as the Wood Duck or Green-winged Teal, but they win a place in the subtle beauty contest.

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American Black Duck from inside the building’s glass wall blind. © S.G. Hansen

The only exceptional ducks were the two female Hooded Mergansers. They were shy and very aware of us. Once we reached our lunching spot, they swam to the far side of the lake and hid themselves.

We had some time to kill before our tour and walked on a trail. By this time, day passed noon. The weather was sunny but unusually warm for this time of year – the temperature climbed past sixty degrees. We had to shed multiple layers. I wasn’t surprised by the lack of activity during our walk.We saw and heard a few typical winter birds: goldfinches, titmice, chickadees, a couple downy woodpeckers, blue jays, white-throated sparrows and a white-breasted nuthatch. There wasn’t much else to see on the lake.

A Lab student studying ichthyology led our behind-the-scenes tour initially. She first showed us and talked about the large mural in the lobby and Fuertes’ paintings. We then ventured behind a closed door to a hallway of classrooms. After we spent some time in a classroom, Charles Dardia – the Collections Manager of the Museum of Vertebrates – suddenly appeared and took over as our guide. He led us into another classroom where students work on stuffing birds and preserving wings. One student was just beginning to disembowel a young robin, carefully starting to make a small incision in the skin.

My birdwatching hobby kicked off while I studied for graduate school. Ever since, I kept thinking how the birding bug bit me too late, that I could have gone to school for ornithology instead of writing, and that I think I would be capable of handling stuffed birds.

Then I went on this tour. As I watched the student progress with her incision, I saw the skin’s pink underside and started feeling nauseated. First off, I was dressed far too warmly and only brought wool socks with me. I tend to feel sick in the stomach even after removing layers. Then the sawdust and mothball aromas started to get to me. I managed to stick around long enough to see another student bring out a pair of Turkey Wings he had worked on, but I had to leave the classroom eventually.

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Newly stuffed and drying out. © S.G. Hansen

Thankfully, the next room we went in was refrigerated. The Lab keeps its 190,000 jars of preserved fish here. The Lab preserves the fish and loans them to scientists and other schools. One can study DNA and the evolution of tooth development, for instance.

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No pickled herring here. © S.G. Hansen

Then we went to a large room – the most exciting part of the tour for any birdwatcher. Yes, this is where they have the drawers and drawers and drawers of stuffed birds from around the world, sorted by taxonomy. I braced myself for the beautiful dead.

Mr. Dardia opened the drawer of Wandering Albatrosses and the most hideous odor I had ever smelled waffed out.

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“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” © S.G. Hansen

I gagged. Instant nausea. I stayed in the back of the group and kept a hand over my mouth and nose almost the entire time. Unfortunately, I missed what Mr. Dardia talked about. My mind was completely occupied by the odor and struggled to take pictures.

We got the best chance we would ever have to see these three extinct species:

 

Though I was relieved to finally exit the room, I was convinced the odor stuck to my clothes. Next, we took a look at Ralph the reticulated python, whose skeleton was mounted on the hallway wall. The skeleton’s length reached 19 feet, but, alive, Ralph was 26 feet long. Ralph could have eaten children.

Mr. Dardia had to take off, so the Lab student resumed her position as guide. She talked a bit about the Elephant Listening Project, in which acoustic biologists study the infrasounds of elephant communication. The scientists know each elephant so well that they could tell whose footsteps are whose.

Our tour ended shortly. After a break, we headed north to Auburn.

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Standing beside Todd McGrain’s bronze Passenger Pigeon statue. © S.G. Hansen

Revisiting Hook Mountain

I went to Hook Mountain for the second time last year. The numbers were a little disappointing because the air was so still. Not good winds. So it goes with raptor migration timing. We (it was a Saw Mill River Audubon trip) observed 8 species of raptor.

Only the Broad-winged Hawk barely exceeded the count of 10 (12). Most of them flew individually, but there was one group of 3, inspiring a joke that, in a situation like this, three Broad-wings make a kettle.

SMRA arranged three trips this year: two in September and one this October.

September 7 was hot and dry, and the air slow-moving. During the two-and-a-half hours, we saw only five raptor species, individuals for each species not exceeding 3: Osprey, Sharpies, Cooper’s, Broad-winged, Red-tail, and Peregrine.We also had fly-bys or Double-crested Cormorant, a Great Blue Heron, both species of vulture, and a small movement (4) of Chimney Swifts. The better parts of the trip were the hikes up and down the mountain. We heard and saw a late-singing Yellow-throated Vireo, and got very good looks at a Northern Parula and a couple Black-throated Green Warbler.

September 18 was even worse. Overcast and not much cooler. Sparse rain intermittently fell. Again, not good winds – not from the right direction. And again, the numbers were not exciting even though we waited for two hours, unless you’d count 30 TV’s a thrill: 1 Osprey, 1 Sharpie, 1 Cooper’s, 2 Broad-wings and 1 Red-tail. The hiking was quiet, too.

October 26. Autumnal colors burned against the sky and coated the mountainside. The gray-blue Hudson water glimmered.

Winds blew favorably.

Our ascent was quiet, save for a Red-bellied Woodpecker and few kinglets calling. I spotted a Brown Creeper working its way up several trees.

We stayed on the top for almost two hours. Our raptor numbers were small but more varied and constant than the September watches’. We observed a Sharpie movement – 18 in total, all individuals. They came close enough to easily determine which were adults and which were immatures. At least two fell for the owl prop, but they quickly saw through the trick and flew away when they drew near enough.

As typical, we saw a few Red-tails, including the all-year resident of Hook Mountain, as counter Steve Sachs noted. At a a certain point, we watched one Red-tail kite for up to thirty seconds. Hovering so still in one place, wings furled out, tail feathers twitching to match the wind, it looked as if it were pinned to the sky, as SMRA trip leader Anne Swaim put it.

Other raptor sightings included 1 adult Bald Eagle, several TV’s, 1 Black Vulture, and 1 Red-shouldered Hawk. I didn’t expect to see a Northern Harrier, which soared over Rockland Lake and then traveled east.

When the raptor show was lacking, the passerines filled the voids. A Golden-crowned Kinglet flitted around the lone juniper tree, deftly clinging to the thin branches. Two Purple Finches – a male and a female – fluttered over our heads. I alone heard a Red-breasted Nuthatch toot once. A Yellow-rumped Warbler flashed from bush to bush. Two individual Common Ravens flew around the mountain’s north side. A flock of half a dozen Red-winged Blackbirds traveled northward. One bluebird called a couple times. Unexpectedly, a Pine Siskin zoomed over. We were able to catch the yellow on its wings and hear its zhreeeeee call.

A chilly wind picked up as midday approached. We decided to call it quits. Just as we were about to leave, a Cooper’s Hawk slowly glided by, its crop full with breakfast. Our descent was slightly treacherous. We took care not to slip on the leaves. I nearly took a misstep on hidden rocks a couple times. A raven croaked. Blue Jays “jayed.” I found a dead junco – stiff and solid, likely to have collided with a tree – on the trail. A flock of three Golden-crowned Kinglets and a White-breasted Nuthatch foraged on low trees next. A Hermit Thrush darted through the trees mid-canopy. A Winter Wren skulked among a clump of half-rotted logs.

Early Morning at Nickerson Beach

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Adult Black Skimmer in flight. © S.G. Hansen

SMRA had a trip to Long Island. I was excited that there were only three of us: I; Anne Swaim, the trip leader; and Debbie, who had moved from South Africa to Westchester this past winter. I’d been anticipating birding for shorebirds at the beach since the songbird summer doldrums began. Debbie was ready to grab many lifers. Her U.S. list lacked shorebirds.

Our first stop was Nickerson Beach at Lookout Point. I could hear the Common Terns, Black Skimmers, and American Oystercatchers from the parking lot. At 6AM, the temperature already reached the 80s. The air felt humid. Even when we reached the shore, there wasn’t much of a breeze. Unsurprisingly, a few beachgoers had already arrived. Surprisingly, so had a couple dozen photographers, taking pictures of the shorebirds and terns.

There were a limited number of species, but the numbers were high. (Anne x’d almost half of the species on the eBird checklist.) In addition to Black Skimmers, American Oystercatchers, Common Terns, an OK variety of gulls: Great Black-backed Gulls, Herring Gulls, Ring-billed Gulls, Laughing Gulls. I turned to every call I heard, every bird I saw flying overhead.

I settled on a small group of skimmers resting on the sand near the protected dunes. They preened, lay flat on their bellies, or simply stood. Several photographers crouched nearby, a couple rather close to them, perhaps less than fifteen feet away. Many of the skimmers took no notice. Two or three harassed the nearest photographers, circling around, crying, feinting collisions. Just when one would think the skimmers would hit the photographers, they sharply veered away. The photographers, too deeply focused, kept peering through their lenses.

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This photographer did get distracted. © S.G. Hansen

 

We immediately found what Anne came here to see. Beyond the line protecting the dunes were unseen countless skimmers, terns, and oystercatchers. And their babies. “Little fuzzies,” as Anne put it. Not even fifteen minutes after the trip officially began, my day was made. Waking up at 3:30 in the morning was more than worth it. I was giddier than Anne. And I may have gone overboard in expressing my enthusiasm for the cuteness.

Many of the babies must have stayed by the nests, hidden in the dune grasses. A few were out in the open, including a baby skimmer under its parent’s belly. Baby terns – if not trailing their parents for food – ambled around aimlessly, conscious of their surroundings, but not knowing what to do with themselves.

Two juvenile terns had a tug-o’- war over a fish tightly seized in their beaks. Their wings overlapped each other’s bodies in such a way that they looked like two drunken human friends shambling away from a bar. A curious baby tern watched and followed them around. I thought their parents would show up to break them up. The juveniles remained locked.

As much as I wanted to see who would win, I moved on and caught up with Anne and Debbie. Among the skimmers and terns was an oystercatcher family. They stayed just behind protection rope. The babies had the basic pattern of adult plumage, and already their legs and beaks were already long-ish and their heads nearly black. They climbed on a flat rock. A parent began walking towards the ocean. One of the two babies followed. It suddenly turned its attention elsewhere and fell behind. The parent stopped, repeatedly calling for it to keep following. (I don’t think I ever saw the parent blink during this half-minute. It was an odd sight, this red eye, surrounded by bright orange skin, constantly open.)

When the parent reached the sand freshly grazed by the waves, and plucked from the sand a tiny shell . The baby scurried to pick the shell from its parent’s bill. As the parent gradually moved down with the shoreline, the baby tentatively trailed. After a few more feedings, the parent thought its offspring might take a small step towards independence. Rather than passing food bill to bill, it dropped the shell. The baby ran up to pluck it from the sand. And so the routine went thereafter.

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Food time, starring American Oystercatchers. © S.G. Hansen

When they drew closer to us, we moved on so our presence wouldn’t interfere with them.

We stopped to observe a flock of thirty Sanderlings, our first peeps of the day and another lifer for Debbie. The Sanderlings didn’t sprint back and forth with the waves. Instead, they fed ten feet or so from the shoreline. Previously, I had only ever seen them in their winter plumage. We took the time to study their breeding plumage, noting the rufous coloring on their heads and backs.

After a few more minutes, we decided to turn back and visit our next location. On our way back to the parking lot, we came up to the same skimmer group, now smaller and farther from the dunes. No more photographers.

We spied two babies. There was a chance of observing them being fed as we did with the
oystercatchers. We waited a bit. Anne attached her iPhone to her scope to take a video. Eventually, one of babies began following an adult walking around. The adult ignored it. The baby gave up soon after. It disappeared in a shallow depression in the sand. (Just as well since Anne never pressed play.) It may have gone after the wrong adult, or tried to follow hoping to receive food regardless.

We tried to keep our distance from the skimmers as we passed by, but a couple adults thought we weren’t far away enough. They harassed us as they did with the photographers earlier. I knew they wouldn’t actually peck at or hit me, as gulls notoriously would. Still, the feinting coupled with their yelping began to faze me and I cowered behind Debbie.

After an hour and three-quarters of baby shorebirds and terns, it was time to find the peeps.

 

The Bobolinks

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Saw Mill River Audubon goes to Dutchess County © S.G. Hansen

Recently, I went birding in Dutchess County for the first time. There were a total of eight of us from Saw Mill River Audubon, plus our guide – a member of the Ralph T. Waterman Bird Club – and his wife, who lived in Dutchess.

Very late in the morning, John took us to a friend’s property. We passed through the farmland, by corn still stubby, hay bales being rolled, horses out of their stalls. We eventually went on a curvy dirt road leading uphill. Halfway to the house, which sat in front a woods, we parked by the side of the driveway, just before the mailbox.

Our chilly start in a forest had transitioned to a hot mid-day. No clouds allowed the sun to shine to its fullest. The warm air was cooled by breezes. Before us were rolling hills and grasslands, peppered with houses boasting mowed large lawns.

We awed at being able to live in an area with such a vista. We stood to the boundary of the lawn and the meadow. A couple dozen Tree Swallows flycatched above. A Field Sparrow, too far away to locate, faintly buzzed its inclined phrase. Some forty feet in front of us a few Bobolinks sung. They sounded bubbly and gurgling, twinkled with mechanical notes.

When I was a beginner birdwatcher, one of my study methods included flipping through my Peterson’s and Sibley’s multiple times, mostly all at once in one sitting, sometimes by section. I couldn’t believe that some of these birds actually existed. Chestnut-sided Warbler, Black-necked Stilt, Barred Owl, Painted Bunting, Long-billed Curlew. I tinted them with a mythical trait. I simply had to see them firsthand. They were there – in the field guides, in the web cams, in the photographs uploaded with eBird lists. Until then, they would remain abstractly theoretical.

So it was with the Bobolink.

Bobolinks are blackbirds, related to Red-winged Blackbirds, orioles, and grackles. They spend the summers in Southern Canada and northern half of central/eastern United States, and winter in South America. Bobolinks breed in open grassy areas: grasslands, fields, meadows, hay fields – anywhere with low vegetation. They are Least Concern. But as it goes with grassland animals, they are quickly losing habitat. They eat insects, spiders, and seeds. Also rice. Southerners once called them “ricebirds” because of the amount of rice they gobbled from the rice fields as they rested from migrating.

Bobolinks are sexually dimorphic. The male is black with white shoulders (scapulars – a part of the back of the wing – to be technical), back, and rump. The back of the head is a soft, milky yellow. Females have brown and buffy plumage with streaked wings. Not as striking, but still pleasantly pretty, like any other New World Sparrow. The male’s winter plumage is similar to that of the female.

It was the male Bobolinks, of course, I desired to see. I didn’t in my first year. Where to for birdwatching around Westchester, I still had to learn. In my second, I got a brief glimpse of one on the landfill of Croton Point Park, clinging to a stalk. I was walking with a non-birdwatcher at the time, so I couldn’t linger to wait for more. Here at this point in Dutchess was my first satisfying look.

In early summer, Bobolinks usually shoot for more broods. The females stayed close to the ground, perched or hidden. The males flew around, singing and displaying their plumage. The white and yellow flashed as they soared around. One male discovered a female also in flight and immediately went after her. As immediate as the courtship started, it ended. The female flew back down to the meadow, and so did the male but at another spot.

Our attention was fully on the bobolinks. We were a group of birders ranging from beginner to more than forty years of experience, and every one of us watched in awe. One’s view of a bobolink couldn’t get any better. Their flight was as magnificent and graceful as any raptor’s.

When the bobolinks coasted down to land, they disappeared among the hip-high grasses and flowers. I heard could still hear them cheerfully singing. I waited for them to come back up. I slowly scanned the land, binoculars poised. They were quick to reappear like flushed gamebirds, and they didn’t always do so from the same spot on which they landed.

After each moment of lull the males would burst from the low and continue their display. Two began to males chase each other, flying ever so faster, sharply turning. They became wisps of black and white. Seconds later they separated, the point now across.

The swallows had moved to the air above the meadow. Soon after, the bobolinks stopped displaying to rest. We moved on to our next birding site.

Hawkwatching on Hook Mountain

Two Broad-winged Hawks soared along the eastern side of the mountain, then around to the south to head west. They reached such a height that we had to shield our eyes from the mid-morning sun. “Look for the white narrow bands on their tails,” more than one person remarked. The bands were a strong clue which birders use to identify Broad-wings while hawkwatching, besides observing the flight style. These raptors were our first for the day. Some took it as a good sign for later.

 

stevesachsphotography

Photo of a Broad-winged Hawk, courtesy of Steve Sachs. https://www.facebook.com/pages/STEVE-SACHS-PHOTOGRAPHY/117329904967633

 

Sixteen of us stood on the bare rocks, scanning the sky our binoculars and scopes, or simply looking around with binoculars ready at hand. The sky was mostly clear, an intangible blue. Small clouds took shape all around us, far away enough to not interfere. In the south-east large cumulous clouds formed. A weak haze grayed the towns beneath us. And due south, the Tappan-Zee Bridge stretched across the Hudson River.

I didn’t know what to expect for my first hawkwatch. I only read about how difficult this kind of birding was. Raptors, at quite a distance away, were hard to see, hard to identify by species, hard to make out their age/sex, etc even with good equipment. I expected I’d be terrible. I had never seen any pictures of hawkwatchers, so I imagined that all of us eventually laying on the ground (to spare our necks from getting stuck in the look-up position), holding heavy 10x binoculars (at least 10x) or looking through scopes, and constantly narrowing our eyes just so that we could barely make out that those dark pinpoints – hundreds of feet away – might be hawks or vultures or whatever.

We paused when we nearly reached the top of the mountain. Charlie Roberto – an avid naturalist who led the hike up and exposed to us salamanders from underneath rotted logs – took the chance to talk about the raptors we might see and briefly describe the clues that indicate which is which. When he finished, everyone laughed – it was simply too much information in less than five minutes. As I knew I’d be overwhelmed as well. I don’t think anyone noticed that I tuned out mi-speech.

Charlie Roberto demonstrating the flight of a Turkey Vulture. I'm the only person sitting. Courtesy of Saw Mill River Audubon.

Charlie Roberto demonstrating the flight of a Turkey Vulture. I’m the only person sitting. © William Kellner

About half-an-hour after we began our hawkwatching, we noticed a speck string of Broad-Wings soaring to the south-east. Some went in twos or threes. Others flew individually, keeping their distance from the ones behind and in front of them, up to a hundred feet. My binoculars (borrowed) were 8×42 Vortex Diamondback, a good pair for hawkwatching, according to Charlie, but right then I wished I owned a scope. The Broad-Wings were practically dots. Against the blue, they vanished. Then they reappeared, in full silhouette, as they flew in front of the clouds, a relief not just for me but for everyone. To our excitement, when we reached right of the cumulus clouds, we saw that the Broad-wings had formed a kettle.

While migrating, raptors use thermals – warm columns of rising air – whenever they can to conserve energy as they travel from as far up as Northern Canada to as far down as Argentina. They begin circling, slowly rising, rising, as if being stirred in boiling water in a pot. Hence, kettles. Depending, only one species forms a kettle. Or, there are multiple species, sometimes with a small group joining a larger. The number of raptors ranges from the double digits to the ten thousands. While birding in Costa Rica one April, Christine McClusky (who was in our group that day) said to me that she watched a line of thousands and thousands of migrating Broadwings. Quite a distance from them, she initially thought she saw was a thin cloud.

Our kettle only contained Broad-wings. It took the form of a broad tornado filled with scattered, methodically floating leaves, with each raptor soaring at its own pace. I didn’t bother counting how many there were myself – I’d never seen such a high concentration in one spot, and they kept moving. Goodness knows I’d mess up every time I reached ten. How can someone earn money from this? So much for having a hawk counting job at the Cape May Observatory. Two experienced, with scopes, agreed to having counted a little over two hundred. (They didn’t submit the eBird list I linked at the end of this post,) Even if I had already known that as many as ten thousand raptors could form a kettle, I would still be transfixed by this particular one before me. It presented a question: How did they teach themselves to do this? I asked how high the Broad-wings were. No one could give me an estimate.

I had to look away for my neck’s sake. I hadn’t keep track of the time, so I can’t remember exactly how long the kettle lasted, or when it finally dispersed or moved on.

No more kettles after that. But our hawkwatching wasn’t any less enjoyable. We mostly looked to the north and northwest. A few more Broad-wings flew by themselves or in twos or threes. Also going by were Red-tailed Hawks, Sharp-shinned Hawks, several Ospreys, one Cooper’s Hawk, and a couple young Bald Eagles (whose plumage is mostly brown with white patches). One of the birders with a scope spotted a Peregrine under a Broad-wing. Hoping to finally get a good look of this falcon, I scanned for it carefully. Blue. Still blue. And all the other the raptors soaring about. I heard everyone else exclaiming, “Found it!” Frustrated, I lightly cursed at the Peregrine. Well, this instance was bound to have happened at least once. Nonetheless, I didn’t add the bird to my eBird list.

Throughout the hawkwatch, Turkey and Black Vultures glided around the side of the mountain. Imposing statures. Darkly elegant. Their wingspans are nearly as long as those of Bald Eagles. The Turkey Vultures came near enough for us to see the lines on their red faces – which looked badly burned and raw skin – without binoculars. Most of the group paid them little to no attention. The rest, including myself, kept watched whenever they came into view. Never had we seen them so closely.

During the lulls, I sometimes kept my eye on the owl figure, which was stuck at the end of an erected twenty-foot pole. Placed near the rocks on which we stood, it was supposed to fool raptors into flying closer to the mountain and give birders a good look. For the first couple hours nothing took the bait. Then, as if a part of the birders’ sacrifice, half of our group departed. Minutes after, a Sharpie – an accipiter smaller than a crow and certainly smaller than that owl – went for the attack. But, in a flash, it realized its enemy was a fake within inches. It flew away.

A moment later, the owl attracted two Red-tails. They only checked it out, but that didn’t deprive us of a great view. They circled less than twenty-feet above our heads. I could see individual feathers on their breasts, dark streaks on soft white.

After two-and-a-half hours, I had to leave. Before I reached the trail that took me into the woods, I caught a glimpse of a Turkey Vulture soaring down the mountain. It swiftly disappeared behind the trees.

 

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S19858567