Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Last Post - 23rd June

And so our American adventure comes to an end after a hair over 3 years. We'd expected a longer stint, but life sometimes has other plans. We'll be  moving to Ireland on 30th June. When reflecting on the time I've spent here the thing that strikes me is the sheer variety of birds that can be seen in New York. The state itself is big, and stretches north into the boreal zone which boosts the potential birds that can be seen, but I'd had no idea of the variety of migrants that pass through the city each year. The south shore of Long Island was also a big surprise, I was astounded at the general birdiness of places like Jones' Beach and Fort Tilden. I wasn't completely unaware of the spring warbler scene in Central Park, but it was still a thrill to be able to witness it.

All in all the birding has been excellent. I wish I'd got to grips with the songs and calls sooner than I did, a good ear is essential here, but in general I'm happy with what I've seen. The only birds that I feel that I've missed are mainly pretty scarce or tricky to see. Some are irruptive winter visitors, mainly to The Adirondacks, such as Red Crossbill, White-winged Crossbill and Pine Grosbeak. My first winter trip to the north was this year (an unsuccessful twitch for a Ross's Gull), and I should have done more. I also dipped several times on Thick-billed Murre (Brunnich's Guillemot). One more winter would probably have been sufficient. Of the three phalaropes that occur I saw the rarest (Red/ Grey), bit not Wilson's or Red-necked. I dipped several times on Wilson's which is annual at Jamaica Bay on the East Pond. The Red-necked is most readily seen on the spring pelagics out of Brooklyn, but they are very inconveniently timed in the middle of exams so I was never able to get on one. Had I done so I might have had a chance at another big miss, Long-tailed Jaeger (Skua), and even South Polar Skua. I love rallids, and I was especially disappointed with my failure to see a Virginia Rail. Inexcusable really, I just didn't get into the right place regularly enough, too distracted by warblers I suppose.

I did quite well for warblers to be fair, recording 36 species in NY state (and one other in Texas). I missed none of the regulars at all, and only 3 other species were recorded in NY in the time I was here; Hermit, Virginia and Black-throated Grey, each of them being one day birds at best.

Sparrows are a big feature of the avifauna here, and most are pretty easy to get onto. Nelson's took a while and a few false starts, as did Clay-coloured. LeConte's was the only semi-regularly occurring species I didn't connect with, but they are less than annual and rarely twitchable.

North American forests are well -populated with another of my favourite groups, woodpeckers. I basically cleaned-up on the eastern half of the country with the exception of American Three-toed Woodpecker which is now very scarce in the northeast (last sighting in The Adirondacks was 2012).
If we had stayed I would have started to do a few more trips. Our family road trip to Florida last year, and this year's Texas excursion were great fun and I had my eye on a few birding holidays:

  • Great Plains grouse round-up: It's possible to design a one-week road-trip through Nebraska, Colorado and Kansas that will produce Greater and Lesser Prairie Chicken, Greater and Gunnison Sage-Grouse and Sharp-tailed Grouse. The trip would have to be timed to coincide with the lekking behaviour these birds are known for, which means early April. Very inconvenient for my school timetable! A great trip, but a lot of driving.
  • South-east Arizona: The northern limit of a lot of Mexican birds, loads of birds!
  • Alaska: All those Auks!
  • Pelagics: Seattle and San Diego to mop up all the north Pacific seabirds, Mmmmmmm!
As to numbers, my US list stands at 457, and New York is 333 (triple Nelson!). I wasn't particularly bothered about chasing some of the more humdrum species (Tufted Duck, Ring-necked Pheasant etc.) so I could have seen more, but that seems to be a decent total for a reasonably active birder spending 3 years in NYC.

It's been a great 3 years!

Friday, June 16, 2017

Adirondack specials - 15th June

My last birding excursion in the US was to The Adirondacks to catch up with a handful of birds that I've missed in the past. I hired Joan Collins of Adirondack Avian Expeditions, and gave her a shopping list. Top of the list was Bicknell's Thrush. A high elevation specialist with a restricted range in NE USA and Eastern Canada, one of the only really 'easy' places to see this is on Whiteface Mountain, and Joan is the best person to find it! It means an early start (2:15am) in order to be on site for dawn when the birds are most vocal. We heard dozens, but only really saw three, of which only one was photographable.

Next up was a trip to Bigelow Road in the Bloomingdale area where Joan very quickly picked out a quiet chirp that she said was Boreal Chickadee. Sure enough a pair soon showed themselves. Two targets down, just one to go...

The last main site was on private land somewhere north of Tupper Lake where Joan had staked out nesting Philadelphia Vireos. We got to the site easily, and could hear the birds immediately, but seeing them was a problem. After quite a wait we eventually go on to a foraging bird and had great views. All targets achieved!

Joan then showed me a Northern Goshawk nest that she knew about, and it had two young birds in it which had clearly only hatched recently.

Other birds seen during the day included: a small colony of Cliff Swallows, Ruffed Grouse crossing the road, Broad-winged Hawk hunting said grouse, nesting Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, calling Barred Owls and Wilson's Snipe.

Bicknell's Thrush. A real skulker, we saw 3 birds in about 3 hours, but must have heard 30.
Boreal Chickadee. A really nice bird, much more interesting than I was expecting!
Philadelphia Vireo. At last! I feel like I've chased this bird all over New York. Quite tricky to see even though we had at least 3 birds singing around us for about an hour and a half.
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. This pair were working flat-out to feed the nestful of youngsters we could hear clearly complaining about empty bellies.
Cliff Swallow. A small colony of 8 or 10 nests under the eaves of a farmhouse.
Ruffed Grouse.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Lesser Nighthawk - Lord Sterling Park, NJ

While watching the Henslow's Sparrow at Shawangunk I got chatting to a couple of birders about the extraordinary report of a Lesser Nighthawk at a park in New Jersey. It had apparently been handed in as an injured bird to a rescue centre, and they had released it once it had recovered. They assured me it had been present for a couple of days, and would probably still be there. I therefore hot-footed it south on a filthy twitch. Sure enough it was exactly where it had been for the past couple of days. A quite extraordinary record since they are really supposed to be in California right now.

Lesser Nighthawk. Unfortunately the key identification features are not visible (buffy spots on the primaries).
Eastern Phoebe

Red Fox. Just trotting down the road, keeping a weather ear out front and back...

Henslow's Sparrow at Shawangunk - 28th May

In midweek a report came in of a Henslow's Sparrow singing at Shawangunk Grassland NWR. The habitat is good for them, and they've bred there in the past, but not for a few years. I read that a habitat management plan went a bit wrong a few years ago and the handful that were hanging on disappeared. Attempts have been made since then to correct the errors, and it looks like they might be paying off. Whatever the backstory, I had my Sunday sorted! I got up there early enough, and the bird was performing magnificently from the word go. For 11 months of the year Ammodramus sparrows crawl around in long grass and are nigh-on impossible to see. Come breeding season however, they're straight up on a perch belting out the love songs. A nice bonus was a breeding plumage Dickcissel about 100 yards further down the track, basically doing the same thing.

Other birds on the area included many Bobolink, Eastern Meadowlarks, Tree Swallows, and a singing Willow Flycatcher.

Henslow's Sparrow looking for love.


Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Sterling Forest - 20th May

A trip up to Sterling Forest to try and connect with some more migrants. The day started well with singing warblers all over the place. Blue-winged and Prairie Warblers were the commonest, and easily seen. It took a while before the first Golden-winged Warbler was found, but  eventually one showed well. A hybrid Blue-winged x Golden-winged (backcross Brewster's x Golden-winged we think) provided a pleasant diversion. Bird of the day for me was the Black-billed Cuckoo however, showing briefly, but very close. We had heard a few calling, but only saw the one bird. Yellow-billed Cuckoo were also very vocal.

Male Golden-winged Warbler on a territory

Hybrid Golden-winged x Blue-winged Warbler. Note the wing pattern like a Blue-winged, a golden crown like a Golden-winged, and the white throat. It was also singing the Blue-winged song.
Male Indigo Bunting

Central Park spring 2017

Spring migration started quite late as the first week or so was very wet and many birds were held up. A big push came through on the night of Monday 15th/ Tuesday 16th, with 27 species of warbler seen by me so far, including 21 on the 16th.

Warblers so far this season:

Northern Parula: Daily since 28th April.
Tennessee: Single birds near Turtle Pond on 4th May, and at the Captain's Bench on 9th May.
Blue-winged: Single birds at Strawberry Fields on 28th April, and near Summit Rock on 16th May.
Nashville: Seen between 28th April and 11th May.
Yellow: Daily since 28th April in small numbers.
Chestnut-sided: Small numbers from 10th - 23rd May
Magnolia: Daily since 6th May
Cape May: A very good year for this species, with daily sightings from 2 May to 16th May, including 5 on the latter date.
Black-throated Blue: Daily from 4th May
Blackburnian: A late arrival with the first sighting on 16th May. Suddenly they seemed everywhere!
Yellow-rumped: The first spring warblers to arrive, with the first birds on 15th April. Most have passed through already, the last sighting was 17th May.
Black-throated Green: Daily from 4th May
Prairie: Single birds on 28th April, 6th and 9th May.
Palm: Common from 28th April until about 9th May, one of the first warblers to disappear.
Bay-breasted: An excellent year for this species. Daily sightings between 10th and 17th May, with at least 4 on 16th.
Blackpoll: Small numbers from 30th April, an early date for this species. Increased steadily, becoming the commonest warbler by about 17th May.
Yellow-throated: The only rare warbler this spring, a single bird on The Point on 28th April.
Worm-eating:  One bird on 10th May, and 2 on 16th.
Black-and-white: First seen 28th April, and daily since then.
American Redstart: Seen daily since 28th April
Ovenbird: 8 birds on 30 April, and pretty consistently since then.
Northern Waterthrush: First seen on 28th April, and every day since then.
Louisiana Waterthrush: Single birds at The Point on 28th and 30th April.
Common Yellowthroat: Seen daily since 28th April.
Wilson's: Small numbers from 10th May, mostly around Turtle Pond.
Canada: Regular in small numbers from 16th to 23rd May
Hooded: A female in The Ramble on 6th May, and a male at Tanner's Spring on 16th May.

Additional warblers recorded by others included: Mourning, Kentucky, Orange-crowned.

Other interesting migrants this spring have included:

Common Nighthawk, Grey-cheeked Thrush, Least Flycatcher, Great Crested Flycatcher, Scarlet Tanager, Rose-breasted Grosbeak,, Indigo Bunting, Spotted Sandpiper

Common Nighthawk roosting near Summit Rock
Grey-cheeked Thrush at Tanner's Spring

Black-and-white Warbler, ubiquitous
Blackburnian Warbler. Quite a few this year, starting on about 17th May
Magnolia Warbler, common
Black-throated Green Warbler. Not too many this year, but common enough
Female American Redstart
Hooded Warbler at Tanner's Spring.
Blackpoll Warbler. All over the place now
Prairie Warbler. Only three in Central Park this year.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Tennessee Warbler in Central Park - 4th May

Having a slightly later start than I would have liked, I decided to bird the North Woods this morning, thinking it would give me more time in the field, and less time marching. It was inevitable therefore that something good would be found in the Ramble, and sure enough, when I checked Twitter at 9:10 I saw that a Tennessee Warbler had been found singing by Turtle Pond. That was only a mile and a half away! I hot-footed it down there and was on site by about 9:30. A brilliant male, feeding actively in a tree, pausing occasionally for a burst of song.

Other first-of-year birds so far this week included: Cape May Warbler, Chimney Swift and Orchard Oriole by Summit Rock and a Spotted Sandpiper near the reservoir on Tuesday, and Black-throated Green Warbler and Black-throated Blue Warbler in the North Woods today.

Male Tennessee Warbler

Male Cape May Warbler
Female Black-and-white Warbler.

Juvenile male Orchard Oriole
Baltimore Oriole

Spotted Sandpiper

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Least Bittern in Central Park - 30 April

After a not-particularly birdy day at Doodletown on the 29th I decided that the best way to hit my target birds for this spring (Tennessee Warbler, Black-billed Cuckoo, Philadelphia Vireo, Least Bittern, Virginia Rail) would be to hang around with other birders, so I headed in to Central Park.

My plan bore fruit almost immediately when a twitter alert went out that a Least Bittern was perched in a tree above The Gill. And lo, it was true! What a great bird, and one of my main targets for spring down, quite unexpectedly.

Other new birds for the season included lots of Ovenbirds, Scarlet Tanager, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Blackpoll Warbler. There were lots of Thrushes all over the place, including Veery, Wood Thrush, Swainson's Thrush and Hermit Thrush. The Red-headed Woodpecker put in a show at the feeders, all-in-all an excellent day.

Female Least Bittern. No-one present could recall a previous Central Park record, and ebird only has 2 for the whole of Manhattan (both by Andrew Farnsworth).
Male Scarlet Tanager
Red-headed Woodpecker

Friday, April 28, 2017

Yellow-throated Warbler in Central Park - 28th April

The past week has been pretty wet, and few migrants have managed to make it this far north. Friday was set to be dry, so I got into Central Park by about 6:00am, and started at Strawberry Fields. Immediately it was clear that there had been a major fall. Every treetop was alive with warblers. The predominate species was Yellow-rumped Warbler, but soon enough we started picking up other species. A couple of Palm Warblers were the first non-yellow-rumps, followed by a Northern Parula, and American Redstart and then a Blue-winged Warbler. A White-eyed Vireo circled the area a couple of times, and a Blue-headed Vireo also showed up. A gorgeous Baltimore Oriole was next, followed by the first of many Black-and-white Warblers, and a lovely Yellow Warbler.

Next stop was the swampy Pin-oak which had a host of Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and singles of Common Yellowthroat, Nashville Warbler and a Northern Waterthrush. More Yellow Warblers here, as well as a Green Heron and a Hermit Thrush.

The last stop of the morning was The Point where a single tree produced a second Nashville Warbler and a Yellow-throated Warbler (ssp. albiloris), as well as another American Redstart. Nearby in the willows by The Oven was a Louisiana Waterthrush, a magnificent male Purple Finch and brief views of a Prairie Warbler.

The lores of this Yellow-throated Warbler are white, suggesting it is of the central race, Dendroica dominica albiloris. Compare this with the D. d. dominica that I saw at Valley Stream in April 2015.

This was first pointed out to me as a Northern Waterthush, but it is quite clearly a Louisiana Waterthush. (unstreaked throat, bubble-gum pink legs).

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Prothonotary Warbler - Marine Park - 15th April

A Prothonotary Warbler was found in the week at Marine Park in Brooklyn. It hung around for a few days, so I decided to make it my first stop on Saturday morning. It performed amazingly well, regularly forcing me to take a step or two back to keep it in focus!

After that good start to the day I had a quick walk around the ponds at Jamaica Bay. The water level in the East Pond was very high so there was very little to see apart from Barn and Tree Swallows hawking over the water, a pair of Peregrine screeching at each other and a flyby Little Blue Heron.

The West Pond path has been rebuilt at last, but is not open yet. There weren't many birds here either, a single calling Eastern Towhee was the highlight.

Prothonotary Warbler has to be one of the best looking warblers. The word means " a chief clerk of any of various courts of law" (Merriam-Webster). It is attached to this bird "with reference to the saffron colour of the robes worn by clerks to the Pope" (Oxford).

It spent the entire time gleaning tiny insects from the leaves of the plants growing around the rocks near the Nature Centre.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Texas trip - Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR - 29 March

On the way from Houston back to the Austin area we went via the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Reserve. A splendid place, it is one of the last strongholds for the Attwater subspecies of the Greater Prairie Chicken. The morning I went there was an enormous thunderstorm so I had to wait until about 10:00am, by which time the birds weren't calling. It was still a good spot, with quite a few Loggerhead Shrikes, plenty of Eastern Meadowlark (but no Western unfortunately), and 6 Northern Bobwhites, one of which posed for a picture.

Northern Bobwhite.
Eastern Meadowlark.
Eastern Hog-snouted Snake, found in the pool at the motel we stayed at in Sealy.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Texas trip - South Llano River State Park - 23 to 25 March

This is a fabulous site in the "Texas Hill Country" west of Austin which has both Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo, the two highly range-restricted specials in this habitat. They are fairly inobtrusive unless singing, so dawn is best, and I got them both after quite a bit of effort. The vireo was easier than the warbler, mainly as its area is closer to the main road.

Several other specials occur in this habitat including Canyon Towhee, Canyon Wren, Scott's Oriole, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, and Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay, and they were all pretty straightforward. I also caught up with Black-chinned Hummingbird (common at every feeder), Cassin's Sparrow and Lark Bunting (both in open fields along the entrance road).

A feature of the park was the amazing number of sparrows and allies. In various places I saw 10 species of sparrow; Rufous-crowned, Cassin's, Black-throated, Field, Clay-coloured, Chipping, Savannah, Lark, White-crowned and Lincoln's.

Golden-cheeked Warbler.Quite a little cracker!
Black-capped Vireo.
Scott's Oriole.
 Canyon Wren.

Field Sparrow.
Lincoln's Sparrow.
Lark Sparrow.
Black-throated Sparrow.
Clay-coloured Sparrow.
Rufous-crowned Sparrow.
Cassin's Sparrow.
Canyon Towhee.

Spotted Towhee.

Lark Bunting.
Black-chinned Hummingbird. Male...
...and female.
Lesser Goldfinch.