Gentlemen Prefer Blondes…

7 05 2011

Red-headed Woodpecker - Luke Tiller

But I prefer Red-heads. Well Red-headed Woodpeckers anyway! There can hardly be a bird that combines just three colors that has such an amazing wow factor in North America as the Red-headed Woodpecker. Although essentially a southern species these birds seem to wander north into the upper reaches of New York State in small numbers. Interestingly the first ‘good’ bird I ever found in the states was a Red-headed Woodpecker over at Stratford Point in Connecicut a few Junes ago; probably a post breeding wanderer (Stratford Point is now obviously more famously as the site of the long staying White-tailed Kite). I can distinctly recall the excitement of finding this bird with long-time friend and birding buddy Penny Solum and even better it stayed around long enough for a few of the states more notable birders to go see it, which was nice.

Anyway this was another nice addition to the Bigby list and one that I both was pleased to get a decent (for digiscoping) picture of and hope will actually hang on to breed.You can find out more about the species on the Cornell All About Birds Website (here). Bigby list so far = 151 with these new additions: Green Heron, Whip-poor-will, Red-Headed Woodpecker, Least Flycatcher, Eastern Kingbird, Warbling Vireo, Horned Lark, Wood Thrush, Black-Throated Green Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Rose-Breasted Grosbeak

Signs of Spring – Bigby giant leap forward!

29 04 2011

Yellow Warbler - Luke Tiller

The hawkwatch had to be abandoned due to fog and thunderstorms Tuesday, so I decided that I might as well spend the time trying to scrape up a few species for my Big Green Big Year. I guess whenever the rain broke off on Monday night a good number of birds decided to make a break for the border but in the end got trapped on this side of the lake. As the fog lifted enough to be able to see more than a few feet in front of ones face it became clear that thousands of Hermit Thrushes were scattered along the lake shore. They occupied almost every patch of viable habitat and were even to be found in seemingly less likely spots (although none in quite as unlikely a spot as the time my friend Joe and I discovered a migrant that was lost somewhere on Cimarron National Grasslands!)

Amongst the abundant migrants were good numbers of Juncos, White-throated and Chipping Sparrows. Less abundant but still relatively common a few Fields and a Fox Sparrow or three. Some slightly more exotically bejeweled fair were also gracing the area including a few dazzling Yellow Warblers and a Black and White or two. I was pleased to pick up on the distinctively sharp chip of a rather nice Pine Warbler before it sang and was treated to my first multi-warbler tree of the season as singleton Palm, Yellow and Yellow-rumped Warblers all worked one of the pine trees out near to Ontario State Parkway. My final warbler addition for the day a rather drab Northern Waterthrush, but in a rather dynamic setting, as it eagerly worked the edge of the rather dramatic lake.

As I turned for home I decided to check out a neighbors feeding area, which has been productive for me since I arrived here and was happy to add both Pine Siskin to the Purple Finches I had already seen in Owl Woods, boosting my tally for both the day and the year. Rusty Blackbirds although not new are always a welcome bonus – especially when one considers the parlous state they seem to find themselves in these days. The only other bird to add to the list today was a skulking Catbird that seemed to have somehow avoided the BBBO banders.  Still 7 new birds on the day and a total of 123 for the year is nothing to be sniffed at. I have a feeling that number may be rapidly growing in the next few days and weeks.

Braddock Bay Sandhill Crane

25 04 2011

Sandhill Crane - Luke Tiller

A notable bird down in Greenwich Connecticut  where I usually find myself residing (although two years ago I did manage to find nine on the season for the Quaker Ridge Count), but an increasingly common bird up here in Western NY State. Still in my humble opinion it never gets old getting to see this incredible species. This one spent the majority of the day sat in the field next to us bugling away, I think their call is almost as magnificent as the way they look  (listen to the call on the all about birds website here).

After a crazy day on Saturday in which we racked up our first largish Broad-winged Hawk flight (circa 5,500 birds) and saw the first numbers of immature Sharp-shinned Hawks joining the adults, the last couple of days at the watch have been a little slow. That however has given me a little more time to dig up more bird related music and go and crank up my numbers for the Big Green Big Year I am doing (list so far on a separate page here). A couple of mornings light wandering have seen me add Cedar Waxwings, Spotted Sandpiper, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and both House and Winter Wrens to the list. I imagine with gas creeping over $4 a gallon that Big Green Big Years might be becoming an increasingly popular undertaking out here in the US?

My friend thinks that I should look for work DJing bird related  music at birding festivals and birding conference parties. Having a fairly minor DJing career in the past I’m sure I could make it work “this one goes out to all the ladeez in the house…”, and I imagine there would be about as much money to be made in that as there is in hawkwatching and bird tour guiding so maybe I should look into it 😉

Bigby – Bigger & Better – Pelicans!

12 04 2011

A. White Pelican - Luke Tiller

The last couple of day have been pretty incredible, so it’s very hard to know where to start first with the blog posts! I guess I’ll space them out a bit, otherwise I’ll be spending the next 5 hours writing blog posts and I still have taxes to go stick in the post. After an incredible day was winding down at the hawkwatch, which included almost 9,000 raptors, I was lucky enough to spot a pair of American White Pelicans cruising over Braddock Bay towards the West Spit area. Amusingly Josh Lawrey (who was helping out today) has an amusing story about White Pelicans at Braddock Bay, so when I called them out he initially thought I was trying to wind him up!

Sure enough though the pelicans were real though and not part of a rather corny old joke. After a while drifting about the bay area they eventually were followed as far as the eye could see and seemed to disappear over towards Salmon Creek on Manitou Rd, where they were eventually relocated loafing around in the shallow water there by some of the local birding community. This gave a good number of people the chance to drop in to see these birds, and also gave me the opportunity to drive home after work and walk the mile and a half to add these to my Bigby list just before sunset. This has to be the best sighting so far on the Bigby year so far – easily eclipsing the Barrow’s and the Snowy Owl (you can see the full list on the Bigby page).

As spring begins to break here at Braddock, I have managed to pick up a few migrant birds each morning and today I finally broke through the hundred barrier. The Bigby birding gods must have been with me this morning though as I broke through 100 birds in some style. Perhaps it was birding karma for popping out early to check and see if the pelicans had over-nighted at Salmon Creek (they had) in order to get a message on Genesee Birds to let people know they were still out there. As I pulled back into the drive this morning after checking the pelicans, I heard the distinctive grunt of Sandhill Cranes and low and behold there were two of them drifting over my head and out towards the lake – a great Bigby score!

I popped in and posted that the pelicans were hanging in at the creek and made myself the cuppa that I never quite managed the morning before, more on that story later, before popping out on the deck to drink it. The decision to go en plein air for the tea was an inspired one. As I stepped outside the racket that the blackbirds and starlings usually make cranked up about 100 decibels, and to my surprise a beautiful, crisply marked juvie Northern Goshawk muscled his way in and perched at the top of the tree right outside my house – simply incredible! A half hour into my morning and I had already spotted 2 pelicans, 2 cranes and a Northern Goshawk, that just gives you some idea of how good the birding at Braddock Bay can be!

I wasn’t finished with the excitement for the day, and still have to jot down some thoughts on yesterdays incredible hawkwatch, but for now those experiences can wait – time for another cuppa and to pop out and see what else I can find for my Bigby list!

Bigby Snowy Owl

1 04 2011

Snowy Owl - Ed Sailer

My first twitch of the season! When I heard that there was Snowy Owl hanging out on the docks by the old Breakers Restaurant off of Manitou Beach Road, just half a mile from the house, I could hardly not go. As I have said before on this blog, twitching is not really for me, but I wasn’t going to not go see a Snowy Owl just ten minutes walk from the house. After I stopped in to see the bird on the way home, I drove back to the house before hiking back over to see the guy all over again for my Big Green Big Year. Probably the second rarest bird seen so far this year after the Barrow’s Goldeneye, but to most people a little more exciting! Friends of mine sometimes pull my leg for the time I told everyone that  I hate ducks 😉

From here on anything I say in this post that is complete and utter rubbish is completely and utterly my fault for misinterpreting what Tom said.

After a few people had put out phone calls to get people to see the bird, one of the local Braddock Bay Raptor Research banders, Tom McDonald, took a shot at recapturing this bird (he’d actually caught it earlier in the season). Whilst we waited to see if the owl would take the bait, I got to talk to Tom about Snowy Owls and banders. There isn’t much Tom doesn’t know about Snowies, having caught and banded many hundreds over the years, probably as many as any bander in the US (or even the world?). He’s currently working on a book all about the birds and I was lucky enough to see some of the plates that he was working on – looks like it’ll be a pretty cool tome.

So with  Tom cornered whilst we waited to see if the bird would take the trap bait, I finally got an answer to the one question that has always flummoxed me when it came to Snowy Owls. I remember being told by a number of birders that the Snowy Owls that we would see in Connecticut each winter were basically birds that had been pushed a long way from their usual territory, were in poor shape and likely to never make the return journey to the Arctic to breed but rather end their days dying emaciated in those ‘southerly’ climes.

I have often wondered whether this rather tragic view of these individuals is one of the reasons people seem to get so fired up about anyone (read photographers) putting pressure  on birds when they show up in the state. After all Snowy Owls are pretty much  just as happy being active diurnally as they are nocturnally, unlike the other owls that get equally harassed by photographers and birders who seem to have never even heard of the ABA code of ethics. Now not that I want to give photographers a pass on crummy behavior, but in talking to Tom this image of the doomed Snowy seems to be a common but incorrect assumption of these wandering individuals. Personally it never really made sense to me that an emaciated bird that was struggling to find food would even make it down as far as Connecticut if it really was starving. Why travel all that way to die, when traveling takes energy!

It seemed only logical to me that there must be a successful strategy being worked on for the birds to head all that way to Southern New England.  Just to make it that far requires a heap load of energy, so they must be doing something right along the way. Also when I have had time to spend some time with some of these individual roaming Snowies, like the bird at Piermont Pier (which was hanging out with and providing scraps for the Ivory Gull), or the one from Norwalk – which pretty much kicked off this blog (here) they seemed to be hunting very successfully thank you very much.

Tom says that his banding studies reflect this state of affairs as well, and that he has very rarely trapped emaciated birds around Rochester. All raptors can struggle to find food, but most of the birds he finds are rather in rude health like the bird in the shot above (Any birding chums want to take a shot at aging and sexing the bird?) which weighed in at over 1600 grams.  In fact birds that are found to be starving are usually young birds that never really seem to make it that far from the nesting site, not the ones that have traveled a long way.

Talking to Tom it’s easy to understand his awe for these birds, the passion and reverence that he obviously has for them. They are incredibly successful hunters that take a variety of prey and this particular bird was sitting by the remains of a number of carcasses including a Ring-billed Gull, and Tom told me that he has known them take a swipe at something as large as a Canada Goose. He also talked about his many adventures chasing round looking for them on their breeding grounds or simply sitting quietly ,studying their amazing interactions and hunting techniques with a nightvision scope!

Anyway it is good to know that these birds that one sometimes hears (from generally reliable sources) are doomed are rather not quite as doomed as commonly suggested, but are almost certainly following a tried and tested migratory pattern to get through the winter season. It was amazing to talk to Tom about the birds as it’s always a treat to converse with someone who really knows so much and is so passionate about an individual species, and individual species don’t come much more exciting and inspiring than a Snowy Owl. Thanks also to Edward Sailer for the pictures.

Back to the Bigby

4 03 2011

Kumlien's Gull

A couple of years I stumbled upon the idea of doing a Big Green Big Year. The basic premise being to find as many birds as one can whilst traveling under ones own steam or by using public transport. It struck me as a cool idea. The main appeal is that it encourages birding locally, looking for ones own birds as well as doing a little bit for the planet as well

It has always somewhat bothered me that most birding ‘competitions’ always seem to involve burning a huge amount of fossil fuels, which has always struck me as a little incongruous in a hobby that has close links to conservation. I can’t say I am a huge fan of the ‘big year-ization’ of birding either, and that twitching has become the predominant form of the game. Not to knock those that are into it, but it just doesn’t fire me personally.

For me the thing I enjoy most about birding is just getting out and finding out what is around even in the most unlikely of spots, I like to stay local (unless I am really traveling) and I like to find my own birds. A Big Green Big Year seemed pretty much perfect in this respect as it’ll allow me to concentrate on what is around locally and I imagine there won’t be too many birds I can walk (or cycle to later in the season) to twitch so I’ll be forced to find my own goodies.

Obviously being in a great location for birds is going to help make the undertaking more enjoyable and as I now find myself in a spot where I can hear Long-tailed Ducks honking  from my yard, I thought it would be fun to restart the project and see just how many species I can dig up over the year from my two bases around the country.

After a couple of slow days (I haven’t even seen a Junco, passerines are so thin on the ground in Hilton) things got on a roll on Wednesday when I managed to dig out a couple of decent birds from Braddock Bay (which I can view from the West Spit just a stones thrown from the house). The highlights were 30 Tundra Swans and the first decent self found bird of the Bigby, a handsome drake Barrow’s Goldeneye.

I popped back Thursday to see if I could locate the Barrow’s but with no joy and ran into a couple of other birders who had struck out as well (Dave Tetlow and Curt). I couldn’t find the Lesser Black-Backed Gull that Dave had spotted earlier but did manage to find a third cycle Glaucous Gull which was another highlight addition to the Bigby list.

Looking forward to seeing just how many species I can manage to round up. Just disappointed at the moment that Braddock Bay is wide enough that I can’t make out the shrike that is still hanging around the hawkwatch across the bay 😉

Bigby List: 59 species (including some from Audubon Greenwich). Highlights in bold.

Mute Swan, Tundra Swan, Canada Goose, Mallard, American Black  Duck, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Northern Shoveler, Canvasback, Redhead, Greater Scaup, White-Winged Scoter, Long-Tailed Duck, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Common Goldeneye, Bufflehead, Common Merganser, Red-breasted Merganser, Hooded Merganser, Turkey Vulture, Black Vulture, Sharp-Shinned Hawk, Coopers Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Ring-Billed Gull, Herring Gull, Glaucous Gull, Iceland Gull, Great black-backed Gull, Mourning Dove, Great Horned Owl, Red-Bellied Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Crow, Tufted Titmouse, Black-capped Chickadee, White-breasted Nuthatch, Carolina Wren, American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, European Starling, American Tree Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, Song Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Snow Bunting, Northern Cardinal, Red-Winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, House Finch, American Goldfinch, Common Redpoll, House Sparrow

Blue Jay Wahay!!! – Weekend Bigbying

11 01 2009

Ice Storm - Luke Tiller

Ice Storm - Luke Tiller

My Bigby list had majorly stalled since last weekend and wasn’t being helped by the ice storm which left me feeling like  just hibernating for the next couple of months. I just couldn’t come up with anything new the handful of times I popped out anyway. Most amazingly 10 days in I still hadn’t managed to track down a lousy Blue Jay. The last time my dad was here he was amazed by the beautiful birds we had in the yard like Blue Jay and Cardinal. Sadly it usually takes an outsiders eyes to remind you how special those common or garden birds are, however 10 days into my BGBY and my first pair of Blue Jays was a real right for sore eyes. Pre-storm (although this one was a bit of a non-event 8 inches of predicted snow rapidly turning into about 1 and 1/2) on the Saturday the yard was pretty hopping and I also added American Tree Sparrow as a new species, Pine Siskins were flitting around in the birches (one was even picking up grit from the road) and there were about 15-20 Eastern Bluebirds in one giant flock picking at the Multiflora Rose and Cedar berries.

Today I took a stroll out to Meadow Ridge, a nice healthy walk with lots of pulse quickening hills gave me some decent exercise. Between here and Meadow Ridge I managed to find a total of 3 Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers which I thought was pretty good (although they seem to be generally increasing in regularity here in winter). I was impressed by how well their mottled black, brown and white backs mimicked the craggy barked trees and nicely broke up their silhouettes as they foraged. A nice addition to my BGBY list. Onwards towards 40 species!!!

New Bigby Species: AMERICAN TREE SPARROW, BLUE JAY!, YELLOW-BELLIED SAPSUCKER for a total of 36 species.

BGBY – Let Battle Commence!

1 01 2009
Digi-binning - easier at feeders

Digibinning - easier at feeders!

So I started my Big Green Big Year, or BGBY as it shall henceforth be known, less than bright and early today. First bird of the year was a somewhat prosaic Dark-eyed Junco (digibinned above). My dad thought the name sounded cool – the bird itself is probably a bit of a letdown considering the rather flamboyant name.

I then took a quick break after amassing a sad 9 species in the yard to go meet good birding friends Penny Solum, Joe Bear, AJ Hand and respective families for some brunch. Post brunch we went for some ‘dirty brown’ birding 😉 but I quickly called it a day with frostbitten toes after the 1st stop at Stratford – leaving the rest of the boys to complete their days birding. In the 20-30 mins at Long Beach though I managed to see a couple of ROUGH-LEGGED HAWKS, a 1st cycle GLAUCOUS GULL and a similarly aged ICELAND GULL.

Already home by early afternoon I decided to renew by BGBY by going on a short walk down to the local pond which will be my waterbird mainstay for the year. It was frozen solid but I did manage to collect a few nice birds along the route including a highlight of 2 BLACK VULTURES before I even left the yard and then a lingering Great Blue – which we missed off of the Wilton Xmas Bird Count the other week! Best sighting of the day though were two super cute Red Squirrels which were hanging out near the back of the school – it was there that I discovered how tough digibinning (taking pictures through your binoculars) is without the aid of a feeder to draw in your subject matter – especially with shaky cold hands.

I have already discovered what I love about the BGBY, and that is that it a) makes you start to get inventive about where you might find birds and b) that it brings a whole new level of unexpectedness into your birding world. That’s the same thing I love about the Christmas Bird Count – it makes you start to think of where you might find birds in places that you might never look at any other part of the year. Going off the beaten track like this can produce the most unexpected gems and rarities and if it wasn’t for that little nudge to try something different those birds might never be discovered. OK it’s not like I have ever found anything super rare that way, but at the same time who would have expected to find a Yellow-breasted Chat at a feeder behind the 7th Day Adventist Church in Wilton like we did last year on the Christmas count. Those little out of the ordinary finds though to me are as exciting as chasing a rare bird that is staked out  somewhere across the state.

23 BGBY Species in all for the day – more tomorrow I hope. I think I will knock together a Google Map for my BGBY just to see where I get stuff over the year.

BGBY List:

Great Blue Heron, Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Coopers Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Mourning Dove, Belted Kingfisher, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Tufted Titmouse, Black-capped Chickadee, Carolina Wren, Eastern Bluebird, American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, American Crow, Northern Cardinal, American Goldfinch, House Finch, White-throated Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, European Starling