Monday, December 31, 2007

Celebrate Good Times

Just like those of you who have automatic camera setups taking photos of the birds at your feeders while you're not home, I've got a similar system in place. It's a bit more elaborate, and involves me staying home, vigilantly watching the feeders, setting the camera, and then taking the shot. Our feeders have been hopping with activity, and since I'm off for a restful winter break I've been able to spend a fair amount of time witnessing who's coming to dinner.

Here, in a very specific order (though not chronological), are some the crowd arriving for a New Year's feast.

A possessed Mourning Dove - you can tell by the pale,
uniform-colored eye. Kind of like that girl in The Exorcist.

Huh, the left eye is bright and clear.
Maybe it's a pirate dove, sans eye patch?

Blue Jay tests the powder: "Awesome,
totally awesome! I'm sinking up to my waist!"

Black-capped Chickadee strikes a pose. It's better
to look good than feel good, and you look mahvelous!

Tufted Titmouse finds the the last sunflower, and
Black-oil sunflower, too, not that cheap Grey-striped!

White-breasted Nuthatch left with nothing but
safflower. Still worth the effort to stash it somewhere?

Could that be a Hoary? No, a Common Redpoll.
Maybe a female Hoary? First year? Man, it's like
a crap shoot. I'm going to get my dice. C'mon, Hoary!

Best wishes for a wonderful 2008!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Hanging Out

The end of the year is a natural time for retrospection, with introspection not too far behind, and an event that occurred this week has been occupying my thoughts on several different levels.

But first things first. This actually started with me saying something I've never said before: "I'm going to meet up with a couple folks I met on the Internet."

Of course, you hear that in all kinds of parents-worst-nightmare scenarios, but I never thought I'd play the naive teenager off to rendezvous with some creepy old guy. Then it gets better: instead of meeting up in some well-attended public place, I gave out directions to my front door. And when they showed up, off we drove to rural, state-owned land where we only ran into one other person all morning.

One of the species that influenced my decision to "connect"
via the Internet. And well worth it, in many ways.

Creepy? Not at all. The folks I met up with were Mike from 10,000 Birds and Seth from Cup O' Books, the goal was to chase some winter finches near Ithaca. The very active Cayuga Lake Basin birding community has been scouring Summerhill for weeks, as it sports wonderful habitat to attract some of the most desirable winter birds: Pine and Evening Grosbeaks, Red and White-winged Crossbills, Common Redpolls, Northern Shrikes, Rough-legged Hawks, and, although relatively common, Red-breasted Nuthatches and Purple Finches.

Redpolls on a wire: if only all the sought-after species were so easy!

We had a mixed day, much like the weather. We arrived with the clouds in a quandary about whether to release snow or rain on us, which was resolved by dumping both at a fairly even rate. Immediately after stepping out of the car we heard chickadees and a single RB Nuthatch calling, and that would be it for our entire (very slippery) hike. Happily, a bird feeder just up the road came through with dozens of Evening Grosbeaks, all easily viewable and photographable from inside the car.

Only a few of the flock of Evening Grosbeaks frequenting
the feeders (alliteration unintended, but worth saving).

Farther along the redpolls made their appearance, and with the exception of three Ruffed Grouse that sprinted across the road ahead of our car, that'd be it for notable species.

Waiting for clearance to approach a feeding station,
Common Redpolls gather atop a cluster of spruces.

After not hearing any flyover finches and not seeing any perched shrikes or Rough-leggeds, we made our way back to Ithaca, ate lunch while sitting in the staff lounge at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and walked a quick loop around Sapsucker Woods Pond (wishing for the local shrike to make a quick appearance).

So, at the end of the day, the birds were mixed, but the trip was awesome: I rediscovered the beauty of connecting with like-minded people again. This is what I've been dwelling on, what's been the impetus for some reminiscing, some longing, and some catharsis: the social aspect of birding. This is a hobby (obsession?) that works perfectly on the solitary end of the spectrum, but just as well on the other end, and it's that side I've been missing.

Once upon a time, I was young, unattached birder with a great group of birding buddies. We birded a lot, chasing vagrants, plotting big days, scouring hot spots near and far. Naturally, we interacted, communicated, shared, and learned.

Jay Withgott, perhaps the most influential person in my
birding career. We've now birded in at least four states
together, though we keep missing each other when scouting
New Jersey for the World Series of Birding. One day . . . .

But I'm not there, at that point of life, anymore, and most of my birding these days is solo. I work with some of the most amazing birders in the country, but I live far enough out of "the Basin" that I'm not regularly available to bird with them.

Most of my birding is around the house, for a simple reason: my love of spending time with my 3.75-year-old outweighs the attraction of vagrants, lists, and even the just-a-bit-too-far hotspots in our area. Though my daughter is almost ready to make some birding trips, she's not quite there.

So, a gratifying shout out to Mike and Seth for instigating the trip, and thanking them for bringing back some wonderful memories of birding trips past, and hopefully, future. Presently, however, I'm happy with what I get.

For another review of the trip, please read Mike's excellent account of our exploration here.

Monday, December 24, 2007

'Tis the Season!

We spent part of our day stringing popcorn and pieces of fruit, then coating pine and spruce cones with peanut butter and mixed seeds, culminating in decorating an "outdoor Christmas tree" in our yard. It's all part of an annual tradition we just started: Christmas Eve day is for thinking of the wildlife. Sure, the squirrels will take down the cones before the birds even find them, but it's the thought that counts. Come to think of it, a good lesson for all of us to remember tomorrow as we're exchanging gifts to show our love and appreciation for family and friends.

Regardless of how you celebrate this season, Season's Greetings to you all!

Post title credit: Deck the Halls (19th Century lyrics), Traditional.
All images © Mike Powers.

Monday, December 17, 2007

It Felt Like Christmas Time

He's gone 2000 miles
It's very far
The snow is falling down
Gets colder day by day
I miss you

That's the stanza that kept ringing in the back of my head last Saturday. As many birding blogs will attest, the holiday season means more to birders than time off work and school, giving and receiving, and spending time with extended family. Whether they admit or not, Christmas Bird Counts are the reason for the season! Like every year I was out participating in the Corning (NY) CBC, counting all the birds I could identify (and six individuals I didn't) in the 24-hour period that fell into what we call "the 15th of December."

This year I tried to drive less and walk more, though I didn't quite make 2,000 miles. It is certainly getting colder day by day, and I did miss some species I was hoping for. It did not snow while I was out, but we had enough from a storm earlier in the week to make it a winter wonderland.

A stretch of woodland at Spencer Crest Nature Center, one of
the few accessible areas where you can walk through
the woods without getting shot at.

I was assigned my "usual" area, known simply as "Area 4." I've come to liken this to the UFO-famed "Area 51" since I'm sure there's good stuff in there, but I sure has heck can't find it. As I do every year, I went to bed with visions of redpolls, grosbeaks, and owls in my head. And, as I do every year, I dip on all of them. The fact I'm no longer a hardcore birder plays a huge role: I don't really have time to scout the area properly, I get to my area about sunrise without trolling around in the pre-dawn for hours calling for owls, like I should, and I only stay until mid-afternoon (other obligations keep me from staying until the last milliseconds of the day, straining to pick up that last missing bird). But those hours in the field are filled with focused birding, and it's exhilarating. Or maybe it was the 16 degrees (F) the car thermometer was displaying?

A Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)
plays hide-and-seek at Spencer Crest. I think this is the
first one I've recorded in my Corning CBC area.

My area includes Spencer Crest Nature Center, some 225+ acres of publicly-accessible mixed forest, old field, frozen ponds, and my former stamping grounds when we first moved to the region. I used to be up there for hours every weekend, occasionally squeezing in some visits before work on weekday mornings. Since we moved it's a bit out of the way, and I prefer to focus on our own land, so now I'm only there a couple of times a year. But it's still a great place to wander for a couple of hours. And in my area, it's one of the only non-privately own pieces of land where I can walk with a pretty good chance of not getting shot at.

A mystery bird! Well, not really - I heard this one and his buddies
long before I saw them. They were flitty little buggers, very hard
to keep in my lens! Try to ID it before scrolling down . . . .

Not a better shot, but at least it shows a clear field mark:
a golden crown. Yep, the tiny Golden-crowned
(Regulus satrapa). I managed to get the hemlock
branches in the back in pretty crisp focus.

Censusing the rest of the area is a lot of driving side roads, parking here and there to record what's observable while walking along the road. That includes staring at feeders outside houses that range from palatial to falling-down trailers. I didn't find any redpolls, siskins, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Purple Finches, Evening Grosbeaks, or crossbills anywhere - not visiting a feeder, not in the extensive wooded-but-private-and-heavily-posted areas, not flying over as I walked the roads. In one relatively open area comprised of an old field that rolled down a hill to a small marsh, I found an honorary "winter finch": a Northern Shrike (Lanius excubitor).

A Northern Shrike perched some 200 meters into another
heavily-posted field. I had about a minute before it flew off, which
was about a minute longer than I should have exposed my naked
shutter- tripping fingers to the elements.

I stopped to photograph it, which I did, badly, when the door flooded open with a series of other decent sightings. A brief photography stop turned into a thirty-minute listing frenzy, but not of the open-field species like Snow Buntings, Horned Larks, and perhaps a Lapland Longspur that I was hoping for.

While photographing the shrike I heard the unmistakable sweet
chortle of an Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis). Walking a bit farther I found
leafless tree, but not bare branches. There are at least four species mixed
in that flock: Northern Flicker
(Colaptes auratus), American Robin
(Turdus migratorius), House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus), and bluebirds.

A very handsome flicker:
not unexpected, but not expected, either.

Damn! Left the focus setting on "finch" instead of "bluebird."

Ah, that's better. The rest of his flock was moving around quite a bit.

There was quite a bit of action below the species that stayed in the trees,
mostly American Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea). I did find two
Swamp Sparrows
(Melospiza georgiana), a high count for me on a CBC.

Bluebirds taking off from the spruce tops.

I have to admit, I was relieved when the 22 bluebirds flushed from the spruces. My fingers were numb, even a stage past numb. And I had a lot more territory to cover, but none of the later stops would be as productive.

At a stop at the Tioga River I added both Hooded (Lophodytes cucullatus) and Common Mergansers (Mergus merganser), but failed to find the Bald Eagle that patrols along this stretch. I've never actually counted an eagle on the CBC, but every year others report sightings throughout the winter.

A pair of Hooded Mergansers paddle furiously down river.

Common Mergansers flying up river.

All in all, it was a great time, even though I didn't adequately cover my entire area. I didn't spend enough time counting all the House Sparrows (Passer domesticus), European Starlings (Sturnus vulgarus), and Rock Pigeons (Columba livia) along Market Street. I would have liked to spend more time along the Tioga River, but access in my area is pretty much non-existent. There were a couple of additional roads I didn't traverse that might have been productive, but with time constraints they just didn't happen. So many post-counting regrets!

Perhaps the only expected bird that I missed was Red-breasted Nuthatch. Maybe not a surprise, most of them headed south this year. Happily, my fingers eventually regained feeling, at the end of the day I totaled about 32 species in my area, and I was left with songs celebrating the season ringing in my ears.

Outside under the purple sky
Diamonds in the snow sparkle
Our hearts were singing
It felt like Christmas time

Information about all birds in this post can be found at All About Birds | Bird Guide
Post title credit: 2000 Miles (1983), The Pretenders.
All images © Mike Powers.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

In a Deep and Dark December

Today really was a winter's day in this deep and dark December. Six to ten inches of snow were expected, and received, between sunrise and a couple of hours after sunset, most of it falling between 11:00 AM and 7:00 PM (or 1100-1900 for those on a 24-hour clock).

Overlooking Sapsucker Woods Pond from the second floor of The Johnson Center for
Birds and Biodiversity, aka, "the Lab." The snow kept falling for several more hours.

The weather affected me more directly than usual, as I had to stop in a couple places to retrieve recording units we left in the field (part of the research I'm involved in, one day soon I'll write about that). One unit was on Mt. Pleasant, the premier site to watch for migrating hawks or listen for nocturnal flight calls in Ithaca, but also a misnomer during the winter months if you're driving. I decided to pick up that one first, before the snow accumulation amounted to much. I was also hoping for a nice flock of Snow Buntings, Horned Larks, and perhaps a Lapland Longspur or two.

Bingo! A flock of some hundred birds flew over and settled
down in the grass. I swear they're in there, somewhere.

The retrieval went quick, the snow was steady, some might say "driving," and the only birds were several dozen American Crows and eventually a flock of Horned Larks and Snow Buntings (on edit: I didn't add the buntings on my original eBird list, so didn't include them in my original "published" post. Upon re-reading I realized my mistaken account - this is why I shouldn't do this late at night). Some birds settled down, allowing me to scour through them, the rest flew off to who-knows-where. I didn't find any longspurs.

There they are, much easier to see on the wing (to see, not photograph!).

A personal note to the person riding their bike down the Mt. Pleasant hill this morning through the snow: though I applaud your efforts to lessen your environmental impact, I have to wonder what the frick you were thinking. I'm sure the guy in the minivan wonders too. You remember, the one who swerved to miss you when you wiped out, ending up fish-tailing and then spinning through the blind intersection? The one who eventually banged up his vehicle bouncing off the rocks?

Anyway, after that bit of adrenaline-pumping entertainment, I was off to campus. The second unit was mounted within Schoellkopf Stadium (yes, the football stadium) - an ideal spot, under the right conditions, to watch and listen for songbirds migrating at night. Much easier to retrieve, but the snowfall was certainly having an affect, and not just on driving.

This poor Red-tailed Hawk on campus looks how I felt!

Ah, yes, winter has arrived, we're to be hit again on Sunday with a Nor'easter starting to shape up in points south and west. Fortunately the Corning Christmas Bird Count is on Saturday, and I'll be out hoping to glimpse a few unexpected species.

Post title credit: I Am A Rock (1965), Simon and Garfunkel.

Friday, December 7, 2007

You're My Blue Sky, You're My Sunny Day

It's all about timing, and for the timing to be just right several things have to align, much like the planets for an astrologically significant event. I was fortunate to have such an event on Thursday morning.

It started, as the past week or more has started, with several inches of snow. None new, but none melting, either, with the high temps hanging around the upper-20's (F). Twice a week I drive our daughter to school, and this was one of those days.

After dropping her off and briefly debating if I had time to stop to check in on the birds on the Big Flats Trail ("no" won, with that pesky, "you've got a backlog of recordings to analyze, but we'll promise to make time next week" argument) I headed back to the house to pick up lunch and head off to tackle the aforementioned backlog.

But (you knew there had to be a transitory "but" coming) as I crested our hill, about a quarter mile from our house, I saw a flash of something I hadn't seen in a while. It was small, it was blue, rusty-orange, and white, it was certainly not expected among the leafless trees, snow-covered lawns, and slush-filled roads. Not impossible, but not expected . . . Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis)!

The Eastern Bluebird that caught my eye, attention,
and for a brief while, my soul on a cold December morning.

The birds were there, my camera was with me, the light was good (blue skies are not the norm in the Southern Tier from November to March), and the world would not end if I were sidetracked for a few minutes. Alignment! This was meant to be.

I pulled over, as far as the semi-plowed road would let me, jumped out with camera ready. The birds were awfully flitty but I managed a few shots that came out passable.

Eastern Bluebird looking very European Robin-ish (Erithacus rubecula).
Bluebirds, like American Robins (Turdus migratorius), are members of the
"thrush" family; European Robins are not closely related. But I think this pose
looks more akin to the Old World, non-thrush, non-counterpart.

Of course, there were other birds around, too. It was pretty active, with American Goldfinches (Carduelis tristis) , a couple of White-breasted Nuthatches (Sitta carolinensis), Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), and Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata), but mostly with sparrows (White-throated (Zonotrichia albicollis) and Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis).

One of the handful of White-throated Sparrows thrown into the mix.

A pretty typical list for the season at this location. A Pilated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) sounded off in the distance, a Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) chipped nearby, and then the surprise bird of the day popped up: Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius)! Not supposed to be here, according to the range maps; even eBird asks you to confirm that's what you meant to report at this time of year. But they are around, sporadically, through the winter.

A female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker makes a
surprise appearance during the brief stop.

I saw this bird several times during the 10 minutes I was standing on the road side, though I wonder if there were two: it kept appearing, but coming from a different direction from where it disappeared. But, having never confirmed two different birds by plumage or, even better, seeing both at the same time, it's recorded as a single bird for posterity.

When I finally made it home there were a handful of birds in the yard. Since I had the camera out already . . .

An American Goldfinch picking at the Purple Coneflowers outside our window.

Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapilla) on a dying birch.

A great birding stop just outside our home, all fueled by a chance sighting of a bluebird. Something told me it was going to be a great day. It had to be, right?

Don't fly, Mister Bluebird, I'm just walking down the road
Early morning sunshine tell me all I need to know . . . .

Post title credit: Blue Sky (1972), Allman Brothers Band.
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