A Connecticut Warbler in My Court…

So far the last few nights, I’ve spent my evenings in the backyard looking for Common Nighthawks.  Usually in late August I’ll see dozens of these graceful Nightjars flying over my house as they make their way south for the winter.  This year I appear not to be on the flight path as I have seen none.  Zip.  Zilch.  Nada.  Thankfully some other birders have set up shop the last few nights near the Albany Pine Bush and have reported at least healthy numbers each night.  So they are out there, just not over my house.

Right at dusk last night, I was scanning the western sky for Nighthawks, when a fairly large Warbler practically dropped out of the sky into the weedy and brush margins of my yard.   Thinking I had my first Common Yellowthroat of the fall, I was very surprised to see  a much larger warbler, with evidence of a hood, along with a strong white eye ring.  The bird was also a skulker, keeping very low in the vegitation or directly on the ground (and out of sight).  Given its size and coloration, I reported it as a Mourning Warbler, even though that eye ring would be very unsuaul (but not unheard of).  It was too big for most other warblers, and the bold eye ring ruled out the rest.  However it was dark and I just went with what I saw.  During the night my ID bugged me.  By morning I had turned the bird into a pale Canada Warbler.  But it still didn’t sit well.

The next day, I took my dog out into the yard for some morning exercise.  As she walked along the edge of the yard, she flushed something from underneath the hosta plants.  Whatever it was skittered further into the weeds and briefly popped up when I walked over and spished.  Again I could clearly see this bold white eye-ring even without optics.  I dashed inside, grabbed my camera and binoculars and rushed back out.  The bird was still in a tangle of wild grape and with some coaxing, I got it sorta come out and snapped a few pictures.  Sadly in my rush, I used auto focus… and of course the camera choose to make the grape leaves nice and crisp, while leaving my bird fuzzy (argh!)

But I got at least 2 shots:

A “Mystery” Warbler. August 23, 2012 – Albany, NY – Will Raup.

“Mystery” Warbler – August 23, 2012 – Albany, NY – Will Raup

Clearly my ID of a Mourning Warbler was off.  Even Canada Warbler was being a stretch.  Only 2 birds really fit this description, one the rather common Nashville Warbler and the decidedly uncommon Connecticut Warbler.  Now I have seen many Nashville Warblers, especially in my backyard… and this warbler was too big.  Also the bill and tail were very long for a Nashville Warbler.  But a Connecticut Warbler is almost unheard of in this part of New York, even more so in August.  So I needed a fresh set of eyes.  I set Danika up with the photos and field guides and she kept coming back to Connecticut Warbler as well.  As this would be a life, and one heck of a yard bird… it gnawed on me.  So I posted the pictures on facebook, in particular the American Birding Association page.  I then had to mow the lawn.

While I mowed the lawn (figuring if the bird was still around this would get rid of it), I went over all the field marks in my head.  Everything was pointing to Connecticut Warbler, but since I had zero experience with this species, I was being cautious.  Later in the afternoon, I started to get some feedback.  Some still called it a Nashville, a few a Canada and soon there was a number of people supporting Connecticut Warbler.  When Ken Kaufman posted his thoughts that it was a Connecticut, things really started falling into place.  So I was feeling pretty good, as I headed out for another Nighthawk vigil this evening.  Again, no Nighthawks… but right at dark, against all odds, the bird reappeared.  This time I was able to (quickly!) see the long bill and tail and large size, clearly ruling out Nashville.  The white eye-ring looked like a flashlight in the dark, dense Golden Rod.  The bird only made a couple of brief hops up to about 3 feet off the ground, but spent much of its time right on the ground, decidedly not Nashville behavior.  Mystery Solved a new life and yard bird!

Albany Pine Bush

*Note this post will be permanently linked in the Where to Bird in Eastern New York and Handicapped Birding Pages.

The Albany Pine Bush is a series of Pine Dunes (part of a larger group of Pine Bush which runs down the Coast into New Jersey), nestled along an extension of the City of Albany and parts of the Towns of Guilderland and Colonie.  It is also conveniently located next to the Albany dump.  While many species of animal call the Preserve home, the Albany Pine Bush is most famous for a small, blue butterfly, The Karner Blue, which is endangered.  This was also once the historical home of Heath Hen, a now extinct sub-species of Lesser Prairie Chicken, which occurred in the Northeast.

A good place to start your visit to the Albany Pine Bush is at the Discovery Center (located off Rt. 155, between Rt. 5 and Washington Avenues).  Here you can learn more about the uniqueness of the Pine Bush as well as get maps and directions to other parcel of lands. (Keep in mind they do controlled burning in some years and access to the trails may be limited).  The easiest way to start exploring the Pine Bush is to follow the trails from the Discovery Center.  These trails go through typical Pine Bush habitat.  Within moments in the warmer months you should be greeted with the “Chewink” call of Eastern Towhee, which is abundant in the Pine Bush.  Prairie Warbler is common here, along with Field SparrowFlycatchers are also abundant, with Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Kingbird, Willow, Least and Great Crested FlycatchersEastern Pewee may be heard in some of the woodier sections.  Common Yellothroat, Yellow Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Pine Warbler and American Redstart are the common warbler species, with others such as Blackburnian, Bay-breasted and Cape May Warblers are found in the dense pines in migration.  Red-breasted Nuthatch and Northern Flicker are often found as well.  Wild Turkey is abundant, along with Gray Catbird and Indigo Bunting.  In winter, Northern Shrike frequents the area.

As one follows the trails east, the preserve runs along the Albany dump.  In summer months the smell can be wretched, but expect good looks at Turkey Vulture, Black Vulture is a recent arrival but can often be found here as well.  All 3 of the main gull species can be found wheeling above the garbage and a gull enthusiast might be able to pick out a white-winged or better gull from the swirling flocks.

In late summer Common Nighthawk can be abundant flying over or even found quietly snoozing on a branch.  Recent survey’s have shown Whip-poor-will to be present in the park, a welcomed sign.  Red-tailed Hawk is a common resident and both Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks are often found.  Merlin can be found in migration.  Barred, Screech and Great Horned Owls frequent the surrounding woods, and with more effort or searching in winter Northern Saw-Whet and Long Eared Owls are a good bet.  In winter also keep your eyes our for both Red and White-winged Crossbills, Pine Siskin and Common Redpoll.

Other areas of the preserve have a variety of habitat, ranging from mixed woodlands, ponds and marsh areas.  Rensselaer Lake off Fuller Road is part of the preserve, but is often crowded and has an unsavory reputation for use.  Some further exploration of the area, might lead to some new finds, especially during migration.

Beyond birds, the preserve has an amazing array of unique plants, insects and mammals as well.  The preserve can be busy with mountain bikers and joggers in the warmer months and cross-country skiers in winter, making visiting the preserve early in the day your best bet.

(The Albany Pine Bush Discovery Center is an excellent stop for someone with disabilities.  As a former bank, the building is handicapped accessable and has plenty of restrooms.  It also provides an opportunity to for those with disabilities to experience the Pine Bush, through displays and other information.  However birding the Pine Bush with someone who is disabled is poor at best.  The trails are sandy and uneven, prone to washouts in heavy rain and stairs are used throughout the trail system.  A wheelchair is impossible here and others with mobility problems, may find the sandy trails, which can be steep a challenge.  The preserve is also surrounded by major roads, including the New York State Thruway, there is significant noise pollution, even someone with slight hearing loss may have issues trying to hear birds in the preserve due to traffic.  The good news is there are areas in which you can’t hear the traffic as much, but in other areas, especially late in the afternoon it can be deafening.)

Rating:

****Spring, * Summer, ** Fall, * Winter

The Decline of the Karner Blue Butterfly

Once again I turn to the Albany, NY Times Union for another interesting article, this time about a Butterfly, the endangered Karner Blue.  This small blue butterfly, finds its home in isolated pine barrens, ranging from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Eastern New York and parts of New Hampshire and very local with in those areas.

According to the article, the Karner Blue butterfly has been extirpated from Schenectady County and in serious decline in Warren County.  It did mention that the Butterfly seems to be holding on, even making a bit of comeback in Saratoga County, but its last real strong hold in Eastern New York, the Albany Pine Bush, the Butterfly has declined drastically.  And experts are puzzled as to why.  Some are targeting the use of herbicides to deal with invasive species near the Pine Bush in the decline of wild Lupine, the Karner Blue’s main food source.  And while herbicides are not allowed inside the preserve proper, there are no rules governing their use on the large amount of private property that surrounds the preserve and in some cases in the preserve.

Others have pointed out a lack of snow cover, which leaves more eggs exposed to be eaten by hungry birds or just exposed to extreme cold.  Others have looked at a string of cold, wet springs which may impact the Karner Blue’s caterpillars.   The article quotes a DEC official by who said that sometimes Butterfly populations crash from unknown reasons.

So what can be done to save this species?  New York and other states are raising caterpillars at a facility in New Hampshire to be released  Currently it is estimated between 1,000 and 5,000 butterfly’s currently live in the Pine Bush in Albany.  It is estimated that 3,000 is needed to have a sustainable population, so there are either barely enough or not nearly enough.  Other conservation efforts such as controlled burns, to encourage Wild Lupine growth have been done and will continue to be done.  But a major difficulty is this is a small animal in a large area, making it very difficult at best to study and get an accurate population count.

The Full Article Can be found here:

http://www.timesunion.com/AspStories/story.asp?storyID=848099

New York State DEC Web Page on the Karner Blue:

http://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/7118.html