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

NYS Breeding Bird Atlas: Whip-Poor-Will

In a few months, the New York State Ornithological Association will be releasing its long anticipated book on the 2000-2005 New York State Breeding Bird Atlas, which I had the great privilege to participate in several blocks with.

Between now and then I would like to highlight species I think that have changed significantly between the first Atlas done 1980-1985 and the second done 2000-2005.  All data is from the New York State Breeding Bird Atlas and the information is subject to change.

To start with, we will look at the 3 species of Nightjars which occur in our area, the first being my favorite the Whip-poor-will.

Atlas Distribution 1980-1985

Atlas Distribution 1980-1985

 

As you can see the Whip-poor-will was widely distributed through out much of the eastern and northern parts of the state.  The heaviest concentrations were on eastern Long Island and in the hardwood forest that surrounds the Adirondack Mountains.  The species was scattered but present in the western part of the state and it is also important to note that this species was reported on Staten Island.

This species is very difficult to confirm breeding, due to its crepuscular habits and lack of a nest (they nest on a stump or directly on the ground).  No doubt this species bred in many of the areas listed on the map as probable.  Still at this time, the Whip-poor-will was a common bird of late evening in many rural areas, but even then these birds were less common than 20 years earlier (pre 1960).  Sadly, take a look at the latest atlas.

Atlast Distribution 2000-2005

Atlas Distribution 2000-2005

 

The Whip-poor-will has vanished from many areas it was common in only 20 years ago, virtually gone from the western part of New York.  There are still heavy concentrations on eastern Long Island, where it may be competing with Chuck-will’s-widow and along and near Ft. Drum Military Base in the NW part of the state, where a few dedicated researchers gained access to land and discovered a healthy population of Whip-poor-will’s.  But areas of the Southern Adirondacks, Champlain Valley, Hudson Valley and Catskills, the question of the Whip-poor-will’s decline is unclear.  Some have proposed suburban sprawl and land fragmentation, in the Adirondacks it may be that woods have become, too mature and no longer have the open understory this species likes.  In many areas farm land has completely reverted to forest, no longer leaving wide ares of appropriate habitat.  But the real answer is that we really don’t know why this species has declined.

While the Whip-poor-will remains one of my favorite birds, I have made a few observations of my own this year.  I found one singing bird in its usual spot in Albany County this year, but found several more signing birds in an area that had been opened up by logging, in that area the undergrowth had been removed leaving stands of mostly large pines and created a habitat similar to the Pine Barrens the species loves on Long Island.  One wonders if decreased logging and forest fire prevention have done more harm to this species than we are currently aware?  I think its a question that at the very least needs to be looked into, and soon.

Birds of Albany County Part II

Last Friday I started the process of looking Wilbur Webster Judd’s account in 1907 of the Birds of Albany County and whether they still hold true today.  Part I, last week dealt with Thrushes.

This weeks chapter is short, dealing with the two Kinglet species in the area, plus one more.

Ruby-Crowned Kinglet:

Judd:  Judd notes that the Ruby-Crowned Kinglet is more common than most observers realize in Albany County, and he notes seeing large numbers in the spring in Washington Park in Albany.  He notes that they breed from the northern border of the state northward.

Raup:  Ruby-Crowned Kinglets are common both in Fall and Spring.  In Spring they are an early arrival, their song, along with their cousin help to liven up the still slumbering woods.  While Ruby-Crowned Kinglets may have expanded their range somewhat in the Adirondacks (or observers are getting to previously unknown areas), they still have not bred in Albany County, although their may be suitable habitat in parts of Partridge Run WMA.

Golden-Crowned Kinglet:

Judd:  Lists this species as a common winter visitant and also states that its breeding habits are exactly the same as Ruby-Crowned Kinglet.

RaupGolden-Crowned Kinglets are fairly common in winter in the Albany area in both urban and rural areas.  They are seldom found far from conifers and often in mature woods.  Judd was incorrect in the nesting habits of the Golden-Crowned Kinglet, which is an uncommon, but widespread breeder above 1000′ in the area.

Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher:

Judd:  There is no mention of this species in Judd’s book.

RaupBlue Gray-Gnatcatcher over the last 20-50 years has steadily moved up the Hudson Valley and is well established, although still rather uncommon in the area.  This species is found reliably at several Albany area locations, but is not widespread, and is often over looked due to the fact it sounds similar to catbird and can often be difficult to spot in deep brush.  This is one of several southern species which have moved into Eastern New York after the days of Judd.

The Birds of Albany County: Part I

In 1907 a man by the name of Wilbur Webster Judd (whom a google search revealed nothing about) started an ambitious project to write a book about the birds of Albany County, more specifically the birds of the City of Albany, New York.

Over the next several Fridays, I will look at the birds Judd describes in his book and how they have changed 100 years later.

*Note I will follow his order

Eastern Bluebird: 

Judd:  Very Common Summer Resident.  Judd didn’t elaborate much about the Eastern Bluebird, saying it had already been described to death.  He spends a considerable amount of time discussing the winter habits of the Bluebirds, citing that as far as he knew, no Bluebirds spent the winter as far north as Albany.  He claims to have seen them in Central Connecticut, but not in New York.  He cites mid-March as an arrival date, and notes their nest preference of a hollow tree and also notes competition with Great-Crested Flycatcher and House Wren.  He also notes that “they are as common now as when our Grandfathers were boys.” (Judd, 1907: 25) But he also states that they were no longer common in the City, because they were being driven out by the English (House) Sparrow.  But he also states, that one would only have to walk a mile or two away from the City and Bluebirds would be as plentiful as ever.

Raup:  Common Resident.  Not a whole lot to argue with Judd about here.  Eastern Bluebird is still very much common over much of the County, although one likely has to travel further now than a mile to find them.  One difference is that Eastern Bluebirds are rather common in winter, especially in the Southern Part of the County, where Judd didn’t spend a lot time.  Eastern Bluebird is almost completely absent from the City of Albany, although a few still breed in areas such as the Pine Bush, which really wasn’t considered part of the City of Albany then.  With human support with the erection of nest boxes (the Bluebird trail), Eastern Bluebirds populations seem stable.

American Robin:

Judd:  Very Common Summer Resident.  Judd has much flowery praise for the species.

Raup:  Very Common Resident.  The American Robin is common most of the year, with perhaps numbers dipping to quite low in poor berry years and harsh winters, but they are often one of the first species back arriving in force by late February.  They nest in all parts of the County, in almost every habitat.  They are one of the most common and recognized birds in the area.

Hermit Thrush:

Judd:  Spring and Fall Migrant, a number remain through the summer and breed.  Judd notes several interesting observations of the possibility of occasional breeding in Washington Park in Albany, he also notes a male Hermit Thrush singing well into June near the Albany County Club.  He then goes on to describe his own sighting in his yard (near the present day Albany Institute of History and Art) in April. 

RaupCommon Migrant, Breeds outside of the City of Albany.  Hermit Thrush is one of the most common Thrush migrants in our area, often arriving as early as March, but more common in April to May.  It is a common breeder in cool, moist woods and in higher elevations through out the County, although nearly absent from the immediate river valley and City.  Fall migrants arrive in September, normally peaking in Early to mid October.  A few hang on through December and a few more even spend the winter, often in the company of large flocks of American Robins.

Wilson’s Thrush (AKA Veery):

Judd:  Common Summer Resident.  Judd claims that this is the most common Thrush in summer in the county.  He says this bird is most common in the woodlands on the land south of Schenectady Turnpike near Wolf Road.

RaupCommon Summer Resident.  Veery’s arrive in the county in late April or early May. the inhabit moist woodlands and are easily found in most areas of the County, except in the higher elevations, where Hermit Thrush is more common.  As for that area south of Schenectady Turnpike (Rt. 5)… It’s a Target Shopping Plaza and behind that is the intersection of I-87 and I-90 and the New York State Thruway Exit 24 Toll Barriers.  While a few Veerys may nest nearby in the Pine Bush or the Rensselaer water-works, they are neither reliable or abundant.

Wood Thrush:

Judd:  Summer Resident, Not Common.  Judd was taken by the birds vocal qualities, but seemed ill informed about the bird.  He claims it is the rarest of the three species which breed in the County and doesn’t describe its breeding areas.

Raup:  Common Summer Resident.  Judd didn’t get out much I guess later in the summer.  Wood Thrush tends to be a later migrant, but even in my urban setting during mid May I can often hear a Wood Thrush singing at both dawn and dusk, in fact it is the only Thrush (other than Robin) that regularly uses my back yard in migration.  In early June I find it nearly impossible to ride around and not here a Wood Thrush, it seems every wood lots has one, although some have raised concerns that as wood lots get smaller, problems from Blue Jay’s, Crows, Cowbirds and mammals will seriously impact the Wood Thrush population.

Olive-Backed (Swainson’s) Thrush, Gray-Cheeked Thrush, Bicknell’s Thrush:

Judd:  “So far as I have been able to learn, these three Thrushes are never seen in Albany County save as Spring or Fall migrants, though it seems quite probable that the Olive-backed (Swainson’s) may occasionally breed in the higher parts of the Helderbergs.” (Judd, 1907: 32)

Raup:  Not much has changed, although his paragraph on describing the difference between Bicknell’s and Gray-Cheeked, in entertaining.  Swainson’s Thrush may very rarely breed in the Helderbergs, although they are more common above 3000′ in elevation, which is above even the highest peaks of the County.  Gray-Cheeked Thrush it has been discovered is common nocturnal migrant, but does not seem to land in the same frequency it does on the coast.  Bicknell’s Thrush nests above 3500′ generally in The Catskills and Adirondacks, though these two species are very difficult to tell apart in the field, meaning that both are seriously under-reported, but especially Bicknell’s.

2007 Birding Year in Review

For anyone who cares, I finished 2007 with 251 species in New York State, throw in a few species I picked up while on vacation in Disney World in Florida and that number only goes up to 255.  Certainly this is well short of Corey’s big year of 316 or Rich Guthrie  at 317, but I’m not retired nor do I have a girlfriend in law school who happens to live only a short drive from Jamaica Bay.  I also have 2 young kids, which as Mike at 10,000 Birds understands is a challenge to give enough time, effort and energy to both loves.

There were of course a lot of great moments, I’ll have to admit I spent a lot of with Corey of 10,000 Birds.  In February we had two great trips one was north to Oregon Plains Road where we might have had the best success of anyone, with stunning looks at Red and White-winged Crossbill, Pine Siskin, Purple Finch and a nice and very cooperative group of Gray Jays.  Another trek that same month was on Presidents day to Jones Beach to seek a bird, which I shall not name here.  It was cold, cold and cold.  It was also the first time I got to meet Mike from 10,000 Birds  (noticing a theme here).

There was also the Short-Eared Owl spectacular in Ft. Edward, which I saw with both Corey and my Wife.  By late March, Corey and I were standing in a snow covered field listening for American Woodcock, which did not sound but we found many tracks in the snow.  We also got to hear hooting Great-Horned Owls, a new property bird for that location.

March was also a fabled trip to Lake Champlain to look for Tufted Duck and the first time I met Jory.  We saw nearly every kind of duck that day including Barrow’s Goldeneye and Eurasian Wigeon, but no Tufted Duck.

April the great excitement builds for migration and we made lots of little local trips.

In May I headed down the NYC over mothers day to participate in the New York City Audubon Birding Challenge, where once again the team from Staten Island that I was one narrowly edged out the team from Brooklyn for the victory.  A week later I joined Corey, Chad Witko and my wife to do the HMBC Century Run, where despite miserable conditions we finished with over 120 species in 24 hours.

In June, 4 bird bloggers (Corey and Mike from 10,000 Birds, Patrick from The Hawk Owls Nest and myself) traveled over hill and dale in search of field birds such as Henlow’s Sparrow and Upland Sandpiper and the next day climbing a mountain in the dark to listen to the surreal song of the Bicknell’s Thrush (and we also got Mike his life Ruffed Grouse).

July had yet another trip up north with Tom W., Jory and Corey to search for Spruce Grouse, in one of the most remote and dramatic places I had ever visited in the Adirondacks, the trip was a bust on our target species, but no trip to the Adirondacks is ever a bust.

August is time for shorebirdsand other than a quick trip to Montezuma NWR in Central New York to get Sandhill Cranes (and missing a Whimbrelbecause we were lazy), we spent a lot of time at the Cohoes Flats and Peebles Island.  Corey had his mystery shorebird, that even David Sibley commented on, but a lot of the sightings would not have been possible without Zach B., who spent a lot of time looking through every shorebird in Cohoes, and eventually would turn up a pair of American Golden Plovers a rather uncommon bird in these parts.  I also was one of two people to snag a briefly stopping Buff-breasted Sandpiper in Albany County (Thanks Rich and Corey!)

September Corey and I did the first ever fall Century Run with the Hudson-Mohawk Bird Club.  We were one of only two groups that participated (it was labor day weekend) but we ended with around 90 species.

October Corey went to Germany and I hung around the house.  November rolled in with winter finches and waxwings and it wasn’t long before Common Redpoll, Pine Grosbeak, Northern Shrike and Bohemian Waxwingwere all added to my year list.  A late trip to Noblewood on the shores of Lake Champlain also got us a late Dunlin and a Little Gull (Hey Corey, we saw a Little Gull!)

December was spent doing Christmas counts, in Saratoga, Albany, Rensselaer and Columbia Counties and while I only added one new species (Snow Goose which I had somehow managed to miss up till then), but there is nothing I like better than spending the day counting birds.

What’s in store for 2008?  Well who knows, as of this writing I’m 10 days in to the year and haven’t gone birding once.  Too tired, a little stressed and generally distracted.  I will however I have the opportunity to be on the Gulf coast the first week in April, so hopefully I’ll get something good out of that!