Common Loon (Gavias immer)

Common Loon - New Baltimore, Greene Co., NY - Photo by Will Raup

Typically Common Loons are long gone from the Hudson-Mohawk area by the time Christmas Counts roll around.  This year however, with the mild conditions, water remained open on many of the lakes and reservoirs, keeping the Loons happy much later than normal.  In early January we had several cold days, with temperatures at  night in the City of Albany at or below 0 F, many of the outlying areas between -5 and -20 F, meant a rapid freeze up of water.  I stopped by Cornell Park in New Baltimore (Greene Co. NY) and was surprised to see a Common Loon on the Hudson River.  Loons typically don’t like moving water (like rivers), but given the rapid freeze up of the Lakes, this bird was no doubt forced to the River.  Making the situation even more interesting was the fact that huge ice sheets were moving down river.  There was a real danager of this Loon getting trapped by Ice, but it also pushed the bird very close to shore where I was standing, allowing me some of the most personal views and photographs of this species I normally only see at a distance through a scope.

I returned later in the day, to find that entire area choked with Ice, no open water at all.  But I didn’t see the Loon either, so hopefully he made it further south towards the coast.

Common Loon with Fish. New Baltimore, Greene Co., NY - Photo by Will Raup

UFC Comes to New York

Lost among all the usless things our impotent Governor and Legislators did this past year, they made it legal for mixed martial arts fights in New York State.  Little did we know, we would get a first hand look at this brutal sport at Jamaica Bay of all places.  Below are the higlights from the Yellowlegs Division.

The fighters enter the Octagon of death! (Octagon not included)

You talking to me?

Chant it with me, Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!

Hi-ya!

Going for the Kill...

...Evaded!

In a judges ruling... we have a winner!

Historical Bird Records: How Much Should We Believe? Black Rail, Greene County, NY 1963

For those of us who are interested in the avian history of New York State, the efforts by the New York State Ornithological Society to archive and make searchable 57 years of their Kingbird Journal  are nothing short of amazing.  Especially for someone like me, who has only been alive a little more than half as long as the Kingbird, it has given me great insight into the birds and birders who covered Region 8 (Eastern New York) before me.  But with these great stories and birds, comes some trepidations on my part, I just don’t believe some of these reports.

The first “No way!” moment I read, came from the 1963 V 13 #3 Kingbird.  In the report from that Spring, a Black Rail was reported from Vly Marsh in Catskill on May 18.  Black Rail, has a very limited range in New York, pretty much relegated to a few isolated pockets of salt marsh along the south shore of Long Island.  Because of its small size and secretive habits and difficult to get into habitat, it likely is under reported, but has never been common.  Many field guides still list Black Rail as rare and local inland, especially along major river valleys.  Its status away from the coast is more or less a vagrant, although it may very rarely breed, somewhere! 

 Now the observer who reported the Black Rail was well known, was listed as an observer long before and long after this particular sighting and was familiar with the area.  The Region 8 editor, describes the sighting as “convincingly described”, but no details as to what made the description convincing!  My argument is look at the date, May 18.  By this date at least some Virginia Rails, which would have been fairly common along the Hudson River marshes would have had downy chicks.  A well known ID pitfall of Black Rail is its similarity in size and color to the chicks of both Virginia Rail and Sora, both of which would have been found in the marsh.  A sighting of a small black rail in mid May, if indeed that’s all there was, is certainly not enough to make this report convincing. 

Now, to make this even more interesting… On September 19, 1963, the same observer, along with another, reported Black Rail at the same location.  Again, the Region 8 editor simply says the sighting was “convincingly described”.  Now this sighting holds more potential.  Given the mid September date, the chances of a late brood of either Virgina Rail or Sora are pretty low, but not impossible. In my opinion there is a good chance that a small black rail, is in fact a Black Rail.  Since it was seen by the same observers, who were reliable, this September sighting makes their sighting from the previous May, more credible.  But without specific details separating it from young rails in May, or even in September, I have a tough time accepting either record.  As such, Black Rail remains on my hypothetical species list for Region 8.

Albany Rural Cemetary

Now some people have trouble bird watching in Cemetaries.  I guess the thought of thousands of dead people, slowly decomposing beneath your feet, can give some people the willies.  But, many Cemetary’s, especially in urban settings are oasis for birds.

Albany Rural Cemetary is located just north of the City of Albany in Menands, New York.  There are actually 3 Cemetaries which make up the complex, Albany Rural, St. Agnes and the Jewish Cemetary.  All 3 offer good birding, especially in Spring migration, but winter is also a good time to visit as well.

St. Agnes Cemetary, which is owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, is also an Audubon partner for conservation, and efforts are made to maintain the grounds in an environmentally friendly way.  Albany Rural cemetary is more famous for the people who are buried there including at least 1 U.S. President (Chester A. Arthur if you are wondering).  Interestingly scattered around the grounds are many bird feeders, and a drive around the plots in mid winter can easily yield some interesting birds, including flocks of Dark-Eyed Junco, Common Redpoll, American Goldfinch and Pine Siskin as well as more common suburban feeder birds.  In some years, the ornamental evergreens are particularly attractive to species such as White-winged CrossbillRed-tailed Hawk is a year round resident, and likely nests in the wooded areas of the Cemetaries.  Accipiters and Merlin can often be seen flying by during migration.

But Spring is when the Cemetaries really shine.  Look for Baltimore Oriole, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Scarlet Tanager flying around in all their glorious colors.  Wood Thrush and Veery, and their flute like songs from the wooded patches.  American Robins tending nests and Red-eyed and Warbling Vireos singing non-stop from almost every tree.  Check the wood edges and brushier areas for migrant warblers.

Summer time can be slow, but in late August look for Common Nighthawks winging their way south.  In fall, look for migrant sparrows along the edges of the plots.

(Birding at Albany Rural and other Cemetaries is actually quite good.  The roads through the plots are paved and level.  The grassy areas are also fairly level.  There are some steep sections and small hills scattered about, but can be traversed by taking vehical to the lower and upper portions.  At Albany Rural there are also many bird feeders scattered about, it is possible to stake out a feeder to watch.  In the older sections, some of the plots are pretty narrow and you also run the risk of tripping over a partially sunken headstone, but none of these risks out weigh the birding potential of the place.)

Rating:

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

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

4 Mile Point/Vosburgh’s Marsh

* Note this post will be permanently linked in the “Where to Bird in Eastern New York Section”

These two small preserves, located down the road from each other are two of my favorite locations to bird in Eastern Greene County, New York.  Both are located along the shores of the Hudson River and as such, provide above average birding in all seasons.  Both are located on 4-mile Point Road in the Town of Athens in Greene County and both are owned by Scenic Hudson.  The entrance to 4- Mile Point is about 1/4 mile once you turn onto 4-Mile Point Road, by the 1st curve.  There is a small parking lot.

After checking out the information Kiosk, take the short path to your right, which leads down to a small pond.  This pond doesn’t usually hold anything too exciting, but Wood Duck, Mallard and American Black Duck can be found and rarely Blue or Green Winged Teal.  In Spring and Fall check the surrounding tree’s and listen for the squeeky-gate closing calls of Rusty Blackbirds.  You may also find a Great-Blue Heron or Green Heron patiently hunting along the edges.

Returning to the main trail, you will notice that the woods are alive with birds.  In Spring and Summer, birds such as Red-eyed and Warbling Vireos, American Redstart, Yellow Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Baltimore Oriole and Great-Crested Flycatcher can be abundant.  Catbirds can often be heard mewing from the thickets.  Because of its location to nearby nesting areas, Cerulean Warbler is a rare, but regular migrant.  In fall, Dark-eyed Junco, White-Throated Sparrow and Golden-Crowned Kinglet, join the ever-present Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Cedar Waxwing, Northern Cardinal and nearly all the regular occurring Woodpecker species.

Continuing down the trail a few hundred feet, the trail splits.  One goes up, the other down.  Going down, leads you to a picnic area, which is popular in the warmer months.  Heading up, leads you through some short Cedar tree’s, where in fall, winter and early spring, one should look closely for a snoozing Northern Saw-Whet Owl or Long-Eared OwlKinglets and Warblers can often be found flitting through the trees.  The path splits again, leading to two bluffs which provide spectacular views of the Hudson River.  Whether on the upper bluffs or in the lower picnic area, keep an eye to the sky, for one of the numerous Bald Eagles in the area.  Osprey are fairly common in migration, in colder months scan the River for waterfowl, Geese and Gulls.

Continuing down the 4-Mile Point Road approximately another 3/4 of mile the road will curve through an extensive swampy area.  This land too is owned by Scenic Hudson, but access is limited, overgrown and unmarked.  Due to the amount of Deer Ticks and Lyme Disease, entering the woods in warmer months is not recommended.  If you look closely (and they are much easier to see in colder months) there are a number of foot paths which lead to areas of better visibility of the marsh.  Waterfowl can be good here, with Teal, Mallard, Wood Duck, American Wigeon and Eurasian Wigeon as well.  Hooded Merganser can be found in cooler months and Mute Swan, Pied-billed Grebe and Common Moorhen can be tough to find, but are likely residents of the marsh.  Even if you don’t go into the Marsh proper, look for Green and Great-Blue Heron, Wood Duck, Mallard, American Black Duck, Bufflehead, All Woodpecker Species, Baltimore Oriole and Eastern Kingbird in warmer months, Great Crested Flycatcher and they usual assortment of migrants and chickadees.  In the winter, check the Wood Duck boxes for snoozing Eastern Screech OwlGreat Horned Owl can also be found in the larger tree’s surrounding the marsh or being chased by CrowsOsprey can be found in migration, both flying over and in the marsh itself.

Just past where the road goes through the marsh, it runs along the river again, this spot is popular with fisherman in the summer and can be quite busy.  In colder months, check the island across the way (Stockport Station in Columbia County) for Bald Eagles, in winter you may find several.  Also check the River for Ducks, Geese, Loons and GrebesPine Siskin is often heard here among the horde of seasonal flocks of American Goldfinch.  At low tide, be sure to check the edges of the river for Spotted Sandpiper, Killdeer and other interesting shorebirds.  Neither location is maintained in winter, although the road is plowed and so is the parking area to 4 Mile Point, however the parking area may be extremely icy.  To bird both 4-Mile Point and Vosburgh’s Marsh should take about 2.5 hours, making it perfect stop as part of a tour of other birding locations in Greene County!

(Both 4-Mile Point and Vosburgh’s Marsh I rate as OK for Handicapped birding.  The trails at 4-Mile Point are wide, short and fairly level, but are grass and thus difficult to move a wheelchair.  There are also a number of short, but steep sections, which would make a wheelchair impossible at times and others with limited mobility would have a difficult time.  However some of the best birding can be done in and near the parking area, which can be manageable even with a wheelchair.  As for Vosburgh’s Marsh, there is no way to safely enter the marsh, but birding from the road can be productive and there is little traffic.  The road is paved and even and someone with a wheelchair could easily navigate safely.  There is also excellent viewing of the river from the Road, including excellent chances at Bald Eagle and other waterfowl on the river.)

Rating:

4-Mile Point:  *** Spring, * Summer, *** Fall, * Winter

Vosburgh’s Marsh: *** 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