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!

The Uncommon Common Nighthawk

Most of the year I lament the fact that I live in the City of Albany.  Sure it has its advantages such as being close to everything we could want or need, but it lacks a natural element that you can’t find unless you live in a rural area.

Now I’m pretty proud of my yard and I’ve racked up some good species in the past, but its during this late August, early September time frame that I’m really glad I live in Albany, because I can sit in my backyard and become privy to one of the most interesting migrations in the bird world, that of the Common Nighthawk.

Common Nighthawks a hundred years ago, where very common in the City of Albany and as one author put it “as common as the trolley’s and milk carts in the dawn air”.  Times have changed and the Nighthawk has suffered dramatically and is most likely extripated as a breeder in Albany (although I have a couple of June records here at the house, raising some hope).  Thoreau wrote about Nighthawks as common as Swallows over ponds at dusk, but now you have to look real hard to find a breeder just about anywhere in New York State.

But somewhere they are breeding, because every August, hundreds if not thousands of these birds congregate over upstate Cities on their way south for the winter.  They seem to follow some predetermined routes, for reasons I can’t even venture a guess.  All I know is that the fly way over Albany, is right over my house.

But this year I have been worried, I hadn’t seen one.  I had read few reports locally of any as well.  Last night a cold front pushed by and we had a gentle northwest breeze this afternoon.  The air was less humid and the sky, clear and blue.  I figured it would be a good night to try and find a Nighthawk or two.

We (my family and I) decided to eat dinner outside and it wasn’t long before we spotted the 1st Nighthawk crusing just above the tree tops heading south.  It was actively feeding and the light was perfect on it, we could see just about every field mark on the bird.  We were hopeful of a big night.

Two hours later, we hadn’t seen another bird.  Could that be it?  Then Danika spotted a group of six flying high overhead, in the next 15 minutes we would spot another 8 individuals flying around!  I even got to point them out to some of the neighbors, who had never even heard of a Nighthawk, let along knew they flew right over Albany.

I went inside to give Corey of 10,000 Birds a Call and as I reached for the phone, it rang!  And who was it?  You guessed it, Corey.  He was over at Washington Park and was calling me to say he had seen a few Nighthawks and that I should go out and look too!  While I was inside, Danika spotted one more, to bring the total for the evening up to 16 Common Nighthawks!

As long as the weather cooperates, I will be in my backyard checking things out for the next few days.  For those who are interested my single day total at the house for Common Nighthawk is over 50 birds!  Who knows if I’ll see that many this year, but you don’t know unless you look.

Eight Random Things Meme

I hate these silly chain letters, but what the heck.

  • Players write a post with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
  • At the end of that post, they “tag” eight bloggers to write similar posts, including the rules.
  • The players then leave a comment to tell the “tag-gees” about the meme.

Okay here we go:

 1)  I have a deformed left ear and have been deaf in that ear since birth.  In fact there is no Ear Canal.  So, can some explain Surround sound to me? 

2)  The first bird I ever identified was a Great Blue Heron at the age 18 months.  Don’t believe me?  I have the newspaper article to prove it.

3)  I have lived in New York State my entire life and have been a Red Sox fan, even longer.

4)  My wife’s maiden name Kapusta, which means Cabbage in Slovak.

5)  Part of my family avoided suspicion during World War I by pretending to be Swiss (they were from Barvaria in Germany).

6)  I have written, designed and displayed a full Museum exhibit for the Irish American Heritage Museum.

7)  I read the entire ‘Lord of The Rings’ trilogy in the 6th grade.

8)  I have a degree in Greek and Roman Civilization with a specialty of Classical Archaeology, but I have never been on an Archaeological dig.

Since just about everyone I know tagged me, the only person I have left to tag is Josh at Armchair Everything.

Blog Updates 6/17/07

Happy Father’s Day!

It’s a slow day here at the Irish American Heritage Museum, so I’ve taken the time to take care of some odds and ends with the blog.  The biggest changes are to your right in the links and blog roll sections where I added many new links to blogs and other sites.  If you have a site you would like to see linked here let me know!  Hoaryredpoll AT Hotmail dot com.  Please be sure to check out these sites and comment where you can.  People love to see how people got to their sites and where people are viewing the sites from.  As always I’m open to comments and suggestions as to how to improve the blog.

Be safe, do good deeds and have a great weekend!

Blog Name Change

Recently my blog had it’s 1,000 hit.  I know it means nothing, but it got me thinking about the blog and where I can make improvements.  The first was the name.  SPQR was a noble blog when I started, but I’ve found I’ve wanted to write about more topics than just the Ancient World and I felt the title was misleading.  The new title “The Nightjar” I think more accurately represents what I mostly write about, the Ancient World with birds (and other topics) mixed in.  I thought about going with “The Goatsucker” but decided against it, since I couldn’t begin to think what search engines would bring traffic to the site.

Many concerned people have wondered why I don’t use pictures, especially for a nature blog.  We live in a very visually stimulated world and I find that people today don’t know how to imagine what things look like.  Studies have shown that when you read a description of something (i.e. the bird was a warm, rich buff-brown color) you use more of your brain than if I just showed you a picture of the bird.  Time to exercise those brains people!!!  So no pictures, on this blog.  Get over it.

The nice thing about blogging is that it is always changing and always evolving.  Who knows what will happen in another 1000, 5000 or 10,000 hits.  I guess you’ll just have to keep checking back!

Washington Park, Albany, New York

The next location in the Where to bird series is Washington Park located in the heart of New York’s Capital, Albany. 

Built in the 19th Century by the same people who designed and built New York City’s Central Park, Washington Park shares many similarities with Central Park, only on a much, much smaller scale.  The park is largely located between Madison and Washington Avenues in Albany.

No matter which way you enter the park (and parking is usually difficult) the first thing you will see is the lake, which also has a large lake house next to it (where there is a Free Summer theatre Program).  The lake (aka Pond) has the usual assortment of Canada Geese and Mallards on it.  In migration, don’t be surprised to find American Black Duck and Green-winged Teal.  Pied-billed Grebe has been seen on the lake, although rarely.  Great-blue and rarely Green Herons have been seen hunting along the edges.

Spring time is the best time to bird Washington Park, but you better get there early as it is also a very popular dog walking and jogging park.  Many species of warblers and just about any species could be found during an early morning walk around the park in May, but by the end of May the number of remaining species dwindle.  Blackpoll Warblers seems to favor the park and many can be found there in late May and Early June.

Summer breeding birds are few, but pleasant none the less.  Red-eyed and Warbling Vireos, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Downy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Carolina Wren, Gray Catbird and Northern Mockingbirds can be found with the abundant Grackles, Crows, House Sparrows, Starlings and Red-winged Blackbirds.  Yellow Warbler and Common Yellowthroat can be found in the shrubby areas of the park and American Redstart can sometimes be found in areas of larger tree’s.  In June keep your eyes (and ears) open at dawn and dusk for displaying Common Nighthawks.  Great-Horned and Eastern Screech Owls, are rare but present.  Red-tailed Hawks nest nearby and don’t be surprised to see a Peregrine Falcon chasing Pigeons or Mourning Doves in the park.  You’ll find most of the activity in the early morning, with many birds becoming silent as activity in the park picks up after 9 or 10 am.

Fall is a tough time in the park, certainly migrants move through but often silent and warblers are in their confusing fall colors.  Don’t be surprised to see a Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s Hawk chasing birds through the tree’s.  Once the leaves fall off the tree’s, the park becomes somewhat barren, mainly populated with roving bands of Chickadee’s, Titmice, Nuthatches and Woodpeckers.  Any of the ornamental berry producing plants should have Northern Mockingbird, American Robin, Carolina Wren and Cedar Waxwing in winter.  Pine Grosbeak is a very rare visitor to the park, but can’t be ruled out in the dead of winter, especially near crab apples.

Washington Park is a pleasant walk no matter what the season.  For bird watchers it’s a mixed bag, a nice array of habitat, but it’s small size makes it difficult for both birds, birders and everyone else to co-exist, unlike the much larger NYC parks.  Plus Washington Park is much less of a warbler trap than many locations in the NYC, due to the fact that there is plenty of areas for birds outside of the city, so many migrants simply pass over Albany.  Even during the peak time of Migration, Mother’s Day, you will have to fight hoards of people coming to the Albany Tulip Festival, where thousands come to view the flowers in the park, making bird watching very difficult.  From then through June the park is in heavy use during the weekends, meaning the best times to be at the park is mid-week.

Spring ***

Summer **

Fall **

Winter *