A (late) Red Phased Eastern Screech Owl

Eastern Screech Owls are fairly common here in Eastern New York, they can be found in most lower elevation areas, especially away from the deeper forests (and Great Horned Owls!).  They are particularly at home in suburban yards and even venture into the City of Albany at times.  More often that not I find these birds in winter in empty Wood Duck boxes, which also double as nice roost box for an owl.  Whenever I see a Wood Duck box, I check them out to see if there is a “fluff” ball looking back at me.

Danika has been working part time at a farm/butcher shop in Alcove, southern Albany County.  This morning on her way home, see noticed a reddish pile of feathers in the road and pulled over to check it out.  She was sadden to find it to have been a red phased Eastern Screech Owl.  Most of the bird was largely intact and undamaged  but it appeared the bird had flown head on into a car, as its face was smashed beyond recognition.  Not wanting to miss an opportunity to check out these little guys close up, she took a few photos and then picked up the owl and placed it to rest in the woods, where it won’t get repeatedly run over by cars.



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!

Ode to Owls

I had plans to go birding tonight with Corey from 10,000 Birds but heavy rain through half of the day put an end to that idea.  So I’m sitting at home as stuck in my current location as are many of the neotropical migrants trying to make it through this soup.

Luckily it was a slow day at work so I sat there and fondly rememberd some of the trips I have taken for birds over the last couple of years.  Here is a sample:

The first one is one of the few local rare birds I have ever chased.  Shortly after Christmas one year, a pair of birders from out of state visiting family over the holiday in the middle of nowhere, stumbled upon a NORTHERN HAWK-OWL.  Those who know me, know I tend to avoid chasing, but week after week went by and everyone was seeing this bird.  People were coming from Ohio, Maryland and Virginia to see this bird, I decided I had to too.

My first attempt was on my birthday in February.  It was very cold and very windy.  Danika and I along with a lot of other people parked in front of the house, with the lone tree that the bird liked to hunt from.  With snow drifts over 12 feet and winds over these open agricultural area up to 50 mph, the bird spent the day elsewhere.  One of 2 days the bird didn’t show up.  We also happened to be there the second day it didn’t show up.  Feeling cursed we almost gave up. 

One morning we decided to try and fool the bird.  I cut class and school and we made an unplanned visit to the site.  Weeks had passed since the bird was first sighted and the crowds had all but gone away, especially on a weekday.  We arrived at the spot and again no Owl.  We drove down the road futher and saw a car load of ancient birders pulled off to the side of the road looking a group of evergreen tree’s.  We stopped and they happily pointed out the Owl near the top of a tall evergreen!  Yes!  We got to see it.

We spent a few more hours riding around and decided to check it’s ‘normal’ spot once more and for once it was actually there.  This was before we had a digital SLR, so the picture is not as good as we could get now. But you can at least tell what it is.

Northern Hawk Owl

Following that trip up, in late 2004 it became clear that there was going to be a large invasion of northern Owls, especailly GREAT-GRAY OWLS.  Soon the reports from the Ottawa Valley began to list Great-Gray Owls in the dozens and birders south of the border eagerly awaited them to come.  They never did (actually one, that’s it).  So we were forced to go to them. 

Since Ottawa is a pain in the rear to get to from Albany, Danika and I were happy to hear that some birds were being seen in some of the suburban parks in Montreal, Quebec.  Since we love Montreal anyway, my wife and I needed little excuse to go.  So off we went to Montreal for a get away weekend.

We headed off to a park on the Isle Bizzard, which is a suburb to the east of Metro Montreal.  Upon arriving, we found another car with US plates, predictably a Subaru (LL Bean edition) with the birders dressed and carrying equipment costing more than I think I made that year.  We decided to wait and let them get on the path (we were not much for socializing).  Once they were out of sight, Danika and I prepared to head out.  As we were getting our stuff together a couple of joggers went by and asked us if we were looking for the Owls.  We replied yes and they informed us that there was one just up the road, right next to the road.  We jumped into the car and sped up the road and there it was.  Again this was before we had a digital SLR, so I shudder to think about the pictures we could get now.  This Owl was active mid-morning and less than 10′ from us.

Great Gray Owl, Montreal, PQ

The last owl is from this past winter at Ft. Edward in Washington, County New York.  Many SHORT-EARED OWLS spent the winter in this large agricultural area.  By late winter upwards of 40 birds a day were being seen in a large roost on a side road.  As a result these normally difficult birds to find, were very easy not only to find but to photograph.

The first trip was early in the year with my wife Danika.  There were fewer Owls then and they tended not to come out until closer to dusk.  As a result the light of this next picture wasn’t great, but I love it for some reason.  Maybe it’s because I know that this Owl was going to make it through the winter. (Note we had the Digital SLR by this time).

Short-Eared Owl Feeding

Later on that same winter, Corey and I had one heck of a day in the Adirondacks chasing Crossbills, Boreal Chickadees and Gray Jays.  We decided to make a stop at Ft. Edward on the way home.  We had near perfect light and the Owls were resting on hay bales along the side of the road.  I am very proud of this next picture!

Short-Eared Owl, Ft. Edward, NY

If my scanner wasn’t broken I would also have a charming story about an Eastern-Screech Owl that decided it wanted to welcome everyone to a small New York town, but I can save that for another day!