Part of winter birding in Upstate New York, often involves driving around farm fields looking for raptors and other winter birds. One bird that is found commonly is Horned Lark. Danika and I found a group of Horned Larks in rural Rensselaer County and they entertained us, by frequently jumping up to knock seeds off weeds that were sticking out of the snow. Good Birding!
Jory Langer (The Quiz Master at 10,000 Birds) and I covered Ssection “A” of the Southern Rensselaer County CBC. Our section (which ironically is entirelyy in Albany County) covered the area from Henry Hudson Park in Bethlehem to Menands and includes all of downtown Albany and lots of the Hudson River.
I met Jory at 6am in the parking lot of the K-Mart in Glenmont. As soon as he arrived, it started pouring rain, putting the kabosh on any thoughts of Owling. After spending 20 minutes in his car discussing different digital cameras, at 6:30am we headed into Panera’s for breakfast.
45 minutes later, the rain had let up and the sky was slowly graying. We headed down to our first stop, Henry Hudson Park in the Town of Bethlehem.
Arriving, we spotted the usually assortment of American Crows, a few Tufted Titmice called from the woods, along with American Robin, Northern Cardinal and Pileated Woodpecker.
While checking out a hunk of floating ice with the scope (Trying to make them into Scoters) a 1st year Bald Eagle floated through the view on chunk of ice.
From there we headed north, birding a lot of the side roads off Rt. 144, adding many common birds along the way, but nothing very exciting. The rain came on and off, making viewing difficult at times and making us not want to get out of the car a lot of the time.
With the poor weather and lack of birds, we were moving through our territory faster than we really wanted to, and after a brief stop at a Cumberland Farm’s to use the restrooms and obtain refreshment, we headed off to the Port of Albany.
Now, Ports are not scenic places. In fact they are awful to look at, and worse yet to smell. Mostly what comes through the Port of Albany is food stuffs (including grain), cars and fuel. Yet despite the dreary surroundings, birds can be found, if you look hard enough.
As we passed through the Port, hundreds of American Crows were found picking through the grain and compost heaps. On another building easily 700+ Rock Pigeons were found, along with 100+ Canada Geese feeding on spilled grain. All the while, the occasional Red-tailed Hawk was seen along with the big 3 Gulls (Ring-billed, Great-Black Backed and Herring).
Stopping at Island Creek Park (a tiny City Park in the most unlikely spot), getting out of the car we quickly heard the distinctive nasal call of the Fish Crow. Along the shores of the park, a whole bunch of Mallards, just up from them was a bright white gull. I could only get glimpse of it before it floated past my view, but I knew it was something good. I called over to Jory and he and I made our way around the various 18 Wheelers (a truck stop is next to the park) and there nearly 10′ away was a 1st year Iceland Gull! It was still, clear and rather tame. Of course my camera was back in the car, I ran quickly to get it, but by the time I returned a Red-tailed Hawk had gone by and flushed everything, and though I tried to re-locate the bird, I couldn’t. I didn’t bring the camera with me, because of the rain… Drat!
From there our birding slowed down considerably. We checked several more River vantage points, adding more gulls and Mallards, but little else. We checked the factories and ponds in Menands where rare birds had been spotted in the past, with almost no bird life on this day.
To Round off our 1st half of the day, Jory and I made our way by car through Albany Rural Cemetery and St. Agnes Cemetery, adding a few more common birds, but nothing exciting. Albany Rural Cemetery is one of the most famous ones in the United States and has the honor of being the resting place of President Chester A. Arthur.
After a quick lunch turned into a long lunch at the Albany Pump Station, Jory and I headed back south again, retracing our morning path. It was now much warmer (by about 10 degrees) and the rain had all but stopped and the sun was peaking through in spots. A few Common Mergansers were now visible on the River and another young Bald Eagle was seen soaring over the Port.
We noticed a small blob on an electrical pole at the Port, which closer inspection via scope revealed to be a Merlin! But other than what we saw earlier there was nothing new to report.
Heading south along the side roads, we added more common birds we had missed earlier. At the end of one road, a feeder had 15 Red-winged Blackbirds at it, a good find for December in Upstate New York and as of this writing, were the only Red-winged Blackbirds on the count! But that would be our last good find of the day and by 3:30pm, Jory and I had had it and went our separate ways. Jory did go to the compilation dinner, while I went home and decided to have a 100 degree fever (thankfully I recover quickly).
I have never had a bad CBC, they are always fun and almost always turn up something good and Iceland Gull and Merlin certainly are not every day occurrences in this neck of the woods.
Today was the first day in a long time I didn’t have anything pressing to do, so Danika and I packed up the kids and planned a full day of birding, mostly looking for Crossbills in Western Albany County. We had stopped at Dunkin Donuts to get some ‘supplies’, when my cell phone rang. It was a call from a former co-worker and someone who volunteers at the USS Slater in downtown Albany, Mike Collins. He told me there was a Snowy Owl “in the water”. I pressed him for more details, thinking he had a Ring-billed Gull. His description seemed to fit and he told me that the local Peregrine Falcons were harassing the bird constantly. I told him I would check it out.
He called me back a few minutes later to say that the Albany PD had come down and done nothing and a call to DEC went unanswered. They (at the Slater) had called Rensselaer County Animal Control and were awaiting a call back. He also told me the bird seemed to be ‘drifting’ in the water, not a good sign I thought.
I arrived at the small park on the Rensselaer side of the river, but was unable to locate the bird (I could see a white blob as we drove over the Dunn). Mike called me back to say the bird had stopped moving, and with that news my heart sank. However an adult Peregrine Falcon went by at that time and started bombing an area of shoreline I couldn’t see. So I figured the Owl was still alive.
We decided to change locations and headed over to the Slater parking lot (next to the U-Haul building in Albany). Once there, I could clearly make out via binoculars and scope that this was indeed a Snowy Owl, a heavily streaked youngster. However the bird looked awful, wings drooping and a general disheveled look. The Peregrine Falcons constantly bombed it and the Owl reacted with each pass, so I was able to confirm the bird was alive. At this point I called Corey Finger, who gave me Rich Guthrie’s cell phone number. I talked to Rich who passed the word to see what we could do to help the bird and then he headed up to check the bird out. A few moments later we could see the Animal control officer on the Rensselaer side, whom we tried to flag down to give a clue as to where the bird was (at this point the Owl had climbed up the shoreline a bit into some bushes). But he seemed oblivious.
About half and hour later, Rich arrived and confirmed that the bird did not look well. He headed across to the Renssealer side to see if he could help, while Danika and I stayed on the Albany side an acted as spotters. After about another half an hour of guiding Rich and the Animal control officer up and down the river bank and one last gasp escape attempt by the Owl (it tried to run away, not fly) Rich was able to literally reach down and pick the Owl up, where it was taken to the Animal control van and the plan was to get it to a rehabilitator as soon as possible.
Rich reported that the bird was, as guessed emaciated. I don’t think the bird would have survived much longer, but now at least it has a chance.
In addition to the Owl and Peregrine Falcons, there was also a Merlin, Mallards, Ring-billed and Great Black Backed Gulls.
I did end up spending the rest of the day birding and will have a seperate report later.
I also want to say a special thanks to Mike Collins and Rich Ireland from the USS Slater, without their efforts, this bird was sure to perish.
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!
On December 29, I joined one of the oldest and most respected CBC’s in the Albany area, the Troy Count, which is sponsored by the Hudson-Mohawk Bird Club. I originally did not plan on doing this count, but after Larry Alden, the count compiler, posted that he was having trouble finding people for the Tomhannock Reservoir sector, I was intrigued and was even more surprised to find out that no one had taken the challenge! I know full well that in ideal conditions this reservoir can hold a lot of interesting waterfowl, the chances of finding something good is high.
Brad W., a Cornell Student who was home for the Holiday’s and Eric W. joined me for the count. We started at Dunkin Donuts in Brunswick around 7am in a light rain (hey it was rain!), and headed for our territory.
Like I said this sections has a lot of potential in ideal years. This was however, not an ideal year, 75% or more of the Reservoir was frozen, but shortly after arriving, we found a little patch of open water which held a few Common Goldeneye. Overhead the endless river of American Crows went overhead from their roost near Troy out into the surrounding country side.
Finding everything else quiet on the south end of the reservoir, we proceeded up the east side, stopping at nearly every pull off to spish. Black-capped Chickadee, Downy Woodpecker and a few Golden-Crowned Kinglets were found. At another stop a flock of Cedar Waxwingsflew over and then we heard (and Brad ID) the tew-tew-tew call of a small flock of Pine Grosbeaks, which slowly flew down the road over our heads.
Our next spot was quiet active with a lot of Chickadee’s, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, more Golden-Crowned Kinglets, Brown Creeper and a small group of Common Redpolls which flew over. The Reservoir you might ask? It was 100% frozen in this section.
At the north end of the reservoir we found some open water and some waterfowl. Nearly 200 Mallards were sitting on the edge of the ice. A few American Black Ducks, Common Mergansers and a small group of Ruddy Ducks were seen just off the ice. We had previously encountered a small group of Hooded Mergansers just prior to this area. The spot in which we stopped to scope also had Carolina Wren and Red-breasted Nuthatch (a difficult bird to find in these parts this winter). Red-tailed Hawks remained abundant in the country side, but otherwise we found many promising areas bird less. American Crows were common and we were able to find some flocks of Canada Geese and Wild Turkey, but Sparrows of any kind were hard to come by. White-throated Sparrow and American Tree Sparrow were common, but there was distinct lack of Juncos and only one lone Song Sparrow. No Harriers, No Shrikes no good birds at all.
By 11am we had covered the whole territory and made our way again around the Reservoir. We were able to pad our numbers on certain species and add one or two like Red-bellied Woodpecker. Back at our waterfowl spot, the Mallards had changed into Canada Geese and one lone Snow Goose stood out like a sore thumb. 2 sub-adult Bald Eagles flew over and a nice couple from Vermont, reported that they had seen an additional two sub-adult Bald Eagles over by the dam (the Eagles flying were in a different direction, later Larry Alden would find all 4 on the ice near the dam).
Another quick ride through the surrounding country side got a few small groups of Eastern Bluebirds and a lone American Kestrel. By 1:30 pm we had covered the entire area twice and headed home. In years with open water, normally by 1:30 pm you would just be leaving the reservoir, but not this year.
In case you were worried, we did have most of the common birds as well including Mourning Dove, European Starling, Rock Pigeon, American Goldfinch, House Finch, American Robin, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Hairy Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Herring Gull, and Blue Jay. 44 species total for the day, which is not bad for late December in Upstate New York.
Happy New Year!
On December 22, 2007 I participated in the Southern Albany County CBC BY MY SELF (thanks Corey). It had originally been scheduled on December 16, but a nasty nor’easter that dropped 8″ of snow and some ice put the kibosh on that.
This count I have participated on now for several years and the way the circle is set up, my territory is mostly in Greene County, with only a small sliver of Albany County.
Since my in-laws had backed out on me after agreeing to watch my kids, I had the munchkins with me. It wasn’t that bad. Lillian, who will be 2 shortly and has more problems that I can count, slept. Sophia age 6, was wide awake with the prospect of spotting an owl.
We arrived on territory at about 6:30 am and began hitting the back roads in search of owls. Driving slowly along with my high beams on, I saw a medium sized bird flush from an evergreen tree, fly across the road and land in a tree on the other side. Figuring I had an Eastern Screech or Barred Owl, I alerted my daughter and we crept up to the bird. The light was really dim, but using my binoculars, I was able to see a medium sized plump bird, overall gray with some barring. Perfect for a Barred Owl, except for that triangular shaped head. What? Aw crap, it’s just a Ruffed Grouse. A few moments later my daughter spotted another Grouse running in the underbrush next to the car, not a bad way to start the day.
From there I made my way down to the Coxsackie Reservoir and found it frozen. Hell everything was frozen and with 8-10″ of snow on the ground, walking with a 2 year old, who can’t walk was out of the question. It would have to be done by car.
After dropping my eldest daughter off at my in-laws (who caved part way) the rest of us proceeded to cover the rest of the territory. Unlike previous years, numbers of common birds were well down, people who had reliable feeding stations, either didn’t have them up or no birds at them. It was a tough haul, despite the fact I found 35 species, a pretty good number for late December.
The only special bird I had on the count was a very late American Kestrel, it would be the only one on the count.
After getting gas in Coxsackie, I decided to stop at the Coxsackie Creek Grasslands Preserve, to change the baby, feed her, hold her and essentially get her out of the car seat (and take a bit of a nap). This area is outside of the count area, so nothing would count, it was just a quiet and safe spot.
As we sat there eating and playing, I saw a medium sized bird fly over the car and land in the top of a near-by tree. Dropping the baby (who immediately screamed) I was able to get my sights on an adult Northern Shrike. After years and years of searching the Coxsackie Grasslands in winter for this species I was able to finally get one. Too bad it counted for nothing.
Lillian however did not forgive me and proceeded to cry. Couple that with a panicky call from my wife who was afraid she wasn’t going to get to get back in time from her mail run to meet the truck at her station and would have to take the mail to Albany herself. Normally this wouldn’t have been an issue, but the car she took had a flat tire and was currently using a donut for the day until we could get it to her parents that night to get the new tires and rims put on. I returned to Albany in case we had to do some vehicle swapping and Lillian was much happier at home. I did however cover all of my territory at least once, by the time I quit around 1pm.
Only one more CBC for me to go, the Troy CBC which will be held on December 29. It’s the first time I’ve done this count, so it should be interesting.
Southern Albany County CBC, section C1 Results
Ruffed Grouse 2, American Crow 170, Snow Bunting 3, Dark-eyed Junco 145, Northern Cardinal 7, Blue Jay 51, White-throated Sparrow 33, Cedar Waxwing 27, American Robin 225, Common Raven 1, Mallard 20, Mourning Dove 52, European Starling 560, Tufted Titmouse 7, Carolina Wren 1, American Tree Sparrow 10, Red-tailed Hawk 7, Red-bellied Woodpecker 2, Song Sparrow 1, House Sparrow 3, Black-capped Chickadee 12, Downy Woodpecker 3, White-breasted Nuthatch 4, American Goldfinch 3, Brown Creeper 1, Purple Finch 3, Pileated Woodpecker 1, House Finch 8, Cooper’s Hawk 1, American Kestrel 1, Eastern Bluebird 3, Rock Pigeon 207, Northern Flicker 1, Northern Mockingbird 1, Northern Harrier 1.
There was actually a slight chill to the air when I stepped outside of my home to my car. The calendar read the first of September, still several weeks of summer left to go, but the air had a decidedly fall feel. The grass was heavy with dew as was the car when I got in. A damp, fall smell hung pungent on the pre-dawn air.
Enough about the setting, I was out to find birds, Dammit!
Getting in the car I zoomed through the streets of Albany, running red lights and stop signs and got to Corey’s in record time (actually I didn’t do that, but still got there pretty quick). I jumped into his car and we made our way to our first stop of the day Vischer Ferry Nature and Historic Preserve in Southern Saratoga County, New York. The preserve is located between the Old Erie Canal and the Mohawk River.
We arrived shortly after sunrise at about 6:15am. There we met Zach who would be joining us for this first part. The grass was very wet with dew and it wasn’t long before we all had wet feet and pants. The birds were slow to wake, with many common species present including Great-Blue and Green Heron, Black-Capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Wood Duck, Downy Woodpecker and Cedar Waxwing. A little stroll further down got us nice looks at an Eastern Wood-Pewee and Purple Finch. Some exploration down some of the side trails didn’t yield much, but I did see 2 Juvenile Black-Crowned Nightherons fly over and land somewhere in the marsh. It has been an amazing year for this species in these parts.
Between Cardinals chipping, Catbirds mewing and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks squeaking things were slow. Very slow. Not a good sign when you a trying to do a Century Run. We followed Corey who led us to some spots where he had some success the day before, but we came away with little to show. The most exciting bird? Likely a Least Flycatcher that was calling.
On and on we went, more wet than anything. Finally as we came around the west end of the preserve we had a nice little mixed flock. Hairy Woodpecker and Magnolia Warbler were new additions. Further down a Red-bellied Woodpecker (oddly our only one of the day) Brown Creeper and the normal assortment of birds. Finally we hit a very active mixed flock of birds. First to be spotted was Chestnut-Sided Warbler, then Black-throated Green Warbler. Zach then blurted out “Tennessee Warbler!” and Corey was able to get on it. I missed it (Because I was looking at something else) but was able to every so briefly relocate it later. A crappy view of a lifer to be sure, but that’s what keeps me going out into the field. However our attention quickly turned to another warbler with two very bold white-wing bars. It was Corey who was able to say aloud what we were thinking, “Bay-breasted Warbler!” another lifer for me (pretty much wrapping up my New York State Warblers). The flock moved on and so did we, but we were feeling a lot better.
The walk back along the tow path we picked up Eastern Phoebe and Scarlet Tanager. On the pond over 50 Blue-winged Teal were present (along with a Green-winged), a surprising number for a species that has been in a general decline in the region for some time. We left the preserve with nearly 60 species and headed to the end of Ferry Drive and found nothing. From there we parted ways with Zach and Corey and I hit Stewarts (no birding trip is complete without a Stewies) and a quick trip down the Northway got us a Red-tailed Hawk. We hit the Pine Bush, mostly to get to the dump to look for Black Vulture.
On the way through we got Red-breasted Nuthatch and the ubiquitous Eastern Towhee. We also got Sharp-shinned Hawk, House Finch, Turkey Vulture, Fish Crow and a late calling Black-billed Cuckoo. By mid day the sun was high and we were getting hot and tired. We traveled south to Stanton Pond and got Gadwall, House Sparrow and Barn Swallow. We looked over both the Alcove and Basic Reservoirs but found nothing.
We took some back roads down to the Coxsackie Reservoir and again found nothing. We knew it was too early in the year to expect waterfowl but hey you never know. We hit the Coxsackie Creek Grasslands preserve and added Bobolink. While I don’t doubt we saw Savannah Sparrow none of the buggers called or showed themselves. Realizing we were not going to get 100 birds, we hit another Stewarts to drown our sorrows.
Revived, we took a quick drive through the Coxsackie Flats were in a couple of months I will be spending a lot of time looking for winter birds. But found nothing. Onto Vosburgh’s Marsh/Four Mile Point in hopes of a Mute Swan or two, but a quick hike in allowed us to flush a Great-Horned Owl and an Osprey flew through the Marsh. We next went to Coxsackie Landing, New Baltimore and Coeymans Landings hoping for something along the Hudson River (namely an Eagle) but all we added was a Wood Thrush in the little preserve in Coeymans.
Corey took the Thruway north and for once in the time I’ve known him actually made good on one of his sure bets. He said there are always Wild Turkey near exit 23 on the Thruway (his Bittern guarantee last May was a bust), but sure enough there they were.
Onto Papscanee Island in Rensselaer County, where we hoped for some help. A Carolina Wren was calling and young Northern Harrier was hunting in the fields. We discovered another large flock of Bobolinks. We then went to the south end where we briefly walked into the preserve and Corey’s young life nearly ended on the wing beats of a Ruffed Grouse.
Further down we were nearly killed by a group of people driving a U-haul truck down the trail! A woman on the back of the truck warned us of the ‘Monster that would bite our heads off’. Needless to say there was no monster, our heads are still firmly attached to our shoulders, but there is a lot less drift/fire wood left in the preserve. Corey and I guess that these folks didn’t have permission to take the wood, but we will never know.
Our last stop was Cohoes Flats for shorebirds. Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs were easily spotted and Least Sandpipers as well. Semipalmated Plovers scurried before us and Killdeer swarmed the place. The Black-Crowned Nightherons which have been present here for over a month were still there that evening along with all three common gull species. A Merlin made a quick pass at some passing Blue-winged Teal and a Peregrine Falcon tried to take out a gull. A lone Chimney Swift flew overhead. On the way back to Albany a young Cooper’s Hawk flew over 787 and was the last bird of the day.
Below are 3 pictures from the big day. I didn’t get a lot of photographic chances but here are pictures of a Lesser Yellowlegs, Least Sandpipers and a Semipalmated Plover. We finished with 90 species, ten short of our goal, but better prepared to do better next year!