My end of year post is one that I usually very much look forward to writing, but this year that’s not really the case. Twenty-nineteen is a year that I won’t mind putting behind me. I went through personal, health, and work struggles for nearly the entire year; honestly I’ve never had a year like it. And, on top of that, the birds didn’t seem to cooperate as much as they have in previous years. Of course there were still plenty of great days, exciting finds, and even a handful of life birds, which isn’t bad considering I never left the tri-state area:
Lark Sparrow – 6 1/2 Station Road Sanctuary (#420)
King Eider – Sterling Forest SP (#421)
I wanted to mention some personal highlights for the year. In early February, I ran with Linda Scrima and Maria Loukeris for the Pacific Loon and the Townsend’s Warbler down in New Jersey. It was a long day of birding which was both a lot of fun and also very successful. On the 5th of May, Bruce Nott and I chased Common Terns and Bonaparte’s Gulls on the Hudson River in the rain; this was a super exciting day for me and rates as one of my best days of the year. Earlier this month there was a King Eider at Sterling Forest of all places. I spent two days looking at that bird; that was pretty exciting too. But, for me personally, the best day was in late March when I located a Yellow-headed Blackbird in the black dirt. I was pumped to have found the bird, and a good number of folks ran for the bird and got it.
TOP TEN PHOTOS
Unlike years past, this year it was a bit of an endeavor to come up with my top ten photographs. I feel like my criteria have changed. These days everyone is taking photos, and a lot of good ones at that. My Facebook feed is overloaded with them. For me, this has made it hard to find shots that stand above the rest. So, as I looked through my photos from the year, I felt a little underwhelmed. I had plenty of decent, even good shots, but not very many that stood out. But, as I looked over them further, I had to remember that I can be my own worst critic, and some shots started to speak to me and things started to fall into place and I developed my top ten plus one honorable mention.
So, this is not the cheery end of year post I have enjoyed writing in the past. But, I’m looking forward to 2020, and I’m feeling confident that it will be a better year than 2019. My health has improved, which will help with birding and with work, and I have my fingers crossed for no major personal issues. As usual, it was great birding with everyone this year and I’d like to thank everyone for all their help and support. Cheers!
I’ve gotten out a good amount during the holiday break, but while I’ve enjoyed getting out, unfortunately most of my birding has been unremarkable. Today I finally got a couple of notable birds. The first was at Glenmere Lake, where I had a female Red-breasted Merganser swimming with a couple of Common Mergansers. I also had four Ruddy Ducks, which were nice to see, and I sorted through a good number of gulls (only Ring-billed and Herring Gulls present).
Just as I was getting ready to leave Greenwood Lake, I got a call from Linda Scrima; she had a GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GOOSE off Turtle Bay Road in the black dirt. Always a favorite, I ran for the bird. It’s been a good year for them in our area; I have four sitings in 2019. The bird stuck around and was close enough for some decent shots (least as far as rare geese in Orange County go). Huge thanks for Linda for locating and getting the word out.
On my way home, I drove by 6 1/2 Station Road Sanctuary. I could see a collection of gulls on the ice, so I stopped and got my scope out. I was surprised to find, along with 12 expected Ring-billed Gulls, 18 Herring Gulls. I don’t think I’ve ever come even close to that number at that location. It was a nice way to end a good day of birding.
Earlier this week Linda Scrima located a diminutive white goose which was a possible candidate for a ROSS’S GOOSE in the black dirt. Unfortunately she only got a brief look and her photos were inconclusive. The bird was relocated this afternoon and Bruce Nott and I were able to view it and document it as well. Unfortunately, while I was there the bird was distant and being viewed through trees, but I think I was able to get some useful pics. Bruce had the bird a little closer later in the day.
In the field, I felt the bird had two field marks which I felt were not indicative of Ross’s. The first was my impression of the size of the bird; it’s hard to get a sense of the size without any Snow Geese present, but I just would have expected it to be a little more remarkably smaller than the nearby Canada Geese. The second was the length of the bill. It was short, but maybe just a little longer than what you would expect in a Ross’s. In support of it being a Ross’s, in the scope I could see that there was no obvious “grin patch” and feathering at the base of the bill appeared straight.
When I got home, I quickly edited some of my photos and sent them out for opinions. The longer I looked at my photos, the more I was leaning towards Ross’s Goose. I found photos online with Canadas where the Ross’s size seemed similar to my photos. I saw documentation of a certain amount of variability in Ross’s (see here). I was starting to get excited. BUT, when Bruce forwarded his photos of the bird from a much closer distance, that changed things. With the additional documentation, consensus shifted towards the dirty “H” word: Hybrid. So, ultimately (but not definitively), this bird is likely a Snow Goose x Ross’s Goose hybrid, still cool to see but not a countable bird. If anyone reading this has any additional thoughts, please comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I spent some time this morning in the black dirt, and then this evening at the Hudson River. Raptors were the most noteworthy birds I had; I saw a total of 8 species: Red-tailed Hawk, Northern Harrier, Rough-legged Hawk, American Kestrel, Great-horned Owl, Bald Eagle, Golden Eagle, and Barred Owl. So, it seems appropriate that on a day where I did pretty well for raptors, I would post this year’s end of season report for migrating raptors at Mount Peter Hawkwatch. The report was written, as usual, by MPH leader Judy Cinquina. Huge thanks to Judy for sharing.
MOUNT PETER 2019 By Judith Cinquina
Despite record Bald Eagles and a good buteo turnout, Mount Peter’s 62nd annual fall hawk watch recorded disappointing numbers for many species of concern in 2019. The 74-day count, from September 1 through November 15, produced a healthy 9,800 raptors, averaging 20.4 hawks per hour. But Broad-winged Hawks comprised 75% of that final tally, while the Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawk and American Kestrel flight dropped below average. Fortunately, near record Golden Eagles brought a bit of warmth to the cold and windy end of the season.
A slightly above average 7,360 Broad-wings were detected over the lookout, most mere specks out on the edge of visibility, between September 16 and 19. Volunteer Tom Millard managed to score a Broadwing trifecta, single-handedly counting 1,395 after other volunteers had left on the 16th, between 3 and 5 pm. He then popped up to the lookout the next morning to help count the 539 leaving a nearby roost between 9 and 10 am. And finally he joined Ajit and Liza Antony and Jeanne Cimorelli on the 18th, to help score our best Broadwing day of 2,096. Most or 1,300 were noted between 3 and 4 pm.
Red-shouldered Hawks had their second best year ever with 203 recorded, just under our 213 record set in 2018: 100 adult, 22 immature, 81 unknown. 160 Red-tails also took advantage of the winds on the 8th. Their final tally was an average 443. Note: the chart includes counts from 1980-2016 but not the last two record fall counts. Denise Farrell grabbed our best flight of 25 on November 8th on very strong NW winds. Chart from RPI (Raptor Population Index).
Sharp-shinned Hawk numbers were down across the Northeast. Our 693 count (not shown on chart) was our second lowest since the watch was extended into November in 1978 and was 55% lower than our 10-year average. 82 Cooper’s Hawks was also below average, and the Goshawk was a no-show. Chart from RPI.
After a healthy bounce last season, American Kestrels managed a below average 85 this season: 12 male, 19 female and 54 unknown. Our best day was a mere 14, September 24 on moderate NW winds. Not a falcon year for us, the Merlin with 8 and the Peregrine with 14 were also below average.
What’s up with Osprey? They’re reportedly breeding successfully in the Northeast, yet numbers are down over the lookouts. Our 123 count was below average. Although 11 moved through with the large Broad-wing push, September 18, Matt Zeitler nabbed the best count of 12 on lazy south winds, the 28th.
After a terrible showing last season, the N. Harrier continued its decline, with 27 sighted, 66% lower than its 10-year average: 7 male, 6 female, 4 immature, and 10 unknown.
Eagles sustained our volunteers through the entire watch, with record Bald and near record Golden counts. Our first ever two-digit count of Bald Eagles was 12 in 1988. Then in 2012 we tallied our first triple-digit count of 130. That record was crushed this season, with a tally of 163: 114 adult, 47 immature and 2 unknown. Will Test pulled in the best day with a record 30 noted on November 3 on moderate W winds. The flight began low and moved southwest early. Later in the morning and early afternoon, the eagles were higher and in small groups or pairs that headed west towards the Kittatinny Mountains. To confuse the issue, 12 local Balds were noted but not counted that day. Will and six other leaders were rewarded with Golden Eagle sightings. Matt Zeitler and Ajit and Liza Antony scored the best days with two, November 2, 9 and 13. The 9 counted, 5 adult and 4 immature, was our second best tally since the record 10 was made in 1994.
Vulture numbers were above average, Black -136 and Turkey-426. Ken Witkowski garnered a record day with 123 Turkeys, October 26. We had two or three local Common Ravens, but Denise Farrell noted eight migrating past the lookout November 8. It’s interesting that 10 went through last year on the 10th.
A healthy 1,607 Monarchs migrated past the lookout, quadrupling the number counted last season. The good news is our count is now part of a country-wide annual Monarch survey. A mere 16 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds were noted in September. Once again, Denise netted our biggest Canada Goose day with 860, November 1. 5,245 were counted for the season. Denise also noted the only Brant, with 500, October 18 and 345 more, November 1. The sole Snow Goose reports came from Ajit and Liza Antony, with 85 “glinting in the sun” November 6 and 615 more, the 13th .
Other birds of interest: Perhaps, the most exciting and the rarest was the Parasitic Jaeger I observed just over the treetops, heading from NE to SSE, October 15, around 10:15 DST on light NW winds. It disappeared behind the trees, and I suspect it headed towards Greenwood Lake. It had a strong, gull-like wingbeat, husky chest, long-squared-off tail, and a rounded head. Peregrine-sized, it was a mottled dark gray and was probably an immature.
September 16 3 C. Nighthawks, 2 more 9/23 (Tom Millard & Elizabeth McGrath)
October 11 450 Double-crested Cormorants (Denise Farrell)
November 2 – (2) Purple Finch (Matt Zeitler)
3 – (8) Sandhill Cranes over valley to the west (Will Test)
8 – flock of 30 Snow Buntings (spotted by Tim Vogel)
11 – a Woodcock flushed from trail near platform (Tom Millard)
Our 11 volunteer leaders could not have produced these results without the help of friends and visitors who helped spot in-coming and kept us sane during the lulls, especially Bill Connolly, John and Liz Sherry and Rob Stone. A welcome back to Beverly Robertson, and a big thanks to sharp-eyed Jeanne Cimorelli who popped up whenever she could. Kudos to our clean-up crew: Ajit and Liza Antony, Mike Buckley, Denise Farrell, Ken Witkowski, Chris Vogel, and especially to Tom Millard who repaired the platform and Will Test who went the extra mile and with Tom spent an afternoon cleaning up a mess. As always we are indebted to our sponsors, the Fyke Nature Association of Bergen County, NJ who supplied our insurance and to Fyke and all of you who supported our site on hawkcount.org. Our wish for our 63rd watch is a new road up to our lot and an unobstructed view to our SE from our platform. As always we remain the oldest, continually run, all-volunteer fall watch in the country.
I was back at Sterling Lake before sunrise this morning. And the funny thing is that Bruce Nott was there already, ha ha. We were happily surprised to see that the KING EIDER had remained on the lake. Rob Stone and John Haas both joined us a little after, to get better views and photos (last night in the rain and fog was tough!), and they weren’t disappointed. I took the opportunity to try and use my 1.4x extender, since the bird remained at a distance. I set it up on my scope tripod for some added stability; I think the results were decent but certainly not amazing. We also had a Winter Wren (nemesis!), so I finally got that bird for the year.
So everyone that I sent my photos to came back with the ID of KING EIDER, including Tom Burke (John forwarded to him). As I posted below, either bird would have been exciting, BUT, I was hoping for King Eider because it is a life bird for me (#421). It’s also my 259th bird in Orange County. I’m going to head back first thing tomorrow morning with the hopes that the bird is still present and I can maybe get some better looks and photos.
Today was almost one of the worst days of birding I’ve had all year. The weather was crappy and I wasn’t finding any birds. But then, birding bud Maria Loukeris passed on an interesting alert from one of the New Jersey birding apps. Daniel Carola, Hugh Carola, and Ivan Kossak reported a KING EIDER on Sterling Lake at Sterling Forest State Park. I immediately turned my car around and started heading that direction. I connected with Linda Scrima and we made our way to the lake.
When we first arrived, we viewed the lake from behind the visitor’s center; it was raining pretty good and the fog was thick as pea soup. We could barely see more than 75 yards into the lake. We decided to relocate and we followed the blue trail on the west side of the lake. The viewing was much better and the fog seemed to be lifting just as we located a lone duck in the distance. I got it in the scope, and sure enough, it was an eider; very exciting! Now, the question was is it a King or a Common? We put the word out and tried our best to study and document. Photos were tough; between the lack of light and the distance, our ISOs were cranked up high so the photos would certainly be grainy. In my scope, I had some good looks that, to me showed some good King Eider field marks: warm brown coloring, a shorter, all dark bill will a little bit of slope and a pale area above the eye. But, neither of us had previous experience with the species, so I was hoping for help.
Eventually Rob Stone, John Haas, and Bruce Nott showed up. Viewing the bird in our scopes, we all discussed the bird and went back and forth on the ID. Once home, I quickly edited pics and sent them around; now we await confirmation on the ID. I’ll be happy either way – both are Orange County life birds for me and both are super exciting. Excellent birding! Huge thanks again to Maria for the intel; I’ll post a follow up as soon as we know more about the ID.
I got out briefly this morning. It was a very cold, frosty morning with some beautiful light. I wish more birds had been around to photograph, but what can you do. The area of Wisner Road in Warwick was particularly spectacular, with all the trees and bushes being covered in lovely icy crystals. I was looking for Northern Shrike, but I had to settle for icy photographs of Song Sparrows. Glenmere and Wickham Lakes were both completely frozen, but Greenwood Lake was entirely open, with Buffleheads, Common Mergansers, and Ring-billed Gulls present. Oh, and I watched a unidentified falcon chase a Bufflehead across the lake in the distance, about 3 feet above the surface of the water.
I’ve been trying to come up with some sort of a plan each day for my birding lately, but by the time this morning rolled around, I didn’t have anything concrete. So, I decided to just cruise the black dirt early to see what I could come up with. It ended up being a productive morning with some nice highlights: 3 SNOW BUNTINGS in a flock of approximately 80 Horned Larks, distant looks at 3 Rough-Legged Hawks (2 light and one dark phase), and two late but incredibly accommodating VESPER SPARROWS. They were my first VESPs of the year, so that was a nice bonus.
I went home around lunchtime and took care of a few things, but then I made it out again in the afternoon. My first stop was at the Storm King State Park parking area on Route 9W, to try for the the Golden Eagle that has been wintering there. As luck would have it, the bird was present, on it’s normal distant perch. Bruce Nott joined me and also got the bird, it was an OC year bird for him.
From there, Bruce and I headed to the Newburgh Waterfront to try for the ICELAND GULLS I had yesterday evening. It was early enough and the light was nice, so I was hoping for some better photos. When we first arrived, it was a bit of an eagle fest. We had 2 adults and 2 young Bald Eagles flying over the river. The two young birds were flying very high, and as I was watching them, I saw something I’ve never seen before. To the right of the eagles was a massive kettle of gulls – really, really high. Hundreds of birds in a spinning ball of bright white and dark brown birds. Naked eye you could make out the white birds when the sun hit them just right.
Not too long after that, I finally located a single Iceland Gull on the roof of one of the buildings near the ferry parking area. While Bruce and I were looking at that bird, the “kettle” of gulls had landed in the middle of the river. Bruce counted the birds – there were over 400 birds, nearly all Herring Gulls, with a few Great Black-backed Gulls, and our second Iceland Gull of the night. Ken McDermott joined us shortly after and he relocated one of the ICGUs; it was in pretty close, so while I didn’t get the photo I was hoping for, I did get the shot below. I’m happy to say it was another really good day of birding for me – I needed it.
One of these days I’m going to write a post about timing and luck in birding. This afternoon I had an appointment in Newburgh. I scheduled it perfectly (do we create our own luck?), finishing my appointment in time to go to the Newburgh Waterfront to try for gulls before sunset. As luck would have it, there were many gulls present, mostly floating out on the river. I started scanning, and quickly got on a first winter ICELAND GULL.
Shortly after I got on the bird, many of the gulls picked up and and then put down on the roof of Gully’s. They didn’t stay for long and moved back onto the river. It took me a little while to relocate the bird, but when I did, it was with a second ICELAND GULL! I was able to document the two birds together before they once again flew from the river to the roof of Gully’s. John Cavalari joined me at that point and got his lifer Iceland Gull, which was awesome.
John left and I decided to scan the remaining birds on the river one final time. When I did, I found a third Iceland Gull! I immediately pointed my scope back at the roof of Gully’s, and sure enough the other two were still there! Those of you who know me know how crazy I am for gulls; to get a single good gull in an evening makes me freak out. Imagine how I was with three! Awesome birding.