My work took me up north today, so I figured I would hit the Shawangunk Grasslands NWR on my way home. I was hoping to have some better luck photographing the Grasshopper Sparrows at the reserve. On my way there, I checked Blue Chip Farms for Upland Sandpipers but did not have any luck. I was a little bit annoyed by it because there have been SO many reports of the bird at that location on eBird lately. I continued to the grasslands where I walked the trails briefly but had no luck with Grasshopper Sparrows (maybe it was the time of day? It was around 4:00 in the afternoon…). I enjoyed seeing and photographing the Bobolinks and I saw a distant Northern Harrier hunting.
On my way home, as I was checking Blue Chip Farms once again (I was doing a drive-by basically), I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw an UPLAND SANDPIPER perched on the fence closest to the road!!! I stopped the car and the bird did not flush. As I reached for my camera, a motorcycle went screaming by and flushed the bird! My heart was broken! It relocated to a far off fence where I got good looks and some distant photos. I went back to my car and waited, and I couldn’t believe it when not one, but two Upland Sandpipers flew in and landed on the grass just beyond the closest fence. Then, one of them flew closer and perched briefly on the fence! I couldn’t believe my luck, what a great day, to get photos of this bird, which until today was considered one of those awesome birds that I would probably never get a decent photograph of!
I got up really early this morning and headed over the the Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge. It was a little bit overcast as I arrived at just around 6:30, but it quickly cleared up and turned into a gorgeous morning. I parked my car out by the road in an effort to see as many species as possible, it can be quite birdy on the road into the refuge. It was towards the end of that road that I had my first Brown Thrasher of the year. As I entered the refuge, I could immediately hear one of my target birds, the Grasshopper Sparrow. I really like this bird for some reason, it is certainly not the most attractive bird, but I love its behavior and its call as well. I walked the Red Trail out to the furthest blind and then back; I saw 3 and heard an additional 3 Grasshopper Sparrows which seems like more than I had in that area last year at this time.
Bobolinks were numerous and very busy calling and flying over. Meadowlarks were heard more than seen, but I did see ten or so, some perched and some in flight in the distance. Killdeer could be heard and seen on occasion and I saw three American Kestrels. One pleasant surprise was a female Northern Harrier that flew close to me; she had a Red-winged Blackbird in hot pursuit.
My only disappointment of the day is that I struck out with the Upland Sandpipers. I stopped by Blue Chip Farms after leaving the refuge and then I also tried the airport in Montgomery, but it was not to be. At the grasslands, I accumulated what I think is a respectable species list for the morning, with 35 species being seen or heard:
Turkey Vulture Northern Harrier
Great Crested Flycatcher
Gray Catbird Brown Thrasher
Savannah Sparrow Grasshopper Sparrow
I received word from Denise Farrel that the Gyrfalcon had been relocated for the fourth straight day while I was at work today. It was a beautiful day out with nice light, so I headed up to Ulster County right after work to see if I could see the bird. I knew when I saw the first traffic jam ever on Bruyn Turnpike that I would indeed be able to see the bird. The bird was perched on a fence post way out in a field, where it stayed for some time but then eventually headed back north. Karen Miller had also come straight from work and finally caught up with the bird (third times a charm). We both went to the Grasslands to see what was going on there, but there was not much activity, just one distant Rough-legged Hawk. After Karen left, I sat with Ralph Tabor and we waited for the Short-eared Owls. It was a gorgeous night with a fabulous sky and although they got up a little late for photos, Ralph and I enjoyed watching 7 Short-eared Owls put on a nice show. What a great way to end the day.
While the Eastern Meadowlarks were the highlight for me this past Sunday morning, I also did relatively well with raptors. Especially since I was out for only two and a half hours. One interesting observation I made was that since it was a windy morning with the wind coming from the west, most of my shots ended up being at least partially backlit. It seems to me that, at least when it comes to Northern Harriers, these birds tend to hunt while flying into the wind. With a west wind, that means most of the time when I had a bird flying towards the blind it had the sun at its back.
Here is a list of raptors that I had for the morning, and I should mention that when I got back to my car, Ralph let me know that about a dozen Short-eared Owls got up for about twenty minutes – not too far from the parking area. I never saw them since I have my back to the parking area when I’m in the north blind.
Black Vulture 7
Northern Harrier 5
Red-tailed Hawk 3
Rough-legged Hawk 4
American Kestrel 1
I was pleasantly surprised when three Eastern Meadowlarks landed and perched in the tree in front of the north blind at Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge. I knew that there were some meadowlarks present at the refuge this winter because I’ve caught fleeting glimpses a couple of times this January. But this was not a quick look, the birds perched in the tree for a little while and then dropped into the grasses in front of the blind to feed. Before any of the meadowlarks gave me a clear shot for a photo, a female Northern Harrier flushed the birds and they relocated to a tree behind the blind. Again, they dropped down from the tree to forage through the grasses behind the blind which were not as thick as they were in front, allowing me to get some photos.
I looked at the range maps in the Crossley Guide, Sibley Field Guide, and on the All About Birds website. Both the Sibley and All About Birds range maps include Ulster County, New York as part of the year round range for Eastern Meadowlarks, while the Crossley Guide has it just as “typical breeding range” but not very far from the year round range. According to the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior II, Eastern Meadowlarks gather into flocks in the late summer after breeding. Some flocks move southward while others remain to winter and “forage in old fields of corn, stubble, and weeds. At night they roost together, often in the tall grasses of marshes. Occasionally they join with grackles to roost”.
As much as I love to go to the grasslands for the raptors in the winter, the meadowlarks were a wonderful surprise for me this morning. There was plenty of raptor activity as well (Rough-legged Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks, American Kestrel, Northern Harriers, Black Vultures), and I will prepare a post for them in the next day or so.
The big news this week was the eBird report of a Snowy Owl at the Liberty Marsh in Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge on Wednesday 1/14/15. I, of course, spent Thursday and Friday evenings after work going for the bird, but with no luck. I left the house this morning with the Snowy Owl being the most important bird on my mind. I did some running around in the Black Dirt and even followed a lead that took me to Chester, NY but had no luck with the Snowy. The Chester bird was likely a leucistic Red-tailed Hawk; I saw photos from the couple that had given me the lead, and I got a very distant look at the bird through my scope. I would like to get back there to get a better look one of these days.
In the afternoon I decide to just try for some photos, so I headed to the Shawangunk Grasslands NWR. The north blind that is furthest out was free, so I spent the afternoon shooting raptors. I love spending time in the blinds out there; you can get such great looks at the birds.
I started my day off this morning heading out to the Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge. I was meeting Wayne Hall out there, he wanted to talk to me about a column he is putting together about myself, birding, and bird photography. It was a very cold morning, but Wayne and I walked the trails a bit and talked. We took refuge from the wind in the south blind for a little while, continued our conversation and had a couple of nearby Northern Harriers. Back in the parking lot, I spotted, in the distance, our first Rough-legged Hawk of the day. Shortly after I first noticed the RLHA, it swooped down and flushed 10 Short-eared Owls. The owls did not stay up for long, but it was good to see them. Wayne and I sat in my car for a while and, as we talked, I had an adult Bald Eagle fly over in the distance. It was a pleasure to meet Wayne, and I will be curious to see how his column comes out. It was also nice that we did so well for birds while we were there. I should also mention that on my way out to the grasslands I made a quick stop by Lippincott where I was happy to find what I was looking for: Eleven Common Goldeneyes.
In the afternoon, I did a quick driving tour of parts of the Black Dirt Region. My main goal was to hopefully located a large group of geese to sort through, which I did on Onion Avenue in New Hampton, NY. Unfortunately, just as I started to look through them, in a large and loud wave, every last Canada Goose picked up. I estimate that there were approximately 2000 birds present. Most of the geese seemed to relocate to the Wallkill River, right along Celery Avenue; I did not follow them over there, I will try my luck with them again tomorrow.
I ended up with 23 species in the black dirt, all expected species, and I took photos along the way. I was particularly happy to run into this young Cooper’s Hawk:
My final stop of the night was the Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge. I met up with Linda Scrima and Maria Loukeris by the Liberty Loop platform where we enjoyed the White-crowned Sparrows that have been hanging out there. Maria headed home, Linda and I walked out on Liberty Lane. We had a super surprise when we came upon a large flock of American Tree Sparrows; I estimate that there were close to 60 birds present. They would perch on the trees and bushes along Liberty Lane, then fly off into the refuge and disappear into the grasses. Then they would all return and perch briefly before heading back out to the refuge. They did this at least a half a dozen times before we headed back to the parking lot.
It was 4:40 and the light was getting low when the Short-eared Owls got up. There was just enough light to get some grainy photos; it was a great way to end a super day of birding from one National Wildlife Refuge to another.
So, as I mentioned in my post yesterday, I had a full day of birding in before the Short-eared Owl extravaganza at the Shawangunk Grasslands. In the morning I did a tour of the Black Dirt Region, mostly hoping to find a Snowy Owl or perhaps an interesting goose. I failed to locate either, but instead had an interesting morning with a good number of passerines at various locations. I had nearly 30 species in the black dirt, and for me the hightlight was a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker which was seen on Onion Avenue in Goshen.
BLACK DIRT REGION 12/14/14
Great Blue Heron
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)
American Tree Sparrow
In the early afternoon I headed over the Newburgh Waterfront to try and pick up a couple of county birds that I needed – with the end of the year looming, I am trying to maximize my Orange County species list. I was looking for a Great Black-backed Gull and a Great Cormorant (both of which Bruce Nott had reported being there earlier in the week), and I was successful on both counts:
After Newburgh, I headed over to the Shawangunk Grasslands as I wrote about in yesterday’s post. I stopped at Blue Chip Farms long enough to get this shot of a European Starling:
And finally, here are a few more shots of the Short-eared Owls at the Shawangunk Grasslands NWR, all on 12/14/14:
I had a full day of birding today, but the best was saved for last. Huge thanks to PJ Singh who texted me to let me know that there was a single Short-eared Owl up early at the Shawangunk Grasslands NWR. I was over in Newburgh picking up a couple of birds I needed for the county (Great Black-backed Gull and Great Cormorant), and I was not going to go to the grasslands. It had been gray and cloudy all day which would not make for good photos, and the owls had not been up early yet this year as far as I knew. I decided to head over to check it out and boy am I glad I did. Sun came out and the so did the SEOWs, right before 3:30. I was lucky enough to get into the south blind and that’s where the birds seemed to spend most of their time tonight. PJ joined me in the blind shortly after the owls got up and wow did they put on a show! I approximate at least 10 Short-eared Owls were there, but it is tough to get a good count while photographing. What an exciting afternoon!
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One thing I knew I wanted to do this weekend was to try to get out to the Shawangunk Grasslands NWR. When Ken McDermott let me know on Friday evening that he had a Northern Shrike there that day, I knew for sure that’s where I was headed. Saturday was, unfortunately, a wash. Steady rains all day made for poor birding, though it was not for lack of trying. I went to the grasslands early in the day where I met up with John Haas and Ralph Tabor and we had no luck with the shrike. Sunday was a different story; it was a beautiful, sunny, cold, and crisp day which was very refreshing. No luck again with the Northern Shrike, but I did REALLY well with raptors. I spent a few hours in the morning in the new blind that Ralph placed pretty far into the eastern most portion of the refuge. The blind is well placed with several nearby trees for the birds to perch on, and it is in an area where the Rough-legged Hawks seem to spend a lot of time. By the time I headed back to my car in the early afternoon, I had put together what I consider a pretty good list of raptors:
Black Vulture (3)
Turkey Vulture (4)
Bald Eagle (2 adults)
Northern Harrier (4)
Red-tailed Hawk (5)
Rough-legged Hawk (5 – at least!)
American Kestrel (1)
Peregrine Falcon (1)
And, being in a blind, I had some very good opportunities for photos:
In the parking lot of the refuge I ran into PJ Singh who decided to join me in looking for some waterfowl. At our first stop, Lippincott Road in Wallkill, we saw a half dozen Common Mergansers, but that’s it. We did much better at our second stop, Chadwick Lake. The highlight for me was five Common Goldeneyes, and we also had: Ruddy Duck (9), Ring-necked Duck (35), Hooded Merganser (6), Common Loon (1), and a single Mute Swan.
Since it was such a gorgeous afternoon, I returned to the grasslands in the afternoon to try for photos of the Short-eared Owls. The light was a good as it could be, but unfortunately the owls did not cooperate and did not get up until after dark. It was tough to see, but when they did come up I counted at least three. I sat in the north blind until it was too dark for photos and did alright with Northern Harriers: