Saturday, October 30, 2010

Saw-whet Owl Banding!

Most birds, and most people, are diurnal (or crepuscular, if you want to be precise). Therefore, most birding takes place during the day. So if I am birding in the middle of the night, chances are there has to be some pretty good birding to drag me out of bed, and many of my best birding experiences (like watching migration from the Empire State Building) have been at night. Last night was one such time.

I went to the campus of Westchester Community College to watch researchers there band Northern Saw-whet Owls, the smallest (and, probably as a result, the cutest) owl in the Eastern US.

Benjamin Van Doren and I arrived at the nets at 7, and after helping Drew and Trudy (the people doing the banding) untangling the leaves that the strong wind had blown into the nets, we headed back to the Owl House, a small building on campus used as a warm location to band the owls and to wait.

With Drew and two other visitors, we located an owl that they had put a radio transmitter on the previous night. Following the beeps, we figured out generally where it was, but since it was on private property, we did not actually see it.

The nets are checked every hour, so at 8:30 we went out for the first time. The high winds were a concern, but otherwise the weather seemed fairly good for owl banding. In the first net we checked, there was an owl! That was easy. The other three nets were empty, so they carefully removed the owl from the net and we headed back to the Owl House to band it. On the way back, we ran into the people who live near the banding site, who seemed a bit annoyed at the audio that was played all night, but were very impressed with the owl.

To be able to see such an amazing bird at such close range was awesome. Trudy measured the owl, which was female, like the majority of the birds they band. It was also born this past spring- a hatch year bird. Though to me it looked identical to an adult, the key is that the flight feathers on the wing are all the same color, and therefore the same age. An older bird would have a mix of old and new feathers.

Another similar way to age the bird was to put its wing under an ultraviolet light. The feathers all glowed pink. Older feathers do not have as much pink, and other birds do not have a uniform pink glow. Instead, it is only on some feathers, or, in very old birds, virtually nonexistent. Check out Trudy's website for photos that show this much better than I am describing it:

After all the data was collected, everyone there got to hold the owl:

(Me and the Owl)

After the photo ops, we released the owl, and it flew off, almost ghostly, into the night.

It would seem like catching an owl on the first try would be a prequel to a great night of banding, but there were no birds for the next two hours, and we had to leave at 11, saying., "Well, we got one!" And that one made it all extremely worthwhile.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Prothonotary Warbler in Manhattan!

About a week ago, a NYC birder found a brilliant and rare Prothonotary Warbler in a very improbable location- the front of the New York Public Library, in the middle of Manhattan. The bird was eating with the usual White-throated and House Sparrows, and Pigeons, but its bright golden hue made it very clear that it did not belong there. Most Prothonatory Warblers are in Florida or Central America now, far from the streets of New York City.

On Sunday, my family and I were already in the city to see a play, so I convinced my parents to stop quickly at the library. Within 10 minutes, I found the bird, and watched it briefly before it flew off.

The photos did not come out great, but a very fun bird to watch.
For context, the bird was just to the left of the lion:
Good Birding!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Cape May! --Day 1

Cape May in early October after a cold front is probably the fall birding in the United States, and I was lucky enough to be there in that situation 2 weeks ago. The famed location certainly did not disappoint.

We didn't get to Cape May until 11, but there were still tons of birds around. Our first stop was the CMBO Center and Bird Store, on the shores of Lily Lake. It is supposed to a good spot for warblers, vireos, and other small migrants, and it certainly upheld that reputation. As soon as we got out of the car, there were birds flitting everywhere, and I quickly saw Yellow-rumped Warblers, Black-throated Blue Warblers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Blackpoll Warblers, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Carolina Chickadees, Northern Parulas, Redstarts, Black-throated Green Warblers, and, best of all, a single Cape May Warbler- a life and a cool bird to see. Plus, as we were in Cape May, it was a fitting spot to see my first one.

There were quite a few hawks flying over as well, mostly Sharp-shins, but with some broadwings, a few harriers, a merlin or two, and an eagle thrown in. I decided to head to the hawkwatch. There was a steady flight of birds there, with many accipiters, all falcons- including good looks at peregrines, some harriers and broadwings, and 5-6 eagles, a pretty good total for a fairly short time spent there. After that, I started on a loop around the Cape May Point State Park, which is adjacent to the hawkwatch. There were not as many birds as at CMBO, but there were still Yellow-rumps, Palms, Parulas, a single Pine Warbler, a Kinglet, and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, as well as many flyover raptors. A single Killdeer on Bunker Pond was the only one of the weekend.
(Bunker Pond, the Hawkwatch Platform, and Cape May Lighthouse)

Butterflies were in abundance. Most common were Monarchs, but there were some others, mostly Common Buckeyes, which I had never seen before. Cape May seems to concentrate migrating monarchs the same way it does birds, and they were everywhere. 

I biked back to the center, stopping on the way for a pond full of wigeons, gadwall, teal, and a single drake Wood Duck. The birding, which had been good before, became great. I spotted 12 warblers, all great looks, including Blackburnian, Bay-breasted, Black-throated Blue and Green, Magnolia, and Black-and-White. Yellow-rumped Warblers were abundant, but Parulas were even more common, sometimes with up to 4 or 5 per small tree.
 The really incredible thing about the birds was how close they were. I probably got within 3 feet of a parula, 4-5 of a Black-throated Blue, and even Blackburnian, normally a treetop bird, came down to eye level at close range. Another quite good bird was a Philadelphia Vireo, which also gave great looks, and there was always a couple raptors overhead, including Sharpies, Merlins, and a Peregrine that all dove at smaller birds, though none were successful.

I was planning to only stop briefly at the center before heading to The Meadows, another famous birding spot nearby, but there were so many birds, and so close, that I spent all afternoon in front of the CMBO store watching them, and new ones kept turning up- another Philly Vireo, another Blackburnian, a Golden-crowned Kinglet, a couple of kingfishers, and a Bay-breasted Warbler.

By the end of the day, I had seen one lifer, Cape May Warbler, one ABA bird, Philadelphia Vireo, and 14 different warblers. Even better, I got really great looks at all of the birds, which is always good. Great birds, at arm's length, at eye level- birding at its best!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Black (and White) Skimmer

Black Skimmer from Cape May- using "lithograph" special effects. More photos and a post from Cape May to come.