Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Paint It Green

Spoiler Alert: The blog post is about this bird. I saw it. Sorry to ruin the surprise.
Last week a female Painted Bunting was reported from Evergreen Cemetery in Brighton. While not as gaudy as the males of their species, female Painted Buntings are still a pretty green (one of the only all-green birds in North America), not to mention quite rare in Massachusetts. I had a window of about three hours between classes, carefully planned my bus route, and realized I had just enough time to make the chase. I packed up, rechecked the listserv... and saw that the bird had not been since since early that morning, despite a number of birders looking. Skeptical of my ability to find the bird in my narrow window of opportunity, I called off my expedition. And the bird wasn't seen for the rest of the day, vindicating that decision.

After a few days without reports and stormy weekend, I had assumed the bird had either moved on or passed on, but yesterday morning Massbird once again had an email with the subject line "Painted Bunting Yes." This time I had a full afternoon, and Harold and I set off on the 86 bus into the wilds of Boston.

After a surprisingly quick bus ride and a brief walk, we arrived at the cemetery, where a departing birder directed us to the bunting spot but warned that it had flown out of view recently. We had also heard that the bird was tough to find, hiding in the bushes and staying out of sight, and were prepared for a long search.

When we approached the dumpster marking the general area where the bunting had been seen, a backlit bird flew up out of the brush. Harold and I turned to each other: "Did that bird look weird to you?" "Yeah." "Did it look green?" "Yeah..."

But we hadn't seen exactly where it had landed, and weren't positive it was our target anyway. We began scanning the thickets. I hadn't been looking for 30 seconds when I noticed bright green blob perched on a foxtail a foot of the group right in the open. Got it!
Hard to mistake this gal for anything else
Contrary to reports, the bunting sat in plain view for the entire time we were there (more than half an hour), flying no more than a couple feet to adjust its perch. It was hilarious to watch it feed on various grasses: it was light enough to stand on a single stalk, but not without bending it dramatically. As it plucked seeds it bounced, and when it adjusted position it bungeed up and down wildly.
A precarious perch
Dark grass green above, with green-tinged yellow underparts and a pale eye ring, its color was vivid but clearly for camouflage, unlike than the technicolor hues its male counterparts display. The color would seem to make sense: there's a lot more green vegetation in its normal range than the ranges of its brown female bunting relatives. But like other Passerina buntings, it did flick its tail back and forth compulsively.

The bird was so cooperative that we turned away from it to search the area for sparrows. The search was unsuccessful, but every time we checked back on the bunting it was still there, chowing down. After getting more than our fill, we headed down the road to the Chestnut Hill Reservoir. Along the way we ran into another birder who had missed the bunting earlier in the week. We went briefly back to the dumpster, and there it was, right where we had left it.

Acrobatic snacking
The reservoir was covered in ducks, almost entire Ruddy Ducks, comical small divers with spiked-up tails. A pair of Buffleheads were mixed in with over 200 ruddies. For other waterfowl, a small Canada Goose was briefly interesting but we couldn't turn it into a Cackling. On the way pack we picked up a pair of American Coots, then caught the bus back to Harvard Square. Another late fall day, another very nice rarity!

Friday, October 31, 2014

Ammodramus Drama

Quiz Bird! What's this blending into the grass?
No one would accuse the sparrows in the genus Ammodramus of being flashy. They are quintessentially "birder's birds": while a sighting can make a birder ecstatic, a non-birder wouldn't give them a second glance. Of course, a non-birder probably wouldn't even get a first glance. Sibley refers to all 7 Northern American species as "secretive" (including the "very secretive" Henslow's), and it is precisely this that makes them so sought after: they are usually really hard to find! And managing to track one down is a classic thrill of birding. 

In the US, we have the coastal marsh specialist Seaside and Saltmarsh Sparrows, both United States endemics, the grassland-dwelling Grasshopper Sparrow, the Nelson's Sparrow, with both coastal and inland populations, and three inland species, all very hard to find: Le Conte's, Henslow's, and Baird's. I had seen the first four, but the latter three have eluded me. Baird's isn't even really on the radar of an East Coast birder, and Henslow's is an impressive rarity. Le Conte's, however, I had chased once, at Milford Point in Connecticut. Someone saw the bird fly into a small clump of marsh grass: us birders peered in, carefully searching for the slightest movement. Impossibly, the bird snuck out without anyone getting so much as a glimpse. 
The Ammodramus I've seen most: Saltmarsh Sparrow. I took this while
kayaking in Green Harbor, MA this past summer
So when I woke up Thursday for class, and saw an email saying that a birder had found a Le Conte's Sparrow in Danehy Park, less than a 20 minute walk away in the northern part of Cambridge, I quickly switched my plans for the morning. I could always catch up on the lecture material. And it was an evolutionary biology class anyway: I was just taking a more field-based approach! So I swapped books for binoculars and walked to the park.

When a got to the cattail marsh where the bird had been seen, there were two birders there, who pointed to the exact grassy edge where they had seen the bird 30 minutes previously. I started searching. 

And searching. And searching some more. There were plenty of sparrows around: mostly White-throated, Song, and Swamp, but with a nice Field Sparrow mixed in too. That was a good pickup: a new bird for my college "public transport" list: all of the species I've seen with only my legs and the MBTA. 
The top Cambridge birding sites and the core of my public transport list: Danehy Park is in blue,
Alewife Brook is green, Fresh Pond orange, and Mount Auburn Cemetery red. 
After about 40 minutes of pacing the same 50 foot stretch of grass searching for the bird, I tried a different part of the marsh. No success on the Le Conte's, but I picked up another nice bird for the day and for my state and local lists: an Orange-crowned Warbler preening on a distant branch, which briefly flew close and posed, and then disappeared. Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers were also around in abundance. 

But as nice as they were, there weren't the reason I was cutting class. I returned to the sparrow spot to continue the search. A few more scans of the reeds and sedges yielded nothing new. But then a sparrow flew up from the grass practically at my feet. Even in flight I instantly knew what it was: it was strikingly small, pale, and short-tailed: the Le Conte's! 
Le Conte's Sparrow!
Fortunately it didn't go far, landing only a few feet away, though slightly hidden. Then it scurried into the open, and briefly gave fantastic looks perched in plain view on a fallen reed: a perfect view of a very pretty sparrow. 
Such a nice sparrow
As sparrows go, the Le Conte's Sparrow is a beautifully plumaged bird: intricately patterned in cream, yellow, brown, with pale streaking on the back and an pastel orange face. When it was in the open in was striking, but it could quickly blend and fade back into the undergrowth as it moved behind vegetation. After getting a couple great looks I ran to the edge of the field to call over the other birder looking for it (who happened to be big year champ Neil Hayward). By the time we returned, the bird had vanished.
A more typical look at a Le Conte's, partially hidden by vegetation
A few more scans along the spot where it had been were fruitless, but again the bird suddenly flew up from the very edge of the marsh, this time actually perching in the open in the lower branches of a shrub. It stayed there, posing, for a few seconds before again dropping into the sedges. This time, though, we were close enough to be able to follow its progress as it snuck through the grass, moving as if it were a mouse: occasionally it popped into view, but even though we were only feet away it was hidden for much of the time. After another brief but good unobstructed view, I had to leave the bird to its skulking and head back to school. But I think I made the right decision on how to spend my morning!
"Bird Quiz" Revisited: Obviously it's the Le Conte's Sparrow. But check out how the
intricate back and face pattern, so striking when it is in the open,
allow it to disappear into the reeds. What a bird!

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Deep Blue Sea

This past few years the Brookline Bird Club has run what they call "extreme pelagics," overnight boat trips from Hyannis, on Cape Cod, to the canyons on the edge of the continental shelf to look for birds that can only be seen in the warm deep waters of the gulf stream. These trips have been fantastically successful, with records of lots of rare warm-water species, including Barolo's Shearwater, White-faced Storm-Petrel, and tropicbirds. The most popular trip general runs in late August, but this year they ran an additional late September trip, and I jumped at the opportunity. Lacking a car of my own, I asked to get a ride down with Naeem, who generously agreed. After some dicey weather reports, we received word that the trip was a go, and so last Saturday morning 40 or so birders boarded the Helen H in Hyannis Harbor, eager to see what was out there in the open ocean. Unlike a lot of birding trips there were a bunch of young birders on board, including Jacob and Brendan from New York and Alex and James from Connecticut, and 12 members of the Cornell Birding Club.

The boat left Hyannis Harbor at 7am , and we soon were seeing flocks of  White-winged Scoters, a few Common Eiders, and a handful of Northern Gannets in the waters off the Cape. Not long afterwards we passed Nantucket and entered the region known as the Nantucket Shoals, where currents create shallows and odd wave-breaks. It's also a productive marine ecosystem, and we quickly spotted a couple of spouting whales, which turned out to be Humpbacks, and got good looks at one of them. A Sanderling in the wake briefly tricked us into thinking it was a phalarope, but we eventually started getting our first real pelagic birds: first few Great Shearwaters, then a Cory's or two, and then a very nice flock of 20-30 shearwaters sitting on the water that contained both of those species as well as 8 Manx Shearwaters, giving us good comparisons. Groups of gulls contained a few Lesser Black-backed Gulls: we would see them on occasion for the whole trip.

Great Shearwaters (With a couple Manx in the back)
Shearwater assortment: Cory's, Manx, Great
Then someone spotted a large dorsal fin in our wake: it looked sharklike, but flopped back and forth comically, as if the shark was really drunk. It was an Ocean Sunfish, or Mola Mola, a very large species of bony fish (the largest in the world), which basks on its side near the surface and occasionally flops up its dorsal fin.

Suddenly there was the call of "Jaegers!" followed immediately by the shout of "Sabine's Gulls!" We rushed to the side to see two Parasitic Jaegers harassing two small gulls with striking black-and-white wing patterns. But they were not the hoped-for Sabine's but Black-legged Kittiwakes, a nice if more common species. The jaegers, sleek bullies of the bird world, put on quite a show, chasing down the kittiwakes and attacking a small songbird (which photos showed to be a Song Sparrow) that had ended up over the open water.
Blurry dark Parasitic Jaeger
As we continued out through the shoals there were some phalaropes (which were seen only briefly and remained unidentified), a couple more whale spouts,  a surprisingly far offshore Osprey, a distant pod of dolphins (probably Common Dolphin), and another Parasitic Jaeger. By around noon we had left the shoals are were well on our way towards the shelf edge. As we approached the drop-off the water got deeper, warmer, and much bluer. The bird life changed as well. I spotted a small shearwater flying away from the boat with choppy wingbeats: an Aububon's Shearwater, a warm-water species and a lifer for me! Soon after the call came through the loudspeakers again: "Jaeger!" The captain sped the boat in pursuit, and we got good looks at a Long-tailed Jaeger, the smallest of the family and a second lifer for me.

As the water warmed clumps of floating Sargassum seaweed began to appear, and with it came storm-petrels. We searched some larger groups carefully but all seemed to be the expected Wilson's Storm-Petrel. Then someone suggested that they may have seen a White-faced Storm-Petrel in the distance, and we all went on high alert: that rare and charismatic species would be a trip highlight. Not long after there was a cry from the side of the boat: "White-faced Storm-Petrel!!!" I rushed to the rail and got binoculars on the bird, flying away. Unlike all other Atlantic storm-petrels it has a gray back, and as it flew off it extended its long legs and bounced, kangaroo-like, across the tops of the waves: one bounce, two, three, and it vanished into the distance and glare of the sun. What a bird!

Adrenaline already high from that sighting, we were ecstatic when a sea turtle surfaced not far off the port side. Not only was it a sea turtle, it was a Leatherback, prehistoric-looking sea monsters that look like nothing else on earth. It came right up to the boat, giving killer looks to all on board.
Leatherbacks are the only sea turtles without scute or plates on their shells-- hence the name
They also have crazy-looking heads
We had only just arrived at Hydrographer Canyon, and already it was shaping up to be a fantastic day. Unfortunately, after the initial flurry of activity bird sightings slowed down considerably. There were still Wilson's Storm-Petrels and the occasional Aububon's Shearwater, but little else bird-wise, probably because there was very little wind, which many seabirds harness to fly more easily.

While there may not have been many true flying creatures, I was very happy to see a handful of flying fish, most only a few inches long, gliding through the air next to the boat. One glided for a surprising distance, started down, then caught a gust and made it probably 10 feet further: I estimated a total flight distance of around 30 feet, for a fish not much larger than a dragonfly.

As evening approached with still no new avian sightings, we tried "chumming": tossing overboard large amounts of fish guts and fish oil in the hopes of attracting birds. Our chum slight was frequented by dozens of Wilson's Storm-Petrels, but none of the rarer species were in evidence. Around this time we did have a very nice sighting: a small group of Offshore Bottlenose Dolphins, which jumped alongside the boat and put on a good show.

As the sun set we tried another round of chumming, also without much success. As the sun slipped below the horizon many onboard saw the famous "green flash" of light that sometimes accompanies sunset over the ocean, but despite watching the sun I somehow missed it.

Sunset over the Atlantic
Soon after, there was a shark spotted briefly near the boat. A few minutes later, one of the crew came up to the top deck and asked one of the girls on board, "Have you ever caught a shark before?" They had quickly hooked the shark we saw before, and Sarah reeled it in right to the side of the boat. It was a Blue Shark, and a decent sized one too, probably about  seven feet long. After getting a good look, they cut it loose: having a shark on board didn't seem like a good idea.

As night fell, and the moon too set, the horizon disappeared and everything beyond the lights of the boat was blackness. We stayed up for a while watching the crew fishing, and those lights would prove the source of another good sighting. Occasionally, Wilson's Storm-Petrels would swoop by the lights, possibly confused by the brightness, and swoop low over the deck before flying off. This would happen every 10 minutes or so. As one approached, Brendan quickly spotted that it was different: bigger, with longer wings. As it banked and flew over us I got a look at the forked tail: it was a Leach's Storm-Petrel, and a life bird for me! There are a lot of birds that are more often seen or heard in the dark: nightjars, owls, and some herons and rails, but I never expected to get a lifer storm-petrel at night.

Storm-petrels aside, our main show for the night were the efforts of the crew, fishing for tuna. The Helen H is usually chartered as a tuna boat and so the crew are very good sportfishermen. They were chumming and also using a long-handled dipnet to catch some bait for the rods. Most abundant were squid, which inked when captured. But over the next hour or so they captured a menagerie of open-water fish. Unfortunately many (though not all) of them were destined for the hook as baitfish. But still, we were able to see a small striped juvenile Mahi Mahi, a Planehead Filefish that had hid in sargassum, some young Jacks, and most impressively a two foot long Atlantic Needlefish.

But there weren't just small fish. Another shark appeared, either a blue or mako, and we were dazzled when the chum was approched by an adult Mahi Mahi, also known as a Dolphinfish. In the lights from the boat it absolutely glowed blue, yellow, and green. The fishermen were unsucessful in try to nab that fish, but they did hook another impressive one: a Sharksucker, which is a species of remora. Their dorsal fin is highly modified into what is basically a suction cup, which it uses to attach to sharks and other large marine animals. It was also an unusual catch: despite fishing here very regularly, this was the first that they had caught. After we got a good look, they released it back into the ocean.

The "suction cup" on top of the head can be seen here
I was almost ready to go to sleep, but there was still some excitement to be had. Brendan came up to the top deck with one hand behind his back. He revealed the mystery object: a Wilson's Storm-Petrel! It had gotten disoriented by the lights and had ended up in the cabin. After carefully and enthusiastically studying the adorable little guy and his tubed nose and yellow feet, he was liberated back into the night, and flew off safely.
Check out the salt glands that give the "tubenose" family their name
Jacob checking out Storm-Petrel Molt
Then it was time for bed. I slept in a sleeping bag on the deck: the rocking took a little getting used to, but soon it was dawn, and everyone was gathered on the back of the boat for the morning chumming, hoping for some new birds.

Sunrise over the Atlantic
Unfortunately, this chum slick was no more successful than the previous ones had been: lots of storm-petrels, little else. In the pre-dawn we saw another shark: one of the guys in the crew tossed in a big chunk of tuna on a hook and it immediately took the bait, giving us more great looks at these stunning predators. This one turned out to also be a blue shark, not a species that is common eaten, so it too was cut free.
Blue Shark on the line

They hadn't caught any tuna overnight, but shortly after dawn we spotted a big school of gorgeous yellowfin tuna leaping out of the waves not far away. One cast, and there was a tuna on the boat too. That took a turn for the brutal when its head was bashed in--though I do eat tuna, so I can't claim any moral superiority on that front.
RIP Tuna :(
After searching the chum slick, we headed west over Hydrographer Canyon again, and past it along the shelf edge. The water was very calm, and bird diversity pretty low. There were, however, lots of Audubon's Shearwaters. We really didn't realize how many until mid-morning, when the announcement came that we were already approaching the all-time Audubon's Shearwater high count for Massachusetts, which was just under 50, and was set last month. It's been a great year for them in Massachusetts waters! We checked each one in hopes of finding a mega-rare Barolo Shearwater, but to no avail.
One of 158 Audubon's
We did have one very nice sighting for the morning: a dark juvenile Long-tailed Jaeger that stayed with the boat, ate some chum, and gave unbeatable views for and extended period of time. I snapped a bunch of photos, and got exactly zero good ones: I never mastered the art of taking photos of moving birds from a moving boat. So the photos don't show it, but this was about as good a view of a Long-tailed Jaeger (which I had never seen before this trip) as it is possible to get.

Dark Juvenile Long-tailed Jaeger
 Other than that though, the rest of our time on the shelf edge was all Audubon's Shearwaters and Wilson's Storm-Petrels, the latter a common species in general and the former a rare species turned unexpectedly common for this trip. They were even in flocks of up to 8-- unprecedented groups for this area. Our day total steadily climbed, reaching triple-digits before noon. Audubon's Shearwaters really were the bird of the day.

Eventually the announcement came that we had to begin the long voyage back towards land. We were sad to leave the warm water with many targets still unseen, but shortly thereafter we were more than consoled with what may have been the highlight of the whole trip.

A pod of dolphins were spotted, and as they approached the boat we were able to identify them as Common Dolphins. Then they approached closer and closer, soon were "bow-riding": keeping pace with the boat and riding along the wave at the front of the bow, seemingly just for fun. There were around a dozen of them, including two calves, and from our vantage point in the bow of the boat they were practically within an arms-length! It was absolutely incredible to watch as they easily kept pace with us and seemed to be having a fantastic time. We certainly were, watching them. They stayed with us for probably 15 minutes, before eventually peeling off and swimming away, and our days were made.

Dolphin Calf!
Between the shelf edge and the Nantucket shoals is often a slow region for pelagics, but as we moved through this area we had some more fantastic sightings. The water was incredibly calm, almost glassy, and we were able to see small fish, jellyfish, and other invertebrates in the sargassum and below the surface. We found our last Audubon's, in 65 degree water, surprisingly chilly for this species. That was the 158th individual of the day, more than 3 times the previous Massachusetts high. Then in the distance, someone spotted a big flock of phalaropes. In contrast to the small groups of up to ten that we had seen fleetingly the previous day, this was a massive flock of close to 200 birds. They were mostly Red-necked Phalaropes, but looking carefully turned up a number of larger, paler birds: around 20 of them were Red Phalaropes, my 5th life bird of the trip.

The ocean was incredibly still-- even glassy
Phalarope Flock
As we neared the birds we passed through an odd line of water color, and realized that it was not caused by wind or currents or seaweed but by millions upon millions of tiny jelly-like animals. They covered the surface not just in this line but, less densely, across the whole surface of the ocean. This must be what the phalaropes were eating. One of the fishermen dipped a net into the slick, and pulled it out full of the jelly-like creatures. We identified them as salps, which are a rapidly-reproducing member of the group of invertebrates called tunicates. They have an odd reproductive strategy with both sexual and asexual stages, and, most interestingly, are actually a member of the phylum Chordata. This means that they are much more closely related to humans or any other vertebrates than they are to jellyfish. Examining them closely, we could see the notochord, the primitive version of our own spinal chord.
The band of darker water stretching off into the distance is all salps
Moving through the glassy, salp-filled seas towards the phalaropes, someone suddenly spotted a huge dorsal fin in the distance--  a basking shark. Leaving the phalaropes for the moment, we move closer. It seemed to have vanished, but then again broke the surface. The captain slowly piloted the boat closer, and we got an excellent look at this gigantic fish right by the side of the boat. It was probably 13 feet or longer! While they're often mistaken for great white sharks, basking sharks are harmless, and eat only plankton, which they filter out of the water. This guy was almost certainly having a salp feast.
Ominous fin
Basking Shark!
Almost immediately after the shark another Leatherback Sea Turtle surfaced nearby, giving us a brief look. We then returned to the phalaropes, and honed our skills trying to pick our Red Phalaropes from the flock. It got easier as we got closer, and eventually we had very good views of the whole mixed flock.
Phalaropes in flight. The right bird in the left clump is a Red Phalarope, the rest are Red-necked Phalarope
When we reached the shoals the bird activity was pretty low, and some exhausted birders (including myself) flirted with sleep, but just off Nantucket we were re-energized by a gorgeous pair of full adult Parasitic Jaegers, with long central tail streamers still intact. As we got closer to the harbor scoters and gannets became more common, and just before five we reentered Hyannis Harbor after 34 hours at sea. The harbor had oystercatchers, Black-bellied Plovers, and a nice Merlin trying (unsuccessfully) to catch pigeons bigger than it was. We docked, tried to adjust to the odd sensation of the ground not moving, and those who wanted tuna steaks got them. I said goodbye to the Cornell contingent, and sunburnt and exhausted but very happy with the trip, headed home.
Land Ho! By the time we saw Nantucket, we had been out of sight of land for more than 24 hours

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Mountains are Calling...

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” 
"The mountains are calling and I must go.” 
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity...” 
--John Muir

"On the tops of mountains, as everywhere to hopeful souls, it is always morning” 
“Men go back to the mountains, as they go back to sailing ships at sea, because in the mountains and on the sea they must face up.” 
--Henry David Thoreau

Muir and Thoreau are two of my heroes, and they both championed the beauty not just of the wilderness but of the mountains specifically. At home just outside of New York City, or at school just outside Boston (though actually not far from Walden Pond), both are in short supply. But with a car and a free weekend they are not totally out of reach. You can't get to Muir's 19th century Yosemite, but you can certainly get out of suburbia and into the woods.

Got to get to where it looks like this. 
The Adirondack Mountains fill up a vast, roughly oval chunk of New York State-- Adirondack Park is about the size of the entire state of Vermont-- and are almost certainly the most wild portion of my home state, but until this weekend I had never been. That was corrected Friday when my friend Michael, his brother Alec, and I took a road trip upstate to visit a friend of ours, Colin, in his hometown of Old Forge. At school Colin had regaled us with tales of his town in the wilderness, and we were excited to be able to see it for ourselves.

Our first impressions seemed to confirm his stories: while driving miles on Route 28 through the dark pine woods towards town we got a text from Colin: a photo of a bear walking down a road, taken minutes earlier from his front yard. By the time we arrived it had moved on, though we joked (maybe a bit nervously) about it lurking in the shadows as we walked up the driveway. The air was strikingly different from by our homes in Westchester County-- cool, crisp, and noticeably pine-scented. After meeting Colin's parents and catching up with him we went to bed, with plans for an early morning hike.

The lookout tower on Bald Mountain.
It was chilly when we woke up at 5 a.m. and hurried out of the house to Bald Mountain, hoping to make it to the top in time for the sunrise, or at least to see the pink dawn from the lookout tower at the end of the trail. As we climbed, keeping up with Colin's brisk pace, the ethereal fluting song of Hermit Thrushes came from the distance, and a Red-eyed Vireo began signing its ceaseless series of warbles. From the top we had breakfast with a killer view: the pink clouds of sunrise in the east over the Fulton Chain of Lakes, with the lakes themselves veiled with mist that hovered over the islands.

Sunrise from Bald Mountain
After finishing our bagels and descending the (somewhat unsteady-seeming) lookout tower, we started the hike back down, more slowly this time in the daylight, stopping for a flock of songbirds: chickadees (all Black-capped, I carefully checked each for a the brown cap that would indicate Boreal), a Red-breasted Nuthatch, Black-throated Green and Black-and-white Warblers, and a Dark-eyed Junco. The warblers are familiar spring and fall birds in Westchester, and the Juncos common winter visitors, but here they were on their breeding grounds, and common even in midsummer. The spruces, firs, and striped maples along the trail also testified to our more northerly location.
Michael and Colin in the woods on Bald Mountain
And the soundtrack to the woods was the incomparable song of the Hermit Thrushes, which I think I was hearing for the first time, or at least fully appreciating for the first time, in their element on their nesting grounds. I have yet to find a recording that captures the beauty of the song (or maybe speakers that can replicate it, I'm not sure), so I can only recommend trying to get somewhere where they are found to listen for yourself. It'll be worth it. The adjectives that best describe it are "flute-like" and "ethereal," though "awesome" works as well, in both the original and current sense of the word.

In the parking lot we came across what was definitely the "most raven-ey" raven I have ever seen. Sometimes I see a raven, and am uncertain whether or not it is a crow before it croaks. This one was so massive that when I first saw it I was sure it was a vulture. As we approached it groaned loudly (I half expected to hear 'nevermore') and flapped off.

Ferd's Bog
More awesome boggyness
The next stop was Ferd's Bog, one of the top birding locations in the Adirondacks. At the end of a short trail through both deciduous and coniferous forests the trees open up onto the bog itself, a low plain of mosses and grasses that have grown over what once was a lake. We walked out along a boardwalk into the bog. The field was sprinkled with dozens of spiderwebs glistening with dew, the odd reddish flowers of pitcher plants, and the ivory blossoms of the abundant White-fringed Orchids. The pitcher plant, with its namesake leaves that trap and digest insects, was one of two carnivorous plants we saw in the bog, the other being the Round-leafed Sundew, with its small leaves covered in sticky hairs that act as a sort of natural flypaper. The orchid and carnivorous plants were the botanical highlights of the weekend, and despite their ubiquity in the bog itself we saw them nowhere else: they are very much habitat-specific, though on their home turf (or moss) they are not uncommon.
White-fringed Orchids were abundant in the bog
Round-leafed Sundews are carnivorous-- the leaves are like sticky little deathtraps.
As are Pitcher Plants. The flower is on the left, the 'pitchers'
lower to the ground on the right
As we walked back along the boardwalk towards the woods, a large bird quietly glided past us, perching close by in one of the stunted spruces sticking out of the bog. With its smooth gray plumage and whitish head it was unmistakable: a Gray Jay! It was quickly joined by a companion, swooping in just as quietly as the first had. They perched in full view in the bare trees, bouncing from one to another with no regard for how close they were to their three human observers. After picking at a few branches, presumably looking for food, they took off and disappeared into the woods. I was ecstatic: this uncommon boreal species was one of my biggest targets for the trip. I had seen one before, six years ago in Yellowstone National Park, but that was a long time ago, and I had never seen one in the East. They were bigger than I had remembered, and I was struck by how quiet they were for jays: while Blue Jays shriek seemingly constantly, these birds didn't make a sound the entire time we watched them. Looking in a field guide later, I found that both this and their tameness are characteristic behaviors of this species.
Gray Jay!
More Gray Jay!
Gray Jay playing peekaboo
A classic boreal scene-- Gray Jay in bog on spruce
Given that the jays had appeared out of nowhere, and feeling a bit warmer in the now mid-morning sun, we decided to stay out in the bog for a while longer in the hopes of something else making an appearance. This quickly paid off when a waxwing-sized bird with very pointed wings fluttered along the treeline at the edge of the bog, perching at the very top of a tall spruce. Raising my binoculars, I confirmed my initial impression of the bird: it was an Olive-sided Flycatcher, another uncommon species, albeit one that does migrate through the more southerly parts of New York. I had never caught up to one there, however, and my only experience with the species was a migrating bird in Arizona a few years ago. This was much better: they seem most at home in a boreal bog, and this individual completed the picture by launching into its loud song, sometimes described as sounding like "cheers! freeeeeee beer!"

Olive-sided Flycatcher in its element, singing away
Surveying his domain
We were stopped twice more as we headed back along the boardwalk, first by a moth that flew right into my outstreched hand: an exquisite Cherry Scallopshell, and then by one of our prettiest sparrows, a Lincoln's Sparrow, a boreal breeder that is daintier and more crisply patterned than its commoner cousin, the Song Sparrow.

Lincoln's Sparrow pops out of the undergrowth for a second
Back in the woods we ran into another birder staring up into a tall pine at a woodpecker that was stubbornly refusing to show itself . He was hoping it was a Three-toed, and so was I, but when it flew to another tree it revealed a white shoulder patch, and proved to be a young Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Oh well. Still a nice bird, and the area was pretty birdy nonetheless.  With the other birder, who was from Tennessee, we tracked down a handful of breeding warblers-- Magnolia (a vivid male), Parula, Palm, Yellow-rumped-- as well as relocating the Olive-sided Flycatcher. Then we headed out of the bog, feasted on homemade muffins that Colin's mom had made us, and promptly fell asleep for a "power nap."

After oversleeping by an hour and having lunch, Alec, Michael and I (Colin had to work) set off on our next adventure-- canoeing down the serene Moose River that flows through town. The river was placid and lined with white lilies and purple pickerelweed, and the afternoon sun made it a gorgeous paddle.

The Moose River
Is there any better way to spend an afternoon than on a calm river in the woods?
I think not
There were birds (Hooded Mergansers, Great Blue Herons, and Belted Kingfishers most notably) and butterflies (Common Ringlet and Monarch), but the nature highlights of the trip were the Odonata-- dragonflies and damselflies. While my inexperience forced me to leave unidentified various bluets, emeralds, and darners, I did see a number of species that I had never seen before. The lifer dragonfly was a Dot-tailed Whiteface, its eponymous field marks both visible even at a distance, especially the striking pale face. As for damselfies, four were new for me: River Jewelwings, glittering green with black wingtips that flashed when they took flight; Skimming Bluets, electric blue with thin black abdomens; a Powdered Dancer, purplish dusted over with white; and most common, the oxymoronic Orange Bluets, which, flame-colored, live up to the first part of their name but not the second.

Hooded Mergansers
Dot-tailed Whiteface
Powdered Dancer
By the time we got back it was dinnertime, and after dinner we set out (safely inside a car) on a bear-seeking expedition. We couldn't find any, though not for lack of trying, but the effort was not wasted. After calling it quits on the bears we drove to the edge of one of the large lakes outside of town and listened. As we pulled in we heard in the distance a loon calling. So we waited lakeside for the sound to come again. And waited. Colin risked embarrassment to test out his loon-imitating skills, but to no avail. Finally, one sounded off in the distance. And then more did, and we were serenaded by a chorus of loons, their cries echoing in across the lake. The call of a loon is often described as a mournful wail, which it is, but that doesn't fully do it justice. It is far more eerily melodic than that, and more haunting. With Hermit Thrushes during the day and loons at night, the soundtrack of the Adirondacks (and the northern woods in general) may be unrivaled by any other place in the country, or world.

For the next morning, we had debated an ambitious plan to try to see the (apparently) famous Bull Moose of Helldiver Pond, which Colin had done the week before, but with a forecast of thunderstorms we scrapped that, and its requisite 3 a.m. wakeup, in favor of a closer hike, around Moss Lake. Unfortunately the weather didn't cooperate for that either, and we slept in and made Michael's renowned pancakes instead. It had cleared up by noon, and three of us (Colin again had to leave for work) drove to Moss Lake. The trail there loops through the woods around the lake itself, which had osprey in their nest, perched precariously in a dead tree on an island. The forest was rich, with conifers, maples, and yellow birch above an understory of ferns, hobblebush, clubmoss, and indian pipe. We found a family of Magnolia Warblers, a Red-backed Salamander under a log, and lots of delicious wild raspberries.

Day-flying moths can be confusing. The Spear-marked Black can be mistaken for a butterfly
While the aptly-named Hummingbird Clearwing closely resembles a hummingbird in flight
In the large patches of milkweed near the parking lot there were lots of butterflies and moths: multiple White Admirals, a Monarch, Dun Skippers, a Hummingbird Clearwing moth, and many Spear-marked Blacks, a day-flying moth that looks like a butterfly. Most intriguing were the tiger swallowtail and fritillaries: I have concluded that the swallowtail is probably not identifiable, given the confusion surrounding the difference between Canadian and Eastern Tiger Swallowtails in that area. However, I got good enough photos of two fritillaries to make IDs-- the first was the widespread Great Spangled Fritillary, but the second, with its greenish eyes, black wing margins and forewing veins traced in black, was an Atlantis Fritillary, a northern species and a lifer for me.
This is the familiar Great Spangled Fritillary...
But this is my first Atlantis Fritillary
Unfortunately we only had the weekend to spend exploring the area, so after stopping in at Colin's store (Shelter Adirondack Furniture), we reluctantly headed southward, towards home, promising to come back. Because, as Muir said, “Going to the mountains is going home.” 

Gotta come back to see these guys again