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

Monday, July 21, 2014

Catching Up

Asian Elephants (and Painted Stork), Yala National Park, Sri Lanka
So I've basically let this blog slip into dormancy by not posting anything in ages, but I decided today that I'd try to get back into updating-- I could always use the writing practice, and I like the idea of giving things permanence by writing them down, even if it turns out the main reader is myself. So what have I been up to?

Well, with the exception of two updates for great sightings (Timber Rattlesnake and Northern Hawk Owl), the last full post that I did was at the end of 2012. That was a long time ago. Nature-wise, the highlight of my 2013 was a family vacation to Hawaii (the Big Island and Maui). I wrote about one hike there for the Eyrie, so check it out here: There were lots of crazy-rare birds, including an impressive and imperiled honeycreeper trinity of Palila, Akiapola'au, and 'Akohekohe, and plenty of other awesome birds with awesome names with odd apostrophes (it's a glottal stop): I'iwi, 'Io, 'Apapane, Nene, Elepaio, 'Amakihi, etc.
Nene in Haleakala National Park on Maui
Other than that trip, I saw exactly 2 life birds in all of 2013, more than 11 months apart: Northern Shrike at the NYS Young Birders' Club meeting at Pound Ridge in January, and Eurasian Wigeon at a small pond in Rye in December. At the same time, however, I began to branch out from birds, and looked for and tried to identify everything alive that I could find. Birds are still my greatest fascination, but now I don't ignore the butterflies, dragonflies, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, or even trees, wildflowers and ferns around me.

Mountain Dusky Salamanders aren't birds, but they are awesome
In Hawaii, my fish list was longer than my bird list, with exciting things like Snowflake, Zebra, and Undulated Morays, Flying Guenard, 8 butterflyfish and 11 wrasse species, and Coastal Manta Rays. On a summer camping trip I didn't see any life birds, but I did find stuff I had never seen before: Beaver, Mountain Dusky Salamander, Hoary Edge butterfly, and Chalk-fronted Corporal dragonfly. The March birding doldrums were brightened by the tangerine orange wingtips of the tiny Falcate Orangetip butterfly on Hook Mountain, while familiar "friends" like Cerulean, Hooded and Worm-eating Warblers at Doodletown in May were joined by new ones, including the Timber Rattlesnake I mentioned before, and Stream Cruiser and Prince Baskettail dragonflies (learning new animals means a lot of fun new common names).

Am I going to post another Timber Rattlesnake photo, even though I saw it more than a year ago? Yes, yes I am. 
I graduated high school in the spring, and in the fall started my Freshman year at Harvard University. I spent the fall pretty much settling in, socially and academically, and birding fell by the wayside temporarily while I acclimatized to the so-called "Harvard bubble" that keeps students firmly planted in Harvard Square. But in the winter and spring I began to get more of a feel for my new natural surroundings, and they are actually excellent.

Boston, as seen from Mount Auburn Cemetery
In Cambridge itself there are 3 great nature spots-- Fresh Pond, Alewife Brook Reservation (an underutilized spot with a lot of potential that I went to frequently in the spring), and Mount Auburn Cemetery, one of the best birding spots on the east coast. A little further afield is Middlesex Fells Reservation, a more wild location a short bike ride away. And in Boston itself are Belle Isle Marsh and Revere Beach, both of which hosted Snowy Owls over the winter. The latter also is home to Manx Shearwaters, which, for no apparent reason, are almost always present offshore from the pink apartment buildings along the beach. I don't know of any other spot in the US where this species is so reliable from shore.

It's an invasion! One of many Snowy Owls I saw this past winter
Revere Beach was also a good spot to try to lure some of my friends into birding: with the enticements of a spectacular white owl, a subway stop named "Wonderland," and a Harvard-bubble-bursting adventure, a few of us travelled there in the dead of winter to (successfully!) track down a gorgeous Snowy Owl, one of many that visited almost every corner of the country during a spectacular irruption this past winter. The trip also paid off, because by beginning to sell my non-birding friends on birding as an adventure, I was able to convince two of them, Dion and Michael, that we should take a detour during a spring break ski trip in Vermont to search for a Northern Hawk Owl that had been there the whole winter. As you can probably see from my previous post, it was a triumphant success, with Dion spotting the bird sitting not 30 away above the trail. With them and a number of other nature-inclined friends, I am starting a Naturalist Club on campus, and we took a bunch of informal trips during the spring, including a few to Alewife to watch the American Woodcocks doing their evening courtship displays.
The continent's most badass bird
The Harvard Naturalist Club at the Arnold Arboretum
Over winter break, I took another family trip, to Puerto Rico. Between beach days I hiked in El Yunque National Forest and elsewhere, seeing 10 island endemics, probably coolest of which was the diminutive Puerto Rican Tody, a tiny green ball of fluff with a red throat. There were also colorful Puerto Rican Spindalises (Spindaleses?), Antillean Euphonias, and Puerto Rican Bullfinches. And I wasn't terribly upset when a storm postponed our return by a day, giving us another day at the beach and me an opportunity to track down an Antillean Crested Hummingbird and an Adelaide's Warbler.

Puerto Rican Spindalis in El Yunque
Back at school I met two other Harvard birders, Corey Husic and Harold Eyster, and with them undertook one of my most ambitious days of birding yet, a "public transportation big day" in Boston that spanned 32 subway stops, 21 hours, 20 miles on foot, and netted a very satisfying 120 species. Corey wrote a full report of the day on Nemesis Bird:
Spring at Mt. Auburn can be spectacular. I dropped my studying during finals week to chase this Fork-tailed Flycatcher...
...And this probable (though--ugh--not confirmed) Bicknell's Thrush
And finally, the elephant in the room (or at least at the top of this blog post): I spent a month at the start of this summer travelling with friends in India and Sri Lanka! Four of us spent 10 days in Northern India, seeing all the sights we could in Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, including the incomparable Taj Mahal. Then three of us continued on to Sri Lanka, where we stayed with my friend and roommate Yohann, and spent 2 weeks traveling around this amazing island country.

The Taj Mahal lives up to the hype
While the Chand Baori in Abhaneri is underrated
And the Hawa Mahal in Jaipur demonstrates why it's called the "Pink City"
Nature-wise, the trip was fantastic. In India a safari didn't yield the desperately hoped-for Tigers, but there were Sambar and Chital deer, Nilgai (a huge antelope), mongoose, and Wild Boar. And that's just the mammals. Bird highlights of India were majestic Sarus Cranes, stunning Indian Peafowl, searingly colorful Indian Pittas, and a slew of other awesome sightings, including Greater Painted-Snipe, Spotted Owlets, Asian Paradise Flycatchers, Painted Spurfowl, and many many others.

Super bold Rufous Treepie in Ranthambore National Park
In Sri Lanka we absolutely nailed our safari, seeing two Leopards, dozens of Elephants, and a Sloth Bear! And between Yala National Park, Udawatta kele Forest, and Sinharaja Preserve, I spotted 15 of the island's endemic bird species: the highlight was probably a last-minute look at the unreal Sri Lanka Blue Magpie on our final day. But the tame Sri Lanka Junglefowl, flashy Red-faced Malkohas, and an impressive (as all hornbills are) Malabar Pied Hornbill would rival that experience. And so would dozens of others: Lesser Adjutant, Layard's Parakeet, Indian Nightjar, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, and Sri Lanka Gray Hornbill to name just a few. I could go on, but perhaps it would be easier to just link to my flickr page, which has most of the nature photos I took on the trip:

Sigiriya Rock Fortress is incredible. 
Safari in Yala was highlighted by this Leopard(!)
And this Sloth Bear
And this Malabar Pied Hornbill.
Oh, and also there were 5 species of monkeys. And an emerald-colored Sri Lanka Green Pit Viper. And a Small Indian Civet. And gigantic Sri Lanka Birdwing butterflies. And huge monitor lizards. Basically it was an incredible trip, nature-wise and otherwise.

Yohann, Me, Hayden, and Sarani prepare to face the land leeches of Sinharaja
We were rewarded with a Sri Lanka Green Pit Viper,
Sri Lanka's National Bird, the Sri Lanka Junglefowl,
And the endemic Red-faced Malkoha, seen seconds after the even more striking Sri Lanka Blue Magpie
Now I'm working at the Marshlands Conservancy in Rye, near home, at the Summer Ecology Camp there. It's a good job: I'm outside, and teaching kids about nature, hopefully convincing a few to give ecology a shot as a field of study, or a career. And if you're outside all day, every day, you're bound to see some cool stuff: just today we found a pretty Tulip tree Beauty Moth, and watched a clamorous aerial duel between a Great Blue Heron and a territorial Osprey. On Friday I was walking with a group of kids back to the center at the end of the day, and happened to be holding a butterfly net. An emerald dragonfly buzzed by, I swiped at it, and soon had my first and only Clamp-tipped Emerald perched on my finger. This kids were impressed, if slightly less excited than I was.
My workplace for the summer
And one of its denizens: lifer Clamp-tipped Emerald
So now I'm planning to update this blog more frequently, hopefully I can keep it going now. And if you think a picture is worth a thousand words (and possibly more than a thousand of my words), I'll also be regularly updating my nature flickr page. The link, in case you missed it, is Thanks for reading!
Marshlands has Monarchs and Butterflyweed, a great combo