ShelduckTales

I love impromptu adventures, and I welcome the opportunity to just head out and go somewhere with only a rough sketch of a plan and enjoy the ride. Miriam and I have had pretty successful summer on the exploration front, and we’ve done plenty of winging it along the way. On Saturday, we decided to make a short-range day trip to New Jersey. Our lack of a detailed itinerary provided us with a lot of freedom, but such expeditions can have their drawbacks. We trusted the GPS too much and got stuck in Manhattan thanks to a bike race blocking off our crosstown route, and when we arrived at Richard W. DeKorte Park it was way too hot for wildlife and wildlife watchers alike. After improvising our way into a nearby bar to pass the time, we returned to DeKorte and found increased activity levels. I managed to locate a Least Bittern, our primary target, in the cooler late afternoon hours.

My favorite excuse for a spur-of-the-moment outing is a rare bird chase. When I first heard news of a Common Shelduck reported in New Hampshire, however, I was somewhat skeptical. Waterfowl always receive extra scrutiny as potential vagrants due to their prevalence in private collections of exotics. As more knowledgeable individuals weighed in on the discovery, it became apparent that there was actually a pretty strong case for a wild origin with this individual. The shelduck population has grown dramatically in Iceland in the past few years, and August is prime time for dispersal in juveniles and pre-molt adults. The old stigma of automatic dismissal for this species, which previously plagued the European geese, seems to be gradually fading in the face of new, promising records from the northeastern provinces and states at the proper times of year. They are certainly strong flyers capable of migrating long distances. The support for a pattern of natural vagrancy in Common Shelducks, similar to that of Barnacle and Pink-footed Geese, Tufted Ducks, and Eurasian Wigeons, is slowly gaining ground. The New Hampshire bird lacks any obvious signs of captivity, the timing checks out, and a local waterfowl breeder confirmed that they don’t even own any shelducks to lose. It’s up to the records committees in the end, but it definitely can’t be discounted out of hand. I was curious.

A Monday night conversation about “how cool it would be” to go looking for the bizarre bird quickly solidified into a real opportunity. Miriam met me before sunrise on Tuesday morning, and we set out for New England. We managed to avoid hitting any serious traffic on the way up, and we reached the shelduck stakeout site south of Odiorne Point State Park around 10 AM. Our quarry wasn’t visible at first, but we soon spotted it feeding in the pond furthest back from the road. I noticed that the distant duck employed an interesting foraging style that reminded me of an avocet or flamingo, wading in muddy water and sweeping its bill back and forth to sift for small invertebrates.

The shelduck eventually wandered out of sight behind some vegetation, only to reappear in flight headed our way a moment later. We quickly raised our cameras and snapped a series of shots as it flapped past. It hooked south before reaching the road, touching down in a larger, closer pool.

I led the way down the road to get a better view of the presumed long-distance traveler. The shelduck was warily regarding the passersby who were jogging or walking along the shoulder, so we made sure to move slowly and deliberately and avoid approaching too closely. We enjoyed vastly improved looks at the strange goose-duck from this vantage point, watching as it switched to floating, shoveler-like straining for food. After a few minutes, our photoshoot was cut short when our subject took off and circled back to the original pool. We took its departure as a cue to take our leave, both satisfied with our encounter with an unusual and fascinating new bird. Maybe this record will even get accepted!

We continued north to Odiorne Park, exploring the rocky shoreline and watching the gulls, cormorants, and eiders feeding in the shallows. The day was starting to heat up, and we really wanted to go for a swim. We hadn’t thought to bring bathing suits, but there was no reason we couldn’t go pick some up. Winging it!

I took Miriam on a short driving tour of Portsmouth, a lovely town on the southern side of the New Hampshire/Maine border. Those who wish to visit the Isles of Shoals, including Cornell’s Shoals Marine Lab on Appledore Island, typically due so through this port. It’s been 6 years since I last saw these streets, and it was nice to see some familiar sights. We took the bridge to Kittery, Maine and settled in for lunch at Warren’s Lobster House. I was glad to be back in my former summer home even though I only put my toe across the state line for the duration of a meal. After filling our bellies with delicious seafood and refreshing drinks, we found a shop where we could purchase some swimwear. Upon returning to Odiorne, we found that the shifting tides had made the water more difficult to access and carried mats of floating seaweed to the nearshore areas. On the other hand, they had also exposed several tidepools. We traded a swim session for wading and exploring the intertidal zone for critters. At least I got a chance to dunk my head.

We had another big decision to make for our trip itinerary: to chase or not to chase. The shelduck wasn’t the only visiting bird making New England feel like Old England. Birders at Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge in Cape Cod had discovered a Little Stint and a Bar-tailed Godwit, both shorebirds from across the pond. The godwit was not accessible without a boat, but the stint was readily visible on shore near public parking at Morris Island. We tossed around the idea of extending our trip over the course of the day, and in the end we opted to just go for it. We raced the sunset towards Cape Cod, valiantly fighting through Boston rush hour traffic and escaping via a convenient HOV lane. We finally reached Chatham with just an hour of light to spare.

Fortunately, the tide cycle lined up perfectly with our arrival. The exposed sand was much easier to navigate than the rock walls lining the beach, and we made it out to the shorebird flats in good time. I set about scanning for the Little Stint, but unfortunately I never managed to pick it out. There were some birds that briefly gave me pause, but with the limited lighting and time I simply couldn’t make the miracle happen. I later learned that a dozen plus birders had failed to find the stint on the earlier low tide that day, so perhaps it simply wasn’t there to be seen. The cloud-covered sunset at the Cape was still an exceedingly pleasant way to end the day. We saw plenty of other shorebirds, flocks of egrets and terns, and scuttling hordes of fiddler crabs filtering the mud for food. Miriam and I walked back out the beach as the lights went out, heading into town for dinner.

Our on-the-fly planning meant that we had a long drive back to Long Island in the dark, and the late night storm that found us en route certainly made things interesting. When we finally made it back in one piece, we settled into bed for a hard-earned night’s sleep. The shelduck, the food, and the sights along the way were absolutely worth the effort we put into our adventure. I always appreciate a successful journey, no matter how far I travel and how late I get home!

Year List Update, August 22 – 352 Species (+ Common Shelduck)

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An Act of Godwit

I was a little slow to start shorebirding in earnest this year, perhaps because seeking out southbound migrants meant admitting that the seasons are changing. On one hand, I welcome the end of the doldrums and eagerly anticipate the excitement of fall migration, but I’m not quite ready to be done with summer yet. I’m too busy celebrating the completion of grad school to go back to work! I couldn’t ignore the steady march of time forever, though, and I have certainly made the most of my freedom since classes ended in late June. Nocturnal flight calls overhead and tantalizing reports from the field finally convinced me to get off my ass and get back out there. More adventures await, and school’s not in session yet!

My first trip to Jamaica Bay this August left a lot to be desired. The mosquitoes were hungrier and more numerous than I’ve ever encountered at this site. Miriam and I got devoured, and to add to our woes we found few birds of interest at Big John’s Pond and the nearby East Pond overlook. A single Solitary Sandpiper was our sole consolation prize. We might have had more luck if we walked out on the shoreline at the south end, but the biting insects were too fierce and forced us to retreat. With time to kill after our abbreviated visit, we headed to Oceanside for a relaxing, easy stroll on the boardwalk. Fledglings were the stars of the show, with young Barn Swallows, Forster’s Terns, and Osprey providing great views. A few yellowlegs, dowitchers, and peeps served as a teaser for the rapidly approaching peak season.

Brendan discovered some cool birds at the northern ponds of Hempstead Lake State Park, a nice surprise given the habitat’s small size, inland location, and proximity to the Southern State Parkway. We made a quick trip at sunset and managed to pick out Miriam’s lifer Western Sandpiper. The fire of shorebirding excitement was reignited, and word of an American Avocet at Jamaica Bay further fanned the flames. After taking Gracie on a trip to Connecticut for a veterinary visit the following day, I received word that the avocet was still present at the northern end of the East Pond. It was time to boot up.

We arrived to find the water level at the East Pond a bit higher than I’d expected or hoped for, but it still proved to be passable in mid-calf waders. I gave Miriam a quick practical course in managing the mud, highlighting the importance of testing each foothold and remembering to pull a mired boot out heel-to-toe to avoid losing it altogether. Many a birder has sacrificed their footwear to the treacherous muck of Jamaica Bay, and coming into direct contact with the filth is best avoided. Once she got the hang of the technique, my fearless companion actually seemed to enjoy the challenge of slogging through the slime. We teamed up with Tripper for the majority of our visit, and we encountered a decent diversity of species as we worked our way south along the shoreline. Sightings included Stilt Sandpipers, a Red Knot, plenty of peeps, and some American Oystercatchers.

Tom, Gail, and Menachem greeted us at Sanderling Point, informing us that a Buff-breasted Sandpiper had just flown out of sight. They gave us some advice on how to safely reach the avocet on the other side of Dead Man’s Cove, one of the stickiest and sloppiest sections of the pond. We managed to make it across in one piece, and our prize was well-worth the effort. Avocets are classy, striking birds, and they certainly stand out among their smaller, difficult-to-distinguish brethren. This is Miriam’s first fall shorebirding season, and she expressed amazement at the similitude of the many species present. There’s no denying that these guys can be tricky!

The beauty of the East Pond is that many of the birds will forage and loaf at close range, allowing ample opportunity for study. One friendly Lesser Yellowlegs came strutting past us in perfect light, leaving a meandering trail of tracks in its wake. Even though many types of shorebirds look alike, familiarizing oneself with the subtle variations helps you to pick out the different birds in a flock by impression. White-rumped and Pectoral Sandpipers feeding among the Semipalmateds and Leasts were welcome additions to the day’s total. We left the refuge behind as sunset drew near, heading home to hose down our boots and gear.

Friday was a quiet, lazy day, largely due to periodic storms sweeping through the area. With no evening plans, I was beginning to get a case of cabin fever. Fortunately, I happened to check my email just a few minutes after a report came in from Doug and Sean announcing that they’d found a Hudsonian Godwit. This bird is tricky to track down, breeding in the remote Arctic and wintering in southern South America. Most individuals fly nonstop from Ontario across the Atlantic in the fall, completely skipping the East Coast. Although they occasionally stop in this region due to weather or fuel requirements, they don’t tend to linger long. I’ve missed connecting with Hudwits a time or two during my career, most notably when I took a drive from Ithaca to Montezuma with Ben and Brendan only to strike out back in 2015. This bird was on track to fill the void left by the Little Gull and become my next major nemesis, but I wasn’t about to let that happen. Less than 10 minutes after the initial message hit the listserv, I was out the door and on my way.

I made good time on the Belt Parkway, but when I reached the northern parking lot on Cross Bay Boulevard the sky was threatening more rain. I elected to leave my camera behind, grabbing my scope and binoculars as I dashed off towards the East Pond as fast as my boots could carry me. I sloshed my way out to Sanderling Point, passing Tripper on his way out, and the news was good. Sure enough, amongst the dozing Black-bellied Plovers I spied a larger, longer-billed bird preening in the shallows. Bingo. I was able to digiscope a few shots of my target as the light gradually faded and thunder rumbled in the distance.

After watching the Hudsonian feed for a few minutes, I started back towards my car. Sudden shrieks caused me to wheel around: a Peregrine Falcon had scared the flocks into flight. As the raptor continued south to chase the gulls, I picked out the godwit in flight by its black-and-white tail and distinctive proportions. When the shorebirds settled back down to rest, I resumed my journey out of the refuge. The first drops of rain fell as I navigated the muddy water, and lightning flashes grew closer and closer. The storm reached Jamaica Bay just as I reached my car. My successful hunt was a delightful outing, and if I hadn’t seen the report right away I may have missed the bird entirely due to timing and the weather. There but for the grace of godwit go I.

Year List Update, August 18 – 351 Species (+ Solitary Sandpiper, Stilt Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Hudsonian Godwit)

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Grand Teton Slam

After our morning enjoying the wildlife and water features of Yellowstone, we turned our sights south and headed towards Grand Teton National Park. Although the older, larger park typically gets more recognition, Teton is still an absolutely wonderful place to visit. As part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, it is home to many of the same animals and plants you can find to the north. In addition, the vistas along the Snake River and various lake shores are often even more stunning than the landscapes in Yellowstone. Hooking east from the Jackson Lake Junction, we drove along the Oxbow Bend and exited the park. We set up camp at Fireside RV Park a short distance from the gates at Moran Junction, and this became our base of operations for the next few days. It was a pretty nice place to stay, thanks to both the proximity to the park and the wildlife inhabiting the area. Miriam and I spotted a Long-tailed Weasel, and groups of swallows, bluebirds, blackbirds, and siskins were seen foraging nearby. There was even a family of Trumpeter Swans down the road that we passed on our way in and out each day.

For our first evening, we took a slow ride through the Grand Teton driving loop. Of all the charismatic large mammals inhabiting the region, the Moose was our only glaring miss so far. Knowing that these giant deer are most active at dawn and dusk, we scanned thoroughly as we rolled past willows and forests along the riverbanks. Although our twilight drive provided us with some lovely photo opps and no shortage of wildlife encounters, we failed to locate our primary target before turning in for the night.

We slept in a bit the following day, but we still made a morning search run before digging into breakfast. Once again, no Moose. Mom and Dad decided that we should head into Jackson for the day, so we began a leisurely journey south once again. Large crowds parked on the roadside at Jackson Lake Junction gave us pause, and we were treated to distant views of a mother Grizzly standing up to survey the area. A stop at the Snake River Overlook proved to be worthwhile, turning up Townsend’s Solitaires, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, “Audubon’s” Warblers, and more, most of them tending to newly-fledged young. I also spotted a mouse hiding under the wheels of a vehicle that was about to pull out, so I alerted the drivers and directed them away from the tiny rodent. It seemed intent on rushing towards the nearest tires to hide, so hopefully my efforts to protect it weren’t just prolonging the inevitable.

We continued along towards Antelope Flats, taking a dirt road south from Mormon Row in search of Greater Sage-Grouse and other sagebrush specialties. Miriam checked off Western Meadowlark and picked out a Sage Thrasher, which gave better views than my lifer from the Lamar Valley a few days ago. At midday we reached the Gros Ventre River, the boundary between Grand Teton National Park and the National Elk Refuge. Pausing at a roadside pullover, Dad lifted his binoculars and scanned the far river bank.

“…there’s a Moose!…and it’s a bull!”

There’s something special about finding your own wildlife to watch. Critter-based traffic jams are very common in both Yellowstone and Grand Teton, so Dad was especially pleased to get credit for our surprise Moose. His discovery created a jam of its own, with over a dozen passersby pulling over to watch the huge bull browsing on the willows. I’ve seen my share of Alces alces in my day, but this was easily the biggest, burliest beast I’ve been lucky enough to meet. It’s been far too many years since I’ve actually seen a Moose despite summers working in Alaska and Maine, even though I did hear an individual crashing through the woods outside the Project Puffin headquarters in 2014. This was a reintroduction that was long overdue, and Miriam was especially happy to make his acquaintance. We did a little bit of birding on our side of the river before loading up and resuming our journey.

It started to rain as we approached the National Museum of Wildlife Art, which conveniently offered some indoor entertainment when we needed it most. Dad pointed out hummingbird feeders near the entrance, and I was able to find a smaller, shorter-tailed female among several Broad-tailed Hummingbirds bellying up to the bar. This was a long-awaited lifer that a few of my family members had over me: the Calliope Hummingbird. Leaving the hummers and the watchful eyes of the trees, we headed inside to check out the artwork.

The museum was really quite impressive. In addition to pieces by local artists and older paintings, they had an exhibition on the diversity of hummingbirds as well as a wing dedicated to Joel Sartore’s “photo ark” project. I also enjoyed the statues outside, which included extinct North American birds alongside the quintessential megafauna of the Rocky Mountains. It was definitely worth a visit, and by the time we were ready to leave the rain was starting to let up.

Down in Jackson, Miriam and I split off from my folks for a little while. Although she was enduring pain brought on by overactive wisdom teeth, she was still eager to explore the area for wildlife. As we drove into town, she’d spotted a Yellow-headed Blackbird along the road. Hoping for a closer look, she led me down the street towards the Flat Creek Marsh. We passed a couple of Black-billed Magpies on our way out of town, though most of them were raggedy, short-tailed juveniles that didn’t look quite as svelte as their dapper parents.

A family of Common Ravens was roving around on the lawn outside the visitor center, putting on quite a show. One of the parents stopped by to cough up a meal, and the youngsters quickly began squabbling over the chunks of meat provided by the adult. Juvenile ravens usually lack the wary tendencies of full-grown birds, but their minds are just as sharp and curious. They strolled right over to Miriam and me, regarding us with bright eyes. When I offered my best raven impression as a greeting, they froze in place at the croaking sound. I swear I could hear the gears spinning in their heads as they tried to figure out what we were up to. “I can see why you like these guys so much,” Miriam admitted. “They’re pretty cool.”

Despite its proximity to both the town and the busy highway, Flat Creek Marsh turned out to be surprisingly lively. We heard a few Soras vocalizing loudly from the reeds at the edge of the lawn, and a snipe that suddenly flushed from underfoot almost gave Miriam a heart attack. A variety of ducks were floating on the pools, and Marsh Wrens bounced from stem to stem. We finally managed to locate some Yellow-heads, listening to their bizarre cries echoing across the marshy landscape.

We reunited with my parents in town to do some shopping, drinking, and eating. We then returned to Antelope Flats to continue our search for sage-grouse, but unfortunately we came up short yet again. I was happy to find my first Brewer’s Sparrows, though, and we appreciated close looks at Pronghorn, Mule Deer, and a Long-tailed Weasel which was slinking through a grate at the entrance to a ranch.

We watched the sun go down behind the Tetons one last time, drinking in the beauty of the sagebrush plains set against the stark peaks in the distance. Simply gorgeous.

We had to drive up through Yellowstone one last time to drop off the rental car in Cody, so we were treated to another day driving around in search of wildlife. Waterbirds were the highlights along the shores of Yellowstone Lake, including a confiding White Pelican, floating flocks of Barrow’s Goldeneyes, and unexpected sightings of Western Grebe and Franklin’s Gull. We waved goodbye to the bison, the geysers, and the wolf watchers as we made our way north to Gardiner, leaving Yellowstone behind…for now.

It’s always difficult to board the plane and leave for home at the end of a successful adventure. Miriam and I treated ourselves to one last hike the morning before we returned to the Bozeman airport, and it was absolutely worth it. We finally got a look at her number one target bird for the trip, the Lazuli Bunting, after hearing one singing outside our window the previous evening. In addition to picking up a few other species, we were treated to breathtaking vantage points from the Joe Brown Trail up Dome Mountain. It was a delightful end to a spectacular vacation.

Farewell for now, Yellowstone! My track record has proven that I can’t stay away for very long, and I think Miriam’s stellar first visit may have established the same need to come back again. I’ll jump at any excuse to experience the magic of America’s first national park. This visit, for what it’s worth, resulted in some new favorite Yellowstone memories! Until next time…

Year List Update, July 28 – 347 Species (+ Trumpeter Swan, Western Meadowlark, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Calliope Hummingbird, Sora, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Western Wood-Pewee, Brewer’s Sparrow, Bullock’s Oriole, Franklin’s Gull, Western Grebe, Lazuli Bunting, Green-tailed Towhee, Rock Wren, Dusky Flycatcher)

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In the Yellowstone

What is summer without an adventurous vacation? After batting around several possible destinations for my travels over break, I took up my parents invitation to meet them out in the Greater Yellowstone Area at the end of July. Miriam had this corner of the world marked on her must-see list for a long time, so she was eager to join me on my journey. We elected to fly out rather than ride in the family RV for the entirety of the journey. Even our layover at the Denver airport provided excitement, with Miriam’s first glimpse of real mountains, including a distant view of Pike’s Peak, and her first lifer of the trip, Western Kingbird. Once we landed in Bozeman, we enjoyed a scenery photoshoot with a Vesper Sparrow singing at the edge of the parking lot. My parents picked us up in a rental car and we began the drive south towards Wyoming. I recognized many of the vistas along the way, especially once we reached the banks of the Yellowstone River.

Before we even entered the park, we were treated to close-up looks at families of Bighorn Sheep and Pronghorn. Its been years since I last observed either of the distinctive ungulates, and these sightings were the first of several welcome reunions with local wildlife.

Once we reached Gardiner, we paused to take some pictures at the famous Roosevelt Arch which serves as the northern gateway to the park. We continued to Mammoth Hot Springs, where I led Miriam out on the trails while Mom and Dad cooked up dinner in the picnic area. We explored the terraces and pools lining the boardwalk, taking note of local birds like Violet-green Swallow, Black-billed Magpie, and Western Tanager. With the sun sinking lower in the sky and our bellies full, we continued south along the Firehole River.

Photo opps and critter sightings were plentiful on the drive between Mammoth and our campsite. The mighty American Bison were the stars of the show, but we also came across a number of Elk grazing along the edges of the riverside pullouts. Miriam was the first to spot a Grizzly Bear, calling out a cub which the rest of us glimpsed disappearing into the trees when we turned back to look. We were treated to a performance by a displaying pair of Sandhill Cranes dancing with one another in the fields adjacent to the road. The concentrations and closeness of animals in Yellowstone, in addition to the great variety of species present, make the park a truly special place.

After stopping by the Old Faithful Geyser Basin at sunset, we headed to our campground at Bridge Bay and settled in for the night. When we awoke, Miriam and I set out to explore the area and look for birds. White-crowned Sparrows and “Audubon’s” Yellow-rumped Warblers were everywhere, and Miriam was delighted when we noted a pair of Red Crossbills passing overhead. We found a Gray Jay and a few Clark’s Nutcrackers poking around the picnic tables in search of breakfast, and after taking in a meal of our own we set out into the park again.

We took the rental car on an extensive driving tour of Yellowstone’s best. Chittenden Bridge, Canyon Village, Artist’s Point on the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and the Dunraven Pass were among the stops we made as we worked our way north. We added American White Pelican, Swainson’s Hawk, Mountain Bluebird, and more to Miriam’s life list and my year list.

We eventually reached the Lamar Valley, a renowned wildlife viewing site even by the lofty standards of Yellowstone. We kept a sharp eye out for Gray Wolves, which frequently use this region, but couldn’t locate them or their attendant crowds of admirers. I did, however, spot my first new bird of the trip: a briefly-glimpsed Sage Thrasher that flushed to avoid an oncoming adult bison. We could see huge herds of buffalo dotting the landscape, and once we reached Soda Butte we came face to face with a massive group of the majestic megafauna. No matter how many times I see these creatures, I never get tired of them. They are simply superlative, incredible animals.

Where the buffalo roam…

After dinner and before bed, we made a quick trip up to the Hayden Valley. A huge crowd with scopes trained on the forest’s edge told us that we had just missed an evening show from the resident wolf pack. One of the pups, a little black one, briefly bounced back into view before returning to the den, but all we saw was a dark smudge on the screen of a phone that one watcher had attached to his optics. Some of the locals informed us that this family, the Wapiti Lake Pack, was consistently visible from this overlook on a daily basis, so we all agreed that we should return the next day.

After another night in the camper, we awoke to find morning mist shrouding the landscape. We passed a few grazing Elk as we headed north towards the Hayden Valley, and there were several other individuals feeding on the banks of the Yellowstone River when we reached the vantage point where the wolf watchers were already stationed.

Shortly after we settled in at the observation pullover, someone said that they spotted something moving in the fog. While we strained to catch a glimpse, one of the veteran observers raised a hand and urgently hushed the crowd. “They’re howling…” he whispered, reverently. The entire congregation went totally silent, and we listened, awestruck, to the ghostly wails of the Wapiti Lake wolves. I’ve been fortunate enough to see these legendary predators on several occasions, but this was the first time I was able to hear their howling. When the mist faded, the wolves were finally visible as they trotted across the vast plains. We spotted three adults, two males that dispersed from the famous Mollie’s Pack and a female known as 1091, and a yearling individual. The Elk foraging in the valley were very wary of the hunters, giving them a wide berth as they passed by. The yearling seemingly couldn’t resist messing with the potential prey, stalking close to a pair of females and getting them riled up. We spent most of the morning watching the wolves from afar, and it was a morning well-spent.

Wolf Pack, Assemble! (Volume UP)

Mom let us know about a distant Grizzly Bear that she observed from the restroom parking lot, so we peeled ourselves away from the Wapiti Lake Pack to have a look. We continued onward to the Dragon’s Mouth and the Mud Volcano, passing a few roadblock bison along the way. I picked up my first Cassin’s Finches, and we also found Least Chipmunks and both Golden-mantled and Uinta Ground-Squirrels. We revisited the Old Faithful Area for a daylight performance, and we made the Midway Geyser Basin our final stop in Yellowstone for the day. We still had to drive south to Grand Teton before nightfall, but there was no way we were leaving until Miriam got to see the Grand Prismatic Spring. After a lifetime of biology coursework using the colorful image of this spectacular feature for lessons about extremophiles, one might think that it couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. Like most of Yellowstone, however, it does. It absolutely does.

Year List Update, July 24 – 332 Species (+ Western Kingbird, Vesper Sparrow, Brewer’s Blackbird, Black-billed Magpie, Violet-green Swallow, Mountain Chickadee, Western Tanager, Sandhill Crane, White-crowned Sparrow, Clark’s Nutcracker, American White Pelican, California Gull, Swainson’s Hawk, Mountain Bluebird, Sage Thrasher, Cassin’s Finch, Wilson’s Snipe)

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Lake George and Laziness

This is just a quick update to fill in the gaps between my second adventure to Bombay Hook and my trip to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. I was invited to visit Lake George with my three siblings and a number of close friends. The opportunity to camp out at one of my family’s favorite locations was a welcome break from Long Island life, and there was plenty of drinking and eating to celebrate the summer. I didn’t bring a camera with me, but I was able to work in some morning walks around the campground each day. A family of ravens, a pair of loons, and a fight between a Merlin and some crows were among the natural highlights I observed. The biggest surprise came when I was walking along the edge of the woods at the far edge of camp. A muffled thumping noise reached my ears, reminiscent of a motor running somewhere in the forest. This was the drumming display of a male Ruffed Grouse, an uncommon sound at this time of year. I encounter grouse very infrequently, so I was especially happy to hear the distant performance. Beyond the birding, my time at the Lake was a much-needed chance for rest and relaxation.

After returning home on Sunday night, the remainder of the week was spent lounging around and making small-scale outings. Miriam and I searched in vain for some Brown Pelicans that had been reported at Jones Beach, and we also checked out the local birds breeding at Cow Meadow Park. We even discovered a recently fledged cohort of Common Ravens roosting on the Jericho water tower with their parents. The final days of the work week were dedicated to packing our bags for our upcoming flight. Once I’ve got all my photos in order, I’ll get to work on penning a summary of our time in the Rocky Mountains. Stay tuned!

Year List Update, July 21 – 315 Species (+ Ruffed Grouse)

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Miriam and Tim’s Little Adventure

I thoroughly enjoyed my recent visit to Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, and I had every intention of returning. That being said, I did not expect to find myself back there before the end of the week. While I was discussing potential plans for Saturday with Miriam, she casually mentioned that she’d be interested in adding Northern Bobwhite to her life list and trying for the European vagrants visiting the First State. Despite the last minute nature of the scheme, I couldn’t really find an excuse not to sign on. Miriam only needed a few more birds before reaching the milestone of 200 species observed, and I was hoping to get additional views of the specialties and rarities from last weekend. The 3-hour, cross-state drive to Delaware is even shorter than our upstate Great Gray chase back in March, and what is summer vacation for if not crazy, spur of the moment expeditions?

We elected to sleep in relative to my previous predawn departure, hitting the road just before 8 AM. We were unable to avoid a few traffic jams along the way, but our journey south was fairly easy overall. As soon as we crossed the Delaware Memorial Bridge, we were treated to an adult Bald Eagle flying down the right shoulder of the road towards us. The low flying raptor provided the best views Miriam has ever had of an eagle to date, and she was understandably excited about the close encounter. I pulled over to put the Jeep’s top up as we approached the refuge, and although the flies were more manageable than last week we were still glad to have the protection of a roof. To Miriam’s delight, we heard Bobwhites calling from the fields while we paid the entry fee. Continuing along the auto route, I checked in with other birders who informed me that the Little Egret, Little Gull, and Ruff had all gone missing after being seen earlier in the morning. On the plus side, an out-of-place juvenile White Ibis was foraging nearby, and we discovered several flocks of American Avocets, one of Miriam’s most wanted birds.

I was frustrated by the absence of our rarer targets, but not so much as to give up on them. I led the charge to the Shearness Pool observation tower, which offered great views of the Little Egret’s favored foraging sites. While carefully panning through the scattered congregations of wading birds, I noticed an individual with streamer-like plumes flickering behind its head like a banner in the breeze. Dark lores were apparent in comparison to the bright yellow faces of the associated Snowies, and the bird seemed marginally taller and bigger billed. Despite the distance, I finally enjoyed the opportunity to watch the Little Egret in nature, in the moment. Miriam and I repeatedly traded places at the scope, admiring the graceful bird as it fed among its more common cousins.

Little Wonders

We fought through the biting insects and made our way back to the parking lot, where I heard a Blue Grosbeak calling in the shrubs. The handsome male that eventually hopped up on an exposed branch was the lucky species to secure spot #200 on Miriam’s life list. Circling back to Raymond Pool, we found a pair of helpful birders who were nice enough to let us look at a far-off Ruff through their scope. There have actually been several distinct individuals identified among the yellowlegs, dowitchers, and other shorebirds at Bombay Hook over the past week, but this bird looked like it could’ve been the same one I saw on Sunday.

On the other hand, it seemed like my former nemesis was back to its old tricks after throwing me a bone last time. The Little Gull, previously so reliable at Raymond, had been evading us throughout the day. Our new friends informed us that the gull had been wandering around the refuge, flying to and from the vast tidal marshes east of the driving loops. They said they’d last seen it at Shearness, and some other visitors along the road gave us more specific directions to where it was roosting. I was eventually able to locate the tricky target, a dark-capped lump of white feathers, sitting by itself way out on the mudflats. I quickly put Miriam on the distant bird, and when I set up my phone to do some digiscoping I found that the gull had vanished once again. Sneaky little bugger.

Several Black-necked Stilts were seen feeding in the marshes, Diamondback Terrapins crossed the road ahead of our car, and the songs of Field Sparrow, Marsh Wren, and Indigo Bunting filled in the soundscape around us. We dedicated some time to snapping pictures at the Purple Martin colony, and the dapper aerialists were happy to show off for us.

The feeders near the visitor center hosted American Goldfinches and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. A couple of Eastern Cottontails, the only wild mammals seen on this outing, were browsing at the edge of the lawn and the thicket. A raucous, chattering cry caused us to wheel around just in time to see a male Yellow-breasted Chat floating down into the foliage as he completed his song flight. We slowly approached the landing site, and I was able to record his wildly improvisational tune. Miriam was amused by that chat’s quirky performance, especially since all of my stories about these weird songbirds had her looking forward to meeting the infamous “bush bird” for the first time. The chat failed to show itself for a second look despite our best efforts, and the Northern Bobwhites across the road remained similarly hidden from sight. Even without a visual on the quails, we managed to connect with every single bird we came looking for. Egret, gull, Ruff, ibis, Bobwhite, chat, avocet, grosbeak, eagle…checks all around, with plenty of extra goodies!

After more than 6 hours exploring Bombay Hook, we packed up our things and headed north. Our growing hunger necessitated a pit stop for an early dinner, and we picked a major winner. Brick Works Brewing and Eats in Smyrna exceeded all expectations: Earth and Fire Fries to start, a Smokehouse Burger for me, Bacon Mac and Cheese for Miriam, and a number of house brewed beers that I just had to sample. I’ll certainly be returning to this establishment the next time I find myself back in Delaware, though it will most likely be longer than a week this time. Our drive home to Long Island was even easier than the drive down, and the sunset behind us brought an end to a perfect day of adventure. It’s always nice to get out and do some impromptu exploration!

Year List Update, July 8 – 314 Species

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Studying Marine Nature

Some summer days are just lazy and pleasant. Nothing too dramatic or exciting, just casual fun. Miriam and I visited the Oceanside Marine Nature Study Area yet again, and we took a lot of pictures. This easily accessed marsh habitat is a popular spot for photographers of all ability levels, and many of the local wildlife have become accustomed to human presence. Like a less exotic version of the Anhinga Trail in the Florida Everglades, OMNSA provides great opportunities to get up close and personal with the resident critters.

The star of the show today was an adult Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. We watched as the stealthy predator stalked crabs just beyond the boardwalk’s guard rail, tearing off their claws before gulping them down. Miriam pointed out that you could watch the heron’s hapless prey moving as they were slowly swallowed. Awesome.

Crabs are a popular menu item at the Oceanside marsh. We spotted a Herring Gull tucking into a larger Blue Crab out on the mudflats.

We stopped by the Osprey platform, briefly catching a glimpse of one of the nestlings. Two Green Herons, a youngster and an adult, were foraging in one of the tidal creeks. The other expected wading birds, swallows, and sparrows were all present in some numbers.

A Snow Goose has been hanging around with the Canada Geese at this site, seemingly an injured individual who failed to migrate north this spring. We saw it in the distance on our last visit, but today it was resting on a grassy knoll closer to the main trails. Miriam’s quest to photograph a Willet in flight continued, with some success. She did manage to score a clear shot of one bird with its flashy wings spread as it touched down on the muddy shoreline. A clear in-flight snapshot is still the primary goal, yet to be achieved satisfactorily.

Our Oceanside outing, though brief and easygoing, was a fine use of a sunny summer morning. Even the small-scale adventures are a welcome break from the daily hustle and bustle!

Year List Update, July 5 – 314 Species

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