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Northern Parula. Photo by Luke Tiller.New York State
Spring Migrant

May 15 - 17, 2009

Trip Highlights

Leaders: Luke Tiller & Joe Bear             Species List>>

Friday May 15
We set off under rainy gray skies, but after heading west from Milford we arrived at Sterling Forest to be greeted with perfect blue skies and settled in for a break and some sandwiches before getting down to the serious business of birding. Even whilst eating lunch however, there was much to enjoy at the fantastic Visitor Center (and I don’t just mean their opulent bathrooms!) We quickly racked up a few nice species including Indigo Bunting, both Broad-winged and Red-shouldered Hawks and Mahlon and Mary Jean tracked down an Eastern Phoebe that had decided to use the building as a nest site for the summer.

After a quick bite, we were on our way to do some actual birding. Sterling Forest holds a wealth of great birds and before we even managed to make it to our intended first stop, we picked up the weeta-weeta-weet-weetoo of a Hooded Warbler singing from a woodland roadside. The Hooded Warbler is something of a rarity in Connecticut, and a stunning bird, but one that we would see with overwhelming regularity over the next couple of days in New York. This one didn’t want to show itself particularly, so after a few fleeting glimpses we were moving onwards to our target for the day, Golden-winged Warbler.

As we arrived, the power line cut that we wanted to explore was abuzz with activity, and we were quickly into the action with singing Chestnut-sided Warblers, Prairie Warblers and our first bee-buzz-buzz-buzz of our quarry. While we searched for our ‘target’ we were treated to some excellent views of some other great birds and we ‘workshopped’ the identification process of a particularly obliging Red-eyed Vireo. We also quickly nailed down some stunning views of a Prairie Warbler that was intent on singing up a storm, so much so that it almost singularly ignored our presence. Yellow Warblers flitted in and out of cover and we soon tracked down a nest of these common but dazzling yellow beauties. We then glimpsed our first Golden-winged Warbler, and what a stunner it was. A real vision of crisply marked beauty and a bird much sought after in our home state (so much so that it was a life bird for a number of those involved). We followed it into an area where it was probably nesting and with patience the group managed to get repeated excellent views without imposing on its nesting routine.

We enjoyed a little hike around this wonderful spot, picking up a number of local specialties as well as some other denizens of scrub and woodland edges including another Hooded Warbler, Common Raven, Black Vulture, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and possibly the most amazing views I have ever had of a Scarlet Tanager, perched in a sea of white dogwood flowers just a few feet from the group – simply stunning! Henrietta’s sharp eyes also picked up a Green Heron lurking in a nearby wetland that didn’t want to play ball and it was glimpsed just a couple of times before it disappeared into the reed beds.

Almost the highlight of the day however, was the most unexpected discovery of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird performing its incredible ‘swinging’ display flight, a sight that was both outstanding to behold in terms of death defying flying and rare enough that it was something even the trips experienced leaders had never previously witnessed live in the field. The performance was a joy to witness and one that solicited many oohs and ahhs from an appreciative crowd.

After soaking up a few more moments with the Golden-wings we were on to our next port of call the simply stunning marshes at Cold Spring. Although not overly birdy that day, the site itself is beautiful and designated trip photographer Juliet snapped some great shots of the awe inspiring scenery. The boardwalk out into Constitution Marsh provides one with a wholly different view of the river and we managed to find a few nice birds along the way, including a pair of Great-crested Flycatchers that accompanied us on our hike out to the marsh and a couple of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers that chattered vociferously as we passed. As we walked the extensive boardwalk we were serenaded by the calls of the local Marsh Wrens and with a little work we garnered amazing views of these birds flitting in and out of a highly engineered nest.

With the sun lowering in the sky we were off for a well earned evening meal in the picturesque and historic town of Beacon. As we waited for our tables a few of us sat outside soaking up a beautiful evening and were entertained by a host of Chimney Swifts as the skittered across the sky of the old downtown. It would hardly do the trip report justice were I not to mention the amazing meal that we had at Brothers Trattoria in town. Amazing food, Zagats recommended and the food impressed even the self-admitted pickiest of palettes. After an evening of great food and good company we settled in to our hotel for the night well fed, with lots of great memories of the day and all set for another great days birding ahead.

Saturday May 16
We awoke early for breakfast to some somewhat disappointingly gray skies and news that they were predicting showers for the morning. However as with the world of theater, the show must go on. We started our morning with a fairly rapid hike up into Doodletown for a bird that I had staked out a few days before and was particularly high on the list of desired species. With a specific request from Bernie and Ginny to make sure we got this life bird, we hot-footed it uphill, hoping to outpace the predicted rain, to the site and although we all arrived a bit hot and out of breath, we were not to be disappointed when we arrived and got scoped!?! views of a vociferously singing and visually spectacular Kentucky Warbler - a truly unforgettable moment.

En route to the Kentucky we had also managed to pick up some other beauties including a Cerulean Warbler, that Joe had managed to get the group on to, and a host of Hooded Warblers that had finally given us the views that the ones from yesterday had refused to provide. Thrown into that mix were legions of American Redstarts, Blue-winged Warblers, Indigo Buntings and a Louisiana Waterthrush that performed admirably on a roadside pond. We had snaffled our main target bird here but unfortunately the skies began to open a little and dampen down the early rush of bird activity. While some of the group returned to get their raincoats, the remainder got some better views of the Ceruleans. A Wilson’s Warbler, a Canada and a Tennessee added to the excitement of the morning, and although migrants weren’t coming thick and fast the variety was keeping us well entertained.

After a stop back at the van we then took a little hike out onto Iona Island which was awash with a host of swallows that had been knocked down by the inclement weather. Lined up along the wires we were quickly able to garner incredible comparative views of all five species of expected swallows including the harder to find Cliff and Bank. Out on the island we were treated to a wealth of oriole sightings and managed to pick up a few Orchard Orioles in amongst the multitudes of Baltimores. Again it proved a good identification lesson as we picked out a few first year males and a female Orchard Oriole from their all too common brethren.

After a great morning and a quick diner lunch we were on to our next stop, dropping into a marshy area that I had been tipped off about a few days before (it always helps to have friends in the know in the area) near Goshen. The slightly gray day had in fact probably helped keep bird activity at a peak and we picked out a few migrant warblers around the edge of the marsh, of which many were still heartily singing even in the early afternoon, including a stunning Blackpoll. Then it was on to our quarry: with Sora, Moorhen and Virginia Rails calling to our right and left, we soon had unbelievable views of a Virginia Rail right down at our very feet as it scurried out into the open to observe our arrival. After that we tried a slightly grassier area around the corner for our target here and were amazed when a Sora called so loudly and so close to us that it almost had me jumping out of my socks, before it scurried through the dense vegetation underfoot allowing the group excellent repeated views. The Sora performance was quite phenomenal and for me probably the highlight of an altogether amazing trip. We also picked up Willow Flycatcher here and whilst everyone else was preoccupied taking a bathroom break and grabbing a snack at the local market, Tina had a fleeting glance of a Yellow-breasted Chat right by the parking lot. Unsurprisingly it didn’t have any desire to repeat the performance and it wouldn’t show itself again for the group.

After stopping in to the hotel and dropping the bags we headed out for another fantastic meal, slightly more rustic than the night before, in a building encapsulating all the charm of small town upstate New York. I think we all eyed Bonnie’s soft-shell crabs with some envy.

With the option of an early night the group took the opportunity to set out for an evening at Basha Kill, an area which mixes great natural beauty with a wealth of fantastic birds. We all proudly sported our Basha Kill pins that Bev had so thoughtfully picked up for us from their online store.

The pins seemed to work as a lucky charm as we picked up another slew of swallows that seemed to be resting up out of the gloomy day’s weather, with literally thousand spread out across the marsh. As we stopped to scan the marsh, we soon had a wealth of Wood Ducks showing off their multi-colored finery and then with a Yellow-billed Cuckoo chirruping behind us and Moorhens ‘laughing’ away in the marsh, the moment we had been waiting for, the haunting booming of an American Bittern. We listened long and hard to its magnificently intense and lustful call before picking the soloist out on the edge of the marsh, pumping out its bellowing song, a rare treat to see this rare bird performing so sublimely. As we scanned we picked up multitudes of Common Nighthawks over ‘The Bash’ and got stunning views as they came in low overhead, actively feeding and giving their Woodcock-like peeent calls. Unfortunately it was drizzling again by now and although we heard a few whispers of Veery song fluting out from the surrounding hillside we were not to have any luck with the nocturnal birds that call the Bash home.

Sunday May 17
After retiring for a well earned nights sleep a few of the group were up bright and early again on the hunt for birds. As a few of the group took the opportunity for a sleep in, a few other bleary eyed souls set out for the Bash on a dawn hike. Again we were treated to the sounds, but not the sight of Yellow-billed Cuckoo and things were a little quiet although we did manage some fine views of a few species including particularly good ones of a pair of Veerys that decided to accompany us on our morning amble.

After returning for a quick breakfast and a reunion with the rest of the group we were out again on the hunt for a few target birds, and did we ever connect. Blackburnian Warblers sang but were not accommodating enough to show their faces to the whole group, although we soon made up for it with killer views of an Olive-sided Flycatcher, two Gray-cheeked Thrushes (which also gave us quite the class on Catharus identification) and an adult Bald Eagle perched serenely overlooking it’s marshland domain. On the way back to the van more great views of Canada Warbler and fleeting ones of our only Northern Waterthrush.

With a great stop under our belts, we were all to swiftly on to another little patch down by the canal, and again it was not to disappoint. After a little hike along the road which had yielded Bobolink and Field Sparrow we were on our way back to the van when we stumbled upon a Chestnut-sided Warbler that gave us incredible views down to just a few feet. A few yards further up the path a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher popped out into a bush, so close that the group could have reached out and touched it, an amazing moment and one which gave us an incredible opportunity to study this wonderful member of such an inscrutable family of birds. This seemed like it must be the cherry on the top of a fine stop, but no, as we headed back to the van a pair of frisky Black-billed Cuckoos as found by Tina put on quite the show. Although notoriously difficult to see, these birds perched close enough to us that the group managed to work outstanding views of these secretive birds.

All too soon we were back on the road again for an appointment with another target species for the weekend, Upland Sandpiper. After a tip off the night before and a few minutes spent in wholly the wrong part of the airport we just had a couple of Eastern Meadowlarks and Savannah Sparrows to show for our endeavors. Jan and Pat however made a couple of calls to mutual friends in the know and soon we had connected with our quarry. These birds were wandering a local airport, their evocative calls ringing out as they flew from one vantage point to another giving the whole group unforgettable views of these beautiful and sadly declining species of bird.

Once we had soaked up these wonderful birds we were on again to another stop and another targeted species. A little more poking around in the designated area and we had come up with another highlight of the trip, Red-headed Woodpecker. The Red-headed Woodpecker to my eye is a simply stunning bird and this pair put on quite the show flitting around a nearby copse of trees that it was nesting in. Perched on a fence the woodpecker gave the group repeated memorable views as it played hide-and-seek with us hopping around surrounding trees and fences.

ABrown Thrasher.  Photo by Luke Tiller.s we ran into the afternoon it was almost time to turn for home, but we had one last port of call at Shawangunk grasslands. We stopped off and before we were out the van we had an excited Least Flycatcher calling and giving us incredible views. The stop aimed to give us a few grassland bird experiences, and it was not to disappoint with a Northern Harrier coursing over the fields, a pair of American Kestrels hovering and hunting out in the vast grasslands as well as our first Brown Thrasher teed up for perfect views in the shrubby borders. Added to that was an unforgettable adult male Orchard Oriole and great views of Eastern Towhee. The real show here though was the multitudes of Bobolinks and Eastern Meadowlarks that were scattered around the site. With our tour over, we just strolled, slowly soaking up the songs of these great birds and enjoying repeated admirable views of these grassland specialties. It proved to be a quite beautiful and a relaxing end to a fantastic and fast paced weekend of unbelievable birding. I look forward to doing it all again next year.

Luke Tiller, Tour Leader
Sunrise Birding, LLC