Thursday December 27, 2012

EAST CHATHAM, N.Y.

The sliver of pre-dawn light gleams bluish as Danny and I travel over Mt. Lebanon to join the Hoffmann Bird Club birders for the annual Christmas Count. Not long after we arrive at the meeting place, so do our colleagues: the birding junkie Kathy Mills from Holden, our fearless leader, Tom Collins. This year we are also joined by Tom Begley, a priest who not only tends to flocks, but is a keen observer of flocks.

Three crows fly overhead and into our territory. Kathy records these, our first birds of the day -- the game’s afoot. At our first stop, the Housatonic WMA, we bundle up and tramp over the fields and through the trees. More crows, a couple of goldfinches, two cardinals and five chickadees. Birds are few and far between.

We start talking of the birds of yesteryear. "Do you remember when we found a kingfisher over there sitting on the wire?" "It’s a finch year. Where are the redpolls we usually see in those birches?" "Bluebirds -- last year we had more than 20 here working the sumacs."

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But we must concentrate on this year. And so as the day warms up, we amble and observe, observe and amble and slowly, very slowly the list grows. We find white breasted nuthatches, but no titmice. Two Vs of Canada geese silently fly in front of the sun, so we can’t pick out any snow geese. Woods Pond is open -- no ice fishermen here this year -- and we pick up ring-billed gulls, a kingfisher, mallards, black duck, a quartet of female common mergansers and a solitary, but quite distinct, American wigeon.


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Nice pick-up that!

We cruise our territory uphill and down and find downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers; we find three red-tailed and two Cooper’s hawks. The chickadee, house finch and junco numbers increase.

As we near the lower border of our area, we all concur that since the Richmond crew, working a bird-rich territory, never gets as far south as Laurel Lake, we would cross the line and bird the lake.

What a birding bonanza!

We park and the five of us hop out on Laurel Lake Road. Scanning the lake, we see hundreds of geese and ducks floating and feeding on the far side. Tom and Kathy set up the telescopes. I continue scanning the shore line and the trees. Two kingfishers chit-chit-chitter to one another. A pileated woodpecker swoops across, up and down, up and down, as it crosses over into the woods.

In the white pine towering over the other trees, I find a large dark bird with his back to us. As the bird comes into focus, I see that white head and yellow beak -- a majestic bald eagle is keeping a sharp eye over the activity in the lake.

I try counting the geese and lose count as I focus on the group towards the southern end of the flock. Are those brant? They are too far for me to see properly. Tom C. with his telescope sees the group that I am looking at and, yes, he thinks they may be brant with forward leaning heads and dark bodies. "We’ll have to get closer. There is a small parking lot on the other side," he says.

"But first, check out these ducks. Doesn’t that one have a red head?" Danny asks. We all take turns with the telescopes and confirm the ring-necked ducks, the mallards and common mergansers, and concur that there are two redheads among them. Another nice pick-up, possible since the lakes and rivers have yet to freeze this year.

Time now to confirm the brant. We head back to Route 20, the Lee road, and pull into the parking lot there. The water is aroil with Canadas interspersed with ducks. The redheads are beyond the point, so no second look at them. But we all start the goose count and the search for the brant.

Every brant we focus on stretches his or her neck and turns into a Canada goose. We decide that the birds we were looking at from afar were Canadas in the shadow of the trees. How powerful is suggestion, that we all thought we were seeing brant where there were none.

We have one more stop here on the causeway, to observe the geese and get a better look at the ducks. Hooded mergansers look petite as they paddle among the geese. As we drive onto the causeway, Danny and I at the same moment shout, "Stop." There among the geese is a miniature one looking exactly like a Canada -- a cackling goose! A life bird for Danny and me! Kathy wisely takes out her phone and takes a series of photos.

We head back north and finish the day at the Nobel farm, on E. New Lenox Road, where we find song sparrows and a flock of American pipits. What started out as a chilly, birdless day ends up warm and sunny with many excellent sightings. First we slog, then we jump for joy!

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Tired birders flock to the restaurant for pizza and the count up. It has been a good day all around. That Richmond crew had 10 count saves -- the only group to see a particular species. We managed to have three count saves: the wigeon, the redhead and the cackling goose! The leaders go round robin as the species are called out. The entire group (26 in all to cover the five territories) ended up with a solid 65 species and 6,619 individuals.

The count may be over for another year, but Kathy showed the picture of our cackling goose to an expert birder and he was hesitant to agree that it was a cackling; perhaps a lesser Canada, a bird I have never heard of no less seen! Time for research. Stay tuned to see how this is resolved!

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle
contributor.