EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. >> Before there is barely of a glimmer of light in the eastern sky, the dawn chorus rises and falls with songs of newly-arrived migrants. First, the wood thrush eee-ol-ays from deep in the woods. A pair of loudly conversing ovenbirds (teach-ur, teach-ur) drowns out the beautiful thrush's whistling. Twee-ing redwings and insistent phoebes mingle with burbling bluebirds and chittering tree swallows. Robins, grosbeaks and warblers interject sweeter notes. Birdathon 2016 begins!
Slowly the skies brighten. Danny and I stand on the porch identifying as many singing species as possible before we head down the road, the first portion of our annual Birdathon to raise money for the Great Gull Island Project (greatgullisland.org). Great Gull Island is a 17-acre island off the North Fork of Long Island, New York, home to thousands of terns. Since 1969, Helen Hays of the American Museum of Natural History and her volunteers have banded, tracked and monitored 9,500 common tern nests and 1,300 nests of the endangered roseate tern. This is the longest, ongoing study of birds in America.
As we meander along, many returning birds are already on territory. The yellow-throated vireo is in the treetops across from the house. The chipping sparrow is in the spruce; the song sparrow, in the tangle by the pond. Yellowthroats, chestnut-sided and yellow warblers settle in by the streams. Catbirds mewl from within the honeysuckle bushes.
We approach the large pond and scan the trees for Mr. Osprey who was there two days ago. No luck. But the Louisiana waterthrush cannot be silenced, "Push, push, push patooti," over and over again. Canada geese waddle away, shrieking at our presence. Along the main path through Hand Hollow, black-throated blues and black-throated greens call continually as does the scarlet tanager. A ruffed grouse, unseen, but not far away, thrums his wings, sounding quite machine-like. A pileated woodpecker flies up from a rotten stump.
By the time we reach Ooms Pond in Old Chatham, the day is glorious. In the rolling fields, bobolinks abound, rising up, fluttering back down. A Savannah sparrow darts out into the path in front of us. A willow flycatchers works the willows along the water. We listen and scan, but cannot find any meadowlarks.
On the way back to the car, a bird hopping around in a pink-budded apple tree flies over to a small bush. Hmmm, I say to myself, that was an odd color. I focus again and soon realize that I am watching a rich chestnut and black oriole! Soon the female joins its mate. She could be mistaken for a female Baltimore oriole, but not himself. The male is quite distinctive. An excellent addition to the Birdathon list!
At a small reedy pond near Chatham, a pair of mute swans canoodle. At the bridge over the Hudson River, the peregrine is in her box. A fluffy young'un pops up now and again visible near her chest. Herring and ring-billed gulls fly by as we are observing the falcon.
At Rail Lane off Rte. 9, a regal bald eagle guards the nest. A double-crested cormorant wings its way from one side of the river to the other. Further along Rte. 9, we check a sandy bank for the resident bank swallows. This area too has been timbered, not by beavers but by man, to make way for cattle. Six or seven swallows appear where once there were more than 100. An indigo bunting lands on one of the remaining trees. By the end of the first day we have 84 species, lower than usual.
The next morning after listening to the barred owl (check), we head west, stopping at Darrow School to observe the three giant raven nestlings before heading to October Mountain. The scrubby woods on the mountainside are alive with warblers, adding parula, magnolia, Canada and prairie to our list. The high altitude juncos flash white as they zip up from the road. A red-breasted nuthatch works its way up a huge pine.
Are the hermit and Swainson's thrushes peeking at us from behind tree trunks? Do they collude not to sing? And other than a few red-tailed hawks, predators too remain invisible. Even ducks are sparse on the waters. By 3 p.m., we are rained out and have accumulated only 96 species.
On the third day, as Danny and I get ready, the fog thickens over the pond and around the house. Should we go to South or North County? We opt for north and Mt. Greylock and environs, making a few water stops along the way. Thankfully by the time we cross Mount Lebanon, the fog has lifted. At Richmond Pond, a marsh wren, a lesser yellowlegs and noisy northern waterthrushes add to our list. At the lower portion of Cheshire lake, a pair of northern rough-winged swallows perch on a branch quite near us. A quintet of wood duck paddles among the lily pads.
Mt. Greylock, like October Mountain, is quite birdy, both home to many of the same species. Vireos vocalize and towhees scrabble in the leaf litter. Golden-crowned kinglets flit about and zee-zee at the tops of tall pines. Warblers warble, but among the myrtles, black-throated blues and greens, redstarts and yellowthroats, we cannot find a single blackburnian.
By the end of the third day, we have totaled 105 species. Not great in terms of numbers, but how wonderful to be out and about in the springtime. And that's more than $1,300 for Great Gull Island!
Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.