Clellie Lynch: A chilly, windy, satisfying birdathon



After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing and picking through schedules and weather reports, Danny and I select dates and prepare for our annual birdathon to raise money for the Great Gull Island Project (GGIP), a colonial breeding bird study of common and roseate terns sponsored by the Linnaean Society of New York and the American Museum of Natural History. Alas, our eagle-eyed friend, John Walsh, is unable to join us this year as he is on Great Gull Island helping Helen Hays who started the project in 1966 and has spent every summer since trapping thousands of terns, tagging the nests and banding the young with the help of volunteers.

During the Spanish-American War, Great Gull Island, off the coast of the north fork of Long Island, N.Y., housed a gun emplacement complete with barracks for the troops defending our shore. The remains of these structures became the center for Helen and her merry bunch of banders. Last year, money raised restored much of the damage, especially to the docks caused by Hurricane Sandy. But this did not deter the terns. In 2013, the team, behatted against the swooping, sharp-beaked birds, trapped 4,130 adult common terns and banded 11,157 chicks.


Over the last 48 years, much has been learned about these terns. In 2009 many were tagged with geolocators so the actual path of migration could be tracked. Banded birds recovered in Brazil and Argentina broadened the scope of the study. Not only do many of the South American ornithologists participate in the study, some come to the island in the summer to observe first hand. In Quixaba, Brazil, the Tern Festival has become a treasured three-day event celebrating the tern. No longer do the fisherman collect the bands to make colorful (and numbered!) necklaces and bracelets.

On the morning of our birdathon, a robin sings, soon joined by a wood thrush, the intro to the pre-dawn chorus. Danny and I get up, get dressed, grab our binoculars and step out onto the porch. Yikes! it’s slippery with frost and I can see my breath! Back inside we go to put on another layer of clothing. And gloves! Whoever heard of doing a mid-May birdathon wearing gloves?

The air is chilly, but the birds are singing. We tick off the species around the house: goldfinches, chipping and song sparrows, phoebes, yellow-throated vireos, cardinals, rose-breasted grosbeaks, orioles, robins, chickadees, titmice, redwings, grackles and three woodpeckers (hairy, downy and red-bellied). We amble down the road and find the resident warblers: chestnut-sided, blue-wing, redstart, yellow, yellowthroat, yellow-rumped.

There are no ducks on the ponds, but we do find the wood-pewee in the woods, swamp sparrows in the swamp, field sparrows in the field. The prairie warbler sings in the same area he has been in for the last six or so years. By the time we return to the house, we have racked up 57 species -- a so-so start. Some days in spring we’ve had 80-plus birds on my morning walk. Maybe the cold weather is a real deterrent for traveling by night.

We load up the car with books and telescope and we are off. First stop, the far end of Hand Hollow Conservation Area where, high up in a dead tree, the great blue heron is hunched down over her eggs. The pond is no longer a mud flat, but we do find a solitary sandpiper. King-
birds chitter as they fly over the expansive field sharing air space with least flycatchers, many a tree swallow and a pair of bluebirds, stalwart in staying in the far birdhouse, annoyed at the eviction-minded, belligerent swa-
llows, but never backing down. We spot a blackburnian warbler whose flaming orange throat is spring’s exclamation point!

We check the old stone barn at Darrow School. No raven’s nest. Time to look elsewhere since the restoration project is beginning. At Ooms Pond, the resident savannah sparrow lands nearby and a black-billed cuckoo coos softly from the sparse woods. No meadowlark though -- fortunately we heard one in a field in New Lebanon.

At the Hudson River we do not find the eagle near his nest. Mr. Peregrine, though, is swooping under the bridge while his mate is visible sitting on her box nest. A small flock of cormorants fly low over the river while soaring in and around the Port of Albany we find three species of gulls: ring-billed, herring and great black-back.

Bank swallows have returned to the area that was recently cleared of trees and brush to create an entrance and driveway to an unseen house on the hill. The bank thankfully was left untouched. Hundreds of birds swoop and turn, and then dive, land on the hole-dotted slope and disappear within.

The most prevalent birds of the day are the warbling vireo cheerfully warbling at nearly every brushy place we stopped and bobolinks fluttering above every wide-open, grassy field. We end the day with 91 species.

The next day, not as cold, but very windy, we drive east into Massachusetts, stopping first at the marshes near Richmond Pond -- willow flycatchers and kingbirds. Then on to Egremont -- cliff swallows -- to Mill Pond -- hooded mergansers -- and to Bartholemew’s Cobble -- thrasher, gnatcatcher and the sought-after raven.

We eventually end up on October Mountain where a chilly wind blows. Sometimes so strong is the wind that bird song is drowned out. Five species of warblers, not seen or heard from the day before, show up. The white-throated sparrow, gone from the lowland, calls. The eagle on Onota Lake is cooperative and majestically sits atop a pine to guard his kith and kin. By the end of the day we have 108 species.


On the third day we zip and zoom around to various locations. A sparrowhawk carefully watches a farmer haying to see what tasty morsel scrabbles out from under the machine. We check out Eph’s Pond. It is empty. Just as I turn away, Danny shouts and points. In flies a green heron. A Cooper’s hawk circles above us near Mount Williams Reservoir before disappearing over the horizon. Mount Greylock is alive with warblers. The Canada and pine show up to be counted.

The final tally on this cold and windy weekend is a satisfactory 114, which raises more than $1,000 for the Great Gull Island Project, one of the longest, ongoing ornithological studies ever!

Clellie Lynch is a regular
Eagle contributor.


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