Clellie Lynch: Great Gull Island, Birdathon, 2017

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East Chatham, N.Y. — Just before dawn, sunlight, a mere hint at the horizon, slivers through the inky clouds as I arise to the first movement of the morning chorus. Cardinals, robins and rose-breasted grosbeaks sing sweetly as the higher-pitched warblers begin harmonizing. Danny and I, along with our birding compadre, John Walsh, prepare for our annual Great Gull Island (GGI) Birdathon today to raise money for the ongoing tern project now in its 48th year.

Great Gull is a 17-acre island in Long Island Sound just off the end of the North Fork owned by the American Museum of Natural History, but run by the Linnaean Society of New York. Since 1969, Helen Hays and her stalwart crew have labelled nests, counted eggs and banded thousands of both common and roseate terns. Today, more than 9,500 pairs of common tern and 1,300 pairs of roseates breed here. The Great Gull Island Project (greatgullisland.org) takes credit for ensuring the successful breeding of this endangered species, with the island now host to the largest concentration of roseates in the Western Hemisphere.

Tracked to Brazil

A few years ago, the GGI team finally tracked down the terns to their wintering grounds in Brazil after hearing about a Brazilian birder coming across a tribe of coastal Brazilians wearing necklaces made of the old silver (aluminum) bird bands! Not only did the team visit this area, join up with Brazilian ornithologists and talk to many of the residents about why the birds were banded, they also encouraged the villagers to get involved. So involved did they become, they now gather and send back info and hold a tern festival.

Stepping out onto the porch, the three of us hear the resident tree swallows, the noisy blue jays, and that trio of locals: chickadees, white breasted nuthatches and titmice. Off we go down the road. The temperature hovers at a low 38 degrees, keeping the insects, so necessary for the migrating and breeding birds, grounded. The phoebe and least flycatcher call in, interrupted by that trilly blare of the red-bellied woodpecker.

Warblers abound and yes, we can see them quite well since the leaves are barely unfurled. By the time we reach the cemetery (2 miles) we have ticked off 13 warbler species and four different sparrows. On the way back, an osprey flies over. At the house feeders (they're coming down this week), the Baltimore orioles have shown up looking for their oranges; goldfinches and purple finches take alternate perches at the tube feeders and the hummingbird is sipping away at its sugar water.

At Ooms Pond, a white-crowned sparrow hops about at the entrance to the path. Bobolinks are bounding up and down in the fields around us. A red-throated loon has the pond to himself. John finds the orchard oriole in the willows near where we had it last year. As I am searching for its mate, I come across a worm-eating warbler! Excellent find. At the top of the hill the savannah sparrow is back on territory.

We head to the Hudson and watch and wait under the Dunne Memorial Bridge (Albany) until the young peregrine lifts its head over the rim of the box. A mockingbird sits on the wire near the port of Albany. Since we've had so much rain, I suggest we stop at the farm near the Papscanee Preserve. Yes! There are extensive, shallow ponds in the furrowed fields. In no time the three of us identify: lesser yellowlegs, solitary, spotted and least sandpipers, and killdeer.

The bald eagle is sitting near her nest in Castletown. Bank swallows swoop in the air, though with the clearing of the area and addition of a fenced field with a cattle in front of the bank, few nest holes remain. By the end of the first day we have 85 species.

Repeat the next morning, though this time we walk through Hand Hollow Conservation Area. Many of the previous day's birds remain on territory singing spring songs. Then we hear scarlet tanagers and yellow-throated, red-eyed and blue-headed vireos, species that must have voyaged overnight. `Push, push, push, Patooti' the Louisiana waterthrush is well audible above the sound of rushing water. Another worm-eating warbler shows up, throwing back his head and trilling above the beaver pond at the south end of the area. Unprecedented!

October Mountain is filed with Canada, Nashville and blackburnian warblers. Alas, we cannot scare up a mourning warbler. The high altitude birds — juncoes, red-breasted nuthatches — are easy to find. The rough-winged swallows pose on the wire above the bridge in Alford. A rusty blackbird flies across in front of me and disappears into the tangle of honeysuckle near the river. At Baldwin Hill, not only do we observe cliff swallows, we find another pair of rough-winged swallows. By the end of the day we have just 100 species.

So the next day, again I awaken before first light and hear the barred owl serenading his mate. The swan, we forgot the swan, so it's off to the pond in Nassau. Alas no swan a'swimmin'. But on the way there, we find a common merganser standing on a rock in the middle of the Kinderhook Creek. Heading east along the back roads, a solitary meadowlark on the wire calls and calls, "Spring of the yeeeear."

A good count

The promise of rain coming from the south turns us north, first though looking again for the ruddy duck in Silver Lake. Up it pops as we scan the placid water. Then, to Williamstown for the reported red-headed woodpecker. No luck. Finally on the way back as it is beginning to drizzle, I say, "Stop! I think that's a kestrel." Danny pulls a u-ey and stops at the side of the road. We all hop out. It is a kestrel that, as we are all observing, twitches, then soars across the field and disappears into a nearby blossoming apple orchard.

Home again, home again as the drizzle turns to pelting rain. I check the feeders once more and finally the resident hairy comes to the suet. We end the birdathon with 106 species, not good, but not bad, either. One of these years though, we'll catch the perfect wave of neotropical migrants and reach my magic number of 120!

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.


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