Clellie Lynch: GGI Birdathon 2020

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EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. — Spring comes and goes. During the beginning of May, no one could tell whether the dawning day would be warm and sunny or gray and chilly. Persephone even deigned to cover the landscape with snow on May 9. No matter even though most of us are sheltering at home, birds are on the move.

Time now for Danny and me to spend a few days birding to raise money for the Great Gull Island Project, one of the longest ornithological studies in the world. Once a gun emplacement during the Spanish-American War to protect New York from sea attack, the island now is home to over 10,000 pairs of common terns, 1,300 roseate terns and a dedicated staff of volunteers led by Helen Hays and Joe DiConstanza. For more detailed information, go to greatgullisland.org.

When to do the birdathon? We decide that the second week of May would be warm enough with highs in the upper 50s, and there would be fewer leaves on the trees making identification of those colorful warblers easier. We also want as little contact with others during this pandemic time so we choose the middle of the week when there would be fewer people out and about.

BUSHES ARE ALIVE

So up we rise to the increasing cacophony of the pre-dawn chorus and immediately bundle up to head out along the road, where daily I have been observing which migrants have arrived. Spring may be here, but frost is visible on the car and along the edges of the road. Hmmm but the birds are singing. The sweet songs of robins, orioles, rose-breasted grosbeaks mingle with the higher pitched calls of the warblers.

Right off, a "bit with some zip in it": The Louisiana waterthrush is back after a week's hiatus of silence. Yellow-rumped warblers acting like mini flycatchers drip from the treetops. Danny and I stop near a very brushy area more exposed now since the electric company trimmed the trees last fall. The bushes are alive with warblers: Redstarts, black-throated greens, black-throated blues, yellows, yellowthroats, a bay-breasted and parulas, those tiny blue, gold and orange birds that I rarely see on the road. Gnatcatchers, also very infrequently seen on the road, are hopping about too. An animated aviary at eye level!

At the pond, a clan of geese about 8 or 9 with various-sized goslings parades down the field and eventually into the water where a diving double-crested cormorant disappears and reappears. Yesterday there were five cormorants here. I'm glad one remains to be counted.

Woodland birds — towhees, thrushes, catbirds — are plentiful; six sparrow species are on territory; noisy woodpeckers up the count by another six. Neither the American bittern nor the ruffed grouse that have been on territory for the last few weeks calls. Sigh!

Off to the Hudson River, stopping at a few places along the way. At the other end of Hand Hollow the great blue heron is on her nest, watched by a nearby kingfisher. The Highland Road farm pond yields the commonest of birds: house sparrow and rock pigeon, but also gives us mallard, killdeer, solitary sandpiper and kingbird. The swan I was counting on is gone.

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Ms. Peregrine is in her open-sided nestbox under the Dunn Memorial Bridge in Albany. The wind has picked up. A chimney swift (first of year) zigzags in front of us. By the end of the first day, a chilly, very windy day, we have only 78 species, quite low for birding high and low, birding hither and thither.

The next day, again frosty, windy and chilly, we walk the road at sunrise and in the first half hour we see a broad-winged hawk, a red-shouldered hawk being attacked by smaller birds, an osprey flying overhead with a flat fish, a bald eagle being harassed by blackbirds. Baby predators do need to be fed!

A cliff swallow has joined the ranks of the tree and barn swallows on the wire near the big pond, unusual for the road. By the marshy area, a raven shrieks and shrieks. We are glued to the show: the raven is under seige by a murder of very intent, shiny black crows. They dive-bomb the distraught-sounding raven over and over again. It falls through the trees still shrieking and lands on the ground. The crows descend. More curious crows appear and then fly away as if to say "This is not my fight." Eventually, the raven somehow thwarts his attackers and soars upward leaving his pursuers far behind.

HIGHER GROUND

To look for the birds that prefer higher altitude nesting territories, we head east to October Mountain. At the first marshy area, a dazzling pair of blackburnian warblers, orange throats glowing, pose from amid the tiny leaves on a stunted tree. In the background is the dramatic chirping of a northern waterthrush. As we progress further into the park, the road deteriorates into a series of bone-jarring potholes. The way to the reservoir is blocked off by storm damage. In many areas along the sides of the roads, the trees have been logged in very haphazard ways. Branches are tossed about, no neat piles, just a carpet of broken trunks and various sized branches strewn around. What happened here?

As we are leaving we come across, a crew working to repair the road. May they finish all the roads by next year! By day's end our total is now 89 species, including gadwall, common merganser, great crested flycatcher, brown creeper, Nashville and magnolia warblers.

On the third day a bit warmer and waaay less windy, we walk through Hand Hollow, where the signs explain social distancing in terms of the natural world. You must remain three kestrels or eight spotted salamanders or 18 monarch butterflies apart. Vireos, both the blue-headed and the warbling, join the treetop chorus. The prairie warbler belts out that wonderful ascending call near the New Britain Cemetery. A pair of ring-necked ducks float about at the Richmond Pond marsh. Eventually we add house and purple finches that have been avoiding our feeders since they have been overpopulated by handsome orioles and grosbeaks.

Wearily we head for home, amazed that on all three days at many places in Columbia and Berkshire Counties, gnatcatchers, black-throated blues and parulas flitted about in the low shrubbery. Just as I am unpacking the lunch cooler, Danny points to the window and says, "There's the hummer! Finally!" We end the pandemic birdathon with a respectable 102 species!

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.


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