Clellie Lynch: Great Gull Island Birdathon, 2019
EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. — After many gray days of on-again, off-again rain, the first day of the Great Gull Island (GGI) Birdathon dawns brilliant and noisy with birds. Normally we do our three-day marathon of birding in the middle of May, but this year we set aside Memorial Day Weekend for tracking down as many species as possible and for exploring the beautiful birdy places here in New York and in the Berkshires. Not only will we have the pleasure of being out and about in forest and field, we will raise money for the long-term tern project on Great Gull Island.
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. For 50 years, the ornithologists Helen Hays and Joe DiConstanza have run this project, monitoring common and roseate tern nests, banding the young and tracking each tern's family history. An ancestry.com for the avian family, Sterna. In the beginning, the data on the 3,000 nesting terns were collected and recorded on 3 x 5 file cards; now it's ever so much easier with computers. I can't even imagine monitoring the current 10,500 common tern nests and 1,500 roseate tern nests using file cards. For more information or if you would like to volunteer as a bird bander, go to their website: greatgullisland.org.
Before Danny and I take to the road, we tick off the species at our feeders (the feeders will close for the summer on Memorial Day). Each of the orange halves impaled on the top of the feeders has a pair of orioles pecking away at the pulp, who are pushed away now and again by brazen rose-breasted grosbeaks. Downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers work the suet and ignore all the other birds.
As we step out onto the porch, Mama phoebe swoops down from her nest on the doorway lintel and sits on a nearby wire. We listen to the morning chorus: warbling and yellow-throated vireos, tree swallows, bluebirds, blackbirds, nuthatches, chickadees and titmice. Now the warblers take to the stage: yellowthroats, redstarts, yellow, chestnut-sided, black-and-white, and black-throated green warblers.
The day is warmish as we amble along ticking off one species after another. Scarlet tanagers sing hoarsely from the tree tops. Chipping sparrows fly in and out of the hemlock where there must be a well hidden nest. Ovenbirds blending into the forest floor repeat constantly, "tee-cher,tee-cher,tee-cher." A lone bobolink tweedles from the grassy field, soars up and then descends with those wiggly wing beats only to disappear into the tall blades of grass. "Peee-a-weee" the pewee has arrived and is competing with the least flycatcher's "chebec, chebec." At the end of the morning stroll, the species count is 55, a bit low for this time of year.
Off to Hand Hollow's lower ponds where the great blue heron sits on her stick nest. Eastern kingbirds chitter as they flutter about over the unmown field. Then Danny says, "Listen." A black-billed cuckoo, a bird we only occasionally find on this count, softly "coo-coo-coos." From here, we head to the Hudson River to observe the peregrine in her nestbox under the Dunne Bridge. One fuzzy chick with large dark eyes stares back at us. The bald eagle too is on her nest, a bit down river. Double-crested cormorant tick, ring-billed gull tick, belted kingfisher tick, bank swallow tick. By the end of the first day we have 83 species — a solid number.
SLY FOX IN CITY
The next day as we pass through Pittsfield toward October Mountain we scan the waters of Silver Lake. Alas, not a duck to be seen, but as we are driving away along East Street, I see a fox. Danny turns the car around. As we slowly approach the vixen, her ears twitch, she stands up and then disappears into her den on the grassy slope in front of a new building construction. Who knew sly foxes dwell in downtown Pittsfield?
Along the rutted roads of October Mountain, we observe flycatchers feasting on the many blackflies, mosquitoes and clouds of gnats that are swarming about as the day warms up,. Warblers hop in and out of view: northern waterthrush, yellow-rumped, blackburnian, Canada, and parula warblers. In no time the two high altitude nesters check in: white-throated sparrows and juncoes. Near an old timbered area, I step out of the car and hear the beautiful, sad-sounding tremolo of a loon. Near the reservoir we meet up with a band of Hoffmann Club birders led by Ed Neumuth who settles the pesky alder/willow flycatcher ID. He takes us near the dyke and a spotted sandpiper flutters from one rock to another.
We bird hither and thither and come up with marsh wrens in the huge swampy area north of Woods Pond. On the way home, the very small pond in front of a house on Peaceful Valley Road is still home to a mateless mute swan. By the end of the second day we've tallied 104 species.
On the last day we head north to Mt Greylock and the surrounding area, checking ponds and lakes, walking through the woods. Greylock is not only very busy with hikers, the top is shrouded in mist. Not too many birds are about, but the lovely white hobblebush is in bloom as are the painted trillium. A cooper's hawk swoops in front of the car.
From Greylock we drive to Clarksburg State Park, another wonderful woodland surrounding a fair-sized lake. We scan the water rippled by the breeze and find a great blue and a pair of far away ducks. Danny takes a photo and by enlarging we get a definite identification: ringed-necked ducks! A crested flycatcher missing from the list so far, "wee-eeps, wee-eeps."
In the supermarket parking lot on the way home, a fish crow lands on the light pole and calls. A first for the birdathon. Surprisingly the most common bird this year is the warbling vireo which we hear at 16 different places!
Our three day tally is 109. Birding is best in the morning and, as much as we would like, we cannot be everyplace between 5:30 and 10:30 a.m. Curious, I compare last year's list and we had 19 different species in 2018 that we did not have this year. But then this year we had 14 species we did not have last year. If only we could combine the two lists.
Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.
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