Luke Dempsey’s (sadly mediocre) book A Supremely Bad Idea devotes a whole chapter* to the Cerulean Warbler. In it, the author and a pair of pseudonymous weirdos travel to Minnesota to see the lovely and vulnerable bird on its breeding grounds.

Well, the desire to see a Cerulean Warbler is about the only thing I share with Dempsey. Fortunately for me, going to Minnesota to see Dendroica cerulea is unnecessary; they also breed on Bear Mountain, at the charmingly-named ghost town Doodletown. So one fine day in early June I too set forth with a couple of eccentric companions (the incorrigible Corey Finger and a gentleman named Danny who may or may not wish to be splashed all over the internet) to track one down.

And did we ever! While the first Cerulean we encountered was content to be heard and not seen, we only had to hike a little further up the mountain to find another, more forthcoming specimen. We also found an enormous rat snake; Redstarts, Black-and-White Warblers, and Yellow Warblers; a calling Yellow-billed Cuckoo; vast rapturous kettles of Turkey Vultures, with the occasional Black Vulture thrown in. We did not find any Hooded Warblers, although we heard plenty. But, to keep things awesome, we found two more male Ceruleans showing well.

(Here I should note that ‘showing well’ meant, for me, ‘showing spectacularly’, since Corey was kind enough to loan me a review pair of Swarovskis to temporarily replace my battered Minox warhorse.)

By lunchtime, we’d proved to our satisfaction that Ceruleans existed, and not just in Minnesota. It was time to move on to our next target: the Golden-winged Warbler.

(But first, an interlude occurred in which horrific snack products of unnatural hues were purchased and consumed, but not by me. I stuck to the entirely more legitimate mayonnaise-and-sliced-meat-on-bread-with-alleged-lettuce food group.)

Then it was onward to Sterling Forest. By this time the sun was high, the day was hot, and the other birders at the site were packing it in – but not without passing along thrilling tales of singing Golden-wings and horrifying warnings of plentiful ticks. One of these would be borne out. (Note: The title contains spoilers.)

Golden-winged Warbler, like Cerulean, is a species facing trouble. Vermivora chrysoptera favors scrubby areas early in the process of reverting from field to forest, and in the northeastern U.S. such areas are getting harder to come by. Moreover, the Blue-winged Warbler tends to hybridize with the Golden-wing when their ranges overlap. This creates a merely ontological puzzle for birders, but more of an immediate and pragmatic problem for the species.

The dog tick faces no such crisis. At least not at Sterling Forest, where after trudging up a hill through a powerline cut in the blazing sun (Prairie Warbler, Brown-headed Cowbird, Indigo Bunting, and more Turkey Vultures (who could probably smell us by this time)) and through an open forest with the potential for impending bears (Scarlet Tanager, Baltimore Oriole, Common Yellowthroat) and back up another hill in the same powerline cut (no birds to speak of, but some cool frogs and butterflies) we had neither sighted nor heard a single GWW – but the dog ticks, ah…

Between the three of us, we had brushed three ticks off our carefully tucked-in pants before getting back into the car (and just before a second Yellow-billed Cuckoo flew over us as a consolation prize.) Not so bad, you might say! And indeed, that wasn’t bad. Bad was when, back in the car and en route, first Corey and then Danny and then myself turned up with an additional dog tick – surprisingly clingy little buggers who vigorously resisted being flung out the car window. Really bad was when I reached up to scratch my head and found one of them crawling in my hair.

By this time we were all freaking out like we were in withdrawals, thinking we felt crawling everywhere. Not only are dog ticks creepy in and of theirownselves, we all had a powerful aversion to having them attach to our persons – Corey having a vulnerable, no doubt sweet-blooded infant at home, Danny having a dog, and me just having a profoundly selfish and unenvironmentalist aversion to serving as a habitat for Rickettsia rickettsii. The ride home, flinging more ticks onto the pavement all the way, was long. Also long – the shower that I found myself taking afterward.

That said, none of this should make the ambitious birder shy away from Sterling. We got there too late on too hot a day for luck to favor us, but it is still an excellent location for the elusive Golden-wing. Just be sure to tuck your pants into your socks! And, somehow, your hair into your socks as well.

*or roughly 1/5 as many pages as the author spends whining about his divorce.

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Another hastily-chugged cup of coffee. Another early-morning stagger out into the bitter cold. Another Tim Horton’s stop and fuel-up. Another voyage on the ferry across the icy spur of Lake Ontario, another careening ride down rutted dirt roads.

Another chance – our last chance – at the Owl Woods and its bounty of Strigiforme goodness.

The difference in the woods soon became apparent. For one thing, someone had spent time on Sunday laying out small tree trunks at the entrance to form a path. Not exactly a velvet rope, but it did funnel every visitor directly in front of the sign with the rules. Subtle, but fierce. A bit like a Saw-whet.

Moreover, it being both a weekday and earlier in the morning than our previous visit, there were far fewer people in the woods. Oh, we weren’t the only humans, but the others were pairs and singletons, not vast groups. Even the Chickadees, not put on high alert by the prospect of food, seemed more subdued.

So we began, once again, the process of moving slowly from cedar to cedar. This time the group, perhaps more confident or merely less patient, fanned out to check trees each on their own.

I was dubious about this strategy – the other thousand times I’d checked trees on my own, at the Olde Homestead and Prospect and Central Parks, had always come to naught – so I hung back and looked at pellets. The pellets were gray, and rich with the bones of the meadow voles who enthusiastically populate the island and make it an owl (and hawk) Mecca.

Suddenly, I heard a frantic whisper. The rest of the group was making a determined beeline for a tree at the very edge of the wood. This tiny, non-descript, and twisted pine, upon inspection by one of my tripmates, had proved to contain a Boreal Owl.

Boreal Owl

Keep it down, I work nights.

The Boreal Owl is a dream-bird, not just because it is nocturnal, not just because it is small (I would say ‘elfin’ but that should probably be properly reserved for the Elf Owl itself), not just because it is remote, but all three. When I told people about the trip in the planning stages, this was the species that I made sure to mention, and the response was always one of congenial jealousy. I had put it down as nice, but not necessary, in an attempt to manage my expectations. Now here it was. I felt a strange urge to get – not closer, but further away; to not risk even in the slightest disturbing or harming something so perfect. I tried not to breath.

After the exquisite agony of balancing the owl’s well-being with our own desire to stare at it forever, we moved away. I couldn’t tell you how long it took, although I think not very. It was still forever-ish enough.

The story was over, the happy ending written. But birding trips are not stories, so even though we were now moving towards our cars and lunch and goodbyes and the long drive back to New York, we kept checking the trees. We were, perhaps, halfway back when The Inimitable Todd stuck his head into a cedar and came out looking like he wanted to shout for joy, but was nobly refraining.

Saw-whet Owl

What IT Saw(whet)

Yes, The Inimitable Todd – the world’s most patient non-birder – had found the trip’s only Saw-whet Owl, provided me with a seventh life bird in three days, and provided another happy ending.

But birding trips are not stories. Before we left the woods, we stumbled over the Barred Owl once again.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl? Where?

Then we drove around the island several times, searching for Rough-legged Hawks and finding many Red-tails, Kestrels, and more Tundra Swans before finally finding a light-morph bird hunting over the fields.

Then we had lunch.

Then the IT and I made the long drive towards home, in the snow. As we drove over the bridge into the United States, a Raven paced our car…. only to turn back mere inches before joining my NYS list.

Then the birding part of the trip was over.

Looking back, I have to say that it was a wonderful trip, despite the challenging weather and a couple of dips. Lakeshore Nature Tours won my appreciation from the start. I probably won’t be going back to Amherst Island any time soon, but only because the heavy human pressure on the island makes me think I should give a turn to someone else, someone who – like me – will love it, and spread that word that it should be respected and saved.

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Snowy Owl

Our better angels of hard work and persistence having been rewarded with the sight of the Northern Hawk Owl, we promptly broke for lunch.

And it’s just as well that we did, because after our next stop no one was hungry. Turning down a lonely, windswept rural road, we passed a handful of Horned Larks and then found ourselves at the gates of a garbage dump.

The Inimitable Todd, perhaps sensibly, elected to stay in the car with Jerome*. The rest of us piled out and trouped across the frozen, yet somehow still pungent, expanse to the fence around the dump. There we scanned the gulls.

Vast flocks of gulls rose squabbling over the churning black muck; Great Black-backed, Herring, Glaucous, and Iceland, in an array of plumages, mixed almost as promiscuously as the trash they picked over. I was surprised at how little was recognizable in the affray – a broken milk-crate here, a scrap of grocery bag there, but for the most part it was just unspeakable ooze, a sort of eldritch perversion of a healthy, well-blended soil. I got my eyes on the gulls I wanted to see – no point being here for nothing – but I was quickly overcome by a sense of futility and waste (and cold and stench) and retreated.

From there, we drove to a more suburban, more wooded location, in the hopes of spotting Evening Grosbeaks at a feeder. The front cover of my first field guide featured Evening Grosbeaks. They’re a bird I’ve always dreamed of and never seen – born as I was after they entered their steep decline, the accounts of mass irruptions and flocks of hundreds descending on bird feeders were just a taunt. So I was excited as we scanned the pines and feeders – although also a bit wary that we’d be mistaken for peering in someone’s window.

Alas, we scanned in vain. The only birds who showed were Chickadees, Nuthatches, and a few overhead Ravens. The big yellow finches would stay a dream.

So we piled back into the cars, drove further east through broad fields, scanning the roadside for Snowy Owls. Sure, we’d seen these magnificent predators yesterday, but through a glass (or a pair of glasses) darkly, and we were in quest of better looks. Besides, you can never see too many Snowy Owls.

Nor can you see too many Snow Buntings, as I discovered when we pulled over to scope a promising distant white lump. Suddenly, a flock of Snow Buntings – scores of them, maybe a hundred, in gorgeous winter plumage – rose up from where they were gleaning the nearby cornfields and circled our caravan. Probably they were waiting for us to go so that they could get back to dinner, but it felt like being in the center of the world.

The Owls, perched on telephone poles or in the corn stubble, were also incredibly accommodating. Less confiding, but still cool, were a pair of foxes in the distance and a muskrat forced into the open presumably by the frozenness of its usual haunts. A last owl soared directly over us as we were distracted by the muskrat – perhaps irritated that we had spooked its would-be prey.

As the sun declined, we split up and went our separate ways for dinner – the Inimitable Todd and I electing to continue east to Montreal, where a delicious and romantic evening was followed by a long ride back. And this must stand as testament to the IT’s hardcore foodie cred, for tomorrow would see us rise at 6 once more for a last desperate visit to the Owl Woods….

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*Who is Jerome? Why, Jerome is our birding mascot:

Jerome the Stuffed Owl with Yours Truly

Jerome and Me

Patch birding is wonderful. Patch birding is an unmatched pleasure, an unmitigated good, and in many ways the apotheosis of the birder’s art and science; in its best incarnations, it involves becoming truly one with a piece of the landscape in a way that brings one closer not only to the birds, but to the entire ecosystem.

But travel is broadening. And while listing leaves one vulnerable to the pain that desire and attachments bring, it also satisfies the collector’s urge in a way that is relatively harmless and indeed educational. It helps one think globally whilst acting locally. And let’s face it, it’s fun.

So the ideal is to travel, and in so doing hook up with someone who knows the local patch. A guide, formal or informal.

The Inimitable Todd and I, moved to visit the magical but imperiled Owl Woods of Amherst Island, booked a trip with Lakeshore Nature Tours. Besides multiple species of owls – typical northern highlights like Barred- Saw-whet, Snowy, Long-eared, and Short-eared, as well as the tantalizing prospect of Boreal and Great Gray – the tour offered the possibility of other cold weather specialties such as Northern Shrike, Rough-legged Hawk, Evening Grosbeak, and even Gray Partridge. Sure, it seemed a bit counter-intuitive to run towards the cold and snow rather than away from it, but who ever said that birders make sense?

Despite my discontent at the fact that we had to rent a car for the journey, the good times started rolling almost at once. As usual, my first major car trip of the year netted me my first Turkey Vulture of the year. Less expected was a Pileated Woodpecker that flew over the road – beautiful, but too brief to satisfy. And, of course, a plethora of Red-tailed Hawks observed our journey as we made our way down through the Delaware Water Gap, then back up through New York to Ontario. Night fell before we got through the border and to our hotel, scarfed a (sadly overpriced due to the holiday) dinner, and went to bed.

The next morning we had a far more leisurely and pleasant breakfast, did introductions with the group, then drove to Kingston and boarded the ferry. It was cold, and not just a little cold – I speak from a place of extensive cold experience when I say that it was really freaking cold. The wind acted on every bit of exposed skin like pincers, and I found myself involuntarily huddling, which was less than effective, as there were no other auks to huddle with. The crossing was nearly frozen over, and the only waterfowl in evidence were a few Canada (and, for once, Canadian) Geese.

Amherst Island itself was a charming collection of sheep and horse farms, art studios that had closed for the season, and similar pastoral delights. Most of the roads were gravel-paved and very dusty; the access road to the Owl Woods wasn’t even that ambitious. There were points when I wondered whether my decision to rent a compact car had been a wise one.

Nevertheless, we made it to the woods. At the trail-head, cars of all descriptions were nudged up on what passed for the shoulder, and not because the Rapture had occurred.

Right off the bat, I was please to see evidence that the owners of the woods (and one of the odd things about this gem is that it is privately owned; fortunately, at least for the time being, it’s in the hands of people who care more about the owls and the birders than about more extractive values) were taking potential threats to owl equilibrium seriously:

Owl Woods Rules

The Rules and Regulations

The cautions seemed common-sense, but they turned out to be necessary, because the place was crawling with people. Small kids with parents, college students, and elderly birders alike covered the trails and peered into evergreens. I was hardly in a position to complain that this was a bad thing – going by accent, a lot of them had more right to be there than I did – but the fact remained that this was more agreeable for the ubiquitous Chickadees, who clustered around the feeders looking for handouts of seed, than it was for the owls.

A single Barred Owl was on the hunt, surrounded by numerous spectators and photographers. Though each, individually, seemed respectful, the aggregate effect was a bit overwhelming for me, so I can only imagine how it was for the bird. Nevertheless, it maintained its composure and scanned diligently for voles – and for smaller owls, whose decline the Barred was suspected of having a hand in. Or a talon, as it were.

Barred Owl, Digiscoped

Smirking Owl, Crouching Paparazzo

Whether because of the Barred Owl, or the unbarred humans, or both, or neither, we saw no other owls in the Owl Woods.

Out on the road again, we circled the island slowly, spotting waterfowl from the banks in the open water of the deeper side. The Gadwall, Buffleheads, and large flocks of Common Goldeneye were all nice, but the Tundra Swans were the stars – lifers for me, and I believe for many others on the tour as well. We also got a short but diagnostic look at a Northern Shrike. Then we scanned the open fields for Snowy Owls (present, but distant) and Short-eared Owls (hiding until the light was too dim to really make them out, alas) as the sun, and the temperature, got lower.

Though the day had been long, and many of our target species MIA, I was still reasonably happy as we returned to the inn. Three lifers could not be accounted a bad day, and more promising opportunities were still ahead of us….

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I took Amtrak from NYC to Buffalo yesterday. I always keep one eye out the window when riding the train, in hopes of seeing herons, Bald Eagles, and the like.

Imagine my surprise when I spotted a Black Vulture Coragyps atratus! With a less elongated profile than a Turkey Vulture and flashy white wingtips, it was fairly distinctive. I’ve seen them before, but never in New York State. I knew, however, that they are seen from time to time at New York hawkwatches. So I did a little googling.

According to Nightjar, there’s been a surge of Black Vulture reports in the lower Hudson Valley this year.

Interesting. Are they the next Northern Cardinal?

I also saw my year Wild Turkeys Meleagris gallopavo from the window just outside Syracuse.

Black Vulture Coragyps atratus
Bald Eagle Haiaeetus albicilla
Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias
Mute Swan Cygnus olor
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Crow sp.
Canada Goose Branta canadensis
Rock Dove Columba livia
American Black Duck Anas rubripes
Belted Kingfisher Ceryle alcyon
Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis
Wild Turkey Meleagris gallopavo