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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As Mick Jagger so memorably informs us, you can’t always get what you want. For instance, if it’s your last spring on the East Coast for the foreseeable future, you would want to go out in a blaze of warblery glory. You would wait for the good day that is always just around the corner, hoping for it to fall on a weekend. And then you head out one trip and realize that the good days are all behind you now.

Not that this past Saturday was not a good day. Just about any day spent birding with the illustrious Corey Finger is good. A day with a life bird is good, and another state bird on top of that is good also. And yet, the nagging hints that spring is well and truly over haunted our steps. Consider:

1. When I arrived at Jamaica Bay, I found Corey and a few other birders (whose names promptly escaped me, sorry!) watching a pair of courting Gull-billed Terns. The male was giving the female crabs. (Yes, we snickered about it later. Just because we have a respectable hobby doesn’t mean we’re grown-ups.)

2. We only saw and heard a handful of warblers despite hitting good habitat both at Jamaica Bay and later at Forest Park, among them the damn-near ubiquitous Yellow Warbler, the not-quite-but-nearly-as-ubiquitous American Redstart, and of course the Blackpoll Warbler. Blackpoll Warblers are to predicting the end of migration as color-coded homicidal horsemen are to more traditional forms of eschatology: if you see four or more, it’s not a good sign.

3. The full complement of summertime long-legged waders was present, with the exception of the Tricolor Heron (always a corner case) and, oddly, the Green Heron. In particular, there were notably large numbers of Yellow-crowned Night Herons and a couple of fine-looking Little Blues. There was also a White-faced Ibis, but that doesn’t say anything in particular about the time of year – just that it was a good day for Carrie.

4. Corey spotted a Cardinal feeding fledged young.

5. The Queens Ravens, which gave us fabulous looks. Both parents and young. Because the young looked about ready to jump out of the nest at any second. Yes, if all goes well those little ones too will soon be fledged, marking the completion of the first recorded breeding for the species in the recorded history of the City of New York.

1+2+3+4+5 = Spring is over. (Also, 15.)

A few more migrants may trickle through, and I can still hope to pick up some goodies during the breeding season (Orchard Oriole in Prospect Park, Hooded Warbler at the Olde Homestead, etc.) There may even be an exciting post-breeding wanderer or two waiting to join my New York State list before the end. But the Cape May warbler has earned the right to taunt me from the perch of a nemesis bird.

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[I thought I hit publish on this on Thursday. What gives?]

So in a surprise twist that I’m sure will shock everyone, last weekend, I went birding! Central Park, where the Inimitable Todd was running a 10k race. The persistent winds from the Northwest had finally given way, letting the no-doubt hungry and, shall we say, frustrated neotropical migrants flow north towards their breeding grounds.

Because the A train was also messed up, I got off at the southwestern corner of the park, rather than my usual stop nearer the Ramble. Any inclination I might have had to grumble about wasting time was totally eliminated when the first large stand of trees I cut through proved to contain a gorgeous male Blackburnian Warbler and a Yellow-throated Vireo. A bunch of Magnolia Warblers were also bouncing around, but hey, they’re Magnolia Warblers, that’s what they do.

I headed up towards Strawberry Fields, where I failed to find a reported western Fox Sparrow or Kentucky Warbler but did find a lot more warblers, including Canada, Bay-Breasted, Black-and-White, Black-throated Green, and another Blackburnian, more Maggies, along with a flyover Scarlet Tanager and the expected enormous flocks of tourists.

A 10k race had started, so I had to cut up to Tanner’s Spring (Magnolia Warbler!) before I could cruise down to the Shakespeare Garden (early Blackpoll, more Redstarts) and thence to the Ramble (Northern Waterthrush, Ovenbird, Redstart, Common Yellowthroat, assorted thrushes). Then the race was over, and I left the park for brunch – but not until I’d finally spotted not one but two Black-throated Blue Warblers – male and female. These were my FoS for the species, and it was somewhat reassuring – I was starting to worry that in a Philip K. Dick-ian twist I might have imagined that the species ever existed, hallucinating field-guide descriptions, other peoples’ blog posts, etc. Or maybe it was freemasons again.

It was a fine day. But one thing that you will notice is that there were no Cape May Warblers in it. I wasn’t inclined to be bitter about this until I got home, and read the reports for Prospect Park – where two Cape May Warblers had been seen at Rick’s Place. Unfortunately, the next day was fully committed. Despite the general slowness of the spring, it seems like I’ve been enduring reports of Cape May Warblers trickling in from all over – except wherever I happen to be at the moment. Right at this moment, for instance, I am reading about a CMW that appeared in Central Park this morning, around the time I was leaving for work after having thought about packing my binoculars and then forgotten to.

I have no deep philosophical thoughts about this. It’s just pissing me off.

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Being a member of the full-time office working drone class imposes certain unfortunate constraints on birding. It prevents one, sometimes, from exercising the full degree of flexibility one would like. For instance, one may plan a trip to Jamaica Bay, only to have the day marred by a windstorm. In a perfect world, one would wait until the next day. In the world of work, one makes do with the weekend one has.

So, despite wind beating in the face of migration at 24 mph (with gusts up to 45 mph), we clambered from shuttle bus to subway train and then hiked out to Big John’s Pond. There I left the Inimitable Todd to another owl vigil while I searched for passerines and waterfowl. I discovered that while the wind may have stalled migration, it hadn’t forced the birds that had already arrived into hiding – Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Baltimore Orioles, Gray Catbirds, and a very large number of Yellow Warblers. A few Ruddy Ducks and a single pair of Buffleheads were still present on the East Pond, along with the usual Gadwall, Mallards, and Mute Swan.

The most impressive sight, though, was the huge flock of swallows hunting into the wind – standing nearly still, in contrast to their usual M.O., only to suddenly wheel once they’d made some progress and zoom back the way they came even faster than usual. As they hung suspended I was able to consider them at length, but no Bank or Cliff Swallows, sadly, put in an appearance.

I circled back to join the IT, who had spotted a Black-crowned Night Heron, Canada Goose, and yet more Yellow Warblers in my absence – which wasn’t too shabby, considering that I’d neglected to leave him any binoculars. But he was still Barn Owl-less. As consolation, we walked back down to the East Pond to look at the Ruddy Ducks again (several were near breeding plumage.)

“This is nice,” I said.

The IT nodded in agreement. “Very peaceful.”

Out of nowhere, a leafy twig broke off the tree above us and splashed down in the pond, making us both jump back.

Wind with a sense of humor was a little too weird for us, so we decided to leave. But not without checking the owl box one more time. Big John’s Pond now hosted a single Solitary Sandpiper as well as the aforementioned birds. And, maybe, a baby Barn Owl?

I focused on the box. A shadow, perhaps, moved. Trying not to get overly excited, I handed off the binoculars to the IT, who peered into the darkness.

The darkness shifted. I could see it with my naked eyes, although not well. The IT, with the binoculars, made a number of very quiet but very excited noises, including “I see a wing!” After a while, I prodded him hard enough to get the binoculars back.

There was a lighter place in the darkness. And it stared at me with dark – but adorable! – eyes.

After a few more exchanges of the binoculars, the owlet settled down and went back to sleep. And we went home, observing Brant and Oystercatchers and Laughing Gulls from the train along the way.

The next day, we went to work. That was not exciting or worth posting about.

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1.
Juncos where I come from look like miniature Darth Vaders.
Juncos where I am now look like a particularly inauspicious flavor of salt-water taffy.

2.
Yesterday my sister warned me about poison oak.
It really sucks, she said.
Today my legs itch, but there’s nothing there.

3.
Two species of jays here. One,
with a black mohawk
the other with a suede vest.
Punks vs. bikers
They both rumble with the squirrels.

4.
Eucalyptus bark
peels from the trunk and falls noisily
Woodpecker? No, it just falls.

5.
Everywhere the hummingbirds.
They perch higher, squeak louder, come in more luxurious variety.
They dance at the corner of my eye and out of sight.

(those of you who read my facebook are, of course, cheating if you guess.)

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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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This was the day of the albatrosses. They followed us for miles, nine of them all told, as we headed as far west as you can get and still be in the ABA area. All Black-footed. Not to say that there was no variety; while most were the expected immature birds, one persistent individual was an adult with an uncomfortable-looking bum foot. While an albatross doesn’t use its feet much in everyday life, we could only imagine that this would make breeding a challenge.

That albatross stayed with us for a while; Todd got some good shots.

Note the awkward angle of the leg

Note the awkward angle of the leg

Same bird, in flight

Same bird, in flight

...and landing

...and landing

Also, there were shearwaters. And storm-petrels. And storm-petrels. And shearwaters. Everyone scanned the horizon; everyone braced against the waves; everyone was slowly dessicated by the wind and sun. Shearwaters. Petrels. And always the albatrosses.

We still had the company of the Common Dolphins, but other than that mammals were entirely absent. Or maybe we just didn’t see them, because at some point around lunch it became apparent to all that we still hadn’t seen a tropicbird of any description and we’d better keep our eyes to the skies. All we spotted up there, alas, were several annoying airplanes. Indeed, no new birds of any description were turning up, only those shearwaters and storm-petrels, a single Red-necked and Red Phalarope and a handful of Arctic Terns and Common Terns with a handful of distant jaegers to harass them. We stared at the sky. The sun sucked the moisture from our eyeballs. And then, treacherously, it began to slip down the side of the sky.

The albatrosses didn’t seem to notice our growing desperation, except inasmuch as we chummed all the more frantically.

Yum!

Yum!

The plan was to reach our anchor for the night at the Sixty-Mile Bank and then lay out everything we had left by way of fish-oil and popcorn and see what we could lure in. But the sun moved fast, and the ship, dawdling in hopes of finding those tropicbirds, moved slow. The light was slanted and the shadows profound by the time the last scraps of chum went overboard in a shallow bit of ocean where sea lions were at play. Storm-petrels came closer, looking more like bats than ever in the dusk… and then a single Brown Booby sailed across our wake, providing brief but clear looks and a last life bird for me!

And so, with a sunset out of legends, we admitted at last that the day was done.

Myself and the Inimitable Todd

Myself and the Inimitable Todd

Big ups to Searcher Natural History Tours, and to leaders Todd McGrath, Ned Brinkley, and Dave “Chum-Master Dave” Povey, who displayed an uncanny Zen-like skill at keeping birds who should know better interested in popcorn. I couldn’t have had a better vacation in any way, shape, or form…

And technically, my vacation wasn’t over yet.

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