Sunday, December 12

Winter Delights

Snow has finally hit Ithaca, and the notorious winter has begun! We have had nearly two weeks of uninterrupted snow and have since accumulated...wait for it...less than a dusting!! In the midst of suffering through the last of my final exams and the dreadful lack of snow, however, I have gotten some chances to get off campus to look at some interesting birds in the last few weeks.

Way back on the weekend of November 14th, Shawn Billerman and I drove east (well...we drove North for about an hour first, but for that explanation, you'd have to ask Shawn: "I swear it looked north on the map!"). We were headed through the beautiful city of Cortland, to the town of McGraw. Ok, I tried, but Cortland is just horrible. Anyways, there was a Summer Tanager visiting feeders in a small neighborhood, and as soon as we stepped out of the car, Shawn began noting the species, "Chickadee...titmouse...tanager. Nice." Perhaps fate felt the need to compensate us for our slight northward (or should I say poleward?) deviation with a quick and easy find; regardless, the bird was quite nice and quite obliging. Thanks to Shawn for the driving and the finding.

A couple weeks later, I finally got around to chasing a male King Eider that had been hanging around Cayuga Lake for over a week. Matt Medler and Shawn picked me up Friday afternoon, and we headed over to Myer's Point. Within a few minutes, Shawn spotted the eider a ways off from the marina's jetty. It was a second year male, showing most of the color an adult would, but much duller and splotchier; still a gorgeous bird though, no doubt. We could just make out the two little sail-like tufts on its back.

Two days later, on December 5th, I saw pictures posted of the King Eider at its new favorite locale, Stewart Park, just a 5 minute drive from campus. The bird was apparently hugging the shore in a protected inlet, gliding through the calm waters and dining on crayfish. After seeing the photos, I started to wonder if I should abandon my studies that afternoon and try to get better looks–and at that moment I received a very convenient phone call from Shawn, who suggested just that. Cool beans. It was there. Eating crayfish.

Then, on the following night, I got another wonderful call from Sawn– this time, a Harris's Sparrow visiting feeders in Dryden. Early the morning of December 7th, Hope Batcheller, Tim Lenz, Matt Medler, Shawn and I met up in the Lab parking lot and headed out through the coming blizzard. After some minutes of respectfully creeping on someone's backyard before any of them were awake (with permission, of course), Shawn (seeing a pattern here?) spotted the big, brown sparrow lurking in a row of dense evergreens along the edge of the lawn. It was a first-winter bird, showing limited black in the throat and upper breast, and a plain, sandy brown face with slightly darker auriculars; a dash of black streaks separated the clean white belly from the dusky brown flanks. In the midst of a pleasantly frigid and windy outpouring of snow (none of which accumulated on campus– although that goes without saying), I managed to snap a few blind shots through my wet, fogged viewfinder.

Finally, on Saturday 11th, after we finished our Spanish exams, Hope and I joined Tim Lenz for a trip around the lake. There wasn't anything in particular to see, but the relatively warm day showed promise. We started at Stewart Park, where we sifted through a flock of gulls to pick out a 1st cycle Glaucous and a Lesser Black-backed. The King Eider was still hanging around the jetty to the west, and we got great looks at a Red-tailed Hawk devouring a Coot on the way in.

We continued up the west shore of Cayuga, stopping first at The Creamery to get some delicious, creamy goods. Hope, being the odd and slightly deranged person she is, decided it was far too cold for ice cream and was incredulous at our wisdom. Ice cream is delicious when it's negative 50, why wouldn't it be when it's 35?

The first of many undertakings for free ice cream

In spite of Hope's poor judgement, we soldiered on, scanning through huge rafts of Canada geese every few hundred yards, picking out loons here and there, little groups of red-breasted mergansers, and a dusky, first year snow goose. A little ways past Sheldrake Point, Hope picked out a small, silvery flanked goose with a stubby bill, short neck, and trapezoidal head, adding Cackling goose to our day list.

We eventually came to Lower Lake Road, along the northwest shore of Cayuga, just south of where the rest of the rest of lake was a barren ice shelf. There were LOTS of birds here, and it made for an awesome evening on the lake. There were several hundred tundra swans, whooping and dipping their heads to one another amidst a vast sea of Canada geese and assorted waterfowl.
Further out and to the left was a raft of about 300 Redhead, interspersed with other Aythya ducks. Out in front of us, nearly on the water's horizon, was a huge line of Snow geese, a flock of approximately 4,500 birds, with thousands more flying overhead as the evening drew on. It was astounding to me that this was our fourth huge raft of snow geese, in addition to drawn out, staggering Vs flying over almost constantly–more snow geese than I have ever seen. As the sun dipped into the day's last degrees, the thick line of white gleamed brilliantly on the horizon, in stark contrast with the dark treeline.

But before I talk about the sunset and all that jazz, there are a couple more noteworthy birds that we happened to encounter at Lower Lake Rd. For example, we had an early flock of 16 common redpolls fly over, a red-throated loon foraging a ways out, an unusually high count of 14 Bonaparte's Gulls, and among them– a Little Gull! Tim picked out this tiny white fleck with dark underwings, coursing over a lead of open water on the far side of the lake– quite an impressive nab, I must say. It was a very enjoyable bird, even if it was 13 miles away.

Okay, so the sun did its setting business, but we weren't quite finished with the day. On our drive back down the east shore of the lake, we encountered an Eastern Screech-owl poking his head out of a box in the middle of a small pond, waiting for the night to progress a bit more to his liking. Further on, we had a Short-eared owl coursing low over a field, with barely enough light left to follow its graceful, bouncing flight. And finally, a Great-horned Owl on a telephone pole gave us a show– a nice closing act for an awesome day on Cayuga.

Wednesday, October 27

Fall Colors*

On October 16th, I joined the Cornell Photo Society on an outing to Taughannock Falls State Park, a twenty minute drive from campus. The upper Taughannock falls tower 215 feet, more than 30 feet taller than Niagara, making it the tallest waterfall east of the Mississippi River. The upper falls spill over the mouth of a "hanging valley," which is a glacier-carved tributary valley of a higher relief than the body of water into which it flows, according to my good friend, Wiki Pedia, Ph.D. Formed by the grating force of receding glaciers, the Taughannock valley has near-vertical cliffs that rise up to 400' above the river, which runs quite shallow over a broad, flat rock substrate below the falls.

The upper Taughannock Falls make quite a striking impression framed against the sheer face of the bowl between the two valleys. There's not much more of a story here, but I just wanted to share some of the photos I took that day, and then on the following weekend when I took my parents along during their visit.

And although they pale in comparison, the Lower Falls certainly contribute their own bit of beauty to this well-endowed gorge.

*No pun intended

Sunday, October 17

The 1000 Islands

It's been too long since my last post– unfortunately, time flies when you spend some of your time doing homework and the rest of it thinking about doing homework.

Anyways, on the weekend of October 9th, over our short excuse for a Fall Break, I spent Saturday through Tuesday sea kayaking in the 1000 Islands of Ontario, at the beginning of the St. Lawrence River just east of Lake Ontario–and took care of graduation requirements by doing so! This trip was the culmination of a short PE class offered by Cornell Outdoor Education–it was the first time I had ever been sea kayaking, and it was, of course, an awesome experience.

I met a really fun group of other adventurous students and had the chance to photograph some cool scenes during the long weekend. We met on friday after classes to load the boats on the trailer, gather our gear, and head a few hours north to the Canadian border, where we marveled at the smuggling potential of 10 empty kayaks strapped so tightly to a trailer that looking underneath them was not worth the effort. We arrived at Misty Isles Lodge, on the river's shore, and pitched our tarps for the night. When dawn came, we were coerced into quickly abandoning our sleeping bags and suddenly entering a 35 degree world in t-shirts and shorts (at least in my case). However, the two pileated woodpeckers that swooped up to grasp the bark of the tree right above my head quickly dispelled any unpleasant thoughts.

We had a short paddle that Saturday morning, for people to get acquainted with their boats, and promptly lost most of our group on the small island we stopped at for lunch–not surprisingly, a rather difficult thing to do. Of course, being a tiny island, there was a short, circular path that skirted the shore, and we brilliantly followed each other around the island for several minutes before settling down at different spots without our food. Not to worry; we figured it out eventually.

We made our first camp on Beau Rivage Island, a mostly deciduous and fairly busy little island. After spending an afternoon gathering firewood, exploring the island, and watching the sunset, we had to take care of dinner. Of course, in our pre-trip meetings, many people were confident that they would be inhumanly hungry on our trip, so the instructors packed a lot of food, all of which had to be eaten. So, it wasn't the cooking that we had to "take care of"– it was the eating. That night we had about fifteen pounds of beans to split between the twelve of us. Needless to say, that was a relatively unpleasant experience. However, for our valiant (and successful) efforts, we were rewarded with quite the showing from the clear, moonless sky (which subsequently ignited a furious debate about whether the Big Dipper actually appears bigger when closer to the horizon...I was on the winning team:

The following day, we made an exhilarating crossing with high winds and 2-3 foot swells. Crossing the shipping channel diagonally with the cresting waves was quite exciting, because with waves pushing from behind, keeping straight took a lot of hard paddling; if you do begin to slide sideways, flipping is almost inevitable–eventually, two people flipped on two of our windiest crossings. After regrouping, we set up camp on Camelot Island, a beautiful, secluded island dominated by white pines and raccoons. This island provided us with some of our finest moments. Not only did we have time to take a tranquil afternoon paddle around a few pristine islands, with a loon calling and a pair of surf scoters hugging the shoreline, but one of our group, Robert Chen, provided us with several moments of incredible entertainment...

Surf Scoters

...the greatest of which ensued while the other eleven of us were eating dinner. While sitting at a well lit picnic table, talking loudly, we heard from about 100 feet up a hill: "Uhh...guys?" Where was Robert? There was a faint glimmer from a headlamp in the darkening trees. "I can hear you, but I don't know where you are." A brief rescue mission ensued. After a night of fighting off raccoons before going to sleep, and distributing paddles to sleep by for defense (or offense, which admittedly was a much more appealing option), we awoke the next morning to head out for our last full day of paddling.

Monday involved a relaxed paddle back to Gordon Island, near our starting point. There was a big gazebo to sleep under here, so we spent our tent-pitching time watching the sunset instead. That night, after getting all situated under the gazebo, we made a last minute decision to sleep under the stars. For ten minutes or so, we enjoyed several shooting stars and even more stationary ones. Sadly though, we saw storm clouds quickly approaching and again retreated to the gazebo. We planned to get up at 4:30 the next morning to break camp in time to paddle into the sunrise on our way back to Misty Isles. It was really cool paddling by headlamp in the pre-dawn darkness and silence, and we eagerly awaited the sunrise as we started to see a pink line on the horizon. About twenty minutes later, while we were still watching the horizon, we realized the sky above us was already fairly light...the sneaky sun had risen behind a cloud bank that we couldn't really make out at the time. We thought about feeling sorry for ourselves for getting up so early in vain, but then decided against it– a pre-dawn paddle makes for quite a memorable experience regardless of the sun's mode of entrance. Life could be worse :)

Friday, August 20

Beginning an Odyssey in Ithaca

Since settling in at Cornell on the 20th of August, I've had about two weeks of classes, done two loads of laundry, walked around Beebe lake a dozen times, and missed about a dozen dozen opportunities to see Buff-breasted Sandpipers, despite my best efforts. Despite that depressing fact, I've been enjoying my classes, especially starting Spanish (it's amazing how quickly you can learn an easy language with immersion from day 1 and 6 years of Latin) and my writing seminar, "International Conservation."

The community of birders around Ithaca and at the Lab of Ornithology is quite an awesome one. I'll be working at the Lab on Neotropical Birds, an online guide to all the birds that occur south of the States, that is a work in progress. My role is to find and crop photos for the accounts. Since there is a paucity of good photos of neotropical birds on the web, I personally believe it would be much more efficient to send...someone...on a photo expedition to the heart of darkness- but that's just my two cents :)

Most of my birding has consisted of wandering around campus, and particularly around Beebe Lake. So far, the more interesting things have included a few Wilson's Warblers, an Ovenbird, Solitary Sandpipers, and diving Ospreys- overall, though, it's been very quiet.

I have had some chances to get off campus, thanks to Jay McGowan and his car. We've spent a couple Saturdays at Montezuma NWR, about an hour north of Ithaca, at the north end of Cayuga Lake. On the past visits, we've been able to enjoy large flocks of pretty good shorebird variety, including many Baird's, White-rumped, Pectorals, and Stilt Sandpipers, Red-necked Phalaropes, Black-bellied and Golden-plovers, Sanderlings and a Red Knot.

But, wait, there's more! The last time we went to Montezuma (Saturday the 11th), there was more to be seen, including...

A sad, one-legged American Golden-plover...

...And more importantly, a very obliging Buff-breasted Sandpiper!! Finally!!
(Also exciting was my lifer Ruff- a very pretty Eurasian species, its bright, buffy breast and dark cap, short bill and squat posture visible through distant scope views).

And, less importantly, a really cool looking butterfly: a Bronzed Copper.

And, least importantly, many, many, many Lesser Yellowlegs. But they're still awesome.

Sunday, July 25

Aurora and More

The night of the 25th was the perfect close to a summer of work in Churchill. For the first time, we had a wonderful, mosquito-free bonfire on the rocks outside the Studies Centre. Of course, it just so happened that it was midnight, and there was a full moon in the southeast and a blue glow lingering on the western horizon, with silhouettes of spruces still plainly visible; there also just happened to be a Pacific Loon uttering its ethereal wails from some unknown pond in the night. It made for an idyllic Churchill midnight, but as we were discussing, the Northern Lights that I had missed by about a week at the beginning of the summer would have to wait until next year. I finally decided I should head to bed, since I still had to get up to band a late Godwit nest the following morning. As I was walking in, I looked back at the moon to see what I thought was a slight greenish haze in the northern sky. Since we were just talking about the Aurora, I assumed I was imagining it- after all, it was very faint. Nevertheless, I started walking back to the fire pit to point it out and see if I was the only one seeing it, but on my way over, they quickly got much brighter. Now there was no doubt- this was finally my Aurora Borealis! We enjoyed the show for another 20 minutes or so, watching the silky green sheets of light slowly wave, seeming to betray some intangible wind. I was giddy for hours, and could hardly get to sleep.

We had also recently taken a Beluga whale watching tour of the Hudson Bay and Churchill River mouth, which yielded excellent views of these enigmatic and intelligent creatures of the Northern seas. Their rubbery, wrinkly white skin appears so other-worldly when they breach, affording us brief glimpses of their bulbous foreheads and arched backs before they slipped back under the surface with as little warning as when they appeared. The guide and driver dropped a hydrophone off the stern, attached to speakers on the boat, which allowed us to listen to the pod's raucous collection of grunts and wails- a cacophony that seemed quite unfitting, given their docile and precocious appearance.

I realized that I haven't written anything about the Polar Bears, and while I'm on the topic of Churchill's non-bird wonders, I suppose they would be a good thing to mention as well. They came in force at the beginning of July, and although we were told to be cautious since they can appear anywhere at anytime of year, they really became almost a given environmental factor after July 5th or so. We encountered our first bear crossing Launch Road on the way back to the Studies Centre; it was a mother with two adorable cubs, whose round shoulders were less than two feet high. The mother, however, standing a good bit higher than her cubs, was very wary of our truck stopped 75 meters down the road from her; once they had crossed the road and were walking through the willows, we pulled level, and the mother then raised her head above the willows, glaring at us and waving her head about. Let's just say it was a good thing we were a truck and not four delicious meals threatening her babies. After seeing how easily three bears could disappear into a small patch of shrubby willows, let alone one, I was, shall we say, much more cautious when working in the field, and much slower to assume I wasn't being sized up for a meal at any given moment. Luckily, we never had any real encounters while working in the field; there were times when we would see a bear from a great distance, or before we got out of the car, that would force us to work somewhere else, but never did we have to shoot off any cracker shells. But from a safe vantage point, the bears awed us time and again this year, our record being six in one day on an evening drive along the coast.

Walking along the coast requires vigilance

They're big, and truly impressive; more so, I am confident, than any living thing I've seen in the wild yet. I'll update you on that ranking when I see my first Blue Whale.

Sunday, July 11

Chicks Galore!

Hudsonian Godwit chick

It's been a very busy few weeks here since all our Godwit nests have been hatching, along with most other nesting species here. Over the past few weeks, as we've been regularly checking our 14 remaining nests (12 were depredated or abandoned so far), the adult birds have been increasingly attached to their nests, such that when we go to check the eggs' status, we would literally have to bend over and reach out to grab the incubating bird before it would leave the nest, with loud, grating squawks, to hover threateningly above our heads as we worked.

There are certain distinct levels of hatching that we must ascertain at each nest to be sure we are there within an hour or so of the chicks' hatch. About ten to fifteen days prior to hatch, the eggs can be suspended in water, and soon after, they begin to float. By measuring the floating height, we can get a rough estimate of when the egg will hatch. For example, if 8mm of the egg is above the surface, it is about 5 days till hatch. Three to four days out, the eggs will begin to show "star-cracks," or "pips," which are when you can see fine cracks in the wide end of the shell where the bird has begun to peck its way out. A day or two before, you can often see the bill poking through a small hole, or even watch the bird struggling inside. It's quite a remarkable thing to behold, a new life literally breaking itself out of a tiny egg, with its head still crammed between its two huge feet.

"Star-cracked" Godwit eggs -Photo (C) Shawn Billerman

Photo by Shawn Billerman

From each nest, we put a tiny radio transmitter on one chick, at the small of its back, between the uropygial gland below and the curve of its spine above. The radio, which transmits a metallic beep to the receiver every second or so, is attached to a small patch of gauze (about 10 by 15mm) which is in turn glued to the bird with a special, quick-drying, salt-water-proof glue (which happened to rip my gloves when I got a tiny drop between two fingers).

If we get to a hatched nest within a few hours, we can easily pick up a handful of four little chicks straight from the nest cup and band them, attaching a radio to one. However, if we miss that brief window, the chicks could easily evade us for the rest of the summer. As testament to the chicks' quickly-acquired talent and fervor for long-distance travel, we resighted the parents of a nest we had banded chicks from, tuned our receiver to that chick's radio frequency to confirm that it was indeed with the agitated parents, and got out the GPS to see how far we were from their nest; just 36 hours after hatching, the 25-gram chick had travelled over 3 kilometers across the Fen, which, to a 3-inch ball of fluff and legs, is nothing short of mountainous terrain. It is quite amazing to see this bird's innate inclination for extreme distance travel so apparent on the first day of its life.

Since, as of today, we now only have one nest that has not fully hatched yet, most of our work for the rest of the season will consist of tracking the chicks and doing habitat surveys where we find them. So far, we haven't done any of the habitat surveys, but essentially, once we've taken three compass bearings to triangulate the location of the transmitter (or rather, the chick carrying it), we identify the plant species present and their relative abundance, as well as water levels and such. We will recapture the radio chick from each brood once per week to take new measurements and follow their growth until they fledge, which can often be a lot more work than it seems.

The other day, Nathan and I were following a chick for its first recap (one week after hatch). I was holding the receiver and antenna to get some practice with close range telemetry, and the chick just kept leading me in circles around the edge of the fen, where the lichen mounds were tall and frequent as the habitat transitioned to the thicker adjacent boreal forest. "We've got time, don't worry about it," Nathan said. Well, after some more circles, to my relief, he said, "Okay, let me do it." I was hoping he would at least have a little trouble with this bird- it would be discouraging to have so much difficulty with a really easy bird, of course. As it turns out, I got more than I had bargained for. There were several occasions where the signal was louder when we pointed the antenna at our feet than in front of us, indicating we were practically on top of the chick. Then all of a sudden the signal would fade and it would lead us both back in another direction. We eventually followed this chick for about 45 minutes, through a few hundred meters of boreal forest and across a dirt road, in the opposite direction of the fen, to finally find it hiding under a fallen spruce. "MM," as he was flagged, definitely has a good set of genes going for him; I'll be watching for his return next year, after he's logged another 20,000 miles or so.

Least Sandpiper chick

Luckily, there are still chicks to come, as evidenced by these incubating parents; they just happen to be the kind that don't contribute to our project or our work load:

American Golden-plover

Bonaparte's Gull

Lesser Yellowlegs