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.