A Travellerspoint blog

Birding and herping the suburbs

rain 63 °F

My second day back in Chicago, and I was of course off to bird and herp the wonderful preserves that abound in our metropolitan area. At the first location, my goal species were Black (which would be a lifer) and King Rails, both elusive marsh birds that had been found at this preserve recently. This SWAMP SPARROW teed up for me:
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And I flipped a good number of orange-striped Plains Gartersnakes:
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I heard a KING RAIL multiple times but this furtive marsh bird never came out in the open. Unsurprisingly, I missed the Black Rail as that species is incredibly hard to come by due to both a low-density population and its reclusive habits. It is by far the annual breeding bird in Illinois that is most difficult to see.

Next stop was my reliable preserve for Kirtland’s Snake as I wanted to get them for the year. I had a few birds on the walk into the spot including SWAINSON’S THRUSH:
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TURKEY VULTURES lording over a squirrel carcass:
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Male INDIGO BUNTING:
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Soon, I got to the flipping site where there are about 100 boards conveniently laid out in prime Kirtland’s habitat, wet prairie. On this gray, 65-degree morning, Chicago Gartersnakes abounded under the cover and I found 20 in total including these:
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Wasn’t surprised to see crayfish out after the recent rains.
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Another commonly-flipped species here is the DeKay’s Brownsnake:
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After flipping about 25 common snakes, I found a smaller, grayer snake, and sure enough, it had the telltale pink belly of a Kirtland’s Snake! Incredible! This small, fossorial species is completely harmless (as are all Chicago-area snakes) and they reside in crayfish borrows found in wet prairies widely-scattered through the region, though you are very unlikely to find one unless you know exactly which locations to search. Close-up of the pink scales:
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Next, I headed to the Indiana Dunes to guide Kim Habel for a few hours at Cowles Bog. There was decent warbler activity but it was all high in the canopy making ID pretty tough — here is a female MAGNOLIA WARBLER:
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Then Kim spotted this bird silhouetted against the cloud.
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It was an OLIVE-SIDED FLYCATCHER, a life bird for her! Absolutely amazing!
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We soon got rained out and had to call it quits but it was great to see Kim, and a few birds, too!

Have to end with a shout-out to Tian who just graduated from the Manhattan School of Music with her bachelor’s in music composition. She will be attending Rice University in Houston in the fall.
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More to come!

Good birding,
Henry
World Life List: 1130 Species

Posted by skwclar 23:09 Archived in USA Comments (2)

Last birding adventure of my junior year

sunny 69 °F

WEDNESDAY, MAY 18 — still way behind in posting but doing my best to catch up.

Today was my last chance to go birding in New York state before summer since tomorrow is graduation for Tian and the following early morning we depart. So, I decided to pursue a would-be life bird that I have not been able to chase in previous years due to the semester ending too early: Roseate Tern. Of all of the tern species that breed on Long Island, Roseate is probably the least common, but the one “semi-reliable” place to get them starting in mid/late May is Nickerson Beach (where I got my Snowy Owl this winter).

So, I arrived at the beach before 9am and immediately starting scanning. Nickerson is home to a massive nesting tern colony that holds predominately Common Terns, but also includes Least Terns & Black Skimmers, a couple of Gull-billed Terns, and a pair of two of Roseate Terns, my target species. Roseate Terns are Common Tern look-alikes but they have longer tails, pure white underparts, and usually the birds around New York lack any red on their black bills. My first two birds that flew over were a good one: GULL-BILLED TERN, one of the rarer tern species around here! Note their stubby black bills and short tails, barely discernible in this horrible ID shot.
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The BLACK SKIMMERS are back!
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As are AMERICAN OYSTERCATCHERS:
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Another fantastic tern species for the area, a pair of ROYAL TERNS, flew by — though they were not my target birds:
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There may have been one or two SANDERLING…
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Lol
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COMMON TERNS, along with the Skimmers, form the bulk of the resident nesting colony, and this pair was mating.
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Mixture of the two common species. I spent hours squinting into my viewfinder trying to pick out any stray Roseate that may be in the flock.
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A distant OSPREY:
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I loved seeing this (albeit distant) RED KNOT as I do knot get to see them in breeding plumage all that often! :)
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This darker-billed Common Tern fooled me a bit for a possible Roseate but Simon Tolzmann later informed me it’s definitely a Common as the tail doesn’t extend past the wings at rest. Good to know — these two species are very much look-alikes so discerning this in the field can be tough in certain light conditions.
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HERRING GULL:
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Lots of terns overhead.
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And a nice portrait of a Common Tern before I had to leave, unfortunately empty-handed in terms of Roseate Terns. I didn’t do too bad in the tern department as Royal Terns, my bird-of-the-day, were flagged as rare, and it was fantastic to see one of my favorites the Gull-billed Tern as well. You win some, you lose some!

Good birding,
Henry
World Life List: 1130 Species

Posted by skwclar 11:53 Archived in USA Comments (1)

Herping the Hudson Valley!

New York

sunny 72 °F

Today, I got up at 6:30am to catch a bus to take me upstate for my last herping hike of the 2021-22 school year here in New York! Unfortunately, I have to keep locations from today secret because of the dangers of sharing herp locations online — poachers. Any New York herpers reading this probably can narrow it down to a few possible locations, anyway… My largest targets today were New York’s two vipers: Timber Rattlesnake & Northern Copperhead, though other targets included Eastern Ratsnake, Eastern Ribbonsnake, Northern Red-bellied Snake, Pickerel Frog, and Northern Red Salamander. With herping, you really never know — today I was just visiting this location because I had heard of these species being found in the vicinity before, but I really just narrowed the exact location down based off of looking for good habitat on Google Maps. We will just have to see!

The bus pulled into the station right on time and I was soon hiking uphill from the conveniently-close trailhead. There was a fair amount of birdsong including CHIPPING SPARROWS like this one:
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The first vantage point along the trail provided absolutely gorgeous views of the river valley below.
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And I spotted a TURKEY VULTURE:
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Next, I spotted a seep alongside the trail so I started flipping for Red Salamanders. I didn’t find any of those, but soon enough a glistening, black snake caught my eye alongside the seep and I quickly realized I had my lifer Eastern Ratsnake! Absolutely awesome!
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Here are some closeups of it:
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And I had to get a screen-grab of holding it, of course!
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Another nearby seep contained a Wood Frog, a species I had only seen once before today:
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Then, I ventured off trail because I saw a rocky hill that looked like it would be great habitat to find vipers as they tend to inhabit areas near rocky outcroppings on hillsides in this part of the country. There was a male PRAIRIE WARBLER utilizing the scrubbier habitat on the top of the hill as his breeding territory. Good for him!
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Then, after I had made it back to one of the main trails, I was startled by an extremely abrupt, and more importantly, extremely close, buzzing. I froze in my place, honestly rather startled, looked over my shoulder, and found that my lifer Timber Rattlesnake was warning me to “keep a social distance.” OMG! My biggest target of the day right on the side of the trail, and to think that if it hadn’t “warned” me, I could have ended up with a really harmful snakebite... My heart was racing for sure as it was just three feet away.
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I slowly backed up, caught my breath, and focused on the task at hand: photographing this beautiful creature which is endangered in New York State!
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To give some perspective, when I told another hiker later that I’d photographed a Timber today, his jaw nearly dropped to the ground. These are notoriously difficult snakes to find in New York because their preferred habitats tend to be high, inaccessible locations far from roads (I hiked almost 10 miles). This is due in part to habitat encroachment by humans as their population in the northeast has definitely decreased over the years.
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All this being said, I spent a solid half an hour with this absolutely majestic, powerful creature, and we gave each other mutual respect from a distance. Rattlesnakes are horribly misunderstood creatures — they do us many favors by keeping rodents under control and therefore balancing our ecosystems, and evidenced by today’s encounter, they give a solid warning if you get too close. They never want to chase or hurt you, which is unfortunately what so many folks wrongly believe.
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And of course, I have to end this set of photos with a disclaimer: it should go without saying, but never ever handle a venemous snake, even with a snake hook. This is as close as I was willing to get to the snake :)
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It was hard to tear myself away from such a wondrous lifer. It takes most people many tries to get their first NY Timber Rattler so it was a perfect combination of luck, weather, and planning today that came together. A little ways down the trail, I flushed 4 AMERICAN WOODCOCK at exactly the same time, dang! Was only able to grab this crappy photo.
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Further down, I had great views of a WORM-EATING WARBLER — great to see this bird on territory since it is a species of special conservation concern here in New York.
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Next, I came upon a series of seeps along the trail that held great amphibian life. In addition to those below, I had Northern Two-lined Salamander and Eastern Newt swimming in these tiny, obviously fish-less streams. Green Frogs:
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Anybody know what kind of tadpole? Bullfrog, probably?
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And my highlight in this section was my lifer Pickerel Frog, a species I had missed at Cranberry Lake last week, so I was delighted to see it today. Note the square blotches on the back that separate this from a similar Leopard Frog.
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Another riparian species I had that was a lifer was an Eastern Ribbonsnake, but true to form, it was too fast for me to catch and photograph. Gotta save something for next time!

The loop I took led me to several gorgeous lakes.
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And I spotted this Eastern Gartersnake alongside the trail but decided against catching it since it had just swallowed a meal (which you can barely make out in this photo) and I didn’t want it to regurgitate its hard-earned sustenance.
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A few birds along the way back were nice including MAGNOLIA WARBLER:
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YELLOW-THROATED VIREO:
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And SCARLET TANAGER:
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Yet another uncommon New York herp see today was this Common Five-lined Skink, a female in this case with the rusty head.
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One unphotographed bird on the way back that was quite notable was a singing PROTHONOTARY WARBLER as they are scarce in this part of the state. I managed 50 species of birds which was decent given the mainly-homogenous habitat covered.

Another habitat shot to show the rocky outcrop habitat that dotted the landscape today. Just incredibly beautiful. Bird-of-the-day goes to the Worm-eating Warbler, but I have to make a special mention to the winner herp today which is undoubtedly the extremely uncommon Timber Rattlesnake. So dang cool.

Good birding (and herping),
Henry
World Life List: 1130 Species

Posted by skwclar 12:43 Archived in USA Comments (3)

In search of wind-blown terns

New York, NY

all seasons in one day 60 °F

On saturday morning, at the advice of an extremely knowledgeable local birder, Andrew F, I made my way back down to the Hudson riverfront (this time at 125th St in Harlem) to see if any lingering Arctic Terns were moving up or down the river. Terns were sighted into dusk last night, and far upriver, so I was hopeful I’d be able to snag a view trying to make their way back to the Atlantic. Upon arrival, I had a flyover LAUGHING GULL which is a decent bird for this far upstream:
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And I saw this immature DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANT that look like it had literally bit off more than it could chew. It struggled with this plus-sized fish for a few minutes:
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As an adult watched in, probably in amusement:
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Unfortunately, no terns of any species were sighted on saturday. So I tried again Sunday as some Arctic Terns were sighted flying up and down the river on saturday by others! Again, I was greeted by a Laughing Gull:
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RING-BILLED GULL in front of the New Jersey shore:
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For a third day in a row, I struck out, despite probably 7+ hours of thorough riverwatching. Well, you win some, you lose some I guess, and Arctic Tern wouldn’t have been a life bird — just a northern hemispheric life bird! :)

One consolation was the beautiful Flower Moon lunar eclipse to which Tian and I were treated in the evening:
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Bird-of-the-weekend goes to the funny Double-crested Cormorant, I guess, since the Arctic Terns did not want to cooperate for me.

Good birding,
Henry
World Life List: 1130 Species

Posted by skwclar 04:16 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Brooklyn birding & a late-evening chase

New York, NY

all seasons in one day 74 °F

FRIDAY, MAY 13:

After a rather intense week of birding and concert/jury preparation, I really needed to sleep in, yet I still wanted to make the most of a mid-May day. So, I headed to Prospect Park at around 11am to see how active it was. Turns out, very inactive, disappointingly enough, yet another birder was kind enough to point me in the direction of where she had a Hooded Warbler earlier in the morning. So, I slowly made my way over to Lookout Hill, trying to find any birds I could from the woods along the way. This male CAROLINA WREN was busy piping his repetitive “tea-kettle” song:
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A male BLACK-THROATED BLUE WARBLER was also singing nearby:
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As I made my way deeper into the woods, the birdsong died off almost completely so I picked up the pace, heading over to Lookout Hill to find my favorite Hooded Warbler.

After about five minutes of searching, I heard the resonant, ringing song of the male HOODED WARBLER “wheeta wheeta wheet-ee-oh!” echo through the woods — it must be one of the louder warbler songs as you can hear it from quite a distance away, plus they tend to inhabit very thick habitats.
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Soon enough, another birder joined me having heard it herself, and between the two of us we were soon able to get looks at this beautiful male.
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He came even closer after about twenty minutes of observing, proving that patience is key with bird photography.
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After admiring and photographing the Hooded, I headed down to Prospect Lake to see if anything was on the lake. There wasn’t a whole lot — just a few gulls like this LAUGHING:
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And this GREAT BLACK-BACKED:
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Then, I decided to head over to Marine Park Nature Center to see if I could pick up some birds like Forster’s Tern, Clapper Rail, and the like. Upon arriving, I found a rather late RED-THROATED LOON:
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And a couple of COMMON TERNS:
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Here are some images of a pair of highly-cooperative FORSTER’S TERNS where you can see the difference — no darkness on the outer primaries or the tail feathers:
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Another Larid, a HERRING GULL:
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And a few shots of a highly-cooperative YELLOW-CROWNED NIGHT-HERON which was my FOY bird:
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And some headshots:
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AMERICAN OYSTERCATCHER:
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OSPREY:
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SNOWY EGRET by some snowy garbage:
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A distant group of GREATER YELLOWLEGS was my FOY for this species:
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WILLET:
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I did end up getting some very noisy yet heard-only CLAPPER RAILS as a year bird which wasn’t surprising as they tend to do just that.

Once I was already on the train back to MSM, I received a Manhattan Rare Bird text saying multiple groups of wind-driven Arctic Terns were flying downriver on the Hudson! Of course, I HAD to see this so, as my train was making its way through Brooklyn, I figured out the most downtown stop so I could get off and run to the Hudson ASAP to river watch for these rare terns. If I were to find them, they would be my Northern Hemespheric lifer — I have only seen these on a cruise in the South Pacific Ocean before!

So, I jumped off the train at Wall St and high-tailed it to the waterfront in Battery Park City where I had high hopes on seeing this rare-from-land species. In fact, eBird doesn’t have any previous reports of Arctic Terns from the Hudson River, so everyone’s reports from today would be the first!
This anamoly was caused by rainy, wet weather combined with high winds from the east pushing these birds upriver.

Panting, I arrived at my vantage point with a solid view of the Statue of Liberty, even in this cruddy weather.

Birds were indeed moving up and down the river like this MALLARD:
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DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANT:
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Unfortunately, despite a half-dozen reports of Arctic Terns flying downstream from further up river, I never laid eyes on them. I spent about 90 minutes scoping wet, mostly birdless views like this:
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I held out until 8:15pm, after sunset, despite desperately having to pee. It was incredibly frustrating to miss this species as other folks were reporting flocks as high as 26 birds flying downstream. I will just take a look at the weather and determine if it would be worth trying again tomorrow morning from up by 125th St (where folks were having greater success). We’ll just have to wait and see…

Good birding!
Henry
World Life List: 1130 Species

Posted by skwclar 05:32 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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