Monthly Archives: June 2008

Rail Tale

Paulinskill Valley WMA, NJ

I awoke with trepidation. The temperature was going to soar into the 90s and I had signed up for a marsh field trip at the Sussex County Birding Festival. I considered not going. I had things that needed doing around the house that may or may not have included sitting in front of a fan with an icy beverage. It would be a tough slog through a hot muggy wet blanket. But there were the possibility of rails. I reminded myself that I like the heat, hopped into a cold shower and was on the road by 6:30.

Paulinskill Valley WMA, known locally as Hyper Humus , is a large wetland between Lafayette and Newton NJ. I had seen its mention on the ListServe but had never been there. The fabulous thing about this trip was that it was lead by a man who virtually grew up there and still lives down the road. Shall we say, he birds there often.

Upon entering the trail we were greeted with yellow warbler, scarlet tanager, american redstart, and wood thrush. (When you enter a woodland path and a scarlet tanager is peering down at you, you are definitely having a birdy day.) As I walked along the path leading to the marsh I looked for birds, butterflies, dragonflies, wild flowers, frogs, turtles and snakes. I can be easily distracted and the painted turtle beside the path digging a nest hole was fascinating.

Birding is hard once the trees have leafed out. We were mostly birding by ear; the songs of yellow warblers, baltimore orioles and cuckoos drawing us further into the marsh. I never did see the yellow-billed cuckoo that dogged our steps although several others did. Once we got out to the “ponds” there were great blue herons, mute swans by the dozens, red-winged blackbirds, grackles, a few mallards and some canada geese. From off in the distance came the lilting tones of a marsh wren tucked away in the reeds. Standing out on one of the dikes, we heard the “kiddick” of virginia rails. Rails are more often heard than seen. But today there was a frenzied calling and scurrying about in the reeds at our feet. Holding our breath and gesturing in silence, we pointed them out to each other. They were close enough that we did not need binoculars. We all had great views. Virginia rails are always so much smaller than I think they are. I guess because clapper and king are so big. As we watched, a little further down the dike a lone rail walked out onto the grass path, posing nicely, then ducked back out of sight.

It was worth the muggy, 90 degree, 3-hour walk to see this. Really.

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Wordless Wednesday-Summertime and the living is easy

Columbina passerina

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The Importance of Sparrows

LBJ

Commonly called LBJs or Little Brown Jobs, sparrows are notoriously hard to identify. This one is a Savannah Sparrow. Can you see the little bit of yellow by the eye? Classic.

I am fond of sparrows. They are ubiquitous yet overlooked in favor of the brighter, more colorful, more easily identified birds. Many of them have beautiful easy-to-learn songs, like the ol’ sam peabody of the white-throated sparrow or the ping-pong balls of the field sparrow or the distinctive maids, maids, maids, of the song sparrow. I always try to spend time with sparrows.

Let me tell you a sparrow story. I was with my sister at Point Reyes National Seashore in California at the end of September for our birthdays. This was a few years ago. It was cold and windy out on the point. I was standing in a field birding every bird looking for a golden-crowned sparrow, a life bird for me. There were hundreds of sparrows, popping up and down, mostly white-crowned. My sister is a good birder but after way-too-many LBJs, she wandered off to look at a Say’s Phoebe and to ogle the California Quail. Finally a golden-crowned sat on the top branch of a bush, I shouted for her to come see it, but she was on a Black-throated Gray Warbler, also a life bird for me. I abandoned extolling the virtues of the sparrow and dashed over for the warbler. Totally fickle right? Thankfully I have seen many golden-crowned sparrows and savannah sparrows after that in California and Alaska but I have only ever seen the black-throated gray warbler just that once.

Thanks Gale for being bored of LBJs.

But if we hadn’t have been hours in that field sorting out sparrows, we would never have seen the black-throated gray. The morale of the story is–Spend time with sparrows, you never know who is hanging out with them.

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Birding the Shawangunk Grasslands

Shawangunk Grasslands

Coming from the flatland, I have a longing for wide open spaces, vista, amber waves of grain, bobolink, meadowlark and all the open grassland sparrows. Sometimes I just need to be alone in the vastness of a big sky. So when I got an email about a field trip to the Shawangunk Grassland National Wildlife Refuge; I decided to go. Secretly hoping for an Upland Sandpiper (a would-be life bird for me) I drove for an hour through charming small towns and beautiful farmland to reach the refuge. Arriving about a half hour after the field trip started, I tucked my pants into my socks, sprayed my pant legs, boots and hat with bug spray and strode off along a 2 track path. (Shawangunk Grasslands is a decommissioned military airport, so the paths are all paved runways. You can still see the painted marks that guided the planes. It is sorta weird to walk on a runway.)

As soon as I walked around the gate to get onto the property, I heard blue-winged warblers, baltimore orioles, rufous-sided towhees, warbling vireos, common yellow throats, the gulping chuckle of a yellow-billed cuckoo and the fitz-bew of a willow flycatcher. Stopping to chat with a fellow sitting in the blazing sun staking out a stand of second growth trees and brambles; I was happy to help him identify an immature male orchard oriole with its greenish-yellow body and that black throat. A wonderful first of the season orchard for me. We had fabulous looks.

Walking the north-south runways I was surrounded by the bubbling cascade of bobolink song. They chased each other flashing their white wings and tail spots. The males sat on every post, branch, even sturdy grasses to proclaim their love for lass and grass. I have not seen so many bobolinks in years and years. It was wonderful.

If you need any grasslands birds, Shawangunk is a great place to get them. My list, in just over 2 hours is: bobolink, meadow lark, eastern kingbird, baltimore oriole, orchard oriole, least flycatcher, willow flycatcher, cedar waxing, common yellowthroat, goldfinch, yellow warbler, blue-winged warbler, warbling vireo, rufous-sided towhee, carolina wren, song sparrow, chipping sparrow, savannah sparrow, grasshopper sparrow, killdeer, red-winged blackbird, crow, turkey vulture, black vulture, kestrel, yellow-billed cuckoo, rose-breasted grosbeak, american robin, eastern bluebird, tree swallow, barn swallow, mourning dove, prairie warbler.

My favorite? Hands down the Bobolink.

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