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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Most Difficult Hardest-to-Find Very Common Life Bird Ever

I’ve had good luck finding life birds recently. James and I walked right up and found those Dickcissels that had been hanging out in Raleigh, or the Scissor-tailed Flycatchers in Orange that now have a successful nest (huzzah!). But nice as that is, sometimes it’s good to work to find your life bird. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I found mine pretty much right away. It’s James that had the trouble this time.

We were heading to New York to, among other things, attend a Mets game and meet up with some family. I woke up early in the morning at my aunt’s place in the highlands, and began to bird. I got my lifer right away, along with a nice Veery and Scarlet Tanager, but James slept in a little bit. Before you knew it we had to move along with our plans to go hiking, meaning James missed out on some very easy life birds.

So we headed to Bear Mountain State Park, which is probably best known as being maybe the place where FDR caught his polio. There was supposed to be decent birding around, so we made the brutal hike up the mountain (not that I’m averse to hiking or anything, but a 1200’ elevation gain in 1.8 miles seems a little excessive to me). After hiking the whole way up and down, it was clear we’d gotten skunked.

That is one scenic-ass vista! Bear Mountain, NY; 07/16/2011

Or more accurately, chipmunk’d. You see, Eastern Chipmunks are everywhere up there. Every time you hear some interesting bird chipping away in the underbrush, it turns out to be one of these little mongrels (you know, I bet that’s how they got their name; that just now clicked for me!). I must have heard at least 20 of them that day, and one of them was nice enough to hang out and munch away in a pocket of life for us, giving James his photo-lifer Eastern Chipmunk.

Eastern Chipmunk - Bear Mountain, NY; 07/16/2011

Speaking of things that like to chip, Chipping Sparrows are also incredibly prevalent up north, and are also a source of frustration when an interesting sound turns out to be an odd Chippie. I’m convinced that a song I’d written off as a fast Chipping Sparrow was actually a Worm-eating Warbler, but I could never confirm the sighting.

One of many Chipping Sparrows that weekend - Bear Mountain, NY; 07/16/2011

After that, it was off to the more promising Iona Island and Doodletown Road trails. Unfortunately for us, besides a few Great Blue Herons and a family of Eastern Phoebes, that was a total bust too. It’s a little late in the season, and the Cerulean, Blue-winged, and Black-and-White Warblers that may have been ubiquitous just a few weeks ago were nowhere to be found.

So, the next morning rolled around. It was time to get James that single life bird I’d promised him this trip, the one that I’d already received myself. We went walking around the neighborhood and picked up the easy stuff, like House Wrens and a lone female American Redstart. Some Chimney Swifts, which are a photographer’s worst nightmare as they jink and juke like little battle squadrons in some analogue of an old-school dogfight, provided a challenge for James, but he performed admirably. Definitely the best shot we’ve gotten of one to date. But no life bird. And it was getting to be time to leave.

Chimney Swift - Orange County, NY; 07/17/2011

Just then, there it was, I heard it from the neighbor’s house up the street. I would have mistaken that little two-note whistle for a Tufted Titmouse if I hadn’t’ve made that very mistake the previous morning. Atop a tree sat a little puffball of a Black-capped Chickadee, James’s life bird and only my third (after seeing two the day before). He flew from his tree-top perch down to a small shrub and began to forage all along it, giving us great looks albeit only decent photographs (he seemed to enjoy being in the shadows).

Black-capped Chickadee - Orange County, NY; 07/17/2011

It’s odd, I can probably stand outside at any point in the day around here and find our native Carolina Chickadees, but the minute we decide to search for his more northerly cousin, he makes us fret for over an hour trying to find him. No matter, the bird was ours, and James was content with his photographs. And all done in time for breakfast!

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