Sunday, May 22, 2005

A Day to Reflect

Cautionary note: this post really has nothing to do with politics. If that makes a difference to you, feel free to skip it.

On Saturday morning, I got up at 3:15 a.m., and about forty-five minutes later set off with six others on a trip around New York's capital region on what is known as a "Century Run" - an attempt to see at least one hundred different bird species over the course of a single day. This was the second year I have gone along, and the second year we've had a spectacular day of it.

We began our day at the Vischer Ferry Nature and Historic Preserve, where we picked up most of our first sixty species (a few had been incidentally observed along the way). As we walked the paths adjacent to the open ponds and marshes that make up the preserve, we were serenaded every step of the way, and treated to marvelous views of some of America's most beautiful avian residents. Just as we got out of the cars, three Common Nighthawks careened above us, their white wing bands obvious even in the pre-dawn light. I've never seen so many Baltimore Orioles, Yellow Warblers, or Redstarts in such a small area, but they were positively profuse, and all singing mightily. A very cooperative Veery hopped along right in front of us on the path for a hundred yards or so, and several different flycatchers darted about above the water. We observed all five common species of swallows in the first half hour or so. As the sun came up and its light illuminated the mists rising over the waterways, the effect was nothing short of breath-taking.

The waterbirds were just as active as the songsters: Mallards, Canada Geese, and Wood Ducks were common, and a Blue-winged Teal made an appearance as if on cue, flying into a pond just as we reached it. Great Blue and Green Herons stood in the water, joined in several areas by Solitary and Spotted Sandpipers. The metallic squink call of the Virginia Rail was clearly evident amid the morning din, and a Pied-billed Grebe was viewed down the canal.

Of course we didn't just see birds. Two carp splashed loudly in the canal beside us several times, and muskrats in the water were fairly common. We did get a pleasant surprise with the sight of three river otters cavorting in the ponds (much to the annoyance of the geese and ducks). Most of the group, including myself, had never seen wild otters before, and spent several minutes distracted from the birds by these playful creatures.

We saw nearly all of our woodpecker species at Vischers - Hairy, Red-bellied and Pileated Woodpeckers, as well as the Northern Flicker (we caught up with the Downy Woodpecker and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker later). A few of the other species we found at Vischers were the Cardinal, Belted Kingfisher, Northern Waterthrush, Fish Crow, Tufted Titmouse, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and several varieties of sparrow.

From the Ferry, we moved along to other locations at about 7 a.m., making several stops along waterways to spot gulls and other waterfowl. In North Troy we saw a Mute Swan and observed a nesting Bald Eagle, and at a Mohawk River Dam (New Street Station) we had the opportune chance to see a Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs standing side by side, as well as a Semipalmated Sandpiper and Semipalmated Plover. At a bathroom stop, we picked up four species: Killdeer, European Starling, Rock Pigeon, and House Sparrow.

Heading north to Saratoga, we went to the National Historical Park there, where we met Bobolinks, Eastern Meadowlarks, an Eastern Towhee, and a brilliantly-colored Scarlet Tanager. Down into the town of Saratoga, we found our first House Finch, many Purple Martins, and some Common Loons on Saratoga Lake. At the county airport, we found Horned Larks, Vesper and Savannah Sparrows, and a beautiful pair of Eastern Bluebirds.

We had almost given up on the Peregrine Falcons in their nesting box under the Dunn Memorial Bridge in Albany when suddenly a tiny fuzzy head poked up over the lip of the box, one of the two falcon chicks recently hatched there. From downtown, we headed up into the mountains to Thacher State Park, which we reached just as a rain squall hit. We had one slow hour, but during the rainy period did manage to spot a Common Raven, a Junco, and a Broad-winged Hawk. The Broad-winged was our hundredth bird, gotten completely accidentally after we started looking around for what was bothering the nearby Blue Jays.

After Thacher we went up through some deeper woods at Cole Hill, where we observed Hermit and Wood Thrushes, our first Red-breasted Nuthatch, Purple Finch, and another bunch of warblers (Black-throated Blue, Black-throated Green, Yellow-rumped, Blackburnian, and Black-and-white, which brought our warbler total up to fourteen, a most respectable count).

Our final stop of the evening, reached just before dark, was Black Creek, an abandoned railroad track where this Century Run has traditionally started - we did things in reverse this year. The final two species (American Bittern and Brown Thrasher) were observed there, before we turned for home at about 9:15 p.m. It had been a pretty long day, but we had neared last year's count, observing 112 species on the day (we had 118 last year).

The day was excellent. I didn't have to think at all about things like the nuclear option, or what was in my email, or the newspapers, or how frustrating writing and thinking about politics often can be. My only concerns were with keeping my eyes peeled for new birds, and attempting to stay out of poison ivy (successfully, I think). It put things in perspective again for me, and I highly recommend to anyone a day in a park, or even a backyard, with some binoculars and a bird book. Too often I get bogged down and stressed out about arcane political debates and minutiae of the news, and if there was ever a quick technique for putting those things out of your head, it's spending a day away from it all. Whether watching the birds, or enjoying some other pursuit, remember, once in a while, to get away from the craziness and reflect on what really matters.


At 11:15 PM, Anonymous ArchTeryx said...

I had no idea you were a birder as well as a blogger.

I've been an out-of-circulation birder for close to 6 years, but I still will stop and try and identify that little warbler up in the trees around my workplace, or pick up a Chipping Sparrow fledgling to keep it from being trampled in the nearby athletic field.

A 100-species day is nothing short of incredible. I didn't come close to that during my Spring Counts many years ago. Kudos to you for such a great day birding!

Others may not be so interested in seeing non-political views, but being out in the wild with the feathered ones is a strong reminder of what we fight for, anyway.


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