I took a rare opportunity to get out and do some extensive birding the last two mornings. We're on vacation in Ithaca, NY, and I would be remiss if didn't try to get out to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the adjacent Sapsucker Woods, as well as to Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge. I felt bad, albeit only momentarily, leaving the girls with my mom while I went out for two straight mornings of leisure. But she insisted that I go, so I packed up my stuff and headed down the road. Yesterday, I arrived at the Lab at around 8:30, and by 8:40 I'd added a bird to my Big Year (and Life) list. A striking male Rose-breasted Grosbeak was visiting one of the feeders outside the lab's large windows, and I took a good long look at him through one of the Swarovski spotting scopes in the viewing area. Mmmmmm, Swarovski. He chowed down on safflower seeds for a while and then flew off in to the woods.
My walk through the woods was leisurely, lasting until about 12:00. I am seldom able to just go really slow when I'm birding, as I usually have a short window of time before I've got to get back to the real world. But yesterday, I stopped and turned back to chase a bird's call whenever I felt the urge. The great news is that it paid huge dividends. My goal was to add birds to my lists, plain and simple, so I didn't waste time with the camera. This was a numbers game, and if I started worrying about getting good photos I'd certainly have missed some of the birds. The result was the addition of 5 new birds to my lists: Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Veery, Wood Thrush, American Redstart, and Warbling Vireo. All of them are birds that I could have eventually seen with enough effort around home, but it was fun to see them all in a place so hallowed as Sapsucker Woods. As a side note, to those who have ever questioned their ability to discern a Purple Finch from a House Finch, allow me to simplify it. The male Purple Finch is an almost entirely red bird, with a bit of brown, whereas the male House Finch is an entirely brown bird with a bit of red on its head, breast, and tail. If you ever see a red finch and are wondering which one it is, my guess is it's most likely a House Finch, as the Purple Finch is pretty unmistakeable.
Today I left at a little after 8:00 and drove up the lake road toward Montezuma NWR. We'd driven through a couple of days ago with the girls in the car, and keeping them under control was all I could accomplish that time. I saw an interesting warbler right near the Visitor's Center that I couldn't ID because of poor positioning and overcast skies, but nothing else very intersting. Today, with no rugrats to keep quiet, I again took things nice and slow. My first encounter with a life bird was at the main pool, and it came right in the middle of a downpour. Undaunted, I got out of the car to get a better look at a duck that stood out from among the numerous Mallards. After wiping off the lenses of my bins, I got a good look at an adult male Redhead. Again, it's a bird I could see near home during migration in the winter, but I hadn't this year and was happy to see him. I got back in the car and endured the rest of the main loop road inside, with nothing new to be seen. I was feeling a little dejected when I got to the point where I could have just turned left and headed home, but I decided to go right instead and check out some of the other viewing areas.
Needless to say, I'm glad I did. The first stop I made had both a restroom (thank ya, thank ya very much) and an observation tower. There were two other birders there, and over about 20 minutes we spotted 3 new species to add to my list. The first, and easiest to pick out, was a Black Tern. They're very striking in their adult breeding plumage, and we saw at least 5 or 6 of them. Then a songbird started calling from the trees just next to the tower, and upon a closer look we determined it was an Alder Flycatcher, another lifer. He sat there and called for so long that I got greedy and went to retrieve my camera from the car. When I got back, he had moved to a less spectacular perch, but I got a good shot of him nonetheless.
After the flycatcher flew off, someone noticed an odd water bird in the pond. One of the birders trained her Swarovski spotting scope on it, and we were all a bit perplexed. We looked and looked, but the feather pattern didn't match what we were looking at. And then it dawned on the third birder of the group . . we weren't looking at juvenile pictures, just adults. A quick re-check of the grebes and we had it figured out, it was a Pied-billed Grebe. The juvenile plumage is quite a bit different than the adults, but Sibley's drawing was pretty much spot-on.
The next stop, at May's Point Pond, was uneventful. There were Cedar Waxwings and Indigo Buntings playing in the trees, but the pond was virtually empty of birds. I headed back toward the house, striking out again at the two stops I made before getting back to the intersection near the entrance. Go straight, and it's a direct route back to the house. But, on a hunch, I turned left and headed back to the entrance. I wanted to take one more good run at that warbler. I stopped at almost exactly the same spot I'd seen him at two days earlier, and I just waited patiently. The sun was peeking out from behind the clouds occasionally, making it really hard to see anything at the tops of the trees. I saw a couple of birds flitting rapidly back and forth between the topmost branches, but I was struggling to pull focus. Finally, one flew back away toward the pond and landed on a low branch of one of the trees near the sidewalk. I got a good look at him, picking out the bluish-green color of his back, the strong white wing bars, and the unmistakeable dark band across its throat. Jackpot . . Cerulean Warbler! I studied him for another 5 minutes or so as he flitted about the branches of the trees, gleaning bugs from the bark and singing loudly every so often. That is a bird that you might only ever see once in a lifetime, and I'm thrilled I made the decision to head back for one more shot at him.
That brings my total of new Big Year birds added on this trip to 11, bringing the total to 132. A recap of the additions: Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Wood Thrush, Veery, Warbling Vireo, American Redstart, Redhead, Alder Flycatcher, Pied-billed Grebe, Cerulean Warbler, and Black-capped Chickadee. I think I can coast to 150 now, and depending on how soon that happens I might readjust the goal upward toward 175 or 200. Here's hoping!