Schodack Island State Park 05.12.14

| May 23, 2014 | 0 Comments

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Sometime during the end of the first week of May I decided that I was going to take at least one morning for a concentrated effort of birding this spring.  So far 2014 has proven difficult in regards to finding a decent block of free time to go birding in a proper fashion. In fact, most of my birding over the last few years has been piecemeal between work, playing in the band, and working on other aspects of my life. That’s not to say that I haven’t been birding for a few hours here or there and not had a blast. However, with spring migration coming to a pinnacle this year I knew that I had to at least get afield for a solid block of time in some good habitat and to not let it all pass me by. Looking over my calendar it appeared as if May 12th would be my best chance as I not only had off from work but it was a good part of May to seek out migrants. The only real problem at that point was I needed to figure out where I was going to bird!?!

As May 12th was quickly approaching, I read a very intriguing post on the local birding listserv (Hudson-Mohawk Birds) by Tom Williams, a birder from the Capital District area of New York. On May 9th he spent some time around Schodack Island State Park in Rensselaer County and did very well for himself finding a nice array of passerines including a decent assortment of warblers including Cerulean! This sounded perfect and exactly what I was looking for. Now, I have actually been to Schodack before and had success with Cerulean Warblers there in the past(they historically have nested on the island), but it has been a number of years since I had been to Schodack in search of them or run into them anywhere else locally. They’re a beautiful species and one I wish I ran into more frequently. Having made up my mind on where I would go birding, I contacted Tom asking about where he found the Ceruleans and he politely responded with some information and images on their location (Yellow Trail near the wooden bridge). It was settled- Schodack Island State Park would be my location and Cerulean Warbler would be my target on the day with everything else being incidental (aka the icing on top).

Cerulean Warbler breeding status within NY State during the early 1980s and 2000s. As you can see the Hudson Valley is not their stronghold in the state.

Cerulean Warbler breeding status within NY State during the early 1980s and 2000s. As you can see the Hudson Valley is not their stronghold in the state.

Fortunately, just a few days out from making it to Schodack, I actually was in touch with Lindsey Duval, a birder who resides about an hour and a half north of Schodack, and someone who I had recently become friends with via the local digital birding circles. As it turns out, she was available for the morning of the 12th and actually suggested joining me for an outing at Schodack! Of course, I couldn’t say no as I was not only excited to get into the field with Lindsey who seemed like a decent birder, but it would also be our first time meeting each other after getting to know each other over the last few months. Before I knew it the details of my trip were falling into place. The date was set, the location picked, a birding buddy would be joining me and the only thing I needed were the birds to cooperate.

As the morning arrived and we met at the gated entrance to the park adjacent to 9J, I instant knew that Lindsey was a dedicated birder- cut from a different cloth. Not only did she arrive earlier than me even though she had a drive that was 3 times in length, but she was also already rattling off to me all the birds she was hearing from her car as she patiently waited for me to arrive. After some informal greetings we made our way down the access road into the park towards the front gate and eventually into the parking lot and the trail head. After getting out of our cars and serving up an official greeting with each other, we quizzed each other on what birds we had heard on the drive in along the access road. Interestingly enough, we both scored one each that the other had missed: she heard Eastern Wood-Pewee and I snagged a singing Chestnut-sided Warbler- both of which made the other person groan out loud as if to say “how did I miss that?!?!”.

Parking Lot at Schodack Island State Park

Parking Lot at Schodack Island State Park

And the birds didn’t stop on our drive in. As we both gathered our gear and changed into some more tick-proof clothing, the birds were singing all around us or flying overhead.  In fact, in the parking lot alone I was able to snag a few birds that were my first on the year including Great-crested Flycatcher and Warbling Vireo. It was actually during this time within the parking lot that I knew even further that Lindsey was a super solid birder with a great attention to detail and patience, and an ear for bird song that rivals the best in our area- I was stoked to head on down the trail with her to see what we could find!

Now, perhaps it is my style of birding over the last few years due to being short on time, or all the birding competitions that I do, but I find myself realizing that I tend to bird at a quicker pace than others to get in what I can in the time I have. To say the least, Lindsey is NOT a birder in that style, and it proved to be a valuable lesson learned on the day. In fact, we joked ahead of time about her being painfully slow compared to other birders, and while it wasn’t quite THAT bad, it was certainly an exercise in restraint to keep at her pace. I think we didn’t even leave the parking lot and hit the trail head for nearly a half an hour! But her patience would prove fruitful as the day went on and I began to realize that many birders who work to fast are really missing a lot.

Yellow Trail Trailhead

Yellow Trail Trailhead

By the time we eventually hit the trail, it was probably close to 9 AM, and while it was getting warm in the open areas around the parking lot, the trail was still relatively cool being in the shade of the trees and the bird activity was red hot. In fact, a lot of birds were still going strong with their songs and it was here that Lindsey’s practiced ear and patience was helping to snag some birds that I might have missed otherwise. The fact is, while I feel super confident in my ears, I don’t get out as much as I used to 5-10 years ago. That coupled with the fact that there are some species I just don’t run into regularly anymore probably results into a few species each year I’ve encountered and not picked up. Two birds on this outing that fit that bill were singing Bay-breasted and Blackburnian Warblers (the latter singing an alternate song) that Lindsey was able to get us on when I would have been halfway down the trail looking for Ceruleans.

Even though Lindsey’s ear is more practiced than mine these days, we quickly found out that our birding styles actually complemented each other nicely. As already mentioned, Lindsey had spent a lot of time birding this spring, and while her ears are more finely tuned than mine, I still do very well with spotting movement (all those years of quick birding) and identifying birds with quick glances. It was very nice to be with someone who could pick you up where you needed help and vice versa. As a pair we also did very well remembering species that the other had hoped to see on the day and whenever one was seen or heard to get the other one on it. Some of the species that at least one of us had hoped to lay bins on this tie around besides the Cerulean included Yellow-throated Vireo, Swainson’s Thrush, Blue-winged Warbler, and Scarlet Tanager. Beyond birding we also found out that we both shared a similar sense of humor, even dark at times; this made our first trip together a lot of fun and all the more memorable.

Our first Scarlet Tanagers on the day were observed in these trees

Our first Scarlet Tanagers on the day were observed in these trees

Lindsey looking at a Northern Parula (note her notes in her hand where she keeps tally on birds observed)

Lindsey looking at a Northern Parula (look at the notes she keeps in her hand for detailed field tallies!)

So where are the Cerulean Warblers exactly?

So where are the Cerulean Warblers exactly?

With the hours ticking by along with countless Veery and American Redstarts, we passed a birder coming from the opposite direction. Asking him how he had made out on the morning and if he had observed any Ceruleans he quickly commented that he had not, but that another birder had reported seeing a pair near the wooden bridge which we were quickly approaching. This of course was the same area that Tom had mentioned to me in his correspondence that he had spotted some Ceruleans. Saying goodbye to the other birder, Lindsey and I weren’t deflated by the negative report and bee lined it towards the bridge knowing that if we put the time in we would see the birds. However, before we even reached the bridge we both stopped to admire some random hardware that was sitting high up in a tree, something like a hoist…or something to kill somebody with. At this moment I was making a typical wise-crack when Lindsey pointed out some Yellow-throated Vireos singing that I did not hear since I was yacking away. This was yet another year bird for me, and one that I don’t see or hear that often as of the past few years. In fact, before we knew it the vireos were all over the places chasing each other in the open understory of this part of the forest.

There's got to be a Cerulean in this beautiful habitat somewhere!

There’s got to be a Cerulean in this beautiful habitat somewhere!

Content with vireos we decided to move on when a unique warbler song came buzzing across the woods adjacent to our position. At first, the song sounded reminiscent of an alternate Northern Parula song that we had heard further up the trail (I was able to watch the parula as it sang). But as we sat and listened we realized the song was different, but also partially “obscured” since the bird was distant and singing high up in the trees with lots of leaves in between. After a few minutes we realized we weren’t hearing the song in full and that there was more to it. As the song fully revealed itself we both were cautious on leaning towards and ID, but as we looked at each other and laughed at this time we realized that we finally had our Cerulean!

Yellow Trail facing north

Yellow Trail facing north

While the Cerulean sang we looked across an open understory into the canopy of the trees adjacent to the Orange Trail on the other side of the island for any movement high up. Luckily for us many of the trees hadn’t fully leafed out allowing for some more unobstructed views than we might have had during other years when the spring was advanced by a few weeks. As we scanned for the singing Cerulean, I found myself content to have just heard it and to know that I could count it on my year list. However, a pit started form as I realized that this wasn’t just a year bird for Lindsey; if she could view the bird it would be her life Cerulean!

Panorama of the Cerulean Habitat (Click for Full Size)

Panorama of the Cerulean Habitat. Here Lindsey is Scanning the Canopy (Click for Full Size)

As we sat and watched, and eventually took off our backpacks to settle in and get comfortable for a potentially extended viewing, I spotted a small passerine high up in the canopy. At the distance that it was spotted there was no way I had a sense it was the Cerulean or not, but I quickly got my binoculars up on the bird hoping. As it came into focus I saw a very distant warbler facing me with a clear white breast and undertail, a narrow dark breastband with streaks, and a short tail- all topped in a magnificent blue above! Success- sort of! Lindsey was not able to get on the bird even after I yelled out “GOT IT” and tried directing her to it. It actually turned out to be surprisingly difficult to direct one’s direction onto any one bird across the open understory with a smattering of trees between us and the bird. How do you say “the bird crossed that branch just now” as flits about at 75 yards away? The fact is, we couldn’t get on the bird even when I tried literally grabbing Lindsey by her shoulders to get her in line with me, and eventually it was lost. After we had lost the bird visually it also became more silent and when it eventually did sing, it was clearly closer to the Orange Trail than to our position.

Lindsey checking one of her birding resources

Lindsey checking one of her birding resources

After a few minutes of patiently waiting we decided that our best luck at this point was to make our way over to the other trail and see if we could actually get closer to the bird. We were advised that the Yellow Trail was best in the morning because as the sun rose one was looking west towards the bird’s likely location, but at close to 12 Noon that was no longer the problem. And even though I had a nice block of free birding in the morning, I was also running out of time as I needed to get somewhere else by 2 and we still had to hike out the approximate 1-2 miles from where we were. Essentially, we were coming down to the wire in finding Lindsey her life Cerulean.

Lindsey and I celebrating after her life Cerulean Warbler!

Lindsey and I celebrating after her life Cerulean Warbler!

As we made our way onto the Orange Trail,  we approximated our location  to the Cerulean’s last known locale as heard from the Yellow Trail due to the noise of heavy machinery on the west bank of the Hudson River. As the sounds of heavy equipment became louder we knew we were in the right area but unfortunately, the bird never sang. But as we walked along and took glances at a few birds we saw along the way Lindsey spotted a bird nearby in a tree just off the trail that looked suspicious to her and worth investigating. While I was never able to get on the bird she had pinned down(even though I tried REALLY hard) she got good looks at it while it sat still or slowly moved about. Partially obscured, as she rattled off the features that she saw (“warbler…short-tail…etc) it became very clear what bird it was that she was viewing…it was her life Cerulean Warbler and she had painted it perfectly! I never did get on that individual but we spent a few more minutes while she looked it over confirming her ID and putting a bigger smile on her face.

At this time we decided that we needed to eventually call it a day and to head out at a quick pace so I could get to my vehicle and head home.  As we hustled along and I felt like I was ready to pass out in the increasing heat, we laughed and joked along the way about random things, even television shows we both shared an interest in (Sealab 2021). We even spent a lot of time reminiscing on the birds we had only seen just a few hours prior. It was just one of those great days where the birds were active and approachable and everything fell into place. We both remarked that even though bird diversity was decent albeit a little lower than we had expected, what was high was the total number of individuals of each species (see the official tally below penned in from Lindsey’s patience). I think for both of us this turned out to be our all-time high counts on American Redstart (and maybe even Veery for Lindsey).

Simple map showing some of the bird's locations on the island

Simple map showing some of the bird’s locations on the island

And before we knew it, we were back to our cars which were waiting for us in the baking sun with temps in the low 80s saying our goodbyes and planning our next trip which has yet to happen. The trip itself was an absolute success and we both had a lot of fun along the way. For the birds alone it was exactly what I had set out to do days prior. Beyond the birds, I even re-learned to slow down my approach in birding (if I can help it), as well as some nuances about Common Yellowthroat call notes! I also found out that Lindsey is a birding tour-de-force and someone that everyone should get to know (sorry to put you on blast Lindsey!). She puts in a LOT of time in the field when she can and it shows- she’s very well practiced and on point. From what I can tell she also puts in a LOT of time at home going through her field guides and audio recordings so her time with the birds themselves is better spent. It’s honestly something I wish more birders were able to do, including myself. Beyond all that, she’s also very humble about what she knows and doesn’t know and that’s something that goes a long way. In today’s world of birding there’s a lot of self-started authorities and it’s refreshing to see someone who knows their stuff well enough to know when they don’t. Sorry guys, we all have our short comings!

With that said, everybody birding Upstate New York should follow her posts if they can…she’s on to something solid. And for the rest of you, I hope you decide to follow her future contributions here to Chat Happens!  That’s right, after some talk and deliberation she’s expressed interest in becoming a member of the Chat Happens team and to contribute to what we do. That is, as soon as she stops birding for just a second! I for one look forward to what she adds to Chat Happens, and I hope everyone else does too.
-Chad

Bird List via eBird

Schodack Island SP IBA, Rensselaer, US-NY
May 12, 2014 7:25 AM – 12:10 PM
Protocol: Traveling
2.3 mile(s)
Comments:     From gated entrance south on yellow trail. Returned on orange trail, but did not count birds on it, but orange trail had 7-10 Veerys.
52 species

Canada Goose  4     flyover
Wood Duck  2     flyover
Great Blue Heron  6     5 flyovers
Bald Eagle  1     circling overhead
Red-bellied Woodpecker  6
Downy Woodpecker  1
Northern Flicker  1
Eastern Wood-Pewee  1
Least Flycatcher  1
Great Crested Flycatcher  6
Yellow-throated Vireo  5
Warbling Vireo  5
Red-eyed Vireo  7
Blue Jay  3
American Crow  2
Fish Crow  2
Black-capped Chickadee  4
Tufted Titmouse  1
White-breasted Nuthatch  1
House Wren  1
Carolina Wren  1
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher  2
Ruby-crowned Kinglet  1
Veery  7
Swainson’s Thrush  3     One seen. Other two giving “pip” and “purring” calls (audio clip included as example of what was heard). http://www.xeno-canto.org/51465
Wood Thrush  13
American Robin  4
Gray Catbird  15
European Starling  1
Cedar Waxwing  14
Ovenbird  14
Blue-winged Warbler  7
Black-and-white Warbler  3
Common Yellowthroat  13     Two pairs, both male and female giving raspy chip calls.
American Redstart  34     One 1st year. Also, one male and female acting as possible pair.
Cerulean Warbler  2     Both heard singing (3 part ascending buzzy song  “beer-beer bee-bee-bee tzeee”) at same time in different trees, but same area (north of wooden bridge on yellow trail). One individual seen by Chad, who had noticed the breast band. Other seen by myself feeding along branches of deciduous tree, shadowed by leaves of tree so it appeared more blue-gray than sky blue above (back, nape, and head with darker eye area). Breastband hard to see, but at various times could see white throat, white lower breast, belly, and undertail coverts, short tail. Wing was seen briefly in sun and could see brilliant blue color with broad white wingbars. Upper breast, flanks, and undertail hard to see as they were usually covered by leaves.
Northern Parula  3     Giving alternate song – slower, closer to Cerulean Warbler song.
Bay-breasted Warbler  1     Not seen; heard singing repeatedly.
Blackburnian Warbler  1
Yellow Warbler  8
Chestnut-sided Warbler  3
Black-throated Blue Warbler  4
Yellow-rumped Warbler  8
Eastern Towhee  4
Song Sparrow  4
White-throated Sparrow  13     All white-striped adults.
Scarlet Tanager  5
Northern Cardinal  4
Rose-breasted Grosbeak  7
Brown-headed Cowbird  3
Baltimore Oriole  4
American Goldfinch  3

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Chad
Chad Witko has been an avid birder and all-around naturalist since the age of 3. Graduating from SUNY-ESF in Syracuse, NY with his B.S. in Environmental and Forest Biology (2003), Chad has worked on avian conservation projects across the United States. Ranging from New England (Atlantic Puffin research in Maine and grassland bird work in Massachusetts) to the Mid-Atlantic (Semipalmated Sandpiper research on the Delaware Bay) to California (riparian and coastal scrub passerines), Chad has worked extensively throughout North America and across avian taxa. Chad is currently pursuing his M.S. degree as a graduate student at Antioch University New England in Keene, NH. Current research interests include the distribution of bird species across New Hampshire and North America. Residing in Wilton, NH with his wife, Lauryn, Chad continues to bring a holistic approach to birding while pursuing his interests of wildlife photography, nature tour guiding (eventually), and Chat Happens. For more information on Chad, please view his Bio page!

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Category: 2014 Year Lists, Birding, Chad's 2014 Year List, Chat Happens, Uncategorized

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