Sunday, February 17, 2008

A little bit of birding

Yesterday I traveled around Cayuga Lake with Harvey, Tom, and Tim. It was only the third time so far this semester I've been able to really get out and bird heavily, so I was quite excited.

We started just before 8 at Stewart Park on the south end of the lake, to view the Slaty-backed Gull that has been a regular presence in Ithaca since January (See other Cornellian posts here and here). We picked out The Gull pretty quickly as it slept on the ice edge with all the others, occasionally preening or getting spooked around. We also picked out 2 immature Glaucous Gulls way out through the ice and heat shimmer, but the other Stewart regulars of Iceland and Lesser Black-backed Gulls were not present. Two vanfuls of Delaware birders showed up, and we scooted out as they got their taste of Ithaca gulling.

We began birding up the east side of the lake, hitting necessary stops such as Myers and Long Point. This area is largely agricultural, so we divided our time between driving around looking for flocks and scanning the lake for waterfowl. Two interesting finds in the hills included a small flock of Snow Geese in the fields, including at least one blue phase. They were close enough to the road to be able to hear their muttering, a very different goose honk than Canada, but not close enough for my camera to really capture their sound in video. Here's my best:

Another interesting inland find was a small mixed flock in the shrubberies near a house. Among such winter birds as Robin, White-throated Sparrow, and Goldfinch, we picked out three White-crowned Sparrows: two adults and one immature. One of the adults was even singing a few songs. The immature was interesting, and may have been a Gambel's race. I didn't get a detailed look at it and am not versed in the identification of White-crowned subspecies, so I can't really comment further there. One final inland bird before hitting the good scanning spots on the lake was an adult male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker - a pretty good woodpecker for the winter.

The lake was mostly empty, although it was beautifully clear and calm. It wasn't until we got fairly far up near Farley's Point that we got something besides geese. Hear was some of the lakes extensive Aythya rafts, tucked in close to shore where we could scope fairly easily. No super-unusual ducks: Redhead, Canvasback, Greater Scaup, Ring-necked Duck, Wigeon, Black Duck, Mallard, and Pintail were all present. There were also some scatterings of swan, including a bunch of Tundra Swan and 8 Mute Swans, a pretty high count for the Basin. The best bird on the lake was also present. An Eared Grebe has been on Cayuga Lake for several consecutive winters (just like Pacific Loon). It's been a little more difficult to find this year, being only occasionally reported from both the East and West shores, and there is some question as to multiple individuals being present. We were lucky, and the Eared Grebe was present at Farley's, swimming and diving just beyond the Aythya flock.

Farther up the lake, we passed the ice edge and waterfowl became restricted to the few open pools. More scanning revealed much the same as before, with added numbers of Tundra Swans and a few Trumpeter Swans as well, making for a perfect 3-swan day. On the ice-free ponds in Union Springs next to the lake, we did find some up-close Green-winged Teal, Gadwall, and Redhead. The pond's resident Eastern Screech-Owl was also basking in the sun from the hole of his duck box.

From here we headed up to the Montezuma wetlands complex. At some point earlier in the morning, we had started a raptor count due to the high numbers of hawks out in the beautiful February weather. Here at Montezuma we hit raptors in abundance. A quick check to see if the Wildlife Drive was open yielded a Rough-legged Hawk and Northern Harrier scuffling over the Main Pool. More Rough-legs and some Red-tailed Hawks were soaring in the distance.

A single field off of Route 89 held an incredible number of hawks in close proximity. In less than ten minutes at least three Red-tails, six Rough-legs, and three Harriers passed through this field. It must be loaded with voles! This same area yielded some half-hardy birds: Great Blue Heron and Northern Mockingbird.

From the Main Pool area we headed up north to the Mucklands area. These open expanses of agriculture, muck, and weeds have held reported Short-eared Owls recently. We of course had no luck in the middle of a sunny day (although one was reported that evening) but we did run into a flock of Redpolls. We searched the ~120 Common Redpolls but couldn't turn up a Hoary.

From the Mucklands we headed west, taking a short jaunt out of the Cayuga Lake Basin to bird the northern end of Seneca Lake in Geneva. Here we added Iceland Gull to our day's list, as well as an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull in Seneca Falls.

On the way back into the Basin, to bird down the west side of the lake, we ran into a Snow Bunting flock. Approximately 120 of them flew around from field to tree and back again. It was very odd to see a tree loaded with Snow Buntings, a typical open field bird.

One of our last birding stops was to stop at Sheldrake to scan the lake for the recently reported Pacific Loon. We couldn't find anything but Common Loons in the dying light, but we did see a male Long-tailed Duck and a male Red-breasted Merganser to make up for it.

The day concluded with a flat tire and ice cream at The Creamery (the ice cream is worth the inconvenience of having to put on the spare).

I think the highlight of our day was the sheer abundance of raptors. Here are our totals for our informal winter raptor survey:

66 Red-tailed Hawk (59 Cayuga Basin, 7 Seneca Basin)
15 Rough-legged Hawk (mostly at Montezuma)
8 Northern Harrier (mostly Montezuma)
2 Kestrel
5 Bald Eagle (all but one at nest: 1 at Mud Lock, 1 at Mucklands, 2 at Armitage)
1 Coopers Hawk
plus a Peregrine Falcon seen by Harvey on campus before the trip.

That's a pretty good day for the 'dead' of winter.


  1. You guys had a wonderful birding day! Makes me wish I headed out your way to do some birding! Did I see you say "yellow-bellied sapsucker??"

  2. Thanks. I did indeed say sapsucker. Really nice bird for the time of year, and we saw it quite close.

  3. Sounds like you guys had a great day birding. I'd hate to be standing underneath that huge flock though!