Monday, June 7, 2010

1100 Miles and 3 Days Later

I left my house about 1 PM on Saturday in order to make the 5 hour drive up to the Virginia part of the Delmarva peninsula. I wanted to reach Saxis Marsh, which is near the Maryland border, by late afternoon in hopes of finding both a black rail and a saltmarsh sparrow. I arrived about 6:30 and spent the next 3 hours listening for both birds. For my effort I fought off green headed and deer flies, and mosquitoes, but to no avail.

I was back at the marsh at 5:15 the next morning in a second attempt on both birds, but once again saw nor heard neither. I did get the photo above of the black-crowned night-heron looking skeptically at the 2 snowy egrets. At 8 AM I decided to head up to Brigantine near Atlantic City to see if maybe a saltmarsh sparrow was hanging out there. I decided to take the ferry that runs between Lewes, De and Cape May, NJ which proved to be faster than driving up to Philly and then over toward Atlantic City. When I arrived at the refuge, the wind was blowing pretty hard, so I was not optimistic, but to my relief I found a saltmarsh sparrow about 1/2 way around the 8 mile loop drive.

At 1 PM I began the drive to the Catskills in New York state where I was hoping to find a bicknell's thrush. This is the rarest/hardest to see of our thrushes because it breeds only in New England and eastern Canada in spruce forests on mountains that rise above 3500 feet. I had done some research back in 2008 and found that the closest place to North Carolina is in the Catskill mountains. So I tried Plateau Mountain near Phoenicia, NY and late one afternoon I found a pair. It was almost dark, and it was beginning to rain lightly when I started back down the trail. It was only 1.5 miles back to my car, but on the slippery, very steep trail I felt fortunate to make it down without mishap.

Based on my experience back in 2008, yesterday I planned to camp on the mountain. I stopped briefly in Phoenicia, a small resort town, to pick up a wood-fired pizza at Brio's. Even in the boonies it is now possible to find really good pizza places. After gobbling down the pepperoni pizza, I began my climb up the trail about 6:45 PM. It had rained earlier that day, so the trail was a bit wet, but mainly very steep. The 1st 1/2 mile is constant switchbacks, and in places it is so steep that there are steps built with stones. Late singing wood thrushes and a calling yellow-bellied sapsucker energized my climb.

I had wanted to camp at the lookout point, but as 8:30 PM approached, and a cloud was settling on the mountain, I decided to camp under a large rock overhang that was about 200 yards below the lookout point. The wind was blowing quite hard, but I was well protected and went to sleep immediately.

This morning I woke up to the birds singing at 4:45. I wanted to take a photo of my campsite but found that the batteries in my camera had died. In my hurry to get up the mountain before dark I had forgotten to put extra batteries in my pack. So I quickly packed up, and climbed up to the lookout point where I left my pack. As I was climbing I heard a swainson's thrush singing.

Once up on the flat top of Plateau Mountain, I began to walk thru the dense spruce and birch woodland. I heard my first bicknell's singing about 5:30 but it stopped before I could locate it. I heard it again, or another bird about 6:30, but it too stopped quickly. I think that even though the sun was shining brightly, the high winds were not to the thrushes liking. I did flush off the ground a singing swainson's about 7:30. That was the last singing thrush I heard until I hiked back down when the wood thrush chimed in at lower elevation. Most of the birds this morning were heard rather than seen because of the dense trees and undergrowth.

I got back to my truck at 10 AM, and drove the short distance into Tannersville for breakfast. I am a big fan of eggs benedict, but only when done well. At Maggie's Krooked Cafe I took a flyer on their eggs benedict to find not only was it top notch, but the curried home fries, and small green salad made for a very nice start to my food day.

While eating, I decided to make the 4 hour drive over to Plum Island near Newburyport outside of Boston. 2 black rails were found calling there in the past week. This is a rare occurrence at Parker River NWR since it is much further north than the usual range for black rails. Since this year I had tried in Texas at 2 different sites, at Everglades NP, and at Saxis Marsh, I figured I would make one more effort to hear the rail before it was no longer breeding season.

I arrived in time to stop at the visitor center to get the scoop on exactly where to look. Since it was only 4 PM, I headed over to the Clam Box in nearby Ipswich to enjoy some of their reknowned fried clams. I was not able to have any back in January when I was birding in the area because they are only open during the summer. Their reputation proved to be well deserved. I also got a lobster roll to go in hopes of being able to celebrate hearing a black rail.

You may have noticed that I keep writing about hearing a black rail as opposed to seeing one. That is because they are very difficult to see except in rare high tide situations, or if you tromp thru the marsh with alot of other people in order to scare them to fly a short distance before disappearing into the marsh grasses. I have only seen one by doing just that one morning with 80 other birders at Anahuac NWR in Texas.

I got back to the refuge about 5 PM to find several birders were already gathering to listen for the rail. The wind was still pretty stiff at times, and the sun was out strongly, but about 6 a black rail called out 3 times. At 6:30 it called about 5 times, and at 6:50 it called 9 or 10 times. It was fairly close to us as we stood on the road, and was easily heard even in the wind. At 7:10, another black rail further out in the marsh began calling. It was not as loud because of the distance, but it called 20-30 times in succession. I left the marsh one very happy birder, and was looking forward to munching down on my lobster roll back at my motel.

After 1100 miles of driving over the past 3 days, I managed to find 3 more new year birds: saltmarsh sparrow seen; and bicknell's thrush and black rail only heard. After 4 days in week #23 a total of 87 birds species have been seen or heard. I begin my drive towards Minnesota tomorrow. I will be checking out a few places on the way. Stay tuned!

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