Birding Daily, Almost


Osprey, Pandion haliaetus


They were loud, almost obnoxious neighbors.  When we slept with the windows open to catch the gentle summer breeze they were the last thing we heard each evening and the first raucous greeting each dawn.  But now they are gone, without even a neighborly adieu, and I admit to missing them already.

Osprey family

There are three Osprey platforms along our shore and each hosts a successful breeding pair every summer.  The parents, new fledglings, and yearlings certainly created an interesting summer on San Domingo Creek this year, learning to fly, fish, and chase away the bullying Fish Crows.  But now they’re all gone and the quiet is eerie.

Eastern Kingbird, Tyrannus tyrannus

Other quieter cast members have also left the stage, exit south.  I refer to the Eastern Kingbirds, whom the permanent resident Northern Mockingbirds allowed to breed beside the cove, and the related Barn and Tree Swallows who breed under the dock and in the Bluebird houses.  Any day now they will be replaced by large noisy flocks of migratory Canada Geese and a new cacophony will begin.  Alas, another season has passed.

Barn Swallow, Hirundo rustica

My birding has evolved, and not necessarily for the better.  It’s been a long time, since Norway in May, for me to purposely set out on a birding excursion.  You know the drill; an early AM start armed with binoculars, camera with telephoto lens, guide book or cell phone, bug spray, sun protection, etc.

Tree Swallow, Tachycineta bicolor

I may have become a victim of the eBird challenge for us to bird continuously, submitting daily lists of sightings as we go about our non-birding lives.  Their intentions at Cornell are laudable, trying to expand the world-wide data base of birds to assess population trends and birds at risk.  But I think I may have carried this all too far.

Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos

The eBird app makes it too easy (  We went out for a seafood dinner along the Tred Avon River with a large group and I secured a waterside seat so I could clandestinely count the cormorants and gulls between bites.  No one knew.  One of my favorite personal locations is a comfortable hammock strategically positioned in the back yard between a feeder and birdbath.  The chickadees, finches, and hummingbirds hardly notice me there unless I snore and drop the iPhone.  I even got a few ticks through a hospital window during a brief illness last January.

American Goldfinch, Carduelis tristis

eBird got serious about these daily tabulations last January when they announced the “Checklist-A-Day Challenge”.  Submit your daily sightings all year long, even if a session is as short as 3 minutes, and be eligible to win a set of Zeiss binoculars on December 31.  More importantly you contribute to a valuable growing database of birds.  I started the year on a roll, 133 straight days of sightings, but then life intervened.  Not to worry, you just need an average of 1 list per day and there are still 97 days left in 2019 to make up the deficit.

Lincoln Park, Chicago

We recently took two short non-birding trips that allowed me to squeeze in a few observations.  One was to a spectacular family wedding at Chicago, Lincoln Park.  The joy of seeing my nephew and his beautiful bride begin their lives together, and seeing the satisfaction and celebration of the supporting families and friends overshadowed even the birds.  But I did count some on the shore of Lake Michigan and during an architectural tour on the Chicago River, whose flow, by the way, was remarkably reversed by engineers in 1900.

Keuka Springs Winery

The other trip was to Upstate New York, my native stomping ground.  To the New York City crowd, anything north of the Tappan Zee Bridge is called “upstate”.  The rest of us know that the true upstate is Syracuse, Rochester, Ithaca, Watkins Glen, Skaneateles, and countless other small towns nestled among the rolling hills, wineries, and the Finger Lakes.  The residents here even sound different than the big city folks.  I don’t believe there is a more beautiful and comfortable place anywhere in the summer.  But forget the winters.

White-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis

It was another chance for some soft core birding while we became reacquainted with family and friends.  My sister has maintained and restored the old summer cottage that my Dad and Mom bought on Keuka Lake in 1956, and my brother has recently relocated just down the road.   We had dinner with the same next door neighbors that I knew in the 1950’s, now with several generations of offspring all returning to their homestead each year, similar to those migrating Osprey.

Wood Duck, Aix sponsa

I’m the only birder in the family, so for one week the old feeder is dusted off and filled with sunflower seeds.  It only takes a few hours for the chickadees and finches, to find the cache.  I’m particularly pleased with the nuthatches climbing the trunks of the ash and pines near the back door.  We have Wood Ducks, American Black Ducks, and Common Mergansers on the lake, all new since my childhood days when we only saw Mallards.  There even was an Osprey fishing near the shore, apparently just as happy with the freshwater sunfish and bass as their more common salt water catch.

Common Merganser, Mergus merganser

The last stop in Upstate was Ithaca, the home of dear friends and also the famous Sapsucker Woods and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  I can “blame” them for my list-a-day craze, but Cornell and their brain child eBird have seriously revolutionized birding.

Sapsucker Woods Pond

Their data, even my sightings from the hammock, have documented the loss of 3 billion birds from the U.S. and Canada since the 1970’s, 30% of our total bird population.  “More than 90% of the losses are from 12 families including sparrows, finches, blackbirds, and warblers”.  But all is not doom and gloom.  The water fowl population has grown 56% and raptors are up 200% over the same period.  Those ducks and the thriving Osprey families can thank Cornell, dedicated ornithologists, and even lowly eBirders for this revival.


“Slim Fingers Beckon”

Common Yellowthroat, Geothlypis trichas


Most birders have a sentinel patch or first sighting that opened up the world of birds for them.  It may have been a solitary moment in the wild or just a momentary glance out the kitchen window.  It might have been the inspiration of a gifted bird guide or perhaps the emulation of a parent or friend.  In any case, I’ve found that many birders fondly remember that moment.

from Arch Merrill’s “Slim Fingers Beckon”

For me this moment occurred some 50 years ago while traipsing through the fields adjacent to our family cottage on the shore of Keuka Lake in Upstate New York.  What is that secretive bright yellow bird with the black mask that suddenly popped up from the grass, took a look at me, and quickly dove back into cover?  This was not a usual feeder or yard bird, but something entirely new.  Petersen’s bird guide clued me in; it was the Common Yellowthroat, clearly illustrated on that page.  I was hooked and a birder was born.

The name of this post is the title of Arch Merrill’s venerable and folksy tale of these Finger Lakes, written in 1951.  The six major lakes from west to east are Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, Cayuga, Owasco, and Skaneateles.  Each are long, narrow, and deep, oriented north and south, and cover a large area of central New York State.  Old Iroquois legend claims the “fingers” were formed when the Great Spirit pressed his hand onto the gentle rolling hills, blessing this land for the Iroquois Nation.  Our current scientific lore describes their origin from the gouging, retreating glaciers of the last Ice Age.

Baltimore Oriole, Icterus galbula

Today these lake are lined with cottages.  Some are palatial, but most, like ours, are more modest gathering sites for generations of families.  The clear lakes are dotted with pleasure craft and the bordering hills are adorned with vineyards and numerous small wineries.  There are quiet shaded glens and impressive waterfalls.  For a few short months of every year there is no place that I can think of that is more suitable for pleasant living.

Cedar Waxwing, Bombycilla cedrorum

I was beckoned back to the region this September for the 40th reunion of my medical school class in Syracuse.  The cottage was perfect lodging for the occasion and gave me a chance to spend time with my New Mexican brother who was also responding to the lure of our childhood home.  He, in fact, had trailed an old classic sailboat across the continent to renew our joys of tacking back and forth between Keuka’s shores.

A classic New Mexican beauty, Classico novus mexicanus

There are two 50-75 acre fields adjacent to our cottage.  One is mowed yearly and the other has been left untouched for 40 years.  These represent a laboratory model of ecological succession, comparing the results of a yearly disturbance with the progressive succession of plant life in an old undisturbed field.  By September the mowed field had become an array of typical grasses, weeds, and wildflowers with Queen Anne’s Lace, Goldenrod, and Batchelor’s Button most prominent.  We have observed the succession in the other field from these initial weeds and grasses to later clumps of small Sumac, Cedar, and Pine.  Years later we now have crowded stands of tall trees including Sweet Gum, Cottonwood, Birch, and Red Cedar, all intertwined with Poison Ivy and Virginia Creeper.  These fields and the dirt road which divides them are my sentinel patch.

Mowed field to the left of road and unmowed to the right

“Field” after 40 years of no mowing or disturbance

Over these 50 years the patch list has grown to a modest 56 avian species.  Birding was slow last week but my non-birder brother reported seeing a Golden Eagle.  I wondered if it may have been an immature Bald.  I got a brief distant look at the large dark bird and it was clearly an eagle, but the exact ID was still indefinite; maybe it was a Golden.  The hedgerow along the dirt road did yield a Wilson’s Warbler with its fading black cap, a new bird for the patch.

Wilson’s Warbler, Wilsonia pusilla

There was standing room only at the feeder with Black-capped Chickadees, American Gold and House Finches, and Downey Woodpeckers most numerous.  I heard but did not see a White-breasted Nuthatch.  Its been several years since I spotted the sentinel Common Yellowthroat there.  It seems that neither field habitat is conducive to its needs.  It all makes sense; field succession begets wildlife and bird succession.  Nothing stays the same.

Downy Woodpecker, Picoides pubescens

They say that you can never go home.  That’s not entirely true as long as you allow some inevitable newness to creep in among the vestiges of the old. Just as fields undergo succession and medical students age, our childhood haunts and homes will never be exactly as we remember them.  The cottage is a perfect example of this.  My sister and her husband have “modernized” it, while faithfully preserving some past structures, furniture and pictures as a reminder of 60 years of family history.  It remains a lure for us to come home and for future generations to enjoy.  The lakes, fields and hills continue to beckon the birds as well as us crazies that yearn to observe and photograph the same species, every year, over and over again.