A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

Friday, 18 December 2015

New York Trip Report - Day 4 (Doodletown & Plumb Beach)

Day 4 -  Sunday 24th May 2015

Sunday dawned with bright blue skies and sun, perfect weather for what was my most looked forward to day of our trip – Doodletown. Part of Bear Mountain State Park and situated just over an hour’s drive north of Manhattan, this fantastic area is a well-known and popular destination amongst New York birders.
Black Vultures, New York
Lots of Black Vultures took advantage of the clear skies - the diagnostic white tips to the wings were visible even at a distance
Hiring a car for the day, despite our reservations, turned out to be a brilliant decision, and we were soon well on our way, crossing the George Washington Bridge and heading north through New Jersey. We encountered our first Black Vulture of the trip taking advantage of the thermals, passing several more as we travelled, along with a classic American cop chase encounter unfolding right in front of our eyes. A quick chase resulted in the two motorcyclists crashing head first over their handlebars before being pinned down, cuffed and seeing 5 guns pointed at their heads by the American police.

Getting slightly lost finding the car parking area for the start of our walk at Bear Mountain, we stopped at a layby to reassess. A Northern Mockingbird (a bird we had so far missed in the two parks) immediately flew in to the sunny clearing, beak laden with juicy caterpillars and indicating a nest may be nearby. 
Northern Mockingbird - New York
Northern Mockingbird with caterpillars - presumably to feed young
A small, brightly coloured bird perched on the wires also caught my eye, and a closer look through binoculars revealed a fine male Indigo Bunting, again another bird that we were yet to catch up with on the trip. With a second bird flying through the Mockingbird clearing, we were really able to admire the stunning bright blue plumage that gives the birds their name. Eventually seeing around 4 in total, this was the only location during our trip that we managed to connect with these brightly coloured wonders.

Heading back to the car, it soon became clear that we wouldn’t be going anywhere anytime soon – neither of us had any idea how to start the car! Luckily a passing cop helped us out and thankfully we were on our way again, having had a much better experience of American cops first hand than the two unfortunate motorcyclists earlier.
Reaching our parking layby opposite a small body of water, our first Turkey Vulture of the trip soared low down overhead. Distinguished from the Black Vultures by the strip of silver on the underwing, the two are easily told apart even from a distance. A Great Blue Heron (the American equivalent of our Grey Herons) passed overhead, its sheer size apparent, while a male Yellow Warbler flitted through the trees.
Turkey Vulture - Doodletown, New York
Turkey Vulture - The thick white stripe on the underside meant we could tell the two vulture species apart easily
The sun now beating down, we headed up the trail to track down some of the many warbler wonders that breed here. Unlike the warblers passing through Central and Prospect Park that merely pass through on their migration, the warblers at Bear Mountain actually stop to breed in the area, meaning a whole variety of new species would be opened up for us. With such mouth-watering treats as Hooded, Cerulean, Blue-winged and the delightfully named Worm-eating Warbler all easily accessible here, yet only encountered very occasionally in the Manhattan parks, we hoped to catch up with this colourful cast on their breeding grounds.
Black Vulture - Doodletown, New York
Black Vulture
Heading up the trail and admiring a large flock of Black and Turkey Vultures that were right overhead, we had barely gone a few metres before we picked up the high pitched call of a Cerulean Warbler. This beautiful powder-blue warbler was high up on my list of most wanted birds to see, and within a few minutes of peering up in to the tree, I caught sight of a movement amongst the twisting vines as a fine male flitted through the leaves, giving great views as it remained stationary on an exposed branch. Bingo. Much easier to see than we had expected and our first target safely in the bag – Doodletown was proving to be a doddle!
Doodletown, New York
One of the typical warbler-rich trails at Doodletown
Heading down the track and having memorised the songs of the warbler species we expected to see here, we soon stopped when I recognised a familiar call coming from a tree by the side of the trail – Blue-winged Warbler. Within moments, I caught a glimpse out of the corner of my eye as a flash of colour flew towards the telegraph pole at the side of the road next to us. Singing continuously, for such a brightly coloured bird it was almost impossible to relocate – the sound so loud but the bird seemingly obscured deep in a bush somewhere to our right. Finally, I had it, a gorgeous male, nestled within the branches and leaves of the shrub right in front of us. 
Blue-winged Warbler - Doodletown, New York
We stopped to watch this beautiful warbler, now busy preening, and took in the bright sunshine yellow body, blue wings and olive green back. Settled and content, the Blue-winged Warbler continued to sing his heart out, and we left him to attract a mate in peace, another of our target warblers off the list.
Blue-winged Warbler - Doodletown, New York
Blue-winged Warbler - Doodletown, New York
The 'Blue-winged Warbler's Blue wings'
Another familiar call soon caught our attention, and a quick check of our app revealed it to be a Yellow-throated Vireo. This proved to be a nightmare to find, the call emanating from different parts of the trees as this elusive bird seemed to move all over the place. After around 15 frustrating minutes, we eventually pinned it down to a stand of trees on the other side of the trail, the yellow throat and double white wing-bars unmistakeable.

Walking further up the trail, we stopped at a clearing overlooking a stand of woodland. A bird flying out of the trees and over the path caught my eye, and raising my binoculars I was stunned to be greeted by a pristine male Hooded Warbler – Alex’s number 1 target bird of the trip. 
Hooded Warbler - Doodletown, New York
The equivalent of my male Blackburnian Warbler, panic then ensued as I tried to direct him to the bird – luckily in a much shorter time than it took me to find the first Blackburnian at Central Park! With the classic “baby baby, I love you” song that was ingrained in our memory, we watched as this beautiful warbler sang from the branches opposite, the jet black hood standing out from the bright yellow body (reminding me of a bumble bee) and ecstatic that we had tracked down our main target at the site.
Hooded Warbler - Doodletown, New York
Our much sought after Hooded Warbler!
So rich in bird life, Doodletown had such a variety of species that we just wouldn’t see in Manhattan. A pair of Blue-grey Gnatcatchers flitting from tree to tree were the only two of the trip, their long tails and bright, white-ringed eyes giving them a ‘cute’ appearance, while a Pileated Woodpecker flying right over our heads was a fantastic spot by Alex. Huge in size and prehistoric looking in appearance, these large woodpeckers breed at Bear Mountain, but often prove to be particularly hard to spot, so it was brilliant to bump in on one like this without even trying!
Blue-grey Gnatcatcher - Doodletown, New York
Blue-Grey Gnatcatcher
Talking to a pair of birders on the trail path, we learned that another of our sought after species – Ruby-throated Hummingbird – had been seen regularly that morning buzzing around the trees surrounding the large pond further up the track, and that a male Kentucky Warbler had taken up residence in a favoured tree much further up the trail.  Getting directions, we continued on, hoping to catch up with both of these difficult to pin down species. With no definite sites for Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and with sightings usually of individuals whizzing past randomly, we’d had no luck at Prospect Park, even though a female was apparently nesting near the lake. Unfortunately however, it was the same case here, and despite looking around the pond, we had no luck in relocating it.
Doodletown Reservoir
The patch of water in question the hummingbird was said to favour
Following the directions we had been given and heading further up the hill, we eventually came to a small fast flowing brook cutting through the trees, where a brown flycatcher perched on a close-by branch gave excellent views – an Eastern Phoebe
Eastern Phoebe - Doodletown, New York
Eastern Phoebe - Doodletown, New York
Eastern Phoebe - We had fantastic views  of this attractive little flycatcher
Eastern Phoebe was another bird we had yet to encounter on our trip until now, and we watched as the bird performed its diagnostic tail wagging, beak laden with insects. Often nesting under bridges, it was quite likely a pair had built their nest near or under the small bridge we were standing on.
Eastern Phoebe - Doodletown, New York
Moving on and joining the few other birders further up the path where the Kentucky Warbler was setting up territory, we gazed up to a low branch where the distinct song was emanating from. Not a species that we were expecting to see in America, this was a mini American twitch in itself! We had soon locked on to this fantastic warbler, throwing his head back and singing loudly from the exposed perch.
Kentucky Warbler - Doodletown, New York
Kentucky Warbler - Doodletown, New York
The Kentucky Warbler - a fantastic addition to our trip list
After a while, a sound we instantly knew drew us away from the Kentucky, a long high pitched “Peeeeeeee-weeeeeeee”. This could only be one thing – an Eastern Wood Peewee. Another flycatcher that we were yet to encounter in Manhattan’s parks, we climbed up the bank and in to the trees to see if we could track down the owner of the call. Approaching from where the sound was coming from, I spotted a small brown bird perched on a branch – our Peewee. Looking through our bins, we admired this small flycatcher ‘peeweeing’ on several occasions, taking a few record shorts until a loud sneeze from Alex disturbed it (flusher!).
Eastern Wood Peewee - Doodletown, New York
Eastern Wood Peewee
Deciding to continue on, and after spotting another male Hooded Warbler and what was presumably the Kentucky Warbler deciding to move further up the path, our ears caught a loud trilling coming from the trees nearby – unmistakable as a Worm-eating Warbler. Only very rarely seen in spring at Central and Prospect parks, but with several birds reliably reported at Doodletown during the breeding season, we excitedly made our way up the steep slope following the trilling. Quite similar to the more familiar call of our Grasshopper Warblers, spotting the bird in question was extremely difficult, obviously perching on the top of the branches and obscured from down below by the abundance of leaves. Eventually though, we caught a glimpse as it passed underneath the bough, stopping for a brief second to call, before it had vanished once more and melted in to the leaves. Definitely not a species I had expected to see, but desperately wanted to due to the quirky name! This was also our 23rd warbler of the trip, a tally that we were most definitely pleased with!
Worm-eating Warbler - Doodletown, New York
DREADFUL out of focus record shot of the Worm-eating Warbler!
Exploring higher up the trail where the trees became thicker interestingly resulted in much fewer birds, a nesting Red-eyed Vireo the only species of note as we rested from the sun and took in the views. Deciding to head down and give the Hummingbird another crack, stopping at the side of the trail resulted in one of my favourite spots all trip, as Alex called “Eastern Bluebird – in that tree!” Looking over the valley, I just managed to get my bins on this most unmistakable and charismatic species, the bright blue and orange plumage shining out even from a distance. And then, just like that, it fluttered across the valley, disappearing behind a line of trees. Amazing. This was another bird that I had especially wanted to see but didn’t expect to, and it was purely by chance – if we had been looking the other way or not stopped to check the valley, we would have missed it entirely.
Doodletown, New York
The thick vegetation and tree cover lining the paths was perfect for warblers
Now returning to the pond where the Ruby-throated Hummingbird had been frequenting, we heard a group of birders mentioning that they had just spotted a Yellow-billed Cuckoo in the trees. After perhaps one of the worst dips in my birding memory at Porthgwarra in Cornwall last October, this would definitely go some way towards easing that pain.

Keeping our eyes peeled, we noticed a flash of white and brown – the Yellow-billed Cuckoo. What a bird (even if it was on the wrong side of the Atlantic to truly heal our hurting British lists)! Similar in structure to Black-billed Cuckoos, Yellow-billed can be distinguished by the large white markings on the tail – much more restricted on the small uniform stripes on the tail of the Black-billed, and the distinctive yellow bill.
Yellow-billed Cuckoo - Doodletown, New York
Deciding to have our lunch by the pond while keeping a watchful eye out for any hummingbirds, another Great Blue Heron slowly crept around the bare edges hunting, at one point striking it lucky and scoring a meal of a large frog. The chestnut thighs were extremely obvious, even at a distance, and hopefully individuals will soon start to get recognised more frequently in Britain now the recent Scilly bird has made people more aware of what to look for (bring on the grip back!)
Great Blue Heron - Doodletown, New York
Great Blue Heron - Doodletown, New York
Noticing a brown bird that had appeared to be nesting in one of the nearby shrubs, Alex called me over to take a look – our first Brown-headed Cowbird. With just brief views initially, we eventually got a much better look at this all brown bird as it flitted through the trees – the triangle shaped bill distinctive. Unfortunately, at this moment, the American birders from earlier excitedly called us over – the hummingbird was back! Sprinting over, we peered up in to the leaves, but there was no sign. “It’s just gone” they explained! “Only just missed it!” Typical! From this moment on we didn’t take our eyes off the spot!

Joining us in the search for the hummingbird, and necks straining, we stared up to the tops of the trees this particular individual had been favouring. This was probably where we had been going wrong, as we had never imagined they would be so high up (we’d been looking at eye level) – who knows how many hummingbirds we had missed buzzing high up over our heads!

The Yellow-billed Cuckoo from earlier made a return to the trees, providing much better views this time, while an Eastern Kingbird seemed intent on harassing a pair of Warbling Vireos that had used the tops of the branches to make a nest.
Yellow-billed Cuckoo - Doodletown, New York
The yellow bill of the Cuckoo was obvious..
Yellow-billed Cuckoo - Doodletown, New York
Yellow-billed Cuckoo - Doodletown, New York
As were the thick white tail stripes 
With our companions moving on and wishing us luck, we were left to find this most elusive of birds ourselves. One of our most wanted this trip and having never seen a Hummingbird before, we were determined to stick it out – even if it meant staying all afternoon! Looking over the water, I noticed two large corvids fly over – a new species for the trip – but which ones were they, Fish or American?! Very similar in flight, the only reliable way to separate the two would be to hear them call. Hoping for them to break their silence, we were rewarded with a familiar long cawwww – American Crow! These turned out to be the only two of the trip, so we were extremely lucky to jam in on them.
Baltimore Oriole - Doodletown, New York
This male Baltimore Oriole showed really well while we waited
Eventually after around half an hour Alex excitedly pointed up to the tree – we had it, perched in all its glory, right above our heads. Managing just a few record shots, we admired this absolutely stunning little bird, metallic green wings and shiny ruby-red throat glowing in the sun. And then it was off, buzzing through the sky on tiny wings off to the next patch of trees across the water. Success! Ruby-throated Hummingbird and one of the top three birds of the entire trip.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird - Doodletown, New York
Ruby-throated Hummingbird - Doodletown, New York
Terribly out of focus - but it was our first wild Hummingbird!! 
With the afternoon free, and just Nashville Warbler and Chipping Sparrow being the only additional notable birds, we decided to make the most of the hire car and head over to Plumb Beach in Brooklyn. This is a great location for shorebirds, and often holds large counts of Black Skimmers that can be found resting on the sand – another star species that we were especially keen to catch up with. Arriving on the shore, we immediately encountered our first new birds – 4 Least Terns hurrying past in front of the rocks, battling against the wind. Near identical to our Little Terns and once considered the same species, Least Terns are the American equivalent, only recently split by the ABA.
Least Terns - Doodletown, New York
Least Terns at Plumb Beach
A fine American Oystercatcher pottered along the tideline, another first for the trip, and we could clearly see the bright yellow eye that is the key difference from our European Oystercatchers. With so many American counterparts on this trip exhibiting only minor differences from our European species, we had experienced first-hand what to look for when identifying them, and would definitely be checking common birds in the UK more thoroughly from now on for any stray American vagrants hidden within.
American Oystercatcher - Doodletown, New York
American Oystercatcher
Scoping in to the distance, Alex had tracked down the Black Skimmers on a far out sandbank, and making our way across the shore we eventually caught up with these bizarre looking birds. 
Black Skimmer - Plumb Beach, New York
Black Skimmer - Plumb Beach, New York
Black Skimmer - Plumb Beach, New York
Black Skimmers - incredible looking birds
With a flock of around 150 sat on the sand, several split off from the flock and flew right past us, giving spectacular views of their bright red, almost clown like bills. Avoiding the water, we set up the scope to take in these incredible birds, another highlight of the tip. It was amazing to think that they were so close to civilisation, the Brooklyn landscape behind the flock reminding us that we were still in the big city, yet watching an incredible array of birds and wildlife.
Black Skimmer - Plumb Beach, New York
Black Skimmer - Plumb Beach, New York
Black Skimmer - Plumb Beach, New York
Black Skimmer - Plumb Beach, New York
Black Skimmer - Plumb Beach, New York
A small flock of Sanderling scurrying around the sand revealed no Least or Semipalmated Sandpipers within, but flocks of American Herring Gulls provided the best views of this species so far on the trip, strutting across the shore and taking advantage of the rich pickings of crabs and other debris washed up on the sand.
American Herring Gull - Plumb Beach, New York
American Herring Gull - Plumb Beach, New York
With time pressing on and after a spot of Man vs Food sightseeing at Brennan & Carrs (their double dipped beef sandwich did look amazing) we endured the stressful ordeal of getting our hire car back before 9pm. With every petrol station we approached either closed or shut down, and with the sat-nav losing signal amongst the skyscrapers of New York towards the end, it was a miracle that we managed to make it back at all.
Brennan and Carrs, Brooklyn, New York
Luckily we joined the queue of other returning vehicles, and with the guy at the desk letting us off for not refilling the car full (he obviously wanted to head home) we headed back to the hotel happy after what had been a fantastic day exploring new areas and bagging a tonne of brilliant new birds.      
Statue of Liberty, New York

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