The glorious month of May arrives. As the sun warms our land, leaves unfurl, flowers bloom and the landscape becomes a canvas of pale green leaves and pink, white and yellow blossoms, on trees, shrubs and weeds. More and more birds fly in under cover of darkness. Time for our annual Great Gull Island Birdathon, when Danny and I cover as much territory as possible to record the number of different bird species we see to raise money for the Great Gull Island Project. Thank you, sponsors!
Great Gull Island is a 17-acre island off the tip of the North Fork of Long Island, NY, a former government property that was ceded over to the American Museum of Natural History in 1949. The area is now inhabited by thousands of common and roseate terns. For 53 years, Helen Hays and Joe Di Costanza with the help of an ever-changing posse of volunteers have monitored the breeding cycle of thousands of these nesting terns. One of the volunteers, Dale Dancis, has written a three-volume history of the island available online via the Linnaean Society of New York’s website.
Out at dawn on the 12th, Danny and I head out to bird the road. Standing on the porch we record our resident birds, among them: chickadee, titmouse, phoebe, yellow-throated vireo, cardinal, ruby-throated hummingbird, tree swallow, bluebird, downy and hairy woodpeckers, goldfinch, redstart and chestnut-sided warbler.
As we amble along, the day warms up and various species sing, honk, warble and trill to be counted. Canada geese are at the big pond, one pair with tiny goslings. A killdeer flies away calling “k’deer, k’deer, k’deer.” Eastern kingbirds shimmer-shake their wings as they soar up and then glide back down to perch. The red-shouldered hawk calls from the back of the swamp, where I believe it is nesting. The woods are alive with constantly calling ovenbirds, black-and-white warblers, yellowthroats and yellow warblers. A solitary turkey gobbles as it trots down the road. His companions perhaps are staying hidden, for the turkey hunting season is on.
By the time we have made it to the cemetery and back (about four miles), we have 55 species, about what I have been seeing every morning that I have walked the road this May. This is quite a low number. Usually I see around 65 to 70 at this time of year. One banner year, I had 81 species on the road on a lovely May morning. Migration is yet to peak. Darn those recent northerly winds.
Off we go to the Hudson River, ticking off those guardians of the highways the red-tailed hawks. The peregrine is on her nest under the Dunne Bridge into Albany; the bald eagle is on its now almost hidden nest visible from Rail Lane in Schodack.
Fish crows that have eluded us during this period for years call to one another high above the river. At Schodack Island State Park, the osprey is back on its nest in one of the buckets on a high tension wire near the I-90 bridge.
We scan for ducks and gulls. None. Open fields, plowed or with the haze of a crop, are so dry we cannot find any shorebirds. At the end of the first day, we have only 76 species. Will we even reach 100 this year?
On the second day, the veerys and wood thrushes are singing from the woods around the house. We hike to and then through Hand Hollow Conservation area. Just as we are entering the parking lot, a scarlet tanager sings his raspy song from the top of a tall ash tree, his red and black visible through the unfurling leaves — first-of-the-year bird for us. Sapsuckers wheeze to one another. Listening carefully, we distinguish between the long kuk-kuk-kee-kee-kikiki calls of the pileated woodpecker and flicker. A great crested flycatcher wheepwheeps as we are coming down the hill to the lower beaver ponds. Coo coo coo gooowp, a yellow-billed cuckoo starts singing and does not stop.
At Hand Hollow, beavers are reshaping both the upper and lower ponds, having taken down many, many shrubs and small trees — large trees, too, gouged at the base, await those final gnaws. Danny spots a bird landing in a tree near the water: a green heron, also a first of the year.
Time to look for the high altitude species on October Mountain. As we drive into the forest, northern waterthrushes noisily announce their presence. In one of the reservoirs, a loon proudly sails along. We find a hermit thrush, juncos and creepers.
But the best is in the marshy area adjacent to the reservoir, where we hear “onk-a-donk, onk-a-donk,” that wondrous, unmelodic call of the American bittern, one of my favorite birds. Scan as we may the phragmites, we do not see him even though he sounds as if he is right in front of us. Masters of camouflage are those bitterns!
On the way down the mountain we stop at Buckley Dunton Lake. Northern rough-winged swallows zoom into and back out of the bridge by the boat launch. By the end of this day, we add 20 more species.
The next day, at sunrise, as I walk along the road here, four new species (all firsts of the year) show up: pewee, prairie warbler, thrasher and the black-billed cuckoo, its rapid cu-cu-cu quite distinct from its cousin’s singular coos. A broad-winged hawk flies across the road and into the woods, his striped tail, with equal-sized bands of brown and white, prominent. The red-shouldered’s tail is also banded, but with broad brown bands interspersed with narrow white bands.
A second trip down the Hudson adds one more for the count: a kestrel, bringing our total to a solid 102!