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Bunting for a Connecticut
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 19, 2008

At about 7:30am was on the Penninsula in Prospect Park with Peter Dorosh, Mary Eyster and Tom Stephenson. The wind was good the night before, and we were hoping for a Connecticut Warbler, one of the trickier birds to see in the fall migration. Like the other Oporornis warblers (Kentucky, Mourning, and Macgillivrays), Connecticuts are walking warblers: they creep around through the leaf litter, turning over leaves for bugs. This means that even if they aren't shy, they are hard to see, because they tend to be under leafy ground cover. Things were looking good, with some nice warbler activity in the trees around us. We had been there for about half-an-hour, carefully searching the good habitat that the Penninsula provides, when a bird called out about twenty feet away. Warbler calls like this are less common in the fall, when birds aren't defending or defining breeding or feeding territories, or trying to attract a mate. More significantly, the call was distinct and unusual, and I knew right away that it was something different. Tom said it could be Connecticut, and we thought he was joking until I played the call on my iPhone...it was an exact match! So now we knew the bird was there, and we spent another forty-five minutes looking without luck. We finally gave up and moved on, but Mary called Ed Crowne and let him know what had happened. Sure enough, about 1/2 hour later Ed called with the news that he had seen the bird about fifty feet from where we'd heard it. We went back and joined Ed. Oddly, I had just said something to Tom about a Lark Bunting. Not two minutes later I got a call--Lark Bunting at Robert Moses State Park. I spent a few more minutes hoping to photograph the Connecticut, but finally had to go in favor of the much rarer bird.

I was out at RMSP in a couple of hours, and, as usual in the NYC and LI area, there were already a lot of birders there ahead of me. The Lark Bunting had been spotted by Doug Futyuma in a flock of House Sparrows. It was little ironic that everyone was trying to find a flock of House Sparrows, which are normally seen as a "trash" bird, and without much success. The Bunting hadn't been seen for a couple of hours at that point, but we were figuring that it would have to come back out at some point. Three hours later I was starting to question whether that was true, and after having a negative interaction with one of the over-zealous park workers (she told me she didn't want people walking around one of the maintenance areas because they were worried that someone was going to "poison the water supply", and no, I'm not joking), I had to abandon the search. Back home again, the inevitable happened--the Bunting reappeared around 6pm.

So that meant up at 4:30, and at RSMP by 6am. This time it was too early for the park workers, and it wound up being moot, as the Bunting appeared almost right away at daybreak, feeding with a large group of House Sparrows in the gravel and grassy areas where it had been seen the day before. I was joined by two other birders, and we got lots of looks at the birds, despite the surprisingly skittish behavior of the sparrows. It was dim and I was never close enough to get great photos of the birds, but I did get a few acceptable shots. Withing half-an-hour the flock broke into a few smaller groups and scattered around the area...I was seeing now why the bird had been so hard to see during the middle of the day. That proved to be true over the next few days, as people saw the Bunting at either dusk or dawn, but had a much harder time locating it at other times.