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Birds section header
Mad Dash to the Derby
SATURDAY, APRIL 19, 2008


Movement in the park was good last Saturday, and tapered off gradually since then. This time of year is when we look forward to the possiblity of some overshoot warblers--birds that breed south of New York, but fly a bit too far north in the spring and wind up here. Yellow Throated Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, and (very rarely) Swainsons Warbler all fall in this category. In other words, it's a good time for me to be birding in around NYC. At the same time, the migration tends to happen in waves, frequently connected to weather fronts. The birds use south winds to help them travel up the coast towards their breeding grounds, and if the winds are against them they often move less. Hence in the spring we look forward to south winds, and in the fall to north winds. A typical pattern is to have a front move through, and have a good day of birding the next morning (most birds migrate at night). The birding then tapers off over the next few days until the next push.

All that said, the birding was tapering off since Saturday, and I thought I might take a chance and zip upstate to look for a couple of birds that had been reported there lately. I left Thursday mid day and by 6pm I was in Montezuma NWR, at the north end of Lake Cayuga, looking for Sandhill Crane. As the sun came down low and warmed the marsh reeds up to a golden hue, I spotted one of these large, beautiful birds feeding at a distance in the fields. It stayed a few moments and then lifted up and soared out of sight. A great moment and a great way to start this whirlwind trip.

From there I drove up to Derby Hill, a famous hawk watch located on the southeastern shore of Lake Ontario, just outside of Mexico, NY. I pulled in around ten to the sound of thousands of Spring Peepers and other frogs chirping in loud unison. What a difference from being here six weeks earlier, when just a few minutes in the wind would leaved my gloved fingers numb and my face nearly frostbitten. Now it was 50 degrees at night, and a balmy 70s in the day, and the animals were taking full advantage. Monkey and I bedded down in the car and slept relatively well (despite not being able to quite stretch out in the hatchback), and were up with the sun at 5 or so. Hawks tend to fly on thermals, and the thermals don't get going until the sun warms things up, so it would be a few hours before any raptors arrived. In the meantime we birded the road and hedgerows. Around 8am I met up with Jerry Smith, local bird club president and very well versed with upstate birds. He gave me some good suggestions on where to find some of my "problem" birds; and soon, birders were arriving in cars up the hill of the North Lookout.

Hawk watches often depend on funneling mechanisms, and Derby Hill is not an exception. As migrating hawks come north they hit Lake Ontario and, loath to fly out over the open water, they cruise along the shore towards Derby Hill, where the lake end and the birds can turn the corner to continue north. Hence, the birds are all funneled past this spot, which makes Derby Hill one of the best hawk spots in the East. On a good day there can be thousands upon thousands of birds passing overhead. Today wasn't quite that spectacular, and though it started slow there were plenty of good birds to see. Several large kettles of Broad Winged Hawks passed by, as did a number of lone Sharp Shinned Hawks, Red Tails, Red Shouldereds, and (climactically later in the day) 3 immature Golden Eagles, dwarfing even the enormous Turkey Vultures with their wingspan.

Having seen the Broad Wings and Golden Eagles (my target birds for the trip), I left Derby Hill and spent a few hours on the east shore of Lake Ontario poking around and hoping to see a Vesper Sparrow. No luck with the Vesper, but at around 4 I checked my email and saw that Upland Sandpiper had been reported at a nearby aiport. I drove down and spent a little while looking through chain link fence into the fields around the airport, half expecting a cop to come up and ask me why I was checking out the hangars with binoculars. That worry never materialized, but the sandpipers did, and I got good looks at a pair of these birds which are declining precipitously in New York State. One last check of the email at sunset - nothing reported downstate, thank goodness - and I headed south to Brooklyn, ready for the next front to roll in.