Last Day Lifers in Rochester
We spent Thanksgiving week this year in Rochester, New York. It’s was a great trip – good weather and good family times. Birding-wise, there isn’t a lot to see in Rochester in late November, unless it’s an irruption year for boreal species like Snowy Owl and Common Redpoll. It either wasn’t one of those years, or it was too early. Still, birders had been reporting a Bohemian Waxwing and a trio of Pine Grosbeaks at a place called Webster Park, both of which would’ve been lifers. I dutifully headed there the first morning I was in town. As often often happens when you’re birding out of town, I wasn’t exactly sure where to go. The eBird hotspot was “Webster Park–campground area.” There was a quarter-mile long road that turned left into a campground area, so I basically walked around the area. I saw a few birds, but no Pine Grosbeaks or any waxwings. It wasn’t until the end of my stay that I ran into some local birders, who told me which loop trail with the crabapple trees the Pine Grosbeaks had been favoring.
I came back the next morning and, despite the additional presence of a half-dozen other birders, didn’t find any Pine Grosbeaks and couldn’t pick a Bohemian Waxwing out of a flock of two dozen Cedar Waxwings. Each day, the Pine Grosbeaks were reported either before I arrived or in the afternoon after I left. I stayed home on Thanksgiving, but was out again on Friday morning. The wind was gusty. There was occasional light drizzle. And I didn’t see any grosbeaks or waxwings. Saturday was the last day of our trip, and thus my last chance. I showed up at 8am, apparently 15 minutes after the Pine Grosbeaks had made a brief stop at the crabapple trees. After an hour of half of stalking the same quarter-mile of trail, my patience was finally rewarded. I heard the Pine Grosbeaks before I saw them. Conveniently, they then flew atop a pine tree for clear views. They’re big finches with some delicate plumage.
Another lifer target for the trip was Eastern Screech-Owl. There were scattered reports of these tiny creatures across town. But given their excellent camouflage, I either needed to get incredibly luck or some local intel. I ended up scoring the intel. Thanks to my multiple trips to Webster Park failing to find the Pine Grosbeaks, I crossed paths with local birders who gave me suggestions. One woman directed me to two specific trees where I might find an Eastern Screech-Owl. I checked them both one day, and struck out. But on the morning of our last day in Rochester, before I went to Webster Park for my 4th try at Pine Grosbeak, I found the little dude pictured below in a tree cavity in Abraham Lincoln Park. These little owls aren’t much bigger than your hand. And despite their name, they don’t screech.
While I was failing to find lifers, I did manage to see some good birds that don’t call Los Angeles home. During my travels, I saw Long-tailed Ducks lounging and feeding just off shore on Lake Ontario. A lone Tundra Swan was calling in flight during a hike, and then stood on a frozen pond bellowing for companionship. A crow mob at Webster Park distracted us from the lack of Pine Grosbeaks and led me to a Barred Owl. Among the many woodpeckers I saw, I found a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker working a leafless tree at Mendon Ponds. And I finally got a (distant) photo of an American Black Duck.
You fully appreciate the species diversity of Los Angeles when you travel to somewhere like Rochester in late fall. For the month of November, birders have reported seeing 142 species in eBird in Monroe County, New York, compared to 299 species in Los Angeles County. Granted, LA County is much bigger than Monroe County. but consider this: for the entire state of New York, eBirders have only reported 263 species in November. I didn’t have a single checklist in Rochester with more than 18 species, whereas counts in the 20s and 30s are common when birding Los Angeles. In Rochester, if you’re walking parks or forest, it’s Black-capped Chickadees, American Robins, Northern Cardinals, Downy Woodpeckers, and Blue Jays on every list. After that, it’s a scattering of a few others species. I was surprised by the almost total absence of sparrows and other ground birds.
Our last adventure during the trip was to a place called Wild Wings Birds of Prey Facility. It’s located at Mendon Ponds, and is a non-profit educational organization. They care for injured birds of prey that cannot be re-released into the wild. You can walk around the cages where they keep many of the birds, and get point blank views at all kinds of hawks and owls. Visiting on Thanksgiving weekend is a treat, because they’ve got many of the animals out of the cages with handlers. While we were there, we got to see Peregrine Falcon, Eastern Screech-Owl, Short-eared Owl, Gyrfalcon, Swainson’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk all on a handler’s arm. Inside the cages they had a Northern Saw-whet Owl, two Snowy Owls, Long-eared Owl, Great-Horned Owl, Bald Eagles, Barn Owls, Barred Owls, and a Pileated Woodpecker. I can’t describe how much of a treat it was to get arms-length views of all of these birds.
On top of that, another amazing thing about visiting the Wild Wings Nature Center is the chance to hand-feed some wild birds. They sell birdseed at the nature center, and over the years enough humans have walked the trails in the area with their hands full of birdseed that the Tufted Titmice and Black-capped Chickadees have grown accustomed to feeding out of your hand.