Summer Walk


(This 1008th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on July 18, 2010.)


Cerulean Warbler


Summer birding is notoriously slow-going.


That testosterone-influenced singing and posturing of spring is past and birds have largely retreated to hidden places to nest. They are especially circumspect now in order not to give away their nest locations. This underscores our responsibility not to contribute to their problems by making repeated trips to visit a nest we find. Predators are watching.


Summer birding is, however, still worthwhile if you do two things: (1) pick your spots, and (2) pick your times.


Scott Meier and I did exactly that a few days ago and had a most pleasant morning of birding. Our spot was the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge. And our time was very early in the morning. (Late sleepers will stop reading here.)


The very best time for birding during most of the year extends from a half hour before to a half hour after dawn. That is the time for what birders call the dawn chorus. (Interestingly, there are electromagnetic dawn choruses as well. Occurring at dawn most often during magnetic storms, these are bird-like sounds heard by radio operators.)


Before any light begins to penetrate woodlands, you can often hear the hooting of barred or horned owls or the whinny of a screech owl.


Then the occasional robin offers a few cheery-ups, a cardinal answers with his series of whistled wheeps and a dove softly coos. I love those morning sounds; my wife, one of those late sleepers, hates them.


But then the other birds begin to tune in and soon the outdoors rings with chirps and whistles.


I didn't realize it but there is actually an International Dawn Chorus Day, celebrated on the first Sunday in May. On that day everyone is urged to get out and experience this effect. The day was initiated at Moseley Bog in Birmingham, England in 1984. I never heard of it but every birder I know tries to get out on those early May mornings in any case.


Why is there such a chorus? We cannot look into the minds of wildlife; we have enough trouble trying to understand our own. I conjecture, however, that song birds are celebrating having made it through another threatening night without being picked off by one of those nighttime scourges: owls, flying squirrels and snakes.


Having said all that about the dawn chorus, Scott and I didn't make it that early. We only got to Iroquois at about 6:30, an hour late, but still early enough to beat the heat and find birds still active.


We stopped for a quick check at the Cayuga Overlook on Route 77. This is one of the few places in western New York were you can see black terns. A few of these graceful fliers were patrolling back and forth over the cattails searching out flying insects.


While there, I also got to see my annual common moorhen. One of the dumber moves of ornithologists was changing the name of this bird to common moorhen, a terrible choice. This orange-billed coot-like bird was indeed common when I was young and it was called the Florida gallinule, but now it is increasingly hard to find. They should have renamed it the rare moorhen.


Sadly, the eagle nest that is usually seen back of the Cayuga Pool blew down in early May and, although one eaglet was found alive and was treated by a rehabilitator, it died. We only observes a solitary adult eagle there.


We then headed farther east to walk the Swallow Hollow nature trail. On the way we took a quick look at the ospreys at the Mallard Overlook.


Every time I visit the Swallow Hollow trail, I offer thanks to Anne and Chuck Fourtner, the other Friends of Iroquois and the refuge staff for seeing this trail rehabilitation through to completion. Walking the mile trail is a delight at any time of year.


On this morning we found there among more common birds a yellow-throated vireo, several scarlet tanagers and veeries, a rose-breasted grosbeak and the usual cerulean warblers that are so rare elsewhere. Scott also heard blue-gray gnatcatchers, whose buzzy calls are above my range.


By the time we completed the loop, heat was closing down another fruitful morning of birding.-- Gerry Rising