Just as Memorial Day represents the unofficial start of summer, so too does it represent the unofficial end of the spring bird migration that began with waterfowl back in February and ended with neotropical songbirds like the Baltimore oriole in late May.
It’s true that shorebirds move through our area into mid-June but only the most determined of the hardcore birders will be out looking for them since we have so little habitat that supports shorebirds.
Probably the most reliable location in Cattaraugus County for shorebirds is the Conewango Swamp Wildlife Management Area in Randolph. Swamp Road runs through the heart of the Area making it very accessible and if there are shorebirds in Cattaraugus County, that’s where they’re likely to be.
But Swamp Road is close to an hour drive for me so I generally focus my shorebird activity on flooded areas along the Ischua Creek between Franklinville and Hinsdale and there’s one area in particular where I like to go that is reliable for spotted sandpiper, solitary sandpiper and least sandpiper as well as the more common killdeer.
Sometimes called the “teeter-peep” because of its rocking motion, the spotted sandpiper actually nests in our area and so does the killdeer. The solitary sandpiper does not nest in our area so we only see them in the spring and late summer.
But my favorite of the four is the poorly named least sandpiper. It’s true that it only weighs about one ounce and measures just 6 inches long making it the worlds smallest sandpiper but in terms of stamina, they are anything but least. They winter in South America — some go as far south as Chile and Brazil — and nest in extreme northern Canada, which means that some of them fly as far as 2,500 miles twice a year.
But what’s really amazing is that some of them fly nonstop over the Atlantic Ocean from New England to South America during fall migration. So when I see a small group of least sandpipers in Cattaraugus County, time seems to stand still and I am in awe of these tiny creatures that will see more of the natural world than any human being alive.
So what do birders do between the end of the spring migration and the beginning of the fall migration? We bird by ear. Birding by ear becomes a necessity once the leaves on the trees become so large that we can’t see birds. And unlike birding during spring and fall migration when practically anything can turn up in our binoculars, summer birding is limited to birds that are either nesting here or attempting to nest.
Birding by ear presents obvious challenges that we don’t have when we can see the bird, particularly since most birds have multiple songs and may change their song depending on the time of day or whether they’ve successfully nested. A male bird that has attracted a mate is less likely to sing as often or as vigorously as one that has not.
Habitat is also important when birding by ear. A bird that nests in pine trees is unlikely to be found in the understory of a deciduous forest.
That’s why I look for public land with a variety of habitat because that means a variety of birds and, recently, that took me to Bush Hill State Forest in Farmersville.
I’ve visited most of the state forests in Cattaraugus County and Bush Hill is unique in my experience. For one thing, it has ravines some of which are pretty deep and those ravines attract birds that don’t nest in anyplace but ravines.
I started my hike in an area that had been pretty heavily logged within the last 10 years, but a nice path had been left making the area easily accessible. The first bird that I heard was a brown thrasher, which is right at home in the brushy habitat of areas that have been logged, and their song is easily identifiable because it’s loud and repetitive.
That habitat is also conducive to song sparrows and I heard several along with the rattle of the house wren. House wrens are cavity nesters and enough den trees had been left that wrens had found nesting locations in holes that had probably been made by woodpeckers.
The area was also perfect habitat for gray catbird, chestnut-sided warbler, common yellowthroat, yellow warbler and indigo bunting as well as other species. In fact, the only bird that surprised me a little was a single tree swallow. Tree swallows are also cavity nesters but I associate them with areas where there is water since a big part of their diet is mosquitoes.
But the areas that I like the most at Bush Hill are the areas of dense forest with breaks. Walking through those areas I quickly added red-eyed vireo, blue-headed vireo, Eastern towhee, ovenbird, mourning warbler, American redstart and scarlet tanager, but then I heard something that made me pause because it didn’t register right away as something I’d heard before.
I’ve been birding at Bush Hill for close to 20 years and since I was standing at the top of one of the ravines, I was confident it was either a Canada warbler or a Louisiana waterthrush and I just needed to hear it once more to nail it down. It took awhile and I’ve got the mosquito bites to prove it but after half an hour, it sang once and I was able to identify it as a Louisiana waterthrush and Bush Hill State Forest is one of the few places in the county outside Allegany State Park where I’ve heard it.
It’s called a waterthrush because of its affinity for nesting near flowing water and its feathering makes it look like a wood thrush or hermit thrush but it’s actually a warbler. All told, I had 44 species in the four hours that I was there which made for a great morning of birding.
Although I’ve learned bird songs the old fashioned way — by standing in the woods swatting mosquitoes, black flies and all manner of creepy-crawlers until I saw the bird and heard the song — I understand that there are apps now that can make the process easier but I haven’t really investigated them and may for a future column.
Some of the birds mentioned here can be seen at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/meadowsteward/.