Trip Reports
Bashakill Wildlife Management Area (Sullivan County) - May 7, 2017

Note: Big thanks to Lance Verderame of the Sullivan County Audubon Society, a NYSYBC Partner Club, for leading this wonderful field trip. Lance is a well-known local birding expert who has led numerous NYSYBC trips in the past. For more information on the Sullivan County Audubon Society and Sullivan County birding hotspots, visit www.sullivanaudubon.org.

Coffee at 4:36am, photo by Maura Muller
Coffee at 4:36am

From the Journal of Truth Muller, Birder -- May 7th, 2017

It’s that time of year again. Early May, when the Technicolor migration of warblers, vireos, orioles and other avian gems reaches its zenith. However, at the start of my day, May 7th, the dominant colors are the mocha of strong coffee, black of night and sickly green of the microwave display stating the ungodly hour - 4:36. A.M. This early rise, matched only by the American Robins, is justified by sounds that few people who sleep in on Sundays ever get to hear; the call of Barred Owls, repeatedly asking, “who-cooks-for-yoooou? Who-cooks-for-you-allll?”, and the Whip-poor-will, shouting its name at the night. This marks the 5AM start time of the New York State Young Birders Club May field trip to the Basha Kill Wetlands.
Almost daybreak, photo by Maura Muller
Almost daybreak
photo by Maura Muller

 
Our leader is Lance Verderame, one of the best (and nicest!) birders in Sullivan County. The first dozen or so birds are identified entirely by sound. Much of the quiet conversation we exchange is cut off prematurely by “did you hear that?”. The Barred Owls, two in number on opposite sides of Haven Road, and the Whip-poor-will are joined by a Canada Goose, a Red-winged Blackbird, and the sweet trilly notes of a Song Sparrow solo, then a duet. An American Bittern puts in its two cents with one of my favorite calls, best described as a “glunking”, reminiscent of water running out of an inverted gallon jug.

As the sun begins to show intention of revealing itself and offering our group some much-needed warmth, Mallards quack and Wood Ducks whistle. I begin to make out faces, and find there are around 8 of us. It begins to rain, defying the forecast of “cloudy, no rain” with a wet, bitter gust over the water. We watch fish leap for insects around the Haven Road bridge. The Basha Kill throws off her fog blanket, tossing it up onto the ridge. One of the parents spots the first bird we actually see, one of the resident Bald Eagles soaring overhead, followed by three Wood Ducks. Red-winged Blackbirds and American Crows saunter on Haven Road. Someone wonders aloud about what species of fish are leaping by the bridge, so I step off the road for a closer look. Just then, a large, gray, cigar-shaped bird with pointed wings shoots past my head, missing it by no more than 2 feet. A Common Nighthawk! So close I could almost reach out and touch this flying shard of midnight. Such a chance, high-quality sighting may only come once in a lifetime. We count ourselves lucky to have all had that chance, and hope that this luck will extend to the day’s weather, which abuses us via cold, oppressive mist.

As we head away from the bridge towards “The Orchard,” Club President Garret Van Gelder hears a gobbling tom Wild Turkey. This spot is warbler country, and our first, the appropriately named Yellow Warbler, cheers us with its song. Warblers are characterized by small sized, pointy beaks for eating small insects, hyperactive movements, primarily yellow, blue, gray and/or brown coloration, and loud, often buzzy songs. They are not known for easy identification, nor, counterintuitively, for warbling, which few, if any do. Unfortunately, rain and wind suppress small birds. We still hear a Black-throated Blue Warbler but cannot see him, nor the invisible Baltimore Orioles, Gray Catbirds and Veery that vie for our ears’ attention. Finally the weather drives us back to our cars to warm up and dry out. Rain and wind tend to suppress birders, too!

Gray Catbird, photo by Rion Yoshimura
Gray Catbird, photo by Rion Yoshimura

It is now 7 AM, and the rest of the young birders and parents on today's trip arrive, bringing the total to 19. The rain has stopped, for now, and a young Mute Swan flies over, leading us back down Haven Road. We pick up a frenetic pair of Song Sparrows holding sideways onto the reeds, a Common Yellowthroat, two Eastern Kingbirds, and an Eastern Phoebe, all in the roadside herbage. Some young birders with sharper eyes than mine spot a Common Loon and a Common Merganser flying hundreds of feet overhead. I do see two more Bald Eagles, which are locked in a territorial tussle with several American Crows and four Red-winged Blackbirds - perhaps the eagles have overstepped onto someone else’s home turf, or passed too close to nests. Whatever the reason, it’s an impressive glimpse into bird life.

Just then a huge flock of swallows shoots past us, twittering madly. These pint-sized aerial acrobats make the Blue Angels look clunky as they swoop and dive with perfect coordination, over and under the bridge, across the water, then double back and land on the overhead telephone wires to preen their knife-blade wings back to glossy perfection. There are four species; Tree Swallows which are an iridescent blue, Barn Swallows with their forked tails, tiny biege Bank Swallows, and the real prize, two Cliff Swallows, an exquisite mix of buff, ochre and blue-black. We admire the little beauties, then head for The Orchard in the hopes of a do-over.

This time, we lay eyes on the Gray Catbirds, a Baltimore Oriole, a gorgeous Chestnut-sided Warbler and a flashy American Redstart. Deeper in, we find a large flock of American Goldfinches up in the canopy and strain our necks to look at their highlighter-yellow plumage. After watching two Ruby-crowned Kinglets ricochet through a pair of Red Pines edging the parking lot, we move on to the Stop-sign Trail. Just a few steps in, my mom calls out “Coot!” She’s close, it’s not an American Coot but its cousin, the Common Gallinule, a coal black bird with a red beak and face, resembling a swimming chicken. Here we get another rare sight. The bird, revealing itself to be male, raises and spreads its tail to show off two wide white feathers. On cue, a female slinks out of the undergrowth and slips behind the male, following single file. We spy through scopes as the courting couple swims out of view.

Other sights and sounds on this trail include Red-bellied Woodpecker, Yellow-throated and Red-eyed Vireo, Northern Waterthrush, Swamp Sparrow, Blue Jay, Ovenbird, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Osprey, Tufted Titmouse and Black-capped Chickadee. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird zooms like a dart past our binoculars as John Haas, Sullivan County’s Master Birder-in-residence, arrives just in time to help sort out an influx of assorted warblers, including two stunningly beautiful male Black-throated Blue Warblers.

Birding the Bashakill, photo by Carena Pooth
Birding the Bashakill, photo by Carena Pooth

Next, we drive to the Main Boat Launch, and head down the left-hand trail as it begins to rain again. The allée of birch trees offers some shelter. Birds here are Yellow-rumped Warblers, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, noisy Warbling Vireos, White-throated Sparrows, and then, the crown jewel - Cerulean Warblers. These elusive birds do not reveal their blue faces, but sing for all of us to hear. We stop at a particularly wet section of trail and spot Downy Woodpeckers, a gorgeous pair of Yellow-rumped Warblers, a fiery-faced Magnolia Warbler, and another unidentified warbler fleeing, oddly enough, from an attacking Ruby-throated Hummingbird! We cut through some thorny bushes and chase after an uncommon Worm-eating Warbler (a pretty cream-colored bird) that John spots, but it escapes anyone else viewing it - he seems to miss nothing! Except for a singing Wood Thrush and another Red-eyed Vireo, there is little to see near the water, and the rest of the path is flooded out and impassable. We about-face and walk back, finding another beautiful warbler pair, Pine Warblers on a Shagbark Hickory. We watch as the female hunts the flaky bark for food while the male fluffs out his moist feathers on a branch above. He can do this without getting wet because the rain has stopped, and it seems like it is going to stay that way! Scott Baldinger, another expert birder, joins our group for the walk back to the Boat Launch. An Ovenbird calls, “TeacherTeacherTeacher!” as we climb the watchtower next to the trail. The sun has come out, and it’s a beautiful view. We look down on foraging Red-winged Blackbirds, swooping Barn Swallows hunting for lunch over the lilypads, and a Gray Catbird going for a record-long stream of song. A Yellow Warbler joins us in the canopy and shouts in our ears, and Scott spots our first White-breasted Nuthatch. Garrett locates a “weird vireo.” I find it in my binoculars and call out the name: “Blue-headed Vireo!”, my favorite and a new bird for our list. Several years ago John Haas taught me this bird’s name, just a few yards away from this very spot.

We close our trip with views of the Basha Kill Bald Eagle family. This year’s eaglets are already big and brown, but still have a last tuft of grey down on the tops of their heads, giving a fierce, punk-rock appearance to the otherwise endearing youngsters. Behind us, tucked away in a spot most would miss, a dedicated mother Eastern Phoebe incubates her still unhatched chicks. Head poked from the top of her ski cap-sized nest, she watches us warily. The flock of strange creatures that gaze at her through long, tubular black eyes strapped around their necks will not get her eggs! Our “flock” lowers our binoculars and lets her be. It is now noon, and as I tally up our trip list, I think back on the day. The Basha Kill, temperamental and sometimes unpredictable when it comes to wildlife and weather, has given us a challenging day, but not a disappointing one. The grand total is 64 species of birds, not to mention frogs, insects, flowers, trees, mammals and a thousand other natural delights. The warblers sing us a send-off as we head for lunch, dry clothes, and home.

                                        — Truth Muller, Age 17

          View field trip photo gallery

          List of Birds Seen on this Trip  by Truth Muller, age 17, and Garret Van Gelder, age 17

Canada Goose
Mute Swan
Mallard
Common Merganser
Wild Turkey
Common Loon
American Bittern
Osprey
Bald Eagle
Common Gallinule
Barred Owl
Common Nighthawk
Eastern Whip-poor-will
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker
Eastern Phoebe
Eastern Kingbird
Yellow-throated Vireo
Blue-headed Vireo


Warbling Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Tree Swallow
Bank Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Barn Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Veery
Wood Thrush
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Ovenbird
Northern Waterthrush
Black-and-white Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
American Redstart

Cerulean Warbler
Northern Parula
Magnolia Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Pine Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-thr. Green Warbler
Chipping Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Scarlet Tanager
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Baltimore Oriole
American Goldfinch

Species Total: 64