A Tale of Two Grippers!

27th May – Act 1 –  Slam Dunk in Shawangunk!

A singing Henslow’s Sparrow, discovered by longtime birding acquaintances Tom Burke and Gail Benson, at Shawangunk grasslands, near Walkill in upstate NY was tantalizingly close to CT’s western border. Henslow’s Sparrow is a scarce breeder in the north east and basically absent in New England. It was also a nemesis, a ‘bogey’ bird for me. Eons ago, I had missed a November bird in CT that Andy Brand had found in nearby Hamden.  A one afternoon wonder, it was nowhere to be found the following morning when we scoured the area. I had always assumed I would find one “kicking the bushes” in late October, but after 20 years of kicking bushes, I was still empty handed. I would simply  have to twitch one!

Saturday dawned at zerodark4thirty .  An hour and half later, in Walkill, I was having SEVERE PTGSD. That stands for Post-traumatic Gyrfalcon Stress Disorder. I had spent two days dipping a Gyrfalcon that spent the winter here in 2015, so driving the same roads did not evoke warm fuzzy feelings of nostalgia. “!!@@ you Gyrfalcon”, I muttered under my breath as I passed Blue Chip Farm.

I arrived at the preserve and decided to head out to the less dilapidated blind where the bird had been reported singing. I was surprised that I appeared to be the only person here!

The sound and sight of Bobolinks, Eastern Meadowlarks  and Grasshopper Sparrows pervaded the beautiful dawn morning. I made a right, approaching the blind when I met another birder who was equally clueless about where it was.

“ It’s not down there!”, he said, gesticulating in the opposite direction. Almost immediately, after about 20 ft, a bird sang to our left “tsi-lik”, and then again.

“That’s it! It’s really close!”, I uttered. Could we see the little bugger? Could we hell. Then, finally, up it popped, basically 14 ft off the path, in full view. It found the tallest thistle and sang its tiny heart out. After 20 years, it had been that easy!! Several pixels were burnt.

A singing male Dickcissel a few further yards down the path showed well, but light was not great for pix.

I headed back to the car, intent on birding the Doodletown forest area on the way back to CT, for Cerulean Warbler and other woodland goodies, but news of yesterday’s Lesser Nighthawk in northern New Jersey, had been refound sitting on the same path, prompted me to reconsider my options.

27th May – Act 2 –  Turd in the Grass!

Last night, there had been no info on what was only NJ’s second Lesser Nighthawk. Again, frustrating information given that pictures were posted, but no info on exactly where it was, or what the circumstances had been around the sighting. This time I had directions. It was still early and I could be onsite by 10:30am.

And so I was. Walking past the environmental center building, one birder acknowledged the bird was still there and a few minutes later I arrived at the spot. Again, I was one of only two people there, surprising since this was so close to NYC and other large NJ cities – and this is a mega!

The guy present pointed out to me what amounted to a turd – a turd  mostly obscured by grass!

Rather “shitty” views of what amounts to a turd in the grass!!

The path was blocked by cones to prevent disturbance to the bird, but it was also preventing me from actually being able to see it! It was not the views I was hoping for. I could barely see it, let alone photograph it!!

Better views of the front after the bird shimmied over to the other side of the path.

 

Lesser Nighthawk. Note rather compact shape, with large head, short, rounded primaries and buff barring on primary bases.

Then suddenly, without warning, the little turd started moving..it shuffled on its tiny, swift-like feet and shimmied across the path giving awesome views and allowed a couple of decent photos. It buried itself in the grass on the other side of the path and was then basically out of view! Talk about jammy. What a great little bird!

Lesser Nighthawk. Appeared small and compact in the filed, with rather rounded primaries that fell equal with the tail tip (longer in Common). The cinnamon-buff tones to the face and breast also favored Lesser, as did the obvious buff barring on the bases of the primaries. The lack of a discernible paler, whitish wing patch hints at this being a female, and thus a Lesser.

So, based on these views –  a compact, rich buff-toned caprimulgid- it did appear to be a Lesser Nighthawk as advertised, but I went through the features, just to make sure for myself. Antillean and some Common’s can be warm-toned and I needed to rule them out. Antillean in particular is small, like Lesser, and warmer-toned, but they are unrecorded in the east. Thankfully, ‘cos I don’t really have any experience of Antillean in the day outside of Marathon, Florida!! So…quickly moving on from that one…

The issue is that the south-western form of Common Nighthawk, Chordeiles minor henryi,  unlike most of the subspecies of Common, shows buff-spotting on the base of the primaries – like Lesser! https://cobirds.org/CFO/ColoradoBirds/InTheScope/67.pdf

The other main difference is that Lessers show a short first primary (P10), with P9 being the longest primary, but that does vary in both Common and Lesser with some Commons showing equally long P10 and P9.. and some juvenile Commons showing a shorter P10. Clearly on these images, it is impossible to judge primary placement since it would be folded underneath what is the visible longest primary (which is actually P9 in Lesser).

So, is it possible to conclude this is a Lesser and not a henryi Common – equally as likely perhaps?? I am not sure to be honest, but if I go by what I see on the images, they favor Lesser, but something that should be considered here and ruled out on any putative Lesser Nighthawk.

Anytime you get to see a nighthawk in the day is a good day, especially if it is a Lesser (even if it is in NJ!).

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