Hints on Haunts
by Janet Carroll and John M.C. Peterson New York Breeding Bird Atlas

For most bird species there are characteristics of habitat and behavior that are specific to that species. These characteristics provide clues as to where to find the species and what to look for in seeking breeding evidence. Such hints can be of much help in Atlas surveying.

At the 1982 annual meeting of the Federation of New York State Bird Clubs, a workshop on these “clues” or “hints” was held. Jay Lehman (then Region 4 Coordinator) and Mike Peterson (Region 7 Coordinator) presented what they have learned about these clues for a number of species. This information seemedto be something that would be useful for all Atlas workers. Jay and Mike were invited to expand upon and write up their thoughts. The results are given below with additional comments from Gil Raynor.

This compilation is by no means complete. All Atlas workers are invited to contribute observations on additional species or expand on what has been written. Send your observations to the Project Coordinator to be incorporated into the list.

Red-shouldered Hawk: Check hardwood forests or mixed woods with tendency to deciduous upslope from pond inlets or outlets. Look for large stick nests in the main crotch of mature trees. Mark nest trees with surveyors tape and return in May to see if the nest has been repaired and decorated with evergreen, often balsam, sprigs. The small Long Island population prefers the richer deciduous woods, often near water.

Broad-winged Hawk: Watch tops of power poles along roads bordered by leafy hardwood forest. When driving dirt roads through a tunnel of leafy trees, one may flush from its hunting perch and will fly ahead of a car, often several times before it disappears into the forest. Usually quiet and secretive, in deciduous or mixed woods. Sometimes soars or flies above the forest but mostly below the tree tops.

Virginia Rail: Try playing rail tapes at any wetland area, even tiny spots less than an acre in size, bordering highways. Virginia Rails may prefer cattails with nearby shrubs such as willow, dogwood, and alder; also sedge meadows, marshes with mixed woody and herbaceous growth and brackish marshes on Long Island.

Sora: Soras may prefer cattails with tussocks of grass and patches of open water nearby. Check all wetlands, no matter how small and unpromising. Spotted Sandpiper: Any shoreline along lakes or streams. Scan with binoculars or walk along the edge to locate birds frozen in place that may otherwise be difficult to spot.

American Woodcock: Check abandoned fields, especially those that are low or seasonally wet and bordered by aspens and early second-growth, on an evening in early spring. Just at dusk listen for the nasal “beezp” note followed by the eerie flight song from overhead.

Yellow-billed/Black-billed Cuckoo: Songs are more important than habitat, which is often a combination of second-growth hardwood forest, open areas, overgrown fields and dense brush tangles. Yellow-billeds tend to give the fading “kowlp-kowlp...kowlp...kowlp...kowlp” call just once, while Blackbilleds shoot off several series of their “cu-cu-cu-cu” call with spaces or pauses in between. On Long Island, both are found in nearly all wooded habitats, including the Pitch-Pine Scrub Oak barrens where the Black-billed is more common. The Yellow-billed prefers damper habitats but wide overlap occurs.

Barred Owl: Dense forested areas, often near low, wet woods. Look for white cedars; Barred Owls frequent nearby woods.

Northern Saw-whet Owl: Low, wet woods with cedars. Learn the easily imitated whistled call. May be found in second-growth around abandoned fields or open areas.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird: Watch for a minuscule bump on power lines along forested roads. In woods check active Yellow-bellied Sapsucker food stations - evenly stitched holes near the tops of trees such as birches, oozing sap. Through binoculars a hummingbird may be seen among the clouds of yellowjackets. In open clearings or flooded areas, always focus on the tops of dead snags; that tiny bump is probably a hummingbird. Finally, watch the tops of those bigger stands of lilacs around Memorial Day for a hummingbird going straight up and down like a yo-yo (this is a flight display: PR-D), or swinging from side to side in a wide arc.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker: Drums in bursts like a jackhammer, slows toward the end in a kind of hesitant stutter, with longer pauses before the final rap.

Pileated Woodpecker: Drumming sounds something like a wooden ruler being twanged on the edge of a desk, running down at the end.

Alder Flycatcher: Black alder thickets. Most singing comes to a halt in July. Yellow-throated Vireo: Seems to be found not far from water in hardwoods mature enough that the trees are well-spaced and understory is vigorous. In taller woods, but usually near edges, fields, roads or water.

Warbling Vireo: Loves large shade trees like elms, especially in villages. One birder dubbed the Warbling Vireo the “squeeze-me” bird, after its song: “You see me and seize me, and squeeze me til I squeak!” The very end of the song is an upward warble and actually sounds as if someone is squeezing the notes out of the bird. This is one of the most nondescript of North American birds and is often high up in the leafy foliage. Learning the song is almost essential to finding it. Sounds much like Purple Finch, without the rising notes at the end. White-eyed Vireo: Thick brush, bushes, tangles bordering second-growth woods, perhaps not far from water, or with nearby openings.

Horned Lark: Check all plowed fields with a scope or binoculars and keep scanning. A Horned Lark may walk up out of a furrow onto a dirt clod before dropping back into the next furrow out of sight as it feeds, looking almost like a mouse against the earth.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow: Stone bridges over small streams seem to be favored by this swallow. The present bridge may be paved and have concrete sides but you should check to see if the old foundation beneath is laid stone with some crevices. If so, a Rough-winged may be perched or flying nearby. A pair is often found at the edge of a Bank Swallow colony.

Cliff Swallow: Look among the Barn Swallows for the ochre rump and squared-off tail that marks the Cliff Swallow. Check under barn eaves, or watch for the birds disappearing under the eaves of houses or buildings.

Red-breasted Nuthatch: Conifer forest, stands of large spruces, Red Pine, and Hemlock. Originally more common at higher elevations (3,000 feet and above), but now extending to lower elevations (1,000-1,200 feet) in conifer plantations. Same habitat as Golden-crowned Kinglet.

Winter Wren: Montane, evergreen forests with spruce and balsam, but also lower elevation bogs and swamps. Deciduous mountainsides with heavy undergrowth. Often found around logged-over areas and slashings. Nests in upturned roots.

Carolina Wren: Brushy woods, thickets, undergrowth and dense tangles near water or ravines, old dumps or refuse areas around villages. Listen for its loud “tea-kettle...tea-kettle...tea-kettle” song. Originally more common on Long Island and lower Hudson Valley, expanding range north.

Marsh Wren: Cattail marshes. Also in Phragmites and taller sedges.

Sedge Wren: Avoids cattail marshes. Moist meadows (without standing water) with scattered low bushes, grass and sedge bogs.

Golden-crowned Kinglet: Any conifers, but especially likes hemlock or dense spruce stands, 40-50 feet tall. More common at higher elevations but also found at 1,000 feet. Calls and song can be confused with Brown Creeper; it’s best to locate the bird.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher: Frequents dense, brushy areas near water. Complaining nasal calls often give them away. Tiny but active and relatively approachable.

Blue-winged Warbler: Neglected pasture, woodland borders, or openings with low bushes, briar patches, bushy thicket borders and open brushy hillsides.

Golden-winged Warbler: Similar habitat to Blue-winged but tends to be more northern and at higher elevation. Singing stops early in season, after mid-June, when feeding young (more so than Blue-winged and other warblers).

Nashville Warbler: Edges of woodland forest, or open edges of wooded bogs, young tree growth in cut-over or burned over areas, forest openings. Found mostly at 1,100 feet or above, possibly at lower elevation in northern parts of the state.

Northern Parula: Locate by sound in dense conifers, humid woods near ponds, lakes and streams where old man’s beard moss (Usnea) abounds.

Magnolia Warbler: Conifers, especially spruce but also hemlock and mixed deciduous-conifer. More common at higher elevations but now found as low as 1,100-1,200 feet in suitable habitat.

Chestnut-sided Warbler: Dry, brushy areas, similar to habitat of Common Yellowthroat, but sometimes drier. Both species may often be found in close proximity, sharing the same habitat.

Black-throated Blue Warbler: Shaded deciduous or mixed woodland where there is heavy growth of ferns, laurel, deciduous bushes or saplings two to three feet high. Found at 1,200-2,500 feet, less common in low-lying agricultural regions.

Yellow-rumped Warbler: Large conifer stands, especially spruce and fir. Originally confined to higher mountains.

Black-throated Green Warbler: Mainly conifers or mixed deciduous-conifer, especially spruce and hemlock. Upstate mostly at 1,500-1,600 feet or above, except in the more northern regions.

Blackburnian Warbler: Higher elevations (1,500-1,600 feet in southern portions). Mixed deciduous, but especially conifer (spruce, fir, hemlock and pine).

Pine Warbler: Breeds exclusively in pines, preferring tall, dense stands. Downstate in Long Island pine barrens. Upstate in large, mature White and Red Pines.

Prairie Warbler: Brushy pastures, old clearings, hillsides, especially with small (15-20 feet) White or Red Pines. Moves on when pines get too tall or dense.

Cerulean Warbler: Deciduous forest, especially lowland river bottoms with high trees. A bird of the high tree tops.

Worm-eating Warbler: Wooded hillsides, ravines with heavy undergrowth, especially south-facing (upstate) and often near rivers and streams.

Northern Waterthrush: Swampy wet woods, bogs, along shorelines of lakes or ponds with brushy edges, especially in shallow or standing pools with partly submerged logs or fallen trees, where a waterthrush may teeter along slowly feeding.

Louisiana Waterthrush: Found along small, fast flowing brooks and rivers with steep banks. In deep cuts or ravines, especially with trickles of water running down the sides to the stream. Loud, ringing song that carries well. Plumage of the two waterthrushes is similar, but Louisiana likes rushing water while the Northern prefers still ponds.

Mourning Warbler: Look in open woods with blackberry or raspberry thickets where there’s been logging, thinning or slashings. Check open clearings, abandoned sugar houses, cutbanks along dirt roads, where waist-high undergrowth and berry tangles are dense and young maples are not much thicker than a thumb. Electrical or gas rights-of-way are often good spots. Birds are skulkers, sing deep in tangles, refusing to pop up. Patience will usually bring you an FY. Listen for the “chirry, chirry, chorry, chew” song.

Wilson’s Warbler: Only one confirmed NY nesting, in North Meadow, Essex County. Ground cover was patches of meadowsweet (Spiraea) growing one to five feet tall in clearings between white and red spruce, tamarack and balsam (15-30 feet) in clumps or singly. Quaking aspen, fire cherry, white pine, alder and willows also occur here. Ground cover of blueberry, goldenrod, strawberry, grasses, sedges, mosses and hawkweed: an old pasture.

Canada Warbler: Very diversified habitat, forest undergrowth, conifer swamps with deciduous undergrowth, heavy brushy growth along rock ledges, ravines and steep road cuts that are wooded at the top.

Indigo Bunting: Males usually sing from exposed high, outer branches, often a dead limb. Learn the paired song to help locate them (“fire-fire, where-where, hurry-hurry, see-it see-it”). Brushy forest edges and openings are the usual locations. In largely unbroken forest look for them in clearings around hunting camps or wide loading areas for logging operations. Often found along railroad tracks or power lines. If the male is singing high overhead, the female is probably somewhere low nearby, perhaps skulking in a berry patch or dense shrubs. Spishing will often elicit a disturbed response (PR-D) or bring her into sight with a beak full of food (CO-FY).

Purple Finch: Song has much the same quality, warbling and sweet as the Warbling Vireo but without the phrasing and the squeezed-out, uprising finale. Turns up in all kinds of woods and woodlots, often singing from an outer branch or the tip-top of a conifer. Not too easy to confirm, but a singing male can be often parlayed into a Probable Pair.

Field Sparrow: Much the same habitat as Clay-colored Sparrow. This bird likes overgrown, not open fields. Listen for the sweet opening notes, following by a descending, slowing trill.

Vesper Sparrow: The song is strongly reminiscent of Song Sparrow, so listen for the paired opening notes. Look in short, sparse grassland of waste areas, in brushy, grassy edges near large open fields often planted to young corn, potatoes,strawberries, raspberries with grasslands or woods nearby.

Savannah Sparrow: Stop at a big hayfield almost any time from dawn to dusk during summer - a lazy “tseeee- tsaaay” will drift across the field. Inhale... exhale, “tseeee-tsaaay.” Get out into real farm country where there are big, wide-open, grassy fields. Listen for the song. If the bird is close enough, the “tsit-tsit-tsit” introductory notes may be audible but most often only the “tseeee-tsaaay” is going to reach you. Once heard, the same spot can be revisited a week later for an easy PR-S. A little patience usually produces a CO-FY. you have trouble identifying these striped field sparrows, look for a little bit of yellow behind the bill, running into the eyeline; that’s the bird. Wilderness birders should look for it on the bog mats, too.

Grasshopper Sparrow: Sparsely grown, short, abandoned grassland or weedy fields, generally not hayed or pastured. Shorter, grassy road sides or hayfields. Usually not found in luxurious, well-tended, tall hayfields.

Henslow’s Sparrow: Often sings at night, especially when the moon is full. Open, abandoned hayfields, or farmland reverted to natural grassland but remaining uncut and unpastured, and with a clear, unobstructed view to the horizon (by trees, high hedgerows or enclosing hills). Some diversity or vegetation height preferred for singing perches but excessive invasion by woody plants (bushes, small trees) decreases habitat suitability.