On Chasing

A bird gets lost or confused. A bird finds a place somewhere far out of range. A bird likes this spot for the food and company. A bird stays for however long it feels like. A bird goes home. Or dies there.

You hear about a bird. Do you chase it?

Do you immediately drop everything, put your life on hold however active? Or do you make a plan? Do you fly? Or do you only drive? Do you travel alone? Or do you prefer travel with other birders? Do you only go to public places? Or do you not blink twice at visiting a private property?

If you live in the Northeast as I, do you recall the Yellow-headed Blackbird of Stamford, Connecticut in 2014? It’s native to central and western North America, extending as far east as Michigan. The Painted Bunting of Brooklyn in 2015? It’s native to southeast United States and Central America. The Corn Crake of Long Island in the autumn of 2017? It’s native to Eurasia. Did you see them?

For those not in the know, “chasing” a rare bird or a new ABA (American Bird Association) area bird is a gamble to acquire a life bird – so especially sought by experienced birders – or to witness a historical ornithological event. The appearance of the bird can be attributed to going beyond its range during migration, a huge storm, or simply a wintering visit. A rare bird is a wonderful or shocking surprise. But an ephemeral time phase. A birder might not see it because they have no way of knowing when the bird wants to try going home. The length of stay can last an afternoon, a week, or even an entire season. Such variation is what makes chasing a gamble. A birder has to guess if traveling is worth the time and money or not. Or they just leap at it.

Birders who like chasing have an “itch.” The degree of the itch varies from person to person, usually influenced by financial privilege and/or by how far one is willing to go (literally and figuratively speaking) depending how much one’s got going in one’s life.

All this to say, chasing is stressful. In either a positive or a negative way. Thrill or anxiety – pick, quick.

Or some birders don’t have an itch. They experience nothing.

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I don’t like gambling.

Before moving upstate, I have chased only twice. The first was a Cackling Goose close to home last winter. I had to take care of something in the area. First chase, first success.

The second time, this early winter, I went for the American White Pelican at Playland Lake in Rye. I delayed a few days before driving down. No pelican in sight on any of the small islands. I lingered for at least forty minutes, walking along the lake, before I gave up and went home. The pelican was sighted ten minutes after I left. I didn’t have another chance to chase it because it flew off for good later that afternoon.

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Birders are regularly observing Snowy Owls at the Finger Lakes Regional Airport. Snowies irrupt as far down as Long Island from the Arctic (where they breed) when the small mammal populations are down.

Within the first week I moved, I visited Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, my favorite birding place. The wetlands complex was totally frozen over – I would not be “ducking” that day. Dismayed, I drove up to the visitor’s center. I learned about the Snowies at the airport while chatting with the guide.

I made my way immediately. Unfamiliar with the area, I didn’t know where to look, so I kept to the entrance of the terminal driveway. I left without a lifer.

I realized days later that I hadn’t signed up for the eBird alerts for counties in the area. Hourly, not daily. Done.

Half a month later, my friend and Saw Mill River Audubon board president Val Lyle was staying in Ithaca for a few days. I’d invited to take her around the lake to find ducks. eBird reports regarding the Snowies suddenly boosted in activity the day before our trip. We went for the owls first.

Bearing the eBird comments in mind, we went to the locations where the Snowies were sighted. Our car crawled on the roads, searching farm fields and all kinds of poles and farm equipment. We lingered at the empty hotspots.

The only bird we saw was a male American Kestrel hunting along the powerlines.

Since then, I received consistent daily eBird alerts – at least one per day, the Snowies sighted around the same locations, and a few more. The owl territory expanded. In case you are wondering why I don’t chase after them more often: The drive to the airport alone lasts 50 minutes; I easily burn a quarter of a tank of gas there and back and wandering. Not only does a drive cost a lot of time and gas, the amount of sitting is despite the constant motion feels hollow.

I only tried again this past Tuesday morning, on the 13th. Eleven alerts in one day for five different locations raised my confidence. I burned the lists’ comments in my mind, hoping to rely on the Snowies’ pattered behavior.

For two hours, I floated between the town of Varick and the airport. I went to every location at least twice. Only I to keep an eye left and right on every field, every pole, every potential perch while trying to drive straight at 30 MPH felt slightly hellish. Find the white blog, find the white blob. It could be perched on a high point, among dozens of lamp posts, telephone poles or sock poles. Or it could be sitting anywhere on the expansive ground, white-ish bird against stark white snow.

It was only when I returned home I noticed that these eBird alerts were two days behind, the checklists actually from the Sunday the 11th. Then, I received the first county alert for the 13th: someone saw a Snowy at the most frequented hotspot ten minutes after I decided to go home.

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Rusty Blackbirds are one of the fastest declining birds in North America. I can only count my sightings on one hand. It was somewhat fortunate that I saw them twice last December. The previous time, in autumn of 2015.

I stated in my last post that a male Rusty has been hanging around the Cornell Lab of Ornithology feeders. As of now, it’s been almost a month.

Unfulfilled from that horribly unproductive excursion for the Snowies, I half-halfheartedly chased the Rusty that afternoon. I wanted a little exercise from all that sitting while driving. A meditative walk through Sapsucker Woods should help. As I walked up to the Lab entrance, I balked at the idea of “the third time’s the charm.” If it weren’t the case for the Snowy, why should it be for the Rusty?

The air smelled of late winter, of lengthening sunshine. My leisurely pace crunched the fluffy snow. My breath remained invisible. Muted Route 13 traffic never lessened. A subtle breeze rattled sapling beech tree leaves. Four males Red-bellied Woodpeckers trilled, vying for territory. One trill was high-pitched – a first-year male giving his all.

A swampy aroma arose from the thawing stream behind the pond. A chickadee dee-dee-dee‘d. A female cardinal chipped. An almost familiar song erupted. I couldn’t decide if I were listening to a male cardinal or a mockingbird – I heard only cardinal, but with rapid-fire force and gurgle quality.

I crossed the bridge. A call uttered from within the shrubs before me. A mimid – a mockingbird it is, or a thrasher! I pished. The female cardinal popped up, crest fired-up. Determined to attract the mimid, I pished more.

The bird leapt to a high branch with gusto. I looked through my bins. He had yellow eyes. His music was a musically mechanical burble. The early afternoon sun shined almost blindingly behind him. I couldn’t see his plumage. But he had yellow eyes.

His gaze never left my figure. After a moment, he switched from singing to calling. He then took off and flew to perch high on a tree farther back in the woods. I lost sight of him.

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Sapsucker Woods Report, 2-2018

Over the past couple weeks, eBirders reported a male Rusty Blackbird hanging around the feeders near the entrance of the Lab of Ornithology. I missed it last week and wanted to try again today. I planned to watch the feeders for a bit, and then, if no luck, walk the trails and return to the feeders.

I arrived juts before 9. A light snow fell. I heard a crowd of Blue Jays as soon as I turned off the car. They bunched in a leafless tree near the sidewalk. Goldfinches were perched with them. I headed for the birders. When I was within twenty feet of the tree, the goldfinches fled en masse in a twittery mess, all two dozen.

I peeked through wooden blind – through tight grove of pine, spruce, and hemlock –  and browsed the ground. No Rusty. Not one bird. Only snow and seed.

I could never have imagined blue jays being more incessantly noisy than at this moment. Utter pandemonium. In addition to the usual “jay!”-ing and bugling, they sounded a strange whistle I’d never heard before. On and on, from all directions. They zipped overhead, between tree to tree every few seconds. Just when I settled on a number, more came into view. Up and up went my count. Easily thirty. On top of that, more than a dozen each of House Finches and female Red-winged Blackbirds flew into the berry-laden trees by the boardwalk. I counted at least nine cardinals with them. The goldfinches twittered from a distance. A Pileated Woodpecker intermittently called from within the woods. White-throated Sparrows, American Tree Sparrows, and Dark-eyed Juncos flitted up from the ground to perch in the shrubs.

This sensory overload distraction was worse than a fallout of warblers. I awed at hearing a new blue jay sound. I scrambled to tick each species, let alone count how many of each. I turned this way and that to note what birds flew around and picked up.  I wondered which bird species can sound like pickerel frogs (the blackbirds? or the jays again?). Don’t forget the two dozen Mourning Doves hunched in three different trees.

I thought I saw at least two Purple Finches with the house finches, all gobbling down berries. I excitedly tried to confirm the ID but lost track of them in the bustle. After spending some time on other birds, I noticed that the finches had perched close together in an adjacent tree (not moving, thankfully). As I went from male to male, I questioned my ability to differentiate House from Purple. I thought I long graduated from that stage. Perhaps, now, I was seeing only House and the Purples had flown away. Or, I solely saw overly bright and colorful Houses. I considered the early reports on northern songbirds not irrupting this year, including purple finches. I went with ticking only house.

During my finch deliberation, I heard in the background but didn’t register the jays “jay”-ing more often and louder. Even the fifty or so mallards in the pond quacked in protest. I’d been standing in the open, relatively close to the feeders, binoculars poised. I sat on the bench by the pond. The canopy over the bench seemed to help. While I processed my observations, all of the birds settled down. The goldfinches, jays, and others began visiting the feeders. The juncos and sparrows foraged around me in the leafless shrubs. I could hear the cars on Route 13 passing by. I figured I would sit for another half hour until the visitor’s center opened.

I saw a Hairy Woodpecker foraging. When I put my bins on it, the jays got loud again. I assumed I roused everyone from the peaceful feeder feast. I felt like a cat minding its own business, wandering without the instinct to kill on sight. I started walking the Wilson Trail. The jays followed me for a bit. Eventually, their noise died down. Now immersed in the forest, a quiet descended. All of the birds flocked by the feeders, leaving only a select solitary individuals, such as a chickadee and a red-bellied woodpecker, to forage in Sapsucker Woods.

The snowfall stopped. A high wind blew through the pine grove canopy. I passed a mole hole dug near the edge of the path. A gray squirrel huddled on a six-inch pine branch, tail on back. A young red squirrel scurried inside its hole in a snag. At the same time I passed right in front of the snag, the squirrel peaked through, saw me, and immediately rushed back inside.

My trek was quiet the entire time. I looped around the pond and the Lab, back to the feeders. The jays started. I looked for the Rusty again. And yet again, no Rusty. I kept under the entrance canopy, creating a final tally of my sightings. The jays quieted, and everyone else went back to placidly feeding.

Small Things

The male mallard’s curls.

The woodcock’s call.

The kestrel’s kiting.

The Cape May warbler’s cheek.

The catbird curiously tilting its head.

The American wigeon’s muted squeaks.

The coughing of the suet-bound red-bellied woodpecker.

The hasty departure of a thousand red-winged blackbirds.

The per-chick-o-ree chorus of an American goldfinch flock.

The white-throated sparrow kicking back snow.

The accipiter’s feeder crash.

The barred owl’s stare.

The belted kingfisher’s distant rattle.

The young red-tailed hawk’s relentless pleas for food.

The male hooded merganser lowering his crest.

The aggressive caution in a chickadee’s eyes.

The spectacles of a blue-headed vireo.

The cormorant’s dragon pose.

The grackle’s walk.

The sleeping screech.

The blue of a blue jay.

The black of a black tern.

The whimbrel’s eyebrow.

The hunched great blue heron.

The black skimmer chick’s begging wings.

The chimney swift’s twittery wing beats.

The rotund silhouette of a cold junco.

The red berry poised in a waxwing’s mouth.

The rusty blackbird flipping wet leaves with its bill.

The barn swallow peering down from her nest.

The collective nap of purple sandpipers.

The winter wren’s camouflaged skulk.

The splatter from a tern’s dive.

The shoveler’s foraging circle.

The raven pair’s love chatter.

The Canada goose’s hiss.

My 2018 Resolutions

First, a review of My 2017 Resolutions (please read first).

1a/1b: I achieved the first part. Because of my Magee Marsh trip, I became more motivated to study warbler songs. I developed a multi-step learning process with several sources that specialize in both sound and sight. I did manage to memorize a few songs I hadn’t before (i.e. manage to do playback inside my head), notably Hooded and Black-and-white. Unfortunately, I couldn’t accomplish much of the second part. The cold, rainy, windy weather at Magee Marsh hampered warbler migration, hence also my chance to put my studying to the test. Then a few days after the trip, I sprained my foot. I was bed-ridden for two weeks – during the exact time-frame of the height of warbler migration. I even missed Saw Mill River Audubon’s annual Doodletown trip. I did see an Ovenbird and had a couple more good looks at Canadas. Another plus: two lifers, a Cape May and a Nashville at Magee Marsh.

2: Weekly visits to a personal local hotspot failed. The corner of the Croton Reservoir that runs along Baptist Church Road in Yorktown has good ducks. I love ducks. I  wondered what I would see and hear during non-winter months. But the road is narrow and windy and full of blind curves. And because there has been more commuter traffic in Westchester in general, there is also a lot of traffic on Baptist Church Road. I got tired of cars often missing me by a hair as I stood on the side of the road. There was no good time of day to go birding there. (DEP owns the land by the water. A routine police car admonished me for literally standing one foot off the road.) I lasted until early April. I realize in hindsight I could have gone to another part of the reservoir, but I really stood by sticking with that one spot on Baptist Church Road. I don’t particularly mind I quit altogether.

3: I got a portable GPS! Late in the year, since it was a holiday present. I’ll definitely put it to use when I drive by myself to my upcoming SMRA trip to the Adirondacks.

4: Not really achieved….not what I had in mind, at least. I did attend board meetings, having been initiated as a Board of Director in April. My state parks job had me working weekends, which, I think, did make it harder for me to connect with events and people. (Silver lining: I managed to learn more about invasive plants and trees because of this job. I even helped to remove some in parts of Fahnestock and the Highlands.) As of this month, I’ve resigned from the board since I’m moving away. So a possibility of undertaking this resolution again is shot.

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Now for my 2018 resolutions. Four/five resolutions are a lot. I simplified things.

1: Keep studying warbler songs.

2: Connect with people at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in any way I can (I am moving to Ithaca, after all) and with Chemung Valley Audubon, the closest chapter to Ithaca.

3: Purchase a scope. I regard November 20, 2018 as my five-year anniversary of becoming a birder. I’ve withheld acquiring one since I wanted to feel confident that my birding hobby will last for years to come. You see, I have science phases (geology as a child, ecology as a preteen, astronomy as a high school and college student). Unlike these other subjects, I can socialize with so many people who share this amateur ornithological hobby. That’s what makes it different. Here’s hoping. I think five years is a good milestone for acquiring a scope, an expensive but much needed investment. I do love waterfowl watching most.

The Owls of Ossining

For the first time in four years, I went owling for the Peekskill Christmas Bird Count. On December 16, I left my home at 4 in the morning – too early for even my local Dunkin Donuts – to meet Charlie Roberto and Hillary Siener at Teatown, the latter of whom works as Teatown’s Director of Environmental Stewardship. (You’ve met Charlie in my 2016 Peekskill CBC post. I failed to mention that he is the captain of the Ossining circle. Christine McCluskey couldn’t join us. She moved away recently, so it was just Charlie and me for the rest of the day after owls.)

We launched at 4:30. Our first location was near the visitor’s center. We got out of the car. The tape recorder Charlie used for years finally died on him. Fortunately, Hillary had brought a speaker with her and she connected it to her device. She played Eastern Screech-Owl.

She heard the screech first, then Charlie. Only the woods and the snow reached my ears. After another half-minute of playback, and a couple more minutes waiting, I heard the screech for myself. It was somewhere in front of us to our right. I couldn’t gauge how far away it was, but it might be enough to say that I barely heard its whinny, a phrase of descending notes. My colleagues had far better ears than mine, having more experience.

The screech whinnied and whinnied and whinnied. It merely aimed to re-claim its territory. Hearing the call in the dead of a frigid night, behind so many leafless trees, I couldn’t help but romanticize it. Melancholic, lonesome, otherworldly, spiritual.

Next, we did playback of Barred and Great Horned. No response. Still, the screech whinnied, unperturbed by the “presence” of these larger owls, unyielding to the fact that “they” may eat it.

I heard the screech even as we went back to the car. I wondered how much longer it would keep calling.

Our next stop was less than a mile away from the visitor’s center, at a gravel lot by a couple trails. Hillary and Charlie tried the main three – Screech, Barred, Great Horned – plus a fourth contender, Northern Saw-Whet Owl. We perked up when we started hearing the “Who cooks for you?” phrase repeatedly. But, based on the direction from which the call came, Hillary concluded we were hearing Teatown’s captive Barred, hit by a car some time ago.

Moon barely a sliver, yesterday evening’s fresh snow cover lighted our night vision. Ready yet not ready for birding, I relented to resting my eyes more than once as I listened. I reassured/fooled myself that doing so would sharpen my hearing. Needless to say, I’m not one to fall asleep very easily. I had to utilize my vision in case an owl appeared in the trees around us. Charlie said that a Barred has done so before in this location during a count. He with his flashlight and Hillary with her headlamp slowly waved their lights across the tree branches.

Only the captive Barred called. We retreated to the car to drive somewhere else. For the next few locations, our playback yielded nothing. Get out of the car, play Screech, wait; play Barred, wait; played Great Horned, wait; get in the car, drive. Etc.

The idea of 16°F feels like nothing. Standing still in such a temperature for a few minutes as a breeze gently wafted through did more than chill my extremities. My toes hurt so much that the pain distracted my ability to concentrate. I overestimated insulated winter boots and one pair of wool socks. Forget foot warmers – I wanted to light my toes on fire.

We drove up to Cliffdale Farm. Charlie’s phone died. Hillary’s device was near-drained as well. Charlie hooted Barred, then Great Horned. Silence.

I had the idea to imitate Screech myself. As a joke, why not. Once in a while, an SMRA colleague of mine would whistle the Screech’s calls during her walks if pishing failed and she wanted to the birds to show up for her attendees. I once tried it out myself when I chased a red morph screech at another local park. That warranted no owl but I did get harassed by chickadees and nuthatches.

I whistled the whinny a few times and then a couple tremolos. Silence.

Charlie and Hillary thought I was doing playback on my own phone. I was caught off guard that they were impressed. “You’re doing that at the next spot,” said the former.

We drove to a pond off of Glendale Road. No sooner than did we climb out than Charlie told me start. I whinnied and tremolo’d a bit and paused. It took a few tries shake off my nervousness. After no response I whistled again.

Right away, a faint silhouette fluttered into the trees at eye level. Charlie immediately shined his flashlight. I froze.

“Saw-whet!” Charlie exclaimed.

Lifer! Target bird!

I wanted to keep the Saw-whet around as long as possible for him and Hillary, and thought that continuing to whinny would help. It took great effort to control my giddiness and not laugh, thus faltering my impression. I was beyond delighted that I got up at 3:30 to forsake sleep and warmth to go owling in the cold.

This Saw-whet seemed much larger than the rescue I saw at Sharon Audubon (in general, they are 7-8 inches tall). Hillary’s first impression was Screech. But that oversized head, cutesy face, and general coloring were far too dissimilar. Amazingly, the little one stayed where it perched, studying us, questioning what exactly dared to intrude on its territory. We all positively ID’d the owl as Saw-whet.

The Saw-whet then flitted to an adjacent tree. I wondered if stopping or continuing my whinnying would be better. I settled on continuing. I heard Hillary’s phone clicking away. Charlie rushed to retrieve his camera from the trunk. After roughly ten seconds, Charlie managed to focus. On cue, the Saw-whet flew into a small clump of hemlocks to the other side of the road. We rushed over. I whinnied more, but we saw the Saw-whet no more.

I couldn’t help but jump up and down in circles. After high-fives and Charlie’s camera regrets, we hopped back into the car and resumed owling. (Hillary’s photos came out horribly blurry, unluckily.) We visited a few more places with groves of pine and spruce. My Screech didn’t entice any more owls to respond until the very last location, Hawkes Avenue. A Great Horned hooted away in the distance. The more I whinnied, the more it hooted. When I paused, it paused.

7:00 passed. Night had already well-faded into day. We moved on to diurnal birds.

Brinton Brook Hike, Report 12-2017

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A north-western view from the power lines field. © S.G. Hansen

The forecast predicted the snowfall to begin at 9, when the hike starts. It wasn’t yet snowing when I arrived a few minutes before. The sky, though overcast, brightened the brown forest floor. The past few chilly days and freezing nights finally forced many of the oaks and maples to lose their lingering leaves.

The birds – usual winter flock species – scurried about the canopy for last-minute food before the snow and called in constant communication: titmice, chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, white-throated sparrows, juncos, a red-bellied woodpecker, a hairy woodpecker, a lone American crow. I thought I saw and heard a kinglet, but the chickadee’s incredibly quick movement tricked me. But as luck had it, the moment I got my binoculars on the chickadee, I spotted a nearby Brown Creeper gradually climbing the trunk. I’d actually heard the creeper’s tinny, high-pitched call.

The time read five past nine. Mike was unusually late. No one else showed. Was the hike was somehow canceled without my knowing? …Or was today even Second Saturday? I took the creeper as a sign of good birding to come. I went ahead.

Halfway to the kiosk intersection, I heard a loud rapping from somewhere within the locust grove. Time to play Find that woodpecker! I expected to spend quite a bit of time hunting for the noise-maker. Not for long this occasion… A Pileated Woodpecker took off and flew towards the parking lot. It maniacally called the entire way, prompting the jays to shout in slight hysterics.

I stood at the intersection to listen for other birds. I heard voices. A look through my bins down the trail revealed they belonged to Mike and another person. When they caught up, Mike explained he was late because he had to deal with work issues. Karen, both a birder and a hiker, would be the only other joining us for the hike. She hikes around Brinton Brook once a week, though she wished she could make it to the Second Saturday hikes more often.

Beyond conversation, I only heard a few white-throats at the meadow. I encountered more – plus a song sparrow – foraging in the cattails at the western end of the pond. When I reached well away from the cattails, the white-throats migrated to the shrubs at the edge of the path, leaving the song sparrow to its own. Juncos twittered in the canopy.

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Brown is beautiful. © S.G. Hansen

A thin layer of ice coated this end of the pond. Mike thought we wouldn’t see ducks. But when we reached sight of the other end, quite a few waterfowl were foraging: Four Green-winged Teal (all males, with lovely auburn and green faces), eight Mallards, and a dozen Canada Geese. Though they segregated themselves in groups of their own species, they all kept close to one another. The ducks moved to the back the closer we approached. The geese didn’t mind us that much, of course.

Meanwhile, nearly a dozen goldfinches fed on the black birch seeds above our heads. A couple whitehatches “yanked” incessantly. A Carolina wren trilled. As I watched the ducks, a kinglet bounced from one reed bunch to another over the pond, barely giving me time to notice that it was Gold-crowned.

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An oriole nest (belonging to either Baltimore or Orchard, both of which breed in Westchester). Orioles weave basket-like nests out of grasses and stitch them together with their bills. Th nests, which hang from tree branches, can have more than 10,000 weaves. © S.G. Hansen

Snow began to fall when we ventured out to the power-lines, starting off as flurries then quickly becoming heavier. One could hear the flake bunches practically hitting the ground and the vegetation. The power-line wires usually buzz, but today they sizzled. Snowfall filled in bird silence. I heard only sparse calls from a few birds: a second flicker, a second song sparrow, and a some more white-throats.

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Praying Mantis egg sack. © S.G. Hansen

Now that snow was falling quite a bit in the woods, the birds in the sanctuary also quieted down. So much so that I heard maybe a couple titmice and white-throats at most until we reached the parking lot again. We even took the longer route again, hiking the new white trail the golf course owners created. We enjoyed walking through the first-of-season snow. Karen took the opportunity to finish talking about her Purple Martin housing problem. She’d just put up the housing – a gift from a friend – this past breeding system. But an adamant flock of House Sparrows kept trying to nest in the gourds, even after she repeatedly climbed to throw away the nesting material (the gourds are fifteen feet above the ground). Eventually, the “little fucks” took revenge by chewing on her fencing and garden plants. She was thinking of donating the martin housing to Croton Point and purchasing a house sparrow trap.

Mike said to watch out for the juncos when we reached the stream near trail’s end. Alas, there were none.

We came back to the same birds I observed before the actual hike. As Mike and Karen talked, I thought I heard a Gold-crowned Kinglet. I kept my ears open for the high-pitched see-see-see call. Instead, I heard a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker’s mewing. It mewed for a good minute. I thought I saw one right after the Pileated sighting. I’d taken note of the facial markings, but the locust branches obscured the sapsucker so much I eventually lost sight of it. I was glad to hear it mew at the end of the hike.

All in all, I observed 22 species. A decent number for this time of year at Brinton Brook with a few good winter birds. Always nice to have a brown creeper – my favorite bird! You can view the eBird list here.

Sadly, this month’s hike is my last Second Saturday. I will be moving away after the New Year, before January’s hike. These three-and-a-half years were filled with fun and educational experiences. Thank you for everything, Mike!

I’m thinking of re-locating my own Second Saturdays to Sapsucker Woods.

Hike on Turkey Mountain

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Western view from the summit of Turkey Mountain. © S.G. Hansen

Saw Mill River Audubon holds an annual hike at Turkey Mountain the day after Thanksgiving. This year is my third. I haven’t yet hiked at any other point in the year, but at around this time, bird activity is nearly nonexistent. You’re in a short, heart-pumping hike but not an entertaining bird excursion. You’re met with infrequent calls from blue jays, titmice, chickadees, and white-breasted nuthatches but not much else. And you’re going to largely hear a lack of bird presence, really (the constant din of leafblowers will inhibit your listening ability). Hike leader Michael Madias – who also leads SMRA’s Second Saturday Brinton Brook hikes – can’t figure why. There seems to be enough food around the mountain (tulip tree seeds for one), and the power lines field provides different habitats. In contrast, Turkey Mountain does lack understory much like every other wood in Westchester thanks to deer overbrowsing. It’s also worth noting that Turkey Mountain is not an eBird hotspot.

In 2015, I observed 9 species and 32 individuals, the most interesting having been Eastern Bluebirds. In 2016, I observed 8 species and 47 individuals – only common year-rounders. I started this year’s hike not expecting much.

Our group was small, but actually twice as big as last year. Rudy from Brinton came along, and Miok and Roger, SMRA Monday morning walk regulars, were hiking Turkey Mountain for the first time. A special visitor also joined us: Chuck,  an Indiana resident, an experienced birder, and a Sycamore Audubon board of director.

To summarize, this year’s observations went beyond my expectations, totaling 15 species and 49 individuals. Depressing in other places but not at Turkey Mountain! We were met with silence for much of the hike but managed to pass through a few winter flocks. I haven’t yet compiled an overall list, though our combined observations added 6 species this year. At the parking lot, a Hairy Woodpecker called. During the ascension, we heard a Common Raven croaking and a Pileated Woodpecker hesitantly calling. Miok also heard a Carolina Wren, which I missed since I’d plowed ahead of the group to keep up with Mike.

We spent at least 20 minutes on the summit (829 ft in elevation) resting and viewing distant sights, including the hazy, mirage-like Manhattan skyline.

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© Mike the Hike Leader

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© Mike the Hike Leader

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Yours truly smiling for the camera. © Mike the Hike Leader

Soon after we started descending, Chuck thought he heard the “mew” call of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Perhaps the second of the hike since he thought he heard one on our way up. Playback yielded nothing. Wishful thinking, he noted. A sapsucker certainly would have been noteworthy.

Not long afterward, we saw a small flock of bluebirds low in the trees, diving for whatever food they found on the ground. Not an addition, though bluebirds are always a wonderful sight. The late-morning clear sunshine illuminated the males’ bright blue and orange plumage.

Pinnacle activity occurred towards the end. Several more each of blue jays, red-bellied woodpeckers, and whitehatches, plus the first-of-the-hike downies and a Northern Flicker, made much noise from all around us. Mike got on a large black bird soaring fast high above the canopy, but the rest of us couldn’t see anything but blue sky. “It was probably an eagle, or maybe it was a Turkey Vulture,” he said. “Maybe it was a floater in your eye,” Chuck commented.

Meanwhile, I noticed how silent the woods became. Shortly, as if answering a question, Mike saw a Red-tailed Hawk flying through the trees. It perched in an oak some hundred feet away, streaked white breast blazing bright. Not everyone could see it with so many branches in the way, but when it took off (and for good), the hawk was then seen by all.

We’ll see what Turkey Mountain has in store next Thanksgiving!