Brinton Brook Hike, Report 11-2017

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Tulip Tree leaves. © S.G. Hansen

I took the day off from work to attend the Second Saturday hike! It almost felt strange to be a part of a group going around Brinton Brook, and I certainly missed it. This month’s group consisted of no strangers: hiker leader Mike, regular/caretaker Rudy, Saw Mill River Audubon President Val Lyle and her partner Alan, and Mike and Yuan who are regulars of SMRA’s Monday morning walks. Once again, our hike was dominantly a birding hike.

The temperature late this week took a dive to below freezing, in the mid-20s. With a little wind, we had a nicely brisk hike. Most trees – sugar maple, red maple, tulip, sycamore, sassafras, etc – lost their leaves, which covered the trails in several layers. Only White Oak and American Beech still kept their leaves.

We didn’t encounter much bird activity until the black locust grove at the kiosk. I heard a few House Finches. Some of got on a Red-bellied Woodpecker and one Hairy Woodpecker, though I’m sure I heard at least three Hairies in the vicinity.

The meadow was quiet. Rudy pointed out a tree in which he saw a lot of birds flying around in (possibly eating caterpillars that had just hatched) back during July’s hike. In the middle of his story, we suddenly heard something took off from behind us. All of us turned around in time for us to see a medium-sized bird rushing away to the trees, wings whistling loudly.

American Woodcock! we exclaimed simultaneously. We had a good laugh after being startled. None of us noticed it was only a few feet away from us.

“We almost stepped on it,” said Val. She and I were surprised to see one so late in the year.

“That means the meadow is doing really well,” Mike remarked. SMRA maintains the meadow habitat by mowing it once a year and ensuring a healthy biodiversity through growing native plants, such as goldenrod and butterfly weed.

Much later, when I submitted my list to eBird, I saw that this woodcock is the first sighted at Brinton Brook ever.

We took a brief rest at the western end of the pond, where the donated bench is located. When I was here last month, the pond was mostly wetland. A lot of rain had fallen over the past couple weeks, and the pond was a pond once again. A late Eastern Phoebe flycatched in the trees in front of us. At the other end, we saw a small flock of Mallards. I noticed that two of the ducks looked peculiarly small.

We walked the trail quietly. The ducks moved a bit to distance themselves from us. At a clearer spot with better lighting, we began to make out that this duck flock was more diverse that we first realized. First, we noticed that there was one American Black Duck. Second, I confirmed my guess that the very small ducks were Green-winged teal, last sighted this April during the Second Saturday Hike, overall the third time sighted in the sanctuary.

Third, to my great surprise, I then noticed one duck a little larger than the mallards that had a certain brown head with a certain white face stripe and white neck: Northern Pintail. This male didn’t have the eponymous long tail – it was quite short. That tripped me up. But I would know the head pattern any day. Once again, I observed first bird for Brinton Brook! I couldn’t contain my excitement at the idea of seeing a pintail here. These are rare in Westchester to begin with.

When we arrived at the blue trail’s beginning, Rudy said that he had been hearing a Barred Owl somewhere around the Pond Loop. I asked Val to play some playback on her phone. Everyone started hiking up the blue while Val and I lingered. A few “who cook’s for you” rang through the mostly silent air. After half a minute, I said forget it. Shortly after, all of us heard a Carolina Wren trill closer to Mt. Airy Road, presumably provoked by the owl playback. Carolina Wrens trill out of aggressiveness over territory or warning other birds about predators (avian or feline).

The power lines were mostly quiet as well. In the beginning, I heard a call somewhere from within a the vegetation. I pished. A few American Tree Sparrows and a Field Sparrow popped up. I didn’t see them side by side, so nearly confused the Field for a Tree. Val handily compared the two species with the Sibley’s on her phone. Tree sparrows have a rusty eyeline and bicolored bill, whereas field sparrows lack an eyeline and have a bright pinkish bill. I was apparently incorrect to use the double white wingbars as helpful point of reference.

As we were looking at the sparrows, a mockingbird flew by and second mockingbird called for a few seconds. Farther up the powerlines trail, we heard a bunch a chip calls from the other side of the field: White-throated Sparrows.

We continued on the new white trail that borders the sanctuary property. Truly, it belongs to the neighboring golf course. But since it’s a route that goes to the Croton Arboretum, hikers are allowed to use this trail. The owners of the golf course bought the parcel of land at the north-eastern edge of Brinton Brook last year to build a driving range. SMRA once had the opportunity to purchase it a couple decades ago, but we couldn’t afford it. The construction finished recently. You can see a massive grass hill-wall just beyond the trees. Very fortunately, the owners and SMRA are cooperating to replenish the border with native trees and plants.

Back to the birds. We returned to having a quiet hike, save for a small flock of Dark-eyed Juncos, a couple chickadees, a White-breasted Nuthatch, and a few singing white-throats.

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Mike and others recently planted White Pines and White Spruces where the Hemlock grove used to be so owls can return to the Sanctuary. © S.G. Hansen

Reliably, activity picked up near trail’s end. Larger flocks of juncos and white-throats foraged in the brambly ravine. Our third carolina wren for the hike sang. We counted a fourth hairy woodpecker for the hike. High in the trees foraged a mixed flock: chickadees, a couple Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and a Golden-crowned Kinglet. Two Tufted Titmice fought for a little in the trees on the other side of the trail.

When I got back in the car, the temperature read 35°.

All in all, we observed 26 species. The American Woodcock and Northern Pintail were exciting birds additions to Brinton Brook’s life list. You can view the eBird list here.

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Brinton Brook Hike, Report 10-2017

Last Tuesday, I felt like I was baking in the 80° temperature as I hawkwatched on Hook Mountain. This morning, I woke up to see frost on my car, and that the temperature read 37°. I had to wear a parka, gloves, and a hat (yours truly gets cold – as well as warm – easily).

As I got ready in the parking lot, besides the usual common birds, I heard White-throated Sparrows singing and calling around me. These weren’t my First-of-Season (FOS), as I heard a white-throat singing briefly near my bedroom window a few days ago.

When I reached the kiosk intersection, more white-throats were calling. Two Pileated Woodpeckers moved around a tree trunk behind the kiosk. They flew away as I walked closer. I then began observing more than the dozen white-throats: I was blasted with a migration movement. Sunlight poured through the wood, warming the locust grove. I started with 8 species at the parking lot. Including the Pileateds I added 13 on the Old Farm Road trail alone. I witnessed quite a group – an explosion of activity and chatters and calls and whisper songs. Several zippy Ruby-crowned Kinglets. One slightly less zippy Golden-crowned Kinglet  (FOS). Two Blue-headed Vireos. Two Yellow-rumped Warblers. A lone Eastern Phoebe. And a few common birds tacked along (perhaps also migrating, perhaps resident birds that stick with the migrants to find more food): chickadees, titmice, cardinals, downies, a towhee, a white-breasted nuthatch, a robin, and a song sparrow. They flitted all over, from branch to branch, tree to tree, fly-catching, fighting one another. They covered all levels of the canopy, from the shrubs to the near tops of the trees. I had to re-learn how to bring my binoculars up to particular spots because I didn’t have many chances to go birding these past couple weeks. I lost the birds a few times but shortly got the hang of it. I also kept telling myself to stick with just one bird for a little, then move on to another. The hyperactive kinglets, vireos and yellow-rumps made this difficult. Tallying to my best ability also proved difficult. I felt like a beginner again.

More than a half an hour later, the movement seemed to have passed on. I doublebacked to the yellow trail, so I would head towards the pond.

When it comes to birding in the spring and fall, one has to be mindful to distinguish if one is following the same migration pack or encountering additional numbers of the same species observed before. Today tried this ability of mine as well. Just passed the meadow, I observed both species of kinglets and blue-headed vireos again. I took a few minutes to especially watch the vireos; they were much closer, and I always delight in them since they are my favorite vireo species. (I then took another moment to consider what I meant when I wrote down “wb sp” in my notebook earlier. I completely blanked that it meant “warbler species,” which I used as a stand-in before I figured I was looking at Yellow-rumped Warblers. I was prepared for “confusing fall warblers,” but sometimes I simply need to spell out words even when I’m trying to save time writing while out in the field.)

I noticed it got quiet again. I found zero wader-birds or waterfowl at the pond, the water level of which was rather low, but not low enough for the land to become a wetland.

While walking along the pond, I came across ruby-crowned kinglets, blue-headed vireos, and yellow-rumps foraging right above my head. I decided against increasing the numbers – I must have been following the flock. However, I was certain that I did see four yellow-rumps at once. They were drinking at the edge of the pond. A few kinglets joined them, and a vireo was bathing.

I debated completing the full pond loop this time. I ended up turning left on the blue trail as usual. The moment the power lines came into view, I saw a Red-tailed Hawk stoop across the field. Instead of venturing out to the power lines, I continued on the blue, not having done so in countless months. I wondered about other pockets of this morning’s migration movement. For the first time ever, against a backdrop of radio silence, I could hear and recognize the golden-crowned kinglet’s tinny and quiet tsee tsee tsee call – two of them. As they continued calling regularly, I happened to catch sight of a camouflaged blurb rustling among the leaf litter: a Hermit Thrush. (Second FOS) I couldn’t recall the last time I saw one at Brinton. I find these secretive, shy thrushes thrushes hard to come by so I watched it until trees hid it from my view. Not farther down the trail, I heard soft drumming to my left. I expected a Hairy or a red-bellied woodpecker, but it was another winter resident, my third FOS for the morning: an immature male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, whose yellow and black back looked rather blurred, though his crown and throat were bright red.

Not long after, I reached the yellow trail (the blue all the way loops to another point along the yellow). A Red-shouldered Hawk called somewhere from the northwest. Unsurprisingly, I think, I may have stumbled upon the same migration group of kinglets, vireos, and yellow-rumps from before. Indeed, I was now south of the pond, they may have traveled this bit of distance from when I last saw them about fifteen minutes before (the amount of time I spent on the blue trail). I tried to get on every bird to make sure the numbers checked out, and they were similar. My ticks remained unchanged.

A little further down the trail, when the kinglets and vireo were barely out of ear shot, I began to hear a Winter Wren whisper song, a remnant of the spring song, partial in phrase, very faint in volume. So faint that the wren sounded like it was twenty or thirty feet away. In fact, I didn’t recognize that the song to belong to the winter wren initially. This wren’s musical, non-stop trill-filled song sounds so rich and usually lasts up to six seconds – a mouthful of a song for such a tiny bird. This whisper song lasted only a couple seconds, the trills sounded squished. When I started walking again, I flushed the wren from a large log that rested next to the path. I reflexively brought my hand over my chest. I didn’t move, nor wanted to. To my relief, the wren popped back up. This one was a little less secretive compared to past winter wrens I have observed. Smaller than a House Wren, the Winter Wren’s plumage is brown like a House’s, though several shades darker overall. Its tail is shorter and stubbier, sticking straight up like bangs wet with gel. The wren hopped along the log, occasionally singing its whisper song while delicately pecking for insects. Very slowly, trying not to disturb it again, I grasped at my binoculars and brought them up. I did scare it again and it dropped down. It appeared shortly after, hopping onto another log to forage on. Its beak moved so slightly while it sang, barely opening to let sound out.

The wren dropped down again. Delighted with a fourth FOS, I decided to move on. The second I started walking, I saw the wren fly farther away from the path. I heard its whisper song another couple times before I was finally out of earshot.

Towards the trail’s end, I encountered a few kinglets and a phoebe. I counted the kinglets but kept my phoebe at 1, in case the same phoebe I saw towards the beginning decided to hook up with other birds.

Back at the parking, to my surprise, but I suppose you don’t have to guess: more kinglets and another vireo! This time, I did add numbers to my tally. I wound up with more than a dozen ruby-crowned kinglets and three vireos altogether. A conservative estimate. Even if I did see more than two migrating groups of kinglets and vireos, I’d rather I keep my numbers low so as not to arouse suspicion from eBird.

Speaking of eBird, you can view my list here. A wonderful, fall migration-filled morning!

You may noticed that I didn’t observe any Dark-eyed Juncos. Definitely next month!

Hateful Things About Birdwatching (Continued)

You forget your binoculars.

You never seem to go hawkwatching at the right time.

You sprain your foot just when spring migration fully kicks in.

The bird turns out to be a decoy.

Bothersome insects. Especially: Gnats haunt your face and ears in spite of bug spray.

Walking on a path, you do not notice a bird foraging near the path until you reach within a foot of it, and so it silently flies into the vegetation to hide away from you forever.

Every American Redstart sounds like nothing.

You excitedly observe a lifer raptor. It takes off to stoop a prey, a hateful invasive songbird, but when it returns to its perch, you realize it has in its talons one of your favorite native songbird.

A worthlessly argumentative someone who clearly knows less about birding than you attempts to assert that their ID is correct in spite of your overwhelming evidence that your ID is, in truth, correct.

You are the only birder at your work.

A birder who does not take into consideration the birds’ welfare. Example: A birder who overtaxes playback.

A birder overtaxes playback so you explain why such action is detrimental, yet the birder contentiously defends themselves.

You repeatedly miss warbler fallouts.

You repeatedly miss general migration fallouts.

Crumbs from your snack or drops from your drink fall into the crevices of your binoculars.

After certain novices recognize you for your expertise and obtain your email, they persistently send you absurd ID requests with photos or videos of questionable quality.

An obvious non-birder approaches: “See anything good?”

Alexandra: A novice birder comes up to you and asks what you’re looking at. You take your eyes off the bird to offer directions, and you lose the bird in the meantime.

Brinton Brook Hike, Report 9-2017

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A sign of autumn. © S.G. Hansen

Because I’m continuing my State Parks job through the fall, I had to also skip this month’s Second Saturday, which coincided with the Ramble. So I went to Brinton Brook today since last Monday I went for my spontaneous hawkwatch.

Like the previous two years, this September feels frustratingly sauna-like, as if summer is sinking its fingers into the ground before finally relinquishing its transformation into autumn. This morning, though, was overcast and relatively cool (high 60s) yet somewhat humid.

My hike was oddly quiet in regards to both sight and sound. I observed 18 species – a winter number. A warbler fallout occurred in Westchester and Rockland early last week. No warbler fallouts today. Nope, not for me. Again. Brinton did not witness fall migration altogether today.

The Blue Jays, back from summer vacation, had started to make a lot of noise again. I heard them in small groups throughout the hike, at the parking lot, the pond, the power lines field, and trail’s end. They jayed, bugled, and sounded all sorts of other nameless quirky sounds. All in all, I estimated, a dozen and a half. But where the jays didn’t call, the insects and tree frogs trilled.

As I made my way to the kiosk intersection, I saw ahead of me chipmunks fighting. A male Northern Flicker foraged in the path. A cardinal – later ID’d as female – was chasing another bird, which I presumed to be another cardinal. I crept towards the flicker, which bounced in and out of sight, so as not disturb it. About ten feet away, I put my bins on the bird. Strangely, its silhouette looked un-flicker like. My heart nearly stopped when I saw it was a Brown Thrasher. It quickly dived into the shrubs and hid. I had not seen one since July 2016, the latest eBird record at Brinton.

I pished at the kiosk. A small bird skulked around but did not reveal itself. Behind me, I flushed out the female cardinal and the thrasher.

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Goldenrod plentiful in the meadow. © S.G. Hansen

Pond activity mostly included jays and Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers. I also heard a Hairy Woodpecker’s pique! call. I kept my eye out for herons and immediately noticed on the far side a Great Blue, whose blue-gray torso blob stuck out against the swampy, lily-pad laden water.

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Scat from an unknown seen on the trail by the pond. © S.G. Hansen

The power lines whirred over my head. I counted seven Gray Catbirds mewing along the length of the path. Two Carolina Wrens sang and trilled. An American Crow cawed in the distance. A Turkey Vulture soared. A Great Blue Heron flew overhead to the north-east. To my surprise, an Eastern Bluebird intermittently sang. Sadly, I couldn’t get a visual on it.

As for insects, I saw a few Red Admirals. And now that I have an eye for moths, I noticed a number of grass-host moths on the ground before me. I flushed them often as I stepped forward. I tried taking pictures of them, but as soon as I took only one step towards them, they would flutter farther away. Skittish things!

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Unknown species as of yet. © S.G. Hansen

The clouds parted enough for the sun to shine, but the moment of that path blue sky barely lasted a minute.

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It’s always overwhelming to have this below view of the indomitable porcelain berry, a shrub native to East Asia. Unfortunately, birds such as the catbird and robin love eating the berries. © S.G. Hansen

I turned my attention to moths again during my descent from the power lines. Besides additional jays and White-breasted Nuthatches, and my first and only chickadee, this part of the hike was quiet. I flushed the moths from the path – probably litter moths since they rested among the leaf litter. I couldn’t get on these either. They were just as skittish.

About a few minutes away from trail’s end, I saw a small bird skulk in the bushes on the side of the path. At these quick glances, I thought I had a House Wren. I pished. It revealed itself straight away. And no wonder why. A male Common Yellowthroat, with a gorgeous crisp black mask and yellow throat. (This warbler species is guaranteed to respond to pishing.) It flitted about, tail flicking, even after I stopped pishing. I left it alone when I figured it wouldn’t stop checking out the scene anytime soon.

My last additional species came from the Weinstein property: a lone robin softly cuck-ing.

You can view the eBird list here.

Hawk Counting on Hook Mountain

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View of the Hudson. You can see the new bridge in front of the Tappan Zee, both now in use. © S.G. Hansen

Over the weekend, at my friend Anne Swaim’s notification, I connected with Trudy Battaly about standing in as the official counter on September 11 at Hook Mountain.

I have previously written about my Saw Mill River Audubon trips to Hook. This was my fourth year up there altogether, my first as a counter. Trudy, who compiles the data daily, told me I would be the only one for the day. I worried. Not only had I never officially counted before, but I am generally inexperienced with hawkwatching. How many birds would I overlook since I only have one pair of eyes for the 360° vista? How many ID battles of Sharpie vs. Cooper’s and Red-tailed vs. Red-shouldered would I face? Also, I don’t own a spotting scope. I was sure I would miss so many birds that my 10x bins couldn’t possibly catch.

Counters normally do a big sit at the top from 8-4. In the past, I have only stayed up there for 2-3 hours. I figured I could only last from 9-3, and that indeed was my time-frame for the days.

I saw my first hawks for the day – a pair of Red-tails – circling over the Executive Golf Course parking lot. The morning was sunny, cool, and windy; and the ascent quiet. I only heard a half-dozen Blue Jays, a crow, a goldfinch, and flicker.

Someone with a scope already sitting at the top. He introduced himself as Vince. He’d been coming up to Hook for years. A Rockland County local. I felt more at ease, happy to have help with the counting. Lucky me – he almost didn’t come up. Once he had read the previous day’s reports for Hook and other hawkwatches, and since he had already eaten breakfast, he made his decision. We rolled our eyes at how terrible last year’s hawk migration was.

Vince told me about the warbler fallout here the day before, and that they departed all at once just before nightfall. That explained the mountainside’s empty silence. (Thus my unfortunate streak of missing warblers this year continued…) Before I arrived, he had an Osprey, a couple of Broad-wings, and a Merlin. Slow overall. Thus began my counting. The owl prop I erected was also ready.

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Thar she stands. © S.G. Hansen

As time progressed, the day warmed up to the low 70s. The NNW wind slowed from 7 to 4 knots at the most. And the haze bordering the horizon gradually increased, especially towards the southeast. Our quiet morning continued with a couple more Ospreys, our first kestrel and sharpies, and up to 15 Broad-wings.

Carl, another Hook Mountain regular, joined us at around 10. Lastly, Tom arrived at 11 (if you know any famous birders named Tom, then you’ve already filled in the last name). Now with three scopes and three additional pairs of eyes to help me watch the skies, I was ecstatic.

I want to get the Broad-wings out of the way. The day before – the 10th – observed 100 migrating. We counted 839. I was shocked to see so many. My past trips didn’t have numbers like that. 839 isn’t extraordinary for Hook (more than two thousand in one day have been observed), but Vince remarked how this movement was rare for early September. “This is what Hook Mountain is all about, Sarah,” he said several times. He, Carl, and Tom were impressed, stunned even. We gawked at our panoramic view of constant, copious Broad-wing observations. A slight breeze on a warm day turned out to do wonders. Broad-wing activity picked up mid-morning just in time for Tom, but the crème de la crème activity occurred in the early afternoon. 12-1 got 354. 1-2 got 253. Kettle after kettle. Stream after stream. (When I’d make a move to take a bite out of my sandwich one of my companions would get on more Broad-wings. Wonders how I was even able to eat lunch.) Their flight was low enough for us to see them with the naked eye. In fact, some kettles were so low that we missed them from the north and only managed to catch them once they’d moved southeast. The kettles, so ephemeral, dispersed only after a few minutes of having fully formed, and afterward the Broad-wings gently streamed over our heads, reformed kettles far to the south, or evanesced entirely.

For one of our earlier kettles, after a short lull, I announced, “There’s a bunch over the Hudson.”

Vince put his bins on it. “WOooooooooaaaAAAHhhhh. That’s a bunch, alright.”

I put my bins on the kettle again. I thought I’d seen a dozen. Turned out there was double that. “Wooooaaaah.” Triple that. The patch of sky was littered with circling winged dots. “WOOOOAAAAAHHHH.”

I didn’t count how many times Tom, eyeing the south with his scope, exclaimed, “Uh oh. Uh oh.”

UH OHHH,” Vince would responded with exaggerated sarcasm.

After finalizing his decision to come up this morning, Vince hesitated whether or not he’d need his clicker. And he did bring it in the end. I’d have had such a difficult time tallying the Broad-wings if otherwise. I didn’t find one in the boxes that held the owl and the recording sheets. At his recommendation, I counted by the hour and rolled the clicker back to zero at hour’s beginning. While Vince, Carl, and Tom looked through their bins and scopes and declared numbers, I simply clicked away. At an earlier point, while I took down 62 Broad-wings, Tom uttered, “Ahhh, I love that sound.” Several times we’d get on a kettle, more and more Broad-wings would join from the bottom, prompting Vince to tell me to tack on four or twelve or twenty more at a time. Clickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclick.

Carl had to take off shortly after 1 for an appointment, very reluctant to miss further Broad-wing action. He witnessed part of the bulk of it, but starting at 2, the movement died off as quickly as it started. I counted 60 – mostly individuals or groups of fewer than ten passing by. I didn’t miss anything spectacular after I left at 3. Vince, who stayed until 4 with Tom, counted just 1 Broad-wing.

We observed a good amount other raptor activity as well. We got two instances of owl prop action, both in the morning. Three American Kestrels, including one gorgeous male, dove at it lightning quick. A while later, two Sharpies stooped for an assault at once. They unhinged their legs like airplanes ready for landing, but they didn’t unball their talons.

At another point, we heard an unfamiliar call from the south. I thought it was a jay making funny noises. We soon learned it was Peregrine was calling. We watched an immature Peregrine fly over us, pursued by an adult, who, it turned out, was the one calling. We concluded that the adult, a resident, was chasing the migrant immature away from her territory. After that, we saw her a few more times near the Hudson. She appeared displeased that other raptors traveled through her air space.

I was annoyed that I missed the Merlin that only Vince saw. I needed it for the year, and I’d only seen one Merlin previously ever. Finally, though, between 1 and 2, I finally got my Merlin – two in fact, one right after the other. They soared near the owl.

Turkey Vulture, Black Vulture, and Red-tailed Hawk movements were low, as it is still quite early in the season. Truthfully, I screwed up their numbers; Trudy emailed me later saying that I took down too many. I should have considered the residents that fly close to the mountain multiple times, but I thought I was fine without asking for validation.

Our count of Sharp-shinned Hawks – some flew by themselves, some joined the Broad-wing kettles – totaled 42. We observed just two Cooper’s Hawks, one of which I didn’t get on. According to Vince, if there’s a large movement of Sharpies, there’s bound to be more Cooper’s. We counted nine Bald Eagle, a result of three per hour during the hours of 11, 12, and 2. The Ospreys were the most difficult to tally. It was hard to tell which were resident versus migrant, but Vince eventually went with increasing the numbers later in the afternoon when he saw them with the Broad-wings. As for Northern Harrier, only the one, a female.

Passerine movement was slow, with exception to a couple species. We observed a regular movement of over 150 Chimney Swifts throughout the day. Dozens of Barn Swallows flycatched around nine o’clock and disappeared before the hour’s end. 11 Ruby-throated Hummingbird individuals whizzed to the southeast. A Black-and-white Warbler zoomed to the north. A yellowish, greenish warbler – probably a Yellow – zipped over our heads too quickly for us to ID it with certainty. I watched Pileated Woodpecker cross from one side of the mountain to the other as it maniacally cackled. A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher silently foraged among the trees. I heard a couple jays, a chickadee,  and a goldfinch. A raven croaked consistently.

Vince and Tom become butterfly enthusiasts when the birds become boring, so we enjoyed buggy movement as well. During the Broad-wing lulls, Tom briefly departed to search for butterflies. We observed 11 Monarchs migrating. After I took an extended break from counting in the middle of the afternoon, Tom guided me to a spot where he’d seen a Hackberry Emperor earlier. We saw two of those plus a Dun Skipper – both new butterflies for me. Later, a Cloudless Sulphur – a small, bright, lime green butterfly – passed through us so quickly that it took Tom and Vince by surprise.

My descent down the Mountain was a little quieter only because the jays didn’t vocalize as much. I also heard a Red-bellied Woodpecker and a White-breasted Nuthatch. Unexpectedly, I flushed an Ovenbird from the path, not even a foot in front of me. Buffy crown ruffled, keeping its eye on me, it jerked to and fro and around.

You can find Trudy’s compilation here, and the official HawkCount compilation here.

A huge thank you to Vince, Carl, and Tom for their presence. If it weren’t for them, I would not have reported the numbers I turned in and I would have grossly undercounted. I was happy to share such a spectacular hawkwatching day with them.

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A present. © S.G. Hansen

Mothing: An Interlude

Ever since I started working for State Parks,  I haven’t had as much opportunity to go birding. My “weekend” is on weekdays. I’m missing every one of my Audubon chapter’s Saturday-Sunday trips and I feel deprived of my yearly shorebirds. (I still need to acquire that GPS.) When breeding season was still active in June and July, I turned to birding by ear and was temporarily appeased. But songbird action truly seems to shrink to non-existence in August.

As a way to fill in this sorry hole, I’ve turned my attention to moths. They’re all over Fahnestock SP. I see different species every time I go to campground bathrooms. I felt an itch to know their names – just like my previous itch to know the name of the little dark gray sparrows I first saw foraging in my backyard garden.

These critters are entirely new to me and so very much more difficult to get into: There are 11,000 species in Eastern North America alone. Think of Empidomax flycatchers, then times that by a couple thousand. So many subtle moths exist in the first place, then they and even the more distinctive species become worn as the season progresses. Even with photos, I want to tear my hair out because:

  1. I can’t decide between four different species; or
  2. I think I have the ID – but my moth looks so different from the one in the field guide even though it looks so similar, yet it looks not quite the same as other species on that page.

If you want to explore the depths of your self-doubt capabilities, turn to moths.

  • “How many worn Porcelain Grays have I been seeing? Are they really all Porcelain Grays? What about worn Small Engraileds??”
  • “So sure I’ve got a Yellow-slant Line, but those median lines aren’t quite as thick…”
  • “This looks so much like a very worn Sub-gothic Dart/Dingy Cutworm/Bristly Cutworm. But the posture/wingspread in the photo is different the moth’s in the guide…”
  • “I feel like I’m seeing two different moths when they’re in different lighting.”
  • “Why can’t I find this moth? What’s in my photo then?? Does it really even exist?!”

Mothing isn’t as a common a hobby birding. Thankfully, a birding friend directed me to a Facebook group wherein experienced mothers are glad to come to one’s aid.

Like with birds, however, there are also highly distinctive and colorful moths. I can believe it. It’s just like subtle butterflies. Among my flashy lifers are Blinded Sphinx Moth (the moth pushed me into getting my Peterson’s), Showy Emerald, False Crocus Geometer, Painted Lichen Moth, and Ailanthus Webworm. I have quite a few target lifers: Giant Leopard, Virginia Creeper Sphinx, Polyphemus, Rosy Maple, Graceful Ghost (for that name alone), and Early Buttom Slug Moth (again, for the name).

Unlike with birds, I can actually use my tactile sense to interact with them. This way, their existence seems more concrete. Certain species don’t mind perching on your finger. Although they may be somewhat reluctant to get on, they seem even more reluctant to get off. Some moths like the Nais Tiger are so fuzzy I feel tempted to pet them (I did pet the Nais Tiger but I barely felt the mane on my fingertip).

A huge difference between birders and mothers is that the latter IDs their subjects by Latin name rather than by common. The authors of my Peterson’s undertook the task to supply common name-less moths with common names – more of a feat, a bizarre feat, for certain moths, especially a group called the Daggers have such curious appellations (Interrupted, Funerary, and Retarded Daggers, anyone?). I’m trying not concern myself with Latin names yet. I feel that it doubles the difficulty of mothing. Even moths within the same so-called group have different genus names, such as Emeralds and Slug moths.

My life list is currently shy of 30, my last certain lifer a Pale Beauty in my own backyard. Summer is the height of moth season, but some species are active throughout autumn. By the end of that season, I do hope to return to my home-base, the birds. But come next spring, I’ll be at it with the moths again for sure!

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A friend (Forest Tent Caterpillar Moth).

Brinton Brook Hike, Report 8-2017

The day began cool but gradually warmed to slightly uncomfortable, with a little humidity. Several year-round birds sang the parking lot as I readied myself for the hike: Northern Flicker, Blue Jay, Northern Cardinal, Carolina Wren, American Robin, White-breasted Nuthatch, American Crow.

I stood at the kiosk intersection for a bit. An Eastern Wood-pewee cried “pe-weeeeee!” Three Downy Woodpeckers sounded off one-two-three. Two chanting Black-capped Chickadees, singing in different keys, managed to utter one “fee-bee” phrase simultaneously, puncturing the air with brief discord.

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A not-so-inconspicuous nest – right above the path. © S.G. Hansen

At the meadow, I heard an unfamiliar chipping note coming from a bush. I attempted to pish the bird out. Chickadees and a male cardinal gathered nearby and responded with annoyance. A Pileated Woodpecker manically called deep in the trees. I persisted for another half-minute. Finally, an immature male Indigo Bunting popped up to the tree above. His transformation to become an adult was nearly complete. Small brown spots dotted his vibrant blue.

Hardly any goldenrod grew in the meadow. Only one bush. Unfamiliar vegetation – most likely invasive species – had taken hold instead. Not many butterflied fluttered about. Maybe one Great-Spangled Fritillary and a couple Red Admirals.

At the pond, up to maybe a dozen Blue Jays – adults and immatures – called and bugled as they flew around. I didn’t see the Great Blue Heron from last month. The Red-winged Blackbirds had quieted down, save for the half-dozen immatures that flew from lily pad to lily pad. It was difficult to look for anything in the reeds on the other side of the pond since the tree branches blocked much of my view. To live up to the label “birder,” I made believe I could somehow find a bittern. Instead, not disappointingly, I caught the movement of two Eastern Phoebes flycatching and fighting. As I continued walking I heard a wet rustling behind me. A female Wood Duck flew from my side of the pond to the other. She quickly disappeared into the reeds.

My ascent to the powerlines on the blue trail was a little quiet. I heard my third pewee, more titmouse families, and still more blue jays. I startled a male flicker that was foraging on the ground. It was at this point the temperature warmed to that of a typical summer day. And it was at this point that the black flies began to harass me. I hoped they would stop once I’d the powerlines.

And they did. Sunshine forces them to hide in the shadowed woods. Other insect life was in full swing in the field. Countless bees, butterflies, and other bugs whizzed around the flower-filled vegetation, including the many goldenrod bushes. Cicadas – which I’d been hearing since I got out of the car – screamed at their loudest potential from all directions.

The first bird I spotted was a phoebe perched high in a dead tree on the edge of the sanctuary. To the west, towards Bear Mountain, a lone Turkey Vulture soared and two unseen young Red-tailed Hawks begged for food. A few Gray Catbirds meowed. A small bird zipped to a bush way behind me: a Prairie Warbler, black facial markings so faint that I wondered if it were a young one or an adult receding to fall plumage.

Green frogs hung around in the same pools where I’d scared the turtles last month. They dived into the mud at my approach. A couple of them, though, floated like this:

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Green frog. © S.G. Hansen

Ahead, a towhee slurred its call so that it sounded like “twEEEE!” instead of “tow-WEEEE!”. A female Orchard Oriole perched atop a bush, then disappeared shortly. I heard another unfamiliar chipping coming from two different small trees. The chipping, identical in sound, hinted that it belonged to two birds of the same species. I managed to get a glimpse of one of them, a female American Redstart. Since I didn’t get on the other bird, I could only guess as much that it was simply another redstart.

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Close-up of a Carpenter Bee in the wild. © S.G. Hansen

As I rounded the corner to the path that would lead me back into the sanctuary, I saw an orange flash. Baltimore Oriole. I tried coaxing it from the reeds with no luck.

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Goldenrod and Queen Anne’s Lace, the latter of which is not native to this continent. © S.G. Hansen

No sooner than I re-entered the woods the black flies swarmed around my head again. I walked with my hands poised over my ears. I was swatting them every four seconds. The descent was very quiet, save for a jay calling. Disregarding bird presence, the woods actually weren’t at all quiet. Cicadas buzzed and buzzed and buzzed. I realized that there was no reason to remain patient for the birds if there were no birds to observe, so I jogged down the white and red trails to escape the black flies. Magically, I didn’t have to deal with them once I got to the yellow trail.

Now that I was nearing the end (or the beginning), I started hearing more birds. Nothing new except for a perpetual Red-eyed Vireo. I stopped at the patch where the hardy kiwi was eradicated. Behind it, perhaps fifty feet away, mid-canopy, I noticed small bird movement – a different bird. I only got a couple glimpses of it before it vanished, but that was enough for me to ID it as a Canada Warbler. Besides the soft gray back and bright yellow breast, it had the diagnostic apparent white-eye rings and a very faint necklace. I can never get enough of Canada Warblers. Their appearances are always so fleeting.

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I have no clue what this could be but it is very interesting. I spooked some of the insects that were chilling on top of the round things. © S.G. Hansen

I lingered at trail’s end for a while. That jogging got me ahead of time. It turned out that the timing was just right. I happily observed three excellent additional species for the list. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird rocketed in and out of view, green back shimmering brilliantly. A female Scarlet Tanager foraged mid-canopy. A male Black-and-white Warbler crept along the trees’ branches. I also watched a female and an immature male Baltimore Oriole forage, a scruffy looking Carolina Wren climbing a rotted snag, and a pewee flycatch and use the same snag as a perch.

A quick check at the Weinstein pond only yielded a Mourning Dove – the first and only for the hike – on the lawn.

I observed 33 species. I didn’t exactly experience the summer doldrums. Granted, not as many songbirds sang because this isn’t spring migration. Certain birds – besides the Red-eyed Vireo – are still vocal in the morning even during the time of year I thought they would feel like they would no longer have to sing. But I am merely going by one isolated location. Another surprise is the lack of American Goldfinch. I only heard two during my hike. Since they breed in August, I expected to observe a few more than that.

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