Month: September 2014

Hawkwatching on Hook Mountain

Two Broad-winged Hawks soared along the eastern side of the mountain, then around to the south to head west. They reached such a height that we had to shield our eyes from the mid-morning sun. “Look for the white narrow bands on their tails,” more than one person remarked. The bands were a strong clue which birders use to identify Broad-wings while hawkwatching, besides observing the flight style. These raptors were our first for the day. Some took it as a good sign for later.



Photo of a Broad-winged Hawk, courtesy of Steve Sachs.


Sixteen of us stood on the bare rocks, scanning the sky our binoculars and scopes, or simply looking around with binoculars ready at hand. The sky was mostly clear, an intangible blue. Small clouds took shape all around us, far away enough to not interfere. In the south-east large cumulous clouds formed. A weak haze grayed the towns beneath us. And due south, the Tappan-Zee Bridge stretched across the Hudson River.

I didn’t know what to expect for my first hawkwatch. I only read about how difficult this kind of birding was. Raptors, at quite a distance away, were hard to see, hard to identify by species, hard to make out their age/sex, etc even with good equipment. I expected I’d be terrible. I had never seen any pictures of hawkwatchers, so I imagined that all of us eventually laying on the ground (to spare our necks from getting stuck in the look-up position), holding heavy 10x binoculars (at least 10x) or looking through scopes, and constantly narrowing our eyes just so that we could barely make out that those dark pinpoints – hundreds of feet away – might be hawks or vultures or whatever.

We paused when we nearly reached the top of the mountain. Charlie Roberto – an avid naturalist who led the hike up and exposed to us salamanders from underneath rotted logs – took the chance to talk about the raptors we might see and briefly describe the clues that indicate which is which. When he finished, everyone laughed – it was simply too much information in less than five minutes. As I knew I’d be overwhelmed as well. I don’t think anyone noticed that I tuned out mi-speech.

Charlie Roberto demonstrating the flight of a Turkey Vulture. I'm the only person sitting. Courtesy of Saw Mill River Audubon.

Charlie Roberto demonstrating the flight of a Turkey Vulture. I’m the only person sitting. © William Kellner

About half-an-hour after we began our hawkwatching, we noticed a speck string of Broad-Wings soaring to the south-east. Some went in twos or threes. Others flew individually, keeping their distance from the ones behind and in front of them, up to a hundred feet. My binoculars (borrowed) were 8×42 Vortex Diamondback, a good pair for hawkwatching, according to Charlie, but right then I wished I owned a scope. The Broad-Wings were practically dots. Against the blue, they vanished. Then they reappeared, in full silhouette, as they flew in front of the clouds, a relief not just for me but for everyone. To our excitement, when we reached right of the cumulus clouds, we saw that the Broad-wings had formed a kettle.

While migrating, raptors use thermals – warm columns of rising air – whenever they can to conserve energy as they travel from as far up as Northern Canada to as far down as Argentina. They begin circling, slowly rising, rising, as if being stirred in boiling water in a pot. Hence, kettles. Depending, only one species forms a kettle. Or, there are multiple species, sometimes with a small group joining a larger. The number of raptors ranges from the double digits to the ten thousands. While birding in Costa Rica one April, Christine McClusky (who was in our group that day) said to me that she watched a line of thousands and thousands of migrating Broadwings. Quite a distance from them, she initially thought she saw was a thin cloud.

Our kettle only contained Broad-wings. It took the form of a broad tornado filled with scattered, methodically floating leaves, with each raptor soaring at its own pace. I didn’t bother counting how many there were myself – I’d never seen such a high concentration in one spot, and they kept moving. Goodness knows I’d mess up every time I reached ten. How can someone earn money from this? So much for having a hawk counting job at the Cape May Observatory. Two experienced, with scopes, agreed to having counted a little over two hundred. (They didn’t submit the eBird list I linked at the end of this post,) Even if I had already known that as many as ten thousand raptors could form a kettle, I would still be transfixed by this particular one before me. It presented a question: How did they teach themselves to do this? I asked how high the Broad-wings were. No one could give me an estimate.

I had to look away for my neck’s sake. I hadn’t keep track of the time, so I can’t remember exactly how long the kettle lasted, or when it finally dispersed or moved on.

No more kettles after that. But our hawkwatching wasn’t any less enjoyable. We mostly looked to the north and northwest. A few more Broad-wings flew by themselves or in twos or threes. Also going by were Red-tailed Hawks, Sharp-shinned Hawks, several Ospreys, one Cooper’s Hawk, and a couple young Bald Eagles (whose plumage is mostly brown with white patches). One of the birders with a scope spotted a Peregrine under a Broad-wing. Hoping to finally get a good look of this falcon, I scanned for it carefully. Blue. Still blue. And all the other the raptors soaring about. I heard everyone else exclaiming, “Found it!” Frustrated, I lightly cursed at the Peregrine. Well, this instance was bound to have happened at least once. Nonetheless, I didn’t add the bird to my eBird list.

Throughout the hawkwatch, Turkey and Black Vultures glided around the side of the mountain. Imposing statures. Darkly elegant. Their wingspans are nearly as long as those of Bald Eagles. The Turkey Vultures came near enough for us to see the lines on their red faces – which looked badly burned and raw skin – without binoculars. Most of the group paid them little to no attention. The rest, including myself, kept watched whenever they came into view. Never had we seen them so closely.

During the lulls, I sometimes kept my eye on the owl figure, which was stuck at the end of an erected twenty-foot pole. Placed near the rocks on which we stood, it was supposed to fool raptors into flying closer to the mountain and give birders a good look. For the first couple hours nothing took the bait. Then, as if a part of the birders’ sacrifice, half of our group departed. Minutes after, a Sharpie – an accipiter smaller than a crow and certainly smaller than that owl – went for the attack. But, in a flash, it realized its enemy was a fake within inches. It flew away.

A moment later, the owl attracted two Red-tails. They only checked it out, but that didn’t deprive us of a great view. They circled less than twenty-feet above our heads. I could see individual feathers on their breasts, dark streaks on soft white.

After two-and-a-half hours, I had to leave. Before I reached the trail that took me into the woods, I caught a glimpse of a Turkey Vulture soaring down the mountain. It swiftly disappeared behind the trees.


Surprise Sandpipers

A sandpiper strolls along the lake’s shoreline, back and forth, beak rapidly in and out of the sand. Its body is slim, a little more than half a foot in length. Its upperside is light brown and scaly, and it has yellowish legs and a white eyeline. Its behind bops up and down, exposing its stark white underside, to a soundless song.

I expected to see the Little Blue Heron – a rarity for Westchester County – from the day before so that I could reconfirm that I did see a Little Blue Heron. It would be my first extraordinary bird as a birder. Instead, at seven on this mid-July morning, I found a juvenile Spotted Sandpiper. My first shorebird.

I wasn’t surprised that I’d missed the Wood Ducks, Eastern Phoebes, Great Blue Herons, Warbling Vireos, and warblers all the years I lived by the lake (24, my age). But sandpipers? At this lake? So far inland, a fair distance from the Hudson River, among a woodsy suburban region where there are networks of back roads and cul-de-sacs, where trees grow wherever houses weren’t built? I didn’t known at the time that not all sandpipers live by saltwater. Besides the Spotted Sandpiper: Solitaries, Leasts, Lesser Yellowlegs, White-Rumped, and others reside by lakes, flooded fields, wet areas in woods, marshes, ponds, and mudflats.Generally, they feed on worms, snails, insects, and small crustaceans.

My timing couldn’t have been better. Because of the lack of long and steady rains, the lake’s water level was very low. Lowest I’d ever seen – up to thirty feet away from the usual shoreline. I could see how the small tributary at the westernmost corner carved the sediment. The lily pads that were usually in the middle of lake now sat limply on the lakebed, sometimes flapping in the wind. The exposed sand would look appealing to migrating sandpipers, which were already flying south, where their wintering residence ranges from North of Mexico to South America. Though this was my first time watching at the lake for these birds, I had a feeling that their number was high for this year.

Up until that morning, on July 17th, I also took the lake in general for granted. Once I left elementary school, I only went whenever my neighborhood held seasonal parties. So after I saw a Little Blue Heron and a sandpiper, I just had to go to the lake more often.

Before continuing, a forewarning. The best thing for me was have gone to the lake every day. I didn’t do that. I thought I did. Then I reviewed my eBird lists. I had visited irregularly, and even once went without birding there a week. I probably went so infrequently because I thought I’d keep better track of the sandpipers, albeit in my own peculiarly incorrect way. Because I observed at different times each day (early morning, late morning, mid-afternoon, late afternoon), my sightings of each sandpiper species were sporadic and I didn’t see them every time I went to the lake. Just when I thought, say, the Spotted officially left September 9, I’d see it again, to my astonishment, on the 18th.

Still, I only wanted to learn what other surprise sandpipers showed and watch them be sandpipers. They tended to settle on the western side of the lake, where the man-made beach – my observing point – is located. For at least two weeks, a Solitary hung around the Spotted, foraging and preening together mostly by the beach. The Solitary Sandpiper is larger and has a similar color scheme as the juvenile Spotted, only its upperside is slightly darker brown and speckled with dark brown spots. Its head tends to bob as it forages. Like the Blue Jay and Brown-headed Cowbird, it is a brood parasite, laying its eggs in nests belonging to several songbirds.

After the Solitary left, another Spotted – with winter plumage – came along. It stayed for at least a day (August 30th) before moving on.

On August 29th, late in the afternoon, when I last saw the Solitary (foraging with the Spotted on the opposite side of the lake), I had a frustrating moment. Six sandpipers clumped by the lily pad patch closest to the tributary. Since the trees shaded the area, I couldn’t make out their exact plumage. Getting closer wasn’t an option – I’d scare them away. I took notes of size, shape, beak length, and foraging behavior, but going through my Sibley’s, Peterson’s, and Stokes’ guides I became even more uncertain. At the least I discerned there were three species. Three teeny ones closely rested. The medium-sized one with a bold white eyeline foraged near them, clearly wanting to simultaneously establish its independence and its wanting to hang with the peeps. And another small one stayed relatively close to these four – as opposed to the Spotted and Solitary – though it foraged quite far from the shoreline.

I had to eventually roll with “just sandpipers.” My eBird list currently says one Semipalmated and three Leasts, plus shorebird sp. for the medium-sized sandpiper that I nearly marked as a White-rumped. I thought I deleted the input for the Semipalm and the Leasts days before. I’m embarrassed to alter it as this point. Would the scientists and eBird authorities even notice?

On September 7th, another group of bird arrived at the lake: two plovers. Specifically, 2 Killdeer. Killdeer are common all year round in most of the United States, including New York. Besides lakes, meadows, and wetland areas, they reside in parking lots, lawns and golf courses. They are well-known for their broken-wing act, luring predators away from their nests. I observed a pair that roosted twice at Lake Meahagh in Buchanan in the summer and even saw the fledglings, which look like puffballs nicely glued together. So I wasn’t amazed that these Killdeer were at the lake. As far as I know, they’re still here. I last saw them this morning. They keep to the northwestern-most corner, by the tributary. One morning, I arrived at the lake to find sleeping on the beach with a flock of Canada Geese.

Summer concludes. Days shorten, sunlight weakens. The last official “new” sandpiper to briefly stay at the lake is the Least Sandpiper (I ID’d them correctly. The size of sparrows, Leasts are the smallest shorebirds in the world. Spending their summers northern Canada, they are mostly seen as they migrate. They tend to flock in dozens and stick the oceanic shorelines and coastal mudflats. Brown on top and white on the bottom, with black beaks and yellow-green legs. If you’ve seen them, you know how incredibly cute they are. They look pudgy: they hunch as they forage.

These two Leasts booked their nights for only September 9th and 10th. On the 9th, they closely followed the Spotted along the beach, taking their time as they foraged. Their beaks probed the sand like delicate jackhammers. Once all three at last reached the cattails on the left side of the beach, the Spotted suddenly took off, calling several peet weet’s. It flew over my head, allowing me a clear view of the white stripes on its wings. Meanwhile, the Leasts stood still, startled that their friend left. The next day, I found them with the Killdeer by the tributary.

The sandpipers have traveled far past New York State by now. When the Spotted will leave I have yet to really know. Considering September is more than halfway through, the final time I see it is probably when I last observed it. Meanwhile, the Killdeer are still there. They might make the lake their home.



August 8 (morning): 1 Spotted

August 14 (late afternoon): 1 Spotted, 1 Solitary

August 15 (mid-morning): Solitary

August 29 (late afternoon): 1 Spotted, 1 Solitary, 6 unknowns

August 30 (late-morning): 2 Spotted

September 1 (mid-morning): 1 Spotted

September 7 (late morning): 1 Spotted, 2 Killdeer

September 8 (mid-afternoon): 2 Killdeer

September 9 (morning): 2 Killdeer

September 9 (late-afternoon): 1 Spotted, 2 Least

September 10 (mid-morning): 2 Killdeer, 2 Least

September 13 (morning): 2 Killdeer

September 18 (mid-afternoon): 1 Spotted

September 19 (morning): 2 Killdeer