Morning at Muscoot Farm

The cold morning began with sun and fog. At a small building near the parking lot, two European Starlings, which were otherwise perched quietly, suddenly got into scuffle and tumbled down the tin roof, gurgling. After those few seconds, they broke away and settled back on the roof, forgetting.

Rock Pigeons sat on the barn’s gutters, House Sparrows chirped in the bushes, and small flocks of starlings murmurationed around the farm. In the tree next to the barn, Yellow-rumped Warblers flitted from branch to branch, catching insects, warming themselves in the sunlight. All but one adorned fall plumage – faint black streaks on their breasts, yellow lines barely visible on their flanks.

With the group finally gathered, we walked unhurriedly. Chickadees and titmice buzzed far into the woods. We searched for more warblers but none made appearances for us. In the background were soft tzzt’s of the newly arrived White-throated sparrows. The small field just out of eyesight of the farm looked mowed. It was empty and flat. Dried grasses bowed. Last month, the bright male goldfinches ate the plentiful thistle. Presently, I listened for any goldfinches. There were no per-chik-o-ree, only songs and calls belonging to other birds.

We continued. We saw a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, female, a first for me a first for me since last late winter. Shortly, across the road from the field, we came across our first hotspot for birds: a short tree, covered with vines. Several Gray Catbirds mewed and crackled. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet, tiny as a wren, olive colored with yellow lines on its wings, darted about so quickly that was impossible to get a good look at it. A Brown Thrasher made a brief appearance, peering back at us. On the other side, at the top of thick green beside the tree, a quiet Northern Mockingbird was perched.

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One of the birding hotspots that morning. Also depicted is half our group (nineteen members).

A Common Yellowthroat – female, since it lacked a black mask – foraged at the bottom of the tree, floating behind the large leaves. She was one of the pudgiest small birds I’d ever seen, even for a yellowthroat. As I watched her overturn fallen leaves, I overheard others’ excitement over a Swamp Sparrow, which was perched on the same as the mockingbird. I hurried over – a new bird for my life list. I was able to look at it for a few seconds with my binoculars – a solid enough chance for me – before it dropped into the green.

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The Swamp Sparrow. Photo by Billy Liljeroos

Passing the Eastern Bluebirds and Chipping Sparrows, we walked past the field and into and the small wood. Someone spotted a Green Heron down the hill, through the trees, at the pond – altogether more than fifty feet away from. It was crouched in patch of green grass. Immobile, a statuette. I was baffled as to how anyone could’ve noticed it. Many of us struggled to find it with our binoculars, including me. Anne Swain, our group leader, put her scope on it for everyone. We lingered for a bit. The Green Heron was a first for up to half the group. Then deciding we’d probably see the heron later, we moved on.

We reached the fields on the northern side, my favorite spot for birding at Muscoot. The season change had drained the colors, save for the grass we walked on. Where goldenrod abundantly grew last month, stalks and dried leaves tangled. Fluffs burst from a milkweed pods, seeds long released. Most of the mullein was nearly dead. Only their tips still had flowers. Dragonflies, fritillary butterflies, and honeybees and bumblebees no longer whirred around. The Ruby-throated Hummingbirds had already migrated two weeks ago.

Up the hill, by the gazebo, a young Eastern Phoebe was flycatching, maneuvering like an awkward moth. Having not caught anything, it rested on a mullein. For several minutes it looked around, tail flicking. Its breast appeared more yellow that it really was in the sun.

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Eastern Phoebe on a mullein. Photo by Billy Liljeroos.

As we walked up the hill, I noticed a few goldenrod stalks still standing, near the gazebo. Bumblebees crowded around the flowers, hoping for nectar overlooked by earlier visitors.

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Bumblebees crowding a single goldenrod bunch.

We walked along the edges of the fields. A manure pile below the line of trees attracted insects, which, in turn, attracted more Yellow-rumped Warblers, bluebirds, phoebes, and a Palm Warbler. One male Brown-head Cowbird – a brood parasite with a song like liquid metal – was perched on a young evergreen.

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Brown-headed Cowbird. It was so relaxed that I got within a few feet of it.

When we crossed over to the second field, I pointed out a Cooper’s Hawk in a dead tree. A Cooper’s Hawk is an accipiter: a raptor with a long tail in comparison with the length of its wings. I couldn’t make out much else with my binoculars, which don’t let in as much light I hope for. Looking through Anne’s scope, I clearly saw that the hawk’s back faced us. A young one, too – the wings’ dark brown plumage were white-flecked. Suddenly, the Cooper’s pooped. For us, that meant it just ate. We joked that it wouldn’t catch a rabbit or squirrel while we still hung around, like we anticipated.

A little later, as we continued our walk, an American Kestrel soared above us. We cried out when a Sharp-shinned Hawk – an accipiter that almost looks like smaller version of the Cooper’s Hawk – attacked the kestrel. The Sharpie barely missed sinking in its talons. Instead of attacking again, it flew away.

The kestrel had gone over to the woods adjacent to the field. For whatever reason, it perched in a tree and took flight, perched and took flight, never resting more than a few seconds, restlessly calling klee klee klee klee klee klee klee!! The autumn foliage complemented the small falcon’s beautifully colorful plumage: red rusty back, slate-blue wings forehead, black-spotted body. A spectacular sight, but I wondered about its behavior. After the long minute, the kestrel kept on flying, behind the trees and beyond our sight, its calls growing quieter.

When we arrived at the pond, we immediately look for the Green Heron. We scanned the opposite shoreline, half-hoping it’d still be there, half-assuming it had gone. But someone found it. Completely motionless, it was squatting by the water in front of the short grasses, fifteen feet left from its original spot. This Green Heron was young. Unlike an adult, its back and wings weren’t vibrantly green; and nor was its chest deep chestnut, but streaked, dark brown on white. It was like an American Bittern. If I were by myself, I wouldn’t have noticed it all. But here, now, with its presence revealed, I could even see it without binoculars.

Group leader Anne Swaim (left) takes a photo of the juvenile Green Heron. Yours truly watches her.

Walking back to the farm, as we passed the small field, the kestrel from before appeared, calling. It dove at the field few times, and then it began to soar in imperfect circles, right over our heads. I could see the light through its wing feathers. Looking through our binoculars, we saw a large grasshopper sticking out from its beak. The kestrel leisurely chomped on the grasshopper, bit by bit. We were amused by the breakfast on the go.

Finished, the kestrel tried to land on a thin branch at the very top of a tall tree. The wind had picked up by this time, causing the branches to sway. It took the kestrel more time than it should to realize that the struggle wasn’t worth it, so it glided down to a shorter tree. But it had barely stayed there for ten seconds when it took off again. Calling, the kestrel flew upward and disappeared past the trees, back to the northern fields.

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