Month: August 2016

Of Gray Catbirds

The Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) was one of the birds I could identify before becoming a birder. I may have been in my early teens when my father pointed out their mewing in the garden front of our house. I liked nature and was interested in environmental conservation. But I knew about birds as much as the average non-birdwdatcher.

Oh, is that what that is? I took the time to listen. I loved cats (and I still am a cat-person). The idea of a bird sounding like a cat amused me. Since then, I would just happen to hear them around the property, like the blue jay or (American) crow. The time would be late summer or early autumn, when the cool stretching of darkness was more apparent. They symbolized the transition from warmth to cold, from green to fiery colors. The mews sounded melancholic. The catbirds were crying, but for who, for what?

Catbirds are common, robin-sized birds. They are a spring and summer resident in the United States – east of the Rockies – and southern Canada. They winter mostly in Central America and the southeastern U.S. coast. Nowadays, starting with the new millennium, they have become hardier birds and are overwintering. Even in Westchester County.

Their plumage is uniformly slate gray (lovely color), with a black cap and rusty undertail coverts. They have beady black eyes and a relatively short black beak. Their long tails characteristically wag while they perch. Catbirds are a part of the mimid family, related to  Northern Mockingbirds and Brown Thrashers. They eat insects and fruits. They especially berries, including poison ivy berries.

Catbirds are best known for their mew calls, which I hear (as a birder now) all spring and summer, especially nearing fall migration. In early spring, just after arriving to claim nesting territory, they sing. They produce a loud and long string of notes – simultaneously musical and rough – with non-repetitive, jarring phrasing. Every year, when they return to nest in various spots of our yard, one would sing in the flowering dogwood adjacent to the deck at dusk. My mother doesn’t like their singing much because they are a “racket.”

Catbirds also produce a crackle call.To me, it sounds like electricity in power lines snapping. Whenever they sound this call, I usually see them moving quickly in the underbrush. And, like the mockingbird, catbirds can imitate other birds, and even tree frogs and mechanical sounds. (I’ve personally never heard them imitate anything.)

I don’t think I’ll ever tire of hearing the catbirds mew. I like to mew back at catbirds like one does with actual cats. But unlike the feline mammal, they don’t respond.

Sometimes they still sound melancholic; late summer will create that biased mood. For some reason, the catbirds’ mews add to the forlorn feeling, joining with the departing birds and the decay and the cold and the darkness. Other times, generally, they sound like what any bird wants to ensure: “Here I am – this is my territory now, so go away.” I don’t often see catbirds mewing. They stay hidden. So they could be adults or juveniles. They could be practicing. They could be claiming territory in case they decide to winter over. Or they simply want to be noise-makers.

Catbirds keep to wherever they find dense vegetation low to the ground: forests, suburban backyard gardens, large city/town parks. For this, they are known as a shy and secretive birds. But I would sooner point to warblers for more accurately fitting that description. Once warblers hide, they hide. Catbirds are more outgoing – not gregariously so, but curious and enthusiastic about their surroundings. If the timing is right, and it usually is, you can see them fly from bush to bush, shrub to shrub, tree to tree, or even briefly catch them flitting around in the vegetation. They easily respond to pishing. They reveal themselves to check out what’s going on. They come out in the open bright-eyed, tail flicking more than a phoebe’s. If I don’t see or hear catbirds while birding in spring and summer, I would be surprised. They are common enough for one to think, Another one to tick off on the checklist…

Catbirds can also be a little aggressive. They have been found to destroy Brown-headed Cowbird eggs laid in their nests. (Birders would cheer at this since other songbirds, especially ones critical of becoming endangered (mostly our fault, but the cowbirds are no help) who would not recognize the difference between their own eggs and cowbird eggs.)

A couple years, I saw a catbird land on my backyard deck with a half of a turquoise eggshell in its beak. It settled the eggshell on the deck, ate the contents, and then flew away. I went out onto the deck and found the half cleaned off. More recently, I have tried to find sources to back up what I observed, but no luck. And now I am more unsure if the egg were a robin’s or even a catbird’s – both are similar in color.

As of this posting, the time is late August. I have been hearing the catbirds mew more frequently over the past couple weeks. Once again, they act as heralds of late summer. Fall migration for songbirds has started. The sun sets before eight o’clock. Evenings are cold. Catbirds aren’t trying to sound forlorn, crying for the loss of light and warmth.


Brinton Brook Hike, Report 8-2016

Only five of us showed up this month: Mike, hike leader; Rudy, sanctuary caretaker; a Czech father and son, both birdwatchers; and myself. Today was hot and muggy, as the past several days had been. The air already felt unbearable when I left home at 8:30. The area had several days of rain in a row this week. With every rainfall, the air became more humid. We were truly in the dog days of summer, as today was the day Sirius rose just before the sun. While this rain was good for the flora, it also meant the rise of ticks, which fried and died during the July drought.

I asked Mike, “Should we have a contest to see who has the most ticks in the end?” (I checked after the hike and found nothing…yet.)

“We should see whose shirt is soaked the most with sweat,” he responded.

Further on the bug situation, I didn’t have to worry about mosquitoes. Instead, my right ear was nearly buzzed to death by black flies. I couldn’t hike and birdwatch in peace without swatting the air by my ear every few seconds.

Being August, I didn’t expect that many birds. I saw and heard a good amount at Rockefeller State Park in Sleepy Hollow that Monday, but it’s Rockefeller SP after all. Many birds concluded their nesting weeks ago. No reason to sing for territory or mates, though a few adults sing because they might not have anything else to do. But the number of species ended up quite underwhelming. 19. Last year, my notebook listed 26. I had better counts in winter than today!

I especially looked forward to older juveniles. There was only one family of titmice. And I thought for sure I would hear and see many more goldfinches. August is their time to breed. Around this time, they sing their hearts out. They constantly fly around with a mission in mind. But I didn’t hear any – only two, at that – until an hour and a quarter into the hike. The sauna-like air seemed to have deterred most of the birds into hiding.

The hike started off with an Eastern Wood-Pewee and a Northern Cardinal. At the first intersection, where the sanctuary map is placed, is what I call the warbler corner. During spring and autumn migrations, warblers like to visit this the most. Today: a Black-and-white Warbler and an American Redstart. Warblers, no matter which and how many, are always welcomed. Also present were a couple robins, a White-breasted Nutchatch, and three species of woodpecker (Downy, Red-bellied, Northern Flicker).

Thereafter and to the end, we mostly encountered repeat species, including the titmice, woodpeckers, Blue Jays, pewees, and nuthatches.

The Great Blue Heron, seen the past couple weeks, hung around the pond. We found it nearly on the other side. Hunched, its body looked like a small boulder. The water was very shallow, practically covered in lily pads. It couldn’t have much of a chance to hunt, but it still stayed in the sun. When we passed by it, it flew to its roosting tree, which was nicely under the shade.

I didn’t want to walk the power lines today. I’m sure Mike and Rudy would have if I weren’t there. For a few minutes, we went out and stood in front of the path that led back to the woods. The sun felt so powerful. A grass cutter made noise on the other side of the field. We had some birds. Several Turkey Vultures. The one Eastern Phoebe. Another flicker. An un-ID’d passerine (probably a female goldfinch, but it flew by too fast and didn’t stop to perch anywhere.)

We then heard one of the resident Pileated Woodpeckers in the trees on the edge of the wood. I saw a large black thing move behind the leaves. Then it went out in the open, flew fifty feet up the field’s edge, and went back into the trees. It called again.

I could have stood and listened more birds (just in case), but I didn’t want to drag out the moment for nothing. We walked back to the trail in the woods and hydrated. Only forty minutes into the hike.

Very quiet. The cicadas filled an otherwise silent void. A couple chipmunks still called to maintain their territories. Between the black flies and the humidity, my concentration for birding went down to nearly zero. The one time I looked up at the canopy, coincidentally, an Empidonax flycatcher flew into a tree just above me. When I came home, I ID’d it as a Willow Flycatcher.

The hike lasted only an hour and a half. (On average, it would last two and a half hours.) I checked the front pond for any ducks, but the water was coated with algae. The place was deserted. I did, though, see a female cardinal in the bushes.

When we got back to the parking lot, I had to ask, “Who won the sweat t-shirt contest?” Mike did – because of his backpack.

Next month: the Ramble.


Clymene Moth. S.G. Hansen

The Young Know What They Are

I returned to the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary an hour before dusk. I went on the Bayview trail with my parents that afternoon. I had a good open view of some shorebirds on the mudflats, but the heatwaves and the backlighting obscured the birds. Unsatisfied, I suggested we returned in the evening to watch the sunset instead of walking on a beach again. I wanted to go on the boardwalk trail, to go near the end where the marsh was. My father ended up going with me.

At 7 in the evening, the visitor’s center had been closed for two hours. Tourists were long gone, at dinner. The pitch pine forest blocked the orange sunlight, covering the entrance area was in shadows. Except for one man just crossing the gate to leave, my father and I were the only people there. I simply heard common songbirds (cardinal, chickadee, catbird, goldfinch).

I like the solitude in a natural setting while birding. I don’t mind passersby – other birders, walkers, joggers, or dog walkers (the dogs better be on leash!) – but I am more in control of my relationship to the surroundings. I can easily modulate my presence. I am the only human that needs to quiet their step, consciously. The more I make it seem like I have always been a part of the setting, the less the birds hide. They continue their activities without feeling the need to adjust their own presences.

My father, a quiet person, also appreciates the quiet of nature.

The air cooled a little more. We went on the part of the path that went through a patch of oak trees. The songbirds eventually quieted down to silence. I got a little too eager for action at one point. I thought I saw a strange bird tapping at a sycamore tree. It was just a piece of bark randomly flapping (there was no breeze as far as I could tell).

A little further up, I saw a little side trail to the left. My parents and I visited the Wellfeet Bay Sanctuary three years previously when we last vacationed in Cape Cod. We walked the entire boardwalk trail then. On the way, we went on this little trail and briefly stopped at the bird blind that overlooks the large pond.

This was the summer before I got into birdwatching, just a few months before. I was like non-birders: Who stands around to look at birds like that? Uh, boring?

I didn’t pause when I saw the little trail. Remembering it and the memories associated with it, I headed down. I was a birder this time. One must visit a bird blind.

I approached the blind – a small gray wooden hut with two rectangular windows – as gingerly as I could, taking care not to creak the floorboard steps. I kept my gaze through the windows as I entered. Immediately, I saw two juvenile Black-crowned Night-Herons. I hissed at my father, who was waiting on the path, to get in and look.

Juvenile Black-crowned Night-Herons look radically different from the adults, who have crisply clean plumage: gray-black wings and back, off-white underside. Juveniles are brown and white with spotted wings and a heavily streaked breast. They also lack the lone white plume that extends from the back of the head.

Not even fifteen feet away, the two night-herons were perched on an upright fallen  branch that split into a short fork. One on the left fork, the other on the right fork. I didn’t have to use my binoculars. I lent them to my father.

The sunset was now more orange, lighting the shallow water brightly and surrounding the night-herons in a glow. Bugs tapped the water around them, making numerous small short-lived ripples. On either side of them, by the water’s edge, were reeds and tall grasses.

Almost fully grown, they had the stocky, hunched composure of an adult. I didn’t have to guess whether they heard and saw me approach. The one of the left had its back to the blind. After a short moment, it craned its head as if to see what new commotion as going on in the blind. Then once more it moved, turning its whole body to face its sibling. Meanwhile, the one of the right remained motionless. I couldn’t tell if they were staring at me (with one eye each locked on the blind), staring into space, or staring at each other. Still, they looked aware. Incredibly aware. Very, very still. They had a mature air, enigmatically poised.

I normally perceive adult birds like this. Juveniles birds were awkward. Teenagers awkwardly in the middle of puberty. Juvenile herons especially look awkward because of their Doc Brown-like white down feathers. And in general, young birds often don’t recognize that humans are another potential predator they need to be cautious around. So they get a little too close for their own good. Luckily, it’s not for their own good if the humans are birders.

For these two young night-herons to have more dignity and grace than even an adult Great Blue Heron was surprising. I couldn’t help but turn around a few times and excitedly whisper to my father what he was looking at. At this point I would be truly projecting human qualities on them: each time I did move and whisper, I felt that they disapproved of me a little more, and would get closer to flying away from us.

The pond darkened. I didn’t keep track of how long we stayed in the blind. At some point we turned our attention to the Belted Kingfisher perched on a stump in the middle of pond. It was the first time my father saw a kingfisher and I wanted him to get a good look at it. Still, we kept most of our attention on the night-herons. My excitement for the moment didn’t dwindle even a little, but it seemed that we were spending too much time in the blind. We may have already stressed the night-herons enough (Or did we? Were they already so motionless before my father and I went into the blind? Did they not care about our presence? Were they aware but kept going with their business of resting (meditating??) regardless?), and I told my father we should move on. An amateur photographer without a good camera, he rued for a series of lost pictures. Nevertheless, later at the motel, he expressed how happy he was to accompany me, as he almost skipped out.