Month: October 2016

Revisiting Hook Mountain

I went to Hook Mountain for the second time last year. The numbers were a little disappointing because the air was so still. Not good winds. So it goes with raptor migration timing. We (it was a Saw Mill River Audubon trip) observed 8 species of raptor.

Only the Broad-winged Hawk barely exceeded the count of 10 (12). Most of them flew individually, but there was one group of 3, inspiring a joke that, in a situation like this, three Broad-wings make a kettle.

SMRA arranged three trips this year: two in September and one this October.

September 7 was hot and dry, and the air slow-moving. During the two-and-a-half hours, we saw only five raptor species, individuals for each species not exceeding 3: Osprey, Sharpies, Cooper’s, Broad-winged, Red-tail, and Peregrine.We also had fly-bys or Double-crested Cormorant, a Great Blue Heron, both species of vulture, and a small movement (4) of Chimney Swifts. The better parts of the trip were the hikes up and down the mountain. We heard and saw a late-singing Yellow-throated Vireo, and got very good looks at a Northern Parula and a couple Black-throated Green Warbler.

September 18 was even worse. Overcast and not much cooler. Sparse rain intermittently fell. Again, not good winds – not from the right direction. And again, the numbers were not exciting even though we waited for two hours, unless you’d count 30 TV’s a thrill: 1 Osprey, 1 Sharpie, 1 Cooper’s, 2 Broad-wings and 1 Red-tail. The hiking was quiet, too.

October 26. Autumnal colors burned against the sky and coated the mountainside. The gray-blue Hudson water glimmered.

Winds blew favorably.

Our ascent was quiet, save for a Red-bellied Woodpecker and few kinglets calling. I spotted a Brown Creeper working its way up several trees.

We stayed on the top for almost two hours. Our raptor numbers were small but more varied and constant than the September watches’. We observed a Sharpie movement – 18 in total, all individuals. They came close enough to easily determine which were adults and which were immatures. At least two fell for the owl prop, but they quickly saw through the trick and flew away when they drew near enough.

As typical, we saw a few Red-tails, including the all-year resident of Hook Mountain, as counter Steve Sachs noted. At a a certain point, we watched one Red-tail kite for up to thirty seconds. Hovering so still in one place, wings furled out, tail feathers twitching to match the wind, it looked as if it were pinned to the sky, as SMRA trip leader Anne Swaim put it.

Other raptor sightings included 1 adult Bald Eagle, several TV’s, 1 Black Vulture, and 1 Red-shouldered Hawk. I didn’t expect to see a Northern Harrier, which soared over Rockland Lake and then traveled east.

When the raptor show was lacking, the passerines filled the voids. A Golden-crowned Kinglet flitted around the lone juniper tree, deftly clinging to the thin branches. Two Purple Finches – a male and a female – fluttered over our heads. I alone heard a Red-breasted Nuthatch toot once. A Yellow-rumped Warbler flashed from bush to bush. Two individual Common Ravens flew around the mountain’s north side. A flock of half a dozen Red-winged Blackbirds traveled northward. One bluebird called a couple times. Unexpectedly, a Pine Siskin zoomed over. We were able to catch the yellow on its wings and hear its zhreeeeee call.

A chilly wind picked up as midday approached. We decided to call it quits. Just as we were about to leave, a Cooper’s Hawk slowly glided by, its crop full with breakfast. Our descent was slightly treacherous. We took care not to slip on the leaves. I nearly took a misstep on hidden rocks a couple times. A raven croaked. Blue Jays “jayed.” I found a dead junco – stiff and solid, likely to have collided with a tree – on the trail. A flock of three Golden-crowned Kinglets and a White-breasted Nuthatch foraged on low trees next. A Hermit Thrush darted through the trees mid-canopy. A Winter Wren skulked among a clump of half-rotted logs.

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Eyes

Foreword: It wasn’t unusual that I’d find, on occasion, corpses and bones belonging to fish, Canada Geese, and mammals on Cayuga Lake’s shore. A senior at Wells College, I’d often stroll the length between the boathouse and the tributary, the same length every few days or every few weeks, throughout the seasons. Finding remains was one of the highlights of my walks.

One low tide, a sunless late-winter afternoon, I came across the aftermath of a slaughter. On the grays stones lay a goose graveyard, a chaotic layout of black feet, dirty bones, detached necks, wide-open rib cages, and masses of weakly fluttering feathers. These geese may have made up a smaller flock, perhaps a dozen in total.  It was hard to tell with so many parts scattered about. None of the few intact heads still had the eyes to tell their story. I had an idea from the agape beaks. I didn’t know the names and functions of every bone I surveyed, but I imagined piecing them together to create whole skeletons, guess which would go where. One particularly interesting piece I found was two unsullied wings both still attached to the vertebra. It was as if the predator deftly ripped it off the goose’s body with rough purpose.

Weeks later I walked along the shore to bask in spring’s full warmth. Green grew everywhere. The wind was pleasant, not biting, and the water a vibrant, dazzling deep blue. Water rippled over the area where the goose massacre had occurred. Some hundred feet further down, I found a lone goose corpse near the waterline. It hadn’t been there long. Lying on its side, back against the lake, the goose was completely intact – not a feather or bone out of place. Perfect plumage, well-preened, without a drop of water or bit of dirt. But it no longer had eyes. Spongy, red shallow sockets gazed into nothingness. Fresh crimson. Fresh spongy texture, glittering in the sunlight like the lake. This texture was unfamiliar. I couldn’t figure how it would feel. I could only take it in visually. My brain then transformed the information and sent it to my stomach in the guise of nausea. Even through this I couldn’t stop staring. Of all the things of a dead goose to be disgusted by… I eventually broke away and continued walking, nervous at the thought it may have just died from sickness. Don’t get too close. Remember the eyes.

Brinton Brook Hike, Report 10-2016

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The reddish leaves belong to the Sugar Maple, and the larger, green leaves to the Norway Maple. The Norway Maple is not native. Their leaves change later in the fall, to yellow.

Last year, I had a wonderful October hike – sunny, lovely foliage, and excellent birding. A winter wren was practically at my feet when I stopped by the pond. At least a dozen Yellow-rumped Warblers flitted all around me on the ground, fly-catching, seeming to pay me no mind. And I got my first excellent close-up view of a Blue-headed Vireo, allowing me to appreciate what the bird was named for.

Even though the weather forecast eventually decided against rain, the sky was still overcast. As such, the air felt cool. But the birds still went about their business. Autumn migration must continue. Our group of 8 consisted of mostly birdwatchers. We were not disappointed for much of the hike.

As I predicted, the warbler corner was active. We spotted a Swainson’s Thrush, two Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, a towhee, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. And for the first time in three years, I saw my first male Purple Finch (there were three in total). Before this hike, I would only see female Purple Finches. I was reluctant to eventually count them as a lifer, but after seeing so many females and not one male I gave in at a certain point.

One finch agreeably stayed in one place for a couple minutes, eating berries in a low bush. It couldn’t have picked a better spot – it was in the middle of the thicket, but I found an angle in which I could look through a “hole.” I was happy to be able to compare its plumage to a male House Finch’s firsthand. The former certainly has much more color on their body. Very pink, not quite magenta. Not as streaky and brown as the House Finch. Male Purple Finches also have diagnostic facial markings: a thick, darker pink strip that washes over their eyes, and a white-ish eyeline.

The pond’s water level had risen since last month. The waterfowl enjoyed the invitation. We counted at least 16 Wood Duck, 9 Black Duck, and 4 Mallard. No sighting of the Great Blue Heron from the previous couple months.

Our way up to the power lines was quiet, save for the ubiquitous Blue Jays, titmice, chickadees, and White-breasted Nuthatches. (Not a peep from a Red-breasted Nuthatch today, if you’re wondering.) We did hear some fantastic drumming. It possibly came from one of the resident Pileated Woodpeckers.

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Freshly felled by lightning.

Right at the beginning of the path that leads to the power lines, we watched a winter flock: chickadees, titmice, a couple more Ruby-crowend Kinglets, and some Yellow-rumped Warblers. They flitted around the canopy. I mostly saw silhouettes against the bright overcast sky. I barely got looks at the kinglets, and I could only hear the butterbutts’ snick calls.

Upon reaching power lines, I heard calls from White-throated Sparrows. A lively bush produced half a dozen Northern Mockingbirds, more White-throated Sparrows, an Eastern Phoebe, and an unidentifiable sparrow species. We spotted another towhee, and we heard Eastern Bluebirds in the distance but never saw them. I went ahead a little and saw a Northern Harrier glide across the field towards the sanctuary. It happened so quickly I couldn’t give a shout to anyone else about it. Shortly after, a Pileated also flew across, whooping loudly, and landed on a tree that borders the sanctuary and the field. Almost everyone got the opportunity to observe it.

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Burning Bush may look attractive, but it is an invasive non-native species. They aren’t known for harboring the Voice of God.

Not surprisingly, our hike was quiet on the way down again. This part of the sanctuary has no understory, thanks to the deer. I don’t often witness bird activity here unless there is a more common woodpecker or a White-breasted Nuthatch. Nevertheless, the air wasn’t alarmingly quiet. The crickets hummed continuously. The spring peepers peeped. I took the chance to concentrate on appreciating the foliage.

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Part of the view of our descent from the power lines.

Near the end of the trail, where there is more understory, we began to hear more birds. Just Blue Jays mostly, a couple Carolina Wrens, and the same birds from the beginning of the hike, including the Swainson’s Thrush. While I and another birder lingered in the parking lot to compare lists, another Pileated Woodpecker flew over us, bringing a nice conclusion to this month’s hike.