Month: December 2016

2016 Peekskill Christmas Bird Count

This year’s Christmas Bird Count (CBC) marks the 117th anniversary. Ornithologist Frank Chapman founded the event in 1900. Before then, hunters spent their Christmases  competing to hunt and collect as many birds as they could. Chapman had an idea: Why not…count birds instead of killing them? Today, the CBC is the largest and longest running citizen science program, conducted by the National Audubon Society. Counts around North, Central, and South America occur from mid-December to early January.  You can count birds all day long – from pre-dawn to dusk – or simply contribute as few as 15 minutes of your time. Each area is divided by circles of 15-mile diameters, in which groups are assigned to different territories. Circle compilers combine each group’s list. These lists eventually make their way to ornithologists and conservation biologists who utilize the lists to study bird behavior and the environment. (For information regarding on how to join the count, please see this web page.)

On December 17th, I participated in my 3rd Peekskill count, again assigned to the Ossining territory with Charlie Roberto and Christine McCluskey. I was supposed to meet Charlie and Christine at 7AM to carpool. But the weather forecast predicted 3-5 inches of snow between 4 and 11AM. Seeing snow having already accumulated on my street at 6, I went back to bed. Waiting until the snow nearly stopped falling seemed prudent.

img_1189

My street at 9AM. It was still coming down. © S.G. Hansen

My house is located deep in residential area. I live on a cul-de-sac that branches off a larger cul-de-sac. The plows seem to clean my street later than everywhere else. Today, the plow came shortly after 6, and then once more two hours later. By the time I finished cleaning the car and the bottom of my driveway at 11, a bit of frozen rain began to fall. A couple inches of snow yet coated my street. Who knew when the plow would come again? I got going to the new meet-up place, Maryknoll.

At the intersection with the main local road, I felt nervousness turn into dread. I thought the roads would be more clear. The amount of snow and slush looked troubling. I had to turn left. That meant driving downhill. I barely made the turn when my 4-wheel drive station wagon started sliding down and around. I wound up on the other lane, perpendicular to the road. I righted myself and pressed forward.

I parked at Maryknoll with much relief. No precipitation was falling. As I waited for Christine and Charlie to pick me up, I counted 7 European Starling and 3 American Crow. When they arrived, we ended up not birding much. Only a Carolina Wren responded to Charlie’s raspy pishing.

We went to the Mariandale Retreat and Conference Center to meet up with Kyle and count ducks. Mariandale overlooks the Hudson River – ideal for winter waterfowl-watching. On our way to the look-out, I heard chickadees buzzing. Charlie had said earlier that they didn’t get many kinglets – neither ruby- nor golden-crowned – so I lagged behind to pish. (Kinglets like to join chickadees and titmice in order to easily find food.) No kinglets. I did get us our first and only Brown Creeper ( Only one other person assigned to Ossining had creepers, just 2.).

We observed 2 Mallards; small rafts of Ruddy Duck, Bufflehead and Canada Goose; and larger rafts of Common Mergansers (100+) and Canvasback (100+). Without binoculars, the rafts looked like dots bunched together in a pointillist painting. Kyle spotted 1 LONG-TAILED DUCK, 5 COMMON GOLDENEYE, 17 GREATER SCAUP, and 2 REDHEAD. (Additionally, Charlie and Kyle counted 22 Scaup sp. – meaning that they identified these ducks as far enough as being scaup, but whether Greater or Lesser was undetermined.)

img_1194

Our view from Mariandale. You can see the point of Croton Point Park on the right. © S.G. Hansen

Once finished, Charlie, Christine and I left Mariandale, separating from Kyle. We then drove up to the Ossining-Cortlandt Manor boundary by way of Quaker Ridge Road. We parked at the side of the road. Pishing got us the winter usuals, plus 2 beautifully bright Fox Sparrows. Charlie said that he’d gotten Common Redpolls there before (Common Redpolls don’t often migrate to Westchester in the winter unless a shortage of food causes their eruption).

Out next stop was Croton Dam for more waterfowl. Seconds after we turned onto Croton Dam Road, Charlie spotted a Pileated Woodpecker. He directed Christine to make a u-turn and drive back very slowly. Christine inched forward. We lowered our windows, inviting in 20° air. I kept my eyes peeled for a black blob stuck on a tree far into the woods. Christine suddenly stopped. It took me a second to see that the Pileated was only fifteen feet away from the road, foraging on a short snag.

We watched in careful silence. I’m always in awe of a Pileated’s size at every chance I see one. They grow up to 17 inches tall. I found it incredible they are larger than certain hawks! The red mustache (the line by the bill) on this Pileated indicated he was male. His feet looked so large and much like a raptor’s, scaly and sharp. His tail feathers – which propped him against the trunk – looked incredibly strong. He banged his beak against the wood. Thudthudthudthud. His vibrant yellow eyes remained wide open. Bits of wood fell. He eventually created a small rectangular hole, from which he uncovered food, probably hibernating insects.

As Christine and I took photographs and videos, a Northern Flicker colorfully bombed the scene. He (black mustache – female flickers don’t have one) first landed on a nearby tree. Because of the below-freezing temperature, he was so puffed up that he looked like the Audubon plush version of himself. A few seconds later, he flitted onto the snag. As he skulked around the trunk, in and out of our view, he watched the Pileated. He hoped to seize food when the larger woodpecker appeared distracted. The Pileated ignored the flicker.

p1230861

“Do you think he’ll share?” the Northern Flicker asks us as he watches the Pileated Woodpecker. © Christine McCluskey

I couldn’t tell if the flicker was tentative or delicately biding his time for the perfect moment. Finally, he crept too closely, and the Pileated aggressively nudged his beak towards the smaller woodpecker. The flicker flew to another tree only to return to the snag a short moment later. He skulked around some more and hid himself, much to Christine’s frustration. The Pileated paid no mind. He continued pecking and eating.

The flicker made a move again. The Pileated charged at him, scaring him enough that he flew away for good.

The Pileated went about his business.We watched him a bit more, but we had to move on to the Croton Dam. Only three hours of daylight remained.

img_1203

Charlie looking through his scope at the Croton Dam. © S.G. Hansen

p1230897

Charlie and I studying the Lesser Scaup. © Christine McCluskey

There, we observed more Mallards and Buffleheads. In addition, we added American Black Duck, Gadwall, 2 Lesser Scaup, Hooded Mergansers, and Mute Swan to our species list. For non-waterfowl, we tallied 2 Greater Cormorant fishing and 1 rattling Belted Kingfisher. We also got 1 flyover adult Bald Eagle, surprisingly our only eagle for the day.

We then drove around the reservoir – my favorite part of the count. The plow had yet to clean Croton Lake Road. Other cars had already driven through, as evident from the tire tracks. Christine had an easier time driving than during past counts. The snow had filled up the numerous pot holes. We didn’t skid once.

As we surveyed the shoreline for waterfowl, I absorbed our first fresh winterscape of the season. Weak sunlight brightened the ubiquitous stark-white snow, which outlined the skeleton trees. The water reflected the sky’s gentle gray. Light rain began to fall. Thousands of little ripples textured the silvery water.

We frequently came across small groups of Mallards, Black Ducks, Buffleheads, and Pied-billed Grebes along the water’s edge. At one location, we found one large raft of waterfowl by an island, where we counted many more Canada Goose, Mallards, Buffleheads, black ducks, Hooded Mergansers, and Mute Swan. We also saw a dozen Ring-necked Ducks and –  a good duck for the count – 5 American Wigeon. All in all, hundreds of waterfowl were present.

In the middle of Charlie’s counting, we heard a roaring noise approach. A snow plow was coming. To our dismay, every duck took off as soon the truck passed by, leaving the geese and the swans. Charlie had to estimate the numbers of each duck species as they flew, but he was able to count the Ring-necked Ducks and wigeons, fortunately.

Under the Taconic bridges, we got three more species: 2 huddling Great Blue Herons, 1 Double-crested Cormorant, and 1 Common Loon.

Once we concluded the reservoir tour, Charlie needed to leave to start preparing for the compilation dinner. After Christine and I dropped him off at his car, we headed to Sundial Farm, which has good field and brush habitat. We flushed a Red-tailed Hawk as we walked toward the back field.

On the other side of the fence foraged a flock of more than 40 juncos. Though we had seen more than a hundred already, I was excited to see a larger flock – juncos are one of the common birds I enjoy watching no matter what (as proven in a previous post of mine). Curiously, some of them were hopping up and down. I thought they were performing part of a mating ritual, similar to that of the Sandhill Crane. Looking more closely, I realized they were hopping onto the reeds and riding the stalks down to the ground, taking the seeds with them. [I unfortunately can’t upload my video on WordPress. I did post it on Facebook.]

Aside from the Red-tail and the jumping juncos, we didn’t have else much. We heard a White-breasted Nuthatch and a Downy Woodpecker. Pishing only brought in chickadees, titmice, a few White-throated Sparrows, and some juncos.

With less than an hour of daylight left, the birds must have decided to retire early. Our last stops were the Hudson Hills Golf Course, a cul-de-sac that yielded a good number of birds for last year’s count, and Maryknoll again to drop me off at my car. We hardly found more birds at any of these locations. Pishing produced nothing much. 75 European starlings. A few more chickadees, juncos, and white-throated sparrows. A cardinal, a crow, a Carolina Wren and a Northern Mockingbird.

Christine and I had enough of the cold and the lack of bird activity. So we headed over to Teatown for the compilation dinner.

Other Ossining specials were PINE WARBLER, COMMON YELLOWTHROAT, RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH. One Peekskill group hilariously had a NORTHERN PARULA in front of the Peekskill Brewery (after or before beer?), hanging with Yellow-rumped Warblers.

If you would like to see more of Christine’s photographs from the count, visit her Flickr page here! She also uploaded fantastic videos of the Pileated Woodpecker and the Northern Flicker.

Advertisements

Brinton Brook Hike, Report 12-2016

img_1178

Ice formation on the brook. © S.G. Hansen

Though the solstice has yet to arrive, we are in winter. I flushed up to thirty juncos as I drove up the sanctuary’s driveway. When I arrived at the parking lot, my car’s thermometer read 28°F. The sky was partially overcast. A thin layer of clouds coated much of the sky. Only the beeches and a few oaks retained their leaves. At first, today seemed like one of those days in which I would have to mostly bird by ear. The activity actually occurred in sporadic spurts, wherein we had a few short periods of much movement between long stretches of quiet.

Our group was on the small side again, totaling seven: a few of us regulars plus a photographer and a birdwatching father and son duo. I heard a few birds at the warbler corner: a couple jays, a goldfinch, a white-breasted nuthatch, a Carolina Wren, a red-bellied woodpecker, and good pick-ups of a Fish Crow and a Common Raven. On the way to the pond I only saw a pair of Song Sparrows and cardinals. Rudy – one of the hike’s regulars – said that the pond filled up nicely after the two days of rain last week. He observed some Canada Goose and more than a dozen mallards. Now, a thin layer of iced had formed. No waterfowl today.

The clouds thinned more as we walked along the pond, allowing the sunlight to strengthen. The number of birds seen increased from 0 to 100%. Chattering immediately followed. Three different Carolina Wrens sang and trilled around us. There were more nutchatches, more jays, more goldfinches. Chickadees and titmice buzzed as they flitted from tree to tree. We spotted a Downy Woodpecker and three Eastern Bluebirds. An unseen woodpecker drummed. Ahead, a mixed flock of goldfinches and juncos foraged for reed seeds at the edge of the pond, on the ice.

img_1173

Part of where the goldficnhes and juncos had been feeding before we flushed them. © S.G. Hansen

As usual, the ascent to the power lines was quiet. I hoped for Cedar Waxwings and more bluebirds at the field. But it was nearly as quiet were it not for a buzzing chickadee and a few White-throated Sparrows chipping.

I had been putting off pishing. We were already startling the birds by hiking. I didn’t want to disturb them even more, especially when they needed to conserve as much energy as possible in this cold. I considered that I would be able to draw out American Tree Sparrows and the resident mockingbird. I had yet to see tree sparrows at Brinton this season, and I supposed it would have been nice for the non-regulars to have a chance at the mockingbird. I pished. I only irritated the white-throats. More than from before chipped around us. They remained hidden. I spotted another song sparrow.

Just over the hill beyond us, a raptor soared above the field and behind a small tree, out of sight. The sun was directly ahead of us and skewed the raptor’s coloring, though I was able to make out its shape, which was that of a buteo (chunky body, short tail, and relatively long wings). Common sense points to Red-Tailed Hawk. Red-tails are the most commonly occurring buteo during winter in Westchester. I decided it was best to note the raptor as buteo sp. (eBird gives the option of “[……] sp.” if you end up not completely ID’ing a bird but can make out its family or genus.)

The raptor’s presence explained why the birds stubbornly hid. When we climbed to the top of the hill, I tried finding the raptor in the trees lining the opposite side of the field. We may have flushed it. I pished some more as we went along, and still only few white-throats responded.

img_1176

Hike leader Mike holds a nest we found in the brush at the power lines. © S.G. Hansen

We came to area where we had the Fox Sparrow last month (where the power lines trail transitions back into the sanctuary). Fall migration having long ended, it might have moved on by now. Wouldn’t it be something if I saw one here again today? I thought. I starting pishing anyway. A few seconds later, a sparrow popped up and perched on top of the thicket. I expected another song, but after I put my glasses on it, it turned about to be a fox, amazingly! It looked ruffled. Its tail twitched. After just a few seconds, it flew into the sanctuary, producing its call note.

Like last month, we hiked on the newer part of the white trail. We observed another Carolina Wren, and more jays, juncos, goldfinches, and white-throats. We also came across one more additional species for the hike: American Robin. A flock of twenty or so darted back and forth over the trail, whinnying. They fed on a large bush’s berries, chased one another, and foraged on the forest floor and trail. Not long before, Rudy was commenting on how he wasn’t seeing many robins of late. I, too, like seeing them in the winter. They are lively birds.

Contrary to popular thought, American Robins don’t necessarily migrate south for winter. Some do winter in Central America and the very south of the United States. However, most stay in the U.S. all year around. They form nomadic flocks like bluebirds, traveling around to find food.

Towards the end of the hike, we encountered one last movement: a large mixed flock of goldfinches, juncos, white-throats, and one nuthatch foraging around the brook. Though so many birds were flying about, they were quiet. Even the goldfinches, which are usually vocal. They probably felt no need to communicate to one another, or were too busy eating and tussling.

I observed 20 species altogether. In addition to birdlife, we saw twelve deer – including two bucks – on four separate occasions. Right by the trail we found a tree on which a buck had rubbed its antlers to scrape away the velvet.

img_1179

A male deer’s antler markings on a tree. © S.G. Hansen

Of Dark-eyed Juncos

I have previously called the Dark-eyed Junco “my first love” in this blog. I mention in the “About” section that my first sighting of them just over three years ago jump-started my birdwatching hobby. At the time, I was in my second year of graduate school. I liked to write in the family room, which overlooked the backyard garden. A glance over my laptop granted me some time to take a mental break. On a gray mid-afternoon I watched my father clear away long dried grasses from a patch by the deck. Not long after he finished, close to dusk, I noticed little dark blobs moving on the patch he had cleaned. I took a closer look and saw that they were birds. A flock of a dozen juncos were foraging. They pecked at the dirt, and pecked and pecked, tossing aside curled leaves with their bills. They pecked until the daylight nearly faded away. For the next few days, the flock returned to the same patch on time – one hour before dusk. The number of seeds they foraged for seemed to be infinite.

One day, they didn’t come back. I raked away grasses and leaves from another garden patch. As soon as I was done and went inside the house, the juncos appeared. They continued pecking.

————

Dark-eyed Juncos are members of the sparrow and bunting family. They are dark gray with white bellies and pink bills. Their white outer tail feathers flash as they take flight – a warning flag for themselves and other birds. Juncos are faintly sexually dimorphic. The females are slightly less gray, having a tinge of brown.

(Note: The junco I write about is the Slate-colored subspecies. Altogether, there are up to fifteen subspecies. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, there are “six forms are easily recognizable in the field[…and…]two widespread forms of the Dark-eyed Junco: ‘slate-colored’ junco of the eastern United States and most of Canada, which is smooth gray…; and ‘Oregon’ junco, found across much of the western U.S., with a dark hood, warm brown back and rufous flanks. Other more restricted variations include the slate-colored-like ‘white-winged’ and Oregon-like ‘pink-sided’ juncos of the Rockies and western Great Plains; and the Yellow-eyed Junco-like ‘red-backed’ and ‘gray-headed’ juncos of the Southwest.”)

The Dark-eyed Junco’s song consists of a short, single phrase of trills. It can be difficult to distinguish from that of the Chipping Sparrow and the Pine Warbler. (Just this past April I almost turned a junco into a Pine Warbler – a bird I rarely see or hear – if I didn’t find the actual source of the singing.) When juncos want to express aggression and caution, they let out a series of twittery “kew” notes as they fly away.

Dark-eyed Juncos breed in the forests of Canada. They live all year long in the very north of the United States. Come winter, they spend the colder months in Northern Mexico and all over the U.S. They are one of Westchester County’s winter birds, arriving in October and departing in late April.

The Dark-eyed Junco is a perfect example of the sort of bird that once you take notice of it, you can’t stop seeing it. You can find them in suburban backyards, parks, forests, college campuses, and fields – any brush-filled habitat. Merriam-Webster dictionary states “junco” comes from the Spanish word junco – meaning “reed” – which is derived from the Latin word juncus of the same meaning.

If you have a feeder, juncos will show up. They even forage on roadsides; I sometimes flush them while driving. Like chickadees and titmice, they are common enough for birdwatchers quickly take note of and divert their attention elsewhere. Over the past three years of the Great Backyard Bird Count (as far as I’ve participated), the Dark-eyed Junco has appeared on the “Top 10 most frequently reported species” and the “Top 10 most numerous species” lists. In 2016, they appeared as #1 in the former Top 10 list (beating the Northern Cardinal, who had been #1 the previous two years). I observe hundreds of juncos every winter. During the last year’s Peekskill Christmas Bird Count, I counted up to 600 in Ossining, thus earning a look from the compiler. Sometimes I see them on Christmas cards, like cardinals and chickadees.

————

2014-2015, my first winter of backyard birdwatching, was very snowy. Several inches of snow constantly coated the ground in January and February. Because I provided seeds and suet, the backyard birds visited daily from dawn to dusk, juncos included. Some would stay under the finch socks to eat nyjer seeds the goldfinches dropped. They occasionally got into tiffs with the white-throated sparrows, ensuing in confrontational jumping or three-second chases.

Some juncos would hop all around the deck, scavenging for scattered seeds half-sunken in the snow. I was amused at the number of tracks they left. The scene looked cheerful whether it was sunny or overcast. They even hopped right up to the backyard door. They never noticed my movement even when I was only inches away. I could see their eyes when they were that close. When they were farther away, they seemed eyeless because their beady black eyes blended with their dark gray plumage.

I had attached a suet cake to the tree next to the finch socks. A couple juncos attempted to stand atop the cage. It was impossible for them to reach the suet when they bent their necks. They also tried hovering in front of the cage for a few seconds. Their wings fluttered desperately, then they would to drop to the ground. The energy wasn’t worth it. Luckily, the nuthatches and red-bellied woodpeckers’ messy pecking often caused chucks to fly down. But the juncos couldn’t help but want attain the suet themselves.

When heavier snow fell, the juncos were one of the few species to visit. I had to go outside multiple times throughout the day to sprinkle handfuls of seeds on the railing. They couldn’t afford to search and only hope for food. I heard their twittering “kews” from the bushes around me. Once they heard the backdoor shut, they flew to the railing and perched like swallows on a wire. They looked like dark gray pom poms. They only moved to pick up seeds. They didn’t leave till darkness settled.