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.
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.
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.