Month: March 2017

The Bird That Sounds Like a Rusty Hinge

In early March of my first year of birdwatching, I heard a mass of strangely robotic, raspy sounds from the row of white pines next to my house. Since my mind was constantly in bird-learning mode, I automatically thought they were birds. I stepped outside. It sounded like there were dozens calling from the canopy. They performed a non-stop chorus of screeches and squeaks. But they hid themselves well in the branches. I must have stood for minutes before a few eventually fluttered in and out of sight. They were large, their black plumage shining blue-green and purple, and their tails long.

I didn’t take long to flip through my Sibley’s and ID them as Common Grackles. A short memory surfaced of my walking down my street a couple years before, during springtime. A few of these blackbirds flew zoomed overheard. Having no idea what they were, I was amused by their weird squawks and questioned why they were in such a hurry.

For the next two years, the grackles timed themselves to appear in my neighborhood in early March. This year, however, the first arrived in late February. They amass by numbers of fifty at the least. Rarely are they seen individually. All day long, many smaller groups pass over, line-dotting the rich blue sky, softly uttering chitip. The more unhurried grackles like to perch at the tops of the tallest trees, watchful, thoughtful, in constant communication with one another. They glide or flap from tree to tree, squawking mid-light. They walk on branches. They walk on lawns. They swarm on lawns. They peck and peck as they stride, yellow eyes always wide. Their glossy feathers shine brilliantly and beautifully when hit by sunlight.

They are vigilant. If you are standing next to a window and move a little, they become spooked and flee to the trees all at once. Last spring, a mixed flock of mostly grackles and a few red-wings and cowbirds was perched in the tallest tree of the neighborhood. Their vocalizations rattled the air. An airplane flying at high altitude began to pass over them. The blackbirds abruptly silenced themselves. The airplane’s roar was all that sounded. Once the roar was out of hearing range, the blackbirds resumed vocalizing.

The Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) is an Icterid, a part of the blackbird family, comprising numerous species such as Red-winged Blackbirds, meadowlarks, orioles, and other grackles (Boat-tailed Grackle, Great-tailed Grackle). They permanently live in the U.S.’s eastern half, including southeast New York (my personal observations reflect this eBird graph). Their breeding range extends as far northward as central and eastern Canada. Some migrate to winter in Texas. They reside and breed in many kinds of habitat: woods, fields, farmland, marshes and swamps, suburban areas, and urban parks. Like crows, they have a generalist’s diet: seeds, grains, fruits, insects, spiders, lizards, crustaceans, mice, eggs, and even small birds. According to Audubon, their songs and calls are described as a “high-pitched rising screech, like a rusty hinge.”

When the first grackles arrive during spring migration, a lot people who feed backyard birds might as well say out loud, “Oh, shit.” The blackbirds swarm at feeders, push the other birds away, and – in a matter of minutes – devour all of the seed and suet. Grackles are also known to consume so much commercial corn that millions of dollars have been lost. But it’s more personal for suburban homeowners.

I didn’t know grackles could be so voracious. Just a day or so after I learned of their existence, one descended upon a fresh suet block, which, to my shock, was gone in no time. Chunks of suet fell to the ground as the grackle pecked roughly at it. Not even fifteen minutes later, the suet cage was empty once again. I thought it was rude of the grackle. The other birds would show up for a couple minutes to eat and then leave, giving one another turns (as cordial as bird can be in the hierarchical order). Each block would typically last for at least week.

For the rest of that spring, I guarded the suet as much as I could (I had time on my hands because I was attending graduate school). No more than, say, five at once would visit my backyard, but they still caused me grief. They hung around all day long. As soon as a grackle or two landed on the tree’s branches, I’d bang on the door and they’d scatter. This solution was temporary; the grackles would annoyingly return within the quarter hour. Whenever a block was finished, I didn’t replenish the cage right away – the grackles would see and immediately come for the suet. Once, I became so exasperated that I stomped of the house, grabbed the cage, and took it inside. (I felt very bad for that trio of Brown Creepers that expected to the suet be on the tree just after I grabbed it. That was the first time I ever had three creepers in my backyard simultaneously and never did again.)

I still tried to scare the grackles away as best as I could. I recruited my retired mother when I started working. Although she expresses zero interest in birding, she has become attached to the birds that visit our feeders. Whereas I feel ambiguously towards grackles, she simply dislikes them. This year, my mother bought a generalist feeder. Of course, the grackles began dominating that too. My mother loathes them for wasting the money I spent for the seed and suet to be eaten by these “greedy” birds. To her, they’ve grown to be pest-like, worse than blue jays. She likes the fact that scaring them away requires low effort: all one has to do is make a slight movement in the room for the grackles take off. They’re more jumpy than jays. Since I’m still unwillingly unemployed, we’ve been scaring them away together this spring.

It’s only a couple days away from April. I’m already weary of managing the suet. A few grackles remain to nest, but most are still migrating. I continue to wait for those grackles to finally move on. But perhaps at that point, the weather may be warm enough for the birds not to need rendered beef fat anymore.

For the past two years, a grackle pair has nested in the yew trees outside my bedroom. I watched two grackles carry dried grass to the yews several days ago. They will have one or two clutches. The nestlings’ will chatter harshly and hungrily, learning from their parents’ so quickly to be rambunctious.

What the Nor’easter Blew In

Last Tuesday, on March 14th, a snow storm blew through Cortlandt Manor. Up to fourteen inches of snow fell by the time it stopped on Wednesday morning. Icy and heavy, the snow was a doozy to clean off the driveway and the cars. The snow-blower had trouble plowing through most of it, so my father and I had to resort cleaning with shovels and a garden tool (a twist cultivator to loosen soil – in this case, to break the ice). Tuesday was one of our gym days and it didn’t matter we missed it.

Additionally, I had responsibility of taking care of the backyard birds. Not as much work, though it became a little tiresome to – all in of five minutes, several times that day – dress in appropriate attire, wipe snow away from the feeders, restock the seeds and suet, throw seeds on the ground, and go back inside the house and undress without getting packed snow all over the floor. Truly, It doesn’t matter what you put yourself through – just think about the birds. The best shelter they got is a bush.

I watched my backyard nearly all day long and even the next day. Besides an increased number of birds, snow storms also bring unusuals to feeders. You never know what excitement shows up. (The entire week following the storm was interesting, actually. I could tell you about it personally.)

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Snow?? In my New York?????? © S.G. Hansen

I have feeders set up on the tree behind the backyard deck (that one with the third trunk hacked away): on the right side, the suspended suet block and the finch feeder; on the left, a generalist feeder, which holds black-oiled sunflower seeds. During snowstorm occasions (otherwise the squirrels would be out and about), I also sprinkle seed mix on the deck and the furniture. The juncos and sparrows seem to love hopping around for food on the deck of all places. For this Tuesday, the table also served as shelter from the snow-filled gusts.

I observed the expected regulars: a small family of blue jays; the two song sparrows; the three white-breasted nuthatches; the three downy woodpeckers (two males and a female); the pair of red-bellied woodpeckers; the pair of cardinals and the one wayward male; the neighborhood house finch pair; and a few white-throated sparrows, titmice and chickadees.

I counted twice as many juncos as usual – at least 16. That might not seem like many, but when they were hopping around all at once with the sparrows and jays, my deck looked like mid-town New York.

Not unexpectedly, early spring migrant the Common Grackle went for the suet. Just one. Around this time in March, grackles tend to show up in my backyard by numbers in the thirties. They gorge themselves on suet, reducing a full block to nothing in ten minutes. I chase them away by wrapping on the backdoor whenever I see them. As for this one grackle, I let it stay. It didn’t make a dent bigger than a red-bellied woodpecker.

A couple…undesirables also found my yard: a female Brown-headed Cowbird (brood parasite) on the general feeder and two European Starlings (belligerent invasives) on the suet. Initially, I felt sorry for them and let them eat. They didn’t hog the food as they usually would. They would appear and leave, appear and leave, not staying for very long each time, just ten minutes at the most. Though on Wednesday, when the day was as clear as a bell and they showed up again, I opened the backdoor and clapped loudly. They took off in a flash, freeing feeder access to my regulars. Do come again next blizzard (maybe).

I didn’t have any spectacular unusuals or winter birds like Rusty Blackbird, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Purple Finch, and Pine Siskin (haven’t seen one all winter – amazing!). I did see birds that I’ve observed in my backyard before, albeit rarely. Tuesday, four red-winged blackbirds appeared (two males and two females). At first, the females stopped by in the early afternoon, leaving and later returning with the two males. They foraged for seeds with the juncos, sparrows, and jays under the deck table.

On Wednesday, there were two unusual species: a male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and two Fox Sparrows. Ever since I set up my feeders several years ago, a sapsucker would visit the suet once or twice each winter. I’m always happy with a sapsucker in my backyard. I can’t take my eyes off them. These woodpeckers have such a lovely colorful and patterned plumage, and it’s a pleasure to look at them at such close-range with my binoculars. This sapsucker visited twice throughout the day, though each time he hung around for only a few minutes.

Like the red-winged blackbirds, the two fox sparrows foraged under the deck table. My non-birding parents didn’t understand my excitement. Apparently if you say “sparrow” after the word “fox” – and even drop “uncommon” – you won’t get much response.  Though the foxes weren’t bothered by the other sparrows, they didn’t enjoy each other’s company. They quarreled a few times, confronting breast-to-breast, hovering in the air, wings flapping wildly. The more aggressive fox won the privilege of full-access to the seeds beneath the table, leaving the lesser fox to still be able to forage on the deck, though out in the open. Whenever it inched too close to the table, it was chased away. It was eventually banished from the deck and went to forage under the feeders.

By Friday, I only counted one fox sparrow. When it found mounds of millet and milo, it carved itself into the snow like one carves one’s butt into a couch seat. It ate very contentedly.

As it goes with a large number of songbirds in a localized patch, raptors are bound to take note. Late afternoon on Tuesday, I delighted in the sphere-like juncos scampering around the deck. In a span of two seconds, I observed a scene similar to one in the dinosaur segment in Fantasia. Everyone suddenly froze, looked in one direction, and took off. One junco, however, remained, still frozen on a chair. An adult Cooper’s Hawk – legs outstretched, talons poised – stooped to grab the junco, which ducked in time. The Cooper’s swerved and flew away, claws clenching nothing.

Now that the spring equinox has passed, another Nor’easter isn’t likely in Westchester. The snow has more than half melted in my backyard since last Tuesday. The red-winged blackbirds, and the fox sparrows moved on days ago. And the regulars are back to visiting the feeders at their usual frequency. They seemed to have made it. But I’ve heard and read that American Woodcocks had a very bad time because of all this snow…

Brinton Brook Hike, Report 3-2017

Between last month and this month’s hikes, the temperature practically ping-ponged from 40° to 65° to 40° to 65°. Besides snow drops, a few orange crocuses flowered in my front yard. The daffodils had also started growing, green stems inching upward. And the viburnum next to the front steps was also beginning to bloom magnificently. And then yesterday, Winter dragged Spring backstage – again. About three inches of snow fell. The early spring plants were covered. The viburnum’s blossoms, wilted and darkened, looked pathetic.

The car thermometer on my way to Brinton read 16°. Thankfully, the sun shined. The morning was shaping up to be beautiful in spite of the dry, frigid air. Sunlight meant the birds would be out.

Our group number reached five: myself, Mike, Rudy, Gerry Weinstein, and Alexandra, a birdwatching friend whom I haven’t seen since summer.

I heard about a dead deer in Gerry’s pond earlier in the week, so we went to take a look. The deer had been crossing, misjudged the ice thickness, fell through, and drowned and/or froze to death. Gerry had seen deer tracks on the ice earlier in the winter, but with recent temperatures…. The deer’s corpse attracted turkey vultures, black vultures, and even an immature bald eagle. Only part of the deer was exposed to open air. I got a good look of its bare ribs through my binoculars.

This winter seems to have fallen into a bird activity pattern, shaped like a horseshoe if the data were drawn on a graph. Lots of activity in the beginning, nearly thinned out to nothing at the power lines, and back to much activity at hike’s end. While waiting at the parking lot, I heard more than half of dozen goldfinches tweeting, but couldn’t get my eyes on them. I also heard other usual winter birds: chickadee, titmouse, blue jay, American crow. At the map intersection, we saw nuthatches and a pair of red-bellied woodpeckers.

The pond wasn’t completely frozen. A few black ducks gladly foraged where the water was open. Unexpectedly, we were treated to a show on ice. A mixed flock of more than dozen goldfinches and several bluebirds searched for seeds by the pond’s edge. We watched them a bit before continuing on the trail, which brought us closer to the mixed flock. I stopped at a point in which the birds wouldn’t be too disturbed by our presence. The bluebirds – I counted up to eight – flew further into the woods, but then they soon returned to rejoin the goldfinches.

The lighting was optimal. Everyone with binoculars could clearly see the goldfinches’ finely patterned olive, black, and white plumage and the contrast between the female and male bluebirds’ colors (females look pale compared the vibrant males). At one point, we were distracted by the arrival of a young red-tailed hawk. It perched high in a tree for a couple minutes and then flew out of sight, revealing wing-tip curls.

The goldfinches were as still as kinglets – in that they were not at all still. Those that foraged on the ice didn’t forage for long. Many roller coaster fights erupted among them. They zipped from branch to branch, tree to tree. They incessantly twittered a mess of “per-chick-o-ree”‘s. At some point, a few were right over our heads, demonstrating they were more concerned with their affairs than with us. To add to the goldfinch chaos, downies and red-bellied woodpeckers called. Three Carolina wrens fought one another. A fourth sang from somewhere else around the pond. The auburn orbs tumbled through branches and over fallen trees, trilling and flapping frantically. The bluebirds seemed much more relaxed when not disturbed by their neighbors’ frenzied behavior. It was easier to keep track of them as they foraged on the ice. One particular bluebird perched in tree directly in front of me. She was still for up to a minute. Puffed up to retain, she looked like a plush toy. The sunlight illuminated and further softened blue and orange feathers.

When we continued walking along the pond, we flushed a flock of juncos. I thought I saw a Carolina wren with them, darting to hide under a log, but that flash of a moment I realized it looked browner overall. Winter wren? Too early for house wren. I tried pishing and playback to get it to pop up. Only juncos emerged. I didn’t see the wren again, but I was positive it was a winter wren based on the color and time of year. Since this was a year bird for me, I would have liked to get a much better look. I lingered a bit just in case, but not for long.

Yesterday at dusk, Rudy spotted a great horned owl. We took a detour trail to the power lines in order to find it. Unfortunately, it was long gone. Two titmice wheezed and whistled around that very area.

The power lines were quiet except for a couple chickadees and nuthatches, some white-throated sparrows, and a cardinal singing far away. We counted our third turkey vulture for the morning soaring overhead. I pished only to scare away the white-throats.

When we went back inside the sanctuary property, we saw more chickadees and one more bluebird. Not long after we started our way on the white trail, I noticed a different woodpecker: a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker! I hadn’t seen one since New Year’s Day at Rockwood Hall. And the last time I observed one at Brinton Brook was February 2016. This sapsucker was an immature, nearly adult. Though it was large enough, it didn’t have a red cap (males have both a red cap and a red chin, while females only have a red cap) and any yellow on its body, but the rest of its black and white barred plumage was neatly coming together (the very young sapsuckers look scruffy).

We reached the highest point of the sanctuary. The wind picked up. The sky had become fully overcast at this point, with the sun barely peaking through the fast moving dark gray clouds. We could see and hear the driving range construction at the golf course, which is south-east adjacent to the sanctuary.

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This wasn’t here last month. Have a mound of dirt. ©S.G. Hansen

As stated before, we didn’t encounter much more bird activity until the very end. There, white-throats called and foraged on either side of the trail. The blue jays jay’d. More nuthatches, more chickadees, one more red-bellied woodpecker. I paused to see if there was another species of sparrow hanging with the white-throats. My attention turned to another bird, which I initially thought to be another chickadee. I suspected its flightier-than-usual foraging behavior and put my binoculars on it. Golden-crowned Kinglet! Another excellent winter resident. I last saw one at Montrose Point State Forest during the Great Backyard Bird Count. Either kinglet species is always lovely to find, but I might be more biased towards the Golden-crowned than the Ruby-crowned. The bright orange-yellow crown – lined on either side with a black stripe – strikingly contrasts with the overall olive plumage, and its thin black eyeline adds to it character. They’re also not as flighty as Ruby-crowned Kinglets.

Alexandra and I lagged behind to observe the kinglet until it flitted out of view. It was the last best show for today’s hike.

Have a look at the eBird list: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S35104506