Month: June 2017

Times of Trouble

On Sunday a couple weekends ago, I was trail stewarding at the Bull Hill Loop trail head, in Putnam County. I had to manage the table by myself early in the afternoon. I usually listen and look out for birds when I trail steward all day long in order to help the time pass, especially during visitor lulls. The number of species to add on my list dwindled to zero. I heard the same birds sing over and over – Red-eyed Vireo, American Redstart, Brown Cowbird, etc.

Not far into the woods, a few American Crows started cawing raucously. Sometimes they caw when simply talking with one another, but their tone hinted that they were mobbing something instead. I looked up in their direction. I couldn’t see them. The cawing continued. A small moment passed. Then a Red-tailed Hawk appeared into view overhead, followed by more than a half dozen crows.

To watch a mobbing is of the most exciting events in birdwatching. It happens all year round whenever passerines (perching birds a part of the Passeriformes order, which includes songbirds, woodpeckers, corvids, etc.) gang up and attempt to kick raptors out of the area. They boisterously call and even dive at the raptor. During breeding season, eggs, nestlings, and fledglings are easy pickings for carnivorous birds. It’s fun to watch a robin chase a jay; an oriole or a kingbird closely glide above a hawk or crow; and flocks of crows, jays, and grackles harass a hawk or owl. Sometimes even vultures – carrion eaters, of all things – get mobbed. I feel bad for them.

I’ve seen so many Red-tails during my 3.75-something years as a birder. They are the most commonly observed raptor in the lower Hudson. But I picked up my bins because why not? It’s always nice to view a raptor so up close.

A couple of the crows started to sound strangled with desperation. The group frantically chased after the Red-tail, which continued to glide, delicately evading every one of its pursuers. When I put my bins on the hawk, I could see that it tightly held a young crow in its talons.

I didn’t have more than two seconds. Mobbing scenes happen rapidly. Though the young crow looked like an adolescent, a couple weeks passed its fledgling stage. Small, with fully grown plumage. And it looked alive. Calm. Knowing struggling to be futile. Waiting for its family to rescue it.

The Red-tail and the crows headed towards the river, out of sight. I could still hear the frantic cawing. Seconds later, the Red-tail appeared overhead again. Four crows trailing behind, it swiftly glided to the north. I didn’t have time to even grab my bins, but its talons appeared empty – no black blob against a light undercarriage.

The desperation stopped right after the Red-tail disappeared. The cawing lingered, sparsely piercing the air. Some of the crows stayed close to the river. Others flew away, towards the woods. One crow, clearly a sentinel, perched high in a tree a hundred feet away from the trail head, across the the road. The sentinel craned its head to and fro. A long moment passed. Two crows flew over to the sentinel. They chatted a little. And then the three headed into the woods.

The crows remained quiet for much of the afternoon.

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Brinton Brook Hike, Report 6-2017

Because I now work weekends during the summer, I missed the Second Saturday group hike on the 10th. I will have to miss Second Saturday in July and August as well.

I got the chance to hike Brinton Brook by myself this morning. Black and yellow flies began zipping around my ears as soon as I got out of the car. I looked up to the overcast sky, a bright uniform gray. The air was so muggy that it perpetually felt like that second just before rain starts to fall. The robins sounded muted through the thick air.

Now that we have passed into the latter half of June (the summer doldrums for songbirds), I expected to hear a handful songs. Few songbirds sing at this time, save for the ones that have a second or third clutch and still need to establish territory. Most only raise one clutch and take care of their young ones at this time. I did, however, start my hike with a sharp eye and ear for fledglings.

Traveling up the trail to the map intersection, I heard two different chipping notes. One was familiar and the bird immediately seen soon after: Northern Cardinal. He foraged in the bushes next to the path. The other note was unfamiliar. I pished to draw out the source. On the other side of path, an immature male Indigo Bunting popped up and perched on a woody vine. He looked like Sleeping Beauty’s dress at the end of Flora and Merryweather’s fight: his plumage was a messy tye-dye of indigo and brown. For more than a minute, he chipped and chipped, turning to and fro, calling for his parents or expressing his state of alarm. He flew to another vine, continuing to chip, so I walked away.

I could still hear him when I reached the intersection. Not another bird made a peep. Pishing produced nothing. As I continued along the trail towards the field, I heard another chipping note from the myriad of black locusts. It sounded sharper and more metallic. Utilizing echolocation to find a bird more often difficult that easy. After a couple minutes, I saw bird finally move. An adult male Indigo Bunting. He moved closer to me, still chipping. Based on his and the other bunting’s behavior, I presumed he was scolding me for pestering his offspring, so I moved on quickly.

The pond was mostly shallow and covered in lily pads. A few Red-winged Blackbirds sang and called from all around. Walking alongside the pond, I heard more robins, a Red-eyed Vireo, a couple Eastern Wood-Pewees, and a Baltimore Oriole. I couldn’t find any herons, Great Blue or Green, when I scanned the other side. A lone green frog called.

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View of the pond from the eastern side. © S.G. Hansen

At the eastern end of the pond, the path narrowed because the vegetation had closed in on it. I paused a quick moment before crossing. I may not have been hiking the Hudson Highlands – where copperheads are about – but I (alone even with a cell phone) was still mindful about the possibility of a snake shooting towards me on the attack. As soon as I started walking I heard a rustle behind me. I looked back to see a black rat snake on the pond side of the path. It stared at me for a little before slinking into the water.

I had seen black rat snakes here before. The last time I hiked Brinton Brook, I saw three large ones swimming in the pond. Harmless, they are common in New York. They’re more likely to slither away from you when they’re scared rather than go on the attack.

At the blue trail’s beginning, I heard two Wood thrushes duel. The hike up to the power lines, of course, was quite dead, with exception to a small titmouse family.

The clouds were just starting to part away when I arrived the power lines. Minutes later, I saw mostly blue sky. The sun brightly shined. Now I was birding during a true summer day, hot and muggy. I observed a lot of bird activity: two Eastern Towhees, four Prairie Warblers, three Blue-winged Warblers, a couple more Baltimore Orioles, three more Indigo Buntings, two Field Sparrows, two loudly warblering House Wrens, and a Common Yellowthroat. From the woods I heard another Eastern Wood-Pewee and more cardinals. Many of these birds were singing and chattering all at once. The Prairies were flying about, and two of the Blue-winged were fighting. Numerous insects zipping around constantly threw off my focus.

I experienced my first birding sensory overload of the year. It was difficult to decide which single bird to settle on and to discern if it was a bird within a split second. But when the warblers came into view, I reserved my bins for them. I had only Prairies up to this point. It was a relief to finally see them. I also watched an Indigo Bunting sing perched atop of a nearby bush, his blue blazing in the sunlight. I also don’t often see Field Sparrows. It was wonderful to catch a sight of a pair.

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Nessus Sphinx Moth at the power lines field. © S.G. Hansen

I was relieved to re-enter the woods. Even though I now heard the construction of the golf course expansion at its loudest (I was hearing it throughout the hike since I started). The construction didn’t deter the birds from going about their business. I had walked into a miniature bubble of activity. A pair of Brown-headed Cowbirds flew about. Three voluble Hairy Woodpeckers sang, called, and darted from tree to tree. Another two male Baltimore Orioles – one adult, one immature – chattered. I disturbed a pair of Eastern Towhees into hiding. When I pished to coax the female out, the male burst forth and aggressively sang “Drink your tea!!!!”.

I continued. I heard more pewees, Wood Thrushes, titmice, and chickadees. At this point, I stopped keeping track of robins. I had seen a lot thus far – including immatures – and decided to estimate a number in the end. Shortly transitioning from the white to the yellow trail, I saw a Wood Thrush scoot along the forest floor, wary of my presence. Just ahead, in one spot, a Scarlet Tanager and Blue-headed Vireo sang. I tried getting on the vireo but failed. The tanager did fly into view, his red stunningly way more powerful than a cardinal’s. He sang even as carried an insect in his mouth.

Activity quieted down significantly as I further hiked down. Toward the trail’s end, I saw a few more robins, and heard one more pewee and the same Carolina Wren from the beginning. Before hopping back into my car, I stopped by the Weinstein pond, which was still as glass.

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I got within six feet of this tame bunny. © S.G. Hansen

My hike lasted a little less than two hours. I might have been more patient and slow-going were it not for the humidity. Summer is my least favorite season for this reason….That means it’s time to visit the beach for shorebirds! Still, I was pleased to go around Brinton Brook and barely make it in time before the summer doldrums hit. I observed 33 species. Check out the eBird checklist here!

To the Rescue…Actually, Don’t

My last post describes a somewhat appropriate situation in which one can actively attempt to help an injured bird. A couple days ago, I ran into a not-so-appropriate situation.

I work as a trail steward for the Hudson Highlands and Fahnestock State Parks, located Westchester, Putnam, and Dutchess Counties. On weekends, I float between two popular trail heads, where I help hikers choose which trails to take if they are unfamiliar with the area. I had just switched when my fellow stewards told me that someone had found a hurt bird around a mile up a trail. They kept it safe until I returned, knowing I was a birder. One of them held it in his cupped hands: a Tufted Titmouse fledgling, fully feathered.

I sighed. Considering that many people assume fledglings are lost and/or helpless, I immediately thought that this misguided hiker made the common decision to remove a perfectly healthy fledgling. I then noticed the titmouse’s right leg. So badly injured at the joint, it was barely held together by a few wiry ligaments.

Two out of three of my coworkers had to switch out upon my arrival. I took the fledgling in my own hands. It rowdily buzzed and ruffled its wings. It managed to hop out. It propelled itself toward the bushes with wings alone. I recaptured it with little effort.

You might be thinking, Just put it back anyway. It’s nature. I haven’t yet had much experience to observe nature’s not-so-nice aspects, though I am immune to dead birds, especially dead fledglings (no pity for the dead). I’m still quite sensitive and sympathetic to wildlife, especially if the wildlife is a little soft ball of feathers with a torn leg and willful beady eyes. I reasoned that since the fledgling had already been down here for hours, I may as well ring up a local animal rehabilitation center. Still, in the back of my mind, I wondered if the center would really care for it. An fatally injured bird, yes, but a widespread songbird, and a young one. Do these places really help to raise young birds such as titmice?

I called the local police for a number. This number wasn’t any help at all. Not only did the person on the other end said she couldn’t do anything, but she tried finding me numbers for other places in Putnam, Dutchess, and Westchester. She managed only one in Westchester, rather far from me. When I dialed that number, an answering machine prattled. I heard the word “acupuncture.” I called again to double check I heard correctly. During those five minutes, the titmouse struggled in my balled hand, buzzing with irritation. I wished I had a small box.

My coworker who had stayed behind with me gave me her tall ceramic coffee cup. I dropped the fledgling inside. It immediately stopped fussing. It looked a little cramped, but had enough room to preen. I delayed the inevitable action by contacting several friends in my Saw Mill River Audubon circle for advice. I learned that late Saturday afternoon is a terrible time to reach anybody. I did get through to my final contact. But at this point, I knew what I had to do. I just wanted an understanding ear and found one. She heard the fledgling’s incessant buzzing for attention and food throughout the call.

“Good luck,” she said. “Let me know what happens.”

“I don’t think I can,” I said. “Since it’s almost summer there’s a lot of snake activity. Some hikers have been telling us they spotted a good number of snakes along the trail.”

After I hung up, I informed my supervisor that I had to put the fledgling back. I expressed it would have been more helpful if the hiker were more specific about where she found it. A mile up the trail was frustratingly vague. Agreeing, he recommended a particular location, and off I went.

The fledgling buzzed intermittently as I hiked. The buzzing reminded me of the call notes that titmice make when they’re communicating while trying to find food, except it was rougher sounding. Hikers passing us minded their own business even as the fledgling made noise. Perhaps no one thought my coffee cup would contain a bird, not coffee.

When I reached the spot – a flat open area laden with honey locusts and grasses – I placed the coffee cup on the ground. The fledgling wouldn’t venture out. Once I tiled to the cup, it slid onto the ground.

The young bird stayed where it was. I didn’t want any more hikers discovering and bringing it back down, so I nudged it towards the grass off the trail. It protested again by buzzing and flapping, but it did move to the edge of the grass.

I couldn’t bring myself leave right away. I felt I had to watch over it for a couple minutes. I heard two hikers come up. It turned out I had to direct them to where the trail continued. They didn’t notice the fledgling.

The little titmouse stayed put, cocking its head to and fro, occasionally buzzing. Its entire body pulsed as it breathed. From all that calling, I hoped that its parents might hear it soon. I looked at the grass and thought about the snakes lurking around. The fledgling’s leg might have been damaged beyond hope, but its wings were still quite functional and strong. I thought of the fledgling successfully escaping snakes, even for a bit. Maybe in time for the parents to find it.

Another hiker, who seemed to have been roaming around the locust grove, was walking towards me, back to the trail. We greeted each other. The fledgling buzzed. He gazed down at it with curiosity. I explained to the hiker what was happening and took the opportunity to make a PSA about leaving fledglings alone, even when they’re hurt. He listened understandingly. The fledgling hopped onto my left shoe, and then onto my right, and then onto one of hiker’s shoes.

“Oh no, please don’t do that…” I said to it. I turned to the hiker. “This is making it harder for me to leave it be,” I said with a strained chuckle.

After he left, I felt my time pressing. I nudged the fledgling towards the grass. Instead of hopping away, it perched on my fingers. It wouldn’t get off when I shook my hand. “Really?” I asked. “You’re do this now?” I shook my hand again. It jumped off. When I got it close to the grass again, I took my final looks at it and hiked down the trail.