Month: November 2017

Hike on Turkey Mountain

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Western view from the summit of Turkey Mountain. © S.G. Hansen

Saw Mill River Audubon holds an annual hike at Turkey Mountain the day after Thanksgiving. This year is my third. I haven’t yet hiked at any other point in the year, but at around this time, bird activity is nearly nonexistent. You’re in a short, heart-pumping hike but not an entertaining bird excursion. You’re met with infrequent calls from blue jays, titmice, chickadees, and white-breasted nuthatches but not much else. And you’re going to largely hear a lack of bird presence, really (the constant din of leafblowers will inhibit your listening ability). Hike leader Michael Madias – who also leads SMRA’s Second Saturday Brinton Brook hikes – can’t figure why. There seems to be enough food around the mountain (tulip tree seeds for one), and the power lines field provides different habitats. In contrast, Turkey Mountain does lack understory much like every other wood in Westchester thanks to deer overbrowsing. It’s also worth noting that Turkey Mountain is not an eBird hotspot.

In 2015, I observed 9 species and 32 individuals, the most interesting having been Eastern Bluebirds. In 2016, I observed 8 species and 47 individuals – only common year-rounders. I started this year’s hike not expecting much.

Our group was small, but actually twice as big as last year. Rudy from Brinton came along, and Miok and Roger, SMRA Monday morning walk regulars, were hiking Turkey Mountain for the first time. A special visitor also joined us: Chuck,  an Indiana resident, an experienced birder, and a Sycamore Audubon board of director.

To summarize, this year’s observations went beyond my expectations, totaling 15 species and 49 individuals. Depressing in other places but not at Turkey Mountain! We were met with silence for much of the hike but managed to pass through a few winter flocks. I haven’t yet compiled an overall list, though our combined observations added 6 species this year. At the parking lot, a Hairy Woodpecker called. During the ascension, we heard a Common Raven croaking and a Pileated Woodpecker hesitantly calling. Miok also heard a Carolina Wren, which I missed since I’d plowed ahead of the group to keep up with Mike.

We spent at least 20 minutes on the summit (829 ft in elevation) resting and viewing distant sights, including the hazy, mirage-like Manhattan skyline.

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© Mike the Hike Leader

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© Mike the Hike Leader

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Yours truly smiling for the camera. © Mike the Hike Leader

Soon after we started descending, Chuck thought he heard the “mew” call of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Perhaps the second of the hike since he thought he heard one on our way up. Playback yielded nothing. Wishful thinking, he noted. A sapsucker certainly would have been noteworthy.

Not long afterward, we saw a small flock of bluebirds low in the trees, diving for whatever food they found on the ground. Not an addition, though bluebirds are always a wonderful sight. The late-morning clear sunshine illuminated the males’ bright blue and orange plumage.

Pinnacle activity occurred towards the end. Several more each of blue jays, red-bellied woodpeckers, and whitehatches, plus the first-of-the-hike downies and a Northern Flicker, made much noise from all around us. Mike got on a large black bird soaring fast high above the canopy, but the rest of us couldn’t see anything but blue sky. “It was probably an eagle, or maybe it was a Turkey Vulture,” he said. “Maybe it was a floater in your eye,” Chuck commented.

Meanwhile, I noticed how silent the woods became. Shortly, as if answering a question, Mike saw a Red-tailed Hawk flying through the trees. It perched in an oak some hundred feet away, streaked white breast blazing bright. Not everyone could see it with so many branches in the way, but when it took off (and for good), the hawk was then seen by all.

We’ll see what Turkey Mountain has in store next Thanksgiving!

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Brinton Brook Hike, Report 11-2017

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Tulip Tree leaves. © S.G. Hansen

I took the day off from work to attend the Second Saturday hike! It almost felt strange to be a part of a group going around Brinton Brook, and I certainly missed it. This month’s group consisted of no strangers: hiker leader Mike, regular/caretaker Rudy, Saw Mill River Audubon President Val Lyle and her partner Alan, and Mike and Yuan who are regulars of SMRA’s Monday morning walks. Once again, our hike was dominantly a birding hike.

The temperature late this week took a dive to below freezing, in the mid-20s. With a little wind, we had a nicely brisk hike. Most trees – sugar maple, red maple, tulip, sycamore, sassafras, etc – lost their leaves, which covered the trails in several layers. Only White Oak and American Beech still kept their leaves.

We didn’t encounter much bird activity until the black locust grove at the kiosk. I heard a few House Finches. Some of got on a Red-bellied Woodpecker and one Hairy Woodpecker, though I’m sure I heard at least three Hairies in the vicinity.

The meadow was quiet. Rudy pointed out a tree in which he saw a lot of birds flying around in (possibly eating caterpillars that had just hatched) back during July’s hike. In the middle of his story, we suddenly heard something took off from behind us. All of us turned around in time for us to see a medium-sized bird rushing away to the trees, wings whistling loudly.

American Woodcock! we exclaimed simultaneously. We had a good laugh after being startled. None of us noticed it was only a few feet away from us.

“We almost stepped on it,” said Val. She and I were surprised to see one so late in the year.

“That means the meadow is doing really well,” Mike remarked. SMRA maintains the meadow habitat by mowing it once a year and ensuring a healthy biodiversity through growing native plants, such as goldenrod and butterfly weed.

Much later, when I submitted my list to eBird, I saw that this woodcock is the first sighted at Brinton Brook ever.

We took a brief rest at the western end of the pond, where the donated bench is located. When I was here last month, the pond was mostly wetland. A lot of rain had fallen over the past couple weeks, and the pond was a pond once again. A late Eastern Phoebe flycatched in the trees in front of us. At the other end, we saw a small flock of Mallards. I noticed that two of the ducks looked peculiarly small.

We walked the trail quietly. The ducks moved a bit to distance themselves from us. At a clearer spot with better lighting, we began to make out that this duck flock was more diverse that we first realized. First, we noticed that there was one American Black Duck. Second, I confirmed my guess that the very small ducks were Green-winged teal, last sighted this April during the Second Saturday Hike, overall the third time sighted in the sanctuary.

Third, to my great surprise, I then noticed one duck a little larger than the mallards that had a certain brown head with a certain white face stripe and white neck: Northern Pintail. This male didn’t have the eponymous long tail – it was quite short. That tripped me up. But I would know the head pattern any day. Once again, I observed first bird for Brinton Brook! I couldn’t contain my excitement at the idea of seeing a pintail here. These are rare in Westchester to begin with.

When we arrived at the blue trail’s beginning, Rudy said that he had been hearing a Barred Owl somewhere around the Pond Loop. I asked Val to play some playback on her phone. Everyone started hiking up the blue while Val and I lingered. A few “who cook’s for you” rang through the mostly silent air. After half a minute, I said forget it. Shortly after, all of us heard a Carolina Wren trill closer to Mt. Airy Road, presumably provoked by the owl playback. Carolina Wrens trill out of aggressiveness over territory or warning other birds about predators (avian or feline).

The power lines were mostly quiet as well. In the beginning, I heard a call somewhere from within a the vegetation. I pished. A few American Tree Sparrows and a Field Sparrow popped up. I didn’t see them side by side, so nearly confused the Field for a Tree. Val handily compared the two species with the Sibley’s on her phone. Tree sparrows have a rusty eyeline and bicolored bill, whereas field sparrows lack an eyeline and have a bright pinkish bill. I was apparently incorrect to use the double white wingbars as helpful point of reference.

As we were looking at the sparrows, a mockingbird flew by and second mockingbird called for a few seconds. Farther up the powerlines trail, we heard a bunch a chip calls from the other side of the field: White-throated Sparrows.

We continued on the new white trail that borders the sanctuary property. Truly, it belongs to the neighboring golf course. But since it’s a route that goes to the Croton Arboretum, hikers are allowed to use this trail. The owners of the golf course bought the parcel of land at the north-eastern edge of Brinton Brook last year to build a driving range. SMRA once had the opportunity to purchase it a couple decades ago, but we couldn’t afford it. The construction finished recently. You can see a massive grass hill-wall just beyond the trees. Very fortunately, the owners and SMRA are cooperating to replenish the border with native trees and plants.

Back to the birds. We returned to having a quiet hike, save for a small flock of Dark-eyed Juncos, a couple chickadees, a White-breasted Nuthatch, and a few singing white-throats.

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Mike and others recently planted White Pines and White Spruces where the Hemlock grove used to be so owls can return to the Sanctuary. © S.G. Hansen

Reliably, activity picked up near trail’s end. Larger flocks of juncos and white-throats foraged in the brambly ravine. Our third carolina wren for the hike sang. We counted a fourth hairy woodpecker for the hike. High in the trees foraged a mixed flock: chickadees, a couple Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and a Golden-crowned Kinglet. Two Tufted Titmice fought for a little in the trees on the other side of the trail.

When I got back in the car, the temperature read 35°.

All in all, we observed 26 species. The American Woodcock and Northern Pintail were exciting birds additions to Brinton Brook’s life list. You can view the eBird list here.