Month: December 2017

The Owls of Ossining

For the first time in four years, I went owling for the Peekskill Christmas Bird Count. On December 16, I left my home at 4 in the morning – too early for even my local Dunkin Donuts – to meet Charlie Roberto and Hillary Siener at Teatown, the latter of whom works as Teatown’s Director of Environmental Stewardship. (You’ve met Charlie in my 2016 Peekskill CBC post. I failed to mention that he is the captain of the Ossining circle. Christine McCluskey couldn’t join us. She moved away recently, so it was just Charlie and me for the rest of the day after owls.)

We launched at 4:30. Our first location was near the visitor’s center. We got out of the car. The tape recorder Charlie used for years finally died on him. Fortunately, Hillary had brought a speaker with her and she connected it to her device. She played Eastern Screech-Owl.

She heard the screech first, then Charlie. Only the woods and the snow reached my ears. After another half-minute of playback, and a couple more minutes waiting, I heard the screech for myself. It was somewhere in front of us to our right. I couldn’t gauge how far away it was, but it might be enough to say that I barely heard its whinny, a phrase of descending notes. My colleagues had far better ears than mine, having more experience.

The screech whinnied and whinnied and whinnied. It merely aimed to re-claim its territory. Hearing the call in the dead of a frigid night, behind so many leafless trees, I couldn’t help but romanticize it. Melancholic, lonesome, otherworldly, spiritual.

Next, we did playback of Barred and Great Horned. No response. Still, the screech whinnied, unperturbed by the “presence” of these larger owls, unyielding to the fact that “they” may eat it.

I heard the screech even as we went back to the car. I wondered how much longer it would keep calling.

Our next stop was less than a mile away from the visitor’s center, at a gravel lot by a couple trails. Hillary and Charlie tried the main three – Screech, Barred, Great Horned – plus a fourth contender, Northern Saw-Whet Owl. We perked up when we started hearing the “Who cooks for you?” phrase repeatedly. But, based on the direction from which the call came, Hillary concluded we were hearing Teatown’s captive Barred, hit by a car some time ago.

Moon barely a sliver, yesterday evening’s fresh snow cover lighted our night vision. Ready yet not ready for birding, I relented to resting my eyes more than once as I listened. I reassured/fooled myself that doing so would sharpen my hearing. Needless to say, I’m not one to fall asleep very easily. I had to utilize my vision in case an owl appeared in the trees around us. Charlie said that a Barred has done so before in this location during a count. He with his flashlight and Hillary with her headlamp slowly waved their lights across the tree branches.

Only the captive Barred called. We retreated to the car to drive somewhere else. For the next few locations, our playback yielded nothing. Get out of the car, play Screech, wait; play Barred, wait; played Great Horned, wait; get in the car, drive. Etc.

The idea of 16°F feels like nothing. Standing still in such a temperature for a few minutes as a breeze gently wafted through did more than chill my extremities. My toes hurt so much that the pain distracted my ability to concentrate. I overestimated insulated winter boots and one pair of wool socks. Forget foot warmers – I wanted to light my toes on fire.

We drove up to Cliffdale Farm. Charlie’s phone died. Hillary’s device was near-drained as well. Charlie hooted Barred, then Great Horned. Silence.

I had the idea to imitate Screech myself. As a joke, why not. Once in a while, an SMRA colleague of mine would whistle the Screech’s calls during her walks if pishing failed and she wanted to the birds to show up for her attendees. I once tried it out myself when I chased a red morph screech at another local park. That warranted no owl but I did get harassed by chickadees and nuthatches.

I whistled the whinny a few times and then a couple tremolos. Silence.

Charlie and Hillary thought I was doing playback on my own phone. I was caught off guard that they were impressed. “You’re doing that at the next spot,” said the former.

We drove to a pond off of Glendale Road. No sooner than did we climb out than Charlie told me start. I whinnied and tremolo’d a bit and paused. It took a few tries shake off my nervousness. After no response I whistled again.

Right away, a faint silhouette fluttered into the trees at eye level. Charlie immediately shined his flashlight. I froze.

“Saw-whet!” Charlie exclaimed.

Lifer! Target bird!

I wanted to keep the Saw-whet around as long as possible for him and Hillary, and thought that continuing to whinny would help. It took great effort to control my giddiness and not laugh, thus faltering my impression. I was beyond delighted that I got up at 3:30 to forsake sleep and warmth to go owling in the cold.

This Saw-whet seemed much larger than the rescue I saw at Sharon Audubon (in general, they are 7-8 inches tall). Hillary’s first impression was Screech. But that oversized head, cutesy face, and general coloring were far too dissimilar. Amazingly, the little one stayed where it perched, studying us, questioning what exactly dared to intrude on its territory. We all positively ID’d the owl as Saw-whet.

The Saw-whet then flitted to an adjacent tree. I wondered if stopping or continuing my whinnying would be better. I settled on continuing. I heard Hillary’s phone clicking away. Charlie rushed to retrieve his camera from the trunk. After roughly ten seconds, Charlie managed to focus. On cue, the Saw-whet flew into a small clump of hemlocks to the other side of the road. We rushed over. I whinnied more, but we saw the Saw-whet no more.

I couldn’t help but jump up and down in circles. After high-fives and Charlie’s camera regrets, we hopped back into the car and resumed owling. (Hillary’s photos came out horribly blurry, unluckily.) We visited a few more places with groves of pine and spruce. My Screech didn’t entice any more owls to respond until the very last location, Hawkes Avenue. A Great Horned hooted away in the distance. The more I whinnied, the more it hooted. When I paused, it paused.

7:00 passed. Night had already well-faded into day. We moved on to diurnal birds.

Advertisements

Brinton Brook Hike, Report 12-2017

IMG_2262

A north-western view from the power lines field. © S.G. Hansen

The forecast predicted the snowfall to begin at 9, when the hike starts. It wasn’t yet snowing when I arrived a few minutes before. The sky, though overcast, brightened the brown forest floor. The past few chilly days and freezing nights finally forced many of the oaks and maples to lose their lingering leaves.

The birds – usual winter flock species – scurried about the canopy for last-minute food before the snow and called in constant communication: titmice, chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, white-throated sparrows, juncos, a red-bellied woodpecker, a hairy woodpecker, a lone American crow. I thought I saw and heard a kinglet, but the chickadee’s incredibly quick movement tricked me. But as luck had it, the moment I got my binoculars on the chickadee, I spotted a nearby Brown Creeper gradually climbing the trunk. I’d actually heard the creeper’s tinny, high-pitched call.

The time read five past nine. Mike was unusually late. No one else showed. Was the hike was somehow canceled without my knowing? …Or was today even Second Saturday? I took the creeper as a sign of good birding to come. I went ahead.

Halfway to the kiosk intersection, I heard a loud rapping from somewhere within the locust grove. Time to play Find that woodpecker! I expected to spend quite a bit of time hunting for the noise-maker. Not for long this occasion… A Pileated Woodpecker took off and flew towards the parking lot. It maniacally called the entire way, prompting the jays to shout in slight hysterics.

I stood at the intersection to listen for other birds. I heard voices. A look through my bins down the trail revealed they belonged to Mike and another person. When they caught up, Mike explained he was late because he had to deal with work issues. Karen, both a birder and a hiker, would be the only other joining us for the hike. She hikes around Brinton Brook once a week, though she wished she could make it to the Second Saturday hikes more often.

Beyond conversation, I only heard a few white-throats at the meadow. I encountered more – plus a song sparrow – foraging in the cattails at the western end of the pond. When I reached well away from the cattails, the white-throats migrated to the shrubs at the edge of the path, leaving the song sparrow to its own. Juncos twittered in the canopy.

IMG_2260

Brown is beautiful. © S.G. Hansen

A thin layer of ice coated this end of the pond. Mike thought we wouldn’t see ducks. But when we reached sight of the other end, quite a few waterfowl were foraging: Four Green-winged Teal (all males, with lovely auburn and green faces), eight Mallards, and a dozen Canada Geese. Though they segregated themselves in groups of their own species, they all kept close to one another. The ducks moved to the back the closer we approached. The geese didn’t mind us that much, of course.

Meanwhile, nearly a dozen goldfinches fed on the black birch seeds above our heads. A couple whitehatches “yanked” incessantly. A Carolina wren trilled. As I watched the ducks, a kinglet bounced from one reed bunch to another over the pond, barely giving me time to notice that it was Gold-crowned.

IMG_2259

An oriole nest (belonging to either Baltimore or Orchard, both of which breed in Westchester). Orioles weave basket-like nests out of grasses and stitch them together with their bills. Th nests, which hang from tree branches, can have more than 10,000 weaves. © S.G. Hansen

Snow began to fall when we ventured out to the power-lines, starting off as flurries then quickly becoming heavier. One could hear the flake bunches practically hitting the ground and the vegetation. The power-line wires usually buzz, but today they sizzled. Snowfall filled in bird silence. I heard only sparse calls from a few birds: a second flicker, a second song sparrow, and a some more white-throats.

IMG_2266

Praying Mantis egg sack. © S.G. Hansen

Now that snow was falling quite a bit in the woods, the birds in the sanctuary also quieted down. So much so that I heard maybe a couple titmice and white-throats at most until we reached the parking lot again. We even took the longer route again, hiking the new white trail the golf course owners created. We enjoyed walking through the first-of-season snow. Karen took the opportunity to finish talking about her Purple Martin housing problem. She’d just put up the housing – a gift from a friend – this past breeding system. But an adamant flock of House Sparrows kept trying to nest in the gourds, even after she repeatedly climbed to throw away the nesting material (the gourds are fifteen feet above the ground). Eventually, the “little fucks” took revenge by chewing on her fencing and garden plants. She was thinking of donating the martin housing to Croton Point and purchasing a house sparrow trap.

Mike said to watch out for the juncos when we reached the stream near trail’s end. Alas, there were none.

We came back to the same birds I observed before the actual hike. As Mike and Karen talked, I thought I heard a Gold-crowned Kinglet. I kept my ears open for the high-pitched see-see-see call. Instead, I heard a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker’s mewing. It mewed for a good minute. I thought I saw one right after the Pileated sighting. I’d taken note of the facial markings, but the locust branches obscured the sapsucker so much I eventually lost sight of it. I was glad to hear it mew at the end of the hike.

All in all, I observed 22 species. A decent number for this time of year at Brinton Brook with a few good winter birds. Always nice to have a brown creeper – my favorite bird! You can view the eBird list here.

Sadly, this month’s hike is my last Second Saturday. I will be moving away after the New Year, before January’s hike. These three-and-a-half years were filled with fun and educational experiences. Thank you for everything, Mike!

I’m thinking of re-locating my own Second Saturdays to Sapsucker Woods.