Author: S.G. Hansen

Birding made its way into my life in November 2013, when I happened to look out the backyard and see a flock of small gray birds incessantly foraging for seeds in the garden. I researched what species they were (Dark-Eyed Junco) and then everything else fell into place when I discovered All About Birds. My absolute favorite bird is the Brown Creeper. I adore ducks and waterfowl watching most. My preferred local birding patches include my backyard, a small lake across my street, and parks and Audubon sanctuaries around Westchester County, NY. I'm a part of the Saw Mill River Audubon Board of Directors. I earned my B.A. in Creative Writing at Wells College and my Nonfiction M.F.A. at Sarah Lawrence. This is a beginner/non-birdwatching friendly blog. I aim to post three times a month. Visit my Twitter for more updates on my birding and pictures! Life list count to-date: 260 (as of May 3, 2017) Latest additions: Eastern Whip-poor-will, Nashville, Warbler, Cape May Warbler

Brinton Brook Hike, Report 12-2017

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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.

Brinton Brook Hike, Report 10-2017

Last Tuesday, I felt like I was baking in the 80° temperature as I hawkwatched on Hook Mountain. This morning, I woke up to see frost on my car, and that the temperature read 37°. I had to wear a parka, gloves, and a hat (yours truly gets cold – as well as warm – easily).

As I got ready in the parking lot, besides the usual common birds, I heard White-throated Sparrows singing and calling around me. These weren’t my First-of-Season (FOS), as I heard a white-throat singing briefly near my bedroom window a few days ago.

When I reached the kiosk intersection, more white-throats were calling. Two Pileated Woodpeckers moved around a tree trunk behind the kiosk. They flew away as I walked closer. I then began observing more than the dozen white-throats: I was blasted with a migration movement. Sunlight poured through the wood, warming the locust grove. I started with 8 species at the parking lot. Including the Pileateds I added 13 on the Old Farm Road trail alone. I witnessed quite a group – an explosion of activity and chatters and calls and whisper songs. Several zippy Ruby-crowned Kinglets. One slightly less zippy Golden-crowned Kinglet  (FOS). Two Blue-headed Vireos. Two Yellow-rumped Warblers. A lone Eastern Phoebe. And a few common birds tacked along (perhaps also migrating, perhaps resident birds that stick with the migrants to find more food): chickadees, titmice, cardinals, downies, a towhee, a white-breasted nuthatch, a robin, and a song sparrow. They flitted all over, from branch to branch, tree to tree, fly-catching, fighting one another. They covered all levels of the canopy, from the shrubs to the near tops of the trees. I had to re-learn how to bring my binoculars up to particular spots because I didn’t have many chances to go birding these past couple weeks. I lost the birds a few times but shortly got the hang of it. I also kept telling myself to stick with just one bird for a little, then move on to another. The hyperactive kinglets, vireos and yellow-rumps made this difficult. Tallying to my best ability also proved difficult. I felt like a beginner again.

More than a half an hour later, the movement seemed to have passed on. I doublebacked to the yellow trail, so I would head towards the pond.

When it comes to birding in the spring and fall, one has to be mindful to distinguish if one is following the same migration pack or encountering additional numbers of the same species observed before. Today tried this ability of mine as well. Just passed the meadow, I observed both species of kinglets and blue-headed vireos again. I took a few minutes to especially watch the vireos; they were much closer, and I always delight in them since they are my favorite vireo species. (I then took another moment to consider what I meant when I wrote down “wb sp” in my notebook earlier. I completely blanked that it meant “warbler species,” which I used as a stand-in before I figured I was looking at Yellow-rumped Warblers. I was prepared for “confusing fall warblers,” but sometimes I simply need to spell out words even when I’m trying to save time writing while out in the field.)

I noticed it got quiet again. I found zero wader-birds or waterfowl at the pond, the water level of which was rather low, but not low enough for the land to become a wetland.

While walking along the pond, I came across ruby-crowned kinglets, blue-headed vireos, and yellow-rumps foraging right above my head. I decided against increasing the numbers – I must have been following the flock. However, I was certain that I did see four yellow-rumps at once. They were drinking at the edge of the pond. A few kinglets joined them, and a vireo was bathing.

I debated completing the full pond loop this time. I ended up turning left on the blue trail as usual. The moment the power lines came into view, I saw a Red-tailed Hawk stoop across the field. Instead of venturing out to the power lines, I continued on the blue, not having done so in countless months. I wondered about other pockets of this morning’s migration movement. For the first time ever, against a backdrop of radio silence, I could hear and recognize the golden-crowned kinglet’s tinny and quiet tsee tsee tsee call – two of them. As they continued calling regularly, I happened to catch sight of a camouflaged blurb rustling among the leaf litter: a Hermit Thrush. (Second FOS) I couldn’t recall the last time I saw one at Brinton. I find these secretive, shy thrushes thrushes hard to come by so I watched it until trees hid it from my view. Not farther down the trail, I heard soft drumming to my left. I expected a Hairy or a red-bellied woodpecker, but it was another winter resident, my third FOS for the morning: an immature male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, whose yellow and black back looked rather blurred, though his crown and throat were bright red.

Not long after, I reached the yellow trail (the blue all the way loops to another point along the yellow). A Red-shouldered Hawk called somewhere from the northwest. Unsurprisingly, I think, I may have stumbled upon the same migration group of kinglets, vireos, and yellow-rumps from before. Indeed, I was now south of the pond, they may have traveled this bit of distance from when I last saw them about fifteen minutes before (the amount of time I spent on the blue trail). I tried to get on every bird to make sure the numbers checked out, and they were similar. My ticks remained unchanged.

A little further down the trail, when the kinglets and vireo were barely out of ear shot, I began to hear a Winter Wren whisper song, a remnant of the spring song, partial in phrase, very faint in volume. So faint that the wren sounded like it was twenty or thirty feet away. In fact, I didn’t recognize that the song to belong to the winter wren initially. This wren’s musical, non-stop trill-filled song sounds so rich and usually lasts up to six seconds – a mouthful of a song for such a tiny bird. This whisper song lasted only a couple seconds, the trills sounded squished. When I started walking again, I flushed the wren from a large log that rested next to the path. I reflexively brought my hand over my chest. I didn’t move, nor wanted to. To my relief, the wren popped back up. This one was a little less secretive compared to past winter wrens I have observed. Smaller than a House Wren, the Winter Wren’s plumage is brown like a House’s, though several shades darker overall. Its tail is shorter and stubbier, sticking straight up like bangs wet with gel. The wren hopped along the log, occasionally singing its whisper song while delicately pecking for insects. Very slowly, trying not to disturb it again, I grasped at my binoculars and brought them up. I did scare it again and it dropped down. It appeared shortly after, hopping onto another log to forage on. Its beak moved so slightly while it sang, barely opening to let sound out.

The wren dropped down again. Delighted with a fourth FOS, I decided to move on. The second I started walking, I saw the wren fly farther away from the path. I heard its whisper song another couple times before I was finally out of earshot.

Towards the trail’s end, I encountered a few kinglets and a phoebe. I counted the kinglets but kept my phoebe at 1, in case the same phoebe I saw towards the beginning decided to hook up with other birds.

Back at the parking, to my surprise, but I suppose you don’t have to guess: more kinglets and another vireo! This time, I did add numbers to my tally. I wound up with more than a dozen ruby-crowned kinglets and three vireos altogether. A conservative estimate. Even if I did see more than two migrating groups of kinglets and vireos, I’d rather I keep my numbers low so as not to arouse suspicion from eBird.

Speaking of eBird, you can view my list here. A wonderful, fall migration-filled morning!

You may noticed that I didn’t observe any Dark-eyed Juncos. Definitely next month!

Hateful Things About Birdwatching (Continued)

You forget your binoculars.

You never seem to go hawkwatching at the right time.

You sprain your foot just when spring migration fully kicks in.

The bird turns out to be a decoy.

Bothersome insects. Especially: Gnats haunt your face and ears in spite of bug spray.

Walking on a path, you do not notice a bird foraging near the path until you reach within a foot of it, and so it silently flies into the vegetation to hide away from you forever.

Every American Redstart sounds like nothing.

You excitedly observe a lifer raptor. It takes off to stoop a prey, a hateful invasive songbird, but when it returns to its perch, you realize it has in its talons one of your favorite native songbird.

A worthlessly argumentative someone who clearly knows less about birding than you attempts to assert that their ID is correct in spite of your overwhelming evidence that your ID is, in truth, correct.

You are the only birder at your work.

A birder who does not take into consideration the birds’ welfare. Example: A birder who overtaxes playback.

A birder overtaxes playback so you explain why such action is detrimental, yet the birder contentiously defends themselves.

You repeatedly miss warbler fallouts.

You repeatedly miss general migration fallouts.

Crumbs from your snack or drops from your drink fall into the crevices of your binoculars.

After certain novices recognize you for your expertise and obtain your email, they persistently send you absurd ID requests with photos or videos of questionable quality.

An obvious non-birder approaches: “See anything good?”

Alexandra: A novice birder comes up to you and asks what you’re looking at. You take your eyes off the bird to offer directions, and you lose the bird in the meantime.

Brinton Brook Hike, Report 9-2017

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A sign of autumn. © S.G. Hansen

Because I’m continuing my State Parks job through the fall, I had to also skip this month’s Second Saturday, which coincided with the Ramble. So I went to Brinton Brook today since last Monday I went for my spontaneous hawkwatch.

Like the previous two years, this September feels frustratingly sauna-like, as if summer is sinking its fingers into the ground before finally relinquishing its transformation into autumn. This morning, though, was overcast and relatively cool (high 60s) yet somewhat humid.

My hike was oddly quiet in regards to both sight and sound. I observed 18 species – a winter number. A warbler fallout occurred in Westchester and Rockland early last week. No warbler fallouts today. Nope, not for me. Again. Brinton did not witness fall migration altogether today.

The Blue Jays, back from summer vacation, had started to make a lot of noise again. I heard them in small groups throughout the hike, at the parking lot, the pond, the power lines field, and trail’s end. They jayed, bugled, and sounded all sorts of other nameless quirky sounds. All in all, I estimated, a dozen and a half. But where the jays didn’t call, the insects and tree frogs trilled.

As I made my way to the kiosk intersection, I saw ahead of me chipmunks fighting. A male Northern Flicker foraged in the path. A cardinal – later ID’d as female – was chasing another bird, which I presumed to be another cardinal. I crept towards the flicker, which bounced in and out of sight, so as not disturb it. About ten feet away, I put my bins on the bird. Strangely, its silhouette looked un-flicker like. My heart nearly stopped when I saw it was a Brown Thrasher. It quickly dived into the shrubs and hid. I had not seen one since July 2016, the latest eBird record at Brinton.

I pished at the kiosk. A small bird skulked around but did not reveal itself. Behind me, I flushed out the female cardinal and the thrasher.

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Goldenrod plentiful in the meadow. © S.G. Hansen

Pond activity mostly included jays and Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers. I also heard a Hairy Woodpecker’s pique! call. I kept my eye out for herons and immediately noticed on the far side a Great Blue, whose blue-gray torso blob stuck out against the swampy, lily-pad laden water.

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Scat from an unknown seen on the trail by the pond. © S.G. Hansen

The power lines whirred over my head. I counted seven Gray Catbirds mewing along the length of the path. Two Carolina Wrens sang and trilled. An American Crow cawed in the distance. A Turkey Vulture soared. A Great Blue Heron flew overhead to the north-east. To my surprise, an Eastern Bluebird intermittently sang. Sadly, I couldn’t get a visual on it.

As for insects, I saw a few Red Admirals. And now that I have an eye for moths, I noticed a number of grass-host moths on the ground before me. I flushed them often as I stepped forward. I tried taking pictures of them, but as soon as I took only one step towards them, they would flutter farther away. Skittish things!

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Unknown species as of yet. © S.G. Hansen

The clouds parted enough for the sun to shine, but the moment of that path blue sky barely lasted a minute.

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It’s always overwhelming to have this below view of the indomitable porcelain berry, a shrub native to East Asia. Unfortunately, birds such as the catbird and robin love eating the berries. © S.G. Hansen

I turned my attention to moths again during my descent from the power lines. Besides additional jays and White-breasted Nuthatches, and my first and only chickadee, this part of the hike was quiet. I flushed the moths from the path – probably litter moths since they rested among the leaf litter. I couldn’t get on these either. They were just as skittish.

About a few minutes away from trail’s end, I saw a small bird skulk in the bushes on the side of the path. At these quick glances, I thought I had a House Wren. I pished. It revealed itself straight away. And no wonder why. A male Common Yellowthroat, with a gorgeous crisp black mask and yellow throat. (This warbler species is guaranteed to respond to pishing.) It flitted about, tail flicking, even after I stopped pishing. I left it alone when I figured it wouldn’t stop checking out the scene anytime soon.

My last additional species came from the Weinstein property: a lone robin softly cuck-ing.

You can view the eBird list here.

Hawk Counting on Hook Mountain

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View of the Hudson. You can see the new bridge in front of the Tappan Zee, both now in use. © S.G. Hansen

Over the weekend, at my friend Anne Swaim’s notification, I connected with Trudy Battaly about standing in as the official counter on September 11 at Hook Mountain.

I have previously written about my Saw Mill River Audubon trips to Hook. This was my fourth year up there altogether, my first as a counter. Trudy, who compiles the data daily, told me I would be the only one for the day. I worried. Not only had I never officially counted before, but I am generally inexperienced with hawkwatching. How many birds would I overlook since I only have one pair of eyes for the 360° vista? How many ID battles of Sharpie vs. Cooper’s and Red-tailed vs. Red-shouldered would I face? Also, I don’t own a spotting scope. I was sure I would miss so many birds that my 10x bins couldn’t possibly catch.

Counters normally do a big sit at the top from 8-4. In the past, I have only stayed up there for 2-3 hours. I figured I could only last from 9-3, and that indeed was my time-frame for the days.

I saw my first hawks for the day – a pair of Red-tails – circling over the Executive Golf Course parking lot. The morning was sunny, cool, and windy; and the ascent quiet. I only heard a half-dozen Blue Jays, a crow, a goldfinch, and flicker.

Someone with a scope already sitting at the top. He introduced himself as Vince. He’d been coming up to Hook for years. A Rockland County local. I felt more at ease, happy to have help with the counting. Lucky me – he almost didn’t come up. Once he had read the previous day’s reports for Hook and other hawkwatches, and since he had already eaten breakfast, he made his decision. We rolled our eyes at how terrible last year’s hawk migration was.

Vince told me about the warbler fallout here the day before, and that they departed all at once just before nightfall. That explained the mountainside’s empty silence. (Thus my unfortunate streak of missing warblers this year continued…) Before I arrived, he had an Osprey, a couple of Broad-wings, and a Merlin. Slow overall. Thus began my counting. The owl prop I erected was also ready.

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Thar she stands. © S.G. Hansen

As time progressed, the day warmed up to the low 70s. The NNW wind slowed from 7 to 4 knots at the most. And the haze bordering the horizon gradually increased, especially towards the southeast. Our quiet morning continued with a couple more Ospreys, our first kestrel and sharpies, and up to 15 Broad-wings.

Carl, another Hook Mountain regular, joined us at around 10. Lastly, Tom arrived at 11 (if you know any famous birders named Tom, then you’ve already filled in the last name). Now with three scopes and three additional pairs of eyes to help me watch the skies, I was ecstatic.

I want to get the Broad-wings out of the way. The day before – the 10th – observed 100 migrating. We counted 839. I was shocked to see so many. My past trips didn’t have numbers like that. 839 isn’t extraordinary for Hook (more than two thousand in one day have been observed), but Vince remarked how this movement was rare for early September. “This is what Hook Mountain is all about, Sarah,” he said several times. He, Carl, and Tom were impressed, stunned even. We gawked at our panoramic view of constant, copious Broad-wing observations. A slight breeze on a warm day turned out to do wonders. Broad-wing activity picked up mid-morning just in time for Tom, but the crème de la crème activity occurred in the early afternoon. 12-1 got 354. 1-2 got 253. Kettle after kettle. Stream after stream. (When I’d make a move to take a bite out of my sandwich one of my companions would get on more Broad-wings. Wonders how I was even able to eat lunch.) Their flight was low enough for us to see them with the naked eye. In fact, some kettles were so low that we missed them from the north and only managed to catch them once they’d moved southeast. The kettles, so ephemeral, dispersed only after a few minutes of having fully formed, and afterward the Broad-wings gently streamed over our heads, reformed kettles far to the south, or evanesced entirely.

For one of our earlier kettles, after a short lull, I announced, “There’s a bunch over the Hudson.”

Vince put his bins on it. “WOooooooooaaaAAAHhhhh. That’s a bunch, alright.”

I put my bins on the kettle again. I thought I’d seen a dozen. Turned out there was double that. “Wooooaaaah.” Triple that. The patch of sky was littered with circling winged dots. “WOOOOAAAAAHHHH.”

I didn’t count how many times Tom, eyeing the south with his scope, exclaimed, “Uh oh. Uh oh.”

UH OHHH,” Vince would responded with exaggerated sarcasm.

After finalizing his decision to come up this morning, Vince hesitated whether or not he’d need his clicker. And he did bring it in the end. I’d have had such a difficult time tallying the Broad-wings if otherwise. I didn’t find one in the boxes that held the owl and the recording sheets. At his recommendation, I counted by the hour and rolled the clicker back to zero at hour’s beginning. While Vince, Carl, and Tom looked through their bins and scopes and declared numbers, I simply clicked away. At an earlier point, while I took down 62 Broad-wings, Tom uttered, “Ahhh, I love that sound.” Several times we’d get on a kettle, more and more Broad-wings would join from the bottom, prompting Vince to tell me to tack on four or twelve or twenty more at a time. Clickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclick.

Carl had to take off shortly after 1 for an appointment, very reluctant to miss further Broad-wing action. He witnessed part of the bulk of it, but starting at 2, the movement died off as quickly as it started. I counted 60 – mostly individuals or groups of fewer than ten passing by. I didn’t miss anything spectacular after I left at 3. Vince, who stayed until 4 with Tom, counted just 1 Broad-wing.

We observed a good amount other raptor activity as well. We got two instances of owl prop action, both in the morning. Three American Kestrels, including one gorgeous male, dove at it lightning quick. A while later, two Sharpies stooped for an assault at once. They unhinged their legs like airplanes ready for landing, but they didn’t unball their talons.

At another point, we heard an unfamiliar call from the south. I thought it was a jay making funny noises. We soon learned it was Peregrine was calling. We watched an immature Peregrine fly over us, pursued by an adult, who, it turned out, was the one calling. We concluded that the adult, a resident, was chasing the migrant immature away from her territory. After that, we saw her a few more times near the Hudson. She appeared displeased that other raptors traveled through her air space.

I was annoyed that I missed the Merlin that only Vince saw. I needed it for the year, and I’d only seen one Merlin previously ever. Finally, though, between 1 and 2, I finally got my Merlin – two in fact, one right after the other. They soared near the owl.

Turkey Vulture, Black Vulture, and Red-tailed Hawk movements were low, as it is still quite early in the season. Truthfully, I screwed up their numbers; Trudy emailed me later saying that I took down too many. I should have considered the residents that fly close to the mountain multiple times, but I thought I was fine without asking for validation.

Our count of Sharp-shinned Hawks – some flew by themselves, some joined the Broad-wing kettles – totaled 42. We observed just two Cooper’s Hawks, one of which I didn’t get on. According to Vince, if there’s a large movement of Sharpies, there’s bound to be more Cooper’s. We counted nine Bald Eagle, a result of three per hour during the hours of 11, 12, and 2. The Ospreys were the most difficult to tally. It was hard to tell which were resident versus migrant, but Vince eventually went with increasing the numbers later in the afternoon when he saw them with the Broad-wings. As for Northern Harrier, only the one, a female.

Passerine movement was slow, with exception to a couple species. We observed a regular movement of over 150 Chimney Swifts throughout the day. Dozens of Barn Swallows flycatched around nine o’clock and disappeared before the hour’s end. 11 Ruby-throated Hummingbird individuals whizzed to the southeast. A Black-and-white Warbler zoomed to the north. A yellowish, greenish warbler – probably a Yellow – zipped over our heads too quickly for us to ID it with certainty. I watched Pileated Woodpecker cross from one side of the mountain to the other as it maniacally cackled. A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher silently foraged among the trees. I heard a couple jays, a chickadee,  and a goldfinch. A raven croaked consistently.

Vince and Tom become butterfly enthusiasts when the birds become boring, so we enjoyed buggy movement as well. During the Broad-wing lulls, Tom briefly departed to search for butterflies. We observed 11 Monarchs migrating. After I took an extended break from counting in the middle of the afternoon, Tom guided me to a spot where he’d seen a Hackberry Emperor earlier. We saw two of those plus a Dun Skipper – both new butterflies for me. Later, a Cloudless Sulphur – a small, bright, lime green butterfly – passed through us so quickly that it took Tom and Vince by surprise.

My descent down the Mountain was a little quieter only because the jays didn’t vocalize as much. I also heard a Red-bellied Woodpecker and a White-breasted Nuthatch. Unexpectedly, I flushed an Ovenbird from the path, not even a foot in front of me. Buffy crown ruffled, keeping its eye on me, it jerked to and fro and around.

You can find Trudy’s compilation here, and the official HawkCount compilation here.

A huge thank you to Vince, Carl, and Tom for their presence. If it weren’t for them, I would not have reported the numbers I turned in and I would have grossly undercounted. I was happy to share such a spectacular hawkwatching day with them.

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A present. © S.G. Hansen