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: 268 (as of February 18, 2018) Latest addition: Boreal Chickadee near Newcombe, NY

Sapsucker Woods, Report 3-2018

The snow in the valley of Cayuga Lake basin – where I now live – had mostly melted during the past couple days. “Up the hill,” towards the Lab, several inches of snow still covered the ground. The car thermometer read 16°. Until this week, this month hovered around the thirties. I wasn’t worried this dip would deter early migrants. The sun shined at its fullest this morning, without even a wisp of a cloud to cover any blue.

Nearly at the parking lot, I flushed a few small birds gritting on roadside. I slowed…junco, junco, junco…Fox Sparrow! It perched for a moment to study my car before diving into the bushes. A happy-chance first-of-year! I hadn’t seen one since December.

For this month’s walk, I joined the Cayuga Birding Club, which holds a walk at Sapsucker Woods every Saturday and Sunday at 8:30. I was first to arrive. As I waited at the Lab entrance, I watched and listened to take note of the much activity happening around the feeders. Several dozen Red-winged Blackbirds flocked in the trees above the feeders, singing a continuous chorus of kon-ka-ree’s and calling. The number of Blue Jays kept to the teens. The usual amount of feeder goldfinches sang and per-chick-o-ree’d. American Tree Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, and Dark-eyed Juncos skulked in the brush and foraged for seeds. Geese honked, chickadees dee-dee’d, downies downied, several crows cawed, cardinals boomed their song, mourning dove wings whistled. I heard a fox sparrow sing – likely the same one from before – from somewhere around the parking lot.

Our guide, Dick Feldman, started the walk with standing by the pond for a good while to allow us to visually sort out the birds. Our group was small, unsurprisingly not exceeding ten. The eight of us looked at the tree sparrows, marked the yellow of the white-throats, observed two downies fighting, and noted the goldfinches’ increasing yellow. A couple Common Grackles (another first-of-year) joined the blackbirds.

A pair of Wood Ducks suddenly took off. I was the only one quick enough to notice and ID them. They must have hidden themselves towards the back of the open water, behind the geese and mallards. (The pond would be completely frozen if it weren’t for the water churner). Mid-March is quite early, especially at this moment because of the cold and snow. Unlike other ducks, they are only here for spring and summer. A third first-of-year for me…

Dick the led us around the building to the northern end of the Wilson Trail. We stopped to watch a half dozen Cedar Waxwings forage for seeds in two tamaracks. The clear morning sun alighted the subtle softness of their gray-yellow-beige gradient and the bright yellow terminal tail band. I’ve only seen in passing twice this year, zooming overhead, faintly crying zee zee zee. This flock stayed put, eating and resting at leisurely. We left them behind to continue our walk.

A movement of many red-winged blackbirds with a few grackles and starlings whirlwinded around us, darting from tree to tree, perching, lifting up. Two blackbirds sticking closely together stuck out to me: Rusty Blackbirds! I presumed them both as male since they were purely black except for some spotty rust patches. Their yellow eyes seemed to stand out more boldly than a grackle’s. Unlike the waxwings, they did not stay put, but they gave us enough time to get our good looks. I recalled the one Rusty frequently sighted at the feeders towards the beginning of the year. It hadn’t been observed for weeks. I was happy to see two at once this morning.

Two of us dropped out to warm up. I didn’t feel too cold, especially because we moved some. Owling at 4:30 during a Christmas Bird Count spoiled me (see why here). We gingerly walked the path till the viewing dock, which was directly on the other side of the pond from the bench area. Two Songs Sparrows dueled as we stood and chatted. After our rest, we backtracked our path to the Lab entrance. We encountered nothing new. Same birds, same sounds. A blue jay was perched in the tamaracks that the cedar waxwings once occupied.

Our walk ended in time for the Lab to open for the day. By then, the sky had become partly cloudy. Bird activity lessened quite a bit, but the blackbirds and goldfinches unceasingly sounded as we parted.

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Wigeon, Wigeon

The Snowy Owl and Rusty Blackbird eBird alerts in February slowed from daily to occasional to non-existant. On cue, another bird took their spotlight: a male Eurasian Wigeon, here in Ithaca’s Stewart Park, located at the base of Cayuga Lake.

Eurasian Wigeons belong to the “irregular visitor” rare category. Like North American ducks, Eurasian ducks migrate far south from their breeding habitat to overwinter in India, China, Japan, Northern Africa, and so on. Though rare here, they are common enough to earn their own pages on Cornell’s All About Birds and National Audubon’s online guide. Personally speaking, reading or hearing about a Eurasian at least once a winter in New York isn’t a surprise. They show up somewhere. According to National Audubon, “examination of any winter flock of [American] wigeon is likely to reveal a male Eurasian among them, because the two wigeon species invariably flock together.” I haven’t yet read about a female Eurasian Wigeon sighting.

Our wigeon, to start with, is the American Wigeon, which breeds in Canada, Alaska, and the northern parts of Central United States. Males can be easily distinguished from other ducks by their thick, shiny, green apple stripe leading back from the eye. Additional notable field marks include white crown, gray head and neck, and an overall light brown body.

The Eurasian Wigeon breeds in northern Europe and Asia. He has similar plumage pattern to the American, most noticeably the white crown. Therein, the similarity ceases. The Eurasian lacks a mask; a chestnut-red fully colors his head. Additionally, his body is gray overall and a thin white stripe runs along the side of his body.

Both wigeons are dabbling ducks, like open wetland habitats, and primarily eat aquatic plants. They graze on land as well as on water. They can be opportunistic, grabbing at food found by geese, coots, and diving ducks. It’s not yet certain if Eurasians breed in North America. However, hybrids of American and Eurasian occasionally but regularly occur in Washington state, and Mexico and Baja California.

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I’ve ticked Eurasian Wigeon four out of the five years as a birder. I saw my lifer during my second winter. He was floating in a Connecticut pond across the road from the Long Island Sound. I didn’t know it was a rare duck or that we sidetracked our trip to chase it.

I once had the luck of easily locating one by myself with binoculars. Last winter, at the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, I picked it out of only about a hundred waterfowl. May’s Point is rather small compared to most of the refuge’s hotspots. The ducks were confined and relatively close to the viewing dock. The Eurasian’s head is key with which to start. Mind that he has dark eyes. Redheads have yellow eyes. Canvasbacks have red eyes.

Finding a Eurasian can also be like finding a Cackling Goose among thousands of Canada Geese – truly finding a needle in a haystack. Last autumn, I visited the Montezuma wildlife drive with friends. (The drive squares around a huge open marsh. Thousands upon thousands of waterfowl can fit in there. You can only scratch the surface from the road alone, even with a scope.) We’d heard about reports before going in. We spent a good while steadily shifting our scopes to peruse hundreds of waterfowl, which included up to 500 American Wigeon. Alas, we couldn’t locate the Eurasian even though we went on the wildlife drive at least four times during the weekend.

A well-known birder spotted the Eurasian at Stewart Park on the morning of February 22. The park is about ten minutes from my house. Because of my Snowy Owl failures, I wasn’t feeling terribly confident about chasing birds. (My Rusty Blackbird moment happened on accident.) I received several eBird emails throughout the day. After a long leisurely walk that afternoon, I checked my email to see a very recent alert. I grabbed my keys and bins. When I arrived, a couple birders with scopes were there. Sure enough, the wigeon was still present, but they were trying to re-locate a Cackling Goose.

I scanned the line of Canada Goose, Mallards, and American Wigeons crowded the edge of the ice shelf. Barely a minute passed when I saw the Eurasian. He was chasing an American, neck extended, bill snapping. He then waddled to the water and preened.

One of the birders lent me his scope. The Eurasian’s red head and cream stripe stood out boldly even against the gray water and the gray ice. I took advantage of his stillness to compare his plumage with that of his North American counterpart.

Thick snow had fallen for much of the day but stopped during my walk. As I watched the wigeon, the dense clouds to the west parted to let golden sun touch and enliven his red. A fog formed to obscure the western side of the basin and the hill beyond. Our side remained clear. So did our sight of the wigeon.

On Chasing

A bird gets lost or confused. A bird finds a place somewhere far out of range. A bird likes this spot for the food and company. A bird stays for however long it feels like. A bird goes home. Or dies there.

You hear about a bird. Do you chase it?

Do you immediately drop everything, put your life on hold however active? Or do you make a plan? Do you fly? Or do you only drive? Do you travel alone? Or do you prefer travel with other birders? Do you only go to public places? Or do you not blink twice at visiting a private property?

If you live in the Northeast as I, do you recall the Yellow-headed Blackbird of Stamford, Connecticut in 2014? It’s native to central and western North America, extending as far east as Michigan. The Painted Bunting of Brooklyn in 2015? It’s native to southeast United States and Central America. The Corn Crake of Long Island in the autumn of 2017? It’s native to Eurasia. Did you see them?

For those not in the know, “chasing” a rare bird or a new ABA (American Bird Association) area bird is a gamble to acquire a life bird – so especially sought by experienced birders – or to witness a historical ornithological event. The appearance of the bird can be attributed to going beyond its range during migration, a huge storm, or simply a wintering visit. A rare bird is a wonderful or shocking surprise. But an ephemeral time phase. A birder might not see it because they have no way of knowing when the bird wants to try going home. The length of stay can last an afternoon, a week, or even an entire season. Such variation is what makes chasing a gamble. A birder has to guess if traveling is worth the time and money or not. Or they just leap at it.

Birders who like chasing have an “itch.” The degree of the itch varies from person to person, usually influenced by financial privilege and/or by how far one is willing to go (literally and figuratively speaking) depending how much one’s got going in one’s life.

All this to say, chasing is stressful. In either a positive or a negative way. Thrill or anxiety – pick, quick.

Or some birders don’t have an itch. They experience nothing.

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I don’t like gambling.

Before moving upstate, I have chased only twice. The first was a Cackling Goose close to home last winter. I had to take care of something in the area. First chase, first success.

The second time, this early winter, I went for the American White Pelican at Playland Lake in Rye. I delayed a few days before driving down. No pelican in sight on any of the small islands. I lingered for at least forty minutes, walking along the lake, before I gave up and went home. The pelican was sighted ten minutes after I left. I didn’t have another chance to chase it because it flew off for good later that afternoon.

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Birders are regularly observing Snowy Owls at the Finger Lakes Regional Airport. Snowies irrupt as far down as Long Island from the Arctic (where they breed) when the small mammal populations are down.

Within the first week I moved, I visited Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, my favorite birding place. The wetlands complex was totally frozen over – I would not be “ducking” that day. Dismayed, I drove up to the visitor’s center. I learned about the Snowies at the airport while chatting with the guide.

I made my way immediately. Unfamiliar with the area, I didn’t know where to look, so I kept to the entrance of the terminal driveway. I left without a lifer.

I realized days later that I hadn’t signed up for the eBird alerts for counties in the area. Hourly, not daily. Done.

Half a month later, my friend and Saw Mill River Audubon board president Val Lyle was staying in Ithaca for a few days. I’d invited to take her around the lake to find ducks. eBird reports regarding the Snowies suddenly boosted in activity the day before our trip. We went for the owls first.

Bearing the eBird comments in mind, we went to the locations where the Snowies were sighted. Our car crawled on the roads, searching farm fields and all kinds of poles and farm equipment. We lingered at the empty hotspots.

The only bird we saw was a male American Kestrel hunting along the powerlines.

Since then, I received consistent daily eBird alerts – at least one per day, the Snowies sighted around the same locations, and a few more. The owl territory expanded. In case you are wondering why I don’t chase after them more often: The drive to the airport alone lasts 50 minutes; I easily burn a quarter of a tank of gas there and back and wandering. Not only does a drive cost a lot of time and gas, the amount of sitting is despite the constant motion feels hollow.

I only tried again this past Tuesday morning, on the 13th. Eleven alerts in one day for five different locations raised my confidence. I burned the lists’ comments in my mind, hoping to rely on the Snowies’ pattered behavior.

For two hours, I floated between the town of Varick and the airport. I went to every location at least twice. Only I to keep an eye left and right on every field, every pole, every potential perch while trying to drive straight at 30 MPH felt slightly hellish. Find the white blog, find the white blob. It could be perched on a high point, among dozens of lamp posts, telephone poles or sock poles. Or it could be sitting anywhere on the expansive ground, white-ish bird against stark white snow.

It was only when I returned home I noticed that these eBird alerts were two days behind, the checklists actually from the Sunday the 11th. Then, I received the first county alert for the 13th: someone saw a Snowy at the most frequented hotspot ten minutes after I decided to go home.

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Rusty Blackbirds are one of the fastest declining birds in North America. I can only count my sightings on one hand. It was somewhat fortunate that I saw them twice last December. The previous time, in autumn of 2015.

I stated in my last post that a male Rusty has been hanging around the Cornell Lab of Ornithology feeders. As of now, it’s been almost a month.

Unfulfilled from that horribly unproductive excursion for the Snowies, I half-halfheartedly chased the Rusty that afternoon. I wanted a little exercise from all that sitting while driving. A meditative walk through Sapsucker Woods should help. As I walked up to the Lab entrance, I balked at the idea of “the third time’s the charm.” If it weren’t the case for the Snowy, why should it be for the Rusty?

The air smelled of late winter, of lengthening sunshine. My leisurely pace crunched the fluffy snow. My breath remained invisible. Muted Route 13 traffic never lessened. A subtle breeze rattled sapling beech tree leaves. Four males Red-bellied Woodpeckers trilled, vying for territory. One trill was high-pitched – a first-year male giving his all.

A swampy aroma arose from the thawing stream behind the pond. A chickadee dee-dee-dee‘d. A female cardinal chipped. An almost familiar song erupted. I couldn’t decide if I were listening to a male cardinal or a mockingbird – I heard only cardinal, but with rapid-fire force and gurgle quality.

I crossed the bridge. A call uttered from within the shrubs before me. A mimid – a mockingbird it is, or a thrasher! I pished. The female cardinal popped up, crest fired-up. Determined to attract the mimid, I pished more.

The bird leapt to a high branch with gusto. I looked through my bins. He had yellow eyes. His music was a musically mechanical burble. The early afternoon sun shined almost blindingly behind him. I couldn’t see his plumage. But he had yellow eyes.

His gaze never left my figure. After a moment, he switched from singing to calling. He then took off and flew to perch high on a tree farther back in the woods. I lost sight of him.

Sapsucker Woods, Report 2-2018

Over the past couple weeks, eBirders reported a male Rusty Blackbird hanging around the feeders near the entrance of the Lab of Ornithology. I missed it last week and wanted to try again today. I planned to watch the feeders for a bit, and then, if no luck, walk the trails and return to the feeders.

I arrived just before 9. A light snow fell. I heard a crowd of Blue Jays as soon as I turned off the car. They bunched in a leafless tree near the sidewalk. Goldfinches were perched with them. I headed for the birders. When I was within twenty feet of the tree, the goldfinches fled en masse in a twittery mess, all two dozen.

I peeked through wooden blind – through tight grove of pine, spruce, and hemlock –  and browsed the ground. No Rusty. Not one bird. Only snow and seed.

I could never have imagined blue jays being more incessantly noisy than at this moment. Utter pandemonium. In addition to the usual “jay!”-ing and bugling, they sounded a strange whistle I’d never heard before. On and on, from all directions. They zipped overhead, between tree to tree every few seconds. Just when I settled on a number, more came into view. Up and up went my count. Easily thirty. On top of that, more than a dozen each of House Finches and female Red-winged Blackbirds flew into the berry-laden trees by the boardwalk. I counted at least nine cardinals with them. The goldfinches twittered from a distance. A Pileated Woodpecker intermittently called from within the woods. White-throated Sparrows, American Tree Sparrows, and Dark-eyed Juncos flitted up from the ground to perch in the shrubs.

This sensory overload distraction was worse than a fallout of warblers. I awed at hearing a new blue jay sound. I scrambled to tick each species, let alone count how many of each. I turned this way and that to note what birds flew around and picked up.  I wondered which bird species can sound like pickerel frogs (the blackbirds? or the jays again?). Don’t forget the two dozen Mourning Doves hunched in three different trees.

I thought I saw at least two Purple Finches with the house finches, all gobbling down berries. I excitedly tried to confirm the ID but lost track of them in the bustle. After spending some time on other birds, I noticed that the finches had perched close together in an adjacent tree (not moving, thankfully). As I went from male to male, I questioned my ability to differentiate House from Purple. I thought I long graduated from that stage. Perhaps, now, I was seeing only House and the Purples had flown away. Or, I solely saw overly bright and colorful Houses. I considered the early reports on northern songbirds not irrupting this year, including purple finches. I went with ticking only house.

During my finch deliberation, I heard in the background but didn’t register the jays “jay”-ing more often and louder. Even the fifty or so mallards in the pond quacked in protest. I’d been standing in the open, relatively close to the feeders, binoculars poised. I sat on the bench by the pond. The canopy over the bench seemed to help. While I processed my observations, all of the birds settled down. The goldfinches, jays, and others began visiting the feeders. The juncos and sparrows foraged around me in the leafless shrubs. I could hear the cars on Route 13 passing by. I figured I would sit for another half hour until the visitor’s center opened.

I saw a Hairy Woodpecker foraging. When I put my bins on it, the jays got loud again. I assumed I roused everyone from the peaceful feeder feast. I felt like a cat minding its own business, wandering without the instinct to kill on sight. I started walking the Wilson Trail. The jays followed me for a bit. Eventually, their noise died down. Now immersed in the forest, a quiet descended. All of the birds flocked by the feeders, leaving only a select solitary individuals, such as a chickadee and a red-bellied woodpecker, to forage in Sapsucker Woods.

The snowfall stopped. A high wind blew through the pine grove canopy. I passed a mole hole dug near the edge of the path. A gray squirrel huddled on a six-inch pine branch, tail on back. A young red squirrel scurried inside its hole in a snag. At the same time I passed right in front of the snag, the squirrel peaked through, saw me, and immediately rushed back inside.

My trek was quiet the entire time. I looped around the pond and the Lab, back to the feeders. The jays started. I looked for the Rusty again. And yet again, no Rusty. I kept under the entrance canopy, creating a final tally of my sightings. The jays quieted, and everyone else went back to placidly feeding.

Small Things

The male mallard’s curls.

The woodcock’s call.

The kestrel’s kiting.

The Cape May warbler’s cheek.

The catbird curiously tilting its head.

The American wigeon’s muted squeaks.

The coughing of the suet-bound red-bellied woodpecker.

The hasty departure of a thousand red-winged blackbirds.

The per-chick-o-ree chorus of an American goldfinch flock.

The white-throated sparrow kicking back snow.

The accipiter’s feeder crash.

The barred owl’s stare.

The belted kingfisher’s distant rattle.

The young red-tailed hawk’s relentless pleas for food.

The male hooded merganser lowering his crest.

The aggressive caution in a chickadee’s eyes.

The spectacles of a blue-headed vireo.

The cormorant’s dragon pose.

The grackle’s walk.

The sleeping screech.

The blue of a blue jay.

The black of a black tern.

The whimbrel’s eyebrow.

The hunched great blue heron.

The black skimmer chick’s begging wings.

The chimney swift’s twittery wing beats.

The rotund silhouette of a cold junco.

The red berry poised in a waxwing’s mouth.

The rusty blackbird flipping wet leaves with its bill.

The barn swallow peering down from her nest.

The collective nap of purple sandpipers.

The winter wren’s camouflaged skulk.

The splatter from a tern’s dive.

The shoveler’s foraging circle.

The raven pair’s love chatter.

The Canada goose’s hiss.

My 2018 Resolutions

First, a review of My 2017 Resolutions (please read first).

1a/1b: I achieved the first part. Because of my Magee Marsh trip, I became more motivated to study warbler songs. I developed a multi-step learning process with several sources that specialize in both sound and sight. I did manage to memorize a few songs I hadn’t before (i.e. manage to do playback inside my head), notably Hooded and Black-and-white. Unfortunately, I couldn’t accomplish much of the second part. The cold, rainy, windy weather at Magee Marsh hampered warbler migration, hence also my chance to put my studying to the test. Then a few days after the trip, I sprained my foot. I was bed-ridden for two weeks – during the exact time-frame of the height of warbler migration. I even missed Saw Mill River Audubon’s annual Doodletown trip. I did see an Ovenbird and had a couple more good looks at Canadas. Another plus: two lifers, a Cape May and a Nashville at Magee Marsh.

2: Weekly visits to a personal local hotspot failed. The corner of the Croton Reservoir that runs along Baptist Church Road in Yorktown has good ducks. I love ducks. I  wondered what I would see and hear during non-winter months. But the road is narrow and windy and full of blind curves. And because there has been more commuter traffic in Westchester in general, there is also a lot of traffic on Baptist Church Road. I got tired of cars often missing me by a hair as I stood on the side of the road. There was no good time of day to go birding there. (DEP owns the land by the water. A routine police car admonished me for literally standing one foot off the road.) I lasted until early April. I realize in hindsight I could have gone to another part of the reservoir, but I really stood by sticking with that one spot on Baptist Church Road. I don’t particularly mind I quit altogether.

3: I got a portable GPS! Late in the year, since it was a holiday present. I’ll definitely put it to use when I drive by myself to my upcoming SMRA trip to the Adirondacks.

4: Not really achieved….not what I had in mind, at least. I did attend board meetings, having been initiated as a Board of Director in April. My state parks job had me working weekends, which, I think, did make it harder for me to connect with events and people. (Silver lining: I managed to learn more about invasive plants and trees because of this job. I even helped to remove some in parts of Fahnestock and the Highlands.) As of this month, I’ve resigned from the board since I’m moving away. So a possibility of undertaking this resolution again is shot.

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Now for my 2018 resolutions. Four/five resolutions are a lot. I simplified things.

1: Keep studying warbler songs.

2: Connect with people at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in any way I can (I am moving to Ithaca, after all) and with Chemung Valley Audubon, the closest chapter to Ithaca.

3: Purchase a scope. I regard November 20, 2018 as my five-year anniversary of becoming a birder. I’ve withheld acquiring one since I wanted to feel confident that my birding hobby will last for years to come. You see, I have science phases (geology as a child, ecology as a preteen, astronomy as a high school and college student). Unlike these other subjects, I can socialize with so many people who share this amateur ornithological hobby. That’s what makes it different. Here’s hoping. I think five years is a good milestone for acquiring a scope, an expensive but much needed investment. I do love waterfowl watching most.

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.