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

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.

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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

Mothing: An Interlude

Ever since I started working for State Parks,  I haven’t had as much opportunity to go birding. My “weekend” is on weekdays. I’m missing every one of my Audubon chapter’s Saturday-Sunday trips and I feel deprived of my yearly shorebirds. (I still need to acquire that GPS.) When breeding season was still active in June and July, I turned to birding by ear and was temporarily appeased. But songbird action truly seems to shrink to non-existence in August.

As a way to fill in this sorry hole, I’ve turned my attention to moths. They’re all over Fahnestock SP. I see different species every time I go to campground bathrooms. I felt an itch to know their names – just like my previous itch to know the name of the little dark gray sparrows I first saw foraging in my backyard garden.

These critters are entirely new to me and so very much more difficult to get into: There are 11,000 species in Eastern North America alone. Think of Empidomax flycatchers, then times that by a couple thousand. So many subtle moths exist in the first place, then they and even the more distinctive species become worn as the season progresses. Even with photos, I want to tear my hair out because:

  1. I can’t decide between four different species; or
  2. I think I have the ID – but my moth looks so different from the one in the field guide even though it looks so similar, yet it looks not quite the same as other species on that page.

If you want to explore the depths of your self-doubt capabilities, turn to moths.

  • “How many worn Porcelain Grays have I been seeing? Are they really all Porcelain Grays? What about worn Small Engraileds??”
  • “So sure I’ve got a Yellow-slant Line, but those median lines aren’t quite as thick…”
  • “This looks so much like a very worn Sub-gothic Dart/Dingy Cutworm/Bristly Cutworm. But the posture/wingspread in the photo is different the moth’s in the guide…”
  • “I feel like I’m seeing two different moths when they’re in different lighting.”
  • “Why can’t I find this moth? What’s in my photo then?? Does it really even exist?!”

Mothing isn’t as a common a hobby birding. Thankfully, a birding friend directed me to a Facebook group wherein experienced mothers are glad to come to one’s aid.

Like with birds, however, there are also highly distinctive and colorful moths. I can believe it. It’s just like subtle butterflies. Among my flashy lifers are Blinded Sphinx Moth (the moth pushed me into getting my Peterson’s), Showy Emerald, False Crocus Geometer, Painted Lichen Moth, and Ailanthus Webworm. I have quite a few target lifers: Giant Leopard, Virginia Creeper Sphinx, Polyphemus, Rosy Maple, Graceful Ghost (for that name alone), and Early Buttom Slug Moth (again, for the name).

Unlike with birds, I can actually use my tactile sense to interact with them. This way, their existence seems more concrete. Certain species don’t mind perching on your finger. Although they may be somewhat reluctant to get on, they seem even more reluctant to get off. Some moths like the Nais Tiger are so fuzzy I feel tempted to pet them (I did pet the Nais Tiger but I barely felt the mane on my fingertip).

A huge difference between birders and mothers is that the latter IDs their subjects by Latin name rather than by common. The authors of my Peterson’s undertook the task to supply common name-less moths with common names – more of a feat, a bizarre feat, for certain moths, especially a group called the Daggers have such curious appellations (Interrupted, Funerary, and Retarded Daggers, anyone?). I’m trying not concern myself with Latin names yet. I feel that it doubles the difficulty of mothing. Even moths within the same so-called group have different genus names, such as Emeralds and Slug moths.

My life list is currently shy of 30, my last certain lifer a Pale Beauty in my own backyard. Summer is the height of moth season, but some species are active throughout autumn. By the end of that season, I do hope to return to my home-base, the birds. But come next spring, I’ll be at it with the moths again for sure!

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A friend (Forest Tent Caterpillar Moth).

Brinton Brook Hike, Report 8-2017

The day began cool but gradually warmed to slightly uncomfortable, with a little humidity. Several year-round birds sang the parking lot as I readied myself for the hike: Northern Flicker, Blue Jay, Northern Cardinal, Carolina Wren, American Robin, White-breasted Nuthatch, American Crow.

I stood at the kiosk intersection for a bit. An Eastern Wood-pewee cried “pe-weeeeee!” Three Downy Woodpeckers sounded off one-two-three. Two chanting Black-capped Chickadees, singing in different keys, managed to utter one “fee-bee” phrase simultaneously, puncturing the air with brief discord.

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A not-so-inconspicuous nest – right above the path. © S.G. Hansen

At the meadow, I heard an unfamiliar chipping note coming from a bush. I attempted to pish the bird out. Chickadees and a male cardinal gathered nearby and responded with annoyance. A Pileated Woodpecker manically called deep in the trees. I persisted for another half-minute. Finally, an immature male Indigo Bunting popped up to the tree above. His transformation to become an adult was nearly complete. Small brown spots dotted his vibrant blue.

Hardly any goldenrod grew in the meadow. Only one bush. Unfamiliar vegetation – most likely invasive species – had taken hold instead. Not many butterflied fluttered about. Maybe one Great-Spangled Fritillary and a couple Red Admirals.

At the pond, up to maybe a dozen Blue Jays – adults and immatures – called and bugled as they flew around. I didn’t see the Great Blue Heron from last month. The Red-winged Blackbirds had quieted down, save for the half-dozen immatures that flew from lily pad to lily pad. It was difficult to look for anything in the reeds on the other side of the pond since the tree branches blocked much of my view. To live up to the label “birder,” I made believe I could somehow find a bittern. Instead, not disappointingly, I caught the movement of two Eastern Phoebes flycatching and fighting. As I continued walking I heard a wet rustling behind me. A female Wood Duck flew from my side of the pond to the other. She quickly disappeared into the reeds.

My ascent to the powerlines on the blue trail was a little quiet. I heard my third pewee, more titmouse families, and still more blue jays. I startled a male flicker that was foraging on the ground. It was at this point the temperature warmed to that of a typical summer day. And it was at this point that the black flies began to harass me. I hoped they would stop once I’d the powerlines.

And they did. Sunshine forces them to hide in the shadowed woods. Other insect life was in full swing in the field. Countless bees, butterflies, and other bugs whizzed around the flower-filled vegetation, including the many goldenrod bushes. Cicadas – which I’d been hearing since I got out of the car – screamed at their loudest potential from all directions.

The first bird I spotted was a phoebe perched high in a dead tree on the edge of the sanctuary. To the west, towards Bear Mountain, a lone Turkey Vulture soared and two unseen young Red-tailed Hawks begged for food. A few Gray Catbirds meowed. A small bird zipped to a bush way behind me: a Prairie Warbler, black facial markings so faint that I wondered if it were a young one or an adult receding to fall plumage.

Green frogs hung around in the same pools where I’d scared the turtles last month. They dived into the mud at my approach. A couple of them, though, floated like this:

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Green frog. © S.G. Hansen

Ahead, a towhee slurred its call so that it sounded like “twEEEE!” instead of “tow-WEEEE!”. A female Orchard Oriole perched atop a bush, then disappeared shortly. I heard another unfamiliar chipping coming from two different small trees. The chipping, identical in sound, hinted that it belonged to two birds of the same species. I managed to get a glimpse of one of them, a female American Redstart. Since I didn’t get on the other bird, I could only guess as much that it was simply another redstart.

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Close-up of a Carpenter Bee in the wild. © S.G. Hansen

As I rounded the corner to the path that would lead me back into the sanctuary, I saw an orange flash. Baltimore Oriole. I tried coaxing it from the reeds with no luck.

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Goldenrod and Queen Anne’s Lace, the latter of which is not native to this continent. © S.G. Hansen

No sooner than I re-entered the woods the black flies swarmed around my head again. I walked with my hands poised over my ears. I was swatting them every four seconds. The descent was very quiet, save for a jay calling. Disregarding bird presence, the woods actually weren’t at all quiet. Cicadas buzzed and buzzed and buzzed. I realized that there was no reason to remain patient for the birds if there were no birds to observe, so I jogged down the white and red trails to escape the black flies. Magically, I didn’t have to deal with them once I got to the yellow trail.

Now that I was nearing the end (or the beginning), I started hearing more birds. Nothing new except for a perpetual Red-eyed Vireo. I stopped at the patch where the hardy kiwi was eradicated. Behind it, perhaps fifty feet away, mid-canopy, I noticed small bird movement – a different bird. I only got a couple glimpses of it before it vanished, but that was enough for me to ID it as a Canada Warbler. Besides the soft gray back and bright yellow breast, it had the diagnostic apparent white-eye rings and a very faint necklace. I can never get enough of Canada Warblers. Their appearances are always so fleeting.

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I have no clue what this could be but it is very interesting. I spooked some of the insects that were chilling on top of the round things. © S.G. Hansen

I lingered at trail’s end for a while. That jogging got me ahead of time. It turned out that the timing was just right. I happily observed three excellent additional species for the list. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird rocketed in and out of view, green back shimmering brilliantly. A female Scarlet Tanager foraged mid-canopy. A male Black-and-white Warbler crept along the trees’ branches. I also watched a female and an immature male Baltimore Oriole forage, a scruffy looking Carolina Wren climbing a rotted snag, and a pewee flycatch and use the same snag as a perch.

A quick check at the Weinstein pond only yielded a Mourning Dove – the first and only for the hike – on the lawn.

I observed 33 species. I didn’t exactly experience the summer doldrums. Granted, not as many songbirds sang because this isn’t spring migration. Certain birds – besides the Red-eyed Vireo – are still vocal in the morning even during the time of year I thought they would feel like they would no longer have to sing. But I am merely going by one isolated location. Another surprise is the lack of American Goldfinch. I only heard two during my hike. Since they breed in August, I expected to observe a few more than that.

Check out the eBird list!

Bird Banding with Bedford Audubon

For the past nine years, Bedford Audubon – headquarters located in Katonah, NY – has been participating in the Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship (MAPS) program. The program, created by the Institute for Bird Populations in 1989, collects breeding data about birds to discover why and how populations decline. Currently, there are over 1200 stations in the United States and Canada. Scientists, naturalists, and volunteers set up mist nests in June, July, and August. They band the captured birds, and determine attributes such as wing length, weight, age, sex, and whether nor not they have brood patches. Birds that already have bands can further “provide information on survival, reproductive rates, and sometimes, movement patterns.”

Bedford Audubon’s MAPS sessions usually take place on Wednesdays and Thursdays, when I work. Luckily, one session was postponed to a Tuesday. On July 18, I left at 4:15AM to meet with Bedford Audubon’s naturalist Tait Johansson and Krista, their summer field biologist and a college student majoring in general biology. Monday was relatively clear and cool for a summer day. But an intense rain during the night amplified the humidity level. In his first email blast, Tait warned that the banding area can get pretty muddy, and that one should “wear footwear they don’t mind getting wet & muddy, possibly up to above your ankles.” Of all the days to rain like this, it had to be the day before the one time I get my first chance to go bird banding. Summer is my least favorite season for its hot humidity and disease-ridden insects.

At 5:00, Tait, Krista, and I met at Bylane Farm, Bedford Audubn’s headquarters. It would just be the three of us this time, myself as the one volunteer. (The number of volunteers and who shows up vary per session.) Tait drove us to Hunt-Parker Sanctuary down the road. After fifteen minutes of hiking, we departed the publicly established trail to get to the banding station, a small yet spacious plot. Tait pulled a small table from behind a rock. He and Krista set up the banding kit, clipboards of data sheets, and the loaded Peter Pyle’s Identification Guide to North American Birds Part 1.

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The banding table. © S.G. Hansen

Around 5:40, we hiked around the circuit to unravel the nets, which were placed to create a circle with corners. The daylight slowly brightened from pre-dawn dark blue to full-blast summer sunshine. I heard a dawn chorus of American Robin, Northern Cardinal, Yellow Warbler, Red-eyed Vireo, Eastern Wood-pewee, Eastern Towhee, Common Yellowthroat, Wood Thrush, Veery, etc. More birds than I expected to hear in mid-July.

I was already done with the humidity and also, it seemed, were Tait and Krista. Not  much of our “trail” was muddy, but one particular length – at the very first nets we checked – was so bad we could barely avoid stepping in the the mud. Even the sides of the path were hardly safe. The few planks set on the ground – spread a bit too far a part – were nearly consumed, barely visible like alligators lurking in a swamp. To step on one and then lift up your foot produced an unnervingly loud squelch. We discovered that the first net had a large hole, possibly made by a trapped, furious flying squirrel. The net was declared retired. I supposed it was just as well since the path to this net was the very worst of mud. Still, at other locations, you have to maintain balance carefully as you cross thin logs. It was like playing the child’s game “The Floor is Lava” but with something to avoid literally. Krista remarked that this day was so far the worst in regards to humidity and mud. By session’s end, my pant legs up to my calves were quite dirty. I hosed my boots as soon as I returned home.

All in all, we checked ten nets seven times. The nets – about twenty feet in length – were woven in layers so that birds would be entrapped in pockets. The circuit length measured just less than a mile. So from 5:20AM to 12:40PM, we hiked a little over eight miles. Depending how many birds we caught, each circuit around lasted twenty-five minutes and the data collection roughly the same amount of time. We barely had time to rest between each round.

Since I’m not scientifically trained in ornithology and banding, I merely observed Tait and Krista collect data. There was a lot of new information to take in. I can’t recollect much of it. I was distracted by the excitement of banding for the first time and concentrated on having an opportunity to get so close to birds, actually touching a bird, and watching how Tait and Krista hold the birds.

When collecting data, first they banded the birds if they weren’t already banded. Then they determined age and sex (only if the former were difficult due to the species not being sexually dimorphic) by blowing onto their feathers, which revealed if they had a brood patch (a bald spot on their stomachs), any pin feathers, and so on. Next they measured wing length. Lastly, they measured weight. They dropped the bird upside-down in an old Minute Maid drink canister, which sat on top of a scale. None of the birds struggled in the can. The small space and darkness possibly provided a sort of comfort. Once the bird was weighed, they took a hold of the can, tilted it in mid-air, and jiggled it to get the bird to realize it had an opportunity to escape. And off the bird flew, usually to perch on a branch nearby.

We already caught birds in the initial round: one Veery and one Wood Thrush. The Veery was found in the first net, and the Wood Thrush in the second.

As soon as they saw us, they started squeaking and flapping wildly. Krista first untangled their feet and then their wings and heads. We put them muslin drawstring bags, tightened by a clothespin. I offered to carry the Wood Thrush as we continued the circuit. The thrush was still for most of the time. It floundered intermittently. I held the bag half-an-arm’s length away from my person and stared at it. Krista stated that the birds are fine throughout the process. After release, they continue with their life as if they weren’t captured at all.

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Wood Thrush in the muslin bag. © S.G. Hansen

Second round: two Wood Thrush, one female Northern Cardinal, and one immature male Downy Woodpecker. Since the one of the thrushes and the cardinal were caught in the same net, Krista allowed me to untangle the thrush as she went for the cardinal. I had an OK time with the feet, but the netting was so entwined around the neck and head that I worried I might hurt or strangle the thrush. Krista came over to help. She, too, had some difficulty but managed after some time. Thereafter, I didn’t untangle any more birds. I did help carry them.

Ranking the birds by how much they scrapped for freedom (based on this session alone), woodpeckers take first place, cardinals second. The cardinals squealed shrilly (I had never thought they could make such sounds), but the woodpeckers were boisterously noisy and flapped their wings with such might as if they thought they could cut us. They gave us hell in the bags – they climbed the sides and poked their feet and bills through. Krista told me she tied a bag containing a woodpecker around a belt loop; she could feel the woodpecker’s sharp bill stabbing her thigh.

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Krista unravels the immature male Downy Woodpecker. © S.G. Hansen

As the more experienced bander, Tait got the tougher birds. I didn’t get a chance to see him deal with the male downy since Krista and I went to make another round by ourselves. (We did most of the most of the rounds without Tait, who hung around the station to collect data.)

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Female Northern Cardinal © S.G. Hansen

The third round captured a more subdued group: warblers. One immature Ovenbird (its crown was striped and not a solid buffy color) and one female Common Yellowthroat. The yellowthroat was hard to hold because it was so small.

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Female Common Yellowthroat © S.G. Hansen

The fourth round produced a male Northern Cardinal (as resistant as you can imagine) and a female American Redstart.

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Tail of the Female American Redstart. © S.G. Hansen

Like the female, this male cardinal was poised to bite a finger as Tait held him, his bill slightly open. To pacify the crimson embodiment of pure fury, Tait gave him a clump of paper to chomp on. When the time came to weigh him, I tried taking the paper away. We ended up playing tog-o’-war. When Tait tried, he tore a bit off the clump. Finally, the cardinal simply dropped it on his own.

The fifth round: an immature female Downy Woodpecker, an immature male Northern Flicker, and a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

The female downy and the flicker were caught in the same net. The female downy, as expected, vocally struggled as much as the male downy. But the flicker cried out so deafeningly that I cringed and covered my ears. Krista cringed as well while she untangled him. A couple other flickers came to investigate. I saw their silhouettes flutter above and around the foliage. They disappeared when Krista and I left the net. I noted that the flicker was the only species to respond to cries of one of their own.

Krista carried the bags in either hand. She commented on the weight difference, how the downy was light and the flicker so heavy. She handed me the bags to see for myself. It was certainly a difference. The former felt weightless, the latter actually felt like it had mass.

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Krista prepares to band this immature female Downy Woodpecker, which does indeed look downy. © S.G. Hansen

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Tait holds the immature Northern Flicker as he reads through the banding guide. The flicker, amusingly, was a doozy to weigh. © S.G. Hansen

Tait hiked with us during this round and had gone ahead while we untangled the woodpeckers. We rejoined before the last net, where we found a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird. MAPS doesn’t collect data on hummingbirds, so Tait released her immediately. She was more difficult to handle than the warblers – so small and flighty that he had to wait for her to stop wriggling for a second. Her ceaseless cries resembled a baby chicken’s vocalization – pew pew pew pew. It sounded heart-wrenching. I briefly wondered if hummingbirds make that sound when their being eaten by praying mantises…. Once she was free, she flew into the net and got herself tangled again. After the second attempt to release her, she flew away for good.

Sixth round: We thought we would have nothing for this round. Caught in the final net, though, we found an immature Gray Catbird and a Carolina Wren. Tait untangled the catbird, Krista the wren. When the wren was fully untangled, it teared off, leaving Krista startled still for a second. This was the second or third that this happened thus far during the summer. If it happens, it happens – with an oops.

The catbird didn’t vocalize much, but it did struggle quite a bit physically because it was a larger bird. Of all the birds we captured that day, this catbird pooped the most. Other birds stained the bags with fecal matter of varying shades of brown. The catbird had clearly eaten blueberries. The stains resulted in an indigo-violet tye-dye job.

Seventh round: One Wood Thrush, our fourth for the session and our last bird, caught in the final net. While checking the nets during this round, Krista and I also raveled the nets. Such an act is harder than it sounds. You have to mind loose areas as you grasp the top and quickly whirl it around. We were relieved to go through the ankle-deep mud one last time for the day and looked forward to showers and naps upon coming home. By the time we returned to the station, the time was past noon. I felt exhausted and fatigued. I couldn’t wait to shower and shuck my outfit. It would be impossible to do this every day.

Krista banded the thrush. While recording the number, she held the thrush under the table (she and Tait often held the birds under the table while writing down data – a natural pose of rest). Somehow, it loosened from her grip. It disappeared. The three of us were fooled by an illusion that made it look like it remained under the table, but it wasn’t there. We chuckled. Then we packed and went home.

Overall, we caught and collected data from 9 species and 15 individuals.

Brinton Brook Hike, Report 7-2017

I arrived at 8:40AM. The air was humid yet again, although the temperature was relatively cool (mid-70s). Rain had fallen the night before. Steam was rising from the driveway. The earth was damp. A breeze shook water off the trees. I listened to the robins scold, a wood thrush sing, a flicker and a pewee called, and a small group of young titmice buzz.

A Red-spotted Purple butterfly landed on the gravel behind my car. Although I’m less knowledgeable about insects, I’ve learned a few names from Mike over the past couple years. I would keep my eyes on the butterflies, moths, and dragonflies as well as the birds during this hike. As if they knew July 1 had passed, the insects climbed so high in numbers it’s become impossible to turn every angle and not see delicate wings flutter.

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Red-spotted Purple butterfly. © S.G. Hansen

I heard a male Indigo Bunting sing at the kiosk intersection. I tried finding him, but his song bounced around the trees so well that he remained hidden. I pressed along to the field, where another bunting was singing at the top of a tree behind the grasses. I couldn’t figure out which was the parent of the immature bunting I saw last month. I don’t think immatures grow up so fast, although Indigo Buntings can have up to two broods per year, and it maybe that another male found good territory adjacent to the first.

I lingered for a few minutes. A couple of Great Spangled Fritillary butterflies fed on the two flowering milkweed bushes. A few cabbage whites and gypsy moths flickered around aimlessly. While trying to get more looks at this second male bunting, I noticed movement in a nearby, shorter tree. A female Scarlet Tanager (colored dull yellow) and a young Blue-gray Gnatcatcher forage so swiftly that they disappeared further into the trees after only ten seconds.

At the pond, I immediately spotted the Great Blue Heron that my friend Christine (also a Saw Mill River Audubon board of director) saw during the Second Saturday hike a couple days ago. It stood very still at the southwestern corner. Its chest was stripey, indicating it was an immature.

Lily pads almost completely covered the water. Numerous dragonflies whizzed above the water (nameless, as they were too far away and too small for me to see clearly). Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles called from all around. A young Downy Woodpecker – plumage ruffled and imperfect – loudly cried. A pair of Carolina Wrens engaged in spat: one trilled and the other chattered. I flushed a dozen robins as I further ambled along the pond.

As I started hiking up the blue trail to the powerlines, I encountered two different groups of young titmice. A Scarlet Tanager call repeatedly: Chik-burr. A Blue-headed Vireo languidly sang.

A Blue Jay landed on a sapling next to the trail, and then it flew out of sight shortly after. I thought I heard it poorly imitating a Red-tailed Hawk. But when the calling continued and a grey squirrel started scolding, I knew to look for the Real McCoy. (I hear jays imitating Red-tails more often that I hear the Red-tails themselves. Sometimes the jays sound impeccable, but most of the time they sound like Blue Jays imitating Red-tailed Hawks). It was somewhere along the edge of the forest. When I moved a bit off the trail to get a sight of it, the hawk flew away.

At the top of hill, I flushed even more robins. A Field Sparrow and a House Wren sang. I heard a towhee utter Drink your tea repeatedly from the powerlines. The rhythm if this call was different from last month’s towhee. The “Drink your” sounded like eighth notes rather than sixteenth notes.

Just after I ventured out to the powerlines, four immature Red-winged Blackbirds flocked to a bush and called and called, either curious or furious about my presence. Either way, they took off when I continued walking.

I felt slightly hotter now that I was under the sun. Not as bad as last month, but still quite bright. I heard a third Indigo Bunting, two more towhees, a second House Wren, and a mockingbird sing up ahead. Many nameless small butterflies or moths fluttered or zipped around. Bumblees, honeybees, another fritillary, and one Eastern Tiger Swallowtail drank nectar from the milkweed, more widespread here, pictured below.

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Milkweed flowers are one of the more cheery sights of summer. © S.G. Hansen

I unintentionally flushed a female Baltimore Oriole, who was presumably feeding on berries, still sticking out like a sore thumb despite her muted yellow plumage. Shortly after, four immature orioles gathered on single bush. They called sporadically as they were perched. They didn’t seem to understand what to do, as if unsure what to make of me. Like the blackbirds, they, too, stared at me. I had my best look at young Baltimore Orioles yet – a excellent opportunity to unhurriedly note their washed-out orange plumage and their gray and white wings. As soon as I pressed forward, they flew to the trees, where they flitted around in search of food. Two young catbirds took over the bush.

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An osprey flying over may have dropped this partial fish skeleton. © S.G. Hansen

A miniature pond had formed on small section the path from a stream of water trickling down. I had to jump my way across. I gingerly took a step, and then another step. Five young turtles suddenly darted from the grass I nearly stepped on, dived into the water, and buried themselves under the mud. During that split second they jumped, I could see that their shells were dark with orange lines.

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They’re under there somewhere… © S.G. Hansen

I spooked so many robins every few yards the entire length I walked. They tore from out inside the berry-laden vegetation, crying Yeep! or Cuck cuck cuck! I lost count of the gray blurs and started rolling an estimated number, around three dozen. Many were adult age, though a few were speckle-breasted young. I didn’t expect so many robins here. Christine didn’t see so many on Saturday. This is the kind of number I would observe in the winter, the time when robins generally flock in larger numbers. Perhaps the individuals that are already done with breeding are now on the nomadic move.

Now back in the sanctuary, underneath the cool canopy shade, I heard the same Hairy Woodpecker family I saw last month. But after that, my descent on the white and red trails were quiet, with the exception of another young titmouse group. The number of robins sighted dropped drastically, although I did see a few more.

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Have a seat, I guess. Do a big sit. © S.G. Hansen

On the yellow trail once again – the other half of the pond loop – I began hearing the wood thrushes and pewees again. The Scarlet Tanager I heard calling from before was now singing. A group of a half-dozen or so Blue Jays jay-ed boisterously. I thought they were mobbing a raptor, but when I got close, they shut up. They were only talking to one another, apparently. I find it difficult to discern whether jays are talking or mobbing. (Personally, crows are easier.)

Towards trail’s end, I heard a pair Wood Thrushes duel. Down the trail, I saw a Red-trailed Hawk land high in a tree. A grackle and a blackbird moved in to protest its presence. It flew away promptly. I couldn’t tell if this was the same hawk from before, or a different one. I played in safe; I kept my Red-tail count at 1.

I observed 32 species on this hike. I was happy to exceed my goal of 25 and to hear a lot more singing from the migrants than I expected. Wood Thrushes and pewees, yes, but not Indigo Buntings and Scarlet Tanagers. Funny enough, no Red-eyed Vireos!

You can view the eBird list here.