report

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.

Brinton Brook Hike, Report 6-2017

Because I now work weekends during the summer, I missed the Second Saturday group hike on the 10th. I will have to miss Second Saturday in July and August as well.

I got the chance to hike Brinton Brook by myself this morning. Black and yellow flies began zipping around my ears as soon as I got out of the car. I looked up to the overcast sky, a bright uniform gray. The air was so muggy that it perpetually felt like that second just before rain starts to fall. The robins sounded muted through the thick air.

Now that we have passed into the latter half of June (the summer doldrums for songbirds), I expected to hear a handful songs. Few songbirds sing at this time, save for the ones that have a second or third clutch and still need to establish territory. Most only raise one clutch and take care of their young ones at this time. I did, however, start my hike with a sharp eye and ear for fledglings.

Traveling up the trail to the map intersection, I heard two different chipping notes. One was familiar and the bird immediately seen soon after: Northern Cardinal. He foraged in the bushes next to the path. The other note was unfamiliar. I pished to draw out the source. On the other side of path, an immature male Indigo Bunting popped up and perched on a woody vine. He looked like Sleeping Beauty’s dress at the end of Flora and Merryweather’s fight: his plumage was a messy tye-dye of indigo and brown. For more than a minute, he chipped and chipped, turning to and fro, calling for his parents or expressing his state of alarm. He flew to another vine, continuing to chip, so I walked away.

I could still hear him when I reached the intersection. Not another bird made a peep. Pishing produced nothing. As I continued along the trail towards the field, I heard another chipping note from the myriad of black locusts. It sounded sharper and more metallic. Utilizing echolocation to find a bird more often difficult that easy. After a couple minutes, I saw bird finally move. An adult male Indigo Bunting. He moved closer to me, still chipping. Based on his and the other bunting’s behavior, I presumed he was scolding me for pestering his offspring, so I moved on quickly.

The pond was mostly shallow and covered in lily pads. A few Red-winged Blackbirds sang and called from all around. Walking alongside the pond, I heard more robins, a Red-eyed Vireo, a couple Eastern Wood-Pewees, and a Baltimore Oriole. I couldn’t find any herons, Great Blue or Green, when I scanned the other side. A lone green frog called.

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View of the pond from the eastern side. © S.G. Hansen

At the eastern end of the pond, the path narrowed because the vegetation had closed in on it. I paused a quick moment before crossing. I may not have been hiking the Hudson Highlands – where copperheads are about – but I (alone even with a cell phone) was still mindful about the possibility of a snake shooting towards me on the attack. As soon as I started walking I heard a rustle behind me. I looked back to see a black rat snake on the pond side of the path. It stared at me for a little before slinking into the water.

I had seen black rat snakes here before. The last time I hiked Brinton Brook, I saw three large ones swimming in the pond. Harmless, they are common in New York. They’re more likely to slither away from you when they’re scared rather than go on the attack.

At the blue trail’s beginning, I heard two Wood thrushes duel. The hike up to the power lines, of course, was quite dead, with exception to a small titmouse family.

The clouds were just starting to part away when I arrived the power lines. Minutes later, I saw mostly blue sky. The sun brightly shined. Now I was birding during a true summer day, hot and muggy. I observed a lot of bird activity: two Eastern Towhees, four Prairie Warblers, three Blue-winged Warblers, a couple more Baltimore Orioles, three more Indigo Buntings, two Field Sparrows, two loudly warblering House Wrens, and a Common Yellowthroat. From the woods I heard another Eastern Wood-Pewee and more cardinals. Many of these birds were singing and chattering all at once. The Prairies were flying about, and two of the Blue-winged were fighting. Numerous insects zipping around constantly threw off my focus.

I experienced my first birding sensory overload of the year. It was difficult to decide which single bird to settle on and to discern if it was a bird within a split second. But when the warblers came into view, I reserved my bins for them. I had only Prairies up to this point. It was a relief to finally see them. I also watched an Indigo Bunting sing perched atop of a nearby bush, his blue blazing in the sunlight. I also don’t often see Field Sparrows. It was wonderful to catch a sight of a pair.

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Nessus Sphinx Moth at the power lines field. © S.G. Hansen

I was relieved to re-enter the woods. Even though I now heard the construction of the golf course expansion at its loudest (I was hearing it throughout the hike since I started). The construction didn’t deter the birds from going about their business. I had walked into a miniature bubble of activity. A pair of Brown-headed Cowbirds flew about. Three voluble Hairy Woodpeckers sang, called, and darted from tree to tree. Another two male Baltimore Orioles – one adult, one immature – chattered. I disturbed a pair of Eastern Towhees into hiding. When I pished to coax the female out, the male burst forth and aggressively sang “Drink your tea!!!!”.

I continued. I heard more pewees, Wood Thrushes, titmice, and chickadees. At this point, I stopped keeping track of robins. I had seen a lot thus far – including immatures – and decided to estimate a number in the end. Shortly transitioning from the white to the yellow trail, I saw a Wood Thrush scoot along the forest floor, wary of my presence. Just ahead, in one spot, a Scarlet Tanager and Blue-headed Vireo sang. I tried getting on the vireo but failed. The tanager did fly into view, his red stunningly way more powerful than a cardinal’s. He sang even as carried an insect in his mouth.

Activity quieted down significantly as I further hiked down. Toward the trail’s end, I saw a few more robins, and heard one more pewee and the same Carolina Wren from the beginning. Before hopping back into my car, I stopped by the Weinstein pond, which was still as glass.

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I got within six feet of this tame bunny. © S.G. Hansen

My hike lasted a little less than two hours. I might have been more patient and slow-going were it not for the humidity. Summer is my least favorite season for this reason….That means it’s time to visit the beach for shorebirds! Still, I was pleased to go around Brinton Brook and barely make it in time before the summer doldrums hit. I observed 33 species. Check out the eBird checklist here!

No 5-2017 Report for Brinton Brook

Yes, I will not write up report for this month’s Brinton Brook hike because I couldn’t be there. A few days ago, I sprained my foot. In the middle of spring migration. I have to rest it until early June, when the “big silence” begins (many migrants stop singing and are nesting).

Today is also Global Big Day, a Cornell Lab of Ornithology event held on the second Saturday of May each year, the first having occurred in 2015. It’s a world-wide collaborative citizen science project that also appeals to more competitive birders and to listers.

Sprain my foot in time for these two events I’d hate to miss? Oh horror. I don’t feel that bad about it since the weather for today wants stay cold, rain the entire time, and maybe blow some wind here and there. If you’ve read my Magee Marsh post, you would know I dislike birding in this weather.

I did snag my First of Year Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Other than that, not much has been going on with feederwatching. The same birds visit every hour: cardinal, titmouse, chickadee, grackle, cowbird, whitehatch, red-bellied woodpecker, downy woodpecker, house finch, goldfinch, house wren.

I’m taking this opportunity to inform you that I keep a third list in addition to my life and years lists: birds I witness have sex. I added Common Grackle as the fourth today.

Number one is Mourning Dove. During my first spring as a birder, I was reading on the front steps when a pair of doves landed in the oak tree. One cozied up to the other. I was looking forward to them engaging romantically. But the former hopped onto the latter, madly flapped his wings for three seconds, and then hopped off. They immediately flew away afterward.

Number two is House Sparrow. I saw them during my Sarah Lawrence graduation ceremony. He was on her for more than a minute. Something wrong?

Number three is Scarlet Tanager. I was on an early morning Saw Mill River Audubon trip at Doodletown. As with the doves, the sex lasted only a few seconds. Blazing red quivered over soft yellow. Everyone saw it happen.

I not only got to see grackle sex but also the courtship. The pair had perched on top of the vegetable patch fence, near the back of the garden. She was hunched down, tail up. She looked noticeably less glossier than her mate, whose iridescence shined even under overcast light. He fanned his tail, spread his wings, and walked forward and backyard, his beak opening and closing (I wished I could hear him make his mating calls). He mounted her for two seconds, hopped down to resume courtship, mounted her a second time, and hopped down once again to dance even more. His mate got tired of him. She stood upright, faced him, yelled at him as he continued dancing, and flew away. He lingered on the fence for a couple minutes. And then flew over to the deck for sunflower seeds.

Do you have any unique/different bird lists? Let me know in the comments!

Brinton Brook Hike, Report 4-2017

Reports of First-of-Season birds – including Eastern Phoebe, Pine Warbler, Palm Warbler, Chipping Sparrow – have been popping up. The past couple weeks were rainy and cold, but the weather predicted for the day of the hike looked promising: a clear sunny day, with the temperature rising from 40° in mid-morning to 50° by noon. And the snow from March’s Nor’easter finally melted away. Where there’s good weather, there’s good birds and much bird activity. I’d been looking forward to this month’s hike for the past week or so.

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Early spring flora: skunk cabbages by the pond. © S.G. Hansen

Unsurprisingly, our group count exceeded ten. Besides us regulars Mike, Rudy, Gerry, and me, several SMRA friends from Project Feederwatch joined. This winter season Cornell Lab of Ornithology project ended last Sunday, freeing the volunteers’ weekend mornings. Also joining us today were the Czech father and son duo (who last hiked with us in September), and two friends/former coworkers of mine.

From the time I arrived to when the hike began, I already counted up to 10 species, including a small variety of raptors: a Red-tailed Hawk, an Osprey, and an immature Bald Eagle – all flyovers. A male Brown Cowbird tried impressing a few female cowbirds. Robins foraged on the forest floor and whinnied. The year-round residents made their presence known with constant song.

While helping my friends adjust their binoculars, I missed the small group of Cedar Waxwings that the rest of the group had at trail’s beginning, but I did see the red-tail from before. It wasn’t hard to miss the site of a small massacre:

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Blue Jay leftovers. © S.G. Hansen

Just before we reached the meadow, I spotted two adult male Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers foraging next to the trail. Their red napes and throats stood out like red on a cardinal. They engaged in a quick skirmish. One landed on the tree on which the other was foraging, and the latter was chased off. I was a little surprised – I had never seen them in spring. But they are still on the move. Checking the eBird bar chart, people apparently spot them in Westchester all year round, albeit not so much from mid-spring to early-fall.

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A full pond. The red maple flowers are blooming. © S.G. Hansen

We took a short break at the eastern end of the pond. Two Red-winged Blackbirds conk-la-ree‘d. An Eastern Phoebe flycatched. No ducks or herons. Walking along the pond path, we came across more robins and downy and red-bellied woodpeckers. A flock of goldfinches twittered across the pond. Chipmunks darted away from us.

Someone noticed a male-female pair of Green-winged Teal swimming around the western end! The teals slowly scootered towards the phragmites, presumably to hide. Our group was rather large. Fortunately, most of us got an excellent view of them.

Seeing these small, attractive ducks at Brinton Brook was a first for me. They’ve been sighted at the sanctuary before, the first and only other time on March 2016. Teal aren’t as common in Croton as other wintering ducks, such as the Common Merganser and the Bufflehead.

Just as we were still observing the teals, a Palm Warbler stole their thunder. My First-of-Season! I wasn’t the person to spot it, but as soon as I heard one of us utter “Palm Warbler,” I diverted my attention from the teal to this bird, which was no more than twenty feet from us (I’d seen so many teal at the Montezuma refuge earlier this year anyway). I couldn’t miss out on such an amazing look at my first warbler of the year, especially one with vivid spring plumage. (I don’t count the Yellow-rumped Warbler, which I see more during winter than spring.) The sunlight intensified its yellow face and breast and its richly rufous cap. The Palm foraged on the edge of the pond, sticking close to two robins nearby. It flitted low among the vegetation on land and water, and even ventured onto the path for a bit. Its tail never took a break from bobbing up and down. At one point, the Palm perched higher in a tree and sang a few times. Had I not actually seen it sing, I would have mistaken it for a Chipping Sparrow or a junco. We made sure to tread carefully as we moved along so as not disturb the Palm much. But like the teal, it eventually hid itself from us completely.

When we reached the western end of the pond, we heard a Pileated Woodpecker call once. It called a second time a minute later, as if teasing us. As we admired the close-view of a bright male cardinal, the Pileated revealed itself, landing on a tree nearby. Seconds after, another Pileated landed on the same tree, on the opposite side of the trunk. Both climbed simultaneously, as if they were engaged in a challenge. I tried to discern the color of their mustaches (red for male, black for female) but couldn’t. The first took off, and then the second followed suit, both calling maniacally. They flew out of sight and hearing.

Ed Mertz and I dubbed the portion of the trail that leads to the power lines “the dead zone.” Each time we hike it, we hardly see or hear any birds (Ed, fellow SMRA member, frequents Brinton Brook more often than I and takes wonderful photographs of the birds). Today, however, we counted one robin and – this one caused excitement – a Northern Flicker. The flicker, which was foraging on the ground, flew to a tree, exposing his yellow-tinged wings. Farther up the hill, we encountered two vibrantly blue male Eastern Bluebirds. While one hunted for insects, the other was cooperatively perched on a tree at eye-level for several minutes. I spotted another flicker.

The power lines didn’t have much songbird activity. Another cardinal sang and our third and last flicker called (pew!). We had unintentionally split into two groups. My group, having gone ahead, saw another Red-tailed Hawk flying over the field, and the other group observed an adult Bald Eagle soar over the forest. A Turkey Vulture glided overheard as we re-entered the sanctuary.

Our hike down was quiet save for a few chickadees and titmice consistently calling and buzzing. A second Carolina Wren sang. Blue Jays jay’d. We stopped to look a Red-tailed Hawk perched in a tree. It flew away when we continued, allowing me to note it was an immature – blank breast, lack of red tail, pale tail bands.

Once we reached the last leg of hike (the yellow trail, which loops around the pond), activity increased some. I heard more robins, presumably the same ones from the beginning of the hike. A small flock of goldfinches drank from the stream, twittering incessantly and yet sweetly. One male’s plumage nearly molted to bright yellow. A White-breasted Nuthatch and a Song Sparrow sang. I found one Dark-eyed Junco.

Earlier, Ed and I talked about the fact that we had seen every woodpecker possible except for the Hairy. We kept our ears open and eyes peeled for one since we saw the first flicker. Ed even joked that couldn’t leave the sanctuary until we had one. Barely at trail’s end, we heard a sharp call. We waited to hear it again but got nothing. We didn’t see a bird either. The Hairy’s call sounds very similar to the Downy’s (as do their songs), but the Hairy sounds louder and forceful in comparison. I added Hairy Woodpecker to my list. That call had to have belonged to a Hairy. (We did it, Ed!)

I observed 30 species today. This month’s hike was great all-around: good weather, good birds, good company. I expected another other First-of-Year, the Chipping Sparrow. I was a little disappointed to not observe a Chipper. I thought I would hear its song for sure. It doesn’t beat a Palm Warbler, though.

Check out the eBird checklist here.

What the Nor’easter Blew In

Last Tuesday, on March 14th, a snow storm blew through Cortlandt Manor. Up to fourteen inches of snow fell by the time it stopped on Wednesday morning. Icy and heavy, the snow was a doozy to clean off the driveway and the cars. The snow-blower had trouble plowing through most of it, so my father and I had to resort cleaning with shovels and a garden tool (a twist cultivator to loosen soil – in this case, to break the ice). Tuesday was one of our gym days and it didn’t matter we missed it.

Additionally, I had responsibility of taking care of the backyard birds. Not as much work, though it became a little tiresome to – all in of five minutes, several times that day – dress in appropriate attire, wipe snow away from the feeders, restock the seeds and suet, throw seeds on the ground, and go back inside the house and undress without getting packed snow all over the floor. Truly, It doesn’t matter what you put yourself through – just think about the birds. The best shelter they got is a bush.

I watched my backyard nearly all day long and even the next day. Besides an increased number of birds, snow storms also bring unusuals to feeders. You never know what excitement shows up. (The entire week following the storm was interesting, actually. I could tell you about it personally.)

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Snow?? In my New York?????? © S.G. Hansen

I have feeders set up on the tree behind the backyard deck (that one with the third trunk hacked away): on the right side, the suspended suet block and the finch feeder; on the left, a generalist feeder, which holds black-oiled sunflower seeds. During snowstorm occasions (otherwise the squirrels would be out and about), I also sprinkle seed mix on the deck and the furniture. The juncos and sparrows seem to love hopping around for food on the deck of all places. For this Tuesday, the table also served as shelter from the snow-filled gusts.

I observed the expected regulars: a small family of blue jays; the two song sparrows; the three white-breasted nuthatches; the three downy woodpeckers (two males and a female); the pair of red-bellied woodpeckers; the pair of cardinals and the one wayward male; the neighborhood house finch pair; and a few white-throated sparrows, titmice and chickadees.

I counted twice as many juncos as usual – at least 16. That might not seem like many, but when they were hopping around all at once with the sparrows and jays, my deck looked like mid-town New York.

Not unexpectedly, early spring migrant the Common Grackle went for the suet. Just one. Around this time in March, grackles tend to show up in my backyard by numbers in the thirties. They gorge themselves on suet, reducing a full block to nothing in ten minutes. I chase them away by wrapping on the backdoor whenever I see them. As for this one grackle, I let it stay. It didn’t make a dent bigger than a red-bellied woodpecker.

A couple…undesirables also found my yard: a female Brown-headed Cowbird (brood parasite) on the general feeder and two European Starlings (belligerent invasives) on the suet. Initially, I felt sorry for them and let them eat. They didn’t hog the food as they usually would. They would appear and leave, appear and leave, not staying for very long each time, just ten minutes at the most. Though on Wednesday, when the day was as clear as a bell and they showed up again, I opened the backdoor and clapped loudly. They took off in a flash, freeing feeder access to my regulars. Do come again next blizzard (maybe).

I didn’t have any spectacular unusuals or winter birds like Rusty Blackbird, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Purple Finch, and Pine Siskin (haven’t seen one all winter – amazing!). I did see birds that I’ve observed in my backyard before, albeit rarely. Tuesday, four red-winged blackbirds appeared (two males and two females). At first, the females stopped by in the early afternoon, leaving and later returning with the two males. They foraged for seeds with the juncos, sparrows, and jays under the deck table.

On Wednesday, there were two unusual species: a male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and two Fox Sparrows. Ever since I set up my feeders several years ago, a sapsucker would visit the suet once or twice each winter. I’m always happy with a sapsucker in my backyard. I can’t take my eyes off them. These woodpeckers have such a lovely colorful and patterned plumage, and it’s a pleasure to look at them at such close-range with my binoculars. This sapsucker visited twice throughout the day, though each time he hung around for only a few minutes.

Like the red-winged blackbirds, the two fox sparrows foraged under the deck table. My non-birding parents didn’t understand my excitement. Apparently if you say “sparrow” after the word “fox” – and even drop “uncommon” – you won’t get much response.  Though the foxes weren’t bothered by the other sparrows, they didn’t enjoy each other’s company. They quarreled a few times, confronting breast-to-breast, hovering in the air, wings flapping wildly. The more aggressive fox won the privilege of full-access to the seeds beneath the table, leaving the lesser fox to still be able to forage on the deck, though out in the open. Whenever it inched too close to the table, it was chased away. It was eventually banished from the deck and went to forage under the feeders.

By Friday, I only counted one fox sparrow. When it found mounds of millet and milo, it carved itself into the snow like one carves one’s butt into a couch seat. It ate very contentedly.

As it goes with a large number of songbirds in a localized patch, raptors are bound to take note. Late afternoon on Tuesday, I delighted in the sphere-like juncos scampering around the deck. In a span of two seconds, I observed a scene similar to one in the dinosaur segment in Fantasia. Everyone suddenly froze, looked in one direction, and took off. One junco, however, remained, still frozen on a chair. An adult Cooper’s Hawk – legs outstretched, talons poised – stooped to grab the junco, which ducked in time. The Cooper’s swerved and flew away, claws clenching nothing.

Now that the spring equinox has passed, another Nor’easter isn’t likely in Westchester. The snow has more than half melted in my backyard since last Tuesday. The red-winged blackbirds, and the fox sparrows moved on days ago. And the regulars are back to visiting the feeders at their usual frequency. They seemed to have made it. But I’ve heard and read that American Woodcocks had a very bad time because of all this snow…