songbirds

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.

IMG_1768

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.

IMG_1767

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.

IMG_1770

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.)

IMG_1776

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.

IMG_1778

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.

IMG_1785

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.

IMG_1794

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

IMG_1793

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.

Advertisements

To the Rescue

One day in April, during my first spring as a birder, as I read on my front steps enjoying the sun’s light and warmth, I heard a muted thud.

I perked up. It sounded like a bird hit a window. Weeks before, I’d read how the frequency of birds flying into windows increases during migration, and what you can do for the bird – if still alive – when you are faced with the situation at your own home. So, I imagined what I would do to care for the bird when the moment arrived. This wouldn’t be like the time I tried to “save” a Black-capped Chickadee fledgling the summer before. Granted, I was not yet a birder and didn’t even know what a chickadee was, let alone understand that I should have left it.

I designed and replayed a scenario with the least amount of incidence. Create a safe space: grab a cardboard box, small towels, and, if applicable, some feeder seeds. Approach the possibly stunned and exhausted creature gingerly. Make it so your presence suggests, I’m not a predator. Ensure its comfort as it rests. Watch it with reassurance as it flies away from your hand with ease.

Ready but nervous to get at it, I slowly walked down the steps. On the driveway sat a motionless male American Redstart. (My first redstart! It’s smaller in real life…) I crept towards him with lowered arms and outstretched hands. It looked like he was staring into space. His head was cocked to the right, his eyes unblinking. When I was less a foot away, he turned to look up at me, squeaked in surprise, clumsily fluttered into my left armpit, and soared away out of sight.

After blankly gaping after him a bit, I went back to reading.

On Studying Warbler Songs

In January, I created a list of New Year’s resolutions, with learning and memorizing warbler songs as one resolution. Days later I signed up for an upcoming trip to Magee Marsh – located in Oak Harbor, Ohio, on the shore of Lake Eerie – during the first week of May with Saw Mill River Audubon. This would be my first trip to Magee Marsh. I couldn’t have hoped for a better reinforcement and place to fulfill another resolution to see more warblers.

I started studying in early April.  To begin, I looked up the eBird hotspot for the boardwalk and made my way to the bar charts to check which warblers are most likely to be observed there. I added a few more species because they are also common in Westchester. I ended up with thirty-six songs to study and review. Throughout these past few weeks, I’ve been taking two or three days of each week to concentrate on small batches of 3-5 warblers. I’m not quite finished. Just a couple days to go. Here is my progress:

warblerlist

As you can see, the Kirtland’s Warbler is listed…just in case.

 

I color-coded the days and numbered the warblers to help myself remember which species I studied when and at what point. (The colors are brought to you by my grapheme-color synesthesia.) Italics symbolize priority. These are the species I think I should attune my ears most to at Magee Marsh. About half of each batch includes species’ songs I don’t know – Blackburnian, Prothonotary – and the other half includes species with which I’m already familiar (Yellow, Prairie). This helps my brain avoid the feeling of being stuffed with cotton and have an easier time taking in new information.

I randomly select the species (“I’ll study this one today” – is pretty much how it goes). I have several resources on hand: Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle’s The Warbler Guide, Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds, National Audubon’s online guide, and various YouTube channels. I mostly skip plumage since I’m already familiar with ID’ing a lot of warblers based on sight. An optional first step. I did make a few exceptions for the more subtle species, such as Nashville, Tennessee, and Connecticut. I also find the captions under the Additional Photos sections helpful in regards to diagnostic marks and behavior. We are getting at the point in which foliage helps warblers hide from the world.

IMG_1620

Nashville Warbler page in Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle’s The Warbler Guide. © Stephenson and Whittle

Next, I turn to the sonograms page. I keep the book beside my laptop.

IMG_1619

American Redstart sonograms in The Warbler Guide. Not all of the warblers have seven different types of songs, thank goodness. © Stephenson and Whittle

I bring up the Lab of Ornithology’s warbler page via Browse Bird Profiles, play the audio clip, and read the sonogram as I listen. (You will find that there are vireos mixed in. They can be confused with warblers. Stephenson and Whittle handily acknowledge this in their guide.)

allaboutbirds

A screenshot of the warbler group main page on allaboutbirds.org. © Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Then I do the same with the Audubon guide. Unlike Cornell, Audubon provides multiple songs per species, thus also providing the various song types. Audubon’s guide sounds like a better companion to The Warbler Guide‘s sonograms, but I like referring to Cornell because it can have song types that Audubon doesn’t provide. Even if the clip were of the same song type, an individual bird usually sounds faintly different than another individual.

I try utilizing the rote memory method.I would listen to each clip several times, either looking at or not looking at the sonograms. Sometimes, if the variations are so different, I play two clips simultaneously so that it sounds like two birds dueling over territory boundaries.

(I stated in my resolutions post that I “must take advantage of…the Macaulay Library.” I simply forgot about that at the time I started studying. But I think using All About Bird’s and the Audubon online guide are enough for now, having just a few audio clips of the most basic types – and little variation – at hand.)

After that, I head over to YouTube to watch videos of the warblers singing (largely Lang Elliot, Wild Bird Video Productions, and Larry Bond in that order). By combining sight and hearing, the videos further help me associate the song with that particular species.

redstartvideo

Lastly, I add on to the Review list I created. Asterisks replace italics to indicate priority birds.

warblerlist2

I don’t review the songs in-between study days. I tried it. It mostly overwhelmed me and I still couldn’t play many of the songs in my head from memory afterward. The ones that did stick easily were Chestnut-sided and Mourning. I’m getting there with Hooded, Tennessee, and the waterthrushes. But, for most of them, if I do play an audio clip, the best I get to is “Yes, this is familiar.” (I know what the best method of learning bird songs is for me: to venture out in the field with an experienced listener, processing one or two songs at a time.)

Once I complete all thirty-six species, I have in mind to review any two songs at the most per day. Rote memory, rote memory, rote memory. Yes, I’m aware I’m running of out time. The Magee Marsh trip is less than a week away. But there are warblers elsewhere and farther in the future (as bleak the future seems).

The Bird That Sounds Like a Rusty Hinge

In early March of my first year of birdwatching, I heard a mass of strangely robotic, raspy sounds from the row of white pines next to my house. Since my mind was constantly in bird-learning mode, I automatically thought they were birds. I stepped outside. It sounded like there were dozens calling from the canopy. They performed a non-stop chorus of screeches and squeaks. But they hid themselves well in the branches. I must have stood for minutes before a few eventually fluttered in and out of sight. They were large, their black plumage shining blue-green and purple, and their tails long.

I didn’t take long to flip through my Sibley’s and ID them as Common Grackles. A short memory surfaced of my walking down my street a couple years before, during springtime. A few of these blackbirds flew zoomed overheard. Having no idea what they were, I was amused by their weird squawks and questioned why they were in such a hurry.

For the next two years, the grackles timed themselves to appear in my neighborhood in early March. This year, however, the first arrived in late February. They amass by numbers of fifty at the least. Rarely are they seen individually. All day long, many smaller groups pass over, line-dotting the rich blue sky, softly uttering chitip. The more unhurried grackles like to perch at the tops of the tallest trees, watchful, thoughtful, in constant communication with one another. They glide or flap from tree to tree, squawking mid-light. They walk on branches. They walk on lawns. They swarm on lawns. They peck and peck as they stride, yellow eyes always wide. Their glossy feathers shine brilliantly and beautifully when hit by sunlight.

They are vigilant. If you are standing next to a window and move a little, they become spooked and flee to the trees all at once. Last spring, a mixed flock of mostly grackles and a few red-wings and cowbirds was perched in the tallest tree of the neighborhood. Their vocalizations rattled the air. An airplane flying at high altitude began to pass over them. The blackbirds abruptly silenced themselves. The airplane’s roar was all that sounded. Once the roar was out of hearing range, the blackbirds resumed vocalizing.

The Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) is an Icterid, a part of the blackbird family, comprising numerous species such as Red-winged Blackbirds, meadowlarks, orioles, and other grackles (Boat-tailed Grackle, Great-tailed Grackle). They permanently live in the U.S.’s eastern half, including southeast New York (my personal observations reflect this eBird graph). Their breeding range extends as far northward as central and eastern Canada. Some migrate to winter in Texas. They reside and breed in many kinds of habitat: woods, fields, farmland, marshes and swamps, suburban areas, and urban parks. Like crows, they have a generalist’s diet: seeds, grains, fruits, insects, spiders, lizards, crustaceans, mice, eggs, and even small birds. According to Audubon, their songs and calls are described as a “high-pitched rising screech, like a rusty hinge.”

When the first grackles arrive during spring migration, a lot people who feed backyard birds might as well say out loud, “Oh, shit.” The blackbirds swarm at feeders, push the other birds away, and – in a matter of minutes – devour all of the seed and suet. Grackles are also known to consume so much commercial corn that millions of dollars have been lost. But it’s more personal for suburban homeowners.

I didn’t know grackles could be so voracious. Just a day or so after I learned of their existence, one descended upon a fresh suet block, which, to my shock, was gone in no time. Chunks of suet fell to the ground as the grackle pecked roughly at it. Not even fifteen minutes later, the suet cage was empty once again. I thought it was rude of the grackle. The other birds would show up for a couple minutes to eat and then leave, giving one another turns (as cordial as bird can be in the hierarchical order). Each block would typically last for at least week.

For the rest of that spring, I guarded the suet as much as I could (I had time on my hands because I was attending graduate school). No more than, say, five at once would visit my backyard, but they still caused me grief. They hung around all day long. As soon as a grackle or two landed on the tree’s branches, I’d bang on the door and they’d scatter. This solution was temporary; the grackles would annoyingly return within the quarter hour. Whenever a block was finished, I didn’t replenish the cage right away – the grackles would see and immediately come for the suet. Once, I became so exasperated that I stomped of the house, grabbed the cage, and took it inside. (I felt very bad for that trio of Brown Creepers that expected to the suet be on the tree just after I grabbed it. That was the first time I ever had three creepers in my backyard simultaneously and never did again.)

I still tried to scare the grackles away as best as I could. I recruited my retired mother when I started working. Although she expresses zero interest in birding, she has become attached to the birds that visit our feeders. Whereas I feel ambiguously towards grackles, she simply dislikes them. This year, my mother bought a generalist feeder. Of course, the grackles began dominating that too. My mother loathes them for wasting the money I spent for the seed and suet to be eaten by these “greedy” birds. To her, they’ve grown to be pest-like, worse than blue jays. She likes the fact that scaring them away requires low effort: all one has to do is make a slight movement in the room for the grackles take off. They’re more jumpy than jays. Since I’m still unwillingly unemployed, we’ve been scaring them away together this spring.

It’s only a couple days away from April. I’m already weary of managing the suet. A few grackles remain to nest, but most are still migrating. I continue to wait for those grackles to finally move on. But perhaps at that point, the weather may be warm enough for the birds not to need rendered beef fat anymore.

For the past two years, a grackle pair has nested in the yew trees outside my bedroom. I watched two grackles carry dried grass to the yews several days ago. They will have one or two clutches. The nestlings’ will chatter harshly and hungrily, learning from their parents’ so quickly to be rambunctious.

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.)

IMG_1522

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…

Brinton Brook Hike, Report 2-2017

A snowstorm on Thursday brought us twelve inches of snow. I knew I would be in for a tougher hike this month. The temperature wasn’t that cold – just above freezing, no windchill factor. The sky decided to become overcast at the last minute. Unlike the February two years ago, I now had proper footwear and no excuse to skip the hike.

Driving in, I flushed at least three dozen Dark-eyed Juncos foraging for grit on the road. I caught a blue flash from a bright male Eastern Bluebird zooming over my car. When I parked and got out to gather my gear, I heard a number of birds unceasingly sing or call: White-breasted Nuthatch, Blue Jay, Tufted Titmouse, Black-capped Chickadee, and Carolina Wren. Though that doesn’t seem like many species, it’s certainly a huge difference compared to the quiet that had been reigning since fall migration’s end. Winter birds begin singing to claim territory in February. By this time, the amount of daylight has substantially increased since the solstice. The birds have taken their cue. Earlier this week,  in my neighborhood, I heard a House Finch and a Northern Cardinal sing for the first time this year.

Hike leader Mike arrived shortly after I did. There were no other cars parked on the un-plowed lot. The snow cover wasn’t unoutched. Visitors had already stopped by sometime after the storm. As we waited for additional hikers, a Red-tailed Hawk flew over our heads. A flock of seven rowdy Blue Jays landed in a tree above us. Seconds later, they flew away. Gerry Weinstein would be the only other person to join us this month. We three set out.

img_1426

Trail’s beginning. © S.G. Hansen

 

We rested a bit at the trail map fork (which I call the warbler corner during the warmer months). The amount of trail from the parking lot to this point wouldn’t be considered a hike, but because of the snow, my heart beat as if I’d just finished jogging a mile. I was sweating. I took off my gloves. People and dogs had already stomped on the snow for us, but I still felt like I hiked on sand.These people even blazed a trail for deer, who left hoof-prints over boot-prints.

Not as much activity here. I continued to hear the same birds from before, plus a House Finch sweetly twittering somewhere east, out of our view. We barely saw a Red-bellied Woodpecker against the backlighting. The parking lot and the map area were apparently the only hotspots in the sanctuary that morning. It wasn’t until the very end, when we nearly completed our loop, that we came across a lot of activity again. At the pond, now frozen, the winter trio (chickadee, titmouse, nuthatch) made some noise and we bothered a male Northern Cardinal, who chipped at us in annoyance by the side of the trail.

img_1428

Itty bitty birdie tracks – likely belonging to Dark-eyed Juncos – around Black Birch seed hulls. © S.G. Hansen

Other than the occasional nuthatch, jay, and crow, we trudged through silence. At least, I was trudging. Somehow I became the leader of the single-file line, followed by Gerry and then Mike. I was glad for the fact that the snow was still fluffy and not at all icy. But I’m a short person with short legs. Hiking through six inches of snow is a doozy for me. I may regularly visit the gym, but I only hike once a month, not counting any walking I do when I birdwatch. “You’ve slowed down,” Mike commented as we trekked uphill to the powerlines. I don’t remember what I said in response, but I was looking forward to soon completing the hardest part of the hike.

img_1429

A Tulip Tree (its trunk is on the right) has absorbed another tree into itself. © S.G. Hansen

When we neared the top of the hill, we heard a loud, rapid drumming. Based on the intensity, I guessed that the drumming belonged to one of the resident Pileated Woodpeckers. I tried looking for it with my binoculars. The bird drummed a couple more times. I couldn’t find it – too far away from us, hard to pinpoint its location. I was sure we were hearing Pileated. It was very similar to the drumming I heard by the pond last month, when I did eventually find the bird responsible for the drumming.

We decided not to walk the powerlines earlier, but Mike and Gerry wanted to at least venture out for a moment. Mike blazed through the virgin snow as if there weren’t any snow. (He may tell you he’s out of shape, but it’s up to you if you believe him or not.) I didn’t think there would be (m)any birds, but I followed behind somewhat reluctantly. We were treated to a lovely view of snow-coated mountains to the north – namely, Bear Mountain and Anthony’s Nose. A steady, thick steam cloud rose from Indian Point. Winter silence accompanied the scenery.

Mike, puzzled by the lack of bird presence, pointed to certain plants. The birds should be eating this, the birds should be eating that, and that, and that. We’d seen a good amount of berries and seeds for the birds to eat as we hiked, but the foods remained untouched. “Why don’t you pish?” Mike offered.

I don’t remember what I replied, maybe I simply mumbled and trailed off. With this much snow covering the ground – which could also be called “the great flat food-provider” – I imagined the birds wouldn’t want to waste their energy being bothered over nothing. I didn’t pish. I heard was some cawing from crows I couldn’t see and a chickadee’s tinny “feebee.” All I saw were a few juncos by the sanctuary’s edge and a jay or two flying about. While I distractedly looked around, Gerry spotted a woodpecker racing from one side of the field to the other. I was able to get on it with my binoculars mid-flight and noticed a particular mustache. Northern Flicker! Gerry had never seen a flicker before. Unfortunately, he couldn’t get a very good look at it when it perched. We bemoaned the awful lighting.

img_1430

Deer bedding. © S.G. Hansen

We didn’t hike our usual route (going the powerlines, then onto the green and white trails, and finally back onto the yellow). Instead, we continued on the blue trail to the yellow trail, which loops the pond. There were no birds to hear or see during our descent from the powerlines, so Gerry, Mike and I began concentrating on animal tracks. Gerry owned a pamphlet on tracks and scat, but he left it in his cottage. Still, guessing which tracks were which by memory alone was part of the entertainment, especially when it came to discerning the difference between dog and coyote. (Coyote’s look more oval-shaped. The footpads are triangular, and the claws aren’t as pronounced as they are in dog tracks. Sometimes, a dragging line trails the prints, indicating a tail, which would definitely belong to a dog.) Of  course, we saw dog tracks on every inch of trail we hiked. We also found a couple coyote tracks, some more deer, and one belonging to an Eastern Cottontail rabbit. Wherever we came across fallen birch seeds, we found small bird tracks.

As soon as we approached trail’s end, we were met with a burst of activity. A large flock of juncos foraged on the hillside (presumably the same flock I flushed from before). I suddenly noticed wings fluttering against a tree trunk near us. I assumed “nuthatch” right away, but then I saw familiar flurry of moth mottled brown: Brown Creeper!! I’m always happy to see a creeper, as it is my ultimate favorite bird and I don’t see them frequently. I miss them during spring and summer. They’re winter birds for Westtchester. Watching a creeper – whether I’m birdwatching or just out-and-about – makes my day, no matter how well my day is going. This one was the fourth creeper I had seen so far this year. Looking back at my past Brinton Brook lists, I apparently noted the last sighting in November 2014. A bit sad…

I maintained my focus on the creeper for as long as it was in my sight. Its small, jerky movements will never lose charm, and neither will the way it flutters from tree to tree. I did stray my binoculars to ID a Hairy Woodpecker. Another species for the list. Always welcomed after so many Downy’s. Mike and Gerry indulged me and waited patiently. Gerry had never seen a creeper before (that made two new species for him this morning) and watched it with interest. He wasn’t able to keep up with it as I did, so he turned his attention to the juncos. When I finally lost the creeper, we walked ahead. The juncos had disappeared. From at that point to the parking lot, I heard the Blue Jays continue their ruckus, the lone House Finch from before sing away, an American Robin “yeep!!” a few times, and another Carolina Wren sing about tea kettles (or cheeseburgers, if you will). I was positive I heard the question mark note of an American Goldfinch.

We completed the hike in 1 hour and 45 minutes. Less than average, even with periodic rests, but still a workout because of the snow. I counted up to 19 species. You can view the eBird list here: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S34344128

Brinton Brook Hike, Report 1-2017

To sum up this month’s hike immediately, it was quiet. I observed a couple spurts of activity. Any other time, though, I was met with silence when I stopped to listen. I counted 19 species – same as last year’s January hike – but the numbers for each species were underwhelming.

(Before anyone else arrived, Mike and I found 13 used condoms strewn around the parking lot. Maybe the orgy scared off the birds.)

Our group consisted of 9 people, many of whom were familiar faces and regulars. I lagged behind half the time to concentrate on birding.

img_1302

Paper Wasp nest revealed. The pond is frozen, so no herons or ducks for us. © S.G. Hansen

A woodpecker tapped away continuously some fifty feet away from the pond. I couldn’t see the bird, so I challenged myself to find it. I didn’t want to guess which woodpecker in order to add it to the list, and I also I didn’t want to leave it off the list not having known what it was. The pecking sounded more like hacking, and was strong and constant. Perhaps a Pileated? I moved around to get different angles. Meanwhile, two female Hairy Woodpeckers nearby engaged in a scuffle, squeaking, thus prompting two Carolina Wrens to buzz. More than five minutes passed after I nearly gave up and continued walking on the trail. Then I spotted the woodpecker – a male Pileated. I had trouble because it turned out that the Pileated was on the side of a large branch facing away from the pond.

I caught up with the group, still on the pond trail.

“There’s a decapitated female Mallard under the holly,” Mike said.

Tell-tale signs of a dead duck were around us: a bloody spot on a rock and a clump of down feathers. Everyone had seen them as they went along, then when Mike walked over to the holly tree by the trail to determine its sex, and he found the mallard’s body.

img_1305

Looks fresh. We’re in a duck horror film. © S.G. Hansen

img_1307

Headless body of female Mallard Duck. Croton will soon have the Legend of the Headless Duck haunting their streets. © S.G. Hansen

The headless mallard won Highlight of the Hike for this month.

The hike up to the power lines, along the power lines, and down from the power lines was incredibly quiet. Whatever I heard and saw was by the individual, including American Crow and Turkey Vulture (something other than the usual winter flock). I spent the rest of the hike talking or watching where I placed my feet. I wasn’t discouraged by the incredible lack of bird activity. I greatly enjoyed the silence. With the recent increase of homeowners hiring leaf blower and lawnmower service in the area this past year, winter seems to now be the only true quiet season of the year.

At the very end of the hike, by the part of the brook near the parking lot, we encountered a spurt of activity. We flushed up to 50 juncos down brook. They took off one by one, twittering en masse. A robin ate from a lone winterberry bush. Atop the group of black birch trees, around 30 goldfinches and at least 1 Cedar Waxwing fed on the seeds.

We finished the hike in less than 2 hours. Not a record low, but still short. We had plenty of time to kill before the soup lunch at Croton Point Park, where people from Charlie Roberto’s eagle walk and people from the nature center’s Project Feedewatch would also be gathering. Gerry Weinstein, who was on the hike with us, took us around his property again for a bit (his property is next to the sanctuary, and the Weinstein Family recently protected 18 acres of their land adjacent to Brinton Brook with a conservation easement through the Westchester Land Trust). Rudy – lead sanctuary volunteer – found these feathers while searching for owl pellets underneath a clump of cedar trees. Judging by the size the color pattern, I’d guess these belonged to a Downy Woodpecker.

img_1357

Woodpecker feathers, presumably Downy (purposely arranged). Thanks for spotting them, Rudy! © S.G. Hansen

For the full species list, you may look here.