Westchester County

The Owls of Ossining

For the first time in four years, I went owling for the Peekskill Christmas Bird Count. On December 16, I left my home at 4 in the morning – too early for even my local Dunkin Donuts – to meet Charlie Roberto and Hillary Siener at Teatown, the latter of whom works as Teatown’s Director of Environmental Stewardship. (You’ve met Charlie in my 2016 Peekskill CBC post. I failed to mention that he is the captain of the Ossining circle. Christine McCluskey couldn’t join us. She moved away recently, so it was just Charlie and me for the rest of the day after owls.)

We launched at 4:30. Our first location was near the visitor’s center. We got out of the car. The tape recorder Charlie used for years finally died on him. Fortunately, Hillary had brought a speaker with her and she connected it to her device. She played Eastern Screech-Owl.

She heard the screech first, then Charlie. Only the woods and the snow reached my ears. After another half-minute of playback, and a couple more minutes waiting, I heard the screech for myself. It was somewhere in front of us to our right. I couldn’t gauge how far away it was, but it might be enough to say that I barely heard its whinny, a phrase of descending notes. My colleagues had far better ears than mine, having more experience.

The screech whinnied and whinnied and whinnied. It merely aimed to re-claim its territory. Hearing the call in the dead of a frigid night, behind so many leafless trees, I couldn’t help but romanticize it. Melancholic, lonesome, otherworldly, spiritual.

Next, we did playback of Barred and Great Horned. No response. Still, the screech whinnied, unperturbed by the “presence” of these larger owls, unyielding to the fact that “they” may eat it.

I heard the screech even as we went back to the car. I wondered how much longer it would keep calling.

Our next stop was less than a mile away from the visitor’s center, at a gravel lot by a couple trails. Hillary and Charlie tried the main three – Screech, Barred, Great Horned – plus a fourth contender, Northern Saw-Whet Owl. We perked up when we started hearing the “Who cooks for you?” phrase repeatedly. But, based on the direction from which the call came, Hillary concluded we were hearing Teatown’s captive Barred, hit by a car some time ago.

Moon barely a sliver, yesterday evening’s fresh snow cover lighted our night vision. Ready yet not ready for birding, I relented to resting my eyes more than once as I listened. I reassured/fooled myself that doing so would sharpen my hearing. Needless to say, I’m not one to fall asleep very easily. I had to utilize my vision in case an owl appeared in the trees around us. Charlie said that a Barred has done so before in this location during a count. He with his flashlight and Hillary with her headlamp slowly waved their lights across the tree branches.

Only the captive Barred called. We retreated to the car to drive somewhere else. For the next few locations, our playback yielded nothing. Get out of the car, play Screech, wait; play Barred, wait; played Great Horned, wait; get in the car, drive. Etc.

The idea of 16°F feels like nothing. Standing still in such a temperature for a few minutes as a breeze gently wafted through did more than chill my extremities. My toes hurt so much that the pain distracted my ability to concentrate. I overestimated insulated winter boots and one pair of wool socks. Forget foot warmers – I wanted to light my toes on fire.

We drove up to Cliffdale Farm. Charlie’s phone died. Hillary’s device was near-drained as well. Charlie hooted Barred, then Great Horned. Silence.

I had the idea to imitate Screech myself. As a joke, why not. Once in a while, an SMRA colleague of mine would whistle the Screech’s calls during her walks if pishing failed and she wanted to the birds to show up for her attendees. I once tried it out myself when I chased a red morph screech at another local park. That warranted no owl but I did get harassed by chickadees and nuthatches.

I whistled the whinny a few times and then a couple tremolos. Silence.

Charlie and Hillary thought I was doing playback on my own phone. I was caught off guard that they were impressed. “You’re doing that at the next spot,” said the former.

We drove to a pond off of Glendale Road. No sooner than did we climb out than Charlie told me start. I whinnied and tremolo’d a bit and paused. It took a few tries shake off my nervousness. After no response I whistled again.

Right away, a faint silhouette fluttered into the trees at eye level. Charlie immediately shined his flashlight. I froze.

“Saw-whet!” Charlie exclaimed.

Lifer! Target bird!

I wanted to keep the Saw-whet around as long as possible for him and Hillary, and thought that continuing to whinny would help. It took great effort to control my giddiness and not laugh, thus faltering my impression. I was beyond delighted that I got up at 3:30 to forsake sleep and warmth to go owling in the cold.

This Saw-whet seemed much larger than the rescue I saw at Sharon Audubon (in general, they are 7-8 inches tall). Hillary’s first impression was Screech. But that oversized head, cutesy face, and general coloring were far too dissimilar. Amazingly, the little one stayed where it perched, studying us, questioning what exactly dared to intrude on its territory. We all positively ID’d the owl as Saw-whet.

The Saw-whet then flitted to an adjacent tree. I wondered if stopping or continuing my whinnying would be better. I settled on continuing. I heard Hillary’s phone clicking away. Charlie rushed to retrieve his camera from the trunk. After roughly ten seconds, Charlie managed to focus. On cue, the Saw-whet flew into a small clump of hemlocks to the other side of the road. We rushed over. I whinnied more, but we saw the Saw-whet no more.

I couldn’t help but jump up and down in circles. After high-fives and Charlie’s camera regrets, we hopped back into the car and resumed owling. (Hillary’s photos came out horribly blurry, unluckily.) We visited a few more places with groves of pine and spruce. My Screech didn’t entice any more owls to respond until the very last location, Hawkes Avenue. A Great Horned hooted away in the distance. The more I whinnied, the more it hooted. When I paused, it paused.

7:00 passed. Night had already well-faded into day. We moved on to diurnal birds.

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Brinton Brook Hike, Report 12-2017

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A north-western view from the power lines field. © S.G. Hansen

The forecast predicted the snowfall to begin at 9, when the hike starts. It wasn’t yet snowing when I arrived a few minutes before. The sky, though overcast, brightened the brown forest floor. The past few chilly days and freezing nights finally forced many of the oaks and maples to lose their lingering leaves.

The birds – usual winter flock species – scurried about the canopy for last-minute food before the snow and called in constant communication: titmice, chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, white-throated sparrows, juncos, a red-bellied woodpecker, a hairy woodpecker, a lone American crow. I thought I saw and heard a kinglet, but the chickadee’s incredibly quick movement tricked me. But as luck had it, the moment I got my binoculars on the chickadee, I spotted a nearby Brown Creeper gradually climbing the trunk. I’d actually heard the creeper’s tinny, high-pitched call.

The time read five past nine. Mike was unusually late. No one else showed. Was the hike was somehow canceled without my knowing? …Or was today even Second Saturday? I took the creeper as a sign of good birding to come. I went ahead.

Halfway to the kiosk intersection, I heard a loud rapping from somewhere within the locust grove. Time to play Find that woodpecker! I expected to spend quite a bit of time hunting for the noise-maker. Not for long this occasion… A Pileated Woodpecker took off and flew towards the parking lot. It maniacally called the entire way, prompting the jays to shout in slight hysterics.

I stood at the intersection to listen for other birds. I heard voices. A look through my bins down the trail revealed they belonged to Mike and another person. When they caught up, Mike explained he was late because he had to deal with work issues. Karen, both a birder and a hiker, would be the only other joining us for the hike. She hikes around Brinton Brook once a week, though she wished she could make it to the Second Saturday hikes more often.

Beyond conversation, I only heard a few white-throats at the meadow. I encountered more – plus a song sparrow – foraging in the cattails at the western end of the pond. When I reached well away from the cattails, the white-throats migrated to the shrubs at the edge of the path, leaving the song sparrow to its own. Juncos twittered in the canopy.

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Brown is beautiful. © S.G. Hansen

A thin layer of ice coated this end of the pond. Mike thought we wouldn’t see ducks. But when we reached sight of the other end, quite a few waterfowl were foraging: Four Green-winged Teal (all males, with lovely auburn and green faces), eight Mallards, and a dozen Canada Geese. Though they segregated themselves in groups of their own species, they all kept close to one another. The ducks moved to the back the closer we approached. The geese didn’t mind us that much, of course.

Meanwhile, nearly a dozen goldfinches fed on the black birch seeds above our heads. A couple whitehatches “yanked” incessantly. A Carolina wren trilled. As I watched the ducks, a kinglet bounced from one reed bunch to another over the pond, barely giving me time to notice that it was Gold-crowned.

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An oriole nest (belonging to either Baltimore or Orchard, both of which breed in Westchester). Orioles weave basket-like nests out of grasses and stitch them together with their bills. Th nests, which hang from tree branches, can have more than 10,000 weaves. © S.G. Hansen

Snow began to fall when we ventured out to the power-lines, starting off as flurries then quickly becoming heavier. One could hear the flake bunches practically hitting the ground and the vegetation. The power-line wires usually buzz, but today they sizzled. Snowfall filled in bird silence. I heard only sparse calls from a few birds: a second flicker, a second song sparrow, and a some more white-throats.

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Praying Mantis egg sack. © S.G. Hansen

Now that snow was falling quite a bit in the woods, the birds in the sanctuary also quieted down. So much so that I heard maybe a couple titmice and white-throats at most until we reached the parking lot again. We even took the longer route again, hiking the new white trail the golf course owners created. We enjoyed walking through the first-of-season snow. Karen took the opportunity to finish talking about her Purple Martin housing problem. She’d just put up the housing – a gift from a friend – this past breeding system. But an adamant flock of House Sparrows kept trying to nest in the gourds, even after she repeatedly climbed to throw away the nesting material (the gourds are fifteen feet above the ground). Eventually, the “little fucks” took revenge by chewing on her fencing and garden plants. She was thinking of donating the martin housing to Croton Point and purchasing a house sparrow trap.

Mike said to watch out for the juncos when we reached the stream near trail’s end. Alas, there were none.

We came back to the same birds I observed before the actual hike. As Mike and Karen talked, I thought I heard a Gold-crowned Kinglet. I kept my ears open for the high-pitched see-see-see call. Instead, I heard a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker’s mewing. It mewed for a good minute. I thought I saw one right after the Pileated sighting. I’d taken note of the facial markings, but the locust branches obscured the sapsucker so much I eventually lost sight of it. I was glad to hear it mew at the end of the hike.

All in all, I observed 22 species. A decent number for this time of year at Brinton Brook with a few good winter birds. Always nice to have a brown creeper – my favorite bird! You can view the eBird list here.

Sadly, this month’s hike is my last Second Saturday. I will be moving away after the New Year, before January’s hike. These three-and-a-half years were filled with fun and educational experiences. Thank you for everything, Mike!

I’m thinking of re-locating my own Second Saturdays to Sapsucker Woods.

Hike on Turkey Mountain

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Western view from the summit of Turkey Mountain. © S.G. Hansen

Saw Mill River Audubon holds an annual hike at Turkey Mountain the day after Thanksgiving. This year is my third. I haven’t yet hiked at any other point in the year, but at around this time, bird activity is nearly nonexistent. You’re in a short, heart-pumping hike but not an entertaining bird excursion. You’re met with infrequent calls from blue jays, titmice, chickadees, and white-breasted nuthatches but not much else. And you’re going to largely hear a lack of bird presence, really (the constant din of leafblowers will inhibit your listening ability). Hike leader Michael Madias – who also leads SMRA’s Second Saturday Brinton Brook hikes – can’t figure why. There seems to be enough food around the mountain (tulip tree seeds for one), and the power lines field provides different habitats. In contrast, Turkey Mountain does lack understory much like every other wood in Westchester thanks to deer overbrowsing. It’s also worth noting that Turkey Mountain is not an eBird hotspot.

In 2015, I observed 9 species and 32 individuals, the most interesting having been Eastern Bluebirds. In 2016, I observed 8 species and 47 individuals – only common year-rounders. I started this year’s hike not expecting much.

Our group was small, but actually twice as big as last year. Rudy from Brinton came along, and Miok and Roger, SMRA Monday morning walk regulars, were hiking Turkey Mountain for the first time. A special visitor also joined us: Chuck,  an Indiana resident, an experienced birder, and a Sycamore Audubon board of director.

To summarize, this year’s observations went beyond my expectations, totaling 15 species and 49 individuals. Depressing in other places but not at Turkey Mountain! We were met with silence for much of the hike but managed to pass through a few winter flocks. I haven’t yet compiled an overall list, though our combined observations added 6 species this year. At the parking lot, a Hairy Woodpecker called. During the ascension, we heard a Common Raven croaking and a Pileated Woodpecker hesitantly calling. Miok also heard a Carolina Wren, which I missed since I’d plowed ahead of the group to keep up with Mike.

We spent at least 20 minutes on the summit (829 ft in elevation) resting and viewing distant sights, including the hazy, mirage-like Manhattan skyline.

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© Mike the Hike Leader

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© Mike the Hike Leader

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Yours truly smiling for the camera. © Mike the Hike Leader

Soon after we started descending, Chuck thought he heard the “mew” call of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Perhaps the second of the hike since he thought he heard one on our way up. Playback yielded nothing. Wishful thinking, he noted. A sapsucker certainly would have been noteworthy.

Not long afterward, we saw a small flock of bluebirds low in the trees, diving for whatever food they found on the ground. Not an addition, though bluebirds are always a wonderful sight. The late-morning clear sunshine illuminated the males’ bright blue and orange plumage.

Pinnacle activity occurred towards the end. Several more each of blue jays, red-bellied woodpeckers, and whitehatches, plus the first-of-the-hike downies and a Northern Flicker, made much noise from all around us. Mike got on a large black bird soaring fast high above the canopy, but the rest of us couldn’t see anything but blue sky. “It was probably an eagle, or maybe it was a Turkey Vulture,” he said. “Maybe it was a floater in your eye,” Chuck commented.

Meanwhile, I noticed how silent the woods became. Shortly, as if answering a question, Mike saw a Red-tailed Hawk flying through the trees. It perched in an oak some hundred feet away, streaked white breast blazing bright. Not everyone could see it with so many branches in the way, but when it took off (and for good), the hawk was then seen by all.

We’ll see what Turkey Mountain has in store next Thanksgiving!

Brinton Brook Hike, Report 11-2017

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Tulip Tree leaves. © S.G. Hansen

I took the day off from work to attend the Second Saturday hike! It almost felt strange to be a part of a group going around Brinton Brook, and I certainly missed it. This month’s group consisted of no strangers: hiker leader Mike, regular/caretaker Rudy, Saw Mill River Audubon President Val Lyle and her partner Alan, and Mike and Yuan who are regulars of SMRA’s Monday morning walks. Once again, our hike was dominantly a birding hike.

The temperature late this week took a dive to below freezing, in the mid-20s. With a little wind, we had a nicely brisk hike. Most trees – sugar maple, red maple, tulip, sycamore, sassafras, etc – lost their leaves, which covered the trails in several layers. Only White Oak and American Beech still kept their leaves.

We didn’t encounter much bird activity until the black locust grove at the kiosk. I heard a few House Finches. Some of got on a Red-bellied Woodpecker and one Hairy Woodpecker, though I’m sure I heard at least three Hairies in the vicinity.

The meadow was quiet. Rudy pointed out a tree in which he saw a lot of birds flying around in (possibly eating caterpillars that had just hatched) back during July’s hike. In the middle of his story, we suddenly heard something took off from behind us. All of us turned around in time for us to see a medium-sized bird rushing away to the trees, wings whistling loudly.

American Woodcock! we exclaimed simultaneously. We had a good laugh after being startled. None of us noticed it was only a few feet away from us.

“We almost stepped on it,” said Val. She and I were surprised to see one so late in the year.

“That means the meadow is doing really well,” Mike remarked. SMRA maintains the meadow habitat by mowing it once a year and ensuring a healthy biodiversity through growing native plants, such as goldenrod and butterfly weed.

Much later, when I submitted my list to eBird, I saw that this woodcock is the first sighted at Brinton Brook ever.

We took a brief rest at the western end of the pond, where the donated bench is located. When I was here last month, the pond was mostly wetland. A lot of rain had fallen over the past couple weeks, and the pond was a pond once again. A late Eastern Phoebe flycatched in the trees in front of us. At the other end, we saw a small flock of Mallards. I noticed that two of the ducks looked peculiarly small.

We walked the trail quietly. The ducks moved a bit to distance themselves from us. At a clearer spot with better lighting, we began to make out that this duck flock was more diverse that we first realized. First, we noticed that there was one American Black Duck. Second, I confirmed my guess that the very small ducks were Green-winged teal, last sighted this April during the Second Saturday Hike, overall the third time sighted in the sanctuary.

Third, to my great surprise, I then noticed one duck a little larger than the mallards that had a certain brown head with a certain white face stripe and white neck: Northern Pintail. This male didn’t have the eponymous long tail – it was quite short. That tripped me up. But I would know the head pattern any day. Once again, I observed first bird for Brinton Brook! I couldn’t contain my excitement at the idea of seeing a pintail here. These are rare in Westchester to begin with.

When we arrived at the blue trail’s beginning, Rudy said that he had been hearing a Barred Owl somewhere around the Pond Loop. I asked Val to play some playback on her phone. Everyone started hiking up the blue while Val and I lingered. A few “who cook’s for you” rang through the mostly silent air. After half a minute, I said forget it. Shortly after, all of us heard a Carolina Wren trill closer to Mt. Airy Road, presumably provoked by the owl playback. Carolina Wrens trill out of aggressiveness over territory or warning other birds about predators (avian or feline).

The power lines were mostly quiet as well. In the beginning, I heard a call somewhere from within a the vegetation. I pished. A few American Tree Sparrows and a Field Sparrow popped up. I didn’t see them side by side, so nearly confused the Field for a Tree. Val handily compared the two species with the Sibley’s on her phone. Tree sparrows have a rusty eyeline and bicolored bill, whereas field sparrows lack an eyeline and have a bright pinkish bill. I was apparently incorrect to use the double white wingbars as helpful point of reference.

As we were looking at the sparrows, a mockingbird flew by and second mockingbird called for a few seconds. Farther up the powerlines trail, we heard a bunch a chip calls from the other side of the field: White-throated Sparrows.

We continued on the new white trail that borders the sanctuary property. Truly, it belongs to the neighboring golf course. But since it’s a route that goes to the Croton Arboretum, hikers are allowed to use this trail. The owners of the golf course bought the parcel of land at the north-eastern edge of Brinton Brook last year to build a driving range. SMRA once had the opportunity to purchase it a couple decades ago, but we couldn’t afford it. The construction finished recently. You can see a massive grass hill-wall just beyond the trees. Very fortunately, the owners and SMRA are cooperating to replenish the border with native trees and plants.

Back to the birds. We returned to having a quiet hike, save for a small flock of Dark-eyed Juncos, a couple chickadees, a White-breasted Nuthatch, and a few singing white-throats.

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Mike and others recently planted White Pines and White Spruces where the Hemlock grove used to be so owls can return to the Sanctuary. © S.G. Hansen

Reliably, activity picked up near trail’s end. Larger flocks of juncos and white-throats foraged in the brambly ravine. Our third carolina wren for the hike sang. We counted a fourth hairy woodpecker for the hike. High in the trees foraged a mixed flock: chickadees, a couple Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and a Golden-crowned Kinglet. Two Tufted Titmice fought for a little in the trees on the other side of the trail.

When I got back in the car, the temperature read 35°.

All in all, we observed 26 species. The American Woodcock and Northern Pintail were exciting birds additions to Brinton Brook’s life list. You can view the eBird list here.

Brinton Brook Hike, Report 10-2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brinton Brook Hike, Report 9-2017

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A sign of autumn. © S.G. Hansen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can view the eBird list here.

Mothing: An Interlude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A friend (Forest Tent Caterpillar Moth).