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.

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.)

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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…

Brinton Brook Hike, Report 3-2017

Between last month and this month’s hikes, the temperature practically ping-ponged from 40° to 65° to 40° to 65°. Besides snow drops, a few orange crocuses flowered in my front yard. The daffodils had also started growing, green stems inching upward. And the viburnum next to the front steps was also beginning to bloom magnificently. And then yesterday, Winter dragged Spring backstage – again. About three inches of snow fell. The early spring plants were covered. The viburnum’s blossoms, wilted and darkened, looked pathetic.

The car thermometer on my way to Brinton read 16°. Thankfully, the sun shined. The morning was shaping up to be beautiful in spite of the dry, frigid air. Sunlight meant the birds would be out.

Our group number reached five: myself, Mike, Rudy, Gerry Weinstein, and Alexandra, a birdwatching friend whom I haven’t seen since summer.

I heard about a dead deer in Gerry’s pond earlier in the week, so we went to take a look. The deer had been crossing, misjudged the ice thickness, fell through, and drowned and/or froze to death. Gerry had seen deer tracks on the ice earlier in the winter, but with recent temperatures…. The deer’s corpse attracted turkey vultures, black vultures, and even an immature bald eagle. Only part of the deer was exposed to open air. I got a good look of its bare ribs through my binoculars.

This winter seems to have fallen into a bird activity pattern, shaped like a horseshoe if the data were drawn on a graph. Lots of activity in the beginning, nearly thinned out to nothing at the power lines, and back to much activity at hike’s end. While waiting at the parking lot, I heard more than half of dozen goldfinches tweeting, but couldn’t get my eyes on them. I also heard other usual winter birds: chickadee, titmouse, blue jay, American crow. At the map intersection, we saw nuthatches and a pair of red-bellied woodpeckers.

The pond wasn’t completely frozen. A few black ducks gladly foraged where the water was open. Unexpectedly, we were treated to a show on ice. A mixed flock of more than dozen goldfinches and several bluebirds searched for seeds by the pond’s edge. We watched them a bit before continuing on the trail, which brought us closer to the mixed flock. I stopped at a point in which the birds wouldn’t be too disturbed by our presence. The bluebirds – I counted up to eight – flew further into the woods, but then they soon returned to rejoin the goldfinches.

The lighting was optimal. Everyone with binoculars could clearly see the goldfinches’ finely patterned olive, black, and white plumage and the contrast between the female and male bluebirds’ colors (females look pale compared the vibrant males). At one point, we were distracted by the arrival of a young red-tailed hawk. It perched high in a tree for a couple minutes and then flew out of sight, revealing wing-tip curls.

The goldfinches were as still as kinglets – in that they were not at all still. Those that foraged on the ice didn’t forage for long. Many roller coaster fights erupted among them. They zipped from branch to branch, tree to tree. They incessantly twittered a mess of “per-chick-o-ree”‘s. At some point, a few were right over our heads, demonstrating they were more concerned with their affairs than with us. To add to the goldfinch chaos, downies and red-bellied woodpeckers called. Three Carolina wrens fought one another. A fourth sang from somewhere else around the pond. The auburn orbs tumbled through branches and over fallen trees, trilling and flapping frantically. The bluebirds seemed much more relaxed when not disturbed by their neighbors’ frenzied behavior. It was easier to keep track of them as they foraged on the ice. One particular bluebird perched in tree directly in front of me. She was still for up to a minute. Puffed up to retain, she looked like a plush toy. The sunlight illuminated and further softened blue and orange feathers.

When we continued walking along the pond, we flushed a flock of juncos. I thought I saw a Carolina wren with them, darting to hide under a log, but that flash of a moment I realized it looked browner overall. Winter wren? Too early for house wren. I tried pishing and playback to get it to pop up. Only juncos emerged. I didn’t see the wren again, but I was positive it was a winter wren based on the color and time of year. Since this was a year bird for me, I would have liked to get a much better look. I lingered a bit just in case, but not for long.

Yesterday at dusk, Rudy spotted a great horned owl. We took a detour trail to the power lines in order to find it. Unfortunately, it was long gone. Two titmice wheezed and whistled around that very area.

The power lines were quiet except for a couple chickadees and nuthatches, some white-throated sparrows, and a cardinal singing far away. We counted our third turkey vulture for the morning soaring overhead. I pished only to scare away the white-throats.

When we went back inside the sanctuary property, we saw more chickadees and one more bluebird. Not long after we started our way on the white trail, I noticed a different woodpecker: a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker! I hadn’t seen one since New Year’s Day at Rockwood Hall. And the last time I observed one at Brinton Brook was February 2016. This sapsucker was an immature, nearly adult. Though it was large enough, it didn’t have a red cap (males have both a red cap and a red chin, while females only have a red cap) and any yellow on its body, but the rest of its black and white barred plumage was neatly coming together (the very young sapsuckers look scruffy).

We reached the highest point of the sanctuary. The wind picked up. The sky had become fully overcast at this point, with the sun barely peaking through the fast moving dark gray clouds. We could see and hear the driving range construction at the golf course, which is south-east adjacent to the sanctuary.

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This wasn’t here last month. Have a mound of dirt. ©S.G. Hansen

As stated before, we didn’t encounter much more bird activity until the very end. There, white-throats called and foraged on either side of the trail. The blue jays jay’d. More nuthatches, more chickadees, one more red-bellied woodpecker. I paused to see if there was another species of sparrow hanging with the white-throats. My attention turned to another bird, which I initially thought to be another chickadee. I suspected its flightier-than-usual foraging behavior and put my binoculars on it. Golden-crowned Kinglet! Another excellent winter resident. I last saw one at Montrose Point State Forest during the Great Backyard Bird Count. Either kinglet species is always lovely to find, but I might be more biased towards the Golden-crowned than the Ruby-crowned. The bright orange-yellow crown – lined on either side with a black stripe – strikingly contrasts with the overall olive plumage, and its thin black eyeline adds to it character. They’re also not as flighty as Ruby-crowned Kinglets.

Alexandra and I lagged behind to observe the kinglet until it flitted out of view. It was the last best show for today’s hike.

Have a look at the eBird list: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S35104506

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Hateful Things About Birdwatching (Inspired by Sei Shonagon’s “Hateful Things”)

The moment you get your binoculars on a bird it flies away.

You birdwatch with a group. A good bird is spotted. When you get on the bird, someone moves to stand in front of you, blocking your view. Or, an overenthusiastic someone comes to stand beside you, jolting your arms away. The someone doesn’t realize what they did.

A warbler plays hide-and-seek behind thick foliage.

You are observing a raft of ducks and find a mystery duck. Just as you begin to study it for diagnostic markings, the duck takes off.

The accipiter sp. is silent.

The bird is between you and the sun. Back-lighting ruins your enjoyment of looking at the bird. You have no way of circumventing so that the sun is behind you. The dark splotch doesn’t care.

Your binoculars won’t stop fogging up.

You are observing a special bird. A raptor appears out of nowhere and catches the bird for a meal.

Someone in your group spots a bird. Initially, others struggle but eventually get on it. Everyone but you sees it.

You are on a bird. While trying to move to view it from a different angle, you trip.

You deceive yourself into thinking that any moving inanimate natural object is a bird. Falling leaves are especially irksome. Or, you spend minutes trying to identify a bird, and you finally discern it is actually a stump. Or, you are birdwatching by car, catch a glimpse of a large bird among a clump of trees, and turn around to get a better look – only to learn to that what you saw is a tattered paper sign billowing in the wind.

There are no birds.

You leisurely spend time observing a bird. Suddenly, a loose dog runs close by and the bird takes off. The dog’s owner is nowhere to be seen.

It is raining.

It is very windy. The birds have taken cover and refuse to come out. This is especially loathsome during a Christmas Bird Count.

A perched passerine faces away from you. You can only see its back. It won’t ever turn around, or budge. The bird is all back.

You chase a bird. You arrive, but you just missed it.

You chase a bird. The location is far from where you live. You spend hours trying to find it with no success. You leave. Sometime after, the bird is spotted again.

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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

For the full species list, you may look here.