birds

Bird Banding with Bedford Audubon

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

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

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

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The banding table. © S.G. Hansen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Female Northern Cardinal © S.G. Hansen

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

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Female Common Yellowthroat © S.G. Hansen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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:

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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

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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 Timberdoodle’s Dusk Dance

The American Woodcock – nicknamed the timberdoodle, bog sucker, and Labrador twister – is a shorebird with a stocky body, a mottled black and brown back, and a long, thin beak to probe soft ground for food (earthworms, insects, snails, etc). Woodcocks spend their winters or live as year-round residents in southeast United States. They migrate to the Northeast to breed in young forests. Their movement peaks in March in Westchester County, using the Hudson River as a guide. Woodcocks prefer to forage on moist ground, rhythmically rocking back and forth as it steps forward, attempting to disturb the ground to find food. Their dance-like movements have caused some amusement on the Internet. Their large, beady eyes are near the back of their heads so they can watch out for predators as they forage.

Woodcocks charm birders with their extravagant and unique courtship. From March to June, their displays and courtships occur at dawn and dusk, held at open fields and forest clearings. Males peent repeatedly to attract females’ attention. They then shoot up to the sky, spiraling and spiraling. After reaching up to 300 feet, they descend in a zig-zag, chirping, wings whistling and twittering. Their landing is silent. (You might see the woodcock ascend and descend, but not where it lands.) And thus repeats until success.

When I learned about the woodcock’s existence, it was through this Lang Elliot video. During the one minute and ten seconds, the woodcock turns 360° as it occasionally puffs out a nerdy peent, its entire body bobbing up each time. I fell in love with the shorebird so suddenly I teared up. It’s both cute and hilarious.

Not long after I learned that Saw Mill River Audubon hosts a woodcock walk at Croton Point Park every mid-March. I was never so excited to observe a potential life bird. I had to hear the peents for myself. I couldn’t contain my anticipation. The day before, I made my coworkers watch the video at any free moment they had. I wanted to spread awareness of this unbelievably endearing shorebird.

Just before dusk, we walked the road at the base of the landfill, carefully treading on the side of the path. It was a bit too breezy than we wanted. (Woodcocks dislike wind, preferring calmer air when they want to forage or display. They also like warmer temperatures and will not be active when the temperature is below 40°.) Regardless, we were caught off guard: a woodcock in plain sight right at the corner of the woods. It stood completely still for us for about thirty seconds before it finally fled to the phragmites half, disturbed by our large group. When the dusk nearly passed, we heard a second woodock briefly peent-ing. That was all we had for the evening. But I had both seen and heard woodcocks. I couldn’t have been more thrilled. I struggled to suppress squeals of elation when I heard my first real life peent.

The walk I attended the following year had an excellent turn-up. We heard at least six different woodcocks calling, their tinny peents sounding from multiple directions. I almost teared up again. When there was very little light, and the sky and landfill were tinted dark blue, the woodcocks engaged in their courtship flights. We watched their silhouettes as they catapulted themselves upward and – after a pause – zig-zagged downward. We could hear their wings twitter.

This year, an ill-timed Nor-easter occurred on March 14th, during the woodcock’s peak migration period. SMRA’s walk was scheduled for the 19th, and Muscoot Farm’s for the 18th. Both, of course, were canceled. 16 inches fell in my area. People recorded as much as two to three feet around the surrounding counties. No way would woodcocks be able to forage and perform their ritual with all this snow.

Before dusk on the day after the storm, I was driving home and stopped at the three-way intersection across from the Blue Mountain Middle School – one of the busier intersections in my fragmented-forest-suburbia. In a span of two seconds, the following happened: Just as I made the sharp right turn, I saw a woodcock on the right side of the road; and when I was about to run it over, it took off. I couldn’t pull over, so I stared after it wide-eyed and open-mouthed as I continued to drive. That was not how I imagined I would get my First of Year. And I got my first real good look.

It’s understandable why the woodcock liked this risky spot. The intersection is by a lake, from which flows a stream, which passes under the intersection. The snow plow cleaned the road a little too much on one side and exposed a lot of fresh soil. The woodcock had found a little haven to have a breather.

Apparently, the March 14 snowstorm really threw off the woodcocks. When I returned home and read my email, I learned that my incident wasn’t isolated. Via the New York State Birds Listserv, birdwatchers in the New York City area reported a woodcock fallout (“oodles of doodles,” as someone put it on the New York Birders Facebook page). Through the 15th to 19th, birders sighted dozens of woodcocks in Central Park – as many as 40 on the 15th. They were easy to spot because of the omnipresent snow. They huddled wherever they could find open water and exposed ground. Local Red-tailed Hawks made effortless prey of them. News of the fallout made it to the New York Times, which reported that the Wild Bird Fund treated 55 woodcocks overall. People were finding them all over Manhattan, starved or injured from having flown into high-story buildings. Anders Peltomaa, who occasionally contributes to the NYS Birds Listserv, wrote up a report for the Linnaean Society of New York. (You’ve also got to take a look at the close-up photographs he uploaded.)

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SMRA rescheduled their woodcock walk to this past Sunday, April 9, three weeks after the initial date. The weather seemed ideal: no more snow on the ground, no precipitation of any kind, no wind, and the temperature dropping no lower than 45°. As we waited for people to gather in the parking lot, starlings buzzed and gurgled, waiting for nighttime in their roosting trees. Attendance didn’t exceed 15 people. Daylight sluggishly faded away between 7:30 and 8:30. A near full moon out-shined many stars and alighted the ground. A female Sharp-shinned Hawk hunted at the base of the landfill, shortly disappearing after she realized we would be sticking around. Long after sunset, dozens of robins sang and whinnied and yeeped. They darted one by one from the landfill to the trees until darkness completely fell. Uncountable Spring Peepers called. As we walked along the edge of the path, we listened and watched all around us for any sound and for any movement from a woodcock: the edge of the woods, the field in front of the phragmites, the side of the landfill, the plateau of the landfill. Our guide tried three times to coax responses with playback, sounding off peents, then the twittering wings, then the male’s confrontational string of clicks. Only a few of us, including the guide, heard the virtually inaudible wing twitterings, perhaps from two woodcocks. After that, silence once again. We extended the walk a bit by double-backing and strolling around another part of the landfill. Only the spring peepers announced their presence.

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Muscoot Farm also rescheduled their walk, to this weekend. I will be attending that one as well. Anything goes – I’m not expecting much activity, but with birdwatching, you learn to not expect, thus avoiding disappointment. Given the harsh impact March’s Nor’easter had on the woodcocks, it’s hard to say how badly they were affected until next year. If another Nor’easter doesn’t disrupt them again.

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…