report

Brinton Brook Hike, Report 6-2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My First Trip to Magee Marsh

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The entrance to the boardwalk trail at Magee Marsh on Friday. We had to be careful not to slip on the boards. © S.G. Hansen

When migrating warblers reach Lake Eerie, they see a rather large body of water, decide not to cross, and use Magee Marsh as a rest stop. They have traveled thousands of miles and are exhausted. Early next morning, they eat and sing upon rising, and then they fly over Eerie to Canada, where they will reach their breeding grounds.

In my previous post in which I detailed my process for studying warbler songs, I stated an upcoming Saw Mill River Audubon trip to Magee Marsh. The entire trip lasted May 1-9. I opted for the first half – from the 1st to the 5h (the 9th was my birthday and I didn’t want to spend 9 hours traveling). This trip seemed like a fantastic chance to fulfill my New Year’s resolution of observing more warblers – both the numbers and species. I hoped for at least fifteen species a day and a few lifers (keep in mind, Sibley’s fold-out guide covers 38 warblers). How about a Prothonotary or Kirtland’s?! I was thrilled at the idea of a colorful collage of warblers at eye and ground level instead of craning my head up to the canopy the entire time and suffering “warbler neck.” I felt totally confident about identifying warblers by sight. However, at the beginning, I felt anxious that the songs I studied would fly out the window as soon as I got there. Bird songs vary in the field…application takes practice.

Now that the trip has passed…. Suffice to say, I didn’t see Magee Marsh at its fullest potential. When you’re repeatedly told that warblers are trickling from the trees at every angle, and you don’t feel agoraphobic in spite of the throng of like-minded birders, you go in expecting a certain level of birdiness.

Ever since I caught birding fever, I quickly learned that expectation can be met with disappointment. The birds are unpredictable. What you get is what you get. Alternatively, the outcome might be better than what you originally sought.

Now when it comes to weather, you pray pray pray. During the weeks leading up to the trip, leaders Anne Swaim and Charlie Roberto closely followed the forecast. Initially, the weather was ideal: sunny and warm. But as time progressed, the predictions changed. The forecast eventually stuck with cold, wet, and windy. A storm was supposed to occur on Thursday, when we scheduled a ferry to Pelee Island.

We only had two “good” days out of five: Monday afternoon (my arrival) and most of Wednesday, which, though a tad cold for early May, were sunny. The other days were not great. Songbirds hate high winds, thus so do I. It was windy and overcast. Warblers don’t feel so inclined reveal themselves if there is no sun, which draws out insects. Warblers pretend they don’t exist when the wind feels like it can tear off a car door.

Though the rain didn’t start until the afternoon, our Thursday ferry to Pelee Island was cancelled. We still made a trek to the boardwalk trail spotted decent birds. Friday was the worst. It rained all day long. The wind by Lake Eerie’s shore felt and sounded like hurricane-level. The joke “Hold onto your hats!” was told one too many times.

Our hotels were half an hour away from the Magee Marsh, so we drove back and forth on Route 2 every day. We passed the same landmarks and fields and ponds multiple times. On Thursday and Friday, we could truly see how much rain was falling. The rivers and ponds rose drastically. Egrets huddled in the vegetation to escape the downpour and the wind. Another day or two of this storm and Route 2 could have flooded. Large puddles coated the farm fields. One side road was closed to due to flooding.  On Thursday late afternoon, we tried a brief visit to Metzger Marsh but left immediately. Lake waves were washing over the part of the parking lot. On our way out, a lower stretch of the driveway was flooded by several inches. It wasn’t flooded when we drove in.

Charlie and Anne mostly drove us to various hotpots around Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. Waterfowl, shorebirds, and wader birds would the warbler void. As we crept by on the narrow roads, we scanned from our vehicles through open windows. The wind blustered in. The rain pelted us, sharp as needles. When we stopped every fifty feet, not everyone ventured outside. Most of us expected actual May weather and were under dressed, even with rain pants. (I didn’t have rain paints – extra misery points for me.) I mostly stayed inside too. I made up my mind to go out unless Anne or Charlie put their scopes on something different or exciting. I couldn’t handle this read-a-book-by-the-fireplace weather any longer. The rain kept falling. Eventually, we resorted to strictly observing from within our vehicles, windows closed.

No matter the weather, actually, there were a lot of highlights as we went around Ottawa and visited Metzger during the week. I’m thankful that waterfowl, shorebirds, and wader birds don’t mind cold and wet weather. I heard Trumpeter Swans for the first time. I saw more Blue-winged Teal than I have had at Montezuma NWR. I finally had an opportunity to see Dunlin in their breeding plumage, with rusty backs and patch black bellies. I had never seen so many Great and Lesser Yellowlegs at once. We observed more than thirty Sandhill Cranes throughout our five days, flying, calling, foraging, and walking. Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons were everywhere, especially along Route 2.

We also saw an American Pipit in breeding plumage (not something you’d get in Westchester County), a great number of Bald Eagles, a flock of 40 Wood Ducks, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, a handful of Swainson’s Thrushes and Horned Larks, a large flock of various swallows flycatching all around us as we walked the beach, a Lark Sparrow and several Red-headed Woodpeckers at Oak Openings Preserve, and an Eastern Whip-poor-will sleeping mere feet away from the Magee Marsh boardwalk (a surprise lifer!).

In spite these highlights, I can’t help but feel more disappointed than content. I went on this trip solely for warblers. I spent a lot of money on it. Did I set myself up for disappointment in spite of my philosophy? On this scale, it hurts. It’s hard to escape bitterness.

I couldn’t bring myself look at the eBird lists from the 6th to the 9th. I finally asked someone who signed up for entire trip how things went. Though the weather was sunnier, the wind didn’t calm down. No improvements in warbler diversity except for a sighting of a Prothonotary. He and the others also saw Marbled Godwit, Least Bittern, and Soras. Alas, all potential lifers. Birding is fun yet so cruel.

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We spent a lovely afternoon at Oak Openings Preserve on Wednesday. Charlie found a ring-necked snake. I got to hold it! When it doubt, snakes. © Philip Heidelberger

I personally observed 17 warbler species over the course of the five days: Northern Waterthrush, Blue-winged Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, Cape May Warbler, Northern Parula, Yellow Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Palm Warbler, Pine Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, and Canada Warbler.

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We’re trying to get on a not-so-cooperative Canada Warbler. © Charlie Roberto

Many were First of Year, mostly observed on the boardwalk and the Ottawa NWR Crane Creek Trail. The Blue-winged and the Prairie were heard-only’s. I saw so many Yellow-rumped and Palm that I was done with them by the end of the trip (as said before, I wanted diversity). Expressing this sentiment aloud brought out teasing from Charlie. As beautiful as these warblers are…well, I wasn’t the only frustrated person. I also heard and saw many Yellows. I nearly confused one’s song for that of a Chestnut-sided Warbler. In fact, I was surprised to not have observed Chestnut-sided at all! I missed my favorite warbler.

One of my favorite of the trip is the Orange-crowned. The only other time I got one was more than a year and a half ago at Cape May. Although I wasn’t confident I would be able to ID it on my own, I still counted it as a lifer. It’s plumage is a subtle olive-gray. Rather drab like the Warblering Vireo. Speed forward through time, I saw up to four during this trip. These little guys were literally over my head (kind of what I generally expected for every other warbler during the trip). I had such excellent looks that I was able to notice the diagnostic flank stripes and eye line. My ID skills have definitely improved since Cape May. Additional good looks include Canada, Black-throated Blue, Black-throated Green, and Northern Parula.

I barely missed the two Blackburnians a couple others saw Monday afternoon, one of the better days. It would have been a year bird, but I’m glad to have missed it over my first-ever Nashville Warbler. I got only a glimpse of it. The Nashville didn’t perch out in the open long, though my first look was a good enough: soft blue-gray head, warm yellow throat and breast, a fine olive back, and a bright white eye ring. I had admired the bird from afar in the Warbler Guide’s photos. Seeing the Nashville personally proved again that the live bird in front of you is quite astounding. I thought I would have trouble ID’ing by sight like – and might even confuse it with – the Connecticut and Tennessee, which are the more subtle-colored warblers. Though as soon as I put my binoculars on it, “Nashville” clicked right away. I gladly present the fact that I was the only person in group to have observed it that day.

One other warbler counted as a lifer: the Cape May. I had considered it a “mythical bird” (others used to be the Barred Owl, Harlequin Duck, and Red-breasted Nuthatch). You haven’t seen it yet other people have. It’s the subject of many photos and videos. You can’t believe such a bird exists. Too much of a striking creature, simple in its own life yet profound in yours. How can this plumage pattern have formed, and those particular colors? When will you chance come?

I was lucky saw two individual Cape Mays two days in a row. The first one – someone notified me as we slowly strolled on the boardwalk and I practically ran over to the spot. I had a little trouble getting on it since flitted deep in a shrub some yards away from the boardwalk. As soon as I found, I locked my eyes on it until it went out of sight a couple minutes later. This one’s plumage was more intense than what I’d seen in my field guides’ illustrations. Strong yellow, deep orange cheek patches, and dense black breast streaks. It foraged near the front of the shrub, obligingly staying put in one spot for more than two seconds, clinging to the flimsy ends of branches upside down, pecking the underside of leaves for insects.

The next day, we had just completed the boardwalk and lingered outside the entrance. A small bird swiftly fluttering in a short tree caught my eye. At first look I noticed streaks on a yellow breast – yellow warbler – but the streaks were too dark and heavy. “Cape May Warbler!” A crowd drew around.

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Photographer eyes on the Cape May Warbler. © Charlie Roberto

This Cape May was lighter than the other, having finer streaks, cheek patches colored a more delicate orange. It foraged so thoroughly and out in the sunny open that everyone in our group got their bins on it. No one should miss this warbler or dare to give up on it when it’s so cooperative.

Of course, now I must return to Magee Marsh one future May. I have a feeling that my yearning for more warblers will never subside even after then.

Magee Marsh also seems like an extraordinary duck habitat. Thank goodness I can turn to ducks for their reliability.

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Yes, I’m smiling. It wasn’t so windy when this photo was taken. With my friend Kathleen, a luckier trip go-er who went with the flow and didn’t mind the lack of warblers. © S.G. Hansen

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.

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

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.

2016 Peekskill Christmas Bird Count

This year’s Christmas Bird Count (CBC) marks the 117th anniversary. Ornithologist Frank Chapman founded the event in 1900. Before then, hunters spent their Christmases  competing to hunt and collect as many birds as they could. Chapman had an idea: Why not…count birds instead of killing them? Today, the CBC is the largest and longest running citizen science program, conducted by the National Audubon Society. Counts around North, Central, and South America occur from mid-December to early January.  You can count birds all day long – from pre-dawn to dusk – or simply contribute as few as 15 minutes of your time. Each area is divided by circles of 15-mile diameters, in which groups are assigned to different territories. Circle compilers combine each group’s list. These lists eventually make their way to ornithologists and conservation biologists who utilize the lists to study bird behavior and the environment. (For information regarding on how to join the count, please see this web page.)

On December 17th, I participated in my 3rd Peekskill count, again assigned to the Ossining territory with Charlie Roberto and Christine McCluskey. I was supposed to meet Charlie and Christine at 7AM to carpool. But the weather forecast predicted 3-5 inches of snow between 4 and 11AM. Seeing snow having already accumulated on my street at 6, I went back to bed. Waiting until the snow nearly stopped falling seemed prudent.

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My street at 9AM. It was still coming down. © S.G. Hansen

My house is located deep in residential area. I live on a cul-de-sac that branches off a larger cul-de-sac. The plows seem to clean my street later than everywhere else. Today, the plow came shortly after 6, and then once more two hours later. By the time I finished cleaning the car and the bottom of my driveway at 11, a bit of frozen rain began to fall. A couple inches of snow yet coated my street. Who knew when the plow would come again? I got going to the new meet-up place, Maryknoll.

At the intersection with the main local road, I felt nervousness turn into dread. I thought the roads would be more clear. The amount of snow and slush looked troubling. I had to turn left. That meant driving downhill. I barely made the turn when my 4-wheel drive station wagon started sliding down and around. I wound up on the other lane, perpendicular to the road. I righted myself and pressed forward.

I parked at Maryknoll with much relief. No precipitation was falling. As I waited for Christine and Charlie to pick me up, I counted 7 European Starling and 3 American Crow. When they arrived, we ended up not birding much. Only a Carolina Wren responded to Charlie’s raspy pishing.

We went to the Mariandale Retreat and Conference Center to meet up with Kyle and count ducks. Mariandale overlooks the Hudson River – ideal for winter waterfowl-watching. On our way to the look-out, I heard chickadees buzzing. Charlie had said earlier that they didn’t get many kinglets – neither ruby- nor golden-crowned – so I lagged behind to pish. (Kinglets like to join chickadees and titmice in order to easily find food.) No kinglets. I did get us our first and only Brown Creeper ( Only one other person assigned to Ossining had creepers, just 2.).

We observed 2 Mallards; small rafts of Ruddy Duck, Bufflehead and Canada Goose; and larger rafts of Common Mergansers (100+) and Canvasback (100+). Without binoculars, the rafts looked like dots bunched together in a pointillist painting. Kyle spotted 1 LONG-TAILED DUCK, 5 COMMON GOLDENEYE, 17 GREATER SCAUP, and 2 REDHEAD. (Additionally, Charlie and Kyle counted 22 Scaup sp. – meaning that they identified these ducks as far enough as being scaup, but whether Greater or Lesser was undetermined.)

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Our view from Mariandale. You can see the point of Croton Point Park on the right. © S.G. Hansen

Once finished, Charlie, Christine and I left Mariandale, separating from Kyle. We then drove up to the Ossining-Cortlandt Manor boundary by way of Quaker Ridge Road. We parked at the side of the road. Pishing got us the winter usuals, plus 2 beautifully bright Fox Sparrows. Charlie said that he’d gotten Common Redpolls there before (Common Redpolls don’t often migrate to Westchester in the winter unless a shortage of food causes their eruption).

Out next stop was Croton Dam for more waterfowl. Seconds after we turned onto Croton Dam Road, Charlie spotted a Pileated Woodpecker. He directed Christine to make a u-turn and drive back very slowly. Christine inched forward. We lowered our windows, inviting in 20° air. I kept my eyes peeled for a black blob stuck on a tree far into the woods. Christine suddenly stopped. It took me a second to see that the Pileated was only fifteen feet away from the road, foraging on a short snag.

We watched in careful silence. I’m always in awe of a Pileated’s size at every chance I see one. They grow up to 17 inches tall. I found it incredible they are larger than certain hawks! The red mustache (the line by the bill) on this Pileated indicated he was male. His feet looked so large and much like a raptor’s, scaly and sharp. His tail feathers – which propped him against the trunk – looked incredibly strong. He banged his beak against the wood. Thudthudthudthud. His vibrant yellow eyes remained wide open. Bits of wood fell. He eventually created a small rectangular hole, from which he uncovered food, probably hibernating insects.

As Christine and I took photographs and videos, a Northern Flicker colorfully bombed the scene. He (black mustache – female flickers don’t have one) first landed on a nearby tree. Because of the below-freezing temperature, he was so puffed up that he looked like the Audubon plush version of himself. A few seconds later, he flitted onto the snag. As he skulked around the trunk, in and out of our view, he watched the Pileated. He hoped to seize food when the larger woodpecker appeared distracted. The Pileated ignored the flicker.

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“Do you think he’ll share?” the Northern Flicker asks us as he watches the Pileated Woodpecker. © Christine McCluskey

I couldn’t tell if the flicker was tentative or delicately biding his time for the perfect moment. Finally, he crept too closely, and the Pileated aggressively nudged his beak towards the smaller woodpecker. The flicker flew to another tree only to return to the snag a short moment later. He skulked around some more and hid himself, much to Christine’s frustration. The Pileated paid no mind. He continued pecking and eating.

The flicker made a move again. The Pileated charged at him, scaring him enough that he flew away for good.

The Pileated went about his business.We watched him a bit more, but we had to move on to the Croton Dam. Only three hours of daylight remained.

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Charlie looking through his scope at the Croton Dam. © S.G. Hansen

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Charlie and I studying the Lesser Scaup. © Christine McCluskey

There, we observed more Mallards and Buffleheads. In addition, we added American Black Duck, Gadwall, 2 Lesser Scaup, Hooded Mergansers, and Mute Swan to our species list. For non-waterfowl, we tallied 2 Greater Cormorant fishing and 1 rattling Belted Kingfisher. We also got 1 flyover adult Bald Eagle, surprisingly our only eagle for the day.

We then drove around the reservoir – my favorite part of the count. The plow had yet to clean Croton Lake Road. Other cars had already driven through, as evident from the tire tracks. Christine had an easier time driving than during past counts. The snow had filled up the numerous pot holes. We didn’t skid once.

As we surveyed the shoreline for waterfowl, I absorbed our first fresh winterscape of the season. Weak sunlight brightened the ubiquitous stark-white snow, which outlined the skeleton trees. The water reflected the sky’s gentle gray. Light rain began to fall. Thousands of little ripples textured the silvery water.

We frequently came across small groups of Mallards, Black Ducks, Buffleheads, and Pied-billed Grebes along the water’s edge. At one location, we found one large raft of waterfowl by an island, where we counted many more Canada Goose, Mallards, Buffleheads, black ducks, Hooded Mergansers, and Mute Swan. We also saw a dozen Ring-necked Ducks and –  a good duck for the count – 5 American Wigeon. All in all, hundreds of waterfowl were present.

In the middle of Charlie’s counting, we heard a roaring noise approach. A snow plow was coming. To our dismay, every duck took off as soon the truck passed by, leaving the geese and the swans. Charlie had to estimate the numbers of each duck species as they flew, but he was able to count the Ring-necked Ducks and wigeons, fortunately.

Under the Taconic bridges, we got three more species: 2 huddling Great Blue Herons, 1 Double-crested Cormorant, and 1 Common Loon.

Once we concluded the reservoir tour, Charlie needed to leave to start preparing for the compilation dinner. After Christine and I dropped him off at his car, we headed to Sundial Farm, which has good field and brush habitat. We flushed a Red-tailed Hawk as we walked toward the back field.

On the other side of the fence foraged a flock of more than 40 juncos. Though we had seen more than a hundred already, I was excited to see a larger flock – juncos are one of the common birds I enjoy watching no matter what (as proven in a previous post of mine). Curiously, some of them were hopping up and down. I thought they were performing part of a mating ritual, similar to that of the Sandhill Crane. Looking more closely, I realized they were hopping onto the reeds and riding the stalks down to the ground, taking the seeds with them. [I unfortunately can’t upload my video on WordPress. I did post it on Facebook.]

Aside from the Red-tail and the jumping juncos, we didn’t have else much. We heard a White-breasted Nuthatch and a Downy Woodpecker. Pishing only brought in chickadees, titmice, a few White-throated Sparrows, and some juncos.

With less than an hour of daylight left, the birds must have decided to retire early. Our last stops were the Hudson Hills Golf Course, a cul-de-sac that yielded a good number of birds for last year’s count, and Maryknoll again to drop me off at my car. We hardly found more birds at any of these locations. Pishing produced nothing much. 75 European starlings. A few more chickadees, juncos, and white-throated sparrows. A cardinal, a crow, a Carolina Wren and a Northern Mockingbird.

Christine and I had enough of the cold and the lack of bird activity. So we headed over to Teatown for the compilation dinner.

Other Ossining specials were PINE WARBLER, COMMON YELLOWTHROAT, RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH. One Peekskill group hilariously had a NORTHERN PARULA in front of the Peekskill Brewery (after or before beer?), hanging with Yellow-rumped Warblers.

If you would like to see more of Christine’s photographs from the count, visit her Flickr page here! She also uploaded fantastic videos of the Pileated Woodpecker and the Northern Flicker.