songbirds

Sapsucker Woods, Report 6-2018

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A dense tree cover. The phone camera makes the lighting brighter than it actually was. © S.G.Hansen

The morning was cool and sunny and clear. Young robins foraged around the small lawn medians at the parking lot. A few Red-winged Blackbirds sang among the reeds. A small crowd of immature European Starlings raucously gurgled around the feeder station. A young Red-bellied Woodpecker sounded high-pitched “querr”s.

I started a little bit earlier today, just before 8. Again, late. The beginning was a little bit quieter than last month’s. We are full in breeding season. The migrants headed for Canada have passed, but the summer birds that do stick around are having their second or thirds broods. I expected some song, plus fledglings and juveniles.

The canopy and mid-story were substantially more dense, darkening the air. The squirrels had decreased in number, but the chipmunks’ presence possibly doubled. A few minutes in the walk, I realized I forgot to apply bug spray. I unwisely thought I would have no need for it. The mosquitoes harassed my ears along the way (and one black fly towards the end). I ambled slowly throughout the walk, barely stopping for better looks.

At the boardwalk, I saw a family of White-breasted Nuthatches. Two juveniles – they sounded squeaky in comparison to adults – flitted from one tree to another, the feathers on their backs raised, wings poised. One of their parents flew to the same tree, “yank”-ing, noticeably in a deeper timbre.

Far in the woods, a Great Crested Flycatcher called. Prrrrt. Prrrrt. Prrrrt. Half a dozen pewees “pewee”‘d. A couple Red-eyed Vireos sang occasionally. Young woodpeckers continued to call. A Scarlet Tanager – who can be described as a robin sounding hoarse – lilted a broken song. A Veery sang as well. An Ovenbird twittered “teacher, teacher, teacher, teacher, teacher” a couple times. A few titmice and chickadees made their presence known with occasional calling. I’m sure their numbers were far greater than they let on.

A Wood Thrush sang, his steady, melodious trills slightly echoing among the myriad leaves. He sounded as if he were right above the trail. As soon as I rounded the corner, he had stopped. Disappointed I flushed him a way, I continued. Then I saw a flash of fluttering, a fleeting moment of two thrushes fighting. One briefly perched and then flew away. The second starting singing just off the path. The trills began to bounce off the leaves once more.

On the Les and Vail Severinghaus trail, just passed part of the trail that parallels, Salem Drive, I heard bizarre croaking. Walking closer, I discerned the source to be a young Common Raven. Far ahead, in an oak tree, the juvenile – a pitch-black splotch against deep green – begged, wings vibrating. Its parent flew to it. Their bills met. The juvenile uttered shrill gurgled croaks – too abstract for words, truly – as it swallowed whatever it was fed.

Three crows cawed. A Cooper’s Hawk called. Kek-kek-kek-kek-kek-kek-kek. The adult raven moved inward as its offspring flew to the trees closer to the Salem Drive apartments. The crows began to mob it, cawing, diving. The Cooper’s hawk called again. I presumed that the raven had flown in to drive the accipiter away, but the crows got another idea. I walked further down the winding path, above which the raven was perched. I unintentionally deterred the crows away. The Cooper’s called once more and zipped through the trees. The raven kept to the same perch, un-moving except to swivel its head around to study me.

eBird lists ravens as uncommon to Sapsucker Woods. I thought the fact interesting considering they clearly bred here this year.

Farther ahead, off the path, a Wood Thrush scavenged the forest floor. For nesting material, I thought. A moment later, a look through the binoculars revealed it carrying a worm in its bill. Its back and head were colored quite a reddish brown.

At the Wilson Trail junction by the pond, a Yellow Warbler and Common Yellowthroat sang. Two Mallards took off to head to the other side. I spied no herons.

More along with Wilson Trail, a House Wren warbled by the nesting box next to the stream. Activity zeroed to no new birds following my crossing the bridge. A second Yellow Warbler sang. The sixth Song Sparrow of the sang trilled. More Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, and American Goldfinches sang and called and flew high above.

I returned to the front parking lot. On a lone electricity pole, beyond the back parking lot, a Common Raven croaked, its beard fluffing magnificently.

eBird list located here.

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Sapsucker Woods, Report 5-2018

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The view from the boardwalk on Timmy’s Walk. © S.G.Hansen

Winter gray dulls. Spring gray augments the already vivid green of full-grown vegetation.

Rain had fallen copiously yesterday. The day started off cool. The forecast reported sun to shine later that morning, but the cloud cover appeared persistent. Sapsucker Woods feels open in the winter; in the spring, closed. One never knows how close trees are to one another until the green grows heavy. The American Beech’s copious hand-sized leaves obscured the sky, branches hanging over the trail. I touched the pointed tip of a leaf and barely felt it. Vernal pools of varying sizes had formed. Some spilled over the path, dampening the mulch to mush.

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An enclosed portion of Sapsucker Woods. © S.G.Hansen

8:30AM was late. I’d missed who knows what and how many. I’m finding the discipline of getting up before dawn to witness peak spring migration without anyone to meet difficult. Better than 11, I reasoned.

I walked a longer route today. I knew more birds would keep deep in the woods. Starting on the Wilson Trail as usual, I veered onto the Les and Vail Severinghaus loop, continued onto the West trail, and finally merged with the Wilson for the end. Go west.

I always heard a bird sing or call. Even if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have heard silence. Water from tulips and oaks and whatnot incessantly dripped onto beeches beneath and the vernal pools.

Red-eyed and Blue-headed Vireos sang from behind the mid-canopy denseness. I stopped numerous times, listening, waiting for them to keep singing, watching for movement. I never saw one. But they were there. Same for the Veerys and Wood Thrushes.

I didn’t expect to see an Eastern Wood-Pewee. For some reason they are the most ridiculous flycatcher set one’s binocs on despite the fact that they sing every two seconds. It would be the only pewee of the six that I see.

I kept hearing a vociferous, abrasive call from the canopy. The best way to locate a bird in foliage is for it to see it fly away first. It took me another moment to find the bird. It gave me pain worse than warbler neck. I saw it briefly, reddish brown tail fanned and unfanned. Great Crested Flycatcher. I knew it’s weep call well, but forgot about it’s prrrt call. I heard at least another two during the walk.

A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker softly mewed twice. It sounded like he didn’t have to make much territorial effort.

An Ovenbird sang a few times at the Les and Vail Severinghaus and West junction. I was relived. Up until now, I only had four warbler species so far this year: Yellow-rumped, Yellow, Palm, and possibly (by song alone) Nashville. Ovenbird is an excellent staple warbler. Where there’s an Ovenbird, there’s more warblers to follow.

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I saw lots of Mayapple. © S.G.Hansen

When I reached the edge of the pond, converging with the Wilson Trail, the clouds parted. The air began to feel warm and humid. A Baltimore Oriole sang such small bits of his song he sounded like a late-fall ghost. A Yellow Warbler flew to a small tree in front of me to forage. I saw his red stripes. I had to sneeze twice. I tend to sneeze when I look up towards the sun. A flash fight among an Eastern Kingbird, a robin, and a blackbird occurred in the reeds across the pond. Once the three seconds were over, they perched near one another, as if watching, waiting.

I heard my first of year House Wren. My neighborhood has all Carolina. I spotted something small and bird dart across the path. I pished. A bird flew up. Wilson’s Warbler! His black cap sharply contrasted against his yellow body.

More of catbirds’ skewered songs…. Cardinals still nested. Another oriole alighted the air with his cut-short song. Not long after, I heard an unfamiliar song. A sweet song. Short, one phrase. Pishing didn’t coax it out. But it showed itself near the path, foraging low in the trees, singing as it moved opposite my path movement. A Maggie. Magnolia Warbler. Number 3 song, according to my Audubon app.

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Japanese honeysuckle. Bad. Very bad. © S.G.Hansen

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A muskrat dense weirdly close to the path. © S.G.Hansen

I searched the reeds by the pond and those at the Sherwood Observation Platform for Green Heron, rails, and bitterns. A Great Blue Heron is like a penny to me. I didn’t see a Swamp Sparrow like I did last month. At the platform, I heard a Belted Kingfisher rattle a little. I sat on a bench. I’d continuously heard blackbirds and grackles throughout the walk, especially close to the pond. Two grackles mobbed a crow that had no interest in anything but flying to its destination. Two Tree Swallows loudly gurgled as they fought, tightly whirling around each other. I heard the kingfisher again. He was perched on a branch across the pond. Likely, he was aware I was watching him. I’d propped my bins on the railing so my arms wouldn’t shake. I thought I would watch him until he dove away, but minutes passed. He didn’t budge. Occasionally, he bounced up and down, tail sluggishly flicking, beak opening and closing – all at once. He turned his head around to preen his back. (Kingfisher beaks are blacker and longer than I imagined). I sensed I disturbed him.

Back at the parking lot, a Common Yellowthroat sang. I was eased to look at him even for a little bit. “Wichity, wichity” morphed into syllables un-yellowthroat-like. Then I saw my 44th species for the walk: an Eastern Phoebe.

You can view my eBird list here.

Sapsucker Woods, Report 4-2018

We experienced March weather for much of this April. The temperature rarely exceeded 40° at its highest, and a dull overcast ruled the sky, often precipitating cold rain or light snow. The ground remained frozen. Crocuses bloomed late. Tree blossom growth stymied.

Still the birds migrated.

I started full-time for state parks in the beginning of April. Since I worked in maintenance, I was outside. Miserable as it was most of time, working in cold or cold/wet weather, I could witness early migration. An Eastern Phoebe sang around the shop on my first day. Common Loons – donned in full breeding plumage – wailed and yodeled near the waterfront of Cayuga Lake. Common Grackles crackled and flew about everywhere. Robins yeeped and foraged on the lawns. Belted Kingfishers dove for fish at the marina, also where Great Blue Herons hunched. An Osprey struggled against 40 MPH winds to fly north. Dozens of Tree Swallows flycatched on the lake. The same flock of Ruby- and Golden-crowned Kinglets and a lone Brown Creeper hung around the campground for a few days in a row. A small flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers blazed through the small trees by the bathhouse. And I heard my First of Year Chipping Sparrow on the 12th, and my first Field Sparrow on the 20th.

This past weekend, we got spring. The temperature finally exceeded 45°. According to our office manager (I forgot where she pulled the statistic from), this was the first weekend since December 17 that had clear skies both days. The park patrons certainly took advantage.

I planned to visit Sapsucker Woods on my next day off, this Monday. The spring weather continued. Full sun. Blue sky. I didn’t have to layer as much. It took some willpower to not linger by the Lab entrance and feeders – a sparrow corner this morning. Song, white-throated, junco, tree, and 2 fields. Also present were numerous blackbirds, grackles, goldfinches, and house finches. The latter two’s sweet rolling songs filled the air.

I followed my usual route: the Wilson Trail around the pond. In the woods, oaks and other trees had fully developed buds. The old leaves of the beeches shook in the breeze. I disturbed a Rusty Blackbird foraging in the swamp as I ambled on the boardwalk. Farther into the woods, the quiet settled for only a little while. Chipmunks, gray squirrels, and red squirrels scurried in the leaf litter. A small flock of titmice and Golden-crowed Kinglets fluttered by. A Wood Duck briefly called, presumably a flyover. Various woodpecker drums echoed. A female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker cried and immediately flew into view. I watched her climb the trunk, but she flitted away seconds later. I tried to get back on her when a circling Broad-winged Hawk soared into my bins field, banded tail was fully fanned out, reddish tan breast bright in the sunlight. Ecstatic at this surprise First of Year, I held my gaze until it circled north out of view.

A little farther down, I heard strange squealing. On cue, two more sapsuckers appeared, an adult male and an immature. The immature, for whatever reason, wanted to bother the adult, but the latter wanted nothing to do with former and chased the youngin’ away. They disappeared not long after.

As soon as I approached the West Trail junction, I heard a loud mew practically next to my ear. Another adult sapsucker was foraging a few feet away from at eye level. He, too, disappeared shortly, not liking my next-door presence.

At the northwest corner of the pond, a few spring peepers peeped. One more Chipping Sparrow prattled, or perhaps two. Two male cardinals chased after each other. A female chipped nervously, her crest up and tail wagging slowly. Since pines and other evergreens grow here, I kept my ears open for Pine Warbler. Other birders observed them over the weekend. I wasn’t about to make assumptions since I’m still confused about the different between chipping sparrow and pine warbler. I know chipping sparrow, but not the pine warbler so confidently.

I walked to the end of the dock located at the northern side. I’d been hearing Canada Geese for nearly all of my walk so far. I saw not one Mallard or American Black Duck, or even a Hooded Merganser. The Ring-necked Ducks and Common Mergansers sighted over the weekend moved on rather quickly. The pond was still. As I searched for any obscured ducks, I barely caught an Osprey producing a prodigious splash as it successfully snatched a fish. The Osprey flew to a snag by the Lab to eat its brunch.

Continuing on Wilson north, I walked into a burst of Ruby-crowned Kinglets. My tally increased rapidly as they dashed from branch to branch, tree to tree. A Brown-headed Cowbird sang from the canopy. A robin searched for food by the stream. A Cayuga Bird Club member was walking the trail from the other direction. We exchanged our sightings and chatted for a bit. I felt slightly downcast about my Pine Warbler, but I hoped to see the Palm Warbler she had just earlier.

After we parted ways, I went to the Sherwood Observation Platform behind the Lab. Two phoebes flycatched next to the platform. A couple frogs (toads?) sounded from behind the reeds. As I left, I heard an unfamiliar call. I didn’t see the bird that produced that call, but a Swamp Sparrow ventured out (another First of Year) to forage along the pond’s edge, next to the lawn, only about four feet away from me. I watched it for a long moment. I was lucky to get a good look at such a cooperative Swamp and noted its diagnostic marks.

Nearing the front of the Lab and back to where I began, I gave up on my Palm Warbler. I left happy with quite a number of observations: sparrow diversity, a surprise Broad-wing and Osprey, several Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers of various ages and plumage, and a couple movements of Ruby- and Golden-crowned Kinglets. The fact that the weather was finally spring-like helped a little!

You can view my eBird list here.

Sapsucker Woods, Report 3-2018

The snow in the valley of Cayuga Lake basin – where I now live – had mostly melted during the past couple days. “Up the hill,” towards the Lab, several inches of snow still covered the ground. The car thermometer read 16°. Until this week, this month hovered around the thirties. I wasn’t worried this dip would deter early migrants. The sun shined at its fullest this morning, without even a wisp of a cloud to cover any blue.

Nearly at the parking lot, I flushed a few small birds gritting on roadside. I slowed…junco, junco, junco…Fox Sparrow! It perched for a moment to study my car before diving into the bushes. A happy-chance first-of-year! I hadn’t seen one since December.

For this month’s walk, I joined the Cayuga Birding Club, which holds a walk at Sapsucker Woods every Saturday and Sunday at 8:30. I was first to arrive. As I waited at the Lab entrance, I watched and listened to take note of the much activity happening around the feeders. Several dozen Red-winged Blackbirds flocked in the trees above the feeders, singing a continuous chorus of kon-ka-ree’s and calling. The number of Blue Jays kept to the teens. The usual amount of feeder goldfinches sang and per-chick-o-ree’d. American Tree Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, and Dark-eyed Juncos skulked in the brush and foraged for seeds. Geese honked, chickadees dee-dee’d, downies downied, several crows cawed, cardinals boomed their song, mourning dove wings whistled. I heard a fox sparrow sing – likely the same one from before – from somewhere around the parking lot.

Our guide, Dick Feldman, started the walk with standing by the pond for a good while to allow us to visually sort out the birds. Our group was small, unsurprisingly not exceeding ten. The eight of us looked at the tree sparrows, marked the yellow of the white-throats, observed two downies fighting, and noted the goldfinches’ increasing yellow. A couple Common Grackles (another first-of-year) joined the blackbirds.

A pair of Wood Ducks suddenly took off. I was the only one quick enough to notice and ID them. They must have hidden themselves towards the back of the open water, behind the geese and mallards. (The pond would be completely frozen if it weren’t for the water churner). Mid-March is quite early, especially at this moment because of the cold and snow. Unlike other ducks, they are only here for spring and summer. A third first-of-year for me…

Dick the led us around the building to the northern end of the Wilson Trail. We stopped to watch a half dozen Cedar Waxwings forage for seeds in two tamaracks. The clear morning sun alighted the subtle softness of their gray-yellow-beige gradient and the bright yellow terminal tail band. I’ve only seen in passing twice this year, zooming overhead, faintly crying zee zee zee. This flock stayed put, eating and resting at leisurely. We left them behind to continue our walk.

A movement of many red-winged blackbirds with a few grackles and starlings whirlwinded around us, darting from tree to tree, perching, lifting up. Two blackbirds sticking closely together stuck out to me: Rusty Blackbirds! I presumed them both as male since they were purely black except for some spotty rust patches. Their yellow eyes seemed to stand out more boldly than a grackle’s. Unlike the waxwings, they did not stay put, but they gave us enough time to get our good looks. I recalled the one Rusty frequently sighted at the feeders towards the beginning of the year. It hadn’t been observed for weeks. I was happy to see two at once this morning.

Two of us dropped out to warm up. I didn’t feel too cold, especially because we moved some. Owling at 4:30 during a Christmas Bird Count spoiled me (see why here). We gingerly walked the path till the viewing dock, which was directly on the other side of the pond from the bench area. Two Songs Sparrows dueled as we stood and chatted. After our rest, we backtracked our path to the Lab entrance. We encountered nothing new. Same birds, same sounds. A blue jay was perched in the tamaracks that the cedar waxwings once occupied.

Our walk ended in time for the Lab to open for the day. By then, the sky had become partly cloudy. Bird activity lessened quite a bit, but the blackbirds and goldfinches unceasingly sounded as we parted.

On Chasing

A bird gets lost or confused. A bird finds a place somewhere far out of range. A bird likes this spot for the food and company. A bird stays for however long it feels like. A bird goes home. Or dies there.

You hear about a bird. Do you chase it?

Do you immediately drop everything, put your life on hold however active? Or do you make a plan? Do you fly? Or do you only drive? Do you travel alone? Or do you prefer travel with other birders? Do you only go to public places? Or do you not blink twice at visiting a private property?

If you live in the Northeast as I, do you recall the Yellow-headed Blackbird of Stamford, Connecticut in 2014? It’s native to central and western North America, extending as far east as Michigan. The Painted Bunting of Brooklyn in 2015? It’s native to southeast United States and Central America. The Corn Crake of Long Island in the autumn of 2017? It’s native to Eurasia. Did you see them?

For those not in the know, “chasing” a rare bird or a new ABA (American Bird Association) area bird is a gamble to acquire a life bird – so especially sought by experienced birders – or to witness a historical ornithological event. The appearance of the bird can be attributed to going beyond its range during migration, a huge storm, or simply a wintering visit. A rare bird is a wonderful or shocking surprise. But an ephemeral time phase. A birder might not see it because they have no way of knowing when the bird wants to try going home. The length of stay can last an afternoon, a week, or even an entire season. Such variation is what makes chasing a gamble. A birder has to guess if traveling is worth the time and money or not. Or they just leap at it.

Birders who like chasing have an “itch.” The degree of the itch varies from person to person, usually influenced by financial privilege and/or by how far one is willing to go (literally and figuratively speaking) depending how much one’s got going in one’s life.

All this to say, chasing is stressful. In either a positive or a negative way. Thrill or anxiety – pick, quick.

Or some birders don’t have an itch. They experience nothing.

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I don’t like gambling.

Before moving upstate, I have chased only twice. The first was a Cackling Goose close to home last winter. I had to take care of something in the area. First chase, first success.

The second time, this early winter, I went for the American White Pelican at Playland Lake in Rye. I delayed a few days before driving down. No pelican in sight on any of the small islands. I lingered for at least forty minutes, walking along the lake, before I gave up and went home. The pelican was sighted ten minutes after I left. I didn’t have another chance to chase it because it flew off for good later that afternoon.

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Birders are regularly observing Snowy Owls at the Finger Lakes Regional Airport. Snowies irrupt as far down as Long Island from the Arctic (where they breed) when the small mammal populations are down.

Within the first week I moved, I visited Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, my favorite birding place. The wetlands complex was totally frozen over – I would not be “ducking” that day. Dismayed, I drove up to the visitor’s center. I learned about the Snowies at the airport while chatting with the guide.

I made my way immediately. Unfamiliar with the area, I didn’t know where to look, so I kept to the entrance of the terminal driveway. I left without a lifer.

I realized days later that I hadn’t signed up for the eBird alerts for counties in the area. Hourly, not daily. Done.

Half a month later, my friend and Saw Mill River Audubon board president Val Lyle was staying in Ithaca for a few days. I’d invited to take her around the lake to find ducks. eBird reports regarding the Snowies suddenly boosted in activity the day before our trip. We went for the owls first.

Bearing the eBird comments in mind, we went to the locations where the Snowies were sighted. Our car crawled on the roads, searching farm fields and all kinds of poles and farm equipment. We lingered at the empty hotspots.

The only bird we saw was a male American Kestrel hunting along the powerlines.

Since then, I received consistent daily eBird alerts – at least one per day, the Snowies sighted around the same locations, and a few more. The owl territory expanded. In case you are wondering why I don’t chase after them more often: The drive to the airport alone lasts 50 minutes; I easily burn a quarter of a tank of gas there and back and wandering. Not only does a drive cost a lot of time and gas, the amount of sitting is despite the constant motion feels hollow.

I only tried again this past Tuesday morning, on the 13th. Eleven alerts in one day for five different locations raised my confidence. I burned the lists’ comments in my mind, hoping to rely on the Snowies’ pattered behavior.

For two hours, I floated between the town of Varick and the airport. I went to every location at least twice. Only I to keep an eye left and right on every field, every pole, every potential perch while trying to drive straight at 30 MPH felt slightly hellish. Find the white blog, find the white blob. It could be perched on a high point, among dozens of lamp posts, telephone poles or sock poles. Or it could be sitting anywhere on the expansive ground, white-ish bird against stark white snow.

It was only when I returned home I noticed that these eBird alerts were two days behind, the checklists actually from the Sunday the 11th. Then, I received the first county alert for the 13th: someone saw a Snowy at the most frequented hotspot ten minutes after I decided to go home.

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Rusty Blackbirds are one of the fastest declining birds in North America. I can only count my sightings on one hand. It was somewhat fortunate that I saw them twice last December. The previous time, in autumn of 2015.

I stated in my last post that a male Rusty has been hanging around the Cornell Lab of Ornithology feeders. As of now, it’s been almost a month.

Unfulfilled from that horribly unproductive excursion for the Snowies, I half-halfheartedly chased the Rusty that afternoon. I wanted a little exercise from all that sitting while driving. A meditative walk through Sapsucker Woods should help. As I walked up to the Lab entrance, I balked at the idea of “the third time’s the charm.” If it weren’t the case for the Snowy, why should it be for the Rusty?

The air smelled of late winter, of lengthening sunshine. My leisurely pace crunched the fluffy snow. My breath remained invisible. Muted Route 13 traffic never lessened. A subtle breeze rattled sapling beech tree leaves. Four males Red-bellied Woodpeckers trilled, vying for territory. One trill was high-pitched – a first-year male giving his all.

A swampy aroma arose from the thawing stream behind the pond. A chickadee dee-dee-dee‘d. A female cardinal chipped. An almost familiar song erupted. I couldn’t decide if I were listening to a male cardinal or a mockingbird – I heard only cardinal, but with rapid-fire force and gurgle quality.

I crossed the bridge. A call uttered from within the shrubs before me. A mimid – a mockingbird it is, or a thrasher! I pished. The female cardinal popped up, crest fired-up. Determined to attract the mimid, I pished more.

The bird leapt to a high branch with gusto. I looked through my bins. He had yellow eyes. His music was a musically mechanical burble. The early afternoon sun shined almost blindingly behind him. I couldn’t see his plumage. But he had yellow eyes.

His gaze never left my figure. After a moment, he switched from singing to calling. He then took off and flew to perch high on a tree farther back in the woods. I lost sight of him.

Sapsucker Woods, Report 2-2018

Over the past couple weeks, eBirders reported a male Rusty Blackbird hanging around the feeders near the entrance of the Lab of Ornithology. I missed it last week and wanted to try again today. I planned to watch the feeders for a bit, and then, if no luck, walk the trails and return to the feeders.

I arrived just before 9. A light snow fell. I heard a crowd of Blue Jays as soon as I turned off the car. They bunched in a leafless tree near the sidewalk. Goldfinches were perched with them. I headed for the birders. When I was within twenty feet of the tree, the goldfinches fled en masse in a twittery mess, all two dozen.

I peeked through wooden blind – through tight grove of pine, spruce, and hemlock –  and browsed the ground. No Rusty. Not one bird. Only snow and seed.

I could never have imagined blue jays being more incessantly noisy than at this moment. Utter pandemonium. In addition to the usual “jay!”-ing and bugling, they sounded a strange whistle I’d never heard before. On and on, from all directions. They zipped overhead, between tree to tree every few seconds. Just when I settled on a number, more came into view. Up and up went my count. Easily thirty. On top of that, more than a dozen each of House Finches and female Red-winged Blackbirds flew into the berry-laden trees by the boardwalk. I counted at least nine cardinals with them. The goldfinches twittered from a distance. A Pileated Woodpecker intermittently called from within the woods. White-throated Sparrows, American Tree Sparrows, and Dark-eyed Juncos flitted up from the ground to perch in the shrubs.

This sensory overload distraction was worse than a fallout of warblers. I awed at hearing a new blue jay sound. I scrambled to tick each species, let alone count how many of each. I turned this way and that to note what birds flew around and picked up.  I wondered which bird species can sound like pickerel frogs (the blackbirds? or the jays again?). Don’t forget the two dozen Mourning Doves hunched in three different trees.

I thought I saw at least two Purple Finches with the house finches, all gobbling down berries. I excitedly tried to confirm the ID but lost track of them in the bustle. After spending some time on other birds, I noticed that the finches had perched close together in an adjacent tree (not moving, thankfully). As I went from male to male, I questioned my ability to differentiate House from Purple. I thought I long graduated from that stage. Perhaps, now, I was seeing only House and the Purples had flown away. Or, I solely saw overly bright and colorful Houses. I considered the early reports on northern songbirds not irrupting this year, including purple finches. I went with ticking only house.

During my finch deliberation, I heard in the background but didn’t register the jays “jay”-ing more often and louder. Even the fifty or so mallards in the pond quacked in protest. I’d been standing in the open, relatively close to the feeders, binoculars poised. I sat on the bench by the pond. The canopy over the bench seemed to help. While I processed my observations, all of the birds settled down. The goldfinches, jays, and others began visiting the feeders. The juncos and sparrows foraged around me in the leafless shrubs. I could hear the cars on Route 13 passing by. I figured I would sit for another half hour until the visitor’s center opened.

I saw a Hairy Woodpecker foraging. When I put my bins on it, the jays got loud again. I assumed I roused everyone from the peaceful feeder feast. I felt like a cat minding its own business, wandering without the instinct to kill on sight. I started walking the Wilson Trail. The jays followed me for a bit. Eventually, their noise died down. Now immersed in the forest, a quiet descended. All of the birds flocked by the feeders, leaving only a select solitary individuals, such as a chickadee and a red-bellied woodpecker, to forage in Sapsucker Woods.

The snowfall stopped. A high wind blew through the pine grove canopy. I passed a mole hole dug near the edge of the path. A gray squirrel huddled on a six-inch pine branch, tail on back. A young red squirrel scurried inside its hole in a snag. At the same time I passed right in front of the snag, the squirrel peaked through, saw me, and immediately rushed back inside.

My trek was quiet the entire time. I looped around the pond and the Lab, back to the feeders. The jays started. I looked for the Rusty again. And yet again, no Rusty. I kept under the entrance canopy, creating a final tally of my sightings. The jays quieted, and everyone else went back to placidly feeding.

Brinton Brook Hike, Report 12-2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Brown is beautiful. © S.G. Hansen

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

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

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

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

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Praying Mantis egg sack. © S.G. Hansen

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

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

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

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

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

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