songbirds

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.

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Hike on Turkey Mountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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© Mike the Hike Leader

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© Mike the Hike Leader

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brinton Brook Hike, Report 11-2017

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Tulip Tree leaves. © S.G. Hansen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brinton Brook Hike, Report 10-2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brinton Brook Hike, Report 9-2017

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A sign of autumn. © S.G. Hansen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can view the eBird list here.

Brinton Brook Hike, Report 8-2017

The day began cool but gradually warmed to slightly uncomfortable, with a little humidity. Several year-round birds sang the parking lot as I readied myself for the hike: Northern Flicker, Blue Jay, Northern Cardinal, Carolina Wren, American Robin, White-breasted Nuthatch, American Crow.

I stood at the kiosk intersection for a bit. An Eastern Wood-pewee cried “pe-weeeeee!” Three Downy Woodpeckers sounded off one-two-three. Two chanting Black-capped Chickadees, singing in different keys, managed to utter one “fee-bee” phrase simultaneously, puncturing the air with brief discord.

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A not-so-inconspicuous nest – right above the path. © S.G. Hansen

At the meadow, I heard an unfamiliar chipping note coming from a bush. I attempted to pish the bird out. Chickadees and a male cardinal gathered nearby and responded with annoyance. A Pileated Woodpecker manically called deep in the trees. I persisted for another half-minute. Finally, an immature male Indigo Bunting popped up to the tree above. His transformation to become an adult was nearly complete. Small brown spots dotted his vibrant blue.

Hardly any goldenrod grew in the meadow. Only one bush. Unfamiliar vegetation – most likely invasive species – had taken hold instead. Not many butterflied fluttered about. Maybe one Great-Spangled Fritillary and a couple Red Admirals.

At the pond, up to maybe a dozen Blue Jays – adults and immatures – called and bugled as they flew around. I didn’t see the Great Blue Heron from last month. The Red-winged Blackbirds had quieted down, save for the half-dozen immatures that flew from lily pad to lily pad. It was difficult to look for anything in the reeds on the other side of the pond since the tree branches blocked much of my view. To live up to the label “birder,” I made believe I could somehow find a bittern. Instead, not disappointingly, I caught the movement of two Eastern Phoebes flycatching and fighting. As I continued walking I heard a wet rustling behind me. A female Wood Duck flew from my side of the pond to the other. She quickly disappeared into the reeds.

My ascent to the powerlines on the blue trail was a little quiet. I heard my third pewee, more titmouse families, and still more blue jays. I startled a male flicker that was foraging on the ground. It was at this point the temperature warmed to that of a typical summer day. And it was at this point that the black flies began to harass me. I hoped they would stop once I’d the powerlines.

And they did. Sunshine forces them to hide in the shadowed woods. Other insect life was in full swing in the field. Countless bees, butterflies, and other bugs whizzed around the flower-filled vegetation, including the many goldenrod bushes. Cicadas – which I’d been hearing since I got out of the car – screamed at their loudest potential from all directions.

The first bird I spotted was a phoebe perched high in a dead tree on the edge of the sanctuary. To the west, towards Bear Mountain, a lone Turkey Vulture soared and two unseen young Red-tailed Hawks begged for food. A few Gray Catbirds meowed. A small bird zipped to a bush way behind me: a Prairie Warbler, black facial markings so faint that I wondered if it were a young one or an adult receding to fall plumage.

Green frogs hung around in the same pools where I’d scared the turtles last month. They dived into the mud at my approach. A couple of them, though, floated like this:

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Green frog. © S.G. Hansen

Ahead, a towhee slurred its call so that it sounded like “twEEEE!” instead of “tow-WEEEE!”. A female Orchard Oriole perched atop a bush, then disappeared shortly. I heard another unfamiliar chipping coming from two different small trees. The chipping, identical in sound, hinted that it belonged to two birds of the same species. I managed to get a glimpse of one of them, a female American Redstart. Since I didn’t get on the other bird, I could only guess as much that it was simply another redstart.

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Close-up of a Carpenter Bee in the wild. © S.G. Hansen

As I rounded the corner to the path that would lead me back into the sanctuary, I saw an orange flash. Baltimore Oriole. I tried coaxing it from the reeds with no luck.

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Goldenrod and Queen Anne’s Lace, the latter of which is not native to this continent. © S.G. Hansen

No sooner than I re-entered the woods the black flies swarmed around my head again. I walked with my hands poised over my ears. I was swatting them every four seconds. The descent was very quiet, save for a jay calling. Disregarding bird presence, the woods actually weren’t at all quiet. Cicadas buzzed and buzzed and buzzed. I realized that there was no reason to remain patient for the birds if there were no birds to observe, so I jogged down the white and red trails to escape the black flies. Magically, I didn’t have to deal with them once I got to the yellow trail.

Now that I was nearing the end (or the beginning), I started hearing more birds. Nothing new except for a perpetual Red-eyed Vireo. I stopped at the patch where the hardy kiwi was eradicated. Behind it, perhaps fifty feet away, mid-canopy, I noticed small bird movement – a different bird. I only got a couple glimpses of it before it vanished, but that was enough for me to ID it as a Canada Warbler. Besides the soft gray back and bright yellow breast, it had the diagnostic apparent white-eye rings and a very faint necklace. I can never get enough of Canada Warblers. Their appearances are always so fleeting.

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I have no clue what this could be but it is very interesting. I spooked some of the insects that were chilling on top of the round things. © S.G. Hansen

I lingered at trail’s end for a while. That jogging got me ahead of time. It turned out that the timing was just right. I happily observed three excellent additional species for the list. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird rocketed in and out of view, green back shimmering brilliantly. A female Scarlet Tanager foraged mid-canopy. A male Black-and-white Warbler crept along the trees’ branches. I also watched a female and an immature male Baltimore Oriole forage, a scruffy looking Carolina Wren climbing a rotted snag, and a pewee flycatch and use the same snag as a perch.

A quick check at the Weinstein pond only yielded a Mourning Dove – the first and only for the hike – on the lawn.

I observed 33 species. I didn’t exactly experience the summer doldrums. Granted, not as many songbirds sang because this isn’t spring migration. Certain birds – besides the Red-eyed Vireo – are still vocal in the morning even during the time of year I thought they would feel like they would no longer have to sing. But I am merely going by one isolated location. Another surprise is the lack of American Goldfinch. I only heard two during my hike. Since they breed in August, I expected to observe a few more than that.

Check out the eBird list!

Bird Banding with Bedford Audubon

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

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

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

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The banding table. © S.G. Hansen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Female Northern Cardinal © S.G. Hansen

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

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Female Common Yellowthroat © S.G. Hansen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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