songbirds

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.

Brinton Brook Hike, Report 7-2017

I arrived at 8:40AM. The air was humid yet again, although the temperature was relatively cool (mid-70s). Rain had fallen the night before. Steam was rising from the driveway. The earth was damp. A breeze shook water off the trees. I listened to the robins scold, a wood thrush sing, a flicker and a pewee called, and a small group of young titmice buzz.

A Red-spotted Purple butterfly landed on the gravel behind my car. Although I’m less knowledgeable about insects, I’ve learned a few names from Mike over the past couple years. I would keep my eyes on the butterflies, moths, and dragonflies as well as the birds during this hike. As if they knew July 1 had passed, the insects climbed so high in numbers it’s become impossible to turn every angle and not see delicate wings flutter.

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Red-spotted Purple butterfly. © S.G. Hansen

I heard a male Indigo Bunting sing at the kiosk intersection. I tried finding him, but his song bounced around the trees so well that he remained hidden. I pressed along to the field, where another bunting was singing at the top of a tree behind the grasses. I couldn’t figure out which was the parent of the immature bunting I saw last month. I don’t think immatures grow up so fast, although Indigo Buntings can have up to two broods per year, and it maybe that another male found good territory adjacent to the first.

I lingered for a few minutes. A couple of Great Spangled Fritillary butterflies fed on the two flowering milkweed bushes. A few cabbage whites and gypsy moths flickered around aimlessly. While trying to get more looks at this second male bunting, I noticed movement in a nearby, shorter tree. A female Scarlet Tanager (colored dull yellow) and a young Blue-gray Gnatcatcher forage so swiftly that they disappeared further into the trees after only ten seconds.

At the pond, I immediately spotted the Great Blue Heron that my friend Christine (also a Saw Mill River Audubon board of director) saw during the Second Saturday hike a couple days ago. It stood very still at the southwestern corner. Its chest was stripey, indicating it was an immature.

Lily pads almost completely covered the water. Numerous dragonflies whizzed above the water (nameless, as they were too far away and too small for me to see clearly). Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles called from all around. A young Downy Woodpecker – plumage ruffled and imperfect – loudly cried. A pair of Carolina Wrens engaged in spat: one trilled and the other chattered. I flushed a dozen robins as I further ambled along the pond.

As I started hiking up the blue trail to the powerlines, I encountered two different groups of young titmice. A Scarlet Tanager call repeatedly: Chik-burr. A Blue-headed Vireo languidly sang.

A Blue Jay landed on a sapling next to the trail, and then it flew out of sight shortly after. I thought I heard it poorly imitating a Red-tailed Hawk. But when the calling continued and a grey squirrel started scolding, I knew to look for the Real McCoy. (I hear jays imitating Red-tails more often that I hear the Red-tails themselves. Sometimes the jays sound impeccable, but most of the time they sound like Blue Jays imitating Red-tailed Hawks). It was somewhere along the edge of the forest. When I moved a bit off the trail to get a sight of it, the hawk flew away.

At the top of hill, I flushed even more robins. A Field Sparrow and a House Wren sang. I heard a towhee utter Drink your tea repeatedly from the powerlines. The rhythm if this call was different from last month’s towhee. The “Drink your” sounded like eighth notes rather than sixteenth notes.

Just after I ventured out to the powerlines, four immature Red-winged Blackbirds flocked to a bush and called and called, either curious or furious about my presence. Either way, they took off when I continued walking.

I felt slightly hotter now that I was under the sun. Not as bad as last month, but still quite bright. I heard a third Indigo Bunting, two more towhees, a second House Wren, and a mockingbird sing up ahead. Many nameless small butterflies or moths fluttered or zipped around. Bumblees, honeybees, another fritillary, and one Eastern Tiger Swallowtail drank nectar from the milkweed, more widespread here, pictured below.

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Milkweed flowers are one of the more cheery sights of summer. © S.G. Hansen

I unintentionally flushed a female Baltimore Oriole, who was presumably feeding on berries, still sticking out like a sore thumb despite her muted yellow plumage. Shortly after, four immature orioles gathered on single bush. They called sporadically as they were perched. They didn’t seem to understand what to do, as if unsure what to make of me. Like the blackbirds, they, too, stared at me. I had my best look at young Baltimore Orioles yet – a excellent opportunity to unhurriedly note their washed-out orange plumage and their gray and white wings. As soon as I pressed forward, they flew to the trees, where they flitted around in search of food. Two young catbirds took over the bush.

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An osprey flying over may have dropped this partial fish skeleton. © S.G. Hansen

A miniature pond had formed on small section the path from a stream of water trickling down. I had to jump my way across. I gingerly took a step, and then another step. Five young turtles suddenly darted from the grass I nearly stepped on, dived into the water, and buried themselves under the mud. During that split second they jumped, I could see that their shells were dark with orange lines.

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They’re under there somewhere… © S.G. Hansen

I spooked so many robins every few yards the entire length I walked. They tore from out inside the berry-laden vegetation, crying Yeep! or Cuck cuck cuck! I lost count of the gray blurs and started rolling an estimated number, around three dozen. Many were adult age, though a few were speckle-breasted young. I didn’t expect so many robins here. Christine didn’t see so many on Saturday. This is the kind of number I would observe in the winter, the time when robins generally flock in larger numbers. Perhaps the individuals that are already done with breeding are now on the nomadic move.

Now back in the sanctuary, underneath the cool canopy shade, I heard the same Hairy Woodpecker family I saw last month. But after that, my descent on the white and red trails were quiet, with the exception of another young titmouse group. The number of robins sighted dropped drastically, although I did see a few more.

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Have a seat, I guess. Do a big sit. © S.G. Hansen

On the yellow trail once again – the other half of the pond loop – I began hearing the wood thrushes and pewees again. The Scarlet Tanager I heard calling from before was now singing. A group of a half-dozen or so Blue Jays jay-ed boisterously. I thought they were mobbing a raptor, but when I got close, they shut up. They were only talking to one another, apparently. I find it difficult to discern whether jays are talking or mobbing. (Personally, crows are easier.)

Towards trail’s end, I heard a pair Wood Thrushes duel. Down the trail, I saw a Red-trailed Hawk land high in a tree. A grackle and a blackbird moved in to protest its presence. It flew away promptly. I couldn’t tell if this was the same hawk from before, or a different one. I played in safe; I kept my Red-tail count at 1.

I observed 32 species on this hike. I was happy to exceed my goal of 25 and to hear a lot more singing from the migrants than I expected. Wood Thrushes and pewees, yes, but not Indigo Buntings and Scarlet Tanagers. Funny enough, no Red-eyed Vireos!

You can view the eBird list here.

Times of Trouble

On Sunday a couple weekends ago, I was trail stewarding at the Bull Hill Loop trail head, in Putnam County. I had to manage the table by myself early in the afternoon. I usually listen and look out for birds when I trail steward all day long in order to help the time pass, especially during visitor lulls. The number of species to add on my list dwindled to zero. I heard the same birds sing over and over – Red-eyed Vireo, American Redstart, Brown Cowbird, etc.

Not far into the woods, a few American Crows started cawing raucously. Sometimes they caw when simply talking with one another, but their tone hinted that they were mobbing something instead. I looked up in their direction. I couldn’t see them. The cawing continued. A small moment passed. Then a Red-tailed Hawk appeared into view overhead, followed by more than a half dozen crows.

To watch a mobbing is of the most exciting events in birdwatching. It happens all year round whenever passerines (perching birds a part of the Passeriformes order, which includes songbirds, woodpeckers, corvids, etc.) gang up and attempt to kick raptors out of the area. They boisterously call and even dive at the raptor. During breeding season, eggs, nestlings, and fledglings are easy pickings for carnivorous birds. It’s fun to watch a robin chase a jay; an oriole or a kingbird closely glide above a hawk or crow; and flocks of crows, jays, and grackles harass a hawk or owl. Sometimes even vultures – carrion eaters, of all things – get mobbed. I feel bad for them.

I’ve seen so many Red-tails during my 3.75-something years as a birder. They are the most commonly observed raptor in the lower Hudson. But I picked up my bins because why not? It’s always nice to view a raptor so up close.

A couple of the crows started to sound strangled with desperation. The group frantically chased after the Red-tail, which continued to glide, delicately evading every one of its pursuers. When I put my bins on the hawk, I could see that it tightly held a young crow in its talons.

I didn’t have more than two seconds. Mobbing scenes happen rapidly. Though the young crow looked like an adolescent, a couple weeks passed its fledgling stage. Small, with fully grown plumage. And it looked alive. Calm. Knowing struggling to be futile. Waiting for its family to rescue it.

The Red-tail and the crows headed towards the river, out of sight. I could still hear the frantic cawing. Seconds later, the Red-tail appeared overhead again. Four crows trailing behind, it swiftly glided to the north. I didn’t have time to even grab my bins, but its talons appeared empty – no black blob against a light undercarriage.

The desperation stopped right after the Red-tail disappeared. The cawing lingered, sparsely piercing the air. Some of the crows stayed close to the river. Others flew away, towards the woods. One crow, clearly a sentinel, perched high in a tree a hundred feet away from the trail head, across the the road. The sentinel craned its head to and fro. A long moment passed. Two crows flew over to the sentinel. They chatted a little. And then the three headed into the woods.

The crows remained quiet for much of the afternoon.

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!

To the Rescue…Actually, Don’t

My last post describes a somewhat appropriate situation in which one can actively attempt to help an injured bird. A couple days ago, I ran into a not-so-appropriate situation.

I work as a trail steward for the Hudson Highlands and Fahnestock State Parks, located Westchester, Putnam, and Dutchess Counties. On weekends, I float between two popular trail heads, where I help hikers choose which trails to take if they are unfamiliar with the area. I had just switched when my fellow stewards told me that someone had found a hurt bird around a mile up a trail. They kept it safe until I returned, knowing I was a birder. One of them held it in his cupped hands: a Tufted Titmouse fledgling, fully feathered.

I sighed. Considering that many people assume fledglings are lost and/or helpless, I immediately thought that this misguided hiker made the common decision to remove a perfectly healthy fledgling. I then noticed the titmouse’s right leg. So badly injured at the joint, it was barely held together by a few wiry ligaments.

Two out of three of my coworkers had to switch out upon my arrival. I took the fledgling in my own hands. It rowdily buzzed and ruffled its wings. It managed to hop out. It propelled itself toward the bushes with wings alone. I recaptured it with little effort.

You might be thinking, Just put it back anyway. It’s nature. I haven’t yet had much experience to observe nature’s not-so-nice aspects, though I am immune to dead birds, especially dead fledglings (no pity for the dead). I’m still quite sensitive and sympathetic to wildlife, especially if the wildlife is a little soft ball of feathers with a torn leg and willful beady eyes. I reasoned that since the fledgling had already been down here for hours, I may as well ring up a local animal rehabilitation center. Still, in the back of my mind, I wondered if the center would really care for it. An fatally injured bird, yes, but a widespread songbird, and a young one. Do these places really help to raise young birds such as titmice?

I called the local police for a number. This number wasn’t any help at all. Not only did the person on the other end said she couldn’t do anything, but she tried finding me numbers for other places in Putnam, Dutchess, and Westchester. She managed only one in Westchester, rather far from me. When I dialed that number, an answering machine prattled. I heard the word “acupuncture.” I called again to double check I heard correctly. During those five minutes, the titmouse struggled in my balled hand, buzzing with irritation. I wished I had a small box.

My coworker who had stayed behind with me gave me her tall ceramic coffee cup. I dropped the fledgling inside. It immediately stopped fussing. It looked a little cramped, but had enough room to preen. I delayed the inevitable action by contacting several friends in my Saw Mill River Audubon circle for advice. I learned that late Saturday afternoon is a terrible time to reach anybody. I did get through to my final contact. But at this point, I knew what I had to do. I just wanted an understanding ear and found one. She heard the fledgling’s incessant buzzing for attention and food throughout the call.

“Good luck,” she said. “Let me know what happens.”

“I don’t think I can,” I said. “Since it’s almost summer there’s a lot of snake activity. Some hikers have been telling us they spotted a good number of snakes along the trail.”

After I hung up, I informed my supervisor that I had to put the fledgling back. I expressed it would have been more helpful if the hiker were more specific about where she found it. A mile up the trail was frustratingly vague. Agreeing, he recommended a particular location, and off I went.

The fledgling buzzed intermittently as I hiked. The buzzing reminded me of the call notes that titmice make when they’re communicating while trying to find food, except it was rougher sounding. Hikers passing us minded their own business even as the fledgling made noise. Perhaps no one thought my coffee cup would contain a bird, not coffee.

When I reached the spot – a flat open area laden with honey locusts and grasses – I placed the coffee cup on the ground. The fledgling wouldn’t venture out. Once I tiled to the cup, it slid onto the ground.

The young bird stayed where it was. I didn’t want any more hikers discovering and bringing it back down, so I nudged it towards the grass off the trail. It protested again by buzzing and flapping, but it did move to the edge of the grass.

I couldn’t bring myself leave right away. I felt I had to watch over it for a couple minutes. I heard two hikers come up. It turned out I had to direct them to where the trail continued. They didn’t notice the fledgling.

The little titmouse stayed put, cocking its head to and fro, occasionally buzzing. Its entire body pulsed as it breathed. From all that calling, I hoped that its parents might hear it soon. I looked at the grass and thought about the snakes lurking around. The fledgling’s leg might have been damaged beyond hope, but its wings were still quite functional and strong. I thought of the fledgling successfully escaping snakes, even for a bit. Maybe in time for the parents to find it.

Another hiker, who seemed to have been roaming around the locust grove, was walking towards me, back to the trail. We greeted each other. The fledgling buzzed. He gazed down at it with curiosity. I explained to the hiker what was happening and took the opportunity to make a PSA about leaving fledglings alone, even when they’re hurt. He listened understandingly. The fledgling hopped onto my left shoe, and then onto my right, and then onto one of hiker’s shoes.

“Oh no, please don’t do that…” I said to it. I turned to the hiker. “This is making it harder for me to leave it be,” I said with a strained chuckle.

After he left, I felt my time pressing. I nudged the fledgling towards the grass. Instead of hopping away, it perched on my fingers. It wouldn’t get off when I shook my hand. “Really?” I asked. “You’re do this now?” I shook my hand again. It jumped off. When I got it close to the grass again, I took my final looks at it and hiked down the trail.

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