This is my first winter birding, and the only thing that has been persistent through it has been the unexpected. Not that this is unusual up here near the Adirondacks in this season - the weather can change as quickly as it does in summer on the east end of Lake Erie. But seeing birds out of season, in odd spots, likely due to quickly moving bad storms displacing them has been a pleasant, though sometimes concerning surprise. Also, the weather doesn't really allow for planning ahead. Sue P. and I agreed a few days ago to get together this morning with Jackie D. for a little nature walk on the Betar Byway. I expected something like overcast skies and maybe flurries, since it's been snowing a lot lately.
Nope, instead a cold front rips through, with clear skies, a painfully bright winter sun, and bitter gusts of wind up to 50 mph with a windchill of -15*F that made your eyes water. Sue called me before meeting mentioning cutting it short and hitting up the Peppermill. I was down, so she contacted Jackie.
I got to the Betar Byway (off Beach Road entrance) first, being totally excited that I finally had some time with buddies to scout for birds and possibly plants not completely massacred by the brutal weather. As soon as I pulled in and put it in park, I spotted a large bird flying in from Route 9 direction, over the small pool at the Public Works building, and landing on a snag on the other side. I thought, "Hmm...I really doubt that's a heron, but what could that possibly be?" It landed, and I saw the bright white tail and head, and nearly screamed for joy. An adult bald eagle! I grabbed my binoculars, jumped out of the car, and saw in clear view the yellow-orange hooked huge bill, yellow-orange talons, and the dark chocolate-y brown almost black solid body of feathers. It had also raised the ire of some American crows, which flew right at it's head. The eagle seemed to take no notice, sitting there patiently, looking around. I looked again and again, thinking I was maybe dreaming, till Sue came along and I exclaimed to her what I was seeing. The eagle eventuallly grew tired of being harassed and flew off south down the side of the river.
It was unfortunately way too cold for us three to tolerate the wind for long and we headed off for a good chat and some food and drink at the Peppermill, one of my favorite spots in the area. I also got a surprise gift from Sue, a collection of Thoreau's journal entries on birds! I couldn't be happier for some great reading.
We did head back and tried to enjoy a short 15-20 minute walk north on the Betar Byway, and at points I completely forgot that it was cold. One of them being seeing a surprise hermit thrush in plain view, feathers all bunched up, sitting in the sun. It moved around a bit so I got to see all potential identification features it has, including the rufous tail contrasting with it's duller brown uppersides, blackish spots smaller than those of a wood thrush, and the strange dipping behavior - a quick upswing and then slowly lowering it again. I could not believe my eyes. I knew the thrushes should really only be around here during the breeding season, not the dead of winter. Why now? Did it stay? Did it get lost? Did it get stuck in the recent crazy storms across the United States? Birds by Bent claims sightings in New England of this species is not unusual on the coldest of winter days. That doesn't change the stange, dream-like appearance of it flying into my sightline.