Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Winter? Not so Bad

Birding has been great the past two days (I've had them off, as I'll be working 12 hour shifts the next two). I'm not sure what it is, as days earlier this winter have been less 'productive.' Maybe the birds are now having a harder time finding food with the recent snowfall, as most of the individuals I saw today were very busy foraging (I was not this time around). I have no complaints, and even got surprises!

Yesterday was a relaxing visit to Ash Drive/Glen Lake Fen. There had been exactly one human couple the entire time, which is rare there. I had a blast checking out all the dried winter grasses, feeling all the fuzzy staghorn sumac stems, touching the edges of the huge thorns on the trunk of the black locust I always visit there, and enjoying the glare of the small, bright white birch trees. The fen was almost completely frozen over, so no waterfowl to look for. I snuck down a little trail to the ice, and caught sight of mouse tracks leading from one tiny bush to another.

At first the birds seemed slim in density but soon enough there was a steady cacophony of tufted titmice, one of my absolute favorites. They followed me all along the entire trail. I'm so used to hearing their hoarse call that to hear them brightly singing, "Peter Peter Peter!" on a sunny, bitter winter day struck me as odd. I was surprised I only had two black-capped chickadee visitors, they're sort of the staple winter woodland bird in the Northeast. Four white-breasted nuthatches all of which loudly call out ank ank ank in alert to my presence. One blue jay made one short call, a deedle that sounded as if it should be coming from one of the first computers in existence, or maybe R2D2. A northern cardinal couple chipped at me for a bit before returning to munch on grapes.

The surprises, however, came from reminding myself to keep an eye on the sky. I was watching an ice fisherman sitting on the middle of Glen Lake, only to have my eye caught by a gleaming white movement in the sky above him. I instantly knew it was a gull, but I thought, "Wow, that is awfully large for a ring-billed." And then I noticed no gleaming from the upperside on the turns it made as it circled above. I steadied my binoculars on the gull, and noticed the near-black wash across the upperwings! A black-backed gull. At Glen Lake. I couldn't figure out if it was a great or lesser, but was glad to see one around. I've seen quite a few this year, despite my understanding that they are not common here. I pondered this, and minutes later, caught sight of a small, strangely shaped silhouette piercing through the sky at a rather high speed. Upon closer look I figured out that it was a little American kestrel making it's way to the tall trees nearby! I haven't seen one in months.

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Today I woke up to a much more dreary day, but fairly warm for winter. I just didn't feel like going out there but made myself. I walked the easy path of Betar Byway in SGF, ground I have covered dozens, maybe even a hundred times by now. I can point out all the spots I've seen all sorts of species, and what they were doing. I could tell stories of individual birds I've seen repeatedly there. I even caught myself today staring at a sign there where I had once seen a big pudgy bluebird resting. It makes meeting humans on the trail a bit irritating, many of them make comments that make it apparent they assume it's my first time being there, and make comments regarding how few birds I will see since it is winter now. Okie doke, I say, and pity how ignorant they are of their surroundings. Betar is a great spot for birding on a good winter day. It's also a great spot to stand near the river and watch and hear the ice crack and buckle, as I did today.

The American crows were out in full force, and while I did not take the time to really count them, there had to be 30-40 of them, eventually mobbing something that was out of my sightline, unfortunately. It was likely the red-tailed hawk I saw there recently, who was getting mobbed at that point. I enjoy the steady rowing of the wingbeats of crows and got to see plenty.

This is a fantastic spot to watch northern cardinals as there are plenty here due to the heavy source of food. Plenty of berries to go around. I noticed the cardinals are almost always eating grapes rather than anything else.

There's also a great mix of small birds that love the underbrush (there's plenty of underbrush here)! Dark-eyed juncos are here and there, loudly trilling. There's a distinct spot loaded with house sparrows, whether you like them or not. Today I got quite the treat, two American tree sparrows that seemed rather bold - they were out in the open by the brush, bouncing around in the snow, even resting on the pavement at times. One seemed not bothered by my presence as he picked through a bunch of dried leaves. A white-throated sparrow was also very busy foraging in the underbrush. I also heard a Carolina wren (another spot to see one is the Warren County Bikeway at Country Club Rd) calling it's breathy, descending trill in the distance.

Betar of course also had it's typical winter forest birds, black-capped chickadees in curious droves, white-breasted nuthatches scaling branches and trunks, blue jays sneaking around mid-tree, and tufted titmice yelling to everyone that I was there. Betar can also be busy with woodpeckers - today I only had two downy woodpeckers, one male and one female.

American black ducks, six of them, were hanging out in one of the very few open pools of water on the Hudson. No other waterfowl to be seen.

I was surprised to see two northern mockingbirds silently perched on a branch out in the open, nowhere near each other. I see one all spring and summer there, for some reason did not expect even one in the winter. They look rather plain with an innocent face this time of year. Much different from their spring and summer persona and look.

There are a few trees along the Byway I always look at, as they're known for having fairly frequent, high levels of bird activity. One was notoriously quiet on my first pass, but on the way back, I heard this horrible sound coming from multiple fat little birds perched in that tree, a sort of metallic, very loud chattering. I have never heard such an awful sound from a bird, and it sounded as if they were upset. Looking up in the tree, I was confused and amazed at the assortment of species - two cardinals sitting together quietly in the middle of the tree, a nearby tree with two cedar waxwings squished against each other and also contained a bunch of eastern bluebirds, and the major tree also containing bluebirds and four house finches. I initially wondered if maybe the finches were the cause of the noise, but unless they could throw voices, it wasn't them. They were huddled down on the branches, barely moving, looking very cold and not opening their little bills. I watched the bluebirds, and noticed that each time I would hear one of those obnoxious calls, a bluebird would have it's bill open and would be fluttering it's wings and moving all around the branches. I was surprised. I know of only one sound out of a bluebird, and it's a soft, mournful fall of a note. I counted nine bluebirds in all, only maybe four were this active and loud. I wondered if maybe they were young.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Old Man Winter

I must admit, winter is the hardest time for me to get out there to go birding. It's the short days and the unpredictable Northeast winter which is also rough on the birds, and with our migratory birds finally gone for the season, some days can lead to very few individuals. The lack of a variety of wild food sources (unsurprising) also make me a bit less interested.

I've still managed to get out and have still wound up seeing some neat bird-related events and species in the past few months.

One of them I just saw in the past hour, the hour before day breaks (it's now quite dim as the sun likely has gone below the horizon). Hundreds - not dozens, literally hundreds - of crows flying in a messy, loose stream, low overhead, heading to their wintering night roosts near the Hudson River. If one was not looking up one might not have noticed, as the crows made no noise.

The lack of noise from those crows was almost surreal, considering that most times upon seeing them, it's due to them cawing loudly, which I got to witness earlier today over the Hudson. I tried birding Betar today, but the wind was constant and extremely bitter, causing my face to become quite painful. I just had to turn around and slowly trudge back and nearly ignored the cries of about a dozen crows behind me, obviously agitated. My curiosity got the best of me and I spun around to see them dive-bombing a red-tailed hawk I had watched earlier in my walk (he or she had been soaring quietly against the whitewashed winter sky as if enjoying the cold streams of air). The hawk flew against the crows as if it found them silly and not at all a threat or annoyance.

Earlier in this season of darkness and brisk cold (makes me able to understand why some of the best metal comes from the Nordic countries; the freezing cold can be hell on earth) I got to watch in clear view, a tiny golden-crowned kinglet flitting about the branches at Bog Meadow. Absolutely stunning colors and a cute face. I even got the best view of the top of it's head, the orange-streaked yellow crown bordered by black. I thought, a photo of one taken on a snowy branch would make a great Christmas card. But even more astounding is how the little bird just cannot stay still. It's as if it is manic, unable to handle perching on a branch for more than a few seconds, needing to visit every single tree nearby. I'm guessing this is part of it's feeding strategy, as it gleans and even hawks insects. I guess if you're going to catch a certain prey item, the best way to do so is to move like it.

I actually feel as though I've missed out on a few species this winter, including the medium-sized owl I spotted in some snowy grasslands yesterday morning at 6:55 AM, pine siskins, grosbeaks, snow buntings, and the finches have all somehow disappeared. I did get a bald eagle earlier on, flying low overhead, low enough to clearly spot the white tail and head.

Ah well, 3-4 more months to go! Before I know it, I will be swearing at my field guides over warblers I've troubled myself to ID and getting a stomachache from overdoing the foraging.