Archive for September, 2011

First Saturday BirdWalks

I lead a free BirdWalk on the first Saturday of each month to a local nature area.  Each month we visit a different area.  Everyone is welcome.  These walks attract a group of very nice people, people interested in birds and nature.  The walks are good for people with all levels of birding skill. 

Some months we attract 20+ birders, others, less than 10.  No one  joins our walk every month, but join us when they can.  Last year (2010) if you had joined all of our walks you would have seen 118 species of birds, everything from hummingbirds to Bald Eagle.  This year we are on track to beat that number.

We meet at the Wild Bird Center promptly at 8:00 a.m. for carpooling to our target location.  Or, I provide driving direction, for those who prefer to meet us there.  Walks usually last for 1.5-2 hours, but sometimes individuals have to leave earlier, sometimes we stay longer.  We are very flexible.  It is a good way to start a day, and there is plenty of time afterwards to do all the things you have to do.

We are not hard core, competitive birders.  Our primary objective is to have an enjoyable morning stroll in a natural setting.

OCTOBER BIRDWALK:  This Saturday, October 1, is the first Saturday of the month.  We will be going to nearby Harts Brook Park on Ridge Road in Hartsdale.

Join us for one of these First Saturday walks.  Bring binoculars or borrow one of our “loaners”.  And plan on having an enjoyable time.

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A woman came into my store.  She had just returned from Florida and commented that on the beach she saw many gulls and shore birds that were standing on only one leg.  “Why” she asked “do so many shore birds pull up one leg and then stand motionless on the other leg?”

 I gently reminded her what every 5th grade boy knows:  If a bird pulled up both legs, it would fall down.

 It is a corny old joke but it is the only answer I know to the question.

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 Last Saturday 10,000 migrating hawks were counted at the Chestnut Ridge Hawk Watch.  Yesterday, exactly one week later, we saw no hawks.  Zero.  Not a single one.

 I joined Sandy Morrissey to take a group of kids from the Young Birders Group to the Hawk Watch hoping to awe them with the spectacle of a sky full of hawks.  But none.  No hawks to be seen.  Fortunately, kids are so flexible they did not mind.  They transferred their energy and enthusiasm into finding frogs, toads, salamanders and a zillion earthworms and were happy. 

 Why were there so many hawks one week and none the next? 

 There are two primary reasons.  The first and greatest cause is weather.  On the first Saturday the weather was ideal for migration.  For several days bad weather had been holding up hawks preventing them from migrating.  But on Friday night, a front came through.  The weather cleared and a nice tail wind picked up adding up to perfect conditions for a big hawk flight.

 Weather for the second Saturday was gloomy with possible rain.  It was muggy and very overcast so the sun could not break thru to create rising “thermals” of hot air. (Hawks like to soar on these thermals to conserve energy during migration.)  So, like humans faced with the prospect of bad weather, the hawks just stayed put.

A second reason is that different species of hawks migrate at different times.  The peak of Broad-winged Hawk migration is mid-September.  That is a part of the reason we saw so many on the first Saturday.  The chart below illustrates the typical timing of hawk migration in Westchester.  The thickness of the horizontal line reflects the quantity of hawks that are moving at a given time.  A thicker line means you are likely to see more of that species.  As you can see, the most Broad-winged Hawks are expected in mid-September, and by end of October you probably won’t see any.

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On next Saturday, October 1st. the Hudson River Audubon Society hosts their annual Hawk Day and Live Raptor Show.  One of the best features is that it is absolutely free, no cost. 

At 1:00 Jim Eyring Director of Pace University Environmental Center and a professional falconer will introduce you to his live owls, hawks and falcons.  Jim, who puts on the best program you will ever see,  is well known for being both entertaining and educational.  I’ve seen his program at least a dozen times and learn something new each time.  Children of all ages love his program.

After his presentation, Jim takes his birds to the field and lets them fly.  You will watch a falcon soar into the sky and then swoop down mere inches over your head chasing a lure.  An amazing sight you will long remember.

The program takes place at Lenoir Nature Preserve, a county park in Westchester, in northern Yonkers. 

Driving directions:  From Saw Mill River Parkway take Exit 9, Executive Boulevard.  Continue on Executive Blvd until it dead ends at North Broadway.  Turn right on N. Broadway.  Go ¼ mile and turn left onto Dudley Street.  Parking for Lenoir Preserve is on the left, with additional parking available on N. Broadway.

Don’t miss this program.  Be there if you can.

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The Guinness Book of World Records credits the Arctic Tern with the longest migration.  Breeding on the tundra north of the Arctic Circle, this gull-like bird, flies south to Antarctica (it is summer down there), a distance of 12,000 miles.  In spring, it returns to the Arctic.  That is over 24,000 miles round trip every year.  Calling the southbound trip “fall migration” is something of a misnomer.  Because of the early onset of winter weather that far north, the Arctic Term actually begins heading south in July.  And doesn’t arrive on the wintering grounds until September.

My personal favorite as a migration champion is the tiny Ruby-throated Hummingbird.  Weighing 1/8 of an ounce, the Ruby-throated has the highest metabolism rate of any bird.  As a result, it normally eats 2 to 3 times per hour.  During fall migration many of them fly south to the Louisiana coast.  Once there they spend a week eating and “bulking up”.  Then they fly 400 miles non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico to Central America where they spend the winter.  That means a 20 hour flight over open water with no place to land or feed.  An amazing feat for a tiny creature that normally needs to feed every 20 minutes

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Fly south for the winter?

Although autumn officially begins this week, birds don’t check the calendar to decide when to start their southbound fall migration.  Shorebirds are early birds beginning in late-July/August.  Most songbirds begin in September.  Birds are still headed south in October.

Why do birds migrate?  It isn’t because they don’t like winter weather.  The can tolerate cold temperatures.  Scientists believe they migrate for food.  And not all species migrate. 

As an over simplification, backyard birds fall into two major categories:  those that eat seeds and those that eat insects, bugs, worm, etc.  Seed-eating birds generally do not migrate.  They can find seed all year, even on the coldest winter days.  Insect-eating birds, however, do migrate.  Since insects and bugs do not survive cold temperatures, the birds can’t find food in winter.  So they head south to warmer climates where insects are still abundant. 

Look at the perky Robin running around on your lawn looking for worms.  Now imagine your lawn covered with 3” of fresh snow.  How many worms would the Robin find then?  That’s why they head south.  At least most of them do.

Nothing is absolute in nature.  So there are always some Robins around in winter.  Hundreds were seen on last year’s Christmas Birds Count for Westchester.  (Doug Bloom jokes that they are Canadian Robins who fly south to Westchester.  )  How do they find worms in the middle of winter?  They don’t.  Instead they switch their diet to eating berries.  They also change other behavior.  In summer, Robins are loners.  They don’t hang out with other Robins.  In winter, however, they form small flocks and roam the area searching for berries.

A teacher once told me about a tree on the school grounds that was packed with berries.  One snowy winter day a flock of Robins show up.  They quickly devoured all the berries in the bottom third of the tree.  On the next day they ate the middle berries.  On the third day that ate the berries at the top.  When all the berries were gone, they left.

See how many Robins you see this winter.

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There are roughly 10,000 species of birds in the world.  While we did not see that many species on our BirdWalk, we did come close to seeing that many of one species – Broad-winged Hawks.

 Mid-September is the peak of Broad-winged Hawk migration and weather conditions were ideal at the Hawk Watch at Chestnut Ridge Hawk Watch at Butler Sanctuary in Bedford, NY… about 30 miles north of NYC.  Our group of 9 birders hoped to see some of these migrating hawks.

By the time we reached the Hawk Watch area about 10:30 a.m. the official hawk counter had already tallied over 5,000 hawks for the day.  And the total kept mounting.  First a kettle of 50 birds soared overhead, then a kettle of 200+, then a brief lull, followed by 150 more birds.  Broad-wings kept streaming by.  Now I can appreciate the term “a river of raptors”.  

Although we did not get a close-up look at any one hawk, the sheer spectacle of so many birds flowing past is forever etched in my mind. 

The resident, paid, official hawk counter tallied 9,655 Broad-winged Hawks for the day plus a couple hundred other raptors.  Mixed in with the Broad-wings was a smattering of Sharp-shins, Red-tails, Kestrels and Turkey Vultures. 


Close enough to 10,000 for me. 

You can check out the exact count numbers for all raptors at  

http://www.hawkcount.org/     Click on “Monthly Summaries” on left; Select site:  “Chestnut Ridge”


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A young bride-to-be and her mother rushed into the store.  They urgently needed a hummingbird figure for the Wedding Cake and the Wedding was this coming Saturday.  The cake was to have red roses on it and bride had her heart set on a hummingbird.  They had searched everywhere –  Michaels and other craft stores,  gift stores, party stores, pet stores – without success.  They were getting desperate.

Their eyes lit up when they noticed the small fabric hummingbird figures I use as displays on my hummingbird feeders.  Perfect.  Just the right thing.  Instant joy.  While most customers are happy when they exit the store, these two may have been the happiest of all time.

In my mind I can picture the wedding cake topped with a hummingbird, guests commenting on it and the bride just beaming.  It made me happy too.


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Sherlock Holmes, birder

Sherlock sees

“Watson,” Sherlock Holmes often chided his companion “you look but you do not see.”  When Watson looked at a stranger he might describe him as average height, middle class, office worker.  Sherlock, on the other hand, saw fresh mud splatter on pant cuffs, a frayed shirt collar, black ink stains on the fingers of his right hand.  Watson looked at the man, Sherlock saw the details.

Most birders are like Watson.  They just look at a bird.  Fortunately a cursory glance is usually sufficient to identify your common backyard birds.  A robin.  A chickadee.  A  jay.  However, when a new or unusual bird appears at the feeder, they notice that it looks different from the regulars.  So they might look more closely, then check a field guide trying to identify the new visitor.  If, like a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak, the new bird has obvious characteristics, they may identify it.    But unless they are accustomed to observing closely, they probably didn’t note the details.  So, if the bird was a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak, it will probably remain a mystery bird.  Based on their superficial glance, they may spend time leafing through pages of sparrows and never know what it was.  They looked but did not see.

Practice looking closely and truly seeing.  Have you ever noticed that Robins have small, white triangular wedges at the corners of the tip of their tail?  Or that they have semi-circles of white above and below their eyes?  Or have you ever noticed the blue ring around a Mourning Dove’s eye?    Such small details may be the key to identification. 

Learn to really see, not just look.

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Northern Wheatear

I received an email and phone call within 15 minutes.  Both brought news that a N. Wheatear was just seen at the boat ramp near the Croton train station.  A Wheatear is small thrush-like bird, about the size of a bluebird, normally found far north (Northern Canada, Greenland, Alaska).  It winters in Europe.  It has been seen in Westchester less than 5 times in the last 20 years.  I debated whether I should rush to see it.  I have never seen one and the station was only a 20 minute drive.  But we were still feeling the after effects of the hurricane and it was raining.   Normally I am  a fair-weather birder staying inside in bad weather.  However, today I made the trip and was rewarded.  Didn’t even have to get out of the car.  It was that easy.  It took 15 seconds to find the bird.  I pulled into the parking area and there it was sitting on the chainlink fence directly in front of my car.  Easiest Life Bird I ever had.  It sat on the fence for about a minute and then flew off somewhere.

It some ways that was not a totally satisfying sighting.    But it was a life bird for me, so I count it.

The weather was better the next day, so I went again hoping for a better experience.  This there were almost two dozen birders there.  Somehow people came from as far as Long Island and New Jersey even though the parkways were still flooded and impassable.  A Merlin zipped by, so we did not get a good close-up look.  The Wheatear move further away.  But thanks to many alert eyes looking for it, we soon found it about 200 yards away.  Birders with scopes zeroed in and everyone got a good long look.  I feel better now adding it to my Life List.

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