Sunday, December 28, 2014

December 27/28 - two more year birds and a beaver tree.

Ann and I went upstate a little way on this last weekend of the year to try to add a couple more birds to my 2014 NY year list. After going to our local farmer's market Saturday morning - which not too surprisingly was a bit sparse this post-holiday weekend - we headed up to Ulster County. Specifically, we went to the Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge near Wallkill. This old army airfield, near the scenic "Gunks" was formerly called Galeville and is close to the Blue Chip Farms horse breeding farms. As the days left in the year are dwindling to just a few, so are the possible additions to my year's bird list. However, I knew I had an excellent chance to pick up two species here - Rough-legged Hawk and Short-eared Owl. We arrived a few minutes after 2:00 pm. All the blinds we could see scattered around the grasslands seemed to have long lenses sticking out of them. Ann and I settled ourselves in the main parking area on one of the old runways and watched and waited. Northern Harriers were hunting all around the fields. A birder/photographer who was set up in the parking area said he had seen Rough-legged Hawk earlier, but no Short-eared Owls yet. We enjoyed the harriers while we continued to watch. Finally, I spotted a dark phase Rough-legged Hawk perched in a tree quite a distance away. Even with the spotting scope it wasn't much more than a large dark lump of a buteo. Then local birder Ken McDermott arrived. I knew from eBird reports Ken had seen both of my target species there the day before. Ken told us the Short-ears had become active at 4:05 the previous afternoon,so we figured we still had a bit of a wait. However, the owls decided to start hunting earlier today, because at 3:05 I spotted one coming in from the north, the direction Ken said to watch. Soon there was another Short-eared, and another, and another. I am not sure how many were hunting over the fields, we estimated at least a half-dozen, but it was hard to be sure of an accurate total since birds were constantly dropping out of view on to the ground or behind rises in the terrain as they hunted. Certainly, at one point we had five in view at once over one small portion of the grasslands. While enjoying the show, I spotted a large bird in a distant tree, which through the spotting scope was a nice light phase Rough-legged Hawk. Though distant, it was a nicer view than the earlier bird. As sunset approached we drove over to Blue Chip Farm, where Ken told us there were three Snow Geese on the fields with the Canada Geese - two adults and an immature. The Snows stood out and were easy to spot.

On Sunday, following a suggestion from Sean Sime, we drove to Stissing Mountain near Pine Plains in Ulster County on the east side of the Hudson. We were hoping to find one of the Golden Eagles that regularly winter in this area. We had no luck with the eagle - it was overcast and not very good flying weather for big raptors - but we did have a very nice walk in the Nature Conservancy's Thompson Pond preserve. We have been here before, but not for a few years. When I got home this evening, I checked my records. I knew my life Golden Eagle had been at Stissing Mountain years ago with the late Tom Davis, my birding mentor. My records show Tom and I saw two there on December 28, 1974 - forty years ago to the day. It would have been fun to celebrate that anniversary with another sighting!

Ann and I did have one fun sighting of a non-avian nature on the walk. Near the shore of Thompson Pond, not far from the trail Ann spotted a large tree that had been almost felled by a beaver. We didn't see the beaver, but its chewing on the tree was unmistakable.

Beaver gnawed tree, Thompson Pond.                                                       © Joseph DiCostanzo
Close-up of beaver workings.                                                                                     © Joe DiCostanzo
Ann and I had a fun weekend in the field. The Rough-legged Hawk and Short-eared Owl put my year list for New York State at 307, my best one year total in New York since birding with Tome Davis forty years ago when Tom was the first birder to break 300 in a year in New York. It was a much harder task in those days when there were many fewer birders in the field finding birds and it was decades before the Internet and cellphones made discoveries on rarities almost instantly available to everyone. I have three days left to add to my total and Sean and I are planning one more hunt around Long Island, so I may still pick up some before midnight Wednesday.

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