Summer has arrived, officially! The solstice falls on my brother Andrew’s birthday this year, so the work week began with a new season. To celebrate the last technical weekend of spring and the first informal weekend of summer, I wanted to go on a suitable outdoor adventure. A lovely evening in Prospect Park with the New York Philharmonic to celebrate Edem’s birthday was a nice place to start. While scheming up plans for Saturday, Sarah suggested that we visit Bear Mountain and go for a hike. I was pleasantly surprised by this idea, which hadn’t even crossed my mind as an option. We packed our bags full of snacks, water, and sunblock before setting off towards the Palisades Parkway. We arrived at the state park late in the morning, having wisely made the choice to sleep in rather than race the sunrise.
Bear Mountain features a number of trails criss-crossing the landscape. I have visited the area many times during my life, and I don’t think I’ve gone on the same exact hike twice. We began our adventure at the Bear Mountain Inn adjacent to Hessian Lake. The facilities also include a merry-go-round and zoo that both highlight native animals. These were, understandably, very popular stops for my family when I was young. Sarah and I headed south across the parking lots, eventually picking up our chosen trailhead from the roadside and entering the forest.
The woods around us were alive with critters at the peak of breeding season excitement. Birdsong rang out from every bush and branch, reinforcing territorial claims staked during migration. Orioles, thrushes, redstarts, Red-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireos, and Prairie, Black-and-white, and Worm-eating Warblers were all part of the chorus on the mountain. Sarah seemed impressed, commenting on the insanely vivid red of a male Scarlet Tanager and the black “motorcycle helmet” on a bright yellow Hooded Warbler. Although I caught a brief glimpse of a flyby Indigo Bunting, the other singing males, the repeatedly-heard Cerulean Warblers, and even the noisy Blue Jays remained hidden from view.
We still managed to round out the primary colors with a splash of blue thanks to a sighting of a young Five-lined Skink near the parking lot. These lizards employ a surprising survival strategy that is equal parts ridiculous and brilliant. Although the lightly-striped adults are rather subdued in appearance, young individuals have stunning, electric-blue tails. Flying in the face of traditional camouflage, this boldly-colored feature provides an irresistable target for predators. By acting as a lightning rod for attacks, the expendable extremity draws fire away from the lizard’s vital parts. As seen in many other reptiles, the tail breaks off easily and wriggles under its own power to further distract pursuers. The skink thus lives another day, and it is even capable of partially regenerating the lost tail.
We spotted a variety of other wildlife as we made our way through the park. Chipmunks were omnipresent, joined by a few squirrels and deer. A Pickerel Frog briefly visited us when we stopped as a stream for a snack, and the calls of a Gray Tree Frog were heard towards the end of the hike. A family of Wild Turkeys, a female Pileated Woodpecker excavating for lunch, and soaring Black and Turkey Vultures were among the larger avian representatives. In the botanical world, Mountain Laurel was in bloom and all the trees were alive with green leaves. Thankfully, there was not a tick or mosquito to be found all day long. Another pleasant surprise was bird’s nest discovered on the underside of a large boulder looming over the trail. Based on composition, location, number of eggs, and an adult bird seen nearby, I believe it was the nest of an Eastern Phoebe.
Getting slightly lost at Bear Mountain is something of a tradition among my family and friends. The large number of trails and varying quality of trailside markers makes it fairly easy to get turned around. Sometimes you take an off-shot ski trail instead of the main path, and sometimes you almost wander off a cliff on a dark, foggy night like my brother and our scouting buddies did on an infamous backpacking trip.
Sarah and I were never off-track for long, but we did end up on a different track a few times. I was doing my best to navigate successfully using printed out maps of the whole area, but despite my efforts to look cool our journey was a very roundabout affair. We cut south through Doodletown towards Bald Mountain, but managed to wander westward across the park to pick up the Appalachian Trail. Hiking a small segment of this famous footpath, we reached the summit of Bear Mountain in the early afternoon. Although the AT eventually winds its way back to the parking lot, a sign that expressly stated “to the Inn” convinced us to alter our itinerary yet again. This turned out to be the Major Welsh Trail, which was every bit as steep as the description cautioned. It took some careful butt-scooching, well-placed hands, and encouraging descriptions of food and drink, but we finally returned to civilization without a scratch. It was a wildly successful outing and a fine kickoff to the summer season! After grabbing a few more refreshments, we turned the car towards Long Island to head home for dinner. Lemonade never tasted so good.
Year List Update, June 20 – 328 Species