At sunrise, I was working my way north through the Bronx. The brightening of the sky was paused by a thick fog bank that rolled in as I continued onward into Connecticut. The mist-shrouded scenery stretching out before me was surprisingly picturesque, but I wasn’t about to pause for photos. I was on the hunt, and I had an appointment with a potentially time-sensitive target to keep. Reports had been coming in reliably on a daily basis, but the word on the street was that I had to get there before midday. Since the birds in question, the wonderful, wandering Evening Grosbeaks, were new for me, I wasn’t taking any chances. I was due to arrive at the stakeout in Canaan around 9 AM, and I hoped I would be able to catch the flock during their morning feeding session. I made good time on my journey, and as I approached the intersection of Under Mountain and Cobble Roads, I spotted promising silhouettes in the trees overhead.
I parked my car on the shoulder, joining a crew of Connecticut birders as the grosbeaks chattered noisily from the branches. The birds descended on the feeders in the front yard before us and began gorging themselves on seed. These fantastic finches, like many of their kin, are nomadic by nature. They travel far and wide in search of suitable habitat and sustenance, and you never really know where they will turn up. Historically a western species, plantings of favored trees and the increasing popularity of bird feeders paved the way for an invasion into eastern North America. Their populations have followed a boom and bust cycle tied to the rise and fall of Spruce Budworms, a critical breeding season food source. Though formerly regular winter visitors in the Northeast and known to breed in New York’s Adirondacks, I had never been fortunate enough to cross paths with this striking species before. This lifer encounter, however, pulled out all the stops.
Outside of the forest strongholds where they nest, Evening Grosbeaks are often recorded as wayward individuals or small flocks that surprise lucky birders and quickly vanish. Larger roving flocks are not unheard of, and the birds may settle in a land of plenty, but they are unpredictable at best. Apparently, this group took the feeders in Canaan around Thanksgiving, and the homeowners have dutifully kept them stocked to sustain the hungry hordes ever since. I watched, awestruck, as 50 grosbeaks gobbled up seed, edging out even the aggressive House Sparrows for space at the buffet. The loud, distinctive calls and bold, beautiful plumage of these beefy songbirds made this breakfast free-for-all a spectacle to behold.
The grosbeaks monopolized the seed trays for about 20 minutes at a time, departing en masse and disappearing for up to an hour between feedings. I watched them come and go repeatedly throughout the morning, and birders who’d had their fill switched out with newcomers as I remained on site. I was keeping tabs on the finches for Brendan, who had decided that he wanted to reunite with these birds badly enough to make the trek. The unexpected lack of cell phone service at the intersection made it a challenge to keep him updated, but I was more than happy to babysit these stunners. The low-lying clouds lifted as the sun rose higher in the sky, and lulls in grosbeak activity were eased by distractions from Pileated Woodpecker, Eastern Bluebirds, and the antics of chickadees and jays. After a quiet week where the only animal of note was a Friday morning flyover Sharp-shinned Hawk at the train platform, I was a very happy nature nerd.
Blue skies and bright sunlight made for some great photo opps, and the Evening Grosbeaks were occasionally happy to oblige. Males are absolutely breathtaking, charismatic creatures, and the females are pretty classy-looking in their own right. The extended views meant ample opportunity to study individuals at length.
As high noon approached, the birds began to disperse again. I feared that they would vanish before Brendan arrived, but when he showed up with Stella there were still a few ladies of the Evening Grosbeak flock hanging around. The unique vocalizations of the rest of the gang could be heard echoing from the wooded ridge, and we all got a few more good looks at some flashy males. Even as we departed at 12:30, there were still a few grosbeaks lingering at the property. I was mighty pleased with a successful hunt and a satisfying morning spent with my long-awaited prize.
The day was far from over, so I decided to stick with Brendan and Stella as they headed west. We crossed back into New York, picking up some food along the way and adding Black Vulture to the year list. After a few hours we arrived at the aptly named Black Dirt Region in Orange County: an open flood plain of rich, fertile soil left behind by a glacial lake and repeated historical floods. There is some pretty spectacular scenery around here, and it is also an area of ecological importance. The Black Dirt Region is one of the few remaining homes for native grassland species in southern New York, and it is particularly famous for its open-country raptors.
We started off down Indiana Road, driving gingerly to avoid bouncing too much the potholes and pockmarks left by farming equipment. Our first bird of prey was a hovering Rough-legged Hawk, circling an open field and occasionally pouncing on prey hidden in the grass. I never connected with one of these Arctic hawks during 2016, so this was a welcome opportunity to get reacquainted.
At the end of the road, we found a surprising amount of activity in the fading afternoon light. A host of photographers and birders were on sight, optics trained on Northern Harriers and Short-eared Owls that were coursing low over the ground. These raptors are very similar in habits and habitat, occupying much the same niche on alternating shifts of the diurnal/nocturnal cycle. At dawn and at twilight, the hunting schedules of the two species overlap and they often clash. We watched distant dogfights and heard their agitated vocalizations as the swept across the landscape of dark soil and swaying grass.
More than half a dozen Short-eared Owls came out to play as the sun sank closer to the horizon. This is yet another species that I missed last year, and it is no secret how much I love owls. Most of the birds kept their distance, and the glare of the setting sun didn’t help photography at some angles, but it was still a pleasure to spend some quality time with these graceful predators. Brendan, Stella, and I continued on to Oil City Road along the New Jersey border and found a few more each of owl and harrier there. Brendan also picked out a Savannah Sparrow calling in the grass. The fog returned, the sky grew dim, and we parted ways as we set off for home with smiles on our faces.
I had one more stop planned before I put an end to my wildly successful day. I’d received a tip from Brent that he had called in a Northern Saw-whet Owl early in the morning near Stillwell Woods Park, and he figured I’d be interested in the details. My friends know me so well! I fought my way through traffic on the Cross Bronx and made it to the site of Brent’s encounter a bit after 7 PM. It was good and dark, so I figured I had decent odds of stirring up a response from the bird. I initially tried playing recordings from my phone speakers, and then through the radio of the car, but the sound didn’t seem to be carrying the way I hoped it would. I changed tack, whistling my best imitation of a Saw-whet’s toots, and my echo told me that I was projecting better than the tech. Almost immediately, I heard a strange response from some trees nearby. It was not a call I recognized: a soft, barking note with a swallowed, back-of-the-throat quality that repeated several times. I thought that it sounded promising, so I continued tooting away. Another sound came from the opposite side of the road, this time an eerie, rattling shriek quite close to where I stood. I knew it was likely raccoons or something similarly harmless, but it still made my hair stand on end. Combined with the lack of response from my owlish barker, I took it as my cue to pack it up.
Back at home, I did a little research in the hopes of pinning a positive ID on the night noises I heard. Saw-whets make a wide variety of vocalizations, and I suspected that they may have a repertoire beyond the songs and calls I was familiar with. After some searching, I found that, sure enough, the tiny owls sometimes make a soft barking sound during the winter. The recordings I found were a very close match for the noises I heard in response to my whistling. Mystery solved! Apart from the silliness last December, it’s been almost two years since I last had an encounter with a Saw-whet, so this little conversation in the dark was an especially welcome event. It also brought my total of individual owl encounters for the day to 10, which is pretty fantastic. With two successful owling outings and a brilliant new lifer under my belt, I was finally content to head back to Lynbrook.
Year List Update, January 21 – 115 Species (+ Sharp-shinned Hawk, Evening Grosbeak, Pileated Woodpecker, Eastern Bluebird, Black Vulture, Rough-legged Hawk, Short-eared Owl, Savannah Sparrow, Northern Saw-whet Owl)