Spring It On!

With March behind me, I had only a few obligations for work and grad school standing in the way of Spring Break. I needed to complete and submit the edTPA before April 13th, which meant that it had to be done before leaving for Florida on the 10th. Focusing all of my effort and energy on getting it out of the way, I managed to deal the finishing blow on Tuesday the 4th. My pre-class stroll around Bryant Park felt like a victory lap, and I spotted a woodcock and my overdue first Hermit Thrush of the year before continuing on. On Wednesday, I helped lead a field trip to the World Trade Center and Battery Park, which was a hit with the students and teachers alike. Late buses got us home a little later than planned, but it was still a refreshing change of pace to break up the week.

Signs of the advancing season were readily apparent even in my own neighborhood, and the local parks seemed to have risen from the dead. Cardinals, robins, and wrens are busy singing their hearts out, and early arrivals like Ospreys and phoebes increase in numbers by the day. Miriam joined me for an evening stroll at Hempstead Lake after the field trip, and the sounds, sights, and smells surrounding us whispered “spring is here!

The sinking sun lit the lily pond with a colorful glow, contrasting beautifully with the shadowed branches. We paused briefly for a photo opp, taking in the gorgeous sunset reflecting off the water.

While snapping pictures of the twilit scenery, I thought I heard a familiar sound floating across the water. I cocked my head to listen more closely, and the unmistakable hooting voice of a Great Horned Owl reached my ears. I led Miriam around the shore of the pond, and we soon spotted the raptor’s distinctive silhouette perched overhead. Even though it was only just turning dark, the owl was already very active. It changed perches several times, seemingly scanning for prey, before continuing across the lawn to the far edge of the woods. Perhaps it was especially hungry, or maybe it has other mouths to feed. I’ve only seen one of the resident Great Horned pair in recent months, and I’m hoping that means the female has been busy with eggs and owlets in a hidden nest nearby. The timeline would match up perfectly, but there’s no way of knowing unless the second bird shows up again. We’re fast approaching the time of year where it will become clear if they have in fact bred nearby, as young owls typically leave the nest in early spring. Miriam and I finished our walk and headed home, leaving the owl and its secrets to the darkening night.

I celebrated the end of the work week and the kick-off to vacation with a night out in Brooklyn. Before I met up with Edem for the festivities, I swung past Central Park to track down a Red-necked Grebe that has been regularly sighted on the Reservoir. I had little trouble finding the bird, which is believed to be the same individual as a rehab release by the Wild Bird Fund some months ago. It was a small relief to add this species to the year list now rather than have to wait for another shot next winter. An evening of food, drinks, and music was just what the doctor ordered, but I got to bed pretty late. Making the most of my time off, I took Saturday as a chance to rest up at home.

Sunday morning brought the brightest, warmest, springiest conditions I’ve yet seen this year. I was out of bed early, ready to make the most of the beautiful day. My first stop was at Hendrickson Park. Dad had found a Ross’s Goose on the lake during the week, but unlike his previous waterfowl discovery this wanderer stayed less than a day. Fortunately, the lingering Red-headed Woodpecker was still present and obvious. I watched as the boldly-pattered bird hopped about and hammered on the trees. It briefly squared off with a Common Grackle that landed nearby, assuming a sleek, aggressive posture and vocalizing angrily as it jabbed its chisel-like beak at the interloper. The grackle’s initial curiosity wore off quickly when faced with this threatening display, and it departed to let the woodpecker continue woodpecking.

The Red-head’s appearance is another readily visible indicator of the seasonal transition. When it first arrived in December, it was a drab, dingy-looking youngster. This species is fairly uncommon in our neck of the woods, so I kept close tabs on it throughout the winter and watched the gradual transformation into adulthood. Bit by bit, red feathers began to appear in its dirty hood until it achieved the stunning, crushed velvet look that earned the species its name. The mottled wing patches turned pure white, the black back became glossier, and slowly but surely the little lost woodpecker grew up. It’s been a pleasure having this charming bird living so close to home, and I’m happy to see that it successfully survived the winter on our Island.


As I was about to cross the bridge, I spotted a young Red-tailed Hawk cruising inches above the ground along the trail. This is another bird that spent its first winter at Hendrickson, and for the most part it seems to have been just as successful as the woodpecker. However, this most recent observation suggested that it still has a lot to learn about mastering the art of surprise. The hawk clumsily and conspicuously jumped from branch to branch, sending nearby squirrels and ducks into a frenzy. At one point, it flew directly towards me and perched only a short distance away, craning its neck around the trunk to get a visual on a chattering squirrel which had nervously watched its awkward approach. The Red-tail, not yet sporting its namesake coloration, surveyed the park seemingly unperturbed by my clicking shutter a stone’s throw away. I noticed that the bird was banded, but as close as I was I couldn’t get a reading before it took off and flew onwards.

Continuing on to Hempstead Lake, I found a chorus of varied birdsong ringing through the trees and more than a few familiar faces. Stacey and Kurt, Tom and Gail, Rob P, Bob A, and others were out making the most of the delightfully springy conditions. The Great Horned Owl seemed to be enjoying the sun’s warmth, too, basking on an exposed perch and soaking up rays. Still no sign of the missing mate…and still I wonder…

I picked up a handful of welcome spring firsts as we explored the park. The songs of Field Sparrow and Ruby-crowned Kinglet were welcome additions to the soundscape, and the wheezy calls of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher helped me locate the tiny bird as it flitted through the treetops. I also spotted two Chipping Sparrows sparring with one another on the grass, indicating that territories are being staked out and defended for the breeding season. There are plenty of other migrants on their way north towards New York, but I’ll probably cross paths with several of them en route while I’m down in Florida.

Temperatures rose as the sun climbed higher, and the increased insect activity at ground level drew the attention of hungry birds. Yellow bundles of feathers bounced down from the trees to hop about on the grass, singing and chipping to one another as they foraged. It was difficult to keep an accurate count of the hyperactive Pine Warblers, and I noted at least one Palm Warbler feeding alongside them. Two Yellow-rumps (soon to be Myrtles) were heard calling from the branches, leaving the day’s warbler total of 3 species as a teaser for what is yet to come.

I’d heard a few Rusty Blackbirds calling from the swampy area near the picnic tables, and I wanted to get an accurate count and some media to flesh out my eBird offerings. The annual Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz is a citizen science effort to chronicle the movements of this declining species, and I like to contribute whenever possible due to my proximity to reliable Rusty habitat. I located at least half a dozen blackbirds working the water’s edge, and it sounded like there could’ve been more just out of sight. I photographed a cooperative male and took audio recordings of his calls before he took off downstream.

The Wood Ducks have been numerous in this section of the park for the past few weeks, showing during my Wednesday walk and again on Sunday. Non-avian highlights included muskrat and the first chipmunks of the year, both actively collecting food in the wake of the long winter. I’ll be interested to see how much the season has progressed when I return next week, as I’m sure the changes will be more readily apparent when I’m not watching them take place. In the meantime, I’ve got some packing to finish up. There’s more springy goodness and a whole new set of ecosystems awaiting me in southern Florida! I need a vacation!

Year List Update, April 9 – 167 Species (+ Hermit Thrush, Palm Warbler, Red-necked Grebe, Field Sparrow, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Chipping Sparrow)

About timhealz

A recent graduate (Cornell '14) and lifelong explorer cataloging my thoughts and travels.
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