It’s not easy to get off Long Island in a timely fashion. Fighting traffic through New York City is almost always a hassle no matter which direction you go. On Sunday, May 28, 2017, I had the quickest, most painless drive to the mainland of my entire life. I pulled out of my driveway in Lynbrook at 6:31 in the morning, and even though I stopped for gas I was over the George Washington Bridge at 7:01. Moving fast on the Cross Bronx Expressway felt so nice! Continuing north, I breezed through New Jersey and back into New York at a blistering pace. At 8:06 AM, I arrived at Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge, roughly 100 miles from home. I was flying high on the winds of fortune, and the good times just kept on rolling from there.
Shawangunk is a beautiful grassland ecosystem, a landscape that has become increasingly rare in the Empire State. Open floodplains used to be found throughout this region, but agriculture and development have resulted in a great reduction of available habitat. Even though the refuge was originally created artificially as an airbase, it is now one of the few remaining wild grasslands in the Hudson Valley. It is intentionally managed to prevent natural succession from reverting the community to the forested swamp that was historically found at this site. I have visited this preserve on several occasions, and I am always impressed by the array of species that call Shawangunk home. As soon as I stepped out of my car, I could hear the jangling, energetic songs of Bobolinks blowing across the field on the breeze. The trilling voices of Grasshopper Sparrows and the flute-like notes of Eastern Meadowlarks also joined the symphony of the soundscape.
I made my way out the trail towards a large group of birders near one of the observation blinds. As I approached, a new sound reached my ears. It was a short, buzzy, two-note vocalization, sounding something like a grasshopper’s hiccup. Roger Tory Peterson dubbed this “one of the poorest vocal efforts of any bird,” and some of my Cornell friends remember the simple phrase with the mnemonic “T-Swift.” It was the song of the Henslow’s Sparrow, a bird which I had never encountered before. This species is uncommon and declining, largely thanks to its dependency on weedy grasslands with plenty of shrubbery for nesting. Manicured agriculture fields and incipient woodlands simply won’t do for the Henslow’s, and as a result it has all but disappeared from most of New York along with its vanishing habitat. In addition to being rare, this sparrow is notoriously skulky and inconspicuous for most of the year. Singing males defending territory are the exception to the rule, and this individual had been incredibly cooperative since its discovery a few days prior. Its appearance at Shawangunk is a promising sign, since it suggests that the management efforts to maintain viable grassland are working. I was impressed by this tiny songster, who put a lot of heart into belting out his insect-like tune from atop the swaying stems.
Further down the path, there was smaller assemblage of nature enthusiasts observing another bird of interest. A male Dickcissel has taken up residence at Shawangunk, and the Henslow’s Sparrow was actually discovered by folks searching for this rarity in our region. Although this species nests in the heartland of America, off-track migrants are regularly observed along the East Coast during fall migration. I’ve seen my share of wayward travelers and even found them on my own before, but its spiffy breeding plumage and distinctive song were new to me. Seeing and hearing these two unusual birds in such close proximity to another was a real treat, and they almost seemed to be showing off and competing for attention.
While hanging out with the Dickcissel crowd, I turned my binoculars on an American Kestrel that was circling a distant tree. As I watched the falcon, a loud, bubbling whistle cut through the chorus of grassland birds. The unearthly quality of this strange song was unmistakable, and I pivoted to look for the singer as the music floated down from the sky. By the time I turned, the singer was nowhere to be seen, but a nearby birder said they’d seen a distant shorebird drop from the air and land among the tall grass. Shawangunk is a known breeding site for the unusual Upland Sandpiper, my old nemesis and the source of the weird whistling. I’d come looking for these miniature curlews in this area before finally seeing my lifer on Long Island last year, since it is one of the few remaining strongholds where they can be reliably encountered in the southern portion of the state. It was unfortunate that I didn’t get a visual of the bird’s flight display, but hearing that crazy performance was a sort of “audio lifer” experience.
It was hard to pry myself away from the grasslands when there were so many great birds to be seen and heard. I’m sure that if I’d stayed longer I would’ve found plenty more excitement with my fellow explorers. Alas, I had other plans for the morning and wanted to be back home by dinnertime. I bid farewell to those who I knew and began trudging back to the parking lot. A Killdeer flew overhead as warblers and flycatchers sang from the edge of the property near the path. The male Bobolinks continued to put on a show as I made my way out of the refuge, and one was kind enough to pose alongside the trail for a brief photo shoot. That was an exceedingly pleasant parting gift!
I turned my vehicle south once again, making a slight detour just before reaching the Jersey border. Visiting Sterling Forest State Park has become something of an annual tradition, and I decided to roll my rarity chase in with my yearly check-in at Ironwood Drive. Golden-winged Warbler songs reached my ears as soon as I stepped out of the car, but I still took pains to get a visual on the origin of each voice. With so many Blue-wings and hybrids here, you never know who might be responsible for a vocalization, no matter how promising it sounds. I connected with a few additional species that are expected in this forest edge habitat, including Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Indigo Bunting, and Broad-winged Hawk. Southerly specialties like Hooded and Cerulean Warblers joined Louisiana Waterthrushes and Yellow-throated Vireos in filling the hills with music. I even heard a Yellow-breasted Chat hooting and chuckling in the bushes along the trail. It was almost like I was back in West Virginia! Unfortunately, I also picked up a couple of ticks as I explored the power line cut, so I took care to check myself every time I passed through the foliage.
A handful each of Blue-winged, Golden-winged, and hybrid “Brewster’s” Warblers showed themselves as they sang in the treetops. These males were hard at work defending territory and attracting mates, though the mixed-parentage individuals showed that at least some of the females have a weakness for a foreign accent.
Last spring, my efforts to satisfactorily photograph Golden-winged Warblers ended in failure. These fidgety, flitting songbirds are difficult picture subjects, and the shadowy lighting in this leafy, sun-dappled habitat makes quality camera work a challenge. Today, I was treated to several male Goldens who were content to deliver their performances from high perches without zipping around from branch to branch. Although I found myself wishing for a longer lens, a tripod, and a better eye for composition, I was still pleased with the opportunity to take identifiable pics of the handsome little birds.
Lots of other birders were out and about on the trails at Ironwood, and I made sure to point them in the direction of interesting and unusual species. After letting visiting nature walkers know about the chat, the hybrids, and the cooperative Golden-wings, I took my leave of Sterling Forest and began the journey south once more. My late May trips to the near upstate are usually one of the high points of my birding year, and this outing was no exception. The Appalachian forest and grassland specialties that I found really brightened up my weekend, and the charming little Henslow’s Sparrow was a long-awaited addition to my life list. Memorial Day Weekend did not disappoint!
Year List Update, May 28 – 298 Species (+ Bobolink, Henslow’s Sparrow, Dickcissel, Upland Sandpiper, Golden-winged Warbler, Broad-winged Hawk)