The new year slips in. The fast-fading holiday season once again gives rise to more and more cases of the very contagious omicron variant of COVID. Alas, visions of Hawaiian additions to the life list fade with cancellation of our planned trip. So it goes …
On this first day of 2022, it was warmish by 9 a.m. Time to start the new year bird list. Danny and I check our various feeders from two vantage points, one set from the kitchen window, the other, outside the bedroom — easy winter birding for when it is really, really cold.
The conclave of winter cardinals is growing, with 12 male and female busily at it. Three woodpecker species vie for space at the hard, crunchy suet: hairy, downy and red-bellied. Chickadees, titmice and white-breast nuthatches zoom in and out taking away a seed each time. Where are the red-breasted nuthatches that were everywhere during the last two years, no matter what the season?
The ground is in constant motion as spiffy, gray and white juncoes scribble-scrabble among the growing flock of mourning doves. The posse of noisy blue jays swarms in, scattering the others that return fairly quickly and hold their own among the jays. Two goldfinches, pale now, weave in and among the smaller birds. All fall, goldfinches have been few and far between. And today nary a purple or house finch.
As we are getting ready to bird our way 17 miles west to the Hudson River, our two resident pileated woodpeckers kuk-kuk-kuk to one another from near our pond where they are making Swiss cheese of a not-so-dead ash tree.
Onward to the river taking backroads along field and forest.
Some fields are stubbly with cut corn, others have a green haze of winter wheat. Smaller ponds are frozen, larger ones have open water, rivers are running. In a pond behind one house, we check off Canada geese and mallards. From a dense tangle of roadside shrubs, a mockingbird pops up, poses, waggles its tail as if to get its balance and staging correct before belting out a song.
Above a nearby ribbon of reeds along a rivulet in the middle of a fallow field, a bird soars up a little and then reverses itself, to glide above that narrow marshy area looking for prey. A flash of white above the tail — it’s a harrier. It appears grayish. It’s a male harrier — a very nice pick up.
A little farther along, in a leafless tree, Danny slows as we see the silhouette of a large bird. “Red-tail” we say in unison as that dark-belly band becomes apparent. This is our most common hawk in the winter. In the 19th century, red-shouldered hawks considerably outnumbered the red-tails. Not so these days.
At Rail Lane on the Hudson, a bald eagle is already at the huge nest on the western side of the river, so visible at this time of year.
Down river a pair of adult eagles — with those white heads they are quite easy to see from afar — perch next to each other, perhaps on a first date at the beginning of the breeding season.
A bird comes from behind us and glides across the river. It alights in and among the grayish brown branches of the tall trees along the far shore. What was that? An immature eagle? It takes a minute to process: mottled white and brown on the back and tail, but with a nearly black belly and dark elbow spots. A rough-legged hawk! Both Danny and I scan and scan and finally find the bird. The coloration of this particular bird, perched and not moving, almost completely camouflages it. The ID is confirmed later in a photo taken by Danny with a 400-millimeter lens. Four raptors so far today!
Taking a road rising from the river eastward, we follow streams, traverse wide open fields, pass quickly through areas with many houses and stop to check out any birds on the wires. Three bluebirds are working a corn-stubbled field, flying from the wire to the field and then back up again. Looking for snow buntings, horned lark or even a sparrow comes to naught, finding only smatterings of starlings like dark, left-over leaves near treetops.
At one stop, a Carolina wren sweetly serenades us from a tangle of red-berried vines that climb up and over the roadside shrubs. Merry-go-rounds of pigeons circle silos before landing and giving that round roof a lumpy appearance. Not one English sparrow is seen or heard in and around the working farms we pass.
As the road dips and passes a number of small, older houses, the surrounding treetops are dotted with birds, one tree after another. Danny slows to a stop — there’s not a place to park — I roll down the window and the air is awash with the loud chitter-chattering of blackbirds, not starlings. Quickly I scan the group which is about 800 or 900 strong, noisy with it, as individuals move from tree to tree, from group to group. From this weird angle, redwings mingle with grackles. A sitting murmuration that is more than murmuring.
Onward we go stopping here and there. As we come down another small hill, Danny asked, “Did you see that? In front of us?” “What, no?” I answered. “A hawk,” Danny said, as he slowed and made a U-turn in a driveway. “Quite low … it flew up.” Now, very, very slowly we come down the hill a second time. I scan and scan and further back from where I expect it to be, I see the hawk. We stop and stare, taking in the size, shape and plumage — a sharp-shinned hawk. Our fifth hawk species!
Total for the first day is 28 species, including five raptors — a wonderful start to the new year list.