Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Shawangunk NWR

     On Sunday our little family drove up to Shawangunk National Wildlife Refuge in Ulster County. It was a beautiful day, comfortable and breezy, and most most importantly, devoid of crowds. For whatever reason, the grasslands, aside from their show of owls and harriers in the winter, seem uninteresting to people in the warmer months. The large flashy birds have migrated on, the birds living here are harder to find and springs of grass make for less than stellar photo opportunities; a stray blade always finds its way in front of your subject.
     I found the space beautiful, flowers are not quite yet at peek, but the plants were vivid and green, early blooms were attractive to a number of butterflies, and the songs of bobolinks filled the air. While the trails are not fully flat, they traversed alright with a very urban stroller, Kestrel enjoyed the ride and slept through 95% of it.
     I have accepted that I can bird with Kestrel, but that it will be slightly different. One thing I need to do more of is get better at ear birding, I could get more bang for my buck in a shorter time frame as time is a consideration for feeding, exposure, and of course soiled diapers. So we did not walk the full trail loop at Shawangunk, but even on an out and back walk, we still saw some great grassland birds.
A house wren on their house welcomed us. While the gate to the refuge is not open, the refuge itself is indeed open. Just don't expect to use their outhouse, it's closed. The house wren offered us to come in and use their toilet, but we kindly said "no thanks."

Upon entering the trail from the main lot, inside the gate, I heard the quiet scream of a grasshopper sparrow.
Thinking I'd have to look extra hard for this little bird, it surprised me by being out in plain sight!
He had a lot to say, I'll pass the lesson on to him...

First, yes, hi, I am a grasshopper sparrow.
Many people use the word sparrow on any little brown bird, but there are a lot of us, many different species. And if you look closely, you'll see that we each have unique field marks, sing unique songs, make different calls, and are more than just a little brown bird... note my golden lores... 
I come to Shawangunk to breed and nest. I only do this in grasslands. Grasslands are becoming more and more scarce of a habitat across North America. They are often turned into agricultural fields or rangelands. Shanwangunk is protected habitat and its is so valuable to my survival.
Most people don't think of grasslands as a habitat in New York but they do exist and they also have experienced significant bird decline as per Audubon.

What is 'Shawangunk,' you ask? Well it is a Dutch translation from the Munsee Lenape language, meaning "it is smoky air" - and yes for those of you familiar with this part of New York, yes, Monsey is named as such because it was inhabited by the Munsee. Shawangunk is managed as part of the Lenape National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

Who are the Lenape, you ask? They were here, the real New Yorkers, here indigenously and then of course, Europeans came. They inhabited not only the areas here in and around where I live, but even into New Jersey, and New York City and beyond! I am just a bird, but you can learn more about the indiginous people from this area from the people themselves here:

Let me show you more of my home...
Grasslands are made up of, you guessed it, grasses! There are not a lot of shrubs or trees, just lots of grasses. Growing between the grasses are many wildflowers important to pollinators, which are important to me as I mainly eat insects!

With so little trees, you may wonder, where in the world do you nest?!
Like many grassland birds, I nest on the ground. Some do build nests in the grasses themselves, but in these open spaces we have adapted over a long period of time to live in these habitats.
It is really important to then consider your impact - we are super threatened by domestic animals given free range to roam, like cats, off-leash dogs, and grazing livestock.

I like many grassland birds, are in decline. I, myself am considered to be a common bird in steep decline. This is greatly due to habitat loss. A subspecies of my kind is federally endangered in Florida.

So, even if you visit a grassland, and it seems like a vast field of emptiness, know that hiding among the grasses there is much life. Making it very important to remain on trails, keep your pets with you (although, they are not allowed at Shawangunk!), and to be respectful of the habitat.
Aside from me, who you are likely to hear before you see me, this place is home to bobolink, Eastern Meadowlark, red-winged blackbirds, various swallow species, hunting low over the grasses, mammal species, reptiles, so much life, thrives in this unique habitat.

So, why am I called Grasshopper Sparrow? Well, I do enjoy eating grasshoppers among other insects. I am also quite small. And oddly enough, out of my big mouth comes a small, buzzy, sound, akin to that of an insect... Take a listen.

Thank you for listening to my Ted Talk.
 And a few other birds from this amazing place...
Red-winged blackbird female, likely protecting her nest. It always seems like the red-wing blackbirds and bobolinks are constantly squabbling over space.

A male bobolink, singing its bubbly, metallic song. Take a listen here.

The house wren, showing its house with another house wren inside.
And please, in light of recent events, please consider a donation to get Free Binoculars to Black Birders!

Monday, June 1, 2020

Birding with Baby

     My last post was on 5/5/2020, and that was my due date. I birded, saw some wonderful, much needed birds and went home. Throughly expecting that I'd maybe have at least another week before things got real. At 9pm, we sat down to watch some standup on Netflix with some of my homemade lemon bars. 5 minutes in and halfway through a lemon bar,* my water broke and then it's all history from there.
      * Please note, I did in fact finish my lemon bar before walking out the door.
Our daughter Kestrel was born on the afternoon of May 6th and life has not been the same. First, it feels like it flies. Second, I have had to surrender to the constant state of mess. Third, I never thought I would ever love a human baby so flippin' much. I love the heck out of this kid, she is the only one that matters. And lastly, being on the move is best for Kestrel and myself - so birding is 100% compatible for us both. She even wakes up at 4am, if we really wanted we could get out for sunrise birding, but lately sleep is precious.
     Since we got a bassinet fixture for the stroller, as long as there are semi decent paths, we can get out there and see the world and it allows me to bring my camera too. So here are some of our first birds together...
Our little family ventured to Green-Wood Cemetery a little ways back, I honestly cannot remember what day it was.
Tim strapped the baby to him, and we all looked at birds together. This magnolia warbler was very cute, even if its face is partly blocked by leaves.

A spotted sandpiper was feeding in the Dell Water.

One thing I need to get batter at, is ear birding, because with the baby I don't keep still for too long, I would be able to get more birds if I could better identify by song or call. I am always improving in this way of birding.

A female Baltimore oriole, feeding on the oak flowers.

I was so happy to see a nice close, still scarlet tanager. They are just outstanding against the fresh green leaves.

Happy to see the Great Egret back at the Crescent water
Back and fishing up a storm. I wonder how many of those tiny fish it has to eat to feel satisfied.
Birding with the baby in a sling, strapped to your body is do able. But it put limits on photographing, unless you have a willing partner to carry the baby. Our very first outing was at Marine Park, but I did not photo because I had Kestrel strapped to me.

When the bassinet component for our stroller arrived, I was ready!
The kiddo and I... well, really, just I, walked to Marine Park from our home. We strolled the Salt Marsh and were greeted by some diamondback terrapins in the water.

We saw an heard plenty of red-winged blackbirds. We heard a few clapper rails, but they eluded us.
It was warm out and with no shade, we kept moving along/

A (secret) snowy egret among the marsh grasses.

The tide was low(ish) and the fiddler crabs were out, waving their claws, (I presume) yelling at their neighbors. Which only meant that someone else had to also be out...

A snacker of fiddler crabs, a yellow-crowned night heron.

The crunch is just 100% satisfying!

Like a muppet with its large, open-and-close only mouth, it positioned the crab juuuuuust right...

And then one big gulp.

Down the hatch, with a blink of the nictitating membrane, the crab, likely squirms the whole way down.

With a look like that, you know that crab is kicking a screaming the whole way down.

Then it's ready for more.

The heron nearly walked right over to us, I can't wait for Kestrel to be old enough to actually see the wildlife around us. but I know the sounds and smells are filtering through her brain, enriching her, and getting her familiar with some of the best things this world has to offer.