I was racing the sun and stuck behind a slowpoke. Each minute, each second, I crawled behind the dark sedan; I lost another ray of sunlight. I cast an anxious eye to the horizon as I crested yet another hill heading toward the Liberty Loop trail at the Wallkill. Although it is not far from my house, tonight the trip seemed to last forever. Yes, I had decided spontaneously. Yes, I had waited rather too long. But still. “Why, oh Why, are they always in front of me,” I wailed.
I finally pulled into the parking lot fully expecting to be by myself, as is often the case, to find 5 other cars bellied up to the bar, as it were.
I stumbled from the car, hastily pulling on heavy gloves and a hat with earflaps. Stomping up the snowy path with booted feet, I hoped that the 2 pair of socks I was wearing would be enough this time. After exchanging pleasantries, and accepting an offer to peer through a scope at a Bald Eagle, I settled down to wait. We all scanned the marsh, side-to-side, front-to-back, side-to-side, front-to-back, then turned and did the same across the street. I held my breath at each ghostly pass of the harriers working the marsh in the gathering gloam. The sun slipped beyond the hill turning the shadows to midnight blue. The transition came quickly. One minute, they were Harriers and the next they had magically turned into Short-eared Owls. As if, as if, the Harriers had thrown off their daytime disguises to reveal their nighttime nature.
It is a crepuscular magic that I never tire of.
With the last of the ice melted from lakes and reservoirs, waterfowl has been on the move north. I popped over to the Wallkill NWR the other day to see what was shakin’. Used to having the place to myself, with perhaps one or two other cars; I was stunned to find the parking lot full. I squeezed the car onto the grass and stomped off to the other side of Liberty Loop. The weeds, reeds and grasses that hide the ponds during the summer were thin and for the most part wind-blown. There were Song Sparrows on every high seed head tuning up their rusty voices. A shimmering mirage of Snow Geese circled the fields to land with a large flock of Canada Geese gorging on tender new shoots. The ponds themselves were loaded with Mallards, Pintails and Green-winged Teals. The resident Red-tailed Hawk sat on the wires and a female Northern Harrier coursed back and forth. The muskrats were swimming between lodges and turtles were sunning themselves. The marsh is feeling the change of seasons.
As the sun sank lower, cars started to arrive at the Liberty Loop parking lot. They pulled in by ones and twos. I had been standing there for hours with my feet ice cold in the snow jawing with some bird photographers. We watched Harriers, Red-tailed and Rough-legged Hawks, a Merlin and loads of Canada Geese and Sparrows. A Barred owl started to inquire about our dinner arrangements.
One of the photographers had been coming to the marsh for weeks and had not seen a Short-eared Owl in all that time. I had not seen one there since mid-December. As people arrived asking about the Owls, we all just shrugged. Many people left, heck, I left. But after a tongue-burning cup of cocoa, I came back to resume the vigil.
Friends of mine from Long Island arrived bubbling with news of having seen Long-eared Owls. As they told there story again and again for new arrivals, I idly scanned the marsh. They must have brought owl luck with them for as the sun inched further in the west and the sky’s pastels turned fiery, a Short-eared Owl rose from the marsh and started to course back and forth. I whirled around shouting at the photographers chatting in the parking lot. “We’ve got owls!” Everyone hustled up to the upper level.
In the end there were 4. The cool thing was that it was light enough that you could easily see the differences between the male and females and tell them apart.
Bill Martone’s story is too interesting to languish in the comment section of the Rusty Blackbird post. With his permission I have bumped it up. I wish I had been there….
Being a birder, as you are, I’m certain you’ve spent some time over at the Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge over in Vernon. Well, I pulled a permit for that 5,000 acre patch of land this winter to do some deer hunting and while we only took one doe, last week something really phenomenal happened that I want to tell you about.
It was shortly after sunrise and I was sitting on a log quietly listening and watching for sound or movement and trying to look inconspicuous in my blaze orange vest and hat. I was posted in the middle of a wooded mound that separated two large fields of cut hay. My buddy was about 100 yards away to the south. It started as just a strange background noise like the sound of something moving through tall grass or maybe like the wind through the leaves. It was a constant whitish pink noise emanating from the river behind me and growing in volume to the point of becoming a distraction. I turned to face the sound, but could see nothing. Just then my buddy radioed over to me asking if I knew what that sound was. As I was about to tell him that I’d been wondering the same thing when I saw it and all I could say was “Oh my God!”
At first I didn’t know what I was staring at because it was so immense. The giant whooshing sound I had been hearing for the last 15 minutes was being made by a huge cloud of black birds that were heading directly for me. Now, I’ve seen flocks of birds before, but this was nothing like I’d ever seen. It literally blotted out the sun and darkened the sky. I’d say this mass of black feathers had to be a quarter of a mile in diameter and flying at an altitude of about 100 feet…just above the tree tops. At first I thought they might be locusts and it completely freaked me out, but although I soon realize that they were birds, I was no lest concerned because I had never seen so many in one place in my entire life and they were bearing right down on my position. I felt like Tippy Hedron in a scene from “The Birds”. As the cloud passed over me the noise was deafening. What started out as a distant whooshing sound was now more like a freight train passing by. The birds weren’t chirping at all, so the sound they produced was generated from the beating of their wings. It was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen while afield and I’ll never forget it. When I recount the story for friends it just doesn’t do it justice. They’re like…”OK, you saw a flock of birds. That’s great!” No, this was no ordinary flock, there were hundreds of thousands if not millions of them. I didn’t get a really close up look at one, but my guess would be that they were Starlings. I don’t know of any other bird that’s that size and color that is indigenous to these parts. Of course, they could have been migrating through, but this was mid January and I thought most of the migrations were pretty much completed now. Anyway, I thought I’d mention it to you since you know so much about birds. I thought perhaps you could tell me a little more about what we experienced. The whole flock landed in the trees surrounding my buddy’s position and he said it was like the barren woods had suddenly come into full foliage.
Filed under carnival, Photos