Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Visit to Kawing Crow

January 21, 2011
Kawing Crow Awareness Center
Greenfield Center, NY

It is not merely crow calling to crow,
For it speaks to me too.
I am part of one great creature with him:
If he has voice,
I have ears.
     HDT's Journal, January 12, 1855

Today was our visit to Kawing Crow Awareness Center, for a tracking workshop sponsored by our local Audubon Chapter. After a largely snow-less month, we received a few inches of very fluffy flakes on the day before our visit. Now we might see some actual tracks!
Then, on the morning of our visit, it snowed again -- just an inch or so, but it was very fine and granular. Any tracks from last night would be filled-in by this sort of stuff.

Conditions that morning were slippery, and our little convoy was on the roads before the sanding trucks.  Kawing Crow is on the high ridge of Greenfield Center.  Once there, Vince greeted us and we spent some time inside the Nature Center, discussing all manner of outdoor things. For many of our group it was their first visit.

Vince is a woodsman extraordinaire, and his love for nature shines through. His wife Erica shares this love and his plans for a sustainable lifestyle.
They are the proud parents of Mavia, a pretty mellow little girl who is going to have a very interesting childhood.
[I am not sure how to spell her name, so my apologies to her parents. It could be Mavia (an arab queen?) or a variation of Maeve (legendary irish faery queen?) or Maevia (a north american jumping spider?) Only time will tell which of these she comes to favor!
The Nature Center is full of taxidermied examples of the local wildlife. While we were discussing canines, several  of these preserved critters were on the table before us. Vince was holding Mavia in the crook of his arm, as she gently reached out to pat the head of the red fox.

After lunch, we hit the trail. No showshoes were necessary, but the day was penetratingly cold.  I had gotten chilled sitting indoors for so long, and just could not build up any body heat once we were outdoors. As soon as we started seeing and learning about animal signs in the snow,  it was so interesting that cold fingers and toes were temporarily forgotten.

Vince’s family joined us for a short time on the hike.  Erica had bundled up Mavia, who travelled in style.

We had all been fussing over her as much as the specimens !
But then, as I was taking yet another photo of her terminal cuteness,
she shot me The Look.


I knew it well, from my days as a photographer for PCA corporation.
I had an immediate flashback to those days.

They were long and arduous days, travelling each week to a different  department store in the Tri-State area, staying in the cheapest of hotels, lugging the entire contents of a portable studio in my VW bug. This included a cash register, signs, scenic background screens,  camera, props etc.  They were ten-hour days of taking portraits, mostly of babies. People would line up to spend 88 cents for a photo, especially around holidays.  After a long wait in one of these lines, even the most serene of babies will reach the point when dimples turn to frowns … and at that fragile tipping point, you get The Look. Tears are sure to follow.

Well, Mavia was in good hands, however, and she and Erica left the trail for warmer climes.
The rest of us continued on, stopping now and again to read the Book of the Woods. Vince doesn’t just dish out answers, he makes you puzzle things out.

All in all, it was a great time outdoors with like-minded folks.
Vince's trails lead across some beautiful swampland, which would be wonderful to visit in other seasons.  

A special thanks to Southern Adirondack Audubon for organizing this excursion.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Visiting the Grasslands

January 15, 2012
Fort Edward Grasslands, NY

I rejoice that there are owls.
    HDT Walden, “Sounds”

Hmm, what to do on a bitterly-cold and breezy Sunday afternoon? What about a trip to open country !

Along with mountains, lakes and river scenery, we are blessed with having an area not too far from here that is a true grassland environment. The Fort Edward Grasslands are unique in that they attract many birds with specific open-space preferences.
In winter, this area is known to be frequented by Short-Eared Owls, which are classified as endangered in New York state. These owls come down from the Artic to spend the winter in the northern U.S.

I had never seen one, so today Jackie and I turned to the East, and took a ride over there.

The owls usually show themselves right around sunset, and we spent some time driving around the back roads, getting glimpses of other raptors known to favor this sort of terrain.  Those include dark-phase Rough-legged Hawks and Northern Harriers.
It was almost impossible to get any photos of these creatures, since we were bundled up from head to toe, and taking photos involved struggling out from the seatbelts, jumping out briefly, and hopping back into the car. It was THAT cold. Jackie wore her coat she calls “The Sleeping Bag.”  But it was still windy enough to make your eyes water, as you held the binoculars or camera up.

It was like travelling back in time, to see farms perched on the hillsides of this beautiful open country.

The future holds many threats of development, so that this type of grassland can also be considered “endangered.”  There are big threats on the horizon as developers eye this tempting, relatively flat scenery.
Thanks to several local organizations, and private property owners, certain places here are set aside as Protected Areas for the birds.
For an overview,
click here.

After our driveabout,  the sun finally began to sink below the horizon.
We were both frozen but headed back to the spot where our birding pal Lindsey suggested was the best place to see an owl.

After some time sitting in the chilly car, I was about ready to head home, but we decided to stay juuust a few moments longer.
For as Thoreau noted in his Journal, when you continue just past that turnaround point, that is when you really see things.

Lo and behold, two other cars appeared and parked nearby on the dead-end road. We got out to chat with them. 
They had already spotted an owl ! For the next ten minutes, we watched two or three owls rise ghostly out of the tall grasses in the distant field. They flapped like bats, with changing  wingbeats. It was too dim to even think of trying to get a photo,  the owls were two fields away, and we were all intently watching through  binoculars, anyway.

Besides, one of the other watchers had a camera with a HUGE lens, mounted on a tripod.  Upon seeing his setup, I was briefly overcome with an acute case of lensvy (= lens envy).
But I got over it when he introduced himself as Gordie Ellmers. Gordie is a local photographer and wildlife observer par excellence. I have admired his amazing photos for years, so it was a thrill to meet him. He was the one to get photos of our feathered quarry today, and here is one that he shared with us afterward:

                           [photo by Gordon Ellmers, used with permission]
You can see more of his stunning photos on this page created by our local Audubon Chapter. Here, in fantastic detail, you will see all three of the raptors that we saw in fleeting glimpses today.

In ten minutes, the owl show was over. We all headed back to our cars.  My hands were frozen in the Binoculars Up position. Jackie was going to stop along the river, on her way back home to the south. She captured the final beauty of the day,  as you can see by her own blog here.
I however, was done exploring, and with my frozen clawed hands on the steering wheel,  steered northward to home.  There was a lasagna dinner waiting for me, and I didn’t make any scenic stops at all !

Afterward, I just couldn’t get warm. These are the times I miss the ol’ woodstove of my Vermont days. It was so-ooo nice to curl up in a chair near the stove and feel the warmth just ooze into you.
I live in a small apartment now, so that is not an option anymore.
But, here you see me, sitting cozy before a fire...?
(OK, it’s really just a dvd that I found for fifty cents at the last library book sale -- how could I resist?)

In the glow of the virtual flames, I browsed through my new and altogether excellent Crossley’s bird guide.  
Later, in Thoreau’s Journal,  I found a good description of the Bird of the Day:

At midday (3 p.m.) saw an owl fly from toward the river
and alight on Mrs. Richardson’s front-yard fence.
Got quite near it, and followed it to a rock on the heap of dirt at Collier’s cellar. A rather dark brown owl above
(with a decided owl head (and eyes), though not very broad), with longitudinal tawny streaks (or the reverse),
none transverse, growing lighter down the breast,
and a length clear rusty yellowish or cream-color beneath and about feathered feet.  Wings large and long, with a distinct black spot beneath;
bill and claws, I think, black. Saw no ears.  Kept turning its head and great black eyes this way and that when it heard me, but appeared not to see me.
Saw my shadow better, for I approached on the sunny side.
I am inclined to think it the short-eared owl,
though I could see no ears, though it reminded me of what I had read of the hawk owl.
It was a foot or more long and spread about three feet.
Flew somewhat flappingly, yet hawk-like.
Went within two or three rods of it.
      HDT Journal, December 8, 1853

Friday, January 6, 2012

Eagle Ogling

January 2, 2012
Various places in Saratoga County, NY

Today was a day to look for eagles ! It was clear, cold and breezy.

Last Friday, both Jackie and I attended the latest Eagle Watch at Moreau Lake State Park.
Led by Gary Hill, the watches are held throughout the winter, to survey wintering eagles who come down from Canada. What attracts them are the dams in this section of the Hudson River which keep the  nearby water open when all else is frozen over. The group stops at four places along the river to make observations. This section of the Park is designated as an Important Birding Area by the state.

The watches can be an exercise in patience, since they involve a lot of standing still and watching, in weather fair and foul.
You can go for several weeks and not see an eagle.

The last stop, at the Spier Falls boat launch, is where you are usually rewarded with a sighting. Most of the winter eagles we’ve spotted over the years have been at this bend of the river.

On Friday, the group saw two eagles in full adult plumage, which was pretty exciting to those who were seeing their first bald eagle.

Both Jackie and I thank our lucky stars that we live in such an interesting place. We are grateful every day. But sometimes we get a little greedy too – so today we met with the intention of doing our own Eagle Watch at several places in Saratoga County.

We decided to meet first at the southern end of the Betar Trail. It’s a pondy stretch of the river, upstream from the dam (and falls) of South Glens Falls. We nixed our original plan of just walking along the Path, keeping an eye out for birds of any sort. It’s a very pleasant walk in warmer weather.
This morning, although it was almost 40 degrees, there was a stiff west wind cutting across the water, right into our faces. Kinda hard to look for birds with tears streaming down your cheeks! And most birds were lying-low in this sort of weather, anyway.

But not the eagles.

The moment I pulled over to park at the meeting-place, a shadow passed overhead. It was an eagle !

[My camera has a decent zoom-lens, but I’m not so good at catching a photo of a bird on the fly. The cropped shots in this blog are awfully grainy.
So you’ll just have to trust me that these ARE eagles.]

The adult eagle circled over me in lazy loops, slowly gaining altitude.  With binocs, I could see that although he had a white head, his wings underneath were flecked brown and white. So he was not in full adult plumage.
Then he caught into a high tail-wind, and zoomed away downriver.

Just then, Jackie pulled up. I  was sorry that she had missed Eagle Number One. After a short shivery walk, we opted to go back to the boat launch, further upriver, where we had seen the eagles on Friday.

As we arrived, we met Pat and her dog Nugget. Pat had found a nice spot out of the wind, and had been observing an eagle that was perched across the cove. She’s a local eagle enthusiast, and had been there for hours this morning. Nugget, however, was not so interested in bird-watching, and he barked out a greeting to us. A short while later, the eagle decided to put more distance between us, and left his perch to fly upriver with slow wingbeats, out of our sight. That was Eagle Number Two.

Back to our cars, and I followed Jackie as she led the way to a place that Pat had mentioned; another place she’d seen eagles this week.
We stopped at Stafford Bridge, which crosses Fish Creek.

Fish Creek ! Where I grew up in Pennsylvania, a creek was something you could step across.
Here, where the Creek flows east from Saratoga Lake, it seemed more like a wide river to me. We stepped out of our warm cars, and walked toward the bridge for a better view. Within moments, a dark shape was soaring low – Eagle Number Three! It was clearly a juvenile, head and tail both still dark. (It takes an eagle about five years to reach the familiar full adult coloration.)  
The pigeons near the bridge scattered at his approach, but he didn’t go after them.

There were mallards in the shallows nearby, and it was funny to see them all tip-up at the same time. Duck and cover !

They weren’t hiding, though, they were feeding. The eagle had already looped up and away, toward the outlet of Fish Creek, where the creek joins the Hudson River in Schuylerville.

Schuylerville was our last stop, though we didn’t see any more eagles there.
It’s great to be able to say that we saw "only" three of them today!