From the Meeting House Deck: A Birder's View

By George Steele

Every spring for twenty-five years, I’ve done a spring hawk watch at the Arboretum, usually from the Meeting House. It sits on a promenade overlooking a bend in the Schoharie River, which flows north to south. The river valley serves as a corridor for hawks in their spring migration, and this location affords a nice viewing area. Hawks are late risers, what with the first of the morning being taken up with hunting for food. As the day progresses, the sun heats up the land, creating thermals and wind movement. The hawks make use of these phenomena to conserve energy needed to fly north.

The star of the show is not, as you might think, the bald eagle. It’s the broad-winged hawk. It’s not a hawk you’re likely to see along the interstate roadways -- that’s the red-tailed hawk. The broad-wings migrate from the

forests of northern South America to summer in our northern woodlands. Over the years, we’ve had great views of these hawks, some just at tree-top level.

The other long distance migratory, the osprey, travels even longer distances, sometimes from as far away as Argentina. Ospreys are not as numerous as other hawks, but make for a fantastic sight with their “M”-shaped wing silhouette as they circle out over the valley.

The most exciting hawk to have zipped past over the years was a merlin. Blink and you’re likely to miss it. When migrating, these medium-sized falcons are all business. One seen a few years back flew in so low along the hillside that we were looking down on it instead of craning our necks upward.

Other hawks that we’ve seen include sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks (smaller accipiter, or bird-eating hawks) and northern harriers. These might be resident birds or migrants.

Very likely the bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, and turkey vultures seen are residents in our valley. Local or not, they’re a fine sight as they soar within view.

As one waits patiently for hawks to show up, there is a sideshow going on that’s hard to miss: the singing and flying of resident and early migrant non-raptorial birds. Most of these are the song birds, although we have also identified waterfowl, herons, and others. The most abundant are the tree swallows, chipping sparrows, goldfinch. and crows. Later in the spring at the early morning bird walk, we identify almost twice as many species as we range out beyond the Meeting House, and as more birds have returned from their winter homes.

The last program of the year, the Halloween Owl Prowl, is also held at the Meeting House. After I do an introduction to our three common owls, the Eastern screech-owl, the barred owl, and the great-horned owl, we venture into the woods to call and listen. Barred owls are the most frequently found, with a great-horned owl heard once. To date, however, no screech owls have been discovered. Once I was cleaning up after a program when I heard a whip-poor-will calling from the woods, a rare event.

The Arboretum is full of surprises and delights for the bird lover. So whether you join me for a program, or hike the forests and fields on your own, you're sure to have a memorable visit.


Summer 2016

Volume 34 , Number 3

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