Birdland, Revisited

· A wounded Great Blue Heron spent several days in our lake providing a riveting spectacle as she followed the sun around the shallow end. You could walk quietly within ten feet, sit down, and watch her feed on small fish, salamanders, frogs, and polliwogs. When she disappeared, our end of the lake was quite thinned of its small-fry and frogs.

The heron’s great golden eye would watch me approach. After I settled, she seemingly stopped paying attention to me within a few seconds, and would resume her patient hunt. Once, within about a minute, she slowly extended her neck and head into an iris stand and removed and ate, one, then another, then a third frog. The economy of her movements and her grace made me forgive the decimation of my frog population.

Her broken right wing did not seem to interfere with her ability to hunt. The source of the injury was a mystery. Speculations included car, predator, wire, and gun. Speculation as to her sudden disappearance after more than a week included coyote, fox, dog, and infection, but not starvation–we had witnessed her successful hunts and feasts. I like to think she walked down along the creek to another pond to feed, though I know it’s unlikely.

Her place in our daily lake-focus was taken by a kingfisher and the discovery of a hummingbird nest complete with babies. Soon the migrating geese and ducks will take over, and except for photographs and notations in diaries, our heron will truly be gone.

I don’t recall herons as a common sight in Ulster County, although in bird books they are listed as common in the northeast. Now, we seem to spot one or two a week. A Wallkill River kayaker reported four Great Blues flying around him in the river, just north of New Paltz.

With a wingspan of up to 70 inches, and a standing height of over three feet, Great Blue Herons are remarkably large among our bird population and easily identified. The heron flys with its head tucked into its neck, and long legs trailing.

In the early morning, between 6 and 7 am, I frequently spot Great Blues flying over Route 299 near the Thruway interchange, and more often near the two great swampy areas between Park Lane and Ohioville Roads. In the water, they are so well camouflaged that you have to be very patient and scan an area often to catch their movement. The best places to see herons are swamps, small ponds, and rivers with shallow edges. My preference is a swamp; there is always so much to see in addition to herons.

· Kingfishers are another bird I don’t recall seeing while I was growing up. In fact, my very first kingfisher of memory was spotted only six years ago on Martin Swedish Road in Esopus.

Kingfishers look like bluejays with an extra dose of attitude. They are sturdier, greyer, and their crest is more “free-form.” Sitting on a dead branch, they dive into ponds and streams coming up with small fish. Sometimes they hover above the water before diving. Territorial and noisy, they quickly became one of my favorite subjects to watch. You can see them almost at will from the bridge on Black Creek Road between Plutarch and North Elting Corners. Park on the east side of the bridge and keep to the road. Beaver houses, water lilies, herons, and other interesting things can be viewed from the bridge. (Don’t trespass, and of course don’t disturb the animals, and no trash. My mother patrols there..the very last person you’d want to mess with…)

· This spring at our home in Highland, four Pileated Woodpeckers were on the Dogwood trees at one time. Pileateds grow up to fifteen inches tall and are considered uncommon, so this was quite a sight. The gathering must have been Mom and offspring, because they are normally solitary birds. We had met Dad, earlier.

The previous spring began with a sunrise staccato on our bedroom window. A male Pileated had perched on the window sill and as the sun came up and his reflection in the glass emerged, he started hammering the “intruder.” Every morning would find him waiting for the interloper.

The first time it happened, we thought someone was shooting our house. The woodpecker was blind to the area inside the window and we could walk within two feet to watch the “battle.” At first we worried he’d break the glass and hurt himself, so we chased him away. He would fly off and come right back. After a week or so, the changing angle of the sun took care of the problem and we thought we were home-free.

Then we came home to discover the cedar siding on one side of our house mottled with the tell-tale rectangular holes of a Pileated Woodpecker. At that point we bought a fake owl who has done a marvelous job of protecting the repaired siding. Unfortunately, now I only see the extraordinary Pileateds flying in the woods on the opposite side of our house.

· Another bird that is suddenly ubiquitous is the Turkey. We have flocks of up to thirty birds wandering through our yard, digging up acorns and insects. They often seem to follow the white tail deer. My theory is that the deer inadvertently stir up the leaves and uncover food for the wily birds. Our lawn was so “tilled” this spring I thought we must have had skunk digging for grubs, but closer examination revealed turkey tracks in the dew (correct spelling, by the way) all over the

Benjamin Franklin thought the Turkey should be our national bird. I admire his insight. My brother-in-law, an avid hunter who has provided us with wild turkey thanksgiving dinner, says they are a wonderful challenge; cagey, and spirited.

One morning, while deer hunting, he took to his tree stand as the sun was coming up. The quiet evaporated as a “family” of turkey regrouped from the surrounding trees onto the ground below him. They “danced” in a circle. Then, after several minutes spent getting reacquainted with each other after the long night’s separation, they marched off, single file for the day’s feeding.

My friend, Ellen, who lives in New Paltz, told me she had never seen a wild turkey. It was about two weeks later she related the following: Early that day, she was walking on Main Street in New Paltz. She heard a commotion in the parking lot by the Post Office. When she went over, she saw several policemen standing around a van. The van’s front windshield was gone and the police were gathering at the back of the vehicle. One policeman pulled open the back door and they all stepped back. Suddenly, this large wild thing came flying out of the van.

Ellen’s first wild turkey. The van driver must have had an even more interesting encounter as the bird came through his windshield, but I have not been able to locate him for a comment. Ellen said the turkey was headed for the river the last anyone saw of it. Franklin liked the fact that turkeys were hardy. They still are.

But where did they come from all of a sudden? Do you recall the squirrel suicide epidemic a few years ago when the poor little guys were throwing themselves in front of cars? The carnage was incredible. On one stretch of Route 28 between Kingston and Oliverea, I counted more than 300 little corpses–just in the west-bound lane! I digress. It seems that nature does overproduce and that each overproduction ripples through the environment–first affecting this sector, then that.

For instance, just before the squirrel spread themselves liberally on the highways, the oaks had had a bumper acorn year. I think something similar, but in a sense, opposite happened with the turkey. The local rabies epidemic killed so many raccoon that the turkey population mushroomed because there were so few raccoon raiding the nests. Who knows? Let me hear from you, if you do.

The Resident Tourist

PS. At 6:45 am this morning, August 26th, I watched a Great Blue Heron fly above Route 299. He was heading south.