I have been making an annual pilgrimage to the Sterling Forest in Tuxedo, NY for the past four years now. Last year, I enjoyed a wonderfully successful trip to this bird-filled location with my fellow young birders from the CTYBC, while the two previous years I visited with my beloved grandfather, Jim, the first being just the two of us, and the second with some birders from the Queens County Bird Club.
This trip would again be unique in terms of my companions, as I would be joined by my father, as well as friends Paul Pinto Sr., and Jr. (the latter two years younger than me). The Sterling forest is a fantastic birding location, definitely one of the best in southern New York for picking up a diverse array of species. Unlike the makeup of my companions, this fact would remain the same on my visit last Sunday.
However, the status of one species, Mississippi Kite, has forever changed at Sterling. Just about a week before my visit, a male had shown up across the street from the visitor’s center, and began nest-building. His activities soon attracted a sub-adult female, who it seems has decided to remain and raise a family. Paul Jr. had shown a keen interest in birding since we’d met, and I was looking forward to showing him this exciting species on his first trip.
Arriving at 8 o’clock, we quickly picked up the apparent male Mississippi Kite out on a snag to the north of the parking lot. After the initial sighting (which occurred before we even left the car), we never lost sight of these birds once. We observed the male moving about in the vicinity of the nest, perching in various trees, and apparently visiting the actual nest site a couple of times. After a while, he took off and landed on a dead tree across the street before lifting off again.
The apparent female, who, up until this time had proven elusive, launched forward from the probable nest site and landed in the dead tree the male had formerly occupied. As the male soared right above and the female sat idly in the tree we began to hear the birds calling, and interacting with one another, which was quite a sight. It was especially nice to hear these birds’ vocalizations, which sound almost falcon-like.
Everyone, including both Pauls and my dad, obtained terrific looks at the female as she sat in the dead tree, preening and communicating with her mate. The male began to get farther away, as he began to forage about the area, and at times was only a small blur.
However, other raptors entered the scene to fill the hole left empty by the now-absent male. At first, it was merely a few Turkey Vultures soaring about the area. But suddenly, as I was scanning the vultures, I noticed a much larger bird with a very distinctive wing shape and called out “Bald Eagle!” Almost immediately a resident pair of American Crows, possibly sensing a threat, took notice to this stunning adult Bald Eagle and launched out of the nearby forest towards it.
An aerial dogfight soon ensured, and lasted for quite a while, as the crows chased the eagle around the immediate vicinity, at times making physical contact with the bird as it tried it’s best to avoid their blows. After quite some time, the crows finally achieved the victory they were hoping for, when the Bald Eagle drifted lazily to the north, and out of sight. The raptor show was capped off by an immature Red-tailed Hawk, who came zooming by the parking lot.
It was a fantastic start to our trip. Not only had we achieved our goal of seeing the Mississippi Kites, but we had been witness to a fantastic showing of raptors, which proves that you really never know what to expect when you go out birding.
We then made our way to, arguably, the most well-known spot at the entire forest: Ironwood Drive and the powerline Right-of-way where the road terminates. This street is a very good spot for picking up a number of uncommon species, including Hooded, Cerulean, Blue-winged, Prairie, and Chestnut-sided Warblers, as well as maybe the biggest prize of all: Golden-winged Warbler.
It is also home to one of the highest densities of ticks in the vicinity, our introductions to some of these lovely individuals I’ll detail a little later on.
While on our way to Ironwood, we noted this Great Blue Heron in a wetland along the side of the road:
Almost as soon as we turned on to the road, we struck gold, nailing our first two Hooded Warblers of the day amidst a chorus of singers including Ovenbird, Red-eyed Vireo and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.
Moving farther down the road, we again heard another Hooded, this time along a path that ran into the woodland, right towards the area where the song seemed to be coming from. We decided to stop and give the path a try, which was one of the best decisions of the morning’s birding. Not only did we get fantastic looks at a singing male Hooded Warbler from mere feet away, but we also got good looks at its closest relative: American Redstart.
Other definite highlights along the trail included my THIRD Alder Flycatcher of the year, a singing Chesnut-sided Warbler and a flyover Northern Rough-winged Swallow, among others.
We were still eager for what lay in store, however, and after a short stint along the trail, we made our final push to the powerline cut. Upon arrival, we noticed many birders tucking their socks into their pants (quite an amusing look, I have to say) and spraying themselves from head to toe with all sorts of crazy mixtures.
As I mentioned before, the powerline cut has an odd mix of conditions that for some reason make it tick heaven. Never, have I encountered so many of these arachnids. If you go, come prepared and walk the cut at your own risk!
Instead of going ‘all out’ like some of the others, we instead casually rubbed some bug repellent around our legs, before starting onto the trail. The trail heading up to the north side of the cut leads through some woodlands and a wetland first. Here we encountered Yellow-throated Vireo, Common Yellowthroat, and a calling Red-shouldered Hawk. Emerging for the trees, we heard our first Golden-winged Warbler singing in the thick vegetation to the south of us.
We decided to move on and wait for this bird, rather than linger, as we knew they were more common up the slope. It was while we made our way up that first incline that the first of the ticks made themselves known, in the form of an innocent pair found on my fathers legs.
This innocence soon turned to madness as my father and Paul Sr. began to get covered with ticks. Although Paul Jr. and I did obtain our own share, we estimated that we received around 1/5 of what the two older guys got. Much of our journey up and down the various slopes was spent picking ticks off of our bodies, although Paul Jr. and I frequently lost sight of our fathers as they continued to pick the pesky arachnids off their various parts.
Ticks or no ticks, it was impossible to ignore the bird song that filled the air all around us. Prairie Warblers were singing from almost every other bush, Blue-winged Warbler didn’t take too long before it made itself heard, as did Indigo Bunting. A Scarlet Tanager began its throaty robin-like song from the edge of a cut, while a Worm-eating Warbler sounded off nearby.
A little ways up, we noted one and then two singing Golden-winged Warblers, amounting to three individuals on the day. Try as we might, the Golden-wingeds remained frustrating for a third year in a row, giving infrequent, fleeting views as they moved through the shrubby. Unlike my first visit in 2009, during which my grandfather got stunning looks at a pair of Golden-wingeds tending to a nest, the last three years had been ridiculously frustrating.
Leaving the annoying Golden-wingeds, formerly one of my favorite wood-warblers behind, we returned downslope, connecting with more birds and more ticks including our sixth raptor species of the day, Black Vulture, and our first Deer Tick of the outing, detected one me, of course.
As we passed through the edge of the woodland, Golden-winged#1 taunted us from what seemed like just the edge of the shrubby. But with this bird, we knew better, which certainly isn’t the case with ticks……
To see more photos from our awesome day of birding, visit my flickr site (which can be reached from the ‘Recent Photos’ tab on the sidebar). These shots include a number of dragonflies and damselflies — i.d.s on these insects would certainly be appreciated!