For many birdwatchers, part of the attraction is that you can sit in your house, look out the window and be wonderfully entertained. For some enthusiasts, the experience is almost spiritual.
“When you look out into your back yard and there’s that white blanket of snow, a few evergreen trees and then you see the red of the cardinal, it really is something to see,” said Lois Geshiwim, who lives in a wooded area just west of Saratoga Springs. “I don’t care who’s looking at it, it’s a very striking image.”
Birdwatching by most accounts was a particularly exciting pastime over the winter of 2016-2017, and it continues to be a rewarding experience this spring. And, while sitting in the house looking out the window was good enough for some, those feeling a bit more ambitious could jump in the car, take a drive and also be well rewarded for their efforts. There were short-eared owls in Fort Edward to see, great grey owls up further north in Keene, and at the Cohoes Falls there were plenty of bald eagles to watch.
“I’ve seen quite a few of them, especially this time of year,” said Schenectady’s Mike Lemery, who was a regular visitor to the Cohoes Falls this winter to observe and film bald eagles. “Sometimes I’ll see a group of them. They were mostly immatures, so they don’t have the white head yet, but they were bald eagles, and not too long ago I saw 14 of them at one time. It really is something to see.”
Lemery shot a short film on bald eagles that was screened at the National Geographic/Sun Valley Film Festival in Ketchum, Idaho last year, and he continues to shoot eagles at the Cohoes Falls for a full-length documentary. Throughout the winter almost every trip he took to that section of the Mohawk River before it breaks into three tributaries and empties into the Hudson River resulted in a dramatic eagle sighting.
“When the water froze this year, it still kept running at the falls and the power plant canal just above the falls,” said Lemery, “so that’s why the eagles would congregate there. It was pretty fascinating to watch them. I’d see a group of ducks, actually mergansers, that would grab a fish; the eagles would spot it from the trees and swoop down and steal the fish and the mergansers would duck under water. It was really interesting to watch it all.”
A great grey owl flies across a Minnesota field. This bird, rarely spotted in New York, has been spotted in the Adirondacks this year. (The New York Times)
Meanwhile, a group of smaller birds of prey, short-eared owls, were hanging out just outside the village of Fort Edward in Washington County.
“About dusk they start roosting together, but during the day they’re in the grasslands looking for moles and voles,” said Audubon New York Executive Director Erin Crotty, who lives in rural Rensselaer County. “It’s an ideal habitat for short-eared owls and it’s on a mixture of private and public property. There are about 20 to 25 of them and they’ve been there a while. When all of them take flight it’s quite a spectacle. They’ve drawn a lot of bird lovers from quite a distance.”
Bernie Grossman, a Rexford native and past president of the Mohawk-Hudson Bird Club, has been to Fort Edward to see the short-eared owls, and he’s also travelled farther north to see the great grey owl in Keene.
“There’s usually quite a group of people up there looking for them, and when they fly they’re so big you can’t miss them,” said Grossman. “They usually stay further north so it was a real delight to see them.”
Grossman has also had a busy year at his backyard bird feeder.
“All winter we saw our cardinals, our chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches,” he said. “Our regular visitors also include blue jays and some woodpeckers, mostly hairy and downy. We’ve also had a dozen bluebirds show up episodically. That was very pleasant.”
Geshiwim, who owns Wild Birds Unlimited in Saratoga Springs with Nancy Castillo, hasn’t seen bluebirds at her feeder but she has heard about them.
“I haven’t seen one at my house in a while, but our customers have come into the store and told us about all the bluebirds coming to their feeders,” she said. “There seems to be more than usual, but they do tend to stick around if they can find a good food source. They don’t necessarily migrate.”
The prevalence of bluebirds, New York’s state bird, and bald eagles in the Capital Region is something that makes WAMC bird expert Rich Guthrie very happy.
“There is no shortage of eagles, and that is something we can be very proud of,” said Guthrie, who lives along the Hudson River in New Baltimore. “I took a train to New York and between Poughkeepsie and Croton we saw about 25 of them. The Eagles have done very well.”
The bald eagle was nearly extirpated from New York 30 years ago, and the bluebird too was struggling at the turn of the century before getting some help from humans.
“People have been putting out nesting boxes for the bluebirds and they have worked very well,” said Guthrie. “They are a special size to keep out the swallows and starlings. It’s helped a lot, and it really has proven to be another big success story.”
A colorful male cardinal in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. (The New York Times)
For Guthrie, bird watching is a hobby that never gets old. And while the cardinal seems to the favorite of many, Guthrie likes the Carolina Wren.
“How can you not like a cardinal,” he said. “They’re beautiful. But if I had to pick my favorite I think it would be the Carolina Wren. They sing throughout the year. It can be a dark day in January, miserable and gloomy, and the wren will be out there singing. They have a very cheery, cheery song.”
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or [email protected].
10 birds you're likely see at your feeder
What’s most likely to show up at a backyard birdfeeder in upstate New York this time of year? Here’s an unofficial top ten list, not necessarily in any order, created with the help of some Capital Region experts and a big assist from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Remember, robins usually eat worms.
- Black-capped chickadee
- House sparrow
- Northern cardinal
- Blue jay
- Downy woodpecker
- White-breasted nuthatch
- Tufted titmouse
- Dark-eyed junco
- House finch