Birding Hikes: Van Cortlandt Park

I was heading to Woodland on the 4 train with less passengers at every stop—a clear sign of traveling away from Manhattan. By the end of the ride I was finally breathing Bronx air, and it felt wide and endless. Once off the stop, me and a friend searched for the Van Cortlandt Park entrance. The east of side of the park didn’t have a marked entrance like the west side, so we decided for the closest entry point.

Ruins on the west side [Cynthia Via]
When I tell people about the park, they follow with “that’s way up there.” No I’m not going off to the moon just yet. By train it takes hour if you’re coming from Queens, but by car, only 20 minutes (with one toll), even less from Manhattan. Van Cortlandt has 1,146 acres and is one of NYC’s last relic native woodlands, and the third largest park in the metro area. It’s home to a freshwater lake, marshland,  a forest with 100-year-old oak trees. Also sports fields, running/biking trails, a pool, and the Riverdale Stables— so if you see a horse in the park, it’s totally normal. On this particular Saturday, we had the whole space to ourselves—well, almost: people were scattered around but not in abundance as is the case for Central Park, where you’re elbow to elbow searching for a proper place to relax.

East side fallen tree on the Van Cortlandt lake. [Cynthia Via]
We made it our goal to walk to the John Muir trail (1.5 miles). At times we didn’t know if we were walking the right way. We consulted the online map, but after a while that got tiring, and why ruin nature with our cellphones? I figure we just follow our sense of direction. The park was covered in thick trees and ground shrubs, and the trails were kept clean except for a few fallen trees likely from hurricane Sandy. At the onset of the trail to our left we saw the roots of a huge tree over on its trunk. It was the grandmother of all trees, fat and large. We kept walking, and stopped every so often when we heard bird sounds. We saw Red-winged blackbirds, and plenty of American robins. At some point the trail cut off and we were left in the middle of a highway, but then we found the entrance to next part of the trail and kept walking. The trails here were farther away from the road, deeper into the woodland. For the most part it was flat with some incline. It’s best to wear your hiking shoes since you’re bound to find rocky paths ahead. We inspected nooks and crannies for inhabitants. At some point we saw a nest of  what appeared to be small Blue Jays, but we couldn’t be sure, since it was way up on a tall tree, and my binoculars couldn’t see that far.

West Side, wider trail. [Cynthia Via]
The spring air was still lovely underneath the canopy of trees. When we peaked out from the green fullness, the heat fell on us, with the balmy wind coming and going. Though most of the trails are clean, I was disappointed to see pieces of candy wrappers on the floor. Several trees had plastic bags hanging down like abandoned ghosts. Random bottles were floating in the lake and marshes. It’s awful to be in nature and have the reminder of our addiction to plastic (it always creeps up). Plastic doesn’t magically disappears in secluded forests. When plastic breaks down it creepy toxins harming the environment, wildlife and humans. Animals confuse plastic for food, and since it can’t be digested they eventually die a low death, and there’s more. At once I thought, let’s start picking up garbage, but neither of us had any bags, and who knows where the next garbage container would appear. This summer I want to volunteer in the park or just go around picking garbage if no one wants to join me.

Red-winged Blackbirds picking fish.

The noises from Common Grackles and unseen warblers made me slip back into the walk. We began crossing over to the west side.  The trails were wider and rockier than the flatter counterpart of the east. The trees had also grown taller. Throughout the trail we fussed over finding the John Muir Trail, and once we were on it, we couldn’t wait to get out. Now we were following some pink trail marks. We stopped suddenly when we saw a brown-colored butterfly with eyespots on its wings. To avoid us it blended successfully with the dry brown leaves on the floor.

Rest stop on the east side of Van Cortlandt lake.

Farther ahead, tall grass reached above our height: an unlikely marshland in the middle of this “urban” park. I tried to take a peek through the gaps of grass, but it was too dense. Some of the edges were outlined by a fence, preventing people from walking straight through the marshes. Even without the gate, common sense dictates that you won’t find easy footing, and what’s worse is invading protected areas. Up ahead where the forest took over again, we peeked through a small opening out to the pond. I was a sniper browsing the distant landscape. On some branches over the water were a couple of Red-winged Blackbirds, Catbirds, and Tree Swallows making their rounds in the sky, and eventually confusing us with their mad disarray. On my far right, a white egret was playing along the reeds. Some weeks later in the same pond,  I would see a group of turtles on a fallen tree truck basking in hot weather.

Rest stop on the east side of Van Cortlandt lake. [Cynthia Via]
Once we saw the view in the photo above, we decided to take a well-deserved rest. I’m not sure how long we walked but now it was close to lunch time. All I had to eat were some meager cashew nuts. In front of us were lanky, thin trees with yellow flowers swaying to the wind. That’s when I saw something flicker; it was a tiny fat warbler. I couldn’t believe it! A yellow warbler came to visit our chosen rest stop. It was flying restlessly from branch to branch, sometimes staying still, enough for me to see it through the binoculars. When it heard us make a fuss, it was gone! Knowing how to properly use binoculars comes in handy with these tiny birds. And with that we started making our way out. Close to the end of Van Corlandt some adult Blue Jays bade us farewell with their loud jeers.

Stay tuned for upcoming VCP’s events.

Birding Hikes: Floyd Bennett Field, Marine Park

Some weeks ago I went to Floyd Bennett Field and Marine Park with the Brooklyn Birding Club. Apart from the mad journey of getting there, hiking in the area was relaxing. It was my first time birding in a big group. Usually I bird alone or with 2 or 3 people at most. I don’t know many birders, so it’s all the more reason why being there was a necessary learning experience.

The initial trip was hectic thanks to an email confusion that made me late. Once I arrived to Floyd Bennett and stepped off the bus, I was in the middle of nowhere. Some part of me asked: is this still NYC? It was no man’s land at the edge of Brooklyn. I felt far away from urban life. Only the road with the fast cars on the side reminded me. Up ahead was the aviator building followed by a parking lot. I asked a park ranger which way was North 40 and he directed me to walk past the circus tents. I advise anyone going to Floyd Bennett, to get there by car.

The scorching hot field of Floyd Bennett. Photo: Cynthia Via

I walked to the entrance of North 40 where I was greeted by Red-winged Black birds and a large group of Canadian Geese. I was in the right area. The sun was hitting the cement, getting hotter, but up ahead near the foliage it was cool. I walked to a small trail up ahead, as I waited for the group behind some tall trees for a short while. My phone was without service, so I decided to take a peek out, and there I saw a large group of people in the field with binoculars, large cameras and binocular tripods. I used by binoculars to inspect them and they did the same in my direction. It was the Brooklyn Birding Club. I greeted the organizer and smiled as I walked toward her. Someone from a far said, ” I don’t think I would have made it this far.” I was starting to feel like a soldier coming from Queens. The driver introduced me to the other guy in our car“this is our lost passenger.” Would I go by that nickname the whole way through the hike?

Small trail in Floyd Bennett. Photo: Cynthia Via

We headed to the surrounding areas. First a community garden where I saw a goldfinch, plenty of house sparrows, a Northern-flicker and a Kestrel later during lunch, which no one took a picture of since it wouldn’t let you get near. There were rows of gardens separated by gray and white fences. The people working on them smiled at us as they kept fixing their small land. At some point, I got too excited thinking I saw a strange bird, and one of the experienced birders looked at it, and said “A robin.” It felt like someone had dropped a cement block on me. I only saw the bird’s backside, and the mix of bird noises confused me.

Song Sparrow at Floyd Bennett. Photo: Marc Brawer

I realize for experience birders some birds don’t excite them anymore, since they see them repeatedly, so they search for the rarest. I see this with myself too, but I also don’t want to completely ignore the common birds that may need conservation. Ideally you should first get comfortable with the birds around your neighborhood and in your backyard, studying them (shape, size, color, behavior and sound), and then progress to rare birds outside your comfort zone. I’m at that level where I can easily recognize birds near my house and those at local parks. Also using binoculars doesn’t come naturally, so adjust, take your time, and don’t get too overly excited when you can’t spot a bird.

Community garden in Floyd Bennett. Photo: Cynthia Via

We took a drive to the nearby beach. The sun was in all its glory, raining down, without the shade of trees. We stopped at the walkway before the shore. The air was still breezy here. It was hard to concentrate just on one side of the beach. Some birders were looking far into the distance with their tripod lenses while us binocular-users concentrated on the ducks close by. Duck species are the hardest to determine for me, since I rarely see them. But luckily some of the other birders knew, and they were nice enough to share. In the distance we saw: wood ducks,  American coot, buffleheads, among others.

Turkey Vulture seen in Floyd Bennett. Photo: Marc Brawer

I looked to the blue sky and these black birds were circling. They were vultures searching for a high post to perch from. When they flew closer to us we could distinguish their pink-red naked heads. I believe someone caught a good shot with their long lens camera. Looking around the area, I saw what appeared to be an abandoned airplane facility. It was wide, beige and filled with flying dust. Some of the windows were cracked and broken, rusty from old age. A vulture descended down on the roof of the building and faced us, only as a detective would.

We later headed to a marshy area. We came upon an almost barren beach marsh. Without inspecting much of the area, it appeared empty and dead. But there was life in the waters beyond: mallard ducks, American black ducks… The leader of the trip let me use her tripod binoculars, and I was able to see a kill deer. To the side there was an old building with graffiti with random drawing and letters. Nothing too discernible except for a quote about the seconds being wasted in sadness. The breeze later blended with the meaning of those words.

Yellow-rumped Warbler in Prospect Park. Photo: Marc Brawer

At the last spot in Marina Park, everyone was searching for the Pin-tailed Ducks. In the meantime we saw  the hooded merganser, oystercatchers, forster terns, parakeets (someone released them in the 1970s), among others. After walking through the trail,  I saw an osprey sitting on a nest above a long pole. And just as half the group was leaving the trail, I slowed down a bit, turned around thinking maybe the Pin-tailed duck would be there. A couple of minutes later my blind faith paid off. The few who stayed behind were able to see this cute duck.

I heard some rumors about the Prothonotary Warbler roaming Prospect Park. I had not seen any warblers in Floyd Bennett Field or in the marina. About half of the group went to Prospect Park, and I followed them. After a quick pizza slice, I trotted down to the park, running from one corner to another based on rumors from other birders.  I caught the bird craziness, and now I was looking for a Prothonotary Warbler. A guy on a bike was trying to get a photo with his long lens camera, going from one site to another, meanwhile the rest of us were still trailing on foot, feeling slow as ever.

Prothonotary Warbler spotted in Prospect Park. Photo: Marc Brawer

I had no clue what I was searching for until I saw a  glimmer of yellow between some branches near a pond. The little Prothonotary was a quick fellow, but we were able to see it clearly when it perched from a branch sticking out of the dense foliage. Then it was gone. We hurried across to the other side of the pond where it was rumored to be. Just for our luck, the feisty bird was gone again; it went back to the other side. From this new angle we could clearly see it without other branches in the way. About 5-6 birders were looking at this tiny yellow bird across the pond, and right in front was a guy loungingnot fazed one bit by the bird. One of the birders later said, “2015 still life: bird and park lounger.” Birding is all about patience and going back for seconds.  Just when I thought the warbler left us for good, it flew directly to the tree in front of us, and we all had a front row view and a good laugh. In all the Brooklyn Bird Club counted 60 species during this trip.