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.