The Great Outdoors
After half a century, these seasoned bird-watchers are soaring higher than ever.
The Great Outdoors
A Dutchess County bird club is still flying high after 50 years
of tracking their feathered friends
By Mary Forsell
For the birds: During fall migration, members of the bird club spot American Kestrels searching for prey and a Great Egret probing the muddy bottom of the pond
Photo by Carena Pooth
On a sunny weekday morning in spring, while most people are rushing off to work, about 35 members of the Ralph T. Waterman Bird Club are clustered on a trail at Denning’s Point in Beacon, their binoculars all trained on a single spot. Some whisper “I see it!” Others wait for a turn at the spotting scope. Just what rare bird have they found?
While you might expect something dramatic like one of the bald eagles that have captivated bird watchers at this peninsula in recent years (and closed it down during nesting season), the bird in the scope is far more humble: a Blackcap Chickadee. Though this species usually doesn’t draw crowds, consider this: this particular bird is building a nest in a tree cavity it bored itself. When the bird flies, wood chips scatter. It’s an unexpected treat, like a nature special happening at close range.
Eventually, the group shuffles down the road, lingering for a while near a railroad bridge.
A few other species are noted with equal excitement: a Northern Flicker eating ants, a phoebe singing, a Fox Sparrow scratching at dead leaves. As the morning unfolds, the everyday drama of bird life intensifies. Red-bellied Woodpeckers sit side-by-side on a branch, with beaks touching — a sign of courtship. Turkey vultures languidly fan out their wings to take in the warmth of the Metro-North railroad tracks after feasting on a deer carcass. A male bluebird struts its stuff as the female tentatively looks on. She’s not
making any rash decisions.
“Maybe people don’t get enough information about their mates in the beginning, the way birds do,” muses member Maha Katnani, a substitute teacher who got into bird-watching after a 2006 car accident slowed her down. Katnani has become so enthusiastic that her daughter won’t even take walks with her if she’s carrying binoculars.
“We get new people all the time,” says club newsletter co-editor Barbara Michelin, who counts 347 members. “We’ve had home-schoolers who study birds as part of the curriculum. Lots of families come out in summer. They don’t have to go on the whole trip. They can leave at any time [walks last three hours], but once you give kids binoculars, they’re hooked.”
On this particular morning, longtime member Tully McElrath has brought along his financial advisor, 23-year-old Bruno Machado, who came prepared with binoculars and a camera. “I’m trying out different hobbies,” says Machado. “I’m excited about what I might see, and I want to get to know the region.”
Fellow birders quickly take him under their wing, pointing out markings and demonstrating the “psishing” noise that flushes birds out of hiding places. One of the perks of the club, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, is learning how to quickly identify species from the best birders around. Michelin, for instance, can bird by ear, the mark of a pro.
Another advantage of the club is getting to know the birding hot spots of Dutchess and beyond. Weekly field trips on Wednesdays usually number 30 to 40 people; on weekends, up to a dozen. Most are in Dutchess, but occasionally farther afield, including the shores around Rye Playland and Jamaica Bay in Queens. While the club used to travel to the Delaware River by Port Jervis to see eagles, over the past 10 years they haven’t needed to make that trip since eagles now thrive along the Hudson.
Lots of the best birding spots are right under your nose. “Just off Route 9 alone, you have the Vanderbilt, FDR, and Morse estates, all of which are great places to bird,” says Stan DeOrsey, co-author of The Birds of Dutchess County, New York. There are plenty of lesser-known spots, too, including Nuclear Lake in Pawling (great for Spring Warblers and songbirds), Thompson Pond in Pine Plains (for seeing woodpeckers and Golden Eagles), and Traver Pond in Pleasant Valley (for Great Blue Heron and Belted Kingfisher sightings).
DeOrsey’s favorite is Sharparoon, a private area in Dover. “The habitat is so varied. There’s a lake, a marsh, here are fields and a forest. Habitat is what determines which birds you’ll see. You initially think a bird flies, so it can be anywhere. But woodpeckers like trees. If you have a field, you won’t find them there. Sandpipers, with minor exceptions, like water and edges of water.”
A hardy group, the club ventures out all year-round. Some sightings from January alone included a Great Horned Owl hooting away at the Vassar College Farm, a Snowy Owl at the World Peace Sanctuary in Wassaic, Bald Eagles at Stony Kill Environmental Education Center in Fishkill, and a whole flock of American Robins at a farm on Overlook Road in Poughkeepsie. “That story about the first robin of spring is incorrect,” says DeOrsey. “You can see a robin here every day of the year.”
The organization has the paperwork to prove its sightings. They’ve been keeping meticulous records since 1958, when the club — named for a local who taught bird-identification courses for the continuing ed program of the
It seems like all airways lead to — or through — Dutchess. “The county is on the northern edge of the southern nesting birds, and the southern end for the northern nesting birds,” says DeOrsey. That means that birds that nest in the south, like the Yellow-billed Cuckoo and the Yellow-throated Vireo, will also nest here. Conversely, northern birds like the Pine Warbler and the Red-breasted Nuthatch will nest here, too. To add to the mix, some birds have up and moved here, including the Carolina Wren, which started nesting here in 1975, and the wild turkey, which the state reintroduced in the 1960s. In all, 312 species can be viewed in Dutchess — though not all at the same time.
In winter, for instance, you’ll see migratory birds from up north, such as the Pine Siskind or the Common Redpoll. One memorable cold-weather visitor was a Snowy Owl who decided to make Kmart on Route 44 in Poughkeepsie its home from December to March a few years back. “People came from all over to see it,” recalls Michelin. “It sat by a hot-air vent and seemed content. I guess there were lots of pigeons and rats to feed on.”