Birding the Shawangunk Grasslands
As I already said in my previous post that featured a juvenile Brown-headed Cowbird, this past weekend my parents and I explored the Shawangunk Grasslands, a National Wildlife Refuge in southern Ulster County in the Hudson Valley. The grasslands used to be an airport but when the airport was no longer needed it made sense, considering how few good grasslands are left in the northeast, to turn the whole area into a wildlife refuge. Our goal in going to the grasslands was to find Eastern Meadowlarks, a bird my father remembered as common in the fields around his home when he was growing up but that he hadn’t seen in about forty years. The Shawangunk Grasslands are great for not only Eastern Meadowlarks, but other grassland-nesting birds like Bobolinks, Upland Sandpipers, American Kestrels, and Grasshopper Sparrows.
It was a bit late when we arrived, both in the year and in the day, to find nesting birds singing on territory. By mid-July most species are probably done with their nesting attempt and our arrival at the grasslands didn’t happen until after nine in the morning, which might be early enough on some mornings, but not on a sunny, hot, July day. Nonetheless, as we walked in to the grasslands we saw and heard some birds like Eastern Bluebirds, Eastern Kingbirds, Field Sparrows, and Common Yellowthroats. Barn Swallows zipped around hunting bugs and Cedar Waxwings emitted their high-pitched calls as they flew past overhead. We rather rapidly discovered that none of us had thought to bring sunscreen, which would unfortunately cut our expedition short (there is not much shade in a grassland) but we were loving the wide open landscape.
Once we got ourselves set up on the old runway, surrounded by grasslands, the search for meadowlarks started in earnest. Well, my father and I scanned for meadowlarks, being the two with binoculars, while my mother took shot after shot of the plethora of flowering plants and butterflies. Eventually, we managed to get lousy looks of a couple of meadowlarks in short flights before they dropped into the tall grass and disappeared, but we wanted better. American Kestrels hunting and perching on dead snags, Song Sparrows singing from some bushes, and Eastern Kingbirds sallying forth on flycatching missions were great, but not the bird for which we were looking.
Finally we hit paydirt! A family group of Eastern Meadowlarks made a long flight over the grasslands and landed on various exposed perches, where they sat for about thirty seconds, allowing us the looks we wanted, before they also disappeared into the grass. From the smile on my dad’s face I don’t think it will be forty years before he seeks out meadowlarks again! We three pale-skinned birders quickly realized we needed to get moving if we wanted to avoid being baked alive by the strong sun, so we slowly headed back to the car, enjoying a Swamp Sparrow and the juvenile cowbird along the way. We also had the pleasure of admiring a Spangled Skimmer (Libellula cyanea) which was nice enough to sit in my scope’s field of view while we all looked and I digiscoped it.
We made another quick stop at Blue Chip Farm, just south of the grasslands, another good spot for birds, particularly species that like nearly bare ground. I was amazed to count, conservatively, two hundred Killdeer gathered in one area. I assume they were gathering together at a place with lots of food prior to heading south. I had never seen so many Killdeer in one spot and when a helicopter went over and flushed them all their cries filled the air! It was pretty cool, but not as cool as this fledgling American Robin that was patiently awaiting the return of a parent…
All in all it was a nice morning’s outing and I look forward to visiting my folks again soon and doing something similar.