Blog for Walkill River NWR/Shawngunk Trip – February 23, 2014
On February 23, 2014 three intrepid birders joined Alula BNHT on its full-day trip to the Walkill River National Wildlife Refuge, Lake Minnewaska State Preserve, and Shawangunk National Wildlife Refuge. The focus of the trip was winter raptors as the two refuges are well-known for their wintering populations of northern harriers, rough-legged and red-tailed hawks, and short-eared owls while Lake Minnewaska provides beautiful winter scenery on top of the Shawangunk Ridge.
After an uneventful departure from the Island (you never know what gifts the traffic gods are conspiring to give!!) we headed to our first stop – the extreme northern part of the Walkill River NWR. This refuge takes in thousands of acres along the Walkill River with about 90% of the refuge’s acreage in New Jersey. We were headed for the little portion of the refuge that juts into New York’s Orange County, along Oil City Road. Along the we drove through the Black Dirt region of Orange County, well-known for its rich black highly organic soils that produce bumper crops of onions each year.
It wasn’t long before we found our first raptor – a light morph rough-legged hawk sitting on the top of a telephone pole. This species comes in two color morphs or forms – a light morph and a dark morph, although intermediate forms are occasionally seen. The light morph is slightly more common than the dark. Both are distinctive and unmistakable – the light form because of the pattern of black and white on the wings and body and the dark due to the overall very dark coloration, found on few other birds-of-prey found in the northeastern United States – dark morphs of red-tailed hawks and the dark form of the gyrfalcon come to mind. A little bit up the road, past two large fallow onion fields we noticed the first dark morph rough-legged of the day perched on the backside of a tree. As we drove closer it flew back across the fields alighting in the snow in the far field. Reversing tracks we pulled a safe distance away and watched the bird for several minutes before it flew off.
We headed to the Walkill NWR. Scanning from the parking lot off of Oil City Road first to the south we didn’t see any raptors. But we hit the mother-lode to the north. Walking to the northern edge of the road we scanned the many trees found scattered throughout the fields and those forming wind rows in the distance. In short order we had four different light morph rough-legged hawks, two dark morphs, one of which flew around quite a bit, four different adult red-tailed hawks and a minute or so later a male northern harrier, sometimes known as the “grey ghost”, flew by as it hunted over the field closest to the road. After enjoying the raptorfest for a while we got back in the car and headed off to our next stop. I headed west on Oil City Road as I knew it passed over the Walkill River and wanted the birders to see the river. Halfway over the short bridge Eileen and I simultaneously shouted “eagle” due to the fact there was an adult bald eagle perched in a branch of a tree overhanging the river. I made an “illeagle” u-turn and came back to stop on this lightly traveled bridge so everyone could get a nice view of our national symbol.
We headed off to Lake Minnewaska State Preserve to hike around the picturesque lake that gave the property its name. Lake Minnewaska is one of four glacially derived lakes that exist on top of the Shawangunk Ridge and is within a beautiful 1,000+ acre state preserve that is part of a much larger mosaic of public and private conservation lands located on the ridge. We were in for a surprise when we got there – the hike we planned around the lake was not allowed since almost all the trails were groomed for cross-country skiing and closed for hiking. The best laid plans! We were informed by the booth attendant, however, that the trail to Awosting Falls was open to hikers so we decided to stay. After a nice lunch of various wraps (eating them in the warm car) we hiked down the parking lot road to the main road, making a right and then a left after passing immediately over Awosting Brook and taking off on a packed-down trail to the falls. The falls were largely frozen with the water landing into the mouth of an inverted ice cone that stood twenty feet high. The ice and snow filled scenery and the refreshing cold air made for a great time even if our original plans were thwarted.
On to our next stop and in so doing we drove past the Mohonk Preserve’s Nature Center. Having time, we pulled in and spent the next 45 minutes learning about the ecology, geology, and cultural history of the preserve and the entire Shawangunk Ridge, which is pronounced locally as Shon’gum. With one of the birders providing fashion advice I bought a nice yellow ball cap with the word “GUNKS” prominently displayed on the front.
Off we went to the last birding stop of the day – Shawangunk National Wildlife Refuge. Along with where we were at Walkill NWR, this grassland refuge can be one of the more reliable sites in New York to see wintering short-eared owls. We got there after 4 p.m. hoping to see, as it got later in the day, short-eared owls rousing from their roosts and starting to hunt over the nearly 600-acre grassland. While waiting on the owls we saw another four rough-legged hawks (one dark morph and three light morph), a few red-tailed hawks, and one female harrier. The star though was an actively hunting coyote. Through the scope we could see it catch a small rodent and watched as it regularly pounced – with its back strongly arched and four paws pulled together to provide a more targeted punch, in an attempt to break through the iced over snow crust. Eventually the coyote moved north and out of sight.
We searched diligently for owls, ever on the alert for their unique moth-like flight. We stayed until darkness fully fell but alas no short-eared owls showed. To make matters worse I was later to learn that birders saw seven owls feeding in the twilight at the Oil City Road location!
It was time to head south and on the way back we stopped for dinner at Maura’s Kitchen, a very nice Peruvian restaurant in Nyack near the Tappen Zee Bridge. Everyone enjoyed the rather unique Peruvian dishes they ordered and we headed back to Long Island with a full belly and some nice memories of a day spent out-of-doors in a few of the very many special places found in Orange and Ulster Counties.