Nature at your doorstep – Shawangunk Grasslands

Lone White Ash tree in fog. (photo by Richard Parisio)

Lone White Ash tree in fog. (photo by Richard Parisio)

One can take a short walk, close to home, in the winter and feel like a world traveler. I took two such walks this week, at the Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge in Gardiner. I was pleased to get news of the tundra there from avian ambassadors arrived from the far north: short-eared owls, rough-legged hawks, and redpolls. Walking into the refuge from the main gate, I passed a maple and elm swamp, cattails and the fuzzy, drooping heads of wool grass (a sedge) waving above a small wetland that bordered a stream channel. As I surveyed the expanse of open fields stretching ahead of me, where brown weed stalks and tan grasses poked out of the ice-crusted snow, and only a few scattered trees and bushes grew, I could see why these birds of vast open spaces feel so much at home here. So does their favorite prey, the meadow vole, sometimes called “field mouse,” whose sub-nivean (“under the snow”) runways among the grasses were exposed by the melting of their snow roofs. Deer like it here, too — we saw a herd of 30 or more before we left at dusk, and the red dogwood stems had been pruned back considerably by their browsing.

Longtime residents of the Hudson valley may remember that this refuge was once the site of Galeville Military Airport. In filling in what had been a wetland to make a level surface for the airfield, and then maintaining fields by mowing them, the armed forces inadvertently established and preserved a grassland, an increasingly rare ecosystem in our heavily forested region. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took over the abandoned airport in 1999, it began a management program, ongoing today, to expand and enhance this important habitat, critical in the summer for nesting birds like the Eastern bluebird, bobolink, upland sandpiper, and savannah and grasshopper sparrows, and in the winter for raptors such the northern harrier and those already mentioned. Historically, grasslands in our area were a kind of provisional habitat, resulting at first mainly from forest fires caused by lightning or set by native people, later from the clearing of forests for agriculture. With the decline of farming here, the large fields needed by these birds and other wildlife all but disappeared. So the current resurgence of agriculture in the Hudson valley, and the Refuge’s continuing effort to keep these fields open are good news for grassland-loving birds, and of course for birders.

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We were a bit surprised to find the steel gate to the refuge open, and no cars in the parking lot. Leaving our car there, and walking the jeep trail into the refuge, we soon learned that someone (a Refuge official?) had decided to save the public the bother of having to walk 200 yards or so, and let people drive their cars right up to the runway instead. We felt this to be a dubious choice, as we stepped off the path several times to let vehicles pass on their way in or out. Whatever the logic of leaving the gate open, I’m puzzled that some folks seem to want to drive everywhere, even to watch birds at a wildlife refuge.

It was a good day for birding at the refuge. We had arrived late in the afternoon, with the low sun lengthening shadows and showing off the fields’ rich texture of winter grasses and weeds, including Queen Anne’s lace, fuzzy seed heads of aster and goldenrod, spiky teasel seed heads, milkweed with its empty gray pods, dogbanes’ reddish fingerlike pods, and the brown spikes and dry fruit of peppermint and penstemon, among many other plants that feed overwintering small birds and mammals here. My son and I felt a bit “out of our league” as we approached a phalanx of birders standing by their cars, and equipped with spotting scopes mounted on tripods. Though we might have joined their informal group, and received instruction from them, as I have done before, sneaking a peak through one of their scopes at a perching rough-legged hawk, say, or a flock of redpolls (small northern finches with crimson caps that have invaded our region this winter), we chose instead to just use our own eyes and our binoculars. We admired the dancing, fluttering flight of short-eared owls. They flapped their wings almost like moths, and were as silent. One pair of long-winged, buff-colored birds gave us satisfying looks at their distinctive owl faces, and performed a kind of aerial ballet, rising and falling together before flying low over the grasses to hunt. Their low, flap-and-glide flight was like that of the northern harriers we also saw over the fields. I thought, how oddly fitting that this place was once an airport! We watched rough-legged hawks in flight too, dark, husky birds with broad white bands at the base of the tail. A few times, watching one of these raptors, we saw the bird hover briefly or dip a wing, then drop to the ground, out of sight. When it came back up, we strained to see what the bird had seized in its talons, but could not make it out in the fading light. As we turned to go, a fine sunset flared in the west, its red glow reflected in the snowy field. It had been a rewarding excursion. Though we hadn’t covered much ground, we felt we had traveled far.

From Gardiner, drive south on Bruynswick Road (County Route 7) from Route 44-55 (at Lombardi’s Restaurant) to Hoagerburgh Road (County Route 18). Turn left onto Hoagerburgh Road and follow it past the intersection with Long Lane a short distance further to the main entrance of the National Wildlife Refuge on the left. Park in the lot and walk up the road past the information board and steel gate approximately 200 yards to the old airport runway.

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