The Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson was right: “Birds of prey know they’re cool.” Though they get their living by tearing the flesh of smaller creatures with hooked beak and talon, there are no other birds that so excite our admiration as raptors. We name sports teams after them and made one our national symbol. We thrill to the dazzling speed of a peregrine falcon diving from a Shawangunk cliff, the stealth of a Northern harrier soaring low over a marsh, the power of a bald eagle beating its wings to emerge from the Hudson River clutching a fish, the eerie “Who cooks for yooouuu?” call of a barred owl as dusk deepens.
It’s a measure of the success of environmental legislation introduced since the 1970s that such heart-pounding natural experiences are now so readily available to us here in the Hudson Valley. Anyone over the age of 30 can easily recall a time when bald eagles simply were not seen in these parts. Black vultures have recently joined their turkey-headed cousins. And if you haven’t spotted at least one or two soaring red-tailed hawks today, you really need to get outdoors more – or stop looking down at your shoes.
But other birds of prey dwelling among us are tougher to encounter without expert guidance. Fortunately, the John Burroughs Natural History Society (JBNHS) is largely populated with folks who know their way around birds and their preferred habitats, and they frequently lead weekend expeditions to favorite locales where you can happily add new species to your “life list.” On Saturday, January 3 at 8 a.m., you can hook up with other budding naturalists at the Municipal Parking Lot off Huguenot Street in New Paltz (the one at the turnoff to the Gardens for Nutrition and the sewage treatment plant) and head off in a carpool caravan to some of the best birding spots within a short drive. Christine Guarino will be your guide.
This outing will focus on wintering raptors, congregating waterfowl and gulls, as well as what the birding community refers to as “half-hardies”: birds that tend to linger in our area beyond the big fall migration window, only heading further south when truly frigid weather and heavy snow cover or ice make foraging too difficult for them. If you’ve noticed in recent years that the “first robin of spring” has often been hanging around all winter, that’s because winters are getting warmer on average and the American robin is a half-hardy species in the mid-Hudson. So is the catbird. With Guarino in the lead, you’ll be sure to spot some that are less familiar. It’s a good time to be looking for “sharpies,” as birders call sharp-shinned hawks, and even golden eagles tend to congregate in the Hudson Valley as their prey gets harder to find under the Adirondack snows.
The Wallkill Valley Raptors adventure, which promises to involve “minimal walking,” will wend its way through the Blue Chip and Watchtower Farms in Gardiner and include stops along the Wallkill River, at the Ulster County Fairgrounds and the Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). The latter site, in the Town of Wallkill, was once a military airport used for mysterious training exercises. You’ll be asked to stick to the trails and overgrown runways due to the possible presence of unexploded ordinance off in the shrubbery, but the NWR is cherished among birders as a prime nesting spot for uncommon songbirds – not to mention some of the smaller raptor species that feed upon them.
So get up early on Saturday, dress warmly, wear sensible shoes, and grab your binoculars if you have any. It’s free, and you don’t have to reserve a space or be a JBNHS member – though after this experience, you might find yourself wanting to join up. For more information, visit https://jbnhs.org.
Wallkill Valley Raptors walk, Saturday, January 3, 8 a.m., free Municipal Parking Lot, Huguenot Street, New Paltz; https://jbnhs.org.