Note: This field trip was sponsored by the John Burroughs Natural History Society, a NYSYBC Partner Club. Many thanks to JBNHS and especially to Lynn Bowdery and John Thompson for their time and expertise in organizing and leading a fantastic event for us!
Great birds....and a millipede, too! photo by Lynn Bowdery
A Trip to Mohonk Preserve
If rising at 5:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning, getting in your car and driving for hours to get to a nature preserve, fumigating yourself with bug spray, loading yourself up with binoculars, cameras, telephoto lenses and an industrial sized bag of trail mix… all to go looking around for small, feathery creatures, is not your cup of tea then you probably are not a birder. But the members of New York State Young Birders Club most certainly are birders! However, this time around we were not just there to see the birds, but to contribute our sightings to the Mohonk Breeding Bird Census.
The first few birders trickled in, breaking into immediate conversation on birds, birding trips and optics. We quickly racked up twenty-one species, much to our trip leader and census taker, Lynn Bowdery's delight. The day was already giving us the signal that we were in for a treat, in the form of a highly cooperative Olive-sided Flycatcher. Once everyone, twenty-one birders in all, had arrived, Ms. Bowdery filled us in on the census. Its main goal is to provide, year by year, records of when the birds of the Mohonks arrive, where they live and nest, and when they leave.
We started out on our hike. The mountain range was set into a sky so clear it seemed the clouds had been painted in for a movie set. Pale blue misty haze covered the scene. The air was filled with birds the color of museum grade gems: Goldfinches, Orioles, Buntings and Tanagers. We reached a fork in the road where Ms. Bowdery showed us how her census map, already copiously dotted with the locations of birds, worked. Field Sparrows hollered, Indigo Buntings burbled and Warblers buzzed. The Indigo Buntings looked like large, surreal berries as they perched in bushes. One of our younger members, Gabe, spotted a stunning Prairie Warbler that almost seemed to appear out of thin air. We stopped again to survey a large Willow Tree, filled with a colorful assortment of species new to our list. Including a Bluebird that was perched so stilly, right next to my head, that it was several moments before I noticed it.
Happy young birders, photo by Carena Pooth
We reached the half-way point, a giant wooden gazebo on the edge of a sparrow filled field. Around twenty Phoebe nests were tucked into the rafters. After a brief debate over whether a bird that we had spotted was an Oriole, a Thrasher, or something else entirely (Thrasher, we decided) we headed off to a more forested part of the preserve. Bird activity decreased. The discovery of a large "Jack-in-the-pulpit" soon had the entire group searching for other unusual plants. We located Wake-robin, Shagbark Hickory, Bladder Pod, Striped Maple, Pitch Pine and Cinnamon Fern. Even the Poison Ivy got examined (carefully), for we found several specimens in flower. Insects were also in anything but short supply, with caterpillars, spiders and beetles of all shapes and sizes on everything (including us). I caught a very large millipede, a good five inches long! Finally, with our search for interesting creatures sated, we headed back to the cars and drove up to the famed Mohonk Mountain House for lunch at the picnic pavilion. Everyone chatted about the hike like Starlings on a wire.
Ms. Bowdery then traded us off to Mr. John Thompson, Director of Conservation Science at the Daniel Smiley Research Center, who took us down to the former home of Daniel Smiley, ecologist extraordinaire. Mr. Thompson told us how Mr. Smiley, who was born, raised and lived virtually all of his eighty-two years in the Mohonk Preserve (nestled in the heart of the Shawangunk Mountains), had recorded all he saw around him, creating a veritable card catalogue of nature. From the age of six, every time he spotted an animal displaying unusual behavior, a new plant out of place, an insect unfamiliar to him, he wrote it down in detail on an index card. It started as a daily hobby which eventually morphed into a fifteen thousand card collection.
We learned that the Mohonk Preserve is the largest nature preserve in New York State, and one of the largest in the world! spanning over eight thousand acres. It's a natural jewel, with three rare eco-systems (one of which, the Dwarf Pine Ridge, is found nowhere else on earth) and thirty species of rare plants and animals. As Mr. Thompson began to explain Mr. Smiley's weather station, a sudden influx of animals stole our attention. A Pileated Woodpecker and a Great Crested Flycatcher flew in, and a White-tailed Deer munched its way into the foreground. After the animals had drifted away, Mr. Thompson explained how in the early 1930's Smiley had discovered a slow but steady increase in the local air temperature by three degrees, and found the mountain lakes to be so severely acidic that fish could no longer live in them. The self-educated Smiley's discoveries were instrumental in the fight against acid rain and contributed to the Clean Air and Water Acts of the 1970's. Now just over 80 years later Smiley's lakes are beginning to once again support life.
In the Research Center's collection room, photo by Carena Pooth
We then headed into Mr. Smiley's house, beginning in his office. The walls were plastered with maps (apparently another one of David Smiley's hobbies was cartography). Bird patterns adorned the ceiling's moldings. In the hall outside, a fancy pH testing probe, far ahead of its time when Smiley acquired it, stood on a table as a testament to his environmental pioneering spirit. Mr. Thompson said that Smiley's various collections of books, specimens and index cards, grew so vast that he had a new room added to his house in the 1980's just to hold it all.
We entered his collection room. As a collector myself I was blown away! Three of the four walls were book cases, floor to ceiling, every one of his hundreds of books shelved under the Dewey Decimal System. A framed collection of tiny skeletons, reconstructed from owl pellets, hung on the wall next to a case of the complete works of John Burroughs. On the fourth wall a metal cabinet that would not have been out of place in the Cornell Lab Of Ornithology stood imposingly. It contained Smiley's collection of "skins" (specimens taxidermied by Mr. Smiley himself), comprised of dozens of birds and mammals. Also included were jars (mostly empty peanut butter) of bones from a variety of smaller animals. All in all his collection contained seemingly everything, from a massive forty pound beaver and a Snowshoe Hare to Norway Rats and Hoary Bats. Another smaller case was filled with all kinds of insects. A third held dried mushrooms and plants. On top of this case sat a tiny Hummingbird in a glass gallon (always the recycler) mayonnaise jar.
Lastly, we were shown David Smiley's card catalogue, painstakingly organized in alphabetical order in a wooden library card catalog cabinet. Mr. Thompson read out one particularly interesting card: an account of an incident where a hawk swooped down knocking Mr. Smiley's hat off when he passed too closely to its nest, forcing him to seek refuge in a bush for over an hour. As a final capper for the day we were treated to excellent looks at Cliff Swallows roosting in the eaves of the Mohonk Mountain House's king sized horse barns. Altogether it was a unique day spent at the unique home of a truly unique man.
— Truth Muller, age 14View photo gallery
List of Birds Seen on this Trip
by Claire Holloway, age 13
| Warbling Vireo
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Cliff Swallow - NYSYBC lifer!
| Cedar Waxwing
Species Total: 56