Occasionally, a small peep is heard from the branches above. Where most people might see a chirpy little speck, at least one person in the group immediately identifies the bird. Here’s a golden-crowned kinglet or a yellow-bellied sapsucker, they say.
“Robins! Robins! Robins!” Guarino shouts to her fellow birdwatchers from the John Burroughs Natural History Society as a little flock takes wing in an uneven formation.
One man, Peter Schoenberger, carries a big camera with a huge, huge telephoto lens. When he gets a fix on a bird, he stops and shoots off a series of frames. Unsurprisingly perhaps, a handful of the bird photographs on the John Burroughs Society website belong to Schoenberger.
On this snowy Sunday, the group’s five-hour expedition is to find local birds of prey -- like Merlin or peregrine falcons, northern harrier hawks and maybe even a snowy owl. Winter adds to the day’s search in unexpected ways.
“In the winter, you tend to get some raptors that you don’t tend to see in this area,” Guarino says. For birds from Canada, even winter in New York State is a warmer treat. “There’s always the chance of finding some rare bird.”
While the group is just getting started, the field trip winds through parts of New Paltz and Wallkill -- even ending up at Watchtower Farms.
As of the moment, on the banks of the Wallkill, the group isn’t so much looking for raptors as it is looking for red-headed woodpeckers. The bright, lovable birds have become harder to find in the state after competition with European starlings. For whatever reason, New Paltz seems to have one of Ulster County’s more healthy populations of red-headed woodpeckers.
Mark DeDea helped set up more than 60 weekend field trips for the society. Altogether on the road from New Paltz to Wallkill, the group will end up seeing a slew of raptors: red-shouldered hawks, red-tailed hawks, black vultures and a few rough-legged hawks.
“We’re very proud that this kind of thing is free and open to the public,” DeDea says. Walking in the snowy field, DeDea carries with him a book of Northeastern birds. When someone on the trip has a question about what they’ve seen, he opens up the illustration of that bird. Many of the entries he flips to in the well-worn book are highlighted.
Field trips, like the “Wallkill Valley Raptors” trip lead by Guarino, take place throughout the year, and the nature walks cover many other topics besides birding. During the winter, there are tree-identification lessons and animal tracking trips, geology walks through the Mohonk Preserve, trips to see local vernal pools -- the swampy breading grounds of frogs and salamanders. There’s also field trips dedicated to identifying various mushrooms and fungus.
“You can find something almost every weekend of the year,” he says of the trips.
Right now, the John Burroughs Society has just gotten through with their 60th anniversary. When the group first started in 1950, it was formed by local scientists and educators as a way to teach people about the biology, botany and geology of Ulster County. While their work focuses on the county as a whole, the group also has a pretty strong tie to New Paltz and a longstanding informal connection to our local SUNY branch.
For instance, the John Burroughs Society meets at Village Hall in New Paltz.
Members of the society are always looking for new members to get interested in the nature around them.
“We’re trying to identify the next generation,” DeDea says.
Currently, the group has about 125 members, but they are looking for more. To join, members would have to pay $15 in yearly dues, but that also comes with a subscription to the bi-monthly nature newsletter. For more information, visit www.jbnhs.org.