Saturday, two days after Thanksgiving, started with a predawn dark ride up the Thruway from Saugerties to Coxsackie where the Coxsackie Boat Launch, the Coxsackie Creek Grassland Preserve, and Will from The Nightjar awaited me.  Well, actually I arrived early so I hit the boat launch as the sun first started to lighten the sky over the Hudson River and awaken the gulls that left to feed in the fields for the day.  The gulls exit was so abrupt that a Bald Eagle had to have flushed them but a full sweep of the sky failed to reveal a single raptor.

At first the birding at the grasslands was a bit slow, with a single distant Northern Harrier and a flyaway Great Blue Heron being the highlights.  Then a chunky bird silhouette on a distant tree got Will and I thinking…

Northern Shrike.  Needless to say we were happy to circle around the bird and get the light at a slightly better position so we could confirm our suspicions.  Then we waited to see if the shrike would do something besides sit on top of the tree.  It did do something, which was to attract the attention of a second shrike, which led to a chase low over the shrubs and fields that led to us losing track of one shrike and ending up with a more distant view of the other, perched on another tree.  At this point, our attention was distracted by three Red-tailed Hawk flyovers, a Sharp-shinned Hawk flyby, the appearance of a small flock of female Red-winged Blackirds, and a variety of sparrows, including White-throated, American Tree, and Song, calling from the bushes.  Then there was quite the commotion from the blackbirds and they took to the air.  We quickly discerned the reason: one of the shrikes was chasing another bird!

They flew all over the fields as the shrike’s intended prey, which Will and I are pretty confident was an Eastern Bluebird, made one breathtaking evasive maneuver after another in the attempt to elude the avaricious shrike and was aided in its attempts by the blackbirds which briefly befuddled the shrike.  Finally, the presumed bluebird escaped into the bushes and the shrike was left with nothing to eat.

best shot I could get of the shrike chasing the (presumed) bluebird

After such an exciting chase scene Will and I felt that we could not possibly top that for the day so we gave up and went home.  Well, actually we kept birding, and saw some pretty nice birds, but we were right to assume that we would see nothing as exciting.

The Coxsackie Reservoir, our next stop, held the expected flocks of Ruddy Ducks and Common Mergansers, but we were happy to add two Common Goldeneyes to the day list as well as two Bald Eagles.  The Alcove Reservoir in Albany County, which the City of Albany does not allow anyone to stop and look at for fear of terrorism (though how the security guards could stop a terrorist from doing something to the reservoir when a causeway runs right over it is beyond me) held more of the same ducks plus a Bufflehead and some Hooded Mergansers, as well as four more Bald Eagles, all seen as we drove sloooowly by.  The third reservoir we visited, the Basic Creek Reservoir, was mostly frozen and all we managed to find in the one small unfrozen bit was a pair of Mute Swans and a rather sickly-looking Canada Goose.

Then we began our search for Pine Siskins and White-winged Crossbills and anything else that we could find in the wilds of western Albany County, especially in and around Partidge Run State Wildlife Management Area.  We saw a truck en route that let us know that we were in the right area…

and, no, this isn’t the worst photoshopping of a picture ever

To make a long story short we did not find any crossbills and our only winter finch sightings was of a flock of about fifty Pine Siskins the truck had warned us about that circled around and briefly landed in a couple of trees before taking flight again and disappearing.  We did, however, enjoy Red-breasted Nuthatches, Brown Creepers, Black-capped Chickadees and other common denizens of the forest, and didn’t enjoy the hordes of hunters searching for a stuff to shoot (though the one White-tailed Deer we saw for the day seemed like an easy target).

White-tailed Deer in Coxsackie

After our failure to find any crossbills around Partridge Run we searched through more fields and forests hoping to come up with anything good to add to our day list and came up with virtually nothing.  It was kind of a bummer.  So we headed back to Coxsackie, adding Snow Buntings when they flew off the causeway over the Basic Creek Reservoir, and enjoyed the antics of hunting Northern Harriers in some of the healthier grasslands left in Coxsackie.

Northern Harrier on the hunt

At a stop on Four Mile Point Road we added two more Bald Eagles on the Columbia County side of the river, making eight baldies on the day.  And before we split up back at the grasslands we refound one of the shrikes and managed to find a distant perched Rough-legged Hawk that was a fine raptor to add to the day list, and my first of the winter (not surprisingly seeing as I live in Queens).

While we never did manage to top those shrikes Will and I did have a great time driving around and exploring some sites that I have not visited since I moved down to the city.  Not only that but we stopped at a Stewart’s where I enjoyed some chocolate milk and a delicious breakfast sandwich, something I had missed as the Big Apple, while loaded with a variety of bodegas and convenience stores, lacks the marvel that is Stewart’s.  I hope to get upstate again soon…

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Written by Corey
Corey is a New Yorker who lived most of his life in upstate New York but has lived in Queens since 2008. He's only been birding since 2005 but has garnered a respectable life list by birding whenever he wasn't working as a union representative or spending time with his family. He lives in Forest Hills with Daisy, their son, Desmond Shearwater, and their indoor cat, B.B. His bird photographs have appeared on the Today Show, in Birding, Living Bird Magazine, Bird Watcher's Digest, and many other fine publications. He is also the author of the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of New York.