Winged victory at the Ashokan

Common Loon (photo by Peter Schoenberger)

Some of the world’s richest areas for wildlife are places where few humans tread – say, the border between North and South Korea, or the irradiated environs around Chernobyl. It may seem strange that such a place exists in Ulster County, and stranger still that it was artificially created and supplies water to one of the world’s largest cities.

It took a metropolis the size of New York to create the Ashokan Reservoir, and to safeguard this precious water supply, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) discourages humans from prowling around. To experienced birders, however, the Reservoir is irresistible: a 12-mile stretch of open water that attracts waterfowl, birds from the tundra and other avian species otherwise rare to the region. Many of these birds are hard to spot – mere specks out on the water beyond the reach of even a powerful birding telescope. Because getting access to the various nooks and crannies and the vast mudflats, which resemble the tundra, isn’t easy, the true scope of the Reservoir’s bird population, much of it migratory, is still unknown. The Ashokan Reservoir is a kind of terra (or rather aqua) incognita.

To access much of the shoreline of the Reservoir and its surrounding acreage of thick evergreen and hardwood forest, one must obtain a New York State fishing license (for a fee) and a special access permit from the DEP. As a result, “There aren’t a lot of people out there birding. We don’t really know what’s going on out there,” said birder and Woodstock resident Peter Schoenberger.

But Schoenberger, who leads many of the free nature tours for the John Burroughs Natural History Society (JBNHS), is beginning to find out. He recently obtained the access permits and spent much of the summer and fall exploring the normally restricted areas. His explorations have opened a window on a world of amazing birds, many of them unusual for the county: scoters, loons and grebes on the water; a variety of shorebirds, such as plovers, dunlins and greater and lesser yellowlegs, on the mudflats of the eastern basin migrating earlier in the fall, replaced more recently by snow buntings, Lapland longspurs, horned larks and other birds from the far north, some of which will overwinter here; and predators that like to hunt in wide open spaces, such as peregrine falcons, merlins, harriers, ospreys and eagles. Bald eagles breed near the Reservoir.

That’s not even mentioning the species passing through the surrounding forests: winter finches, such as evening grosbeaks, crossbills, purple finches and pine siskins, which have recently migrated through the county in large numbers, according to expert birder Mark DeDea, who manages the Forsyth Nature Center in Kingston and oversees the program of nature tours at JBNHS. While the populations of these species have been scarce in the past, this year they have irrupted, with large flocks of pine siskins and evening grosbeaks spotted by birders. Both species feed on the seeds of cone-producing evergreens, which makes the Reservoir lands a particularly rich viewing area, said DeDea.

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