Winter Walk


(This 1190th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on January 12, 2014.)


The Peanut Line Pathway


I ventured out early on New Year's Day for a pleasant walk along the abandoned Peanut Line railroad right-of-way in Amherst. It was a beautiful morning, cold but with no wind. Only my fingers suffered. It was a bright day. When I set out, there was a low cloud cover, but it didn't completely mask the sun and by the time I returned to my car that cover had burned off.


The ground was frozen hard and snow-covered but the snow was only an inch or two deep. I could have skied but chose instead simply to hike with ski poles for extra balance. Even with them, in a few places I had to take extra care for there were patches of ice. My ski poles are no help at all on ice.


Although this open path is lined with backyards on each side, as soon as I walked a few yards from Hopkins Road I was happy to feel isolated. Not only was there no one around but there was absolute silence.


The trail is lined with trees, mostly now leafless hardwoods but there is also a scattering of conifers. Even in winter walking along this trail is like ambling along a rural lane or through a lengthy garden bower.


This solitary walk was quite different from the New Year List Starters that Dick Collins, Mike Galas and I used to do. We would set out on each January 1 to accumulate as many bird species as possible, often as many as sixty. We drove down before dawn beyond Fredonia to Lake Erie State Park in Brocton. There we would pick up a few dickybirds, often including one or two yellow-rumped warblers, a tough find in winter. From there we headed back to Point Gratiot for red-headed woodpecker and Carolina wren. On to Dunkirk Harbor for waterbirds.


Then the long drive back to Buffalo and across the Peace Bridge to Ontario. More waterfowl along the Niagara River. By the end of the day we would be back across the Lewison-Queenston Bridge to Niagara County where in the evening we would be in fields looking for short-eared owls and wild turkeys.


Those were exhausting days, now well beyond my energy. This morning's mile walk would be plenty for me. But I did see a few birds.


My first was a single crow, beating its way silently overhead, probably heading out from the Forest Lawn roost to forage in the broader countryside to the northeast. As I watched it fly past, I hoped that this cheerless bird would not presage a difficult year. With a daughter facing surgery the very next day, I could use all the good luck I could muster. (Happily, I would learn later that that surgery went well and her recovery prognosis is excellent.)


Was that crow to be the only bird of the morning? No others were apparent in the trailside trees and shrubbery.


I would fix that. Many of my friends can give a good imitation of a screech owl's whinnying call. This attracts birds who seek to harry the owl in daytime, getting even for its nighttime predations. I have never been successful at that whistling, but now technology has provided me with something even better. I have a recording of a screech owl calling with chickadees noisily mobbing it. The recording was made at Cornell for bird surveys but it serves me just as well.


I played the call.


For a minute or two nothing happened. Then a male cardinal flew up followed by a female. Then the chickadees arrived, about a half dozen of them. The cardinals stayed in the background but the chickadees approached to within a few feet. I've had them alight on the microphone.


It wasn't long before other birds arrived as well. First a red-bellied woodpecker and then a hairy woodpecker. These birds stayed well up in the trees. Then came the jays, four or five of them, their screams probably attracting more birds.


Now a downy woodpecker joined its congeners. Tamer than them, it came almost as close as the chickadees. Finally a group of juncos flew in.


I had bothered these birds enough. I turned off the recording and headed home, my enjoyable walk completed.-- Gerry Rising