Target Rock National Wildlife Refuge is not a place out of the Wild, Wild West but an 80-acre preserve in Lloyd Neck just outside of Huntington. It is so named because of a 14-foot boulder that sits in the water near shore, which is believed to have been used for target practice by British war ships during the War of 1812. I went there early one morning this spring for the first time with some other birders and came away impressed.
The cool morning air is in my nostrils as our small group starts to walk. Many trees are bare, some are the lightest shade of spring green, others darker and there is a cherry tree already in bloom. On the ground is a large area of rich green leaves with yellow buttercup-like yellow flowers, which aren't yet open. We've primarily come to see migrating songbirds that are small, fast and elusive and by now have changed from their dull winter plumages into their bright summer ones.
This morning the songbirds are not offering long views. Initially I see only quick arrivals on and departures from branches. The woods however are alive with sounds, including the chattering teeth sound of an unseen woodpecker. Then stopping for a while and visible through some tree branches is a tufted titmouse. Clearly visible are its crest and a coal black eye, which calmly surveys the scene. A white-throated sparrow perches atop a small tree with clusters of red berries. The small bird's throat is bright white after being dull in the winter and its breast is a light gray. In the bird's small bill is a berry, which it eats then leans over to pluck another. This sparrow has a striking cap of what appears to be alternately yellow and brown stripes. Other white-throated sparrows have black and white stripes and the two different varieties mate.
At low tide target rock sits in the water, its base dark and wet, showing where the high tide had been. A cormorant standing on top takes off at our arrival. Two herring gulls remain on it placidly doing nothing. The sun's path sparkles over the harbor ending at the dark sand that is covered with stones. In the water small white caps driven by the breeze against moss and weed-stained rocks make a continuous, soft soothing sound. One rock is almost submerged by small waves, which continuously roll over it. I watch for a while enjoying the water's rhythm.
Close to the deck on which we are standing a mockingbird flies onto a tree branch closing its wings, which flash gray and white. My friend Walter, standing next to me, makes several realistic mockingbird-like sounds and the bird looks around seemingly confused. On the beach is an osprey platform that is made of branches and has some heavy rope and aqua-colored cord mixed in. When osprey nests are added to year after year, some can weigh up to half a ton. Peeking out of the top is an osprey's head with a yellow eye checking us out. When we go down on the beach an osprey is circling wide and low around the nest. Its dark brown "mustache" is visible as it flies lower really working its wings as its fast moving shadow falls on the sand. Finally it lands in looking past me out to the ocean, moving its head side to side its bill open revealing a dark pink mouth. The raptor is clearly agitated and our presence is the cause. The others have left and I follow not wanting to further disturb the bird.
As we walk a Carolina wren is spotted. It's "a little bird with a big voice" someone says. The five-and-three-quarter inch bird has a piercing call which sounds like "tea-kettle, tea kettle, tea kettle," is quicksilver fast but this one has stopped on a log. It has a gently curved bill and an upward pointed tail. The white eye bar, a rich chestnut colored back, white throat and a yellow cream-colored breast make it a small feast for the eye. A male cardinal, its head a dark red mixed with black and a spiked red crest flies off a tree branch, stops seeming to momentarily hover and goes back to the tree, out in plain sight. Someone says that it is acting like a flycatcher. It is unusual behavior for these fast fliers who don't stay in the open for long.
Walking back we come upon the yellow buttercup flowers, which have now opened in the warming sun. Soon we stop at a shallow vernal pool, which we'd passed earlier. Looking at the pond through binoculars everything is magnified and compacted. Patches of dark brown water with lots of algae and fallen rust colored leaves look like an abstract painting and my eyes wander over the mosaic of shapes and colors. "What's that, what's that?" someone says and I snap out of my musing. It's two chipping sparrows, curious birds that make a "chipping" call.
It's now late morning and the best birding is behind us. I want to come back here with my wife next week. Many trees will still be bare offering us unhindered views of birds before summer's lush green takes over. It's nature's work in progress and an exhibition that comes only once a year.