Connecting with Nature at My Favorite Wildlife Sanctuary

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One of the many paths in the Nyquist-Harcourt Wildlife Preserve

The Nyquist-Harcourt Wildlife Sanctuary is located in New Paltz, NY (about 80 miles north of Manhattan). The sanctuary is comprised of 56 acres of rolling green landscape punctuated by grasses, herbaceous plants, and a wide variety of trees including black walnuts, silver maples and oaks.

I entered the sanctuary from Huguenot Street, a historic landmark (the entire street is a landmark) that includes seven stone houses dating back to the early 1700s. Visitors have the option of parking in a municipal lot where they can access the preserve (as well as New Paltz’s community gardens), but this entrance is less well-known. I parked on the side of the road and entered the trail with my daughter and our dog, Roo.

A small foot bridge spans the first sign of the sanctuary’s “oxbow,” a series of ponds and wetlands that support a wide variety of wildlife. My daughter and I were greeted by several Canadian geese lounging in the pond to the right of the trail. I also spotted a green heron foraging at the edge of the first pond.

Green herons are crow-sized herons with wingspans of about two feet. They are distinctly colorful birds, though it’s not always easy to tell unless the lighting is just right (this one appears somewhat bland beside the rich green foliage surrounding it). You can find them around wooded ponds, rivers, estuaries and marshes throughout New York state during breeding season. They start heading south around August, where they winter in Florida, The Gulf Coast and the Caribbean.

The Nyquist-Harcourt Wildlife Sanctuary’s trails are unique to some of the other trails I typically walk in this area. They’re manmade paths mowed into a lush landscape of tall grass. It’s kind of like walking through someone’s 60-acre backyard. There aren’t trail markers or signs, though it’s not easy to get lost (although, I must admit that I’ve managed it.)

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A dirt path winds through a wooded area

The highlight for me when visiting this sanctuary is spotting the its many species of birds. I’ve never visited the sanctuary in early spring — and it was incredible. Birds were everywhere!

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A rose-breasted grosbeak perches in a tree alongside the path

I wasn’t able to photograph all the birds I saw, but the ones I recall include a rose-breasted grosbeak (shown above), robins, a blue heron, a green heron, a black and white warbler (a first sighting for me), many red-winged blackbirds, and of course the geese I mentioned above.

One of the highlights of New Paltz is the legendary Skytop Tower at Mohonk Mountain House. The tower can be seen for miles around the New Paltz area and there’s a gorgeous view of it from the sanctuary.

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Mohonk Mountain House’s SkyTop Tower, at top let, can be seen from the path (photo taken by my daughter)

Even though this particular hike is more like taking a leisurely stroll through a well-tended park or yard, parts of the trail were quite muddy and required some navigating around (or through) to get past. Keep this in mind in early spring or after wet weather. The correct shoes easily solves this problem.

The highlight of our visit was when we spotted a Great Blue Heron at the edge of a small pond.

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A magnificent Great Blue Heron

It was so silent, that we were practically standing next to it before we realized it was there. Great Blue Herons stand nearly five feet tall and have wingspans up to six and a half feet. In spite of their large size, they only weigh 5–6 pounds (a full-sized bald eagle, which is comparable in size, can weight up to 14 lbs). Blue Herons are found throughout most of the United States where they are year-round residents. They tend to move south of their breeding range in winter.

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A male red-winged blackbird “mobs” the heron as it flies away

The heron in the above photo is being “mobbed” by a much smaller red-winged blackbird. Mobbing is when smaller birds rush at larger birds usually to defend breeding territory (it’s a behavior most commonly seen in spring). This blackbird chased the heron for about a minute until (I assume) the larger bird was clear of its territory.

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A parting shot of the blue heron and his new friend

Occasional poet. Writer of sad essays. Novelist. Birder and amateur photographer. I enjoy trees.

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