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Friday, April 09, 2004

(Photo credit - Steve Nanz)

Prospect Park rare bird

A birder can spend years honing their skills in the field and by studying bird field guides and song recordings but making an exciting find sometimes boils down to one thing; dumb luck.

I hadn't planned on going into the park Friday morning. The computer vendor on whom I was depending on making a delivery messed up the order and it wouldn't be arriving at the studio where I was working until early next week. I decided to take a walk over to the hawk's nest to check up on Big Mama and Split-tail before heading into the city for an afternoon appointment.

As I climbed the rise adjacent to the nest I quickly scanned the surrounding trees for perched hawks. Once at the top of the hill I checked the nest closely but it didn't seem like anyone was home. I walked around to get different angles on the nest and finally noticed the tip of a red tail sticking up. It was the smaller Split-tail on incubation duty. I walked back to my post next to a large elm tree and waited for his mate to return. To my right is a stand of spindly black cherry saplings where a pair of Eastern Phoebes were hawking for insects. As I was watching the flycatchers I noticed what I thought was either a clump of dead leaves or an old nest about 25 feet off the ground. For whatever reason I decided to look at it with my binoculars. It was neither and what I saw made my heart jump. It was a tiny Least Bittern sleeping in the tree. I tried to talk myself out of the identification and turn it into the much more common Green Heron. It had a black crown and back, buffy wing patches that faded to a darker orange on the edges, a white line on its wings, pale buffy streaks on its neck and breast and bright yellow feet and legs. The pigeon-sized egret perched in a tree was definitely a Least Bittern.

It's never enough for me to observe a "good" bird alone, I need to share it. I began making calls on my cellphone to try and get other birders into the park. Sean was on his way with his camera, Steve left work and pedaled home on his bike to grab his camera gear and I left messages with a few other people. I shouted to the first person that I saw walking by with a pair of binoculars, "Are you a birder?" He gave me a strange look and said, "Yes". I told him about the bittern and directed him up the hill. John appeared to be a beginner birder and I don't think he realized his good fortune that morning. Once Sean arrived I ran over to the Landscape Management Office to find Peter. I walked into his office and very calmly said, "Grab your binoculars, we're going to look at a Least Bittern." Peter looked kind of dumbfounded, checked his hearing aid and asked if he heard me correctly.

The last time a Least Bittern was observed in Prospect Park was on May 6, 1939 by Bernard Nathan and Edward Whelen. I don't believe that this bird is so much rare as it is rarely seen. They are a shy, secretive species that normally remains hidden in the reeds and grasses of marshes. Why this particular individual was perched high off the ground and out in the open is a mystery.

Eventually a group of about 9 people assembled below the rise watching the bittern in bright, morning sunshine. When one of the Red-tailed Hawks circled above the woods the bittern assumed his camouflage posture. He stretched his neck out, pointed his bill skyward and began to slowly rock from side to side. If he were standing among a patch of cattails he probably would have been very difficult to see but, perched among the slim, dark branches of a cherry tree, he just looked comical.

When I left to go to work there were still seven very happy people watching the bittern. I felt strangely upbeat, with the silly notion that I had accomplished a difficult feat and people were applauding me. But it was merely luck on my part and it was the performance of the bird that deserved the standing ovation. It was the first time that a late package from Fedex was a good thing. It really was a Good Friday.
(*see the link to Steve's photos above.)
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Prospect Park, 4/9/2004
Least Bittern (Payne Hill. Seen by Shale B. (with Eliza & Lucy), Rafael C., Peter D., Ron E., Mary E., Rob J., Steve N., Sean S., Heidi S., Ann W., John, Louise.)
Wood Duck (3, flying over Payne Hill.)
Red-tailed Hawk (2, Payne Hill.)
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (2, Payne Hill.)
Northern Flicker (Payne Hill.)
Eastern Phoebe (3, Payne Hill.)
White-breasted Nuthatch (Payne Hill.)
Hermit Thrush (2, Payne Hill.)
Pine Warbler (2, Picnic House & Payne Hill.)
Fox Sparrow (Singing at Rick's Place.)
Dark-eyed Junco
American Goldfinch

Other resident species seen (or heard):
Canada Goose, Mallard, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Red-bellied Woodpecker (Payne Hill.), Downy Woodpecker (2.), Blue Jay, American Crow, Black-capped Chickadee (Payne Hill.), Tufted Titmouse (2, Payne Hill.), American Robin, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, House Sparrow

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