Sunday, June 06, 2004

Sterling Forest nesting birds

I just realized that tracking down birds in city parks during Spring migration is easy. The proportion of habitat size to number of birds plus the fragmented nature of New York City parks make the challenge of observing a relatively large diversity of species, well, a walk in the park. That revelation came during a trip today to Sterling Forest State Park. On a trip with the Linnaean Society lead by John Yrizarry I also came to understand the importance of a bird's song, for both the bird and the birder.

Sterling Forest's 17,000+ acres of deep forest habitat forms a nearly pristine stretch of critical breeding grounds virtually a stone's throw from New York City. Our groups difficulty in visually locating many of the breeding birds in the park's lush canopy and dense underbrush cemented in my mind a bird's need for a song that could carry through the woodlands in order to find each other. It didn't help our goal that it was dark, dreary and overcast all day but, inclement weather aside, good ear-birding skills are a necessity for finding breeding birds in Sterling Forest. Fortunately, John's knowledge of the park's breeding populations, his ear-birding ability (along with the help of several of the people on the trip) made for a successful trip with many highlights. We ended our day with a list of 67 species. Unfortunately, some of those birds were only identified by their songs.

Most of our activities were in the northern section of the park. We spent time exploring the habitats around Indian Hill, Little Dam Lake and near the NYU apartment complex. On our way home, a group of us also explored a trail near a power-line cut in the central section of the park.

The main species that our group was interested in locating was the Golden-winged Warbler. Golden-winged, which breed in Sterling Forest, are threatened by urban sprawl, reforestation and the succession of its preferred habitat. We were able to locate a breeding pair and watched at eye level as they both carried food to an unseen nest in a tangle of underbrush. Cerulean Warbler was another target species that, at first, was only heard singing. We finally managed to locate both a male and female after tracking the buzzy song of the male. Some of the most dominant woodland sounds heard through the course of the day were the down-spiraling flutes and "Veerr" call of the Veery.


(Photo credit - Powermill Nature Reserve)

The highlight of the day could have easily been a tragedy. As our group was walking the trail back to the cars I noticed something moving in the grass. Something small was struggling within inches of Sylvia's right foot. Suddenly a tiny yellow bird shot out and hid in the bushes to our left. It was a Blue-winged Warbler and I called John back from the head of the group. As most of us were looking at the female Blue-winged Warbler John called our attention to the ground on the right side of the trail. There, no more than twelve inches from the ground and hidden within a tiny, thorny shrub was the warbler's nest. The opening to the nest was camouflaged with two oak leaves that acted like papery eaves for the delicate cup nest. As I leaned over the top of the nest I saw five chalky, white eggs, each one no larger than the size of a dime. In our fascination with this wonderful discovery we failed to notice the panicked female chipping nonstop in the shrub behind us. John allowed us all quick looks but then recommended we quietly leave and allow the warbler to return to her nest.


(Photo credit - Steve Nanz)

On our way home we made one last stop to look for bluebirds. We never found the bluebirds but located another egg-laying creature. At the edge of the gravel parking area a female Snapping Turtle found a small mound to lay her eggs. When she finished the task she was confronted with safely crossing the road to return to her home in the pond. While she was resting next to Valerie's car's front tire it was suggested that we carry her across the busy roadway. Elizabeth thought she could lift her by the tail and avoid her lethal jaws. I taunted her to try. She lifted the 25 pound turtle, carried her a couple of feet, then placed her back on the ground. She was afraid to carry her the 150 or so yards across the road so I volunteered. Holding her firmly by her thick, muscular tail my hand seemed safe but she hissed and snapped at my leg. Two people watched for traffic and I watched my leg as I lugged the turtle across the road. I placed her at the edge of the pond and gave her a little tap on the rear with my foot. She stood up high on her legs and bolted into the water. Mission accomplished.

Looking at the warbler eggs touched something in me today. After lunch I had trouble staying focused on the bird songs as I kept thinking about it. I've been observing warblers for over ten years and this was the first time that I've seen their nest and eggs. The concept of size and distance boggles my mind and had me reading through various reference guides when I returned home: 4.75 inches and 8.5 grams; from Central America, across the Gulf of Mexico up the east coast to a 17,000 acre forest to lay 5 dime-sized eggs; just over a month to raise a family then turn around and go back. It seems like if even the tiniest pieces are removed from this finely tuned process a catastrophe can occur. John Muir once said, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe."
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Sterling Forest - 6/5/2004
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Great Blue Heron
Turkey Vulture
Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Broad-winged Hawk
Wild Turkey
Rock Dove
Mourning Dove
Chimney Swift
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Willow Flycatcher
Least Flycatcher
Eastern Phoebe
Great Crested Flycatcher
Eastern Kingbird
Yellow-throated Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Common Raven
Tree Swallow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Barn Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Veery
Wood Thrush
American Robin
European Starling
Gray Catbird
Cedar Waxwing
Blue-winged Warbler
Golden-winged Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Prairie Warbler
Cerulean Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Worm-eating Warbler
Ovenbird
Louisiana Waterthrush
Common Yellowthroat
Hooded Warbler
Scarlet Tanager
Eastern Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Baltimore Oriole
Purple Finch
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

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