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Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Shorebirds at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge

I took a break from observing the Red-tailed Hawks in Prospect Park to spend the morning with my friend Shane at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. JBWR is a major stopover for migrating birds passing through New York City. Shorebirds are now migrating south and I need to spend as much time as possible sharpening my identification skills for these restless, little gray and brown birds. Author Jack Connor describes the frustration of identifying this family of birds best in "The Complete Birder":

"Warblers and hawks generally escape us by dropping into the bushes or flying over the horizon, so there's always bad luck to blame...Too often in shorebirding, the unident stands right there, thirty yards away, waiting patiently while we first flip quickly through our field guide, then backward more slowly, checking all the plumages, then forward again...and it's still standing there when at last - meekly and painfully, hoping no one is watching - we close down the scope and walk on."

A mixed flock of shorebirds on the East Pond

In addition to being good company, Shane is experienced at identifying shorebirds and I was hoping to pick up some much needed tips. The thought of trudging around in a muddy, insect infested marsh would probably have been enough of an incentive for me to take the day off. The possibility of experiencing large flocks of hungry birds scurrying around snapping up insects made it even more attractive.

Shorebirds amaze me. It's incomprehensible that most of these birds (some of which weigh as little as 20 grams) breed in the arctic and winter as far south as Tierra del Fuego. Also, in order to stick to their tight travel schedule they need to be able to establish a territory, attract and court a mate, build a nest and copulate, lay and incubate eggs then raise their young in only about two months. Sometimes I feel like I've just put my rubber boots away after observing the northbound migration when the sandpipers are back again.

The water level on the East Pond was low enough that there was a fairly wide expanse of mud for the birds to feed, preen or rest during the high tides. I brought along my digital camera so that I could try digiscoping some of the birds (to learn about digiscoping check here - Unfortunately, I need to experiment a lot more as only one shot was worth posting.

Sleeping Short-billed Dowitchers

In some locations the pungent mud was still very wet and tried to suck our boots off our feet. Babbling Marsh Wrens, hidden along the edges of the tall reeds, ridiculed us as we slipped and slogged through their front yards. Short-billed Dowitchers seemed to be the most abundant species on the mudflats. Shane counted one flock and came up with approximately 300 individuals. Based on that number I "guestimated" that there were probably a few thousand birds on the north end of the pond. We tallied eleven different species of shorebird, the most unusual being a Wilson's Phalarope. I wasn't able to get any good photos with my little camera and I'm hoping that Shane had better luck with his. The young phalarope seemed unusually tolerant of our close approach allowing us long, clear views. It was energetically picking bugs from the surface of the shallow water from within a flock of other long legged birds - yellowlegs, Stilt Sandpipers and dowitchers. Whenever a jet would takeoff from nearby JFK airport and pass overhead the flock would flush, circle that corner of the pond then return to the same spot. The yellowlegs always lead the wheeling squadron with their loud, whistled "tew, tew, tew".

Young Wilson's Phalarope

(Photo credit - Shane Blodgett)

The abundance and variety of bird species on the East Pond kept us interested for almost four hours. Afterwards we drove to the visitor's center but only stayed long enough to check the bird log and take a quick look at the West Pond. We headed home after a picking up lunch in Howard Beach.

As interesting and fun as today was I still found myself typing at my computer and wondering how the hawks were doing. They really have a hold on me.
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JBWR, 7/20/2004
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Tricolored Heron
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
Glossy Ibis
Semipalmated Plover
American Oystercatcher
Greater Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs
Semipalmated Sandpiper
Western Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper
Stilt Sandpiper
Short-billed Dowitcher
Wilson's Phalarope
Laughing Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Gull-billed Tern (West Pond near bench #4.)
Roseate Tern
Common Tern
Forster's Tern
Least Tern
Black Skimmer
Willow Flycatcher
Eastern Kingbird
Fish Crow
Barn Swallow
House Wren
Marsh Wren
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
Yellow Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Eastern Towhee
Boat-tailed Grackle
American Goldfinch

Other common species seen (or heard):
Canada Goose, Mute Swan, American Black Duck, Mallard, Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, American Crow, European Starling, Song Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, House Sparrow

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