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Sunday, August 22, 2004

11th Annual Tom Davis Memorial Shorebird Walk

Today I participated in the Linnaean Society sponsored "11th Annual Tom Davis Memorial Shorebird Walk" at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. The walk was lead by my friend Sean.

I didn't know Tom Davis. My relatively recent introduction to birding was many years after his untimely passing. It seems like all the long time New York City birders knew Tom and all have wonderful things to say about him. From what I've learned, Tom was more than just an incredible observer of wildlife, he was an enthusiastic teacher and vocal supporter for environmental causes. Many people have told me that Tom wasn't satisfied just finding and identifying a bird he had to show it to others and infect them with his excitement. For Tom, sharing was an important aspect to birding.

We began our morning well ahead of the scheduled 9am start time as Sean wanted to scout a few areas. Our small group of passionate nature lovers mingled in the low tide of Grassy Bay with gatherings of devoted hindus. As we scanned the opposite shore for birds the high, thin indo-carribean devotional chant from a lone woman in knee deep water weaved its way through the sounds of honking geese and crying terns. On the horizon an "A" train cut a silent line across the water on its journey south. Above the parking lot a hungry Merlin rocketed through a flock of pigeons perched shoulder to shoulder on the telephone lines.

Pelican trying to blend it with locals

(Photo credit - Rob J)

We spotted the white pelican at the north end of the East Pond. The water at that end was so high that only full waders would allow one access to the small flocks of birds present. The outflow valve on the East Pond hasn't been able to keep up with this season's abundant rain so there is little shoreline exposed. At high tide, when the bay's mud flats flood, flocks of migrating shorebirds usually move to the pond's shoreline making for easy observation. The early morning sun cast a beautiful orange hue over the pond, unfortunately there were more photographers and birders present than birds. I wondered where the shorebirds went when the ponds couldn't offer a respite. It would be a few hours before high tide so we decided to bird the trails around the West Pond to kill time.

Lesser Yellowlegs in early morning sun

(Photo credit - Rob J)

As we returned to the parking lot we spotted the pelican flying over us. It circled above the West Pond for a moment before disappearing to the southwest. Near the start of the West Pond trail Sean spotted a Cattle Egret foraging in the long grass at the edge of the marsh. He called a group of birders back who appeared to have overlooked the uncommon egret. They were very thankful.

Terns and cormorants at end of Terrapin Trail

(Photo credit - Rob J)

The rangers have cut a new path through the underbrush on the Terrapin Trail. A natural blind overlooks a sandy peninsula where flocks of birds tend to congregate. Today the mixed flock was mostly terns and cormorants. In between the resting terns scurried a few turnstones, oystercatchers and plovers. At the end of the Terrapin Trail Sean began talking with a young man visiting from Finland. Every bird was new to him so Sean asked him if he wanted to join us on our walk. His name is Mika and he was very grateful for the offer.

Semipalmated Plover

(Photo credit - Rob J)

Ruddy Turnstone molting

(Photo credit - Rob J)

Thanks to Chuck and Sean, our lunch on a picnic table outside the visitor's center became a veritable banquet. Most people usually just bring a sandwich but from their bag of tricks emerged a loaf of rustic bread, cheese, salami, olives, grapes...the only thing missing was a bottle of chianti. There was so much food we ended up sharing with two women at our table in the shade. After lunch Sean decided that the best bet for birds would be the exposed piers of the "Raunt" at the center of the East Pond. The shorebird numbers were disappointing but the opposite shore held a small mixed flock of yellowlegs and dowitcher. A short distance away, on a narrow stretch of mud and vegetation a flock of sandpipers were feeding. Dorothy, who was already scanning the flock when we arrived, pointed out a Hudsonian Godwit hiding among the yellowlegs. Eventually we spotted a second one sleeping with his long, upturned bill tucked under his wing. The slow tempo of the dog-day afternoon was briefly interrupted when a pair of Peregrine Falcons appeared in the air above us. One raptor had a small, unidentified bird in its talons and quickly flipped over to pass the food to the other bird. It then perched momentarily in the tree above us.

Where's the godwit?

(Photo credit - Rob J)

Common Terns

(Photo credit - Rob J)

We left the visitor's center and decided to stop once again at the north end of the East Pond to check the shore of Grassy Bay. A flock of approximately 75 terns were resting on the beach while smaller numbers were diving for fish. We noticed small, swirling schools of flashy Silversides churning in the water close to shore, no doubt the reason for the terns choice of real estate. While following the flights of the terns over the water a Ruby-throated Hummingbird flew into Sean's field of view. We all quickly got our sights on the insect-sized bird as it zipped across the water on its voyage south.

Heron Roost

(Photo credit - Rob J)

Floyd Bennett Field has been a good spot lately for finding migrating shorebirds. The numerous puddles on the runways formed by recent rains attracted many hungry birds. Unfortunately, our puddle jumping exercise was unsuccessful as many had already dried up or been "cleaned up" by park maintenance. Three killdeer did briefly drop in at a watering hole in the middle of the road but were quickly chased by passing cars. We also thought that the "Return a Gift Pond" at the North Forties section of the park might hold some interesting waterfowl. There were no ducks but the willow tree at the center of the water looked like a christmas tree adorned with Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Great Blue Heron and Black-crowned Night-Heron. The area was also swarming with so many mosquitos that, despite an oily layer of repellent, I felt like I lost a pint of blood to the tiny beasts. We quickly left.

As we walked the trails and ponds at the refuge today we crossed paths with a group from South Shore Audubon, one from Connecticut and many other small and large group from around the tri-state area. Everybody was exuberant and eager to find that "special" bird of the day. In the spirit of Tom Davis it also seemed like everyone was excited to share their finds with friends and strangers alike.

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JBWR - 8/22/2004
Pied-billed Grebe
American White Pelican
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Little Blue Heron
Tricolored Heron
Cattle Egret
Green Heron
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
Glossy Ibis
American Wigeon
Blue-winged Teal
Northern Shoveler
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal
Ruddy Duck
Red-tailed Hawk
Peregrine Falcon
Ring-necked Pheasant
Clapper Rail
Black-bellied Plover
Semipalmated Plover
American Oystercatcher
Greater Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs
Spotted Sandpiper
Hudsonian Godwit
Ruddy Turnstone
Semipalmated Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper
Pectoral Sandpiper
Stilt Sandpiper
Short-billed Dowitcher
Laughing Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Gull-billed Tern
Common Tern
Forster's Tern
Least Tern
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Chimney Swift
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Northern Flicker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Great Crested Flycatcher
Eastern Kingbird
empidonax sp.
American Crow
Fish Crow
Tree Swallow
Bank Swallow
Barn Swallow
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
Brown Thrasher
Cedar Waxwing
Yellow Warbler
American Redstart
Common Yellowthroat
Eastern Towhee
Boat-tailed Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Baltimore Oriole
House Finch
American Goldfinch

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

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