Saturday, October 23, 2004

A Long Day on Staten Island

Shane and I took a whirlwind birding tour of Staten Island today. We left Brooklyn just before sunrise and headed to the northwest section of the island. Our plan was to explore the marshes, creeks and kettle ponds near the Arthur Kill at Mariner's Marsh Preserve and Saw Mill Creek Park. After that we'd head southeast to Great Kills Park, Wolfe's Pond Park, Mount Loretto and Conference House Park. The plan was to arrive at Great Kills when the tide was low to check for any remaining shorebirds along the coast. We found out late in the day that we probably would have been much better off starting in the south. We still had a good day with a highlight or two to report.

I'd never been to Mariner's Marsh and, with overwintering waterfowl arriving, we thought that we might find some interesting ducks in the kettle ponds. As we began walking a loop trail we noticed dozens of robins flying in all directions overhead. It appeared that we were seeing a huge push of migrating robins. They were perched in the trees, flying passed in large flocks and feeding on the abundant Autumn Olive berries. We spotted smaller flocks of migrating blackbirds but there were easily several hundred robins moving through the area during the first hour of sunlight. The kettle ponds were disappointing as we only observed Mallard, black duck and Pied-billed Grebe. The surrounding grass, shrubs and low trees were active with both species of kinglet, as well as, Yellow-rumped Warbler. Flocks of White-throated Sparrows tried to remain hidden as they scratched in the leaf litter protected by a tangled underbrush. We heard the harsh cackle of a Ring-necked Pheasant and he eventually showed himself in the stubby grass of the baseball fields near the trail's end.

Saw Mill Creek Park

(Photo credit - Rob J)

Saw Mill Creek Park is an interesting place. It's not so much a "park" as it is a protected saltmarsh habitat intersected by a defunct railroad line. It is a strictly industrial neighborhood dominated by a power substation and a former waste disposal facility. The only vehicles that passed us on the road were dump trucks and other large haulers. I birded there once during spring migration and was impressed by the diversity of wildlife. Shane and I thought that today there was a slim possibility that some of the marsh birds might still be hanging around. We walked down the railroad tracks for a short distance then took a detour through the marsh grass. We avoid the mud and stayed on a course through the spongy, peat sections. It's beautiful habitat but the only birds that we spotted were a trio of Great Egrets and one Red-tailed Hawk.

Railroad Trail

(Photo credit - Rob J)

We didn't do much better walking along the beach at Great Kills, although we did see a fairly large flock of Forster's Terns and both red-throated and Common Loon. We watched a small Forster's Tern with a tiny fish in his bill being chased by the larger Laughing Gull who in turn was being pursued by the even larger Herring Gull. The tern dropped the fish and its silver sides shimmered in the sun as it tumbled towards the water. The Laughing Gull snatched it out of the air seconds before the fish regained his freedom.

On a trail through a small wooded stretch of Great Kills the mix of birds were pretty much the same as earlier in the day: Golden-crowned Kinglet, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Hermit Thrush, catbird, mockingbird, Yellow-rumped Warbler and White-throated Sparrow. At Wolfe's Pond we added several Great Blue Heron and Great Egret to our day list, as well as, Black-bellied Plover, Killdeer and Ruddy Turnstone.

Non-breeding Black-bellied Plover

(Photo credit - Rob J)

We never actually birded at Mt. Loretto. Right after we parked the car we ran into Chris, Lauren and another local birder who told us that we'd probably do better at the nearby Conference House Park. It was getting late in the day and the sky had clouded over so we really didn't expect to find much avian activity at our final destination.

Overlooking Raritan Bay, Conference House Park contains forested habitats, beaches, meadows, a pond and a small wetland. There is also an expansive lawn in front of the Conference House that rolls down to the shoreline.

Pholiota species mushroom

(Photo credit - Rob J)

It was beginning to get too dark to bird in the woods so we walked out onto the beach. At a wide section of beach, set back from the shore, is a section of tree trunk-sized driftwood, flotsam, drying goldenrod, mugwort, mullen and other assorted grasses. The center of the area holds a pond surrounded by phragmites. Most beachgoers would likely avoid this section but as birders it looked like a potential treasure chest. As we walked through the tall grass birds began flushing up all around us. Within a few minutes we identified Yellow-rumped Warbler, Palm Warbler, Field Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow and (of course) both kinglets. At the edges a phoebe hawked for insects. The birds began to settle down and I noticed a different looking bird flying low to my right. Its tail was flashing white outer feathers. When it landed on a piece of drift wood it stretched its neck out to watch us over the top of a clump of grass. A bold white eye-ring gave us our first clues to its identity and when we moved to get a better look it turned out to be a Vesper Sparrow; always a special bird to see.

Vesper Sparrow (Pooecetes gramineus)

(Photo credit - © AJ Hand)

We circled the pond then headed back to the car. Before leaving Shane suggested that we walk around the Conference House and check the edges of the lawn for bluebirds. I'm glad we did as we found four brilliantly colored Eastern Bluebirds perched above a section of pokeweed. I wanted to take a photo but they were a bit shy and flew off behind the house.

One thing that I love about birding is that it seems like there's always one last bird before you go home.

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Various Staten Island locales, 10/23/2004
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Red-throated Loon
Common Loon
Pied-billed Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Brant
Wood Duck
Northern Harrier
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Ring-necked Pheasant
Black-bellied Plover
Killdeer
Ruddy Turnstone
Sanderling
Laughing Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Forster's Tern
Belted Kingfisher
Northern Flicker
Eastern Phoebe
Tree Swallow
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Winter Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird (Conference House Park.)
Hermit Thrush
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Palm Warbler
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Vesper Sparrow (Conference House Park.)
Savannah Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow (Mt. Loretto.)
Dark-eyed Junco
House Finch
American Goldfinch

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

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