Saturday, December 18, 2004

The Christmas Bird Count

Floyd Bennett Field

(Photo credit - Rob J)

Today was the 105th annual Christmas Bird Count in Brooklyn. I like to participate in the less frequented sections of Brooklyn as it typically does not get much coverage. Plus, I usually spend most of my time in Prospect Park and need the change of scenery. Floyd Bennett Field, Dead Horse Bay and Four Sparrow Marsh is a huge area to cover and I enjoy helping out Ron Bourque and his wife, Jean. The area our group surveyed also encompasses a range of habitats from grasslands and pine forest to marshes and bays.

-click to learn more about the Christmas Bird Count-

Our team of six people met at first light near the entrance to Floyd Bennett. We assembled our scopes and Ron gave us an overview of his plan of attack. Unlike previous years, we started out at the pine forest surrounding the camp grounds. I made it my mission to locate the owls. Gil Shrank and I zig-zagged our way through the forest looking for white-wash and owl pellets; indications of an owl's roost. The soft, deep carpet of brown pine needles were pockmarked with depressions left by foraging squirrels. I was attracted to one large hemlock with a small splattering of white on the lower branches. Below we found eight large pellets on the ground. They seemed large enough to be from a Long-eared Owl or Barn Owl. We did a thorough search of the upper branches but were unable to locate the source.

Much of the forest's border is dominated by a dense edge of sumac, blackberry bramble and small conifers. Traversing this section is made even more difficult by tangles of bittersweet. I saw some small, healthy conifers in that area and decided to try and check them out. Pushing my way through the labyrinth of plants I spotted a tree that I was certain held a small owl. The base had a large area of fresh white wash. As I got closer I could see a direct path of drippings down the side of the tree. When I got to the tree I noticed three or four small owl pellets. I assumed it was a saw-whet owl and got very excited. I knew if I followed the trail of white it would lead me to the diminutive sleeping owl. The trail ended about seven feet off the ground. Instead of a saw-whet owl, however, I found a freshly killed White-footed Mouse draped over a branch. Had I just interrupted the owl's breakfast? Maybe he was still in the area and was just saving it for later. I went back to the roost two more times to see if the owl returned but came back disappointed. I read recently that saw-whet owls will cache their prey for later consumption and that, in the winter, will incubate the frozen prey like an egg to thaw it out before eating!

Owl Cache

(Photo credit - Rob J)

I located two more areas with white wash and pellets but still ended the day without an owl on our list.

Eastern Meadowlark Flock

(Photo credit - Rob J)

After we left the pines we began the long walk across the grasslands. Forming a line at the edge of each field between the old runways we walked slowly to the opposite side. I was the lucky one to flush up a small flock of Eastern Meadowlarks and yelled for everyone's attention. Floyd Bennett Field is one the few places left in New York City where you can still find this increasingly rare bird. There were eight birds in the flock; the most I've counted since I began participating in the count.

Eastern Meadowlark

(Photo credit - Steve Nanz)

-click to learn more about Eastern Meadowlarks-

Along the shoreline we scoped out Red-throated Loon, Common Loon, Horned Grebe, Great Cormorant, Double-crested Cormorant, Gadwall, American Black Duck, Mallard, Greater Scaup, Long-tailed Duck, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye and many Red-breasted Merganser. A lone Surf Scoter at Dead Horse Bay was unexpected (what's a sea duck doing on a bay). It was a "save" species for Brooklyn (the only one recorded).

Horned Grebe at Dead Horse Bay

(Photo credit - Rob J)

Great Cormorants at Jamaica Bay

(Photo credit - Rob J)

As the day was winding down we drove the cars over to the police headquarters. There is an annual over-wintering Merlin at Floyd Bennett that is extremely punctual. Everyday at 4:30pm he arrives at his perch in one of the trees bordering the building. Today he was twenty minutes early so I had enough light that I could run back to saw-whet roost. I was hoping that the owl had returned to his tree but they only thing in there was the dangling mouse.

Some expected species were curiously absent today but they were made up for by the unusual ones. In all it was a satisfying, if exhausting day where we tallied 56 species of birds and one recently departed White-footed mouse.

Happy Holidays to All

(Photo credit - Rob J)

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CBC (Floyd Bennett Field, Dead Horse Bay, Four Sparrow Marsh), 12/18/2004
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1) Red-throated Loon
2) Common Loon
3) Horned Grebe
4) Great Cormorant
5) Double-crested Cormorant
6) Great Egret
7) Black-crowned Night-Heron
8) Canada Goose
9) Brant
10) Mute Swan
11) Gadwall
12) American Black Duck
13) Mallard
14) Greater Scaup
15) Surf Scoter
16) Long-tailed Duck
17) Bufflehead
18) Common Goldeneye
19) Red-breasted Merganser
20) Sharp-shinned Hawk
21) Red-tailed Hawk
22) American Kestrel
23) Merlin
24) Peregrine Falcon
25) Dunlin
26) Ring-billed Gull
27) Herring Gull
28) Great Black-backed Gull
29) Rock Pigeon
30) Downy Woodpecker
31) Hairy Woodpecker
32) Northern Flicker
33) Blue Jay
34) American Crow
35) Fish Crow
36) Horned Lark
37) Black-capped Chickadee
38) Hermit Thrush
39) American Robin
40) Gray Catbird
41) Northern Mockingbird
42) European Starling
43) Cedar Waxwing
44) Yellow-rumped Warbler
45) Northern Cardinal
46) American Tree Sparrow
47) Field Sparrow
48) Savannah Sparrow
49) Song Sparrow
50) Swamp Sparrow
51) White-throated Sparrow
52) Dark-eyed Junco
53) Red-winged Blackbird
54) Eastern Meadowlark
55) House Finch
56) American Goldfinch

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