Thursday, July 22, 2004

I finally added a couple of Big Dave's photos to the blog. Check out my posting from 6/25, "Good Things Come in Threes".

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 - http://www.md.ucl.ac.be/peca/test/a.html). 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.
- - - - -
JBWR, 7/20/2004
-
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Tricolored Heron
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
Glossy Ibis
Gadwall
Osprey
Semipalmated Plover
Killdeer
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

Saturday, July 17, 2004

Alto's expanding her range


(Photo credit - Rob J)

My friend Peter has been in a serious funk this summer. He's a really skilled birder and amateur naturalist. I've learned a tremendous amount from him about birds, plants and insects in the eight years that we've been friends. When he admitted to me that he hasn't picked up his binoculars in eight weeks I knew something was seriously wrong. This is a guy who is rarely without a pair of binoculars and is usually the first person to report "special" birds in Prospect Park. I ran into him online early in the morning and we typed an instant messaging conversation for about thirty minutes. I convinced him to dust off his bins and meet me at the Nethermead Arches.

Observing the behavior of the Red-tailed Hawks has always been an effective catharsis for anything that troubles me. I thought that tracking down the hawks with Peter might help him clear his head and work through his issues.

The two hawk families seem to have avoided conflicts by establishing separate territories within the park. Big Mama and Split-tail's offspring have been hunting at the north end of the park within the Midwood, Payne Hill, "Elephant Hill" and Sullivan Hill. The three noisy fledglings from the Ravine nest have been honing their skills along Quaker Ridge, the Quaker Cemetery and Lookout Hill. I met Peter near the Nethermead Arches and we walked the muddy bridle path at the edge of Quaker Ridge. Two young hawks were tirelessly calling from somewhere up on the ridge near the cemetery. Closer to us we heard the rising, whistled "wheep" of a pair of Great Crested Flycatchers. We spotted one of the flycatchers preening on a bare branch about 20 yards up the ridge.

A street lamp at the edge of the road on the Nethermead Arches has been an annual nest for a pair of House Wrens for several years. I've been hearing the bubbly song of the wrens at this location since mid-May. This morning Peter and I spotted one of the tiny, brown birds carrying an insect in its bill. He flew up to the top of the street lamp and poked his head into a small opening at the back of the light fixture. At this late date I presume that this is a second brood for this pair.

The Midwood forest was quiet but I heard some robins calling from the north end near Rick's Place. As we approached the stairway near the start of the woods a young hawk began calling from within the dense foliage of a tuliptree. We scanned the tree from a few different perspectives but couldn't find the source of the calls. A hungry "Bebe" perhaps? We waited in that spot for about ten minutes then gave up and walked across the roadway towards the Vale of Cashmere.

A soccer match was in progress on Nelly's Lawn and we had to walk around the south edge of the field. As we approached the sidewalk on the far side of the lawn I heard the alarm call of a robin up ahead. I assumed that Big Mama or Split-tail was hunting nearby. We located the perturbed songbird under the verdant umbrella of a stand of mulberry, cherry and aralia trees. Brilliant sunshine beaming through the leaves cast a green hue on everything below the canopy. The object of the robin's warning was not one of the adult hawks, however, but the young Alto! She bravely decided to leave the woods of Sullivan Hill and Battle Pass, cross the east loop drive, fly across Nelly's Lawn and was now hunting near the Vale of Cashmere. Like a proud parent I was ecstatic that she was expanding her horizons and learning to provide for herself.

Hunting near Nelly's Lawn

(Photo credit - Rob J)

She was perched on a cluster of dead branches and was intensely scanning the goutweed ground cover below. She snapped her head from side to side occasionally leaning forward and focusing in on a patch of weeds. It looked like a good spot for rodents and I thought we might get to see her make a kill. Finally she got the intense look of a cat about to pounce and began slowly stepping to her right to a better position on the branch. Then she took one step too many and the rotted wood broke off sending her flapping to the ground. She quickly recovered and flew to a tree across a small stretch of grass. If there had been any rodents in the area the branch crashing to the ground must have scared them off. A few minutes later Alto returned to the same spot and again began patiently waiting out her furry prey. Peter and I were also in need of lunch and were thankful that we didn't have to sit perched in a tree waiting for a potential meal to wander passed. We left Alto still scanning the ground and walked over to the local pub.

After lunch we walked back to the park to check the Lower pool for Wood Ducks. We watched a flock of seven young ducks feeding in the seclusion of the northwest corner of the pond and then went our separate ways. Before leaving Peter commented that the binocular strap on the back of his neck felt a bit alien. I advised him that he was going to have to use his bins for a few weeks to wear the groove back into his neck. He agreed.
- - - - -
Prospect Park, 7/17/2004
-
Wood Duck (7, Lower pool.)
Red-tailed Hawk (1 adult, 4 juveniles.)
Laughing Gull
Chimney Swift
Northern Flicker
Great Crested Flycatcher (2, Quaker Ridge.)
Eastern Kingbird
Barn Swallow
House Wren (Carrying food into nest in lamppost on Nethermead Arches.)
Gray Catbird
Common Grackle
Baltimore Oriole (Quaker Ridge.)

Other resident species seen (or heard):
Mallard, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Robin, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, House Sparrow

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Brooklyn Botanic Gardens & Prospect Park

Split-tail over the meadow

(Photo credit - Rob J)

I hung out with Big Dave at the botanic gardens for a couple of hours early this morning and experimented with my new digital camera. Late in the day I met Sean in Prospect Park and we tried to track down the teenaged hawks.

Purple cone flowers at the gardens

(Photo credit - Rob J)

Daylilies bordering the pools

(Photo credit - Rob J)

Great Egret raiding goldfish at the lily pools

(Photo credit - Rob J)

I've just begun to hear the buzzing of cicadas signaling the Dog Days of summer and a period of abundance for the two hawk families. There are plenty of insects, rats, rabbits, chipmunks and songbirds to keep the demanding fledgling red-tails from going hungry.

I brought Big Dave to the Wood Thrush nest in the Midwood and discovered some good news and bad news. The nest was empty but I heard the muted peeping calls of a young fledgling nearby. I assumed that the three thrushes had fledged and scanned the underbrush for them. I quickly spotted the adult thrushes attending to one of their young. On closer inspection, however, it appeared that they were feeding a fledgling cowbird. Unlike the Wood Thrush nest hidden away at Rick's Place, this pair placed their nest out in the open and a female Brown-headed Cowbird snuck her egg into their nest. We weren't able to find any other fledglings from that pair.

Cowbird fledgling being raised by Wood Thrushes

(Photo credit - Rob J)

Before I met Sean I took a long walk around the park listening for the five juvenile raptors. Two of the hawks from the Ravine nest have crossed Center Drive and were perched in the woods at the north end of Lookout Hill. The third was near the Music Pagoda next to the pond that's being renovated. It's only a couple of hundred yards from the Audubon Center and close enough for them to hear its high, whining whistle. I found Split-tail perched in a cherry tree at the Sparrow Bowl with a rat in his talons. Three chittering squirrels were trying to chase him from their tree. One was actually hanging upside down on the branch directly below the immovable hawk. Split-tail was more interested in his fresh kill and simply ignored the live rodent's antics.

As Sean and I were walking towards Rick's Place we heard a pair of catbirds mewing their distinct two syllable warning. They sounded like they were crying, "Jerry, Jerry". Bebe was perched on a dead tree trunk above them. The bird's cries seemed unnecessary as Bebe wasn't in hunting mode but rather involved in some form of avian Tai Chi. He'd dangle one foot off his perch, fan his tail to the left and slowly stretch his right wing down. All his motions seemed pallid and exaggerated. When Split-tail called from high above Payne Hill Bebe snapped to attention, looked skyward and followed his father with his eyes until he was out of sight. A few minutes later a rising chorus of robin calls pulled us over toward the Midwood. Split-tail had abducted a robin nestling and was plucking it before handing it over to Alto or Bebe. A crying Bebe flew to his parent for the free handout but Alto got there before him. Both young hawks seem very healthy and I'm not too concerned about Bebe missing meals. We followed both Split-tail and Alto when they flew farther into the Midwood.

Bebe doing afternoon Tai Chi

(Photo credit - Sean Sime)

Alto eating a nestling robin

(Photo credit - Sean Sime)

Over the years I've observed small flocks of Wood Ducks congregating on the Lower pool in the summer months. They are almost always juvenile birds molting into their adult plumage. Today there were nine of the shy ducks trying to stay hidden at the northwest edge of the pond.

Juvenile Wood Duck on Lower Pool

(Photo credit - Sean Sime)

Also of note today were three Great Crested Flycatchers on Quaker Ridge near the bridle path.
- - - - -
Prospect Park, 7/15/2004
-
Great Egret (BBG.)
Black-crowned Night-Heron (Three Sisters Is.)
Wood Duck (9, Lower pool.)
Red-tailed Hawk (3 adults, 3 fledglings.)
Laughing Gull
Chimney Swift
Northern Flicker
Great Crested Flycatcher (3, Quaker Ridge.)
Eastern Kingbird (2 or 3, Lower pool.)
Red-eyed Vireo (Sparrow Bowl.)
Barn Swallow (Small flock over Lower pool.)
House Wren (Singing at Nethermead Arches.)
Wood Thrush (2, Midwood.)
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
Cedar Waxwing (Approx. 12 at Lower pool.)
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird (Fledgling being fed by Wood Thrush adults in Midwood.)

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

Saturday, July 10, 2004

The Empty Can

The three fledglings from the Ravine hawk nest were hanging around the edge of the woods near Center Drive. They also seemed very hungry this morning. One was perched above the bridle path at the the southwest corner of the Midwood. I could hear his cries all the way to the center of the woods. Another one was whining a little farther down the road near the Nethermead Arches. I located the third one calling from the edge of woods next to the footpath that travels up the ridge towards the Falkill Falls. Mom and pop must be running ragged keeping these three hungry, teenage hawks happy. They'll have to start fending for themselves soon.



I found Alto perched on the support post for a stretch of snow fencing near the north entrance to the Midwood. She was patiently scanning the underbrush for something to eat. I leaned up against a tree and watched her from a safe distance. A chickadee, robin and downy woodpecker were not at all happy by her presence and whistled, "tutted" and "pikked" futile threats. A careless squirrel climbed down a tree to my right and began foraging on the ground. I was standing midway between the predator and prey. Alto quickly spotted him and flew the short distance to the ground passing directly in front of me. I probably could have grabbed her wing. The rodent confidently scurried back to the tree. The hawk ascended to a perch a few yards passed the tree, turned around, took aim and flew back towards the squirrel. She swiped at the rodent with her talons but missed her target and perched back on the fence. A few minutes later the squirrel must have figured the coast was clear and went back to sniffing around on the ground.



I've watched the park hawks stalk squirrels for years and have never actually witnessed a successful kill. I've seen hawks eating squirrels dozens of times. I've also watched with amusement as the small, grey rodents tormented their enemy but this morning I thought I'd finally get lucky. Alto had a clear shot at the squirrel and the rodent had wandered about ten feet from the closest tree. I looked away for a second and Alto was already on the ground where the squirrel had been foraging. I crept closer and all she had was a talon full of leaves. She walked around on the ground for a few minutes then hopped up on a log. I sat down on the ground a few yards away and watched as she looked around for the disappearing squirrel. She seemed a little agitated and pounced on something shiny. It sounded like she was squeezing an aluminum can. She briefly let go of it then footed it hard and started dragging it up the hill. After a few feet she let it go and flew off towards the road where she perched above the path that enters the Midwood. I retrieved the can to see what wounds she had inflicted on it. I was surprised to see that she had actually punctured a hole in it with one of her talons.



I walked a short distance back into the Midwood and quickly located Big Mama. She was at the tail end (literally) of a rat meal. I watched her wipe her bill back and forth across the rough bark of the oak tree she was perched in then meticulously clean her talons. I continued walking to the Wood Thrush nest. I found three fairly well developed nestlings sticking their heads up from their nest in a maple sapling. The adult female approached with food but flew a short distance passed the sapling when she noticed me. I backed off and allowed her to return to feed her young.

As I was leaving the park I heard a squirrel shrieking near the top of a massive oak next to the Picnic House. It took me a few minutes of walking around the base of the tree but I finally located the object of the squirrel's outbursts. Split-tail was perched on a branch that gave him a straight shot at a flock of pigeons that regularly roost on the roof of the building. They didn't seem to be paying much heed to the squirrel's warning. Oh well.
- - - - -
Prospect Park, 7/10/2004
-
Great Egret (Upper pool.)
Wood Duck (7, Lower pool.)
Red-tailed Hawk (2 adults, 4 fledglings.)
Monk Parakeet (2, Litchfield Villa.)
Northern Flicker
Red-eyed Vireo (Battle Pass.)
Black-capped Chickadee (2, near north end of Midwood.)
House Wren (Nethermead Arches.)
Wood Thrush (2 adults, 3 hatchlings. Midwood.)
Gray Catbird
Cedar Waxwing (Several at Upper pool.)
Common Grackle (Fairly common.)

Other resident species seen (or heard):
Mallard, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, Black-capped Chickadee, American Robin, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, House Sparrow

Thursday, July 08, 2004

-click to hear a Red-tailed Hawk-

Tracking the Fledglings

I've been away from the park for too long. Yesterday I was working in an office in Soho. There were some workers on the street below making a lot of noise. Suddenly, a piece of machinery made a loud, high-pitched sound that was so similar to a young red-tailed hawk cry that I involuntarily whipped around and looked out the window towards the sky. For a fleeting moment I was outdoors tracking down hawks not in an office troubleshooting computers. I needed to make time to check on the hawks.

It's been over a week since my last visit to Alto and Bebe and I assumed that they would have started to venture much farther away from their nest woods. Nonetheless, I decided to first check their favorite oak tree on Sullivan Hill. They weren't at that spot, in the muddy puddle or anywhere in the immediate vicinity. In fact, the area was very quiet. It felt like ninety degrees when I left the house so I thought that a likely spot to find the hawks might be in the cool shade of the Midwood forest. As I approached Rick's Place I could hear the continuous clamor of agitated robins coming from the Midwood. I presumed that if I followed the sounds I'd have my hawks. I spent the next hour in the forest tracking my quarry.

The robins were calling from a couple of spots near the northeast section of the woods. The gaze of one of the robins directed me to Split-tail perched above the bridle path. I heard a whistling chirp a short distance east of his perch. The source of the call turned out to be Alto. She was settled on a branch about ten feet above a foot path that is parallel to the east loop road and across from the carousel. As she looked over her shoulder at me I noticed that her normally shiny, gray bill was now deep brown from a layer of mud. Walking around to the front of her I saw that her yellow, scaly feet and legs were also covered in dark mud. Some of her belly feathers were tipped with the brown stuff, as well. I guess I missed her romp in the mud puddle. I began scanning the adjacent trees for Bebe. I couldn't find him but a few yards away I spotted Big Mama preening her belly feathers.

I walked west into the center of the Midwood to check on the Wood Thrush nest. The female was sitting on her eggs and her mate was foraging on the ground below. I'm not sure why but the park Wood Thrushes always include bits of white paper in their nest construction. One unintended benefit is that it makes locating their nests much easier for me. As I was watching the thrushes I heard the whining cry of another red-tail near the southwest corner of the woods. It was from the same area that Sean and I heard the cries last week. Today I found the fledgling hawk flying from branch to branch in a tuliptree near the edge of the Midwood. He eventually flew off towards the Ravine. As I walked back north along the bridle path I heard an odd, guttural squawk above the treetops. I saw two young hawks circling low and apparently tormenting a Great Blue Heron. The heron broke off from the formation and continued squawking as he headed off in a northern direction.

In a little over forty minutes I was able to locate four of the five fledgling Red-tailed Hawks but I still wanted to find Bebe. I walked back up through the center of the Midwood where most of the robins I encountered earlier were still calling. Where the bridle path climbs the hill towards Rick's Place I spotted a robin diving in and out of a stand of locust saplings. I thought that one of the hawks might be on the ground. I approached slowly but couldn't see what had the robin so upset. Finally I realized that he was right in front of me. The dappled sunlight on his brown and white speckled back made Bebe practically disappear into the log that he was standing on. He had a small rat in his talons and completely ignored both the nagging robin and the nosey birder. It only took a few minutes for him to tear into then devour the whole rodent. He then went hunting for more. The ground on the western rise of the Midwood is covered mostly with a weedy plant named goutweed. Bebe slowly walked through the green growth looking more like a big cat stalking prey than a hawk. Sometimes he would run through the underbrush with his wings held out for balance. Like his parents, who frequently hunt from a perch, he would make short flights up onto a log, scan the underbrush, then jump down onto any perceived movement in the goutweed.

It's exciting that both sets of fledgling hawks have begun exploring the Midwood. It appears that they are currently staying at opposite ends of the forest but it should be interesting when they inevitably cross paths. By that time I probably won't be able to tell any of them apart. How about name tags?
- - - - -
Prospect Park, 7/8/2004
-
Great Blue Heron (Circling over Quaker Ridge.)
Red-tailed Hawk (2 adults, 5 fledglings.)
Northern Flicker (2 Midwood.)
Red-eyed Vireo (Payne Hill.)
Wood Thrush (Adults at nest in Midwood.)
Gray Catbird
Common Grackle

Other resident species seen (or heard):
Red-bellied Woodpecker (2 Midwood.), Downy Woodpecker (Midwood.), Blue Jay (3 or 4, Midwood.), Tufted Titmouse (Midwood.), American Robin, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, House Sparrow

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