Thursday, December 29, 2005

Bronx Christmas Bird Count

Barring any unexpected natural phenomenon within the next 24 hours, this will be my last post for 2005.

Mist on the Moors

(Photo credit - Rob J)

On Monday morning I was picked up at 6:00am by my friend Steve. We then proceeded to pick-up three other friends and head up to the Bronx. We would be spending the day at the New York Botanic Gardens tallying all the bird species. This would be the second time that I’d be lending a hand (or eyes and ears) to the folks compiling the Bronx leg of the annual Christmas Bird Count. It would be my first time covering every inch of the NYBG.

I would have preferred better weather but on Christmas Counts you take what you are given and make the best of it. It rained on and off (mostly on) for the entire day. Only once did we have an outright downpour and my new waterproof shell, thankfully, passed the test. There isn’t much you can do when your bins get blurry from raindrops other than to wipe them off and hope you don’t miss a great bird in the process. Flushing a Great Horned Owl in the woods made it worth the effort.

Berries and drips

(Photo credit - Rob J)

Black-capped Chickadees appeared to be the bird of the day as they were seen in very good numbers. We kept crossing paths with an adult Cooper’s Hawk who was doing her own bird survey of sorts. At one point, we stood on a bridge and watched her perched on a snag above the Bronx River. I noticed her wagging her tail from side to side. I read somewhere that hawks will wag their tail when excited. I guess the numerous little birds and a lack of competition roused her spirits.

Winterberries (Ilex verticillata)

(Photo credit - Rob J)

Winterberry and other fruiting trees and shrubs created bright patches for my eyes and little oases for the birds. One very protective mockingbird chased a Hermit Thrush from “his” Winterberry shrub. The Scrooge had little respect for the holiday season or the fact that he was rude to the only Hermit Thrush in the entire park.

Brown Creeper (Certhia americana) preening

(Photo credit - Steve Nanz)

-Click here for more info on Brown Creepers-

We ate our lunch in the garden’s cafe. Our table was in the corner of the room, two large plate glass windows on either side of us. Interspersed between bites of food and complaints of the weather were announcements of various birds in the trees just beyond the glass. A Brown Creeper was spotted clinging to the side of a conifer as it preened its wet feathers. Moments later an opening in the clouds revealed a swathe of azure sky. The sun brightened and warmed the creeper’s resting place near the base of the tree. Steve suddenly jumped up, grabbed his camera and ran outside. Creepers are energetic little creatures that are rarely seen sitting still, let alone preening. Steve was able to take four or five photos before the clouds returned and closed off the patch of blue, returning the garden to shades of gray.

Bird's Nest mushrooms (Crucibulum vulgare)

(Photo credit - Rob J)

-Click here for more info on Bird's Nest mushrooms-

- - - - -

Bronx CBC - New York Botanic Garden, 12/26/2005
-
Wood Duck
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Ring-billed Gull
Great Horned Owl
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Fish Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Hermit Thrush
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
Cedar Waxwing
Eastern Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
House Finch
American Goldfinch

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

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

"Birding in the Rain"

Yesterday I participated in the Bronx leg of the Christmas Bird Count. It was the second worse weather conditions I've experienced during my nine years of CBCs. I'll post a complete report tonight. In the interim, here is an e-mail and great photo the I received from my friend, Roberto:

"On Sunday morning I went by Floyd Bennett field; it was shrouded in thick fog with a visibility of some 40-50 ft. By the northernmost runway was this peregrine perched on one of the signs. A very cool sight! Enjoy."

Floyd Bennett Peregrine in fog

(Photo credit - Roberto Cavalieros)

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Injured Goose update

I just received the following note:

"Hi Rob,

Sgt. Prastaro went out and assessed the situation, which was just as you
said. The Snow Goose has a broken right wing; however, it is swimming fine
and foraging fine so it would be impossible to catch right now. What the
Sgt. has done has left his number with the groundskeeper who has been
keeping tabs on the goose. If the groundskeeper sees the goose weakening at
all he will call the Sgt. He felt bad that he could not do more, but I
remember being in the same place when I was a ranger. An injured but
healthy animal is very sad and frustrating. If the goose is still there
when the weather is warmer it sounds like they could try to catch the goose
using their canoes but this is also very difficult. If you don't mind
please keep an eye on the goose too and let me know if you think it is able
to be captured.

Thanks,

E.J."

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Injured Snow Goose

I contacted E.J. McAdams, the Executive Director of New York City Audubon, regarding an injured Snow Goose at Green-Wood Cemetery. Below is his response:

"Rob,

The Brooklyn Urban Park Ranger Seargent Anthony Prastaro is going to check on the goose and see if he can capture it. If it is on the water, it is unlikely that anyone will be able to get it without injuring the bird. Once he is on the scene he will give me a call. I will send you an email once I hear from him. If you have further questions, please give me a call at the office [...].

E.J."


I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Pete Shen was part of the group that surveyed Riis Park and Fort Tilden on Saturday's bird count. One of their highlights was a Lesser Black-backed Gull at Riis. Pete was able to digiscope a few decent photos.

Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus) at Riis Park



(Photo credit - Pete Shen)

-Click here for more info on Lesser Black-backed Gulls-

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Christmas Bird Count at Floyd Bennett Field

First Light

(Photo credit - Rob J)

It’s hard to believe that the annual Christmas Bird Count has arrived. The count, to me, is the symbolic end of the birding year. For people who keep annual birding lists it’s sort of like the last chance to add another species. I’m already thinking about next year’s discoveries. Today was my ninth Christmas Bird Count, the last five of which were spent surveying Floyd Bennett Field, Dead Horse Bay and Four Sparrow Marsh. It’s one of the few days that I can be roused before dawn while my body is in winter hibernation mode. The last two years were the only times that I’ve had enough energy left to attend the dinner at the end of the day. Comparing highlights with one’s fellow birders and hoping for bragging rights for a “save” are just a couple of things that make the day long effort worth it. (A “save“ is a bird species that was only seen by one group of birders.)

Thin ice

(Photo credit - Rob J)

According to the National Registry of Historic Places Floyd Bennett Field encompasses 3,285 acres. That might explain my sore feet. Floyd Bennett’s acreage includes coniferous woodlands, deciduous tracts, marshland and coastline, however, grassland accounts for a majority of the habitat. We usually begin our day at first light by forming a line at the edge of one field and walking slowly to the opposite side. The point is to flush any birds that might be hiding in the grass and then writing it down on a tally sheet. It always makes me feel like a Redcoat in attack formation. In this case the enemy is the wild blackberry vines and briar hidden in the grass that try to trip me up and tear at my lower legs.

-Click here for the history of Floyd Bennett Field-

As we walk through the grass we ultimately flush up a flock of Eastern Meadowlark. The size of the flock fluctuates from year to year but, from what I’ve been told, meadowlark numbers have decreased considerably from decades past. Ring-necked Pheasants populations have also plummeted. I found a pair of pheasant wings at a kill site on one of the fields. She was likely the last one left. Floyd Bennett’s open areas attract a variety of winged predators. A Red-tailed Hawk or Cooper’s Hawk could have easily made a meal of her.

Pheasant wing

(Photo credit - Rob J)

The short, stubbly grass on a new cricket field had attracted a large flock of Horned Larks. We usually observe one or two dozen on the bird count but today there were sixty-seven. I love how they flatten their chubby bodies against the ground when they’re foraging for seeds. Their low profile makes them one of the few birds that can feed in the open on windy days without getting blown away. It also makes it a little difficult to count them. When you think you’ve tallied all of them another one suddenly appears in your field of view. On a dreary winter day the sight of their bold yellow and black face always brings a smile to my face.

Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris)

(Photo credit - Sean Sime)

As we stood on the beach at Dead Horse Bay we counted 200 Greater Scaup a short distance from the shore. Horned Grebe have arrived in New York waters wrapped in grayscale, winter plumage, their golden ”horns“ absent until the spring. Several small flocks dove for food near the shore.

Rising ocean levels and the unrelenting scouring of wind, tide and time have exposed layers of the crumbling landfill once know as Barren Island. Examining the ground while walking along the shore of Dead Horse Bay is like graphing history. Long stretches of dark brown peat are revealed at low tide. It has likely taken hundreds of years to form the island’s peat substructure. Two hundred year old glass bottles, fragments of old porcelain and rusty iron pipes are interspersed with oyster, clam and mussel shells. In the late 19th to the early 20th century Barren Island was the home of Menhaden processing plants. It was the last resting place for dead horses from New York City. There Menhaden recovered fat and other products from the carcasses. There is a disturbing number of horse bones scattered among all the other debris adorning the beach. Most of the bone has been cut up but I found an intact tibia from one of the horses.

Horse tibia

(Photo credit - Rob J)

Sean spotted a hawk perched atop a dead tree. A perched hawk is sometimes more difficult to identify than one in flight. When the hawk glided by above our heads we realized that we had a rare over-wintering Broad-winged Hawk in Brooklyn.

Four of the people in our group left just before sunset. Sean, Chuck and I decided to stay until dark, hoping for a glimpse of a nocturnal bird. Despite our best effort we couldn’t find any owls and, as always, our last bird for the day was the 4:30 Merlin.

Eurasian Wigeon (Anas penelope ) at Floyd Bennett

(Photo credit - Roberto Cavalieros)

- - - - -

Floyd Bennett Field, Dead Horse Bay, Four Sparrow Marsh, 12/17/2005
-
Red-throated Loon
Common Loon
Horned Grebe
Red-necked Grebe
Great Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Snow Goose
Brant
Gadwall
Eurasian Wigeon
American Wigeon
Greater Scaup
Lesser Scaup
Long-tailed Duck
Bufflehead
Common Goldeneye
Common Merganser
Northern Harrier
Cooper's Hawk
Broad-winged Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Merlin
Black-bellied Plover
Dunlin
Ring-billed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Horned Lark (67 on cricket field.)
Tree Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Carolina Wren
Hermit Thrush
Northern Mockingbird
Yellow-rumped Warbler
American Tree Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Snow Bunting
House Finch
American Goldfinch

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

Bird Photos link

I'm still recovering from yesterday's sunrise to sunset Christmas Bird Count marathon. I'll post a wrap-up tomorrow. In the meantime, here is a link to my friend Janet's website. In addition to her beautiful local bird photographs she has other great international images. I'll add it to the permanent links section in the sidebar:

JCZinn Photographs

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Brooklyn Hawk update

Big Mama and her old mate Split-tail

(Photo credit - Sean Sime)

I just received and interesting e-mail from my friend, Joe. He does a lot of birding in the Green-Wood Cemetery, which is a short distance from Prospect Park. His note is regarding the nesting Red-tailed Hawks in the cemetery and includes a sad finding.

Rob,

Hope all is well, I expect you are getting ready for the x-mas count. I'm helping Janet in her first year as leader of Green-wood. I was in Green-wood Saturday with Marge Hanover, a Green-wood regular, and we saw some Red-Tails that I thought you might be interested in.

Red-tails have been having trouble in Green-wood for the last 2 breeding seasons. The nest in Green-wood had a long successful record of fledging young for well over 15/20 years. Every year, like clockwork, the young fledged within a few days of June 5th. The last 2 breeding seasons have not produced any fledglings. Two seasons ago, which was a very wet, cold one, the two nestlings had just barely started to stand on the edge to exercise their wing muscles by the end of May. Very late in the season. [..] The young disappeared. The fledglings of all previous years remained in the cemetery by Fort Hamilton until at least October and are easily approachable. I looked and never found a sign of them. Neither did Janet. I don't think they fledged at all, certainly they did not survive long out of the nest.

This last breeding season, the pair was back on the nest. They had added material and we had a constant bird on the nest. All was looking good, then suddenly there was only one bird in the area and no one on the nest. I found the body of the female, going by size, in Dell water. Since then Green-wood has had almost no Red-Tails. Even this fall, when you expect wintering birds would arrive, no Red-Tails.

Marge and I were happy to see a high soaring pair by Fort Hamilton and McDonald this Saturday. They basically circled just over and across McDonald Ave, occasionally coming into the cemetery. We stayed in the area watching for a while and one of the times they were over the nest realized that one of the birds was immensely huge, even allowing for sexual size difference. Big Mama? Clean bird, heavy, well defined breastband. Tail very red viewed form the top, but from underneath showed a whitish tinge to the red. We started to go back over Ocean Hill when we came upon a third Red-tail low in a tree, about 15 feet up. We looked at him he stared back, unhappy but stayed until Marge's cell phone rang. He then flew off low the bare minimum, and landed about 40 feet away low in another tree. All the time looking like a cat, who doesn't want to been seen.

I'm going to go out on a limb here. I think Big Mama, if it was her and I think it was, is interested in Green-wood. Not that she would move, but she doesn't want the Green-wood nest occupied. She was not able to intimidate the established pair, but I think this third bird is one of her offspring, they do have similar breastbands and the same clean underwings. Perhaps it is the male from the previous year and without a mate, he is a little vulnerable to her pressure. Whatever the details, I think Big Mama is being imperialistic about Green-wood. The only parallel to my scenario is that the year before Red-Tails started to nest in Prospect, a young pair tried to construct a nest by 39th street and Fort Hamilton. They were driven off by the established pair by Ocean Hill. Should be an interesting season if I'm right.

Joe

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Prospect Park sounds

A Murder of Crows

(Photo credit - Rob J)

Prospect Park is a surprisingly quiet place considering that it is in the center of Brooklyn. Several years after I began birding I became more aware of the natural sounds around me. Sometimes I am able to filter out the background, human generated noises such as overflying jets or distant sirens. I find myself stepping around leaves, twigs and other detritus so that I can keep my focus on the sound of the moment. Today it was nearly impossible to walk quietly in the park. The partially melted, then refrozen snowfall created a crust of cracking, glass ice and crunchy, styrofoam snow. Park maintenance vehicles left narrow, nearly dry tracks on some of the paths and I found myself walking, as if on a balance beam, within these noiseless trails.

There are several Black Walnut trees in the park and I’ve learned to recognize the sound of a squirrel eating one of the nuts. It’s a sawing noise, like a rasp moving back and forth, quickly, in short strokes, across a piece of steel. I was curious about how they tasted as squirrels will expend a lot of time and energy to open one. Beneath one of the trees I found a pale green, freshly fallen tennis ball-sized fruit and stuck it in my coat pocket. At home I peeled away the hand-staining pulp and let the nut dry for two or three weeks. I assumed that it would be easy to open with a nutcracker. It was actually impossible. I took out my tool kit, grabbed a ball-peen hammer, placed the walnut on a brick and slammed it. It took several whacks just to get a small crack in it. A large pair of vise-grips finished the job. How did it taste? It was alright, but not worth a 20 minute struggle.

Today, while walking down Lookout Hill road, I heard a sound that has been missing from the park for a few years. It was the raucous yammering of a large flock of American Crows. Large crow flocks used to be a constant presence in Prospect Park but their numbers plummeted, possibly related to West Nile. Crows usually mob birds of prey so I thought that there was a possibility that a hawk or owl was farther up the hill. I backtracked and walked to the tiny meadow at the top of Lookout Hill. I was very surprised to see the top of an oak tree filled with crows. I counted 29 individuals. They weren’t chasing a bird of prey but rather talking among themselves. I sat down to watch them. There may have been two distinct families present as they kept splitting their numbers between two trees despite the fact that they could have all easily fit in one tree. Occasionally they would all lift off, fly out over the south edge of Lookout Hill then return to the two trees. I tried to figure out if there was any particular leader or signal for the move but they didn’t stay very long. After about 15 minutes the murder of crows lifted off and headed in a southerly direction.

-Click here for more collective nouns for birds-

- - - - -

Prospect Park, 12/10/2005
-
Great Blue Heron (Flying across Nethermead towards pools.)
Mallard
Bufflehead (1, Upper pool.)
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Blue Jay
American Crow (29, Lookout Hill.)
Black-capped Chickadee (Fairly common, Breeze Hill and other.)
Tufted Titmouse
Red-breasted Nuthatch (1, Breeze Hill.)
White-breasted Nuthatch (2, Breeze Hill. 2, near Picnic House.)
Hermit Thrush (Breeze Hill.)
Northern Mockingbird (5th Street.)
European Starling
Northern Cardinal
Chipping Sparrow (1, Breeze Hill feeders.)
Fox Sparrow (2, Vale of Cashmere. 6, Nethermead Arches.)
White-throated Sparrow (Common.)
Dark-eyed Junco (Fairly common.)
Red-winged Blackbird
American Goldfinch (Fairly common, Breeze Hill and other.)

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Looking for signs of owls

It was 20°F when I left my house. I decided that it would be a good day to search for signs of owls in Prospect Park and the botanic gardens. My decision wasn’t based on any local reports of owl sightings or intellectual reasoning. I was really just motivated by the season’s first sting of arctic bluster and the mental picture of a tiny Northern Saw-whet Owl hunkered down among the protective needles of a conifer. There weren’t any owls around that I was aware of but every year about this time I begin looking for signs of a roost.

I walked east across the Long Meadow near 3rd Street. When I left the shelter of the trees and walked out into the open I was blasted by a frigid north wind rolling down the mile long meadow. I spotted an adult Red-tailed Hawk rising up over the trees near the Vale of Cashmere. Despite the strong wind she effortlessly navigated into the gusts and patrolled the north end of the meadow. She circled close to me then dove across the field and down into the trees at the north end of Nelly’s Lawn. I had begun to follow her when she appeared in the air above Nelly’s Lawn and flew quickly towards the zoo. A moment later a juvenile hawk emerged from the north zoo woods and flew across the road towards Payne Hill. Rather than follow either hawk I decided to stick with my original plan to look for owls.

In the stretch of woods behind Sullivan Hill squirrels shoveled their noses into the leaf litter looking for hidden stashes. It felt good to be out of the wind but, unfortunately, it was also devoid of bird life. At Payne Hill I took a look at the old Red-tailed Hawk nest. Nothing seems to have changed. As I stood looking a nearby Blue Jay mimicked the high, raspy “keeeer” call of a red-tailed. For once, I wasn’t fooled. He’s been messing with my head for about a year but I can finally differentiate the thinner quality of his imitation.

I briefly scanned the bare branches of the trees in the Midwood then continued walking east towards the botanic gardens.

Japanese Beautyberry (Callicarpa japonica)

(Photo credit - Rob J)

The Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, while free of the warm weather hordes of humans, was an oasis for wildlife. Flocks of robins and Cedar Waxwings gorged themselves on red hawthorn berries. A large flock of starlings occupied the tops of a pair of pagoda trees and feasted on translucent, green bean pods. Squirrels climbed up into dense Japanese Beautyberry shrubs and nibbled on its clusters of vivid purple berries. I spotted rabbit tracks in the snow beneath a Flowering Quince shrub where several quince had fallen. One looked like someone had stopped for a snack. As I searched all the garden’s conifers I came across several small flocks of Black-capped Chickadees. They seemed to be finding morsels to eat within the tree’s needles and the fragrant mats below.

One of the first places I looked was at a California Incense Cedar. Early last February I noticed about twenty owl pellets at the base of this tree. Today there were none, in fact, I couldn’t find signs of an owl anywhere in the garden. Maybe later in the season.

On my way back home I walked through the Midwood and on to Center Drive. In the Midwood several squirrels were squeaking their typical agitation sound. I searched the trees for a predator but didn’t find one. As I crossed the Nethermead Arches I spotted a Red-tailed Hawk perched in a Black Cherry tree on the south side of the bridge. I walked around behind him to get a closer look.

My first impression of the hawk was that he was tall and lean. His profile was very different from “Big Mama” who always gave the impression of being very wide and muscular. The “V” pattern usually seen on Red-tailed Hawk’s scapulars seemed somewhat subdued on him. The feathers that form the “V” are generally white with a central, dark brown wedge shape. This bird’s “wedges” were all bordered by rusty red. His underside also had a considerable amount of fine, red feathers from the throat to the belly and around to his flanks. His feathers were neat and clean and, on closer inspection, appeared to have sharp, fresh edges. Perhaps this is his first season with adult plumage.

I walked back to the bridge to take another look at the front of the hawk. As I was getting ready to snap a photo something across the road caught his attention. He jerked his head forward then took off in the direction of the Midwood (where the squirrels were very agitated earlier). I can’t be 100% certain but he looks like he might be a new tenant in Prospect Park.

Hawk and First Quarter Moon

(Photo credit - Rob J)

- - - - -

Prospect Park & Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, 12/7/2005
-
Canada Goose
Gadwall (Upper pool.)
Mallard
Bufflehead (3, Upper pool.)
Cooper's Hawk (BBG.)
Red-tailed Hawk (1 adult, 1 juvenile.)
American Coot
Herring Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Blue Jay
Black-capped Chickadee (Fairly common.)
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper (BBG.)
American Robin
Northern Mockingbird (BBG.)
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing (BBG.)
Northern Cardinal
White-throated Sparrow (Common.)
Dark-eyed Junco (Fairly common.)

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