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Sunday, March 04, 2007

Prospect Park and the Hudson River

Corkscrew Willow (Salix matsudana ) on Peninsula

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

Northern Shovelers (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)


There’s been a Northern Pintail reported on Prospect Lake for several days. All of the pintails that I’ve seen up to this point in my life have been shy birds that remain far from shore. People have told me that the bird in Prospect Park seems pretty tame so I thought I’d walk over to the lake and take some pictures. Also, March is the month when Red-tailed Hawk’s courtship behavior peaks. I was hoping to observe Ralph and Alice “bonding”.

The Red-tailed Hawk's aerial courtship displays are pretty spectacular, looking somewhat like mock combat. During the performance the pair slowly circle each other at high altitudes, occasionally breaking off and launching into roller coaster-like dives and ascents. They'll frequently call each other using either their familiar "keeeer" call or short, high chirping whistles. Part of the aerial ballet also involves the smaller male suddenly diving towards his mate from high altitudes. As he approaches the female she'll turn over in mid-air, and present her talons. Sometimes they will even lock talons and spin towards the ground before splitting apart.

Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk on Lookout Hill

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

On my way to the lake I caught a glimpse of the adult Red-tailed Hawks descending from the air above Breeze Hill. They quickly disappeared into the forest of Lookout Hill. I didn’t see them again. At the narrow path between the Nethermead Meadow and the Maryland Monument I spotted the young, pale faced red-tail. He was perched high in a locust tree and within striking distance of the Breeze Hill feeders.

About one third of Prospect Lake was still unfrozen. The opening in the ice concentrated the ducks into a fairly small area. I thought that would make it easy to find the pintail, but it wasn’t. My friend John had his easel set-up next to the lake and was painting a landscape. He and another artist had sprinkled dry oats at the edge of the water to attract ducks. I suppose the cold weather had limited the lake’s food supply as the overwintering American Coot were behaving like human habitualized Mallards, walking right up to the two artists. Coots look very odd out of the water. Their green feet have large, flat, lobed toes that look like Wile E. Coyote’s foot after an anvil is dropped on it.

A Coots eye view (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

John asked if I was looking for the pintail. He said it had just been there, feeding on the ground in front of him, but somehow managed to vanish. I walked around the edge of the lake along the Peninsula scanning the water but couldn’t locate him. I stuck around for about an hour scanning and rescanning the lake. The sun was setting and I was getting ready to give up when John pointed out that he was suddenly right in front of us. Northern Pintails aren’t known to be tame “park” birds but I guess they’ll make an exception for a free handout of oats during a cold day. He seemed perfectly happy feeding among the coots, Mallards, geese and swans.

Pintail and friends

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

Earlier, when I was still looking for the pintail, all the gulls that had been standing on the ice suddenly took flight. I quickly scanned for a hawk or falcon and spotted a young Red-tailed Hawk flying across the lake from Three Sisters Island. I ran over to where he perched hoping to get a photograph. This hawk wasn’t the pale faced juvenile that I’ve been seeing around the park. His face was much darker with very defined, dark malar stripes and a broad supercillium. He also wasn’t very tame and took off when I approached the Gingko tree where he had perched.

Also of note was a Great Blue Heron flying low across the lake. Two great blues have been found dead in the park this winter. One had starved to death and we’re still waiting to hear about the second. I hope this third one survives or has the sense to move farther south.

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Mary called me late this afternoon to tell me that she spotted a Red-necked Grebe on Prospect Lake. Small, inland urban lakes are not the typical habitat for that particular species of grebe. They are sometimes found along coastal New York City in the winter, but Prospect Park has had only a few sightings. The first one that ever saw just happened to be in Prospect Park. I was a beginner birder and was spending the day in the park. At one point during my stroll I was walking towards the lake along the Lullwater. An older gentleman was on the Terrace Bridge that I was just about to pass beneath. He must have noticed my binoculars as he yelled to me, “There’s a Red-necked Grebe on the lake.” Well, at that time, I wouldn’t have known a Red-necked Grebe from a redneck, but it sounded interesting so I ran up to join him. The man’s name was Bob Bains and he was kind enough to point out the bird and give me a brief tutorial on grebes and why it was such an unusual sighting. We’ve become friends over the years and have birded together quite a bit.

By the time I got my act together and pedalled over to the lake it was pretty late in the afternoon. There was a thick cloud cover hanging over the city so scanning for anything on the opposite side of the lake was challenging. Mary had already left the park but there were two other birder’s present who I didn’t know. I told them about the grebe and we began scanning the lake. I also mentioned the Northern Pintail, who wasn’t so tough to locate this time. In fact, he acted like he was looking for a handout. I found the Red-necked Grebe tucked in close to the edge of Three Sisters Island. He was very difficult to identify. He had his head tucked under his wing so all I could see was his brown body and white rump. Where I was set-up on the Peninsula was about 50 yards from the edge of the island. I really wanted to take a photograph, just for documenting purposes, but the sleepy grebe wouldn’t lift his head up! I began scanning back and forth across the edge of the island looking for, well, anything that wasn’t sleeping. That’s when I noticed the Red-tailed Hawk perched on a downed tree trunk eating a coot. There were plently of ducks, coots and grebes (there were also Pied-billed Grebes on the lake) close to the hawk but they didn’t seem to be concerned. I guess that they realized the hawk was already busy eating so they were safe...for the time being. Michael, one of the other birders, had just begun to leave when I spotted the hawk. I yelled for him and he came running back. He was very glad that he did as he’d never witness a Red-tailed Hawk feasting on an oat-fattened coot.

Red-necked Grebe on Prospect Lake

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

-Click here for more Red-necked Grebe photos-

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Ivory Gull location map

(Photo credit - Google Earth)

As I mentioned in my brief posting on Monday, Sean and I drove up to Piermont Pier to look for an Ivory Gull that had been reported. As the gull flies, I think that Piermont is only about 25 miles from downtown Manhattan and on the west side of the Hudson River. I don’t think the tiny hamlet of Piermont knew what hit them when the Ivory Gull was posted on the Internet. They had already gotten used to the idea that people from out of town were coming in to see a Snowy Owl. What they didn’t realize was that most birders in New York State (and possibly the country) had never seen an Ivory Gull.

Ivory Gull on telephone pole

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

When Sean and I arrived at the pier there were already about 30-40 people present. The gull wasn’t difficult to find as it sat perched at the top of a telephone pole near the end of the pier. On the south side of the pier is a cluster of rotting, wooden pilings. I’m not sure if they are the remains of a ship or an old extension of the pier. Whatever it is, the Snowy Owl likes it. It’s a safe place to roost at night and a great vantage point to launch an attack on an unsuspecting duck. Ed Coyle told me that he had seen the Ivory Gull chase the owl off of a duck that it had killed and was eating. Snowy Owls are very large and, I would think, pretty intimidating to smaller birds. As gulls go, the Ivory Gull is pretty small, but what they lack in size they make up for with aggression.

(Photo credit - Sean Sime)

Many gulls are difficult to identify for a number of reasons, not the least of them being that they are all variations of black, white and grey. However, if one knew nothing about gulls and an Ivory Gull flew over one's head, it would be noticed as something special. When I returned home I looked up information on the ivory and was very depressed by what I read. When I was standing on the pier looking at that blindingly white bird, I thought that I might never have the opportunity to see one again because their normal range is so remote. Then I learned that I might never see another one because they have become one of the most critically endangered species in North America with their population dropping by 80%.

-Click here for more info on Piermont-

-Click here for more on the Ivory Gull's decline-

02/24 - 02/26
Pied-billed Grebe
Red-necked Grebe
Great Blue Heron
Northern Shoveler
Northern Pintail
Greater Scaup
Common Merganser
Ruddy Duck
Red-tailed Hawk
Great Black-backed Gull
Ivory Gull
Snowy Owl
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Carolina Wren
White-throated Sparrow

Other common species seen (or heard):
Canada Goose, Mute Swan, American Black Duck, Mallard, Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Downy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Crow, American Robin, European Starling, Song Sparrow, House Sparrow

1 comment:

Marge said...


The young red tail you spotted with the dark malar stripe is intriguing me. Could this be Baby Huey, the offspring of Jr & Big Mamma? Junior aka as S***face, has that very dark stripe. Ive not seen "Baby" since the summer.

I spotted JR & Big Mamma this Sunday, finally. Jr was flying back and forth to Big Mamma who was perched in a pine tree. In famous Big Mama fashion, she didnt even flinch when I approached to get a better look. After the demise of the 20 yr old red tail hawk nest, Ive been looking to see where they will nest within the cemetery. Ill keep you posted.


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