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Saturday, September 08, 2007

Prospect Park field trip

Chicken Mushroom (Laetiporus sulphureus)
Yesterday I lead a group of birders on a Linnaean Society field trip in Prospect Park. We stayed, primarily, within the park's wooded areas and, despite temperatures that eventually approached 90 degrees, had a surprising productive morning. The Vale of Cashmere, our first stop, didn't disappoint as it had a nice mix of songbirds. The birds were primarily feeding in the Black Cherry trees, although some would occasionally drop down to eye level and feed on the few ripe fruits in a Kousa Dogwood or a fruiting Paper Mulberry. We spent nearly an hour in the vale and moved on after tallying 15 bird species.
Common Elder (Sambucus canadensis)
I was a little disappointed that there wasn't much activity in the Midwood, but it was a different story across from the woodlands at the stream behind the Music Pagoda. At that spot we came across an amazing bit of activity. Shade from surrounding mature oaks, maples and ash trees, the sound of rushing water and a profusion of jewel-weed attracted an amazing diversity of songbirds. The first bird that we spotted was a splotchy, molting Purple Finch that was dropping down to the water's edge to drink and bathe. Then a few Rose-breasted Grosbeaks caught our attention. They were feeding within the jewel-weed, a few inches above the ground, which seemed incongruous to me as I am more accustomed to seeing them feeding at the tops of trees. Peter pointed out a Prairie Warbler in a shrub a short distance upstream from the grosbeaks. I heard the "chink" of a Northern Waterthrush from somewhere below the prairie. We spotted him a little while later. A pair of Scarlet Tanagers, already dressed in their yellow-green, winter plumage, were foraging in the trees above the Music Pagoda. Tom spotted, what turned out to be our best sighting of the day - a Philadelphia Vireo. It was possibly a first fall bird as it appeared to be very bright yellow. In that area, alone, we observed 22 species of birds. It almost felt like a spring fall out day!

We weren't as successful in the woods on the Peninsula as it was pretty quiet. One species that was new for the day was a Northern Parula.

Peter departed while we were still on the Peninsula, but called me on my cellphone a few minutes later. He wanted to know if I would be interested in seeing a young Red-tailed Hawk standing on the ground and eating a squirrel in the middle of the barbecue area near Vanderbilt Street entrance. That would be like asking a Grizzly Bear if he would be interested in a fresh salmon.

I had come to the park on my bicycle and asked the group if their minded me racing ahead and meeting them at the spot. Photo opportunities like the one Peter described don't come up very often for me and I didn't want to miss it. The group didn't mind, so I hopped on my bike and raced down the road to meet Peter.

The hawk was one that was hatched this year and had beautiful, crisp clean feathers. He had been hunting in an area that is virtually midway between Big Mama and Junior's nest in the cemetery, and Alice and Ralph's nest in the Ravine. It's anyones guess which parents raised the young raptor eating the squirrel. He was still at a dangerously unwary stage of development. His choice of dining table was only a couple of yards away from a road that was teeming with cyclists, runners, roller-bladers and pedestrians, yet he seemed indifferent to the human activity.

One cyclist saw me lying on the ground taking pictures of the hawk and stopped to watch. He continued walking very close to the hawk and I politely asked him not to come any closer as he'd scare off the bird. He didn't listen and, of course, the raptor took off with the remains of the squirrel. Fortunately, he didn't go very far and the rest of the group arrived in time to observe the impressive creature as it perched in an oak tree a few feet above our heads. At one point he froze, with his eyes fixed on something in the distance. Suddenly, he took off, heading towards the ground at the edge of the road. An unwary squirrel had wandered out into the open and the hawk had him dead on. The squirrel dashed back toward the trees and the raptor wheeled around on his massive wings, just inches above the ground. I don't know how, but that lucky rodent managed to escape the hawk's deadly talons. The Red-tailed Hawk perched in the squirrel's tree for several minutes, constantly scanning up and down the trunk for his missed opportunity. When he eventually gave up and flew across the road towards the lake, we noticed that he had a full crop. We wondered why he would waste some much energy chasing prey when he had already eaten, and from the looks of it, quite a bit. One thought was that he was just sharpening his hunting skills. Another possibility is that it is a genetically programmed response, similar to what happens when a string is dangled in front of a house cat or a doughnut in front of Homer Simpson. They just can't help themselves.

Prospect Park, 9/8/2007
Double-crested Cormorant (1, Prospect Lake.)
Great Blue Heron (Duck Island.)
Green Heron (Peninsula "Thumb".)
Red-tailed Hawk (1 flying above Nethermead, 1 HY bird eating a squirrel near Vanderbilt Playground.)
Solitary Sandpiper (Flying around Lullwater near Lullwater Bridge.)
Spotted Sandpiper (Duck Island.)
Chimney Swift
Ruby-throated Hummingbird (3 or 4 near Lily Pond.)
Hairy Woodpecker (Midwood.)
Northern Flicker
empidonax spp.
Eastern Wood-Pewee (Lookout Hill near Wellhouse Dr.)
Warbling Vireo (Near Lily Pond and on Peninsula.)
Philadelphia Vireo (At stream behind the Music Pagoda.)
Red-eyed Vireo (At stream behind the Music Pagoda.)
Red-breasted Nuthatch (2, Midwood.)
White-breasted Nuthatch (Midwood.)
Carolina Wren (Heard in Midwood and Lookout Hill.)
Veery (At stream behind the Music Pagoda.)
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
Cedar Waxwing (Fairly common.)
Northern Parula (Peninsula "Thumb".)
Chestnut-sided Warbler (At stream behind the Music Pagoda.)
Black-throated Blue Warbler (Fairly common.)
Black-throated Green Warbler (2. Vale of Cashmere, stream behind the Music Pagoda.)
Pine Warbler (2, Vale of Cashmere.)
Prairie Warbler (At stream behind the Music Pagoda.)
American Redstart (Fairly common.)
Northern Waterthrush (1 behind Music Pagoda, 2 Peninsula.)
Common Yellowthroat (4-6.)
Scarlet Tanager (4-6.)
Rose-breasted Grosbeak (4-6 behind Music Pagoda.)
Baltimore Oriole (Several.)
Purple Finch (1, at stream behind the Music Pagoda.)

Other common species seen (or heard):
Canada Goose, Mallard, Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Crow, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse (Heard on Lookout Hill near Maryland Monument.), American Robin, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, Song Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, American Goldfinch, House Sparrow


Justine said...

I have seen two squirrels who fell to their deaths from trees in Prospect Park in the last week. Hopefully this is just a strange coincidence. One fell from a tree on Flatbush Ave. as I waited for the light to change (in my car). I heard it falling and then saw it struggle for a few seconds before succumbing. The other one, which I saw today, was already dead, in the park street. There was blood near its head (the reason I assumed it, too, had fallen out of a tree).

Have you or other birders noticed similar events recently?

Rob Jett said...

Over the years I have seen several squirrels drop out of the trees. None have ever died, however. They usually just sit for a moment, then scramble back up the tree. I guess it's just nature's way of weeding out the clumsy genes from the sciurus gene pool.

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