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Friday, November 09, 2007

Prospect Park Winter Birds

The cold, gray sky and dropping temperatures had me thinking about winter birds. Outside of my brief run up to the park to see the Eurasian Wigeon, I hadn't birded in Prospect Park for nearly 3 weeks. The abundance and mix of the birds had no doubt changed significantly. Many trees have already dropped their leaves. Late fall wildflowers and grasses have gone to seed, providing food for arriving songbirds.

Unlike Central Park, Prospect Park is nearly devoid of people midday during the week. The sudden drop in temperature also deters many park patrons from venturing into the wilds of Brooklyn. Those perfect conditions lead me to drop everything to spend a few hours wandering around the park.

I was walking the path behind the park headquarters in the Litchfield Mansion, towards the Picnic House. Several squealing squirrels were lined up in trees along the path, making me think that a hawk was in the vicinity. I spent a few minutes scanning the nearly bare tree branches but didn't find one. Perhaps one had just been in the area. A mixed flock of birds that consisting of chickadees, Hermit Thrush, White-throated Sparrows and a single Carolina Wren began working the ivy blanketed underbrush to my right. The wren hopped up onto a black, wire fence and churred as if he were calling a missing mate or family member.

I slowly and quietly approached the grass on the south side of the Picnic House. The air flashed with the white outer tail feathers of several dozen skittish juncos. Merlins and Sharp-shinned Hawks were on the prowl and the sparrows were on edge. There was a large area of freshly seeded lawn surrounded by fencing in the middle of the meadow. It would be an easy meal, but the flock of about 100 juncos and several Chipping Sparrows worked the grass closest to the safety of the trees. I moved a little closer, but the birds vanished into a linden tree that was still holding onto all its leaves. They were so nervous that I decided to walk wide around where they were feeding and continue towards the Upper Pool.

Upper Pool Panorama (click to enlarge)

A flock of birds appeared, virtually out of nowhere, and landed a few yards ahead of me. They were American Pipits making a rare stopover on their way to somewhere less populated. I started to count them. When I reached 28, they spooked and took off towards the baseball fields. Pipits have a unique ability to flatten out and hide in the grass as they feed. There are always more present then you think, until they take flight. This flock was no different and there were likely closer to 50 birds in the flock, the most I've ever seen in Prospect Park.

The Eurasian Wigeon that had been associating with a small flock of American Wigeon wasn't on the water of the Upper Pool. Present on the pond was the ubiquitous Mallards, a pair of Ruddy Ducks and a single Ring-necked Duck. I only stayed for a few minutes then continued towards the Nethermead Meadow. The pipits had vanished and I thought that they may have continued to the next largest expanse of grass in the park.

At this time of year I like to walk along Center Drive and scan the Sweetgum trees for finches. Each of the tree's spiky balls hold hundreds of tiny seeds. A favorite for wandering flocks of goldfinches and Purple Finches. Occasionally, a Pine Siskin can be found within a flock of American Goldfinches. More rare are sightings of redpolls or crossbills feeding on the abundant seeds. There were no rarities on this day.

I walked towards a stand of conifers at the base of Lookout Hill, at the south end of the Nethermead Meadow. Owls are rare in Prospect Park, but it never stops me from looking. Several yards short of the trees I noticed something moving in the short grass. It was a flock of Chipping Sparrows who were, apparently, not the least bit frightened by my approach. I stood and watched them, their heads down, mousing through the grass like a rat in a maze. They'd find a select blade of grass, pull it to the ground and nibble on the seeds.

There were more sparrows at the western edge of the Peninsula meadow. An area that had been fenced off for new plantings, was dense with grasses, mugwort, Staghorn Sumac, Dwarf Sumac, burdock, Pokeweed and dozen of other seed-bearing plants. A flock of Song Sparrows alternated between feeding in the meadow's grass and disappearing into the jungle of plants behind the fence.

It looked like there was a population explosion of overwintering Northern Shovelers on Prospect Lake. There were so many, that I had to count them. Most were swirling in circles with their faces in the water. Some were sleeping and some kept flying back and forth across the 11 acre lake. I counted 225 on the main part of the lake, then walked out onto the Peninsula to check the narrowing body of water near Duck Island. There were approximately 125 on that side. It hardly left room for anyone else, well, sort of. Ruddy Ducks numbered in the dozens and there was a single Ring-necked Duck, as well as, the usual assortment of Mallards, black ducks, Mallard/Black Duck hybrids and weird looking waterfowl "mutts".

On my way back home I decided to walk north on the Long Meadow to look for any overwintering Merlins. When they are around, there are a few predictable places to find them perched; Center Drive near the Nethermead Arches and overlooking the bridle path, a tall, thin Ginkgo tree adjacent the Lower Pool and a Linden tree at the north end of the Long Meadow near the Theodore Roosevelt memorial plaque.

The Ginkgo tree was unoccupied so I continued north. As I passed a stand of mature Oak trees near the barbecue area, a Merlin zipped through the trees, heading towards 5th Street. Behind the small, agile falcon was a lumbering Red-tailed Hawk. She flew into the stretch of woods on the west side of the meadow and vanished. Squirrels that had been foraging in the compacted dirt basin at the center of the barbecue area bolted towards the safety of the trees. I expected the hawk to come swooping out of the trees, but she didn't, so I went looking for her. Two squirrels in a beech tree made the familiar, hide-from-the-hawk chuck squeal. I looked where they were looking and found a large, dark female hawk scanning the ground for prey. It was a difficult angle to take photographs, so I began walking backwards, trying to find the right spot. There was a pile of leaves at the edge of the wooded area and, as I backed into it, two woodcock exploded from the ground. Wings whistling, they zig-zagged across the meadow and dropped down into the woods on Sullivan Hill.

The hawk's eyes looked like yellow-orange, glass beads and reflected a tiny glint of white clouds. She made a couple of half-hearted passes at a squirrel hiding on the opposite side of the tree trunk. Intent on finding her last meal of the day, she gave up and headed off towards 3rd Street. I caught up with her just as she tore into a squirrel on a perch opposite the playground. I looked for an identifiable pattern in her feathers. She was an adult bird, dark, like Alice or the male of the pair that hangs around the north end of the park. When I got home I compared her image with other photos I've taken and, while I can't be 100 percent certain, she looks a lot like Alice. Hmmm, isn't that the lyrics from a song?

Pied-billed Grebe
American Wigeon
Northern Shoveler
Ring-necked Duck
Ruddy Duck
Red-tailed Hawk
American Coot
American Woodcock
Ring-billed Gull
Northern Flicker
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Carolina Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Hermit Thrush
American Pipit
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Chipping Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
American Goldfinch

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

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"

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