On Sunday, Shane Blodgett, Steve Nanz and I participated in the Bronx/Westchester CBC. Just as in the past 5 years, our territory was the New York Botanical Garden. I've always enjoyed covering the NYBG's 250 acres, especially because we get to walk around for 3 hours before it is opened to the public. Next to my very first Christmas Count in 1995, it was nearly the worst weather that I've experienced. It rained, pretty much, for the entire time we were outdoors. At least this year, as opposed to 1995, the temperature was above freezing. I don't, for the most part, mind being out in the rain, but when raindrops collect on my binocular's lenses it makes viewing a challenge. Whenever any of us noticed something of interest, we'd quickly wipe off our lenses then try to make the identification before a puddle formed around our bin's objective lens. At one point Shane and I started fantasizing about various wet weather inventions for birdwatchers. How about little, tiny windshield wipers for binoculars?
It was a good exercise for identification by "Jizz". We managed to tally a respectable day list. It was the Christmas Bird Count, but might have been called "The Christmas Raptor Count". We counted 5 Red-tailed Hawk, that were in all likelihood the Fordham University Rose Hill family (Hawkeye, Rose and kids), two Sharp-shinned Hawks, two Cooper's Hawks, a Long-eared Owl and a Great Horned Owl. In addition, when we were stopped at a traffic light at the corner of Jerome Avenue and East 213th St, I noticed a kestrel balanced on the tip of a very tall, PVC antenna. At first, I thought that it was just a component of the antenna. Then I noticed that it was pumping its tail as it tried to remain balanced on the swaying, white pole.
Finding the Long-eared Owl was a nice surprise as we've never encountered one in the botanical garden. Steve was walking several yards ahead of Shane and myself. I noticed some movement in a tangle of shrubs to his right. They were Blue Jays. Steve took a quick look and continued walking. When I approached the noisy birds, I stopped to looked for the object of their ire. I didn't notice anything right away, so I did my best impression of a screech owl (not very good) to try and call out any unseen birds in the tangle. Suddenly, from the dark grays and browns of the shrubs, a large head with gold eyes swiveled around and glared at me. It flew off towards the south. I was stunned that the owl was perched only two feet off the ground and about 12 feet away, yet its camouflaged plumage made it invisible until it moved. Steve came running back to try and photograph the bird. It disappeared from sight, but Steve walked quietly in the direction that it flew. Moments later we began hearing a loud "cak, cak, cak, cak, cak, cak". None of us had any idea what bird was making the noise. I followed the sound and tracked it to a juvenile Cooper's Hawk in a cluster of pines. I assumed that the Long-eared Owl was also in the pines and the hawk was trying to scare it off. Shane and I looked in the direction that the hawk was facing and found the owl trying to blend into the dense branches of the conifers. He wasn't successful and the hawk chased him off towards the native forest.
Finding the Great Horned Owl was a fluke of my laziness. Steve, Shane and I were walking in a section of woodlands when we encountered a downed tree across our path. Steve was ahead of me and I watched him struggle to duck under the large tree trunk. I couldn't be bothered, so instead began to look for a path around the obstacle. I chose the path of least resistance, which still had some patches of snow and was very muddy. I had my head down, watching my footing, when I noticed a large area of white splatters then looked directly above. Bent over and staring down at me was a Great Horned Owl. I chuckled and muttered to the owl, "So that's where you've been hiding", then motioned for Steve and Shane. I had actually carefully scanned that tree earlier in the morning and didn't see him.
When we were walking back to the garden's cafe for lunch, I spotted an adult Sharp-shinned Hawk perched in a tree at the top of a rise in the Rock Garden. The uniformly, dim, gray sky seemed like it was fractured into pointed stained glass plates by the tree's branches. The rounded hawk looked like an intentional spotlight in the artist's design.
Shane found the highlight of the day. The three of us had split up to walk the 50-acre native forest section of the garden. I heard Shane shout something unrecognizable and ran towards his voice. He was looking straight up into a River Birch and, without putting down his bins said, "Redpolls". During irruptive years I've seen as many as three at a time, but he had found a flock of 13 Common Redpolls feeding on the tiny cones in a cluster of River Birches. I watched them for a few seconds that ran off to find Steve, who had his camera. Normally, it wouldn't be very difficult to track someone down in the forest, but today there was a layer of fog drifting through the woodlands. We were probably slogging through the mud in opposite directions, but eventually figured it out and the three of us studied the rare NYC flock for about 30 minutes. Steve was struggling to photograph the birds as the lighting was terrible and the birds were high in the trees. At one point I noticed a flock of chickadees coming through the woods and turned to watch them. I started "spishing" to attract the chickadees when Steve shouted from behind me, "Don't stop!" Apparently, redpolls were also attracted to the noise and began to descend towards Steve. I don't think anybody truly knows why making the type of sound usually reserved for calling house cats to dinner, attracts birds. Some people are always able to attract birds in this manner. It doesn't usually work for me, but fortunately it did this time because it allowed Steve to take a very nice portrait of a redpoll.
Here's a link to Mike Bochnik's summary of the count.
Steve and Shane in the native forest of NYBG
by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"