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Saturday, December 01, 2007

Prospect Park birds

On Friday morning I received a call from Scott Whittle, who was birding in Prospect Park. Scott is a beginner birder but has been finding some incredible birds. His good fortune likely has a lot to do with him having very sharp eyes, as he is a professional photographer. When I see his name on my phone's caller ID I think, "oh no, what did he find this time that I can't go chase." On that particular morning he spotted a vireo feeding in the underbrush at lamppost J249. It is very unusual to see any species of vireo around NYC at such a late date and this is the time of year when odd vagrants tend to appear. I'm not sure what conditions lead to western species of bird finding their way to the east coast, but a Bell's Vireo was just found in Rhode Island.

I dropped everything and ran into the park to meet Scott and help identify the species of vireo. Near the Terrace Bridge I ran into another birder, Rob Bates, and we walked the short distance down Wellhouse Drive to lamppost J249. Scott was standing under a pair of magnolia trees at the east edge of the dense underbrush where the bird was last seen. I avoided the suggestion of Bell's Vireo and discussed the relative field marks of a red-eyed, warbling and Philadelphia Vireo. Within only a few minutes of my arrival I spotted a very pale bird flying in from our right. Before I had my bins on it, Scott exclaimed, "That's the bird!" I focused on a very pale bird with bright yellow plumage on its breast sides. After about 10 seconds, it vanished into the vegetation. Despite a long time searching, we never relocated the bird. I posted what I had observed on the local birding group hoping that someone would go looking for it on Saturday. I received lots of responses suggesting that it was a Bell's Vireo, but I couldn't make that stretch given my brief look.

On my way out of the park I stopped on Breeze Hill to retrieve my Birdcam. There was a Red-tailed Hawk perched atop a Bald Cypress at the edge of the Lullwater across from the Terrace Bridge. I watched her for several minutes and noticed that she seemed a little uneasy. She kept craning her neck and looking very intently at something off in the distance. Shane, who had come by to help with our earlier search, joked that she was probably staring down a goshawk perched at the other end of the Nethermead Meadow (about 1/4 mile away). I'm not sure who would win in a showdown between a Northern Goshawk and a Red-tailed Hawk. Judging by the nervous behavior of the red-tail on the cypress, she thinks it would be the goshawk. As I crossed the Long Meadow near the Picnic House I spotted a juvenile goshawk flying out of the woods on Payne Hill. She flew south at treetop level and dropped into the woods near the Upper Pool.

On Saturday I received a few calls that the unidentified vireo seen the day before hadn't been found. I decided to go over to Lookout Hill and check the brushy, edge habitats on the opposite side of the hill from lamppost J249.

It was colder than I expected, although it was probably just "normal" for December 1. I'd been spoiled by very warm weather and didn't have a chance to ease into winter. Some trees still seem reluctant to relinquish leaves. Sweetgum balls have opened, there tiny seeds creating brief snow showers with each gust of wind. Goldfinches were present in the sweetgums all along Center Drive and at the Butterfly Meadow on top of Lookout Hill. Flocks of White-crowned Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos scoured the ground beneath the trees picking up seeds missed by the finches.

I met Scott at the footpath above lamppost J249. He and Bob O'Neill were the only two people still looking for the vireo. While Scott and I were scanning down into the underbrush, Bob was on the road below, search upward. Suddenly, Bob waved to us. I yelled, "Did you find the bird?" Neither Scott nor I were certain what he said, but we ran down the stairway leading towards Wellhouse Drive, then cut across the hillside down to the edge of the lake. Bob hadn't found the mystery vireo, but instead said that a hawk had just grabbed a pigeon behind him. I figured that it was just a Red-tailed Hawk, but standing on the ground at the edge of the reeds was a juvenile Northern Goshawk! The raptor had her wings spread in a mantling posture to hide her catch. I quickly forgot about the vireo. I think we all did.

Goshawks are rare but regular winter visitors seen in the forested sections of city parks when they are migrating south. Usually one only gets a brief glimpse of one as it flashes passed. While the hawk several yards away from us seemed unfazed by our presence, we continued watching from a safe distance. She slowly dragged her meal into the phragmites, where she could eat undisturbed. Like a tiger's stripes in long grass, the bold streaking on the front of the goshawk help it virtually disappeared into the vertical light and dark patterns of the reeds.

The hawk meticulously plucked the pigeon then slowly ate every part of the bird. When I first arrived at the scene I took a photograph. The time on the image was 12:54pm. I stayed until she finished, hoping to snap some photos of her as she emerged from the reeds and took flight. Well, all it took was a second of inattention and I missed the opportunity. At 3:19pm, she flew across the road in front of four unsuspecting park patrons and perched in a Ginkgo tree above the Wellhouse. She wiped her bill back and forth across a branch. Two women, who had witnessed the flight, were really intrigued so I gave them my binoculars to look at the hawk. At one point the goshawk wagged her tail from side to side. One of the women asked why it did that. My friend Carrie is a falconer and she once told me that hawks do that as a sign of contentment. It sounds like a reasonable explanation. I know I'd be pretty content after a 2 hour meal.

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"

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