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Friday, December 07, 2007

Winter finches and other surprises

Peter called me early yesterday morning. He was in Prospect Park with Scott Whittle where they were looking at a Yellow-breasted Chat. I hadn't seen a chat this year and was resigned to the fact that I wouldn't, although last year I managed to see one on February 11th. Seeing a warbler in winter is always a nice treat. When the flowers are gone and the trees have all dropped their leaves, they are like a glowing ember left over from spring. Unfortunately, I couldn't drop everything and run into the park.

By 2:30pm I had some time so I headed up to the park. I realized as I was crossing the deserted Long Meadow that it was colder than I expected. The clear sky and brilliant sun had lulled me into thinking that it was still warm outdoors. The low sun created a golden glow on a pool of fallen ginkgo leaves near the edge of the lower pool.

When I made the right turn at the rock bridge in the Ravine I noticed one of our Red-tailed Hawks perched on a dead limb above the pathway. As I got closer I realized that it was actually the juvenile Northern Goshawk. She is a very large, imposing bird and has likely been reigning terror on all the forest birds since she's arrived in Brooklyn. Peter was walking the path towards me and I pointed up at the hawk. We thought that it might be her evening roost. She looked like she was settling down for the night so we left her in peace to try and relocate the chat.

The bright yellow bird was found by Alex Wilson while it was foraging near the Music Pagoda. The warbler gradually made his way along the edge of the stream that feeds into the Lily Pond, then across a small patch of grass and into the dense euonimous shrubs at the East Wood Arch. I spent about 30 minutes looking for the bird unsuccessfully then started back home.

I decided to walk up the ridge on the south side of the Ravine, hoping that the goshawk was still perched above the walkway on the opposite side. From that vantage point I would be nearly at eye level with her. She hadn't left, so I set up my tripod and shot about two dozen photos. I don't think she was finished hunting for the day as her head kept darting from side to side scanning the ground for prey. By about 3:30pm I packed up my gear and continued towards the Boulder Bridge and back through the Ravine. The sidewalk and forest in the Ravine was loaded with White-throated Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos. They were feeding on sweetgum seeds scattered along the ground. A flock of about 20 birds were on the path in front of me and I was reluctant to continue walking as I'd interrupt their dinner. My hands were getting cold so I pushed ahead and the birds flew into the woods on either side of the path.

As I approached the stairway that descends into the Ravine's lower path, towards the Long Meadow, the mewing from a flock of goldfinches caught my attention. A flock of about 24 birds were feeding in a sweetgum tree. I began scanning the flock, looking for something different, and quickly spotted a smaller bird with a tiny bill and a black "soul patch" under its chin. Common Redpolls had recently been reported around the city, and I was staring up at two of them within the flock of goldfinches. I called Peter, then he called Scott, then Scott called me. I gave him directions to my location and he said that he'd be right over with his camera. I'm guessing that it was about 3 minutes after I had hung up the phone that the goshawk decided that it wasn't bedtime, but dinner time. She seemed to come out of nowhere and headed directly towards the flock of finches. They scattered and she perched near the top of an oak tree that towers over all the other trees in the Ravine. A few moment later she took off, flying through the trees towards the Midwood. When Scott arrived I gave him the bad news. We stayed for a little while hoping that the finches would return, but they didn't and the setting sun was quickly vanishing behind the Picnic House.

Both the Common Redpoll and the Northern Goshawk are denizens of New York State's northern forests. Goshawks probably eat redpolls way up north. It seems a little sad and ironic that a redpoll, who only ventures as far south as Brooklyn when food is scarce, survived the trip, found a good supply of seeds and then is eaten by a predator, who, under normal circumstances, he would never encounter in NYC. I guess it is tough to make it in New York.

Prospect Park, 12/7/2007
Northern Goshawk (Ravine.)
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Blue Jay
Black-capped Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Winter Wren (Lily Pond.)
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
European Starling
Northern Cardinal
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Redpoll (2, sweetgum in Ravine, with goldfinches.)
American Goldfinch

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"

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