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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Blooms and birds

I walked up to my roof this afternoon to try to catch up on some writing. The weather was overcast, breezy and cool, but I thought that by being outdoors there would be less to distract me (like the telephone or Internet).

I found a place to work that was out of the wind, but before I had a chance to sit down, spotted a Red-tailed Hawk soaring above Methodist Hospital. Three crows were chasing him. He flew in gradually widening circles that eventually carried him over my building and Saint Savior's church. He must have spotted a potential meal to the East, as he suddenly pulled in his wings and plummeted towards Prospect Park. I lost sight of him behind an apartment building on 6th Street, so returned to my folding chair. The sound of squawking crows pulled me away from my task and back to the edge of the roof. The hawk had returned to the air and was heading towards the center of the park. So much for finding less distractions on the roof.

Last Saturday was my first early morning, spring visit into Prospect Park since last year. The movement of migrating songbirds can sometimes be predicted, with great accuracy, by monitoring weather patterns. Biologists who study bird migration use Doppler radar to see flocks of birds moving north in the spring. My decision to go into Prospect Park was much less scientific and just based on the date. It seemed like it would be a good time to observe the accelerating changes in sights and sounds around Brooklyn.

I pedaled down West Drive to the Quaker Cemetery then carried my bike up the North stairway on Lookout Hill to the Butterfly Meadow. A Pine Warbler trilling from a mature oak at the North end seemed like an auspicious start. It was overcast and dim, but the lone bird's olive nape and saffron face beamed from his perch in the still bare tree. I heard the lively "tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle" song of a Carolina Wren rising up the eastern slope of Lookout Hill. The cheerful sound of the tiny rust and buff bird is generously shared all year.

After circling the meadow and walking the short path to the upper meadow, I carried my bicycle down the South staircase. My destination was "lamppost J249," which is near the start of Wellhouse Drive.

"J249" refers to the embossed number on a metal tag affixed to a street lamp. The lamppost is next to a natural bowl at the southern base of Lookout Hill. It may not be very creative name, but local birders know where to look if you tell them a rare bird is at J249. The low vegetation and surrounding woods at that spot create a magnet for spring migrants. The woodlands on the hillside from that point, parallel to Wellhouse Drive, and up to the Maryland Monument can be a virtual avian rush hour on a fallout morning in May. Today the sounds along that route were primary from the resident bird species, but a single Winter Wren singing from a low perch was an unexpected addition to the morning's music.

I ran into Glen Davis and Scott Whittle near the lamppost and we spent a few hours birding together in the park.

A small flock of swallows were gliding back and forth above the lake. They were primarily Tree Swallows, but there was also one Barn Swallow and a pair of Northern Rough-winged Swallows sharing the lake.

The remaining male Ruddy Ducks that overwintered on Prospect Lake have nearly completed the transition to their breeding palette; rich, rusty red body feathers and azure blue bill. The small flock seems to spend most of its time sleeping, presumably saving energy for their imminent departure. Near Duck Island, a male and female Blue-winged Teal made a rare stop off in the park. They were feeding along the edges of a clump of phragmites. Nearby, a Black-crowned Night-Heron was napping on a log at the island's shore. Another migrating wading bird that we saw along the park's waterways was Great Egret.

Phoebes were virtually everywhere in Prospect Park. Flycatching from any available perch, near the ground in open fields or high in the woodland canopy, the only constant was the bobbing of their tail.

There were six Pine Warblers in the Peninsula woods approximately six more were dispersed throughout the park. We also tallied one Palm Warbler in the Ravine and several Yellow-rumped Warblers in various locations. It's exciting to observe the gradual seasonal change in songbird diversity and abundance, but in about two weeks you might have occasion to see a birder or two lowering their binoculars in disappointment and muttering, "Just another yellow-rump."

Near Nelly's Lawn, at the North end of the park, a Turkey Vulture soared overhead nearly at tree top level. Rocking from side to side, the huge, black prehistoric-looking bird rode the thermals across the park's central ridge and drifted east, towards the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. After a short break for lunch at home, I also drifted over to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Star magnolias have created a snowy explosion of white at the Magnolia Plaza. Most of the other species of magnolia trees are several days from full bloom. Slits in their swelling shoots reveal the edges of raspberry, pink and white pedals preparing to emerge. Apricots and willows are also flowering. Concealed by a wall of rhododendron and overlooked by most visitors, the garden's lone Black Willow was still blooming. Near the willow I spotted a small cherry tree that looked like the "mystery" tree in Prospect Park near Grand Army Plaza. It was labeled "Prunus 'Okame' (P. Incisa x P. Campanulata)." The "Hanami" festival has already started at the garden, but there is still a week to ten days before the climax of color from the Kanzan Cherry trees along the Cherry Esplanade.

Northern Mockingbirds have returned to the garden with the expected, verbose fanfare. I'm still baffled why some individuals add hawk or falcon calls to their vocabulary. It may lure a female mockingbird, but it could also end that particular mockingbird's career. Also, their preferred territories at the garden seems to be among the forsythia shubs that dot the lawns at the South end of the garden - which is just below an antenna tower regularly used as a perch by our local raptors. I guess most Northern Mockingbirds choose not to imitate hawks, because their populations seems to be doing just fine.

Finally, if you haven't already started, it's time to listen to your bird song recordings. Knowledge and recognition of bird songs creates another dimension to the nature experience that make it even more enjoyable. With the right tools, it's easier to learn than you might expect. The best learning tool is the Peterson's "Birding By Ear" and "More Birding By Ear" series. From the Northeast/Central disk sets I recommend that folks birding around NYC create a compilation of the following tracks from the BBE and MBBE series:

1 - Sing-songers
2 - Warbling Songsters
3 - Wood Warblers & a Warbling Wren
4 - Warblers: Buzzy
5 - Warblers: Simple
6 - Warblers: Two-Parted
7 - Warblers: Complex
8 - Empidonax Flycatchers

04/05, Prospect Park & Brooklyn Botanic Garden
Pied-billed Grebe
Great Egret
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Turkey Vulture
Wood Duck
Blue-winged Teal
Northern Shoveler
Ring-necked Duck
Ruddy Duck
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
American Coot
Ring-billed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Phoebe
American Crow
Tree Swallow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Barn Swallow
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Carolina Wren
Winter Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Hermit Thrush
Northern Mockingbird
Cedar Waxwing
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Pine Warbler
Palm Warbler
Eastern Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
American Goldfinch

Other common 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, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, American Robin, European Starling, Song Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Red-winged Blackbird, House Sparrow

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"

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