My recent computer problem hasn't been the only issue slowing down my writing, but the other reason is actually a good thing.
Every year, around May 15th, I've participated in the New York City Birdathon. The primary purpose of Birdathons is to raise money for and awareness of the plight of bird species, both locally and globally. Celebrations are organized by different conservation groups and birders of all skill levels spend a day trying to observe as many species as possible. Some people raise money, some just do it for fun. Over the last several years I've been part of a team called the "Wandering Talliers" and, while we've raised a bit of money for the cause, it occurred to me that we've also burned a lot of gas. I haven't done the math, but we probably didn't contribute enough money to offset our carbon contribution, so this year I've decided to do the Birdathon on bicycle.
I outlined a reasonably easy route for the big day but realized that I needed to do more cycling ... a lot more cycling. Much of my free time has been spent getting my legs in shape as my final trip will be around 40 miles, plus any walking at my various destinations. So, enough with the excuses, this is a rundown of belated posts for the last week of April.
Saturday, April 19th, Ridgewood Reservoir
Eric Slayton of the Wildlife Conservation Society was a guest trip leader at the Ridgewood Reservoir. We started the morning relatively late, by spring birding standards (9AM), but made some nice observations.
While waiting in the parking lot for people to arrive, I heard the twitter overhead of my first Chimney Swift of the season. Yellow-rumped Warblers were still the dominant Wood-Warbler and dozens were seen or heard foraging for insects. There were also a decent number of Palm Warblers around and Steve spotted a Yellow Warbler feeding, uncharacteristically, on the ground. Eastern Towhees were heard singing their singsong, “Drink your tea” from various locations down below the running path within the basins. A pair of Savannah Sparrows were spotted perched within a patch knotweed on the south side of basin #3.
Thick, caterpillar-like catkins released from large Eastern Cottonwoods at the north and east sides of the reservoirs are scattered along the pathways. The few crabapples trees spread around the 50 acre site have begun to blossom. The deep, pink buds will transform into bright, white flower clusters.
At the end of the trip, we were saying our goodbyes in the Highland Park parking lot on Vermont Place. There’s a narrow stretch of grass between the asphalt and the guardrail along the edge of the road. Several House Sparrows and starlings were feeding in the grass. Suddenly, a kestrel appeared, flying low across the lot, landed on one of the sparrows, then flew across the road with it held tightly in its talons. It perched on the top of the chainlink fence that surrounds basin #3. The sparrow was still struggling and a pair of robins flew into an adjacent tree to harass the small falcon. After a moment or two, he flew down into the basin and out of sight.
Ridgewood Reservoir, 4/19/2008
Other common birds seen (or heard):
Mallard, Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Downy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, Black-capped Chickadee, American Robin, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, Red-winged Blackbird, American Goldﬁnch, House Sparrow
Sunday, April 20th, dawn at Ridgewood Reservoir
I left the apartment at 5AM to get to the Ridgewood Reservoir by sunrise. Unfortunately, New York City Transit had other plans for me and delays on the subway had me arriving 30 minutes after the sun came up. I was leading a trip for the Brooklyn Bird Club and planned to scout for any unusual birds before anyone arrived. Oh well.
The cold, gray, foggy morning wasn’t idea for birding. Overnight, east winds blowing across the region stymied any expectations for a fallout of Spring migrants. There were some nice additions to the slow influx of warblers. We spotted some more Yellow Warblers, Black-and-white Warbler numbers had increased and a Prairie Warbler caught our attention with his trilled, rising, chromatic scale. One of my favorite little, hyperactive birds, the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, also made appearances in a few places around the reservoir. At only 6 grams, these tiny bird’s thin, barely audible, “speee, speee, speee” song could easily be mistaken for the sound of one of their insect meals.
Swallows have begun moving through or returning to the city parks and several were seen flying over the central basin’s lake. Among the small mixed flock was at least on Northern Rough-winged Swallow. One of the two brown swallow species seen during the migration, the rough-winged is distinguished by his “dirty” throat. The other species, the Bank Swallow, has a clean, white throat with a dark band across the chest. This was the first rough-winged recorded at the reservoir.
When I returned home I had an email from David La Puma. He had also been at the reservoir and we spoke briefly before he went off in another direction.
It was great to run into you and your group today. I had a pretty decent day with the highlight being a female Summer Tanager foraging along the overgrown trail between Res 1 and 2. [...] Otherwise many Palms, Yellow-rumps, a couple of Yellows, B-G Gnatcatchers, and lots of R-C Kinglets. N. Rough-winged, Tree, and Barn Swallow and about a dozen Chimney Swifts over Res 2. Also an American Coot I think may have been new for my list (I don't recall it for last Fall, but I have to check my notes).”
Summer Tanager! Unlike the Scarlet Tanager, the Summer Tanager’s breeding range is south of New York City, so they are rarely seen during migration. Occasionally, individuals are thought to overshoot their destinations and end up in some of our city parks. They don’t usually stick around very long and this one wasn’t seen again.
Ridgewood Reservoir, 4/20/2008
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Other common birds seen (or heard):
Canada Goose, Mallard, Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Downy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, Black-capped Chickadee, American Robin, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, Red-winged Blackbird, American Goldﬁnch, House Sparrow
Monday, April 21st, dawn at Coney Island
In 2006 Shane, Sean and I took on the entire state of New York as our birding backyard. It was, personally, an incredible learning experience, but exhausting and expensive. I don’t think I’ll be doing it again any time soon. This year, Shane has decided to concentrate his birding efforts in Brooklyn. He is trying to see how many species he can tally within the city’s most populous borough. He won’t reach his unofficial state record of 342 species but, knowing Shane, it will be an impressive number.
Shane picked me up in front of my place about 30 minutes prior to sunrise. We were headed out to Coney Island and wanted to be on the fishing pier by sun up. Beginning at the boardwalk adjacent to Keyspan Park, the pier stretches nearly 400 yards south into Coney Island Channel. The peninsula of Sandy Hook is on the western horizon and Breezy Point is to the east. Beyond Ambrose Channel, and on the distant horizon, is the Atlantic Ocean. Shane was hoping to find at least one Black Scoter off of Coney Island to complete the scoter trio. He had already seen white-winged and surf scoters within the confines of Brooklyn’s borders.
It was much colder than I had expected. The wind was blowing out of the northeast and it was downright blustery. As I was walking up towards the end of the pier I heard the high squealing calls of a raptor. I looked up and spotted a pair of Peregrine Falcons on the steel tower of the old parachute ride. They were copulating. The male then flew off in the direction of the Verrazano Bridge.
Doug was home from school for the holiday and joined us a short time after we began scanning the water. There were small to medium-sized flocks of cormorants and Common Loons migrating north throughout the morning. We also spotted three migrating Merlins flying across the open water. They had no doubt been following the coast, reached the end of the peninsula at Sandy Hook, then crossed the bay into Brooklyn. On the bay side of Breezy Point, several hundred Northern Gannets were diving for fish. It’s not unusual to observe flocks of gannets on the ocean, but it was the first time I’d seen a large gathering on the north side of the Rockaway Peninsula.
Shortly after Doug arrived, he spotted a lone, dark sea duck flying from west to east. The bird passed directly in front of the pier, then dropped into the water where we had perfect views of Shane’s third scoter. That made him very happy. It’s not so much that Black Scoters are difficult to observe along New York City’s coast, they are just rarely seen in Brooklyn’s waters. We packed up our scopes, then made a brief stop in Prospect Park before going our separate ways.
Warbler diversity had noticeably increased in the park’s woodlands, with both Northern and Louisiana Waterthrushes present. On Prospect Lake, a mixed flock of Barn and Tree Swallows skipped back and forth across the south end of the water. The bright headlamp on one bird caught our attention. It was a Cliff Swallow. A rare, but regular visitor, they nest north of the city, as close as Harriman State Park.
Tuesday, April 22nd, late day in Prospect Park
I made a late day run into Prospect Park to check on Alice and Ralph’s nest. It was an hour long bore-fest as I sat and watched the back end of Alice sitting in the nest. She eventually stood up to stretch and look around. Perhaps she was getting hungry and was scanning for an inattentive rodent. I shot a short piece of video. It's a little boring, but it gives you an idea of what she looks like:
As I was leaving the park, Scott called me on my cellphone. He and Peter were near the south end of Prospect Lake where they had briefly spotted a Yellow-throated Warbler. Edith Gorum and Isabelle Conte had observed the bird early in the morning, but it hadn’t been seen since that time. The Yellow-throated Warbler is another species that breeds south of New York City, but is occasionally seen during spring migration. In the short time since I’ve begun birding, there seems to have been an increase in sightings of this boldly patterned songbird.
By the time I made it to the south end of the park, the light was beginning to fade. Peter and Scott had been scouring the edge of the lake but were unsuccessful in relocating the bird. I looked across the roadway at a stand of oak trees near the Vanderbilt playground. Their branches were laden with clusters of dangling flowers and the treetops were illuminated by late day sun. I told the guys that I wanted to check the other side of the road and walked away.
There were several Yellow-rumped Warblers and a single Pine Warbler probing the flowers for insects, but no yellow-throated. I walked a few yards north, towards the playground and saw Eddie Davis entering the park. Peter had texted him about the bird and he came right over. He had never seen one so I began describing the bird’s markings when I noticed some movement in a low oak branch behind Eddie. I continued, “It looks just like that bird” and I pointed to the Yellow-throated Warbler in the tree several yards away. It may seem obvious, but the late, great Marty Sohmer told me that if a group of people are searching, unsuccessfully, for a bird in one place, go somewhere else and look. While Eddie was watching the warbler, I called Scott. We were quickly joined by him, Peter, Ed Crowne and Shane (who Scott had called on his cellphone). This is an animal that needs to be seen to appreciate its unique beauty. Like neon gas within the glass tubing of an electric sign, his golden-yellow throat feathers seem to be internally illuminated.
Thursday, April 24th, dawn in Prospect Park
I rode my bicycle into Prospect Park at around 5:20AM. It was still dark as I coasted to a stop at the base of Lookout Hill. American Robins were singing for, seemingly, everywhere. If there were other birds singing, I probably would not have heard them over the din of "cherrio, cherrily, cherrio, cherrily". By 5:45 the robins had begun to wane and some of the local birds, cardinals, titmice and mourning doves, were starting to sing. At 5:55, I heard my first warbler. It was a Yellow-rumped Warbler. I slowly made my way along the path on the south side of Lookout Hill, stopped frequently just to listen. The weak warbling trill of the Palm Warbler could be heard leaking through the wall of Yellow-rump songs.
The number of singing birds had increased only very slightly. I still have about a week to go until the full scale audio assault of migrating songbirds. Until then, I’m content to enjoy each day’s new sounds and the accelerating greening of the city. Cherries and dogwoods are nearing peak bloom and the early flowering trees, such as the elms, have begun to drop their fruits.
After about an hour in Prospect Park, I rode home and was picked up by my friend, Orrin. We drove into Queens to do a little birding and to look for a pair of Great Horned Owls. The winds had been out of the south all night, so I expected to find an increase in songbird migrants. Songbirds diversity and abundance hadn’t changed much, but we did manage to locate the owls and their offspring. I won’t reveal their location, so please don’t ask and don’t take it personally if I ignore any requests for directions.
We added Black-throated Green Warbler and Rose-breasted Grosbeak to our growing list of spring migrants.
Prospect Park, Alley Pond Park, other 4/24/2008
Great Horned Owl
Black-throated Green Warbler
Other common species seen (or heard):
Canada Goose, Mallard, Downy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Crow, American Robin, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, Song Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, House Sparrow
Saturday, April 26th, Green-Wood Cemetery
Everything is turning pale green and pink. Elms are dropping their coin-shaped, green fruits, willows are releasing their long, fuzzy yellow catkins and the wind is liberating pink petals from cherry trees.
Our neighbor let us borrow her car to run some errands. She said we could take our time because she didn’t need to use it for the rest of the day. We decided to drive over to the cemetery, so I brought along my scope and bins. My plan was to drop by Big Mama and Junior’s nest to see how the incubating is coming along, then look around for images of pink and green.
I focused my scope on the Red-tailed Hawk nest at 2:48PM. Big Mama was sitting on the nest, facing north. At 2:56 she began to stir, then stood and stepped up onto the western-most edge of the nest. She bend way down into the bottom of the nest and appeared to be pulling on something. Incubating Red-tailed Hawks don’t always finish a meal and sometimes leave partially eaten prey in the nest. She looked as if she was eating, but at 2:58 she appeared to be taking very tiny bits of food and leaning down into the nest, as if she were feeding a chick. Woo hoo! Big Mama and Junior have a hatchling. By 3:02PM she was finished and sat back down on the nest. My photographs don’t show any white, fuzzy heads yet, but I’m fairly confident that she was feeding at least one offspring.
I was so excited that I called Marge. She told me that she would begin keeping an eye on the nest. That was enough excitement for me, so I packed up my tripod and walked down the hill to the car. We drove around looking for fallen cherry petals until we came to the Dell Water, a tiny, rectangular pond shaded by willow trees. The breeze had blown an impressionistic palette of elm keys, willow catkins and cherry petals on to the surface of the water. At this time of year I always look at the random designs formed by flowers and seeds at the edges of curbs and sidewalks. This was the first time that I’ve seen those patterns in water.
When we were exiting the cemetery, I had to stop and watch the resident Monk Parakeets for a few minutes. There was a small group of them feeding on the grass at the west side of the main gate. If it weren’t for their constant vocalizing, I wouldn’t have noticed another flock feeding above them in a horsechestnut tree. The lime green leaves of the tree were nearly a perfect match for the bright green wings and upper feather of the parakeets. They nibbled on the tree’s buds and guarded small sections of the tree regarded as their own. Would that be considered “nipping it at the bud”?
Sunday, April 27th, dawn in Prospect Park
The morning was cold, gray and drizzly, but sometimes bad weather brings good birds. Just as I experience during my last pre-dawn visit, the chorus of early day song was dominated by American Robins. On the Peninsula, I parked myself beneath a singing House Wren and tipped my head so I could hear the birds in the treetops a little better. The lighting was terrible, but I was mostly interested in just listening.
Yellow-rumped Warblers were still the dominant Wood-Warbler and their varying warbles and trills rolled through the woods like a sine wave. It seemed like there was a secret signal that the members of the flock would pass along. The volume would slowly rise up from one end of the Peninsula woods, just as it was gradually dying down at the opposite end. It was hypnotizing.
At 6:40AM I left the Peninsula and began winding my way along the Lullwater, through the Midwood and up to the Vale of Cashmere. I ran into a woman name Hillary near the Donegon Oak monument at the north end of the zoo. The nearby Vale of Cashmere is a natural amphitheater that is isolated from much of the surrounding park. Hillary is a very petite woman and doesn’t feel comfortable being there alone early in the morning so we went together.
We had been standing at the edge of the ornamental pool for several minutes when I spotted movement within a Weeping Higgin Cherry tree. The fountain-like shape of the tree forms a “Y” and near the 11 o’clock point was a Hooded Warbler. I had the impression that the bird had just awaken as it sat preening its yellow and olive feathers among the pink flowers. After he was finish preening he began flying about, foraging among the flowers and stopping periodically to serenade us with his loud, rich "ta-wit ta-wit ta-wit tee-yo."