Wednesday, May 07, 2008

May's first Weekend

The month of April progressed like a distant train. Beginning as a spot on the horizon, each weekend the barely perceptible rumble of the approaching avian shipment became slightly louder. The plume from the smokestack drifted higher above the horizon as flowers, leaves and insects gathered in the station’s waiting rooms.

Early April brought the forsythias and star magnolias. They were quickly followed by other magnolias, early cherry blossoms and, higher in the canopy, elm flowers. By last weekend, the first weekend of May, cherry trees had reached peak bloom, Norway Maples had peppered the ground with colorful seeds, elms were laden with coin-shaped, pale green keys and oak trees had sprung to life. The upper branches of every mature oak tree within Prospect Park were festooned with long, dangling mustard-brown catkins. Just as they have for thousands of years, Wood warblers and other northbound songbirds, timed their arrival to coincide with this sudden explosion of botanics. In the litter of the forest floor, within the saplings and shrubs of the mid-story and in the flowering treetops, an incomprehensible abundance of insects and their larvae have emerged. Migrating songbirds in our city parks sing for mates and feed on insects with a level of urgency and purpose that won’t be seen again until next spring.

Saturday, May 3rd, Prospect Park

I checked the weather reports on Friday evening in anticipation of a large flight of birds. It seemed like there would be a head wind for any flocks moving north, so I wasn’t optimistic that there would be a big change in songbird abundance. No matter, I still made plans to meet Scott Whittle in the north end of Prospect Park at first light.

My interpretation of the weather patterns was way off the mark and there had been an incredible flight of birds overnight. I knew that I was wrong the moment that I pedaled my bicycle into the park at 5th Street. There were two Yellow Warblers singing in the trees near the Litchfield Villa. A low, constant twitter of songs filled the trees as I coasted passed the 3rd Street playground. When I crossed the Long Meadow, I heard an Indigo Bunting singing from a high perch at Sullivan Hill. The crescendo of songs and escalation of colorful bird sightings continued throughout the morning. It was overcast, damp and cool, but a wave of birds had arrived and it was an incredible day of birding in Prospect Park. Scott and I also made a run across Flatbush Avenue to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, hoping to relocate a Kentucky Warbler that was observed late Friday. Unfortunately, the Native Flora Garden (where it was found) was closed because of the large crowds expected for the cherry blossom festival.

The 8 hours that I spent in the park was filled with bird song and feathered feeding frenzies. We tallied 20 species of warblers and an abundance of Baltimore Orioles that I’d never before experienced in this Brooklyn park. I estimated that there were from 40 to 50 over the course of several hours. Hooded Warblers (a coveted sighting) were seen near the east side of the Rose Garden on the berm adjacent to Flatbush Avenue, next to the pool at the Vale of Cashmere, along the shore of the Ambergill in the Ravine and foraging in the leaf litter at the edge of the path near the Donegan Oak monument. It was the first time since I’ve begun birding that I observed more than one at a time in any city park.

Peter was leading a trip in the park for the Brooklyn Bird Club. Scott kept in touch via text messaging, sharing any interesting observations. A message came in that the BBC group spotted a Blue Grosbeak near the skating rink. At the time, Scott and I were peering, longingly through the fence of the closed Native Flora section of the botanic garden, so we headed back across the road to Prospect Park.

The rectangular skating rink complex has a large parking lot parallel to the side nearest the entrance, narrow strips of grassy habitat on two sides and patches of grass beneath a stand of towering Sycamore trees on the east side. The grosbeak was seen on the east side. I’ve always found the patches of grass around the rink to be good for birds during the spring, but are frequently overlooked by birders. When we arrived, there were a few hundred Chipping Sparrows hunkered down in the grass and nibbling on dried dandelion heads. Among the diminutive sparrows were four chunky White-crowned Sparrows and a Field Sparrow, but no grosbeak. We walked around to the north side of the rink and scanned through the fence at a small flock of birds feeding on grass that had sprung up through cracks in the pavement. I noticed a Mourning Dove perched on top of the rink’s surrounding chainlink fence, but didn’t pay it any attention. We walked the stretch of grass toward the Lullwater, didn’t find anything unusual and headed back towards the Sycamores. It was at that point that I realized the Mourning Dove wasn’t alone. Perched beside the adult dove was a fledgling. The young bird was so small that, from where I had been standing earlier, it was hidden from view by the adult’s body. The bird seemed too young to be able to fly (at least not very well) and was being closely guarded by it parent.

We caught up with Peter and the remaining participants of his group in the Lullwater. They were looking up at a Cape May Warbler who was, uncharacteristically, feeding low in a hornbeam tree. Cape Mays are more typically found very high in the trees and I generally rely on hearing their simple, high-pitched song to locate them. We continued walking down the Lullwater path towards Prospect Lake. After passing beneath the Terrace Bridge, Scott announced to the group that there was something moving in the shrubs ahead of us. In the underbrush to our right, above a low stone retaining wall near the intersection of two footpaths, a Yellow-breasted Chat hopped out into the open, walked down the wall several feet, then disappeared into the a dense ground cover of mugwort. He remained hidden from view (as chat’s are so adept at doing) and was never again seen that day.

On Saturday night, my mind's ear was still hearing songs and calls within the low whirr of my computer, the white noise of the bathroom fan and the sibilance of water running from the kitchen faucet. It’s an odd side effect of a long day of May birding, but I don’t mind.

Sunday, May 4th, Green-Wood Cemetery & Prospect Park


When Scott called, I was sitting on the floor surrounded by pieces of my bicycle. My drive train was in need of an overhaul. I decided that I had spent enough time birding yesterday, so why not take a day to disassemble to messiest part of my bike. He said that there was a Lark Sparrow in Green-Wood Cemetery and a Kentucky Warbler in Prospect Park. When I told him that I had no wheels, he said he’d pick me up in 5 minutes. I left the greasy mess sitting on a drop cloth in the middle of the living floor, grabbed my gear and ran down stairs to me him.

Spring migration throws off my already dysfunctional internal alarm clock and I was determined to stick to a schedule. We’d drive to Green-Wood Cemetery (after picking up Peter), quickly find the sparrow, drive to Prospect Park, find the Kentucky Warbler, and then I’d go home and finish my bike. Of course, everything was contingent upon whether we could find the two birds.

Lark Sparrows are more likely to be found west of the Mississippi River, however there are occasional sightings along the East coast. I’ve only seen one in New York. Steve was leading a birding trip in the cemetery and gave us detailed directions to where he had flushed the bird. Acorn Path ascends a north-south ridge that ends near “The Catacombs”. Peter, Scott and I spread out and scanned through large flocks of Chipping Sparrows and White-throated Sparrows, but came up empty. I decided to walk the spine of the hillside towards the opposite end. While standing above Ocean Avenue and the catacombs, a large sparrow with flashes of white on its tail flew across my line of sight. It was the Lark Sparrow. I signaled to Peter, and then called Scott on his cellphone to give him directions to our location. When I hung up, I also called Steve, who was still leading a group somewhere in Green-Wood and Marge, who was working with the historical society in the cemetery. I stayed on the bird long enough to make sure that everyone had good looks, then slowly walked back up the ridge and towards the car.

Along the way, I spotted a Blue-headed Vireo slowly foraging among the flowers in a dogwood tree. While watching, a Yellow-throated Vireo appeared and perched beside it for a moment. The portrait of these two, seldom seen together but similar species, burned a snapshot in my brain. When I’m birding, sometimes an experience that in reality only lasted for seconds leaves a lingering impression that is slowly savored by my brain. When recalling those moments they always seem to have transpired over a much longer period of time. In birding, split seconds become multiple seconds, several seconds become minutes and a full minute can seem like an eternity.

We were watching the Lark Sparrow feeding in the grass near Acorn Path when the sun came out. When the sun illuminated the trees, it became very clear that in Green-Wood Cemetery were loaded with birds. Within a pair of adjacent oak trees we heard or saw Blue-winged Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Northern Parula, Yellow Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler and Prairie Warbler. Baltimore Orioles chattered from nearby treetops. I had to remind Scott and Peter that we needed to rush back to Prospect Park to look for the Kentucky Warbler. They reluctantly put down their bins and got into the car.

Tom Preston had seen a Kentucky Warbler south of the Rose Garden earlier in the morning, so Scott parked his car on Flatbush Avenue, near an opening in the fence close to the garden. South of the garden is an area that I call the “Aralia Grove”. There’s no official name on any maps, but there are many Aralia Spinosa trees scattered in that spot and migrating birds eat their berries in the fall. Like the Midwood, Goutweed covers much of the ground in that area and Kentucky Warblers foraging among the low-growing plants can easily be overlooked. I walked up the compacted soil on the hillside overlooking Flatbush Avenue and listened for the warbler. Scott followed me up the hill and, in an attempt to call out the bird, played a short recording of its call off of his iPhone. Nothing. Scott and Peter continued scouring the surrounding area, but I stayed put and listened. After only a few minutes I heard a distant, burry, “chuuree, chuuree, chuuree”. It was a Kentucky Warbler, or was it? I called Scott on my cellphone and said, “Was that you again?” He responded, “Was what me again?” I told him, in that case, the kentucky is over here, somewhere to my right. Within a minute or two Alan, Janet, Peter, Scott and a few other people showed up to help.

The area falls within the shadow a massive Willow Oak near the park’s Flatbush Avenue border. Like most oaks in the spring, birds are drawn to the insects within its abundant flowering catkins. It’s not along most typical birding tour routes, but I always bring people to the spot because I’ve found it to be very birdy. Across the road is the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. The garden was celebrating the cherry blossom festival with, among other things, a percussion ensemble. I was trying to locate a rare, skulking, ground foraging bird by its song against the backdrop of automobile traffic, truck air horns and a dozen Japanese taiko drummers. No challenge there, but despite the noise, I heard the bird again and still couldn’t home in on it. At one point, I was standing on the footpath beneath the Willow Oak talking to Alan Baratz, when the Kentucky Warbler sang again. It was loud, clear and just ahead, near the path. Almost simultaneously we spotted a bird walking on the sidewalk, but thought, that can’t be it. It was. A Kentucky Warbler was leisurely walking along the edge of the sidewalk, picking up insects off the ground near a multiflora rose bush. We made a couple of calls and the rest of the group hurried back to ogle over the bird with the olive back, yellow underparts and bold, black mask. A Hooded Warbler, which had been singing nearby much of the time (and I’d been doing my best to ignore) appeared in the saplings to our right.

After a couple of minutes, I stepped back from the group to enjoy watching the birders watching the bird. It was then that I noticed a family had walked up behind us and were curious about the object of our intense focus. The young parents had two children, a girl about 6 years old and a son, about 9 years old. I explained about the Kentucky Warbler, who had momentarily vanished, but pointed out the Hooded Warbler, who was hopping about in the shrubs right next to us. When the hooded flew to the sidewalk in front of us, I handed my bins to the man’s son and directed him towards the yellow and black bird. He focused the bins and said, “I see a robin.” I told him to move a little to the left of the robin. He response was, “Oh my god!” I turned to his father and said, “That’s the sound of someone seeing a hooded for the first time.” He watched that bird for a minute or two until, improbable as it seems, it was joined by the Kentucky Warbler. The young boy said, “It’s much greener.” Yup, that would be the kentucky. I briefly explained to him and his father how they aren’t usually seen in New York City because they nest south of here. Occasionally, an individual will overshoot their usual Spring breeding ground and end up in New York City. I realized after a few minutes that the poor kid was recovering from a wrist injury and was wearing a soft cast. He was clearly enjoying the birds, but was struggling with the heaviest pair of binoculars (by far) within the group. Some people think I’m foolish, but when it comes to showing an interested youngster a cool bird, I never hesitate handing them my $1,000 pair of binoculars. Scott heard my comment about the weight of the bins and switched with his lighter pair. I handed mine to his father, who was absolutely delighted and told me it was a great way to celebrate his birthday.

For me, it is often more meaningful and fulfilling to transfer my excitement about birds and nature to the uninitiated, than it is to just observe a rare bird. If we can’t pass along our passion, what’s the point?

Prospect Park, 5/3/2008
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Wood Duck
Northern Harrier (Flying over Battle Pass.)
Red-tailed Hawk
Peregrine Falcon (Flying over Brooklyn Botanic Garden.)
Spotted Sandpiper (Circling over skating rink.)
Laughing Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Chimney Swift
Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Chasing a starling at Rose Garden.)
Belted Kingfisher
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Northern Flicker
Great Crested Flycatcher (2.)
Eastern Kingbird (1, Nelly's Lawn.)
White-eyed Vireo (1, singing in Midwood.)
Blue-headed Vireo (Fairly common.)
Warbling Vireo (3 or 4.)
Red-eyed Vireo (4 - 6.)
Fish Crow
Tree Swallow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow (5, flying around over Upper Pool.)
Red-breasted Nuthatch (1, BBG.)
White-breasted Nuthatch
Carolina Wren
House Wren
Winter Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Common.)
Veery (Several.)
Hermit Thrush (3 or 4.)
Wood Thrush (2.)
Gray Catbird (Common.)
Northern Mockingbird
Brown Thrasher (2.)
Cedar Waxwing
Blue-winged Warbler (4-6.)
Nashville Warbler (Several.)
Northern Parula (Common.)
Yellow Warbler (Fairly common.)
Cape May Warbler (1, Lullwater.)
Black-throated Blue Warbler (Several.)
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Abundant.)
Black-throated Green Warbler (Fairly common.)
Blackburnian Warbler (1, Ravine. 1, next to Litchfield Villa.)
Prairie Warbler (2.)
Palm Warbler (Fairly common.)
Black-and-white Warbler (Common.)
American Redstart (3.)
Worm-eating Warbler (1, near Battle Pass.)
Ovenbird (Fairly common.)
Northern Waterthrush (3.)
Louisiana Waterthrush (1, stream below Esdale Bridge.)
Common Yellowthroat (Several.)
Hooded Warbler (1, Rose Garden. 1, Vale of Cashmere. 1, Ravine. 1, near Donegan Oak monument.)
Yellow-breasted Chat (Walking along low wall below Terrace Bridge.)
Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Fairly common.)
Indigo Bunting (Heard singing on Sullivan Hill.)
Eastern Towhee (Fairly common.)
Chipping Sparrow (Abundant.)
Field Sparrow (1, behind skating rink.)
Savannah Sparrow (Peninsula Meadow.)
Swamp Sparrow (2.)
White-throated Sparrow (Abundant.)
White-crowned Sparrow (4, adjacent to skating rink.)
Dark-eyed Junco (Nelly's Lawn.)
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Orchard Oriole (3, Vale of Cashmere. 1, Mount Prospect Park. 1, Botanic Garden.)
Baltimore Oriole (Abundant.)
Purple Finch (1, RIck's Place.)
American Goldfinch (Fairly common.)

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

Prospect Park, 5/4/2008
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Red-tailed Hawk
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Veery
Hermit Thrush
Wood Thrush
Gray Catbird
European Starling
Blue-winged Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Northern Parula
Yellow Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Palm Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
Ovenbird
Kentucky Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Hooded Warbler
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Baltimore Oriole

Green-Wood Cemetery, 5/4/2008
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Red-tailed Hawk
Laughing Gull
Monk Parakeet
Chimney Swift
Belted Kingfisher
Northern Flicker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Yellow-throated Vireo
Blue-headed Vireo
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
House Wren
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Veery
Hermit Thrush
Wood Thrush
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
Brown Thrasher
Blue-winged Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Northern Parula
Yellow Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Prairie Warbler
Palm Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
Ovenbird
Common Yellowthroat
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Eastern Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Lark Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Common Grackle
Baltimore Oriole
American Goldfinch

Other common species see (or heard):
Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Downy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Crow, Black-capped Chickadee, American Robin, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, Song Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, House Sparrow

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"

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