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Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Weekend, warblers and hawks

Friday, May 23:

Every year, at about this date, I experience a brief, but profound period of melancholy. It creeps into existence moments after the apex of Spring songbird migration. Soon after, new arrivals passing through our city parks start to decline. That is not to say that all the birds will vanish. Our local breeding birds will continue raising their young for another month and, in one or two weeks, fledgling Red-tailed Hawks will leave the nest and begin exploring the parks. As a birder, though, I’ve found that Spring is about much more than birds. It’s the tickle of anticipation in the pit of my stomach, the smell of green-ness and chlorophyll and the urgent sounds of frenzied songsters. It is the return of fire and passion after a torpid winter.

Prior to the annual mass exodus of neotropic birds, weather patterns start to change, daylight hours increase, deciduous trees awaken, plant growth accelerates and short-lived insects emerge in uncountable abundance. If one could create a graph of one year’s changing and intensifying natural phenomenon, it might look something like an east to west elevation cross section of this country; January would begin along our low, coastal plain with late-winter gradually climbing across the prairies towards the Sierra Nevadas. Mid-May would rapidly ascend to the summit of Mt. Whitney. After a brief stop at the summit, the progression of seasonal change would continue in a bumpy, but waning descent towards the Pacific coast.

Last Friday I went into Prospect Park early in the morning. I didn’t go expecting to find warblers and other songbirds, but to try and locate a Bicknell’s Thrush. Over the last week I had noticed an increase in abundance of migrating thrushes, among them, Gray-cheeked Thrush. The Gray-cheeked and Bicknell’s are closely related and very difficult to tell apart. I’ve always presumed that the endangered Bicknell’s Thrush was overlooked on migration and two years ago located one in Prospect Park by playing a recording of its song. I thought I’d try my luck again this year.

I packed up my portable speakers and other gear Thursday night and set my alarm for 5:00am. Unfortunately, my alarm didn’t go off, but instead woke to a phone call from Shane at 6:30am. He was in Prospect Park and it was loaded with birds that had come in overnight. I grabbed my bike and pedaled into the park immediately.

We met along Center Drive where he had been scanning a mixed flock of warblers feeding in the trees on Quaker Ridge. Among the flock were three Cape May Warblers. Quaker Ridge is a section of the forested ridge that runs along the spine of Prospect Park. In the Spring, migrating woodland birds typically follow the path of green from Lookout Hill, along Quaker Ridge, through the Midwood, up to the Vale of Cashmere, then exit the park near Grand Army Plaza. Shane and I ultimately ended up in the Midwood forest where we found a Mourning Warbler. One had been reported in that area the day before. Unlike many of the wood-warblers, this stunning yellow, black and gray wood-warbler isn’t usually found in the treetops, but is described as a skulker of the understory. The bird in the Midwood did not fit that behavior and was frequently singing its loud, burry song and flying around at eye level and above us. We called Peter, who works in the park, and he came right over. The bird was very cooperative and he was able to get good looks and go back to work.

There were lots of birds in the Midwood and Doug joined us near the south end of the forest. Scarlet Tanager numbers had gone way up since the previous weekend and we counted over 25 on Friday. There was a Tennessee Warbler singing non-stop near the center of the Midwood. Before walking north, we stopped to scan a flock of birds feeding in the trees a short distance from the Mourning Warbler. Among the flock were parula, magnolia and redstart, but Shane spotted something different. It ended up being a Prothonotary Warbler...and just when I thought the day couldn’t get any better.

There were many more flycatchers in the park than during the previous week, with the highlight being an Olive-sided Flycatcher at lamppost J249. As Shane, Doug and I were meandering our way north through the park, we encountered a second olive-sided near the Tunnel Arch Bridge.

As we were crossing Nelly’s Lawn towards the Vale of Cashmere I spotted an interesting bird in the distance. I was attempting to remove my jacket while balancing my bicycle against my hip, so picking up my bins wasn’t an option. I asked Doug to check it out. He lost it in the trees but thought it was an Indigo Bunting. A short while later, when returning to that spot after birding in the Vale of Cashmere, we relocated the bird on the grass. It wasn’t an Indigo Bunting, but an unlikely Blue Grosbeak. The nervous female bird was feeding along the edges of the grass, frequently spooking and disappearing into the woodlands. I joked that we shouldn’t tell anyone because they wouldn’t believe that we had seen Mourning Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler and Blue Grosbeak in Brooklyn all in one morning.

I had completely forgotten about my plans to play Bicknell’s Thrush recordings until Doug and I were walking through the Ravine. We observed a gray-cheeked like thrush, so I unpacked my speakers and camera. No less than 1 minute after I began to play the wiry song of the thrush, one flew over and perched on a fence post above the speaker. It flew off. I played the song. It returned. I also played the song of the similar Gray-cheeked Thrush, but there was no response. Our photographs are terrible and inconclusive, but it was an eerie replay of the experience that Doug and I had in the Midwood in 2006.

Doug and I parted ways near the Falkill Falls. He walked towards the Nethermead Meadow and I walked across the Long Meadow. Near the center of the field I spotted a Red-tailed Hawk with prey in its talons and turned to watch it fly into the woods of Quaker Ridge. Moments later it flew out of the woods, pursuing a juvenile red-tail. The two ended up in the air above the Upper Pool where they were joined by a third. Who was this young Red-tailed Hawk? The adult pair was Alice and Ralph. His small size and very pale head was a very noticeable contrast to her hugh size and nearly black head. They seemed unusually tolerant of the small, juvenile hawk. Perhaps he was their offspring from last year’s brood. Eventually, Alice dropped back into the woods at the Ravine and I lost sight of the young bird.

Saturday, May 24:

I called Steve and told him about my experience with the possible Bicknell’s Thrush. He agreed to meet me in the Ravine at dawn on Saturday to try and photograph the bird. We arrived at 5:30am, but after playing the song for 10 minutes with no response, decided to more to another location. The Midwood wasn’t any better and I suggested that perhaps the flocks of thrushes had moved off overnight. By 6:30am I packed up my speakers and asked Steve if he wanted to find a Mourning Warbler. I would have been shocked if he had said, “no.” Ed and Tom were sitting on the wooden railing that edges the trail near the south end of the Midwood. Tom told us that he had just seen the bird, then I heard it singing. This was clearly a skulking bird that enjoyed being seen, as it popped up and circled the area several times over 30 minutes. When I left to go home and have breakfast, Steve was still taking photos.

Sunday, May 25:

This year Shane has embarked on another birding challenge. He’s trying to see how many species of birds he can location in just the borough of Brooklyn over the course of 12 months. He's doing pretty well, but owls are hard to come by and I had a good lead on a Great Horned Owl. I promised to help him find it if he drove me over to check on the Green-Wood Cemetery Red-tailed Hawk nest afterwards (Forgive me if I am vague about the location of the owl).

As we were getting close to the last known roost of the owl, we rolled down the windows to listen for birds. I pointed out a robin’s frantic alarm call. We could still hear it in the distance after parking the car. Finally, I couldn't ignore its persistent cries and told Shane that I was going to forget about the pines that we had been searching and try to find the robin. Locating the robin was easy, but it wasn't until it flew off, that I found the owl. I'm not sure how we overlooked it for an entire 5 minutes, because it was perched directly beneath the agitated robin. Shane and I had great views for about a minute before it flew off towards the south. We relocated it perched high up in a mature maple tree.

The views are very limited at the Red-tailed Hawk nest. We walked around all sides of the towering Little Leaf Linden looking for a clear shot of the hatchlings. The bad news is that the nest is hard to see, the good news is that there’s not one, not two, but three healthy offspring. They look to be quickly outgrowing Big Mama and Junior's nest. If you watch the 20 second video closely, you can see two on the right side of the nest and one, very briefly, on the left side.

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"

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