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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Fruit and Birds

Unlike Spring's frantic northward migration, post-breeding animals seem to move at a slower pace. "Fall" migration actually begins in July, even while many of our local birds are still raising families. The last of the stragglers can be seen moving through the New York City area by the beginning of December.

On a recent trip to Fort Tilden, I found this Monarch caterpillar feeding on a Milkweed plant. These extraordinary creatures take three to four generation to migrate North. The final generation then turns around and flies to its wintering ground in Mexico.

I've done a little exploring over the last couple of weeks, but have had trouble keeping my blog updated. My productivity levels have been like that of the Monarch. Traveling in short spurts, I find myself periodically stopped and wrapped in a tight chrysalis. With October approaching, perhaps I will emerge as the fourth generation re-energized for a long, productive flight.

Earlier in the month I began taking photographs of the fruiting plants around Prospect Park and the city. Most images are of species that I've observed migrating birds relying on for food each fall.

Papermulberry, which is considered invasive, provides a food source directly and indirectly. I've watched orioles and tanagers eat the fruit, but also seen warblers probe it's sticky, juice covered surface for trapped insects.

Polkweed berries are a favorite fall food for robins and other thrushes. Cedar Waxwings will also fill-up on these "inkberries", but they are a little too large for warblers or other small songbirds to digest.

I lead a trip in Prospect Park for the Linnaean Society early in the month. Near the Lincoln Road entrance we observed an interesting plant with white berries. Someone thought it might be called "Doll's Eyes". At home I learned that it was called "Snowberry". On a subsequent walk, however, I did find a small stand of "Doll's Eyes" growing near the south end of the Midwood forest. The unusual fruit sprout from a pink, optic nerve-like stalk. Kind of creepy. I'd never noticed them in the woods and wonder if they are a recent planting.

By far the most popular autumn fruiting shrub in Prospect Park is the Common Elder. Catbirds, mockingbirds, robins, titmice, waxwings, orioles, you name it, they seem to the love it. Some shrubs are so laden with fruit, that their umbrels bend horizontally under the weight. They are edible to humans, but from what I've read, they are rather tasteless to our buds. I guess it's an aquired tastes, especially in the form of Elderberry wine.

High Bush Cranberry has been replanted in many locations around Prospect Park. Many large stands of these shrubs border the waterway from the Upper Pools, through the Ravine and down to the Lily Pond. While I waited for a sunny morning to photograph these bright, red fruit, migrating birds nearly finished off this season's harvest. I did manage to find some remaining on a shrub near the entrance to the Ravine.

Aralia Spinosa or "Devil's Walkingstick" is frequently overlooked as a magnet for migrating birds. The spiny trees produce small, dark purple berries in circular clusters at the end of the panicles. The individual berries are tiny enough that I've observed them being eaten by warblers. Black-throated Blue Warblers, especially, seem to be fond of them.

Another shrub that has been providing an abundance of food for fall migrants is Arrowwood Viburnum. Myself and several other birders were fortunate enough to observe a Philadelphia Vireo feeding on the silver-blue berries of one near the Lily Pond. Philadelphia Vireo are rarely seen on migration and easily misidentified, but we were fortunate that this bird was hungry and enjoyed the viburnum berries. He returned on several occasions and ate fruit from a shrub only a few yards from where we stood. We had long looks at this olive and yellow bird in bright, morning sunshine.

At "The Indian Mound"

Yesterday afternoon I took the bus down 5th Avenue to Green-Wood Cemetery. Marge persuaded me to meet her for a little autumn birding (didn't take much). Her friend, Alison, mentioned that she had observed a lot of bird activity near the Sylvan Water, in particular, around the hill where Do-Hum-Me was laid to rest. We met beneath the spires of the main entrance then drove to the Sylvan Water, where we parked and walked up the gentle slope of the "Indian Mound".

The small, roughly, circular area is dominated above by a mature elm tree. Lower down, on either side are small, fruiting dogwoods and a Yew tree. Behind the elm and across Lake Avenue is a long, high ridge. On the steep rise are several mature conifers close by. A Golden Raintree and linden are just to the west. We stood on the grassy mound between two rows of headstones edged by carefully manicured boxwood, yew and arborvitae shrubs. What we observed in the relatively tiny, sculpted landscape was nothing less than amazing.

There was a mixed flock of songbirds feeding, primarily, in the elm tree, but moving in a circuit from elm, dogwoods and yew next to us, then along the trees on the ridge and back to the elm. When we stood on the road beneath the elm and faced into the sun, we noticed millions of tiny, white flies, perhaps the focus of their feeding frenzy. The bird activity was not restricted to the trees. Skulking in the grass at the base of the ornamental shrubs were two Swamp Sparrows and a Lincoln's Sparrow. An Indigo Bunting also made an appearance.

Of the warblers in the elm tree, likely the most uncommon was a Cape May Warbler. Unlike their Spring migration treetop foraging, this bird gave us long, eye-level looks as it picked insects from the tree's lower, drooping branches. Black-throated Blue Warblers, which were the most numerous warbler, spent much of their time eating berries from the Yew tree to our left.

It wasn't just warblers, however, that were feeding in the elm tree. Three species of flycatcher - Eastern Wood-Pewee, Eastern Phoebe and Great Crested Flycatcher used the tree to hawk for insects. A nervous Scarlet Tanager plucked fruit from the Yew tree, then flew into the elm to eat them. A pair of Red-breasted Nuthatches clambered up and down the trunk and probed the fissured bark for bugs.

At one point, I spotted our friend Mike walking down Lake Avenue. I waved him over. He had been birding in other parts of the cemetery and said that he hadn't seen much. That's because all the birds were in this one spot, I explained.

We gave our necks a break from staring up into the trees when I spotted the Lincoln's Sparrow near the base of a shrub. (The following sentence will probably be a first in the context of a nature journal.) Using the largest headstone as a blind, we quietly waited for the beautiful, nervous little sparrow to emerge from hiding. Eventually, it hopped out into the sunshine where it nibbled on grass seeds. Because of their wary behavior, these delicately marked sparrows are rarely seen, and not actually rare. It was a great opportunity to study one.

We ultimately tallied 13 species of warbler in that elm tree. A Common Yellowthroat, which never made it more than a few feet from the ground, was our 14th warbler species of the day. Of the total 54 species on our list, only 20 never set foot in the towering elm tree. In fact, at one point we thought they'd all be gone for good when a Red-tailed Hawk momentarily perched in it. I guess it just goes to show that sometimes it is best to stay put and let the birds come to you.

Location: Greenwood Cemetery
Observation date: 9/24/08
Notes: Observations made at Indian Mound.
Number of species: 54

Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Spotted Sandpiper
Monk Parakeet
Chimney Swift
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Eastern Phoebe
Great Crested Flycatcher
Red-eyed Vireo
Tree Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
House Wren
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Hermit Thrush
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
Cedar Waxwing
Northern Parula
Yellow Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Cape May Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Pine Warbler
Palm Warbler
Blackpoll Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Common Yellowthroat
Scarlet Tanager
Song Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting

Other common species seen (or heard):
Snow Goose, Canada Goose, American Black Duck, Mallard, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Downy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Robin, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, House Sparrow

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"


Yojimbot said...

nice comprehensive post!

Marie said...

Lovely post, Rob. I ate some elderberries in Vancouver recently and found they tasted quite good! Maybe they need a little cold snap?

I'm a little late out of the gate here...somehow I missed your accident so, belatedly, ouch!, and I'm sorry. And thank god your neck is in one piece. And good luck with your new wings when they unfurl...:-)

Pamela said...

I went on an hour walk at a local "natl" park to look at birds (Tuesday)...
Our walk leader was very excited when he spotted a cape may flitting in the white ash tree with a bunch of yellow rumps.

Then he said, oh dear.... turns out it was a townsend.
I was so disappointed -

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