Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Cold Weather Warbler in Prospect Park

Last Sunday, after riding a couple of laps around the park, I did a little birding. Peter was on Breeze Hill filling the bird feeders so we hung around watching the nuthatches, sparrows and goldfinches for a few minutes. As we were walking towards Lookout Hill, Steve texted Peter with a nice finding near Rick's Place - an Orange-crowned Warbler. I hadn't seen one since 2006, so it was a nice surprise, especially in December!

We were about a 15 minute walk from Rick's Place. I could have just hopped on my bike and been there in a minute, but didn't want to abandon Peter and another Brooklyn birder named Keir. (I probably heard Nelson Muntz in the back of my mind saying, "Ha ha, you have to walk.") When we arrived at the triangular patch of trees near the Boulder Bridge, Steve was no where to be found, neither were any birds. He caught up with us a few minutes later and described a mixed flock of sparrows, plus one bright yellow warbler, feeding in the leaf litter. We spread out looking for the flock and, hopefully, the warbler. Peter, Keir and Steve didn't seem to be having much luck near Rick's Place or Payne Hill, so I wandered over to the rise at the north end of the Midwood. Within a minute or so I spotted a large flock of sparrows, then the Orange-crowned Warbler. The olive and yellow bird was feeding, uncharacteristically, within the leaf litter. These birds typically forage low in the understory, but seeing one on the ground, and especially in a flock of White-throated Sparrows and juncos, seemed strange. I yelled for the others that I had found the bird.

Sunday was extremely windy. Where I found the flock was within the lee of the hillside between Battle Pass and the Midwood. The birds moved in short bursts along that rise for the 45 minutes that we observed them. The Orange-crowned Warbler was moving quickly as it fed, going from the ground, to shrubs and, occasionally, flying up to higher branches in the upperstory. It was the most hyperactive warbler I've ever watched.

During last night's torrential downpours I thought about that tiny bird. I remembered how small he looked, even next to a Song Sparrow. They are known to sometimes spend part of the winter in the Northeast, but it couldn't be easy. Most of the other Orange-crowned Warblers have migrated to tropical climates and I pictured him trying to stay warm and dry in Brooklyn. Maybe he found an overnight roost under the protection of a natural overhang or one of the park's manmade structures. I hope he survives long enough to continue south during a stretch of good weather.

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