Saturday, May 31, 2008

Recommended links

My father was a musician and, because of his influence, I've developed wide ranging and eclectic musical tastes. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, I find it extremely difficult to stay focused and write while there is music playing. Certain ambient music helps my concentration, but I just stumbled on something even better. It's called "Birdsong Radio" and they broadcast the live dawn chorus! What a great concept.

My second link is a recommendation for people who like to keep track of their bird sightings. Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a great online service called eBird. eBird is a free checklist program that allows birders worldwide to enter and access their sightings from any computer with Internet service. It also allows you to look at other birders information. For example, you can see a list of all species observed at the Ridgewood Reservoir here. It's a very useful website for people of all skill levels and interest in birds.

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"

Friday, May 30, 2008

Prospect Park hawk update

On Wednesday afternoon I ran into Prospect Park to check on Alice and Ralph's nest. I went back to my old viewing spot where this is just a tiny window through the leaves and branches.

When I arrived Alice was standing guard in the nest. She remained there for the hour or so that I monitored their activities (or lack, thereof). I only had brief looks at the chicks, but they are nearly as large as their mother. They still have plenty of down to molt, but their flight feathers are growing in quickly. In the limited time I had to watch the nest, it still seems like there are two young hawks in this year's brood, although it would be easy to overlook a third. As much as I hate to admit it, I'm not nearly as proficient at snapping off photos as the young raptors are at pooping over the side of the nest. That is evident by the only photo that I managed to shoot of the youngsters. Yes, you are seeing it correctly.

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"

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"

Thursday, May 22, 2008

First baby photos

It's a big enough challenge finding a decent view of the Prospect Park hawk nest without this afternoon's windy conditions. The photos aren't very good, but what can I say, I feel like a proud father and need to show them off. At times, the nest seemed to be swaying a full 4 feet from side to side. My frustration was erased when I was finally able to catch a glimpse of two little heads. Initially, I left the Ravine after only seeing a pair of downy, chicken-like wings flailing about in the bottom of the nest. As I was leaving the Ravine, I spotted Ralph coming back to the nest with prey. I ran back to the nest viewing spot and was able to snap off a couple of poor, but conclusive images. As an added bonus, I found a Summer Tanager calling in a Linden tree near the Nethermead Arches.

The narrow canyon formed by the Ravine created a nice windbreak for the birds and there was a lot of late day activity near the bridle path. Dozens of swallows were flying over the Long Meadow and the two ponds.

Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Mourning Dove
Chimney Swift
Northern Flicker
Least Flycatcher
Warbling Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Blue Jay
Tree Swallow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Barn Swallow
House Wren
Gray-cheeked Thrush
Swainson's Thrush
Wood Thrush
American Robin
Gray Catbird
European Starling
Cedar Wawing
Northern Parula
Magnolia Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Ovenbird
Northern Waterthrush
Common Yellowthroat
Wilson's Warbler
Canada Warbler
Summer Tanager
Scarlet Tanager
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Baltimore Oriole
American Goldfinch

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"

Peregrines at Water Street

It looks like the Peregrine Falcons that nest on 55 Water Street have a few mouths to feed this year. Check out their Live Peregrine FalconCam

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"

Monday, May 19, 2008

Big Day of Biking & Birding

I completed my first “Big Day by Bike” this past Saturday and came home with 123 bird species on my checklist. For non-birders, a “Big Day” is when an individual or team spends an entire day trying to locate as many species of birds as possible within a given area. Many big days coincide with the climax of the Spring bird migration and organizations, such as National Audubon Society, organize conservation fundraising events for the occasion. Some of the regular readers of this blog might remember my past efforts with our team “The Wandering Talliers”. This year I decided that it made more sense to ride a bicycle to various locations than to burn gasoline in the name of bird conservation. I can’t take credit for this carbon-neutral birding idea, there are several folks doing it around the country. By far, the most incredible undertaking is being carried out by 15 year old Malkolm Boothroyd and his parents. The three are spending one year and cycling approximately 12,000 miles in search of birds. I think I would need a little more training and a lot more money to even attempt something of that scale. Nevertheless, the concept is the same and New York City has a surprising diversity of bird habitats crammed into a relatively small space.

For my long day of tracking, I’ve separated the various bird groups into the following categories; woodland, coastal/marine and grassland. Most of my day would be spent within the borough of Brooklyn, however I would also be traveling through the Rockaways and ending my day at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, which is Queens. My ten destinations chosen by the birds likely to be found there were Prospect Park, Green-Wood Cemetery, Shore Road Greenway, Calvert Vaux Park (Dreier-Offerman), Sheepshead Bay, Plum Beach, Floyd Bennett Field, Riis Park, Big Egg Marsh and Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge.

Prospect Park, which has a nice stretch of woodlands that runs north/south through the center of the park. Besides being the best location in the borough to find migrating songbirds, I live nearby, so making Prospect Park my first stop was a no-brainer. I’d learned through several pre-dawn outings in the park that it isn’t necessary to be in the park before sunrise. Wood-warblers and other songbirds begin their morning chorus about 30 minutes after sunrise. I would be in the park no later than 6am.

All week I was concerned about the weather forecast. At one point, predications called for thunderstorms all day. Thankfully, all the rain fell on Friday and Saturday arrived with clear, cool conditions. When I left my home at 5:40am, it was a chilly 48 degrees. By 2:30pm, the temperature would rise by 23 degrees! Unlike my previous ride, the wind would be in my favor, giving me a nice tail wind and helping me make up for any lost time spent dawdling too long in one location.

I rode into Prospect Park at the 5th Street entrance and coasted north on the footpath towards Grand Army Plaza. It was still pretty dark, but I listened closely for bird songs. Once at the northern entrance to the park, I pedaled around to the eastern pathway and slowly worked my way uphill, towards the Rose Garden. For anyone who has ever been on my birding tours of the park, it was a typical route; the Rose Garden, Vale of Cashmere, Aralia Grove, East woods, Sullivan Hill woods, Rick’s Place, Ravine, Midwood and the Lily Pond. I needed to be out of Prospect Park by 7:30am, so the waterways, Lookout Hill and the Peninsula Woods would have to be skipped.

I got off my bike near the Rose Garden. A pair of Mallards had spent the night sleeping at the edge of the only working fountain in the garden. I heard the spiraling, flute-like song of a Veery coming from somewhere near the Vale of Cashmere. There were other birds beginning to sing from within the surrounding woods; the loud, ringing, “teacher, teacher, teacher” of an Ovenbird, the clean, singsong melody of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak and the persistent, “peter, peter, peter“ of a Tufted Titmouse. There weren’t any birds around the pond below the Rose Garden, but the narrow stretch of trees between the vale and Nelly’s Lawn held a small mixed flock of songbirds. I heard, then located a Blackburnian Warbler in a beech tree. Nearby were parula, black-and-white and Black-throated Green Warblers. Skirting the edge of Nelly’s Lawn, I rode around to the large Willow Oak where I had seen the Kentucky Warbler on May 4th. It’s usually a good spot for migrating songbirds. From there I headed towards the woods north of the zoo, then crossed Nelly’s Lawn to follow the stretch of woods towards Rick’s Place and the Midwood.

There’s a set of broken down stairs that ascends from the park drive near the zoo, up to Payne Hill. It’s also at the northern edge of the Midwood forest. As I approached the stairs, I heard a Cape May Warbler’s simple, one note ”seet, seet, seet, seet, seet“. I ran to the stairs to find a small mixed flock of warbler feeding in the treetops and within the shrubs. The cape may was a lucky find, but there was also a black-throated blue, black-throated green, parula and black-and-white warblers. The flock was moving through the area quickly and I continued towards Rick’s Place, to check out the mud puddle. I had only walked about 20 yards when I heard the warbling trill of a Cerulean Warbler. I was on the top of the ridge that runs the length of the park. At the base of the ridge there are several mature tulip trees, sweetgums and oaks. I located the cerulean foraging near the top of one of these huge trees. Cerulean Warblers are a declining species that are difficult to see on migration because they usually prefer the tops of the tallest trees. I scanned the immediate area for other birders, because I wanted to share this find. On a normal day of Spring birding, I’d ride off and spread the word of the bird’s location, but I didn’t have that luxury. I needed to stay on schedule.

I zig-zagged through the most heavily wooded areas of the park and finally ended up at the bridle path behind the Lily Pond. Birds frequently come down to the edge of the water in the area behind the Music Pagoda and I was hoping to pick up a few more species. It was already well passed 7:30am when I hopped back on my bike at the eastern end of Center Drive. I saw my friend Nancy walking along the bridle path and stopped for a minute to say ”hello“ and tell her about the Cerulean Warbler. Moments before I spotted her, I heard a Blackpoll Warbler’s squeaky wheel song coming from directly above me. After a brief chat, I headed west on Center Drive and made my way towards the park’s exit at Bartell Pritchard Circle.

I had only two reasons for pedaling passed Green-Wood Cemetery. One was to add Monk Parakeet to my day list, the other was to, hopefully, add Snow Goose. Cycling in the cemetery is forbidden. Locking my bike at the entrance and walking to the pond to find the wayward Snow Geese would take too much time. I found a location along the perimeter fence, near 35th Street, where there is a partial view of the pond. On two previous attempts, I wasn’t able to see the geese, so I was keeping my fingers crossed. Cycling along that section of 5th Avenue isn't fun because of street construction, so I rode on the sidewalk. I peered through the fence is three spots, but couldn’t find the geese. There were sections of brand new sewer pipes stacked on pallets at the edge of the road. I thought about climbing on top to get a better view of the pond. Then I noticed a small flock of Canada Geese coming into view. As I scanned the flock, one of the Snow Geese walked out from behind a tombstone. I clipped my feet into my pedals and continued riding towards 9th Avenue and 37th Street. From there, I would head south.

Much of 9th Avenue is a joy for cycling. It runs, primarily, through residential neighborhoods and is well-paved. It is mostly downhill and took me 20 minutes of nearly effortless riding to travel the 3.75 miles. From beneath the Verazzano Bridge, I would continue east along the Shore Road Greenway.

I was looking for Purple Sandpipers along the rocks that edge Gravesend Bay, below the greenway. The tide was high, so I figured that any sandpipers that hadn’t migrated north, should be pretty easy to spot. And they were. The first one was only about 1/4 mile from where I began riding along the greenway. I spotted three more a short time later. Scanning the bay wasn’t very productive and the dominant bird species (and nearly the only one) was Laughing Gull. There were also a pair of scaup still present. With the wind at my back, I blasted down the bike path towards Calvert Vaux Park.

A while back, someone told me that there was an alternate entrance to Calvert Vaux Park, a foot path, at the end of Bay 44th Street. I’m not sure what I was thinking, but rather than continuing 40 yards east, I turned down Bay 44th Street. There was no footpath or cut in a fence, instead I found myself walking through a recently graded area that the city of New York wants to turn into a waste transfer station. There were several noisy Killdeer running around trying, no doubt, to draw me away from their nests. Earth and old construction debris had been piled up to form a berm at the edge of a small cove. I decided to hoist my bike onto my shoulder and climb over the hill and down to the edge of the water.

I chose my steps carefully over large chunks of concrete and asphalt to the narrow cove on the north side of Calvert Vaux Park. Five Semipalmated Plover flew up ahead of me, declaring, ”chu-weet“. There was also a pair of Spotted Sandpipers teetering along the shore and picking their way through accumulated, toxic manmade flotsam. A Ring-necked Pheasant cackled from somewhere inside the park. From a distance, the cove might actually seem like a pretty landscape, but in actuality, I don’t know how any form of wildlife manages to survive along the water’s edge. I climbed up the boulders on the opposite side of the cove and continued looking for birds within the park’s grasslands.

I had arrived at the park pretty late, by birding standards, and there was already a lot of human activity on the fields. A man was flying a remote control helicopter around the most isolated section, so there weren’t any birds present. One pleasant surprise was seeing a pair of Red-throated Loons on Coney Island Creek. Unfortunately, the dominant species of bird on most of the ball fields was starling. I rode my bike along the narrow path between the main part of the park and the baseball fields adjacent to the Home Depot. Near the start of the path I heard an Orchard Oriole singing from the top of an Ailanthus tree, another unexpected checkmark for the day list.

When I participated in ”Big Days“ in the past, there was always a designated list keeper. During the travel time between locations, we’d go over our observations and that person would make the additions to the growing list. I realized that as a single birder, traveling by bicycle, going over the list after exiting each location takes time, something I didn’t take into account when planning my day. There’s pedaling time, birding time and note taking time and, somewhere in between, should be lunch time.

The route from Calvert Vaux Park to Sheepshead Bay is unavoidable. There aren’t many choices for roadways because on the north side of the Belt Parkway is the sprawling Stillwell Avenue train yard. I had to turn south onto Cropsey Avenue, which takes you over the most polluted section of Coney Island Creek. From Cropsey, I’d continue east on Neptune Avenue. I’m being kind when I describe Neptune Avenue as being the biggest piece of crap roadway in New York City for cyclists. The only thing that allows city officials to declare it a bikeway is that someone painted white lines, a few diamond shapes and, what appears to be, a symbol of a bicycle. Head-in parking, double-parking, inattentive drivers and terrible pavement makes riding the stretch from Stillwell Avenue to Ocean Parkway akin to running a Roman gauntlet. A couple of weeks ago, while stopped at a traffic light on Neptune Avenue, I watched an unmarked police car pull over a driver. There were three other cyclist next to me and we all cheered. A small victory for New York cyclists.

In contrast to Neptune Avenue’s chaos, Emmons Avenue along the edge of Sheepshead Bay, is quiet and serene. Dozens of Mute Swans ply the water beneath the pier and around the chartered fishing boats. Nearly all the overwintering waterfowl had departed, leaving the swans to rule the marina and beg for handouts from us humans. Barn Swallows were abundant and have built nests under the overhanging piers. There wasn’t anything unusual present, so I hopped back on my bike and raced over to the greenway that starts near Plum Beach.

On my previous rides, I discovered that there are several paths in the sand that descend towards the marsh through the brush close to Gerritsen Inlet. I decided that it would be considerably faster taking one of those paths than walking the length of the beach from the parking lot to the mouth of the marsh. The shortcuts intersect with a path that fisherman have worn along the top edge of the marsh heading out towards the creek. The sand is hard-packed, so it only took me a couple of minutes to ride the short distance to the inlet. A Clapper Rail called from somewhere within the grass to my right. Fourteen Least Terns were diving for fish along the shallows at the water’s edge. Common and Foster’s Terns were also nearby. I spotted a dead, three-foot long Smooth Dogfish lying on the shore. There were three fishermen near the base of the bridge, so my first thought was that it was an unfortunate ”by-catch“ that they had just discarded. I ignored a small flock of shorebirds to examine the fish. It had azure, cat-like eyes and glassy, streamlined skin. Like the birds I was seeking, this slender shark migrates north in the spring and south in the fall. It wasn’t the first time that I’d seen one tossed up onto the beach to die. What makes a man look at an animal and regard its life as worthless? Is it that they are so abundant that some people think of them as being dispensable? Unfortunately, it is that attitude that will eventually cause them to decline.

I returned to the marsh, where the water was rushing out on the dropping tide. There was a small mixed flock of shorebirds standing at the edge of the rivulet. Among them was a pair of Ruddy Turnstone in fresh, stunning, breeding plumage. Close to them were several Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers.

It was perfect beach weather and I could have stayed for the rest of the day, but it was past noon, I hadn’t eaten lunch and Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge was, at least, an hour away. I did a quick tally, adding 9 new species my list and headed towards Floyd Bennett Field in search of grassland species. I would have made the 1.5 miles in record time, but waiting for the light to change at the busy crosswalk on Flatbush Avenue seemed insufferably long. A jogger, whom I had passed 5 minutes earlier, arrived at the crosswalk and pressed the pedestrian signal button. Ten seconds later, the light changed. It was the first time that I’d ever seen one of those buttons actually work correctly. While I was impatiently tapping my foot and watching the cars fly passed, it never occurred to me to push the button.

Floyd Bennett Field’s 387-acres could take a very long time to cover by bicycle, especially when one is riding in 16 mph west winds. It wasn’t so much tiring as non-productive. The only birds that were not hunkered down against the wind were swallows. There is a wonderful feeling of freedom when pedaling around the old airfield. One gets to hear sounds around the edges of the fields or wooded areas that are normally insulated by an automobile’s shell. The slower speed also affords a more detailed look at the natural and manmade structures around the property. On Saturday, however, my time restraints and the strong wind created a less enjoyable experience. Riding around the edges of the grassland on the old runways became an exercise in futility. I found a single Bank Swallow drinking at the edge of a puddle near the model airplane field. There were two Mallards and a Black-crowned Night-Heron at the ”Return a Gift“ pond and bird sounds or sightings in the North 40s were nearly nonexistent. I also finally gave up trying to locate Field Sparrows in their typical locations. The wind became a concern when I started crossing the Gil Hodges Bridge to Riis Park. It was so strong that I walked the bike most of the distance.

After crossing the bridge, I stopped to scan the structure for Peregrine Falcons. They usually nest on the bridge and can almost always be found somewhere close to the nest box, but not today. I continued south on Beach 169th Street until I reached the sand at the western end of Jacob Riis Park. My target species at Riis was the endangered Piping Plover. They nest in several locations along the Rockaway Peninsula and I planned to walk along the beach for however long it took to find one. These tiny, sand-colored plovers move in fits and starts and are easily overlooked. Fortunately, and for the first time all day, I didn’t even have to get off of my bike to find my target. While I was still straddling the bicycle, I spotted a small bird moving along the beach from right to left. I put my bins up, focused, saw that it was a Piping Plover and began riding again. I was getting very hungry and concerned that I wouldn’t make my 4pm planned arrival at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge.

From Beach 169th Street to the Cross Bay Bridge is 4 miles. I made a brief stop along the way to eat a snack and also had to wait approximately 15 minutes for the shuttle van that takes cyclists across the bridge. It took me 42 minutes from the time I saw the Piping Plover to arrive at Big Egg Marsh. Big Egg is in Broad Channel and 1.5 miles south of the refuge. It’s usually a good place to look for sharp-tailed sparrows, as well as, shorebirds. Parallel to the bridge and at the east edge of the small park, there is a narrow, marshy channel. This is the area where one might find the sparrows, but the water level was too high and covered most of the habitat. Along the shoreline I spotted a small mixed flock of shorebirds and added Black-bellied Plover, dowitcher and Dunlin to my list. I pushed my bike along the 600-yard trail that runs the perimeter of the marsh. At times, slogging through ankle deep muck seemed pointless, as I was hungry, tired and not finding any birds. I began craving pizza and convinced myself that I could actually smell a fresh pie over the fine, sulphurous bouquet of the marsh.

There are only about 6 places to eat in Broad Channel. Tommy’s Pizza is one of those places. It’s a cozy, little neighborhood pizza place and I’ve eaten there dozens of times over the years. The two guys who run the restaurant are from Palermo and frequently speak to each other in Italian. The last few times I was there business was slow, so they sat in a booth across from me, watched me eat and made light conversation. Occasionally, they’d break into Italian and I’d say (joking around), ”Hey, stop talking about me.“ On Saturday we talked about the refuge, birds and what I was trying to accomplish. They seemed mildly interested. When I told them what time I left the house and how far I had ridden, they spoke to each other in Italian for about 5 minutes. I took a 45 minute break to eat and update my day list. By the time I made the short ride to the refuge, changed my shirt and locked up my bicycle it was 4:40pm.

As I was heading towards the West Pond, I kept thinking something was missing. Then realized, ”Oh yeah, the bike.“ It hadn’t been out of my sight since I left the house at 5:40am, I was watching it even when I was at the pizza place.

The wind was still blowing hard out of the west and across the pond. Birds were hunkered down, but there was a small flock of yellowlegs and other shorebirds on the shoreline below bench #2 and against the phragmites. I ran into a couple who had been out to the end of the Terrapin Trail, so I asked them if there were any birds around. Apparently, the wind was doing a good job of keeping that area clear of birds, as well. I walked back towards the Visitor’s Center and decided to check the trails through the north and south gardens. Tom Burke and Gail Benson were coming out of the gardens and told me that there weren’t any birds in there either. The wind, which had made my cycling so easy that day, seemed to have taken the birds away. Tom asked if I had seen a Barn Owl, which I hadn’t, so suggested I check out the refuge on the east side of Cross Bay Boulevard. Since 2003, Shane and I (and various other team members) had ended our Big Days at the refuge. We’d stay until darkness to listen for woodcocks then wait for the Barn Owl to fly out of her nest box. For 5 years, the Barn Owl disappointed us by not making an appearance. On this sixth year, I found myself looking across Big John’s Pond at the nest box in bright sunshine. As four birders looked out through the holes cut in a dark-green, plywood blind, a Barn Owl lifted her head up and peered out at us from her blind. I was elated to have finally seen this secretive bird, but too tired to show it. I slowly walked to the East Pond to look for waterfowl and wading birds.

Ducks were scarce on the East Pond, but a few hundred swallows careened back and forth above the water. Among the numerous Barn and Tree Swallows was at least one Northern Rough-winged Swallow. I was joined at the opening along the edge of the water by the three birders who had been at the blind. They were participating in a Big Day in Queens for the Queens County Bird Club. After introductions, it turned out that we knew each other...sort of. Arie Gilbert, Ian Resnick, and Donna Schulman are names that I know from the three main birding forums in New York (eBirds, Metro Birding Briefs and NYS Birds). I’ve read their postings for years and kind of felt like I knew them. Actually, Ian reminded me that we had met in the past. At that point in the day I had begun to fade, mentally and physically, and I think it showed. After they departed, I walked the north path a short distance to a blind, hoping to locate something different around the bend. I didn’t, so walked slowly back to Big John’s Pond.

The calling tree frogs in the wetlands around the pond seemed to be growing in intensity. However, a single frog was sitting quietly in the roof structure of the blind, exactly where I photographed one last year. It must be prime real estate. With the sun no longer beating down on the nest box, the Barn Owl remained hidden. I walked across Cross Bay Boulevard and into the North Garden of the refuge. The wind had died down, but there still wasn’t much bird activity. I spotted a Ruby-throated Hummingbird hovering about three feet off the ground at the edge of a shrub. There weren’t any flowers on the shrub, so I assumed that the hummingbird was eating insects. I walked as far as the north end of the garden, then turned around and headed back to the South Garden and West Pond.

It was nearly high tide when I turned onto the West Pond trail. Flocks of shorebirds were arriving to roost in the South Marsh. Photographer Jeff Kollbrunner, who was with his wife, was taking pictures of wading birds as dozens of tiny sandpiper and plovers began swirling into the spartina grass. I could only identify the easily distinguished shorebird species, given my waning energy level, the low light and a very wobbly borrowed tripod. I ran into Don Riepe and Cindy Goulder making end of day rounds of the refuge. Don asked if I’d seen a Western Sandpiper for the day, which I hadn’t. He joked that there was probably one among the thousands of birds coming in on the rising tide. I wasn’t going to even bother looking. A few moments later he pointed out a Peregrine Falcon patrolling over the marsh. I told him that I planned to stay at the refuge until the woodcocks began calling. In truth, I wasn’t sure that I would make it that long.

It was 7:50pm when I decided that a hot shower and big meal was more important than ”one more check“ on my day list. I packed up my gear, put on a jacket and rode south, to the Broad Channel ”A“ train station. During the short ride to Noel Street, I learned one of the reasons why so many birds stop off at that part of Queens during migration; insects. I swear it felt like a million insects bounced off my face as I pedaled to the subway, and ”no“, those particular bugs didn't make a very good appetizer. It turned out that, because the train took so long to arrive, I probably could have just stayed at the refuge and waited for the woodcocks. Oh well. As I stood on the platform, in what is likely the quietest station in the entire NYC subway system, I amused myself by watching a raccoon scavenging for food at the edge of the track. He obviously didn’t know about Tommy's Pizza.

Prospect Park (1), Green-Wood Cemetery (2), Shore Road Greenway (3), Calvert Vaux Park (4), Sheepshead Bay (5), Plum Beach (6), Floyd Bennett Field (7), Riis Park (8), Big Egg Marsh (9), JBWR (10), 4/20/2008
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1) Red-throated Loon (4.)
2) Double-crested Cormorant (1, 3, 4, 9, 10.)
3) Great Blue Heron (10.)
4) Great Egret (4, 6, 9, 10.)
5) Snowy Egret (7, 9.)
6) Little Blue Heron (10.)
7) Tricolored Heron (10.)
8) Black-crowned Night-Heron (4, 9, 10.)
9) Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (10.)
10) Glossy Ibis (10.)
11) Snow Goose (2.)
12) Canada Goose (2, 4, 9, 10.)
13) Brant (3, 4, 6, 7, 9, 10.)
14) Mute Swan (4, 5, 7, 10.)
15) Gadwall (10.)
16) American Wigeon (10.)
17) American Black Duck (4, 5, 6, 10.)
18) Mallard (1, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10.)
19) Greater Scaup (4, 10.)
20) Lesser Scaup (3, 5.)
21) Ruddy Duck (10.)
22) Osprey (4, 10.)
23) Red-tailed Hawk (7.)
24) Peregrine Falcon (10.)
25) Ring-necked Pheasant (4, 7.)
26) Clapper Rail (6, 9.)
27) Black-bellied Plover (9, 10.)
28) Semipalmated Plover (4, 9, 10.)
29) Piping Plover (8.)
30) Killdeer (4.)
31) American Oystercatcher (6, 8, 9, 10.)
32) Greater Yellowlegs (10.)
33) Lesser Yellowlegs (10.)
34) Willet (6, 7, 9, 10.)
35) Spotted Sandpiper (4.)
36) Ruddy Turnstone (6, 9.)
37) Sanderling (6, 8.)
38) Semipalmated Sandpiper (6, 9, 10.)
39) Least Sandpiper (6, 9, 10.)
40) Purple Sandpiper (3.)
41) Dunlin (9.)
42) Short-billed Dowitcher (9, 10.)
43) Laughing Gull (4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10.)
44) Ring-billed Gull (4.)
45) Herring Gull (4, 7, 10.)
46) Great Black-backed Gull (4, 6, 7, 10.)
47) Common Tern (6, 10.)
48) Forster's Tern (6, 10.)
49) Least Tern (6.)
50) Black Skimmer (6.)
51) Rock Pigeon (1, 4.)
52) Mourning Dove (1, 4, 10.)
53) Monk Parakeet (2.)
54) Barn Owl (10.)
55) Chimney Swift (1, 10.)
56) Ruby-throated Hummingbird (10.)
57) Red-bellied Woodpecker (1.)
58) Downy Woodpecker (1.)
59) Hairy Woodpecker (1.)
60) Northern Flicker (1, 4, 7, 10.)
61) Least Flycatcher (1.)
62) Great Crested Flycatcher (1.)
63) Eastern Kingbird (1, 4, 6, 7, 10.)
64) White-eyed Vireo (7, 10.)
65) Blue-headed Vireo (4.)
66) Warbling Vireo (1, 4.)
67) Red-eyed Vireo (1, 4.)
68) Blue Jay (1.)
69) American Crow (4, 10.)
70) Fish Crow (7.)
71) Tree Swallow (4, 7, 10.)
72) Northern Rough-winged Swallow (10.)
73) Bank Swallow (7.)
74) Barn Swallow (4, 5, 6, 7, 10.)
75) Black-capped Chickadee (1.)
76) Tufted Titmouse (1.)
77) Carolina Wren (1, 7.)
78) House Wren (1, 4.)
79) Veery (1.)
80) Swainson's Thrush (1.)
81) Hermit Thrush (1.)
82) Wood Thrush (1.)
83) American Robin (1, 4, 7, 10.)
84) Gray Catbird (1, 4, 7, 10.)
85) Northern Mockingbird (4, 7, 10.)
86) Brown Thrasher (4, 7, 10.)
87) European Starling (1, 4, 7, 10.)
88) Cedar Waxwing (4.)
89) Nashville Warbler (1.)
90) Northern Parula (1, 10.)
91) Yellow Warbler (1, 4, 6, 7, 10.)
92) Chestnut-sided Warbler (1.)
93) Magnolia Warbler (1, 10.)
94) Cape May Warbler (1.)
95) Black-throated Blue Warbler (1.)
96) Yellow-rumped Warbler (7, 10.)
97) Black-throated Green Warbler (1.)
98) Blackburnian Warbler (1.)
99) Blackpoll Warbler (1.)
100) Cerulean Warbler (1.)
101) Black-and-white Warbler (1.)
102) American Redstart (1.)
103) Ovenbird (1.)
104) Northern Waterthrush (1.)
105) Common Yellowthroat (1, 6.)
106) Scarlet Tanager (1.)
107) Northern Cardinal (1, 4, 7, 10.)
108) Rose-breasted Grosbeak (1, 4.)
109) Eastern Towhee (2, 6, 10.)
110) Chipping Sparrow (1.)
111) Savannah Sparrow (7.)
112) Song Sparrow (4, 7, 10.)
113) Swamp Sparrow (10.)
114) White-throated Sparrow (1.)
115) Red-winged Blackbird (4, 7, 10.)
116) Common Grackle (1, 4, 7.)
117) Boat-tailed Grackle (6, 10.)
118) Brown-headed Cowbird (1, 4, 10.)
119) Orchard Oriole (4.)
120) Baltimore Oriole (1, 4, 7, 10.)
121) House Finch (4, 10.)
122) American Goldfinch (1, 4, 7.)
123) House Sparrow (1, 4, 7.)
by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Species found=123, Gas burned=0, Bird benefit=priceless

I completed my "Big Day" of birding-by-bike in one piece. I've been loafing today, editing my photos, creating Google maps and entering my sightings. The photos are uploaded, but I need to finish the text. Look for my complete wrap up tomorrow.

After nearly 40 miles of pedaling, uncounted walking distance and eating good-old-new-york-pizza as fuel, my carbon neutral "Big Day" of birding ended with 123 species of birds; that's one less than the Brooklyn Bird Club team, which consisted of four people in a car (sorry Peter, no dis intended).

Lots more by tomorrow, I promise.

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Red-tailed Hawk update

I've learned over the last 5 years that it's very difficult to detect chicks in the Prospect Park nest soon after hatching. Unlike many of the other Red-tailed Hawk nests in New York City, Alice & Ralph had chosen a very private location for their nest. The steep viewing angle makes it impossible to see any chick heads poking up for a week or two after hatching. I decided to give them a little time this year, before staking out their nest. I went over to the nest yesterday at about 5pm, when the light illuminates the more exposed side of the tree.

I ran into Peter along the way and he accompanied me up the hillside opposite the Ravine nest. When we arrived Alice was standing up on the nest. The wind was blowing fairly hard, but she barely moved as the tree swayed from side to side. While we were watching, I heard a loud, metallic "chink" chip note from behind us. The bird that was calling was somewhere close to the ground. I told Peter that it reminded me of a Hooded Warbler. Peter is hearing impaired, but makes up for it by having incredibly acute eyesight. As a birder, he's one of the best spotters that I know. I sometimes forget that he's deaf and will say things like, "Listen to that, it sounds like a hooded." Usually, he'll just humor me and reply with something like, "Yeah, I think you're right." Then he'll roll his eyes. We forgot about the hawks for a minute and tracked down the bird making the simple call. Peter spotted it and it was female Hooded Warbler. ("Hoodless Warbler"?)

We monitored the nest from 5pm until about 5:30pm. At one point Alice appeared to be feeding chicks in the bottom of the nest. I was hoping to be able to see signs of chicks on the photos once I uploaded them to my computer. I couldn't, but after spending several minutes going back and forth through the images I've come to the conclusion that there are probably three chicks in the nest. Here is my reasoning. Peter and I were standing south of the nest. When Alice began, what appeared to be feeding young, she was dipping her head down into the base of the south side of the nest. After a few minutes, she turned around and continued the same movements, but into the bottom of the north end of the nest. She then turned and faced in the direction of the Midwood, east. Again, she appeared to be taking small bits of food and dipping down into the bottom of the nest. Three turns, three different sections of the nest, three chicks? I think I should be able to see for sure in the next few days. I'll also pay a visit to the Green-Wood Cemetery nest.

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"

Mud birds

The sun came out Tuesday in the late afternoon, so I decided to run over to my favorite "vernal" mud puddle.

Sometimes enjoying birds is as simple as sitting on the ground next to a choice watering hole. In the case of Prospect Park, that spot would be on the bridle path next to Rick's Place. Park maintenance vehicles have worn several ruts in the path that become a wildlife oasis with each rainfall. The path is nestled within a natural gully formed by a ridge along the west edge of the horse trail and a triangular rise on the opposite side that, until recently, was protected by low fencing. Various saplings, dense multiflora rose shrubs and other low vegetation offer a quick hiding place for the birds that arrive to drink and bath at the puddle. It is especially productive during the weekday, when there is less human activity in that section of the park.

I wanted to keep things simple, so I left my backpack chair at home. Instead, I found a good, butt-sized rock near the edge of the path and carried it a few yards to a prime viewing location. It isn't beneath me to just sit in the dirt, but I was wearing a fairly new pair of pants. I usually give it a little time before ruining new clothes with mud, sweat and insect repellent. There were several goldfinches at the water that flew into the trees when I arrived. They'd be back.

I've watched birds at that location in the past, but this was the first time that I'd try to photograph them. Over a period of ninety minutes I gained new found respect for wildlife photographers, in particular, bird photographers. You'd think it would be easy to snap off photos of every bird that came to the watering hole. It's not, at least for me. By the time I moved the camera onto the subject and focused, they'd move. It's particularly difficult when they are very close, because they don't have to move very much to be out of the frame. I can't believe that I'm actually complaining that the birds were too close to me! One beautiful, olive-green Ovenbird ventured so close to me, that it seemed as though I could have reach over and pick him up. In retrospect, I'm sure he would have been much faster on the draw than me.

During my 90 minute sit beside the puddle I observed Mourning Dove, Downy Woodpecker, White-breasted Nuthatch, Veery, American Robin, Gray Catbird, European Starling, Northern Parula, Magnolia Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, American Redstart, Ovenbird, Chipping Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Indigo Bunting, American Goldfinch and House Sparrow. A pair of Baltimore Orioles seemed like they wanted to join the party but would only come as close as the lower branches of an oak tree above the path. They chattered for a few moments then dart off towards the Midwood. I also learned that starlings are the bullies of the mud puddle, intimidating all the other birds trying to drink and bath.

Another interesting sighting near the puddle was our local male Red-tailed Hawk, Ralph, being mobbed by robins and jays. The big baby was actually making a crying call as the much smaller birds were taking swipes at him.

As I was leaving the park at 5th Street, I stopped to look at the flower garden in front of the Litchfield Villa. Climbing clematis that had wrapped around a section of wire fencing were blooming and many bees were enjoying the nectar. While looking at the insects I spotted a jumping spider hiding in the shadow of a pink petal. A droplet of water had accumulated in a slight depression on one of the flowers. The minuscule, metallic green spider was drinking the water. I had stumbled upon a spider waterhole nestled in the crease of a flower petal.

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"

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