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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Bird Surprises

On Sunday I went over to The Cemetery of the Evergreens with my friends Peter and Mary. We were scouting the area for a birding trip I'll be leading in the early Spring. It will include Highland Park, the Ridgewood Reservoir and the cemetery. I've been meaning to explore "The Evergreens" for the last year. We certainly picked a fine day that included a couple of surprises.

It had snowed overnight. A light, fluffy, white mantle covered every twig on every branch on every tree. The winds were calm and the snow deadened all sounds. It was a surreal, magical landscape in the cemetery. The sun broke through the clouds briefly while we trudged up and down the snow covered hillsides.

We spotted a pair of Red-tailed Hawks flying low through the trees. Nearby, at Mt. Magnolia, I noticed a nest close to the top of a tree. It was large enough to be a red-tail nest. One of the two birds flew off to our right. Mary and I got him in our bins and said, almost in unison, "Where's his belly-band?" It was the first time that I've ever seen a Red-tailed Hawk without the dark brown streaks across the belly. Had we not seen his signature red tail, I would have been completely confused.

The morning had been pretty uneventful up to that point. There wasn't much bird activity and we spent more time looking at animal tracks in the snow. We returned to Peter's car to drive around the cemetery one last time before leaving. Near the northern boundary of the cemetery we spotted a few stands of conifers. We had been checking for signs of owls, so we decided to park the car and give it a look. Mary had walked a short distance ahead of Peter and I. After a moment she said something like, "Hey guys, I have some interesting birds at the tops of these pines." The first thing I noticed was that they were prying open pine cones to eat the seeds. CROSSBILLS! It was a flock of White-winged Crossbills. Peter and I began running across the field.

The White-winged Crossbill is known as an irruptive species. They are normally found in the far north, but occasionally conditions will force these birds into New York City in search of food. This is one of those years. I've seen them several times in the Adirondacks and once, in 1991, at Fort Tilden, here in Brooklyn. There were 26 individuals in the flock at the cemetery hyperactively moving from cone to cone. I attempted to take some photos of the flock. In the process I gained new found respect for wildlife photographers. Twenty-six hyperactive birds and, seemingly, all the time in the world, yet I could only manage a few poorly exposed, badly composed, noisy, blurry images. This one was the best of the lot.

We alternately watched the birds, sent out text messages and called friends. After about 15 minutes the flock took off, heading south. They were never relocated in the cemetery.

When I spoke to Marge about the crossbills, I suggested that Green-Wood Cemetery might be a good place to look for them. In fact, I think Green-Wood has many more conifers than the Cemetery of the Evergreens (go figure). This morning she called and asked if I wanted to join her at Green-Wood. I had work to do, but decided I should take about an hour break at noon, anyway, so ... you get the picture.

At the cemetery we ran into Mary's friend, Kevin, who joined us for the winter finch hunt. We were striking out and I was watching the clock when I saw Marge motioning to us. She had stumbled on our favorite owl; always a nice consolation prize. After a couple of minutes we walked back to the road and headed towards Marge's car. I heard Kevin, unexpectedly say, "There's another one." It wasn't just another owl, it was an owl sitting on a nest! We were stunned, to say the least. Ever since a dead owl was found in 2007, we had assumed that there was only one left in the cemetery.

Bobby, the head of security, came by to see. Marge also contacted the head of groundskeeping, to make sure nobody inadvertently disturbs the nest. Some birders may not like the idea that I put this information on the Internet. In most cases, I would agree with them, but this is different. Green-Wood Cemetery encompasses 478 acres of meadows, woods and ponds. It is surrounded by a 10 foot high, wrought iron fence and protected by a private security company 24 hours a day. The seemingly endless, twisting roads are enough to confuse even the most directionally adept individuals. It's safe to say that those two owls (and hopefully their owlets) are the most well protected birds in the city.

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