Monday, February 09, 2009

Pelham Bay Park trip

Saturday's trip up to the Bronx was almost canceled due to a lack of transportation. Fortunately, Barbara DiPietro came through at the last moment. Thanks Barbara. Pelham Bay Park is over 2700 acres, so walking throughout the park (even for me) is a bit too much. I may check it out on bicycle in a week or two, when all the ice has melted.

Posting directions to owl roosts on the Internet is considered improper birding ethics, but most birders from New York City know that Pelham Bay Park is the best place to look for owls in the winter. That said, owls were our main objective, but the waters around Pelham Bay are also great for overwintering waterfowl, plus other raptor species can be found in the park's varied habitats.

The best way to find owls is not to look for the birds, but rather their signs. Most owls find a preferred daytime roost under which can be found what is politely referred to as "white wash". I suppose few people would want to admit that they are walking around, searching the ground for bird crap. In addition, owls swallow their prey whole, then regurgitate the undigestable bits, such as bones and fur, in small pellets. So, rather than scanning the trees for a roosting owl, the experienced owler will look for wash and pellets. Owls can blend in with the textures and colors of a pine tree so well that I've had many experiences when I was certain one was perched somewhere above me, but was unable to find it. In fact, more often than not, a birder can spend hours identifying an owl's previous meals, but never find the actual diner. Such was not the case on Saturday.

Within 15 minutes of beginning our search, Lenore motioned to our group and pointed up into a pine tree. A Long-eared Owl was hunkered down in the cold, wintry air, eyes closed. His roost seemed strategically placed within a tangle of spiny branches and chosen to make photographing him nearly impossible. We left him alone after a few minutes and continued along the snow covered trails to find a Great Horned Owl. Within about 30 seconds, I turned around to make sure that everyone was following me. I saw Lenore standing beneath a dense hemlock when I caught the glint of two golden eyes. It was a Great Horned Owl. This was the easiest two owls that I've ever seen. I gestured to the group and everyone quietly walked over for views of this magnificent animal. When I say "quietly", I should point out that this is a relative term. On Saturday morning the temperature was below freezing. The snow was extremely dry and fluffy, so each step sounded like we had chunks of styrofoam strapped to our feet. The Great Horned Owl's sensitive ears couldn't tolerate all our squeaky feet and flew off after only a couple of minutes.

We checked on last year's owl nest, but it appeared to be unoccupied. Whether or not that means they are nesting this year is unclear.

When scanning the waterfowl in Pelham Bay we found a small flock of Common Goldeneyes. The male goldeneyes have commenced their annual courtship displays. I am completely unqualified to judge any form of dance, and I know they mean serious business, but watching these ducks perform always makes me laugh. Just describing how the males swivel their head, elongate their necks, then snap the head back onto their mantle doesn't do justice to their ballet moves, so I tracked down this video from the Cornell Library website.

Later in the morning we walked a trail into a stand of pines on Rodman's Neck. Close to Turtle Cove I spotted two Wild Turkey's. One was standing atop a downed tree, the other was foraging in the ground behind him. They were very close, yet seemed indifferent to our presence. Eventually, they turned away from us and slowly strutted deeper into the forest. I recently received an email from Paul Buckley inquiring if turkeys have made their way into Brooklyn, yet. Apparently, they have slowly been expanding into the Bronx, Manhattan and there are some on Staten Island, although I think those may have been reintroduced. I responded that they hadn't, but our Ring-necked Pheasant populations have greatly declined. I asked if he thought Wild Turkeys were any tougher than pheasants. Paul, who is a scientist, highly respected NYC birder and very funny person responded with this hysterical description of the Wild Turkey's mettle:

"Wild Turkeys are approximately as tough as Bengal Tigers. No kidding. They are the ultimate urban survivors. In Manhattan alone there are/have been Turkeys in Inwood, Central, Riverside, and BATTERY Parks. No joke. Once they make it on their own, they will carve out territories and woe betide anything short of a wolverine that dares to cross them. They intimidate coyotes.

Of all my favorite urban turkey images none so far has topped that of the one in full flight (sic!) early one morning going east on 79th Street on its way from Riverside to Central.

I have not yet sorted out in my mind whether they will storm across one of the East River bridges on foot, or simply fly."

It is no wonder that Benjamin Franklin argued that they be made our national symbol.

While scanning the ground beneath the pines I noticed a narrow trail in the snow that wound through the forest and towards a depression near the edge of the trees. I heard the snapping of twigs. Probably deer, I thought aloud. We followed the perfectly aligned tracks the animals had made and flushed a group of five White-tailed Deer. For anyone who has spent time in or around rural areas, seeing deer isn't the least bit unusual. I've probably seen thousands of deer in Upstate New York or on Long Island. To be able to find them within the boundaries of New York City! Who would have imagined? It was a first for me. Stranger still was that they were foraging in an area really close to the NYPD's firing range. The constant sound of distant gunfire seemed to be of no concern to those deer. I guess they are like most New Yorkers and have gotten used to a lot of noise. Notice that I said "noise" and not "gunshots". The latter would have been those deer's great grandparents.

Location: Pelham Bay Park
Observation date: 2/7/09
Notes: Linnaean Society Field Trip
Number of species: 33

American Wigeon
Bufflehead
Common Goldeneye
Red-breasted Merganser
Wild Turkey (2)
Sharp-shinned Hawk (1)
Red-tailed Hawk (3)
Ring-billed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Great Horned Owl (1)
Long-eared Owl (1)
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Carolina Wren
Northern Mockingbird
American Tree Sparrow (3)
White-throated Sparrow

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

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