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Monday, April 27, 2009

Saturday's Migration Insanity

I spent 7 hours in Prospect Park last Saturday and it turned into one of the most extraordinary day's of Spring migration that I've ever experienced.

Doug and I had spoken on Friday about the likelihood of a big fallout of migrating birds overnight. The conditions seemed right: By mid-afternoon that day the winds had shifted to the south and would continue throughout the night. Temperatures were going to be unseasonably warm. Maples and other trees were in full bloom attracting lots of insect life. The moon was in the seventh house...oh wait, that's something else. In any event, we both agreed that a dawn start in Prospect Park was a must. (note: to follow migration predictions from David LaPuma, check out his new Cape May & Twitter service here.)

I decided to start at the south end of the park at Lookout Hill and gradually work my way to the north end. As I pedaled south along Park Drive West I heard Yellow-rumped Warblers singing everywhere. Interspersed were a few Northern Parulas and their rising trills. I got off of my bicycle at the northern end of Lookout Hill near a stand of pines and was surprised to here a Blackpoll Warbler. Some say that the arrival of blackpolls signal the end of the migration. I think this individual was just anxious to get to his breeding grounds in North American's boreal forests. Nearby a Black-throated Green Warbler was also singing. Both were first of season sightings for me. I spotted Doug at the bottom of the stairs near the Maryland Monument and waved him up. We spent the next 2 hours birding just around Lookout Hill. Yellow-rumped Warblers were in nearly every tree and shrub, but we also located Northern Parulas, Yellow Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Palm Warbler and Black-and-white Warbler. Our first surprise of the morning was finding a singing Yellow-throated Warbler near the northern stairway of Lookout Hill. We had run into Ed Crowne and all three of us were baffled by the song this bird was singing. At times it sounded actually like a Yellow Warbler.

I think it was around 7am when Doug received a call from Dave Klauber. He and Seth Ausubel were making a rare visit to Prospect Park and I volunteered to meet them near the Vanderbilt Playground and lead them to the Yellow-throated Warbler. The bird's non-stop singing made it easy to relocate. Dave and Seth were also bewildered by the bird's odd song. Given that this species is not typically found around NYC, I assumed that it was probably a dialect that none of us "New Yawkahs" were familiar with.

We gradually worked our way north along the main path on Lookout Hill to where it loops south, towards Center Drive. A Black-throated Green Warbler was singing in a Boxelder a dozen yards from the road. Seth put his bins up and, after a moment, exclaimed, "I've got a Townsend's Warbler!" Townsend's Warblers are a dime a dozen West of the Rocky Mountains, but have only been recorded in New York State a handful of times. It may seem funny to non-birders, but our adrenaline levels suddenly spiked. *Below is a great example of how both high technology and pedal power has been extremely helpful for birders in search of rarities:

Doug had left to go play softball about 5 minutes prior to the sighting. While Seth tracked the bird, I called Doug on my cellphone. Dave called Tom Burke. An out-of-breath Doug appeared virtually seconds after I hung up. Dave continued calling people. I called Tom Preston, who I had seen in the park earlier, then I called Lloyd Spitalnik, who maintains a list called "Metro Birding Briefs". Lloyd posted the sighting immediately which popped up on god-knows-how-many birder's cellphones, Blackberries and computers. I then texted Peter Dorosh, who has a group of Brooklyn birders on his own list. I ran out of people to call so decided to pedal around the park rounding up birders. Mary Eyster called me on Peter's cellphone to ask, "Was I serious about the Townsend's Warbler or was I just pulling his leg?" I explained that I may joke about a lot of things, but rare birds during Spring migration isn't one of them. By 8:45am birders were kicking up dust over the horizon like the wheels of a stagecoach, scrambling to get to Prospect Park's Lookout Hill. Feeling like we had done our jobs, Seth, David, Doug and I quietly left Lookout Hill and headed towards the Ravine in search of a reported Prothonotary Warbler.

As I mentioned in a recent post, Prothonotary Warblers breed south of NYC, so they are rarely seen and cause much excitement when once misses the south jersey exit ramp. Keep in mind that I had already seen a Yellow-throated Warbler (another southern bird that is directionally challenged) and a Townsend's Warbler (a western species). Either one of those birds would have made for a great day, but now we were headed for a possible prothonotary. When we arrived at the Rock Arch Bridge in the Ravine, Alan, Janet and three other birders were already there, looking down at the warbler feeding next to the waterfall. Could it get any better? When the warbler hopped out of sight along the edge of the Ambergil I suggested that we walk to the Vale of Cashmere to look for a Hooded Warbler reported earlier by Tom Stephenson.

It seemed almost silly to me that I should make a concerted effort to try and find another rarity, especially since it was only April 25th! The Spring migration usually doesn't peak until mid-May. How could I not, though, knowing the bird was in the park. A group of us made our way up to the northern end of the park and slowly circled the Vale of Cashmere looking and listening for a Hooded Warbler. To be honest, I wasn't looking very hard because the hooded has a very distinct, clear, pure quality to its song. If it even sang a few notes, I was confident that I would find it. As it turned out, Janet was heard it first and called us all over. Hooded Warblers, unlike many wood-warblers, forage close to the ground making this one very viewable, cooperative individual. Hoodeds aren't very rare on their breeding ground, but are primarily solitary birds, so are never seen in large numbers. They are also extremely beautiful birds, so most birders make an extra effort to see them. We were very lucky to get long, satisfying looks of the bird in the vale, but I came away feeling a little conflicted. Having already seen a Yellow-throated Warbler, Townsend's Warbler and Prothonotary Warbler in only a few hours (not to mention, in Brooklyn) this delightful little bird, essentially, became a minor footnote on an extraordinary day of birding.

The videos that I used in this posting were from Cornell's Macaulay Library. For images of the actual birds, Doug Gochfeld has posted photos and videos here. You can also read his summary of our insane day on the NYS Birding List here.

Location: Prospect Park
Observation date: 4/25/09
Number of species: 76

Brant (5.)
Wood Duck (3.)
Northern Shoveler
Ring-necked Duck
Ruddy Duck (5.)
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret (3.)
Green Heron
Black-crowned Night-Heron (6.)
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
American Coot
Laughing Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Chimney Swift
Belted Kingfisher
Northern Flicker
Eastern Phoebe
Yellow-throated Vireo
Blue-headed Vireo (approx. 12.)
Barn Swallow
White-breasted Nuthatch
Carolina Wren
House Wren (2.)
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Hermit Thrush

Blue-winged Warbler
Northern Parula (2.)
Yellow Warbler (6.)
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler (4.)
Townsend's Warbler
Yellow-throated Warbler
Pine Warbler
Prairie Warbler
Palm Warbler
Blackpoll Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler (3.)
Prothonotary Warbler
Ovenbird (2.)
Northern Waterthrush
Hooded Warbler

Eastern Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow (3.)
Savannah Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Baltimore Oriole

Other common species seen (or heard):
Canada Goose, Mute Swan, American Black Duck, Mallard, Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Crow, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, American Robin, European Starling, Song Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Red-winged Blackbird, American Goldfinch, House Sparrow

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