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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Unusual Prospect Park Visitor

I was riding my bicycle around Prospect Lake late in the afternoon when I came upon an unusual bird.

The sky was overcast and there were occasional showers, but I needed to get some exercise plus, in the back of my mind, there was always the possibility of stumbling on a "bad weather bird". I know I've mentioned it here many times, but the late Marty Sohmer always said, "The worst weather sometimes brings the best birds."

After checking in on the trio of red-tails by Nelly's Lawn, I continued to ride laps around the park. For my last lap I decided to follow along the edge of Prospect Lake (as opposed to on the roadway). Large flocks of Canada Geese have begun collecting on the lake, but other than the common waterfowl, there was nothing very unusual to report. A flock of seven Laughing Gulls were hanging around near the center of the water. Swallows were swooping back and forth over the lake, with Barn Swallows being the dominate species. I've noticed several Northern Rough-winged Swallows feeding off of the Peninsula point for about a week. On this day there was also
a single Bank Swallow at the small cove to the south of Three Sisters Island. After a brief stop to watch the Bank Swallow, I continued in a counter-clockwise direction around the lake.

At the shoreline behind Duck Island, the stone coping has been broken away creating a more natural edge to the lake. The flooded lawn attracts Red-winged Blackbirds, House Sparrows and other common birds for a convenient drink and bath. As I approached the flock a large, long-billed shorebird darted out in front of my bike and scurried down the remaining stone wall. I never expect to see shorebirds in Prospect Park and this odd-looking bird had me momentarily confused. Was it a snipe?

I stopped my bike and stood, straddling the top-tube for a minute, trying to figure out the identity of this bird. Its plumage was a combination of browns and brick red. I got off my bike and sat down on a log near the watering hole. The bird slowly and cautiously made its way back to the water. It began feeding in a familiar, sewing machine motion unique to this species. I thought, "Aha". It was a clearly a dowitcher. But which one; long-billed or short-billed?

The two dowitcher species are notoriously difficult to separate. Examining their common names, Long-billed Dowitcher and Short-billed Dowitcher, one might presume that there would be an obvious difference in bill lengths. Forget it, there isn't. The "Surfbirds" website has a very complete discussion on the issues here. Shorebirds are not my strong suit, so I called my friends Peter and Doug, hoping that they were around and interested in coming to see this irregular Prospect Park visitor. I should point out that neither dowitcher is particularly rare, especially in the expected locations, such as, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. As far as I know, there was only one other record of a dowitcher (short or long) in Prospect Park.

Peter lives close by and showed up pretty quickly. We watched the bird for about 15 minutes before Doug arrived. One of the non-visual ways to identify this bird is by the date. Long-billed Dowitchers migrate much later than short-billed and typically aren't seen around NYC until September. I've learned that nothing with bird movement is absolute, but somethings are pretty reliable. Both Doug and Peter confirmed what I had presumed by the early date, the shorebird was a Short-billed Dowitcher.

Every time I find a foul weather bird I secretly thank Marty Sohmer for the advice he gave me during the relatively short time that we were friends.


John said...

Congrats on the great find!

Rebecca said...

Were you able to locate all three of the juvenile hawks when you were in the park last week? I was only able to track down two this weekend, although they do seem to be moving further and further afield.... Wondering how they're doing.

Rob Jett said...

I'll post an update tomorrow after work.

Fleepy said...

How interesting! We haven't spotted this fine fellow, but we'll be keeping an eye out for him on our lake patrols!

Always great running into you on your rounds, Rob! Glad I helped you discover ImprovEverywhere. They are to me what birds are to you!

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