Monday, September 14, 2009

Staten Island Birding

On Saturday I led a trip to Staten Island for the Brooklyn Bird Club. We were lucky with regard to the weather as the only rain we encountered was at the end of the trip. It wasn't a tremendously birdy day, but there was a nice mix of birds seen, as well as, some interesting non-bird sightings.

The southern edge of Staten Island, along Hylan Boulevard, is a great jumping off point for several excellent green spaces. Our first birding destination would be Conference House Park, at the extreme southern-most point on Staten Island. After birding the woods and shoreline of Conference House Park we would backtrack to Mt. Loretto Unique Area. Mt. Loretto is primarily grassland habitat, but there is a small section of remnant woods, as well as, a couple of ponds and a high bluff overlooking Raritan Bay. From there we would drive to Blue Heron Pond Park to walk the park's wooded trails looking for migrating songbirds. Wolfe's Pond Park is a short distance away and includes a freshwater pond and a stretch of beach. A promenade at the end of Arden Avenue is a good spot to scan for shorebirds and waterfowl. It is also the location for an annual nesting colony of Purple Martin. Depending on the time, weather and people's energy levels, I planned to also visit Great Kills Park and Miller Field.

The weather throughout the morning was overcast and cool, not the best conditions for bird activity. At Conference House Park we encountered some scattered songbirds, mostly American Redstarts and Cedar Waxwings. Several Blue Jays were calling from a stretch of woods close to the shore. As we walked a sandy path towards the edge of Raritan Bay I spotted a very large juvenile Cooper's Hawk flying low down the beach. He ascended to a perch in an Ailanthus tree directly in front of us. No doubt he was the cause for the crying jays and, likely, the lack of songbird activity. We walked to a large open shelter at the far end of the Conference House's rolling lawn. From there we scanned the bay and sandy beach. A Common Loon was preening in the glass calm water. Barn Swallows flew back and forth, snapping up insects above the water. Tree Swallows had been streaming north all morning. I commented that someone needed to point them in the other directions.

Despite the gloomy weather, the grassland at Mt. Loretto seemed to glow yellow from flowering goldenrods stretching across the fields. A Yellow Warbler, spotted as we walked the western trail to the ponds, seemed appropriately dressed for the wildflower display. There was a flock of about a dozen Wood Ducks on one pond, while several wading birds (Great Blue Heron, Great Egret & Black-crowned Night-Heron) were seen on the pond at the opposite side of the road. Earlier, Eddie had pointed out a Snowy Egret flying overhead.

We passed the entrance to Wolfe's Pond Park and, instead, went to Blue Heron Park. I was still optimistic that we'd find some migrating songbirds and the forested trails at the latter offered more possibilities. There was a festival happening at the visitor's center with lots of kids involved with ranger lead activities. We skipped the fun and headed across the road to the the meadow pond trailhead. There weren't many birds along the trail other than a Black-throated Blue Warbler and a Veery, but we did get a little sidetracked looking at a Chinese Mantis and an unidentified katydid nymph. Another very interesting insect we encountered was initially thought to be a damselfly but which turned out to be a Pelecinid Wasp. The females of this slender species has an incredibly long abdomen. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get any photos as it moved from plant to plant. Bugguide.net has a lot of images and good info here. Back across the road we walked the trail toward Blue Heron Pond. The blind in front of the pond only offers views of the trees that have grown between the openings and the edge of the pond. We did finally find a bit of songbird activity near the blind and tallied Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Blue Jay, White-breasted Nuthatch, American Robin, Gray Catbird, Cedar Waxwing, Northern Parula, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, American Redstart, Northern Cardinal and Common Grackle. Later, while eating lunch next to the visitor's center, we spotted a flock of goldfinches feeding on Purple Coneflowers.

A quick stop at Wolfe's Pond was uneventful, adding only Mute Swan and House Finch to our day list.

Arden Avenue, just a few minutes north of Blue Heron and Wolfe's Pond, ends at a short promenade along a stretch of beach. I was hoping to location Purple Sandpipers or any shorebirds here. We didn't find any Purple Sandpipers, but there were a pair of Semipalmated Sandpipers and a single Least Sandpiper foraging along the shore. At the northern end of the beach there were about a dozen Ruddy Turnstones hanging out on a rocky jetty.

It was getting close to 3pm and the clouds seemed to be getting darker. I took a quick show of hands to see if anyone wanted to continue at Great Kills Park. It was unanimous, so we hopped into the cars and headed north. Great Kills is 580 acres and could be a single day of birding. With limited time, I decided to just check the shoreline adjacent to the first parking lot, then drive to the marina to scan for waterfowl. When we exited the cars the first thing we noticed was swarms of Tree Swallows flying overhead. It seemed like all the swallows we had been seeing throughout the say were massing over Great Kills. It was a spectacular sight. Down along the shore I spotted one Bank Swallow among a flock of Barn Swallows that were flying below the bluff. Scanning the edges of the small cove to the north we spotted a Great Blue Heron and a Belted Kingfisher. At the marina the only birds we noticed were some gulls flying in the distance and several cormorants diving between the moored boats.

There are some incredible natural areas on Staten Island and I'd like to go back within the week. When I lead trips I usually don't take any photos as it's too much of a distraction. If my schedule allows, I'll go back to Mt. Loretto this week for some picture taking.

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