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Friday, October 23, 2009

Sparrow Migration

In New York City the fall migration can be divided into two periods; early-fall, which ranges from mid-July through mid-September and late-fall, mid-September through November. During this very protracted period of movement there are relatively predictable cycles of bird families arriving in and departing from NYC.

Shorebirds are the earliest to arrive, with a few warblers and other songbirds making their appearance by the end of July. In August flocks of swallows stream past and southbound warblers increase in abundance. By September our coastal areas see a nice mix of migrant waterfowl, shorebirds, gulls, terns and, of course, raptors. Within our backyards and city parks a diversity of flycatchers, vireos, kinglets, thrushes, warblers, sparrows and blackbirds appear. Some species call New York City their winter home. With the arrival of Northern Shovelers, Ruddy Ducks, American Coots, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Red-breasted Nuthatches and some sparrow species, winter is definitely creeping up on us.

Over the last week I've pedaled to Jacob Riis Park, Fort Tilden and Floyd Bennett Field a couple of times in search of sparrows. To the uninitiated, it may sound silly spending any amount of time looking for "little brown birds", but there is a surprising amount of diversity among sparrows and some are downright beautiful.

At Jacob Riis Park I concentrated on finding sparrows at the small field bordering the golf course and handball courts. There's also some nice grassy habitat at the park's main promenade. Until recently, Chipping Sparrows have been the most abundant species. Now White-throated Sparrows are flooding into the area. At Riis Park I tallied Eastern Towhee, Chipping Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow and Dark-eyed Junco. Next door, at Fort Tilden I spent time scanning the grass at the back of the football fields, at the community gardens and the scrubby habitat behind the baseball fields. There were lots of Savannah Sparrows, but I also picked up Lincoln's Sparrow and Field Sparrow. Back across the bridge to Floyd Bennett Field, I looked for sparrows at the community gardens, the cricket field and the berm near the North 40. My biggest surprise was finding several White-crowned Sparrows. In the area where I had located a Lark Sparrow last month I spotted six white-crowneds perched in an ailanthus tree. I had already seen three at the gardens bringing my day total to nine; the most I've ever seen in one day in NYC.

Here's a slideshow of some of the sparrow species we've been seeing:

In Prospect Park a large section of the baseball fields has been fenced off while the grass is reseeded. The protective snow fencing has given the migrating birds a bit of security and there have been large numbers of Chipping, Savannah, Song and White-throated Sparrows feeding in the grass. I also spotted an Eastern Bluebird hanging around within the fenced area. Last Sunday I texted my friend Peter as there were thousands of sparrows in the park, but the inclement weather had kept all the birdwatchers away. Within a few minutes of Peter arriving at the baseball fields he spotted a rare Lark Sparrow among the more common visitors. It hung around the area for most of the week. At one point earlier in the week I went back into the park with my friend, Heydi, to try to help her locate the Lark Sparrow. We found it pretty quickly and the bird was very cooperative, giving great looks. The bluebird was also still present so I decided to shoot a little video as it would frequently perch out in the open. It wasn't until I got home and looked at the video clips on my computer screen that I realize I got two for the price of one. While I was focused on the bluebird, the Lark Sparrow flew into the frame and perched on the temporary fencing. Here's a freeze frame from the video which clearly shows the Lark Sparrow's unique white tail feathers.

While millions of sparrows are moving through our area, unfortunately for the little things, so are lots of predators. On my last ride to the coast my raptor list consisted of Osprey, Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper's Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk and all three expected falcon - American Kestrel, Merlin and Peregrine Falcon. Of the falcons I think Merlins are my favorite. They are small, fast and pugnacious. It's not unusual to see one of these Blue Jay-sized falcons harassing a Red-tailed Hawk, a raptor that is, on average, five times more massive. In Prospect Park a Merlin has been hanging around the baseball field, attracted by the numerous sparrows. There has also been at least two in Green-Wood Cemetery. Floyd Bennett Field has at least one and I have also been seeing two patrolling Fort Tilden and Jacob Riis Park. The last time I visited Jacob Riis Park I saw a male Merlin chasing after flock of Northern Flickers who were feeding on open stretches of grass. Then, by chance, I saw one successful hunt down an unwary Dark-eyed Junco. I shot this video as he plucked the sparrow from a perch next to the golf course. I felt a bit sorry for the sparrow, but realize that falcon's are very efficient killers and that the little bird probably never saw him coming and likely didn't feel a thing.

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