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Monday, November 23, 2009

November Madness

As late-autumn gradually turns to winter, I have some very interesting observations to report, especially over this last week.

November is a month when seasoned birdwatchers keep a keen eye out for unusual sightings. Lingering songbirds, such as an Orange-crowned Warbler, is an uncommon treat to find feeding among the increasingly brown wildflowers and shrubs. Sometimes the remnants of a southern hurricane or noreaster will deposit a vagrant from the south or west in New York City, exciting birders from all around the state.

At this time of year I regularly scan the Sweetgums in our parks as the tree's spiky fruit morphs from green to red to brown. When the dry, brown fruits open, revealing their cache of tiny seeds, large flocks of goldfinches assemble in the tree's crown. Within those flocks there is always the possibility of finding a rare Pine Siskin or Common Redpoll.

October was an unusually mild month. As we approach the end of November, I am struck by all the flowering plants either still in bloom or re-blooming. In Green-Wood Cemetery, the vast plantings of azaleas awoke for a second bloom. I also noticed many rose shrubs sporting new flowers. In the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and elsewhere, irises have opened again. Perhaps I've just never noticed that these plants open in the late-autumn or early-winter.

Late last week I rode my bicycle out to Floyd Bennett Field to look for owls ... again. My friend Heydi had been across Flatbush Avenue at Dead Horse Bay, looking for waterfowl and photographing a Common Eider. We decided to meet near the Ecology Village campgrounds at Floyd.

After about an hour of crawling around under conifer (and not finding anything), we started a slow walk across the runways at the main fields. Five minutes into our walk Heydi said to me, "Is that a plastic bag or an egret?" I put up my bins and spotted, partially obscured by the long grass, a Cattle Egret! This old world species of egret arrived in North America in the early 1940s. Early populations surged as they breed in several locations in New York State. Those colonies died off and now individual birds are seen infrequently on migration. I hadn't seen one in New York City for several years. I received the following email about our sighting from biologist Shai Mitra:

"Date: November 20, 2009
Subject: Re: Cattle Egret at Floyd Bennett

[...] As Cattle Egrets have vanished as breeding birds in NYS and New England, November has become a relatively good time for seeing them here. The species has lingered into mid December at least twice on eastern LI, including one at Deep Hollow on the Montauk CBC, on 21 Dec 1996.

When two Cattle Egrets popped up near Mecox Bay on 17 November 2007, I remember dashing off a note to Hugh McGuinness, volunteering a cockamamie theory of correlated vagrancy of November Grasshopper Sparrows with Cattle Egrets (based on a personal sample size of maybe two!). Although the Grassgroper Hypothesis remains in limbo, chasing down those Cattle Egrets the next day and later certainly revealed how rich and unexpected November birding can be ("Patagonia Picnic in Montauk" Kingbird 58: 2-12).

Last year, there was a Cattle Egret at Fresh Kills, Staten Island in November, and one appeared at Mecox again, persisting into December, up to the eve of the Sagaponack CBC."

On Sunday I was in Prospect Park when I received a call from Heydi. I answered the phone by saying, "What did you find?" I was half-joking, but, she had, in fact, found something good. Heydi and her friend Rudy were on their way to Jones Beach. They had agreed to meet their friend Richard, who owns a car (a big deal in NYC), near Aquaduct Raceway. There is a stop on the "A" train near the corner of North Conduit Avenue and Cohancy Avenue. It's sort of in the middle of nowhere, unless one is going to the track. From a nature standpoint, it is far from any parks and, for all intents and purposes, an urban desert. As the two exited the subway and walked to the intersection to meet their friend, Rudy glanced up at a bird perched in a chainlink fence, pointed and calmly said, "Ash-throated Flycatcher." This is a bird of the arid West, most similar to our eastern Great Crested Flycatcher. It is also very similar to the Brown-crested and Dusky-capped Flycatcher. Neither person had their binoculars on, but Rudy is a field biologist who has a lot of experience with this bird on its wintering grounds. Go figure...

I'm having a difficult time deciding which is more incredible - that a bird of the arid west and southwest flew thousands of miles in the "wrong" direction and dropped down into a tiny, weedy lot nestled between the "A" train station, the highway and an industrial neighborhood or that a biologist, who is very knowledgeable about this unusual species, happened upon it in this most unlikely of places. I'm guessing that the average New York City birder would not have been familiar enough with this bird to recognize it as a rarity.

There are lots of exotic place throughout the world where a birdwatcher could spend a lifetime observing extraordinary birds, but there probably isn't another place where I could have done the following:

Yesterday morning, before going into the city, I took the "A" train going towards Rockaway. I got off at the Aquaduct stop, exited the station, then walked about 50 yards to a vacant lot dominated by mugwort and other invasive plants species. After a brief search I located an Ash-throated Flycatcher. It was the first one seen in New York State in several years.

1 comment:

Rudy said...

Hey Rob,

Thanks for the report. on the Ash-throated Flycatcher. To me if i would have seen the bird lets say in MX right now i would without hesitation identify it as a Ash-throated.

Even with the similarities of the other Myiarchus on that part of its range, none are as pale on the belly, to name one of the id characteristic, as the ash-throated... except for the La Sagra's from the northern caribbean islands & FL. But even that bird has different behavior and is highly frugivore and primarily found on dense forest and near the edge. I have spend many field hours looking at La Sagra's in the Bahamas, and this ash-throated wasn't doing any of the La Sagra's behavior.

Well, hopefully the bird stays around before i leave to go birding south america next monday until april. Good pic Heydi.

Rudy Badia

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