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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

My Christmas Bird Counts

On December 19th I participated in my 9th Christmas Bird Count at Floyd Bennett Field. This past weekend I was also part of the Bronx-Westchester CBC. For the Bronx, Shane Blodgett, Steve Nanz and I always team up to cover the New York Botanical Garden. Both counts had their challenges, but I came away feeling good that I was able to contribute to the longest-running wildlife census on the planet.

I think everyone remembers their first Christmas Bird Count. Mine was December 21, 1996. I was covering sections of Prospect Park with my friend Jerry Layton. The day began with a miserable mix of sleet and freezing rain. After about 30 minutes of suffering, we walked back to my apartment to dry off and drink some hot tea. Once the sleet slowed down a bit we went back into the park. One of the spots included in our area was the "Pools" or, as we knew it back then, "Swanboat Pond". Renovations were still several years off, so the Upper Pool was mostly a phragmite-choked mudhole. I remember climbing down the bank and pushing my way through the tangle of reeds. I was about a minute into my bushwacking when an American Bittern flew up in front of me and disappeared into the reeds on the opposite side of the pond (I think I was more scared than the bird). By 1999 I decided that Prospect Park had more than enough people covering its 526 acres and that I could be more helpful elsewhere. Ron & Jean Bourque always surveyed Floyd Bennett Field, which included Dead Horse Bay and Four Sparrow Marsh. I asked if they needed help, which they did, and I've been part of their team ever since.

The area contains a variety of habitats, but the biggest challenge of the Christmas Count at Floyd Bennett Field is having to walk through its over 100 acres of grasslands, then count the birds that one flushes along the way. This year we were fortunate to have a big team of seasoned birders to help out. The bad news was that a big winter storm was forecast to hit the area by noon. Having 11 people for our team allowed us to cover the grassland relatively quickly, after that we broke into groups to cover other areas.

"Ecology Village" is a campground set-up within Floyd Bennett's only coniferous forest. It is in this area where we typically find owls during the Christmas Count. Unfortunately, a blight that has been attacking the mostly Japanese Black Pines has been slowly destroying the forest. New trees are being planted, but it will be 20 years before we see a healthy growth of large pines. Owls have been hard to come by in the last 5 years, but it never stops us from looking. We had swept through the entire pine grove and people were meeting at the trail near the northeast edge. As we were getting ready to walk back to the cars, I heard a flock of crows mobbing something. I had heard the flock earlier and tracked them down only to find them harassing a Red-tailed Hawk near one of the fields. This time they were diving at the top of a pine tree within Ecology Village. I decided to go back and check it out. Jean, Bob and I were circling the tree that the crows were focusing on, but couldn't see anything. Finally Bob said, "Am I looking at what I think I am?" There was only a small opening in the tangle of branches near the top of the tree and, after a moment of looking for a clear view, I finally saw it - a Long-eared Owl. The sleepy owl had been desperately trying to ignore the noisy crows above, and now needed to tolerate the excited birdwatchers on the ground below. This owl was a Brooklyn Christmas Count first for me.

By 1pm the temperature had dropped, the wind had increased and snow had started to fall. Eni and Vinnie had left before lunch and now Ron and Jean were calling it quits. The two Bobs, Keir, Tom, Dennis and I decided to keep going. We still needed to cover the community garden and Four Sparrow Marsh. Up to that point we had seen a pretty amazing collection of species, among them - Ron flushed a small flock of Eastern Meadowlarks on the fields; Keir and I spotted a Rough-legged Hawk at Dead Horse Bay; we tallied several Field Sparrows and a White-crowned Sparrow near the cricket fields; three Snow Buntings decided to land next to me as I stood at the north end of runway 12-30. The count is more than just finding "good" birds, it's about trying to find all of the birds in ones given area, so we needed to finish surveying the rest of our areas ... or get frostbite in the process.

After Ron and Jean departed, I was the only one left who knew how to get into and survey Four Sparrow Marsh. I warned the guys that it could be pretty messy, but they were totally into it. We parked at the "Toy R Us" parking lot then walked around the fence into the marsh. At this point the snow and wind was beginning to sting our faces. Climbing over and around the flotsam that has accumulated around the edges of the marsh only enhanced the experience. Avoiding railroad spike-sized rusty nails sticking up through gray, weathered wooden planks was just another bonus. The far end of the marsh is strangely clear of detritus and the marsh grass devoid of phragmites. Despite the pretty landscape it, unfortunately, also lacked birds.

Noteworthy highlights from the entire Brooklyn count include:

American Bittern
Black-legged Kittiwake, Black-headed Gull, Lesser Blacked-backed Gull, Laughing Gull
Great Egret
Common Eider, Black Scoter, Common Merganser
Red-shouldered Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk
Great Horned Owl, Long-eared Owl, Short-eared Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl
Wilson's Snipe, Killdeer
Clapper Rail
Winter Wren, Marsh Wren
Orange-crowned Warbler, Wilson's Warbler, Ovenbird, Black-throated Green Warbler
Saltmarsh Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow
Eastern Meadowlark, Rusty Blackbird

You can download a summary of the Brooklyn Christmas Bird Count totals in PDF format here or you can view it as a JPEG file here.

The Bronx Christmas Bird Count

One of the things that I like the most about doing the Christmas Count at the New York Botanical Garden is that we get there at first light and have the entire place to ourselves for the first 3 hours. The Bronx River runs through the middle of the garden's 240 acres. In addition to the landscaped habitats, there is a small wetland and an extensive tract of native hardwood forest.

A resident pair of Great Horned Owls have successfully bred in the NYBG in the past. Despite their huge size, it is sometimes very difficult to locate these beautiful birds of prey. We always manage to find them for the count, but the first few years they always flew off when we tracked them down. Now they seem to be used to us. This year they only glanced down from their perch with half-opened eyes, then went back to sleep. Steve swears he heard one say, "Oh great, it's those pains-in-the-butts from Brooklyn again." Great Horned Owls begin their breeding cycle around this time of year, so it is important not to stress them out. It's for that reason that I ask that you please not write asking me for directions to the location of these or any of our other resident owls. I won't respond (don't take it personally).

Steve seems to have a knack for finding warblers on Christmas Counts. I'm not sure why, maybe they follow him. For the last three years he has found warblers at Spring Creek on the Brooklyn count. This year he found an astounding three species. At the New York Botanical Garden he has found a Pine Warbler two out of three years. With that in mind, I was half-joking when, as we approached a stretch of mature pine trees, I said, "How about we go find some warblers?"

Shane and Steve walked up the west side of the stand of conifers while I headed up the east. Within about 5 minutes I heard a loud "chip" that sounded familiar. I looked up and, foraging in the top of the tree, was a Pine Warbler. From the other end of the stretch of trees I heard Steve yelling for me. I ran over to where he and Shane were looking at another Pine Warbler. They had also spotted a couple of Baltimore Orioles, which turned into 4 orioles! Why were these birds still in New York City? They are supposed to be somewhere in the tropics, relaxing in the heat ... now that I think about it, what was I still doing in NYC?!

This was the first year since I've been helping with the Bronx count that it didn't rain or snow. The weather was actually unseasonably warm, which might have explained an unusually high number of robins. Also, high water from snow melt created dangerous currents in the Bronx River. The turbulent water kept our list of waterfowl limited to just a small number of Mallards and black ducks. It's funny, if the weather is too pleasant it can adversely affect the outcome of the Christmas Bird Count. In this particular case, however, it added some very colorful highlights to a normally muted winter landscape.

Here are the Bronx-Westchester CBC results.

White-water in the Bronx River

I have one final Christmas Bird Count coming up on January 2nd in Southern Nassau County.

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