Thursday, December 30, 2010

Bronx Bird Count & Snow

Last Sunday was the Bronx/Westchester Christmas Bird Count. With a potential blizzard working its way up the east coast, I was concerned about our chances of finding ANY birds. As anyone who reads the paper or watches television knows by now, we did get slammed, but it didn't stop us from finding a few good birds and having a good time in the Bronx.

This year Heydi joined Shane, Steve and myself for our annual survey of the birds within the New York Botanical Garden. I always enjoy wandering around the garden's 250 acres, especially for the first 3 hours, before it is open to the public. One of our team's main responsibility was to find the resident Great Horned Owls as they are usually the only pair located in the West Bronx. The varied habitats in this location includes the Bronx River, so we tend to compile an interesting mix of species by the end of the day.

Upon entering the main entrance of the garden we always walk up a low rise behind the gift shop and check a stand of conifers for owls. There was some evidence that an owl had been roosting there this year, but we didn't find any. As Steve, Shane and Heydi were still checking the evergreens, I began walking down the rise, towards the main roadway. Suddenly, two Wild Turkeys appeared in front of me and began strutting up the hillside. They stopped at the top of the rise and posed for a moment or two so Steve could take some photos. When he was finished they
nonchalantly continued on their way. I've seen Wild Turkeys in the Bronx at Pelham Bay Park. This was the first time that we've noted them for the Bronx CBC. They seem to be expanding throughout NYC and it's only a matter of time before they show up in Brooklyn.

Shane thought that he had heard the chittering of a Winter Wren in Everett Children's Adventure Garden. He plugged a small pair of speakers into his iPhone and briefly played the energetic song of the wren. Within seconds the bird appeared and hopped up onto a branch only a couple of yards from us. We continued through the children's section where we found lots of robins, White-throated Sparrows, a Song Sparrow, several juncos and a few House Finches. As we approached the exit, some of the songbirds began making alert sounds while others flew for safety within dense shrubs. Perched low in a tree just off the path was a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk. The young raptor didn't seem to mind that we walked over to take a few photos. He mostly ignored us, but I think I saw him wink at Heydi. Later on we observed two more young Red-tailed Hawks hanging around each other. Throughout the morning we came across a total of 5 red-tails - three juveniles and two adults. The adults were heard periodically calling back and forth to each other. I'm guessing that the juveniles are the offspring from the pair that nested on the library building. You can read about them here.

The Bruckman Crabapple Collection is usually a busy spot for songbirds in the winter. The trees hold onto the red fruit late into the year allowing them to soften enough for the songbirds to eat. We found robins, Blue Jays and House Finches monopolizing the small trees, plucking the abundant fruit from the branches. Mourning Doves were picking up dropped fruits from the ground beneath the trees. At the hillside overlooking the crabapples is a stand of mature conifers. We occasionally find late orioles or Pine Warbler in this area, but it was devoid of birds this year. Several large areas of whitewash indicated that there was a large raptor using this stand as a roost, but we didn't find anyone home on Sunday.

At the trail that follows the edge of the Bronx River we came upon piles of wood chips at the base of two gnawed trees. Could there be a beaver in the New York Botanical Garden? It looked as if the culprit was stopped early on in the project. There had been stories published in the local newspapers about a beaver spotted near the Bronx Zoo. He was nicknamed "Jose", after Bronx Rep. Jose Serrano. Apparently, Jose now has a friend, "Justin Beaver", so perhaps the now crowded neighborhood has forced the latter to swim upstream in search of new territory. As we were examining the scene-of-the-crime and scanning the river for suspects, Steve spotted a Great Blue Heron perched on the opposite shore. It would end up being the only great blue observed for the Bronx CBC.

We spotted lots of Black-capped Chickadees this year...very hungry chickadees, I might add. At one point several chickadees seemed to be uncharacteristically friendly and approached very closely. I stuck my hand out and one of the tiny birds flew over and landed on my gloved hand. We didn't have any seeds, but Shane offered one of his granola bars. I crumbled it up in my hand and we were immediately approached by nearly a dozen birds. I've fed chickadees by hand many times over the years, but never in the NYBG. I was really surprised at how habituated these birds seemed to be, especially since I'd never noticed it on 5 previous Christmas Bird Counts at the garden. Shane and Heydi had never hand fed chickadees, so it was really amusing to watch the child-like looks of amazement on their faces as these minuscule, black and white creatures perched on their hands.

The snow began to fall by 11am. At first it was just a very light sprinkling, but the wind gradually picked up as did the precipitation. Steve needed to leave early, so we decided to look for the Great Horned Owls earlier than normal. Without giving away any details, I spotted the silhouetted profile of the pair side by side near a preferred roost. We checked them off the list. A short while later, we located 7 Hooded Mergansers swimming up the river. I spotted an 8th individual a short time later. These boldly patterned waterfowl are a personal favorite and I believe that this was the most we've ever recorded for the Christmas Bird Count in the garden.

The snow began coming down harder, but there was one more surprise in store for us before we called it quits. Steve has always been obsessive about checking every possible owl roost in the botanical garden. One year we found a Long-eared Owl, (which he walked right passed) but he really wanted to find what I consider to be the "chipmunk" of the owl family - a Northern Saw-whet Owl. This bird of prey is approximately the size of an American Robin. It's large head and big eyes give it the appearance of a young bird. I'm pretty sure that everyone that spies this creature makes an audible "aaawwww" sound. To many, it is the holy grail of winter birds in NYC. As far as I was concerned, Shane, Heydi and I were doing a pretty good job searching every tree and shrub along our path, but Steve, well, Steve seemed more like a bloodhound on a mission. Finally, at around 10am, I heard Steve laugh, then he came running back to the rest of us. "I can't believe", he said. "Every year I search for these birds and I can't believe that I've finally found one." He lead us to a spot near an evergreen and, very proudly, pointed to the tiniest, cutest saw-whet owl that I'd ever seen (although, they are all adorable). The owl seemed only mildly concerned about our presence as we took a few photographs before continuing to count birds.

Steve had to leave early to meet family in the city. Shane, Heydi and I continued the survey, but by noon the snow was starting to make counting birds difficult. After a brief lunch break we headed back into the storm to try and find a few more birds. That idea last for about 20 minutes. Wind driven snow made using our binoculars nearly impossible and birds were hunkered down for the long haul. At 1pm we decided to call it a day, three hours short of our normal Christmas Bird Count. Despite the short day and poor conditions we still managed to locate 36 species of birds for a total of 649 individuals.

Seems like there's always something new to discover. I can't wait until next year.

Location: New York Botanical Garden
Observation date: 12/26/10
Start time: 7:15am
End time: 1:00pm
Conditions: 27-29 degrees. Windchill was approx. 13 degrees. Snow flurries began by 10:30am. Heavier, blowing snow by noon. By 1pm conditions too poor to continue birding.
Observers: Shane Blodgett, Rob Jett, Heydi Lopes, Steve Nanz
Number of species: 36

American Black Duck (3)
Mallard (85)
Hooded Merganser (8)
Wild Turkey (2)
Great Blue Heron (1)
Cooper's Hawk (1)
Red-tailed Hawk (5)
Herring Gull (20)
Mourning Dove (15)
Great Horned Owl (2)
Northern Saw-whet Owl (1)
Red-bellied Woodpecker (4)
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (1)
Downy Woodpecker (1)
Hairy Woodpecker (4)
Northern Flicker (1)
Blue Jay (10)
American Crow (67)
Black-capped Chickadee (25)
Tufted Titmouse (5)
White-breasted Nuthatch (4)
Brown Creeper (1)
Carolina Wren (1)
Winter Wren (1)
Hermit Thrush (5)
American Robin (70)
Northern Mockingbird (3)
European Starling (29)
Fox Sparrow (3)
Song Sparrow (2)
White-throated Sparrow (125)
Dark-eyed Junco (105)
Northern Cardinal (10)
House Finch (15)
American Goldfinch (8)
House Sparrow (6)

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