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Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Bronx Birding

I know, it seems hard to believe, but sometimes I actually do go birdwatching outside of Brooklyn. The date for my Linnaean Society Pelham Bay Park trip was postponed due to weather, but a couple of weeks ago 7 hardy souls traveled up to the Bronx with me for some frigid adventure. It was, at times, exhausting although it paid off in the end.

In some ways, the conditions that Sunday were worse than on the original date scheduled for the trip. The New York City area was blessed with another round of snow, adding to the Big Apple's ever growing mountains of "snirt" and "snudge". The recipe for those two grayish brews is snow plus generous amounts of crystallized urban filth. They should not be confused with the lovely white stuff in Vermont or on greeting cards.

My winter-fatigue cynicism aside, it was actually starkly beautiful at Pelham Bay. The parking lot at Orchard Beach was nearly completely covered in fresh snow and plows had only cleared a narrow lane to the boardwalk where there was only room for a handful of cars. The main trail onto Hunter Island was buried under a foot of snow. In some places there were drifts that came up to my thigh. Only a narrow band of foot prints delineated a route into the forest. There weren't many birds along the path, but a lone Carolina Wren did come out to great us near the start of our hike. Pelham Bay Park is known by birdwatchers as a good spot for wintering owls - our target species that morning. As we trudged deeper into the woods, however, I knew it was going to be difficult to find songbirds, let alone owls.

Unlike most birds, owls are found through indirect observations. That is, by looking for white-wash or regurgitated pellets beneath their roost. The ground was covered with a fresh blanket of snow, so finding white-wash was not possible. Pellets might remain on the surface of the snow. Scanning branches in the conifers was equally frustrating as the dense snow had collected in clumps among the needles. I waded through deep drifts of the white stuff off of the trail hoping to fine any signs of owls. Most of the group remained in the single track of packed snow.

We took a break from owling when I blazed a trail to the edge of the bay between Hunter and Twin Islands. From there we scanned flocks of waterfowl. I also looked for seals on a cluster of rocky outcroppings in the sound north of Twin Island. There were lots of ducks and geese, but nothing unusual and no seals. I had a sinking feeling that it was going to be a short day.

During one of our final stops, however, we managed to locate a single owl. Having dragged ourselves through another stretch of unbroken (or barely broken) deep snow, Dan spotted a Long-eared Owl sleeping high in a pine tree. I tried to keep the group quiet as not to disturb the bird, but I'm sure his sensitive ears picked up the sound of our boots squeaking in the snow long before we got close. As I ushered the group away from the base of the tree and a safer distance, the owl opened his eyes and glared down at me as if to say, "What are you doing in my woods?!" Sorry, don't mind us, we're just leaving...

In all, it was a fun way to spend the morning, despite the sore muscles.

Pelham Bay Park, Bronx, NY
January 20, 2011

Canada Goose
Mute Swan
American Wigeon
American Black Duck
Greater Scaup
Lesser Scaup
Common Goldeneye
Red-breasted Merganser
Ruddy Duck
Horned Grebe
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Peregine Falcon
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Long-eared Owl
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Northern Mockingbird
European Starling
American Tree Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
House Sparrow

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