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Friday, April 15, 2011

Rare Brooklyn Warbler

In early-April one can begin to see very distinct changes in the status and abundance of migratory bird species around NYC; blackbirds are continuing to increase in numbers, tree and barn swallows are arriving at annual nesting sites and wading birds are appearing around our ponds, lakes and marshes. Warblers flocks have yet to make a full assault on our woodlands, however their numbers have certainly increased. Two weeks ago the first Pine Warblers began appearing throughout the city. Last weekend their numbers increased noticeably and they were joined by small flocks of Palm Warblers and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Early-April is also a good time to look for a rare southern warbler - the Yellow-throated Warbler. New York City is just north of this colorful bird's normal range, but periodically individuals will overshoot their destination and end up delighting birders lucky enough to find them.

This past Sunday Heydi and I met in Prospect Park at sunrise hoping to find some early migrants. The winds had been coming from out of the south the previous day, so I was pretty certain that we would find some newly arrived birds, I also thought we should be on the lookout for Yellow-throated Warbler. Sunrise was at 6:20am and I had plans to be in the city before noon, so that gave me a good couple of hours to scour the park.

The most noticeable change in the park's birds was an abundance of Brown-headed Cowbirds. The males of this species is an attractive, glossy blue-black bird with a metallic brown head. Their song isn't very melodic to my ears, but rather a mechanical series of whistles and gurgles. Some birders dislike the cowbird because they are parasitic brooders, that is, they lay their eggs in a host specie's nest when nobody is looking. The foster parent raises the young, usually to the detriment of their real offspring. This has negatively impacted the populations of several woodland songbirds. I don't hold it against the cowbird because, afterall, it is the humans who cleared most of the forests, making them accessible to this species.

Our morning was rather uneventful, with Louisiana Waterthrush being the only new species of bird for the year. We didn't find any Yellow-throated Warblers, at least not yet...

It was about 4:25pm when I received the following text message from Peter:

"YELLOW THRTED WARBLER @ well dr n lake dr. by playgrnd"

I had just returned from the city, kicked my shoes off and was lying on the sofa. When Robin heard my phone chime, she yelled, half-joking, "Bird Alert". I read the first three words of Peter's message and said, "I gotta go. See you in a half hour". I pulled my bike down off the rack, strapped my helmet on, grabbed my bins and bolted down the stairs with the bike slung over my shoulder. I made it down to the edge of the lake across from the playground in 5 minutes. Eddie Davis was walking near the lake, scanning the tree tops. When I caught up with him, he explained that he had first spotted the warbler near the Vanderbilt Playground, but that it had flown over toward the lake. After a few minutes it headed back in that general direction, but he had been unable to relocate it. Crap. I started to scan the upperstory for trees that had flowered, reasoning that where there are flowers, there will be insects to eat. A couple of minutes later Russ joined the search. While scanning the trees on the opposite side of the road, I spotted Rob hustling our way. Then I spoke to Shane. He and Heydi were at Coney Island birding, but got the word and were headed to Prospect Park. A few minutes later, Peter and Mary arrived.

Eddie mentioned that when he found the Yellow-throated Warbler that it was foraging with a pair of Pine Warblers. I decided to look for the pines. Crossing back over to the start of Wellhouse Drive, I slowly made my way towards an area at the base of Lookout Hill nicknamed "lamppost J249". A Pine Warbler was chipping while it moved through a River Birch looking for insects. There was another near lamppost J249. A third bird flew across my field of view. It was the yellow-throated. Despite overcast skies, the bird's brilliant patch of daffodil yellow throat feathers beamed. The bird was moving a lot and creeping up and down the trunks of trees and branches like a nuthatch. It took a few minutes but eventually Russ, Rob, Eddie, Peter and Mary got on the bird. Shane and Heydi got there so fast they seemed to have transported directly from Coney Island to the edge of Prospect Lake. John and Chouyan got the message and they arrived with their son in a stroller hoping to see this rare Brooklyn warbler. They did.

The spectacle of a group of people running around, feverishly searching the treetops and speaking to each other in, well, bird-speak, must seem silly or baffling to non-birders. At one point, I stopped watching the warbler to observe several people who had been checking us out and scratching their heads. I'm betting that if they had even a brief glimpse of this vibrant, 5 1/2" long songbird they would understand our excitement.

This is a photo of a Yellow-throated Warbler in Prospect Park a few years ago taken by Steve Nanz:

Location: Prospect Park
Date: April 10, 2011

Northern Shoveler
Ruddy Duck
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Red-tailed Hawk
Ring-billed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Belted Kingfisher
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Phoebe
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
White-breasted Nuthatch
Carolina Wren
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Hermit Thrush
Northern Mockingbird
Yellow-throated Warbler
Pine Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Palm Warbler
Louisiana Waterthrush
Eastern Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
American Goldfinch

Other common species seen (or heard):
Canada Goose, Mallard, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Crow, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, American Robin, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, House Sparrow

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