Friday, May 13, 2011

Birds and Bugs

Sorry for the late post but the Blogger system had been down due to technical issues. Anyway...
**********
Mother's Day in Prospect Park began as a fairly typical morning of Spring birding. Heydi, Paige and I found a few early patches of warbler activity near the north end of the park, but nothing extraordinary. It wasn't until we reached the opposite end of the park that things got really interesting. By 9:30am nearly every birdwatcher in Prospect Park had arrived at the southeast side of Lookout Hill for a nature spectacle that I'd never witnessed in Brooklyn.

We ran into Ed, Phil and Bill at the narrow passageway that runs south from the Nethermead Meadow, along Lookout Hill, towards the Maryland Monument. Ed explained that he had been on the lower path that runs along the Lullwater when he heard the brassy song of a Hooded Warbler. He thought the sound was coming from Lookout Hill. The Hooded Warbler is a rare gem of a bird seen infrequently on migration. The bird has bright yellow plumes on its underside, an olive-green upper body and, as its name implies, a jet black hood that frames a yellow face. On their breeding ground in Eastern hardwood forests their loud, whistled "ta-wit ta-wit ta-wit tee-yo" can be heard echoing through the woods for quite a distance. We really wanted to find that bird and headed up a small rise at the base of Lookout Hill to a woodland clearing adjacent to the Maryland Monument.

As we waited and listened, the high-pitched song from a pair Cape May Warblers caught our attention. They were foraging in the trees directly above us and in virtually the same spot as we observed them a day earlier. At one point I thought I heard a partial Hooded Warbler song coming from deeper into the woods. After about 15 minutes we decided to climb a steep, woodchip trail to the top of Lookout Hill. Once at the top we ran into Tom Preston. I asked him about the Hooded Warbler to which he replied, "I just saw it over there", pointing down the hillside. It only took a moment or two for our group of three to spot the bird in the understory. We continued birding first at the Butterfly Meadow, then the small opening at the top of the hill. There are several mature oak trees at the summit which are good for spotting hungry insectivores. After only a few minutes effort, we added to our growing list of warbler sightings Northern Parula, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Bay-breasted Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, American Redstart and Worm-eating Warbler. The Bay-breasted Warbler was particular cooperative as it dropped down from the treetops briefly and foraged in shrubs at eye level. The day was going so well, I asked Heydi and Paige if we should leave Lookout Hill and go find a Cerulean Warbler. The vote for cerulean was unanimous. I should point out that this was a truly ridiculous concept on a few levels. First, Cerulean Warblers, in the rare case that a birder is able to locate one, are usually found foraging at the very top of the tallest trees. In addition, according the the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation:

"The cerulean warbler was designated a species of continental importance for the United States and Canada by the Partners in Flight program. In the late 19th century it was one of the most abundant breeding warblers in the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys. By the mid 1900s, however, it had largely disappeared from most of its former range as a result of habitat loss due to forest fragmentation. In New York it is mostly rare, but locally common in areas where suitable habitat still exists."

My optimistic statement was purely fantasy. Adam, who had joined us, along with Tom Stephenson, heard my cerulean comment and declared, "If we find a Cerulean Warbler I'll pee in my pants".

We were walking on the lower path of the hill, towards the Maryland Monument when I received the following text message from Peter:

"Termite hatching on path above wellhouse lots of action"

It only took us a minute to arrive at a spot were a couple of dozen birdwatchers were already riveted to the bird activity on the hillside.

A termite hatch occurs when a new, winged generation of insects, known as alates, depart the colony to begin another colony in a new location. During their brief period of flight, large numbers of insectivorous songbirds virtually mob the area, snapping up thousands of termites. On Lookout Hill several trees had been blown down and, after the parks department cleared the larger debris, left the trunks to decompose naturally. I'm guessing that all the extra wood had contributed to a particularly large colony of termites. As we approached the area I noticed several dozen Chimney Swifts and three different species of swallow swooping down between the trees above the path, feasting on the windfall. During the next 30 minutes we witnessed an endless stream of hungry songbirds, many at or below eye level. The incredible list of species directly feeding on the termites or in the immediate vicinity were:

Chimney Swift
Great Crested Flycatcher
Eastern Kingbird
Red-eyed Vireo
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
Nashville Warbler
Northern Parula
Yellow Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Cape May Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Bay-breasted Warbler
Blackpoll Warbler
Cerulean Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Common Yellowthroat
Hooded Warbler
Canada Warbler
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Orchard Oriole
Baltimore Oriole

At some point we heard rumor of a Blue-winged Warbler near the Boathouse, so Adam, Heydi, Paige and I decided to go find it.

We had just arrived at a grassy area near the Boathouse and next to the Lily Pond when I received another text message from Peter:

"Cerulean Warbler @ termite hatch site above wellhouse"


I read that message aloud and the four of us began sprinting back to the hill. As we passed the Concert Pagoda Heydi and I suddenly stopped and said in unison, "Blue-winged Warbler" (we heard it singing). Adam and Paige slammed on their brakes and ran back to get brief looks of the tiny yellow and blue bird as it sang from a perch in a sycamore tree. The viewing lasted all of about 10 seconds before we continued running towards Lookout Hill.

Arriving sweating and out of breath, we discovered that the bird was no longer present. The large group gathered near the hatch-out continued searching the trees and tree trunk littered hillside for this rarely seen blue songbird. At one point my friend Keir asked if I wanted to join him searching the trees at the top of the hill. I agreed and we began walking.
A moment later we heard someone shout, "Cerulean!" There, in the clearing along the steep hillside, was the bird of the day. I'd seen them on their breeding grounds and even a few time in Prospect Park, but this experience was like no other. This bird of the upperstory was hopping around on the ground, eating termites, only a few yards away from us. A dozen birders pressed up against a black, wire fence that protected the edge of the clearing. The clicking of cameras sounded like the paparazzi along the red carpet at a Hollywood opening. People were shoulder to shoulder staring in awe at the bird. Then something silly occurred to me. I announced to the group that, in light of a previous statement made by Adam, anyone standing close to him might want to move away.

I watched for a few minutes then moved back to give someone else a chance. The cerulean eventually disappeared up the hillside and into the treetops, but the show on Lookout Hill wasn't over yet.

The Hooded Warbler returned to the area near the termite hatch. There were about a dozen or more birders still present when the hooded then decided to hop out onto the sidewalk. Hooded Warblers tend to forage in the middle story or on the ground, so its behavior wasn't too unusual. Walking around in front of a crowd of people was, however, a little odd and I had to take this photograph.

Spring migration is always an exciting time to go birding. It's a time to hang out with old friend of both the avian and human variety. It's a period of whirlwind sights and sounds that won't be experienced for another year. And it's a time to experience unexpected natural phenomenon that will be remembered by birders for a lifetime. Twenty years from now, a group of birders will be sitting around telling stories of past birding glory. Someone is likely to say, "Remember when we had that termite hatch in Prospect Park and the Cerulean Warbler and Hooded Warbler were dancing around on the ground for us?" I feel fortunate to have been one of those people.

Here are a few photos of birds from the termite hatch on Lookout Hill:


***********

Date: 05/07/11 - 05/08/11
Locations: Prospect Park (Aralia Grove, Lookout Hill, Midwood, North Zoo, Peninsula, Quaker Cemetery, Ravine, Rick's Place, Upper Pool, Vale of Cashmere)
Total Number of Species: 88

Wood Duck
Northern Shoveler
Red-throated Loon
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Egret
Green Heron
Turkey Vulture
Red-tailed Hawk
Spotted Sandpiper
Laughing Gull
Chimney Swift
Northern Flicker
- Empidonax sp.
Great Crested Flycatcher
Eastern Kingbird
White-eyed Vireo
Blue-headed Vireo
Warbling Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Carolina Wren
House Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Veery
Swainson's Thrush
Wood Thrush
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
Brown Thrasher

Blue-winged Warbler
Tennessee Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Northern Parula
Yellow Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Cape May Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Prairie Warbler
Bay-breasted Warbler
Blackpoll Warbler
Cerulean Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Worm-eating Warbler
Ovenbird
Northern Waterthrush
Common Yellowthroat
Hooded Warbler
Canada Warbler

Chipping Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Scarlet Tanager
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Orchard Oriole
Baltimore Oriole
Purple Finch
American Goldfinch

Other common species seen (or heard):
Canada Goose, Mute Swan, Mallard, Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Crow, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, American Robin, European Starling, Song Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Red-winged Blackbird, House Sparrow

No comments:

Exploring urban nature, birds, birdwatching, birding, hummingbirds, butterflies, dragonflies, bees, hawks, raptors, wildflowers, trees, mushrooms, environment, binoculars, spotting scope