Thursday, May 05, 2011

Migration Gathers Steam

As I predicted in last Thursday's posting, this past weekend saw not only an increase in bird abundance, but also species diversity. Between Saturday and Sunday I tallied 96 species of birds in Brooklyn, among those were a couple of nice surprises. The previous weekend saw 71 species. During a marathon day of birding in Prospect Park on Saturday that included sighting the curious combination of a very early Blackpoll Warbler and very late Pine Siskin, a group of Brooklyn and Queens birders also stumbled on a species that hadn't been seen in the park for 15 years.

With favorable south winds late in the week, Paige Linden, Heydi Lopes and I made plans to start our weekend at 6am at Grand Army Plaza. From there we would walk to the Vale of Cashmere, eventually birding our way to the south end of Prospect Park. Seth Ausable emailed me earlier in the week as he and Corey Finger, another Queens birder, wanted to look for migrants in Prospect Park. Neither spend much time birding in my home park and I always enjoy sharing my knowledge of its hotspots. Both are excellent birders that tend to make exceptional finds wherever they go. I had good feelings about the five of us combining our skills hunting for migrant songbirds.

We met them at the vale at around 6:30am. At first, there didn't seem to be a lot of birds in the area surrounding the decorative pond, but at a large flowering cherry tree near the south end we found our first little wave of songbirds. The cherry tree, which was covered in large, white blossoms is a magnet for Baltimore and Orchard Orioles. On that morning there were also several warblers in the tree among a half-dozen orioles competing for insects. At one point Paige nonchalantly exclaimed, "I think there's a Prothonotary Warbler in front of us". Sure enough, in the low, weeping branches of the tree was a bright, golden yellow prothonotary. By 7:15am we had spotted the following impressive number of birds within the cherry tree:

Nashville Warbler, Northern Parula, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler, Orchard Oriole and Baltimore Oriole.

Nearby were Ovenbird, Northern Waterthrush, White-throated Sparrow and Scarlet Tanager.

We left the Vale of Cashmere and headed towards the previously reported hotspot at the north end of the zoo (the woodchip pile). It was relatively quiet there, so we crossed the road at the Dongan Oak monument and headed into the Midwood. The Midwood is frequently referred to as "the last remaining natural forest in Brooklyn". With towering tuliptrees, oaks and other deciduous hardwoods, it is always a good spot to find migrating wood-warblers.

A high canopy and overcast sky made searching through the birds in the treetops a challenge. At one point I decided to bird from a horizontal position, which Corey memorialized on his blog here. After about 30 minutes in the forest we decided to continue south, towards Center Drive, the Nethermead Meadow, then up to the woods of Lookout Hill. Just before exiting the woods, we ran into Eric Miller with a few other Queens birders. More good ears and eyes usually means more birds, so we joined forces on our quest for songbirds.

Just outside the Midwood, on Center Drive, I noticed a lot of activity in a large, catkin festooned oak tree, so we stopped to scan the treetop. There was a nice mixed flock of birds that included Blue-headed Vireo, Warbling Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Nashville Warbler, Northern Parula, Magnolia Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Palm Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler and Chipping Sparrow. In an adjacent tree Heydi pointed out a Blackpoll Warbler.

When we were still in the Midwood I received a text message from Peter that there was a Bobolink seen on the Nethermead Meadow. We decided not to rush over there, but to take our time, not wanting to miss anything along the way. After several minutes of hunting through the oak tree we continued along Center Drive and passed the Nethermead Meadow. As we approached the meadow (which was covered with several dozen unleashed dogs) Eric shouted that he spotted the Bobolink. Amazingly, the bird was feeding in the grass, seemingly tolerating all the dogs. The bird was likely very hungry and exhausted. A grassland bird, Bobolink populations have declined significantly in New York State and are rarely seen in Prospect Park. My friend Steve was on the field taking photos of the bird after which he joined us on our walk up to Lookout Hill.

As good a morning as we were having, the best was yet to come.

We were slowly making our way up the curved roadway that ascents Lookout Hill from Center Drive. Passing a boxelder tree, I reminded Seth of the Townsend's Warbler he spotted there back on April 25, 2009. For whatever reason, our group stopped several yards up the road from that point, at the ridge just north of the Maryland Monument stairway. I don't know who, but someone shouted something about a flying nightjar. I looked down the ridge and saw a robin chasing a very large, rufous nightjar through the trees from left to right. The bird circled around and came to rest briefly on a tree up and to our right. Several of us got very good looks at a bird that was significantly larger than the robins and nearly uniformly reddish-brown on its upper body, head and wings. The general consensus what that it was a Chuck-will's-widow. After a moment, it spooked again, flew back and forth in front of us, then appeared to come down in the trees not far from where we first observed it. At this point there were 10 of us searching for where it came down. This nocturnal bird's cryptic plumage gives them one of nature's most incredible camouflage so, not unexpectedly, we were never able to locate its roost. I found out later in the afternoon that this was the same location where my friend Doug found one roosting 15 years ago.

Heydi and I weren't satisfied with fleeting glimpses of the Chuck-will's-widow. We decided to go back to that spot at dusk, wait for the sun to go down then playback its call off of her iPhone to see if the bird would respond. At around 8:15pm, while standing approximately where we first spotted it, we played the call and waited a minute. Nothing. We played it again. This time the bird flew up off the ridge and over Heydi's head. A couple of robins chased after it (not sure why the robins feel threatened by this insect eating bird). It circled around then headed in the direction of the Butterfly Meadow. As I write this, the memory of the experience still brings a smile to my face.

Prospect Park on Sunday seemed to have quieted down a bit, bird-wise, so after a couple of hours there, Heydi and I decided to do some birding at Green-Wood Cemetery. My thought was that current south winds might make for a decent raptor flight. The cemetery has several open areas on high ridges that could be ideal for a hawkwatch. Long story, short, the only raptors that we saw were the local pair of Red-tailed Hawks. There was one great sighting, however.

We were walking passed Boss Tweed's finally resting place when I saw another birder coming down the road towards us. His name is Jesse and I'd met him a few times in Prospect Park. There hadn't been a lot of bird activity and we stopped to compare sighting notes. After a moment, Jesse asked us about a bird whose identity he wasn't sure about. He then proceeded to perfectly describe a Blue Grosbeak! This is a very rare bird to find in Brooklyn so I asked if he could bring us back to the spot. He had never been to Green-Wood Cemetery before and was relying on a map which he downloaded from the Brooklyn Bird Club website. It has only taken me 3 years, but I've finally learned how to navigate around the cemetery's twisting, curving roads and paths and went directly to the area adjacent to the Crescent Water where Jesse had flushed the grosbeak. The Crescent Water (a pond) is surrounded on three sides by steep, grass covered ridges. On the side where Jesse spotted the bird, the grass is relatively short. Heydi and I reasoned that the bird would most likely be in longer, unmowed grass. The hillside above and adjacent to William Niblo's mausoleum had lots of long grass, so we climbed the hill and slowed worked our way north above Dale Avenue. We had only been scanning the grass here for a few minutes when I spotted a molting Blue Grosbeak on the ground within a flock of House Sparrow. A moment later Jesse noticed a second one behind it. This is such a good bird for Brooklyn that I immediately sent out a text about it. Rob Bate and Steve Nanz came over quickly and were able to see this rare pair.

It was an exhausting, but exhilarating weekend. According to David LaPuma's "Woodcreeper" website, northwest winds into Thursday kept the migration down in the northeast. However, it looks like the winds will shift to the south-southwest on Friday, then the south through the night. This weekend could be really good birding, so make sure you get out early.

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Date: 04/30/11 to 05/01/11
Locations: Green-Wood Cemetery, Prospect Park
Number of Species: 96

Wood Duck
Northern Shoveler
Ruddy Duck
Red-throated Loon
Common Loon
Double-crested Cormorant
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Osprey
Red-tailed Hawk
American Coot
Spotted Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper
Laughing Gull
Monk Parakeet
Chuck-will's-widow
Chimney Swift
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Northern Flicker
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
Brown Creeper
Carolina Wren
House Wren
Marsh Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Veery
Hermit Thrush
Wood Thrush
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
Blue-winged Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Northern Parula
Yellow Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Pine Warbler
Prairie Warbler
Palm Warbler
Blackpoll Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Prothonotary Warbler
Worm-eating Warbler
Ovenbird
Northern Waterthrush
Louisiana Waterthrush
Common Yellowthroat
Eastern Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Scarlet Tanager
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Blue Grosbeak
Bobolink
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Orchard Oriole
Baltimore Oriole
House Finch
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch

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

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