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Monday, October 17, 2011

Autumn Birding

I don't remember when I heard my last cicada churring, they seemed to have just gradually vanished from the soundscape. Within the last 2 weeks there has been a profound change in the status of bird species in Brooklyn telling me that Autumn has truly arrived and Winter isn't far off. Most of our summer nesting birds have headed south, as well as, the early-fall migrants.

One of my favorite books about birds and nature around New York City is by biologist Robert Arbib. His 1966 publication has likely the longest title of any book in the history of publishing (or not):

"Enjoying birds around New York City: an aid to recognizing, watching, finding, and attracting birds in New York City, Long Island, the Upstate counties of Westchester, Putnam, Dutchess, Rockland, and Orange, and nearby points in New Jersey and Connecticut"

Towards the end of the book is a section titled, "A Bird Watcher's Calendar For New York City And Vicinity". Each month has a short, precise paragraph that highlights that month's annual seasonal fluctuation. Here is how he describes October:

"This month brings cooler days and clear skies, and usually the first frost. The bird picture changes completely. Now the swallows, shorebirds, and herons are largely gone, and in their place come loons, cormorants, and flocks of waterfowl returning from the North. The southward hawk flight reaches its peak, with hawks over the ridges, and falcons, Osprey, and Marsh Hawk working along the beaches. This is the month for jays, flickers, late warblers, thrushes, and sparrows. Blackbirds gather in huge roosts, preparing to depart. There should be rarities, possibly a Western Tanager or a Yellow-headed Blackbird. Start keeping your feeders well stocked after the first frost."

Some of the bird species status and abundance has changed in the 45 years since this book was published, but his descriptions of the general ebb and flow of the seasons are still right on.

In recent weeks I've gone from exploring the coastal areas for shorebirds to the woods and fields of more inland spots. Grasses are going to seed just in time to feed sparrows and other seed-eaters that have arrived in the parks. My walks in Prospect Park have mostly been along the weedy edges of the Long Meadow and other grassy patches, to a pair of fenced sections of meadow that have been reseeded by the landscape management department. These spots are like the Autumn equivalent to a well stocked Winter birdfeeder and attract a lot of birds. On my first visit to a fenced off section of the baseball fields I spotted nearly a dozen Savannah Sparrows. The second time I spotted a chunky Vesper Sparrow among the flock of slender, yellow faced savannahs. Other migrating sparrows that I've seen in recent days include Chipping Sparrow, Lark Sparrow, Nelson's Sparrow, Lincoln's Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow and White-crowned Sparrow.

I noticed an interesting arrangement of feeding stratum in this spot in the middle of the field. Sparrows nibbled on seeds in the grass, partially hidden from view. A few feet above them, a small flock of Eastern Phoebes used the fences to launch forays to capture moths and other insects flying just above the grass. From a dead snag in a tall tree at the north edge of the grass, a perched kestrel bided his time, waiting for just the right moment to swoop down on his preferred prey. This compact falcon might just be targeting the abundant dragonflies around the field, but would also dine on a tiny sparrow given the opportunity.

Within the woodlands, flocks of White-throated Sparrows have suddenly become a constant presence. Tiny, hyperactive Golden-crowned Kinglets can be found just about everywhere from treetops to grassy meadows and every in between level. I've been hearing their high-pitched "tsee, tsee, tsee" call all around the city from street trees to garden shrubs. Dark-eyed Juncos, another winter species, has also just begun to arrive in our city parks and backyards.

A stand of oak trees along the avenue down the street from my home has become noisy with flocks of Common Grackles feeding on acorns. Their annual visit tells me that winds blowing down from the north will soon be chilling New York City.

Some of the recent migrating birds will continue farther south, some individuals will stay and overwinter here. These might include my season's first Brown Creepers. Probing the fissures in tree bark for insects, these beautifully camouflaged birds appear to be carved from wood. They always forage from the base of trees to the top, sometimes passing their seasonal neighbors, the nuthatches, who only seem to travel from the top of the tree to the bottom. Northern Flickers have arrived in large flocks and, along with migrating Blue Jays, now dominate the trees and fields of Green-Wood Cemetery. Another woodpecker, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, has also just arrived and I've been hearing their nasal cat-like mewing "neeah" call around both Green-Wood Cemetery and Prospect Park.

On the lakes and ponds, migrant water birds are beginning to appear, joining the resident Mute Swans, Mallards and black ducks. In Prospect Park the first Northern Shovelers of the season have arrived as have a pair of Pied-billed Grebes. Four American Coots are the first of several dozen that usually spend the winter in Prospect Park. Despite efforts by ignorant city officials to eradicate Canada Geese from Prospect Park's waterways, the first of several hundred winter visitors are now gracing the lake.

When I look up at a south-bound "V" formation of honking geese I think about the unending cycle of seasonal change that all life is tied to. Apparently, some people just see it as another aspect of nature that needs to be controlled. John Muir once said, "When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe."


Date: Oct 1, 2011 - Oct 14, 2011
Locations: Green-Wood Cemetery and Prospect Park

Wood Duck
Northern Shoveler
Pied-billed Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Green Heron
Turkey Vulture
Northern Harrier
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Peregrine Falcon
American Coot
Spotted Sandpiper
Solitary Sandpiper
Monk Parakeet
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Chimney Swift
Belted Kingfisher
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Phoebe
Blue-headed Vireo
Philadelphia Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Blue Jay
Brown Creeper
Carolina Wren
House Wren
Winter Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Gray-cheeked Thrush
Swainson's Thrush
Hermit Thrush
Wood Thrush
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
Brown Thrasher
Black-and-white Warbler
Connecticut Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
American Redstart
Cape May Warbler
Northern Parula
Magnolia Warbler
Bay-breasted Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Blackpoll Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Palm Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Yellow-breasted Chat

Eastern Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Vesper Sparrow
Lark Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Nelson's Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco

Scarlet Tanager
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Blue Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Common Grackle

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, American Robin, European Starling, Song Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, House Sparrow


Packraft and Paddle said...

I also have a copy of Arbib's book, inherited from my father, but hadn't noticed the section on the seasons -- thanks for point that out. By the way, the lawns at Brooklyn Bridge Park's Pier 1 also have been fenced off for reseeding and might be another good spot.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your blog! I've recently gotten into photography, and while always interested in wildlife, this has been bringing me more into the world of birding. I've found your posts helpful in determining what to look for and what to rule out when I am out taking photos in Prospect Park and Greenwood Cemetery. While nothing groundbreaking, I will add that I saw my first Black -Capped Chickadees of the season, 2 or 3 of them, in Prospect Park on 10/24. Keep up the good work!

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