Wednesday, January 04, 2012

End of Year Wrap-up

With all the end of year holiday madness, I didn't have much time for regular updates. A couple of the things that I need to catch up on are Christmas Bird Count summaries (I participated in two), my monthly bird species total, plus, my final 2011 bird list. This first posting will be a rundown of the bird counts in which I participated:

Brooklyn CBC

2011 would be my 10th Christmas Bird Count (out of 11 years) spent tracking the birds at Floyd Bennett Field, Dead Horse Bay and Four Sparrow Marsh. The weather leading up to the Brooklyn CBC was unseasonably mild. The expected overwintering species, by most accounts, were extremely low. Perhaps, many birds still had plenty of food in the north country and just hadn't flown south yet. One example would be that at Floyd we only managed to see a single Dark-eyed Junco, a sparrow which is normally very abundant around NYC in the winter. In addition, this was the first time since I began doing the count at Floyd Bennett Field in 2000 that we didn't observe a single Eastern Meadowlark. For many years Floyd Bennett Field was the only place in Brooklyn where this grassland species could be found overwintering. Despite a low abundance, it was the second highest species count in Brooklyn CBC history.

At Dead Horse Bay the annual large raft of scaup had yet to arrive and there was only a handful of these black-and-white waterfowl resting in the choppy water. Surprisingly, though, there was a fairly large number of Horned Grebe hanging out close to shore in the cove next to the marina here. One bright spot in the rather quiet habitats around Floyd Bennett Field was a rare visitor from the north - a Northern Shrike.
Tentatively identified back in early December, the original reporter had fleeting glimpses of what he thought might have been a shrike chasing a mockingbird, but he wasn't able to relocate it. This mostly grey and white bird could, at a distance, be mistaken for a mockingbird (or vice-versa), so I don't think many folks gave the original report serious consideration. It wasn't until the day before the Christmas Count when Corey Finger, of the 10,000 Birds blog, spotted the shrike at the edge of Field "C" and sent the word out. Thankfully, the bird stuck around and I spotted it on the day of the count as our group walked the grasslands trying to flush birds. I need to point out that walking on the protected grasslands at Floyd Bennett Field is prohibited and that only during the Christmas Bird Count does New York City Audubon have permission to enter them. After I reported the Northern Shrike to the birding community, there were some issues with birders ignoring the "Protected Grasslands" signs in pursuit of the bird. Floyd Bennett Field has one of the last remaining grasslands in New York City and people need to respect this important habitat, please.

I thought that the shrike was going to be the highlight of the Brooklyn count, but I was wrong. At the compilation dinner Janet Zinn announced at the end of the night that her team had found a bird that had never been reported in the history of the Brooklyn Christmas Bird Count - a Red Phalarope. This very un-shorebird like shorebird spends the majority of its time on the open ocean when not breeding. Janet and her team spotted it close to shore on the Gowanus Bay behind Fairway in Red Hook. Unfortunately it was a one-day-wonder, never relocated after the count.

Below is Peter Dorosh's summary of the entire borough's count. Note that since the CBC areas are based on "circles" of a specific radius that parts of the Brooklyn coverage actually includes some locations that are technically within the borough of Queens:

The preliminary results, subject to count week and numbers edition review, for Brooklyn 12/17/11 Kings County Christmas Bird Census is as follows:

132 species were recorded, our second highest species total ever, tying the 1997 Kings County CBC with this year's three historical first time species with RED PHALAROPE at North Shore Brooklyn Heights, BLACK AND WHITE WARBLER at Prospect Park and BARROWS GOLDENEYE at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge.

Those species qualified as "rare" (based on 10 year totals) are as follows:

Eared Grebe
American Bittern
Green Heron
Turkey Vulture
Wilson's Snipe
Glaucous Gull
Great Horned Owl
Long-Eared Owl
Northern Shrike
Pine Warbler
Saltmarsh Sharp-Tailed Sparrow
Seaside Sparrow
Baltimore Oriole.

Count week rarities (all seen on Friday, 12/16):

American Redstart
Marbled Godwit
American Oystercatcher

The overall species list pending further review:

Snow Goose
Brant
Canada Goose
Mute Swan
Wood Duck
Gadwall
American Wigeon
American Black Duck
Mallard
Northern Shoveler
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal
Canvasback
Greater Scaup
Lesser Scaup
Surf Scoter
White-winged Scoter
Black Scoter
Long-tailed Duck
Bufflehead
Common Goldeneye
Barrow's Goldeneye
Hooded Merganser
Red-breasted Merganser
Ruddy Duck
Ring-necked Pheasant
Red-throated Loon
Common Loon
Pied-billed Grebe
Horned Grebe
Red-necked Grebe
Eared Grebe
Northern Gannet
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Cormorant
American Bittern
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Green Heron
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Turkey Vulture
Northern Harrier
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Cooper's Hawk
Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Merlin
Peregrine Falcon
American Coot
Black-bellied Plover
Killdeer
American Oystercatcher
Greater Yellowlegs
Marbled Godwit
Sanderling
Purple Sandpiper
Dunlin
Wilson's Snipe
American Woodcock
Red Phalarope
Bonaparte's Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Glaucous Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Razorbill
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Monk Parakeet
Barn Owl
Great Horned Owl
Snowy Owl
Long-eared Owl
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Northern Shrike
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Tree Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Carolina Wren
Winter Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
Brown Thrasher
European Starling
American Pipit
Cedar Waxwing
Orange-crowned Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Pine Warbler
Palm Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Common Yellowthroat
Yellow-breasted Chat
Eastern Towhee
American Tree Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow
Seaside Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Snow Bunting
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Rusty Blackbird
Common Grackle
Boat-tailed Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Baltimore Oriole
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow


Bronx/Westchester CBC

I've been lending a hand on the Bronx/Westchester Christmas Bird Count since 2003. I'm always part of the team that covers the New York Botanical Garden with Steve Nanz, Shane Blodgett and others. This year our team was just Steve and myself. Like the Brooklyn count, bird numbers seemed low, so were able to easily cover the garden's 250 acres by 2pm.

In the past, we'd arrive at the entrance to the garden just after sunrise. This year there were no cars on the road so it was still dark when we pulled into the parking lot off of Kazimiroff Boulevard. After gathering our gear, Steve and I headed straight to a stand of pine trees behind the gift shop. We always check this area first as it seems like a good place for roosting owls or other raptors. The sun was just coming up, but the silhouette of any large bird would be easy to see against the brightening sky. The final tree that I checked in the stand was a towering spruce. There was something interesting tucked up near the top. It was a large dark shape that suggested an owl. I called Steve over and whispered, "I think I've got and owl up here." As he struggled to focus in on the bird I moved to another position and said, "No wait, I think it's just a raccoon." Then a moment later the animal stretched it's prehistoric looking neck out and I corrected myself again - "It's a turkey and there are two of them." It seemed incongruous to be looking 15 feet up into a pine tree at two Wild Turkeys, but I guess it makes sense. It's safe and relatively camouflaged, but these huge birds didn't look very agile as they balanced on the tree's relatively narrow branches. They were difficult to get a clean view of because of the tangle of branches, so maybe they wedge themselves into dense clusters, so they don't fall out. The tree is located only about 50 feet away from where we spotted three turkeys last year.

One of the species that Steve and I are responsible for finding is the resident pair of Great Horned Owls. When we first started doing the count in the Bronx we had a difficult time finding these well camouflaged owls. My experience tracking the Green-Wood Cemetery Great Horned Owls over the last four years have trained my eyes to more easily spot their shape perched in a distant tree. This year I located one of the botanical garden owls from about a hundred yards away, so we didn't need to risk disturbing him or her by walking near their daytime roost. We weren't able to find the second owl, so perhaps it is already sitting on a nest in a tree cavity somewhere. The forest in this area was surprisingly inactive but we did spot our first mixed songbird flock feeding near the trailhead. The flock mostly consisted of Dark-eyed Juncos, but also contained Song Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, a nuthatch and a couple of woodpeckers. Up to this point we were beginning to think we wouldn't find any songbirds in the woods.

After lunch we decided to loop back through the conifer arboretum, the wild wetland trail and the large stand of pines overlooking the crabapple collection. Earlier we had seen a Cooper's Hawk zipping through the conifers, so the small birds had remained quiet and inconspicuous. A second look found a nice mix of robins, juncos and White-throated Sparrows feeding beneath the shrubs a short distance from the tram stop. Among the common sparrows, Steve spotted one standout - a White-crowned Sparrow. This species is more commonly seen around New York City during the late-Fall, when large numbers of sparrows are migrating south. We had never seen one the 8 or 9 years that we'd been covering the botanical garden and were fairly certain that it would be the only one recorded in the Bronx that day. Steve spent a few minutes taking photos of the sparrow then we headed down the path towards a small body of water know as the Twin Lakes. Our pathetic list of waterfowl for the day consisted of Canada Goose and Mallard. We were hoping for something different.

From the bridge over the lakes we spotted something unusual swimming around, but it wasn't a duck, nor did it have feathers:


This busy Muskrat was swimming back and forth to its den, periodically diving for some type of unidentified vegetation. I was a little concerned about this cute mammal's welfare as there was a Red-tailed Hawk perched in a tree directly above the pond. Fortunately, the hawk took off before he noticed that the muskrat was near the shore and within striking distance.

Despite low species abundance we did manage to identify an average overall number of species.

New York Botanical Garden
Dec 26, 2011
34 species (+1 other taxa)

Canada Goose
Mallard
Wild Turkey
Turkey Vulture
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Blue Jay
crow sp.
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
Northern Mockingbird
European Starling
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

Christopher Lyons wrote up a really thorough summary of the Bronx/Westchester count below:

It seems to be an invariant law of nature. Last year, during the blizzard, we quit several hours early, to get home safely, after slogging through increasingly deep snow--and got 61 species for West Bronx--this year we were out there all day, in weather that was not terribly objectionable (other than a stiff wind), and we got 65 species--that's about one extra species per added hour of searching. It's also a little below our 21 year average of 67 species, according to a chart Mike gave me at the dinner. But to be honest, I'm always happy if we stay above 60 species--we got only 59 in 1993, the first year I participated (I became West Bronx Captain two years later, when Steve Gibaldi moved away). There was a vicious wind chill that day, so for all we complain about precipitation (rain even more than snow), it may well be that wind is our greatest adversary, keeping the birds hunkered down, making it harder to hear them, and dulling our senses, while numbing our fingers and making our eyes tear up. We've actually had some amazing results on rainy/snowy days. And we still hate going out in them. But anyway, personal comfort is hardly the point, is it? The hell it ain't. ;)

It was a remarkably un-birdy day on Monday. It wasn't just us West Bronx people who thought so--that was the general consensus at the count dinner. Some good sightings, plenty of interesting trends to ponder, but overall bird numbers were far down from recent years. Half-hardy species that you'd expect in such a mild December (and are being seen daily in Manhattan) were mainly absent, and there were no irruptions of northern species either, not that you'd expect them. A bit too chilly for warblers, much too warm for finches. And even the birds that show up every winter were extremely hard to find--Chickadees, Titmice, White-throated Sparrows, Juncos--I don't remember ever seeing so few of them on a count, and I don't remember West Bronx ever missing American Tree Sparrow before.

East Bronx (our despised rival) normally has a plethora of wintering owls to gloat over, but this year they got 3 Great Horned Owls (a year-round resident), and I think that was it. No Barn Owls, no Long-Eared Owls, no Snowies, no Saw-whets--in fact, this was the first time in 12 years that Bronx-Westchester didn't get a single Saw-whet Owl. Screech Owls were mainly found in Yonkers and Hudson Valley, where breeding pairs in parks and suburbs can be staked out at dawn or dusk. West Bronx's only owl was one of the breeding pair of Great Horned's in the New York Botanical Garden. Even the birds we know are present all year were often hard to find.

Some trends had nothing to do with the weather--American Crow, still reeling from the after-effects of West Nile encephilitis, hit a 43 year low of 211 for the count circle. Tufted Titmouse was at a 27 year low (which would have been even lower without West Bronx, which had more of them than any other territory). Eastern Meadowlark was missed--again--and has now been downgraded (or upgraded, depending on your POV) to a blue-letter (uncommon) species, since it's been so long that we had even one. Ring-necked Pheasant will probably be a blue-letter species soon as well. American Kestrel would have been missed entirely if Tom Fiore and Kristine Wallstrom hadn't once again found one in Riverdale--West Bronx's only save, but a crucial one--we've still never missed this species for West Bronx. A short distance away in Manhattan, Kestrel is pretty much unmissable, due to all the known breeding pairs.

Tom and Kristine also saw two Ravens overhead--and the East Bronx team spotted two from Pelham Bay Park--no way they could be the same pair, so that's a new high count of 4 Common Ravens, a species that used to be virtually impossible to find in West Bronx on count day--when I started participating, only one had ever been seen, long before most of our participants had been born, and now we're getting them almost every year. It'll be a blue-letter species in no time at this rate, but this year it was one of West Bronx's two red-letter (rare) birds.

The other was Greater White-fronted Goose--the bird of the day, for West Bronx and the whole count circle, and if you don't believe me, read Mike Bochnik's quick CBC report to NYSBird--only the second time this species has been found in Bronx-Westchester on count day, and it might easily have been missed. This particular individual has not been reliable day to day, and I was far from certain we'd locate it, given that Yolanda and I had scouted Van Cortlandt last Friday, and studied every last one of the 600+ Canada Geese on the Parade Ground and the lake, and they were all Canadas. I didn't see it on the lake at dawn on count day, but I dispatched a small group led by James Knox to the south end of Van Cortlandt, and they found it near the golf house--where it was found again by Tom Fiore and Adele Gotlib at the very end of the day. But it was not there in the late afternoon, so it really is all about timing.

Celia Dubin, a first-time participant for Bronx-Westchester, was, I believe, the first to spot the GWF on count day--we had a bunch of really talented first-timers in West Bronx on Monday, and I hope all of them will be back, because they made a crucial difference, as did Carl Howard, who led some of the newbies down into the wet brushy area of the Northwest Woods in Van Cortlandt, where some of our best birds were located, including four Winter Wrens. It's rare that I have such a large group to cover the park (eight this year, myself included), but it's only when some of them are sufficiently well-versed in the intricacies of navigating it that I can take full advantage of those numbers by splitting into separate groups--saved us a lot of time, and got us a lot of extra birds. Without that particular x-factor, maybe we'd have been lucky to match the 55 species West Bronx got in 1989. For some of the team members who had less experience in Van Cortlandt, it was an eye-opener to see just how big this park really is, and how many habitats it encompasses. Van Cortlandt does not yield up her treasures easily, but it's always worth the extra time and effort, even on those cold windy doldrums days.

Best bird in Van Cortlandt was probably the immature Red-shouldered Hawk found at the northeast corner of the park, near the water-tunnel access point. We've had adults of this species in this very area in winters past (sometimes on count day), and it's interesting to see how they keep gravitating to this spot. There was another Red-shouldered at the Bronx Zoo, found by David Krauss' team--Star Saphir, Donald Hill, and first-timer Anders Peltomaa, as well as David--and I'm wondering if that was an immature as well. If so, then I have to suspect that the Northern Goshawk reported for Bronx Park recently might actually be a Red-shouldered seen briefly and not well, since there is a superficial similarity between the juvenile forms of those two species. Nobody in the count circle found a single Goshawk, but there were nine (!!) Red-shouldered's on Monday. We can't complain about diurnal raptors much at all--eight Bald Eagles were found (including one adult in Riverdale), along with six Black Vultures in Yonkers, and 45 (!!!!!) Turkey Vultures for the whole count circle--four of which were seen over West Bronx. Three Merlins for the day, including the two Adele Gotlib's crew found in Woodlawn Cemetery.

For me personally, the only real disappointment was that we missed Rusty Blackbird in Van Cortlandt Park--I don't know if this has ever happened before, but certainly not on my watch. There has been an overwintering population there for many years, and it seems like they just aren't around so far this winter, and neither is the once-enormous mixed roost of icterids we once used to see flying out of the marsh at dawn, and returning at dusk. Seven Rusties were found at the Bronx Zoo, and for all I know that's the same birds I saw last year, but then again, they found 27 in Pelham Bay Park (truly, the perfidy of East Bronx knows no limits). I've always had a fondness for this species, and while I know I'll still see them in Van Cortlandt during migration, it's a bitter pill to swallow, much as I knew it was coming. They are now declining across most of their current range, and who knows if we'll ever see the numbers we used to. And to return to a theme of past reports, that's the kind of thing CBC's are really about--keeping track of population trends, in the hopes that maybe we can do something to mitigate the undeniable human role in lessening biodiversity. It's great that we're regularly seeing Bald Eagles and Peregrines, after they nearly disappeared forever, but it's much easier for most people to ignore declines in the less glamorous and noticeable species, and that's why we're really out there--to provide raw data. I don't know what it means (if anything) that there was only one (!!!!!!!!) Cedar Waxwing located anywhere in the count circle on Monday, but maybe someone else will.

It's an ill wind that blows no good birds in at all--territories that have salt water had some excellent finds, including Razorbills--two even seen by East Bronx. Red-throated and Common Loon both posted record high counts, and there were good numbers of Scoters and Scaups. Canvasback is not coming back, though.

Before I conclude, I must mention a few more special contributions of the various West Bronx parties--Steve and Rob found the CBC's only White-crowned Sparrow in the NYBG--they also had two Wild Turkeys, and West Bronx would have missed Red-breasted Nuthatch entirely if they hadn't found it (they were atypically absent from Woodlawn Cemetery). Tom and Kristine had a Chipping Sparrow in Riverdale--not an easy bird to get, and the only one for Bronx-Westchester this year. The zoo team contributed Wood Duck and Sharp-shinned Hawk to West Bronx's tally--and our only Common Grackles for the day, which is just mind-boggling to me. Woodlawn's only unique contribution was the two Merlins, but that's well worth mentioning twice. And while there was, as usual, very little of note at the Jerome Park Reservoir, Yolanda Garcia made a special trip out there anyway, getting most of our gulls, including one Greater Black-backed--the only one for West Bronx, and that got us to 65 species. Nadir Souirgi, another first-timer in Van Cortlandt, spotted a Turkey Vulture high overhead while we were in the middle of the northeast woods--no mean feat. And Jerry and Eleanor Magee made the most unique contribution of all, by driving me and Celia to and from the count dinner at Lenoir Preserve--been a long time since I had ride both ways.

And this brings us, finally, to our annual friendly competition with East Bronx--the ancient rivalry that exists largely in my head, or maybe not. How did our East Bronx do? Well, they got four red-letter species to our two, and of the twenty-two species of note that Mike singled out in his report (most found in more than one territory), they got nine to our eight, with some overlap. Advantage, East Bronx.

But we got the #1 rarity of the day, for only the second time in the count's 88 year history, and the best save of the day with American Kestrel , thus keeping Bronx-Westchester's streak alive for another year--advantage us.

The tie-breaker would clearly be who got the most species overall. West Bronx got 65, as I've mentioned--East Bronx got--let me check the HRAS website--74. So that would seem to be that.

But see, until just now, I didn't know how many species East Bronx got--because when we started reading off our birds at the count dinner, David Kunstler said that while he was ready to say how many of each species they'd found, he hadn't had time to count up the number of species. Not the first time this has happened, btw--a typical East Bronxian ploy. And thus I must solemnly declare that regardless of who actually has the most species in Mike's report, East Bronx has forfeited, and West Bronx is victorious! A victory based on a quite possibly spurious technicality is a victory nonetheless! West Bronx West Bronx uber aves!

My deepest thanks to all of you, old-timers and first-timers alike. I must sadly relate that one of our real old-timers, Lenny Abramson ( a talented nature photographer, and the first person I ever birded with in Van Cortlandt Park, even though he's never stopped insisting that he's not a birder, just a guy who looks at birds sometimes), had a bad fall a few months back, and is now residing at Jewish Home Lifecare, a nursing home on Kingsbridge Avenue, over by the VA hospital. He's feeling pretty well, but is unlikely to get out on his own again, and is now dealing with a big transition in his life. I've been visiting him pretty regularly, and I'll be conveying the count results to him in person. Lenny's contribution to West Bronx has been invaluable, in terms of logistics--he would cover areas like the reservoir that nobody else had time to get to, serve as a guide to new participants in areas they didn't know, and for quite a long time he was the only person who ever accompanied me to the count dinner. He broke some bones in that fall, but his wry sense of humor remains intact. He still thinks all of us birders are nuts.

Well seeing as that's the case........see you next year? Sunday, December 23rd, 2012. Pray for good weather and good birds at the same time--couldn't hurt.

Christopher Lyons

PS: You can read Mike's report here--


http://www.hras.org/count/88thbw.html

No comments:

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