Thursday, August 23, 2012

Weekend Bird Wrap-up

Last weekend's Brooklyn birding revealed a few surprises and added a couple of new species for my yearly Brooklyn list.

19th Annual Tom Davis Shorebird Walk

My friend Sean was leading the annual event at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge on Saturday. Both Heydi and I had planned on attending, but weather forecasts sounded bad. Thunderstorms were predicted throughout the night and into the early morning. It's one thing to be outdoors in the rain and something entirely different looking through a scope through a curtain of blur at shorebirds that are already difficult to identify. I decided not to go and texted Sean the night before.

Floyd Bennett Field

By around 9:00am the rain began to slow so I started to pack my gear on my bike for a ride down to Floyd Bennett Field. Heydi was already there and texted that there were lots of Black-bellied Plovers at the temporary puddles along all the runways. A short while after, she send another message that there were a few golden-plovers present, as well. By this time the rain had slowed to a drizzle, so I hopped on my bike and headed up the block. About ten seconds into my ride I heard air hissing from my rear tire, stopped to examine the rubber and found a small piece of glass sticking out of the tread. Crap! Repairing the flat cost me about 15 minutes and I hoped that the American Golden-Plovers stuck around until I arrived. I called Heydi to let her know I was delayed and asked for exact directions to the plovers.

On a good day (and with rare bird motivation) it takes me about 30 minutes to ride from my apartment to Floyd Bennett Field. Saturday was a good day and when I arrived I headed straight to the recently mowed "Field A" to scan for golden-plovers. It took me less than a minute to spot one of the birds, then they took off flying. Heydi was walking across the parking lot from Aviator Sports towards the fields. I pedaled over to give her the news, but she had seen them fly and the two of us stood in the parking lot following the flight path of these dark plovers with our eyes.

The birds alternately flew out over the large parking lots and Floyd Bennett's grass fields crisscrossed with old concrete runways. They eventually came down at the edge of the field directly opposite the Ryan Visitor Center. We probably spent about 15 minutes watching these relatively rare visitors to Brooklyn. Earlier I had sent out a text alert about the sighting and expected that other birders would be showing up shortly. We left the nervous birds to forage along the edge of the grass and headed over to Dead Horse Bay.

Dead Horse Bay

The broken glass-encrusted beach along Dead Horse Bay is an unexpected place to find shorebirds, not so much because the habitat is wrong, but because it looks so undesirable for creatures with delicate, little feet. In spots it appears that there is actually more glass than sand blanketing the beach. I suppose that there are still plenty of insects, worms and other marine creatures thriving in the almost-sand because the shorebirds are eating something. I'm concerned about any toxins leaching out of the old landfill and into the environment. Along some stretches of this beach the odor of heating oil is unmistakeable. I imagine that the action of the wind and waves will eventually turn all that glass back to sand, but I won't be here to see it. We were hoping to find some Red Knots foraging among the glass, but instead counted our all time high number of Brooklyn Ruddy Turnstones - 43. In addition to the turnstones there were 37 oystercatchers, nearly half of which were juvenile birds. American Oystercatchers are successful breeders along the Rockaway Peninsula and I assume many of the birds we saw on Saturday just flew across Jamaica Bay to feed on Dead Horse Bay's tasty, toxic tidbits.

We returned to Floyd Bennett Field to have some lunch then scour the fields one more time for "grasspipers". As we walked across the main runway Heydi received a text from Andrew requesting details on the location of the golden-plovers. I was surprised that he was the only birder that came out looking. A short while later we spotted Sean with the remains of his Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge group, as well as, Tom and Gail. All had located the plovers and were very happy. Tom also reported seeing a Pectoral Sandpiper, although it had flown off before Heydi and I arrived. It was nearly low-tide and the flocks of Black-bellied Plovers seen earlier in the morning had taken off to forage on the now exposed flats within Jamaica Bay. I suppose that is also where I might have found the Pectoral Sandpiper.

Prospect Park

North winds at night during the Fall migration is usually an indication that there will be lots of birds the next morning. I was convinced that Prospect Park was going to be loaded with birds on Sunday and arranged to meet Heydi and Paige at first light at Grand Army Plaza. By morning Paige decided to go to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge instead to search for some recently reported rarities. She texted me at around 7am to find out how the activity was in Prospect Park. I think my exact words were, "So far it sux." Up to that point, the north end of the park was virtually devoid of birds. We had seen only one warbler, a Canada Warbler, and very few of the resident birds. That would all change, though, as we approached the Nethermead Meadow.

Just below the intersection of Center Drive and the Ravine Path there is a small stand of mature oak trees at the edge of the Nethermead. As we descended the Ravine Path I heard first a chickadee, then a titmouse vocalizing near the top of one of the oaks. We walked towards the base of the tree and began scanning for the birds. There was a lot of bird activity in that tree and, in addition to the chickadee and titmouse, we quickly tallied Warbling Vireo, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Black-and-white Warbler, American Redstart, Northern Parula, Magnolia Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler and Baltimore Oriole! The flock flew across the road to the woods along Quaker Ridge. We followed and walked along the parallel bridle path towards the Quaker Cemetery. Eventually we wound our way up onto Lookout Hill were we found even more bird activity. We spent about an hour there circling the Butterfly Meadow, the top of the hill, then down the south stairway and along the upper Wellhouse Path to the Maryland Monument. I wanted to head out onto the Peninsula and the wooded section there, but there were too many unleashed dogs running around and opted instead to walk over to Green-Wood Cemetery after a short break at Connecticut Muffin.

Green-Wood Cemetery and Back to Prospect Park

There was a bit of warbler activity at Green-Wood Cemetery, but nothing unusual ... mostly lots of American Redstarts. At the Sylvan Water a young Glossy Ibis was feeding along the edge of the pond in front of Fred Ebb's mausoleum. Ibis are relatively unusual in the cemetery and, given the location, I had a sudden urge to start singing "New York, New York."

Our 2 1/2 hour meander in the cemetery paid off with one very nice highlight. We were heading towards a small valley near Boss Tweed when I heard a distinctive, "tu-wee" call of a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. I ran towards the sound of the bird. It called nearly non-stop as it hawked for insects at a stand of mature deciduous trees near the Pierrepont family memorial. This small empidonax flycatcher is easily distinguished from the other similar flycatchers in the Spring by its very yellow undersides. Unfortunately, in the Fall, nearly all the empidonax flycatchers appear to have a yellow wash on their undersides. Luckily, the bird in the cemetery was vocalizing continually and his call is unique and easily differentiated.

Shortly after finding the flycatcher we received a text from Peter that a Golden-winged Warbler was spotted on the Peninsula in Prospect Park. I wrote back asking when. He responded, "Right now." It would take us 30 minutes to walk back from the cemetery to the Peninsula. I hadn't seen a golden-winged in Brooklyn in nearly 10 years, so it was worth taking a chance and hightailing it back.

Once on the wooded end of the Peninsula we saw Adam, Keir and Tom, who had been following the golden-winged. They explained that it had been feeding low in the understory, occasionally feeding right on the ground, but they had recently lost sight of it. Heydi and I split off from them determined not to leave the park until we relocated the bird. We started to sweep back and forth across the narrow finger of land that juts into the park's lake. A few minutes later Keir texted that there was a Cape May Warbler in a pine tree at the end of peninsula. We reversed course. The cape may was easy to find and while we were looking at it I asked the guys if the Golden-winged Warbler was associating with any other birds. They replied that it was within a small flock that included a pair of Chestnut-sided Warblers. We left to continue the search and to keep an eye out for the chestnut-sideds.

Golden-winged Warblers tend to favor areas of low, secondary growth, so that was where we concentrated our search. We had made our way around the Western edge of the forest and were walking into the central area along a dirt path when Heydi shouted, "There it is!" The brightly colored male bird was feeding on insects only about 12" off the ground (the photo doesn't do justice to this lovely bird). A group of about 8 other birders were scanning from a parallel path about 20 yards away so I shouted to them that we had the bird. Everyone came running. A couple of folks were even pushing strollers. More text alerts were sent out. The bird remained in the area feeding very close to the ground and being extremely cooperative for fourteen or more birders. It was the best study I've ever had of this bird. In addition, a pair of the closely related Blue-winged Warbler were feeding in the area. These two species will sometimes hybridize, possibly contributing to the decline of golden-wings.

After about an hour on the Peninsula, Heydi and I had the crazy idea that we could scour Prospect Park one last time and, with a little luck, add one or more species of warbler to our already crazy day list. We headed up to Lookout Hill in search of a Prairie Warbler that was seen there earlier. On our way up the stairs behind the Maryland Monument, Heydi picked out a Worm-eating Warbler in the canopy. At the top of the stairs, walking towards the Butterfly Meadow, I spotted the Prairie Warbler feeding low in a patch of Polkweed and Jerusalem Artichoke. That brought our warbler total, including a Blackpoll and Pine Warbler seen in Green-Wood Cemetery, to 18. At this point we were starting to wind down the day and head back to where we started at the North end of the park. Walking through the Ravine we encountered another birder, whom I didn't know, and we compared warbler notes. We directed him up to Lookout Hill for the worm-eating and prairie, he directed us to the Nethermead Arches for a Wilson's Warbler. From the photo, you know we found the wilson's. The bird was sitting out on a low fence near the edge of the stream. After the bird took off we contemplated which other warbler species were possible on such an early date. One bird that I was surprised we hadn't seen all day was a Black-throated Blue Warbler. We were about 20 minutes away from ending our day and continued North along the bridle path as it followed the stream through the Ravine. About 50 yards passed the Nethermead Arches, there it was - a Black-throated Blue Warbler and our twentieth warbler species of the day. We both tried to take a photo of it through the chainlink fence that separates the horse path from the Ravine's stream. Neither bird nor cameras cooperated.

Sitting on a park bench at the Vale of Cashmere we recounted our day's unbelievable discoveries. Was it really August? The abundance and diversity of warblers that we had experienced seemed more typical for a day during Spring migration! And a good one, at that! I can't wait until the next cold front.

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Date: 08/18/2012
Locations: Dead Horse Bay, Floyd Bennett Field
Species: 60

Brant (7.)
Wood Duck (4.)
Black Scoter (1.)
Double-crested Cormorant (32.)
Black-crowned Night-Heron (2.)
Osprey (2.)
Red-tailed Hawk (1.)
Black-bellied Plover (121.)
AMERICAN GOLDEN-PLOVER (3.)
Semipalmated Plover (4
Killdeer (10.)
American Oystercatcher (37.)
Ruddy Turnstone (43.)
Sanderling (1.)
Semipalmated Sandpiper (2.)
Least Sandpiper (1.)
Short-billed Dowitcher (5.)
Laughing Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull (21.)
Common Tern (6.)
Black Skimmer (3.)
Chimney Swift (3.)
Ruby-throated Hummingbird (1.)
Belted Kingfisher (1.)
American Kestrel (1.)
Willow Flycatcher (1.)
Warbling Vireo (1.)
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee (1.)
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (1.)
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
Brown Thrasher (1.)
Northern Waterthrush (2.)
Common Yellowthroat (1.)
American Redstart (3.)
Yellow Warbler (1.)
Eastern Towhee (2.)
Field Sparrow (2.)
Savannah Sparrow (2.)
Baltimore Oriole (1.)

Other common species seen (or heard):
Canada Goose, Herring Gull (40.), Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Downy Woodpecker (1.), Northern Flicker (1.), Blue Jay (1.), American Crow (3.), American Robin, European Starling, Cedar Waxwing, Song Sparrow (1.), Northern Cardinal, Red-winged Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, American Goldfinch, House Sparrow

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Date: 08/19/2012
Location: Green-Wood Cemetery
Species: 39

Great Blue Heron (2.)
Great Egret (1.)
Green Heron (1.)
Glossy Ibis (1.)
Spotted Sandpiper (1.)
Chimney Swift
Red-bellied Woodpecker (1.)
Monk Parakeet
YELLOW-BELLIED FLYCATCHER (1.)
Great Crested Flycatcher (1.)
Warbling Vireo
Red-breasted Nuthatch (4.)
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Gray Catbird
Cedar Waxwing
Black-and-white Warbler 6
Common Yellowthroat (1.)
American Redstart (20.)
Magnolia Warbler (2.)
Chestnut-sided Warbler (1.)
Blackpoll Warbler (1.)
Pine Warbler (1.)
Canada Warbler (3.)
Chipping Sparrow (12.)
Baltimore Oriole (4.)

Other common species seen (or heard):
Canada Goose, Mallard (1.), Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker (5.), American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, European Starling, Song Sparrow (2.), Northern Cardinal, House Finch, American Goldfinch, House Sparrow

**********

Date: 08/19/2012
Location: Prospect Park
Species: 60

Wood Duck (8.)
Double-crested Cormorant
Red-tailed Hawk (2.)
Laughing Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Chimney Swift (30.)
Ruby-throated Hummingbird (1.)
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker (2.)
Eastern Wood-Pewee (2.)
Empidonax sp. (1.)
Great Crested Flycatcher (1.)
Eastern Kingbird (1.)
White-eyed Vireo (1.)
Warbling Vireo (8.)
Red-eyed Vireo (3.)
Barn Swallow
House Wren (3.)
Carolina Wren (1.)
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (3.)
Gray Catbird
Cedar Waxwing

Ovenbird (1.)
Worm-eating Warbler (1.)
Northern Waterthrush (2.)
Blue-winged Warbler (3.)
GOLDEN-WINGED WARBLER (1.)
Black-and-white Warbler (10.)
Common Yellowthroat (2.)
American Redstart (15.)
Cape May Warbler (1.)
Northern Parula (1.)
Magnolia Warbler (5.)
Yellow Warbler (2.)
Chestnut-sided Warbler (5.)
Black-throated Blue Warbler (1.)
Prairie Warbler (1.)
Black-throated Green Warbler (1.)
Canada Warbler (4.)
Wilson's Warbler (1.)

Scarlet Tanager (1.)
Common Grackle
Baltimore Oriole (8.)

Other common species seen (or heard):
Canada Goose, Mute Swan (7.), American Black Duck, Mallard, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Downy Woodpecker (3.), Northern Flicker, Blue Jay, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, European Starling, Northern Cardinal (1.), American Goldfinch, House Sparrow

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