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Friday, September 28, 2012

Recent Birding Updates

It's been a little while since I've posted any of my recent birding summaries. I'll try and get you up to speed in this write up.

Migration has been progressing with subtle changes in the groups of birds passing through the city. Warbler diversity has dropped off noticeably with other families of birds seen on the rise.

Floyd Bennett Field

The grasslands and community gardens at Floyd Bennett Field is a great spot to begin looking for migrating American Pipits, sparrows, Dickcissels and Bobolinks. This is a perfect time to start searching for them and, with a little luck, I thought I should be able to track some down.

Heydi had already been walking around Floyd Bennett for a couple of hours when I arrived and joined her. One of my main target species was Bobolink and the grassy habitats here is the best place in Brooklyn to find them. The cricket field in the north-west corner of the property is edged with grasses, mugwort, goldenrod and various other forbs. A perfect spot for this at risk species. The grass on the field is regularly mowed and very short, however, the western border and a berm to the north has been left wild leaving a dense, tall growth of bird habitat. We walked over to a spot parallel to the bicycle path that is outside the park and I "pished" loudly. A small flock of Bobolinks immediately popped out of the underbrush and perched on top of a tall stand of mugwort. They were all females or non-breeding plumage males, that is to say, none were wearing the unique "backward tuxedo" of a breeding male.

We spent a couple of more hours scouring the habitats for Dickcissel, Clay-colored Sparrow or anything unusual, but came up empty. It probably didn't help that work crews were constructing an obstacle course around the runways and on the "Buff-breasted Sandpiper" field for an upcoming event. There also weren't a lot of migrating sparrows seen, although we did find a seemingly very early Dark-eyed Junco calling from a bare ailantus tree. A quick run across Flatbush Avenue to Dead Horse Bay was also unproductive. Regardless, I was happy to have seen some Bobolinks.

Location: Floyd Bennett Field
Date: September 17, 2012

Double-crested Cormorant (1.)
Osprey (1.)
Laughing Gull
Belted Kingfisher (1.)
Hairy Woodpecker (1.)
Northern Flicker (3.)
American Kestrel (1.)
Eastern Phoebe (2.)
Red-eyed Vireo (3.)
Barn Swallow (2.)
Black-capped Chickadee (2.)
Red-breasted Nuthatch (1.)
Carolina Wren (1.)
Ruby-crowned Kinglet (1.)
Swainson's Thrush (1.)
Gray Catbird
Cedar Waxwing
Northern Waterthrush (2.)
Black-and-white Warbler (5.)
Common Yellowthroat (4.)
American Redstart (3.)
Northern Parula (3.)
Palm Warbler (8.)
Yellow-rumped Warbler (4.)
Eastern Towhee (1.)
Savannah Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco (1.)
BOBOLINK (6, in mugwort around fence side by Cricket field.)
Red-winged Blackbird
American Goldfinch

Other common species seen (or heard):
Canada Goose, Mallard, Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Blue Jay (1.), American Crow (32.), American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, European Starling, Song Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, House Finch, House Sparrow

Dreier-Offerman Park a.k.a. Calvert Vaux Park

I hadn't  been to Dreier-Offerman Park, the peninsula that looks out at the Verrazano Bridge, since Fall of last year. It's another grassland habitat, although its proximity to Coney Island Creek and Gravesend Bay also made it a good spot to look for waterfowl and seabirds. The overnight wind conditions really weren't right for a good flight of songbirds and the south winds continued through the day. Any songbirds that had migrated into the area on the last cold front would likely still be in the area. I also thought that a strong south wind could push some birds normally found on the ocean into the bays around the Coney Island peninsula.

When I left the house it was still dark. Sunrise was about 30 minutes away and I wanted to get to Stillwell Avenue in Coney Island fairly early. My plan was to walk up to Cropsey Avenue, cross the creek and head over to Six Diamonds Park. In addition to the grass ball fields, there is a border habitat at the edge of the Dreier-Offerman cove that attracts a variety of songbirds. On that morning, however, both areas were nearly devoid of birds. At Dreier-Offerman there were some early soccer games scheduled and players were already arriving by 7am. So much for finding birds on the fields. A weedy field to the north of the park proper yielded a handful of sparrows - mostly Savannah Sparrows - but there was also a single Lincoln's Sparrow in the mix. In my experience, this skulky, nervous little bird seldom gives one a chance at long study as it usually pops out of the brush for a brief moment before disappearing into dense grass. The bird on Saturday seemed a bit cranky and spent a lot of time chasing the other sparrows away from "his" feeding territory.

After a disappointing low number of birds, Heydi and I headed off towards Coney Island to scan the water there for terns and other water birds. The entry into Dreier-Offerman Park is a temporary dirt road that looks more like a construction zone than a park. The two sides of the road are bordered by high chainlink fences that have plywood sheets affixed to the inside. Both areas are off limits to the public as "soil decontamination" is under way. The area on the south side of the road edges the cove. The area on the north side is a large field, not unlike the habitat in Floyd Bennett Field adjacent to the cricket field. As we were leaving we passed a section where the fence and plywood had been knock down, I stuck my head in and quickly scanned the tops of the dominating mugwort. A Blue Grosbeak was perched just inside the fence. It was an unexpected find and I had a difficult time finding the words "blue" and "grosbeak". I stuttered something incomprehendable, but Heydi somehow got the message and grabbed her camera. As she was taking photos of the grosbeak I spotted a small, pale bird flying across the field to the right of the it. I zeroed in on it with my bins and this time found the right words immediately - Clay-colored Sparrow!

Clay-colored Sparrows are not just an incredibly beautiful little bird, they are hard to come by around New York City. A bird of mainly shrubby grassland, they are found almost exclusively migrating North and South through the central regions of the continent. Cornell's eBird site has a great dynamic map that shows this distribution here. Each year during migration some individuals stray from that path and end up passing through New York City and vicinity. Why that is, I couldn't say, but I'm glad they do as they brighten my day on the rare occasion that I see one. I sent a text out to the Brooklyn alerts list and we continued towards Coney Island. A few minutes later we received a call from Shane, who was nearby and heading our way hoping to find the birds. I commented that he has good "Birding Karma" and if anyone could relocated them it would be him. And after a brief search of the field we managed to find both birds for him. It's always great finding a good bird, but I think a big part of the birding experience is being able to share it with others.

Location: Dreier-Offerman Park
Date: September 22, 2012
33 species

Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron (2.)
Snowy Egret (1.)
Black-crowned Night-Heron (19.)
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (1.)
Osprey (1.)
Chimney Swift
Northern Flicker (7.)
American Kestrel (1.)
Gray Catbird
Cedar Waxwing
Northern Waterthrush (1.)
Common Yellowthroat (4.)
American Redstart (1.)
Palm Warbler (Western) (3.)
Savannah Sparrow (6.)
Song Sparrow

Other common species seen (or heard):
Canada Goose, Mallard, Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, Blue Jay, American Crow, American Robin, Red-bellied Woodpecker (3.), Downy Woodpecker (1.), Northern Mockingbird, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, House Sparrow

Hook Mountain Hawk Watch

The Linnaean Society of New York booked me to lead a trip to the Hook Mountain Hawk Watch, which is near Nyack, NY. Last year I went to the hawk watch on September 17th and that turned out to be one of the most incredible days on record for Broad-winged Hawk migration. I posted about it here. It is impossible to predict a year in advance which day will be the best for Broad-winged Hawks, but you pick a date in mid to late-September and keep your fingers crossed that the weather conditions and animals cooperate.

I had eight people registered for the trip and I told everyone that overnight North-West winds looked good for a big push of hawks. Deep down inside, though, I knew it was very unlikely that we'd experience the thousands of hawks that I saw last year. The weather was clear with a slight cool wind blowing in from the North-West when we arrived at the mountain top at around 9am. A few hawkwatchers had already assembled. It was a slow morning with only sporadic sightings of individual broad-wings. We did see a fair number of Sharp-shinned Hawks and American Kestrels passing close to the ridge. There is a plastic Great-horned Owl mounted on top of a post designed to attract some of the raptors. A few sharpies dove at it, but the best performance was by a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk who looked like he planned on taking the faux owl's head off.

While the broad-winged migration turned out to be a little disappointing the group did get some great looks at Bald Eagles. One pair of adult eagles delighted the assembled masses on the mountain top as they tussled with each other, first to our south, then as they passed overhead and out over the Hudson River. One very odd sighting from the hawk watch was a Savannah Sparrow. More appropriately seen at Floyd Bennett Field, the migrating songbird touched down briefly to rest, then continued on its way.

If you've never been to a hawk watch I highly recommend it and Hook Mountain
on the Hudson River is only about an hour drive from Brooklyn. In fact, you can see part of the city skyline from the top of the ridge.

Location: Hook Mountain, Rockland, NY
Date: September 23, 2012
Comments: This was a Linnaean Society of New York field trip that I led.
27 species

Double-crested Cormorant
Great Egret (1.)
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Osprey (2.)
Sharp-shinned Hawk (40.)
Cooper's Hawk (2.)
Bald Eagle (10.)
Broad-winged Hawk (22.)
Red-tailed Hawk
Chimney Swift
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
American Kestrel (12.)
Common Raven
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Black-throated Green Warbler (1.)
Savannah Sparrow (1.)
American Goldfinch

Other common species seen (or heard):
Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Blue Jay, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, American Robin, Northern Mockingbird

Green-Wood Cemetery

This week at Green-Wood Cemetery I noticed a profound change in the status and abundance of certain migrating species. A brief cold front moving through our area had brought with it large numbers of Northern Flickers and Blue Jays. In addition, the oak trees at the corner of my block are suddenly noisy with the squeaks and "chaaa"s of Common Grackles. Within a month the oaks will return to only the occasional House Sparrow or woodpecker.

As I searched wooded edges and open lawns for sparrows I kept coming across small flocks of Yellow-rumped Warblers and Palm Warblers. Many of the palms were of the pale Western race of the species. Eastern Phoebes hawking for insects were also seen in good numbers for the first time this season. The cemetery's abundant flowering dogwoods are now fruiting and were magnets for flickers, tanagers, robins and other thrushes. There were a fair number of Chipping Sparrows around, but since they nest in the cemetery I wasn't sure if they were migrating birds or breeding populations that just haven't moved south yet. When chippings are moving through the area the cemetery can see very large flocks. The most I've seen there was several years ago when Marge, Doug and I estimated that there were 20,000 sparrows near the Hill of Graves. Another species that is currently heading south are Double-crested Cormorants and I spotted a flock of 62 passing over Green-Wood. I was hoping that they'd drop in for a short respite, but they would probably fill up the cemetery's small ponds.

The forecast calls for the wind to switch to the North-North-West then North-West overnight and into the morning. These are the right conditions for Southbound migrants, so perhaps we will be seeing some good activity tomorrow morning. I'll keep you posted.

Location: Green-Wood Cemetery
Date: September 27, 2012
56 species

Double-crested Cormorant (62, flock flyover.)
Great Blue Heron (1.)
Great Egret (1.)
Sharp-shinned Hawk (1.)
Spotted Sandpiper (1.)
Chimney Swift
Ruby-throated Hummingbird (1.)
Hairy Woodpecker (2.)
Northern Flicker
American Kestrel (1.)
Merlin (1.)
Monk Parakeet
Eastern Phoebe  (14.)
Blue-headed Vireo (2.)
Red-eyed Vireo (5.)
Red-breasted Nuthatch (11.)
White-breasted Nuthatch (3.)
Swainson's Thrush (3.)
Wood Thrush (1.)
Gray Catbird
Brown Thrasher (1.)
Cedar Waxwing
Common Yellowthroat (1.)
Cape May Warbler (1.)
Magnolia Warbler (1.)
Blackpoll Warbler (10.)
Palm Warbler (8.)
Pine Warbler (2.)
Yellow-rumped Warbler (20.)
Chipping Sparrow
Song Sparrow (2.)
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco (2.)
Scarlet Tanager (2.)
Rose-breasted Grosbeak (2.)
Common Grackle
Baltimore Oriole (1.)
American Goldfinch

Other common species seen (or heard):
Canada Goose, American Black Duck, Mallard, Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Crow, Black-capped Chickadee, American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, House Sparrow

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