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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Staten Island Birds & Cicadas

I went to the Cemetery of the Resurrection on Staten Island with a couple of friends over the weekend to look for a reported Mississippi Kite. We found the kite as soon as we exited the car, but then became completely transfixed by the millions of 17-year cicadas that have emerged around the South end of Staten Island.

Mississippi Kites are a rare Southern visitor that seem to be showing up around the tri-state area more frequently in recent years. On Friday, local birding wunderkind Anthony Ciancimino (15 years old!) spotted one at the Cemetery of Resurrection. I suppose New York City birdwatchers shouldn't have been too surprised. First, Anthony has developed a reputation for finding really good birds on Staten Island in his brief birding career. Second, some folks had predicted they might show up because the first Mississippi Kite record in New York State was during a 17-year cicada emergence. I've looked for this raptor on trips to Florida in the past, but never managed to see one. When Heydi's friend Lisa offered to drive to Staten Island on Saturday, how could I say no.

Heydi and I had been birding at Floyd Bennett Field since around 7:30am. The bird activity was disappointing only in that we didn't manage to find anything new or unusual. We both had been hoping that a Mississippi Kite would find Brooklyn inviting. I guess not. There were a lot of breeding birds around and while walking the edges of all the runways probably heard or saw 20 species, including three different warblers. Anyway, Lisa picked us up there at around 11am and we headed towards the Verrazano Bridge.

Lisa drove a route that took us through central Staten Island's "Greenbelt". That was were we first heard it - the constant, low, drone of the magicicadas that have emerged on the island. All three of us are nature-nerds and were very excited about our first mass cicada experience. I wanted to jump out of the car at the first traffic light to photograph a swarm at the side of the road, but Lisa assured me that there would be plenty of time for that later. We continued to the cemetery. I had only been to the Cemetery of the Resurrection once, for my wife's Uncle Billy's funeral several years ago, so knew of it, but didn't know my way around. However, it only took a few minutes for us to spot three people with binoculars. We knew we were in the right place.

One was local birder/naturalist Seth Wollney. We hadn't seen each other for a while and, moments after exchanging pleasantries, he pointed skyward and said, "Looking for the kite?" There it was. That was way too easy. The pale gray raptor was slowly soaring back and forth over the cemetery. At one point it perched at the top of a tree next to a service in progress. It seemed highly inappropriate for us to go running through a gathering of grieving family members with cameras and binoculars dangling from out necks, so instead we waited for the kite to take flight again. Which it eventually did. We made assorted laughs and cheers when it snatched a cicada out of the air and began eating it on the wing. As it drifted out of sight to the South, we concentrated our interests on a much smaller winged creature.

The plants life at the edge of the field was dominated by oaks, sassafras, Autumn Olive and Black Cherry trees. The cicadas didn't seem to have a plant preference and perched on or flew in and out of all of them. Some even perched on mugwort and other small, weedy plants nearly at ground level. The collective sound of these creatures was not what I had expected. Negative reports in the media led me to believe it would be a nightmarish, high-decibel hiss. In reality, it was a relatively low-frequency hum. More like a drone. Seth has been studying the magicicada and pointed out to me that there are actually three species emerging on Staten Island. They are very similar, but can be separated by their distinctive shape and color, songs and behavior. They are Magicicada septendecim, Magicicada cassini and Magicicada septendecula. Once Seth began describing the different songs, I was able to pinpoint some of the variations in the unwavering bubble of drone we seemed to be immersed in. Check out the Magicicada cassini song here.

17-year cicadas are harmless to humans and, apparently, to most plants. You can read an FAQ about these intriguing insects here.

After about 30 minutes of fun with the kite and cicadas, Lisa, Heydi and I headed across Hyland Boulevard to Mt. Loretto Unique Area. Tom Preston sent out a text earlier that there was a Blue Grosbeak at that park's grassland habitat. We decided to go look for it. We parked the car at the main lot on Kenny Road and walked West along the North path through a field of tall grass and wildflowers towards Cunningham Road. The head of a young buck White-Tailed Deer with a lopsided, single set of antlers stuck up from the grass to our left. He watch nervously as we passed within several yards, then slowly ambled deeper into the grassland. A second buck appeared out of the field of green and followed closely behind him.

We caught up with Tom and Isaac, who were standing next to a newly formed pond at the edge of the road. It had rained so much overnight that there were several new bodies of water in depressions throughout the expansive grassy habitat. Mallards, of course, had claimed all of them.

We stood around talking with Tom and Isaac for several minutes, occasionally scanning the tops of the grass and wildflowers for Blue Grosbeak. Apparently both a male and female had been spotted, the female with nesting material. Eventually Isaac caught a glimpse of the male when it flew up into a nearby oak tree. We listened to its clear, sweet, musical warble for a minute or two before we all finally got on the bird. It flew across to the Western edge of the field where it perched high up for a moment before diving down into the understory, possibly to help his mate with nest building. Some other species seen while at Mt. Loretto were Black Vulture, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Bank Swallow, Yellow Warbler, Indigo Bunting and Orchard Oriole. Black Vulture are not typically seen around Staten Island but have begun to breed locally over the last few years.

Before leaving Staten Island we made one last stop at the Southern-most tip at Conference House Park. Seth told us earlier that the magicicada activity was even more impressive (and loud) at that location. He wasn't exaggerating. Not only was the sound louder here, but I assume that this was where Brood II had emerged first because many were already beginning to die off. The walking paths through the park were littered with dead or dying cicadas. Birds were feasting on the sudden windfall of food. I wondered how it would affect local breeding bird populations this year. Would they have more or larger broods?

Seeing a Mississippi Kite in New York City was definitely a rare treat, but I highly recommend checking out the cicada explosion before it's too late. There's always a possibility that a vagrant kite will pass through New York over the next few years, but you won't be able to experience the magicicadas again until 2030.

Check out more pictures and videos at Corey's posting on "10,000 Birds" and Andrew's posting at "The Birding Dude".

17 Year Cicadas on Staten Island from RJ on Vimeo.

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