Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A Summer Downpour of Songbirds in Brooklyn

I thought that my experience in Prospect Park last Monday morning would be the highlight of the week. As luck would have it, though, the birding on Saturday morning trumped it, and by a wide margin.

Heydi and I were joining Sean on his Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge walk, but high-tide wouldn't be until later in the day, so we had time to kill. Our plan was to get into Prospect Park by first light, bird for a couple of hours, then meet Sean at my apartment for some pre-Jamaica Bay shorebirding.

Full sunrise was still about 20 minutes off as we walked into the park at the Litchfield Mansion. Snowy Tree Crickets and katydids were still churring and ticking from the trees above as we walked the dark footpath towards the Long Meadow. In addition to a couple of dozens of robins we encountered along the route, a few early rising humans were already claiming prime picnic tables under the towering oaks and elms adjacent to the Picnic House. The forested Ravine trilled with the night song of crickets. The sky was slowly getting lighter and we could make out the silhouettes of several bats darting between the trees. We stopped to listen to three Eastern Wood Pewees as they made their shortened "purree" call. One seemed to be directly in front of us, another off to our left near the Boulder Bridge, the third behind us towards Rocky Pass. Eventually, the one closest to us must have wiped the sleep from his eyes as he gave us a full rendition of his namesake ""pee-ah-wee". We left the Ravine and walked along the edge of the Nethermead Meadow on our way to Lookout Hill's "Butterfly Meadow". I reasoned that it was an active spot on Monday, perhaps it would be again. In addition, the winds had been North-West overnight and any migrating songbirds just might drop in to feed and rest at this high point in the park.

At the tight curve in the roadway up Lookout Hill we spotted our first warbler of the day, a Wilson's Warbler. A few yards up the road a Northern Waterthrush was picking up insects from among the rotting fruit beneath a Papermulberry tree. The road turns to the right and opens up on to a small fenced meadow dominated by Jerusalem Artichoke, Cup Plants and Yellow Evening Primrose. There are two small buddleia shrubs at the Western edge. Three large oak trees that survived Hurricane Sandy's tree clearing on Lookout Hill stand at the East and West edges of the meadow. A Wilson's Warbler was the first bird we spotted on the Butterfly Meadow. A flock of goldfinches were feeding on and within the abundant sunflowers. Multiple chip calls seemed to be emanating from the trees above, shrubs behind us and from within the tangle of wildflowers in the meadow. It was obvious after only a couple of minutes that there were lots and lots of birds around. I sent out a tweet at 6:23am, hoping that other birders were around and able to take advantage of this unusual Summer fallout. A moment later Heydi spotted a Worm-eating Warbler preening low in an oak tree. He was joined by a Canada Warbler. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird chased a white fly across the meadow, hovered in front of us for a few seconds, snatched the winged insect out of the air, then darted off. Five minutes later I spotted an Olive-sided Flycatcher ("quick-three-beers") hawking insects from a dead branch at the top of a maple tree. A yellowlegs heading South flew over the Butterfly Meadow. Another Worm-eating Warbler perched in the wire fence surrounding some young conifers. There were redstarts in the trees above and a Chestnut-sided Warbler slowly working his way onto the Butterfly Meadow from the trees to the East. From the path on the North side of the meadow I spotted a Blue-winged Warbler and called to Heydi as she hadn't seen one this year. We stood on this side of the meadow for several minutes watching a Worm-eating Warbler foraging at the edge of the fencing. Behind him were a pair of Blue-winged Warblers. A Black-and-white Warbler and a couple of redstarts were in the oak tree above and behind them. A Chestnut-sided
Warbler and Canada Warbler darted back and forth across the path. It felt more like a Spring warbler fallout than mid-August. It was just about that point that I spotted a birder, whom I didn't know, entering the meadow from the stairs at the Northwest end of Lookout Hill. He would have continued walking passed if I hadn't waved him over.

I briefly described the incredible songbird activity we'd been experiencing. He was excited about seeing a worm-eating as it would be a life bird for him. The bird flew across the path to some saplings to our right. While scanning for it, Rocky spotted a male Hooded Warbler just above eye level! For several minutes the three of us just continued pulling out birds from within the meadow's wildflowers, the oak trees above the meadow and the surrounding understory. Finally, when things quieted for a moment, we introduced ourselves. His name was "Rocky" (William Rockey) and he was visiting from California. He explained that he wasn't familiar with Prospect Park, but when he spotted several birds from Center Drive landing in the trees on top of Lookout Hill, he just followed them. We continued walking counter-clockwise around the meadow. I got my bins on an olive-backed bird near the ground at a trampled down section of vegetation in the meadow, but not long enough to identify it. When it flew up to some low hanging, dead branches on an oak tree I alerted the others - Mourning Warbler! That seemed to be the tipping point for ridiculousness. We had spent nearly 90 minutes walking around this tiny meadow and had tallied 12 species of warbler! Add in all the other birds and we'd seen nearly 40 species by the time we left at around 8:00am. At that time other birders had started to arrive, but many of the birds had either moved on or were taking a siesta. As we walked back down the road towards Center Drive, we did encounter a small feeding flock that included Worm-eating Warbler, Blue-winged Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, American Redstart, Chestnut-sided Warbler and Canada Warbler. Perhaps the birds had a feeding circuit that encircled Lookout Hill and would eventually work their way back to the meadow.

We brought Rocky to the Midwood, Rick's Place and the Ravine, some of the other birding hotspots in the park, before heading off to meet Sean for the shorebird trip. I suspect nothing came close to the birding experience at the Butterfly Meadow he had earlier and I have a feeling he'll return to Prospect Park in the future.


Location: Prospect Park, Brooklyn
Date: Aug 17, 2013 5:50 AM - 9:30 AM
Species: 47 species (+2 other taxa)
Comments: Mostly all birding done at Butterfly Meadow.

Greater/Lesser Yellowlegs (1, flyover.)
Chimney Swift
Ruby-throated Hummingbird (2.)
Northern Flicker (4.)
Olive-sided Flycatcher (1.)
Eastern Wood-Pewee (3.)
Alder/Willow Flycatcher (Traill's Flycatcher)
Eastern Kingbird (3.)
Warbling Vireo (1.)
Red-eyed Vireo (2.)
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
White-breasted Nuthatch (1.)
House Wren (4.)
Carolina Wren (3.)
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (4.)
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
Cedar Waxwing

Ovenbird (2, one seen at Butterfly Meadow, another at Rick's Place.)
Worm-eating Warbler  (2.)
Northern Waterthrush (2.)
Blue-winged Warbler (3.)
Black-and-white Warbler (2.)
Mourning Warbler (1, seen well; olive above, yellow below, grayish hood, pinkish legs.)
Common Yellowthroat (4.)
Hooded Warbler (1, adult male.)
American Redstart (7.)
Chestnut-sided Warbler (2.)
Canada Warbler (2.)
Wilson's Warbler (2, one of the first warblers we saw--heard first, then visual, on the way to Butterfly Meadow, another seen there.)

Eastern Towhee
Indigo Bunting (1.)
Brown-headed Cowbird
Baltimore Oriole (4.)

Other common species seen (or heard):
Canada Goose, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker (2.), Hairy Woodpecker (1.), Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, American Robin, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, House Finch, American Goldfinch, House Sparrow


Will Pollard said...

I'm down in Cape May right now and saw something that looks like the Mourning Warbler you are describing... but I'm not sure. Here's a picture:

it was bad light but it had an olive back and gray head when I looked through bins. what ya think?

Rob Jett said...

I can't be 100% sure from your photo, but the eye-arcs and general shape and coloration looks good for Mourning Warbler.

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