Tuesday, September 10, 2013

August Birds

August is usually a good time to see shorebirds passing through Brooklyn and New York City's other boroughs as they head towards their Central and South American wintering grounds. For reasons yet to be determined, though, this season saw a much lower number of birds. The East Pond at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is the area's hotspot of shorebird activity. This year the abundance of several species was disappointing. The low-tide mudflats at Plum Beach, in Brooklyn, usually attracts hundreds of migrating birds. This past August only saw dozens.

The New York State endangered Piping Plover regularly stops off at Plum Beach during their South-bound migration. Despite the disruptions of ongoing hurricane remediation work by the Army Corps of Engineers, I did manage to spot two here on August 3rd. A total of three were seen here by other birders for about 10 days. This is average for Plum Beach, but the highest number observed here was nine, on July 30, 1980 by longtime Brooklyn birder Ron Bourque.

Another good bird seen at this location in August was Saltmarsh Sparrow. This species is becoming increasingly more difficult to observe around New York City as wetland habitats are lost to either development or destruction due to climate change and pollution from runoff. On August 8th we observed a juvenile bird that seemed unaffected by our presence and walked within a couple of yards of us, like an urban House Sparrow. The young bird's coloration and markings at first had us a little confused, but comparing Heydi's photographs to field guides later that day confirmed it's ID.

I rounded out my August bird list with a Golden-winged Warbler in Prospect Park on the 12th (which I wrote about here) and a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher on the 24th.

The Yellow-bellied Flycatcher is a member of the empidonax flycatcher genus and sometimes very difficult to separate in the East from the similar Acadian, Alder, Least and Willow Flycatchers. In the Spring, when birds are vocalizing, it is relatively easy to tell them apart by their songs and calls. In the Fall, when in new plumage, all of these species tend to have a yellowish wash on their undersides, so a yellow belly doesn't necessarily mean a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. The American Birding Association has a good document here for identifying these tough birds. The bird we spotted in Prospect Park was hawking for insects low in some shrubs and saplings. It moved around a lot, so it took Heydi, Keir, Sean and myself the better part of 30 minutes to get complete views and identifiable photographs. The key fieldmarks to look at in these obstructed view photos are (in the upper image) the bill size and yellow wash on throat; and (in the lower image) the length of the primary feathers. More simply, however, I've read that the yellow-bellied is the only one of our Eastern empidonax flycatcher with a yellow throat, which is very obvious in the upper photo.

In my summary below I've included the total amount of time spent birding during the month. At 23.1 hours, that means it took me an average of 5.75 hours to find each of last month's new species. On the face of it, that actually sounds pretty pathetic. Maybe I shouldn't look at that statistic so closely in the future...

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NYS Total: 229
Kings Total: 224
Added in August: 4
Effort: 23.1 birding hours, 3 locations

221) Piping Plover (Plumb Beach, 08/03/13)
222) Saltmarsh Sparrow (Plumb Beach, 08/10/13)
223) Golden-winged Warbler (Prospect Park, 08/12/13)
224) Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (Prospect Park--Lookout Hill, 08/24/13)

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