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Friday, February 21, 2014

Brooklyn Fog Birds

The calm, quiet stillness of the fog shrouded lake cracked open like a clap of thunder, exploding in a mass of flapping wings and crying gulls. I ran to the edge of the lake and squinted through the mist assuming that a raptor had panicked the birds.

Up until that point, my walk across the park and subsequent post at the only opening in the ice at Prospect Lake had been predictably uneventful. I had hoped that the relatively warm weather and recent rain had thawed much more of the lake, attracting more waterfowl. It hadn't. Two other birders had come down to the lake, Audrey and Mary Beth, and we spent about forty-five minutes watching the waterfowl. When I first arrived a pair of vocalizing Killdeer had flown in and promptly disappeared within the 1500 or so gulls roosting on the ice. I don't think I've ever seen Killdeer on the frozen lake before today. Three Wood Ducks then appeared in the swimming pool-sized opening in the ice. A few minutes later two hen Common Mergansers dropped in. With eight species of waterfowl (plus two hybrids), American Coot and three species of gull, it was getting downright crowded on Prospect "Swimming Pool".

I had just met Mary Beth and learned that she works for a non-profit animal advocacy organization called "Wildlife Interests, Learning and Development" (WILD). We had been discussing how frequently her group has to rescue waterfowl in Prospect Park from entanglements in fishing line or being impaled on discarded lures. Ironically (or inevitably), a few minutes later I noticed a metal jangling sound close by, which I had assumed would be an unleashed dog running towards the birds. It wasn't a dog so I scanned the few dozen waterfowl in the snow behind me where I spotted a Canada Goose with a large hook in its foot. The noise was coming from two metal lures attached to the hook's lead and wrapped around the bird's leg. We quickly improvised a plan. Mary Beth distracted the goose by offering it some cracked corn, while I walked around behind it. When it lowered its head to eat some corn I reached down and grabbed it while holding its wings against its body so it couldn't flap. It didn't even have time to react. Luckily, the barb was only hooked at the surface of one toe and didn't pierce the webbing. It must have been a very recent injury as it didn't look infected or even bleed when it was removed. He waddled off, seemingly no worse for the wear. I actually think I was more angry than the goose was:

It was a short time after that that all the waterfowl on land spooked and bolted into the water and all the gulls that had been resting on the ice, took flight. The geese and ducks were quacking warning calls and the gulls sounded like they were screaming. Scanning the sky, I spotted the predator. It was an immature Peregrine Falcon strafing the gulls, looking for a weak or slow target. The raptor made 8 to 10 passes at the cloud of birds, each time starting high up at the far end of the lake, then dropping in at high speed, twisting through the panicked flock. A few times I was sure he would snatch a Ring-billed Gull out of the air, but each time the inexperienced falcon would miss and usually while only a few feet above the frozen lake. He eventually tired of the game and landed on the ice near the middle of the lake. He stood on the remains of a dead ring-billed, perhaps a previous kill. It didn't look like there was much left of the prey, mostly bones and the still feathered wings. So after standing around scanning the ice for a few minutes and realizing that he wasn't going to be dining there any time soon, he took off flying in the direction of the botanic garden. Probably to perch on the antenna tower at Empire Boulevard and stare out into the fog, dreaming about all the tasty gulls and ducks on Prospect Lake.

Here are a few fog landscapes from this afternoon:


Location: Prospect Park
Date: Feb 21, 2014
Species: 31 species (+1 other taxa)

Wood Duck (3.)
Northern Shoveler (97.)
Common Merganser (2.)
Ruddy Duck (6.)
American Coot
Killdeer (2.)
Hairy Woodpecker
Peregrine Falcon (1.)
American Tree Sparrow (1.)
Fox Sparrow (2.)
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
American Goldfinch (2.)

Other common species seen (or heard):
Canada Goose, Mute Swan (5.), American Black Duck, Mallard, American Black Duck x Mallard (hybrid), Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Robin, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, Red-winged Blackbird, House Finch, House Sparrow


Mary said...

A good team effort! Was glad I was able to distract and gently grab the neck as you got the body...Luckily, the lure was not so embedded that it came out easily enough! You are right...looked nomworse for the wear...this time. Those hooks are deadly. Thanks Rob!
- Mary Beth

Audrey said...

It was truly a moment of serendipity. So glad I happened to be at the lake earlier to assist Mary Beth with the swan. Thank you for the really great afternoon.

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