Thursday, April 17, 2014

Frosty Spring Birding

Yesterday I led a Green-Wood Cemetery birding tour, which should have been a typical mid-April spring trip. I expected to see a few species of warbler and other migrants songbirds. Mother Nature had other ideas.

At this time of year I usually hear the sound of songbirds outside my window in the early morning hours. Yesterday, though, I was awakened by the sound of car owners with plastic scrapers removing ice and snow from their vehicle's windows. The temperature at the start of the trip was 30º f. With nearly 25mph wind gusts it felt more like 17º. The sky was bright and clear, however, with a few feathery clouds, so if you didn't feel the wind or know the temperature, you might have thought that is was a beautiful Spring morning, that is until you noticed the icy sheen on the sidewalks and thin layer of crusty snow on the grass. Still, it IS spring migration and there are birds out there to be discovered.

The overwintering Red-headed Woodpecker was still present in his usual haunts just inside the main entrance to the cemetery. He is now in adult plumage and actually vocalized for us while clinging to the side of "his" tree in front of the cavity he excavated back in November. I guess he is hoping for a female to pass through the neighborhood. He might have a very long wait as I haven't found any documentation of this species ever nesting in Brooklyn.

Any north or west facing hills were being blasted by pretty strong and frigid winds, so I mostly concentrated the morning walk to the cemetery's dells and leeward sides of the ridges.

Many of the magnolia trees in the cemetery have begun flowering and I noticed a pale green hue developing on the maple tree's crowns as they have just started to bloom. Keep an eye on the maples and oaks over the next week. As warbler numbers begin to increase, the flowers of these trees will attract the insects on which these colorful birds feed.

Given the wind conditions, I wasn't surprised that I had a hard time finding any warblers. Daffodils were wilting under the weight of ice on their petals and trees creaked as they swayed. A small flock of Tree and Barn Swallows skimmed back and forth across the Sylvan Water. A silent Belted Kingfisher flying across the pond had me fooled as his normal flight pattern had changed to adapt to the buffeting winds. Unlike my weekend experience, I couldn't find one warbler around the edges of the pond. There was a marked increase in arriving Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, however.

Seeing several gnatcatchers under these weather conditions seemed a bit incongruous or unlucky ... for them. These tiny, hyperactive songbirds are, on average, 4.5 inches long, nearly half of that is just their tail. They weigh in at about 6 grams. That's a bit less than the weight of three U.S. pennies. Their wheezy, chattery song perfectly matches their cute, diminutive size.
As I watched this teensy bird foraging for insects there were times it seemed to be completely immune to the wind. Perhaps it is exactly their lack of mass and wind resistance that allows them to move around in the gusts almost effortlessly. Conversely, my upright body on a bicycle, pedaling against the wind and uphill after the walk probably burned more calories that a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher might on the entire 2,000+ mile migration from its wintering home in Honduras to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. I can't wait until normal spring weather.

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Location: Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn
Date: Wednesday, April 16, 2014 8:00 AM - 10:00 AM
Comments: Weekly tour. Temps around 30º, winds N-NW at 15-20mph.
Species: 37

Gadwall (2.)
Double-crested Cormorant
Osprey (1.)
Laughing Gull (3.)
Belted Kingfisher (1.)
RED-HEADED WOODPECKER (1, near intersection of Arbor and Battle Aves. Vocalized and drummed from Sycamore Maple several times.)
Monk Parakeet
Eastern Phoebe (2.)
Tree Swallow (2.)
Barn Swallow (3.)
Black-capped Chickadee (2.)
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (6.)
Ruby-crowned Kinglet (4.)
Hermit Thrush (1.)
Eastern Towhee (2.)
Chipping Sparrow (8.)
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird

Other common species seen (or heard):
Canada Goose, Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Red-bellied Woodpecker (4.), Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Blue Jay, American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, Red-winged Blackbird, House Finch, House Sparrow

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