Monday, May 01, 2017

The Birds Came Storming In

I had made plans to meet a few of my birding friends very early Saturday morning in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. The wind forecasts seemed promising for more incoming migrants, plus I wanted to see what was around to help me get an idea of what to expect for my Sunday "Birding in Peace" tour at Green-Wood Cemetery. Unfortunately, when eating breakfast at 5am on Saturday morning all I could think about was the booming cracks of thunder, blinding lightning flashes and deluges of rain outside my apartment. Then I imagined flocks of tiny birds flying through that hell and dropping into NYC parks in search for some temporary refuge. It actually turned out to be a great weekend for both the birds and birders.

The storms cleared out by about 6am and I wandered up to Prospect Park, where I ended up spending a marathon 10 hours collecting new spring bird sightings nearly everywhere I looked. By the time I left for home I had 80 species of birds under my belt. I hoped that cooler temperatures and north winds overnight meant that most of the birds would be sticking around for my Green-Wood Cemetery tour.

It was apparent as we were walking into the cemetery at 6:30am that there were lots of new birds around. I saw small groups of tiny warblers swirling overhead and heard a lot of muted chips from the tops of the mature oaks just inside the main gate. Most of the maple trees had already flowered and dropped their dried, deep-green petals. The oaks, however, are now festooned with mustard-yellow catkins which are luring in swarms of minute insects. Those insects, in turn, are a magnet for thousands of hungry warblers. A short distance up from the start of Central Ridge, a large oak shading the Tiffany family plot seemed electrified with bird life. As expected, the majority of the songbirds were Yellow-rumped Warblers, but as soon as we stopped to scan the activity a brilliant American Redstart dropped down and perched atop a headstone, drawing "oos" and "aahs" from the group. Several Northern Parulas blared their buzzy trill from somewhere within the oak. Black-and-white Warblers crept along the trunk and small horizontal branches. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet sang from a nearby Flowering Dogwood. A Chipping Sparrow could be heard trilling from a large pine tree to our left, where we had seen a Yellow-throated Warbler on a previous tour. Later in the morning we would also locate our first Prairie Warbler of the season, as well as, several Common Yellowthroats...or as my wife likes to call them, the "Bandit Warbler", for the black mask that the males sport.

As we continued up the ridge I caught a glimpse out of the corner of my eye of a long-tailed bird flashing passed. The impression was that of a possible cuckoo. These birds are notorious for silently perching under the cover of dense foliage, making it extremely difficult to find them. Fortunately, this Yellow-billed Cuckoo hadn't seen the field guides and flew across the ridge in front of us where it obligingly perched a short distance down from the top of a linden tree. With a little bit of patience I was able to get everybody focused on this relative of the roadrunner.

There was such an abundance of activity along the ridge that we spent approximately 30 minutes to travel only about 100 yards. Another mature oak a short distance from the first held the first of a few Yellow Warblers that we'd see on Sunday. A single male Rose-breasted Grosbeak was eventually joined by two more males and a pair of females. I was initially drawn to the "chink" call note of this grosbeak, which sounds to my ears like a sneaker squeaking on a basketball court. I walked the group up a short, steep rise so that we could get a bit closer to the tree tops. From there we also got great looks at our first Scarlet Tanager of the day. We would see a couple more of this seemingly luminescent red bird by the morning's end.

Before leaving Central Ridge I stopped to point out an Ovenbird (there were LOTS around on Sunday) and a mixed flock of sparrows, when all the birds spooked. I began to explain that, when the birds flush like that, one should immediately stop to look around for...my words were interrupted by a immature Red-tailed Hawk that flew into a tree directly in front of us and nearly at eye level. After making sure everyone was focused on the brazen hawk, I finished my sentence..."raptors".

Flocks of Barn Swallows skimmed the air above all the lakes and ponds, but at the Sylvan Water we also spotted a pair of the less flamboyant Northern Rough-winged Swallows. At the opposite end of the size spectrum, a pair of Great Blue Herons perched on a dead snag above the cemetery's largest body of water.

Thrushes had also made a big push into the area over the weekend. The grouping of "brown" woodland thrushes have evolved their subtle palette of browns and reds to, no doubt, blend in with the leaf litter of the forest floor where they spend most of their time during the breeding season foraging for insects other invertebrates. Beginning birders may find these species a challenge to identify as they don't have the obvious field marks of other songbirds; this one has very few breast spots, another has dark breast spots, one has no eyering, another has a grey eyering while a similar one has a buffy eyering. It's actually not that difficult if one spends a bit of time studying between seasons. They may lack the ostentatious coloring of the wood-warblers, however, they more than make up for it with their vocalizations. The four forest thrushes that we observed on Sunday, Veery, Swainson's Thrush, Hermit Thrush and Wood Thrush, all have wonderful, complex songs. Unlike most humans, who can only produce a single sound at a time, thrushes can sing two notes independent of each other. Birdnote has a really interesting podcast about it here. It would have been amazing to hear them all singing, but we only managed to hear one of the Wood Thrushes singing at the edge of Dell Water. The tours during the month of May will begin a half hour earlier, so perhaps then we'll hear the dawn incantations of some of these masters of song.

This coming weekend we should see even more birds on our dawn walks. Maybe we'll even break 20 species of warbler! If you plan on coming, be sure to sign up at the Green-Wood Cemetery events page here.

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Location: Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn
Date: April 30, 2017, 6:30am
Species: 72

Canada Goose
Wood Duck (1.)
Mallard
Great Blue Heron (2.)
Green Heron (1.)
Red-tailed Hawk (1.)
Spotted Sandpiper (1.)
Laughing Gull
Herring Gull
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)
Mourning Dove
Yellow-billed Cuckoo (1.)
Belted Kingfisher (1.)
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
American Kestrel (1.)
Monk Parakeet
Eastern Phoebe (1.)
Great Crested Flycatcher (1.)
Eastern Kingbird (2.)
Blue-headed Vireo (3.)
Warbling Vireo (2.)
Blue Jay
American Crow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow (2.)
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
Tufted Titmouse
Red-breasted Nuthatch (1.)
White-breasted Nuthatch (1.)
House Wren (4.)
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Veery (5.)
Swainson’s Thrush (2.)
Hermit Thrush (4.)
Wood Thrush (7.)
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Brown Thrasher (1.)
Northern Mockingbird
European Starling
Ovenbird (12.)
Northern Waterthrush (2.)
Black-and-white Warbler
Nashville Warbler (1.)
Common Yellowthroat (4.)
American Redstart (2.)
Northern Parula
Yellow Warbler (3.)
Blackpoll Warbler (2.)
Black-throated Blue Warbler (3.)
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Prairie Warbler (2.)
Black-throated Green Warbler (2.)
Chipping Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow (1.)
Eastern Towhee (3.)
Scarlet Tanager (3.)
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting (1.)
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Baltimore Oriole (3.)
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

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