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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Green-Wood Cemetery pre-Spring Walk

This past Sunday I lead an enthusiastic group of birders in Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery looking for early-Spring migrants and overwintering species. A brilliant sun, cloudless blue sky and calm winds belied upper 20˚ temperatures, however a significant increase in birdsong told me that our avian friends were excited about Spring's imminent arrival. As I write this, however, New York City is being enveloped in a late season snow storm of possible historic proportions. Spring time now seems like a pipe dream months away.

Sunday's walk was the second part of a two day class on birding basics for beginners. I was cautiously optimistic that we would see many of the typical overwintering species seen around our area. It had been an unusual few months, though, as periods of blustery, extremely cold weather had several of the expected species seen in either very low numbers or not at all. Some examples are Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, chickadee, titmouse, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, goldfinch, Fox Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco and White-throated Sparrow.

On the low rise at the south edge of the Valley Water we spotted a flock of sparrows scratching the ground beneath a stand of Yew trees. After a quick scan I was surprised to see that it was composed almost entirely of Fox Sparrows. We normally see a few of these robust, rusty-colored sparrows scattered within mixed flocks of other birds during the winter, not in homogeneous flocks. I told the group to keep their ears peeled for its rich, sweet, slurred song as they prepare for the breeding season. We ended up hearing them throughout the cemetery.

This winter a pair of Carolina Wrens had taken up residence near the Sylvan Water. As we descended the stairway at Sylvan Bluff the rolling "tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle" song of this wren drew our attention to his low perch on the steep ridge next to Sylvan Avenue. We watched as his serenade ultimately called in his mate. It apparently also drew the attention of an immature Red-tailed Hawk. They exchanged places as the wrens flew across to the opposite side of the road and the hawk perched briefly in front of us on the ridge.

Dark-eyed Juncos have been nearly non-existent in the cemetery this winter. On Sunday, however, their numbers seemed to have increased considerably, with several medium-sized flocks scattered around the area. Most were picking through the seeds remaining on the ground beneath stands of Sweetgum trees. Several males were perched above the crowds, announcing their breeding intentions with a high-pitched musical trill.

As waterfowl begin their northbound spring push through the area I was hopeful that we'd see something other than Mallards and Canada Geese on the cemetery's kettle ponds. The only other species we observed, though, was a single male Wood Duck on a now nearly overflowing Dell Water. In recent years this beautiful woodland waterfowl has begun nesting in adjacent Prospect Park. I'm hopeful this guy finds a mate and does the same in Green-Wood Cemetery.

Along the edge of Vernal Avenue is a stretch of several Japanese pagoda trees (Styphnolobium japonicum). I mentioned to the group that I wanted to check them for Cedar Waxwings as the stringbean-like fruit of this species is a favorite winter food source. Approaching the trees I heard their distinctive thin, high-pitched sighing whistle. A flock of about forty of these colorful birds were alternately feeding on the pale green fruits on the ground, then flying into the trees. The hungry birds seemed nearly tame as we watched their amusing acrobatics from only a few yards away.

I wrapped up the walk by checking in on the annual Red-tailed Hawk nest tree to see if the pair had begun repairing their nest yet. Before we even got to the nest, I spotted the male perched in an oak tree above the roadway. He clutched the remains of a kill in his talons. As we watched he called his mate a couple of times. This is typical courtship behavior ("I've brought you some lunch, honey"). We didn't hear or see his mate in the short time we watched, but I did point out a Blue Jay making a poor imitation of the response. That's a good way to become the next meal.

One of the target species of Sunday's walk was American Woodcock. I'd seen a single individual hanging around "The Flats" for the past couple of weeks, but was unable to locate the bird Sunday. I assumed more will be moving through the area shortly and am concerned that with today's snowstorm there might be a repeat of last year's woodcock "snowpocalypse". As an early migrant I assume this odd little woodland bird would be adapted to these weather events, especially since their North American populations seem to be very healthy. I have another walk this coming Sunday. Hopefully the snow will be melted and lots of singing Spring migrants will be filling the trees and shrubs of the cemetery. Or another unexpected blizzard will...

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