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Monday, November 06, 2006

Chasing birds, my jinx and a sparrow invasion

It has been almost two weeks since my last post. I’ll try to fill in the blanks without making this a long, rambling tome.

Last year ended with Shane, Sean and I deciding that 2006 would be our first attempts at a “Big Year”. In birding lingo that means, essentially, trying to track down as many species of birds as possible during the year. It usually involves a lot of travel. Our year would only include birds observed within the borders of New York State. The primary objective was to see if all three of us could reach 300. Along the way Doug joined us, adding the final piece to team “Wunderschmucks”. Neither Doug nor I own a car so our success depended on whether we could coordinate our schedules with Shane and Sean. At some point, I can’t pinpoint the date, Sean and Shane completely lost their minds. While Doug and I were trying to find bird number 250, the other half of the team had already passed the 300 mark! As of this writing my number stands at 301, Doug is 306 and the “S”s are tied with 327. With just under two months left and a pelagic trip scheduled for December, it’s impossible for me to guess the final total for Shane and Sean. I’m just happy that I reached 300.

Setting up at dawn (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Rob J)

Sean, Shane and I took another drive up to the Franklin Mountain hawk watch. We needed to find a Golden Eagle for the year and, since it’s been my jinx bird, I’m surprised they invited me to come along. The weather was much milder than our visit two week ago with weak winds varying for west to northwest. Without the advantage of a strong northwest wind I was afraid that we’d miss out again. Normally, northwest winds hitting the face of the ridge created a lift for migrating raptors and they pass from right to left in front of the hawk watch. Unseasonably warm weather and little wind, however, didn’t stop the birds and their urge to fly south. The sky was mostly clear and a strong sun created columns of warm air rising up out of the valley. Most of the hawks that we observed took advantage of the thermals and were soaring across the valley and straight at us. At about 9:30am I spotted in my scope a very large bird on the horizon. It was an eagle, but which one? As it soared in slow circles I finally saw a thick, white band at the base of his tail. He was gradually moving farther away but white patches on the insides of his wings and the golden hue to his head were unmistakable. It was a juvenile Golden Eagle and my 12 year jinx was finally over! We would see two more before we left the mountain, one that gave us great looks. Another highlight of our visit to Franklin Mountain was beating the single day total for number of Red-shouldered Hawks. The previous high count was 25, we ended the day with 43. It’s not like we had anything to do with the large number of red-shoulders, it was just great witnessing such a mass exodus.

-Click here for more info on Golden Eagles-

Looking for Golden Eagles

(Photo credit - Rob J)

Red-shouldered Hawk and jet (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Sean Sime)

Migrating blackbirds (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Rob J)

From watching very large birds, I’ll fast forward to this past Saturday in Prospect Park and the small birds. It’s been three weeks since my last visit and I wasn’t prepared for the extreme transition in species and abundance. My first clue that something amazing had occurred was the presence of a flock of over 200 White-throated Sparrows near the 5th Street entrance to the park. There usually aren’t many birds in that area, usually just House Sparrows. As I continued towards the interior of the park I encountered sparrows everywhere I looked. On the Long Meadow a woman with a black lab tossed a ball ahead of her as she walked. As the dog ran south along the meadow he flushed up flocks of birds like he was kicking up dust. They were primarily White-throated Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos. Along Sullivan Hill the white-throats were replaced by Song Sparrows constantly flying from the grass to the trees.

Merlin (Falco columbarius)

(Photo credit - Rob J)

As I walked towards Payne Hill, “Ralph” flew low over the grass then slipped into the trees near the Ravine. Practically skimming the grass, he was acting more like a Merlin than a Red-tailed Hawk. Maybe he was hoping to grab one of the thousands of sparrows feeding on the grass seeds. No sooner had those thoughts entered my head that a Merlin did just that, but he didn’t catch anything either. I caught up with him perched in the top of an oak tree overlooking the sparrow bowl. He was scanning for prey but was rudely interrupted when another male Merlin arrived and chased him from his perch. The two falcons disappeared over Quaker Ridge and towards the Nethermead Meadow.

Orange-crowned Warbler in Prospect Park

(Photo credit - John Ascher)

The woodlands sounded like gurgling water as thousands of sparrows scratched in the leaf litter for food. I observed another flock of White-throated Sparrows on the Nethermead. It was impossible for me to count them as they were continually flushed into the surrounding trees by pedestrians. A large flock of Chipping Sparrows were nearly invisible in the grass on the Peninsula Meadow. I thought that there were only a handful of birds present until someone walked across the field. A much greater number streamed up into the surrounding trees. I estimated that there were about 50 individuals in the flock.

Waterfowl numbers and diversity has also changed dramatically in the last few weeks. On October 15th there were five species of waterfowl in the park. In addition to the common residents, on Saturday I counted Gadwall, Northern Shoveler, Bufflehead, Hooded Merganser and Ruddy Duck. The shovelers are already the dominant winter visitors on the lake. For a few minutes I watched a small flock swirling, face down in the water and thought, we’ve come full circle.

Purple Sandpiper (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Steve Nanz)

Finally, on Sunday Shane and I drove out to Montauk Point for a day of coastal birding. We left Brooklyn at 5am and arrived at the point just after sunrise.

In the water off of the point several thousand Laughing Gulls fed near a small flotilla of fishing boats. Some signs of the approaching winter cycle here were skeins of all three species of scoters and the arrival of small flocks of Common Eiders. We stopped at various inland ponds and coastal locations as we drove west towards Brooklyn. On the coasts, Red-breasted Mergansers have begun reappearing, as well as, Red-throated Loons. At Shinnecock Inlet we spotted a group of 7 Purple Sandpipers on the jetty. One unusual observation here was of a Northern Harrier migrating along the coast within a very large flock of cormorants. I suppose that it was just bad luck that he ended up stuck in the cormorant traffic jam.

Sean called on my cellphone while we were still driving back to Brooklyn. He wanted to find out if we located anything new. “No”, I replied, “just Red-throated Loon, Common Eider, all three scoters, Red-breasted Merganser, Purple Sandpiper, 4,000 Laughing Gull, Bonaparte's Gull, Royal Tern and "Ipswich" Sparrow.” Under normal circumstances, that would have been a very good day. We got a good laugh out of how we’ve become so blasé and jaded regarding birds that we’d already seen this year. In some ways, I can’t wait until the year is over and I can resume a less frenzied birding pace.

(Photo credit - Rob J)


Pamela said...

that last picture of you two guys is the greatest.

Kind of a "well, we're done here"

congratulations on your Golden Eagle.

Anonymous said...

Huge congrats on your Golden Eagle!

yojimbot said...

you guys are hard core...hats off to you!

Anonymous said...

Nice pics..up close the birds..keep it up...looking forward to reading some more posts placed on this topic...will be checking this page again..have saved in favorites and bookmarked...thanks

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