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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The City Birding Challenge

Packing up the car

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

Shane arranged to pick me up at my house on Friday evening at 11:20PM. He’d have John with him and the three of us would rendezvous with Doug at his parent’s home. His father was kind enough to let us use his station wagon as, with our bulky gear, coolers of food and two people with very long legs, the extra room would make a long day bearable.

I had convinced myself that I would be able to grab a few hours of sleep on Friday night, but it never happened. Thinking about the City Birding Challenge and any last minute ideas for locations kept me awake. I was browsing through my journals for alternate habitats in case some of our target species weren’t where they were “supposed” to be. Staten Island contains some of the best habitats within the five boroughs for nocturnal species. Shane, our team leader, thought we should be on the island at the stroke of midnight to begin tracking down screech owl, Great Horned Owl, Whip-poor-will and Chuck-will’s-widow. Other species that typically call in the evening are Sora, Common Moorhen and Least Bittern. None of the other boroughs are reliable for finding those 7 birds. In all, there were 17 locations within Staten Island, Brooklyn and Queens that we planned on visiting to tally birds.

Birding locations

(Photo credit - Google)

For the last three years Shane and I have heard Chuck-will's-widow calling from a hidden perch within the forests of Clay Pits Pond State Park. We’ve been able to just park the car on the side of Arthur Kill Avenue, outside of the park, and listen for their emphatic, repeated “chip wido WIDO”. Tonight, Arthur Kill Avenue was our first stop after the 12AM start time. The four of us stood on the side of the road, facing the forest with our hands cupped behind our ears. And we waited. There were no sounds except for some very distant parties and a constant, background drone of automobiles. We had 5 hours until sunrise so we decided that we’d come back later after trying to find some owls and a Whip-poor-will. Our next stop was Long Pond.

The entrance to Long Pond is a small, muddy lot at the end of a cul-de-sac. Layers of phragmites occupy one side of the street. There was a car already parked when we arrived. We assumed that it belonged to the Staten Island team, “The Forgotten Burroughing Owls” and that they were listening for the two birds. The pond is a short walk from the car along a trail that has been badly eroded by neighborhood kids on ATVs. I prefer to let my eyes adjust to the darkness and walk without a flashlight, but at this location I’d probably twist an ankle. We were walking up a long rise to an intersection when the eye-shine of a deer reflected back at us. Doug aimed his flashlight at the animal and she bolted across the trail, disappearing into a cloak of darkness. As we approached the intersection we spotted two people standing in the dark. Howie Fischer and Dave Jordet were quietly listening for night birds. We spoke briefly about owls and nightjars, or a lack there of, then continued slogging through muddy trails towards the pond.

When we arrived at the pond the only sounds we heard were the banjo-like “gung” of Green Frogs and sharp, tinkling chirps of Spring Peepers. Shane and I tried to call in a screech owl with a trilling, whistled call. Nothing. I closed my eyes to help focus on distant sounds, but I couldn’t conjure either a Whip-poor-will or an Eastern Screech Owl from the dark forest. We waited quietly for a long time. Shane finally made the decision to move on as we could always come back, plus there were other locations that we could locate those birds.

We had been out for two and a half hours when we pulled up at Conference House Park. Located at the extreme southern end of Staten Island, it held some wooded areas where Whip-poor-wills and screech owls have been reported in the past. John thought that he heard some from the car so we parked and walked into the park. Finally, after 2 1/2 hours we had our first bird - a Gray Catbird at the edge of the trail, who was chirping to nobody in particular. As we stood silently listening, Shane pointed out the sound of bird flight notes overhead. Some birders can identify the birds travelling north just by their chips and chirps. To me, it only indicated that there were many birds arriving after a day of flying and that it could mean that we’d be seeing a fallout of birds after sunrise. Like the birds, we continued north before the sun came up.

From Conference House we doubled back, passed Long Pond and into the serenely quiet neighborhood surrounding Blue Heron Park. The park has a pair of small ponds, a swamp and fairly extension woodlands. It’s a good place to find owls. This is also one area where Shane and I have heard Whip-poor-wills. The parking lot at the nature center was closed, so we parked on the side of the road and headed directly up the dark trail into the forest. Unfortunately, our earlier experiences continued here; only the sounds of Green Frogs and Spring Peepers filled the air. Shane reminded us that it was getting late and we were off our schedule. We hopped back into the station wagon and headed to an area where we were certain that we’d find screech owl - High Rock Park. We found one there last year during the all day birding marathon.

I love night noises, especially during the month of May. In addition to the call of nocturnal birds, frogs choruses can be heard emanating from just about every pond, puddle or marsh. Just inside the entrance to High Rock Park is a small marsh in a depression off the left side of the trail. More Green Frogs and peepers. I was hoping to hear the bellowing of a Bull Frog but didn’t. It was turning into that kind of night. The road into the park is paved so we kept our flashlights off and walked silently towards the park interior. Shane does a pretty good screech owl call, but either it isn’t good enough or the owls weren’t in the vicinity. Between calls we’d listen closely, two of us facing in one direction, two in the other. We were beginning to get worried that someone in our group was wearing bird repellent.

It was nearly 3:00AM when we arrived in the primarily industrial neighborhood of Bloomingfield. Our destination was a spot known by birders simply as “River Road”. The “trail” is actually a railroad track that parallels the Arthur Kill and Prall's Island as it transverses an extensive wetland which includes Old Place Creek and Sawmill Creek. It is in this area that the ISC wanted to build an 82,500 seat NASCAR track. Thankfully, that will never happen and the property is now up for sale.

As we approached the turn onto River Road, Shane slowed the car to a crawl. The windows were opened so we could listen for birds. John suddenly said, “Stop”. He thought that he had heard the “peent” of a Common Nighthawk. We stopped talking and waited for it to call again. “Peent”. It was the nasal call, not of a nighthawk, but of an American Woodcock. Similar calls, and both good birds. We planned to listen for nighthawks when we returned to Brooklyn as they nest on the roofs of buildings in my neighborhood.

There was already a car parked at the end of the road in front of the brightly illuminated power station. It was a pick-up truck, so we knew it wasn’t the Staten Island team. We rushed off into the dark, travelling north on the tracks. I love the surrounding wetland habitat, but I hate walking on railroad ties. The spacing is all wrong for my stride, especially when walking at a fast clip. As we walked north, Red-winged Blackbirds were already beginning to make noise from within patches of phragmites. Several Swamp Sparrows could be heard trilling in the distance and a Marsh Wren chattered at us as we passed his territory. There were two silhouettes on the tracks ahead of us, their outlines defined by spots of orange lights low on the horizon and the floodlight trim of the Goethals Bridge. We each gave a muted “hello” or nod of the head as we hurried passed the pair of birders. They we probably listening for the same sounds we came for; Sora, moorhen or Least Bittern. Five minutes later, as we approached a pond to our left, the sad, whining cry of a Common Moorhen startled us. When we returned to that area 15 minutes later, he had moved to the back of the pond and was making a muted “kuk, kuk ,kuk, kuk”. Farther down the tracks, at another pond, we heard the low, but constant chittering of hundreds of Tree Swallows who were roosting within a section of phragmites. By 4:00AM, as we were heading back to the car, John and I noticed that the sounds of daybreak were beginning to increase in diversity and volume. Suddenly we were hearing robins, blackbirds, grackles, tree and barn swallow, Killdeer and the hacking of a Ring-necked Pheasant.

River Rd. looking towards Prall's Island (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

Shane estimated that we still had enough time to return to Clay Pit Pond and Long Pond, listen for nightjars, then return to River Road for sunrise. Off we went again, coffee thermoses in hand, to try and locate a pair of birds that are likely to be found only on Staten Island. Once again, we were standing on the side of the road, with our hands cupped behind our ears, listening for a mechanical “chip wido WIDO, chip wido WIDO, chip wido WIDO”. I was silently pessimistic and began watching a bat that was flying back and forth above the road. At one point, I noticed a white moth fluttering passed a lone street light. I thought, that’s why the bat is here. Less than a second after the thought flashed in my head, the bat flew into my frame of view and snatched the moth. We eventually agreed that there probably weren’t any nightjars on the island yet, and blasted back to River Road to look for a Seaside Sparrow.

River Rd. at first light (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

We made the turn onto River Road and it quickly became apparent that lots of birds had moved in overnight. There were songs coming from the marsh, the shrubs that line the road and every tree nearby. I got out of the car so that I could hear better and walked along beside the slow moving station wagon. Within only a few minutes we heard and saw Willow Flycatcher, White-eyed Vireo, Warbling Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Marsh Wren, Gray Catbird, Brown Thrasher, Yellow Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, American Redstart, Northern Waterthrush, Common Yellowthroat, Eastern Towhee, Orchard Oriole and Baltimore Oriole. I got back into the car and a few yards later were stopped by a woodcock standing in the center of the road. He wouldn’t move so Shane revved the engine. The bird got the idea and casually moved out of our way.

On this visit we walked south on the tracks to look for Seaside Sparrows. For the first time in 5 hours we easily found one of the bird species that we needed for the day. His thin, muffled song pointed us in his direction. We only had a moment or two to study the secretive sparrow as Shane was cracking the whip to keep us on time with his strategy. He wanted us to be in Prospect Park by 8:00AM as it is one of the best places to find a diversity of migrating land birds. In quick succession we drove to Goethals Pond, Mt. Loretto, the Mayberry Promenade (aka Arden Avenue) and Great Kills Park.

Mt. Loretto’s expansive grassland habitat is usually the only reliable place within the 5 boroughs to find Bobolink. We practically ran from the parking lot to an island of trees in the center of the grass where they can be found...or in our case, not found. It wasn’t a wasted stop, however, because we added to our growing list of bird species Green Heron, Belted Kingfisher, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Eastern Kingbird, Black-and-white Warbler, Northern Waterthrush and Indigo Bunting.

A short drive from Mt. Loretto is the Mayberry Promenade, also know to birders as Arden Avenue. In addition to a great view of the ocean, it is also the only location in New York City where you will find nesting Purple Martins. We could have just driven past their nest boxes, stuck our heads out the car windows and continued on our way, but we also wanted to scan several rock jetties along the beach. Doug and his 21 year old eagle eyesight quickly found three Purple Sandpipers on a jetty south of the Purple Martin houses.

Purple Martin nest boxes

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

By the time we arrived at Prospect Park, it was already 9:30AM, late by birding terms. While John was using the restroom, Doug, Shane and I were rifling through our coolers and scarfing down sandwiches. Up to that point we had been surviving on coffee, doughnuts and other junk food. As we were walking towards the park’s interior we mulled over the best place to begin. Ultimately, we decided to go straight to Lookout Hill and bird the woods along the south side.

What a difference a day makes. Just as we experienced along River Road at sunrise, scores of birds had arrived over night. The trees, shrubs and underbrush on Lookout Hill were teeming with songbirds. At the mid-level of the hill is a path above and behind the Wellhouse. It’s only about 200 yards long, but in that short distance we identified an astounding number of species. Among them were Eastern Wood-Pewee, Nashville Warbler, Northern Parula, Yellow Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Cape May Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, American Redstart, Ovenbird, Common Yellowthroat and Canada Warbler. We walked from the south end of the park up to the Vale of Cashmere, near the north entrance. Along the way we crossed paths with lots of other birders. I wanted to chat with everyone but had to remind them that we weren’t trying to be rude, but couldn’t talk because we were on a mission. I suspected that they could tell by the glazed look in our eyes and the cattle prod in Shane’s hand. It was near noon by the time we left Prospect Park for Floyd Bennett Field. On our way there I still heard the ringing of warbler songs in my head.

It was at Floyd Bennett Field that I first noticed a sweet, honey-like fragrance in the air. By the end of the day I realized that the pervasive smell was from a recent explosion of tiny, white blooms on Autumn Olive trees.

Our primary target at Floyd Bennett was a Cattle Egret that Shane had spotted earlier in the week. It was no longer there, of course, so we didn’t spend much time. We did add a few other species, including a winter plumage Red-throated Loon that Doug located. One interesting observation was of several fledgling Killdeer running around the cricket field. When I first spotted the miniature shorebirds I wasn’t sure if I was looking at some rare species. The adult Killdeer nearby eventually clued me in to their identity.

Walking the jetty at Breezy Point

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

Last year we made the foolish decision to skip Breezy Point. Shane made sure that we had enough time this year to make the round trip loop from the bay to the jetty, then back to the car via the ocean side. The entire trip is about 2 3/4 miles. Our main target at Breezy Point was Piping Plover, of which there were many. We spoke briefly to a pair of rangers who told us that this spring they have tallied their highest number of breeding pairs. At the jetty, there was a big drop in temperature. I was wearing short sleeves, but appreciated the cool wind blowing in from the north as it kept me awake. Shane spotted a lone Ruddy Turnstone on a boulder near the jetty's end. The bird seemed moments from getting swept away by waves and an unusually high tide. Fortunately he's a shorebird, so he didn’t, at least not while we were watching. From the jetty and back to the car we added several more species to our list - Surf Scoter, Sanderling, Willet, Black-bellied Plover, Black Skimmer and Northern Gannet.

Beach Plum flowers

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

For the third year, we would make Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge our final stop of the day. We could find some land birds at the refuge but were mostly aiming for waterfowl and wading birds. In addition, we planned to stop first at Big Egg Marsh, to the south of the refuge.

What we observed at Big Egg Marsh was completely unexpected. The tide was higher than any of us had ever seen. Many of the islands and mudflats in the bay had either disappeared or been covered with water. It had the effect of concentrating 10,000+ shorebirds onto a relatively small section of dry land at the marsh. Some of the birds had even been forced up onto the grass of the baseball fields of the adjacent recreational area. The highlight was approximately 60 Red Knots. I have never witnessed that many shorebirds here or at the refuge. While spectacular to watch, the reality is that the islands of Jamaica Bay, an important feeding and resting place for migrating shorebirds, were vanishing before our eyes. On our way out of the parking lot, as an after thought, Shane suggested that we check for sharp-tailed sparrow at a small marshy area on the east side of the marsh. Doug and I ran over and, within minutes, flushed up a Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow. I waved to John and Shane, who came running.

Watching shorebirds at Big Egg Marsh (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

I’m a very poor judge of time so, given a chance, would have power-walked around the two ponds at the refuge as I thought we were running out of daylight. Shane reassured us that there was enough time to search for more land birds in the refuge’s gardens before birding the West and East Ponds. In the south gardens we ran into Eric Miller, Jean Loscalzo, Pete Shen and a few other Queens birders. It was when we stopped to chat that I realized I was finally running out of steam. It felt as though my body was saying, "If you stop now, I'm taking a nap." Plus, there were still many birds singing so our teams headed off in different directions.

Before we left the gardens for good, we had added Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Bay-breasted and Worm-eating Warblers. The waterfowl that should have been on the West Pond, weren’t, but we did manage to add Little Blue Heron and Lesser Scaup. The ducks had to be somewhere, so I suggested that we hightail it over to the East Pond before sunset. From the Nature Center, around the West Pond and across Crossbay Boulevard to the East Pond is nearly 2 miles. I didn’t want to think about the distance, or my feet, we needed to stay focused and get there with enough light to scan for ducks.

We made it to the East Pond with time to spare and located Green-winged Teal, Wood Duck, Bufflehead and Northern Shoveler. As we were heading back Pete and another birder arrived. I think we were all beginning to feel the effects of little (or no) sleep, adrenalin and lots of walking. We stayed and talked while the sun was fading. On the way to the car we all stopped at Big John’s Pond hoping to catch a glimpse of a Barn Owl. Eric and Jean were already waiting at the blind when we arrived. I think Eric, subconsciously, had already finished birding for the day. Pointing his flashlight, he enthusiastically showed us two Gray Treefrogs that he discovered tucked up into small crevices in the wooden blind. I was staring out at the sky’s pink and blue reflection on the pond's glassy surface when I began to drift away from the birds and birding. Within a few minutes it didn’t seem like anyone was interested in finding the Barn Owl. People began talking fairly loudly, but I suspect that it was to be heard over the sounds of the frog chorus.

Treefrog hiding place

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

Hear a May chorus of frogs in a wetland (click play)

Finally, we all dragged ourselves back to the parking lot. Jean and Eric walked off to listen for woodcock as we packed up the station wagon. In the distance we heard the “peenting” of woodcock.

Nighttime at Big John's Pond (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Rob Jett)

We began our long day of birding on Staten Island with the sounds of frogs and woodcock as a backdrop. One hundred and eight car miles, an uncounted amount of foot miles, 21 hours and 147 species of birds later, and we were on our way home.

It was an exhausting but exhilarating day and I thank all the people who sponsored our team members. You’re probably wondering if we won the team competition. In a word, “no”. Like last year, we lost by one species. Undeterred, we will give it our all again next year, but we’re thinking of changing the team name to the “Boston Red Sox”.

The Wandering Talliers (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Pete Shen)
Left to right - Me, John Walsh, Doug Gochfeld, Shane Blodgett

- - - - -

SI: Clay Pit Ponds SP, Long Pond, Conference House Park, Blue Heron Park, High Rock Park, River Road, Goethals Pond, Mt. Loretto, Mayberry Promenade, Great Kills; BK: Green-Wood Cemetery, Prospect Park, Floyd Bennett Field, Ft. Tilden CGS, Breezy Point; QN: Big Egg Marsh, JBWR, 5/12/2007
1) Red-throated Loon
2) Common Loon

3) Northern Gannet

4) Double-crested Cormorant

5) Great Blue Heron
6) Great Egret
7) Snowy Egret
8) Little Blue Heron
9) Green Heron
10) Black-crowned Night-Heron
11) Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

12) Glossy Ibis

13) Snow Goose
14) Canada Goose
15) Brant
16) Mute Swan
17) Wood Duck
18) Gadwall
19) American Black Duck
20) Mallard
21) Northern Shoveler
22) Green-winged Teal
23) Lesser Scaup
24) Surf Scoter
25) Bufflehead
26) Red-breasted Merganser
27) Ruddy Duck

28) Osprey
29) Northern Harrier
30) Red-tailed Hawk
31) American Kestrel
32) Peregrine Falcon

33) Ring-necked Pheasant

34) Clapper Rail
35) Virginia Rail
36) Common Moorhen

37) Black-bellied Plover
38) Semipalmated Plover
39) Piping Plover
40) Killdeer

41) American Oystercatcher

42) Lesser Yellowlegs
43) Solitary Sandpiper
44) Willet
45) Spotted Sandpiper
46) Ruddy Turnstone
47) Red Knot
48) Sanderling
49) Semipalmated Sandpiper
50) Least Sandpiper
51) Purple Sandpiper
52) Dunlin
53) Short-billed Dowitcher
54) American Woodcock

55) Laughing Gull
56) Ring-billed Gull
57) Herring Gull
58) Great Black-backed Gull
59) Common Tern
60) Forster's Tern
61) Least Tern
62) Black Skimmer

63) Rock Pigeon
64) Mourning Dove

65) Monk Parakeet

66) Yellow-billed Cuckoo

67) Chimney Swift

68) Ruby-throated Hummingbird

69) Belted Kingfisher

70) Red-bellied Woodpecker
71) Downy Woodpecker
**) Hairy Woodpecker
72) Northern Flicker

73) Eastern Wood-Pewee
74) Willow Flycatcher
75) Eastern Kingbird

76) White-eyed Vireo
77) Blue-headed Vireo
78) Warbling Vireo
79) Red-eyed Vireo

80) Blue Jay
81) American Crow
82) Fish Crow

83) Purple Martin
84) Tree Swallow
85) Northern Rough-winged Swallow
86) Barn Swallow

87) Tufted Titmouse

88) White-breasted Nuthatch

89) Carolina Wren
90) House Wren
91) Marsh Wren

92) Veery
93) Gray-cheeked Thrush
94) Swainson's Thrush
95) Hermit Thrush
96) Wood Thrush
97) American Robin

98) Gray Catbird
99) Northern Mockingbird
100) Brown Thrasher

101) European Starling

102) Nashville Warbler
103) Northern Parula
104) Yellow Warbler
105) Chestnut-sided Warbler
106) Magnolia Warbler
107) Cape May Warbler
108) Black-throated Blue Warbler
109) Yellow-rumped Warbler
110) Black-throated Green Warbler
111) Blackburnian Warbler
112) Prairie Warbler
113) Palm Warbler
114) Bay-breasted Warbler
115) Blackpoll Warbler
116) Black-and-white Warbler
117) American Redstart
118) Worm-eating Warbler
119) Ovenbird
120) Northern Waterthrush
121) Common Yellowthroat
122) Hooded Warbler
123) Wilson's Warbler
124) Canada Warbler

125) Scarlet Tanager

126) Northern Cardinal
127) Rose-breasted Grosbeak
128) Indigo Bunting

129) Eastern Towhee
130) Chipping Sparrow
131) Field Sparrow
132) Savannah Sparrow
133) Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow
134) Seaside Sparrow
135) Song Sparrow
136) Swamp Sparrow
137) White-throated Sparrow

138) Red-winged Blackbird
139) Common Grackle
140) Boat-tailed Grackle
141) Brown-headed Cowbird
142) Orchard Oriole
143) Baltimore Oriole

144) House Finch
145) American Goldfinch

146) House Sparrow

** only seen by 2 team members.

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