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Friday, August 31, 2007

More on Tom Davis and early birding in NYC

John Askildsen just sent me a great email about Tom Davis. Rather than placing it in the comments sections of the 08/21 entry, I thought that it should be in a separate posting.

"My memories of Tom go back to when I was in my teens. The New York birding community was quite small then, relative to what it is today. Of course everyone knew Tom and of his tremendous birding skills. He was the voice of the New York City Rare Bird Alerts, and really in some ways, the voice of the entire birding community in the NYC area.

I had the opportunity to go birding together with Tom Davis and Tom Burke on several occasions when I was in my formative years. As a young birder, I viewed these experiences as very special ones. Being in the presence of, and learning from Tom Davis, Tom Burke, Barbara Spencer, Tony Lauro and Paul Buckley, among others, enriched my birding experience greatly and fostered within me what is today my great passion and love of birds and bird observation.

As others on this blog have pointed out, Tom worked for New York Telephone Co. as a Central Office Technician. While working in the C.O. mainframe, Tom contacted his birding colleagues across the country in order to see what was around at that very moment, all courtesy of NY Tel. He also set up conference calls among birders, to plan last minute rare bird car chases. Besides Tom Davis, I think conference calls in those days were only reserved for corporate leaders and U.S. Presidents! In addition, back in those days before the advent of the Internet, cell phones, blackberries, PDAs, etc., getting up to the minute bird info like this was worth its weight in gold. The only way information was broadcast was via Rare Bird Alert recordings. It was all great fun.

Tom was also a great kidder. Below are a few of the goodies:

I remember one time when a woman brought in an ailing, chemical-coated Ring-billed Gull, to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge headquarters. With great concern and compassion on her face, the woman asked us what could be done for the poor thing. Tom responded by telling the woman that the best thing to do for it was to mix two eggs with some herbs and a dash of table salt in a large bowl, placing the gull into the mixture for a couple of hours, letting the bird really soak in the mix. Tom went on further to say to the woman, who was now carefully listening and taking notes, to then remove the bird from the mix and place it in a shallow pan, placing it into a 325 degree oven for about an hour. The woman was mortified. We were hysterical.

If I recall correctly, there were two back-to-back years of Sharp-tailed Sandpiper at Jamaica Bay in the late 70's or early 80's. Tom either found, or at least saw both birds. The first bird he wrote up quite nicely for NYSARC and it was accepted into the records. It may have been a first state record. Tom's second report he wrote for the following year's Sharp-tail record went something like "Same as the last bird, one year later". Tom’s report was canned! He was big, but not bigger than NYSARC !

On one of those famous Federation pelagics in the 1970's, I recall it was really hot and everyone was sick and spread out on the boat. The seas were flat and there were few birds to be found. There was a woman sitting next to me who had a sage-green complexion the entire day. She could not drink or eat anything. At one point, having perked up a bit, she decided to eat a bit of lunch. At that very moment, I remember Tom began yelling SKUA, SKUA! He raced to the edge of the boat where a South Polar Skua was working its way towards us. With his camera in hand, Tom grabbed the woman’s tuna sandwich practically right out of her hand and winged it out at the skua. That was my life and more importantly, first NYS South Polar Skua. I think that somewhere in the NYSARC archives there is a picture of a skua chomping down on that tuna sandwich.

Shortly before Tom was struck down by a cerebral hemorrhage, I believe he had just recently returned from Venezuela. He phoned me regarding some shorebird records for Jamaica Bay and we talked about his trip. I remember him saying to me that if I did anything, before I go birding across the U.S., I really should bird the American tropics first, as they were going fast and so was its birdlife. He described to me in detail, the seemingly unimaginable birds he saw down there. I never forgot that conversation and I recalled it on my first trip to the neotropics some years ago.

In his final years, I recall that sadly, Tom started to give up on the constant struggle that was his new life. It was no longer enjoyable for him, not being able to stalk shorebirds, with his camera in hand, in the marshes of the bay he loved so much or not being able to enjoy the camaraderie of his birding friends along side of him. Out of necessity, Tom spent many of his final days in a nursing home somewhere in the Rockaways. I cannot imagine what it was like for him to look out over the marshes that were once his home, that he knew were no longer within his reach, forever.

Tom Davis was a talented person with a passion for life and the natural world. When Tom left us, there was a large void in the birding community that could not be filled and really never has been to this day. This void was really felt by everyone at the time. Trips to Jamaica Bay were very different for everyone after Tom's passing. And while I did not know Tom as well as Tom Burke, Tony Lauro and others did, I too felt the loss and do so today. As I wandered through the new visitor's center at "the Bay" two weeks ago, my mind wandered to Tom as I thought about what he might say about it."

John Askildsen

Millbrook, New York

Recent New York State rare bird reports

Below is this week's digest of bird sightings from Let me know if you'd like to see this as a weekly feature.

NYSBIRDS-L Digest for Thursday, August 30, 2007.

1. Shorebirds Wednesday (08/29/07) at Jones Beach West End #2 area (Nassau Co.)
2. Hudson-Mohawk Birdline 8/29/07
3. Hudsonian Godwits, Red-necked and Wilson's Phalaropes, Jam Bay
4. West End 2 Today
5. Common Nighthawks
6. WNY Dial-a-Bird 30 Aug 2007


Subject: shorebirds Wednesday (08/29/07) at Jones Beach West End #2 area (Nassau Co.)
From: Rex Stanford
Date: Thu, 30 Aug 2007 11:42:53 -0400

I offer my apologies for the late posting, but given that, apparently, no one else posted about Jones Beach West End yesterday, I thought that I perhaps should mention that in the grassy "swale" that lies south of the concessions area of the West End #2 Parking Field, between the concessions building and the ocean beach, we found, yesterday morning, 3 BUFF-BREASTED SANDPIPERS and small numbers of other more common shorebird migrants. In terms of sheer numbers and numbers of species (N = 8) of migrating shorebirds, the sandy south end of the island that lies east of the Coast Guard Station was much more productive, starting about three hours past high tide at the inlet, but no rarities were found there.

Rex Stanford Westbury, NY


Subject: Hudson-Mohawk Birdline 8/29/07

From: Barb Putnam
Date: Thu, 30 Aug 2007 14:22:45 -0400 (GMT-04:00)

* New York
* Hudson-Mohawk Region
* August 29, 2007
* NYHM0708.29

- Highlights
Common Loon
Bald Eagle
Peregrine Falcon
Common Nighthawk
Wilson's Warbler
Purple Finch

hotline: Birdline of Eastern New York
sponsor: Hudson-Mohawk Bird Club
phone: (518) 439-8080
coverage: Hudson-Mohawk Region, East-Central New York
compiled: August 29, 2007


This is a summary of some of the sightings that were sent to the Birdline of Eastern New York this past week.

Common Loon: Lake George 8/28 (2)
Wood Duck: 4 Mile Point / Vosburgh Marsh 8/25 (12)
Green-winged Teal: Cohoes Flats 8/23, 4 Mile Point / Vosburgh Marsh 8/25 .
Osprey: Cohoes Flats 8/23.
Bald Eagle: Glenville 8/24; New Baltimore 8/29 (3).
American Kestrel: Papscanee 8/26.
Peregrine Falcon: Cohoes Flats 8/23.
Semipalmated Sandpiper: Cohoes Flats 8/23.
COMMON NIGHTHAWK: Albany 8/26 (15).
Ruby-throated Hummingbird: Five Rivers EEC 8/24.
Belted Kingfisher: 4 Mile Point / Vosburgh Marsh 8/25.
Red-bellied Woodpecker: Five Rivers EEC 8/24; 4 Mile Point / Vosburgh Marsh 8/25; Hannacroix Preserve 8/28.
Northern Flicker: Hannacroix Preserve 8/28 (2).
Pileated Woodpecker: 4 Mile Point / Vosburgh Marsh 8/25; Hannacroix Preserve 8/28.
OLIVE-SIDED FLYCATCHER: 4 Mile Point / Vosburgh Marsh 8/25.
Eastern Wood-Pewee: 4 Mile Point / Vosburgh Marsh 8/25 (8) ; Hannacroix Preserve 8/28.
Willow Flycatcher: Coxsackie Creek Grasslands 8/26.
Great Crested Flycatcher: Hannacroix Preserve 8/28.
Eastern Kingbird: 4 Mile Point / Vosburgh Marsh 8/25.
Blue-headed Vireo: Hannacroix Preserve 8/28.
Red-breasted Nuthatch: Troy 8/23; Niskayuna 8/23; Five Rivers EEC 8/24.
Carolina Wren: Niskayuna 8/23.
Winter Wren: Coxsackie Creek Grasslands 8/26.
Veery: Hannacroix Preserve 8/28.
Wood Thrush: Papscanee 8/26 (2).
Blue-winged Warbler: Hannacroix Preserve 8/28.
Magnolia Warbler: Hannacroix Preserve 8/28.
Black-and-White Warbler: Coxsackie Creek Grasslands 8/26.
American Redstart: Hannacroix Preserve 8/28.
Wilson'? s Warbler: Hannacroix Preserve 8/28.
BOBOLINK: Papscanee 8/26 (30+).
Purple Finch: Hannacroix Preserve 8/28.


Subject: Hudsonian Godwits, Red-necked and Wilson's Phalaropes, Jam Bay
From: Shaibal Mitra
Date: Thu, 30 Aug 2007 18:52:34 GMT

Today's highlights at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, Queens County, included two Hudsonian Godwits, one Red-necked and four Wilson's phalaropes, 25 White-rumped, 15 Western, and sixStilt sandpipers, one Long-billed Dowitcher, and a Sora--all along the northern portions of the East Pond. Observers included Pat Lindsay, John and Gerta Fritz, Joe Giunta, Sam Jannazzo, Sy Schiff, and me.

Shai Mitra
Bay Shore


Subject: West End 2 Today
From: Ken Feustel
Date: Thu, 30 Aug 2007 14:52:09 -0500

This morning at approx. 8:30AM at West End 2 (WE2), the three Buff-breasted Sandpipers continued in the grassy swale south of the WE2 pavilion, while on the ocean at WE2 a Parasitic Jaeger was observed as well as a minimum of ten Black Terns feeding with Common and Foster's Terns. A good variety of shorebirds were also on the bar opposite the WE2 Marina.

Ken Feustel


Subject: Common Nighthawks
From: John Haas
Date: Thu, 30 Aug 2007 22:33:10 +0000

I just came in from the Bashakill in Sullivan County where during the period from 5:50 to 6:05 pm Two Hundred and Fifty three Common Nighthawks streamed over Haven Road. The bird were headed north. About five minutes after the stream ended, a number of Nighthawks began heading back toward the south. They will probably feed throughout the evening in this manner. We usually have one peak evening on fall migration, looks like this is it. Renee Davis called me to say she was headed west on rt 17 at the same time and large numbers of Nighthawks were crossing the highway as she went. John Haas


Subject: WNY Dial-a-Bird 30 Aug 2007
Date: Thu, 30 Aug 2007 21:46:26 -0400

* New York
* Buffalo
* 08/30/2007
* NYBU0708.30
- Birds mentioned

Please phone in any rare sightings so they may be shared via the DAB telephone update system, and submit email contributions directly to dfsuggs at localnet com.

D. -crest. Cormorant
Bl. -cr. Night-Heron
Black-bellied Plover
American Golden-Plover
Ruddy Turnstone
White-r. Sandpiper
Baird's Sandpiper
Stilt Sandpiper
Short-b. Dowitcher
Bonaparte's Gull
Common Nighthawk
Carolina Wren
Ruby-cr. Kinglet
Northern Mockingbird
Chestnut-s. Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Bl. -thr. Bl. Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Bay-breasted Warbler
Blackpoll Warbler
Bl. and w. Warbler
Hooded Warbler
Wilson's Warbler
Canada Warbler

Hotline: Dial-a-Bird at the Buffalo Museum of Science
Date: 08/30/2007
Number: 716-896-1271
To Report: David F. Suggs (dfsuggs at localnet com)
Coverage: Western New York and adjacent Ontario

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Highlights of reports received August 23 through August 30 from the Niagara Frontier Region include AMERICAN AVOCET, EARED GREBE, BUFF-BR. SANDPIPER, SNOWY EGRET, SANDHILL CRANE and OLIVE-S. FLYCATCHER.

At the Batavia Waste Water Plant, August 25 and 26, an AMERICAN AVOCET among 14 shorebird species. The AVOCET was at wetland #1. Other shorebirds at the plant - WHITE-R. SANDPIPER, BAIRD'S SANDPIPER, STILT SANDPIPER and SHORT-B. DOWITCHER. Also 3 EARED GREBES on secondary pond #2.

The BOS field trip to the north shore of Lake Erie on August 26 reported 14 shorebird species. At the Hutchinson Road turf farms near Poth Road, 50 BLACK-BELLIED PLOVERS and 3 AMERICAN GOLDEN-PLOVERS. A BUFF-BR. SANDPIPER was found later at the farms. On the lakeshore, RUDDY TURNSTONE, SANDERLING, BAIRD'S SANDPIPER, WHITE-R. SANDPIPER and SHORT- B. DOWITCHER.

August 26, a SNOWY EGRET was reported again at Tifft Nature Preserve in Buffalo. The EGRET has been seen at the North Blind and Berm Pond.

Pairs of SANDHILL CRANES were reported from two widespread locations this week. In Dunnville, at least two pairs of CRANES have been present this summer to the south of the Grand River, on River Road, a mile west of South Cayuga Road. Cranes have apparently been breeding at this location for several years. Another pair of SANDHILL CRANES were in southern Chautauqua County, in a pasture at 5154 Washington Street, a half mile east of the Watts Flats intersection in the Town of Harmony.


Other reports this week - at South Park Lake in South Buffalo, an early RUBY-CR. KINGLET, plus D. -CREST. CORMORANT, BL. -CR. NIGHT-HERON and 4 NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRDS. From Woodlawn Beach State Park in Hamburg, 240 BONAPARTE'S GULLS and a CAROLINA WREN. And over Eggertsville in Amherst, 2 COMMON NIGHTHAWKS.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Banded skua follow-up

In my posting about the CRESLI whale-watching trip I mentioned that we observed a banded South Polar Skua, which was photographed by Angus Wilson and other individuals. After cropping his images and sharpening the band detail, Angus was able to read the letters and contacted Markus Ritz & Hans-Ulrich Peter of Friederich Schiller University, Institute of Ecology, Polar and Bird Ecology Group. The information in their response is truely amazing. The short version is that the bird was banded in 2005 on King George Island in the Antarctic. Below are two of Angus' photos and an excerpt from his communications with Drs. Ritz and Peter:

Both photos copyright Angus Wilson
Markus Ritz & Hans-Ulrich Peter, Friederich SchillerUniversity, Institute of Ecology, Polar and Bird Ecology Group,
Dornburger Str. 159,
D-07743 Jena, Germany.

Dear Drs. Ritz and Peter,

On a recent whale watching/pelagic birding trip to the Great South Channel off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, USA organized by the Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island, my colleagues and I observed a Catharacta skua (likely South Polar) wearing a legible ring (band). The position was N 41° 18.225', W 69° 17.968'. The bird passed over the boat once but was close enough for a few photographs to be taken that show the lettering of the ring (see attached images). We think the numbers are GC8 (or possibly, 83S). Is this likely to be one of the birds from your project? If not could you suggest other skua researches I could approach?

Kind regards,
Angus Wilson, Ph.D.

From: Markus Ritz
CC: Hans-Ulrich Peter

Subject: RE: Ringed Catharacta skua

Date: Thu, 30 Aug 2007 10:05:50 +0200

Dear Angus,

Great news! I am pretty much sure that the ring is ours and reads GC8. I remember the bird and it was indeed a relatively dark and large (most likely female) South Polar Skua. I ringed it at the 9.2.2005 and it bred successfully in the last seasons. Our investigated populations are at King-George Island / Antarctica (62° 12’ S, 58° 58’ W) were South Polar Skuas breed
sympatrically with Brown Skuas and also form mixed pairs (see pdfs). However, the bird you observed is most likely a “pure” South Polar Skua. Although it is believed that South Polar Skuas winter off the (east and west) coast of North America, your recovery is one of the first ring recoveries and therefore very valuable. We got another recovery in the north Atlantic from a hybrid skua and we have some satellite tracking information. We will most likely summarize these data in a small manuscript soon. I want to ask you to submit your ring recovery (via email) to our ringing centre:

"Beringungszentrale Hiddensee" am Landesamt für Umwelt, Natur & Geologie

Badenstr. 18

18439 Stralsund


Because they may have problems finding the code of the plastic ring (it is encoded in a text field) it will be of help if you include the number of the steel ring: EA 139572.

Many thanks again for this nice recovery. It is always a great feeling to know that the bird I had in my hands is cruising the oceans and fascinates other birders. I am looking forward to getting more ring sightings from your team :-)

All the best!


Institute of Ecology at Friedrich Schiller University Polar and Bird Ecology Group

Dornburger Str. 159
D - 07743 Jena, Germany

Here is a link to more information on King George Island and ongoing research. Below are satellite images of the skua's banding location (credit - Google Earth). Click the images to enlarge. The distance between where the bird was banded and where it was photographed on the CRESLI trip, if it were to have flown in a straight line, is 7,146.24 miles!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Recent Comments broken

It's not you, the "Recent Comments" section in the sidebar to the right is currently broken. This is a Blogger issue that has affected everyone and that they say should be fixed soon.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Jamaica Bay shorebird walk

Sean Sime lead a group of birders on a shorebird field trip at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. Sponsored by the Linnaean Society of New York, the field trip was listed as the “14th Annual Tom Davis Memorial Shorebird Walk". I’ve referred to Tom Davis with regard to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in the past, unfortunately, he passed away before I began birding, so I don’t have any first hand experience with the man and legend.

This posting was going to be one of my fairly typical nature reports, but I changed my mind in midstream. It began when I started searching the Internet for any information about Tom Davis. It’s a pretty common name, so I added words like ”shorebirds“ and ”New York City“ to the search keywords. There was lots of information on politicians, comedians and, coincidentally, another birder named Tom Davis, but nothing about the individual who touched so many people’s lives.

I’ve heard dozens of stories about Tom and his passion for birds and teaching others, but none of them exist in writing. If it’s alright, I’d like to devote this blog entry to information about Tom. Take a few minutes (or as long as you’d like) and add an anecdote or other bit of information about him in the comments section of this post. In recognition of his contributions to New York City birding, as well as, the southbound passage of shorebirds, I thought it would be fitting to have that information written down and shared.

Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, 8/18/2007:

Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Green Heron
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Glossy Ibis
Blue-winged Teal
Northern Shoveler
Green-winged Teal
Peregrine Falcon
Black-bellied Plover
Semipalmated Plover
American Oystercatcher
Greater Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs
Spotted Sandpiper
Semipalmated Sandpiper
Western Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper
White-rumped Sandpiper
Pectoral Sandpiper
Stilt Sandpiper
Short-billed Dowitcher
Laughing Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Common Tern
Forster's Tern
Least Tern
Chimney Swift
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
Carolina Wren
Gray Catbird
Cedar Waxwing
Yellow Warbler
Northern Waterthrush (2.)

Other common species seen (or heard):
Canada Goose, Mute Swan, American Black Duck, Mallard, Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, American Crow, American Robin, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, Song Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, American Goldfinch, House Sparrow

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Whales and seabirds

It seems like it was ages ago that Shane, Sean and I signed up to go on a cetacean research trip with Arthur Kopelman of the Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island. The trip was actually announced in March. When Tuesday arrived, the adrenalin from the anticipation of being out on the open water for two and a half days drove me to distraction. Shane was picking me up at 2PM and I didn’t even begin packing for the trip until noon.

CRESLI organizes regular research trips to various locations along the eastern seaboard to study cetacean populations. This August’s trip to the Great South Channel was also publicized to the birding community with the hope of attracting individuals interested in seeing pelagic birds that, under normal conditions, are never seen from land. Angus Wilson, current chair of the NYS Avian Records Committee, and seabird “guru” (my word, not his) helped to promote the trip and would be one of the passengers.

(there are maps of our route at the end of this post)

This trip would be motoring to an area within the Gulf of Maine, known as the Great South Channel. Many species of whales can be found in this area as the cold waters make it an extremely productive marine environment. It would be my first multiple day pelagic trip and only my second pelagic seabird-watching trip. To be honest, I was just as excited about seeing marine life as I was seabirds.

Shane and I arrived at the Viking Fleet dock with about an hour to spare before the scheduled departure. Sean Sime and Joe DiCostanzo (aka, “Joe D“) were already waiting on the dock. The organizers had booked the Viking “Starship” but engine trouble forced them to switch us to the smaller Viking “Star”. I didn’t care, as long as I had a bunk for my sleeping bag. It was close to sunset when we began motoring out of Montauk Harbor towards Gardiner’s Bay. The plan was for the captain to pilot the ship through the night, so that we’d arrive at the Great South Channel by dawn. Three or four silhouettes along the rock jetty at the mouth of the harbor stood out against a deep orange glow. Darkness had begun to merge the rocks with the inky water. Flattened shapes cautiously stepped over gaps in the boulders, moving slowly towards the shoreline.

The sun was a sliver on the horizon when I walked out onto the deck on Wednesday morning. We were 100 nautical miles east of Montauk Harbor and approximately 16 nautical miles southeast of Skankaty Head Light on Nantucket Island. Throughout the night, the seas had been calm and the temperatures mild. The four of us considered sleeping out on the benches of the upper deck. At one point, Sean, Shane, Joe D, and I were lying on our backs on the upper deck staring out onto a crystal clear, star-filled sky.

I remember that, as a child in the country side, the summer’s night sky was crisp, clean and blanketed with a trillion pin-pricks of light; some bright, some barely visible, and varying from white to yellow to red. The outer arm of the Milky Way appeared as a narrow wisp of clouds across the center of the darkness. It has been a long time since I’ve experienced that night sky. Out on the ocean, away from the reflection of city lights, peering up at the sky was like wiping early morning haze from my eyes. The clarity of the star-shine carried me back to those days in the country.

We were experiencing the tail-end of the Perseids Meteor shower, with the constellation close to the port side horizon. Joe D, who works for the American Museum of Natural History, has an encyclopedic knowledge of the natural sciences and pointed out constellations, planets and explained the phenomenon behind meteor showers. Particles no larger than a grain of rice created streaks of light as bright as a star. Like a heavenly underline to emphasize a star, brilliant blazes would grab my peripheral vision every few minutes. It was past midnight when I decided to go below to catch some sleep, but visions of whales and seabirds kept me awake most of the time.
Greater Shearwaters and Sooty Shearwater photos - Sean Sime
Most people were already awake and milling about the deck, coffee cups in their hand, when Arthur Kopelman made a wake-up announcement over the PA system. It provoked flashbacks of “Radar O’Reilly’s” droll announcements in the film “Mash”. We may have just begun our day, but Greater Shearwater’s were wide awake, numerous and active. The long-winged birds appear to expend very little energy as they swooped and glided above the ocean’s swells or the boat’s wake. Through the day we counted thousands of Greater Shearwaters making it a unique opportunity to study their markings, shape and behavior. As a group, shearwaters spend most of their life on the open water coming ashore only to breed. I observed more shearwaters in the first hour of light than I have, cumulatively, over the last 10 years. Greater Shearwaters were, by far, the most abundant species of seabird, but we also saw sooty, cory’s and manx/audubon’s shearwaters. I gained new found respect for nature photographers when trying to take photos on the moving ship - and I wasn’t using 30 pounds of gear like most of the professionals!

Most of the bird species that we observed on the trip are long distant travellers that breed in remote locations. One species of bird we saw that I think embodies the spirit of an ocean wanderer was the South Polar Skua. The robust, gull-like bird breeds along the coast of the Antarctic. After breeding, they spend most of their time at sea, ranging as far north as Greenland. We saw two individuals on the trip, one of which was banded. Angus Wilson is hoping to be able to read the band from photographs and identify where it was banded.

Another bird that was fairly common in some areas was Wilson’s Storm-Petrel. On the opposite side of the size scale from the skua, these dainty, long-legged birds frequently pick food from the surface of the water; a behavior called “pattering”. It looks a bit like the avian interpretation of “Swan Lake“ performed on a liquid stage. On the second night, while I was standing at the stern looking out into the darkness, I noticed storm-petrels periodically flashing through the beam of the ships lights.
South Polar Skua and whale fluke - Sean Sime
Of course, it wasn’t all birds on the trip and the Humpback Whales put on a show that I’ll never forget. For reasons that aren’t understood by biologists, whales will sometimes launch themselves out of the water and crash down lengthwise, sending up a huge spray of water and creating a loud smack. I have only witnessed whales breaching a few times, but at the Great South Channel they were splashing down, seemingly, everywhere. Arthur counted off the numbers over the PA system as one individual breached 55 consecutive times. Humpback Whales weigh, on average, between 25 and 40 tons. I’ll leave the math to those more proficient at physics, but suffice to say it requires unimaginable force to move that much mass out of the water. Another interesting behavior that we observed was “flipper slapping”. That is when a humpback lies on its back or side and slaps its 15 foot flipper against the water.

Flipper slapping fun at the Great South Channel

Wednesday evening the ship anchored for the night approximately 30 nautical miles from Skankaty Head Light. The wind had picked up and the water was much rougher than the previous night. I’m fortunate that I have never gotten seasick, but attempting to sleep in an upper berth while the ship is lurching from side to side was an exercise in futility. I would either get slammed into the wall or have to hang on to the bunk to keep from being throw out of bed. It was sort of like a roller coaster, but without the coasting or fun.
Humpback tubercules - Sean Sime
We spent a few hours in the morning looking for whales before heading back to port. It wasn’t as productive as the previous day due to rougher seas and less visibility. The estimated arrival time was 10PM and we pulled into the dock at around 9:30PM. I was amazed at how calm the conditions on the water became the moment we entered the protection of Gardiner’s Bay.

One of the people we met on the trip was a college student named Efrim. He was from Shane’s neighborhood in Brooklyn and had taken the railroad out to Montauk. Shane offered him a ride back with us. During the drive, Efrim told us that it was his eighth trip with CRESLI and that this was, by far, the best one. Apparently, weather conditions can change rapidly and it was the first time he was able to spend an entire day whale-watching. On one trip, he explained, the sea had become so rough that they had to pilot the ship into the Nantucket Shoals for the night. I might be a glutton for punishment, but I didn’t mind very little sleep, getting bounced around when I tried, not being able to eat my usual healthy breakfast or feeling damp most of the time. For reasons I can’t explain, the smell of the ocean and expansive open horizons felt right to me. Maybe it is because I grew up in the Northeast, with the ocean always nearby, but I don’t think I could ever be content living in the center of the continent, any continent.

Me looking out into the darkness - Sean Sime

Marine mammal totals (provided by Arthur Kopelman):

The cetacean totals as of now are:
28 humpbacks photographed*
8 ID'd cow/calf pairs
9 ID'd singletons
3 unknowns

*There were probably about another 10 or so that we didn't reach
1 minke
1 fin whale
~ 24-30 common dolphins

Seabird totals:

Common Loon (30.)
Cory's Shearwater (3.)
Great Shearwater (5,816.)
Sooty Shearwater (780.)
Manx Shearwater (36.)
Manx/audubon's Shearwater (5.)
Wilson's Storm-petrel (630.)
Northern Gannet (19.)
White-winged Scoter (1.)
South Polar Skua (2, incl. 1 banded.)
Pomarine Jaeger (6.)
Parasitic Jaeger (2.)
Long-tailed Jaeger (1.)
Herring Gull (400.)
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull (282.)
Black-legged Kittiwake (4.)
Common Tern (1,050.)
Black Tern (4.)

The following two maps were created using coordinates provided to me by Joe D., who had brought his GPS unit on the trip (click image to enlarge):

Ridgewood Reservoir tour

I never thought I’d ever get this posted as my Internet connection has been going down 5 to 10 times a day since Monday.

Tuesday I gave a tour of the Ridgewood Reservoir and surrounding habitats to Glenn Philips, the Executive Director of The New York City Audubon Society, and Erin Woodard, their new Natural Areas Initiative Program Manager. I was only able to spend about an hour with them as Glenn and Erin had prior commitments, plus I was meeting Shane for a trip out to Montauk Point in the afternoon.

The area was fairly quiet with respect to the local breeding birds, although we did see a family of Carolina Wrens chattering and flitting about in the understory adjacent to basin three. There was also a White-eyed Vireo prattling on with his impatient demand, “Quick give me the beer check”. As I expected, Glenn and Erin seemed very impressed by the three basin’s varied habitats. Glenn seemed especially intrigued by some of the flora and took a lot of photographs. As we reached the forest floor of basin #1, Glenn pointed out a freshly emerged Red-spotted Purple butterfly drying in a pool of sunshine. I tried to entice the lazy insect with an outstretched finger tip, but he wasn’t interested and flew to a pokeweed leaf a few feet away.

The old pump house has had its windows bricked up and the doors are secured with thick, steel plates. I stuck my camera lens through a small hole in one of the steel plates and guessed at an exposure. My experiment worked and I had my first look at the interior. I noticed a stairway that descends to a lower level. That’s most likely where the pumps machinery resides, or used to reside.

Much of the forested areas in the basins are too dense and overgrown for a short survey, so I lead them on a route close to the edge of the impoundment, where the scattered saplings and understory is relatively sparse. In several areas away from the edges, where the ground is perpetually damp, I showed them large areas matted in emerald mosses. A few weeks ago I had a dream that I went to the reservoirs and found bulldozers working in that basin. Most of the trees had been cleared and, like an area carpet in one’s home, a single rectangular patch of green remained, exposed to the sun at the center of the clearing. I called Heidi on my cellphone and told her that I could see the moss turning to brown as it baked in the sun. Hopefully, that image will remain only as a bad dream.

On our way back to the access point, I spotted a pile of feathers on the ground. It appeared to be the remains of a raptor kill. Spotted rust, black and white flight feathers and a single, yellow foot were all that remained of the prey. The rusty color made me think that it might have been from a woodcock. I picked up three primary feathers to examine at home. Later that day, I received an email from Erin. In it she suggested that the remains we found could have been a kestrel. I looked through some field guides and online images and, unfortunately, I think she is correct. Would a Red-tailed Hawk kill and eat a kestrel? I’ve seen kestrels harassing the larger predators on a number of occasions and believed that they were too maneuverable to ever be caught. Then it occurred to me that another species of predator could have killed the falcon. My friend Carrie used to work at the airport for an organization that used birds of prey to chase potentially hazardous flocks of birds from the runways. Among her arsenal of raptors was a very feisty American Kestrel. One day, while working along side one of the runways, the small falcon perched on top of a small stand of shrubs. Before Carrie had a chance to react, she watched in horror as a feral cat sprung from the shrubs, grabbed the kestrel and killed it. I have seen feral cats at the reservoir, so that is one other possibility.

I would have like to have stayed another hour, but had some packing to do at home. Shane, Sean and I had registered for a two and a half day whale watching trip that was leaving from Montauk Point that evening. That story and lots of photos will be posted tomorrow (provided my Internet service isn’t interrupted...again).

Ridgewood Reservoir, 8/14/2007
Wood Duck (5 males, 1 female.)
Laughing Gull
Herring Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Chimney Swift
Eastern Kingbird
White-eyed Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Carolina Wren (2 adults and 2 juveniles.)
American Robin
Gray Catbird
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Yellow Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler (1.)
American Redstart
Northern Cardinal
Chipping Sparrow (1 juvenile.)
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

Monday, August 13, 2007

Autumn already?

I turned on the television the other night and the sports segment of the news was running. They were showing footage of a football game and interviewing a quarterback. How can it be football season already - it's still summer, right?! When I went into Prospect Park on Sunday I spotted a migrating Black-and-white Warbler and a Louisiana Waterthrush. I guess summer has really ended for some species as fall migration has begun.

The Black Cherry trees in the park are laden with their seasonal harvest and the birds are fattening up on the tart fruits. Robins seemed to be the most abundant species with some hovering like over sized hummingbirds to pluck the small, black berries from dangling stems. I also observed Cedar Waxwing and orioles filling up near the tops of the trees.

When at the beach on Saturday I noticed a fair number of Monarch Butterflies migrating across the water towards Sandy Hook. Hopefully, it will be a good year for these orange and black beauties.

In Prospect Park I walked up to the Butterfly Meadow on Lookout Hill, hoping to photograph some butterflies. Unfortunately, the sun was low in the sky and all the flowering buddleia shrubs were covered by shadow. While at the meadow I heard a cricket singing near the edge of the path. As instructed by the Lang Elliotte guide, I moved from side to side, triangulating the source. It was frustrating and futile - there wasn't any chance that I could locate the cricket, despite appearing to be directly in front of me.

On my way back towards the Litchfield Villa, I decided to swing by the Nature Center. There is a nice patch of flowering plants next to the building that I thought might have some butterflies. The most plentiful flowers at that spot were echinacea. One planting of cone flowers were bathed in orange, late day light. They looked beautify, but were devoid of any insects. I snapped a few photos then started home.

I had only walked a few yards when I noticed a man looking with great interest up into a scraggly conifer. My immediate thought was that one of our hawks was perched in the tree. I walked over and spotted Ralph perched in the tree, clutching a freshly killed rabbit.

I've avoided using the comparison for almost a year, but Ralph is very recognizable because he looks like Pale Male (of Central Park fame). There, I said it. His facial feathering is unusually light and, when I saw him on Sunday, the contrast was exaggerated by the low sun. Could he be related to Pale Male? Who knows, but I am certain that his first nest in the park was in 2002.

A large Hasidim family had gathered around me to look at the Red-tailed Hawk and ask questions about the huge bird. I noticed that each time Ralph pulled off a piece of rabbit meat and ate it, the family patriarch made a sound of disgust. Finally, I turned to him and said, "I noticed that you're still watching, though." His response, with a perfect Jackie Mason delivery was, "What, no barbecue?"

A very hungry hawk (and disapproving bunny)

Earlier in my walk I spotted a pair of raccoons sleeping in a tree near the Upper Pool. On my way back across the park, I stopped to take another look. One of the pair looked a little more awake, getting ready for his night job. Several people stopped to find out what I was watching. Everybody reacts the same way to raccoons. They think they are cute and cuddly creatures. Unfortunately, I shatter the illusion by pointing out that they can be very aggressive, nasty animals. The most common response is, "But look at that face!"

Prospect Park, 8/12/2007
Red-tailed Hawk (Adulting eating rabbit next to Nature Center.)
Laughing Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Chimney Swift
Northern Flicker
Barn Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee (2 adults, Payne Hill.)
Carolina Wren (Next to Litchfield Villa.)
Gray Catbird
Cedar Waxwing

Black-and-white Warbler (Next to Boulder Bridge.)
Louisiana Waterthrush (In muddy puddle on Sullivan Hill.)
Northern Cardinal
Common Grackle
Baltimore Oriole
American Goldfinch (Flock at Butterfly Meadow included 1 begging fledgling.)

Canada Goose, Mute Swan, American Black Duck, Mallard, Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Robin, European Starling, Song Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, House Sparrow

The roof door at sunset

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Prospect Park at Night

One afternoon last September I had been birding in Prospect Park until around dusk. I was heading home when I ran into my friend Roberto. Migrating songbirds were fairly abundant in the park. The previous day, I had located an uncommon Clay-colored Sparrow among the southbound birds at the weedy edge of the "Sparrow Bowl". Roberto hadn't seen the sparrow so I offered to show him where I found it. Under fading light, we hustled over to the natural, grassy amphitheater between the Picnic and Tennis Houses.

We never found the sparrow, however we spent the next hour in that location watching (as well as one can in the dark) several bats flying around within the semi-circular glen. I went back the following evening better prepared to photograph the bats, but they never materialized.

Last Saturday evening, with much optimism and a greater understanding of my camera, I decided to walk around Prospect Park in search of bats.

I've come to appreciate the noctural sounds of nature as much as I do the bird songs and calls of the day time. The block where I live is next to the park, but usually only hosts one or two crickets in the summer, as well as, an occasional katydid. It's more of a trio or quartet than an insect concerto. I've found that the slow, hypnotic chirring of the crickets and the steady, sedate "tic tic tic" of katydids outside my living room window has the ability to mask the harsh sounds of planes and automobiles.

I don't usually wander around Prospect Park late at night. It's not that the park is unsafe, it's primarily because I do more "normal" things at night. On my way up to the park Sunday night, the variety and volume of insect songs suddenly became more interesting to me than the thought of chasing bats.

An unidentified species of tree crickets seemed to be abundant and created a constant, background jingling trill. Their layer of sound became Sunday night's canvas for every other nighttime cricket or katydid's punctuation mark. I walked from the Litchfield Mansion, along the maintenance drive towards the baseball fields on the south end of the Long Meadow. Every few minutes I would pass a katydid performing his loud, repetitive "ch-ch-chi, ch-ch-chi, ch-ch-chi". I pictured them in the treetops with tiny, little wooden guiros.

My first planned stop was the lighted footpath next to the bandshell. I've always seen bats in that area during the summer. Unfortunately, there was a band playing and dozens of teens were milling about exactly where I wanted to be with my camera. I turned left and walked down the hill and onto the Long Meadow. The music was loud, but the constant shrill drone of tree crickets cut through the air like a hot knife through butter. At the Upper Pool a pair of Bullfrogs were bellowing above the sound of the music and a smaller frog with a high, nasal call merely sputtered. It wasn't a Green Frog, I'd recognize their banjo-like twang. The smaller frog sounded more like the "peent" of a nighthawk. There weren't any bats near the ponds, so I walked the short distance to the Sparrow Bowl.

At first, I set my tripod to face from the far edge of the bowl towards the east. The bats would be easy to see against a pale-pink sky. Then I remembered how, last year, they fed on insects close to the trees and shrubs at the bowl's edge. It turned out to be a moot point, though, because there weren't any bats at the Sparrow Bowl, either.

With my tripod over my shoulder I headed down the dark path between Quaker Ridge and the Upper Pool. In the pitch darkness of the Ravine woods, the insect serenade was at its loudest. I could make out at least three distinct "parts": a white noise background "shshshshshshshsh", a much deeper "ch-ch-chi, ch-ch-chi, ch-ch-chi", a barely perceptable "siiiiiiiiiiiii" that would fade in and out of the sound blanket and the familiar pulsing chirps of our warm weather, generic "cricket". As I stood in the darkness listening, a group of teens approached the fence adjacent to the waterfall and climbed over. Using their cellphones as flashlights, a line of blue silhouettes hiked up the hill to the top of the falls. I was getting ready to leave when I noticed that they had built a fire where the park's water source emerges from the boulders. The 5 or 6 kids huddle together above the water appeared to be suspended in space within an orange globe of light.

At Center Drive I walked across the Nethermead Meadow towards the Maryland Monument. Wellhouse Drive has always been a good spot for bats. It's close to the woods of Lookout Hill and the water of Prospect Lake. Three or four street lights illuminate the road and attract lots of moths.
10:12pm-Nocturnal rabbits
Walking along a narrow stretch of path between Lookout Hill and the Lullwater, I heard the most unearthly sound I've ever heard in Prospect Park. At a small grassy triangle ahead of me two cottontails were alert and ready to bound into the darkness of the woods. Then I heard the sound again. It was coming from directly behind the Maryland Monument. Two raccoons where either verbally challenging one another or were actually scratching and biting. Their guttural growls and screams sounded demonic. For a moment, I thought it would be a good idea to try and photograph the altercation. I even began slowly walking up the hill, but came to my senses. They can be pretty aggressive and I didn't relish the idea of fighting off two angry raccoons.

I walked from the Maryland Monument to the park drive, but still didn't see any bats. There also weren't any moths. I was a little disappointed and began a slow walk back across the park. As I approached the Wellhouse, a bat fluttered out of the woods, around an old cast-iron street lamp, then over my head and out above the road. I stood out in the middle of Wellhouse Drive waiting for him to returned. My camera was pointed slightly above the horizon, ready to go. When I finally saw him coming my way, a police car driving up behind me, flashed his lights. I moved off the road and let him pass, missing the bat.

I spent a long time standing on the road taking pictures of the sky...after the bat passed out of frame. My batteries were both low so I decided to quickly go back to the Sparrow Bowl. At the section of meadow next to the Lower Pool I spotted a bat flying low and slow. "Perfect", I thought to myself. But I couldn't manage to synchronize my reactions with the position of the bat. I began wondering how I ever managed to get the photos last year. Then it occurred to me that last year there were several bats feeding together, so the odds of capturing one by chance was much greater.

Despite not finding a flock of bats, it was still a memorable experience; feeling like I was the only person in the park, listening to crickets and katydids and watching the occasional bat silhouette flutter overhead. It motivated me to spend more time reading Lang Elliott and Wil Hershberger's "The Song of Insects". This week I listened to the CD several times and I think that the following were some of Sunday night's songsters:

Carolina Ground Cricket
Striped Ground Cricket
Snowy Tree Cricket
Common True Katydid

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

New Link

Phil Jeffrey has created an extensive new Wiki about New York City birds and birding. I have added his bird identification and accounts as a menu on the sidebar. Some of the bird species still have only limited information, but it is an evolving process that will eventually contain a great deal of information.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Calvert Vaux/Dreier-Offerman Park info

Alex Wilson, the gentleman who found the Western Reef Heron at Calvert Vaux Park (a.k.a. Dreier-Offerman Park), sent out a group email regarding the recent announcement by the mayor. I thought it might be of interest to some of this blogs readers:

Date: Mon, 6 Aug 2007 2:26 pm
Subject: Vaux/Offerman Park Checklist

Starting with the appearance of the Western Reef-Heron and extending to the announcement of $40 million in renovation funding, as well as the unfortunate heron hunting incident, Calvert Vaux/Dreier Offerman Park has emerged as a focal point for a number of issues of concern to the birding community. Last Saturday, 8/4, as I watched a Willow Flycatcher feeding a couple of fledglings I worried that the upcoming improvements to the park may be apt to eliminate the kind of habitat that allows for the surprising number of nesting species at the site. As a matter of basic curiosity I began to assemble a checklist for the park, and it occurs to me that such a list might also be of use in advocating for sensitivity to wildlife during the rehabilitation project. The list is online at:

The data comes from a relatively few visits I've made, along with some sightings I've collected from recent observers of the heron. This does not include much information from the best of spring and fall migration, so there should be many species to add. I'm sure there are local observers with longer histories at the site than I have, as well as other birds being seen by the many recent visitors. Im soliciting additional data from the community, which may be posted to the comments on the page, or emailed to me directly. I hope the results will serve to illustrate the impressive diversity that even a small amount of appropriate habitat can support in the urban context.

Thanks for your input.
Alex Wilson
Brooklyn, NY

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Prospect Park news


Whether to Sell the Wool of the Prospect Park Flock or Exchange It for Live Stock.


He Is Going to Send Half the Flock to Forest Park When Warmer Weather Comes.

Whether to sell the wool that is clipped from the backs of the large flock of Southdowns in Prospect Park, when the sheep are Flock on Prospect Park's Long Meadowsheared early in May, or whether to effect an exchange of the many pounds of wool with some dealer for white peacocks, rare breeds of ducks and fowl, with a view of further beautifying the park land, is a question that Commissioner Brower is giving weighty consideration at the present time. For some years past the latter method has prevailed, the park receiving rare breeds of poultry and water fowl from some dealer in exchange for what wool was sheared from the flock of Southdowns. In this way much more in the way of consideration was received from the wool than if the wool had been sold at public auction.

Of late, however, the flock of sheep has grown so large-nearly a hundred in all-that Park Commissioner Brower is as yet undecided as to whether he will sell or exchange the wool this spring. As a general proposition, it may be said that the officials of neither Central nor Prospect Park like to dispose of the wool that comes from the sheep in their care at public auction. The reason is that the money derived from such sale must go into the sinking fund. If the wool were exchanged for some ornamental birds, such as peacocks, wild ducks and others of the feathered tribe, a better return is had from the wool and as a consequence the park is further beautified.

With the advent of warm weather, it is expected that the large flock of sheep at Prospect Park will be still further increased by the addition of some score or more of lambs. The lambs will he allowed to remain with the ewes for some time. When they reach the required size, so as to be able to roam the meadowland untrammeled by the fostering care of the mother ewes of the flock, then may some of them be sold.

A few years ago a few sheep and lambs were sold by the Department of Parks to a meat dealer in this borough. In exchange, he gave the park a choice lot of rare fowl, ducks, guinea hens and other species. Then for over a month he advertised that he had Prospect Park sheep on sale. His profits, it is said, were large. All of the sheep sold as such were not, however, Southdowns or from the Prospect Park flock, the buying public did not know the difference.

Park Commissioner Brower estimated roughly today that from seven to eight pounds of wool could be clipped from nearly every sheep in the flock. With 100 sheep to clip the aggregate weight of fleece secured from the flock would be in the neighborhood of something like 800 pounds. Domestic wool is selling at present in the open market from 24 to 26 cents per pound. The wool from the flock of Southdowns being of the best quality would, in all probability, bring the highest market price. Eight hundred pounds at 26 cents would bring the aggregate amount of proceeds from its sale up to $208.

This would not be all profit, however. There are no official sheep shearer on the pay rolls of the Brooklyn Department of Parks. A novice at hooking and shearing sheep would make poor work of the shearing. The sheep would look, when a novice had finished his work, as if someone had gone over them with a dull lawn mower. Hence, experienced sheep shearers have to be hired to shear the big flock. These men know their business and shear the Southdowns scientifically and in a short time. They are paid about $2 a day for their services.

After the flock of Southdowns have been sheared this spring, at least one-half of the flock will be sent out to Forest Park, where they will be allowed to browse in the grassy forest glades and will aid materially in thinning out the now heavy and almost impenetrable underbrush.

Park Commissioner Brower is thinking these days how best to improve the parks under his jurisdiction. He desires a white peacock and a white pea hen for Prospect Park and he thinks he is pretty sure of getting the two fowls this spring. The white peacocks are beautiful birds, the brilliant blue plumage of the ordinary peacocks showing a soft, creamy white when the birds spread out their fan shaped tails.

Yesterday Park Commissioner Brower and John De Wolf, the landscape gardener, went out to Highland Park, in the Twenty-sixth Ward. It was decided to begin improving the park just as soon as warm weather arrives. Much work is to be done there for benefit of Twenty-sixth Ward residents, who, for the most part, spend much time within the grounds. It is a popular recreation ground in that section of the borough.

On the brow of the hill in Highland Park, a rustic arbor will be built. On the path leading to the hilltop, there will be a number of rustic arbors and benches, built of red cedar. A monster flowerbed will be laid out where the road forks to the west and south of the reservoir a road branching off to the north and then to the west will be made. It will, according to Park Commissioner Brower, be a quaint and picturesque driveway when completed. Although no appropriation could be secured for the contemplated improvements in Highland Park, they will nevertheless be made this spring. The money to be paid for the work will be taken out of the maintenance fund. The roadways in the park will be sodded and graded at each side.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle - March 25, 1901

Imagine how much money the department of parks could save on gas for lawnmowers, as well as, salaries for the operators. As an added bonus, there would be free fertilizer for urban gardens.