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Monday, November 26, 2007

The squirrels are out to get me

I swear, they must be following me around. You might get the impression that there are no birds in NYC parks, only squirrels. My "brilliant" selection of Birdcam placement was, yet again, a flop. I put the camera in a spot where I have seen various species of waterfowl resting on the shoreline ... for years! It sees so much bird foot traffic that they have worn out a small section of shore right down to the dirt. The week that I chose to place a camera on the shore, not one bird, duck or otherwise, passed anywhere near the camera. I am 0 for 3. This is who filled up the memory card in the camera -

I have a good idea. Stay tuned for my next attempt.

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"

Saturday, November 24, 2007

NPR Show on NYC Nature

NPR had an interesting broadcast on the nature of New York City. It was an interview with author Leslie Day, whose book "Field Guide to NYC" was recently published. You can listen to the broadcast below:

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

More hawks outside the kitchen

I was eating breakfast with my wife early this morning when she looked out the window and exclaimed, "Look, one of your red-tails came to visit". The blinds were blocking my view so I walked to the window and looked across the courtyard to the TV antenna where the raptors usually perch. I was surprised to see that it wasn't a Red-tailed Hawk, but a huge Cooper's Hawk. It was the first time that we've seen this hawk of the forest outside our window. My wife, understandably misidentified the bird as it was nearly the size of a Red-tailed Hawk.

For a size comparison, at the bottom of this posting is a photo of a red-tail on the same perch taken last year. Because the two birds are so close in size I would presume that the Red-tailed Hawk was a male and that the Cooper's Hawk was a female. I normally don't see individuals of those two species so close in size. In terms of weight, Red-tailed Hawks are, generally, a much heftier bird. Hopefully, she'll help thin out a flock of pigeons that someone has been feeding between the buildings.

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Winter finch

Peter called me from the park to tell me that there was a Pine Siskin on the thistle feeder on Breeze Hill. Despite the cold, drizzly weather, I grabbed my gear and made the 25 minute walk across the park.

Pine Siskins are another bird species that is regarded as rare around the city, but I think is frequently overlooked. Every year at around this time I walk through Prospect Park, checking Sweetgum trees for American Goldfinch flocks. Once I find one, I take my time and scan through the entire flock looking for siskins. If I'm patient (and lucky), I'll usually find one. Last year I found one within a flock of goldfinches drinking from a large puddle on Center Drive.

There was a noisy flock of goldfinches at the feeder that Peter set-up on Breeze Hill. A few greedy birds monopolized the six perches on the tube feeder and snapped at others trying to access the seeds. A few minutes after I arrived a Pine Siskin aggressively pushed his way onto one of the perches.

I had been watching the birds for about 15 minutes when Rusty arrived. At that point the siskin had disappeared. It would be a life bird for Rusty and I reassured him that the Pine Siskin had been coming and going since I arrived. Eventually, it returned to the feeder and we both had good looks at the male bird. If the sun had been shining, I probably could have taken some nicer photos. It was nice to see all the winter visitors back in the park. Another interesting bird that I spotted at the feeders was a rare, yellow variant Purple Finch.

Prospect Park, 11/18/2007
Northern Shoveler
Ring-necked Duck
Ruddy Duck
Sharp-shinned Hawk
American Coot
Ring-billed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Hairy Woodpecker
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
White-throated Sparrow
Purple Finch (Yellow variant.)
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch

Other common species seen (or heard):
American Black Duck, Mallard, Herring Gull, Mourning Dove, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"

Friday, November 16, 2007

More pipits

I had a brief window of time at around noon to run into the park, set up the Birdcam and run back. Peter met me near the pools to unlock the gates. There is a small area at the edge of the water that looked as if it had seen a lot of bird traffic. The four foot stretch of shoreline was virtually devoid of plant life. In the passed, I've seen many Wood Ducks resting inconspicuously at that spot. Virginia Rail has also been observed in the vicinity. It seemed like a good place to point the camera.

On my way home, as I crossed the Long Meadow, I heard the high-pitched "pip-it, pip-it, pip-it" flight calls of several American Pipits. I looked up as the flock of birds passed above me. They dropped down onto the grass to my left, near a patch of freshly reseeded lawn. Like juncos, they have distinct, white outer tail feathers that flash as they fly. Modest, brown on brown streaky plumage may cause this unassuming bird to be overlooked when they are passing through the city, but habitual tail bobbing when they are walking or perched is a good tipoff that they might be someone special.

The wind was blowing hard out of the northwest and, as I watched the small flock foraging in the dry, stubbly grass of the Long Meadow, I thought that it must have felt familiar to the birds. I pictured them in a windswept, arctic tundra landscape during the nesting season. Long toes and claws make it easy for them to cling to the ground in strong winds. I have only observed pipits on the ground in Prospect Park 8 times since 1997. There were 13 individuals in this flock.

I rarely see American Pipits in Prospect Park. This was the first time that I've seen them twice in one season. Last night Steve and I talked about pipits passing through New York City. We surmised that they are likely more common than assumed as they are more often heard than seen. When we both learned their distinct flight call, we began to notice them flying overhead fairly regularly as they migrated south at this time of year .

Here's a short video clip of a pipit that I found on the Cornell Macaulay Library website. Notice how it continually bobs its tail.

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"

Comic Hawks

A friend of mine works for the Landscape Management Office in Prospect Park. The LMO maintains all of the trees and other botanics in the park. They are also in charge of all new plantings. Anyway, I received a funny email from him last night about an encounter with a hawk.

The crew has been cutting down large, invasive trees adjacent to the Tunnel Arch to open up the area for new, native plantings. On this particular day, while one worker cut through the trunk with a chainsaw, a few others tugged on ropes that they had attached to the tree. The tree swayed from side to side as they alternately pulled and released the ropes. While this was going on, a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk flew in and perched on a nearby limb. As he watched, his head moved back and forth, following the swinging tree as if he were watching a tennis match. When the tree began to fall, he watched it go passed him, and then flew off after it crashed to the ground.

At first I thought that the young hawk was just curious or foolish, then I realized that there was probably a good reason for his interest in the activities. He was watching to see if any squirrels came tumbling out of the tree.

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Shrooms and squirrels

I went back to the Ridgewood Reservoir on Sunday to retrieve my camera. The Birdcam doesn't have an LCD to view images, just a small set-up screen to access menus. It also has a counter, so you can tell immediately if it has taken any photos. The feeling of anticipation that I experience when I see numbers ticked off on the display reminds me of the days when I used a film camera. I couldn't wait to pick up my photos to see what I shot. In this case, I can't wait to get home and plug the camera into my computer.

There were nine images on the camera and I'll get right to the point - damned squirrels! My strategy must be completely stupid as I have yet to photograph anything other than squirrels. Obviously, my choice of camera placement stinks. Birds need food, shelter and water. I could buy some seeds and toss them around in front of the camera, but I feel like that would be cheating. It occurred to me that all birds need water to drink and bathe, so that will be my next target. I'll pick out a spot at the edge of the water where it is shallow enough for most birds to bathe. Maybe I should put the camera inside of a fake Red-tailed Hawk to keep the squirrel away.

There wasn't a lot of bird activity at the reservoir but we did manage to add two more species to the year list - American Coot and Fox Sparrow. While scanning a flock of Ruddy Ducks on the lake within the center basin, I spotted a huge Cooper's Hawk flying from north to south across the water. The blue-gray raptor made a diving pass at a Ruddy Duck that was a distance away from the flock. Could an accipiter actually pull itself out of a lake while holding onto its prey? I could see eagles or Osprey with their long powerful wings doing it, but a Cooper's Hawk? Maybe she was just playing.

There were daisy fleabane flowers still in bloom around the reservoir. Some of the flowers looked like they were sprouting new buds. In the bog, there were some fresh mushrooms that I had never before seen and am still trying to identify. I've been learning that some species of mushrooms require a spore print to make identification possible. I'll post an update if I figure out what they are.

I've asked a friend who works for the Prospect Park if I could get permission to place the Birdcam within a protected area in park. If I can set it up tomorrow, I'll pick it up after Thanksgiving.

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The birds remembered Al

The late Al Ott was scheduled to lead a trip to Floyd Bennett Field for the Queens Bird Club this past Sunday. In honor of Al, the trip proceeded as planned. I think Al would have wanted it that way. The short, but impressive list of species seen (as reported on NYC Bird Report) seemed as if the birds also came out to pay homage to the big man.

Green-winged Teal
Red-shouldered Hawk
American Kestrel
Red Knot
Laughing Gull
Belted Kingfisher
Hairy Woodpecker
Horned Lark
Brown Thrasher
American Pipit
White-crowned Sparrow
Snow Bunting
Purple Finch
Pine Siskin

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"

Friday, November 09, 2007

Prospect Park Winter Birds

The cold, gray sky and dropping temperatures had me thinking about winter birds. Outside of my brief run up to the park to see the Eurasian Wigeon, I hadn't birded in Prospect Park for nearly 3 weeks. The abundance and mix of the birds had no doubt changed significantly. Many trees have already dropped their leaves. Late fall wildflowers and grasses have gone to seed, providing food for arriving songbirds.

Unlike Central Park, Prospect Park is nearly devoid of people midday during the week. The sudden drop in temperature also deters many park patrons from venturing into the wilds of Brooklyn. Those perfect conditions lead me to drop everything to spend a few hours wandering around the park.

I was walking the path behind the park headquarters in the Litchfield Mansion, towards the Picnic House. Several squealing squirrels were lined up in trees along the path, making me think that a hawk was in the vicinity. I spent a few minutes scanning the nearly bare tree branches but didn't find one. Perhaps one had just been in the area. A mixed flock of birds that consisting of chickadees, Hermit Thrush, White-throated Sparrows and a single Carolina Wren began working the ivy blanketed underbrush to my right. The wren hopped up onto a black, wire fence and churred as if he were calling a missing mate or family member.

I slowly and quietly approached the grass on the south side of the Picnic House. The air flashed with the white outer tail feathers of several dozen skittish juncos. Merlins and Sharp-shinned Hawks were on the prowl and the sparrows were on edge. There was a large area of freshly seeded lawn surrounded by fencing in the middle of the meadow. It would be an easy meal, but the flock of about 100 juncos and several Chipping Sparrows worked the grass closest to the safety of the trees. I moved a little closer, but the birds vanished into a linden tree that was still holding onto all its leaves. They were so nervous that I decided to walk wide around where they were feeding and continue towards the Upper Pool.

Upper Pool Panorama (click to enlarge)

A flock of birds appeared, virtually out of nowhere, and landed a few yards ahead of me. They were American Pipits making a rare stopover on their way to somewhere less populated. I started to count them. When I reached 28, they spooked and took off towards the baseball fields. Pipits have a unique ability to flatten out and hide in the grass as they feed. There are always more present then you think, until they take flight. This flock was no different and there were likely closer to 50 birds in the flock, the most I've ever seen in Prospect Park.

The Eurasian Wigeon that had been associating with a small flock of American Wigeon wasn't on the water of the Upper Pool. Present on the pond was the ubiquitous Mallards, a pair of Ruddy Ducks and a single Ring-necked Duck. I only stayed for a few minutes then continued towards the Nethermead Meadow. The pipits had vanished and I thought that they may have continued to the next largest expanse of grass in the park.

At this time of year I like to walk along Center Drive and scan the Sweetgum trees for finches. Each of the tree's spiky balls hold hundreds of tiny seeds. A favorite for wandering flocks of goldfinches and Purple Finches. Occasionally, a Pine Siskin can be found within a flock of American Goldfinches. More rare are sightings of redpolls or crossbills feeding on the abundant seeds. There were no rarities on this day.

I walked towards a stand of conifers at the base of Lookout Hill, at the south end of the Nethermead Meadow. Owls are rare in Prospect Park, but it never stops me from looking. Several yards short of the trees I noticed something moving in the short grass. It was a flock of Chipping Sparrows who were, apparently, not the least bit frightened by my approach. I stood and watched them, their heads down, mousing through the grass like a rat in a maze. They'd find a select blade of grass, pull it to the ground and nibble on the seeds.

There were more sparrows at the western edge of the Peninsula meadow. An area that had been fenced off for new plantings, was dense with grasses, mugwort, Staghorn Sumac, Dwarf Sumac, burdock, Pokeweed and dozen of other seed-bearing plants. A flock of Song Sparrows alternated between feeding in the meadow's grass and disappearing into the jungle of plants behind the fence.

It looked like there was a population explosion of overwintering Northern Shovelers on Prospect Lake. There were so many, that I had to count them. Most were swirling in circles with their faces in the water. Some were sleeping and some kept flying back and forth across the 11 acre lake. I counted 225 on the main part of the lake, then walked out onto the Peninsula to check the narrowing body of water near Duck Island. There were approximately 125 on that side. It hardly left room for anyone else, well, sort of. Ruddy Ducks numbered in the dozens and there was a single Ring-necked Duck, as well as, the usual assortment of Mallards, black ducks, Mallard/Black Duck hybrids and weird looking waterfowl "mutts".

On my way back home I decided to walk north on the Long Meadow to look for any overwintering Merlins. When they are around, there are a few predictable places to find them perched; Center Drive near the Nethermead Arches and overlooking the bridle path, a tall, thin Ginkgo tree adjacent the Lower Pool and a Linden tree at the north end of the Long Meadow near the Theodore Roosevelt memorial plaque.

The Ginkgo tree was unoccupied so I continued north. As I passed a stand of mature Oak trees near the barbecue area, a Merlin zipped through the trees, heading towards 5th Street. Behind the small, agile falcon was a lumbering Red-tailed Hawk. She flew into the stretch of woods on the west side of the meadow and vanished. Squirrels that had been foraging in the compacted dirt basin at the center of the barbecue area bolted towards the safety of the trees. I expected the hawk to come swooping out of the trees, but she didn't, so I went looking for her. Two squirrels in a beech tree made the familiar, hide-from-the-hawk chuck squeal. I looked where they were looking and found a large, dark female hawk scanning the ground for prey. It was a difficult angle to take photographs, so I began walking backwards, trying to find the right spot. There was a pile of leaves at the edge of the wooded area and, as I backed into it, two woodcock exploded from the ground. Wings whistling, they zig-zagged across the meadow and dropped down into the woods on Sullivan Hill.

The hawk's eyes looked like yellow-orange, glass beads and reflected a tiny glint of white clouds. She made a couple of half-hearted passes at a squirrel hiding on the opposite side of the tree trunk. Intent on finding her last meal of the day, she gave up and headed off towards 3rd Street. I caught up with her just as she tore into a squirrel on a perch opposite the playground. I looked for an identifiable pattern in her feathers. She was an adult bird, dark, like Alice or the male of the pair that hangs around the north end of the park. When I got home I compared her image with other photos I've taken and, while I can't be 100 percent certain, she looks a lot like Alice. Hmmm, isn't that the lyrics from a song?

Pied-billed Grebe
American Wigeon
Northern Shoveler
Ring-necked Duck
Ruddy Duck
Red-tailed Hawk
American Coot
American Woodcock
Ring-billed Gull
Northern Flicker
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Carolina Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Hermit Thrush
American Pipit
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Chipping Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
American Goldfinch

Other common and resident species seen (or heard):
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, Northern Cardinal, Red-winged Blackbird, House Sparrow

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"

Monday, November 05, 2007

Kestrel in Highland Park

I mentioned in my previous post that I went to the Ridgewood Reservoir yesterday to retrieve my Birdcam. On our way back to the subway, my wife suddenly stopped and pointed to a bird perched on a television antenna. She thought it might be a falcon. I fished my bins out of my pack and, sure enough, there was a kestrel perched above the roof of the apartment building at the corner of Cleveland and Arlington.

My wife is only a sometimes-birder, but kestrels are a favorite and she seems to be able to spot them from a mile away. Her love of these feisty, little falcons began about 20 years ago. We were at a raptor exhibition at the Theodore Roosevelt Sanctuary on Long Island. At the indoor facility there were several handlers walking around with various owls, hawks and falcons that they use for educational purposes. As is the case with some birds brought in for rehabilitation, they had recovered from their injuries, but for various reasons could not be released into the wild. The male American Kestrels have beautifully patterned rust, blue-gray and white plumage. They are only about the size of a Blue Jay, but, given half a chance, could probably kill and eat a jay. Up close, they look surprisingly delicate. We were admiring a male kestrel perched on its handler's arm, when another handler walked by with a Barn Owl. The tiny falcon reacted by puffing up his feathers and emitting a high-pitched "ki ki ki ki ki ki ki". If it weren't for the tether on his leg, he seemed like he would have attacked the owl. Now, bear in mind that the average kestrel weights about 117 grams, whereas the average Barn Owl weighs in at a hefty 460 grams. He was either gutsy or foolish, take your pick. The owl ignored the falcon's threats.

We had been watching the kestrel on the T.V. antenna for a few minutes when it took off, making a beeline right into a pine tree across the street from where we were standing. Sparrows scattered, but the falcon emerged from the tree, sparrow-less. He flew back up to his perch to wait for another opportunity. We heard a familiar "ki ki ki ki ki" from somewhere to our right and he took off in that direction. I ran up to the corner and saw that he had joined another kestrel, a female and probably his mate. Together they circled above the two story homes along Arlington Place, then disappeared up the hill, towards the reservoir.

I took this photo of a male American Kestrel at Floyd Bennett Field.

This guy hitched a ride to my apartment in a recess on my Birdcam. I think he's a type of grass spider. I'm not sure, so I posted the photo on the Bug Guide website.

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"

Saturday, November 03, 2007

BirdCam part 2

Having learned from my previous experiments with the Wingscapes BirdCam, I decided to try it out at the Ridgewood Reservoir.

Last Sunday I found, what I guessed was, a good location to shoot some images of unsuspecting birds going about their daily routine. The spot was in a fairly open habitat. I didn't think it would get enough light in some of the reservoir's more densely vegetated areas. Also, it was in a place where I had flushed a woodcock. I figured that I'd at least get images of a woodcock. The camera was attached to the base of the tree using two bungee cords that come with the unit. I tried to camouflage the gray, weather-proof box with some stalks of mugwort I pulled up.

All week I kept wondering what kind of birds would accidentally trip the shutter on the camera. Pheasant? Woodcock? A hawk would be excellent. Finally, this morning I hopped on the subway to go retrieve the camera. I climbed down into basin 3, where I had hidden the camera. At first, I was a little annoyed as I thought it had been stolen. After a brief search, I found it. I had done a better job hiding it than I thought. Unfortunately, it was tipped to one side. The tree I had attached it to didn't have a very thick trunk and the bungees were a little loose. Even so, I didn't think it could possibly get windy enough in the basin to knock it over. I had placed a few branches between the camera and tree so that it was tipping downward a little. The branches had been moved. Hmmm. I couldn't wait to get it home and upload the images to my computer.

The camera had snapped off 16 images over a period of five days. I was a little disappointed as there weren't any pheasants, woodcocks or hawks on the memory card, but I did figure out who messed with the camera. I plan to set the camera up tomorrow in basin 1, but for my third try at using the camera I'll make sure that I don't pick a tree that has a squirrel living in it.

by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"