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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Jinx Birds

Once a person becomes interested in birds and birding, the next stage on the risky road towards obsession is "listing". For many of us, it's not enough to merely be able to identify birds. We need to keep a list of the bird species that we've seen - a "lifelist".

A lifelist is the what, when and where of birds that one has observed for the first time. Some people also create subsets of bird sightings, such as, a "year list", "city list", "state list" or "country list". One of the final stages towards obsessive aviaphilia is graduating to the level of "twitcher". A twitcher (or ticker) is a birder who actively seeks out new birds, or ticks, on their lifelist. I think that most birders are content to observe many of the same birds year after year, and it is always exciting when a "rare" bird shows up in ones neighborhood, but there are some truly driven people who will spend large sums of money and time to increase the length of their lists. At 745 species, Sandy Komito of New Jersey holds the current North American "year list" record. I'm not certain how much money he spent chasing down all those birds, but it was probably a lot. This brings me to the main subject of this post - "Jinx Birds".

In my short time as a birder I've heard numerous anecdotes by more experienced folks about their jinx bird. It seems like everyone has, or has had, one. This is a bird species that, no matter how well one plans, seems to always escape the view through your binoculars. Mine was the Golden Eagle. It took me 10 years to finally track one down. I couldn't even find one in the Pacific Northwest. A typical comment that I heard over that period was, "That's odd, there was one here just a few minutes ago." Generally, once that bird has finally been observed, the spell is broken and it is seen over and over again.

I have a birding friend, Kelly, who never managed to find a Great Horned Owl. She is a dedicated and very skilled birder, and, strangely Great Horned Owls are not particularly rare. In fairness, though, they do have the ability to hide in plain view. Kelly's jinx bird story, however, goes beyond frustrating.

Last Sunday we both participated in the Bronx/Westchester Christmas Bird Count. Towards the end of the day, the teams covering east Bronx all met at Greenlawn Cemetery. When I saw Kelly she said, "I finally found my Great Horned Owl." She then held out a white, plastic bag and said, "Wanna see?" Inside the bag was the remains of a dead Great Horned Owl that she had found while doing the survey. I felt bad and didn't want to point out the obvious, that dead birds don't count on a "life" list. She kept the owl to turn over to the state wildlife pathologist.

Before leaving I told her that I knew of several locations where I could "get" her a living, breathing Great Horned Owl. Her disappointment turned to optimism and we agreed to meet during the week.

Fast forward two days. As we were walking through the woods I suggested that we remain quiet, so as not to spook the birds. Within 5 minutes we were looking up at two Great Horned Owls. Kelly couldn't have been happier. Two owls, and they were both still alive! The mated pair were perched in trees several yards apart. The paler of the two birds sat, eyes closed, facing the low, winter sun. Several times he opened his eyes and looked down at me with a glaring expression which would intimidate even the bravest person. After a few minutes we quietly walked away to let them snooze undisturbed.

On Sunday, when I told Shane about Kelly's dead owl he said, kidding around, "Maybe it was the red-tails getting even for the dead hawk." We joked about an urban gang war or Mafia hit for turf control. Later on it occurred to me that animals don't practice revenge. It is a unique behavior invented and perfected by us civilized, "higher" forms of life.
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Monday, December 29, 2008

Predator as Prey

On Sunday Steve, Shane and I joined several teams of birders spread out around Westchester and the Bronx for their Christmas Bird Count (for reasons of practicality, the annual Christmas Count occurs over a three week period). Steve is our team leader and I've been helping in his area for the last 5 years. Early in the morning we observed something I've never seen before and has had me thinking about since.

If you take the time to look closely, it's not unusual to periodically find small piles of feathers scattered around our city parks. They are, for the most part, the remains of an avian predator's kill. Between all the owls, hawks and falcons hunting around NYC's five boroughs these little, blood stained puffs are just a fact of life, especially during the harsher winter months. On Sunday, while scanning the trees within a stand of pines, we came across what looked like the outcome of a pillow fight. It wasn't a just a small cluster of tiny feathers. Large, medium and small feathers were nearly everywhere. At the edge of the scattered plumes was something both familiar and shocking; the tail of a Red-tailed Hawk. A short distance away was the hawk's carcass. Its body had been eaten leaving only the wings, legs and head attached to a stripped backbone. Steve, Shane and I began discussing what predator would be powerful enough to kill and eat a Red-tailed Hawk. Maybe a Great Horned Owl, although I'd never found any information that said these large owls would prey on red-tails. The hawk was relatively small, probably a male. We had seen a Cooper's Hawk in the area, but I don't think that even the largest female coops would be strong enough to take on a Red-tailed Hawk. A Northern Goshawk? I've become very fond of our city's red-tails, but I was more interested in solving the mystery than mourning the loss of one.

I began watching the Red-tailed Hawks around Brooklyn in the 1990s. It wasn't until 2002 that I started to observe them on a regular basis. Over that period of time I never experienced or read any accounts of the top of our food chain becoming prey. We pondered the idea of hawk cannibalism, but if it were a common phenomenon, I probably would have come across it before Sunday. During the course of the day Great Horned Owl became the top suspect, although we had absolutely no evidence other than they are great, big powerful predators. It is possible that the hawk was sick and died before it was scavenged by other animals.

Steve and I had to leave a bit early, so Shane decided to stick around and bird for a couple more hours. He called me later with some disarming news. After we had left he looped back around to the area of the hawk carcass. There was a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk standing over the remains of the dead adult raptor. His initial thought was that it could be an offspring of the deceased bird examining his parent's remains. Then the young bird yanked off one of the wings and flew off with it, no doubt to dine on the small amount of meat that could be found.

On Tuesday I was back in the Bronx and decided to see what was left. The plucked hawk feathers that had embellished the cushy carpet of pine needles had been whisked away by the wind. Some were nearby, trapped within the branches of small trees and shrubs. Perhaps by Spring some will be discovered by small songbirds and used as nest material. The hawk's carcass had been reduced to just the denuded head, vertebrae, ribs and feet. In another week all signs of the Red-tailed Hawk's existence will be gone.
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Friday, December 26, 2008

Brooklyn Christmas Bird Count wrap-up

Floyd Bennett Field was New York City's first municipal airport. Built on Barren Island after combining it with several smaller islands, it is now owned and managed by the National Park Service. There are several historic hangers and other buildings on the property, but for participants of the annual Christmas Bird Count, it is mainly known for its 140 acres of remnant grassland. There are also some stands of conifers, as well as, coastal habitats along Jamaica Bay and Dead Horse Bay. Saturday's Brooklyn CBC was my seventh year helping out with the survey at Floyd Bennett (I missed out in 2002 due to a broken arm).

I've endured pretty much any weather conditions in the name of conservation without complaining, but this year was a test of will.

At 6:15am I walked six blocks to Gil's house, as he would be driving. There weren't any cars on the road so I walked down the center of 8th Avenue. A beautiful, light, crystalline snow fall made the air around the streetlights sparkle. The strong northeast wind made if feel like 15 degrees. I couldn't wait to feel the conditions out on the open grasslands.

Ron Bourque, of New York City Audubon, and his wife Jean have been the team leaders and keepers of Floyd Bennett Field for decades. We were to meet them at the main parking lot by 7am. When they arrived we found out that a total of 5 people had cancelled, for various reasons. In the back of my mind I assumed that it was all the same reason; the weather. That left Ron, Jean, Gil, Stanley and myself to cover all of Floyd Bennett, Dead Horse Bay and Four Sparrow Marsh. I was a little concerned because Jean was still recovering from a broken foot, plus, Gil and Stanley didn't appeared to be dressed warmly enough. As it turned out, Ron and I ended up walking the majority of the 140 acres by ourselves leaving no time for Four Sparrow Marsh or the North 40s.
I've never been to the Alaska, but after carefully crossing the ice encrusted runways and enduring the wind scoured fields on Saturday I imagined that it was similar to birding on the Aleutian Islands. The conditions didn't seem to deter some of the birds and we managed to find a couple of small flocks of Eastern Meadowlarks.

Much of the grassland was blanketed in snow and ice. We located a flock of Horned Larks that were feeding in an uncharacteristic manner. These arctic breeding birds are usually found foraging in open, stubbly grass fields. However, we found a flock of several dozen at the top of a dirt berm, stretching their necks to pluck seeds from the lower branches of Lamb's Quarters plants. They were sharing the food with White-throated Sparrows, Song Sparrows, American Tree Sparrow, juncos and a single Snow Bunting. It would have made an interesting photograph had the conditions been even slightly better.

After lunch we headed across Flatbush Avenue to Dead Horse Bay. Up to that point we hadn't observed anything unusual, in fact, many bird species we either missing entirely or just seen in low numbers. As we headed down the main path towards the water I spotted a very dark raptor hunting about the phragmites to our left. It had the coloration of a Turkey Vulture, but was clearly a hawk. When it stopped to hover in place, Ron and I blurted out in unison, "Rough-legged Hawk!" These hawks come in two color morphs, dark and light, this one being a very dark individual. Rarely seen around NYC, this was the second year in a row that we observed one on the Christmas Bird Count. Approximately the size of a Red-tailed Hawk, they have the unique ability to hover in place when searching for prey. Below is a short video that I located on the Cornell "Animal Behavior" website. It shows this unusual hunting strategy. Young Red-tailed Hawks will occasionally hover, but for the most part are much lazier hunters.

For a more complete analysis of this year's CBC, my friend Doug Gochfeld wrote up a really nice summary of the Brooklyn Count and posted it on the "" website. Here is his report:

Subject: Brooklyn CBC report+
From: Doug Gochfeld

With count period coming to an end this evening, and not having seen anything posted yet regarding it, I figured I'd write up a quick recap of the Brooklyn Christmas Bird Count which took place on Saturday December 20. After a light snow for the first couple of hours of daylight it cleared up into some nicer (although still chilly) weather. I am not the compiler and I don't have all the numbers in front of me but I hope I hit on most of the highlights and "lowlights".

The biggest rarity of the count was a Blackpoll Warbler in the Spring Creek area, photographed by Steve Nanz. This represents a first count record, and from what I can gather a first record for New York State Christmas Counts, although I encourage anyone to correct me on that fact if I'm wrong. Spring Creek also produced a Yellow Warbler, another excellent find.

Great Egret (Marine Park??)

Little Blue Heron (immature at Jamaica Bay, 3rd count record)

Eurasian Wigeon (Marine Park)

Common Eider (Breezy Point)

Common Merganser (1 female at Jamaica Bay)

Rough-legged Hawk (Floyd Bennett Field, flying over Dead Horse Bay)

Clapper Rail (Marine Park, @ Plum Beach)

Killdeer (8 for Spring Creek)

Lesser Black-backed Gull (The usual adult at the Silver Gull Club picked up by both the Riis/Tilden and Breezy Point teams)

Black-legged Kittiwake (2 @ Breezy Point)

Snowy Owl (Jamaica Bay)

Orange-crowned Warbler (Jamaica Bay, Fort Tilden/Riis Park, Breezy Point)

Field Sparrow (5 @ Jamaica Bay, 5 @ Tilden/Riis)

sharp-tailed sparrow sp. (Jamaica Bay)

Seaside Sparrow (Marine Park, @ Plum Beach)

White-crowned Sparrow (Breezy Point)

Also Pine Siskin, Rusty Blackbird, Red-necked Grebe and I think Purple Finch were seen in multiple locations.

Hermit Thrush set a count high by more than 150%, with 30 beating the previous high count of 19.

American Pipits were seen by several parties with the high count being 70 for Spring Creek.

Common Goldeneye, Gray Catbird, and Brown Creeper were seen in only 1 location each and were present in lower numbers than usual.

Bad misses were Fish Crow, Boat-tailed Grackle, Chipping Sparrow and Redhead (not annual, but sufficiently regular to be a disappointing miss).

An observation that was shared by just about every party in the count as well as mentioned by some other counts around the area from that day was the large movement of Canada Geese flying over from East-to-West throughout most of the day (many of which were probably double or triple counted as they flew through multiple areas).

The only Count Week addition that I am aware of is Lapland Longspur at Floyd Bennett Field, which was present on Wednesday and Thursday of last week, as well as today, although there seem to be at least two individuals involved in today's sightings (as well as those from the beginning of the month).

Today the Longspur(s) were associating with a large number of Horned Larks (~130) and some scattered Snow Buntings (30-50) on a couple of different fields within the Base. Also at Floyd Bennett Field this afternoon was a good scattered gathering of sparrows near the Cricket Field including 3 continuing White-Crowned Sparrows (1 adult, 2 immature), 3 Fox Sparrows, 4 Swamp Sparrows, 2 American Tree Sparrows and higher numbers of Song and White-throated. Just before dusk at Floyd were over 1000 Gulls (mostly Ring-billed) roosting just off of the Boat Ramp Parking Lot.

Good CBCing

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

An Eagle Christmas Story

This could have been a story of terrible cruelty with a sad ending. Fortunately, there are some very good people in this world and one young eagle will have a good Christmas.

Today I received an email from wildlife rehabilitator Bobby Horvath. He was notified of an injured juvenile Bald Eagle on the beach on Long Island. I remembered a story from "" that was sent to me last month by my friend Christina. It was a short piece from November 20th about a Bald Eagle spotted hanging around the beach on Long Island. This is what eventually happened to the bird:

From: Robert Horvath
Date: December 24, 2008 12:32:10 AM EST

This guy came in last week. Immature male shot, still has pellet in abdomen. Also suffering from mild lead poisoning from eating something killed with lead shot. It's duck hunting season now and he was found at the beach nearby a legal hunting area. He was scavenging on undesirable fish caught and left on the beach by the
surfcasters for over a month, which probably saved his life. We found pellets in the cage, as well, after he defecated. In addition he has an unknown sticky substance totally covering his feathers leaving him only partially flighted at the moment. Numerous baths in Dawn didn't have much affect, so we soaked the feathers with warmed cannola oil first, leaving on for 15 minutes and then Dawn wash after. It worked much better.

I tried catching him a few times, but he could glide from the tops of dune to dune while I had to run up and down them to no avail. Finally, on the day I caught him, he actually flew about 100 feet out, 3 feet above the water until exhausted. He ended up plummeting into and treading water just to keep his head above. I was able to net him when he got close to shore. We did x-rays, blood work and fecal sample so far. He's eating now and perking up and much stronger than last week. We hope his recovery is full and will be released upstate in an eagle wintering area where he can mingle with many others of his kind.

P.S.- anyone know hunters with extra deer meat our patient would be appreciative. We already have his rodent fish menu covered.

Bobby Horvath and his volunteers are state and federally licensed wildlife rehabilitators. They receive no funds from the state, county, or federal governments and are dependent on donations and grants. Wildlife in Need of Rescue and Rehabilitation (WINORR) is in constant need of supplies for their day-to-day operations. They currently have a wish list of needed items:

paper towels, towels, baby blankets, bleach, baby wipes, cages (crates, bird cages, etc.) and animal carriers.”

If you would like to donate any items, you can contact Bobby or Cathy at (516) 293-0587 for information. If you’d like to make a monetary donation, checks can be made out to “Wildlife in Need of Rescue and Rehabilitation” and sent to:

202 N. Wyoming Avenue
North Massapequa, NY 11578
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Friday, December 19, 2008

Tis the Season

Tomorrow is the symbolic climax of a year of birding - the annual Christmas Bird Count. For the last several years, I've been part of the team that covers Floyd Bennett Field, Dead Horse Bay and Four Sparrow Marsh. Today's snow storm and tomorrow's predicted arctic blast should make for an interesting day in the field. In 2002, during the count I was forced to stay home nursing a broken arm. It was tough sitting inside wondering about all the great discoveries being made around the city. For those birders stuck inside tomorrow nursing a cold or worse, I know the feeling and you have my sympathy. Now get well and get birding. As always, I look forward to sharing my experiences in a couple of days.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Dan Akroyd in a Salad?!

I got a call from a friend the other night. She was a home making a salad, when she found something in the bowl that was bright green, but definitely not leafy.

The first words I heard were, "Hi Rob, I was making a salad and noticed a large, bright green grasshopper-like insect in it. I thought you'd know what it is." Hmmm, should I be flattered that someone thinks of me when they find an unidentified insect in their food? Anyway, I asked her what it looked like to which she replied, "It is large, green and has an odd cone-shaped head". Ah hah! A light bulb when off over my head. It's a conehead, I replied. "A conehead?" Yeah, they're a kind of katydid. I've never seen one before, but have a great book entitled, "The Song of Insects". There's a whole section on coneheads. They are a harmless group of insects that one is more likely to hear than see, especially during the summer months. I was a little jealous that she accidentally stumbled on one, because I've been unsuccessful trying to find them in the wilds of Brooklyn. It seemed perfectly content munching on her salad, so she took some photos and emailed them to me.

Oh yeah, as for the Dan Akroyd reference, check out this link.
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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Cold Weather Warbler in Prospect Park

Last Sunday, after riding a couple of laps around the park, I did a little birding. Peter was on Breeze Hill filling the bird feeders so we hung around watching the nuthatches, sparrows and goldfinches for a few minutes. As we were walking towards Lookout Hill, Steve texted Peter with a nice finding near Rick's Place - an Orange-crowned Warbler. I hadn't seen one since 2006, so it was a nice surprise, especially in December!

We were about a 15 minute walk from Rick's Place. I could have just hopped on my bike and been there in a minute, but didn't want to abandon Peter and another Brooklyn birder named Keir. (I probably heard Nelson Muntz in the back of my mind saying, "Ha ha, you have to walk.") When we arrived at the triangular patch of trees near the Boulder Bridge, Steve was no where to be found, neither were any birds. He caught up with us a few minutes later and described a mixed flock of sparrows, plus one bright yellow warbler, feeding in the leaf litter. We spread out looking for the flock and, hopefully, the warbler. Peter, Keir and Steve didn't seem to be having much luck near Rick's Place or Payne Hill, so I wandered over to the rise at the north end of the Midwood. Within a minute or so I spotted a large flock of sparrows, then the Orange-crowned Warbler. The olive and yellow bird was feeding, uncharacteristically, within the leaf litter. These birds typically forage low in the understory, but seeing one on the ground, and especially in a flock of White-throated Sparrows and juncos, seemed strange. I yelled for the others that I had found the bird.

Sunday was extremely windy. Where I found the flock was within the lee of the hillside between Battle Pass and the Midwood. The birds moved in short bursts along that rise for the 45 minutes that we observed them. The Orange-crowned Warbler was moving quickly as it fed, going from the ground, to shrubs and, occasionally, flying up to higher branches in the upperstory. It was the most hyperactive warbler I've ever watched.

During last night's torrential downpours I thought about that tiny bird. I remembered how small he looked, even next to a Song Sparrow. They are known to sometimes spend part of the winter in the Northeast, but it couldn't be easy. Most of the other Orange-crowned Warblers have migrated to tropical climates and I pictured him trying to stay warm and dry in Brooklyn. Maybe he found an overnight roost under the protection of a natural overhang or one of the park's manmade structures. I hope he survives long enough to continue south during a stretch of good weather.
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Sunday, December 07, 2008

Paige Gets Her Bird

I believe that enjoying birds and nature needs to be shared. Stumbling on a rare bird or discovering something wonderful in our urban landscape is always great. Passing on the sensation of wonderment or awe completes the experience for me. Implanting in others an appreciation for our planet's flora and fauna could start a positive change reaction.

I've written a few times about my attempt to find the cemetery Great Horned Owl for my friend Paige. As someone who leads local birding trips, I should know better than to ever consider that any bird is a "definite" (except for maybe pigeon, starling or House Sparrow). I successfully jinxed any attempt at sharing that owl with her. With that in the back of my mind, we set out on Saturday to see whatever birds were around. With a little luck, maybe an owl would be one of those birds.

I know of several Great Horned Owl nesting pairs within the five boroughs, so decided to pick one and bird the surrounding area. (Don't ask, I will not reveal owl nests or roosts)

It took me a while to orient myself in the park, but eventually found last year's nest site. The tree appeared to be unused, but it is still a little early in the season. By January there should be activity at the nest.

We hadn't seen many songbirds all morning when we came to a section of woods that was suddenly bustling with life. There were Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Carolina Wren, Hermit Thrush, American Robin, White-throated Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco and Northern Cardinal feeding in the leaf litter below a stand of Sweetgum trees. Some goldfinches were in the treetops knocking seeds to the ground for the waiting birds as they fed.

About 45 minutes later I heard a pair of Blue Jays squawking out an alarm to the woodland creatures. I suggested to Paige that we find the jays as they were likely mobbing a bird of prey. We located the jays quickly as it's hard to overlook their bright blue plumage. It took a few more minutes to see the source of their ire. Screened by the dense needles of a pine tree was a Great Horned Owl. He had his back to us, but swiveled his head around to watch us, watching him. I set up my scope and let Paige enjoy close-ups of the bird for a few minutes.

We had left the owl and were a few hundred yards down the path when I thought I heard a distant, "Hoo-hoo hoooooo hoo-hoo". The two of us stopped and listened. Again, "Hoo-hoo hoooooo hoo-hoo". Then a second, higher set of hoots. It was sunny and around 10:30am. I didn't think Great Horned Owls called during the day. We walked the short distance back towards the source. Suddenly two Great Horned Owls flew out of the forest and circled close to each other above the trees. A third raptor flew off to their right. Neither Paige nor I had clear looks at the third bird. It seemed like the right shape and size for a Great Horned Owl, but I couldn't be 100% certain. There was a Red-tailed Hawk in the area, but he was still perched behind us. We waited around for a few more minutes, but they never called again.

It was a great experience finding the owls and even better knowing that I was able to share it with a friend who had never seen one.
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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Jones Beach in the Rain

On Sunday I went to Jones Beach with my friend Peter. We thought that leaving at first light would give us some time to bird before the rain arrived. It didn't quite work out that way, but we did have a couple of outstanding experiences despite coming home drenched to the bone.

Before going to Jones Beach we stopped at St. Charles Cemetery in Farmingdale. A Barnacle Goose was seen there feeding within a flock of Canada Geese. Peter had never seen one of these beautiful waterfowl and I had only seen one once before. It took us about 3 minutes to spot the barnacle. Even in the rain and greyness, the bird's all white face clearly stood out among a few hundred canada's white chinstraps. I wasn't able to take any decent photos all day due to the terrible weather, but here is a photo of a Barnacle Goose taken by my friend Steve Nanz. We went out to see this one at Eisenhower Park on Long Island back in January 2006.

After spending several minutes peering at the geese through the cemetery fence, we headed south to the Coast Guard Station at Jones Beach. Shorebirds can usually be found on a sand spit that hooks around a cove at that location. Waterfowl, loons and an assortment of gulls are also a good bet here.

There were lots of birds along the spit when we arrived. To stay out of the rain, we stood under the restroom's roof overhang while scanning the flock. The narrow stretch of sand was crowded with Brant, Black-bellied Plover, American Oystercatcher, Sanderling and Dunlin. When a small flock of plovers flew to the grass next to us we discovered that one was a golden plover.

At one point there was a lot of noise coming from the cove and all the birds flushed from the sand spit. A police boat was anchored near the cove, as well as, a small fishing boat moored to the dock closest to the spit. A pair of Zodiacs were slowly motoring out of the cove behind the spit. There were people on the boats holding metal pipes partially submerged in the water while banging the exposed ends with hammers. I noticed two dolphins as they broke the surface in front of the small boats. I'm guessing that the dolphins had become trapped in the cove at low tide and rescuers used the noisemakers to move the dolphins out into the bay and towards the inlet. Both mammals seemed pretty small, but one looked significantly smaller than the other. Parent and offspring, perhaps? Their dark, arched backs and triangular dorsal fins broke the surface every few yards as the pair headed West, towards the inlet and to the open sea; big fin, little fin, big fin, little fin. The happy scene momentarily made me forget that I was standing in the cold, blowing rain. Maybe they were Harbor Porpoises.

We drove to the concession in Field 6 to get something hot to drink. After some chowder and a little drying off, we headed out to the car. As we exited the concession building a Peregrine Falcon zoomed passed at nearly eye level. It was chasing a pigeon and circled around the building twice before heading west, towards the 200 foot high water tower. It returned a short time later with its smaller mate. The two chased the pigeons briefly, then headed towards the surf. They scared up a confusing ball of mixed shorebirds, but seemed to have one singled out. Separated from the flock, a tiny Sanderling didn't stand a chance. The male falcon slammed it, then snatched it out of the air. What happened next was something I'd never seen. The female flew above her mate, he flipped over and passed her the prey. This happened while they were only a short distance above the breaking surf. Amazing.

Check out this video clip of a Peregrine Falcon hunting along a mudflat.
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Monday, December 01, 2008

Not Really Turkeys

For Thanksgiving I went to visit family down in Annapolis, Maryland for several days. The stuffed turkey was nearly the only bird I focused on, so my bins remained in their case most of the week. I did, however, have an interesting bird-related experience on Thanksgiving morning.

The YMCA has an annual "Turkey Trot" to raise money for their Camp Letts facility. It's a beautiful, wooded property located on the South River in Edgewater, Maryland. They organize both a 5k and 10k run that draws a big crowd each year. I'm not a runner, but I always go over early in the morning to support family members who do run. During the race, I wander around the woods and river banks with my bins.

This year, before the start of the race, I noticed a flock of birds in a large tree that overlooks the finish line; very large birds. They were a mix of Black Vultures and Turkey Vultures. There were 33 sitting in a single tree and several more nearby. I hoped their presence wasn't some kind of eerie omen for the runners. Maybe it was just wishful thinking on their part.

After the starting gun, I wandered across the parking field to where the vultures were perched. Despite their huge size and scary appearance, they were pretty skittish and half of them took off. The leaf litter below their perch looked like a well used painter's drop cloth, and I won't even get into the pungent bouquet. I guess a biologist really needs to be dedicated to study these interesting creatures. To complete this fascinating Thanksgiving morning picture were their "songs". A good word to describe their vocalizations would be prehistoric. I wouldn't be surprised if they were used as sound effects in "Jurassic Park". As the vultures jostled for prime perching spots they made bizarre hissing sounds. A few times I also heard what sounded sort of like barking. Eventually, I realized that standing beneath a tree full of vultures was probably asking for trouble, so I headed back to the finish line.

I briefly searched the Internet for a collective noun for vultures. Crows have their "murder", quails have their "covey" and hawks have their "kettle", but what about the lowly vultures? Many years ago, my friend Jonathan Rosenthal suggested the expression, "a fester of vultures". Having spent a few minutes listening to and smelling the avian equivalent to a sanitation crew, it seems like a fitting poetic collective.

-click to hear a Black Vulture-
-click to hear a Turkey Vulture-
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