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Friday, December 28, 2012

My Christmas Count Round-up

The Christmas Bird Count cycle for this year is winding down with just a couple more planned for early next week. I thought I'd post a summary and some photos of the two counts in which I participated.

Floyd Bennett Field

I've been part of the team that covers Brooklyn's Floyd Bennett Field, Dead Horse Bay and Four Sparrow Marsh since 2000 (minus the Winter I broke my arm). There was some question this year about whether we'd be able to survey the wildlife at Floyd Bennett Field given the continuing use of the area as an emergency hub after hurricane Sandy. Negotiations with the National Park Service went down to the wire, but we did ultimately gain access. One of the stipulations was that an "escort" from the NPS had to remain with us at all times.

We got a later start than usual as we waited for all our team members to assemble in front of Aviator Sports. It had been the first time I'd been able to bird the grasslands and surrounding habitats since just prior to the hurricane and I was chomping at the bit to get started. From the parking lot I could see that immediately surrounding all the grasslands there was a tremendous amount of vehicular activity, as well as, parked tankers, generators, military vehicles and NYPD patrol cars. There were also several temporary building structures. I didn't feel very optimistic about finding birds on the fields.

I suggested that we begin by checking the cricket field, one of the few spots where there wasn't any human activity that might flush birds. I was hoping to find a flock of the area's annual over-wintering Horned Larks and maybe a rare Lapland Longspur. Unfortunately, the field was devoid of birds. We made a quick run to the nearby Return-a-Gift Pond looking for waterfowl. There was a thin layer of ice covering the pond, so no ducks.

During our walk across the main grassland I noticed that there was a lot more trash strewn around due to the tremendous increase in human activity. It also seemed to affect the avian activity as we observed the lowest number of birds (species and abundance) since I began doing the count. We counted 1 American Woodcock and 4 Savannah Sparrows. Eastern Meadowlarks usually overwinter in the grass, but not this year.

After covering the fields and the bay at the end of Archery Road we began walking back to Aviator Sports for our lunch break. I suggested that we check the cricket field again looking for Horned Larks. This arctic species, when they are present, tend to move around a lot. I was willing to keep coming back to the field as many times as necessary because, so far, our species list was pretty dismal. Fortunately, it only took a second look as there was a fairly large flock of Horned Larks feeding in the stubbly grass. I reminded our team to check the flock closely for a possible Lapland Longspur as they tend to travel with the larks. We had been scanning and rescanning the birds for about 10 minutes when Bob W. announced that he had found a longspur. The streaky bird had been nearly hidden from view behind a thick, white rope that marks the circular perimeter of the cricket pitch. Eventually everyone in our group got to see this Christmas Count rarity and we headed off for a lunch break.

Dead Horse Bay, which is across Flatbush Avenue from Floyd Bennett Field is also a part of our CBC survey. Horned Grebe and a small assortment of waterfowl is usually what we find along the bay in this spot. A common Winter sight is a large flock of mostly Greater Scaup, which tends to grow in size over the course of the season. For the Christmas Bird Count there was about 3,000 individuals in the flock. It may sound like a lot, but we've seen close to 20,000 birds here. I recommend checking it out.

Here's a short slideshow of the areas surrounding the protected grassland at Floyd Bennett:

New York Botanical Garden

My friend Steve and I have been teaming up to cover the New York Botanical Garden for the Bronx leg of the CBC since 2004. This year Heydi Lopes and Janet Schumacher would be joining us. We always begin our survey at first light, which gives us about 3 hours before the garden opens to the general public. It never gets really crowded like a city park, but I do enjoy the time when we have the whole the place to ourselves (and the birds).

One unique urban species that I always look forward to tracking down is Wild Turkey. Outside of the Bronx, these prehistoric-looking birds are hard to come by. They've been re-introduced on Staten Island, but judging by the negative reactions from some of that borough's residents, their stay may be short-lived. This huge, ungainly bird doesn't seem like it could fly very well, but does roost in trees. I guess they can take off when they put their minds to it. Unlike the grocery store varieties, the Wild Turkey is, in fact, a native species in North America. Anyway, within 15 minutes of arriving at the botanical garden I spotted the silhouette of two turkeys perched in a large Sweetgum tree. I don't know why, but this bird always makes me snicker. Moments later Steve whispered, "I've got an owl." Owl? Where? "Right in front of us", was his stunned response. It was still relatively dark, but the owl was so close I could tell by the streaking down its front, pronounced facial disc and yellowish bill that it was a Barred Owl.

Barred Owls are rarely seen within New York City, but like several other species, we have been experiencing an irruption of them this Winter. I haven't found any reference material to explain this phenomenon, although I suspect, like the winter finches, a decline in prey has forced this raptor South in search of food. The last time I saw one in NYC was during the Winter of 1999-2000. That year Ed C. spotted one in Prospect Park on December 31st. The bird stuck around Brooklyn until mid-February. I haven't found any in my home borough this year, and it hasn't been for a lack of trying. I'd like to be able to add one to my Brooklyn list this year, but I only have 3 days left.

Another owl seen in unusual numbers around the city this Winter is the tiny Northern Saw-whet Owl. They've been seen scattered around the 5 boroughs since November and wildlife rehabilitator Bobby Horvath and his wife have received an unprecedented 4 injured individuals. Our team in the botanical garden tracked down one, making it my fifth "swet" seen this year. That's more than I'd seen in the previous 6 years combined!

Other irruptive species seen around the city this year have been both Red Crossbill and White-winged Crossbill, so none of use were surprised to find a tree full of the latter species feeding on sweetgum seeds. It was the first time since 2003 that we've observed this species in the Bronx. A few minutes later and a short distance down the path I spotted a few Common Redpolls. They were also feeding in a Sweetgum tree. A species that was strangely absent from our count this year was Great Horned Owl. Perhaps we just overlooked the resident pair, but more likely they were roosting somewhere just outside our area. Others were reported that day, so hopefully the garden's longtime residents are doing alright and will be nesting again by the end of January.

In the end, despite lower than average numbers of common birds and a few missing species, it was a good day, the highlight of which was looking up at a tree that seemed to be decorated with a couple of dozen crossbill "ornaments".

Below is the preliminary results for the Bronx Christmas Bird Count.


Subject: Preliminary Bronx-Westchester Count Results
From: Michael Bochnik
Date: Sun, 23 Dec 2012 23:59:43 -0500

The Bronx-Westchester Count tallied a preliminary 126 species on Sunday Dec 23, 2012. The 126 species tied for the most species seen on this 89 year count. Three new species were found bringing the cumulative total to 227 species. The new birds were:

- The continuing Barnacle Goose in Van Cortlandt Park
- A Magnolia Warbler found and photographed at Wave Hill in the Bronx
- Two Clay-colored Sparrows, one in Pelham Bay Park and the continuing one at Marshlands Conservancy in Rye.

Other highlights included:

- All three species of scoter, Northern Gannets, 21 Razorbills in Long Island Sound
- A new high count of 486 Long-tailed Ducks
- A new high count of 4 Red-neck Grebes, off Rye and Mamaroneck
- 4 Great Egrets
- 5 Black Vultures in the Dobbs Ferry/Hastings-on-Hudson area
- 6 Bald Eagles
- A Red-shouldered Hawk
- 2 Merlin
- 5 Peregrine Falcons
- A Greater Yellowlegs
- A new high count of 9 Barred Owls (7 in the Bronx)
- 2 Northern Saw-whet Owls
- A new high count of 10 Common Ravens
- A new high count of 33 Red-breasted Nuthatches
- A new high count of 73 Winter Wrens
- A House Wren in Yonkers
- 4 American Pipits (flyovers in Marshlands Conservancy)
- 2 Orange-crowned Warblers (one at Split Rock in Pelham Bay Park and the other at Marshlands Conservancy)
- A Prairie Warbler also near Split Rock in Pelham Bay Park (2nd count record!)
- 2 Palm Warblers (one in the Bronx Zoo and the other in Pelham Bay Park)
- A Yellow-Breasted Chat in the Bronx Zoo
- 2 Chipping Sparrows
- 36 Field Sparrows with a flock of 28 in Sprain Ridge Park
- 1 Red Crossbill
- A new high count of 76 White-winged Crossbills
- 13 Common Redpolls

For the second year in a row American Tree Sparrow set an all time low of 49 birds.

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