Thursday, April 24, 2008

S&M Swans

In addition to birding Prospect Park lately I've also made a couple of trips to Jamaica Bay. Being near this and the other Gateway parks that run along the coast of Brooklyn and Queens is one of the great advantages of birding around NYC. The refuge is near JFK airport, and if you've seen the marshlands as you come in or fly out from there, part of that is Jamaica Bay. Some expected birds have arrived there, including Glossy Ibis, Little Blue and Tricolored Herons, and Forsters Terns. But the most interesting moment I had was watching the more familiar Mute Swans, an introduced species that is not always beloved by birders because of their aggression. Apparently, they save their worst aggression for each other. I was scoping the East Pond when I heard a commotion on the lake and looked up to see a pair of swans trying to kill each other. Or at least that's what it looked like. This series of photos gives a sense of the violence of the interaction...
I was pretty sure one of these birds was going to wind up injured or dead. The fight went on for at least five minutes. Finally, one swan got around the other and appeared to mount it:

The breeding (if that was what it was...I am only assuming here) was more akin to a prison rape than anything else, and what I'm deducing was the female looked miserable and nearly drowned. As I'm sure Leda could tell you, getting ravished by a swan isn't all it's cracked up to be. Finally, the (presumed) female pulled away and escaped, probably to recover and renounce males for good.
I've since looked up some videos online where the copulation was not nearly this aggressive, so again this may have been a dominance display rather than a mating pair. If anyone has any more information on this behavior, please email me.

Yellow Throated Warbler

The last few days have brought in a few birds here and there, though it's been pretty slow -- the Big Push has to happen eventually, but the birds definitely do it on their own time, and the peak of migration is still a couple of weeks off. Nonetheless, there have been some good birds lately, most notably a Yellow-Throated Warbler that turned up on the eve of the 22nd. A local birder named Edith Goren had spotted the bird around noon, and Peter Dorosh texted me around 4pm. This is one of the "overshoot" warblers we've been hoping for...a bird that flew too far north in migration and wound up past it's normal breeding range. Peter and I met in the park to walk the area it had been reported, and then went around the whole lake. It was dead...barely a warbler seen anywhere, and after a while we were resigned that the bird was not going to show. We were just enjoying the weather and the walk. At about 6:30pm we were leaving the park, talking about how you have to have slow days to appreciate the good days, and how I feel like I need to find more birds on my own as opposed to chasing birds all the time, when we both spotted a streaky warbler right by the path. We had our binonculars on it when the bird turned towards us to flash a bright yellow throat, and we both exclaimed almost simulatneously "Yellow Throated Warbler!" Peter started texting local birders to alert them, and I pointed my camera and held down the high-speed shutter to make sure I got a photo. We also called Lloyd Spitalnik, who runs the MetroBirds list online. The list is dedicated to NY city area rarities only, and when it's time to call Lloyd then you know you've got something good! In all that fuss we lost track of the bird...several other birders showed up within minutes, and we all started scouring the trees to relocate it. The light was fading, and Rob Jett wisely checked the treetops that still had sun on them. Since warblers are generally insectivores, and since the bug activity would be in the last warm spots, this made sense. He found the bird again quickly, and this time we all kept our eyes on it until everyone had gotten a good look. The light finally faded, walking out of the park Peter and I recounted what had happened only a few minutes earlier in second by second playback..."I saw the streaky sides, and I was thinking 'That's either a black and white or a yellow throat' and then it turned its head and I saw the yellow and called out...", etc. , both of us aglow with the discovery, and reminded again that birding is full of surprises.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Warbler Arrivals

I suspected that Sunday would be the good warbler day this week, and when, at 8am, I got four separate text messages (two from Peter Dorosh, two from Shane Blodgett), I knew I was right. The birds had moved overnight, and when I met Peter and Mary Eyster in Prospect Park things looked good. Lots of movement, little warblers flitting in the trees, birdsong - everything a birder hopes for. We started at the Vale and soon had the Worm Eating Warbler that Peter and Shane had texted me olive, retiring bird, feeding in the leaf litter (they also frequently probe dead hanging leaves for insects). As we moved through the park we had a nice diversity of birds, including Black and White Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Northern Parula, Northern Waterthrush, Palm and Pine Warblers, and the ubiquitous Yellow Rumped Warblers. We also had Wood Thrush and House Wren, both first-of-year birds for me. It's a joy to see the park come to life with these birds after a winter's hibernation. The color and diversity of the warblers and their flitty movements seem inherently optimistic.

Around 3pm, after six hours at Prospect, I went to Owl's Head Park near the Verazanno Bridge, on another texted tip from Shane Blodgett. This park is on the south shore of Brooklyn, so it can act as a first-landfall for birds heading north across the New York City harbor. Thanks to his excellent directions, I soon had Hooded and Prarie Warblers in the same tree. Both were beautiful, but the Hooded is exceptionally stunning with it's rich yellow body and stark black hood. I got good photos of both--the Prarie was as close as three feet away from me at times, which is a nice change from the usual look at a warbler: far up in a tall tree through the leaves.

After Owl's Head I made stops at Drier Offerman and then Jamaica Bay as the light faded. Nothing new for me at either, but there's no better way to end a day than a walk around the West Pond at Jamaica Bay. You quickly forget you're in New York City, and with birds all around, Glossy Ibis flying overhead, terns over the water, herons in the marshes, it's easy to feel grateful and at peace.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Mad Dash to the Derby

Movement in the park was good last Saturday, and tapered off gradually since then. This time of year is when we look forward to the possiblity of some overshoot warblers--birds that breed south of New York, but fly a bit too far north in the spring and wind up here. Yellow Throated Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, and (very rarely) Swainsons Warbler all fall in this category. In other words, it's a good time for me to be birding in around NYC. At the same time, the migration tends to happen in waves, frequently connected to weather fronts. The birds use south winds to help them travel up the coast towards their breeding grounds, and if the winds are against them they often move less. Hence in the spring we look forward to south winds, and in the fall to north winds. A typical pattern is to have a front move through, and have a good day of birding the next morning (most birds migrate at night). The birding then tapers off over the next few days until the next push.

All that said, the birding was tapering off since Saturday, and I thought I might take a chance and zip upstate to look for a couple of birds that had been reported there lately. I left Thursday mid day and by 6pm I was in Montezuma NWR, at the north end of Lake Cayuga, looking for Sandhill Crane. As the sun came down low and warmed the marsh reeds up to a golden hue, I spotted one of these large, beautiful birds feeding at a distance in the fields. It stayed a few moments and then lifted up and soared out of sight. A great moment and a great way to start this whirlwind trip.

From there I drove up to Derby Hill, a famous hawk watch located on the southeastern shore of Lake Ontario, just outside of Mexico, NY. I pulled in around ten to the sound of thousands of Spring Peepers and other frogs chirping in loud unison. What a difference from being here six weeks earlier, when just a few minutes in the wind would leaved my gloved fingers numb and my face nearly frostbitten. Now it was 50 degrees at night, and a balmy 70s in the day, and the animals were taking full advantage. Monkey and I bedded down in the car and slept relatively well (despite not being able to quite stretch out in the hatchback), and were up with the sun at 5 or so. Hawks tend to fly on thermals, and the thermals don't get going until the sun warms things up, so it would be a few hours before any raptors arrived. In the meantime we birded the road and hedgerows. Around 8am I met up with Jerry Smith, local bird club president and very well versed with upstate birds. He gave me some good suggestions on where to find some of my "problem" birds; and soon, birders were arriving in cars up the hill of the North Lookout.

Hawk watches often depend on funneling mechanisms, and Derby Hill is not an exception. As migrating hawks come north they hit Lake Ontario and, loath to fly out over the open water, they cruise along the shore towards Derby Hill, where the lake end and the birds can turn the corner to continue north. Hence, the birds are all funneled past this spot, which makes Derby Hill one of the best hawk spots in the East. On a good day there can be thousands upon thousands of birds passing overhead. Today wasn't quite that spectacular, and though it started slow there were plenty of good birds to see. Several large kettles of Broad Winged Hawks passed by, as did a number of lone Sharp Shinned Hawks, Red Tails, Red Shouldereds, and (climactically later in the day) 3 immature Golden Eagles, dwarfing even the enormous Turkey Vultures with their wingspan.

Having seen the Broad Wings and Golden Eagles (my target birds for the trip), I left Derby Hill and spent a few hours on the east shore of Lake Ontario poking around and hoping to see a Vesper Sparrow. No luck with the Vesper, but at around 4 I checked my email and saw that Upland Sandpiper had been reported at a nearby aiport. I drove down and spent a little while looking through chain link fence into the fields around the airport, half expecting a cop to come up and ask me why I was checking out the hangars with binoculars. That worry never materialized, but the sandpipers did, and I got good looks at a pair of these birds which are declining precipitously in New York State. One last check of the email at sunset - nothing reported downstate, thank goodness - and I headed south to Brooklyn, ready for the next front to roll in.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Piping Plovers and Fledgling Owls

I went out with Peter Dorosh and several other folks today on a Broolyn Birding Club trip to several parks in Queens and Brooklyn. It was a beautiful spring day and it got better as the day went on, eventually warming up to t-shirt weather. The birds warmed up progressively, too, and we had a lot of activity and variety. In Alley Pond Park we were directed to a Great Horned Owl nest, where the two young owls have now fledged. One was perched out on a branch in the was fluffy and cute like all young owls, but nearly as large as an adult. The combination of the lethal talons and the fluffy exterior were reminiscent of a Doberman in a bunny suit.

The warblers were busy and we had Yellow Rumped, Pine and Palms, as well as both type of Kinglets, Towhees, and lots of sparrows. Later in the day we went to Rockaway beach, a strangely neglected section of Brooklyn waterfront. As with many spots along the Long Island coast, there are roped off areas here to protect the endangered Piping Plover. These birds started to come in a couple of weeks ago, but this was the first I'd seen. In contrast to the owl they are small and unassuming, and blend beautifully with the gravelly sand of the beach. In the summer you might see cages over spots in the dunes - these are predator cages that are intended to protect the plovers from birds and animals that might attact them or their young.

We also had a group of American Oystercatchers on the beach, calling and flying and courting on the shore. It's great to see behavior from these birds that normally are colorful but relatively stationary. We ended the day at Floyd Bennett Field, which was full of sparrows, Brandt, and juncos. We saw about a dozen field sparrows (one of my favorites). Mary Eyster accidentally started up a Killdeer, and we got to see another breeding behavior...the broken wing routine. Killdeer nest on the ground, and if a predator approaches their nest, they flop away from it dramatically as if they have a broken wing. When they've drawn the intruder far enough away, they shake off the false affliction and fly off. Mary was careful to move away from the possible nest area, and we watched as the Killdeer circled around back where we assumed it was nesting. At the end of the day we had seen 81 species, and had our first taste of spring.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Swans Attack Canada

Early migration is in on us, and the breeding and nesting is also underway. In Prospect Park there are two Mute Swan nests that I've seen, huge affairs with one very large and protective mother on top of each. Even away from the nests these giant birds seem even meaner than usual, evidenced today on in the Lullwater. I heard a commotion, and ran over to find a swan chasing after several Canada Geese. The Canadas are already pretty big birds, but as you can see from the photos the Swan dwarfs them, especially when it spreads its wings. It hasselled the geese for several minutes, chasing one and then the other, snapping and flapping. Eventually the Canadas got tired of it and moved on, leaving the swan the tyrant king of the river.

On the more romantic side of migration, the Ruddy Ducks are finally into full plumage, and their rusty flanks and bright blue bills are hard for any hen to resist. Shane Blodgett and I were lucky enough to witness a little courtship ritual, where the males and females took turns standing up in the water and vigourously flapping their wings. The whole flock of thirty seemed agitated , and there was a lot of dashing about (at least dashing by Ruddy Duck standards).

This beautiful Blue Winged Teal was also around with a female, and has been hanging around the lake and Lullwater for the past week. These birds are rare for Prospect Park, so it's been nice having them around for awhile. They compliment the Pintail pair that's also been cruising the lake, also in their spectacular spring plumage.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Migration Approaches

I've been going to Prospect Park every day for the past week...Prospect Park is my default birding spot, and it's close by, so if there's no reason to go elsewhere I generally wind up there, with the occasional trip to Jones Beach or Jamaica Bay for variation. The birds are definitely starting to move--these are the early stages of the big migration that will happen in a few weeks. Last week seemed to be "Eastern Phoebe Day", with hundreds of these birds showing in the park. At one cluster of phragmite reeds there were a dozen Phoebes, and wherever you looked you'd see one of these birds flitting off its perch to catch an insect out of the air. Now we have Pine and Palm Warblers in the park, and their numbers seem to be increasing. Yesterday there were three kinds of swallows working the lake for bugs (Tree, Rough Winged, and Barn), darting back and forth and always on the move. Soon it will be Louisiana Waterthrush, Blue Gray Gnatcatcher, and then all the myriad of spring warblers that many birders anticipate all year. On a good day in April or May you might see twenty or more species of warbler, all flitting through the trees and singing their various calls, and flashing their brilliant colors. It's an exciting time of year, and it's hard to remain patient for all the great birds that are on their way.