Sunday, November 30, 2014

Busy days in the Ramble

Friday, I got out of work early and visited Central Park in search of a Bluebird reported in the Ramble by Alice Deutsch. I went back on Saturday morning for a longer walk. No Bluebirds, but the Ramble was very birdy. The normal winter residents were out in force. There were Tufted Titmousim (Titmouses? Titmousoi?) in great numbers.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Tufted Titmouse, morning light
Titmouse in morning light

There were plenty of White-Breasted Nuthatches around, too.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; White-Breasted Nuthatch
Nuthatch doing the Nuthatch thing

There's usually several Red-Bellied Woodpeckers in the Ramble, but I think there are more than usual now.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Red-Bellied Woodpecker on Laupot Bridge
finding something to eat in the post on the bridge railing

Red-Bellieds are usually sedentary, but I have read that the will migrate sometimes when conditions are bad on their home grounds.

Among more traditionally migratory birds, there are a lot of Fox Sparrows around.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Fox Sparrow
e pluribus Fox Sparrow

I saw a dozen on Friday and nearly as many Saturday, mostly in Mugger's Woods.

Saturday, there were a couple of Rusty Blackbirds going up and down the Gill between Azalea Pond and Laupot Bridge.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Rusty Blackbird in the Gill
infrequent visitor

They were very confiding. Rustys are not regular visitors to the Park, although we usually get a few sightings.

Among a cloud of Goldfinches bathing near the Gill Overlook, there were four or five Pine Siskins.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Pine Siskin (and American Goldfinch)
blending in with the Goldfinches

Siskins seem to be irrupting this winter, so there will likely be a lot of sightings in the next few months. I wonder if Crossbills will come in as well?

While looking around the Tanner's Spring area just before leaving the Park, I mused that I hadn't seen any Kestrels lately. Of course, I hadn't been searching too hard; I reasoned that if some regularly scanned their usual perches long Central Park West, they could probably see one every day.

Right after that, in the meadow just north of Winterdale Arch, I saw a bird fly onto a low branch of a tree full of Robins and some other birds. It few out again immediately, followed--after a stunned half-second--by every bird in the meadow. It was a Kestrel, and he had just snatched a Junco right off the branch.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; American Kestrel with Junco prey and mobbing Blue Jay
Kestrel, Junco prey, and a mobbing Blue Jay

The kestrel was mobbed by Blue Jays, Robins, Mourning Doves, Sparrows, and whatever else was around. They chased him from tree to tree, back and forth across the whole area, the Jays screaming, the Kestrel calling a shrill kli kli kli kli kli. The Kestrel would light in a tree with his prey, still calling, and some seconds later fly off again, Jays and allies in hot pursuit. Two or three times a piercing shriek rose above the general clamor. I don't know if it was the Kestrel screaming, or the world's angriest Jay, or perhaps even the unfortunate Junco.

I wish I were good at photographing birds in flight, it was quite a sight in my binoculars. After five minutes or so, The Kestrel finally flew far enough away that many of the pursuing birds gave up. Unforgettable!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Hanging on

Late in migration season, when the first really cold days come, I start noticing birds that are lingering. As every Fall, there's a stray Ovenbird in Bryant Park.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Ovenbird, Bryant park
swept up in the romance of the city

Sometimes they make it through the winter. There's quite a lot of Catbirds in Brant Park this year, as well. I saw seven the other day.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Gray Catbird, Bryant Park
it's a living

Technically, Gray Catbirds aren't actually late yet, but really they should be moving on. The same applies to the American Woodcock who was seen as late as last Thursday hiding out in the Bryant Park lawn border near the entrance to the skating rink. I haven't seen that bird, and I'm really hoping it's found it's way out of Manhattan. Woodcocks seem to have an awful time migrating through the city.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Central Park
contemplating a long journey

Ruby-Crowned Kinglets are one the likeliest of all the small insectivorous migrants to still be here for the Christmas Bird Count. This one was still around Monday morning near Cleopatra's Needle in Central Park.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Palm Warbler, Randall's Island
enjoying the season

Palm Warblers stay pretty late in the year as well. This one was happily hanging out with a small group of Juncos on Randall's Island on Sunday. The Juncos seemed puzzled by the friendly warbler. "Hey, do you know this guy?" they seemed to be asking each other.

Every year, it seems that something really unlikely overwinters in Manhattan.  I wonder what it will be this year?

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Ring-Necked Ducks, Central Park Reservoir

Saturday at the Central Park Reservoir, I saw this:

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Three--count 'em!-three Ring-Necked Ducks, Central Park Reservoir
Three-count'em!--three Ring-Necked Ducks

Three drake Ring-Necked Ducks, just hanging out. They seemed to be taking turns being the one awake. Andres Peltomaa tweeted that that's the high count ever for Ring-Necked Duck in Central Park. There had been two the previous day.

I didn't find the female Northern Pintail who had been reported a couple of days before. Sunday I went to Randall's Island in search of American Pipits--Jacob Drucker saw four on Saturday morning along the northeast shore line, and David Barrett had one a couple of days before--but had no luck. There was a flock of over 300 Brant on one of the baseball fields, which was interesting, and a bird flew by that I couldn't identify.

It was the size and general coloration and shape of s smallish gull--maybe a Bonaparte's or a Laughing Gull--but was brick red or chestnut on the undertail coverts or vent. It flew very directly east to west along the Bronx Kill with fast steady wingbeats, eventually rising to fly over the bridge and then slowly descending out of sight. I have no idea what it was. It doesn't seem to match anything in the books. maybe the red was actually its feet, tucked up under it? Still doesn't really match anything that I can see.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Command the last fruits to ripen, give them another sunny day

On Sunday, I walked up the west side of Central Park from 81st Street to 110th, in search of late Bluebirds. It was a glorious day for a walk, sunny and crisp. There were Fox Sparrows around Tanner's Spring, Shovelers and Ruddy Ducks in numbers on the Reservoir, and north of the Reservoir, in a cherry tree along the dirt track, a Purple Finch devoured the fall fruit.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Purple Finch and fruit

I have read that birds can't taste sweet; they love fruit because it's savory. But they do love it.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Starling and fruit

Several Starlings worked the same tree, as joggers ran past and couples strolled hand in hand.

Further north, the Great Hill was covered in a fine grey mist of Juncos. No Bluebirds, though.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Where are the Robins?

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; American Robin singing, Central Park
Have you seen me?

I haven't been seeing many Robins or Cardinals lately. Usually at this time of year, there are Robins by the dozen in the Ramble and on Cedar Hill and, oh, pretty much everywhere. Not this year; I've gone days without seeing any, and when I see them, there's only a handful. Cardinals are normally quite plentiful as well. Not this Fall.

American Robins are normally migratory--it's right in their name, Turdus migratorius--but over the last few decades, more and more of them have wintered in the New York area. These are probably short-haul migrants (birds from upstate or New England moving here for the winter, while birds that summered here go down to Maryland or so, and birds from there move farther south). This year, they seem to have skipped the City and gone on south.

Northern Cardinals are sedentary--they don't migrate, they stay in their nesting areas year-round. But there were a plenty of them this summer, and very few now.

On the NY state Birds mailing list today, Shai Mitra has noticed something odd going on as well:
Back around the end of September there was a thread on this list regarding recent incursions into NYS, not only of classic irruptives such as Pine Siskins and Red-breasted Nuthatches, but also of more cryptic migrants, such as Downy Woodpeckers. [...] Since that time, the data have strongly confirmed that not only Downy Woodpeckers, but also Hairy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers and White-breasted Nuthatches (and even Northern Cardinals!), are all staging major irruptions this year.
I was part of a group that conducted a stationary morning flight count [at Robert Moses SP, Suffolk County], and my companions will attest that our total of 5 Hairy Woodpeckers had me freaking out a little bit.... Among other relatively (or allegedly) sedentary species moving this morning were 12 Downies, 20 Red-bellies (possibly a local daily max), and a White-breasted Nut, and our total of 28 Northern Cardinals in obvious morning flight was a true spectacle of nature!

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Cardinal, Central Park
not a classic irruptive

So what's going on? why are these birds on the move?

Sometimes people try to forecast the winter by the birds. "Oh, they're staying north this Fall, must be a mild winter coming", or "Everything went through early, hard winter ahead". I'm not sure that makes a lot of sense. How would birds know what was coming? Weather forecasting is hard.

You can see how it would be a big evolutionary advantage, though, especially for sedentary and short migrants. If you're a bird that normally stays on its nesting territory, and you knew that the winter was going to be harsh, you'd move. But, Central Park lost most of its Carolina Wrens in last winter--surely they'd have moved out if they'd known how harsh it was going to be.

I don't know. Last winter's harshness was very unexpected. The Fall was so mild, do you remember? Maybe the birds got caught by surprise. Maybe this year, they know what's coming.

What are you seeing where you are? What are the Robins, Cardinals, and woodpeckers doing?

Monday, November 10, 2014


On Friday, there was a report of a Dickcissel at Inwood Hill Park, in with a sparrow flock on the soccer field near the cove. Dickcissel is a very good bird for New York--they're a midwestern bird--but I doubted it would still be around on Saturday, and I was frankly feeling a bit lazy, so after brunch I headed off to Central Park instead, Maybe there'd be Bluebirds.

On the bus, I checked the eBird reports, and lo! The Dickcissel had been seen again, a bit before noon, on one of the baseball fields along the Hudson just north of Dyckman street. OK, OK, I know when I'm being told to get moving. I grabbed the C train and was at Inwood Hill by 1:30.

There was a big group of House Sparrows around the southmost fence of the last baseball field. I scanned it over and over. Every few minutes the birds would flush into the nearby trees or from one side of the fence to the other; sometimes because a bicyclist went by, sometimes for no apparent reason, and then they'd come back and I'd start scanning again. I did that for a half-hour, then decided to check out the rest of the river walk and try again afterward. The north end of the walk is a good place to spot raptors over the Bronx (I had a Bald Eagle there once) or over the cliffs in Jersey, or to see unusual seabirds (that's where the Scoters were last winter).

Not much there today. A flock of about 50 Canada Geese were on the field where some soccer goals are set up. I've never seen anyone playing soccer there. A Ring-Billed Gull buzzed them once, just for lulz, and they set up some honking. A Red-Tailed Hawk looking for dinner cruised over Inwood Hill from north to south and on to Fort Tryon Park. A dozen or so Goldfinches moved through the trees along the railroad tracks, and a larger flock of Juncos foraged along the fence by the tracks. I scanned the Juncos. There were a few Chipping Sparrows and a Song Sparrow in with them.

I thought about going back and trying the baseball fields again, when I heard dogs barking from that direction. I could see there were people on the field there. Then groups of House Sparrows arrived from that direction. One stopped by a big maple and commenced foraging on the grass right by the path. So I looked them over. Again very minute or two they'd all move into the bushes or fly over to the trees along the railroad tracks, then quickly return.

To give you an idea of what I was looking at, here's a small part of the House Sparrow flock:

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Where's Waldo?
Where's Waldo?

There's a Dickcissel in there. See it?

Once, when the birds flushed, I noticed a couple of birds stayed behind. That was interesting. So I got my binoculars on them, and saw one with a bright yellow breast--score!--and then it flew to join the rest.

Now at least I knew the Dickcissel was there. I caught glimpses of yellow a couple of times, and then she pulled the slow-to-flush business again.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Dickcissel!

I say "she" because males have a black "V" near the throat, like a tiny Meadowlark. The field guides say the female has a "hint" of yellow on the breast. I'd say this is more than a hint.

Eventually the House Sparrows joined the Juncos by the fence along the railroad tracks. I moved slowly over there. The House Sparrows moved further north, but the Dickcissel stayed behind with the Juncos.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Dickcissel and Junco, Inwood Hill Park
Junco partner

I watched a good long time--House sparrows moving north and south, Juncos flushing to the trees and returning, a Field Sparrow popping up in their midst, and the Dickcissel moving through the flock, sometimes near, sometimes far.

Eventually, with the sun getting low, I headed back toward Dyckman Street. I stopped off at the pier there. There were two Mute Swans in the surf with some Mallards.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Mute Swans, Hudson River
surf's up!

A birder came up looking for Bonaparte's Gulls, but headed off to look for the Dickcissel when I told him where I'd seen it. I hope he got it; dusk was coming on pretty fast.

It turns out there were Bluebirds in Central Park. I should have another chance at them, though.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Birds still coming in

Over the last week or so, the Fall migration has brought me a couple of new birds for the year. On the 26th, there were a flock of Pine Siskins in the Shakespeare Garden in Central Park.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Pine Siskin, Central Park
Siskin irruption!

Usually, Pine Siskins stay well to the north, but in some years when the pine cone crop is scarce, they irrupt into the US to find food. There have been a lot of Siskin sightings this Fall. I had missed them until now, and they became my 185th Manhattan species of the year.

While I was in the Park that day, I spent a pleasant hour at Belvedere Castle looking for migrating raptors. I didn't have much luck with the migrants, but I did watch a local resident Kestrel hunting over the Great Lawn. Eventually it roosted in a tree top, and a bold Blue Jay made it known that he found the Kestrel's presence unsatisfactory.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Kestrel vs. Jay
off with you, I say!

The Kestrel was not too impressed.

During the week I saw my first brown creeper of the autumn in the Park, bathing at the east end of Turtle Pond.  It was the most birdlike I've ever seen a Creeper--they usually act more like some kind of acrobatic mouse.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Brown Creeper, Central Park
fluffing dry

Last Sunday was the NY Marathon. I live east of First Avenue, so usually the Marathon traps me at home all day. This year, I got moving early to take a bus north before they closed the streets, and went over to Randall's Island.

I once again failed to see a Nelson's Sparrow in the salt marsh area at the northern tip of the island, although an older gentleman there told me he had seen one. Well, they're notoriously hard to spot. I gave up after an hour and a half and went off to see what else was on the island.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Brant, Randall's Island
sign of winter

There were a lot of Brant in the East River, a sure sign of impending winter. I noticed two very small brownish ducks swimming with them. Green-Winged Teal! (Species 186 for the year in New York County.)

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Brant and Green-Winged Teal, Randall's Island
our smallest duck

Down in the Hell Gate Inlet salt marsh there were Yellow-Rumped warblers, and a very pale bird with streaks on the sides of the breast that was either a very pale Yellow-Rumped, or maybe a Blackpoll.

Along the "Water's Edge Garden" on the east shore of the island, Palm Warblers frolicked in the flower beds. Then I saw a Red-Tailed Hawk flying hard and low across the grounds of the mental health center. He was carrying a squirrel, which he carried up into a tree. There was a dense chain-link fence between us, but I got a couple of decent photos.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Red-Tailed Hawk with squirrel
hawk and dinner

I hear there are Green-Winged Teal on the Central Park Reservoir, and someone saw a Woodcock in Strawberry Fields the other day. There was a report of a Varied Thrush in Madison Square Park as well, but the reporter wasn't sure of the ID and as far as I know the bird was not refound. among more common but still very nice birds, there are Kinglets all over the place. So it's still quite birdy out there.