Saturday, October 22, 2016


Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Sharp-Shinned Hawk and prey (Mourning Dove)
thus is the cycle of nature renewed

A couple of weeks back, I walked around the Great Lawn in Central Park, looking for an Eastern Meadowlark that had been reported there earlier.

We didn't find it. Near the end of the circuit, behind the baseball backstops on the east side of the lawn, we watched a little mixed flock. House Sparrows, Mourning Doves, a couple of Robins and Juncos, and one little bird we eventually pegged as a Yellow-Rumped (Myrtle) Warbler.

Then suddenly all the birds took off at once. They were only a couple of feet off the ground when a blur came from the left...

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Sharp-Shinned Hawk and prey (Mourning Dove)
just landed

...and suddenly a juvenile Sharp-Shinned Hawk materialized standing on top of a Mourning Dove. The hawk stayed there a while, sometimes shielding the pref with a wing.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Sharp-Shinned Hawk and prey (Mourning Dove)
on guard

That's a cloud of feathers on the ground behind the hawk. It didn't pluck those--they were knocked off the dove by the force of the impact.

After a few minutes, the hawk took off with the dove in its talons--I didn't catch the flight in a photo, but it was quite something since the prey was nearly as big as the predator--and landed in an oak nearby.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Sharp-Shinned Hawk and prey (Mourning Dove)

There, the hawk calmly plucked feathers from the dove and began its meal. Blue Jays screamed all around, but they kept a good distance.

This is the second time I've been present when a raptor took a bird while I was watching. The first time, was a Kestrel, and I can't say I actually saw it happen. I was watching a mixed flock of sparrows under the feeders at Evodia in the Ramble, and there was a sudden presence and one of the Fox Sparrows was missing, and only then did all the little birds take off. Kestrels are that fast.

Ed Gaillard: recent &emdash; American Kestrel with lunch, Central Park
what the heck, let's have another look at that Kestrel

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Rock me, Ammodramus

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Nelson's Sparrow, Randall's Island
At last we meet, Mr. Nelson!

I've mentioned the term "nemesis bird" a few times. This is a species that a birder has had several, or many, opportunities to see and has failed every time. I'm still not sure I'm a good enough bider to really have a nemesis bird, but I used to consider the Connecticut Warbler mine. Once I saw one, I shifted my nemesisitude to the Nelson's Sparrow.

Nelson's Sparrow is a member of the genus Ammodramus, a scarce and secretive group of grassland and mash sparrows that usually have some orange on their face and/or breast. Nelson's is a sparrow of salt marshes--it used to be considered the same species as the endangered Saltmarsh Sparrow (the combined species was called "Sharp-Tailed Sparrow", and some older books call this bird "Nelson's Sharp-Tailed Sparrow").

Nelson's Sparrow is rare in this area, but it does occur in migration and in the Fall a few show up every year in the little salt marsh on the northern edge of Randall's Island, at the eastern end of the Bronx Kill. So when on the morning of October 1 there were reports from there that several Nelson's and a possible Saltmarsh Sparrow were present, I dropped my other plans for the day and off I went.

I arrived just before high tide, and found Roman Brewka, a fine photographer, out on the rocks--a sort of loose jetty protecting the marsh on the East River end--with a tripod set up in the rising water. He told me that the the birds were around, so I waited at the edge of the rocks, not wanting to clamber out to where Roman was set up. It wasn't long before we detected three birds in the tall grasses.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Nelson's Sparrow, Randall's Island
uncropped at 300mm on a micro 4/3 camera, fairly similar to the binocular view

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Nelson's Sparrow, Randall's Island
cropped version

Two were very secretive, but the third came out and posed a bit before leaving.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Nelson's Sparrow, Randall's Island
well, for this kind of bird, this is "posing a bit"

Unexpectedly, though it was supposed to be a hour past high tide, the water continued to rise, and I decided to retreat until the high tide was well past. I took a walk around the northeast shore of Randall's Island, and down the Bronx Kill, and returned three hours later. Two other birders were out on the rocks, and this time I did crawl out on the rocks for a better view into the marsh. This time, it was a long wait, but eventually the birds showed up. Again, only one really came out to be photographed. I got the photo at the top of this post, and this one:

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Nelson's Sparrow, Randall's Island
Nelson's with a snack

I think it's a very pretty little bird, and it was fascinating watching it attacking the grass stalks, moving from the bottom to the top and gleaning seeds from them.

I mentioned a possible Saltmarsh Sparrow. I don't believe I saw that bird, but Roman has photographs of it taken just before I arrived in the morning. Oddly, he hasn't posted any photos of the Nelson's.

There was also some discussion on the bird mailing lists about if the Saltmarsh or one of the other birds might be a hybrid. The thing is, Nelson's/Saltmarsh might not be a very good species split--the sparrows interbreed freely, and hybrids can't readily be told from the parent species. So it's kind of a mess.

But from everything I've looked at, the birds I photographed look seem pretty clearly Nelson's and the one Roman has posted photos of looks like a Saltmarsh. The main differences (as far as I can tell) are that The orange on the breast of a Saltmarsh is much lighter then the color on the face, maybe even absent; and the Saltmarsh is more heavily streaked and the streaks don't end neatly on the upper breast but extend down on the belly.

I'm quite happy with seeing the Nelson's Sparrows--I'm pretty sure all the ones I saw were Nelson's--and not disappointed not to have gotten the Saltmarsh as well.

I'm not sure what my new "nemesis" is. Maybe American Pipit, another bird that shows up during Fall and Winter on Randall's Island, but that I've never set eyes on. Maybe this year.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

More shorebirding at Jamaica Bay

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Semipalmated Plover, Jamaica Bay
Very cooperative Semipalmated Plover

Shorebird season winds down in September--at least that's how it seems to this novice shorebirder--but I had a nice visit to Jamaica Bay towards the end of the month.

After my misadventures the last time out, I decided to start with the south end of the East Pond, and that worked out well. Coming down the very first trail to the edge of the pond, I was greeted by this...

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Dunlin, Jamaica Bay

A Dunlin! Right in front of me! Several Dunlins, in fact, and my very first. It took me a bit of time to work out what I was seeing, and I wasn't sure until a Finnish birder came along a bit after they (and most of the peeps hanging out with them had flown). He had seen them and confirmed my ID.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Dunlin and Semipalmated Sandpiper, Jamaica Bay
a Dunlin with one of the remaining Least Sandpipers

Dunlins are the last of my easy life shorebirds, I think. One thing to notice here is the grey on the shoulders ("scapulars") and upper back. Those are new feathers--these birds were transitioning into their very gray winter plumage. The sharp-looking reddish feathers on the butt are actually very worn, and from the bird's breeding plumage.

Peep numbers were way down from a few weeks before, but there were still some Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Semipalmated Sandpipers, Jamaica Bay
Semipalmated Sandpipers.  I really like the way the water blurred on this one

The water level in the pond was quite low and I was able to walk halfway up the east side to the area called "The Raunt". I could have gone farther, but it would have involved some scrambling.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Black-Bellied Plover, Jamaica Bay
Black-Bellied Plover. Yes, that's right. The belly is only black in breeding plumage.

At the Raunt I had a great close view of a Black-Bellied Sandpiper. There were also a lot of sleepy peeps that I did not try to identify. I was told there was a Baird's Sandpiper in there somewhere, but you can't prove it by me.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Black-Bellied Plover, Jamaica Bay
Black-Bellied Plover waking up some peeps

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Sanderlings, Jamaica Bay
Sanderlings, also kind of awake

There was also a Snowy Egret dancing through the shallow water. Many more egrets were on the west shore of the pond.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Snowy Egret, Jamaica Bay
dancing egret

I saw several Monarch butterflies, which was nice.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Monarch Butterfly, Jamaica Bay
Monarch Butterfly contemplating a goose turd. Damn, I'm artistic.

Beside the Dunlins, the highlight was the Semipalmated Plovers, who were mostly at the extreme south end of the pond where I first came in. They were still there when I returned.

Ed Gaillard: birds &emdash; Semipalmated Plover, Jamaica Bay
Plover pictures, please

I never made it up to the north end of the pond, though I did go past Big John's Pond (completely dry) and the overlook, where I saw a group of American Wigeons and a flyover by a Caspian Tern (immediately identifiable by its huge red bill).

I think that's mostly it for shorebirds for me until Spring.