Saturday, June 21, 2008

awesome Green-Wood outing

Today was one of those days where the whole world was at our feet and there was so much to choose from in terms of stuff to do. We skipped the Mermaid Parade in favor of a long walk and picnic at Green-Wood Cemetery. The weekends-only Fort Hamilton Parkway entrance is just a short walk from our apartment, and we'd never made it quite that far into the place.

It's wonderful to find an oasis of near-quietude in the middle of a city. We didn't see another person for nearly an hour and a half! Sometimes the humid air carried strains of the ice cream truck song to us, but the traffic noise was mostly too far away. Beautiful!

Like my first trip to Green-Wood, the loudest birdsong around belonged to the northern mockingbird, and since they were abundant and loud, they were quite easy to find. A nice treat to see them in flight, too, because their bright white wing patches flash in midair.

I had some great sightings today. It was also my first time using my camera through my binoculars, so I have some interesting, if slightly blurry, photos.

The first great sighting happened right after our lunch of tuna sandwiches, oranges, and granola bars. We cleaned up and continued down Fir Avenue, until I spotted a mourning dove with its young offspring in the middle of the road. The young was about half the size of the parent, with the feathers looking untested. The adult took time to regurgitate into the juvenile's mouth several times. It seemed strange to me that this behavior happened outside the nest. The young one walked around just fine, but the parent sensed a threat in our presence and attempted to protect her baby by simply standing in front of it. I changed my viewing angle, she changed her position. I could still see the baby, so it seemed like a pretty ineffective action.

Eventually something spooked the adult and it flew away, leaving the baby unattended in the road. I sneaked closer a little at a time to get a good picture and to try to shoo it out of the road. After a minute, it moved into the grass and we continued our walk.

Chrissy is getting better at hanging back quietly when I'm focused on a bird, but also he's good at helping me find birds to watch. He'll say, "What's that?" about something I haven't even spotted, and then it's a learning experience for both of us. He's a great sidekick.

Later, on a headstone, I saw a pair of chipping sparrows with their bright rufous crowns. I don't see those guys very often, and they're one of the few kinds of sparrows I can identify, so that's why I mention it. I also saw some interesting house sparrow behavior, which included the male pushing his folded wings down and hopping away from the female, who then gave chase with her own little hops. Ah, love!

I knew from reading Rob Jett's The City Birder that the red-tailed hawk's nest is closer the the Fort Hamilton Parkway entrance than the front gate way over at 5th Avenue and 25th Street. But I didn't really have any idea where to look, so I was absolutely delighted when the birds made it really easy for me to find them. Chrissy and I were walking Central Road, I think it was, by this point, hearing lots of alarm calls, when out of the corner of my eye I saw a large brown bird with a brilliant red tail fly about 10 feet off the ground through the lower leaves of a large tree. It seemed like it had landed, because I couldn't see it fly out the other side, so I decided to stalk it and see if I could find it. I made my way carefully around the tree where I thought it might be perched, only to see it take wing from the ground, and this time with something white in its talons, and another hawk by its side!

The birds alit to a tree to the right of the path, where the brilliant-tailed one began de-feathering its pigeon. The other hawk had very light feathers on its face and not so red a tail at all, and hung back on a high perch a few feet away while the larger hawk did the dirty work.

It was at this time that two relentlessly brave northern mockingbirds caught up with the big hawk and began their harassing and haranguing routine. You can see the blur of a mockingbird in this photo. The larger hawk flew to a nearby tree to escape, but the mockers followed. The hawk ignored the mockingbirds squawking and darting at and bouncing off its big red tail repeatedly, intently focused on de-feathering the white pigeon. I could see with my binocs that the prey's eyes had already been gouged out. The whole display was very entertaining, and we watched the mockingbirds dive-bomb and bounce off of the hawk's tail for about fifteen minutes, until the hawk took off for higher ground, in this case a tall evergreen whose limbs were crowded with pine branches and needles. The smaller hawk followed, and the mockingbirds gave up. Perhaps they drove it far enough away from their territory or nest to feel safe. This sighting was so satisfying because of its content, participants, and length. Chrissy and I were fascinated to witness what must be pretty common for these birds' lives, but which seems so amazing to us.

After that, the rest of the day had to be fairly tame. I heard a lot of red-bellied woodpeckers, but could never find them. At the Valley Water, which was covered in lily-pads and other green stuff, I spotted a single double-crested cormorant in the water, swimming and diving about, ruler of the roost.

Perched on a lily-pad across the pond, I saw something shining blue, but it was the wrong shape for a kingfisher like the one I saw at that pond last time. I walked around the pond, greeting the family of Canada geese and their young as I passed, to get a closer look at the mysterious bird. It turned out to be a green heron sitting very still. Its featehrs must have caught the light just so, to make them appear blue. It posed for several photographs, and then we were on our way.

As we climbed a small hill toward the koi pond (which turned out to have been drained) at the community mausoleum, I stepped back for a moment because I saw a new bird. I believe my words were, "What the hell is that?" It was a light rufous color, like a hermit thrush's tail, but all over, and it looked very much like a mockingbird in terms of body shape and tail length, but with a long beak. After a minute my brain came up with a name, which turned out to be correct: my first brown thrasher!

On my next outing to the cemetery, I hope to visit the other glacial ponds, and now that I've got a map, that will be easy. I think I am going to like living between Green-Wood Cemetery and Prospect Park, two Important Birding Areas. I'm also looking forward to getting the hang of using my camera and binoculars together.

Friday, June 20, 2008

the start of a new routine?

Yesterday I got myself out of the house early enough to take a long, leisurely walk through Prospect Park on my way to work. I've been enjoying taking walks with Chrissy, but yesterday especially because the weather was so perfect and we had a new toy to try out.

Our route began by navigating around the south side of the Lake. I wanted to give that area another try, because my earlier experiences were unsatisfying. After yesterday's walk, I don't think I will ever go that way anymore; it's so filthy and stinky. It feels like the parks maintenance crew just doesn't bother with cleaning up that area. Unless I hear of an interesting sighting at the Three Islands or another specific place on that route, I'm sticking to north of the Lake and up.

Chrissy was my helper yesterday, trying out the new toy my mom gave me: a set of 10x25 binocs with a digital camera smack-dab in the middle. It was fun to upload the pictures last night and see what its advantages and limitations are. The funny thing is that you have to aim it a little higher that what you are actually seeing through the binocs if you want the target to be centered in the photo.

Of course, I am still in search of ducklings, and having very little luck on that front. But yesterday's birding was very satisfying. I was able to show Chrissy a bunch of the stuff I wrote about in my last entry, including the horde of goslings, who have grown and whose feathers have matured considerably in a week's time. Most of them are nearly indistinguishable from their parents now, with the exception of a few younger siblings who retain more of that yellowish halo of young feathers. We found them on the south side of the Lake, so it wasn't a wasted effort.

As we travelled up the Lullwater's course, I spotted a black-crowned night heron attempting to escape from several red-winged blackbirds that seemed to be mobbing it. Every time it found a place to rest, just minutes later I'd see the group whirl by again, all flaps and threatening calls. That poor guy must have been tired when it was actually time for him to be active.

The highlight of this adventure happened along the Lullwater trail just past the rustic shelter as we headed toward the Audubon Center. Two handsome mute swans herded their three adorable cygnets into some nearby duckweed to feed. A couple in a pedal-boat came by and (thankfully) avoided scaring them away. It was my first time seeing cygnets. I'd have to say, they are nearly as cute as ducklings, and that story about the ugly duckling just doesn't make sense to me anymore.

It was a day for turtles as well. Huge ones everywhere. They were sunning on every partially submerged log in sight. These little fellows came to my attention while I was trying to get a good shot of the cygnets. So covered in duckweed were they that I didn't notice them until one had moved! And I haven't yet seen turtles of this small size in the park. This picture is for my mom, because she loves turtles.

I made a quick stop at the Binnen Bridge to check for tree swallows and was treated to a brief sighting as a blue gem sped through the air. Facing the pool-side of the bridge, I spotted my first green heron, hunting from a rock. I love the colors on this bird. We headed through the Nethermead, where I saw another tree swallow very low to the ground, dozens of big, red dragonflies, and my first eastern kingbird. I'm fairly certain I've seen that bird before, but it was the first time I had enough notes to compare to the field guide and get down to a single bird. I bet he had a good lunch on all those dragonflies!

I went back through the park on my way home from work and saw a black-crowned night heron finally getting some peace and quiet on some lily-pads. Also, way across the Lake I spotted a great egret roosting in a tree. It always surprises me to see such huge birds in trees.

Tonight the park will be full of opera-buffs, so I'll try to take a walk before work. I liked yesterday so much that maybe I'll do a bird-walk every day. Birding, commence!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

in search of ducklings

June 11, 2008

I got out of work at about 6:00 on this day, and had plenty of sunlight and my scooter to get around, so I visited several favorite locations within Prospect Park. I started on the paths behind the dog beach, where I found myself enveloped in the most beautiful and most classically musical birdsong I've ever heard. Several birds sang together in what sounded like a flute quartet. I couldn't get a good look at the singing birds, but a fleeting glimpse told me it was a kind of thrush. After listening to thrush songs at home (this one was so remarkable I'll never be able to forget it) I determined it was a wood thrush. It feels nice to add a bird to the list of songs and calls I recognize. That's a much smaller list than the list of birds I recognize by sight.

Having my scooter while birdwatching has its advantages: I can get from place to place really quickly, cover more ground. But, it's also noisier than walking, so some of the birds shove off as I approach. I think I will keep the two largely separate and only scoot and birdwatch if I'm on my way home from work.

The highlight of this day's birding was an awesome experience. I went into the park to look for ducklings, because they are maybe my absolute favorite thing in the natural world. Hardened criminals can be reformed by the regular application of duckling therapy. They're just so darn cute. Anyway, after my duckling encounter a few weeks ago, I was worried I might miss seeing the tiny ones paddling behind their parents on the water before they get to look too adult. So I visited the watery areas by following the Lullwater from the Upper and Lower Pools to the Lake. On the way I saw some cool birds: a tree sparrow shining over the Binnen Falls, a black-crowned night heron planning his evening's exploits by the side of the catch-and-release fishing area, and a Baltimore oriole flyby. But before all that, I found a lovely rustic bench near the Lullwater and sat to observe for a while. Before long, I saw several Canada geese leading a single-file line of their goslings. I am not nearly as ga-ga for goslings as I am for ducklings, but I was still interested. I watched with growing amazement as more and more goslings came into view, flanked and followed up by pairs of parents. The whole horde paused across the water from me to break ranks and nibble on the floating duckweed, so I had a chance to count just how many there were. Are you sitting down? Here goes: 12 parents and 51 goslings! I thrilled at this sight. I also had the distinct feeling that some of the parents were watching me intently and maybe even menacingly. The goslings' feathers were in different states: some were still quite fluffy, and some were developing dark feathering on their faces, just like mom and dad. After a few minutes the goslings reformed the single-file line, the parents resumed their guard positions at the head, shoulders, hips, knees and feet of the line, and they all moved on down the Lullwater in the direction from which I had come.

It was another time that I cursed myself for removing my camera from my pack THAT VERY DAY and so I vowed to make my camera as essential a part of my pack as the binoculars. There's a chance I could see something wondrous every day, and I want to document that. Also my mom gave me a binocular digital camera, which I am eager to try out. It's a 10x25, so as binoculars they're not that great, but the opportunity to catch exactly what I am seeing without switching to a camera and maybe missing the shot appeals to me.

Monday, June 9, 2008

the world is just awesome

So it's been two and a half weeks since my last update, during which time I have not done a lot of birding. I'm really just writing to let you know I am still committed to this blog; I've just been unbelievably busy and without internet access for many days. We moved into our new apartment, unpacked everything and decorated and cleaned up. Now it looks and feels like home, with no evidence that we haven't always been here except that it's cleaner than our last place. Maybe it's just easier to keep a bigger space uncluttered, or maybe I've been more on top of things, but it looks really good.

I have been getting out with my binoculars, but not when I'm alone and able to walk as slowly as I want. I haven't been taking notes. But I've seen several bright Baltimore orioles in my recent travels (Sunday to Staten Island, for example, to Conference House Park and the beach at Great Kills) and then the usual handful of everyday birds. I was so proud of Chrissy yesterday when he said, "What kind of nest is that?" and I hadn't even seen it! It was a hanging ball nest, and it reminded me of the one Karen from the Prospect Park Audubon Center pointed out to me in the winter, so I think it was a Baltimore oriole nest. I also spent some time in the Ramble in Central Park on Saturday, where I found a great place to sit by a stream and watch birds bathe. In addition to common grackles and starlings, I got to watch a Baltimore oriole splash under the watchful gaze of a female American redstart.

It has been hot and gross outside, but we realized yesterday that the only weather that deters us from having outdoor adventures is rain. We'll go out in the coldest of cold, in the snow, in the heat, in the dripping humidity, and have a great time exploring and getting exercise. Yesterday's extreme heat, with hot wind blowing in off the sea, reminded me of a time this past winter when we were at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge on the West Pond side when all of a sudden Manhattan disappeared. A squall of snow enveloped the skyline, and we could see a big mass of white moving toward us across the open water, closing the distance quickly. It's always interesting to me to think about where the line between snowing and not snowing is, or driving into a rainstorm and then out the other side. We weren't stranded in the snow or anything; it was just amazing to watch a small snow system be "over there" and then be snowing on us. And yesterday, even though we were outside almost all day in the unrelenting heat, sun, and sweat, was really fun. We do love our extremes.

Today's subject heading is a reference to the new Discovery Channel slogan. Have you seen that commercial? It may have taken top spot in my heart for best commercial of all time. Every time I watch it, I get tears in my eyes, because they're right: the world is just awesome. And I will put it below for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy!

Discovery Channel: I Love the World