Wednesday, July 30, 2008

family ties

On Monday, I got out of work pretty early, and spent the extra time birding in Prospect Park. I made my way over to the Vale of Cashmere, which is so beautiful but I always wish it felt safer. There I listened in on several conversations between adult cardinals and their juveniles. I made my way through Rick's Place and saw a a few young and speckled American robins doing their duck-and-runs across the path.

I've been checking up on the swan family fairly regularly, too. They're down to one cygnet from the original three, which is now about half the size of its parent. It is still very grey with a dark bill and little dumb flappy wings. There's also been a Canada goose family on the Upper Pool - two parents and either a late-born gosling or maybe a second brood of the season. The gosling is now about half the size of its parents and has acquired almost all of its adult coloring.

On the Lullwater in front of the Boathouse, I saw one big speck and three adorable little specks breaking up the constant green of the duckweed - mallard ducklings and their mama! I don't know if ducks just hatch later than geese or if this family is kind of a fluke at this time of year, but I am really happy to see them in Prospect Park. One of the ducklings tried valiantly to catch a small, bouncing insect in its bill, but eventually gave up and chomped on the green stuff instead. When I finally tracked them down on Tuesday, one of the ducklings was missing, perhaps having fallen prey to a predator such as the grey and white cat I saw across the Lullwater. I intend to check up on this duck family whenever I have the time so I can watch whichever ducklings survive grow and change.

I'm fascinated by duckweed. One of the kids I care for told me that on a field trip to the park, she learned that once a year someone rides his or her bike right into the water outside the Boathouse, thinking it's a big lawn. I hope I see that someday. The duckweed gives the water such a strange quality, like the skin on top of a cooled pudding. It makes the surface of the water look almost solid, and the water barely ripples when disturbed. Any spaces in the duckweed made by a tossed stone or a passing duck quickly close up again, leaving no path or interruption in the pattern of tiny plants. It also gives off a Rice Krispies sort of sound; snaps and crackles add up to an almost constant low hiss. I think it's caused by air bubbles trying to escape through the small space between duckweeds. It could also be lots of minute insects landing and alighting again, too small to see but not so insignificant as to be silent.

On a side note, something at the Park Circle entrance of the park has made the air smell strongly of cloves for the past week. I wonder if it is the nearby trees. Any ideas?

salt marsh, take 2

Last weekend my family drove in from Rhode Island for a visit, and on Saturday afternoon I was able to drag/convince/trick my mom and youngest sister into going for a walk at the Marine Park salt marsh because of the "cool sea breeze". It was really nice to take them to a place where I feel a deep and personal sense of peace/joy and to share with them the experience of seeing birds. And the good birds came out to flaunt their stuff for my loved ones, which made me feel pretty cool, as though perhaps I haven't chosen the nerdiest possible hobby. We saw a lot of great egrets, one of which was edged out of its fishing territory by a great blue heron coming in for a landing. We also saw a green heron standing very still on a piling, lots of laughing gulls, and two or three birds that may have been yellowlegs(es). How do you pluralize that? But the real excitement started when Chrissy spotted a black skimmer, and then another, until four of them were flying over the water in this one small area near the nature center. It was my first time seeing that action for which these birds are named; beaks open, they zoom really low with their lower mandibles dipped in the water. I saw one come up from skimming posture with a thin worm-like thing in its mouth. The bird didn't eat it or put it down right away, and my sister suggested it might be using the worm to bait bigger fish. Doubtful, but a neat idea. I didn't get any good bird pictures, but I got fresh air, exercise, quality time with my loved ones, and a couple of great sky shots.

Monday, July 21, 2008

love at the Salt Marsh

Chrissy and I took a field trip to the Salt Marsh Nature Center at Marine Park yesterday. Though it was a very hot and humid day, we were quite comfortable in the strong salt wind and sunshine. It wasn't a very birdful outing, but I had a few great experiences and got some neat photos, which I will share with you here.

We spent a lot of time watching the wind wave through the tall cordgrass and reeds. Until yesterday I never thought of wind as having a shape. It reminded me of something I used to think about a lot as a child; I always wanted to follow just one drop of water down the street-side streams after a rain. But once it falls in with thousands of other drops, you can't find it, you can't really estimate how fast the contents of that one drop move down the stream, you can't reach in and grab it and have it be the same drop it was. Watching the reeds bend in the stream of wind and gathering the shape of the wind from the pattern of bending isn't really like that at all, but it brought up in me the same feelings of wonder and my own small place in this grand life that I had when I pondered such things as a child. Here's a picture of the landscape, alternately caressed and throttled by wind:

Chrissy had a session with a medium recently who basically told him that the universe conspires to give us what we need, if only we know how to ask for it. I've been trying that out in very specific ways, with some success. Yesterday I told the universe I would really like to see a beautiful butterfly. I then amended my request and asked to see one I've never encountered before. About ten minutes later, I came across this:
The top butterfly flew over to the reeds near me carrying this other butterfly upside down. At first I thought the one being carried was dead, because it didn't move at all and its front legs looked perhaps damaged. As it turns out, the monarchs were just mating in the beautiful weather. Occasionally the top butterfly fanned its wings open for a second, but it was mostly content to perch just as you see in the photo. Soon it flew off into the grass and I lost track of it. I had no idea my second request was about to be realized. Chrissy said, "Ooh, Leah, look at this pretty butterfly!" and I made him point it out to me because I couldn't find it on my own - these eyes are trained for birds, after all. Anyway, here's my second miracle:
I think it is a black swallowtail. I remember having a distinct and fleeting thought that "this is the red-winged blackbird of butterflies". I believe in evolution, but I believe in a benevolent creator/universe as well, and it just amazes me sometimes that anything natural can ever have come to be so breathtakingly beautiful. It gives me pause to ponder happily the purpose of beauty.

Gerritsen Creek was rife with humans enjoying the water - boats anchored with people tanning onboard, people on jet-skis, people canoeing, people wading. What a way to keep the birds out! I had been so excited to find a place similar to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, but only half as far from home, until I realized the salt marsh mustn't be as legally protected if so much loud and disruptive human activity is allowed. I saw lots of laughing gulls (new for me) with the lovely black breeding hoods, many starlings, a duck far off, a snowy egret (also new) showing off his black legs and yellow feet, the silhouette and waxen wingtips of a cedar waxwing, and a great egret hunting fish from an ancient piling.

The butterflies and the atmosphere created by the weather and the landscape were absolutely the highlights of this trip. Though I know birds are my first love (on par with words, now? Where will it end?), I feel myself growing curiouser and curiouser about insects and animals and rocks and weather. So when I'm "birdwatching" these days, I really have my eyes and heart open for any natural wonder. What an apt phrase that is - natural wonder. I have wonder for nature in the most literal sense, and my life is enriched and blessed for it all the more each day.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

joys at Jamaica Bay

The forecast projected a hot day, and I had plenty of time before work, so Chrissy and I headed down to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge for some cool sea air and good birding. I haven't been there since the beginning of April, which is really a shame, but that's how it goes. This outing was the first time I've been to Jamaica Bay when it was all green and not brown. Like Fern Gully. We took the path around the West pond, like usual. Someday we'll do the East Pond path - maybe a day when I don't have to be anywhere else. The West Pond path is covered in gravel - nice, loud gravel that's great for scaring away birds. After a few hundred yards, the gravel gets finer and therefore quieter to walk upon. We stopped at the osprey nest to see who was home - two ospreys, as luck would have it. One big, dark one, and one smaller, not-so-dark one, I think. As we drove into the parking lot at the visitor center I had seen a huge dark bird flying toward the pond. I caught a glimpse of its white head markings and knew it was an osprey - but WOW those things are absolutely huge in flight! The only other time I saw a flying osprey was at Caumsett a few weeks ago, but it was far off and I didn't get the close up WOW factor. Loooong wings.

On the West Pond itself I saw a lot of birds. Two days ago, we went out to Crooke's Point at Great Kills on Staten Island and I saw my first terns. I wasn't able to identify them then, so I spent some time reading over the entries and looking at pictures in my various field guides. Fat lot of good that did me! I was surrounded by terns at the West Pond, what seemed like at least two different kinds, maybe three. Many were showing off their slender, angular, tapered wings in flight, which doesn't afford a great view of field marks, and a few were poking about at pond's edge, just a little too far away for me to see anything beyond the black hood and red beak with black tip. Counted among their number, though, I found a really cool dude. And I knew what it was right away because of my recent attempted brush-up on terns and their allies. My very first black skimmer! With its ridiculous underbite, multicolored bill, and stark black-and-white body, I imagine it would have kind of a dumb speaking voice like Beaky Buzzard from Looney Tunes. I didn't get to see it "skimming" the water with its beak, but I really enjoyed seeing this new bird.

Off in the distance on the mudflats/seagrass, I saw something interesting. It was smaller than a great blue heron, but bigger than a black-crowned night heron, and more like the great blue in shape and neck-length. In the bright midday summer sun it appeared to have a dark, shiny blue body and a brilliant purple neck. I couldn't tell much more about it from that far away except that it had long legs. I hope I solve that mystery someday!

On the pond side, I saw what seemed to be a young great blue heron testing out its hunting skills. It looked like it needed some serious practice. The bird was stalking in the shallows, stretching out its wings, and stabbing wildly into the water. I thought hunters were supposed to be stealthy!

As we rounded the western edge of the pond, I got to see ducklings! They were far off, paddling around their mother, and about twice the size of the one I found in the woods in Prospect Park, so not quite as cute. But there they were - five ducklings amidst several kinds of waterbirds. Now I can ease up on my quest to see them, and enjoy them a little less desperately.

Somewhere around bench 10 or 11, at water's edge I spotted three birds - two Canada geese(usual) and one glossy ibis(exciting)! Not to go all Monty Python on you, but seriously, what beautiful plumage!

Soon after that I saw something I didn't recognize. With its contrasting colors - a beautiful grey body and dark head with bright crown and white cheek - the bird was dressed to the nines. I looked it up later to find out it was a yellow-crowned night heron.

At Blind Pond, I actually saw birds. I guess that's what happens when I go there in season. I got a great view of a bright blue tree swallow preening itself on a pointed limb near a nest box. When a drab brown swallow returned to the nest box, the blue one took off, so perhaps they were a pair and the blue guy's guard duty was over. Bathing in Blind Pond was a gray catbird, and something about the same size as the catbird, except fuller in the body. The bird had a lovely, long, dusky red tail, and a stout beak. The body was dull greyish with a tinge of red all over. The bird had been bathing as well, so its feathers were ruffled. It flew off at the catbird's insistence and I did not see it again. Also from the blind I saw a ton of little yellow birds, but no amount of consulting my various field guides satisfies me about which warbler it might have been. They were about 4 inches, maybe 5, and where they were yellow (head, breast, belly, vent) they were VERY yellow. The wings were a dusky grey-green. I think they had yellowish beaks. Very dark eyes, with a ring of even brighter yellow around them, but not spectacles. Any ideas on that one?

My mom and sisters are coming to visit two weekends from now, and I hope to take them to Jamaica Bay, if not for the birds (I'm the lone birder in my family) then for the beautiful surroundings. I always feel so much at peace when I am there, breathing the sea air and feeling the sun on my face.

Monday, July 7, 2008

my life is filled with animal friends

July 2, 2008, 7:45-8:30 p.m.
The walk home from work was very eventful. I stopped over at the dog beach for about ten minutes to watch some brown swallows doing their nimble acrobatic routines. I stood very still and they whirled around me. I felt like I was in a slow tornado of birds. It was thrilling. Soon I saw some strange duck on the pool. It had a very dark crown and upper face, a vaguely brownish body, an orangey bill and a white spot on its throat. Its body was very short. My only thought was that it could be a juvenile wood duck. When I got home I tried to find pictures online of juvenile wood ducks, and I am fairly certain that's what I saw.

I rounded my usual corner to cut through to the Nethermead and saw a group of people obviously looking at something. I said, "What are you looking at?" and someone replied, "A baby raccoon." I met up with Chrissy at our usual spot and we walked home together, but not before I snapped a shot of this little fellow. I love the proliferation of rabbits in Prospect Park. I see one almost every day.
On the way home, we came to a grove of trees near the Lake where hundreds of fireflies lit up the air, searching the patterns of light for their one perfect mate. Very romantic. Now we walk that way every night.

As the light faded, we made our way around the west side of the Lake. Chrissy said, "What the heck is that?" and pointed to something we had passed. I turned around to inspect the creature. It was some kind of crayfish, like a tiny lobster in the path. The Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City says there are several kinds of local crayfish and they can be found in many freshwater areas. This guy was about six inches long.

I feel absolutely blessed to have so many adventures and to be witness to the wonders and glories of nature close-up and firsthand. What a cool day!

Caumsett State Park, Long Island, NY

June 29, 2008

We were invited to help some friends with some psychic research at their home on Long Island and stay the weekend. On Sunday, when all the work was done, the friends took Chrissy and me on a hike at Caumsett State Historic Park so I could look for birds. It was a hot day with bright sun, but a nice breeze blew in off the ocean to cool us. I heard a few screeching calls from above and figured I'd soon see a red-tailed hawk. When we came out of the woods to an open sky, I looked up to find not one but three red-tails circling on the currents high above. It's so gratifying to identify something by sound! It makes me feel like I'm really learning and capable of learning even more.

We passed an osprey nest on a very high platform, maybe even as high as one hundred feet. From what I could see there were three ospreys in or around it. Our path took us within what seemed a safe distance (perhaps a hundred yards) from the bottom of the platform's pole, but the screeches of the ospreys above warned us to make a wider arc.
At the top of the big hill, we sat for a long time, with a picnic blanket and wine, chatting about Saturday's research. I had my binocs close at hand the whole time. I have to stay, there's a lot to be said for staying still to see birds. I spotted a swan with her cygnets on a pond far below. I saw the red-tailed hawks soar up, lose height, and disappear behind the trees. But my best sighting that day was of a dark bird of prey coming in off the ocean. Closer inspection told me it was an osprey. I looked again and realized it was carrying prey in its talons. I looked even closer and found it was a big shiny fish! I've seen hawks carrying birds and rodents, but I never saw a bird carry a fish before. What a thrill!

On the way back to the car, I saw red-winged blackbirds, a blue jay, and an eastern kingbird. As we walked along the beach, I tried to get some good shots of the cormorants drying their wings. All in all, a lovely outing!

A little early for Thanksgiving

June 25, 2008

Look who I saw in Battery Park today! I took this picture from the sidewalk. The turkey was a mere eight feet away. With all those people around, I'd expect it to be skittish, but the bird seemed very comfortable just poking about in the tall grass.