Sunday, November 30, 2014

November 30 - Success!

I ended last weekend with 298 species on my New York State year list for 2014. Ann and I decided that the Thanksgiving holiday weekend was a good time to try to find two more species to get me to 300. Initially, we discussed going upstate - we planned to visit our friend Loretta in Columbia County Friday to Sunday. There were several possible year birds in the vicinity or on the way. However, when we spoke to Loretta on Wednesday evening she told us the area had had about a foot of snow and she had no electricity, heat or running water and she did not know when her road and driveway would be plowed. Ann and I changed our plans for the weekend - now only Saturday and Sunday - to a trip out Long Island to Montauk and back. We drove out Saturday, stopping at a park/preserve near Stony Brook. We chose the Avalon Preserve because there were recent reports on eBirds of both Northern Bobwhite and Ring-necked Pheasant there and I still need these two species for the year. We had never been to this spot before and it proved to be a lovely little park area with a number of trails through woodland and old field habitat. We concentrated on the field areas as the most likely areas for my two target species. We hoped to at least hear the birds, even if we did not see them. We tried imitating bobwhite calls by whistling, but got no responses. Neither did we see or hear a pheasant. Finally, deciding we needed to move on we went back to our car. Ann was already sitting in the car and I had my door open when I happened to turn my head and glance back the way we had just come. I was stunned to see a lovely, male pheasant walking across the path we had just left!

Ring-necked Pheasant                                                                                 © Joseph DiCostanzo
# 299! Unfortunately, no bobwhite proved to be equally cooperative, but that really would have been too much to expect. We continued east from there. Approaching Montauk we drove the Napeague Meadow Road around and just after sunset, hoping for a hunting Short-eared Owl, but again struck out. From there we went onto the town of Montauk where we checked into the Daunt's Albatross Motel, where I have stayed on my visits to Montauk for over thirty-five years. We were checked in by James Daunt; we told James how we fondly remembered his late grandmother, Fran, who used to always greet us with a friendly hello when we stayed there. Ann and I had a nice dinner of roast duck (Long Island duck we hoped) at a nearby pub and went to bed.

Sunday morning Ann slept in and I took a taxi to the pavilion at Montauk Point State Park, getting there around sun-up. It was a lovely morning. I immediately spotted Northern Gannets flying off-shore. There were also thousands of scoters of all three species and probably about a thousand Common Eiders; also Common and Red-throated loons, Long-tailed Ducks, Red-breasted Mergansers and a few other species. The ducks were doing what I call their "conveyor belt" routine. As you watch to the north from the pavilion the outgoing tide carries the ducks eastward. When they get to a certain point off the point they takeoff and fly back westward into the Sound. Thus watching from the shelter of the pavilion you have a constant stream of birds to scan through. I was hoping for a King Eider on the "conveyor". Most of the birds are fairly far out, but with a spotting scope an adult male King Eider is pretty distinctive. To my disappointment, none appeared. Then, much closer in I noticed a smaller looking female eider flying westward just a little way off-shore. It obligingly dropped in just west of the pavilion and enabled me to confirm it was a female King Eider, most easily identified by its bill shape - smaller and not as sloping in profile as a female Common Eider's. This was # 300 for the year! A few minutes later I spotted four Razorbills flying by further out. Any alcid is always a welcome sight anywhere from shore on Long Island, but these were not new for my year list since I had seen hundreds on an of-shore pelagic trip last winter. Later Ann joined me at the Point. By this time the "conveyor belt" had shut down - probably the tidal conditions had changed, but there were at least a thousand Common Eiders now sitting on the water just off the Point.

Montauk lighthouse                                                                                 © Joseph DiCostanzo
In the late-morning we headed back to town, checked out of the motel and had a late breakfast at around noon. Sean called to tell me that a Black-headed Gull was being seen back in Westchester, but there were no reports on the bird-lines from eastern Long Island. (Other than mine that morning which I had had Sean post for me when I was at the Point.) After eating, Ann and I continued to bird the Montauk area, we picked up some more waterfowl species - Ring-necked Duck, American Wigeon, Hooded Merganser, Ruddy Duck and a few other species, but nothing unusual. A few minutes after 1:00 pm, as we arrived at Culloden Point, west of Montauk Harbor, Sean called again. This time he had the amazing report of a Le Conte's Sparrow found by Heydi Lopes at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, not far from the continuing Cassin's Kingbird that had been part of last Saturday's spectacular day's birding. Like the Cassin's last week, the Le Conte's would not just be a year bird, but would be a new bird for my all-time New York State list. Ann and I were about as far as it was possible to be from the sparrow and still be on Long island, but we decided we had to try for it. All plans for birding other areas on eastern Long Island were scrapped as we dashed westward for Brooklyn. We knew that it was going to be a near thing getting to Floyd Bennett before sunset and that everything would depend on traffic. That it was Sunday of a holiday weekend made the trip that much more doubtful. Most of the way we were amazed with our luck and though traffic got heavy in some stretches, it continued to move well. Sean called again in the afternoon to tell me he had gotten to Floyd and seen the bird and had gotten some nice pictures (below).

Le Conte's Sparrow, Floyd Bennett Field, Nov 30, 2014                                                                           © Sean Sime
Not surprisingly, traffic got heavier the further west we got, but the really heavy traffic was on the last stretch once we got to the Belt Parkway in Brooklyn. It was now past 3:30 pm and Ann and I knew time was running out. As we approached the Flatbush Avenue exit, I received a text from Sean that he was back home. I called him just as we exited the Belt. He agreed to stay on the phone with us and talk us into the spot at Floyd Bennett where the sparrow had been found. We pulled into Floyd a few minutes after 4:00 pm. With Sean on the phone we got to the correct parking area. Going around an old building I told Sean we must be in the right place because I could see birders gathered up ahead. He wished us luck and we headed for the birders. In my post last week about the Common Ground-Dove at Jones Beach I wrote that one of the best ways I know to locate a rare bird is to look for Tom Burke. To my delight, as Ann and I approached the group of birders I spotted Tom Burke and Gail Benson. Tom pointed to the bird in the grass and very kindly let Ann and me get nice views of it through his spotting scope. The Le Conte's was # 301 for the year! It was also my 10th state bird of the year, bringing my total New York State list to 413.

There is still one month left in 2014, but it has been a fabulous year and I am content.

At least for now.

Birders are after all, basically somewhat crazy.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

November 22 - The quest for 300.

As I mentioned a while ago I am trying to get to 300 species in New York State in 2014. This was not a goal at the beginning of the year - I was not really trying until my friend Sean Sime suggested it in, I think, September. Today, after doing our regular Saturday shopping at the Farmer's Market on Isham, Ann and I headed directly out to Jones Beach to look for the Common Ground-Dove that has been present in and around the West End 2 parking field for a couple of weeks now. Ann and I had been planning this for a couple of days, but it was good to get a phone call from Sean just as we were leaving for the market that the dove was seen this morning. We arrived at the West End 2 parking lot and immediately turned east along the north side of the lot - the dove has most often been seen around the easternmost exit from the lot. We spotted a car pulled over near the north edge and I told Ann to head for it. I thought I recognized the car as Tom Burke's. It was indeed Tom and Gail Benson. Sure enough as we got close Ann said; "There's the dove!". Many years ago I told Ann the best way to find a rare bird you are searching for is to look for Tom Burke. It has worked many times and here it was working again. The dove was # 296 for the year for me.

Common Ground-Dove, Jones Beach S. P.                                                          © Joseph DiCostanzo
While we were looking at the dove Sean called on my cell to tell me that Tom and Gail had just posted the dove was along the north edge of the parking lot. I told Sean we were sitting about 20 feet from Tom looking at the bird. Sean also said a Western Kingbird had been reported from Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. In talking to Tom and Gail while we sat in our respective cars, Tom told us about some Lapland Longspurs they had seen in the swale on the south side of the lot. They also asked us if we had heard about the kingbird report. I said we had. Ann and I planned to spend a few minutes trying to photograph the dove before going to look for the longspurs. I already had the species on my year list, but they are always nice to see. Suddenly Sean was back on the phone to report that the kingbird at Floyd Bennett was not a Western, but was in fact the Cassin's Kingbird that had been seen and photographed by one observer last weekend, but which hadn't been seen since. I quickly told Ann to roll down her window and I yelled the news across to Gail. I heard from Sean later that after hanging up with me he had called Tom and Tom told him: "Joe's yelling the news to us right now."

All thought of the longspurs was forgotten as we left Jones and headed for Floyd Bennett. Not only was the Cassin's Kingbird a year bird, but it would be a New York State bird for me. There is only one previous record for the species in New York, out at Montauk in 2007, and I hadn't gotten out to see that bird. I called Sean from the road to get specific details about the location of the bird at Floyd - he was on his way there with his daughter. He had been in Prospect Park with her when he got the word about the kingbird. When Ann and I arrived, we heard the bird had been spooked by a Sharp-shinned Hawk and now good numbers of birders were hunting for it. While we looked in the area it had last been seen in, word went out among the hunters that it was back near the community gardens where it had first been seen. Ann and I (and a bunch of other birders) hurried back only to find the bird had disappeared again. Everyone spread out again. Ann and I had gotten separated during the hunt, but Ann called me on my cell to say she was heading back to our car to rest her knee while I continued searching. I happened to be standing in front of the car at that moment, facing the picnic area the bird had been frequenting. I told Ann I would call her if I found it. I had gone only about 15-20 feet forward when I spotted the bird through some trees flycatching from a low post. I instantly called Ann who turned out to already have me in sight, so she hurried over. I looked around for other birders to signal and then saw birders gathering off to my left. Clearly they had also spotted the bird. Finally, the kingbird was cooperative and many got to enjoy good views of it perching and sallying forth from perches on some short poles.

Cassin's Kingbird, Floyd Bennett Field.                                               © Joseph DiCostanzo
Cassin's Kingbird, Floyd Bennett Field                                                                  © Joseph DiCostanzo
I was able to get a few distant shots of the bird (above). Note the gray head and back and the yellow underparts. The pale terminal band on the end of the brown tail distinguishes Cassin's from the similar and much more to be expected Western Kingbird which has white edges on the sides of a black tail. The Cassin's was # 297 for the year for me and # 412 for my all time New York State list. It was my 9th state bird of the year, which is really quite incredible!

Our day, however, was not done. Ann and I headed over to the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens to look for one more year bird for me. Last winter I had somehow managed to miss seeing Snow Goose, despite having seen many much rarer waterfowl. At Jamaica Bay, Ann decided to rest her knee while I walked out the West Pond trail. I went as far as the breach caused by Hurricane Sandy. The tide was in and there was some water in the currently defunct West Pond and thousands of Brant, but no Snow Geese. I headed back towards the headquarters, intending to check the East Pond when I heard calling Snow Geese approaching. Seven Snow Geese flew over coming from the direction of the East Pond - # 298! Back at the car in the parking lot, more than a hundred Snows flew over. There was also a flock of Boat-tailed Grackles perched along Cross Bay Boulevard, but these were not new for me for the year.

Three year birds in one day in late-November - one of them a new State bird!. A fabulous day! Only two to go - but Snow Goose was the last easy one. Now it really gets hard.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

November 20 - Inwood Hill Park - Cooper's Hawk, blackbirds & Muskrat

It was above freezing for the first time in a couple of days this morning when I went into Inwood Hill Park for a quick walk along the ridge. Migration is nearly over and the woods were fairly quiet, but there were flocks of blackbirds - mostly Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds - passing south overhead. In the hour or so I was in the park, well over a thousand birds passed overhead.Among the waterfowl there were only the usual Canada Geese, Mallards and American Black Ducks, but the Black Duck numbers are slowly increasing with at least four around this morning.

On the way back out of the park I saw a Cooper's Hawk fly into a tree east of the soccer fields, just a little way in from the Indian Road side of the park. As I got closer to the bird it seemed to be busy eating. It allowed a relatively close approach while it ate what appeared to be a House Sparrow. After taking a few pictures, I left the bird to its repast.

immature Cooper's Hawk                                       © Joseph DiCostanzo

I had one other interesting sighting in the park this morning, this one from my apartment window before I went out. A week or so ago I noticed a suspicious looking mound in the middle of the freshwater pool areas in Muscota Marsh. I thought it looked like it might be a Muskrat lodge, at least it looked as if it might be, and I have on occasion seen Muskrats in Inwood. This morning I had my suspicions apparently confirmed when I spotted a Muskrat swimming in the partially frozen water next to the mound. Unfortunately, I did not have my camera handy when the Muskrat was visible, but below is a picture of the mound as seen from my window.

apparent Muskrat lodge in Muscota Marsh                                                                                               © Joseph DiCostanzo
When I mentioned the Muskrat in the new Muscota Marsh area to my friend Sean Sime, his comment was: "If you build it, they will come."

Sunday, November 9, 2014

November 9 - Inwood Hill Park - Dickcissel - # 295!

The Dickcissel that eluded me yesterday in Inwood was more cooperative today, but still required some work to get. This morning when I went into the park i went straight over to the ball fields on the Hudson River side via the north end of the park taking the path that goes under the Henry Hudson Bridge and then the footbridge over the Amtrak railroad tracks. I was checking all the sparrows at the extreme north end of the ball fields, where the Dickcissel was last reported yesterday afternoon, when James Knox walked up and told me the bird was now down at the south end of the fields just in from Dyckman Street - he and Nadir had refound it down there earlier. We headed south and encountered another birder, Mira Fugoch, searching for the bird. Even though the large flock of House Sparrows that James and Nadir had seen the Dickcissel with was still feeding on the grass, the three of us could not spot the bird we wanted. Then a group of Frisbee players arrived and started a game on the field and the sparrow flock dispersed. James and Mira continued to search for the bird along the west side of the field while I checked Dyckman Street itself where some of the House Sparrows had moved to to bathe in a pool of water. Having no luck myself I came back north and rejoined James and Mira in the hunt on the west side of the fields. Finally, a little south of the southern end of the first baseball field the Dickcissel appeared in a mostly bare tree along the river side of the field. The bird then dropped onto the grass to feed with the House Sparrows. A few other birders were lucky enough to arrive at that point to see the bird. The flock of sparrows was fairly skittish and kept flying up from the grass into the trees so I was only able to get some poor, distant photos of the Dickcissel. This is species # 295 for my 2014 New York State year list. Five to go!

Dickcissel, Inwood Hill Park                                                                           © Joseph DiCostanzo
Interestingly, this area where the bird was today is the same general vicinity where a Dickcissel wintered two years ago.

After leaving the Dickcissel, Mira and I headed north along the river front before heading back over the railroad tracks and up onto the ridge. The birding was much quieter than yesterday without the thousands of blackbirds flying over that were such a spectacular part of yesterday's flight. We did encounter an immature Red-shouldered Hawk in the trees between the two pine groves along the central ridge trail. Another highlight was an adult Bald Eagle flying south over the Hudson seen from the meadow overlook. My entire list from the day is below.

Canada Goose
American Black Duck
Double-crested Cormorant (1, flying upriver)
Bald Eagle
Red-shouldered Hawk (1, see above)
Red-tailed Hawk
Peregrine Falcon (1, over the canal at the north end)
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Blue Jay
Black-capped Chickadee (have become common in the last two weeks)
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Ruby-crowned Kinglet (a couple)
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
Northern Mockingbird
European Starling
Chipping Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Dickcissel (see above)
Common Grackle (400, flying by my apartment window in the early morning)
House Finch
House Sparrow

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Virginia DiCostanzo: 1921 - 2014

I hope those who read my blog for its birds and natural history notes will forgive me for a brief, non-nature, personal note. My mom, Virginia DiCostanzo, died this past Tuesday evening, November 4. She grew up in Brooklyn and raised six children there. I grew up in the house she grew up in and she lived there until a major stroke two weeks ago. We buried her in Green-Wood Cemetery yesterday, just a few blocks from where she lived. Monk Parakeets flew around calling from their nests in the cemetery entrance gate as we arrived for the funeral. In a way, I guess this is a sort of natural history note after all, since our lives and deaths are all part of the natural world. My brothers and sisters and I had discussed which of us would speak at the funeral. I deferred to my younger sister Toni, and I was very glad I had. Toni spoke for us all. She did not tell us before hand what she was going to say, but I could not have come close to matching her words:

Last year after spending five days with mom in the hospital, as she fought her way back to us, mom gave me another one of her many gifts.  Mom put her hand on my cheek and said, “Thank you for everything.”   “Thank you for everything.”

Four simple words that mean so very much.  “Thank you for everything.”

So today mom, I give to you that simple gift from all of us.

From Al, Jim, Joe, Ann, Marie, Joe, Joey, Joanna, Pat, me and Dad too.

Thank you, for always making us believe that we had everything, because we did, we had you.

Thank you for the warm summer days playing at the beach, enjoying the pepper and egg sandwiches you had gotten up so very early to make for all of us.

Thank you for the little ice cream bars you lovingly brought out to us, as we sat on the stoop watching the kids on the block run after the ice cream truck.

Thank you for understanding that six noisy kids and then later, two beautiful grandchildren could turn the house upside down and that that was ok.

Thank you for every Christmas morning you turned into a magical celebration, filled with more gifts than we could have ever imagined. 

Thank you for teaching us that it doesn’t cost anything to be nice, and that a smile, a kind word and an open heart will carry you through your most difficult day.

Mom, you filled our lives with love, comfort and laughter.  And for that, today, WE give you these simple words that mean so very much.

“Thank you for everything.”

Mom, Go with God.  Fly to daddy.  Be at peace.
We will always love you.  You are forever in our hearts.

November 8 - Inwood Hill Park - thousands of blackbirds

I went into Inwood Hill Park this morning to look for the Dickcissel reported there yesterday - I had no luck finding it, but I heard at the end of the day that it had been refound on the northern ballfields by the Hudson River, so perhaps tomorrow. What I did see this morning was a massive flight of Icterids (blackbirds). There was a steady stream of flocks of blackbirds going over, sometimes thousands at a time. They were mostly Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds, but mixed in were Brown-headed Cowbirds and some Rusty Blackbirds. While James Knox, Danny Karlson, Nadir Sourigi and I watched the migrating flocks from the soccer fields this morning we also picked out a couple of Horned Larks going over - a new species for me for Inwood. Also going over were Turkey Vultures, Red-tailed Hawks, and American Kestrel. When I ran into James later in the morning when Ann and I were headed to the farmer's market, he told me they had also seen Red-shouldered and Broad-winged hawks after I left. There is still a good variety of sparrows around the soccer fields - in the morning I saw Savannah, Chipping, Field, Swamp, White-throated, Song, and Dark-eyed Junco.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

November 2 - Inwood Hill Park - vultures, raptors and a bluebird

Yesterday's rains were replaced by clearing skies and a stiff northwest wind. And daylight savings time was finally replaced by standard time. Despite the extra hour during the night, I did not get out as early as I had hoped. As I was getting ready to go into the park I looked out my window and saw James Knox coming out of the park. I yelled down to him to ask what he had seen and he said I should finally pick up Turkey Vulture for my New York County year list since they were migrating over in numbers. He had also seen Bald Eagle and had just watched a Red-shouldered Hawk go over. So it was with some optimism that I headed into the park. James's preview was on the money - by the time I got to the soccer field I had seen four Turkey Vultures and an immature Bald Eagle going over. There were numbers of juncos around the edges of the soccer field, but with a game in progress it was not a good time to really check out the sparrows. Instead I went up onto the ridge and spent some time at the meadow overlook watching for migrating vultures and raptors. Birds were moving, but perhaps because of the high winds, very few seemed to be actually moving south over the river. While at the overlook most seemed to be appearing over the ridge from the northeast. Numbers for the three hours I was in the park, part of the time on the ridge are below. Best was an adult Red-shouldered Hawk circling relatively low over the meadow overlook. Since the River did seem to be the primary route for the migrants, I came back down the ridge to watch for a bit from the soccer fields. (I found the game was now over, but most of the sparrows had apparently been driven off.) While I watched the sky from the field, Nadir Sourigi rode up on his bike and we watched for a while together. Our best bird was not a raptor, but an Eastern Bluebird that landed very briefly in the top of a tree before flying off again.

Canada Goose (migrating flocks overhead as well as the locals on the fields)
American Black Duck (2)
Turkey Vulture (17)
Bald Eagle (5, all immatures)
Sharp-shinned Hawk (1)
Red-shouldered Hawk (1, adult)
Red-tailed Hawk (6, impossible to know how many were locals and how many migrants)
Merlin (1)
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Eastern Phoebe
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird (1)
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
European Starling
Palm Warbler
Savannah Sparrow (2 lovely plumaged birds by the brushy area on the north side of the soccer field)
Song Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Common Grackle
House Sparrow