Thursday, December 17, 2020

December 17 - Inwood Hill Park: Look up!

The day started with snow - a lot of snow. From yesterday afternoon through this morning, NYC had its biggest snowstorm in several years. Inwood picked up about a foot of snow. By late morning the snow had stopped and the sky started to clear. By this evening we had crystal clear skies. Ann and I took advantage of the lovely sky and braved the cold temperatures to go out and check out Jupiter and Saturn as they approach their closest conjunction in centuries. The conjunction is still four days away, but you never know what he weather will be a few days from now, Besides, tonight also featured a nice crescent Moon.
Jupiter (the brighter one) and Saturn on the right; Moon on the left.

Jupiter with three moons (bottom); Saturn (top)

Sunday, December 13, 2020

December 13 - Inwood Hill Park: Orange-crowned Warbler

Back on December 3, Nathan O’Reilly found an Orange-crowned Warbler in the fenced area on the north side of the soccer field. Danny Karlson also saw the bird later that day, but it was not seen subsequently. This morning Danny texted that he had found it again in the same area. I headed over and was able to refind it. A short time later Nathan also walked up to see it. The bird was often difficult to see but I was able to get a few pictures of it.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

December 12 - Inwood Hill Park: Cooper's Hawk

A juvenile Cooper's Hawk has been seen fairly regularly around the north end of Inwood Hill Park recently. Today it was perched cooperatively in a small tree on the edge of the large bay at the north end of the soccer field. 

Cooper's Hawk - December 12, 2020 - Inwood Hill Park

The recent movement to do away with bird names that commemorate people I think is quite silly. I think it is far more interesting to find out who these people were. There are many books that provide just this sort of historical information. The classic one for North American birds is Audubon to Xantus: The Lives of Those Commemorated in North American Bird Names by Barbara and Richard Mearns (1992, Academic Press). This book is out of print now, but just published this year is Bird is the Word: An Historical Perspective on the Names of North American Birds by Gary H. Meiter (2020, McDonald & Woodward Publishing). Much of the following is derived from these two references.

Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) was described and named by Charles Lucien Bonaparte in 1828. (Bonaparte was a 19th Century ornithologist and naturalist for whom Bonaparte's Gull is named. He is a nephew of Napolean, deserves a post of his own.) Bonaparte named the hawk for William Cooper (c. 1798 - 1864). Cooper was a wealthy New Yorker and naturalist with an interest not just in birds but also many other branches of natural history. He was a founder and officer of the Lyceum of Natural History (today's New York Academy of Sciences). Cooper edited two of the volumes of Bonaparte's American Ornithology after Bonaparte returned to Europe. Cooper had also supplied to Bonaparte information on at least one specimen of the hawk that would bear his name that he had collected on Long Island. 

William Cooper has several other connections to North American Birds. In 1825 published the first scientific account of the Evening Grosbeak based on specimens from near Lake Superior in Michigan. The scientific name of Olive-sided Flycatcher (Contopus cooperi), named by Thomas Nuttall in 1831 also honors Cooper. Another famous bird named for Cooper was a shorebird collected by him on Long Island on May 24, 1833. Twenty-five years after Cooper collected it Spencer Baird named it Cooper's Sandpiper (Calidris cooperi). The specimen still exists in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution. For over 150 years it was the only known specimen of the "species" and was argued about by generations of ornithologists. In 1981 a similar bird was collected in Australia and named as a new species, Cox's Sandpiper. Both birds are now believed to be hybrid individuals resulting from the interbreeding of Pectoral and Curlew Sandpipers. 

The Cooper Ornithological Club is named for James Graham Cooper (1830-1902), William Cooper's eldest son and a renowned ornithologist in his own right who did extensive studies of West Coast North American birds.

December 12 - Menhaden die off has a long history

Since this past summer people have been noting large numbers of dead and dying fish along the Hudson River and locally here in Inwood Hill Park. The Ring-billed, Herring, and Great Black-backed gulls have all been feasting on the fish and in some cases fighting each other for the carcasses of the fish. The fish are Menhaden also known as Mossbunker, or just Bunker (Brevoortia tyrannus). Many local newspapers in New York City and up the Hudson River have carried stories about the dead fish. Many of the stories have attributed the die-off to various environmental factors, the most commonly cited being low oxygen content in the water, with high population numbers as a contributing factor. Indeed, these factors are probably the proximate causes of the die off. Some news accounts have been quick to bring environmental degradation such as poor water quality or climate change into the mix as culprits. While we should always be concerned about such factors it is also important to be careful not to jump to easy answers. In fact large die offs of Menhaden have a very long history on the Atlantic coast and in the New York City area. In a  quick Google search I turned up a scientific paper from 1999 that reported on a large die off of Menhaden off the coast of North Carolina in 1997 ("A Large Fish Kill of Atlantic Menhaden, Brevoortia tyrannus, on the North Carolina Coast" by Joseph W. Smith in the Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society 115(3):157-163.) 

However, Menhaden die offs have a far older history than merely the incident noted above from North Carolina. In his classic 1959 book A Natural History of New York City John Kieran cites an account of a trip in 1679 and 1680 by two preachers named Jasper Danckaerts and Peter Sluyter which they published called Journal of a Voyage to New York, and a Tour of Several of the American Colonies. In their published account Danckaerts and Jasper report on finding on the shores of Staten Island the remains of thousands of fish known as "marsbancken", what we now call Menhaden. Elsewhere in his book, Kieran quotes from a story in the New York Times, dated July 30, 1954 which reports on the removal of forty tons of dead Menhaden from five miles of Rockaway Beach.

Thus, these die offs of Menhaden have happened periodically not just in recent decades, but indeed have been documented for centuries!

Friday, December 4, 2020

December 4 - Inwood Hill Park: continuing Blackpoll Warbler

The Blackpoll Warbler first found by Nathan O’Reilly and Danny Karlson back on November 21 continues in Inwood Hill Park. It is often found in the fenced area on the north side of the soccer fields at the north end of the park. But, sometimes it is behind the brush piles in the northwest corner of the soccer field. When I first reported on this bird I noted that the late record for the species in New York State was December 3. This was based on the species account in “Bull’s Birds of New York State” which was published in 1998. However, today Sean Sime told me that there is a record in eBird of a Blackpoll Warbler seen in Brooklyn on December 14, 2012. Therefore, the bird currently in Inwood is not yet a record late date for the species for New York. Anyway, here a some pictures from today of the Inwood’s Blackpoll Warbler.