Saturday, March 31, 2018

Spring in Prospect Park

     I told Tim I was planning to spend a nice long morning birding in Prospect Park yesterday, and he asked if he could go with me. I did one of those flabbergasted, "Really?!" answers.
     I was so excited to have Tim's company with me as we walked Lookout Hill, the Ravine, The Sparrow Bowl, across to the Vale and Rose Garden, then back along the Lullwater. It was also a beautiful, mild day, the sun shining- it finally felt a little bit like spring! And I think the birds felt it too...
Saw zero Northern Shovelers on the lake, they have headed back North. But it was great to see 4 wood ducks, 2 males...

And 2 females - look how beautiful she is with the iridescence on those wings!

Saw quite a few brown creepers today, usually I get excited to find one- but I found around 4 today.

While spying this red tail hawk, an old friend and high school classmate of mine ran into us. It was a pleasant surprise and so good to see him doing well and also out enjoying this amazing, much needed weather.

Before spying this downy woodpecker, I was so happy to see a hairy woodpecker in the Ravine. They nearly look a like, but the hairy is slightly larger with a longer, mildly heavier beak.

It must have rained kinglets the last few nights... Golden-crowned kinglets were virtually everywhere. This one at Ambergill falls was nabbing insects trying to sun themselves on the rocks-- and quite successful too!

Found a group of 7 Ring-neck ducks on the upper pool.

Found a small group of my favorites- Cedar Waxwings in the Rose Garden.

And then, when we got home, baseball is back and on for us to enjoy! I am so happy to move away from winter and get into spring. Finally.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Seal of Approval!

     Today I joined my friend Daniel, whom I haven't seen in sometime for a seal watch with Gotham Whale and American Princess Cruises. We both got a great deal on groupon for tickets and man, was today a great one!
     Before even getting to our destination of Swinburne Island, we counted 24 osprey- not only FOY and FOS, but so many, flying back to their nesting grounds and often in pars or trios. We also got the chance to see some N. Gannets out at Swinburne Island, plus the nesting Peregrines on the Gil Hodges Bridge. It was a great day, and bonus was that the rain held off and lots of pictures could be taken...
One Peregrine Falcon, on a tower of the Gil Hodges Bridge.

My FOY Osprey!

My FOY American Oystercatcher!
(FOY = First Of Year)

A lofty place to make a nest...

Peregrine Falcons nest on just about every bridge in NYC- they are perfect: close to food, safe, and naturally these birds nest on cliffs, sooo, this is a man-made cliff.

More and more osprey, flying from West to East.

And our arrival at Swinburne Island... Rocks covered in pinnipeds.

Mostly harbor seals-- there are 2 greay seals in this frame, can you find them?
Look for their larger size and horse-like heads. Harbor seals look more puppy-faced.

And oh yeah, we're in the shadow of ALL THIS!
I love living in NYC because moments like these are so epic and special. How privileged are we to live in this amazing, huge city-- yet be surrounded by wildlife?!

The most interesting grey seal in the world (left).... and his harbor seal buddies.

Seals haul out to stay warm, to bask, and also, to escape being shark bait. While these true seal family members are not the most graceful on land, they do their best, flopping around awkwardly like a fat, aquatic caterpillar.

The grey seals were my fave- they just look like they own their rocks...

Right before flopping into the water...

Seeing seals hauled out gives many folks the rare chance to see a dry seal. They are fuzzy like velvet and at one time, their amazing velvet fur was sought after by us for our own fashion needs. These animals in the United States are protected by federal law under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

While hauled out, most take on (my personal favorite...) the banana pose.

When wet- most folks forget that these animals do in fact have fur, just like all other mammals. But their best means for staying warm come from all that blubber that they pack on during the coldest months.

The double-crested cormorants on Swinburne Island are getting ready for the island to transition from favorite seal haul out to a nesting colony.

This (very large) harbor seal looks like he may have had it out with another seal, as he is marked with blood around his mouth and face. Judging by its immense size, I would imagine this individual is male.

A cormorant carrying nesting materials as it prepares for baby bird season!

What a great day out watching seals just past one of the busiest harbors in the world.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A Snowy Omen

     I was so happy I saw a snowy owl sitting, not being harassed, and I reminisced about it during the last Nor'easter/snow storm, playfully hoping all would be the last snow of the season.

...Well, I spoke too soon.

     Saw another Snowy Owl after the fact and here I am sitting home, working from the couch through another Nor'easter/snowstorm now after the spring equinox.

Ask me how thrilled I am.
I'm about as thrilled as the expression on that owl's face.
Thankfully, this was a nice sighting with respectful viewing.

Dare I say....I think I am done with snowy owls for the season and the snow that seems to come with each sighting.

Saturday, March 17, 2018


     Wigeons are gorgeous ducks and last Friday I had the pleasure of viewing two wigeon species right here in Brooklyn. At the Salt Marsh Nature Center located in Marine Park, I had the pleasure of seeing some lovely American Wigeon, plus a a special visitor!
In the foreground, an Eurasian Wigeon paddles alongside and American Wigeon. The males differ greatly, the Eurasian sporting that reddish-brown head and the American with that blaze of green from it eye to the back of its head.

The Eurasian Wigeon stray over this way in winter, the ones on our coast most likely from Iceland.

These species do hybridize from time to time and those hybrids look like a pretty spot on mix of the two.

Female American Wigeons are also gorgeous little ducks, their reddish feathers and dark eyes with those cryptic patterns make them just as stunning as their male counterparts. The female Eurasian is similar but more of that reddish-brown color.
A distinguishing feature of both wigeon males is the white/cream stripe down down the front of their face.

Both species have similar feeding habits, plants are yummy!

Happy to add this bird, #113 to my year list.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Wildlife Adventure

     Yesterday was a wildlife adventure day- I planned to have a whole day out on the road visiting a place I have always wished to see. Via the Bronx, I traveled ultimately to Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge in Wallkill, NY.
     I was so happy to make this trip, the timing was pretty perfect and the 2 hour drive north was SO WORTH IT!

I walked the trail on Hunter Island in Pelham Park. I had a hard time looking for birds because I was dodging HUGE chunks of fallings snow and having to climb over and under the many fallen trees that fell across the trail-- and were surrounded by thorns.
Since the Nor'easter came through the day before, and the snow coming in sideways- these sheets of snow were falling from decent heights- I was not ready for having one slam down on my head.
I believe this white-breasted nuthatch was happy to get that snow off of it's trees.

The melting snow also made for some amazing puddles of water that some little birds took advantage of.
This dark-eyed junco went to town and got in a good bath.

After the bath, it's necessary to preen and dry- as this American Goldfinch is doing.

This was a great surprise, and urban striped skunk!
Skunks can survive in New York City, they do just fine living near humans-- although I am sure humans beg to differ.

These animals live underground and are after raccoons a common rabies vector. Skunks are naturally fearless- they prey upon small mammals and know they have a pretty good defense. I stood where I was to watch this individual who didn't seem to be bothered by much of anything.
I assume the wet ground could have potentially brought it out from where it was- a lot of the fields and grounds were flooded. Also, it is skunk breeding season (Feb-early March).

So this little stinker just kept casually walking toward me, it didn't seem threatening- it mostly appeared to be foraging sniffing around, rummaging through some littered wrappers. When it got uncomfortable I clapped my hands and shouted to it.

Interspecies communication worked, and foraged in a different direction-- but look at those cute little toes!!

And it was time for me to take off too! I ate a peanut butter sandwich (no jelly, gross) and was off, across the new Tappan Zee Bridge, up the NY Thruway to Ulster County.

I arrived to Shawangunk around 2:20pm. All the place is is a small parking lot and a loop trail around open grassland.
First bird I spotted (aside from the ones on the feeders when you come in) was an American Kestrel- a bird that specializes in hunting in open fields for small rodents. This individual is a female.

Looking over the field I saw a few birds methodically scanning the fields. On first look, I figured it was a harrier as I was expecting owls later-- but nope, the short-eared owls were out and actively hunting!
This is a lifer for me, and what a beautiful bird it is! Instantly in love with this species.

The scenery wasn't that bad either.

I did see Northern Harriers too- both male (this grey ghostly looking male) and female.
After the Nor-easter was perfect timing. These birds probably did little to no hunting yesterday, so they had to make up for it today. All were active for the entire 2.5 hours I was present. In one scan, I saw 9 owls hunting- I suspect in reality there were at least 10-15 birds on the field.

And there is drama - these amazing skyward battles ensued on multiple occasions. An owl grabs a vole and the harrier sees an opportunity. Watching this is amazing- the coordination, agility, and the wit involved to hold on to or steal the prey...

Staring its opponent down...

The owl drops the vole and the harrier's eyes are already on it...

And these are all at 500mm and cropped- this is happening WAY up there, and there is a female harrier lower down-- is she helping the male out?
The male pursues his prize...

Into a falcon-like stoop to catch up to the food it fought so hard to win... I sure hope that vole is dead at this point, I'd feel for it otherwise! Yikes!

He makes the catch and gets the girl? 
Also frequenting the area were two turkey vultures. The owls didn't seem to like them- I noticed them going after the vultures.

A few trees stood up from the field. If there was a lump in the tree, it was a short-eared owl. If another owl flew by the tree, you'd hear them vocalize to each other with a raspy call. I loved that you could hear all these birds calling to each other whether out of conflict or need for contact.

Also, these birds are super light. This owl at easily stop these outer-most branches with zero problem.

You could see them listening. Flying silently using their disc-shaped faces to scan below. When they do find food the fly up, flap and hover to dive down onto the location of their prey.
They can probably hear voles and other small rodent burrowing below the snow.

The lighting out there sucked, it was so overcast, the snow below seemed to bleach these guys out. Photographing today was rough. But the sights were super enjoyable.

Another scuffle- just caught a vole and the harrier is on its tail.

This immature harrier won that vole and ate it in a tree. I sat in one of the many blinds that are available on the grounds. The blinds hid me away and this harrier landed about 50 yards away to consume its prey.

Harriers have an owl-like face because they too use their ears to hunt for food, similar to owls.

An owl perched right outside the blind I was in.

This one sat for sometime atop this nest box.
Other grassland species occupy this area like bluebirds- for whom this box is probably intended for. I did see an Eastern Meadowlark. I would assume Bobolinks and sparrow species frequent this place.

Seeing these owls during the day is not absolutely obscene, they are known daylight hunters-- and those small ears- they have tufts that are so small, you care barely ever see them.

I loved watching them fly- they felt so graceful, light, and airy.

This bird must hear something good as it pinpoints the sound using its ears, hovering silently overhead. A hunt is on!

It then dives down and lets its talons do their work. It looks a little awkward in the snow...

Then it grabs the vole- perhaps to finish killing it, and places it back in its talons.

Then you have to check that the coast is clear- the harriers have been pests today for the owls.

Then you fly off with your prize. Which reminded me- it was time for me to head home for dinner myself.
I cannot wait to come back here!

Shawangunk Grasslands is a National Wildlife Refuge, so the rules here are fairly strict - you must stick to trails and view wildlife ethically. There are signs posted discouraging baiting, playback, etc - it seems like if you do the other birders will tattle on you (good!).
From NYC in good conditions, it about a 2 hour drive. I left here at 5pm, and got back into Brooklyn by 7pm, the traffic was not bad coming home.
You can learn more about a future visit by checking out their website- and very important- there is a comfort station there- it isn't much, but its better than peeing in the woods-- especially because there are none.