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Birders Watch Peregrine Falcon at Empire State Building Watching Migrants

Dr. Robert “Birding BobDeCandido leads birding tours around New York City. Usually he takes people to see owls in Central Park, which he helped reintroduce. This week he lead a tour of the Empire State Building at night to see birds migrating by–and the peregrine falcons who want to eat them. Here’s his report to his followers this week. Not from this trip, but here’s a picture of a peregrine seen from the Empire State Building.
Photo here courtesy of Mike Zienowicz
Hello All,

Sunday Evening, 30 August (Night Migration at the Empire State Building) – as I stood outside the Empire State Building (ESB) at 6:25pm, I cursed the weatherman, the wind direction and life in general. The forecast was for westerly winds by 7pm or so, but the few scattered clouds above us sure looked like they were coming up from the southwest. Such winds would insure we would see no migrants. As the hopeful gathered, I offered the option of just canning the trip up to the top – we could use the tickets any time in the next two years. However, there were no takers – people had psyched themselves into going up there, and many had not made a trip in several years (decades). One of us (a native New Yorker) had never been up there yet…

So up we went – along the way, I met Security Guards who remembered me (“hey birdman“) and we exchanged smiles and hugs – they telling me excitedly of Peregrine Falcon encounters they had seen “up there” and nights with lots and lots of birds. I was still miserable – I was leading all these hopeful people to a night of nothingness. When we arrived on the 86th floor, the first thing I noticed was the wind – it had switched to more westerly and would actually become northwest by 9pm or so. Everyone noticed how windy it was – about 15-20mph, and the immediate cold. It is really very different at 1080 feet above street level in Manhattan – always be prepared for the cold.

While we were all dealing with the wind, and the abundance of tourists all trying to snap sunset photos, we collectively gasped as an adult Peregrine Falcon flew right past the metal fence – no more than 20 feet from us – the Peregrine was huge. It reminded me of watching the Sharks in the Brooklyn Aquarium that cruise right past the glass where I always press my nose. Anyway, it was the first of a few Peregrine passes that night, and though we did not see any hunting activity, it helped make the wind bearable, and gave a sense of hope that something else might happen tonight.

It sure did – at about 8:15pm, with a little light still remaining in the western sky, a lone bird migrant flapped madly past us. By 8:35pm (Nautical Twilight), the migration began just as I had hoped. First slowly, a single migrant here and there, and then after 9pm, “loose associations” of up to eight migrants at a time were flapping madly past the building, trying to head south while not allowing strange air currents near the building to carry them where they did not want to go. (My guess is that about 500 or so migrants would have been tallied for the night if I had my clicker and remained until midnight.) We tried identifying some of the migrants – best we could do was to conclude they were warblers. However, Ben Goloff did find an orange bird with a black head – yes indeed an adult male Baltimore Oriole.

By 9:45pm, with howling winds and dropping temps – we had had enough. We were all looking rather windblown, parched and shivering with goose bumps…but altogether a happier team I cannot picture. People came to see migration and they saw it – little birds struggling to head south just a few feet away in Manhattan – how amazing is that? They learned to distinguish between the numerous moths and the few bats that flew like falcons through the aerial plankton. Most of all, migration became a real experience to them – not something to read about in books…but to enjoy. No birds collided with the building tonight; rather people will remember the fun they had, and what they learned. There are ways to study the environment in NYC that cannot be done elsewhere – just like the soft flight calls (“tseettseettseet“) that can be heard at 1080 feet – but you must be ready and willing to hear!

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Good! Here are the bird walks for this week ($5):

1. Friday, September 4th: $5. Central Park – Meet at THE DOCK on TURTLE POND at 9am.

x. Saturday, September 5th: No BIRD WALK
3. Sunday, September 6th: 9:00 amCentral Park – Meet at the usual location: the Dock on Turtle Pond at 9 am. $5.

4. Empire State Building Trip for Night Migrants – stay tuned for another trip there – possibly. We need a few days of rain followed by a night with northwest winds. Looking at the forecast for the coming days, we are not going to see that weather pattern. So perhaps next week = Sept. 9-13, but we cannot promise or say anything right now – weather forecasts are not accurate that far out. To get a sense of what you missed, see the summary of the Sunday night, August 30th trip to the 86th floor. Amazing really.
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For the next few weeks, until the tree removal work is completed at the north end of Central Park, we will meet at the Dock on Turtle Pond. “It looks and sounds like a logging operation at the north end,” someone said recently.

As of 13 September 2009, we will be raising our Sunday morning bird walk fees to $10 per adult per walk ($5 for kids) for the months of March through December. We wish we did not have to do so, and we apologize. We have not raised the rate on our walks since we began doing them in March 2002. (From 1994 through February 2002, our walks were free.) We are amenable to other arrangements so see/talk to us if the new rate is a problem. Weekday walks will remain the same = $5.
Remember, the funds you contribute support our NYC Research including the American Kestrel Nest Survey on Manhattan Island, the flora of NYC project as well as foreign research including raptor migration studies in Thailand – a site of global significance. Published papers and popular articles are available on most of these topics. (The kestrel research is so new that we are in the process of collecting data to write up for publication.)

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