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Birding Bob: The History of Ravens, Whales and Dolpins in NYC

Manhattan’s Samantha the Raven

Birding Bob (also known Dr. Robert DeCandido) is a biologist who leads popular and easy to understand tours in Central Park. He lets us publish his newsletter that goes out to his many fans.

With all the talk of Ravens possibly nesting in NYC (Queens), we went back into the historical record to see what we could find out about these corvids in NYC. In a dusty, yellowing journal we found a brief note published in the mid-19th century. It seems as though Ravens must have been occasional visitors to Brooklyn and Long Island back then – see below.

This week we add another bird walk to the mix: Tuesday mornings at 9am, meeting at the Boathouse (details below). Meanwhile, our NYC kestrel research is getting some attention – from outside of New York City!  And later this year, Deborah and I will have an article in a national publication about NYC Kestrels.You can find information (in 14 languages!) about NYC kestrels here.

We have some very good news to report. Our colleague Chad Seewagen (soon to be PhD) had another scientific paper published on his research here in NYC on how migrant birds fare during stopover times in New York City Parks. The research was published in the prestigious Wilson Journal of Ornithology. Congratulations Chad – may you publish many more.

Another of our bird-walkers, Bill Benish, has created an on-line guide to the largest woodpeckers in the world – here’s the link to Campephilus Woodpeckers, the famous Ivorybill and all of its relatives in the same genus. 

Below we also present historical and recent reports from around the city including three species of dolphins in our waters in the East River (Manhattan) and Brooklyn (2010); a Humpback Whale (2009); Skylarks and Starlings in Brooklyn (late March 1898-99); and Ring-necked Ducks in northern New Jersey (late March 1923). And FLASH!!! Randy Schutz reports the arrival of Tree Swallows streaming over Jamaica Bay in Queens, near the Environmental Center at 8:55am on 17 March 2010.
Good! Here are the bird walks for this week:

Friday, March 19th: 9:00am. Central Park – Meet at the entrance to Conservatory Garden (105th street and 5th Avenue) at 9 am.

Sunday, March 21st: 9:00amCentral Park – Meet at the Boathouse at 9 am. $10 – we will be there rain or shine.

Tuesday, March 23rd: 9:00am – Central Park – Meet at the Boathouse at 9 am. $5.
The fine print: Our winter through spring SUNDAY walks meet at the [Loeb] Boathouse (approximately 74th street and the East Drive; the SE corner of the lake). – $5 for adults (January-February; $10 otherwise), and $5 for kids.  Easiest way to get to the Boathouse is to enter the park at 5th Avenue and 72nd street and walk west until you find the south to north road (the East Drive) that intersects the 72nd street “transverse.” Then just walk north for about 1-2 minutes…Look for a small restaurant type place with chairs/tables outside – we are inside. The Boathouse opens at 8am and has coffee ($1.35), muffins and cookies ($1.75) plus sandwiches ($6) and french fries ($2) .  Bathrooms are located in two places: inside (better – because these are heated – in the bar that is adjacent to the Cafeteria where we meet); and outside – on the south side of the Boathouse. We end our weekend Central Park walks at the Boathouse at about noon.  On FRIDAYS, we meet at 9am at Conservatory Garden, 105th street and 5th Avenue (just inside the main gates).  There are bathrooms open year-round at Conservatory Garden, and that is good.  Easiest way to get there by subway is to take the #2 or #3 train to 110th street and Central Park North.  Then cross the street to Central Park and head east (to the left) toward Fifth Avenue, and then south until you reach Conservatory Garden (about a 7-10 minute walk from the train station; easy and safe).  You can also take the #6 train to Lexington Avenue and 103rd street. Walk west for three blocks and then north by two. Finally, buses run north up Madison Avenue regularly as well. Most Friday bird walks last about two to three hours in autumn-winter, but feel free to leave at anytime, we won’t take it personally.  We have an extra pair or two of binoculars to rent, so if you want to rent a pair, just call or email before the walk to let us know.  Also, if you are thinking of purchasing new binoculars, ask us – we probably have used them, and we will let you know how to get them for the best price. These days we like a relatively unknown brand by the name of  Zen-Ray, specifically their 8 x 43 model.
Here is what we saw last week (selected highlights) with some anecdotal notes and observations.  Not all species we saw are reported here – we list the best:

Friday, March 12th (North Woods) and Sunday, March 14th (Central Park, Ramble) – In last week’s summary we detailed how some sparrow species were singing half-songs, and if this portended another several weeks of winter. Yes – despite our best attempts to look for birds in the rain, we had very little luck. We found Fox Sparrows and Gadwalls in different places in Central park, and by Sunday, there were many Song Sparrows in areas they had not been previously. So last week was a good one for catching up on writing scientific (and popular) articles, and getting ready for spring…more next week.
Notes on Some Rare Birds in the Collection of the Long Island Historical Society. William Dutcher.

Corvus corax sinuatus. American Raven. — One specimen in the collection. Col. Pike says: I never met with this bird. While shooting in 1836 at ‘Comac Hill’ my companion, Mr. George Bartlett, killed a fine specimen and I skinned it; it is the one in the collection. Philip Brasher had one in his collection that was killed in the woods near Prospect Park. (This specimen is now in the collection of the University of Vermont, Burlington, Vt., this institution having purchased the Brasher collection.) This was in 1848. These are the only specimens I have ever known to be killed on Long Island.”

The Auk 10: 275-276 (1893)
4 March 2010 – Brooklyn, New York City: A dolphin was sighted in Newtown Creek. It may be one of the two that were seen two days ago near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The Riverhead Foundation for Marine
Research and Preservation will be monitoring the dolphin and would attempt a rescue mission if the animal seemed in distress. – Bob DiGiovanni

[These were Short-beaked Common Dolphins (Delphinus delphis), a species found within New York during the winter season along with the White-sided Dolphin (Lagenorhynchus acutus) and the Harbor Porpoise (Phocoena phocoena). The Common Dolphin was the species involved with the mass stranding event in 2007 in East Hampton, Long Island. We have been receiving reports of dolphins within the East River for the better part of the last week. Often the sighting of a lone dolphin is not a good sign. We are attempting to find out if there is food in the area. Kim Durham.]

Common Dolphin (Short-beaked)
White-sided Dolphin
Harbor Porpoise
2/25/2009 – New York Harbor, Lower Bay: The Coast Guard announced that a humpback whale became entangled in a lobster pot and netting south of the Rockaways. They set up a 500-yard safety zone around the whale, which was eight miles east of Sandy Hook, NJ, near the approach to Ambrose Channel, the head of the Hudson Canyon, and active shipping lanes. The Coast Guard Cutter Penobscot Bay and a vessel from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) were on the scene to protect the animal. The whale, reportedly visible on the surface and breathing, according to the Coast Guard, was described as a juvenile humpback, about 25-30 feet long. – Jamie Collins, Executive Officer, USCGC Penobscot Bay

[Hudson Canyon: The post-glacial draining of pro-glacial lakes in the interior of New York State 12,500 years ago, and possibly even older glacial meltwaters, carved this magnificent underwater canyon that runs from the mouth of New York Harbor 120 miles seaward to the great abyss of the North Atlantic. This ancestral “Hudson River” is 3,600 feet deep and 5.5 miles wide in places. Tom Lake.]

2/26/2009 – New York Harbor, Lower Bay: According to the New York Times, the humpback whale entangled in fishing gear was freed this afternoon. The whale, which weighed perhaps 20 tons, was freed after an entanglement team from the Center for Coastal Studies of Gloucester, Mass., cut away the gear, which was wrapped around the whale’s tail.

[It is not uncommon for humpback whales to be this close to New York Harbor. Humpbacks follow a food supply of small fish and this whale was probably one of about 900 whales in a group called the Gulf of Maine feeding component of the larger Western North Atlantic whale group. Teri Frady, NOAA.]
Notes on Brooklyn Birds (1898-99).

Skylark. Alauda arvensis. The English Skylark is at present firmly established as a Long Island resident. Between Flatlands and Holy Cross Cemetery, and to the east of the latter, many are to be seen and beard. On March 28, 1898, while on the Neck Road, I heard for the first time the twittering, burring, continuously sustained song of this species and saw it rising gradually on fluttering wings up into the blue ether. At a later date one was heard singing continuously for eight minutes while in the air and for two minutes more after alighting on the ground. They were neither seen nor heard in September and October, though doubtless they might have been at suitable times; namely, early in the morning or in the evening. Several were beard and seen at the same time in the locality indicated above. It is likely they will later be found at other points on Long Island.

Starling. Sturnus vulgaris. About a mile in a straight line from the colony of Skylarks, I first saw the European Starling, where it was afterward seen repeatedly. Near Kensington Station someone within the present year has placed in a large tree several bird boxes, which are occupied by the Starlings. The tower of the Boys’ High School in Brooklyn noted in the article referred to as occupied by these birds, still retains its attractions for them. This was probably the original nesting colony on Long Island. Another colony now occupies the steeple of a church at Bedford Avenue and Madison Street. At several points in the environs of Brooklyn the Starlings have been seen, where they were evidently visiting for the purpose of obtaining food, while at various points in the city itself they are commonly observed.

Auk 16: 190-193 (1899)
Ring-necked Duck in Northern New Jersey. — On March 25, 1923, the writers were as usual on spring Sunday mornings on the marshes of Overpeck Creek, Bergen County, studying the waterfowl, which seem to increase in variety and abundance every year. On this particular morning nine species of Ducks were found, the commoner such as the American Merganser, Black Duck and Pintail in abundance. After practically all the Ducks had flown away, a pair of Ring-necked Ducks were found hiding in the grass on the opposite bank. Soon, however, they swam out into the creek in the full blaze of sunlight, and we watched them for half an hour as they floated on the quiet water. The drake was immediately recognizable by its dark back, and triangular shaped, puffy head, and the
female was a dark bird, without any white ring around the bill. A few minutes before we had seen a flock of Lesser Scaups at about the same relative distance, and the white backs of the males, and the white faces of the females gleamed in the sun. This species, which is well known to Griscom in life, has not been recorded from northern New Jersey. It is interesting to note that the preceding fall and winter produced an unusual number of Ring-necks from various points along the Atlantic seaboard.- Ludlow Griscom and J.M. Johnson, American Museum of Natural History.

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