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Birding Bob; Northern Saw-whet Owl Stops in Central Park; Woodcocks in the East Village

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. He lets us run his newsletter here. This week he saw a northern Saw-whet owl in Central Park and the carcass of a woodcock.

Northern Saw-Whet Owl, by Richard Leche

The carcasses are in bloom! Yellow and purple and some white – or so it was on Sunday when we were in for other surprises as well. On our walks, we were able to provide discussions of the age of migrating Saw-whet Owls (including photos by Debs), American Woodcocks and more in Central Park in the last several days – by our group. We think with birds…and to find them, we have to think like birds too.

Our historical notes include a NYC area summary of the spring season – 1920. Today, our observations show that many bird species are arriving earlier than in the past. Why? We will leave it to others to explain. In the meantime, we document the changes, and provide the historical record for comparison. We also provide the first records of breeding Tree Swallows in our area. Now they are common breeders at Jamaica Bay and elsewhere on Long Island – but not 90 years ago!

Not had enough of us yet? Beginning the first week of April, our Sunday and Tuesday walks will begin meeting at the Dock on Turtle Pond.
Good! Here are the bird walks for this week:

Friday, March 26th: 9:00am. Central Park – Meet at the entrance to Conservatory Garden (105th street and 5th Avenue)
Sunday, March 28th: 9:00am
Central Park – Meet at the Boathouse $10 –  rain or shine.
Tuesday, March 30th: 9:00am – Central Park – Meet at the Boathouse
The fine print: Our early spring SUNDAY walks meet at the [Loeb] Boathouse (approximately 74th street and the East Drive; the SE corner of the lake). – $10 for adults, 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. 
On FRIDAYS, we meet at 9am at Conservatory Garden, 105th street and 5th Avenue (just inside the main gates). 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).   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 19th – we found two significant occurrences today, one common – an abundance of Dark-eyed Juncos in Central Park, and even Madison Square Park on 23rd street (thanks Sandra). Juncos on the move turning up everywhere – they were mostly gone from CP by Tuesday (23 March). The second, a most unusual spring migrant in New York City – a Northern Saw-whet Owl. Here is the owl after a squirrel had flushed it from its perch in an evergreen cedar halfway down the “Point” in the Ramble:

Debs, wanting to know more about the age/sex of this owl asked some questions of the local owl experts, Trudy Battaly and Drew Panko. They have been banding and tracking these little owls in NYC and Westchester County Parks. Debs wanted to know why (when she greatly enlarged the photo) the edges on all the primary/secondary feathers were very worn. Drew and Trudy emailed back that this is most likely a bird in its second calendar year (SY).  In other words it is an owl that was hatched last summer (2009).  These young birds make up the bulk of the migrants since they outnumber adults. Juvenile feathers of saw-whets wear out faster than adult feathers, and that is exactly what can be seen in enlarged images – the feathers are very uniformly worn suggesting that the feathers are all the same age. Trudy went on to write: “I think we are near the end of their [Saw-whet Owl] spring migration, and yours is most likely a SY female who is not in too big a rush to get back because she knows there is a male already on territory waiting for a female to fly by.”

OK let’s tell that story with photos. Here is a photo of another SY Saw-whet Owl – note how all the feathers look the same.

On the other hand, here’s an After Second Year (ASY) saw-whet, in February.  Note the three different types of feathers (= ages) in the wings:

Banding birds allows you to see much more – ultimately to think about birds. That is why precise age/sex identification is important – it leads to thinking.

Sunday, March 21st (Central Park, Ramble) – I was sitting in the Boathouse with Dan Silbert on this lovely mild and sunny Sunday. He casually remarked that he had just returned from Death Valley. To which someone replied: “I hope it wasn’t too serious and you are better now.” 🙂 Right about then, some whisperings began that Deborah Allen had a woodcock in her pocket. This turned out to be true – Ed Simon had given her a dead one, that he had found on Third Avenue and Tenth Street. (Frank Rutella had found another approx. ten days earlier, about 40th street also on the East Side.) Deborah took the woodcock and did a feather demonstration with it – she could age/sex this bird.
The very russet (almost orange color) suggested adult male, and the width of the three outer primaries confirmed it. Why? The males use the narrow primaries to make the winnowing sound during aerial courtship displays.

Not to forget other birds we headed off to the Ramble. Here we noted good numbers of Northern Flickers (new arrivals). Isaiah Wender found a male Wood Duck perched, where else, in a tree above us…and then he added Golden-crowned Kinglet, Song Sparrow, Black-capped Chickadee and a number of others. Jack Walsh found us a Red-tailed Hawk in flight. Others were contributing too: Eastern Towhee at the feeders; two Brown Thrashers at the Maintenance Meadow; two Red-breasted Nuthatches; a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (male); Cedar Waxwings (flock); Swamp Sparrow (Emilie) and many others. Easily the best day of the year. And one other important spring sighting: Yellow and Purple Carcasses were in bloom everywhere. Dan Silbert, based upon his visit to Death Valley, identified them immediately. He and I are like psychedelic Turkey Vultures when it comes to blooming carcasses. We zeroed in on them…and await everyone else to join us next week.

Tuesday, March 23rd (Central Park, Ramble) – Anders, Tom and I wandered about the middle of the Park. Our most exciting sightings were the young Sharp-shinned Hawk chasing a Red-bellied Woodpecker; a female Hairy Woodpecker (there is a male at the north end; the pair tried to nest last year); a pair of Wood Ducks in a tree; and a diving large falcon, probably Peregrine in the area of the Great Lawn. Otherwise it was a bit breezy and surely cold. We recalled the 70 degree temps of last week – and lamented the real spring of the present.
THE SEASON XIX. February 15 to April 15, 1920

New York Region.—The last half of February saw an increase in Redpolls, now in considerable flocks, but they soon disappeared again. There seems also to have been a flight of Long-eared Owls at
this time, noted at Amityville, Douglaston, Staten Island, Englewood, and the vicinity of Plainfield. February 23 a number of Evening Grosbeaks were found in a patch of red cedar woods at  Amityville, Long Island, feeding on cedar berries. With them were many Goldfinches, some Red Crossbills, and a few Purple Finches The Evening Grosbeak has been reported repeatedly from Douglaston, Long Island (G. C. Fisher), last seen April 10 and likely still around. The attraction here seems to be the fruit of the hackberry.

More than in the New Jersey direction, late February and the very first of March usually find an increase of scattered Robins on Long Island. We have been at times in doubt as to whether these birds are arrivals from the South or have been driven in from southern New England where, at that date, the Robin is generally present in considerable flocks. This year these early Robins were less than usually noticeable on the Island, an indication that they are southern birds, as late winter birds from the North of all species were more than usually represented.

The spring was late in putting in an appearance with its first migrants from the South. The entire absence, during the very end of winter, of Song Sparrows at Garden City, Long Island, made it possible
to determine when the first individuals returned, March 12. Fox Sparrow and Grackle were present here for the first time on March 14, the Grackles being about two weeks later than their usual arrival,
the end of February. The first unquestioned increase in Meadowlarks came on the 21st and they became common on the 24th. The Flicker put in an appearance on the 28th, and Chipping Sparrows only on April 7 this year, although they had been reported from the New York Region a few days previous. Up the Hudson, vicinity of Rhinebeck and Poughkeepsie, data compiled by M. S. Crosby shows the earliest arrivals to have been delayed: Fox Sparrow, March 14; Grackle and Song Sparrow, March 15; Robin, March 2. The next lot of birds were, however, as early as one could expect them: Phoebe, March 23; Flicker and Cowbird; March 26: Chipping Sparrow and Tree Swallow, April 3; Barn Swallow, April 11; Louisiana Waterthrush, April 12; etc.

Reports from New Jersey indicate retarded migration, though by April 1 spring arrivals were about ‘on time’; and a better showing than usual of the less-abundant Ducks. At Englewood, Rough-legged
Hawk, March 21, Golden-eye Duck and Tree Sparrow, April 11, are late dates obtained by L. Griscom, who also reports the Hooded Merganser, Baldpate, Blue-winged Teal, and Ruddy Duck from there. C. H. Rogers and W. DeW. Miller found the Baldpate, Green-winged Teal, and Pintail at South River, April 4.

A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher was noted in Prospect Park on April 7 by R. Friedmann, and the record corroborated by a number of Brooklyn observers who found it there again April 12 and 14. The occurrence of this species north of its regular range at so early a date is doubtless correlated with the fact that, like other southern species, its regular spring migration comes early.
J. T. Nichols, New York City.

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