Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The "Long" Journey Ends: Birding NYC

My feet strolled down the path north of the Transvere, adjacent to Turtle Pond. I lifted my binoculars in desperation each time to only bring them down against my chest in disappointment pine tree after pine tree. I had never felt, so desperate about a bird before, but I had good reason. The day before I took the metro from Manhattan with my cousin down to Prospect Park to find an Iceland Gull, an uncommonly seen gull that winters along the Northeast. Prospect Park is the Central Park of Brooklyn. I've heard from a local birder it is becoming a better birding location each year, maybe better than Central Park. For me that day, Prospect Park yielded the same results as my first Central Park visit: another nemesis bird. Although, I was flabbergasted at the quality of habitat and large quantity of waterfowl and gulls on the lake. The walk to lunch I was impressed, but not pleased.

Large flock of Ring-billed gulls on Prospect Park Lake, no Iceland Gulls! 
Northern Shoveler walking on ice.

As I sank my teeth into a juicy burger, my phone buzzed with ebird alerts for the area. "What?! Long-eared Owl, 4 reports in Central Park! How did I miss it." I sunk my forehead into my greasy palms; later that evening; I convinced my dad to tag along starting at 6:45 a.m. to hopefully end my "Long" adventure to find the Long-eared owl. Here I am for the second time, frantically scanning every Pine tree in Central Park before hopping on a plane and leaving behind  a checkbox blank on my 2013 year list for good.

I suddenly feel my phone moving and answer a call from my dad who had just finished his morning run in the park."The man, Bob, you were going to bird with at 9:30 a.m. is already in the boathouse. He says he knows where the Long-eared Owl is." Once I finished the conversation, I meandered quickly through The Ramble to the boathouse to execute my backup plan: go on a bird walk with "Birding" Bob.  "Birding" Bob is a local birder who leads bird walks each week in Central Park. He's been doing this for over twenty years, and has written a lot of research articles on birds of prey in NYC, including studies in Nepal and Thailand.  After I ended my jog to the boathouse, I met up with Bob and the rest of the small group for the bird walk. The whole group and I was lead towards a group of Coniferous trees. Bob pointed out how to find owls in general that I thought was helpful:
  1. Look for "Whitewash", white streaks of owl poop on the trunk(be observant as you walk under the tree, so you don't become like the tree trunk)
  2. Owl pellets around the base of the tree, small balls of fur with bones from what the owl ate.
  3. Check the pine trees because Owls like the dense cover in the winter for roosting during the day cover.
"Birding Bob" 
We all moved over to the next group of Pines trees on a near by hill. As the the group gathered under the pine trees, I noticed this was the same spot I came to find the owl earlier this morning. Bob then said the words I've been waiting for this whole morning:"Long-eared Owl in the tree above". I brought my binoculars against my eyes tilting them at a high angle,peering in the dense pine limbs. Through the glass of my binoculars was a rump view what looked like a large pine cone perched in a tree hidden amongst the pine branches.

A roosting Long-eared Owl, looks more like a
giant pine cone.

The pine branch obscured his face, but you can still see the two
ear tufts on the top of his head. 
 Finally, my Long Journey was a success! I let out a sigh of relief and checked off Long-eared Owl in my head as I took another look at the fruits of my labor. Now I was able to take the metro home impressed and satisfied with Central Park. The bird walk was a great way to end my trip because I got to enjoy a the other common Cardinals and Carolina wrens I'm usually subjective towards when chasing rarities. Other members in my group were from California and one even from London, so it was fun watching their faces light up as they saw cardinals. We also got great views of Wood Ducks and Hooded Mergansers on the Reservoir. I now had a fun morning of birding to think about on the long plane ride home.

I didn't just walk away with just the Long-eared Owl. Towards the end of the walk we were able to catch a great glimpse of a Fox sparrow, a bird I had missed most of the year. I was happy to finally see this species because it is the most colorful of the drab colored sparrows usually seen.

A Fox Sparrow in its rusty red plumage, a characteristic of the eastern
subspecies iliaca.

You might be asking, why birding in Central Park? It's because of what scientist call "The Central Park Effect"(Birders: The Central Park Effect is a great netflix movie about birding in Central Park). All of NYC is covered in concrete, busy roads, and skyscrapers; not suitable habitat for birds. This leaves the only green areas in the city: Parks. All the birds in the area to funnel into theses green areas like Central and Prospect Park which yields a high concentration of bird species in a restricted area. During Spring and Fall migration, Central Park has the best results due to the migrating warblers that stop over.
A view of Central Park on the plane ride home.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The "Long" Journey Begins: Birding NYC

My phone buzzes in my side pocket. I slide it out of my pocket and read the glowing screen. Lucas responded back describing his successful day at the OBX. He saw another new four feathery friends just today: Cackling Goose, Great Cormorant, Ash-throated Flycatcher, and Short-eared Owl plus another arctic wanderer, the Snowy Owl(self-found). “Buzz, buzz” he’s already at 320 for this year, demolishing past his goal of 300 he set at the beginning of the year. Reading the text in my seat at Barclay Center, I sit at 254 with a non triumphant day of birding in Central Park. A Long-eared Owl was reported in the park last Sunday, and Iceland gulls are a rarity that show up on the reservoir in the park this time of year, but I left the park with two nemesis birds after circling around Central Park’s ponds and lakes scanning pine trees and the horizon.

 I lean back farther in my seat amongst the thousands of Brooklyn Nets Fans watching Mason Plumlee make a dunk on the Milwaukee bucks, and I start to think of the sentimental memories my first year spent as a birder. I might not of found as much quantity, but man I'll tell ya, I did find a lot of quality. I have definitely been taken “off the beaten path” and look at my surroundings differently. I now see a tree as a tree decorated with living ornaments decorated in a beautiful plumage, all I had to do is look closer. I’ve explored nooks and crannies around my hometown; Raleigh, NC; I never even knew existed. A year ago I would have never thought birding at a Turf Farm and seeing Upland Sandpipers was even possible! There is just this wonderful avian world thats been fluttering above my head all my life. And as I think of all the 30mph winds with rain and 40degree weather that blew in my direction and leaving my house before 5:30 a.m. on Saturdays becoming a normal routine, I realized it was all worth it when you see your target species. I flashback to the Snowy Owl chase at Cape Hatteras, NC and bunkering behind sand dunes against a lightning storm. Sludging through a marsh to see a Nelson’s sharp tailed sparrow at Fort Fisher. And the best part is the adventure never ends! There’s always something to see . . .  I’ve also enjoyed getting to know the other two  birders of the “Bird Nerd Herd” as we have been called by our peers: Sam and Lucas. Now I start to think of how I can squeeze some more birding into the rest of my family vacation in New York City before I return to Raleigh, NC to end my 2013 year of birding. 

Now I just have 4 more days before the adventure starts all over again for my year list, so tomorrow I head out to Prospect Park in Brooklyn to look for an Iceland Gull. Let the birding begin . . .