Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Urban Birding

I spent a lot of years working in New York City. Most of my time was spent either in an office or rushing to or from it, particularly to catch transportation home.

But the nice thing about birding is you can always find something anywhere, even in the middle of the concrete jungle.

It is definitely a change of pace for MH and me when we decide to go to The City from our little New Jersey town. For one thing, people move faster. For another, there are more of them shoving into you.

White-throated sparrow
Even big places like Central Park can sometimes feel too crowded, particularly during a nice day when there are tour groups coming through or visitors enjoying a big swath of green in the midst of the city or gathering around the "Imagine" mosaic near the W. 72 Street entrance, remembering John Lennon. Dogwalkers are there, of course, sunbathers in season and, yes, birders. Alot of birders, alone and in flocks of various sizes.
But while Central Park is more famous, just about any place where there is some shrubbery can produce something interesting beyond a pigeon, even  a more common visitor such as the white-throated sparrow and its cousin the junco.

When I worked in New York I would usually go to Bryant Park at W. 40th-44th streets, especially after reading a report of an unusual visitor. Considering how often the lawn is torn up for an ice rink (winter) or concert stage (summer) and the thick crowds that pass through or sit and eat there every day, it is amazing I've found as much as I have in the shrubbery and the huge London plane trees that border the lawn.

Here are other ways urban birding is different.

When I go to the city I have to be careful what I carry, and I don't just mean money or important papers. I refuse to drive on midtown streets so that means carrying no extra boots or walking stick or Sibley guide to help me identify anything. I don't even take my big binoculars unless I have my backpack. I have small ones I can pocket.

Concrete sidewalks and blacktopped streets are harder on the feet, knees and lower back than grass or cindered trails. There’s the noise of traffic, including the incessant sirens, and people talking to each other or on their phones in a Babel of languages.

While you can go slow, look around, listen for a call and hope to be lucky, there are additional rules: Watch out for the traffic and keep one eye on your surroundings so you don’t get your pocket picked.

A male wood duck (top) with mallards at Central Park's pond.
If you can get past that, it’s always a treat to find something unusual in an urban area at the wrong time of year.

One Saturday last year as we were walking through Herald Square – a concrete triangle in midtown Manhattan filled with tables and chairs and some greenery along the edges -- MH and I found four catbirds. This was winter. Catbirds don't usually hang around this area in winter. When I would walk through here every day on the way to my old job I might see one or two. Yet, here were four, and they were quite bold, running or flying around after the crumbs dropped by the visitors, fighting bill and wing with the house sparrows, pigeons and white-throated sparrows.

Those crumbs were keeping the catbirds and the rest of the birds alive.

Union Square is another busy New York park, with a farmers market, benches, people, dogs and, as it turned out, birds. Sparrows and white-throats, of course, but last year I went there with MH after a day of wandering to look for a reported yellow-breasted chat, the largest of the warblers and a bird that should’ve been far south of where I stood.

As it got darker, I heard sparrows chirping from a holly and started looking for the larger and yellower chat. Instead, if found a yellow-bellied sapsucker roosting on a low branch. Then, despite the traffic, I heard the “laugh” of a flicker. Then, as sparrows flew up to the holly, so did the chat.

Prothonotary warbler, found in the front
garden of the New York Public Library
on Fifth Ave., not far from Bryant Park.
This happened last winter, a milder one than this year's has turned out to be. This year I haven't felt much of a desire to go into New York and bird the usual places or, when we were going to New York to meet people for supper, the weather was so dicey we just came in, dined and left.

This Saturday we will be going to a daytime party in Brooklyn. If the weather holds, we will go into lower Manhattan, perhaps by walking over the Brooklyn Bridge, and wander around. I doubt we'll get to Central Park but I know we'll be in City Hall park.

I don't doubt that somewhere, where I least expect it, I'll find something wonderful in this urban wasteland.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Get Out and Count the Birds!

I was walking in my town one mild afternoon after our most recent snowstorm. Although warmer temperatures melted a lot of it down, much of the white stuff still covered the lawns.

And yet, birds were singing – redbellied woodpeckers, house finches, chickadees, titmice. They are sensing that the worse of winter is over and spring is coming. Who needs the groundhogs?

Somehow, as I was looking ahead, I remembered the Great Backyard Bird Count.

Now, if there is one part of birding I do not like it is keeping complete records. I’ll note what I see but I am not very good about reporting exactly what day I saw what and how may. When I read on the state reporting lists that someone saw 523 herring gulls I have a hard time believing he or she is standing there going one, two, three...

Yet, I enjoy this annual counting of what birds and how many I see at my feeder. The count is co-sponsored by the National Audubon Society (separate from New Jersey Audubon, which is not directly involved in the count) and the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology. It is held every Presidents Day weekend, which means the 2013 count begins this Friday and lasts through Monday.

What you do is simple – you note the types of birds you see in a particular area and how many of them there are in 15-minute increments. You can look at what comes to your feeder or you can travel to a location and count what you see there.

The count has its own website where you can type in your findings. You can look at last year’s data, see which states had the most of a particular kind of bird (or filed the most checklists) and find photos, ways for kids to get involved, maps and even a Twitter feed. Yes, the count is on Facebook and no, there is no fee.

The aim is to aid science. By contributing an accurate count, you are telling the bird experts at Cornell which birds are the most common and not in danger of extinction and which are declining in numbers. According to the count website, “GBBC participants submitted a record-smashing 104,151 checklists with 17.4 million individual bird observations. Participants set new checklist records in 22 states and in six Canadian provinces. Across the continent and in Hawaii, participants identified 623 species.”

That's a lot of birds.

I took this picture of a pair of one of my
 favorite birds, cardinals, which visit my feeders
at all times of the year.
Participants reported the northern cardinal on more checklists than any other species for the eighth year in a row. I recorded them and was happy to do so since cardinals are one of my favorite birds. Learning the number two bird is the mourning dove was no surprise because these seem to be everywhere I look, sometimes outnumbering its cousin the pigeon.

The most numerous bird reported during the 2012 count was the snow goose, which is surprising to someone who sees more often the larger Canada geese – both migrants and the ones that foul town parks and corporate office campuses. 

If this makes you want to count birds all year long, Cornell and Audubon run eBird, which features, data,  news and features. New Jersey Audubon has its own version of eBird, too.

So whether you are off from school or work, when you are running around this Presidents Day weekend look at the birds around you, note the time and location of what you see, especially how many.

Even counter-phobes like me will be out there doing the same.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

An Ugly Beauty, Part 2

On Dec. 17, 2011, I wrote a blog post about the turkey vulture and its southern cousin the black vulture.

I noted how I was walking through the Greystone property and found a large flock of vultures on the ground, running after each other. I had only known of vultures circling overhead or roosting in groups in tall trees.

Turkey vulture, picture by R.E. Berg-Andersson
Since then I have been learning new things about these raptors that fly so gracefully but look so ugly when close up, especially when eating roadkill.

For one thing, one of my favorite authors, Margaret Maron, in her most recent Deborah Knott mystery, "The Buzzard Table," uses information provided by the Turkey Vulture Society as headers for each chapter. Yes, there is a Turkey Vulture Society. Lots of interesting data.

The book cover shows turkey vultures circling a house, but aside from the section headers the "buzzards" are not identified as turkey vultures at all. That miffed me. As a birder, I want precise information! My husband makes fun of me for this - we'll be watching a commercial and what interests me is not the car, say, but trying to identify the hawk flying in the background.

Anyway, there is a reference to the white feathered tips of the vultures' wings, which makes me think they could be black vultures, more likely to be seen in North Carolina, where this book takes place.

Closer to home, I've been studying the vultures that populate parts of the old Greystone mental hospital property in Parsippany, NJ - not so much their feeding or breeding habits as there are lots of places to learn about these birds, including Cornell's Lab of Ornithology - but how they deal with cold.

Last year, I thought the vultures would roost in evergreens in cold before moving to bare deciduous trees to warm up before flying in search of food. Turns out vultures are much smarter than that.

Black vultures roosting on a building bordering the
Greystone property, a picture I took.
During our recent cold snap in New Jersey-  the longest period of subfreezing cold we've had for 13 years - I would take a morning walk every few days. I would get the paper and come back along a route that would take me to the old Greystone property - now Central Park of Morris County - via a side street. I realized vultures don't like the cold any more than I do.

Some of them, particularly the black vultures, would be found on home roofs in the sun, where the heat coming out of the chimney would provide warmth. When the property was a mental hospital, vultures might've congregated on the roofs of the hulking stone buildings where the patients were kept. Those buildings are now gone.

But there is also a large mixed flock that congregates on the ground in an area where trees block the cold wind from the north and west but not the rising sun from the east. They also stay low in the trees, particularly on windy days. I thought these were just black vultures, which are smaller and have silver heads, but when a few would fly up and circle before coming back I would see the white along the wings' trailing edge and realize it was a turkey vulture.

Black vulture - notice the white wing tips.
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson
As more and more black vultures made their way north, you'd think they'd be competing with the larger, red-headed turkey vultures. But apparently they have learned that in some situations it is smarter to band together, at least when roosting at night. Grackles do the same thing in winter, forming large flocks that roost on the ground with starlings, redwinged blackbirds and cowbirds. It's a matter of protection.

When it is warm, however, I have noticed the black vultures roost in one group of trees while the turkey vultures stay in another. The status quo is preserved.

Luckily for the vultures, the park provides the space to keep them safely away from humans. Fifty vultures might look imposing in a tree but they are a major hassle if they are in YOUR backyard tree. So far there's been no clamor to get rid of the vultures, a protected species under federal law.

So what can we all learn from the vulture?

In tough times it is better to band together because there's safety in numbers.

When you're a stranger in town, it is better to learn from the locals than try to impose your way on them.

Keep your head down in rough weather.

Oh, and maybe don't look too closely at what your neighbor is eating.