I know everyone has been dying for the results… And they are finally in!
After it took me nearly 5 hours to get to Staten Island and after a not very restful 3 hours of dozing (I don’t think I slept). It was time to get up and get out into the field for the 2nd annual New York City Birding Challenge. Last year my team, the Forgotten Boroughing Owls, won the competition with 141 species, defeating the team from Brooklyn by 1 bird. We knew the Brooklyn team was going to be going all out for us this year again, but we started quite relaxed. After all we had already won the Cup once and our names are forever inscribed on it. We were the first to win and most of us were quite content with that. Early on in our planning stages, we were thinking about only staying on Staten Island, but that idea was dropped, because of a large number of birds we could easily get at Jamaica Bay in
Queens, which were key to our victory last year.
Mike and I drove to Miller Field where we met our fearless leader and captain Seth. Our goal at midnight was Barn Owl. Now Barn Owl is my new nemesis bird, it is the one glaring Owl in New York State not on my life list. So there we were standing out there in the cool night air, hissing at near by tower. We tried hissing, clapping and any other noise we could think of to get the Owls to come out. No luck. We even tried banging on the tower, but still nothing happened. After about 25 minutes we gave up and moved onto to try and find Eastern Screech Owl in a couple of locations. No matter how much whistling was done, nothing responded. We had already been in the field 1 hour and had only logged one bird, Killdeer. Moving on we went to Long Pond on Staten Island where Chuck-will’s-widow has nested and we got last year. As we pulled into the location, we met our main competition, The Wandering Talliers coming out. There was a polite exchange of greetings, but then they were off. And we could hear no Chuck’s calling. This may be because of two Great Horned Owls that have moved into the area, one of which we caught a brief glimpse of as it flew silently through the woods. Still we had lost a lot of time and had gotten little in return.
We next moved onto River Road in Staten Island, one of the most reliable spots to find marsh birds in NYC. We did a brief stop on a bridge over a creek, where American Woodcock was calling. Rive Road held Swamp Sparrow, Common Yellowthroat and Marsh Wrens. We were able to entice a Virginia Rail to grunt and a Common Moorhen was laughing at us. A Least Bittern called briefly and a Clapper Rail was heard in the Salt marsh on the other side of the tracks. We ran into several Staten Island birders doing big days as well, one of whom A) Has a brother who lives in Glenmont and B) They had found Eastern Screech Owl at a place called High Rock. With this tip we were off once again.
At High Rock, Seth and Mike started to whistle their Screech Owl imitations. We continued up the road slightly, when is saw something fly through the woods and land on a branch nearby. Shinning my flashlight on it, revealed a gray phased Eastern Screech Owl! For Seth and Mike, the Gray phase is not very common in the City, while it is very common for me upstate (I never get to see a Red phased L). After the owl, it was time for a coffee and rest room break and also time to go get our last member, and perhaps the best birder of all of us, Isaac.
The four of us, went back to river road, hoping to find some flyover birds at dawn and perhaps catch a Sora. We saw The Wander Talliers again, but the bugs were absolutely brutal. You couldn’t stop without bleeding. It was also very quiet. We high-tailed it out of there and then to Clove Lakes park, where we hope to start cleaning up on Warblers. Although 3 Scarlet Tanagers were quickly found and some Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, it was very quiet. Sure there was Northern Parula, Black-throated Green, Yellow and Yellow-rumped Warblers, but not many. We quickly decided to go to Jamaica Bay where Isaac had good birds the day before.
When we arrived at Jamaica Bay it was already crowded, we quickly set out into the Gardens and began to find warblers almost immediately. A Cape May Warbler was briefly heard singing. Most of the expected warblers were found. A Black-billed Cuckoo was heard calling and White-eyed Vireo was ubiquitous. We began to tally a lot of common birds. Crossing the road to the other pond, Ring-necked Duck, Bufflehead and Forster’s and Least Terns were feeding over the water. Crossing back across the street we headed out to Terrapin Point, finding Yellow-Crowned Nightheron, Orchard Oriole, Little-Blue Heron and 2 Gull-billed Terns. At the point we found most of shorebirds (Red Knot, Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Dunlin, Willet, Short-billed Dowitcher, Killdeer, Semipalmated Plover) By the time we left Jamaica Bay, although we didn’t find anything exciting, we had nearly 100 species for the day, a couple of hours faster than the previous year.
At this point we knew we had a chance again. We knew we also had to get back to Staten Island to clean up on birds. The Brooklyn team would be out and there was already some internal bickering about the amount of time we had spent at Jamaica Bay. After another brief stop, we went to Big Egg Marsh where we got Seaside Sparrow. Since it was low-tide, finding a Salt-marsh Sparrow was nearly impossible. From there we hit Ft. Tilden and Breezy Point for more Shorebirds and Ocean-birds. Again very quiet. A basic plumaged Common Loon was seen feeding along the shore, a flock of Sanderlings went by and a Piping Plover was feeding in the surf. No Skimmers, Gannets or any other ocean birds, despite some favorable winds. We next hit Floyd Bennett field were we had Savannah Sparrow. We next tired for Monk Parakeet in Brooklyn and drove several blocks looking for the birds, we found plenty of nests, but no birds.
We next headed for a pond across from St. Vincent’s hospital in Brooklyn, where Wood Ducks has been hanging around. More importantly a hot dog stand was there. Mike (who was getting cranky by this point) hopped out to get a soda and hot dog, Isaac too jumped out to try and find the Wood Ducks. Seth and I remained in the car, pulled a u-turn and double parked. As we sat in the car, we saw a small yellowish bird hop up onto a branch overhanging the water. Seth and I put our binocs on it thinking Palm Warbler (which would have been a new bird for the day). Quickly we realized it wasn’t a Palm. Seth shouted out ‘Prothonotary Warbler!’ I agreed and both of us hopped out into traffic yelling at Isaac and Mike to get over here. All four of us got great looks at the bird (a lifer for me). Oh yeah, the Wood Ducks were there too.
Now we had some energy again and we headed back across the bridge to Staten Island. We were on pace again to match last year’s number, but would it be enough to beat a very determined Brooklyn team?
To be Continued…