Thursday, November 19, 2015

Long-billed Dowitchers at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge

Yesterday while visiting the East Pond at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, in Queens NY. I was pleasantly surprised to hear and see Long-billed Dowitchers. Two birds dropped in on the pond and I enjoyed good views. Long-billed Dowitchers are not common for our area and is always tough to pick them up during the summer in their breeding plumage when mixed in with Short-billed Dowitchers...especially if an LBDO male is next to a female SBDO. Careful birders, rely on a combination of  field marks along with the calls to pick them out. Juveniles are easier to pick out. With these two birds, one could easily be fooled into thinking the one with the shorter bill is a Short-billed Dowitcher while the one with the longer bill is a Long-billed Dowitcher.  A few photos are posted here for those interested in studying the plumage at this time of the year.

Long-billed Dowitchers with Dunlins.

These are both Long-billed Dowitchers.

Long-billed Dowitcher...probably a female given the size.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Frankiln's Gulls, Western Kingbird and Cave Swallows in Queens County

There is nothing like a few good birds to get back in the game after being away for more than 2 months. Sunday's find of a Western Kingbird at Edgemere Landfill and Cave Swallows at Breezy Point, all in Queens, wrapped up a rather satisfying few days of birding that started with 2 Franklin's Gulls a Queens county first, which were seen on Friday. The Franklin's Gulls were part of a movement of FRGUs brought on by weather conditions that swept across the upper Midwest and Great Lakes on Wednesday, bringing with it windy conditions that pushed these birds our way. I got a message from my friend John Askildsen just as I began picking up messages from Cape May about the Franklin's Gull invasion. Within minutes, I was picking up multiple reports from Long Island, then later on from Brooklyn. Despite being very close to two Brooklyn locations where FRGUs were reported, I decided to stick it out in Queens.

Bald Eagle at Flushing Meadow Lake, in Queens NY
It was a long day spent checking, Riis Park (parking lot and the beach near the bathhouse)Fort Tilden, Rocky Point Marsh and then Breezy Point. I spent most of my time at Breezy Point and wondered if I had erred in leaving it too late as I was finding very little gull movement at that location. Add the blustery winds, it made for tough birding but I stuck with it and covered all the way to the Silver Gull area and back to the fisherman's parking lot. Leaving Breezy Point, I began doubling back the sites I had checked earlier and at my last stop at Riis Park, I stumbled onto 2 FRGUs, by then the light was going and I knew it was going to be impossible for any other birders to get out in time but I posted promptly anyway. The next day, Saturday I checked a few spots inland but found no sign of a Franklin's Gull. My best bird was an Adult Bald Eagle circling over Flushing Meadow Lake. I never got out to the coast that day as my birding was curtailed due to spending time at Idlewild Preserve in Queens touring with Community Board 13. Thank you Ms. Hill for the invitation--there are good things in the future for Idlewild and I will be involved with that so keep an eye on the blog for updates.

Western Kingbird in Queens NY
On Sunday morning, I spent some time setting up my backyard feeders as I had heard Pine Siskins flying over. During that time, I picked up a report from birder Corey Finger about about Cave Swallows at Edgemere Landfill. This was a bird I had kept an eye for out on Friday but did not see any. I decided I would check out Edgemere and so headed over. Public access to Edgemere Landfill has always been something of an issue/mystery and when I arrived, I noticed signs clearly indicating that only authorized vehicles were allowed. I proceeded up the Landfill and was pleasantly surprised to spot a Western Kingbird flying over the landfill heading my way. It landed near the gravel road and I was able to confirm the ID while obtaining documentation photos. I reported the bird promptly and then spent some time observing its behavior while keeping an eye out for Cave Swallows. I did not find any Cave Swallows and so decided I would leave to check Breezy Point.

As luck would have it, I connected with 2 Cave Swallows at Breezy Point right at the end of the 4 wheel drive just before getting onto the beach. I ended up counting 6 Cave Swallows that provided very good views; I spent a good 2 hours studying these birds while also checking on the gull movement along the beach. This was the best looks that I have had of Cave Swallows since a couple at Jones Beach in 2010. I tried to pull off flight shots and had an opportunity to crush one flight shot; alas, the camera chose at that very moment to lock up with a lens communication error. While frustrating, it was just one of those things that you roll with and I did not let it ruin an otherwise excellent day of birding!

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Sunday, August 30, 2015

Shorebird Festival At Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge

The 10th annual Shorebird Festival at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, (10th, according to the organizers) had good weather, good turnout and some good birds, even though the numbers were not that high.  In total, based on feedback from all of our leaders, we had 14 species of shorebirds with our highlights being 1 juvenile Baird's Sandpiper and multiple Western Sandpipers. Non shorebird highlights included 3 juvenile Black Terns and the continuing juvenile and adult Gull-billed Terns...I thought there might have been a second adult bird but I was not sure since it was a single bird observation and could have been the one adult.

Juvenile Black Tern on the East Pond at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge.
The program lineup was pretty much the same as in previous years. The presentations went well and Lloyd Spitalnik's killer photographs always a crowd favorite was well received with the usual "Oohs and Aahs." The one presentation most people look forward to was just as impressive as in past festivals. Kevin Karlson's talk on "Birding by Impression," was the talk of the town. It was the last presentation of the day but people waited patiently and it was a packed house even though it was near 4:00 p.m. when the talk began.

Lloyd Spitalnik one of the organizers and leaders giving tips on ID'ing shorebirds.
There was one other speaker that many birders were keen on hearing. I was on the East Pond teaching a small group who had stayed with me on how to identify Western Sandpipers when I got a text message that the superintendent of Gateway, Jennier Nersesian, had announced that they NPS, will close the breach on the West Pond. If anyone were looking at me when I read that message, they would have seen a stoic look as though it was business as usual but inside of me was sense of peace and satisfaction. At last, we have on record a commitment to close the breach on the West Pond. While the announcement did not get into all the details including a timeline on what else might be done, the mere fact that the West Pond is not being given up was a momentous achievement for those of us who were fighting hard to ensure that the pond was restored to a fresh water resource. Additionally, money has been obtained to restore the south and north gardens--all of this seems to fall right in line with the Birders Coalition wanted as outlined in the online petition.

Kevin Karlson giving his "Birding by Impression" talk.
Skeptics will be sure to chime in that this means nothing but it does. Closing of the breach gives this pond a chance to begin the recovery period it needs on the way back to being a fresh water resource. We have to remain positive and keep the faith.  I will post more on West Pond work as I get more information. In the meantime, enjoy some additional photos of the birds seen yesterday and think about coming to the Shorebird Festival next year.

Juvenile Stilt Sandpiper

Semipalmated Plover

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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

NYC Audubon Shorebird Walk at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge

9:30 am, is not my idea of a bird walk, let alone a shorebird walk. When Darren Klein of NYC Audubon approached me about subbing for Gabriel Willow in leading a shorebird walk at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, I was hesitant for many reasons. However, my love of shorebirds and teaching others the little I know won the day and so it was August 15th, that I found myself waiting at the visitor's center for my attendees. I had several friends on the Pond who were texting me intel and based on their feedback I decided, we needed to bird the north end of the pond. After working out the car pooling arrangements to get the group up to the north end, we were on our way birding, as we walked the north dyke, Willow Flycatcher, Cedar Waxwings and Catbird were some of the passerines we encountered on our way in. Once we arrived at entrance of the north end, I got people situated for viewing purposes and we immediately had success as the group were treated to STILT SANDPIPERS and LESSER YELLOWLEGS. Both birds feeding in close proximity, providing excellent studies.

Least Sandpiper
On our left, we observed Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers feeding on the shoreline and on the Algal mat. I had the group take some time to differentiate the adults from the juvenile and pointed out several nuances in separating the two species. We then carefully made our way towards the spit before Dead Man's Cove, birding as we made our way through the mud. The group was very enthusiastic despite a hot day and I kept a close eye on everyone, checking in now and again to make sure no one was wilting. Near Dead Man's Cover we continued our good run as we picked up several WHITE-RUMPED SANDPIPERS and distant PECTORAL SANDPIPERS. Semipalmated Plovers and Short-billed Dowitchers were also added to our list and a heard only Killdeer built up our shorebird species numbers. Although we missed the American Avocet which was flushed by a marauding Peregrine Falcon, which we did see, the shorebirding was fun with several attendees picking up life birds. I introduced the group to many of my friends on the pond and it was Tom Burke and Gail Benson who helped us pick up GULL-BILLED TERN. It was a distant look, not very satisfying and I hoped we had another shot at the south end.

Short-billed Dowitcher
Around 12:30 we headed back to the visitor's center and broke for lunch. My regular readers will chuckle at this because they know, there is no thing as a lunch break when I am birding, but when you are leading one must think about the clients too, so lunch it was.  During lunch, I spent a little time looking for butterflies near the visitor's center then met the group and suggested the south end of the East Pond. By then, it had really heated up and many birders coming off the pond from the south end relayed that there was not much to see there. At this point some of our attendees dropped out and the rest joined me for a walk on the south end. At the south end, we saw some of the same birds we had at the north end and again had a good time studying the Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers. I challenged the group to pick them out and they had fun doing just that. A sharp eyed, attendee picked out a dot perched in one of the Beech Trees near the south end and it turned out to be a juvenile Peregrine Falcons, the group all had good looks.

White-rumped Sandpiper
Then I suggested walking up the east side a bit and a few more people by then decided to call it a day so an even smaller group of 6 walked up the east side towards the Raunt. I heard and then spotted the juvenile GULL-BILLED TERN and later on we had the adult. The group had very satisfying looks and I was happy that they had better looks than earlier on. A bit of pishing coaxed out a couple of Northern Waterthrushes that were giving us fleeting glimpses and the group all had nice looks at them. Scoping from the Raunt did not not pull out the American Avocet and so with the sun really cooking and the time nearing 3:00 p.m. we decided to call it ending a productive day in the field.

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Monday, August 10, 2015

Shorebirding at Jamaica Bay 2015 -- A Season of Frustration

We are into our second week in August. While the water level is currently where it should have been at the end of July on the East Pond of Jamaica Bay, we are faced with additional challenges that have contributed to a rather disastrous shorebird season thus far.

The biggest issue outside of the water level is Algae! The East Pond, is laden with a thick Algal mat which has covered most of the mudflats on the north and south ends. Realizing this could be problematic, I broke some of it up on the north end while out there keeping an eye on the water level. What I did not realize was how thick it was on the south Once I got out there and saw how bad it was, I broke up many areas and even raked some spots.
One area where I raked out some of the Algal mat on the East Pond.
This mat is quite pervasive and has actually created feeding habitat for the smaller birds, mainly the peeps. If the birds are finding food there, I am happy for them but it creates a problem for viewers and makes surveying difficult.

Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers that usually feed near the shoreline on the flats are now sometimes feeding way out on the pond on patches of Algal mat. This, is going to require a lot of patience from visiting birders and those without scopes are going to be hard pressed to see shorebirds as well as they usually would...unless, the birds get close to feed near the shoreline or on the flats. So instead of seeing birds like this...
Photographed on July 14th, 2014 -- Note the ample shoreline on the East Pond.

People are more likely to see shorebirds this year like this...
Photographed on August 10th, 2015. Peeps feeding in the middle of the pond on Algal mats.
Note the dates in the caption of the photos and readers will get an appreciation of why I was so concerned about the water level earlier on. The data, that I have gathered over 4 seasons of monitoring the East Pond water level does not lie.

But wait, there is more to add to the frustration level. Predation! Three juvenile Peregrine Falcons have been wreaking havoc on the East Pond, often flying in and taking up positions on both north and south ends.
2 of 3 Juvenile Peregrine Falcons that have caused a lot of trouble this year.
This causes quite the panic and birds are often skittish, not staying long in one spot and eventually heading back out into the bay as soon as the opportunity presents itself. All of this, plus the paucity of birds adds up to a rather frustrating 2015 shorebird season. Had enough yet? Okay one more--compounding the number of issues this year, is the lack of parking for visitors interested in birding the north end of the pond. The parking lots at the North Channel Bridge have been under construction for some time (who makes these decisions to have construction done on places mostly used in the summer??).
The West Lot, is completed but the East Lot is closed. The redesigned West Lot seems smaller and gets filled quickly as one birder found out on Sunday who ended up giving up and going home. This veteran birder summed up his experience for me yesterday when he stated on the phone. "I have been birding since the 1970's and have never seen so few shorebirds on the East Pond. It is f@Q$% depressing." His frustration no doubt exacerbated by not being able to find parking at the West Lot.

With the annual Shorebird Festival in a couple of weeks (August 29th), organizers better hope that there is a huge influx of shorebirds on the East Pond. Otherwise, they may need to have a backup plan on keeping attendees occupied. Stand up comedy anyone?

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Sunday, August 9, 2015

Juvenile Least Sandpiper

A closely cropped juvenile Least Sandpiper, photographed on the East Pond of Jamaica Bay in Queens NY. I wanted the emphasis to be be on certain field marks. Notice how fresh the plumage is on this bird.
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Friday, July 24, 2015

2015 Shorebird Season in Jeopardy at Jamaica Bay?

Not so fast! If I were the type to throw in the towel, I would have thrown my hands in the air and walked away after taking an East Pond water level read out on June 12th. On that day, I could see the water level dropping as evidenced by the old water mark on the Phragmites but something seemed amiss. Not again was the first thought I had!

Every summer, shorebirders in the NY area especially from the 5 boroughs and Long Island, look forward to the annual pilgrimage to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens. With the West Pond pretty much out of commission, due to Hurricane Sandy, the East Pond has become even more critical as a stopover site for migrating shorebirds as they rely on the fresh water habitat to feed and rest. The pond therefore has to be carefully managed in terms of water level and this is where we have encountered problems in the past for a number of reasons.

On June 12th, I had this feeling of 2011 all over again. I knew the water level was too high but waited until I got home to look at my data from the past few years.  After looking at the data, I was still not sure, so I decided to give it a few days and did another read out. This time I was confident once I compared the dates and water level over the past few years. We were behind on the draw down.

I alerted NPS (National Park Service) management and after some fact checking, a bit of back and forth and public outcry, we finally had some movement into investigating the issue. It turned out, that the outflow pipe had some blockage and additionally, leakage and a collapsed area was discovered. NPS to their credit, is trying to salvage the season and as of today, they are in the process of implementing a short term solution by sleeving an area of corroded pipe with PVC replacement. With the blockage cleared and collapsed pipe removed the pond is draining at a healthy clip. I expect, we should see ample mudflats showing up in a week or two especially if this dry spell continues. Perhaps all of this is just in the nick of time to save the shorebird season at Jamaica Bay. Let the Water Flow!

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