The Nature of Our Neighborhood: Fall Migration is Underway

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American redstartsBy Leslie Day

The next to the last day of September, I was walking in Fort Tryon Park in Washington Heights from the Heather Garden, and just before I got to Sir William’s Dog Run, my eye caught a movement high up in the northern red oak tree. Warblers! Knowing it’s migration time for insect and nectar eating birds – ie. warblers, flickers, kinglets, hummingbirds – I never leave home without my trusty, light-weight, pocket binoculars. Let me tell you, it is challenging keeping your binoculared eyes on moving warblers. The balletic pattern of one of the warblers foraging in the oak tree made me think REDSTART! These tiny birds, black and red male, gray and yellow females, flash their tails and dive up and down, in and out, gleaning insects from the leaves. It was a lovely female redstart fanning her bright yellow tail and flitting, butterfly-like, from leaf to leaf.

There was another warbler with a different type of motion. Catching up to him with my eyes, I see it is a male northern parula warbler; gorgeous little fellow with olive shoulders and back, blue-gray head, bright yellow belly turning orange up by his neck with a black necklace. What a find!

The next afternoon I met Kellye Rosenberg leading a tour for New York City Audubon. We met at the saltmarsh of Inwood Hill Park, at the northernmost tip of Manhattan Island, right next to the shipping canal that connects the Harlem River with the Hudson River at Spuyten Duyvil. So much to see there. The week before, birding with my friend Elizabeth White-Pultz of the Inwood Birders group, we saw a marsh wren and a pair of common yellow-throat warblers hanging out in the marsh grass, flowering goldenrod and asters. Columbia University has their boathouse there with a new kayak dock used by the rowing crews and the public. Columbia has housed their boats up there since the late 1920s. Across the Harlem River you can see a giant blue and white letter C painted in 1952 by Robert Prendergrast, Columbia medical student and coxswain of the rowing crew, painted on the massive Fordham gneiss outcropping. From the marsh we walked up into the verdant hills of the park and after we entered the deeply forested paths we found black-throated blue warblers male and female redstarts, northern flickers, and a white-breasted nuthatch.

black-throated blue warbler CPMay1510_0091
Fall migration happens more slowly than spring migration, when literally hundreds of millions of birds take the aerial route known as the Atlantic flyway from their winter feeding grounds in South and Central America to their northern breeding grounds in the middle Atlantic states, New England and Canada. Flying over New York City, they drop down in huge numbers in our parks to feed and rest, and sometimes stay, nest and raise their young until it is time to make their journey south in order to find food throughout the winter. And so it is that birds leave our area, not because it is too cold in winter – after all they are covered in a layer of down, just like our down coats that keep us warm and cozy in January, February and March. But they cannot find the food they need: insects and other invertebrates, fish, amphibians, small mammals. In addition to watching migrating warblers and other song birds, during fall migration you can join groups looking at migrating hawks, eagles, and owls; egrets, herons and shorebirds. And from the far north come our wintering birds that are able to survive the cold months in New York City. Small flocks of tufted titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, and black-capped chickadees descend on our wooded parks. And in autumn and winter we make way for ducks, geese and swans! Wood ducks, northern shovelers, hooded mergansers, ruddy ducks, snow geese, brandt geese and mute swans flock to our wetlands to find food when their summer territories freeze over. They are not alone. More and more we are seeing bald eagles along our coast in winter.
p. 292 figure 275 northern parula male CPMay0311_0246

And of course we have our year-round birds who are able to find seed, nuts, and dried fruit even in winter: blue jays, house sparrows, crows, starlings, pigeons, cardinals, downy, hairy, and red-bellied woodpeckers, mallard ducks and Canada geese. And let us not forget our birds of prey that are here all year: red-tailed hawks, cooper hawks, sharp shinned hawks, peregrine falcons, American kestrels, great horned owls, saw-whet owls, and screech owls. New York City, as it turns out, is a birding haven throughout the seasons. So take a walk with or without binoculars and you will start to see our lovely and interesting feathered neighbors.



The Nature of Our Neighborhood: The Red Tail Hawks of Fort Tryon

By Leslie Day

We hear them throughout the day, their high-pitched, keening, keeeeeeearr, over and over again, calling for their parents to feed them a pigeon, a rat, a squirrel. Lucky us to have three gorgeous juvenile red-tail hawks: Buteo jamaicensis: Buteo: a kind of hawk; jamaicensis: the island of Jamaica where specimens were given their scientific name. Their huge nest sits on the fire escape of the top floor of a building high on a hill, just east, above and behind Broadway and the tasty and fun Buddha Beer Bar. Throughout May we watched the parents carry food to the nestlings and now here they are – outside our window!

There are more than 40 known pairs of breeding red tails throughout the five boroughs. Pale Male, the Fifth Avenue hawk has successfully raised his young this spring with his fifth mate after the previous four died from rat poisoning.

Our largest hawk, the red tail is dark brown above, has a white chest with brown streaks and a horizontal rufous band across the tail. The juvenile’s tail is vertically banded with brown and they have pale yellow eyes that mature to dark brown. Red tails can be more than 2 feet long with a wingspan of over 5 feet.

These beautiful birds of prey mate for life, but feeding on poisoned pigeons or rats shortens their lives. When this occurs the spouse will immediately find another mate. Red tails are typically shy of humans, but not in New York City, where these hawks nest on apartment buildings and hunt, roost, and fly near New Yorkers in parks and on city streets.

They build their nests both in trees and on ledges of apartment buildings, churches, hotels and skyscrapers. These nests are huge: close to 3 feet in diameter and 3 feet high, constructed with large deciduous branches and lined with fresh green sprigs in early spring. Both parents build the nest, but the female spends more time arranging the bowl, where she lays 2 -3 brown or red speckled white eggs. The male provides most of the food for the family. Fledglings stay close to the parents and may even come back to the nest at night. Parents continue to provide food for the nestlings up to two months after fledging, which is why we hear them, still begging for food.

Red tails are carnivores, feeding on rodents, pigeons, doves, and other songbirds. When you hear crows and blue jays or see a flock of pigeons flying, look for this large hawk. Nearby birds, even tiny sparrows will “mob” it by attacking as a group to drive it away from their nests.

By early autumn our three babies will venture away from the neighborhood and find a territory of their own and next year we should have more of these huge and beautiful babies learning to hunt and survive in our city.

The Nature of Our Neighborhood: Bird Neighbors

by Leslie Day

The house sparrow’s Latin Name, Passer domesticus means small, active bird (Passer) belonging to a house: domesticus).

One hundred house sparrows were introduced from Europe into Brooklyn, Manhattan and Chicago in the early 1850s and the species expanded throughout North America. It is the most commonly seen bird throughout the five boroughs.

The male has a gray crown with chestnut patches bordering the crown and extending down to the pale gray cheek and neck. The black stripe in front of the eye extends to the beak and meets the black bib. The thick bill is grayish-black, and the legs are pale brown. The rump and tail is gray, the shoulders are chestnut brown, and the wings are brownish with a white wing bar. The female has gray checks, neck and breast without the black bib. She has a buffy stripe between a brown eye stripe and brown crown.

House sparrows have the unusual behavior of taking baths in patches of dusty soil, usually in large groups. Each little bird creates a depression and throws dust all over its feathers to destroy parasites. Originally from Africa, they have evolved this adaptation of bathing without water.

These are small birds about 6 inches long, with a wingspan up to 9 inches. However, they have big personalities, unafraid of humans or dogs, they stay together in large, family flocks and feed out in the open.

house-sparrow-318615_640House sparrows mate for life. They live and nest inside every street corner lamppost pipe, over air conditioners, and inside any cavity they can find on building exteriors, dock pilings, and window grates. Within these cavities they construct their nests with dried grasses, feathers, and string. I have seen them emerge from places that are surprising, like the nostrils of Teddy Roosevelt’s bronze horse on Central Park West in front of the American Museum of Natural History. They are devoted mates and devoted parents. When we lived on our houseboat, our cat Woody caught a baby house sparrow, and carried it back to the boat, alive. I gently removed it from his jaws and kept it warm. The bird’s mother and father stayed outside the houseboat window on a piling looking inside and chirping nonstop. Once the little fella could stand and seemed out of shock, I opened the window and out he flew, accompanied by his parents who chirped wildly to him as they flew back to the park.

Their voices are a series of seemingly identical chirps, although a bird researcher I know told me that they have different sounding chirps.

House sparrows have an important ecological role. They are omnivores feeding on fruit in summer, and dried berries and grass seeds in winter. In summer they also consume invertebrates: beetles, cicadas, grasshoppers, crickets, aphids, spiders, flies and moths.

When I walk out of our building at 295 Bennett I love seeing them inside the yew trees and holly bushes. Just north of 4501 Broadway there is a tree that is a roosting site for hundreds of them each evening and across the path is a tree that is a roosting site for hundreds of European starlings. The noise these two species make is startlingly loud as they settle down each evening after a long day of hunting for food, keeping warm, and preening their feathers. And the chatter each morning is just as loud as they prepare for the day ahead.

These are tough little New York City birds and without them our parks, streets, sidewalks and back yards would be pretty empty of bird life.