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.

Trees are flowering . . . it must be spring!

By Leslie Day

downy serviceberry flowersAmelanchier canadensis, or the downy serviceberry tree, is one of the first to bloom in early spring in the northeastern United States. New York City has just gone through a long , brutally cold, and snowy winter. The snow has finally disappeared, but there are new puffs of white dotting the hills and meadows of city parks: the blossoms of the serviceberry tree.

This little tree has many common names: serviceberry, because it blooms when the ground finally thaws, so that burials can take place; shadblow and shadberry, because it blooms when the shad begin their northern migration into the estuaries off the Atlantic Ocean, like the Hudson River; and Juneberry because the fruit ripens in June.

An understory tree, it only reaches 15-30’ in height, and has many slender trunks. This is a valuable native tree, and though small in stature it is huge in terms of its ecological value to wildlife. The beautiful flowers attract pollinators, the berries provide nutritious food for hungry birds, and the foliage is beautiful in every season, particularly in autumn. As it is one of the first trees to bloom, it attracts all kinds of pollinating animals, when there are few flowers available. The nectar attracts butterflies, and the pollen attracts honeybees, bumblebees, flies, and wasps. The purplish-red berries are sweet and delicious and are among the most favorite fruit of birds. Baltimore orioles, scarlet tanagers, cedar waxwings, song sparrows, cardinals, bluebirds, catbirds, and rose breasted grosbeaks are some of the beautiful birds that come to this tree in droves. Squirrels, chipmunks, and woodchucks also feed on the berries. Humans can eat the berries raw off the tree, cooked into pies and jams, fermented for wine, or eaten dried.

downy serviceberry with song sparrow

This little tree has a great botanical and cultural history as the fruit, seeds, leaves and bark were important sources of food and medicine for native peoples. For many tribes, serviceberries were a common source of food in the summer. They would eat the berries raw as we do today, or mash them and form them into pemmican cakes made of animal fat, dried meat, and dried berries. Other parts of the plant are also edible. The Lakota of the Great Plains, used the flower petals, leaves and stems to make a drink, and the Cheyenne, also of the Great Plains, boiled the dried leaves to make a red tea.

Serviceberry shrubs were used for medicinal purposes by native Americans for the treatment of earaches, toothaches, the common cold, influenza, coughs, and fevers.


Woodworkers and indigenous people used branches, stems, and wood to make baskets, furniture, rope, tools, and harpoons.

serviceberry tree autumnIn autumn, a blend of pink, orange, gold, red and green creates gorgeous, colorful foliage. No two leaves have the same colors , and there are times when they are so beautiful, that, inveterate leaf collector that I am since the age of five, I collect each and every one I find on the ground.