Saturday, March 29, 2008

Life Birds by Subway, Reprise

This morning I woke up really early and took a train into New York City for a day of birding. While the city is not exactly a pristine wilderness, it has several great birding spots located close to subway. Normally this makes urban birding very convenient. Today, though, the 'A' and 'C' lines were plagued by construction-related delays, so everything took longer than it should have.

In any case, I headed out to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, which is a one-seat ride on the 'A' train from Penn Station. Starting out from the nature center, I followed the loop trail around the West Pond. The pond was covered with large flocks of waterfowl, including a huge raft of scaup - mostly Greater Scaup, as far as I could see. Between the flocks in the West Pond and East Pond, the scaup at the refuge must number in the thousands right now. A somewhat smaller (though still large) flock of Snow Geese loafed around the shores of the pond. Occasionally a few would get upset and take off honking. A few "Blue Geese" were among their number. The pond held a variety of other waterfowl, including Gadwall, Green-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, and Ruddy Duck.

Signs of spring were all around, starting with buds that were starting to open on many trees. An Osprey pair has started nesting on a platform on the south of the pond. Several flocks of Tree Swallows were present. Strong winds caused most of them to huddle close to the shrubs and paths rather than engage in aerial acrobatics. The swallows did not flush as I approached, so I was able to view them perched at exceptionally close range. In this morning's bright sunlight, their metallic blue plumage was dazzling.

Other birds around the West Pond included Great Egret, Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawk, American Oystercatcher, Eastern Phoebe, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Hermit Thrush, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and American Tree Sparrow. The warblers seemed especially numerous today. I'm not sure if that is the result of a spring push or if such numbers are present at Jamaica Bay all winter.

After a quick lunch, I crossed Cross Bay Boulevard to walk the trails on the other side of the refuge. Almost immediately, I spotted my first butterfly of 2008 - a Mourning Cloak that fluttered to the ground like a falling leaf. I could hear Spring Peepers chorusing as I approached Big John's Pond. A lone male Rusty Blackbird in its beautiful breeding plumage wandered through a small pool to the left of the blind. On the pond, there were a few Northern Shovelers and an Eastern Painted Turtle.

The East Pond held the same species of waterfowl as the West Pond. I had a great close-up view of a pair of Mute Swans. As they dipped their heads in and out of the pond to eat submerged aquatic vegetation, I could see drops of water beading on their feathers. The droplets gleamed like little jewels in the sunlight. Invasive (and harmful) as they are, mute swans can still appear beautiful under great lighting like today's.

With winter ending last week, it appeared that my chances of seeing any new irruptive boreal birds had become rather slim. I had already missed chances to see Bohemian Waxwings (twice) and Common Redpolls (also twice). Today that changed. As I made my way back from the East Pond I encountered about a dozen Common Redpolls feeding in a small stand of birches. I had as many as six or seven in my binocular view at one time. Some were clinging, goldfinch-like, on branches to feed from the birch catkins. Others foraged on the ground. As I watched them, it occurred to me that they have a bit of an urban hipster look with their jaunty red caps and black goatees. Perhaps they really belong in the city?

With that sighting I ended my trip to Jamaica Bay. However, the day's birding was not yet done. More to come tomorrow...