Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Counting Birds for the Lower Hudson CBC

As I mentioned in a previous post, on Sunday I participated in the Lower Hudson Christmas Bird Count. I traveled up with my mother and sister. We joined three other birders early in the morning to cover the Liberty State Park portion of the count.

The Lower Hudson CBC is somewhat unusual in that it crosses state boundaries, with observers covering sites on both sides of the Hudson River. In New Jersey, the count covers the Meadowlands, Jersey City, the Palisades, and parts of towns along the western edge of the Hudson. In New York, there are observers in Central Park, the Battery, Riverside Park, and elsewhere. Lower Hudson has a link to one of the oldest counts, as the first Christmas Bird Count was conducted in Central Park.

Despite our smaller numbers, New Jersey birders found 100 species of birds on the western side of the Hudson, plus two more count week species. The total included some species that can be difficult to find in urban landscapes, such as Rough-legged Hawk, American Kestrel, Virginia Rail, and Short-eared Owl. It also included some late lingering species, like Great Egret, Greater Yellowlegs, Gray Catbird, and Marsh Wren. Plus there were a few westerners like Orange-crowned Warbler. I have not seen any full results from the New York portion of the count, but I understand that they found an immature Red-headed Woodpecker, among other birds.

Liberty State Park is so named because only a little over 600 yards of water separate it from the Statue of Liberty, while only about 400 yards separate it from Ellis Island. The park consists mainly of grassy lawns, which are great for finding open-country birds, but not much else. The park also has a restored marsh and a shrubby (but toxic) back area, which both provide opportunities for finding a more diverse set of birds.

We started out searching for waterfowl on the southeastern corner of the park, which looks out over Upper New York Bay. In addition to the flocks of 650 Brant and 400+ Canada Geese, we found a Canvasback, some Common Goldeneye, and many Bufflehead. That corner of the park also had a flock of about two dozen Horned Larks in the grass. Our next stop at the restoration area produced a selection of dabbling ducks: Gadwall, American Black Duck, American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, and Green-winged Teal, as well as a solitary American Coot. A Common Loon tried to sneak past behind us, but since I had gotten separated from the rest of the group I caught sight of it as it flew overhead. Brush around the nature center also had a smattering of sparrows – mostly Song, but also a Field and several Swamp Sparrows.

We spent the rest of the morning tramping around the park's back area looking for woodland species. While we did not find our target birds – Wild Turkey, American Woodcock, and Long-eared Owl – we did find some pretty cool birds. For example, there was a flock of around eight (!) Hermit Thrushes all of whom were very talkative. Then there were Fox Sparrows, always a treat. Plus, we flushed a Wilson's Snipe – a species we did not expect, and the only one seen in the New Jersey portion of the count.

For the afternoon we visited a housing development for a different angle on the bay, and a different look at some mudflats. That stop produced our only Yellow-rumped Warblers and Northern Shovelers of the day. It also gave us killer looks at a lingering Dunlin. The rest of the day we spent mopping up – back to the marsh to find Killdeer and a Black-crowned Night Heron, to a nearby field to look (unsuccessfully) for Snow Buntings. Our last birds for the day were two American Tree Sparrows.

Our group finished with 61 species in about ten hours of birding. Not bad at all for an area as heavily urbanized as Jersey City in the middle of December.

For more on a different section of the count, see the Meadowlands Blog.