Weekly Wings & Migration Madness

Weekly Wings and Migration Madness are part of a seasonal series. To see past entries, click here!

Weekly Wings: Yellow-Throated Warbler

April showers bring May flowers…and this year, warblers, too. It’s been a slow migration season so far, but now that Mother Nature has turned up the heat a little bit, waves of warblers have arrived in New York City.

From Central Park to Jamaica Bay, sightings have really picked up—CityBirder spotted 41 species in April alone!

One species making an appearance now is the yellow-throated warbler. Not a particularly common New York City bird (the Big Apple is the northern-most edge of its range), the lucky and observant among us will usually spot a few each season.

Check out this graphic to see the yellow-throated warbler’s migration pattern:

The migration pattern of the yellow-throated warbler.
Animation credit: Ebird.org (Click here for a larger version)

One thing to know about warblers is that they are tiny! The yellow-throated warbler measures in at only five inches long—clearly binoculars will aid you in your search. The top of the bird is a rather drab gray with a black and white facial pattern, but the throat glows a brilliant yellow.

Though they are tiny, their movements are generally slow and deliberate, which makes them easier to examine. They glean insects by prying into crevices as they creep along branches, and also use hawking to catch insects in flight.

Yellow-throated warblers have a cheerful song that is high-pitched and can be quite loud. They often sing perched high in treetops, where they can be hidden by foliage but are still easily audible. Click here to hear the song of the yellow-throated warbler.

Migration Madness: 1,600 Birds Killed by JFK Contractors

Photo credit: Nick Chill via Creative Commons
Photo credit: Nick Chill via Creative Commons

Wildlife control contractors have shot more than 1,600 protected birds at JFK over the past five years. In order to ensure the safety of passengers, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey does have permission to shoot birds that interfere with flight patterns, but only seagulls, geese and mourning doves.

DNAinfo explains:

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the airport, was granted limited permission to shoot “problem” species — mainly seagulls, geese and mourning doves — named on a special kill permit issued each year by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

But the authority’s own records show that between 2009 and 2013, they killed 1,628 birds from 18 different species that are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and are not named on the permits.

The protected birds that were shot include snowy egrets, red-winged blackbirds, and American kestrels. Normally, shooting species like this would result in a $15,000 fine or jail time.

Weekly Wings & Migration Madness

Weekly Wings and Migration Madness are part of a seasonal series. To see past entries, click here!

Weekly Wings: White-throated Sparrow

When I first started birding, I was not, shall we say, particularly discerning. So thrilled to be out in Central Park and looking at NATURE through binoculars, I’d stare at almost anything with wings that stayed still for 15 seconds.

This usually ended up being your relatively common park birds: Lots of pigeons. Some robins. Blue jays. Sparrows.

Oh, sparrows.

Once, on what was probably my second guided bird walk ever, I was examining an especially charming house sparrow taking a dust bath when a fellow birder whispered, “Ok, come on, let’s go! It’s just a sparrow.”

It’s JUST a sparrow?! Boy oh boy, that stuck with me. I don’t think it was meant to be dismissive, and yes, house sparrows are everywhere, but to me, birding was (and still is) all about peeling back the ordinary layers of this city to reveal something new.

You’ve seen a million sparrows, sure, but have you ever watched one through binoculars? Taken the time to note their markings and properly identify them? There are 29 varieties to be found in New York City you know, and they’re all pretty great.

Which brings us to our Weekly Wings. These days, most birders I know appreciate birds of all kinds (I truly think my chiding colleague was a seasonal anomaly)—even sparrows. One of my favorites is the White-throated sparrow.

Unlike our last two featured species who have just arrived in New York City, the White-throated sparrow is about to depart, heading to the northern reaches of Canada for the summer season.

Here’s a great graphic that shows the pulse of migration in spring and fall:

The migration pattern of the white-throated sparrow.
Animation credit: Ebird.org (Click here for a larger version)

The White-throated sparrow is about six to seven inches long. Males are easy to recognize, with a white throat patch, black and white stripes on the head, and bright yellow blotches in front of the eye. Females are duller, without the yellow blotches.

As distinctive as its markings is the sparrow’s clear, slow song. The whistle is high-pitched, and often sounds like “Old Sam Pea-body Pea-body Pea-body.” Take a listen in this video—I bet it will sound familiar.

White-throated sparrows can be found throughout New York City—in parks and backyards, on sidewalks and feeders. They forage low in shrubby cover or on the ground, hopping and scratching with both feet, and are remarkably curious: they respond well to pishing and readily visit bird feeders for millet and black oil sunflower seeds.

Sadly, though the White-throated is one of our more common sparrow species, it is also one of the most frequent victims of window collisions, according to urban bird monitoring programs around the country.

Migration Madness: Bye-Bye, Boreal Birds?

Yellow-bellied flycatcher. Photo credit: Jerry Oldenettel via Creative Commons
Yellow-bellied flycatcher. Photo credit: Jerry Oldenettel via Creative Commons

A new study from the Wildlife Conservation Society finds that several iconic Adirondack birds are in trouble thanks to climate change and habitat destruction.

In her paper, “Dynamics of Boreal Birds at the Edge of Their Range in the Adirondack Park, NY,” author and WCS Adirondack Program Science Director Michale Glennon explores occupancy patterns over time for eight bird species in lowland boreal forest wetlands in the Adirondacks.

“When I incorporate data collected since 2011, I am seeing declines for all species except palm warbler, some modest but some of them more troubling,” Glennon said in a statement. “The number of boreal wetlands occupied by five species—rusty blackbird, gray jay, yellow-bellied flycatcher, olive-sided flycatcher, and black-backed woodpecker—has decreased by 15 percent or more since 2007.”

You can read more about Glennon’s study in the journal Northeastern Naturalist.

Weekly Wings & Migration Madness

Weekly Wings and Migration Madness are part of a seasonal series. To see past entries, click here!

Weekly Wings: Eastern Phoebe

For many birders, the Eastern Phoebe marks the official start of spring. The phoebe, a kind of fly-catcher, arrives in New England from its winter quarters in the Southern U.S. and Mexico right around the spring equinox, generally following the insect life as it awakens northward.

The Eastern Phoebe is not a showy bird, brownish-gray above and off-white below with a dusky wash to the sides of the breast. But, while drab in their plumage, they more than make up for it with a sweet song and an entertaining tail wag.

With a distinctive but rough two-note call that sounds like “fee-ah-bee” or “whee-bee,” phoebes can usually be found perched on low branches or fence lines, calling out its name and flicking its tail up and down, side to side. Click here to listen to a recording of an Eastern Phoebe.

When it sees an insect that looks particularly delicious, it will dart from its perch and snap it up in its beak, then return to wait for another. Occasionally the phoebe will chase flying insects to the ground or pick insects from trees while hovering.

Eastern phoebes have been sighted across New York City, from Central Park to Green-wood Cemetery, so celebrate! Spring is finally here! Have you spotted a phoebe yet?

Migration Madness: There’s Oil in Your Flyway

Galveston Bay. Photo credit: Smiley N. Pool/Houston Chronicle/AP
Galveston Bay. Photo credit: Smiley N. Pool/Houston Chronicle/AP

There’s never a good time for an oil spill, but last month’s 168,000-gallon leak in the Galveston Bay came at a particularly bad time: peak migration season.

Located along the upper coast of Texas, Galveston Bay is the 7th largest estuary in the United States, and situated in the Central Flyway. On March 22, a barge carrying nearly a million gallons of especially thick and tarry marine fuel oil collided with another ship in the Houston Ship Channel.

Just to the east of this channel lies the internationally-recognized Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary, a preserved area of marshy mudflats which attracts 50-70,000 geese, ducks, herons, and other waterbirds each year.

David Newstead, a research scientist at the nonprofit Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program, emphasized the bad timing, noting that many of these shorebirds will soon depart for the Arctic Circle for breeding.

To prepare, they must put on a large amount of weight—but oiled birds will focus on preening instead of eating. “The consequence is that they’ll depart, basically without gas, and crash and burn on the way,” Newstead told The Texas Tribune.

Others won’t even get the chance: so far the Coast Guard has reportedly collected than 300 dead oiled birds, and observed at least 500 more with some traces of the contaminant on their bodies. Twenty-nine dead dolphins have also been found, though scientists are still working to determine the cause of their death.

Migration Madness & Weekly Wings

Weekly Wings and Migration Madness are part of a seasonal series. To see past entries, click here!

Fellow New Yorkers, take note: we are on the verge of a population explosion.

Over the next few months, hundreds of thousands of visitors will cross our state line, some taking up residence here through the end of the summer, others just doing a bit of sightseeing before heading on to more northerly locales.

Yes, spring bird migration is finally is upon us.

Despite the acres of asphalt and miles of traffic, New York City is actually a tremendous place to observe migratory birds. Our prime location in the Atlantic Flyway means that hundreds of species pass over us every spring and fall.

And while the dense urban development makes finding safe, suitable habitat challenging for our feathered friends, it also means that the small squares of green space in our city become concentrated islands of bird diversity as they seek out food, water, and resting places.

From Central Park in Manhattan to Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx to Forest Park in Queens and Conference House Park in Staten Island, the five boroughs each contain prime birding locations.

In fact, migration season often sees an influx of human travelers too, as birding enthusiasts come from all over the world to spot rare species in the Big Apple.

A Hidden Layer

And yet, it’s startlingly easy to live in New York City without ever noticing the hundreds of thousands of birds that pass through each spring and fall.

That’s why we’re excited to announce a weekly migratory bird column here on NYER. With a few tips, the right equipment, and a small amount of basic knowledge, anyone can become an amateur avian enthusiast.

Spring is a fantastic time to start your new hobby. The birds are in full breeding plumage as they pass through New York, making identification a little easier, and the timeframe is a bit more compressed when compared to fall.

While the migratory traffic will truly peak in mid-May, things have already gotten started—not even the lengthy winter and lingering cold can postpone this natural phenomenon.

The Weekly Wings: American Woodcock

Photo credit: nebirdsplus
Photo credit: nebirdsplus

Our inaugural migratory bird profile is the American Woodcock. Appropriately, the woodcock is one of the first migrants to make an appearance in New York, arriving as early as February, even when snow is still on the ground.

It’s also a pretty charming little creature (affectionately called a Timberdoodle) with a silly walk, and if you’re able to spot one and hear its call, you’ll understand why we chose it!

A rotund bird about the size of a dove, the woodcock has a bill that looks too big for its body, and eyes that are set high on the back of the head, enabling it to see all around—even behind itself. Its long bill has a flexible tip specially adapted for probing into moist soil in search of earthworms. It can eat its weight in worms each day!

The woodcock’s mottled brown and black body enables it to blend in with the forest floor. As such, they can be difficult to spot and will often startle you if you walk by them. When they are found resting, however, they usually stay in place unless approached very closely.

Each spring, male woodcock perform an unusual courtship ritual in an attempt to attract mates. At dusk, a male will sit on the ground in an opening or small field and repeatedly utter a low, nasal ‘peent.’ He then takes off and spirals upward on whistling wings to heights of 100-200 feet before spiraling back down and landing near where he took off. He makes a chirping sound during this downward spiral. Males repeat this act again and again until well after dark.

Birders have spotted woodcocks across NYC already this year, including in Central Park, Prospect Park, and Greenwood Cemetery. Let us know if you see one!