Friday, January 18, 2013

Urban Birding: A Morning in Queens, New York

Had to be in the City this week for a couple of dinners so took advantage of the free morning to visit some parks in Queens.  I have some friends who are Queens residents and absolute zealots about the borough (county) and it's birds.  Despite that bias, I have to admit that Queens has treated me well over the past year or so with goodies like Virginia's Warbler, Painted Bunting and LeConte's Sparrow in 2012.  For some reason, the parks of Queens seem to get good stuff, and perhaps more importantly, a battalion of good birders tend to find it.

First stop was Kissena Park, a spot I've visited before, and in particular to search for it's Winter resident Slate-colored Junco flock that often seems to host a rarity or two.  I walked the trails quietly until I heard the sound of juncos off in the grass and and then worked my way around to position myself ahead of them as they moved around.  After a few minutes the first Juncos started to pop up nearby and, as I stood very still, passed by me at close range.  There were a few other birds in the mix; some Song Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows and a few Tufted Titmice seemed to be loosely associated with the flock.  Then I saw a small greenish-gray bird and got bins on it, catching a gray head, yellow breast, and a little bit of an eye-stripe ... Orange-crowned Warbler.  Almost simultaneously a few American Goldfinches came by and among them was a small khaki-colored bird feeding on grass seeds ... Indigo Bunting.  The flock was past me pretty quickly and I didn't see anything else odd in it, but still, nice birds for January in New York City.

Indigo Bunting
After Kissena my next stop was meant to be a quick drop-in to look for Barn Owl at Jamaica Bay but pulling into the parking lot I checked the 'Book of Lies', I mean the 'sightings log', and saw a recent Snowy Owl report from the West Pond.  Wandering down to there I saw Doug Gochfeld and a ranger on the trail and, not 30 yards in front of them, was a Snowy Owl sitting quietly in the marsh.

Snowy Owl (2 shots)
Well that was easy, so I stuck around for a bit, took a few record shots and checked out the storm damage to the West Pond.  Hurricane Sandy has breached the walkway and turned what was a freshwater pond into a brackish tidal lagoon.  What that means for the birds remains to be seen but there doesn't seem to be an immediate plan to put things back the way they were.  Still, nice to see a Snowy Owl in Queens and I left Doug there hoping for the bird to fly over into Brooklyn (the border is only about 30 yards away at that point) so he could list it for his home county too.

Inevitably, when some excited birder posted this particular owl on the State-wide Listserve later in the day, the administrators posted a reminder not to share the location of owls, and then the "owl e-mails" started flying again.  This seems to be an annual event in New York and one that generates emotions out of all proportion to the actual issue.  Photographers and birders sometimes get too close to owls and a few have behaved poorly in the search for a the perfect shot.  This in turn leads for calls to suppress information on the location of owls, which of course offends the vast majority of birders and photographers who want to see the birds and who generally behave responsibly in the presence of rare birds.  Last year it even led to allegations of elitism in the birding community and to levels of invective more normally associated with divisive social issues at the national level.   In fact, last year's debate got so out of hand that many of us now cringe when owls of any sort are mentioned on the Listserve but mercifully the sparks seem not to have ignited a blaze so far this year.  And, for what it's worth,  this bird seems like a good candidate for people to actually be able to go and see without disturbing it.  This Snowy Owl sat quite contentedly about 30-yards South of the main trail and was not in the least bothered by our presence, at least that day.  As long as folks stay on the trail I'd imagine this could be a bird safely seen by many, and who knows, maybe the bird that hatches a few more birders.

Unfortunately the Barn Owls weren't as cooperative and didn't show themselves for me that day so I went off and put a couple of hours into searching Dead Horse Bay in Brooklyn for a recently reported Thick-billed Murre.  No luck on that front for me but I did get back to Manhattan in time for lunch and was pretty happy with my Queens County birds for the day, and starting two more county year-lists.  A pretty civilized morning of birding in New York City.

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