Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge’

Osprey nest relocated by Con Ed. Photo by The Wave.

by Erik Baard

A sharp-eyed photographer for The Wave, serving the Rockaways and the south shore of Long Island, recorded the gentle relocation of an osprey nest from a transformer box to a safer place atop a pole. Our thanks to Bernie Ente for passing the tip along.

 

Like many bird species, the osprey was hit hard by massive DDT insecticide spraying in the mid-twentieth century. That chemical, now banned in the U.S., is widely credited with saving hundreds of millions of human lives from malaria. But indiscriminate spraying took its toll on the environment. A critical problem was that DDT, which concentrates in fatty tissue up the food chain, interferes with calcium processing in birds and weakens their egg shells. Embryos died in “omelets.”

 

Biologist Rachel Carson sounded the alarm in her book, “Silent Spring.” She might have overstated her case (while being honest to what she believed and knew at the time), she helped spark an environmental movement for a new generation. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency owes its creation in part to Carson’s advocacy.

 

In osprey population in New York City is rebounding, with nearly a dozen mating pairs in Jamaica Bay. The strange thing about osprey in New York City is that artificial structures like telephone poles have become their standard nesting sites. Sometimes poles capped with “osprey boxes” are erected for them in better locations, like the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge of the Gateway National Recreation Area.

 

I sometimes see these “fish hawks” flying up from the disturbed surface of the water to their boxes with a fish grasped in their talons and barbed foot pads. I haven’t been lucky as often to spot the actual striking dive.

 

If there are young chicks in the nest, they have good reason to hope the hunt is a good one – the clutch hatches on a staggered schedule and older siblings starve the younger ones in lean times. Hey, you don’t have to be nice to be worth protecting.

Read Full Post »

American Woodcock in Propsect Park by Steve Nanz.

By Erik Baard

In recent weeks keen-eyed birders have each night spotted the quiet and nearly invisible migratory returns, solitary or in very small flocks, of one of New York City’s quirkiest birds.

While some birds, like redtail hawks and peregrine falcons, have attracted groupies through intelligence and fierce dignity, today we present a species that’s won the hearts of hardened New Yorkers through its ostentatious goofiness, the American Woodcock.

If you manage to spot one despite its exquisite cinnamon, gray, beige, and pale orange camouflage in the leaf litter, you’ll note its extraordinarily gawky four-inch bill, more than a quarter the length of its seemingly no-necked, stout body. Then it’s on to the high-crested, buggy eyes set behind its ear holes. To make that odd arrangement of features work, its brain is uniquely positioned: upside down, with the cerebellum resting above the spinal column.

“Back on January 21, 2003, I was shocked to see one on the sidewalk at 18th Street and Park Avenue South. It was probably killed when it flew into a window,” recalled artist and outdoorsman Steve Sanford. “There was a postal delivery guy just standing over it for a long time, wondering what it was, it looked so strange to him.”

And of course, its name is tailor made for preadolescent snickering and email spam filtering. A host of alternate names sound a bit like party drinks: timberdoodle, bog sucker, mud bat, mud snipe, and Labrador twister.

That latter name, however, hints at why their devotees are now clearing their schedules of after work commitments and redirecting their morning jogs to mucky corners of parks. The woodcock’s spiraling mating display, an aerial dance at dusk and dawn, is a signature of Spring that delights the eyes and ears.

“Some of these birds who wintered in southern states are passing through,” said NYC Audubon President Peter Mott, referring to New York City’s place on the eastern seaboard’s migratory flyway. “Those that are staying are setting up their courtship territories. In just a week from now they should be starting their courtship flights.”

You’ll need to visit a wooded area edging a fresh water body and a small clearing. Two places Mott recommends are the Ramble in Central Park (a section called “The Oven,” near the boathouse), and the East Pond of the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, which is also a favorite spot for the tireless Brooklyn Bird Club. Other places known for woodcocks include Pelham Bay Park and Givans Creek Woods Park in the Bronx, the Staten Island Greenbelt,  and Prospect Park in Brooklyn, where the photo above was taken by Steve Nanz (click to enlarge).

Where males have formed a loose gathering, called a lek, individuals bob and rotate on the ground in twilight hours, making a peent sound before suddenly jumping into flight. They ascend steeply in a spiral up well over 100 feet, “making a chirping sound with their wings. Then they’ll plummet to earth and hope a female was watching.”

While the males’ ground call is utterly prosaic, the twittering sound made by air passing through specialized feathers of their fast-beating, rounded wings is soothing. The downward glide is accompanied by a vocalization that naturalist Aldo Leopold called a “soft liquid warble.” Marj Rines has audio samples on her great website.

Still, overall it’s a pattern familiar to anyone who’s ever observed a “Sk8ter Boi”: call attention, perform a trick, hope it was witnessed by a pretty girl.

Such acrobatic displays demonstrate vigor, and to produce pleasing wing song a woodcock must be ideally formed with a span fringed with three very fine feathers – a sonic flaunting of symmetry – that advertises genetic viability for robust offspring. A strong start is critical for hatchlings that are nearly independent soon after emergence, reaching adult form in weeks.

The woodcock’s odd face is no less a product of ruthless natural selection than a lion’s fangs. Those oddly set eyes provide nearly 360-degree vision. The woodcock beak is not only long, but articulated and sensitive toward the tip, so that it can probe the mud more effectively for worms and other invertebrates; they can eat their weight, about 10 ounces, daily. Put those two features together and you have a bird that can watch for predators above while simultaneously feasting on what’s below.

The transitional forest ecosystems for which the woodcock has evolved are equally refined, but have been challenged in recent decades. Most conservationists believe this is what accounts for the species’ 55% drop in population since 1960. Poorly-conceived development is a huge problem, of course, but another factor might surprise you. Our attentive forest managers have prevented many forest fires, blights, and other natural means of tree felling, denying the woodcock clearings for mating displays. Clearings also allow for new growth like meadow, understory plants, and a dense covering of saplings to provide resting protection from owls.

When Mott was asked which of these unique characteristics made him so fond of the woodcock, he said his pleasure was in the sharing. “I enjoy taking people to see them,” he said. Funny how a bird that leads a relatively solitary life can bring us together.

Read Full Post »