Wednesday, December 30, 2009


After hearing about all sorts of interesting birds being reported in southern New York City, I was fortunate enough to go on a daytrip to see whatever was out there. By midmorning we arrived along the Gravesend Bay promenade in Brooklyn (pictured above, at sunset). A Mew Gull of European origins (Larus canus canus, henceforth Common Gull) had been seen amongst a flock of Ring-billed Gulls there. From the parkway, a group of gulls was visible in the parking lot of the department stores there. It looked like this bird would be easy. Ha!
Needless to say, the bird wasn't among the gulls in the parking lot. A few other birders were there already, and they had heard positive reports from earlier in the morning. However, the bird had flown off, and around a thousand Ring-billed Gulls were now visible. Groups were being fed at several points along the promenade while others rested on the water and on the ballfield. I think it is safe to say within each half hour every bird had moved to participate in some other activity. Despite the continual rotation, no Common Gull ever showed.
The next spot was Cloves Lakes Park over in (on?) Staten Island where a female Summer Tanager had apparently forgotten to check her wintering range in Sibley. En route, we had excellent views of the ever-impressive Verrazano-Narrows Bridge before crossing over it. Some research later revealed that it is the largest suspension bridge in the country, and is so massive that its towers were built very, very slightly tilted away from each other to compensate for the curvature of the Earth. I thought that was worth the digression. Despite recent snowfall, the ironic tanager was still in the park, busy sitting guarding an active beehive inside an old woodpecker hole! Eventually she began sallying out to catch bees, then messily disarming them in her beak. Apparently very pleased with herself, she then began her distinctive chortling call!

A quick check for a nearby Rufous Hummingbird was fruitless, so we returned to the Common Gull stakeout. No positive sightings until shortly after arrival, when the bird was seen briefly by one birder but again vanished. One Bonaparte's Gull that landed on the ballfield, a Lesser Black-backed Gull, and some Purple Sandpipers did make the spot productive. I also thought it was interesting how one could see such an eclectic group of vagrant birds right where so many human immigrants had also found new homes in a foreign land. The Lesser Black-backed Gull could be Scottish. Perhaps the tanager is Cuban. Maybe the Common Gull hails from Poland. They don't realize it, but they are not without compatriots here.
Postscript: the author did catch up with the adorable Common Gull on a subsequent trip. A detailed account of the day was written by Benjamin Van Doren here!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Sunken Meadow SP & Eurasian Wigeon in Setauket

This morning I took a trip to see if I could spot the Eurasion Wigeon in Setauket. I got there and scoped almost all of the bay without luck. Many American Wigeon were out and about though. Then as I was leaving I passed a small cove and in it fed a flock of about forty American Wigeon and amongst the flock was the Eurasian Wigeon.

Yesterday(December 26) I visited Sunken Meadow State Park. The highlights included a female Northern Harrier hunting over the Dunes near Field 3, a single Killdeer along the edge of the exposed mudflats, a cold Snowy Egret hunting in the Inner Marsh, and 32 Northern Gannet plunge-diving on the Long Island Sound. I also enjoyed watching a immature Yellow-bellied Sapsucker foraging very close to me on a tree. complete list of the birds seen is below:

December 26, 2009

Sunken Meadow SP: Northern Harrier, 1 Killdeer, 32 Northern Gannets, Snowy Egret, 4 Red-tailed Hawks, Fish crows, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Bufflehead, Red-breasted Mergansers, Common Goldeneye, 46 Long-tailed ducks, American Black ducks, Hooded Mergansers, Belted Kingfisher, Sanderlings

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Happy Holidays

The Huntington-Oyster Bay Audubon Youth Outreach Committee would like to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas and a healthy and happy New Year!!!!

Stella, Brendan, Brent and Vinny

Monday, December 21, 2009

Northern Nassau CBC, Route 9/15

The first time the word “birding” was used (in a work of William Shakespeare), it referred to the act of bird hunting. At some point during the following four hundred years it shed its old definition and acquired a new one: bring binoculars instead of a retriever.

I don’t know when this switch occurred, but I do know that a traditional Christmastime expedition made a congruent switch abruptly in the year 1900. For some reason, in my mind I picture a group of men, each resembling Daniel Boone with rifle in hand, in deep, Monty python-style conversation about why they can’t just look at the birds. But in reality, a gentleman and National Audubon society named Frank Chapman introduced the Christmas Bird Count to complement to the new conservation era. With time, the numbers of birds tallied by participants began to reveal nationwide trends in population growth and decline.

On the 110th iteration of Chapman’s count, I helped survey a circles 9 and 15 on the Northern Nassau count. The first snowstorm of the winter was scheduled to snuff the count by early afternoon, so we had a packed and eventful half day.

I met our team leader, Stella, and began the day listening for owls. A train, a dog, and a rooster replied to our screech owl rendition. Little did the rooster know it was 0400 hrs.

Our next site was also for screech owls, a little site off 25A called the Cushman Preserve. We pulled in and began calling. Before anything replied, a small sedan drove past us farther into the preserve. It wasn’t another team crossing into our territory; it was just a hint of the odd company we were to get that night. We left the site with one Eastern Screech-Owl in our bag. Erm, metaphorically.

At the time we suspected the lone car in the woods would take the title of “strangest vehicular encounter of the day.” Ha, well. On our way to our next stop, we spotted an interesting convergence of habitat around the road. Optimistically thinking hyphenated words such as “Long-eared” and “Saw-whet,” we pulled over and warmed up to call. Shortly, a roar from the left heralded the most ridiculous sight of the day. It was a monstrous black hummer, sporting too many flashing lights to be an ambulance but just enough to belong on the Las Vegas strip. It blasted by the two awed owlers and went down the road. As if the incessant tooting of our Saw-whet call challenged the glowing beast, it braked and began a three-point turn. Time to leave! But the creature quickly pulled right up to the car and cut off our escape. A man got out and asked if we were having car problems. After some suspicious misunderstanding of our stated intentions, he jumped back into the behemoth and drove away. We hadn’t called in any owls yet, but you may understand that the mood had been killed. Lesson learned? All good birders know to pull well off the road while birding to avoid accidents, but while you’re at it, pull into a quiet sidestreet.
(A quick scan of the internet came up with nothing close to what we encountered, but this is approximately the image that was burned onto my retinas for the next 20 minutes.)

Continuing on our way, we passed Las Vegas On Wheels saving another motorist, this time a taxi. A quick check of Stillwell Woods produced no owls. We picked up our third member, Simone, and returned to the last spot. A Great Horned Owl was calling just beyond the limits of our territory. I didn’t care; it was our second owl species and individual of the night. Great Horneds dotted our route, with 3 more between two stops on 25A, plus a pair of screeches at another.

At dawn we picked up our last member, Joe, and birded another roadside site. We picked up good numbers of sparrows, including some Fox, the most cardinals of any team in the circle (over 45 at that spot alone!) and good flyovers such as a pair of American Black Duck and the count’s only Common Merganser!

We visited a Boce’s property for feeder birds and a chance for roosting Great Horned Owls. Feeder birds abounded, with the highlights there being a Brown Creeper, many juncos, a pair of House Finches. A tour of the back of the property turned up nothing except a Red-bellied Woodpecker chuckling at our futile attempts. With restricted time, scrutinizing the canopies of the pine grove there for owls wasn’t really an option. But one owl happened to be nicely silhouetted in a deciduous tree in a break in the grove. It posed then flew off, followed by its mate. Total owls: 3 Eastern Screech and 6 Great Horneds. I didn’t know the county had such potential.

We hit a couple of little woodland preserves, where we rounded out the expected species, like Carolina Wren, and added more woodpeckers, jays, crows, titmice, chickadees, kinglets, and sparrows to their respective totals. Joe left us early, but fortunately didn’t miss much. We increased our goose count at a pond and then again at a school. After that, we hit the Old Westbury Gardens and added one new species for the day, a Hermit Thrush. Notable for numbers there were doves and robins. One last treat at the gardens was seeing a pair of Northern Mockingbirds face off at the edges of their territories.

Before turning in for the compilation, we bolstered goose and American Black Duck numbers and got our first Mallard of the day at a final pond. The first flakes were dusting the road.

The night produced an exquisite blizzard. The beautiful, swirling winter scene lulled me to sleep at home that night. When I awoke, it was already lunch time. The snow was now dazzlingly white. I wondered if the owls had still called in the night. Then I remembered how early I woke up for owling and fell back asleep until dinner.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

New Report on Species Hardest Hit By Global Warming

Please note: This article is directly from the IUCN website:

"The Arctic Fox, Leatherback Turtle and Koala are among the species destined to be hardest hit by climate change, according to a new IUCN review.

The report, Species and Climate Change, focuses on 10 species, including the Beluga Whale, Clownfish, Emperor Penguin, Quiver Tree, Ringed Seal, salmon and staghorn corals, which all highlight the way climate change is adversely affecting marine, terrestrial and freshwater habitats.

“Humans are not the only ones whose fate is at stake here in Copenhagen – some of our favourite species are also taking the fall for our CO2 emissions,” says report co-author Wendy Foden. “This report should act as a wake-up call to governments to make real commitments to cut CO2 emissions if we are to avoid a drastically changed natural world. We simply don’t have the time for drawn-out political wrangling. We need strong commitments and we need them now.”

Polar species are being affected by loss of ice due to global warming, according to the report. The Ringed Seal is being forced further north as the sea ice it relies on for pup-rearing retreats. The Emperor Penguin, highly adapted to unforgiving Antarctic conditions, faces a similar problem. Regional sea ice, which it needs for mating, chick-rearing and moulting, is declining. Reduced ice cover also means less krill, affecting food availability for the Emperor Penguin and many other Antarctic species.

The Arctic tundra on which the Arctic Fox depends is disappearing as warming temperatures allow new plant species to flourish. As the habitat changes from tundra to forest, the Red Fox, which preys on the Arctic Fox and competes with it for food, is able to move further north, reducing the Arctic Fox’s territory.

The Arctic’s Beluga Whale is likely to be affected by global warming both directly, through loss of sea ice and subsequent difficulty finding prey, and indirectly, through human activity as melting sea ice opens up previously inaccessible areas. Ship strikes, pollution and gas and oil exploration all put this highly sociable mammal at risk.

“Ordinary people are not powerless to stop these tragic losses,” says Simon Stuart, Chair of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission. “They can cut down on their own CO2 emissions and voice their support for strong action by their Governments to change the dire climate prognosis we are currently facing.”

The impacts of climate change are not confined to polar regions. In more tropical areas, staghorn corals, which include some 160 species, are severely affected by rising ocean temperatures, which causes coral bleaching. Ocean acidification, the result of too much CO2 in the oceans, weakens the corals’ skeletons.

Clownfish, of “Finding Nemo” fame, are also victims of ocean acidification. Acidic water disrupts their sense of smell, impairing their ability to find their specific host anemone, which they rely on for protection. Salmon, worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the commercial fishing industry, are threatened by increases in water temperature, which reduces water’s oxygen levels, increases their susceptibility to disease and disrupts their breeding efforts.

Australia’s iconic Koala faces malnutrition and ultimate starvation as the nutritional quality of Eucalyptus leaves declines as CO2 levels increase. The Leatherback Turtle, another iconic species, is being affected by rising sea levels and increased storm activity due to climate change which destroys its nesting habitats. Temperature increases may lead to a reduction in the proportion of males relative to females.

An increase in CO2 levels does not just affect animals however; it also impacts on the world’s plants. The Quiver Tree, found in the Namib Desert region of southern Africa, is losing populations in the equator-ward parts of their distribution range due to drought stress. They highlight the problems that all plants and slow-moving species face in keeping up with rapidly accelerating changing climate.

“Several of the species highlighted in the report are already listed as threatened on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, due to other threats such as habitat destruction or over harvesting,” says Jean-Christophe Vié, Deputy Head of IUCN’s Species Programme. “Others are not currently threatened on the IUCN Red List, but will be very soon as the effects of climate change materialise. For a large portion of biodiversity, climate change is an additional and major threat.”

Please go to for more details and to read the report.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Another Book Review: Birdwatcher, The Life of Roger Tory Peterson

I recently finished Birdwatcher, The Life of Roger Tory Peterson and enjoyed that a great deal This book is written by Elizabeth Rosenthal and is a terrific and thorough look into the life of Roger Tory Peterson. To me, Peterson was always an abstract and revered figure. Who hasn’t owned a Peterson field guide? It was the first one I owned, a gift from my mother for my 21st birthday, along with my first pair of binoculars. It took me a very long time to actually delve into birding, but I always had my Peterson Field Guide handy if I did need to ID something through the years!

Roger Tory Peterson was born in 1908 in Jamestown, NY. From an early age he was enthralled by birds and nature. In 1934 his Field Guide to the Birds revolutionized the world of birding and he is credited with bringing bird watching to the forefront of American interests. Thanks to his field guides, millions of people now had the tools to go out into the field and definitively identify what they were seeing. His influence and knowledge helped spur a national past time that can now boast over 48 million participants, with one in five Americans stating that they watch birds. This book is so much more than just a narrative about Roger the “birding legend”. What Rosenthal does is tear down the myth and legend and offer us a wonderful glimpse into the real person. His marriages, his relationships with his children, and with others in the field: it is all covered here.

The love of nature that had begun as a small child had morphed into a force to be reckoned with. When he died in 1996, at the age of 87, as the father of modern birding, he left behind a lifetime of achievement and had influenced and helped to educate millions of people. This is terrific book and I recommend it!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Nassau County Grassland Excursion

Today Stella and I took a tour of some of the last remaining native grassland habitats in Nassau County.  These small parcels are invaluable to the survival of such species as Eastern Bluebird, Field Sparrow, and American Kestrel.  Through the continued preservation of these sites species such as these can be prevented from disappearing from Long Island all together.

Our first stop was a 51 acre parcel in Jericho.  Very few people had birded here before, and those who had had turned up such rarities as Northern Shrike and American Bittern.  Our decision to come here was a good one, as we were greeted by a large flock of sparrows, numbering in the 40's.  In it were at least four Fox Sparrows, a desirable species in this area.  Last year that was the total for the entire Christmas Bird Count!  In the open field we did not find anything else, so we kept moving.  By a small pond we found a small flock of chickadees which contained both Kinglets and some titmice.  Here we also found a flock of sparrows including another four Fox Sparrows.  That gave us eight for one location!  Down the trail a little further was a Gray Catbird.  After waling to the opposite side we found another large grassland area, this dominated by tall grass.  It was here that we flushed a huge female Great-horned Owl out of a Eastern Red Cedar.  Walking back we ran into five Yellow-rumped Warblers and an adult Cooper's Hawk.  What a location!

We thern hit the Tiffany Creek Preserve and birded a small field which contains breeding Eastern Bluebirds.  We didn't turn up anything unusual, but it was still great to be out in such a unique location this time of year.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Importance of Predators and How You Can Help One Species Right Now

I recently received an action alert email from Defenders of Wildlife concerning a devastating poison called carbofuran. This agricultural pesticide is made by a US company and has been deemed too dangerous to be used in the United States, but it can easily be bought in Kenya and East Africa. What is it being used for? Herdsmen are purchasing it in order to kill lions, leopards and other predators.
According to Defenders: “Just a handful of carbofuran -- a deadly neurotoxin that Defenders helped to ban in the U.S. -- can kill an entire pride of lions”.

Despite the popular belief that lions are abundant, they are in steep decline. According to Defenders, just 50 years ago, a half million of the big cats could be found roaming Africa. Populations have plummeted to an estimated 16,000, a decline of more than 95%. Kenya now hosts fewer than 2,000 lions, down from 35,000 fifty years ago. At this rate, Kenya’s lions will be extinct within two decades. This issue got me to thinking about predators in general.

Predators or carnivores have been my main passion since I was five years old. Bears, wild cats and dogs, and the entire mustelid family (weasels, wolverines, martens etc) are just a few of the animals that have captured my heart. As a birder, I am also aware of the importance of predators in our ecosystem. You are probably thinking, “Why should birders care about lions and other predators?” Predators are a keystone or umbrella species. Protect them, and their habitat, and you protect everything else that lives within that habitat, including birds.

One classic example can be found right here in the US, in Yellowstone National Park. Once wolves disappeared from the park, the ecosystem began to suffer. With no major predators to fear, elk and deer began to congregate and demolish anything they could reach. Willow and aspen trees began to die out as these ungulates browsed them down to nothing. Returning wolves to the ecosystem has caused prey animals to disperse and spread out more, which is allowing these trees to flourish. Browsed out riverbeds are once again lush and green.

Where there are trees and shrubs, there are nesting birds. See the connection? Wolves also provide food for other wildlife. Coyotes, ravens, bears, magpies and eagles have all benefited from wolf kills. The presence of wolves has helped bring down the coyote population, which was out of control. With the reduction of coyotes, other predators such as foxes, fishers, wolverines, martens and badgers are increasing in number, which of course leads to a healthier ecosystem.

It is all a careful balancing act, and one that is fiercely intertwined. Take one component out of the equation, such as predators, and watch an entire ecosystem begin to decline.

For many people, predators symbolize the last of the world’s last great wilderness areas. Many others fear predators. They think the only good predator is a dead one. This is the farthest thing from the truth. In fact, predators are essential to our natural world. Without these powerful creatures, entire landscapes can change for the worse. I also truly believe that when we lose predators, we lose the wildness in our souls. Right now, in Africa, lions can be lost within twenty years, unless something is done now. Take a moment to make a difference. Please go to now and sign the petition to save the African lion!!!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Book Review: Wesley the Owl

After a whirlwind summer and autumn filled with birding and hiking, I have finally been able to hit the books and start digging into some of the reading material that was starting to pile up in my living room. I have enough books laying around, ready to be devoured, to last me months and months. Time to start cracking!

I recently finished Wesley the Owl by Stacy O’Brien, a delightful and remarkable memoir about a barn owl and the woman who was his caretaker for almost 20 years. It is a fascinating look into the mind of an owl and the relationship that can form between two species.

Stacy O’Brien, a biologist, adopted Wesley as a non releasable four day old owlet and lived with him for almost two decades. During that time, they forged an incredible bond, a bond that transcended their interspecies differences. This wonderful memoir is filled with humor, important life lessons, compassion and interesting facts.

Stacey was a research student when she took Wesley home. He, of course, became imprinted on her. Imprinting is when an animal takes its identity from whatever it perceives to be its parent. Many birds of prey in captivity are imprints and as a result, they can never be released into the wild. The danger to humans is too great and the chances of survival without proper training from a raptor parent is slim. Wesley thought of Stacey as his mother, and then his mate. His various sexual overtures towards her are a hoot (sorry, I couldn’t resist) to read about and her discomfort is priceless as she tries to explain Wesley’s “affection” to her professor.

This book carries you through the 19 years that they spent together. Some of it is very funny, and I especially enjoyed reading about Stacey’s various suitors and their reactions to Wesley. Perhaps my favorite anecdote is the one about the night Stacy was feeding wild barn owls and was approached by some rather sketchy characters. As she explained what she was doing, the boys were transformed into assistants as they became excited about her efforts and eagerly helped her out. Proof that education and awareness are key and I would bet that after that experience, every one of those boys developed a little bit of appreciation and compassion towards owls. Just as this book leads us into the mind of Wesley, and teaches us the “Way of the Owl”, these boys’ lives were probably changed for the better that night. Stacy’s life was absolutely changed for the better through her relationship with Wesley.

I think you will adore this book. Sweet, funny, heartbreaking, engaging and informative, you will not be able to put it down!