First Snow, and Snowbirds, of the Season

Updated 12/6: Added Brian of Brooklyn, who has the most photos I’ve seen so far.
Updated throughout the day Monday, December 3, to add links to other blogs with photos of the first snow.

Slate-Colored Junco, Junco hyemalis hyemalis, in my Flatbush backyard
Slate-Colored Junco, Junco hyemalis hyemalis

We had our first snow of the season overnight. It was in the 20s all day, gradually warming, and it will be in the 30s tomorrow, so it will all be gone soon. I didn’t get any pictures of it myself, but others did:

A Brooklyn Life
Bay Ridge Rover
Brian of Brooklyn
Ditmas Park Blog
Gowanus Lounge
Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn
Pardon Me For Asking
Self-Absorbed Boomer
Sustainable Flatbush

I didn’t get out of the house today. Too busy cleaning, getting ready for guests tomorrow evening. But I was keeping an eye on the bird feeders yesterday and today. The winter migrants are firmly established now: Juncoes, Chickadees, and a little crested one whose name escapes me at the moment. I was looking for nuthatches, my favorites, but I didn’t see any this weekend.

American Goldfinch, Cardulis tristis, in winter plumage. I think this is a female. Thanks to Flickr pals megankhines and PhotoJeff for the id!
American Goldfinch, Cardulis tristis, in winter plumage

Project FeederWatch

Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada have opened registration for the 2007-2008 season of Project FeederWatch.

Project FeederWatch is a winter-long survey of birds that visit feeders at backyards, nature centers, community areas, and other locales in North America. FeederWatchers periodically count the highest numbers of each species they see at their feeders from November through early April. FeederWatch helps scientists track broadscale movements of winter bird populations and long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance.
What is Project FeederWatch

Next year’s seasons begins November 10. They begin shipping kits in September. There’s a $15 registration fee.


Project FeederWatch, Bird Studies Canada
Project FeederWatch, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

A brief bird note

Gardener’s Corner, the backyard, Flatbush.
Gardener's Corner

This week I’ve been cleaning up the backyard and rearranging things there to get ready for a garden party in a few weeks. It’s not all work. I also get to sit back and enjoy watching the visitors to my garden. The corner above is my favorite spot. At one point this afternoon, there were six native bird species present:

  • White-throated Sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis
  • Downy Woodpecker, Picoides pubescens
  • Mourning Dove, Zenaida macroura
  • Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis
  • Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata
  • Catbird, Dumetella carolinensis (heard but not seen in the branches above me)

In the backyard I keep two birdfeeders, one with suet and the other with seed, and a shallow water dish. This attracts a variety of birds. The six species above are all common visitors to my backyard, but their simultaneous appearance was unusual.


Monk Parakeet Munching on Young Apples

We had two parrots visit while I was gardening this afternoon. They were, of course, in our neighbor’s apple tree.

Myiopsitta monachus, Monk Parakeets, also known as Quaker Parrots, have established numerous colonies in Brooklyn. They are Brooklyn’s most charismatic potentially invasive species. They have expanded to other parts of the city and New York State. They are also now established in at least a dozen other states.

Monk Parakeet Munching on Young Apples

I only got good shots of this one of the pair. The other stayed in the foliage and was difficult to see. Here’s a view of both of them.

Two Parrots in Apple Tree

Unlike last year, when I saw the first parrot in June, I’ve been seeing parrots in the neighborhood this year for at least two months. I just haven’t seen them in my backyard this year until today.

The complete set of photos is available in a Flickr set.

Related posts:

Links (in alphabetical order by title):

I and the Bard: IATB #49 is up on Via Negativa

A carnival for the birds, I and the Bird #49 is up on Dave Bonta‘s Via Negativa. I submitted my recent bird sightings and Dave linked to my post about the Cedar Waxwings.

But not in an obvious way. Dave did something unusual with the contributions this time. I’ll let him explain:

Poems, like birds, are everywhere; it’s just a matter of training ourselves to recognize them — a metaphor here, an alliterative passage there, and something lovely dark and deep lurking just beyond. And with a little bit of editing, the English language naturally resolves into a rough iambic pentameter…

Each line in the “found poem” below is a link to the post I lifted it from. I’ve altered nothing but the punctuation, and I’ve included an audio version for those who may have trouble hearing the poetry at first.

It was hard to recognize my own words in this context:

Who knows how they knew they were there.

Out of its original context, it reads more like a Zen koan than a sentence from a blog post. I don’t want to spoil the accidental poetry of that line by explaining it.

Go check out IATB#49 for all the poetry. I recommend taking the time to listen to Dave’s audio recording. He has a poet’s voice.

Ovenbird, Seiurus aurocapillus

At 4:30 this afternoon, I photographed another “life bird” for me, this time while I was sitting in the backyard garden: an Ovenbird, Seiurus aurocappilus.

Ovenbird, Seiurus aurocapillus

These are the best from about 35 shots I took in rapid succession. I tried to adjust the color for a truer representation, or at least consistency. I need some better software tools for that, I think. Exposure in the backyard ranges from full shade, to dappled leafy shade, to full sun. And my little visitor ranged through all of it. Most of the shots were ruined due to camera shake, ie: photographer shake. Others were blurred by the motion of the bird itself; in the shade, the shutter speed was too slow to freeze its motion.

In the mixed native plant border, that’s a cinnamon fern behind, and the stem of a Turk’s Cap Lily in front. You can see the orange patch on the crown, a key for this species.
Ovenbird, Seiurus aurocapillus

Here’s the original, full-frame shot showing more of the border. The blurry thing on the right is a wooden planter I’d just finished planting with a female Winterberry, Ilex verticillata.
Ovenbird, Seiurus aurocapillus

Rear view, also showing the orange patch on the crown.
Ovenbird, rear view

The ovenbird visited me for less than five minutes. It started out in our back neighbor’s cherry tree, where I couldn’t get a good shot and lost sight of it. I thought it flew off.

I was surprised to then see the bird on the ground, beneath one of our Adirondack chairs, about six feet from me. It wandered around the backyard. You can see much of the in-progress gardening clutter around the bird: a bin holding compost, a bag of leaves, and so on. It didn’t seem to be probing the ground. Maybe it was just checking out the neighborhood.

I take this as a good sign. My plan for the backyard is to recreate a woodland opening. I’ve been building up a collection of native shrubs, wildflowers and ferns. The past two weekends I’ve been reorganizing the space, clearing beds, and planting things which have been sitting in containers all this time. I’m starting to recreate the layered foliage structure of a clearing in an Eastern woodland. I feel like the ovenbird showed up as if to say: Getting warmer.

The Other Avian Visitors

On Saturday morning, while I was uploading the photos of the Common Yellowthroat in the apple tree, a flock of at least a dozen of these flew into the same tree.

Cedar Waxwings in Apple Tree

These are Cedar Waxwings, Bombycilla cedrorum. The flock flew in, swarming the tree. Again, I don’t know what they were after. I suspect they were after insects in the tree. Who knows how they knew they were there.

I noticed the crests, but couldn’t make out much else of them. I wasn’t able to id these birds until just now, when I took my first look at the photos. I didn’t say anything about them earlier because I didn’t want to promise something and not deliver! As before, most of the shots were of branches, foliage, and flowers. This was the best of the bunch. I was further frustrated by the fact that, when they nosily arrived, my compact flash card was busy copying the previous photos to my hard drive. I couldn’t get the card back into the camera to take more pictures until that was done, which cost me precious minutes. Time to get another card, perhaps.

This is a lifetime first for me. As far as I know, I’ve never seen this species before. And there they were, just 10 feet away from me standing in my tree fort in Brooklyn. When I was looking at the photo above, I showed it to my partner. I asked, “Do you have any idea what this is?” I didn’t know. I thought I didn’t. Then I said, “I have an idea. Maybe it’s a waxwing?”

Where does that come from? At what point in my life did I subconsciously absorb the keys for Cedar Waxwing to the degree that when I saw a bird I’d never seen before, that was the first thing that came to mind?!

Again, the photo above is a crop of the original, though not as tight a crop as that of the Yellowthroat, so they should be easier to find. Here’s the original, full-frame image. Can you spot the waxwings?

Cedar Waxwings in Apple Tree

Avian Visitor

Look who just visited us in our neighbor’s apple tree less than an hour ago:

Common Yellowthroat in Apple Tree

This is a male Common Yellowthroat, Geothlypis trichas, one of the infamously confusing warblers.

This is also a great example of how digital photography and blogging has transformed my way of looking at things. I grabbed the camera instead of the binoculars. Not only did I want to see the bird clearly enough to identify it, I wanted to share what I saw. The immediacy of sharing is a bonus.

I had just woken up, started a pot of coffee on the stove, and walked out onto my tree fort to admire the apple tree. I caught a flash of yellow on the branches. I tried to find it again among the apple blossoms. I saw it was a warbler, but it was moving too quickly to observe it for long.

I went back inside and got my camera. With a zoom to 135mm (35mm equivalent about 150-160mm) and motor drive, I started trying to capture the quickly moving bird. It was a challenge. The auto-focus kept trying to focus on the flowers, rather than the bird. Sometimes, it couldn’t focus on anything at all. He was moving rapidly, flicking clusters of blossoms with his beak, then moving off. I don’t know if he was after insects in the flowers, or the flowers themselves.

The photo above makes it look like he was inches away. This is a crop of the best of 31 shots I took in a few minutes. Here’s the original, full-frame image. Can you find the warbler in this picture?

Common Yellowthroat in Apple Tree

The apple tree itself is magnificent this year. Covered in blossoms. Lots of flowers means we will have lots of apples later in the year. And lots of apples means lots of parrots. Something to look forward to for the fall.

Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds are migrating north

Ruby-Throated Hummingbird Sightings and vegetation.
Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

Okay, NASA does have some pretty powerful satellites, but they can’t identify hummingbirds from space just yet.

Every year in March, the first ruby-throated hummingbirds arrive in Gulf Coast states from their wintering grounds in Central America. Fattened on insects, the tiny birds fly 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico and arrive in the United States hungry for nectar from early spring flowers. As spring progresses into summer, the birds follow maturing vegetation northward into the eastern United States and Canada. During this journey north, students across the country track the birds’ progress. When a student sees a bird, he or she records the sighting. Teachers report their students’ sightings to the Journey North web page, where it is logged on a map. At the end of the week, Journey North staff members review the sightings and publish a weekly summary.

The dots on this image mark student sightings of the first adult ruby-throated hummingbirds of the spring 2007 migration. White dots indicate confirmed sightings prior to March 15, while the purple dots show sightings reported (but not yet confirmed) between March 15 and March 19. The earlier sightings are along the southern coast, where the birds first come ashore after crossing the Gulf. The northernmost sightings are the most recent records. The birds are clearly concentrated in the areas that have started to green up, where nectar-laden flowers would be available. New vegetation is only beginning to reach the northern section of the image, and as a consequence, the birds have yet to migrate to those areas.

On her blog Burning Silo, Bev Wigney noted on March 16, an equivalent effort, the Hummingbird Migration Project:

As of today, both efforts have recorded sightings as far north as South Carolina on the Atlantic seaboard, and far western Tennessee along the Mississippi. By the end of the summer, Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds will make their way to New York City and Long Island. My trumpet honeysuckle and scarlet runner beans will be waiting for them.

Letter to the NY Times, Science section

[Updated 2006.09.14 20:41 EDT: Added Why I Wrote the Letter. Minor corrections.]

I wrote a letter last Wednesday to the New York Times in response to an interview with ornithologist Joseph M. Forshaw, a world expert on parrots, in last week’s Science section, “A Passion for Parrots and the Fight to Save Them in the Wild”. They published an edited version of it (under my “real” name”) today. Here it is in its entirety:

Monk parrots are now established in 14 states and spreading north in New York. In their native ranges, they are sometimes serious agricultural pests of fruit crops. We will see what economic damage they cause here as their numbers expand. We don’t know how much environmental damage they’ve already caused by competing with and displacing native species.

As the ornithologist Joseph M. Forshaw noted admiringly, “Parrots are such wonderful generalists.” This is a common trait of invasive species, including other generalists that New Yorkers are all too familiar with: starlings, pigeons, rats and roaches. Our admiration of these birds should not blind us to their potential impact.

I’m proud and excited about this. This is only the second time in my life I’ve had a letter published in a newspaper. (The first was a letter I wrote to Newsday when I was 16 years old in opposition to the Shoreham nuclear power plant on Long Island. I wrote a letter to NPR several weeks ago. They were interested in it, but I don’t know if that ever aired.)

I’ll be coming back and updating this entry with the back-story about why I wrote the letter, and what I learned about writing letters!

Why I Wrote the Letter

The article, published in last Tuesday’s New York Times, was an interview with ornithologist Joseph M. Forshaw. Forshaw spoke about his experiences with parrots and humans’ relationships with them all over the world, and the dangers they face from exploitation and habitat destruction.

The photos accompanying the article showed Monk Parrots from Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery. I already knew why those photos were there. Forshaw had accompanied Steve Baldwin on one of his “Parrot Safaris”, and Baldwin had blogged about it on his blog site, Brooklyn Parrots:

I recently had the pleasure of meeting an amazing Australian naturalist … His name is Dr. Joseph Forshaw and he’s widely regarded as the world’s foremost authority on parrots. I had the honor of serving as his “guide” when he came to see the wild parrots of Brooklyn. … The New York Times wrote up a nice story on Dr. Forshaw … I am glad to say that there are some great shots of the “Brooklyn Boids!”

The problem was, the photos accompanying the article in this way associated an introduced species with the important issue of conserving parrots in the wild in their native habitats. The Times identified the parrots as “feral monk parrots.” A caption to one of the photos identified them as “nonnative New Yorkers,” but provided no further explanation.

Feral” is incorrect to describe these populations. Neither the species nor the individuals are domestic parrots “escaped” into the wild: they are breeding and reproducing in the wild. So I wrote the letter hoping to address, and correct, a misleading absence of information about their status here.


Related posts

My other posts on Parrots and Invasive species.


The letter as published