I always appreciate weekends when I get to spend some quality time with my dad. The rest of the family was busy on Saturday night, so we headed out to get drinks and wings. We awoke on Sunday morning to bright and clear conditions despite a chilly breeze, so we loaded Koda into the car and headed down to Hempstead Lake. After a brief stop at the park office, we had a brand new Empire Passport attached to the window. It should serve me well providing access to state lands throughout the year, especially since my outdoor excursions are now mostly limited to weekends when they collect entrance fees.
Koda loves the sights and smells of the park, and he was excited to get out and run through the woods. We crossed paths with some other birders on the trails and found some decent wildlife activity. One of the Great Horned Owls launched from the brush along the lily pond and flew up majestically into the trees. The local jays dutifully harassed it for a few minutes before it took off for a more sheltered location. I finally spotted my first Golden-crowned Kinglets and Northern Rough-winged Swallows of the year, and there were some muskrats and chipmunks in the area as well. Yellow-rumped Warblers have started to sing, and early migrants like Pine Warblers and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers were active. We brought our exhausted dog home and had a late breakfast, then set about tidying the house. After squaring things away, I decided to make the most of the nice weather and head to Jamaica Bay.
I fought my way through the traffic on the Belt Parkway and arrived at the refuge around 3 PM. My first stop was the blind at Big John’s Pond. This sheltered pool has a nest box where Barn Owls breed each year. I always stop by hoping to spot some movement inside the box, but it was dark and quiet when I arrived. Moving on, I decided to check a few other spots on the refuge and stakeout the pond in between. The larger East Pond hosted some sizable flocks of waterfowl, notably American Coots, Ruddy Ducks, and Northern Shovelers. Overall diversity and numbers are down from the huge winter congregations, but it was still a pleasant place to relax.
Dinner time was fast approaching, and there were several hours yet to go until sunset. The vegetation throughout the refuge was silent, devoid of landbird activity. I decided to look for some more aquatic life. The original loop trail around the West Pond, breached by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, is now split into two dead-ends. The freshwater habitat has been degraded to a shadow of its former self, but there are still some critters to be found. Ospreys have returned to their nesting platforms, circling overhead and calling loudly. A grassy channel in the marsh featured a passel of long-legged waders: Great Egret, Snowy Egret, and Little Blue Heron. I gradually made my way back towards Big John’s Pond, settling in at the blind to watch and wait.
The tiny pool has a sleepy atmosphere, but there were many signs of life. A pair of Green-winged Teal were cruising the water’s edge while two American Black Ducks snoozed under a low-hanging branch. I found a Black-crowned Night-Heron on my first visit, but when I returned later in the afternoon it had vanished. Turtles intermittently poked their snouts out to breathe, and I could hear frogs calling in the reeds beyond. I regularly turned my binoculars towards the Barn Owl box, and I was eventually rewarded by a flicker of movement. A pair of ghostly wings flapped in the dark, not long enough for a picture but long enough to enjoy. I kept watching for a face or two to peer out, but the birds remained hidden, resting for a long night of hunting. I was still pleased to have gotten a glimpse of my target instead of coming up short on my stakeout.
I would’ve loved to stay until dusk and see the owls emerge, but I had places to be and things to do. I will be returning to Jamaica Bay soon, chasing migrants and searching for surprises. The diversity of life that can be found here, within the New York City limits, is seriously impressive despite the recent changes. There’s always something new to see in this valuable wild space.
Year List Update, April 10 – 263 Species (+ Golden-crowned Kinglet, Northern Rough-winged Swallow)